Where did I come from?
JoAnn Potter Riggle learned that one of her ancestors was hanged in a New Haven, Conn., town square a couple hundred years ago ” just one of many facts she discovered about her family through the course of genealogy research.
“Sometimes you have to be prepared to turn over those rocks,” she says. “It is so much fun, even if you find out bad things.”
Genealogy, the study of family history, begins with research that goes backwards through time. Riggle, a professional genealogist who lives in Eagle, says there is no point in trying to trace your roots back to someone you think or hope you’re related to.
Don’t start with Elvis and try to link him back to you, she says. Genealogists, amateur or professional, must begin by researching familiar territory: themselves.
Carol Gonter of Gypsum is finding out how exciting it is to find that evidence. Gonter started researching her family history because her mother never knew her father (Gonter’s grandfather). Gonter wanted to know more about that side of the family. She called her aunt who happened to know Gonter’s grandfather’s name. The aunt had read the man’s obituary and remembered where he died.
“I found his death certificate in Washington state,” Gonter said. “I think I’m on the right track, I just need more official documents.”
Without a “preponderance of evidence,” Riggle says, you just can’t trust any document you find. The U.S. Census is a good example. While the information is generally trusted, the record takers knocking door-to-door that day may have misreported something. Or maybe the neighbors answered questions about the nearby family who wasn’t home that day. Maybe they estimated the children’s ages. Maybe they only knew a nickname.
You need to find as many documents as possible for a particular event. A county seal on a death certificate doesn’t necessarily mean that certificate’s information is accurate, Riggle says. But something like an obituary can back up the information or discredit it.
“Don’t just go on the Internet and type in your (last) name and take any old thing it gives,” she says. “A preponderance of evidence means it will hold up in a court of law.”
Gonter and about 20 other people recently attended a class at the Eagle Library about genealogy. Riggle taught the aspiring genealogists how to investigate and obtain credible information. Many in the class had already begun their own research; they just needed to know where to look next.
“I’ve always been interested (in genealogy),” said Edith Murphy, an elderly woman trying to trace her family roots in what is now the Czech Republic.
So you’ve got the name and birthplace of your great-grandfather ” names and birth or death places are some of the best ways to get started ” so now what?
Go to the counties, Riggle says. Counties typically have extensive records, and many are willing to fork them over for curious researchers. An important thing to remember when sifting through the sometimes overwhelming amounts of information is to focus on one problem or question, she says.
Solving one puzzle will lead you to solving another. Just take it one step at a time, Riggle recommends. And if you get stuck, approach the problem from a different angle.
“There is almost always an answer, even if the answer is that there is no answer, at least you’ve determined that,” she says.
A primary source always provides the best records. Secondary sources, such as records that were recorded after-the-fact or copied from other records, can be fine, but they’re not always accurate.
The best records for genealogy research are census, birth, death, military, immigration (ship passenger lists), naturalization and land records, according to the National Archives’ Web site on genealogy.
Records start to get pretty spotty when you get back to the early 16th century, Riggle says. That’s around the time when aristocratic families began keeping records. It was important for the people of this time to track their relatives because it could have brought them land inheritances or noble titles.
These types of records will put your ancestors in a time and place, in which you can look for further evidence of who they were.
While some people might not have a noble aristocratic lineage, almost everyone discovers that their ancestors were a part of historical events, Riggle says. And it’s because of those events that people today can find records of their relatives.
“You’re going to discover the truth,” she says.
When Riggle started, all she knew was that her father was from Beeville, Texas. She got records from Bee County, and then compared her findings with the U.S. Census records. When she saw matching information it was like winning the lottery, she says.
“When you hit on that sweet spot, it is sweet for sure and you’ll know it,” Riggle says.
And never forget the Mormon Church, or the Church of Latter Day Saints, Riggle says. The church has some of the most extensive records in the world.
“Thank God for Mormons. They believe in all their ancestors being tied to the church,” Riggle says. “They have gone around and copied every single record they could … all over the world.”
Lauren Glendenning can be reached for comment at 970.748.2983 or Lglendenning@vailtrail.com.