Sunday, July 31, 2011

Who Are These People?

Flipping through the photos from a box pulled down from its hiding place, I stumble upon a déjà vu moment. A photo—the same one as before, but from a peopled perspective—tells the story: 
“Pamela Suzanne Gaither
Edward’s daughter
three years November 25, 1959
sitting on her great-great grandma Spencer’s love seat.”

Gaither? Spencer? Who is Edward? Pamela's father? Or is Edward a surname, too?

The names are new to me—not even in my database of over 12,000 distant family connections. But the furniture in the background is now familiar to me. It’s the heirloom my husband’s great-aunt Leona Grant bequeathed to her cousin—a mystery cousin I’ve yet to uncover.

I don’t even know what to call that piece of furniture. It is so foreign to me. I’ve never seen it, though I’ve visited its owner multiple times. I know the house it sat in, though I never knew that at the time. Is it a sideboard? Or a buffet? I know so little about antiques. But I do know one thing: while other families who don’t research their lineage may sport multiple antiques in their living room, I do know the names and stories of my families, but sadly have little tangible evidence of what they may have left behind.

I tried searching online for the name Pamela Suzanne Gaither. Hoping there might be a genealogy enthusiast in her life, I looked through the many online forums for any link. None showed that I could find. Google’s lack? Or do I need to do some heavy lifting on the Shields side of my family research? Who is this distant cousin of all the now-departed Bean family members in my life? What became of that three-year-old? Is she married? Is she a mother? A grandmother? Would her family like to know about their ancestors? Do they know the lineage of the childless woman who gifted them from another family’s heritage?

Strange how one picture can prompt so many questions.

I thought I was fairly well-versed in Leona's family lines. Her father, Leon Bean, though born in California, could claim that state as home only owing to the emigration of his parents, around the Horn, from Maine. Oral tradition held that the Bean family was of French origin, and the Maine connection lends the tale some credibility, though I've yet to document any evidence. Leon married a woman with an entirely different immigration story: Ella May Shields, born in Illinois, whose parents traveled cross-country to settle first in the San Francisco Bay Area, then ultimately heeding their farming roots and purchasing land in Fresno, California.

Regarding the descendants of that maternal Shields line, I evidently need a little more work.

Some genealogy researchers concentrate their efforts on discovering ancestors. While I seek the same information, I can’t help but succumb to the curiosity of what became of all those other family members, the descendants of those ancestors. While I delight in discovering clues about the past, I find myself searching also for the living.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Meeting Leona

"Ethel and Leona" Cousins?
I remember visiting Aunt Leona in her old Victorian house in Alameda, California. The family—at least those of whom remained—used to call the place “The Beanery.” It had been in the Bean family for years.

I was barely out of college when I met Aunt Leona—I, the newlywed, trying hard to make good impressions; she, hovering around the edges of the other side of life’s journey, dispensing with any further need for social niceties. What a picture we form of others when we are introduced to life first from the opposite perspective.

On our long drive to the Bay Area for a visit, my husband would invariably get lost, neglect to ask directions, and drive around in what seemed like interminable circles, before arriving at the forbidding, dark building. Inside, sequestered in her dingy kitchen, Aunt Leona would be waiting for us. I never understood—at the time, at least—why she kept the rest of the house shuttered up. The kitchen was not a comfortable visiting place. We would end up standing, as if at attention before the elderly woman, while we made our inquiries into her wellbeing.

She seemed so lonely, so reclusive, and yet so happy to receive these visitors who went out of their way to pay her a visit. In her gratitude, she seemed compelled to give us something. Mostly, over the years, whatever she gave us amounted to nothing more than what she had at hand at the moment. It often turned out to be things she couldn’t bear to throw away, because they still had some “use” left in them: an alarm clock, faded towels or tablecloths, sometimes even old toothbrushes. My husband always graciously accepted whatever was offered, having learned long ago that it was of no use to rebuff these gestures. For some reason, Aunt Leona felt that people would not come to see her unless they were rewarded.

It may seem idiosyncratic for someone to express gratefulness over the gift of a used toothbrush, yes, but then, when I first met Aunt Leona, she was well into her eighties. Her eyesight was lacking, due to her losing battle with diabetes. The disease had claimed much more of her than that, too, but her spirit was still spunky. How naïve we were at that young age to miss the signals that we’ve since learned to discern in seeing another person’s true needs.

What we saw, as we visited, was what people sometimes refer to as a “crotchety old woman.” There was no earthly way to have been able to turn the clock back so that we “youngsters” could see for ourselves the true being that this aged exterior housed.

But I discovered who she was—who she had been born to be—when I uncovered the few pictures bequeathed to her great-nephew, and by extension, now to me, from their hiding place on a closet shelf. I still don’t know much about this woman, other than what I knew personally from visits with her—I don’t even know the first name of her long-deceased husband—but I can let what I see now teach me that there was so much more to that person than my mental snapshots of first impressions when meeting someone at the end of her journey.

Leona on left, but who are the other girls?

Tomorrow: tracing Leona's life backwards, her heritage forwards.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Around the Horn But Through My Fingers

Approaching a couple of life’s mile markers prompted me the other evening to go back through some old boxes of photos. I can’t exactly say this began a walk down memory lane, for these were not my photos—they were the photos bequeathed by a dead great-uncle upon my now-dead first husband. I had tucked away this box years ago, stymied by the fact that none of the older man’s living relatives of that time knew the identities of the photos’ many subjects—somehow fooling myself into thinking that, if I waited, I’d figure out a way to identify these mystery people.

Not that all the photos were unmarked. This great-uncle had moments of sterling organization, in which he carefully noted subject matter of each snapshot. Unfortunately, most of those photos were of extravagant trips abroad, or of his beloved dog or vacation home in the mountains. Yet it was the people—the people—that I yearned to know more about.

Sorting through those many pictures of things, I came across one photo of an imposing piece of furniture, labeled on the reverse in careful script. “This was given to us by my cousin Leona Grant of Alameda. It belonged to her father’s parents and was brought around the horn in 1860.

Around the Horn?! It was a beautiful antique. And yet, it now resided in the home of someone who was not a blood relative of the man who brought it this long way and preserved it for future generations. This unknown cousin must have been from Leona’s mother’s line—a lucky recipient, but not one whose family line entitled her to the gift.

