Tattered Past

Tattered Past: My ongoing journey through genealogy, history, writing, self-exploration and art. ~~~ Rita Ackerman

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

T is for Travel and Tramp

One of my all-time favorite authors is Elizabeth George. She writes a series of thrillers set in England along with short stories and a new young adult series.

Her book on writing Write Away: One Novelist's Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life is fantastic. I especially liked how she described her process for the description of the scenes she uses so expertly in her novels.

Ms. George describes her research technique as "travel and tramp." She travels to England and drives around until she finds a scene that catches her eye. (I know, we all wish we could do that.) She gets out and walks the area and describes everything she sees, feels, smells, hears and perhaps even tastes. She returns to her hotel and transcribes the recordings for that day. Yes, she is dedicated and that is why she can travel to another country to do research.

For the rest of us we can do the next best thing. The smells, tastes and sounds of a local coffee shop can help bring a similar shop in England to life. Traveling the highway that follows the Oregon Trail route can help us describe what the people who migrated along that trail saw and felt.

Travel and tramp is also important to family history. This house was built by my great, great grandfather, John Riley Keith. He made the blocks and built the house probably with help from sons and nephews.

It is still known as the "Keith House."
These are my grandparents and one of my uncles to the side of the house.

This is the house when my daughter and I visited in 1990. By then it was a rental and in very sad repair. Holes in walls, torn wallpaper and filth everywhere. I couldn't bring myself to take photographs but the renter did take us on a tour of the house. I climbed the narrow stairs and saw the pass-through from the kitchen to the dining area. The bathroom that had been converted from an upstairs bedroom. 

On the same trip we visited "Keith Canyon" a few miles away. This was part of one of the dugouts. 

Who would think of hills like this in Kansas. Homes, barns and corrals were all built into these hills. 

Nearby was the site of Cash City.

 Now a pasture. The buildings were moved or torn down for other uses. I stood out there on the prairie and listened to the wind, heard the grasses waving and the creak of the windmill. We found bits of metal and pottery. I could look out to the same horizon and wonder about the hopes and dreams my ancestors brought with them from the East.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

S is for Storytellers

Storytelling has been traced back to the cave dwellings our earliest ancestors left behind. Storytellers became important parts of the clan or tribe in their role of keeping legends and folklore. Children were taught about their history, heroes, traditions and information about how to find food and stay safe.

Most families have many storytellers but not as many who take on the job of listening and recording. Local historical societies and other organizations make an effort to record and save stories. During the Depression the Works Progress Administration sent people out to collect stories from the older people of the community. Many of these have been published in book form.

This is my Grandmother who passed on many of our family stories. She is surrounded 
by just a few of her grandchildren. 

Another generation has been added. Grandma, Mother, my sister and her 
daughter; the first of that generation.

Sadly I haven't identified all the people in this photo. I am sure it is my Thompson family. How I wish I knew the stories told around that table. 

As much as I tried to identify people in photographs and record the family stories there are many I missed. 

Yesterday a friend and I were browsing around the bookstore and she found a journal with prompts for mothers to answer for her children. I've been working on one for my daughter for far too long. Some of the prompts don't fit my life so I write in other stories or add a copy of a photograph from my childhood.
We all have stories to tell. Some of them can become the basis for a novel. 
Others just need to be recorded for the future. 
What are you doing to preserve those stories?

Monday, April 21, 2014

R is for Records and Research Logs

Whether you are researching your memoirs, a novel, your family history, or some local history it is vital that you keep track of the research you have done.

You can find blank research forms or calendars on the Internet or make your own.

The important things to include are:
The subject of the search: a person, location or key words
A column for the date the research was performed
The call number or web site or other identifying information
The title of the book, site or article
The results. Did you find what you were looking for?

A chart such as this can also be used to plan research. When you first arrive at the library or archives go through the finding aids or catalog and write down everything you think would be helpful. Then as you work your way through the list you add the date of the search and the results.

Research logs can keep you from wasting time in checking sources more than once. Taking the time to check finding aids and cataloges will open up research plans you didn't even know about.

Another way to plan your research strategy and make sure you haven't forgotten anything is to have a list of all the possible sources your should check. This list is geared to family history research but can be applied to anything else you may be interested in. Here's one of my favorite Source Checklists.

Another little tip I used to tell the people in my classes is to keep a yellow pad handy. While analyzing your records jot down all ideas and questions. These are temporary sheets and will not become a permanent part of your records. The yellow sheets are also easy to spot when you are in the heat of the search.

