Lower Bucks Genealogists Club makes history personal

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Photo: Barbara May – The May Family circa 1920. Barbara May is co-founder of the Lower Bucks Genealogy Club.

Some people have royalty in their bloodlines, and never know. Sometimes there’s murderers, or relatives overseas, or a history of preventable diseases that may have never been uncovered.

All it takes is a little digging to find out.

“I was always told my surname was German,” Barbara May said. “It turns out we’re not — we’re Polish.”

May is co-founder of the Lower Bucks Genealogy Club.  Based in Langhorne, the group is dedicated to discovering the names, locations and even stories of its members’ ancestors and connecting with family members worldwide. The members meet monthly to share new techniques and help each other in their searches.

Most people rely on their eldest relatives to relay the family history, but discrepancies like May’s are fairly common, according to accounts from the group’s members. The oral history is a good start, but it’s not always as accurate as historical documentation.

Some stories are confirmed, others are disputed, and sometimes a completely new window to the past opens up.

Take Tom Kaechelin as an example. The Levittown resident ran his DNA information across an online database and was matched with a man from Orlando, Florida. Turns out it was his second cousin, who didn’t know who his mother was because he was adopted at a young age.

“He was looking all his life for his mother and I found her for him,” Kaechelin said.

The two kept a correspondence and eventually met. Kaechelin was able to locate his mother’s grave, and even took him to see it.

This is just one of many stories for Kaechelin. His original interest in genealogy sparked from a sword that belonged to his grandfather during the Civil War. Kaechelin’s great-aunt passed it down the family, and he wanted to find out more about him.

“Of course, my family thinks I’m looking around for dead people,” he said. “My kids are not interested, but one day they will be. When that time comes, they’ll have the background.”

For some, that curiosity turns into an all-out hobby. That was the case for May and for Hope Callan-Beck, the group’s other co-founder.

The two have been friends since high school, both graduates of Neshaminy. They now live in Penndel and Langhorne, respectively. When they got into genealogy, both had young children at home. They found traveling for meetings difficult, and often the format didn’t capture what they were looking for.

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Photo: Barbara May – Lower Bucks Genealogy Club Founders Barbara May and Hope Callan-Beck exhibiting at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania last Spring.

“When somebody’s lecturing you, it doesn’t always apply to your own research,” May said. “We wanted to do a roundtable, where everyone can help each other with their research.”

So that’s how the group rolls since it was founded in 2008. Now, there are hundreds of members signed up via email and a rotating cast of about 20 people who attend each meeting.

For each, the search led to interesting tidbits about their families and valuable clues to their cultural identities.

Callan-Beck found that the two ends of her bloodlines, one from each parent, actually intersected, when her research yielded a common last name.

The intersection wasn’t remotely recent — it dated to the 1500s — but still, small world.

She also found that her dad’s brother was actually his half-brother through some online DNA matching, a somewhat new development in the world of genealogy.

May has kept up with distant living relatives in Poland whom she found through her research. They supplied her with the death record from her third great-grandmother, Krystyna Boss Mey, who she now knows lived from 1796 to 1882. The certificate is written in Russian, one of the four languages used in Poland for records, and May was able to have it transcribed.

Birth and death certificates are not the only avenues to go through. There are church records, land records, internet resources that match names and DNA like ancestry.com or 23andme.com.

“If you’re lucky, it’s something personal. Maybe somebody wrote a story or a book about them,” Callan-Beck said.

Her own grandmother kept notes from every family reunion, a resource she was able to use for new information and to confirm hunches she already had.

The problem sometimes, and a source of skepticism from newcomers to genealogy, is many of these resources cost money, especially the websites.

That’s where the group comes in. They can give advice on what’s worth it and what isn’t, and, when there seems to be a dead end, how to climb out of it.

They can also lead members to free resources, and teach them where to look and for what. For locals, there’s the Family History Library in Morrisville or the Bucks County Courthouse, which keeps wills that may name family members or clear up connections.

For those interested in history, anthropology or even just about their own family tree, it may be worth a look into the past. At worst, you might find a new hobby.

“I kind of like getting to know who my ancestors were, and not just in names and dates on paper,” May said. “For me, it’s a really great feeling to have that bond.” ••

The Lower Bucks Genealogy Club meets the second Saturday of each month at the Team Toyota/Scion Service Center second floor community conference room, 407 E. Lincoln Highway in Langhorne, at 1 p.m. For information, email lbgc19047@gmail.com or visit bgc19047.webs.com.

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