Jo Ann Lefler and her husband Steve go through dozens of photographs from several generations while researching her family tree.

Unearthing the Past

Amateur sleuths often discover that
a peek up the family tree grows into
an irresistible lifetime hobby

After several heart attacks and a bypass last year, George Lefler asked his daughter Jo Ann to research their family tree for him. It's a sprawling tree, since he was one of 11 children, the next-to-last child born into a farming family in Minnesota. Unfortunately, all his siblings have died, leaving no one to offer up recollections to fill in Jo Ann's family history.

"As he's getting older, he wants to make those connections," said Jo Ann, a photo technician manager at Costco in Hawaii Kai. "I'm doing it for him because he's not in good health."

Getting to the source

Jo Ann Lefler used a combination of birth and marriage certificates, military records, city indexes, cemeteries and land deeds in her genealogy search.

She also uses Internet sources such as genealogy.com, www.familysearch.org, www.rootsweb.com and www.ellisisland.org.

Fran McFarland offers a two-part genealogy class at Iolani Palace on the first and second Thursdays of the month. There is a $55 registration fee and a $5 materials fee. Class space is limited.

For those interested in researching their family tree, a number of local museums and libraries contain information and records that can aid in the search. Here is a partial list recommended by McFarland:

» Hawaii State Archives: Iolani Palace grounds. Call 586-0329.

» Hawaii State Library: Hawaii and Pacific section (emphasis on Hawaiian ethnic groups); Language, Literature and History section (emphasis on immigrants from Western Europe to colonies and original states). 478 S. King St. Call 586-3535 or 586-3499.

» Alu Like Inc.: Native Hawaiian Library Project, 458 Keawe St.; 839-7784.

» Brigham Young University-Hawaii: Joseph F. Smith Library, 55-220 Kulanui St. Call 293-3878.

» Hawaiian Mission Children's Society Library: Records dating back to 1820, including letters, journals, reports by Protestant missionaries, and Hawaiian and Micronesian language books. At Mission Houses Museum, 553 S. King St. Call 531-0481.

» Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum Library: 1525 Bernice St. Call 848-4148.

Although Jo Ann and her husband, Steve Casar, have lived in Hawaii for 16 years, settling in Kapahulu, her parents live in La Puente, Calif. "My mom is very healthy and takes care of my dad," said Jo Ann, who does some of her research through the Internet, using sites such as genealogy.com, while keeping her father posted on results.

On the Internet, she quickly learned that other family members were using the same genealogy sites, relatives she'd never met. "We were able to compare notes. I found lots of cousins. There were so many more Leflers than I would have anticipated," she said.

Some of her relatives have been researching their family tree for 20 years. Among her newly found relatives are a cousin who had an old family diary and another cousin who started a family Web site and now wants to compare DNA samples with other family members. She also found many relatives in Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska, where she did not know family members had settled.

Some ancestors were named after states, such as Kansas, Indiana and Florida. Another was named simply North.

There was one uncle who intrigued her father. And now that the tree's roots are firmly planted, it's Jo Ann's task to find out what happened to her great-uncle William Briscoe.

According to Lefler family history, William and his father didn't see eye to eye on many matters. The younger Lefler supposedly left home at an early age to work on the railroad in Hooker, Okla. William continued to communicate with his brother, John Samuel -- Jo Ann's grandfather -- through postcards.

"Some relatives, for whatever reason, are harder to find than others," said Jo Ann, pointing out that there will always be those who leave a paper trail, and those who do not. "I am very curious but I haven't found anything yet."

IT IS COMMON for a search to begin with one name, said Fran McFarland, who conducts genealogy workshops. "People will start off with one name or family member in mind, and it leads to other family member names and extended family. Finding the person who has the key can be the hard part."

As is finding the one person in a family interested in researching their roots, whether it be out of plain old curiosity or to learn about the health history of the family. One sibling from a family might be interested in genealogy, while another sibling is not, said McFarland.

For the past two years, McFarland has taught a genealogy class every month at Bishop Museum. "We thought we would do this on a demand-for basis. If people came, we would continue doing this," she said.

The demand is there.

Bishop Museum is a place that could help research genealogy.

In McFarland's class on a recent Thursday, students were able to find bits and pieces of information about their relatives in the palace's repository. One student found an old article about her great-great-grandparents in the archives. Another has amassed a thick stack of notes on her family in the six months since she started her research as a gift to her daughter.

