The Down And Dirty


Do you spend your time searching for the well bred? The tea sipping, white glove wearing ancestors of wealth and keen minds; The learned and noble grandfathers of military clout and intellectual brilliance?

Excuse me while I yawn...

I, instead, shriek with excitement at the discovery of an ancestor with flaws. The highs and lows, the ups and downs of grandfathers struggling over lawsuits and bankruptcies. An ancestor dabbling in petty criminal activity send tingles to my toes. Recently, I received a copy of a hand written will that hinted (or should I say shouted) to the disdain felt toward a son-n-law: my ancestor. When I read the will, I practically did cartwheels around my house!

And if you are of the other type, like me: the family historian who relishes in the down and dirty marginal guy that is both good and bad with daily struggles much like our own, then I have a great research tip that will make you drool:

A search through the State Supreme Court Archives.

Could you have guessed your ancestors might be found within the records of the highest court of their state? Well, I have discovered at least three ancestors with such records. And the details of the documents can lead you not only on a head-spinning ride but also to great genealogical finds.

I have discussed my Scottish Loyalist ancestor from Morris County, New Jersey within other blogs. His charges of Loyalist leanings were found within the New Jersey State Supreme Court.

Ok, that makes sense, you must be saying. An American Revolution Loyalist's records would most likely be found within the State Supreme Court Archives.

But what about his son, my great-great-great-grandfather, a simple tenant farmer struggling with poor crops, a life of monetary failures and years of debt? His records are also held with the New Jersey State Supreme Court.

Records of grandfathers living during the Colonial and early 1800's often have court records within their State Supreme Courts. They may be listed as the Defendant or as the Plaintiff. Charges and filings such as Trespass on the Case, Debt, Trespass and Eject, personal lawsuits and petty charges against neighbors; all minor disputes played out in the highest courts of the states.

The Colonial and early 1800's State Supreme Courts were not just appeals courts, they held court for the most trivial of complaints. The lower court system had yet to be well established and on top of that, our ancestors loved to use their Supreme Court system.

They filed lawsuits against neighbors for alleged stolen bushels of apples and criminal charges against their tenants for day-late rent. Those of us who complain about the number of lawsuits filed today should swear at our Colonial ancestors for starting the trend!

The State Supreme Court Archives are overflowing with genealogical finds that can expose tantalizing bits and pieces of the daily lives of our ancestors, revealing leads to more discoveries for your family tree.

Dig through your ancestors' State Supreme Court Archives for genealogical details. And if you don't find great leads within your ancestor's records, I can at least guarantee an urge to do cartwheels around your house!

Keep searching for answers,

A Japanese netsuke
I recently read a memoir and family history book, The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance, by Edmund De Waal. The author, a world famous potter, inherits a large collection of netsuke: small Japanese wood and ivory carvings.

As Edmund gently examines the whimsical toggles of people and animals, he imagines where they traveled and who held and touched them. His quest into the trail of the netsuke evolves with Edmund's poignant discoveries of his family's history, five generations through time.

The author takes his readers through the extraordinary history of his family as he peels layers of memories. The Ephrussis family had wealth equal to the Rothschilds, build by great-great grandfathers and uncles with minds keen to the banking industry; ancestors that held royal titles and befriended cultural icons and artists.

But Edmund De Waal treads through his ancestry not by the single focus of one ancestor or lineage. He searches his family history by way of the netsuke: how and where the collection traveled through each generation.

By following the path of the netsuke, Edmund takes his readers and himself inside the personal lives of his ancestors but as the netsuke moved from one generation to the next, so did Edmund's search. He uncovers a history of a Jewish family built of monumental wealth in the late 19th century only to loose everything as the next generations fell victim to Nazi Europe.

And yet, the netsuke remained unfettered and steadfast among each generation; the little ivory and woodcarvings withstanding the brutality of time and human demise. They were sometimes held, admired and touched by their owners and sometimes not. But Edmund's discovery of their travels provided a history of previous unknowns.

I found The Hare With Amber Eyes heartrending. And as I read, it brought memories of my own experiences as a child with family heirlooms; playing with my great aunt's knick-knacks or rummaging our attic of old hats and fur coats. Possessions passed from one generation to the next, typically relegated to a dusty attic  only to be replaced by the latest and most desirable.

Family heirlooms tell a story of your history. They give meaning to your heritage. They have been passed through the hands of your ancestral grandfathers and grandmothers--some touching them more than others. But learning of your family heirlooms; when, where and how they were acquired can provide details to your story.

Write your family history and include your heirlooms; who owned them and when. If you lack the details, let the knick-knacks take you through undiscovered territory like Edmund De Waal did with his family.

A journey through time by way of an inheritance: the netsuke, the knick-knack, the china bowl, the precious heirlooms that fell into the lives of our ancestors and they now fall into the lives of us.

Keep searching for answers,


I learned two lessons this week: Always second-guess a church secretary and a Ball can bounce in unexpected ways. Both are hard, gritty lessons, especially when a family history has been placed in print.

Digging deeper into my maternal lineage from New Jersey, I kept stumbling upon a fellow researcher within a surname forum. I quickly noticed his maternal lineage matched mine and we were struggling along the same path. Two researchers are better than one, I thought, so I successfully contacted him by written letter (yes, some of us still use the archival method of writing letters to fellow researchers).

My newly found cousin quickly responded, eager to share his knowledge on our lineage. But though my point of contact held a quest for more information on a mutual ancestor, my cousin unknowingly revealed stunning details about another: Details that bounced my Ball right out of the court.

In explanation, my maternal grandmother's lineage follows a course that takes us to the historical county of Morris, New Jersey with the Rolstons of Ireland and the Templetons of Scotland. But as the lineage winds further into Colonial times, the Balls of England are abundant along our tree. Yes, my family tree has Balls, not leaves.

The shocking discovery--revealed by my fellow researcher--names a different Ball ancestor within our lineage; a brother to the one currently on my family tree.

Same lineage...same eventual outcome...just a different Ball.

My head felt swollen as I sat reading his well-written family history and in defense of my own "set-in-stone" publication, I questioned his research.

"But how could that be?" I asked my newly discovered cousin. "Provide proof," I quipped. "My records were obtained by the Morristown Presbyterian Church, a church grounded by Colonial history with over 200 year old registries." And my fellow researcher rightly responded, providing a copy of a hand-written will giving proof of ancestry to a different brother Ball.

Nothing can trump a hand-written will. A will is, in the genealogical world, the golden grail of proof.

The shocking truth is the "church lady" of our Colonial church transcribed the wrong Ball brother within the record and the written will wins.

It always wins.

So, is my head still swollen with dismay over the discovery of the wrong Ball? No, I'm thrilled. This is what keeps me intrigued in family research. The twists and turns as new records are dug up. It is about the search for the truth and if that means a little rewrite, I will gladly do it in order to find and preserve the truth.

So all in all, the Balls bounced but the court remained the same, and I had a thrill of a week.

Keep searching for answers,

Robert Schurtleff reenlisted in Captain George Webb's company of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment. He had completed a tour of duty with the United States Army during the American Revolution and Robert felt compelled to reenter the battlefield, bravely participating in combat alongside General John Paterson of Westpoint. But Robert's tour was cut short when an Army physician shockingly revealed his true identity: a woman by the name of Deborah Sampson.

Occasionally, wives of the US Army soldiers of the American Revolution became "camp followers." They traveled alongside their husbands to each encampment: cooking, cleaning and mending the wounded. But Margaret Cochran Corbin did more than just tidy up the camp. She keenly observed her husband load and fire cannons and as she watched, she began to rehearse alongside the other artillerymen.

Staying by her husband's side, Margaret's acquired skill was put to the test when she was forced to load the cannon after their gunner was killed during battle. Soon, Margaret's husband was also killed but she armed herself at the ready, reloaded her cannon and fought. Wounded, Margaret was left for dead but she survived and received a lifetime pension as an American Revolutionary soldier.

The men of Groton, Massachusetts gathered one night to search out the nearby British soldiers. But Prudence Wright would not sit idly at home, waiting for her husband to return. She quickly gathered other wives within the village and the cocky bunch dressed in their husband's clothes, arming themselves with whatever could be found. Sneaking outside to defend their village bridge, the plucky women hid in the reeds along the river, rummaging through the pack of a British spy as he camped. Prudence's gang snuck back with secret written messages swiped from the British agent, relishing in their critical loot.


As we approach the 4th of July, many family historians will feel called to dig deeper into their American Revolutionary ancestry. But it is important to keep a keen eye to the history of the wives and yes, female soldiers of the Revolution. There were notable women who served our country admirably as soldiers and spies. Some so driven to fight, they disguised themselves as young men in order to place themselves in harm's way.

And even if we did not have a female ancestor who fought in the war, our grandmothers contributed to the Revolution by their sheer grit, determination and loyalty to their husbands, son, brothers and country.

