29 January 2014

Wishful Wednesday - 52 Ancestors Week 5 - The Story of Lillie Howard

One of the challenges in telling our ancestor’s stories is, without documents of their life, how do we know what it was like to be them? I think about all the little failures and successes in my life, that no one will know in the future, that have molded me into the person that I am. So, we dig to find all the documents that we can to bring together as much information about each of those people from whom we came. And, every once in a while, you can find something that tells a whole story in very few words.

For this week’s ancestor, I chose someone who’s not an ancestor at all. But, she’s buried with my family. And, in that one not-so-small gesture, I think it tells a great deal about my family. I’m pleased to introduce you to Lillie Howard.

 I ‘found’ Lillie as I was researching my Burrows family in Cincinnati, Ohio. If you follow my blog, you’ll know I’ve become quite a fan of Cincinnati; it’s a gorgeous city and every time I’m there I feel, well, at home. It’s a welcoming place. And, out of 38 of my extended family buried in Section 54 Lot 93, Lillie has always been an enigma.

The Big Guy had a special Plan for little Lillie. She died on Christmas Day, 1857. Now, mind you, I’ve thought a LOT about little Miss Lillie. I’ve done the math to see if she could have been a child of one of the Hartshorne girls or any of their contemporaries. It just seems impossible.

So, I decided Lilly needed a story. It goes something like this: The Hartshornes, SW and Ann Eliza (Burrows) are at church on Christmas Eve and hear of the plight of this poor baby girl who is tragically ill. Their hearts go out to her, having lost three infant children themselves. When they return to church the next day for the Christmas celebration, they learn of the sad fate of little Lillie: she’s died. In a gesture born of the season, SW tells the head of the Home to have little Lillie’s body prepared and sent to Spring Grove to be buried in their family plot. 

What do you think? Do you wish there was a different story for Lillie?

22 January 2014

Wisdom Wednesday - 52 Ancestors Week 4 - Anne Marie Wagner to Mary Wersel

I spent a number of years searching for records of the wife of my 2nd great grandfather, Frank B Wersel. All of the family information I had indicated she was Mary Ann Wersel; nothing was known about where she came from or what her maiden name had been. Names are funny things; today the 'honor' associated with carrying a family name isn't anywhere as strong as it was in the 19th century. Yet, many of us have had the maddening experience of trying to trace an ancestor who seemingly vanishes only to find them hiding in plain sight with a new name.

In December, 2011 I was blessed to have original materials loaned to me by my Cincinnati cousin so I could digitize them and do a little basic conservation of the old and delicate documents. One of those was this ‘Extrait’:

For those who can’t read French, this is an extract from birth records in Bliesbrucken, Sarreguemines, Moselle, [Lorraine] France which was written in 1844. It’s the birth record of my 2nd great grandmother, Anne Marie Wagner, born 8 May 1842 to Jean Frederic Wagner and his wife Anne Eve Hensgen. A second document explained the ‘Extrait’:

It’s clear this document has seen better days, and at first glance there isn’t anything there to save. This is an interior passport, a document that allowed a traveler to move freely throughout the area. A closer look includes this little bit of information:

It clearly mentions “Wagner, avec sa femme” and also mentions “Gertrude et Anne Marie”. (“Sa femme” means ‘his wife’); it is dated 26 March 1844, the same year as the birth extract. It would appear that the purpose of getting his daughter's proof of birth was to provide it to the authorities when he requested the passport.

While there wasn’t a document showing how the Wagner family came to the United States, there was a Naturalization document, originating in Cincinnati, Ohio and dated 7 October 1850, for Anne Marie’s father, who is now John Wagner.

Then, on the 7th day of April, 1860, Anne Mary Wagner was married to Francis John Wersel in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Not to be confused with Frank B Wersel…that’s another story). I’m not certain, but this may be their wedding photo:

Isn’t she lovely? And he’s quite dashing as well, don’t you think? Anne Marie seems to have chosen her husband well; by 1870 their family included five children (George, Henry, Agnes, Franklin and Charles), Anne Marie’s parents (John and Eve) and a female servant. Of course, she’s no longer Anne Marie, but gave her name as ‘Mary’.

