Genealogy Notebook presents stories, research and information on Pennsylvania family histories. Ran regularly, Spring 2004 to Spring 2006.

It’s difficult to get around the fact that genealogy is a highly personal journey one that can be shared but not duplicated by kindred souls.

The people of Pennsylvania stem from a mosaic of ethnic backgrounds and so there is no such thing as a “typical” Commonwealth pedigree. Early history is populated by English Quakers (the Religious Society of Friends), mainstream and sectarian Protestant Germans, and Scots-Irish – all of whom discouraged or prohibited marriage outside of the religious or ethnic group – and later migration and immigration to Pennsylvania brought blacks from the American South, southern and eastern Europeans, and Asians and Latinos.

Records and documents crucial to researching one particular set of ethnic settlers can be nearly useless in researching a different group, so learning about what types of records are more helpful for specific nationalities will aid in a genealogical search. The Quakers, for instance, kept meticulous records of the vital acts that pinpoint dates of birth, marriage, and death, while members of the German sec­tarian group known as the Moravians often wrote a Lebenslauf (a memoir, literally a “walk of life”).

Combining this knowledge of ethnic peculiarities with the proper perspectives of “time” and “place” will lead a researcher to the records that are most relevant to a personal genealogical search. Genealogists look upon “time” and “place” as a set of cross-hairs that yield records when they intersect. “Time” means the period or era for which the search is being conducted. Certain types of records – such as civil registrations of births, marriages, and deaths – do not exist earlier than the dates prescribed by the laws requiring them. “Place” is the site where an ancestor lived or where a record might be found – as it was known dur­ing the time period or era. County records, for instance, remain in the county in which they were originally created, even when territory from that county was struck off to form a new county. For example, a deed transferring land stays in the county that had jurisdiction over that land when the document was officially recorded, even if that parcel later becomes part of a new county.

My own personal journey into genealogy began two decades ago with a trip to the graveyard adjoining Bern Church, the Berks county congregation in which I was baptized, confirmed, and married. A small family tree chart had been handed down to me that had listed all my grandparents, seven of eight great grandparents, and a few more distant ancestors. The ancestors of my mother on this family tree chart were all buried at Bern Church. In just that first graveyard trip, I added some direct-­line ancestors to my pedigree, discovering in the process that the detailed tombstones left behind in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the Pennsylvania Germans are among the most helpful sources of information for them.

Of these veritable “obituaries-in-marble” is the tombstone for a great-great-great-grandfather who had been previously unknown to me, Peter Kerschner. Translated from German, it offers a wealth of information.

From that graveyard and other cemeteries, I combined the data with church and pastoral registers from the German Lutheran and Reformed denominations, added to it county courthouse records such as wills and deeds, and mixed in generous amounts of information already compiled by reputable, experienced Pennsylvania German researchers. Within a few years that original small chart had ballooned into several file cabinets brimming with notes, document photocopies, and correspondence.

Many other types of records-among them private family Bibles, U.S. Census returns, Pennsylvania’s original land records, tax lists-were incorporated into this family tree project. By analyzing the individual records and adding them to knowledge of the larger thrust of history, a pedigree of just names and dates became one that gave insight into these ances­tors’ Lives-an extension of a personal journey into history.


Books Worth Noting

Crandall, Ralph J. Shaking Your Family Tree: A Basic Guide to Trac­ing Your Family’s Genealogy. Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2001.

Freilich, Kay Haviland. Genealogical Research in Pennsylvania. Ar­lington, Va.: National Genealogical Society, 2003.

Iscrupe, William L. and Shirley G.M. Pennsylvania Line: A Research Guide to Pennsylvania Genealogy and Local History. Laughlintown, Pa.: Southwestern Pennsylvania Genealogical Services, 1990.

Schweitzer, George K. Pennsylvania Genealogical Research. Knoxville, Tenn.: N.P., 1997.


James M. Beidler writes and lectures on genealogy. He authored “Genealogy” a chapter in Pennsylvania: A History of the Commonwealth, jointly published by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and the Penn State Press in 2002. His newspaper column, “Roots & Branches,” appears in the Lebanon Daily News and the Al­toona Mirror. From 1999 to 2003, he served as executive director of the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania.