Technology is wonderful. Technology allows us to do so many things that we never thought possible. I can sit at my desk and type something and send it out to countless people in the blink of an eye without ever trying to find a stamp. It allows us to pursue our interests much more easily than in the past and find information in the blink of an eye that would otherwise have taken months or years to locate. I am in no way a Luddite; however, I think we might need to remember the importance of communicating the story.
With all our technological advancements, databases filled with scanned records can be at our finger tips in no time. I can find Mr. Dudgeon in the 1910 census, his marriage record, and the birth records of his children with just a few mouse clicks. Thirty years ago, I would have needed to order the microfilms for all of these and spent time scrolling—assuming they were available for loans. If they were only available in hard copy, I had to either drive to see the originals or request the assistance of the local genealogical society or library. While there are still records that one must search for this way, I think we can agree that things are much easier than they once were.
But “easier” is not always “better.” Because we do so many things alone, we forget how to ask for help and assume that no one will or can help. The thinking that usually goes with this is along the lines of “I’ve been working on this line for umpteen years so I don’t think anyone else has figured it out either.” It is an easy trap to fall into especially as you sit alone at your laptop at 3am trying to figure out where great-great Aunt Elsie could have moved between 1880 and 1900. However, we do not live in vacuums and help is available. It may not be what you expect or thought you needed but it is there.
You may be trying to figure out why or where an ancestor moved in a twenty-year gap. Someone else may know the answer or at least give you a theory to explore because he faced the same question and followed what I like to call “side window thinking.” Remember what the Reverend Mother said to Maria in The Sound of Music? “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” It’s sort of like that. (It also refers to how I got in the house when I forgot my key and didn’t want to wakeup my mother or grandmother, but that’s a different story.) When you talk about your stumbling blocks with others you may discover clues that lead you to your next step. Perhaps there was a weather event that caused people to relocate. If it’s after a war, maybe a move westward was made. Many Civil War veterans ended up moving west after the war. Could an epidemic have occurred? These are just a few of the possibilities. If you learn where other people at the time moved to or what was going on in the community at large, you might find your relatives as well.
We can all tell stories of regretting not listening to a grandparent or other relative when they were telling family stories. No one is immune to this. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t find answers. You may not find them in online databases but you may find them from talking to other people and from visits to local libraries and historical societies to learn the local history.
So don’t give up, just move sideways. The answers will come. As my grandmother always said, “Stop looking and you’ll find it.” Of course, she also said dream of a funeral and you’ll go to a wedding, dream of a wedding and you’ll go to a funeral, drop a spoon and a woman will arrive, drop a knife and a man will arrive, drop a fork and group will arrive. (I never had the nerve to ask her what happened when you dropped a spatula.) We tend to pick and choose our words of wisdom from Grandma.
PS: Sorry for the delay in posts. I have now completed a six-month contract and I am so happy to be posting again.
Today is my sister Nancy’s birthday. Growing up, we shared a bedroom and she would wait until she thought Mom and Dad were asleep then light up a cigarette. When our mother found out she was livid but nothing our parents said or did would stop her. She continued smoking for about forty years and rarely mentioned quitting. In 1990, she was working at GMAC in Jacksonville FL when a man with a gun entered and killed eight people. Nancy survived because she was standing behind the building having a cigarette break. She joked that she was probably the only person who could say that smoking saved her life.
In May 2012 at the age of 54, Nancy was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer that had metastasized to her brain where there was a large tumor and to her pancreas and liver. Ironically, the doctors also found a treatable form of breast cancer that responded well to treatment. Following surgery to remove the brain tumor and a second hospitalization to stop spinal fluid drainage, she had 15 radiation treatments, and 3 courses of chemotherapy each more aggressive and brutal than the last. Finally, at the end of August she decided to end treatment and entered hospice. The doctors hoped that she would have six months to be with her family but that was not to be. On Sept. 8, 2012, I wore a ridiculous hat to my sister’s funeral. She had requested it of all those who came, along with show tunes instead of hymns, and an Irish toast with a shot of whiskey at the reception that followed. (And, no, we’re not Irish.)
Everyone who knew Nancy remembered her for her love of cooking, her continuing search for knowledge, her laughter, her compassion, and especially the love she had for her family. She was passionate in her beliefs and her causes. I still remember her taking me out for Trick or Treat in 1972. She wore her CPO jacket with her reflective “Vote McGovern” bumper sticker across the shoulders so that when she stood in the center of the street to stop traffic and help children cross, the drivers got her not so subtle message.