By 1880, the Wersel family had added two children, William and Stella. The entire family, including the Wagners lived at 251 Betts in Cincinnati. By now, Anne Marie was living as the wife of a business man; Frank’s upholstery business was booming and he was doing very well for himself.

The following image was taken some time after 1890, the year the Wersel’s son Henry married Laura Richards. Mary Ann Wersel is flanked by her children with her son Henry and his wife Laura standing behind her.

On 18 July 1897, Mary Wersel died. She is buried, along with her husband Frank, in St. John’s Catholic Cemetery in St. Bernard, Ohio.

From Anne Marie Wagner in Bliesbrucken to Mary Wersel in Cincinnati, Ohio. It wasn't a long stretch, from Anne Marie to Mary, but I was held up in my research, initially, because I didn't think to try a different name. Now, it's the first thing I do.

C’est ci bonne, c’est la vie. 

21 January 2014

Tuesday Tip – The Moldy Truth re: North Carolina

I’ve been watching the discussions regarding the destruction of materials from Franklin County, North Carolina with (understandable) interest. Along with many of you, my first thought was, ‘OMIGO_!!’ Then, because I’m not involved directly with the Heritage Society, the Clerk of the Courts, the Recorder of Deeds, the Franklin County Commissioners or the North Carolina State Archives, I felt it was best to quiet my voice and simply ‘listen’ to what was being presented on Social Media. I think we’ve all been on the receiving end of a not-so-great social media experience and I felt it was so important not to add an uninformed voice to the fray.

However, as a Professional Archivist, I wanted to have an understanding of how this situation came into being, so I contacted Sarah Koonts, State Archivist of North Carolina. We exchanged several emails, and then we scheduled a call. I’ll discuss what we talked about in another post but I’ll say that, if I lived in North Carolina, I would want Sarah as the steward of the records the State holds. She’s a passionate historian and Archivist, but more importantly, she’s just as frustrated by the series of events that occurred because they ended with the loss of confidence by the public that she serves.

Having said this I’m fully aware of the investment, of time and heart, that the Heritage Society put into trying to protect the material that was located in the basement of the Franklin County Courthouse. However, having read the document provided by Franklin County Manager, Angela Harris, there is only ONE aspect of this situation which seems to need some serious discussion and education: Mold.

In the first posts, I saw comments about the fact that there were materials stored in the basement of the Franklin County Courthouse that were moldy while some had been unaffected. For the record, I have never been in the Franklin County Courthouse basement, so I’m only speaking as an Archives professional not as someone who has been on site. However, after reading Ms. Harris' document and looking at the pictures, I’m very surprised that the people working in that location did not feel the effects of the mold that was there.

I get teary every time I see the picture of the ledgers lined on those shelves that are now gone. But then I see the ‘dust’ too, which is not only dust but mold and know that it would have cost thousands of dollars to rid them of the mold that had infested them. Sadly, while there is plenty to be learned from this situation, the greatest take-away should be that NO records, of such rich research value, should ever be allowed to sit in a basement where they deteriorate to the point they have to be incinerated.

The terrible thing about mold; it appears to be harmless, but it can create a multitude of health problems in individuals who have been exposed to it. Unless going through a clean room after being exposed, those mold spores can travel on your person and be left along your path potentially contaminating everything that you come in contact with. How is that possible? It’s possible because mold goes dormant (that dusty stuff). All it takes is microscopic bits of H2O to come in contact with it for it to rebloom and you have another infestation. This is why there are companies that charge thousands of dollars to provide mold remediation.

I’d like very much for those you who are reading this and grinding your teeth because you think I’m over-stating the dangers of mold to follow this link, from a slide presentation of how mold affects a collection (in this case in Libraries and Archives), not unlike the materials in Franklin County. Please note, at the end of the presentation slides that the presenter mentions, multiple times, that mold remediation/removal from materials should be done by professionals. It’s simply not something that you can do yourself. No amount of hand sanitizer will help. The Library of Congress also has some great information here.

