Thursday, April 30, 2020

Getting the Right Riley

Face it: researching a surname as common as Riley can be a rough go. Add in an equally common given name, and you're gifted with a challenge doubly as difficult. Fortunately—at least, according to surname statistics at—there were far less Rileys living in Tennessee in the late 1800s than elsewhere.

That, however, can hardly be counted as consolation. In seeking William Riley, son of William Riley and brother to my second great-grandmother, Rachel Riley Boothe, I entered the search with the queasy feeling that, at any time in the process, I might make a mistaken research turn and end up with the wrong William Riley. It would be so easy to do.

Keeping my goal in mind—I wanted to find the death certificate for one of Rachel's siblings to confirm the origin of her parents—my only remaining choice was to pursue Rachel's brother William. Their older sister, Mary, disappeared without a trace after the 1850 census. At least, that was the last place I had found her in her parents' household, back in Sullivan County, Tennessee.

By the time of the 1860 census, the elder William and his wife Cassie had moved to nearby Washington County, Tennessee, where they lived alone as an elderly couple. Their daughter Rachel had by then married my second great-grandfather, William Alexander Boothe. And Rachel's brother William? Well, that's what we'll muddle over, beginning today.

By the time of the 1850 census, young William F. Riley was twenty years of age. He could possibly, within the time before the next census, have been married, considering his age—and hopefully in either of the two counties in which I had found his parents in Tennessee. Of course, there was the wild expanse westward which could have beckoned him, or military service to relocate him (or, worse, cause his demise). But the best research course is to assume all possibilities are plausible and look for the most reasonable one first.

I opted to check first for marriage records in Washington County, since that was where William's parents had moved before 1860. Sure enough, there was a marriage record for a William Riley in 1852 in that same county. On June 10, William Ellis, then the Justice of the Peace, signed to verify that he had performed the duties uniting one William  Riley with a woman named Eliza J. Thompson.

If I could be sure that was the only William F. Riley of marriageable age in Washington County at the time, I'd rest more assured of my little research victory—but given the prevalence of a surname like that, no matter how hard I worked, I could not escape that nagging doubt.

Still, onward! I decided to follow the trail out to the end to see where this William F. Riley would lead me, right or wrong. At least, when I reached my goal at the end—remember, I'm after his death certificate with the prize of the full identity of his parents—I'd quickly learn whether I had barked up the wrong family tree.

The only trouble was these Rileys didn't make things simple for me. For one thing, they didn't stay in the same place for long. The only consolation in finding William F. and Eliza J. Riley in the 1860 census—having moved, once again, to nearby Greene County, Tennessee—was to see that the younger William had picked up his father's trade as shoemaker. Another nice touch was recognizing in the names of his three children two which had been repeated from the Riley household's previous generation: Mary and Rachel.

Onward once again to confirm what became of this William F. Riley—right one or wrong—meant an even greater leap of faith in locating him in the 1870 census. Granted, I found William, his wife Eliza and their three children exactly ten years older for that next census—a feat which, strangely, does not seem to occur with the clockwork precision we'd hope such things should—but I didn't find them in Greene County. Nor did I find them in "the next county over" in Tennessee. The only match I could find for a family with almost all those details exactly intact—Eliza Jane had turned into the more staid Elizabeth—was in a place far removed from Tennessee.

I found them in the western portion of central Indiana, in a town called Bainbridge. What had brought them there?

Above: Image of the 1852 marriage record for William F. Riley and Eliza J. Thompson of Washington County, Tennessee, courtesy of

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Brick Wall Strategy: Step Aside

When I couldn't—no matter what I tried—find any further information on the parents of my second great-grandmother, Rachel Riley Boothe, the next best tactic is to attempt gleaning the same details from another member of the family. Thus stuck, it was time to step aside and look at Rachel's siblings.

I had the details on the household from the 1850 census—in fact, that was the earliest record I could find on the family. Perhaps, given Rachel's parents' ages, there may have been older children who had, by then, left the household, but at least in that 1850 snapshot, I had the names of two others in Rachel's generation.

Of course, the details seemed squishy, at least if you think about what the census record showed for 1850. There in Sullivan County, Tennessee, William and Cassandra Riley were listed as fifty years of age and sixty, respectively—at least, if that was the correct reading of the handwriting.

And yet, shoemaker William and his sixty year old wife had a daughter—my second great-grandmother Rachel—who was only sixteen years of age, plus another child of the tender age of three. Something in me wants to do the math, but the death certificate for Rachel providing these parents' names restrains my doubt for the time being.

Of course, the 1850 census didn't provide any explanation for just how each person in a household was related, so that three year old child could have had any family connection. As for the other two children in the Riley home—Mary and William F.—I could at least hypothesize that they were my Rachel's siblings. And those would be the ones I'd be most interesting in tracing.

Problem number one: starting with the oldest child, twenty five year old Mary, I ended up with absolutely no further details. True, by the time of the 1860 census, she was out of her parents' home. But by 1860, her parents had moved to the next county, Washington. In those ten years, Mary could have seen her life story take any of several possible next steps. She could have married someone in Sullivan County and raised a family there—or died in childbirth, leaving not a trace nor a descendant. Or she could have moved with her parents to their new home and married someone there. Finally, she could have remained single, continuing in either county alone (which is doubtful) or died as an unmarried woman in either location.

Only problem: I found no record for any of those possible scenarios.

Since my goal in pursuing Mary was solely to locate any further information on her parents, I decided to move on to other research possibilities for now. After all, Rachel and Mary did have a brother, William F. Riley. He, too, was of marriageable age shortly after the 1850 census, which prompted me to look for his marriage record in either Sullivan or Washington Counties. Besides, he, too, had not been included in his parents' household for the 1860 census.

Following the younger William's story, as it turned out, provided not only a good supply of family details, but also evidence why the tactic of researching collateral lines comes with a caution: it can easily supply a slippery slope leading the unsuspecting researcher to the brink of rabbit trails. That, indeed, was what ended up sucking me into a messy story.

Above: Image from the 1850 U.S. Census for William and Cassandra Riley household courtesy

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Gathering Our Census

What do you do when you can't find anything about your brick wall ancestor? You gather what you can find, lay it all out, and look for clues. Then, you branch out and look—yep—for more clues.

I really didn't know anything more about my second great-grandmother Rachel Riley, wife of William Alexander Boothe, except that she was his second wife, and that he met and married her in Tennessee, rather than his former home in Virginia. That's not much of a start for research. Back in the pre-Internet, snail-mail days, it was a real victory just to finally locate Rachel's death certificate—and then to find those words any genealogist hates to see on a government document: "unknown."

Still, it wasn't too bad a discovery; the "don't know" response was in reply to the question of where her parents were born. At least the informant, Rachel's oldest son William Horace Booth, knew his grandparents' names. As far as he was concerned, his mom's father was named William Riley. And William Riley's wife was Cassandra Fincher.

As far as where Rachel was born, though, the mistaken report of South Carolina instead of North Carolina added some extra time to the research process. That's where I learned to look at each decennial census report to see if the "facts" agree with each other over the decades.

Sure enough, tracing Rachel back over her life's trajectory, I could finally see some consistency in reports of her native state. But if I had just looked at the 1880 census, for instance, it, too, would have pointed me to South Carolina. And if I hadn't clicked through to see the actual document for 1860, the transcription (at least at Ancestry) would have told me her place of birth was in Nebraska—a detail pointing me in a totally incorrect direction. Other than that, the census consensus seemed to be that Rachel had come from North Carolina, as had her parents and siblings.

It was, in fact, a good thing Rachel had siblings. Searching for a name like William Riley—even if I could get the right state location—would be challenging. I was thankful to realize, as I discovered the given name of Rachel's mother was Cassandra, that that was the same name given to my great-grandmother, Rachel's daughter. As I was to find out, the family did favor use of namesakes.