Leona must always have been a giving person. She seemed eternally grateful that someone would come to visit her in her aged isolation, ensconced in the now-darkened family home. But the gifts we often received upon our arrival—gifts we certainly never required but somehow always obliged her by accepting—were never of this caliber. Who was this cousin? Did she care about this family line and what the travels of this owner meant? Did she even know the father’s name—or his father’s?

I knew these things—at least I was beginning to ferret out this information. I had no idea the heritage I was transcribing on paper had corresponding tangible evidence in the accoutrements of this life’s home. Those items—pictures, pieces of furniture and other collectibles—seemed to be a handle to hold on to the people they once represented. How could we not have received some token of who these family members were? All that was left to us was an old woman’s words and the recollections I could capture on paper.

I would have loved to be given some token of such a heritage—to vicariously live the life of these forebears through the possessions representing their journey through life. How could such an opportunity to hold, to have, such things have slipped through my fingers? When Leona and her remaining brother—the man whose photo box I was now sifting through—were gone, that was the last of that generation for our family. There would be no remembrance other than the poor reconstruction of her reality that I raced the clock to capture.

By the time I met great-aunt Leona, she was in her mid-eighties and doing poorly. Coming to see her to “get” was not an appropriate mission when her needs were so great. Of course, I had no idea at the time what I might be missing. Now that I know what could—might, should—have been ours, though, I can see it would have been a nice touch to be bequeathed with such a piece of history. But the more important task for us, in our time, was to console the lonely being inside that dark house with the message that we were not there for her gifts—we were there for her.

Tomorrow: meeting Aunt Leona.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Little Resonance, Please

The picture to the left is not a Christmas ornament. No, I am not celebrating “Christmas in July.” And yes, I promise this post will have something—no matter how tangential it may seem—to do with genealogy.

My question: Have you ever wondered how those ancient Greeks could perform their now-centuries-famous dramas without microphones, without (technically) even megaphones? How did their audiences hear every word—or at least enough of the script to inspire them to persuade their ancient next-door neighbors that this was the hottest show in town?

Alas, none of us were there, so we can’t know for certain, but there have been many theories. Some experts maintain that it was the masks that the actors wore that did the trick (the reason why I hedged my comment on megaphones). Some theorize that it was on account of the seating arrangement, or the way the wind blew, or the super-human prowess of those ancient pebble-chewing enunciators. A more recent team of scientists came up with the premise that it was the etchings on the seats that made the difference.

I’m convinced that the one thing that did get people listening was something entirely different than all those conjectures. What allowed the acoustics to deliver those ancient lines was a device very similar to what, today, we call a Helmholtz Resonator.

The idea behind a resonator—which, admittedly, is much too complex a physics concept for me to understand fully, much less explain adequately—is that a cavity enables vibrations to be captured and re-delivered in much the same manner as when we take an empty soda bottle and blow across the top of it to make a sound. The shape of the cavity assists mere air around us to become the midwife, if you can call it that, which delivers those pearly tones of the orators up to our listening ears.

So, design a container that allows enough movement to promote vibrations, situate it carefully to augment the initiating sound, and voila! You have provided a way to amplify your message.

While Hermann von Helmholtz developed his resonator in the 1850s, he most certainly honed his observations from physics first applied in those ancient Greek theaters. From those times onward, the secrets of acoustics found their application in settings both secular and sacred, as basilicas and cathedrals adopted the technology. Today, that same concept of resonance finds itself, well, resonating, as scientists take the basic premise and see other possibilities.

Resonance is not only for scientists, though. There are others giving birth to new ideas, focusing vibrations to suit new purposes. A thought occurs to many all at once—a meme—which each individual, separate and apart from the others, develops as an original creation. Or, a thought takes shape in serial fashion, passed along from person to person, as it grows from germ to bud to full fruit.

As in other realms, resonance has its place in genealogy, too. I watch it happen here on this blog. I do some research, think I’ve hit upon an original theme—and then bump into someone else who had that same brilliant idea. A meme grows in this branch of the tree in Brooklyn, too.

Sometimes, though, I hope to provide something—a thought, an idea, a bit of encouragement—that someone else can take and run with. It is in those moments of (hopefully) clarity that writing can be so rewarding.

I see a problem, write about it, mention it to others, and watch the response grow. When I posted my Click-Through article, it seemed to be an idea that not only helped some people, but was worth a mention to others. It rose in my article rankings to third-highest readership ever, trailing only my blog-launching post on Mother’s Day and its sequel the next day. The circle widened from those who read me to those who read the people who read me. It resonated. That brings the thought expressed in the article one step closer to being birthed in action.

That kind of response, of course, becomes Encouragement Fodder for the writer’s soul. That resonance, though, comes with both a bright side and a dark side. It becomes the meme we don’t see, as we become blindsided by believing that our creativity and originality were owing solely to our own effort. It in no way matches the resonance that comes from sharing the path of step-by-step, community-based growth.

While I was glad to see the resonance indicators from my Click-Through post, I was humbled and happy to see the results of joining a wonderful and fast-growing community of genealogy bloggers known as Geneabloggers. Somehow, it was clear to me that my now-soaring numbers were not, in this case, for anything that I had developed, but owing to the mutual support of a community of researchers with widely divergent, yet somehow similar, goals. The resonance, in this case, is the benefit of numerous online kindred spirits linked, not splat-like in the manner of many individual memes, but in the sequential sharing of those genealogical “midwives” who’ve perfected the art of passing good things along.

Thinking about Greek Theater in our now-saturated culture, satiated with every aspect of entertainment and self-absorption, seems somewhat out of place. Of what use is the midwife to those now trying to give birth to something new? The airwaves are overloaded with information. It seems there is no room left for resonance to do its magical—no, scientifically designed—work. “MEGO” (My Eyes Glaze Over) becomes the immediate response to discussions—even to answers sought—spanning a moment longer than the sound bite. We need to recreate room to breathe—room for resonance.