A book signing for the book I spent three years researching and writing.

I am now working on a revised edition with updated information.

One of my articles in the "Tombstone Times." A history journal from the Town Too Tough To Die.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Q is for Quests and Quilts

This old suitcase is full of memories. Mom kept all the old family pictures in it. 
I loved going through it and wondering about all those people.

One of my favorites is this old photo of cowboys and what appears to be an old store. I wondered about it. Who were the people? Why is it in the family collection?
The quest began. 

Over time I learned this was the headquarters for a ranch in southwestern Kansas. Prior to 
that it was a store/restaurant in Cash City. My family helped build the town and owned the 
store before the building was moved to the ranch. . 

I also learned the cowboy on the left was named Mr. Peeples and according to local stories 
he chased down an old wolf that was killing stock in the area. 

Some of this information and this old photo ended up in an article I wrote for Wild West Magazine. 
One of my first paid for writing assignments. 

Another favorite photo from the suitcase was this one from Fowler, Kansas. None of these ladies is related, at least as far as I know, but Grandma did remember some of them. Grandma was always a quilter. She had a large frame that hung from the ceiling and they would lower it to balance on the backs of chairs and the ladies could gather around to practice their tiny stitches. 

Questions lead to a quest for answers. Don't wait until it's too late to ask the people who may remember the who, what, when, where of your family photos. 

Friday, April 18, 2014

P is for Postcards

I've spent long hours browsing box after box of antique postcards and photographs. I have found some amazing things. A memorial for a Civil War battle in Arkansas where my ancestors lived and fought. A scenic view from the area my German immigrants settled in Virginia.

I still do that just because it is so enjoyable but again the Internet has made finding these postcards much easier to find. Ebay is a favorite site. Go to the postcard section and type in the town where you grew up or where your ancestors settled. Amazing pictures will come up.

I have found photos of the city library where I spent so many hours reading Nancy Drew mysteries. The city building where my mother worked as dispatcher for the fire and police.  Even the main street with the old Woolworth's store. I know my children and grandchildren will appreciate seeing these places when they read the stories I leave behind.

The police and fire departments in Great Bend. My mother's office was in that little part that juts out the front. I remember going to visit her and sitting in the hallway on a wooden bench and watching the officers going in and out. For most of my years growing up I wanted to be a police officer.

Some local historical societies publish postcards on their web sites. They might jog a memory or give you a hint for further research on your family or even spark an idea for a short story or poem.

There are postcards of churches, courthouses, monuments, local hotels and tourist attractions. When I was young we often visited Boothill and Front Street in Dodge City, Kansas. I have found quite a few postcards from that time. Since it has changed so much over the years those are even more precious. I loved going there and having a sarsaparilla in the Long Branch Saloon. So many memories.

Postcard from Boot Hill, Dodge City, Kansas as I remember it from the '50s.

Mom and I were there one time and she wanted to get a little something to take back to my sister. She found a set of three little ceramic horses for Betty. I wanted the horses but there was only one set so she suggested I get the little dogs. That started my dog collection. Many of which I still have including some that belonged to other family members.

See how one memory leads to another and another. A picture here. A postcard there. I've learned to never pass up a potential memory starter.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

O is for Organization

Whether working on your own genealogy, an article about some bit of local history, your memoir or a full-length novel it is vital that you have some kind of organization system.

When I started doing my genealogy we didn't have personal computers or genealogy programs to keep track of the information. A couple of file folders or a three-ring binder quickly evolved into file cabinets and shelves of notebooks. Even now, with all your research, family members, and photographs scanned and filed into a database or other program it is still important to keep track of those papers.

I have always filed my information by surname and then by family. For example; my great grandparents William Albert Martin and Nellie Grace Keith would have a folder with all their information and that of all their children; except for Jennie Viola Martin who married Harold Cecil Covey and became my grandmother.

You may ask why it is important to track all those children. The oldest son's descendants may have the family bible or photographs your own side of the family doesn't have. ALWAYS write down anything you find on all relatives and even some of their associates and be sure to make a complete note of the source.

Genealogy programs are a great boon; but only if the information is kept up to date and put into the files correctly. Some genealogy programs let you take information right off the Internet and put it in your file. If not you can keep separate file folders on your computer for bookmarks for each family or area.

Part of one of the hand printed charts I have on my own research. 
I still prefer having these charts spread out to trying to follow them from screen 
to screen on the computer. 