As researchers, of any kind, it’s up to us to be familiar with our local repositories. It’s up to us to be vigilant about staying informed of who the stewards of those materials are because THEY are the ones who are responsible for those materials. And, with public records, those stewards change often. Do you know who your Clerk of Courts or Records of Deeds is, or what about your County Archives? You don’t know if your County has an Archives? Hmmm, maybe that’s something you might want to check out…

We must act locally to save records from needing to be destroyed. 

15 January 2014

Wishful Wednesday - 52 Ancestors Week 3 - Jeffrey Girls

When I saw Amy Johnson Crow’s suggestion about 52 Ancestors, I immediately responded that I thought it was a fabulous idea. Taking the time to focus on one ancestor a week and writing a blog post about that ancestor seemed like an easy enough task. Of course, here we are in Week 3, and I’ve yet to get a post done. I thought I’d quickly write a post about my Granny Frances and her two sisters, Bessie and Adelaide. You know, for Week Three. Because there were three of them.

Except, my math's not so hot and there was a fourth. Actually, I knew this; Isabel, the oldest daughter of George and Fanny Jeffrey was born on 31 May 1886, according to State of Michigan records. The written entry shows she was born to “George Jeffrey” a “carriage maker” and “Fannie”; George is from “Canada” and Fannie is from “Michigan”. This all jibes with other evidence I have and explains the lovely photos of ‘Isabel’ that I found among my Granny’s photos:

In order to write a quality post (you know I strive to do that, right), I decided to take a fast look at my ‘Documents’ folder in my digital library under the surname ‘Jeffrey’. I thought I might be able to add a document or two to my other sources for the Jeffrey girls in Family Tree Maker. As my eyes scanned down the list of unprocessed material, they stopped at an entry that says this:

                                  Jeffrey Edna B3 p237

Um, who’s Edna? The other entries, GIF file images from the State of Michigan, County of Kalamazoo Birth Records, read like this:

Jeffrey Isabel B3 p146

Jeffrey Bessie B3 p284
Jeffrey Frances Isabel B4 p129
Jeffrey Adelaide B5 p142

I remember when I pulled these images back in December, 2011. What I didn’t remember is pulling FIVE records.  Here’s where it gets really hinky; check out the dates of birth (again, according to what’s written in the log books):

Isabel - 31 May 1886
Edna - 21 December 1888
Bessie - 31 May 1889
Baby** - 22 Apr 1893 **A notation was added “7-1-58 Frances Isabel”
Adelaide B - 10 May 1901

I did verify that the ‘Edna’ entry was a daughter of George and Fannie, from Canada and Michigan. George’s occupation is listed as ‘Mail Carrier’ and I know that my George was indeed a Mail Carrier in Kalamazoo for 30 years, as confirmed with the US Postal Service. So, what’s wrong with this picture?

As I mentioned, before, I like to think I’m smart. The time period between Edna’s birth 21 December 1888 and Bessie’s birth 31 May 1889 is only 5 months. While babies are viable at that time frame, it seems highly unlikely in the late 1800s. It also seems a bit strange that Bessie and Isabel share the exact same date of birth, although again it’s not impossible. What’s really bizarre is that my cousin Kathy, the daughter of my mom’s sister Jacqueline, 'corrected' my information when she saw it online, telling me that the family celebrated Bessis’s birthday around Christmas and that her birthday was December 21st. Uh, oh.

It’s far more likely that Bessie was born in December 1889, and any family historian worth their salt knows that hand written records, even official ones, can be incorrect. In Kalamazoo County, at that time, it was still commonplace to provide information about the birth of a child well after the actual date. Is it possible that Bessie was born on 31 December instead of May as was written in the log? The strange thought that perhaps to ‘honor’ her departed sister they decided to say that she was born on the same day, but a year later, also came to mind but seems unlikely. Maybe George or Fanny misspoke when giving the information to the County when asked the child’s date of birth.

I've been unable to locate a death record, or any other record for that matter, for Edna Jeffrey. I can only presume that she died very close to, or on, her birth date and that’s why she was never mentioned by my Granny. Of course, now I wish I’d asked my Mom about her a few years ago when her mind was working a lot better, although I doubt that she’d have known anything about Edna. She didn't know about Isabel until we were going through old photos after my mom’s sister passed away in 2006.