Wendy Egloria of Mililani is looking for information on a particular subject: horse jockeys. Her grandmother's first husband was a jockey, and Egloria is curious about this family connection. Although she has found marriage and death certificates for her grandparents, it is only recently that Egloria has developed an interest in her family's history, which she wants to pass on to future generations.

"Most often the people who are the most interested in (their roots) are grandparents or new parents," said McFarland.

Jo Ann has spent hundreds of hours researching her family tree in the last two years, combing through death certificates, marriage licenses and land records, in addition to Web sites.

The Leflers emigrated from Germany in the early to mid-1700s. The original family name, which means "spoon," was spelled "Loeffler."

There are many variations on that name, and Jo Ann researched every spelling she could: Lafler, Leffler, Leflar, Loffler, Loflar and Lefflelear. "I check for all of these names when researching," said Jo Ann. "This is one of the reasons that the DNA is so important. Who knows who is a German Lefler or a French Lefleur?"

"Understand who is taking the names," McFarland said during the class. "Is it a French person or a Russian person writing down the names? That will affect it."

Jo Ann Lefler says "the more research you do, the more you want to know."

As simple as it is, McFarland's maiden name, Omo, has also been spelled about 17 different ways.

Through her research, Jo Ann got back in touch with relatives she hasn't seen in a while, such as first cousins she grew up with. Jo Ann lived in Minnesota until she was 6, when she and her family and their closest cousins moved to California.

"They moved for better jobs," said Jo Ann. "Good-paying jobs were hard to come by."

It was her father's idea to relocate, so he and wife Rose moved with their seven children, John, Janet, Jo Ann, Judy, Jeff, Jean and Jay. The family was joined by aunt June and uncle Ralph Lefler and their four kids, Debbie, Donovan, Douglas and Dave. Rose and June were sisters, and Ralph and George were brothers, and they all settled in San Gabriel Valley.

Jo Ann's cousins moved back to Minnesota after five or six years, but her family stayed on, eventually losing contact with their closest family members for several decades.

Jo Ann's husband, Steve Casar, hasn't felt compelled to research his side of the family. But he has interesting relatives, including his father, John, a popular roller-skater who had a bit part in the movie "Fireball," starring Mickey Rooney.

Casar has additional hurdles in researching his family history because his father was an orphan, Jo Ann said.

But McFarland said it can be done. Although she could recite five generations of her father's Philippine roots by the time she was 3, she knew less about her mom, who was orphaned at 3.

McFarland urges her class to find out what research has already been done in a family, making it easier for future relatives to pick up the trail.

"Descendants do not know the family story," she said. "The ones who appreciate it are the grandkids. It clears up the (family) mysteries."

Jo Ann also found that the Lefler family and the families on her mother's side were larger than she anticipated. She has found 3,500 people connected to both sides of her family in one way or another.

Jo Ann Lefler is trying to discover what happened to great-uncle William Briscoe.

"It's really fascinating to find out where you come from," said Jo Ann. "What you find is, the more you do research, the more you want to know. But it was like looking for a needle in the haystack."

I have always been fascinated by genealogy, and love hearing stories about families. On my father's side, there is an abundance of family members with its tangled twist of French, Irish and Scottish roots. There are 200 to 300 members in each of the family's three main branches.

There are fewer members on my mom's side, the Nakagawa side. My mother's mother died when she was 5, and I never met my mother's dad, who died while I was in the fourth grade. I know of my grandfather's kind nature from the stories my mother shares with me.

"We are the sensible side," my mother quips of her siblings, half kidding.

There are two people on that side of the family who enjoy tracing ancestors' roots: my Aunt Carol, who plans the family reunion every other year for the Carberry line -- an Irish family originally from South Buffalo, N.Y. -- and my great-uncle Richard.

My aunt, the middle of three kids and my dad's younger sister, has often grumbled about the lack of help in coordinating family reunions. "This is the last time I will do this," she says every time. But every year, she continues to do it.

She recently recruited a first cousin and her son to help her. They're now planning a trip to Ireland to visit relatives.

My great-uncle Richard organized the family reunion before Carol took over. He is the youngest of my late grandfather's nine siblings. He is also one of the last few left in that nuclear family. Richard is the one who found nearly 500 new members of the French-Canadian side of the family and attended a family reunion in Quebec several years ago. They didn't speak a word of English, and he didn't speak a word of French; even so, they got along great, he says.

Every chance he gets, Uncle Richard will tick off the first names of those of us in our 20s and 30s and tell us we are the last of the adults, hinting that we need to keep up the tradition of family togetherness before our older relatives are gone and we go our own ways.

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