Saturday, August 5, 2017

Genealogy Rewards Often Aren't Huge

No, I haven't found the parents of my great-grandmother, Kunigunda Boser Stenglein. And I haven't learned what happened to my Rüttger branch after they came to America in 1846. (Yet!) But I recently received two great emails from readers, so I feel like I hit the lottery last month. An email isn't a huge deal, but sometimes genealogy rewards come in small packages.

Mitchell asked for guidance on searching for a 1882 birth record from Marseille, France. He had the exact birth date and wanted to know the most direct way to locate the record. French records have been scanned and are available online for free, but they aren't searchable and there's no central website. There's a separate archive for each "department" in France.

If Mitchell's question had referenced a smaller village/commune, he could have gone directly to the civil registrations for 1882 and browsed. In my experience, though, dates can be off by a year or two and, more importantly, the location can be wrong. An ancestor may have said his birth was in Marseille when it actually took place on the outskirts of the city. That's why I suggest first browsing the Tables Decennales, basically ten-year indexes, to confirm that the date and location are accurate. Otherwise you may be paging through hundreds of scanned handwritten records and never find the one you need.

I also heard from a previously unknown fifth cousin of my husband. I wrote about his grandmother in "Cousin Zerelda of Indiana," and he emailed to say he didn't know her photo had appeared in Ladies Home Journal until reading my blog post. The great thing is that he found and bought that 1904 issue on eBay, which is a piece of family memorabilia that belongs with him.

Genealogy is a solitary activity most of the time, so it's great to get the chance to interact with others. Keep those emails and comments coming!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

6 Lessons from an Ancestry Message

She wasn't listening. A stranger, who contacted me through and incorrectly claimed a branch of my husband's family as her own, brushed aside my explanation of why his Jacob & Mary couldn't be her Jacob & Mary. I deleted my knee-jerk response before sending it and instead waited and thought about it a little longer.

My exchange of messages with this woman, who I'll call Kate, began as frustrating but ended on a very positive note. I strongly believe in the importance of learning from each other. In this instance, Kate reminded me about being kind and patient when interacting with others, and I hope she picked up some tips that she can use again when searching for ancestors.

Since the purpose of this post is to share lessons and not to shame anyone, I'm changing the names of the family at the center of the Ancestry messages.

Kate contacted me about a Jacob & Mary Fortman in her family tree who she insisted were the same Fortman couple in my husband's tree. I had recorded Mary with a different maiden name, and Kate wanted to know how I came to that conclusion and why I hadn't included one of the couple's daughters, Helen Lucille. She was desperate to find this daughter in the 1900 census, since she didn't have any information about Helen's life prior to her marriage around 1905.

After reviewing the Fortman branch and confirming my sources, I took a look at Kate's tree and saw that she and quite a few other Ancestry members had made some mental errors when they added Fortman records to their trees. When I replied to Kate that our Jacobs were two different men and gave my reasons (which I thought were clearly presented!), her response was "I do think they are the same Jacob, dob and dod both match."

Rather than provide all of the details of my research after receiving that response, I'll just say that I spent many hours digging into Kate's family to try to get her on the right track. It was very challenging, and I never did find Helen in 1900, but this story provides several lessons:

1.  Start with what you know - Helen's obituary provided parent names, place of birth, and the married names of two sisters. Absolutely none of that tied into my husband's Jacob & Mary Fortman. It said Fortman was Mary's maiden name, not her married name. It said Helen was born in a county that was different than (and rather far from) where my husband's Fortmans lived. Yes, obituaries can be wrong and it's good to question, but they are a good starting point. I think Kate fell into the trap of copying records from other Ancestry trees and then let that misinformation cloud her view of the obituary right in front of her.

2.  Don't ignore location - The obituary said Helen was born in 1887 in Bedford County, Pennsylvania. Census records from 1910 to 1940 show that she lived in Bedford and Indiana counties. My husband's Fortman family lived and died in Washington County. This should have been a red flag that prompted Kate to do more digging before assuming she had the right Jacob & Mary.

3.  Consider all household names, not just the parents - Kate was determined to find a Jacob & Mary Fortman in Pennsylvania and chose to ignore their children's names. The two sisters in Helen's obituary were the key in this research. They were difficult to find since one was listed with a nickname (Mrs. Sadie Ward) and the other using her husband's name (Mrs. Charles Conner), but I eventually tracked them down and learned that both their given and married names weren't even close to the daughters of my husband's Fortmans.

They were Helen's half-sisters. It appears that Mary was single when Helen was born in 1887. She was working as a servant when she married Peter Harper in 1891. Mary gave birth to the two girls in 1892 and 1895, and then unfortunately died in 1898 when she was only 30 years old. In 1900, the two young sisters were living in Bedford County with their widowed father, but Helen (who would have been 13 and not the man's biological daughter) was not living with them. The sisters were named at the end of a list of survivors in Helen's obituary, but they were at the top of my list in showing the two Fortman families didn't match.

4.  You may never find a census record - I'm not sure that Kate will ever find Helen's 1900 census record. I tried wildcard searches to account for possible misspellings of her name, looked for matches with her middle name and possible nicknames, searched the entire county for girls her same age, looked at nearby counties, and even scanned numerous pages of the handwritten census for any possible match. I looked at the households of her grandparents, aunts, and uncles to see if she was taken in by one of them. I looked at every household with the same surname as the father named in her obituary. All were dead ends.

5.  Don't respond right away - Take a deep breath and think before sending your response to a fellow researcher. At first, I wanted to tell her why she was so very wrong. She insisted our Jacobs were the same man because all of the vital dates matched. I wanted to point out that they matched because every single record she included in her tree was for the Jacob Fortman in Washington County. After some time to reflect, I decided to stay away from listing her mistakes and take the time to actually help her. I decided to never mention my husband's family again and just get her to focus on the facts I was able to find for her family.

6.  Taking time to help others is extremely satisfying - I didn't know how Kate would respond to my research. Would she say thanks but no thanks and insist that I was still wrong? I had no idea. Well, I'm happy to report that she was very grateful! She wrote back three times to thank me and give me updates. I must say that, while I spent a lot of time on this family that had zero connections to my own, I found the whole experience to be very rewarding. Kate's positive reaction and genuine appreciation had a lot to do with that.

If you don't have time to help a less experienced family researcher, I would say be kind when responding and then move on. But if you can't pass up a challenge and have time to take a short break from your own tree, you may be surprised at how wonderful it can be for both of you.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Mother's Day Gift Idea, 1922

My wish today is that all mothers, stepmothers, foster mothers, and all who have a maternal role take a little time for themselves on this Mother's Day. No housework!

The Kansas City Kansan, May 11, 1922

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Cowden Land for 200+ Years

There are a lot of Cowdens in Washington County, Pennsylvania. I haven't tried yet to figure out how these cousins are exactly connected to my husband, but this chapter of the family story begins in 1787 with 154 acres that are still owned by Cowdens today.

Warrantee Township Map (partial)
Mount Pleasant, Washington County, Pennsylvania

This image from the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission and PA State Archives shows the parcel of land called "Horn Head" in Mt. Pleasant, Washington County, that was owned by Mary Reynolds Cowden, my husband's 5th great-grandmother. Mary moved the family here from Guilford, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania (now Franklin County), several years after her husband John died.

After Mary died, her oldest son John--my husband's 4th great-grandfather--owned the farm. It then passed to his oldest son (another John) and remains with his descendants today. My husband's branch eventually left rural life and moved to Allegheny County for work in steel mills.

It's fantastic that the original 1787 farm is still owned by the Cowden family, more than 200 years after its brave matriarch moved to this unfamiliar part of the state.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Cousin Zerelda of Indiana

Zerelda is the given name of my husband's 3rd cousin twice removed, the great-granddaughter of Hugh and Polly Cowden Rogers of Washington County, Pennsylvania. Her Cowden relatives were farmers and her Rogers family ran a livery, but Zerelda Margaret Rogers' father left Pennsylvania and started a real estate business in Indiana, where he raised two daughters.

With my husband's farming roots and my steelworker ancestors, our families didn't get mentioned in the society news section of papers. However, Zerelda had her photograph published in The Indianapolis Star twice.

