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History can be found in our ancestors

My great-great-great grandfather, Heins Schmalbruck, was wounded on the hallowed and bloodied fields of Gettysburg. His unit was a privately raised and outfitted group that wore a flashy red, white, and blue Zouave uniform based on the famous French Foreign Legion design. The highly decorated unit was renowned for its military skill and was at quite a few of the war’s major battles.

None of this was passed down through my family. I discovered it while researching my genealogy at the York (Pennsylvania) Historical Society’s research library when I was in my 30s. I was thrilled and made a beeline for my Nana and Pappaw’s house where I regaled them with all I had learned that day.

Pappaw was interested as he always was when anyone talked about Gettysburg. Military history aside, he’d been part of the Civilian Conservation Corps that helped build the national military park on the battlefield.

Nana, who’s great-grandfather this was, smiled and listened because this was something I was excited about, but at one point she asked a question that stopped me cold.

“Why do you care, Kathy? These people are all dead.”

There was no admonition or dismissiveness in her tone. Just real curiosity — because she truly didn’t understand my interest (obsession, if I’m honest) with genealogy.

Why do I care? For me it’s a sense of connection to those who made me, both through nature and, because I’m adopted, through nurture. Also, being a history nerd, there isn’t a better, more personal way to learn history.

For these reasons and because genealogy is one of the most popular hobbies in America, I will lead two genealogy classes at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History; one for beginners and one for intermediate family historians who’ve hit brick walls.

Too many people in Surry County have said to me that their ancestors weren’t anything special, just mountain rednecks or simple country folks. I couldn’t disagree more.

As I’ve written in this column before, those simple country folks are the life blood of our nation. We have descendants of Mayflower passengers, Over Mountain Men, formerly enslaved who built communities, and heroes who beat down would-be tyrants in two World Wars.

This region’s history is packed with people who made a difference in the world. Large or small, those differences matter. From the Gwyn and Chatham families who built one of the largest blanket manufacturing mills to the Hauser and Sawyer families who operated a farm that continues as a living history museum today, and countless others, people in this area have left lasting legacies.

We cannot take credit, nor do we carry the blame, for what our ancestors have done. But we can surely take inspiration and lessons from their lives and actions. Surry County is fortunate to have an active genealogical society which has published two volumes of family histories. The Carlos P. Surratt Genealogy Room at Surry Community College and the many resources available through the community libraries make it easier than ever to access records and find our roots.

Nearly a quarter of all Americans have taken DNA tests for genealogical research and many more have gathered their family’s information in charts, books, and computer programs. It’s not difficult. Like any journey it begins with one step.

The first step is to gather your information and organize it. Most of us know at least a little about our families. There might be a box of photos in a closet. Maybe a family Bible or a packet of letters. If you are lucky enough to have elder members of your family, ask them questions and record the answers.

There are many resources available to help in your research. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, commonly called the Mormons, have a marvelous free site that will help you get started at www.familysearch.org.

North Carolina records can be accessed using Ancestry.com on public library computers if you have a library card. A simple internet search will take you to dozens of sites that have charts you can download.

Wherever your family is from, no matter how much or how little you know, the hardest part is just deciding to start. Once you do, there’s no telling what you’ll find.

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The Genealogy classes will be at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History on Saturday, Sept. 30. The classes are free for museum members, $10 a class for all others. The beginners class is 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.; the intermediate class is 2 p.m.-5 p.m.Call the museum to register or for more information at 336-786-4478

Kate Rauhauser-Smith is a volunteer for the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History with 22 years in journalism before joining the museum. She and her family moved to Mount Airy in 2005 from Pennsylvania where she was also involved with museums and history tours.

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