Sunday, March 18, 2018

Genealogy: the "Unit Study" Approach
to Life and Everything

Lately, it turns out that I am teaching beginning genealogy classes at various locations about twice weekly. After doing this for a few years, one thing has become clear to me: people come into these classes with one question in mind. Something happens during the class process, though, that turns them around, leaving with several concepts in mind. I've realized that genealogy can do that.

People often come into my classes thinking that finally, they'll learn how to prove the story that their mother's family really did have Native American roots. Or that Papa came from Tuscany. Or Alsace-Lorraine.

Once they learn the basic techniques for starting their own genealogical research, though, they realize how many other areas they need to learn, in order to fully comprehend just what it was like to be that person from Tuscany. Or that Chickamauga native. They gain an appreciation for the impact of those key historic events which may now be mere murky memories from high school history class. Now, for instance, the Civil Waror the Chinese Exclusion Act, or westward expansiongets seen in a whole different light: events which had made a difference in their great-great grandparents' lives.

Of course, an experience like that can turn even the most reticent student of history (like me in my high school years) into an avid pursuer of the truth of the matter.

High school history classes, at least the ones I had to endure, were often taught in a linear format: first, this thing happened on this date, then it was followed by that event. Names blended into dates into wars or elections or inventions or newspaper headlines in one big blur of so what?! For me, it became a matter of how well I could memorize factsand remember them long enough to spill them out on paper at exam time.

Fast forward another generation, and I became part of the homeschooling movement in our country. Homeschoolers have a name for a particular approach that was much different than my own high school experience. They called it "unit studies." That meant, for any topic they studied, students learned everything there was to know about that one subject.

If they wished to learn about, say, sugar, they would examine it as a commodity, but they would learn about its chemical composition, its impact on diet and health, its origins, and its role in history and even economics. While learning about a simple topic like sugar, students would end up exploring a world of other topics as wella learning odyssey similar to that traced in the Sidney Mintz book, Sweetness and Power, taking in everything from the history of sugar's position as treat for kings to its place as a "slave crop" to its more commonplace modern role as the additive on more foods on our table than we care to admit.

It's surprising what one can learn from taking an in-depth look at one single topic, like sugar.

Or genealogy.

Genealogy becomes the catalyst to learn the universe of everything there is to know about the 1920s, just so you can understand what drove grandpa to do what he did. Or discover the angst of the 1930s. Or 1890s.

I have class members coming away from sessions, amazed at how much they have learned about the Civil War, for instance, just because they discovered a family member fought for the Union. Or shocked to learn what their immigrant ancestors endured, just in the process of boarding a shipor worse, arriving on American shores. There is a universe of learning out there, waiting to be discovered, just for having taken that first step of wanting to discover one's family history.

Genealogy has become the gateway to learning history. In a personal wayand yet, a universal way. And that has made all the difference for people.

And yet, we are surprised to make that discovery.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Time to Seize Our Day

It's Saint Patrick's Day. Whether you're Irish or not, I imagine you've found a way to wear the greenor be obstinate and don some orangebut I don't know if you've noticed something I've been seeing in the days leading up to today.

I know the saying is that "everybody's Irish" for a day like todayand chances are, the average American (not to mention a good number of the Aussies and New Zealanders and even the folks in jolly olde England) sports at least a tiny percentage of Irish ethnicitybut that is not what I've been noticing this week. What I'm seeing, reading between the lines in those DNA commercials and Saint Patrick's Day DNA sales, is the possibility that "everyone's doing it" when it comes to testing for ethnicity percentages and researching their Irish roots.

Find My Past is reminding everyone of the free research resources they offer from Ireland. Family Tree DNA urges you to "share the luck o' the Irish" with others among your family and friends through their own DNA sale., also boasting loads of Irish records, offers you free access to their Irish collections this weekend, as well as a DNA sale of their own.

The genealogy buzz is not limited to all things Irish, however. Lately, there's been public notices on everything from MyHeritage's pro bono offer to help reunite financially-challenged adoptees and their birth parents through DNA testing, to social media commentary on using genealogy in politics. Yes, politics: a freelance writer has figured out how to use her skills as an avocational genealogist to disrupt America's current congressional debate over immigration with "resistance genealogy."

It seems as if all eyes are on the genealogy world lately. If not all eyes, at least a significant portion of people in North America have wondered "what if...." What if, for instance, they can trace their family story back to the country of their immigrant ancestor's origin?

