Tuesday, January 22, 2019

First, the Backstory


Picture me, a kazillion years ago. I won't say how many, of course; I prefer to remain timeless. But I will provide one clue: it was probably about the time I awoke to the possibility that families have histories. For me, that was some time around the third grade.

I remember the third grade, because that was about the time this not-so-intrepid eight year old had read every fairy tale housed in the children's library of my hometown. I wanted something more to read, and somehow it struck my fancy that I wanted to learn about how to research my family history. The only problem was, I didn't even know the term genealogy. Nevertheless, the kindly librarian was able to correctly interpret my inquiry, and directed me beyond the doors of my safe haven to the main library. Gasp. The place where grown-ups went to read.

This was about the same time I started pestering my parents for stories about our family history. I've already mentioned that epic fail in an earlier post, but perhaps in reconsidering her stance, my mother later offered me a consolation prize.

It was a story about my great-great...et cetera...grandfather. I don't remember how many greats were included in that recounting because, hey, I was a kid, and besides, nobody had yet come up with that handy shorthand, "second great grandfather." So I didn't really know how the man was connected to me. All I knew is that, when the story took place, he, too, was a kid.

I knew one more detail: unmistakably, positively, this was a story about my McClellan family, and that it took place on their big, fabled plantation in Wellborn, Florida. As reticent as my mother might have been about sharing her family's stories, to her credit, she did share some tidbits about that McClellan family throughout my childhood. This was one of them.

According to the story, when great-whatever-grandfather McClellan was a youngster, it was before the Civil War. Like almost everyone among his neighbors—forget that, not only in his state, but in the entire region—his family had no qualms about the buying or selling of people, and apparently owned some slaves, themselves.

One of those enslaved people was a woman, possibly the one who was mother of a young boy the same age as my McClellan ancestor. This woman was tasked, among other household duties, with watching over this ancestor, and because she had a child roughly the same age, she was permitted to watch after the two children together.

Over the years, according to my mother's story, these two boys developed as much of a circumspect friendship as was possible in the culture of the time.

Then came the Civil War. Afterwards, those who once were slaves were now free to go...wherever. Eventually, this former slave child left his home. Whenever he was "passing by" the area, though, he would find a way to stop by for a visit with my family.

During one visit, this now-grown man told my ancestor that he had written the story of his life, and left a copy of the book with his childhood buddy—at least, according to my mother, that was so.

My eyes bugged open, I realized that book was my way to reach out and touch the past of my family. It would be like reading a diary of an eye-witness to momentous changes, not only in my family's history, but our country, as well.

"Can I see the book? Does anyone still have it?"

My mother assured me a copy was still held by my grandmother. Lest you think that would make a wonderful happy ending to a child's brief story, think first about reading between the lines. Remember, I heard this story in New York, far removed from my southern roots. Further, my mother, very much a northerner, was raised by parents who, though born in the south, had made the choice, as adults, to leave that region for better economic opportunities up north and out west. Bottom line: disabuse yourself of a warm and doting grandmother whose frequent visits came with spoiling hugs and treats.

After hearing that story, it was probably years before I visited my grandmother. But I never forgot about the "book." When I finally got to see my grandparents, the first question out of my mouth was likely, "Can I see the book?"

When I finally asked, I had to explain what I meant. After relaying my mother's story, my grandmother screwed up her mouth in her characteristic style, gave a little nervous laugh, and put me off with something nebulous about the book being "in storage." She'd get to it someday, but not right now.

My visit with my grandparents was over too soon. I left without ever seeing that book. Though my grandparents came once, after that, to visit us in New York, I never got the chance to prod her again with my request.

After her death, I attempted that quest once more, this time with my aunt, who was responsible for settling my grandparents' affairs. She, too, however, was off-putting, with a vague, "Oh, I'm sure it's in her trunk." But there was never any offer to go and see what we could find.

Several years later—by now the parent of a college student—I had one more opportunity to look for that book. It was when my aunt, herself, passed away. This time, my sister and I were responsible for taking care of what had been left behind.