Unlike me, she was an extrovert who never met a stranger, only newfound friends. It was impossible to go anywhere with her without someone telling us his life story and her telling a few of her own. There were few “quick trips” when Nancy came along. We always said it was like being around a never aging puppy. She was happy to meet anyone and everyone.
My memories are of both a champion and tormentor who always challenged me to do my best and expected nothing less from me. However, in the last four months of her life, courtesy of the brain surgery, chemo, steroids, and assorted pain medications she was unrecognizable at times. Her demeanor changed with vicious mood swings. She attacked family and strangers verbally and occasionally physically. Her appearance was that of a woman 30 years older than her 54 years.
If Nancy could speak today, she would say that she had the freedom of choice to smoke and no one should deny her that. She would be right. I don’t want to dictate to another what he/she can or cannot do with his/her own body. However, I don’t think she ever considered the many consequences of her decision.
• Did she consider the very real possibility that she would have such an agonizing death with only a morphine drip to comfort her body?
• Did she consider the pain her husband and family would have watching her going through the final months of her life knowing there was little they could do?
• Did she consider the horror her mother would have at being at her daughter’s funeral?
• Did she consider the possible financial disaster that could await her husband as he faced the reality of the enormous medical bills?
If these questions or others entered her thoughts, they did so too late to matter.
The choice to smoke is individual but the consequences are not. Nothing I or anyone else says will ever stop someone from smoking unless he/ she wants to stop. Therefore, my friends and colleagues, you will not see me talk, lecture, or nag a smoker to stop. It will not work. Instead, I simply hope and pray that you will think about the consequences of lighting up before it’s too late.
I first wrote this on her first birthday after she passed away. Every few years, I re-post it not to nag but as a gentle reminder and remembrance.
I have been assisting and working with researchers for almost twenty years on a wide variety of history and genealogy projects ranging from a president’s records to finding the source of a story about a ghost in a dormitory. The one thing I have found to be true in all these cases is that collaborating with a professional archivist or genealogist can only help and improve a project.
The tendency in local history and genealogy research is to assume that you are the only one interested in your subject and therefore you are the only one to care. However, that is almost always not true. Professional archivists and genealogists want to help you and are waiting to assist. The trick is to be ready to answer questions and open to suggestions. It is amazing how this simple idea can help you succeed but how often researchers fail to take advantage. Therefore, here are just a few helpful hints I would like to offer from my own experience.
First, set an appointment to talk with the professional. Walking into someone’s office and expecting immediate satisfaction may work in some venues but in a field that is often understaffed and overworked, your results will be more limited than they should be. When you set a date in advance, the archivist or genealogist will be able to devote all her/ his attention to you. Offering a brief description in advance of what you would like to discuss will further aid the process. Most archivists and genealogists I know are working on multiple projects and they cannot assume to know what it is you want to meet about.
Second, you should prepare for a “reference interview.” A researcher called me and asked to come in and work on his family history. He was very brief about what he wanted, basically just giving me the surname, and requesting a time. I had no idea what work he had already done or what he hoped to find. Therefore, while I could bring some materials to him, I hesitated bringing out absolutely everything. Whatever boxes I brought out, I had to put back in the collections. As a one-woman operation, I did not relish the idea of learning that many boxes were unnecessary as the researcher already had the information. When he arrived, I asked him to have a seat and requested to find out what he had worked on so far, and what his goal was in this visit. From what he told me, he had indeed worked hard and had made some interesting progress. Together we determined what he was hoping to find that day and I provided him with not only what he needed but some suggestions on his next steps. I in no way wanted to control what he saw or worked within the collections. What I did want to do was save him time and energy chasing leads that would accomplish nothing. Sometimes it takes someone not as closely involved to point out the purple-spotted pink elephant in the room and help you become less distracted by it.
Third, be open to looking at different approaches to finding what you want. Those who work with a group of collections daily are often more familiar with connections between various places and people than someone focused only on one or two families or subjects. It is probably not a mistake that the archivist has offered you a brief history of something that seems unrelated. He/ She may know that another history has some clues that will help you with your investigation. For genealogists, it may mean that you find a brief family outline in the records of a family that married one of the more obscure relatives in the line that you are tracing. Because it was meaningless to the other family, no one realized it was there—except the people that use the collections often to answer questions from many different groups.
While there are many other suggestions I could make, I will close with this one. Never look at any visit as a failure. You may have found a clue that leads you to the next research opportunity. For example, you may not have found the exact reason why your relatives moved from Ohio to Iowa but the fact that there was a cholera epidemic and only half of the people that were in Ohio are on the next census in Iowa can be a strong hint, especially if this has occurred before death records were standard. At the very least, your visit eliminated something from your list and further narrowed your quest.
