Sunday, December 30, 2012

Using Stories to Engage Your Family in Their History

I recently read an article by Roxanne Moore Saucier about “kindling” rather than “swamping” her family’s interest in their history and genealogy. (/ Ms. Saucier talked about responding to family interest in a way that interests them but doesn’t overwhelm them. It made me think of family stories.
          My family, at least on my dad’s side, are storytellers. Every event in their lives is a story. You never simply got up and went to school or work in that house. Every day was a potential epic adventure. To hear my dad tell it, his life as a boy on the farm was one narrow escape after the other, followed by record-breaking snowfalls, back-breaking labor, and hysterically funny pranks.
          Not only do my James relations like to tell stories, they like to listen to them. So I am fortunate when it comes to that side of the family. Anything I find, any piece of information, any fact or tidbit, is welcomed, if it is served up as a story.
Great-Grandpa McConahy c. 1911
          Great-grandpa McConahy worked in a tin mill. Boring.
Great-grandpa McConahy worked in a tin mill where his job was to keep the heated tin red hot until it was ready to work. That meant he spent the day in an unventilated section of a long shed of a factory, in front of a furnace, rotating sheets of tin to keep them evenly heated. 
The heat was so intense that he wore wool long underwear under a long-sleeved wool shirt and wool trousers, with leather gloves, a wool cap, and heavy leather shoes all designed to protect his skin from the sweltering heat. The tin factory was in western Pennsylvania where the summer temperatures can reach the mid-90s with a corresponding 90+ percent humidity. His working day began early in the morning and…
Now I’ve got a story. And I’ve got them hooked. From here I can tell my family anything I want to tell them about our family’s past, as long as I keep the story going.
They will remember the stories and pass them on to their children and ask to hear them again. This explains, in part, why my family has so much of their history all wrong, too. If we don’t tell the stories often enough, and carefully enough, they tend to get warped. We love a good story, and believe that there’s no harm in tarting it up a bit to make it even better. Thus we became related to Jesse James (we’re not) and had a half-Iroquois relative (we didn’t) and were heirs to thousands of acres of land in New York (we aren’t).

Finding the details necessary to turn the facts into stories takes time, curiosity, and a bit of detective work, but it is worth the effort to me. I discovered Great-Grandpa McConahy’s story when I read the 1910 U.S. Census and saw that he worked in the tin mill as a “heater.” I had no idea what a heater was or did, so I looked it up, read a few articles about tin mills, read a congressional transcript about the dangers of the work, and wove those facts into the story of his life. 
It would have been easy to say “Heater. Hmmm, wonder what that is?” and move on to the next task, but by taking the time to do the research, I came up with a story about a man who worked a terrible job and died very young. And this is a story that my sisters and their children, my cousins and their children, even me and my son, didn’t know but now will never forget.
The next time your family shows any interest in what you are doing as you gather and sort and compile your family’s history, may I suggest that you have a good story or two to tell them? Pique their interest and curiosity in their past with some tale of love or lust or labor or loss. I suspect that they will ask you for more.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Uncovering History in the GAR Cemetery

Medal of Honor Recipient Col. Hartwell B. Compson, GAR Cemetery, Portland, Oregon

          Yesterday several of us from History & Heritage went to the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) cemetery in Portland to do some work. It is a small cemetery with less than 1000 interments. Our goal is to find each headstone, corner marker, or other stone or metal marker, photograph them all, and create a complete detailed map and listing of the folks buried there.
          We did a bit of work: some clearing of shrubbery, uncovering some stones, and a little photography. Then I pulled out the divining rods to search a large, irregularly shaped area that appears to have no stones. “Appears” is the key word here, because sometimes there is a head- or footstone, buried under four or six inches of soil, like this one:

          For those of you who have never seen or used a divining rod, let me tell you that I am a total skeptic about things like this. But last summer I was tromping around in a cemetery outside of Pittsburgh and met a man there who was divining. He showed me the process and explained that it isn’t “magic” or “new age” but science. The copper of the divining rod reacts to the changes in the magnetic field. If I hold out the divining rod and walk from grass to pavement the rod reacts. If I walk from pavement to grass, I get a reaction. If there is a grave the divining rod reacts. Same for sewer pipes and other things underground. Tree roots don’t seem to cause a reaction, even the really huge ones. And until he put the divining rod in my hand and I felt and saw it move as I walked over a grave and then off of it and onto the next one, I didn’t believe him. But I do now.
          Anyway, we decided to try the divining rod to see if there was a grave in that big chunk of unmarked land.  I walked back and forth, up and down, and got a “hit” in the same area from several directions. The area was in line with other graves there, but diagonal. But it was where the layout of the graves begins to curve, so that made some sense.
          I had someone else walk the area and she also got the same indication that there was something in that area. So we set to work looking for it.
          The tools we use to find headstones, or any stone, are very fancy and technical sorts of instruments. Some old shishkabob skewers. We systematically stab them 12 to 18 inches into the ground and if we hit something we stab around the area to get an idea of the size and then start digging. I hit something but found it to be long and thin, not square. It could have been a root, but you quickly learn the feel of things when you do this and it felt harder. Maybe a rock. Maybe metal.
          I started to dig with my trusty trowel (I told you we used high-tech tools!) and about five or six inches down found some rusty coloration in the soil and then hit something hard. Another five minutes of careful digging revealed something flat and bumpy and possibly metal. I assumed it was going to be some junk but continued to dig it up. First I pulled out a small piece of metal, maybe an inch long and roughly triangular. Then a larger chunk of metal that was square but with some protrusions.
          It looked vaguely familiar to me and as we cleaned the dirt from it I finally recognized it. It was an old iron GAR flag holder. This is what they looked like when refurbished:

          We kept digging, opening a wider and longer hole because there was something else in there, something longer.

          Eventually we uncovered a long iron rod with a broken GAR star on top. And then a whole one, with all of the star’s points intact. Ultimately our find looked like this:

          Muddy, yes. Rusted, beyond a doubt. But clearly two complete GAR flag holders and the parts of at least three others.
I took them home and washed them up and they didn’t look much better:

          I think that the one on the far right can definitely be salvaged. The one on the left seems a little less likely, but I’ll give it a try. The agency that manages the cemetery has been easy to work with and I suspect they will approve my plan to clean these up and place them on two graves in the GAR cemetery. The other option is for the agency to put them in a box in some basement storage where they will be forgotten. But if I can make them presentable, they will continue to fulfill their purpose as they grace and honor the graves of two Civil War veterans.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Genealogists Who Get it Wrong

She loves genealogy. She is proud of her family. She spends hours on her family tree every day. She faithfully posts every photo and every scrap of information she comes across and makes it all available on her public online family tree.
And she is wrong about 75% of the time.
This lovely elderly lady is the wife of my grandfather’s cousin and she is passionate about genealogy – both her family and her husband’s family. I love how excited she gets over a single date or photograph. But as long as someone somewhere said it was so, she accepts it as fact and places it on her tree and forges on to the next thing.
Whenever she posts something I find out about it because her additions show up as those ubiquitous shaking leaves on my family tree. Sometimes they are my own photos that I have posted (why, oh why, can’t Ancestry make their notification database smart enough to know that I am the original poster?)
But other times the information or photos that go up are flat out wrong. She has posted photos of people I have never seen before and labeled them as my grandparents, aunts, and uncles. She has blessed my mother with additional siblings that she never knew she had. And she has married off my aunts to the wrong husbands.
Uncle Jim and a lady who is NOT a long-lost sibling!
Each time one of these errors shows up I am faced with the same dilemma: do I correct her or ignore her?
          Part of me says “Let the lady alone.” Who do I think I am to correct a woman old enough to be my grandmother? Clearly she enjoys what she is doing and what harm is it that she messes things up?
But that’s the problem. There is harm when she messes things up. Not to me or my family. We know who is who and who is married to whom. No worries there. But we all are faced with those distant relations that we don’t know but want to include in our family trees. And so we turn to the work of others for assistance.
If you were taught to do your genealogy like a historian does his or her history, you would take one look at this lady’s tree and run from it. There is so little documentation for the things she states as facts that no one should take her tree seriously. And I imagine most folks don’t pay much attention to the words on her tree. (I have, however, recently run into a “professional genealogist” who blithely accepted everything on an undocumented family tree and passed it on to her client as “fact” so sometimes I have to wonder about the folks out there who claim to know what they are doing. But that is a story for a different blog.)
But those photographs are so alluring. To be able to see relatives and ancestors and put faces to names is one of the joys of doing family history. And little old ladies are notorious for knowing who everyone is in every photo. So she must be right about who that woman is with my uncle. Right?
So every time this sweet woman posts a photograph I feel obligated to correct her. Tell her that isn’t my grandfather. Those aren’t my aunts. We never had any twins. And so on.
I feel mean and picky every time I do it, because no matter how nicely I say it, I am still saying “Wrong!”
But I just remind myself that there are many folks out there who will appreciate getting correct information, even if they never know how close they were to getting the wrong stuff.
What do you do when you find a distant relative’s incorrect family tree? Do you contact them and talk it out, or do you leave it alone?

