In a tucked away corner of the Somerset branch of the Pulaski County Library is a treasure trove of information that dates back centuries. It contains real-life stories of hangings, murders, loves, losses, failed presidential campaigns and tales of Pulaski County residents heading west for their chance at the American Dream. While all these stories have already been found in these archives there are still countless others waiting to be discovered by those willing to look for them.
“Two of my distant cousins were hung for killing the [Pulaski County] sheriff and after the sheriff died his daughter, on her death bed, confessed to the murder but they had already hung the boys,” said Curtis Gilliland, president of the Pulaski County Historical Society, which runs the genealogy room in the basement of the basement of the Pulaski County Library’s Somerset branch.
Gilliland is a third-generation genealogist following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.
“I guess I just inherited their nosiness,” Gilliland who lives in Somerset said. “It’s interesting when you’re searching for a grandfather or an uncle and you find out you didn’t know about this cousin or this aunt.”
Even though his family has been putting together their tree for many decades he is still in search for more distant relatives as are many of the volunteers that work each week doing research not only for themselves but helping others who are in search of their family’s past.
The genealogy room has been the jumping off point for many of the volunteers’ personal family history searches, some have found answers to questions they have been asking all their lives.
Genealogy can change lives
Mary Thompson of Burnside was adopted at an early age by a family of German heritage but she never quite fit in. She spent most of her life wondering about and looking for her birth family. Eight years ago, after her husband passed away a friend told her she needed something to fill her time and suggested she volunteer for the Pulaski County Historical Society. Thompson decided to take her friend’s advice and began volunteering in the genealogy room where she started learning the ropes of researching family histories by trying to unravel hers.
“Finding your blood relatives gives you a place in the world. It gives you stability because you know where you come from and who you are in the world,” she said.
Thompson’s search led her to find out her birth parents were of different religious backgrounds and heritages; her father was Scottish and her mother was Irish. When her mother found out she was pregnant both families forbid the young people from marrying so Thompson was put up for adoption shortly after she was born and lived in an orphanage until she was adopted at the age of 4. It took four years of research to finally find her family. In addition to her birth parents, she found 14 siblings, seven from her mother and seven from her father. The discovery changed her life.
“Overnight I had 14 new brothers and sisters,” she said. “It changed my life in a way that I realized there were people who loved me for me because I was their sister.”
Thompson is adamant that she’s not ungrateful for the home, love and opportunities provided by her adoptive parents just that finding people who were biologically connected to her was a new and different experience.
“Anybody who knows their family can say, ‘Oh, you do that like Uncle Joe’ or “That’s like Grandma.’ I didn’t have any of that. I didn’t have anything,” she said.
When she first met her mother’s other daughters all that changed.
“We’re all alike. We all talk alike and sound alike and act alike. If you know me you know my sisters and by finding my sisters I felt like I had a real place, a stability that I hadn’t had before,” she said.
Genealogy can provide answers
Most people don’t go into the genealogy room looking for biological parents. Typically, it’s a much simpler request such as where a grandparent or great-grandparent is buried or who a grandparent might have married.
“They have specific reasons for wanting to know certain things and as long as we can satisfy that they are satisfied,” Thompson said.
When the volunteers go in search of these pieces of information they have thousands of pages of hard-copy resources going back several centuries at their disposal.
“If they were in Pulaski County we have birth records, death records, obituaries, books on murders, we have folders, files and books on families,” Thompson said, adding that some wealthy families have three or four books worth of information.
Thompson herself has a “big, huge tub” of records that she’s collected over four years from her personal search that is still a long way from being complete but has taken her to several states and multiple countries in Europe. She’s even in the planning process to make more trips in hopes of finding even more ancestors.
When trying to get started researching a family tree or family history there are a few tips that might make the search easier. Thompson said the simplest place to start is with grandparents.
“The first piece of advice I would give is to find out who your grandparents are, where they lived, when they lived and when they died. You can usually work backwards and forwards from there,” she said.
The other volunteers that work in the genealogy room agree wholeheartedly with that.
Always start with your family and work back,” said Wanda Bullock who has been volunteering with the Pulaski Country Historical Society for more than three decades and had held many seats on the Board of Directors, including president.
A second suggestion would be to check census information for the decades prior to any of the dates that have been gathered but Thompson does have one word of caution when it comes to the census information.
“Those people on those censuses couldn’t spell worth a darn,” she said, adding that even names that might be considered easily spelled such as Pittman are often spelled a variety of ways.
Bullock said that when looking at the census researchers should also be aware that in earlier times many family members may have been named the same, which can get confusing. For example, brothers may have named their first-born sons after their father leading to two cousins with the same first and last name.
