Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Capturing Connections


There is a lot which can be learned about genealogical research by reading about marketing techniques. I already realized that, but I don't think I really felt it, deep down in the core of my being, until I stepped through this impromptu research goal for the last week of November.

I stood a lot to be gained by this McClellan cousin connection unfolding over the past few days. Information on ancestors, yes. But more than that, I gained some insight on just what these McClellan ancestors were really like. I got to hear the stories captured in the memories of their now-aging descendants. And I realized something: the way to inspire others to fall in love with their ancestors is really through their stories—but not just any stories. The stories which captivate, which trigger an emotional response, which draw others in, rather than away, are the ones we need to highlight.

The marketing advice is this: when you write or talk, focus on key words which trigger an emotion. Let that key word or phrase be the theme of the vignette you are sharing. What resonates with your relatives? How can your ancestor's story harmonize with that?

Of course, to accomplish that, you need far more than just the dates and places where your ancestors were born, married, or died. It may require you to become familiar with local history, or to read between the lines on key events in an ancestor's timeline. To say, for instance, the family moved first to Oklahoma, then after a while moved to California is far less interesting than to say your destitute ancestral couple and their ten children had just plunked down their last few dollars on their mortgaged farm in Cimarron County, farthest west portion of the Oklahoma panhandle, when the Dust Bowl conditions caused them to lose all. Names and dates we have trouble relating to, but losing everything in the face of a natural disaster is a story evoking memories of our own tragic experiences. When we hear stories full of emotional experiences, then we can relate.

It has been an eye-opening experience for me, getting my older cousins to talk about their childhood memories of the grandparents, grand-aunts and -uncles whom they knew personally in their younger years. Of course, I am interested in gathering such stories of relatives I never met, but that is because I am interested in family history—I assumed. But I have come to realize that it is stories of this sort which we can use to get others in the family interested in our heritage, as well. We need to focus on those words, those stories which trigger emotions—memories of exceptional challenges, near-misses, deep feelings. Very few people can relate to names and dates, but we all have had experiences we'll never forget. Those are the keys to introducing vignettes of our heritage to the rest of our family, of providing the link to connect us with the strangers who were once our ancestors.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Partnering With Cousins
to Tell our Story


With a smile—and perhaps a twinkle of the eye—some researchers talk about "cousin bait" when they discuss strategy for working on brick wall ancestors. It all seems so far-fetched, this hope that a total stranger who happens to be a relative might know more about an ancestor than we do. After all, we are the diligent researchers, doing everything possible to find that elusive answer to our research question. But think about it: even if your immediate family wasn't the one to inherit great-grandmother's treasure trove of family photographs, surely somebody did.

That is the cousin we all want to find.

Face it: our family story would not be complete without the addition of all the voices in that family. Even those cousins for whom a two minute talk about genealogy would sent them into spasms of "MEGO" (My Eyes Glaze Over). The challenge is not only to find those cousins, but to inspire them to become part of the family history conversation.

Some cousins may want only to share a picture, then back out of the research project. That's fine. Every little step is still a step forward. One clue can lead to another. That old sales question—"if you're not interested in buying, could you refer me to someone who would like this?"—could apply here. Never leave one participating cousin without securing a referral to another cousin who might know more.

Others, though, may offer up one gem, then another, and pretty soon you realize you have been bestowed with a wealth of family information.

Those contacts may arrive after a well-planned "cousin bait" campaign, or they may come at you unbidden, at the least expected time. The other day, I mentioned meeting up unexpectedly with a distant McClellan cousin while touring a local genealogical society's library holdings on a visit to my great-grandfather Rupert McClellan's birthplace in Wellborn, Florida. While I descend from Rupert McClellan's grandfather George, this cousin claims George's brother Henry Young McClellan, also a Florida pioneer. She was quite willing to give me a printout of her McClellan line from her desktop genealogy program. Since I set aside this last week of November to work on my McClellan roots, I've revisited that document and am slowly working my way through it, confirming details as I add the information to my tree at

As I work through this gift from a cousin I never knew, I'm reminded of all the other times I've benefitted from collaborating with cousins. Some cousins have turned out to be longstanding research partners, each of us working on parallel projects, then sharing our results with each other. It makes for a more enjoyable exchange.

But how do you find such willing cousin collaborators? Years ago, when I first moved my research online, I relied on those genealogy forums—remember RootsWeb and GenForum?—where people could post their research queries in hopes of connecting with The Cousin Who Has All The Answers. Many times, those efforts gained me nothing. But other times, the results were like striking gold in the mother lode.

That was then, but this is now, you might be thinking. True, genealogy forums have morphed and migrated to social media sites, with results not quite as spectacular. There is, however, another way to find cousins, something many of us have accessed for a quite different reason: DNA testing. After all, what do you hope to get lots of when you send in your DNA test kit? Lots of cousins. Yes, many of them only wanted to see if they could exchange their lederhosen for a kilt and will never reply to messages from matches. But there are many other DNA testers who are quite interested in connecting with their DNA cousins. 

These can be our best potential collaborators if we can approach them tactfully and interest them in at least beginning to compare notes. Those who are truly interested—and able to equally share in the research process—will make themselves obvious in the process. Though some will not follow through, it is so worth the investment in time to find cousins who are willing to enter into an ongoing research conversation to discover all we can about our missing—or misunderstood—ancestors. 

Monday, November 28, 2022

Stalking the Missing Sibling


Collaboration is an important ingredient in piecing together a family's history. Think of your ancestral story like the parable of the blind men encountering an elephant. Each man envisioned a different reality, based on his own experience. The problem was that each one's vantage point allowed for a very limited segment of the entire truth of the matter.

I've heard people tell how they were not able to discover what happened to a brick wall ancestor until meeting up with a distant cousin who knew the rest of the story. Then, together, they each were able to piece together the entire story, gathering the missing details connecting their two versions of what really happened. In one example shared with me by a local society member, she couldn't figure out where her ancestor came from—until she ran across a story online, thanks to newly-discovered DNA matches. Her matches thought a missing sibling of their ancestor had died young, when she knew he had run away from home.

I had to laugh when a McClellan DNA cousin sent me some photographs to identify recently. He was trying to find a family picture which included my great-grandfather, Rupert McClellan. His explanation for why Rupert didn't seem to be in any of the photos: that sibling had left home early, bound for Tennessee. Perhaps, my DNA cousin mused, starting his own family was why Rupert didn't seem to visit his childhood residence in Florida as frequently as his siblings had.

Well, true, Rupert did go to Tennessee—for a short while. He also went to Georgia to attend Emory University before he ever headed to Tennessee, and after that, briefly to Virginia. But I also know that Rupert was back in Florida in time for the 1910 census. By then, he was working as a dentist in Fort Meade. While Fort Meade wasn't exactly in the neighborhood of his native Wellborn, Florida, Rupert was at least back in the same state.

This exchange over family photographs with my DNA cousin gave me the experience of being the one on the other side of the story—the one with the answer to resolve the family mystery. How much easier our research would be for us if we could all find that missing cousin who knows the rest of the story. 

Sunday, November 27, 2022

What's Your Question
About Your Ancestor?


As you work through your family tree, does your mind bombard you with questions? Mine does. Perhaps all those mental detours are what make for an ever-expanding tree. Every time I add a fact to my family tree database, more questions pop into my head. Searching for ancestors, in my opinion, has always required a curious mind.

Perhaps that's why I was so excited to read a recent post on Legacy News from one of our local genealogical society's favorite speakers, Gena Philibert-Ortega. In her November 4 article, Gena asks, "Does Curiosity Drive Your Genealogy Research?" First on her list of must-have tools to effectively develop that curiosity: Ask questions.

As I work with classes of beginning genealogists, I want to ask them: What's your question about your ancestor? Obviously, if we are researching our family's history, we must be wondering about those family members. What, exactly, is it we are pursuing?

