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Digging up roots

By: Michelle Miller, Journal News Editor
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Audrey Potter Meyers is stitching together her family history. The 77-year-old of Auburn is searching for the scraps of thread and fabric that make up her family tapestry. Considering her other hobby is quilting, the analogy works for Meyers and thousands of other people who are hobby genealogists. It consumes all your time, Meyers said, almost like a warning. But it's never boring and it never ends. You're never finished. According to a survey last year by the family history researching Web site Ancestry.com, 78 percent of Americans say they are interested in learning more about their family history. Yet only half of Americans have ever researched their family history. Meyers said she has always been interested in family history, and started asking questions of her living relatives early. In 1960, fortunately I asked my grandfather things about his siblings and births, she said. But not nearly as much as I should have asked. Now, she has to search through census records, historical documents and ship manifests to find clues to her past. One of her more interesting finds was discovering how her grandparents met. While browsing records from the 1900 census in North Dakota, she discovered her paternal grandmother and grandfather lived three houses away from each other. The tidbit of information colors in her grandparent's history even more. She was also able to connect with a double cousin from Canada after putting a query on a Web site. Five year after posting her query, Meyers' distant cousin responded. Meyers met the cousin, who showed her a picture of Meyers with her two cousins and grandmother from when she was 12. But with all the information she's amassed, it can be hard to keep it organized. (Organization) is one of the biggest challenges, Meyers said. You have to find out what works for you. Meyers also uses Web sites like Ancestry.com and fellow family genealogy buffs to further her research. She even has a business card she passes out with the surnames she is researching: Allan, Lamont, Manson, Potter, Salzgeber, Spraker, Sprecher and Yager. But people looking into their past don't have to go it alone. Meyers says in addition to the Internet, locals have many resources when it comes to finding those hidden branches of the family tree. One of those is the Placer County Genealogical Society. The Placer County Genealogical Society has around 200 members and holds evening meetings and day study groups once a month. It also has a newsletter and Web site (http://pcgs.pcgenes.com/), which contains databases and other useful information. The Internet has made genealogy research a lot easier, but groups that offer help and support remain valuable to family history seekers, said Barbara Leak, past president of the genealogical society. Since this information has been on the Internet, I've seen less people in libraries, but the interest is out there, she said. But there is so much out there, people fumble around. A great place to start might be the society's free seminar on beginning genealogy this Saturday. Attendees will learn how to start their family tree, including how to research on the Internet, how to organize your search and how to use family group sheets and genealogy software. Leak is a multi-generation Auburnite and traces her first Auburn ancestors to two sets of great-great-grandparents who came from Germany in 1859 through the isthmus in Panama. Another group of ancestors set out by wagon from Iowa in 1890. I think a lot of people get into this when they retire. Their parents' generation is gone and they're losing a connection with their family, Leak said. But getting into genealogy helps them reconnect. The documents these hobby researchers find help piece together a story, sometimes quite a colorful one. Leak likes to tell the story of a great-great-great-great-grandmother in Virginia who outlived her third husband. The deed for her property bequeathed her land assets to her children. The husband, who had a reputation for drinking, felt he was duped into signing this deed, so he sued her estate. There's all these depositions from people stating, ˜Yes, he's quite a drunkard and if he was drunk, he probably didn't know what he was signing,' Leak said. Sometimes the real stories are better than the ones you think you know. The Auburn Family History Center is another resource locals can use. The center, inside the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints at 1255 Bell Road in Auburn, has access to the granddaddy of all genealogy libraries ” the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Founded in 1894 to gather genealogical records and assist members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with their family history research, the library is the largest of its kind in the world and is visited by 1,900 members of the public each day. Auburn's Family History Center is like a branch of the Salt Lake City library and can borrow microfilmed records on a sort of interlibrary loan. Auburn's Family History Center also has access to the Internet, Ellis Island Project records, California death records and indexes. To look at the actual church records on film is really exciting, said Diane Gagon, a volunteer with the library. It's fun when you find something. Gagon said the center has computers, copy machines and knowledgeable staff available to help you begin your family history research. But she does have some tips for beginners. Anybody who comes in, I tell them to bring what they have, she said. The first thing I have someone do is a pedigree chart with themselves as number one and as much information as they know about their parents and grandparents, so I know where to begin. Gagon said it's also good to have a goal when embarking on a journey into your family's past. Figure out what you want to learn ” whether you're looking for a grandparent or a census of your family or to find land records, she said. Know what you want to know. Another great place to start is to use your living relatives as a resource. Start talking with relatives, your oldest aunt or your grandparents, and write down every single thing, Gagon said. See if they have certificates or photos stashed away because there are clues in all of that. Use of the Family History Center in Auburn is free, with mailing fees applied to loans from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, and charges for photocopying and printing. While the search may be long and sometimes daunting, Meyers said the rewards of genealogy research are plenty. One of my sons said to me, you're having fun, but why are you doing this? she said. I told him it's the best thing I could leave you. I've always been interested in these people; they're what I am a part of. I wouldn't be here if not for them. The Journal's Michelle Miller can be reached at michellem@goldcountrymedia.com, or post a comment at auburnjournal.com.