Sunday, January 31, 2021

In Fits and Starts

 

While most of the country is still shrouded in winter gloominess, we in northern California emerged from our "atmospheric river" at the end of a drenching week to enjoy a moment in the sun. Everyone, it seemed, took the opportunity to discard all care for stay-at-home orders and grab a cup of coffee—or even brunch—on a patio near their favorite hang in town.

In the meantime, despite enjoying my own guilty moment in the sun, I couldn't help but think about genealogy—genetic genealogy in particular. It seems those DNA test matches come in fits and starts any more. Yes, it does seem that, in the pandemic doldrums over the winter, more people have chosen to while away the time by building out their family tree. But as for more people springing for a DNA test, it doesn't seem that social distancing and stay-at-home fever has made one iota of sales influence. The chill factor of the Golden State Killer case still seems to linger.

Yet, in the lull while I await clearer skies and sunnier weather—the better to usher in those fresh tomatoes from the garden—I have been tending to my meager crop of new DNA matches. Some of them seem to be inspired to test on behalf of a family member who was adopted or had an (almost) unknown parent or grandparent. People still do yearn to fill in the blanks on their pedigree chart; that need to know who we are based on our family history is a strong motivator.

Some recent test takers seem to be genealogy enthusiasts, judging from the tree they have already posted at the DNA site they chose to utilize. That is encouraging to see—not to mention, easy for me to tag that person in my own tree, often with little extra work on my part. I do try to add descendants to all my collateral lines, a habit for which heartening agreement was expressed often during last week's SLIG course. Laying that ground work in the past and keeping up with the process over the years sometimes does pay off.

But there are those other fresh DNA matches which still puzzle me—the ones for which I scratch my head and wonder, "Who are all these people?" Some of them may be people for whom a slight mistake made in building their own tree may have caused a wrong turn down the line in that pedigree chart. When curiosity gets the best of me, I may try my hand at building the trees of those mystery matches. But until the rest of my thousand-plus DNA matches are all situated in the right place in that family tree, I doubt I'll be taking on that added research burden.

Yet others are those for whom a family secret—perhaps an unknown parent—keeps us from assuming we know how we match. Using "in common with" tools (at Family Tree DNA) or "shared matches" (at Ancestry DNA) may bring me to that ah hah! moment. But maybe not. Once again, a DNA match to set to the sidelines, when there is so much left to work on with other matches.

But the most enticing of those DNA matches still to conquer on that long list are the newest matches to arrive. Perhaps they are the most recent batch of holiday gift-giving, and for that, I am thankful. It seems my match count still goes up by only a handful, when I check the numbers every two weeks. 

Of all the matches, the ones I covet the most are my "Goldilocks" matches: not too close, yet not too far away. Third to fourth cousins are just the right fit for me. Those are the ones who potentially hold the clues to family secrets—like my paternal grandfather's origin in Poland, which secret opened up to me in this past year, thanks to DNA testing. I've got a few more puzzles in my family's past that I'd love to piece together with some genetic genealogy help. There is only one thing missing, though: it takes two to make a match, and if those mystery cousins don't decide to test, I can't figure out those problems.

In which case, maybe it's a good thing we've got a few more weeks of winter ahead of us. All those family history fans hunkered down with their genealogy programs may be collectively helping the rest of us find some answers—at least, when they conclude that testing might help them arrive at answers they couldn't find any other way.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Full Brain, but no Hall Pass

 

Decades ago, cartoon enthusiasts looked forward to the single-panel daily dose of humor delivered up in Gary Larson's The Far Side. One specific cartoon comes to mind this weekend, as I recover from a week full of training at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy: the cartoon with a hapless student raising his hand and calling out, "May I be excused? My brain is full."

While my brain is indeed full—and churning away with an abundance of fresh ideas on approaches to research dilemmas—that doesn't mean I merit a hall pass to get out of class. I will certainly need this weekend to recoup energy and clarity before launching on a new research pathway for February. But the time has been a worthwhile investment. For anyone else struggling with the perplexing intricacies of researching the family history of African Americans, I wish you the gift of being able to hear such clarifying instruction.

I say intricacies, as exploring to the minutest fibers the contextual fabric of life in the South preceding the Civil War reveals a web in which even to become a freed slave meant being ensnared in not just social mores but laws and customs which severely restricted that supposed "freedom." No wonder there were actually petitions by some who were manumitted requesting return to slavery.

From what I gained in this past week's training, I'll formulate research goals regarding my pursuit of the details of King Stockton's life both growing up in Florida, and at the Georgia plantation where he was born in 1830. But this will no longer be a mere pursuit of who, what, where, or when. The why of it all needs to be incorporated into the full story of a family history, as well. Though my family has the benefit of an oral history regarding this man and his family, there is so much farther to go to delve into the full aspect of the history, both at the McClellan plantation in Wellborn, Florida, and back at the origin in the Tison plantation in Glynn County, Georgia.

And yet, that full brain needs some breathing room before expanding further. Yes, I'll review the videos of the class sessions once again—there were so many books recommended, I'll need to draw up my wish list, too—and make sure I haven't missed any research tips pertinent to this search for King Stockton's story. But to reflect is the final call from this week's proceedings. There is a great need to reflect on the meaning—the import—of the whole slave trade and what it meant to a nation's psyche, as well. Heady stuff, indeed.  

Friday, January 29, 2021

Stumped by Your Family Tree?

 

Start thinking like an academic.

No, even more than that: research like a Ph.D. candidate. That, at least, is the impression I come away with, after spending a heady week with other genealogy enthusiasts at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy.

Granted, some of the SLIG instructors are exactly that, and more; post-nomials certainly included those specific letters, Ph.D. But for those lecturers whose names were not embellished with the coveted accolades, their academic rigor still shone through. Bottom line: their intricate case studies and imparted knowledge turn out to be a big help to me in my quest to learn more about King Stockton, his roots and his family through his friends, associates, and neighbors.

There are some fertile fields in which to expand my research. Of course, I've already started by exploring PERSI on FindMyPast.com (where, unfortunately, the very Dean article I was seeking was entered there with an incorrect title). And with the unexpected silver lining to the worldwide pandemic coming to us in the gift of free access to JSTOR through this coming June, we have a second guide to access journal articles.

The key, though, is to approach genealogical brick walls as an interdisciplinary exercise. Repeatedly this week at SLIG, instructors reminded us to consider the background history, undergirding legal precedents, and availability of local records in ferreting out the answers to our research questions. In the case of research in the south, there are certain standard resources, of course, but we need to do far more than a cursory examination of resources simply containing the specific name of our target ancestor. We need to be willing to pursue the clusters of individuals surrounding that ancestor—and even that ancestor's community.

Stock in trade for such exploration may include resources such as the Southern Claims Commission of the United States government. Set up in the post-Civil War years, the goal of the commission was to receive, examine, and consider claims of financial or property loss by Union sympathizers residing in the Southern states. However, because many residents of the South moved elsewhere after the start of the war, claims turned out to be filed by residents of at least twenty four states, once the filing period closed.

Though only thirty two percent of claims were approved for settlements, the applications are an excellent resource for researchers for one simple reason: while people like to complain about their misfortunes, before any money can be reimbursed, it is incumbent upon government officials to verify those claims. Thus, the wealth of information on names, dates, locations, relationships, and more.

While that may seem like a treasure trove, don't assume the digging is going to be easy. While Ancestry.com has searchable index files—and even a searchable collection of disallowed and barred claims—finding one's way through that massive collection of data may be a daunting prospect. Thus, many researchers' profound thanks to the Saint Louis County Library for their guide to researching the Southern Claims Commission records.

Of course, another resource mentioned in class this week was the Freedmen's Bureau records. While there are a number of genealogical resources available to assist researchers in exploring this avenue, that record set has not been a successful avenue for me so far, in the case of King Stockton of Florida.

