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Uncovering Your Family Tree

“Wouldn’t you like to know about your roots?” Peggy Selby Galloway’s
grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Mullins (1866-1960), always used to say.

But in 1956 Galloway was more concerned with rearing
her 2-year-old than learning about dead ancestors. When she finally developed
an interest in knowing her family’s past, she had to go to Virginia to get information
that she could have gotten on the front porch in Lincoln County. But Grandpa
Jeff, a teacher and merchant whose roots went back to Ireland and the Revolutionary
War, was no longer around to tell his stories.

Galloway is now a professional genealogical researcher
based in Danville, but her work is more than a job. She says finding your family’s
roots “will open up a whole new world for you. You become kinder and more
understanding of people.”

The journey to discover your heritage can start as
simply as asking a relative to show you the family Bible that might be inscribed
with names, dates, and marriage information from long before the state of Kentucky
recorded such statistics.

Or it can be as simple as writing a letter to a distant
relative. The important thing is to start today, not 20 or 30 years from now.

“Older people have a library in their heads,”
Owenton genealogist and professional researcher Doris Shell Gill observes. When
an old-timer with a good memory passes away, it’s like a library burning-so
much information lost forever.

As many as 50,000 people in Kentucky may be doing
some form of family information gathering on front porches, and in libraries
and ancestors’ hometowns. With a historical society dating back to 1836, Kentucky
has a long tradition of valuing the past.

To research your family’s history, always start with
the family members who are living.

Envision a target, with yourself and the immediate
family in the center, Gill suggests. The next larger circle is the peripheral
family, such as aunts, uncles, and cousins, and then the communities where family
members lived. If you continue this process, the “community” widens
to the states the family lived in or traveled through, and eventually back to
the ancestors’ Old Country. “We always work from the known to the unknown,
beginning with one’s self and then working backward in time,” Gill says.

Armando “Al” Alfaro, president of the Kentucky
Genealogical Society, used to bring along a tape recorder and, in later years,
a camcorder when he visited his father. When his father talked about a past
event, Alfaro always asked his father how old he was at the time. Many people
won’t know the year something happened but will remember their age. Once you
know the person’s birth date, it’s easy to figure the approximate year.

Alfaro’s father gave him the address of an aunt the
family hadn’t heard from in many years. On a whim, Alfaro wrote to this aunt
in Mexico. Two weeks later, he received a response from the aunt, who still
lived in the same house. They began corresponding by letter and through this
correspondence, he learned of uncles in California who eventually provided the
entire history of one branch of the family.

Grandchildren may see a grandfather or great-grandfather
only as old, but a printed genealogy-especially with family stories and old
photographs-lets younger family members see grandparents in the prime of their
lives. Alfaro worked for three years researching his family history and eventually
produced a 335-page hardcover history that has 325 photos of family members
and homesteads.

Always give people advance notice of an interview

and assure them that you don’t want to take or keep the family Bible or mementos
but rather to just write down the information contained within. Peggy Galloway
carries a $99 photocopy machine with her on visits to family members and copies
information right on the spot.

Transcribe the known names and vital statistics of
grandparents and great-grandparents onto pedigree charts and family group sheets
(available for a fee at the Kentucky History Center museum shop or free at Latter-day
Saints’ Family History Centers). Then, with these names and dates, “you
have to go to the records to verify the information,” says Roberta Peak
Padgett, KGS corresponding secretary, who has been researching her family for
30 years.

Some people balk or stop altogether at this point:
Me, do research? Why should I look for documents to back up family stories?
But you’ll be surprised at how different-and enjoyable-genealogical research
is, even at first when you might not find information about your family. Glance
over the shoulders of genealogists behind the microfilm machines. Black quill-pen
handwriting on the documents is a surprise at first, and then you see the dates
on the microfilmed screen or old bound volumes, 1830 or 1860, 1910, and sometimes
in the quiet of a research room, you’ll hear a gasp. “Look, there’s my
great-grandmother.” A name with a date or detail-whether it corroborates
or contradicts what you’ve heard-helps you know more about your family.

