Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Value of Pausing to Remember

Every year on December 7, Americans are reminded of the "date which will live in infamy"—Franklin D. Roosevelt's rousing call to action following the attack on Pearl Harbor. And indeed, the date injected a profound shock into the nation's consciousness. In the aftermath, the Roosevelt appeal to patriotism in the face of "innocence violated" fueled the intentions of many American young men, some still in high school, who signed up to do their duty at the first possible moment.

Among those many Americans was my father-in-law, Frank Stevens. The Pearl Harbor attack was most likely the impetus causing him, barely turned seventeen, to drop out of high school and join the Navy the following February. Now, many years removed from the devastation, our family has been able to follow his experiences via the letters he wrote home—letters which I shared here at A Family Tapestry beginning with this post in 2011.

The mood is quite different this December 7. Seventy five years removed from the shock and confusion—not to mention, the devastating loss of thirty five hundred either killed or wounded in the attacks—the day carries with it a poignant reminder that this 75th Commemoration will likely be the last commemorative for the event attended by those who actually survived the Pearl Harbor attack. The youngest of those present at the military installation during that 1941 attack would now be in their nineties. Many of the survivors are now gone.

It didn't take much to see, in the letters of one man serving in the war into which this attack launched our nation, the intense effect exerted upon those who stepped up to fight the battles following this historic day. At this far-removed anniversary date, even those grateful for their service may no longer be with us. But that shouldn't matter. Though hardly a soul remains who shuddered through those dark days, it will do us all well to consider what we can learn from history. The stories of those who went through that dark time can still inform us, advise us, warn us.

Above: Photograph of the attack on Pearl Harbor, taken from the vantage point of a Japanese plane approaching Ford Island, looking toward the east; courtesy United States Naval History and Heritage Command via Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

About Those Christmas Letters . . .

I have a confession to make. Remember all those letters sent out, stuffed inside Christmas cards—or maybe just unceremoniously stuffed into a business envelope—to deliver holiday greetings to family and friends? Yeah, the ones where you bragged about the highlights of your family's year? Well, if I've been on your mailing list, I've kept them all. Every. Single. One.

I've also kept every newsy birthday card, Easter card, Thanksgiving card, or just-saying-hi card. Why? If there was any news included on what your family was up to, I wanted to keep it.

Someday, I promised myself, I would go back and glean all the high points—the ones that would be most pertinent to a family historian.

Depending on the source of the greeting card, the details might have been quite extensive. I have the names and birth dates of each and every great-grandchild—and, eventually, great-greats—of one aunt and uncle. Those entries, you can be sure, made it into the family tree records almost immediately. A cousin from the other side of the family always sends photos of the extended family and the itinerary for the past year's extensive travels. Others send details on the children as they grow up, or the hobbies they enjoyed, or the family they visited.

Each letter, alone, might seem rather mundane to those outside the family. It's no wonder so many people make fun of the annual Christmas-letter tradition.

Taken in the aggregate, however, those letters add up to a fuller picture of your family. They catalog relationships, new arrivals, sad departures. Above all, they showcase what the sender considers to be high points in the story line of one particular family—and how the author felt about those events. Taken all together, they make up the mosaic of your extended line.

Admittedly, this becomes a research gift only if you foresaw this as a strategy years ago. But don't let that ace you out of the process. If you are the recipient of newsy notes such as these Christmas letters, next time you have the chance, slip them into a file folder—or scan them and save the digitized record—and begin your collection of your extended family's story.

Trust me, ten years from now, you'll never remember all the details otherwise. But if you preserve the record, you will always have it at your fingertips to consult, should you ever need to reconstruct your family's story. It's those little details, in your family's own voice, that breathe life into what otherwise might be nothing more than a monotonous litany of names, places and dates.

Above: "Winter Landscape With Skaters," oil on panel circa 1608 by Dutch artist Hendrick Avercamp; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Can Your Own Memories Help
Break Through Ancestral Brick Walls?

