20 September 2011

Tuesday’s Tip – Penny For Your Thoughts?

As often happens with genealogical research, I took a bit of a hiatus from my blogging. It certainly wasn’t intentional, but life happens. Heh. So, if you’re new here, or just need a quick ‘catch-up’, I’m a consulting Archivist who’s been doing my own genealogical research for a little over 15 years. I was spurred into action by the death of my grandmother (she was 97!), and my mom’s wish to find out if we were really eligible to be members of the Daughters of the American Revolution and descendants of William Penn (yes and no). By early 1997, I’d found a line (Burrows) that confirmed our eligibility for the DAR and our paperwork was on its way. But I’d caught the bug. It’s not so much a bug as a…a passion, for genealogy.

Of course, doing research in 1997 was very different from today when we have so many wonderful on-line resources available to us. It’s truly remarkable the amount of material that’s been digitized or indexed, and how easy it is to locate. Websites such as Cyndi’s List and Heritage Quest make getting accurate and reliable information easier still. And of course, there are the ‘tried and true’s; places like the Newberry Library, LDS, local historical repositories, etc. for locating evidence of our ancestors.

But what about non-traditional resources? I found one that would have NEVER occurred to me. I blogged about the fact my family’s oral history included a story that one (or more) of my ancestors emigrated from Europe in the 1860s, but came to the United States via Brazil. When a benevolent distant cousin sent me a letter, there was also mention of Brazil. I was truly confounded by how, and more importantly why, anyone would have purposely gone to Brazil in the early 1860s from Europe.

I hope you’ll humor me the quick history lesson, since I found this fascinating, and pertinent, to my search. Brazil was ruled by Emperor Dom Pedro II from 1831 to 1889. He was the son of Pedro I of Brazil, also known as Pedro IV of Portugal and Maria Leopoldina of Austria. He was only 5 when his father abdicated and returned to Portugal. His rule was long and beneficial for Brazil with the height of his reign falling in the late 1850s to mid 1860s, right about the time my ancestors would have been there.

How could I find out whether or not they’d actually been there? Again, keep in mind, this is 1997. There weren’t a lot of resources for Brazilian information, and the little bit was in Portuguese…which I hadn’t learned yet. (I know enough to be dangerous). I threw up my hands in frustration, and moved on to verifying other lines in the family.

And then, one afternoon somewhere around 2006, while I was visiting my parents, my mom asked me if I’d take her father’s coin collection to have it appraised.  Victor Wersel had kept it as one of his prized possessions, and my mom held onto it dearly as a remembrance of him. But times were tight, and she was hoping to be able to possibly sell some of it. I took the collection, having no intention of parting with this treasured family keepsake. Whenever mom asked about it, I always told her that I hadn’t gotten around to locating someone to look at it; in a few years time, with her memory failing her, she stopped asking.

Late last year, I was cleaning out my “research closet”, the closet where I keep my Hollinger boxes filled with my research, when I saw the leather binder of coins. It was a dreary day, and I decided to take it out, scan the coins so I’d have a visual record of each one, and create a proper inventory for insurance purposes. Guess what I found?

That’s right! This is a 40 reis coin from Brazil. There’s also a 20 reis coin that’s worn too badly to be able to date. But, I am confident, confident, that this coin did not find its way surreptitiously into my grandfather’s collection. It is just one more piece in the puzzle, and a wonderful, albeit untraditional, resource for my research. What resources have you come upon that may not be ‘mainstream’?

06 September 2011

Tombstone Tuesday – The Tree That Will Last Forever

Those of us who love genealogy often have a fascination for cemeteries. People who don’t get into genealogy think we’re just crazy…I know. However, one of my dad’s relatives, Edna Beightler McClelland shared with me once, as we talked about my childhood memories of their home in Mahomet, IL and the Civil War era cemetery across the street from their house, that she remembered riding in the wagon on Sundays to picnic in a large cemetery with her family. And I know many non-Caucasian families that honor their dead by decorating the graves of their loved ones, spending copious amounts of time in the cemetery.

The odd part is that as I was growing up, we had no cemeteries to visit. Neither of my parents had relatives that were buried in close enough proximity for us to visit. My father’s father was buried in Montreal, Canada and my mother’s father in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  So, my love of cemeteries and all things ‘old’ predates any connection I had with history, genealogy or archival sciences. But any chance I got to go into a cemetery, I would. There was, and still is, a fascination I have for them that is almost physical…there are times I feel truly drawn in.

Truth be told, I have several very happy memories that involve cemeteries. The above mentioned childhood romps through the weeds growing up and around the tombstones in the old cemetery in Mahomet is one. I should point out, on more than one occasion I got yelled at by adults to watch for snakes; this did not deter me at all.

