Uncover the mysteries of your family tree at the Genealogical Forum of Oregon

“If you like a puzzle, you love genealogy because it’s always a puzzle. And as soon as you fit one piece into your puzzle, you got another piece you gotta go find and try to fit it in,” said Genealogical Forum of Oregon volunteer Laurel Smith.


Volunteer Laurel Smith pieced together her adoptive and biological family trees.

Photo by Cambrie Juarez, PDXtoday

Like the roots of a tree, ancestral lines run deep. They seldom take straight, easily traceable routes but following them back decades, perhaps even centuries, is possible — you just need to know where and how to look.

Portland is home to the largest society and library dedicated to genealogy west of Salt Lake City. Like those symbolic tree roots, the Genealogical Forum of Oregon (GFO) is headquartered below ground in the basement of the Ford Building, where it houses a vast, publicly accessible library of books and documents offering insights into generations of Northwest residents.

You’ll find original Multnomah County marriage registers dating back to 1855, cemetery records, Oregon Trail histories, land grants given to Oregon Territory settlers prior to 1853, and much more. Full shelves devoted to international materials can help you trace your family history over oceans and across borders. One particular section houses scores of old yearbooks, where one visitor in his 50s found the first image he’d ever seen of his father, who was killed in World War II. His parents had been high school sweethearts.

genealogical forum of oregon marriage record portland pdx

Researching your family tree often requires the ability to read handwritten cursive records, like this entry for Multnomah County’s first marriage.

Photo by Cambrie Juarez, PDXtoday

Knowing more about your family history not only unlocks mysteries from the past — it can also reveal a deeper understanding of self.

“I think it’s important to know where you come from. It helps explain your family, and maybe why you look a certain way, why you behave in certain ways, why you think of certain things differently than maybe someone else does,” said longtime volunteer Laurel Smith.

More than 1,000 people are members of the volunteer-run nonprofit organization that’s been in operation since 1946. You can dig into GFO’s resources, access online databases like Ancestry.com and FamilySearch, join a special interest group, and get help from volunteers with an $8 day-use pass or a yearly membership.

Not sure where to start? All you need is the name of a parent or grandparent and a general idea of where they were located at a given time in order to search for them in census records. But know this: piecing together family history is like solving a puzzle — and you just might get hooked.