ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Unraveling the mysteries of your family’s origins has become wildly popular in recent years as the Internet has made hitherto painstaking research into an online pastime.
TV shows like Public Broadcasting Co.’s “Genealogy Roadshow” and “Finding Your Roots” with Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. have also spurred popularity among a wider demographic, according to Paul Rhetts, a local genealogy aficionado and book publisher.
“More people are interested in where they came from and who they’re connected to than a generation ago,” Rhetts said.
Rhetts is co-author with Henrietta M. Christmas of “The Basic Genealogy Checklist: 101 Tips & Tactics to Find Your Family History” published by his company, Rio Grande Books. They gave a presentation recently for the Hispanic Genealogical Research Center of New Mexico at the National Hispanic Cultural Center.
Rhetts, who grew up in Virginia, said he has always been fascinated by history and genealogy research gave him a way of finding out more about the history of his own family.
When he started about 20 years ago there was little information online. Genealogy research involved legwork, he said, poring over census information, delving into records of births, marriages and deaths kept by local churches, or offices of vital records. County offices were good sources for land records such as property deeds, taxes and maps. It often involved travel to distant towns or even overseas, and maybe a trudge around a local cemetery.
More and more of that data is now available online and it has become big business. The best known website, Ancestry.com, which started offering material online in 1996, had sales of $850 million in 2016, according to Forbes magazine. A basic subscription for access to U.S. records costs about $20 a month plus tax. Rates that include international records or access to military and newspaper archives are higher.
There are free websites such as FamilySearch.org, which is organized by the Mormon Church, and Chronicling America (chroniclingamerica.loc.gov), which has historic archives from newspapers around the country.
Rhetts advises beginning researchers to start by creating a list of what they know about the present generation and work backward.
Sometimes research uncovers forebears with checkered histories. Rhetts found an ancestor who was convicted of larceny and sentenced to a public whipping. Another ancestor, Mary Barrett, an advocate of religious tolerance for Quakers, was hanged on Boston Common.
Despite technological advances, Rhetts said, all genealogical researchers inevitably hit what they call a “brick wall” from time to time. For example, records in some European countries were destroyed during past wars.
That’s where genealogy clubs like the Albuquerque Genealogical Society or the Hispanic Genealogical Research Center of New Mexico can help.
Albuquerque Genealogical Society holds regular “Genealogy Research Days” in the Genealogy Center on the second floor of the Albuquerque Main Library at 501 Copper Ave. NW.
“Our volunteers work one-on-one helping individuals find census records documenting their ancestors, cemetery records, military records, land records and so on,” said Genealogy Society member Lynda Katonak.
The workshops are from 10:30 to 3:30 p.m. on the last Tuesday of each month. Beginning this month, the society has added a second monthly workshop from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on the third Saturday.
Katonak has been doing family history research for more than 20 years. She and other volunteers enjoy sharing their expertise with beginners who are eager to discover more about their forebears.
“I get tickled to death when they find a picture of their great-great-grandfather that they didn’t even know who it was,” said Genealogy Society member Robert Harper. “I mean it just makes people light up.”
He took up genealogy as a winter pastime 15 years ago. “And it became an absolute obsession,” Harper said.
The society’s president-elect, John Farris, is available to give advice on DNA tests. Farris has done extensive research into the types of tests and the information they offer.
“There’s five good companies out there and they all do what they claim to do, but it depends on what your goal is,” Farris said. “One company’s test will give health-related information, another will show what percentage of Neanderthal you have. All can give what percentage of different ethnicities are in your makeup.”
He cautioned that each company has different experts and the ethnicity percentage results may differ because they need a comparative population.
“In some European countries like Germany, there were numerous border changes throughout history so it’s hard to have a standardized definition of what constitutes ‘German,’” said Farris.
The club also has a sub-group that specializes in military research.
Katonak and the other club members said beginner and experienced genealogy researchers have a wealth of resources at their fingertips in the Main Library. There are extensive collections of books, periodicals, newspaper archives, church and other records from New Mexico and many other states.
Another Genealogy Society member, Lark Robart, said she was able to find records pertaining to Montana that she couldn’t find when she visited the state.
“The resources here on the second floor are phenomenal. We are blessed with a very complete genealogical library,” Farris said.
Researchers who have an Albuquerque Bernalillo County Library System card can also access Ancestry.com and other subscription websites for free on one of the computers in the library’s genealogy center. A scanner is available that enables researchers to store documents and images on their own flash drives. It is also possible to have information emailed to you, Farris said.
Much of the material in the center was collected by individuals who then donated it to the center. AGS also held fundraising events to purchase more materials. The library has a budget for books and other resources.
The center was originally housed in what is now the Special Collections Library at Central and Edith. It moved to the Main Library building about five years ago.