Who Are You? Amateur genealogists research family histories

Genealogist Beverly Vessa clipped old news stories and photographs and used sticky notes to label family photos as she researched her ancestry.

She’s a descendant of Captain William Bradford, an Englishman who came to America on the Mayflower and served as governor of the Plymouth Colony in the 1600s. And in the 1870s, one of her distant relatives dueled against Old West lawman Wyatt Earp.
These are just some of the discoveries Karen Abel made when she began researching her family history. Now a self-taught genealogist, the retired acupuncturist and Morgan Hill resident began her journey back in time with a trip to Austria in 1999 to research her great-grandfather.
“That’s what got me going with genealogy,” Abel said.
For many people, genealogy—the study of families and tracing of lineages and history—can provide a sense of identity. Discovering tales of hardship, endurance and achievement can establish a deeper connection between families separated by generations. Abel agreed that everyone has different reasons for researching their family history.
“For me, it was a fascination of learning about my background,” she said. “Once you get started, it’s addictive, and I love to delve into things.”
Television shows such as TLC’s “Who Do You Think You Are” and multiple websites devoted to genealogy have helped spur the popularity of genealogy in recent years. Genealogyintime.com, a free website and online magazine, estimates that genealogy websites combined attracted more than 100-million users so far this year. The website ranked the many sites, with Ancestry.com coming in at the top with two million paid subscribers. Some free genealogy sites, such as Familysearch.org, rootsweb.com and USgenweb.com also made the list.
While websites have their value, Abel encourages amateur genealogists to check out local community resources, such as the San Jose Family History Center and Santa Clara County libraries. She volunteers at the history center and recently taught a series of free genealogy classes at the Gilroy and Morgan Hill libraries. The classes taught beginners how to get started with research, search the internet, use census records, organize data and use software programs and databases like the one available through ancestry.com.
Retired Morgan Hill librarian Beverly Vessa started on her own genealogy path when the library installed the database in 2000. “That triggered my interest when I had to learn to use it to teach patrons,” Vessa said.
Her interest was further piqued when she received a copy of her great-grandmother’s birth certificate and saw names on it she didn’t recognize. So far she has traced 10 to 15 family lines, including her parents, husband and in-laws.
“As you get older, you’re more curious about the history of your own family, and now my children are interested in what I find,” she said.
Along the way, Vessa discovered her 10th great-grandfather, John Elderkin, a carpenter and engineer, designed the “Waldo” chair in the 1600s, the oldest chair built in the United States. She also learned her daughter-in-law may be related to President Barack Obama 10 generations back.
As someone with years of experience, Vessa said the first step people should take when they start their genealogy journey is to gather every piece of information they have on hand starting with themselves.
“From your birth and marriage certificates and those of your parents and grandparents, plus death certificates and photos, there is a wealth of information on them you may not have noticed before,” she said.
Vessa also suggests beginning the search by focusing on a single individual or family line and to look for information beyond the internet. As it urns out, the world wide web is not quite so wide when it comes to ancestry research, according to Vessa.
“What is found on the internet is a drop in the bucket compared to libraries,” said Vessa, noting that family history centers can also be valuable resources.
“It’s where I first started my research and their help was invaluable.”
Santa Clara County Historical and Genealogical Society is another local source for ancestry records. Located in the Santa Clara Central Park Library in San Jose, the society started in 1957 and currently has about 300 members. But membership is not required to use their resources.
Trina Gentry, program chairwoman, became involved with the society in 1999 and took classes led by the society to get started.
“I wanted to honor my family and have a record,” said Gentry, who discovered one of her ancestors was a Revolutionary War patriot. The society has a large international collection, as well as information from the national archives and the state of California. It also offers beginner genealogy classes, which are so popular a waiting list had to be created.
As a history detective, Gentry can’t say enough good things about genealogy and the society.
“We want to help people find and preserve their family stories,” she said. “That’s extremely important.”
These local resources can help amateur genealogists.
Morgan Hill Library
660 West Main Ave.
(408) 779-3196
Gilroy Library
350 W. Sixth Street
(408) 842-8207
Santa Clara County Historical & Genealogical Society
Santa Clara Central Park Library
2635 Homestead Road, San Jose
Hollister California Family History Center
1670 Cinega Road, Hollister
(831) 637-4917
San Jose California Family History Center
4977 San Felipe Road, San Jose
(408) 274-8592.