Sunday, May 31, 2020

Counting Progress,
Considering Possibilities

Another month, another opportunity to count progress. While the numbers always seem to point onward and upward, family history research is progress without an end goal in mind. If we can never quite say our genealogical task is "done," we can't really equate progress with a set number.

But let's not get caught up in mind games. Here's what happened in my four family trees in the past two weeks.

My mother's tree now stands at 22,216 names—all substantiated with documentation. The number may seem high, but that's because one of my goals is descendancy research. I research for DNA match connections, so I try to add to my tree all the descendants of each of my fifth great-grandparents. Then, too, owing to the recent addition of the ability to identify DNA matches in our trees, I've had to combine my dad's tree with my mom's, which in the previous fortnightly count had inflated her tree by well over five hundred names. The addition of this two-week period's 387 names was owing to pure research, not duplications from my dad's tree, which still remains at 715 individuals.

On my husband's side of the equation, I'll soon need to repeat that combination exercise from his dad's 1,715 name tree to his mother's 18,557 person tree. But for now, everything remains the same as it was two weeks ago—with the exception of an additional two names on his father's tree. Once I launch into the Thru-Lines for my husband's DNA test at Ancestry, as well as his Theory of Relativity tool at MyHeritage, there will be an explosion of activity there, as well.

Somehow, I do prefer the plodding, line-by-line approach I've developed over the years for descendancy research, but have to admit that the scatter-shot technique of following the cues from the happenstance of DNA matches does tend to add a lot of data to my trees with a brief amount of research work. Consider those tools as trailblazers, pointing us in the right direction and confirming the path with a genetic record. As long as we add the due diligence of confirming with records from the available paper trail, it's a valid approach to building a family tree.

While the pace of additional DNA matches may have slowed over this past year, the quality of the tools provided to assist in placing matches in our trees has made all the difference. Coupling a well-supported tree, complete with many lines of descent, and the hundreds of DNA matches received to date has supported even some very distant cousins whose match information I might otherwise have simply bypassed, owing to the small centiMorgan count.

Yet, because I can demonstrate how that individual fits into my overall tree, I know that even that minor amount of genetic material is not the sign of a coincidental fellow human being, but an actual cousin. Better yet is the confirmation it provides to lead me to paint that specific chromosome record as attributed to that specific distant great-grandparent, as well.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Now Indexing:
Something Not in my Plans

Perhaps this stay-at-home order has inspired countless numbers of would-be indexers to find something productive to do. I'm not sure. All I know is that, now that I've finally gotten around to doing some indexing on for this month—face it, I only have one more day left to get it done—I can't find any projects in the queue to be indexed.

Well, there are a few. But not many. At least, not among the U.S. records. And I'm certainly not sure enough of myself to tackle records in foreign languages.

Usually, I zero in on records from areas where my ancestors once settled. I may be a volunteer indexer, but I'm not exactly an altruistic volunteer; I look for record sets which might eventually help my own research cause. Don't be surprised to see me indexing naturalization records for New York City area. Or marriage records in Cook County, Illinois. Maybe even something from the old South.

I seriously doubt any records from Wisconsin would advance my research cause—well, not unless I figure a way to link with my mystery DNA cousins there—but that is what I ended up indexing today. Specifically, I worked on naturalization records.

Granted, the news from is that, for the last full month of April, they added 57.2 million newly-indexed records to their collection. That must mean there were a lot of volunteers busy at work transforming those digitized records into searchable material. Perhaps we'll see a similar news report, once we close out the month of May.

That's always good news for any family history researcher—especially those with roots in countries named in the long list of records uploaded at April's end. But I can't recall ever signing on to my FamilySearch account and finding such a dearth of indexing opportunities in my home country as I did today. I'm sure our work is still far from done.

Friday, May 29, 2020

About that Fourth George

Research pop quiz: if "A" equals "B" and "B" equals "C" does that mean I can connect the many Hugh Mercers of Savannah's Mercer House and Moon River's Johnny Mercer with the two Georges who were both sons of yet another George Mercer?

Perhaps you were wondering that very thing, yourself.

Not that I want to guarantee that any three trips down the rabbit hole will result in a trifecta of answers, but I feel as if it would be worth our while to consider yet another Mercer before we proceed to our genealogy puzzle's answer.

I'm talking about George Mercer IV, the unfortunate young Savannah resident who turned up missing in early 1980. We already know he somehow was related to songwriter Johnny Mercer because the newspaper report of his kidnapping included that assertion—and we all know how accurate such reports can be.

As horrified as I am over what became of young George Mercer IV, I really wasn't looking for him when I stumbled upon that news clipping; I was looking for a different George Mercer. Well, make that two George Mercers. No, three. One was the dad who named both of his sons George Mercer. And both of them were still living, best I could tell, during the time period in which their names showed up in government records.

So...was one of those George Mercers related to this new man by the same name?

Despite the tragedy occurring forty years ago, it wasn't—and still isn't—a hidden event. Just googling that name plus the city of Savannah brought up multiple hits for my search. Besides newspaper reports, the crime was revisited by Calvin Trillin, then a journalist for The New Yorker, who later expanded his notes on the episode into a chapter for his 1984 book, Killings. As the situation dragged on from kidnapping to report of ransom notes to discovery of a dead body, summaries of the 1982 court case trying the man accused of George Mercer IV's murder can also be accessed online, providing a clear, if extended, explanation of what happened to the man.

Published commentary on what befell the young George Mercer can still be found, even as recently as four years ago. A childhood classmate of the young George recalled in 2016 that Mercer was "always pleasant, smiling and ready for a laugh or to tell an amusing tale, with his very relaxed and easy-going demeanor," and that it still seemed a shock to realize what had befallen someone like that.

Delving into far more detail than I ever intended to review, however, still doesn't answer my research question. Despite how horrible the outcome was for one young man in Savannah who possessed the same name—without the "IV," of course—as two of my grandmother's third cousins, I still can't say if the unfortunate demise of this new George was a tragedy which befell someone in my George Mercer's family.

Which means, of course, that it's time to crawl back out of yet another rabbit hole, dust ourselves off and get back to the business of piecing together a paper trail from both ends of the multiple George Mercers question. Let's see whether we can actually find any connection, beginning with yet another clue: the other uncle mentioned in that initial news report, Chris Hammond.  

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Where No Mercer Ever Lived

It might seem counter-intuitive to discover that a residence called The Mercer House would be a home where no one named Mercer ever lived. In learning more about Savannah's Mercer House, though, we do discover not only some details about the Mercer family, but also far more than we bargained for.

From its start, the Mercer House seemed destined as host of a series of unfortunate events. The man who built it—unsurprisingly named Mercer—secured the architectural guidance of a New York City mason and builder, John S. Norris, whose recent completion of the Savannah Customs House had led to numerous contracts in this Georgia city. His task in this contract was to create a residence in the Italianate architectural style.

The man who had commissioned the building was a Savannah resident by the name of Hugh Mercer. Like the instances we have already seen with the Mercers I've been trying to trace for my Tison family history, this Hugh Mercer came from a long line of Mercers who chose to repeatedly bestow upon their descendants that same given name. His father—the senior Hugh Mercer—had been born in Virginia and had married well, connecting him to Cyrus Griffin, who figured prominently in the early years following the Revolutionary War. His grandfather, yet another Hugh Mercer, once served as a general in George Washington's army and is listed as one of the D.A.R. Patriots.

The Mercer House Hugh, however, did not boast quite so illustrious a military career. It took a presidential pardon to restore this Hugh Mercer to good graces after his indiscretions during the West Point Military Academy "Eggnog Riot" leading up to the Christmas of 1826. He did graduate in 1828, resulting in a commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Artillery, and eventually a first lieutenant. Serving mostly in Georgia, he later resigned his commission, gained employment at a Savannah bank while concurrently serving in the Georgia militia, married, and in 1860, began oversight of construction of the house where he presumably would settle after its completion.

