Linda Aubrey jokes that she can trace her ancestry back to Joseph and Mary. John Pratt follows that up with the fact that his ancestors are Adam and Eve. They both start laughing.
Aubrey, 63, and Pratt, 80, are members of the Oregon Genealogical Society (OGS). Aubrey’s relatives are not quite as famous as that other pair of Joseph and Mary — their names were Joseph Aubrey and Mary Shoemaker, her paternal great-great-grandparents. For Pratt, his pair is Adam Derryberry and Eve Liget, his great-great-great-great-grandparents from the 1600s.
While it’s unlikely that anyone can trace their ancestry back to the biblical Adam and Eve, it is fun to see how far back you can go, and that’s a big part of the appeal of genealogy.
Pratt’s interest was kindled nearly 30 years ago when he found himself wanting to know more about his family. “How can you know who you are if you don’t know where you came from?” he says. “My father died when I was very young and I hadn’t even seen a picture of him. I wanted to see what I could find out.”
Pratt and his wife, Carol, 75, are lifetime members of the Oregon Genealogical Society. Carol is also interested in genealogy and edits the OGS newsletter. Her grandmother was a genealogist who left a large file of documents that she had accumulated in her lifetime, and was able to trace the family line back to the 1800s when they immigrated to this country from England and Wales. “Some-times you can find out who your ancestors were, what they did, where they lived,” she says. “Sometimes you can find out through their letters what their interests were and you can often find out what they did for a living. It’s incredibly interesting to do and you get deeply embedded into history. You find out what was happening at the time they lived and what sorts of things impacted them and their children.”
When research uncovers something like the survey registration for their property or the deed of sale, which can tell you who they bought their property from, it adds depth to everything you know about your past. “People really enjoy finding out who their antecedents were because it tells them a bit about themselves, where their family came from and what they had to go through in their life,” she says.
Aubrey inherited a stack of research that someone else in her family had done. “I felt like I needed to do something with it, to keep it going,” she says. “So I took classes be-cause I needed to know how to understand the information that I had.” After becoming involved, Aubrey joined the OGS board and has been active since 2000. “I got hooked,” she says.
Aubrey is an OGS past president and vice president who also heads up the Research Roundtable, a free troubleshooting resource for researchers, including nonmembers, that meets on the first Sunday of each month.
Most people who enjoy genealogy will say it’s addictive. “It’s one of those hobbies that reaches out and grabs you and pulls the tie tight,” Carol says.
It can also be time consuming. An OGS research team will take queries at a rate of $15 per hour plus expenses to do the research for you if you can’t do it yourself. Genealogy often involves spending hours in libraries poring over old newspapers or records on microfilm, visits to county courthouses for census records or traipsing through cemeteries looking for grave markers.
While some records now are available online, many are not, and John Pratt points out that it’s difficult to trust Internet information unless you can also find a collaborating source. “You have to go back to the source, like the county courthouse, to know for sure,” he says.
Some records are available online, such as Heritage Quest and Ancestry.com. The Eugene Public Library offers access to these services at no charge, because the library pays the fees to use them. Both resources have millions of records from all over the world. People who have a subscription card to Heritage Quest can use it from home, but Ancestry.com must be accessed from the library.
A couple of times a year the library offers a class called “Mobile Genealogy.” Taught by an instructor with experience in genealogy, the class offers information about using the resources that are available for tablets or smart phones to both find information and store it so researchers can always have easy access to their information when they’re traveling or out researching.
The library also offers other classes on genealogy, including a basic getting started class and a next-level class. Most classes are held in the spring and fall.
Reeva Kimble is president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Willamette Valley Oregon (JGSWVO) and has been involved since the organization started in 1998. Her genealogical journey began because she wanted to find out the original names of her grandparents. “So that one day if I had grandchildren I could tell them,” she says. “I didn’t know their names and I didn’t know where they came from.”
She’s since been able to trace her roots back to the 1770s in Poland and the Ukraine for three of her grandparents, but the fourth remains elusive.
Several years ago Kimble found a box of photographs that belonged to her grandfather, Joseph Jacobson. He lived in Mir, Belarus, before moving to Des Moines, Iowa, in 1884 at age 14. She posted her trove of photos online and that turned into a large website with about 150 pages devoted to the history of Mir for the past 500 years, including photos and a listing of residents, business owners, letters and other memorabilia. “I discovered an incredible history,” she says.