With that widespread interest comes the chance for those of us who already know we are fascinated with genealogy to become the catalysts to help launch others into this pursuit of our roots. It is far easier to invite others, say, to attend a genealogical society meeting, or participate in a family history day, or spit into a tube for a DNA test, even, than ever before.

No more of this grousing about how our societies are "dying" from lack of participation in the wake of "competition" from online giants. People all over are clamoring for a real, live person to help show them the ropeshow to get started on their own journey of discovering their roots. The online resources may be a boon for our research, but they can't take the place of person-to-person guidance, encouragement, sharing, crowdsourcing, and general cheering-on when it's time for the Genealogy Happy Dance.

This is genealogy's day. All this talk about being Irish, or pinning our ethnicity report to our social media pages isn't just about DNA testing. It's about people realizing how fascinating genealogy can really be. We may as well seize the opportunity. One never knows whether the newbie we are helping will turn out to be that distant cousin descendant of our brick wall ancestor.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Introducing Ralph

In researching the identities of the photographs in Thirza's collection, it would be quite handy if each of these people grew up to marry each other, or turned out to be cousins, or some other convenient and handy resolution to my research problem.

Apparently, that is not the case. The only nexus that I've been able to find, so far, is a link to the state of Colorado. Neighbors in Greeley, perhaps, but nothing more.

I can't help but think, though, that surely there is a story line weaving its way in and out of the three families we've discovered so far in this odyssey through Thirza's photograph collection. Perhaps at some point we'll discover it, but for now, it's a well-kept secret.

So we'll move on to the next photograph. Today's picture is the faded photograph I referred to the other day, one which makes me think it was taken much earlier than that of baby Mildred. This one, of the head and shoulders of a young man, bears no date or location. Though I don't know enough about photograph trends to date the style of the composition, I had thought this was an earlier type of photograph, perhaps from the 1880s, as opposed to the turn of the century date for Mildred's picture.

In a hand similar to the writing on the front of Mildred's photograph, someone had inked in the name Ralph Pollock. Just having a full name was a great help. However, trying my hand at locating a suitable census entry for someone with this man's name brought up too many possibilities. For one thing, the handwriting on the face of the card made it difficult to tell if the surname was Pollack or Pollock.

Time for a fuzzy search, I tried my hand at some guess work: what if Ralph was from the same town as Mildred? Figuring out Ralph's age and the date of the picture might make a big difference in finding the right Ralph, but it was worth a try.

Of course, to explain how I stumbled upon what I found, finally, will take another post, for there was another step in between these two that landed me on a page in a census record with a clue that nearly reached out to slap me in the face. Besides that, we have one more baby picture to examine before we arrive at that step.

In the meantime, let me introduce to you a young Ralph Pollockyet another person whose likeness was sent with Thirza's name written on the reverse.

Above: Photograph of a young Ralph Pollock, from the collection of Thirza Cole. Undated and without any indication of location, this photograph is currently in possession of the author.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Meet Mildred

How to explain the winding path I followed from my research question to the answers I've found...

This project I've taken on to send the pictures of Thirza Cole and her (presumed) relatives back home to family has turned out to be more complicated than I thought it would be at first. Granted, despite having found her photograph in an antique store in Jackson, California, I already knew it would be unlikely that she was a resident of that area. Besides, one of the pictures I found along with hers, clearly marked "To Thirza," came from Greeley, Colorado. Whoever Thirza was, I figured she had relatives back in the then-tiny town of Greeley.

My first step, once purchasing all these photographs containing Thirza's name, was to research each of the identities indicated on the front of each picture. I tried to locate the name on the Greeley photograph, for instance, in the census records for Greeley. Some of the other photographs, though, didn't even have geographic indicators anywhere on the photograph, so I'd try searching for the name, then seek out a family connection with Thirza.

When those attempts failed me miserably, I tried another approach: just build a family tree for Thirza, herself. This was a challenge for two reasons: for one, thanks to handwriting difficulties, I wasn't sure whether her name was Thirza or Thiega; and secondly, I still had to verify whether Cole was her maiden or married name.

With all those challenges, I just kept poking through documents in several directions, grasping at any possibilities and noting them, just in case.