Wishful thinking: there’s no such thing as an ‘easy’ post. *sigh*

Rather than bail entirely, I'm hanging with my original idea and posting about the three (surviving) Jeffrey girls:

Bessie Jeffrey was my grand aunt. She was an unusual woman; she never married, but worked for the US government her entire life. According to my Mom, her Aunt Bessie smoked like a chimney and rarely ate, which is why she was always frighteningly thin. She lived in Chicago; at one point she lived in a building that overlooked what used to be a Chicago architectural icon: the Edgewater Beach Hotel. I know she traveled; I found photos of her in Florida, Bermuda, and Mexico. I know little else about her. She died, at her sister Frances’ in Villa Park, Illinois on 24 July 1965 at the age of 76.

Frances Isabel was my Granny. That’s how I knew her and always referred to her as did the rest of my contemporaries. She was a strong woman to be certain; my grandfather had ‘a drinking problem’ and as a salesman was either traveling or moving the family. I’ve written about her wedding date: December 7, 1917. Her husband, Victor Wersel had started at the Bryant Paper Company as a salesman where she was a secretary. After they married they waited before starting their family and had two daughters, Virginia in 1922 and Jacqueline 1924. Then in 1933, shortly after Frances celebrated her 40th birthday, my Mom surprised everyone with her entry into the world. Frances was a sweet, caring person. She would buy Christmas presents throughout the year, wrapping them very carefully and storing them in her room until it was time to celebrate. She made potato coquettes, which to this day are a family tradition. Victor died in 1963, leaving her a widow; she never remarried, living the rest of her life alone. I don’t believe that they’d saved anything, so she worked. As a matter of fact, she was commuting from the western suburbs of Chicago to the downtown Goldblatt’s store when they ‘suggested’ she retire after working there for 20 years; I think they’d found out she was 85 years young. Frances died 24 August 1990 in Elmhurst, Illinois at the age of 97.

Adelaide was my grand aunt. Like Bessie she was a bit eccentric. She was born in 1901, so her sisters were a bit older than her. I think the term ‘precocious’ would have fit Adelaide to a ‘T’.  It's uncertain whether or not Adelaide was officially married to George Thurston, the father of her two children Patricia and George, but her 1930 US Census entry indicates she was divorced and living with her parents. And, five years later, she was married and living with her husband, Adolf Koop. From the family photos I found, it appears that my grandfather Victor (Frances' husband) and Adolf got along really well and were the life of the party. Heh. Sadly, Adelaide died of ovarian cancer on 31 October 1956 in Villa Park, Illinois at the age of 55. 


Oh, there's lots more to tell, which is what is going to keep this challenge so, well, challenging. On to the next ancestor. 

Hmmm, I wonder who it will be...

06 January 2014

Motivation Monday - Get Those Old Photo Albums Out

I posted about having unidentified photos that had been pulled from old photo albums on Friday; you can read that post here.

I received lots of comments (thank you so much!) asking about removing the photos from these old albums without damaging them. Why bother to remove them? Because for long term preservation, it’s better to remove them from the album and place them in appropriate archival quality storage (acid-free envelopes, folders and/or boxes).

A word of caution first: take digital images of the pages BEFORE you try to remove them from an album. If the album is flexible enough for a scanner that’s a fine way to get the image, otherwise using a digital camera or smartphone will do the job. I've done both with a number of albums I've processed. And, while it’s great to capture an image that’s of good enough quality to clip each individual picture (later), the purpose in capturing an image of the page as a whole is to preserve the original arrangement on each page as well as the original order of the pages. This, in turn, preserves the context that can be inferred from how the images are arranged if they are not identified; we call that respect des fonds. 

So, how the heck do you get the photographs off the pages?! Patience and a steady hand are important components in this process along with a couple of tools that you can use:

1. If the adhesive is not very good and the edges of the photographs are loose, you can use a micro spatula to attempt to gently pry them up. What’s a *micro spatula*? You can see what it looks like here. In a pinch, I’ve used a palette knife (used for mixing oil paints) that you can get at an art supply store. The key is in using something that has a fairly sharp, thin edge, but not so sharp that it will cut the photo.