A little something in 1861 interrupted progress of his building project. With the beginning of the Civil War, Hugh Mercer enlisted in the Confederate Army, eventually being promoted to brigadier general. Following the Battle of Atlanta in 1864, Mercer became ill, was briefly imprisoned at the close of the war, and though he was able to resume banking following the war, never did regain his health.

Presumably in the course of these misfortunes, Mercer saw the necessity of giving up his vision for the construction of the house that bore his name. The house was completed around 1868 by a new owner, and no Mercer family member ever lived in that residence.

The house had a lingering history of its own, though. Still standing in the subsequent century, it was no longer used as a residence. It served for a time as a Shriners' temple, then lay vacant until 1969.

In that year, two things happened involving the Mercer House. One was the unfortunate occurrence of a dreadful—and fatal—fall of an eleven year old boy from the roof of the building onto the prongs of the iron fence outlining the southern side of the property. The other was the purchase of the property by a man known in Savannah circles as an antique dealer and historic preservationist.

That man, James Arthur Williams, eventually provided inspiration for the "nonfiction novel" which has become the longest-standing New York Times best seller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. Mr. Williams also attained the dubious distinction in Georgia jurisprudence of having undergone an unprecedented four trials for murder, after which he was acquitted in May, 1989—eight months before "unexpectedly" dropping dead in the home which he had so painstakingly restored.

The Mercer House still stands in Savannah—as does the iconic Bonaventure Cemetery "Bird Girl" statue featured so prominently on the cover of Berendt's best seller. While I can catalog the many Mercer family members who have been buried at that cemetery and the same names who once lived in that southern city, I am still stuck on those numerous George Mercers and have not quite tied them in to the many Hugh Mercers of this bereft building's history.

Most important, however, is my need to remember the rabbit chase that brought me to this end of a tangled trail in the first place: the newspaper clipping about another murder involving a Mercer—the story of the kidnapped George Mercer IV. If that unfortunate Mercer was somehow connected to the songwriter Johnny Mercer, who was, in turn, connected to the Hugh Mercer of Mercer House, am I chasing a rabbit trail that will eventually lead me to an answer? Or am I just orbiting a giant family history hairball? 


Wednesday, May 27, 2020

A Moon River Mercer

Like a meandering river, the route of family history research can sometimes feature swirling eddies and beguiling detours. Discovering, in the process of sorting out the many George Mercers in my family's history, that one of them might have been related to someone famous named Johnny Mercer was a clue I couldn't resist following.

Granted, I shouldn't have followed that research bait. The chance of anyone being related to the line I was researching, merely by possessing the same surname, is slim. After all, Mercer is among the top one thousand surnames in the United States, and is a family name which has been here for a couple centuries. Of the more than forty five thousand Americans bearing that surname, quite a few of them became known well enough to, at least, merit their own Wikipedia entry.

It was to that very online resource I went when I stumbled upon that newspaper clipping I mentioned yesterday. Never mind the fact that it concerned a ransom demand on behalf of someone with the same name as a man on my ancestral Tison line. What I really wanted to know now was just who that "songwriter Johnny Mercer" was.

Don't we always perk up when there's a possibility our family history may brush tangentially with the rich or famous? So excuse me while I scurry down this rabbit trail. Today, we'll take a peek at what can be found about that Johnny Mercer.

As you may have suspected, Johnny Mercer was a man known for his musical talent. If his heyday was before your time, as it was for mine, it may not help to learn that he was a shining star of the Tin Pan Alley era. His, however, was a musical influence which reached far beyond the lyrics he wrote for the music which grew out of that collective of music publishing houses.

Fortunately, Wikipedia is not only a great resource for a quick rundown on biographies, but it often provides a brief genealogical sketch, as well. Thankfully, the Wikipedia entry for Johnny Mercer went far beyond the litany of all the songs he was famous for—and yes, "Moon River" lyrics go to his credit—and gave a brief sketch of his early years and family life.

Whether that sketch helps me connect this well-known musician with the several men named George Mercer in my Tison line may be another issue, but I did learn that Johnny Mercer was born in Savannah—a promising start—and that his father was a well-known attorney and real estate developer. Intriguingly, that father's name happened to be George Mercer.

I didn't have enough time to light on that fact in the Wikipedia article before succumbing to another beguiling rabbit trail: juxtaposed with the "Early Years" portion of the Mercer article was a photograph of a stately Georgia manor with the caption, "The historic Mercer House in Savannah Georgia."

With that, I was off to see whether there were any connection between this home and my multiple George Mercers—any of them.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Expect the Unexpected

Forget reserving that warning—"expect the unexpected"—only for those about to submit to a DNA test. Yes, anyone who decides to follow the trail laid out in their own genetic genealogy does need to understand that path may lead to unexpected discoveries. But anyone researching her family history may be in for a surprise. The unexpected lurks in all of our family histories.

All families have stories. Of all people, I should have remembered that when I got back to work on my fourth great-grandfather Job Tison's descendants. When dealing with an ancestor born in 1770, though, the antiquity persuades us to gloss over such a stern warning. After all, what could be buried in the genes of folks gone for nearly two hundred years?

My research routine is to follow all lines of descent for each of my ancestors. Job Tison's oldest daughter, Sidnah, was the one who married George Edmund McClellan, of whom I've written so much over the years. But Sidnah had many siblings, so I had much work still to complete on Job's family.

Last week, I was working on the line of Sidnah's younger brother, William H. Tison. Born in 1812 in Glynn County, Georgia, William was eventually married twice. While that was not particularly difficult to document, it was the next generation which brought me problems.

It was William's eldest daughter's oldest child—his granddaughter named Mary Ellis Walter—who had stumped me in my research, and I was digging deeper to untangle a mess of names.

You see, this particular granddaughter of William H. Tison had married a man by the name of George Mercer. To complicate matters, Mary Ellis Walter had a father whose name was also George. Mary died young, right before Christmas of 1900. I suspected it was after giving birth, a common cause of premature death for so many women, so I was looking at the census enumeration immediately following her death to confirm my hunch.

Sure enough, the 1910 census did show her husband George's household. By that time, George Mercer had remarried and I could see from the census that George had a son by this second marriage, as well—but it contained a detail which puzzled me. It took a while to sort out the sons, as Hugh Mercer—the one who did indeed arrive just a week preceding his mother's death back in 1900—was listed as being only eight years of age in 1910. But there was another puzzle to sort out.

George Mercer must have really loved his own name, for in his 1910 household, along with his second wife Lillian and their infant son John plus the motherless son Hugh, there were two other sons, both named George. There was seventeen year old son George A. And there was second son George W., four years younger than his brother with the same given name. Two sons named George. What was up with that?

It took some additional digging through records to discover that son number one had the full name George Anderson Mercer—like his father and his father before him. The second son, apparently, was named after his mother's father's full name: George Walter Mercer.

I tried to find some explanation for such an odd choice for naming two brothers. I thought perhaps Mary had named her second son this because his birth coincided with her father's passing. But nope, the original George Walter died in 1888, while Mary's son George Walter Mercer was born nearly ten years later.

Determined to strike out in the wild nether regions of the Internet to find an answer to this puzzle, I turned first to the newspaper archival services I use. I started with a general search and looked for the name George Mercer. I left the parameters wide open—after all, I wasn't just looking for a birth announcement or obituary—and set the only delimiters as the state where they lived (Georgia).

Imagine my surprise when one of the first results that turned up in my search was an article headlined, "Ransom Delivered for Mercer Kin."

The 1980 article was about someone named George Mercer IV. Datelined Savannah, Georgia, the report continued,
A ransom has been paid for the missing 22-year-old grand-nephew of songwriter Johnny Mercer, a family member revealed Wednesday. Chris Hammond, uncle of George Mercer IV who has been missing since Jan. 29, said a demand for a ransom was received about a week after Mercer disappeared.

Who was George Mercer IV? And did he have anything to do with the multiple Tison descendants by that same name?

