Arts & Culture / Mosaic / May 13, 2009

Solving genealogical puzzles

Do you know your family tree? Ross Wilburn gave a presentation titled “Genealogy: Beginning Your Journey” about how to research one’s own family tree. Wilburn was the first black mayor of Iowa City and worked on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

Professor and Chair of Black Studies, Fred Hord, introduced Wilburn. Hord mentioned how a few days ago he learned that President Barack Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham had a distant connection to Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy.

“There are so many connections between us no matter what we look like,” Hord said.

Wilburn’s initial interest in genealogy began in his childhood when he became captivated by the story of the television series Roots, based on the book by Alex Haley. When he worked at United Action for Youth, a Latino colleague had a pedigree chart of lines of people, names, and dates, tracing back to his ancestry in 12th century Spain. It was then that Wilburn asked him how he got started.

Of genealogical research, Wilburn said, “It’s like a puzzle, but you don’t know all the pieces.” How do you start researching your ancestry? Wilburn emphasized how it starts with one person: yourself. Do a self-inventory of childhood memories, jot down names, and draw lines of how people are related.

Interviewing is a must. When interviewing, use a tape recorder to avoid getting lost in your notes. Who do you start with? Any family in their 60s, 70s, or 80s is a good place to start, because you want to capture that information before that person passes on. Some of the challenges of interviewing are family dysfunctions and secrets. Some may hesitate to share information. If so, coax people and let them know how helpful it would be to know your story.

The tools needed are paper and pencils, a computer, a tape recorder, a file system, and printed resources. Many people use websites to research their family history, but Wilburn warned that if you use websites such as, you receive so much information that you need to know how to sort through it efficiently. If you don’t know the relationship of a person to you, you might include them in your family tree by mistake.

After his experience at United Action for Youth, Wilburn interviewed his great-uncle with a tape recorder and asked questions about what he remembered about his ancestor Harrison Tilford Gash. His great-uncle remembered he that was a “good timer” —equivalent to a “player” — and was called “The General.” Looking through a graveyard in Galesburg, he found that Gash had a military tombstone, which said he was a sergeant. He went back to interview his great-uncle, who confirmed that Gash was in the Civil War and remembered that he used to have his musket.

A childhood memory flashed again in Wilburn’s mind of coming across a big sword: a saber from the Civil War. Researching further, he learned that a cousin had written a book about his family. After writing to the publisher, he later received the book and a letter that gave him more information about his family history.

It is best to start researching in your hometown through cemeteries, genealogical societies, schools and universities, and local records such as traffic tickets, legal records, or mortgage deeds. There are also national archives that hold census information from as far back as 1790. Another option is to write a letter to obtain information through the Freedom of Information Act. If you request the information, be sure to mention that you are using it for genealogical purposes, and state and explain your relationship to the person you’re asking about.

Sheena Leano

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