I am at the receiving end of various genealogical blogs and though I appreciate other writer's tidbits and counsel for research, I tend to be drawn to those with story. And a recent post from Macleans.ca reveals a moving story of the generosity of a French couple in Normandy.

The Berthelots live in the tiny Normandy village of Larre, about 100 km south of Juno Beach where Monsieur Berthelot is the mayor. On July 16, 1944, a Canadian bomber was shot down and crashed in Larre. All six of the airmen were killed.

In 2001, the Berthelots began a journey that has touched the lives of many of the airmen's families: they have scoured the cemeteries and war memorials of Normandy and connected Canadian families to the gravesites of their soldiers. This giving couple spends their days seeking any remnants they can find--photographs, tombstone inscriptions, even pieces of twisted metal wreckage of the planes--and at times, personally delivers the treasures to the families in Canada.

The families are gobsmacked. The Berthelots response? "Their soldiers gave us our liberty, so we have to honor and remember them."
The story of their generosity has spread like fire to other Canadian families longing to grasp information on their boys. And so, the Berthelots continue their quest, seeking to connect Canadian families to their soldier's undiscovered graves in France.

I felt drawn to the story of the Berthelots. It sheds a soft light on what genealogy should be about: remembrance and connections to past souls.

Ironically, I received the story in my email inbox just as I arrived home from my own little connection to an ancestor's grave. I ventured a couple hundred miles to seek out the tombstone of my great-great grandfather. The little tombstone of my ancestor sits sweetly along a sloping hill, his Civil War Union Company proudly engraved above his name. I am certain the grave has rarely been visited, long forgotten by lost generations.

As I brushed the moss from the engraving, a yellow butterfly perched along the side ot the stone appearing fearless and still. I wondered if my ancestor felt my presence; a brief connection to a ghost I never knew but now feel connected to.

I pause to feel humbled by the Berthelots in Normandy as I am reminded of the real purpose of searching for grandfathers and grandmothers: the personal touch, the remembrances, the connections.

That's what this is all about.

Keep searching for answers,

Cheryl

 
 
My blogs are always a "day late and a dollar short."  Other writers snag the timeliness of the occasion, addressing a subject on quick cue. I, instead, drag from behind, providing my two cents when other bloggers have moved on. So, since the Thanksgiving holiday has slipped past us and edged us closer toward Christmas, I will bring up the rear with my giving of thanks.

I am thankful that my ancestors were braver than me, not only having a dream for a better life but the guts to reach for it; uprooting their lives to venture into a frightening unknown. They took unimaginable risks, leaving their families to pioneer into a strange and undeveloped country.

I am thankful that I do not have to live in a world in which life is fleeting and the loss of loved ones is common. If you study the stories of your ancestors around the time of the American Revolution, you will discover that death from disease wiped out entire communities. Family members died as quick as flies.

I am thankful that as a woman, I have the right to own property, vote, write a will, be the legal guardian of my own child--all simple rights once denied to our great-great grandmothers. It is hard to find ghosts without paper trails.

I am so very thankful that my great-great grandfathers fought to maintain the solidarity of our country, understanding that we are greater as a whole and in turn, ending the unimaginable--the ownership of humans. I remember the chill I felt when I read a slaveholder's will and the disturbing discovery that my ancestor was the slaveholder.

I am thankful that we do not live in our ancestor's times in which the elderly and disabled were shuffled into poor farms without financial support, ending their lives without dignity and respect from society.

And I am thankful our fathers fought the good fight, securing our futures and saving us from the grasp of wickedness.

So that is all I am thankful for. And though I have dug until my hands are raw, I will keep on searching my history because the understanding of our history provides a path to our future.

Have a happy Thanksgiving holiday and keep searching for answers,

Cheryl
 
 
The exploration into our history is a growing phenomenon, a result of our need to keep ourselves grounded to a deeper sense of self while the world changes around us. It is a result of our fast-paced, ever evolving society so unlike the world our ancestors lived within. Right?

Well...not exactly.

