What do geneaologists have in common? Curiosity. The search for family history is rooted in being inquisitive.

For Paula Stuart Warren of Roseville, her quest began when she wanted to find out more about a family business, the Catholic Art and Book Shop in downtown St. Paul, which her three aunts opened in the 1920s. Or so she thought.

“When I went to the 1929 census of businesses in St. Paul, I found out that only one of my aunts owned the shop, not all three as I thought,” said Warren, who is a certified genealogist and co-chair of the 2013 Federation of Genealogical Societies conference in Indiana. “But I was intrigued by their business, especially the fact they were women business owners in that era, and I really wanted to learn more. And that was when the bug bit me hard.”

This “bug” tends to propel people to popular websites such as Ancestry.com and other Internet sources where seekers can start finding out the who, what, when and why about the lives of their ancestors, in the United States or other countries.

While local experts agree that the Internet is the best first step to research their families, there is only so much that can be found online, which is why visits to such places as the Minnesota History Center library or small-town libraries can help expand the search in different directions.

“I always tell people that before there was the Internet, television or radio, there were local newspapers that carried information about births, deaths and activities of a town,” said Brigid Shields, reference librarian at the Minnesota History Center. “It’s all about looking for as many clues as you can find. You’re being a detective.”

A matter of questions

Another key component of researching family history is to ask older members for recollections about their childhood and the places where they grew up. Indeed, this is a good way for kids to become involved in family research because they can ask Grandma or Grandpa about their own memories.

Jamie Hoehn, lead reference assistant and library paraprofessional at the History Center, did just that, frequently talking with her grandmother about her younger days.

“I enjoyed her stories about her adolescence and early 20s — a lot of her other grandkids weren’t as interested,” said Hoehn, who is from Eau Claire, Wis. “I majored in history and German in college, so I always thought it was interesting to hear stories about what was going on in our family during certain periods of history.”

Now she frequently talks to others who visit the History Center library looking for ways to start on their own family trees. Hoehn is amused that many seem hopeful “they are related to royalty in some way.”

Searching for your ancestors is really about the joy of the hunt. “The information is out there and you just have to put it together,” she said.

Humble beginnings

Warren and Shields offer the same caveat to seekers — be prepared for surprises, and not always good ones. Warren tells her clients that “everyone has something in their family history they might not like.” Researchers often come across sad chapters in their family stories, Shields said. One family uncovered records from an orphanage that showed siblings who had been split up when their parents couldn’t care for them.

One of the best ways to help young people experience the impact of their own family histories is to visit the towns where their ancestors once lived. Warren, now a grandmother herself, regularly travels with her middle- and high-school-age grandchildren to significant Minnesota towns in their family background. They have a trip to southeast Minnesota planned for this summer.

Maybe it’s something as simple as driving through a parent’s or grandparent’s old neighborhood to look for the house he or she grew up in. Hoehn has made trips like this to Milwaukee with her father.

While Warren said many of those researching family history tend to be older, with more leisure time to pursue the clues, they often miss out on the oral histories from deceased parents and grandparents. That’s why Warren is encouraged to see more younger people taking an interest in the topic. The current chair of the Federation of Genealogical Society is 28 years old, she added.

“Younger people can understand history so much better when they can put their own families right into it,” she said.


Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer.