Setting Out On Your Own Roots Journey

Vol. 8, No. 8
February 24 - March 1, 2000
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by M.L. Faunce

Follow in the footsteps of an avid genealogical sleuth to find out who you are and — through your ancestors — where you’ve been. But be prepared to find so much family that, like our author, you may have to paper the walls of a room with your family tree.

Like steam rising from the cups of tea we shared, small bits and pieces of information were offered up, slowly, at her pace. Jogging my mother’s memory with photos and questions, I captured clues to our family history on scraps of paper. With those clues, I later traced ancestors back to Ireland and Germany. With her help, I had unfolded the story of people and places she had never known, including a grandmother for whom she — unbeknownst to her — was named.

Walking Washington city streets, I learned that I had crossed paths with ancestors who trod these Capital ways for six generations. The rich details of lives linked by blood and marriage and physical likeness unfolded before me as in a slow, delicious mystery novel.

Tramping around old cemeteries became my passion, census records my obsession. I was held in happy hostage to bits and pieces gleaned from all these sources. No discovery was too small or mundane, from the shred that told me my great-grandmother paid 25 cents for an oyster dinner at an Episcopal Church in Arlington to the astounding revelation that a great-great-great-grandfather fought for both the North and the South in the Civil War. The sweet notation in the 1870 census that my mother’s namesake “kept a small green’s store” in Georgetown captivated me.

After two years spending my spare time researching both sides of my parents’ families — with the help of a computer program called Family Tree Maker — I was able to draw a fully leafed family tree that covered a wall of my house.

By the time I finished my research — filling four briefcases with records — I felt hugged every time I walked past the Recorder of Deeds office. I spent so much time at the Marriage Bureau that I began soothing jittery applicants. I became a fixture at Vital Records where my emotions were stirred by grim details in death certificates but buoyed by joyful discovery in birth records. I made countless friends at the National Archives, often helping puzzled newcomers with the unforgiving idiosyncrasies of microfilm readers and copiers as film unraveled and spilled to the floor.

Setting Out

Researching your family history can be time consuming and or complicated. Each research library of facility has its own rules, methods and finding aids, and you’ve got to learn the ropes. Many facilities now have web pages to guide you through the process with hours, locations, directions and accessibility and descriptions of records. If you don’t have a computer, staff and friendly docents are often available to acquaint the newcomer with records.

For me and for many researchers, the rewards repay the trouble hundredfold, as I’ve felt watching many a family — grandmother, mother, father and three kids — crowded around a microfilm reader, entranced, unable to leave — while their parking meter has expired.

Should you wish to learn details large and small of your family history — and if you dare to risk losing yourself to the task — here are some beginning steps.

The National Archives suggests beginning your genealogical research by finding out as much information as you can from living family members:

  • Names of ancestors, their spouses, and their siblings;
  • Dates of birth, marriage, death and divorce;
  • The places (town, county, state, or province, and country) where these events occurred.

Keep an open mind as you search, because in documents from early periods, it’s quite common to find a variety of spellings for surnames. They can appear as they would sound to the person who wrote them down. For example, an accent might have made for a misinterpretation in writing down a name. Another reason spelling varies is that many people in years past were unable to read or write so they had no standard iconography for their name. Adding more complications is handwriting, which you may find difficult to decipher.

Dates, too, can be in error, and various sources may show different dates for the same event. Don’t let variations fool you.

Begin with the Living

When you hear the term ‘oral history,’ you might think the subject is dental records. But ask Elaine Eff (of the culture conservation program at the Maryland Historical Trust, as well as the Association for Oral History of the Middle Atlantic Region), and you’ll learn that oral history is the rich story of people like you, your mother or father, a favorite aunt or a friend.

Author of You Should Have Been Here Yesterday, a guide to documenting the rich culture of Maryland’s diverse residents, Eff encourages researchers to help preserve our roots by listening to what the people who make us what we are have to say about their lives and memories. “You should have been here yesterday,” is an all-too-familiar refrain to seekers of stories or artifacts of our past. Too often, the generation that can best tell us about ourselves passes on, forever closing the door to the story locked in their memory — and to our history.

So a good first step in tracing your roots is oral history, which you do by talking with older relatives and writing down their family stories. To jog aging memories, use scrapbooks and photos. Make up an informal sheet or questionnaire and ask family members to fill in facts they may know about your forebears. Ask if there’s a family Bible, or if they have kept letters, obituaries or documents that give details, dates, names and places where family members lived. Diaries, scrapbooks, photo albums and newspaper clippings can also help solve the mysteries of the past.

Once the pump is primed, most oral historians and genealogists simply tape record the flow. Once you have the voice of history, you can transcribe the tape. What you do from there, is limited only by your time and imagination. We’ve seen family histories ranging from self-published books with no pretensions to stories developed like novels. Of course by connecting all the world in a village, the World Wide Web adds a whole new dimension to researching and preserving family histories.
And now, thanks to the affordability, portability and popularity of the video camera — genealogists and oral historians have added moving pictures to their toolboxes.

