Archive for Thursday, September 27, 2001

Researching their roots

A Eudora couple uses the Internet and a foreign friend

September 27, 2001

Spread out across Barbara and Delbert Seiwald's dining room table are the results of years spent tracing their German ancestors and their descendants in Eudora and Colorado.

Barb flips through three-inch binders, some filled with photographs, others with family trees printed from computer programs. She labeled some of the notebooks' tabs with the names of ancestors like a student might label his or her courses.

A large, ornate picture frame holds the staunch wedding portrait of Delbert's great-grandparents. A notebook of fragile, brown papers contains Douglas County records from around the 1860s, carefully scripted in a penmanship style somewhere between calligraphy and the pointed spires of antique German printed lettering.

The Seiwalds said researching family history has given them a clearer sense of the rich Bavarian-German immigrant history of the Eudora community. Much of their knowledge of family history has come from the help of a professional genealogist and journalist in Germany, Reinhard Hofer, a man who the Seiwalds said has become a great friend. When he visited the Seiwalds, they took him on a tour of Holy Family Cemetery.

"He said this cemetery looks like a cemetery in his home region," Barbara said. "The majority of the names in the cemetery were the same as in his Bavarian region."

A computer family tree program given to them by their daughter prompted the Seiwalds to begin their research about a decade ago.

"It just keeps escalating," Delbert said. "You get into this."

From time to time, the couple will receive calls from other researchers wanting to share information. The Seiwalds say the Internet has provided them with many resources for their research. They can communicate with family members and other researchers as well as store information, like scanned pictures.

The Seiwalds' daughter even wrote a computer program that allows them to keep records of Holy Family Cemetery.

But Barbara had a scare when several months ago her computer crashed, and she thought she'd lost family pictures and research. Fortunately, they were retrieved.

Working for Douglas County Title also gives Barbara access to records that help verify and complete information.

"I think people tend to ignore the amount of information that can come from a title company," she said.

Records of marriages, divorces, births, deaths and sales of land can fill in stories about ancestors, she said. The Seiwalds have a record regarding the sale of land to Delbert's great-great grandfather Joseph Seiwald by a Shawnee woman, Mary Brighthorn.

The records also provide a glimpse into a past way of life, as they indicate how the inheritor of the land should care for crops, animals, and even take Joseph's wife, Thekla, to church in town, if she so desired.

The Seiwalds search began with Joseph and Thekla, since they homesteaded the land near the Seiwalds' home south of Eudora.

"It gives you a feeling of knowing a little bit about Thekla and Joseph," Barbara said.

Because the volumes of carefully scripted documents consume space and are fragile with age, storing them becomes a problem. Barbara said she sent thousands to the Lawrence Historical Society, and still has some in her basement she'd like to give the Eudora Historical Society if they had a permanent facility or if the Eudora Public Library had more room.

The Seiwalds' search continued when they began to look into a branch of the family that ended up in Colorado. The couple eventually met the distant branch on their family tree.

"There's a lot of resemblance," Delbert Seiwald said. "You can look at members of our family and their family and see lots of close connections."

Researching the Seiwalds prompted Barbara to look into her side of the family as well. Genealogical information taught the Seiwalds that many Eudorans' pasts are closely connected. Names keep popping up in their research over and over again.

"I think we're all related," Barbara said.

Reference librarian for the Olathe Public Library Donna Jo Atwood teaches classes in basic genealogy like the one she conducted several weeks ago at the De Soto Public Library. She teaches genealogy novices to start with what they know, look for documents like birth, death and marriage certificates or family Bibles, and using a video camera or tape recorder to preserve personalized stories.

"What I'm trying to get people to do is write them down before they're forgotten," Atwood said. "It adds a little humanity to history."

The class also examines ways of presenting information, like the traditional family tree or the more complicated family worksheet. Atwood recommends "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Genealogy" by Christine Rose or "Everton's Handy Book for Genealogists." The Seiwalds prefer "How to Find Your Family Roots and Write your Family History" by William Latham and Cindy Higgins.

Living in a nation of immigrants can often lead Americans researching their family history to their origins in other countries. For the Seiwalds, that's the Bavarian region of Germany.

But America's immigrant culture doesn't make a fascination with genealogy a strictly American trait.

"It's not confined to the U.S. alone, definitely," Atwood said. "The people I have talked to have said how truly helpful people have been over there. If they're fortunate enough to come from a small town, how often they find someone from that town who knows about their ancestor."

For the Seiwalds, learning about their family history has answered questions about their origins as well as make them feel more like a part of Eudora history.

"I think there's a sense of pride you have here in the community," Delbert said.

In addition to the formal, sepia-toned photographs of ancestors the Seiwalds have framed a casual snapshot of their grandchildren swinging on a swing set to the backdrop of the Bavarian Alps where the family originated. Barbara and Delbert hope to make their own pilgrimage to Germany in the next year or two.

"We're working on it," Delbert said.

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