For those slaves who were able to escape to the north, or even join the Union Army forces during the Civil War, another record set might have been that of the Slave Claims Commission. That operation was mostly active in the border states. For the formerly enslaved King Stockton in Florida, however, that would hardly be applicable—there may actually be records of his having accompanied one of the sons of his enslaver who served on the Confederate side—so once again, this might not be a record set of assistance in our case.

Rest assured, though, that all resources have not been exhausted. Far from it. This is where the discipline of thinking like a Ph.D. candidate will come in most handily. For the many manuscript collections, private (and even publicly held) collections of personal papers, and other collections of records from this time period, there are ample search options. It's just a matter of finding the right resource at the right repository—a search process which seldom resembles a direct line from my puzzled Point A to the pot of golden answers at the end of Point B's rainbow.

Having observed the piecing together of several case studies this week by the admirable Ari Wilkins, Michael Hait, Deborah Abbott, Ph.D. (yes, with those bona fide post-nomials), the resourceful Scott Wilds, and our SLIG course coordinator LaBrenda Garrett-Nelson, I have seen several demonstrations of how it is possible to trace a family line from current day back to at least the most recent slaveholder of record before the Civil War. While, of course, I already know who that would be, in the case of King Stockton, I can use those same techniques and record sets to follow King Stockton back to the Job Tison plantation where he was born in Georgia—and then to move one step beyond to where his father, for whom he was named, originated.

That process, however, begins to resemble the sausage-making aspect of genealogy far more than the family history best suited for venues such as this blog. And with not only that stage of the process, but date on the calendar, it will soon be time to let this project churn away in the background while we move on to introduce the second of my Twelve Most Wanted list of ancestors to research for 2021. Come this Monday, we'll meet Ancestor Number Two and begin our exploration of the life of a woman who danced her way around the world.  


Thursday, January 28, 2021

On the Wings of the Wind

 

The rush of the wind beating against my house yesterday insured a prudent utility company was unlikely to restore power quickly. It was all I could do to scramble and assemble my defenses against the ravages of nature—multiple computers, back-up battery packs, alternate Internet access—to be able to continue attending that prized SLIG course, In-Depth African American Genealogy.

All for a worthwhile reason: yesterday's course offerings were where we moved from the introductory necessities to the meat of the class. One of my key goals in registering for this SLIG course was to obtain an overview of additional resources for researching the subject of my current focus, a formerly enslaved man in Florida known as King Stockton. The answers to my question about where to do that deeper dive into resources came rushing at me almost as fast as the wind howling outside my window.

In a nutshell, the answer is: think like an academic. The resources gained—or reacquainted with—from yesterday's sessions would themselves fill more than a full post here, but I certainly can't wait to try my hand at using them. The examples provided by Ari Wilkins of the Dallas Public Library and Deborah Abbott, Ph.D., urged course attendees to think beyond the confines of the customary genealogical resources. 

Lest you think that, on the wings of the wind, I will easily be able to snatch my answers from a new and improved nifty be-all search engine, disabuse yourself of that notion. Research is hard. It's even harder when the topic seems so oblique. Face it: most of the subjects we yearn to learn more about are, for the most part, common everyday people. Unless they found their way into the gossip columns of their hometown, not much will be found on the details of their life.

And yet, it may well be that that juicy gossip which seems to make the world go round can actually turn out to be in our favor. One never knows when a neighbor might have dropped a snarky comment in a letter to a cousin, or—in regards to the horrors of trading human beings as coolly as conducting business transactions—marked an exchange in an inventory record. Such is the name-dropping lesson we learned last year in delving into the diary of one young southern woman. Where such a journal once was, I assure you there were many other such resources. To discover where they are now, tucked away in manuscript collections or other personal papers, is the task at hand.

To capture fleeting mentions such as those and build them, in the aggregate, into a coherent explanation of the twists and turns of an ancestor's life takes perseverance and adroit handling of record sets for which we may not yet have even found the key to access. With tomorrow's post, I'll attempt to review some of the resources gleaned from these sessions and discuss my research plan for applying these newfound discoveries to the case of King Stockton.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Those Evil Initials

 

Long ago, I decided the most hated word in the genealogist's lexicon was "unknown." After receiving a coveted—and long-awaited—death certificate, that was the last term I'd ever hope to see entered on the section requiring information on parents' names. But it happens. More than I'd like.

I've discovered there is a second item to add to that list of least-appreciated terms, only this time, it isn't a word. It's a set of initials: "d" and "k." For those very same questions—father's name, or mother's maiden name—those nasty little letters stand for the dreaded "don't know."

When those of us in the SLIG course I'm taking this week—In-Depth African American Genealogy—witnessed that inconvenient appearance in a death certificate we were examining, though, I suppose I should be grateful for the learning exercise it prompted. In the case of a former slave, what might have seemed like a research roadblock—those evil initials—turned out to provide a lesson in inferences drawn from a multitude of documents.

Long story short, it may indeed be possible to derive parents' names from uninformed reports. This is good news for me, as I am deep in the midst of trying to find the family roots for former slave King Stockton of Wellborn, Florida. I cannot wait to apply the useful information from my SLIG class to this search I've been struggling with, off and on, for the past two years.

Nothing, however, is ever easy. Before I could bring this information to light in King Stockton's situation, our region in northern California was hit with a wind storm, cutting off our power supply. While I may be typing this post using a computer keyboard, my effort is no less antiquated than Abraham Lincoln's fabled attempt to read his law books by the glimmer of the fire place. When my battery runs out—soon—I will have to pick up the tale with tomorrow's post. And hope by 7:00 a.m., power will be restored to the region so I won't miss any more valuable information in the morning's classes.

 

 

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Disappearing Act

 

While I publicly agonize over my lack of research progress in identifying further details about the formerly-enslaved King Stockton, behind the scenes, I've been trying my hand at building a family tree for the man. The progress has been modest; so far, I have listed about one hundred of his descendants—mostly driven by the discovery that DNA may connect me with some of them.

And yet, the going is rough. As I trace the lines of each of King and Louvenia's children from their 1870 home in Wellborn, Florida, something invariably happens, once I cross the line from one century to the next: they disappear.

I've had my guesses about what might have been going on. After all, people do not simply drop out of sight—not, at least, as a regular occurrence across multiple lines of the same extended family.

Now that I'm—finally!—attending the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy's course on African American genealogical research, I'm hoping for some research direction. You know, pointers about those hard to find, hidden-away resources that no one ever thinks to check.

We started the week's curriculum at SLIG with some heady reminders from course instructors LaBrenda Garrett-Nelson and Judy Russell to consider both the historical and legal background undergirding any unfolding events in the timeline of these sought-after ancestors. And then we came to that standard resource all of us use: the decennial United States enumeration.

Don't presume that was our arrival at the basics of the course. The discussion quickly maneuvered to all the other material that can be found in what is so often viewed as a most common resource. In the process of this review, instructor Deborah Abbott, Ph.D.—whose qualifications can be found in genealogical organizations far and wide—happened to mention something which perked up my ears.

Some African American ancestors seemed to disappear. Like, right about the times I had noticed that same phenomenon in the saga of King Stockton's family. And, as we had discussed earlier on this first day of class, we need to consider the historical and legal context.

I suspect, for some of King Stockton's descendants, life following the Reconstruction era—and especially as African Americans felt the impact of the difficult time of Jim Crow laws—may well have caused many to find ways to "disappear." Reading local news reports from that time period are sobering reminders, indeed.

Of course, I can't be satisfied to claim that as my alibi and do nothing further. I still want to push back farther in time and connect King Stockton to his roots, and I need to discover the branches which connect those few DNA matches I've found. This week at SLIG promises to deliver that needed guidance to lead me to additional resources to do just that.