“It’s increasingly important to understand and befriend new technologies — from film and video to special web sites and publications — in our work,” Eff counsels.

At last year’s annual meeting of the Oral History Association, Eff introduced filmmaker Alan Berliner, who demonstrated new reaches of technology and creativity. Berliner made the Emmy Award-winning film Nobody’s Business about his father, and the film itself, as well as the cajoling he engages in to explore his family history, is deeply touching.

The father, of course, fails to understand what all the fuss is about. “I’m just an ordinary guy,” says he, “no different from anyone else.” But the filmmaker persists. “Everyone has a life that has something special, each one has a story,” he counters.

The younger Berliner reminded his father that his own father “was one of two million Jews who came to America between 1880 and 1920. He never saw his family again.”

“We never talked about it. We were in the throes of the Depression,” replied his father. Throughout the film, Berliner sprinkles old film footage of a boxing match as a metaphor for a father-son relationship, at once intimate and isolated.

“His history is my history,” says the younger Berliner of his father, striking a note that resonates with all genealogists.

Video reaches into all our homes and families. This truth struck home when Bay Weekly volunteer Janie White, 75, told us that her grandson Harry Hanbury was recording her life story. A freelance writer and producer who does work for the Discovery Channel, Hanbury has gotten his grandmother pretty comfortable not only with talking on video but even with standing up in public as they videotape visits to old homes and haunts in Washington.

“People would stop to watch and ask ‘what channel are you with?’” says White. She could handle that better than questions she found too personal. “If you don’t tell, people will never know,” cajoled Hanbury. To which his grandmother replied, “That’s just the point.”

Genealogists can use the tools of oral history to capture the words, thoughts and memories of people’s whose lives matter to us. The personal perspective of our families and friends — at work and play — their memories of world events or of neighborhood good times can be the golden history that gives meaning to our own lives.

Writing it Down

The traditional and still invaluable way to capture the past is by writing down family stories — whether your own or somebody else’s. If you feel tongue tied, in today’s memoir-conscious society you can find lots of help in getting started.

“Memory is the glue that binds our mental life. … Every thought we have, every word we speak, every action we engage in — indeed our very sense of self and our sense of connectedness to others — we owe to memory.”

Senior citizens in Anne Arundel County may not know these words from the book Memory: From Mind to Molecules, but they are refining their sense of self and connectedness with stories they write in a consistently popular class in autobiography at the South County Senior Center in Edgewater.

Teacher and local historian Emily Peake jump-starts her novices with a list of words for free associating, like circus, school, picnic. Students choose a word that rings a bell with them. Then they set in to write.

Thus inspired, autobiographers record memories as diverse as a trip to the circus, a favorite dessert sampled in Peru, beer for 10 cents a bottle and a bag of hot peanuts from Maggio’s Produce Store on Main Street in Annapolis for “Fiva centa.”

For the third year, autobiographical seniors in Anne Arundel County have published remembrances in an anthology called Oh, the Tales We Tell. Favored pets, vacation spots, hometowns, war stories and life-changing experiences are the subjects of the class graduation project.

There are lots of other ways to get started in chronicling your memories. If you’re not one of the people possessed by stories, you might find inspiration in Janie White’s 75th birthday gift from another grandson, Austin Smith. Smith, a senior at University of Maryland, took a lower tech route than his cousin to their grandmother’s memories. The Autobiography Box (which can be bought at bookstores) is just that, a small box that opens to reveal a small book and four decks of cards. The book, The Autobiography Box Owner’s Manual, is a workbook of questions and lined pages for answers. It prompts its owner to answer the simpler questions.

Tougher questions come from the cards, which deck by deck are titled Remember, Structure, Dramatize and Discover.

“It’s strange when you start thinking about one thing and others come to mind. You’ve got to be careful not to rattle — I mean ramble,” says White, who needs to draw a Structure card to help her keep her memories straight.

Recalling and recording a life’s memories brings benefits to both the recaller and her descendants. For herself, the rememberer reaffirms her “very sense of self.”

“You sometimes feel like you were there again. Some of it’s sad, but mostly pretty happy as you relive old times and sometimes even resolve old problems,” says White.

At the same time, she strengthens her family’s “sense of connectedness.”

Beyond the Living

When memory fails — or when death steals it — other sources can help.

For copies of original documents, go directly to the source: federal, state and local government records.
Some records — census records and ships passengers lists, for example— are indexed by a Soundex system devised to code names so that you can find a person even though their name may have been recorded under various spellings. Names are grouped together by sound to compensate for unusual spellings.