Last weekend brought with it the perfect elixir to turn even the surliest of Scrooges into cheer-spreading holiday ambassadors. Here in northern California, the sky was brilliant blue, the temperature pleasant, and the sun uncharacteristically inviting for a December day. I spent Saturday's noon hour celebrating with our local D.A.R. chapter for their Christmas luncheon. Then, with a friend, I strolled the nearby village-style shopping center, enjoying the sights, sounds, and wintertime treats.

We settled in at a sidewalk cafe to enjoy a mocha, chatting and watching passers-by lug their bundles. A family friend came out of a nearby store, heard my voice, turned and greeted me; she was with her grandchildren, bringing home bagels for the next day's breakfast. The daughter of a college friend walked by; despite the holiday cheer, I know her life right now is one that could use a lot of support, so I ran to catch up with her and deliver at least a hug.

The chance encounter that gave pause, though, was when what I thought was a young woman tentatively intruded upon our conversation to ask, "Is your name Jacqi?"

She turned out to be someone whom I hadn't seen for enough years to fill two generations. When I last saw her, she was a child of about ten, whom—with her friends and neighbors—I and my husband had taken to church on a weekly basis. While the families in her neighborhood were probably quite poor, I didn't think much of it at the time; it was just an offer extended that people could accept, if they wished. We probably connected with these children for about a year, then life moved on.

Now, she told me the children with her and with her husband were her grandchildren. They had stopped in at the coffee shop to get hot chocolate for a little extra warmth. We reminisced over how long it had been since we last were together, when she mentioned, "You made a big impact on my life."

Really? Can the little things we do take on such significance for others whose paths we chance to cross? Apparently so. We weave a human web of inter-connectivity. Even in our most fleeting relationships.

I couldn't help but realize that the earlier episode in my life—the one this chance encounter brought back to mind—wouldn't be one that my daughter could remember, if she ever takes to reconstructing the lives in her family history. This event occurred way before she was even born. The story line, however, could reveal some key points about that portion of a lifetime, though—if anyone were to know about it.

That got me thinking about people in my family tree—people I knew from my own childhood. What stories might I have caught just a glimpse of, and, if I chose to follow up on them, might reveal some clues about that lifetime? These are the stories I need to call to mind, once again.

I remembered doing some research on my dad's early adult years when he played in dance bands of the 1920s through 1940s. The names of some brothers kept coming up in my searches: the Ferdinando brothers. Turns out, they had an orchestra which toured, eventually ending up in the Manchester, New Hampshire area—the very place where I found my newlywed father living in a later census record. Did I know any of that when I was a kid? Of course not—I was even surprised to learn it when, as an adult, I found the family in the 1930 census. But seeing photos of the band as an adult, I realized these were the same guys teaching in the music studio where my dad worked in his later years, when I was growing up. How was I to know these guys had a piece of history in their background?

I think of other stories told by family members—seemingly insignificant at the time—which in retrospect lead back to significant clues about my parents' and grandparents' history. Admittedly, some of those might well be tall tales—like my southern grandfather's claim to have been related to John Wilkes Booth—but others may be worth pursuing.

The linchpin to all this, though, is that these memories may be lost unless we preserve them. I can't help but realize this when, greeted by a long-lost acquaintance sharing childhood memories, I realize I've never written down that life episode.

Stories are one of the cozy accoutrements of the winter holiday season. We may provide little snippets of our family's life this year in our annual brag Christmas letters sent far and wide. But unless we reach deeper in our personal history—and find a way to capture this—those stories from earlier years will be lost to our grandchildren's family history saga.

More importantly, ever notice how remembering one story triggers the memory of another story? When they begin to fall out of your head and, domino-like, leave a trail on your notepaper, you may discover, in all the excess baggage attached to those memories, some clues to your family's background that can guide your hand in your genealogical pursuits.

Above: "Kulig" (sleigh ride), undated oil on canvas by Polish realist painter Zygmunt Ajdukeiwicz; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Heading for the Home Stretch

It's the last month of the year. Anything that's going to happen in 2016 better happen in the next twenty seven days. Well, give or take a few holidays and moments of celebration.

