Monday, July 24, 2017

How others see us

There are people who hate genealogy -- often because it dealt them a nasty surprise. And there are rather more people who are just puzzled by it. William Maxwell, the late great New Yorker writer and editor, wrote a whole book of stories and memories about his family (Ancestors) in the early 1970s, but he was never one of us.

Carefully placing his own feelings at several removes, early in the book he recalled having dinner with an older cousin who was the family genealogist (and who later died relatively young). William was shy and perhaps a bit intimidated. He reflected later,

“I wish I had somehow given him a chance to say what it was that he hoped to gain for himself as he went about collecting facts having to do with births, deaths, and marriages of several generations of self-respecting, not very well-educated, for the most part devout men and women nobody has ever heard of.” (17)

It's a good question -- in a way a very "New York" question even though Maxwell lived his early life in Lincoln, Logan County, Illinois -- and one that deserves our consideration as we go about our work.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Death Will Bring Us Together; or, Look to the Future to Learn the Past

A classic problem: a woman born in the early 1880s appears in her parents' household in 1900 with a stupendously common name for the time (Mabel). And then she vanishes, whether into death or marriage I can't tell. Two potential husbands fail the test, as marriage records show their Mabels as having the wrong parents. The known parents don't show up in her household in later years, nor she in theirs.

It's an old lesson but it bears relearning. We often bewail our failure (or our parents' failure) to learn all the genealogical details we might have obtained from elderly relatives, but we often also ourselves fail to seek out their knowledge in records they helped create.

When Mabel's mother died in the 1930s, the newspaper death notice -- in infinitesimal, worn type -- named an extra daughter (as Mrs. H. Husband, naturally) living on the other side of the state. Mrs. Husband appeared again as the informant on mother's death certificate, with a tiny scrawled street address as well. Case closed when Mr. Husband's death certificate bore the same address. Strictly speaking, I didn't even need to know that her name was Mabel!

Thursday, July 6, 2017

New Illinois books to look forward to!

It's not every day, or even every week, that I get to order two promising new books about Illinois -- one from an old friend, one from a new one:

James Krohe Jr., Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves: A Plain-Spoken History of Mid-Illinois (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2017),  $29.50

Darcie Hind Posz, The Chicago Stones: A Genealogy of Acquisition, Influence and Scandal (, 2017), $14.99

(And a hat tip to Barbara
Mathews for posting about
the Stones book on Facebook!)

Sunday, July 2, 2017

A week to remember

Genealogy institutes are a hybrid between national conferences (lasting a few days with something new every hour or two and attendance in the thousands) and regular college courses (lasting a semester or so). At institutes (attendance in the dozens or hundreds), several courses are offered but genealogists spend five days in just one of their choice. Compared to conferences, there's more time to focus, and more opportunities to find like-minded friends, but not as many topics covered. I've been a fan ever since I first discovered them in 2009 in Salt Lake City and Birmingham.

At the Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh (GRIP) last week, Kimberly Powell and I taught the third iteration of the course "From Confusion to Conclusion" on writing proof arguments -- with great help from William Litchman, Karen Stanbary, and Melissa Johnson, plus a cameo appearance by retiring New York Genealogical and Biographical Record editor Karen Jones.

 Our students were outstandingly inquisitive. Two of them -- Pam Anderson and Shannon Green -- will soon have articles published in the June National Genealogical Society Quarterly, and so were obliged to host the traditional GRIP Thursday night party. (This is Pittsburgh -- we don't do banquets.)

It's a small and intense world but big news still percolates in: this was the week FamilySearch announced the end of microfilm loans. Meanwhile GRIP keeps rolling along, with three separate week-long sessions and several new courses on tap for 2018, including various levels of DNA studies.

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.