Thursday, March 31, 2016

Civil Societies

There is something that puzzles me about local genealogical societies, so perhaps opening up this post to feedback from you, as a reader here at A Family Tapestry, may garner some useful input.

I'm a part of my local genealogical society. Everything I've ever experienced of that organization has demonstrated that it is made up of people who care—about preserving records useful for research, but more than that, about helping people begin their own journey of uncovering their family history. Like most organizations, we host monthly meetings which are open to the public, providing training on topics of interest in genealogical research. We host classes for beginners. We provide basic research services in the local area for a modest fee to those inquiring for help from a distance.

I thought all genealogical societies offered just about the same services. With the same civic interest in helping others in this field—you know, sharing a mutual love for this same pursuit.

Apparently, I am wrong.

Just as many people from around the world have done in sending inquiries to our society for look-up services, one of our members recently sent an email to the officers of a local genealogical society in another state. Writing to see if they provided any such look-up services—and for what fee—she briefly explained the gist of her research goal.

She was surprised at the response she received. No, amend that: she was aghast at the innuendos loaded into the reply.

Keep in mind, this was just an average everyday member of a local genealogical society, not a professional equipped with all the right buzzwords to pack into her query. She had just sent a simple email, assuming all societies would respond like ours would. Even if the response were to be different, a simple "No, we do not provide that service" would have sufficed.

Since this member happens to be a friend of mine, she showed me the exchange, wondering if somehow she was reading it all wrong. She wasn't.

On my part, the response seemed not only unprofessional, but overheated. If it were simply a matter of one poorly-worded note, I might have written it off as stumbling across someone else's bad day. But it wasn't just one letter; it was followed by an "Excuse me?" response with clarification of my friend's intent in posting the original question. That, in turn, escalated into insult hurling. I began to feel as if I had slipped into a time warp of 1990s-style flame wars.

Experiencing that exchange—if only vicariously—reminded me of some cautionary comments I've seen in the past few years concerning local genealogical societies. One source for such comments came from the early years of an online resource known as #genchat. That Twitter-based genealogical discussion group, meeting biweekly, is a group I highly recommend—you can view their "How It Works" explanation here, and check their schedule of discussion topics here—but it was here that I met other researchers who had had less than optimal experiences, trying to join local genealogical societies.

I used to think it was just being kind when visiting speakers to our group would beam when they observed, "Your group is so friendly." Now, I wonder if I should take that comment in a different light. Is it really a veiled way to comment that other groups aren't? I had no idea there was any such possibility. I'm still wondering where all those genealogy angels are hiding their wings.

I know there are those isolated horror stories out there—some readers here have even commented on such experiences—but I keep thinking those are rare instances of unthinking, momentary glitches by those who usually conduct themselves in a much more approachable way as representatives of a pursuit we all want to encourage others to take up. Right?


If you belong to a local genealogical society, what's your organization's standard for being receptive to research inquiries from outsiders? Do you have a protocol for encouraging newbies? For welcoming research requests? For providing support to those who would like to learn more about genealogy?

If you are not close to any local society—or have felt rebuffed by the group already established in your own hometown—what are some of the gestures that would make you feel more welcomed and encouraged in the pursuit of genealogy?

I know there are all sorts of national—and even international—resources for genealogical research now. We can—if we wish to go it alone in solitary confinement at our computer desks—do much of our own research from the comfort of our own homes. If we are just a tad bit more social than the genealogy moles in the instance above, if we want to learn more about how others go about it with their research quandaries, we can always get some face time by partaking of the kazillion online resources, such as podcasts, webinars, and other tutorials, to see how the rest of the world handles their research. Better yet, we can tune in to tear-jerking stories of how our favorite celebrities have discovered their own roots, or how average people with the weirdest family legends have discovered the truth about their Cherokee princesses, or how adoptees have finally made their way home. There are ample opportunities to "do genealogy" without ever having to talk to a real, live person.

But it's my contention that genealogical research—being, after all, about people—is a people-based pursuit. At some point, being with real, live people—face to face, in the same room at the same time—adds a dimension to genealogical endeavors that seems to have been eroded over time, the more we rely on these more modern, high tech conveniences.

Perhaps it's just that we've lost our touch when it comes to relating to other human beings. But surely, we can find our way back to those person-to-person experiences—a place where flame-war retorts would be something that we would never consider doing to another person's face.

But how to get back to that point? How do we re-introduce the human element into this most human of pursuits?

Any suggestions? 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Thoughts (Nightmares) On Blogging

Recently, I took a spin around the blogosphere, gathering up words of wisdom on just how to do up yer average, everyday ol' blog just right. When I really got down to it and considered what the "experts" were saying, though, I was horrified.

Write catchy headlines.

Use short segments; break up text with headings and sub-headings. Add bullet points.

Make text easy to scan.

Write to address as large an audience as possible. Don't use big words. Never write long sentences.

Use eye-catching graphics to pull readers in.

But don't make the blog's appearance so glitzy as to turn people away. Think the uncluttered simplicity of Pottery Barn catalogs, not the glare of the local carnival midway.

Perhaps you are thinking, "Yes; I can do this!" Grand. I'm so glad for you.

I was horrified. Horrified, especially, when I thought how such advice casts writers as followers, not leaders—certainly not as change agents, hoping through their craft to make a difference in their culture.

I've heard that The New York Times had—at least at one point—been written at an eighth grade reading level. There is no way, following today's advice to bloggers in particular, that even that level of education can be spoken to. Some material online seems as rudimentary as a fifth grader's essay on "How to Mow the Lawn." No wonder readers need to scan through online articles; there is no substance to captivate the thinking mind.

There is even a term, used derisively on some social media sites, for instances where one dares to put up a writing sample—say, of some substantive issue, such as political or economic analysis—for discussion. "TL;DR" is the new shorthand for "too long; didn't read"—but it is an epithet delivered with attitude.

I'll have to admit, if those are the standard recommendations for bloggers, I've failed the whole lot, miserably. I even confess to writing sentences long enough to fill an entire paragraph. Long live Russian novelists! My paragraph-long sentences are no match for the giants of another era's literature.

Granted, many of those seeking to emulate today's writing advice may be blogger wannabes, hoping to make the big bucks like the blogging superstars they've heard about. Perhaps that is not the same genre as what we geneabloggers seek.

If you've stuck around long enough to get to the end of some of my more long-winded posts, perhaps you are part of genealogy's Marines: "The Few; the Proud." There may not be very many of us, but we understand that stories have a purpose. Whether that purpose is to help us learn something, to get us to think, or perhaps even to change us in some microscopic yet significant way, it has to serve as a catalyst to insure that we never exit in exactly the way we began the encounter.

Where is writing's impact in the milieu fostered by today's writer's advice? How can today's writing—stripped down, dumbed down, propped up with catchy headlines—make a difference in a reader's life? What value can be gained by zipping through a pat post of platitudes? If we can't take the time to think about what we are reading, how can it massage needed change out of our behavioral rut?

In the many springtime engagements my husband does for the Every Fifteen Minutes program, he has a little card he hands out to the high school students in the closing assembly. The goal of the card—no larger than a business card with the words, "Because I said I would," printed on the bottom margin—is to allow participants to commit to a promise. The promise, of course, is the hoped-for result of experiencing the program: to not drive after drinking alcohol or using drugs—or at least to take care of each other so their friends don't get behind the driver's seat under those impaired conditions. The card, however, is left blank so students can put into words whatever they want to convey in that message.

In the two days leading up to that point of distributing the blank cards, a team of professionals—fire fighters, highway patrol officers, defense and prosecuting attorneys, judges, joined by bereaved parents and former students released from their prison time to share their tragic experiences—has worked with my husband to educate the students on every aspect of what it means to lose a life on account of a drunk driver's actions.

My husband spends the beginning of that program getting to know the students first as friends. It is only after that point of winning their hearts that he shares his own story of devastating loss. His goal is to bring about a change of attitude, not just mentally but in their gut—what education professionals might call "affective learning outcomes." If people don't feel strongly about something, they are not likely to make that change in their behavior.

It's after the wrap up session, that final assembly, when my husband calls upon the student body to make a commitment to each other—to their friends. That's when he passes out those cards. The cards are for the students, not necessarily to turn in for anyone else's information. But if they want to, the students can hand them to the school's representatives at the assembly. Often, my husband will receive many of those cards after they are completed. And they are quite encouraging to read.

Just recently, a high school junior and his parents walked up to my husband after he completed one of these assemblies. It was pretty obvious that student had been experiencing some strong emotions as the assembly drew to a close.

The student wanted my husband to read his card, right then. "You changed my life," the card read, followed by a commitment to stop abusing drugs and alcohol.

While I'm sure that student may see some twists and turns in his path toward honoring that commitment over a lifetime, I'm also certain that change of heart wasn't brought about by a five paragraph, subtitled, bullet-pointed blog post with handy-dandy free ebook offer attached. There may be some ways to evoke strong emotions rapidly, but I doubt substantial change can be brought about by the advice pedaled by today's writing "experts" on how to get your message out. If change takes time, so does the process of convincing one to take that first step.

When I think of experiences like that, and juxtapose them alongside the glib advice offered to today's writers, it's obvious the preferred path will be to take the route designed to make a change. After all, why read something if it isn't going to speak to you in any way? If what you are reading leaves you in the exact condition in which it found you, I reckon it might just have been one of those bullet-pointed, sub-heading-slashed five paragraph wonders littering the blogosphere. It certainly won't have been one of those dour Russian tomes reflecting on the condition of Life. Hardly the concentrated supply of inspiration to convince you to make a change. Not even enough controversy to terribly inconvenience a few electrons.

When I consider blogging as a medium for getting out one's message, I fervently hope this universally-accessible form of communication resists the temptation to take its marching orders from the drivel masquerading as today's expert advice. I hope blogging is a medium still evolving; that the format will deliver substance deserving more than a cursory glance.

"Too long; didn't read" is, after all, not the response of the thinking public. As leaders, writers who put faith in the hope that there are others out there keen on considering thoughts worth thinking are themselves shaping a future that reclaims a rightful place for the reflective life. While I may only be able to do my minuscule part, in synergy with others of like mind, it will make a difference.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

When You Think You're The Only One

So many times when I share about my interest in genealogy, I hear the plaintive remark, "If only someone else in my family were interested in all this research I've done."

It is quite a concern, especially for those of us who have poured hours into researching our family's heritage. Of what good is all that documentation if there's no one to whom we can pass along all this treasure?

I have heard this remark from fellow genealogical society members. I've heard it from those just starting out in my beginner's classes—people who have always wanted to know more about their family, but feel the weight of that lonely journey. I've seen it mentioned online in genealogy blogs and forums.

Ever the optimist, I've always chirped my standard song: "Oh, there will be someone; just wait and see."

And then I worry on that person's behalf, when no one in the family materializes with an abiding interest in taking up the family's research mantel.

Just the other day, however, I found myself in the midst of an engaging phone call when I realized just what was unfolding right before me. The call was one of those pre-holiday "Happy Easter" wishes that morphed into a lengthy conversation, as we caught up on family news from one of my husband's cousins. Being a younger mom with a large family, this cousin had lots of news to share.

Somehow—I know you will find this surprising—the conversation turned to genealogy. This cousin mentioned wanting to capture information on her husband's side of the family to preserve for her own children, but being so busy with the usual daily demands of a growing family, she wasn't sure how—or when—she'd ever find the time to get started. She mentioned finding out that an uncle on her mother-in-law's side of the family had spent hours detailing the history of that side of the family.

"I should get in touch with him," she concluded, thinking he could provide some of the information she wanted to compile for her children.

That's when it occurred to me. How long might that uncle have been researching his family's history? How difficult it must have been—something not easily replicated now by a thoroughly-Americanized descendant of immigrants whose language may not even be spoken now by those in the current generation of that family. All those ethnic familiarities well-known by that uncle would be entirely foreign, should our cousin have to start from square one and reconstruct the family's story. But this uncle had already done way more than lay the groundwork.

"You really need to let him know you are interested in this stuff," I cautioned this cousin. What if the man were elderly? Or in poor health? What would his kids do with all that research, if something were to happen to him? What if his own children didn't care about all the work he'd done?

I could see it unfolding right now: an aging uncle, having devoted the better part of his life to capturing every memory and detail about his family's saga, thinking, "No one in my family is interested in this stuff."

Could he be thinking he is the only one, when here sits this busy cousin of ours, musing over maybe, someday, you know, when things settle down, contacting that uncle and asking a few questions about the family? It wouldn't surprise me to discover that being the case.

So many times, when I hear people bemoaning that "No one else is interested; I'm the only one," they are usually thinking of their own children. And they are usually thinking in terms of who is interested now.

As it often turns out, it is not the immediate next generation, nor the direct descendants who pick up that interest. It sometimes turns out to be a grandchild. Or a niece or nephew. Or even a more distant relative—one of those shirt-tail relations you've met once or twice at a wedding or funeral. The connection may be fleeting, or incidental. And maybe nothing will come of it.

For now.

But given time, that someone will return, coming back to ask a few more questions. Or to compare notes, since being inspired to launch into his or her own research.

Maybe that someone currently has a schedule that's tied in knots with two or three active preschoolers. Or a demanding job and a potential promotion on the horizon (upping the stress level to perform exponentially). Sometimes, that other side of the story will take time before it can find a suitable landing place and step into your world, where you are anxiously awaiting arrival of that someone to pass along your life's research.

Make contingency plans, of course. But just know: there may be someone out there, after all.

Above: "Grandma's Favorite," 1893 painting by Greek artist Georgios Jakobides; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Monday, March 28, 2016

A Break From the Usual

While I may have mentioned last week that it was the breaks in my school and work routine which allowed me to squeeze in a few hours of genealogical research in an otherwise impossibly filled schedule, sometimes it is the breaks from research that help enliven that return in earnest.

Since yesterday was Easter Sunday, I decided it would be a good day to push away from the computer and let a break from research do its refreshing work. My husband and I are deep in the throes of empty-nest syndrome, so with only the two of us to join in holiday festivities, we had a relatively low-key day. Dinner was great—as it always is when a gourmet chef grills steaks on the barbecue, augmented by the season's first treat of fresh asparagus—but I just wanted something more to round out the afternoon.

Sunshine and spring temperatures always lure me outdoors, so I suggested picking up some ice cream and heading to one of the marinas on the other side of town to watch the boats come and go. Our city is perched on a delta, so we have ample waterways to afford that type of activity. Lest you think it far too early for an afternoon out on the river, remember this is California, where we sported a high of seventy two yesterday.

Despite ample opportunities to do so, this isn't something we ordinarily do on a Sunday afternoon. In fact, it wasn't until I was halfway through my ice cream when it dawned on me where that out-of-the-blue urge came from: a childhood memory.

You see, many years ago—and nearly three thousand miles from here—my dad used to load us all into the family car, drive to Carvel for some ice cream, then go park at the marina in the next town, where we'd watch the boats cruise by. We'd just chat idly on a summer afternoon while staring at the calm waters and the sailboats drifting by—or the speed boats just chomping at the bit to break out of restricted waters.

After we returned home yesterday afternoon, I pulled up Google Maps to review just what that spot by the old marina looks like, now. Sure enough, I can still trace the route from our home on one side of the canals to the marina on the other side. I can't tell you what our family talked about, those sunny afternoons when we'd grab an ice cream snack and go sit at the marina, but I still remember how to get there.

Looking at that map brought back all sorts of childhood memories—the kind of activities and places I'd love to share with my own daughter, if we can ever manage to jibe schedules and travel plans. Yes, those are the little things of life's memories, but they still are part of what makes us what we are today. And it adds so much more to our current family history to be able to pass along those memories to the next generation. After all, if each generation preceding us had passed along their stories, and each subsequent generation carefully handed them along to the next generation, in time, we'd have a collection of recollections that would make even the most particular genealogist jealous.

