A family’s history may be interesting, but dig a little deeper
and things can get murky. That’s what amateur researcher Sue Boyer
discovered as she sifted through census records.
People make up stories to cover themselves,
said Boyer, whose interest in family history was sparked when
her great-grandmother’s youngest sister wrote a family tell-all and
mailed a copy to Boyer’s home.
A family’s history may be interesting, but dig a little deeper and things can get murky. That’s what amateur researcher Sue Boyer discovered as she sifted through census records.
“People make up stories to cover themselves,” said Boyer, whose interest in family history was sparked when her great-grandmother’s youngest sister wrote a family tell-all and mailed a copy to Boyer’s home.
In her attempts to divine the truth, Boyer indeed discovered that her grandfather and great-great uncle had been in prison together at the time of her mother’s birth. It was right there in the census records in black and white.
Today, Boyer catalogues the exploits of other South Valley residents, or at least their ancestors, as Webmaster of the San Benito County page of the U.S. GenWeb project, a free online research index created on a county by county basis.
She’s authored a book as well, titled “Marriage Records of San Benito County,” which bears complete listings of all weddings performed in the county between the county’s inception and June 20, 1907 (1,604 in all) and partial listings of the ceremonies conducted between June 22, 1907 and 1924.
“One of the most wonderful things about San Benito County is that they have kept all of their records,” said Boyer. “Most places destroy them after 70 years, but you can go in and ask for your great-great-grandparents’ marriage license or your great-grandfather’s birth certificate. The actual piece of paper is right there. You can hold it in your hand.”
Many enduring names in the South Valley – Breen, Hawkins, Hill, Sanchez – have been in the area for generations, dating back to the days of Spanish land grants.
Their history is at once rich and common, charming and sordid. A great deal of it is accessible through county courthouses, historical societies and the U.S. GenWeb project.
“There are wonderful stories of people here in town,” said San Benito County Historical Society docent Earlene McCabe. “Some of them you can tell, and some of them you tell only to a good friend. It used to be that you could listen to somebody put someone down, but you kept your mouth shut. You never agreed because everyone was so connected.”
But as people move generations away from their forbearers, genealogical research is on the rise.
In fact, it’s the second-most popular hobby in the United States behind only gardening, according to Kory Meyerink, co-owner and vice president of development for ProGenealogists, a fee-based genealogical search service based in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Meyerink’s firm employs researchers and translators around the globe who are able to compile family histories when at-home researchers run out of time, patience or language skills.
His researchers will sketch a brief family timeline or follow ancestral lines back as far as records will go, but, he said, don’t be expecting a princess to pop up in the line.
“There are a lot of family stories about descending from royalty, but most of the time those claims are not validated with proper research,” said Meyerink. “For the most part, the upper class families in Europe had no reason to come to America. They had it pretty good there.
“Just as many people if not more fall into the trap (of mistakenly linking their family to a famous lineage) because of incomplete research in the past. They know their ancestor who came here, so they find someone with the same name and they link them up without any connection.”
When matching names from ship’s logs or other manifests, researchers should look for not only the name of the passenger, but also date-specific information, like birth or marriage, as a means of authenticating the link, said Meyerink.
Getting to such information used to require long trips to far-flung libraries filled with rolls of microfiche or paid subscription to a research index, but an increasing number of free Web sites have appeared as the Internet has become more and more ubiquitous.
When the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation first opened its database of passenger manifests and ships photos to the public in 2001, the site registered more than 27,000 hits per second.
More than 40 percent of Americans can trace their ancestry to someone who immigrated through the port, and the site has registered more than 7 billion hits in the last four years, according to foundation spokeswoman Peg Zitko.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also maintains an extensive network of genealogical information through its Family History Centers program.
In total, there are more than 2 million rolls of microfiche-stored documents available for rent from the center’s Salt Lake City headquarters, but many are parceled out to centers around the world. The San Jose branch has 8,000 rolls on long-term loan.
Patrons of the centers don’t need to be Mormon in order to access the documents, which are provided for viewing free of charge.
Locations also offer DSL access to thousands of genealogical Web sites on the Internet, both subscription-based and free, according to Lesly Klippel, patron services director of the San Jose branch.
All patrons need to get started is the name and birth date of a relative born before 1930, the most recent U.S. census available for public view, said Klippel, whose branch serves 235 people a month.
Many experts recommend speaking with older relatives as a way to get started, but if that resource is not available, Boyer suggested starting with burial permits.
“While the state did close access to birth and death certificates, you can view burial permits, which have all the same information as a death certificate, and have been required by the state since 1910,” said Boyer. “After that, just keep digging. I’m all the way back to 1614.”