Research Tips: Family History, Getting Started
February 25, 2014
Two ranger naturalists ready to answer questions, circa 1925. Photo: YELL128954
One of the most common areas of research at the Heritage and Research Center is family history, or genealogy. Over the years, many have worked in Yellowstone—often for just a season or two—but still recall it fondly and recount their stories to their descendants in later years. Eventually, these family members make their own trips to Yellowstone and stop into the Heritage Center wanting to find out more.
Finding out more can be tricky and success depends largely on how much you already know before you get here. If possible, ask the storyteller for details. However, if the the family story is now several generations removed you may have to do a bit of sleuthing on your own. Also keep in mind that family stories may have modified over time. Often this happens as subsequent storytellers forget small details and make do with “common knowledge” information. Sometimes, the storyteller themselves may modify a story over time (My own family includes one branch of Irish storytellers, who never let the truth get in the way of a good story. As a result, I learned early to take all tales with a grain of salt). In the archives, we have found that most family stories never quite match the archival evidence. There is always a grain of truth, but nearly always some small variations, as well.
The key pieces of information that are helpful to know are the full name of the person (including maiden names for ladies), as specific a date as possible, and for whom the person was working. Keep in mind that hundreds more were employed by the concessioners, primarily the Yellowstone Park Company (YPC), than ever worked for the National Park Service. And, of those NPS employees, there were a great many clerks, painters, trail construction workers, and fire crews for every employee with a title of “Ranger”. Early on, the park also had partners helping with various projects, so there were employees from the Weather Bureau, the Bureau of Fisheries, and the Bureau of Public Roads working in the park. Sorting out just exactly who your ancestor worked for and what they did can therefore be challenging.
If you don’t have all the answers, you may need to turn to any mementoes collected. Look through photo albums and scrapbooks to see if you can narrow the date based on clothing or car styles. The clothing may also help narrow the employer. You can also look for publication dates in any brochures or postcards. While it won’t be exact, it will at least give you a starting point. You can also narrow the timeline by pinpointing other key dates in a person’s life. For example, many of the YPC employees were recruited from college campuses, so if you can determine a graduation or even a wedding date, that may help narrow the search.
A final step, particularly if it seems likely your ancestor was a federal employee, is to request a copy of their personnel file. This file should provide details of dates of service, locations, and titles. Archival civilian personnel files are available from about 1850-1951 from the National Personnel Records Center: http://www.archives.gov/st-louis/archival-programs/civilian-personnel-archival/. Records of military personnel serving at Yellowstone would be found at the Textual Services Branch of the National Archives: http://www.archives.gov/veterans/military-service-records/pre-ww-1-records.html.
With this information in hand, you can then begin to dig deeper into Yellowstone’s archival records. While we can’t guarantee we have the information you seek, your chance of success is far greater if you have begun the search before you even get to the park.