Following clues, solving mysteries

Genealogists offer tips on how to find interesting family stories, family members

“Genealogy is about solving mysteries,” explained Barb Johnson, a research volunteer from Alexandria who has successfully solved many family-tree riddles.

Joan Larson of Alexandria, another genealogy enthusiast added, “It’s kind of like a game of clues, or putting jigsaw puzzle pieces together until you get the completed picture. It’s data, of course, but genealogy is all about the stories of who’s connected to who, what, where, when and much more.”

Taryn Flolid in Denmark with her fourth cousin Helle, in front of the house where their great-great-great-grandmother was born. Helle had inherited a box of old letters and photos from her great-aunt, which pointed the search to Osakis, and Helle found her branch of the family by contacting the Douglas County Historical Society in Alexandria. Contributed photo

While Johnson and Larson have worked on their own family histories for several years, they have assisted many others in getting a start in what may seem an impossible task. “It can be overwhelming, but if you take one small step at a time and start connecting with other family members who are putting the pieces together, it’s well worth the effort,” said Larson, who has traced relatives as far back as the Mayflower. Smiling, Johnson added, “Joan’s gone as far back as Adam and Eve.”

Genealogy does quench the thirst for interesting data and fascinating stories, bringing long-lost relatives together and visiting the old country where your ancestors started their life.

“There is no better gift than bringing ‘family’ together, and the data and the stories that answer questions about one’s heritage. Genealogy brings people closer to home,” Larson said.

How does someone who is interested in searching family history get started in the first place?

Elaine Helgeson Hasleton, accredited genealogist and deputy chief genealogy officer for FamilySearch in Salt Lake City, Utah, has found a variety of ways, and resources, to find data, and a way to begin putting your history together. Hasleton is a native of Alexandria, Minn., and has worked in the field of genealogy for more than 40 years. She makes occasional visits to her hometown, and while doing so, has an excellent chance to see changes in the old neighborhood, and solve some mysteries at the same time. Not too long ago, Elaine solved some questions of her own, using several different sources while searching for answers.

“There are many different facets of one’s family history that can be explored. Based on what my own grandmother, Ella Toft Helgeson, told us in the 1960s, about the possibility of our home, once located close to the former Washington School in Alexandria, as being a hospital where her (Grandma Helgeson’s) little brother Paul died, I started digging deeply into Alexandria’s records. The land and property records at the Recorder’s Office in the Douglas County Courthouse showed that our home at 323 5th Ave. East began when William Hicks acquired the land patent for it in 1867 and then sold the land in the early 1870s to Thomas and Jane Cowing. The land abstract records showed that the house was bought and sold many times throughout the years. The newspaper article on Oct. 31, 1895, in the Alexandria Post News, regarding the accidental shooting and subsequent death of little Paul Toft, revealed more information on my grandmother’s brother. The Douglas County Historical Society records, such as the old newspapers and detailed maps of Alexandria, provided the context of where the buildings were located in the early 1900’s, such as a livery stable on Hawthorne Street and a feed elevator on 6th Avenue, both only a few blocks away. The Sanborn Fire Maps showed the floor plan of our family home. All of these records brought our house and family into much clearer focus – even though all of this occurred over 120 years ago.”

A photo of the Jensen sisters from Osakis Township, Douglas County, was in a box of old letters and photos from Minnesota that a woman in Denmark (Helle) had inherited from her great-aunt. Using clues found in the letters, she contacted the Douglas County Historical Society, trying to find out what happened to the family, her “American cousins.” It was a successful search. Contributed photo

Some genealogists, new to the arena, may have been prompted to begin their family history because of an upcoming family reunion, or possibly, because of the information that was accumulated earlier by now-deceased parents or grandparents. Genealogy may be prompted by an upcoming trip to “the old country.”

Taryn Flolid, a research volunteer at the Douglas County Historical Society who specializes in Scandinavia research, assisted Sue Dumm before Sue’s trip to Sweden last summer. Flolid explained, “The first part of the challenge was finding exactly where in Sweden  the family originated, using information from obituaries and family information here in Minnesota, and verifying that information with the Swedish records. Sometimes the death records name a parent. Once you have the parish in Scandinavia, you can sometimes contact the local parish church, or find information by using Google. Other family members that remained behind in Scandinavia often put the family genealogy online. I also use the message boards at They are free to use without a membership.” Flolid continued, “ is a place where I can ask questions about specific countries in Scandinavia, and local genealogists from the county are often very helpful.”

Sue Dumm of Alexandria shared her experience, “When we planned a visit to Sweden to see our son Jon, who works at the University of Stockholm, looking up relatives was just a vague idea. My grandparents had come from Sweden, but my family wasn’t into genealogy. The aunts who spoke Swedish had died years before, and I had no idea where to start.”

Encouraged by friends to contact Taryn Flolid, Sue made the call. “Taryn really knows her stuff.” Sue smiled. “Her daughter lives in Sweden so she visits every year.”

Sue Dumm and her son Jon (left) visit with relatives from Sweden, along with an interpreter during a recent visit. Sue’s traced her ancestry back to find this connection. Contributed photo

Continuing, Sue explained her experience, “Just weeks before the trip I called and met up with Taryn…and my friends were right! I came with only a picture of my grandparents and the dates of their birth and death. Not only did the visit with Taryn get us even more excited about our trip to Sweden, but by the next afternoon, she had emailed me more dates and information about my grandparents, Gus and Ida Marie, maps and information about the beautiful Vara area where they had grown up, and web sites and tips on how to find out more. To top it off, she sent the name of a Swedish friend from the area, who spent the day showing us around, introduced us to a local farmer who was an expert on the genealogy and history of the area, and best of all, arranged a visit with some second cousins on their beautiful farm. Thanks to Taryn, something I hadn’t even guessed could happen became the highlight of our trip!”

The puzzle pieces can come together to make a beautiful picture.

Members of the Douglas County Genealogy guild meet regularly. Some of the members include (L to R) Darlene and Harland Hanson, Joan Larson, Barb Johnson, Marcie Nightengale and Glenn Van Amber. Photo by Rachel Barduson

There is an upcoming conference to be held at the Grand Arbor in Alexandria in June that many beginning genealogists, and seasoned researchers, will find useful and inspiring. Elaine Hasleton will be the keynote speaker and will also share her tips and resources on researching your “House History.” Taryn Flolid will be speaking on Internet resources available for family research, focusing on free websites. She will share her strategies, using Findagrave searches, Minnesota birth, death and marriage online indexes, Scandinavian research, Facebook as a genealogy tool, translation websites and more. Other speakers and break-out sessions will be available, discussing topics from beginning genealogy, DNA, German research and Daughters of the American Revolution. An “Ask the Genealogists” question period will also be held.

Elaine Helgeson Hasleton, a native of Alexandria, discovered many details a–bout her family tree through research, including information on her grandmother’s little brother, Paul, who died from an accidental shooting. Contributed photo

“This is really a basic Geneaolgy 101 conference,” said Larson, one of the conference organizers. “I encourage all to take this excellent opportunity to get started in a genealogy project. This gathering of experts will take out the fear of starting your own research and get you excited about forging the trail.” Barb Johnson, who has several years of genealogy experience, will also be available to answer questions.

The conference is called the Central Minnesota Family Ties Conference. It is scheduled for Saturday, June 4, from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. at Grand Arbor in Alexandria. Registration is available at the Douglas County Historical Society or by calling 320-762-0382. Cost is $30 in advance, $35 at the door (includes lunch).

#genealogy #Mystery

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