By Nick BeJeaux
Of the many services offered by the Main Library on Goodwood Boulevard, the most under-used, and interesting, may be their Genealogy Lab on the Second Floor.
Thousands and thousands of historical records line the walls in books, microfilms, and other archival mediums—including online tools like Ancestry.com. All of it is there for you to explore on your own or with the help of a genealogy technician, like Lee Bareford.
“We track your family back through census records and obituaries, marriage announcements, things like that,” he said. “In your case, the earliest census data was from 1940, so we had to go with more public records.”
By using my name and my parents’ names, Bareford began to fill in the blanks of my family tree up to 1940, where census records began.
“From there, we used draft cards from World War I and World War II, Catholic church records, land records and a variety of other sources to piece together where a family was and where they came from,” he said.
Despite the fact that the Internet did not exist 30 years ago, tracking a history mostly on paper is actually not as hard as you may think in the digital age.
“It’s amazingly easy with tools like Ancestry.com, Family Search, and other databases you can access through the library,” said Bareford. “You can track a family, if the names are spelled correctly, back to 1850 within a couple of hours. With a little bit of help, and luck, it’s actually very easy to trace your history online.”
Even if you run into a brick wall with your search, historical documents are constantly being uploaded all the time to online databases and social media that can open the door to a new ancestor or location. Computers, however, can often muddle the search for records of specific people, places, and dates. That’s where researchers like Bareford come in.
“One of the challenges of research in the digital age are actually the search engines,” he said. “Computers can read the documents uploaded as images, but what they do is assign that hand-written letter a typed character, and when that happens, mistakes are often made. In lots of cases, names are misspelled already, and when you add transcription errors to that, it can get messy and people can be difficult to find. We know that process works, so we can help the computer, and we’re also aware of the other resources on microfilm and in books.”
When first I met with Bareford in the Genealogy Lab, I had some expectations as to what he had found out about my people. I expected that he would tell me what I already knew; I’m Acadian, my family hails from Nova Scotia, et cetera. Imagine my surprise when he showed me the names of my earliest ancestors that lived in Louisiana.
Augustin Bijeau was, we think, born in the Pisiguit region of Nova Scotia—near modern-day Windsor—in 1753. History books tell us that the British expelled the Acadians starting in 1755, meaning he could have been as young as two when he made the journey by ship to Louisiana. The next date that came up is when he married Ann-Gertrude Landry in February 1774 at the age of 21 in St. James Parish. The two went on to have eight children. Augustin Died on Feb. 8, 1822 in St. Martinville.
From there, the trail from Acadia to me can be traced through Augustin’s son Ursin Bijeau all the way to Joseph Phillip BeJeaux, my father’s father who passed away in April 2013. Thankfully, Catholic churches kept very thorough records of their flocks—most of this information came from church records. But a great deal also came from old draft cards and census data.
These documents offered more than simple dates and gave a more detailed account of my family’s history. For example, census records and an old draft card show that my great, great grandfather Francois Xavier BeJeaux was born in St. Martin in 1882, his first language was French, and he worked as a fisherman. When World War II broke out, he was 57 years old, but he still had a draft card filled out. The biggest takeaway from the card is his mark, not his signature, which indicates he was illiterate. What a difference a generation or two can make!
I have only shared a tiny bit of what I’ve learned about my family, and there is still so much more to learn; what Lee found for me took only about three hours to find. Without a doubt this experience has grounded my perspective of my place in the world. Being where I am doesn’t seem random any more. I think that going forward may be a little easier now that I know who came before me.
To find out what you can do to discover about your own family history, visit ebrpl.libguides.com/genealogy.