Sunday, July 31, 2016
Just when I finally come to the point of making a decision and moving on, wouldn't you know it but something redeeming happened to make me want to take back every sniveling word I've said this past week.
If the whole point of researching family history is to gain an accurate representation of your family's roots, and if that picture can only be gleaned via snapshots in time—a still life portrait of the family for the 1910 census, say, then nary a word about them for ten long years—one could say that this pursuit can become somewhat challenging.
If the whole point of this blog is to share the stories found along the way while engaging in this research process, when the going gets rough and, even while attempting to read between the lines, no stories materialize, one could say that source of inspiration, run dry, can choke off that flow of stories.
If the besetting sin of this writer is an inability to resist intuiting just what might have filled in the blanks in those in-between times spanning the gaps between census enumerations, we have just witnessed the concocting of an unfortunate brew.
My daughter talks about "empaths"—those sensitive people who can discern vibes emanating from others to which the average person is obtusely unaware. I wonder if, while speed-reading through generations of genealogical hints all in one swoop, I fall prey to that same sensitivity. It's a matter of reading between the lines—whether accurately or mistakenly—which leads to a sense of what family life might have been like for specific generations.
It was that same sensitivity which had made me jump to the conclusion that the Snider line I've been researching had such a depressing aura—the main reason I felt it was time to jump to a different research pursuit.
Of course, I spoke too soon.
While this pursuit hasn't turned up too many stories worth sharing—the very fuel that stokes my customary fervor to blog—it also leaves me without the details with which to compose posts. Face it, it would be rather tedious to simply read the blow by blow of my research day. There's a lot of ground that's covered before I reach turf worth writing home about.
That's why I decided to switch tracks the other day, and return to puzzling over my father's line. I'm hoping that will generate a few more stories worth sharing. And I promise I will proceed with that tomorrow.
In the meantime, it also left the impression that the line I had been working on was rife with all the problems we wish never to see a family have to endure.
Yesterday, thankfully, I ran across one redeeming glint of a different family vibe, both refreshing and encouraging. Ironically, the first clue came from those very Ancestry hint items which I most unmercifully mock: the family photos.
If you recall my derisive comments about yet again stumbling upon "Nana's Blue Room" and "Nana's Pink Room" when I was trying to clean out my umpteen-hundred hints on my trees at Ancestry, let me say in defense that those were usually nested within a family photo trove numbering upwards of fifty to sixty hints. Per individual. You can see why I'd get testy about that—especially considering they were more an amateur stab at House Beautiful than American Ancestors.
In the photo collection I came upon yesterday, it painted a picture of a family whose members evidently cared very much for each other. The candid poses captured in the photos shared told a story of a thousand words, and it was a relief to stumble upon the cache after seeing all the evidence of misfortune in the rest of the extended family.
While I don't know the family personally—this is a branch too far removed from ours to have been one we knew face to face—it was refreshing to encounter a family whose story on paper seemed uplifting in their care for each other.
Taking advantage of Ancestry's medium to share those photos, someone from that family used it as a vehicle to record remembrances of a generation now gone, inserting brief statements and stories about individuals in that family which gave a fuller sense of who they were, not just as statistics in a governmental document, but as real people.
That was an example of how one Ancestry subscriber maximized the utilities available to all of us as subscribers. Somehow, he or she had the touch to pull it off, not as the boring, bragging kitsch of an ancestry of materialism, but with the heartwarming sentiment of a large but close family bond. It was the kind of stranger's touch that evokes a "Wow, I want to get to know them" response.
I doubt I'll ever use the photo sharing features at Ancestry—and there are probably a number of other features at that site which will go under-utilized, too, I suspect—but it is refreshing to see someone put these tools to good use, and do it artfully, too.
As for my sense that I had stumbled upon a family whose lines were disintegrating with the ravages of the twentieth century's international upheaval, this was a refreshing wake up call. It helped me realize that some families somehow grasp the resilience to maintain their humanity, despite the turmoil swirling around them. It's refreshing to see that demonstrated, up close and personal. It makes me grateful, once again, to realize that knack of sensing a family's condition isn't always a bad thing.
Aren't you glad you know how to read the stories between the lines in those family trees?
Above: Deer in a Summer Meadow, oil on canvas by German landscape and wildlife painter Carl Zimmermann (1863 - 1930); courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.
Saturday, July 30, 2016
It's time to return to the search for my father's roots.
It's been a long time since I last wandered down this way, but since I've been stymied with the line I was pursuing, it will make the perfect excuse for a detour. After all, if I can't make any headway going in one direction, perhaps another route will help me gain traction.
The messy line I'm deserting—at least for the moment, as it has proven too depressing for me—is the branch of the Snider family which emigrated from Ohio to Iowa, then wandered into Minnesota and points farther west. In place of that pursuit, it occurred to me that I could adopt an old line that I gave up on—in despair—quite a while ago: that of my father's puzzling family.
True, I gave up on researching that family a while back, as well. Too discouraged to continue running up against that brick wall, I backed away and put it all aside for a while. I'm a huge proponent of the "fresh eyes" approach. Perhaps the Sniders are a good candidate for the queue to become next year's research escape vehicle.
So I'm setting aside the Sniders for the Puhalskis and the Laskowskis. Poland makes such a poet out of me; I can just feel the music being drawn out of me, even before starting again.
One virtue of setting aside research when the going gets too hard is the fact that resources are constantly being brought to light. Newly digitized collections get added to the usual go-to places, and entire new resources become noteworthy in the time of that brief hiatus. It's almost like entering a new research world, just picking back up on a deserted project.
Already, I've discovered that a number of distant cousins in that line need the 1940 census added to their list of verifications, so I'm busily reviewing each family member's entry on my genealogy database, attending to the usual documents which have yet to be added here. The 1940 census is just one step; there are several more electronic resources yielding me a treasure trove of stuff-to-be-added.
That, in itself, inspires a high note of hope that other documents will pop up which can bring me closer to a clear picture of where my paternal family may have originated. I've already received a few clues in the past—some which I still need to share here—but I can trust that there will be several more. At some point, the pile of documents may just add up to reach a tipping point, and the data tumbling out will clearly point me in the right direction for that next, big step: the jump across the ocean to the home of my paternal roots.
Above: My father, working as a young musician in New York City in the late 1920s; photograph in the private collection of family.
Friday, July 29, 2016
It's never too soon to begin getting in a "back to school" frame of mind. Granted, when you and I were young students, there wasn't a soul on the planet who wanted to rush the end of summer vacation; summer vacation was sacrosanct until the passing of Labor Day. Now, school can begin at any time.
Don't look now, but August is almost here, and class is liable to start any time after that. While moms already may be scurrying to purchase the requisite school supplies—or maybe even uniforms, if those are still part of the school scene—I'm thinking about a different type of return to school: advanced registration for the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy.
