Tracing your family's roots begins at home

By Rozella Hardin

STAR STAFF
rhardin@starhq.com

   Tracing family histories isn't as daunting as it used to be. Technology that our forebears could not have imagined has brought their histories within fairly easy reach for many families.
   Before you turn to the Internet or library, most genealogical how-to-guidebooks and Web sites advise doing some basic homework.
   Gather what hard information you have on hand and spread word of your search throughout your family. The work someone else may have done, as well as that bundle of papers in someone's attic, may just save you a lot of time. Stories told within your family may also provide valuable clues.
   Take a second look at old family photographs. They are more than images of the faces of your forebears. They may hold valuable clues. Background details may point to a specific city or county. The insignia on military uniforms may help lead you to service records.
   Here in Elizabethton, archives of local newspapers, historical society collections and census records found at the local library can help in tracing ancestors in this area.
   Leonard Whitehead, who has been pursuing his "roots" for about a year, has spent some time at the local library tracing family obituaries through old editions of the Elizabethton STAR on microfilm. "I've found that a good place to look, and I've done a lot of cemetery crawling," Whitehead said. "I've hit about every cemetery in the county," he noted.
   While looking through the old newspapers, Whitehead said he had found some most interesting stories and articles as he researched his family -- the Whiteheads, Wards, and Pierces (also spelled Pearce.)
   "I've been through records at the courthouse, did some online research, and talked to a lot of relatives," he shared.
   "It (genealogy) has become my full-time hobby along with raising tomatoes since I retired in March 2000, and moved back to Hampton from Fairfax, Va.," Whitehead said.
   Another good source of information if your family entered the United States between 1892 and 1924 at the Port of New York, which is where most European immigrants arrived, chances are good that their immigration records are held at Ellis Island. That now means that those records are viewable from your home computer. The Ellis Island site contains not only lists of immigrants and their arrival information, but also photos of actual ships' manifests and the like.
   For African-American families, genealogists have long presented a problem. Prior to 1870, African-Americans were not included in national census figures, so most family trees stopped at that date. Locally, the Cedar Grove Foundation has uncovered much history about African-Americans in Elizabethton and East Tennessee and is willing to share it.
   The mother lode of genealogical information is housed in the Family History Library of the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City. This repository of information is the largest such collection in the world and is still growing.
   Genealogical information is an important facet of the Mormon faith, whereby living members of the church can stand proxy for ancestors in order to have them posthumously baptized.
   The Mormon Church has been gathering and archiving genealogical information since 1894. They share the information with non-members both through the library in Salt Lake City and through satellite offices around the world.
   Mormon church records include birth and death records from many countries; church records from Scotland; birth, death and marriage records from Ireland; American Social Security death indexes; and so on.
   Since 1999 the Mormon Church's Family History Library has made some records accessible via the Web. The church reports some 8 million hits per day at the site.
   The courthouse is also a good source of information, especially when it comes to looking for old deeds, the chartering of businesses, wills, estate records and marriage licenses.
   Also, those looking for a little more adventure, like Whitehead, may comb local cemeteries, looking for family names and dates.
   Carter County records are also available on the TN GenWeb site at www.tngenweb.org/Carter/.
   Visitors to the site can either post or view a query. The site is maintained by Jackie and Dawn Peters, former Carter County residents, who now live in Jonesborough.
   Each month on the first Thursday at the Elizabethton/Carter County Public Library volunteers are available at evening sessions to assist in family history searches. More information on the sessions and materials available at the library for genealogy research can be obtained by calling the library at 547-6330.