 

Monday, January 25, 2021

The Perpetual Question Machine

 

When it comes to asking endless questions, as an example, you may have in mind the quintessential two year old. You tell the little darling something, and the cherub responds, "Why?" You give a well-reasoned answer that any adult would find sufficient, and the little dear retorts, "Why?" If you haven't yet realized you've already swallowed the bait, perhaps you'll begin a third statement, only to be shortchanged again by the persistent, "Why?"

That's not quite what I have in mind. But close. Introduce a little variety into the wording, mix in some context, and you have grist for the question mill: the skill to fuel the perpetual question machine, and the tool I advocate as a necessity for genealogical research of the brick-wall kind.

Case in point: my never-ending quest to discover more about the former enslaved man, King Stockton, who apparently had some friends in high places. Having failed at discovering much about his life, other than the few stories captured in a booklet written by Florida businessman A. L. Lewis, I decided upon a research course to target King Stockton's "FAN Club"—his friends, associates, and neighbors.

We learned, in the process, that not far from King Stockton's Florida home in the 1870 census lived a young boy by the name of James Dean. Though Dean happened to also be the surname listed as father on King Stockton's wife's death certificate, at this point, I can't even say yet that James Dean was "kin" to Louvenia Stockton. But I can say, thanks to a mere sentence inserted in a thirty-four page article on Judge James Dean in the Florida Historical Quarterly of Summer 2008, that King Stockton was listed as a local African Methodist Episcopal minister "who filled Wellborn-area religious needs in the absence of a regularly-organized church." Apparently, he made an impression on young James Dean.

It was at the other end of James Dean's life that I picked up another cause to ask more questions about him. Yes, he was the state of Florida's first African American jurist. Yes, he also became prominent in the course of his nearly-lifelong affiliation with the A.M.E. Church. But it was a statement at the end of that same thirty-four page article in the Florida Historical Quarterly that pulled me up short and made me ask another volley of questions.

I had been at a lack to find an actual obituary for the man, though the Quarterly reported his date of death as December 19, 1914. According to the Quarterly article, he died in Jacksonville, where he had spent much of his life, though the article also mentioned that James Dean always considered Wellborn his home. Not surprisingly, though his well-attended funeral was held at the Mount Zion A.M.E. Church in Jacksonville, the Quarterly noted that James Dean was to be buried back in Wellborn, "by the side of relatives in the family burial ground."

Where that family burial ground was, though, the article did not specify. 

Enter next iteration of that barrage of questions.

Of course, I know where I'd look for burials in Wellborn. My family—and quite a few of Wellborn's population—was buried on a little corner of the original McClellan property, near McClellan Lake, at the McClellan cemetery. You get the idea.

But this was 1914, and African Americans didn't just get buried in places like that. There would have been a different location in that same tiny town where those with African heritage would have been buried. But where? There was no way to tell, just based on the name of the cemetery.

Putting Find A Grave through its paces by examining a listing of every cemetery in Wellborn—remember, this is a rural community in which the entire county contained barely nineteen thousand population at the time—didn't prove helpful. 

Taking a step further back and seeking any burials in the entire county for the surname Dean led to some hits, but it didn't take too long to examine the results and realize one thing: none of those deceased would have been African American. Remember, this was the South in 1914. It didn't matter that we were seeking the remains of a former judge. Even though there was a Dean family cemetery in Suwannee County, Wellborn's home, it became obvious that this was the final resting place for some pre-Civil War Dean family members, a clue that, once again, we wouldn't have found the judge included in these burials.

It did, though, inspire a few more questions. The first question, of course, is: just where was Judge James Dean actually buried in Wellborn, if not in any of the cemetery listings I could find? After all, if he was buried with his family, this would be my opportunity to discover just who some of those family members were. But following that obvious pursuit, it also prompted me to wonder just what became of those other Deans I had found in this search for King Stockton's FAN Club. Would James Dean have been buried with his father, Kelly? What about Minta, or Minty, Dean, his mother? Pushing even farther, would Louvenia King's father, the supposed Thaddeus Dean, have been buried in the same cemetery? In finding that cemetery, wherever it was, would I find the door opened to many questions—or just stumble upon even more questions?

More than that, though, is the question of whether there was any connection between the Deans of the Dean family cemetery I had already found and, perhaps, a slave-owning Dean family from which Kelly and Minta Dean might have been emancipated.

As you can surmise, asking research questions may lead to answers—but they often lead only to further questions.

Fortunately, despite this tailspin, this morning begins the second week of the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy, where the very class which will help equip me to delve further into those many questions will be my week-long focus. While I'm churning out these endless research questions to lead me to a fuller understanding of the former slave known as King Stockton, I'm looking to the team of instructors whom I'll be learning from this week to help me through this research quandary.

While the perpetual question machine that I've turned into, thanks to the discipline of genealogy, may be cranking out vast numbers of questions right now, I'm looking forward to discovering some targeted resources to lead me, finally, to some answers. And a deeper understanding of the milieu of life in the south for the friends, associates, and neighbors of a man born into slavery in a land of the free.      

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Starting Back up With Numbers

 

Sometimes, after an unexpected hiatus, the best way to get one's feet back on the ground is to do a re-assessment of where we stand. In the hopes that one rocky week is past us, let's take a look at what research I might have managed to complete in the past two weeks. After all, at least one week was relatively productive. Besides, what's one to do when advised to rest? I can plug names and dates into my online family trees while flat on my back, if needed. It's all that heavy-duty research work that takes more effort.

So, at a glance—and remembering that, for this year, I've combined my four family trees into two—here is how my progress fared in the past two weeks. (I promise I won't wince when I look at the numbers.)

For my side of the family—combining my maternal line with my puny paternal tree—I now have 24,969 individuals in that updated tree format. Yeah, only eight more than two weeks ago...but at least that is eight new finds to celebrate.

For my in-laws' combined trees, I fared somewhat better. The reason for that is I felt I owed my mother-in-law some catch-up effort for having neglected her tree for the past year. In addition, in combining the Stevens tree with her tree, I found some more descendants of associated family lines to include, which made the numbers on this tree a little more robust—and the progress more encouraging. There are now 19,845 in that tree, having increased a total of 138 individuals.

Growing those family trees—at least this portion of the process—can be rather routine work: check the census records, vital records, and other supporting documentation, and add the information to the tree. Learn how to read between the lines and see if any additional residents in the household, one decade after another, can reveal answers to family puzzles.

Mostly, I use this process to add descendants to each ancestors' line, strictly for the purpose of connecting the dots between my DNA tests (or my husband's and in-laws' DNA tests) and that of our matches. While we don't have many close matches—most of ours are third to fourth cousin range or farther removed—I find it is those more distant relationships which help fill in the details on branches of our tree. I always enjoy making the connection with those third or fourth cousins. They are a gold mine when they address my most bare branches.

The work gets more challenging when I encounter the more messy sides of research: the two cousins with the same name and similar birth data, or the missing other marriage which yields that DNA match I couldn't figure out. Of course, the further back we go in time, the less likely to be able to score digitized images of needed documents. For now, those research challenges will have to be put on hold.

With tomorrow comes a new challenge—one I've looked forward to, ever since last July and the opening day of registration for the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. Monday morning, thanks to the magic of time zones, that 8:00 a.m. class I signed up for will require me to be in my seat with laptop linked to virtual educational excellence at the bright* and early time of 7:00. We'll see if, after a day packed with learning, I'll be able to return to King Stockton's saga each evening. Perhaps a short and sweet report of the day's activities may need to suffice the flagging stamina level.


*said with tongue firmly in cheek, albeit faced sans my traditional cup of coffee; if you haven't guessed, I am not a morning person.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Still Here . . . Sorta

 

For you who have been a regular here at A Family Tapestry, thank you for checking in for the past few days but finding...nothing. Apparently, I've caught up to the place where I get to encounter a few health crisis moments of my own. This week was one of them. Hopefully, I'll be back to share more of King Stockton's story—or at least those of his friends and associates—perhaps by Monday.

 

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The (Research) Path Less Traveled

 

With the advent of genea-super-powers like Ancestry.com, those of us curious about our family's history have become spoiled. All we need do is enter a first name and surname (maiden name for women, please), and include the most rudimentary of additional information—vague notions about dates or locations might be helpful—and voilĂ ! Open sesame, and a world of possibilities emerges for the lucky researcher.

In the process, we become beguiled to shed our ability to keep searching despite drawing a blank. We learn to turn a blind eye to the many other online resources available to us—and no, I'm not talking about MyHeritage or FindMyPast—or even to lose the knack of asking pertinent questions when we do encounter a viable, but incomplete, source of information on our ancestor. With Genealogy Easy Street, we've abandoned the research path less traveled.

With that, I've determined that not being able to make any progress on my search for King Stockton may be a blessing in disguise. It did, after all, prime me for taking a week-long course on researching African American family history, which I'll begin this coming Monday at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. But it also reminds me to access other means of searching for online information.

Take newspapers, for instance. We have at our fingertips—at least for those willing to spring for subscriptions, or even to search for those free resources still out there—myriad archived newspapers, which are not only available, but searchable. That is the key to accelerating our search progress—much preferable to those pre-Internet days of scrolling through microfilms of decades-old newspapers which might or might not contain the ancestor's name we were seeking.

For King Stockton's kid next door who grew up and did well, James Dean, I took a look at newspaper resources at both GenealogyBank and NewspaperArchive.com. In this case, apparently their two collections agreed on the few entries I was able to locate. There, in The Palatka News, out of Palatka, Florida, a modest insertion in the December 18, 1914, edition noted that James Dean would be giving the featured "Emancipation Day oration" there in that city on the upcoming New Year's Day.

However, as I suspected, on that very New Year's Day, the same paper reported:

The parties having this celebration in hand had secured the services of James Dean...one of the most brilliant orators in Florida to deliver the oration, but he died last week....

The article went on to reflect on Judge Dean's virtues and abilities, hinting at the possibility that the event's January program must have included a formal tribute on the man's passing just days prior.

The same theme was picked up in The Tampa Morning Tribune a few days later, in the "Christian Endeavor" column on the women's page:

As a shadow passing over the sun to some came news in the gladsome holidays of the passing away of Rev. James Dean, once efficient citizenship superintendent of the Colored State Union. Perhaps the best tribute that could be paid him, or anybody, were the words of one of his Endeavor coworkers, "He was one of the best friends I had in all the world.

Though such discoveries in newspapers won't provide us that prized mother's maiden name, or even give us dates or location of death, they do provide grist for the "mill" which has been trained to churn out questions—questions that lead to more searches for information. Just seeking further details on the Christian Endeavor organization and the Colored State Union helps paint a picture of the types of causes held uppermost in importance to this man.

As we continue, tomorrow, with some other less-used research resources, we'll also delve into that very skill: the ability to lift information from one resource to fuel questions for further inquiry when researching those enigmatic ancestors. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Kid (Almost) Next Door

 

We probably give little thought to the childhood acquaintances from the neighborhood in which we spent our earliest years. Chances are that seldom did any of our elementary school chums grow up to be someone famous (although it does, rarely, happen).

As we explore the connections who might reveal something more about the life of King Stockton—the former slave on the McClellan plantation in Wellborn, Florida, whose story ignited my own childhood curiosity—it turns out that there was a "kid next door" who grew up to be someone whose name became part of the state's history.

Even so, that man, judge James Dean, is someone whose history had been hidden due to the unfortunate injustices which befell him at the height of his career. There are, however, a few articles written about his life from which we can glean the basic facts of his life. The earliest resource—which I do not own, owing to its eye-popping price tag—was a 760 page tome published by a Howard University law professor in 1999 entitled Emancipation: the Making of the Black Lawyer 1844-1944. Within that volume, James Dean merited mention on a mere two pages.

Though one would think such scant coverage would have buried the story of James Dean, apparently someone, reading his Howard University professor's book, learned that James Dean was the first black judge elected anywhere in the South after Reconstruction. That someone was attorney Calvin Allen, whose goal became to have the unjustly disgraced name of James Dean restored to honor.

As one would suspect, the backlash to Reconstruction had many impacts, one of which was a wrongful accusation against the recently-elected judge, James Dean, which had him removed from office within a year of his election. Well over one hundred years later, attorney Calvin Allen mounted a campaign of his own to have James Dean's record cleared, and in 2002, then-governor Jeb Bush signed a proclamation to posthumously reinstate Judge James Dean to the bench.

James Dean, who in 1884 graduated first in his law class at Howard University, had served in Monroe County, deep in the southwestern tip of Florida. There, in 1888, he won the election to the position of judge against two white candidates. Within the year, an unsubstantiated accusation led to his removal from that position without benefit of the required senate hearing prior to being removed from office.

As prominently as he had risen in his chosen field up to that point, it is James Dean's early years that I am most interested in. Apparently, James Dean was born in 1858 in the recently-established Florida city of Ocala, where many plantations dependent on slave labor were located. However, by the time of emancipation, the Dean family was living near the McClellan plantation in Wellborn, the same place where King Stockton was once enslaved.

By the time of the first census after emancipation, the Dean household was recorded only five households removed from that of King Stockton, and three from other members of the extended Stockton family. Whether the Dean family moved from Ocala after the Civil War, or were sold as slaves prior to that time, I can't tell. However, keep in mind that King Stockton's wife, though taking the surname Lewis, actually had a father who had the surname Dean. Could it be that James Dean's family made the move to be closer to family?

By the time of the 1885 Florida state census, the Dean household showed only Kelly and Minta; their son James had by then completed his studies at Howard University and was likely living in Monroe County, though I can't find any entry for him there. Much of the detail of James Dean's life and career are best recounted in the Summer 2008 Florida Historical Quarterly, in the article by Canter Brown and Larry E. Rivers, "The Pioneer African American Jurist who Almost Became a Bishop: Florida's Judge James Dean, 1858-1914." 

That, as it turned out, was the resource in which I had found the footnote revealing the connection King Stockton had had with James Dean who was, at that time, literally the kid next door. In the Brown and Rivers article, King Stockton was portrayed as "a local AME minister who filled Wellborn-area religious needs in the absence of a regularly organized church and who lived in close proximity to the Deans."

Before James Dean went to Howard University, though, he had left the rural setting of Wellborn to seek educational opportunities in nearby Jacksonville. There, I was interested to learn, he attended Mount Zion AME Church. I quickly checked to see if that was where paths crossed with Dr. A. L. Lewis, but as it turned out, the latter man's church was called Mount Olive—not to mention, A. L. Lewis would have been a much younger man.

Following the name-dropping in the lengthy article on James Dean's life in the Florida Historical Quarterly, while I could see he had again returned to Jacksonville later in life, at no time did I spot among the many names that of A. L. Lewis. The only connection I could see was in the closing comment, quoting from a funeral notice, that Judge Dean's remains were to be transported back to Wellborn, where he would be buried "by the side of relatives in the family burial ground."

Other than the early mention of King Stockton, nothing I could find in articles on James Dean's life led me to determine any family connection. However, there is one more research attempt I'd like to make, though it will step outside the bounds of all the usual places where genealogists tend to look.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Crossing Paths

 

It is sometimes difficult to determine just how two people met. Take, for instance, King Stockton, current subject of our search, and the man—successful Florida businessman A. L. Lewis—who took up the project to record details of this former enslaved person's life. An entire generation—thirty six years—separated them. King Stockton was likely born in Georgia in 1830, while A. L. Lewis began life in Madison County, Florida, in 1865.

Their life's path also separated them. King Stockton was born in humble circumstances, the son of two enslaved people, one of whom we know very little about. While A. L. Lewis was also born to enslaved parents, the start of his life coincided with emancipation and eventually opened up for him opportunities, combined with his natural talents, that the previous generation certainly couldn't enjoy.

As much as I've searched for the answer on just how their paths crossed, this wealthy businessman and this humble farmer, perhaps the clearest explanation comes from the very booklet which A. L. Lewis prepared on the life of King Stockton. In his preface, Lewis explained how many "men and women have lived and died without very much thought being given to what an inspiration their life might be to future generations."

Thus, A. L. Lewis' goal "to have the beautiful characters of the men and women of their race held up before them as examples worthy of emulation" was achieved through publication of a booklet like the one focused on the story of King Stockton.

That, of course, makes me wonder whether Dr. Lewis had written any other such biographies, perhaps in a series dedicated to the same purpose. In that case, it would have made more sense that King Stockton's was just one more name among several suggested to the author. As of yet, though, I have not found any such indication.

That original booklet, as well, embeds some history in the Stockton story, making me wonder whether the nexus between the two men was not by business connections, not even by family relationships, but because of the denomination to which they both belonged: the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. After all, for sixty years, A. L. Lewis had served as Sunday School Superintendent of the Mount Olive AME Church in Jacksonville, Florida. While King Stockton spent the last of his years in the small agricultural community of Hastings in Saint Johns County, now about an hour's drive south of Jacksonville, it is possible that their earlier paths might have crossed in church affairs.

Noted in the small booklet of King Stockton's life was the detail that he grew up attending church services at the plantation where he lived, memorizing many of the scriptures that he heard repeatedly. He received an "exhorter's license" in 1853, and the narrative of the booklet explains that when "Bishop Wayman came to Florida in 1867" to organize the AME Church in Tallahassee, King Stockton was one of the members at that first conference.

That detail prompted me to see who Bishop Wayman might have been. Seeking details on the formation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, I discovered its roots long pre-dated the Civil War. The church grew out of another organization, the Free African Society, established in Philadelphia in 1787. Bishop Alexander Walker Wayman, born a free man in 1821 on his family's farm in Maryland, became the seventh bishop of the AME Church.

In his own writings, Bishop Wayman mentioned traveling to Florida in 1867 for the formation of the Florida church, including description of the uncomfortable "car" he rode in from Georgia to the station at Live Oak, Florida—not far from where King Stockton lived at the time in Suwannee County. Though the Wayman travel account mentions the key people he met when he arrived for the conference at Tallahassee, nowhere in the book was there any mention of King Stockton nor, at that early date, any of the Lewis family.

Yet, A. L. Lewis indicated that his subject, eventually coming to be called "Father Stockton," was a preacher at the elder man's local church, well into the latter part of his life. Though re-reading the booklet did help bring some details into focus, it still doesn't enlighten me as to the connection between writer and subject of the story. While my gut take on it is that the connection is more likely to have been one of family, the more logical explanation is probably through church association. Still, no solid details to confirm which would be the answer.

Still, having reviewed the bigger picture of the history behind some of the key names mentioned, it serves to provide an understanding of the time and situation in which the no-longer enslaved found themselves during King Stockton's lifetime. For more detail on that aspect, we'll turn next to the life story of another associate of King Stockton, a man in Florida politics who started life as the kid down the street from King Stockton's home in Wellborn. Perhaps, in once again reviewing that man's history, next time we can find much more than merely a footnote.     

 

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Old Acquaintances, New Year's Resolutions

 

We may be halfway through the first month of the year, but I am still running across blog posts about New Year's resolutions—or, at least, New Year's "goals." I started posting my plans early, using the old-fashioned twelve days of Christmas to detail one genealogy target per month for 2021. It's good to have a solid outline of what we hope to accomplish for the upcoming year's research.

Along the way, though, I realized one more thing about New Year traditions: as much as we try to look forward, that New Year's day is also a call for the Auld Lang Syne. No matter how much I try to look forward to the future with this flip of the calendar's page, I can't think of next year's plans without remembering the ones who, in the past, have been part of my research collaboration.

And so, that Auld Lang Syne call brings me to the realization that genealogical research is cyclical. We work on a specific line for a while, going until we can find no further trace of documentation on our farthest removed ancestral generation, then we shift to a different project in the hopes of gaining better headway. It is sometimes only when we retrace our steps on a particular line, years later, that we recall those distant cousins who walked that same research path with us, last time we visited that particular branch of the family.

In this past week, as I review my research goals for the upcoming year, I've realized there are three people with whom I really want to reconnect. Each one of them was someone with whom was shared a robust email dialog, sometimes over months, others through the years. One particular person was one with whom I last exchanged emails almost eight years ago. Another one was someone I actually had the pleasure of meeting, face to face, as we explored whether DNA testing would confirm my hypothesis about the family connection. Yet another woman has been so very helpful in sharing information, despite our initial doubt of any connection—another surprise, demonstrated through DNA, showing us otherwise.

I have heard many fellow researchers lately mention their disappointment when, in reaching out to others tracing the same family lines, the enthusiasm for sharing information was not reciprocated. Yes, there are some who may not—yet!—show any interest in exchanging details or working together on a brick wall line. But that is not to say that is an artifact of a bygone era. While you may have to search for those who share that kindred spirit, there are genea-friends out there to be found. And, once found, to recall during those Auld Lang Syne moments, then reach out and reconnect. 

 

Friday, January 15, 2021

Extraordinary Man, Common Surname

 

When we seek to learn more about the lives of our ancestors, it is sometimes an exciting discovery to find that an ancestor's life attracted enough interest to merit being written up in publications lasting far beyond their own lifetime. That, at least, was how I felt, even though it wasn't concerning one of my own relatives, when I discovered the book about the man known as King Stockton. The nine-page booklet, though sharing stories of King Stockton's early life in territorial Florida, still left me with one question: just how did it come to be that a millionaire would choose to make an obscure preacher the focus of the booklet he had written?

At first, I assumed the connection between King Stockton and A. L. Lewis, his biographer, was through a business association. After all, Abraham Lincoln Lewis was involved in establishing a number of successful ventures, and was also known for his humanitarian efforts in the Jacksonville area. Though quite a bit was written up about A. L. Lewis' accomplishments—even his obituary appeared in newspapers from Florida up to the New York City metro area—I couldn't discern any place where his path might have crossed with that of King Stockton.

From that point, having learned that King Stockton's mother-in-law was also a Lewis, I thought perhaps there was a family connection, and decided to pursue his biographer's own family history.

Though much has been written about A. L. Lewis—even his entry at Find A Grave is informative—besides the usual accolades for his business acumen, the only family relationships mentioned were those of the relatives involved in key positions in his business, the Afro-American Life Insurance Company.

As it turns out, there were a number of trees on Ancestry.com which included a Florida-born man by the name of Abraham Lincoln Lewis, but almost all of them labeled A. L. Lewis' parents as Author and Mary Lewis. Indeed, there was an 1880 census entry for a family of three with those names listed for the adults, plus their nineteen year old son Abraham.

Only problem with this Columbia County record: that Abraham would have been born about five years before the Abraham we are seeking. According to A. L. Lewis' burial information, he was born in 1865, not 1860.

Though I couldn't find another family with a promising entry for a son by that name in 1880, I could find an "Abram" Lewis in a family in the 1870 census for Madison County. That family, headed by South Carolina natives Robert and Judy Lewis, included children Frances, Luellen, Eliza, and, of course, Abram. A promising corroboration of that listing came from the other end of A. L. Lewis' life with one of the many obituaries published at his passing. According to the obituary published in the Pittsburgh Courier on March 15, 1947, besides his widow and sons, he was survived by one sister, Eliza Dixon of New York City.

Sure enough, Eliza's entry at Find A Grave also listed her parents as Robert and Judy Lewis. That confirmation, however, still did not help me connect A. L. Lewis' family with that of King Stockton's wife Louvenia. Louvenia's death certificate had listed her mother as Melissa Lewis, and a mis-labeled census entry for the 1885 Florida state census included King Stockton's mother-in-law under the same given name.

