Saturday, March 25, 2017

Being the One

Not all that long ago, one of my elder relatives had completed extensive work on his family tree. He and I did get the chance to have a few discussions about our mutual discoveries before he passed away. I remember, a few years after that point, one of the cousins I've since been visiting this week comment that, sometime when I come to visit, I'd really enjoy getting to look through all his notebooks.

Yes, I would. I'm still looking forward to that visit. Perhaps soon, I'll get that treat. But in the meantime, it reminds me of something.

There are so many of my fellow researchers who have no one in their family with whom to share their enthusiasm about the family's stories. They are consigned to a fate of having to revel in their discoveries alone. While all of us who are smitten with the genealogy bug thrive on being able to share our discoveries with fellow enthusiasts, the more usual burden we face is to be the only one in the family who cares about this personal history.

Such of us as are relegated to this fate realize a corollary to that dilemma: if no one in the family steps up to share our joy in genealogical discoveries, then who will take up our work when we are gone?

I always like to take the positive approach, when consoling others to whom that realization has dawned, encouraging them that someday, someone will step up to pick up where we left off. And there have been some times when I've seen that happen for some families. Just in the nick of time, a great-niece or distant cousin will start exhibiting interest in what we've uncovered, ask a few questions...and then a few more. Pretty soon, that person has moved from apprentice to fellow researcher to inheritor of "the stuff."

It wasn't until this week's visits with family that it occurred to me: perhaps for this cousin's father, I have turned out to be that one—the one in the family who finally steps up and turns out to be the one to carry the research task forward into the next generation. I never thought of myself as anyone else's research successor; I only thought of myself as carrying out my own research calling.

I've felt that sense of relief from some of my fellow researchers when they finally find someone to pick up where they left off—a sense that all that work wouldn't go to waste, wouldn't be forgotten. Yet never did I think of myself as the one who would pick up the baton and run this tag team race for another researcher. Though it was never a promise made, nor material passed on, in effect, that is now what is happening.

Someday, hopefully, I'll actually get my hands on that man's notebooks and see for myself the records he uncovered in carefully cataloging his family line. It will be exciting to actually see what work has already been done. But in the meantime, it is such an awe-inspiring feeling to realize one is a part of something bigger—a project passed down through the generations, with details too big for just one researcher to handle alone. Even more important, how exciting to be the one who enables the work of another to live on for at least a few more years. What a way to preserve the story for yet another generation.

And now, I'll get to be the one awaiting the revelation of just who it will be who will step up next to be the one to carry the work forward. After all, there will always be yet another generation.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Filling in the Blanks

How important it is to take the opportunity to interview relatives—not just once but as many times, over the years, as possible. Yes, in the earlier years, people certainly have fresher memories of their older relatives. But some things come to the forefront of memory right after the fact, pushing aside reflections that only evolve into greater insight later. Sometimes, those secondary reflections can be more telling than the original reporting of the factual side of memories.

My husband and I thoroughly enjoyed visiting with my cousin and his wife yesterday. While I've plied him with family questions repeatedly over the years—he has graciously been the one with the patience to keep at it, no matter how many questions I've had—there is always more to learn.

This time, our visit was more in the style of a reminiscing chat than the step by step note-taking tasks of earlier years. We puzzled together over the enigmas in our family's history, why certain relatives were so reticent to tell about their experiences in conversation. And as we talked about our research frustrations, our own conversation mirrored the pattern that, eventually, have gotten a few others in the preceding generation to open up and talk.

Our main research problem is that our grandfather never told anyone much about his past. He tried to pass himself off as a descendant of an Irishman, when in fact he was Polish. Part of that, we now understand, was both a case of economic necessity and political survival in an era when there was no Poland—those of Polish descent were considered to be part of Germany in a war era in which that ethnic background was not viewed favorably. But there was something else quite mysterious about his choice to conceal his background. We knew next to nothing about him—even this cousin who, unlike myself, knew him personally.

Having already beat that issue soundly—rehashing our research problem yielded no further clues—our visit turned to a time of reminiscing about various relatives. Because my dad—his uncle—was a professional musician during the time in which New York City had a much more active show scene, my cousin often had the opportunity to go visit him at the theater in which he played. What a thrill for a teenager to have the opportunity to sit backstage or in the orchestra pit during a show—and to rub shoulders with some big names in the entertainment field. And what an eye opener to see these people, behind the scenes, when others knew only of their public personalities.

