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Unraveling historys mysteries

Genealogists focus on links with the past
by: Cliff Newell, Cherill Vencil, left, starts off a recent meeting of the Lake Oswego Genealogical Interest Group at the city library.  Also pictured are Sue McHugh, center, and Ruth McKendry.

Ever wonder where you came from, how you got here or who your ancestors were and what they did?

Members of the Lake Oswego Genealogy Interest Group did, and that is why they meet every month in an upstairs room at the Lake Oswego Public Library.

Not all of the club's 35 members can get inside the small room at the same time. But these history detectives have a great time with their folders, documents, books, photos and everything else they pick up on the trail of unraveling the mystery of their own history.

'It's human family history, it's social history,' said Cherill Vencil, the librarian who founded the group a year ago. 'It makes us see our commonalities rather than our differences.

'Every week we find some tiny thing. But for us it's a big thing.'

As always, the members have a lot to report on. Like Ruth McKendry, who found a document in Wales, Mass. written by the town curmudgeon, Absalom Gardner. 'He didn't have a kind word to say about anyone,' McKendry said.

But he did leave an invaluable historical document.

Then there is Sue McHugh, who is 'tackling the whole state of Indiana' in order to find out about her family tree.'

The club members never know where their search is going to take them, whether it is tirelessly going through dusty files in an archive or walking slowly through a cemetery to view tombstones, hoping to spot a name that looks familiar and that can lead to greater discoveries.

'We have some people who are very knowledgeable and have been doing research for years,' Vencil said. 'They're very willing to help people get started.

'It's like unraveling a mystery in that it's a lot of fun and excitement. We do have a lot of fun. It's not real serious or life or death.'

It is Vencil who sets the tone for the group - lighthearted and fun, yet intense. A lifelong history lover, she was a school librarian for 20 years before moving to Vermont and going to Simmons College in Boston.

While there, Vencil's interest in history shifted to genealogy when she obtained an internship with the Northeast Historical Genealogical Society, one of the most prestigious institutions in its field in the nation.

'That fostered my love of genealogy, and it's where I learned to be more professional about it,' she said.

The experience laid the foundation for Vencil's own remarkably rewarding search for her family's past. Such as:

n Finding an immigrant grandfather who had dropped out of sight. Looking in Ancestry Plus, which has digitized images of men who registered for the draft in World War I, 'There he was.' From there she was able to trace him to the small town where he lived.

n Membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution. 'I had a strong interest in joining the DAR,' Vencil said. 'I knew I qualified. Proving it was another thing.' By going through Heritage Quest, Vencil did prove it. 'Genealogy is not exactly a science. You've got to prove your case. It takes a lot of persistence. Sometimes the records are just not there.'

n A trip to Canada this past summer resulted in Vencil going back through five generations in Scotland to trace her maternal grandfather. In a photo archive in Canada, she found a photo of her great-great-great-grandfather from Tipperary, Ireland, who had died in 1871. 'I never in my wildest dreams expected to find that,' Vencil said.

n She found a story about an ancestor, who was a pioneer in Nebraska, which 'brought tears to my eyes.' While hunting buffalo the man had shot his arm off, and his son carried him 70 miles to their home. 'It was really a thrill to read about it,' Vencil said.

With the huge amount of material available for genealogical studies - especially on the Internet - Vencil thinks other people can be as fortunate as she was in tracking down her own history, and right now that is a lot of people.

America goes through periods where many people show great interest in family history, such as when Alex Haley's blockbuster novel 'Roots' came out in 1977.

'That really piqued people's interest in genealogy,' Vencil said. 'There's also always a pattern of the general public becoming really interested in family history at the turn of the century. It happened at the end of the 1800s and again in the 1900s.

'We're fortunate today because things are so easily available.'

Instead of leaving records in basements to rot, governments are now preserving them. Plus, family members remain a huge source of genealogical information, and many schools have projects in which kids pump their grandparents about the past.

Assuring that this is the golden age of genealogical research, there is now DNA technology available through the National Geographic Human Genome Project. By submitting a DNA sample, a person's earliest ancestor can be determined.

Yet the best thing a Lake Oswego resident who has been bitten by the genealogical bug can do is go right to Lake Oswego Public Library, which has the professional expertise and resources to give a history lover a firm push in the right direction.

The library's own collection is 'very good at directing people to source for material,' according to Vencill, and the pamphlet 'Managing a Genealogical Project' has basic steps for such a project and lots of good suggestions. Like pointing out that a lot of material for a good genealogical search can be found right at home - birth certificates, death certificates, Social Security numbers.

And always remember: To the tenacious go the rewards of genealogy.

Then there is the Lake Oswego Genealogy Interest Group.

'Some day I'm going to retire from the library,' Vencil said. 'But I'm never going to retire from genealogy. It will be nice to have a fun group like this to go to.'