To locate a name, you must first find its code. Every Soundex code consists of a letter and a three-digit number. The letter is always the first letter of the surname. Numbers are assigned to the remaining letters, with vowels not coded. The card you fill out has instructions to guide you through the code.
Federal Records

• National Archives: between 7th and 9th Streets and Pennsylvania Ave. N.W., 4th floor, Washington D.C. or Archives II in College Park • 202/501-5400 • or
Responsible for documenting the history of the people of the United States, the National Archives has primary holdings that include Federal Census Records • Military Service Records • Military Pension Records • Federal Land Records • Bounty Land Warrants • Ship Passenger Lists • Naturalization Records.

Get started at the Archives by viewing an orientation video. Helpful docents will guide you through the maze of records. Printed handouts are also helpful.

Or begin with a look at The Genealogy Page on their web site, which will walk you through their vast holdings.

A calendar of events at the National Archives offers many lectures and workshops on how to use all kinds of records. Among them: half-day genealogy workshops ($15 fee) such as Beginning Genealogical Research; Preserving your Family’s Papers and Documents. On the web at or free by writing: NCOM, 8601 Adelphi Rd. College Park, Md. 20740 • 202 501-6694.

Federal census records preserved at the Archives are one of the most comprehensive record sources available to family researchers. Records for some states date back to 1790 and are generally available for each decade from 1850 to 1920 (except 1890 records, which were destroyed by fire). For privacy reasons, census records are closed for 72 years; the 1930 census records will open in 2002.

Questions varied for each census, but most censuses give the following: Names and relationship of each person in a household, age, sex, color or race, place of birth, birthplace of parents&Mac226; birth date, year of immigration, naturalization status, occupation and whether blind or deaf.

You’ll also find information about education (whether a person could read or write and whether they attended school in census year); place of dwelling (owned or rented); and whether a survivor of Union or Confederate Army or Navy.

My father always said his side of the family was Dutch. Yet the first census record I looked at quickly corrected the error. In the census record of 1860, I found my dad’s grandpa Faunce had been born “on the sea” in 1848 of German parents. No records exist of the mother afterwards, making me wonder if she died of childbirth on a ship coming to America. His name was spelled Pfantze until around 1880, when some records began showing the spelling I use today.

Military records include Civil War, War of 1812, Spanish-American War, World War II. Military pension claims are rich in detail and often include personal affidavits by claimants, relatives, and friends, signed or marked with “x” as signature.

Immigration records, popularly called ‘ship passenger arrival records,’ give evidence of a person’s arrival in the U.S. as well as their foreign birthplace

No ship passenger records exist before 1820, but information about a great-great-great-great-grandfather, Thomas Barr, came to light through records of naturalization, the process by which an alien becomes an American citizen. A voluntary act, naturalization is not required. These records showed my great-great-great-great-grandfather left Londonderry Ireland and arrived at the port of Alexandria, Va., in 1818.

Thomas Barr married a Virginian and quickly settled in Washington, D.C., near the Navy Yard. He was a blacksmith by trade.

I learned his trade from 1830 census records. I tracked down his marriage at a city source, the Marriage Bureau in Washington, D.C.

Much of what you’ll read at the National Archives is microfilmed. But sometimes — for military records, for example — you’ll work your way to original records, such as muster rolls that give the height, weight and complexion of your ancestor.

Original documents delivered to special reading rooms are kept under tight security. Pens, purses, brief cases or coats must be kept in lockers outside. Records often arrive on a wooden cart that thumps across marble floor, signaling their arrival. Your heart starts pounding when you hear that wooden cart come down the hall. You’ve searched the indices, searched the records, requested them — and now you’re about to hold them in your hands.

• Library of Congress

— Local History and Genealogy Room Thomas Jefferson Building, Ground Floor • 202/707-6400 •

The Local History and Genealogy Reading Room is one of the world’s premier collections of U.S. and foreign genealogical and local historical publications. The library’s genealogy collection began as early as 1815 when Thomas Jefferson’s library was acquired to begin the national library. Extensive holdings of published family histories as well as a vast collection of local history and genealogy aids are shelved by state and county.

At the Library of Congress, I found city directories — which are like our phone books today but listing residences and occupations — that helped me trace the yearly whereabouts of my Washington ancestors and gave me insight to my Grandfather Pfantze’s versatility. In a string of consecutive years, he was a butcher, a baker, a broom maker, a cook and driver of horse-drawn trolleys.

— Library of Congress: Microform Reading Room: Thomas Jefferson Building, 2nd floor •

Here family and local U.S. histories are filmed for preservation. You’ll find microfiche and microfilmed city directories for most major cities, generally available from 1850 to 1930s.

State Sources

• Office of Vital Records:
4201 Patterson Avenue, P.O. Box 68760, Baltimore, Md. 21215 • 800/832-3277. For full details and to verify current fees call, 410/764-3038 for a recorded message.