I was able to locate Rachel's parents in the 1850, 1860, and 1870 census—although, in those later decades, William and Cassie lived by themselves as an older couple, their children all gone from their household. After leaving North Carolina, the Rileys had taken a predictable migration pathway, first to Sullivan County, right up against the Virginia border and not far from the mountain border of western North Carolina. From there, they moved across another county line to settle in Washington County.

That was where the trail went cold for my Riley ancestors. I have yet to find any death records for William or Cassie Riley. Of course, I could trace my direct line ancestor, their daughter, all the way from that point until her own death in 1915. But those "don't know" responses on family documents didn't help me figure out anything further on Rachel's parents.

The next option, of course, is to follow collateral lines, of which I had a few choices. I could take them in order, from oldest sibling on down, follow their own family histories, and upon discovering the date of their own death, look up what someone reported for their parents' names. Hopefully, this tactic would produce another certificate that not only confirmed Rachel's parents' names, but their location of birth, too.

That would be the reasonable approach to take. But that didn't guarantee it would be the successful route to my needed answers. You know there will always be other roadblocks on our way to smash through these brick walls standing in the middle of our research route. It was time to branch out to a side line to look for those needed clues.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Living the Life of the Rileys

Leave it to an unexplained DNA match to send me scurrying back to the ol' pedigree drawing board to check on connections. Now that there are so many tools available to help us link mystery cousins to the right branch in our family tree, I had to see if I could at least place this fellow test-taker on the right side of the tree. Using "Shared Matches" on, I managed to discover one thing about this person's unknown-to-me surname: it belonged to a branch on my maternal side which was sadly lacking in genealogical elbow grease.

True fact: some branches of our family trees are more equal than others—at least, more equally attended to. Apparently, I had neglected my due diligence on this particular branch, which likely explained why I didn't recognize this DNA cousin's surname. I had a long way to go before I could connect it to the more familiar names in my family's history. It was time to amend that research oversight.

Admittedly, I had a good excuse for what I neglected. While the research would have meant paying attention to the collateral lines of my second great-grandmother—admittedly, not that far a stretch—it was this same second great-grandmother's husband who had already given me ample research fits. She was the second wife of William Alexander Boothe, the widower who snuck out of town, somewhere in Virginia, to set up housekeeping with his two young sons in Tennessee, back before 1850. It wasn't until after he arrived in Washington County, Tennessee, that he gave any thought to finding an appropriate step-mother for his children.

That second wife came with a package of research problems of her own. Some other researchers who chased this same question long ago assured me her maiden name was one of either two possibilities, adding to my lack of confidence about proceeding with this ancestor chase. One researcher assured me this woman's father was likely involved in horse thievery and had escaped justice by crossing the state line—a story I wasn't entirely sure I could buy at that point, but, hey, there weren't enough online resources available twenty-plus years ago and this researcher lived closer to Tennessee than I did. But it did make a plausible excuse for why the family's name might have changed.

Fast forward to this year, and my decision to make amends for my research neglect. I had to revisit that branch of the family—a mere stub on the pedigree chart, having left off with my second great-grandmother's possible maiden name and that of her parents, according to her 1915 death certificate.

Keeping in mind that even duly-authorized government documents can indeed contain mistakes (such as her possible birth location listed as South Carolina)—as well as other gems, such as Rachel Boothe's occupation ("Old Lady")—I decided to take the maiden name provided on that government document and use it as a tentative hypothesis, so I could get to work on piecing together a plausible tree for her family.

That decision launched me into a multi-generational tour of a branch of the family I had never before encountered. Unlike those warm fuzzy family stories of local-boy-done-good, such as the Flowerland story we stumbled upon a while ago, some family histories include episodes that tempt us to sweep them under the carpet. But our families, if we look long and hard enough, will provide us with a wide variety of instances of the entire gamut of the human condition. We need to decide how to face up to that fact.

In this case, my second great-grandmother owed her existence to a couple known—at least in Tennessee—as William Riley and Cassandra Fincher. Where they really came from—and by what name folks there knew them—I can't say at this point. But I followed the trail of their descendants and discovered it certainly was capable of providing me with at least a few stories for my effort.  

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Off the Shelf: The Art of Slow Reading

There is just something about the uncertainty of this quarantine season. It makes me antsy to not have my regular schedule. True confessions: yesterday, I had to slip out of the house for a drive in the country. I found a quiet, shady spot to park and tried to read, but couldn't. This isolation gets my mind running on too many tracks all at once, and I can't concentrate.

After reading the same paragraph over the fourth or fifth time, the experience prompted me to remember a book I still need to read. Granted, I probably have a thousand books at home, still waiting to be read, so thinking of this one specific volume struck me as odd at first. After all, I do have a stack of books on my coffee table waiting to be finished, but this book is not among them.

One would think this time of isolation and unnerving quiet would be the perfect time to settle down in a cozy chair and get lost in a book. The past six weeks have been like a vacation of sorts. Enforced, but a vacation. And yet, I can't seem to avail myself of the treat of all this spare time. My eyes go over the words on the page, but never register any meaning in my mind.

It occurred to me that the only way to conquer that dilemma was to force myself to read slower. Now, keep in mind, I am by nature a slow reader. I long ago resisted the pressure to speed read, whether in college classes or in the work world. I wanted to absorb the author's meaning when I set aside the time to read his or her book. I see books as a conversation—mostly one-sided (other than the arguments raging in my head after a few pages), but a give and take between two people thinking about the same topic. Speed reading to get to the punch line is not the point in my book.

With yesterday's frustrating experience, it called me back to that home base of reading slowly, and I remembered that, years ago, I had spotted a book on a store shelf which was calling my name: Thomas Newkirk's The Art of Slow Reading. There was something about that title that resonated with me, and, opening the cover to peek inside, that hunch was amply supported. That was a book I had to buy and take home with me, if for nothing more than obtaining a philosophical trophy to point to: see, this is me; I am validated.

There are some situations in our life in which we recycle back to the same settings and realize that, although we've been that way before, we need to revisit it with fresh eyes. This time, in the spiraling cycle of history, we need to grasp both old and new. Pulling this same book down off the shelf again—my bookshelf, this time—will do me some good. Not only will it provide a reminder of how important it is to slow down and take in all the detail, the context, the nuance, but besides being an opportunity to revisit past remembrances, it will provide a nexus of old lessons and new circumstances. That juxtaposition will provide new insight and move me along a fresh pathway.

It is encouraging to see what fresh insight comes from revisiting old scripts. Old documents from our family history, quickly skimmed once long ago for preliminary confirmations, now revisited can reveal details overlooked in that first reading. Slowing down to gain a sense of just who these ancestors were—rather than simply to glean the quick grab of names, dates, and locations—helps us paint a more nuanced picture of their life stories.

Slowing down may make the job take longer, but it yields a richer, fuller context in the end. With an ominous sense of how impoverished we may be as we sink further into our isolation, that richer context gained may be just the uplifting antidote we need.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

With a Face for Radio

Is it worth the effort and risk for a genealogical society, during this quarantine season, to hold their interim meetings over an online videoconferencing system?

Yesterday, one of our genealogical society's board members joined me in hosting an exploratory discussion over Zoom for precisely that subject: should other societies try out this new medium, since they can't hold meetings the way they always have in the past? We met with board members from a neighboring genealogical society, who were grappling with that question and wanted to glean from our recent experience.

As all capable board members would, this society's leaders had a long list of questions. Least among them was the "how to" or even the "how much" types of queries. The greatest concern was what their members might think about the change, and how they would handle making the transition. They wanted to hear about our experience with our own members.

Since holding our society's first online meeting—plus three other small group meetings—I've been recipient of several comments from members regarding this topic. Most have led to productive conversations, and all have helped our board more clearly see things from our membership's perspective. But some have stopped me in my tracks and made me want to shake someone and say, "Do you hear what you're saying?!"

One comment coming at me, the other day, was from a woman who didn't want to have her face show up on the camera. Fine, I thought, just listen to the audio feed. But then it got me thinking: this whole debate about whether to move our meetings to videoconferencing during this quarantine season is not just about being responsible to our dues-paying members and providing the education they've come to expect. It's really all about connecting. Again. After all this time. Because we couldn't, for the past six weeks.

