Tuesday, February 26, 2013

What a Difference One Letter Can Make

So, here I am, flying along in my genealogy research with the aid of my bright shiny new toys—several newspaper archives with effective search engines (ahem)—and, just to supercharge the thrill, I decide to work on a surname sure to produce viable results.

I zero in on Watrous. That’s the surname of the man Leon Bean’s sister Blanche married in 1888. With a name like that, there couldn’t be too many false hits, right?

To tell the truth, I’m doing this particular search because I’m trying to find background information on why Mrs. Harry Watrous has a cousin from Wisconsin. That would be her husband’s old stomping ground, not hers. But that blip of a news article I mentioned yesterday said it was her cousin, not his, who passed away in Oakland, California; I’m desperately trying to find out who this Laura Carrier from Wisconsin might be. After all, I’m certainly open to discovering a whole new branch of the Bean or Hankerson families.

With a first name like Harry, I’m thinking this Mister Watrous couldn’t be too elusive. After all, my other bright shiny research toy—the name website I found the other day—says that Harry is a name currently considered “rare.”

But now is not when Harry Watrous was in his heyday. Born in 1862 in Wisconsin, Harry was in his prime by the time my what-to-name-the-baby database picks up on the history of name popularity.

The 1880s, while not even near the year of Harry’s birth, saw the name’s popularity hold steady at a rank of twelve, moving into the top ten most popular boys’ names by the first half of the 1890s. By the time Blanche and Harry named their own son in 1903 (Harry, of course), that name had settled back down to thirteenth place in the popularity race.

I should have gotten that clue. There were a lot of Harrys out there in this Harry’s heyday.

That, by the way, is why they invented middle initials. So that one won’t confuse this Harry Watrous with that Harry Watrous.

But you already knew that, didn’t you?

I, however, have been blithely ignorant of that fact, so enamored am I of my newfound bright shiny newspaper research toys.

I’m finding stuff like:
Mrs. Harry Watrous talked on the life of Clara Barton…
Mrs. Harry Watrous, special field worker for the Y.W.C.A…
Prominent among the women workers were Mrs. Harry Watrous…
Then I come to an entry mentioning admirable work just executed by a young American painter, Harry Watrous…and I think I’ve hit the jackpot. Fame! Fortune! Recognition!

This genealogy stuff is fun!

I make a beeline to Wikipedia, my favorite online place to look up stuff.

Like: “Who is Harry Watrous?”

There was an artist named Harry Watrous. Only, to learn anything about him from his Wikipedia entry, I’d have to know how to read Dutch. Why only the Dutch would be interested in Harry Watrous of San Francisco, I don’t know, but I suppose Google™ Translate is always there to assist me, if I get that curious.

In the meantime, it isn’t dawning on me that Harry is such a popular name, until I hit a news clipping telling me
Mrs. John E. Ortlieb and son from Jamestown, N.Y., are passing the winter in California and were Christmas guests of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Watrous at the family reunion of Mrs. Watrous family, the Farwells of Berkeley, eight of whom were present.
Wait! Farwells? Um…that’s not Blanche’s maiden name.

And that’s when it dawned on me that middle initials can become very important.

I went back and took a look at a lot of other newspaper articles. Some were just mentions of “Harry Watrous.” But many others included a middle initial.

Can you believe, in just the San Jose newspaper, I found not only a Harry W. Watrous—and I have no doubt that this is in addition to the Harry Willson Watrous who was the artist I already mentioned—but a Harry A. Watrous, in addition to my Harry G. Watrous?

Admittedly, by 1900, San Jose’s population was over 21,000. But three Harry Watrouses in a city of that size is still incredible to me.

All I can say is: thank goodness for middle initials. Better yet—make that middle names. At least, I hope a name like Harry Griswold Watrous will give our man enough space to differentiate himself from all those other Harry Watrouses out there in San Jose.

Above right: Harry Willson Watrous, "Sophistication," oil on canvas, originally entitled by the artist, "A Cup of Tea, A Cigarette, and She" for a 1908 National Academy of Design exhibition. One has got to love an artist whose talents include not only a way with words, but the ingenuity of devising the Lake George Monster Hoax. From the collection of the Haggin Museum, Stockton, California, via Wikipedia; in the public domain in the United States, European Union, and those countries with a copyright term of life of the artist plus seventy years or less.  


  1. Replies
    1. ...and I always thought I had it made when researching a "rare" name. Who would have known?!

  2. So which bright shiny newspaper research toys are you using?

    1. Debi, right now I'm focusing on any collection that has a wide selection of newspapers from California. Thanks to the #genchat on Twitter last Friday, I now am spending lots of time at the California Digital Newspaper Collection. I'm also using GenealogyBank, but narrowing my searches to their California collection, then including only the northern state titles. In addition, I've found the newspaper index at the San Mateo Genealogical Society useful.

      There are others I use also, but for this California project, I'm finding these to be the most productive.

  3. Yes this genealogy stuff is fun. I'm trying to find a picture to put on my next blog posting.
    You never know what you will find.

    Regards, Grant

    1. Grant, you certainly are finding some interesting stuff, all springing from those letters you're posting. Hope you find the picture you're looking for!

  4. LOL..you are such a riot to read. I just know you will crack this case, eventually.

    1. Perseverance, evidently, will be what it takes--if I figure it out at all...

  5. How adventurous this all sounds, and what shifting sands this kind of research provides! You are a good sport to follow through all these twists and turns. I also would have thought that Harry Watrous would be a rare name. Go figure!

    As I was reading your post, a song from an old musical began humming in my head. "I'm just wild about Harry!" I looked it up in Wikipedia. It's from a 1921 Broadway show called Shuffle Along, a musical with African-Americans as the main characters. I guess this is in the general period you're researching.

    Now I'll go read your later blog. I clicked back to this one from the later one.

    1. Mariann, funny about that song--I know exactly the one you're talking about, but I never knew where it came from!

      My Blanche and Harry were married in 1888. I imagine they were in their heyday from about the turn of the century through the early 1920s. Of course, I've yet to complete my research on this line...but then, when does anyone get to claim completion on a research project?!

  6. http://familytreemaker.genealogy.com/users/w/a/t/Leland-R-Watrous/GENE6-0216.html Shows the start of Mr. Waltrous' lineage. I've not link up Laura yet.


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