Listen: Lisa Dougherty, working in a new era of genealogy

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
Lisa Dougherty 


Lisa Dougherty first became interested in genealogy as a teenager in the 1970s when she helped her father find relatives in Ireland. She pursued genealogy again as an adult when, after her father died, her mother gave her a folder with the papers they had assembled. Back then, records were obtained the old-fashioned way, by writing letters and receiving documents. The internet along with genetic testing has revolutionized genealogy, Dougherty explains in this week’s podcast. Now, says Dougherty, many more are interested in finding their family history. Whereas before genealogy was often a hobby pursued by retirees, many young people are now involved. Anyone can do it, Dougherty says, adding the caveat: You have to be prepared for surprises.



00:00 Hello, this is Melissa Hale-Spencer, the editor of the Altamont Enterprise here today with Lisa Dougherty, who our readers might think that name sounds familiar because quite often her name appears in our Guilderland Library column. She's a genealogist and we're so excited to hear all about you and genealogy. Thank you for coming. Well thank you so much Melissa, for having me. I would like to start just by asking how you got involved in genealogy. I think I have a hand cause I looked at your page on the, what is it, the association or professional genealogist and I hear your father was into it when you were a teenager.

00:41 Yes. Uh, that, that is how I started. My Dad was very interested in genealogy for a little while when I was a teenager. Um, he was very interested in finding out about his Irish ancestry and that was something I grew up up up with, kind of being very proud of Irish heritage. And that's something my father really was very interested in. So that's, that's where I got started. And He, um, you know, he and I did a little bit of research and of course back in those days, that was all letter writing and going to the library. And this was in the 1970? Yes. Yeah, way, way, way before the Internet. So, um, and we, we did quite a bit. We got a little ways, we talked to some of his older relatives, which for him was a big thing cause he didn't really keep in touch with his family. Um, so that was good. And um, then, you know, he kind of let it drift away and I went to college and you know, we didn't really look at it again for quite a while. What did you study in college? Uh, art history.

01:37 Oh Wow. Kind of totally different, but what a great field. So then what brought you back to doing it as

01:45 passional? Well, um, my, my mother was cleaning some things out. My father passed away in 1990 and my mother was cleaning some things out of her house and she came across my dad's old folder of information from when he was doing genealogy. And she asked me if I would like to have it and I said sure, you know, I'd like to have it. So just really going through that folder, maybe 50 papers was what got me back into it again. So that was 1995 so pretty much ever since then I've been involved.

02:15 Wow, that's a very long time. Tell us about how genealogy has changed in that era. I know you said the early thing was writing letters and kind of connecting with people, which must have a richness of its own that you don't get when you're just kind of on your keyboard looking around. But kind of walk us through the, the changes in genealogy.

02:38 Absolutely. I would have to say that genealogy has absolutely been transformed by the Internet. Um, it's gone from a hobby of being something that mostly retirees did or people kind of went to libraries and researched on their own. And if there was any connectivity to it, it was people reaching out via letter writing, um, maybe placing ads in newspapers, but there wasn't a lot of communal effort involved in genealogy until the internet came along. And now obviously connecting with people is extremely easy. Um, there's ways of finding out family members really quickly and easily and connecting with them is as easy as sending an email or contact that contacting them on Facebook or um, any, any number of ways. So the fact that we're able to get the information about our families out there for a very large audience to see helps us connect a lot more easily than we ever could before.

03:37 Yeah. Cause we're a society. I think I'm like saying maybe the Japanese society were confused as his family history goes back thousands of years where people seem to know like their grandparent's generations, but nothing before that has correct. So how, how is, how do you as a professional help people get back those generations and what, what does it do for people?

04:02 Well, I think that there is a need for people to connect with their past. I think a lot of people are very interested. I think, um, there's some TV shows on now that are very popular with people and they see celebrities ancestry being traced and they think, oh, I wonder if I could do that. And I think that's one of the biggest appeals of genealogy in general is that it's something that anyone can do. Whether you have a family that goes back hundreds of years in this country or whether your family or are recent immigrants, pretty much everybody has some kind of story to tell in their family's past. And you don't have to be, I'm a road scholar or you don't have to have an advanced degree. You just have to have the desire and actually the time to be able to make it work. So I think it's, it's universally appealing because it applies pretty much to everybody. And not everybody can sing. Not Everybody can play the guitar and not everybody can knit, but everybody has a family in some form. So I think that's one of the things that really resonates with people.

