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3:40 PM Sat, Sept. 22nd

She's working to save history in cemeteries before it's lost

Courier/Les Stukenberg

Branson catalogs graves in Yavapai County to save their sometimes irreplaceable genealogical information before vandals damage headstones like they did this one in Prescott.

The Bransons figure that they're only about 30 percent done, and they hope people will contact them about any burial sites in the county. She keeps locations confidential upon request.

One area she won't have to cover is the Verde Valley, where someone else has already recorded about 9,000 gravestones.

Branson also has recorded about 5,000 sites in Madison County, Iowa, where some of her ancestors are buried.

What drives her?

"They hold genealogical information," Branson said. "Putting them on the web site has connected people with their relatives' final resting site where they'd never find it and if they did, they wouldn't know how to get there."

She gets plenty of thank-you letters for her work, such as the e-mail from a family in England whose great-great-grandfather sailed to the United States in the 1880s and never returned. The family in England never knew what became of him until a Google search led them to the non-profit Gravestone Photo Project's Yavapai County site.

Many other early Yavapai County residents also died without their families knowing the location, especially because of the region's transitory nature of mining and military service, Branson said.

When she visits a grave site or cemetery, Branson brings along a homemade bucket of tools sometimes necessary to extract information from worn stones overgrown with brush and weeds: hedge trimmers, broom, spray water, trowel, gloves and powder.

During the course of their work, it's not uncommon for the Bransons to see people selling drugs or hanging out partying. These people clearly aren't learning from their elders to respect cemeteries.

After she's done writing or voice recording the information from the stones and Wayne is done taking pictures, Branson's work is far from finished. She then records the information on the web site of the Gravestone Photo Project at www.rootsweb.com/~azyavapa, which she manages. She adds even more information from a wide variety of sources such as obituaries and government birth and death records.

A link to that site can be found on the GenWeb genealogical web site for Yavapai County at www.arizonagravestones.org, which Branson co-coordinates. GenWeb is a worldwide organization with free information about people who lived in every county in the United States.

The Yavapai County GenWeb site has a long list of links, including the archives of Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott, newspaper obituaries, death certificate lists and records of the Pioneers' Home in Prescott.

Branson also founded the Northern Arizona Genealogical Society a few months ago, and helps lead half-hour classes that take place before each month's regular meeting.

Branson admits to being obsessed with her work.

"I've always kind of liked old cemeteries," Branson said. She would look at the headstones and wonder who the people were, and what they were like.

But she didn't decide to learn something about her own ancestors until about seven years ago.

"I knew almost nothing," she admits.

Before long, she had traced her Wight family all the way back to the 1750s in England, following their migration, with nine children, to Scotland and then the United States on a ship in 1794. Later, she found out that they eventually settled in Iowa, making Madison County their home.

Wayne also has traced his Branson family history, learning about ancestors such as Declaration of Independence signer John Hart as well as the infamous Hatfield family.

While both Wayne and Judy were born in California and moved to Prescott 12 years ago, they found through their genealogical research that it truly is a small world; they both have ancestors from Iowa!

(To volunteer with Branson or learn more about local classes, contact her at 771-8171 or jlwight@northlink.com.)

Contact the reporter at jdodder@prescottaz.com