Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Telling the Family Story

Sometimes, family research is not only for discovering who our ancestors were, but for realizing who we are, too. While there is a story to be told about great-grandparents, there is also one to be found about those whose more recent deaths still leave an impact on our lives.

Yesterday, I mentioned traveling to New Mexico a few years back. While we did make the trip to Santa Fe to specifically visit the National Cemetery, we weren’t just there to remember one person. We went to pay our respects to Chris’s brother, too—and to learn how to best tell his story.

Chris has been speaking to high schoolers about the dangers of drinking and driving for over a decade, probably reaching thousands each year with his presentations done for a program called “Every 15 Minutes.” The prime reason he has had such an affinity for the program is owing to his own family story.

The “Every 15 Minutes” program is conducted at high schools just before prom or graduation, in the hopes of sparing young, promising students the agony of what really can be preventable loss. Chris spends hours at each high school and ends up falling in love with these remarkable students. When they spend time with Chris—and especially when they hear his story—they fall in love with him, too. Chris and I can be walking down the street, at the store, or just about anywhere, and some good looking guy or cute young woman will run up to him, all excited, and say, “Hey, I love you, man!” or give him a hug. That young person will turn out to be a part of the program from eight or ten years ago—still remembering him for the impact he had on students’ lives.

Why such an impact? Of course, the program is carefully designed—put together with the specific goal of being unforgettable. But I think the reason the lesson sticks is because Chris gave it a face—a story.

Although the story is really that of the Stevens family growing up in Albuquerque, it centers on the experience of Chris’s brother’s life. John Kelly Stevens, the family’s oldest child, born in England during their father’s post-war service there, spent his school years in New Mexico. As was his namesake great-grandfather, at home he was known as Kelly, while school friends knew him as John. Like his dad—and probably a good many Stevens men before him—he was fun-loving and talented, and liked to hang out with friends.

It was for details of his last party that we went back to Albuquerque to research. A different kind of story than what you’d usually find in a family history, it still holds an important place in our family’s legacy.

We spent time downtown at the main library, going through newspaper archives, finding newspaper accounts in two different publications. We traced his route home from the party, when he hitched a ride with a mere acquaintance because he had wanted to stay at the party longer than his buddies had. We attempted to locate news reels from the local television station because the family had remembered seeing the story on the late night news. We took pictures of the road, where it bends right when the driver happened to look down at something on the front seat. We even took pictures of the tree that pinned Kelly in, legs beneath the engine block.

We repeated that sad journey because we knew it held a story that might help someone else. And it has.

Many families have a difficult story in their past. The power is in being able to find the story and bring it to light in a way that can bring good to others.
The shattered things in life often do leave traces of a story that can help others. It almost seems harder to go back and re-collect those shards and piece them together into a mosaic that makes sense to others than it was to live through it. But it can become a healing process, too.

Share your story.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Lest We Forget

Photo courtesy Allen Wheatley
One sweeping glance at the cemetery during our visit to the area surrounding Bastogne, Belgium, was enough to demonstrate the devastating impact of the battles there at the close of World War II.

Visiting any cemetery brings a sense of melancholy to me, regardless of the reason for being there. But the sight of row upon uniform row of white markers can be overwhelming.

The first time I personally knew anyone so close to a World War II veteran was when I got to know my husband’s family. Frank, Chris’s dad, was buried in the National cemetery in Santa Fe. No one in the family lives in New Mexico anymore, but we took the time to drive back there a few years ago, to pay our respects and try to understand more of this man’s life. Standing next to his grave marker, Chris pointed out significant details and reminisced, while I learned about a man I had never met.

He was an Air Force man, I learned. I had seen pictures of him in uniform, news clipping about his post-war service in England, and other memorabilia. But I never knew the details of the beginning of his military service.

Until this weekend. There is something about the Memorial Day holiday that calls me to dig into those historical details.

So, the other night, when Chris came home from work, he pulled out a dusty file that hadn’t been touched in probably twenty years. Releasing the seals and opening it carefully, he pulled out a picture of a ship.

Ship? But Frank was Air Force, right?

I know nothing about military information. But at least I could detect a discrepancy here. If nothing else, I can be a quick study.

On the side of the ship, the photo clearly displayed a number: “707.” It looked like someone had taken a white marker and written on the photo, I thought. Chris had to explain that the item “written” on was actually the ship, itself.

Ah, the wonders of the internet. Chris Googled the ship’s full, official designation, LCI(L) 707—and there it was, with a big “707” painted so that no one could mistake its identity.

There was more. Thanks to ancestry.com, I was able to find a muster roll of the crew as of the third quarter of 1944. Included among the names was that of the Pharmacist’s Mate, Second Class—Chris’s dad.

I took a look at all the other names. Was there anyone else hoping to stumble upon this bureaucratic document—hoping to find traces of a relative? What about the families of George Alfano? Or Max Farquer? Or Bob Rexroad? Did any of them have that hunger to find something tangible about their father’s past? Was there another student yearning to reach out and touch a great-grandfather?

The rush of life-right-now comes at us with so much force that it blows away those ethereal memories of people no longer with us. Perhaps it’s just a lingering wistfulness reaching out from our subconscious that prompts us to go back and ask more questions about the past. Maybe that is what’s speaking to me from those rows of stark white markers.

The plaintive cry: “Remember me!”

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Coming Back Different

Francis Xavier Stevens

Some people never come back from war, of course—but of the ones who do, it is easy to see the difference in a missing finger, foot, leg or arm. Outward signs of tragedy remind us of the seriousness of the journey our young people departed on when they signed up for this event called the tour of duty.

Though they may not have sustained injury and even though we cannot see the signs, every one of them comes back changed. That is part of the price of bravery.

One day, Chris’s Chicago aunt got to talking about his dad’s return from World War II. Since Chris was a young child when he lost his dad, his uncle and aunt have always insured that they provided him with a picture of who the man really was.

“He just wasn’t the same,” Chris’s aunt would tell him. Frank Stevens left home young, fun-loving, sociable. But he evidently also had a sensitive side—a side that took in much of what he saw in his years in the Pacific. He never really found a way to set it all down on the front porch of his mind when he returned home.

He hasn’t been the only one trying to leave the war behind. That became the story of many vets returning from World War II, I found out. A few years ago, I came across a documentary commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the battle at Iwo Jima, which captured the crux of veterans in the process of making that same self-discovery.

The concept of the DVD, The League of Grateful Sons, was to bring some of the survivors of the battle back to the island, along with their family members, and to share their retrospective commentary on what has become the insignia for difficulty in battle.

In the “Making Of” section of the DVD set, the producers observed that, in talking with the veterans, they heard many confessing that they shut up those memories, never wanting to mention the horrors they endured. After sixty years, though, something had changed these vets' minds and now they wanted to tell their story.

In preparing for the journey, the producers’ curiosity had been piqued by the emotion-laden response of many—soldiers and descendants alike—giving them a heart-felt “Thank you for telling my story.” And yet, many of these same veterans admitted that, throughout most of their lives, they didn’t want to talk about it.

That reaction was not an isolated symptom of just one war. A returning veteran from a much-less popular—though more recent—war made much the same confession.

I can only image what stories Chris’s dad took with him to his grave. His letters from the ship where he was stationed were carefully sanitized by a son concerned that he not alarm his poor mother, and then meticulously scrubbed by censors so no telltale signs would compromise their collective safety. Whether Frank never got the relief of releasing some of those thoughts into the open air, took the chance to pass them along—or did, but his son was too young to comprehend it—we’ll never know.

Wherever we can, though, let's talk about it.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Finding John Tully

Searching for ancestors can sometimes lead to dead ends. Take, for instance, John Tully, my husband’s paternal grandmother’s father. Chris’s family members have shared lots of clues with me about John Tully, but once I started down the trail, the scent grew cold.

Handwritten copy for an obituary stated that John Tully came to Chicago in 1866. He was born somewhere in Ireland in 1842. The obituary affirmed that he was “brought to America by his parents in 1845.” And it mentioned that he served in the Civil War under General Hooker.

For none of those statements can I find any substantiation. Yet.

Juxtaposing family lore and actual documentation proved difficult. Alas, when I finally found the actual obituary, published in the Chicago Tribune on February 25, 1907, it mentioned little other than John’s wife’s name and that of his children plus details of the funeral and burial. I should consider it an added research bonus that his wife’s maiden name was included in the notice. But my disappointment overrode that little plus.

John Tully has certainly been difficult to find. I know he lived in Chicago at least since the time of his marriage to Catherine Malloy in 1870, but I can find no record of him there in the 1870 or 1880 census. Despite having four children born to them by the time of the 1880 census, not one of those children—Margaret, William, Mary Monica, Lily—has left any birth record that I can find through the FamilySearch beta database. It wasn’t until this week that I finally located the record of their firstborn’s childhood death from diphtheria, listed under the first name “Anna,” though in a trip to Chicago several years ago, we had discovered her grave marker, a simple “Daisy” as the inscription—for Margaret Anna’s nickname—in the family plot. Beside the name on this death certificate, it lists “daughter of John and Katherine Tully” and gives the right address, though a different year of death from cemetery records.

At least that is one document that lists John Tully’s name, perhaps the earliest public listing I’ve been able to find.

But there are other ways to track these long-gone relatives. Church records, though not public, are a great help. Through guidance of genealogy forum friends to a specific resource at the Family History Center library, I located a microfilm record of the now-closed St. Anne’s parish, serving the area around 55th Street in Chicago. That’s where I found the 1876 baptismal record for their only son, William Patrick, providing the earliest written documentation that there actually was a John Tully. And there, John and Catherine were listed as parents of Mary Monica—as well as linked to her godparents, James Ryan and his sister Mary, providing the Canadian link to the Ryan family I mentioned before.

As to the lore of birth in Ireland or coming to America in 1845, well, suffice it to say no online ship’s listings have yet substantiated the trip or the Irish origins.

But the Civil War tidbit was tantalizing. There was a General’s name given. I thought, “This will be easy.”

Little did I know, not being a student of the conflict. After poking around on the various online resources Civil War records, years ago I sprung for the bucks and sent for the official NARA pension records of a John Tully that seemed to match my details. Wrong Tully. The response came back, hoping to save me money: this John Tully, though right birth year and residence when enrolled, had moved to North Dakota. It couldn’t be the same one as my John Tully. So I chucked the information, only to regret it, all these years later, when I discovered the Tully/Ryan connection that moved from Canada to North Dakota. Could it have been him, after all? Where did he go during those years before marriage when I couldn’t find him?

John Tully did exist, of course. It’s just the frustration of not finding him that makes one doubt reality. He survived long enough to be counted in the 1900 census, in Chicago near 55th Street, where he probably was all along.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Spanning Generations

It’s the season for the traditional end-of-school-year festivities that make some students squirm and others shine. As in most other endeavors, our family took the alternate route for childhood education and homeschooled. One of our year-end tasks was to participate in the Project Fair organized by our parents’ co-op.

One year, while our daughter displayed her projects on photography, graphic arts and other parentally-imposed assignments, my husband and I strolled the aisles looking at other students’ work.

One young man had a display about his great-grandfather’s service in World War II. My husband, always interested in WWII memorabilia, paused to admire the student’s collection. While he looked over the letters and photos the boy had displayed, all of a sudden a great disconnect flashed in my mind: here was my husband, great-grandson of someone who served in the Civil War, talking to a boy whose great-grandfather lived through World War II.

It’s all a matter of generations.

Take a family with lots of children, let the youngest be a parent of the next generation’s large family. If the baby of that household becomes your parent, and you are the youngest of that home, a trip backwards through the generations can take leaps and bounds through the decades. On the other hand, if the oldest child of a family gives birth at the age of twenty to the first grandbaby, and that scenario is repeated through a few generations, it is not that difficult to fill your photo album with five-generation family portraits.

The passing of time has certainly changed the look of family composition. A quick look at census records from a hundred years ago can easily demonstrate that.

That was one aspect of family research that I hadn’t noticed when I first started digging up my roots. Of course, that was in the age of microfilm-at-archives drudgery. The dust, uncooperative readers, and poor film quality distracting eyes and nose were enough to draw attention from the real point of being there.

Now, there are all sorts of online resources—and some of them are deliciously free. Ahhh! Just breathe in the wonderful scent of home, relax in the comfort of your own easy chair...and you can actually read between the lines on those census pages.

You can even do a test drive for yourself. If you know the name of a grandfather or grandmother, enter it here. If you are part of one of those families whose generations each had more than two children and thus spanned more than a decade at a leap, your grandparents’ names may actually be listed in a publicly-available pre-1940 census.

How strangely enticing to see your own grandparents’ names in a document that old! Though it only shows the slightest glimpse of who those people were—where they lived at the moment, maybe how old they were when they were first married, what language their parents spoke—it is a snapshot that beckons you to step inside the picture and imagine more about who those people really were.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

“Get Lucy”

Perhaps it was those formative high school years that set me on a course to eventually realize my love of history. By some divine design, I attended classes at a high school that just happened to have its own radio station.

There is something about public school pedagogy that likes to focus on the rift between “process” and “content” and this radio station did not escape that conceptual paradigm. For them, “Educational Radio Station” meant content, not the process of learning how to run a station.

So, for the opportunity of being on the air, I had to submit to the rigors of preparing program material that was educational. For one series of programs, I developed the concept of delving into the local history of the many villages dotting Long Island.

I remember creating the script for one town, Sayville. I knew absolutely nothing about that town when I started, other than how to drive there (and in particular, how to drive to my favorite shopping find). But by the time I finished the program, complete with interviews, I fell in love with Sayville’s history.

Sayville was a quaint village where colonial Americans settled, but failed to actually name until nearly eighty years later—and even then, managed to misspell their chosen designation.

Sayville was where urban New Yorkers fled for extended summer vacations at the shore. Or to stay and snag a piece of real estate near the other other Roosevelts.

Sayville was the spot where Marlon Brando was “discovered” while doing summer stock for those hordes of vacationing New Yorkers.

And at the turn of the last century, Sayville was the location a fledgling German communications company chose to install a test device in its new line of wireless transmitters. The device went mostly unnoticed in that bucolic setting until a message was sent via the device three years after its installation.

The message? “Get Lucy.”

In May of that same year, and on the opposite side of the ocean that fronts Sayville, the RMS Lusitania was sunk, precipitating the entrance of the United States into World War I.

I found wonderful tidbits of history not only for Sayville, but for every town I included in my radio production adventure. Of course, my student (and professional) radio days are over, but now I research for genealogy-related purposes. The research process that began with the content development for my program has stuck with me for decades.

Every town where my ancestors settled became part of what shaped my family. Johnson City, Tennessee, and the surrounding towns became the hub for not only my Broyles ancestors, but my Boothe and Davis forebears, too. Lafayette and Fort Wayne, Indiana, told the story of my husband’s immigrant Stevens family as they settled in this New World. From rustic settings to the urban neighborhoods of my own father’s family in New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, I follow the trails of family history, dovetailed with town records preserved by local historical societies.

These ancestors' lives were intertwined with the communities where they lived. How could these details not be part of the search?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Tale of Two Grandmothers
Part Two: “Hers”

Polish immigrant child in NYC
As much as I know about my husband’s grandmother Bertha, I don’t know about my own paternal grandmother, Sophie. To start with, I never met Sophie. She died a few years before I was born. While I was growing up, my father never talked about her. I never even knew her name until after my father died, when, in conversations with older relatives, I started gleaning bits and pieces.

There seemed to be something mysterious about her—a story one was forbidden to tell. When a cousin of mine tried to ask her own mother about Sophie, her mom nervously changed the subject. That was my own experience, too. Bit by bit, each of us, the descendants, has been working on piecing together what data we could find. As is the case in so many family research attempts, it is mostly, now, a paper chase.

Sophie—or later, as I found out, Sophia—was born somewhere in Poland in 1885. She came to New York City with her family, supposedly, a few years later, about the time of her childhood picture above. I say “supposedly” because I can find no records of her arrival—yet. She obviously made it to New York, because that is where she lived and died. The little “Poland” factoid comes from her family’s declaration on various official papers—census records and death certificates—though she seldom dared to breathe the word to those around her, not even to her own family.

Sophie’s family settled in Brooklyn, one of the boroughs of New York City. Apparently, a few years after she married and had two children, she and her family were able to move up in the world...or at least move up to Queens, which seemed a better situation for her then-prospering family.

That’s where the break in information shows up. In Brooklyn, I could find her under either her maiden name, or in her father’s household, along with her husband, under her new married name. When she and her immediate family moved to Queens, suddenly the surname changed, though all the players remained the same. And, no, it wasn’t due to a divorce.

Asking family members for clues wasn’t helpful. After all, the move occurred sometime between 1910, when the federal census showed them in Brooklyn in her father’s residence, and 1915, when the New York State census indicates a family in Queens with similar data—similar, that is, except for surname. None of the relatives alive now knew about that little paper glitch.

I can’t even be the one to claim discovery of the smoking gun. An in-law of a distant cousin was the one to make the find, posting it to the records of FamilyTreeMaker. At that point, my initiation into Polish research was only just beginning. I had hardly gotten my head around the fact that, in Poland, while the dad may be surnamed Laskowski, his unmarried daughter would carry the name as Laskowska.