Incredibly, though the event doesn't occur until mid-January—and registration for the classes just opened earlier this month—several of the classes are already sold out. Yes, the event's organizer, the Utah Genealogical Association, bills itself as a purveyor of fine "high-intermediate to advanced-level courses," but apparently there is a high demand for the finer educational offerings in genealogical life.
Never one to be the first in line for opening night, I naturally didn't consider that mode when SLIG2017 opened the doors for advanced registration. Like last year, I snoozed, so I lose. Looks like it will be the waiting list for me, regardless of which of the six closed courses I might have opted to take.
Not that there aren't any other choices. SLIG2017 has a magnificent lineup of great speakers scheduled to instruct their classes next January, including Cyndi Ingle, D. Joshua Taylor, John Philip Colletta, Judy Russell and Thomas Jones. I could take up the entire school year, just learning from those luminaries. But, of course, that is not who I wanted to learn from, come this January. Guess I'll just have to add my name to the waiting list and see if I get an early Christmas present.
Above: "On the Shores of Bognor Regis," 1887 portrait of the William Halford family by Alexander Rossi; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.
Thursday, July 28, 2016
I have to take a process break from my research. This dry spot I'm going through is such a downer. There's no other way to say it. No creative turn of phrase to make it any better. This is just the plain splat.
Yes, I admit, as I'm progressing through my mother-in-law's Gordon line, verifying all the work done twenty-some years ago in collaboration with another Gordon researcher, hitting the story of the unfortunate David Spragg and his slain family was a nadir in my family history forays.
But the downer hits didn't stop coming with the conclusion of that story. As I rush through the generations, checking Ancestry hints in census records and other key documents, I feel as if I'm seeing the panoply of our families' history flash before my eyes. And at high speed, the picture isn't pretty.
This past week, I've been working on the line of David Spragg's aunt Mary, who married a Phillips in Greene County, Pennsylvania. Of her many children, one daughter—similar to David's story—chose to leave her home town and move out west. Though certainly not a story with as tragic an ending as her cousin's, hers became a life with many disappointments. Her husband died young, leaving her to raise their four children by herself in Oklahoma Territory.
Predictably, as might any woman in those circumstances, she married again. That second marriage, however—to a widower left needing a woman to tend to the several young children bereft of their own mother—appeared to not have worked out well.
From that vantage point, a quick trip through the decades via U.S. Census enumerations seemed to trace the echoes of those familial difficulties as generation after generation gave signals of unhappy family life.
Of course, it's hard to tell. You can't simply make those assumptions, based on a once-a-decade snapshot of reality. It's so hard to read between the lines with skimpy evidence like that. But as I try to plug in the documentation alongside each name I add to this family's tree, I see sign after sign of repetition playing out, ever since that one ancestor took up the challenge to leave family and friends and move out west.
Sometimes, the speed at which we can survey several generations of a family's history can render the process a bit too revealing. We can unfold a family's history and spread it out clearly on the table for all to see within a matter of moments, aided by digitized records accessible online. Augment those documents with newspaper reports of the few family members whose names can be located in online archives, and we can almost watch those ancestors take shape before our eyes.
I sometimes watch family lines move from prominent positions in their colonial communities to more wealthy conditions in future generations, then crest a peak and begin a downhill slide. It's almost as if I can see the spoiled children of overworked (as well as, possibly, absent) fathers fail to gain the skills needed to get along with others when they can't get their own way. On their downward tumble, their broken homes suffer repercussions that ricochet through subsequent generations.
Perhaps I'm imagining things. Or superimposing my own interpretation on the flow of history. Whatever it might be, it feels like I am seeing Time flash before my eyes—the rise and fall of cultures as well as families.
Speed searching may be handy for quickly building out one's family tree, but it should come with a warning sign: "This research may be hazardous to your optimistic mood."
Above: "Catalina Island Coast Under a Moonlit Sky," 1920 oil on cardboard by American Impressionist artist Granville Redmond; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.
Wednesday, July 27, 2016
Family history can be filled with all sorts of fascinating stories. There are the details of relatives you knew—but didn't know they once did that. And there are the tidbits about ancestors long gone before you ever arrived on the scene, stories intertwined with history, and tales rescued from obscurity.
All of these are fun to uncover in the chase to discover one's roots. What isn't fun is to go through that long, dry period of research in which absolutely nothing happens. Yeah, there are surely stories hiding between the lines, but the way to tease these episodes out can sometimes elude us.
That's where I am right now, trying to tease out the details on this Snider family I mentioned yesterday. I'm currently following close on the trail of the one line which I suspect got plugged into the wrong generation. In the meantime, the chase is taking me page by page through census records. Like a series of snapshots that happen only once every ten years, it turns out to be a stop-motion picture which leaves out most of the action.
Sometimes, what's best to do when search leads evaporate is to set everything aside and take a break. I did that today. Not that it cleared the air enough to do wonders, but it was nice to stare down that gotta-find-out demon and tell it to take a hike. Those Sniders aren't going anywhere they haven't hidden themselves at, already. When I find them, I'll find them.
In the meantime, I took a drive into town, ran some errands, had coffee with someone I enjoy talking to, and ran into some friends on the way. We chatted where we met, right on the street corner (despite the hundred-plus degree temperature) because, well, there's no time like the present to catch up on news. One of these friends is only eight weeks out from a quintuple bypass during which, while still under the knife, manifested yet another medical issue that needed immediate attention. You don't just do a hi/bye drive-by when you see a friend like that.
True, when I returned home—mainly to escape the heat wave—I did eventually head back to the chase, but I've already settled it in my mind that I need to ratchet down my hopes for any great breakthroughs. You win some, you lose some. When it comes to those Sniders, this might be a case of the latter.
What I also remembered, after that break, is that sometimes, despite doing one's due diligence, the story is still not completely told. Sometimes it will never be completely told. On the other side of the issue, though, stands that bright—and compelling—hope that, having set the task aside for a season, there will be some clue which materializes, the next time I visit the issue. Perhaps it will be a realization that evolves in the process of collaborative work with a distant cousin. Perhaps it will be a document which was previously inaccessible, but now widely available to the public.
That type of hope comes with experience. This has happened to me before—this being stuck on a line I'm researching, only to set it aside for a few months and then revisit when the time is right. The lesson it has taught me is that there is always more to be found. It's just that the "finding" time is not always today.
Above: Night on the Dnieper River, oil on canvas by Russian-born Greek landscape painter, Arkhip Ivanovich Kuindzhi; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.
Tuesday, July 26, 2016
Like eyes out of focus, gazing through the gaps in a chain-link fence on a lazy summer afternoon, I sometimes stare at my own work on my family trees as if they were fuzzy mysteries. Names parade before me dreamily, generation after generation, documenting the coming of age of another set of descendants—and the projects I've worked on for well over three decades. Suddenly, my eyes snap into focus as I realize a name out of place—that one was supposed to be in the next generation—and I wonder, "What was I thinking?"
