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Byline: Carol Bidwell Daily News Staff Writer

For generations, elders told stories around the campfire, and later, around the dining room table. Then on eight nights in 1977, author Alex Haley collected America around the television and spun his own family tales, which he called ``Roots.''

Fascinated by stories of Kunta Kinte, Chicken George, Kizzy and other Haley relatives, many who watched began to wonder where they came from, too.

And genealogy, once a science pursued by dull old men in musty old libraries, was suddenly in vogue as Americans sought to put their lives in perspective.

`` `Roots' was a good story and Haley's search for his roots was so tenuous that people began to feel, `Well, if he can do it, so can I,' '' said John O'Neill of Burbank, president of the Southern California Genealogy Society.

Since the airing of ``Roots,'' dozens of genealogy societies have sprung up as more people than ever before search for their own roots. Today, the 460-member Federation of Genealogy Societies in Richardson, Texas, estimates that for more than 200,000 Americans, genealogy is their No. 1 hobby.

To introduce more people to the search for family records, the SCGS is holding its annual Genealogical Jamboree in Pasadena on April 19 and 20. The event, which includes classes for both beginners and advanced roots searchers, is billed as the largest annual genealogical event west of the Mississippi River.

``It's truly a disease, a consuming passion,'' said Patricia Parish of Burbank, who began her ancestor search about a year ago after attending the last SCGS Jamboree. Armed only with her orphaned father's birthplace, Omaha, Neb.,and the name of his mother, Vinnie, she has managed to trace her father's grandparents, aunts and uncles.

It's a lot of work, reconstructing a family tree out of bits and pieces from scattered sources. But all it takes is that one special find to get you hooked.

``Wait till you find a document signed by one of your ancestors,'' said O'Neill who, with his wife, Nillah, started researching family history about 15 years ago. ``It gives you goosebumps. You feel a real tie with those people who lived so long ago. It makes you feel like you have a link with history.''

Charting your pedigree

For many Southland residents, the search begins at the society's library, tucked away since 1983 behind commercial buildings on Burbank's San Fernando Road. It holds more than 7,000 genealogy books and thousands more rolls of microfilm, microfiche, family histories, census, school, church, military and immigration records.

First-time visitors receive a ``pedigree chart,'' a modified family tree that can be fleshed out by questioning family members, checking out the family Bible, combing family birth and marriage records. Then, with that data on the most recent three or four generations, there's usually enough information to start the real work of researching.

Some will discover heroes among their ancestors. Others will unearth bad blood. Often, genealogists will find a little bit of both dangling from their family trees.

And, as is the case for Walter Olson of La Mirada, some will find facts that - like it or not - turn old family legends into mere myths.

Olson, a retired investigator for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, has been tracing his lineage for several years, stopping by the society's library whenever he's in town.

``I had an ancestor who went with King Charles XII of Sweden to fight Peter the Great (of Russia). He was a corporal,'' he said proudly. ``My wife is descended from Dutch settlers who helped establish Nieuw Amsterdam (later New York City) in 1628. One of her early relatives was the first bishop of the Mennonite Church.''

But his research also brought disappointments. ``My wife's family thought they were related to Mary Todd Lincoln, but I did the research - and they're not,'' he said. ``My brother-in-law won't talk to me since I found that out.''

Tell me a story

While often-told family tales may spark the curiosity of many genealogists, others are intrigued by what's been left out of family stories.

It was her father's reticence about his family that made Jan Jennings of La Canada Flintridge start digging up her roots 20 years ago. She knew only that her dad, who died in his 50s, was raised in an orphanage. After a long search, she learned that her father's mother died of tuberculosis in 1904 after giving birth to a fourth son; the baby died a month later. Her railroad-worker husband saw no way to care for his three older sons, so he put them in an orphanage in Pueblo, Colo., and was never heard from again.

The thirst for more family data sent Jennings and her husband on a 14,500-mile motorhome trek around the United States last summer to towns where they believed their ancestors once lived.

``We walked through cemeteries and read gravestones,'' said Jennings, co-chair of the Jamboree, a genealogy teacher and a part-time roots researcher for those who have the money but not the time or the inclination to do the research themselves. ``We found out that my husband had two Mayflower ancestors and a Salem witch.''

Tracing her own ancestors hasn't been as easy. ``My background is Southern, and everything was burned during the Civil War,'' she lamented.

