I recently completed a book for my book club. It was not a subject I would have chosen: the author's story of his experiences of an Amazonian tribe. The culture of the remote tribe was vulgar, primitive and at times, I was disgusted by the descriptions of the tribe's crude customs. But as I forced myself to delve deeper into the book, I slowly became engrossed within its story.

And I realized the subject was not at all about the primordial lifestyle of the tribe itself. It was about the tribe's most treasured member; the storyteller.

Through each decade as the tribe was slowly infiltrated by the rubber traders and drug traffickers, their members became disconnected and isolated from each other. Small groups of the tribe were forced to relocate, seperating family members and villagers. But when the storyteller or Hablador appeared, the tribal members quickly gathered around, spellbound by his words.

Why were the Amazonians strangely drawn to the storyteller? He spoke of the mythical stories of their tribe's history. The Hablador weaved stories of centuries old customs that provided the tribal members a sense of who they were and where they came from. His stories kept them grounded to their real selves and he traveled from each disconnected group telling of births, deaths and marriages.

The Hablador was an historian; both tribal and ancestral.

The Irish had their own storyteller; a Seanchai or "bearer of old lore." The Seanchai displayed a certain style of speech and gestures that were peculiar to the Irish folk tradition and passed on tales at ceremonies and community events. They were the "village storytellers;" cementing their townspeople to the traditions and customs of their past.

As I grew surprisingly enthralled with the story of the Hablador of the Amazonian tribe, I became enlightened to the real meaning of genealogy and it's deep and growing interest. As our current environment pushes us farther away from our culture and roots, we search for our ancestors and their stories to keep us grounded to who we are as a tribe.

There is something deeply and inherently rewarding in learning the histories of our ancestors. And as we do, our roots grow deeper. It is a basic and primordial instinct to feel spiritually linked to our customs and culture. And when the stories are retold, we feel we have a stronger connection to not only our past but to the present.

Give your family a sense of who their tribe was and is. Write about your family tales and retell the historical stories, so the next generation can feel a connection to their past.

Become the Hablador; the storyteller of your family's history.

Keep searching for answers,

(Source: The Storyteller by Mario Vargas Llosa)

Cashing Out?


Henry reached into his coat pocket and fingered the long key tucked inside. Eyes frozen on the door-knob, Henry gently placed the key into the lock, knowing this would be the last time he would walk into his old store.

Shifting his eyes from corner to corner, Henry smiled as he recalled the first time he and his brother John walked through the old wooden building. Shelves broken from wear and the floor smothered with dirt, Henry and John poured their sweat into every inch of the little shop. Both men radiated with pride when they finally placed their sign in the front window: Commerce Dry Goods Store-Open For Business.

As Henry popped open the brass cash register, three of the village's older gents sauntered inside. "What's this about you leavin' Commerce?" Jack Thompson remarked to Henry as the three men approached the counter.

"Yea, your blood is in this old store," Tom O'Mallory quipped as he nodded with the rest.

"I have to fella's. You know what things are like right now. I can't afford to keep her open any more. The economy's getting bad and so many of the townsfolk are out of work...I just can't keep her open." Henry's voice cracked as he spoke. His heart was buried deep into the walls of the old building but he knew at the end of the day; he would turn the lock for the last time.

My ancestor, Henry Clark, sold his dry goods store and properties, moving his young family from the quaint village of Commerce, Michigan to Rolla, Missouri in the late 1870's. Purchasing several hundred acres of land to farm in Missouri, the family remained until the last son died in 1940.

Genealogy unveils the migratory patterns of our ancestors and we often speculate the motives for their transitions. During the 1800's, the westward expansion brought many Americans to states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa. The Federal Government began offering the parcels of land for homesteading. Some western states went so far as to advertise the beauty of their farmland, in order to entice people to populate their area.

But why would my ancestor sell the only dry goods store in the village of Commerce, Michigan to farm in Missouri?

Our ancestors and their decisions were guided by the economic times that they lived. In 1873 the largest bank in the United States failed. The price of silver spiraled downward and wage cuts led to labor turmoil resulting in the Long Depression. Soon came panic in the Stock Market.

