That’s My Grandpa: Finding Loved Ones in Historical Documents chronicles a delightful example of genealogical happenstance. While working on the processing floor of the Wisconsin Historical Society, Michelle Dubert-Bellrichard was approached by a co-worker with a document containing her last name.

That's My Grandpa: Finding Loved Ones in Historical Documents
Courtesy Archival Outlook, Society of American Archivists

The record was a petition for aid for which a Nettie Bellrichard had applied in 1916. Michelle, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, had never heard of Nettie Bellrichard. Michelle recalls:

“As we looked deeper into the document, there was his name — Lyle Bellrichard — listed as a dependent of Nettie. Even though I had seen that name thousands of times, I was shocked. In an instant I turned into the little girl from years ago who was excited to see her grandpa on weekly visits. When I saw that name I yelled out, ‘That’s my grandpa!’

Suddenly, I was surrounded by senior archivists who had seen this kind of discovery many times in their careers—you’d figure they’d be numb by now—yet they were just as excited. We celebrated by telling everyone within shouting distance about what had just happened.” 

…My elation continued through five hours of classes and the evening until I went to sleep that night. Why was this document such a big deal? …When I spoke with my father shortly after the discovery, he started filling in some of the missing information: Nettie’s husband died of tuberculosis and they had to leave Canada and move back to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, to be with family.

Even though I know very little of the Bellrichard half of my name, I started tracing their story in my head with the little information I was given that day. In mere seconds I was given a name for my great-grandmother, a woman I had no prior knowledge of, and I learned how her family struggled but still managed to survive, despite so many tragedies….

This piece of my family’s past did indeed make me proud. It showed the hardships my grandpa faced in his life, and somehow I feel like his determination to persevere has been passed on to me. This has been one of my favorite days at work, and it reaffirmed why I want a place in the archival profession.”

Read more about Michelle’s account of the discovery in the fall issue of Archival Outlook.