Have you ever done that? Gotten on a roll, entering lots of names in one family line, with discoveries spanning multiple generations—and then, after your marathon work session, realized you plugged that wife into the wrong generation? Of course, going back and cleaning up the mess seems more tedious than it was to make that mistake in the first place.
For the past several months now, I've been going over my decades-old research which has been languishing on an old computer and a just-as-old genealogical database program. Since I decided the best way to transfer all that work to my new research residence, online at Ancestry.com, was to enter each person's details one by one, I've been checking each detail as I go. Find a name in the old database, enter it in at Ancestry. Check for hints. Locate appropriate census records. If lucky, plug in verification for birth on those most recent records. If not, at least try to find death records for those who made it to the twentieth century.
And so on.
It's admittedly slow going. But I did manage to achieve one goal: I entered all the descendants of my mother-in-law's Gordon ancestors. Every descendant of immigrant John Gordon and his wife, Mary Helen Duke, from 1739 down to the present day—well, at least as many of them as I've been able to find—is now entered on my tree at Ancestry. Check that one off my list.
One good turn deserves another. Getting a task done feels so rewarding, it drives us to launch into another one. So I started tackling another surname in my mother-in-law's tree: Snider.
What was I thinking? Unlike Gordon—which, you've got to admit, is a relatively straightforward choice of surname, since there is really only one way to spell it—Snider presents predicaments from the start. The originating immigrant of this line—Nicholas—came over from Germany (or whatever nearby neighborhood got conveniently lumped in with that designation) with a surname spelled Schneider.
That didn't last too long. Early on, that spelling got switched to Sneider. That, however, was momentary. By the time the family made it to Perry County, Ohio, about the time the county was actually formed in 1818, theirs was a surname spelled with a straightforward approach: Snider. You know that was doomed to change, though. I've been treated with random switches between Snider and Snyder ever since.
No matter. I've been hot on the trail of these Schneider-Sneider-Snider-Snyders despite all the disguises their surname has taken on. They can't fool me.
And yet, as I review my work from the dark ages at the beginning of time, I find myself staring at all those names and entries and wondering: What was I thinking?
I've found one of those moments—probably hot on the trail, way past midnight while my husband was away, working graveyard shift—in which I didn't clean up my mess after plugging in a name into the wrong generation.
Oh great. Like that proverbial set of eyeballs staring dreamily outside the window through that chain-link fence, my out-of-focus gaze suddenly snaps back into reality and I realize what I mess I have on my hands to clean up.
You see, one mistake isn't as innocuous as it seems. One misplaced person on a tree is followed by a spouse, which means children are soon to follow. And then their descendants. Which ones to leave—and which ones to clean out? Was that Mary, wife of William senior? Or William junior? Did I add her parents' names? Or get confused and put the right parents in, but for the wrong daughter?
And then, the whole process has to be repeated. It's as if I hadn't done the work at all, in the first place. Double checking and cleaning can be so tedious—not just fixing things up, but wondering what the thought process was in making the mistake in the first place.
When it's all done, I'm left with that nagging thought: did I rout out all the mistakes? Or is there one still there, lurking behind the disguise of a wrong husband, once again?
If I don't find it now, you can be sure it will snap into focus somewhere down the line again.
Probably in another twenty years.
Above: "Calculating Table," woodcut from Gregor Reisch's 1503 Margarita Philosophica; courtesy Typ 520.03.736, Houghton Library, Harvard University via Wikipedia; in the public domain.
Monday, July 25, 2016
I sometimes wonder whether some of the terms in the genetic genealogist's lexicon could someday evolve into concepts better classified as oxymorons—two words, juxtaposed, which cannot technically co-exist in the real world.
If you've spent any time wading through the vocabulary at the shallow side of the steep learning curve of this gene pool, you may have realized, after having braved the cheek-swabbing of a Y-DNA test (or, for you gals, suffering in proxy for a willing male relative's endurance of such), that the lab's breathless report of the results contained no names matching your father's surname.
"Ah," the wise researcher intones, "a non-paternal event." Translation: some guy upstream in your lineage messed around—anonymously, of course—with one of your confirmed female ancestors, for which her husband got the "credit."
Since it has been nearly two years since I've discovered that my mitochondrial DNA test triggered a rare exact match with someone who happens to be an adoptee, I have often wondered why no one snickers about the reverse of such an undocumented event. You know, a non-maternal event. I mean, could that even be possible? Would such a term be an oxymoron? After all, when it comes to maternity, it's kinda hard to hide the evidence.
Such things can happen, however. I think of the stories of parents discovering, years later, that their baby was switched at birth with the child they brought home from the hospital. Why doesn't anyone call that a non-maternal event?
Or what about the family I found while researching my own mother's line, where the brother of one free spirit adopted the man's two children when he deserted his wife after she fell ill with tuberculosis and could no longer care for their children? In that case, I wouldn't even have discovered who the proper father of those children was, if it hadn't been for newspaper references to the "adopted children" of that concerned family member. Otherwise, I would have presumed the adoptive father's wife was the true mother. Another possible false ascription of maternity in the paper trail.
Sometimes, when after searching and searching and coming up with no solid results, it seems tempting to chalk the failure up to false maternity. After all, I've been trying to identify the most recent common female ancestor connecting my matrilineal descent and that of my mystery cousin, the adoptee, since November of 2014. That's a lot of searching.
Yes, I know I've persistently plodded backwards in time through my mother's mother's mother's line, ad nauseum, and then turned about face and traced each daughter's line back to the future as far as I could go. Just in this calendar year alone, I've added 1,426 additional people to my mother's family tree. Admittedly, not all of them were women, but that thumbnail sketch serves to indicate just how much work has been done on that line.
And still no answer to my question: who was the female ancestor which could be claimed by both my mystery cousin and myself. It's dead end searches like this that make me wonder about such oxymoronic possibilities as non-maternal events. If only there were a way...
Above: Follow that diagonally descending line across the bottom of the chart to trace my matrilineal line. Right now, I'm working on cataloguing and verifying all the descendants of Jane Strother. With only three more of her daughters to go, I will soon move up another generation to delve into the daughters of her mother, Margaret Watts, in my quest to uncover the nexus with my mystery cousin.
Sunday, July 24, 2016
When it comes to the immense collection of books at our house still awaiting completion, I usually pull one down from its shelf to read after it has perched there for ages with all but the first ten or twenty pages unread.
Today's selection is different. Determined to finish what I started reading, I had tucked this paperback into the glove compartment of my car, for those just-in-case moments of down time while on the road. It's taken me nearly a year to do it, but I have succeeded in covering over two hundred pages of a memoir I've always intended to read.
What else is a devoted—but busy—reader to do? The only way to finish a book is to start. Then move steadily, page by page, through the content until those words—"The End"—finally come into view.
Stored Treasures, a memoir mostly composed of the journal of genealogist Smadar Belkind Gerson's great grandmother, lends itself well to this style of reading. Brief chapters describe the early years of Minnie Crane, memories of her childhood in a country village in what is now part of Belarus, and of her brief stay, as a young Jewish girl, in pre-war Germany. The story continues with the opportunity to follow her older brothers to America, the chance to go to school (even if it was night school), the challenges of keeping together as family with her siblings and the mutual effort to help each other succeed in a new land.
