Friday, February 28, 2014

Some thoughts while away

Ruth, Florence, Gertrude Cain, Claude Murvin,
Tommy Cain, Mary Jean Koos
It’s been a long time since I sat down to look at my genealogy projects, and I miss the fun, the satisfaction, and even the occasional frustration of it all.

Two trips -- one for fun, one less so -- and planning for some household  remodelling have kept me away from this most engrossing pursuit for far too long. But thoughts do keep occurring, and one of these days I’ll be able to plunge in again. Perhaps, in the meantime, I need to follow the suggestions we’ve all read, about taking small steps when there’s no time to settle down with the Big Ones.

One modest task comes to mind immediately (because the evidence is sitting right in front of me): sorting the most recent family Christmas letters and photos, making sure they are dated with the year and the images are properly identified. 

The group on the right include three of my aunts, an uncle, my little brother (now in his 70s) and a cousin. Who besides me would know all their names?

Another is the perennial need to straighten up the work area. Folders pulled out and never put away, half-finished lists, books than need to go back on the shelf.  I am an inveterate list-maker and inventory-taker, but later, looking at the incomplete results, I am often puzzled at what prompted their creation. Then there are the newly-purchased books, the journal articles, and the many printed-out references that need to find a home -- preferably someplace where I can find them again. 


That brings up another question. How do you file items of general interest -- about places, events, living conditions -- in short, matters that are not about your family members but most likely had an impact on their lives? I have a file cabinet full of carefully labelled folders for the states and regions where my ancestors lived, with emphasis on their home counties, local topography, etc. But I almost never consult it! There needs to be a better way, and if you have any suggestions, I’d be delighted to hear them.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Quantity or quality?

Great grandpa?
Do you feel envious, or skeptical, when you read about someone who has zillions of relatives in his family tree? Or who claims to trace her illustrious forebears back to Charlemagne? (Funny, no one ever brags about being descended from Attila the Hun.) Are these people simply collecting names, harvesting them from other trees just because there might be a tenuous link?  Online family trees are great enablers in this respect, as there is endless space for adding names, and, sadly, very little on the need for valid sources.

While I’m chasing faint connections in an attempt to identify some first-name-only references in an old letter, these questions do come to mind.  I am looking at a family related only by marriage -- my great-grandmother’s in-laws from her first brief union.  This spouse was David Hammond, son of Nathaniel Hammond and the second of his three wives, Hannah Van Meter. All told, Nathaniel fathered 17 children we know of, and of course most of them married and reproduced abundantly. From various clues in the letter, written to my grandmother by her aunt, I am guessing the people she named are part of this enormous Hammond clan, most of whom lived their lives in 19th century Indiana.

 The researching involved is sort of like trying to solve a tantalizing puzzle with many equally tempting off-shoots, which means I can easily lose sight of my goal -- simply identifying the names in the letter. 

I am reminded of Stephen Leacock’s words: "Lord Ronald ... flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.” But I do try to keep to the point. It is a fascinating family, but only one individual is connected to my line in any way.  The letter’s references are my excuse for digging further, but how does one decide where to draw the line?  


What are you views?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Big time in Salt Lake City

Just back from my periodic foray to the Family History Library, for a week of immersion in genealogical research, and a chance to reunite with a group of fellow conspirators from the Midwest.  The weather was cool but mostly dry (as a Californian, I earned a few laughs for wearing a jacket outside when the temperature was in the low 60s).

It is always a treat to be there and learn what changes are taking place in and around town.  The local rapid transit system goes right to the airport terminal now, for one thing. The Salt Lake Plaza Hotel has remodelled most of their rooms, for another (and my closet was cleverly concealed behind a huge mirror -- took me a while to find it). In the library itself, there is at least one photocopier right out on the third floor (US/Canadian books), as well as the film-to-print-or-flashdrive equipment on the second floor. (I haven’t investigated the lower floors where my Minnesotan friends hang out, looking for their Swedish, German, and Norwegian lines.)

We hiked over to the LDS office building most days for hearty but very inexpensive lunches, and were in time to see the holiday decorations being put up in Temple Square. Hearing the Mormon Tabernacle Choir practice on Thursday night was a pleasure, as always.

My big find was on Ancestry.com (their “institutional” version is free to use at the Library). Browsing for Lewis Hartwell Thompson, whom I know had come west by 1860, I found him in a database of “California Pioneers,” with place and date of his birth, and the names of his parents. A real piece of luck! The list had been compiled by the California State Library (applause), originally from Hubert Howe Bancroft’s seven-volume History of California. Of course, if I had thought of it at the time, I could have followed up by looking at the books themselves, since the Family History Library has a set in print and on film.

Another rather intriguing clue I picked up was the discovery that my great-grandmother, Nancy Jane Sherwood, had signed her name “Nancy Sexton” in some probate documents after the death of her first husband, David Hammond. I was looking for some clue as to when she might have married my great-grandfather, whose surname was Howard. I had always thought he was her second husband, but it seems there was another brief union first.  Unfortunately this all took place in Jasper County, Indiana, before the time of their 1864 courthouse fire.  So, no marriage records are available, and I will have some digging to do in order to learn about this Mr. Sexton.

