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Genealogy Fair: The Write Way to Discover Your Roots

Somewhere in the world, 200 or 300 years from now, someone will conduct a workshop on how to read late 20th-Century handwriting--and the way we form letters may look as strange to our descendants as handwriting samples from 1650 look to us today.

So suggested Gene W. Cheney, a Hemet-based genealogist who taught a class on “paleography"--the study of ancient handwriting--at a free, open-to-the-public all-day genealogy fair Saturday in Westminster.

The fair was called “Catch the Vision: Genealogy, a New Era” and was sponsored by 13 Orange County stakes, or dioceses, of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The event, held at the Mormon church on Bolsa Avenue, was the stakes’ third annual genealogical fair. It offered about 1,000 participants information on both new technology and traditional tools for genealogical research.

The citizens of the 23rd Century won’t have trouble deciphering documents about today’s births, deaths and property transactions, Cheney said--typewriters and word processors have “stabilized” our records--but citizens of the future may have trouble deciphering the handwritten, less formal records we leave behind. This will be true both because modern handwriting is seldom “meticulous,” Cheney said, and because accepted handwriting styles will go on changing over time.

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Handwriting has changed considerably over the last few centuries, said Cheney, who is a high school electronics teacher, a genealogy lecturer at San Jacinto Junior College and the librarian of the Hemet Branch Genealogical Library, which is sponsored by the Mormon Church. Today’s genealogical researchers must be able to decipher old English-language documents that look as if they were written in a foreign language, he said.

“Was this English?” Cheney asked rhetorically, drawing a laugh from about 50 people who attended his class (courses on 27 topics were offered during the day) as he showed them a handwriting sample from 1650. Documents produced between the mid-1600s and the early 1800s show a lot of variation in “seven or eight letters (that) changed significantly. . . . Once you’ve learned those (letters), the rest is easy,” Cheney said.

The letters c , r , u , s , h , e and x take different form in old documents than they do in contemporary handwriting, Cheney said. The letters i and j were often written “interchangeably” before the mid-19th Century, just as they were in “ancient Rome, when the stonecutters had difficulty making letters with rounded bottoms (and) solved their problem by making all the i ‘s and j ‘s the same,” Cheney said. Similarly, from ancient times until about 150 years ago, u ‘s were often written like v ‘s, he said, a double f signified a capital f , an s could be represented by a single long downward slash, and a t might be a shorter single slash.

Eager for Information

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Those who attended the fair seemed eager for just this kind of esoteric information as they milled from class to class and examined displays of genealogical records, memorabilia and genealogical tools, including displays of computer equipment and microfiche readers. Participants had been encouraged to come in “ancestral costumes,” but most of the middle-aged and older crowd wore standard 20th-Century garb.

One who dressed in an old-fashioned manner was Martha Krufzewski, a Santa Ana resident who wore a long black skirt, white ruffled blouse and black bonnet and shawl. Krufzewski, who worked at the display booth of the Santa Ana Mormon stake, said she has researched her family’s history for 10 years, going “back four generations--and then I got stuck.”

“My grandfather said I was descended from Robert Burns, the poet--but apparently I’m not,” said Krufzewski, whose research indicated otherwise. Despite this disappointment, Krufzewski added, she will go on researching her roots.

In coming years, individuals’ access to information about their roots will become increasingly easy, according to David M. Mayfield, the day’s keynote speaker. Mayfield, who is director of the Mormon Church’s main genealogical library in Salt Lake City, said his library began computerizing its records seven years ago. By the 1990s, he said, the resulting catalogue will be available to Mormon branch libraries around the country through a computer network. (Five of Orange County’s 13 stakes have branch libraries--but only the Orange stake has a computer and will participate in this network, according to Kit Poole, a church spokesperson. The libraries’ services are free and available to both Mormons and non-Mormons, Poole said.)

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Circulated to Branches

Floppy diskettes containing the Salt Lake City library’s catalogue of current records will be circulated to branch libraries’ computers, Mayfield said. Without going to Salt Lake City, individuals will be able to check the library’s catalogue for listings of birth, death, marriage, property and census records of the past, he said. (At present, the church has files on the names of 38 million people who lived during the last few centuries, according to Mayfield. The Salt Lake City library is continually adding to its records, with 12,000 volunteer researchers currently “extracting” names from “original source documents"--such as death certificates and land records--throughout the world, Mayfield said.)

In a few years, researchers who find catalogue entries of records about their ancestors in the Mormon index will be able to request printouts of those records, Mayfield said. Today, through the church’s Family Registry, individuals can also “register the name you’re doing research on, so others (doing research on the same name) can contact you.” Eventually this registry will be completely computerized, Mayfield said.

This was good news for those who attended the fair--not all of whom were Mormon, but most of whom seemed intent on learning as much as possible about researching their family trees through classes on such topics as “beginning genealogy research,” “ancestral photography,” “U.S. history for genealogists,” “preservation--do’s and don’ts” and “analysis of documents.” During the lunch break, there was even genealogical entertainment through skits about the importance of finding your ancestors.

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‘Name Game’ Played

Some attendees chose to skip the skits and picnic outside in the summery weather, however, while others roamed the halls, looking at genealogical displays and sharing ideas. Some, like Sharon Fabrizi of Huntington Beach, used their lunch time to play the “name game,” matching proper names posted around the church to nicknames listed in a handout.

“I was hoping that by coming here today I’d get some more ideas” on how to research her ancestry, said Fabrizi, who is not a Mormon. In the last five years, she said, “I went back about 110 years” in her family history, “but I’ve been at a standstill for about a year.” She was impressed by the workshops she’d attended, she said, and she learned a few things about genealogical research.

She’s not sure why she’s so interested in researching her family tree, Fabrizi said, but she’s hooked on genealogy. “If you find one bit of information, you want to keep going and find more and more,” she said. “You’re finding you, you’re finding your roots, your background, how your family started. . . . I just think it (genealogical research) is really neat.”

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