05:01 Yeah. Another thing that I think has changed in my lifetime is it used to almost be kind of upper crust people that did genealogy. We're like trying to get into the Dar, the Mayflower society, but I think at least in the 70s, I remember roots, Alex Haley's roots being this huge phenomenon because it was made into a TV series and suddenly there was a sense, at least that I felt that people realize heritage belongs to everybody. Um, so do you run into that a lot? Different kinds of people looking for there?

05:36 Yes. I think, um, now it is more connected to finding out, you know, where your heritage comes from, especially now with DNA testing and Gen n, um, ethnicity and that sort of thing. And people are very interested in that. Um, I see less of the legit lineage society types these days. Maybe that's just not the crowd I walk in, but, um, I don't see as much of that, although it is still out there for sure. Um, but I think people are very interested in, um, where they came from before their ancestors were here in the United States. I think that's a real, real big curiosity for a lot of people.

06:11 So for you, and I saw on your page that you specialize in Irish family histories and helping connect people, did you personally helping your father all those years ago, find people in Ireland that you then connected to that you didn't know or hadn't been in touch with before? Did that personally?

06:31 Yes. Um, my father was able to make contact with a few people. Um, at the time he didn't really know how they connected to him. He just knew that they did. His great grandmother had a fairly rare last name and those people had that same last name. So he figured that they were somehow related, but at the time he didn't have the way to connect. But later on in the 90s, I was able to connect them with the paper trail so they call it. And to this day, I know I have fourth cousins in Ireland. I'm in contact with a bunch of them on Facebook, so, and I've met a few of them. So, um, just tell us what that's like. So it's, it's, it's interesting. It's just, it's a wonderful feeling. I mean, I have to say it's, it's a wonderful feeling to feel connected to something that goes so far back now. My, my great, great grandmother whose family this is, she came here and the 1860s and all of her information was not anything that anyone knew about until my father and I went looking for it and then we found out a little and then I found out more later on. But, um, no, there was no connection with anyone in Ireland at all until we were able to do the research and we were able to say, oh, okay, so you're a descendant of this person and I'm a descendant of that person.

07:50 So these long lost cousins, when you contact them, what is the reaction? And I said like how exciting I have an American relative or is it like what? Well, I think in Ireland a lot of people are used to that because

08:01 there's a, there's a huge population with Irish ancestry in this country and I think I'm, Ireland is one of those more popular places where American tourists will go to go looking for their heritage. So I think it's kind of a normal thing for Irish people to run into a, an American cousin here and there. And I think in general, that's just their nature is they're, they're happy and they're excited to meet people and they're just generally genuinely warm and interesting people. So even if you weren't related to them, they would still be very friendly with you, but they're just very interested to learn what you have. I don't think they quite have the connection to genealogy that we do, but I think they play along with it

08:42 very well. So you mentioned this great grandmother with a rare name and one of the things I wondered about is, is it difficult sometimes finding women, you know, because the maiden names or the birth

08:56 names get lost when they get married. Is there a, do you run into dead ends there? And how do you get around them? It can be very difficult. Yes. It's one of those things where women generally after they marry are identified by their married name and not their maiden names. So sometimes it can be difficult to squeeze that information out. Um, I find probably one of the best ways is to find out if you're a female ancestor. Had any brothers, um, are they mentioned in her obituary? Can you find them in census records? So that's a good way of tracing what her maiden name may have been. Um, it's, it's hard, it's hard to find out people's made names. Uh, there's a lot of good sources. It's just something you have to continually work at it. Like anything else in genealogy, just one of the many brick walls.

09:45 So you get used to scaling these brick walls and you help other people do that. Yes, absolutely. So before we got together today over the phone, you mentioned, well it would take a half an hour or more to just, you know, deal with DNA, but if you could just give us kind of in a nutshell, how has the, the current, um, I don't know if it's a craze or what you'd call it, but the ability for people to have their DNA tested, how has that influenced what you do is a genealogist. I know I saw that you give certain sessions for people to actually help them work through whatever their DNA testing shows. I've never done it, so I don't even know what comes back when you do that. But if you could kinda just give us, uh, an overview of how that fits in. Right. Well, everybody has seen the commercials on TV, so everyone's very familiar with what ancestry and other companies advertise.

