May 12, 2014 - By Alejandra Silva, Staff WriterIt all started with a question: How was it that half of the town of Lander seemed to be related to him?
With Lander's population about 3,300 in the 1950s when he was growing up, Dean Szczepanski was curious about the close and distant family connections he had with many residents beyond his first cousins.
So, at an early age, Szczepanski decided involve himself in his own genealogy project. He is still working on it today.
Szczepanski was born and raised in Lander. His father, Henry Frank Szczepanski, who sometimes went by H.F. or Hank, was born to Polish immigrants and grew up in Philadelphia.
His mother, Dorothy Hudson, was born in Lander and remained in the Lander area for several generations.
The town of Hudson was named for Szczepanski's second great uncle, Daniel Frost Hudson.
His parents met in Casper during World War II, while his father was stationed there for training. His father later moved to Lander and worked as a household appliance repairman at Lander Electric formerly at 332 Main St.
He later bought and owned the business. Today, the Lander Journal sits at that address.
Szczepanski left for Montana to attend college and later returned to Lander in the 1980s, when he worked as a psychology specialist at the Wyoming State Training School.
Once back home, he revisited his interest in the genealogy project and decided to extend it to other families in the area and, eventually, across Fremont County.
He found inspiration in three books. "South Pass 1868," by James Chisholm, was a favorite for Szczepanski, so he decided to begin his genealogy work with that year --1868.
The book tells the story of the Wyoming gold rush in the 1860s through Chisholm, who was a journalist sent to South Pass to find stories of those driven to find gold and gain riches.
This journal-style, first-hand account offered a "fascinating local history," Szczepanski said, that also provided information about his great grandfather, William Jones, who was a butcher in the mining district during the gold rush.
Two other books gave history on the towns of Hingman and Cohasset, Mass. Szczepanski's mother had Puritan ancestors who lived in those towns from 1635 to 1850. In his research he found about 75 of his direct ancestors in records carefully kept by the clerks of Hingman and Cohasset.
"An exciting discovery was that I am related to Abraham Lincoln," he said, adding that Lincoln's original immigrant ancestors came to Hingman and Cohasset as well.
That exciting piece of information sparked both hope and the urge to keep going.
"I thought that, with some research, I could produce the same sort of history for my home county in Wyoming," he said.
Szczepanski used microfilm at public libraries to look up old Riverton and Lander newspaper articles. Microfilm is small photographic copies of printed material on long strips of film. A computer reader or scanner helps make the small images appear larger. Libraries first used microfilm in the mid-20th century preserve newspapers and save shelf space.
Szczepanski documented each person's information in 3 x 5 cards. Today, has them organized in file drawers. He said his record keeping also improved over time.
"There is a tendency to get caught up in the excitement of the moment with a new discovery," he said.
Depending on where he found information he abbreviated the newspaper names. He often used the Wyoming State Journal (now the Lander Journal) and The Riverton Ranger, now simply (The Ranger), also finding information in the Fremont Clipper and the Wind River Mountaineer that date to the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Lander and Riverton public libraries still offer the use of microfilm at no cost. The Wyoming State Archives and wyonewspapers.org are other useful online tools for looking up old records.
In 1988, Szczepanski's research slowed as he left for a new job in Yakima, Wash. He didn't completely stop however, and obtained microfilm via interlibrary loan. Once a request was made, Szczepanski said it would take about two weeks to receive the film. Reading the entire rolls of film was tedious work.
"It's one of those tasks that if I had known how much work it was going to be, I never would have started," he said.
He would request one or several rolls of old census records and hope to find something regarding his ancestors.
"I might or might not find it," Szczepanski said. "If not, I may have had to request additional rolls and repeat the process."
This was the process before the Internet. Soon, websites gave people a new way of looking into generations and "revolutionized genealogical research," Szczepanski said.
He explained how websites had census records indexed and searchable by name. A simple Google.com search could pull up information about someone, especially if the person had a unique name or if the searcher knew basic information.
"What used to take weeks or months can now be accomplished in minutes," he said. "I could not have made the progress I have without such tools."
Szczepanski has used various ways to dig into whatever family information has been transcribed. Written records also were hard to read, he said, because the ink faded or handwriting styles changed over periods of decades or centuries. Obituaries were useful items in newspapers.
"The best ones provide dates and places of births, marriages and death, which are the backbone information for genealogical research," Szczepanski said.
With increasing information about parents, siblings and other relatives, connections could be made with other family members in the area, he said. Newspaper articles, and birth, wedding or divorce announcements also provided him with useful information.
Szczepanski made the project his priority in 2011 when he retired from his job in Yakima.
He said the project is "solving dozens of little mysteries. It's like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with thousands of pieces," he said. "Again, trying to figure out how everyone is related."
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