Some of my genealogy reference books. The Keith genealogy and Union County, 
Tennessee histories with information on my families from that area.

The same applies for your writing research. Keep track of the file folders. Don't just dump all the information in a folder named "My Novel" or something. Break them down further. If you have trouble keeping track of all those folders keep a physical file of folders and what is in each one. Whatever it takes to get you back to that particular bit of information.

One of the archival boxes holding my photographs. I order them from Light Impressions.

Do you have boxes of old family photographs that haven't been identified? Don't pass that problem on to your descendants. Talk to older family members for help in identifying people and places. Make sure your own photos are identified.

This all leads to a word of caution. Operating systems change, computers crash, even storage formats change. Keep your records in different formats. Keep backups. Store old photos in archival boxes. Keep the actual records in paper form. If you have papers that are a hundred years old it should be obvious that paper is often more stable than anything on a computer.

Don't wait until next year or when you retire to identify your photos and make those files. Start today. Even thirty minutes a day will lead to better files and more productive research. Keep track of all your notes and be sure to cite your sources. If you start out right you will be a far happier researcher later on.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

N is for Newspapers

I love reading old newspapers. Papers from where I live now, papers from Tombstone, Arizona for research, papers from Great Bend, Kansas for tidbits of when I was growing up. They are endless. And with the Internet your access is too.

There are a number of sites for free newspaper research. Some of my favorites are:

Many states also have their own newspaper search sites.

Others can be accessed through paid sites:

Newspaper Archive


Genealogy Bank

There are tricks to using these sites, just like with everything. The older the paper the less accurate the search engines for each one are. Even though Elephind indexes Chronicling America you should do your search in each one. They may find different articles.

Examples of a search in these would be:

"Samuel Wilburn" Arkansas

"Samuel Wilburn" 1923

"Samuel Wilburn" death, 1923

Just keep trying different combinations. Also try different spellings. "Sam Wilburn" or "Samuel Welborne"

I remember when I had my tonsils out. It was in St. Rose Hospital in Great Bend. I remember there was a big toy box in the hallway and I thought that was just like Christmas. I ended up getting in trouble for not staying in bed.

However, I didn't remember how old I was. Through the newspaper search on Ancestry I found that I entered the hospital on July 18, 1861. Wow, my name was in print. lol I was eight.

Of course newspapers can be a source for obituaries, marriages, graduations and births. In rural areas they may list local residents who have changed jobs or gone on a visit to relatives in another state. I was once listed in the local paper when I paid a visit to my aunt in uncle near Dodge City, Kansas.

Newspaper announcement about my great grandparent's marriage from the 
Meade County News on December 6, 1900.
Located through Elephind.com

Legal notices such as land and probate records are often found. How about an advertisement for your family's business?

Get creative and read those newspapers.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

M is for Museums

I love museums. Especially the smaller ones. 
Like this one in Goldendale, Washington.

My daughter and I stopped here after visiting the local cemetery. It is a beautiful old house with different rooms set up as they would have been during the time our family lived in the area.

They also had a room set up as a little research library. We found transcribed marriage records and this photograph of two of my husband's family members. They are not his direct ancestors but it is uncanny how much the younger one looks like him.

Even if a museum doesn't have information directly related to your family you can learn a lot 
about how they lived. The Musical Instrument Museum in north Phoenix is amazing. There are 
scenes set up as in a Victorian household all the way up to Alice Cooper. 

There are ads related to some of the displays. It is an amazing learning experience 
for historians, and historical novelists. 

Another time my daughter and I were travelling through the area of Kansas where my family settled and I grew up. We visited the county museum and toured a school they had moved in from the countryside.
What a surprise when we got back to Arizona and my grandmother said that it was 
the school she attended as a child. 

My daughter and the docent in the school her great grandmother attended. 

Another possibility for learning about your ancestors is cultural centers. In downtown Phoenix 
there is an Irish Cultural Center with a replica cottage. A friend visited there to gain information 
for a play she wrote about her ancestral country.

This quilt is hanging in the hall. 

Kitchen implements, farm tools, sewing notions, and hundreds of other things can be found in museums. It is so much easier to bring your ancestors, or characters, to life, when you can see the items they used or in some instances actually use them yourself.

Monday, April 14, 2014

L is for Land Records

Land records are a vital part of genealogical research. Besides the obvious information of telling where somebody lived they can also give family names and relationships, marriage information, death information, and descriptions of what was on the property.

Deeds are kept on the county level. The owner brought the deed in to the clerk and the clerk copied it, by hand in the old days, and returned the deed to the owner. 

