Tattered Past

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





Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Z is for Zirkleh


Johann Ludwig Zirkle was born on October 9, 1705 in Ittlengen, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany. He immigrated to America in 1725. He died around January 1746 in Telford, Philadelphia (now Montgomery) County, Pennsylvania. He was married  to Maria Eva Bear.
His father also came to Pennsylvania. The family moved into Virginia and eventually settled in Shenandoah County. There are still Zirkles living in the area. 

Over time I have found the name spelled Zirkle, Zirkel, Zerckel, Zerkel, Sirkle, Sirckle, Serckle, Serckel, Zerckle and some even Anglicized it to Circ
Makes research rather challenging. 

In my early days in genealogical research there was a very popular speaker, Desmond Walls Allen from Arkansas. I went to a conference in San Diego where she was a speaker. I can still picture her in front of this huge lecture hall jumping up and down to stress that in genealogy "SPELLING DOESN'T COUNT!"

Johann Zirkle was a German in an English area. What did that clerk hear when they said their name? How was it spelled in Germany? Did it change here? Zirkle is actually a fairly easy one. Sometimes when records are transcribed letters are misread. For Zirkle that means you need to research in different parts of the index. 

It is well worth the time to sit down and jot down all the various spellings you can think of and keep it at hand when doing your research. 

I used my maiden name Wilburn in an example for a class. It was eye-opening. I've seen "W" as in Wilson transcribed as "N" as in Nelson. It took a long time to find that marriage record. 

Here's a few more examples to consider:

B that looks like R or P
All the vowels are often interchanged
Double letters can be single or triple
M and N and W can all be interchanged
V and R are hard to tell apart in many records Covey vs Corey

As I always told my genealogy students: Be Creative.





Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Y is for Your Truth

Questions about revealing secrets often come up in conversation about doing family history research and writing memoirs.

All families have secrets. Sometimes a genealogist will learn about them and may have to face the decision of following the legal line or the biological line. That has to be up to the individual but I'm afraid DNA testing is going to blow a lot of family histories out of the water.

With memoir as the fastest growing genre in publishing a lot of questions come up about how much can and should be said. Without going in to legalities of libel and law suits it boils down to the writer/researcher's own conscience.

The phrase "write your own truth" has become the catch phrase. We can't remember every conversation, every word, every gesture that happened in a situation. We each come at an event in a different way. Consider the witnesses at a car accident. Not only will each account vary but the stories will usually change over time.

Historians and aficionados from around the world spend hours debating what happened 
during the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The events leading up to that thirty seconds in history can't be agreed on. Witnesses saw different things, heard different things and each had their 
own reason for saying what they did. Earps and Doc Holliday vs the Cowboys. The truth 
will never be agreed on.

Journaling for yourself is a healing and enlightening practice. Be honest with yourself. If you are afraid of others reading your private history use a code or destroy them. If writing memoirs to pass on to our children and grandchildren think about what it is they need to know.

If you want to write a memoir in the hopes of publication it is important that you read memoirs. There are many books and workshops around to give you pointers in how to get started and what the publishing process is like.

Keep writing. Keep sharing and always tell your truth. 




Monday, April 28, 2014

X is for Xylophone


Did you have one of these as a child? Did your children have one?

What memories do you have about xylophones? Did you play one in school?

Sometimes it is amazing what can spark a memory. A catalog came last week with some vintage toys listed. The xylophone struck a cord. So did the paper dolls, pull along telephone, the yo-yo, and dominoes.

These memories took off to playing Parcheesi with my sister and Chinese Checkers with my cousins.

Sometimes I cut out the images from catalogs or nostalgic magazines and put them in an art or visual journal and write the memories along with them. Here's a page I did with plastic cowboys:


Save your memories in what ever way you can!

By-the-way the link to the catalog is here.


Saturday, April 26, 2014

W is for Writing

Writers write.  Family historians research and write. Memoirists remember and write. Everybody should write, every day.

I love to write. I love to read. I love to read about writing. I love to hang out with writers. It becomes a way of life. 

In her book Julia Cameron suggests a practice called "morning pages." First thing in the morning I write three pages in a journal on whatever comes to mind. I keep my hand moving and don't worry about grammar, punctuation or spelling. I don't worry about it making sense. I just write. Over the years it has become such a part of me to unload, drain, practice in this way that my husband can tell when I haven't been doing it. It keeps me sane and in touch with my feelings.

I continue by writing during the day. Memoirs, family stories, poems or just fiction stories that come to mind. I write in my writer's group. I write this blog. I write articles on Arizona history and the second edition of my book. 