There was more than that, though. In finding that newspaper clipping, I discovered it was already too late: I had already fallen down the rabbit hole. Forget all those confusing George Mercers. Now what I wanted most to know was: who was songwriter Johnny Mercer?

Above: 1910 census for the Savannah, Georgia, household of George Mercer; courtesy

Monday, May 25, 2020

Still Remembering

Though our family has had several young members who served in the military in our country, they have almost all outlived their years of service by decades. This past weekend, giving thought to the upcoming holiday today and its annual designation as a memorial to those who had died while in military service, my husband and I began discussing the one family member we know had given his life in service to his country.

Joseph Edward McGonagle was a cousin to my father-in-law. Five years older than his Chicago cousin, Frank Stevens, Joe had registered to serve on October 16 of 1940. Unlike Frank, who was barely seventeen when news of Pearl Harbor rocked the nation, Joe was already twenty one. By the time each of them was in the service, Joe was assigned to the European arena while Frank eventually headed to the Pacific in the Navy.

Young McGonagle went off to war a newlywed, but from the point in Oklahoma where they married, he never got to see his bride again. Assigned to the 388th Bombardment Group, he was stationed out of RAF Knettishall in the region of Suffolk, England.

Joseph McGonagle served as a radio operator and flew three missions with the team under 2nd Lieutenant Allan Olavi Amann, the pilot. The first two missions were completed in early March of 1944. The third, on March 8, ended in a crash near Magdeburg, Germany. All but one of the ten crew members died; the remaining man, waist gunner T/Sergeant Harold Quick, was taken as a prisoner of war.

Now, besides the military headstone marking his grave at the Ardennes American Cemetery at Liège in Belgium and the family's own memorial to their son in his hometown in New Lexington, Ohio, various groups have sought to memorialize those who served during the second World War through online remembrances, as well. Like many other such groups, the 388th formed their own association, which is now celebrated online with a website of general information, as well as an online database detailing the many operations of the 388th.

It was from that last website that I found the details about my father-in-law's cousin Joseph McGonagle and those he served with when he saw his last moments before the mission's abrupt end. It was on that website that I realized how much of our memorials are crowdsourced, with opportunities for families to help memorialize their fallen relatives by contributing photographs and other resources on the pages of websites such as this.

Each of the personnel has a page in the listings—though sadly, as in Joseph McGonagle's case, where a photograph could be placed, the listing includes the note, "No photo available."

If I had one, of course I'd love to contribute a digitized copy to a memorial such as this. I'm sure many other family history researchers would be happy to assist in gathering such resources, as well. Connecting with the right source for making such a contribution can be as simple as finding the specific assignment of the military member of your family, then searching online for that term—such as "388th Bombardment Group" in this case— and following the links not only for the story of their history, but for any related associations formed after the war which are still in existence now.

It's a small challenge to surmount, but what a potent way to acknowledge those in our own families who have made the ultimate sacrifice. Though so many of that generation are now gone, we still would do well to remember their service.         

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Mirror Trees:
Now we Like Them, Now we Don't

Mirror trees have always seemed like a viable yet last-ditch effort for me. It's not that I'm an adoptee in search of my birth parents, but I am in search of the birthright of my heritage. Thanks to some likely-excusable but now-bemoaned reasons, my paternal grandfather never felt the freedom to share his ethnic roots. Now, two generations after the fact, I and my cousins can understand what he was up against, but still we wish he would have felt freer to share that story.

Still, we have a recourse. DNA testing has opened up possibilities for many people who never knew the true story about their roots—yes, including adoptees. Because I'm almost in the same boat, I keep a close eye on what people in that situation do to untangle the mystery of their past. I've since moved from that tentative position of finding two, maybe three, matches who likely belong to my paternal grandfather's side of my family tree to finding nearly a dozen matches. And though my matches families' trajectory didn't include a stop in New York City, as mine did, they all came from that same tiny village in the northern reaches of Poland. It's time to see how our trees collide.

And collide it might be. Last time I mulled over possible research approaches, the favored advice for adoptees was to build what is called a mirror tree. Plenty of researchers were plugging the technique, from the experts to the motivated-yet-avocational to those marketing to the avocational.

Then, suddenly, the word on the street was that mirror trees were no longer in favor. There were other tools which some thought might be more helpful. Among them is the AutoCluster tool from Genetic Affairs, which, when coupled with their addition of an automated tree building service, can target specific potential connections for an adoptee. And although itself—boasting the largest database of DNA test participants—once suggested adoptees visualize their family connections using a chart-generating program like Lucidchart, it turns out one of their own recent product developments, which they dubbed ThruLines, may have been the very tool which saved adoptees from computer-assisted contortions.

Of course, the downside to ThruLines is that I need to add in my mystery grandfather's suspected parents to my tree—and then a match needs to have that in his or her tree, as well.  After all, ThruLines™  is based on connections traced from information provided on Ancestry subscribers' trees. No correct information, no correct match intel. Simple as that.

Right now, the only match connected to my mystery grandfather who shows up in my DNA results is my brother's daughter, who likely grabbed that information on our grandfather from my tree. Not a very helpful hint. And, face it, if I put my hypothesis about my connection to those many Wisconsin Michalski cousins on my tree, if everyone else copied it as confirmed truth, guess what would likely show up on our ThruLines results? In a way, the results from this new tool lead us back to that same dilemma, creating a new kind of "mirror" in the feedback loop of everyone copying everyone else's tree.

The surest way to overcome such dilemmas is to bite the research bullet, brush up on my Polish language skills, and dig into those Pomeranian records online to see how those Michalski cousins actually do connect with my Puchalski forebears.

Saturday, May 23, 2020


There is a family tree swirling around in the genealogical ether at that somehow belongs to me, but for which I can't find a handle to grab it and plug it into the rest of my ancestral existence.

For that, you can blame my paternal grandfather. He was the one who refused to level with his kids and grandkids about his true origin. Even if I had had the chance to meet him—he died before I was even born—I don't suppose I'd have any greater success at getting him to change his mind than did my older siblings and cousins. He took the family secret of his origin with him to the grave.

Eventually, there became a way to sneak around this research roadblock, of course. Thanks to DNA testing, I now have several genetic matches who are apparently connected to this very line of my paternal grandfather—but how, I can't yet say. The clues have amassed enough detail to demonstrate just how each of these DNA matches connect with each other, if not exactly to me.

Not that those clues arrived instantly or all in a clump. It took several years before the first of those matches even showed up. It was as if a dam broke loose at that point, and though not flooding me with information, the many subsequent matches have confirmed the connections within a large extended family.

I've taken to building a tree for all of these connections, something which can easily be accomplished on I started this project almost a year ago—at the end of June 2019, to be precise—and have slowly (and sporadically) built up this private, unsearchable tree to 341 names. Of course, being the "quick and dirty" type of tree like those built by adoptees seeking their birth parents, my tree still needs a lot of documentation. But for now, it was the diagram of relationships that I needed to sort out all those DNA matches. If I couldn't connect them with me, at least I could visualize how they connect with each other.

Now, though, I—the woman with umpteen different family trees posted at—really want to just find a way to connect that giant hairball of a mess to my own family tree. Perhaps I'm being unduly influenced by a comment Crista Cowan made in the chat dialog running concurrently with her NGS Virtual Conference presentation last Thursday. Apparently, according to her report, I am in the rare two percent of Ancestry subscribers who have more than one tree posted on that service. It's not the first time I've been an outlier, but this multi-tree thing is beginning to wear on me. I want to plug in those 341 mystery ancestors to my real family tree and call it good. But how?

Notwithstanding all that fearmongering among longstanding researchers who talk as if posting just one mistake on a tree—even if inadvertently—will ricochet into multiplied thousands of cloned copies of inaccurate information, at some point, I'll need to take a stand. State a hypothesis to test. And see what happens. Perhaps I'll need to flag the guess with bold print or red letters or skulls and crossbones. Warning! Copy at your own risk! Hypothesis being posted here!

Being unattached can be such a lonely feeling. My mystery family tree wants to come in for a safe landing and reconnect with its roots. There has got to be some sort of way to test the approach before making the perfect connection.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Finding Eloise

She was a fourth cousin of mine, so I never really would have known her, myself. I would not even have encountered her name, if it hadn't been for this strange hobby of pursuing ancestors and their kin. Eloise Marie Lyon was a second great-granddaughter of the brother of my own second great-grandmother—a distant trail of relationships only a genealogist could follow. It was because I was having challenges researching William F. Riley that led me to her story.

I've already recounted what I learned about Eloise and her family—their early years in rural Indiana and subsequent move, before the start of the Great Depression, to Detroit, Michigan. Although I could trace what became of her three siblings and her parents, the trail went cold for Eloise after she obtained her Social Security card in 1951—until, that is, I stumbled upon a possible indication of her death.

It was a stark entry in Find A Grave which filled in the sparse details. None of the customary photographs or other volunteer-provided records accompanied Eloise's memorial. In fact, the entry did not even provide a date of birth—just the word, "unknown." Date of death was simply "Jul 1982."

The only thing that kept me from bypassing this doubtful match was the detail filled in below that date of death. According to the memorial, this Eloise—whether she was mine or not—was buried at a place listed as "Potters Field." Below that entry, someone had provided the location as "Hart Island, Bronx County, New York."

Having grown up in the New York metropolitan area, one thing I knew was that if New York was anything, it was a place made up of islands. Manhattan is an island. So is Staten Island. Some of the famous places all Americans recall are islands in and around New York City—think everything from Ellis Island to Liberty Island, the ground upon which the Statue of Liberty is perched. So where was Hart Island? I had never heard of it.

As it turns out, the island could possibly be seen by anyone driving northward over the Throgs Neck Bridge—at least on a clear day, if the bridge's barriers did not block a driver's view. And yet, I had never noticed this island with such a strange history. Over time, Hart Island had served as a military training ground, a prisoner-of-war camp, a quarantine station during the 1870 yellow fever epidemic, a psychiatric hospital, and a tubercularium. It later also housed a workhouse for the indigent and, eventually, a prison.

Hart Island became New York City's catch-all for all sorts of unpleasant duties of government, and, not surprisingly in the face of various epidemics, it became the site chosen for mass burials. It could, indeed, be considered a "potters field." Over its long history, not all records were carefully kept—indeed, in some cases, that would be impossible for the remains of those not even identified at the point of their death—but adding to that lack was the incidence of arson, occurring in 1977, which destroyed many burial records there.

Somehow, someone found a record detailing the 1982 burial of a woman in New York City named Eloise Lyon. Whether that was thanks to the nearly single-handed campaign by artist Melinda Hunt and the Hart Island Project, I can't say. But the effort to bring the Hart Island tragedy to light has been shared by a number of others publicizing its plight. A 2016 photojournalism piece in Medium gave the world a glimpse of Hart Island's current abandoned situation and the history that led to this point. A more recent account, appearing last month in National Geographic, gained additional attention upon the news that, in the course of composing the piece, the journalist's drone was seized by New York City police, just as New Yorkers were waking up to the fact that the city was again using Hart Island for burials—this time, to dispose of victims of the current coronavirus epidemic.

Far from any limelight—even if of a notorious cast—was the burial of Eloise Lyon. Could she have been my family's Eloise? It is hard to say. The Social Security account gives this woman a birth date of March 11, 1920—matching the record issued in Indiana at the time of Eloise Marie Lyon's birth. It further mentions that this woman obtained her Social Security account in Michigan, which would have been correct for our Eloise, as well. But it is not outside the realm of possibility that there would have been two women by the same name and similar story.

Given the sad history of Hart Island, it is entirely likely that this Eloise found herself an unfortunate indigent who, at the end of life, would have been buried in such a desolate location. Trying to find any record of her life's story in New York through newspapers would be a challenge, if she were one of the near-anonymous homeless of the area. I've tried, of course, to find any mention of her—and will keep trying. It's hard not to know—but near impossible to know.

So often, we pass people living on the streets who are down on their "luck"—but never imagine one of them could be our own kin. And yet, there we find an example of how, yes, this could indeed happen. I suppose only a genealogist would know anything about someone as distantly related as a fourth cousin. But for this fourth cousin—wherever she was abandoned under the rocky turf at Hart Island—I can't help but mourn her forgotten end.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Isle of the Dead

Both mythology and the arts are rife with fascination over the idea of an isle or island of the dead. The concept may have originated with Celtic mythology, but has been a motif echoed in stories passed down in many European ethnicities.

Thus, it is no surprise to learn of the many times the concept has been borrowed in the arts, even in modern times. Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin created a series of paintings which eventually became known by that very title, "Isle of the Dead," beginning with a somber first version in 1880, now held at the Kunstmuseum Basel in Switzerland. From that first painting, the idea evolved with the input of a patron, who requested a copy with some significant additions, resulting in the second version. A third version, though much brighter in aspect, was eventually obtained, infamously, by one Adolf Hitler. A fourth version, created by commission, ended up hanging at a subsidiary of the Berliner Bank. All that remains of that version—destroyed by a World War II bombing attack—is a previously-snapped black and white photograph.

It was that photograph which, while on display in Paris in 1907, became the inspiration for Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff's symphonic poem by the same name, Isle of the Dead. The black and white of the photographic treatment evoked an even more somber mood for the composer, who later noted, upon discovery of the original oil painting, that "If I had seen first the original, I, probably, would have not written my Isle of the Dead."

There were, as it turns out, various islands which some have assumed served as the inspiration for Böcklin's creation. Some speculate that the model was a Greek island near Corfu, or the Island of Saint George in Montenegro.

There have been other islands which have actually been given that name, Isle of the Dead. Most of them have a history to go along with the dreary moniker. The Isle of the Dead, off the coast of Tasmania, was the destination for those who died in the prison camps during Great Britain's Australian convict era. Though some early eyewitnesses have romanticized the location, describing it as "picturesquely sorrowful...soothing in its melancholy," there is no escaping the brutality of its reality. Of the estimated thousand graves there, only those of prison staff or military personnel had been marked; the rest of those interred were granted insignificance by those who withheld their identity.

Likewise, in France, a set of twin island served through history, before their use for military purposes, as a quarantine island for lepers and a cemetery for the island's burials. The cemetery island was appropriately dubbed Île des Morts—Isle of the Dead.

That same combination of uses—to confine prisoners, to isolate the morbidly ill and, eventually, bury them—was a pattern in yet another island of the dead. This one, however, was not worlds away from me, but one which, within my own lifetime, I had driven past many times, yet not even knowing of its existence or purpose. You see, New York City—not far from my childhood home—has its own "Isle of the Dead." I wouldn't have known that, though, if it hadn't been for my search for a missing cousin. The path to finding Eloise Marie Lyon led me to this place of the forgotten dead, nearly at my own back door.

Above: "Isle of the Dead," 1880 oil on canvas by Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Before Eloise Disappeared

Given all indications provided us by the pedestrian records genealogists typically rely upon, Eloise Lyon had a fairly routine childhood, growing up in rural Indiana. Sure, hers was a lifetime spanning the Great Depression and a world war, but other than that, indications—at least on paper—were that she had a stable household, growing up in an average American community.

Eloise's dad, Waldo Emerson Lyon, had been born a few years before the turn of the century, and until the time of his marriage to Bessie Mullennix—William F. Riley's great-granddaughter—he had lived in the same place where he had been born, Blackford County, Indiana. After their 1913 wedding in Muncie, the newlyweds settled in New Castle, then a small town of fourteen thousand residents, where Waldo obtained work as a machinist, and Bessie gave birth to their firstborn in 1918, a son they called Harry.

By the time Eloise arrived, two months after the 1920 census was taken, the Lyon family was still in New Castle. Likewise during the arrival of Eloise's younger brother Robert and, apparently, a child who did not survive, who had been born in between those two births. It was only upon the 1926 arrival of the Lyon family's youngest—a daughter they named Nina Lucille—that we have any reference point upon which to pin the family's move from Indiana to Detroit, Michigan.

