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Odd Wisconsin Archive

A Little Bit of Family History History

Yesterday's New York Times ran a story about the difference online resources have made to genealogists. Called "Latest Genealogy Tools Create a Need to Know," it contains several first-hand reports of how people investigate their pasts using and other Web sources. It's interesting, therefore, to look at how family history research used to be done.

"In a modest home at DePere," the Madison Democrat reported on Aug. 9, 1918, "has been compiled probably the most complete and extended genealogy ever emanating in all Wisconsin." The article goes on to describe the research of Mrs. Ermina Newton Leonard into her Newton forebears.

Like many of today's visitors to the Society, she had "assiduously devoted herself to this great work" for 30 years, accumulating documents that totaled "nearly 800 large pages of small, compact type." Mrs. Leonard had, however, reached the point when "the burden of increasing years" prohibited her from continuing, and with the reporter looked back on the joys of genealogy.

Like one of the genealogists quoted in yesterday's Times, she felt that "the labor of correspondence has been the means of forming a large circle of pleasant acquaintances, cousins we call ourselves." Although the greatest pleasure in doing genealogy is often said to be the joy of unlocking mysteries, one of its most long-lasting satisfactions comes from being welcomed into a community of generous, like-minded peers.

This morning some of our staff are just getting back from a gathering of the genealogical tribes, the annual conference of the Federated Genealogical Societies' in Fort Wayne, Indiana -- a five-day event with more than 200 sessions. As one of the nation's leading genealogical research institutions, we try to be visible, either at the podium or in the exhibitors' hall, on major occasions such as this.

Mrs. Leonard's work and collection is described here. She was the last of her line, and we don't know what became of her records and documents. We do know, however, that genealogy shows no sign of decreasing in popularity or relevance. Once exclusively the domain of dedicated eccentrics like Mrs. Leonard (and the Society's first librarian, Daniel Durrie), genealogy became extremely popular 30 years ago, during the American Revolution bicentennial, as millions of people tried to discover their own personal connection to the Founding Fathers.

Fewer researchers may care about unearthing Mayflower ancestors now than in Mrs. Leonard's day, but almost everyone still eventually wonders where their own family came from and how it participated in the stories they learned in history class. "What makes me American?" may actually be the unspoken question that underlies many visits to libraries and archives.

Try your hand at a little Wisconsin genealogy here, where you can also learn more about how to uncover your family's roots. We've got several workshops and other programs lined up for fall; check them out here.

:: Posted in Odd Lives on August 19, 2007

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