2. Dental floss. Yep, here’s a case where an inexpensive household item can work magic. Make certain that the floss does not include flavor (think unnecessary chemicals on your photo), but it can be waxed. Teflon floss works the best, since the Teflon helps to prevent sticking. Begin with a corner; gently work the floss under the photo and then use a back and forth ‘sawing’ motion - G E N T L Y.  Again, this takes a very steady hand and lots of patience, but often it’s an issue of getting past the first line of adhesive and the picture will come off the page. 

If, in examining the album, you find that the vast majority of the photos are securely adhered to the pages, it may be best to leave them as they are. In this case, acid-free tissue paper can be placed in between the pages to help to reduce the eventual degradation of the images from the acid in the pages.

If you have other issues with your albums, let me know and I'll see if I can make suggestions that can help you. Archival supplies are NOT expensive, in general. I am an Archivist, which means I'm on an incredibly tight budget (i.e., I don't make a lot of money), so I totally understand needing to be frugal. Frugality shouldn't prevent you from protecting your family materials for the future!

*Please note: I am not compensated when suggesting products and/or suppliers. I'm going by the experience I've had with the products and suppliers; your experience may be different. Common sense is my rule for 2014.

03 January 2014

Friday's Faces From the Past - Keeping Clues in Place

I thought I’d take a moment to quickly discuss the challenges of old photo albums. I’m not talking about those horrible ‘magnetic’ albums with the sticky pages and plastic that holds the photos in place, but those albums with black or dark brown ‘construction paper’ pages. They may be 100 years old, or older, and the photos in them may look fine but the acid in the pages are slowly degrading the images and the paper they are on.

As an Archivist, I’ve de-mounted my fair share of photographs and other items from albums and scrapbooks. It’s a tedious process but one that, in the long run, will preserve the materials longer. The key is in ensuring that the order in which the items were placed in the album is maintained. It is essential that this be done to maintain the context in which the photographs were added by whoever created the album.

Obviously if the images are identified you're well ahead of the game. Simply transferring the information to the back of the photo, using a photo pencil of course, is fine. But if there is no identification it becomes even more critical to keep the images in the order they were in the album. As we all know, it’s rare that someone puts random pictures into an album. While you might not know who are in the images, those 2nd and 3rd cousins that are out there may know, or you may realize through clues in the images themselves who is whom. It’s also possible there’s another album somewhere that may have images that are identified which will provide identification for your images.

So before you remove the images from the pages, scan or take a digital image of the entire page. Then as you carefully remove the images from the album use a numbering system to identify their location from the album. As you place the images in acid-free folders or in acid-free photo boxes, carefully note on the back with a photo pencil the location from the album.

I have a 3rd cousin who removed unidentified images, many tin types, from a number of albums and when she presented them to me to scan, she had no idea who the people in the images are or which images had originally been together. I also found several photos my Mom had in her collection which are unidentified. There’s nothing more frustrating for a genealogist than to have these much older photos and simply have no clue who they are!

02 January 2014

Thankful Thursday - Why Are YOU A Family Historian/Genealogist?

I thought this was worth revisiting. Much has changed since this was written. There is still healing to do, but we function as the team we are and we've learned to accept what we cannot change or control. The time we spend together has increased significantly, taking away time that I had been researching and writing. I'm going to try to create a better balance, a more even flow, and hope that readers will come back (the significant drop in views has been noted) with the re-focused slant to archives and genealogy with a less 'personal' touch.  

29 April 2012 - Why Would You Want to be A Genealogist

When I started this blog, I honestly didn't think anyone would be interested in knowing about my journey. I've been very pleasantly surprised about the support it's received. So many people have taken the time not only to read what's in this space but also to comment about it as well. For that, I am incredibly grateful. What's more, I've discovered not only am I sharing my journey, I'm uncovering myself in the process. 

As those of you who regularly read this blog know, I am sans family. Well, not completely without family, but I don't have children. It wasn't a choice but a medical condition that prevents me from having kids; my husband is not comfortable with adoption. When I first found out I shouldn't have children, I was devastated, but never shared that with anyone. It wasn't 'me' to share my feelings (hard to believe, right?!). Years past, and like any loss, the pain eased a bit. But I find that not having the opportunity to have children, as I so deeply want, has had other unexpected and sometimes unwanted consequences. 

