Former Blairsville teacher guides others on genealogical quests
“Who Do You Think You Are?” is more than a genealogy-inspired TV show to Nikki Cravotta. Asking that type of question with regard to her own roots has led to a 30-year passion for learning more about her family story and about herself.
“For me, genealogy research is the ultimate mystery novel,” Cravotta said. “It's the story of your life and your people. It reveals why you're the way you are. We're all a distillation of everyone who came before us.”
Born and raised in the Burrell Township village of Black Lick, Cravotta is retired as an English teacher at Blairsville Middle School. As she learned more about researching her own family history, the teacher in her wanted to share this information with others. As a result, she has taught genealogy workshops at the Historical and Genealogical Society of Indiana County.
On Tuesday mornings between 10 and noon, she can be found giving free help to anyone who comes through the door of the society's museum and library in Indiana. Cravotta notes there is a $3 non-member fee for use of the facility plus any photocopying charges.
Cravotta's investigation into her own clan's history began when she was tidying up some family information in a file folder and decided she wanted to know more about one of her great-grandmothers. When she hit a dead end, Cravotta decided to seek the help of a second cousin, who had married a Mormon.
Cravotta noted the Mormon Church is said to have one of the largest collections of family records in the world, with information on more than 3 billion deceased people.
With some leads from her relative, she was able to trace her lineage back to an original American immigrant who served in the Revolutionary War.
She has since expanded her family tree to include “a couple of thousand” relatives.
The bloodline trail links Cravotta to two royal houses of Scotland, Charlemagne, the White Witch of Poland, an American outlaw named Soapy Smith and local privateer Ebenezer Dayton. There are also plenty of common folks in her family tree.
She also discovered that a great-grandfather was tried for murder in Indiana County in 1888, but her ancestor was acquitted as the jury found he acted in self-defense when he shot another man in the neck.
She was thrilled to discover many newspaper stories revealing extensive trial details. “It was almost like being there,” she said.
Cravotta now finds herself “totally immersed” in genealogical research, noting, “This is a disease for which there is no known cure.”
Two women who attended recent genealogy workshops with Cravotta agree.
“I am hooked and having a blast,” said Patty Hoffman of Brush Valley, who began to research her roots about 20 years ago.
After a workshop with Cravotta, she feels she'll be able to trace her family tree well beyond the two generations she's documented so far.
Recent discoveries for Hoffman include tracing her father's ordeal as he was forcibly marched across Germany as a World War II prisoner of war. She's pleased that her research is revealing more of her late father's story than he was able to share during his lifetime, since he preferred not to discuss his wartime experiences.
In addition to information about the prison camps where her father was held, she has found records that help document the physical effects he endured — dropping from 147 pounds when he entered military service at age 19 to only 120 pounds when he returned home at age 22.
“This can be very time-consuming. But you'll learn things about your family that you never imagined,” Hoffman said.
“Oh yes, be prepared to become addicted,” said Mary Ann Wagner of Indiana. “And you'll never be done.”
Wagner started her genealogical journey because she wanted to know more about a great-uncle buried in Gettysburg.
Along the way, she also discovered that a great-great-grandfather had traveled to America three times between 1903 and 1912 before dying in his native Poland.
One of the man's daughters, Wagner's great-grandmother, settled in the Somerset area and died when Wagner was in first grade. Wagner remembers her great-grandmother clearly but didn't realize that she never spoke English, until another relative recently pointed out that fact.
“I guess I must've been able to understand her somehow,” Wagner said with a laugh.
As her genealogy students have learned, Cravotta recommends starting a line of research with who you know and what you know and then working backward in time.
“Go in with no expectations because what you'll find is always far more interesting than anything you could imagine,” she said. “And there's no such thing as an isolated event. There are always causes, reasons and consequences. Go in with an open mind and let your discoveries lead you on a fascinating journey”
Cravotta holds that every family myth contains at least a tiny kernel of truth and every family has at least one secret or mystery. And all families had their ups and downs.
“As you look back into time within your own family, you'll find both good and bad guys. Try to have understanding for them all,” she said. “People were just people. It's no different than today.”
But, she cautions, “You can't put 21st century values and ideas onto a 17th century person either. That wouldn't be fair.”
She said a sense of a personal connection to history through her ancestors has been one of the most rewarding aspects of her research: “I've always loved history, and I enjoy helping others make their own ‘Who do you think you are?' connections to the past.”
Cravotta has used real crimes from Indiana County's distant past as the basis for scenarios she's written for three mystery dinner fundraisers conducted by the Historical and Genealogical Society of Indiana County. That includes her great-grandfather's murder trial.
Cravotta acknowledged her own research was helped considerably because members of her mother's family were “pack rats” who saved many old photos and newspapers.
But she suggested those lacking such resources in their family can profit by delving into the documents available at the county historical society.
“It's a great place to start researching as there's a wealth of information there,” Cravotta said. “They'll help you get started, too. Everyone's very friendly. If they don't know the answers, they'll help you figure out where to find them.”
Some research can be done through the society's website at www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~paicgs/library.shtml. But Executive Director Coleen Chambers noted the society's various collections are too extensive to include everything online. She encouraged anyone interested in viewing what's available to visit the society museum and library in person.
Chambers said the society houses more than 26,000 surname files for Indiana County families, which can include such items as birth and death notices, photos, newspaper clippings and letters. An index for this collection can be found online.
The society also has a collection of nearly 200 family bibles that have been donated by Indiana County residents, with some of the volumes originating in the 1600s in areas such as Wales, Germany and Scotland.
Started back in 1938, the society also has an extensive genealogical library that contains approximately 4,500 books.
In Indiana County, other communities with historical societies are Blairsville, Saltsburg, Homer City, Smicksburg and Strongstown. Additional places to look for information include courthouses, church records and cemetery records.
On the Internet, websites like findagrave.com, FamilySearch.org (associated with the Mormon Church) and fold3.com (military records) can be helpful. There's always the giant of online genealogy, Ancestry.com — which boasts 12 billion historical records and over 50 million family trees but requires a membership subscription.
“It's an excellent place to start a family tree and find lots of information easily and quickly, but it shouldn't be the end of things,” Cravotta said of the latter site.
She noted that an advantage of belonging to an online genealogy site is the ability to make connections around the world with living persons who, though perhaps distantly related, may still be helpful in one's own research. But, Cravotta cautioned that a flaw of many online sites is that they rely on the research of amateurs — and any information is only as good as the person providing it.
“Yet people will copy it into their own trees, where the misinformation gets passed around over and over,” she said. “People need to do their own research. They have to do some of their own thinking.”
Cravotta stresses open-mindedness regarding DNA testing that is available through some websites to help determine a person's genetic ethnicity and to help identify others to whom a person may be genetically related.
“We might think we come from such and such group of people, but DNA tests might prove otherwise. It's important to embrace whatever the reality is,” she said.
Her best advice to those wanting to research their family tree is to “get organized, start with what you know, document all of your sources, take your time, don't assume anything and be open to whatever you find.
“Genealogy is like a giant puzzle. Take one little bit of information and make it fit with another little bit of information. Eventually the puzzle starts to come together.”
In addition to offering free research advice Tuesday mornings at the county historical society museum, Cravotta can perform private research for a fee. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
The museum, located at 621 Wayne Ave., Indiana, can be reached at 724-463-9600. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays.
Pamela Sagely is a freelance writer.