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Recap of the Family History Seminar, “Family Research, Texas Style”

September 15, 2011

On Saturday, August 27, 2011, the DRT Library held its eleventh Family History Seminar, entitled “Family Research, Texas Style.” This year’s speaker was John A. Sellars, a fifth-generation native of Hopkins County, Texas, who has been conducting genealogical research at county courthouses and other repositories since 1985. An officer and active member of the Hopkins County Genealogical Society, Sellars has completed courses and been a lecturer at Samford University’s Institute of Genealogical and Historical Research.

John A. Sellars was the featured speaker at this year's Family History Seminar.

John A. Sellars was the featured speaker at this year's Family History Seminar.

The seminar included four presentations by Mr. Sellars. His first lecture asked whether Texas should be considered part of the South or the West. His answer: based on the state’s history, which he explored during the session, Texas is part of both the South and West. Mr. Sellars also argued that researchers can’t do genealogy without knowing about the history of the time and place in which their ancestors lived. Indeed, stated Mr. Sellars, looking at history can help genealogists break down “brick walls” (i.e. barriers, problems, or dead ends) in their research. He ended this lecture by providing an overview of Texas genealogical records, describing their value and where they can be found in physical archives or through online resources.

Mr. Sellars’ second talk focused on using newspapers in genealogical research. As the news medium of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, historical newspapers contain a wealth of information. They’re a “great way to breathe life back into your ancestors,” Mr. Sellars said, although using them can be “rewarding and tedious” and require additional fact-checking. He recommended that genealogists start their newspaper research by conducting historical and geographical research of their ancestral homes. This will help identify state newspapers that may have carried regional stories; regional papers that perhaps included local stories about the county or community in which one’s ancestors lived; and regional religious newspapers for an ancestor’s denomination or religion. While several Internet sites provide access to digital copies of historical newspapers, Mr. Sellars reminded the seminar attendees that libraries and archives often have hard and microfilm copies of papers that are currently unavailable online.

Seminar attendees obtained much useful information from Mr. Sellars' four lectures.

Seminar attendees obtained much useful information from Mr. Sellars' four lectures.

In his third presentation, Mr. Sellars explored the importance of collateral research, or learning more about an ancestor’s siblings and their offspring. He noted that during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries people usually moved and relocated as part of extended family, church, or ethnic groups; intermarriage between families was common. Researching cousins to the same extent as direct ancestors can lead to new information and discoveries. Cousins can be identified by using census records to study the neighborhoods in which ancestors lived; noting witnesses or administrators listed on deeds, probates, and other courthouse records; and consulting county histories and cemetery records.

In the final talk of the seminar, Mr. Sellars examined how to locate information about an ancestor who was a member of a Masonic lodge. In an 1897 article in the North American Review, author H. S. Harwood described the “Golden Age of Fraternity” at the end of the nineteenth century. He reported that fraternal groups like the Freemasons, International Order of the Odd Fellows, Knights of Columbus, Knights of Pythias, and Improved Order of Red Men claimed five and a half million members while the total adult male population of the United States was approximately nineteen million. Mr. Sellars recommended that genealogists first look for clues that their ancestor may have been a Mason or a member of another fraternal organization. Clues can be found on tombstones, in published biographies, or in photographs that show organization symbols. To research a Masonic ancestor, Mr. Sellars recommended that genealogists consult published sources as well as Grand Lodge and local lodge records, although some documents may not be available to the general public.

From left, Leslie Stapleton, DRT Library Director; John A. Sellars; and Madge Thornall Roberts, DRT Library Committee Chairman.

From left, Leslie Stapleton, DRT Library Director; John A. Sellars; and Madge Thornall Roberts, DRT Library Committee Chairman.

Many thanks to Mr. Sellars for providing such interesting and informative lectures. Library staff members and the Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library Committee also thank everyone who supported the Library by attending the 2011 Family History Seminar.

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