I first met the author, Smadar, online through her blog, Past-Present-Future, where she not only shared details about completing her book, but also published stories about other members of her family. Smadar has an interesting perspective, largely on account of her unusual life story. Born in Israel, she was education in the United States—she has a degree in medicine—but after marriage, moved to Mexico where she and her husband raised their family. Now back in the Boston area, she has delved further into genealogical research.
Although I miss her blog—Smadar hasn't posted since the fall of 2014—I enjoyed seeing how, in her book, she put together the words of her great grandmother and her grandmother with her own observations, filling in the blanks in the narrative with explanations and historical insights. The straightforward narrative of Minnie Crane's journal contrasts with the challenging experiences she went through as a young person. Just letting her tell her own story gives it a clarity I appreciated.
Of course, I have my eye on this type of book for another reason: just as any genealogist might, I've unearthed a wealth of material from family members whose stories simply beg to be told. With that in mind, I often wonder how others handled this sort of task, so I've gathered quite a collection of such books. I'm always curious to see how others choose to address this task of sharing their family's stories, and since I have been reading these books, you can be sure I'll be sharing a description on each as I finish them.
With photographs included, as well as copies of letters and news clippings, Smadar chose to let her great grandmother tell most of her own story. Still, she found a way to gently insert her own voice as she brought the family's story forward through the next three generations. I appreciate her approach—as well as the opportunity to glimpse the story of someone else's family.
Saturday, July 23, 2016
It was barely a month ago when I was writing about plans for our family's upcoming trip east to visit relatives in Illinois and Ohio—and, of course, to do some needed genealogical research along the way. Among other quests—DNA testing, for one thing—I had hoped to wrap up the documentation to submit a supplemental D.A.R. application on behalf of my daughter, which would handily also become the paperwork for membership for my two sisters-in-law as well as, possibly, some cousins.
It looks like that paper chase will have to be accomplished the old fashioned, snail-mailed way now. Late last night, our flight home touched down at the airport without us; though our route on the ground was planned to take us from Chicago to Columbus and back again, we've been sitting here at home all the past two weeks we were supposed to be in the air and on the road.
Of course, we'll get back to the drawing board and reconfigure our itinerary, hopefully getting the chance to make the journey sometime this fall. And there were real roadblocks checking our progress this month: health problems that would not have accommodated the kind of pleasant visits with relatives that we had had in mind.
In the meantime, progress on my research goals have not entirely been thwarted. There is, of course, another option. Though it may take a few phone calls and possibly incur some expenses, there is always the alternative that has been the tried and true methodology for genealogical research for decades prior to the advent of the Internet. Yes, snail mail.
As has often been repeated by many in the research world, contrary to popular opinion, not everything we seek in our genealogical pursuits can be found online. Yes, digitized records are being uploaded online at a breathtaking pace. Kudos to those organizations who have facilitated that effort. But not everything is there, ready to be accessed at the click of a mouse. Sometimes we have to go hunting, ourselves, through those library stacks, archives, museum collections or even out in the "wilds" of long-forsaken cemeteries.
The particular line of descent I'm trying to verify has a few missing links along the way. The difficulties of dealing with family matters from the early 1800s, coupled with the challenge of identifying one of those "invisible" females—the married type who died young in childbirth, for instance—signals the type of project in which a researcher simply has to go out there and get her hands on some source documents.
Even though I can't get back to those locations right now, I have yet another recourse: the assistance of local researchers. If I do get stumped in my project, for a mere fraction of the cost of airfare, a well-placed request for service to a carefully-selected local genealogist may also expedite the process.
Of course, for many of us, nothing replaces the thrill of the chase. When the goal is to find it ourselves, that sometimes trumps even the goal of finishing the case. Besides, what can replace the chance to meet up with interested family members and share what's been discovered?
In the matter of this postponed trip, though, I suspect this one time I will cave and find a way to get the documents I need sent ahead to me. In addition to keeping the research schedule on track, it will give me all the more to share with family when we do get the chance to get together again.
Above: "The Vegetable Garden," by Belgian impressionist painter Juliette Wytsman; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.
Friday, July 22, 2016
Out of all the people involved as the tragic scene unfolded at the Spragg household in 1894, the one child who escaped without any injuries was David Spragg's step-daughter, Dora Onstott. At least, as far as we can say, no physical injuries—though who knows what psychological burdens she bore for the rest of her life.
This was the ten year old eye witness whose reports became fodder for the more graphic journalism erupting from the December 11 murder-suicide in the small town of Ridgeway, Missouri. Dora was the child who, lying sick in bed as the episode escalated, realized the best course of action was to escape and run for help.
In the aftermath of the crime, she—along with her brother and a step-sister who were not expected to recover from their injuries—were the only ones to have survived the attack that day. Everyone else in the family was now gone.
A traumatic event as sudden and irrevocable as that could surely trigger serious psychological repercussions—something I wondered about as I reviewed what could be found out about the subsequent life events of the other two surviving children. In the case of Ina and Clint, I was actually surprised to discover that they had, indeed, survived the gruesome affair and lived long lives afterwards.
In Dora's case, however, it was easy to presume she would live long after that point. She was, after all, only ten when the murders occurred. I wanted to see what life held for her after that devastating episode.
Unlike her step-sister Ina, whose grandparents took her into their own household, Dora apparently didn't have any such grandparents to extent the customary kindness expected in that time period. I hadn't been able to find out much about her mother—the former Lucinda Wells—except a possible entry in the 1880 census for a fifteen year old daughter of a widow living in Illinois, the state where Lucinda was born. If that widow was the one who later became Dora's maternal grandmother, perhaps by the time of the 1894 tragedy, she was no longer alive.
With no one in her extended family stepping up to offer a home for the orphan, Dora found herself doing the same as many young people in such circumstances then: find work to support herself. In Dora's case, that was as a servant for a family living not far from her home in Ridgeway.
Not long after that point, though, Dora married George Ashley Herbst, a man just two years older than she and born right in Harrison County. By the time of the 1910 census, the Herbst household grew to include three children: daughter Gladys, followed by two sons, Lloyd and Leo.
By 1920, the family had moved to Des Moines, Iowa—possibly so carpenter George could follow construction work. Within the next ten years, though, things did not go well for Dora. Life introduced some changes by the time of the 1930 census. Dora was then listed as the mother of a three year old son—but also listed as a divorced woman who may have had to depend on the earnings of her twenty year old son Leo to make ends meet. Though her husband remarried before the early 1940s, I find no evidence that she had done so.
