Patience and Persistence are Great Tools for Tracing Your Roots
By Sue Botos
It was a family reunion somewhat reluctantly attended by nationally acclaimed genealogist Dr. Deborah Abbott that opened the door to what has become her passion.
“My grandparents never talked too much about the past, but my grandmother used to tell me she and her sister both had granddaughters named Deborah,” Abbott recalled recently before holding a workshop at the Lakewood Public Library.
Abbott — a member of the board of trustees of the Ohio Genealogical Society and past president of the African-American Genealogical Society — says she met her great aunt once, but it wasn’t until she attended the reunion in North Carolina several years ago that she discovered members from that branch of her family.
“I got down there and there were people walking around that looked just like my grandmother and they knew everyone in the room,” Abbott remembers, adding that of her great-aunt’s 14 children, she knew only two.
“They were talking about people I never heard of. I realized I knew zero. I had to figure out what to do,” Abbott says.
So began a journey that led her to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., as well as the Western Reserve Historical Society, which houses census records for the county dating back to the 1800s.
Untangling your family’s roots can be daunting, but experts say patience and an open mind can uncover some fascinating facts, and maybe a few skeletons in the closet.
“Start with yourself and move backward,” advises Abby O’Neill, a research assistant at the Cuyahoga County Library’s Fairview Park Branch, which offers one of the most extensive collections of historic records and documents such as court records, census counts and local history.
Keep in mind that some records and recollections may be unreliable. So, even though you may be tired of hearing grandpa’s war stories over and over, O’Neill says it’s important to record these musings and to canvass family members.
“Often there are some inaccuracies in dates and the spelling of names. These must be tracked and preserved,” O’Neill says.
“Whenever we have someone searching a common name, we always cringe,” O’Neill says with a smile. While more difficult names may be a bit easier to find, multiple spellings can pose a challenge. “You have to keep as precise a record as you can.”
She illustrated her point by noting that one of the biggest mistakes would-be genealogists make is taking information for granted. “Sometimes if people are ‘close enough,’ they use that information. You do need to know actual years of birth, for example. A rule of thumb is to get at least two or three sources.”
Both O’Neill and Abbott agree that the best place to start your sleuthing is with your local library’s version of Ancestry.com. With a library card, there is no charge, and records such as census, marriage, birth, death and court filings are easily accessible.
In addition to the county library (cuyahogalibrary.org), the Western Reserve Historical Society (wrhs.org) offers an extensive collection of local history, as well as trained volunteers to help guide your search.
Groups such as the Fairview Park Library’s Clan Diggers can also provide support.
“It’s a learning process,” Abbott says. “Everything is not online. Understand history, what was going on at the time (your ancestor) lived.
“You have to get the oral history,” she says. “It may be true, maybe not. We have to keep our minds open to follow the trail of what’s out there.”
SIDEBAR: Preserve your memories with StoryCorps
Talk to Me
Researchers agree that there is no better record of family history than the stories passed from generation to generation. These precious memories can now be preserved through StoryCorps, an app on which you can record your relatives’ stories.
Begun with an actual recording booth in New York City, StoryCorps now has an app that leads you through the process and stores your interviews. For more information, go to StoryCorps.me.
Sue Botos is a local journalist from Rocky River, where she lives with her husband, Ed, and golden retriever, Tally. She’s always searching for her colorful roots.