Now, to try and reconstruct how I found out what I've discovered about Thirzaor at least a likely candidate for her identityI'm not sure I can replicate the search, step by step. Complicating the matterat least for those needing a straightforward explanationis the fact that my mind does not work like the sequential path of a reasoned outline with step one leading to step two and only then moving to step three.

My mind, unfortunately, works more in a scattershot mode. It's similar to the technique known as mind-mapping, a process co-opted by genealogist Ron Arons in his recent book, Mind Maps for Genealogy, but I assure you, I've been following that process for much longer than Ron has been teaching the method.

The challenge is to translate my haphazard mind-mapping discoveries into a logical, blow-by-blow explanation. I'm not sure I can adequately complete that task. So for the next few days, I'll just give you the splat on each of the photographs in Thirza's collection, but just be aware that I've not yet uncovered the nexus. There are still many unanswered questions.

Today, we'll start with Thirza's copy of a baby picture. The photograph, as I mentioned, is from Greeley, Colorado. It was taken by photographer F. E. Bakeralthough checking in Greeley publications for any indication of that studio, all I could find, much later than the time of this photograph, was an ad for F. E. Baker, the realtor and land investor. Perhaps photography as a business just didn't work out for him.

The picture's subject was named Mildred Rigg. At least, that's what the handwriting seems to say. It also looks as if the name were either over-written, or erased and then redone, or that the ink was possibly not working well on the pen. Fortunately, it was relatively easy to locate a Mildred Riggs in the 1900 census and the 1910 census, both of them in the same countyWeld Countyas the town of Greeley.

This Mildred was the daughter of Millard and Josephine Riggs, and happened to be born, according to the 1900 census, in January of 1898. Thanks to some online newspaper editions of the Greeley newspaper, plus some other documents found at, I was able to locate a few more details about this Mildred, but not anything to sufficiently explain her link to our Thirza. Of course, that is provided that Mildred Rigg and Mildred Riggs are one and the same Greeley resident.

Above: Undated photograph of baby Mildred Rigg of Greeley, Colorado; photograph currently in possession of author.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Thirza's Photograph Collection

In seeking to return abandoned photographs to family members who will cherish them, I try to pay attention to all the details clustered around that photograph. Any names or locations mentioned or indicated, of course, would be prime items to research, but in the case of Thirzaor ThiegaCole, I not only have the clues from the back of her portrait, but a welcome cache of other pictures with at least her first name attached to them. I suspect what I have is a part of her collection of family photographswhich, for our purposes, is a good thing.

Today, I'd like to introduce the main characters from this collection, as best I can read their names from the various handwriting samples found on their pictures. Some of them are part of this collection for sure, guaranteed by the name "Thirza" added to the reverse of each picture. One, at least, is likely part of Thirza's family, though I can't tell for sure; the name is so common, and besides, her name isn't added to the back.

Only one of those photographs has a studio imprint affixed to the front. It happens to also be the picture with the name that I have the most difficulty reading. It's a baby picture taken in Greeley, Colorado by the photographer F. E. Baker. The name above the baby's head looks like Mildred Rigg.

Another baby picture, this one without any mention of a location or studio imprint, simply bears the name Louise, though there is a note on the reverse for Thirza.

Yet another photograph looks to be the oldest of the three. It's a faded image of a young man, with the handwritten name above his head reading Ralph Pollack.

The only thing the three of these photographs have in common is the fact that the name Thirza is handwritten on the back. At first, I hoped that these were three individuals related to our Thirza, but now that I've been thrashing around the Internet's vast array of genealogical records, I'm not finding any such connections.

I'll begin by introducing each photograph in turn, one each day, and noting any possibilities for subjects. Of course, if a link to Thirza manifests itself in this cursory review, I'll make note of that as well. Meanwhile, I have plenty of work to do to prepare the rest of the story about Thirza, herself. If I have the right person, she is turning out to have an interesting life, indeed.

Above: Inscription from the back of one of the baby photos I found at a northern California antique shop. This is the clearest handwriting of all those pictures which include that name, which in this case is clearly Thirza, not Thiega. This inscription was written on the back of a photograph from Greeley, Colorado; the front has the name Mildred Rigg written above the baby's head in a different hand.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Taking a Peek Behind the Scene

There is a lot of guesswork involved in returning an orphaned photograph back to family. And, in juggling the information attached to multiple possibilities, the search also requires a way to organize all the findings. But to shelter those potentially false leads from a gullible genealogy public, the search also needs to proceed under coversomewhere hidden so that others won't be tempted to copy those false leads as if they were verified truth.