Ironically, although it was a miniseries about generations of an African-American family that triggered the current interest in genealogy, it has been difficult for most African-Americans to trace their families, said O'Neill.

Most are descended from slaves, he said, ``and their last name was the name of their owner. If they were sold, their name was changed. Usually, slave owners didn't keep records of slaves they had sold.''

The few slave records that survived the Civil War have lain, largely forgotten, in attics until someone found the old records and gave them away or sold them.

``We're finding them now in antiques shops and they're putting them on CDs and in libraries so black people can use them,'' he said.

Today's roots searchers also have a new tool available: They're increasingly putting out feelers via the Internet, where more than 14,000 Web sites are available for ancestor searches.

On the paper trail

Two weathered pieces of paper lured the O'Neills into the hunt for their ancestors. About 15 years ago, at her grandmother's funeral, a relative handed Nillah two certificates from a Western Pennsylvania cemetery.

While on vacation in Pennsylvania a year or two later, John and Nillah decided to see who was buried in the two plots. At the cemetery, they found a couple of volunteers from the local historical society, cataloguing genealogical information. After overhearing the O'Neills discussing the two certificates they had come to investigate, one of the women told Nillah: ``I think my husband and you are cousins.''

It turns out that Nillah's great-grandmother was buried in one of the cemetery plots and a spinster friend of the family, who lived with them in her old age, was buried there, too. That brief sleuthing got the O'Neills hooked on finding out more about their ancestors. Now, Nillah volunteers at the SCGS library and John teaches classes in Irish genealogy, a subject that's difficult to explore because of a paucity of data.

(The Irish never discussed family matters because English oppressors used the information to raise Irish families' taxes, he said. And many Irish came to the United States fleeing persecution, so spoke even less about their ancestry.)

Still, he's traced his lineage back to Neill, an Irish king who kidnapped people - including St. Patrick - to sell as slaves in the early 400s.

Nillah O'Neill traced one branch of her family tree back to William the Conqueror, the first king of England (1066-87). The name Cromwell also crops up here and there (Thomas Cromwell was an adviser to England's King Henry VIII in the 1400s; Oliver Cromwell led the parliamentary forces in the English Civil War in the 1600s.)

``It makes you a real history buff,'' she said. ``You see where your ancestors fit into history.''

Ready to research?

If you're thinking of tracing your own family's roots, start now, while relatives are still alive, the researchers said. Take a tape recorder and interview your grandparents, John O'Neill urged.

``Let them talk,'' he said. ``Don't interrupt. Then go back with questions. You may have to go back a dozen times until you fill in all the blanks.''

A family Bible, school yearbooks, report cards, family obituaries and other items can also give clues to a family history, Jennings said.

U.S. Census rolls, available on microfilm at a number of libraries, are good sources of information, but complicating family history research are privacy laws that keep census figures secret for 70 years. For today's researchers, that means the 1920 census is the most recent one available; the 1930 census will become available after 2000.

But no matter how research is done, the experts warn beginners to make sure the sources they use are accurate ones. Some older vanity biographies ``weren't very particular where they grabbed their ancestors from,'' O'Neill said. And an Ohio company - which has changed its headquarters and its name several times to stay a step ahead of U.S. Postal Service inspectors - promises to sell people the complete history of their family for $25 to $50. But what buyers receive is a handsomely bound book containing photocopies of pages from old telephone directories or street directories, some with general information from school textbooks about German, Italian, Irish or other large groups of immigrants.

If receiving one of those books in the mail doesn't dampen fledgling researchers' enthusiasm, the first hint of bad news - illegitimate children, a relative with a tendency toward thievery - puts an end to others' research.

``They're afraid of finding (bad) things,'' said Parish, who discovered that her mother was given away as a child to a family headed by an abusive alcoholic, and ran away when she was 16. But, far from ending her quest for information, that discovery just whetted her appetite for more.

``If you're not willing to open your mind, you can't look any farther,'' Parish said. ``Those are the kind of facts that would give you a clue to go on. Maybe two generations on, there was a saint. You have to go through the bad to find the good.''

As difficult as tracing family history is, it may be even harder for future generations of genealogists, John O'Neill said, because more women than ever before are keeping their maiden name after marriage, more single women are adopting children, more children are being born of surrogate mothers and single women are even turning to sperm banks so they can have children.

``All that's going to be a nightmare in a few generations to trace,'' he said. ``But people will still want to know.''

