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Visit Independence, Mo. and Discover Your Ancestors

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Midwest Genealogy Center
Midwest Genealogy Center

Did your ancestors blaze a trail? Are you the descendant of a pioneer hero? No matter where your ancestors came from, you can dig deep into your ancestry and uncover details that tell your family’s story in Independence, Missouri. Independence is home to the Midwest Genealogy Center, the nation’s largest free-standing public family history library—as well as the starting point for hundreds of thousands of pioneers heading west—making Independence a gold mine of family history information and one of the best places in the United States to trace your family tree.

Genealogy Resources at the Midwest Genealogy Center

Start off at the Midwest Genealogy Center (MGC), which houses more than 750,000 research sources on site! You’ll find complimentary programs and ancestor charts, plus assistance from the librarians to help you begin to research your family’s history. The MGC website has suggestions on what you need to do in advance to maximize your time during your visit.

Among its many features, MGC houses a uniquely expansive circulating collection and almost completely open stacks. Technology is also a major attribute of the building: Microfilm reader-printers, a self-digitization station and database access allow researchers to use today’s technology to assist their investigations.

While visiting MGC, you’ll have unlimited complimentary access to more than 20 online genealogy websites including:

  • Ancestry.com (Library Edition)
  • Findmypast.com, which offers access to over 3 billion records from the United States and around the world, including military collections and immigration and naturalization records
  • American Civil War Research Database
  • Fold3 (Library Edition)

A unique free service is the Tell Me a Story Oral History Projects, an initiative that allows you to make an appointment to record your family’s history and stories with assistance from a trained oral history technician.

Discover Pioneer Ancestors and American History in Independence

Due, in part, to its historical significance as the starting point for pioneers heading west, Independence is home to a gold mine of family history information. Fill in the blanks and be ready for some surprises as you explore your roots. Then, step outside the books and databases to see what your ancestors may have experienced.

National Frontier Trails Museum
Frontier Trails Museum

Did your ancestors head west? They likely passed through Independence as the starting point for the Santa Fe, California and Oregon trails. Explore the National Frontier Trails Museum and its Merrill J. Mattes Research Library. The library contains thousands of original diary accounts of emigrants who traveled the trails in the 1800s. Maps, photos and secondary resources further enhance your research.

Tour the 1859 Jail, Marshal’s Home & Museum that once housed notorious outlaw Frank James. Tour the 1827 Log Courthouse, the Bingham-Waggoner Estate or Vaile Victorian Mansion. Then, take a mule-drawn wagon ride to learn more about those that journeyed west.

Be sure to allow time to walk in Harry S. Truman’s footsteps tour the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum. With friendly accommodations, hometown dining and shopping, be ready for some pleasant surprises as you explore your Missouri roots.

Retracing My Roots: Discovering my family history at the Midwest Genealogy Center in Independence, Mo.

Written by Lindsey Wilhelm

Information desk at the Midwest Genealogy Center

There’s a certain feeling inside your bones when you touch something with history. For me, old objects hold a tangible energy of all the people who came in contact with them. But this is especially true of heirlooms that are significant to one’s own family history. Sometimes it’s a grandmother’s wedding ring. Or a great-grandfather’s military jacket. Or a great-aunt’s diary. Grasping the same object my loved one once held shows me that there’s history in everyday items. Sometimes, even discovering an important document can provide this feeling.

I am in my mid-20s—a time when I’m growing into my own person and exploring the world as an adult. And I recently realized I don’t know much about my family history.

As the great Maya Angelou once said, “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going.” I am in the sweet spot for a quarter-life crisis. And in order to know where I’m headed in my life, I decided it was time to discover where I’ve been. And there’s no place better equipped to help me uncover my past than the Midwest Genealogy Center—the largest free-standing public family history library in the US—in Independence, Missouri.

Starting my genealogy research

On a recent visit to Independence, I visited the Midwest Genealogy Center (MGC), which boasts more than 750,000 resources across two stories and 52,000 square feet. A branch of the Mid-Continent Public Library and just 20 minutes from downtown Kansas City, MGC offers history books, address directories, databases, oral-history recording kits, microform readers and more. Tens of thousands of people from all over the world visit MGC each year. It doesn’t matter where your family is from—“Midwest” refers to MGC’s location, but the resources can help anyone trace their family tree, no matter their background.

When I walked in, I strolled past several glass cabinets showing off family heirlooms that had been loaned to the library. Continuing through the entryway, I saw the front desk ahead and the grand staircase to the left. On the first floor, visitors can access computers for research, capture family stories in a recording studio and thumb through thousands of microfiches containing books, newspapers and more printed resources—many of which can’t be found anywhere else due to copyright restrictions. Upstairs, shelves upon shelves contain more printed resources. Staff are available to help you follow a lead when you get stuck and locate books to check out. They are happy to help with roadblocks, but remember—the digging is up to the visitor.