So, what does this have to do with genealogy, you ask? In a cultural climate like ours, how do we hope to entice others to take an interest in their personal family history? The hope I had in starting this blog, for instance, was to find new ways to get people to think about their roots and how much they owe to the richness of their heritage. But just coming out and saying so is insisting on a hearing. Instead, by well-chosen questions to pique interest, by salting the oats through mind-grabbing considerations, we begin to shape the container which will one day resonate with the message we wish to pass along.

We seek to pass along not only the content of the message—those from whom we are descended—but the process by which we discover our message. To encourage others to enter into this process of discovery ensures that, together, we may someday deliver some conclusive observations of value. For we certainly do not engage in a process of research that requires only a meme to deliver.

Taking time to consider these things—these details of lives once well-lived that flow into the essence of what we are—requires the same basic elements as a resonator. We need a cavity ready to be filled, shaped in just the right way to fulfill its purpose, and lots of air—giving room to let vibrations do what they were meant to do. We need something of substance to say, of course, but without the rest, our message will never really become what others are equipped to hear.

Photo above: Brass spherical Helmholtz resonator by Max Kohl, from around 1890-1900, purchased by Dayton Miller. Source: Physics Department, Cast Western Reserve University. Photograph courtesy Wikipedia photographer brian0918.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Catching Cousins

I am not much into fishing, but when I stumbled upon the phrase, “Cousin Bait,” I got hooked by the concept—not because I favor tackling squirmy critters, but because of that eternal hope that my online postings will somehow (hopefully like Velcro) snag some passing, distant relative. I want to make connections. Family connections.

The first time I ran across the term, I was reading a blog post about Geneabloggers. The author, Sheri Fenley, was cataloging the various reasons why people write genealogy blogs. In the midst of the predictable litany, out popped this phrase. When I saw it, I had to laugh: it couldn’t have caught my eye any more if it were festooned with neon lights. An apt way to put things, the term sticks.

I mulled over the phrase for a few days, then wanted to revisit the site—but forgot where I first caught the article. “Google to the rescue,” I charged, but the right link didn't surface. Instead, I found multiple replications of the idea, including some titles with aplomb. “Cousin Bait” is, indeed, how some people roll.

Part of the reason I was attracted to the concept was that—after all, being honest here—I really hope that someday, I’ll get this wonderful email from a never-before-heard-of cousin who will tell me he or she has all the answers to my genealogical quandaries and will set everything right.

In my dreams.

After all, what right do I have to hope that my mystery Gramlewicz great-great grandmother’s descendants will ever materialize? I’m being pretty ridiculous to think I’ll hear from any Aktabowskis, either. But I can hope.

On a more realistic plane, I did hear from a distant cousin just this past week. Granted, the name was more common—Tully—but it did revive hope in this online process of sharing what I’ve learned with those nameless, faceless others out in the ether.

Sometimes, the process comes slowly: in this case, someone found a tree I had posted on regarding my Tully line, and sent me a message there. Turns out we were merely researching outlaws, but he had a closer contact to pass along for me. That contact yielded me the wonderful treasure I received in the mail last week.

I’ll keep trawling for that audacious hope, but in the meantime, it looks like line by line, here a little, there a little, will be what gives me clear sailing on this genealogy fishing expedition.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

More About Collaboration

Yesterday, I briefly mentioned using wikis to collaborate with others on publicly laying out your family tree. In that article, I was primarily focusing on tagging photos. Today, I want to add to that thread. There are several online sources besides those I’ve already mentioned—sources suited to sharing and further developing the research conclusions you’ve already attained. Here are a couple resources I’ve gleaned while wandering through others’ genealogy-related blogs. Though I haven’t yet used them, now that I’ve found them, I’m taking a serious look.

The first wiki I saw was named, predictably, WikiTree. With a motto, “Growing the World’s Family Tree,” WikiTree bills itself as “100% free for everyone.” Their home page is filled with clickable links to everything you need to know about what is contained in the site and how you can augment their holdings. A thumbnail sketch of how to use the site briefs you on the basics, but for the tediously-inclined researcher, it gives you everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know and more on how to set up your own page and become a “project manager” on their site. Below those basics, you have the option of searching in their site for pages already established for your relatives—you can either hunt and peck through their alphabetized directory of over two million profiles, or be direct and to the point by using their search engine.

I like to play around and explore, so I took the hunt-and-peck route. Not being sure of what I’d find, I selected some of my better-researched surnames, like Broyles (where I did find a page for an ancestor several generations back), Boothe (where, sadly, William Alexander did not show his face), and Metzger (where, surprisingly, I found no direct line names). Encouraged by what I saw on the surname directory listings, I threw caution to the wind and searched for my lesser known appellations with abandon, but was predictably disappointed to not uncover the likes of Aktabowski or Gramlewicz. Perhaps I am the only one seeking to remember them?

Another site with wiki capabilities is WeRelate. This is an organization-within-an-organization, as it is sponsored by the Foundation for On-line Genealogy, in partnership with the Allen County Public Library. I’ve been to the Fort Wayne, Indiana, library—my few days researching there made me wish I was retiring to Fort Wayne—so I can vouch for their good name.

WeRelate comes with oodles of help pages, including video tutorials for those bleary-eyed researchers who would rather, this time, be shown than told. However, in an initial (and admittedly quick) search, I wasn’t able to find the same family surnames I had located in WikiTree, and maneuvering seemed less intuitive. In their defense, the website developers mention that WeRelate is still in a beta phase, and (along with several other great genealogy resources), they are mentioned in a recent issue of Family Tree Magazine. This is definitely a place I’ll be taking more time to explore.

My main idea in pursuing wikis is that I want to get the word out about what I’ve found in my family history research. I want to correct errors, of course, and glean from others, but mostly, I’d love to connect with those interested in the same lines. And you never know—this might just be the opportunity to bump into that long-lost cousin.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Bucket List

Recognize anyone?
Years ago, my first husband’s great uncle passed away. Among the things bequeathed to us was a box filled with photos.

“Who are these people?” I wondered, flipping from picture to picture of my husband’s family without recognizing any faces. Thankfully, a few shots were labeled—mostly of vacation trips or a favorite pet—but many of the people remained unnamed.