But this surname change was not a mere matter of “i” versus “a” but a change from Polish to Irish. Where did the Irish come from?

It’s been many years since I first found that name change. Several years of searching through documents has turned up little. I did find that one of Sophie’s brothers—Michael, or Michko—had taken the liberty to shorten the decidedly ethnic surname to a more streamlined Lasko. Whether he endured the legal process of making the change official, I can’t tell. I haven’t been able to find much of a trace of him or his own family since he left the Laskowski home in Brooklyn in his twenties, other than a mention in Sophie’s obituary.

But I have yet to piece together the story of what impelled Sophie and her husband to move from their home in Brooklyn and surface in Queens with not only a different surname but a new ethnic identity.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Tale of Two Grandmothers
Part One: “His”

It's fun to look back a few generations in the family line to compare and contrast. In doing so, some familiesespecially those who remained in the same town or vicinitycan find many similarities. In our case, though, contrast was more likely. My grandmother and my husband’s grandmother were worlds apart.

I don’t have too many pictures of family members from generations long past. There are two childhood pictures I do have, though. One is for Bertha, my husband Chris’s maternal grandmother. The other is for Sophie, my own paternal grandmother. While each of these is great-grandmother to our own daughter, the two couldn’t have come from more different circumstances.

Shortly after Chris and I got married, I wanted to start researching his family tree. One day, he was on the phone with his mom (who lived halfway across the country from us), so I took the opportunity to get her parents’ information. I just wanted the simple name-and-date type of answer, but the question prompted a flood of information.

Keeping in mind my own father’s response to my very first such question, I should have been grateful. While the names, dates and locations gave me a start, there was one thing my mother-in-law said that disappointed me. After discussing her parents’ information and what she knew of her grandmother’s name (“she was a Gordon”), all she could tell me of previous generations was, “Oh, they probably just got off the boat!”

“From where?” my mind was shrieking. But I kept up the grateful face. No sense in alienating someone over what, regardless, is not known.

So I started work on my mother-in-law’s line. “Mother” was Bertha Genevieve Metzger, born into a farm family near the coal mines of eastern Ohio. She was born just after the turn of the last century, and had lived a lifestyle that probably hadn’t changed in that family for a century. Even at her daughter’s wedding, things remained pretty much the same. My husband’s Chicago-born aunt remembered that even then, staying at the Metzger homestead involved braving the midnight trip to the outhouse. It wasn’t the concept of the outhouse that bothered this citified aunt, though—it was the thought of running into all those hairy spiders on the way.

Bertha lived almost her whole lifetime in Perry County, Ohio, the place of her birth. She wed a Perry County man—like my own mother, marrying a man nearly twenty years her elder. But there the inter-family similarities ended. Bertha stayed at home, raising her family in Perry County. Though for a time in her older years, she lived with relatives in other places, even in death she didn’t wander far. She died, at age 86, just one county away from home.

Life for Bertha seems a universe away from the urban surroundings of my own childhood, or even my mother’s constantly on-the-move younger years. My parents’ two-child-only heritage was no match for life in the county of large families which boasts, "If you go back far enough, you'll find everyone in Perry County, Ohio, is related to everyone else."

Hot on the trail of that hint, “She was a Gordon,” I found out much later that Perry County was home to Ohio’s first Catholic church, erected in Somerset in 1818. Many of Chris’s ancestors—mostly Catholics—came to Ohio with that first band of travelers following the trails from Maryland through western Pennsylvania. Most of those generations included sizable families in the custom of their faith and forebears. And though each of those families was large, after several generations in that isolated outpost of paradise, everyone did seem to be related to everyone else!

As I worked my way backwards through Bertha’s family history, I found out that she did not, in fact, have parents who had just stepped “off the boat.” Unlike my own grandmother who did, in fact, "step off the boat," Bertha's was a heritage well-documented through several generations of New World residence. To find the exact source of her Metzger and Gordon European roots is a task I’ve yet to accomplish. But for all I don’t know about her origins, I have multiple details of pioneer American life to make up for it.

Monday, May 23, 2011

When a Loved One Has Left

Don’t tell anyone, but my husband’s older cousin Bill was our favorite relative. He was fun, did nerdy things like compete in debate and develop new breeds of long-haired rabbits. He spent a year or so in Australia, and lived for a while near the top of the “Grapevine,” the mountain-pass route between the Los Angeles region and California’s Central Valley. That’s when we really got to know him, as it was a short four-hour drive from our home to his.

Unexpectedly early and in what seemed to be a freak mishap, Bill contracted an infection that wreaked havoc on his health. A real survivor, Bill kept plugging away at life for a few more years, then sadly died at a relatively young age.

We all missed him fiercely. Obviously, his nearest relatives felt the impact the most. But after a few months, mercifully, the pain of the loss subsided, and everyone found more constructive ways to honor his memory.

One day, his oldest daughter, Sara, gave me a call. She had been going through Bill’s belongings—those odd stashes of stuff that we don’t know what to do with, but hate to throw away—and had found some pictures with scribbled notes. Some photos were so old, they were of people she barely remembered from childhood. Some, she could only guess, were relatives from a previous generation.

She had pieced together the inscriptions she had found, along with the mementos of graduations and first communions, and called me to see if I could find any more information on these people—something, of course, that I am more than glad to do.

Bill’s mom’s maiden name was Novy, an unusual name, to be sure, something that might be easy to research due to its novelty. The family had settled in St. Louis in the late 1800s, but were originally “Bohemians” or emigrants from what now is the Czech Republic.

I took a look in all the usual starting points—many of the “Beginner’s Tools” websites that I’ve already written about—and didn’t have much trouble finding lots of information. Working backwards from the mother, Maxine Novy, I found her parents, their parents and siblings, and worked back as many generations as possible in the same manner. And then I began working forward once again, looking for all the descendants.

