Getting to their genetic roots

Researchers help connect with past

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For some, knowledge of their family tree can end just a few generations ago. That leaves an enigma Beverly Brice and Rene Rodgers love to solve.

The two co-chair the Jefferson County Genealogy Society education committee, and Rodgers also is on a three-person DNA research team.

“We are both people that like mysteries and jigsaw puzzles,” Brice said.

“I always describe it as putting together the 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle,” Rodgers added. “We all have the obsessive-compulsive gene on chromosome 17. And I think my segment is about 6 inches long.

“It is satisfying, whether it is just putting together your own tree and knowing that sense of your family’s history and their contributions to making their community what it is, or just the great satisfaction of helping someone know who they are,” Rodgers continued. “I can speak to that angle as someone who has an adopted child and in my family where a child was given up for adoption.”

The team works at the Jefferson County Historical Society Research Center near the Jefferson County International Airport. It serves as both the primary research facility and the repository for the society’s archival collections.

“The research center is owned by the historical society, and the genealogy society contributes to keeping it open,” Brice said. “It is a joint effort so we are open to help people do research on Jefferson County History and in genealogy, and we also have classes here, too. We have about 230 members at the present time, and I would say probably 10 or 12 actually have Jefferson County roots for families. We are geared toward helping people research here.”

Modern technology

“The love of family research and genealogy is just boiling over with the DNA testing and the excitement with the technology we’ve got,” Rodgers said. “The various things that are being made available digitally so you don’t have to travel across the entire United States to get a birth record. There are a lot of good things happening that make it not only exciting but more doable than it was even 20 years ago.”

When Brice started researching genealogy in the late 1980s, everything had to be done by hand.

“Even to get a census record, which is a basic of doing research, I had to go into Seattle for the day and make paper copies,” she said. “Now I can sit in my pajamas at the desk.”

While digital technology has greatly eased the process, it can still be difficult to navigate through the process.   

“In a way, that availability online is a two-edged sword because there are some large websites like Familysearch and Ancestry,” Rodgers said. “People think, ‘If I search there, I can find everything.’ Well, you don’t necessarily. Not all of the records are in one place. It is important to have a sense about how to do the research. What is it you want to know, and then to know something about how to approach it, and those are the same basic skills that go way back, and they are still important today.”

That is where the research center comes in. Volunteers are available to help visitors find what they are looking for.

“The tools that we have here, we do have some subscriptions like the worldwide ancestry subscription,” Rodgers said. “So if someone doesn’t have that at home … they can access ancestry through our library subscription. We also have a subscription with American Ancestors, which is the New England group. And we have great volunteers. That is why we are here. We work one-on-one with people. If they are stuck or don’t know what to do next, we will sit down with them and show them how to find the passenger list, land records or whatever it is they need.”

There is a $25 fee to become a member of the historical society. Family memberships for two people cost $40. Both provide unlimited access to the center.

The group hosts monthly meetings with guest speakers and classes and other discussion groups.

Personal discoveries

Brice, through the use of DNA, has made family discoveries she said help her better understand her past.

“If you don’t know your history, you can’t navigate forward,” she said.

It was Rodgers who helped make the discovery.

“Bev has a 94-year-old aunt who was adopted,” Rodgers said. “And at 93, she wanted to know who she was. Do you realize how fast that clock is ticking? I did it in six months. I found who her mother was, and we even found a picture of her and got to present it to her.”

That discovery highlights how DNA can open the doors to the past when combined with traditional records searches, Brice said.

“That is the important thing about DNA for people to know,” Brice said. “It has to be combined with looking at the records. So, it takes that kind of skill as well.”

Rodgers said the process was more difficult due to the aunt’s age.

“In her case, for example, when you are 94 years old, you don’t have many first cousins left living,” Rodgers said. “So, talking about the combination, you can’t just do DNA without all that other genetic research. I ended up building a family tree that had about 3,300 people in it to find her mother. That isn’t just finding a name, that is proving who they are, find their birth certificate, their death record, where they were in the censuses to establish where they were at this time. You can’t do it without the other research.”

Rodgers has yet to find the father, but she said she’s still searching.

The center does not provide DNA testing onsite but helps people once they receive the results.

“If someone has done the test and gotten their results, if they have a question — let’s say they are an adoptee and they want to find their biological family, or like many people discover, dad wasn’t dad,” Rodgers said. “What we can do then is work with them and use the results of their DNA to help them find what family they do belong to. Sometimes it takes just a very short period of time, and then other times” it takes longer.

“We have someone now we have been working with for a year and a half,” Rodgers said. “We think we have just cracked it.”

Brice has been researching her paternal lineage for years and has gotten peace of mind through DNA testing.

“There is a break in the lineage on my dad’s side,” she said. “It is important because it connects my mom and my dad as seventh cousins, so I want this one to work, and in doing the DNA, I have just gotten a result which verifies that my line is indeed the right line. That was a really big plus. That is the kind of thing we would help people to do.”

The Historical Research Center is located at 13692 Highway 19 in Port Townsend. It is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays. For more information, call 360-379-6673.

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