As it turned out, while I thought the day's activities were just perfect for taking a break from my usual daily genealogical research, it only served to recharge my perspective. It's inspiring me to pursue, with due diligence, those fleeting memories of generations just-past—before the opportunity is lost to capture and preserve the stories that need to be remembered.

Above: "Clear Sailing," 1880 watercolor by American landscape painter Winslow Homer; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Without Any Doubt

Some people researching their family heritage are blessed by the certainty of specific identifiers pinpointing their ancestors. One of those identifiers is the family's religious heritage—which I'm reminded of, as I work on my husband's solidly Catholic line.

For such families, today becomes a day in which the current generation now shares in the traditional remembrance annually kept by our ancestors: the Resurrection Day of Jesus Christ.

As important as faith was to our families' ancestors, knowing this has become not only a designation to identify previous generations, but a way to share in that heritage and understand what was important to them. It was a way of life just as noteworthy as—if not more than—their occupations, their hobbies, their customs of daily living.

While we take time out from our research and other workday endeavors to be with family today, may you enjoy the day and all its blessings.

Above: "The Incredulity of Saint Thomas," oil on canvas, circa 1602, by Italian master Caravaggio; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Disrupting Genealogy

A shake-up is not always a bad thing, even in genealogy. Yes, we all like our pedigree charts in order and our online subscription services instantaneously at our fingertips. We even can be found to be somewhat disgruntled when our favorite free online resources aren't behaving up to expectations. But sometimes, when things go differently, it does give us pause to reconsider what we've come to take for granted.

The other night, for instance, while I worked on my online trees at, one of those "we'll be working on stuff so don't mind us and our bogged-down website" messages flashed at the top of my screen. True to their word, the site seemed to slow down more and more, until I just gave up and went to do something else more productive.

It wasn't but a few hours later that that small voice—the one I've regretted not heeding in the past—reminded me that I haven't synced my online database with my desktop-resident program. I got to thinking about what a massive amount of data is entrusted to how catastrophic it would be if a glitch out of nowhere got the whole thing tumbling down. Wouldn't that be a disruption.

Of course, it hasn't helped to read about a real, ongoing disruption in the genealogy world—that of the discrepancy over opinions on security issues held by Family Tree DNA versus Gedmatch. Of all people, I know nothing about the furor that set-to entails, but I do know how enigmatic the latest press release on the topic seemed to me, especially the part advising participants to make copies of results with old kit numbers—"please do so now."

Ah, those jarring prompts to take immediate action. Not comfortable for a procrastinator like me.

So, as I make my bi-monthly review of numbers for genealogical progress, I remember how much more work there is yet to go.

This half of the month did show some progress, although not as much as could be expected. As I had been doing some review of those accumulated "hints" on my trees, I realized how much pruning those family trees are in need of. Since there's no time like the present, I set to, using the "merge with duplicate" tool at Ancestry, to remove as many extraneous entries as I could find. With a family line that favored marrying cousins, there were bound to be a few such instances. So, in a way, my count went backwards.

A second change came in realizing newly-added records at Ancestry meant some people might have additional documentation available—some, even, being additions of family members showing up in the 1940 census. Yes, as incredible as it seems, there are some parts of these far-reaching family trees for which I hadn't revisited their entry since before the 1940 census became available online. Engaging in that little exercise yielded me a few extra names in a tree that hasn't seen any action in quite some time—my husband's paternal tree, where a boost of eighteen extra names brought the total count there to 955 people.

I should try that same exercise on my own paternal tree, which still sits at 180 people, with no changes since last fall. Perhaps some 1940-vintage news on family members in that tree will yield me a few clues on how to proceed with that brick wall.

As usual, the two trees with the most progress are the maternal lines for both myself and my husband. There, my mother's line now sports 7,436 names—up 71 since the last count. Even better, my mother-in-law's line, while only at 3,798 names, had an increase this time of 284 entries.

Still, I realize there are several branches of each tree which need to be targeted for growth. While I've been busily filling out the filigree in some branches, other lines have been entirely neglected. Just that thought should be enough to shake things up. Sometimes, it's better to have a specific strategy for making a difference in research progress. I've been raking it in, hand over fist, with the distant cousins in my husband's Snider and Gordon lines, but it might be better to assess where the gaps are and target those surnames for further inspection.

True, while all this effort is mainly for the benefit of seeking the how of DNA matches at both Ancestry DNA and Family Tree DNA, I realize there are some parts of these growing trees for which I am clueless about matches. Take my own maternal line for instance: I have no idea exactly how we connect with the Laws surname beyond my second great grandmother, Sarah Catherine Laws of North Carolina, born in 1833. Who knows what cousins branch out from that missing connection—potential DNA matches I'm unable to determine, for lack of information.

And there are plenty of DNA matches over which to puzzle. I'm up to 1,078 matches at FTDNA and 268 at Ancestry DNA, while my husband currently has 646 and 104. Most of these have not had their connections confirmed—and I'm making only glacial progress on these, as it is. Yes, some targeted research in the face of these threats of genealogical disruption may be just the prompt I need to start getting that job done.

Friday, March 25, 2016

I Break For Genealogy

Ah, spring break. Hearing of all the schools in the surrounding districts which still adhere to a scheduled spring break during Easter week—or is that merely a coincidence?—reminds me of how I used to get my genealogy research done in earlier years. Yep, on school breaks.

Now that I've taken an active part in promoting our local genealogical society—in hopes of boosting our membership, of course—I run into all sorts of people who have promised themselves they'll get around to "doing" their family tree, once they retire.

I couldn't possibly have lasted so long. The suspense would have killed me.

Of course, I started in earnest on my lifelong obsession back when I finished college—the first time, that is. I'd squeeze in a trip to the state archives (only a forty five minute drive for lucky me) on a day off from work. Or stop at Sutro Library in San Francisco or the Family History Library in Salt Lake City en route to visit family or friends. Sometimes, folks wondered what the trip was really for—them? Or the research?

Once I landed a "real" job—teaching high school students—the ebb and flow of research days seemed to dry up to less than even a trickle. I soon found that was handily balanced by the luxury of an expansive summer vacation. Still trying to escape the economics of those starving student years, though, the teaching gig needed to give way to a more permanent, year-round engagement, closer to the field of my specialization. Gone, for many years, were those opportunities to squeeze in a few days of research in the year's calendar.

If it had not been for opting for the home education route with my own family, perhaps I, too, would be pining away for those golden retirement years when one could research family history to our heart's content. That's when I began maximizing that routine of feverish research during school breaks. Summer vacation, spring break, and even the back half of Christmas vacation yielded up precious hours to follow that passion.

Our homeschooling years are far behind us, now, and my research calendar no longer has to morph to fit an academic calendar. But some things stay with us, no matter what season of life we're in. When spring break gets here, I still perk up and remember fondly the opportunities to grab time for genealogical pursuits.

If you haven't "retired yet," I hope you don't pine away for that moment. Be proactive and schedule that "retirement" promise into your calendar now. When we salt away those gifts of time we've always promised ourselves, in the long run, it invigorates us and helps us return to our regular tasks, refreshed. In the meantime, it provides a taste of accomplishing that genealogical project you might have been dreaming of doing. Even if it is "retirement" on the fifteen-minute-installment plan—or the spring break version—it's a pocket of time that, revisited again and again, can add up.

And give you a chance to do more research on that family question you've always wondered about.

Above: "Spring in Schoore (Zeeland)," 1894 oil on canvas by Belgian realist painter, Theodoor Verstraete; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Remember the Iceberg

It was encouraging to find a possible passenger list entry for John Stevens, Irish immigrant to the United States in the early 1850s. Yes, the joy is partly owing to the fact he was my husband's second great grandfather, but there are more reasons than that—among them a response to my hope of determining whether the man arrived on our shores married or single. You see, I'm still puzzling over the other half of that family's story: just how his wife, Catherine Kelly, happened to arrive in the same small town in Indiana.