Right now—at least for the few remaining days of this month—my question is about all the details my mother's maternal McClellan grandparents knew about their siblings. If I were sitting around the McClellan Thanksgiving dinner table one hundred years ago—or once the dishes were done and that lazy lull overcame everyone as they relaxed in the holiday afterglow—what would be the gist of the chit-chat about the family members who didn't come to dinner?

Those are the types of details you won't find in government records—or, for the most part, even in the local newspaper—but I still do have some fleeting moments to garner a few of those recollections. That's the value of collaborating with cousins, especially cousins met thanks to DNA testing, who also happen to share family photographs.

While I'm working on that project, of course I'm noting everything I find in my family history database. In the past two weeks, I've added 178 names as I comb through my McClellan files and update records. My tree is slowly but steadily growing, and has now reached 30,877 individuals. In the remainder of this month, I'll likely add a few more records and details on that McClellan line before moving on to December's research project, all driven by that need to ask questions about my ancestors to get to know them better.

Of course, focusing on my maternal line at the close of November, and my paternal line earlier this month helped to boost those numbers. On the flip side, the tree for my in-laws stood absolutely still, not budging one bit from the 30,270 I've had for most of November. However, come next spring and my Twelve Most Wanted for 2023, I'll return to asking questions on my mother-in-law's side of the family.

In fact, as I prepare to draw up my Twelve Most Wanted once again, it would help if that list were driven by specific questions for each selected ancestor. Taking a cue from our natural curiosity and phrasing our research projects as questions helps to focus our efforts.   

Saturday, November 26, 2022

When You Realize You Already Knew That


Researching the McClellan family of Wellborn, Florida, has been a decades-long, stop-and-go process for me. My childhood was filled with stories told by "Aunt Fannie" to all her nieces and nephews (and subsequently to their children and grandchildren), but the real research didn't begin until I had access to digitized records accessible online.

Since I didn't even set foot in the state of Florida until only a few years ago myself, this had not been a destination for any research journeys. The only way to learn about my great-grandfather Rupert McClellan or his many siblings had to be by other means. Of course, like anyone else, I was able to pick him out of such general records as census enumerations, thanks at first to, and then through It wasn't until this past decade when I learned about alternate resources.

In the meantime, the State Archives of Florida had procured grant funding to digitize and make available online several of their collections. Out of this process grew the website known as Florida Memory.

When I first discovered the site, I explored the holdings simply because of the many Florida relatives I've had, over the decades, who were at least tangentially involved in state politics or administration. Rather, I should say, I found the website—it was an accidental but Eureka! moment—and then promptly forgot about it.

Late this past week, I was reminded of what I had forgotten about. Once again researching my McClellan roots, I stumbled upon several references to records at Florida Memory concerning Rupert McClellan's father, William. Apparently, living in the state when he was of an age to serve in the military during the Civil War, William had later applied for a pension for his service—and after his death, apparently his widow did, also.

In this case, I was fortunate that William apparently had some difficulties with his application, for even pages of his correspondence on the matter were preserved in a file at Florida Memory. Not that there were monumental discoveries unearthed in the many pages I was able to access, but this small cache of records enabled me to take a peek into a few days of the life of my second great-grandfather in a way I could not otherwise have done.

That, however, wasn't something I discovered that time, several years ago, when I first stumbled upon the website. This discovery happened just this week. Yes, I forgot about that resource. It felt like a new discovery, until I realized I had been this way before.

The antidote to such a research mishap, of course, is to keep a research log of where you've been already, and what you found when you were there. That is a fine concept in theory, but I find it increasingly difficult to cope with multiple streams of paper in the face of an increasingly digitized research world. To write such information on paper means not only to somehow remember I wrote that down, but to also recall a summary of what, exactly, I had written. If I can remember that, why bother recording it?! Jumping back and forth from digital to paper means seems awkward.

I'm developing habits of recording such information exactly where I'm working at the time, which for now is mainly online. Most people using to build their family tree probably realize that the left column of an ancestor's profile page represents the person's timeline—the column labeled "Facts"—while the middle column, which Ancestry labels as "Sources," serves as what I call the footnote column. These entries are editable, and I am starting to add my own information to the columns as my way to incorporate a research log right into my ancestor's own profile page.

By clicking the plus sign to the right of the "Facts" column label, I can enter a wide variety of life event labels to that timeline—everything from A.K.A.s and Bar Mitzvahs to dates of retirement or details of a will. Likewise, the same plus sign button to the right of the "Sources" column header allows me to add website addresses or other information sources outside of those offered in Ancestry's own vast collection. In addition, I can customize any notes to timeline entities I've already entered simply by hovering over the tile for that specific timeline entry and clicking on the "edit" button that pops up to add a note about what I've found—or to make a note of what I still need to find.

Using those simple tools, I now can add the digital equivalent of a sticky note right onto the ancestor's page where I've made a great discovery—or made the discovery that I still need to follow up with more sleuth work. Like the time this week when I discovered a resource that I...oops...already knew about. 

Friday, November 25, 2022

Back to that McClellan Brick Wall—Tomorrow


Sometimes, when we promise ourselves that we'll work on that brick wall ancestor—the one we can't find, no matter how thoroughly we search for details—we can't find answers, no matter how hard we try. Other times? Well, for this final week's attempt in November to organize my McClellan family records, it seems something new pops up every time I take another look.

The remaining few days of this month I had set aside to pursue as many details as I could glean on the McClellans of Florida, especially the siblings of my great-grandfather, Rupert McClellan. My inspiration was the posting on Ancestry of several recently scanned family photographs by a distant DNA cousin. I'm grateful to the one cousin for being willing to publicly share those pictures, and I'm also grateful for my own mother's cousin, who has been willing to fill in the blanks on several family details. Some of these stories you just can't find by reading the newspaper—and they certainly can't be found by sticking strictly to government documents. These are the coveted details that bring our ancestors to life again.

While I was working on this project—and, truth be told, sorting through old genealogy paperwork to clear out space before Thanksgiving—what should pop up to remind me I had more records than I thought, but the notes from yet another distant McClellan cousin?! This was a cousin too distant to meet through a DNA match, but close enough to be on our radar as genealogists. This was a cousin I met face to face—and unexpectedly—when my mother's cousin toured me through the little town where the McClellans settled almost two hundred years ago.

We met—no surprise here—at a local genealogy society's private library and office. It just so happened that among the few members manning the society's office the day I visited was someone who also descended from that same McClellan line. She was able to print up a copy of her family tree information to share with me. I had taken that pages-long record home to peruse in more detail, but after cross-checking the information on the first several pages, I had set the folder aside to work on at a later date.

I guess that "later date" is this week. However, we'll need to pick up on the McClellan discoveries tomorrow, as our family's Thanksgiving celebration yesterday lasted farther into the wee hours of this morning than I had expected. It's a good thing that Thanksgiving holiday custom has morphed into a two-day hiatus from work, with "Black Friday" events replacing the spectacle of weary employees dragging back into work after one day of celebrating. I may not be much on holiday shopping the day after Thanksgiving, but I'm always game to do more genealogy research—after taking enough time for a good night's sleep, that is.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Giving Thanks


Is it my imagination, or is everyone primed to celebrate the holidays early? Neighbors already put their Christmas lights up before we ever got to Thanksgiving. Perhaps after a long, hard pandemic season of retreat and seclusion, people are aching to come together again. And celebrate.

Whether this will be your day to gather with extended family around the table at home, or to escape the day's kitchen toil to focus on the social side of the celebration, I wish you a day of peace and reflection on whatever makes you most thankful.


Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Inspiration From Family Photos


It's the day before Thanksgiving—at least, here in the United States—when so many turn their thoughts and preparations to gathering with extended family. What better time than now to warm up to a week-long mini-research project based on some virtual visits with cousins over recently-shared family photos?

It was a little over a week ago when a surprise contact from a DNA cousin brought several family photographs to my attention. I had never seen them before, so I passed along the pictures to my mother's cousin for some input. That began a conversation on family memories, prompted by seeing the faces of relatives this cousin hadn't seen in years.

Needless to say, I learned a lot about my maternal grandmother's family in that exchange. It also prompted me to revisit what I had entered in my McClellan family tree about my great-grandfather, Rupert McClellan, and his eight siblings. Since I had last worked on that line—all the children of William and Emma Charles McClellan—I have expanded my genealogy subscriptions which has brought me more information on many members of that family. But not as much information as my mother's cousin was able to provide.

It's time to revisit the McClellan family now, not only because of the additional information I'm finding online on these distant aunts and uncles, but because of the photographs now coming my way.  We'll take the next week to explore what else can be found on Rupert McClellan and his siblings.

In short, while I've already enjoyed discovering life vignettes about my great-grandfather—such as his stint serving as mayor of Fort Meade, Florida—there is much more to learn on Rupert's siblings. Of the nine children of William and Emma, Rupert was second born, trailing his older brother Frank by three years. Following those two sons was another, the short-lived William Robert McClellan. His younger brother Philip was the last of the sons until the reign of McClellan daughters—Asenah, Fannie, and Emily—came to a close with the arrival of two more sons, George and Norman.

All these McClellan children were born on the family property in Wellborn, northern Florida, a tiny rural community in Suwannee County. From 1868, the year Frank was born, until Norman's arrival in 1894, the family grew through post-Civil War and Reconstruction years, and eventually most of the McClellan children dispersed to other locations farther south in Florida, or to other states nearby.

Some pursued professions, some found themselves coupled with idiosyncratic partners, and yet others led a life cut short unexpectedly. All told, there are some family details I've yet to discover. This will be our week to see what we can find on these McClellan siblings whose faces have just now reappeared in the family photographs shared by a generous cousin.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Taking One Step Backwards


Anyone who has researched family history knows that genealogists do things backwards. We start from the here-and-now and move back in time, step by step, through the generations of our ancestors. That means, in my quest to connect my third great-grandmother Rachel Tilson Davis with her rumored Mayflower ancestors, I need to find some documentation first connecting her with her Tilson parents in Washington County, Tennessee.

In that case, taking one step backwards from Rachel means we look for her father, Peleg Tilson, and his wife, Rebeccah. Rebeccah's maiden name I've seen spelled various ways, including Dungins, Dungings, and even Dungans. While Rachel's parents likely died in Washington County, Tennessee—though I have yet to find Peleg's will there—they arrived in Tennessee from their former residence in Washington County, Virginia.

While still searching for Peleg's will in Tennessee, I did see some promising signs in Virginia. Apparently, just as he had in Tennessee, Peleg was party to land transactions in Virginia along with some of his relatives. Take, for instance, this transcription of a land deal in Washington County, Virginia, on October 14, 1794.

The transcription named three parties. Along with Peleg "Tillson" were Levi Bishop and a man identified as "Hellius" Dungans. This I already know is a transcription problem—a difficulty which has frustrated many researchers—for Peleg and his wife Rebeccah later named one of their sons after Rebeccah's father, Hellens Dungans.

Though the 1794 transaction, at least in this transcription, did not indicate the disposal of the 330 acres named in the record, the entry itself is still exciting to me. It pinpoints Peleg and his father-in-law not only in the same place in a specific time frame, but provides me with confirmation of family relationships as well as that Virginia location.

It was barely a decade earlier when that same county's records reported the October 20, 1785, marriage of Peleg and Rebeccah. This notification came to me thanks to an email from fellow blogger Charlie Purvis. Once again, though it is not a typewritten record, the appearance of what looks like the same handwriting style throughout the document seems to represent a copied version of an original record. 

At this point, I have a few options in my attempt to locate records tying Rachel with her father. I can find a copy of Peleg's will, and hope he named his daughter among his heirs. I can also attempt to find church documents including baptismal records, or at least a family Bible. A third approach, barring discovery of the first two items, would be to do a collateral search in which a sibling is clearly linked to the parents and to Rachel.

Locating Peleg's will is an imperative, but could present some pitfalls. For one thing, I have no firm date of death for Peleg. While the Tilson genealogy says nothing about Peleg's death, other published local histories mention the possibility that Peleg returned to the old Tilson family farm in Virginia before his death. Of course, those histories could contain errors. After all, the extended family had not one but three men named Peleg Tilson; any one of them could have been confused for the other in narratives published a century afterwards.

If Rachel and her parents were members of a church with a strong record-keeping conviction—think Catholic here—it would be a simple matter to locate her baptismal record. However, from what little I've gleaned about the Tilson family, they were of a Protestant faith, attending a small country church which, from what records I could find, moved en masse from Virginia through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky—all, that is, except for Peleg Tilson and his two brothers. If the church's records are even existent in any form now, I'd be extremely surprised. Looking for such records would be a last resort—and a doubtful process. Likewise for the search for a Tilson family Bible, unfortunately.

With this, I'll be left to continue my search for Peleg's will while constructing any necessary proof arguments, should I need to move to the collateral research approach. We'll leave this work to be done in the background—possibly revisiting this search in the upcoming year. In the meantime, before the month is out, let's shift gears to the other impromptu research question which popped up, thanks to some emails from DNA matches in Florida on another maternal branch of my family tree. 

Monday, November 21, 2022

Pinpointing the Right Peleg


Census records may come in handy when trying to trace ancestors, but they come with a downside: in census records, you can only spot those ancestors once every ten years. Using a will as a record to document family connections may be useful, but that, too, comes with a caveat: we only die once—and after that, it's a scramble, sometimes, to find not only the date of death, but the repository for the will, if there even was one. 

In order to trace Peleg Tilson as he traveled from his supposed birthplace in the wilderness of Washington County, Virginia, to his land holdings in Washington County, Tennessee, we will first need to examine his whereabouts a bit more precisely than either of those two record options. That's where tax records come in.

The first question driving me to pinpoint Peleg's precise location in time is to discover the location of his daughter Rachel's birth. Rachel, being my third great-grandmother, had been reported with two different places of birth. According to the old Tilson genealogy, she was born in Saint Clair, Virginia—a reasonable statement, given that the Tilson book gives the same place of birth for many of her siblings. But not all.

It was fairly easy to locate a record of Rachel's marriage to James Davis, on September 12, 1822, in Washington County, Tennessee. When we move to the next instance of her name in public records—the 1850 census—we discover the report that she was born, not in Virginia, but in Tennessee. Of course, her place of birth was included in a long string of "ditto" marks from an entry for "Tenn" half a page away. Carelessness of an enumerator? Hard to tell.

Her given age, according to that 1850 census, was forty eight. Doing the math, that would give a year of birth as approximately 1802. But would her parents have been in Tennessee by 1802? The earliest tax record in which I can find Rachel's father—remember, those records provide year by year documentation—is 1806.

True, Peleg did become a landowner in Tennessee, meaning that somewhere there has to have been a will at his passing. But when was that? Finding such a name in later tax records doesn't necessarily mean anything without the reference of an age, as there were at least three Pelegs in that extended Tilson family.

A will for this Peleg would hopefully include an indication that Rachel—by then, a Davis—was his daughter. That's the vital connection I need as my first step in linking my line back through Peleg and then onward to his father William. And William Tilson, the one who wandered far from his birthplace in Massachusetts, would be our next step in following this wild paper chase to confirm Rachel's connection to the line leading back to those Mayflower ancestors.  

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Taxes and Other Dull Topics


I can see why some people don't really take to family history. There is a dreary side to research which requires the fortitude necessary to drag one's self through such scintillating record sets as local and property taxes. And that is pretty much what this Tilson and Davis liaison from Washington County, Tennessee, is calling me to do.

In the face of a cheery upcoming holiday season, reading through tax records is hardly what I am looking forward to doing. Brick wall ancestors, however, sometimes call us to slog through such details. 

Jumping in—after all, one can never start a project without taking that first step—I found one record set at FamilySearch which looked promising. The Tennessee tax records in this set began in Washington County in 1778, plenty of time for my Tilson ancestors to make their arrival from Virginia before the last page of the collection's initial volume wrapped up the year of 1846. After all, my Tilson ancestors—and a possible Davis ancestor—were said to have arrived just as that century opened.

Unfortunately, despite highly legible pages, thanks to a clerk with a straightforward hand—not too messy, but with not too many flourishes, either—it appeared the records seemed to skip a few years, right when I'd like to spot the first appearance of my Tilsons and Davises. I did find one Nathaniel Davis—not that I know anything about this man, but it could lead to something promising—but not much else.

I'm still in the page-by-page process right now. The record set is not indexed for easy searching, though it is mostly organized by year. It appears everyone was organized by groups under men called Captains. Until I know which captain would be the overseer for the region in which my ancestors settled, I'm bound to move my way through the entire set, page by page. Wouldn't want to miss anything essential.

Image above: Washington County (Tennesssee) List of Taxables for Captain William Taylor's Company in 1801, including entry for Nathaniel Davis; from digitized tax books 1778-1846, film number 825545.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Among the Earliest Settlers


Do you ever wonder who were the first to establish the community your ancestors called home? In my case, some of the first European settlers to move into a wilderness area in North America were my forebears. Since I have no clue what their ethnic identity might have been at that time, perhaps the law of averages can guide me, simply by inquiring as to which immigrant groups settled the areas where my family roamed.

In the case of my Tilson ancestors, they were fairly early arrivals in the southwestern corner of the Virginia colony. Once again, when they moved to northwestern Tennessee—that Washington District of North Carolina which eventually became part of the new state of Tennessee—they were apparently among the early arrivals. If the F.A.N. Club principle holds true—that acronym representing the family, friends, associates, and neighbors of the wandering Peleg Tilson—perhaps that will give me a hint as to what his ethnicity was.

Wandering through the reference materials on this region in the past, I had spotted mention of those early settlers as primarily comprised of Scots-Irish immigrants and their descendants. It certainly fulfills the stereotype: pushing the boundaries of civilization, living on the edge, valuing independence and the room to make their own decisions.

That was where the Tilsons were when they pushed the legal boundaries of colonial Virginia, remaining where they settled, scoffing at the Royal Proclamation of 1763. Again, in the uprising which sought to establish the new state of Franklin, rumblings of perceived neglect and misuse by North Carolina's legislature sounded much like the stereotypical representation of the Scots-Irish.

However, when I look for descriptions of the background of those who settled that Washington County area—whether considered part of Virginia, North Carolina, or Tennessee—all I can find are notes that Tennessee was settled by Virginians or settled by Europeans. This gives me no context for what my roots might actually have been, concerning these early settlers.

Looking for further information on the earliest arrivals in that northeastern tip of Tennessee where my Tilson line eventually settled, it is not hard to find articles on those early names. An oft-repeated article online was drawn from a March 21, 1962, article published in The Erwin Record, Erwin being the Tennessee location of my grandfather's birth and childhood. A "little later" than the first arrivals in 1772 were five men, named as "Baxter Davis, Enoch Job, Jesse Brown and Peleg and William Tilson."

Essentially the same article was drawn from volume two of an 1887 book called, simply enough, History of Tennessee. Whether reading the version drawn up seventy five years earlier makes the list of names more certain, I certainly can't say, but seeing Peleg Tilson in both printings is encouraging. 

Peleg Tilson, of course, is the name I'm following in my current research project, but I can't help but cast an eye on the name Baxter Davis, for within a generation, Peleg's daughter Rachel was married to a Davis descendant, who happened to name his firstborn son by that same Davis name.   

With the convergence of what essentially added up to three states' claim upon the region where Peleg settled, clues to those governmental claims could point us in any of three directions in determining where those settlers had come from. Fortunately, it was easy to see that Peleg once lived in Virginia colony. But I've always been curious as to that other early settler named in those records—the one named Baxter Davis. If he came to Tennessee at about the same time as the two Tilson men, could he have known them back in Virginia? After all, F.A.N. Club and all, one would think it a strong possibility.

Friday, November 18, 2022

Navigating Those Shifting Boundaries


When researching those ancestors who once lived in the eastern counties of our nation's early years, one can never be too certain that the county in which the family's name is now mentioned was a place originally contained within the current boundaries. Let's see what shifting boundaries await us as we explore how to find more documentation on Peleg Tilson and his family of Tennessee, previously residing in colonial Virginia.

The reason I knew Peleg Tilson was from Tennessee is that is where I found his descendants: in Washington County, Tennessee. And yet, one significant genealogy of the extended Tilson family notes that Peleg married his wife in Saint Clair, Virginia. Indeed, that same Tilson genealogy showed most of Peleg's children also being born in Saint Clair, Virginia.

My first question, upon learning that, was: where is Saint Clair, Virginia? That was a question not easily answered—at least by the current means of online searches. One of the most promising leads contained a mention of a cemetery attached to the early American congregation known as the Saint Clair Bottom Primitive Baptist Church.

According to Find A Grave, the church and its associated cemetery were located in Chilhowie, Virginia. Chilhowie, in turn, is part of Smyth County. However, back when Peleg's family was growing, that would not be the case, as Smyth County was established in 1832, long after Peleg had moved to Tennessee, at least according to the Tilson genealogy.

So where was Saint Clair Bottom located before 1832? Smyth County was apparently carved from Washington County, Virginia. And there we have the beginnings of confusion.

If Washington County, Virginia, was where Peleg Tilson emigrated to live in "Greasy Cove" in Tennessee by 1803, he once again ended up living in a place called Washington County. Before Tennessee statehood, achieved in 1796, that same region was once known as the Washington District.

According to some sources, the residents of Washington District may have once believed that they were, indeed, part of "trans-Appalachian Virginia territory." Once moving from colonial times to the era of the newly-established American government, that same district petitioned first the Virginia government, then—rebuffed—the North Carolina state government, to become part of that state. Upon that approval, the old Washington District became part of North Carolina and was renamed Washington County, North Carolina. Until, that is, the state of Tennessee was established.

Whether part of Virginia, or North Carolina, or even Tennessee, one thing is clear: we've got to find the correct location for the records explaining the connection between Peleg Tilson and his parents, residing back near Saint Clair Bottom, whatever county claimed that place before 1803.


Thursday, November 17, 2022

Parsing Pelegs


Let's talk about what could stand in the path of our family history research plans. This week will see my attempt to connect the Tilson family of Washington County, Tennessee, with the previous generation's Tilsons in what may once have been Washington County, Virginia. We need to concentrate on Peleg Tilson, my fourth great-grandfather.

That's the easy step. But first, we've got to overcome a hurdle and settle a question which apparently has some other researchers stumped: just which one is the right Peleg Tilson?

That may seem an odd question to ask, from our modern perspective. After all, who nowadays names their baby boy Peleg? (Clue: parents in the United States were so disinclined to choose Peleg as their son's name that it does not appear in the top one hundred baby names at any time over a full century.) But now I have to deal with not just one Peleg, but three different ancestral family members claiming that same name as their own.

Let's take a look at the three Tilson family members from Virginia vying for our attention as the right Peleg Tilson. The first of these was a man supposedly born in 1765 in that hard-to-find spot called Saint Clair, Virginia. This Peleg was son of William Tilson and Mary—or Marcie—Ransom. When he was about twenty, he married Rebeccah (alternately listed as Rachel), whose maiden name appeared variously as Dungans or Dungins—even Dungings. Peleg and Rebeccah are supposedly the parents of Rachel Tilson, my third great-grandmother.

Admittedly, the variances found in names and details can be perturbing—but not serious enough to throw a researcher off the path, at least in my estimation. However, there were two other Pelegs which I need to mention, as their information can be found combined with this first Peleg on some online family trees.

The first of the other Pelegs was said to have been born in October of 1795. While the wide berth in birthdates between the two Pelegs should make it clear that each is a separate person, there may be cause for confusion. Like the elder Peleg, this second Peleg also had a father named William Tilson—but this Peleg's mother was Ruth Reynolds. Likewise, the second Peleg also came from that same hard-to-find Saint Clair in Virginia. However, note that this Peleg married a woman named Nancy Allen.

