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With a Little Help, You Can Dig Your Past

January 20, 2011

Category: Faculty

Source: Sunday, Jan. 16, 2011,

There are a lot of resources to help with a genealogical search; the library is a good place to start.

I've yet to meet a person who embarked on a family-history search and didn't become mesmerized by his own bloodline.

It doesn't even take the discovery of somebody famous (or infamous) in the lineage. Just finding out that great-great-grandpa and great-great-grandma Jones were farmers, owned a couple of acres and raised corn and kids is enough to make a person think, "Cool! I wonder where their farm was?"

There's a lot of help out there if you're interested in discovering your roots. Much of it is on the Internet, but you might get lost among the choices, or you might have to pay for the information.

A sure bet — and it's free — is the library, especially one with a genealogy department like the Rhodes Room at the Catawba County Library System's Main Library in Newton.

Associate librarian Alex Floyd and library assistant Alice Keenan are available to get you started climbing that family tree and keep you heading in the right direction.

"We encourage people to stay focused," said Floyd. "Trace one family as far as you can, one individual at a time, one family at a time."

So Close to My HeartFloyd, 52, is a history buff. In the 1990s, the Hickory resident worked seven years as a researcher on "The Catawbans" project, the two-volume history of Catawba County and its people by author and Catawba College professor Gary Freeze.

As researcher, Floyd worked at the Catawba County Museum of History in Newton. While there, he started answering "genealogical queries that came in," he said. "That's what got me started in genealogy."

Another Main Library employee, public information officer Tammy Wilson, is a great source of genealogy information, as well. Having traced her roots to the American Revolution and beyond, she knows the ins and outs of the quest. She also knows how much folks enjoy solving mysteries within their own families.

Wilson said she is pretty sure she's solved the mystery of one of her own relatives. "She had no family," said Wilson. "She had no connections."

Wilson's search found her great-grandmother in a New York City orphanage in 1860 and in Illinois in 1882, where she died.

Wilson finally concluded her great grandmother was an "orphan train child." From the mid-1800s through the first quarter of the 1900s, officials put New York City orphans on trains heading to the Midwest. The trains stopped, the children got off, and interested parties made selections. Those not picked got back on the train and continued to the next stop.

"This is a very linear pursuit," Floyd said. When starting out, Floyd instructs people to complete an ancestral chart. It's like the family trees we made in elementary school, only this one asks for more: when and where each person was born, when and where he or she married and when and where he or she died.

"Those are the two most important questions out of the gate," said Floyd. "When and where?"

In a later step, the researcher takes the when and where and studies the history of that time and place.

Once a person has completed his ancestral chart, "we can decide which way (he) should go," said Floyd. "This directs us to the types of records we need to fill in the gaps." The most important record is the obituary, "because of so much information in one compressed space," Floyd explained.

Much of what you'll need is in the Rhodes Room. According to Wilson, "The collection includes more than 1,800 family files and more than 6,000 published sources. Online tools such as HeritageQuest allow you access to out-of-print books, military documents and census records. Access to this and other services is free at the Rhodes Room."

"It's addictive," said Wilson. "These people become real after you study them for a while."

If you do nothing else, say Floyd and Wilson, interview your relatives, especially the oldest among the families. "We hear week in and week out how much people regret that they didn't interview older relatives before they died," said Floyd.

There are other reasons people go on genealogy hunts.

One of them is when someone thinks his house is haunted. Floyd said the Rhodes Room is the place to which four to six ghost hunters turn for help each year.

"They want to know who lived in a certain house," said Floyd. "They know it's haunted, and they want to know all they can about the ghost."

Floyd said a family in Newton thought they were being haunted by the spirit of a small child.

Sure enough, after doing some newspaper research, Floyd discovered that in the 1930s, a small child was hit by a car and died in front of the house that, decades later, appeared to be home to his spirit.


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