Some digging and luck help uncover missing roots of family tree

Posted: Sunday, September 14, 2003

One of life's greatest little joys is finding something you never knew you had.

I've been blessed with an extremely loving and full family. Growing up, I was among the few kids I knew whose parents were not divorced, and my sister and I relished time with not only our parents and each other, but also with our maternal grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and a handful of distant relatives.

We also were well-acquainted with the roots of this extensive family tree. In addition to the hordes of living relatives, we have a book full of Colvin characters from my grandfather's family, traced all the way back to 17th century England, as well as a handful of other countries. (We Colvin descendants, it seems, are the proverbial American "mutts.") My grandmother is of full Danish decent and can trace her Rasmussen family name back to Denmark in just a couple of generations.

In fact, my mother's side of the family is so extensive and well-documented that my cousin Molly and I often joked that all us kids would have to leave not only our small hometown, but likely the state, to ever get married; it seemed we were somehow related to everyone we met.

Still, I've always wondered if there was a little something missing another piece of the past to tell me where I came from and who I am. My father's family, after all, has always been a mystery.

I know the basic story: My dad was born in Peoria, Ill., where he lived until he was 10 and his parents divorced. He and my grandmother moved to Oregon to be closer to her brother and never saw my grandfather again. My grandfather apparently remarried and had more children, but died just a month before I was born, leaving my father without an opportunity to reconnect.

Because my father died when I was a child, the Dillon family lineage was left shrouded in secrecy. Who were these people? What were their lives like? Where did we come from?

These questions have lingered in my mind for years, but it wasn't until last winter that I decided to do something about it. I was working on a story with a couple who had exhaustively researched the husband's genealogy, despite starting with little information.

"Hey," I thought, "I can do that."

So with little to go on, I went home and joined a genealogy Web site and began drilling my mother for all the details she could remember about my father's past.

It didn't get me far. I knew my grandmother's name and when she died. I also knew when my grandfather died, but we weren't sure if his name was Henry or Harry. When working with a massive international database on the Web, these are important details.

So I typed in every combination I could think of, every name I vaguely remembered my father mentioning, every spelling I could imagine. Still, not much progress.

After about a month of daily efforts and $40 in Web site membership fees, I ended up with Social Security numbers for each of my grandparents, as well as data on when and where they died official information, but not really anything I didn't already know.

Frustrated, I gave up. I stashed away the notes I had taken and the couple of documents I'd collected and swore I'd try again maybe, someday.

Well, someday came in July, when I was at my parents' home in Oregon. It was late at night, everyone was asleep and I was bored. The computer was staring at me, so I decided to give it another shot.

I sat down at the desk, signed onto the genealogy Web site and typed in "Henry Dillon," "Illinois" and "1890 to 1980."

Dozens of possibilities popped up on the screen, as always. But this time, as I filtered through the results, something new caught my eye.

"Henry A. Dillon. Died November 1979."

Could be.

I clicked on the link and found a database created by another genealogy hunter, whose e-mail ironically starts out "Jenjen," my mother's nickname for me.

As I searched through her Web page, I found more information about the elusive Henry A. Dillon. First wife: Mabel? Son: Thomas, born August 1936, died 1990s. Death: November 1979, Wisconsin.

I kept searching and found she had an entire family tree listed. As I explored, I found cousins whose names I knew. This was the right Henry Dillon. This was my grandfather.

As I suspected from other research, the Dillon family tree goes straight back to Ireland in the 1600s. There also are branches leading to Scotland and Northern Ireland.

More importantly, though, the genealogy listed names, dates and locations for dozens of my ancestors, opening a door to more research.

The basics in hand, I was able to search the 1920 U.S. census and find my grandfather's family, who was living in Peoria at the time. There, not only did I find the names of his parents and siblings information Jenjen already provided but also data on where they lived, the house they owned, their education levels and their occupations. My great-grandfather, it seems, was a mail carrier. My grandfather sold advertisements for a newspaper (which my father later did as well before working his way up to publisher of our hometown newspaper and introducing me to the newspaper world I would fall in love with).

I haven't had a chance to go much further yet, but I will. I've e-mailed Jenjen to see if she has more information on the people on the chart. Although she hasn't written back, I'm not disappointed. Her simple facts answered questions that have haunted me for years. And, more importantly, she introduced me to a family I never knew I had.

Now, if I could just find the same kind of surprise for my grandmother's family.

Anyone know a Mabel Russ?

Jenni Dillon is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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