Friday, June 19, 2015

Why I love Laura

When I read to my young children many years ago, our favorite books included the “Little House” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, for its gently fictionalized depiction of the author’s pioneer life. On a cross-country road trip we even visited DeSmet, South Dakota, where there is a Laura Ingalls Wilder museum. 

This was long before genealogy grabbed me by the throat, mind you.

As you may recall, Laura’s family, Pa and Ma, Carrie, Mary, and Laura herself, lived in Wisconsin, Kansas and Minnesota in the post-Civil War period. Their tales of log-cabin living, threats from wild creatures, and plagues of grasshoppers, were counterbalanced by accounts of Pa’s fiddling and singing, the girls’ playthings, and the descriptions of the endless prairies, ice-bound lakes and dark woods where they made their home at various times.

To me it was simply a delightful set of stories from a far-off time and place, with no particular relation to my own experience. So when “Pioneer Girl: the Annotated Autobiography, Laura Ingalls Wilder” came out recently, it caught my interest just for that reason.

However, it turns out the scholarly notes that accompany the text are enough to make the genealogist’s heart sing.  Not only do the editors pay homage to census and vital records for research, but the work also includes period photos, maps and references to such sources at the Bureau of Land Management, and it is rich with historical details about the realities of living on the land in that time and those places.

But there is a more personal reason I find the book of particular interest. From 1877-1879, Laura’s family lived in southwestern Minnesota’s Redwood County. And I have a letter from my grandmother’s sister, written in 1885, when she was in adjoining Murray County. Lizzie Records and her husband Josiah moved there from Indiana in the 1860s, so would have been in the region at the same time as the Ingalls family. Now, to me, that is an interesting coincidence! And it tells me what living conditions might have been like for my own kin. 

Lizzie was writing to my grandmother, who had evidently asked for some family information. She said: “Well, for a history of my life in the last twenty years, we came to this far off western country twenty two years ago, the same fall your Ma died. … It seems but a day since I left my motherland and yet it seems like ages to think of the changes that has taken place.” They had five children, more or less contemporaries of the Ingalls offspring.

That letter is a treasure to me, and its significance is enlarged now by the knowledge that she and her family lived so near Laura and her family, and probably shared similar experiences.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Who ARE they?

Annabelle Cain
Genealogy is all about tracking down relatives, living and dead, though mostly dead. We all know that. But then there are the ones who perch out on the edges of our family tree --  clinging there by reason of a previous marriage, informal adoption, or some other situation. And while they may not be the main focus of our research, they ARE there … sometimes just pleading for recognition.  

A couple of my puzzles were not really on the margins, but did remain elusive for a long time. Franklin Lee Parkison, my grandmother’s cousin, was one of what I call the 
“lost boys,” single, with no fixed address. His widowed mother remarried and it appears they barely kept in touch.  I finally found him through a death certificate which had mispelled his surname.

Another was Albert Kelsey Thompson, also a cousin, also single and also on the move. I THINK I’ve found him, in the potter’s field section of a Sacramento, California, cemetery.

Then there are the youngsters taken in by families, for whatever reason. Often they are given their adopting/fostering family’s surname and their own biological past is virtually erased. While I am not so concerned about delving into that past, I am quite interested in learning what became of them in later life.

Recently I rediscovered a girl named Jessie in our Indiana Cain clan, one of at least three children who had been adopted, informally or otherwise, by Sarah Cain and her husband, Orlando Hamilton. Although obviously quite young in an 1886 family photo, she was identified as the wife of another adoptee in the same family.  Though my proof is not rock-solid, I now feel sure she not only  grew up in the same household as this fellow adoptee, but later did become his second wife. Of course I’ll keep checking for any new evidence that might prove (or disprove) the matter.

