Friday, July 29, 2016

Back to School

It's never too soon to begin getting in a "back to school" frame of mind. Granted, when you and I were young students, there wasn't a soul on the planet who wanted to rush the end of summer vacation; summer vacation was sacrosanct until the passing of Labor Day. Now, school can begin at any time.

Don't look now, but August is almost here, and class is liable to start any time after that. While moms already may be scurrying to purchase the requisite school supplies--or maybe even uniforms, if those are still part of the school scene--I'm thinking about a different type of return to school: advanced registration for the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy.

Incredibly, though the event doesn't occur until mid-January--and registration for the classes just opened earlier this month--several of the classes are already sold out. Yes, the event's organizer, the Utah Genealogical Association, bills itself as a purveyor of fine "high-intermediate to advanced-level courses," but apparently there is a high demand for the finer educational offerings in genealogical life.

Never one to be the first in line for opening night, I naturally didn't consider that mode when SLIG2017 opened the doors for advanced registration. Like last year, I snoozed, so I lose. Looks like it will be the waiting list for me, regardless of which of the six closed courses I might have opted to take.

Not that there aren't any other choices. SLIG2017 has a magnificent lineup of great speakers scheduled to instruct their classes next January, including Cyndi Ingle, D. Joshua Taylor, John Philip Colletta, Judy Russell and Thomas Jones. I could take up the entire school year, just learning from those luminaries. But, of course, that is not who I wanted to learn from, come this January. Guess I'll just have to add my name to the waiting list and see if I get an early Christmas present.

Above: "On the Shores of Bognor Regis," 1887 portrait of the William Halford family by Alexander Rossi; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

When Centuries Flash Before Your Eyes

I have to take a process break from my research. This dry spot I'm going through is such a downer. There's no other way to say it. No creative turn of phrase to make it any better. This is just the plain splat.

Yes, I admit, as I'm progressing through my mother-in-law's Gordon line, verifying all the work done twenty-some years ago in collaboration with another Gordon researcher, hitting the story of the unfortunate David Spragg and his slain family was a nadir in my family history forays.

But the downer hits didn't stop coming with the conclusion of that story. As I rush through the generations, checking Ancestry hints in census records and other key documents, I feel as if I'm seeing the panoply of our families' history flash before my eyes. And at high speed, the picture isn't pretty.

This past week, I've been working on the line of David Spragg's aunt Mary, who married a Phillips in Greene County, Pennsylvania. Of her many children, one daughtersimilar to David's storychose to leave her home town and move out west. Though certainly not a story with as tragic an ending as her cousin's, hers became a life with many disappointments. Her husband died young, leaving her to raise their four children by herself in Oklahoma Territory.

Predictably, as might any woman in those circumstances, she married again. That second marriage, howeverto a widower left needing a woman to tend to the several young children bereft of their own motherappeared to not have worked out well.

From that vantage point, a quick trip through the decades via U.S. Census enumerations seemed to trace the echoes of those familial difficulties as generation after generation gave signals of unhappy family life.

Of course, it's hard to tell. You can't simply make those assumptions, based on a once-a-decade snapshot of reality. It's so hard to read between the lines with skimpy evidence like that. But as I try to plug in the documentation alongside each name I add to this family's tree, I see sign after sign of repetition playing out, ever since that one ancestor took up the challenge to leave family and friends and move out west.

Sometimes, the speed at which we can survey several generations of a family's history can render the process a bit too revealing. We can unfold a family's history and spread it out clearly on the table for all to see within a matter of moments, aided by digitized records accessible online. Augment those documents with newspaper reports of the few family members whose names can be located in online archives, and we can almost watch those ancestors take shape before our eyes.

I sometimes watch family lines move from prominent positions in their colonial communities to more wealthy conditions in future generations, then crest a peak and begin a downhill slide. It's almost as if I can see the spoiled children of overworked (as well as, possibly, absent) fathers fail to gain the skills needed to get along with others when they can't get their own way. On their downward tumble, their broken homes suffer repercussions that ricochet through subsequent generations.

Perhaps I'm imagining things. Or superimposing my own interpretation on the flow of history. Whatever it might be, it feels like I am seeing Time flash before my eyes—the rise and fall of cultures as well as families.

Speed searching may be handy for quickly building out one's family tree, but it should come with a warning sign: "This research may be hazardous to your optimistic mood."

Above: "Catalina Island Coast Under a Moonlit Sky," 1920 oil on cardboard by American Impressionist artist Granville Redmond; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Coming up For Air

Family history can be filled with all sorts of fascinating stories. There are the details of relatives you knewbut didn't know they once did that. And there are the tidbits about ancestors long gone before you ever arrived on the scene, stories intertwined with history, and tales rescued from obscurity.