Zerelda Rogers, age 6
The first time was in 1904, when she was a child:

"Zerelda Rogers, the little daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Frank F. Rogers, 12 Woodruff place, has her photograph in the July issue of the Ladies' Home Journal as one of the 112 prettiest children in America. The little girl was honored by being one of those chosen from many hundreds. Zerelda is considered an especially beautiful child, and has a remarkably fine profile, Grecian in its lines. The photograph has been greatly admired, and art critics have commended it for its artistic qualities. The picture was taken two years ago, when the child was 6 years old. She is now a happy school girl, and, though she saw her photograph in the Journal, the fact did not make a deep impression on her young mind. Mrs. Rogers takes a mother's pride in her daughter's beauty, but modestly says that the photographer did much. The photograph took a prize at the Indiana state convention of the photographers last year and also at the New England convention."

Zerelda Rogers, age 20
Zerelda's photo also appeared in The Indianapolis Star in 1916, when she was 20 years old. The article describes her as one of the "social leaders of the city." There also are mentions in newspapers of Zerelda's return from a four-month tour of Europe in 1911, visits to the family's summer home in Michigan, and her debutante party in 1915. A very different life from her relatives back in Pennsylvania!

Zerelda married Courtland Whitney Knight in California in 1921, and they had two daughters, Cynthia and Nora. She filed for divorce in 1930 and remarried Courtland in 1937 in Denver. Zerelda grew up in Indiana but lived in California and New Mexico for most of her life. She died in 1991 at the age of 94.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Your Ancestor's Employer May Give a Glimpse of Her Life

Siegel-Cooper Employees, Long Branch, NJ
Many of us crave details about our ancestors so we can visualize what their lives may have been like. We want more than a bunch of dates and locations. What life struggles did they face? Why did they decide to move to another state or country? And even more trivial questions like: What did they do on Sundays?

If you know where your ancestor worked, a search for information about that employer may give you a glimpse of your ancestor's life. For example, if one of your female relatives worked for the Siegel-Cooper department store in New York, there's a publication in both Google Books and the HathiTrust Digital Library that provides details on how she may have spent a week during the summer.

Here are a few excerpts from Souvenir Program of The Siegel-Cooper Co. Employees' Association:

"The Siegel-Cooper Company's Employes' [sic] Association (duly incorporated under the laws of New York State on November 10, 1896) was formed entirely for the benefit of the employes of The Big Store. Raising a moderate revenue by the means of a monthly assessment, graded in amount according to the amount of each employe's salary, the Association pays a sick benefit to sick or disabled members, provides the free services of an able physician, makes occasional donations to sick or destitute members, and pays a death benefit of $50 or $100."

"Convinced that rest and recreation are essential for the health and happiness of its members, the Officers and Directors of The Siegel-Cooper Company Employes' Association decided to establish a summer home at Long Branch, where every eligible female employe was to be entitled to one week's vacation, free of every expense, including transportation."

"A private beach was obtained for surf-bathing, with life guards in attendance, and boats were chartered for excursions on the beautiful Shrewsbury River. The supply of daily newspapers, magazines and light literature was ample. Accommodations were provided at neighboring cottages for relatives and friends of employes, and every detail was planned with all the care and acumen that successful business men could bring to bear when their hearts as well as their heads were in the project."

Where did your ancestors work? Learning more about their employers may give you some information about your relatives, even if it's just a short period of their lives.

Related Post:  Who Was Your Ancestor's Employer?

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Pittsburgh's Historic Oliver Bath House

Oliver Bath House,
From The American City, 1915

I mentioned the Oliver Bath House almost two years ago in my post "The Pittsburgh Buildings of Henry W. Oliver." On Friday, a newspaper article showed the efforts underway to designate the bath house as a historic landmark:

"The idea for the bath house was born in the early 1900s, when industrialist Henry W. Oliver saw the need to provide mill workers a place where they could clean and refresh themselves after their shifts. Indoor plumbing was rare, particularly in working-class neighborhoods. (Pittsburgh did not require bathrooms in homes or apartments until the 1950s.) Many workers simply rinsed off in the Monongahela River on their way home."

Many members of my family tree lived on the South Side of Pittsburgh. Who knows? Maybe they used the bath house or at least walked past it.

Read the entire Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article at "Preservation Pittsburgh pushes for historic designation for Oliver Bath House."

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A Valentine from 1933

I hope you're having a great Valentine's Day. Here's another greeting card from my grandmother's collection. She received it from my grandfather in 1933, a year before they married. I love these vintage cards!

