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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

February 2011

What's in a Name?

   It couldn't be easier, right? The first time you visit an online genealogy site, they ask you to enter just the first and last name of the person in whom  you are interested.  Then they suggest you add as many other details as you happen to know.  When I was starting the research for Beyond All Price, I entered a name (Nellie Chase), her birth state (Maine), and a year range for her birth (1835-1845).  And I got results.  147 of them, in fact! Who would have guessed that there would be that many Nellie Chases in the world, let alone in a single state. The site suggested I could narrow my results by entering more information, but more information was what I was looking for.  I didn't know her parentage, her city, her death date, her husband's name, or any of the other things they suggested.  

Did I eventually find the Nellie I was looking for?  Yes, I think so.   But it took years, and that will have to be a separate story.. Now if you are hunting for a family member,  you may have more facts than I did to start out with, but you are likely to run into many of the same problems.  Here are some of the pitfalls that you need to be aware of. 

1. Census records look valuable, and they can be, but their worth depends entirely upon the competence of the person doing the recording.  I just examined a record for my mother's family from the 1900 Pennsylvania Census.  It listed the birth dates of two of her sisters as November 1877 and February 1878. Three months apart?  Probably not!  

2. For any kind of record before the days of typewriters and computers, handwriting causes major problems. Some examples are marvelously clear; others are scrawls or overwritten with corrections, so that it is impossible to decipher them. Then there are problems caused by mispronunciations or bad hearing or faulty transcriptions.  The online version of the 1910 Census shows my mother (Margaret McCaskey) as Marguett Mccacbey.  

3. Nicknames cause their own set of difficulties.  Nellie Chase always used the name Nellie, but her given name could have been Nell, Helen, Eleanor, or Ellen. My own brother had problems all his life explaining his name.  My mother named him Jack.  Just Jack.  It was not a nickname, but people naturally assumed that his real name must have been John or Jacques or even James.  

4. Family names change over time.  A major culprit may be an immigration record, on which an ethnic name was written down as the closest English approximation. One branch of my father's family bore the surname of Arendt in Germany.  They arrived in America as Aurand.  Their friends the Muellers became the Millers.  

5. Sometimes name differences are the result of a deliberate choice.  I grew up knowing two cousins who sported the same name but different pronunciations. Their fathers had a falling out and did not speak to each other, so one pronounced the last syllable of the family name as "KO" while the other used "KAWK." Both, however, spelled it as "-cock."   

6. And then there's my husband's family.  We are frequently told that our last name should be spelled "Schreiber." Well, it originally was.  The family story says that John Schreiber, who fought in the Civil War, found that his discharge papers had his name spelled wrong.  He was given two choices.  He could refuse the discharge and stay in the army.  Or he could change his name to Schriber, take the discharge as written, and go home that very day. He went home! And we've been Schribers ever since.  

Don't misunderstand me.  Genealogical research is great fun, and you can learn amazing things about your own family, including where all the skeletons are buried.  But you do have to enter the search with a healthy dose of skepticism.  The best family record sites offer you an option to search for an exact spelling or an approximate one.  I usually start with the exact search, but when that fails, a "sounds like" option is frequently the answer.  After all, Nellie might have been Nelie, or Nelly, or Ellie, or even Ellen, as she turned out to be.  

Here are some online databases that may help your search.  Remember, however, that they don't come with guarantees that they are complete or that their information is accurate. I also recommend that you take full advantage of offers to use the sites without charge for a short period of time before committing  yourself to paying for a membership.  You may find the site useful, of course, but it may contain nothing at all to help  you.  

1. The Social Security Death Index contains birth and death dates for deceased individuals with Social Security numbers who died after 1962 (when the records were computerized) through the current year. 

2. RootsWeb's WorldConnect Project is a database containing family files submitted by both amateur and professional researchers. For that reason you can expect to find a large number of errors. 

3. FamilySearch. The Ancestral File and International Genealogical Index (IGI), a service provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, contain information on millions of people worldwide, but these records too can be in error because many contributors are amateurs.

4. The Ellis Island Database contains images of ship manifests documenting over 22 million people who entered the United States between 1892 and 1924 through Ellis Island and the Port of New York. 

5. The USGenWeb Project directory provides links to state and county genealogical resources.  

6. Perhaps the most useful for the beginning researcher is Ancestry.com. It offers ongoing help, access to millions of handwritten records,  and the chance to connect with others who may be researching the same people. 

Do any of you have other suggestions to add to this list?  

Who Cares about History?

I've been pleasantly surprised this past week to discover how many people really do care about history.  For five days my books were featured on a website called "Chicks of Characterization," and the notes left by readers were uniformly complimentary.  Most of the comments came from writers of fantasy and romance. They seemed to be saying that while they didn't write historical fiction, they love to read it.

I've also been encouraged by an exchange taking place on a blog appropriately called "Writing Historical Fiction". There the discussion has been about writing a "blockbuster." Again, I'm pleased to see the reactions coming out in favor of writing what you care about, not just what popular wisdom says will sell the most books.  