10:43 And um, you know, that's kind of what gets people interested is, wow, I wonder, you know, my mother always said I was Irish. I wonder how much Irish I am. Is there one company that's better than another? It depends on what you're looking for. Generally the advice is to test with ancestry because they have the largest database of people that have tested by far. So they're three and four times larger than any of the others. So they're more likely to make connections. They have more. Yes, absolutely. So I think that what gets people in the door of DNA testing is there interest in their ethnicity. So they want to know how many percent Irish they are or how many percent English they are or how many percent Italian they are. That's what they want to know. So that gets them in the door and then once they find that out, then they realize that there's a lot more to the test than just ethnicity you. What ends up happening is you are matched with other people who have also taken the test. So with 10 million people currently in the database, it's pretty much impossible for someone to test and not have anyone that matches them. So it's very interesting because when you go into your matches, they're arranged from the person at the top who you share the most DNA with and the database down to the person. At the bottom whom you share the lease DNA with with and how long typically is this list? I have 64,000 matches.

12:05 Oh yeah. It's huge. It's huge. Yes. So with the, with 10 million testers, yes. You can imagine. It's very huge. So this person at the top of the 64,000 is someone who is likely in your same family or how close is that? Everybody who is

12:23 matched you is related to you. Everybody. But the person at the top is the most likely one to be the one that you may know who they are.

12:31 If he was just mind boggling. It really is. If you're looking at it, it's even more mind boggling. Yes. So when you have these sessions with people that have gotten back their results, what, what are the typical pathways they take with the 64,019?

12:50 Well, a lot of times one of the, one of the things that is a disclaimer when you have, when you take a DNA test is that, um, the company is, we'll let you know right up front that you need to be prepared for surprises. So I'm, one of the things that DNA testing is doing is it's letting a lot of skeletons out of the closet. So people are finding out that they have siblings, first cousins, people that they don't know anything about. And that's coming out through DNA testing. So if you're not prepared to find that out, you probably shouldn't take a test.

13:24 So does this happen a lot with the people you work with? That happens quite a bit.

13:29 People, people seek me out because they know that, um, they know that I am, I know more than the average human being about it. So they seek me out to try to get some answers. Now I'm no expert. I only have recently done the test myself. I'm about not quite two years in, so I'm not the expert. I do a lot of reading. I do a lot of studying. I work with DNA practically every day. So I, I know more than the average human, but I'm no expert for sure. Yeah.

14:00 So you've had this information on yourself for about two years and how has that changed the sort of research you were doing before? I was going to say with paper, but actually probably online, you know? Right. That's kind of how we refer to it on paper. Okay. Yeah. So how does that, how does that dovetail or how does that, what, what do you do with this information that's different than the other information you'd already gathered about your family?

14:27 Well, DNA evidence is considered by the experts and the, and that would be genetic genealogist, which I wouldn't call myself one of those. But, um, genetic genealogist will tell you that DNA evidence is pretty much the same as paper evidence. So it needs to be given some consideration, but it's not a one size fits all kind of thing. It's not going to tell you 1% um, what your relationship to a human being is. So it will give you a clue, but it will not tell you 100% you need to use supporting documentation to help you with determining what those relationships are. So Dna in effect is just another piece of the puzzle. So it's another part of the geological puzzle. So like a birth record would be, or a census record would be DNA evidence just goes into that puzzle with those other things.

15:19 And so in your own personal puzzle as it were, did, did it substantiate the things you'd already found or did it leave you in new directions for other things that you hadn't found or

15:32 actually both. Um, one of the things about it that I found very gratifying was that, um, it absolutely cemented some of the things that I had already figured out on my own. So it allowed me to know that I was going down the right path, which after 20 years, if I was not going down the right path, I wouldn't have been too happy. But that has happened to people for sure. But it validated a lot of the research that I had done. Um, but it also has given me a few surprises. Um, right before I did the test, I confirmed with my mother that my father had been adopted. I didn't know that 100% before I did the test, but I figured if I was doing the test, I better find out. So I asked my mother and my mother knew and she said yes, he was adopted. Um, so his paternal side was completely unknown to him. Um, we did know who his maternal hurts his maternal side, but his paternal side was completely unknown. And so when I got my test back, my highest match was in the second cousin to half first cousin range. And it was not someone I had any idea who it was.

16:37 And did you then find that person?

16:39 I did some research on this person. I did some research on his ancestry because he had a family tree attached to his DNA test. So I was able to do that. And from what was in his tree, I was able to determine that my father's father was one of two people. And I still don't know exactly which one, but I know it's one of those two people and I know which family it is. Oh.

