It’s amazing how quickly entire life histories can vanish from view. Those of us who yearn to know from where – and from whom – we came need only to don our detective hats. Join Janine Pumilia as she enters the world of genealogy and discovers how fun, frustrating and fulfilling it can be to trace the details and stories of your ancestors.
Some people have no curiosity about their ancestry. Others are curious, but too busy to spend time on it – at least for now. Still others are obsessed by the thrill of the hunt. They stay up ’til wee hours poring through census records. They travel long distances to experience the world of their forebears. And sometimes they use their expertise to help others unlock the past, as Rockford resident Bill Edmundson of Machesney Park does.
“I find it enjoyable and interesting,” he says with a shrug, then pauses to reconsider his understatement. His eyes twinkle. “Like the old saying goes, you start out in genealogy and find it’s a disease.”
Marsha Hosfeld, also of Rockford, nods knowingly. “It’s addictive. Developing an interest in genealogy can cost you a lot of sleep.”
Edmundson and Hosfeld are among officers of the Winnebago & Boone Counties Genealogical Society, which promotes the discovering, collecting, indexing and preserving of local genealogical resources and lends support to family researchers, whether or not they have local roots.
“My ancestors are not from here,” Hosfeld says. “The research methods we use are universal and can be used by anyone.”
Her own journey into genealogy began more than 10 years ago, after her dad retired.
“We took some trips to Wisconsin together to places with family connections,” she explains. “I got hooked on learning more.” She’s traced family lines back hundreds of years to Germany and Ireland.
Her story is typical, she says. Her interest in family history came mid-life, after her daily work pace slowed a bit.
“When I was in school, I thought history was blah,” Hosfeld says. “But later in life, maybe because it was more personal, I started to think the history of my family was pretty interesting. I started looking at old family photos and wondering what their lives were like. There are so many questions I wish I had asked my grandparents.”
When she put her ancestors’ stories into the context of U.S. and world events, those events became much more interesting and relevant to her.
When Hosfeld began her research, the internet was already an invaluable tool.
“I really admire genealogists who worked before the internet age,” Hosfeld says. “They saved up their money and vacation time to travel and physically track down the information they needed from all sorts of places.”
Edmundson remembers those days well. He spent decades sleuthing paper trails the hard way, carefully recording each bit of information on index cards. In the 1990s, he published a book about one line of his ancestry.
The discovery of some very interesting forebears piqued his curiosity and propelled him forward.
“Our family tradition was that we were related to William Edmundson, the forefather of the Quakers in Ireland,” he explains. “He was English and ended up in Ireland because his brother was in charge of Captain Cromwell’s army in Dublin. As it turned out, we really did descend from William Edmundson, but through a different son of his than our family had always believed.
“I learned fascinating things along the way, like the fact that Quakers once owned slaves. But they saw the error of their ways early on. Our ancestor William Edmundson came to the U.S. and preached abolition up and down the East Coast, well before the abolitionist movement really got going. He was a pioneer of the Quaker movement here and his entire family was persecuted for it left and right.”
Until Edmundson researched his namesake, the story about this impressive ancestor was merely a jumble of puzzle pieces.
“All of the pieces were lying around in different peoples’ homes,” he explains. “Putting it all together was quite a journey of discovery.”
Sometimes these discoveries are so profound that people describe them as nearly spiritual.
Such was the case for Donna Kjendlie, of Monroe, Wis., whose many years of family research culminated in a two-week stay with her German cousin, Hans, in Gingst, Germany, on the island of Rugen, her ancestral home.
Hans escorted Kjendlie to places he knew would interest her, including the family’s church, which dates back to 1248. She sat in the family pew originally purchased by her ancestors and held in her hands church family records dating to the 1500s.
“It still brings tears when I think about that moment,” she says. “I’ve always felt a connection to those ancestors and – I know this sounds odd – but when I was over there, I felt like I had come home.”
The precious experience was hard won. Kjendlie had written and mailed more than 200 letters to Germans who shared her ancestral name before one recipient pointed her toward Hans. Kjendlie had obtained their addresses from a German phonebook.