Perhaps it was for the sake of a job for Waldo that the family moved from their native Indiana to the rapidly growing Detroit. How the family fared, once the effects of the depression became severe, is hard to tell, though the 1940 census showed that they had moved by then to a suburb of Detroit. Waldo was employed as a tool and die maker, and his oldest son joined him as an apprentice in the same line of work.

There, the regular snapshot of life in the Lyon family ended, except for the occasional digitized record of marriages and moves. Soon after that 1940 census, apprentice Harry felt confident enough in his success at work to marry Doris Renshaw, who had moved to the Detroit area with her mother and stepfather from Ohio. Eloise's younger brother Robert was of an age to serve in the military during World War II, and set aside his opportunity to marry and have a family until long after the end of the war—long after even their baby sister Nina had married.

By that point—perhaps because the family had followed Robert west during his military service?—almost everyone in the Lyon family had moved to California. Robert had settled there, and his two sons were born there. Though older brother Harry had married in Michigan, he and his wife eventually settled in California, as well. Baby sister Nina was married there. And nine years after her husband had died, Bessie, the mother of them all, passed away in 1969 in southern California.

For each of these events, documentation was available to substantiate each location. I have found records for Waldo, for Bessie, and for their children Harry, Robert, and Nina. But what about Eloise? The Lyon child who was born two years before the ill-fated infant whose untimely death hit the family seemed to have disappeared from the record after her mention in the 1940 census, back in Michigan.

If it weren't for the fact that Eloise had applied for Social Security benefits, I wouldn't have guessed that she had moved from Michigan. I certainly wouldn't have guessed that she moved in the opposite direction from the rest of her California-bound family.

But if I have the right Eloise Lyon, her Social Security record showed her last benefit was mailed to a location in the zip code 10025. If zip codes are basically the same now as they were in the 1980s at the point of her passing, hers would lead us to the west side of the northern reaches of Central Park, almost up to West 111th Street and Morningside Park on the island of Manhattan.

How did Eloise end up in New York City?

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Why You May Never Find
that Missing Ancestor

There are some people on your family's tree whom you're never going to fully trace. Just take that for granted. It's not because you haven't learned all the latest techniques for flushing out those mystery relatives, or that you haven't searched diligently enough. It's simply that, well, some people just...disappear.

That is the conclusion I've reached lately, when searching for the descendants of my second great-grandmother's brother, William F. Riley. You know my drill: because I'm working on identifying just where my thousands of DNA matches actually belong on my family tree, I've started this enormous project to identify all the descendants of all my ancestors. But in William's case, the going has been unexpectedly rough. And yes, one of those descendants did actually disappear—almost.

If it weren't for the phenomenal virtual assists researchers can access nowadays, I'm sure I would never have found this person's whereabouts. I still don't know the backstory on how this distant cousin of mine got from her birthplace in Indiana to the location where she died sixty-two years later. Though the distance between those two points amounted to only eight hundred miles, the site of the end of her life was worlds away from the rural setting where her days began.

There are some specific hints researchers look for when following an ancestor's life trajectory, step by step. Even moves of many miles can usually be explained by life circumstances, such as military enlistment resulting in cross-country relocation. Yet there are some life episodes which, even happening within the same city, can cause the trail to grow cold for a researcher piecing the story together, decades later. There is only so much research magic that can be conjured up, using the ten-year spacing of census records, or the happenstance of birth, marriage, or death records. Without a story line to fill in the blanks between these vital records, our ancestors sometimes take us by surprise.

Thus it was that I was able to trace the family line of Eloise Marie Lyon from her mother, Bessie Mullennix, granddaughter of the Mary Riley whose name was flagged by the Greencastle Press as complainant in a paternity suit back in 1871, and thus from Mary's father, William. But I sure wouldn't, not in a million years, have thought to look for Eloise's ill-fated future in New York City. Not, at least, when I had already established that her parents, two brothers and sister had moved in the opposite direction, to southern California.

Even if I had figured that Eloise had moved east, it is doubtful that I could have discovered her story in secretive New York, resistant as that domain has historically been to open sharing of public records. And despite Reclaim the Records' victories (which are much appreciated by this researcher), Eloise had evidently fallen into a black hole of municipal record-keeping which exists even to this day.

When I think of instances such as this, I realize that, yes, there are some ancestors whom even the most diligent researchers are going to fail to locate. Not because their efforts were misapplied, but because of the disastrous condition of the records they are seeking to find. As you'll see this week, Eloise's story is just one of thousands of examples—a story I'd never even have suspected, had I not stumbled upon a clue, thanks to a genealogy volunteer's efforts to shine some light.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Dispensing Justice

According to the Greencastle, Indiana, Press, Esquire Parker had "dispensed justice" on two cases in the week leading up to the newspaper's March 15, 1871, edition. The second of those cases may be of interest to us, as we determine just what became of William F. Riley's children.

Taking an almost jocular editorial tone, the clipping from the Press went on to explain,
An unmarried woman named Mary Riley added to the last census to the amount of about nine pounds. The paternity of said filius mulieratus being charged to Richard Bugg, a widower of considerable family, he was entreated to shell out a few hundred as a compensation for wounded honor; but "Dick" obstinately refused, whereupon he was arrested and brought before Squire Parker. Col. Matson appeared for the State, and after a long and tedious trial, Bugg was recognized to the Court of Common Pleas, in the sum of two hundred dollars.

While the editorial tone may have struck some in Greencastle as amusing, there are a few problems with this report. Let's set aside the possibility that the Mary Riley in this newspaper insertion may have been someone other than our Mary Riley, daughter of William F. Riley, and focus on these other issues.

First, let's tackle the Latin term, filius mulieratus. Not being a lawyer—and not even playing one on television—I had to look that one up. Never mind that our friend Google produced two different definitions; the gist of the term is that a couple had a son—legitimately—even though they might have had other children prior to the official date of their marriage.

There is a problem with the usage of this term, given the editorial intent of the article. This article was printed in 1871, referring to a birth which would have been included in the previous census in 1870.

By the time of the next census in 1880, our Mary was married, all right—but to a different man. I can find no indication that she ever married the man named in the lawsuit—Richard Bugg—either before or after the complaint was brought to court. By 1880, Mary had been the wife of John Shellenbarger long enough to have had a seven year old daughter. My guess would be that a reasonable date for a Shellenbarger marriage might have been 1882.

Furthermore, it is unlikely that the daughter born to the Shellenbargers in 1883 would even have been the child fathered by Richard Bugg, the defendant in that paternity suit. For one thing, the age given missed the mark by too long a time. But what became of the Bugg-Riley child? No child is named, and though the "filius" infers a son, the not-quite-correct application of the term in the one instance might hint about sloppy editorial usage also blurring other aspects of that precise phrase.

Looking for the culprit himself—Richard Bugg—it was not hard to locate him in the Putnam County census in 1870. As the newspaper entry had suggested, the Bugg household was indeed without a wife. A thirty three year old man headed up a household with three children, ages twelve, nine, and six. No sign of any infant.

Nor was there an infant in Mary Riley's parents' home. The June census showed a sixteen year old Mary, along with her younger sister and brother, but no baby.

Since the reason for our curiosity was merely to determine whether, decades later, that same infant from the early 1870s would turn out to be the unexplained Bettie Taylor to whom notification of William Riley's death was sent in Tennessee, we still are not one step closer to forming a hypothesis about her identity. Even considering one of my long-term research goals—building out a tree which includes descendants of all my ancestors for genetic genealogy purposes—I'm left with unfinished business.

For now, given the resources I'd need to access in person to get any further answers to my questions about the Rileys, I'll have to set aside this research goal for a later date.

There is, however, one other discovery I made while trying to complete the "reverse genealogy" project for William Riley's family. Though it provides not one solid clue to this research goal, it does help explain another research dilemma that I'm sure you've faced as well as I have: relatives who simply "disappeared."

