Who’s Your Daddy?
Figuring out who their forefathers are drives a dedicated group of genealogists to discovery.
Thursday, June 23, 2011
Gary Carlsen was cleaning out his attic in 1990 when he came across a pile of family heirlooms. Among them appeared a box of his mother’s things, where he chanced upon a book. He didn’t know at the time, but what was inside it would inspire him to redirect much of the rest of his life.
He dusted off its little black cover and began to thumb through the pages. His mother’s handwriting peered back at him, scrawling dates of births and deaths in the family going back generations, tracking his lineage to 1847.
Carlsen felt compelled to continue what she started. He picked up his keys and headed to the Family History Library in Seaside, where a search led him to his grandfather’s brother, who had connections with the Church of Latter Day Saints. He quickly learned, helpfully enough, that the Mormon church is a global leader in collecting genealogical information because of their belief in “eternal family love.” While searching his great uncle on Ancestry.com, he found a living relative in Washington state who had cracked open immigration and census records in pursuit of genetic connections. After talking with his new found distant cousin, church records and more immigration dates led Carlsen to relatives in France.
So it goes for those in the throes of genealogy, which can often reveal gigantic family trees like Carlsen’s, which now, after 21 years of research, numbers 18,000 direct and in-law relatives. In real terms, it’s sort of an addiction: When Carlsen decided to make some business cards as a genealogy hobbyist, his daughter scoffed.
“Dad, genealogy isn’t your hobby,” she said, “It’s your life.”
She’s got a case. Carlsen spends four to five hours a day looking through various records and books available at the Family History Library. He even volunteers, for free, to track people he doesn’t know (they contact him via e-mail), even trekking to cemeteries to photograph gravestones.
“I enjoy the hunt,” he says, “the detective work, and helping people.”
The other day he tracked his son-in-law’s heritage back to the Mayflower – by analyzing family trees on Ancestry.com and gleaning a tip that the name was shared by someone on the pilgrim ship – because he was bored. He won’t take information at face value unless a family tree has been certified, which means he will often find each person’s birth, census, death or marriage records to prove their existence.
“I don’t take anybody’s word for it,” he says.
As he tracks their familial connections, he feels he creates new ones.
“Now that I’m retired,” says Carlsen, who spent 49 years with PG&E and his own business, CML Home Repair, “I spend all of my time with my family, and genealogy is a part of my family.”
A big part of that family also is the Monterey County Geneology Society. They’re headquartered at the back of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Seaside, where they meet monthly and share their space with the Family History Library, the largest of its kind from here to San Francisco. It’s stacked with census books; immigration records from various countries; state books that have marriage, birth, church, and death records; and personal family history books people have donated. Their set of books Germany to America has transatlantic records from Eastern Europe dating back to the 1600s, and the library also has a large room of over 8,000 microfilm and microfiche records that can be studied on their giant readers. The library also offers many websites that would usually require a paid subscription for free. Ancestry.com ($295/year) and World Vital Records ($16.25/month) are the most popular.
At June’s meeting, Carlsen spoke about the free tools he suggests for beginners. The best free sites, he says, are rootsweb.com, raogk.org (Random Acts of Genealogy Kindness) and usgenweb.org.
His research demonstrates that he’s a hard worker, but it has also revealed that ethic is hereditary: Carlsen has learned many of his forefathers were Midwest farmers.
“I’ve learned from genealogy how hard [my family] has struggled,” he says. “If I do something for you, it’s gonna be 100 percent because that’s the way my family was.”
A final motivation for his work is fitting enough: Connecting the past to the next generation.
“I’m mostly doing this for my kids,” Carlsen says, “so they know where they came from.”
The Family History Library, 1024 Noche Buena, Seaside, is open 9am-9pm Tuesday-Wednesday, 9am-1pm Friday and Saturday by appointment. Learn more at www.mocogenso.org.