So the next time you are going through local resources, don’t shy away from using the expertise available. They may have suggestions you never would have imagined.
Multitasking Your Records
You found a death record for Aunt Aggie. You now add that to the family tree and continue. But did you really read the death certificate? Did you get everything out of it that you could? What about that marriage record? Did you thoroughly read it? Did you even notice that it said that the bride was under age 18 and needed her parents’ permission to wed? If you had, you might worry about the date you currently have for her birth.
A common mistake that I have seen many genealogists make is a simple one: overlooking the rest of the record. Every record has its overt purpose. A death record gives you date of death; a birth record gives you birth; a marriage record gives you a wedding date; etc. However, these records are also chock full of other information. In the case of a marriage record, while its first purpose is to verify the happy couple were legally married and to give the event a date, you can discover much more. In many cases, the license may include the parents’ names, the occupations of the couple, and the place where the marriage took place. It can tell you if the bride and/or groom were of legal age to wed and that can help you narrow in on a birth date. This information can help you prove or disprove information from other sources.
A birth record not only gives you date of birth, it also the place of birth and the parents’ names. Perhaps you can find out if there was a twin that did not survive. If the mother died in childbirth, and records were not well kept in the community, this may be the only way you can prove a date of death for her. You could verify a family story. My mother always told me that she was born just as the whistle blew for the first shift to enter the coal mines. Looking at the record, I discovered that she was right. As we move from the 19th century to the 20th century, you may uncover the first birth in your family that took place in a hospital.
A death record could be source of great information. Of course, the obvious reason to seek the document is to find out a death date but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Cause of death could allow you to find a history of certain diseases and conditions that could save your life or the lives of your loved ones. The certificate may offer more and, depending on who provided the information, you could hit a genealogy jackpot with it. First, there is a date of birth. If the deceased was born at a time when birth records were not legally required, this might be the only spot where that date is recorded. You may be able to get the parents’ names, spouse’s name and whether she/he is still alive. If you got the death certificate via an online database, searching by names of deceased, this certificate may be the first time you know where death occurred. If you have not been able to find the tombstone or burial site, this record may list what funeral home received the body and where he/she was buried.
The point of all this is to remind you that when you start to feel stumped about where to turn for more information, look beyond the obvious. You might discover a birth date from a death record, a parent’s name from a marriage record, and death information from a birth record. Never stop reading a record until you are sure you have gathered everything you can from it.
Cheers! ~~ Jenn
The Truth or a Really Good Story?
Who hasn’t heard a great family story and hoped that it was true? Fun anecdotes shared at family gatherings are common and as we grow older we can recite the stories as well as our parents and grandparents. However, a good genealogist has to analyze the story and decide either to let it remain as an unconfirmed family tale or get to the root of the story. If you’re lucky there will be an underlying grain of truth.
A case in point in my own family had to do with a meeting with the Marquis de Lafayette. The French General who had fought with Americans during the Civil War, returned to the U.S. for a grand tour in the 1820s. In the spring of 1825, his trip brought him to southern Ohio.
According to the family history, Lafayette was to meet with my great-great-great-great-grandfather, Jeremiah Morrow who at the time was Governor of Ohio. Gov. Morrow’s home was in Loveland, Ohio, north of Cincinnati. When the French General arrived at the Morrow home he saw a man on his knees working in the garden.
Lafayette looked down at the man and commanded, “You! Go tell your master that I have arrived!”
The man slowly stood up as straight and tall as he could and replied, “Sir, I have no master but God.”
Now that’s a great story and parts of it are true. According to my research, Lafayette did come to Ohio but he only came on shore at Cincinnati briefly. He never traveled to Loveland. While in Cincinnati, the Governor met him and joined his traveling party aboard his boat that took everyone up the Ohio River to Wheeling. The Governor then traveled with the entourage to Pittsburgh. Thus, the meeting happened but the great story about a humble gardener did not.
Stories like this one have been passed down through the generations and are part of your history. As I see it, you don’t have to discard it. Instead, create an area that introduces it to the reader but also includes a disclaimer letting people know that part or all of the story is from family folklore and be sure to give them the truth.
In some cases, you will meet with disagreement and perhaps disappointment but for the integrity of your work, it is important to give all the facts. In my case, the relatives were not shocked to find out that the story was false. It’s still told at gatherings much as ghost stories, fables, and fish stories also make a comeback. It’s just that now we also know what really happened.
Thanks for dropping by to read!
Cheers! ~~ Jenn
Having a plan can be the easy part. Putting it in motion and improving it as you go is where the real success is often found. I knew what I needed to do and I believed that I had an approach that would be successful. Now it was time to put it to the test.
