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Alberta Family Histories Society cataloging people interred in urban and rural cemeteries

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A dedicated group of volunteers make up the Alberta Family Histories Society (AFHS) and they travel from Edmonton to the farthest points south of the province to record names and dates on grave markers.

"We've been doing this since the 1970s and it started off in the days before digital cameras," said Wendy Schultz, AFHS cemetery project team lead. "We would go out and with clipboards and our pens and we would write down what was on all the markers in a cemetery, and maybe try to figure out what plot number it was and that's what we had."

Today the group uses digital cameras to take pictures of all the markers. Then those photos are analyzed and recorded on a spread sheet.

"We're very serious about trying to get our facts right," said Schultz. "We will look at a whole cemetery in (its) entirety, especially the rural cemeteries and try to discover everything we can about the people buried there."

Schultz says it can be a challenge to find all the hidden cemeteries in rural areas, and in some cases the volunteers are left with little information on grave markers.

"It's a big thrill if we see someone who might have been marked with just a last name and first name unknown and not even a date or something like that," she said. "That's all there is on this marker in the graveyard and if we can figure out who that person is and bring their story to life, that's just wonderfully fulfilling."

Family history

That data is put onto the group's dedicated website (albertaancestors.ca) and can be accessed for free by anyone looking for more information about their family history. Jim Benedict is the AFHS web master and says there are over 250,000 individuals featured in the database.

"And that's across about 250 cemeteries in Alberta, it's very comprehensive and yet it's still growing," he said. "That includes rural communities, small villages, it can be private cemeteries, it can be church cemeteries, our team has researched them all and we've got it all documented."

In some cases Benedict says it's possible to add more information to more famous people buried in Calgary like Colonel McLeod and many more.

"It's a great resource source for people checking on families," he said. "People that love family history, are looking for their relatives, are looking for perhaps surnames, I'm also a member of a surname society, and being able to connect the dots so people that have family histories, on ancestry and so on, they need all that background information to enhance and complete their whole family research."

Hidden cemeteries

John Casson is a retired geologist and has volunteered with AFHS for more than two years. He enjoys finding and photographing hidden cemeteries in remote rural areas.

"A lot of the areas are Ukrainian or they're Eastern European, that sort of thing, there's (also) Scottish areas, there's everything under the sun because it reflects Alberta's immigration (patterns)," he said. "We find these places, get a GPS location and then take photographs in many cases no one knows where they even are because I have to use air photos to locate these places."

Heather Williams is a longtime volunteer who has lost count of how many names and dates she's recorded over the years.

"I have a passion for cemeteries, I have a passion for genealogy and family historians," she said. "You become in touch with those people, individuals, couples that are inscribed on the grave markers."

Williams says she enjoys wandering through some of the city's older cemeteries to read the epitaphs that date back to the 1800's. Many markers were made of sandstone that was in abundance in the region in Calgary's early days.

"Unfortunately, sandstone did not endure our climatic conditions, very porous product," she said. "They soon were eroding till you couldn't even really read who was there, without searching records through the cemeteries offices."

Schultz says some of the more recognizable names they've come across are John Ware and Sam Livingston but it's always enjoyable to discover others who had a role in the province's history.

"We just uploaded this week Kootenai Brown from Waterton National Park, his name was actually John Brown and he was the first parks superintendent for Waterton Lakes National Park," she said.

"He was quite a colorful character," she added, "(who) did a lot of interesting things in his time, (and) has a wonderful little cemetery for him and his two wives, just on the shores of Waterton Lakes, (with) white picket fence, lake and mountains in the background -- (it's) just a beautiful sight."

Learn more about AFHS here.

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