Genealogy lesson: Brownstown students spend day learning about family histories



A group of Brownstown Elementary School students recently had the chance to learn about their personal family histories at the same time they were studying Indiana history.

“It just makes them realize their heritage,” fourth-grade teacher Amy Hartley said.

Hartley’s class spent a day this past week at the Jackson County History Center genealogy library in Brownstown researching their genealogy, or family history, as part of their study of Indiana history.

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“At school, we do a lot about Indiana, but now, we get to learn about our own history,” fourth-grader Kinzee Dean said.

Hartley said she talked in class about historical events and how genealogy allows the students to find out where their families were during these events.

“It makes (history) real,” she said.

Nancy Burge with the Jackson County History Center assisted the students in their genealogy research.

“I think it’s important to teach them about their family history and what they did to make America,” she said.

In addition to finding out about their family’s roles in history, students also could find out interesting or unique things about their family.

“Don’t get me wrong, ISTEP is important, but giving them their own individual history makes it personal,” Hartley said.

Fourth-grader Evan Schneider said he found out about an ancestor whose wife died during childbirth. To remarry, he traveled from Jackson County to Michigan to bring back his new wife. The man was 46 years old, while his new wife was 26.

Hartley said those kinds of stories teach her students an abundance of things.

First, death during childbirth was much more common than it is in modern-day society, she said. Second, a journey to meet a new spouse that would have taken several days to make in the past is equivalent to traveling from here to California.

“Can you imagine having to do that?” Hartley said.

Third, the story sheds light on the difference of age between married people that was more common in earlier times.

“It’s exciting when you see them find something,” Hartley said. “They just light up.”

Fourth-grader Braedyn Stidams said he found out that his uncle’s real name, which he thought was Jay, was actually Jerry.

Dean said she found out her mother was part Irish, not Native American, as their family had thought.

But things are much different than when Burge started researching her family tree with her father in 1950.

“Originally, we wrote to the New England Genealogy Society asking for a chart to record our family history,” she said. “They told us they just used dogĀ pedigree charts.”

Burge said probably the greatest change in genealogical research has been the addition of the Internet and websites like or

This is different from when Burge first started her research.

“We would get in the car and go visit this cousin or that cousin and talk to them or go to cemeteries,” she said. “We just didn’t have the research tools we do now.”

Hartley said when she was first put in touch with Burge by history center volunteer Margo Brewer several years ago, she didn’t have access to the nearly as many resources.

“We can get new evidence and documentation that we could never get before,” Hartley said.

Burge, however, said caution needs to be taken while doing genealogy research on the Internet since many records are not always entirely accurate.

“Each bit of information is a clue, and (the students) have to say, ‘I’ll do the work now and find out what’s right,'” Burge said.

And the students are ready to do the work, Hartley said.

“One student came with only her immediate family, then found her great-grandfather’s obituary, then her great-great-grandfather’s obituary,” she said.

The students plan to continue doing genealogy research on their own.

“I plan to keep going until I find everything,” Dean said.

“At first, it sounds like it’s not fun, but then you start doing it and realize you’re having fun,” Stidams said.

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The Jackson County History Center is at the corner of Walnut and Sugar streets in Brownstown.

The office and genealogical library are open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Friday and from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday. Wednesday and weekends are by appointment.

The Frederick Keach Heller Memorial Museum is open from 9 to 11 a.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.

Tours can be arranged at other hours by appointment by calling 812-358-2118.

For information, search Jackson County History Center of Indiana on Facebook.


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