Somewhere in the box, a photo indicated that the subjects were “cousins” from a city not near this man’s residence. Though I had, by that time, sketched out a rudimentary outline of a four-generation family tree, I had no idea which cousins those might be. I closed the box and shoved it in a closet. No one that I knew was able to identify these people from another era. All I could hope was that my further progress in researching this family line might uncover possible additional relatives who might—just might—remember.

That was a counter-productive decision. The many passing years haven’t helped. Actually, I even forgot about those pictures—until the other day, when I was searching for another photo from another family and stumbled upon this cache.

Finding it all made me remember a firmly-held resolution: don’t leave any pictures behind that aren’t adequately labeled. Pictures of people we should know that aren’t properly documented are as meaningless as pictures of total strangers.

However, while I certainly have the wherewithal to label my own photos, what about photos of family before my time? After exhausting all options for interviewing elderly relatives and still drawing blanks, then what?

This is where the “Power of We” can come to our assistance. At least, it’s worth a try. I’m borrowing the concept from those who tout the benefits of wikis—programs that allow groups to work together on a common goal.

The idea is to put your project where others can work on it with you. In the case of tasks that can be transformed into a digital representation—something you can post online somewhere—you can multiply your effort by inviting others to join in on achieving a common goal. Wikipedia is one of the most well-known examples of this effort. But even without the use of wikis, you can put that same concept to work.

I had this idea to take these old photos, scan them, then invite other extended family to view them, add their comments, and collaborate on labeling these unidentified faces. Photobucket has a group album function, for instance, that might fulfill this need. Another photo-sharing group, Flickr, does the same. Facebook, allowing people to form groups around family research (and other) themes, could also be adapted to serve this same purpose. But I’ve seen other ways to do it. The main thing is: find a platform, and then, just ask.

Whatever you do, don’t leave your precious photo memories in a box—or even a Photobucket—without providing the labels to help others link to their photographic heritage. Ask—and document—while there is still someone here to remember.

Photo (above) depicts the Paris, Ontario, Canada High School class of 1886 (home of some of our Tully relatives). The website asks, "What are the names of the students and teachers?" and directs those who might know these names to click on the comment tab in their website. Photo courtesy of Paris Museum and Historical Society

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Leave Your Mark

It doesn’t take long, researching one’s roots, to realize that we, too, become part of a long chain of humanity. Sometimes we are reluctant to take our place—like when we are urged to draw up our will or pre-arrange funeral or burial—but sandwiched between generations in the march of life, we intuitively grasp the value of leaving something behind.

Holding young Edna Tully’s diary the other day reminded me how deep the need is to receive something tangible from the one who has left us behind. “Memento” becomes too trite a word for it. I’ve been poring over my own mother’s many journal entries in a way that goes far beyond mere reading. It becomes a seeking, a yearning. It is a hope—not to reconnect, but to re-establish our place with each other. It immortalizes relationship.

Having something tangible that represents that relationship enables those left behind to peer inside the veneer they have already bid adieu. Sometimes, there are questions about the struggle that is now over: “How did you endure the agony of your illness? What were you thinking while you went through this?”

Sometimes there are simpler questions seeking to know the whole person better: “What was it really like when you were young?” “What did you think when you went through that difficult time?” There are so many questions that, but for the pain—or, sometimes, shortness—of the last days, would have been joyful exercises in “Getting to Know You Better.”

Yet, sometimes, there are those most urgent of questions, unspoken, left unanswered during a lifetime: “Do you really love me as much as you said?”

The visceral response I’ve had, reading through my own mother’s writing, and the same tender-yet-riveted emotions I’ve noticed in others finding their relatives’ writing post-mortem, convince me that we must realize that we, too, need to leave something behind.

There was a day when journaling was part of a slower-paced culture, a culture that valued words and conversations, face-to-face relationships, a here-and-now that people could reach out and touch. Today, we own a culture in the ether, a culture that saves paper to preserve trees but digitizes relationships. With the click of a mouse, we de-friend long-lost contacts; we “preserve” our family memories through “mommie blogs” in the self-assurance that what has been will always be, blind to the possibility that today’s hottest technologies—and the connections they seek to forge—may someday be vaporized.

There is nothing like touching a book. There is nothing like holding a family member’s words in your own hands.

But what about you? What will you leave behind when you join those before you? Surely, you must realize that someone is following in your footsteps—someone who will ask those same questions of you after you are departed. What will you say to them when you are no longer here to find your voice?

If you haven’t begun doing so yet, start today. Despite being busy with the fullness of life, regardless of what you are doing to pass on your heritage through your genealogical research, there is no substitute for you. Take your place in the procession.

Leave your mark.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Tracing Parallel Tully Lines

A while back, I mentioned using parallel family lines to do an end run around a brick wall relative. For the longest time, my husband’s great-grandfather, John Tully, was my primo brick wall. Since then, I’ve tentatively been convinced to consider Denis Tully of Ireland and Canada to be John’s father—but in the mean time, I took the alternate road of depending on cousins to attempt a creative solution.

My cousin of choice was a woman named Edna Tully. My only clue about her family tie was that she was identified as a cousin in a 1912 wedding photograph of John’s daughter Agnes and her bridesmaids.

I was able to find some online sources showing Edna’s parents’ names, and I soon tentatively listed her father as William Earl Tully. If the term “cousin” was to be taken literally, then William and John would be brothers.

There was a bit of a stretch in swallowing that assumption, though. As far as I knew, John was born in Ireland in 1842. His brother William—assuming he was John’s brother—was born eight years later, in 1850. In today’s mindset of “us four and no more,” child spacing of more than a few years seems unusual; I had to picture the larger families traditional in earlier centuries to consider the possibility of an eight-year gap in sibling ages.

William’s place of birth created some confusion, too: census records showed him as born in Canada, which would make sense owing to family oral tradition holding that the Irish family settled first in Ontario. However, his daughter Margaret’s death certificate showed her father William’s place of birth as Winnipeg. In retrospect, now knowing what I know about another branch of this Tully family which migrated west through Canada, it makes sense that one of William’s children might have mistakenly assumed that her long-dead father had grown up in the same city where her aunt’s family had settled.

William had died relatively young, too. For his daughter Edna, memories of her father must have been vague: she was only six years of age when he passed away. Even older daughter Margaret was barely a teenager at the time of the family’s loss. Understandably, official records depending on their recollections might have been error-prone.

