Out on a Limb June 2003

By David A. Fryxell Premium

Genealogists’ quests for their family histories take them to a lot of places less-past-obsessed folks would rather not go. Cemeteries, for instance. Most family historians can’t drive past a cemetery without stopping. Sharon Carmack, longtime contributing editor of this magazine and author of the indispensable Your Guide to Cemetery Research (Betterway Books), can actually tell directions based on which way tombstones are facing, just like a compass, and can decipher all those mysterious markings on gravestones. (Some of us think Sharon may spend a wee bit too much time in cemeteries, even for a genealogist …)

Or consider courthouses, which so-called “normal” people associate with standing in line to get licenses issued or renewed, or with putting in an appearance for some part of the legal process. Not exactly fun and games. (“Mommy! Mommy! Can we go down to the courthouse today?” “No, honey, you got to go to the courthouse yesterday, and spend all day waiting in line with Mommy to contest our property-tax assessment. How about going to the zoo instead?”)

For genealogists, though, county courthouses are a dusty nirvana of old records. We love the sort of stuff that most people hate dealing with at the courthouse-paperwork, official documents, deeds-because our ancestors had to do all that stuff, too. Heck, our ancestors probably hated it as much as we do, but their bureaucratic legacy is our gold mine.

As much fun as courthouses can be, though, sometimes it’s difficult or impossible to go in person. Our ancestors had a nasty way of leaving their records in multiple courthouses scattered across the country. I’ve got ’em on my mother’s side, for example, in counties from Virginia to North Carolina to South Carolina to Georgia to Alabama. (Except where the courthouse burned, that is—but that’s another article.) Unless I had the time, money and Red Roof Inn frequent-guest points to spend several months sojourning along the “blue highways” of Dixie, I can’t research my roots in all those courthouses-not in person.

Fortunately, as Christine Crawford Oppenheimer explains in this issue’s cover story, you can still get ancestral answers from county courthouses without actually traveling there. She should know-she’s the author of Long-Distance Genealogy (Betterway Books).

This issue is packed with places genealogists will enjoy, either in person or virtually. If you’re planning a trip to Pittsburgh for the May 28-31 National Genealogical Society conference (or for any other reason), be sure to pack our guide to family history in the Steel City. If you have ancestors anywhere in America’s heartland, you’ll want to read our primer on Midwest roots before setting off to seek them, by car, plane or modem.

Speaking of modems, you’ll get more out of your genealogical Internet expeditions if you read Nancy Hendrickson’s tips, an exclusive excerpt from her new book, Finding Your Roots Online (Betterway Books). If Nancy’s name sounds familiar, it should: She’s a contributing editor of Family Tree Magazine, and has covered the online world in particular for us from bits to bytes. She also writes the weekly Ancestor News column in our free e-mail newsletter <www.familytreemagazine.comlnewsletter.asp>. Her new book, in fact, is the first in a carefully selected series dubbed the “Family Tree Magazine Library.” 

We promise it will be almost as much fun as a trip to the courthouse or the cemetery.

From the June 2003 Family Tree Magazine