Sunday, May 17, 2020

It Seems Like a Lot of Work . . .

...but it really wasn't.

It's time for my biweekly progress review, when I track how many additional relatives I've added to each of four trees: one for each of my daughter's grandparents. Only now, due to some new DNA match evaluation tools, I'm finding it would have been more advantageous for me if I had begun this research journey by combining each of these trees into one big, happy family.

I'm not going to quite that extent, but since Ancestry DNA added their tool to link matches to their position in my tree—note the use of "tree" in the singular—I've begun the process of adding my smaller paternal line to my mother's tree.

I'm proceeding at a need-to-know rate, adding branches of my father's tree to my mom's now-universal tree as needed, so I don't leave new matches hanging in mid-air for lack of the proper branch in the diagram. Still, it certainly made today's progress report swell with numbers of individuals whose discovery wasn't exactly a hard-earned victory. I've already discovered these people and done the due diligence of linking the appropriate documentation over on my dad's tree, already. This was just a copy-and-paste exercise. No heavy lifting involved.

Still, it did take me back a step when I realized that process resulted in adding a full 550 people to my mother's tree in the last two weeks. It does sound overwhelming! And now, the total for my mom's tree is an inflated 21,829 names. This date will definitely require a footnote in explanation. I don't think I've ever added that many names in two weeks before—at least not when I've done the bona fide research for it.

Of course, I'll still keep tabs on my dad's separate tree, to see if I make any new discoveries. As it turned out, there were two new additions to his tree in this biweekly review. His tree now includes 715 people—several, but not all of whom are also duplicated on my mother's tree, for the DNA-linking purposes.

As for my mother-in-law's tree, absolutely no progress occurred there, since I've been riveted on the task of linking DNA matches to their position on my trees. Once I start to connect matches to my father-in-law's side of the equation, I will need to replicate the same process for my mother-in-law's tree as I've done for my own mom's tree.

For whatever reason, each of the men in our family have much smaller trees than their wives do. In my father-in-law's case, that means only 1,713 people—the same number it's been stuck at since the beginning of April. But my mother-in-law's tree will soon take off from its stalled position at 18,557 individuals—where it has been stuck since the beginning of May.

Between this new utility at Ancestry DNA to connect matches to their place in our trees, plus their Thru-Lines suggestions, I've been project-focused in my work on those trees, with good results. It's a different sort of approach—much like genealogical spring cleaning, reviewing the family lines of those matches to insure they are included at the right point in my trees.

Not that there aren't surprise discoveries, or that I haven't also been continuing my usual step-by-step research approach. In fact, I've stumbled upon another story, which I'll share in a post later this week. There is always another story hidden within all this data, a conviction I've always held, which seems continually to confirm itself. We may think people are made up of dates and locations, but the crux of the matter is that lives are made up of stories. We just need those dates to point us in the right direction.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Another DNA Tool

Slowly, slowly, the various DNA testing companies add additional tools to help their customers sort through the tangled strands representing the lines of our family's tree. Just yesterday, I received a welcome email from Living DNA, the genetic genealogy company headquartered in the United Kingdom, alerting me of their progress in adding DNA matches. Of course, I immediately had to click through and take a look.

To say that all is completed would not be an entirely correct statement. Apparently, Living DNA is rolling out their innovations s-l-o-w-l-y. A while back, they had emailed the first tantalizing tidbit, but when I tried to access the new and improved development, a notice popped up on the screen explaining that it wasn't quite ready for the big reveal. Yesterday appeared to be more of the same.

With this email, Living DNA customers are one step closer to learning more about their matches. Clicking on the "Relatives" tab leads to "Family Networks," which explains that customers can "see matches as a list or a connected network of predicted relationships, providing more intuitive results."

True, the result was that, under the "list" option, I was automatically shown a list of user names, plus the details of shared DNA in both percentages and centiMorgan measurements. Each match's entry came with a possible range of relationship level, as well as a small icon resembling the flag of the customer's presumed residence.

Taking a look around the screen, I noticed my closest match, so far, shared only 51 cM with me, not a compelling amount. Of course, results can be sorted by closest match, as the default demonstration revealed, or by name, date added, or largest shared segment (a favorite option of mine).

Looking back toward the top of that screen again, I noticed the option to toggle from "list view," where I currently was set, to "tree view." I was disappointed to see the resultant screen grayed out, with a message, "this is an example of family tree." Presumably, in like fashion as before, Living DNA will roll out this feature in the near future. Believe me, I can't wait.

Likewise, I noticed when I clicked through to any of my matches, that the subsequent page, where I could view a list of matches held in common with this individual's profile, provided an option to view a chromosome browser. Despite what one other DNA company says about the utility of chromosome browsers, I do like to use this device, so I clicked through. Again, a gray screen advised, "Feature coming soon."

What more can I say at this point than that I'm looking forward to these features "coming soon." They can't get here soon enough for me.

One realizes, of course, that the utility of this set of matches will increase as Living DNA's customer base increases, especially for those with roots in the British Isles. The initial readout of ethnic estimates and the more closely-defined geographic regions of origin were a tempting call to participate when I first signed up, now almost two years ago, and as the company continues to update their ethnicity estimates (my most recent update arrived nearly three weeks ago). But for customers like me, the bottom line is that I view DNA testing as a utility assisting me to fine tune my family tree through cooperative effort with others who have tested and who match my own results—for which, apparently, we still need to wait a bit longer.

Friday, May 15, 2020

How Many Trees Does it Take?

In the course of researching a family's ancestry, it may not be unusual to build more than one family tree. In some cases—such as adoptions or undocumented paternity—a researcher may build many more than one tree. Most will be test cases, of course, but in order to line up an organized way to examine hypotheses, it helps to use the format we genealogists have become most comfortable with visualizing: the pedigree chart.

Thus, in the case of the William F. Riley who showed up again in the same county he had left as a young married man—Washington County, Tennessee—I need to confirm that we do, indeed, have the right man. It is quite possible that there were more than one man of that age in the same county, so we take the clues we've already gained, and work with those to move forward in answering our questions.

In our case, the William F. Riley who showed up at the Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in that same Washington County might have been the same as the man we'd already traced from his Tennessee home to a new residence in Indiana, where he raised his family. Or, he might have been an entirely different person. The records at the Home, however, provided names of two women who were to be notified at his death—and they apparently weren't the same as his "widow and daughter" who were also noted in the record, without any names provided. Those two were called Mary M. Riley and Bettie Taylor, and the record specifically stated that each of them lived in "Jonesboro"—the old spelling once used for the name of the county seat, Jonesborough.

Of those two women, I could only find a census entry from the preceding enumeration in 1900 for one of them: Bettie Taylor, wife of Samuel D. Taylor. What we can glean from that record about Bettie's identity was that she was born in September of 1871, and that she had been married for eleven years.

The difficulty with this search for connections to verify the identity of our William F. Riley is that we already know that he had a daughter, named Mary, who had evidently been implicated in a paternity suit, back in 1871. The only record I could find of that was when I accidentally stumbled upon a transcribed article posted at by another subscriber. I can't access the actual news article, nor have I yet been able to get a copy of any other reports or court records on this case. However, one would presume that, had suit been brought against the alleged father of the child of this unmarried woman at the time of this March 1871 newspaper report, the child's birth might have been imminent.

One wonders what the usual response was for a family who discovered their unmarried teenaged daughter was about to give birth. In different time periods, we've heard of "shotgun weddings," or shipping the "unwed mother" off to a remote location to give birth (and then releasing the child for adoption). In other time periods, the mother might have been made to raise the child by herself, poverty-stricken. In yet other times, perhaps the grandparents would have taken in the grandchild and raised him or her as their own.

Mary's grandparents, of course, would have been back in Tennessee. Could this Bettie Taylor have been Mary's firstborn child, sent to Tennessee to be raised by her grandparents? Thus, the need to build a tree for this Bettie who married Samuel D. Taylor.