Related Posts:

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Successful Genealogy Is in the Details

This post began as a tribute to my 3rd great-uncle who lost both his wife and newborn son in the 1880s, but it has turned into a good lesson about the importance of slowing down and paying attention to details. If you read a lot of other blogs like I do, you've probably heard multiple times that you should understand every collection that you search. Yeah, yeah, an obvious tip meant for newbies. Not so. It's a mistake I made, even though I should have known better.

My uncle, Thomas Baker, was born in Canada on February 1, 1857. To be more specific, his baptismal record from St. Patrick in Caledonia, Ontario, states that he was born in "the township of Seneca of the Mission of Indiana." Sometime before the age of 10, Thomas crossed the border with his parents and siblings and settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

In his 20s, Thomas met Maggie Olive Barnett (sometimes recorded as Burnett), got married, and had son John Wesley Baker in 1885. But the couple's lives together ended tragically. In 1888, their second son Allen was born in April and died in November of gastroenteritis. Then Maggie died six months later in 1889 of phthisis pulmonalis (tuberculosis).

Thomas raised his son as a single dad in Pittsburgh until he married Virginia Irwin Wilson on February 9, 1894, in Jefferson County, Ohio. With this marriage, he became the stepfather of two teen girls. The family stayed in Pittsburgh for a while, but then left for Glendale, California. One of Virginia's daughters had moved there with her ill husband and, when he died in 1921, it appears that her parents and sister decided to join her.

Thomas and Virginia were together for more than 30 years, until her death in 1927. I assumed that both died in California since that's where they're buried, but I wanted to see their death certificates to be sure. FamilySearch has images of California death certificates in its collection called "California, County Birth and Death Records, 1800-1994." On the search page, I entered the names of both Thomas and Virginia but didn't find them in the list of results.

Then I read the description of the collection at the top of the page, which included this sentence at the very end: "The name index for death records covers Stockton, Lodi and Manteca cities and San Benito and San Joaquin counties." Clearly, I would have to browse the collection to find the Bakers' death certificates. It took a couple of steps, but I did find both of them.

California Death Certificate (partial), Thomas Baker, 1937

It was definitely a good reminder for me to slow down and focus on the details. All of us should take time to understand exactly what records are provided in each collection. Even though I remember reading this tip more than once on other blogs, I skipped this important step. The bottom line: there is so much we can learn from each other. Thank you, fellow bloggers!

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Surname Spellings May Require Creative Searches

Are your ancestors hidden in the shadows because their names are misspelled in records? All of us have probably faced this issue at some point in our research.

Before Louise Binkert married her second husband, my 2nd great-uncle, her life in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, seemed to be a mystery. Her 1925 death certificate and obituary indicate that her maiden name was Binkert, but I couldn't find her in the census records. Binkert doesn't seem to be a difficult name, right? But I was surprised by the spelling variations that I eventually found.

My uncle's military pension file contained a copy of their 1905 marriage certificate, which shows that Louise's name was Ofhouse, the surname of her first husband. That clue led to her 1883 marriage record from the West End United Church of Christ. Louise's surname was handwritten as "Bankart." Thinking that this earlier record might have the correct spelling, I searched for "Bankart" and "B*nk*rt" but still couldn't find her in the 1870 and 1880 censuses.

Louise's death certificate shows that her father was "Hanson Binkert." I couldn't find that name in any of the censuses either. In fact, the only match was a Pennsylvania death certificate for a Mary Binkert Geartner which shows her father was Hanson. I searched for other Binkert deaths in Pennsylvania and found that their fathers were recorded as "Ansom" and "Anson." Both of these spellings also appear in several Pittsburgh city directories next to his widow's listing. But there is one that says she was the widow of "Anslem." Finally a breakthrough!

I found the Binkert family in 1880 after several different searches using wildcards. Louise was listed as "Louis Benket" and her father was "Anslen Benket." Below is the list of various spellings of Binkert that I found in records for Louise's parents and siblings:

  • Bankart
  • Bankerd
  • Bankert
  • Beankart
  • Benkert
  • Benket
  • Bunkert
  • Renhert

At the risk of making this post way too long, I must share that Louise had one sister whose married name was completely botched as well. I'm still not sure at this point what the correct spelling is! The marriage record for Maggie Binkert shows that she married John Thuering. The 1900 census recorded it as Thuring. Her death certificate shows her surname as Tiering. Since Maggie's cause of death was tragic (her clothes caught on fire), I searched Pittsburgh newspapers for those surnames but couldn't find the story.