It might be reasonable to discover someone confusing the second and third Pelegs, as the third was born only a few years after the second Peleg: in 1799. Born in that same, hard-to-find Virginia location, this third Peleg presented yet another stumbling block for harried researchers: his mother was also a Dungans, same maiden name as the first Peleg's wife. However, this Peleg's father was Lemuel Tilson.

Unlike my Peleg and the second, each of whom moved to Tennessee, this third Peleg remained for the rest of his life in or near his native Saint Clair, Virginia. Before we step back to the destination of the first two Pelegs, it might do us well to take some time to determine exactly where in Virginia that tiny Saint Clair community could be found.

More to the point, let's see if we can discover where Virginians store the records from that time period. After all, if you think keeping these three Pelegs straight might be a challenge, just wait until we take a peek at the moving boundaries of that early American region of southwest Virginia.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

The Tilson Trail to Tennessee


All that stands between me and membership in the General Society of Mayflower Descendants is a paper chain of documentation stretching through the then-wilderness areas of southwest Virginia. I already know the end of the trail landed in the northeastern tip of Tennessee by the start of the nineteenth century. And, of course, I know the story began in Massachusetts, long before anyone called that stretch of land by that colony's name. It's just that gap in the middle of the trail which is giving me grief.

What brought that one branch of the Tilsons to Tennessee, I'm not sure. What I do know is that, on the twelfth day of September, 1822, my third great-grandmother Rachel Tilson married James C. Davis in Washington County, Tennessee, giving her sons—and their sons after them, including my own maternal grandfather—the patriline of this Davis family.

According to the mostly reliable Tilson Genealogy of Mercer Vernon Tilson, Rachel was daughter of Rachel Dungan and Peleg Tilson. Rachel and Peleg, according to that same source, had been married in a place known as Saint Clair, Virginia. Peleg didn't move to Tennessee until 1803, if Mercer Tilson was correct, meaning that his children—up through daughter Rachel Tilson Davis, herself—were born in Virginia.

It is that specific location in Virginia which gives me grief. According to the 1911 Tilson book, Peleg's family home in Virginia was known as St. Clair. Finding that particular location in Virginia is a challenge for multiple reasons, which I've gone over in the past.

However, not only is there a barrier to accessing records in Saint Clair—wherever those records might have been held during the time Peleg Tilson lived there—but we have an added challenge. As unusual a name as Peleg might seem to us, the extended Tilson family had more than one descendant by that same name. In fact, there were at least three. And, judging by what I've found when perusing other researchers' trees, there might have been some confusion about the separate identities of those three Pelegs.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Two Choices: Tilson or Tampa


Is it possible to do a flurry of research projects in the last two weeks of this month? Perhaps two weeks will only allow a mere taste of these topics, but that may whet our appetite for second helpings with the new year's goal-setting task on the horizon. Here are my options, borrowed from some behind-the-scenes scouting on questions that popped up in contacts from cousin collaborators.

The first project involves my mother's Tilson line. This is a family with deep roots in colonial New England, although my branch managed to wander from the traditional family stomping grounds. Somehow, this branch of the Tilson line ended up in southwestern Virginia and then, a couple generations later, crossed over into northeastern Tennessee.

I have been chasing records on this family for years, mostly on those annual trips to Salt Lake City to attend SLIG. There are only so many tax records one can capture after a full day of classes, even after nearly a week of being within walking distance of the Family History Library.

The research question which has held me hostage for years is this: can I document this Tilson line's connection to the Murdock family? And from there, to the Bartlett family, then to the Pabodies, and ultimately to the Alden line—as in John and Priscilla of Mayflower fame?

Since the first five generations of Mayflower passengers and their descendants are already well documented, that means I "only" have to come up with paperwork for three generations. And there's the catch: those are the three generations when my Tilsons were wandering in the wilderness of southwest Virginia. Maybe some solid concentration will help me get over this research hump.

Then there's the glorious problem of sorting through the more recent history of my maternal McClellan line, the family with deep roots in northern Florida who more recently made the economic move of settling in a more urban area. That's where Tampa comes in, where my great-grandfather Rupert McClellan set up his dental practice. It seems one of my distant cousins—a DNA match—recently has been working his way through some old family photos, and asked me to help put names to nameless faces. 

I laughed. I haven't seen family photos on this branch of the family at any time in my life (with the exception of my great-grandmother, my mother's beloved grandmother who raised her for one angst-ridden year of her childhood).

My solution to the photo labeling problem? Ask another cousin! Now we have an informal collaboration in which the first cousin emails me photos, then I text them to my other cousin. She, in turn, gets inspired (and often tickled) when seeing these old faces, prompting memories which, of course, she then has to share. With me.

In the Tampa McClellan family's case, I stand to learn a lot of informal family history in this process. It isn't often that we get to access "Rumor Control" for the scoop on just what really went on between family members of prior generations. This is an opportunity I don't want to let slip through my fingers. Setting aside a week or so to chase after details like these would be well worth the detour.

With that overview, let's start tomorrow with the Tilson question. Taxes may be boring, but uncovering Virginia finding aids can be useful. And, as I'm discovering in my behind-the-scenes exploration, there were a lot of Tilsons to follow up on. Maybe one week won't be enough...

Monday, November 14, 2022

Nothing Like Seeing the Actual Records


It may not have been one minute too late to explore the Catholic records for Żerków, Poland, home of my Gramlewicz ancestors. But it may be close. Exploring what could be found, now that I've located the digitized records at FamilySearch, clicking through some search results led directly to the page with the scan. But others? The resultant message indicated that the picture could be seen, alright, but only if I go to a Family History Center. Something tells me I better hurry through the accessible files while they may be found.

It is certainly gratifying to view the actual records themselves. Yes, I was grateful for the transcriptions made available by volunteers at two Polish websites I've been using. But there is nothing like seeing an ancestor's name written on a nearly two hundred year old document, like that of the 1839 baptismal record of Piotr, son of my third great-grandparents Andrzej Gramlewicz and Katarzyna Nowicka.

Now that I can pull up the microfilm online, I completed a search for all Gramlewicz kin in Żerków, saving the link to that search request. Bit by bit, I'm reading my way through the records. Some documents are near impossible to read, due to hurried or sloppy handwriting, while others (thankfully!) are easily deciphered.

Because the collection's date range indicates it reaches back farther in time than what I found in the transcription websites, I'm hoping to resolve my primary research question: how do the two main lines of Gramlewicz descendants connect? After all, when I found Annie Gramlewicz in Antoni Laskowski's household in the 1915 New York State census, my great-grandfather called her his niece. I've since found that that is not exactly correct. But I suspect it might be close.

The chase for the right record will not exactly be scintillating, though. I'm torn: keep up the snail's pace as I page through records? Or turn to some other research projects I've been churning through in the background?

In the remaining two weeks left in this month, I'm opting to jump to a faster track and explore at least one of two projects I'm tackling on my maternal lines. One involves what turns out to be the many inter-related lines of my Tilson ancestors from the hills of northeastern Tennessee. The other was inspired by last weekend's unexpected flurry of family photos from some distant McClellan cousins. We'll explore those options tomorrow.

Image above: Parents' names as entered in the 1839 record for Piotr Gramlewicz, baptised in Żerków, Poland; record accessible through

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Reassessing Goals


When targeted research hits a tailspin, it's tempting to call it time to reassess goals. I'm at that place right now with my Gramlewicz question.

Looking at the numbers—after all, it's time for my biweekly report—it seems like I'm making headway. In the past two weeks, I've managed to add 263 names to my family tree. But keep in mind that tree didn't grow to 30,699 names by only pushing straight back through the generations; I've filled in the branches with details on all the collateral lines. In the case of my Gramlewicz research goal, that meant adding all the cousins I could find in each generation. However, I still can't point all those cousins back in Żerków to one unifying ancestral couple.

