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Genealogy experts share tips, motivations for researching family roots

From arts and crafts to Marie Kondo-grade reorgs, the COVID-19 pandemic has afforded the sheltered in place plenty of opportunity to complete any number of long-delayed personal projects. Count among them the family tree chart.

While the Santa Clara County Library District is temporarily closed, free access to Ancestry.com records previously available only in person at library branches is now possible remotely. Another promising resource (for women, at least) is a free genealogy workshop offered July 18 by the Los Altos chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, or DAR.

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Courtesy of Liane Jensen
Liane Jensen and her family, Mike, from left, Anne, Sarah and Grace, sit in the Mayflower float after the 2020 Rose Parade.

“At the workshop, basically we give an introduction to DAR, because we want people to join and become members,” said Donna M. Santistevan, chapter regent. “But we also help them start out with their family tree … starting out with your parents and your grandparents, knowing as much as you can.”

The Daughters of the American Revolution began in 1890 in response to a refusal by the Sons of the American Revolution, formed just a year before, to allow women to join their organization. Members of both groups must be able to prove a blood lineage tie to a patriot of the American Revolution. DAR and SAR activities promote three tenets: patriotism, historic preservation and education.

There are currently 185,000 DAR members worldwide, but the organization reached the 1 millionth-member mark, cumulative throughout its history, when Amy Dickinson, the newspaper writer behind the syndicated “Ask Amy” advice column, joined this year. California boasts 115 DAR chapters. The Los Altos one has 57 members.

In addition to Ancestry.com, members of the Los Altos DAR chapter recommend exploring FamilySearch.org and FindAGrave.com for genealogical research. Some of these resources, like FindAGrave.com’s database of community-submitted tombstone photographs, are free to use. Others, like the version of Ancestry.com offered through the library, are free but provide only limited access to information such as census records, wills and birth and death certificates; delving deeper requires a paid subscription.

Newspapers.com, powered by Ancestry.com, is a source for obituaries – a potential treasure trove of family history – but a paid subscription is required after a free seven-day trial.

Mining records

Online collaborative family trees, available on websites like FamilySearch.org, can be both a blessing and a curse, warns Donna Kargo Santistevan, mother of Donna M. and an associate member of the DAR’s Los Altos chapter.

“One thing I would really caution you about is do not believe what anybody says when it comes to their own family tree,” Donna Kargo Santistevan said. “You’ll see lots of family trees out there, especially on Ancestry.com – or FamilySearch – and they might provide good clues, but there are just so many mistakes, and people tend to take things for granted.”

She suggests mining land records, probate records and wills for familial connections.

As the Los Altos DAR’s registrar, Liane Jensen helps prospective members prepare their paperwork and documentation to send to the national organization for approval. But research of her own family revealed an exciting personal discovery: William Brewster, a Mayflower passenger, is her ancestor. By writing an essay on what it means to be descended from a Pilgrim, Jensen’s 10-year-old daughter Grace earned a spot for the two of them aboard the Mayflower float in the 2020 Pasadena Rose Parade. They wore period-appropriate costumes made from linen and wool.

Jensen recently read an article describing how children who understand how their ancestors overcame obstacles become more resilient themselves. She said it helps prove the worth of investing time in genealogical projects.

“It’s just interesting to know that there’s kind of a more tangible (result) than, well, it’s fun, but there’s a definite benefit to doing that, to understanding our place in history.”

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the July 18 DAR genealogy workshop will take place by Zoom teleconference. Reservations are required. For more information, call Donna M. Santistevan at (303) 881-8474 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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