There were a couple of other pieces of information which came to light in my searches, but as we all know, the longer you work on this, the fewer the discoveries. At first it is like skimming the cream off the top. Later is it more like sifting through already-mined sources to find a tiny nugget or even a bit of gold dust.

Nonetheless, I had a really satisfactory visit, and now there are some real clues to stalk.



Sunday, September 08, 2013

The joy of sleuthing


“Perhaps the most satisfying task is to assemble in chronologic order all those bits and pieces of information from all those varied sources and watch a life appear before our eyes...”

This anonymous quote from an old genealogy newsletter really resonated with me. It is a satisfying task (and can be nearly endless if you let it).  We never can really know all there is to know about another person, especially one who is long gone, but, oh, the fascination in seeing a personality develop from a complete blank to a recognizable image. It may stay somewhat faded and fuzzy around the edges, but does gradually come to life, like a photograph in a darkroom bath.

Another source of satisfaction comes in working on a specific puzzle. Sometimes, when the very “dailyness” of daily life just gets to be too much, it’s a pleasure just to sit down and tackle something completely different, like the question of whether Uncle Wally really had six wives, or who that mysterious person was in Grandma’s household, circa 1880.

And it’s so much easier to find answers now! You must have seen those endless ads for cable TV, with kids harking back to the “old days” when you couldn’t record four programs at once while watching something else. (My question is -- who on God’s green earth thinks there are that many programs worth watching, much less recording? But I digress.) We researchers of a certain age could do them one better, reminiscing about our “old days” in genealogy, when there was no internet, doing research in books often meant waiting weeks to get them from distant libraries, and one had to be a detective to even discover where specific public documents or books were likely to be found.

My earliest experience in trying to learn something about an 18th century ancestor came when I received, on inter-library loan, a book from San Francisco’s Sutro Library: The Calendar of Kent County, Delaware, Probate Records, 1680-1800, compiled by Leon de Valinger Jr. How thrilling to find an abstract of Thomas Cain’s will, made 20 October, 1799! Being such a newbie, I didn’t feel compelled to look for the original document until years later, but the book’s entry did give me some very helpful information, and confirmed much of what my grandfather had written down about what was his great-grandfather’s family. 

It was a thick old volume, so fragile I couldn’t take it home, but had to use it in the library.  Now, paperback reprints are available, and the work has been digitized so it is fully searchable online. Not only that, but an index to the original probate files can be examined at the Delaware Public Archives website, as an aid to obtaining copies of the original documents.

Carping about the so-called tribulations of early television-viewing  makes me snicker, but when I recall what it was like to do family history research just a few years ago, I am truly grateful for modern technology.










Thursday, July 25, 2013

Copy once, look twice -- or something like that


I have written before about the importance of looking hard at even the most tentative clues in genealogy -- census records that don’t seem worth examining because the dates, birthplaces, or even surnames seem too far removed; references in letters that don’t look pertinent, and on and on. Well, here is another example, from my own research:

I’ve always copied down a lot of items just because they seemed, at the time, to have some connection to my surnames, however slight.  But all too often the notes get consigned to a folder where they lie, forgotten.  In this case, while trying once more to find out what happened to my great-aunt’s son, Franklin Lee Parkison, I was going back through a collection of those set-aside notes. What caught my eye was a pencilled notation I must have made in the days before computers, from the WPA’s “Index to Death Records for Jasper County (Indiana), 1882-1920.” It read: ParkiNson, Frank S., white, male, single, age 56, died 19 July 1919,  Rensselaer, Indiana.  Well, to start with, the surname has an “n” (but Parkison is often misspelled that way), and the middle initial is wrong.  Then, my faulty math led me to dismiss the possibility that this might by my guy. Let’s see, 56 from 1919 means a birth year of 1863. Oh oh. That actually matched what I did know about Frank’s birthdate, as did the likely place of death. (I knew from a letter by his mother that he had been in that area three years earlier.)

As anyone else who searched in Jasper County knows, there hasn’t been much available at the Family History Library (though they seem to have acquired more public records recently). So my searches there have not been fruitful. In a flash of inspiration (why did it take me so long?), I decided to go directly to the source for this WPA index. It was a simple matter to contact the Public Health Department in Rensselaer and learn the procedure for obtaining the death record for this so-called Parkinson individual.

When it arrived, lo and behold, the names of his parents matched, confirming that their “Frank S. Parkinson” was really MY Frank L. Parkison! (Unfortunately the document was a transcription, not a photocopy of the original, so I couldn’t tell how the errors happened.)

This solved, for me, what had been a very long-standing search for the date and place of Frank’s death. (There was another Frank Parkison in the area at the time, which confused matters somewhat.) Now, with a confirmed date of death in hand, I have queried the local library to see of there was a death notice or obituary which give more information.

How many other notes to I have lying around, just waiting for a fresh look and possibly a new interpretation?  What about you?

****

On another note:
I recenly mentioned a newspaper article about the smart phone app that Icelanders have, which can confirm the relationship between two possible “kissing cousins,” a necessity in this enclosed and isolated society, where nearly everyone is related to everyone else.  As it happens, I was travelling in Iceland last month (really!), and was able to ask our tour guide about it. She confirmed the program's existence as well as its usefulness "for the young people, of course."  Nice to get it from the source!

Saturday, June 08, 2013

New conclusions from old clues


Sometimes old documents, revisited,  shed new light, as in the following case:

The re-reading of  a newsy letter to my paternal grandmother, written by her older half-sister, recently stirred me to action --  suddenly I was determined to try to find out more about the people whose names were scattered in its pages. The missive was dated July 14, 1916, just a few weeks before its writer, Jaley Howard Parkison Green,  died in Kansas City, MO.  My grandmother, Mary Elizabeth "Matie" Howard Cain, was living in tiny Rome City (Noble County), Indiana, at the time, but both women had grown up near Rensselaer, in Jasper County, Indiana.
Jennie Parkison (L), and  Mary E. Howard

Jaley writes about hearing of “Jennie Moody’s passing away so peacefully with all her children with her for weeks before.” She adds some details about those attentive children, then continues: “Jennie was a little school girl when I lived at her father’s home when Frank (Jaley’s son) was 5 years old. Jennie was a sweet good little girl and grew to make a good mother of a lovely family…”

I knew that Jaley had been widowed in 1862 when her first husband, Benjamin Franklin Parkison, died in the Civil War, and that she had borne a son, Franklin Lee Parkison, five months later. A quick look at the 1870 census for Jasper County showed her and Frank (by this time 7 years old) in the household of William Kenton Parkison, who was Benjamin’s brother. Also in the household was Jennie Parkison, age 13.

The Parkisons were a well-established, and prolific, family in the area, but since the only link to my Howards was this brief marriage, I had chosen not to follow up on their various other families or offspring when I first learned of the connection. I told myself there were far more closely related names I should be examining.

That resolve faded with my decision to work on Jaley’s references. Various online searches yielded the fact that one Jennie P. Moody in fact had died on July 4, 1916, in Jasper County.  And if my Jennie was living in the William K. Parkison household in 1870, as  both the census and Jaley declared, it was apparent that the intial “P”in her married name stood for Parkison. Later I found confirmation in a marriage record for Jennie Parkison and Granville Moody, in the same county.  So that nice little bit of research added some background to the remarks in Jaley’s letter.

[These searches, as you know, aren’t done in tidy chronological order. You start with what you have -- a married name and approximate death date in this case, with reference to a time and place that might be confirmed by the census, and go from there.]

But that wasn’t all.

 I keep a journal of my genealogical efforts, for inspiration and enjoyment, and yesterday I was browsing recent entries when a sentence jumped out at me: “Scanned a photo of Matie  with a playmate named Jennie.” Oh yes!!  From the styles, and my grandmother’s known birthdate, I estimated the year at about 1867, and the two girls were surely close family friends in order to have posed for a formal photograph.

The 1900 census shows Mary J. Moody (by then Jennie was Granville’s wife), was born September, 1856. My Grandmother was born a year later. All these facts, put together from a letter and a photograph, and supported by census, marriage and death records, convince me that the “Jennie” of the picture is Mary Jane (Jennie) Parkison Moody. So now I not only know who the Jennie of the Jaley’s letter is, but I have what is most likely a picture of her as a child!

It does go to show that it is important to return again -- and again -- to documents and photos for new clues, or old clues that lead to new conclusions.








Saturday, May 04, 2013

In the news ...


A brief article by David Wiegand in this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle caught my eye:

PBS is planning to launch a new TV series patterned after a popular Irish program called “Genealogy Roadshow.” It is to begin filming in July and will focus initially on families in San Francisco, Detroit, Nashville and Austin. 

Sort of a hybrid of “History Detectives,”and “Antiques Roadshow,” the program’s premise is that residents who think they might have a significant ancestral story will bring them to the show’s producers, and local experts will do the research. (I am always surprised that so many owners of the most fascinating books, photographs or other heirlooms on these programs had never tried to work out their genealogical connections.)

The Irish series asks the following questions: 

Do you believe you are related to someone famous?
Is your family connected to a major historical event?
Do you need to solve a family mystery?

It is "exactly like  Antiques Roadshow except that it deals in dead people rather than mouldy artefacts," according to the Irish Independent’s John Bolans.

In other news:
The new web display for FamilySearch.org is up and running and I find it utterly baffling.  To get to the Family History Library catalog takes three steps now instead of one. To find some concise “how to” information I wanted to recommend to a beginner took even longer.

What has your experience been?