Gene-O-Rama teaches Internet can’t replace research

By Andy Medici

Henry J. Hotopp left Germany to avoid being drafted into the army. When he arrived in… Henry J. Hotopp left Germany to avoid being drafted into the army. When he arrived in America, Hotopp decided to volunteer in the Union Army to fight in the Civil War.

“It’s all about choice,” said Barbara Braden Guffrey, head of publicity for the Western Pennsylvania Genealogical Society on why Hotopp avoided one army to serve in another.

Family history and ancestry was the order of the day at Gene-O-Rama, an event hosted by WPGS and the African American Historical and Genealogical Society Saturday afternoon in the Soldiers and Sailors War Memorial in Oakland, as part of National Heritage.The event offered information on how a person can get started tracking her genealogy, with absolutely no prior experience. The event was separated into booths by categories like “Internet,” “Census,” and a variety of booths for different ethnic groups, such as “Italian” and “African American.”

The Internet booth showed people how to use the Web effectively, but Reed Powell, Web master for WPGS, cautioned against the exclusive use of and complete trust in the Internet as a source.

“The Internet is grossly overrated,” Powell said, adding that it does offer some help and can point people in the right direction.

One of the resources the Web offers is certain census information, dating from about 1790 to 1930, when the government released its last census. Census information can be found at and other sites dealing with genealogy.

Powell suggested that people tracking and researching their genealogies should begin with the relatives that are still alive – especially young people, who might still have grandparents, or even great-grandparents, from whom they can obtain information.

The census may not help much, though, as census information from the early period of the United States is extremely vague. Often, the census just listed the head of the household and the number of people living in it. Only later did the census keep track of individual people.

At the African American booth, African American Historical and Genealogical Society President Emily Davis spoke about some of the unique problems that black Americans face in tracing their family histories, especially to times before the Civil War.

The first census for black people in America was taken in 1866, and since some freed slaves changed their names to reflect their new lives, it may be extremely hard to find ancestors.

“It’s the thrill of the hunt to see what you can find,” Davis said, describing how she felt about tracking her genealogy, which she began to do in 1992.

“It becomes a passion,” she added.

Diane Ragan, the president of WPGS, also offered some advice for beginners interested in tracing their genealogy.

“Start with yourself and work backwards,” she said, referring to the idea that some people try to find the person as far back in their ancestry as they can go, and then attempt to work forward from that point.

Ragan also suggested using, which is run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church tracks countless numbers of people, she said, and has obtained information that many find useful in the search for their family histories.

“When communism fell in eastern Europe, they were the first ones there knocking on the door”, Ragan said, referring to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and members’ attempts to gather family history.

WPGS Correspondence Secretary Rose Laudoto also spoke about the excitement of investigating genealogy.

“It’s a rush,” she said. “It’s the best hobby I have ever done.”