The same operative process is also at work in my in-laws' family tree. Even though I have absolutely no research goal this month regarding either my mother-in-law's lines or those of her husband, I actually added fifty nine more names to that tree. But once again, the reason that tree grew to 30,270 names is owing to the same process: adding collateral lines. A few email contacts from DNA matches in the past two weeks was all it took to update that tree with those added names. After all, when we're searching for how our DNA matches connect, we are searching for ways to add cousins to our tree.

Looking back at my own tree, I don't foresee as much growth in the next two week period. Why? Research progress has slowed to a crawl on my Gramlewicz line. I'll still look through the digitized documents, now that I've found them on FamilySearch. It helps to look at the actual documents myself, rather than having to rely on someone else's transcription of what surely must be messy handwriting—and in Latin, too.

Beyond that, slowed progress makes for boring reports. It may be time to put the Gramlewicz quest on a back burner and bring forward some additional research projects that have popped up just this month. Timeliness does not necessarily equal urgency, but it does have a way of enlivening the search process. Not to mention, availability does trump inaccessibility when it comes to the records we need to move a project forward. We'll take one last look at the Gramlewicz puzzle tomorrow, then determine what the next step should be.

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Continuing Cousin Collaboration


Out of the blue last week, I got an email from a distant cousin. This was a cousin whom I only met online due to our DNA match at We had quickly figured out that his grandmother was the very woman known throughout the extended family as the clan's storyteller. Once we had determined just how we connect, it seemed communication dropped off—until this week's letter.

It seems this cousin inherited a stack of family photographs, which he was busily uploading to his family tree at Ancestry. I took a look and indeed, on his site there is now a wealth of pictures of distant cousins. Now I have faces to match up with the names which I've become familiar with over years of research.

The email this week? A request for help in labeling those photos. You know how it is: we all could be a bit better about passing along this information to unsuspecting younger family members. Several faces in this collection still had no names attached. Who were they?

The one glitch in this process was asking someone like me. This cousin in question links to the Florida branch of my maternal line. My problem is that I never even set foot in that state until only a few years ago. I, the one continually bemoaning my lack of family photographs, am ignorant on such a subject. But I did have an idea.

That idea was to pass along the emailed photos to another cousin whom I know still lives in Florida. She is the daughter of a diligent family historian, and even though her researching dad is no longer with us, she has a good idea of who was who in that family.

Sure enough, the photos prompted an avalanche of information. The more we talked, the more she remembered. And the more stories I learned. I guess the result on her end was a prompt to check into those stories even further. We spent an afternoon volleying emails back and forth with details as she recalled them, leading me to discover even more as I cross checked online and added information to my own tree.

The best discovery was when this cousin stumbled upon an online memorial for another family member, posted by a funeral home. The unexpected discovery was not only a transcription of an obituary, but an actual posting of a video, the kind made to be shown during the memorial service. That video included pictures from that relative's childhood. Whoever thought a funeral video would become a source of family photos for distant cousins?

As the one cousin shared names to attach to the other cousin's family photos, I relayed the notes back to the cousin who had made the first inquiry—kind of like a relay race, only for family history. Now, however that cousin first acquired those photos, they are posted online for all interested family members to share, complete with names to go along with those faces. Collaboration can increase productivity in so many ways—and make an enjoyable way to work together with family.

Friday, November 11, 2022

Found a Way


Running into unexpected research problems in the guise of a temporary computer glitch can be frustrating. I suspected yesterday that that was indeed the type of problem standing in my way, but my optimism was a wee bit too cheery. Returning to the BaSIA website today did not magically make my problem disappear. Just like yesterday, when I clicked on the side bar revealing the location of the actual document used to transcribe information on my great-grandfather's Gramlewicz kin in Poland, I got an error message. This problem is not going away.

There was another way around the problem, of course. Jumping over to the other Polish website I've been using, the Poznan Project, clicking on town names in the search results can bring up a second page containing references to the original documents from which the transcriptions had been taken.

Stuck at the first website again today, I returned to the Poznan Project to see whether I could gain any traction with that second reference page. Besides listings of dates available at each of several Polish archival resources, there was a second set of data under the label, "LDS Microfilms."

This second section contained date ranges along with the familiar initials B, M, and D: Birth, Marriage, and Death. Following such lines a long bolded string of numbers was placed, like this selection:


Figuring the bolded number string referred to a microfilm identification, I jumped over to to test my theory. I picked #1981506 for my experiment, hoping it would lead to births from 1831 to 1895 and marriages from 1797 through 1834.

On the FamilySearch website, after signing in, I clicked on the drop-down menu labeled "Search." From the choices revealed, I selected "Catalog." Normally, when I have gone this route in the past, I've entered the location I'm seeking in the dialog box labeled "Place." This time, though, I needed a slot to insert that presumed microfilm number. That spot was right below the box for "Place" and was labeled "Search for." Clicking the highlighted choice "Film/Fiche/Image Group Number (DGS)" opened up another dialog box, into which I could paste the number I had found on the resource page for Żerków at the Poznan Project.

Don't think this magically escorted me directly to my answer. I received a search result, but it was all in Polish. The only word I recognized was the name of the town where my Gramlewicz ancestors once lived. I gambled on clicking without resorting to Google Translate, and was brought to another page, this time the actual catalog listing for a manuscript on film.

Disappointed, I scrolled down, taking in as much of the information as made sense to me. Fortunately, a little further down the page, a message in red appeared: "Germany, Prussia, Posen, Catholic and Lutheran Church Records are available online, click here." Eureka!

Clicking on "here" brought me to what looked like the landing page for the actual collection, with boxes inviting me to enter a name, place, and year. But not so fast! I've been to enough training classes to have developed the habit of heeding those warnings to read the box labeled, "How to use this collection."

True confessions: when I dutifully followed through on that "should" feeling, I regretted seeing yet another page of instructions. This one, from the FamilySearch wiki, did indeed begin with the question, "What is in this collection?" I groaned when I read that the wiki suggested I brush up on how to read old German handwriting—or perhaps attend a German Paleography Seminar.

Thankfully, I kept scrolling through the wiki article, and spotted yet another hyperlink. This one led to an "inventory" of everything I could expect to find in the microfilmed collection.

Feeling a bit like a Wonderland Alice barraged with messages to "Eat me" or "Drink me," I took the bait and clicked again, hoping this time would finally help. An enormous inventory did indeed reveal that Żerków was included in the microfilm. In fact, there were three entries for Żerków in that inventory, each containing yet another hyperlink.

I clicked again. Oh, Alice, I'm truly beginning to relate to your adventures!

And suddenly, I was back. Back at the original catalog entry I had first found. Taking a breath, I scrolled down, farther down than the first time I had passed this way. Following digital notes in Polish, I spotted a listing of film numbers. Thankfully, it included the number I had originally chosen. Elated that there was a camera icon next to the film number, I clicked once again.

And I was in.

Above: Cover for microfilm #1981506 containing baptismal records for Żerków, Poland.

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Virtually Flailing


When we set research goals, sometimes we have no idea whether we'll achieve what we hoped to gain. Such may be the case with this month's goal of discovering more about my paternal Gramlewicz line. While I'm still flailing about online, though, there may be light at the end of this research tunnel. Time—plus a lot of grunt work—may tell.

While my great-grandfather Antoni Laskowski did come to America, the problem is that his mother—Elżbieta Gramlewicz—did not. Remaining all her life in the small town of Żerków in Poland, she and her extended family apparently did not generate the type of records upon which genealogists of our era depend.

True, through the generosity of dedicated volunteers in Poland, there are some websites providing transcriptions of many records. For that, I am thankful for what I can find on BaSIA and the Poznan Project. Yet, there are many date gaps. And I have the kind of ancestors prone to fall in such gaps.

For the brave of heart, there are other options. Looking beyond the initial veneer of those Polish websites, there are way markers in place to point me to other record sets. In the past, I could click through on a record transcribed at BaSIA—I'm positive I could—and the scan number showing on the website would lead to a digitized version of the actual document itself, including the item and scan number. But today? Just my luck the URL connected me to an error message.