Whether those memories were crystal clear or not, what was passed down still enables us to find these ancestors’ trails. Bit by bit, collective work by several descendants has pieced together a clearer picture of William Tully—and thankfully, in my case, also provided me with the possibility of discovering another generation in John Tully’s line. Putting together clues from several descendants who didn’t even know each other—but whose individual observations created the nexus that became my research stepping stone—I found my smoking gun in the Canadian census of 1852. There, with the right age spacing, was the family listing for my husband’s great-grandfather John, cousin Edna’s father William, and the other siblings I had discovered along the way. With the exception of their sister Johanna listed as a male with the name “Johan,” and the census taker’s quaint (though irritating) custom of delineating all wives’ given names as “Mrs.,” the listing provided a promising summary of all my previous surmising.

But Edna’s story was not done yet. Evidently, a number of her descendants and other relatives have persevered in pursuing her lineage. I’ve been blessed to meet a number of them online over the years. And yesterday’s package delivery—such a delightful treasure—became the latest find from which to glean more genealogical discoveries.

Those discoveries come with a price: I now have some corrections to make in my database. But it is a price well worth the investment. The treat of sharing the opportunity to glimpse the life of a branch of this family—if even only a corollary—has been so worth the opportunity to find a way to press onward in discovering new generations.

In this picture: William Earl Tully with his wife, Sarah Swanton Tully, and daughters Maime, Margaret, Edna and Esther. Edna, about four at the time of this 1894 portrait, is seated in front of her father.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Special Packages and Summer Afternoons

I didn’t plan on having a dreamy summer afternoon today, but arriving home from morning errands, I was greeted by my diligent postal service representative with a compact box requiring my signature. I had been expecting the package, but I guess being mentally prepared wasn’t the same thing as being heart-prepared: when I opened the box, I fell in love with the first item tucked carefully beneath the tissue wrapping.

It was a diary.

A teenager, turning “Sweet Sixteen” in the midst of this journal’s pages, catalogued the places she frequented, the friends she spent time with, the events she attended—all in the plainspoken matter-of-fact manner of the younger generation. The only difference was that this writer began telling her story on New Year’s Day in 1906.

I was entranced because, this afternoon, I got to read the words she wrote so many years ago—descriptions of the people and events related to my husband’s paternal grandmother, Agnes Tully. For this writer was Agnes’ cousin Edna.

For so many years, I had scoured census records detailing the addresses where Edna lived, copied documents recording the significant events in her life, and compared notes with other researchers’ online postings. But now I got to read about these people and places as seen from her own fifteen-year-old eyes.

I mulled over entries giving initials only, guessing who those initials might represent. I saw mentions of cousins’ names, knowing where they fit in the family picture. I lived through her memories with her, in this little glimpse she allowed, and tried to absorb the essence of what life must have seemed like for a fresh face at the turn of a different century.

Before I knew it, my afternoon had flown. I had been living in a different life for a time, and it lent its timelessness to me.

There was more to find in that box, of course, but those discoveries will wait for another day. For now, I just wanted to savor the memories of another relative’s life.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

This One's For You, Lora

A Dear Reader asked about my Boothe line, so now would be an appropriate time to delve into a little detail. Who knows—perhaps we are related!

My Boothe heritage is owing to my maternal grandfather’s mother’s line. I’ve only pushed back the curtain on this line to about the mid-1800s. My story is firmly ensconced in the state of Tennessee, where William Alexander Boothe took up residence after the death of his first wife and the subsequent disintegration of his estate in Virginia.

I have yet to figure out any more about this great-great grandfather, so I guess you can call him one of my Brick Walls. I’m in plenty of company on this one, for William Alexander Boothe has many descendants on his trail.

My search for the Boothe line began with my Davis family Bible. Someone religiously entered the names and significant life dates of every member of Martha Cassandra Boothe Davis’s children, so at least I have a reliable listing of this branch of William’s grandchildren. Since I am researching descendants as well as ancestors, that Bible record became my springboard to launch my investigation into the Boothe line.

It hasn’t been hard to find the other descendants of William’s second family, the Tennessee family that he and Rachel Riley (possibly Honeycutt) raised. I’ve been able to access online records for many of their children—and their children’s children, too. I’ve blogged about this line a couple times—in particular, tipping my hat to one Boothe researcher who spent years carefully documenting and posting online his discoveries regarding this family’s line.

At this point—and this is what I have on my RootsWeb database—I have details on eleven children from William and Rachel’s marriage, including data on descendants of six of these children. I also have found some information on the two sons from the first marriage, including one son’s descendants (this is where our John Wilkes Booth descendant came in). All of this is subject to much correction; frankly, I’d be delighted if a distant cousin were to pop up and set me straight on any errors! And, of course, if all my blanks could be filled in by community effort, it would double make my day!

So, my Dear Reader, if you have Boothe or Booth in your roots, please take a walk through my family tree garden and compare notes. I’d love to hear whether we are long-lost relations!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Travel Check List

It won’t be long at all and I’ll be seated in the Alameda McCollough Research Library in Lafayette, Indiana.

“Where,” you say?

The simple lives observed by common people aren’t often acknowledged by imposing research centers or national repositories. Sometimes, their simple stories are sheltered in lesser-known corners—if they are told at all.

This summer, I’m looking for a simple Irishman who bid his native County Mayo adieu, exchanging his homeland pock-marked by the ravages of famine and poverty for a glorious adventure sailing to the warmer climes of New Orleans.

I’m not sure how John Stevens arrived in the New World—I haven’t yet found any ship’s passenger lists documenting his passage—but I do know that New Orleans was not his final destination. A simple piece of paper held in the collection of the archives in Lafayette told the rest of the story. Now, I’m hoping to discover how it began, and what happened to his traveling companions of the early 1850s.

I already know that my itinerary for this research trip will include the state archives at the Indiana capital city. It is a mere hour’s drive in today’s world to travel from Indianapolis to Lafayette, so I’ll be able to see what is in store at the local source, too.

Thankfully, some of my travel plans were guided by internet research, coupled with a few well-placed e-mail queries. Online genealogy forums provided some specific hints as to what material is worth checking on, and exactly where to find it (down to which drawer in which aisle of which room at the state archives—now, that’s what I call friends!).