Networking with other genealogists will increase
the chances of finding information. Doris Gill wound up with a photograph of
an ancestor when she and another researcher happened upon one another, by coincidence,
on a research trip to West Virginia. Sometimes the person sitting next to you
at the microfilm machine will share advice. Most of Kentucky’s 120 counties
have a genealogical or historical society. These groups-plus the Kentucky Genealogical
Society-sponsor genealogy programs and publish newsletters with how-to tips
and inquiries on ancestors being sought.

Roberta Peak Padgett discovered the whereabouts of
a 1768 family Bible when the Fulton County Genealogical Society newsletter published
the front page and original family pages. After arranging to see the Bible,
she found that the back pages listed the names of daughters in this branch of
the family. It was a wonderful find because until then she’d only known about
the sons and had never seen any evidence of there being daughters in the family.
She now knows the married names of the original girls and their children, and
plans to look for them in other records.

Female ancestors can be harder to research, especially
when records list only the men of the household or when you can’t discover a
woman’s maiden name. But if you continue looking and asking questions, you’ll
sometimes find wonderful unofficial sorts of records in unexpected places: quilts,
diaries, letters, envelopes of family information. John C. Padgett’s grandmother
carried newspaper clippings of her parents’ obituaries in a tiny change purse
in her pocketbook.

For every wonderful story of discovery, though, there
are stories of frustration: missing or unrecorded information, an ancestor disappearing
from the records, a relative who doesn’t want to share information. But roadblocks
are part of the genealogist’s journey, and there are ways around some of the
roadblocks. For instance, 65 Kentucky counties have sustained disasters that
destroyed records (22 courthouses were burned during the Civil War). Kentucky’s
Daughters of the American Revolution has helped salvage some of the information
from burned courthouses by transcribing and typing the surviving records. This
information appears in annual bound volumes at the Kentucky History Center and
some Kentucky libraries.

The courthouse in the county where your ancestors
lived is one of the best and first places to look for information because wills
and marriage and land records are usually housed there. But some patience and
friendly persistence may be required-the people working at the courthouse may
or may not have the time and expertise to coach you in genealogy research.

Another barrier to courthouse research is that where
there have been fires and floods over the decades, there can be gaps in information.
You then have to turn to other sources. Churches typically recorded baptisms,
marriages, and deaths, and in old cemeteries you can find names and dates of
birth and death on tombstones. And don’t forget to look through old county histories,
abstracts, and newspaper indexes. For instance, 75 years ago, The Kentucky Advocate
reported that Liborio Masselli, age 38 and a native of Italy, had filed a petition
for naturalization and requested that his surname be changed to Marshall when
he became a citizen.

Owenton’s Doris Gill recommends visiting the Kentucky
History Center in Frankfort where, via microfilm, you can search all Kentucky
counties in one place. For government records-anything from state legislature
records to state hospital, orphanage, or prison records-the Kentucky Department
for Libraries and Archives in Frankfort is another valuable stop.

For a wonderful glimpse into your ancestors’ lives,
see the U.S. Census microfilms for the counties where your ancestors lived.
Beginning with the 1850 census, not only will you derive names, ages, places
of birth, and occupations, but you’ll also see who lived in the household and
next door.

Two valuable sources of information-frequently overlooked-are
the tax lists and county court order books. For instance, the census taker might
have missed a family or two, but the sheriff of the town, with the responsibility
of making sure taxes were collected, always seemed to find people, says Ron
D. Bryant, Kentucky history and genealogy specialist at the Kentucky History

Manuscript collections, such as the microfilmed Kentucky
portions of the Draper Manuscript Collection, can provide a glimpse into an
ancestor’s day-to-day life. Letters, recollections, and interviews with pioneers
can be found in Draper’s collection.

Whether your background is Appalachian, African,
Canadian, or European, or a combination, the lingering question is always: where
did my people come from initially?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints-with
20 Family History Centers in Kentucky-can be extremely helpful in searches that
go back to the Old Country. Documents from more than 100 countries and century-old
church records of many denominations can be ordered from the Salt Lake City
repository and accessed at the history center closest to your home. You need
not be a member of the Mormon Church to use these centers.

For most researchers the reward of tracing an ancestor
is just getting to know the family member from all the clues left behind. “We
do it for us,” says genealogist Myrtle Sparkman, who works with her sister,
Ethyl Letcher, in exploring the family’s history.

