Students discover previous generations with new course on genealogy

A first-time course in genealogy offered by Western Carolina University’s Department of History this semester as part of the public history certificate program proved popular, insightful and revealing, students said.

According to an ABC News report, genealogy is the second most popular hobby in America after gardening. It also is big business, with numerous companies and digital platforms catering to professional and amateur researchers alike, with estimates of upwards of billions of dollars in revenue. The U.S. Department of Labor expects the field of public history to grow 16 percent over the next 10 years. Nonprofit genealogy societies are gaining membership, with groups like the Jackson County Genealogical Society in Sylva working to preserve materials and bring together interested individuals.

With an image of Alonzo Carlton Reynolds watching from a monitor screen, WCU senior Catherine “Cat” Dean looks over genealogy records at Hunter Library about the second president of the university and other presidents of previous generations.

With an image of Alonzo Carlton Reynolds watching from a monitor screen, WCU senior Catherine “Cat” Dean looks over genealogical records at Hunter Library about the second president of the university.

History 493, “History and Genealogy,” looked at the role of family and community in shaping state, regional and national developments, with an emphasis on research techniques and how to utilize resources. Through this course WCU students learned about history in a personal way, engaging in genealogical research into their family trees. Honor Sachs, assistant professor of history, taught the course.

“The course covers the study of genealogy, what family history and local history means, and how the practice of genealogy has changed,” she said. “There is a history to genealogy and why it has been important to different generations.”

Many of the students uncovered remarkable things about their family history, Sachs said. Students also discovered that tracing family origins and backgrounds can be, from a personal standpoint, complicated. Some students focused on particular themes that ran through their family trees, like tragedy, war or divorce. One student discovered that two branches of his family fought against each other during the Civil War. Several students with long histories in Western North Carolina had to grapple with the role of their ancestors in the displacement of Native Americans in the infamous “Trail of Tears,” she said.

At the same time that they learned about complicated histories, students also learned the value of sitting down with family to ask about the past. Through interviews and conversations with relatives, many students gained new appreciation for the small towns their families had lived in for generations, Sachs said.

A primary assignment was to trace a family lineage, the student’s own or that of a regional figure. Sachs repeatedly told students to focus on their ancestors. “Again and again, they would come back to themselves,” she said.

Honor Sachs

Honor Sachs

“You want to find someone famous or heroic, someone of importance in your ancestry,” she said, but more often the research reveals farmers, laborers and shopkeepers, citizens who simply went about their lives. Or, in some instances, she said, a forebear who was notable in a bad way.

“You have to take the good with the bad,” Sachs said. “Genealogy tells you where you came from, in an ancestral sense, not who you are….It’s fascinating that people think it reveals something more than what it does.”

Students accessed the database, the largest subscription genealogical online platform, now available through Hunter Library. The course covered methods of research, how digital access to records has enabled more extensive and reliable record-finding, and the use of census documents, deeds, public records and other archival materials.

Catherine “Cat” Dean, a senior from Lilburn, Georgia, undertook the genealogy of Alonzo Carlton Reynolds, best remembered as the second president of WCU, then known as Cullowhee Normal and Industrial School. In a lifetime of accomplishments, he guided the institution from 1912 to 1920, including the turbulent time of World War I, before going on to help establish what would become another institution of higher education, UNC Asheville. A WCU residence hall and a high school in Buncombe County are named for him.

“I think what I enjoyed most about his genealogy was how committed the whole family was to Southern mountain heritage pride,” Dean said. “I was amazed at how multiple generations spanning over hundreds of years can maintain the same values and beliefs, and successfully pass them on to the next. And that no matter where this guy lived in his life, he loved his home. Brings to mind the phrase, ‘there’s no place like home’.”

Dean chose Reynolds as a research subject by way of another assignment. She was fulfilling a summer internship for a public history certificate at WCU’s Mountain Heritage Center and had just finished work on the exhibit “The Photography of Lewis Hine: Exposing Child Labor in North Carolina, 1908–1918.” The next big project was to be assisting on a display about Reynolds.

“I had already started doing some research, but then my internship ended and I never got to finish,” she said. “When I started in this class and professor Sachs described the term project, I felt like I could help the good people at the Mountain Heritage Center by writing about him and his family, and contributing research for the intern who’s in charge of the case now.”

Her look at the Reynolds family tree went back to the first generation in colonial times, prior to the American Revolution.

For more information on the genealogy course, contact Sachs at For more information on genealogy research assistance, contact Hunter Library at 828-227-7485.