I know, also, that if I click through on a record's listed town at the Poznan Project, I'd be led to a second page showing the date ranges for available records at the archival source and also list the Family History Library (in Salt Lake City) microfilm numbers where—supposedly—the same digitized records could be found. Possibly. I still need to test out that implied resource.

While all this sounds terribly like the hunt and peck method from which technology has since liberated us researchers, I'll never know until I give it a try. Give me another day, and perhaps the glitch at BaSIA will have worked itself out, and I will be able to report on my explorations of that second page at the Poznan Project. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Perhaps This Mother
Really Does Know Best


There is an old saying, "Necessity is the mother of invention." I hardly ever expected I'd be applying that saying to genealogical research. But today, I am.

My problem is this: I need to research old Polish records for some verification of the connections in my great-grandfather Antoni Laskowski's maternal Gramlewicz family line, but there aren't many resources which have digitized—or even transcribed—records from their native parish in Żerków, Poland.

Of course, I've been able to find some transcriptions of records posted online at BaSIA by some Polish volunteers, which has been incredibly helpful. However, that collection has a significant gap in dates right during a key period in my family's history there. Granted, I could also search marriage records at the Poznan Project for that same parish—which I have done—but those, too, are limited in their coverage.

There is, however, a third Polish genealogical resource which I'd be happy to utilize, if only it included the parish where my family once lived. That website is known as Geneteka, a project of the Polskie Towarzystwo Genealogiczne, or the Polish Genealogical Society.

Since the website doesn't include any records from Żerków, I had previously discarded any notion of using the site. But then, I had second thoughts. This is where the necessity-as-mother-of-invention comes in. I recalled that, when searching for various family records at the other two Polish websites, the search terms always included a ten kilometer radius for the specified location. Thus, I sometimes would encounter records from a nearby parish—perhaps, if a Żerków resident married someone from a neighboring village, or if someone filed a civil record in a neighboring location.

I went back to BaSIA to repeat my search there. Only this time, I broadened my search location to cover twenty kilometers instead of the usual ten. I noticed the listings of some nearby towns holding records for Gramlewicz or related lines, such as Żółków and Kretków. Then, I hurried back to the Geneteka website to see whether those newer locations were included in their database.

While I struck out with Żółków, there was a very slim collection available online for Kretków. Though it only covered death records from 1853 through 1857, I thought, why not give it a try? Back at Geneteka, I tried entering Gramlewicz as my search term for surname, but got no result. Trying again, this time I did a blank search, entering no surname at all. For my experiment, I received a readout of 312 names. Among them were some other family surnames I recognized.

This little experiment may not have yielded me the information I was hoping to see, but it did confirm my suspicions. And it opened my mind to the possibility that tinkering with websites may coax them into revealing some useful information, after all.

I've used computers for decades, but I'm no computer expert. I learn by "poking around," and anything I've learned about using computers, I've learned by that same method. Once I learned that, in the world of computers, anything besides dividing by zero will not blow them up, whole new vistas of trial-by-error possibilities opened up. Poking and prodding websites to explore their secrets may indeed help find records in what otherwise would be a dearth of resources. That mother of invention may know best, after all.   

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Checking Collateral Lines


I'm still struggling to find documentation on the Gramlewicz family from the nineteenth century in Żerków, Poland. What had first prompting this search was the appearance of a DNA match in my account at MyHeritage. While the online resources are limited, thus hampering my search, I thought I might try one of my usual alternate strategies: look for information on collateral lines.

My direct line reaches back to my second great-grandmother, Elżbieta Gramlewicz. My DNA match claims Katarzyna Gramlewicz, sister to Elżbieta, as her ancestor. To augment any details on their parents, I started looking at their siblings in the hope of finding further information.

Among the records now accessible through is the collection of family trees posted to a French company known as Geneanet. While Geneanet was launched by French genealogy enthusiasts in 1996, it was not lost upon me that, like the trees at Ancestry or MyHeritage, they are drawn up by people who, just like me, could make mistakes. Hence, my desire to find documentation, not just online assertions of relationship.

While Geneanet has been acquired by (in August, 2021), it is still considered an independent business operating under the Ancestry umbrella. Because of its base in France and availability in six other languages besides English (but not in Polish, unfortunately), the site does offer the tempting reach of a European-based organization. Still, the drawback is that, from what I can access via Ancestry, I see trees, but no forest of documentation.

But I can take a peek, can't I? Maybe a hint found might lead me to a clearer idea of what records to seek.

Right away, in searching for siblings of my Gramlewicz kin, I spotted a now-familiar name: the jawbreaking, consonant-crushing surname Zakrzewicz. That's a name we had run across before, with the befuddling connection to Elżbieta's sister Katarzyna. Now, I've found yet another connection. 

Apparently, the two Gramlewicz sisters had another sister named Apollonia. And she, for a short-lived moment, was married to a Zakrzewicz.

While the church records listed the man's given name as Paulus, I'm sure that's Latin for someone the Polish might prefer to call Paweł. Taking that collateral clue from Geneanet and scouring the website at BaSIA, I came up empty-handed, but when I switched my search over to the Poznan Project, I did locate the marriage record in Żerków for Paweł and Apollonia in 1843.

And then, I found Paweł once again in 1844. With the record's additional sad note "viduus" (a widower), only a year later, Paweł was married to a woman named Theophila Gawronska.

Searching both websites for anything further, I found records showing two daughters for Paweł and his second wife but no sign of any descendants from his first marriage. However, I did notice that his father's name was one which I had run across in so many Gramlewicz family baptisms and weddings: Adalbertus Zakrzewicz. Perhaps this explains why that name showed up so many times in Gramlewicz family records—and perhaps why, at Katarzyna's death years later, people had supposed her mother was a Zakrzewicz, not a Nowicki.

Monday, November 7, 2022

Sometimes, it Isn't the Research
That's the Problem . . .


Nestled deep in the midst of autumn right after the time change might seem a cozy moment to forsake all technology and curl up with a good book for the evening. After all, by 7:00 p.m., it already felt like we were approaching midnight. Well, despite that dreamy pumpkin-spiced notion, I got my wish, but not by choice. It was by wifi fiat: our Internet went down.

With no online access comes no chance to research. And for this genealogy guinea pig, no chance to research means no post. It all kinda brings to mind those pre-Internet research days when the only way to look up records was to plan a trip to the specific repository representing the hope of finding the right answer to our family history questions. My, how things have changed—at least when our technology company of choice doesn't encounter problems.

A little reminder of how good we have things...something I'll appreciate, I'm sure, once I get over the immediate frustration of lack of access.


Sunday, November 6, 2022

Keeping in Touch


It's nice to connect again with family researchers we've met online in the past. Just this weekend, I received an email from someone whom I first met on account of our DNA match at The reason for the contact this weekend was apparently the wish to pass along something remembered about past generations of the family, gleaned from the kind of family conversations which are rarely documented, only passed along by oral tradition.

We need those sorts of remembrances. Strictly speaking, genealogy may be focused on the gathering of documents to verify the main points of life—when we were born, who we married, the names of our children—but that isn't truly the "stuff" of which life is made. It's the everyday occurrences, and even the upsets that jar us from daily routine, which compose the story of an ancestor's life.

After responding to the email and passing along a few family details I had discovered since we last chatted, I decided to take a look at my correspondent's tree on Ancestry. It turned out to be a treasure trove of family photographs. I gazed at faces I'd never before had the privilege of seeing. I marveled at just how much personality came through in those pictures, even a century after those ancestors were gone.

Just that brief moment of reconnecting reminded me that there is far more to family history than the documents we manage to locate which contain an ancestor's name and significant life dates. The only ones who really know the rest of an ancestor's life story will likely be their family members. Those are the ones we need to be chasing after—the living "documents" who can tell us the rest of the story. Our distant cousins who comprise our fellow family history researchers are a valuable network worth keeping in touch.

Saturday, November 5, 2022

Like Riding a Bike


I just finished teaching another beginning genealogy course for a local organization. The course is a four-week series of lessons on the basics of compiling a family history, geared to use of a particular online service. It certainly is rewarding to see new people catch the excitement of seeing their own ancestors' names in decades-old documents.