All of these are fun to uncover in the chase to discover one's roots. What isn't fun is to go through that long, dry period of research in which absolutely nothing happens. Yeah, there are surely stories hiding between the lines, but the way to tease these episodes out can sometimes elude us.

That's where I am right now, trying to tease out the details on this Snider family I mentioned yesterday. I'm currently following close on the trail of the one line which I suspect got plugged into the wrong generation. In the meantime, the chase is taking me page by page through census records. Like a series of snapshots that happen only once every ten years, it turns out to be a stop-motion picture which leaves out most of the action.

Sometimes, what's best to do when search leads evaporate is to set everything aside and take a break. I did that today. Not that it cleared the air enough to do wonders, but it was nice to stare down that gotta-find-out demon and tell it to take a hike. Those Sniders aren't going anywhere they haven't hidden themselves at, already. When I find them, I'll find them.

In the meantime, I took a drive into town, ran some errands, had coffee with someone I enjoy talking to, and ran into some friends on the way. We chatted where we met, right on the street corner (despite the hundred-plus degree temperature) because, well, there's no time like the present to catch up on news. One of these friends is only eight weeks out from a quintuple bypass during which, while still under the knife, manifested yet another medical issue that needed immediate attention. You don't just do a hi/bye drive-by when you see a friend like that.

True, when I returned homemainly to escape the heat waveI did eventually head back to the chase, but I've already settled it in my mind that I need to ratchet down my hopes for any great breakthroughs. You win some, you lose some. When it comes to those Sniders, this might be a case of the latter.

What I also remembered, after that break, is that sometimes, despite doing one's due diligence, the story is still not completely told. Sometimes it will never be completely told. On the other side of the issue, though, stands that brightand compellinghope that, having set the task aside for a season, there will be some clue which materializes, the next time I visit the issue. Perhaps it will be a realization that evolves in the process of collaborative work with a distant cousin. Perhaps it will be a document which was previously inaccessible, but now widely available to the public.

That type of hope comes with experience. This has happened to me beforethis being stuck on a line I'm researching, only to set it aside for a few months and then revisit when the time is right. The lesson it has taught me is that there is always more to be found. It's just that the "finding" time is not always today.

Above: Night on the Dnieper River, oil on canvas by Russian-born Greek landscape painter, Arkhip Ivanovich Kuindzhi; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016


Like eyes out of focus, gazing through the gaps in a chain-link fence on a lazy summer afternoon, I sometimes stare at my own work on my family trees as if they were fuzzy mysteries. Names parade before me dreamily, generation after generation, documenting the coming of age of another set of descendantsand the projects I've worked on for well over three decades. Suddenly, my eyes snap into focus as I realize a name out of placethat one was supposed to be in the next generationand I wonder, "What was I thinking?"

Have you ever done that? Gotten on a roll, entering lots of names in one family line, with discoveries spanning multiple generationsand then, after your marathon work session, realized you plugged that wife into the wrong generation? Of course, going back and cleaning up the mess seems more tedious than it was to make that mistake in the first place.

For the past several months now, I've been going over my decades-old research which has been languishing on an old computer and a just-as-old genealogical database program. Since I decided the best way to transfer all that work to my new research residence, online at, was to enter each person's details one by one, I've been checking each detail as I go. Find a name in the old database, enter it in at Ancestry. Check for hints. Locate appropriate census records. If lucky, plug in verification for birth on those most recent records. If not, at least try to find death records for those who made it to the twentieth century.

And so on.

It's admittedly slow going. But I did manage to achieve one goal: I entered all the descendants of my mother-in-law's Gordon ancestors. Every descendant of immigrant John Gordon and his wife, Mary Helen Duke, from 1739 down to the present daywell, at least as many of them as I've been able to findis now entered on my tree at Ancestry. Check that one off my list.

One good turn deserves another. Getting a task done feels so rewarding, it drives us to launch into another one. So I started tackling another surname in my mother-in-law's tree: Snider.

What was I thinking? Unlike Gordonwhich, you've got to admit, is a relatively straightforward choice of surname, since there is really only one way to spell itSnider presents predicaments from the start. The originating immigrant of this lineNicholascame over from Germany (or whatever nearby neighborhood got conveniently lumped in with that designation) with a surname spelled Schneider.

That didn't last too long. Early on, that spelling got switched to Sneider. That, however, was momentary. By the time the family made it to Perry County, Ohio, about the time the county was actually formed in 1818, theirs was a surname spelled with a straightforward approach: Snider. You know that was doomed to change, though. I've been treated with random switches between Snider and Snyder ever since.

No matter. I've been hot on the trail of these Schneider-Sneider-Snider-Snyders despite all the disguises their surname has taken on. They can't fool me.

And yet, as I review my work from the dark ages at the beginning of time, I find myself staring at all those names and entries and wondering: What was I thinking?

I've found one of those momentsprobably hot on the trail, way past midnight while my husband was away, working graveyard shiftin which I didn't clean up my mess after plugging in a name into the wrong generation.

Oh great. Like that proverbial set of eyeballs staring dreamily outside the window through that chain-link fence, my out-of-focus gaze suddenly snaps back into reality and I realize what I mess I have on my hands to clean up.

You see, one mistake isn't as innocuous as it seems. One misplaced person on a tree is followed by a spouse, which means children are soon to follow. And then their descendants. Which ones to leaveand which ones to clean out? Was that Mary, wife of William senior? Or William junior? Did I add her parents' names? Or get confused and put the right parents in, but for the wrong daughter?

And then, the whole process has to be repeated. It's as if I hadn't done the work at all, in the first place. Double checking and cleaning can be so tediousnot just fixing things up, but wondering what the thought process was in making the mistake in the first place.

When it's all done, I'm left with that nagging thought: did I rout out all the mistakes? Or is there one still there, lurking behind the disguise of a wrong husband, once again?

If I don't find it now, you can be sure it will snap into focus somewhere down the line again.

Probably in another twenty years.

Above: "Calculating Table," woodcut from Gregor Reisch's 1503 Margarita Philosophica; courtesy Typ 520.03.736, Houghton Library, Harvard University via Wikipedia; in the public domain. 

Monday, July 25, 2016

Matrilineal Musings

I sometimes wonder whether some of the terms in the genetic genealogist's lexicon could someday evolve into concepts better classified as oxymoronstwo words, juxtaposed, which cannot technically co-exist in the real world.

If you've spent any time wading through the vocabulary at the shallow side of the steep learning curve of this gene pool, you may have realized, after having braved the cheek-swabbing of a Y-DNA test (or, for you gals, suffering in proxy for a willing male relative's endurance of such), that the lab's breathless report of the results contained no names matching your father's surname.

"Ah," the wise researcher intones, "a non-paternal event." Translation: some guy upstream in your lineage messed aroundanonymously, of coursewith one of your confirmed female ancestors, for which her husband got the "credit."

Since it has been nearly two years since I've discovered that my mitochondrial DNA test triggered a rare exact match with someone who happens to be an adoptee, I have often wondered why no one snickers about the reverse of such an undocumented event. You know, a non-maternal event. I mean, could that even be possible? Would such a term be an oxymoron? After all, when it comes to maternity, it's kinda hard to hide the evidence.

Such things can happen, however. I think of the stories of parents discovering, years later, that their baby was switched at birth with the child they brought home from the hospital. Why doesn't anyone call that a non-maternal event?

Or what about the family I found while researching my own mother's line, where the brother of one free spirit adopted the man's two children when he deserted his wife after she fell ill with tuberculosis and could no longer care for their children? In that case, I wouldn't even have discovered who the proper father of those children was, if it hadn't been for newspaper references to the "adopted children" of that concerned family member. Otherwise, I would have presumed the adoptive father's wife was the true mother. Another possible false ascription of maternity in the paper trail.

Sometimes, when after searching and searching and coming up with no solid results, it seems tempting to chalk the failure up to false maternity. After all, I've been trying to identify the most recent common female ancestor connecting my matrilineal descent and that of my mystery cousin, the adoptee, since November of 2014. That's a lot of searching.

Yes, I know I've persistently plodded backwards in time through my mother's mother's mother's line, ad nauseum, and then turned about face and traced each daughter's line back to the future as far as I could go. Just in this calendar year alone, I've added 1,426 additional people to my mother's family tree. Admittedly, not all of them were women, but that thumbnail sketch serves to indicate just how much work has been done on that line.

And still no answer to my question: who was the female ancestor which could be claimed by both my mystery cousin and myself. It's dead end searches like this that make me wonder about such oxymoronic possibilities as non-maternal events. If only there were a way... 

Above: Follow that diagonally descending line across the bottom of the chart to trace my matrilineal line. Right now, I'm working on cataloguing and verifying all the descendants of Jane Strother. With only three more of her daughters to go, I will soon move up another generation to delve into the daughters of her mother, Margaret Watts, in my quest to uncover the nexus with my mystery cousin.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Off the Shelf:
Stored Treasures

When it comes to the immense collection of books at our house still awaiting completion, I usually pull one down from its shelf to read after it has perched there for ages with all but the first ten or twenty pages unread.

Today's selection is different. Determined to finish what I started reading, I had tucked this paperback into the glove compartment of my car, for those just-in-case moments of down time while on the road. It's taken me nearly a year to do it, but I have succeeded in covering over two hundred pages of a memoir I've always intended to read.

What else is a devotedbut busyreader to do? The only way to finish a book is to start. Then move steadily, page by page, through the content until those words"The End"finally come into view.

Stored Treasures, a memoir mostly composed of the journal of genealogist Smadar Belkind Gerson's great grandmother, lends itself well to this style of reading. Brief chapters describe the early years of Minnie Crane, memories of her childhood in a country village in what is now part of Belarus, and of her brief stay, as a young Jewish girl, in pre-war Germany. The story continues with the opportunity to follow her older brothers to America, the chance to go to school (even if it was night school), the challenges of keeping together as family with her siblings and the mutual effort to help each other succeed in a new land.

I first met the author, Smadar, online through her blog, Past-Present-Future, where she not only shared details about completing her book, but also published stories about other members of her family. Smadar has an interesting perspective, largely on account of her unusual life story. Born in Israel, she was education in the United Statesshe has a degree in medicinebut after marriage, moved to Mexico where she and her husband raised their family. Now back in the Boston area, she has delved further into genealogical research.

Although I miss her blogSmadar hasn't posted since the fall of 2014I enjoyed seeing how, in her book, she put together the words of her great grandmother and her grandmother with her own observations, filling in the blanks in the narrative with explanations and historical insights. The straightforward narrative of Minnie Crane's journal contrasts with the challenging experiences she went through as a young person. Just letting her tell her own story gives it a clarity I appreciated.

Of course, I have my eye on this type of book for another reason: just as any genealogist might, I've unearthed a wealth of material from family members whose stories simply beg to be told. With that in mind, I often wonder how others handled this sort of task, so I've gathered quite a collection of such books. I'm always curious to see how others choose to address this task of sharing their family's stories, and since I have been reading these books, you can be sure I'll be sharing a description on each as I finish them.

With photographs included, as well as copies of letters and news clippings, Smadar chose to let her great grandmother tell most of her own story. Still, she found a way to gently insert her own voice as she brought the family's story forward through the next three generations. I appreciate her approachas well as the opportunity to glimpse the story of someone else's family.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

When Plans Go Awry

It was barely a month ago when I was writing about plans for our family's upcoming trip east to visit relatives in Illinois and Ohioand, of course, to do some needed genealogical research along the way. Among other questsDNA testing, for one thingI had hoped to wrap up the documentation to submit a supplemental D.A.R. application on behalf of my daughter, which would handily also become the paperwork for membership for my two sisters-in-law as well as, possibly, some cousins.

It looks like that paper chase will have to be accomplished the old fashioned, snail-mailed way now. Late last night, our flight home touched down at the airport without us; though our route on the ground was planned to take us from Chicago to Columbus and back again, we've been sitting here at home all the past two weeks we were supposed to be in the air and on the road.

Of course, we'll get back to the drawing board and reconfigure our itinerary, hopefully getting the chance to make the journey sometime this fall. And there were real roadblocks checking our progress this month: health problems that would not have accommodated the kind of pleasant visits with relatives that we had had in mind.

In the meantime, progress on my research goals have not entirely been thwarted. There is, of course, another option. Though it may take a few phone calls and possibly incur some expenses, there is always the alternative that has been the tried and true methodology for genealogical research for decades prior to the advent of the Internet. Yes, snail mail.

As has often been repeated by many in the research world, contrary to popular opinion, not everything we seek in our genealogical pursuits can be found online. Yes, digitized records are being uploaded online at a breathtaking pace. Kudos to those organizations who have facilitated that effort. But not everything is there, ready to be accessed at the click of a mouse. Sometimes we have to go hunting, ourselves, through those library stacks, archives, museum collections or even out in the "wilds" of long-forsaken cemeteries.

The particular line of descent I'm trying to verify has a few missing links along the way. The difficulties of dealing with family matters from the early 1800s, coupled with the challenge of identifying one of those "invisible" femalesthe married type who died young in childbirth, for instancesignals the type of project in which a researcher simply has to go out there and get her hands on some source documents.

Even though I can't get back to those locations right now, I have yet another recourse: the assistance of local researchers. If I do get stumped in my project, for a mere fraction of the cost of airfare, a well-placed request for service to a carefully-selected local genealogist may also expedite the process.

Of course, for many of us, nothing replaces the thrill of the chase. When the goal is to find it ourselves, that sometimes trumps even the goal of finishing the case. Besides, what can replace the chance to meet up with interested family members and share what's been discovered?

In the matter of this postponed trip, though, I suspect this one time I will cave and find a way to get the documents I need sent ahead to me. In addition to keeping the research schedule on track, it will give me all the more to share with family when we do get the chance to get together again.

Above: "The Vegetable Garden," by Belgian impressionist painter Juliette Wytsman; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.
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