The JGSWVO currently has about 35 members and membership is only $10 per year, but meetings are open to anyone. “Our members don’t have to be Jewish but if they’re looking for Jewish ancestors then our group would be relevant,” she says. “We also do a lot to learn about Jewish history.”
For example, the September meeting program was about Yiddish as a language, “be-cause it’s one of the languages that our ancestors spoke,” Kimble says. The JGSWVO website lists its meetings for the rest of the year and also provides such information as recipes, including old world and new world variations.
The group has books and maps available, subscribes to a Jewish genealogy journal and has the last 10 years of that available for use. “It’s full of scholarly articles about every aspect of Jewish genealogy,” Kimble says. “At meetings we talk about searching and search engines and how to use them and how to use genealogy software to keep track of what we’ve found. People used to keep track of everything with index cards and big charts on the wall but now it’s all on computer.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ genealogical organization, Family Search, has the largest repository of ancestral family records in the world.FamilySearch.org offers free access and is one of the most heavily used re-sources. Researchers can get personal assistance at any of the church’s Family History Centers, like the one in Eugene on 18th Street.
Patrick Briggs, 55, is a member of the LDS Church and also mentors local Boy Scout troops as they try to earn a genealogy merit badge. Mormons care deeply about their ancestry and their religion holds ancestors as important in many ways.
“There are a wide variety of resources available at the Family History Centers in terms of folks who lived in our region who you might be able to tie into a family line,” Briggs says, “along with resources from the rest of the U.S. and North America and even around the world. It’s open to anybody, you don’t have to be LDS to go.
“Like people with a Christian belief we believe that we are descendants of Adam and Eve so we are working diligently to discover our ancestry and fill in the spots between us and back to them so we can learn about our ancestors, where they lived, what they did for employment,” Briggs says. “That’s the part that’s really exciting.”
Briggs was a Boy Scout as a youngster but then moved from the Eugene area to Sacramento, California, with his family, and lost touch with the organization. Later, as an adult, he was asked to serve as a Scoutmaster, so he rekindled his love for scouting.
He’s one of several men and women in the Eugene area who mentor scouts seeking to achieve the merit badge. Scouts must complete nine different requirements to earn the badge, including interviewing relatives, contacting a record repository, putting together a pedigree chart or family group record and research some aspects of genealogy.
Eugene’s Troop 100 sponsors a genealogy merit badge event, usually held in January or February at the LDS Church which is collocated with the genealogy library.
“I get so much satisfaction out of helping the scouts do this,” Briggs says. “It helps keep me young, helps me focus on my own life and at the same time I’m helping train a rising generation of leaders. It’s so much fun to work with young people.”
Long before the current craze of ancestry television shows, Mormons were documenting family histories throughout the world. Now that the TV shows have exposed the general public to the joys and challenges of genealogical research, more people are joining in.
Some may be pleased to discover that there is a “black sheep” in their family, such as a pirate or horse thief. In fact, there’s an organization called the International Black Sheep Society of Genealogists which requires members to submit proof that a direct family member was involved in something nefarious.
“People love to find the black sheep in their family,” says Carol Pratt. “It wouldn’t have been fun at the time of course, but it is now. We have members trying to prove that they have black sheep in their family so they can join the group.”
Not everyone feels that way though. The actor Ben Affleck faced criticism when he asked producers of the PBS television series “Finding Your Roots” to edit out the fact that his research uncovered a slave-owning ancestor.
“Some people are aghast at what their ancestors did but my feeling is that I’m only responsible for myself,” says Linda Aubrey. “It was a different world back then and most of us had someone in their family who did something we would think was bad. A slave-owning ancestor doesn’t reflect on what we are doing with our life now.”
The other criticism about the television shows is that they make it look easy. They somehow manage to condense hours, months or even years of research into a convenient half-hour package. It’s not like that in real life, but most genealogists will say that they’re pleased the shows are getting a new generation interested in the topic. “The TV programs have helped a lot to keep people interested and bring new people in,” Aubrey says.
Carol Pratt says genealogical research is a doorway to lifelong learning. “One very soon becomes interested in all things historical touching on one’s family,” she says. “Geography, research techniques, language, and oftentimes, government. It grows by leaps and bounds.”