My husband comes from a large family. He has four siblings and as of today, we have seven living nephews and nieces (one is deceased) ranging in age from 34 to 4 and seven grand- nephews and nieces. When I first met my husband, everyone was very close and we spent the vast majority of our free time with them. We were present at the births of three of our nieces and nephews, a privilege I never thought I'd have. We cared for our 'middle' nieces and nephew like they were our own, because in many ways, they were the closest thing we'd ever get to knowing what it feels like to have our own family. 

But, as with so many families, there was a disagreement. There was a member of the family who, quite frankly, didn't want to BE a part of the family. That person considered their family to just be a spouse and children. Didn't want the 'intrusion' of the rest of the family. So, this person systematically took down an entire family. It's incredible to look back on the series of events and realize that's what was happening. When it was all said and done, last summer, my husband's family fell apart to the point siblings pointed fingers at each other and said they were no longer siblings. How very, very sad. 

Over the last seven years or so, we stopped going to his family functions because they were just too awkward; frankly we'd stopped receiving invitations to things. My husband was always a bit philosophical about these kinds of things. I have to claim my feminine qualities for taking it much more personally; for admitting that my heart broke a little more each day we were pushed farther and farther out of the family. 

At the same time last summer my husband's family was splitting apart, my parents fulfilled their dream of moving to Arizona. While they've settled in and seem happy, my Mom has had a number of medical challenges, including two stays in the hospital. I don't have the financial resources to go back and forth to Arizona, so I haven't seen them in almost a year. Just last week Mom had to go back to the emergency room; my first thought was I just wanted to be there to hold her hand. I struggle with feeling guilty that I'm not there to take care of them at a time in their lives when they really need me. Except they chose to be in Arizona and are happier there than they were when they lived here.

I made a profound realization this week. The timing of my decision to restart my genealogical journey came squarely at a time when I felt abandoned by my family. I threw myself into my genealogical research and I decided to start this blog. I recognized, as an Archivist, that there simply is not enough education out there for family historians and Genealogists about how to properly care for and manage their own collections and I want to fill that void with the knowledge I've acquired. I brought people into my circle and I tried to get on a solid path to creating an archival and genealogical services business. Having worked in the financial industry, I recognized that keeping your business and personal lives separate is a key to success. But in the Genealogical world, those lines aren't so clear cut.

The other aspect of my realization is that, feeling abandoned by my family, I tried to create a family rather than a business. I so desperately want to be a part of a family that I subconsciously created one where one didn't exist. I put expectations on people that were incredibly unfair, and in so doing, harmed potentially beneficial relationships. Only time will tell if this tactical stumble will hurt me in the future with my business; I hope that my passion for the stories our ancestors have to tell and the desire to preserve the physical remnants of those stories will be what people remember. I am a skilled technician and an exemplary researcher; I have a significant drive to share that with others. 

I felt the need to share this story here because someday I hope that someone researching their family will have a greater understanding of why I'm so passionate about being a Genealogist. (As I say to myself) It's a family, dummy. 

Why did YOU become a family historian or Genealogist? I'd love to collect your stories too...

01 January 2014

Wisdom Wednesday - Oral History Lessons

Oral histories. I doubt there are many family historians or genealogists out there who don’t wish they had an oral history in their arsenal of evidence. But oral histories, along with family records like bibles and compiled genealogies, can be very tricky. Not only can there be material errors, but the point in your research when you receive this information can be an important aspect of how it is analyzed.

Case in point: I have a family document that provides details of my Richards, Penn, and Sargent lines. It is one of the first documents I received from Thomas (Tom) Wersel back in 1996 when I first started doing my family research. As a new family historian, keeping in mind it was a time when the Internet and sites like GenWeb and Cyndi’s List were in their infancy, I ran with that document believing that all of it had to be true.

Fast forward about 5 years, and I’d become aware of the fact that it wasn’t the number of names in my database that was important but the quality of the information I was gathering. I ‘started over’ with a new database; not by choice but rather by a catastrophic failure of a computer hard drive and the poorly stored back up disks that failed to work. Lesson learned the hard way. I’d been provided family group sheets by a Professional Genealogist who shared my line and helped me uncover some rather serious inaccuracies in our Penn line (an entirely missed generation). I realized that this ‘hobby’ was one that required more work and knowledge than I had so I set the work aside and focused on other life projects.

