Tuesday, December 23, 2014

It’s resolution time again....

It’s that time of year when people vow to make some improvement in their lives in the coming months- lose weight, quit smoking, get more exercise, etc.  It’s also a great time to take inventory of your genealogy research and set some goals.  I know I have been doing just that, and I’ve compiled a short list of what I’d like to accomplish in 2015.
1.        Advance my genealogy knowledge by taking advantage of the many great podcasts, webinars, videos and blogposts out there.  Really, there is no excuse for not keeping up on the latest trends, or learning a new skill when there are so many resources available at the click of a mouse.  Simply subscribing to the Geneawebinars blog gives you a several-times-weekly view of the wide variety of offerings from all over the web.
2.       Learn how to write better source citations that make the material easy to find, yet don’t cause me to have a nervous breakdown over their propriety.  Somewhere out there is a happy medium between the rigidness of a “proper” source citation and a footnote entry that someone will actually understand and use.  I find myself often stressing out about whether my source citation lives up to standards, while at the same time knowing the bottom line with my client is what the source tells them about their ancestor.  Maybe the Evidence Explained blog would be a good place to start.
3.       Find a way to streamline the process of writing client reports.  Up to now, all of my research reports are one-of-a-kind, handcrafted documents that are as unique as the families they are about.  While this is a wonderful final product to give to a client, it’s somewhat hard on me.  I often put off writing reports because I know how time-consuming it will be, and how much of my heart and soul goes into it.  I’d just like to come up with a tried and true formula I can use and then embellish it so I don’t dread the process so much.
4.       Work on my own genealogy once in a while.  Every so often I run across a new source or technique I would like to try to help me find out more about my elusive ancestors (everyone has them!). Then I realize I haven’t worked on their lines in so long it would take too much time to re-acquaint myself with their details, and the opportunity is lost.
5.       Re-commit myself to writing this blog!  Somehow I knew when I started that my intentions were good, but the jump from intentions, and even ideas for topics, to actually writing has been a challenge for me this year.  I’m working on a few writing prompts, and have some good ideas to hopefully be able to turn into twice monthly blog posts.  I’ve been nagging my 13 year old son to keep up with his blog posts, so I really ought to practice what I preach!
Thanks for reading, and I’m hoping you achieve your genealogy goals in 2015!

Monday, November 3, 2014

The name game

What’s in a name?  Well, a lot or not so much, if you are a genealogist.  Sounds like a contradiction, but as family historians, we tend to have a love/hate relationship with the names of the ancestors we are researching.  One of the very first lessons a budding genealogist learns is that they are going to find their family names in many forms, some that will even be totally unrecognizable.  Given the information that before the introduction of wide-spread public education in the early 20th century, many of our ancestors were, at best, semi-literate, this makes a great deal of sense.  How could someone who could not read and/or write correct the bureaucrat who was filling his/her name out on a sheet of paper?  In 2014, we take offense at the telemarketer who cannot pronounce our name the way we do when reading it off a sheet of paper.  In 1854, that differing pronunciation ultimately may have become an accepted spelling of our name.

Of course those of us who are researching ancestors of some ethnic groups- Russian, Polish, German, Italian, etc, are used to and expect that name variations and changes will occur, whether it be a single letter or a full re-tooling of the name.  The motivations of our ancestors to change their names when they arrived in the United States were varied and many.  (It’s a myth that officials at United States ports changed names FOR immigrants)  The desire to assimilate and become more “American” played a large role in the decision to change a name from one form to another.  What then, of the thousands of Irish immigrants whose names also changed?  Was there ever a time when names like “Murphy”, “Sullivan” or “McNamara” did not seem common in this country?

In my own personal research history, early on I could easily accept the variations I stumbled across of my own surname:  WALSH, WALCH, WELSH, WELCH.  A tougher sell was the ancestor whose “properly spelled” Irish surname was HEHIR, but who had relatives in the United States who changed the name to AYERS.  Since then I have encountered countless spelling variations of hundreds of Irish names.  Some are easily understood and accepted without much explaining.  Others take a bit more arm-twisting.  

I once did some work for a client whose American surname was CANFIELD.  Not a name you hear every day but certainly not uncommon.  His family had 100% Irish origins, but after 25 years of research by several professional genealogists, no trace of his family in Ireland could be found.  I was hired to see if modern technology and access to records would make a difference in acquiring any new information.  I examined some baptism records in the area where the family lived in the United States, and noticed dispersed amongst the CANFIELD baptisms were a few using the name CANTWELL.  There appeared to be some families who used the names interchangeably (especially in the first few years after their emigration to this country), and I even found an example or two of my client’s own ancestors identified as CANTWELL.  Checking the Irish records, I was able to find a likely baptism for my client’s ancestor under the surname CANTWELL.  The dates matched up with what was already known, as did the parents’ names, including the mother’s maiden name.  The only difference was that the surname was CANTWELL, not CANFIELD.  I don’t know to this day if this client was sold on the probability of the name change, but it was compelling enough for me to alter how I approach the search for families, especially in records originating in Ireland.