There are also federal land records such as those produced by the Homestead Act. This is a page from my great, great grandmother Jane (Malone) Thompson's homestead papers.

The interesting part to me is that she owned a sod house 16 x 18 feet with one door and one window.
The sod hen house was 12 x 12 feet; almost as big as her own home. She also had a well and eight acres under cultivation. Jane was over 70 years old and a widow when she followed some of her children and their families to southwest Kansas. 

Another part of the document shows she couldn't sign her own name thus she made her mark.

Land records from most of the United States and some foreign countries are available on microfilm through the LDS family history centers. Although they are indexed by buyer and seller the most amazing stuff is found by scanning the documents. People listed in the document aren't indexed. These people could be prior owners, co-owners, neighbors and spouses.

I always make a list of all the surnames I'm searching in a certain county before I start an in-depth land search. Not just ancestors but spouses and neighbors. And I copy everything. What doesn't seem important at a certain point in your research may be very important later on.

Start digging into those land records and have fun!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

K is for Keepsakes

Keepsakes: we all have them. 
They come in all shapes and sizes. From a favorite childhood book to a pressed flower. 
A set of dishes or the family bible. 

I try to photograph the special things in my life. Eventually I will have a book with the photos and a story about why they are special. Who passed them on. Why I kept them.

My sister was ten years older than me. She was an artist her whole life. She had an easel and her oil paints in one corner of our shared bedroom. Ah, the memories when I visit an art show with working artists; the smells of paint and turpentine and the look of brushes in a jar.

This was one of her sketchbooks and two of her dip pens. 
They are among my most treasured possessions. 

This is my sister when she was in school.  

When we were going through her things we found this necklace. Somehow we knew it belonged to Great Grandma Nellie. Then my niece found this picture of my sister wearing it. 
What treasures.

I took photos putting them together and close-ups of the necklace: front, back, open, and closed.

The necklace will go to my sister's granddaughter. The rest of the family will know about it. Her children will know the story behind it. My legacy to them is keeping the memories.

You can see another family keepsake on my writer's blog here.

Friday, April 11, 2014

J is for Jurisdictions

The importance of geographical and political jurisdictions, especially when working back through time, can't be emphasized enough.

We all know that countries change borders. Some even disappear. Others take on new names. Only the outlines of continents is the same in 1700, 1800 and 1900.

Even within the United States changes affect where your family lived and where the records they left behind will be found. A farmer in Illinois may never have moved but he may have lived in three or more different counties. As people moved into an area the counties were split and became new counties often more than once. He might even have lived in one state and then in another such as when West Virginia broke off from Virginia during the Civil War.

Most genealogy records in the U.S. are on the county level. Deeds, probate records, marriages, and court records can all be found on this level. At one time vital records were on this level with the states taking over in later years.

Naturalization records can be on the county level, the state level and the federal level. They all must be checked.

Study maps of the time. If you ancestor lived on the far side of a large river from his county seat he might have done much of his business, including getting married, in the next county whose county seat was closer and easier to get to.

Towns disappear especially in the West where boom towns flared and failed within a few years. Some towns have been buried under reservoirs and others just changed their names or were engulfed by larger nearby cities. It is important to learn the history of the area you are researching.

There are countless sources for this information especially on the Internet. A few places to try are local historical and genealogical societies, museums in the area, written county histories, and how-to genealogy books. Two of the go-to books on my shelf are: Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920 by William Thorndale and William Dollarhide and The Handybook for Genealogists published by The Everton Publishers, Inc. Both of these books are old and probably out of print but if you come across one . . . grab it!

An example from the "Handybook" is Perry County, Illinois. It was formed in 1827 from Randolph and Jackson Counties. (Information on my ancestors is in all three counties.) The county seat is Pinckneyville and the county clerk has incomplete birth records from 1879, complete from 1916 to present, marriage records from 1827, death records from 1879 and the Circuit Court Clerk has divorce, probate and civil court records from 1827.

Never give up. New records are being found and published all the time. When you go back to work on a line after a few months or years not only will your research skills be different but the sources may be too.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

I is for I Remember . . .

I've been working on my family history for about thirty-five years. In the process I never forgot that I also wanted to be a writer. The two merged as I started doing research for authors and then my own historical writing.

Along the way I fell in love with journaling and stream-of-consciousness writing. Sometimes I write about personal stuff. Sometimes it becomes a story or poem. Whatever evolves there is nothing like putting pen to paper (in my case a fountain pen is a little bit of heaven). Maybe one day I'll get all my fountain pens together and take a picture. hmm

One of the first books on writing and the one I always go back to is Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg. Each page has a little story about writing with no plan and a prompt to get you writing from all different places and times. It's hard to explain if you don't do it.

One of her prompts is:

Begin with "I remember." Write lots of small memories. If you fall into one large memory, write that. Just keep going. Don't be concerned if the memory happened five seconds ago or five years ago. Everything that isn't this moment is a memory coming alive again as you write. If you get stuck, just repeat the phrase "I remember" again and keep going.

As you write like this, memories you didn't even realize you had, come bubbling to the surface. One memory leads to another, and another, and another.

A few years later Natalie came out with another great book on writing: Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir. Natalie's writing has a way of putting you in another zone. It reaches beyond the surface and helps you get to the meat and bones of your self.

I was lucky enough to hear Natalie speak a year or so ago. She was amazing. Yes, meeting a long-admired author is a little like that rock star excitement.

Family history is learning about your ancestors and their lives. It is also learning how those lives affected you. Your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles all helped you become You. Leaving memoirs for your descendants and others is an important part of passing all of that on.

Natalie Goldberg and I after she signed her latest book,
The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language.

Find a pen and paper and get started. I remember . . .

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

H is for History

Once I started doing my genealogy history took on a whole new meaning. Documentaries on the PBS station now show me what was happening when my ancestors were alive. The Revolutionary War isn't just when my country gained its freedom but when some of my ancestors were in battle or perhaps offering supplies.

Other ancestors were on both sides of the Civil War and at least one hung after Bacon's Rebellion. Some followed the Santa Fe Trail and others were part of the Oklahoma Land Rush.

A speaker at a genealogical conference opened her talk with making bread. Just like our ancestors did. Those daily tasks and understanding how they lived is what makes them come to life. How did your fourth great grandmother card wool, spin it, make her family clothes. Have you tried spinning?

Not only does this type of information bring your ancestors to life but how much more interesting would characters be with those details? Historical fiction author James Alexander Thom has an excellent writers' manual: The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction.

Thom discusses going to re-enactments, living in the woods and canoeing rivers just like Lewis and Clark. He suggests that if your character (or ancestor) needs to use a certain tool that you learn how to use that tool.

So how can you do this? Local historical museums, reproduction towns with people "living" the life and those re-enactment groups. There are groups for the Civil War, the Renaissance era and the Wild West.  History is all around us if we just open our eyes.

Old postcard of a lady with her spinning wheel.

My spinning wheel.

Re-enactment of the funeral procession following the Gunfight and the O.K. Corral,
Tombstone, Arizona. 
125th Anniversary of the Gunfight.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

G is for Groups

Groups, Clubs, Societies

There are genealogical societies for every state, many regions and some counties. Also countries, ethnic groups and surnames. Some are linked to local historical societies. All are great sources for information on your family history.

The obituary listed under "C is for Cemeteries" about Grandmother Thompson came from a journal published by the Kansas Genealogical Society back before internet research. I'm pretty sure I jumped for joy.

These groups often publish local lore, documents, Bible records, photographs and genealogy charts. Things that would never be seen otherwise. Some chapters take on projects such as locating and reading small cemeteries.

Many of them now publish information on their web sites. It is important to remember these groups are funded my memberships and there are advantages to joining those in the area where your family lived. You can also send in queries to be published. These are a great way to find those long lost cousins with the watch fob made from your great, great grandmother's hair or an journal kept by your great great grandfather.

It is also important to join a group where you live. The meetings often have speakers who provide a wealth of information. Members share ideas and stories of their own break-throughs. Sometimes there will be a roll-call of members' ancestors at a meeting. I know people who have found distant cousins sitting in the next row. A friend even found a descendant of one of the witnesses for her own ancestor who was hung as a witch in Salem.

It's a small world after all.

Great Grandmother Nellie and I. 

James Warner George who was born in 1839 in Barbour County, Virginia 
which became part of West Virginia during the Civil War. 

A photo of John Henry Covey which I located through a distant cousin found through a genealogy group. Nobody on my side of the family had a photo of him. He was born in 1833 and died in 1914. He also served in the Civil War. 

Another photo I received through a genealogical society. Orpha Ann (Collinsworth) Waggoner's first husband, my great, great grandfather, is believed to have died during the Civil War. 
This is her second husband. She was born in 1844 and died in 1903.