Category Archives: Indiana

Forgotten Genealogy: A Letter Reveals Memories from Two Lifetimes Ago

Family trees, at first blush, aren’t so exciting.

Genealogists spend a lot of time immersed in old records – especially really old ones, from decades and centuries past.  These records yield valuable information in building family trees.  And, as any genealogist will tell you, every tree ends at its treetop, with the names of its brick wall ancestors, those whose parentage is unknown and likely unrecoverable from surviving paper records.  But, even paper records have their limits.  Beyond providing names of relatives, birth-marriage-death dates, and possibly military service details, very little is recorded about the person.

Sure, if I look at the surviving paper records for Martha Jane Harmer, my wife’s second-great-grandmother, I’ll learn that she was born in Bow, a London suburb, in 1858.  Her baptismal records reveal her parents’ names (John and Charlotte) and that she was baptized in the Anglican church.  UK census records show that she lived in the area until the early 1880’s when she married and moved to the United States.

Deciphering the handwriting of 19th-century records is a madness perfected among long-time genealogists. Above, the baptismal record of Martha Jane Harmer reveals that she was baptized on July 18, 1858, in Poplar, Middlesex, England.

But, that’s pretty much where the trail runs cold.  Sure, you can extend the treetops of your family tree by learning the names, locations, and vital dates of Martha’s ancestors, but, in the end, you’ll have a list of names.  These provide some interesting insights into the naming patterns of earlier times and surnames (and their histories) in your family background, but family historians wonder what their ancestors looked like (which physical traits have been passed down the generations), what their ancestors did (which talents come from earlier generations), and how their ancestors behaved and interacted with each other, and the larger world (what maddening vexations have been passed down the generations).

Studying genealogy for years, it’s so tantalizingly irresistible to blast photographs of ancestors with your brick wall questions – ‘where were you born?’  ‘who were your parents?’  ‘what was your mother’s maiden name?’, or ‘what did you see growing up?’  Any of those answers, recorded anywhere, would be invaluable.

A rare find for family historians, a labelled photograph can provide a face to the name in your family tree. On the back of this photograph, taken by a photographer in the London suburb of Poplar, writing identities the subjects as Martha Jane Harmer and her cousin Bob. Her age is given as 14, meaning the photograph dates from 1872.

It’s every family historian’s dream.  You come across an old box of photographs.  Inside, there might be a photograph of an ancestor, maybe even labelled.  My in-laws, descendants of Martha Jane Harmer, had just such a box.  And, with their family being much more cognizant of posterity than mine, someone actually took the time to label the photographs.  This is genealogical gold.

With that, Martha Jane Harmer, a young Martha Jane at that, has a face.  But, there was more.  Deeper in the box, there was a yellowed envelope, its paper made fragile by age.  Inside, there’s ancient paper, folded into thirds, lined, with light, uneven handwriting looped and swirled across its surface.  A careful unfolding reveals that it’s a letter – to the future – telling posterity about Martha Jane’s memories from her childhood in Poplar.  If only all ancestors in my tree were so informative to the future genealogist.

The letter, some five or six pages long, provides a view, deep into the 19th century, of Martha Jane Harmer, her life, and the lives of her family.  As I read through the memories of a woman whose passed away in 1934, I learned about her grandfather, Charles Harmer, who arose every Monday morning, readied his horse, and then drove through the English town of Acton to collect rents from his tenants.  I read about John Harmer, his son and Martha Jane’s father, who collected the money, running from door-to-door as Charles rode the carriage along the road.  I also learned that, one day, young John jumped from the carriage, twisting and breaking his leg on the curb.  So bad was the break, the story went, that even after the doctor set it, the leg healed shorter than the other.  For the rest of his life, John Harmer wore shoes specially made with an elevated sole.

Charles Harmer and his family in the 1841 England Census. John Harmer, who injured his leg around the time of this census, is noted as the 16-year-old male (‘J’) who appears in the third line down in this listing.