But now I’m turning my attention to another young woman, Annabelle, who was found in the 1900 census for Middlesex County, New Jersey, as part of the Albert Cain family. That record states she was an adopted daughter, born January 1886 in England. After that -- nothing.  Family members I queried long ago (all gone now) remember nothing more of her, but I can’t let it go.  Is she the Annabel, also spelled “Anna B.” who is shown as the wife of Jack/John Coffey in subsequent NJ census records? The birth year is close, the birthplace is England, the year of immigration close enough.  This Annabelle is buried in Groveville Cemetery, according to FindaGrave, with a stone that simply shows her years of birth and death.  Without a more specific date I cannot get a death certificate, and searches for obituaries have so far come up empty. No NJ marriage records online -- as far as I can tell, and no children’s birth records which might show the mother’s pre-marriage name.

Well, it is a work in progress. 

Who are you looking for these days?

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Five Generations, Sixty-Five Years, Twenty-Six Hundred Miles

Browsing through old family pictures  -- and discovering ones that haven’t been scanned yet --  I came up with some pretty interesting juxtapositions.

To the left, below, are Dr. Cornelius Cain, my great-grandfather, Rev. John Wesley Cain, his son, and Howard Hamilton Cain, his grandson (and my father). This was taken in Clarksburg, Indiana, in about 1899.

 The next shot is of of Howard holding his son, Thomas Hayden Cain, in 1943, in Riverside, California.

The color photo, taken about 1966, shows Thomas again, and Jonathan Minton, my son, in San Mateo County, California. Not satisfied with just a beard, or a mustache, like his two forebears, Tom is sporting both.

Monday, December 08, 2014

The Census Taker is Your Friend

Plowing through various census records to help me locate ever more relatives, I am reminded once again of how useful they can be.

But reading the column designations at the top of the page, even on a large computer screen, can be difficult, and it is easy to forget that certain questions were asked at different times.

The 1850 census stands out, of course, because it was the first one to list the name of every person in the household. It gives age, sex, color, birthplace, occupation, and more.  It does NOT, however, show relationships, so we cannot simply assume the oldest male and female were husband and wife.

In fact it was not until the 1880 census that relationships were listed, so always look there for confirmation. This census also showed, for the first time, the birthplaces of everyone’s parents (as reported by someone in the household).

As a beginner, I didn’t pay much attention to the other questions that were asked at various times. But when I got stuck trying to find descendants of a particular cousin, I realized the 1900 and 1910 census listed how many children the married females had, and how many were still living at the time.  

Both these years had other nuggets of information as well. In 1900, the exact month and year of birth was asked for each person. If married, the number of years married was listed. In 1910 and again in 1930 and 1930, the males were asked whether they were veterans. Also in 1930, age at first marriage is recorded, rather than number of years married. Be sure to get that right!

Immigration year and naturalization are noted from 1900 to 1930.

Everyone was pretty excited when the 1940 census came out, and it does have a lot of information, such as each individual’s residence in 1935.  But, with the exception of the two persons singled out on each page to provide more detail, birthplaces of parents are omitted.

And don’t give up on the pre-1850 censuses just because they offer so much less information.  Heads of household are listed by name, with age ranges and gender given for others.  From the broadest categories in 1790 (two ages ranges for males, none for females), to the decade-specific ranges for both sexes in 1840, there are clues to be derived. Also, in 1840, there is a separate listing for Revolutionary War pensioners.

The subject of census records for genealogists could fill a book, and in fact it has. The one I use is The Census Book : a Genealogist’s Guide to Federal Census Facts, Schedules and Indexes, written by William Dollarhide. Published by Heritage Quest in 1999, It does not, of course, have a rundown on the 1940 census, which was just released for public use in 2012,  but there are plenty of online sources for that data.

For a complete rundown on the contents of each census year’s questionnaire, go to and enter “US census” in the search box.  Look on Cyndi’s List ( for downloadable forms.

A whole lot of clues here, but we have to remember, the veracity of the answers depends on both the skill (and penmanship!) of the census taker and the knowledge/truthfulness of the informant (marked with an x in 1940, but not indicated in earlier records).