The next is a more bittersweet memory. On a family trip to Toronto for a wedding, my husband and I brought our two nieces, Krystine and Nichole with us, and rather than going through Detroit, as we had in the past, we went north and crossed the border from Lansing into Sarnia. I had wanted to stop there, as I’d found a wonderful letter my gggrandmother had written to my great-grandfather in the early 1880s, indicating that on his trip from Toronto he should stop in Sarnia. This unlocked a large, full branch of our family tree, many of whom were buried in a small, private cemetery in Sarnia. The four of us stayed overnight in Sarnia, and after a short drive, located the cemetery. It was a cold, lovely morning, and the two girls, young teenagers, were none too pleased about stopping at the cemetery. But wise Auntie Laura pulled out the big guns: I offered $5 to whoever found the first headstone I was looking for! LOL. Amazing what motivates teenagers. It’s an awesome memory, that opens many more…they’ll have to wait for another post. It’s bittersweet because Krystine died in 2006 just after her 25th birthday; again, a story for another day.

What about the tombstone, Laura? Well, these are not tombstones from MY family, but rather tombstones I found in a local cemetery that caught my interest, and my heart. There is a small town about 20 miles from where I live named Elburn. I became familiar with Elburn because they have a very large John Deere dealership, and my lawn tractor needed parts. We’d only been in our house a year, and hadn’t had the opportunity or inclination to head that direction. I had to have the parts, so we hopped in the car and off we went. As we got to the main intersection just to the south of this small town, I saw a very large, old cemetery, which is now the Blackberry Township Cemetery. My husband’s first words, “No, we’re not stopping.” And we didn’t.

However, I went back. I was in college at the time, studying Art History at the University of Illinois – Chicago, and I was in the midst of a very challenging art class. We had to find an object that was inanimate that resembled an animate object and I found my subject in the middle of the cemetery! There it was, this beautiful monument, built in the shape of an old tree. It really spoke to me, and so I spent many hours over the next few months sitting in the cemetery, using different materials to draw the monument.

The coolest part? Five years later, I get the honor and joy of processing the Elburn Historical Society’s material as an Archivist!! I’ve since learned that the little boy buried under this monument was the first to be buried in the cemetery in 1860. What’s more, the cemetery’s management moved from a private group to Blackberry Township, and they have done an incredible job of surveying, indexing and clarifying who is buried in the cemetery and utilizing technology so that the information will one day be available online. I have processed additional private burial records which are available upon request to the Town & Countryside Library in Elburn.

I hope that you can appreciate now how my work as an Archivist plays a role in my future as a Genealogist. More importantly, it’s one thing to find the branches and leaves on your family tree, but what do you do with all the material once you’ve found it? (As an aside, please don’t say the word ‘scrapbook’…it’s like nails on a chalkboard to most Archivists) I hope that I will be able to teach you the best practices for arranging, describing and making the material available and organizing it in a way that it will be ready to pass down to the next generation or on to a repository that will be willing to add it to their collections. I’m so very lucky to love the work I do!!

04 September 2011

Motivation Monday – Dead People DO Talk

OK, so maybe they don’t TALK talk, but they sure can tell you a LOT. I’d found out that my mom’s grandmother, Laura Louise Richards Wersel, would be the conduit through which we’d find our American Patriot. I was a researcher by trade, working in the financial industry as a portfolio assistant, keeping track of and locating minute financial details about my clients. But, as a novice at genealogical research, I was often amazed at where the richest resources were found.

I started my genealogical research in 1996, and had spent about six months pulling together bits and pieces of my mom’s side of our family. I had been looking at several threads online through Cyndi’s List, and had seen many people mention how great cemetery records were for getting details on ancestors. I knew my great grandmother, Laura Louise RICHARDS, had died in Cincinnati, Ohio, so one day I decided to research cemeteries in and around Cincinnati.

The first one to come up was Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum. The name itself caught my eye, so while I was on my lunch hour one day, I looked up their website (http://www.springgrove.org/SG/sg_home.shtm). Keep in mind, this was January 1997, so I expected to find basic information about the cemetery and perhaps get a phone number so I could call. However, this very technology forward cemetery had a search function that allowed me to enter a surname to locate a grave. I entered ‘RICHARDS’, not thinking about the fact that my great grandmother would’ve been buried under her married name, WERSEL. This tiny error lead me to a genealogical treasure trove!

