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29 April 2020

Quarantine Quests: A Genealogist's Fairytale Come True

Chris Pattillo is collecting "Quarantine Quests," stories of genealogical projects and discoveries made by our members while sheltering at home due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. This story is from CGS Member Ron Madson.

Ron Madson’s Quarantine Quests story began in the Summer of 2019 when he traveled to France and Switzerland to attend the Women’s Soccer World Cup. While there he visited a cousin, Claire Daams, who is an attorney in Bern and happens to be conversant in seven languages, including Old German. Recognizing an opportunity, Ron asked Claire if she might help him with his second-great-grandfather Niklaus GlaĆ¼s. Ron had attempted to read the records that are available online at the Bern StateArchives but with little success.

Claire agreed and within minutes had identified Ron’s second- and third-great-grandparents. Even better, she gave Ron a personalized lesson in how to read Old German. Ron refers to the script as nothing more than "squiggles" but with Claire’s help, he quickly began to be able to decode the information contained in the documents. These records typically include the basics – birth, death, and marriage. Marriage records sometimes include the bride and groom's places of origin, the names of their parents, and sometimes the dates that the parents were married. Some death records include the date and place of birth. Some do not include date of birth, but include exact age at death: years, months, and days. But many of the older death records do not contain this vital information, although they may have "extras" added by the priest or officiant. "I try very hard to read this 'extra stuff,'" Ron says. "And it kills me that ninety percent of the time I can’t, while knowing that beyond a shadow of a doubt, there is 'good stuff' there."

After his lesson, Claire asked if Ron would like to visit the village where his ancestors were from – “a genealogist’s fairy tale come true,” he says. Ron’s ancestors lived in a small village in the foothills of the Alps in the Interlaken District of Bern. While there is no way to know the exact home or farm where his ancestors lived, Ron did recount the pleasure of eating lunch in a local restaurant right on the lake. He ordered fish that had been caught in the lake and knew that his ancestors had fished in that same lake generations before.

Fast-forward nearly a year and now while Ron is quarantined at home he is working feverishly to find, decipher, and document new ancestors and more records. Ron reports that he has added hundreds of new ancestors since he learned to decode the Old German text. Each time he thinks he has found a new ancestor he says “I look for other records to shed light on the found record, to prove or disprove that this is the correct record. Depending on the circumstances, the names, area, year(s), record information, what, and where I look varies.”

For each new person he tries to find birth, marriage and death records. He then enters the data into his Family Tree Maker genealogy program. Like most of us, he makes copies of every document he finds. He then imports the digital file into Adobe Photoshop and extends the page at the bottom and top to add research notes. At the top he includes the name of the document and a summary of what it says. At the bottom, he adds his source information.

Ron has identified the two oldest living people on this line: Florine (Lee) Glaus, now 93 and living in South Dakota, and Clare Leone Glaus, who is 102 years old and lives in Seattle. He was able to interview both of them and has fifteen hours of recorded interviews plus stories, documents and photographs.

When I asked, “Have you established a particular routine for doing this work during the shutdown?” Ron explained, “my wife and I have dinner, then we watch a movie, after which I spend several hours each day – sometimes into the wee hours – working on my genealogy.” Ron is also planning to listen to a podcast to learn more about how to read Old German so he can continue his research on a different family line.

Have you made any big discoveries while you have been staying at home? Let us know and we will share your story. You can reach me at

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