Ancestry is a word that holds a lot of meaning for people from all sorts of backgrounds. It can be an easy task to trace one’s ancestry or it can be a seemingly impossible trek. When I was a little girl I became completely enamored with figuring out my heritage. It was this obsession that accidently landed me the role of historian for my father’s side of the family tree.
(Poster for the 2001 movie The Luck of the Irish. Image: IMDB)
It all started with a simple assignment and a movie. I was in third grade and we had been assigned to make a clothespin person representing an ancestor. We were encouraged to interview our parents or other relatives to find a family member who was an immigrant. Around the same time a movie was airing on the Disney Channel called “The Luck of the Irish.” The movie was about an Irish American teenager learning about the importance of his Irish heritage, with some leprechaun shenanigans mixed in. The movie originally aired the year before, but since third grade was my family’s first foray into cable television I was completely enthralled by the movie the year after it originally came out. My best friend would animatedly talk about how proud she was of her Irish and Scottish heritage and how she was going to talk about Ireland for her ancestor project. I, of course, was jealous that my friend was not only Irish, but Scottish as well.
I went home and started to pester my parents about my ancestry hoping to get a country I knew very well, because no one wanted to be from a country no one had heard of. My parents didn’t know much about where their families were from. My dad could only recall a little about his great-grandmother, “Nonnie” Panlener. My dad did know that Nonnie’s father was a Canadian fur trapper who left her with a local American Indian tribe to be raised. The family assumed she had relations to the tribe, but knew nothing of her birth mother or father. As a third grader, this was frustrating. I wanted clear answers and not a bunch of maybes.
DabrÃ³wno, Poland also known as Gilgenburg, OstpreuÃŸen/Germany when my family left.
My dad called on his younger brother, who had many of the family heirlooms in his home. My uncle was much more help. He could give me a name and a country which was all I needed to complete my assignment. He told me about my great-great-great aunt who came to America from Poland with her brothers, including my great-great-great grandfather. Poland was not a country I was familiar with, and one that has a complicated history, including German-occupation, so my uncle told me to tell everyone my family was from Germany. I was very excited because I had heard of Germany before and I knew one of the fourth grade teachers was from Germany. I made a tiny person made out of a clothespin and presented my family’s story.
Purdue Pete designed by Doc Epple, Red Sammons and artist Art Evans.
As I grew older I was told stories about how my grandparents met or how my great-grandfather, Murray “Red” Sammons helped to design Boilermaker Pete, also known as Purdue Pete- the unofficial mascot of Purdue University. I was too busy with college schoolwork and jobs to learn more about my family, and did not have the resources to do any research. It was not until one day I was looking something up about Purdue, since a dear friend was attending classes there, and stumbled upon a post claiming that the author’s grandfather had designed Purdue Pete. I was flabbergasted! Who would dare claim what my great-grandfather had done? At first I thought, “Well maybe they are related to my great grandfather’s partner?” I kept reading and saw they claimed to be related to Red Sammons, my great-grandpa. So I did what any sane person would do and stayed up until 2 a.m. creating a family tree on Ancestry.com from the knowledge I already had.
The next day I showed my work to my parents who were concerned I had lost sleep over making a family tree, but also impressed at what I had created. I explained to them about this mysterious relative that was posting about Murray on the internet. My dad reminded me that my grandmother had siblings and thus this relative could be related to them. I had indeed forgotten my grandmother had a sister, so I added them to my family tree even though I was a bit sad to now be sharing my great-grandfather with other relatives. I was now declared the family historian!
For Christmas that year my dad’s brother purchased me a subscription to Ancestry.com to help me further my research. Around the same time I came to work here at the Ohio History Center, and I found out you could find records of your ancestry right here in the Library and Archives!
A picture of our ancestor.
When researching my ancestry I had no idea what I would find. I was expecting to hit various dead ends and eventually give up my research. Even now I am finding new stories and people connected to my family. I found an ancestor who has an uncanny likeness to one of my uncles (pictured above) and found a line of ancestors that can be traced back to the Mayflower. Researching ancestry can be a daunting task especially if you don’t have a lot of background information or don’t know where to start, but the journey is fun and the result is very rewarding!
Here at the Ohio History Connection you can get a free library card and start your own family trees. Are you unsure of where to start? Come to one of our many workshops that will help you dig further into the past. Our staff in the library are also very helpful and will help you start your journey.
Examples of collection types available:
Online Collections Catalog
Or come on in and visit us! The library is open Wednesday- Saturday, 10am-5pm.
Come and use our archives to start your ancestry journey! We hope you’ll make the Ohio History Center part of your school year! For field trip reservations please email [email protected].
Activity (all ages)
Make a family tree! For added fun make people out of clothes pins to represent each person in the tree.
Discussion Questions (K-3rd)
What stories does your family like to share?
What sort of traditions does your family pass down?
Talk about your Ohio journey! How did your family come to Ohio?
Discussion Questions (4-8th)
What are some obstacles that could occur when researching family history?
What are some reasons why someone may have a hard time researching their past?
Discussion Questions (9-12th)
Some people call America the “Great melting pot”, what does that mean? Do you think that is a true analogy today?
Many Polish immigrants left Poland because they were being persecuted by the German, Prussian and Russian government. What are some reasons that Immigrants are coming to America today?