So how did they relate? At this point, I can't tell. Perhaps the fact that both families claimed the same last name was merely coincidence—the artifact of a fairly common surname. The question now becomes: if not by blood, how exactly might King Stockton have been connected to a man like A. L. Lewis? Though it is doubtful that it would be by business, there is another avenue to consider, which we'll explore on Monday.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Considering Kin

 

There is something quite aggravating about the concept of kin. Somehow imprecise, "kin" is nevertheless the word family historians gravitate to when no other term can convey the notion: not exactly related but, somehow, related just the same. It's a word convenient when nothing else quite fits as a descriptor, but we can't somehow contort the family tree to reveal the complex connection.

Southern relationships are sometimes like that. I suspect, in the one particular case we've lately been considering, that word may have often come in handy in sorting family ties.

In the question of just how a successful businessman like A. L. Lewis might have come to not only make the acquaintance of an old preacher like King Stockton but actually decide to write a book about his life story, I couldn't quite discover the nexus. But when I consider the little bit I've been able to determine of King Stockton's family, there may be an explanation: he and A. L. Lewis might have been "kin."

Since I know you won't let me get off so easily with such an explanation, let me lay out my case. It begins early in the life of King Stockton and his wife, Louvenia. I'll let the words of biographer A. L. Lewis explain:

It was in his early childhood that he met little Louvenia Ann Lewis, the youngest of five sisters, and at that time, they pledged themselves to each other.

Yes, admittedly, Lewis is a fairly common surname. It is quite possible that there was no connection between the two Lewis names. On the other hand, what are the possibilities that, in addition to the five Lewis sisters, there might have also been at least one brother?

Before we get ahead of ourselves with conjectures about connections, let's consider one other twist. While that may have been the report of the early years of King Stockton and his wife-to-be, let's take a look at what we can discover at the other end of life: those possibly error-ridden reports of parents' names in death certificates.

While not living quite as long as her near-centenarian husband, Louvenia Lewis Stockton died in 1925 after having lived ninety three years. What was interesting about her death certificate, though, was that it was her mother's name which was given as Lewis. Her father was listed as a Dean.

This small revelation gives pause to consider the connections lying beneath that serendipitous mention in that history journal's footnote about King Stockton in an article concerning Florida jurist (and Stockton neighbor) James Dean.

Perhaps once again, a person whom I considered a member of King Stockton's "FAN Club" may turn out to be much more than just a friend; Dean, Lewis, and Stockton may all have been kin. And if we can't discover the connection through Louvenia's own genealogy, perhaps we can learn something by exploring the family trees of those two more well-known men from Florida's history. 


Wednesday, January 13, 2021

What Our Ancestors' Friends Can Tell us

 

Do you ever stop to think what unspoken messages you send by the friends you choose? We have quips to remind us that people are sometimes assessed by the company they keep—"birds of a feather" comes to mind here—and that operative can become a device to use to our research advantage.

Those of us who have researched our family tree long enough to get stuck on what we've dubbed "brick wall ancestors" have probably stumbled upon the acronym regarding our ancestors' "F.A.N. Club." The term was coined by master researcher Elizabeth Shown Mills, signifying the usefulness of following a brick wall ancestor's Friends, Associates, and Neighbors.

As I pursue the story of the man I now know was called King Stockton, I've found there was very little recorded about his life. Thankfully—and this was the tale that first piqued my interest when I heard it as a child—King Stockton had an acquaintance who thought it a worthwhile project to publish a booklet about his life.

That booklet, as I discovered only recently, was a simple seven page pamphlet with the generic title, "Biography of King Stockton: Born a Slave, Living 100 Years." That, as it turned out, was the "book" mentioned in the stories passed down through my family—the one which I could never find in my grandmother's belongings, but which, thankfully, I was able to read, thanks to the rare books and manuscripts collection at the Rose Library at Emory University.

Not much can be discerned about one hundred years of a life from the text on a mere seven pages, let alone a life lived spanning such tumultuous times as were seen from the early years of territorial Florida through the end of slavery and the contentious times beyond that era. But we may be able to extract some inferences about King Stockton based on what we can learn about his friends and associates.

It was from his contact with one associate—Florida's pioneer African-American jurist, James Dean—that I gleaned my first clue to clinch the answer to a lifelong search for King Stockton's "book"; that was where I found the book's title in the footnotes in a history journal article about James Dean.

Impressive friend.

But the friend I was now in search of was the very one who was inspired to tell King Stockton's story: a man by the name of A. L. Lewis. Who was he?

Fortunately, unlike James Dean and his many accomplishments buried in history, A. L. Lewis was a man whose trail was a bit easier to trace. It was helpful to discover what was hidden behind those enigmatic initials: A. L. signified Abraham Lincoln Lewis. A brief entry in Wikipedia let me know that he was the state of Florida's first African-American millionaire. His success came from many ventures, most of which were owing to his ability to spot needs within his community during a time of great upheaval, and his talent for forming cooperative ventures with other astute community leaders.

Since A. L. Lewis was a businessman and chairman of the board of a life insurance company, I wondered just what it might have been that he and a minister like King Stockton held in common. What was it about their friendship? What connected them? And can we infer anything from the relationship? By the time A. L. Lewis had been born in Madison, Florida, in 1865, King Stockton was well into his thirties.

Though they both lived in the same region of northern Florida, there had to be something more that connected them. I was curious to see if I could find the nexus between the two men. I noticed that A. L. Lewis had founded what eventually was called the Afro-American Life Insurance Company in 1901, and wondered whether that detail would reveal the source of any connection. However, a fortieth anniversary publication of the company didn't provide any clues, though it did introduce me to the founding members of the board—possibly more names to add to King Stockton's FAN Club.

What I discovered by leafing through the company publication was an operation designed and maintained by a dedicated core of talented men and women, working from an early start in a new century to years after King Stockton's own passing in 1929. The chairman of the board of that company—that very same A. L. Lewis—was somehow the acquaintance of King Stockton to such a degree that he chose to publish a booklet sharing details of the elder man's life. Surely, such an acquaintance says something about the man we are hoping to learn more about.

What I couldn't find tucked between the pages of the fortieth anniversary yearbook, besides any mention of King Stockton, himself, was any way to figure out the connection between the two men. It's fairly obvious that one doesn't engage in writing someone's story without knowing at least something about that person. So how did the two get to know each other?

There was one possible clue in all this, one obliterated by the apparent success of the author's businesses: his very name, Lewis. While Lewis is a common surname, perhaps there was a connection between the author's surname and some details I had stumbled upon while researching King Stockton's family tree. As it turned out, King Stockton was connected to a Lewis family through his own wife. Perhaps the Lewis connection wasn't owing to friends or associates, after all, but to a connection with kin.

   

 

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Beyond Just a Name

 

It all started with a book. No, make that a story about a book: my mother's retelling of her Aunt Fannie's spellbinding stories about life in territorial Florida, shared from a book which someone inspired and gifted to her father, my second great-grandfather William McClellan.

Though as a child, I never knew that someone's name, I still wanted to learn more about him. Finding the details regarding those who took their place in our family's story can be challenging, but it is these people—the friends, associates and neighbors—whose connections with our family can help paint the picture of what our ancestors were like.

Even before I knew his name, I always knew King Stockton was someone whose life was intertwined with my family's story, because our star family storyteller passed his stories down to the next generation. Aunt Fannie's stories were so memorable, they awoke in me, for one, a love for family history—even though I never met her, let alone the people in her stories who lived long before that. Her stories were so woven into family tradition that by the time they reached my ears, one couldn't be quite sure they were anything more than just that: stories.

To make matters more difficult for me, once I decided in my little-kid heart to pursue this story, I had no way to discover the name of this man, the one who, when he was free and could have done otherwise, chose to keep coming back to visit my second great-grandfather, William H. McClellan.

