Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Coming up For Air

Family history can be filled with all sorts of fascinating stories. There are the details of relatives you knewbut didn't know they once did that. And there are the tidbits about ancestors long gone before you ever arrived on the scene, stories intertwined with history, and tales rescued from obscurity.

All of these are fun to uncover in the chase to discover one's roots. What isn't fun is to go through that long, dry period of research in which absolutely nothing happens. Yeah, there are surely stories hiding between the lines, but the way to tease these episodes out can sometimes elude us.

That's where I am right now, trying to tease out the details on this Snider family I mentioned yesterday. I'm currently following close on the trail of the one line which I suspect got plugged into the wrong generation. In the meantime, the chase is taking me page by page through census records. Like a series of snapshots that happen only once every ten years, it turns out to be a stop-motion picture which leaves out most of the action.

Sometimes, what's best to do when search leads evaporate is to set everything aside and take a break. I did that today. Not that it cleared the air enough to do wonders, but it was nice to stare down that gotta-find-out demon and tell it to take a hike. Those Sniders aren't going anywhere they haven't hidden themselves at, already. When I find them, I'll find them.

In the meantime, I took a drive into town, ran some errands, had coffee with someone I enjoy talking to, and ran into some friends on the way. We chatted where we met, right on the street corner (despite the hundred-plus degree temperature) because, well, there's no time like the present to catch up on news. One of these friends is only eight weeks out from a quintuple bypass during which, while still under the knife, manifested yet another medical issue that needed immediate attention. You don't just do a hi/bye drive-by when you see a friend like that.

True, when I returned homemainly to escape the heat waveI did eventually head back to the chase, but I've already settled it in my mind that I need to ratchet down my hopes for any great breakthroughs. You win some, you lose some. When it comes to those Sniders, this might be a case of the latter.

What I also remembered, after that break, is that sometimes, despite doing one's due diligence, the story is still not completely told. Sometimes it will never be completely told. On the other side of the issue, though, stands that brightand compellinghope that, having set the task aside for a season, there will be some clue which materializes, the next time I visit the issue. Perhaps it will be a realization that evolves in the process of collaborative work with a distant cousin. Perhaps it will be a document which was previously inaccessible, but now widely available to the public.

That type of hope comes with experience. This has happened to me beforethis being stuck on a line I'm researching, only to set it aside for a few months and then revisit when the time is right. The lesson it has taught me is that there is always more to be found. It's just that the "finding" time is not always today.

Above: Night on the Dnieper River, oil on canvas by Russian-born Greek landscape painter, Arkhip Ivanovich Kuindzhi; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016


Like eyes out of focus, gazing through the gaps in a chain-link fence on a lazy summer afternoon, I sometimes stare at my own work on my family trees as if they were fuzzy mysteries. Names parade before me dreamily, generation after generation, documenting the coming of age of another set of descendantsand the projects I've worked on for well over three decades. Suddenly, my eyes snap into focus as I realize a name out of placethat one was supposed to be in the next generationand I wonder, "What was I thinking?"

Have you ever done that? Gotten on a roll, entering lots of names in one family line, with discoveries spanning multiple generationsand then, after your marathon work session, realized you plugged that wife into the wrong generation? Of course, going back and cleaning up the mess seems more tedious than it was to make that mistake in the first place.

For the past several months now, I've been going over my decades-old research which has been languishing on an old computer and a just-as-old genealogical database program. Since I decided the best way to transfer all that work to my new research residence, online at, was to enter each person's details one by one, I've been checking each detail as I go. Find a name in the old database, enter it in at Ancestry. Check for hints. Locate appropriate census records. If lucky, plug in verification for birth on those most recent records. If not, at least try to find death records for those who made it to the twentieth century.

And so on.

It's admittedly slow going. But I did manage to achieve one goal: I entered all the descendants of my mother-in-law's Gordon ancestors. Every descendant of immigrant John Gordon and his wife, Mary Helen Duke, from 1739 down to the present daywell, at least as many of them as I've been able to findis now entered on my tree at Ancestry. Check that one off my list.