I went to college, starting at 40, and learned about research methodology. Critical thinking. Resource analysis. I worked with an art collection creating detailed condition reports and on the papers of a professor at the University I attended, organizing and arranging them so that they could be used by other researchers. I was hired by a local company, as an Archivist, to work in a variety of repositories. And every time I looked at the collections I was working with I thought, ‘Wow, some family historian would kill to have this information.’

So, three years ago (how time flies) I dusted off my family history materials, fired up my laptop and stepped into a whole new world. A world in which documents, from repositories unavailable just 5 or 6 years ago, were available online and for free. A world in which individuals were able to put family trees on websites, along with documents and photographs, to be shared by other researchers. I found myself stumbling over people I’d contacted 10 years ago who were still at it, working a bit here and a bit there to fill in their family histories. And I came across a confounding number of places where work that I’d done long ago and far away had been copied and pasted into other trees, errors and all.

I wanted 'better'. I wanted better interaction between myself and the information I was gathering, better interaction between myself and other people with the same ancestors and to be able to find better ways to do my research. I spent 18 months in the Pro Gen Study Group (15) and learned more than I knew I needed to know. I went to conferences where I sat in rooms listening to people talk about methodology, resources, and the reasons there is a better way to perform genealogical research. I spent time with other family historians and genealogists learning that the shades of these labels are many and incredibly varied. And, I learned that there are detriments to what we ‘know’ to be true in our family histories.

Getting back to that family document, I now see it for what it is: a clue. Actually, tons of clues. Evidence to be analyzed along with all the other evidence I’ve obtained about the same individuals. (Here I’ll shamelessly plug Evidentia, a piece of software I fell in love with last year that captures this evidence to more efficiently analyze it. You can check it out here.) Most importantly, I learned that we don’t know what we don’t know and that adding *one* other document to the mix can completely change how we analyze what we thought to be true, or not true.

In going through my cousin’s family materials I found original letters that corroborated much of what was in my family document. It is, in fact, mostly accurate. So, I went from believing it, to not believing it, to being able to build a case around each piece of information being either accurate or not accurate. 

Yesterday I received a message from someone I’d connected with a year ago on Ancestry. She uploaded a document that discusses the Richards and Penn part of my family history that was also described in my family document. The document she uploaded is an oral history transcript taken from a woman in 1929. As I was reading this document I found myself thinking, ‘Oh, that’s not right.’ Except, how do I know that? I don’t know who the person was who provided this oral history. I don’t know how reliable she was as a source.

She discusses her great grandparents, the two Richards brothers who’d married two Penn sisters. She mentions an “Aunt Jennie”, the same name mentioned in my document. She says that these Richards men are German and possibly Jewish. Huh? Well, that can’t be. 

Except it could be because while my DNA doesn’t show any possible Jewish connection, my mother’s 23andMe profile indicates she has 0.1% Ashkenazi DNA. I initially thought this might be an error, and I guess it still could be, but now I have oral evidence that corroborates a possible Jewish connection. What’s important here is that, without the DNA, I might discount this piece of oral evidence. But I DO have the DNA, so anything is possible.

The oral history transcript is fairly long; eleven pages. Most of it doesn’t apply to my direct family, but I have to take it page by page to analyze each piece of evidence to see how it correlates to the evidence I currently have. Then, I’ll have to see how this ‘new’ information affects what I knew and what potential new areas of research I’ll need to be looking to in order to fully analyze what’s there.

What I do know is that this oral history partially supports the evidence in my family document in confirming that two Richards brothers married two Penn sisters. Is everything in this oral history accurate? There’s really no way to be certain. However, it contains a plethora of clues that can be used to locate other evidence. 

This still doesn’t provide what I need the most: corroborating evidence that John Richards and Mary Penn had a son, Randolph Richards. THAT piece of evidence may or may not exist; I’ll keep looking and hope that some other descendant has evidence that they’ll share. Have you found oral histories or family documents to be as confounding as they are helpful?