Not everyone's family tree is as colorful as the late James A. Pflueger's, whose roots included a Cherokee Indian chief named Path Killer, a grandmother who joined a traveling medicine show and a father who was kidnapped from the hospital 72 hours after being born.
Mr. Pflueger's maternal grandparents divorced when his mother was a youngster, says his widow, Jackie McDaniel, who assisted him in the research. When his grandmother joined a traveling medicine show, she placed her two children in an Oklahoma orphanage. Mr. Pflueger remembered that his mother never knew her grandparents.
"It always bothered his mother that she did not know who her grandparents were," Ms. McDaniel says.
Further complicating Mr. Pflueger's genealogy, his father had been abducted by a nurse from a Brooklyn hospital when he was 3 days old. The nurse confessed just before she died, Ms. McDaniel says: "She told him that she was not his real mother . . . that his real mother lived in Oregon. The son and his real mother were re-united 53 years later, and the mother died shortly after the reunion."
This paternal portion of the Pflueger family history was passed down orally from father to son.
But to help unravel his maternal ancestral history, Mr. Pflueger had joined a growing number of Americans who belong to the National Genealogical Society. The members, who enjoy digging into their history to discover where it all began, will meet in Baltimore for a four-day conference beginning Wednesday.
They will listen to lectures, attend workshops and learn which major ethnic groups settled in the Mid-Atlantic. The members will find out the best way to use computer technology in their search, says Carolyn J. Nell, president of the Arlington, Va.-based group.
"There are about 12,600 members in the national organization and roughly 1,800 of them are expected to attend the convention, Ms. Nell says.
"Genealogy has been growing in popularity," she says. It got a big boost from Alex Haley's novel "Roots" and the 1977 miniseries.
Most members of the National Genealogical Society ar middle-age or older, Ms. Nell says. But she credits the current teaching of genealogy in some schools with piquing the interest of people at a younger age.
Most serious genealogists will join at least three groups, Ms. Nell says.
"They will join a local organization where they live, one where their ancestor lived and the national one," she says.
Ms. McDaniel says genealogy became her husband's avocation about 25 years ago.
"Jim thoroughly enjoyed this. He got a lot of satisfaction from it," Ms. McDaniel says.
"My husband always loved history. And he was into details. He was computerizing what he had learned."
When Mr. Pflueger retired from his job as an economist with thFederal Reserve Board about eight years ago, "he really plunged into genealogy," his wife said. "It was almost like a full time job."
Mr. Pflueger had heard his mother talk about Indian blood being in the family although she didn't know any of the details, Ms. McDaniel says.
With that bit of information and with his mother's maiden name, Mr. Pflueger began the search by going to the National Archives in Washington to look up land.
Besides research, being lucky can help a genealogist in the search. At the National Archives, he met an Oklahoma native who knew some of Mr. Pflueger's maternal relatives.
"That really got Jim pointed in the right direction," Ms. McDaniel says.
With more names to look up, Mr. Pflueger followed the paper trail of land documents and deeds. About 10 years ago, Mr. Pflueger traced his roots back to a great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather.
His name was Path Killer, a Cherokee Indian chief who was born and raised in eastern Tennessee. Path Killer had signed some land treaties with the U.S. government, Ms. McDaniel says.
Mr. Pflueger looked up the Indian land treaties and depositions. He also found a book in the Library of Congress that lays out who had land and where it was. He found a wealth of information on those documents, including marriages and children's names.
Mr. Pflueger learned that Path Killer's second marriage was to a white woman named Sookie Martin and that she was his great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother.
About six years ago, Ms. McDaniel and her husband traveled to Alabama where they found the grave of Path Killer.
"Things [like this] got him very excited," Ms. McDaniel says.
Unfortunately, Mr. Pflueger's mother died before he could tell her who her grandparents were.
Although Mr. Pflueger's search turned up notable ancestors like a Cherokee Indian chief, most people learn their ancestors were "very average people like we are," says Marvin Muhlhausen, a political scientist for the National Security Agency.
Mr. Muhlhausen got a head start when doing his research. His grandmother died in 1981 and left behind a family history that went back three generations.
Reading the history sparked Mr. Muhlhausen's interest in genealogy, and he joined the NGS.
"The NGS is really valuable in fostering scholarly research," he says. "I started checking out what she had written. Although it was an oral history, it was very accurate," he says.
Mr. Muhlhausen went back even further. On his mother's side, he found an ancestor who was a passenger on the Mayflower.
"On my father's side, my Grandfather Muhlhausen came from Germany to America in 1889 when he was a boy of 17," Mr. Muhlhausen says.
Why do people go through all of the time and expense of locating long-deceased ancestors? "It's a lot of fun just knowing," Mr. Muhlhausen says.
Once people begin digging into their pasts, Ms. Nell says, it's hard to stop. "The interest is contagious," she says. "Like a disease. People start talking about it and once they get started, they can't stop."
DIGGING FOR ROOTS
What: "A Chesapeake Homecoming," National Genealogical Society conference
Where: Convention Center
When: June 2-5
BCost: The exhibition hall is free. Lectures and seminars, $100 for NGS members, $130 for non-members
$ Call: (703) 525-0050