Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Tribe Tracking Tuesday

As genealogists, we usually think of ourselves as the ancestors trackers, following the trail and negotiating the jungle of old records and distant relationships.

Sometimes, however, the tribe unexpectedly finds us.

Last night, just as I was getting ready for bed, my oldest daughter wandered out of her room, phone in hand, texting away.  “Hey Dad,” she asked without looking up from the screen, “Do I have a great-grandfather named Wesley?”

This question surprised me on two levels.  First, it was a rare teenage daughter sighting.  Second, she was actually asking about her family history without prompting from me.

“Yes,” I answered warily, not wanting to scare her off, “My grandfather’s name was Wesley. Why?”

My daughter looked up from her screen and sighed.  “I just found out that I’m related to one of my best friends.”  She sighed again, “Which means I’m related to, like … half the school!  She’s related to *everyone*!”

I had to grin a little at this point.  I could relate.  When I was in school, it seemed that I was running into distant cousins all the time.  It was one of the hazards of growing up in the area where your family had lived for more than a hundred years.

“What’s her last name?” I inquired, intrigued by the news.  The answer was Wyman.  “From Londonderry?” I asked innocently as the name triggered a bell in my head.  My daughter paused and looked up again.  “Yes,” she said.

I mentally ran through our pedigree in my head.  I recognized the surname, but no immediate connection came to mind.  “How’s she related?” I asked.

My daughter’s thumbs quickly flicked over her phone’s keys, sending my question through the ether to her friend and possible cousin’s phone.  The reply came back faster than I could have typed my five-letter name on the tiny keyboard.  “Her great-grandfather’s cousin was Wesley Davis.”

“Who’s her great-grandfather?” I asked.

“Harry Derby,” came the reply, after a short burst of keystrokes.

Ah ha.  There was the connection.  Derby.  I’ve been tracking my grandfather’s grandfather, Charles Jenkins, for some time.  His wife was Laura Derby.  The girl’s great-grandfathers were likely second cousins

“It’s okay,” I smiled, “You guys are only like third or fourth cousins.  Maybe fifth.  I’d have to trace it.”

My daughter shrugged, looking back to her screen.  “Okay good.  I’ll tell her we could get married if we wanted to then.”  She disappeared back into her room, leaving her dry sense of humor lingering behind her.

I chuckled and headed to my genealogy database to double-check the name and add some notes for future research.  I’ve been looking for this part of the tribe for some time, but instead of me finding them, they found me.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Motivation Monday – Spiraling Into Control

A recent post at Bridging the Past about “Pinball Genealogy” got me to thinking about the various ways that I’ve structured my research in the past.

I think I started, like many people, by outlining what I could remember about my family.  This included parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, and so on.  There wasn’t much of a structure; it was more an emptying of my head.  It also wasn’t really research.  It was documentation.
Next, I recall going through family documents and entering data from the information that I found there.  Again, it wasn’t really research, though there was some searching involved as I started to piece various sections of family together.

When I finally did start researching, in the true sense of the word, I had two approaches.  One approach was to try tracing a specific line back as far as I could document.  I always seemed to get distracted by some interesting ancestor, though, which would lead me off in a tangent.  This wasn’t always bad, but it didn’t feel like progress.  The other problem with this approach is that I would become bored looking at the same family all the time, leading me to drop my research completely for months on end.  My second approach was more fun.  Basically I would research whichever ancestor was calling to me at that particular moment.  I like the spontaneous nature of this approach, but it definitely leads down the Pinball Genealogy trail, and again, didn’t really feel like progress.

To motivate myself, I’ve tried a few different approaches.  I think I’ve finally hit on one that I really like.  It allows me to not focus on one family for too long, but still make progress on my research.  Since reading the Pinball Genealogy post, I’ve started calling it Spiral Genealogy.

What I’ve been doing for the past few months is to research one generation at a time, along all lines possible, one person at a time.  I started with my youngest daughter as the first generation.  Once she was researched (I pulled her birth certificate out of storage) and documented, I moved onto the next generation: myself and my wife.  I documented our births, wedding, and children, and then moved on to the third generation, starting with my father.  Looking at this process on a circular pedigree chart, it forms a spiral, working outward from my children, moving in a clockwise direction from patrilineal to matrilineal lines.

How has this helped my research?  First, it allows me to literally see my progress as the spiral grows.  This keeps me motivated to add more.  For each new person, I create a small research plan, outlining a timeline of their life based on what I already know.  Using this timeline I can take a survey of what documents are available for research.  Since I’m working with the same generation, and therefore generally within the same time-frames, I can focus much of my research on the same sources in many cases (census information, for example).  Unlike when I was researching a single line, however, I don’t get bored working with the same family.  Once I am finished with one person, I can move onto the next, which may move me to a different area of research.  My wife’s family, for example, comes from Italian immigrants.  This is a much different look than my own generation upon generation upon generation of New England ancestors.  Eventually, though, when I reach the top of the spiral, I get to return to my familiar roots, and say hello to those people that I may have first met when I was documenting the previous generation.  I then get to work with those people in more detail, taking someone who may have just been a name on their daughter’s marriage certificate, and digging into their story, filling in details of other children, occupations, migrations, and so on, and hopefully being introduced to their parents, the next level of the spiral, along the way.

