Tag Archives: genealogy

Sometimes, Family Tree Breakthroughs Arrive in your Inbox

A map showing the location of the Azores, with island names. (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

Imagine receiving a stack of photographs from a second cousin you’ve never met, who received them from a fourth cousin who lives on a Portuguese island off the coast of Africa.  And that these photographs show never-before seen, everyday images from your great-grandparents’ life that they sent home to Portugal some fifty to sixty years ago.  Sometimes, family tree breakthroughs happen just like that.  They just show up overnight in your email inbox.

Genealogists collect stuff.  Names.  Dates.  Locations.  Histories.  Photographs.  Family Artifacts.  We revel in adding stories to the bare facts that form our family trees.  In the days before computerized historical sources and internet family trees, a well-researched genealogy meant at least one, and maybe several, crates of stuff.  A glimpse into one of these crates might reveal family tree charts, census transcription forms, or printouts of microfilmed newspaper obituaries and articles.  And then, if you were well-entrenched in the hobby, that crate would probably hold correspondence (via snail mail) with relatives or fellow researchers who lived in different cities, counties, states, and maybe even countries.  But, these researchers who shared your family interests were usually hard to find, and sometimes, even harder to reach.

In those days, genealogy felt more solitary.  Genealogists spent vast amounts of time, alone in a library or research center, pouring through old census records, old city directories, vital records, and microfilmed reels of newspapers.  Finding potential leads, investigating those leads, and organizing records was largely an activity genealogists did on their own.  Then, as now, some of the best breakthroughs in genealogy came through communication with other genealogists.  Back then, this meant getting lucky with finding a phone number through directory assistance, or perhaps driving to a nearby town and knocking on a door of a second or third cousin.

Nothing has made connecting with other genealogists easier than the internet and social media.  This past week, I met my second-cousin Bea through her message that popped into my Ancestry account.  I hadn’t met her before.   Her grandfather – my great-grandmother’s brother, had to that point been an un-researched name on my family tree.  Raphael Silva – born 1882, died 1969.  That was about it.  I had thought he probably had descendants, but hadn’t gotten around to researching this.  Within a few minutes of receiving her message, I figured out that Bea and I share a common set of 2nd-great-grandparents who lived in Portugal‘s Azores in middle of the 19th century.  Through her message, I also learned that she had already done some research on our Portuguese Silva family.

Santa Cruz da Graciosa, Azores, seen from a pl...

Santa Cruz da Graciosa, Azores, as seen from a plane. At the center is the Monte da Ajuda. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My great-grandmother, Augusta Silva, left Santa Cruz on Portugal’s Graciosa Island in 1907.  She came to the United States a young woman, not yet 20, and settled in Lowell, Massachusetts, a textile mill city with a substantial Portuguese population.  Soon after arriving, she married Joseph Machado, also from Graciosa Island, who was 11 years her senior.  Throughout her life, she kept in touch with the family she left behind on Graciosa.  I had always figured that had been the case.  What I didn’t know was that, over 100 years later, the descendants of that family on Graciosa would still remember her.  I never could have guessed that they would still have the photographs she had sent them in the 1950s and 1960s.

This photograph shows my great-grandmother's sister Olivia (far left, in rear) with her two grandsons in front of her.  My great-grandmother, Augusta, next to her, in rear, appears with her youngest son William, wife Bernadette, and their two children, 1958.

This photograph shows my great-grandmother’s sister Olivia (far left, in rear) with her two grandsons in front of her. My great-grandmother, Augusta, next to her, in rear, appears with her youngest son William, wife Bernadette, and their two children, 1958.

Bea and I exchanged a few emails.  One of her emails included the stack of photographs that Augusta had, decades ago, sent to her cousins on Graciosa.  In 2011, Bea had received them from another cousin who had grown up in the Azores.  I had never seen these photographs.  No one in my US-based family had seen them since Eisenhower and Kennedy were in office.  Opening them was something like opening a time capsule.  Images from my mid-century Portuguese family were downloading onto my hard drive.

