29 August 2011

Motivation Monday – A Door Closes…But There’s That Window…

Genealogy wouldn’t be genealogy without a roadblock or two. My initial family research began at a time when Family Tree Maker and Google were still in their infancy, and you had to wait weeks or sometimes months to get responses to document requests. Tenacity was a badge anyone doing genealogy wore with pride.

My grandfather’s surname, Wersel, is not a common one, so research was a bit easier, but only by omission. I also found out I come from a long line of very vocal people; we’re no shrinking violets. So, channeling that vocal tenacity, I picked up the phone one Saturday morning late in 1996 and started dialing numbers. I made it through four numbers before finally reaching someone. Robert Wersel answered his phone, and after listening patiently to my little speech explaining who I was and why I was calling, he reluctantly began to talk with me. To my surprise, he began to tell me stories of my grandfather’s family. I wouldn’t say he was friendly, but he was cordial and kind enough to share with me some details about the origins of our family.

More importantly, he told me he had a scrapbook of original documents, many dated in the early 1800s gathered by his family. I asked if it would be possible to get copies of some of the documents; that I would appreciate so very much having copies. He told me that he would see what he could do, took my address and we said goodbye. When I hung up, all I could think was, ‘if I hadn’t had the nerve to call, I wouldn’t have gotten these wonderful nuggets of information.’

About a week later, I received an envelope of information from Mr. Wersel. It was simply a list of details from documents that he was in possession of from the family. He also had a ‘Comments on Wersel-Wagner Documents’ page that held the following information:  “The earliest documents concern our forebears, Nicolas Jean Francois Wersel and Jean Wagner. The spelling in all of the Wersel documents is the same as today. NJFW had quite a traveled life. Born in Bliesbrucken c. 1800.This town is right in the area much disputed by France and Prussia. …there was the July, 1830 revolution in Paris. NJFW must have been in his late twenties at this time. How or why he got into the Dutch army is a good question. Then on to Brazil and the USA…”

I was stunned by how this information came to me, and there was one word that leapt off the page: BRAZIL. That’s right, as I had written about in one of my prior posts; I now had evidence of the barest kind that there was some truth to the oral history regarding our family’s Brazil connection! I was so excited, I could hardly contain myself!!

Then just as suddenly as I had become elated, it dawned on me; I had the origins of this family back to 1800 somewhere in France/Germany, so this couldn’t be my line to our American roots. Huh. I felt like I was back to ‘square one’. At the same time, I had found confidence in my ability to uncover resources that might have information. I would have to switch directions from the Wersel family roots, to those of my great-grandmother: Laura Louise RICHARDS. Perhaps the woman my parents named me after could lead me to the answer I was seeking…

28 August 2011

Sentimental Sunday – A Shared Passion for Our Work

I took a few days off of this journey back to the beginning of my genealogical research to attend the Society of American Archivists’ Annual Meeting. I love my work as an Archivist. As the rare consulting Archivist, I have the chance to work with different repositories and this allows me amazing variety in my work. There were 1675 attendees at this meeting, and it was an incredible opportunity for me to meet some really passionate Archivists. I also had the chance to speak in the language of my industry, something I get to rarely do.

All these work related events made me think about what it means to work in any industry for an extended period of time. I’ve only been an Archivist for seven years. I spoke to some who’ve worked at their repositories for 25, 30 or 35 years. I find this remarkable today, yet know that 20 or 25 years ago it wasn’t unusual for someone to work their entire adult life at the same place.

As I was researching my grandfather, Victor Wersel, I had the wonderful opportunity to work with The Cincinnati Library. My mom knew her father was born in Cincinnati, and after receiving a copy of his death certificate which confirmed that, I started looking for resources to give me more information about the Wersel family. Keep in mind it was 1996, before you could simply Google everything…how far we’ve come in such a short time!! So, I called the Library and spoke with a research librarian, explaining that I was from Chicago and was unable to come to the Library to do my research on the Wersel family. When she came back to me after a couple of minutes, she was laughing. Was this good, or bad? What she had found was the obituary of my great grandfather, Henry Wersel. Dated September 21, 1936, the obituary was on the front page of the Enquirer. Henry, as it turns out, had worked at the Enquirer for FIFTY-FOUR years!! Holy cow!

Obituaries were very different back in those days, and this was no exception. Paraphrasing, Henry was born in Cincinnati in 1863 and started as a press boy at the Enquirer about 1886. He only had an eighth grade education, but he proved to be so eloquent that eventually he was given space to write a column. The column was called ‘Why and Wherefore’, and apparently it was very popular. He was known as a committed employee, not missing a day of work. And the day he died was no different.

