All in the family

Genealogy research unlocks the past -- and may help you learn something about yourself


It's been 30 years since Alex Haley wrote Roots, the story of his search for his family's history that inspired a generation of Americans to research their own genealogy.

According to the National Genealogical Society, more than 60 percent of Americans are interested in learning about their ancestry.

Agnes Callum, a local historian and genealogist, believes she knows why: "I think they are looking for themselves."

Callum began the search for her own family history five years before Alex Haley's book was published, when as a student at Morgan State University, she was assigned to write a paper on St. Mary's County. In her research, she came across the names of family members, sparking a 35-year quest to learn about her roots.

Ann Horvath of Sykesville has been researching her family tree even longer. Her search began about 40 years ago, when as a young woman she was given some family dishes, photographs and other heirlooms. "I wondered who these women were who had saved all these wonderful things."

She asked her father and older relatives about what they could remember of their parents and grandparents, and slowly began tracing her family history in Maryland and Tennessee.

Horvath, president of the Carroll County Genealogical Society, said she loves the research and uncovering long-forgotten bits of information. "It's finding one more thing, the challenge," she said.

She also is fascinated by the genetic traits she and her family members share. She keeps pictures of many of her ancestors displayed in a cabinet and can see the resemblance in their noses and eyes.

This same curiosity about family traits also prompted Callum to want to research her family's history. She said she always wanted to know why she seemed different from her 11 brothers and sisters. She wondered if she might be more like a distant ancestor than her siblings.

Callum's research took her to England and Ghana. She pored through records at the National Archives, the Maryland Historical Society, the Maryland Archives and the Enoch Pratt Free Library. At one time, she and a nephew recorded the inscriptions on 3,000 tombstones at a cemetery in Glen Burnie where family members are buried. She even had her DNA tested to determine where her people came from.

"It told me what I already knew - that I'm black," she says, jokingly.

Today the Internet makes it easy for people interested in their family's roots to see historical documents, exchange information with other researchers and locate genealogies others have already written.

Even after 40 years of research, Horvath said she is learning new things about her family as more material is posted on the Internet. Just a couple of weeks ago, she came across online records of a cemetery in Tennessee where family members are buried.

But the Internet has created a wealth of misinformation, too, says Jeff Korman, manager of the Maryland Department at the Pratt Library.

Some sites offer to research family histories for high fees and then provide only the most basic information. In other cases, sloppy genealogists have posted their work on the Internet without proper sourcing, perpetuating falsehoods.

If you're interested in family history, the place to begin is not with the computer, but with yourself and your family, Horvath, Callum and Korman say.

Write down all that you know about your parents, grandparents, etc. - their names, birth dates, marriages, children, etc. Locate family Bibles, diaries, letters and awards. Interview family members who might be able to fill in the gaps.

"Don't overlook anything," Korman says. "You fit it all together like a jigsaw puzzle."

The second rule is to be skeptical of everything - even the memories of your family members. Try to verify their memories with official documents.

Federal census records are one of the best sources to begin with if you know your ancestors back to 1930, which is the most recent year the census is available for public perusal. The government's 10-year accounting of the population reveals the names of people in a household, their ages, education, jobs and other critical pieces of information. Callum traced her ancestors to 1870, the first census after the Civil War that accounted for the freed slaves. But even the federal record can be wrong. Callum said her family's name is spelled at least two different ways in the census records.

While white researchers can depend on immigration records, land records and wills to help trace their history, descendants of slaves have a more difficult job. Still, documents do exist, including slave statistics and probate records. Callum says she eventually found some of her slave ancestors by reading St. Mary's County wills and finding that her enslaved ancestors had been left to a woman after her husband died.

Eventually Callum was able to trace her family to an Irish servant who married a black slave in the 1680s.

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