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Roots: Discover family history



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Bev DeGraw with photos and much of the research she has done on her family history. A genealogy program at the library is planned for Monday. Photo by Susan Bromley. (click for larger version)
September 08, 2010 - Brandon Twp.- Floyd Hubble died when his plane was shot down over France on July 4, 1944.

Bev DeGraw knew little else about the uncle who perished when she was 6-years-old, as her grandmother couldn't bear to speak of him.

"It tore her up, her heart was broken," says DeGraw, now 72 and a township resident, as she shows an old portrait of a young man in an Air Force uniform. "She couldn't even stand to see other servicemen."

It wasn't until several years ago that DeGraw heard the full story of what had happened to her uncle, from David Butcher, the sole survivor of the World War II crash that killed eight men. Obtaining the family history about her uncle, who was listed as missing in action until 1947, took a lot of work— as is often the case when researching one's genealogy.

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DeGraw should know— she has been on a journey to uncover her roots since the 1980s.

"My maternal grandfather, he claimed that we are part Cherokee Indian," she said. "I was curious to find out if we really are. I haven't found out yet, because there have been some roadblocks. There is a family member who came to Michigan from New York, and we haven't been able to get beyond him. He would be a great-uncle from the 1800s."

In her quest for information, DeGraw has traveled to numerous cemeteries in Ortonville and Clarkston, surfed the internet, and visited the library— which she said has been a major source of help.

The Brandon Township Library will offer assistance to anyone seeking to learn more about their ancestry and is offering a special program to beginners on Monday. "Getting Started: Researching Your Family's Heritage" will be presented from 7-8:30 p.m., Sept. 13, at the library, 304 South St.

Kris Rzepczynski, Michigan Genealogy Coordinator of the Library of Michigan, will discuss key resources, including census records and newspapers, online tools and databases, and other strategies for tracking down your family.

Rzepczynski has been helping people research genealogy for a decade and notes that in the last few years, interest in the subject has grown substantially. He attributes the increased fascination with the subject to easier accessibility through the internet.

When just starting out in researching your family, Rzepczynski says you must find out the who, what and when, and start with yourself.

"People fall into a trap, thinking they're related to a king or queen," he said. "You hear a family tradition, but it's important to start with yourself and work your way back. Look at the resources and make the connections, instead of picking a certain person and trying to force a connection."

Researchers should interview any living family members including parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents— asking questions such as where they lived and time frames, schools they attended, churches they went to, their memories about growing up. Then, when a genealogist comes to the library, they will be better prepared to ask questions of the library staff and concentrate on a particular county or state.

Rzepczynski said some states, counties, and countries have excellent records that go back to the 1600s. In Michigan, state records go back to the mid-1800s and some church records go earlier.He said New England and southern states have very good records and other areas are not nearly as strong.

Often, the success of the hunt for family history depends on the commitment of the researcher, or even just good fortune.

"In a perfect world, you would find another source that supports your research," Rzepczynski said. "If there has been a fire, sometimes other sources can be found. If the county courthouse burns, sometimes there is a copy here at the state level."

Rzepcyznski has met a researcher with descendants from the Mayflower, as well as one who was linked to English royalty, ano others who had ancestors who served in the Civil War.

He has done research on his own family and is currently transcribing a diary his great-grandfather kept while serving in World War I.

Rzepcyznski advises people to keep their photographs and always identify the people in them to help future generations.

"In 30 years, they may not know who that particular cousin was," he said. "Keep documents that will help people place you at a certain point in time. Write things that are significant. I prefer paper. Digital is wonderful, but always keep a paper backup."

DeGraw has enjoyed the process and the knowledge she has gained about her heritage.

"I've learned to get to know my family and what they are all about," she said. "They are part of me and it's amazing to learn about them. It has turned into a hobby. I have five sons, and we have nine grandchildren. I keep a journal and show them where I lived and where they lived growing up. I didn't really ask my Dad or Mother what kind of life they had and I regret it... I have started a book on my life, so my kids will know."

For more information on the library program, "Getting Started: Researching Your Family's Heritage," call 248-627-1460.

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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