In other words, I need a hiding place to park my trees-in-progress.

I learned this tactic from my mystery cousin, the adoptee who turned out to be an exact match to my matriline. If you remember, shortly after this cousin contacted me three years ago, thanks to our mutual mitochondrial DNA test results at Family Tree DNA, he was able to figure outand subsequently meethis birth mother. He explained to me what he learned from the volunteer "search angels" who helped him with his research: adoptees build several tentative family trees, actually plugging into a pedigree chart several possible, though not yet proven, names.

For the most part, this hypothesis-testing process serves to trigger "hints" for Ancestry trees, which then can be evaluated for plausibility. Obviously, more hypotheses end up being discarded than kept. But because they are not true family trees, all this guesswork needs to be done under cover. That's why adopteesand the search angels who help themoften set up private trees, rather than public ones, on Ancestry. To add one more layer of protection, they change the privacy setting on the tentative tree so that it can't even be found in search results.

Taking my cue from my mystery cousinwho has since gone on to help many other adoptees, himselfwhen I work on sending an abandoned photograph home to family, I use the same process. So, for Thirza Coleor whoever she turns out to beI set up a private, unsearchable tree on Ancestry and started building her pedigree. In addition, I set up a file folder in my computer for pictures, and another file folder under documents for any auxiliary material I find on the family. That way, as I chase after all the possibilities, I have a place to park the photos and documents I run across.

As it turns out, there was someone by the name of Thirza Cole. The surprising first discovery about Thirza was that, despite my traveling to the foothills of northern California to find her, she turned out to live in the same town as the first antique store where I had begun my quest to reunite orphaned photographs with family. Since that place is so close to my home, I've had ample opportunities to head to the very place where Thirza lived and worked for most of her adult life.

Not to put a wet blanket over that enthusiastic discovery, but just in case, I also did a search for the alternate name I found on the photographsThiega. If you, as I did, thought that there would surely be no such name, think again. Apparently, Thiega is a thing. There were several hits for that term as a given name, both in the United States and in the United Kingdom. To do a thorough search, I'll need to attend to that due diligence requirement to ascertain which of the two names this really turns out to beor whether I should be looking for two women instead of one.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Meet Thirza

We're about to explore the possibilities for identifying another mystery photograph subject. This time, our task will not be simply to return one old photograph back to family members, but fourand possibly more. The key will be to determine whether the name added to the back of each of these photographs is one and the same, and whether several different handwriting samples were all referring to the same woman.

There's no way to gradually introduce the suspected subject of this search, so I will start out with the splat: the photograph of the one woman which included not only that unusual given nameThirzabut a surname as well. As I mentioned last Friday, I suspect the name which links each of these photographs will either refer to one person or to two. The handwriting on some clearly spelled out Thirza. The shaky hand on the others sometimes looked like Thiega.

I found all of these photographs in an antique shop in Jackson, California, a northern California town sometimes remembered for its former glory days as part of California gold rush country. One of the photographs came with the imprint of a studio in Greeley, Colorado; the others had no geographic location specified. The time span represented by these pictures likely included more than one generation of a familyif, indeed, these are photographs from the same extended family. The earliest one I'd guess to be from the 1870s or possibly earlier. The most recent one was a portrait of Thirza with a handwritten note on the reverse, "about 1920."

That, unfortunately, was one of the pictures with the name that looked more like Thiega than Thirza, but the handy thing about it was that it came with a surname: Cole.

I decided my first attempt at identifying the subject was to go with the name from the majority of the other photographs, and start out with the assumption that the person I want to research was named Thirza Cole. Whether that will turn out to be a false lead, we'll soon find out. Kept in balance by the handwritten names affixed to the front of the other photos, I'm going to trust in the FAN principleFriends, Associates and Neighborsto either corroborate my assumptions or rule them out entirely.

returning abandoned photograph to family descendants

Above: Photograph of a woman named either Thiega or Thirza Cole, with the added notation, "about 1920." Found in a northern California antique store, the photograph was evidently removed from a frame to which it had been taped. The photograph as shown here is cropped from its original size. The damage visible at the top of this scan of the original was mild, compared to the damage across the lower border. Photograph currently in possession of the author.
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