So, it's on to the recap of research progress. It feels good to be back on track here. After so many trips and other plans, progress had slowed more than I like—not to mention, the second count for November completely escaped me.

Remember, it's not just an ancestor checklist I'm trying to gather; I want to fill out the collateral lines in each generation—reaching back, in some cases, to the far side of colonial forebears. Keeping track of progress is one way, in the midst of so many swirling numbers, to have an anchor of hope that someday, that goal will be achieved.

Back up to the usual speed, it felt good to see that I added an additional 228 names—all verified, of course—to my mother's line, putting the total in her tree at 9,153 right now. I didn't quite make as much headway on my mother-in-law's line, where I added 120 for a total of 9,035, but it's still progress.

One thing I've mentioned wanting to remedy for the new year is the lack of progress on my father's line and my father-in-law's line. Right now, I made zero progress on behalf of my father-in-law's family, where the count is frozen at 1,080 on the Stevens line. Incredibly, I did find one additional person to add to my own father's line, so the count there is now at 346. Granted, neither of these are colonial families, and access to reliable records for centuries sure can make a difference in genealogical progress.

It's been interesting watching the progress in the DNA accounts. At AncestryDNA, not much has been added to the count of matches for either of us. Of course, partly that is attributed to the luck of the draw: if no distant family members test, we don't get any matches. But the rest of the glacial pace might pick up with the slight uptick in the brief Black Friday sales push at Ancestry—but not as much as will likely be experienced over at Family Tree DNA, where the sale is still ongoing for all their testing products.

The numbers in our personal experience seem to reflect that tale in a microcosm: at AncestryDNA, I received seven more matches than I had last month, for a total of 410. My husband, originally at 180, received just three more matches in the same time period. On the other hand, our results at FTDNA jumped sixteen to 1,479 and twenty to 949, respectively.

Still, what really counts is being able to determine how two people match. That is precisely where I am stuck: in the analysis. I'm glad to be accepted into the DNA Boot Camp at Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy in January, and I'm sure I'll learn helpful pointers there. I'm also reading up on the leading blogs by nationally recognized instructors in the field. But until I can figure out just how I connect with any of those many matches, it's almost useless information. Here's to a 2017 with insight on how to change course in that arena.

Unless the conclusion of the holiday season just takes my breath away, I'll be back before the end of the year to check numbers for this progress report one more time. It's been helpful to keep these little measurements as the year rolled on, if only as an antidote to a sense of hopelessness in the face of so much yet to be done.


Above: "Chimney-sweep," 1880 painting by Swedish artist Frans Wilhelm Odelmark; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Now Indexing: Something Root-Worthy

With the holiday season upon us, I thought it best to honor my commitment to do volunteer indexing at FamilySearch early this month. Of course, the temptation is always to seek the easiest batches to index—or at least, the ones that would be easiest on my eyes—but there's no way of knowing, once you select a batch, whether your wish will be granted.

I had noticed, in one of the Canadian blogs I follow, that there were some interesting data sets coming on board for our neighbors to the north, so I gave it a thought to visit the indexing choices for Canadian records, but unfortunately my good thoughts needed to remain just that: thoughts. There were only two choices—old passenger lists in what was sure to be impossible-to-read handwriting, and a document collection in French. These were not the types of records through which I could set my fingers dancing on the keyboard.

With that good intention nipped so early I followed, at heart at least, our Irish immigrant ancestors' pathway and moved from perusing Canadian offerings down to Chicago. There, I found a possibility and set to work.

My selected record set for this month was a section of Cook County death records during the years 1949 through 1958. Since my batch was filled with duplicate files, it took no time at all to dispatch that set. Before I had barely gotten rolling, I was ready for seconds.

The second set didn't go as swimmingly as the first set. In fact, many in this second batch were coroner's reports. In other words, cases like Chicago River drowning victims—almost every field in the document was filled out "unknown" except for the approximate date of death and estimation of age—and murder victims filled the batch. Needless to say, despite the many "unknowns," I still got sidetracked. Bright shiny syndrome. For me, not for them...