You think looking for someone with as plain a name as John Stevens is a challenge? Just try your hand at the Kellys. A far more popular surname in Ireland than Stevens, Kelly had numerous adherents in the New World, as well. And Catherine? A name mothers were crazy about.

I do, thankfully, know Catherine's parents' names—James and Mary. Yeah, I know: Mary Kelly. It doesn't help much. But put them all together—possibly adding siblings Matthew, Rose, Bridget, Thomas and baby Ann—and it might just yield a recipe for search success.

Well, at least that was what I was hoping.

You see, I had already found an early marriage record in Tippecanoe County, Indiana, that was likely for our John and Catherine. I say "likely" because there was one glitch to the record: it named a John Stephenson. Now, the "ph" spelling variation I can live with—it happens all the time. Even mistaking the name as Stephenson is not unusual; my husband gets that all the time, himself. And we did know from other resources that John Stevens did marry a woman named Catherine Kelly.

If I could be certain that John and Catherine were married in Lafayette, Indiana, then of course he would have been traveling as a single man. One more positive point for the possibility that I've found his passenger record. And a signal for me to look for a complete Kelly family unit in transit.

Because of John's route to Indiana—from Liverpool to New Orleans, then up the Mississippi—and because a relative of his used the very same route the following year, it seemed reasonable to assume the Kelly family may have gone this very route, as well.

The only problem is: I can't find any sign of them in currently-available New Orleans passenger records for that time period. Nor can I find any combination of partial family groups in transit, either.

That's when I take a deep breath and remind myself of the iceberg.

You may recall that proverbial iceberg. You know, nine tenths submerged from view. It's that underwater proportion—the hidden part—that is deceivably larger than we assume.

I need to keep reminding myself that, in genealogical research, that submerged proportion of available records has yet to be digitized. If I can't find it online, no problem. There are massive amounts of records yet to be digitized. That James Kelly family is still out there. Somewhere.

With time, I'll find it. In the meantime, I won't beat myself up with the frustration of not finding what I'm seeking. Sometimes, due diligence in an exhaustive search may mean biding our time. Waiting can sometimes work wonders.

Above: British landscape artist John Atkinson Grimshaw's 1876 painting, "Whitby Docks." Courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Aboard the Bark Thames

It always seems to be cause for genealogical rejoicing when we find documents loaded with dates pertinent to the existence of one of our ancestors. I had thought I found such a document when, several years ago in Indiana, I located Irish immigrant John Stevens' declaration of intention to become a citizen of the United States.

The details of the document laid out the route of John Stevens' journey from his homeland quite clearly: that he was from County Mayo in Ireland; that at the time he completed the document in 1851, he was twenty seven years of age; that he took passage on a ship originating in Liverpool, England; that his port of arrival was New Orleans; that his arrival in port was in December of 1850.

What more could one want? (Well, besides readily accessible and legible passenger records for the port of New Orleans.)

After years of slogging through indexes and microfilmed records, I can now rest my weary eyes and celebrate the discovery of those now-searchable digitized films at

One would think this means yet another research task crossed off the old genealogy to-do list. But no, it seems the court clerk in Lafayette, Indiana, did not check with the immigration officials down in New Orleans. For whatever reason, nothing on available passenger records seems to match up with those details on John Stevens' declaration.

Could someone have gotten something wrong?

Pretending that perhaps someone forgot the exact date of arrival, I was able to manage a possible alternate record last week, when I revisited this long-languishing research assignment. Out of a list of many Stevens travelers, with dates ranging from the late 1840s through the early 1850s, I could only find one John Stevens coming from Liverpool.

Oh, there were more John Stevenses on that list. A popular point of departure for New Orleans seemed to be Cuba, from which more than one John Stevens emerged. Of course, I'll have to keep an open mind about that; what if our man from Ireland made a midway stop in the Caribbean before continuing to New Orleans?

But that sole candidate coming from Liverpool straight to New Orleans in that tight time frame has me troubled. Why? His dates just don't add up right. See, though his declaration—drawn up in August, 1851—states he was twenty seven when the correlating passenger list could possibly add up to the right age, the date of the journey was not in December of 1850, as his declaration states, but in January. That's nearly a year earlier.

Think someone just made a mental note that it was in mid-winter, but couldn't remember the exact month? Or forgot to change the date, right after New Year?

I so desperately want to call off the search, declare a winner, and award the honors to "the Bark Thames." Yes, I know there are many records yet to be digitized and placed online, and for that I need to restrain myself and remember to be patient.

But I want results now. Couldn't this be our John Stevens? Pretty please?

Oh, how much I wish those old passenger records contained a few more hints than the mere entry for name, gender and age. With a name like John Stevens, there are too many mind-boggling possibilities.

Above: Excerpts from the passenger list for the voyage of the Thames from Liverpool to New Orleans, arriving in port January 15, 1850; courtesy

Tuesday, March 22, 2016


Does your family tree have a house style? Whether you publish your tree publicly or privately, it does, you know, have a "look."

Publishing houses maintain such house style guides for freelance writers who are hoping to have their articles or manuscripts put into print under their commercial imprint. Style sheets can include quite a bit of detail on just how a company wishes to have its material appear. Use of certain fonts, amount of spacing between lines or in margins contribute to the "look" that makes a product distinctive, but style sheets speak to much more than those outward appearances. Decisions reach down to what might be thought of as the most nit-picky of details: representing numbers in alpha rather than numeric form for everything two digits or less, for instance. Writers wishing to be published by such companies had best follow those many directives.

But that is the world of commercial publications, and this is just me and my little ol' family tree, you might be thinking. Whatever does this have to do with genealogy?

Perhaps it is obsessive of me to insist that my tree have a standardized appearance. But the thought is not original with me. It has long been traditional in genealogical circles, for instance, to include the device of printing surnames in ALL CAPS. For many, standardized requirements also include the European manner of recording dates, with the day listed first, followed by month and then year.

The range of decisions needing to be made to allow your tree to look standardized is far-reaching. Do you, for instance, include abbreviations for states or countries, or write the words out in their entirety? How do you handle recording such locations of birth or death when the borders are constantly changing? Do you include titles when you enter an ancestor's name, or relegate those entries concerning education, occupation or nobility to a "notes" section?

Though there are some aspects that have been traditionally adopted, across the board, for genealogical communications, there are many details that remain simply a matter of personal choice. No matter what the choice, though, it makes for a much cleaner appearance—and, in many cases, much less confusion—to make your decision on an element and then stick with it.

I am reminded of the convenience of adhering to these decisions, now that I'm doing some spring cleaning on my family trees. Going back, taking care of shaky-leaf hints or gleaning names from old obituaries, I'm reminded that it's the little habits in deciding on the "look" of my trees that keeps those trees streamlined enough to allow my eyes to scan through printed reports to easily locate information I'm seeking. No helter-skelter look for my trees! With everything standardized, it does seem to put my eyes at ease when having to look over large reports.

Granted, this is a personal opinion. But it's a decision I'm glad I followed, despite the initial extra work. It's really no different than the behind-the-scenes work a publishing house goes through before bringing its product to market. And it warrants that "job well done" feeling, too. Workmanship in our own genealogical research is just as important, and deserves as much attention to detail, as any other publication. After all, we're doing this so it will last, aren't we?


Above: "Rest Along the Stream, Edge of the Wood," 1878 oil on canvas by Impressionist landscape painter Alfred Sisley; courtesy Google Art Project via Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Spring Cleaning

You may have realized that fifty-fifty spot in the calendar has already arrived: the point at which the amount of daylight is balanced in each twenty four hour rotation by its absence. (Well, that's what seems the convenient explanation; around here, the actual equivalents were attained last Wednesday, March 16, when the sun rose and set—obviously, twelve hours apart—at 7:14.)