One good turn deserves another. Getting a task done feels so rewarding, it drives us to launch into another one. So I started tackling another surname in my mother-in-law's tree: Snider.

What was I thinking? Unlike Gordonwhich, you've got to admit, is a relatively straightforward choice of surname, since there is really only one way to spell itSnider presents predicaments from the start. The originating immigrant of this lineNicholascame over from Germany (or whatever nearby neighborhood got conveniently lumped in with that designation) with a surname spelled Schneider.

That didn't last too long. Early on, that spelling got switched to Sneider. That, however, was momentary. By the time the family made it to Perry County, Ohio, about the time the county was actually formed in 1818, theirs was a surname spelled with a straightforward approach: Snider. You know that was doomed to change, though. I've been treated with random switches between Snider and Snyder ever since.

No matter. I've been hot on the trail of these Schneider-Sneider-Snider-Snyders despite all the disguises their surname has taken on. They can't fool me.

And yet, as I review my work from the dark ages at the beginning of time, I find myself staring at all those names and entries and wondering: What was I thinking?

I've found one of those momentsprobably hot on the trail, way past midnight while my husband was away, working graveyard shiftin which I didn't clean up my mess after plugging in a name into the wrong generation.

Oh great. Like that proverbial set of eyeballs staring dreamily outside the window through that chain-link fence, my out-of-focus gaze suddenly snaps back into reality and I realize what I mess I have on my hands to clean up.

You see, one mistake isn't as innocuous as it seems. One misplaced person on a tree is followed by a spouse, which means children are soon to follow. And then their descendants. Which ones to leaveand which ones to clean out? Was that Mary, wife of William senior? Or William junior? Did I add her parents' names? Or get confused and put the right parents in, but for the wrong daughter?

And then, the whole process has to be repeated. It's as if I hadn't done the work at all, in the first place. Double checking and cleaning can be so tediousnot just fixing things up, but wondering what the thought process was in making the mistake in the first place.

When it's all done, I'm left with that nagging thought: did I rout out all the mistakes? Or is there one still there, lurking behind the disguise of a wrong husband, once again?

If I don't find it now, you can be sure it will snap into focus somewhere down the line again.

Probably in another twenty years.

Above: "Calculating Table," woodcut from Gregor Reisch's 1503 Margarita Philosophica; courtesy Typ 520.03.736, Houghton Library, Harvard University via Wikipedia; in the public domain. 

Monday, July 25, 2016

Matrilineal Musings

I sometimes wonder whether some of the terms in the genetic genealogist's lexicon could someday evolve into concepts better classified as oxymoronstwo words, juxtaposed, which cannot technically co-exist in the real world.

If you've spent any time wading through the vocabulary at the shallow side of the steep learning curve of this gene pool, you may have realized, after having braved the cheek-swabbing of a Y-DNA test (or, for you gals, suffering in proxy for a willing male relative's endurance of such), that the lab's breathless report of the results contained no names matching your father's surname.

"Ah," the wise researcher intones, "a non-paternal event." Translation: some guy upstream in your lineage messed aroundanonymously, of coursewith one of your confirmed female ancestors, for which her husband got the "credit."

Since it has been nearly two years since I've discovered that my mitochondrial DNA test triggered a rare exact match with someone who happens to be an adoptee, I have often wondered why no one snickers about the reverse of such an undocumented event. You know, a non-maternal event. I mean, could that even be possible? Would such a term be an oxymoron? After all, when it comes to maternity, it's kinda hard to hide the evidence.

Such things can happen, however. I think of the stories of parents discovering, years later, that their baby was switched at birth with the child they brought home from the hospital. Why doesn't anyone call that a non-maternal event?

Or what about the family I found while researching my own mother's line, where the brother of one free spirit adopted the man's two children when he deserted his wife after she fell ill with tuberculosis and could no longer care for their children? In that case, I wouldn't even have discovered who the proper father of those children was, if it hadn't been for newspaper references to the "adopted children" of that concerned family member. Otherwise, I would have presumed the adoptive father's wife was the true mother. Another possible false ascription of maternity in the paper trail.

