Lawrence couple share passion for genealogical research, help others learn about their ancestry

photo by: Kathy Hanks

Richard and Alisa Branham teach classes at the Watkins Museum of History to help people research their ancestry.

Over the years, genealogical research has advanced from tracking down records in libraries and government files to dropping in on ancestral homes via Google Earth — and one local couple have kept up with the technology in hopes of helping people find their family roots.

The couple, Richard and Alisa Branham, teach genealogy classes at the Watkins Museum of History, one of which focuses on digital travel and also offers resources for planning a physical trip back to one’s homeland. Other classes focus on DNA research.

The Branhams have gone on personal quests exploring the branches of their family trees. Richard, 79, began 55 years ago while in graduate school, but his curiosity about his family’s history dates back to his own childhood.

“I kept asking questions all my life about my family,” he said. Now Richard, a professor emeritus in the Department of Design at the University of Kansas, can trace the Branhams back to Medieval Germany. Retirement has given him even more time to fill in details about his lineage.

“The biggest problem in genealogy is that you need evidence. It is an evidence-based study, and how you classify evidence is really important. You have to do the traditional genealogy work and make connections with people and then do the DNA. The old-fashioned way gives context for understanding the DNA.”

The couple offers a class called “DNA, Ethnicity and Building Your Family Tree,” which provides basic information to help use DNA results to further genealogy research.

Alisa, who is the licensure officer at KU’s School of Education, is still working full-time and has only traced her family back to the 1700s — to England, Scotland, Ireland and France. The impetus for her research was that she didn’t know much about her mom’s side of the family.

“You can discover lots of surprises, and there can be negative aspects,” she said. “If you discover that you had a half-sibling, how might you feel about that?”

After tracing ancestors to the Scottish border — historically a tumultuous region — she uncovered something interesting.

“I began to discover a cultural, clan-like aspect of the group,” Alisa said.

It helped her to see characteristics that even current relatives on that side of the family share.

Through the genealogical research, she began to understand why her family behaved a certain way, she said.

“I wanted to connect to my ancestors,” she said. Marrying Richard, who is deeply into genealogy, deepened her commitment.

“Most of our travel is around genealogy. We aren’t the kind of people who sit on a beach,” she said.

Positive surprise

“We had a guy in genealogy class at Watkins who had been adopted. He came to one of our first DNA classes and worked intensely for two weeks and found his birth parents,” Alisa said.

A lot of adoptees across the world are using DNA to find their biological history. The test might not always find a parent match, but it might find a sibling match, Alisa said.

“You can build trees and find where you fit in,” she said.

For their student, it turned into a great experience. He met his parents and siblings, and now he has this huge family tree of biological family, and they have been accepting of him, Alisa said.

The Branhams have been teaching the classes at Watkins for three years.

“We are aiming at the knowledgeable user, but everyone can benefit,” she said. “We learn so much from the students; they ask hard questions. They are very sophisticated.”

The way things were

Along with finding names and dates, it’s important to understand the history and why things happen, Richard said.

“We are most interested in how people lived. How did they migrate from one place to another? What was daily life like?” Richard said. “What we teach is more family history.”

The Branhams volunteer their time, and the students pay a small fee to support the museum.

“The classes have become incredibly popular,” said Steve Nowak, executive director of Watkins. “They can teach as many as 40 people, and they are full to capacity.”

The first one-time two-hour class, “Physical and Digital Travel for Genealogy Research,” begins on Saturday, Sept. 28. The class is $10 for Watkins members, $15 for nonmembers. For details, go to www.watkinsmuseum.org

While digital travel can be exciting, nothing beats actual travel.

“The dream is to get into the village your people came from,” Alisa said.

The Branhams have traveled to the United Kingdom five times tracing their roots. They attended a service in the 12th century church that Richard’s ancestors would have attended in a little village in Yorkshire, England.

“We told them why we were there, and they included us in the after-church social,” Alisa said. “Those kinds of human connections are amazing.”

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