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Climbing your family tree
Genealogists find there's a skeleton in every closet, outlaw in every family

by Leigh Woolsey
World Scene Writer 581-8465
From: Tulsa World July 6, 2003

Murder.  Incest.  Fraud.  It could be the story line of a two-bit romance novel.

But it's not.  These are facts people unearth while gathering leaves for their family tree. The hunt for family history turns up such wild shenanigans along with far tamer tales.

But anyone who's traced their lineage learns one thing:  There's a skeleton in every closet.  These jewels of intrigue are the treasures that reward family historians for the years of effort spent researching the past.

Die-hards go to great lengths - travel the world, read microfilm for hours and spend countless dollars - for just one document.  Just a single document that says so-in-so lived and died in this town on such-and-such day.

It's the thrill of the hunt.  The trophy comes from finally discovering that great uncle who fled to New Zealand or uncovering proof that a grandfather really did urn for land in the Cherokee Strip.

Many family historians, otherwise known and genealogists, say they feel more connected and aware of their own lives as they reach their distant past.

Don't let sleeping dogs lie

Marmie Apsley hedged before she said it.

"I don't know if you want to print this in the newspaper, but..."

There was a murder in the family, long ago and late at night.

A far-removed cousin of hers back in the 1900s killed his wife, cut up the body and dumped it in the San Francisco Bay.  The man was caught and died in San Quentin prison.

"Only a genealogist would think it was neat to find that kind of information," said Apsley, vice president of the Broken Arrow Genealogical Society.

Guess that's why Phyllis Phelps was intrigued with a long-ago uncle who was slain on the streets of Missouri by a mob that blamed him for accounting fraud.

Phelps read newspapers for hours to find that skeleton, which was secreted beside another bag-of-bones - this one about a bushwhacker during the Civil War era.

"Everybody that I find has a skeleton in the closet, but it's no big deal when it comes down to it," said 71-year-old Phelps, the first fellow appointed to the Tulsa Genealogical Society.

Phelps and her husband first delved into genealogy to offset their empty-nest syndrome.  They became hooked on studying the past and crisscrossed the country collecting aged family documents and facts from cemeteries, libraries and courthouses.

Genealogists, pro and amateur, are like renegade lawmen tracking down an elusive fugitive.  They get obsessed, and are willing to travel afar for a death certificate or land deed that might solve a family mystery.

"It's addicting," Phelps said.  "You're constantly thinking that the next big find is out there.  It's like a gambler.  If you just put one more nickel in the slot (machine), you're gonna hit the jackpot."

The roadblocks are abundant.  Estranged relatives are nearly impossible to trace and often become the logjams for family hunters.

Names are another barrier.  So many were changed when immigrants registered on Ellis Island.

But the questions loom, and you're always looking and wondering about that missing piece, Apsley said.

Piecing historys quilt

"It's like a jigsaw puzzle.  You find one piece of information hear and another there, and you put it all together," Apsley said.

In time, the names on yellowed documents turn into real people.

"You take the cold, hard facts, and you do what we call 'puttin' flesh on the bones,'" Phelps said. "You learn what they looked like, how large or small they were, what they did for a living and how much land they had.

"You get very close to these people and you feel that you know them - and you know them well."

Carrie Cook can almost see her great-great granddaddy carrying sweet potatoes in his pockets all the way from Nebraska to Oklahoma, where he raced in the Land Run on the Cherokee Strip.

"He had sweet potatoes for his first meal on this new land," said Cook, a 32-year-old former school teacher, who's now in the family business, Gregath Publishing, a small company in Wyandotte that prints family histories.

Cook is the vice president, Webmaster and fourth-generation Gregath woman to be part of the company.  Her great-grandmother and grandmother started Gregath Publishing in the early '70s.  Cook's mother, Fredrea Gregath Cook, joined the operation in the 80s and was later joined by Carrie.

Carrie Cook, and her mother went on to write and, of course, self-publish "Writing Family History or Genealogy for Pleasure and Profit."  They will be guest speakers at the July 8 meeting of the Broken Arrow Genealogical Society.

Look back to see ahead

The Gregath family's pastime is the past.

The clan tracked ancestors back 30 generations to the 1600s, and have been searching for 30-plus years for information on some more obscure relatives.

One of Carrie Cook's earliest memories is reading tombstones in cemeteries where her relatives were long ago laid to rest.

"I just love family history," she said.  "It lets you know the kind of folks you want to live up to and who you want to surpass.  It personalizes your history."

Some people just want to know where they come from.  People like Phelps, who got into genealogy there decades ago despite her grandmother's balking.

"She'd tell me, 'Phyllis, leave them dead people alone and quit digging them graves,'" but she never told me why," Phelps said.

Maybe Grandmother had a secret, buy Phelps has yet to find one.

Besides, a genealogist realizes that knowing what happened in the past enlightens the events of today.

"I think that all of us want to know where we come from," Phelps said.  "Why some of us have red hair and others have black, and all that.  When you get to studying your ancestors, all these things come out and you realize that you are just a product of those who came before.

"This has taught me exactly who I am."

Page Last Updated: October 12, 2018