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Hidden Names

Don’t you wish our ancestors made more generous use of their middle names? I have at least three men whose full given names elude me, though there is plenty of room for speculation.  Deeds, probate papers, marriage records (these are before birth records and no baptismal records have come to light) -- all carry very specific, but unrevealing, middle initials. And these names might lead to more family history, if I knew them.

Here is one:
John M. Cain (pictured at right), was born in Kent County, Delaware in 1810, the son of John Cain and Elizabeth Morgan. So what are the odds that his middle name is Morgan? He is not their first son (that was Cornelius, my gr-grandfather), so naming patterns don’t seem to be in play.  However, this is the only of John and Elizabeth’s seven sons to even have a recorded middle initial.

Another later example: Daniel M. Howard, my grandmother’s half-brother. who died in the Civil War. His father was likely named for a circuit-riding Methodist preacher by the name of Samuel Parker. Daniel’s younger brother was Jasper Newton Howard -- there were many Jasper Newtons born around the same time, possibly named for a pair of then-popular Revolutionary War heroes. So, in this family at least, so-called naming patterns are completely out the window.

The third puzzler is Thomas E. Sherwood (b ca 1795, KY), my great-great grandfather. His daughter, Nancy Jane Sherwood, named her first two children William Enoch (b 1850) and John Edwin (b1853).  The family, so far as I have been able learn about it, had no males with names which had “E” initials. The boys’ father, David Hammond, did have a half-brother named Edwin. Does that leave Enoch as Thomas’s middle name?

So, tantalizing clues, but no definite answers. So far.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

The risks, the frustrations, the fun ...

When I sit down to do some serious research, whether trying to fill in gaps, add new family members, or expand a particular record with new information, something invariably pops up which has a pull I cannot resist.

 “Look for connection. Allie Lee Gabbert, Buchanan Co (MO), 1882-1942, m. Wm A Ebling. Sister: Nannie Gabbert m. Fr Dennis, dau Engene psychic.” This was a recent  culprit, a note in my own handwriting, with absolutely no indication as to its source.

By now I don’t even remember where I found the scrap of paper, let alone when or where the information was jotted down. But once it resurfaced I couldn’t let it go. The Gabberts are a particular interest because my great grandmother’s sister was Mary Ann Sherwood, born about 1829 in Bartholomew County, Indiana. She married Ransom Gabbert in February, 1850,  and they were in Buchanan County, Missouri by the time that year’s census taker came around. They had at least three children, William Edwin, James George, and Mary Frances (Mollie), and it has been a project of mine to try to follow the descendants down to the present day. 

Allie Lee Ebling was was buried in Amstrong Cemetery, Rushville, Buchanan County, along with her spouse, William A. Ebling. A photo of their gravestone is shown on the invaluable Find a Grave website. (Thank you, Tom DeBerry) Allie Lee’s birth name, Gabbert, and William’s full middle name, Anderson, have been added, presumably by Mr. DeBerry, along with the names of William’s parents.

But I still have no idea where I got the information that she had a sister Nannie, or a niece named Eugene, who was a psychic, no less!

This was a pursuit I could not resist. There are ten Gabberts listed in Armstrong Cemetery, some of whom I know to be Ransom’s relatives. And there are 43 Gabberts, all told, named in Buchanan County cemeteries. (Sadly, most of the listings do not indicate placement within plots, which would be a useful clue to relationships.)

So, I have found evidence of this Allie Lee, but not her supposed sister Nannie, mother of a psychic. And I have no idea of their parents’ names.

My concern is with their possible connection to Ransom, so I needed to look for their parents’ names. But I was so intrigued by the psychic that instead I looked for evidence that Nannie’s daughter was really named “Eugene,” and was said, by someone, somewhere, to dabble in the supernatural.

Nannie’s marriage to an E.F., or Frank, Dennis had been indicated in two census records, and the second one, in 1910, did show a daughter, Eugene, age 5.