Birth, death and marriages records dating from 1898 can be retrieved from the Division of Vital Records from the state in which the event occurred. For Maryland, copies of birth, death and marriage records cost $6.

My great-great-great-great grandfather Thomas Barr lived until the ripe age of 98. He died in 1882, followed three days later by his wife, Chloe.

I learned of both their ends from death certificates retrieved from Washington D.C. Vital Records office. Before I was done, I spent hundreds of dollars on birth, marriage and death records.

• The Maryland State Archives: 350 Rowe Blvd., Annapolis, Md., 21401 • 800/235-4045 • www.maryland

The Archives is a repository for state government records and much more. Court, probate, property, military, birth, death and divorce, naturalization, census, adoption papers, tax lists, maps and newspapers, with finding aids and indexes are available to the family history researcher.

In scope this is a state-sized version of the National Archives where you can find not only government records dating back five centuries but also collections of records and papers that have to do with individuals personally. For example, photographer Marion E. Warren’s entire photo library — spanning five decades of life in Maryland plus his historical collection — is deposited and available to researchers at the Archives.

It’s a good idea to use the web page to get oriented. From the home page, choose Reference and Research, then Finding Aids.

You can research the Archives in person or on the web, and you make phone or fax requests to have documents sent to you. There is a charge for copies. You can also use the Archives to borrow sources from other locations.

County and Local Sources

• Register of Wills: For Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, Calvert Street in Downtown Annapolis: 410/222-1430.

Every city or county courthouse has such a department, where wills are originally filed and archived. You can also find wills in many state archives.

The last will and testament of my great-grandmother Agatha Faunce proved to me her Germanic thriftiness and efficiency. But an earlier property record proved a woman’s virtues were one thing and their property rights quite another. Property owned by her deceased first husband became the property of her second husband. She, of course, was “chattel.”

In 1875, the good man she married second had deeded the property to her “in consideration of the mutual love and affection which he bears toward his wife,” a magnanimous gesture for the times.

• Your public library may have “how to” books on genealogical research. Here are several books recommended by the National Archives:

— Unpuzzling Your Past: A Basic Guide to Genealogy by Emily Croom. Betterway Books: 1995.

— Shaking Your Family Tree by Ralph Crandall. Yankee Publishing: 1986.

— How to Climb Your Family Tree by Harriet Stryker-Rodda. Genealogical Publishing Co., Baltimore, Md.: 1993

• Churches and cemeteries are great sources, of information about family members in their congregations. St. Peter’s Catholic Church on Capitol Hill gave me many of my records.

• Genealogical societies in your state or where your ancestors lived hold many records that might help you. They might also be able to direct you to professional genealogists who can be hired to research your family history. Locate them in The Genealogist’s Address Book (Genealogical Publishing: 1995), often available at local libraries.

Joining a historical society in your region of interest is a good way to learn about the times — and places — in which your ancestors lived. Exhibits, lectures and social events as well as special access to records and the acquaintance of other knowledgeable researchers are all part of membership.
Other Sources

The D.C. area is rich in several other special resource centers. Among them:

• Family History Libraries of the Church of the Latter Day Saints: Washington D.C. Temple Family History Center, 10000 Stoneybrook Drive, Kensington, Md. 20895 • 301/587-0042.

Mormons must research their family history, so the church has extensive holdings of worldwide records. It has the largest genealogy library in the U.S., including microfilmed copies of census records. Family History Centers give individuals in areas distant from Salt Lake City access to the vast collection of the Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Among the holdings are International Genealogical Index, Parish and Vital Records Listings and Family Registry.
• Daughters of the American Revolution: Near the White House at 17th and C Streets, N.W. Washington, D.C. • 202/628-1776.

Daughters of the American Revolution hold genealogical records for every state, accumulated by the society over nearly a century and often hand-copied or typed by DAR members. Materials include state, county and local histories • census records • tax records • published vital records • cemetery records • family histories • family Bible records • biographies • Patriot Index.

• The National Genealogical Society, Arlington, Va. •

• Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society •

• World Wide Web: The web gives our generation a unique tool. It can be a good way of locating individuals who share your family name and who may have a web page on their research. You choose a search engine and plug in names, like Faunce, or subjects, like genealogy.
There is a huge amount of material commercially available. You choose from an index and pay for what you order, on paper or microfilm roles.
A couple of helpful addresses:

Family Tree Maker’s Genealogy Site:

You’ll find forms to fill out while doing research with census records.


Researching my family history had rich rewards, broadening my knowledge of ways and times and places no longer here or vastly changed. The search brought me to know about people who are a part of me and without whom I would not be here yet would have never otherwise ‘met.’

My search — and yours — will make such people live on, not in aging records that don’t see the light of day, but in the living memories of the present and future.
Roots journeys are voyages of grand discovery.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly