In a musty, windowless basement where Gallatin County jail prisoners once did their laundry, volunteers have been busy typing up century-old county records and preserving them on the Internet for family history buffs here and around the world.
The Gallatin County Genealogical Society started up again a little over one year ago, and since then its members have created a website and posted online indexes for more than 37,500 records.
They have typed up everything from births and deaths, to marriages and divorces, voter registrations and newspaper obituaries — some going back more than 100 years.
“We're saving family history,” said Tricia Thompson, a retired Bozeman High School teacher and manager of the online records project.
“In another 100 years, this is not going to be here,” she said, touching an old volume of fragile, yellowing newspapers.
About 100 family historians are expected to gather in Bozeman for the Montana State Genealogical Society annual conference, Sept. 27 and 28 at the Holiday Inn. The event is open to the public and will feature two expert genealogists leading workshops such as how to search for “impossible immigrants.”
Most of the 10 or so regular Gallatin Society volunteers are retired women, though occasionally a young male history major from Montana State University has joined the cause. Few volunteers have any ties to local history in their own families, which makes it a highly unselfish endeavor.
They have overcome balky computers, sore wrists, hard-to-read handwriting and bad spelling to get the job done.
“I'm so glad when I find a genealogy society has preserved (my) family records,” said Thompson, who has traveled to Scotland to search for her roots. “Someone has gone to the trouble to preserve church records or voter registrations. For me, this is a way to say thank you.”
The fledgling society doesn't have the technical wizardry needed to post images of original records online, as Ancestry.com and other websites have increasingly done.
Instead the Gallatin group is typing up indexes, so that people searching on the Internet can find out that a record exists here in the first place, and then learn where to go to find the original.
Before this, Thompson said, someone hunting for a divorce had to show up at the Law and Justice Center and turn through page after page of court records in giant, heavy record books to find a specific document. Now for the first time, 9,996 divorces from 1898 to 1991are indexed, and the index is online.
The Gallatin website so far has six databases: divorces; vital records (births, deaths and marriages) from old newspapers like the Avant Courier; early Dokken-Nelson Funeral Home records; naturalization records from 1900 to 1970; obituaries; and voter registrations from 1889 on, recorded from the basement of the Pioneer Museum, originally the county jail.
Voter registrations are exciting, Thompson said, because voters — men, back then — had to register every year, and most gave their town or county of birth, not just their state, as in census records. So far, the volunteers have indexed more than 5,000 voter registrations, and they're only through volume 10 of 48 volumes.
John Russell, Pioneer Museum and Gallatin County Historical Society director, said the volunteers have “a lot of energy and determination. I'm not really surprised at the progress they're making.… It's going to make genealogy easier, and hopefully bring more people to the museum.”
Genealogy, Russell pointed out, is America's second most popular hobby after gardening.
“We all have this desire to know — Where did we come from?” Thompson said. “Our ancestors — we're who we are because they existed and made choices.”
More information on the Montana State Genealogical Conference is online. The cost is $35 on Friday, $30 on Saturday, or $49 for both days.
Gail Schontzler can be reached at email@example.com or 582-2633.