CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Even the most difficult family histories are no match for the researchers at the West Virginia Division of Culture and History's Archives and History Library.
Have grandparents who eloped? The library staff can help you locate their marriage license.
Have a great-great-great-great-grandfather who was a slave before the Civil War? The library staff can help you try to learn more about him.
Have a Cherokee princess in your family history? The library staff can help you determine whether that piece of family folklore is possibly true.
Scouring the thousands of records available through the West Virginia Division of Culture and History's Archives and History Library, Diane White of Charleston has traced her African-American ancestors who lived in West Virginia back to the 1800s, and she's only just beginning.
"It starts with us," White said, pressing the palm of her hand to her heart. "If we know who we are, why we are and what we can become, it's that sense of knowing."
Each year, the State Archives library helps about 5,500 patrons such as White navigate through their complicated and sometimes difficult family histories. Countless others tap the state records online.
In addition to the usual birth and death certificates, marriage licenses and newspaper obituaries, the State Archives provides a plethora of information that can be gleaned from yearbooks; census, funeral home and prison records -- even public dance cards, social columns and reparations claims. Valuable information also can be found in naturalization records, state mining fatality records, military service records, photographs, manuscripts, special collections and old maps.
"You have to think like a detective," said Archives and History librarian Susan Scouras. "If you don't have a birth record, there are always alternate sources."
Some of the most challenging ancestors to track down include women, American Indians, African-Americans and other demographic groups that may have scant mention in official records and rarely made the social columns of any newspaper. That's where Scouras and the other researchers at the Archives Library can help.
For instance, before the Civil War, counties kept registries of free blacks that include the names, ages and detailed physical descriptions of each individual.
The state also compiled lists of every person killed in a mining accident that included their name, age, marital status, number of surviving children and other details.