My cousin got to telling some stories about his observations of my dad in action at work that I've never heard. Of course, as much as our grandfather never talked about himself, apparently, neither did my dad. I came away from yesterday's visit gleaning a few examples of just what my dad was like in action—character clues I'd otherwise have never seen through anyone else's eyes.

Just getting that gift of gab flowing was helpful. No agenda at hand to pump for specific details. Sometimes, a plot like that only bogs down the conversation. Better not to have that sense of a desperado, absolutely having to achieve that interview mission before leaving—as if it were for the last time, or else. Far better to view the interview process as a series that can be revisited as needed, rather than a once-for-all, or else, process.

My brother had used that same approach once, during a visit at my aunt's eightieth birthday party. Rather than the do-or-die approach, he just settled in for a nice, comfortable chat as he gently drew my aunt down memory lane. Surely my aunt was flattered at the attention. But she also was tracking with him as he walked her from one memory of favorite relatives, to "the time when..." opportunities to talk about recollections of good times.

The episode had taken on the aura of a conversation rather than an interview. There were no questions that could be "answered wrong." The give and take of the conversation meant both parties were contributing to the memories. And when my aunt's memory ran into dim or hazy patches, my brother had been able to deftly steer her towards parts of the episode that she could remember more clearly.

While our visit with my cousin and his wife yesterday certainly didn't encounter those kinds of memory hazards, it was just a more relaxing experience to hear those memories unfold. Not driven by an agenda of getting all those questions answered, but by the enjoyment of letting the mind travel down the memory lanes chosen at the moment, I got to learn a lot about family members in the years preceding my own arrival, late, on the family scene.

Sometimes, it's when we limit ourselves to specific time frames or sets of questions that simply must be answered that we miss all that can come our way. Why limit ourselves to the be-all, end-all approach to interviewing, when taking the opportunity to have yet another visit with a cherished family member can be not only so much more enjoyable, but informative as well.      

Thursday, March 23, 2017

It's Still True—
The Vital Importance of Oral Interviews

I'm on the road again. Near relatives, of course. So naturally, I have the opportunity to interview these folks—but did I think of that when I first started planning my trip? Of course not. Somehow, in my mind, the concept of genealogical research had morphed from pen on paper and face-to-face inquiry to online pursuits.

I suspect your experience might have become the same. After all, there is so much that can be accomplished online in our quest to document the lives of our forebears. Digitized documents bring the array of necessary paperwork right to our desks, thanks to some well-placed taps on the computer keyboard by our little fingertips. Who moans about snail mail delays anymore?

The invisible corollary that may have suffered in the demise of old fashioned research legwork might be the face to face interview. Since we can obtain so much from virtual expeditions, why leave the comfort of our armchair to actually go visit those relatives we haven't seen in months, er, years?

So here I am in Florida, home of relatives on three sides of our collective families. How can I not take this opportunity? But I find my interviewing skills somewhat rusty. And, in odd contrast, I also find those interviewing skills supercharged by having my genealogical notes right at hand, accessible for any questions with the click of a mouse or a tap on my iPad.

Meeting with my mother's cousin—the baby of her generation and one of the few remaining in that cohort—she pulled out a piece of paper to discuss the fine points of our McClellan line, needing a place to sketch out the pedigree. As she spoke, I double checked her information against what I had already entered in my records.

I was fortunate that this cousin was daughter of a man who, though now long gone, had left extensive research notes, himself. What a treasure! What an opportunity to carry on from where his work left off.

Another plus was the warnings this cousin was able to give. Apparently, as sometimes happens, a distant relative had circulated some erroneous information on this tree, and my visitor was concerned that I steer clear of this disinformation. I'm so glad for the heads up—something that couldn't be provided except by those who have already worked on their family history.

The line we two share happens to be the McClellan line I've recently been discussing. I'm pursuing the political involvement of members of this family, down through the generations, and had been keen on plying this cousin with questions. She personally remembered the closer generations of this family and was able to verify what I had stumbled upon, online. While McClellan isn't exactly a Smith kind of surname, there are quite a few out there with this name. If you don't think so, just google "George McClellan" and see how far afield your search can bring you. A middle initial and dates for lifespan can make all the difference in the world.

Today, I'll be headed off in another direction: to visit a cousin on my father's side. He, too, will have the benefit of a family member who has delved into genealogical research, but in this case, it is someone younger than both of us—his daughter. While I can share notes with her on what she has discovered, I'll save that for another trip. For today's visit, it's most vital that I ply my cousin with questions about his personal memories of all the family members on my father's side of the family.

The unique perspective that this cousin can provide is his personal experience with many of the relatives no longer with us—people he knew as a child and young adult, whom I never had the opportunity to meet, let alone get to know. This line, if you recall, descends from an immigrant who arrived in New York harbor and soon after changed his name, hoping to obliterate any trace of his former self—whatever that past might have entailed.

When the topic of oral interviews is brought up, many researchers assume that signals an initial interview—the kind where the older generation faces a barrage of questions about names, dates, and locations suitable to include as a new researcher begins a pedigree chart. That process, in my case, has long been completed, thus don't expect a helpful how-to list for launching your own interview process.

Despite having moved far beyond those initial research steps, I still find it valuable to engage in oral interviews. Only in my case, I'm looking to verify details found online and stitch together the facts behind unusual discoveries that don't make sense on paper.

I have another reason for taking this second opportunity for oral interviews. As my mother's cousin reminded me yesterday, she and her brother are among the last of that generation. If any of their memories are to be preserved for future generations, now is the time.

The cousin I am going to visit today had once commented about our grandparents to me, "If only I had thought to ask those questions when they were still around." So true. I've heard numerous people echo that same sentiment—and I'm not even related to them! We all lose when we, in our young lives, are too busy with our own commitments to reach out and preserve the treasures soon to slip away.

When I teach beginners how to launch their genealogical pursuits, of course I include that stock line of instruction—to interview family members to help these beginners fill in the lines on their pedigree charts. Usually, though, most of the people taking my classes are soon-to-be or recently retired. A fair number of them have already lost their parents; grandparents are out of the question.

Does this mean I shouldn't offer that advice? Of course not. Though people such as those in my classes may not have the luxury of sitting down to a delightful discussion with their grandparents, they can still set aside time to visit with other relatives. While younger aunts and uncles are still available, that's an avenue. Reaching out to the extended family—such as my visit with my mother's cousin the other day—is an option. Keep in mind that, at least in some families, wide age differences may yield possibilities. For instance, in my family, my oldest sibling is twenty years older than I am; that's two decades of family memories I was unable to be part of, but which I can gather via discussions with those who were there.

Every moment that slips by pulls with it the chance to recapture memories of your family's experiences. But there is no need to give up the pursuit just because your parents are no longer with you. Until you are the oldest one remaining, the last one left in your generation, keep plugging away with questions about family memories. Even if all you are left with is your sister or brother who is a year or two younger than you, keep asking questions; some people remember events differently than the others who went through the "same" experience.

No matter how big your family tree has become, or how many documents you can retrieve thanks to your online subscriptions, you simply cannot rely solely on your online research prowess. While people may err in memories of dates or middle names of second cousins twice removed, what they do remember are the shared experiences with other family members—the stories which yield the flavor of just what those ancestors were once like. This is the only way to complete the telling of your family's story—all the rest, to a novice audience, becomes fodder for that "my eyes glaze over" reception. 


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

It's All About the Money

It takes a lot of poking around on the last few pages of Google search hits to unearth any mentions of the day-to-day legislative involvement of a minor player in Territorial politics. But that is part of the life story of my third great grandfather, and I decided I wanted to know more about him. I'm not satisfied with the mere label of "farmer" in a census record for my genealogical research.

Granted, if it weren't for the digitizing of such obscure volumes as the 1842 Journal of the Proceedings of the Senate of the Territory of Florida, I wouldn't have found printed verification of some of the disputes going on behind the scenes which might explain why Florida's first constitution was drawn up in 1838, but didn't gain the territory access as a full-fledged state until 1845. Perhaps the contention surrounding that original constitution might also explain why the original version of the document has never since been found.

Thankfully, in the process of this search, I've managed to unearth verification that, indeed, my third great grandfather's name was included in list of "ayes" which passed both the preamble and resolution on one particular contentious issue in that 1838-1839 gathering.

The problem, however, was that the wording of those documents included phrases considered by some to be rather impolitic, and thus, were brought up in votes to suppress the document before its intended journey to Washington, D.C., where it would be part of required procedures for admission to the union of the United States.

Talk about incendiary language. During the Florida Territory's legislative council meeting on Friday, January 14, 1842, a certain representative introduced a preamble and resolution "expunging certain proceedings...from the Journals." The material referenced a resolution regarding "the Banks and other Corporations in this Territory" fingering certain banks, railroads, insurance entities and
other grants of powers highly objectionable, which have already produced serious injuries, & are calculated to embarrass the government of the State in its future operations, and also to produce further great loss, detriment and injury to the people.

The goal behind these accusations was apparently to petition the Congress of the United States to  
remedy and correct the injury for the future, and relieve the people from their embarrassment in this respect.

The petition didn't just stop at these generalities. Of course, the request went on to ask for Congress to pass a law
to remedy as far as practicable, the evils that have already resulted from the improvident and injudicious acts of the Territorial Legislature, and to prevent the disastrous consequences which it is apprehended may ensue from the same cause [that would] affect injuriously the character and honor of the people of Florida.

As you can imagine, a proposal like this didn't sit well with some of the Territory's elected officials. The January 14, 1842, session was actually a continuation of business from the preceding days' debate, which mainly was concerned with the indebtedness incurred by votes regarding various bonds and other money issues involving specific incorporations. Entered into the day's record was not only the full preamble and resolution from which the above excerpts were drawn, but also the list of all names voting both for and against the 1838 preamble and resolution.

Firmly ensconced in the midst of those names voting for the offending proposal was none other than my third great grandfather, George E. McClellan.

As rebuttal to the supposed overreach of the state's Constitutional Convention, a counter-resolution had been offered the following month, basically accusing the original body of meddling in affairs it ought not to have tackled—"travelled beyond the pale of their duties," as the document emphatically put it. Not just that, but it was "impolitic, unjust, and inexpedient, and calculated to impair their credit and usefulness."

Them's fightin' words.

The upshot? The resolution called—but not until January of 1842—for the original constitution's section on banks and other corporations to be "regarded only as the expression of individual sentiment" and that "our Delegate in Congress" resist any changes to the charters of the "aforesaid incorporated institutions" of the Territory of Florida.

Well, you know that had to come to a vote, as well. When all was said and done, the decision was to "expunge" from the Journals the "said above recited resolutions and proceedings of this House." That was duly noted, instructions were sent to the Florida delegate in Congress, and presumably, all progressed from that point toward statehood for Florida. Previous charters of incorporation were preserved—whatever the original problem had been was now disregarded.

Makes me want to go back in time and ask George McClellan what all the fuss was about, anyhow. Someone must have been concerned about following the money. Between banks, insurance companies, railroads, and other entities, even before the place had achieved statehood, Florida was already big business.


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Like Father, Like Son

It seems reasonable, now that I'm in Florida researching the history of my McClellan ancestors, to not allow myself to get distracted by the one fact that my third great grandfather was a signer of the original state constitution, and miss out on checking into the stories of anyone else in the family. For instance, what would a son be like, who saw his father's involvement in the state militia and in the formative years of his region's government?

Though William Henry McClellan may not have followed in his father's footsteps to attain the position—no matter how briefly—as a representative in the Florida State government, he apparently ran in some local races. Living in the northern part of the state in a little town called Wellborn, he showed up in some archived records of state elections.

In November, 1876, for instance, William H. McClellan received nine votes for constable in Suwannee County. Apparently, that wasn't sufficient to qualify him for the position. But it did show he tried—at least he was in the race.

For the year 1896, he seemed to fare somewhat better. In the Florida Secretary of State's report for that year, William McClellan was listed as Justice of the Peace for District Nine, encompassing Wellborn.

In other accomplishments, at least according to his Find A Grave memorial, he was listed as a Captain, undoubtedly for his role in the Civil War. But if you were to look up the man's occupation in the census records, it merely reported his occupation as farmer.

I suspect there were a lot of farmers in that century's census records who followed suit—a life not reflected adequately by the government's official documents.

Piecing together these little scraps of hints yielded up by a Google search, I get a mosaic of what this man might have been like. In the shadow of his father yet trying to offer up skills of his own, he was possibly hampered by the smallness of the community in which he grew up.

On the other hand, reflecting on his situation, it does open my eyes to see possible reasons why his son—my great grandfather—might have left the tiny town he called home for better opportunities elsewhere. And it also clues me in to those late night political conversations my mother remembered falling asleep to, as a child, and the likely influences behind my great grandfather's decision to run for mayor in his own time—which he did, serving for one term in another small town called Fort Meade.

Part of what we are certainly can be attributed to what we received through our parents. Some of it will be thanks to what we learned in our formative years. Relying on assumptions like this might not be as foolproof as following the Genealogical Proof Standard, but they may shed some light on the types of people our ancestors once were.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Here, But Not Necessarily Now

I'm in Florida, doing penance as I recall my faults. It was nearly six years ago—not long after I launched this blog—when I posted a series of articles on the McClellan side of my mother's family. In particular, I wanted to focus on my third great grandfather, George Edmund McClellan, who happened to be one of the representatives at the first Florida state constitutional convention in 1838.

I don't know about you, but having an ancestor who had his name signed to a constitution—even if it was just a state constitution—seems like a big deal. I thought it would lead to a wealth of documented resources providing his biography.

Silly me. The best I could come up with was a listing of the constitution's signers—made more challenging by the fact that there is no document to verify that fact; no one knows what happened to the original document. All the State of Florida has is what is known as a "secretary's copy," with only the signatures of the convention's president and secretary affixed.

Well, there is the oral tradition. And it is fortunately preserved in online resources close to George McClellan's home in the northern part of the state.

And, at least, there is a stub of an article on George E. McClellan sitting in the ether at the back end of the digital universe known as Wikipedia.

In 2011, I promised myself I'd learn how to be a Wikipedia contributor and make that situation right. You notice how quickly I got onto that. Here it is, nearly seven years later, and nary a word has been added to the article at Wikipedia. Up until today, I hadn't even found out how to sign up as a contributor—although I have since discovered numerous help articles, now that I've suffered vast waves of remorse over my procrastinating ways.

The next step—same as it was six years ago—is to take action. I think learning to post material on Wikipedia is an excellent genealogically-minded project. So why not get with it?!

In the here and now—something quite foreign to such a procrastinator as I am—I have all excuses for action removed from me. I used to say, "whenever I get around to traveling to Florida"—but now I'm here. I could do that research right now, except for a few obstacles. The major one, of course, is my miserable habit of procrastinating.

The second one is...I had no idea how long a state this place is! Living in California as I do, I've become accustomed to traveling great distances and still being in the same state. Unlike those who are, for instance, residents of a place like Rhode Island, for a Californian, a drive of several hours becomes merely the cost of doing business. And here, I thought I could just pop up to the state capital and do some research in their archives—until I discovered it would entail a six hour round trip, just for the drive.

This predicament doesn't leave me without options, however. I may as well capitalize on the fact that I'm in the home state of those McClellans and see what else can be found while I'm here. According to some online records, George McClellan may not be the only one in the family to be involved in Florida's government.

Above: George E. McClellan. 1838. Black & white photoprint. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. Accessed 19 Mar. 2017.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

While Ireland Was Sleeping

Communicating with another side of the world—something which might have taken months, back in some of the eras in which we've been pursuing our families' histories—is now simply a matter of a tag team approach. While Ireland is sleeping, I dispatch an email or post a comment on social media, call it a night, and while I'm sleeping, Ireland wakes up and sees my message.

Add that to the many benefits of attempting genealogical research in the digital age. It is certainly accelerating my quest to locate a living descendant of the couple whose Christmas 1936 photo album ended up five thousand miles from their home by 2015, the year I found it in an antique shop in a neighboring town in northern California.

After that rapid volley between members of the Cork Genealogical Society on their closed Facebook page in response to my Saint Patrick's Day query, one of the participants suggested that I take a look for a particular name on Facebook. I did. Of course, there were five or six options from which to select my candidate for contact. One never knows whether the first choice will turn out to be the right choice, but the only way to proceed with this quest is to take the step and make at least one choice.

This option, of course, would greatly speed up the possibility of a response. I went ahead, selected one of the names on the Facebook list, put in a friend request and added a private message. Just as I had started Saint Patrick's Day—with a post to the Facebook group at midnight at the start of the holiday—I ended it with a tentative message direct to the person I hoped would be the right one.

And wished for a graceful reception to my brazen intrusion on someone's privacy.

Just as our family was finally collapsing into bed that night—after frantically packing for a cross-continental flight in the morning—my husband heard a little "ding" come from my phone. I was already oblivious to the noise, so he simply mentioned it the next morning, figuring it was just a text about our trip the next day.

The next morning, after running to get to the airport on time, we finally settled in at the gate. While awaiting boarding, I remembered his comment and decided to check my texts before powering down my phone.

I was surprised to see I hadn't received any.

Instead, there was a notification that I had received a note via Facebook Messenger.

There, in the midst of the rush and noise of a busy airport, it seemed like being suddenly transported to a different world. I wanted to jump and shout, but remembered to keep my composure in such a public setting. This was, after all, an airport. No sense in causing undue alarm. Besides, this was a good jump and shout episode.

While Ireland was sleeping, I had sent the twenty-first century's equivalent of a message in a bottle. By the time I retired for the night—and while Ireland was just starting to awaken—someone five thousand miles from me was sending a message back.

It was a good message. She's the right choice. After eighty years, the album Harry and Alice Hawkes Reid sent as a Christmas greeting will soon be going home.

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