Saturday, December 31, 2016

Those Fleeting Final Moments of the Year

Slowly and surely, this year has made its incremental progress toward this very date—December 31. We all knew it would eventually get here, of course, but for those of us consummate procrastinators, it seems not all minutes are created equal. The last fourteen hundred forty of those minutes seem to blast by at ten times the speed, all the while being weighted down with dozens of last-minute tasks yet to be done. The year 2016 will either go out with a bang...or a crash.

Right now, I have my last-minute mind fixated on one thing: getting the chance to complete one final sync of my online trees at with my desktop-resident (and beleaguered) Family Tree Maker program. Yes, I know there has been word that, since new owner Software MacKiev has yet to deliver on a satisfactory final transition for their syncing function, there will be a momentary reprieve on pulling the plug at Ancestry. In the words of Software MacKiev's president Jack Minsky, in an email notice in late November, the sync system at Ancestry "will not stop working at the stroke of midnight this December 31st."

Uncertainty has a way of unsettling me. Since New Year's Eve falls on a weekend this year, I thought the prudent route would be to not be quite as procrastinate-y as usual, and do my final syncs one day know, on a weekday...when staff are still at work, in case something goes sideways and I need to issue a request desperate cry for help.

So yesterday, I started with my mother's tree, which I had already uploaded to my FTM program last December 31 (at the last minute, natch). I got everything set up, clicked the sync button and stood back.

Nothing exploded. In fact, it ran slower than the molasses we'll be keeping an eye on, come January. The green bars indicating progress morphed ever so slowly. I ended up walking away to attend to other tasks, returning every so often to check for messages.

Well, turns out I did get a message. And it wasn't one I wanted to see:

An error occurred while synchronizing this tree. You may want to restart FTM and try again later, but if this message recurs, you may need to unlink your trees and either upload a new linked tree from Family Tree Maker or download a new linked tree from Ancestry.

Really? I "may" want to? What other options are there?

Silly me; I didn't believe my eyes. I thought it might be faster to give things another try. I restarted FTM—just in case they really meant it—but this time, I selected a different tree. Using my mother in law's tree, I started the process up once again.

Same result.

That's when I went back and re-read the notice from Software MacKiev. Remember that part where they mentioned, at the end of the letter, about their still-to-be-completed upgrade? It's still in a beta version, so I had been quite willing to heed their warnings about not being in a hurry to download it. Somehow, this time, the rerun helped point me to a different part of the notice, where the writer posed the question, "Should you get the latest build right now?"

The answer provided me with a clue to my own situation right now: "If FTM is crashing or has slowed to a crawl with large trees..." the letter recommended switching to the newest build.

Funny, but I've never thought of my trees as large. I've known people whose trees contain individuals numbering into the tens of thousands. Granted, it won't be long, and I'll cross the threshold over the ten thousand mark, myself—but I never thought of that as a "large" tree. Just a very worked-on tree.

Apparently, nine-thousand-and-counting is still of a size to be considered "large," for not only did I get that error message for my mother's tree, but for my mother in law's tree, as well.

Wondering if that was the key, I tried syncing a few other trees I have, each of which number well under one thousand. The process moved along smoothly, and was accomplished in a matter of moments—even considering they were almost New Year's Eve moments.

So, that left me with the nuclear option: unlink my tree from Ancestry and try afresh.

Understand, that option comes with all sorts of red-lettered warnings. Enough to make a timid soul hesitate interminably. But I pressed the button, cringing in anticipation of the explosion surely to follow.

Nothing bad happened. I apparently now have a second nine-thousand-person tree resident on FTM that is linked to its current version on Ancestry. I can breathe a sigh of relief. And it's still 2016.

But not for long; there's another huge tree needing the same nuclear procedure. And a New Year just waiting for me to join in ringing it in.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Like Father, Like Daughter?

Flipping through the pages of the album I found, abandoned by family and waiting to be sold at a local antique store, I noticed there was one problem facing anyone attempting to discover the identity of the subjects of the photographs within. Like my Tully family with their woes of having too many descendants named Margaret, this family apparently was smitten by the name Alice. This, of course, made it a challenge to discern just which woman was the Alice who had signed her name on the greeting inside the album's cover.

Whether or not the "Harry and Alice" is the same couple as the "Harry and self" in the photo we saw the other day, there is one clue that might be gleaned, already. With the album from Harry and Alice featuring photographs of two young girls, we could presume these would be the couple's daughters. And one of those daughters seemed to bear a strong resemblance to the man we've already seen labeled as Harry.

If you look at the two photos side by side, it seems fairly obvious that the two subjects share similarities. Both Harry and Ruby have the same response when exposed to the bright midday sun. But squinting eyes—in Harry's case, entirely shut tight—and a furrowed brow are not the only similarities. They both seem to share the same shape of nose. And while middle-aged Harry's chin is rounder than Ruby's, both seem pronounced.

Granted, trying to peg a genealogical hypothesis on similarity of looks can be a dangerous attempt. I'll never forget one family visit to Chicago, where my two year old nephew's eyes went wide when my husband's cousin first walked in the room; the similarity in appearance between the man and the boy's own father was so obvious that it had the boy momentarily puzzled. Only problem was: this was my sister's son, and my husband's cousin. There was no relationship between the two men, other than the doppelgänger effect that momentarily held sway on a toddler.

In a world full of Elvis look-alikes, it's not hard to believe that two unrelated people can seem to look like family. In the case of this photograph album, though, the implication is that there is some sort of connection between the people included on its pages. For now, I'm going to go with a working hypothesis that Ruby and Harry are related—and maybe, just maybe, as close a relationship as father and daughter.

What do you think?

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Ruby and Iris

There's not a single proud parent who wouldn't feature his or her children's pictures prominently in a collection of family photos. So, when considering the mystery album I found in a California antique shop—clearly labeled, along with Christmas wishes, from Harry and Alice—well, I couldn't help but think that the young girls who showed up in several photographs would be the daughters of this same Harry and Alice. Wouldn't you?

The girls get introduced to us, right on the first page of the "Seasons Greetings" album.

Ruby, 3 years old; Iris aged 1 1/2—taken in the garden of Grange Cottage.

There they are—albeit younger than they were at the date of the album in 1936. I am wondering if this would be a hint: that the recipient of this album gift hadn't seen the girls for a few years, and was being reminded, first, of what the two looked like in their younger years.

I say "first" because right after that, we are shown a photo of what Ruby and Iris looked like, closer to the date the album was given as a Christmas gift.

Ruby aged 8, Iris aged 6 1/2.
Taken by Betty Logan at Ballinora—June 1936.

By 1936, Ruby and Iris had indeed grown. And, with the generous hint of a date to orient us to their ages, this places Ruby's date of birth sometime in 1928 and Iris' birth likely in the winter between 1929 and 1930.

Another gift we glean from these two comments: identification of locations. Admittedly, Grange Cottage could be anywhere. Grange is a name accompanying many farming-oriented communities and may be too generic to be of assistance as we attempt to identify this family and their relatives and friends in these photographs. Names incorporating the word grange can be found right here in the Central Valley of California, where I found this album. That same word, grange, is liberally sprinkled throughout the midwest, as well.

However, despite the generic quality of a label like "Grange Cottage," the second photo gives us a bit more assistance. There aren't too many locations sporting a place name like Ballinora. To get right down to it, there is only one such place I could find, even considering the online search power of websites like Google Maps. That place is in County Cork, Ireland.

Whoever Ruby and Iris were, they were either on a family vacation to the south of Ireland in 1936, or that was at least close to the place they called home.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Off on a Spree

It was a photo album sent as a Christmas greeting that started me on the genealogical equivalent of a wild goose chase. The slim volume beckoned to me to find its origin. Opening the cover, I could see there were several photos identified by name—or, at least, tagged by given names. It could, indeed, be possible to follow the trail backwards from this antique shop where I found it, most likely garnered from an estate sale, to the home of the people whose faces smiled out at me from fading pages.

Theoretically, the signers to that holiday message—Harry and Alice—would be a couple, and the children they included in the photos to follow would presumably be their two daughters. Right at the start, though, an introductory page listed the characters in an order I hadn't expected.

W. O'Malley, Alice, Harry + self. Taken Aug. 1936. "Off on a spree"!

Harry seemed to be coupled with a woman identified as "self"—the source of those white-inked notes which accompanied the photos on each page of the album—and Alice was paired with a Mr. W. O'Malley.

Wherever they were, they were dressed for a splendid afternoon out and about. The only hint, besides the one surname, was the fact that the picture was snapped in August, 1936.

In fact, almost every person identified in this twenty-four page collection was listed by his or her first name alone. Whoever the recipient of this Christmas greeting was, it was someone for whom each of the photograph subjects would be familiar.

The question is: with only those few clues—and a scattering of more solid evidence—can we determine just who was the sender and the recipient of this Christmas gift from eighty years ago?

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A Lost Christmas Greeting

Inspired by a blogging friend who rescues "orphan" photos from antique stores in a quest to reunite them with current-day family members, my eyes were opened to the possibilities waiting to be found in the back bins of such local outlets near my home. One day, I went wandering. Admittedly, I had visions of finding lots of cartes de visite, exquisitely labeled with full names, dates and locations, making the genealogical sleuth's job effortless.

All I found was a cabinet card of a mustachioed dude from Kansas. And this Christmas album.

Apparently a Christmas gift, it did include names and vague references to locations. And it definitely included a date: Christmas of 1936.

Such a small volume it was: only five inches tall, and just under eight inches wide. Each page was just large enough to include only one—or sometimes two—photographs. What made it charming was the commentary added alongside each picture. The white-inked monologue told just enough of the family's story to draw me in—yet not enough to allow me to figure out just who these people were.

The book offered a tantalizing proposition. I, a total stranger to these people, could buy the album and follow the hints to piece together a picture of just who these people might have been. With that simple act, I became the new owner of a 1936 Christmas greeting album sent from Harry and Alice to an unknown someone whose eventual estate sale in northern California landed the lost message in my hands. And there began the process of determining just who Harry and Alice—and their accompanying family and friends—might have been.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Second Day of Christmas

If you, unlike this writer, were to wake up and find yourself living in the United Kingdom or any of its Commonwealth nations, today you would be celebrating Boxing Day—the second day of Christmas.

Here in the United States, despite having our roots in colonial England, we have not carried on that British and European tradition of a giving day following Christmas Day, itself. True, with this year's calendar in which Christmas falls on a Sunday, we Americans find ourselves following the form of our British forebears in having not one Christmas, but two in a row. Yet we aren't exactly following it in spirit.

The history of many European countries includes the designation of this day as the Feast of Saint Stephen, in which collections were made for the benefit of the poor. In addition, in Great Britain, the custom for this day included offerings of "Christmas boxes" to those in service positions—thus, the reference to this day as Boxing Day.

While Americans typically don't celebrate Boxing Day as an official holiday, there have been regional customs similar to this, mostly in some southern states. Then, too, many turn their mind to year-end giving, albeit more under the impetus of tax advantages than philanthropic spirit. However, in the shimmering afterglow of the Christmas holiday, it wouldn't be a bad idea to emulate this spirit of Boxing Day, even for those of us who normally wouldn't have the twenty-sixth of December marked on our calendars as a legal holiday.

Above: "Under the Christmas Tree," 1892 oil on canvas by German Impressionist artist Franz Skarbina; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The First Christmas

No matter how people choose to celebrate Christmas—or not—it is a holiday celebrated around the world in commemoration of a first event. Though the original day upon which this holiday is designated was likely not in the cold, stark middle of winter, this is the day in which it is now customarily celebrated.

In whatever way your family chooses to commemorate that day, may it be filled with warm regards for those close to you, yet never forgetting the memory of those who are no longer here to be as close as we wished.

From our home to yours, may it be a blessed Christmas!

Above: "Adoration of the Shepherds," 1622 oil on canvas by Dutch artist Gerard van Honthorst; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

On the Night Before Christmas

When my mother was a young dancer in New York City, she befriended another member of her troupe, Genia, who was a recent refugee and immigrant following the devastation of World War II.

At Christmas time, when all the married people they knew went home to celebrate with their families, and all the young, single ones got left behind, Genia invited my mother, who was so far away from home, to come join her for dinner at her parents' apartment. My mother gladly accepted the offer.

It wasn't until she made her way to the address Genia had given her that she realized she was traveling to a very poor section of the city. Locating the apartment building, she made her way up the narrow staircase to knock on the Melnitchenko door.

Inside were Genia and her aging parents, a couple who once were subjects of the Czar of Russia, but who, by the time of the revolution, had immigrated to France. Now, they had left home once again, this time for New York.

Christmas for newly-arrived immigrants looked quite different than the holiday my American mother had been raised to expect. There was a tree, of course, but to my mother's horror in what amounted to a crowded tenement apartment, after their Christmas Eve dinner, her hosts had reverted to their old-world custom of lighting their tree with candles. Real candles.

Nothing tragic happened, of course. The four of them—Genia, her parents and my mother—continued their delightful visit, and eventually my mother bid her hosts adieu and returned to her own apartment.

Over the years, while our family has had a number of different touches added to our annual Christmas tree decorations, I can't say we ever experimented with including candles in the holiday motif. At least, not on the tree. We've hung tinsel—the old-fashioned kind that was made to hang straight—strand by strand with patience. We've made garlands of popcorn and cranberries—yep, also with patience—and strung them around the tree. There have been blinky lights and steady-glowing lights, stars and ornaments—all sorts of ways to capture and reflect the glow of the Christmas spirit.

Just as our family's style of decorating a tree changed over the years, so have the traditions over decades and centuries. Apparently, the custom of including a tree for the holiday has deep roots in history, itself. Of course, the trend of capturing those holiday decorations on film is a more recent development, but looking through photographs of Christmas trees over the last hundred-plus years is an interesting excursion down memory lane.

No matter what your preference for holiday decorations is, may yours be a warm time of celebration with those who mean the most to you. And may there be something included which catches your eye and sparks a memory of a loved one, whether a remembrance of Christmases long past, your recent past, or part of your present gathering this weekend.

Above: Photograph from 1900 by J. D. Cress, entitled "What is a home without love?" J. D. Cress, at one time a member of the Chicago Society of Amateur Photographers, later was employed as a photographer by a weekly trade journal. Image courtesy of the United States Library of Congress; in the public domain. 

Friday, December 23, 2016

Family Memories
of Christmases Present

I don't suppose we give it much mind, as we rush through our day, that what we do now represents two aspects. One is, of course, the very tasks we are accomplishing in the moment. The other, however, represents the record we create which will, at some point, be looked back upon, in the future, as the past.

We are making history, every single waking moment. Of course, some of that "history" is really micro-history—the stuff only people who love us would care about. Still, if we could envision a future, one or two or more hundreds of years from now, it might be populated with people who spend their free time poring over census records that contain mentions!

When what we did for Christmas this year becomes the question our descendants wonder about us, what will they discover? Not much, if we didn't take the time to share it somewhere. Little things like Christmas cards sent with handwritten notes included—or even those typewritten brag newsletters—begin to take on a new significance when we think of what clues we're leaving behind for our great-grandchildren's grandchildren to find.

Memories of my own Christmases took on the appearance of whatever regional weather I lived in—a clue to some alert future genealogical researcher, I'm sure. While a child and teenager, Christmases were almost always white and came equipped with snowmen and frosty snowflakes that stayed on our noses and eyelashes. Christmas trees went up about mid-December; none of this day-after-Thanksgiving rush (though none of that romantic parents-decorating-in-secret-on-Christmas-eve foolishness, either). Those same trees—and the lingering holiday mood—stayed in place long after Christmas was over.

And could you blame us? Our white Christmases morphed into white Januarys, as well—not like the Christmases of my adulthood in "sunny" northern California, where the temperatures might make it down to the upper twenties, but never when it was cloudy enough to snow. Here, I can count on one hand the actual number of times when it snowed at my house—and even then, we all knew it wouldn't stick, once those fragile flakes hit foreign ground.

Ours is now the scene of Christmas trees lugged to curbside for trash pickup, the day after Christmas. Can you blame these poor people, deprived of true white Christmases? They've had non-stop Christmas music playing since the doors opened at midnight on Black Friday. They're ready for it to be all over. Sadly.

Despite the scene changes, over the years, our family's memories of this holiday have stayed fairly consistent. We still put up a real evergreen tree—same variety as I remember my parents choosing when I was little. Though we haven't put tinsel up on the tree since, probably, the year companies made the switch to that phony plastic-y stuff, we still have strings of big bulb lights that blink individually, just like I remember from my childhood. Some of the ornaments placed on our tree are ones the previous generation used to place on their Christmas tree.

Some things change, some don't. Our recipe for mashed potatoes "grew up" into a gourmet version of a childhood Christmas dinner favorite, but I still make the gravy the same way my mother did. Some cherished customs we learned by hanging around the older generation and learning by doing—or at least seeing it repeated, year in and year out.

Perhaps because these customs seem so everyday—after all, we repeat them, year after year—we hardly take note of what it is we do to make our holidays just the way we like them. They seem so common, so unchanging; it seems silly to write them down, as if we'd otherwise forget. Writing a letter to the descendants in our future may seem awkward. But sharing what we remember of our Christmases-Present might be the best gift we can give our as-yet-unborn grandchildren or great-grandchildren.

Above: "The East Railway Station in the Snow," 1917 composition by French artist Maximilien Luce; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Family Memories
of Christmases Long Past

Holidays have a way of displacing the usual pace of genealogical pursuits. After all, what good is remembering family, if one can't be with family during the times that count?

In the Christmas interim, I had thought it a brilliant idea to post a few reports of my ancestors' Christmases past, gleaned from newspaper reports of the time. Alas, that idea didn't work out as well as I had hoped, for while newspaper archives may be wonderful for locating reports of specifically named ancestors, it doesn't provide as easy a mechanism for those simply wishing to browse through the pages of a specific year's December issues. Worse, having ancestors who insist on living in towns which no current aggregator of old newspapers has chosen to include in their collection is a sure way to make zero progress in such a goal.

Nevertheless, I persevered and discovered some insights on my own mother's post-high school adventures, approaching the Christmas just after her graduation.

Thankfully, the Columbus, Ohio, newspapers are now among those in the holdings at, so I could search to my heart's content. That's where I found a number of small insertions including my mother's name. Most of these were announcements of ballet school dance recitals in which she appeared.

My mother had spent a number of years taking lessons—not only in ballet, but in tap and modern dance—from the Norwegian immigrant who had opened Columbus' first ballet school in 1926. Under the direction of Jorg L. Fasting, my mother and several other children of Columbus residents were able to pursue their dreams of dance.

Sometimes, my mother's name was only included in newspaper articles as an "also ran"—barely mentioning her participation at all. One time, for a recital held at a private residence accommodating an audience of two hundred, it was mentioned that she "danced to the 'Song of India' in a costume which she herself had recently received from that country."

While it was tempting to assume this was just the usual children's recitals—those tedious events parents endured on behalf of their offspring—it was interesting to discover just who my mother's dance instructor was. Although some attributed the location of his birth to the United States—while others to Norway—Jorg Fasting apparently served in the U.S. Army during World War I. Some reports indicated he had danced with Ballet Russe, others with a ballet company in Chicago, but at any event, that he was an initiating force in the formation of the dance arts in the capital of Ohio.

I've thumbed through the countless photographs of my mother, holding costumed poses mid-dance routine during her high school years. In many, her younger sister patiently endured participation, as well—though she admittedly was not cut out for such roles, herself. My mother, on the other hand, threw herself into every dance step, wholeheartedly.

It probably came as no surprise to her parents when my mother decided, upon graduation from high school, to pursue a career in dance and acting. Though it was during war years, the arrangements were made, and my mother started out for New York and her dream, just about when most people now would be beginning their Christmas shopping routine.

Quite after the fact, The Columbus Dispatch announced, on January 10, 1944, that my mother had left Columbus, headed to the first stop on her journey the previous December 5,
to visit her aunt, Mrs. L. H. Martin in South Orange, N. J., before entraining for New York city, where she will enter the American Academy of Dramatic Arts on Jan. 17.

The article, appearing on the women's page of that Monday edition of the Dispatch, came with a nice photograph of the young "Miss Patsy Ruth Davis," as well as a mention of her parents. I can't help but wonder what Christmas was like for them, following their oldest daughter's departure on her New York City adventure.

Reviewing that vignette from my mother's younger years now, I can't help but wonder if she ever knew, upon her later-years return to Columbus, that her dance instructor was still quite active in the local arts scene. Billed in later years as a choreographer as well as teacher, Jorg Fasting still operated his dance studio, which he did until the spring before his passing. When I saw his December 7, 1987, obituary had mentioned that he "was still demonstrating dance moves at age 91," I couldn't help but think of the one protégé of his that I knew: she, too, could still dance those routines, long after those high school years when she left home just before Christmas.

Above: Photograph of unidentified New York City dance troupe, circa 1940s, with Patsy Davis in center of front row (wearing toe shoes); photograph in private collection of author.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Funny What You Can Discover,
Revisiting Childhood Holiday Memories

No one ever told me I'd find history lurking in those memories of childhood Christmas gifts.

I was just finishing up some mail-order shopping, the other day, with a final token to send to my sister. It wasn't much of a gift, in and of itself, but it was the thought that counted.

The gift came from a memory of something we enjoyed from our childhood. When we were kids, we looked forward to the holiday treats sent to our family by a particular aunt and uncle. For them, it was probably one of those gift-buying-made-easy solutions to a too-long list on limited shopping time—a mail-ordered assortment of holiday goodies from a place called, if I remember correctly, the Epicurean Club. Mixed nuts, butter mints, Jordan almonds. All the usual stuff adults would put out in fancy trays and dishes for other adults to munch on during Christmas get-togethers. And there was one more treat, in another box, that seemed specially enticing to small children: miniature cakes covered in chocolate icing and colorful decorations. They were called petits fours.

I have no idea whatever happened to that mail order company whose colorful boxes were the most anticipated arrivals leading up to Christmas day at our house. I have to resort to another company to deliver those memory-laden treats, but every Christmas, I order a box to send to my sister, just because. (And, of course, a box for our household, as well.)

From my grandparents, who lived in the more practical mid-west, I knew I could expect reasonable gifts of clothing—although there might be a dress or sweater or something with just the kind of detail a young girl might find irresistible. No matter what the item of clothing might have been, I knew without a doubt that it would have been bought at a department store called Lazarus.

Growing up in New York, where people shopped at stores with trendy names like Macy's or Bloomingdale's or Saks, I always thought it odd to name a store something like Lazarus. Wasn't he the guy who got raised from the dead? Who would use a name like that for a clothing store? That would not be a characteristic I'd like to see ascribed to my business. But that is how a child would think.

There was no Lazarus store anywhere near where I lived, which most likely contributed to my sense of the oddness of such a name, too. I did know where Lazarus was, though, for any time we visited my grandparents, we would be sure to go shopping at Lazarus.

Lazarus was the downtown department store where people in Columbus, Ohio, went to shop, because...obviously...they didn't have any Macy's stores in the corn fields of Ohio. Even as an adult—when visiting in Columbus meant seeing family who had moved farther out into the suburbs—I'd still go shopping at Lazarus.

Until, that is, the day when Lazarus finally closed their doors and instantly were transformed into Macy's department stores.

How little did I know the full history of that longstanding business, until a little Christmas nostalgia for bygone holidays prompted me to look into whatever became of the Lazarus legacy.

As it turns out, the Lazarus department store started out as a men's clothiers in downtown Columbus, Ohio. It opened as a one-room store on South High Street in 1851, started on the savings of recent German Jewish immigrants Simon and Amelia Lazarus. Not long after, sons Fred and Ralph joined the fledgling enterprise, and through their marketing innovations, grew the company.

Eventually the business, through expansions and acquisitions, became one of four founding members of a holding company known as Federated Department Stores. As it turns out, that Columbus department store with the funny name—well, at least I thought so—was actually the conglomerate under which operated all the stores I thought were the "real" stores of shopping capitals like New York City: Macy's, Bloomingdale's, Abraham & Strauss, and Filene's. (Incidentally, Boston's Filene's was also founded by a German Jewish immigrant—this one from Posen, Prussia, the same province from which my own father's family emigrated, though that is not to say that my family ever started a department store.)

So, the very stores to which my childhood mind attributed silly notions turned out to actually be the head of those other companies which I saw as superior shopping choices. These, of course, are details I would never have known as a child, but find fascinating to explore in retrospect, now that I've mellowed into someone who can actually appreciate a touch of history, mixed in with my Jordan almonds and butter mints, as I hang out with friends, after shopping, over the holidays. 

Above: Undated photograph of original Lazarus department store in downtown Columbus, Ohio; courtesy Wikipedia.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Micro-History of the Common Man

One of the triumphs of genealogy in our current day, I think, is that it interjects into the stream of human history the story of the common man. We may not be part of the central arc of destiny in what we do in our everyday lives, but our stories are worthy of remembrance by at least somebody. The call to research our family history is a call to preserve the memory of those who were important in our own lives.

Perhaps it is thanks to the holiday season that I have been reminiscing about such specific micro-histories lately. Memories of how specific relatives preserved the traditions of Christmas and New Year's Day celebrations naturally come back to mind during this annual season.

Although I'm not conscious of ethnic influences upon my family's traditions, it was delightful, as our younger generation grew up and married, to hear how in-laws' favorite holiday gestures came to be part of the Christmas celebration in various parts of our extended family. Finding the green pickle hidden in the Christmas tree, for instance, was never part of my growing-up years, but a fun addition from an older family member with a Norwegian heritage. (How did this Norwegian descendant stumble upon a supposedly German tradition? Who knows—that attribution is likely apocryphal—but we still have the pickle ornament she gave our family, years ago.

Regional differences and religious differences all became part of the mosaic of our extended family, thanks to insertions of those micro-histories that blended together to create our home. The Irish Catholics who celebrated Christmas Eve somehow peacefully co-exist with the Scottish Protestants who awoke to a bright Christmas morning. The palm trees and balmy breezes of Christmas in Florida somehow merged with the shivering delights of icicles and white Christmases in frosty New York and Chicago.

Some of these traditions have become so entangled in the modern morphing process that it is hard to trace them to their origins. I can't say which, if any, of our holiday traditions are owing to my father's Polish roots, and my mother's colonial roots are so far removed from their fatherland in northern Europe as to be nearly untraceable, but at least I can follow the bloodline back through the last few centuries, thanks to the disciplines I've learned through training in genealogical research.

Some of us have made that gifting of genealogical prowess into literal Christmas presents. Some, on Christmas morning—or, for those of you who prefer the Christmas Eve celebration style, the preceding night—will be opening up packages filled with memorabilia of ancestors no longer forgotten. Perhaps there will be a memento incorporating the hundred year old photograph of great-grandparents. Or a calendar documenting the important points in a family's history. Some may even have turned that family story into literal book form, publishing it to share with the wider public as well as our own siblings and children.

After all, if we—or our distant cousins—don't preserve those stories of the quiet ceremony in which our Margaret Flannery was wed to Denis Tully in 1820s County Tipperary, Ireland, who will? It is we who will convert the names in those crumbling civil records and passenger lists into comprehensible narratives.

Face it: no one other than the descendants of these insignificant commoners would be up to the task of wading through the minutiae of generations long gone. But in doing so, we preserve stories that would otherwise never be told. And, like the mosaic of history, we will add the points of color—or smudges of drabness—that provide personal nuance to the shadows of history.

Above: "Street Scene," undated oil on canvas by Hungarian artist Antal Berkes (1874-1938); courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Can I Merge My To-Do List
With My Christmas List?

So many lists. So little time. Perhaps I can merge my lists and double up on the processing time?

Yes, I know we all had 364 days warning that Christmas would be here again this year. Somehow, I missed that memo. I'm still shopping. Likely will find myself buying some last minute gifts right up through this coming Saturday afternoon (leaving time for wrapping, of course).

But that's not the list I'm concerned with, right now. It's not my Christmas list giving me angst; it's my genealogy to-do list. Specifically, that deadline looming at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, when my current desktop-resident family tree database manager of choice becomes officially untethered from its former mother-ship at

You remember the furor that was unleashed, right in the middle of the holiday shopping season last year, don't you? When Ancestry announced it would no longer be supporting its FamilyTreeMaker product? A reprieve in early February— announcing that Software MacKiev would acquire and support the desktop software, including the tree syncing capabilities that allow updates to the program's contents to cross-apply between personal computer and online trees at Ancestry—seemed to address exactly what the clamor was all about. Ah, relief!

But the dream ran into a glitch, and by mid-November, Software MacKiev was here to say, in an emailed notice to subscribers, that there had been a delay in completely developing the sync portion of the updated program.

And so, that minority of us Ancestry subscribers who still insist on those antiquated ways of keeping a copy of our family tree on our own personal computers will, at that very same stroke of midnight on December 31, 2016, see our last chance—at least for the moment—to sync our work between two sites poof into the ether. At least until that undetermined moment when the ball passes completely to Software MacKiev's court, and they pick up on the action.

As of now, it looks like we get to hold our breath until...well...I'm not sure. The Software MacKiev email this November 23 included this hopeful, but unclear, note:

So relax. TreeSync® will not stop working at the stroke of midnight this December 31st. And though it will be retired at some point in the not too distant future, before that happens, there will be new syncing technology available to replace it. It's already well into development and we will be starting outside beta testing in the next few weeks. And that means syncing as we know it for FTM is going to live on into 2017 and beyond. So if you've been worried about what happens at the end of the year, well you can just stop worrying. Syncing, Search, and Shaky Leaf hints are all here to stay.

But...but... This is all so unclear. Beta testing in the next few weeks? Does that mean we have to wait until the test is over before we can sync again? Will we have a reincarnated version of sync? Or just a zombified version of its old self?

This is something at least this inquiring mind needs to know. Otherwise, the one glaring thing left on my genealogical to-do list for 2016 will be to do everything I can do to spruce up all my trees on Ancestry and get them ready for one final farewell sync on New Year's Eve. Before the drop of the midnight ball—in whatever time zone that might fall.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Closing Out the Year

Yeah, I know everyone is thinking about Christmas right now—shopping frenzy and all—but here we are at another weekend when I usually tally up my research project for the previous two weeks. I'm starting to look at a year-end wrap-up, despite the fact that, yes, there could be another two week sequence still to come. I want to take a look at some encouraging numbers to remind myself that slow and steady is the pace that gets a lot of work done, genealogy included. Then, I'll button up the task for a couple weeks, enjoy the holidays, and then resume the counting game with the new year.

Right off, I can tell there is a payoff to keeping track of progress. It seemed discouraging, solely taking the short-range vantage point of week-in-review retrospectives. But when I step back and take in the big picture, it's easier to realize how much research territory has been covered in 2016. I need a moral boost like that, every once in a while.

Admittedly, in the last two week sequence, I did have enough time to get some research done, so the short term count was more encouraging than some have been in 2016. For instance, on my maternal line, I added sixty four names—and their corresponding documentation, of course—to bring my total on that family tree to 9,217 individuals. On my mother-in-law's tree, I was really zooming this time, adding 308 names for a total of 9,343. While things stood stock still for both paternal lines—mine and my husband's—I still ended the year, so far, with 346 in my dad's tree and 1,080 in my father-in-law's tree. Those are numbers I can feel good about.

Even better, though, is when I get to stand back and take in the year's panorama. For the entire year, I increased my maternal tree by 2,165 people. My mother-in-law's tree jumped an astounding 6,673 people (I definitely had to double check the numbers for that surprise). Even the trees in which I made little progress still had enough to make me happy. My father's tree increased 166 for the year, and my father-in-law's tree went up by 150 names.

The other part I've kept track of has been the number of DNA matches. Admittedly, I have little control over those numbers. It's the luck of the draw if a distant cousin happens to choose to do a DNA test. But seeing the increase, from beginning to end, is still informative.

I've had an increase of 517 matches at Family Tree DNA this year, including 17 specifically matching my paternal side. At AncestryDNA, where my results weren't completed until the end of January, I still received 191 since that initial readout. My husband experienced similar results, seeing an increase of 391 at FTDNA and 102 at AncestryDNA. And since each company continues to add information as new test results are processed, we'll continue to see increasing numbers of matches.

Part of the reason I started counting these various numbers was to track my progress in specific tasks that I needed to complete for our family's genealogical records. For one thing, I have some files resident on a genealogy database program in an old computer which I wanted to switch over to my records at Many of these were records I had worked on with a research partner, but which had not been fully verified in those pre-Internet research days. As I added each name in the new file, I wanted to run through the full gamut of hints, check each civil record and confirm as much as possible, using now-available online resources. Keeping count was one way of showing myself whether I was making progress. Believe me, I still have a long way to go, but looking backwards at the progress sure encourages me to keep up the onward pace.

Another reason I wanted to keep tabs on progress was that I was double-checking some entries I had found, mostly for my own maternal line, in those hundred-year-old genealogy books. Who's to say those entries were correct? Considering the limitations naturally placed on researchers from one hundred years ago, it's amazing to see the mass of data they were able to collect—but now that we're so spoiled with click-of-a-mouse resources, I felt the need to fact check. This, of course, means engaging in a tedious process; I needed some way to encourage myself that, yes, I was making progress. Keeping stats once again helped to perk me up when I felt myself bogging down in the minutiae of the project.

A final reason—and one that seems to be the easiest to lose sight of—is my goal to provide a framework for zeroing in on mystery DNA matches. The more complete my family tree is, the more detail is available for the other researcher to examine as we try to figure out just how we relate. Not only that, but for those adoptees who are exact matches on my matrilineal side, we're still in that quest to find our most recent common ancestor, whichever eighteenth-century woman she might turn out to be. Fingering each of my matrilineal ancestors to examine for all her descendants—and then documenting their specific lines—is indeed a challenge, but a task I need to continue.

Granted, these are all projects I need to keep working on next year. I intend to keep up the counting process for 2017—or at least until I complete those three major tasks. Somehow, though I can't gain any encouragement from seeing the end in sight—it's too muddied in the distance to determine the shape of it at this vantage point—being able to see how much ground I've already covered is sufficient to keep my spirits up. At least, it's enough to keep me plugging away at those goals. And that's what really counts.

Above: "Tinker Place," undated composition by Indiana landscape artist Theodore Clement Steele; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Off the Shelf:
The Gift

It's the Christmas gift-giving season, so it may seem reasonable to pull a copy of Lewis Hyde's The Gift from my bookshelf to read, appropriately, in this holiday scene.

I've had this "modern classic" for almost a year now—in fact, ever since I asked for it for Christmas last year. It accompanied me on my first flight of the year—to SLIG in January—at which point I made it through the preface, the introduction, and a decent way through part one, "A Theory of Gifts." The flight being over, I never seemed to make my way back through its pages.

The whole purpose in taking a second look at the unread books on my shelves is to remind myself of those titles which I once felt strongly about incorporating into my life. I start out with great intentions: to better myself, to understand concepts more clearly or to accentuate those positive tendencies to which others have applied a great deal of thought. There was something about the kernel of thought encapsulated within The Gift that spoke to me. I wanted to revisit that initial call. Coming up on this gift-giving anniversary, I thought it would make a thought-provoking antidote to the materialism that seems to have hijacked the real spirit of Christmas.

Granted, the read is not an easy coast through light fare. This is a book to ponder. Still, it has been one of those volumes which has kept in constant circulation—although admittedly partly owing to re-inventing itself through morphing subtitles and editions claiming to be "in slightly different form." The version I received is dubbed the twenty-fifth anniversary edition, released in 2007, so the book has kept itself alive for a commendable amount of time.

The book is classified as a "defense of the value of creativity and of its importance in a culture increasingly governed by money and overrun by commodities." Not that I'm against money, of course—and I certainly don't mind receiving a few more "commodities" all wrapped up in pretty paper with a bright bow and placed under the tree in my living room—but I think the draw of the book goes much deeper than that. It seeks to finger the tension underlying the interface between the essence of creativity as it is acted upon by people who must live within the reality of an economic world.

The current subtitle the book is running with—not its original, as you can see—is Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. While not many see themselves as artists, there are a lot more of us harboring creative instincts than we may realize. I believe this dynamic is applicable to a wider range of people than just those who officially label themselves as artists, so I gave myself license to read this one.

Furthermore, the concept of gift-giving is itself an art which has constantly called to me; I want to peer at those undertones tugging me toward whatever it means to give gifts. There is certainly a psychology of gifting, but it sometimes disguises itself as a mystique—an untouchable aura which the impertinent in me wants to call out of its hiding place into the broad daylight of the examination room. I want the concept to take on tangibility. Perhaps this mind-bending essay will tangentially serve as midwife to bring me through the process of understanding it better.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Desperate to Rid Yourself of
Those Shaky Leaves? Try Hint-Be-Gone

I don't know whether there is a correlation between the number of people assembled in a pedigree chart and the number of hints assigned to said tree at I do know, however, that for my maternal tree at Ancestry—now numbering well near ten thousand entries—my hint count is perilously topping twenty thousand. That makes it just over two hints per person. And that's after several go-rounds on purging the extraneous.

Not to be outdone, my mother-in-law's tree—also at a formidable nine thousand some-odd individual entries there at the same website—is staggering under the weight of another eighteen thousand hints. It seems like only yesterday when I did another spring cleaning there.

Since I am on at least once a day, it isn't unusual for me to receive those requests to take part in a survey by the independent company Ancestry hires to do their customer satisfaction checks. You'd think I'd remember my hint avalanche when they ask for any other suggestions for making life better at But I don't. I'm so ecstatic over being able to locate documents that would otherwise take ages to stumble upon—like ancestors who moved from state to state as if they were the nineteenth century's precursor to the jet age—that I forget there are a few rough edges to the system still needing attention.

Not that I'm an avid fan of inbox-zero thinking, but from time to time, I just wish I could obliterate those shaky leaves. Most of the ground-breaking discoveries I make at Ancestry, I hooked by going fishing on my own. A good deal of those shaky leaves showing up in my trees rank somewhere between "Gee, thanks for saving me that step" and "Oh, duh!"

I usually save those mind-numbing hint-cleaning sessions for moments when I'm otherwise having some down time. For the past three weeks—getting over the flu only to be smitten again by pulling out my back—I've had plenty of that down time, indeed. Plenty of time to open the "all hints" section on the tree's drop-down menu and click through "ignore" oh, a few hundred times at a whack.

It's times like that—perhaps in a febrile delirium—when I dream of the ultimate tonic to solve this nagging problem once and for all. Don't you wish for a handy-dandy answer to runaway hint counts? Imagine: the next time yet another new subscriber logs on to Ancestry and spots that quaint photograph of Aunt Mary's British tea set and adds it to her tree, you won't have to scrub your own tree clean of this intrusion once again. This time, you'll have...drum roll...Hint-Be-Gone. One click and all unwanted photographs—and their specific multiple iterations—will be refused, in perpetuity. Not ignored once; ignored each and every time the photograph meme comes knocking at your genealogical door.

Alas, Hint-Be-Gone was only the result of a fevered imagination; there is no such product. Perhaps it was a good thing that that Ancestry survey came knocking at my door when it did. By that time, I had recovered, was in my right mind (or as close as can be gotten, considering the circumstances) and seated at my computer, enjoying my favorite online pastime.

The good life can sometimes suck all criticisms away—much more effective than having one's mouth washed out with soap. But it sure would have been nice to stash some Hint-Be-Gone in the genealogical medicine cabinet, just in case.

Above: Undated nineteenth century advertisement for Scott & Bowne's Palatable Castor Oil; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

When That Theory Didn't Work Out

In searching for details on our ancestors, we sometimes have to form hypotheses and then go test them against the facts of documents and records. Looking for someone with a name as common as William Riley, I found myself coming up with a lot of theories.

Locating a man by the same name and similar date of birth, back in Tennessee, when our Tennessee Rileys had (theoretically) moved to Indiana, I discovered a burial record indicating this William F. Riley had volunteered to serve in the Mexican War. Not having researched any ancestors directly involved in this conflict, step one was to get up to speed on the overarching history of the Mexican War.

Since the one record I had found on this William F. Riley provided further information on his pension documents, but since I had, unfortunately, discontinued my subscription to such sources of military information as Fold3, I had originally assumed I'd have to give up the chase until I could renew my subscription there. Except...when in doubt, I always try to remember to take a spin through the wiki at

As it turned out, there were plenty of entries for "Mexican War" at FamilySearch. From an overview page on Mexican-American War pension records, I learned there were some records available online. Fortunately, the few states included in this online collection included Tennessee, where my target William F. Riley had signed up for duty. I took a look at the United States Mexican War Pension Index for 1887 through 1926, to see whether there was a match for the record I had already found.

There was a card on file for a William F. Riley, who had enlisted in Tennessee, but lived in Indiana at the time in which he applied for his pension—February 10, 1887. At the bottom of the page, I happened to notice a line labeled "Bounty Lands," which made me wonder whether that might have been the incentive for our William Riley to leave home in Tennessee. So I hopped over to the Bureau of Land Management's Government Land Records page online. Sure enough, there was an entry for a William Frank Riley, who purchased land in Indiana. Unfortunately, though, the entry designated him as William Riley of Decatur County; our William Riley lived in Putnam County—at least in the 1870 census. The land document, as it turned out, was dated in December of 1849.

True, he could have gotten the land, then turned around and headed to Tennessee to claim his bride and then zoom back to his new Indiana home. But doesn't that feel just a tad too much like pushing the details to fit a narrative?

Worse, another page in his pension records—there were two entries that I could find at FamilySearch—came out and flatly put an end to wondering. The Mary Riley mentioned in the document I had found yesterday was specifically identified as his widow in this record.

Yes, I know this could be our William's second wife—women often died young in these earlier eras. And realizing how much detail sometimes went into such widow's pension files as were documented after the Civil War, I could hope that some of the same obsession with details care would have been evident in this earlier time period. But I could also take the alternate approach of trying to determine just what happened to our William's wife, Eliza.

In the end, having also been frustrated by lack of any further clues as to what became of William's children, let alone what happened to his own siblings (other than my second great grandmother, his one sibling I have been able to trace), I decided to set aside this search for the time being. There may be a time in the near future where more records will be available to reveal details hidden from view right now. Patience is definitely a valuable companion to the long-range researcher.

But for now, I'm quite tempted to assume that the William F. Riley we found in Indiana isn't one and the same as the William F. Riley related to my second great grandmother, Rachel Teresa Riley Boothe of Tennessee.

Above: Scene with Ice Skating, 1613 oil on panel by Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel the Younger; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.  

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Back Home to Tennessee?
Or Never Left?

It may seem quite skittish of me to constantly doubt the family connection in documents bearing the "right" name. Of course, you've got to cut me some slack on this instance, though, for we're talking about a surname as common as Riley. Still, hear me out on this one example which is giving me second thoughts on what I've found.

After tracing what seems to be our William F. Riley, Tennessee-bred son of North Carolina parents William and Cassandra Fincher Riley, we last left him—or at least what I presume is the right William Riley—in a small town in Putnam County, Indiana. By then, he was married—either to Eliza or Elizabeth, depending on the census report—and the proud papa of three children, all from Tennessee.

The next thing I know, I've found William and Eliza again, but they're not in Indiana any more. They are back where they started—in Washington County, Tennessee. Their entry in the 1900 census seems all in order. Right place of birth—North Carolina for William, Tennessee for Eliza. Their ages are almost correct; after almost every census declaring William was born in 1830, suddenly he shows as having been born in November of 1827. Close?

Their number of years married is a reassuring forty eight, recalling that 1852 marriage license we had already located in Washington County records. And we glean a hint to look for a child's death record when we observe Eliza's report that she was mother of three children, but only two remain as of that 1900 census. Still, three was the number we had noticed in the household's entries for the 1860 and 1870 census enumerations.

Looking at the page in which they appear in the 1900 census, suddenly back from Indiana, I take a glance at the other households' surnames listed to see if perhaps any of William and Eliza's children moved back with them. I don't see any likely entries.

Because William, by then, was at least seventy years of age, I took a look at Find A Grave. Sure enough, there was an entry for someone by that name—including the same middle initial—buried at the Mountain Home National Cemetery in Johnson City. Johnson City being the very place where William and Eliza had last been listed in the 1900 census, it seemed possible that this would be a match. The Find A Grave entry, however, didn't include a date of birth. The date of death was given as February 16, 1906. A volunteer on the website had noted that the headstone included an inscription that Private William F. Riley had served in Company D, Eighth Tennessee Infantry for the Mexican War.

Fortunately, includes digitized copies of the registers for the U.S. National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. Sure enough, there was a page providing details on a William F. Riley who died on that same day, February 16, 1906. Would this be our William F. Riley?

Taking a closer look at the fine print—and it was, indeed, some small writing on that page—I noticed a few details. For one thing, this William Riley was born in the right place: North Carolina. Dying on February 16, 1906, his given age of seventy six would indeed put his year of birth at 1830, just as we had seen in so many other records.

We learned that William was a light-complected, blue eyed man of above average height—five feet, eight inches at that gray-headed point in his life. While that was nice to know in that age pre-dating widespread use of photography, it was also the point where similarities faded away. While the Find A Grave entry indicated Company D., Eighth Infantry, this record noted his service—from February 10, 1846, through July 20, 1848—was with Company K, and the Fifth Tennessee Regiment. Clerical error, perhaps. But there was more to follow.

Subsequent to his discharge, the record continued, the residence he settled in was in "Jonesboro." Not a huge problem for us, yet, since Jonesborough is in Washington County as well. However, we had already noted our William was in the 1850 census in another county—Sullivan County. Nearby; but not exactly Washington County.

The farther along I read, the harder it was to explain away the discrepancies. The form from the Veterans Home noted he was married. Then, after the discharge? Or at the point of his passing?

For "name and address of nearest relative," the entry declared the name to be Bettie Taylor in "Jonesboro." In general remarks at the bottom of the page, the details included his "general effects" and how they were disposed: "Sent to Mary M. Riley, Jonesboro, Tenn." Why Mary, if Bettie was the closest relative? Another note, under "remarks," stated, "Widow and daughter present. Bettie Taylor, Jonesboro, Tenn., notified by letter."

So who was William's wife? Bettie Taylor? Mary M. Riley? Or were these other relatives? What happened to Eliza?

Fortunately, the entry referenced a pension certificate number. Perhaps tracking down that record will provide more information. And I'm inclined to do so, only because these other names are so puzzling as to make me doubt everything I've found on the wandering William Riley and his wife and three—albeit now only two—children in Indiana. Or wherever they were, come that 1900 census.

Above: Excerpt from William F. Riley's record at the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in Johnson City, Tennessee, showing his service in the Mexican War.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Assurance—Or Interference—
From Another Household Record

Granted, researching a surname like Riley isn't as impossible as grappling with the history of a line named Smith. But it has its challenges. At the least, it's when a researcher fervently hopes the surname is matched up with an uncommon given name.

That, as we've already seen, was not to be the case for my second great grandmother's siblings. Her sister, named Mary Riley, remains as yet hidden from view. Her brother—thankfully having received the slightly-less-common first name William, may be coming into focus. And yet, even he is causing problems by a move from his birthplace in North Carolina to his childhood home in Tennessee, to yet another home in Tennessee to raise his family, and then to yet another location—Indiana—by the time his children were teenagers.

At first, the only indications I could find of William F. Riley were his presence as a young man in his father William's home in the 1850 census, and his marriage record from a nearby county, two years later. Then, jumping a twenty year gap, showing up in the 1870 census in Putnam County, Indiana, he and his wife were proud parents of three teenagers.

Thankfully, now having the names and ages of his three possible children, I was able to backtrack and locate what I hope was the same family in the preceding census enumeration. Could our William and Eliza J. Riley be the ones living in Greene County, Tennessee? There were the children: Mary E., Rachel E., and John W., each exactly ten years younger than their documented ages in the 1870 census.

An added bonus—if you remember my mentioning the senior William's occupation, listed in the 1850 census—in this 1860 census, young William reported his occupation to be shoemaker. Like father, like son? And, to calm those nagging researcher's doubts, everyone's birth state was listed in the right place. Confirmation paradise.

So why would I doubt this paper trail? Well, for one thing, what makes a family decide to leave kin and move so far away? Yes, I know countless other families did the same thing. But perhaps this William and Eliza in 1860 was the same as the couple in 1870...but not necessarily the same as the couple who got married in Washington County in 1852. Or even the same as the William Riley in 1850. After all, we are talking about a name as common as William Riley.

My other difficulty with tracing this couple was the fact that I could find no trace of them—yet again—for the subsequent census. Again, a skip to the next record in 1900, where I found William and Eliza, once again in Tennessee.

What? Back in Tennessee again? Or were there actually two Riley couples—the one in Washington County, and the other one roaming the midwest while raising a family? To complicate matters, there was a burial record in Tennessee that didn't quite line up to the details I'd already found on our William. Perhaps this William Riley had never left Tennessee in the first place.

Above: Figure, House and Sleigh in Snow, undated oil on canvas by Dutch-Canadian painter, Cornelius Krieghoff; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Considering Rachel's Brother

Having made little progress in finding more on the origins of Rachel Riley Boothe, my second great grandmother, it's time to see what can be discovered by taking a detour to research her siblings. The 1850 census in northeastern Tennessee showed three people of similar young adult status in the Riley home then. The oldest, Mary, was born in North Carolina about 1825. The next, William F., was born there as well, around 1830. Rachel was the youngest of the three, arriving about 1834.

If these three household members were siblings—and remember, the 1850 census gives us no indication of that—their ages were spaced such that there could have been at least two others in the gaps. One of those two might have been lost to a childhood death, but the older, if born between Mary and William, could have been old enough to have already married.

Gleaning anything on whatever became of the younger Rileys would be nice. There was nothing I could locate on cemetery records for the parents, William and Cassandra, nor any other Rileys that might possibly have been linked to this family. Thus, the impetus for tracking Rachel's two siblings.

Mary may have suffered the fate of female invisibility, for I have yet to locate any possible reasons for her disappearance. With the availability of Washington County marriage records, I tend to doubt that. Yet, with no success in finding any Riley burials in the area, I have no support for assuming she died young and unmarried. For now, she isn't a very promising lead in my quest to find out anything more about this Riley family history.

Son William, however, may have provided some clues. May. If I were seeking any record of his whereabouts prior to online search capabilities, I might not have sounded so chirpy about that assessment, for the one lead I did locate was for a William F. Riley living in Indiana. And I didn't even find him until the 1870 census.

If that was our Riley—and with a surname like that, we need to wake up to the possibility that he might be the wrong Riley—he apparently got married before leaving town in Tennessee. Fortunately, an 1852 marriage record, entry number 703 in Washington County, shows William F. Riley marrying Eliza J. Thompson on June 10.

When William Riley showed up in Putnam County, Indiana, however, he had lost his middle initial, and his wife had gained a more elegant version of her name: Elizabeth. Still, he was born about the same time as we had gleaned from the 1850 census, and he was still showing as born in North Carolina. Eliza-Elizabeth was reportedly born in Tennessee, providing another assurance that we might have the right family. And so were their three children, whose names uncannily matched those of our William's sisters, Mary and Rachel. In fact, his son John's middle initial—W—might easily have stood for his own given name, making all three children namesakes of their father's childhood family constellation.

Or maybe Mary and Rachel were just popular names at that time in American history.

This was quickly turning out to be one of those instances in which I wasn't really sure whether I had the right family. To find any way to either support or discard that theory would mean more research. And so, deeper down the Riley rabbit hole I went...

Above: Excerpt from Washington County, Tennessee, marriage record number 703, dated June 9, 1852, for William F. Riley and Eliza J. Thompson, whose marriage was officiated by William Ellis, Justice of the Peace, on the next day, June 10, 1852. Image courtesy

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Fingering Every Single Strand

When there's not that much that a researcher knows about a family line, every little detail can receive an inordinate amount of attention. Desperation leads us to squeeze every fact as tightly as we can, hoping for just one drop of a clue.

My second great grandmother, Rachel Teresa Riley Boothe, was thankfully not yet married when the 1850 census was taken. Otherwise, I wouldn't have had that last itemized snapshot of family life while she was still single.

Details from her death certificate told me her parents were named William Riley and Cassie Fincher. Since Rachel wasn't married until 1854, it was fairly easy to locate her family in the 1850 census. While her marriage was in Washington County, Tennessee, Rachel's family was in nearby Sullivan County, a sliver of a county pressed up against the Virginia border, just north of Washington County.

In the 1850 census, the Riley household consisted of the head, William, his wife Cassie, and four additional people. Of course, the 1850 census did not include any indication of relationships within households, but a guess is that at least three of those four were children of William and Cassie. Those would include twenty five year old Mary, twenty year old William F., and sixteen year old Rachel.

There was a fourth child listed in the household who puzzles me. Her name was Caroline, but her age—three years in 1850—would make it highly unlikely that she was a daughter of Cassie, who by then was listed as being sixty years of age. Of course, there is always the possibility that the younger William and Mary were husband and wife and that this could be their daughter, but even that would be pushing the matter, considering the younger William's age at the time.

It would have been helpful if, in locating the Riley household in the next census, some of the same occupants were still in the home. If I found the right William Riley, though, this was not to be. Now in Washington County—possibly to move closer to their daughter Rachel—the Rileys' 1860 census entry included only William and "Casandra."

In those earlier census records, there wasn't that much to glean about the family's identifying details. The 1850 census showed me that William was a shoemaker—interestingly, living next door to another North Carolina family whose head was a shoemaker, as well. The presence of three year old Caroline in the Riley household, having been born in North Carolina, provided the clue that the family had arrived in Tennessee only recently.

In addition, after the Rileys' move to Washington County, William declared no real property, but gave a modest sum for the value of his personal property. Whether, after his passing—whenever that turned out to be—it was an amount warranting completion of a will is yet to be seen.

With that small amount of information on Rachel's parents and siblings, I don't have much to go on. I was unable to find a census entry for 1840—although, considering Rachel's own birth was alternately listed as having occurred in North Carolina or South Carolina, it would be quite a challenge to find a Riley household upon which we could fix, with certainty, her parents' identity. I haven't been able to locate any burial markers for her parents.

I've found that, if I can't locate enough information to help push me back through the years in a search, it is sometimes helpful to do an end run around the target individuals and see what can be found on any of the other members of a family. Barring discovery of anything further on William or Cassandra, themselves, the next step, then, is to locate any of the other members of the Riley family, once they left home before the 1860 census.

Above: Winter landscape with tobogganing children; oil on canvas by German artist Fritz Beinke (1842-1907); courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Occupation: Old Lady

The utility of looking at old death certificates for genealogical purposes is not lost upon me. A properly-completed document such as a death certificate can be the researcher's key opening the door to a new generation.

The problem is, it's so easy to get distracted. People say the darnedest things. Even—no, especially—government functionaries.

Take this death certificate I located online while pursuing my Riley roots in northeastern Tennessee. I knew one way to confirm Rachel Teresa Riley Boothe's parents would be to check her death certificate. Unless I encountered the dreaded "unknown" entry, I'd be led back one more generation with the provision of her parents' names.

Finding Rachel's death certificate was a snap on Her name was listed as Rachel T. Boothe, so no surprises there—though a widow for the past twenty years, before that, she had been married to William Alexander Boothe since 1854. At the last census before her passing, she had been living with the family of her next-to-youngest daughter, Charlotte Boothe Pate, in Elizabethton, part of Carter County, Tennessee. So it was no surprise to see Rachel's death certificate filed in that same county on April 17, 1915.

The certificate indicated that Rachel had been born on June 30, 1835, in South Carolina. At least, that was according to the son who served as informant—Charlotte's twenty-years-older brother, William Horace Boothe. As the oldest son, he had come from Knoxville, where he had likely lived since the 1890s, to take care of the grim business of burying his mother.

Dying on April 17 of that year, Rachel had missed her eightieth birthday by barely two and a half months. What had done her in was listed as "La Grippe," an old fashioned way of saying she died of the flu. (While I realize the term is sometimes taken specifically to refer to the Spanish flu, her passing pre-dated that 1918 influenza pandemic.)

Of course, I scoured that government document for every genealogical clue I could find. I was pleased to see that William remembered enough about his family history to indicate that Rachel's father was William Riley and that her mother was "Cassie" Fincher. I felt only a touch of disappointment that their birth places weren't noted. I spotted the box confirming Rachel was, at that point, a widow. All seemed in order—and as completely filled out as one could hope.

It was then that I happened to notice the entry for occupation. Normally, I don't bother looking in that direction when researching my female ancestors; generally, the entry for women in that era is something redundant or uninformative, such as "none" or "housewife."

Not this time. For whatever reason, someone decided to indicate that seventy nine year old Rachel Boothe's "trade, profession or particular kind of work" was "Old Lady."

I'm hoping that government clerk wasn't quoting the reporting party at that point. But it does get me wondering in just what kind of "general nature of industry, business or establishment" that type of occupation would be included.

I noticed they left that subsequent line blank.

Above: Portion of the April 17, 1915, Tennessee death certificate for Rachel T. Boothe, listing occupation as "Old Lady." Image courtesy Tennessee State Library and Archives via 
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