So what if someone doesn't like seeing her face on camera because that hairdo needs a touch-up job, but the hairdresser had to close shop on account of the lockdown. We don't want to see a beautiful face; we want to see you, our friend whom we miss.

My husband—who, like me, also had a career in radio broadcasting in his post-starving-student years—likes to quip that some people have a "face for radio." In my case, I'm afraid that is fairly close to being true. Blame it on my mother's genes (although she certainly made a pretty picture), but I have inherited her intense dislike of being captured on camera. And yet, I'll do it if it means being able to connect with someone I haven't seen in too long a while, especially if there are no other options for getting in touch, face to face.

We worry too much whether our octogenarian society members will grasp enough of the current technological know-how to get themselves onto a computer and, even more complicated, click a link to use a videoconferencing program. Listen, they will do it the same way they get on Facebook, or use Skype or FaceTime, or even send that antiquated email: they will ask their grandchildren or nieces or nephews to get them fixed up so they just have to click a button. Or maybe, they just know how to do it all, themselves.

Last week—sometime in the middle of the week when, in former years, no one would have been out shopping for groceries—I took a look around as I tried to keep six feet away from all the people who were also shopping at Trader Joe's. Where did all these people come from? And why did they have such a desperate need for groceries right away, on a Tuesday? It occurred to me: no one was really there because they needed groceries. They were there because it was finally a beautiful spring day and they were desperate to get out of the house, but not just to take a solitary walk around the block. Grocery shopping on a Tuesday was the excuse to get somewhere where they could see other people.

We miss the people.

So when you are wondering whether it is worth it to try conducting your society meeting via videoconferencing services, don't think of the pros and cons of the technology. Think of the people. They are all desperate to see each other again. They will find a way to connect if you offer the means to connect them. Even if they have a face for radio.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Getting Over Ourselves

There has been a long and winding thread weaving its way through my life, when it comes to the topic of broadcasting. Because of that, bridging the gulf between that heritage and the current quarantine-crossing dilemma of reaching out to sequestered genealogical society members has had an added psychological component for me.

When I was a kid, my brother, who was twenty years my senior, had graduated from acting school and recently been signed to host a children's television program. Somewhere along the line, my dad thought it would be a great idea to get my younger sister and me onto the set as part of the "audience" for one of my brother's daily broadcasts.

Needless to say, I have vivid memories of that experience—and the several which followed it. None of them had anything to do with the fact that my dad had been a stage musician at one of New York City's iconic theaters (where my sister once got to meet Lucille Ball...while I was home sick with pneumonia). Nor did any of those memories have anything to do with my mother's previous career in acting, either.

What I did remember from that childhood experience was how small the set was in relation to the rest of the room we were in, and how fake that comparison made it seem. And I remember the clockwork precision of the support team assembled to produce the program. But most of all, I remember the impact, after the show was over and the stage lights were turned off: the contrast of heat and light to darkness was enough to create an actual breeze inside that building. It takes a lot to make a television set look "real."

Years later, when I had the chance to do some broadcasting myself, memories of that earlier point in my life echoed through my experiences on the air and behind the scenes in radio production. I learned the power of the voice to create illusions—most humorously illustrated when looking at the expressions of the fan girls upon their first chance to meet the guy with the fabulous on-air voice (but, alas, incongruous physique) who worked the late night show at our station—but I also experienced the discipline demanded by the rigors of broadcasting.

That sense of timing, of professional presentation, of lofty production values still linger as part of my internal imperatives, despite the actual work experience being far behind me. Now, when facing the only obvious answer to connecting with our genealogy society members in a post-COVID world, it didn't matter that we would be connecting from the comfort of our own homes, using equipment which, though so commonplace now, wasn't even in existence back during my broadcasting days. Something from deep inside clicks back on and I am back to broadcasting, again.

There is a problem with reverting back to that old scenario. While videoconferencing may indeed be a form of broadcasting, this is not the same broadcasting as was done in the bygone era of the three-channel-only monopoly. We need to think much more like the candid world of YouTube broadcasting, where everyone with a laptop and a motormouth can have a channel—a world where the neighbor's dog bleeding through the audio feed is forgivable. Where every hair does not need to be in place. Where we can get over perfectionism and just be ourselves.

Believe me, for some people (that finger is pointing at me), that can be a hard jump to make. A person like me has priors for needing to finish that voice-over on exactly the right second. What can we do, though, when the technology is new, we've never done this before, and mistakes are just so easy to make? We just learn to live with mistakes. And learn to learn. While doing.

As the entire world, it seems, is making the shift from doing things the way we've always done them to doing this new video-based meeting venue, we're having to mount an unexpected learning curve. Of course, it helps when the way to the "new normal" is strewn with ample suggestions to help make the transition easier—don't pace while holding your iPad during meetings, for instance, or (horrors) forget to click the "mute" button on your audio feed while taking the meeting with you into the bathroom—but above all is one cardinal rule: forgive others and forgive yourself when tripping up on this learning journey.

We're all in this together, and rather than expect perfection at the destination, let's focus on maximizing the experience of the journey. Never forget that, although we call this "virtual" reality, it still is reality. And the best way to handle this process now is to learn how to be real. Even on camera.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Re-Imagining Meetings

Now that our local genealogical society realized their only choice was to take a deep breath and leap into the world of online conferencing services as the answer to our statewide quarantine order, I've had a few thoughts pursue me following our videoconferencing experience. Although I've since had a flood of ideas about how to innovate, once we've all gotten over the hurdle of using this new technology, first and foremost is the realization that spending a full hour watching nothing but a talking head and a sheet of paper via a tiny computer screen just doesn't cut it. It doesn't matter if the speaker is our favorite in the whole world, nor whether we feel this month's program provides the most compelling subject. It is just hard to focus attention on a screen when all that's really happening is having one person speak.

So, naturally, as my mind wandered from the elation of successfully pulling off an online meeting, I began thinking of how, exactly, we could adapt our face-to-face meeting agenda to better fit the medium we are now having to use. I'm not going to go all out and say with Marshall McLuhan that "the medium is the message," but it is quite impossible to escape noticing how videoconferencing technology—especially in this age of quarantine—is built to bring people together. Why hold them apart by insisting that they all sit still and watch one stranger do all the talking?

Especially now that we have low-cost technology at our fingertips, and most members able to access this in their own homes, we need to explore the capabilities of these tools and imagine how they can be best put to good use for the benefit of our genealogical societies.

Small group meetings are an obvious answer, enabling a select subsection of our membership to have interaction among themselves without cluttering up the airwaves with too many people talking all at once. But even in larger groups, discussions and interaction can be achieved with the preparation of some firmly-established ground rules.

Even more than that, thinking ahead to design an alternate meeting format will allow the process capabilities of the technology to shine. For instance, on one service provider (Zoom), meeting hosts can ask a discussion question, then with a click of a mouse, send participants into "breakout rooms" to participate in group discussion with a smaller, randomly-assigned, group of fellow society members, before being called back to the main meeting to proceed to the next step.

I think of possibilities for small work groups tasked with developing society plans or projects—anything from the more simple goals for a team of putting together next month's newsletter to the more ambitious effort of the board developing a five-year plan—all which can be achieved online in video-conferencing settings. I think, also, of how a society can now format more interactive classes on a wide range of "how to" topics—for instance, employing split-screen viewing along with Zoom's "screen share" option for demonstrations—not only for members but also to offer, perhaps as a fundraiser, genealogy workshops for our communities. After all, the libraries where our societies used to offer such services are now closed to the public, but we can overcome such physical barriers.

This videoconferencing medium cries out for a mindset which takes the theory of "interactive" and transforms it into the reality of offerings for our society members and leadership. Personally, I can't wait to start experimenting with new ways to use our Zoom channel to reconnect with our members and—in hopes of returning to a life beyond quarantine—expand our society's capabilities to serve the broader communities who have an interest in genealogy as well as those who want to pursue family history research in our region.