Henry Wersel was on the street car on his way to the Enquirer when he was struck by a heart attack. He was taken to the hospital in a police squad car and I’m not certain how it happened, but they found the next day’s article in the breast pocket of his jacket. Though the paper refused to publish the article, they quoted it as follows: 'For alas! alas! with me, The light of life is o'er!' from Edgar Allen Poe. His wife, Laura Louise Richards Wersel, for whom I am named, had been ill many years, and I suppose he was speaking of her. As it turns out, she died three months to the day after Henry died.

I was able to use the information from this obituary to locate a cousin of my mom’s who shared photocopies of a family scrapbook of clippings from the material that had been written by Henry and published. What a find! He wrote poetry, music, political material, and much more. His love of writing and passion for the written word was evident. I like to think that his passion has been passed down through our family and found a home in me. I regret not being able to pass this passion on to another generation, but hope I can share it with all of you.

24 August 2011

Wedding Wednesday – What a Disaster!!

Weddings generally illicit warm, loving feelings. Sadly, I believe that too often, the wedding anniversaries of our ancestors go by without much notice. My father didn’t remember his parent’s anniversary; his sister was the family record keeper and I kept forgetting to ask her when it was. My mother, however, remembered her parent’s anniversary in 1917, and often commented about it. Since it was the Wersel family that I was researching, this was one of the first dates I committed to memory.

Of course, when you begin tracing your family history, you should always begin with yourself. So, when I purchased my genealogy software, I entered my own information, including my wedding date: February 29, 1996. That’s right, I chose Leap Day to get married. It seemed appropriate to me, since my husband and I had been together five years, and we both felt it was a leap of faith to take on the responsibility of being married. He asked me numerous times if I was certain that I wanted to get married that day; my reasoning was that a wedding anniversary should be celebrated generously and I believed if ours happened only every four years that we would be sure to do that. 

I felt strongly about this, mainly because my parents always celebrated their anniversary in style, even with their meager means. My father always bought my mom flowers, and it was rare that they didn’t have a meal out or celebrate with the family. My parent’s wedding was a small afternoon affair, in Evanston, IL, on a beautiful fall day in 1954. They both came from very modest means, so there were cookies and coffee after the service, but no grand party. My mom often discussed how her much older sisters (by 11 and 9 years respectively) lived vicariously through her, and since she wasn’t one to ‘speak up’ she let them have their way. My mom wore blush pink, and her matrons/maids wore off-white, which was quite the fashion at the time.

My grandparents were married in 1917, and my parents in 1954. Nothing unusual there, right? Except for the exact dates:  Frances Jeffery and Victor Wersel were married DECEMBER 7, 1917. On my grandparent’s 24th wedding anniversary, the family huddled around the radio listening in fear as the announcer recounted the disaster taking place at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. And, my mother said, their anniversary was never quite the same, being overshadowed by such a catastrophic event. I always thought it was a bit sad that they allowed that to happen; after all, throughout the course of history there have been horrible events on nearly every day, but this didn’t prevent people from celebrating life’s happier moments.

Until, that is, 2001. That’s right. My parents would celebrate their 47th anniversary on SEPTEMBER 11, 2001. I was watching the morning news as I routinely did, when the events started to play out right in front of my eyes. I won’t go into detail, but I spent the day seeking out friends and co-workers in the financial and consulting industry that either worked in the buildings or in New York. But my first thought was, ‘oh no…not Mom & Dad too!’ The flowers my dad had arranged for my mom still arrived, but my parent's did not go out for their planned celebratory dinner. It wasn’t until 2004 that we had a party for them to celebrate their 50th; I think everyone felt it was time to start allowing ourselves to celebrate life, and love, again.

Do you know your grandparent’s wedding anniversary, or your great-grandparent’s anniversary? Do you think it’s important to celebrate and remember these dates, or is it just one more piece of evidence that needs to be located when researching your family tree? As the last leaf on this branch, I don’t think my Leap Day leap will garner much attention…

22 August 2011

Mystery Monday – We’re from Brazil?

It’s 1996 and I’m just starting on what I expect will be a simple research project: find my grandfather, Victor Wersel’s ancestors. Sadly, both he and my grandmother were deceased by then; he died when I was an infant, my grandmother Frances died in 1990, at the age of 97. Unfortunately, my grandmother and my aunts and mom are what I referred to as ‘private’; they rarely discussed the past. So it was that I had a few snippets of information to work with when I began.

An important note: earlier here I recommended TRUST NO ONE.  I found out that even goes for sweet little old grannies that you think know everything! At the same time, occasionally the ‘odd’ or ‘nonsensical’ things they say can be clues to help you unravel the mystery. 