I tried searching newspapers for her address that's listed on her death certificate but had no luck. Then I searched for "Allegheny General," which was the hospital where she died, the word "fire," and the year 1909. There were four news stories about Maggie's accident, and her surname was spelled as "Theeny," "Theney," "Therry, and "Theery." I never would have found those spellings!

Whether looking at all family members for clues, using wildcards, or searching for addresses and key words other than surname, it's often necessary to think creatively in order to discover your hidden relatives.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Another Friday the 13th

Happy Friday! It doesn't bother me when the 13th falls on a Friday, but many people are superstitious. Here's an article about this special day that was published in a Pennsylvania newspaper in 1922:

Indiana Evening Gazette (Indiana, Pennsylvania), October 13, 1922

    "Keep your fingers crossed--look out for ladders and spilled salts--and run if you see a black cat. For today is Friday the 13th, the star Jonah combination of them all. That is, if you are superstitious.
     But if you're inclined to scoff at the Friday jinx, here are a few arguments in your favor: Columbus' expedition which discovered America, set sail on Friday and landed on Friday; Richard Henry Lee introduced the Declaration of Independence on a Friday; Cornwallis surrendered on Friday.
     And to argue against the 13 superstition: There were thirteen original united states; there are 13 stripes in our flag, and, originally, it contained 13 stars; President Wilson considered 13 as his lucky number--and he was right about it--California's 13 electoral college votes re-elected him.
     As for Friday, the 13th: General Pershing was born on Friday, the 13th. The Yanks won at St. Mihiel on Friday, September 13, 1918.
     Where the Friday 13 idea came from is still in doubt. The most probable explanation is that the Crucifixion gave rise to the Friday part and the 13 part from the fact that the Hebrew words for 'death' and for 'thirteen' were identical."

You can find great articles by searching newspapers, especially if you find pieces that mention ancestors!

Related Post:  Superstitious Beliefs of Ancestors

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Which Traits Will Help Genealogists in the New Year?

Genealogists share many personality traits but, in other ways, we're very different. I'm an introvert who could research for hours (and days!) without speaking to anyone, while others are more outgoing and need interpersonal interaction. Are there particular traits that will help us succeed at solving our family tree mysteries this year? Here are some that come to mind:

Accuracy / Attention to Detail - It's important to take time to review information before adding it to your family tree database and to include sources for all facts. Typos can lead to a mother giving birth after she died and other strange facts you've probably seen in online trees. Since facts are the foundation for building and expanding your family tree, accuracy is critical to your success as a researcher.

Commitment - Genealogy is a long-term project, and you certainly can't set a deadline since it won't ever be done. Individual success stories are often the result of hours and hours of research, and researching your entire family tree is a life-long commitment.

Creativity - Some family branches and their records are straight-forward, but others may take some detective work. Tapping into your creative mind can help in looking at a genealogy issue in a new way, which can lead to finding the answer you're looking for.

Curiosity - Questions about your family got you started in genealogy, and that curiosity continues to be important as you uncover facts. Why was a person missing from a household? Where were siblings and other relatives? When did someone arrive in the U.S.? What religion did a person practice? Asking questions and finding the answers may provide details to advance your research.

Focus - We all know how easy it is to get sidetracked while researching! The path to success is quicker if you can identify your research problem, locate the sources that may hold the answer, and then stay focused while you review the records. Jumping from collection to collection or person to person in a random manner may be more fun but won't be as effective.

Generosity - I've found that the genealogy community is very generous. Many have helped others by blogging, teaching in the community, posting photos of headstones, transcribing records, etc. Asking questions and learning from others will undoubtedly lead to success with your research, and paying it forward will help someone else.

Humility - We all make mistakes, and successful researchers are those who can admit it, fix it, and learn from it.

Patience - Although many online resources can provide instant gratification by showing scanned images in seconds, there are still times when you'll need to wait. Whether it's a response to an email, a record or reel you've ordered, or getting that brick wall to crumble, good things often come if you're willing to wait.

Persistence - Many ancestors are elusive characters who stay hidden for years. Records can contain inaccurate information or don't specify a key detail, so you'll often need to keep digging. Don't give up and you'll find success!

Post a comment if there are other traits you would add to this list. And good luck with your genealogy research in 2017!