On the Record

On the record ... with Julie Dresser

Julie Dresser is leading a six-week beginner's genealogy course through the Sycamore History Museum.
Julie Dresser is leading a six-week beginner's genealogy course through the Sycamore History Museum.

SYCAMORE – Are you related to someone famous?

Julie Dresser, a Sycamore genealogist, is.

Born in Arizona, Dresser grew up in St. Charles, where she began studying genealogy at the age of 11 to find out if her family was actually related to President Andrew Jackson. Though she disproved that family myth, Dresser, who moved to Sycamore in 1987, discovered that she is descended from Abraham Lincoln, Nathan Hale and the real-life model for “The Scarlet Letter” character Hester Pine.

As she grew, so did Dresser’s passion for genealogy. Last year, she won a national essay contest sponsored  by the Society of American Archivists, earning her family a trip to San Diego. Her essay was about discovering 16 letters an ancestor who died in 1864 wrote to her sister.

Dresser will share some of her knowledge in a six-week genealogy class starting tonight through the Sycamore History Museum. Registration is required. Call 815-895-5762 to inquire about space.

Dresser spent a few minutes last week talking genealogy with MidWeek reporter Doug Oleson.

MidWeek: How did you get started in genealogy so young?

Julie Dresser: My grandmother’s family always said that we were descended from President Andrew Jackson. I see no one actually opened up a history book, because Andrew Jackson didn’t have any children. It’s just a family story. ...But sometimes, there’s the nugget of truth in a story. It turns out we’re probably descendants of Andrew Jackson’s grandfather, so there is a relationship, but the story kind of evolved until it became more than it really was.

MW: Did you get into genealogy because of that?

JD: Yes, it piqued my interest, and I’ve always been curious. I like puzzles.  I always considered genealogy to be this great big puzzle. You just don’t know what the picture is going to be like when you’re all done.

MW: When you started, were there as many sources as today?

JD: Actually, my grandparents lived across the street from the library in St. Charles. My grandmother’s family was in Kane County from the 1840s on. It was local. I could do it on my own. And then I had some aunts and cousins who kind of took me under their wing and helped me out. They were interested. They got me started and encouraged me. Then, when I got married, my mother-in-law was a huge help to me.

MW: If I was interested in starting my own family tree, how would I begin?

JD: You start with yourself and what you know. You always start with your home source.  You talk to people in your family and from there you access obituaries from the newspaper, death records. You do everything for each generation and keep going back.

MW:  Is that difficult, looking up old obituaries?

JD: It can be, especially if you don’t have the right date. I’ll give you an example. My husband has an ancestor. His name was Amos Cochrane. All I knew from his gravestone in Sterling (was) he was buried in 1890. I can’t find a death record, I can’t find anything else. I just have the year. It’s a pain to go through an entire year of newspapers. But it turns out that Sterling has posted an index of their newspapers. But I never would have found his obituary because his gravestone is wrong. He actually died in 1891.

Sometimes you just have to be persistent and keep looking and 20 years later you might find your answer. So it’s not easy.

MW: Sounds like a lot of work.
JD: I think with the Internet, people think, “Gosh, this is going to be easy. I’m going to go to Ancestry.com and plug it in,” but it’s not. There are people who have the same name. You have to be careful. Even if you think a name is unusual, it may not be. You have to be diligent and find everything you can on that person.

MW: I’ve seen that ad for Ancestry.com where someone found out they lived a block from the Wright brothers. Is that really possible?
JD: Sure. Actually, one of my cousins was taught how to fly by John Glenn. So anything is possible. It’s a big world and yet it’s small at the same time. I’ve done my husband’s ancestry and I can’t tell you how many times we’re cousins over and over again. He doesn’t appreciate that when I say, “Hi, Cuz.” It’s distant.

MW: Is it easier today than, say, 20 years ago, because of technology?
JD: Yes. Indexes are coming online, that makes it easier. I have probably found more in the last five years than in the previous 20.