In the case of Irish church records, often the priest recording the information was the only fully literate person in the area.  He may have used Latin or English to record the records of the rituals of the church- baptism, marriage, burial.  Sometimes the names used were forms of old Irish spellings, sometimes anglicized, sometimes a combination of the two.  Consistency does not seem to have been a priority.  Just because your name was spelled “Conners” on one child’s baptism record does not mean the next child’s record might not be under the name “Cahir”.  Using the context of the record (the clues surrounding it) help determine whether the record actually refers to our ancestor.  Often this is a leap of faith we have to take in the absence of supporting evidence.  

If I were researching someone from Poland, there would be very little debate as to whether a name change might have occurred.  I would go into the project prepared for this and fully expecting to make determinations as to whether a surname I was looking at was an acceptable variation.  I would use additional genealogical skills to determine if the record I was looking at pertained to the person I was researching.  Why would it not make sense to adopt this same approach when researching families of Irish origins?  Just because all those Murphys, Kellys and Conners look familiar to us doesn’t mean it was always so.  More about using the contexts of records next time.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The search for Minnie, part III

With Minnie’s final resting place discovered, that left only a few more details of her short life to investigate.  The death date given on the tombstone in the Town of Catskill Cemetery is only given as a year- 1909.  Since the family lore suggests her death was the result of a snowball put down her back by a prankster and the resulting pneumonia, one could conclude she likely died during the winter months. 
A simple check of the New York State Vital Records index was in order, to obtain an exact date and place of her death.  The vital records index is just that, an index to the vital records registered with the State of New York from about 1882-1964, depending on the event in question  (see http://www.ancestry.com/wiki/index.php?title=New_York_Vital_Records) for more complete explanation of their use).  The registration of births, marriages and deaths began in New York State in 1882, but the new law was not widely complied with until the turn of the 20th century, so it’s not uncommon to find records that should be in the index not there prior to this time.  The law required that town clerks keep one copy of each record and submit another copy to the state for filing.  The result is, as you would imagine, a fairly incomplete set of records at both the local level and the state level.  Record-keeping is prone to all sorts of bureaucratic difficulties, including misplaced records, records that never get filed, records damaged by natural disasters, etc.  So the fact that vital records are, for the most part, very often found is nothing short of miraculous.  The index exists at several repositories around the state- the New York State Archives located in Albany, the National Archives and Records Administration branch in New York City, the Onondaga County Public Library in Syracuse, and Crandall Library in Glens Falls, among others. 
As I found myself at the Crandall Library for my regular monthly volunteer hours, I decided to consult the index located there.  While this index is not perfect (many of the microfiche sheets are so dark they are barely readable) the convenience of having it mere steps from me could not be beat.  So, I proceeded to pull out the box which contained the deaths for 1909 in alphabetical order by surname.  This presented another dilemma- which name would she be listed under- Decker or Wolfe?  I searched first for a Minnie Decker, and did not find one listed.  Next, I looked for the fiche that contained the individuals with the surname Wolfe and the fiche was missing from the set!!  I searched through the box thinking the fiche may have been misfiled, but did not find it!  Very frustrating to have the very fiche I sought missing- it was almost as if Minnie did not want me to put the mystery to bed so soon!  So now I am going to have to use the New York State Archives index the next time I’m there.
Cousin Leeann Coffin made a discovery about Minnie’s burial while tooling around the internet- seems she was originally buried elsewhere, then re-interred in the Catskill Village Cemetery.  A website that gives details of burials that were relocated from cemeteries in Gilboa, Schoharie County, from 1918-1921 (http://files.usgwarchives.net/ny/schoharie/cemeteries/schoharieres-removals.txt) gives the names of Minnie Decker and Lucina Hicks Decker as among those who were removed from a cemetery in Gilboa to what is listed as Jefferson, New York.  In 1925, the Gilboa dam and reservoir were created to help supply the City of New York with municipal water.  The village of Gilboa became the sight of a 5 mile long artificial lake, containing twenty-two billion gallons of water!  The site given in the records of the re-burial of Minnie and Lucina as Jefferson is somewhat misleading.  There is a town of Jefferson located in Schoharie County, which could easily be mistaken for their final resting place.  The Town of Catskill Cemetery is located in a part of the village of Catskill known as Jefferson Heights, so this is probably the source of the confusion.  Whoever was transcribing the records from the Gilboa reinterments probably mistook the location as simply Jefferson.   As genealogists, we constantly have to be on the alert for common errors such as these, as they can lead us down a wrong path that might take much time and effort to correct!
The “interested party” listed for both of these reinterments is given as “Lola Rivenburg”, and her relationship to both parties is given as “none”.  A 1915 census record found for Titus Decker, when he was living in the Greene County town of Coxsackie, shows him living with a wife named Lola.  By this time both Minnie and Titus’ wife Lucina had passed away.  Titus likely sought a change of scenery after the deaths of his family members, and perhaps married Lola at that time.  When he died in 1919, his wife likely decided to purchase a plot nearer to where he was living, and to move his first wife Lucina and his niece Minnie to where he was buried.  It’s not known what happened to Lola Rivenburg, but her generous act to keep the Decker family together even after their deaths is much appreciated by those of us who are searching for information about long-lost ancestors. 
The search for the details about the life of Minnie Wolfe continues.  Next up will be to find out exactly where and when she died, and maybe order a death certificate to confirm the cause of her death.  This search is a perfect example of the types of scenarios genealogists encounter every day.  It’s not enough to simply know what records to use or where to find them, it’s knowing and understanding their interpretation, limitations and relations that makes the picture of our ancestor more complete. 

