Saturday, January 26, 2013

It's all in the family

My aunt and I had genealogy in common

Originally published January 18, 2013 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel

My aunt Georgy was a Christian in the best sense of the word. She lived her faith by example, always kind, generous, and interested in others. She remembered me, my brother, my husband and my kids every birthday and Christmas with a card and a gift. You knew that her cards were carefully selected, because she gave all the kindest words and phrases emphasis with her liberal underlining. The same abundant emphasis also appeared when she sent hand-written thank you notes. “Thanks for the wonderful birthday card, note, and PHOTO!!!  I love it all!!! Especially the PHOTO!!!”

Although she had not been feeling well, nor able eat much for quite some time, she died quickly after only a week of home hospice care, right after Thanksgiving and three weeks shy of her 87th birthday. As my cousin described their goodbye in her Christmas letter, “We saw her off with loving words and recorded hymns played on piano and organ, which she always loved.”

My aunt lived near Sacramento—a three hour drive away—and over the years we didn’t see each other more than once or twice a year for family gatherings. So I wouldn’t say we were close in a day-to-day sort of way. But reflecting back on who she was, I would say we shared a common passion that is/was very dear to both of us: family history.  Her hallway was a gallery of family photos, hung at many eye levels, up and down the walls. Family photo albums were always close at hand in her living room. And she always asked that we take family photos whenever we assembled for a holiday or wedding. I would oblige, getting out the tripod, lining everyone up in a shady spot, and making 8x10s for everyone in our small family.

I had this photo but didn't know who the people were until I started
researching my family tree.

Like her sister (my mom), she didn’t own a computer. But if she had, I’m sure she would have gotten as caught up in family genealogy as I have. Researching one’s family tree has gotten so much easier due to the abundance of online resources, and it’s addicting. In a sense it reminds me of assembling a jigsaw puzzle: you know the pieces are out there somewhere, but you have to know where to look, and be able to recognize when a found piece still doesn’t quite fit. With practice, you get better at searching, the puzzle starts to take shape, and you make some remarkably satisfying discoveries along the way.

The US Federal Census is a primary source document that will provide lots of information about your relatives,
including names, spouse, children, ages, street address, birth place, parents birth places, and occupations.

I unintentionally started my genealogy research three years ago when I took a history class from a great professor named Laura Guardino. I learned that good historians value primary sources. A primary source is an original artifact, document, recording, or other source of information that was created at the time under study. For creating a family tree, primary sources include censuses; birth, baptism, marriage and death records; draft registration and military records; photographs; and immigration, citizenship and travel records.

Generally, accounts written after the fact without firsthand experience are considered secondary.  Secondary sources may support primary information, but are one step removed since the writer or recorder was not actually an eyewitness to the event.

1863 draft registration for Lewis Hunsicker, my great great grandfather, found on
Although primary sources may be preferable, they are not necessarily accurate. Selected census enumerators knew the citizens in their area and penned the lists, but didn’t necessarily know how to spell the names or write legibly. For example, my great great grandmother’s first name was Levina, or Lovina, or Lavina—I’m still not sure because no two censuses agree.

And some sources are not “primary” in the strictest sense of the word. My grandfather wrote a six-page account of his family’s move to New Mexico in the early 1900s and their struggle to make a living there as ranchers. He was an eyewitness to the events, but wrote his story many years after the fact.

It helps if pedigree charts are printable on standard-sized
paper.  I had to blow this one up to write on it, and then
back down again to print it all on piece of paper.  I like
this format, because it tells the whole story at once, but
detailed pedigree charts keep track of all the details.
Although there are many websites to choose from, I started my research using It’s a monthly subscription service that allows you to look at primary documents and the family trees of your fellow researchers. You can save your findings on an ever-expanding family tree template which shows every possible connection you can discover, or as a pedigree chart which shows only direct lineage, i.e. parents and no siblings. No matter your source, you’ll keep your information better organized if you start with paper and pencil and a pedigree chart.  Google “pedigree chart” and pick one that will allow you to record names, birth/marriage/death dates, and birth/marriage/death places, and make notes.

Gather information provided by your family: photos, memoirs, interviews, wills, birth certificates, family Bibles, etc. From there, look at the U.S. Federal Census. The U.S. has taken a census of its population every ten years since 1790, and, with the exception of the 1890 census which was largely destroyed by fire, the original hand-written pages can be viewed through the 1940 census. (More recent years are protected by privacy laws.) The early censuses listed only the heads of the household, but starting in 1850, every member of the household was listed. So, if you can find a child’s name, you can also learn their sibling and parents’ names, ages, occupations, birth place, neighbors, and other data.

Besides the federal census, many states and counties also had censuses. On, I was also able to find my relatives on original documents such as draft registrations, baptism and marriage records, ship passenger lists, church membership rosters, death certificates and city directories. Fellow researchers also upload personal documents to share, such as portraits, wills, and cemetery headstone photos.  This is how I came across my grandfather’s six-page New Mexico memoir, and photos of him in his WWI and police uniforms.

After you’ve created pedigree charts as far back as possible, check your data against the charts of other researchers. Many of America’s founding families have been exhaustively researched, and their descendants proudly share their heritage on a family website. For example, if you Google “Addington family in America” you’ll discover the Addington Association’s website, which provides histories, descendant lists, wills, photographs, and family reunion information. Whenever you discover conflicting information, look to see if primary sources are listed as references. There are also plenty of books, YouTube videos, and other online sources that will give you help with finding, charting and preserving your family history.

For a more personal presentation, I decided to make a scrapbook from scratch using Peter and Donna Thomas’s great book “More Making Books by Hand” as a guide. The hardest part of the project, however, was forcing myself to stop the research and start the book. I always wanted to do just a little more digging, try a new avenue, look for more corroboration. Tracing your family tree is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle that never ends—but in a good way.
My aunt was many more things beyond a family historian: a loving parent and wife, a devoted sister, an artist, camper, traveler, dedicated pray-er, and many more things that I will probably never know. But I do know she loved her family very fiercely, and I was fortunate and blessed to have been her niece.

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