Sometimes, when after searching and searching and coming up with no solid results, it seems tempting to chalk the failure up to false maternity. After all, I've been trying to identify the most recent common female ancestor connecting my matrilineal descent and that of my mystery cousin, the adoptee, since November of 2014. That's a lot of searching.

Yes, I know I've persistently plodded backwards in time through my mother's mother's mother's line, ad nauseum, and then turned about face and traced each daughter's line back to the future as far as I could go. Just in this calendar year alone, I've added 1,426 additional people to my mother's family tree. Admittedly, not all of them were women, but that thumbnail sketch serves to indicate just how much work has been done on that line.

And still no answer to my question: who was the female ancestor which could be claimed by both my mystery cousin and myself. It's dead end searches like this that make me wonder about such oxymoronic possibilities as non-maternal events. If only there were a way... 

Above: Follow that diagonally descending line across the bottom of the chart to trace my matrilineal line. Right now, I'm working on cataloguing and verifying all the descendants of Jane Strother. With only three more of her daughters to go, I will soon move up another generation to delve into the daughters of her mother, Margaret Watts, in my quest to uncover the nexus with my mystery cousin.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Off the Shelf:
Stored Treasures

When it comes to the immense collection of books at our house still awaiting completion, I usually pull one down from its shelf to read after it has perched there for ages with all but the first ten or twenty pages unread.

Today's selection is different. Determined to finish what I started reading, I had tucked this paperback into the glove compartment of my car, for those just-in-case moments of down time while on the road. It's taken me nearly a year to do it, but I have succeeded in covering over two hundred pages of a memoir I've always intended to read.

What else is a devotedbut busyreader to do? The only way to finish a book is to start. Then move steadily, page by page, through the content until those words"The End"finally come into view.

Stored Treasures, a memoir mostly composed of the journal of genealogist Smadar Belkind Gerson's great grandmother, lends itself well to this style of reading. Brief chapters describe the early years of Minnie Crane, memories of her childhood in a country village in what is now part of Belarus, and of her brief stay, as a young Jewish girl, in pre-war Germany. The story continues with the opportunity to follow her older brothers to America, the chance to go to school (even if it was night school), the challenges of keeping together as family with her siblings and the mutual effort to help each other succeed in a new land.

I first met the author, Smadar, online through her blog, Past-Present-Future, where she not only shared details about completing her book, but also published stories about other members of her family. Smadar has an interesting perspective, largely on account of her unusual life story. Born in Israel, she was education in the United Statesshe has a degree in medicinebut after marriage, moved to Mexico where she and her husband raised their family. Now back in the Boston area, she has delved further into genealogical research.

Although I miss her blogSmadar hasn't posted since the fall of 2014I enjoyed seeing how, in her book, she put together the words of her great grandmother and her grandmother with her own observations, filling in the blanks in the narrative with explanations and historical insights. The straightforward narrative of Minnie Crane's journal contrasts with the challenging experiences she went through as a young person. Just letting her tell her own story gives it a clarity I appreciated.

Of course, I have my eye on this type of book for another reason: just as any genealogist might, I've unearthed a wealth of material from family members whose stories simply beg to be told. With that in mind, I often wonder how others handled this sort of task, so I've gathered quite a collection of such books. I'm always curious to see how others choose to address this task of sharing their family's stories, and since I have been reading these books, you can be sure I'll be sharing a description on each as I finish them.

With photographs included, as well as copies of letters and news clippings, Smadar chose to let her great grandmother tell most of her own story. Still, she found a way to gently insert her own voice as she brought the family's story forward through the next three generations. I appreciate her approachas well as the opportunity to glimpse the story of someone else's family.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

When Plans Go Awry

It was barely a month ago when I was writing about plans for our family's upcoming trip east to visit relatives in Illinois and Ohioand, of course, to do some needed genealogical research along the way. Among other questsDNA testing, for one thingI had hoped to wrap up the documentation to submit a supplemental D.A.R. application on behalf of my daughter, which would handily also become the paperwork for membership for my two sisters-in-law as well as, possibly, some cousins.