Along with a laptop and also a printed copy of my ancestral records, I will head with my immediate family to these libraries and see what can be found. I always get a little breathless walking the same steps as an ancestor—call me romantic, or hypersensitive, or, well, okay, just come out and say it: loony—so to say I am looking forward to this research opportunity is somewhat of an understatement. Though it is off the beaten path, as far as the big guns of genealogical research are concerned, it is as thrilling to me as anyone’s “big game” hunt.

For the days in which I am traveling, I will be blogging updates from whatever internet-facilitating nooks and crannies I can find. Hopefully, I’ll be posting some data finds and pictures. Less talk and more facts will round out the two weeks we will be on the road.

But for now: the big rush to be totally prepared for the research journey continues.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Clicking Through Helps Keep “Free” Free

In the world of genealogy—especially the region where charges for copies of death certificates and marriage records add up—stumbling upon an online resource of public records for free is a delightful event. Once I find places like that, I am sure to park their web address in my Favorites file right away.

Now that I’ve been a frequent flier to some of these small, rather personal sites, I’ve gotten to know the people who gave of their time to make these resources available to others. The crux of the matter is that, while these people do what they do from the goodness of their hearts, it does, in the long run, end up costing them money.

Though generous to a fault, some of these site creators have had to scramble to find alternate ways to fund their hobby of giving to others. One such way is to place ads on their site, in the theory that these icons or clickable text messages will be revenue generators. At least, that is the hope.

However, in reality, some site owners find that the promise falls far short of the monthly web-server bills.

I really like finding free sites that further my genealogy research, so I’ve given this matter a lot of thought. The one sure solution to their problem is to charge for their services. If people value what they are finding, you would think they’d be willing to pay for more of it. But that doesn’t often happen. Even including a nice “donate here” button doesn’t make much of a difference.

So I tend to think pursuing why the ad-income solution doesn’t work is the better route to take in helping my resource-site friends stay in “business.”

The question is: why don’t the ads generate the necessary revenue? The simple answer is: because readers aren’t clicking through to the ad sites.

Why is this happening? Well, I can’t speak for others, but I’ve been researching genealogy since the wood-burning days of the hobby. Back when the internet world cooled enough for me to jump in, most revenue-generating resources looked like late-night real estate in Las Vegas: glaring, in-your-face, even offensive. The last thing in the world I would have considered doing back then would be to click on those pre-MySpace-style banners.

I’m afraid I’m not the only one who developed that non-clicking habit. I’m pretty sure there are others out there who decided they didn’t want to encourage those businesses of the neon-persuasion with any click-throughs.

And so, here we sit, happily compiling our genealogical databases for free, merrily progressing while oblivious to how near the brink our altruistic providers really are.

After I heard about that conundrum, I decided to change my ways. If I saw a business being advertised on a genealogy site that I might be in the market for, or a product I was interested in, I started tentatively clicking the link. True confession: the first time I clicked on an ad, I did so expecting my computer to blow up. I was just waiting for some apocalyptic sinister result to follow. But no endless stream of junk mail, no locked up task manager, no computer version of voice mail jail barraged me. I clicked in, read what I was interested in, made my decision, and left. Simple.

I started shedding my pre-conceived notion of looking at online ads because I realized that it was click-throughs that help my genealogy providers keep doing what they are good at doing. That also gave me the opportunity to open up to a whole new world of reliable small businesses online. In helping others, I helped myself to a wonderful array of marketplaces. After all, if I’m going to buy something anyhow, if I buy it via a click-through from a preferred data-provider’s website, I’m not only benefiting
myself, I’m helping a good site stay online. Even if I don’t buy, if I click through on a genealogy-provider’s site, it still benefits that website and its services. And that, like the proverbial ripple effect, in turn helps others.

Why do people hesitate to click through on ads on our favorite genealogy sites? I can’t answer fully for others—but I sure wish a lot of my fellow researchers would follow suit and, in the process, help support the sites that benefit us.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Migration, Maps and My Last Name

Having fun with genealogy data, such as creating a pie chart of your personal ancestry, is an enticing way to introduce family tree research to your family or to your students. One of the great things about learning is that the more you know, the more questions you start having.

So I gave some more thought to what my pie chart revealed. It made me wonder how prevalent my surnames were in my current country of residence, and it made me think about other comparisons, too.

With the assistance of the internet and search engines, it turns out, a lot can be found. I’m in a visual mode for learning right now, and the graphs, charts and maps I’ve found look like handy tools for encouraging your young people to try their hand at discovering more about their roots.

Having made my pie chart on personal ancestry, I first thought, “Well, what about other people’s ancestry? How prevalent are my original ethnic roots in the land where my family now lives?” Turns out there are dozens of resources to display this answer. Wikipedia, of course, is the primary go-to source, but they obtained much of their graphics from the US Census Bureau. There are distribution maps for many of the major nations of origin, and even for some of the lesser-recognized ones, such as my maternal grandfather's Welsh roots.

Then, my mind turned to surnames: how prevalent were mine, as a proportion of this country? I found an online database that contains the 50,000 most commonly occurring surnames in the United States as shown in various census years throughout our history, and started plugging in some of my surnames.

Since I had already been working with the great-grandparents for my pie chart, I started with my father’s side of the family. Laskowski gave me some interesting results. Nothing came up for Puhalski so I guess that shows me that my surname didn’t rank in that top 50,000. Undeterred, I went for the spelling variation I’ve seen the most: Puchalski, which only gave me results for 1990. At least, I made it into the one-out-of-7500 category there. For Zelinski, well, suffice it to say there weren’t too many. That’s the spelling variation I found reported on my great-grandmother’s daughter’s death certificate, and I never felt too sure about that rendition. Switching to the spelling variation Zielinski, I did a bit better. I gave up there—didn’t even try for my paternal grandfather’s mother’s maiden name (Krauss) because I’ve only found one very squishy record of that name in documentation and I’m not very confident of it, though I’m sure that would be a more common name.

