Sunday, July 02, 2006


The Accidental Genealogist

I began researching my roots in 1991. I wish I could say that some family experience, medical reason, or curiosity inspired me to search for my Slovak ancestors, but to tell the truth I became a genealogist quite by accident.

I was in my second year of the Master of Fine Arts Degree program in Nonfiction Writing at the University of Pittsburgh and enrolled in a class, “The Literature of Pittsburgh” for which one of the required readings was Out of This Furnace, Thomas Bell’s classic novel about three generations of Slovak men working in the steel mills of Braddock, Pennsylvania. Bell’s book prompted me to ask my mother about our family history and I subsequently learned about the life of my grandmother, Verona Straka Figlar, who immigrated to the United States from the tiny village of Milpos, Slovakia in 1922. After barely making it through Ellis Island, Verona began her life in America as a domestic, and through an arranged courtship, married Janos Figlyar, a hardworking, but stern Rusyn coal miner/steelworker. Once married, Verona struggled to raise seven children during the Depression, and withstood her husband’s fondness for alcohol and frequent violent outbursts. As the details of Verona’s background, journey to America and struggles as an immigrant woman were revealed to me, I came to appreciate her as more than just my grandmother, but someone with a poignant life story.

Thus, I embarked on my genealogical journey, researching my maternal grandmother’s side of the family. This was in the days before the Internet was an integral part of daily life. Before the availability of millions of genealogical Web sites, online census records and immigration databases, I searched courthouses, spent countless hours viewing microfilm in the Carnegie and Hillman Libraries in Pittsburgh, PA, wrote to the National Archives, conducted approximately 30 oral history interviews, walked in my grandmother’s footsteps during a visit to Ellis Island, and traveled to towns such as Barton, OH, and Wilkes-Barre, PA. I read numerous books and articles on Slovak history and culture, immigration, the Great Depression and other topics. Although my grandparents called themselves “Slovak,” I also became aware of my Carpatho-Rusyn roots. For more information, see the Carpatho-Rusyn Society.

After six years of thorough research, and several more years of writing and revising I earned my degree, and also finished my first book, Three Slovak Women, published by Gateway Press (2001).

Now, one might think that because I’ve written a book I have the upper hand on this quest to find my roots. Not so. The more information you discover, the more you want to know. Thanks in part to the vast interest in genealogy, there are more resources available than ever for the family history enthusiast, and I have continued researching my family.

In addition, thanks to my work over the years I have had the good fortune to be able to teach genealogy and lecture about my experiences to local and national audiences.

When I look back now, it is ironic that I started out with a goal of obtaining a writing degree, and now I teach others how to research their family tree!

So, this is why I call myself, “The Accidental Genealogist!”

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