It looks like that paper chase will have to be accomplished the old fashioned, snail-mailed way now. Late last night, our flight home touched down at the airport without us; though our route on the ground was planned to take us from Chicago to Columbus and back again, we've been sitting here at home all the past two weeks we were supposed to be in the air and on the road.

Of course, we'll get back to the drawing board and reconfigure our itinerary, hopefully getting the chance to make the journey sometime this fall. And there were real roadblocks checking our progress this month: health problems that would not have accommodated the kind of pleasant visits with relatives that we had had in mind.

In the meantime, progress on my research goals have not entirely been thwarted. There is, of course, another option. Though it may take a few phone calls and possibly incur some expenses, there is always the alternative that has been the tried and true methodology for genealogical research for decades prior to the advent of the Internet. Yes, snail mail.

As has often been repeated by many in the research world, contrary to popular opinion, not everything we seek in our genealogical pursuits can be found online. Yes, digitized records are being uploaded online at a breathtaking pace. Kudos to those organizations who have facilitated that effort. But not everything is there, ready to be accessed at the click of a mouse. Sometimes we have to go hunting, ourselves, through those library stacks, archives, museum collections or even out in the "wilds" of long-forsaken cemeteries.

The particular line of descent I'm trying to verify has a few missing links along the way. The difficulties of dealing with family matters from the early 1800s, coupled with the challenge of identifying one of those "invisible" femalesthe married type who died young in childbirth, for instancesignals the type of project in which a researcher simply has to go out there and get her hands on some source documents.

Even though I can't get back to those locations right now, I have yet another recourse: the assistance of local researchers. If I do get stumped in my project, for a mere fraction of the cost of airfare, a well-placed request for service to a carefully-selected local genealogist may also expedite the process.

Of course, for many of us, nothing replaces the thrill of the chase. When the goal is to find it ourselves, that sometimes trumps even the goal of finishing the case. Besides, what can replace the chance to meet up with interested family members and share what's been discovered?

In the matter of this postponed trip, though, I suspect this one time I will cave and find a way to get the documents I need sent ahead to me. In addition to keeping the research schedule on track, it will give me all the more to share with family when we do get the chance to get together again.

Above: "The Vegetable Garden," by Belgian impressionist painter Juliette Wytsman; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Beyond the Aftermath

Out of all the people involved as the tragic scene unfolded at the Spragg household in 1894, the one child who escaped without any injuries was David Spragg's step-daughter, Dora Onstott. At least, as far as we can say, no physical injuriesthough who knows what psychological burdens she bore for the rest of her life.

This was the ten year old eye witness whose reports became fodder for the more graphic journalism erupting from the December 11 murder-suicide in the small town of Ridgeway, Missouri. Dora was the child who, lying sick in bed as the episode escalated, realized the best course of action was to escape and run for help.

In the aftermath of the crime, shealong with her brother and a step-sister who were not expected to recover from their injurieswere the only ones to have survived the attack that day. Everyone else in the family was now gone.

A traumatic event as sudden and irrevocable as that could surely trigger serious psychological repercussionssomething I wondered about as I reviewed what could be found out about the subsequent life events of the other two surviving children. In the case of Ina and Clint, I was actually surprised to discover that they had, indeed, survived the gruesome affair and lived long lives afterwards.

In Dora's case, however, it was easy to presume she would live long after that point. She was, after all, only ten when the murders occurred. I wanted to see what life held for her after that devastating episode.

Unlike her step-sister Ina, whose grandparents took her into their own household, Dora apparently didn't have any such grandparents to extent the customary kindness expected in that time period. I hadn't been able to find out much about her motherthe former Lucinda Wellsexcept a possible entry in the 1880 census for a fifteen year old daughter of a widow living in Illinois, the state where Lucinda was born. If that widow was the one who later became Dora's maternal grandmother, perhaps by the time of the 1894 tragedy, she was no longer alive.

With no one in her extended family stepping up to offer a home for the orphan, Dora found herself doing the same as many young people in such circumstances then: find work to support herself. In Dora's case, that was as a servant for a family living not far from her home in Ridgeway.