“My husband thought I was crazy,” she recalls. She corresponded with Hans for two years before making the trip.
Many of Kjendlie’s genealogist friends have made their own pilgrimages to Norway, Switzerland or other ancestral homelands.
“I think it’s sort of the ultimate goal for many genealogists,” Kjendlie says. “Some people just feel a yearning to see the place they come from.”
Kjendlie was instrumental in founding genealogical societies in Rock and Walworth counties before she moved to Green County.
The Green County Genealogical Society hosts field trips, workshops, social events, cemetery tours and guest speakers on topics like “Finding Your Ancestors in Fraternal Organizations” and “Railroads and the Landscape,” the latter tracing the relationship between railroad development and migration patterns. It also takes part in state and national conferences and webinars like “Funeral Homes and Family History.”
The Society records gravestone information that is being lost to disintegrating markers. It keeps regular hours in its research center, located in the lower level of the Monroe Public Library, 925 16th Ave.
A tight-lipped German-American grandmother inadvertently fueled Kjendlie’s curiosity about her roots.
“When I was 15, I asked her a simple question: What was her birth country of Germany like? She wouldn’t discuss it,” Kjendlie recalls. “She simply said, ‘I’m an American now.’ Looking back, I suppose not enough years had passed since World War II for her to feel comfortable talking about her German roots. Years later, I worked for a woman who did genealogical research. She pulled out a county history book and pointed to some information and said, ‘These are your ancestors.’ I was hooked.”
Jean Lythgoe and Jan Carter, librarian assistants at Rockford Public Library (RPL), are familiar faces to local genealogists. They work closely with Winnebago & Boone Counties Genealogical Society and are members. Anchored in RPL’s Local History Department, the women have helped hundreds of local people set sail on journeys of ancestral discovery.
“We don’t do the research for you, but we show you how to get started,” says Lythgoe. “You begin with yourself. You record dates and places of your birth, marriage, work history, military involvement, schooling and so forth. Then you do the same for your children, parents, siblings and grandparents as far as you can go. Locations and dates are very important.
“Then you start working with other resources, like U.S. Census records, which have been recorded since 1790 and are available up to the 1940s,” Lythgoe says. Privacy laws restrict access to Census records for the most recent 72 years, she explains.
City directories, plat maps, online military records, ship manifests, court records, county history books, a family Bible collection, newspaper archives and birth/death/marriage records may provide pieces to your family’s puzzle.
The library also subscribes to databases Ancestry.com and HeritageQuest.
“Ancestry.com has to be used in the library,” Lythgoe says. “HeritageQuest can be accessed from your home computer if you have a Rockford library card.”
Up in Monroe, Kjendlie also nurtures budding genealogists.
“We hand them a five-generation paper form and spend about 30 minutes going over research keys, then turn them loose in the resources,” she says.
Familysearch.org, run by the Mormon Church, is among Kjendlie’s favorite resources. You don’t have to be Mormon to locate family members in this database of more than 3 billion deceased people. While genealogy is a hobby for most people, it’s an extension of faith life for Mormons, who believe family members can be together after this life and should therefore strengthen relationships with all relatives, living and dead.
Pitfalls and Tips
As fun as it is to play detective, it’s easy to waste time or get faulty results by going down rabbit holes. Here are a few tips from experienced genealogists, listed in no particular order.
• Be prepared to discover both the good and the bad. You may trace your way back to the Mayflower, but you also may discover horse thieves, slave owners, great-grandmas who worked in brothels or fathers who abandoned their families.
“I don’t know why, but a lot of people get really upset if they learn something scandalous that happened generations ago,” Hosfeld says. “Outlaw ancestors and the occasional ‘love child’ are pretty common.” She’s found both in her family tree, along with two ancestors who fought in the American Revolution.
• Be skeptical of family oral traditions. They may be true, partly true or entirely false. Sometimes facts are twisted in translation. Think of the telephone game.
• If you’re interested in family research but don’t have time for it right now, think ahead. Make it a priority to talk with living elderly relatives and take good notes. Store them carefully for future use. Likewise, go through old family photos with older relatives now and label them.