My online sales took what was for me a huge leap forward last week -- including an order from someone using Beyond All Price in a college class, a bookstore order for multiple copies, some Kindle sales, and enough website responses to send me off to the post office with a shipment tomorrow.

To top off the week, I heard from two other genealogists who have been working on projects that touch on my own attempts to fill in the McCaskey family tree.  Their findings introduced me to several distant cousins I did not know.  And finally, I heard from another person with an ancestor who fought in the Roundhead Regiment during the Civil War. Just a little bit of research revealed that in the early 19th century, her ancestors lived next door to mine.

So . . .  in the firm belief that history does matter, I've been preparing two e-books to be published as Kindle "Shorts". Nellie's Rx: Medical Treatments from 1862 and Nellie's Kitchen: Recipes from the Civil War are both companion pieces for Beyond All Price. Nellie's Rx is written in notebook format and offers a peak at the kinds of remedies commonly used during the war.  Some of the cures might even have worked, although most sound dreadful, and a few are definitely lethal. Nellie's Kitchen is a recipe book, compiled from cookbooks of the time.   Most of the recipes are still viable, although the reader has to be prepared for such instructions as "skim off the weavils" and "first, kill a chicken." As of today, both short pieces are now available from the regular Kindle website.

With all that encouragement, I'm feeling refreshed and ready to get back to work. My next book will be based on the life of Laura M. Towne, the woman who founded the Penn Center in South Carolina to provide quality education for newly-freed slaves.  While I'm doing that reading, I hope to bring you another series of blog posts on the challenges of historical research.  Stay tuned for "Genealogy Wars."

What A Character

I am currently working on a new writing project.  I hesitate to call it a historical novel yet, since not much of it actually exists.  But I have a fascinating cast of characters  as ingredients in the brew that will eventually become a novel.  In 1861, a group of Abolitionists from Boston, New York, and Philadelphia set sail for coastal South Carolina.  Word had just arrived of a great Union victory at Port Royal Sound.  The Confederate inhabitants had been driven out of the coastal islands, which had been full of cotton and tea plantations.  White slave owners grabbed what they could carry and fled into the interior.  Their slaves found themselves abandoned, and, to all extents and purposes, free. The Abolitionists hoped to offer their aid to these ex-slaves.  They brought food supplies, used clothing, books, Bibles, and the own eagerness to prove that slaves could be turned into productive citizens.  

The Abolitionists were a motley group.  One of their fellow passengers aboard the ship that carried them described them thus: "bearded and mustached and odd-looking men, with odder-looking women."  Another  suggested that they were "broken-down schoolmasters or ministers who have excellent dispositions but not much talent." Such quirks mean that they are going to be fun to work with.  But my first problem is getting to know them as individuals, so that my readers can tell them apart.  

This is where I find that compiling a character sketch of each person is an indispensable first step. To my delight, I discovered that the new version of "Scrivener," released just in time for National Novel Writing Month, provides a template for such sketches.  (If you are not familiar with Scrivener, the best writing software available, you owe it to yourself to check it out at http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php).  The template offers the following sections: role in story, occupation, physical description, personality, habits and mannerisms, background, internal conflicts, external conflicts and notes.   Here are some of the resources I use to compile this information for my works of historical fiction.  

1. Since most of my characters are real people, I start with a general history text that describes the events I want to write about.  Plundering the index is a quick way to locate and identify such details as occupation and background.  

2. My second resource is usually the U. S. Census. Any good genealogy program can quickly locate any mention of the character in whom you are interested. I've been concentrating on such things as the family's economic status and my individual's place within the family.  Among the women I am looking at, I found one who was the only girl in a huge family of boys -- thus explaining, perhaps, why so many people comment on her masculine habits and interests.  Another was a nine-year-old-child when her mother died, leaving her to help raise four younger brothers and sisters.  No need to wonder where she developed her nurturing nature.  

3. Photographs can reveal much.  One of my ladies  is a spinster, uniformly adored by the children she teaches but an object of scorn by many of the men around her.  Why?  Well, a single glance at her only formal portrait draws attention her unfortunately huge bulbous nose. 

4. The character's own writings -- letters, diaries, journals, other publications -- complete the picture.  One of my characters is a preacher's wife.  I knew she was a singer and a teacher, as well as the leading force among the evangelical abolitionists.  I didn't fully understand her, however, until I discovered a book she had written about the evils of slavery.  It shows her not only as an intemperate zealot, but as a lascivious one at that. I might have missed that part of her character if I had not taken the time to compile a character sketch.  

The template works equally well for fantasy, purely fictional characters, historical figures, and even the people involved in historical monographs. You must know your character very well before you can expect your reader to understand and identify with him.  

Going to the Dogs


This is a Sunday special issue in honor of my favorite sporting event of the year.  The rest of you can have your Super Bowls, your World Series, your Final Four or your Stanley Cup.  For me, it's the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

Now, anyone who knows me is aware that I'm a cat person.  I've had cats all my life, and I've NEVER had a dog. I think dogs are beautiful and smart.  I admire them from afar. But I don't know the first thing about training one, or house-breaking one, or even becoming friends with one.

