Like a teenager who brags about discovering an artist before they were mainstream, Dolores “Dolly” Merrick could boast of her interest in genealogy before it was a billion-dollar business.
“It was the ’90s; I started to realize some of the stories my mom and uncle told me about their father from Croatia — that I could possibly document those things,” Merrick, 75, said, standing over piles of documents and photographs in her Hudson’s Bay neighborhood home, where she lives with her husband.
Their “living room” doubles as a research space, where there’s a minimum of three computer screens, including a laptop situated on a rolling desk, and a large printer/scanner. Shelves and cabinets contain an unknown number of genealogy-related documents and artifacts.
“If I started counting all the pictures individually, that’d be fascinating,” she said holding up her father-in-law’s old yearbook that is stored in a fireproof case in her basement. Merrick estimates she has somewhere between 400 and 500 artifacts.
Rise in interest
In the 1990s, people were just starting to digitize mountains of old files and post them online, greatly expanding resources for what was once just a niche interest.
Utah-based Ancestry.com, one of the most well-known genealogy research websites, jumped on that train in 1997. It now has 3 million paying subscribers, and in 2017 reported $1 billion in revenue.
“I think it’s a combination of exposure. Some of it from television programs like ‘Finding Your Roots’ (PBS) and ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ (BBC, NBC, TLC) — those have captured people’s interest. And, the availability of things online has certainly made it a lot easier for people to research records that talk about their ancestors,” said Brian Runyan, president of the Clark County Genealogical Society.
Runyan said that while there’s much available online, “only 15 percent of all genealogically relevant material” has been digitized.
“So, there’s still a tremendous amount that’s in courthouses in repositories everywhere waiting to be converted into electronic stuff. And we’re one of those repositories that frankly isn’t available anywhere else,” Runyan said. The volunteer-run society, founded in 1972, recently relocated to 3205 N.E. 52nd St. Offering a physical space for research, the society’s library collection “includes over 8,000 items” according to its website, and access to various databases.
Runyan said he’s noticed an uptick in use of their resources, thanks to sites like Ancestry and 23andMe, which specializes in DNA analysis. DNA tests to determine information about family members, hereditary health risks and other information has also exploded in recent years.
“I think it’s helping in a couple of ways. One is they may be reaching out to us for some guidance. They get a report back from some of these companies and say, ‘What does that mean?’ And we have people who have expertise in that they’re able to give them some more information,” Runyan said.
‘Not just the scandals’
Merrick discovered the Clark County Genealogical Society around 15 years ago, she said. Formerly the vice president, she now oversees volunteers and is learning how to do grant writing to help secure funds for the nonprofit. While her husband recovers from an illness, she volunteers there as a librarian only a few hours a week.
After nearly two decades of serious genealogy research, she’s found a lot of information. It helped, too, that several of her family members were spectacular record-keepers.
“If you wanted to know how much I weighed every single day during the first year of my life, my mother wrote it down,” Merrick said.
She has gloves from her mother’s wedding; photos and newspaper articles on her great-aunt, an early female pilot named Laura May Wiederhold; baby clothes from various relatives; and many other items.
But it all started with an interest in her grandfather, an immigrant from Croatia, who fell in love with her grandmother, a U.S. citizen.
Peter Petros, original name Petar Petrosa, boarded a ship when he was just 14 years old.
“He was a cabin boy on a ship. …The ships used to go into New York directly to let off first-class passengers. They’d let the crew off for a little bit. He just got off and kept walking,” Merrick said. He married Merrick’s grandmother in 1914, which caused her to lose her citizenship, Merrick said, “because she was a woman.” That’s because in 1907, Congress passed the Expatriation Act, which ordered that women who married noncitizens were no longer citizens. That changed by the 1940s thanks to the women’s suffrage movement. They settled in Portland, where Merrick grew up.
“I concentrate on the last 100 years of where my family lived and how they lived. I think that’s a real enriching part. Not just to find the scandals, but the wow factor. The decision my grandma had to make when she lost her citizenship, especially when her dad had to fight to win his citizenship, that had to be quite the dinner discussion,” Merrick said.
She was driven by curiosity about why her grandfather decided to leave his homeland, a small island with a few hundred people.
“Well, what’s his future? I think he came over because of economic pressure. He happened to meet my grandma at a dance hall, and they got kicked out for doing the foxtrot,” Merrick laughed. “So they had to get married, I guess.”
While Merrick’s interest in genealogy research is profound, she hesitates to take DNA tests.
“I’m not really interested in the medical side of it. We’ve had classes at the society about that, and I’d probably have to study more. I’m concerned about the legal ramifications of all the public access. And the fact that Ancestry does half-off sales,” Merrick said. “It’s like socks on sale during Thanksgiving at Fred Meyer — let’s do this at half-price. But it’s a lot more important than socks at Fred Meyer.”
Ancestry.com only recently began offering DNA testing kits. DNA testing has grasped the imagination of many, especially as law enforcement agencies use the results to crack cold cases or capture serial killers, such as the infamous Golden State killer.
There have been a few breakthroughs locally. In October, the Clark County Sheriff’s Office announced that it had identified the remains of “Fly Creek Jane Doe,” a body discovered near Amboy in 1980.
In addition to soliciting help from an agency called Parabon NanoLabs, deputies searched other online genealogy databases to discover the victim’s identity. The killer, however, remains unidentified. Back in March, a 39-year-old homicide case in Iowa was cracked thanks to Vancouver resident Brandy Jennings, who received an Ancestry.com DNA kit as a gift. Once Jennings received the results, she uploaded them to GEDmatch.com, a public database.
“We have a lot of people who are willing to provide a sample. They have no dog in the fight,” said Lindsay Arnold, a Clark County sheriff’s deputy who works with evidence and logistics. She said they work with private companies that offer DNA testing services, since officers “aren’t going to have that expertise.”
“Had it not been for this technology of using genealogy databases, she would’ve been Jane Doe forever, and I don’t know how that could sit will with anybody,” Arnold said. “I see the good in that. That’s more important than somebody’s argument of a privacy act, when it’s a free will to participate. You have to educate yourself of what’s out there.”
‘It works out’
Merrick said she might take a DNA test eventually, but for now feels that she already possesses the information she wants. And the journey has been nothing but personal; she has no biological children.
“I love this thing that my mom used to tell me in my later years. She’d say, ‘Dolores, to live is to change. And to be perfect is to change often.’ And I do have to realize that anything that’s going on that’s a threat, like my grandma losing her citizenship; in some ways it works out. Living is a process,” she said. “It’s not just, OK we’ve figured out the final solution and we can just relax. That’s why it’s so exciting for me for study it. Because it’s been a challenge for my relatives, but it’s also been a great victory for many of them.”