Having debunked the family myth about our relation to the famous William Penn (we’re from a collateral branch of the Penn family) I was quickly learning to be skeptical of things that my mom was remembering. I wasn’t questioning her memory, just the veracity of the information that she was passing on, more or less treating it like a poorly played game of ‘Telephone’.  She remembered her dad’s birthday, but didn’t know the year. She knew Victor’s family was from Cincinnati, Ohio and that he had two brothers (Horace and Roger) and a sister (Virginia). She recalled being in Cincinnati and visiting with her uncles and aunts and was able to recount some rather interesting tales about them, which I’ll save for another day. She recalled that her grandfather’s name was Henry, and that he had worked at some point in time for the Cincinnati Enquirer, though she’d heard that he’d only gotten an eighth grade education. She fondly remembered stacks and stacks of books; Henry had had a beautiful library in the very large house where they lived in Cincinnati, which his children maintained after his death in 1936. And she knew that the name, Wersel, had not been changed when the family emigrated from the Netherlands to come to the United States.

As we were discussing the few facts she had, she off-handedly said, “…and someone went to Brazil.” Keep in mind, my grandfather was born in 1892, so any generation before him would’ve been born 1870 or before. I asked her what she meant, and she simply restated that she remembered someone saying that someone in the family had gone to Brazil to make fine furniture for the King. I thought, “Oh for cripes sake…seriously?” I was beginning to wonder if the production of moonshine was keeping the family coffers full.  And naturally, I was smart enough not to let this mystery sidetrack me from my original research plan: trace the roots of my grandfather as far back as I could.

However, the mystery had been set. Was it possible my ancestors had traveled all the way to Brazil, and when would they have done that? WHY would they have done that? Some mysteries take a very long time to trace; although I have uncovered other clues, I still don’t have the documentation that can prove this happened. So, as of today, it’s still a mystery!!

19 August 2011

Follow Friday - Strangers Are Friends We Haven't Met Yet

The journey that has gotten me to this point, writing a blog about being an Archivist adding Genealogist to my repertoire, has been a long and winding path. Sound familiar? It’s a well worn path, as I’m to understand, becoming a Genealogist. And, not unlike how I became an Archivist, the path is neither straight, nor purposeful.

Probably what I love the most about genealogy are the people that I’ve met. Not just the second cousins twice removed, but also the research librarians who’ve stepped up to help, or the foreign Archive that waived their (exorbitant, IMHO) copy fee as a professional courtesy to me. Oh there’ve been plenty of curmudgeons and hang-ups, back in the day when I random dialed people with my surnames, along the way too but for the most part I like to believe that people understand our natural curiosity about our human past.

Curiosity ruled when it came to my ancestors. It is my mom’s side of my family that I wanted to research first; my father has an *interesting* family that includes a sister who is the family record keeper, so no point in recreating the wheel. I knew very little about my mother’s father; he died when I was less than a year old (as did my father’s father). My mom didn’t talk about him a lot, but when she did it was always with a bit of melancholy. Sadly, my grandfather had been an alcoholic, and though he had provided for his family I suspect there are aspects of that past that my mom prefers to keep private.  What makes things more interesting is that my mom is, as she calls herself, a “menopausal baby”. Nice. What that means is that she is that *one* baby born long after her siblings, when her mom was 40. So it is that my mom’s mother Francis Jeffrey was born in 1893 and her father Victor Wersel in 1892, and her two sisters, Virginia and Jacqueline in 1922 and 1924 respectively. They were very private people, and I believe because she was ‘the baby’, my mom wasn’t privy to as much of the family’s history as she might have been otherwise.

You now know as much as I did, back in 1996, when I started down this path. I was working in the financial field at the time, putting in a lot of hours, but my curiosity had gotten the better of me and I had to find out about my grandfather’s family. So it was that I started relying on the kindness of strangers to find my roots. The beauty of it is that by learning it’s ok to rely on those strangers, I found a bravery in seeking information, a fearlessness in asking questions, that I had not possessed before.

This passion for information led me to my career as an Archivist, to my love of all things technology, and to Twitter, where I've met many Genealogists. One suggested to me that I should write a blog about my journey and share it with all of you. For that, I will always be grateful.

16 August 2011

Tuesday Tip - There’s only ONE William Penn, right?

I believe that most people, when they begin to look at their family tree, often do so with one specific person in mind. For example your Aunt Tilly told stories of Uncle Ernie’s time in the service or you remember that your grandmother mentioned you were related to Napoleon and you’d like to find out if it’s true. For me, it was two things: we (my mother & I) were linked to an American Patriot making us eligible for the D.A.R. (http://www.dar.org/) and we were direct descendents of William Penn (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Penn#Family_tree).