Moving to my mother’s side of the family, I got the opposite result. There were so many people with those same surnames that it rendered the data rather useless. McClellan makes a predictably widespread showing through all the available data years, but provides information quite contrary to mine, as my family settled in the southern colonies and ended up in Florida and South Carolina. Broyles starts out, as I already suspected, in Tennessee only in 1850, with population saturation of about 1 out of 1,000, spreading out from there to all but the northeastern states by 1990. Davis, while producing a spectacular technicolor display, also provides little information of use to me, as the name is so common. Although Boothe, while a common name, produced a less widespread display, I was surprised. Because of the spelling variation, I also checked the Booth version. It turns out to be more widespread and prevalent (in saturation), but because some of my distant relatives switched from the one spelling to the other, the data doesn't tell me much...other than to provide a curiosity.

That’s the data, as far as information on the United States goes. However, the possibilities don’t stop there. There are resources to check prevalence of surnames in other countries, too—whether nation of origin, or other immigration destinations. I remembered Herby, my old trusty source for surname concentrations in Poland, and since I had it flagged in my favorites, went back to visit the old site; unfortunately, the dreaded error message found me there. I didn’t stoop to the disappointment, though, and went searching on Google for any other possibilities, and found several. Wikipedia again came through for me with everything from history of specific surnames and ancestry groups to stubs of articles on specific surnames, just waiting for someone to fill in the blanks with a new article entry. There are articles and charts tucked away in all sorts of online nooks and crannies. Even Facebook gets in on the act.

So, there it is: a pile of data full of colors, shapes and numbers, waiting to be tossed into an enticing melange of ethnic possibilities for your personal family tree diagram.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Tee Time: Eight Greats and a Pie

Sometimes, we inadvertently make genealogy research sound cumbersome, when actually, searching for our roots can become a fun family endeavor. Borrowing from the “Unit Studies” approach I learned during my homeschooling days, the quest to discover one’s family history can run, educationally, as far afield as history and math.

Take the recent blog post by professional genealogist, Sheri Fenley, detailing her find: a handy way to transform reams of family ancestry documentation into the clean snapshot of a visual. Using a kid-friendly website program, and following her inspiration on Family Tree Magazine’s blog by Diana Haddad, she converted the sources of her heritage into a pie chart.

But why just do that yourself? Use the opportunity to include your children (or students) in the project. With a little study in fractions and percentages, blended with some geography smarts and interview skills, your student sleuths can come up with their own family’s ancestry graphics.

I gave it all a test run, myself, today. Here’s my “pie” recipe:

First, take eight great-grandparents. If you are just beginning your genealogy research, you can always start with four grandparents.

Itemize the geographic origin of each great-grandparent. I had to cheat somewhat, because I haven’t yet found the national origins of some of these ancestors whose lines stretch back to colonial times in the United States. In those cases, I had to rely on family hearsay. And for others, suffice it to say I didn’t want to get entangled right now with the geo-political changes since the time of their emigration from their homeland, so I inserted the country designation they were most comfortable with claiming.

Group ancestors from the same nation or people group. In my case, I had three great-grandparents from Germany, whom I reduced into one category—though in another case, I didn’t follow suit. While Wales and Scotland are currently claimed under the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom, each of my relatives from those lines fiercely contested that sovereign rule of Great Britain, preferring to stand by their own regional identity, so I carried forward that oral tradition in my pie chart.

Itemize your remaining categories and do the math. Since I take my math with a little simplicity, I did fractions first. My eight grandparents collapsed into five nation categories, so I assigned each group a fraction denominated by “8” with the head-count of each great-grandparent ethnicity group providing the specific numerator for each category. Then, never wandering far from my handy calculator, I divided each numerator by 8—so, for instance, my German contingent’s result was 0.375.

Plug the answers into the appropriate boxes in the pie-chart generator. And violà! You now have a tangible representation of your ancestral roots to print, post, or share by e-mail.

Better yet, your children can wear their project results. Here’s a website that’s devised a way to wear your heritage either in pie chart form, or inspired by flags-of-all-nations design. What I like best about these tees is their subtle reminder that, no matter where we come from, we now all call the same place home. (Under the pie chart, the tee shirt proclaims, “100% American.” For our immigrant-heritaged readers from other countries, you can change that statement on the tees to read, “100% Canadian” or “100% Australian” or whatever fits your situation.)

Now, instead of your child wearing a tee that states, “My parents went to Hawaii, and all I got was this tee shirt,” your child can wear something that proclaims, “My parents came from Hawaii, and I even got this tee shirt to show it!”

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Itinerant Genealogist

“Have research destination; will travel.” Hmmm…has a western sort of feel to it. I like that—though this time, we’ll be headed east.

August managed to free up some time in the old calendar, so we’ll be traveling through Indiana, home of some relatives of the great-great magnitude. In preparation, I’ve been checking out specific county and city destinations, to assure we make the most of our limited time.

In addition, I’ve been posting on some trusty genealogy forums, seeking advice on local records, as it’s been years since we’ve stopped in Lafayette, Indiana. This trip, I’m hoping to peruse some church records from the 1850s to resolve some documentation irregularities on my Stevens and Kelly lines.

A forum member helpfully suggested that I access microfilms of church records at the state library. I’ve recently posted on using state archives, but I had never been to Indiana’s collection, so I thought I’d follow through on that tip. However, now that we’ve crossed the fiscal-year line for state budgets, I was alarmed to recently read signs of the economy’s impact on some of these helpful repositories.

I'll keep that warning in mind. Better make last-minute double-checks. It is always helpful to make those connections pre-arrival rather than waiting until it’s too late to change course. In addition, I realized that the genealogy collection there, which I’ve been advised has quite a bit of material I’d be interested in, doesn’t come with a fully-itemized listing on their online catalog. So I’m hoping to get some clarification from the librarian there via email. I want to make sure the resources I’m seeking are not only there, but accessible during all hours the library is open—and accessible by all patrons. If any special arrangements need to be made prior to arrival, I want to check that out, too.