There are some times when the indexing process goes so smoothly that, in my holiday cheer and general mood of gratitude, I want to keep at it and give back lots. After all, I certainly appreciate the many others who have gone before me and made all this digitization of research documents possible and all. Then, other times remind me that I would feel more comfortable if I were sinking in a mud hole of quicksand, surrounded by alligators.

Part of that sinking feeling may be owing to the unpredictability of government documents. Even in the same jurisdiction, over a span of time, fields on a document may be changed. The way civil service employees fill out those forms may not be standardized. The circumstances surrounding the event requiring civil registration may include extenuating circumstances which don't fit nicely into a preconceived format.

Then, too, though my eyes stayed glued to that screen on the right—the constant instruction companion for each field in the process—sometimes the instructions don't even seem to fit the circumstances. In the case of this month's indexing project, it wasn't until I got to the second batch—and, of course, had already submitted the first one—that I realized I had marked one field wrong. For the entire batch. There goes the accuracy rating.

And why the instructions on blank or non-applicable fields sometimes say to use a tab to leave the field blank, and other times to use control-B for the same reason seems confusing. It would be nice to have things like that standardized so the volunteer doesn't have to remain glued to the instructions. If all blank fields could be marked in the same way, it would help in memorizing the procedure. And I'm all for speed...after accuracy, of course.

Despite all that frustration, while it does help me become a kinder, gentler consumer of freely-offered genealogy resources—at least in engendering compassion for those invisible volunteers before me who bungled indexing my ancestors' records—I still think the process is worth the effort. Collectively, over the past ten years of crowdsourcing the indexing process, FamilySearch has shepherded the efforts of a million volunteers, worldwide, to make available many of the records we can now access with the mere click of a mouse.

I certainly don't mind struggling for a few minutes each month to help out a cause like that. In fact, for my minuscule part in the process, I'm quite proud to have done so. And in revisiting my efforts every month, I hope as a genealogical researcher, you will be inspired to give back in your own way, as well.

Above: Vienna marketplace in Winter, 1925 watercolor and gouache on paper by Austrian artist, Emmerich Kirall (1875-1939); courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Perfect Match

For genealogists, the union of two organizations with a worldwide focus on family history has got to be good news. Just this last September, news of such a partnership was jointly issued by in both London and Salt Lake City and by the London-based Guild of One-Name Studies. Thus combined the focused research on surnames by members of the Guild of One-Name Studies and the digitizing and preservation muscle of

Bottom line for all of us: through the familiar online tools at FamilySearch, we may now access the records created and hosted by the Guild.

The way to access the records is simple. First, enter the website, then hover your cursor over the "Search" tab at the top of the screen. In the drop-down menu that appears, instead of going to "Records," as you might be accustomed to doing, rather select "Genealogies."

By clicking on "Genealogies," you will be brought to a dialog box labeled "Search Genealogies," where you simply enter the last name you are interested in finding on the Guild's register, nothing more. Then, scrolling down to the bottom of the box, where you would normally click, "Search," instead, first click the down arrow on the "All" button to its right. By clicking this down arrow, you will reveal the choice, "Guild of One Name Studies." By clicking that choice, then clicking the blue "Search" button, you will be taken to a readout of all available documents on your surname of interest within the Guild's holdings.

Since it was the Laws surname that led me to discover what the Guild of One Name Studies might have held concerning this family name, I put FamilySearch's referral search to the test for that specific surname. The search results for the Laws name included two pages of references at the Guild. Most of them, unsurprisingly, came from documents in England. Quite a few, though, were from Australia, underlining the observation referred to yesterday by the founder of the Laws one-name study that he had to resort to international mailings in seeking the answers to overcome his research brick wall.

I'm not sure John Laws ever did find the answer to his brick wall question, but what he did gather was enough material to jump start a robust one-name study. With this partnership between the Guild and, I wonder how many will be inspired to follow suit and begin their own one-name studies. I'm sure quite a few people have their own informal collections; perhaps if we all pool our scribbled notes into one repository, we might assemble enough material to be of help to others.

