Interest surges in family history, genealogy travel
Interest surges in family history, genealogy travel
Who would have ever thought that genealogy would become a topic worthy of media giants like "Time" magazine and ABC News?
But it has. In a recent report, ABC News proclaimed that genealogy is the second most popular hobby in the United States after gardening and it is the second most-visited category of websites.
"It's a billion dollar industry that has spawned profitable websites, television shows, scores of books and -- with the advent of over-the-counter genetic test kits -- a cottage industry in DNA ancestry testing," Gregory Rodriguez wrote in "Time."
It has even opened up a whole new category of travel -- genealogy travel during which hobbyists can travel to the places they unearth in dusty old records to see where their ancestors lived and to try to find further clues to their lives.
In the dim recesses of time, genealogy was the province of wealthy whites who wanted to become part of hereditary societies like the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) and the Mayflower Society. But several factors combined to change that.
The Civil Rights movement, followed by the publication of Alex Haley's book "Roots," encouraged everyone to embrace their unique heritages and find out who their ancestors were, where they were from and the fascinating stories of their lives. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) established family history centers around the country to help members trace their lineage and opened the centers to nonmembers, as well. Finally, computers and Internet technology allowed records to be discovered, copied and shared with people around the world, making the search for personal histories easier.
"A hobby once dominated by persnickety elites was now fully democratized and focused on identity rather than pedigree," Rodriguez stated in his "Time" article.
"Genealogy became a way for people to feel connected to their ancestors," explained Anne Shaughnessy, local history and genealogy librarian at the Mount Prospect Public Library. "It became a treasure hunt for many people since there is not one absolute way of doing it. Every search is different."
The Mount Prospect Public Library started its extensive genealogy collection in the 1970s when a genealogy class offered through High School District 214's Adult Education program spurred several local residents to found the Northwest Suburban Genealogy Society (NWSGS) in 1977.
"The collection began in a little corner and grew until it now occupies a central space in the library and has a librarian and volunteers dedicated to the collection. Not every library has a section like this, but Arlington Heights Memorial Library also has a large collection," Shaughnessy said. "We have many records on Mount Prospect, neighboring communities, Cook County, surrounding cities and states and numerous ethnic groups. We also have many 'how to' books that you can check out."
Family History Centers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- which contain scores of ancestry records from around the world and allows members of the public to order microfilm from the main library in Salt Lake City -- are located in Buffalo Grove, Naperville, Schaumburg and Wilmette as well as elsewhere around the state.
"It would be almost impossible to get access to all of the overseas records without the Church of Latter-day Saints. They have volunteers updating their collections all the time, so it is continually fresh and because they have three-person checks on all information, it is very accurate," Shaughnessy explained.
On the other hand, "you can get some strange results with Internet searches because many of them use optical character recognition so you have to concentrate and be very careful and, ultimately, you might have to go find the original document," added Nancy Reese, an avid genealogy hobbyist and volunteer in the Mount Prospect Public Library's genealogy section.
Reese is particularly fond of a new trend in genealogy -- telling the stories of one's ancestors instead of just listing their names, locations and birth, marriage and death dates.
"Old newspapers are the key to this. They will often help you find out the truth about an old family myth and will help you write their stories and explain how they fit into history," she said.
Shaughnessy agreed. "This can be much more satisfying than just assembling a family tree. What did this person actually do?"
"Genealogy is a great hobby because you can do it whenever you have time. You don't lose anything by taking a break for a few months or a few years. But you have to be prepared to run into setbacks like misspelled names and people who you ultimately discover weren't your ancestors. And you never really feel like you are done. There are always more people to find and leads to follow," she stated.
"When you find something you feel like raising your hands and doing a dance," Reese admitted, "but then there are the times when you realize you have made a wrong assumption and that is very disappointing. Lots of relatives raised other people's children back then and reused the same names and that can be very confusing.
"Many people take up genealogy very seriously once their children are gone and they are retired and have some free time. That is when they also start thinking about what their legacy is going to be and genealogy plays into that," she added.
"I have visited libraries from coast to coast in pursuit of elusive relatives and I have even visited the National Archives in San Francisco," Reese said.
Shaughnessy said that such genealogy travel is not unusual. It is now a big business.
For instance, Dan Wertz of Buffalo Grove, past president of the NWSGS and past first vice president of the Computer Assisted Genealogy Group of Northern Illinois (CAGGNI), has visited cemeteries, libraries, courthouses and residences from Chicago to Washington, D.C., tracing his roots.
On one such visit to the Somerset (Pennsylvania) Historical Society, he even discovered the 1765 Martin Luther German family Bible of Sarah Weimer, his great-great-great grandmother, a thrilling discovery since it contained the names and birth dates of relatives dating to 1840.
"I first became interested in genealogy when a grade schoolteacher asked us to find out about our ancestry and my father told me that I was 'American' when all the other kids came back with stories about the Irish, German or Scandinavian families. I was disappointed, of course," Wertz remembered.
"When my dad retired in 1978, he was looking for something to do with his time so I suggested that he look into our family tree. So he spent 10 years digging and came up with lots of interesting information before tiring of it and turning it over to me," the retired CPA continued.
Wertz digitized his father's information and dabbled in looking for more relatives for about a decade before joining the NWSGS and CAGGNI.
"I joined the groups as a way of networking with other genealogists and learning where to search and how to do the research correctly," he explained.
Since then, he and his wife, Sheila, have traced their respective families back centuries. Wertz's paternal line immigrated to the Pennsylvania colony in 1731, living in Quincy. They have even traced the Wertzes as far back as 1530 to Breton in the Baden part of Germany.
"I have also seen my great-great-great grandfather's farmhouse in Ohio and my great-great grandfather's house in Anderson, Indiana. In some cases I have been able to tour ancestors' houses and touch the walls they touched," Wertz said.
"I have always had a love for history and being a CPA taught me how to investigate things. So those interests and skills have combined in my interest in genealogy. It makes you really feel great when you find someone. It is like detective work," he added.
Teresa Steinkamp McMillin of Inverness took her interest in genealogy and parlayed it into a career, doing the detective work for people who want to know their ancestry, but don't want to do the searching themselves. The certified genealogist specializes in German ancestry as well as Midwestern and Chicago searches. She has recently published a book called "Guide to Hanover Military Records, 1514-1866, on Microfilm at the Family History Library." It is the only English language guide to this gold mine of information for genealogists.
"I love puzzles and having those 'aha' moments," McMillin explained. "They keep you going."
A popular speaker for local and national genealogical societies, McMillin said that she has noticed larger audiences in recent years as the national interest in genealogy has grown. "It is important for genealogists to understand that not everything is online. What is online is actually a drop in the bucket. Just because you can't find something online doesn't mean it doesn't exist," she stressed. "This is where joining a genealogy group helps. You can learn from others' successes and failures. Meeting with them on a regular basis also spurs you on with new ideas for websites and archives to explore."
McMillin has taken several German language courses at Harper Community College to be better equipped to search German records. She also annually takes a one-week trip to the main library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah, and regularly visits the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which has many hard-to-find records for the United States, but particularly for the Midwest. Eventually, she would like to do firsthand research in Germany, as well.