Note: While I have mentioned one particular videoconferencing service, I'd like to clarify that I have no affiliate marketing connection with that company nor any other such service providers. There are several companies which offer these services, some even for free. Both our nonprofit society and my personal business have opted to use this one service based on personal choices, not based on any financial reimbursement for our recommendations.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Take That Big Leap from a Solid Position

Leaping into a world of virtual genealogical society meetings is not something that "just" happens. It takes well-considered preparation to ease a group from the bedrock of their familiar face-to-face meeting traditions into an unfamiliar world of online opportunities. Yet especially in this quarantine situation, the imperatives to make the move are multiple.

Regarding my local genealogical society, I wasn't too sure we could make that move easily. I had already worked with some very motivated members on computer-assisted family history processes and could tell that many members shared a lack of confidence in their ability to navigate computer-assisted tools.

We had no choice when it came to shifting our meeting plans, though: we had already had to cancel one month's meeting. While the board surely hoped the restrictions to assembly would be lifted in time for the next month's meeting, it was clear by our April board meeting that we would have to make the choice to switch to an online venue or cancel a second meeting.

What we found was that it is possible to coax our membership towards more tech-assisted services. It just takes a plan to implement the system. Think of it as a music performer might: before opening night, we need chances to practice, a team to handle the tech details and roll out the information, and a dress rehearsal for the important performers before the curtain goes up and the show begins.

This meant we needed to work on key segments of our plan long before show time. First, we needed to conduct some background research on the best online venue for our group, and do a test run as a demo for our decision-makers (in our case, our board of directors). Then we needed to review the process on this test run, field questions from the board, and consider any observations offered, before moving on to the next step of introducing the online process to anyone else.

Our next step, once the board made the decision to proceed, was to enlist a key set of influencers to set our plan into action in a limited scope. Influencers in a group are the ones that can facilitate rolling out a decision. These are the people who are most successful at getting the rubber on the road and gaining traction in the real world.

This, in our case, turned out to involve two different groups and goals. One group focused on evaluating whether the leadership could actually conduct a meeting online, and involved negotiations between our program director and our speaker, as well as our webmaster, whose expertise in our chosen utility would help us through her services as co-host for the actual meeting event. The end task for this group was to conduct a dress rehearsal—which proved essential for reasons I'll explain later—and to facilitate all the players coming together in real time for this run-through.

The second group of "influencers" turned out to be members of our special interest groups. Through our society's monthly newsletter, we rolled out a plan to have two of those groups convene their meeting for this month online, rather than in person. Because each was a small group, we had the opportunity for the dual goals of holding an interactive meeting while using that time to test whether these members could actually download the videoconferencing app and use it effectively. We took the time to do an interactive, online tour of the Zoom service capabilities to familiarize users in preparation for our upcoming membership meeting.

Once we had engaged our board and our key influencers among our membership, it was time to roll out the plan. Our first step was actually a demo of the product I proposed for the society's use, to be given via our monthly board meeting. I suggested Zoom only because my family's business has already been using it for several months with good results. The "demo" to the board was actually hosting the April board meeting on one of our company's channels so that all our board members could experience how the system works. For those who had never before used such a system, it was helpful to actually go through the process, even as a first-time user. The experience helped inform the organizational technicalities of entertaining the motion to select a provider and purchase the necessary service components.

Once we purchased our own channel, specific board members used the same tool to meet online for the purpose of coordinating rolling out our plan. We had newsletter articles to compose, social media announcements to consider, and small group events to calendar, all within a matter of weeks.

Prime among all those activities was securing the agreement of our speaker to participate in this change of venue. Thankfully, our speaker was willing—but our dress rehearsal demonstrated that her computer system was not exactly ready. For whatever reason, our first dress rehearsal—conducted, thankfully, two days before the meeting night—brought us what I can only call The Green Blob instead of our speaker. Every time she moved on her camera, this Green Blob morphed across our screens. It was time to do some troubleshooting. Thankfully, we still had the time to spare.

With the next day's test, our speaker thought she had resolved the issue (it was with her computer's camera), but the best she could do was to get rid of the Green Blob—but now she had no picture at all. We decided to settle on a black tile with her name written across it. After all, the focus was going to be on her PowerPoint slides, not her face.

It turns out that a dress rehearsal for the speaker has been essential for other groups, as well. Just the previous week, my husband, who is chapter president in another nonprofit organization, had set up a dress rehearsal for his upcoming meeting, as well. That way, he was able to orient his board to the necessary co-hosting duties, as well as walk the speaker through the meeting agenda and technical steps to switch from camera view to screen share for the presentation notes. Especially for those who haven't presented using this venue before, it helps to have a practice run before the actual event. Even if something unexpected happens at the actual event, having an informed team means they can cover as co-hosts until problems get resolved.

Inviting the assistance of key influencers in your organization helps share the tasks even further. Members can tag-team helping each other get online or troubleshoot problems experienced by their fellow members, especially if done ahead of time (as we did with the special interest groups). And the feedback from membership is also helpful, when those interested are invited to help out ahead of time. We got to see things from our members' perspective, to get encouraging feedback as we walked through the process, and to receive suggestions that helped smooth the transition to this online venue. (Several members, for instance, asked to be reminded again of the meeting the day of the event, as it seems the days are all running together while we struggle with the brain fog of quarantine sameness.)

While everything I had read in preparation for leading our society into this new online venue said to admit members into the meeting with their microphone already muted—we also warned everyone ahead of time to expect this—actually seeing everyone's face again meant I couldn't bear seeing these people I know without being able to talk with them. On opening night, as we invited members in from our "waiting room" at Zoom before starting the night's agenda, I couldn't help but verbally greet each one by name. I learned to tap dance fast enough to open each individual's mic long enough for that person to respond with a word of greeting. I think we all needed the chance to actually say hello.

Because we had an online meeting instead of our usual face-to-face event, it did limit our social time, but that is what we will re-invent our special interest groups to address. The agenda also went quicker because I had to eliminate several impromptu reports and exchanges—I do an "on this day in history" overview as a conversation starter, and we also have an "open mic" section for #amresearching reports—but that meant we didn't wear down our audience before it was time to introduce the featured speaker!

Best part of all: since we also scheduled the event's time block to start with a final test run with our speaker before we admitted members into the online meeting room, we were able to go into the session encouraged that our speaker had actually resolved the computer issue and now could present with a correctly functioning camera. It is so important to have a speaker who is willing to face the very different challenges of speaking from a remote location via videoconferencing tools, and who is willing to work with your organization to resolve unexpected problems.

In retrospect, I'm thankful for all the positive feedback we received from members. But my mind is just percolating with fresh ideas on how we can harness this app to better suit our organization's mission and specific education goals. It might have been a worldwide crisis which booted us out of our complacent position into the "what next" scramble of desperation, but we all are able to land squarely on our feet if we can maximize the tools at our hands in this frontier of online meetings. Having shaken loose of our traditional moorings, we can now explore even more of what is available to groups such as ours for such a minimal cost. A plan to do so may not insure success, but it will certainly enable us to have a better idea of where we are going and how we will get there.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The Pros and Cons of Desperation

Alright, let's just lay it on the line: I doubt there is any genealogical organization in the world who would jump up and down, waving their arm and begging, "Oh, pick me, pick me" when asked, "Who would like to volunteer to host their membership meetings online?" Cutting edge techie is just not our, ahem, sharper image.

Lately, though, we haven't had much of a choice. Right now, in the midst of a nearly worldwide quarantine, it's more like: cancel the meeting or move online. Desperation to try—anything—to keep our group together is nudging, no, shoving us into realms we never thought we'd need to try.

Being able to switch to a virtual meeting would solve a multitude of problems for our local genealogical society, first of which would have been to solve a sticky situation we had already been facing: where to move our meeting location. Our usual location—a branch of the local library system—was undergoing construction, and we had already sunk an entire week's work into relocating to a new, though temporary, home.

