York countians climb the family tree with genealogical society


Erika Runkles had brought a box full of "treasures," as she said — photos from her family's history, old postcards, that kind of thing — that the South Central Pennsylvania Genealogical Society members passed around, turning over and inspecting. She held one up, pointing out a distant relative she'd heard about from a few difference sources; a man who, apparently, was known for his fiddle playing.

He's sitting there, in a crowd, holding a fiddle.

"It's the goosebump moment," Runkles said.

The other dozen attendees of the society's Sunday-afternoon meeting at the York County Heritage Trust, 205 E. Market St., nodded their heads and made noises of understanding — they knew the feeling.

Genealogy: It's neither a simple pastime nor an easy one. The digital age has helped broaden the access to records and make them more searchable, but at the same time it's not as if your entire family history will be unlocked by a quick Google search. Digitization of records has been spotty at best, and it takes some creativity and legwork — often literally — to find what you're looking for, the society's members say.

The complications that come from all the different spelling and pronunciation variations that have popped up over the centuries some of the families have been in York County and the surrounding area are one way of illustrating how tricky it can be.

One of the surnames that Runkles and a couple other people talked about was the Douglass family, which makes up part of Runkles' family tree. Some of them spell it Douglass and pronounce it the common way. But then one branch dropped one of the S's.

"They didn't want 'ass' on the end," Runkles said, causing a round of chuckles to circle the table.

She then offered up a further twist: Some of them pronounced it DOOG-lass — a more traditionally Scottish way, she said.

But it's those intracacies that help make the hobby so rewarding. The members, most on the older side, all seem to be longtime genealogy enthusiasts. They sit and swap tales, talking in a whirlwind of weird connections, happenstance discoveries and maiden names.

Many clearly like to tell a story, delighting in sharing what they've found. But all genuinely seem to like to hear them, too; people pay attention to what the others have to say, happily filing the new information away in the records of memory. Several are working together on genealogical projects.

Getting started: Jonathan Stayer, the society's president — and a relation of just about everyone in the northern half of Lancaster County, as he tells it — said the first thing to do if you want to try to climb to some of the farther-out branches of your family tree is to write down all the names and birth and death locations of everyone in your family, as far back as you and your relatives can remember.

Then take to some of the genealogically oriented websites. Ancestry.com is a good, well-known starting point; Newspapers.com, a related site that has many years of archives for several local papers — including this one, all the way back to its genesis in 1876 — has some good stuff, too.

And then it's up to your sleuthing skills to pull information from a variety of places together. The attendees Sunday afternoon talked about tax records, church records, community newsletters, classified newspaper advertisements, cemetery records, petitions and many, many more sources.

Lila Fourhman-Shaull, the Heritage Trust's director of library and archives and one of the society's board members, said York countians should come into the Heritage Trust library, as she can help them. The library has thousands of files on local families, she said.

"You get to see how your particular family fit into history," Stayer said after the meeting. "You begin to get a personal connection to historical events."

South Central Pennsylvania Genealogical Society:

The South Central Pennsylvania Genealogical Society will celebrate the 40th anniversary of its founding this fall.

The society usually has meetings the first Sunday of each month at the York County Heritage Trust building at 205 E. Market St., York City. Check out www.scpgs.org to find a full schedule and what the theme of each meeting is.

Anyone is welcome to attend for free, but to be a full member receiving a regular newsletter and access to publications and trips, one must pay $25 a year.

— Reach Sean Philip Cotter at scotter@yorkdispatch.com.