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Remembering our Ancestry

Snelgrove, Erin. "Remembering our Ancestry." Fargo Forum, 16 July 2000, B1 & B3.

Most adults are accustomed to the insatiable curiosity of children. With limpid eyes and well-scrubbed faces, they perch before their elders, demanding to hear stories about their families. No matter how many questions are answered, they always have another one to take its place.

Jo Ann Winistorfer of Bismarck, N.D., used to be one of these children. As a little girl, she pestered her grandmother for stories about her Norwegian relatives, information which she later wrote down for her own benefit.

Winistorfer's interest in her ancestry intensified with age, but after her mother passed away in 1984, she realized how important her roots were to her.

"When she died, I realized I had not only lost my precious mother, but her vast library of family-history memories," Winistorfer says.

"It spurred me to try to capture that information before other relatives passed on."

Pointing the direction
To assist people in their quest for knowledge, Winistorfer and Cathy Langemo, also of Bismarck, co-wrote a genealogy book, "Tracing Your Dakota Roots."

Mary Lynn Axtman, a volunteer for the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection of the North Dakota State University Libraries in Fargo, reviewed the guide when it was first released.

Unlike many how-to manuals, which she says can be routine and dry, Axtman says "Tracing Your Dakota Roots" is an eye-catching treasure.

"People of all ages would enjoy reading it," Axtman says. "It's easy to understand and its graphics make it fun to browse through."

Begin with yourself
Langemo says names, dates and places are vital in genealogical research. This information can be found in primary sources, such as birth certificates, which are recorded soon after an event.

Secondary sources are also helpful. These documents, such as family Bibles and newspaper clippings, are recorded over a period of time, often by numerous people.

But before delving into paperwork, Langemo suggests people record their own life events.

"Start with what you know," Langemo says. "Start with your own birth, baptism and marriage date and continue backwards."

After people tap their own memories, they can look in wedding albums,journals and church records to obtain more clues into the past.

Then, armed with this information, they can seek additional help from outside resources, such as Latter Day Saints family history centers, which are affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

At these sites, people can usee a family registry, a social security death index, a family history library catalog and other materials free of charge. Copying documents and ordering microfilm costs customers a small fee.

Karen Vosburg, director of patron services for Fargo's LDS center, said the facility has been well received by the community since its formation 20 years ago. The reason for the center's existence, she says, is to keep families intact.

"It's part of our religion to believe very strongly in families," Vosburg says. "We want to help link them together."

Vosburg says the need for LDS centers is great because many people are interested in their origins. Because of LDS sites, people can enjoy locating numerous facts and family lore in one location.

"We can offer materials that no one else has, not just about our state, but any state, and other countries as well," Vosburg says. "Researching is kind of like working a puzzle. You find pieces here and there and you have fun putting them together."

Fact-finding truths
in their book, Langemo and Winistorfer say one common myth people have about research is that they will have to go abroad to obtain records. Instead, most data is located in area research facilities, churches and libraries.

Langemo says the Internet is also a useful tool for information gatherers.

"Computer genealogy is big and it's growing daily," Langemo says. "By plugging in your surname, especially if it's an unusual one, you can find links to many sites that could connect you with a long-lost family member."

Langemo says people also need to double-and triple-check everything before they accept evidence as fact. Family legends aren't always true because memories can become distorted over time. Printed records, as well, are not always error free.

"If you had a family Bible, for example, and you notice that the ink appears new and the handwriting is the same, chances are that the information was copied," Langemo says.

"Re-copying records leaves room for error because people can always misread something or leave something out accidentally."

One phone call away
Besides unearthing birth certificates, visiting census bureaus and interviewing family members, Winistorfer obtained much of her family history by using a telephone directory.

In 1895 her father gave her an Amsterdam, Netherlands, phone book, which listed individuals who shared her maiden name of Luyben. Since not many people were cataloged, Winistorfer e-mailed them about her family history, just to see what would happen.

A few weeks later, not only did she get a response, she discovered she was related to a group of ladies who had recently published their own family genealogical book. A year later, the Dutch relatives (three elderly women and their nephew) visited Winistorfer in Bismarck.

"Because we didn't know what we each looked like, we held up the book." Winistorfer says. "That was our flag to let one another know who was who. It's a miracle that it all happened.

While they were in North Dakota, Winistorfer took her relatives to the family homestead, where they used metal detectors to scan for Dutch artifacts.

The following year, Winistorfer visited the three women in the Netherlands. While there, they toured battle sites, saw old windmills and visited the birthplace of Winistorfer's grandfather.

"Seeing where my grandfather was born was a very stirring experience for me," Winistorfer says. "It was really wonderful to see where my roots actually were."

Ancestor organizing
For many people, one of the most challenging tasks of genealogical research is filing. In their book,Winistorfer and Langemo list several ways people can easily compile their research, such as electronic indexing and sorting by surname or date.

After people gather data, Winistorfer recommends they use it to write their own family historical books. The only problem some individuals have, Winistorfer says, is believing their research is complete.

"There is a danger people will think that they don't have enough information, but if they think that way, the book will never get written," Winistorfer says. "A line has to be drawn somewhere."

Reprinted with permission of the Fargo Forum.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller