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Group effort: Library meeting helps novices with family history search

Kristin Noell displays an 1880s census document
Kristin Noell, adult services librarian at Samuels Public Library in Front Royal, displays an 1880s census document on a computer screen that lists her great-great-grandfather John Noell when he was 10 and living in Bedford County. Noell located the information on Ancestry.com. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

History books
History books are also used for Civil War records research in the Virginia History Room at the library. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

By Linwood Outlaw III - loutlaw@nvdaily.com

FRONT ROYAL -- Ever since she was a teenager, Juanita Atwood longed to embark on a seemingly endless scavenger hunt in search of new and revealing facts about her family history.

Years later, Atwood's curiosity about her roots hasn't wavered. In fact, it's a fascination she now shares with her husband, Jim.

"It's been a love of mine. It's just a real neat hobby," Atwood said. "I've been working on my family's genealogy and my husband's for many years. I collected data when I was a teenager about my own, and didn't do a whole lot in terms of real genealogy work until I was an adult. My husband's family had done sort of the same thing. His mother had worked on theirs. So, we had a shared interest when we met."

Atwood, 53, knows it can be a little difficult for beginners to figure out how to start piecing together their family tree. She hopes a club that she has volunteered to help coordinate at Samuels Public Library will at least get amateur genealogists moving in the right direction. A wealth of information about their family history could be a mouse click away.

The Genealogy Club meets in the computer room of the library at 330 E. Criser Road for two hours on the first Saturday of each month, with members exchanging ideas and conducting their own research in an informal setting.

"Every family tree is like a mystery novel that you're trying to solve," Atwood said. "You take the facts that you find, and you try to unravel the rest of the story."

The club, which began meeting at the library about a year ago, is open to both beginners and experienced genealogists. People of a variety of ages have participated in the club, Atwood said, though it tends to draw mostly middle-aged and senior citizens who have more free time. The club primarily focuses on helping residents learn how to search information about their roots through online databases, particularly the more commonly used Ancestry.com website.

Ancestry.com, which boasts being the world's largest online resource for family history documents, contains thousands of records people can use to enhance their search, such as census, immigration, military, financial, marriage, birth and death records. Newspaper articles and photos are also available on the website to help yield even more insight for genealogists. Most of the historical records on Ancestry.com are from 1790 to 1930.

To begin their search, people enter basic information they know into an online family tree, like first and last names, birth dates, and places of birth. People are also encouraged to ask their relatives for any missing details that are pertinent to their inquiries. In short, the more information one can provide, the more names and facts it will spawn. From there, people can click on hints in their tree to read information about their ancestors and continue probing through online record collections to find more clues to add to their tree.

"I always tell people, 'when you're starting out, start with a generation close to you,'" Atwood said. "If you're older, you might start with your parents. If you're a little younger, you might want to start with your grandparents. You start with a generation that's rather close [to] you, and then you try to work backwards in time in order to make sure you can follow the trail back. There's a lot of misinformation online that you have to work to prove."

Online searches are a valuable tool for uncovering information about your roots, but the process doesn't end there, Atwood said.

"They are not the end all," Atwood said of Internet databases. "Most of us that have done genealogy realize there are times you have to write to, say, a county courthouse for records to be copied or sent, or even to travel to the location to do some research in the area that you're researching. ... There's other things that they have to do if they want to truly fill in their tree as much as they can."

Louise Sumrall, 69, hasn't had a ton of luck digging up intriguing facts about her roots, but she's still plugging away. Sumrall, who is retired, said she has participated in the Genealogy Club since the group held its first monthly meeting last year. The club has been helpful, Sumrall said, but the search process can be challenging. "A lot of us have brick walls. Most of us have a brick wall," Sumrall said.

Those brick walls, Sumrall said, may consist of factors such as census records that were destroyed, or a general lack of information about one's ancestors because they weren't prominent figures. So far, Sumrall hasn't learned much about her ancestors outside of some information about general laborers and farmers. "But on the other hand, I haven't found too many criminals yet, either," Sumrall quipped.

Kristen Noell, Samuels' adult services and reference librarian, also has started genealogy research into her roots. "I've used it, actually, to trace my father's family back into the 1700s or so," Noell said. "My mother's family has been a little more challenging because she has a very common name. So, finding people [on her side of the family] is hard."

Recently, Noell discovered that her grandfather's grandfather was in the Civil War. Through her search, she was able to find his pension application. "I was able to share that with my grandfather, who's 93. He thought that was pretty neat," Noell said.

Whether it's done to establish genealogy to join a surname organization or to know more about ancestors who served in a war, learning about your family history is a fun journey, Atwood said. The keys to a successful genealogy search, she said, are dedication and attention to detail.

"You have to take on the attitude that not everything will necessarily come easy, because many times it's how you search for something as to whether you get the answer you're hoping for," Atwood said. "If you don't put in the right words to search by, the right names to search by, you may not get the person that you're trying to find."

The Genealogy Club meets the first Saturday of every month from 1 to 3 p.m. in the computer room at Samuels Public Library. The club will meet again on Saturday. For more information about the club, call 635-3153.


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