Whenever that time arrived in your neighborhood, it likely was accompanied by gradually warmer temperatures, less storminess, and a bit more greenery on the local shrubs and trees.

For whatever reason, those occurrences also seem to prompt a feverish spring-cleaning response in many. I am generally immune to that, but this year, it oddly affected me in one respect: I've set to, cleaning up my family trees.

With the constant addition of new record collections at, there are little green leaves springing up all over the place on my trees—family trees, that is. I've followed those prompts to connect a few more records to the right individuals, add a few descendants, remove a few duplicate entries (oh, those distant cousins who end up marrying each other!), and generally spruce up everything.

My main focus has been on those elusive DNA matches whom my intuition insists may have something to do with specific family lines. For instance, the Kelly line in my husband's paternal tree, where we have a match at Family Tree DNA—but no specific mutual ancestor on which to pin the connection. These are items on a long-lost to-do list that need to be revisited—but how can that be accomplished until further documentation provides the clear picture of how the match can fit?

Another focus this week—thanks to the celebratory prompting of Saint Patrick's day (week, in our book)—has been on tracing the arrivals of those Irish immigrants. In particular, despite documentation on the Declaration of Intent of my husband's second great grandfather John Stevens that he arrived in the United States on a ship from Liverpool via New Orleans, I have yet to locate the exact passenger list verifying this. Yes, in past years, it has been a bear, slogging through such material, but now with searchable lists easily accessed on Ancestry, I've run out of excuses. I'm hoping I've located the right listing, which of course, encourages me to also search for John Stevens' wife's family and their arrival in the U.S., too.

While this is nowhere near the amount of effort expended by those well-meaning adherents to the real Spring Cleaning routine, it is a type of "cleaning house," as well. Just as real trees need pruning from time to time if they are to bear any fruit, our family trees need some attention, as well.

Above: "At Binsey, Near Oxford," 1862 watercolor by British landscape painter George Price Boyce; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Revisiting an Irish Wish List

It wouldn't be right to close out the week of Saint Patrick's Day without revisiting an Irish enigma in our own family history. While we've solved the puzzles of the origins of our Tullys, Flannerys, Flanagans, and even Kellys, we've yet to come to grips with the very name our family currently carries: Stevens.

You may recall my mentioning, quite a while back, the discovery of the Declaration of Intent of one John Stevens and his (likely) brother, Hugh Stevens in the town of Lafayette, Indiana. That was an exciting moment in our quest to figure out our family history, when we actually held the document once marked by my husband's second great grandfather.

Despite that original rush, the search hasn't produced one whit of further excitement. Indeed, after one mournful afternoon spent slogging through the Missing Friends listing—the hard way, looking at the index in the back of seven of the eight printed volumes—I had come to the point of succumbing to the notion that perhaps our John Stevens was actually an alias, not the man's real name back home in Ireland.

Of course, that second great grandfather didn't make things easy for us. Coupling a relatively common surname—Stevens—with the even more common given name John, he wasn't helping our cause much. He did, however, leave that one tiny mention on his immigration papers about having come from County Mayo. It was, after all, a clue. I decided to revisit all the usual places.

Stopping first at the Irish Times—despite their having unceremoniously disinvited John Grenham and his seven-year-long column on Irish genealogy—I noticed in their maps that County Mayo showed only one household, back in the time of Griffith's Valuation, claiming that Stevens surname. However, if I switched the spelling of that name to Stephens, it would produce records for twenty seven households.

It seems the Irish penchant for spelling was much like the take on spelling in 1850s midwestern U.S. towns. Would I find any better luck resuming my search under the more common Stephens spelling? In fact, back in Ireland, there were dozens of other variations. Perhaps the problem wasn't so much a name change as a spelling change.

The one Stevens household in Griffith's Valuation—apparently not completed until mid-1857 in County Mayo, long after both John and Hugh Stevens had reached the United States—was that of a Michael Stevens of the civil parish of Killasser. Indeed, if I change that surname spelling to the more common Stephens, there were several other households in Killasser, as well. That might be a likely target to explore.

Now that those National Library of Ireland digitized Catholic parish records have been indexed and made available on various subscription sites, would it be possible to find additional baptismal records in the church parish correlated to that civil parish which would match up with the John and Hugh I am seeking? Every day, these questions seem to become more easy to answer. While success in research used to mean more and more of that old fashioned diligence in hard work, success now may also factor in the variable of just how long we wait before revisiting that research task.

Above: Overlooking Marien Place in Munich, 1912 painting by German artist Charles Friedrich Alfred Vetter (1858-1936); courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Flying Into the Future,
Looking Back to the Past

When I was a kid, Pan Am (remember them?) published a world tour book listing every international destination served by the airlines. I know, because I found it in the library.

I remember summer afternoons, when it was too hot and muggy in New York to do much of anything else, taking my checked-out copy of the Pan Am tour guide and sitting in the shade on our front step, studying every page. I couldn't have been more than eleven or twelve.

As I read the travel advice about visiting Caribbean islands or countries in central Africa, from the distance behind me would come the whine of a passing jetliner on its approach to JFK International Airport. The sound would gradually get louder, then pass overhead, then fade into the distance as the jet prepared for landing. By the time one flight could barely be heard anymore, another one would replace it.

That sound became the inspirational accompaniment to my childish goal of visiting every country in the world. And why not? I had everything I needed to know, right at my fingertips in this tour guide. Easy.

Of course, several flights home from college a few years later cured me of any latent wanderlust. Six hours on a nonstop flight from SFO to JFK was about all I could handle in one sitting. Though I've since seen someone else has taken up that very goal and succeeded, I've become quite the home body and am happy to let others pick up that mantle. Now, I nurse along much more demure goals, like posting on a blog every day.

It seems, however, that that latent travel urge may have been genetic, for by the time you are reading this, my daughter—who is still blogging her saga of two semesters in Ireland—has blitzed through Korea and headed to Japan. All that, incidentally, after helping me present on Irish research at our local genealogical society meeting on Thursday night. When you're young, things move along at lightning speed. So fast, in fact, that it is already tomorrow where she is staying tonight.

Of course, I can't help thinking about this like a genealogist. Having heard, recently, that while DNA testing has incrementally been spreading through places like Europe, those with Asian heritage lack as ample a referent sample base for comparisons, I had to resist the urge to cram DNA test packets into my daughter's luggage. She was, after all, going to Korea and Japan—two places of origin for many current residents of the United States. Surely, some of them would be curious about their matches in their ancestral homeland.

What I realized, though, is that if, like me, my daughter manifests the same propensities, could that not mean I can extrapolate something about my ancestors' personalities, likes and dislikes, and tendencies as well? If my daughter gets the "travel gene" from me (or the "pay attention to me" gene from my husband), from where did our generation get those things?

If what we are like now will someday be projected into the future, courtesy of our children's children, in a very general way, we can gain a sense of what that future will be like for our family, in terms of the propensities we've passed along to our children.

Likewise, perhaps that gives us a more empathetic connection to those who people our own roots, as well.


Above: "Dresden by Moonlight," 1839 oil on canvas by "the father of Norwegian landscape painting," Johann Christian Claussen Dahl; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Had I Been a Millionaire

When you click through to the last slide on the PowerPoint, answer the last question, fold up your notes and pack up the laptop, there is a certain amount of satisfaction in having delivered a presentation. That is: if you like teaching. If you are built for that, you live for it.

Not to say that everything will run perfectly every time. Yet, it wasn't until after completing the presentation last night for our local genealogical society that I realized the detractors which became my stealth competitors. Not that I had any control over them; in fact, I didn't even sense their presence until after I stepped in front of the podium to answer questions from the audience.

It was the hiss from the speaker that was my first clue. Crackling, when nothing was being said. The muffled sound that volume just couldn't overcome. Then there was the stillness of the air, growing incrementally warmer until that "is it just me?" question got asked by too many people. How much my audience had to bear with the "technical difficulties" of facility maintenance in exchange for a meeting home, free of rent.