The letter next recalls Martha Jane’s maternal grandfather, Joshua Nunn, who saw his Harmer grandchildren often.  It also reveals that Joshua was deaf and dumb from birth.  An old Nunn family story told of how Joshua Nunn’s mother, when she was young, had wished for children who were deaf and dumb.  Family lore had it that she got her wish – twice over, Joshua and his brother could not speak or hear.  As I read through the letter, I thought this was just too fantastical, but the 1861 UK census proved otherwise:

The line labelled No. 135 contains Joshua Nunn’s entry in the 1861 UK census. The right-most column records that he was deaf and dumb from birth, providing supporting evidence to the Joshua Nunn portrayed in his granddaughter’s letter.

Some of the letter’s charms cannot be verified in surviving records.  They go beyond what was recorded, and would have been lost forever if they hadn’t been captured in those handwritten pages so long ago.  One tale records that Martha Jane’s mother, Charlotte, would put two raw eggs in egg cups for Grandpa Nunn each time when he came to visit them.  He would smile, get the eggs and suck them.  Martha Jane’s father, John, could be a prankster and, one day, put up two eggs that had been emptied.  Even though everyone thought it was a good joke, Grandpa Nunn looked so disappointed that Charlotte soon brought in two eggs to take the place of the empty ones.  Martha Jane also recalled how she and her two older sisters, Emma and Betsy, would pass their Grandma Harmer’s home each day on the way to school.  Grandma Harmer would invite them in for sardine sandwiches and make sure they used the outhouse before continuing on for home.

Martha Jane recalled the bad times too.  She remembered how, on Good Friday in 1866, her mother died, one day after setting up sponge for hot cross buns.  She was just 32 years old.  One day earlier, on Holy Thursday, she had the girls bring in the bread board to the bedroom.  She made the buns ready for the oven and then passed away the next day.  In the letter, Martha Jane recalled how, as the end came,  Grandpa Nunn stood looking at his daughter.  He then said the only words that he had ever spoken in his life. “Poor Charlotte.”  He died the following week.

The letter also records other memories from Martha Jane’s childhood.  When she was about three years old, she was playing at a curb by the alley with her sisters.  A man in a horse and wagon came along and the horse stepped on her jaw.  The neighbors thought she was killed and carried her into her mother.  The doctor was called.  In the end, although she recovered, when she would be busy sometimes, you could see that she held her mouth out of line.

After Charlotte’s funeral, John Harmer tried to keep the children and the home together.  Different relatives came to keep house.  Some took the nice sheets, pillowcases, and anything else they wanted.  John had a hard time taking care of their youngest daughter, Louise, who was just two years old.  He also had a hard time taking care of himself.  The letter recalls that he ‘just lost heart’ and died the year following his wife’s death.  When John died, the girls were still  young, between nine and thirteen years old.  Louise was just three, and went to live with relatives.

The letter continues from there, for several more pages, recalling Martha Jane’s years after her parents’ deaths.  She and her older sisters found work in town as servants.  Martha Jane worked in several homes and lived with a series of relatives, some of whom she recalled fondly, some not so much.  For a while, she lived with her cousin Mary Ann’s family.  Mary Ann is remembered as a ‘husky girl’, who would wake Martha Jane up at night to hold the candle while they went downstairs into the room where the family’s milk was cooling in a large stone jar.  Mary Ann would skim a cup of cream off the surface and drink it.  It wasn’t until years later when Mary Ann got married that Martha Jane’s Aunt Mary admitted to her that she knew it was her own daughter stealing the cream, and not Martha Jane.  Aunt Mary is also fondly memorialized as a woman whose temper grew so frightening that one day, she broke a large mixing bowl over Martha Jane’s head, which left Martha Jane in considerable pain for several days.

Martha’s ‘husky’ cousin, Mary Ann Nunn, was a young girl of 9 years old at the time of the 1861 UK Census. Her mother, the feared ‘Aunt Mary’ from the letter appears on the line above.