The last trace I can find of Dora is that of her headstone. In the Laurel Hill Cemetery in Des Moines, Iowa, under a marker proclaiming simply, "Mother," she is, if never before, now at rest. Who knows what tales she took with her, or whether her children—or her grandchildren—knew of the upheaval in her young life. Sometimes, people back then didn't talk about hardships, let alone tragedies. There's no way to know whether this became part of the "heritage" passed down to the current generation. Sometimes, events like these become enveloped in the silence enshrouded by Time.
Thursday, July 21, 2016
He walked up to Clint and struck him a slight blow with the hammer; then turning quickly he cut Ina on the neck with the knife.
When the Kansas City Times carried the story of the Spragg murder-suicide on December 13, 1894, the report seemed to indicate that two of the children had survived the knifing, but that it was expected to only be a momentary reprieve. Those two—listed as "Clint Onstatt, aged 8 years" and "Ina Onstatt, aged 6 years"—were likely the ones with "dozens of cuts that cover their little bodies" whom another newspaper had determined "cannot recover."
Just as we saw yesterday, that rush to report such horrific news brought with it a package deal full of errors. Not only were there errors in the children's names, but also—thankfully—in the prognosis.
A quick look at the Find A Grave entry for the perpetrator of the murders—head of the household, David G. Spraggs—revealed, for instance, that Ina had, indeed, lived beyond that fateful year of 1894. It wasn't long before she could be found in her grandfather's home in the 1900 census.
Realizing it was in a Spragg household where I found Ina, right away we realize yet another reporting error: no matter how it was spelled, Ina was not an Onstott.
The elder Spragg—now, himself, on his second wife, Matilda—was still resident in Greene County, Pennsylvania, the same place from where David Spragg and his first wife had set out for a brighter future in Missouri.
Ina remained in her grandparents' home in Greene County through the 1910 census, growing up with her father's half brothers in the same home in which he likely was raised. Though grandfather Caleb Spragg and his wife were no longer alive by the time of the 1920 census, Ina was still there with her uncle, a man barely three years older than she was.
According to a note someone posted on her Find A Grave memorial, Ina completed high school in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, then graduated from nursing school in Wheeling, West Virginia. Ina never married. One wonders just how much a role the trauma of that event played in her decision to follow a career in nursing. She went on to do post-graduate work in Michigan and finally settled in Lawton, Oklahoma, where we can find her in the 1930 census.
As for the one listed, back in the newspaper report of the family horror in Missouri, as Ina's brother Clint Onstatt, it turns out he was, indeed, an Onstott, and step-brother to Ina. At first, I had believed the newspaper reports enough to assume he had died shortly after the 1894 tragedy, but a hint on my family tree at Ancestry alerted me to the possibility that that might not be so.
It was a record from the U.S. Social Security Applications and Claims Index that revealed the son of John Onstott and Lucinda Wells was actually named Clinton Burrell Onstott. Recovering from whatever wounds were inflicted upon him by his stepfather, David Spragg, Clint survived for another sixty eight years, dying in Paducah, Kentucky, in 1962. Though he was married twice, throughout the decennial census records, I couldn't find mention of any children of his own.
There was one other child who long outlived that dreadful day in Ridgeway, Missouri. That was the child whose eyewitness report triggered that cascade of journalistic errors: Dora Onstott, herself. We'll take a peek at what the rest of life brought to her, tomorrow.
Above: Ina Lee Spragg in household of her paternal grandfather, Caleb Spragg, in Greene County, Pennsylvania, from the 1900 U.S. Census; image courtesy Ancestry.com.
Wednesday, July 20, 2016
In trying to determine the reliability of newspaper accounts of what was labeled "the most horrible butchery which ever stained the history of Northern Missouri," I found the easiest way to sort out the children in David Spragg's household was to focus on researching each of his wives. And yet, that very approach led to some complications.
The article I referred to yesterday—that explicit eye-witness report from the Kansas City Times—had said the murderer's wife was named Louisa. Because some of the victims named in the report—her children—had had a different surname, we can surmise that Louisa was the widow of someone named Onstatt.
That, at least, is the conclusion we can draw by the information provided in the newspaper report of the crime. It didn't take long to discover how incorrect that was.
For starters, the unfortunate second wife of the murderous David Spragg was not named Louisa, but Lucinda. And her former married name was likely spelled Onstott, not Onstatt. A minor detail, admittedly, especially during an era in which spelling didn't hold so much importance, but helpful to us as we attempt to reconstruct each family tree.
It didn't help that the Find A Grave entry for David Spragg, while listing several other relationships, did not include a mention of his second wife, at all—only his first wife, who predeceased his rampage by almost exactly three years. Searching Find A Grave's cemetery listing for the Ridgeway cemetery where David was buried brought up only three other Spragg burials: David's first wife and that of his brother—the merchant and newspaper editor we've already mentioned—and his brother's wife. No sign of Louisa.
There are many more ways to discover the details we are seeking, however. One way was to attempt finding Louisa's first husband, Mr. Onstatt. That, however, brought up no results with that spelling. Turning to Ancestry.com in hopes that the one child who had, for sure, survived the melee might be found in subsequent records, I gambled on the newspaper error of eyewitness Dora's surname and searched for Dora Onstatt, rather than Dora Spragg. I estimated her date of birth, based on those same fallible reporters' articles, and came up with a young woman in the 1900 census.
Her name was Dora Onstott. By then sixteen, she was still in Harrison County, Missouri, working as a servant in the home of Charles and Ida Fordyce. One additional clue—that Dora had been born in Illinois—sent me to records in that other state which might reveal a marriage between an Onstott and someone named Louisa.
Well, not quite. It turned out her name wasn't Louisa, after all; it was Lucinda. And on November 3, 1881, in Clay County, Illinois, she had married someone named John J. Onstott.
Sure enough, when I returned to the Ridgeway cemetery to see if there were any Onstotts, that minute revision in the spelling yielded one result: the memorial for John Onstott, who died there in 1892—just over two years prior to the tragedy which took his wife's life.
There was another Spragg wife in that same cemetery, of course: the first wife of David Spragg. Though Orpha Spragg had died in 1891, her children had remained in the Spragg household until the moment at which their father had erupted into his murderous rampage. Documentation from back in Pennsylvania, home state for the couple, showed that David had married Orpha B. Rush on January 22, 1887, in Greene County. They had moved to Harrison County, Missouri, sometime before the birth of their oldest child in 1888.
Having seen, within that one newspaper account, the child who was said to be Dora Spragg turn into Dora Onstott, and the murdered mother turn out to be not Louisa but Lucinda, I wondered what became of the children. Given the record of reporting errors in this case, it was not beyond possibility that some who were thought to have been doomed might actually have survived. One clue already evident in the memorials at Find A Grave gave credence to that theory. The handy device at Ancestry for linking individuals to their parents for later documents such as Social Security applications provided more clues as I put each child's name through the search engine paces at Ancestry. Despite the somber assessment in the Saint Louis Republic that the children "were cared for but...cannot recover," it turned out that there were survivors in the aftermath, after all.