Our local society is hosted at one of our city's branch libraries. We like our borrowed home. We have a good relationship with the staff there—indeed, with those at the main library, as well. As organizational histories go, we can say we go back a long way with the city's library system.

But libraries aren't often on the top ten list for funding projects, come budget time. And when it's crunch time for city governments, "luxuries" like libraries find themselves in a precarious position. And so the audience in the library's community room sits through a class, roasting from the heat from this sunny California spring day, because someone sneaked up on the roof under cover of darkness to strip all the metal from the air conditioning system and sell it as scrap for pennies on the dollar. Now, not only does the library have to replace the material to regain an adequate air handling system, but devise a system to prevent future thefts.

When I hear stuff like that, part of me thinks, "If only I were a millionaire."

Another part of me wakes up to a realization. Had I been a millionaire, I would have missed the lesson.

There are some people who think that, if an entity is big enough, it can easily slough off any problems. "Stick it to the big guy" because "they won't notice." Deep pockets are a reality—in some people's minds.

The truth of the matter is, no matter how big "big government" gets, it is still us. We are the ones who lose when someone slips off with a piece of what we bought—if we, as "the people," bought it for the benefit of all of us. It is not millionaires—the big guys—who have provided these community benefits. It is the collective of all us little people.

True, in a poorer community, the amenities collected by the aggregate won't be as glamorous as the proud features in the community which is well off. The inverse should be as obvious: those little losses sustained by thoughtless theft represent a larger percentage of damage to that same little community. It hurts more when those who can least afford it have been hit by loss.

Perhaps that means people in our community's condition should be more alert to such damage—to sit up and take notice. Maybe that is why Neighborhood Watch programs are experiencing a renaissance in our area; it's harder to pay for something a second time when you could barely afford it the first time.

Building community—something I think the more successful genealogical societies are aiming to do within their own membership—goes beyond just buying stuff with money. It involves donations, sure, but it also takes commitments of time, effort, patience, talent, knowledge. We share what we have to offer—and are glad to do so—because we are building community. Because we are community, we amplify that effort by partnering with others sharing our mission. For genealogical organizations, libraries are our perfect allies.

Naturally, partners want to be mutually supportive of each other's organizational needs. So when the facility which has hosted our meetings for decades suffers a loss, our society wants to help make a difference for them. While we all wish we could be the millionaire in shining armor who comes galloping to the rescue, though, sometimes the best help is to stick to the method that built that relationship in the first place: be part of the day-to-day supportive community that realizes that what harms the whole harms all the parts of that whole. And be part of that shoulder-to-shoulder support system that says no to those who mean us harm. When we realize that a loss to any one of us is a loss to the entire community, that's rich. When we realize the actions we—the people—take can make the difference, that's priceless. That's when we become millionaires.

Above: "Under the Bridge at Hampton Court," 1874 painting by Impressionist landscape artist Alfred Sisley; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Lesson Learned?

While my recent project, preparing a presentation on Irish family history research, has inspired me to go back and review all my old records and files, it has also reminded me of one other detail: a research experience I hope never to repeat.

Using the story of my husband's great grandfather, John Tully, I've put together a case study of the winding route that led me to the very spot in County Tipperary where, in 1842, the man was born. Of course, that called for unearthing some very old files, both in my file cabinet and in tucked away storage boxes. However, the illustration for one key clue in the paper chase—the death certificate of a niece which led me back to the Tully family's intermediate landing place before their immigration was completed in Chicago—was missing.

John Tully's niece died in Chicago, and although I had long since sent for the death certificate myself, I am now reminded that at one point, that very certificate was also available for the taking on at least two genealogical websites. Perhaps because I already had a printed copy of the document, I had neglected to snag a digital copy of it. Whatever was I thinking?

Now, of course, hindsight reminds us that just because a key document has been digitized and placed in an online repository doesn't mean we will be able to find it there in perpetuity. Apparently, granting agencies sometimes change their minds.

So here I sit, now the happy recipient of all the news about fresh additions to online resources for seeking our Irish ancestors. Does it not occur to me that these glad tidings may—like those Cook County documents of a few years ago—vaporize into the ether upon the whim of a bureaucrat? Indeed, I've already seen rumblings from Irish quarters, incensed at the gall of the National Library of Ireland in releasing those precious Catholic parish record images to a worldwide audience online. What if such rumblings gain a hearing in some political quarter? Remembering the disappearing acts I've witnessed on the digital stages of other repositories, I begin to feel the need to capture every image pertinent to my known ancestors as soon as possible. These are treasures of our family's heritage that could not as easily be recovered, should I have to contact each agency, one by one.

There is often the warning to remember to learn from history. Perhaps we also need to be wise to the history of history, and remember the vanishing acts of prior online bonanzas. Be grateful for what we have, but don't be gullible enough to believe that online gift is forever.

Above: Found—that missing document, the 1933 death certificate for Margaret Tully Dempsey, daughter of John Tully's brother Patrick, which was the first hint that the family made an intermediate stop in Paris, Brant County, Ontario, before eventually continuing to Chicago.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Goin' Green

There's been a different kind of "going green" this month—and no, while the environment is a worthy consideration, this has nothing to do with ecological sustainability.

Perhaps it's on account of the marketing possibilities of thirty-some-odd million Americans claiming Irish descent combined with the upcoming Saint Patrick's Day festivities.

A flurry of press releases on genealogy blogs earlier this month gave us some clues, with offers of free access to Irish records at Find My Past and Ancestry—well, at least the United Kingdom version of Ancestry. While some offers expired as early as March 7, some are still out there to be grabbed.

The instigation behind it all may possibly be such accomplishments as the indexing of those Catholic Parish records, which in digitized (but, alas, not searchable) form made their appearance first on the website of the National Library of Ireland. Though all a-buzz over the immense opportunity digitally served up to us by that release last summer, most people realized even then that we've become a spoiled bunch, we online researchers. We've come to expect a name entry plus a click of a mouse to serve up instant results.

And so, my observation quite some time back still serves me well: if at first you don't find what you're seeking on your favorite genealogical website, try, try again. It may be a matter of mere months before someone puts that file within your digital reach.

Working on my presentation regarding John Tully, I didn't want to limit myself to only his Irish records, so while I was in the neighborhood, I decided to check out the most recent hints for our other Irish kin. I was rewarded with this second peek, at least in the case of Johanna Falvey, wife of John Kelly of County Kerry, whose eldest daughter became mother of my husband's other policeman great-grandfather, John Kelly Stevens. Courtesy of, I was brought straight to the likely image of the marriage record for John Kelly and Johanna Falvey in March, 1859. Rather than rely on some kind soul to decipher the chicken scratch on the record, I can now look at it for myself and decide whether this is the best fit.

That and Find My Past both put out announcements of their new releases nearly simultaneously at the beginning of the month makes it seem as if there is a race to the finish line for these competitors. Although at some point these companies may realize that specialization rather than competition may be the most viable survival tactic, for now, this trend can only benefit the Irish-heritage researcher.

One can hope that this will be the trigger that releases a cascade of resources for those researching other ethnicities as well, even if the celebrations are not as widespread for Sainte Geneviève or Saint Urho as they are for Saint Patrick.

Above: The March 1859 marriage record for John Kelly and Johanna Falvey, second entry in the month, from the Catholic parish in Kilcummin, County Kerry; courtesy National Library of Ireland via

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

An Irish Research Case Study

John Tully gets to be on stage this Thursday, a Saint Patrick's Day feature at our local genealogical society. If you've been reading along at A Family Tapestry since before our family's trip to Ireland in 2014, you may remember our chase to locate the origins of my husband's great grandfather, John Tully.

