Exploring family history

Expert in genealogy shares her lifelong passion with neighbors

Created date

November 25th, 2019
Riderwood resident Sharon MacInnes is on the board of the National Genealogical Society and frequently speaks about genealogical research. Now, she is teaching a Lifelong Learning class on genealogy for her neighbors at Riderwood.

Riderwood resident Sharon MacInnes is on the board of the National Genealogical Society and frequently speaks about genealogical research. Now, she is teaching a Lifelong Learning class on genealogy for her neighbors at Riderwood.

Sharon MacInnes took an interest in history when she was in high school. Then, her love of history turned to an interest in genealogical research.

“I started asking questions like, ‘Where does our family fit in all of this history?’ and that started a lifelong passion for me,” she says.

Sharon spent her career as a teacher, both in Fairfax County, Va., as well as in several foreign countries. Her former husband’s job with the U.S. Department of State brought the family to Japan, Korea, Jordan, Israel, Swaziland, and England. 

“I taught everything from fifth grade to at-risk adolescents to adults,” Sharon says.

After she retired from teaching about ten years ago, Sharon started devoting more time to genealogy. She served on the boards of the Fairfax County Genealogical Society and the Mount Vernon Genealogical Society. She also did professional genealogical research and taught monthly how-to lessons. 

“It took a long time, but I got certified, and I’m on the board of the National Genealogical Society,” Sharon says. “I do quite a few speeches and presentations locally and nationally. It’s almost my full-time job.”

Sharon traced her own family tree back to Pennsylvania, so she did a lot of research on land records in the state. As a result, she has penned eight books on the earliest landowners in Pennsylvania with the help of her husband Angus. 

Tech and genealogy

As technology has become an increasing part of all aspects of modern life, genealogical research has evolved as well. People looking into their ancestry previously had to rely solely on local courthouses to access paper records. 

Now, a lot of genealogical information is available within a few clicks of a mouse on websites like FamilySearch.org, Ancestry.com, and HeritageQuestOnline.com, which Sharon says is a “light version” of Ancestry.com available for free to public library cardholders.

“In the old days, you would write to a courthouse in the county where you were looking for records, and you would make a carbon copy of that letter on tissue paper and wait until you got an answer back—which would be a month or two later. It was really a long process,” Sharon says. “Now, you can find things online in ten minutes that would have taken you years before.”

Even though the internet makes genealogical research convenient, Sharon says it’s still important to check physical copies of death certificates, marriage records, birth certificates, and land records. For example, she says many online family trees are inaccurate because they mix up people with similar names, and those mistakes are copied into other family trees.

“People really need to take each fact and verify it on their own,” Sharon says. 

Outlets for interest

About two years ago, Sharon and Angus moved from Alexandria, Va., to Riderwood, the Erickson Living-managed community in Silver Spring, Md. She says they looked at several retirement communities in the area and chose Riderwood because of the friendliness of the people and the superior financial value. 

At Riderwood, Sharon has found outlets for her interest and expertise in genealogy as well as many like-minded people who share her hobby. She is a member of the resident-run genealogy club, and shortly after she moved to Riderwood, she taught a class for her neighbors on researching family history. Now, she teaches a similar course through Riderwood’s lifelong learning program, which operates in partnership with Prince George’s Community College. 

The four-month course will explore topics like organizing genealogical research, how to use sites like Ancestry.com, gathering information from census records, and techniques for searching Google. 

Sharon will also teach class participants about using county, state, and federal land records as well as military records for genealogical research. The class will include sections on researching family history through court documents, religious records and cemeteries, and city maps and newspapers. The final lessons will focus on the three main periods of immigration to America, DNA research, and how to publish your ancestors’ stories.

When she’s not engaged in a genealogy project—or teaching other people how to research their ancestry—Sharon enjoys spending time with her children and her two- and four-year-old grandchildren, playing cards, going to plays, and catching up with friends from her former Virginia neighborhood. She also enjoys getting to know her neighbors at Riderwood.

“I have formed a wonderful group of friends here,” she says.