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Untangling branches of the past

The Valencia Family History Center can help families find the past at Saturday’s Family History Fair

Posted: January 22, 2009 8:16 p.m.
Updated: January 23, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Bonnie Petrovich, director of the Valencia Family History Center, uses a computer at the center to research a family history. The center will host a Family History Fair from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.

A mother orphaned at age 11. A grandfather murdered.

A sensational past, its events shrouded in mystery, only became clear to City Councilman Bob Kellar after an idle conversation turned into a full-blown genealogical search that went back 10 generations.

“I was mesmerized to learn that one of my relatives on my dad’s side had participated in an Indian battle during the 1700s, he gave a statement about it in the 1800s,” Kellar said. “There were also newspaper clippings of my grandfather’s murder. Had my mother been alive to see this information, it would have been incredible to her.”

Kellar was one of many who discovered the fascinating leaves and branches of their family tree at the Valencia Family History Center, a free genealogical service provided by the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints.

The center will host a Family History Fair from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, with classes and workshops including scrapbooking, digital photography and British and Scandinavian research.

Since the early 1900s, the church has been actively gathering, preserving and sharing genealogical records worldwide. Resources and services can be accessed online at, or through more than 4,500 family history centers in 70 countries, including the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.

According to Valencia Family History Center director Bonnie Petrovich, genealogy seekers run the gamut.

“Some are intense, some are casual. Some have health issues, for example, adopted people that don’t know about their biological parents and want to know if their family history will turn something up,” Petrovich said.

“For many, it’s just a curiosity about who they are and where they came from.”

A 2002 University of Fullerton study by Pamela J. Drake found that the percent of the U.S. population interested in family history increased from 45 percent in 1996 to 60 percent in 2000. More than 70 percent of seekers were female with an average age of 54 years.

To start the search process, seekers should gather as much information as they can about family members, including vital records such as birth, death, marriage and divorce certificates.

In lieu of such records, names, dates and city/county/state information on family members should be collected for further research on Census records.

Seekers should be prepared to spend some time in the search, said Petrovich. “Some people think you can do this in weeks, but the process can often take years. Sometimes you get to the point where, with what info you have, you can’t go any further. In the genealogy game, it’s called a brick wall.”

To get past the brick wall, Petrovich advises thinking outside the box. One seeker insisted that a relative came from Missouri, but an online database revealed a match in Illinois.

After refusing to believe that the relative had moved, the seeker called a cousin, and found out the information was indeed accurate.

“People think they may know the facts, but they might not. It’s a process of elimination, of narrowing the field,” Petrovich said.

Very often, family roots trace back to foreign countries. Church records in Europe, for example, can date back more than 400 years. Deciphering them can be a challenge, as they often are written in the native language. Petrovich found her bloodlines connecting to villages in Germany and Scotland.

“I was looking at church records from the pre-1700s in old German script. It was a real project. If you only want to go back a couple of generations, it doesn’t take long at all, but if you want to dig in and find out about great-grandparents, then that takes some time,” Petrovich said.

After finding bloodlines that traced back to the 1600s, Petrovich decided to make the journey to Germany, where she met with a second cousin, as well as a distant relative of a relative that immigrated to the United States in 1853.

“I got to eat meals in their home and take tours of their cities. It was fun. They’re a part of my family, I felt connected to them,” Petrovich said.

Petrovich felt an even stronger connection upon entering an old German church, where she was allowed to view family records dating back centuries — the doors were opened with an elaborate, almost ancient key, similar to those worn by friars.  

As she stood there, Petrovich had a newfound respect for her ancestors.

“I couldn’t help feeling an overwhelming amount of love and gratitude for the people that worshipped here, who sacrificed to come to America so I can enjoy the freedoms I have today,” she said.

While Kellar hasn’t explored the land of his ancestors, he felt compelled to share his history with existing family members, making copies of his genealogy book and sending them to cousins in Oklahoma.

“If you have the opportunity understand your heritage, how can you not look into it? I encourage people to go to the Family History Fair on Saturday, it’s a great learning experience,” Kellar said.

Santa Clarita Valley Family History Fair, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Free. Family History Center, 24443 McBean Parkway, Valencia. For registration information, call (661) 296-7625. The Family History Center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday and Wednesday. 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. For more information, call (661) 259-1347.


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