Once in a while, I'm tempted.  Dear friends have adopted a rescue mutt they named Sophie.  I can't begin to describe Sophie, other than the basics of medium sized, white with a few black patches.  Recently we had dinner with them, and about half-way through the meal, I felt a nudge under the table.  When I glanced down, there was Sophie, sitting at my feet, chin on my knee, looking back at me with the most soulful and intelligent brown eyes I'd ever seen. OK, so I fell in love on the spot.  But I wouldn't want to take her home with me; I'm content to visit.

I also credit a dog with convincing me to become a
member of Lions Clubs International.  I had an opportunity to meet a couple of puppies who were being trained to serve as Leader Dogs for the Blind, as well as a huge German Shepherd whose talents let his blind owner travel all over the world.  And right then I knew I had to become involved with an organization that helped make these dogs available to those who need them. I'll help others get dogs to fit their needs, but I still am not ready to make a long-term commitment.

Every year I get my basic "dog fix" by watching the Westminster Show.  And this year, I have a new favorite.  One of the six new breeds admitted to the show for the first time is the Boykin Spaniel, the official dog of the State of South Carolina. The Boykin is a small dog (about 40 pounds, max.) and 15 to 18 inches high.  It is bred to be a hunter and agile enough to jump in and out of small swamp boats without upsetting the boat. Since most of my books are set in the Low Country of South Carolina,  I can understand the appeal of this energetic little dog.

I have no real hope that a Boykin will end up as "Best of Show." Newcomers seldom do.  But while the breed is making its mark among usual favorites, I'll be cheering it on.  If  you're looking for me on Monday or Tuesday night, you'll find me wrapped in something fleecy, glued to the TV, and rooting for a breed that produces the the cutest pups I've seen in a long time.

Family Skeletons?

A great place to start your search for your own roots is with Ancestry.com.  For the beginner, their basic information is free, although you get access to more records if you take out a membership.  Right now, NBC is running a series called "Who Do You Think You Are?" in which celebrities get help in tracing their ancestors through the Ancestry records.  You can pick up valuable tips by watching on Friday nights at 7:00 PM (EST). Disclaimer: Yes, I am a member of Ancestry.com, although I get nothing for promoting them.  In fact, much as I like them, I also want to encourage you to move beyond the materials you find there.  They have lots of information, but few family skeletons.  For those, you have to look further afield.

Researching your own family tree can be revealing (sometimes too revealing), surprising, or embarrassing.  It is almost never dull.  The key, I think, is to poke around a lot  in all kinds of places and NOT to start out with a list of specific questions  you want to answer.  It's much more fun to see what just turns up, and then follow the clues until they run out.

Let me give you one small example.  Several years ago, when I was just starting to write A Scratch with the Rebels, I traveled to western Pennsylvania to see what I could learn about my Great-Uncle James, whose Civil War letters had started me on this adventure.  I already had the 1850 and 1860 Census records for Beaver County.  (You can actually access some old county lists on line from the U. S. Census Bureau.)  So I knew the names of his brothers and sisters, their ages, and his father's occupation. I knew James was the second child and oldest boy.The family, however, was still very much a mystery to me.  Even though I looked at the 1860 Census and found my grandfather as the six-year-old Joseph McCaskey, no one in the family seemed very real.

Then pieces began falling into place.  At the county registrar's office, I learned that the oldest girl, Sarah Jane, had married a man named Simon P. Fisher, and that Simon later served as executor of my great-grandfather's estate when he died in 1875.  Then in the local history room of the county library, the curator showed me a map drawn in that same year.  It showed every building in the township, each carefully labeled with the owner's name. There -- near I thought it might be --  was "Mrs. McCaskey's house." What really caught my eye, however, was the property just down the road.  It was a house belonging to Simon Fisher's father, and set way back from the road -- hidden from view, almost in the woods -- was their barn.

To understand why that was so important to me, you have to know a bit about my own teenage years.  I grew up in a fair-sized town, back in the days when kids walked everywhere they wanted to go.  From the time I was 13 or so, my mother always sent me out with the same admonition. "You come straight home from school (substitute:  movie, dance, play, football game, choir practice, etc.). Don't you think about coming home by way of Fisher's barn."  At the time, I thought it was just about the dumbest thing she ever said.  I didn't know anybody named Fisher, and there wasn't a barn anywhere near our urban neighborhood.

 I laughed out loud at discovering the original location of Fisher's barn.  My guess? Well, I'm pretty sure that when Sarah Jane and Simon were courting, they took some detours on their way home.  That hidden barn would have made a perfect place for a bit of hanky-panky.  And evidently their antics were discovered. I asked around among my cousins, and they too remembered their mothers (my mother's sisters) using the same phrase.  In the McCaskey family, Fisher's barn was the equivalent of the local  drive-in, the back seat of the family sedan,  the back row of the balcony -- the local "make out" spot.

It was a bit embarrassing to realize that my mother suspected me of being up to the same sort of shenanigans, but the discovery of the origins of one family saying gave me a warm feeling of belonging.  Fisher's barn allowed me to connect with my long-dead ancestors in a way that the usual genealogical charts never could.

Have you solved any family mysteries during  your own research?  I'd love to hear about them.