Tracing Your Family Roots

Family Photos SM

(Published October-November, 2006)

By David G. Young

If your family is like many, there is some relation, somewhere, who has taken on the unofficial role of “family historian.” In my family there are two; my cousin Mona who has dug up some details on my mother’s side and my cousin Denise who is tracking down names and dates on my father’s side.

I’m fortunate to have these two sleuths on the case, because family genealogy research is a highly detailed and time-consuming pursuit. To become a family historian you’ll need fundamental computer skills, dogged determination and enough free time to dig through files and documents buried in numerous libraries, archives, or collections.

 But, whether you’re a relative novice or the family “Stephen Ambrose,” there’s good news. Expert genealogy help is readily available through the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. And Hampton residents will soon be able to learn the basics of genealogy research from the Carnegie’s leading authority on the subject.

In conjunction with the Hampton Community Library, Carnegie Library’s Marilyn Cocchiola Holt, MLS, will be presenting a workshop entitled “Climbing Your Family Tree: Beginning Genealogy” on Tuesday,  October 10 in The Great Room at the Community Center. Two sessions are being scheduled: from 1:00 to 2:30 p.m. and from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. Space in either session can be reserved by calling the Library at 412-684-1098.

As the Head of the Pennsylvania Department of the Carnegie Library and President of the Western Pennsylvania Genealogical Society, Marilyn Holt has worked closely with genealogical patrons over the past 23 years. In that time she has also presented numerous programs on local and family history topics and taught longer courses on genealogy. Participants at the October 10 workshops should be prepared to take away a wealth of practical tips, invaluable insights and timesaving recommendations to speed their own family research. Each participant will also receive a set of handouts with tips, worksheets and guides.

If you or someone in your family has already dug up some history, you already know how intriguing the process can be. As you begin to unearth clues about your ancestors – who they were, where they lived and what they were like – you may start to feel a little like one of the professional investigators on the PBS television show “History Detectives.” Each week these intrepid historians and librarians are challenged to track down several different family mysteries. It’s equal parts “Antiques Roadshow” and “Biography” … and utterly fascinating.

But, if you haven’t yet started digging into your family’s past, the task can seem daunting. That’s why it’s so invaluable to have the expert guidance of someone like Marilyn Holt.

As Suzanna Krispli, Hampton Community Library’s Director explains, “This program is intended for someone who is getting interested in genealogy but simply doesn’t know where and how to start. But it should also prove very valuable for people who have run into roadblocks in their research and need some ideas on where to go next.”

The starting points for many people, ironically enough, aren’t necessarily names and dates. Documentable facts – names, births, marriages, divorces, etc. – can be a great base from which to start … providing that your relatives were meticulous about keeping such records. The truth is many of us just don’t have those types of family records.

What many of us have instead are little more than stories … family myths and legends that are told and retold down through the generations.

Most families have at least a little bit of lore to share, tales that seem to crop up during family reunions or holiday gatherings. Maybe it’s the story about how their ancestors came to America. Perhaps it’s a tale of some long-ago relative’s brush with history. Sometimes it’s a rumor about which great-uncle was hanged for a horse thief!

One of my grandmother’s fondest family stories was an oft-told account of how her great grandfather was the first sheriff of Allegheny County. A little digging (by my cousin in Utah) revealed that he wasn’t actually the first sheriff of the county … not by a long shot. But the research did tell the story about how my ancestor was sheriff during the city’s great fire of 1845, a fact confirmed by contemporary newspaper accounts and local histories.

“If you don’t have specific names and dates, a family story can often provide a valuable jumping-off point for research,” said Marilyn Holt. “We have extensive archives containing newspaper articles and clippings, biographies, and other sources. If we can find a reference to your ancestor in one of these sources it will most likely lead to more names and dates.”

