Many families repeat—and expand—well-worn stories that pass through generations. These stories make us curious enough to begin looking for the “real” accounts of our lineages, but where and how do we start?
When we embark on learning about our family histories, we are researching our genealogy—the process of seeking out ancestors and relatives.
Robin Pewtress of Boise, Idaho, and Jan Thomson of Great Falls, Mont., both find genealogy fascinating.
They are genealogy experts ready and available to help individuals eager to learn more about their own families. Pewtress and Thomson joined genealogy societies and attended conferences to learn how to research, write, and file information so that it is easy to attain. Along the way, they started helping others.
During her career, Thomson was the curriculum director for K-12 education with the Great Falls Public Schools and did various kinds of research. She has held several offices with the Great Falls Genealogy Society (GFGS), and she volunteers twice a week in the Great Falls Genealogy Library (GFGL).
To be better informed when she is helping others, Thomson gets up every day between 4 and 5 a.m. to read technical, non-fiction, and educational books.
“To further my research for genealogy, I love reading diaries and maps,” said Thomson. “I have a budget for books, and I keep Amazon busy.”
“Reading Ned and Constance Sublette’s book, The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry, about how slaves were used for breeding purposes to make money from the sale of offspring, was a challenge for me,” said Thomson. “I could read only a few pages before I had to set it down. Although it took me a while to get to the last page, the information in this book, and other historical nonfiction that I have read, may come up when I’m helping patrons as I volunteer at the GFGS Library, so I need that knowledge.”
She has researched and put together a 600-page book, In-Depth Sources Guide, for genealogists. She is the editor of a two-volume history, Early Settlers of Great Falls, available for sale through the GFGS.
“I spend a lot of time indexing Montana records because those indices are a ‘go to’ for helping people learn about their ancestors’ lives,” said Thomson.
She is a member of the GFGS, which has an active membership of 215 people. The genealogy library of approximately 9,000 resources is on the third floor of the Great Falls Public Library and follows the library’s hours. About 35 people regularly work at the GFGL when the library isn’t adhering to shortened COVID hours.
Members take responsibility for the public library’s Montana Room, to help patrons with topics that involve community and state research. The society offers workshops on a variety of subjects in the evenings and weekends and also hosts monthly meetings with interesting topics and speakers. Check gfgenealogy.org for the society’s schedule.
Like Thomson, Pewtress also did research during her career with Idaho state government in the Medicaid division of the healthcare department. She also read laws and wrote policy.
Her grandmother’s family stories made Pewtress interested in genealogy. She soon found that many of her grandmother’s stories were myths. For example, her family was not in the same ancestral line with Sir Christopher Wren—the great English architect—as her grandmother thought. Dispelling these myths captivated Pewtress even more.
Even though she lives in Idaho, she did find that a good number of her ancestors settled in Montana. One family came to the Gallatin area over the Bozeman trail in 1865.
She is also related to Frank Day, a blacksmith, who gave his land for a park, now named after him in Lewistown, Mont.
“Sometimes it takes a long time—by that I mean several years—to solve a mystery, but when that happens, I do the ‘Genealogy Happy Dance’,” Pewtress said. Telling her grandmother the truth about the inaccurate stories was a real challenge for Pewtress. “I tried to offset it with new, interesting information.”
Right now, Pewtress is working toward becoming certified with the Board of Certification of Genealogists. “Once I applied, the clock started ticking. After one year, I showcase my work to see if it will be accepted.”
Both genealogy experts say it isn’t necessary that an individual have a background in research, and many resources are available for those working from home. Local and regional societies have put birth, death, cemetery, divorce, local newspaper statistics, and marriage records on their webpage for people to research.
Cyndi’s List is a free site to help a person get started. The LDS church has a free extensive database, called Family Search. Chronicling America is a free Library of Congress database of American Newspapers. Check out montananewspapers.org, a full-text database of archival Montana newspapers, many of them not available through Chronicling America.
Searching for family roots can become an enjoyable hobby. After researching your family lines, you may enjoy helping others with their research through your local genealogy society chapter. ISI