- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2003

Brandon Jackson-Baird is 17 and a high school junior, but he has never spent so many hours at one stretch in a library before.

He's been here at the Library of Congress for 3-1/2 hours, combing through year after year of city directories, painstakingly noting every item that might even tangentially be of interest.

Brandon is not doing research for his classes at Georgetown Day School. He's looking for his relatives.

And he's not alone. Genealogy, once stereotyped as the province of straight-laced Mayflower descendants, has become the passion of choice for more and more Americans. Today, descendants of 19th-century immigrants make their way through ships' passenger lists. Black Americans check out old slave schedules hoping to find a familiar name. Relatives of war veterans check out military records of every kind.

Sources of information abound, from books and pamphlets to records and newspapers, to CD software and the Internet. But how does a searcher plow through it all? How does he know what information is accurate? Suppose he's missed something? Genealogy is one field where one person really can't do it all, or get it all on the Internet.

"I'm so used to doing everything online, I really had to adapt," Brandon says sheepishly. "But I got into a groove pretty quickly."

Washingtonians are lucky. This area is home to several important sites for serious genealogical study. The Library of Congress' Genealogy and Local History Reading Room offers row after row of volumes relating to every aspect of genealogy, including family histories, local histories, and of course, a variety of genealogical guides.

The library's microfilmed collections include city directories from cities and towns in every state, many from before the Civil War. They give researchers important leads about addresses, occupations, neighbors, and local institutions. You can't get that online.

At the National Archives, family history researchers can find microfilmed copies of the U.S. Census, compiled every 10 years since 1790, with information on literacy, place of birth, national origin, and members of households. That's not online either, unless a researcher is willing to pay a pretty penny and put up with spotty coverage.

•••

So where do you begin?"Talk to your older relatives," says Reggie Washington, a National Archives archivist. "Find out where they were living as children and where their other relatives were."

For Brandon, that meant talking to his grandfather on his mother's side, Wylie Jackson, about things he remembered from growing up in Peekskill, N.Y., in the 1920s and 1930s. From that conversation, Brandon got an address, memories of a grammar school, and a recollection that someone had moved there to work on the Croton Dam.

Brandon also got a name that would become important later Malachi Portee, who was Mr. Jackson's grandfather or great-grandfather. Malachi had lived in South Carolina after the Civil War.

"I felt now that I could come at things in two ways," says Brandon. "I could work backward from my grandfather or forward from Malachi Portee."

Still, the way would not be easy.

"Research on African Americans can be difficult, but it's not impossible," Mr. Washington says. "You have to be prepared for a blind alley every now and then. And things can get tough if you're looking for relatives before the Civil War. Slaves weren't always listed by name. And after the Civil War, many people changed their names."

Just about every ethnic group can cite its own research pitfalls, gray areas where the going gets tough. Often, the records themselves have been destroyed, at times the trail simply dries up. But just about every ethnicity has group-specific finding aids or periodicals to help focus the search.

"Remember to have patience," says local genealogist Margo Williams. "Finding your ancestors is not something that happens overnight. Find a class, or take out a good how-to book from your local library."

And be ready for the research process itself.

•••

What made Brandon so successful in his interview with his grandfather was that he came prepared. He compiled several questions in advance, topics that he wanted to cover, and he noted his grandfather's answers as he moved down his list.

He soon found, as most people do, that one memory is likely to spark another. Details grew; Malachi Portee had had children, and Mr. Jackson was able to remember some names. As his list grew, so did Brandon's desire to find out more.

"Whenever I go to reunions for my grandmother's side of the family, my grandfather always comes because he doesn't have a family on his own side," he says. "I just think it would be interesting for him if I could find out about his side."

Now that he had some names to go by, Brandon pointed his browser to www.familysearch.org, an online site run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This informative and well-organized site supplies beginning researchers with step-by-step guidance. The site also provides free online access to a number of important sources, including the Social Security Death Index; the U.S. Military Index, listing anyone killed in Vietnam or Korea; and the International Genealogical Index.

Most importantly for Brandon, there was a complete and indexed version of the 1880 U.S. Census.

And there was Malachi Portee and his family. In 1880, he was living with his wife and three children, one of whom had the same first name as Brandon's grandfather.