And names and dates are, after all, the holy grail of genealogy. If all of this is beginning to sound a little bewildering and you’re not sure where exactly to start, the Carnegie Library offers a service you’re going to appreciate. For a search fee of just $10 the librarians of the Pennsylvania Department will conduct a preliminary search through their records for you. The cost includes up to six pages of results, with additional pages running 50 cents each. It’s a great way to save yourself some time and get a jump-start on tracking down your family’s history.

Family genealogies have become one of the largest and fastest growing areas of interest in modern America. Credit the personal computer for this trend, which allows researchers to peruse documents in remote archives without ever having to leave the comfort of their family rooms. It’s been estimated that more than half of all Internet users have done at least a little genealogy online.  As interest in family pedigree has grown over the past 10 years, more and more historical records are being digitized.  Beyond records of births, deaths and marriages, researchers can now investigate property records, US census data, military records, immigration archives and much more online.

Even a cursory search for websites devoted to genealogy identifies more than 260,000 sites on the topic (see Many of these locations are free to use, but a number of the more popular sites require a subscription or fee before you can use their services. The better known sites, such as or, boast large numbers of members, which suggests how useful they can be in shaking a few leaves off the family tree.

For example, a few years ago I visited a genealogy site to see if I could dig up any hits on my great, great grandfather, Elijah Trovillo. I didn’t find anything relevant, but I did post an inquiry about the family name on a message board. To my surprise I received a reply from another descendant who had done quite a bit of research ahead of me, saving me a ton of time.

My grandmother had always insisted that our family possessed some French blood, but most of us were skeptical. As it turns out, my distant relative (located in Harrisburg, ironically) confirmed that the Trovillos were Huguenots who left France for America, presumably to escape religious persecution. I would probably never have uncovered that nugget if not for the Internet and this commercial genealogy site. However, with the richness of the free resources available through the Internet it’s actually unlikely that you’ll ever need a paid subscription to start your research.

As you begin to accumulate names, dates, facts and numerous other details about your ancestors they hopefully will paint a picture you’ll be proud to pass down to your children and grandchildren. But be aware, though, that you may also bump into some unexpected discoveries.

Marilynn Holt has seen instances where family researchers hit a dead end after discovering that a key ancestor had been adopted, thus breaking the bloodline. One woman was surprised to discover unknown people located in the family cemetery plot, with no records or family legends to indicate who they were. Sometimes the truth can prove stranger than fiction, though sometimes fiction can also illustrate the risks.

One of my favorite episodes of the television show Frasier involved their discovery that a family heirloom once belonged to Russian royalty. The ever social-climbing Frasier Crane and his brother were thrilled to believe they were descended from a Russian princess, but horrified to discover that they were really descended from the princess’s chambermaid, who had stolen the artifact before fleeing to America! You just never know.

But for most aficionados, researching the family tree is a fascinating and rewarding pursuit. Many people feel it becomes somewhat obsessive; one discovery leads to new paths, which lead to new discoveries.

“Our initial goal is to come up with some names and dates,” Marilyn Holt explains, “Because dates lead us to other resources. Those resources take us to new dates, which then lead us toward more resources. For example, a date of death may lead us to find an obituary, which may contain the names of children or grandchildren and other dates.”

The true value of having help from Marilyn and her staff rests not so much in digging out the raw data as in interpreting the results and figuring out the next logical step. There are so many potential resources available that the fledgling researcher could easily become lost figuring out which path to take next. Among the more popular resources for genealogists are:

  • Vital Records - The Pennsylvania Department can provide direct access or recommendations to vital records from Allegheny and other counties that include births, deaths, marriages, divorces, property transfers, civil and criminal trials, and so forth. Researching vital records is an almost mandatory stage for genealogists.
  • Church Records – In many cases vital records were kept by Parish churches, many of which kept detailed records of baptisms, marriages and similar ceremonies. This is especially true for those tracing their heritage through English sources. An edict issued in 1538 by English King Henry VIII required that ministers keep records of christenings, baptisms, marriages and burials. It was a practice that spread throughout Europe and continued in America, so church records may prove a valuable source of information that could reach back to the mid 1500s.
  • Cemeteries – Many of the larger cemeteries have detailed records of who is buried on the premises. Organizations like the Western Pennsylvania Genealogical Society have copies of many of these records. Family plots may contain the graves of parents, children and other relatives with complete sets of dates.
  • U.S. Census – The U.S. Census has been a golden source of information on our ancestors for a very long time. Congress mandated in the Constitution that a “headcount” of all Americans be made every 10 years, so the chance of discovering some details on your ancestors is pretty strong. Early Census records tend to be somewhat sparse, providing few details beyond head of household. But, more recent Census databases, particularly those since 1910, are very detailed, with information on head of household, spouse, children, places of birth, occupations and so forth.
  • Immigration Records – For the most part America is a nation of immigrants, and the chances are very good that you can trace when and how your ancestors arrived in America. There are two potential sources: passenger records and immigration records. All of the major ports of entry – New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston, to name a few – kept detailed records of arriving passengers. This could be the clue to where your family hailed from in “the old country.” Since immigrants are supposed to become “naturalized” (admitted to citizenship) there should be local or federal records on your family members who came to America, no matter where they originated. In some cases the information may even include the name and relationship of relatives your ancestors left behind. If you plan to extend your search to Europe, Asia and similar places of origin this could be the vital clue.
  • Family History Library – In 1894 the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (also known as Mormons) founded a library in Salt Lake City to house an extensive database of genealogical archives. Its the single largest resource of it’s kind in the world and contains more than 2.4 million rolls of microfilmed records. They have an ancestral database of more than 36 million names linked into families. In addition the church operates more than 4,000 family history centers around the world, with several located in Western Pennsylvania (including Butler and Green Tree). The centers may be used free of charge by the general public and any microfilm in the master collection may be requested to be sent to any local center for research. Visit for more information.
  • Military Records – Millions of Americans have served their country over the past 230 years and from the Civil War on there are extensive records of that service. The Civil War, in particular, is the source of much interest and records from the period are increasingly being made available electronically. There are regimental membership lists and applications for postwar-pensions and many other types of records than can confirm your relatives’ military legacy.

Marilyn Holt’s Pennsylvania Department can provide assistance and direction in exploring all of the resources described above, and much more. In addition to the more generic resources, the Department also houses numerous indexes, an extensive microfilm collection, a visual record called the Pittsburgh Photographic Library, among other local and state-wide resources. The Department’s capabilities also include online research on their computers with access to websites that would otherwise require a paid subscription, all available free of charge. The department’s website can be found at In addition, try visiting the Western Pennsylvania Genealogical Society for additional help in tracing your roots. They can be reached at

So … armed with all of the genealogical suggestions and resources listed above, no doubt you’re ready to plunge in, right? If it all seems a little overwhelming, the easiest way to get started may be to join us on October 10 at the Community Center for an introduction to family tree research. And if you’re not a novice at genealogy, you’ll still be able to gain some valuable tips and insights from one of the region’s top experts in the field. Either way, your family tree is bound to sprout some new branches!

How To Do Genealogy & Oral History

A Booklist of Circulating Titles from the Pennsylvania Department

1. The census book. A genealogist’s guide to federal census facts, schedules, and indexes. William Dollarhide. [q] CS49.D65 2000 -- BOOK 3WK

2. The genealogist’s computer companion.Rhonda R. McClure. [q] CS14.M345 2002x

3. Genealogy online., Elizabeth Powell Crowe. CS21.C67 2001

4. Organizing your family history search. Sharon Carmack. [q] CS44.C375 1999

5. The source : a guidebook of American genealogy. edited by Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking.

[q] CS49.S65 1997

6. Your guide to the Family History Library. Paula Stuart Warren and James W. Warren. [q] Z733.C55 W37 2001

7. Your official America online guide to genealogy online. Matthew L. Helm and Leigh Helm. CS21.H456 2000

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