When it came time to sort through her effects, I was the first to get to my aunt's home. I knew exactly what that "trunk" would signify. By now in the basement of my aunt's home, it had always been the old-fashioned steamer trunk where my grandmother—and then my aunt, after her—had kept her personal papers. There were old documents, photograph albums, letters, newspaper clippings, and other gems of such value to family historians.

There was, however, one item missing: the book.

That book: was there even such an item? Could my mother have gotten the story wrong? Would my grandmother—still very much a creation of her childhood's southern culture—have discarded the thing, based simply on a prejudice?

I sifted through every paper saved in that trunk. It was incredible what merited inclusion in those old slips of paper. Torn receipts which should have been discarded were tossed in among undated newspaper clippings, programs from old high school events, photographs of business accomplishments and connections. But no book.

It's been five years since I got my final answer about the book. Since then, I can't help but think of that book. A lot. If there even was such a thing, it would have been an invaluable eye-witness account of life among people in my family I never had the chance to meet.

But then, the doubt settles in. How could there be such a book? After all, wasn't it true that slaves were not permitted to learn how to read? How, then, could such a man have written his story?

This man, I keep thinking—almost as if in an argument with myself—must have been somewhat special. He had a privileged spot in the household arrangements, even as a child. Could someone have taught him to write? Or could he have gone away to school, after emancipation?

Knowing the destitute conditions of some freedmen in the 1870s, the debate in my head kept crashing back to the other side, telling me that was impossible. Whatever the circumstances, the "book" indicated someone who, at some point, learned to write, someone who had the inner drive to tell that story, and someone who was at liberty to travel through an area time after time.

An evangelist? A traveling salesman? Who could this person be?

I didn't have so much as a name for this man, but I wanted to be able to uncover his story. Over the years, I've asked researchers, archivists, librarians, and genealogists for their advice on how to track this man with no name. I've gotten a lot of good advice, some of which I'll share with you this week. But I realize a search like this will entail a lot of monotony, as well—most of which I'll spare you, I promise.

However, keeping in mind LaBrenda Garrett-Nelson's admonition to see our research as a "force for social change," and remembering how many people may be wishing they could find the very details I'll be sifting through in this search, part of the reason behind my posting about my research progress will be the hope that it will be of help to someone else, as well.

With that, tomorrow, let's take a look at the facts behind the backstory.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Carrying the Story


We are the mules; we are the ones who carry the story.
~J. Mark Lowe, SLIG 2019

It's Monday. SLIG is over—at least for those of us who didn't opt to stay in Salt Lake City for a second week at SLIG Academy. Now that we're back home, settling into our own routine but desperately fighting to keep that resolve from class discoveries, those of us in the Southern Research course have already gotten our marching orders from class coordinator J. Mark Lowe: Carry the Story. Not only that, but we need to recall the urging of last Monday's plenary speaker LaBrenda Garrett-Nelson: let our genealogy research be a "force for social change."

One doesn't have to research their southern roots too deeply to stumble upon the reality of southern life: that way of life included large numbers of persons who were enslaved. Whether the enslaved or the enslaving were part of your genealogy, there are many descendants out there now, struggling with their research brick wall because they lack one detail: a surname.

The painful fact of the matter is that, while some are desperately searching for the identity of such ancestors as these, there are others who may hold the key to unlock the answer. Sadly, I've known I've been one of those who hasn't, up to this point, wanted to even face up to that fact. And yet, people like me could help be part of the solution.

I do have one particular story that has been shared in my family for generations. Pursuing that oral history may involve finding a book about one slave's life story. But there's one catch: I don't know the name of the person or even what the title of the book might have been. Worse, I'm not sure whether that story is a romanticized family legend or reality. I've wanted to research this story since I was a child, hearing the story from my mother. Now, years later, I'm no closer to knowing the truth than when I was in elementary school.

It will take a lot of exhaustive searches in an attempt to identify the man who told his story of growing up as a slave on my ancestors' plantation. Whether I even come up with the answer, I will sift through tons of data. There is no use discarding those discoveries, though; those facts which become rejects in my search might become answers for someone else. I need to share those details. I need to carry that story.

