Genealogists search for clues to unearth their ancestries

Posted: Sunday, February 22, 2004

There's a blacksmith. Quakers who once owned part of Nantucket Island. A woman who lost four sons to disease in the Civil War. Brothers captured by Indians and sold to Jesuits in Canada.

Loretta Mattson's family has plenty of stories. And though she's never met most of the protagonists, she's dedicated to documenting their tales.

Mattson is not alone.

Genealogy the study of one's family history is fast becoming one of the most popular pastimes in America.

Historical societies can be found in most any community. County and state offices get hundreds of civil records requests from people trying to uncover their pasts. And the Internet is teeming with genealogy sites and Web pages devoted to chronicling family trees.

The central Kenai Peninsula even has its own nonprofit organization dedicated to the pursuit of family histories: the Totem Tracers Genealogical Society.

The group, of which Mattson is secretary, works out of the Kenai Community Library and in cooperation with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Family History Center in Soldotna, researching members' family histories, educating the public about genealogy and promoting the preservation of the past.


Hamann organizes family information by name and arranges it in color-coded folders.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Like its members' hobby, the Totem Tracers club is based in history.

According to the club's library liaison, Virginia Walters, there was a group called Totem Tracers working in the area in the late 1970s and early 1980s. That group disbanded, and a new group started in the early 1990s to carry on the work.

The new group, starting with the help of the previous group's members, named itself after the original genealogy society, picked up the old organization's 501c3 status and continued the pursuit of the past.

Today, Totem Tracers members have hundreds of years of experience collectively and have compiled thousands of years worth of stories.

Mattson, for example, has been actively engaged in genealogical research since 1992, though she said she's been interested in her family's roots for as long as she can remember.

She has collected nearly 10 large, three-ring binders full of documentation on her family's past. The binders contain photos of family members and tombstones, historical maps and civil records, such as birth and death certificates, census sheets and marriage license applications.

There's even more on the Internet, where Mattson hosts three Web sites detailing her family history and connecting widespread branches of living relatives .


Original documents provide an accurate paper trail for people who study their family history.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Her family tree, all compiled in a computer program designed specifically for genealogy, includes 9,795 individuals with 2,163 different last names. She can track 49 generations, as far back as an entry for Judith of France in 843 A.D.

And if she were to print out the family tree, it would take more than 100 sheets of paper and measure about 8 by 13 feet.

"I want to put it on a wall, but I don't have a wall that big," Mattson said.

Of course, it's not the size of the tree that really matters to Mattson.

She said genealogy helps a person understand not only the past, but the present, as well.

"You know how you always feel like maybe you're adopted?" she said. "It's important to know who you are, where you came from."


Hamann collects family photos and other items to complement the history she accumulates.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Mattson's fellow Totem Tracers agree.

"I believe every one of my relatives is a part of me," said Cheryl Hamann, the club president. "To me, it's rewarding to be able to put your family in the Civil War. And if you find horse thieves or people who were hung, it's cool. I want to know I'm not the only black sheep in the family."

Hamann has been researching her roots for about 25 years, starting when a friend clued her on to the pastime.

Hamann's friend had found slave owners in her family's past, and that discovery intrigued Hamann, whose mother is an African American.

Once she started looking to the past, Hamann said she couldn't stop.

"It's addictive," she said, echoing a sentiment almost any genealogist shares.

Hamann's pursuit of her history didn't start easily, though. She's hit more than her share of brick walls.


Hamann includes photos of family grave markings with her family records.

Photo courtesy Cheryl Hamann

In fact, she said it took about 12 years just to get a hit on her mother's side of the family.

In part, she said, that may be because of her ethnicity. African-American roots can be difficult to trace due to the slave history in this country, she said.

But over time, Hamann said she's learned some tricks. For example, when she's searching for African-Americans in the United States prior to emancipation, she has learned to avoid the traditional census records and turn instead to tax records.

"They weren't considered individuals, but property," she explained. "It's frustrating if you don't know where to look."

The past itself can be frustrating as well, she said.

"There were things done in the past that we're not proud of," she said. "You've got to step back and say, 'Wow, we've come a long way, but in certain aspects, we haven't.'"

Hamann said some people choose not to trace their family trees for fear of what they might find. And, she said, sometimes genealogists need to be aware that their living family members might not like the information that gets uncovered.

"I think we can learn a lot of stuff from the past. But if you do find something, you have to be mindful of who's still alive and whether they want to know," she said. "I've found a bunch of ethnically challenged white people. I like being 'other,' I like being mixed. It's what makes me unique. Whether we admit it or not, we're not all white and we're not all black. We're all ethnically challenged."

Still, she said, while she finds education and identity from her family tree, there are aspects she doesn't share with her living relatives, because they don't have the same interests.

Of course, there's plenty she does share with her family. Recently, she took her research to Florida for her father's 80th birthday and amazed him with the details she'd found on their ancestors.