Once I had enough copies of pertinent documents and other reports of interest, I bundled them all up and got ready to send them to Sara. I knew that she not only wanted to know more about the treasure trove she had unearthed, but that these wisps of family history could be passed down to her own children when they got older.

Before I packaged it all up and got it in the mail, I found one more piece to include. This is one of those “reading between the lines” parts of research that I love to stumble upon. Looking in the St. Louis census records in the neighborhood where the Novy family lived, in the painstakingly careful yet beautiful hand of another era, I noticed the signature of the census taker: he was a Novy. Bill and Sara’s own relative, in his own hand, left a small brush past a page of history, whispering: “I was here.”

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Finding It In The Forum

Some jobs are just too messy for the Lone Ranger. Some jobs require the hunting and pecking of a collective effort—the hundreds of hands and eyes from which minute details cannot escape.

Forums have always been gathering places. Whether the ancient setting of Rome, for whom the term “forum” actually meant “marketplace,” or the town squares of colonial America, these were public places set right in the middle of everything. People came to buy and sell, debate political issues, socialize and gossip. In the online world of genealogy, forums are much the same, though in this case, divided into categories where conversations center on specific topics.

Today, I’d like to take you on a brief tour of the forums which have made research a lot easier for me. Hopefully, you’ll see some sites that pique your interest and bolster your confidence that you can do family history research, too.

One of the first places I started my research was at Rootsweb. As I explained in an earlier post, Rootsweb was a non-profit group founded on the vision of providing people a way to access and share data via the internet.

Rootsweb developed an archived, subscription-based system of mailing lists, divided both by geographical area and surname. Though the hosting is now provided through Ancestry.com, the original search page can still be accessed here.

One thing about the Rootsweb lists was that you needed to subscribe—but that was no object, as the subscriptions were free. Once on the list, any time someone posted to that list, you received a copy of the e-mail, either singularly or in digest mode. I started out subscribing to some of my target surnames—for instance, Tully—but soon realized the cumbersomeness of reading every post of every person in the world seeking information on the Tully family. I then switched research strategies and zeroed in on specific counties where I knew family had settled. For my Tully family, it was the Chicago area. For my Flowers and Metzger in-laws, it was Perry County, Ohio.

Whether subscribed or not, anyone could search the archive of any particular list, either by browsing or by entering keywords. I played around with that, searching for the proverbial distant cousin who might also be researching the same families.

Since I had purchased the database management system, FamilyTreeMaker, I also accessed the forum services linked to their company: GenForum. Laid out in a similar manner to Rootsweb, this site gave me an alternate location to post queries when I was stuck on a particular research problem.

I’ve already mentioned how much things change in the corporate world and how it impacts the products we use, and using these lists was no different. Rootsweb entered into a hosting agreement with Ancestry.com, which required Ancestry to develop a plan to provide Rootsweb’s mailing lists while also continuing to feature their own message board system. Anyone can post now on Ancestry’s message board system through Rootsweb, with a “gateway” to having that note simultaneously posted on the corresponding Rootsweb mailing list, even if the writer didn’t hold a current subscription to the list. About the same time, the GenForum site became part of Genealogy.com, increasing the search capabilities there.

I learned a lot as a subscriber to the original Rootsweb lists for Brooklyn, New York, and Chicago, Illinois. From time to time, depending on where I was “going” in my research, I’d also subscribe to various United States county lists, unsubscribing when I no longer needed the help or could no longer offer my own input. I’m still on the Perry County, Ohio, list, and have run into several of my husband’s distant relatives there. After all this research, I think I know more about his extended family than he does!

Each step of the way was part of an easy, incremental learning curve. For every newbie question I posted, there was usually some kind soul who was willing to help me learn about a new resource or technique for furthering my own research. I’ve learned stuff as widely varied as the few Polish words I picked up while working on my father’s ancestry, to the source of dot-matrix era “ftp” files of death records for my maternal grandfather’s family in the hills of eastern Tennessee.

Getting started is as easy as locating the surname or geographical location of the specific ancestor you want to research. Get on the site, take a look around (“lurk”) until you get a feel for what is happening there, then introduce yourself and ask a research question. Just reading what others have posted is a great start to your own learning curve. And who knows—you may meet a distant cousin in the process!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

With A Little Help From My Friends

I had a friend, once, who was a country-western singer. Oh, I’m a singer, too...but not in the same way as my friend. She was paid to sing. Not long after high school, she landed a contract with A&M records—a real coup—and was on her way to stardom. Or at least to a stringent tour schedule.

Then she became a Christian. For some reason, her conscience was no longer comfortable with her business status, so she negotiated her way out of the agreement. While she tried other music venues, seeking to match faith and fortune, it didn’t really work. She lost her opportunity to sing.

“I can’t just sit at home and sing to my toes,” she complained to me one day. I could totally relate. When you are a performer, you need an audience. You thrive on an audience. Your audience pulls the song right out of you, out into the free air.

This post wraps up two weeks of blogging here. It’s been fun drawing inspiration from the people who make up my family tree, seeking to match flesh-and-blood with stark records of names and dates. But the real inspiration comes not only from my hopes of what I can do to adequately represent these long-gone individuals. My inspiration comes from my audience.

It’s been exciting watching my blog stats. These aren’t posted publicly for you to see, but it was so encouraging for me as a writer to see the number of page views pass two hundred and climb. Slowly, the audience is building. Slowly, it breathes back inspiration.

In sales, there is training on the many ways to close a sale. One technique is simply called, “Ask for the Sale.” And here, I’m going to do just that. I’m going to ask you, the reader, to keep playing your part as my encourager.

You may be asking, “How can I do that?” Simple. There is a box at the bottom of each post labeled “Comments.” Make one. C’mon, don’t be shy—say something!

And make reading easy for yourself—sign on as a “Follower” by clicking the little box to the lower left of the page labeled “Follow” and have these blog updates delivered to your specified location.