The story, of course, begins much further back in time than King Stockton's regular visits to the McClellan home in Wellborn, Florida. Actually, we can push back one more generation, to William McClellan's mother Sidney Tison, on the eve of her 1830 wedding day at the Tison residence in Glynn County, Georgia. Though her father, Job Tison, had passed away several years before, his will had not been settled—but despite that fact, since Sidney had come of age, with her wedding and subsequent move to the McClellan homestead in Florida, she was to take along with her the "gift" bequeathed to her from his will.

That "gift" was a young mother by the name of Hester, who remained with Sidney the rest of her life. Hester, as you've likely deduced, had been enslaved on the Tison property, and with Job Tison's passing, had been "given" to Sidney.

About the same time as Sidney's removal to Wellborn, Hester gave birth to a son—the one who eventually came to be known as King Stockton. When Hester traveled with Sidney to Florida, Hester's son went with her—and the two remained for the rest of their lives in and around Wellborn.

Part of that story I learned through family tales passed down through oral tradition, thanks to some family storytellers over the generations. But because I always wanted to learn more about Hester and her son King, I eventually learned how to do genealogical research and, with digitized records becoming more easily accessible, found out a few more details about King Stockton.

Once I learned his actual name, I located him in the first national enumeration taken after manumission—the 1870 census. There, still in Wellborn, King Stockton was listed at age forty, with his wife Louvenia and six children in their household. From that point, I followed the Stockton family through each decennial record, moving from Suwannee County to Shalmanezer in nearby Columbia County in 1900, and eventually to the location of his death in Saint Johns County in 1929—nearly a hundred years of age.

Tracing anything more than that was challenging, though. I had hoped to follow his family's line through the generations—I had, after all, obtained a copy of the booklet which he had once given to my second great-grandfather so many years before, and it had mentioned nine children of the Stockton family. But where did they go? Some of them seemed to simply disappear from the area by the time of King Stockton's passing.

Finding one note about King Stockton's stature in the community was indeed a clue to guide my research in more ways than one. It was literally a footnote in a journal article which gave a glimpse of who might have been included in his "FAN Club" circles. That, in itself, provides me a lesson for what I must do in order to discover anything more about this man and his family: I'll have to widen my search circle, including looking at resources genealogists may not usually access.

That type of search can take its first cue from the very source of King Stockton's story in print: the actual author of the booklet which provided the details of King Stockton's life. For author A. L. Lewis, as a part of the Stockton "FAN Club"—friends, associates, and neighbors—would have had some reason to connect with the man whose story we are seeking. We'll look for some clues to see what the association between the two men might reveal about the life story of King Stockton. 

Monday, January 11, 2021

Stepping Into the Same Boat Again

 

It was two year ago tonight when, attending the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy, I settled into my seat to hear the traditional Monday evening plenary speaker. That year, the presentation was slated to be given by LaBrenda Garrett-Nelson. She titled her talk, "We're All in the Same Boat Now" and called her listeners to see genealogy as a "force for social change."

Thanks to her presentation, I felt the much-needed encouragement to launch into a project I had been considering for a long time: to research a specific individual whose stories had been passed down in my family for generations. 

There was only one catch: I didn't even know this person's name.

That year, the SLIG course I had registered for was one concerning Southern research. It was the first step, I hoped, in getting closer to actually launching that research project. Shortly after that January course in Salt Lake City, I was scheduled to travel next to Florida to research a family line impacting the life of that very same mystery person.

After LaBrenda Garrett-Nelson's Monday evening presentation, I remember talking with her about my impossible research mission to find this man with no name, and how her message encouraged me to pursue that project, no matter the barriers. Within a few days, a DNA match cousin in Florida emailed me to say he believed he had the right name for my mystery person: King Stockton.

Perhaps there is some great Hand in the Sky who is coordinating the moves to ensure that man's story is told as fully as possible. Though it has been two years since our initial discussion, it turns out that LaBrenda Garrett-Nelson has returned to teach at SLIG. And I am returning this month (well, virtually) to take her course in In-Depth African American Genealogy.

That was the inspiration for selecting, as my Ancestor #1 of my Twelve Most Wanted for 2021, that very person, King Stockton. Beginning tomorrow, and for the remainder of January, I'll not only explore what else can be learned about the man, but search to see what else I can discover—especially in out-of-the-way resources—about King Stockton and his family.    

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Goal Setting and Accountability

 

If January is the month for setting goals—or at least making promises to ourselves as New Year's resolutions—it also needs to be the month to consider the role of accountability. Put simply, it is easier for us to achieve our goals if we have someone else to report to. 

Perhaps we are built to need an audience to watch us keep pace with our goals. Readers have book clubs. The sports-minded have coaches. And genealogists? Maybe that's the inspiration behind Amy Johnson Crow's 52 Ancestors approach. Or Janine Adams' occasional 30 x 30 Challenge. It helps, sometimes, to do things with a group. Maybe we just need someone to cheer us on.

While I tend to take my own route, I find it so important to keep track of progress. After all, if we don't develop a system to measure our efforts, how will we be able to get any encouragement about what we are achieving? Face it, family history research is sometimes hard work—and it can sometimes bring discouragement.

Several years ago, I developed a worksheet to keep track of several aspects of my research routine. For each of the trees I was steadily building, I kept a count of how many people were added to each tree over a set period of time (I've settled on the fortnightly report, but others may find weekly or monthly more suitable to their purposes). I also kept track of how many DNA matches were being added to the accounts of each family member tested—mostly in the range of fourth cousin and closer—at each of the DNA testing companies we utilized.

Over the years, I've adapted that worksheet to suit my evolving research purposes. For instance, while I originally included a column on the spreadsheet to note emails sent to DNA matches, I later shifted that reporting function to the notes section of the pertinent testing company, rather than duplicate the information on my tracking form.

With last year's update at Ancestry DNA to tag DNA matches in my trees, that function required a shift from my previous choice of keeping four separate family trees to consolidating family lines into two trees—one for my ancestors, one for my husband's. For the upcoming year, now that I'm still in the process of completing that consolidation, I've also switched my accountability forms to reflect that shift. Instead of keeping a count for each of four trees, the watch is now down to two.

Of course, the shift means some inflated numbers, as members of the smaller paternal lines get shifted into the maternal trees (which was the easiest way to accomplish that consolidation). But here's how we stand now, at the beginning of January:

  • 19,707 individuals in my husband's combined tree, reflecting an increase of 373 individuals over the final count for December 2020.
  • 24,961 individuals in my own combined tree, which includes an increase of 367 individuals over the final count for December 2020.

That consolidation project for my husband's tree involved moving all my father-in-law's Irish-heritage ancestors to my mother-in-law's line. I'm by no means done with that project, for as I make the move, I'm double-checking the records to include any further digitized resources which may have been added to online collections since I last passed through that line of research. Also, since one purpose of building my trees is as a tool to confirm DNA matches, I'm also checking newspaper collections for updates on marriage records and obituaries as they become available.

With this latest version of my mother's tree, the increase was mostly due to those many Polish immigrants to Milwaukee who turned out, based on DNA matches, to connect with my paternal grandfather's mother's siblings. At last, a chance to personally celebrate the very reason we've all been delving into DNA testing in the first place!

Between those bi-weekly status reports and the Twelve Most Wanted monthly searches for brick wall ancestors, there are plenty of opportunities to share about research progress. While I may not participate in 52 Ancestors or the 30 by 30 approach, I guess this is another way to call for accountability in our research. It is encouraging, after all, to look at those reporting forms at the end of a six-month period, or even after a full year, and realize how much progress has been made. After all, every one of us researchers could use a pat on the back for our efforts every once in a while.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Now Indexing — Or Perhaps Not

 

With all the holiday trappings completely stowed for another year, and the shimmer of New Year's Day hopefulness already lost its luster, I've been ready to get back to normal—whatever that is. So I turned to my favorite traditional virtual volunteer activity, indexing digitized records at FamilySearch.org.