To review, I started with students’ names, the years they attended the institute, and home residences to help me find out who — beyond the already existing list — served in the Civil War. I had no budget to hire any assistants or pay for subscription databases. Nevertheless, I got started and decided I would turn back to that issue when the time came.
A key early decision was creating a given starting point for the student’s birth year. At the time, the institute was a preparatory school with students as young as twelve and as old as twenty. The institute’s earliest alumni who attended in 1850 would have been between 23 and 29 years old, approximately. Thus, I would enter a date range for birth year between 1835 and 1845, knowing that most search engines will still include results within a few years of the start and finish of the range. Now my search had the following: name, birth year range, and residence place. It was large enough in most cases to get a good result but would also eliminate much of the extraneous ones. Only when the name was extremely common like Smith, Jones, or Miller did I need to have more to make a good start.
I began with the census records to confirm a man with the name on my list lived in the same area reported on the original student roster as his residence. When I had that, I also had a better date of birth and information regarding his family. If I could not confirm the residence, it would become much more complicated. In many cases, this was important as more than one member of the family attended the school and/ or served in the war. From census records, I went through as many resources as I needed including Family Search, Rootsweb, our institutional histories, online databases from area historical societies, newspaper indexes, county histories, obituaries, cemetery records, photographs, diaries, and anything else that I could find.
On the soldier side of the search, I had to go through military records and that was my first stumbling block. Regimental histories would only provide so much information. If I were to prove that the student ‘A’ was the soldier ‘A’ I needed to view more databases with more digitized records. In many cases, that meant I needed to find a way to pay for subscriptions.
With no funding available, I approached the local historical society and explained the project and asked for money to purchase at least one subscription. They were extremely supportive and agreed to pay for it. Later, I would also purchase a couple small database subscriptions with my own money but it was worth it. This had become a labor of love.
I quickly fell into a standard formula for each name. I checked the census records, draft registrations, and pension records for clues that the soldier’s information was dovetailing with information I was finding about the rest of the man’s life. I had a rule that I had to have at least three points in time that had to match, more if the name was more common. For the student, I tried to track him before and after the war. I also checked marriage information (the wife’s name could be important when checking pension and beneficiary records), cemetery records, obituaries. If there were more than two differences the name was put on hold and I moved to the next listing. This didn’t mean that the student did not serve in the war. It only meant that I had not found proof one direction or the other. Over the course of the next 18 months, I uncovered amazing stories of service and valor among these former students, as well as, incredible tragedies. I also discovered that there were alumni serving in almost every state in the Union and a handful that served in the South.
Only once did I receive a request to remove a name from the list. A descendant was able to show that there must have been two people with almost the exact life before the war because even though I could prove everything I had, and all the facts lined up perfectly between the student and the soldier, he had a few letters from his ancestor that showed he could not have been in a unit in Virginia. In spite of the fact that I could only find one listing for the name in any record group, I could not get passed the letters and I removed the name.
The successes of this project were many. First, we went from a list of 135 soldiers who had attended the school to over 400. Second, through progress reports and stories posted to college publications, I was able to promote the school’s history to a new audience and it led to similar projects by other people in the area. Third, I was able to create a resource for others who were searching for information about these young men.
Sadly, the database is no longer available for public viewing as the archives was closed due to budgetary cuts. However, the work is still in files and if fortunes reverse, the material is ready to go. If I had known that the archives would close and the database taken offline, would I have done all this work? I think I would have. It helped me become a much better local historian, a good detective, and an excellent researcher who is willing to be open to all possibilities.
Until next time,
Cheers! ~~ Jenn
Knowing that someone named “Mortimer Cowabunga” attended the institution and seeing the same name on a list of Civil War soldiers does not necessarily mean that it is the same fellow. Prove it.
Prove it. Prove it. Prove it. That was my mantra throughout the project. If I was going to take the time to do this, I was going to make sure it was as accurate as I could make it. For some names, it was easy because we had family records and letters to and from soldiers to support the connection and I was able confirm service easily. For the others, I needed to get a plan.
Once I was past the “easy matches” I had to ask myself how was I going to research the rest? In my opinion, I had to prove things in two directions: moving from student to soldier and from soldier to student. In some cases, this meant that while I was researching one student I may have to research multiple soldiers with the same name. The college archives collections could help some since many of the families were at least distantly related and names would appear in letters to and from other relatives. However, that would only take me so far. What I needed to do was to create a biographical record for each student and soldier to see if there were at least three points in common.