It appears our ancestors living in the late 1880's faced significant cultural and economic changes--maybe even more than today. The young United States rapidly expanded into the West and new industries evolved and adapted as our gangly youthful country approached the 20th century. And our ancestors reacted as many of us do today: they attempted to hold-on to their roots. They romanticized the past, the "good old days," and they longed for a sense of community.

The Goodspeed Publishing Company of Chicago, Nashville and St. Louis keenly recognized people's sentimentality for their community and a need to feel pride in their roots, so the publishing company turned what they saw into an opportunity. They dispersed door-to-door salesmen across the Midwest, Southwest and South, compiling information for published county histories.

If you have researched ancestors within Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, Indiana, Texas, Nebraska and Kansas, then you have no doubt run across a Goodspeed County History.

The Goodspeed publications are written in the same format for each region--historical elements tailored to the specific region with information on geology, climate, settlement, government, politics, institutions, etc. and they end in biographical and genealogical sketches of local citizens specific for each county. But if you do not find your ancestor within a Goodspeed book it was most likely because he could not afford to pay for the rights to be in the publication.

That's right. The citizens featured within the publications bought the right to see their name and family history in print. They paid the Goodspeed salesmen for a copy of the publication and in turn, they wrote their own personal sketch or a family member's sketch to be highlighted within the book. It was an opportunity to paint themselves and family in a good light.

But even though the Goodspeed county histories can be rightly criticized as "vanity books," they are a valuable tool for today's family historian . They provide historical information for your ancestor's county along with biographical information that can lead to deeper discoveries.

Our ancestors relished their family histories just as much as we do today, so much so they were willing to pay for it.

And thank goodness for that.

Check out these sites for a few Goodspeed county histories: Grainger County, Tennessee; Southeast Missouri; Genealinks; Tennessee State Library;  The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History.

Keep searching for answers,

Cheryl
(Source: The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.)
 

A Sweet Substitute

11/11/2012

 
I returned in one piece from my "across the pond" hike from Oklahoma to Arkansas and though genealogical discoveries were subtle, I do feel tickled with my results. Not laugh-out-loud tickled.

Just tickled.

My frustration with researching my illusory ancestor from Arkansas is not from my ancestor himself. Rather, I discovered I am dealing with a state whose county lines waxed, waned and evolved for a good part of the 19th century. An ancestor can live in one county one year and a different one the next without moving an inch.

Family research within states such as Arkansas make traditional on-line genealogy frustrating. Tracking ancestors by US Census records is no longer quick and easy, so in order to move forward, a family historian has to think outside the box. And I am pleased to say, my Arkansas box is holding an item not previously found:

A poll tax.

Poll taxes have been instituted within countries for centuries but with each country, the purpose of the tax has varied. In general, the poll tax is an across the board capitation tax of a fixed amount applied to the head of a household. And in the United States, the 19th century poll tax was a requirement for voting.

The US poll tax provided an unfair advantage to those who could afford the tax, ultimately reducing minorities the right to vote, which is why the tax was declared unconstitutional by the mid 20th century*. But to the delight of researchers such as you and I, the little known tax can provide a wealth of genealogical dividends.

Wading my way through the archived court records in Arkansas, I spied my ancestor's name on a poll tax for 1861. My heart flip-flopped when I made the discovery, placing my ancestor within a county when his 1860 Census record could not be found. The poll tax is a sweet little substitute when every other record is void.

And what was the significance of my ancestor's 1861 poll tax? It enabled him to vote in the election for or against Arkansas's vote for secession: A passionate die-hard Union loyalist eager to pay his tax in order to exercise his right to vote.

Poll taxes will most likely not be found on Ancestry.com or other on-line genealogical sites. I suggest researching within the holdings of your local genealogy library.

A subtle but sweet discovery for my illusory Arkansas ancestor that provides one more clue to his life and story.

Keep searching for answers,

Cheryl
(*Source: The Free Dictionary)
 
 
I am a lazy family historian. I sit at my computer, rummaging through websites, searching for ancestral records and cursing the wind when none are found. I beam with pride at my plump family tree, limbs sprouting with ancestral names, leaves waving with lush, rich stories.