It is a proven fact that journaling is beneficial in all types of mental and emotional wellness. People are told to write letters to family members who have passed on. To write about disturbing childhood memories. Why not write about good things too? It is also proven that the  more you write the more you remember. Each layer of memories peels off to reveal more memories.

Today, start writing down the family stories, your own stories. Write them for the future. Also, write about yourself and your life for you. Keep the hand moving. Pen or pencil and paper is all you need.


     I remember fishing at Greene's. We had to pass through a number of gates to get to the creek. At each one Granddad got out of the car, opened the pasture gate, got back in, drove through, got out and closed the gate just to drive on to the next gate.
     We mostly caught catfish and sometimes bony perch. One time Granddad let up a whoop that practically echoed off the hills. He'd caught a snapping turtle. I don't remember what all happened but I do remember my mother cleaning the fish, the turtle and some frogs. We didn't have to go to France for frog legs. 


Some of my favorite books on creativity and writing: 

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron

Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You by Ray Bradbury



Friday, April 25, 2014

V is for Vital Records

Finding vital records (birth, marriage, death) for your ancestors can be very exciting. There's so much information and it's legal so it's all true. Not.

The further back you go the less likely it is you will even find one of these records. Most states didn't have required registration until the later 1800s. Other states have all these records closed to anybody who isn't the person listed or a direct descendant. Or, as in Arizona that applies to birth records over 75 years old and death records over 50 years old. 

It is important that you understand the regulations in your particular jurisdiction.

Once you have located a record it is important to analyze the information correctly. I've led workshops in analyzing documents such as this death certificate for my great grandmother.


This death record provides us with Salenia's birth information and her parent's names. In this instance the information is correct but that isn't always the case. The informant was her daughter who lived in another state, a clue as to where that line went. Salenia was married to Isaac T. Waggoner. She was buried in Spencer Cemetery in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Luckily that cemetery has been read and published and I have a copy on my shelf. In that publication I have found numerous relatives and other clues.

I received this copy in 1982. I didn't know much about this side of the family at this point. This may have been the first time I read her parent's names. I don't remember.

What should be done with this information?
Check the censuses including 1870 for her parents.
Perhaps contact the funeral home for more information. Sometimes they are helpful but often out of business.
Try to find Salenia's obituary.
Check the county where she lived for a marriage record for Salenia and Isaac.
It isn't likely there is a birth record for Salenia but I should check with Arkansas to be sure when the records were kept. Same with the county.

So many clues from one document. Each bit of genealogical information leads to another. It's like being a detective, an amateur sleuth and it is a never ending quest.

That's what makes it such a fun hobby and profession.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

U is for Unique Names

According to Wikipedia the five most common surnames in the United States are: Smith, Johnson, Williams, Jones and Brown. I have most of these in my family tree. Number 17 on the list is Martin. I have Martin's on both my maternal and paternal lines and am also researching the Martins on my husband's maternal line.

It doesn't work to put "William Martin" into a Google search and come up with my ancestors. Even if I add states and/or dates it is difficult to find the right people. It is important in this case to be able to put in as much information as possible. How do you do this if the information you need is the information that might tell them apart from one another.

Sometimes to get to these more common names it is important to look for unique names. Either a sibling or even a neighbor whose name stands out in a list. Coming to your ancestor through the back door so-to-speak.

One of my favorite research stories is about some information I received from a client that her ancestors were named Lassie and Laddie _______. Really? In depth research in the county where this couple lived led me to learn their names were Lasophine and Aladin. Not very common names in the late 1800s.

My brick wall lines are the names Wilson, Jackson and Reed. They are all stuck in the early 1800s one of the hardest time periods to research as far as I'm concerned. Sometimes you can hope for unusual given names, like Lasophine and Aladin. Most of us have John, George, Thomas, and James. They are often passed from generation to generation. It isn't uncommon to find a John Martin Jr. and Sr. along with a couple of uncles all in the same area. Keep in mind Jr. and Sr. didn't necessarily mean son and father. It just may have been a younger and older man with the same name in the same area.

What about names for characters? I sometimes use my ancestors. I also watch the credits after movies and grab a first name here and a last name there. There are some really strange (or unusual) names out there.

Great, Great Grandfather Francis Marion Martin and great-grandfather William Albert Martin.

My husbands great grandmother Evelyn Lucille Martin Overdeer. 

Perhaps one day we will find a common ancestor. I know couples who have discovered they were very distant cousins. It seems that could become an interesting story.

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.

S
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:
Elephind.com

Many states also have their own newspaper search sites.

Others can be accessed through paid sites:

Newspaper Archive

Ancestry.com

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 . . .