Do you Know Your Roots? Genealogy Expert Gives Some Tips on how to Trace Your Family History

Koehler, Darrel. "Do you Know Your Roots? Genealogy Expert Gives Some Tips on how to Trace Your Family History." Grand Forks Herald, 25 July 1995.

Where did we come from?

This question needn’t be confined to children who end up with a quick "birds and the bees" answer from an uptight parent. It also can pertain to adults who wonder where their forbearers came from, what they did for a living and how they faced life long ago.

While the answer might not come as quickly as the one that comes to a child on his parent’s knee, there are answers to these genealogical questions if you do the research. And much of the research can be done right from your armchair, thanks to the computer era.

Leland Meitzler, who brought "The Heritage Quest - American Genealogical Lending Library Road Show" to Grand Forks last week, travels with his wife, Patty, in a special travel trailer around the country, hoping to interest in tracing their family roots.

And judging by the more than 60 who attended a recent Grand Forks session, local interest is considerable. The meeting was sponsored by the newly created Minnkota Genealogical Society. Those attending came from Grand Forks and East Grand Forks as well as Cando, Grafton and Hillsboro, N.D., Thief River Falls and Winnipeg.

Besides the Grand Forks stop, Meitzler will be conducting a day long seminar Tuesday at the Carrington (N.D.) Experiment Station. The Carrington visit is sponsored by the James River Genealogy Club. For more information: (701) 252-3879. These are the only stops in the Dakotas this summer.

Meitzler is editor of Heritage Quest magazine, a bimonthly genealogy technique publication and a nationally known genealogy speaker. The publication includes a column on children’s genealogy, written by Janet Smith, Minnkota Club president.

Instant information

For nearly four hours Meitzler demonstrated on how instant information can be obtained through the Utah-based library and from other sources around the country and the world. He also explained the uses of microfiche and other film, as well as computer programs and connections that are available through the library to help in tracking down one’s ancestors. He also put a humorous spin on his presentation when discussing some of his exploits in searching for long-dead relatives.

Meitzler’s presentation not only was applicable to those beginning genealogy, but also to experienced researchers.


Were do you start your ancestor quest?

"Write every living relative you know and provide a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Then if you don’t get a reply, follow up with a phone call," said Meitzler. "And don’t forget all the cousins, too."

The phone call should be made about a month after mailing the letter, if you receive no reply.

Researchers also should be willing to share any genealogical information they uncover with others in the family.

"Then they will share in return. It (family information) all comes home, over, over, and over again," he said. "And even if they don’t share, they might write and publish the family history, saving you that expense as well."

Other sources of information include family Bibles, family group sheets, old letters, photographs, business papers, naturalization certificates, deeds and family histories.


There are several basic books that provide tips for genealogy. He suggest Handybook for Genealogy and the "Redbook" by Ancestry. The latter is currently out of print, but will soon by reissued. He also suggested a guide for the area; unfortunately, he’s not found a good one for North Dakota.

Each state hands genealogical information in a different manner. While Minnesota has a state genealogical society, North Dakota doesn’t, and genealogical queries are handled by the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck.

Meitzler said a good source for county and community histories is the Allen County Public Library, 900 Webster, Fort Wayne, Ind. 45802. He advised those writing to keep requests brief. If no information is found, the fee is waived. Otherwise, it is minimal.

Fleshing out ancestors

One of the most important things family researchers should do is to "put some flesh on the bones of ancestors." Meitzler while you can find such information is as birth, marriage and death, you also want to find out more about the person such as how they lived, what they did and if they served in the military.

But this information is more difficult to obtain than dates and bare-bones facts. He said a good source for obtaining a more intimate look at your relatives would be in community newspapers, which used to have gossip columns devoted to such coming and goings.

"You’d be surprised what you can find out by reading those gossip columns," he said.

In the event of death, Meitzler suggests checking at least six weeks before and after the event to see what actually occurred. He also warned about being careful even of legal documents such as census reports, because the information may be in error.

He cited the example of a father being interviewed by a census taker on the ages of his brood of children. "No father ever gets the ages of his children straight," said Meitzler.

He said for every important fact or date, you should obtain other information that substantiates the document. If not, keep looking but don’t rely solely on one piece of information.

Meitzler said some records make it easier to trace the paternal lines of the family. He said in the case of land, "the boys got the land and the girls got the feather beds." So, while you may find entries for male members on deeds, you will in many cases not find female family members listed.


A good source of genealogical information are federal censuses. However, he again urged caution in getting additional information to support the census records as errors also could be made in gathering the data.

Federal censuses began shortly after the founding of the country and continue every 10 years. The next census will be conducted in 2000. He said contrary to popular belief, the British didn’t burn all census data when they torched the nation’s capital in 1814. Census data from 1790 and later can be found on the state level.

However, a disastrous fire did destroy the 1890 Census data, much to the dismay of family researchers. He said when using census data, check for the "Census Day." That’s the date on which the census data is based. That date has varied from August to June and now is set for April 1. In early censuses, the takers were political appointees who were paid by the head, resulting in suspect data. The tabulation took months and even years to be completed. Today, it is completed in less than a month.

Meitzler said the problems with the census became so acute that states set up their own census process, usually midway through the 10 year period between federal censuses. Many states also sought recounts of the 1870 Census, the last before the Census Bureau founded and the earlier problems were alleviated.

Other sources

He also cited other data sources, such as Veteran records, livestock brand registries and others. Meitzler also has developed new charts, including some that show physical genetic traits as well as the more traditional information, providing a chance to see inherent health problems quickly among forebears.


A question-and-answer session followed. Meitzler also offered for sale a wide variety of books, computer programs and one-on-one assistance. The American Genealogical Lending Library is located at Box 244, Bountiful, Utah 84011-0244. It has more than 150,000 book titles pertaining to family research.

Another source not listed by Meitzler:

Where to Write For Vital Records, which contains a state-by-state listing of the addresses and telephone numbers of the archive where each record can by found, the cost of the document and sample form letters containing all the information needed to get these other vital documents.

For a copy, send $6.50 (plus $2 shipping and handling) to Consumer Center - Documents, 350 Scotland Road, Orange, N.J. 07050 or call toll-free: (800) 872-0121.

Reprinted with permission of the Grand Forks Herald.

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