Spiral Genealogy has been a great way for me to stay focused and motivated.  This high-level approach, so far, has worked wonderfully.  What methods do others use to approach their high-level research plans?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Sympathy Saturday – Laughing at a Funeral

This past Thursday my wife and I attended the wake of a family friend who had passed away earlier in the week.  While standing in line waiting to see the family, I spotted the usual photo tributes to the deceased, propped on easels in various corners of the funeral home.  As we approached one, I had to smile.  Instead of a photo of the recently lost person, there was a photo of Minnie Pearl.  “Oh!” I heard someone ahead of me exclaim, “That was from her trip to Nashville!”  The mood lifted slightly as people began to quietly chat about the trip.  Other photos posted along the line included pictures of her children, grand-children, grade-school friends, and trips she had taken.  At one point my four year-old tugged on my hand.  “Is this the story of how she die-ed?” (She always over-pronounces the “ed” on words).  “No,” I smiled, “This is the story of how she lived.”

Every time I attend a wake or a funeral, I can’t help thinking about family members that have passed away, and how we handled their deaths.  It seems that we laugh as much as we cry.

When my mother passed away from cancer the year after I graduated from college, we held a graveside service for her.  Two rows of chairs had been set up in front of her stone for the family to sit upon during the service.  As friends and family approached, my cousin Aunt Lily (that’s a story for another day) went to sit down in the front row.  Somehow she missed the chair, landing square on her backside in front my mother's urn.  There were a few horrified gasps from the crowd behind, but Aunt Lily was laughing hysterically, which made the rest of the family laugh as well.  We all agreed, as her last prank on one of her favorite relatives, mom had somehow pulled the chair out from under Aunt Lily at the last moment.

Many years later, at the same cemetery, we laid my grandmother to rest.  Once again we had a graveside service.  The ceremony itself was casual and somber.  Rain had soaked the ground, and the sky was still overcast.  After the service, my cousin and I were standing near the grave, sort of idly watching the men from the funeral home prepare to bury Gram’s urn.  When they removed the carpet from over the pre-prepared hole, my cousin glanced in, spotting several inches of water in the bottom.  She gasped, looking at the undertaker with wide eyes, “You’re not going to put her in there are you?”  The undertaker looked nervous.  “Well, yes,” he mumbled softly.  My cousin slyly grinned my way, “But, Gram never learned to swim!”  I had to walk away, chuckling at the shocked look on the poor man’s face.

A couple of years ago, the man who laid both these women to rest also passed away.  He had been a family friend since long before I was born, and he had performed weddings, baptisms and funerals for our family.  During his life, he had been a lay-preacher at our local church, and his stories were always entertaining, making church services much more than just learning written scripture.  Before he passed away, he planned his own funeral down to the last detail, including writing his own eulogy.  Like his church services, we knew upon entering his funeral service that we were in for something different.  Sitting at the front of the church, on a small platform behind the alter, sat a bluegrass band, complete with banjo, fiddle and red plaid shirts.  His eulogy was read by his cousin, who delivered it exactly as he would have had he been with us.  As always, his stories made us cry, laugh, and remember.  It may be the only time I’ve left a church saying “That was the best funeral I’ve ever been to!”

While funerals are generally thought of as sad, somber affairs, filled with mourning relatives dressed in black talking in shushed tones around perfectly constructed flower arrangements, it’s nice to know that they aren’t all that way.  As we approached the casket of our family friend a few days ago, I was once again given a chance to smile.  Hanging in her casket lid, among other tokens of her life, was a small sign referencing two of her idols.  It summed up her personality perfectly.  “Unless you are God or George Straight,” the sign read, “Wipe your feet and take off your boots.”

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Treasure Chest Thursday – Saw Cuts

Sometime around my early to mid-teens, my grandfather moved out of his house and into a local retirement community.  Since his new apartment was smaller than the house he was living in, it became necessary to start clearing out items he wouldn’t need.  Furniture, books, photos, and more were dispersed to his children and grandchildren.  One of his toolboxes ended up at our house, to be given to me at some later point in life.

That later point in life came many years later, after I had moved away from home.  My father had decided to move south and sell the house we grew up in.  Similar to Grandpa, he had to clear out items that he couldn’t take with him.  The toolbox, now somewhat rusty with age, ended up in my basement.

Fast forward a few more years to a couple of summers ago.  I had decided to build myself a kayak, using a traditional skin-on-frame method of construction.  Something in me decided not to use power tools on the project, so I began searching my basement for some basic hand tools.  At one point my eyes landed on my grandfather’s old toolbox.  “I wonder what’s in there?” I said aloud.

