"Roundheads and Ramblings"
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.
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 where 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.
I was reminded of this story yesterday when I found a message from another long-lost relative while surfing through Ancentry.com. Sarah Jane, James, and my grandfather, Joseph McCaskey, had several other siblings. I knew that sister Eunice had remained unmarried. She died at the age of 54 in 1895. But there were two other brothers, John and Theodore, about whom I knew nothing until yesterday.
This note came from a woman still living in New Castle, PA -- the great-grandaughter of brother John. She is, as she had correctly figured out, my second cousin, once removed. Now, thanks to her own genealogical research, I have filled in the gaps in my knowledge of that whole branch of the family. I hope she enjoys my speculation about Simon and Sarah Jane!
Census records are kept sealed for 72 years, from the date at which
they were taken. So the April 1,1940 records were just opened for the
first time last week. The experts at Ancestry.com have done an amazing
job of photographing every page and arranging the images, so that
genealogists can find the pages by state, county, city (called
"inhabited place"), and ward. Indexing by name will take much longer, so
for now you can't enter a name and hope to find that person. And until
the indexing is finished, finding your ancestors will take some time,
since it depends on scrolling through page after page of handwritten
data. Still, you can find the people you are looking for if you know
where they lived. As a member of Ancestry.com, I was able to register to
be notified when the two states I'm most interested in exploring have
been indexed and made available.
What was happening in 1940? Well for some of us old-timers, we were busy getting born, learning to crawl, tasting real food for the first time, and keeping our parents up all night. For the rest of you, it was still "the olden days." But chances are really good that you know, or remember, someone whose life is being revealed for the first time. 1940 was the year that most of Europe was already caught up in a major war, but America was still almost 2 years away from entering WWII. For the United States, the crucial issue was recovery from the Great Depression, and you'll find signs of that all through the census questions.
Among the questions asked of everyone were these:
- Do you own or rent your home?
- Have you moved in the past year?
- Do you share that home with others, and if so, what is their relationship to you?
- Are you employed? If not, are you receiving unemployment pay?
- Have you changed jobs in the past year?
- Exactly what kind of work do you do?
- What kind of company, establishment, or individual employs you?
- How many hours did you work last week?
- How many weeks were you employed during the past year?
- What is your annual salary?
For a few randomly-selected individuals (about 1 in 10-15) additional questions included:
- Birthplace of father and mother
- Are you a veteran or a dependent of a veteran?
- Do you have a Social Security number?
- Do you have some other form of old-age insurance?
- What is your usual occupation (what you are trained to do, not necessarily current employment)?
And for women:
- Have you been married more than once?
- Age at first marriage?
- How many children have you given birth to?
Here's one random example, pulled from my own home town. One of the people selected for addition questioning was a 42-year-old unmarried man who lived with his father, an older brother, and an older sister in a rented home. In the main data, he is listed as a laborer, employed by the government in a project to wash City Hall, and his total income for the year was $520.
In the supplementary section, he was not a veteran, had no Social Security or old-age insurance, and considered himself to be a crane operator in the bridge construction business.
The details are fascinating and eye-opening. Prepare to be shocked -- and then grateful for what you have.
When I was in first grade, I had a beau. "Johnny" was a typical freckle-faced boy -- not very clever, but raised to be polite and quiet. He lived about five blocks from me, close enough in those days that he could walk to my house and ask if I wanted to play. I never did. He didn't know anything about doll houses and I didn't like cowboys and Indians. Time after time, I sent him away, saying "I don't like boys!"
One day he knocked on our front door. My mother answered, looked around to see who had knocked, and finally looked down to see an earnest little face. "Please, Ma'am. Are you Carolyn's mother?" When she admitted that she was, he asked, "Please, could you tell her to like me--just a little bit?"
Well, it made a a great story at the dinner table, much to my embarrassment. My mother, who missed no opportunity to councel me on proper female behavior, shook her head at me. "Really, Carolyn, you should at least be nice to him. Who knows? He might be the only boy who will ever ask you to the prom."
My father's reaction was quite different. "You stay away from him! I'll have no little boy courting my daughter at age six! I don't intend to let you date until you're thirty."
I thought the whole thing was silly, and I pleased my father by taking his advice (well, some of it!) I certainly stayed away from Johnny all through school. He remained shy, not very bright, neither an athlete or a scholar, just one of the kids in he back of the classroom.
I don' remember ever talking to him, until i went to college. On the first night of Orientation Week, I went to a Freshman sock hop -- and there was Johnny. "What are you doing here?" I asked.
"I'm starting college," he said. "Wanna dance?" So we tootled around the gym for a while, and then I let him walk me back to the dorm, purely for safety's sake. I never saw him again. My mother reported that he dropped out after two weeks and joined the army.
And that was that. Until this past Saturday. I was taking the holiday weekend off, and decided to spend a little time nosing through the newly released 1940 census. It hasn't been indexed yet, but it is possible to find the town where you were living and then page through the various wards, looking for your last name. I found our local grocery store owner, the high school drama teacher, a couple of classmates, including one who died young, and a man who worked for my father. Finally, I spotted my parents, listed at the very bottom of a page. I was there, aged 10/12s of a year old. And there was my brother, working as a special delivery mailman. We weren't yet living in the house where I remember growing up, so I didn't expect to recognize the names of any of our neighbors.
UNTIL . . . there was Johnny, just 9/12s of a year old, living right next door. I wonder if he ever knew that we were once that close? Did he miss his chance with me before he was out of diapers?
Right now American TV audiences are being treated to another season of "Who Do You Think You Are?" The program, heavily promoted by Ancestry.com, takes us through the family histories of celebrities, showing how families can be traced for generations. Wonderful discoveries! Shocking revelations! Who would have thought . . .? Now, don't get me wrong. I really like Ancestry.com and use it frequently. But if you're planning to indulge in some genealogical research of your own, take along a hefty dose of skepticism.
Census records look valuable, and
they can be, but their worth depends entirely upon the competence of the person
doing the recording. I 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!
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 so many
corrections 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
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 even Ellen, as she turned out to be. 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.
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.
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 day. He went home! And we’ve been Schribers ever
I used to have a bit
of fun with my students while trying to make clear the unreliability of
so-called facts. "Imagine that it is fifty years in the future and you
have become famous for your (writing, art, political commentary, etc). Critics
have decided that the crucial moment that set you on the path to success came
during the weekend of Mardi Gras in 2011. Don't tell me what you did. Just picture it mentally. What was it? Where is the evidence? Now, what did you tell your best friend about the
weekend? And what did you tell
your parents? If future biographers look for evidence in your letters, diary,
journal, text messages, or Facebook photos, how accurate will their accounts
be?" After the blushes and giggles subsided, they got the message!
I'm currently dealing
with the same sort of problem. Much of the evidence for the life of Laura M.
Towne, the heroine of my next book, must come from her own writings. There are, however, several renderings
of those writings. The evidence
comes in layers, like an onion, and each time we peel away a layer, the
stronger becomes the scent of unreliability.
A published volume
offers the easiest way to access Laura's writings. Rupert Sargent Holland
edited the whole collection and published it in 1912. It has been reprinted and
is available for only a few dollars on Amazon. It reads well and it dates most
of the materials, although some confusion results from the editor's failure to
distinguish between journal entries and letters — an important distinction, as
my students would have recognized. As a result, contradictions crop up — a
statement that she has never felt better followed by a complaint of on-going
illness, for example. Gaps also exist. Did Laura really not write anything
about important events that
occurred during those gaps, or did her editor just not include what she wrote?
And who is Mr.
Holland? As her editor, he necessarily stands between the writer and her words.
An internet friend who has been working on this same material suspects that he
may be Laura's nephew. I have spent some time in the genealogical records, and
I've been unable to find any connection between Holland and the Towne
family. I do know that he was a
Harvard-educated lawyer, who also wrote edifying children's books, such as Historic Boyhoods and Historic Girlhoods. His writings all
emphasize those qualities a right-thinking child should emulate. But did he
actually censor Laura's writings in any way?
A collection of
materials concerning the Penn Center is housed at the University of North
Carolina at Chapel Hill. A typescript of Laura's journal and letters is
accessible on microfiche in the library. I've not yet seen it, but my
internet friend has. She tells me
that the typescript is marred by two problems. The more serious one involves passages in the typescript
that have been actually scratched out or marked over for exclusion. Since the
marked passages do not appear in the print version, it seems safe to assume
that the deletions were made at the time the book was being written. We can't know who made the choices,
however. Did a relative say to the
editor, "Don't include this bit"? Or did the editor decide the
excluded passage did not fit with the point he was trying to make? Either way,
the reader is hearing a voice other than Laura's.
It would be easiest to
blame the editor, but the original typescript has gaps, too, indicated by
ellipses (. . . .) showing where material has been deliberately left out. Who
created the typescript? We don't know, although there is a reference in the
introduction that seems to suggest that Laura may have been the aunt of the
transcriber. How did the typist choose what to leave out? Was (s)he influenced
by a need to protect her relative?
There's no way to tell
without being able to view the originals side by side with the typescript.
Laura's letters and journals still exist, but for the time being they remain
locked away. They have been housed
in the Archives at the Penn Center in South Carolina, but they are now in the
process of being catalogued and transferred to the University of North Carolina
at Chapel Hill. They were pulled from circulation three years ago, and no one
seems to know when they will be once again accessible. I've been mourning their
temporary loss just when I need them, but I do recognize — as did my students —
that what Laura wrote may not have been what Laura felt or did.
Here's just one
example of how the layers of evidence can change the facts. Laura falls ill during her first year
in the Sea Islands, suffering from one of the many swamp fevers. She doesn't like to complain to those
around her but her medical training leads her to record all the nasty symptoms
in her journal. And because she doesn't want her family back home to worry
about her, she tells them that she was never healthier. The transcriber keeps
both the "I'm healthy" letter and the "I'm dying" journal
entry, but omits (. . . .) all the gory details of stomach fluxes and bowel
disorders — a typical Victorian attitude toward bodily functions. The book
editor spots the discrepancy and makes a choice. He wants his heroine to be a strong woman, so he omits any
mention of her illness. And the
reader comes away believing that Laura found the Sea Island climate a
particularly healthy and invigorating one.