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 descendants—and the projects I've worked on for well over three decades. Suddenly, my eyes snap into focus as I realize a name out of place—that one was supposed to be in the next generation—and 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 generations—and 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 Ancestry.com, 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 day—well, at least as many of them as I've been able to find—is 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 Gordon—which, you've got to admit, is a relatively straightforward choice of surname, since there is really only one way to spell it—Snider presents predicaments from the start. The originating immigrant of this line—Nicholas—came 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 moments—probably hot on the trail, way past midnight while my husband was away, working graveyard shift—in 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 leave—and 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 tedious—not 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
I sometimes wonder whether some of the terms in the genetic genealogist's lexicon could someday evolve into concepts better classified as oxymorons—two 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 around—anonymously, of course—with 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
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 devoted—but busy—reader 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 States—she has a degree in medicine—but 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 blog—Smadar hasn't posted since the fall of 2014—I 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 approach—as well as the opportunity to glimpse the story of someone else's family.
Saturday, July 23, 2016
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 Ohio—and, of course, to do some needed genealogical research along the way. Among other quests—DNA testing, for one thing—I 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" females—the married type who died young in childbirth, for instance—signals 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
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 injuries—though 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, she—along with her brother and a step-sister who were not expected to recover from their injuries—were 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 repercussions—something 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 mother—the former Lucinda Wells—except 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, Iowa—possibly 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 son—but 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 children—or her grandchildren—knew 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
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 two—listed 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 also—thankfully—in the prognosis.
A quick look at the Find A Grave entry for the perpetrator of the murders—head of the household, David G. Spraggs—revealed, 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 Spragg—now, himself, on his second wife, Matilda—was 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 Ancestry.com.
Wednesday, July 20, 2016
In trying to determine the reliability of newspaper accounts of what was labeled "the most horrible butchery which ever stained the history of Northern Missouri," I found the easiest way to sort out the children in David Spragg's household was to focus on researching each of his wives. And yet, that very approach led to some complications.
The article I referred to yesterday—that explicit eye-witness report from the Kansas City Times—had said the murderer's wife was named Louisa. Because some of the victims named in the report—her children—had had a different surname, we can surmise that Louisa was the widow of someone named Onstatt.
That, at least, is the conclusion we can draw by the information provided in the newspaper report of the crime. It didn't take long to discover how incorrect that was.
For starters, the unfortunate second wife of the murderous David Spragg was not named Louisa, but Lucinda. And her former married name was likely spelled Onstott, not Onstatt. A minor detail, admittedly, especially during an era in which spelling didn't hold so much importance, but helpful to us as we attempt to reconstruct each family tree.
It didn't help that the Find A Grave entry for David Spragg, while listing several other relationships, did not include a mention of his second wife, at all—only his first wife, who predeceased his rampage by almost exactly three years. Searching Find A Grave's cemetery listing for the Ridgeway cemetery where David was buried brought up only three other Spragg burials: David's first wife and that of his brother—the merchant and newspaper editor we've already mentioned—and his brother's wife. No sign of Louisa.
There are many more ways to discover the details we are seeking, however. One way was to attempt finding Louisa's first husband, Mr. Onstatt. That, however, brought up no results with that spelling. Turning to Ancestry.com in hopes that the one child who had, for sure, survived the melee might be found in subsequent records, I gambled on the newspaper error of eyewitness Dora's surname and searched for Dora Onstatt, rather than Dora Spragg. I estimated her date of birth, based on those same fallible reporters' articles, and came up with a young woman in the 1900 census.
Her name was Dora Onstott. By then sixteen, she was still in Harrison County, Missouri, working as a servant in the home of Charles and Ida Fordyce. One additional clue—that Dora had been born in Illinois—sent me to records in that other state which might reveal a marriage between an Onstott and someone named Louisa.
Well, not quite. It turned out her name wasn't Louisa, after all; it was Lucinda. And on November 3, 1881, in Clay County, Illinois, she had married someone named John J. Onstott.
Sure enough, when I returned to the Ridgeway cemetery to see if there were any Onstotts, that minute revision in the spelling yielded one result: the memorial for John Onstott, who died there in 1892—just over two years prior to the tragedy which took his wife's life.
There was another Spragg wife in that same cemetery, of course: the first wife of David Spragg. Though Orpha Spragg had died in 1891, her children had remained in the Spragg household until the moment at which their father had erupted into his murderous rampage. Documentation from back in Pennsylvania, home state for the couple, showed that David had married Orpha B. Rush on January 22, 1887, in Greene County. They had moved to Harrison County, Missouri, sometime before the birth of their oldest child in 1888.
Having seen, within that one newspaper account, the child who was said to be Dora Spragg turn into Dora Onstott, and the murdered mother turn out to be not Louisa but Lucinda, I wondered what became of the children. Given the record of reporting errors in this case, it was not beyond possibility that some who were thought to have been doomed might actually have survived. One clue already evident in the memorials at Find A Grave gave credence to that theory. The handy device at Ancestry for linking individuals to their parents for later documents such as Social Security applications provided more clues as I put each child's name through the search engine paces at Ancestry. Despite the somber assessment in the Saint Louis Republic that the children "were cared for but...cannot recover," it turned out that there were survivors in the aftermath, after all.