Martha Jane’s Aunt Mary is a formidable character, but at her house is where she met her future husband, James Williams.  He’s remembered as a young carpenter who boarded at Aunt Mary’s for a few years while he was building homes in London.  One day after completing a lot of the work, James went to the owner to draw some pay – only to learn that his construction partner had already drawn the pay for both of them, and spent it.  James confronted the other man, and left him to finish the work.  James departed for America soon after, promising Martha Jane that he would send her a ticket if he found that he liked it there.

A photograph of James Williams, taken later in life.

Keeping his word, he later wrote to Martha Jane.  She wrote back, saying she would come.  He sent the ticket.  Aunt Mary, of course, protested, telling her that no decent girl would travel that far alone and unmarried.  Martha Jane next enlisted the aid of her Aunt Ellen, a favorite aunt, who had a large family of children.  Aunt Ellen told her and Aunt Mary that if Charlotte had married the man she loved, then Martha Jane could do the same.  Martha Jane Harmer arrived in Chicago, Illinois on September 15, 1881.  She was 23 years old.

James and Martha Jane had a long and happy marriage in the Chicago area, and had five children of their own.  She lived to be 76 years old, passing away in 1934.  Letters and photographs add leaves to the bare branches of a family tree and help us understand our ancestors as people and not just a series of names, dates, and locations.  It’s never known where these gems will surface – in your basement, in the basement of a close relative, or somewhere entirely different, perhaps in the papers of a more distant relative you didn’t even know existed.


Embrace your black sheep ancestors!

Black sheep ancestors – we’ve all got them.  If you don’t, it probably means that you haven’t discovered them yet.  I find them fascinating.  I mean, I enjoy the church-going, god-fearing, alms-giving ancestors as much as the next genealogist, but there’s a certain spark of interest that surges when you come across ancestors who were . . . a bit more colorful in their lives.

When I step back for a moment and take off my genealogist’s cap, I start to think that the non-genealogists who must endure us probably find it charming (or maybe even a bit odd) how we get excited over the discovery of another name on the family tree, another branch a little closer to the top, a link leading us a bit closer to the past.  For us, names can mean a key to unlocking another chapter in a family’s story.

In my case, the name of my wife’s third-great-grandfather led me to a man who was quite well-known in 19th-century Henry Township in Fulton County, Indiana.  According to Wikipedia, Henry Township’s population in 2000 was just north of 2,800 people; I imagine that it must have been much smaller during his lifetime.

Rose Savannah (Nixon) Deardorff stands second to the right on the day of her son's wedding in November 1910. Farmlands in Indiana pretty much look just as desolate today, in winter.

When I first came across Sylvester Nixon, he was just another name to add to the tree.  I added him as the father of Rose Savannah Nixon.  Rose Savannah was the motherly figure who appeared in lots of our old family photographs – both formal family ones as well as posed photos on the windswept farms in the Indiana winter.

The first facts I learned about Sylvester were rather mundane, interesting enough to genealogists, but not so interesting that they would capture the wandering attentions of his present-day descendants.  He was born a long time ago, in 1827, in Ontari0; that much I learned from the US Federal Census records.  At some point early in his life, his family has moved to Fulton County, Indiana.  His first wife, Elizabeth Haladay, died a few weeks before Christmas Day, 1869, leaving him a widower with a five-year-old daughter, Rose Savannah, who later became the subject of all those treasured family photographs I mentioned above.

Sylvester NIxon, with his third wife, Sarah Ann Staton, and younger children, ca. 1880

Sylvester NIxon, with his third wife, Sarah Ann Staton, and younger children, ca. 1880

Sylvester didn’t stay widowed long.  Over the next five years or so, he married two more times, once to Huldah Clementine and later to Sarah Ann Stanton.  With them, he had two more daughters and a son.  Most of that was learned from census records, some from family bible writings.  All in all, pretty vanilla and not very interesting.

Then, there’s the power of a Google Search.  One night I typed in “Sylvester Nixon”, “Fulton County” and Indiana into Google’s sparse interface.  A handful of results popped up, most from the public library in Fulton County.  Apparently, someone had taken the time to transcribe excerpts from the local Rochester newspapers, covering the years 1858-1879.  It was quite a find – and provided some insight into a man I had known nothing about.

Some details were rather mundane.  In 1874, old Sylvester married a Miami County lady (his third wife) and apparently came to town daily with a load of wood.  Sadly, the reasons why he brought a load of wood into town so often or why this was newsworthy have been lost to history.

I kept looking.  Three years later, in 1877, a brief clip in the paper carried the report of a Fulton County farmer who had seen old Sylvester beat his horse to death while he was returning to his home, drunk.  So, it appeared Sylvester enjoyed his liquor, and apparently was quite determined when he set his mind to something.  It’s got to take a lot of effort to beat a horse to death.

One year later, in 1878, a Mrs. Collins, out in her horse and carriage, had the misfortune of meeting old Sylvester along the road.  Sylvester, “blind drunk”, failed to give her carriage the half of the road it was entitled to, and soon, their wagons collided.  Mrs. Collins found herself without a hind wheel and Sylvester found himself with a reputation as a dangerous driver.  The local paper goes on to advise readers to avoid old man Nixon on the road and let him “pass on in his glory”.

The following year, the paper recorded that Sylvester nearly froze to death during a cold snap in January.  A kind soul saved him, when he or she found him near death, lying across the town’s railroad track.

The 1870’s were eventual for Sylvester.  The earliest entry I found for him recorded that he had, by 1871, acquired a reputation for mischief within the town – in addition to the bad driving, the horse beating, and all that.  Apparently, he and “his team” liked to cause havoc on the local merchants and then “run away” before the owner returned to town.  On this one occasion, recorded in the paper, he had selected the lumber yard of the unfortunate John Beeber, and “scattered his board piles in every direction.”

I scrolled through the paper’s later editions.  The 1880’s were quieter for the aging Nixon – or maybe the newspapers had moved on to covering other topics.  He did have one last entry, in an edition published soon after his death in 1893.  The account discounted the rumors that he had committed suicide with poison.  An autopsy, the paper revealed, had indicated that old Sylvester had died a natural death.  Thanks to information posted at Find-a-Grave, I now know that he’s buried nearby, in Mount Hope Athens cemetery.

I’m thankful for Sylvester Nixon and his contributions to the family tree, even if they caused some level of drama in his Indiana town of the 1870’s.  Based on the newspaper accounts, I think his contemporaries liked the old man too (or at least found him interesting).  Not all of our ancestors can be “saints”.  Finding a few “sinners” among the leaves of the family tree adds a layer of humanity and reminds us that people in previous centuries were just as imperfect as people today.


A Window into the Past: Ancestors’ Letters as Genealogical Records

So, say you’ve inherited a large stack of family photographs showing ancestors who are far up your family tree – such as great-grandparents, or their siblings, cousins, or close family friends.  As you stare into the moment in time captured in that cabinet card or tin type photograph, do you ever wonder what their voices sounded like, or what sort of accent they spoke with?  Do you wonder what words they chose when they spoke?  Or what perspective they brought to their life experiences?  Or even what activities filled a day in their lives?

In some very rare cases, a home movie might surface, allowing you a glimpse of your ancestors (or someone else’s) living through some long-ago day.  For most of us, though, home movies from that far back just don’t exist (and likely never existed).  But, if we’re looking to learn more about the faces in our old photographs, we might be able to rely on letters that have survived through the decades.  Letters provide a sense of immediacy, a glimpse into a moment or day otherwise completely lost to living memory – and it’s all captured in the yellowed pages that you hold in your hands.

I was fortunate to marry into a family who saved . . . everything – photographs, family bibles, letters, journals, Christmas cards, insurance bills . . . and, yes, even old tissues – you know, the ones from long ago that came in shades of hot pink and cool blue.  I’m not sure when those came off the market, but it’s been some time.  I view these as a testament to how dedicated they were in saving just about everything for posterity.

The photographs and family bibles are great, but the letters really go the furthest when I try to flesh out the names, dates, faces, and personalities that have emerged on that side of the family.  Letters can tell you a lot about what words and expressions ancestors used when they spoke, how they pronounced them, what an average day was like for them, and what perspective they brought to their everyday lives.

A Page from the 1900 US Federal Census

In this page from the 1900 US Federal Census, the Hamlett Family appears in Lines 30-35

The Hamlett Family posed for this photograph several years after the 1899 letter was written. Frank is the older man standing in back, at left. Mae stands to the immediate left of her brother, in the photograph's center.

Among the many letters I’ve come across in my in-laws’ collection of family artifacts, was the one below, written in the first days of 1899, by an 11-year-old girl to her father, who was, quite literally, a traveling preacher.  Tessie Mae Hamlett (‘Mae’ to the family) was the second-oldest daughter of the four children of William Franklin Hamlett and his wife, Samantha Ann (Peck) Hamlett.  When the letter was written, the family lived in Americus, Indiana, a small town near Lafayette, Indiana.  The attached page from the 1900 US Federal Census shows the family, just 17 months later, in June 1900.

Frank Hamlett, as he’s come to be known by his descendants, was a preacher in his mid-40’s at the time of the letter.  Mae, just a few days past her 11th birthday, wrote the letter below that reached him at some location whose name has been lost to history.

Below, I’ve attached the front and back of the letter, as well as a transcription.

The Front Page of the Jan. 3, 1899 Letter

From Americus, Indiana – Jan. 3, 1899

Dear papa:

I thought I would write to you this evening to let you know that we are as well as usual and hope this may find you the same.  George and Ann was up to day.  Aunt Susie is sick.  She has got a swelling on her hip.  They butchered to day that little pig. It weighed 125 pounds when it was dressed.

Bessie got a letter from Bennie Pepper to day.  He got home all right.  George said to tell you that he got a letter from worth judgement to day.  Bessie is making her a apron and manson is fixing her shoes.  Manson got mad at Bessie on Saturday but he wasn’t mad long.

We was at Kurkehains saturday night.  We popped pop corn, had lots of fun.  Well, papa, when are you coming home?

We have not heard from Jessie Emmons since they went home.   They left here friday morning about 6 o’clock in the morning and it was 10 o’clock before they got to go

Tessie Mae closes the January 1899 letter on Page 2.

away.

Well, I guess this is all for this time so good night, answer soon, good by.

Tessie Mae to papa

As I typed up the transcription, I kept the original word choice, but not the misspellings, since they appeared to be more the product of an 11-year-old girl learning her spelling than that of a true guide to her pronunciation.  This isn’t always the case, though, especially with letters written by adults.  It’s interesting to see how much contact Mae had with her family.  She makes mention to Bessie, her older sister, an Aunt Susie, and Jesse Emmons, an uncle, who lived with them at the time of the 1900 census, several months later.  There’s a bit of a rural feel to the letter too, encouraged by the talk of the butchered pig.  There’s also talk of clothing made at home – an apron, by her sister, Bessie.  And, perhaps most interesting, there are hints at the way Mae talked, when she notes “we was up at Kurkehains saturday night.”

Letters, sometimes tucked in with stacks of photographs inherited from older family members, or pressed within the pages of yellowed family bibles, provide valuable insight into the lives of ancestors and help us understand them as whole people, and not just sets of names and dates.  After reading some of our Hamlett family letters, I began to get a sense of what their voices sounded like, the accent they might have spoken with, and what words they used when they spoke.  It’s not as telling as a video or a face-to-face interview, but with the upper branches of a family tree, letters may be one of the best available and sometimes most overlooked resources.

Readers, have you come across some interesting family letters from long ago?  Did they help you learn some interesting facts about your ancestors?