Start ancestor search here

While most libraries have some historical books and documents that are useful in the search for a person's roots, more than a dozen throughout Southern California have specialized genealogy books, census, church, immigration, military and school records, and other sources for those researching family histories. Here are some of the most helpful, with a partial listing of the resources they have available:

California State University, Los Angeles, library, 5151 State University Drive, Los Angeles; (213) 343-3994: U.S. and foreign records; National Archives guide to Paris, France; U.S. marriage records, 1785-1794.

California State University, Northridge, library, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge; (818) 677-2285: Cincinnati and Cleveland, Ohio, newspapers from mid-1850s to 1920s; collection of 1,012 Western Americana books from 18th, 19th and early 20th century.

Family History Center, Latter-Day Saints Temple Visitors Center, 10741 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles; (310) 474-9990: More than 10,000 genealogy books; U.S. census records; passenger lists; roster of Ohio Civil War veterans; indexes to pension records; New York church and cemetery records; California index of deaths and marriages; records from Rhode Island, Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, Vermont; index to records of England and Wales.

Huntington Beach Central Library, 7111 Talbert Ave., Huntington Beach; (714) 842-4481: More than 700 genealogies, microfilms and microfiches; roster of North Dakota soldiers, sailors and marines; Los Angeles and Orange County obituary files; vital statistics for Kansas, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania; Swedish passenger arrivals in New York, 1820-1950.

Immigrant Genealogical Society Library, 1310-B W. Magnolia St., Burbank; (818) 848-3122: German genealogy and records; roster of Iowa soldiers in Civil War; vital statistics from Massachusetts; Maryland wills.

Long Beach Public Library, 101 Pacific Ave., Long Beach; (310) 570-7500: More than 7,500 genealogy books; Daughters of the American Revolution lineages; U.S. Army rosters from 1865; listings of personnel in U.S. Navy, National Guard, Air Force; Virginia historical index; encyclopedia of American Quaker genealogy; family history collection.

Los Angeles Public Library, 630 W. Fifth St., Los Angeles; (213) 228-7400: 43,000 genealogy books; 600 periodicals; 22,400 microfilm and 75,000 microfiche records; family and county histories and heraldry.

Pasadena Public Library, 285 E. Walnut St., Pasadena; (818) 405-4052: 1,500 genealogy books, 100,000 microfilm and 750 microfiche records; West Virginia history collection; histories of Mexico in Spanish and English; family history collections.

Sherman Foundation Library, 2647 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Corona del Mar; (714) 673-1880: More than 10,000 genealogies; Arizona county archives; rancho histories; California history.

Sons of Revolution Library, 600 S. Central Ave., Glendale; (818) 240-1775: 1,700 family histories; 10,000 town, county, state histories; archivist and vital records for Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, New York; Michigan pioneer records; 140 volumes of Civil War history.

Southern California Genealogical Society Library, 122 S. San Fernando Road, Burbank; (818) 843-7247: More than 7,000 genealogy books, 50 microfilm and more than 2,000 microfiche records.

Thousand Oaks Library, 1401 E. Janss Road, Thousand Oaks; (805) 449-2660: Old Norwegian colony history and cemetery files; directories of Scottish settlers, Irish famine immigrants.

UCLA University Research Library, 405 Hilgard Ave., Westwood; (310) 825-4732: History collections of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada; map collection; newspapers from Spain, 1800s to 1900s.


The event: The Southern California Genealogy Society's 28th annual Genealogical Jamboree.

Where: The Pasadena Center, 300 E. Green St., Pasadena.

When: 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. April 19 and 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. April 20.

Admission: $10 for one day, $15 for both days; parking $5 per vehicle per day.

More information: (818) 843-7247.


3 Photos, Box

Photo: (1--Color) Family Ties

In the alley, down the stairs, beyond the doors of a little Glendale Library, descendants of families great and small search for their roots

(2) Jan Jennings holds an 1899 photograph of the Tedford family. Jennings began tracing her family history more than 20 years ago, spurred by her father's reluctance to talk about his history. He was raised in an orphanage.

(3) Nillah O'Neill with a 1920 photograph of her mother. Husband John O'Neill holds photo of an O'Neill family picnic, taken on the family farm in 1931.

Bob Halvorsen/Daily News

Box: Start ancestor search here (See Text)
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 12, 1997

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