But sadly, I yield when the information ends.

I fantasize the dream of boating across the pond to amble the cobbled streets of my ancestor's homelands in Ireland, Scotland and France. Stumbling upon distant cousins living within picturesque European town lands. And then I pause to consider how much is left--blank names, blank town lands, blank files.

But this week everything will change. I have challenged myself to relinquish my office chair and release myself from the chains of my computer to jump the pond for a head-on, get down-and-dirty dive into a little foreign country:

Arkansas.

Yes, my on-the-road genealogical trip is only a few hours from my home and though I cheat, using it as a little break through the beautiful rolling Ozarks, it is a research trip nonetheless. Sadly, I faced the reality of my lazy expectations of armchair genealogy and accepted what many steadfast family historians realized long ago: the deepest holes have to be dug on-site, not on-line.

It is romantic to dream of researching ancestors within their European homelands
but the deep wells at home have to be dry before journeying a thousand miles away. And I am embarrassed to say I have failed to study the well that is only 200 miles within my grasp. Though Arkansas is a tad bit different than France, I expect to find early 1800 records laced with French surnames such as Lemoux and Jacques; my French American ancestor living within an Arkansas Territory village flooded with French, Cajun and Canadian immigrants.

And so, though my first ancestral road trip lacks the glitter and glory of a romantic European expedition, I load my SUV of ancestral files longing to be complete and head into another vast land: Oklahoma's sister state to the east, Arkansas.

I guess I'll have to tote my French wine and croissants across state line!

Clue:

Do you have French ancestry? Our journey can be a struggle but if your French American ancestor fought in the Civil War, his records could be rich with resources. French Americans were an important Catholic group during the Civil War--most of them serving within the Union forces. Look for their Civil War pensions and you could stumble upon a vast realm of information.

Keep searching for answers,

Cheryl


 

My Ancestral Ghost

10/28/2012

 
I am haunted by a ghost. Late into the night his bent and gnarly figure creeps into my thoughts, his eyes black and cavernous. Never-ending lines fold across his face and though his form is without definition, I sense his presence as solid and rooted as an old oak tree.

A ghost; waiting patiently for my recognition of his being.

Driven by my ghost's yearning for attention, his centuries-old need to be heard, I listen and I search. Toiling and digging, I read and re-read all the documents and records I have found on my ghost, desperately searching out answers to the rest of his story. I rip through the papers, hastily flipping past one lead to the next and as I sift through facts and fiction, I almost feel the coolness of his breath linger against my neck.

But oddly, I do not recoil; sensing instead a strange warmth of familiarity.

A ghost. My Civil War ancestral ghost and I welcome his haunting.

Wouldn't it be fun to discover your ancestor is a ghost?! Just consider the intrigue you would have, the haunting playfulness of an old ancestral ghost. If you have been researching your ancestors for long, you will begin to feel their presence; as if they shiver with excitement of their discovery. It is their moment of recognition, a time for them to shine in the spotlight once more.

As we approach the haunting of the season--the wispy cool winds beckoning our thoughts--it becomes easy to imagine an ancestor providing guidance to our search. And there are times I could use their help! But whether you believe in ghosts or not, you cannot deny a sense of presence of your ancestors as you search for their story.

Just listen...they may be giving you a clue!

For a fun treat during this Halloween season, explore some of the Civil War ghost books such as Civil War Ghost Trails by Mark Nesbitt or Haunted Battlefields of the South by Bryan Bush. And for even more fun, flip through History.com's article on the legend of Abraham Lincoln's ghost, his lanky spirit creeping amongst the hallow halls of the White House.

Happy ghost hunting and don't be surprised if you feel a cool breath languish across the back of your neck tonight as you search for your ancestors.

Keep searching for answers,

Cheryl


 
 
I just completed reading a lovely book: Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry. It is in the first person voice of an elderly woman; a remembrance of her life from young adulthood until her senior years. The author describes an ordinary life, one woven with relationships of ordinary people living off the land: a tight community of farmers experiencing the changing world as they saw and lived it.