Apparently, things aren't back to "normal" there, either. In fact, they might be in the midst of an exciting development—or, as one person on the "Automated Content Extraction" team put it, "explosion."

It's not a development we couldn't have foreseen. After all, though volunteers like me who index to help make more digitized records computer-searchable may find the process as relaxing as knitting, with every year—no, every record gained—we are falling farther and farther behind what could have been accomplished.

For instance, while genealogy organizations like FamilySearch.org have been publishing digitized records at an exponential rate—the first one billion images by 2014, but two billion achieved by 2018—our human fingers on the computer keyboard have been clunking away at the rate of thousands in comparison. The hurrier we go, the behinder we get.

It's no surprise, then, to see people searching for ways to apply technology capabilities to our lagging rate of indexing—of converting images to searchable terms. It was interesting, as I exploring who had been thinking about this issue, to find a thread begun on a forum back in 2017. Someone, thinking and curious, had posted a query on the forum about whether anything was being done about exploring the application of handwriting recognition software to the indexing process at FamilySearch.org.

Apparently, there were others thinking along those same lines. In 2018, at a family history conference at Brigham Young University, one presentation outlined the task at hand—read the presentation notes from Ben Baker below the slideshare here—focusing specifically on the game-changing usage of machine learning and other technologies in an effort to play indexing catch-up. With that key shift in strategy, indexers may now serve more as quality assurance to check the initial indexing work done much faster by machines through optical character recognition.

Thankfully, this savvy application of technological capabilities to our insatiable craving for more clickable historical documents has been helping organizations like FamilySearch.org narrow the gap between records digitized and records made searchable, despite the very human limitations of those willing indexing volunteers. Sure enough, when I checked for available indexing projects—in my quest to get back to "normal" with my monthly volunteering stint—there weren't really that many opportunities available.

Perhaps, in a race with machines, they will beat me every time. And I'm glad of that, especially for the sake of the many who are still searching for evidence of their family's history. But for my desire to find that relaxing volunteer equivalent of knitting, perhaps I'll need to adjust my expectations a bit. Perhaps now, we'll be crowdsourcing our analysis of how well those machines did at reading hundred year old documents. At least now we won't get bleary-eyed over that prospect.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Don't Forget DNA

 

Recently, one of the bloggers I read had put a quaint spin on what has become of the popularity of DNA testing: that the bloom has come off the rose of genetic genealogy. While that may be the case—after all, news reporting the identity of the long-mysterious Golden State Killer put a chill factor on this very technique—DNA matches have been the key to unlocking the identity of several of my own brick wall ancestors.

Despite the downturn in testing, I'll still look to matches for my research in the coming year. I couldn't possibly leave this month's topic of goal setting for genealogy without touching on the benefits of this tool.

When I first began using DNA as a tool to build my family trees—this June will mark eight years since I asked my brother to participate in testing his Y-DNA to trace our father's mystery patriline—the results received from the five companies I used for various family members more often prompted a puzzled "Who are these people?"

The frustration of receiving DNA matches without the corresponding aha! moments of names connected to specific spots on the pedigree chart can certainly be a disincentive to applying this tool. But what a powerful tool it has demonstrated itself to be, for those who apply it with perseverance. Sometimes, it has been a matter of needing to sit back and wait until a match actually appears on a specific family line—after all, it takes two to tango. Other times, the benefit only shows when we get smart about using additional tools to mine the information buried in the avalanche of those hundreds of matches that eventually do arrive in our account.

Sorting and categorizing those matches becomes the task that helps delineate which cousin belongs to which part of the family. It can seem a daunting task at the first—but the more matches which are correctly connected to your tree, the more matches will get clarified with that same organizing effort. It's as if finding the proper place for one match makes way for others to follow suit. I've used the "shared matches" tool at AncestryDNA, the "in common with" tool at Family Tree DNA, and—my favorite—the AutoClusters tool featured at MyHeritage, which was developed by Evert-Jan Blom of Genetic Affairs. All of these have helped sort the jumble into a manageable process.

You can be sure that the very DNA tools which led me to deduce who my paternal grandfather's parents might be are not going to be set aside just because I made this one discovery. That's all the more reason to keep using these techniques and tools in the coming year. As these tools assist me in visualizing where in that ever-expanding family tree those DNA matches belong, I am using each company's system to identify and flag each match and format the results so they can power me through further discoveries. At Ancestry, for instance, I'm tagging each DNA match and using their icon system to mark where each one belongs in the big picture. The more matches tied to the right line in the pedigree chart, the easier it is to link others to the right place.

That, in fact, is precisely what I have targeted to continue in 2021: going through the nearly two thousand DNA-matching cousins remaining—through fourth cousin, that is—and sorting them into the right pedigree lines. Along with that, I'll continue reaching out to matches to discuss our connection and share information, if I have a tidbit to share. That has become a research habit over the years, not something which needs to be written up as a "goal" for the new year.

With that, I've outlined my research goals and processes to maintain in the upcoming year. We'll take a look again in December to see how the big plan has fared in weathering the journey of the next eleven months. As we've learned from the past, it's not always easy to predict what a November will bring us—let alone a March. Perhaps the most practical new year's goal is to remain flexible as we navigate the unknowns in the year ahead.  

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Baker's Dozen

 

It was during childhood trips to the local bakery when I learned from my dad just what a "baker's dozen" meant. I grew up in the New York City metro area, and we had specialty bakeries offering everything from fresh-made bagels to Italian treats like the Neapolitan struffoli within driving distance. While struffoli might be just about the only dessert for which the generosity of a baker's dozen would be pointless, I quickly learned about the bonus that comes by ordering twelve.

Now that I've completed a listing of twelve items, myself—my Twelve Most Wanted for my research goals for 2021, I thought I'd close out the festive holiday season by throwing in a bonus, myself—an addendum to those thoughts about goals and genealogy. Searching for those twelve ancestors isn't the only task I've set for myself in the coming year, of course; I have far more that I hope to accomplish each month. I'm sure you do, too. Pushing back the generations on our forebears may be exciting when we locate that new name, but there are other goals to consider, as well.

As I work my way backwards in time, hacking away at those brick wall ancestors, I need to consider the clutter that always seems to be left in the wake of that accomplishment. I am still unearthing old records and files from storage boxes, and realizing I need to align what I now have in digital format with those old "notes to myself" from a lifetime of research.

This is where the system approach I mentioned the other day comes in: I have to develop a way to dispatch those stacks of paper without destroying any document not already duplicated in my virtual records. I could take the heroic approach and say I'm going to sit at my computer and enter all the data until the stack is gone—ta da!—but we all know such an approach rarely brings us to the finish line in one sitting. Thus, the plan for a system to tackle the paper pile. In my case, I'm just going to take the reasonable road: do one page of records each day. Easy and do-able. And hopefully, soon done.

Another goal that needs to be built concurrently with a research system is that of continuing education. As these ancestral quests lead to strange new territory, I find myself researching areas with which I am totally unfamiliar. Not to worry, as I've learned to grasp tools to help chart those unfamiliar research territories, but I need to remember that we never really stop learning, even in a task as repetitive as backtracking the begats. While the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy—soon to start, this month—takes up a significant portion of my time in January, I want to develop a system to continue that learning habit throughout the year. Involvement with my local genealogical society will help bolster that learning curve, as will visits to other society meetings, whether across the state or across the continent. Video meetings are like that: breaking the barriers of distance.

A third bonus goal is to keep writing. While we may find those new names and dates we covet as family history researchers, what makes the data points come alive for the rest of our family is the way we connect those dots to piece together our ancestors' stories. I hope you will join me in finding time to reconnect those family history dots into stories to encourage and inspire your own family's trail through the challenges we face now as we move into this new year.  

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