Immediately, I ran into the first problem. In most cases, the soldiers were enlisted men and were not mentioned in battle records or histories. Prior to the war they had been students, farmers, clerks, etc. That was true of the students, also. The young men who came to the institution became preachers and teachers, or clerks, or even went back to the family farm. Almost none of the young men I would be researching came from wealthy or influential families. These were “ordinary” men. How do you find information about clerks and teachers living in small town America in the middle to late nineteenth century? My answer—genealogy.
The basic records I decided I needed to use were census, death, marriage, military, and pension. Finding graves would be very helpful and obituaries would be great. If I produced a soldier profile that matched a student profile I could add that young man’s information to my budding database.
I should note here that unfortunately, none of this work was directly benefited the researcher who posed the original question. As a one-woman operation, I didn’t have the time to complete the project in the two months he had before he had to complete his thesis. However, it did allow me to develop a database that could help other researchers.
Next blog: Examples of the search, the problems, the triumphs, and a weird mistake.
Never be opposed to using conventional research techniques in a new way. This is the first in a few blogs that will explain how my background in genealogy searching saved me and allowed me to find information that had been hidden and unconnected for over a century.
About seven years ago, I was working at a small liberal arts college and a student who was researching his thesis paper in history asked me how many students from the school had served in the Civil War. I pointed out that there was a list in the back of an early college history. He rightfully asked if I believed or knew if this list was all inclusive. I admitted that I was not sure. Next, he asked if I could find or put together such a thing. My mind blanked at the challenge, I told him that I doubted it. He rightfully challenged me by asking why not? I explained that it would be difficult since we didn’t have many detailed records for these early students and it would be very time consuming to find the information. The student was disappointed but made another appointment to continue his research.
That evening as I was driving home from work, I continued to think about the young man’s question. It was not an unreasonable request and I felt guilty that I couldn’t give him an answer or point to a place where he could figure it out for himself. By the time I reached the railroad crossing and had to wait for the train to pass, I had decided that I was going to try and figure out how many young men had served in the war. The question was, how?
The first thing to do was to put together a concise list of young men who had attended from the school’s opening in 1850 through a cutoff date that I arbitrarily picked as fall 1864. The archives did not have registrar records and I knew the registrar’s office was busy with their own activities, and to ask for their assistance with this might cause it to move to the back burner. However, I did have the rosters of students that used to appear in the front of each year’s catalog. Now I had a starting point.
I created a spreadsheet that included the student’s name, the years he attended, and the home residence listed in the catalog. That was the easy part. How was I going to determine if a specific young man served?
The next step was to search for the name of the student to see if it showed up in the database of soldiers either in Ohio or somewhere else in the country. For this, I checked through two databases. First, I entered each name into the Ohio Civil War Roster database at the Ohio Genealogical Society’s website, https://www.ogs.org/research/search_ohcwss.php . I liked this database because unlike the national database through the National Park Service, it allowed for “fuzzy” searching that gave a more controllable list of results.
If I found the name in the roster, I highlighted it for more investigation. Whether or not I found it in the Ohio roster, I would move on to the national Civil War Soldiers and Sailors database provided by the National Park Service at https://www.nps.gov/civilwar/soldiers-and-sailors-database.htm . Here I would enter the name exactly and then by any “common” misspellings. If I found the name in these rosters, I once again highlighted the name oh my list for further research. This meant that some names were highlighted for possible service only from Ohio, or another state, or both. However, I was not to a point of conclusion yet. Remember, just because I found the name on a roster did not mean that the soldier was the same young man to attend the school. To figure that out, I needed to do more investigating.
Next post: I explain my methodology—or how I opened a lot of windows when the doors were closed.
Cheers! ~~ Jenn
 While I’m very aware that there were women who served in the serving in volunteer brigades, nurses, or even masquerading as men, I felt my chances of succeeding with that search were very small.
So what the heck is this? This is the next step in a career that I have loved since I first read a letter in a collection that no one had examined in almost a hundred years. I hope to continue to help people uncover mysteries of their past and the pasts of their loved ones, as well as, shedding light on local history.
I hope that if I can be of assistance to you that you won’t hesitate to shoot me an email and we can discuss it.
More posts to come regarding local history and the field of archives.
Cheers! ~~ Jenn
When I read a book, I try hard never to put it down when I’m in the middle of a chapter. I like to savor the newness of a chapter’s beginning each time I pick up the book. That’s why this idea to start a consulting business helping people in archives, local history, and genealogy feels right to me. It feels like it’s the next chapter of the book of my life. I’m not sure what will happen in this one but at least the book continues.
After my previous position was eliminated in a brutal round of budget cuts, I felt lost and unsure of myself. It took me quite a while to come to grips what happened. Now I feel as if I have some control regarding my future and I can’t wait!
Here’s hoping your next chapter appears!