2018-05-03 / Around Town

Conversation with Helen Smith, Genealogist

Opening New Worlds
By Leif Walcutt

Curious about your family history? Helen Smith can help. Before becoming vice president of the Rhode Island Genealogy Society, she was a high school teacher and travel agent. A Massachusetts native, she has been living in Jamestown for the past 45 years. Starting in early May, Smith will be conducting beginner genealogy workshops at Newport Public Library. Topics will include starting a genealogy research process, how to use research sources, and retouching images with Photoshop Elements. Newport This Week chatted with Smith about how to research genealogy, as well as about her own family exploration.

What inspired you to become a genealogist? My mom worked full time while raising three children. Since my dad would work Saturdays, mom would be rushing around doing laundry and other chores and would say to us kids, “If you hurry up we can go on a picnic.” So, we’d hurry up and get our work done and she would take us on a picnic, which would end up in a graveyard.

A graveyard? Interesting place for a picnic. The reason that she would do this is because she was copying information for our family genealogy. We would follow up with a visit with a family relative to get more information. So, with meeting all these older people in my family when I was kid and the training with my mom, when I got older, I got back into researching genealogy. When my daughter was a child it made sense to continue the tradition, and I’ve done it ever since. I’ve been doing it over 30 years.

Why do you think it’s important for people to know their genealogy? It helps people find their place. Their place in the family, their place in society, and also I use it to get young people interested in history. If you can say to a child, “Did you know that one of your great-grandfathers was one of the founders of the Green Mountain Boys,” they will listen to you a little bit, whereas before they thought history was boring. All of a sudden it becomes personal. It's a great way to get kids involved.

Any other reasons to dive into one’s family history? It's a great healer. Everyone has family problems. Everyone has people in their family who for whatever reason were difficult or you didn't like. By doing research on the family you find out they weren't all that bad. You’ll find yourself saying, guess what, that grandmother that was such a terror and who you picture to be an awful, awful person, you find out why she might have had a difficult time and it helps you to understand her as a person. It gives you perspective.

What is the first step in starting a genealogy research process? We start off by giving participants charts to see what they need in their family. Talking to other family members; you always start with people that are closest to you. Talking to your family, especially the older members, helps provides a different perspective, because they experienced things differently.

If you sit down in a room full of cousins and trade stories, you find that there's totally different perspectives on different aspects of family history. By trading history, you get a fuller picture of family lineage. Start with the people around you and work from there. Look for your old papers, some relatives will have old letters, others will have old pictures. You have to start with what’s available. And then from there, of course, libraries, computers, databases.

What are some interesting things that you’ve found out about your own family genealogy? I found many people that I'm descended from are Irish immigrants, some old English families, people who fought in the revolution, people who fought in the War in 1812. You end up reading a lot of history and it makes the process fun.

What things surprise people the most when they delve into their genealogy?

Sometimes people are hesitant when researching their family history. Many people are shy about sharing the information about their family, some find they have something to hide. Other people think, “My mother never talked about this or that; it must have been awful.” When you start the research and talk to other people in the family who know a little bit more about an issue, you start to put things into perspective and find out, wait a minute, that wasn’t what I thought it was about at all. That makes perfect sense. It will open up a new world of talking to new people. They have a common goal, a common family.

What is one of the first homework assignments you give? I tell them they have to contact a relative they haven’t been in touch with for more than 10 years. People often ask, “What will I say?” You say, “I’m starting to do genealogy, starting to do family research and was wondering if you know anyone in the family who’s done it. Can we talk about this?” Have three or four questions lined up. It opens up new worlds you didn’t know existed.

Once you take the first step, you become excited and interested. I love seeing the excitement.

Newport Public Library will host Helen Smith for a three-part genealogy workshop series on May 3, 10, and 17 from 2:30-4 p.m. The workshops are free and open to the public.

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