So, in preparation for my upcoming research trip to Florida, I'll share the story as I was told it as a child. I'll follow up by posting progress reports as I sift through the documents. Hopefully, even if I don't find the book I was told about so long ago, the process will uncover some hints that will lead another family history researcher past his or her brick wall.

Carrying the story means sharing the story. And sharing the story, hopefully, will help someone else find the family long hidden from view.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Can't Wait 'til 2020


It's a good thing the planning committee at the Utah Genealogical Association is on top of things. I don't think I could wait much longer for the announcement on their lineup for the 2020 Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy than this weekend. I've already got July 13, the opening of their advanced registration, calendared. With multiple reminders to boot up my laptop before 8:00 a.m. Pacific time, in case I miss a notification.

It's an impressive selling point to see how far the SLIG pull reaches. Once you realize that nearly five hundred people, from every American state other than Mississippi and Hawaii (well, I can see why they might not be in a rush to head to Utah in January), and even from as far away as Australia and Europe, you get an idea that some serious—not to mention, fun—learning is taking place every January in c-c-c-cold Salt Lake City.

A little snow never hurt anyone. And the warmth of being with fellow researchers—whether in class, at the wonderful receptions and break times, or at the world-class research library—more than makes up for the weather.

But it's the wide variety of learning possibilities, coupled with the excellent instructors, that have been the draw for me. And I'm looking forward to being a part of that opportunity again, next year. If you hope to join us in 2020, though, consider this your advance notice. When July 13 gets here, don't waste a nano-second on getting your registration in. Classes fill up in the blink of an eye.




Saturday, January 19, 2019

Off the Shelf: Your Best Year Ever


A contagious idea, around the early part of January, is to resolve to have a better year than the last one. New year's resolutions resonate with so many people.

I've learned that resolutions don't work for me, so I don't even attempt that process. But one can't help, after a week of learning like the one I've just completed, having a few hopes for the future. After all, I've learned so much at this past week's Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy—the kind of learning that makes one want to jump to it and put that information to use.

That calls for an action plan. Surprisingly, this non-new-year's-resolution procrastinator has just the book for that call. And not surprisingly, I've had that book for a whole year. And done nothing about it.

The book is leadership guru Michael Hyatt's 2018 work, Your Best Year Ever: A 5-Step Plan for Achieving Your Most Important Goals. Not that I don't have important goals, or lack the desire to have a best year ever, but when I first found out about the book last year, it was well past January. A little too late for having a best year of anything.

Of course, markers on calendars are arbitrary; I could have had a best year, starting in March, true, but somehow, I felt it would be better to start it in January. So I decided this would be the call for action in my best year of 2019.

Now, it's almost February. I'm in the same spot as last year.

There is, this year, one difference: I've just been to the kind of workshop that not only provided excellent ideas and resources, but one of those learning experiences that generates even more ideas. I'm seeing possible ways around brick wall research problems. The more I think about these possibilities, the more I get energized. There is no way I'm going to get hoodwinked into putting this off for a new year, again.

Besides, my trip home last night puts me back in California for only ten fleeting days. Then, I'll be off to Florida, where I will be able to put some of these research ideas into practice with the opportunity to search for answers on the home turf of my Florida ancestors. I'm doubly energized to think of that now.

The reason I was first enticed to consider Michael Hyatt's proposal was that his book doesn't treat goal setting quite the same as the usual, schlepping, dewy-eyed New Year's Eve party participant might have done. He promises a system which can be tackled within five days--a good thing for someone like me, who has only ten days to put my research plan together.

I like his promise to teach me a "proven way" to set and achieve goals. Scientifically based, his system shepherds readers through such pitfalls as the despondence of wanting to quit, or the malaise of feeling stuck. I need tips to propel me past those danger spots, so I can accomplish those research goals.

If I keep my eye on the goal, you'd think I'd be energized enough with that, but I know myself better. I can easily get bogged down in the particulars—especially when the nitty gritty of the process gets me bogged down. Here's hoping his field-tested advice doesn't fall victim to the weak spots of my lesser nature.

