Family History Research

Alex Haley’s groundbreaking historical novel, Roots, first published in 1976, became an instant worldwide phenomenon. An important book and television series, Roots, galvanized the nation and created an extraordinary political, racial, social, and cultural dialogue. In addition, Roots launched a tidal wave of interest in family history research. Overnight, public, genealogical and historical society libraries, city, county and state offices of vital records, and the U.S. National Archives and Records Service were besieged with requests for copies of records and rolls of census microfilm.

Before the Information Age transformed our lives, family history research (genealogy) was a painstaking and time consuming pursuit. While the personal computer and the Internet have revolutionized the speed and ease with which family history information is accessed, gathered, organized, and stored, family history research remains a painstaking and time consuming pursuit. It requires the intervention of the researcher to evaluate information contained in a variety of records and to link that information to people and to events to establish facts that prove the relationship of people to one another and to property.

My family history research began with Gilbert Harry Doane’s Searching for Your Ancestors. Doane’s book gave basic suggestions about gathering information needed to construct a family tree, or pedigree. I made a list of the facts I had: the names of my parents and grandparents as far back as I could remember or knew. Next, I wrote letters to relatives who I thought might have any of the information I sought.

Some family members are reticent to talk about the family’s history and, in some cases, to talk at all about particular family members. I recall asking an elderly aunt about my grandfather, who died before I was born. “Oh, that sonofabitch,” she snarled, “Why do you want to know about him?” “Because the knowledge is relevant to who I am,” I thought. How can I know who I am unless I know where and from whom I come.

In 1977, I moved to Taft, California to a job as library director at Taft College. To my surprise, the college offered a course in genealogy through its community services division. I soon learned that the course would have a major impact on the college library. Course participants descended on the library in search of answers to their family history research questions. Knowing little or nothing about family history research, I was at a loss to meet their needs.

My family history research education began in earnest. A few more family history “how to” books were available by then, and I learned that the library was eligible to order census microfilm from the National Archives and Records Service.

I learned about the census, what information each census contained, and what census records were available. While several hundred reels of census microfilm flowed through the library over a period of five or six years, census resources are but one piece of the family history puzzle.

In the course of reading about family history research, I came across the suggestion that, as a nation of immigrants, locating an immigrant ancestor was a suitable goal for most Americans. Identifying the immigrant ancestor became my mantra for each family history researcher with whom I worked.

As the demand for family history resources increased, I studied harder and became more knowledgeable. Eventually, the instructor who taught the college’s genealogy course suggested that I teach the genealogy course. “You know more about the process of family history research than I do,” he said. “I’m sure you can do a much better job of meeting the needs of students and family history researchers than I can do.”

About the same time, a group of genealogy students and local family history researchers formed a genealogy club.

Those were exciting times. I began organizing field trips to area genealogy libraries. I spoke at meetings of the Kern County Genealogy Society on a variety of record types and was interviewed on a local radio talk program.

Two summers, I organized week-long field trips to Salt Lake City to use the LDS (Mormon) Church Genealogical Society’s library, each time escorting 15-20 avid family history researchers.

I taught week-end workshops for Bakersfield College’s Community Services program. The workshops included a field trip to the genealogy library of the Santa Monica Temple LDS Church or to the Genealogy Room of the Los Angeles Public library.

I looked at hundreds of rolls of census microfilm, searching for my ancestors as well as the ancestors of other family history researchers. It was fun and exciting work, particularly when anyone found an ancestor for whom they were searching.

I traced my paternal and maternal family history several generations. Early in my research, I found a genealogy of the Hine family–the family name of my paternal grandmother–that begins with the first person of the Hine surname in New Milford, Connecticut in 1640. To date, I am unsuccessful in locating the ancestor who links me to the Hine genealogy. Missing one or two generations that make the connection, I am thwarted by the mysterious disappearance of my third great grandfather. He died before 1850 and was, therefore, not captured by that U.S. Census. Born before 1790, he is not listed in the pre-1850 censuses as only heads of households were listed by name in the censuses of 1790 through 1840.

In 1976, Ancestry.com did not exist. Today, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, it is possible, with the click of a mouse, to find everything needed. I am amazed at how fast, easy, and inexpensive it is. The research practically conducts itself.

Family history research is interesting, rewarding, and enjoyable. As a librarian, I am naturally curious, enjoying the challenge of finding information to answer research questions. The greatest reward, though, is the satisfaction of being the member of my family who knows the family’s history and who loves sharing that history with other family members.

2 thoughts on “Family History Research

  1. Annis Cassells

    Dennis ~
    Family history research is fascinating. As I age, it becomes even more so.

    Maybe you would consider doing a genealogy course for the Levan Institute. I’m sure there would be lots of interest. (I’d suggest OLLI, but don’t know how much longer that program will be around.)

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