A Nostalgic Look at Genealogy
March 6, 2020
Years ago when I started doing genealogy, resources were limited. Colorado is not the area where any of my ancestors had lived which meant that local sources were scarce. Since the internet was just getting started, online research wasn’t really an option, either. Genealogy software programs such as Family Tree Maker were beginning to become available, so the biggest benefit of a computer was the ability to record family trees on them. A few records were also available on CDs (or whatever the precursor to them was), and I remember clearly my first big genealogy purchase, $50, for a set of 1880 census records from Family Search. It was so amazing to have a complete set of the census available, night or day, in my own home. I couldn’t believe the convenience. Little did I know what the future would bring!
Mostly, though, genealogy in those ancient times (about 25 years ago) was done through writing letters, ordering microfilm into the local Family History Center from the Family History Library and occasional trips to locations where ancestors had lived. Then, of course, for folks on the Front Range, there was the siren call of Denver. Denver Public Library had microfilm of all of the U.S. census records, which at that time meant up through 1920. In addition, they had microfilm of passenger lists and many Colorado newspapers. I didn’t have Colorado ancestors, but the large Denver newspapers often had articles about major events in nearby states, so I spent a lot of time scrolling through microfilm there. Most of the microfilmed records were not indexed, so it might take hours or even days or weeks to find a single name on a census record, but I’ll never forget how excited I was to find my husband’s great grandfather on the 1860 census with his parents. It was the first actual record I’d ever seen for him, and it had taken hours to find him on those balky microfilm readers. DPL had, and still has, a huge collection of genealogy books, so that was another reason to brave I-25.
Then, of course, there was the regional branch of the National Archives, which was then located in Lakeview. I spent many a day on their microfilm machines looking for my family in the various censuses and passenger lists. The room was small and made even smaller by the banks of file cabinets encircling the film readers. The lights were kept dim to aid in reading the sometimes blurry microfilm, but I always loved spending the day in that quiet space where the noisiest sound was the occasional gasp of someone who’d found a much-searched-for record.
Other than trips to Denver, most of my research consisted of writing letters. I wrote letters requesting copies of birth and death certificates to local county courthouses and letters to local libraries asking them to look for obituaries for ancestors. Then there were the letters to local genealogical societies requesting searches through their vertical files and local genealogies. Mostly the results were positive, although looking back on it now, I’m sure that my letters clearly showed my lack of skill in my newfound passion, but most of the folks I wrote took pity on me and searched diligently for what I wanted, even if I hadn’t really requested it correctly. One example I still remember is when I asked the courthouse in Meeker County, Minnesota to search for my great grandparents’ marriage record. Family sources had stated that the couple married in March of 1872 so that’s the time frame I asked to be searched. I was surprised to receive a copy of a marriage record dated in October of 1872 with a nice note saying they couldn’t find anything in March but had continued their search for the rest of the year “just in case.” Suddenly, the fact that the family sources had been so vague about the exact date of the couple’s marriage made sense. The couple’s first child had been born in December of 1872, so a marriage in October was probably a cause for embarrassment and a reason for obscuring their marriage date.
Nowadays I make far fewer trips to DPL and the National Archives, which is now in Broomfield. Although I still write the occasional letter requesting a record, most of the requests are now sent via email rather than through the post office. Like every other genealogist I know, I spend the majority of my research time in front of a computer rather than a microfilm reader. While genealogy these days is quicker and access to a wider variety of records is only a few clicks of the mouse away, I still remember fondly those early research days when every name on a census was an amazing find since it had often taken so long to locate. I wouldn’t go back, but I’m glad I had the experience. It certainly makes me much more appreciative of the advantages we now often take for granted.
Researcher/Director at Large