Researching at the Midwest Genealogy Center

As someone who loves to play detective (at least when it comes to true crime documentaries), I felt excited to dive in and start my research. Before arriving at MGC, I spent many hours poring over the family history documents that my parents shared with me and filling out forms that MGC provides. I was lucky to have a solid foundation—my uncle on my dad’s side compiled a six-generation family tree, including details about our ancestors’ lives. On my mom’s side, my great-grandmother journaled for more than 40 years. Before starting your exploration, it’s important to put together as much information as you can and determine your goal.

A near-death experience and a criminal past

I never thought to ask my parents much about their families. I’m glad I did because now I know details that have helped me feel closer to these parts of me. My mother’s grandmother Edna’s journal was a highlight. I read the words of a woman I didn’t have a chance to meet yet for years had admired her still-life paintings that hung throughout my childhood home.

I had a huge revelation after finding out Edna came down with the Spanish flu in 1918. She writes, “We tried to get a doctor to no avail. I asked Charlotte to phone Mother and tell her that if Christian Science could heal as a friend had assured her, now was an opportunity to prove it. She and the friend came over. The friend prayed and read to me from Science and Health, and when I awakened the next morning, I was well.” If Edna hadn’t recovered, I wouldn’t be writing this story, and I feel very lucky to be here.

Edna also wrote about my great-grandfather Glenn securing a position as head designer at Meeker Advertising in Joplin, Mo. Eventually they decided to return to their hometown of Ithaca to start their own advertising business. Another link tying me to the past—I work in advertising myself with clients all throughout Missouri. This commonality between us made me smile. They went on to build a cottage on Cayuga Lake, and my mom told me that Glenn painted the view on the ceiling of their porch overhang. I wish I could have seen it!

At MGC, I accessed Ancestry’s database, ready to learn more. I was surprised to find that my great-great-grandpa was sentenced to more than five years at Auburn Prison in Upstate New York for a first-degree grand larceny charge in 1902. The record also included interesting details such as his occupation (railroad car inspector), age (32), and height (5’8”). As I continued searching, I found additional court documents that showed his sentence was later reduced to less than two years. I have yet to find out what he was convicted of stealing, but that’s part of the fun of genealogy research—I can keep digging.

Two mayors and a president

I didn’t have many gaps to fill in on my dad’s side, thanks to the hard work my uncle put in compiling our family tree. I did, however, want to know more about the political past that I read about and our ties to two mayors of Muncie, Indiana, and President William McKinley, whom my dad had always claimed was a distant relative.

An MGC staff member recommended looking up the county where my ancestors lived as a starting point, so I checked the catalog for information on Delaware County. I found a microfiche available for History of Delaware County, Indiana. While skimming through, I found a page dedicated to Edward M. Tuhey, my great-great-grandfather. He was a teacher, builder, steel worker, canning company owner and postmaster before he was twice elected mayor of Muncie in 1898 and 1910. According to the book, he was “a worthy representative of that type of American character and of that progressive spirit which promote public good in advancing individual prosperity and conserving popular interests.” His son, H. Arthur Tuhey, also served as mayor for two terms starting in 1955. Maybe that’s where I get my interest in politics!

I spent hours upon hours tracing the family tree of President McKinley—including reviewing census records, books, and military documents—in search of a tie to Joseph W. McKinley, my great-great-great-grandfather. I found a page in the same history book about Arthur D. McKinley, the former president’s second cousin, and researched his family history, as well. But whatever our fabled link is, it remains hidden. But I’ll keep looking—I’m determined to find it eventually.

Plant the seed for your own family tree at the Midwest Genealogy Center

Visiting MGC in person was an incredible opportunity, but that’s not the only option. You can start online today, and then plan your trip when you’re ready to travel again. If you live or work within the boundaries of the Mid-Continent Public Library system—Clay, Jackson, and Platte counties in Missouri—you can apply online for a library card and access the center’s online and in-person resources. Several other Missouri counties are part of a reciprocal program that allows residents to apply for a library card even if they don’t live within the MCPL system. Those who live outside of these areas can access certain resources online, including the library catalog, but the best way to experience everything MGC has to offer is by visiting in person and signing up for a guest pass.

While DNA kits have skyrocketed in popularity, they come at a cost of nearly $100—and that’s just for the basic options. If you want to search for family records, it costs $99 for six months of access to Ancestry.com’s US records. On the other hand, MGC offers an accessible, affordable way to research your lineage—it’s only $35 for a six-month guest pass to access MGC’s online and in-person resources. And it’s free if you live within the library system boundaries!

After visiting the Midwest Genealogy Center and researching my family history, I feel more connected to my past than ever before—it’s the tree that led to me. The hardest part was getting started, but from there, each nugget of information I found gave me a rush of excitement to learn about these people who, in many ways, have made me who I am. And there’s so much more to discover.

Now it’s your turn to start digging! Trace your family tree at the Midwest Genealogy Center, and learn more about other genealogy resources in Independence, Mo.

This article is sponsored by the Independence Department of Tourism

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