The first photograph, from August 1958, showed some familiar faces.  My great-grandmother, Augusta, and her sister, Olivia, stood proudly outside Olivia’s South Barre (Massachusetts) home with their families.  The back of the photograph identified Olivia’s two grandsons as being ten and five years old at the time.  The youngest child in the photo, Augusta’s granddaughter, was just 14 months old at the time.  In the photograph, Augusta’s son, my mom’s Uncle Billy, held her.  He wasn’t even 30 years old when the photograph was taken in 1958; he passed away at the age of 81 in 2011.

This photograph, dating from about 1940, shows Augusta (the older woman on the right) and her sister Olivia (the older woman on the left) on the day that two of their sons married their brides.

This photograph, dating from 1939, shows Augusta (the older woman on the right) and her sister Olivia (the older woman on the left) on the day that two of their sons married their brides.

The next photograph, much older, shows another of my grandmother’s brothers, John, in 1939 on his wedding day.  My great-grandmother appears in this photograph too, again with her sister Olivia.  Two things I learned from this photo:  1.  There was a close relationship between my great-grandmother and her sister that I hadn’t known about before.  And, 2. my mom’s uncle John got married on the same day as one of Olivia’s sons.  I still haven’t figured out which one.

Another photograph shows a scene I’ve come across a few times in my collection of family photographs, the first TV picture.  Most of us have them.  They’re always black-and-white, in a living room, from the early 50s.  This was the first I had seen for my great-grandparents.  They had sent it to Portugal to show that they were doing well in the US.  They proudly stand next to their brand new TV set, their first, in their Lowell, Massachusetts living room in the early 1950’s.  You can almost feel their sense of happiness and accomplishment as you peer into this glimpse of their living room.

SILVA4a Augusta and Joe with TV

There were several other photos too, a couple more showing Augusta and Olivia together, sometimes with their husbands, sometimes not.  There was one of another sister, the youngest, who had survived them all.  That photograph, of a birthday party thrown for her in the early 70s, was the most recent.  Another showed an unidentified man in a suit on Lowell’s Central Street sometime in the late 50s.  I’ll be working on that one to see if I can figure out who he is.

I’m grateful to my newfound cousin Bea for tracking me down through Ancestry and sending me photographs of my family.  It’s an interesting thought that, a half century after the photographs were mailed to the Azores, it takes just a click of a send button to return them to Massachusetts.  Through Ancestry, email, and other forms of social media, it’s so much easier these days to form the kinds of connections that allow these sorts of things to happen.  In this future, it’s becoming easier to find and understand the past.  It has become a lot easier to find and share family stories with other family historians, researchers, and cousins.


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.


The Release of the 1940 US Census – April 2, 2012

On April 2, 2012, at 9 AM (EST), the National Archives will release the 1940 US census schedules at  http://1940census.archives.gov/.  The release, administered by The National Archives in partnership with archives.com, will mark the first time a census has been released online.  Site visitors will gain free access to view, search, print, and download the 1940 census schedules at the site.  The National Archives has already released a video on its YouTube channel providing information on the 1940 census, the archives’ preparations for its release, and instructions showing how to access the census after April 2:

Family tree historians have long scoured census records for basic information about their ancestors: names, approximate ages/birthplaces, and occupations.  Every ten years, since the first US federal census in 1790, the United States census has counted all individuals living in US homes.  The results are then used to determine the allocation of congressional seats and electoral votes.  The most recent census, the country’s 22nd, was executed in 2010.  The census is a requirement established by the US Constitution and is overseen by the United States Census Bureau.  Aggregated census data is available to the public soon after the census is taken.  The actual census records and data specific to individuals is withheld for 72 years.  The 1930 US census was released to the public in April 2002.  The 1940 census will be released next month.