Teaching such a course comes with its own set of frustrations, too—at least for me. Since students are welcome to repeat the class as often as they wish, the course is open-ended, designed partially according to results of a needs assessment interview conducted during the first session. The idea is to allow students to grow in their researching skills, no matter at what level they began the course.

Only sometimes, they don't grow. And that's where the frustration comes in: when I feel as if I am repeating the same basic concepts over and over, and yet, those concepts don't seem to be applied.

That's when I realized that "learning" genealogy is like learning to ride a bike: you have to do it, not just listen to someone talk about how to do it. It's an applied skill, not just head knowledge.

Not unlike riding a bicycle, or sewing your clothes, or making sure the seal sets just right on homemade preserves, compiling your family history requires "knowing" in a very different way than just learning dates and names in a history class. You have to get your hands on it, know how facts connect with people. More than that, you need to ask questions and discern how best to answer them.

There is no "cookbook" in the world large enough to contain all the how-to instructions for every research problem you'll ever encounter. A guide book with maps, perhaps, but the learner who wants to take the journey has to be the one who takes the steps.

Like learning to ride a bicycle, learning how to find your family's history is eventually a matter of getting your hands on it. Doing it. Falling. Getting up, dusting off. Trying again, generation after generation.

Friday, November 4, 2022

When Wandering in Circles,
Learn to Ask Questions


Thanks to a "Theory of Family Relativity" posted at MyHeritage for one of my DNA matches from Poland, I've discovered a new branch in my paternal Gramlewicz tree. Thanks to transcriptions of Polish documents posted at the Polish website BaSIA, I have been able to trace this match's line back to a sister of my second great-grandmother, Elżbieta Gramlewicz. Every step through the generations now has at least one document to confirm the connection, for which I am grateful. Access to Polish records from my family's specific region of Żerków is limited for researchers like myself located in the United States.

For someone used to a more document-rich environment like what we've come to expect in North America, I wish I had more. Working with documents written in a foreign language—or maybe jumping between two or three different languages—I feel tied to my cheat sheets with translations of key words. I still have questions.

Perhaps the more accurate way to put it is that I have "wonders." I'm wondering whether Catholic families in Poland keep the same types of traditions I've learned to watch for when researching my husband's Irish roots. I wonder about the possibility of traditions like naming patterns. Or which family members are called upon to stand with the parents at the baptism of their baby. For my father-in-law's ancestors in Ireland, I knew to expect who the firstborn son would be named after, or which people would most likely be named the baby's godparents.

My big question right now: do the Catholics in Poland have the same traditions as those in Ireland? If not, do they have similar traditions which might guide me in exploring, for instance, the names of those listed as "chrzestna" (godmother).

Sometimes, there are inferences provided in family records which, if we know how to spot them, may reveal a connection we'd otherwise have missed. Sifting through the records in Żerków and neighboring villages, I'm still on the hunt to spot patterns or any other clues to help determine just how this extended family line fits together. 

Thursday, November 3, 2022

Nope, Nothing New


Bottom line: I've scoured the record transcriptions at the Polish website BaSIA for any new entries on my Gramlewicz question and found nothing. 

After a rollicking start like that, the question is: now what? The answer: I'm not sure.

Sometimes, when you need to sort through records, the best approach is not to be afraid to get your hands muddy with the mess. Don't run away from it. Look deeper to see if there are any patterns. Somewhere in the murky midst, you might find a clue.

The only clue I've found this go-round was that there may have been more Gramlewicz families in tiny Żerków than I had at first suspected. This may get messier than expected.

While wandering around, though, I realized a few things. First is that date gaps in record collections may mean the very records I'm seeking are somewhere in that gap. Don't give up the hope of finding something until the entire record set is available to use.

My second realization is that thinking phonetically is still an important research skill. Remember that there is more than one line of Gramlewicz-Laskowski marriages on my "most wanted" list. A funny thing happened on the website when, instead of searching only for Gramlewicz, I tried putting the website through its paces with the surname Laskowski: the search engine couldn't come up with a single Laskowski result for me in Żerków. I tried a different approach: do the same thing as happened to another line of Laskowskis when they immigrated to New York. I pronounced the surname like a Polish person might, then thought how an English-speaking listener might spell what he heard. Searching for Laskoski (from a misunderstood "Laskovski") instead of Laskowski suddenly produced results. I'll need to remember that for future searches.

My third thought was to make a note of all the other Gramlewicz family discoveries I saw on the BaSIA website, even though I can't fit them into my tree right now. Those search results might come in handy in the future, and having a catalog of those other Gramlewicz lines in Żerków will make it easier to plug them into my tree if and when I figure out the connection.

Bonus realization: there is a way to access the scanned documents from which the transcriptions were extracted. While the scans seem unresponsive to manipulation on my computer, at least I can try to read them for myself now.

While I'm grinding through that records search project in the background, though, there is one piece of unfinished business I can attend to now. It's time to revisit that Polish DNA match at MyHeritage and document the connection from the current generation back to the time of Elżbieta Gramlewicz's likely sister Katarzyna.

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Detached and Still Floating


They kept showing up, this other family which seemed to be connected with mine, but somehow was not. Back in Żerków, the Polish town my great-grandfather called home, there were Gramlewicz names showing up in records but whom I couldn't connect to my tree. When my great-grandfather, Antoni Laskowski, moved to New York City and sent for his wife and children to follow him to their new home, there was a young Gramlewicz man named Mieczyslaw who traveled with them. And later, when Antoni's children were grown and gone from the family's modest apartment in Brooklyn, somehow the Laskowskis were able to squeeze in another Gramlewicz girl who had recently arrived from Poland.

Her name was Anna Gramlewicz. Although she was actually born in Brooklyn, after her parents tragically lost several young children, the whole family decided to return to their hometown in Żerków—only, after a few years, Anna changed her mind. Coming back to America in 1913, she lived in Brooklyn with Antoni and Marianna Laskowski. When the state enumerator came knocking at the door in 1915, Antoni reported Anna as his niece.

Only...she wasn't. At least, not as far as I could tell. Though I searched and searched on the Polish genealogy websites I had been using—BaSIA and the Poznan Project—I couldn't line up Antoni's mother, Elżbieta Gramlewicz, with Anna's father's parents. So, going back to my family tree, I had to detach Anna from the supposed connection to Antoni's mother's Gramlewicz line. Anna and her direct family line have remained that way ever since: detached and still floating in the ether on my family tree.

My goal this month is to determine whether Anna and her direct line of ascent actually do connect with Antoni Laskowski's mother's family. After all, Żerków is a town of barely two thousand people—now. Surely two different families in the same town with the same surname—not exactly the Polish equivalent of Smith—would be related to each other, somewhere up the line. My question this month is: how far up the line would that be? Can I find the nexus?

For the record, Anna Gramlewicz, born in Brooklyn about 1897, was the daughter of Jan Mieczyslaw Gramlewicz, who in turn was the son of Wawrzyniec Gramlewicz and Marianna Laskowska.

Full stop. Whoever this Wawrzyniec Gramlewicz was, he married someone from a Laskowski family which I also can't identify. Do you see how desperately I need to locate some records hidden in the date gaps of those Polish website collections? Anna—and thus her parents and grandparents—could not only be related to my Gramlewicz line, but also to my Laskowski line. Doubly related. And yet, I'm doubly in doubt, because I can't locate any records to explain such a connection.


Those are the tentative footprints I have already spotted. We'll begin examining what might have been added to those Polish websites since the last time I pondered this research question. Hopefully, there will be some updates. Perhaps, by the end of the month, we'll be able to re-attach Anna and her family to their correct place in this family tree—or have definitive documentation to explain why that would not be possible within those three generations.

Above: Portion of 1915 New York State census for Brooklyn in Kings County, showing Annie Gramlewicz living in household of Anton and Mary Laskowski, listing Annie as niece; image courtesy

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