By ANDREW HANSEN
ALTON — In digging through your family history, imagine finding out you were related to a former president of the United States? That’s what Sydney Ehrman, a senior at Marquette Catholic High School in Alton found out recently. Her distant relative is President Benjamin Harrison, who lived between 1833-1901, and was our nation’s 23rd president.
The discovery was due to Ehrman taking the Living History course at Marquette Catholic, taught by Paula Mattix-Wand, the Theology Department chair and instructor in the Theology and History Department.
“I’ve enjoyed digging into my family history and learning more about my ancestors and where they came from,” Ehrman said. “I found out that a few of my family members traveled to Arkansas and got married there. The class has helped me to understand the struggles that my ancestors went through.”
Senior Adam Vowels was fascinated to find out that his family is from Kentucky. “Learning about the history of my name has given me more respect for my great-grandpa,” Vowels said. “He was a great man and learning more about where he came from really shows how much he did in his life.”
This is the first time Marquette Catholic is offering this class, open only to seniors.
“We had a need for electives in the history department,” Mattix-Wand said. “I had offered to create this class a couple of years ago, but it didn’t materialize. This year, my schedule matched up with the need. I have training in genealogy research through my involvement with the Ninian Edwards Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and through my own family research. I began researching when I was a senior in high school through a home economics class.”
The goals of the class are to become proficient in using an online genealogy service; to develop research skills and learn document analysis using public vital records; to understand the connection between historical events and the present; and to help students appreciate their place in modern history.
“We started the semester by having them talk to their relatives and gather information on what is already known and available,” Mattix-Wand said. “Who are the historians in their families and what do they know? They talked to grandparents, aunts, uncles, anyone who had information. I received a grant from ancestry.com through their AncestryK12 Classroom Program. The classroom version of ancestry.com is very similar to the subscription and includes access to other online genealogy resources. The seniors research every day and help each other interpret documents and make connections. Seniors are free to call relatives during class and to clarify their research. When we have research or document questions that effect the entire group, we discuss it as a class.”
That research has led to some interesting discoveries. One student found a connection to Daniel Boone, one of America’s first folk heroes. Another student discovered a connection to the Barnum and Bailey Circus.
“This class is important because it gives students a different way to experience history,” Mattix-Wand said. “Instead of memorizing dates and places, this class allows students to learn the context of how history impacted their family. It’s also important because we are making connections with living relatives. Several students have mentioned how they have enjoyed spending time with their grandparents and learning about their lives. Finally, I think it’s important because we encounter and discuss difficult periods in American history. We have discussed slavery, poverty, immigration quotas, war, and difficult family relationships. These are not easy topics, but they have shown great maturity and compassion toward each other.”
Throughout the semester, the students have three big projects to complete: a pedigree chart listing the direct ancestors that they have found; a binder of documents including but not limited to: vital, census, military, and cemetery records; and a presentation which connects their family to an event in U.S. history.
“At first, the biggest challenge for the seniors is realizing that this project is never finished,” Mattix-Wand said. “In all of their other classwork, there is a definite end. With genealogy, there will always be more people to discover and more details to add to the family’s story.”
Interested in learning about your ancestors?
You can use sacramental records to trace your family history. Baptism, first Communion, confirmation, marriage, and burial records are fantastic resources for genealogists. The Office for Archives and Records Management for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois accepts genealogy requests online or by mail. Visit https://archives.dio.org/services/genealogy.html to learn more.
If you already have experience performing genealogical research, they have partnered with Ancestry.com to digitize and index the sacramental records of the diocese that are considered open and accessible for genealogical research. Learn more about the partnership here: https://archives.dio.org/services/ancestry.html.
New to genealogy? Here are some tips to help you get started:
- Begin in the present. Collect information from resources you already have such as birth or marriage certificates, baptismal records, family Bibles, or obituaries.
- Collect information from relatives. Contact relatives to help fill in important details. Ask them to share their family stories.
- Record your information and get organized. Record where information was found. Make notes of missing information so that you know what you still need to find. Use paper files or genealogical software.
- Check your local public library to see what genealogical resources they offer.