Of course, I've always seen this blog as my accountability partner, so I'll be reporting on progress as I travel through the places of my Florida roots early next month. Before my flight takes off, though, I'll not only be using Hyatt's guide, but doing a lot of preliminary research—and hopefully contacting some key people—to maximize the results, once I get those boots on the ground in Florida.

After all, what is learning for, if not to apply what we've gained in such great classes as what was offered at SLIG this past year? I'm looking forward to transforming others' how-to suggestions into my own pursuit of answers.



Friday, January 18, 2019

We're All Chasing Stories


Let the story come to you; let it talk to you.
~J. Mark Lowe, SLIG 2019             

How many times do we struggle to learn more about our elusive ancestors? We chase their story from document to obscure document, hoping to find a clue to unravel their mystery. All along, the proof of their existence might have been waiting for us, if only we knew the right place to look.

When I'm not directly in pursuit of those ancestors, I'm in learning mode, trying to find a better way to chase those ancestors. That's why I spent this past week in Salt Lake City, attending my selected course (Southern Research) at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. I was in plenty of good company—well over four hundred fellow researchers from forty eight of our fifty American states, plus attendees from other continents. And all too soon, we are wrapping up our last session today.

In the meantime, I have now been equipped with several new ideas on how to proceed in tackling my problem ancestors. Despite their silence over the years and through the lack of documents, I now have new places to look for them.

But it is not a push/pull fight any more. As Mark Lowe, our instructor, observed, the stories are out there. Inevitably, if we know where to look, we will find them. Or, more to the point, as we continue the search, the stories will find us. We just have to know how to listen. To keep our eyes open. To learn to ask ourselves questions when facts don't seem just right when considered at face value.

We need to spot those cues, those puzzles prompting us to ask questions. Then follow the paper trail until we find even more answers. The trail is hinting to us: there's a story in those details.

I'm a strong believer in Story. I don't doubt there are more stories out there. It was worth the price of SLIG admission to gain those resources—more importantly, to adjust the researcher's way of thinking, of framing the research question. And by gaining those resources, those ideas, I now am convinced I'm armed with plans to tackle a few longstanding research challenges that have been sitting in the shadows for far too long.

Once that process starts uncovering more facts, I know they will usher in stories. One can't help but have family with stories. I'm convinced Story is part of the human condition, and I'm primed to tell some more of them.


Thursday, January 17, 2019

Giving a Listen


The other day, J. Mark Lowe, our Southern Research instructor at SLIG, introduced us to the phrase, "Listen to the Mule."

If that were not enough work for one researcher, today, he advised: listen to the testimony of the people living around your ancestor. They will tell you the stories you want to hear about your people.

True, the only way we can accomplish that "listening" is through the documents that recorded the minutiae of their lives—agricultural schedules, tax records, mortgage records, business transactions. Like a mosaic, those slips of paper can piece together a picture of just what life was like for a specific relative, long before we ever came on the scene to become eye-witnesses.

Just like that mosaic which we build to allow ourselves to see the reality of our ancestors' lives, we can glean a mosaic of what it's like to attend class at the annual Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. Since I'm in the company of a few fellow genea-bloggers, I've noticed that they, too, are telling what's important to them this week. Here's a little overview of what others are saying.

When Ginger LaRue Mary Stuart—"My red hair gives me super powers"—of Ginger Doodles mentioned that her family refers to Salt Lake City as "Genealogy Disneyland," I could see why her trek from Georgia was so joyfully in relation to the research reason she was here. Attending D. Joshua Taylor's course, Bridging the Gap: New England to the Midwest, she stalked proof of the Kentucky land grant of her fifth great-grandfather with ear candy of Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" playing in her head.

Fellow California resident—and recently board-certified genealogist—Lisa Gorrell shared her take on the same class I'm enrolled in, Advanced Southern Research, in a recent post on her blog, My Trails Into the Past. Lisa's maternal line is all southern, similar to mine. She took the opportunity last night at the specially-arranged SLIG night at the Family History Library to try her hand at the practical aspect of locating the resources we're learning about in class. Then, too, Lisa and I grabbed the chance yesterday to enjoy lunch together and chat about our research interests. Sometimes, it takes going to a conference seven hundred miles from home to spend time with the genea-friends we hardly ever get to see when we're back home.