Not long after that point, though, Dora married George Ashley Herbst, a man just two years older than she and born right in Harrison County. By the time of the 1910 census, the Herbst household grew to include three children: daughter Gladys, followed by two sons, Lloyd and Leo.

By 1920, the family had moved to Des Moines, Iowapossibly so carpenter George could follow construction work. Within the next ten years, though, things did not go well for Dora. Life introduced some changes by the time of the 1930 census. Dora was then listed as the mother of a three year old sonbut also listed as a divorced woman who may have had to depend on the earnings of her twenty year old son Leo to make ends meet. Though her husband remarried before the early 1940s, I find no evidence that she had done so.

The last trace I can find of Dora is that of her headstone. In the Laurel Hill Cemetery in Des Moines, Iowa, under a marker proclaiming simply, "Mother," she is, if never before, now at rest. Who knows what tales she took with her, or whether her childrenor her grandchildrenknew of the upheaval in her young life. Sometimes, people back then didn't talk about hardships, let alone tragedies. There's no way to know whether this became part of the "heritage" passed down to the current generation. Sometimes, events like these become enveloped in the silence enshrouded by Time.  

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Clint and Ina

He walked up to Clint and struck him a slight blow with the hammer; then turning quickly he cut Ina on the neck with the knife.

When the Kansas City Times carried the story of the Spragg murder-suicide on December 13, 1894, the report seemed to indicate that two of the children had survived the knifing, but that it was expected to only be a momentary reprieve. Those twolisted as "Clint Onstatt, aged 8 years" and "Ina Onstatt, aged 6 years"were likely the ones with "dozens of cuts that cover their little bodies" whom another newspaper had determined "cannot recover."

Just as we saw yesterday, that rush to report such horrific news brought with it a package deal full of errors. Not only were there errors in the children's names, but alsothankfullyin the prognosis.

A quick look at the Find A Grave entry for the perpetrator of the murdershead of the household, David G. Spraggsrevealed, for instance, that Ina had, indeed, lived beyond that fateful year of 1894. It wasn't long before she could be found in her grandfather's home in the 1900 census

Realizing it was in a Spragg household where I found Ina, right away we realize yet another reporting error: no matter how it was spelled, Ina was not an Onstott.

The elder Spraggnow, himself, on his second wife, Matildawas still resident in Greene County, Pennsylvania, the same place from where David Spragg and his first wife had set out for a brighter future in Missouri.

Ina remained in her grandparents' home in Greene County through the 1910 census, growing up with her father's half brothers in the same home in which he likely was raised. Though grandfather Caleb Spragg and his wife were no longer alive by the time of the 1920 census, Ina was still there with her uncle, a man barely three years older than she was.

According to a note someone posted on her Find A Grave memorial, Ina completed high school in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, then graduated from nursing school in Wheeling, West Virginia. Ina never married. One wonders just how much a role the trauma of that event played in her decision to follow a career in nursing. She went on to do post-graduate work in Michigan and finally settled in Lawton, Oklahoma, where we can find her in the 1930 census.

As for the one listed, back in the newspaper report of the family horror in Missouri, as Ina's brother Clint Onstatt, it turns out he was, indeed, an Onstott, and step-brother to Ina. At first, I had believed the newspaper reports enough to assume he had died shortly after the 1894 tragedy, but a hint on my family tree at Ancestry alerted me to the possibility that that might not be so.

It was a record from the U.S. Social Security Applications and Claims Index that revealed the son of John Onstott and Lucinda Wells was actually named Clinton Burrell Onstott. Recovering from whatever wounds were inflicted upon him by his stepfather, David Spragg, Clint survived for another sixty eight years, dying in Paducah, Kentucky, in 1962. Though he was married twice, throughout the decennial census records, I couldn't find mention of any children of his own.

There was one other child who long outlived that dreadful day in Ridgeway, Missouri. That was the child whose eyewitness report triggered that cascade of journalistic errors: Dora Onstott, herself. We'll take a peek at what the rest of life brought to her, tomorrow.

Above: Ina Lee Spragg in household of her paternal grandfather, Caleb Spragg, in Greene County, Pennsylvania, from the 1900 U.S. Census; image courtesy

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