It is also helpful to note when looking at census information, the census takers sometimes guessed about a family’s makeup if the family lived in a rural or hard to get to place. The handwriting of any given time can also cause confusion because census takers often used their own shorthand on the forms.
Another source of information that can be gleaned from the census, which many people don’t think about but might aid in the search for relatives, is who the family’s neighbors were.
“Finding out who neighbors were is important because a lot of times they intermarried. They all lived close to each other and in some towns and places you find out neighbors were actually related,” she said.
Thompson also suggested that researchers keep an open mind when it comes to information they think they know but might not be correct.
“It’s not real often but it does happen. A lot of times people will have information about their families but it’s misinformation,” she said.
“We find people come in and find out their parents have been married and they didn’t know about it or one of their grandmothers had been married three times and the family thought she had only been married twice.”
Thompson for example, found out that one of her relatives abandoned his wife and five children. The wife got mad and went to the courthouse and changed her last name and all five of her children’s last names to her maiden name. The woman then married multiple times after that and was buried in a cemetery under a new married name.
The volunteers also suggest that people not judge their relatives to harshly for things they may have done, such as commit crimes or owned slaves.
“You have to be willing to accept the good, the bad and the ugly,” said volunteer and board member, Hope Higgins.
The volunteers also run into situations when the facts just don’t bear out what family lore has taught them, but the family history researcher just refused to believe it.
“Some people won’t accept thing even if you show them the records,” Bullock said.
All the volunteers in the genealogy room have hours upon hours of on-the-job training and have done in-depth research into their own family’s history which had led to a lot of tips and tricks they can share with novices who come to the room in search of history. Some of the volunteers even have specialized skills they’ve learned over the years to find historical figures that might be hard to trace. Nita Ingram specializes in helping African-American people trace their history to relatives that may have been slaves.
“She’s really good at finding the slaves and where they got to because they didn’t have the paperwork and the information that we had for let’s say for the plantation owners,” Thompson said, adding that she admired the work Ingram does greatly.
Ingram has learned over the years that finding African-American slave records comes with a lot of math and a lot of looking into property records.
“I have my own little techniques,” she said. “I’m kind of self-taught.”
Like looking for any other family’s history, the jumping off point is often a death record for a grandparent.
“I use obituaries a lot,” Ingram said. “I’m basically looking for a time frame or a name and the farther back I can find a name the better off I am.”
Then she sits down and starts subtracting to figure out where in history she might need to go to find a census but more often she ends up looking through wills belonging to slaveholders and their families if she’s looking for people before 1870, which was the first census taken after the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War.
“So many of the owners have written things and instructions they left to their children about when to free their slaves after their deaths,” Ingram said.
Ingram also uses Familysearch.com, which is a site run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Utah.
“They kept great records for everybody,” she said.
Disparity in record keeping through the centuries and across the world was often a result of monetary or class status. For instance, Thomas was able to trace the Wallace side of her family back to ninth century Scotland where she found out that she is related to all of the Kings of the Scots. However, on the Duffy side of her family tree the records are harder to come by because they were simple working-class people. She’s also found it harder to find records of women in the 700 and 800s who didn’t marry men of wealth or title.
“They are just lost to history,” she said.
In addition to the paper records available for Pulaski County, the research facility also has several computers connected to well-known genealogical search websites such as ancestory.com and familysearch.com. The volunteers also have the ability to reach out to historical societies and other groups that house historical archives on the local, state and national levels to help provide answers for people in search of relatives or information about their family history.
A chance to be of service
The volunteers take four-hour shifts from noon to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and can assist interested parties in any way they can and they often find as much joy in the project as the person who they were helping with the research does.
“It’s an amazing feeling. It’s always a terrific feeling to be able to find someone,” Ingram said.
The other volunteers agree.
“Sometimes it’s really emotional,” Higgins said.
Volunteers spend as much time as they can helping others find their family history but caution that looking into the past can get addictive and researchers don’t be surprised if a search leads to the unexpected. While researching a Pulaski County family, Gilliland followed a family tree branch to Somerset, Texas where he learned that people from Pulaski County had struck out in search of a new home in the burgeoning American west and had named their new settlement after the home they left. In other research he learned that Greenclay Smith, the former pastor of First Baptist Church of Somerset, ran for president of the United States.
“You get down one branch and before long you’re out on the end of the branch and you’ve got away from what you were searching for. It gets real interesting.” he said.
The Pulaski County Historical Society’s genealogical research facility is open from noon to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and is located on the lowest level of the Somerset branch of the Pulaski County Library. For information or questions about services available, call 606-679-84014 ext. 308 or e-mail email@example.com. There is no charge for using the services of the gemology room, however no materials may leave the room and copies are 20 cent per page. Membership to the Pulaski County Historical Society is $5 annually. The organization also has volunteer positions available.