• If you can’t get an older family member to talk about family history, try asking specific, non-threatening questions to get the ball rolling, like “What was the first car your dad drove?”
• Assume mistakes are everywhere. “If you find a section of your family tree posted online by someone else, don’t accept it as gospel,” Hosfeld says. Crosscheck facts against other resources. Mistakes are often duplicated across various genealogy platforms.
• Know that spelling errors are rampant. “I once found a family name spelled five different ways in the same document!” Kjendlie says. Many older records are handwritten. “Marilla Cowen” might easily be transcribed as “Manilla Carrer.” And, many surnames have changed over time. Your Russian Great-Grandpa Azhishchenkov may have found it easier to find work by using a shorter name in the U.S.
• Note where you find each piece of information. “We really emphasize this because it can be tremendously helpful to you and others later on,” Edmundson says. “Keep track of who told you the information or where it was published, and how you found it. It’s very easy to forget where you learned something.”
• Back up everything! Losing research to computer malfunction is both heartbreaking and preventable.
• Don’t stop with direct ancestors. Their siblings may provide clues about them. “For example, I learned about my grandfather’s life working in Oklahoma oil fields by reading an interview done with his brother, who did the same work,” Edmundson says.
• If you hire someone to do your research, check references and vet carefully. Be clear on pricing and don’t pay it all up front, Hosfeld advises. “Anyone who promises you they’ll find everything you’re looking for is, at the very least, exaggerating. Also, an experienced genealogist should be able to tell you the procedure they’ll be using.”
• “Be alert to little notes,” Edmundson says. “Little notes can solve big mysteries.” For years he wondered where his dad’s infant sister was buried, until he ran across a scrap of paper that simply read: “Edna is buried in Granite Cemetery.”
• Make good use of newspaper databases and county history books, Lythgoe urges. They often add color and anecdotes beyond mere names and dates.
If You Get Stuck
All genealogists run into brick walls at some point. The serious ones reach out for help. Many websites allow you to post an inquiry that may be noticed by a distant relative with information. And local genealogy and historical societies, as well as libraries, are filled with helpful people. Edmundson has helped more than 140 local families trace their roots. Expect to pay modest search fees.
“While we don’t do entire family searches – we teach you how to do it for yourself – we do help out when you get stuck,” Hosfeld says. “Sharing our experience is the reason our Society exists.”
Many libraries offer help on an hourly basis. RPL charges a $15 per hour search fee for non-cardholders, Lythgoe says.
Membership to the Winnebago and Boone Counties Genealogical Society costs $15 per year and includes five issues of Footprints, the Society newsletter. The group hosts webinars and special presentations and provides member access to materials it has transcribed, purchased and preserved.
Technology continues to change the face of genealogy. Along with vast online resources, today’s family researchers are using DNA tests to trace or confirm ancestral origins, as demonstrated on TV shows like “Finding Your Roots” and “Who Do You Think You Are?” Many tests are available, with options for tracing male direct ancestors (Y-DNA), female direct ancestors (mtDNA) or all recent ancestors (autosomal).
Another exciting innovation is facial recognition technology. Many of us have photos of unidentified relatives. Databases using this technology are already helping to put names with faces.
What to Do With Your Findings
So what do you do with all of that precious information you’ve compiled about your ancestors?
You can self-publish books with family trees and photos to share with relatives. These are great conversation starters during family gatherings. Add pictures of family heirlooms associated with particular relatives if you like.
Or, simply build out your ancestral database online and provide access to selected people or to the public. Programs like Ancestry.com allow you to grant view-only, editor or administrative privileges as you wish.
“Good genealogists are curious, patient, persistent, observant and flexible,” Hosfeld says. “Discovering that thrilling piece of information is their reward and keeps them going.”
Remember that although your offspring may show no interest in family history right now, that will likely change with time.
“Nothing beats firsthand family memories from an older relative,” Edmundson says. “None of us lives forever, so get it while you can.”
Hosfeld adds: “And be sure to record your own history for future family genealogists, too!”