"He had no idea," she said.

One of the artifacts Hamann took to her father was a picture of him with his birth mother, who died in the 1920s.

"I didn't know my grandma wasn't my real grandma," Hamann said. That is, she didn't know until she began her research. Ultimately, she learned her grandmother had suffered tuberculosis and died in an insane asylum, where doctors put infected patients.


Kari Mohn enters Kenai Peninsula obituary information into a card file the Totem Tracers genealogy club maintains for the Kenai library. The group also keeps track of internments on the peninsula.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"I found her sister, and she sent me pictures of my dad's real mom," Hamann said. "For his 80th birthday, I put together a Power Point presentation for him."

While Hamann's research lets her provide information for her living relatives, those family members also are an invaluable resource to her as well.

In fact, she said the best and often, only way to start out in genealogy is to talk to relatives about their memories and stories.

That's how Walters got started in genealogy.

"My grandmother lived to be 105. She was gifted with a storytelling family and a family that liked the idea that they were related to everybody in the country," Walters said. "It was natural. Somebody would come around and would be her sixth-cousin, and they knew it. I just fell into it.

"My best tip is talk to people before they die," she said. "Family stories may not be exactly true, but there's always something that goes through all the stories that's true."

From there, Totem Tracers members said the next step is to start documenting research. Birth certificates are a crucial resource, as they prove a person's parentage. Likewise, census information, marriage and immigration records and death certificates can help tell the factual story of a person's life and lead to other relatives.


The Totem Tracers help others learn how to research their family histories.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

County and state records back to the mid-1800s are available from government vital records departments. Many denominations keep detailed church records for hundreds of years into the past. Online genealogy Web sites connect resources and provide access to immigration and census records, though often for a membership fee. And historical societies in different communities often have information on their communities and the people who once lived in them.

The Totem Tracers, for example, not only research their own family histories, but also work to compile information on the history of the Kenai Peninsula.

"We're trying to establish something of an Alaska resource. There's not a lot of that," Walters said. "There's a historical society and genealogical society in Anchorage and Fairbanks, and probably other places, too, and they're doing the same thing: trying to establish basic good resources for the state of Alaska."

One of the Totem Tracers' biggest projects in the past couple of years has been a revision to the area's cemetery book. Members have spent hour upon hour walking lines of graves on the peninsula and recording tombstone information. They also have researched historical cemeteries that no longer exist and turned to church records for information on the people who once lived and died here.

Hamann said the book is expected to be published this summer with grant money and also may be available on CDs and the Internet.

In addition to compiling information on this area, Totem Tracers also are trying to build a collection of research materials so that genealogists who live here can research any area. Already, Walters said the Kenai Community Library has a fairly strong genealogical collection, compiled primarily by the first Totem Tracers group.

"It seems to center on the places they were researching. That's just the way our collection was built," she said. "But for a small library that does not specialize in genealogy, we have a pretty good collection."

The Family History Center in Sold-otna, which has its own basic collection as well as access to information from the 3,700 worldwide branches of the LDS Church's Family History Library based out of Salt Lake City, also provides reams of resources, Hamann added.


Alaine Maw, above left, Margaret Goggia and Leatha Earll work at the Family History Center at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Soldotna.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Librarians at the center and Totem Tracers volunteers also are always ready to help newcomers to the genealogy game get started or provide a fresh set of eyes for veteran genealogists who are stuck with their research.

The Family History Center is open to the public three days a week, and Totem Tracers members offer a "Research Saturday" at the Kenai library on the second Saturday of each month to provide research help.

The organization also teams up with the Family History Center for its monthly meetings and classes. Meetings switch locations every other month, and the Totem Tracers and center librarians take turns offering educational workshops in genealogy-related topics, such as specific research areas, organization and scrapbooking.

The Totem Tracers and Family History Center partnership from noon to 6 p.m. Saturday will result in "Leap into Family History," a genealogy open house offering an introduction to the resources on the Kenai Peninsula, stories of veteran genealogists and workshops in all manners of subjects.

The event will include classes on gathering stories, searching the Web and census documents, using the LDS Church's site and utilizing the Anchorage National Archives. Also planned are displays by various individuals and groups statewide and a tour of the Family History Center.

"It'll be a good thing for anybody interested in genealogy to go see," Walters said.

In the meantime, though, Totem Tracers members will continue looking for their own histories because, as Walters said, there really is no end.

"You think there is. Right now, I have a real brick wall at my grandfather's grandfather. I know the tentative birth date, but I just can't get from there to who he married. That's what I think the end is," she said. "But it probably won't be.

"I think every genealogist has the idea or hope of adding one piece of really great information to what's already been accomplished," she said.

That's because every new piece of information every new piece of the past also is a piece of the present, Hamann said.

"Every decision an individual made changed somebody's life," Hamann said. "All these people contribute to who you are today."

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