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Omaha Magazine

Past Lives

May 28, 2015 01:00PM ● By Ryan Borchers
This article originally published in May/June 2015 edition of 60-Plus.

When we research our genealogical histories, we sometimes find we’re related to some pretty interesting people, says Max Sparber, Research Specialist for the Douglas County Historical Society.

Before Sparber, who is adopted, investigated his own history, he knew his biological parents’ ethnicities. But that was it. Then he did some digging.

“I found out that I have a great deal in common with my biological mother,” he says.

Sparber and his mother both attended the University of Minnesota where they studied theater and journalism. She became an expert in Irish studies. Sparber writes frequently about Irish-American studies. He also learned he had long owned a book written by his biological mother long before he knew who she was.

The thrill of discovering such an ancestor—or maybe learning that you’re related to someone famous—may pique many people’s interest in family history. Regardless of the reasons, though, genealogy has turned into a wildly popular pastime in the United States.

According to ABC News, as of 2012, genealogical research is the American people’s second favorite hobby behind gardening. It’s an industry worth about $1.6 billion.

“I think everyone has their own reasons,” Sparber says about why so many people are interested in genealogy now. “[They’re] just looking for their own story.”

Sparber says the interest is driven by popular media like the television show Who Do You Think You Are? There’s an attraction to discovering your ethnic identity, and many enjoy the elements of mystery and puzzle- piecing. Ease of use has played a big role, too, with things like birth records and newspaper articles going digital. DNA tests can help pinpoint who your ancestors are. Two or three years ago, such tests might have cost $1,000, but now popular websites like and Family Tree DNA will perform them for less than $100.

For Omahans interested in learning their genealogical histories, resources like the Greater Omaha Genealogical Society, which is affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, may help (the church has long been interested in genealogy and can accept members into its faith posthumously).

The Douglas County Historical Society, Sparber says, fields requests related to genealogy daily. Twenty to 30 percent of what the organization does involves genealogy, and it has access to many records that haven’t been uploaded digitally. The society’s archives hold Douglas County records that date back to the mid-1800s, including city directories that identify where people lived and what they did for a living.

Most people who investigate their genealogical histories hope to find that they’re related to royalty or movie stars, Sparber says.

In Omaha, people sometimes hope to be related to criminals.

Locals come with family stories about ancestors who were bootleggers or brothel owners, and they often hope the stories are true. One woman, Sparber says, wanted to find some information about an ancestor from early Omaha who was a doctor. Sparber found a newspaper article that identified a man who went by the same name as the woman’s ancestor and who was, indeed, a doctor. He was also the first man in Omaha to be arrested for murder, though he claimed self-defense and was never charged.

Sparber says the woman was “thrilled.


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