Sound familiar?

The history of the economy has ebbed and flowed for centuries and our ancestors were affected just as we are today. Perhaps my ancestor was financially burdened by the expense of keeping a store afloat during a depression; cashing out to farming when the price of farmland was cheap.

Will I ever know the true reason for my ancestor's move? Most likely not. But looking at the financial and political environment he was living in can provide insight to the decisions he made.

Study the history of the economic environment of your ancestors in order to gain a deeper perspective for their life changes. They did not live in bubbles. Just as we are affected today by the economy, our ancestors also made decisions accordingly. Some migrated to other states in order to homestead federal land and still others, packed up to search for a better life in financially difficult times.

Remember, our ancestors were a piece of a much larger puzzle. Study the puzzle and you will gain a deeper understanding of their past.

Keep searching for answers,

(Source: Wikipedia)

The excitement of a new war against the British quickly filtered through the young republic. Wounds of the previous war were still fresh in both spirit and flesh and America relished the feel of flexing her muscles. So when the British demonstrated fresh sparks of war, the new Americans took notice. And my ancestor, James Luna, placed his signature to the list of volunteers of Andrew Jackson's Tennessee Militia.

The War of 1812 produced new battlegrounds to a country rebuilding from the American Revolution. And many of our ancestors quickly signed to fight as they and their fathers did just a few years before. But the mightier and more romantic American Revolution has ultimately, overshadowed their dedication and bravery.

The actions that lead to the new war against the British in 1812 did not carry the grandeur and theatrics that our forefathers brought forth when signing the Declaration of Independence. History has portrayed the events as almost vague and obscure. Leaving many of today's Americans feeling puzzled by the cause of the war.

Was it just an extension of the American Revolution, a short epilogue to the real, historic war?  If you were given a test today and asked to explain the cause of the War of 1812, could you provide a quick answer?

The War of 1812 was ambiguous to those of both the past and present. Due to the aggressiveness of the British Navy attempting to overtake and capture American merchant vessels, the young America declared war on Britain. It was in simple terms, a maritime war over "Free Trade and Sailor's Rights."

But why the obscurity? Perhaps the Revolution was just too masterful and its shadow too overpowering. Or perhaps, it was the War of 1812's anticlimactic ending. A British admission of defeat was never declared: just a treaty signed by both countries agreeing to return to status quo.

The war did produce some remarkable outcomes for America; great generals such as Andrew Jackson and songs like the Star Spangled Banner. And it provided a young, patriotic country the ability to state its new found autonomy.

I envision my ancestor walking up the large steps of the Marshall County, Tennessee Courthouse, swinging open the monstrous wooden doors, eyes pierced with conviction. Never flinching or giving pause to reflect on his motives, James Luna must have signed that certificate with a firm hand. Obscurity of the cause of war was most likely, not in his thinking.

If you have ancestors who fought in the War of 1812; gain a greater grasp on the history and meaning of the war. We are soon approaching the bicentennial of the war and hopefully, there will be renewed interest. PBS presented a series this week on the War of 1812 and their website has unfolded a beautiful and fact filled presentation on the war. I highly recommend bookmarking the site for your review.

It is not enough to know our ancestors fought in the War of 1812. We owe them our efforts to learn about the historical war. To grasp a greater understanding of events that lead to he war and to feel proud that they unselfishly placed their lives at peril, so we can live our life of freedom today.

Keep searching for answers,

(Source: PBS: The War of 1812)

Jennie clasped their large umbrella while she and her young children hovered below. The pounding rain splashed into her laced boots as she tucked her whimpering infant underneath her coat for protection. Both daughters shivered and danced from the cold but Jennie positioned her head high; proudly watching her husband George as he lectured from the outdoor stage.

The speech was soon complete and as Jennie and her children hurried to George's side, they instantly spilled out compliments. "You were wonderful," Jennie announced to her husband, eyes sparkling with warmth. But the love and praise of his family could not avert the monster that would soon grab hold of his body: the sudden and overwhelming onset of pneumonia.