Thankfully, it took little effort to assemble enough documentation to reach a conclusion. First of all, though Bettie reported in 1900 that she had been born in Tennessee, that issue could easily have been answered by the possibility that her mother simply traveled to that state of her grandparents to give birth, away from prying eyes of gossips back in her hometown.

But what else can we find on this Bettie? For one thing, her burial information—gleaned from the Find A Grave entry from a cemetery which was indeed in Jonesborough—showed it was more likely that she was born in 1870. Furthermore, her death certificate indicated not only the exact date of her birth—September 18, 1870—but revealed that her parents' names were Elijah Leach and Louise "Tayler." Further confirming that 1900 census report of eleven years of marriage, an 1889 Washington County marriage register confirmed a marriage license was issued to S. D. Taylor to wed Miss Bettie Leach.

If that was the only Bettie Taylor in Washington County at the time of William F. Riley's 1906 death, we're left with an unclear signal as to why it was so important that she be notified of his passing—if, of course, we have both the right Bettie Taylor and William F. Riley. Ascertaining details any more closely may require either traveling to Tennessee to review documents in person or finding another way to access original records, as they aren't provided online.

In the meantime—since not too many people are traveling at the moment—we do have one other recourse: to see what can be discovered concerning the hapless gentleman whose name had been besmirched by legal action, back in Putnam County, Indiana.   

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Let's Just Assume . . .

Setting aside all those comments which can be made about the risks of assuming, let's recall for a moment the scientific necessity of the willingness to formulate hypotheses. If we can't test an educated guess, how will we ever know whether it's true—or false?

In order to figure out who these other Rileys were, whose names were swirling around the one-page document drawn up at the end of our William F. Riley's life in 1906, means we need to formulate a reasonable hypothesis of who they might be, then devise a way to test it. It seems possible that one might have been a grandchild—possibly even a married grandchild, thus doubly hiding the Riley surname in her roots. Thus, our task is to figure out just how that Mary Riley and Bettie Taylor, mentioned in the Soldiers Home records, might be related to William F. Riley—if at all.

To test that hypothesis means we need to build a tree, starting from the Riley child we know, and moving forward in time to her children, thus William Riley's grandchildren. If any scenarios match—or, conversely, do not match—the names we have listed in William's Tennessee Soldiers' Home records, then we have our answer.

To start, let's revisit what we know about William's daughter Mary. She it was for whom a newspaper transcription was attached to her record by another subscriber, claiming she was involved in a paternity suit. Whether that was, indeed, our Mary Riley, we may have to ferret out. But for now, let's just stick to what we can find about this Mary.

Finding records on the right Mary Riley can be a challenge, considering such a common name, so I'll stick close to the record trail, especially from the start, when connections with the parents we already know are more apparent. Thus, we start with her father William's first census record after his 1852 marriage to Eliza Jane Thompson in Washington County, Tennessee. In 1860, that was the Riley household in nearby Greene County, where daughter "Mary E." was now six years of age.

By the time of the 1870 census, Mary was predictably ten years older, but her family had moved from Tennessee to Putnam County, Indiana.

It was in March of 1871 that the news article appeared in a Greencastle, Indiana, newspaper, alleging Mary was the claimant in a paternity suit, but until I can verify that report by accessing it myself, my only recourse is to fast forward to the next census record and see if there was a child in Mary's household who was born around that time. However, when we access the 1880 census, we find Mary in a home with two daughters—yet neither of them was born in 1871.

Mary, by this time, has married local shoemaker John Shellenbarger—on June 1, 1872, the same day as her sister Rachel married William Taylor Froggett—and continued to live in Indiana at least through her appearance in the 1930 census. Even if she did return to Tennessee to be with her mother at the passing of her father William, she would not have been referred to as Mary Riley; her name by that point would have been Mary Shellenbarger.

If both of William's daughters—Mary and Rachel—were out of the running for being the true identity of either the Mary Riley or Bettie Taylor named in the Tennessee document, who could those two Tennessee entities be? Neither of Mary Shellenbarger's daughters would fit; their names were wrong. And Mary's sister Rachel didn't seem to have any daughters to fill the parameters for the identity of Bettie Taylor, either.

There was one tantalizing other bit of evidence, however: that only Bettie Taylor in the 1900 census, back in Washington County, Tennessee, just happened to be born in 1871, herself.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Perhaps It's Time to Backtrack

Sometimes, the answers to those burning genealogical questions seem to remain just one step beyond reach. That has been the case with those third great-grandparents of mine, William Riley and his wife, Cassandra Fincher. All I had hoped for, when I started this journey, was to locate something a bit more specific than just the name of the state in which they were born.

In the meantime, I've traced their son—also named William, but with the handy delineating middle initial "F," which I suspect might have stood for his mother's maiden name—from his home in Washington County, Tennessee, westward through the state and eventually on to Putnam County, Indiana. And yet, after all was told—including a tempting rabbit trail in the form of a gossipy newspaper report of a paternity suit—I stuck to my research purpose (well, almost entirely) and followed the junior William all the way back to Tennessee.

Wait. What?

To tell the truth, my genea-spidey sense tells me the William F. Riley who showed up, back in Washington County, Tennessee, might not necessarily be one and the same as the William F. Riley who disappeared from Indiana around the time of that same 1900 census. If for nothing else but confirmation, I decided to persevere and see if I could locate the other names mentioned in the final records of the man's stay at the Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers.

That meant I had to locate a document explaining who Bettie Taylor and Mary M. Riley of "Jonesboro," Tennessee were. Besides the unnamed "widow and daughter" who were present at the time of William Riley's death, these two women were mentioned specifically by name and location. Chances were good that they could be relatives of some sort. But how?

As it turned out, there was one Bettie Taylor living in the whole of Washington County, according to the 1900 census. Whether she was one and the same with the woman named specifically in the Soldiers' Home records, I can't be sure. But I have yet to figure out her connection—if, indeed, this is the right Bettie Taylor. With a name like that, chances could be really good that it wasn't.

It would have been helpful to find a Mary M. Riley living nearby, but that was not the case, though I leafed through the pages of the 1900 census where Bettie was found. And yet, Eliza herself—soon to be a widow after the time of that census—appeared along with William in that same census, and yet not anywhere close to either of those two named women.

What could have happened? Was it possible that Eliza's daughter came from Indiana to be with her mom only at the point at which the end appeared near for William? If so, that might explain no other Riley connections appearing in the Washington County census records, six years before this man's death.

The next step, of course, would be to find out what became of that daughter. Her maiden name, tantalizingly enough, was Mary Riley, as well—but that was a name she had long before forsaken. It would have been handy, had she married a Taylor, as her middle initial was "E," possibly for Elizabeth, which could be shortened to Bettie. A beguiling narrative, to be sure. But incorrect.

To trace this possibility more closely, however, means we need to backtrack to visit this younger Mary's story. Which means, also, that it might just suit our purposes, at this point, to revisit that odd mention of a paternity suit, back in Greencastle, Indiana, where Mary and her parents had once lived.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

More Reflections on Mother's Day

There is a reason why I've lingered this long over Mother's Day. Almost every year, Mother's Day falls either on, or very close to, my own mother's birthday. Of course, now that she's gone, I can't very well pick up the phone and give her a call. But the day never goes by without my thinking of her. The older I get, the more I find myself doing things I remember her doing. Perhaps that's because my memory was far more clear of her everyday actions in the later stages of her life than, say, when I was a young child. I think that dynamic is true for almost all of us.

At any rate, it seems all it takes is something as innocuous as a sigh, and it gets me thinking: that's exactly how she would have sighed. Or said an offhand comment, "Oh, well..." The DNA in me finds the most inconvenient times to remind me that it is replicating her in my own life. I wonder how many of my other ancestors express themselves through those strands in my genetic makeup.

I've never been one for the usual Mother's Day schmaltz. If you knew my mother, you'd understand why. She never evoked feelings of sentimentality. The warm, fuzzy sense people get when they think "grandmother" was never at top of mind for her grandchildren. She was her own person, and that person was not your stereotypical mom...which meant her children never had a chance at becoming stereotypical, either.