"My grandfather didn't know about Wylie Portee," says Brandon. "Now I have something to tell him."

•••

Along with www.family search.org, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints operates a central Family History Library in Salt Lake City and numerous branch libraries around the country. They're all part of the church's mission to baptize relatives even dead ones into the Mormon faith. So documenting relatives is very important.

"You don't have to be Mormon to use the resources," says David Bond, a volunteer at the family history library in Kensington. "You don't even have to be Mormon to volunteer."

The Kensington library's book collection includes information on loyalists during the American Revolution, the passenger and immigration lists index compiled by P. William Filby with Frank V. Castronova , and an ever-increasing number of works related to countries once behind the Iron Curtain. There's a section devoted to Jewish genealogy, and another to that of American Indians.

On just about any day that the Family History Center in Kensington is open, it's guaranteed to be filled with researchers, checking out the books or huddling under microfilm readers in the microfilm room.

"I've got seven children, 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren," says Dorothea Saavedra, who is using the library's extensive collection of European genealogy to construct the family tree of the Fauls, her mother's family.

"My kids would rather I didn't get into their lives, so now I dig up dead people."

Mrs. Saavedra drives in regularly from her home in Bowie to find information about European families that isn't available downtown.

More typically, researchers like Kevin Owens of Arlington use the Family History Library in conjunction with other area archives. He has made use of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) holdings to find out more about his ancestor, James Little. In the process, he uncovered a link to Mary Chilton, reportedly the first woman to step off the Mayflower. He even found another relative who had been captured during the Revolution and held on a British prison ship.

"Doing genealogy is like searching for coins on the beach," he says. "Sometimes you find stuff, but most of the time you come up empty."

•••

Next stop for Brandon is the National Archives, home to military pension records, ship passenger lists, and of course, the U.S. Census. It is a very popular destination; genealogists are the largest research constituent group at the archives.

"The breadth of their database and how much they have is awesome," Brandon says. "Seeing all those filing cabinets filled with microfilm, thinking about all the names on them it's really cool to see that."

And to his surprise, sources are relatively easy to navigate, thanks to various guides and finding aids available for researchers.

At the Archives, Brandon learns to use the Soundex system, a method for coding and retrieving "sound-alike" names in the census records. He carefully fills out the data element sheet for each census he checks, to ensure that he has a record of the records he looked at. Searching in the 1900 census for South Carolina, Brandon finds a familiar name.

"Here he is!" he says excitedly, pointing to an inscription about halfway down the microfilmed page. There is Malachi Portee, 20 years later. And now, along with Carrie, Hattie, and Wylie there are four more children, four more names and four more trails to follow.

Suddenly, things seem a bit overwhelming.

"There are so many directions to go I don't know what to do next," he says. "I don't want to miss anybody."

•••

In fact, things have gone fairly easy for Brandon thus far many researchers can spend days glued to a microfilm reader without finding anything.

Establishing a solid trail is important no matter how many directions a researcher goes. Many genealogy programs available on the Internet or for sale on CD-Rom offer templates and charts that can help people keep track of their relatives.

Because, above all, a researcher must be able to retrieve the information he finds.

Brandon, for example, needs to bring the addresses and names that he's gleaned from the various census schedules to the Library of Congress to cross reference with the city directories he's planned on checking. Otherwise, he'll have to start from scratch.

A search of the address that Brandon's grandfather gave him yields information about several Jacksons who were living in the same house in Peekskill along with a new and unexpected name: Wylie Portee. For some reason, Malachi's son had made his way up north and was now living with the Jackson family.

"If you go back far enough, you realize we're all related," says Paul Connor, reference librarian in the Local History and Genealogy Reading Room at the Library of Congress. "That's a very broadening discovery."

For his part, Brandon plans to return several times to both the National Archives and the Library of Congress during his spring break. He thinks he has a relative who served during World War I, so he's hoping to find evidence of him. He wants to check the slave schedules, available at the Archives, to see if he can find more evidence of Malachi.

And to everyone's surprise, he's not daunted at all.

"Time flies by so quickly when you're researching," he says. "It's sort of like a video game. Once you start you can't put it down."

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