With the indisputable arrival of the coronavirus in our state, it didn't matter where we met now; no place would welcome us in, given the restrictions of our state's quarantine order. Meeting online would allow us to sidestep the entire issue—but how could we prepare a membership who were already reticent to delve further into this virtual reality?

When our local society faced up to that dilemma, we realized a few roadblocks stood between us and our next meeting. We already had to cancel our March meeting, and having to make decisions to radically shift our modus operandi before April made that month's timeframe shrink.

The benefits of being able to see an entire organization shift gears instantly, whenever the board of directors said "jump" would be optimal, but our society has been in existence for sixty eight years. We don't pivot that quickly. Engaging in a simple—though admittedly multi-step—process such as uploading their DNA data to GEDmatch, for instance, was for some of our members a stress-inducing assignment. Those of us who are totally immersed in the genealogy world online assume "everybody" uses online genealogical database management systems, or goes to webinars for their continuing education (or even reads a family history blog), but in reality, in the rest of the genealogy world, that is not always the case. We still have many members who would prefer to remain low-tech participants.

A second hurdle to online meetings was to confirm that the speaker we had previously engaged for our April meeting would be willing to present via online system rather than face-to-face in front of an audience. For some teachers, instruction is not only a means to deliver information, but is a platform for a performance of sorts; some speakers thrive when they have a live audience and fall flat when they play to an empty room.

Fortunately, even though our society's program director keeps our monthly events scheduled almost a year in advance, for our April meeting, she had scheduled a relatively new speaker who, in her other life, works as a teacher at a local high school. This speaker was quite willing to take up the challenge.

As for our members, our board reviewed the situation to assess how best to approach the challenge of convincing a good number of them to try out this new, online routine. At first, we talked about sending out a survey to our members to see how many thought they'd be game, but with time flying by, we didn't have that luxury, so we developed another approach to help our members get ready for the big meeting day.

This approach was a multi-step process—besides being totally experimental—but for our organization, it seemed to work. I'll review the steps we took, tomorrow. Perhaps this approach will work for your organization, as well. 

Monday, April 20, 2020

Keeping in Touch—Virtually

We're still in quarantine but it's time for another genealogical society meeting, you say? No problem! We can still keep in touch. It just takes some extra work, behind the scenes, but there is a way to keep meeting.

Our local genealogy group just made history—at least for them—this past week when we held our very first virtual society meeting. We held the meeting via the online videoconferencing service, Zoom, and had the opportunity to reconnect with our members. Well, with the most technologically intrepid of our members, that is—and for nearly three hours.

This digital connection required some advanced planning, not only for our board of directors, but for all our members, as well—and of a kind that many might shy away from, too: the minutiae of operating a computer. The preparations included some background research, and discussions about costs (we opted not to use the free version available from this same company). Then, too, every plan comes with a downside, requiring us to evaluate how to escape security and privacy risks and the unpleasantness of "zoombombing."

Finally, the moment of truth arrived: our society's monthly membership meeting. Coaxing everyone through the process, we thought, was either going to be a monumental nightmare or an exhilarating success. Talk about stage fright: just before launching the meeting, my board's program director and I exchanged a few nervous words, wondering whether anyone would actually show up for the event.

How gratified we were to see a decent number of our regular members appear on our screens—as well as some of our members from other locations, who normally cannot attend our local meetings due to distance. And the feedback from everyone afterwards—via emails as well as our social media channels—was so encouraging.

It's been a few days since the meeting, now, but I still am digesting the feedback from the event—as well as imagining all sorts of other applications the technology can provide us as an organization. The potential is impressive.

Since ours is not the only society impacted by the unfortunate turn of events worldwide concerning the spread of this novel coronavirus, this week I'll be discussing how we used the videoconferencing system for our local society meeting, what we did to prepare for our first all-member session, and how else we can put this service to good use, not only while we remain apart and under quarantine, but even after we are once again free to assemble as a group.

I know many other genealogical societies are also pondering how to handle moving forward as an organization during the restrictions of this time period, and I hope these few posts will serve as a springboard for further conversation. Perhaps your society has opted, rather than cancelling meetings, to try their hand at these new digital systems, as well. If so, I hope you will share your experiences, either here in comments, or on a blog post of your own. We learn and grow best when we support and encourage each other. We are all in this thing together.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Toys and Totals

One side effect of the addition of new tools at genetic genealogy services is that I get captivated by the possibilities and can't put them down. Needless to say, with the arrival of Ancestry's new tool to connect matches to our pedigree chart, I'm finding even more work cut out for me. Thankfully, the end result is adding new details to each of the four trees I keep on Ancestry.

Some weeks, the work moves ahead on one side of the family, then comes to a standstill as another week moves the tasks to another branch of the tree. Genealogy can be like that, but now, as I comb through all the DNA matches which had stumped me before, I'm fairly zooming along.

Let's look at the numbers. For my mom's tree, which had stood still with zero progress in the previous two-week period, I now have managed to make up for lost time by adding 340 new names, giving a total of 21,001 individuals in her tree. The exact opposite occurred for my mother-in-law's tree, where last time I had devoted all my attention; this time, zero additions leaves her tree still at 18,368. I hate to say the same thing happened for both my dad's tree and my father-in-law's tree, but yes, they are left at 713 and 1713, respectively—strangely an exact thousand names difference between them.

Apparently, the coronavirus threat has left people thinking of far scarier thoughts than whether some nefarious law enforcement agency will use their DNA test results to nab a criminal fifth cousin out there somewhere. At all of the DNA testing services we have used, new match counts have slowed to single digits for these biweekly counts, with the exception of MyHeritage for both my kit and my husband's (up forty and forty seven, respectively), and Family Tree DNA for my own kit, which gained a meager eighteen matches in the past fortnight.

Still, that hasn't kept me from experimenting with Ancestry's new linking option—partly the reason why I've completed so much work on my mother's tree this past week. While Ancestry will provide a suggested pathway from a possible most recent common ancestor to matches, I can't just bring myself to take their word for it. Perhaps old habits die hard, but I need to document each step of the pathway—and then, after adding those records to my tree, also add all the collateral lines for each generation I pass through in the process. That adds up to a significant number of people, I discovered as I put together my report for this time period.

The most helpful matches I've unearthed with this new process seem to be stretching out to the fifth cousin level—farther than most people's trees seem to reach. However, that long-time habit of adding collateral lines for all the generations is paying off for me, as I often don't need to add much information at all. I have always made it a point to work my way to the fifth cousin level—meaning verification for all collateral lines descending from each of my fourth great-grandparents—so in many cases, it's just a matter of plugging in the details on my DNA match in my own records. Believe me, winding my way down to the present date with the collateral lines of sixty four fourth great-grandparents can be a lot of work.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Stuck at Home, Bored

If you are noticing the confining aspect of those clever turns of phrase such as "shelter in place," perhaps you, too, are feeling rather stuck at home. Just remember: in that, you have plenty of company; apparently, those inconvenient computer hackers are also stuck at home and bored. Be sure to use this extra time on your hands to update your systems, keep your virus scans current, and—my weakness—don't miss your computer backups. An unusual online scare last night reminded me, once again, that at least for our virtual connections to the rest of the world, it's important to make sure all systems are current—or it really will feel like we are stuck far from the rest of the world.

All is not dour negativity while home, of course. Was it quick thinking on the part of Ancestry to release their newest set of genea-toys to coincide with the current version of the quarantine blues? I'm not sure I'll ever know the answer to that, but I'm putting that extra time to good use this weekend, tagging each of my DNA matches at Ancestry with their new system linking matches to individuals already in that family tree.

We've already heard rumors, thanks to reader Kat, that maybe something new like that was coming our way. Remember? I looked for clues at the Ancestry Lab on their website, though I could find no mention of any new beta tests. Though Kitty Cooper had mentioned the possibility on her blog a while back, scouring her posts showed no further clues about what the new development might be. And then, suddenly, our Irish friend Dara mentioned one day that she had just found the new feature! It was live in Ireland, at least, by a few hours before I could rush to open my own account.

