If you’ve ever wished you could be a real-life detective, genealogy might be your calling. Like good sleuthing, genealogy requires investigative skills, attention to the smallest details, curiosity, and persistence to unravel the puzzles in your own family tree.
The Rapid City Society for Genealogical Research helps people gain the skills and resources to investigate their family heritages. In honor of its 50th anniversary, the society is hosting a 50 Years of Family Research Seminar on Oct. 15 to educate and inspire those who want to learn about genealogy.
“If you like mysteries, genealogy grabs you," said June Beason, chairwoman of the 50 Years of Family Research Seminar. "I call it an incurable disease. It’s not going to kill you, but it catches you. If you’re a good genealogist, you never run out of people to research."
The seminar will feature four sessions by professional certified genealogist Paula Stuart-Warren of St. Paul, Minn. Her sessions will contain a mix of information geared to intermediate and beginner genealogists. The keys to successful genealogy are knowing where to look for information, and developing investigative skills to aid in the search. Stuart-Warren will talk about both.
“People can bring their questions. In between sessions I’m there to answer questions,” Stuart-Warren said. “If I don’t know an answer, I can give them a clue about (where to look). I have a lot of neat visuals and a bit of audience participation.”
During the seminar, the Rapid City Society for Genealogical Research will introduce its new book, “The History of the Rapid City Society for Genealogical Research Inc. (Today is Tomorrow’s Past — 50 Years of Family History 1966-2016).” It was compiled by member Eleanor Moe, who combed through 50 years of the society’s minutes to gather data. Copies of the book will be sold for $20. Vendors and a variety of other genealogical books will be available throughout the event.
Beason has been a member of the Rapid City Society for Genealogical Research for more than 20 years. The organization meets monthly to develop local records and help people who are researching their family histories. The society maintains an index of obituaries, which is updated regularly and submitted to ancestry.com, Beason said. The society has a genealogical library at the downtown branch of Rapid City Public Library.
The society also sponsors a trip to Salt Lake City every year, where people spend a week visiting the Family History Library, Beason said. That library contains records from around the world and is free to access.
Genealogy can serve many purposes, Beason said. Some people begin researching their families in order to join lineage societies such as Daughters of the American Revolution or Sons of Union Veterans. Others turn to genealogy to trace their family’s medical history or to research family photos. Some are simply curious to know more about their ancestors.
Online search tools make research easier
The advent of technology has made genealogical work somewhat easier, especially thanks to sites like ancestry.com and familysearch.org, because the sites are tools people can access from their homes or local libraries, Beason said. However, much genealogy research still involves reading paper records or scouring microfiche, since fewer than 25 percent of original records are digitized.
“One thing I’d say is ancestry.com makes (genealogy research) look way too easy in their ads, and the same is true of TV shows (such as “Who Do You Think You Are?”). There’s at least six months of work put into each of those people (in each episode),” Beason said.
As a professional genealogist, Stuart-Warren is an expert people turn to when they’re not sure where to find the information they want. She coaches clients and, as needed, conducts research for them. She said she sometimes has access to records that amateur genealogists may not.
“Most people I’ve taught are more curious. They don’t want to know just names and dates. They want to know what (their ancestors did), how they acted, what’s going on in their life. That’s really telling the story of their life,” Stuart-Warren said. “What I like to tell people is don’t be surprised by what you find. Your family made it through or else you wouldn’t be here.”
Like her clients, Stuart-Warren started in genealogy simply to learn more about her family and her husband’s. Eventually, people began asking her for help with their own searches, she said, so she decided to become a professional genealogist. Board-certified since 1988, Stuart-Warren passes the every five-year renewal assessments by the national Board for Certification of Genealogists to maintain her credentials. Stuart-Warren speaks at events nationwide, has written a dozen books and multiple articles for various genealogical publications, and writes a blog at her website genealogybypaula.com.
Stuart-Warren describes the genealogy process as a treasure hunt. She advises beginning genealogists to start by reading a basic “how-to” genealogy book, and then to join an organization such as the Rapid City Society for Genealogical Research. “A society in your area is where you’ll get more information, plus you’ll run into people who’ve been doing this for a while,” she said.
During the upcoming 50 Years of Family Research Seminar, she’ll teach participants how to develop good research habits. Then, she’ll address various types of records — including those from churches, county courthouses and town halls — that people may be unaware of.
“I like to get people so they understand some (research) skills, and where they can learn to advance their skills and learn more about records that are available,” Stuart-Warren said. “If someone (has only been) an online genealogist and they haven’t been to a courthouse or historical society, I like people to understand what’s in those records.”
Honing detective skills
Technology and online records are invaluable, but many records will never be available in forms other than paper, microfilm or microfiche, she said.
“If you think about hundreds of years of things in courthouses, in our lifetime they’re not all going to get digitized or indexed,” Stuart-Warren said. “You look at what’s in any state archives and rows and rows of old county records. Some places won’t let a lot of things be digitized. … There’s just so much out there the people don’t realize exists.”
“Never give up what’s online,” she added. “That’s solved some mysteries for me. … I’ve found out by reading newspapers online … information I would have never known otherwise.”
As people develop their research skills, “you get to the point where you’re really honing your thought process. It’s not an easy thing to do. We have to put on our thinking caps,” Stuart-Warren said.
Beason, for example, needed sharp investigative skills when a simple search for an ancestor’s wedding document turned up a record with unfamiliar names. Beason said she finally realized the groom’s name (Noel) had been listed as “Christmas” and the bride’s name (Mary Ann) was listed as “Polly Ann” on the marriage record. That knowledge convinced her she had actually found the right document after all.
Beyond detective skills, Beason said genealogy has strengthened her confidence.
“For me, (genealogy was about) knowing the kind of people that I came from,” said Beason, who discovered she came from “a long line of strong women.” One grandmother, for instance, was widowed and left to raise 10 children on her own. She also bought a farm for her family and, into her 80s, worked as a waitress to stay busy.
“There was a satisfaction and a feeling of ‘I’m not so strange after all,’” Beason chuckled. “For some reason, tracing your ancestors overcomes that. That’s what it’s done for me.”