Opening the rusty box really was like opening a treasure chest.  There were saws, chisels, marking pencils, squares, and gizmos unidentifiable.  It seemed that the deeper I dug into the tool box, the older the tools became.  Many were rusty, but most were still of useable quality.

Getting back to the kayak project, I selected a hand-saw and checked it out.  The blade had some surface rust, but the teeth were still sharp.  I took it outside and used it to cut all the wood for my new boat.

The really interesting part of this saw is what I noticed later.  The handle, engraved with flowing vines, had the name “E.S. Davis” stamped into the wood.  When I noticed it, I stopped still.  Why would a saw from Grandpa’s toolbox have my initials stamped on it?  The answer is that it had belonged to my great-grandfather, Ernest Solomon Davis, who I share initials with.  The saw must have passed from him to his son, then down to me.

Since its discovery in Grandpa’s toolbox, Great-grandpa’s saw has been put to good use on a number of projects, including my daughter’s kayak that we built together last summer.  Like me, she used the blade to create some saw cuts, the fifth-generation to do so with that tool.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Tuesday Teachings – NGS-HSC Lesson 2

Sitting Bull (Library of Congress photo)
A couple of weeks ago I covered Lesson 1 of the NationalGenealogical Society’s Home Study Course.  While Lesson 1 was pretty basic, Lesson 2 added in a bit of fun.  At least, I thought the lesson was fun.

The lesson’s focus was family traditions, in particular, those genealogical stories that get passed down from generation to generation.  The first written assignment for the lesson was to recount a family legend, then write a research plan for either proving or disproving the legend.

In my case, the family story has always been that we were descendants of the great Sioux Chief Sitting Bull.  My cousins and I had all heard the story from our grandmother, though I don’t recall there being any details of exactly how we were related.  Growing up, I never had any reason not to believe the story.  At that time, my father’s line had already been traced back to Barnabas Davis of Charlestown, MA, so the link, I had always assumed, was on my grandmother’s side.

It’s sort of fun to think that you might be related to someone famous, but, as I started to become more serious about genealogy, I had my doubts about the story.  After all, every line that I traced in my family tree always led back to early settlers in Massachusetts.  Occasionally I would make a half-hearted attempt to prove or disprove the story, but mostly I stayed away from it.  It was a fun family tradition, and I didn’t want to be the one to end it.  That’s not to say that I stayed away from that line of my family tree, I just never definitely said yes or no to the question of Sitting Bull being an ancestor.

Lesson 2 of the HSC was a good excuse to finally state a conclusion.  Though it might be a disappointment to the living family, Item 1 of the Code of Ethics for the Association of Professional Genealogists, of which I’m a member, states “Promote a coherent, truthful approach to genealogy, family history and local history.”[1]

In other words, don’t state something as fact if you don’t have evidence to back up that fact.

Coming up with an argument for or against Sitting Bull being an ancestor was fairly easy.  A quick Internet search turns up that Sitting Bull has only one known living male descendant, Ernie La Pointe.[2]  This is strike one against the story being true.  The Internet being what it is, more evidence is needed though.

The most definitive way to prove or disprove the story is to trace all ancestral lines back to before Sitting Bull’s birth.  Sitting Bull lived between the years of 1831 and 1890.[3]  Some of my ancestral lines have been traced back that far already.  The first written assignment for Lesson 2 called for a research plan.  For this lesson, I included pedigree charts with the proper citations for my evidence sources, showing what information I had already gathered toward proving or disproving the story.  I then outlined my plan to trace the unknown lines back to before Sitting Bull’s birth.  My conclusion, based on evidence available so far, is that it is highly unlikely that I am descended from Chief Sitting Bull.  The grader for this lesson agreed with my research plan, and also agreed that it is unlikely that Sitting Bull is an ancestor of mine.

For the record, I still haven’t traced all the unknown lines back, so there is always a small chance something interesting might turn up.  I have one ancestor that one document claims was born out west, though other evidence points to him being born in New England like the rest of his family.  No other evidence has turned up to give me any reason to believe that the legend is true.

Assignment two of the lesson is to dig out some of those items in your collection that have been passed down through the family and document them.  In my case, this meant a few books, some hand-written notes, and bundles of pedigree charts.  Documentation of these items included writing a proper source citation for each item, and writing a brief description of how you came by the item.  This assignment is a good time to practice those citations.  Inaccurate citations seem to be the number one reason that lessons are returned for resubmission throughout the course.

To see more about the NGS Home Study Course, see my other posts:

[1] "Code of Ethics." Association of Professional Genealogists. accessed 2/12/2013
[2] "Sitting Bull Family." Sitting Bull Family Foundation, Inc. accessed 2/12/2013
[3] "Sitting Bull." Sitting Bull Family Foundation, Inc. accessed 2/12/2013