Since then, I've been reaping the benefits of keeping a "bushy" family tree. Having added all those collateral lines for all the siblings of each of my ancestors—and then tracing all their descendants down to the present time—it was quite easy to click on the new icon and connect my DNA matches to their correct spot in my tree. In fact, I completed the process for over twenty cousins just that first evening.

Don't think I couldn't have completed more than that in one sitting. The encouraging thing was that I could find the right place to connect matches as far away as fifth cousins, in some cases, but the drawback I encountered was that I had made an unfortunate decision when I first started my subscription at Ancestry.

You see, Ancestry does not limit a subscriber to building just one tree. I'm not sure the sky's the limit, but you get the idea. Coming out of the pre-Internet era of genealogical research when I had gotten so many complaints from sharing my GEDcom with distant cousins—"can you just send me my side of your tree?"—I started life at Ancestry with the decision to build not one tree but four, one for each of my daughter's grandparents.

Now that we're in the DNA phase, I'm regretting that decision. To maximize the use of DNA in combination with family trees, a subscriber needs to link the DNA kit to a specific individual on the tree. Now that we can link all our matches to our tree as well, I can do just fine when the tree used is my mother's tree. But for all these helpful new matches materializing from my father's side of the family, I can't connect them to his tree. The only way I can link them is to add all my dad's side to my mom's tree.

Ugh. Think of all the work to get that completed.

On the other hand, considering all the time on our hands, now that we're stuck at home...maybe that's not such a bad prospect, after all.


Above: The little icon newly added at AncestryDNA which, with a simple process to connect a subscriber's DNA matches to the correct location on the subscriber's own family tree, helps to visualize just where each match belongs in your pedigree chart.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Wisps and Snippets
of the Digital Preserve

The story of Luther and Lucy Fischer hit me just right when I discovered it last week, thanks to a comment on a Find A Grave memorial for Luther, but something else occurred to me, as well. After all, Luther was first cousin to my great-grandmother, Sarah Ann Broyles McClellan. Wouldn't they have known each other? Wouldn't that close connection have incorporated that detail into the broader fabric of our family's history?

The conclusion I arrived at, after mulling this one over for a while, was: no, they likely would not have known much of each other. Here's why—and a mental exercise you might attempt as you navigate the twists and turns of your own family's branches.

First of all, though Luther's mother, Sarah Rainey Fischer, and my great-grandmother's mom, Mary Elizabeth Rainey Broyles, were sisters, that doesn't mean they were lifelong neighbors. Sarah Fischer raised her family in their native Georgia, and though she temporarily moved from her hometown in Coweta County by the time of her first marriage, her return home for the birth of her first child happened to nearly coincide with the birth of her own sister Mary.

Then, too, when Mary was old enough to marry, both her parents had already died, and she was under the care of her aunt and uncle in another county further removed from home. It was in that county—Muscogee County—where she wed distant relative Thomas Broyles and removed even farther from her Georgia home to live on his property in Tennessee. In a brief six years—by the time her sister Sarah had remarried and given birth to all but the youngest of the Fischer children—Mary had already died in childbirth by 1877.

By then, Luther was barely six years old. His cousin, my great-grandmother Sarah—perhaps named after this very sister of Mary—was not yet three years of age. While my great-grandmother remained in her father's home in Tennessee until a few years after her marriage, there was likely little chance for her to visit her mother's side of the family after her father remarried. Once my great-grandmother left Tennessee as a married woman, she and her own young family settled in Florida.

There are likely many other such stories of disconnected family lines. And there are likely just as many reasons why families grew apart over history. Every reason from the call to migrate westward to the dynamics of large families and their inherent age disparities from oldest child to youngest yield cousins who may have known next to nothing about each other.

Yet, some of those cousins—and, multiplied over generations, their descendants as well—were the recipients of the disparity in bestowing details of the family that others never had the privilege to know. Think of everything from saved letters to journals to photographs to heirloom furniture or keepsakes. Or something as simple as a preserved memory. Some cousins got the goods; others lost out—or never even knew what they were missing.

When I see traces of these tokens in the wisps and snippets we family historians manage to share with each other—online, across the miles—I realize this may be the only way some of us get to learn more about our families. Ours may have been a legacy of the cousin who moved west and never got to grow up with the children of aunts and uncles, a connection so close yet made so distant due to unavoidable circumstances.

Virtually, now reaching out through the ether, we are snatching these vanishing wisps and preserving them in a form tangible enough to pass along. We save them, and wait. And hope that someone else—perhaps through a Google search—will stumble upon that memory, preserved in place through our efforts. When we meet, we and that distant cousin of whom we previously knew absolutely nothing, we digitally multiply those artifacts of a separated family, sharing yet never losing what we've inherited, in the wonders of online genealogy. Those are the connections which most keep me in awe of the happenstance of this digital preserve of our heritage.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Taj Mahal, Georgia Style

Though it was back in 1900 that Luther Fischer married the daughter of Alabama-born Dr. C. D. Hurt, perhaps because it was early in his own medical career that the Fischers postponed splurging on any lavish residential arrangements.

By 1925, after the new, 150-bed Davis-Fischer Sanatorium was opened, Lucy and Luther must have decided it was time to look for a suitable home of their own. They settled upon property which had recently been put up for sale twelve miles to the northeast of Atlanta, known as the Wallace estate.

William R. Wallace had farmed that thousand acre parcel since the 1880s, but following his death, the eldest of his seven children finally decided to put the property up for sale in 1925. The site was north of the little city of Chamblee, up against a meandering waterway known as Nancy Creek. The peaceful hilly refuge was just what the Fischers sought for an appropriate building site for their new home.

The resulting mansion was suitably ensconced amid beautiful gardens, particularly featuring a rose garden which in the years to come became famous throughout the region. Just the rose gardens alone included ten thousand bush roses, as well as climbing roses along the two miles of drives within the estate property. The Fischers called their paradise "Flowerland," and as a generous token to their neighbors, opened their gardens to the public for viewing during weekends.

One website still preserves the memory of that beautiful garden layout with pictures and narrative concerning the property's history, noting that Dr. Fischer was "devoted to his wife" and that he had built the mansion and planted the magnificent garden layout "entirely out of his love for her."

Unlike other famous monuments dedicated to beloved and adored spouses like India's Taj Mahal, this property was a living testament of one couple's love story. Upon Lucy Hurt Fischer's death in 1937, though, her husband apparently could no longer bear to remain at the home which constantly provided reminders of his loss.

A little over a year later, in an announcement celebrated at the January meeting of the Georgia Rose Society of which he was a board member, Luther Fischer made public his decision to not only deed his Crawford Long Hospital to Emory University, but to donate his beautiful home, which he and Lucy had called Flowerland, to the State of Georgia, along with a maintenance endowment for the property. The gift was to be not only in remembrance of Luther's beloved wife, Lucy, but also to serve as a memorial to both her mother and his, Sarah Rainey Fischer.

Of Dr. Fischer's generosity, Atlanta's weekend publication, the Sunday American, was said to have noted,
To those in sickness he gives the magic power of his hands and a hospital. To those in health he gives "Flowerland" in all its beauty.

Though such accolades may have seemed more suitable to a eulogy, Luther Fischer outlived his beloved first wife by fifteen years. Already remarried by the time his generous gifts were announced in 1939, the doctor succumbed during the spring of 1953.

As much as Atlanta may have appreciated the floral beauty bestowed upon them by this man in 1939, his legend likely would not have continued to live on, but for the few mentions found scattered "in the ether" of the Internet. I know I would never have known this story about my own great-grandmother's cousin, if it weren't for a simple comment inserted on Dr. L. C. Fischer's Find A Grave memorial, telling of fond memories of the place Luther and Lucy once called Flowerland. It is simple remembrances like this which enable us to grasp wisps of our past which lead us to more completely comprehend our family's history.