Searching the web for the name “Eugene Dennis”  brings up endless stories about a prominent member of the American Communist party, a man by the same name.  Excluding “Communist” in my search query, however, yielded several references to the young woman in question, who apparently made quite a name for herself in the 1920s. Stories appeared in newspapers as far afield as Spokane, Washington, about her uncanny abilities, and several ads proclaimed her vaudeville appearances. The last record I could find was her presence in her brother’s household, with their mother (yes, Nannie) in the 1930 census for Los Angeles.  She was 25, single, born in Kansas, and her occupation was listed as “physic” (sic) in the “theater industry.” 

California death records show Nannie Dennis died in 1942 in Los Angeles, that her father’s surname was Gabbert, and that her mother’s birth name was “Bilderbock.”

On a hunch I went back to FamilySearch and came up with a marriage record which showed that Thomas Gabbert and Angeline Bilderback married in 1856, in Buchanan County, Missouri. Bingo!

The 1870 census shows the Buchanan County family of Thomas and Angeline Gabbert with Nancy, age 3 mo (born after date census was supposed to represent, but listed anyway, with a September birthdate). Also listed were Alexander, age 12, and Mary, age 7.

Ten years later there is Nancy B, age 11 with her family, which now includes a younger child, Edward, all still in the same place.

These records are still too early for Allie Lee who was reportedly born in 1882, but they pretty well establish that this is the Nancy/Nannie Gabbert of my ephemeral note.

So, is her father related to Mary Ann Sherwood’s husband, Ransom Gabbert? And if so, how? Stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Of birthdays and bearded men

She must have been quite a woman. Married and widowed three times, she was the mother of eight sons. In her 40s, she was said to have travelled with her husband and all those youngsters, on foot, from Delaware to Indiana.
Sons of Elizabeth Morgan Wright Cain Holland

Elizabeth Morgan’s obituary said she was born May 7, 1779 -- 235 years ago today.  The daughter of Thomas Morgan and Elishua Finsthwait, she was first married to John Wright, who died before 1805, leaving her with a young son, Marcellous. In 1806 she married again, to John Cain.  From this union came seven more boys (and, one article  has it, a daughter who died in infancy). Property records show that in March, 1827, she and John sold their Kent County, Delaware, property. In November of that same year they are recorded in far-off Brookville, Indiana.

John Cain died soon after, “from over-lifting a sawlog,” according to one of his sons. But Elizabeth and her fatherless brood survived and seemed to have flourished. Her first husband's, son, who took his stepfather’s surname, moved to Benton County, Tennessee, where his descendents still live. John’s offspring chose to stay closer to home, settling in various Indiana counties. Among their occupations, as recorded in census records, were farming, papermaking, carpentry, shoemaking, and tailoring; one became a physician. (Marcellous was said to have been a stagecoach driver;  he married an innkeeper’s daughter named Sinda Rilla.)

Longevity was the norm in this clan. At least four of the sons lived into their late 80s and early 90s. Elizabeth, who is my great-great grandmother, died January 30, 1875, at the venerable age of 95.  A third marriage, to a man named John Holland, lasted only a few years, leaving her once again a widow.

The four longest-lived Cain brothers, staunch and bearded, are pictured in a group portrait taken in 1899, probably in Connersville, Indiana, where at least one of them was living. Prints of the original photograph have been handed down through the generations, and a cousin and I have been able to identify all four men by comparing notes.

Recently, however, I came across a copy of the picture evidently clipped from an unnamed newspaper and posted on Ancestry. As with so many images and factoids on that site’s family trees, it has been copied here and there with little or no attribution. Who posted it in the first place? In what publication did it originally appear? Was there an accompanying article? I’d love to find out.

The copies I saw had identification for only two of the men, and I’d be delighted to provide more information in exchange for answers to my questions.

In the meantime, Happy Birthday, Elizabeth Morgan Wright Cain Holland! Your sons must have been proud of you.