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Family history can be revealed in Lockport

LOCKPORT – Learning about one’s family history has always been popular, especially as people get older.

Lockport has two significant resources for researchers whose roots are in Niagara County, and they’re only a block apart.

The Niagara County Historian’s Office and the Niagara County Genealogical Society, both on Niagara Street, have collections of old documents, family histories and assorted records from area churches and cemeteries dating back nearly 200 years.

And best of all, a lot of the material is free.

“I’d say 70 to 75 percent of our calls (are for family history),” Niagara County Historian Catherine L. Emerson said.

It’s true that a lot of material is on the Internet these days on a variety of websites, but some of them charge a fee, and none of them are Niagara-centric.

For example, Niagara County Clerk Joseph A. Jastrzemski, who oversees the Historian’s Office, was shown a book on his first visit that included the records of when his grandparents became U.S. citizens.

That was available because up until 1973, naturalized citizens could be sworn in by county judges, not federal judges. Until 1906, any civil court in New York State could naturalize new citizens, said Craig E. Bacon, deputy county historian.

The oversized volumes of handwritten entries, dating back to 1836, show a person’s name, country of origin and date of naturalization. Some people you might not think would be in those books are listed.

Bacon said that between 1906 and 1920, there was a law that a native-born American woman lost her citizenship if she married an immigrant, and she had to reapply for it through the naturalization process.

Ronald F. Cary, another deputy county historian, said in the last six months or so, there’s been a rash of people of Italian extraction looking for their ancestors’ naturalization records for use in claiming dual citizenship in Italy.

“I asked one woman why and she said, ‘It seemed like a neat thing to do,’ ” Cory said. Italy allows descendants of Italian natives to claim its citizenship rights and obtain an Italian passport.

Besides those government records, there are other sources of data, such as church registers of members, births, marriages and deaths.

“A lot of people don’t realize church records were legal in the days before birth certificates,” Bacon said. “A lot of the area churches have been very good about allowing us to digitize their records.”

Both the Historian’s Office and the genealogical society have compiled local family histories, generally through donations from residents.

“People come in and do research, and they’re very good at sharing their research with us,” Bacon said.

One of the greatest exploits in that realm was that of Anita Reid, who died in 2008, who took it upon herself to take photos of headstones in every cemetery in eastern Niagara County, and gave the discs to the Historian’s Office. But they were never catalogued in any understandable way.

“A woman who worked with her had to figure out what ‘Cemetery 14’ was,” Emerson said.

Cary said a friend of Reid’s, James Depew of Clarence, volunteered to review the photos and put the inscriptions on the gravestones into an Excel database. And now the gravestones are indexed.

Other mother lodes of data are available at the genealogical society library on the second floor of the Niagara County Historical Society museum at 215 Niagara St.

Board member Wreatha Harvey said they offer, among many other things, genealogical material compiled by the Daughters of the American Revolution. “Huge records on that, which was donated a few years ago,” she said. “We have books that go back to the 1830s, 1840s – people who lived in the towns, businesses that were in the towns.”

Society board member Dawn Henning said, “We have a lot of family genealogies that were done by families and donated to the library.”

Harvey said the genealogical society currently is looking for someone, perhaps a retired librarian, to take over the vacant director’s position and update the library. “It needs to be totally revamped,” she said.

Along with census and cemetery records, similar to those available from the Historian’s Office, the genealogical society offers free computer access to the New England Historical and Genealogical Society’s “American Ancestors” website, which is normally a pay site.

Some perks like that are available to the general public, not just to official society members, of which there are about 200. Dues are $15 a year, and members receive a free 30-minute look-up of information in the library’s holdings. The society meetings, eight times a year, include presentations on how to search historical websites and use other resources.

At the Historian’s Office, 139 Niagara St., holdings include vast supplies of newspaper obituaries and other clippings going back to the 1840s, city directories as old as 1856, and census data dating from as far back as 1850.

Christa Davisson, a Lockport resident, has been spending a lot of time in the office trying to trace her family. “My grandfather passed away and we got a whole bunch of pictures with no names on them,” she said. But the family information in the Historian’s Office has helped her.

At Greenwood Cemetery in Wilson, Davisson said, “There are 12 people buried in my family plot, not four (as she had thought). I wouldn’t know that if it weren’t for these people. Not having any family records like Bibles or letters, I rely on things like this.”

From the newspaper files, she learned about her uncle, Ernie Ward. “He got hit by three cars and two trains,” Davisson said. (Those incidents did not occur on the same day).

Ward’s exploits also include losing a leg at age 9 trying to jump onto a train, and being stabbed at Brown’s Berry Patch in Orleans County, but Ward shot the assailant through a door in a drunken fight over a card game. He was tried and acquitted. All that was discovered in the Historian’s Office.

Harvey, of the genealogical society, said she thinks interest in family history is growing. “I’m a baby boomer and we’re more interested in it than younger people,” she said. “Certainly when you’re young, you’re not interested in what happened before.”

Emerson said, “Sometimes it’s dangerous working here, because we shatter family myths.” For instance, there was the man who came in thinking he was of Irish extraction but found out he was Italian.

“Or we could find your ancestor was a horse thief,” Emerson said. “It makes it more fun.”