Later into the evening, after the family dried from the cold, steady rain; George developed a strange shiver. His wife, attentive to her husband's needs, was taken back by the paleness of his face. Jumping to retrieve her family medical book, Homeopathic Remedies, Jennie swiftly fingered the pages and focused on the caption: "Cures fevers, congestions, inflammations."

"Here, take this, George," and Jennie poured a spoonful of elixir down her husband's throat. But as the evening drifted into the night's darkness, George's body grew weaker and limp and Jennie was frozen with fear.

Attentively stationed by her husband's side until dawn, Jennie brushed a cold dampened cloth across his feverish face. George's chest rattled as he struggled to take each breath and his wife focused her eyes on the clock; anticipating his next dose of medicinal syrup. But as the day faded once again into night, George Jones slipped slowly away. And the young family was left without the husband and father they so dearly loved...

The cause of death of my great grandfather may never be verified. Dying in 1900 in West Virginia; state death records were not yet mandated. But recently, a cousin provided a previously unheard of family story: "George Jones died from pneumonia after delivering a speech in the rain!"

What an odd story; but certainly not unreasonable. Home remedies were the most customary form of medical care in 1900 and without the use of antibiotics; death from pneumonia and influenza was common.

But the real clue that could unravel this family fable is the "speech in the rain."  With that one small but tantalizing hint, I will begin my exploration into George Jones' death. First sifting through archived newspapers for community events that could mirror the story and then on to obituaries.

Perhaps nothing will unfold from my death investigation but then again; the effort is worth a try. Because genealogy is not just about gathering names and dates: It is about peeling back the family fables and enriching the family stories.

And delivering that story to the next generation.

Keep searching for answers,



I See Dead People


If you delve into the genealogical undertaking of your family history, you will eventually come face-to-face with dead people. And if you become as immersed into the field as I, you will soon realize that dead people are just like you and me except for one very cold fact: their dead!

But seriously...gaining a deeper understanding of the historical progression of funeral rituals can help you uncover significant ancestral facts buried within the records of the funeral industry.

I recently received a little blurb of fascinating information on funeral customs from Carolyn Leonard, a chairperson of the Oklahoma Genealogical Society. This in turn, sparked my curiosity to dig for further historical details.

The American funeral industry emerged as a result of the Civil War. Prior to this time, most Americans abhorred any intervention to preserve a dead body. But many wealthy Northern families during the war, were desperate to have their loved one's bodies delivered from the battlefields; providing their burial close to home.

The historical turning point that lead us into our current practice of embalming, was the death of President Abraham Lincoln. As the country mourned the loss of their president, his body was placed on a train for a death procession across America. At each stop, embalmers aboard the train made continuous efforts at preserving the body so the public could view their president; as he was in life.

Prior to the twentieth century, most deaths occurred at home rather than in a hospital. The funeral directors were typically associated with furniture makers and they were called upon to deliver coffins to the deceased family's home. The family members, sometimes including the children, helped prepared their loved one's body, placing the coffin in the home's main room for a viewing.

During the late 1890's when the practice of embalming became common practice, the 'undertakers' would retrieve the body to be prepared in the funeral 'parlor'; then returned it to the family's home for the funeral. This practice evolved into the early 1900's custom of 'calling on' one another to make a proper visit to view the family's deceased. Leading into the use of 'mourning cards' or 'funeral cards'; an often underused genealogical treasure.

Funeral cards were distributed to family, friends and the community to alert invitees to the date and time of the funeral. In Victorian times, the cards were often detailed in elaborate weeping willows, cypress and crosses and invaluable vital facts such as birth, death and place were etched inside the cards.

Recognizing their importance to family historians, may websites and state archives are increasingly digitalizing funeral cards. Ancestors At Rest and Genealogy Today have downloadable mourning cards easily printable to your home computer and with a quick Google search, I discovered that both the Tennessee and Washington State Archives have indexed statewide funeral cards.

Seeking out funeral home records and funeral cards can be an invaluable tool to the family historian; providing vital information when other records are not readily available. Because the truth is; what we are all really digging for in genealogy is dead people...and loving it!

Keep searching for answers,

1)Carolyn B. Leonard
2)Historic Camden County: A lively Look At The History of Death.
3)Death Reference: Encyclopedia of death and dying.