Now, if I ever get to Georgia to research the roots I am so removed from, I'll be able to drive down that winding road by Nancy Creek and know that was a place someone in my family not only once called home, but set aside specifically to remember those who held that place in their lives most beloved.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Remnants of an Ancestral Story

Luther C. Fischer arrived in 1871 as the firstborn child of widow Sarah Rainey Smith and her second husband, Hartford C. Fischer. Growing up on his father's farm in Coweta County, Georgia, along with his younger sister and two brothers plus his three older half-sisters, one might not imagine Luther's family situation to be one to bestow upon him a fortunate future—especially considering his father's subsequent divorce. And yet, somehow, he found a way toward a better life.

In Georgia about that time arose a new business concern which developed a syrup, or concentrate, which could be sold to drugstore soda fountains to produce a "temperance drink." Somehow, Luther got wind of that business opportunity and began selling the concentrate across the state. He had a motivation for his industriousness: a need to finance his own education.

Even for the times, his education must have cost a sizeable amount. Luther Fischer had enrolled in the Atlanta College of Physicians and Surgeonseventually known as Emory University School of Medicine—and graduated in 1899. Leaving there—and the part time occupation of selling Coca Cola syrup which financed his education—Luther traveled to Europe to continue with post-graduate studies.

Upon his return to Atlanta, the new Dr. Fischer teamed up with a former professor, Dr. Edward Campbell Davis, to open the Davis-Fischer Sanatorium by 1908, which quickly outgrew its capacity. Inspired by the tragic news of the preventable loss of lives in fires destroying hospitals in Michigan and Montreal, Luther made the decision to change architectural plans for a new sanatorium from the typical wood construction to a building completely constructed of fireproof material. That eighty-five bed facility, though costly, opened its doors in 1911.

By 1931, Luther's business partner Dr. Davis had died, and according to the two men's plans, Dr. Fischer rechartered the sanatorium as a nonprofit institution and renamed it in honor of the (somewhat disputed) originator of the anesthetic use of sulfuric ether, Dr. Crawford W. Long. That institution, in subsequent years, saw its name evolve from the Crawford W. Long Memorial Hospital to the Emory Crawford Long Hospital to, simply, Emory University Hospital Midtown.

What's in a name? Sometimes, we can't really tell, until we learn its history. We learn from history, too, what went into our own genetic makeup, as we discover the personal stories of those whose lives shared the specks of DNA we also find in our own chromosomes. If not for piecing together stories like Luther Fischer's from the scraps of resources cobbled together through a Google search, perhaps not even this might have been discovered.

This, however, was not the story which led me to look closer at Luther Fischer's life. After all, the only time I've been to the state of Georgia has been to fly through its largest airport; I certainly have not had any opportunity to delve into family research there in person. It was only thanks to the kind remembrance shared on a memorial that I learned of another aspect of Luther Fischer's life.

You see, during the rise of his career, Luther also was party to another partnership: that of his marriage to Lucy Jane Hurt in 1900, daughter of Dr. C. D. and Mamie Grant Hurt. Lucy must have meant an awful lot to Luther, though it is only in traces of what was left behind—yet only briefly—that we can see any signs of their care for each other. Thankfully, in preserving that story, others have enabled it to be passed along so we, too, can know it.

I'll share what I've found about Luther and Lucy tomorrow.

Above: Undated picture of the Davis-Fischer Sanatorium, Atlanta, Georgia, possibly from mid-1920s.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The Legacy of Life's Hard Lessons

One of the benefits of knowing one's own family history is gleaning the treasures reaped by ancestors who went through tough times in life. Yes, surprise, life has been tough for untold generations before the Wuhan flu arrived on American shores. Not all of them lived to tell of their harrowing experiences, of course, but the memory of these ancestors' lives bestows us with a priceless legacy.

As I make my way down the branches of my family tree from any given ancestor to each of their descendants, I run across an incredible variety of stories. One of those stories emerged as I worked on the siblings of my second great-grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Warren Rainey. Mary, herself, was not an easy study; she made herself hard to find by being orphaned just before the 1870 census, then married just after that census to become mother of three daughters and, upon the final arrival of the long-awaited son, dying, along with her son, just after childbirth. And before the 1880 census.

With that leaving me with nothing more than oral reports from family remembering her to be an orphan, I had no way to trace her line further back. The only mention worth following was that someone recalled her maiden name being something like Ramey or Rainey.

Eventually, I did find a plausible explanation for who she was—and thus, who her parents were—along with a serendipitous DNA match with the woman's brother's descendant, which I've written about before. However, everyone knows a genealogist is never satisfied—which means, once having conquered that brick wall, I needed to press forward, er, backwards in time to the next generation.

My first ploy in that attempt was to research all of Mary Elizabeth's siblings. Believe me, there were many of them. My second great-grandmother was apparently the baby of the family, and the family was huge. And yet, do you think I could find any clues? Not much online, at least not back five years ago when I first began the process.

Fast forward to this Wuhan flu season, and "sheltering-in-place." What's a diligent genealogist to do with all this down time? Clean up that family tree, of course! That led me back to the Rainey family line, where I began checking records for each of the siblings of my second great-grandmother.

It was halfway down the span of the ten known children of Thomas Firth and Mary Elizabeth Taliaferro Rainey (my Mary's mother) that I began work on Sarah—or Sallie—Rainey. Born about 1835 in Georgia, Sarah "Raney" was married to Isaac Hardeman Smith in Coweta County, Georgia, in 1852.

Four children later, Isaac was gone by 1867. What was a young mother to do? Remarry, naturally—which Sarah Rainey Smith did within a discreet three years of her widowhood. The February, 1870, nuptials took place in Fayette County, Georgia, uniting widow Sarah Smith with a gentleman listed as H. C. Fisher.

Mr. Fischer—as his name turned out to be spelled for the remainder of his life's records—actually had a given name: Hartford. Just as had Sarah's previous husband, Hartford and she had four children. And yet, at the end of Sarah's life, there was something strangely missing from her will: any mention of her husband. Though all her children from both marriages were mentioned by name in her 1912 will, there was not one word about Hartford Fischer.

Do not presume he had already passed away, though. His death was not to occur until 1930. We find the explanation for his absence in the 1910 census: he and Sarah had divorced sometime after 1900, explaining why, in her will, Sarah was so careful to emphasize that her son Hugh Rainey Fischer had "supplied my every want of eleven or twelve years."

With a lifetime of hardship and disappointments, it might be reasonable to assume that all Sarah's children had also gotten a rough start to life. For this, you would be correct—and yet, that doesn't take into account the energy each child brings to his own life's story. As I followed the "fortunes" of each of Sarah's children, I did see some down-and-out stories, but I also noticed, right from the start, the mention of a "Dr. L. C. Fischer" within Sarah's last testament.

While it is true that anyone who was a doctor at that time was considered to be of elevated status, if not financial standing, it also takes considerable financial backing to acquire the education to advance oneself to that level—something a widow and subsequent divorcee in that era might not be able to provide.

Perhaps it was the path that brought this forsaken son from a broken home to a healing profession that provided the foundation for what was yet to come in his own life—along with a heartbreak, as well—with a home of his own. 

Monday, April 13, 2020

Speed Treeing

Perhaps you've heard of speed dating, that process of enabling singles to quickly meet large numbers of eligible partners. Or its cousin, speed networking, which works on the same meet-and-move-on principle, only for business professionals. When I work through my family history research, I do the genealogist's version of speeding: I speed tree.

I use Speed Treeing for various reasons. Working my way from any given ancestor, down the lines of descent of both my direct line as well as all collateral lines, I can zip through several generations in a matter of a few brief hours. That means—if I am using, for instance—I can accept or reject any new "hints" for each person in my tree, based on the context of that family's situation. After all, I've just reviewed that specific family line while mentally keeping tabs on where the family settled, what time period we are discussing, and what became of each of the family's children.