Discovering your heritage can open up a whole new
world. Mary E. Clay of Frankfort took an Underground Railroad tour to Maysville
and Ripley, Ohio, three years ago and found herself treading passageways where
slaves had been hidden. She also got to hold the heavy shackles that slaves
were forced to wear. “I cried when I held those chains. It was awful. It
was just that moving,” says Clay, whose curiosity to know more about her
African-American roots was aroused that day.

Ultimately-as a result of the journey-most genealogists
echo what Mary Clay has discovered: “I have a better sense now of who I

The best genealogy info sources

Here’s a list of resources to help you learn
more about your family’s roots. With libraries and archives, always call or
write in advance about availability of sources and the hours available. And
as a courtesy-if you’re requesting genealogy information by mail-enclose a self-addressed
stamped envelope with your letter.

And don’t ignore the Internet and the World Wide
Web, where a wealth of information can be found through a computer and a modem.
The Kentucky Historical Society (see contact information below) has compiled
a list of top genealogical Web sites, Kentucky research Web sites, African-American
Web sites, and Native American Web sites.

Kentucky Genealogical Society

P.O. Box 153

Frankfort, KY 40602

(502) 223-8318 or e-mail

Active roster of 875 members. Quarterly journal, Bluegrass Roots; year-round
monthly programs, networking; annual seminar at Kentucky History Center on Aug.
3 (workshops, $5 each) and/or Aug. 4 (seminar, $25, includes box lunch).

Kentucky History Center

Kentucky Historical Society

100 W. Broadway

Frankfort, KY 40601-1931

(502) 564-1792

A must-see collection of private Kentucky records, documents, and microfilm
of public records, including the U.S. Census in Kentucky from 1810 through 1920.

Kentucky Department for Libraries & Archives

300 Coffee Tree Road, Box 537

Frankfort, KY 40602-0537

(502) 564-8300

Major repository of state of Kentucky (public) records, including county courthouse
records and state government agency records.

Public Library of Cincinnati

800 Vine St.

Cincinnati, OH 45202-1071

Entire set of U.S. Census microfilms from 1790-1920 (no public library in Kentucky
has the entire set, but many Kentucky libraries have Kentucky county microfilms).

Family History Centers


20 centers in Kentucky with access to worldwide genealogy records of the Church
of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the world’s largest genealogy library.

National Archives/Southeast Region

1557 St. Joseph Ave.

East Point, GA 30344-2593


Large collection of microfilmed federal records, and documents created by federal
agencies, including original Kentucky federal court records, which are not microfilmed
(by appointment).

Records for researching your roots

  • Birth and death records, 1911-present (Kentucky Office of Vital Statistics,
  • Birth and death statistics for 1852-1861, 1874-1878, and a few birth and
    death records for the 1890s and early 1900s (Kentucky History Center
    and state archives
  • Marriage records, land records (county courthouses)
  • Court records (include deeds, wills, marriages, as well as lawsuits, criminal
    records, and the proceedings of the county court)
  • Naturalization records (early records in various county court records)
  • U.S. Census records (microfilms in various libraries)
  • Indexed rosters of Kentucky soldiers in War of 1812 through World War I
    (Kentucky History Center)
  • Abstracts of wills, marriages, deeds, pensions, and cemetery records, by
    county (Kentucky History Center
  • Surname files (at various libraries)
  • City directories (some 19th-century Lexington and Louisville directories)
  • Newspapers (earliest newspaper was Kentucky Gazette, with copies as early
    as 1787)
  • Baptismal, marriage, death records (churches and denomination repositories)
  • Employment, school, and social/fraternal association records
  • Cemeteries (and records)

Books on genealogy

First Steps in Genealogy by Desmond Walls Allen. Betterway Books,

The Handy Book for Genealogists by George B. Everton. Everton Publishers,

Kentucky Ancestry by Roseann Hogan. Ancestry, 1992.

Kentucky Genealogical Research by George K. Schweitzer.

Netting Your Ancestors by Cyndi Howells. Genealogical Publishing Co.,

The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy by Val D. Greenwood. Genealogical
Publishing Co.

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