Genealogy is human stories, not just names and dates

News editor

Rosalie Schmidtberger of Marion has been studying her family’s history and genealogy for more than 25 years, and she thinks most people misunderstand what genealogy is about.

“People have the wrong idea,” she said Monday. “They think it’s just names and dates. It isn’t.”

It is about more than finding out the names of ancestors, she said. It’s about getting to know who they were and learning their stories. She told the story of a great-grandmother who homesteaded in 1879 in Osborne County as a single woman. To meet the provisions of the Homestead Act of 1862, she had to improve the land and live on it for five years, including building a home.

She has also learned of a great-grandfather, Harrison Naylor, who owned a newspaper in Lucas. He also played the futures markets and sold real estate and insurance.

“He was just into everything,” she said.

Ruth Herbel, another avid family historian, learned about her great-great-great-great-grandfather, John B. Huitt, who was the first Dallas County (Texas) sheriff, elected in 1846. When Dallas County elected its first woman sheriff in 2005, Herbel and her sister, Geri Box of Norman, Okla., were invited to Dallas for the swearing-in.

People shouldn’t mistake genealogy for “ancestor worship,” though, Schmidtberger said. Genealogy is about the stories of people, and not every story has a happy ending. She recounted the story of a shivaree — essentially a raucous surprise wedding reception — that ended with a 19-year-old man accidentally shooting and killing his mother with a shotgun as he was reloading it between celebratory gunshots.

Sometimes family history research can have practical benefits today, Herbel said. With her research, she was able to help a distant cousin prove her Cherokee heritage to get on the Cherokee roll for Alabama so she could market her artwork as Cherokee art.

Passion for history

Schmidtberger said an uncle got her interested in genealogy after he married a Mormon woman — Mormons take a strong interest in family history, and the Family History Library in Salt Lake City is one of the best resources for research. Schmidtberger took a series of classes about genealogy at the Wichita Public Library, and she was hooked.

“Then I was off and running,” she said. “I have done research in 11 states.”

She said she visits the Marion City Library about four times a week for two hours each time to research online. She chooses not to have Internet access at home.

“I’m not online, because I could not leave it alone,” she said.

Herbel’s genealogy interest started with a trip to Texas with family to research her great-great-grandfather. They went to courthouses, libraries, and historical museums. Soon enough, she found herself devoting long hours to research.

“I would spend hours in the evening writing to courthouses,” she said.

It took a long time and a lot of work to solve a family mystery for her husband’s family, Herbel said. His grandparents had 17 children, 15 of whom lived to adulthood, but nobody knew where one of the two who died as children was buried because they had moved around a lot.

Eventually she found in Lutheran church records that the missing aunt was buried in Sylvan Grove, but she couldn’t find the actual grave site. With help from the cemetery sexton, she was able to find it — the trouble was that the city and Lutheran cemeteries ran together, so she started from the wrong point.

“We all have cemetery stories,” Schmidtberger added.

When Bonnie Vinduska retired, she wanted to do things she hadn’t had time for while she was working full time, and she thought of her mother telling her about family moving to Oklahoma during the land rush and other pieces of history.

“You don’t realize the really interesting things you might find if you go looking,” Vinduska said. “It’s a real interesting hobby, but it can kind of consume you.”

Research

The Internet, search engines, and web sites devoted to genealogy have made research much faster and easier. There isn’t nearly as much time spent rifling through court records or reading microfiche and making copies.

“We got lots of dollars invested before computers came along,” Herbel said.

Schmidtberger said she had a $48 bill for making copies at a single courthouse on one of her trips out of state.

In addition to the Internet, and court records, old newspapers are a good source for genealogy research, thanks to obituaries, birth and marriage announcements, and family reunion recaps listing everyone who attended, Schmidtberger said.

As good as some records can be, many have been destroyed by fire, including most of the 1890 census records, which burned in 1921. Many pre-Civil War records in the South also were destroyed.

“You would be amazed how many courthouses were burned,” Herbel said.

Those gaps can make research difficult.

“I have two people that I’ve hit like stone walls,” Vinduska said. “I can’t find back any further.”

Not everything online can be trusted, either, and both Herbel and Schmidtberger said they have found errors online, so they always try to match information to its source.

Tall tales

Vinduska said some of her ancestors she has learned of are like characters out of folklore. Her great-great-great grandfather, David Kirby, was a neighbor of Daniel Boone’s in Kentucky and was a Baptist preacher, fiddle maker and player, and a cooper.

He had 26 children and outlived three wives, and he claimed that as a young man he could carry a deer in his teeth up a tree to keep it away from bears. Vinduska said she has found evidence of everything except his claim about carrying a deer in his teeth.

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