Tracing the roots of family trees

Jessica Rothschuh

Becoming interested in genealogy is like contracting an incurable disease, said physics professor Mark Manley, who does genealogical research as a hobby. Once you’ve got the itch, you’ll never lose it.

“And the worse you got it, the better you like it,” Manley said.

Few people give up genealogical research once they become interested because there’s no logical end, said Janice Gerda, assistant professor of teaching, leadership and curriculum studies. Like Manley, Gerda also studies genealogy as a hobby.

“Genealogy, technically, is the process of looking up names and dates and facts about people who are related to you,” Gerda told students gathered at a Genealogy 101 seminar last month. But it is often thought of more broadly as family history research, which includes collecting stories, photographs and other pieces of the past.

Gerda’s interest in genealogy began nearly 20 years ago, when she was in 10th grade. She had to make a genogram, also called a pedigree chart, for a class assignment. A genogram is a family tree chart, with places for relatives’ names and birth and death dates.

As she began gathering names and dates from her parents, she found an old manuscript in a desk drawer. The author was her great-great-grandfather.

The discovery filled her with a “magical feeling” of connection to people in the past, Gerda said. Since then, she has traced her family lines back hundreds of years.

For starters

The first step for anyone interested in their genealogy is listening to stories of their parents and older family members and really paying attention, Manley said.

His older relatives’ stories used to go in one ear and out the other, but genealogy has taught him that his relatives’ memories are treasures that should be preserved for the future, Manley said.

After exhausting your relatives’ memories, other sources are available to which one can turn. Sources include: yearbooks, church directories, town hall records, family Bibles, photographs, cemetery records, newspaper obituary archives, land records and probate records.

For students, the Kent State library may seem like another logical resource, but it may prove disappointing.

“The down-low on the (university) library is that we’re not the best place for beginning genealogists,” said Ken Burhanna, First-Year Experience librarian.

The library doesn’t have an extensive collection of genealogical records because its purpose is to support the university’s programs. Additionally, the records that are available, such as selected U.S. Census records, are not all archived and can be tedious to sift through.

Besides, most basic information can be found more readily on free Web sites, Burhanna said.

“The Internet is good news and bad news on genealogy,” Gerda said.

The Internet means lots of information, but lots of misinformation as well.

“I like it because it gives me clues of where to go,” Gerda said.

Manley said he does most of his genealogy research on the Web instead of the traditional avenues such as national archives and records.

“It’s not effective to do it the way they used to do it,” Manley said. “In the same amount of time it used to take, you can find 10 times as much information.”

Many Web sites have free access to U.S. Census records, but researchers have to use other resources to gather information after 1930, Burhanna said. There is a 72-year waiting period before personal census data is public record.

The history

Genealogy’s popularity waxes and wanes through the years, but there have been two major periods of widespread interest in the United States, Gerda said. The first was in the late 1800s, when everyone was tracing his or her heritage back to Queen Victoria.

“It was really popular because everybody wanted to be royalty,” Gerda said, laughing.

The next big wave of interest was in the 1970s, with Alex Haley’s book Roots and the subsequent 12-hour television mini-series.

Haley had heard stories from his family members about their slave heritage and began researching his roots, Gerda said. The groundbreaking work on slavery gave black people hope their family history wasn’t lost forever and made a lot of people, especially white people, see slavery as a family thing and not just “some amorphous thing,” Gerda said.

“It inspired a lot of people to go searching,” she said.

The meaning of it all

But genealogy is more than an interesting past time, Gerda said.

“It’s a sense of trying to hold on and make sure we don’t lose that history. To me, it illustrates the larger story of American history,” she said.

Manley, Gerda and Burhanna all mentioned feeling more connected to the world or humanity through their research.

“It definitely makes me feel more connected,” Gerda said. “It’s not a DNA thing. Even by your grandparents, you’re down to a very small percentage of (shared DNA).”

At first, genealogical research is about finding out what makes you different, Gerda said. “But at some point, you start to answer the question, ‘What makes us all the same?'”

Those similarities you often find from generation to generation are not just coincidence, she said.

“It’s that we are all connected in ways you don’t even think of on a daily basis,” Gerda said.

Contact news correspondent Jessica Rothschuh at [email protected].