Written by Cheryl A. Fallstead
October is National Family History Month, making this a perfect time to begin a journey of researching your roots. I started earlier this year in anticipation of a summer trip to Ireland where some of my ancestors lived and discovered a wealth of resources. No matter where your family is from, there’s a good likelihood that you can build your family tree and learn more about the people who came before you. With the advances in using DNA to research your family, even if you don’t know your direct ancestors, you may be able to dig up information through science.
Most of us know at least a couple generations of names. Dedicated genealogists often know family stories going back hundreds of years. The ever-increasing accessibility of old records on the internet makes sleuthing out fascinating tidbits easier while several local resources help family genealogists navigate both archives and online records. A word of warning from Eva Nevarez St. John, vice president of the Doña Ana County Genealogical Society, who began researching her roots 10 years ago and now has a bookshelf full of binders documenting her family history: “It’s very addictive!”
Where do you begin? Experts suggest writing down everything you know about your family tree, starting with yourself, including date and place of birth, and then working backwards. Ask family members for more information. As our oldest relatives pass away, we lose access to important family stories and the ability to identify people in photos, so ask while you can! Both my parents died in the last three years, leaving me with boxes of photos, many with no names attached. Spend time with your elders penciling names, dates, and locations on the back of photos and or recording their memories.
Creating an account on Familysearch.org or Ancestry.com lets you create a genealogy chart online as well as access thousands of records, some for a fee. The Branigan Library and the Las Cruces Family History Center (FHC) both have accounts for several online genealogy services that you can use at no cost. Once you plug in the information you’ve found, the search algorithms kick in and start giving you hints of potential matches, such as census and military records, birth and death records, and other data you can use to build your tree.
Another word of caution from the experts: Don’t take everything you find as gospel and don’t assume that information on someone else’s family tree is correct. Larry Taylor, co-director of the FHC with his wife, Karen, says one record showed his third-great grandmother being buried before she died. While other people’s trees can point you in a new direction, it is best to confirm the information because, instead of tracking an ancestor, you may find yourself on a wild goose chase.
A great way to get your feet wet researching your roots is talking to experts who love to share their knowledge. There are several local sources that will help you on your journey.
The Doña Ana County Genealogical Society has educational presentations on the second Wednesday monthly from 2pm to 3pm at the Branigan Library’s Roadrunner Room. The Genealogical Resources page on their website, dacgs.org, has links to numerous helpful sites, including videos of presentations at the annual RootsTech convention. In addition, the group offers members use of their reference books and access to a members-only portion of the website.
The New Mexico Genealogical Society is hosting their 58th annual conference October 26 and 27 in Albuquerque, with speakers, vendors, and networking. Learn more at nmgs.org.
There are genealogical societies all over and they are a great resource. Contact the society where your ancestors lived and see if they can help your research.
Thomas Branigan Memorial Library
The city library has a wealth of genealogical resources available at no charge, including how-to books in the circulating collection as well as numerous reference books with indices for local church records, obituaries in the Sun-News from 1978, ship manifests, and immigration records.
The collection includes copies of the Las Cruces Sun-News, Bulletin, and earlier area newspapers on microfilm, plus city directories and phone books. They also have online access to Ancestry library edition as well as other websites and subscriptions for several genealogy magazines. The reference librarians can help beginning researchers navigate the resources available at the library and online. In addition, they hold occasional presentations on family history research.
Las Cruces Family History Center
The LDS Church has long encouraged and provided resources for researching family history, including their impressive library in Salt Lake City. Las Cruces has a smaller, yet very helpful, FHC staffed by volunteers, including directors Larry and Karen. They have both been intrigued by family history since their teens and love helping others make discoveries.
Larry says, “My love of family history began when at the age of 19, my grandmother had me copy her 15-generation pedigree chart.” Karen is fascinated with recording family stories.
Through their many resources and regular programming at the FHC, they’re also helping young people connect with their ancestors. Teen Angel Vazquez says, “Family history and genealogy is a precious gift in my life because I am able to have a connection with family members who have passed away and at the same time I am fortifying my family connections with those who are still living.”
The center has nine computers, a high-quality photo scanner (by appointment), and access to software programs. They also offer four to six workshops on various topics each month. They say, “We have experienced volunteers who love genealogy and assisting others. Patrons can access many subscription genealogical websites, including Ancestry, findmypast, and MyHeritage, for free. We love helping others find their families! Due to the ever-increasing amount of information available on the web: “If you didn’t find it this week, look next week. That’s become our motto.”
The center is located at 2915 E. Idaho Ave. For more information, search for Las Cruces Family History Center online or call the Taylors at 575-571-2910.
Other Local Resources
Sometimes when digging into history, you must find primary sources. The Doña Ana County Clerk’s office and the university archives and special collections at NMSU are excellent resources for those whose families have been here for generations. The county has records which go back to the mid-1800s, including marriage, birth, and death certificates, land sales, as well as copies of newspapers. As there is a charge for photocopies, take a phone or tablet along to photograph documents. Get information about the collections at the university, hours, and research rules at lib.nmsu.edu/archives.
Multiple companies offer DNA testing that can point to the regions where your ancestors originated. My husband was surprised when his Ancestry DNA test showed while, as expected, most his ancestry is from Western Europe and Great Britain, he also has ancestors in the Ireland/Scotland/Wales region as well as southern Europe. As expected, about half of my DNA reflected ancestors from Great Britain, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. What I didn’t expect was that 50 percent of my ancestry comes from Western Europe, including Belgium, France, and Germany.
Tests are now fairly inexpensive and simply require you to spit in a tube or do a cheek swab and mail it in. You can also use your results to help match you to others who share your DNA.
Returning to the Motherland
Some researchers travel to learn more about their families. Eva Nevarez St. John, vice president of the Doña Ana County Genealogical Society, visited her maternal ancestral home in the Czech Republic. She says, “I got a lot of pictures and stories about our family from my mother’s aunt. Also, from my uncle I got copies of the plans for remodeling the family house in Thierbach in 1926, along with a copy of a mortgage for the remodeling.”
Vicki Day, a friend from California, recently attended a family reunion in Nova Scotia where she met numerous relatives, including one who has researched the ancestors buried in the village’s cemetery and recorded the information on an on-line genealogy website to share. She says, “Trip highlights were seeing the house my great-grandfather built and the graveyard where many of my relatives are buried, including Christian Hennigar, who was given a land grant from England for fighting in the Revolutionary War.”
In Ireland, I also hoped to track down family lore. I twice visited the National Library in Dublin, which has a genealogical research room, bringing along what little information I had about my Irish ancestors. I hoped with their resources they could find my family. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough to track them and discovered that while a great deal of information is on the web for Catholic families, for Protestant families such as mine, I need to discover and contact their parish office.
As many records held by the government were lost in fires during the Irish Civil War, church resources are even more essential. However, a search engine which shows areas of the country people of a certain surname were clustered confirmed that my ancestors were most likely from the north of Ireland. It seems another trip to Ireland is in my future once I’ve dug deeper into my roots.