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Photos

          Sometimes old photographs seem so mundane that they are hardly worth the time it takes to identify them. But rather than scrawling a hasty annotation -  “Kate, Xmas ‘67, NJ” - on the back, I like to spend some time discussing the entire photo.
How do you do that?
Start with the basics: Who is in the photo? When was it taken? Where was it taken? Was there an event or incident associated with this photo?
In this case, the photo is of me, it was taken on Christmas Day, 25 December 1967 in our second-story apartment in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Sometimes you can cross-reference other photos with the one you are writing about. In this case, I have inset a photo of me taken on Christmas Day in 1963. Why? Because the rocking chair in the background of the 1967 photo was a Christmas gift in 1963. See baby me sitting in it?
Of course this works best for digital cross referencing rather than keeping some big old master list of all photographs. But wouldn’t THAT be a treasure to find!
Other things this photo shows that I remember well: the stereo in the corner of the apartment was a fixture. It actually belonged to my younger sister Barb, a gift from our paternal grandma. Why? Not sure on that one, guess I’ll need to ask.
The lamp is one of a pair that sat in our home until the late 1970s. It is on a doily that my maternal grandmother made. Next to that is a green china lady that my mother painted back before she and my father met. It was one of several elegant china ladies that decorated our tabletops, mantels, and shelves. They all sit upon an end table that my father made.
I remember that area rug coming apart at the seams and my mother sitting on the floor hand sewing the strips back together with heavy duty black thread.
The enormous stuffed dog, imaginatively named “Pinkie” I believe, was a gift from my maternal grandparents. Barb’s dog was yellow, but not named “Old Yeller.”
No, not every photo you own needs the same treatment, but it’s not a bad idea to try when a photo has a variety of interesting things in the background, relates to another photo in your collection, or simply evokes a time, place, or event that is strongly in your memory. By taking the time to take this photo apart bit by bit I have made it significantly more interesting to future generations that if I left it as “Kate, Xmas ’67, NJ.”
And you can make this into a fun family event by grabbing a handful of your old photos and taking them with you to family events this season. Ask everyone to talk about the photos and what they remember, include the kids and teenagers in the discussion, and record it all for posterity, whether by writing down what folks have to say, or set up your video camera and capture the fun on film, so to speak. Then sometime after the holidays are over and the winter blahs are setting in, send everyone a copy of the photos and their stories from your holiday get-together. Who knows, you might start a new tradition!

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Immaculate Reception and Genealogy

Happy 40th Anniversary to the Immaculate Reception!

Why does this matter to a genealogist?

It is a great example of why we must be cautious when people tell us that they saw an event, participated in a famous happening, or were there when...

The Immaculate Reception, football's most famous and most controversial play, occurred on December 23, 1972 (yes, this post is a bit early but I doubt we will be thinking business much by then!) in Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. With just 22 seconds left, in the game, the Pittsburgh Steelers trailed the Oakland Raiders 7-6. The Steelers had the ball on their own 40 yard line, and it was fourth-and-10.

Quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw the ball to the Raiders' 35-yard line, toward halfback John "Frenchy" Fuqua who collided with Raiders safety Jack Tatum just as the ball arrived. Fuqua was knocked to the ground, the ball went sailing backwards, and Steelers fullback Franco Harris scooped up the ball just before it hit the ground and ran it in for the touchdown that put the Steelers up 13-7.

You are still asking why this matters to you.

Three Rivers Stadium held, at its greatest capacity, 59,000 people. The game was blacked out on television in the Pittsburgh area so folks who weren't physically at Three Rivers Stadium could only hear it on the radio. If you lived in Pittsburgh you did not see the game on TV.

Yet today, if you ask a Pittsburgher about the Immaculate Reception, they will tell you they saw it. They saw it at Three Rivers, or they saw it on TV, nevermind that they couldn't possibly have seen it on TV.

Like so many other pivotal moments in a city's history, or a nation's history, or the world's history, everyone was there, everyone saw it. It mattered so much then and it continues to matter so much to the people of that area, in this case Pittsburgh, that people have convinced themselves that they witnessed this turning point event.

As a genealogist, that means we must be ever-vigilant when it comes to accepting information as fact without corroborating proof. Folks forget. People embellish tales. And some things are retold or replayed over and over so often that the myth or legend or belief become true in our minds. 

Until I did the research and learned that it was impossible for me to have seen the Immaculate Reception on TV, I would have told you with a straight face and pure heart that I watched that game with my Dad. I could even describe the victory dance he did as Franco scored the touchdown. The truth is, I have seen the Immaculate Reception replayed a thousand times or more, and it is so embedded in my memory after 40 years, that I honestly believed I saw the game that day.

No matter how convincing Grandpa's story of storming the beach at D-Day, no matter how many relatives can recount the tale of that founding ancestor who traveled here from Wales with his widowed mother, we need to find some corroborating evidence before we accept that story as true. You can find a hundred thousand people or more who will swear that they witnessed the Immaculate Reception that day in 1972. I am one of them.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Reading Civil War Pension Cards

Civil War pension cards can provide a lot of information. But they can also provide a lot of confusion. Here are a few tips to help you glean every bit of help you can get from that index card.

This card tells us the soldier's name: John W. James. No rank is listed but we know he served in Co. M of the 22nd Regiment Pennsylvania Cavalry. He enlisted 26 February 1864 and was transferred. He filed for an invalid pension (application # 446.074) and received that pension on 12 April 1882 (pension # 1.028.379). He also received an old age pension on 14 April 1907. Trooper James also served in Co. M of the 3rd Pennsylvania Provisional Cavalry, no doubt that explains his transfer.

And here is his pension card filed under the 3rd PA Provisional Cavalry. We know it is the same man because the application and pension numbers match up, and there is the note that he served in Co. M of the 22nd Pennsylvania Cavalry.

Sometimes a pension card provides a whole different set of problems. Perry Clayberg served in Co. G of the 11th Regiment Illinois Cavalry. He received an invalid pension on 21 September 1898 (certificate #996.963) and his widow received a widow's pension on 22 March 1909 (certificate #688.311). Clayberg also served in Co. C of the 11th Illinois Cavalry. We also can compare the death date (1 February 1909) with the records we have to verify this is the same man.

But it is the "remarks" section that causes us to pause. "See WC 24236 Chas Moran A 55 Ill Inf." What does that mean?

"WC" stands for "Widow's Claim," specifically #24.236. The soldier for that claim was Charles Moran who served in Co. A of the 55th Regiment Illinois Infantry.

A quick search turns up Charles Moran's pension card. We know that this is the right man for several reasons. First, he served in Co. A of the 55th Regiment Illinois Infantry. The widow's pension number is the same: 24.236. And in the remarks we see a reference to the widow's claim for Perry Clayberg of Co. G if the unreadable Illinois Cavalry.

We would need to acquire the pension records for both men to determine the whole story, but one of two things happened here. Either the Widow Moran was collecting her pension (illegally) for Charles while married to Perry, or the government officials are merely cross referencing the two to explain why the Widow Moran stopped receiving that pension but is now receiving a new pension.

Pension cards can be a lot of help in tracking down the details of your ancestor's life. Read carefully, follow the clues, and you may find unexpected stories in your family.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Using Your Bookmarks Bar

I love to organize. Sorting, arranging, categorizing – those are all for me. As a matter of fact, my love of organizing is what got me interested in studying medieval history. But that is a story for another day.

And my love of sorting and organizing is one of the reasons that I love genealogy. Each person fits neatly into his or her place. Yes, it can take a lot of work and years to verify that this individual really does belong in this place, but the beauty of a fully fleshed out and properly sourced tree…..ahhh! bliss!

Which brings me to the subject of this blog. Are you taking advantage of your bookmark bar to properly organize and sort your frequently visited websites? Perhaps you all are, and perhaps, like some, you don’t really understand what you need to do and why messing with learning something new is of any use to you.

Trust me, your bookmark bar can be a great friend and a valuable asset to you in your research. It makes all of your websites readily available at your fingertips. Quick and easy access.

So start with a website you want to bookmark. You like it. You want to come back to it. It’s useful to you. Whatever. You just know that you want to be able to find it again. Look in the right hand corner of the address bar. See that star? That’s what you want. When you hover over it you get the message “Bookmark this page” so you know you are doing the right thing.

 Click on it. You should see something like this:

You’ll notice that the star has turned gold to indicate that the site address had been saved. The dialogue box tells you what name it is being saved under and which folder it is going to. Don’t like the name? Click the Edit button and change it. Want it to go into a different folder? Click on the dropdown menu and choose which folder you want the website to go into.

One of the options you get is “Choose another folder” which allows you to create a folder or even a subfolder.

Why would you want to do that? Let me show you with my bookmarks bar.

You see that I have my most frequently frequented sites across the bookmark bar. Nice different sites fit across the top and then the tenth is called “Genealogy Sites” with a folder icon on it. There is also that two carrot symbol on the far right of the bookmark bar. If you click on the two carrot symbol you get the rest of my “regular” sites.

But the one I want to show you is the “Genealogy Sites” folder. Click on that and you get this:

My Genealogy Sites folder is filled with sites that I find useful to me and want to be able to access again and again.

You will notice that at the top I have several subfolders for specific geographical locations. I told you I like to organize and sort! Rather than scrolling up and down looking for that particular English site, I can go directly to that folder and find the site I want. Like this:

Of course any system is only as good as you set it up, maintain it, and use it.

And my system might not work for you.

But play around with it, see what you like, how you want to find things, and where you expect to look for a specific website. Some sites that I use for multiple regions I put in more than one folder. And some aren’t geographically located, like the Measuring Worth site. But I love that one dearly and so it is always right at the top under my folders.

So there you have it: a quick tutorial in making the most of your bookmarks bar. Nothing fancy, but it can save you so much time and frustration. Especially if you are working in a shared computer.

Happy organizing to you!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Father's Day Blog 2011

This is a reprint of a blog I wrote a year and a half ago on another blogsite. Don't know why I switched there and then back here. But here is what I wrote for Father's Day 2011....

    Sunday was Father's Day, a good day to consider more family genealogy.  "Dad" is a good place to start when you begin working on your family tree.  I am fortunate - I know who my biological father is:  John R. James.  Not everyone does, you know.  Makes putting your family tree together a little bit on the difficult side.  And, as an extra added bonus, I had my dad for 44 years.  Again, not everyone else is so lucky.
     My dad was the next to youngest.  He was the youngest for 10 years, then my Uncle Mike came along and usurped that position.  His older siblings were a LOT older than him.  His oldest brother, my Uncle Bill, was 12 years older than him, and was almost like a second father. 

     I have several letters that Bill wrote to Dad during WWII and later, and it is clear that there was a close relationship between them.  So close that Mom and Dad honeymooned in Washington DC, Bill's home.

     My dad's dad was Melvin Chester James.  For obvious reasons, he didn't go by "Melvin", but "Mike".  And my dad's mom was Mary May McConahy.  Growing up (I have mentioned this before), we heard stories of the James side of the family, and I honestly think that if I hadn't sat down and grilled Grandma on her siblings and parents' names, that information would be almost completely forgotten.
     But back to Melvin Chester for now.  Apparently he was quite the story teller, and, like my son, he never let the truth get in the way of a good, or potentially better, story.  So my task as the family historian has been full of big and little disappointments:  we are NOT descended from an Indian chief; our James relatives seemed to have an uncanny ability to make and lose fortunes left and right; and Grandpa was a rather self-absorbed jerk.

     One thing I have discovered is that my family, the James branch, was full of scoundrels.  The lovable kind, but scoundrels nevertheless.  The first one to come to America appears to have been on the wanted list of the British authorities when he boarded the ship with a large group of Jameses.  We know his first name was James, and that he was single when he boarded, but when he landed his LAST name was also James, and he was married to one of Mr. James' daughters.  Our ancestor was able to disembark with the clan - all the sons, daughters, and in-laws - right under the unsuspecting British noses.
     We don't know how the marriage worked, but James and his wife, Sarah, stayed together for their entire lives.  And produced a number of children.

     I have also enjoyed discovering that my James family has ALWAYS been boring when it came to naming the children.  There are two James Jameses, and two Thomas Jameses.  Children all seemed to be named either James, Thomas, Robert, or William.  Only middle initials distinguish one from another.
     I mention this because my father's sisters all seemed to marry men named "John"  One aunt even married two different men with the first name of "John".  And on an unrelated note, another aunt married Earl who goes by "Bud".  His son, a behemoth of a man, large and wide, goes by "Little Bud"  I guess the James family has a certain sense of humor, too.

     So happy belated Father's Day to you dads.  And to my dad, I still miss you.  But thanks for giving me such an odd, unique, and lovable family!