It would mean so much to me if you would help spread the word, too. One way to do this is to click on what I call the little toy blocks at the bottom right of each post, next to the comment counter. These are the clickable icons that enable sharing by email or on Blogger, Twitter, Facebook, or through Google Buzz.

There! Now I’ve asked for the “sale.” If you’ve enjoyed spending the time with me on the beginning strands of this blog, I hope you’ll join me in passing it on.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Fiery Spirits, Bland Paper

Beautiful blonde. Daddy’s girl. Headstrong. Southern lady.

She was Ruby Broyles McClellan, great-granddaughter of Florida pioneer George Edmund McClellan, more immediately known as the lively daughter of the Tampa dentist, Dr. R. C. McClellan.

From my first recollections of my maternal grandmother, I could at least always agree with the label of Southern Lady. But there was little more a young child could discern about the long-lost girlhood of her elder.

After all, more than fifty years separated the two of us. With a generation between us, all I could know of what growing up was like in her day would be to listen to the stories others told.

Of course, I could easily recognize the trails on paper: the dates, the certificates, the news clippings. I had pictures of a young flapper (for that is what she threw her heart into), and portraits of a charming lady. I had her face on paper.

But it was the remembrances passed down, blurted out by others in odd moments of recollection, that most convincingly painted her portrait.

My grandmother must have been quite the character. She loved to have fun. She and many friends enjoyed the dances of her day. There was no lack of eligible bachelors coming to call at the family homestead—feigning interest in deep conversations with her dad, while all along it was her presence that they had stopped by to admire.

I heard once from a relative that my grandmother had, as a teenager, gotten into an argument with her mother and actually slapped her. Impetuous. Shocking for that time period.

I heard my mother once mention that her mother had been right in the thick of the “Roaring Twenties,” enjoying it to the hilt.

I heard that my grandmother had been in love with a man, but that her parents didn’t approve. To cool the relationship, they had sent her up north to her uncle’s home in Johnson City, Tennessee, for an extended “visit.”

I heard that, during that visit, my grandmother eloped—with a different man. Tall, dark, handsome, he swept her off her feet. Charming met winsome.

And then, somehow, after years of struggle through Great Depression tribulations, through raising a family, through two-parent career stages in those years when Leave-It-To-Beaver moms only worked at home, she became the proper, sensible grandmother I remember—the grandmother who found her place on paper.

After my grandmother died, my aunt gave me her “Little Black Book.” It was just her address book, but it had other notes in it—everything from my dad’s shirt size for birthday presents to clippings from the newspaper that she had found amusing. One such note said,

For beauty I am not a star;
There are others more handsome by far.
But my face, I don't mind it,
For I am behind it—
It's the folks out in front that I jar.

Paper only seems to blunt the impetuous spirit it seeks to replicate. Oh, for a way to know these elders the way they were during the peak of their lives, instead of assuming their aged shadow represents the full content of their being.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Paper Chase

It hasn’t been hard for me to delve into old records. Even before I did genealogy in earnest, I loved walking through old church cemeteries. One of my favorite day trips, when I lived on Long Island, was to drive to Sag Harbor and wander through their graveyards. I’d search for the oldest headstone. Sometimes, I’d spy the epitath of a Portuguese sailor born in the 1600s.

Getting started researching your family history requires a little record-keeping, too. And a little sleuthing. But you don’t necessarily need to get as hands-on as a walk through the cemetery.

Looking into old records, however, does bring you into another world. Some people are comfortable with that; others can’t shake themselves of the air of morbidity it entails.

Looking at your family tree is like taking a trip through history—only going backwards. You start with what you know: you, and your parents. You already know your own name, and unless you were legally adopted, you know the name of at least one parent, if not both.

While it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to point this out to you, that slip of paper—your official birth record—serves as your first document to identify which parents you are linked with. Saving that, and a long line of other such documents, may one day verify your status as a “First Family” of the state where your family settled. (I’ll post more about that another day.)

Armed with your parents’ names and their dates of birth, the quest is on to find their birth certificates to document their parents’ names. The search may be as easy as a phone call to mom or dad. Or contact with the office of Vital Records or the Health Department that keeps such documents in the state where your parents were born. Names there will link you with the next generation—your grandparents.

This is where the search turns morbid. Like the walk through the cemetery I mentioned above, another place to learn about your ancestors’ significant identifying dates is in death records. Keep in mind you may find some discrepancies in information—official people complete the birth certificate during a happy time, but gather the information to fill in the blanks on death certificates from people who are under a great deal of stress. Memories sometimes fail under such circumstances, so it is always wise to verify those records with a second document.

A less official corollary to the death certificate is the obituary. As I mentioned in an earlier post, there are a few online resources to access newspaper archives with this information.

Once you have worked your way backwards enough in time to cross the access barrier of 1930 (soon to be 1940), you have bridged the screen set up by census regulations to protect the privacy of those who are still living. You can now begin working with census records.

If you’ve worked your daisy-chain of names diligently through the generations (or just asked your living relatives), you should have the names of family members alive in 1930 and can figure out their approximate ages. Having an idea of what state they might have lived in helps, too. If you are serious about your search and can invest in any of the current genealogy subscription websites that offer digitalized, searchable census records, it will not take long to continue the trail backwards, taking ten years at a leap!

If you are not prepared to spring for the approximately $20 per month cost of such sites, you can still continue your research. You can pursue your roots the way I did pre-PC: many public libraries have a lending service in which you can order specific microfilm copies of the census, and search by hand, cranking it out on a reader, county by county and district by district.

But wait! You may be in luck! Many of those same libraries also have computer subscriptions for their patrons, and you may be able to use those thoroughly-modern services after all.

And if not, you still have options, one of which is the network of Family History Centers. Though originated, staffed and maintained by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, most of the Centers designate a time when their genealogy holdings may be accessed by the general public, regardless of church affiliation. If there is no Family History Center near you, their website allows you to tap into not only census records online but a host of other documents as well.

