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The Thrill of the Hunt: Addicted to Genealogy

By Tom Lowrey, Senior Services Education Assistant

“Genealogy is not an illness; it’s a fatal disease.” So says Quita Shier, a member of a ragtag group of genealogists who call themselves “The Bones Ladies.”

“It’s an addiction,” adds Wilma Diesen, Quita’s good friend and a fellow Bones Lady. “There really should be a twelve-step program for this!”

Quita and Wilma do research not only on their own families, but also on other interesting people as well. Wilma recently came into possession of a wonderful diary that obviously belonged to a Civil War chaplain, but there was no name in it. Undeterred, Wilma and her daughter put on their sleuth hats and used clues in the diary to find out not only the man’s name, but what unit he was with and where he came from. Quita, after doing extensive research on her own family, is now working on a book about Company K, a unit of 145 Union sharpshooters in the Civil War, all but two of whom were Native Americans.

How did Quita and Wilma become genealogists? Both discovered that genealogy is something in which one suddenly finds oneself immersed. For Wilma, it started when she was searching for an anniversary gift for her parents. “My sister very innocently said, ‘Well, you know, they’d really like to have their ancestors traced back to the Revolution.’ At that time, none of us knew anything about genealogy other than the fact that we couldn’t afford to hire a genealogist. Everybody else in my family was gainfully employed, but I was a stay-at-home mom, so I was the one who got to inherit the job. And it’s probably the best thing that ever happened to me!” She has traced a branch of her family through St. Clair County in southern Illinois, and then back to Germany.

Quita was an environmental scientist at Dow Chemical, but the day her project ended and she walked out of the lab for the last time, she got home and found herself in need of something to do. She decided that the old station wagon needed a good cleaning. She started rummaging through several cubbyholes in the back, slid open a little door, and said “What is that?” She pulled out a large bunch of envelopes and papers. “My gosh,” she said to herself, “That’s what my mom gave me when my grandmother died!” Quita started going through what had once been the contents of her grandmother’s bottom drawer… “and that’s when I got the genealogy bug!”

So how does one go about discovering one’s family tree? Quita and Wilma have similar strategies. “You start with yourself and go backwards. You can’t possibly go back three
hundred years and start from there. It just doesn’t work that way.” You start by getting all the vital records for yourself for as far back as you can, including census information.

What are some good sources? Both ladies suggest that you use census information and military records in libraries, archives, and the Internet (including such sites as Ancestry.com), the extensive microfiche info from the Mormon Church, and the Midland Genealogical Society. And, of course, there are your own family records.

But then, once you have that information, you have to do as much as you can to substantiate it. Don’t expect every bit of information you unearth to be true fact. “Being naïve,” says Quita, “I believed everything I read in an old obituary of an ancestor who had fought in the Civil War. The obit said that he had been born in Illinois, and I wasted one whole year looking before I finally contacted some distant cousins who informed me that he was actually from Hendricks, Indiana!”

On the way to their goal, do genealogists sometimes find themselves sidetracked when they uncover unexpected information? “Yes!” replies Quita. “You could describe us genealogists as bird dogs. You can send ‘em out after a bird, and they’ll smell something over here, and then they’ll smell something else over there, and you never know what they’ll come back with. We always start out with our goal in mind, but then it’s ‘Hey, I didn’t know this guy was related to so-and-so,’ and off you go…”

Both ladies agree that genealogy is very fun, but also hard work, and sometimes frustrating. “You can work a year to find a little tidbit that’s absolutely thrilling, and then another year before you find anything else!” But that doesn’t deter our persistent Bones Ladies!