Take the time during this holiday to learn more about our women of the American Revolution. Read about their service at and consider the sacrifice of your own female ancestor of the Revolution, whatever her role might have been.

Keep searching for answers,

My approach to genealogy is defined by my professional background in the sociological sciences. I view my research and ancestral stories with a keen eye to the sociological aspects of my ancestors: their occupations, education, family compositions; whereas, my husband looks for the geographical clues such as where the ancestor lived or migrated to.

It is natural for me to zero in on who, what and why but I have come to realize the where is very critical to the study and research of our ancestors. Studying the geography of ancestors at the time they lived can provide significant clues to not only their life but also to their records.

Just as our ancestors have shifted and moved from country to country and county to county; country, state and county lines have over the centuries, evolved to form new boundaries. And by ignoring the geography of our ancestors' life, you can pass by critical clues to their life documents.

In my earlier research days, I was so narrowly focused I passed by significant evidence of an ancestor living in Eastern Tennessee. Previous records indicated he lived in North Carolina but the state boundaries had changed and his property lines were within Tennessee in later census records. Had I taken the time to research the geography of the area, I might have bypassed months of frustration searching for my ancestor.

The best starting  point to researching the geographical history of the area of your ancestor is the state's archives. They often provide archived digital maps of their state. Become familiar with the state boundaries and take notice of state land transactions and acquisitions.

Also, a critical step in looking for the earliest census records should include the archived state county maps. An ancestor can be found in one county in a census record, then without moving, his property may be in a different county ten years later.

Townships and villages very often evolved into newly named or newly defined towns in the early 1700's and 1800's. I have an ancestor in Morris County, New Jersey that is found in two different townships on subsequent census records due to the splitting and renaming of his village.

The best advice I can give is always keep an eagle eye to the geography of your ancestor's surroundings and understand the need to be flexible in your research just as the geographical boundaries of your ancestors have been fluid and flexible over time.

And remember, the where is often a critical step in learning more of the who, what and why.

Some interesting sites for archived maps are: The Library of Congress, Old Maps Online and The Perry-Castaneda Library Map Collection of the UT Library.

Keep searching for answers,


The Prize


The teacher's voice echoed faintly in the boy's thoughts as his mind drifted to the filtered music of the carnival five blocks away. The ten-year-old fingered the coins in his pants pocket. He counted and added each nickel in his head: his version of a daily math assigment.

"Remember to bring in your English papers tomorrow," the teacher said as the children shoved themselves through the door. The boy never turned to take notice of the teacher's reminder; his trifling interest in school stolen by the calling of the distant carny workers.

The boy slapped his tam on his head and ran out the schoolhouse door as he raced to make it to the fair before it closed. It took months working at Ol' Mr. Tankersly's grocery store to earn enough extra change to play the carny games.

"Spend your money on new boots," the boy's mother reminded him as he stared at the County Fair advertisement in the local newspaper earlier that summer.

The boy obeyed his mother and he happily purchased new lace-up boots with his earned cash. But now, the leftover change clanking in his pants sang a song of excitement for the autumn fair.

"Come on in boy and see what you can win," the lanky mustached man said through his open grin. The boy entered the carnival, his eyes wide and smiling. He heard about carnivals from the other children but could never afford them in previous years. His sudden wealth of nickles gave way to feelings bursting of boldness as he scanned his eyes across rows of alluring carnival games.

"Step up over here boy and win ya' a new BB gun," the carny man said as he gestured to the boy.

The boy stared at the shooting game behind the carny man's stand. He was a good shot--"A perfect shot"--his dad always said as the two squirrel hunted in the Oklahoma hills. With unexpected confidence, he puffed out his chest and moved forward to slap his nickel on the table of the carny man's stand.

Pulling the gun toward his face, the boy steadied his finger on the trigger. The man pointed to the target on the wall behind him. "All ya' need to do is hit the bull's eye boy," he said as he winked.

The boy closed his left eye and sucked in a deep breath. Pop...pop...pop...He lowered the gun and stared at the target. "I did it," he said. "I hit the center of the target."

"So ya' did. Pick out your prize."

The boy scanned his eyes across the shelves of prizes: a cooned skin cap, a box of magician's cards and a swell-looking shiny BB gun. But just as he turned toward the toothy carnival worker, the boy's attention was grabbed by another shelf of prizes: fancy electrical kitchen gadgets.

"Can I take something from that shelf?" the boy asked.

"These are for the older folks," the man answered back, his forehead wrinkled with puzzlement.