There are several items I want to find while I’m there. I’m looking for Stevens and Kelly records in the 1850s, mainly. I have tentative records already, but due to that era’s lax handling of spelling, I’d like to double and triple check. For instance, some records I’ve already found use the spellings “Stephens” and “Kelley.” This is excusable, considering the time period. But in addition to that, I also have some records which actually changed “Stevens” to “Stephenson.” While this sort of name-morphing happens to that surname even today, I don’t feel the freedom to blindly accept that the only Stevens-Kelly marriage record I’ve been able to find in Lafayette for that decade is one that is actually labeled for Stephenson. I’m hoping for a second smoking gun.

So, I’m looking for marriage records. Then Stevens birth records—actually, baptismal records—for their three sons, James, John Kelly, and William. And then, that missing documentation of wife Catherine Kelly Stevens’ untimely death shortly after the birth of her third son.

Since these events occurred in the 1850s, city and county did not yet provide documentation. I have to rely on church records. And since, according to church histories online, the churches I’m looking for were barely established at that time, there may be some real challenges for us this August. On the other hand, state archives are usually great repositories for newspaper collections. The Lafayette papers aren't generally accessible online, so the state library's collection will be just the place to make up for that lack.

What would I find if I didn’t look? Now is our chance to hit the trail. So, state archives, county research centers: here we come! Here’s hoping we rustle up some evidence in their yet-to-be-digitized collections.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Being That Someone

The other day, I mentioned running across a Wikipedia listing of signers of the original Florida Constitution. In that article, I found a clickable listing of all the signers, including my great-great-great grandfather, George Edmund McClellan—only to discover that the click directed me to a non-entry in the wide Wikipedia world.

Knowing that Wikipedia is, indeed, Wikipedia—the encyclopedia written by thousands of volunteers worldwide—I know that that near-blank wiki page means that someone at least thought it might be important to generate an article on this George McClellan. As to who that someone might be, though, we’ve all been left to guess. There’s been no follow-through.

Part of the calling of family research, for me at least, has been to respect that ancient admonition to honor father and mother. I don’t take that literally, but see it in the broader sense of remembering my fathers and mothers. In remembering, I want to encourage others to recall and respect those ancestors, too. These are people who have made contributions that changed my life for the better; at the very least, I want to reflect on the meaning of their lives.

The usual way I’ve gone about this task is to research and record what I’ve found about my relatives’ lives. For the most part, these were simple lives with common contributions to a small circle of family and friends. But occasionally the circle broadens, and I find an ancestor whose life had an impact on the extended community, too.

When I’ve discovered that, my mindset has kept me locked in the thought that, well, that’s just my relative—how neat to know—but that’s about all there is to it. The concept that others might like, or even need, to know is an idea that’s still foreign to me. I realize the impact these distant relatives had on my life, but I’ve never seen this in the context of what they might mean to others. I guess I never saw it in that light.

Who knows how long that Wikipedia page has been sitting there in the same condition, calling for someone to fill in the blanks. I always saw Wikipedia as a quick place to fill myself in on the basics of a wide variety of topics. I never saw it as a place that I can make better by my own contributions.

Until today. I really thought about it, and came to the simple conclusion: Why not? Even though I don’t have the sources, I don’t necessarily have to turn into the be-all-end-all of article writers for this page. According to Wikipedia, someone adds a short bit for an article—they call it a stub—and then others join in and flesh out the details. To borrow from the movie, “If you build it, they will come.”

So I can start building—but not so fast: there is still somewhat of a learning curve. Process-wise, I’ll have to learn about how to make Wikipedia entries. Content-wise, I really would prefer having some source documents to verify that what I write has been previously confirmed by others. At any rate, as I journey through this, I can fill you in on the details. Maybe that way, someone may follow suit and make this community effort even better.

Someone? Sounds like a good summertime goal for this genealogy gal to tackle.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Storming Your Bastille

Every French history buff will recall that today commemorates the 1789 uprising of the people of Paris, an act that has become a symbol of revolt against oppressive government. The Bastille, once an imposing medieval fortress turned political prison, was soon physically dismantled, but its import as a psychological rallying point has survived for centuries.

The energy from that flashpoint of historic action can vitalize your endeavors, too. While you may not see yourself in a struggle against oppression, you are still seeking to liberate segments of history that have been held hostage by institutional silence. While we have ample supplies of digitized documents for online research, every collision with a genealogical brick wall reminds us that there are many records in store that still need to be liberated for public access.

I have gone through seasons in my own research when I’ve been on a roll, finding online what seems like endless data sources to stoke my progress. And then, it all stops. It is at such times that I remember that those old-fashioned microfilm readers may still serve a purpose: there are reams of documents still sealed in old-technology formats that have yet to be transformed into new-technology-readable material. Some of our data need liberators!

There are other records that have yet to be rescued from their paper-bound original state: newspapers not yet scanned, county records from less-populated settlements that lay off the beaten historical path. Those records need rescuers!

Thankfully, this is already happening, though the progress seems slow. Individuals—and in some cases, small groups—are realizing how little data from their own region is represented in the collections of the better-known genealogical data aggregators. An acquaintance of mine is just such a one-man show, single-handedly photographing birth, marriage and death records at local courthouses, starting with Perry County, Ohio—home of my mother-in-law’s family roots, for which I’m thankful—and branching out to other states. One of his latest projects is to convert historic books to a searchable computer format for free public access, a project so huge it will require many kind donations of time and money to conquer.

Another example I’ve recently found in my own hometown is that of a coalition of county Genealogical Society, Historical Society and Museum, and public library to create an online, searchable database of local obituaries. A call for volunteers for this project just went out last month.

Of course, there are the trailblazers in this type of endeavor. I’m so grateful for the work of the Italian Genealogical Group; without their online postings, I would be hard-pressed to research my New York City roots from a distance. They are still pursuing additions to their digitized collection, still seeking not only donations for their work, but volunteers to multiply their efforts. And in Canada, I am indebted to the ongoing efforts of the volunteers at Automated Genealogy in transcribing and linking census records for public access at no charge.

There are many other such projects, of course—enough to require a document the size of Cyndi’s List to recount. But these projects couldn’t exist without the dedication of many volunteers.

At the dawn of this new internet age, someone once observed, “Information wants to be free.” “Free” may be the destination, but the journey will take work—the kind of work that requires the hands of many liberators.

Join that effort. While you are helping others dismantle their brick walls, you may find that someone else has unearthed a treasure for you.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...