These documents, assembled, provide a rough sketch of your family history—a history you are just beginning to glimpse, piece by piece, as you step backward in time.  

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Remembering Is Honoring

There is an Old Testament command that warns, “Honor your father and your mother.” As I grew up, I heard that a lot. Perhaps that was a commentary on how poorly I heeded wise advice!

The fact that, millennia later, a New Testament apostle was repeating the same injunctive gives me the idea that my failures put me in the company of many.

That is not a dreary rule, though, but as Paul writes, the first commandment with a promise. That promise is for long life—that things “may go well with you.”

Most everyone wants a life where things go right instead of going all wrong. But how do you honor your parents?

When I was a teenager hearing those words, I thought about that a lot. I always thought of honoring as something you do to celebrate a person: throw a party—for their anniversary, or job promotion, or even a milestone birthday—or make great speeches about how wonderful the person is.

In that stage of my life, those options were not even possibilities. When I’d ask, my mother couldn’t even remember her wedding anniversary. My father was self-employed, so no possibility for a promotion! Neither one of my parents enjoyed celebrating getting older. And I didn’t have any platform to jump up on and shout out rousing phrases about their greatness.

So I never could figure out what “honoring” meant.

Until now.

Now, I think I know.

I got my first clue from the last verse in the Old Testament, about a prophet whose main job when he gets on the scene will be to turn “the hearts of the children to their fathers.”

I found my first example in a story about ancient Israel on the brink of a devastating war, when God told the prophet Jeremiah to invite a certain family over for a drink. The family came, alright, but told their host they couldn’t, under any circumstances, indulge. Why? Because their “father”—actually, a generations-removed ancestor—had left them instructions on how to live a successful life, which they had followed to the letter for centuries.

That’s honoring.

Do we remember what our parents have told us? Most teenagers can’t remember five minutes after they’ve been told. On the other hand, many parents haven’t shared substantial instructions on life with their children. What’s there to remember?

Yet, regardless of whether our parents were Fortune 500 company CEOs or gutter drunks in the Bowery, our responsibility is to honor.

We honor by remembering.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

May is for Memories

Springtime: a time for growth, fresh ideas and projects. Springtime in the air energizes and encourages. It makes us look forward to the new.

The May calendar doesn’t bear that out, though. Mother’s Day, a time designated to honor each one’s mother, leaves many remembering a woman long gone. Following on the heels of that is our country’s designation of Peace Officers Memorial Day, and National Police Week—a time to remember those whose service heroically ended in the ultimate sacrifice. And the month ends in our Memorial Day weekend, once again commemorating the selfless service of others, this time to country.

Ironically, two of these three designated dates got their impetus from the aftermath of the Civil War, a struggle none of us here today ever lived through.

Our commemorations serve to recall people whose sacrifices told the story of what was important to them.

In addition to the ceremonies we publicly participate in, we can remember those in our own heritage who have served in these capacities, be they Civil War soldiers, veterans of more recent conflicts, law enforcement officers, or each one of our mothers, grandmothers, and family pioneer women.

There are so many tools to help find records of relatives’ service. A basic, free readout of many online sources for this is called Cyndi’s List. There are several other online lists for veterans of war. Another database accesses information on slain law enforcement officers from 1791 to the present, though there are many other sites, often listed by state, that are on the internet.

Of course, that’s for names that your family already knows. If you are just starting your research, keep these links handy. Chipping away at that mysterious unknown chunk of your family history may soon reveal stories you hadn’t heard before. Those are stories that need to take their place in your family’s May remembrances, too.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Fame, Fortune and Relatives

Ever wonder if you are related to someone famous? That’s a reason for starting family research that I hadn’t mentioned the other day. Mostly, the chances are slim, but it’s still fun to check it out.

My mother’s paternal grandmother was a Boothe. Actually, the way spelling was handled in those days, her surname was often spelled Booth. She’s the one in the photo on Tuesday’s post. I don’t know much about her, but one thing I do know: someone in the Booth family was quite a story teller.

Every since my childhood, I remember my grandfather telling us younger family members that he was related to John Wilkes Booth. Considering this southern gent was telling that to a bunch of “Yankees,” we’d gasp in horror. And squeal, of course, because that’s what young girls do.

A bit of age put some perspective on that tall tale, and I set it aside.

Remember those online genealogy forums I told you about? One day I was poking around online, seeing what I could find about my family, and can you believe I ran into someone else posting that same story? I did some quick calculating based on what I knew about the person on that forum, and figured he was a distant cousin from the Texas branch of our family.

I must have burned the phone lines up, sending out my forum post so fast. And the return volley back at me qualified as a bona fide splat. Keep in mind, with the forum, everyone else saw my post, too. And you know what? A whole bunch of people grew up hearing that same story, too.

What a weird way to meet a bunch of distant cousins!

I still haven’t found any missing link to connect my Boothe family with the real John Wilkes Booth, though someone in my family back then christened his son as namesake of the infamous actor.

That doesn’t mean you should always discard family rumors. Word of mouth was what connected me online with a distant cousin on my father’s side. My older brother happens to be an actor—something any distant relative is sure to take note of. While I was researching a different distant surname, someone online contacted me to try and figure out if our lines were for the same family. He brought up that very question—if I were related to this actor. We’ve since shared quite a bit of data from our research, which has helped both of us.

That scenario can play itself out in the opposite direction, too. I was in Chicago, visiting my husband’s family, kibitzing with a genealogy-prone cousin about the proverbial “brick wall” ancestor that had stopped our research cold in its tracks. Out of the blue, this cousin blurted out that that ancestor was related to a nationally-known sportscaster. OK, the last name matched, but it’s a common surname—and, besides, what are the chances? But he was pretty sure of his call.

I did some networking online with my trusty genealogy forum pals and, out of the blue, ended up getting an email from this very same celeb. Yes, it is true, we are related—and he sent me some wonderful snippets of family history to help push beyond that mystery brick wall that had stopped our research.