17:02 Does it make you wish your father were still alive to make this discovery with you? Or is it better that he's not here and you can kind of ruffle the past?

17:13 No, I think he would have been completely and totally into this. I mean, that's just the kind of person that he was. I think he would have been really interested in this. And especially the whole puzzle aspect of it. Um, you know, it's, it's kind of bittersweet in a way, but, um, it's, it's sort of very gratifying just to know the little bit that I do know. So it's, it's more information than I had before.

17:36 So when you find these pieces of a puzzle as you call it, and I like that analogy, is it just, um, yeah, like names and dates and places or do you find actually ever senses of like who that person was? I mean, beyond, you know, just the bare bones?

17:59 Do you, well, of course, you know, as genealogists we deal with, um, dates, places, names very often. Um, but you know, I, one of the things I like to use is, is newspapers, because newspapers really give us an insight into who people are. I mean, besides just recording the facts of people's lives, it can also tell us, you know, who their neighbors are. It can tell us what they did for jobs. It can tell us what types of community organizations they belong to. Um, it can tell us a lot of things about, about people and about their everyday lives. So I do like to use newspapers a lot in my research because it gives, gives you a big insight into what that person's life was like. Not so much just the hard facts.

18:40 And these are newspapers you find online these days, is that how you do? Yes,

18:44 mostly I'm, yeah, there's a couple of sites that I use quite often. One of them I'm Fulton history, uh, which is uh, a website that a gentleman and Fulton New York has put together and it has millions of pages of newspapers on it and it's very useful.

18:58 And you kind of specialize in upstate New York as well as Ireland, is that right?

19:02 Yes. I'm usually try to stick to upstate New York, but I occasionally branch out. I get, you know, assignments for things in New York City and sometimes Massachusetts. And so, you know,

19:13 regionally anyway, but you must get to sort of be familiar with the region. And the layers, I would think if you do it enough, would start connecting with other people you'd done research on. Yeah, it is funny because

19:25 occasionally I'll be, I'll be looking through census records and I'll, I'll be on pages of the census that I've been on before for other families.

19:32 I'll be like, oh, look at that. I know that family, that must be kind of like you're back in time. And exactly. Kind of a large social gathering, maybe a barn dance. I don't know. Yes. But, um, so I just had looked up some of the things you'd done in your past and it looks really interesting. Um, one of the things it said, I think this was on your association or professional genealogist page that you had worked for the American Canadian Genealogist Society Interpreting handwritten records in several languages. So I just wondered what the languages were and what the records were and kind of a little bit about that society.

20:09 Well, I'm a few years back, the acgs, which is the American Canadian Geological Society has undertaken a project to see if they could get some of the Catholic parish records. In this area and other areas copied and then transcribed and published into books so that genealogists could use them for looking up information about their family. And, um, when that project started, I was, um, part of the transcription team, so we would transcribe records from xerox copies. So someone would go into the church, they would xerox copies of big books full of baptisms and marriages. And then people like me would hand, would read the handwriting and transcribe those records into a computer program. And then those transcribed records were proof read. And then finally they were published until pretty large books by church being on in books is as opposed to online where they searchable, I mean, yes.

21:12 Computer that stayed there. And you had that data that can be served. Yes. Well it can be searched because they're alphabetized in the books. I see. Yeah. And so the languages were English, French and Latin. Latin, yes. A lot of the earlier church records were written in Latin or some type of Latin. And I understand too that another church made me think of it, another huge, um, resting places. The Church of the latter day saints, the Mormons, you use that in your research? Yes, yes, definitely. Most people who are genealogists do at one time or another use use the records of the LDS and um, they have a very popular website online called family search. That website contains pretty much almost as much as and it's completely free. Wow. So it's not just Mormons that are in, in that data bank? It's, it's everyone. Yes. Okay. That's good to know.

22:10 Yes, they make the, they make the information available for everyone to use. That's great. Um, another thing that you did was, um, worked for the national archives in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. So what, tell us a little about the national. Um, well, I started volunteering there in 2008 and it was after my son had gone to school and I was kind of looking for something else to do and I thought, well, you know, maybe I could go and volunteer. So I started going over there once a week on a Thursday and I would volunteer for a few hours every Thursday. And, um, there was a great group of volunteers there. They had many people who were very experienced. And then there was a couple of archivists there who are also really experienced. So it was a really good and enriching crowd to be in. Um, and met a lot of people that way.

