While barely a teenager, Juli Claussen began investigating the colorful tales of her frontier forebears.
The family history whispered of adventurers who pushed West, including an ancestor who cashed in on the gold rush, another who allegedly rode for the Pony Express, another who tangled with Native Americans, and another who refused to work all together.
“He only wanted to play the fiddle,” Claussen said with a laugh.
Claussen was most fascinated by her great-great-great-grandmother, Sarah, a Southern Illinoisan who shared the same fair features as Claussen.
After the death of her husband during a cholera epidemic that swept through the region in 1849, Sarah raised six children and managed the family farm on her own, earning the respect of all who knew her.
“She was obviously very much loved by the family,” Claussen said. “They spoke of her with such warmth.”
Tracing the life of the powerful pioneer woman became a journey of self-discovery for the modern woman.
“I felt a connection with her,” Claussen said. “Learning about people like Sarah impressed me that as I went through the hard times I would be able to persevere. It gave me a feeling that I had some strength I inherited.”
That strength helped Claussen deal with the harsh realities she encountered as a social worker in Carbondale, her first career.
For many years, she kept genealogy as a hobby, drawing up family histories for interested parties through Web sites and word of mouth.
Claussen quickly discovered the skills she used to flesh out the past could help solve the mysteries of the present. Genealogical research is sometimes the only way to track down missing persons, particularly when the method of prying into the present fails.
That was the case for an oil drilling company who contacted Claussen in hopes of finding a missing heir, Harriet Freeman, to purchase land unknowingly owned by her.
“The private detective could find no trace of her since 1985,” said Claussen, now a professional genealogist and owner of Search and Genealogy Services in Murphysboro.
Claussen found Freeman mainly through drawing up her family tree, identifying other living relatives and contacting them.
While Claussen’s work has commercial applications, she is often called on to find missing loved ones such as those who have been adopted.
“Because Illinois is a closed-adoption state, a lot of people think there is no way to find them, but really there are a variety of ways that are perfectly legal to discover information,” Claussen said.
One case had her search for a woman adopted during the depression, for which some public records are scant.
“We didn’t even know what her first name was,” said Ann Rhinesmith, who helped her 77-year-old father, Jerrold McElfresh, find his long-lost adopted sister. “He fell and broke his hip a few years ago, and we decided to try to find her. He just wanted to meet her.”
The family, now living in North Carolina, heard the adoption took place in Illinois, so Rhinesmith contacted Claussen.
After months of researching family history and public records, and cold-calling, Claussen found McElfresh’s sister, 83-year-old Margaret, who was overjoyed to connect with her baby brother. McElfresh flew to Morro Bay, Calif., where his sister now lives, to meet her.
“It was exciting,” Rhinesmith said. “They prepared a little booklet of pictures for him of when she was growing up. There was a picture of their mother and a picture of him when he was only 2 or 3 days old.”
Claussen said such successes motivate her to keep trying when cases seem to dead-end.
“It takes a lot of persistence,” Claussen said. “You have to be pretty detail-oriented. You really have to search for a lot of clues and be very patient, and you go on a lot of gut instincts.”