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Following the twists in the family tree

Local woman offers research assistance to family historians
by: Jim Clark Kate Eakman owner of Heritage

Thomas McConahy was born Oct. 20, 1839, in New Castle, Pa. He served in the Union Army during the Civil War and died Aug. 26, 1913, in Los Angeles.

For someone looking to plug holes on a family tree, that information marks the end of Thomas McConahy's story.

But for Kate Eakman, it's just the beginning.

'Family history is more than just a chart with the names of ancestors going way back,' said Eakman, owner of Heritage and Family, a Civil War ancestry website. 'I believe it's the story - little-known facts that turn just another old guy or gal into the star of a family tree.'

McConahy, known as Big Tom, was Eakman's great-great-grandfather. He was the inspiration for her ancestry website, which has evolved into a home-based business allowing her to combine her biggest passions - history and research. Eakman offers her skills to those who have hit a brick wall in their genealogical hunt or have no idea where to start.

Eakman isn't satisfied with simply entering names on a family tree, however. She is intrigued by the age-old stories handed down through generations that make family history so interesting.

'When I started researching my family, I stumbled across Big Tom and discovered he was in the Civil War,' she said. 'That interested me. A family member had told me, 'Oh, he had problems,' but she didn't know what those problems were. So, I started digging and learned the story.'

Big Tom was aptly named. He stood more than 6 feet tall and fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Wounded in the arm, he returned home and married the daughter of the wealthiest man in the county.

Suffering from what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder, he became delusional, claiming his wife was openly living with other men. In 1903, he packed his bags, left his wife and four children behind and moved to the Soldier's Home in Los Angeles. He died at age 74, more than 3,000 miles away from his family.

For Eakman, becoming acquainted with Big Tom posthumously validated her suspicion that in order to truly understand heritage, one must meet the players. A lot of information can be gleaned from census records, Eakman said, which can provide a trail of addresses, employment and income. But knowing what to do with the information, and where else to look, she added, is what sometimes defeats rookie historians.

'It's not really the places to research, it's what to do with the documents uncovered,' Eakman said. 'I can understand the historical background of what I'm reading and seeing and go from there. It's not always easy. I've been given a 15-year span for birth and a country of birth as the only information someone has. It takes time, sometimes years, but I can find them.'

Born and raised outside Pittsburgh, Eakman studied European history because she 'loved old things.' American history didn't have as much appeal, she said, calling the Civil War and Lewis and Clark Expedition her least favorite eras.

Eakman moved to Gresham as a single mom in 1994, after accepting a job as a history teacher at Cascade College. To bring history alive to her class, she secured grant funding one year and took 20 high school students to the woods on the back side of Mt. Hood to participate in a Civil War re-enactment.

Her least favorite historical period suddenly became an obsession.

'Once I discovered Civil War re-enacting, I was hooked on the era,' Eakman said. 'I still do re-enacting with the 1st Oregon Volunteer Infantry/20th Maine, Company A organization, portraying a married lady of that time period. I met my husband through Civil War re-enacting.'

Eakman launched Heritage and Family in April 2010. Though specialized in Civil War ancestry, she offers her research services to anyone with a desire to learn more about their heritage. But whether taking a genealogical journey on your own or with a researcher, you have to be prepared to be surprised sometimes, Eakman said. Not all family history stories have happy endings. Traditions, secrets, even early ancestors may not fit with the vision of who you thought your family was and is. Additionally, research sometimes uncovers details like a different birth date, from what was originally known.

'What's interesting to me is why? Why are there parts of family history that have been altered?' Eakman said. 'If I do my job right, I'll uncover those stories. I'm always curious about why somebody deletes some part of their history. And I always tell my clients that I may not tell you the story you want to hear, but I'll tell you the story that really happened.'

As a genealogical researcher, one could call Eakman part bloodhound and part historian. And while most histories she uncovers are relatively benign, every once in a while a black sheep manages to sneak in.

'Most people like to find out they have a scallywag or scoundrel in the family,' she said. 'It makes the story fun.'