Genealogical club helps people find history in obscure records

Out on a limb

Posted: Monday, March 13, 2006


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  Totem Tracers member Loretta Mattson shows Wendy McCaughey of Kenai how to use some of the genealogy resources available at the library. Photo by Joseph Robertia

Tracy Miller of Cohoe evaluates documents for Ron Calovich of Soldotna as part of helping him learn about his family tree during the Totem Tracers Genealogy Society's resource meeting Saturday at Kenai Community Library.

Photos by Joseph Robertia

Determined to dig up information about gold rush relatives? Uncertain if tales about Grandma Lou are actually true? Interested in finding out if any long-lost kin were kings and queens, or perhaps scoundrels and scalawags? The Kenai Peninsula Totem Tracers Genealogical Society may be able to help.

“Everybody should know their roots and where they come from,” said Loretta Mattson, a Totem Tracers member present at the club’s meeting Saturday at the Kenai Community Library.

Genealogy is simply the studying of one’s family tree — from the most recent budding of a branch to very old roots often buried deep in the past — and people interested in this endeavor quickly find out that being successful often means being part sleuth and part historian.

“Sometimes people have little more than a name as a starting point. But, you start with what you know and work your way back,” said Cheryl Hamann, president of Totem Tracers.

Hamann explained the process is mostly the same for everyone. Taking what is already known, people decide on what is missing, what they want to learn and what research has already been done.

“It’s important to keep track on the information you obtain so you don’t have to go back,” Hamann said.


Totem Tracers member Loretta Mattson shows Wendy McCaughey of Kenai how to use some of the genealogy resources available at the library.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

Then begins the search through records to locate missing information. Some common sources of records include: birth, marriage and death certificates, family photos, census records and military records.

“You’ve also got to think outside the box,” said Hamann in regard to record searching.

School report cards, historical maps, tax records, immigration records, newspaper clippings and cemetery records right down to grave markings and inscriptions can yield information, according to Hamann.

There’s even more information that can be obtained on the Internet, both in terms of making contacts to obtain records, but also through genealogical sites such as — a subscription-based resource for genealogy research.

As research starts to reveal clues a person’s past, Hamann said it’s important to evaluate this information critically.

“You want to verify all information for accuracy,” she said, adding that the opportunities for discrepancies are many.

One example is vanity. Grandma may say her age is one number, but her birth certificate may yield another number. This can lead to confusion in genealogical research, she said.

Another example is contextualization. Hamann said that since equality in the past wasn’t as universal as in the present, some light-skinned African-Americans may have claimed they were white on census and other records during periods or in regions where racism was a common occurrence.

While more rare, Hamann said it is possible some people’s parents or grandparents could have led double lives as spies during one of World Wars or the Cold War, and as such might have false credentials and records in their past.

Hamann also said that in our “cut and paste” Internet generation, tidbits of information can be lost or subtly changed if rewritten, thus further complicating the process of genealogy.

“It can be frustrating hitting these kind of brick walls, but you have to be patient. It’s kind of like finding buried treasure — it’s never easy, and takes a lot of searching, but in the end is very rewarding,” Hamann said.

Several newcomers to the Totem Tracers meeting felt the same way about getting on the path to finding their family’s past.

“I’m very happy I came. I got so much information. I’m going to look up a whole bunch,” said first-timer Wendy McCaughey of Kenai.

McCaughey was there to learn about her long-lost father. McCaughey said her mother and father split up when she was just a baby and she didn’t find out about him until later in her life. He died five years ago and she never met him, but that hasn’t dissuaded McCaughey from trying to find out all she can.

“I want to learn about his history and heritage and in doing so I think I’ll learn a lot about myself,” she said.

Unearthing ancestors to learn more about yourself is one of the reasons Hamann said she likes to pursue genealogy.

“It explains a lot, but also it puts a face on history and makes history more real and seem more alive when you learn your family’s place in it,” she said.

Totem Tracers holds resource meetings at the Kenai Community Library on the second Saturday of each month from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. and the library is home to a collection of genealogical resources.

Club meetings also are held on alternate months at the Family History Center in Soldotna. Meetings are held the third Tuesday of each month (except July and August) from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Totem Tracers also can be contacted by calling 283-4481 or e-mailing totemtracers@

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