Sunday, May 9, 1999




Group compiling cemetery records

When genealogists of the future open up a book listing Luzerne County cemetery burials and quickly find their ancestors' resting places, they will have Dean and Margery Sawyer to thankDean Sawyer is past president of the Genealogical Society of Northeast Pennsylvania, and aided by a corps of volunteers, he and his wife are the shock troops in the project of compiling all the old cemetery records in neat, readable books. In the living room of their Forty Fort home sits a huge machine for making microfilms. Upstairs a spare room has been converted into an electronic office.

"This will be an invaluable thing to have for looking up your ancestors," Sawyer said, displaying Volume One of what he expects to be a long series. That book lists all burials in eight cemeteries in the Back Mountain area, with each person's birth and death date. The book contains a map of Luzerne County, and each section has another map showing how to get to the cemetery.

On a recent morning Margery Sawyer's voice can be heard upstairs as she sits at a microfilm reader, calling out location numbers of graves in the vast St. Mary's Cemetery to volunteers transcribing them onto index cards. They've been at work on St. Mary's for a year and a half.

In time, the data will find its way onto computer disk and into the next couple of volumes in the series of books.

The project's origin is a simple one: Burial records from the late-18th century to about 1880 are scattered, incomplete or difficult to read. "So that void of 100 years is basically the reason we got into this," Sawyer said.

When it's time to do a new cemetery, Sawyer and his helpers ask the cemetery supervisor for permission to borrow the burial records and microfilm them. They give each cemetery a free copy of the microfilmed material to use as a backup to their paper records.

It isn't just the grave locations that are microfilmed. There are burial permits and death records too. Sponsoring churches might have baptism, marriage and membership records. These are all microfilmed.

"We will microfilm anything they have," Sawyer said. "They're invaluable records- moreso to the churches than to us."

Of course, there are problems. "In some cases you can't find anybody affiliated with the cemetery," said Sawyer. "So we physically went out and walked. These are pure tombstone readings."

Then there are the cemeteries that won't let their records be taken off-site. "We had to take this thing out to St. Mary's," Sawyer said, pointing to the microfilm-maker. "It took 14 days."

He is quick to credit the volunteers, members of the Genealogical Society, who show up to do two-hour shifts of work he concedes is "pretty tedious." The project also relies heavily on outside assistance: King's College donated a computer, and various local businesses have given grants, necessary for the purchase of microfilm, computer disks and printing.

Eventually, Sawyer hopes, the society will be able to find a site for its growing collection of materials. Then, members and other researchers will be able to look up names in the cemetery books. Out-of-town researchers will be able to call or write in and, for a small fee, get data on the burial places of their ancestors.

"There are buildings sitting around that we would love to have donated," he said.

Searching: Alice J. Waters of Alabama needs the names of the parents of her great-grandfather William ZEPP, b. September 1828 in unknown town in Pennsylvania, m. Mary Ellen Norcross Sept. 7, 1851, in Philadelphia, d. July 25, 1903, in Philadelphia. Contact Waters at 27100 James Waters Road, Robertsdale, Ala. 36567.

Elizabeth D. Waters of New Jersey has a lot of information about ancestors who lived in Wyoming Valley but needs help determining the names of the ships on which they arrived from England in the 19th century. Does anyone here know anything about her great-grandfather

Caleb GETHING, b. 1843, arrived New York City Nov. 16, 1884? Caleb arrived with wife Nancy Ann and sons Caleb, b. 1869; Edward, b. 1875; Jonathan, b. 1878; Arthur, b. 1880; and Eli, b. 1881. Son Christopher was b. 1886 in Nanticoke. Waters believes other family members might have come with them. Incidentally, Caleb was one of 12 men killed in the famous "lamp explosion" disaster at the Susquehanna No. 1 mine at Nanticoke in 1891. Contact Waters at 33 Johanna Court, Piscataway, N.J. 08854-5218.

News Notes: Thanks to all the people who gave interviews, provided information or offered other help for this column since its inception in fall, 1997. Just a few weeks ago, I was informed that "Out on a Limb" took first place in the 1999 ~"Excellence in Writing" competition, sponsored by the Council of Genealogy Columnists.

Now genealogists can use their computers to tap into some key holdings of the National Archives. After two years of work, the archives has put a great deal of useful material online. Among data mentioned in a recent release are American Indian records such as the Dawes Rolls and the Guion Miller Rolls, and records relating to slavery, the slave trade and fugitive slaves. You will find the site at

Remember, this column is now accessible through your computer at Then click on "Genealogy." All back columns are available there as well.

Have you solved some tough genealogical problems in your research? Do you have some tips you'd like to share with others? Would you like to report a success story? Drop me a line here at the paper. I'll get in touch with you and help you bring the benefits of your experience to others.

Tom Mooney, The Times Leader, 15 N. Main St., Wilkes-Barre, Pa. 18711 or