Tuesday, July 19, 2016
In the aftermath of a crime, it is no surprise to discover that newspaper reports may have included errors. In the case of a crime so horrific as the one which unfolded at the Spragg farm just outside Ridgeway, Missouri, the rush to report may well have amplified the problem.
For those called in to help as David Spragg went on his rampage in mid-December, 1894, eventually the facts got sorted out. The coroner performed his examination and held an inquest. True to form, the journalists who were all in a rush to get the scoop on December 11—a bloody one, I might add—were mostly silent in the aftermath.
For those of us trying to reconstruct just what happened—not from a forensic, or even from a journalistic, point of view, but from a genealogical standpoint—carefully reviewing each line of the various versions of the Spragg murders eventually pointed to one fact: there were errors in the story.
Since the whole reason I stumbled upon this story was in my pursuit of family history, I find myself having to go back, again and again, to sort out just who had died, and who was only supposed to be mortally wounded.
Initially, one newspaper had carried a version of the story which seemed to keep track of each of the members of the ill-fated family: the Kansas City Times. I started using that to try to build a family tree. We'll begin with that, today, as well, but will have to continue in the next few days with further examination.
Perhaps the reason why the jumble of family names—and fates—seemed so confusing was that there was one other detail in this story, though one which didn't seem to play any part in David Spragg's sudden insanity. That detail was regarding the blended family residing in the Spragg household. Apparently, David Spragg had lost his wife a few years earlier, and, now having remarried, had an infant in common with this second wife, as well as his children from the previous marriage and his second wife's children from her deceased first husband.
Not that this was an unusual occurrence, back in that time period. For our case, though, it introduced a second surname into the narrative, as well as the possibility of mis-identification of parentage for each of the children. Yes, I realize that, in a matter of moments, they all lay dead at the hand of the man (be)heading their household, but remember, I'm solely thinking genealogically, here. I want to be able to correctly identify which child belonged to which parent.
The report in the Kansas City Times was valuable for another reason: it included the eyewitness report of the one family member who had managed to escape: a child whom the newspaper identified as Dora Spragg. Though the Times report was not the one picked up by most wire services across the land, the few papers which did carry it provided a raw snapshot of what unfolded on that bloody afternoon.
It also provided a seemingly straightforward listing of the characters involved in this tragedy. These were laid out in the opening paragraph of the Times report:
In the sitting room of a little farmhouse about ten miles northeast of this place, upon pine boards placed on chairs, lie the dead bodies of David Spragg, Louisa Spragg, his wife, Caleb Spragg and an infant, their children. The head of each is almost severed from the body. The carpet is blood-soaked and the walls besmeared.
These were not the only ones in the Spragg household that day, of course, so despite having that convenient catalog at the very start, this lack of a full census of family members required wading through more gore to isolate the rest of the details I was seeking.
Continuing with their December 12, 1894, report, the Times list provided more specifics of the family members, including their relationships:
All this is the result of David Spragg's frenzy of yesterday. Until that time the family consisted of David Spragg, his wife Louisa, Dora Onstatt, aged 10 years, Clint Onstatt, aged 8 years; Ina Onstatt, aged 6 years, all children of Mrs. Spragg by a former husband; Caleb Spragg, aged 5 years, a child by David Spragg's first wife, and the infant son.
A list like this seems complete enough to go by. After all, what else could we use to double check that report? There no longer remains any 1890 census; none of the children were alive at the time of the 1880 census. And they certainly wouldn't remain long enough to make the 1900 census—at least not in reportable conditions.
As serendipitous as it may seem to stumble upon this handy newspaper listing of the family, don't let that fool you into accepting it as reported. As it turns out, the more I tried to double check the list, the less confident I felt in the news story. Note, for instance, how little Dora—the one providing the eyewitness report of the scene—was called Dora Spragg in one paragraph, and yet her name was given as Dora Onstatt just a bit later. Of course, reading reports, from publication to publication, of how the crime itself unfolded, I realize the rush to report in the heat of the moment may have contributed to an escalating error rate, not just in the deeds but in the names, too.
Though we often place great confidence in the documents which supposedly verify our genealogical conclusion, from the number of times in which those items have proven to be error-prone, it warns us to always—always—double check and even triple check the details. In the absence of those source documents, even as complete a listing as this newspaper report provided cannot tempt us away from our resolve to seek the actual circumstances. While I'm glad to have found this helpful listing in the Times report, it can serve only as a guide to lead me to more accurate information, as we'll see in the next few days.
Monday, July 18, 2016
Why is it that, despite the unfolding of a horrific event, journalists can still paint the perpetrators with the most rose-colored word pictures?
It was after the tragedy which had occurred at the home of "wealthy farmer" David Spragg that reporters from newspapers throughout the midwest descended upon the obscure region where the Spragg family had lived in Missouri. Indeed, in addition to the reports generated by those journalists on the scene, several newspapers picked up the story across the nation—from as far east as New York to San Francisco and Los Angeles on the west coast.
Although not withholding any of the bloody details, the newspapers nevertheless equally packed their narrative with flattering descriptors. While being characterized as insane, David Spragg was also portrayed as a man whom, no doubt, neighbors and townspeople were more likely to recognize.
The Saint Louis Republic called him "an honest and industrious farmer, well-to-do and greatly respected by his neighbors." As a father, he was portrayed as "always indulgent and provident."
Still, such kind euphemisms did not mitigate the fact that, on the afternoon of December 12, 1894, David G. Spragg—a father who, only moments before, had been holding his baby boy and playing with him—"patted the baby gently on the face" and then, suddenly, escalated into what one newspaper dubbed "the most horrible butchery which ever stained the history of Northern Missouri."
Nor did it help to know that the man had had a terrible headache earlier that day. Or that neighbors reflected later, after coming upon the gruesome scene at the Spragg farmhouse, that he had been ill for some time.
Though the event itself erupted on Tuesday, December 11, 1894, by the weekend, the story had gained national coverage. Many of those news reports can still be accessed by searches on such services as NewspaperArchive.com, which retrieved twenty eight stories (likewise for the collection at GenealogyBank), or by accessing National Endowment for the Humanities' Chronicling America site, where a search for David Spragg yielded thirty three results.
With as much care as reporters had taken to present Spragg in favorable terms, they heaped devastation upon the man as well. Carrying out his act with "unconceivable ferocity," David Spragg was said to have been "enraged by the demon of insanity" and engaged in his destruction with the frenzy of "a human monster."
The "demented man"—as the newspaper back in Warren, Pennsylvania, where his brother once served as editor, dubbed him—had been complaining "all morning long" of "an aching head." The closest neighbor, who lived nearly a mile away, had been sent to summon a doctor from town, but before any help arrived, something must have snapped in David Spragg's mind and his behavior changed radically.
He had been noted to have been "never quarrelsome...not an intemperate man...never known to abuse his family." After the brutal devastation he brought upon his family that day in December, he turned upon himself. Inside the house and out of view of the assembled neighbors trying to stop him, two shots signaled the end of the carnage.