23:01 They were the ones that, that urged me to do presentations about genealogy topics. You know, they said to me, you seem to know an awful lot about Irish genealogy. Would you like to do a program about it? And I had never spoken in front of a group before, so I was kind of like, ah, I don't know. But that was where I started doing programs like that. And so I credit them with, with pushing me to do that. And it was, it was wonderful. Um, it was once a week till 2011 and that's when they closed that facility. And then from there I had to go kind of reinvent my volunteerism itself. So tell us about the presentations because I know as we were warming up the microphones, you said you had a standing room only crowd recently. Um, yes, I'm

23:46 calm cities. And what kinds of things do you share?

23:48 Well, I do a couple of different things. I do, um, regular volunteer hours, weekly in, in four different places. So that's something that I just do when I sit down with people and whoever comes in, they asked me questions and I try to help them. And one of them is the Guilderland Library? That's correct. Yes. So do people sign up ahead for this? So, nope. It's dropping. Oh Wow. Let's just drop in and I'm there from a certain amount of time at the guild or the library at the second Wednesday of every month from 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM. So I go and I sit in the local history room and people come in and they ask me questions and people stay in. Sometimes we end up having a discussion. Other times they go in and now it's just up to them whatever they want to do. Um, but the presentations over the years, I've developed quite a few. It started out exclusively, almost Irish genealogy. Um, these days I do a lot of DNA presentations. That seems to be what most libraries and other facilities are looking for. Um, but I do a variety of presentations and I've had crowds of anywhere from one and two people up to a hundred. So it varies. It just varies on the venue. It varies on the, on the type of crowd. It just depends on, on what the situation is.

25:03 I just find it fascinating that in my lifetime it's completely changed that people are so eager to find their family history. Yes. So what do you attribute that to? Just,

25:15 well, I think, um, one of the things that is happening is I think that the Internet and technology in general is bringing in younger people. So, um, whereas you know, genealogy at one time was considered your grandparents hobby and it was sort of seen as something for retirees. I think now younger people are getting involved because genealogy means technology now to a lot of people, it means the Internet. It means online family trees, it means Facebook family groups. It means sharing pictures that have laid in boxes and addicts for years that are now coming out and being distributed and shown on the Internet. It means DNA testing. It means lots of different things that appeal to younger people. So I think that's one of the things that's injecting newer life into this hobby is bringing a younger generation to it. Yeah.

26:04 And you mentioned you hadn't son, and I'm just wondering what his perspective is honest. Does he embrace this family research as something exciting and wonderful or does he think, oh, that's what mom does?

26:17 I thought we had work. I think it's a little bit of both. I think he, um, you know, he's grown up with it, so it's been with him his whole life. I mean, I was carrying his car seat to cemeteries when he was a baby. And, um, I think he's just, he's, he knows that's what I do. He goes with me sometimes when I do presentations. I asked him to take pictures for me. So I have pictures of me doing presentations. Um, he did a DNA test. I was hoping to use his brain power to be able to get through some of the matches just because he has a different way of looking at things than I do. Um, but so far he hasn't really gotten the bug, so just waiting for him to get it.

26:54 Yeah. But that's exciting that he has his fee. You know, you searched so hard for your family history and he has it just laid out before him. Yes. Yeah. I think that's one of the reasons I would think would be a motivating force. Especially you mentioned retirees used to do it. As you get older, you realize you're going to be gone. What is going to be left behind and it makes you think about those people before you. Absolutely. But our time has gone so fast. Do you have any closing thoughts for people or anything that we haven't touched on that you think is really important?

27:28 Well, um, there's definitely help out there for any kind of information you might be looking for. If, if anyone is working on their family history or if anyone has had a DNA test and they don't understand what they're looking at. Um, like I said, I volunteer for different days per month, each week in a different place. Um, you can find all of the hours on my website, which is and I also have a Facebook page. It's upstate. And why genealogy by Elisa Doherty.

28:00 It has got some great, I don't know who the family is at the top of the page, but it's a really neat picture. Is that your family? That's my mother's family, yes. Oh Wow. And then there's a picture that must be you blowing out your birthday cake candles. It's like a 1960 [inaudible] era. That's it. Oh, that's such a great picture. Yeah. So

28:18 finally there's hope and there's help out there. So you know, you don't have to struggle on your own if you have any kind of questions. There's myself and other people that come to my sessions who can help.

28:29 Well, thank you so much, Lisa Dardy for giving us a way into our past. Thank you for having me.



More News