That trip to Ireland may have seemed like the ideal research tour, but it wasn't the dash through the countryside which yielded the rich detail about my husband's ancestry. It was the preceding several months' preparation before even heading out the door. And this Thursday, together with my daughter—besides being a society member, an anthropologist-in-training who has had her fair share of researching in Ireland as well as struggling with apparently non-existent Canadian passenger records of the era—we will unfold the case study of finding John Tully's roots in Ireland.

Though the thrill of getting to share this story with others is keen, it does come coupled with the drudgery of details about the process of presentation. That's where you find the long hours, those invisible efforts expended that nobody knows about, except when they weren't attended to in the first place. While the last of those are getting all my attention, work on new research and new posts slows to a crawl.

Oh, how I sometimes wish for the cat's proverbial nine lives to get all the work done on the many projects bubbling in my mind. John Hogue and Marshall Jackson, your story will have to wait for another day, as will the Florida pioneer memories of my grandmother's Aunt Fannie and the ever-unfurling DNA trail leading back to my mystery DNA cousin.

This week is designated to be John Tully's week. And I'm glad to be able to introduce him in another new venue. After all, isn't it about sharing those stories of our ancestors? And here we go, all over again.

Above: Photograph of John Tully, born 1842 in County Tipperary, Ireland and died 1907 in Chicago, Illinois; from private family collection.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Preoccupied with Occupations

While working on my husband's Snider and Gossman lines last week, I ran across a Find A Grave entry for a distant cousin who apparently got his start in radio in Minnesota, then moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where he continued what turned out to be a lifelong career in broadcasting. According to an obituary posted on his Find A Grave memorial, Ryan Halloran was considered "the last surviving member of WAVE-TV's original 'Fabulous Five.'"

Finding this reminded me of another family member—this time on my mother's side of the family—who had also been involved in radio. Though in this case a broadcast engineer, like my husband's distant cousin, my grandmother's cousin also spent a lifetime in the formative years of radio (in the case of "Jeep" Jones, it was in eastern Tennessee).

This might fall into the "oh, nice" category for those with simply a passing interest in the oddities of another person's family tree, but for my husband and I, it resonates: both of us got our start, during our formative, starving-student years, in radio.

Looking at the records of our ancestors' occupations can be enlightening. Of course, if you go back in time far enough, it seems everybody listed as his profession, farmer. Yet, even then, there were the occasional storekeepers, attorneys or dentists.

Keep in mind, though, in my current genealogical projects, I'm tracing my way forward in time, documenting as many descendants of these progenitors as possible. By the time I cross the line at the turn of the century—1900, that is—those occupational descriptors become quite varied.

Remembering, too, the discovery that great grandfathers on both sides of my husband's paternal line—John Tully in Chicago and John Kelly Stevens in Fort Wayne—served in law enforcement, I have learned to keep a close eye on that detail gleaned from census records. After all, those men ended up with a great-grandson with lifelong service in law enforcement, as well. Sometimes, our own occupational choices turn out to have been part of an ancestor's legacy.

The discovery of ancestors' occupations actually turns out to be a great find, if the career was affiliated with any organization which kept records of their members or employees. Seeking such research treasures was what led my husband and me to first query Allen County area researchers about any local police benevolent associations which might have kept historical records of the force. We were eventually referred to the Allen County - Fort Wayne Historical Society where, as it turned out, not only did the museum include a basement exhibit housed in the old jail, but their archives included a number of photographs of department personnel—including our own John Kelly Stevens.

Sometimes, such records are passed along to historical societies or county archives. Some of these seem invisible to researchers, because they are not part of readily-accessible finding aids. However, it never hurts to ask—especially if planning a trip to the area. Whether through a place of employment, a library, a museum, or even the holdings of a labor union, immigrant association or fraternal organization, it may turn out that occupational clue is the research key opening a cache of genealogical treasures.

Above: Photograph of Fort Wayne Police Force team taken in front of the then-current city hall and jail, early 1900s. When my husband does law enforcement training sessions, he likes to show this photo and have class members guess which one was his great grandfather. Knowing my husband, no one ever guesses John Kelly Stevens was the thinnest man in the lineup—third from the left is the correct one. 

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Ancestor Fatigue

One of the things I enjoy about springtime in California is that it gets here so much earlier than it used to do when I lived on that other coast. Ushering in an earlier spring means I get to do some of the things I like to do, sooner. Like taking outdoor walks. Or soaking up the sunshine. Or eating artichokes.

Yes, artichokes. In fact, as if flaunting that token of early-spring-ness, I was eating that very thing just the other day, when I caught myself thinking something that tells me I might have over-extended myself in the past two weeks.

I had just gotten to that part where you scoop out the "choke" to access the prize of the endeavor: the artichoke heart. The choke is something you never want to eat, so I had set it aside on my plate. Looking at the strands of the choke, I thought it resembled the strands of the spent dandelion bloom, once those puffy seed heads are ready to fly—and found myself thinking, "Hmmm...wonder if those two are cousins?"

This may be a symptom of genealogical burnout. Or at least genealogist-gone-overboard.

If nothing else, it got me wondering what this month's statistical report will tell me about my research numbers. After all, it's been a long haul the last two weeks, and I've put in a lot of time thumbing through hints on Ancestry.

Not that this has been a fun thing. Actually, you will cringe to hear where most of that genealogical grunt work was performed: during an overnighter, staying at the bedside of my friend with cancer, so his wife could get some sleep. It wasn't exactly the kind of setting where we could talk, so those of us taking turns at this endeavor usually spent the time in solitary silence with our faces in our phones or laptops.

You can inspect a lot of hints that way, before the sun comes up. I wouldn't recommend it; it comes with a high risk of genealogical burnout. But the deed is done. Now let's see what the results are.

On my maternal tree, I now have 7,365 individuals, an increase of 80 names in the database. Sure felt like a lot more work than those numbers show. I did have a total of twenty more matches at Family Tree DNA, leaving me with 1,065 puzzles yet to conquer on that account. I did, however, contact two of those cousins, though nothing has been resolved yet. (It seldom is.) Added to that are the twelve additional matches on my new account at AncestryDNA, where I now have 254 matches at the level of fourth cousin or closer—but no time (or wherewithal to concentrate) to contact any of them. A mystery left for another season, perhaps.

It is probably no surprise to see that the real progress was made on my husband's account. My mother-in-law's tree is a snap to add to, given those faithful Catholics who all had umpteen children. It's just a matter of inspecting census records, following the details through the decades, and adding each new addition to the family with regularity. It was just the routine antidote I needed for a diversion on the long wait. That's where I clocked most of the activity for these past two weeks: on our Flowers tree, where the addition of 331 individuals brought the count to 3,514.

Add to that twenty one more matches for him at Family Tree DNA (to total 637), and five more at Ancestry DNA (for a total of 102). Besides, it turns out he sports twice as many DNA Circles at Ancestry DNA as I do—his ten to my five—making me wonder if large families have a greater propensity to generate descendants keen on discovering their roots.

So there it is: essentially, an addition of 411 names to our collective databases. Not that I haven't done more in the past—I have, but it didn't feel so tedious. Not to mention, both our paternal lines budged not one bit these past two weeks, and still remain at 180 for mine and 937 for my husband's.

A marathon like mine, this month, is hardly something I'd recommend. I may have overdone it. A bit. At least enough to have me staring at artichoke innards and wondering if they are cousins to the lowly dandelion. It may be time for a genealogy break. If not, it's definitely time for a good story to materialize.

Above: "Moonlight and Frost," oil on canvas by American landscape painter Alexander Helwig Wyant, circa 1890; courtesy the online collection of the Brooklyn Museum, via Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Tracking Family Immigration Patterns

Behind all the patter here on A Family Tapestry this past week, I've been working on my mother-in-law's lines. You may recall that's the family that made the move to what eventually became Perry County, Ohio, sometime after they staked their claim to territory there.

Though the immediate Flowers, Gordon, Snider and Metzger lines of our family seemed to stay put in Perry County for generations, that wasn't the case with the entire extended family.

Now that I'm tracing all the descendants of each earliest Perry County ancestor, I'm finding one interesting trend from observing both of our families: those who headed south kept heading further south; those who headed north kept heading further north.