 The boy stared at each kitchen gadget, especially enamored with the electrical ones. The sparkling fold-up toaster and its electrical cord fascinated him and he felt hypnotized by its mechanical beauty.

"I want that," the boy said as he pointed his finger toward the toaster.

The carnival man shrugged as he pulled the toaster from the shelf. "Here it is boy. It's all yours," shaking his head.

The boy tucked his prize under his jacket and quickly walked toward his home. I spent my nickels wisely, he thought. Mom will love this new toaster.

Swinging open the front door to his house, the boy ran into their kitchen. "Look what I won at the County Fair, mom," he said to his mother. "Your gonna' love this...a new-fangled fold-up toaster."

The boy's mother took the toaster in hand as he raised it toward her. She stared at her wavy reflection on the toaster's side and inspected the prize with a look of intensity. Smiling toward her son, the woman slowly placed the electrical prize on the kitchen table.

"It's a beautiful toaster, son...but we don't have electricity."

The boy's face dropped. He stared at the toaster sitting next to his mother's freshly canned green beans. The boy sank into a chair, feeling his body would melt around him; his youthful innocence denied by the reality of the Oklahoma depression.


Happy Father's Day dad. I imagine your mechanical brilliance has been refreshed and rejuvenated in Heaven.

With love,

*This story was adapted from one told to me by my father year's ago. Real stories told from the heart, are meant to be repeated.

(All rights reserved. Reprinting of this story is strickly prohibited.)
Exploration in genealogy is a vibrant and growing hobby due to the endless boundaries for research. Avenues to explore continue to grow and an often underused resource for family history holdings are the university libraries.

When you sat in your college library years ago, sweating out a boring research paper late into the night, would you have imagined you would one day return to explore the library's genealogical holdings?

Well, most likely not, but you probably would not have guessed that many of your local genealogical and family history documents are held within your state's university library.

Brigham Young University has three free search engines of interest to genealogists including the Western States Marriage Records Index, Idaho State Death Index and Eastern Idaho Death Records.

The Rutgers University Library has a Special Collections section within their archives that includes bible and family records of New Jersey, a master file of New Jersey gravestone inscriptions, an emigrant register, cemetery records of New Jersey and the Charles Carroll Gardner Collection of New Jersey surnames and family histories.

I recently stumbled upon the Bentley Historical Library of the University of Michigan. This genealogical goldmine holds printed histories of Michigan counties and towns, city directories, census indexes, plat books, archived church records, funeral home records. And although they are unable to complete extensive research for you, they will conduct a one-hour free search with your e-mail request.

Completing a quick search within the Special Collections of my Alma Mater--Oklahoma State University--I instantly found published works of Oklahoma cemetery indexes, family histories and county histories. I contacted both of our state universities in Oklahoma upon the publication of my family history book and they gladly accepted my books for their collections.

So consider exploring university library archives for your ancestral search and remember to add this little known resource prize to your genealogical hunt.

And I promise...flashbacks of late nights cramming for college exams in the university library will be pleasantly replaced with ancestral research found.

Keep searching for answers,


A Weak Foundation


I recently read an article in our local newspaper regarding a politician in another state. But the subject of the article was not politics--it was her claims of ancestry.

The woman running for congressional office described, both behind the podium and by pen, her American Indian ancestry. Yet, she does not seem to outwardly portray any physical resemblance to Indian heritage, which has brought speculation to her claims.

Now, this alone is not unusual. Many people with American Indian blood do not carry distinct Indian features. But as others have looked further into the politician's claims, her story seems built on family lore and no bloodline has been proven. It is just a family story of a great great great grandmother of Indian heritage. The politician is not on an Indian Tribal Roll and she cannot produce a document verifying the alleged ancestry.

Family lore is often whimsical and fascinating; a good story passed across the holiday table but good genealogy--it is not. Stories that pass from generation to generation often change as they are told. And unless proven by primary sources such as birth, death and marriage documents, the lore's value is purely family entertainment, nothing else.

As I have delved deeper into the field of genealogy, I find myself more sensitive to the subject of family myth versus proven family historical fact. The former is built on shaky, wobbly ground whereas the latter has a strong, solid foundation: The kind of foundation that upholds the family's values, culture and truth.

And is that not what we want for the next descendents of our family?

The interest is genealogy is spreading rapidly. But as genealogists and researchers, let us reinforce the importance of sound, proven family history. So the next generations can enjoy the real stories of their family heritage, and feel pride in whatever that heritage might be.

