Patricia Biallas

Patricia Biallas, Pat Biallas, genealogy, Pursuing the Past, In-Depth Genealogist
Patricia Desmond Biallas
is a relative newbie to the genealogy arena, having ordered her first death certificate less than 4 years ago for a grandmother she never met.

Since that time she’s taken numerous genealogy classes and webinars; attended multiple local, state and national genealogy conferences; joined several local historical and heritage societies; and researched in an array of local, state and national repositories.

Her efforts have reaped her many rewards as she learned about two great-grandfathers who served in the Civil War; another who helped rebuild Chicago after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871; and a grandfather who lived in the same Chicago apartment building as the infamous Johnny Torrio, mentor of Al Capone.

Her most touching genealogical moment occurred last year at the National Archives in Washington D.C. While there, she had the opportunity to page through the military files of those two Civil War great-grandfathers and hold in her hands an original letter her great-grandmother sent the U.S. government regarding her dead husband’s pension.

Patricia’s proudest accomplishment was successfully obtaining a tombstone from the government for one of those soldiers whose grave had been unmarked for over 100 years.  Her most personally satisfying success was solving a family mystery about her mother, a Chicago fashion model in the 1930s whose face and fashions graced the society pages of The Chicago American newspaper.

References to these and other family stories can be found on Patricia’s blog at

Patricia is the author of IDG's monthly column, Pursuing the Past.

Go In-Depth with Patricia:

What is one tip you have for newbie genealogists?

Don’t be shy when it comes to seeking out information from potential relatives. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Early on in my ancestor sleuthing I was poking around on and decided to see if there were any Desmonds still living in Princeton, NJ, where my long deceased uncle had raised his family. I typed his name into a database of phone listings and up popped his exact name with an address and phone number.  I was astounded!

What were the chances that a man with that precise name was living in that town so many decades later?  Excellent, as it turned out, for the man who I found and eventually called, turned out to be my own first cousin, Owen E. Desmond III, who was named after his father, Owen E. Desmond II and our mutual grandfather, Owen E. Desmond I.

That was three years ago. With his help, I then used Facebook, email , snail mail and phone calls to connect with several additional members from the East Coast branch of the Desmond family which our Midwest branch had lost touch with more than two generations ago. We’ve shared stories, photos and Christmas cards ever since.

I also re-connected with another much older first cousin, 33 years my senior, who I hadn’t seen since I was a child. He was the oldest Desmond grandchild and I was the youngest.  A few years ago my sister went out west to visit Frank when he was 91 years old.  I equipped her with a number of interview questions to see what he could remember about our mutual grandparents whom I’d never met.  Not only did my sister come back with stories we wouldn’t have otherwise had, Frank gave her more than 300 original photos of his childhood, his parents and our mutual grandparents—photos none of my family had ever seen.

Both of these kind gentlemen passed away in the last six months. Our family history is much richer now, because I took the risk to reach out to these long lost cousins who were more than willing to share their family stories and images with me.


What is the most creative way you’ve shared your ancestors’ stories?

For years, I’d been keeper of the family photo albums that my mother completed in the 1960s. They were literally disintegrating in my hands when I decided something had to be done to preserve the treasures they held so I could pass them on to the rest of the family.

I scanned, straightened, cropped and corrected over 500 photos ranging from tintypes from the late 1800s to snapshots from the 1960s. I then designed a photo log to document the details of the who, what, when, and where related to each image. The idea was to burn a disk containing all the photos and their descriptions, pass them on to my seven siblings, and voila ~ everyone would have a complete set of the Desmond family photo collection. My self-imposed obligation would be met.

My little project soon snowballed into something far bigger. The result was a 2” binder for each sibling which included everything I’d collected up to that point: cover art with the family crest; a CD with those 500 photos and the photo log; birth, marriage and death certificates; headstone photos; a 30-minute family slideshow with music on DVD covering 150 years of family history; and—my most cherished part of that project—first person accounts from each of the eight siblings detailing what it was like to grow up in the Desmond family:  one family, with the same parents of 8 siblings 17 years apart who grew up over two different decades.  We each had distinctly different perspectives on life in our family and unique stories to tell.

What began as a way to pass on pictures from the old family photo albums had morphed into a mission to find out all I could about my ancestors and share their stories, as well.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my life as a family historian had begun.


What is your favorite blogpost?

That’s a tough one as my favorite post usually turns out to be the one I just completed! Actually though, I guess it’s a tie between “And so I begin…” my initial blog post which ran October 17, 2011, and  “Edward Kennedy: Civil War Pontonnier” which ran November 7, 2011.

My first post recounts how I got started in genealogy, and shares photos and insights from some initial accomplishments, including joining societies, attending conferences, scoping out cemeteries, and visiting the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

The second post was composed as a letter to my great-grandfather who, as a 20-year old Irish immigrant, served in the Union army building bridges and lookout towers during the Civil War.  It recounts how 15 years later, at the age of 35, he died of TB leaving my great-grandmother and her four children to fend for themselves in New York City as the 1880s begin to unfold.


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© 2013 Patricia Desmond Biallas

Patricia Desmond Biallas is a writer, editor and family historian with a passion for Irish, Civil War, and Chicago history. In addition to penning “Pursuing the Past with Pat Biallas” at, Patricia maintains her own blog, Geneajourneys, at where she recounts stories of ancestors who struggled, succeeded and simply survived the challenges of the times they lived in.  A degree in Journalism prepared her for a communications career as a magazine editor, newspaper columnist and public relations professional.

Patricia is a member of several local genealogy organizations, two Civil War heritage societies and the International Society of Family History Writers and Editors. A relative newbie to the genealogy field, Patricia is part of the Pro-Gen 18 Study Group, and recently accepted a position to serve as Editor of The Quarterly, a scholarly publication of the Illinois State Genealogical Society.

This article originally appeared on The In-Depth Genealogist and can be found here. [insert original link]