What I found, with a few more clicks of my mouse, were 38 graves, some with names I’d never heard before, all of whom were my ancestors!!  The site indicated that cemetery records were available for genealogical research, so I excitedly picked up the phone and called. The woman that I spoke with, after looking at the records, sounded almost as excited as I was. She informed me that the entire Lot 93, in Section 54 of the cemetery were my ancestors, and that she would be happy to copy the records and send them to me.

I won’t forget how excited I was when I got the large envelope from the cemetery about a week later. In it was a letter and copies of the burial records for all 38 graves. Wow, just wow. Each record that looked like a large index card gave so much information! I had, of course, realized my error in looking for Laura Louise RICHARDS, instead of WERSEL, and had subsequently received my great grandmother’s death certificate, so I realized that Laura Richards was my 2nd great-grandmother.  As I laid the papers on the floor in a makeshift family tree, the branches began to unfold, and as I added the information into my database, I discovered I could trace these ancestors back to my 5th great-grandfather, all with reliable genealogical information!

The real challenge came in finding so many new names. There was GREENE, BURROWS, HARTSHORN(E), YEATMAN (misspelled as Geatman), WEST and WOODRUFF. My enthusiasm got the better of me, and as I entered these names into the few websites that were available, I started pulling all sorts of family trees into my database. I can’t tell you how much time I spent chasing windmills, but suffice it to say that I’ve since learned to keep my focus on only a few individuals at a time to keep the branches strong and sturdy. Yes, the information is out there. Yes, you’ll find the information you’re looking for…sometimes, it just takes a really, really long time…

Sentimental Sunday – What’s a Spoon Worth to You?

As I’m taking this journey back in time to recount how I’ve come to take up genealogy as a profession, I find myself remembering so many wonderful experiences. I’m doing my best to weave them together into this story, which at first I thought was going to be really difficult. But a story that wants to be told will be, so today’s Sentimental Sunday was easy.

I was tracing my ancestors back to someone who was an American Patriot, so that I could fulfill my mom’s wish of becoming a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. I didn’t know WHO it was, but family oral history told us that there was someone. So, I started with my mom’s parents, discovered it was her father’s family that had been in the U.S. for several generations, learned her grandfather had been born, lived and died in Cincinnati, but that his family came here after the Revolution. So, next option was her grandmother, Laura Louise RICHARDS.

Uh, mom? Is this who I’m named after? Yup, that’s right! I had NO idea that I had been named after my great grandmother! My parents had always told me my name was inspired by the 1944 Gene Tierney movie ‘Laura’. Again, TRUST NO ONE…LOL. Anyway, what a joy to find out that I had the name of the woman my great grandfather wrote poetry about. Mom told me she hadn't known either of her grandparents, and to her knowledge they had died when she was a child, in the 1930s. I located an obituary for her, discovering a few details: she was born around 1864 and died in 1936, just three months after my great grandfather, Henry. Now, on to finding more evidence and information about her and her family.

I was beginning to get pretty good at figuring out where to look for information. Keep in mind, in 1996, there was still very little on the Internet that you could find, so most information was found either at libraries and similar repositories or via U.S. mail requests. I took my first trip to the Newberry Library, which is an incredible place for genealogical research. As a history lover, and a nut about old books (thanks, great grandpa Henry!), I was amazed when I actually got to touch and look through books that were 150 years old. I also found out, in a big way, how important cemetery records can be (more about that in another post).  Of course, a death certificate can provide incredible details about someone, so I sent away for hers and waited.

Fast forward to 2005. My cousin, Kathy Hitchcock Burns, daughter of my mom’s sister Jackie, was celebrating her 25th wedding anniversary, and had come down from Wisconsin, where she lives, to visit my aunt Jinny and our family. Kathy had always been particularly close with Jinny; of the three Wersel girls combined 11 children, Kathy and I were the only girls and she is eleven years older than me, so she spent a lot of time with my aunt and was very close with her. 

Kathy brought her daughter and granddaughter with her, and we had a lovely time catching up. They’d been here for a while, and she pulled me aside and told me she had something for me. She told me that though it was HER anniversary, she wanted to give me a gift. Kathy and I were never very close, so this caught me a bit off guard, however, her incredibly generous nature is very well known, so I accepted the long narrow box she handed me.

When I opened the box, my heart skipped a beat. Inside was a beautiful sterling silver serving spoon. So, why the big deal? Engraved on the handle were the initials ‘L L R’. This amazing piece of flatware was owned and used by my great grandmother. Kathy didn't know it's true origin, whether it was a trousseau piece or not, and there's also the possibility that it was my great-great-grandmothers, as they shared the same initials. Either way, this spoon is from ~1870-1880. It had been passed down to Kathy by her mom, and she was giving it to me as a gift. There still really aren’t words that can accurately describe my gratitude, but I hope THANK YOU works.