Saturday, June 17, 2017

Ephemeral migrants and Wisconsin vital record duplicates

Three lessons from long day trip for research in central Wisconsin:

(1) DEEDS ARE GOOD. I often see family members who move west, stay briefly, and then go back home or strike out in a whole different direction. These folks are hard to track. They constitute another reason to look at all the deeds created by other family members who we already know stayed longer. I have an original four-page 1847 letter from Thomas Mozley to his younger brother Edward, extolling Wisconsin's climate (he'd been there a whole year) and a particularly promising site for Edward's smithy. Since Edward does not seem to appear there in 1850 or 1855, I assumed he never showed up at all. But he was there long enough to witness at least one deed created by another family member.

(2) VITAL RECORDS CAN BE WEIRD, but pre-1907 Wisconsin vital records are still wonderful. In this same family there appear to be at least three separate records of a single 1873 marriage: one apparently contemporary with the wedding (of course that's the one I didn't get to see before time ran out), one submitted in the 1890s, and one submitted in the early 1900s. I viewed the last two. They are largely in agreement, but the later one contains a bit more information than the other. Huh. How reliable is that? (Informants are not named; the evidence suggests that nobody paid attention to the earlier entries. All weddings should get such coverage!)

(3) I LOVE CHICAGO, BUT NOT DRIVING AROUND IT. There is no rational way for me to get to Wisconsin without navigating either Chicago or some suburbs. Getting up at 5 a.m. is not early enough. One alternative would work only if the marvelous State Historical Society at Madison is the goal -- take the Indiana airport shuttle to O'Hare, and then take the Wisconsin airport shuttle to the University of Wisconsin campus. Has anybody actually done this?

(4) I ALREADY HAVE A FOLLOWUP LIST FOR WHEN I GET TO GO BACK. First item: Learn how to count. Second item: Avoid weather. I saw large trees that had been pulled out of the ground, roots and all, by storms the day before.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Texas Newspaper Treasures

I don't live (or specialize) in Texas, but a surprising number of my relatives did. This week I almost missed a very useful free resource in The Portal To Texas History -- the Texas Digital Newspaper Program, with 1153 titles from Abilene to Yorktown and from the 1820s to the present (although the holdings don't get going much until after the Civil War).

This time the town I needed was Palacios, on the Gulf Coast, and TDNP had over 4000 items. Few records compare to a searchable newspaper for getting up close and personal . . . sometimes a little more than we're ready for. We inherited a reasonable amount of family papers from this branch of the Mozleys, but nothing there prepared me for a detailed description of how a first cousin of my wife's grandfather lost his right arm in a hay baler in the fall of 1935.


* The interface is unique but manageable.

* If you're looking for a particular title, either on their site or on The Ancestor Hunt's meta-site for digitized newspapers, don't forget that a great many newspaper names begin with "The."

* Unlike some newspaper sites, many post-1922 issues are readily available. Those interested in the post-WW2 "mini dark age" of sources, take note.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Never ignore childless siblings, part 2

My wife's grandfather had two older sisters, Bonnie and Nellie, who never married and had no descendants. Both had professional careers in the first half of the 20th century, but we never learned much about them, partly because they had decamped to California by the mid-1920s. I've been working on their mother's family for publication(s) and found that I pretty much had to reconstruct their professional lives by wide searching and judicious use of on-line newspapers and directories. It made me feel that perhaps they had not been taken seriously enough by other family members.

In the course of this searching I came upon a contribution Bonnie made in 1927 to a folk music collection, and that ended up on a folk-music site, Bluegrass Messengers. It was the lyrics to a folk song that their grandfather William was said to have brought with him from England to Wisconsin in the late 1840s, and that his son Sam, their father, now a Wisconsin blacksmith, sang for them. (If you know any ballad tunes at all, you will see how the rhythm fits; I haven't got hold of an audio version yet.)

My hair, what there is of it, stood right up on end. Of all the things I might have expected, a chance to eavesdrop on Sam and Harriet and their three children by the fireside, most likely in the 1880s when the children were growing up, was the last thing on my mind. What a gift, one their grand-nephew-in-law only opened by accident 90 years later.

It's a cliche because it's true. You really never know what you will find. By the same token, we never know how some small act of preservation now may reverberate in future generations.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Genealogical summaries and family chronicles

These days I mainly work on putting together 3- and 4-generation "downstream" accounts of my wife's and my less-documented ancestors (what are called "genealogical summaries" in the journals, and often closely resemble the "kinship determination projects" required by BCG). These give me much better family perspectives on the whole family than just researching upstream for direct ancestors does.

They also sometimes produce problem articles too. Just now there was a young woman who married into my father-in-law's father's mother's Mozley family. Nobody has parents for her, and it now appears that she at least has siblings and was not born in North Dakota but likely came from the Austro-Hungarian Empire around 1903.

