Maritime History Archive is 'heaven on earth' to researcher

By Janet Harron | Oct. 28, 2008

The Maritime History Archive has seen many hard-working researchers come and go but none have inspired such awe as Dr. Marjorie Ragosta.

The 78-year-old has been visiting the Faculty of Arts facility regularly since the mid-1990s.  Her project?  Tracing her family tree and identifying those she calls “my people.” In some cases she has gone has far back as 12th century England and she has an inch thick book of records to prove it.

The daughter of Ella Freeman of Champneys West on the Bonavista Peninsula, Dr. Ragosta began tape recording the reminiscences of her family when accompanying her mother during visits to Newfoundland in the 1980s from their home in New York.

“When [my mother] was visiting, the family would talk about growing up together, the things they remembered, and after a while I got smart enough to bring a tape recorder. I would ask questions – what were Sundays like?  What did you eat? Where did you go with your boyfriends?”

Trained as a research scientist (she holds a PhD in Foundations of Education from the University of Florida and worked at Princeton’s Educational Testing Service for many years) Dr. Ragosta was determined to apply scientific techniques to the “soft data” of genealogical research.

“It has been a little like detective work,” said Dr. Ragosta, who ironically bears a strong resemblance to Agatha Christie’s fictional detective, Jane Marple.

Eager to extend her research, Dr. Ragosta went from tape recording and transcribing family interviews to examining local church records in Bonavista. When she had exhausted that route she visited the QEII library. They then directed her to the Maritime History Archives: “I thought I had died and gone to heaven when I walked in these doors.”

Her results have been truly amazing.

She has data on 65 to 80 names tying into her own family tree -- “I have kept a record on each and every name.”

Using a unique numbering system to identify the myriad of familial connections, Dr. Ragosta has shunned genealogical software in favour of doing her own programming. “If someone else with one of my family names starts looking, they will immediately have everyone that I have been able to find, due to the way I have the data coded.  I have collected the data in a way that is not just of interest to me and my family but others as well.”

Heather Wareham, archivist, concurs.

“Due to her methodical approach, Dr. Ragosta's research material will greatly enhance our family history collections. In addition, she is such a dedicated researcher, arriving for work early each morning of her visit, never breaking for lunch, and always working through until the end of the day. She is so focused on her mission to document her Newfoundland family that she doesn't move from her seat for hours on end.”

In addition to her annual visit to the Maritime History Archive, Dr. Ragosta has visited the Dorset area of England every year since 1992 in search of data. 

One of the more problematic issues she has encountered is the deciphering of phonetic spellings of family names.

“Before there were dictionaries spelling was phonetic and you often see 5 or 6 variations in each family of how to spell a particular name,” explained Dr. Ragosta. The difficulties have only encouraged her in her quest.

“It’s what keeps me alive and interested. I really love the time I spend researching.”

When visiting St. John’s, the 78-year-old researcher stays in the Governor Hotel on Elizabeth Avenue and walks to MUN every day.  Her advancing age is a concern however and Dr. Ragosta is making plans to protect the work that her own family is “terrifically disinterested in.” She recently donated a house she bought for her mother years ago to the Champneys West Heritage Society and her genealogical data will find a permanent home in the Maritime History archive.

But she doesn’t have any plans to stop yet.

“I don’t want to die until I learn everything about everything.  My work keeps me alive and loving everything. I bet I enjoy life more than anyone else I know!”


Marketing & Communications

230 Elizabeth Ave, St. John's, NL, CANADA, A1B 3X9

Postal Address: P.O. Box 4200, St. John's, NL, CANADA, A1C 5S7

Tel: (709) 864-8000