Although the book evokes a feeling of a memoir, it is fiction though I suspect the author's personal life is reflected within the prose. And though it is lacking in plot--as memoirs are--the character's story of a common life grasps the reader, unfolding truths and conflicts that we all wrangle with within our own lives.

It is a life. And that, alone, is captivating.

Memoirs have grown into a sought after genre for both writers and readers. It is no longer reserved for great movie stars or brilliant leaders. Everyday people are writing their life stories. They are telling, in their own words, their life, their experiences, their thoughts and readers relish the intrigue and commonality of learning from each other's lives.

Now consider this: What if our ancestors, our grandparents and great-grandparents, even our parents, wrote their own memoirs. The stories we struggle to find, handed to us as easy and gently as opening a newspaper on a slow, rainy Sunday; all there for us to soak up and experience and languish in.

How easy genealogy would be!

And so, as we dream of the possibilities we might have had, if only our ancestors had penned their life in story, we should consider an option, one we have complete control over: write our own memoir.

Now is the time to set in motion a written story of your life. I am not suggesting a full-fledge, yearlong novel of a memoir. It does not have to be in any particular form--you are the author of your story and you can write it as you like. But placing on paper (or computer), your life experience is a gift to your family, generations of descendants, and to yourself.

Dates of marriage and births and graduations and anniversaries--all of the information we seek out on our ancestors are certainly a must. But you have an opportunity to fill in the blanks in the story of your life.

There will always be great unknowns of your ancestor's lives, but you have a chance to grasp control of your own story and tell it as you would want your descendants to hear it.

A gift: one that will be precious to your descendants and most definitely--to yourself.

Keep searching for answers,

Cheryl
 
 
Picture
Democratic National Convention; Philadelphia, 1948
An element of the intrigue of genealogy is the wonder of whom we take after: The mysteries of our DNA, our imprint, and which ancestors held physical similarities to our own.

It is a thrill to find a picture of an ancestor, several generations back, with your hair color or smile. But what about the intangibles? Do you believe your way of thinking is influenced by your environment or instead, wired by your DNA?

Recent scientific studies on our political leanings reveal some fascinating results. They provide evidence to the theory that we tend to tip our hat to one political view not solely due to our environment, but as a result of our DNA. Genes passed to us from our ancestors wire our brain to process information a certain way that is in turn, reflected in our political views.

Learning the political leanings of our ancestors provide a tasty treat when describing their histories. It can give depth to their story, an aspect of their personalities. And as our heads swirl in the current crossfire of the presidential election, we can drift into a more enjoyable pastime by exploring our ancestor's politics.

Discovering if an ancestor was liberal or conservative in their political thinking is a tricky endeavor but if you keep your eyes open for clues, you can whittle the truth. Family stories sometimes pass along a great grandparent's political affiliation and occasionally you can discern political leanings as a result of an ancestor's name.

I have an ancestor named after Benjamin Franklin, a founding father and eventual abolitionist. My ancestor's parents must have held high regard of their son's namesake. Though I can't pinpoint their political affiliation I can make assumptions of my ancestral political leanings by knowing their fondness of Ben Franklin.

Irish Republicans raised my great grandmother, but my mother observed her grandmother's strong admiration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, holding still with every word spoken during his great radio speeches.

Your ancestor's political associations can be imbedded within journals or family bibles. I recently was provided a copy of a great aunt's travel journal as she made her way to the 1948 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia; a fun fund and a great twist to a family history.

So escape the current mind-numbing political barbs and delve deeper into your family history by examining your ancestors with a political eye.

And as a treat, you just might discover whose political DNA you closely possess.

Keep searching for answers,

Cheryl
(Source: CNN.com)
 
 
Wesley crept up the wooden steps, his frail crooked body moving tepidly along each rung. The chatter of children lilted through the walls and he paused to listen; hoping to recognize a voice. Reaching into his pocket, he fingered a ragged picture and pulled it out, focusing his eyes on the three impish faces staring back.They were his children, half-orphans of the Civil War. Motherless from the brutality of a cruel war, Wesley placed his children in the arms of the St. Louis Catholic school praying they would be in a safe-haven; a respite far from the depraved outside world.