Still, days with traditionally-tracked dates such as these—Mother's Day, birthdays—find me thinking of this unconventional woman whom culture would refer to as my mom. I wonder whether her mystique was the force driving my lifelong quest to know more about what made up the person I am—and thus, the person she once was, as well. I suspect she came from a long line of women who also were not the quintessential wives or mothers. Such is our matriline: a motivator to learn more about what I don't know of my own family's roots.

It seems trite to say so—not to mention, how uncharacteristically stereotypical of me—but happy birthday, mom. It's your birthday today, and I still remember. Not that she'd hear me now, but sometimes it helps to anchor our nonconformist self with something a bit more soothingly traditional.


Monday, May 11, 2020

Celebrating Mother's Day,
Genetic Genealogy Style

While yesterday was Mother's Day—which put far more people on the road, traveling to make a special visit, than these quarantine times might warrant—I didn't really have a mother to celebrate with. So I had to do a bit of my own celebrating in her memory. That consisted mostly of rehearsing memories of her life and her influence on mine, but it also included a hat tip to the genetics that allowed part of her to live on in her daughters' and granddaughters' efforts.

One of those tiny ways has been captured by a specific DNA test called, in typical unwieldy scientific manner, the mitochondrial DNA test. (Perhaps, seeing a name of that length, you can understand why people resort to the shorthand of calling it the mtDNA test.) While there have been literally millions of people who have had their DNA tested, I doubt much more than one percent of them has purchased this type of DNA test. Genealogy guinea pig that I am, of course I stepped up to be one of the ones to experiment with the mtDNA test.

The mtDNA test—so appropriate to review during Mother's Day, as you will see shortly—can help determine what is called the matriline: the mother's mother's mother's ancestral line. Each of us inherits that specific genetic signature from our mother, though only daughters pass that code along to their children. Thus, I can find out about my mother's ancestors, even though she is no longer with us, simply by testing my own mitochondrial DNA, which can be done at only one company at this point, FamilyTreeDNA in Houston, Texas.

Actually, I have managed to become administrator for three tests which utilize that mtDNA option. Having not visited those results in far too long a time, I took the opportunity during Mother's Day to check whether there were any updates to those three accounts.

Sadly, there weren't any new additions to the results for any of the mtDNA tests I administer. This is disappointing, but not unexpected. The higher price for the mtDNA test—particularly the most complete version of the test, which includes the two "hyper-variable regions" as well as a coding region—is less attractive to consumers than the more widely purchased autosomal test. And yet, it is the mtDNA test—along with its counterpart for the males in a family's line, the Y-DNA test—which is more powerful, when it comes to reaching deep, yet specifically, into one's ancestry.

For example, out of the four "exact match" tests in my own account, one belonged to a woman who had built her tree back to the late 1600s. There in her pedigree, I spotted a familiar surname, which turned out to be ten generations back in time—a considerable stretch, considering that an "exact match" means that there have been no mutations between then and now.

That discovery also did something extra for me: it confirmed my guess about my second great-grandmother on my matriline, whom I had been told was an orphan who had been adopted. How does one figure out how to break through an unfortunate brick wall like that? If it's on the matriline and two people test with an exact-match result, comparing notes can help bridge that information gap.

This, of course, is why two of my four mtDNA exact matches belonged to adoptees. They were hoping to find a clue to help them piece together their birth families. Regardless of the power of science, this, of course, can still be an immense undertaking, requiring persistence to achieve. But it is possible.

Every year, leading up to Mother's Day, the mtDNA test goes on sale—as does the Y-DNA test before Father's Day. Each year, I hope some unknown someone out there, who just happens to be an exact match to me or the other two people whose tests I administer, will spring for that pricey mtDNA full sequence test and show up in my results.

It doesn't take many such results to help build an ancestral line that reaches back three hundred years or more, so I suppose there's no need for a multitude of such responses, though I always am greedy for more validation. But it certainly is awe-inspiring to see the power of the genetics that go into making us who we are—and how that same detail went into connecting us with our own mother...and the ten generations preceding her in our family's history.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Mother of Invention,
Far Ahead of Her Time

My sister and I were sharing some memories over the phone the other day. I started to tell her a story, when I realized I'd first have to give her a background explanation, because the incident had to do with a particular type of desk I use for my work. It seems my explanations always require a back story.

For several years now, I've preferred to work at a standing desk, not for any notions of revving my metabolism by standing for long periods of time, nor any historic nostalgia of emulating the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, or Winston Churchill. I decided to use a standing desk because I noticed my back hurt whenever I sat for long periods of time. Besides, it was far easier to "get up" and run into the other room to fetch anything if I was already standing.

In order to tell my sister that, I figured I'd have to explain just what a standing desk is, and how, in my poverty-stricken earlier years, I had to improvise to make my own, since custom-made standing desks (how else would you get one of these?) could be pretty pricey.

She saved me some breath, jumping right in to interrupt and ask if I didn't remember our mother doing that very thing, herself? Apparently, years ago, my mother had decided a standing desk was just what she needed—only back then, there was no such thing called a "standing desk." Dragging my teenaged sister along with her on a shopping expedition, my mother had tried to find a furniture store which would be willing to help her improvise her vision of how to write while standing up.

Result: sales personnel's weird looks, staring at my mother, were enough to make a teenager shrivel and wish she could evaporate into the cracks in the flooring.

Now, in retrospect, my sister reflects that our mother was "far ahead of her time."

Of course, she wasn't the only one. I can remember stories of her father embarrassing the family when, as a dad coming home from work each evening, he needed a way to burn off excess energy. He decided to take up running. Only problem: back then, nobody had heard of jogging. There were no running shoes, let alone gyms with membership plans for the working population. My grandfather took to exercising in his own style, improvising by running in the same wingtip shoes he had worn to the office. Turns out, it is better in the long run for people to exercise, but it was several decades before anyone came up with the idea of marketing shoes specifically for that purpose.

We all can think of ways our family members of past generations learned to improvise. Just the other day, I was researching one line of my mother's family when I realized something: bad things have happened to people all through history, including the more recent history of our grandparents and great-grandparents. The key is being able to come up with a timely and effective response.

I was working on my mom's Rainey ancestors, following their descendants in that typical migration pattern from the war-torn regions of the old south to Texas and beyond. I ended up following some of their children into other nearby states. Then, having gleaned the last available census report from 1940, where I left off with farmers in Oklahoma and Kansas, I was on my own to track them any further.

Suddenly, I was tracing their descendants in California, when I realized something: they weren't farmers any more. You can't be a farmer without a farm. And they had apparently lost their farm in the Dust Bowl years and had to reinvent themselves and start anew.

Throughout the timeline of human history, we've had to adjust to disasters, epidemics, and other aggressions by reinventing ourselves. I'm sure you've seen examples of that in your own family's history.

It's the "mother" in those vinegar moments in history which have enabled individuals and families to pivot and adapt. Henry Ford may have been credited with the best idea in a long time for going places, but it was certainly bad news for the town's blacksmith. Those blacksmiths who harnessed that necessity which drives the mother of invention were able to pull themselves out of their rut while others got run over by unstoppable progress.

Humanity may have been bowled over by massive problems time and time again, but it's been those mothers of invention which have brought us some of our most unexpected yet welcomed changes.

That's a thought we need to camp on, as we struggle with what we perceive as the down side of our current dilemma. I couldn't help but notice how many people were on the highways early this weekend, when I realized: they are all sneaking out to go spend Mother's Day with their family. We are all indefinitely being held hostage by a necessity which needs to become a mother of invention.

Instead of cowering in the face of this "invincible" foe, perhaps it would do us good to flip this situation on its head and be thankful for its impetus: the necessity of coming up with a solution. When pressed by a great need, somehow, in the collective, we eventually do seem to arrive at an answer. I credit that "mother," far ahead of her time, for making such inventions possible. Thank God for Mother's Day.
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