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Detailing family history can be difficult, but worthwhile

| Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012

Marlene Bransom thought it was going to be easy. Just visit the local historical center in Waynesburg, go through some books, and presto, she'd make her impending family reunion that much more memorable with a family tree.

"No such luck," Bransom says with a smile 28 years later, noting the information she found at the Cornerstone Genealogical Society was limited to one slim folder.

"I decided this can't happen," Bransom says. "There has to be information here on African Americans in Greene County. I kind of put my family history aside for a moment and I decided to copy (the names of) all the African Americans who were in the census from 1790 to 1920, typed it up and started gathering as much information as I could."

Bransom, the author of two books that trace African-American genealogy in Western Pennsylvania, will participate in Genealogy Weekend at the Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District on Saturday and Sunday.

"Many Western Pennsylvanians have deep roots in the local community that go back a number of generations," says Andy Masich, president and CEO of the History Center. "Performing genealogical research helps visitors connect with their family roots so they can better understand their ancestors and hopefully guide their own lives in the future. Here at the History Center, that's our mission -- to preserve the past, so we can make good decisions in the present, and plans for the future."

Saturday's theme,"A Journey of Discovery," is co-sponsored by the Afro-American Genealogical Society of Pittsburgh. On Sunday, "Finding Your Family's Story: Genealogy and the Rauh Jewish Archives" is underwritten by the William M. Lowenstein Genealogical Research Endowment Fund.

Because of Internet sites such as and , interest in tracing family roots has increased. This has made research more convenient, but ease of access tends to obscure the fundamental root of family trees: The first step is recognizing what you know.

"You have to put your information down first," says Bransom, noting that family-group sheets and pedigree charts are useful tools. "You start with yourself and work backwards."

Family group sheets chart the ancestry of a specific individual. Pedigree charts track a whole family's lineage, listing parents, grandparents, dates of birth and marriages.

"You can't just start at point A," Bransom says. "When people see shows like 'Who Do You Think You Are,' they think it's so easy. But there are a hundred more steps than what you see on TV. A lot of people subscribe to and get all hyped up, but never use it the way it should be used. It's a lot more work."

Information can be found as close as the family attic. Dr. Alexis Macklin, director of Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center, says long-forgotten items should not be overlooked.

"Every clue you can pull together is important," Macklin says. "You look at pictures from where you are to as far back as you can get them. Birth certificates, marriage certificates, everything that you can possibly collect and start to document what you already know."

The History Center has a variety of resources available for genealogical searches. City directories, dating from 1815 through the early 1900s, were prominent before telephone books. The directories list names, street addresses, ward locations and occupations for the heads of households; women, unfortunately, weren't listed until the late 1800s and early 1900s. Other materials include old high-school yearbooks, monographs, archival family histories and more than 700,000 photographs.

There also are specialized tools for the Jewish population.

"The interest in genealogy is one of the greatest drivers of inquiries into the Jewish archives," says Susan Melnick, an archivist working with the Rauh Jewish Archives. "We hear from people trying to learn about Pittsburgh connections and Pittsburgh families from all over the world."

Notable are the Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project, a collection of more than 100 years of Jewish newspapers from the past 100 years, and the Western Pennsylvania Jewish Cemetery Project, which Melnick has worked on since 1998 to provide data about 70 Jewish cemeteries in Western Pennsylvania.

Melnick receives many queries from people desperate to connect with lost generations. Several years ago, she heard from a man in Israel whose great uncle had immigrated to Pittsburgh from Romania in the 1920s. His grandfather had died in the Holocaust and the connection between the families in the United States and Europe had been broken.

Melnick found the family via a yahrzeit (year's time) notice, which Jews used to commemorate deaths, for the great uncle's wife.

"They were sending out yahrzeit's notices to the woman's grandson, which meant we had found the family," says Melnick, who located graves for the great uncle and his wife in the New Light Cemetery in Shaler. "This was the grandson of the man they were looking for."


Marlene Bransom and Susan Melnick offer tips for people who want to trace their family genealogy.

1. Don't forget the things close at hand. "You probably have a trunk somewhere with family items," Bransom says. "You shouldn't leave your house until you have exhausted all the resources there." Family Bibles are good sources of dates and names. Your family is going to have more information than any other source.

2. Talk to the oldest members of the family. "Often they know things that no one else does," Melnick says. "You don't want to miss that opportunity. ... We encourage people to talk to their families and relatives."

3. Ask for help. The History Center has archivists available to assist researchers.

4. Set aside time. A family tree doesn't spring from a few mouse clicks. Be prepared to do some footwork, visiting libraries, courthouses or other places where records are kept.

5. Attend conferences devoted to genealogical research.

Genealogy Weekend

When: 1-4 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday

Admission: Free; registration encouraged

Where: Senator John Heinz History Center, Strip District

Details: 412-454-6373,

Program details


Dr. Deborah Abbott, a trustee of the Ohio Genealogical Society, will speak about techniques and resources available for African-American genealogical research, 1 p.m.


", Why I Like It" with David Grinnel, archivist at University of Pittsburgh, 10 a.m.

"Beginning Your Journey Through, " Debbie Kapp, professional genealogist, 11 a.m.

"Mining the Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project," Martah Berg, professional archivist, 12:30 p.m.

"Finding Family in the Old World," Evan M. Wolfson, member of the Rauh Jewish Archives advisory committee, 1:15 p.m.

Open house with Heinz History Center archivists Dr. Alexis Macklin and Susan Melnick, 2:30-4 p.m.

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Detailing family history can be hard, but worthwhile.

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