Totem Tracers get thrills from finding forgotten ancestors

Posted: Sunday, July 30, 2000

Bruce Stinsman is excited about discovering a distant ancestor he didn't know he had.

The discovery began with a listing of names taken from tombstones in a Minnesota cemetery, which he found on the Internet.

"This was the first Stinsman I'd found in Minnesota," he said. "His name was Edgar Stinsman, and he died in 1888 from consumption -- that's an old name for tuberculosis. I was able to trace his name and find his parents."

Edgar's father was Edward Stinsman, an ancestor he had previously found.

"I already knew about Edward, but I never knew he had a son," said Stinsman. "He was killed in the Civil War, the same year Edgar was born. That means he may have died without ever seeing his son."

This small bit of insight into lives long past, providing a personal connection to history, is typical of the discoveries that keep people interested in genealogy, the tracing of one's family roots.

"It's like hitting a jackpot, to find a new name to put on the family tree," said Stinsman.

He has traced his own family back as far as 1797, to one John Stinsman, of Philadelphia, who fought in an artillery division in the Revolutionary War. His own interest in genealogy goes back 20 years.

"I started with stories that were told to me by older family members," he said. "I did some research and found out some of those stories weren't correct."

And it just went on from there.

"It's like detective work, searching through history, and I love history."

Stinsman is a member of the Totem Tracers, a local genealogy group that meets at the Kenai Community Library. The group can trace its own origins to the early 1980s, said Ruby Jackson, an original member.

"There were several people who were searching for their family history at the library, and we started meeting there. The library said we could use its conference room for meetings, and we put an ad in the paper to get more people to come, and got a good response."

Jackson served as secretary for the group for several years.

"We had a real good group back then," she said. "That's when I learned to look up my family history. Every time one of us had a vacation, they'd visit places that members of their family came from, and sometimes they'd meet people there who knew them."

The group disbanded for several years and stopped meeting. Jackson said some members moved away from the area, and she had health problems that kept her from attending. It was revived three years ago by some of the old members and has continued ever since, still meeting at the library, on the fourth Thursday of each month.

The new Totem Tracers will continue a project started in 1983 by the original group. "Alaska's Kenai Peninsula Death Records and Cemetery Inscriptions" was compiled from information found on grave markers in area cemeteries on the Kenai Peninsula, both public and private.

The book is being updated, with new entries added. About half the cemeteries have been covered, Jackson said, and members will visit the rest of them this summer.

Jackson's daughter, Ruby Stogsdill, is also a member of the Totem Tracers.

"This is something my mother and I can do together, and it's brought us closer," she said.

Stogsdill is currently tracing her family and her husband's, and she, too, has come up with interesting discoveries from the past.

"One family on my husband's side, the Rushings, had seven sons, and all of them served in the Civil War," she said. "Three were killed in battle, but the rest survived."

Another discovery came from her mother's side.

"Through the Internet, I contacted three distant cousins from my grandmother's family," she said.

These cousins, from the Savage family, held a family reunion last year in Houston, which Stogsdill attended with her mother.

"They had been searching for my mother's line, and I was searching for theirs," she said. "Meeting them is wonderful -- to get to know them."

The family, originally from Alabama, had eight children, of which her mother's grandmother was the oldest. She moved to Louisiana when she was married, and as the years passed, the rest of the family lost track of her. Now that they have been reunited, and discovered their common interest in genealogy, Stogsdill said she will be helping them with a family history that they are compiling.

For those interested in researching their own family history, many resources are available. Totem Tracers has donated a collection of genealogy books to the Kenai library, which are available to the public.

Stinsman said another good place to start is the National Archives office in Anchorage. One of eight regional offices in the country, the Alaska archives has more than 9,000 cubic feet of historical records, photographs and maps, dating from about 1867 to the present.

Among these are census records up to the 1920s. Newer records are not yet available, said Stinsman, because the Census Bureau will not allow public access to their records for 72 years after the figures are collected.

Another source is city directories. These were a predecessor to modern-day phone directories, published in the 1800s.

"There weren't any phones back then, but they listed names, occupations, addresses, names of spouses -- sometimes kids' names, too," said Stinsman.

He pointed out a page he copied from one such directory, showing a Horace Stinsman, and wife, Cassandra, from Atlantic City, N.J., in 1929, with a notation reading "meats," which means Horace was a butcher. Other information gleaned from genealogy is of more than just casual interest.

"You can use genealogy to look at your medical history," said Stinsman. "Seeing what your ancestors died from -- heart disease, diabetes or cancer -- helps you know what you need to watch out for."

One of the biggest boons to genealogists has been the Internet.

"The Internet has really speeded up finding names," said Stinsman, who has located 40 other Stinsmans throughout the country this way and sends a newsletter out to them by e-mail.

"It's really exciting to find your family, what their history is, where they came from and what they did," said Jackson. "It gives you a feel for your heritage, what people went through back then. It makes you appreciate them."

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