Someone had wired for the coroner "and other officers," who came and took charge of the remains. That night, at the conclusion of the inquest, the coroner's determination was that no motive could be found for the murders other than that the man "suddenly became insane."
When I learn of such appalling instances in current events, it sometimes turns out that there was, indeed, some organic cause for such a sudden change in personality and behavior. Of course, back in the 1890s, there may not have been the ability or even the custom to pursue such possibilities. No mention was made of an autopsy in the news reports about David Spragg, for instance. Diagnostic abilities would have been limited, even if one had been performed. No doubt, the people of the town of Ridgeway would have been disturbed to learn of such a tragedy, but would also have had no way to be assured that such devastation was not the result of evil intent, or that it was unlikely to ever happen again without that same underlying cause—whatever it might have been.
Sometimes, when I run across such stories in my pursuit of family history, it causes me to wonder whatever became of those left behind, afterwards. In this case, it was hard to even determine if anyone was left behind. The last line of one newspaper article, having detailed every minute aspect of the crimes, closed its report with the mention of the "two" children who had escaped with their lives: "The two stepchildren who were still alive were cared for, but cannot recover" from their injuries. It was hard, though, in taking in all the various reports, to determine how many had died—and just who they were.
Even seeking their burial records proved fruitless—but enlightening as to just what the aftermath of the tragedy had meant to those in Ridgeway. The only burial record I could locate on Find A Grave, for instance, was that of David Spragg, himself—complete with a copy of one newspaper account of the carnage plastered alongside his memorial.
My question, of course, was: did any family members survive this ordeal? If so, what burden did they carry with them for the rest of their lives? It turns out, thanks both to search capabilities and newspaper repositories online, that there were enough clues tucked between the lines of all those reports and records to find out more about the children.
Sunday, July 17, 2016
With the recent upgrade to the "Family Matching Tool" at Family Tree DNA, I was curious to see if things became any clearer for me. I've been taking a close look, over the last week, while I do my usual due diligence on trying to figure out just how these people match me.
It's no secret that, despite now having 1,261 matches to my autosomal test at Family Tree DNA, I have precious few confirmed relationships. Same thing goes for my husband's results—I'm the administrator for those at FTDNA—where we have a 777-person genetic genealogy puzzle piled up.
I like the fact that the new interface allows customers to identify a close relative who has also tested. The example FTDNA used in announcing their recent changes was that of parent to child. Well, in our cases, those opportunities have long since passed, so that handy device for identifying matches held in common with close relatives almost seemed beyond reach for both of us.
However, I noticed a mention that these close matches could also include a relationship as distant as, say, an uncle. This would be great for us, as we are awaiting results on one such relative. In addition, I also have a half-brother's test already in the system. The challenge now is to insure that test names and genealogical database names match up exactly—in other words, remove the nicknames, if it's the full name showing on the family tree. Once I get those little discrepancies cleared up, I'm looking forward to seeing whether I'm gifted with any revelations.
The change in interface brought with it another surprise, though. When I pulled up the new look for my husband's records, the change in graphics seemed to direct my eye immediately to one distant match that I had needed to follow through on. This was with someone whom I had emailed over a year ago, and then we got stuck in all the comparisons. I knew we would have a match, though, because of a surname we mutually shared—Ambrose. It was just a matter of inspecting both pedigrees to determine how distant our match actually was, then entering in—and confirming—the degree of relationship on our respective accounts.
Well, last week I did the calculations. To do so, I had to transfer another entire line to my tree at Ancestry, but that was just fine. It was yet another one of those lines I had researched and recorded on my database on that other (read: wood burning) computer, so it was about time I took care of it.
When I finally got everything straightened out on the updated database, I determined my husband and this person he matched were sixth cousins, once removed on that Ambrose line. As Family Tree DNA requests us to do, I entered the appropriate level of relationship on my husband's page at FTDNA—since there wasn't that exact classification, I had to enter "distant cousin"—and emailed this fellow Ambrose researcher to let her know she'd have to do the same on her end.
Funny thing was, when I went back to the site to check something about our match, poof! She was gone. No matter how I searched, the entry was no longer there. For whatever reason, by saying it was that distant, had I suddenly pushed it beyond the parameters acceptable by the company? Or just stumbled upon a glitch in the new system? Oh well...while I no longer can access the records for this match, at least I have her email. Our mutual line is a surname going back centuries in this country, and quite well researched, so we will likely keep in touch despite having dropped off each other's radar at FTDNA.
Over at Ancestry DNA, where the system has automatically built in a way to glean from posted pedigree charts, we still are struggling with some challenges in matching. My own DNA matches now number 325—an increase, in the last two weeks, of only ten matches—and my husband's matches are now up six at 137. Even though Ancestry has initiated a number of sales recently—and now boasts a database of over two million—our receipt of new results there have slowed to a trickle. And although they had, in the past, warned of changed that might bring upon us a similar disappearance of known matches, none of the ones I'm eyeing as possibilities has done so. Thankfully.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Ancestry equation, I've been jousting at
Perhaps it's a good thing that I made absolutely no effort whatsoever to add any names to my father-in-law's tree. There, without so much as typing in an iota, the total number of record hints advanced seven, adding up to 930 hints awaiting my attention. And that's after I cleared out all the hints for three of the people in that tree. So much for trying.
On my own side of the family equation, all of my progress has been made on my mother's tree, where an addition of 261 names now gives me a tree of 8,296 people. I'm still focused on that task to enter all the descendants on my matrilineal line. Right now, I'm working on all the descendants of colonial couple Thomas Lewis and Jane Strother. It's quite a challenge to bring each of these lines down to the present day, but I'm plugging away at it still. Goals like this can only be conquered bit by bit over the long haul.
Considering the plans our family had had for this week, I wouldn't have expected to gain those 261 entries for my family tree, nor the 398 for my husband's tree, but sometimes plans change. While we had hoped to be back east, visiting family—and researching our roots along the way, of course—some health issues have prevented us from following through on plans now. Hopefully, we'll be able to postpone those visits to the fall—a much more pleasant time for travel, in my opinion—and reconnect with all the people we were longing to see this summer.
In the meantime, I've found a way to put those unexpected hours to good use.
Above: "In the Berry Field," 1890 painting by American Impressionist Theodore Clement Steele; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.
Saturday, July 16, 2016
It's been a month since I last tried my hand at indexing records at FamilySearch.org. To give you an idea of how large the collection was that I indexed last month, there are still dates available to work on within that collection.
Happily, the collection I worked on this month was so easy to complete, I did two in one sitting. No more blurry-eyed angst over reading faint entries wrong—my accuracy rating was a deplorable 85% with my attempts last month. This batch was easy to move through and, for the most part, straightforward to read and interpret, even for the handwritten entries.
A lot has happened since I last joined in on the indexing project. Apparently, I missed out on some updates to the program, itself, and had to wait for the download.