1940 Census Population Questionnaire - Photo courtesy of the Public Information Office - U.S. Census Bureau.

The information collected by each census, as well as the questions asked for each, have varied over the years.  In the 1940 census, for the first time, enumerators asked respondents new questions to determine if they had worked for the CCC, WPA, or NYA (all components of President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs) in late March 1940, as well as how much annual income they had earned during 1939.  The census also asked married women, widows, and divorcees their age at their first marriage as well as if they had been married more than once.  Also, for the first time, enumerators were instructed to add an “x” after the name of the person who answered the enumerator’s questions.

April 1940

Sen. Charles W. Tobey, was a vocal opponent of the 1940 census, more specifically, the inclusion of questions in the census asking for income information.  For the first time, this census asked respondents for information about their income.  Those opposing the collection of the information nearly succeeded in getting the question stricken from the instructions given to the enumerators.  In the end, though, as a compromise, the US government made available forms that people could mail in, if they did not want to provide the information to the enumerators.  The government published large numbers of the forms, but few were actually used.  Sen. Tobey was still not satisfied.  As late as census day, The Portsmouth Herald reported that he was still encouraging people not to answer the financial questions on the grounds that they invaded citizens’ privacy.

The census counted all people who were alive as of April 1, 1940 at 12:01 AM.  Babies born later on that day were not counted, while people who had died after 12:01 AM were.   The execution of the 1940 census was the largest yet, and included more questions than any of the prior censuses had before it.

As April 1940 began, approximately 120,000 enumerators descended upon the country to count each inhabitant.  Each enumerator had been provided a white, 4″x3″ identification card with a photograph and signature.  Unless respondents wanted to risk incurring a $100 fine, they were obligated to answer all questions, except for the ones regarding financial information, which could be mailed to the Census Bureau in Washington.

January 1941 - Commuters, who have just come off the train, waiting for the bus to go home, Lowell, Mass. (Courtesy of Library of Congress)

Locally, in Lowell, Massachusetts, fifty enumerators descended upon the city.  A newspaper article from the day before revealed some of the prevailing thoughts among the citizenry as they thought ahead to census day.  William Tully, the Lowell Sun reporter writing the article, noted that local women felt reluctant to give their ages to census enumerators.  Through interviews documented within the article, Tully spoke with various women.  One thought that certain facts should not be collected, like income, since it was already captured in the income tax returns.  She also thought collecting information about the amount of a mortgage on one’s home was unnecessary.

Another woman, who worked in the executive office of a large department store in downtown Lowell, replied:  “I know nothing about the census questions and I haven’t, as yet, looked into the matter.  As a rule, my husband knows more about these things than I do.”

April 1940

Another woman, a salesgirl in a local department store, replied:  “I’m not going to answer any questions about my age.  Oh, I suppose I’ll have to answer their old questions, but it won’t be cheerfully.”  When asked about the census questions:  ‘Has this women been married more than once?’  and ‘age at first marriage?’, she quipped:  “it’s none of their business.  And if you quote me on that, I’ll smash you.”

“What in the world is the government going to do with information like that?”  Another woman asked the reporter, who admitted he had no idea.  “Neither have I,” she continued, “and I think the whole thing is foolish.”

The US Census Bureau’s web site lists some interesting comparisons between life in 1940 and life today.  In 1940, for example, the average life expectancy was 61 years for men and 65 for women.  Today, the average life span has expanded some 15 years, with male life expectancies reaching 76 years and female life expectancies reaching 81.  Also, in 1940, nearly three in every four (73%) women over the age of 25 had not finished high school.  Today, only 14% in that group have not completed high school.

Family tree historians eagerly await the release of the 1940 census on April 2, 2012, at 9 AM (EST).  For many, it’s the first census in which they will find themselves or their parents.  It’s also the first census that will be released online for the public’s free access, either from the facilities of the National Archives or from the convenience of researchers’ homes.  Readers, what are you hoping to find in the 1940 census?  Where will you start looking?


Understanding Crime in Edwardian-Era Massachusetts – Arrests in Lowell, 1904

So, say you’re writing a scene about Edwardian-era police officers in New England, or researching the life and times of a police officer ancestor.  Or, perhaps you’re trying to get an idea of how people got into trouble with the law in the first years of the twentieth century.  You’ll need to know why Edwardian-era people got arrested.