Keep searching for answers,

Samuel Rolston walked out the Iron Mill door, his hands black with filth from a day of grinding iron. His bones creaked as he forced each step forward, up the hill toward town. And Samuel paused to remember this was the first day of the month: mail day.

Feeling burdened by the extra five blocks he would have to walk to the Boonton New Jersey Post Office, Samuel released a deep sigh and proceeded to the Post. He hoped for a letter from home and he pushed his aching body to make it to the Post Office before closing.

Entering the Post, Samuel nodded at Ol' Mr. Sawyer sorting mail at the front counter. "Do ya' have somethin' for me Will?" Samuel asked as he approached the counter.

"Looks like a letter from the Old Country," Mr. Sawyer remarked as he reached into the canvas mail sack resting in the corner.

Samuel stared at the envelope as he peeled open the side. He had hoped to hear from his family, concerned about his father's poor health. But instead, an unexpected letter lay in his hand. A fellow church member in Cavan, Tyrone, wrote to tell Samuel of his son's voyage to America. "I remember you as a kind and generous soul and I am hoping you will look after young William as he settles himself in America.'

This would not be the first time he and his wife helped new immigrants from his old homeland in Ireland. Samuel Rolston, as most Irishmen in the New World, felt a responsibility to take in their family and neighbors as they immigrated to America.

It was the "way of the Irishman" and Samuel proceeded toward home, eager to tell his wife of their future boarder.

Immigrants came to the New World in groups, either with their families, friends or fellow parishioners. And they typically had contact with a family member or neighbor in America for help prior to their voyage.

Earlier this week, I received contact from a fellow researcher on She wanted me know my ancestor, Samuel Rolston, helped her ancestor the first few years he lived in the States. I explained they must have had a connection from Ireland; their families could have been neighbors or church members.

The relationship cannot be proven, but the unfolding of information is interesting: Samuel Rolston's boarder was an immigrant from Cavan, Tyrone, Ireland. A simple clue that could take my research further into my ancestor's Irish roots.

Study your immigrant ancestor's census records and look deeper into the lives of their boarders and neighbors. Most likely, they had some connection to their homeland and researching those living in their home and around them could provide a wealth of information on your ancestor.

Your immigrant ancestor's helping hand to others could in turn, be a helping hand to your research.

Keep searching for answers,

Last week I had a day in which boredom washed over me. I knew I should be doing something interesting; creating or researching or reading some earth shattering genealogical study, but my mind instead, stalled.

Attempting to regain focus on my family tree, I pulled up and stared at the records of one of my Irish immigrant ancestors. And suddenly, I became intrigued with a fellow researcher of my ancestor, wondering if he might hold a bit of information on our mutual ancestor.

Zipping an e-mail with a "hello" and "what do you know about our ancestor?", I closed the webpage and went about my boring day. But my fellow researcher was quick on the draw and zipped a response right back.

"Hello again," he said.

Now I really am pathetic, I thought. It seems I have contacted this same fellow researcher in the past and with further dialogue, I calculate him to be my 4th cousin.

He must think I do not have a life; routinely stalking him about our ancestor.

But in our discussion, my 4th cousin revealed he just recently stumbled on surprising and startling information. The passenger list that we had downloaded from is full of transcriptions errors. The index states that our ancestors arrived at the Port of New Orleans from Londonderry; however,--my 4th cousin, fellow researcher and holder of earth shattering news--revealed he had just discovered a wonderful website of Irish immigrants in Delaware:

Mr. Lalley had obtained Irish passenger lists from the Delaware State Archives and published the lists on his website. And lo and behold, the ship of our Irish ancestors actually docked at New Castle, Delaware: a common port of Irish immigrants in the early 1800's.

This new, jaw-dropping information swiftly turned my research around. It all makes sense. The family was found in New Jersey and then settled in Michigan. Why on earth did they port in New Orleans? I wondered for years. But it was on, so I accepted the information as fact, though all along I knew it never made sense.

So, what did I learn from this turn of events? Nothing. It was just a wake-up call to my bored mind with a little reminder of my own number one genealogical principle: Our best resource in genealogy is each other.

Errors in transcriptions of documents will always occur but reaching out and contacting fellow researchers is by far, our very best source of good research.

And so I tip my hat to my 4th cousin and Mr. Lalley of  You both shook up my bored, uncreative mind and restarted my thinking juices.

Thanks. I needed that!

For exploration of your ancestor's passenger lists, try the following websites:
Immigrant Ships
Ellis Island
Castle Garden
German Roots
Olive Tree

Keep searching for answers,