So, whether you are related to someone famous or not, pay attention to those stories. Whether they tell a tall tale or the truth, they may just help connect you with someone in your extended family.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Heritage in Uniform

Telling the story of your family history is so much more than amassing a collection of names and dates. There are all sorts of angles to explore.

For instance, today is Peace Officers Memorial Day, a national recognition of those in law enforcement who have paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Public safety is something we all need but seldom think about. I didn’t think much about all that police work entails, either...until I married a cop. When I delved into his family history, though, I discovered I didn’t just marry a law enforcement professional—I married the great-grandson of two police officers!

John Kelly Stevens (the one pictured above) served in the Fort Wayne, Indiana, police department from his appointment on May 21, 1896, through his retirement in 1922. I was delighted to find out that, during his time of service, the local newspapers were peppered with his escapades and tart comments. Accessing the archives of these reports through various online subscription services gave me a whole new lens with which to build a more three dimensional portrait of this man.

Traveling to Fort Wayne helped flesh out that portrait. Our family made it a project to stop by the city’s History Center, run by the Allen County-Fort Wayne Historical Society. We were delighted to tour the facility, which just happened to once house City Hall and, in the basement, the city jail and police department.

A little advanced planning allowed us to connect with the current historian of the local police fraternal organization, as well as a staff member at the museum who helped us locate and obtain copies of John Kelly Stevens’ photos in their archives. During that meeting, we also tried to follow up on the possibility that a Kelly cousin also was on staff, but that will have to remain one of those loose ends that needs more research.

The other great-grandfather was John Tully, who served the South Park Commissioners of Chicago on their police force for 37 years. According to family records, he was “the oldest member of the police force of that body.” I wasn’t too lucky with my search there, though. Fortunately, I had already learned through my experience in Fort Wayne that there are police fraternal or benevolent societies—or sometimes people right on the police force currently—serving as historians of the police department, who are quite helpful with this sort of inquiry. With a city the size of Chicago, however, I found what turned out to be all sorts of dead-end leads, mainly because the bigger the organization, the more uncertainty over who takes care of what. I did a lot of searching online, used my forum networks...and was just about sickened when I happened upon a news blurb that mentioned all the archives of the Commissioners’ police department were to be disposed of after a certain date. You guessed it—that date had, by then, passed.

What I learned from all these research experiences was that, if you have a relative who served in a public capacity, be it anyone from mayor to city dog-catcher, there is probably some record of that service. Depending on the time period, those records may also include photographs, as I found for Fort Wayne’s police and fire departments. If you are willing to spring for about twenty dollars in subscription fees for a concentrated month of research, you may also find—handily indexed, I might add—records of your relative in the various online historical newspaper archive services.

And if, like I did, you discover one of your ancestors served as a police officer, when the next annual Police Officers Memorial event takes place, you will find just a little bit more of yourself vested in that commemoration.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Heritage of Mobility

Photo courtesy Cy Crumley
It’s not a short drive from Florida to Tennessee, and with the price of gas nowadays, it isn’t a cheap trip, either.

That’s today. Can you imagine the limits to travel a hundred years ago? And yet, my relatives didn’t seem to find that to be much of a barrier to relocation.

Remember my great-grandmother, Sarah Ann Broyles McClellan—the one I mentioned a couple days ago? The McClellan homestead was in northern Florida. Though their hometown of Wellborn itself is tiny, and though it’s been many years since the family lived there, their legacy can still be seen in the lake and cemetery that each bear their surname.

But Sarah Ann wasn’t from Wellborn. She wasn’t even from Florida. She was from Tennessee.

And the family’s travels didn’t stop there. Sarah Ann was raised in Tennessee, but her father was from South Carolina, and her mother was from Georgia. And well over 100 years before that, her Broyles forebears braved the trip across the Atlantic from their ancestral home somewhere in Germany.

And I can’t even stomach the cost of a trip across town!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Why Would Someone Want to Do All That?

When we think of hobbies, we think of fun things to do with free time. Genealogy can be a lot of work, granted. But for some strange reason, that doesn’t disqualify it from having a hearty following of enthusiasts.

So who would want to pursue their family history? Many people with many reasons.

Of course, I’ve already mentioned the group I’m in: people who just always have wanted to know. They can’t explain it: it was love at first sight.

New moms and dads form another group. There is just something about thinking of that babe-to-come that turns minds and hearts back to parents, grandparents, and those mysterious others in a long line of those who have gone before. It’s ironic, but the new sparks an interest in the old.

Which points to a corollary of that: grandparents. Something about being a newly-minted grandparent acts like the Blarney Stone of the gift of genealogical gab. Grandparents want to tell their story, and to have it passed down to future generations. They want those precious babies to know about their forebears!

A sadder impetus to research happens to reveal itself in the aftermath of losing a loved one. I’ve had friends and relatives ask me questions about family research a few weeks after a funeral—usually when they start that tedious process of sifting through all the belongings of the dear departed one. Old photos, letters, and diaries prompt memories—and questions. Those left behind are left wondering sometimes—I know my dad’s family was, with the mysteries we are still trying to uncover. It’s always better to ask all those questions before losing our precious links to family heritage, but sometimes it is just not possible.

Another prompt to starting research comes from a more unexpected route: a school assignment in grade school or even high school. That’s what started a cousin of mine down the path of asking questions of older relatives. Some of her teenage discoveries were the only link I had to the mysteries of our family’s arrival as immigrants in 1880s America. While younger students aren’t necessarily equipped with the persistence and patience required of serious researchers, their initial discoveries may whet their appetite for revisiting the hobby in later years. In the meantime, personal family history is a great lens through which to gain perspective on major events in world and national history.

There are probably as many stories of “why I got started” as there are family researchers. But they all go back to that initial kernel: the need—the desire—to know where we came from.
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