West Gate Towers and Museum, St Peter's Street, Canterbury, Kent. Victorian photograph of policemen, via Wikipedia

In writing newspaper columns and blog posts, it’s interesting to see which topics attract the most interest.  And one of the most popular topics tends to be crimes.  But, what were the most common crimes a century ago?  In a typical year (1904), in a typical New England mill city, like Lowell, Massachusetts with its population of about 100,000 people, police made just over 5,000 arrests.

Old post card of Lowell MA jail house

Lowell City Jail (now apartments) on Thorndike Street.

What was the nature of the typical arrest in 1904?  Nearly 73% were for public drunkenness.  Another 13% were for other crimes against the public order, like truancy, which tended to happen in good weather.  Other crimes against the public order were for things that people today are no longer arrested for:  adultery, fornication, lewd cohabitation, and something called bastardy, which today would be called ‘failure to pay child support’, but in this case for a child born out-of-wedlock.  About a dozen arrests were made for those ‘violating the Lord’s day’ in 1904, or operating a business on a Sunday.
A far smaller component of the number of arrests in 1904 was for crimes against property, at just over 10%.  Almost all of these were for larceny, the theft of personal property; a smaller percentage of these arrests were for breaking & entering.  Lastly, the smallest percentage (4%) of arrests involved crimes against people.  In 1904, most of these arrests, about 80%, were assaults; only one was for murder.
The typical person being arrested was likely to be adult and male, nearly 80% fit this description.  About 12% were adult women; the remainder were minors.  Nearly half of those arrested were US-born; about 20% were from Ireland.  The remainder came from other countries.
Knowing how people got into trouble years ago not only tells us what sort of dangers our ancestors faced, but also what sort of dangers they caused too.  And, for those of us with police officers in our family tree, it gives an idea of the nature of the arrests that they made and the demographics of the people they arrested.  Either way, it makes for a fuller picture of the past and for a more interesting story to accompany a family tree.

Most Likely to . . . Visit a Local History Center? High School Yearbooks and their Value to Genealogists

In these days of point-and-click genealogy (think sites like Ancestry.com or familysearch.org), local and regional history centers of the brick-and-mortar variety are sometimes unjustly overlooked.  Some, like the New England  Historic Genealogical Society, have online resources and an impressive web presence themselves.  Others, especially those dedicated to smaller cities or even towns, have wonderful resources that are woefully under-appreciated or even unknown to the genealogical community.

Like other genealogists, I’ve been excited to follow one of Ancestry’s most recent projects – the ongoing digitization of US school yearbooks.  Given the vast number of schools issuing yearbooks in the United States, this is a pretty tall order and this project is still in its infancy.  Lawrence, Massachusetts, for example, has no high school yearbooks loaded into Ancestry’s database.  Ancestry does have two high school yearbooks for Lowell, Massachusetts, for the years 1950 and 1951.

Yearbooks are typically overlooked in genealogy as they fall outside of a “research comfort zone” that includes federal census records, city directories, and military/immigration records, to name a few.  All of these are wonderful, reliable resources.  Yearbooks are . . . a little hit or miss.  In large cities, or with families that moved around a lot, some extra legwork (city directories are good here) might be needed to determine which high school your ancestor graduated from.  Figuring out the year of graduation can be tricky too – there’s more variation in age at high school graduation as you progress further back into the twentieth century and into the nineteenth.  And then, there are a whole score of reasons why your ancestors may not have graduated from high school at all – or may have graduated from the high school’s evening session, which may or may not be included in the yearbooks.

I’ve been lucky in that my families have pretty much stayed put and predictable.  This past weekend, I travelled to Lawrence, Massachusetts to the Lawrence History Center and looked through their Lawrence High School history collection.  The Lawrence History Center operates today on the grounds and in the buildings formerly held by the Essex Company, which planned and built the city in the mid-19th century.  They specialize in all things Lawrence:  records of the Essex Company, photographs and oral histories of Lawrence, and records that have been donated to the center over the years.  Their staff, which graciously accommodated my request for a Saturday morning appointment, were very helpful and knowledgeable about their collection.  When I told them that I was hoping to view high school records from 1915-1930, I quickly found myself surrounded by boxes of well-organized and well-kept records.

