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Embracing their roots

By Staff | Mar 12, 2010

A group of amateur sleuths has been meeting at Rugby’s Heart of America Library for the past couple of months trying to track down and document persons of interest.

No, these are not villains or scoundrels who are sought after, but long lost ancestors.

Informally calling themselves the Genealogy Society of Rugby, the group meets every Thursday afternoon and plans to continue until June when they may go to monthly meetings for the summer.

In 2008 Vicki Hoffart spearheaded the gathering of a few local residents who were interested in family histories. Employees of the North Dakota State Library in Bismarck led two workshops in Rugby, and a small group started meeting at the library to share information and resources. When Vicki moved from Rugby meetings became less frequent and eventually stopped altogether.

In January interested individuals from the area regrouped. Their goal is to assist members in research, in developing a family tree, and in writing a family history. New leaders are Dallas Knudson of Berwick and Curt Olson of Rugby, whom others in the group call ‘experts’.

Dallas and her husband Warner have spent many years researching their ancestors and visiting places they lived. Curt says he “has been messing around with it since 1985.” At that time he had a data base program but says it was very basic with no bells or whistles. His wife, Barb, became interested in learning more of her side of the family in the last few years.

Various ways of collecting and documenting information are used. Gone are the days of poring over large books of ships’ manifests and Ellis Island immigrant lists. The internet has made family research much less burdensome but it still requires time and diligence according to the group leaders.

Meetings are usually devoted to sharing resources and information. “We designate that time for help,” Dallas said. “We bring resources and share those…family trees, different resource books. We do original research or more research.”

The Olsons, who moved back to the area after living in Grand Forks for many years, use the website ancestry.com for much of their work, but say you must pay for that resource. The library has access to ancestrylibraryedition through the North Dakota State Library, which anyone can use free of charge at the library.

Group member Judy Jelsing is partial to the Mormon church website familysearch.org . “I’ve learned more there than at any other site,” she said.

In our area the Mouse River Loop Genealogical Society of Minot is a good source of information according to Dallas. That society has for sale old county atlases, cemetery records, naturalization records and other documents.

The Family Tree Maker software by ancestry.com can be purchased at a reasonable cost and contains charts and helpful graphics.

Individuals work on their own projects at home and share results at meetings. The Olsons bring their laptop, and a computer in the basement of the library is available for use. That way the library’s upstairs computers are not tied up for hours at a stretch.

“Everyone’s at different stages in their work,” Dallas said. Some members have a nearly complete family tree and are looking for just one or two names. Others have hardly moved beyond a few generations back.

Curt and Barb Olson have been trying to locate the grave of one of Barb’s uncles. “He was my mom’s brother,” Barb said. “He was studying at Jamestown to be a minister. He drowned in a river near Pembina and his funeral was at Souris.” Her uncle, whose last name was Guttu, was newly married and his bride wanted him to be buried nearer her home at Harvey. But the Olsons can’t find his grave in the city of Harvey so they are expanding their search to cemeteries in the Harvey area. Her uncle’s widow later married a man with the last name Melhoff, so they are researching that surname also.

Judy pointed out that some pioneer families maintained cemeteries on the farm, so some graves probably weren’t recorded anywhere. For instance, on the farm where she grew up there was a burial plot with five or six graves. She doesn’t remember the names of the people, but knows that one grave was marked John Doe, the name of the deceased unknown even at the time of death. “That (farmstead) cemetery was one of many, I’m sure,” she said.

Sometimes the search is more lighthearted than life and death matters.

“I was always told that on my dad’s mother’s side we were related to Ralph Waldo Emerson,” Judy said. “I’ve gone back to David Emerson who was born in 1795. But,” she concluded,”it’s probably just hearsay.”

Dallas believes older family members can be a great resource because they’ve heard family stories passed down from their parents. “The most important thing is for people to get information from their families,” she said. “And write it down!” she added, drawing out the words for emphasis.

Dallas and Warner have a head start on most of the group members. They own a family tree compiled by Dallas’ mother. It’s a 36″ wide by 50′ long scroll detailing ancestors back to the late 1500’s. Her parents, Rev. R.T. and Olga Wanberg, spent four months in Norway researching ancestors before making the huge chart. The original scroll was hand printed on boxcar paper, the heavy brown stock used to line railroad cars in years past. “Mom used what she could get,” Dallas said. When Dallas wanted to make a copy of it to save the original from wear and tear, she searched long and hard until she found an architectural firm that could copy long strips of paper.

Judy Jelsing has done extensive work for both her husband’s and her own family. The Jelsings can be traced as far back as 1743 in Norway. And they weren’t always known as Jelsings. In Norway when families moved they took the name of their new farm, or the region they moved to, as their surname, so some families had a succession of different last names.

Her husband’s grandfather, Anfin Jelsing, or Hjelseng, came to the U.S. about 1885 according to a source in Norway. “The word ‘about’ is used a lot in research because actual dates aren’t known,” Judy said.

One branch of Judy’s family, the Heidlebaughs, goes back to 1703 in Germany. “That’s where you can’t find any more records,” she said. Her paternal grandmother’s family has been traced back to 1633 in England.

As significant as dates are, Dallas believes fleshing out the bare bones of ancestors is equally important. “We need more than just facts,” she maintains. “We need stories. It’s more than just looking for dates and relatives.”

At one meeting a group member requested help in writing an obituary her own. “Our children left the state for employment after graduation. Having an obituary written in advance will be one less concern for our family,” she said.

At other meetings the group has analyzed written family histories and shared family recipe books and photo albums, even reviewed eulogies presented at funerals as ways of making ancestors more than just lists of names. Obituaries are a good source of information, the group agrees, but eulogies are often better for revealing the real person.

Curt Olson became interested in his ancestry when he attended family picnics and talked to several generations of relatives. Sometimes cousins from Norway would visit and he’d learn family history from them. On his father’s side his search has taken him as far back as 1680. “I haven’t gotten back as far with my mother’s family, the Isaacsons,” he said. “It’s hard to find with all the name changes and spellings.”

The group continues to meet weekly and would welcome new members. “We’ll do it until spring,” Barb said, then probably slack off for the summer.

So far no one in the group has discovered any famous relatives, so no one is claiming to be descended from wealth or royalty. But no real villains have been found, either. Still, now and then a surprise or two is uncovered. “When you get into this family stuff you find out all kinds of things,” Judy said.

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