Wesley knocked against the door, his heart seemingly louder than his fist. A woman opened the door and gazed toward the disheveled Union soldier. A conversation pursued and Wesley raised the picture upward for the woman to see. The tall, plump woman lowered her glasses, her brow wrinkled as her eyes peered at the three young faces.

"We don't have your children, sir. They're not here any longer."

Wesley's heart slowed and he questioned whether he heard clearly what the woman said. His children are gone? The war was only a blip; a minor deviation compared to this.

                               ***

Children's orphanages in America bloomed from the 19th century into the beginning of the 20th century. Children orphaned from the ravages of cholera and smallpox were gathered and sent to state-run homes for children operated by churches. Children of immigrants whose parents died within the poverty-stricken and overpopulated eastern cities were sent westward, filling the state and church-run orphanages.

And then there were the young victims of the Civil War. Children were gathered and placed into boarding schools and church schools for their protection. But as I have learned with my ancestor's story, many of the children were not orphans. Instead, their parents placed them in what they considered safe-havens, only to learn their children were taken aboard the Orphan Train as indentured servants.

If you stumble across this kind of story within your family history  you will have a formidable task in your research but it can be done. Orphanages operated by state and local governments maintained better records and a good place start your research is within the state's archives. Go well prepared with a name, age, birthplace of the child, names of parents and to whom the child was indentured, if known.

If a religious group operated the orphanage, the records may be archived at their state or national headquarters. Also, local and state historical societies may be a good resource for your search. And if you ancestor was an indentured servant selected during one of the Orphan Train's whistle stops, his/her records could be (believe it or not) found within the county courthouse deed books.

If your research lands you within the realm of lost children, don't stall out. The task may be great but the story begs to be told. War, disease and poverty played a significant role in shaping our ancestor's lives and some of them lost their families as a result. Get your hands dirty and dig deeper for the truth.

We owe it to them to finish the story they never knew.

Keep searching for answers,

Cheryl
(Genealogy In St. Louis)
 
 
Last week, as I was reading another blog, I immediately felt frozen by the question proposed: "Who is your favorite ancestor?" The question, for me, was provocative. I had never considered just one ancestor as my favorite but I felt challenged by the query posed.

Considering the amount of time and research I have spent on my family history, one would think the answer would pop-up easily within my head. But with each ancestor's story unfolding as I delve into their history, I have grown quite fond of  many of my ancestors.

But as I scan over my family tree and consider the story of each, my soul pulls me toward one particular ancestor, a great-great grandfather. The story I have uncovered of my little Frenchman from Arkansas, reads like a long, heart-wrenching novel.

My ancestor found himself living within a web of Confederate sympathizers in Texas when the Civil War broke out. Where many would have joined the side closest to them, my ancestor risked his life to escape to the Arkansas Union line. As a result, he lost his first wife and children to the destruction of a bloody, brutal war. And though my great-great grandfather lived meagerly until his death, I find his strength and convictions heroic.

I suppose another question and one that for me is most difficult would be: "Who is your least favorite ancestor?"

If you have studied your family history enough then you have occasionally been blindsided by ancestors you found distasteful. But should we give them less study? Are their lives and stories not as important to our history as the heroes and heroines?

I revealed in a previous blog my delight at discovering scoundrels. Should we shudder with embarrassment of their deviations or proudly peel away the layers, revealing their dirty warts and all.

There is no wrong or right answer to any of these questions. They, instead, give you an opportunity to reflect on each ancestor closer. And as you study, perhaps you will be  challenged to learn more of your ancestors in order to answer more thoroughly the questions. 

But consider this: As you answer the questions, the challenge reveals not only stories of your ancestors but also your story. Because those that we most admire will have qualities we strive for. And those least appealing will be those with characteristics we struggle against.

Take the challenge and ponder your answers. It is an exercise that will bring you closer to your ancestors and surprisingly, to your own self.

Keep searching for answers,

Cheryl