Gettysburg’s SJR Research Looks to the Past to Tell the Story of People, Corporations and Institutions
By Lisa Gregory
Everyone and everything has a history. Samantha Rife is eager to help discover it and tell the story.
“I’ve always been fascinated by people and history,” says Samantha, founder of SJR Research.
One of only a handful of such businesses in the nation, SJR provides research for personal genealogy, corporate history and the military as well as consulting for media and films and even the gaming industry.
Fittingly, SJR Research is located in the heart of downtown Gettysburg, known for its own rich history. And that’s not by chance. Samantha says she has had a lifelong love affair with the town.
“I watched the documentary by Ken Burns on the Civil War, and I watched the movie Gettysburg,” she says. “I was probably the only 16-year-old that watched it on repeat, you know?”
When her family, who resided just outside of Buffalo, New York, was planning a vacation, Samantha knew exactly where they should go … year after year. “I would beg to go to Gettysburg,” she recalls. “My brother would say, ‘Not again.’”
But the place was dear to her young heart. So much so that she didn’t just remember what she had seen and heard while visiting, she says, but even how it smelled—“the boxwood trees, the museums and old homes.”
Samantha wasn’t only taken with Gettysburg history, but all history, including her own. She became interested in genealogy at age 12. “My grandfather was always telling stories,” she says. Adding, “My family goes back 200-plus years in Pennsylvania. And I have a Mayflower line through my mom’s side.”
Young Samantha would spend her days at the library looking through microfiche and microfilm, she recalls, explaining, “this was before the internet.”
As the years went by, her interest in history never wavered. In fact, Samantha would go on to receive a bachelor’s degree in history at SUNY at Buffalo and then attended graduate school for history at Virginia Tech. “My mom wanted me to be a teacher, and my dad wanted me to be a lawyer. So, I split the difference and became a historian,” Samantha says with a smile.
She would meet her husband, James, while both were graduate students at Virginia Tech. He was a history enthusiast as well and today is part of the SJR team. The couple moved to Gettysburg in 2000 and had two children, delighted to put down roots in a place of such history.
“My husband was involved with reenacting, and I kind of just tagged along,” Samantha says. “And I’d always loved sewing, so I got into that.” In fact, she became accomplished in historical costuming and owned her own business for a time.
And it was among reenactors that she put her genealogical talents to use. “They would say, ‘Oh, I’ve always wondered if I had someone, a relative, in the war,’” she says.
Samantha could help with that and did so for a relatively small fee. “I’d say tell me a bit about your family and I’ll see if I can pull up a Civil War record,” she says.
Samantha and her abilities were quite the hit. “It started growing and growing,” she says. “And people’s questions got bigger. And then some of them were starting to ask me to do full family histories and things like that.”
In 2005, she decided to found SJR Research. Today, the team includes not only her husband, a senior historian with extensive knowledge of the National Archives, but a historical preservationist, an archivist and an illustrator, among others.
And lots of writers.
“A good chunk of my consultants that I use are journalists,” says Samantha. “Because they can write for the public.”
The story is the thing, she explains. “Not just dry statistics and dusty files, but an engaging narrative,” she says. It is important for Samantha and her team to create a narrative that gives a sense of the people, places and times for the books, videos and brochures and other projects they create and the consulting they do.
SJR continues Samantha’s early work in personal genealogy. And while the internet has made it easier to trace one’s family tree, SJR has the ability, she says, to dig a bit deeper and verify the information uncovered.
“I find with genealogy there is just a wealth of information that’s out there, and that can be overwhelming for people,” says Samantha. “And you just can’t look at a document. You have to determine its validity. Or, say, you want to verify somebody’s birth date and there is no birth certificate, which was quite common. I know in Pennsylvania it wasn’t mandatory until 1906. So, you have to use other sources.”
And the genealogist who began SJR by offering her skills to reenactors has continued to search for the history of soldiers, but on an even broader scale. “We do a lot of work for veterans and the families of veterans,” says Samantha. Some family members are just curious, but others may involve VA benefits and people wanting to verify for access to claims, she says.
The task of tracking down soldiers is not always easy, however. “In the ’70s, personnel records for the Army and Army Air Corps from World War I to a portion of Vietnam burned in a fire,” says Samantha, making the task challenging—but not impossible. “We look up the unit and pull up unit records to recreate the burned-up record as much as we can through other sources.”
But SJR has broadened its areas of research to not only the genealogy of those interested in a family member who was a soldier, but in the military itself as well as naval and maritime historical research.
And it doesn’t stop there.
“A big chunk of what we do at SJR is corporate history,” says Samantha. SJR recently produced a book or milestone publication, as SJR calls it, for Utz Quality Foods in honor of its 100th anniversary. “It’s like an encyclopedia of your company,” she says. “The good, the bad, the ugly. If a company has been around for 100 years, that means they’ve gone through the Depression, World War II
That is worth noting, she says. The end product then can be used as a marketing tool or just a comprehensive introduction to the company for a new client or new employee. “It’s the company culture and how that has evolved,” she says.
And, luckily for SJR, more recently the entertainment industry has jumped on the history bandwagon, from Viking sagas to Downton Abbey to Broadway’s Hamilton. SJR, which also works with documentarians, offers services to get it right with fact checking and basic research. “We can literally help them from start to finish on their production,” says Samantha.
Gaming has come onboard that bandwagon as well. “A lot of times gamers are big into details, and we can flesh out those details … because we have that dual knowledge of the narrative element as well as the historical,” she says.
In other words, SJR can help with all kinds of history in all kinds of ways. And, in doing so, the girl who loved Gettysburg is now helping others discover their history from her downtown office located in the heart of the very place she’s always loved.
“There is always a story,” Samantha likes to say … including her own.
122 Baltimore St., Suite #8, Gettysburg
Other Local Genealogy Resources
Want to do a little digging on your own?
United Lutheran Seminary – A.R. Wentz Library, www.unitedlutheranseminary.edu
East Berlin Historical Society, www.ebhpspa.org
Franklin County Historical Society,
New Oxford Historical Society,
My Ancestor’s Story
By Jessica Dean
With the passing of my last grandparent, I felt the need to know more about my family and its roots. The research unearthed some pretty compelling discoveries—some favorable and some unfortunate. Jeremiah Sites is one of the unfortunate stories.
A Civil War veteran, he enlisted in Adams County in 1862 as a private with Co. C, 165th Pennsylvania Infantry and was honorably discharged on July 28, 1863, at Gettysburg.
Jeremiah committed suicide on August 1, 1868. The Star and Sentinel posted later that “he had been laboring under mental depression for sometime and it was feared by the family that he contemplated something of the kind. He was about 51 years of age, honest and upright, and respected by all who knew him.”
The mental anguish of soldiers returning home from war—as Jeremiah faced—is sadly nothing new.