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Archive researchers can leaf out your family tree

By P.J. Dickerscheid
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Even the most difficult family histories are no match for the researchers at the West Virginia Division of Culture and History's Archives and History Library.Have grandparents who eloped? The library staff can help you locate their marriage license.Have a great-great-great-great-grandfather who was a slave before the Civil War? The library staff can help you try to learn more about him.Have a Cherokee princess in your family history? The library staff can help you determine whether that piece of family folklore is possibly true.Scouring the thousands of records available through the West Virginia Division of Culture and History's Archives and History Library, Diane White of Charleston has traced her African-American ancestors who lived in West Virginia back to the 1800s, and she's only just beginning."It starts with us," White said, pressing the palm of her hand to her heart. "If we know who we are, why we are and what we can become, it's that sense of knowing."Each year, the State Archives library helps about 5,500 patrons such as White navigate through their complicated and sometimes difficult family histories. Countless others tap the state records online.In addition to the usual birth and death certificates, marriage licenses and newspaper obituaries, the State Archives provides a plethora of information that can be gleaned from yearbooks; census, funeral home and prison records -- even public dance cards, social columns and reparations claims. Valuable information also can be found in naturalization records, state mining fatality records, military service records, photographs, manuscripts, special collections and old maps. "You have to think like a detective," said Archives and History librarian Susan Scouras. "If you don't have a birth record, there are always alternate sources."Some of the most challenging ancestors to track down include women, American Indians, African-Americans and other demographic groups that may have scant mention in official records and rarely made the social columns of any newspaper. That's where Scouras and the other researchers at the Archives Library can help.For instance, before the Civil War, counties kept registries of free blacks that include the names, ages and detailed physical descriptions of each individual.The state also compiled lists of every person killed in a mining accident that included their name, age, marital status, number of surviving children and other details.
"There are no magic wands, but there are no stone walls either," Scouras said. "You never know what we're going to have. Just be sure to ask. We could keep you busy for life."Indexes of the State Archive collections, plus free, searchable databases of selected county birth, death and marriage records, are available at"The thrill of the hunt is part of it for most people," Scouras said. Sometimes people are delighted by what they find. Sometimes they are dismayed.
"Sometimes what they find can help soften the blow," she said, telling the story of a man who learned that his father, who died when the man was a child, had killed himself."By reading the page-one [newspaper] article he learned that his father was well-respected and that his death may have been prompted by the recent death of his beloved wife," she said.The library staff also can help people paint a fuller picture of the people behind the names and the type of lives they lived. Details about ancestors' lives, the communities in which they lived and the times in which they lived help to bring life to family genealogies, Scouras said, and each new piece of information often leads people to want to learn more."You don't want to become just a name collector," she said. "If you can't imagine or have an idea of how your grandparents lived, you're missing the point."The reasons people get hooked on tracing their family trees varies. Some just want to learn where they came from. Others want to learn more about their family's medical history.White said she plans to take her findings to her family reunion this summer. By sharing what she's discovered about her ancestors, she hopes to spark an interest among other family members to join her quest.
"It's just amazing what you can find here," White said.See also: Libraries offer workshops on researching ancestors.P.J. Dickerscheid is a cultural program associate for the West Virginia Division of Culture and History. Contact her at 304-558-0220, ext. 148, or by email at
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