Keep in mind, this was 1996; pre Ancestry.com and virtually any other reliable Internet genealogical resource. However, Family Tree Maker, the software package I chose to track the information I gathered, provided a website with links to family trees that others had uploaded to The World Wide Web (I’m fairly certain this was a precursor to RootsWeb, but I could be mistaken). The Patriot was a misty figure completely unknown to me, so I decided to start with the name I had: William Penn. You can imagine my absolute delight when I entered the name ‘William Penn’ and found a multitude of trees! My joy was quickly replaced by complete awe when I realized there were somewhere over a thousand William Penns!! How in the world was I going to locate MINE?

My number one tip: TRUST NO ONE. It may seem funny, but honestly, you really can’t trust anyone. We are all human, and we make mistakes, both knowingly and unknowingly. As an Archivist, it’s my job to gather, organize, describe and make accessible records of enduring value. In one of the Historical Society collections I work with, I found four photographs, identical, three of which had penciled names that were different. Well, hmmm. Which is it? Although the woman who wrote on them may have known for certain, she very clearly wrote three different names. I’m fairly confident this wasn’t done intentionally, but it means that I have to put a question mark next to the label and hope that, at some time in the foggy future, I will have the time to research the face in the photos further.

Circling back to William Penn, I had to weed through both ‘scholarly’ and ‘ordinary’ information in order to locate the REAL William Penn. I quickly realized that many of the trees had simply been copied, multiple times, which got me worried that if there was an error…that’s right! If there was an error, it was being copied over and over, and someone without an eye for detail might not realize the mistake. So, I made a commitment to my research: I would only enter information into my database that either had a primary resource (i.e., a birth/death/marriage certificate) or if the information predated these types of records that the source information had to be something other than some else’s digital family tree. My hope was/is to mitigate the replication of erroneous information, or in layman’s terms: garbage in/garbage out!  As it turns out, even one of the main resources that Penn family descendants had used, a well known book had several errors in it.  And, through my research, I learned that William Penn had NO American descendants, though there are indeed collateral branches of the family here. I am descended from one Mr. Benjamin Penn…cool!

I have, on several occasions, strayed away from my own ‘rule’ only to find that I have to go back and detach people from my tree because they don’t belong. Trust only primary documentation, document it as a source, and if possible, keep a digital copy handy. As for oral histories, I’ll tackle that topic at some later date, but obviously, I don’t trust them either! 

Did I tell you, I’m related to William Penn? ;-)

14 August 2011

The Last Leaf on the Branch - A Different Perspective on Genealogy

How do you take the first step on a journey that started long ago?

I hope to create a blog that will be unique from the many others that are available, mainly by presenting my genealogy from a different perspective: the last leaf on this branch. I am the last in my family on our branch; sadly not by choice but by Divine Design. My love of history began long ago, as a little girl, when I used to play with my grandmother’s sewing materials. (Note: all my grandparents were born in or before 1900) I spent hours tinkering with them, wondering who else had used them, and what beautiful things had been made with them. And as I grew up, I listened intently to the fascinating, albeit short, stories of my family’s ancestors. They were for the most part closely held and not boldly told but rather shared in quiet moments when my mother was with her sisters.

So it was, in 1990, when my grandmother died at 97, that I began to ask my mother more questions about our family. What did she know? What records did she have? Who were we? So many questions without concrete answers. My mother told me that my grandmother had mentioned on many occasions that we were descendants of an American Patriot: that we were eligible to be members of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She also told me that we were related to William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania. 

As a busy young professional, I found it difficult to find the time to go to the Library to do any in depth research. So it wasn’t until 1996, when I bought my first home computer for work, that I began my genealogical odyssey.  Of course anyone who’s done any kind of genealogical research understands what I’m talking about. Genealogy is an addiction. It gets in your blood, and takes over your life. Fortunately, I was beginning my research at the same time that websites like Cyndi’s List and RootsWeb (before they got swallowed up by Ancestry.com) were just getting their feet wet. I could look up phone numbers across the country on the computer far more quickly than looking them up in the Library. And I began to find out just how inaccurate oral history, for good or bad, can be.

Suffice it to say that, today, I’m still researching my own family roots. However, between that time and now, I discovered that I would be the last in my family. So why should I care about our genealogical roots? Who’s going to care about my great Aunt Stella? Who’s going to care about me? There have probably been a dozen times in my research that I’ve hit walls where I was unable to go further, simply because someone decided it wasn’t important to keep family records. Or maybe they didn’t want people to know about their family history (yes, there’s some of that on every tree). I guess I’d like to think that if my own tree won’t continue to grow, perhaps I can help someone grow their own; that by helping people to understand their family histories I’ll be contributing to human history in my own way.

As I take my first steps at taking genealogy from a hobby to a career, I truly hope you’ll join me on this journey…