HELENA – When we think of history, we’re tempted to think of names, places and dates. However, for genealogists looking to find their family heritage, history is a very personal experience that can take you back in the time.
If you know where to look and know who to ask there is a whole world of information to discover. Despite the power of online search engines, it’s still a job that’s best done in person.
Since 1864 the Montana Historical Society has been collecting records that tell everyday, ordinary stories, but that’s what makes them so compelling.
The extensive collection includes brand books, newspapers, maps, photographs, military and prison records and county histories compiled by writers and historians with an eye to preserving their past. For families looking to trace their genealogical roots, the resources are invaluable when it comes to connecting with their past.
“You just never know what you’re going to find,” said Karen Huck, Montana and& Lewis and Clark Genealogical Librarian.
“Family history is just more than the dates of which someone was born, was in the service and died,” said Montana Historical Society Reference Historian ZoeAnn Stoltz.
“What did they do in-between those dates? And these resources help fill in those blanks,” said Stoltz.
Courthouses and libraries across Montana hold a treasure trove of information for someone looking to find their people. While a marriage certificate might place great grandparent to a certain time and location, collections like the one at the Montana Historical Society add much more to those who want to peer into their past.
“If you’re online and you find those very important dates, you’ve just started with a structure,” said Stoltz. “This information and the information at your local library, your local heritage center, that’s the meat.”
“To find your relatives, to find their information, to know more about them, it’s like a big puzzle and every day we’re looking for another piece to put it together,” said Huck.
If you have a name of a relative, a location and a date, you can fill in the blanks of that puzzle, if you know who to ask.
“Always ask your local people, because they know what resources are available with it,” added Huck. “But once you find sources within a county, lots of times they exist in every county.”
Huck said when a researcher experiences their “Ah-Ha” moment of family discovery, she celebrates with them.
Stoltz said she’s been moved to tears by some of the stories researchers have discovered.
If you’re inclined to do a little digging yourself, you might find a familiar face in the Range Rider collection out of Miles City nearly 90 years ago.
That’s where a restaurant owner realized that the good old boys who came in for coffee each morning were slowly starting to die off. He spent years collecting their stories in small notebooks. Once he got their stories down, he’d send the old timers across the street to get their photographs taken.
Those images and those stories now live at the Montana Historical Society.
“Most of us are not descended from royalty, sad to say,” said Stoltz. “We descend from the beet farmers, and the cowboys and the mine workers. And to learn anything personal about their lives…is a treasure.”
While some genealogical information can be found online, ZoeAnn says a great deal more information has yet to be digitized, and you’ll likely find more family history at your library or county courthouse.