The most compelling and complete component of this collection is undoubtedly the Lawrence High School Bulletins, which are essentially newsletters that had been written by the students.  These are kept in chronological order – starting from the 1890’s and ending sometime in the 1970’s.  I poured through the period I was researching – the 1915-1930 years that my grandfather and his siblings would have attended the high school.  The bulletins are fairly concise – 10 or 15 pages each – about half of which contain advertisements from local business that seem to be a blend of the yearbook and city directory styles.  These are interesting from an artistic perspective and to give some insight into some of the businesses that were in existence when my grandfather was attending high school.

A High School Yearbook Photograph of Edward T Owen, from 1925. Personal Collection of Author.

The real value in the bulletins is the photographs of the students, some candid, most posed, as well as fiction and non-fiction pieces and reflections on high school.  Some bulletins even had alumni notes updating readers on members of earlier graduating classes.  After an hour or so, I found what I had been seeking – a photograph of my grandfather.

My grandfather died a few weeks after I was born.  Although I never knew him, I had heard the stories of how he had played baseball for the Lawrence Independents, a semipro baseball team that counted former Olympian Jim Thorpe among its members.  Legend has it that my grandfather played alongside Thorpe during the 1924 season.  Family stories also recount how my grandfather had tried out for the Braves baseball organization, when it was still located in Boston.  Lawrence has had many sports teams through the years, and I wasn’t able to find anything directly related to the Lawrence Independents, but I did find a team photograph among the pages of a 1916 Lawrence High School bulletin showing my grandfather – then a high school freshman with his baseball team.

A family story exists that recounts how my grandfather once played baseball alongside Jim Thorpe. Image via Wikipedia.

For me, this was the genealogical holy grail I had been hoping to find.  Staff at the Lawrence History Center were glad to hear of my discovery and provided me with a couple of additional boxes of high school history to sort through.  In those, I found a 1920 yearbook – one year after my grandfather had graduated.  Initially, I was counting my bad luck that it couldn’t have been just one year earlier.  But, I looked through it and found a class history written by a member of the graduating class.

An earlier post on this blog spoke about the impact of Spanish Influenza on Lawrence during what was my grandfather’s senior year in high school.  The writer of the class history, a high school junior during the outbreak, recounted how her junior year felt like it had started twice – once on schedule in September and again after the outbreak – and a five-week suspension of classes.  It was during that five-week suspension that my grandfather must have seen the wagons descending his street for the bodies of flu victims, another memory of his that has lived on in our family stories.

John R. Rollins School Lawrence, Massachusetts

J.R. Rollins School, Lawrence, Massachusetts - Image via Wikipedia

Just when I thought I would call it a day, I mentioned to the staff of the Lawrence History Center that my grandfather came from the Prospect Hill section of Lawrence and that he had attended the Rollins School there.  They informed me that the Rollins School had issued a centennial yearbook as part of its one-hundredth anniversary celebration in 1992.  And that book contained class photographs of most of the eighth-grade graduating classes since the school’s inception.  It turned out that the eighth grade class photographs of my grandfather (from 1915), and his siblings (1919, 1921, and 1923) were all included.  His older brother, graduating in 1913, was not pictured, but a program from his graduation ceremony was included in its place.

My first visit to the Lawrence History Center won’t be my last.  The staff was wonderfully informative and welcoming.  I even got a tour of the Center’s main building, including the Essex Company’s vault and boardroom, dating from 1883.  My “finds”, greatly facilitated by their staff, contributed significantly to my own family history holdings.  After all, who wouldn’t want to see a never-before-seen photograph of a grandparent, at 15 years old?  One last note – the center also offers off-street parking on their grounds, which is no small mercy if you’re concerned about finding parking on Lawrence’s busy downtown streets.


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?