Preserving history by connecting to the pastThis summer, consider building your family tree. To get you started, Sharon Finch, the president of the Twin Ports Genealogical Society, was gracious enough to offer up some tips.
By: Beth Koralia, Budgeteer News
This summer, consider building your family tree. Sharon Finch, the president of the Twin Ports Genealogical Society, says learning about one’s own family history simultaneously helps preserve local history.
“When you are doing your own family history, instead of seeing history at a distance, [researching] brings history closer,” she said. “You feel a connection. It gives new significance. Duluth history is closer.”
Finch gives an example: “My great-grandfather was in Duluth when the bridge was built. He had a bird’s eye view of Duluth history. There are many Duluth families who witnessed these things.”
She elaborated by saying that people were often drawn to Duluth by industrial institutions such as the railroad, shipping, iron ore, and lumber — developments of which were pivotal moments for Duluth.
The Twin Ports Genealogical Society encourages everyone to become involved in his or her own family histories and genealogy. Although the family history club uses the terms “family history” and “genealogy” interchangeably, the words actually have two distinct meanings. Finch explained that family history is a process of telling the story of your ancestors.
“It’s more about writing,” she said, whereas genealogy is researching the “life and times of ancestors and those who make up your family tree.”
The Twin Ports Genealogical Society welcomes all who are interested in family history and genealogy to join.
“Our goal is to interest people in genealogy and to preserve history,” Finch maintains.
The fee to join is $15, which pays for meeting room rentals, publishing fees for their newsletter and organizing conferences and speakers.
The group recently hosted a genealogical workshop at the College of St. Scholastica. Experts from around the state spoke on how to improve your research in the field.
One such expert, Tony Dierckins, author of “Zenith: A Postcard Perspective of Duluth,” discussed how to incorporate postcards to help illustrate family histories. Dierckins gathers old lithograph postcards to “help make the past clear.”
According to Dierckins, early postcards did not have the same images as modern postcards. Pictures were often of schools, city buildings or industry. They sometimes depicted news or family events.
“For little money, you could have a portrait taken that you could send back to Italy,” he explained. “Many times people couldn’t read or write but would send pictures back home to let family know they arrived safely.”
Postcards also help you imagine what places and buildings a relative would have seen. But, Dierckins warns, “not all are pictures accurately colored or depicted.”
For example, a postcard in which the library looks as though it were made of marble was “meant to entice people to come and see it or make it more dramatic,” not because that is how it actually appeared.
Being highly collectible items, postcards are available all over the country. Dierckins turns to the Internet to find his.
“You can find them on eBay from one dollar to hundreds of dollars,” he said. “Many antique stores in town have them.”
Beginning the search
To begin your own family history search, Finch recommends first looking through your own house.
“Look at what materials you have: the family Bible, photographs with notes on the back, datebooks, letters or a family tree if you have one,” she said.
Beginning at home will guide you through your search and help you to develop questions.
Next, ask relatives what documents or items they might have.
“You have no idea what they have,” Finch said. “Ask them to share.”
But, she joked, if you ask too many questions, your relatives are likely “to think it is the Spanish Inquisition.”
“Say instead that you are interested in your family history and wonder what they might know,” she advised.
Ask older relatives what their experiences were from what they remember. Their memories are critical to the history of Duluth.
After this preliminary research, “then it’s time to go to records.” Look for land, birth, death or military records. Finch believes viewing these records may help reconcile differences within your own documents and elucidate new paths.
She recommends several reliable sources where you can easily purchase and find many documents, including: the Minnesota Historical Society (at www.mnhs.org/index.htm); St. Louis County GenWeb (www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~mnstloui/); the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (www.familysearch.org/eng/default.asp); and Ancestry.com.
The Duluth Public Library has a wealth of resources for family history researchers, including an Ancestry.com license for public use. Try looking through city directories, yearbooks and Minnesota State Census records. Search through newspaper software first, and then view newspaper clippings on microfilm. Some of the library’s resources may be accessed online at www.duluth.lib.mn.us/Reference/Genealogy.html.
Cemeteries are also good places to look for relatives.
“Dates on headstones are just a beginning,” Finch said. Stop in at a cemetery office to see what records they have. These records may tell you who purchased the plot, where headstones are located or important dates.
Occasionally, a family historian (amateur or not) will reach dead ends. When records are incomplete or have been destroyed, Finch offers a bit of hope: “If no records can be located, there may be some we don’t think of — for example, a location-based search,” she said.
If your trail goes cold in Mississippi, for example, consider area research instead. Perhaps take a trip to another town to search for records. Local libraries, county government records or even churches and fraternities often have valuable documents and lists that could assist your search.
Currently, the Twin Ports Genealogical Society has about 40 members, among whom are several experts in different fields, such as Norwegian history or that of northern Wisconsin, who offer their services to members.
“It’s a well-rounded group, so you are bound to meet someone with interests similar to yours,” comments Finch.
At meetings, members update the group on the progress of their research and of any significant developments. Part of the benefit of membership in the society is getting help. If a member is stuck or needs a resource, other members often exchange items or help each other look. Finch describes the atmosphere as “open and welcoming and sharing.”
To facilitate your search, Finch says there are around 1,600 blogs, and hundreds of assorted websites, on genealogy.
“To get help, you just have to explore,” she said.
Finch believes that developing a family history is ultimately up to the individual.
“People want to answer different questions, such as: Where did they come from?” she said. “… You have to decide how far to go. Genealogy helps us answer who we are. It is an important question in our own self awareness.”
The Twin Ports Genealogical Society meets September through May in the Gold Room at the Duluth Public Library.
To become a member, contact Sharon Finch at SharonJRy@aol.com or 728-5254.
Duluth freelance writer Beth Koralia last covered Dances of Universal Peace for the Budgeteer. She can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.