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Search for Minnie, part II

The mystery of who the adorable little girl with the blond curls in the picture was had been partially solved.  I finally knew her name was Minnie Wolfe, and she was a first cousin of my grandfather’s.  She was approximately the same age as my great aunt Florence, and passed away at the age of 14.  She was living with her great aunt and uncle, Lucina & Titus Decker, when she died. 
Last fall I reconnected with my second cousin, Leeann Coffin, after many years of little contact between our families.  She came to visit me and as, we were looking through old family photographs, we came across the ones of Minne, and she confessed to me that she was just as intrigued by Minnie’s story as I was.  We decided to put our mutual obsession to good use and try to find her final resting place, so we could go and remember her, so many years later. 
Armed with an Ipad and laptop, we set out to get some more facts about Minnie’s short life.  Going on the theory that Minnie was approximately the same age as her cousin Florence who was born in 1895, we checked the 1900 census. 
She was found already living with her great aunt and uncle at the age of 6 in Rensselaerville, Albany County, New York.  Her father disappeared sometime in the late 1890’s, and her mother was left with 3 children to support.  Emma (Jackson) Wolfe must have relied heavily on the kindness of her extended family, as the children, Edith, Adelbert and Minnie, lived with various relatives in the area over the years.  As a result, they grew very close to their grandparents, David and Mary Jackson.  Numerous pictures of the Jacksons with their grandchildren survive. 
The census states that Minnie was born in June 1894, making the year of her death at age 14 about 1908-1909.  A search of the 1905 New York State Census was made to determine her residence nearer to the time of her death.  She was again found in the home of Titus Decker in Rensselaerville, this time age 10 and described as a boarder.  It was surmised she may have died while living in Rensselaerville, and so might be buried somewhere out that way, perhaps in Livingstonville, Schoharie County, just over the border from Rensselaerville.
Next, a search was made of the Find-a-Grave website.  A useful tool for finding pictures of gravestones, it is a site that must be used with caution as not all entries are accurate.  For a visual reference, however, it is the best resource available on the web.  While there were several Minnie Wolfes (of varied spellings) in the database, ours was not among them.  Knowing that every grave is not recorded on Find-a-Grave, we still weren’t ready to give up.  Next, a search was made for Titus Decker.  This time, eureka!  An entry for his grave was found.  He was buried at the Town of Catskill Cemetery, Catskill in GREENE county, NY.  Odd.  The Find-a-Grave entry didn’t contain a picture of the gravestone, rather it had been entered from a source called “Gravestone Inscriptions of Catskill Village Cemeteries, Catskill, Greene County, New York” compiled and edited by Minnie Cohen. 1931.  Checking to see which other Deckers might be interred in the cemetery, a search was made of the Town of Catskill Cemetery for the surname Decker exclusively.  A surprise awaited us there, because there was a listing for the burial of a Minnie S. Decker, 1895-1909! 
So Minnie was buried with her great uncle Titus Decker, in Catskill, a place she likely never lived.  Titus in later life lived in the nearby village of Coxsackie, and Minnie’s mother was a resident of Catskill for many years, so perhaps it was thought to be a good place for her to be remembered.  Knowing the present condition of many of the cemeteries in rural Schoharie County, this was probably a good move. 
The next day, we had planned a trek to visit cemeteries of many of our mutual relatives, so we added a stop at the Town of Catskill Cemetery to attempt to find the Decker gravestone.  We weren’t prepared for how large the cemetery was, and, it being Saturday, there was no office open where we could ask for a plot map, nor was there one available online.  Nevertheless, we started walking it anyway.  Our first attempt on one side of the cemetery was fruitless.  Driving to the other side of the cemetery, which seemed to contain older graves, we split up and started more serious searching.  After about 20 minutes of walking, my husband yelled out that he had found it!  Very exciting to finally see where Minnie was buried!
The final resting place of Minnie Wolfe had been discovered.  Although buried under the surname Decker, she will not be forgotten by her family.  Genealogy is a lot like detective work, putting all the clues together to solve family mysteries is not so unlike the Nancy Drew Mysteries I used to read as a kid, although infinitely more rewarding!
In 2 weeks:  A couple more “Minnie” mysteries to solve!