Article about problems (as in NGSQ) are tough to write -- the writer has to show how logic is applied to bring conclusion out of confusion. But I'm finding these family chronicles are not as simple as they look. They pose their own writing problems.

The good news is that often it's possible to drill right down to day-by-day or month-by-month accounts of fortunes and misfortunes, thanks especially to the increasing numbers of digitized newspapers and land and probate records. The interesting news is that a pile of facts, no matter how high, does not a story make.

Often I will go back to the work-in-progress and find that I never wrote a topic sentence (usually because I was  just listing what happened without trying to pull it together or make sense of it somehow), and the story and maybe even the most fanatical reader gets lost. The paradox here is to find ways to be both thorough and concise.

Don't get me wrong -- a pile of facts is a lot better than nothing. But the more we (or our editors!) can see and communicate the stories in their lives, the more likely they are to be read and remembered.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Gedney family of Illinois, and why writing is still compulsory for genealogists

Suddenly more than one-third of 2017 is history! Two other articles of mine have seen the light of day:

“Yes, Writing Is Compulsory! Here’s How to Make It Work,” Federation of Genealogical Societies Forum 29 (Spring 2017): 18-21.

I hope this will inspire others to turn their research into readable and documented stories, and not leave an indigestible lump of disorganized notes (which is generally what I start with!). It is not enough to leave a database or a stack of papers. Thanks to FGS's Julie Cahill Tarr for making sure I got it done.

“From Fens to Farms: William and Rebecca (Wright) Gedney of Cowbit, Lincolnshire and Lebanon, Illinois,” Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly (Spring 2017): 30-34.

Thanks to ISGSQ editor Terry Feinberg for helping nudge this into the right length and shape (William and Rebecca and their children), and for instituting footnotes instead of endnotes in the quarterly!

This is my maternal grandfather's mother's line; the bulk of the family came to the U.S. in 1842 (John Tyler was president), sailing from Liverpool to New Orleans and then traveling up the Mississippi to St. Clair County, Illinois, opposite St. Louis. Some children arrived earlier; it was a chain-like migration. William and Rebecca's twelve children, born 1805-1832, had a total of more than two dozen grandchildren. Seven of the twelve lived to have children, and married into families surnamed Green, Wilson, Flint (twice), Lord (twice), Sims, Frost, Eastwood, Barton, Thornton, and Sowers.

I need to figure out the best way(s) to publish the much longer four-generation story, as many family members spilled into Missouri and Kansas while others stayed rooted in Illinois.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Good times at the 2017 NGS conference

* Being present Friday when my friend and colleague Karen Stanbary was presented the award for outstanding article published in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly in 2016: "Rafael Arriaga, a Mexican Father in Michigan: Autosomal DNA Helps Identify Paternity." Even readers not fluent in DNA will be able to glimpse the power in this technique.

* Hearing LaBrenda Garrett-Nelson's eloquent and nuanced talk at the BCG luncheon Thursday, "Condemnation of Memory: Recalling that African American Genealogy Is American Genealogy" -- which introduced me to some new tools as well.

* Hearing presentations by David Ouimette on Thursday ("Silent Border Crossings: Tracing the Elusive Immigrant Who Left Only Breadcrumbs for Clues") and Thomas W. Jones on Friday ("Converting a Bunch of Information into a Credible Conclusion"). Assemblage is a key intermediate stage between gathering evidence and writing it up. Sometimes we can do it in our heads, but in the more difficult cases we need to lay it all out in plain sight.

* Talking with genealogists, both vintage and new. It seems that is now the main thing I do at national conferences.

* Spending several days within a few blocks of the North Carolina State Archives . . . without ever actually getting there!

* Appreciating the ongoing work to establish good standards for the use of DNA in genealogy.


Sunday, May 7, 2017

Letting it go

 What do you throw away? What do you keep? What do you restore? What do you allow to deteriorate?

These questions in historic preservation -- the English call it "heritage," which doesn't presuppose as much -- are addressed provocatively, philosophically, and concretely by cultural geographer Caitlin DeSilvey in her new book Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving. She mostly discusses buildings, but in chapter two she reflects on her graduate work on a recently abandoned Montana homestead that was "not yet old enough to be interesting to (most) archaeologists and too marginal and dilapidated to be a straightforward candidate for historic preservation." When does an old book cross the line from a memory receptacle to mouse food?

Anyone who has ever dealt with the household goods and papers of the recently deceased will find rich food for thought  -- not always comfortable thought -- here.

"Dust to dust" is not the preservationist's motto, nor is it the genealogist's. But it is a fact. Not everything can be preserved. (And if it could we would soon drown in it.) Saving, preserving, restoring, remembering, all run against the entropic tide of nature. If we don't focus those efforts we're just hoarding.