Those are not the only courses being offered at SLIG. There are, in fact, fifteen classes running concurrently this week, with more to come next week.

One of the courses this week is a crash course on reading Gothic Script and Fraktur. The intrepid Nancy Loe of Sassy Jane Genealogy, having never even attempted a high school German class, has launched herself into F. Warren Bittner's course at SLIG. Her fun pop quiz, hinting at what she's learned so far, just goes to show that we go to these in-depth educational programs precisely so they will teach us how much we don't know. And we're okay with that. In fact, many of us keep coming back, year after year.

After all, who wouldn't want to come back to "Genealogy Disneyland"?   

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Squirrel !


We may be—as LaBrenda Garrett-Nelson reminded us Monday evening at SLIG—"all in this boat together," but when it comes to genealogically delving into the south, I'm seeing evidence that our co-instructor Anne Gillespie Mitchell was spot on: family life in the south was built upon clusters.

I, however, am not as circumspect about my genealogical research plans as she might have hoped. I've already fallen victim to what Anne refers to as, "Squirrel!"

Case in point: yesterday, co-instructor Kelvin Meyers toured us through the finer points of the Draper Manuscript Collection and a related collection, the Shane Manuscript Collection. It just so happens that that second, and smaller, Shane collection was compiled by a man named John Dabney Shane. A Presbyterian minister himself, Reverend Shane sought to collect all the material he could find on the expansion of the Presbyterian church in the United States, particularly on the American frontier of the time.

While that tidbit of information may be significant for those of us intent on researching our families' southern past, there was one small detail that caught my eye: the Shane collection was compiled by a man whose middle name was Dabney.

Dabney?! I have that family name.

And faster than Anne Mitchell could shout, "Squirrel!" I was off, flying through the virtual genealogical wilderness in search of a factoid. After all, if this were a southern family, that Dabney could just as well be a surname from deeper in the family tree. A maiden name. A connection. I've seen a lot of that in the southern families I've researched.

It didn't help that, in all this detail about both Draper and Shane, Kelvin mentioned another name that caught my ear. Somehow, the name Gabriel Jones was connected.

Gabriel Jones? Yep, you guessed it: I have that name, too.

In a quick and dirty exploration of John Dabney Shane's own family tree, it may be that the name Dabney came from his maternal grandmother's maiden name. I can't say for sure; I haven't proved it for myself. But it makes a reasonable explanation for how someone named as plainly as John could acquire such an unusual middle name.

Meanwhile, it just so happens that the Dabney connection in my own tree comes from a descendant of the same Taliaferro who qualified me for eligibility to DAR: his granddaughter Mary Penn (nicknamed Polly) married a minister named Dabney P. Jones.

How this particular Reverend also acquired a name as unusual as Dabney, I can't yet say, but I do know that after her passing, the widow Mary Penn Jones, dying intestate in 1874, had one Gabriel Jones appointed as administrator of her estate. Was he the same gentleman as the one connected to either of the researchers?

Well, you know a soul spirited away by the sight of a tempting research squirrel—this non-hunter prefers to refer to this as going down the rabbit trail—can't just stop there. So, multi-tasking through the remainder of class (true confessions), I poked around to see what else I could find.

You know the search is long from done at this point, especially when encountering more squirrel, er, rabbit trails. In the process, I followed the paper trail for all the descendants I could find in this line—we are, after all, supposed to uncover the clusters which tie our southern kin together—and discovered that a great-granddaughter of Mary Penn and Dabney Jones married a man who later married another woman and fathered (or possibly was the step-father of) the man who was the film director who brought us the motion picture version of the Harper Lee novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Now, isn't that all so very southern?!

Whether this is the kind of "connected" my Southern Research course instructors intended, I can't say. And I can't yet claim to have acquired the disciplined restraint of the professional genealogist. Follow the trail, connect the dots, and pretty soon we're all part of the family constellation. 
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