In the case of the Sniders, it was a story of the northerners heading further north.

Fortunately, these families tended to move in groups and settle in the same community. Not only that, but when they decided to pick up and move yet another time, the whole bunch of them made the move as a community. Again.

That made for some easy tracking—at least on my part. Perhaps they all decided to scout out better farm land, settled on an area where the extended family could all buy a sizeable portion, and plotted their move that way. For the genealogist, that simply meant when the family disappeared from Perry County, Ohio, they showed up in Winneshiek County, Iowa. And when they were through with Iowa, they picked up and moved on to Fillmore County, Minnesota.

Right now, I'm following a genealogical paper trail through various counties in Minnesota. Personally, having never been there in my life—well, once, when our Christmas flight home from Ohio was cancelled due to a snow storm and we were re-routed through, of all places to avoid in the snow, Minneapolis—I've had to depend on maps to let me know about all the places these people were tromping through.

Using maps in new genealogical territory is a no-brainer. How else could you get a sense of exactly where your ancestors were moving? Once the Snider descendants made their move from Iowa to Minnesota, it seemed they kept zooming from one county to another—until I looked on the map and saw each move was actually quite incremental. Even the move from Iowa to Minnesota was merely a hop across the county line.

Life in Iowa and Minnesota must have treated these people well, for as all good Catholics were supposed to do, they took to heart that Biblical injunction to "be fruitful and multiply." However, unlike past generations, it seemed many iterations of the Snider line, there in Iowa and Minnesota, lived to see all their children survive to adulthood.

Yet, there were some other throwbacks to prior generations in their tendency to intermarry. I saw several Snider marriages to people from a Gossman surname—then a couple generations later, a Gossman descendant might, again, end up marrying a Snider. I can't wait to see how this cousin amplification will hit the DNA test analysis process.

Meanwhile, as my mother-in-law's extended family headed further and further north, my own maternal line began the long trek southward after the Revolutionary War, moving first from Virginia to South Carolina and Georgia, then to Alabama and Mississippi, and eventually to Texas—and some even to New Mexico—the southerners heading even further south.

Is it just techniques of farming particular to certain weather patterns that inspires people to seek out similar terrain and climate? I can understand snowbirds of our current era ditching the rigors of winter in Minnesota for some fun in the sun in Arizona's January—but then, that doesn't involve the hard work of farming. But I also didn't see any Nebraskan farmers forsaking their annual livelihood for easier plowing, planting and harvesting in, say, Louisiana.

Once again, I suspect that pursuing the story of our family history will lead to revelations along the lines of the hazards of daily living, 1800s style and even in pre-war 1900s. Learning our family history is so much more than just entering names, dates and places on the pedigree chart's blank lines. It becomes a whirlwind tour of the minutiae of daily living—the stuff of everyday life that we all take for granted because everyone knows it, until a new era dawns and it suddenly becomes forgotten.

Above: "Country Road in Front of a Wood," by Flemish painter Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625); courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Bound to Happen Eventually

After all that work on the family tree, adding names of descendants and then entering their spouses names as well—then repeating the process each time we push back another generation—at some point we're bound to run into unexpected connections.

I'm not necessarily thinking of those hey-I'm-related-to-someone-famous moments, right now—think close encounters of a more common variety. It's just that I'm seeing too many coincidental connections to surnames I know from other places, showing up in my family tree.

Take those frustrating DNA test matches. I administer not only the results for my own tests, but for my husband's, as well. Granted, when one is dealing with literally hundreds of surnames, they are bound to start swimming around in our memory, so I can excuse some confusion. But more than once, now, I've been working on my husband's results, and a match pops up for him with surnames from my family tree.

What gives, here? I mean, after all, we couldn't have come up with two more divergent family histories (at least for people living in the same country, that is). His immigrant family settled in Chicago; mine in New York. His DAR-material maternal line came from solid Catholics in colonial Maryland who moved further west through Pennsylvania to central Ohio. Mine was staunchly affiliated with the Old South. Yes, the Great Depression got my family roving the country in search of work, and World War II was the catalyst that got my husband's military family moving not only around this country, but to England and Japan, as well.

And yet, though they never met, my mother finished high school in a city not sixty miles from where my mother-in-law lived.

I watch as I piece together my extended tree—taking care to build it out to show all the descendants of specific ancestors I'm tracing—and see all sorts of potential close encounters of our families. Though my mother-in-law's family was ensconced in Perry County, Ohio, for generations—far, far from my southern family—I end up seeing one branch of my maternal tree move from coastal Virginia to the western side of the state, which then became an entirely different state (West Virginia), from which they then removed to, of all places, Perry County. Oh well, there are coal mines and oil fields in Perry County; maybe it felt just as much "home" as West Virginia had. It makes me wonder how many more generations it would take before parts of my family would intermarry with my husband's.

My husband's DNA tests keep insisting that he is connected to distant cousins sporting the surname Withers. Funny, we have a good friend by that very name. No relation, of course. Or maybe there is. Though he is California born and bred, come to find out his mother has a sister who lived in the very town where my mother's sister lived. Granted, it's a city of forty thousand people, so that shouldn't be surprising...until we realize that it's twenty five hundred miles from here. With chances like that, I wouldn't be surprised to discover that we're fourth cousins or something. I suppose anything is possible—and I'm getting more convinced of it, every day.

It boggles my mind to dwell on the possibility of connections. After all, we have the technology—and, as genealogists, the propensity—to ferret out familial connections. The farther back we can trace our ancestors, the more likely we are to bump into someone—online, at least, if not in person—who is a distant relation. I'm thinking, right now, of a friend in our local genealogical society, who told the story of contacting a Find A Grave volunteer about a memorial he had placed on the website for her great grandmother. When she emailed him to say she'd like to know if he had any more information on the woman, his response was, "Wait! That's my great grandmother! Who are you?"

I've met people online who turned out to be distant cousins, especially on my long-established Taliaferro line. That might seem like a slam-dunk, since there are so many of us out there just waiting to be found, after all these centuries of documentation. But it's not only the facilitation of online communication that helps us find these distant cousins; I met one right here in the city where I live.

Of course, it helps that we are both genealogists, and that is likely the catalyst for making such connections. But I'd also like to consider the possibility that we may see more of this sort of thing happening, as time goes on, for several reasons.

For one thing, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the drifting apart of extended families in modern times and the deepening desire to know more about our roots. While in real life, second cousins may have no knowledge of each other, as they learn how to research their own family history, they start reaching out to each other through online services, connecting and sharing what each one knows to piece together the family's lost saga.

Second, those online services, themselves, become catalysts in connecting distant cousins. Posting trees—whether on the Rootsweb of genealogy's yesteryear, or the free service at, or subscriber services such as—gets the word out there like one giant billboard, advertising our desire for connection with others researching the same family lines. Social media—whether the 1990s style forums or Facebook groups currently in use—help aggregate us by surnames or by place names.

Third, there is such a flurry of information available to inspire newcomers to the field. Television programming brings heart-rending stories—whether about the famous or the commonplace—of finding one's roots, and with the addition of another series in the lineup this season, seems to indicate rising interest in the pursuit. Adoptees in particular have a wealth of volunteer support in encouraging them to attempt finding their birth families, including a new program set to air this spring.

And, of course, advertisements for services like DNA testing get people thinking maybe they can jump into this search, as well.

With all these people taking a long and serious look at their roots, considering their relationships with others, making connections with other researchers, it would not be a surprise to discover relationships we had no idea had existed. It's as if our pedigree charts have pulled a curtain aside to let us see the invisible connections between us.

Even if we can't figure it out yet—and I'm surely among those stuck on the results from my DNA tests—if we keep working at it, we'll likely trace some surprising connections, eventually. You know it's bound to happen.

Above: "View of Gloucester," undated watercolor by British landscape artist Thomas Hearne (1744-1817); courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.
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