It also means, given the hint of another researcher's family tree, I can quickly view it and decide whether it is correctly matched to mine, or is—or contains—a mistaken match to avoid. After all, I've just spent the last few hours familiarizing myself with the extended family's situation.

In the flash of an hour, I can see from my speed treeing experience the devastating after-effects of living through a war, or surviving an economic downturn, or suffering through an epidemic. I can even see how a family's generations spin out of control following the untimely death of a parent, regardless of cause for the tragic loss. Or how a family's can-do attitude carries them through hardship, reversing those signs of devastation.

With the rush through the details on each generation in a family line, it seems odd to say this, but I can get a sense of whether that family thrived or struggled. It's almost as if I were getting a chance to know them personally, even though they all are long gone.

For the past four weeks since our state has basically adhered to the shelter-in-place policy, I've been speed treeing through all my family lines, cleaning up details that needed clarification, or further verification, or outright removal of duplicates and other errors. Perhaps it was my need for something mindless to do while in the throes of nervous jitters over the news surrounding us, but I've covered a lot of pedigree ground in that month. Nothing to write about, of course—keep in mind my discovery about similarities between law-making, sausage-making and inappropriate genea-blogging—so I haven't mentioned much about my tour through the family trees.

There was one discovery, though, which warmed my heart leading up to this past Easter week, making me wish I could not only travel, but time travel, as well, to see a home which was not only a haven for family, but for the entire community, as well.

We'll begin exploring that story tomorrow.  

Sunday, April 12, 2020

A Very Different Easter Celebration

Today may be Easter, but it doesn't seem quite the same as we've come to expect. No sunrise Resurrection Service (for those who actually know how to witness the sun rise in person). No church celebrations at all—not, at least, in person in a church building. No Easter Egg hunts for the children. No picnics in the park. And certainly no reason to get all dressed up—there is no place to go.

Out of desperation, I did find somewhere to go yesterday. Oddly enough, around here, hardware stores are considered just as "essential" a service as grocery stores. For those familiar with the evolution of hardware stores over the decades, that means I can go to a hardware store to splurge and assuage my social-deprivation mood swings with colorful flowers. Hardly an "essential" need, but tell that to my color-starved eyes.

Standing at the requisite six-foot distance in a line which wrapped its way around the front facade of one of those big box stores, I waited for the door bouncer to scientifically balance the one-shopper-in-per-one-shopper-out and admit me into a place where, nonetheless, it was so crowded that it was physically impossible to steer clear of another human being's six foot bubble. Where did all those people come from?

Breaking loose of the pack of shoppers who really did come for those essential hardware items, I made a beeline for the garden center, and loaded up my cart with divine color—perennials all, mind you, as an added precaution, should this quarantine do us a number through an entire growing season. Just in case. I'm talking about a desperate woman here.

Now, back safely at home, all those lovely blooms are brightening the isolation, neatly ensconced in pots around my deck, where I can soak in the view even from my work station inside. While I didn't snag any traditional Easter lilies, I did indulge in several variations of that royal color, purple, to remind me of the meaning behind the season.

Hopefully, at some point in the near future, we will all be able to get back together again with the people who mean so much to us. I miss my friends, family, and even associates so much, I almost could go out and hug a stranger—but I promise to restrain myself, at least until we're clear of the health risks. Perhaps at that point, it will feel more like Easter.

Above: An 1850 lithograph of lilium wallichianum, an Asian species of lily native to India; from the horticulture journal Flore des Serres et de Jardins de l'Europe, published from 1845 through 1888. If you are as color-starved as I am, you may access the entire collection of lithographs from that journal series by clicking here. Image now courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Now Indexing:
More New York Naturalization Records

I'm back at digital volunteer work today. I'm still hoping that someday, I'll be sitting at my usual online indexing tasks and will finally get the chance to add a record of my own ancestor to the searchable collection at After all, my more recent immigrant ancestors came to this country through the port of New York City—and they couldn't have taken all their secrets with them when they passed to their grave. I'm seeking the paper trail they left behind.

Thus, every two weeks, you'll find me at my computer, chipping away at the various naturalization record projects still needing indexing at Indexing is an organized program to convert pictures of documents into computer-searchable files. That's what makes genealogical pursuit a breeze now, compared to the days before computers: go to a genealogy website, type in a name (and perhaps a bit more detail) and click a button to be served up a long list of every scanned record which could possibly contain information on your ancestor.

Compare that with the "good old days" when researchers sent their snail-mail-delivered written requests to targeted county clerks across the country—along with a check to pay for services—in hopes of locating the birth, marriage, or death certificate for that one missing ancestor's verification. Of course, back then, chances were strong that said clerk might respond—after months since dispatching that letter—with an answer that there was no record of any such person.

Now, satisfaction can be instantaneous—if, that is, such a record has been digitized and indexed so that the computer search can be completed. All to say, if no one has done the work of translating the picture of that document into text which a computer can recognize—a.k.a. "indexed"—that handy search function cannot be performed.

Thus, an army of volunteers from around the world is regularly going through the process of doing that translation service. Anyone who is willing to volunteer their time to do so, and willing to learn via a few project instructions, can serve as an indexer. The work is "batched" into small chunks of records which can be typed into a pre-set form in about ten minutes or less. Once you get the hang of doing one batch of records, you can either submit the batch and call it quits for the day, or opt to continue with another ten-minute batch. Or two. Or more.

Easy, right? That's why so many people have volunteered to do indexing—thankfully. Indexers are people from all ages and all walks of life: private individuals, genealogical societies—even extended families, working together in a private group. But even with as many willing hands as have participated in the process over the years, there are far more records still being added to the collection than volunteers can keep up with, hence the need, always, for more volunteers. 

Friday, April 10, 2020

NOT Unprecedented

Unprecedented: I guess I've heard that term just one time too many lately. I have to get this off my chest: while it may be incredibly inconvenient for so many of us to put our life on hold for an as-yet undetermined period of time, this is not the first time a disease has put the skids on Life As We Know It.

The catch is: it is the first time, at least within our own memories, that we've had such an experience. But that doesn't mean history is devoid of such examples. And you know what we say about history: those who forget it often find themselves repeating it. (At least, that's what people say Winston Churchill quipped as a paraphrase of George Santayana—although, for those who actually check out their history, he apparently said no such thing, according to this post from the National Churchill Museum on November 16, 2012.)

Of course, we have had influenza epidemics before, but they mostly have been out of reach of the natural life span of all but the most advanced centenarians among us. How can we "remember" something like that type of experience, other than through reading old newspaper reports as the event unfolded, as my favorite professional genealogist recently did in researching the 1918 Spanish flu as it came sweeping through our own county.

There have been other epidemics, of course—almost all of them just as devastating as the experts warned people they would be. We can reach back through history to see example after example after example. After all, what we call a pandemic today, people labeled as epidemic in the past—a modern way to describe what, in biblical terms, would have been called a plague.

And when we remember that, for many people worldwide engaging this week in the traditional celebration called Passover, they are also calling to mind the many plagues preceding their people's ancient migration to their promised land of Israel. Those who observe Passover now still keep those plagues in mind—especially this year, as we all shelter in place, even over the holidays.

If there is anything that can be called "unprecedented" about this current worldwide variety of devastating illness, it is the blessing in disguise of being able to electronically keep in "touch" even during this time of touchlessness. It is also our ability to model worst case scenarios and predict how we can moderate the human response to the threat of this serious illness. And it is our world's lightning-fast response, through—yes, I'll say it here—unprecedented sharing of up-to-the-minute research on the DNA and mutation of our infinitesimally tiny enemy so that the top minds in multi-disciplinary science teams can come up with desperately needed answers as fast as possible.

Usually, when people engage in that wearying use of the term, unprecedented, they do it with a negative spin to their rhetoric: "It's unprecedented, and it's horrible."

I find it to be entirely the opposite: it's unprecedented because of all the new ways we now have to engage the enemy productively. And for that, I take heart. 
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