MW: Does this involve a lot of traveling?
JD: Yes, it does. Or you can hire someone to do some research for you. You can order it through a genealogical society. Most of them will do some limited research for you. They won’t do your whole family, but if you know what you need, they can do it for you. It gets expensive.

It’s also very time consuming. I think if you really, really love it, you’ll stick with it. It’s like any hobby. If you love it, that’s what you’re going to do. That’s what you’re going to spend your money on. I would never go on vacation without going to a cemetery or a courthouse. My son is tired of it. I try to work out fun things for him to do.

MW: Don’t you have to deal with people changing their names when they come to this country?
JD: It is a big obstacle, but it can be done. ...I’ve done it. ...There is the myth that people changed their names at Ellis Island, but that’s not true. They had to have paperwork to come into this country. It had to match the manifest on the ship. But once you got here, they didn’t need to drive, there was no Social Security. so they didn’t need any cards. There were no birth records until 1916 in Illinois, when it (became) mandatory. So they could change their names to make themselves sound more Americanized. You didn’t need any documentation to do that. My grandfather was born in 1920 and his parents divorced and his mom remarried and changed his last name, but there’s no documentation on that at all. He was just before needing all that paperwork.

MW: Are more people becoming interested in genealogy?
JD: Yes, I think so. It seems to be very popular, especially since “Roots,” that TV (mini)series in 1977. ...I’ve heard genealogy is the second most popular topic on the Internet. I don”t know how accurate that is, but it goes to show that lots of people are doing this.

MW: Why do you think that is?
JD: I think there’s a lot of things. I think people want to know if they’re related to someone famous. To me, I just love knowing who came before me and what their lives were like. Their lives were so much harder than ours are today. I have a lot of respect for them.

MW: Is patience one of the biggest things you have to have to do this?
JD: Patience, persistence, diligence. Don’t leave any stone unturned. ...You have to follow all the steps, otherwise, you might never find out.

MW: Do you ever go back so far and run into a dead end?
JD: Yes. You get back to about 1800 in Ireland and you’re done. In Great Britain, you can go back hundreds and hundreds of years. I have one Scottish line that goes back to the 17th century, which is pretty good. It really depends if those ministers kept really good tabs on their parishioners, plus there’s fires and floods and wars. Things get destroyed.

MW: When did you start teaching classes?
JD: I started last fall. After winning the contest, (Sycamore History Museum Executive Director) Michelle (Donahoe) approached me about talking about where I found the information for the letters and I said I would actually be really interested in doing a genealogy class. She took me up on it. It has received a really good response. I was surprised and pleased.

MW: What are you going to go over?
JD: I’m going to go over the basics of finding information, where to find it, how to find it, being persistent and how to go about gathering clues to resolve a mystery. Making sure you don’t leave any stone unturned. I’ll give lots of research examples from my own experience so they can literally see how I figured it out.

MW: Anything else you want to mention about the class?
JD: It covers all the basics. A lot of people are really interested in finding their place of origin. I have five different examples, in different ways, of finding where your ancestor came from. You have to find the name of the village. You can’t just say they came from Germany. Germany has thousands of villages. A lot of them have the same names or similar names, so you have to be extremely careful. I’ve run into that myself.

And I’m still learning. I learn from my students and other people give me hints, evolving.

MW: Anything you want to add about genealogy?
JD: I think it can be especially rewarding for young people to know who they came from and to be proud of who they are. ...I keep telling my son the same stories over and over again. If you don’t repeat it, kids will forget.

MW: Does it help if someone has a natural interest in history?
JD: I think most people who get into genealogy do have an interest in history. I love all types of history. To me, genealogy is like history through a microscope.

You are learning about yourself and where you came from. You have to remember that everyone has two parents and then four grandparents and each time you go back, you double that number. By the time you go back 10 generations, think about how many people that is. The varied occupations and experiences they must have had depending on their economic background.

Loading more