That, however, is not the major news. What is happening now is that we are right in the middle of a seventy two hour Worldwide Indexing Event 2016. By the time the marathon is over at the end of July 17, FamilySearch hopes to gather 72,000 indexers to slam dunk a whole pile of records. If you don't have anything going on right now and haven't helped out with indexing in a while—or have ever done it at all—consider jumping in and donating a spare half hour to the cause. It's quite easy to get started. And who knows? You may find you like it so much, you'll come back to help some more.
What is interesting about the indexing process is that, despite having well over one hundred thousand volunteers worldwide helping with the process, there is a vast backlog of material yet to do. If you doubt that, just take a look at all the record collections which have been digitized, but not yet rescued from "browse" prison. (Scroll down here to view a listing of "image only" collections—and this list shows just such instances for the United States only. Multiple other countries' collections are also in this browse-only state of limbo, for lack of willing indexers. Gives you an idea of the work yet to be done.)
The sad part of this situation is that there is no room left to move any of these additional collections into the queue to be indexed, until those already in line are cleared out. Our local genealogical society, which has helped in the past by adopting collections specific to our region and dispatching the indexing duties post haste, has recently requested FamilySearch to allow us to spearhead another project to index targeted collections, but we have been turned down in our request, for this specific reason. These are collections already digitized, but until they can make it to the to-do list for indexing, will be no more useful than paging through old fashioned microfilm reels.
Hopefully, by the end of tomorrow, the 72 hour indexing marathon will help move a good number of those collections off the worldwide to-do list, and we can see some other files advance to take their place. If you become a part of that army of 72,000 volunteers this weekend, hats off to you for your contribution to the effort!
Above: "A Race Meeting at Jacksonville, Alabama," 1841 oil on canvas by the virtually unknown W. S. Hedges; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.
Friday, July 15, 2016
There are some times when I more sorely miss the 1890 census, and searching for what became of two of Caleb Spragg's sons is one of those times. Caleb, as we saw yesterday, was a descendant of the well-known Spragg family of Greene County, Pennsylvania—but also a descendant, on his maternal side, of the same William Gordon who was the forebear of my mother-in-law.
Sometime between that 1880 census and the tragedy which struck the family in 1894, Caleb's sons Francis and David chose to move from the place their family had called home for generations. This was not a small move, but one which took them, their wives and children halfway across the continent.
While it might seem reasonable for a farmer such as David Spragg to choose to move for the opportunity to acquire better land, the move didn't make as much sense for his brother Francis. Seven years David's senior, Francis Spragg had chosen a different path for earning his living. Though not much can be found on Francis Spragg—or F. M. Spragg as he sometimes represented himself—there have been a few mentions of him in the capacity of editor. In that era of the late 1800s through the early part of the 1900s, that position of editor—at least for small town newspapers—often included the role of proprietor, as well.
Before leaving Pennsylvania, Francis Spragg apparently was, indeed, just that: editor and proprietor of The Democrat, a small town newspaper in Pennsylvania. Judging from the timeline inferred from his 1900 census entry at his new home in Harrison County, he and his wife Jane had likely arrived in Missouri sometime after the birth of his second son, Lloyd, in 1887, but before the arrival of his only daughter, Frances, in 1890.
It is unclear whether his younger brother had traveled west with him, followed soon afterward—or perhaps had ventured out on his own before Francis ever thought to do so, himself. David Spragg was still in Pennsylvania in 1887, at least according to his marriage license, for that was when he took as his bride the twenty two year old Orpha B. Rush.
By the arrival of their firstborn, Ina Lee, in July 1888, David Spragg and his family were already in Harrison County, Missouri. David and Orpha settled on a farm just outside the small town of Ridgeway, a town of scarcely three hundred people founded only eight years prior and named for an official of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad—perhaps in hopes of currying favor.
Whether David's brother Francis had originally come to Harrison County with the intention of staying in the newspaper business, by the time of the 1900 census, he was listed as a merchant operating a dry goods store in Ridgeway. However, a later account in the History of Harrison County, Missouri, revealed that he and one of his sons—perhaps attorney Earle Gordon Spragg—did eventually purchase the Ridgeway Journal in October of 1909, retaining ownership for the next four years.
While it is not clear how close the two families remained, over the years since their move from Pennsylvania—David outside city limits, working his farm while brother Francis attended to business at his shop—with one irrevocable act in 1894, it became evident that something had befallen Francis' younger brother so quickly that help could not even be gotten for him in time.
Thursday, July 14, 2016
Perhaps a lifelong residence in the same small town—a town, incidentally, full of aunts, uncles and cousins of many degrees of relationship—can bestow upon one the air of importance. Or perhaps, it is just within the covers of those 1880s volumes of local history that people achieved that appearance. No matter what the cause, the family of David and Nancy Gordon Spragg seemed to be one of significance in their small home town of Waynesburg, Pennsylvania.
By the time David Spragg had married William Gordon's daughter Nancy in 1826, the town was barely more than three hundred people in population. Even by the time of his death in 1877, the place contained barely twelve hundred people. So perhaps when the Samuel Bates History of Greene County, Pennsylvania called one of David and Nancy's sons "one of Greene County's most substantial citizens," it might be expected that the term was a bit of editorial hyperbole.
Still, that oldest son of David and Nancy—Caleb A. Spragg—was a successful farmer. Noted parenthetically in his father's biographical sketch in the Bates History was one particular assessment of Caleb:
In connection with the raising of stock and the management of his farm of 125 acres, upon which he has bestowed much care and attention, Mr. Spragg has filled various offices in his township, and served as a member of the school board two terms.
David Spragg had named his firstborn son after his own father, a man who had moved his family to Greene County from Trenton, New Jersey. Doubtless, this move had also been one of several family members, as the Spragg surname was big enough in the county to merit a small post office with that very name. Variations on the name Spraggstown often showed up on birth records of descendants of this extended family for generations in Greene County.
The younger Caleb, born in Greene County in 1829, married early and, like his father, had five children of his own—at least by his first marriage. His bride was the former Sarah Johnson, who gave him four sons and one daughter before passing away at the age of fifty one. At her death, Sarah's youngest child—the lone daughter—was barely eighteen, herself, but already married to a Spragg cousin. By that point, Caleb's oldest son, Sylvanus, was a doctor and about to propose marriage, himself.
Of the other three sons, one—William—had become proprietor of Waynesburg's marble works. Another, said to have been a newspaper editor, eventually left home to take a position in far-away Missouri—perhaps following that family penchant for wanderlust we had seen in his maternal grandfather and the Gordon men before him. The other son, a farmer, decided to follow his brother to Missouri, perhaps in hopes of better land.
While the Spragg name in Waynesburg was customarily appended to that phrase, "a prominent Greene County family," a move to Missouri would not bring with it any guarantee of such recognition. That, however, is the move which will capture our attention as we shift our focus to what becomes of the next generation of the Spragg and Gordon descendants from Waynesburg.
Above: 1876 photograph of Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, courtesy Greene County Historical Society, via Greene Connections Item #GCHS-AN027-0001-0000.