Gavin Gabriel

RECORD FILE PHOTO: Gavin Gabriel takes notes from his great-grandfather's autobiography as he prepares for his speech on MLK celebration Monday earlier this year. 

Where did you come from? Who are your ancestors? Do you have any long-lost relatives?

If you’ve ever asked those questions, Peggy Mainess says you can try to find the answers through genealogy.

“It’s a fun thing. It’s like solving a big puzzle, but you never finish,” Mainess said. She enjoys helping people in the genealogy room at Patrick Beaver Memorial Library find the answers to burning questions about their ancestry.

Mainess noted that she typically sees older folks in the genealogy room who have plenty of time to dedicate to their search. But time is not the only thing you need to trace your heritage.

Mainess gave a few tips for people interested in starting their own genealogy project.

You can’t do it all online.

Websites such as provide search engines for users to enter names, birth dates, locations and other information to search for ancestors.

“Some people think they can get on and automatically find every person they are related to … No, you can’t,” Mainess said.

Like most online search engines, Mainess said results depend on what information is entered. “Sometimes people think that the more information you put in, the better the results will be. That’s not necessarily true,” she said.

“I always tell people using online methods of searching for ancestors to try different spellings of names, to play around with it,” she explained. She used the example of when she was searching for her grandmother’s death certificate.

“She passed away the year I was born, so I never knew her,” Mainess said. “I tried (searching) her first name, which was Louise Henrietta.” She tried multiple spelling variations of the first name, but had no luck.

“Then I looked for my grandfather’s name, and a census record came up,” she said. The census record listed her grandmother by her nickname. “I put her nickname in, and bingo. I found her.”

You have to know what you’re looking for.

Another issue for folks who dive head first into using online methods of genealogy is they often do not know what they are looking for. “When doing genealogy, you need to understand what records will help you find what information,” Mainess said.

Types of documents typically found include birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, wills, land deeds and many others. But Mainess said one roadblock is that vital records were not kept in North Carolina until 1915.

“They don’t tell you any of this on,” Mainess said. “You can’t just hop right in and go to work. That’s not going to cut it.”

Also, most information transposed online from original documents is incorrect. “Mistakes are made when these documents are transposed. The mistakes can be big,” Mainess said.

Mainess added the best way to ensure you get accurate information is to study the different types of records, naming patterns and always look at original documents when possible. The Genealogy Room where Mainess works has many resources available to the public.

DNA is a starting point.

The genealogical-trained eye may not be the best at finding actual ancestors, but Mainess says DNA can help get you on the right path.

“There are multiple places you can do DNA, and they all have different traits they look at,” Mainess said. Most sites can point to a group of people that are your ancestors, or they can match you with other relatives who have submitted their DNA on the same site, like

“I haven’t done my DNA, but I’ve thought about it. I’m really kind of curious,” Mainess admitted. Although she has done extensive research on her genealogy, she can only go back to 1796 for one branch of her family.

She has speculated that particular branch to be of Scottish descent, but she can’t know for sure based off records and documents alone. Mainess said this is yet another example of why you cannot only use one resource in genealogical research.

“You can’t do it all using one source. Sometimes you have to look in multiple places,” she said.

There is no end.

Mainess said even if you have looked into your heritage before, there may be new documents available. The example she gave is national census data.

She explained that census data is released 72 years after it was gathered. Currently, the latest census data available to the public is from 1940, which was released on April 2, 2012. The next release date of April 2022 will contain the 1950 data.

Since Mainess was born in the early 1940s, none of her records can be found on sites like — yet. “You won’t find me on there, I’m not old enough. I’m 75 years old and I’m not old enough,” she chuckled.

Part of Mainess’ job at the library is holding classes and workshops on genealogy, and she encourages everyone — especially young people — to get involved.

“I would like to see people start younger. As long as you have grandparents or great-grandparents alive, go ask them questions,” she advised, adding that she wished she had done this.

To find out more information of genealogy classes and workshops, find Patrick Beaver Memorial Library online at  .

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Emily Willis is a general assignment reporter at the Hickory Daily Record. 


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