And isn't that the traditional approach genealogists have used over the years to help each other in our research quests, no matter what the medium?

Above: "Canal in Winter," by French artist Henri Jourdain; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.   

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Absolutely Everything There is to Know...

...about your surname may be found on the register of the Guild of One-Name Studies—provided, of course, that your surname has already been registered with this U.K.-based organization.

I already know that Laws is one of those registered surnames; a reader in Scotland alerted me to that fact in a comment a while back. Interestingly, the person who chose to establish Laws as one of the surnames in the Guild started his pursuit of the surname when he hit a brick wall in his research, back in 1984. That impetus led him to send letters all over the world in pursuit of answers on this family line. The result of the response—while not necessarily answering his specific question about the Laws line—led to formation of the "Laws Family Register" and subsequent registration of the surname with the by-then five-years-old Guild of One-Name Studies.

With that one reader's comment, I was now equipped with the Guild of One-Name Studies' register entry for the surname Laws. And finding that entry led me to the Laws' one-name study "About" page, as well as their blog and the link to the Laws Family Register.

Because one of the main obligations of Guild members is to answer all "enquiries" concerning the specific surname, the registry includes email contact information for the lead person heading up a specific study. As soon as I gather up the strands on the Laws family members at which I am stuck—the parents of my second great-grandmother, Sarah Catherine Laws, who in 1856 married Thomas D. Davis in Washington County, Tennessee—you can be sure I'll be in touch with the head of the Guild's Laws study. After all, if he is receiving questions from as far away as Australia, there will likely be some folks in North America on his mailing list, as well.

The actual list of all one-name study surnames—and their spelling variants—recognized by the Guild can be found in their online register. When I set about learning more about the Guild itself, realizing that this is a British organization—and I a mostly non-British descendant—I thought perhaps there wouldn't be many surnames in their register which would be of interest to me. But I still took a look. After all, there are over eight thousand names contained in that register. While many of the inaugural studies were taken up by British subjects—hence, the logic of assuming the names would be British in origin—as went the Empire, so went the distribution of surnames. And, eventually, members of the Guild.

Then, too, in starting a one-name study, the advice is apparently to find a Goldilocks-like compromise: a surname which is not too popular, yet not too rare. The ideal candidate is apparently a surname which is "just right" in relative frequency.

So, seeing my husband's Irish forebears were once subjects of the United Kingdom, how would his surnames fare in the Guild's register? I checked for Tully and found it registered, along with several spelling variants. Stevens, however, didn't make the cut—nor did its traditional spelling variant, Stephens ("Step hens," my husband prefers to call it)—presumably on account of its numerous occurrences.

Looking on behalf of my mother-in-law's surnames, I saw no sign of Flowers. Surprisingly, neither was there any trace of Gordon, though I was quite sure the name's Scotland connection would warrant a nod from the Guild's London headquarters.

Of course, though I thought Boothe, Davis or McClellan on my mother's side might have been a possibility—none was—I already knew not to attempt any of the Polish surnames found on my father's line. Perhaps it will take some digging to get back to surnames in my lines which might resonate with the proper British study specimens chosen as likely surnames to research by Guild members.

In their advice on how to start a one-name study, the Guild recommended,
You may find it useful to start by finding out how rare or common your name really is, how it is distributed through the country you live in, and, later, throughout the world.

Along with this advice, the Guild provided links to help prospective members determine that exact status, both in the U.K. and in the U.S. Since the geographic distribution of some surnames has turned out to be worldwide in scope, it is no surprise to see worldwide interest in the Guild, itself. In fact, in addition to the wiki articles I mentioned yesterday from Wikipedia, ISOGG and, the actual Guild registry itself can be accessed through the FamilySearch website. We'll take a look at that and some other aspects of the Guild tomorrow.

Above: "Winter Getaway," undated oil on canvas by Norwegian artist Axel Ender; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.    
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