Monday, August 20, 2012

A Thought or Two on Civic Art and Frontier Settlement

The city of Clarksburg, West Virginia is a small city of about 17,000 people and is the county seat of Harrison County.  It was established in 1785 and named after General George Rogers Clark of Revolutionary War fame.  When Clarksburg was founded and established as the county seat, Harrison County included a very large portion of present-day West Virginia and a large part of that land was still unsettled. 

Trappers and fur traders had been camping in the area of Clarksburg for at least 20 years before its founding and farmers had been felling trees and plowing fields for a good dozen years or so before the Clarksburg settlement was big enough to think of itself as anything other than a small outpost on the very big frontier.  At the time, the Clarksburg settlement was nominally part of Virginia, at least as far as laws determine which state is in charge of what territory, but, for all practical purposes,  it was The Frontier, and Mrs. Blogger’s ancestors were there (well, actually  – being “settlement-adverse” - they were a few miles to the south) with their axes, plows and seed corn.

In 1985, Clarksburg celebrated its two hundredth birthday. One thing that the organizers of the bicentennial celebration left behind for future generations was a sculpture in front of the Harrison County Court House. The sculpture, titled “The Immigrants”, was created by William D. Hopen of Sutton, Braxton County, West Virginia and stands in silent tribute all the many people who have called Clarksburg home during the past two centuries.

Public – or civic - art is important, especially in a country made up of many nationalities, races, religions and cultures.  It provides a point of cultural focus, a focal point for reflection and contemplation of things bigger than ourselves and, if done right, a “civic story.”

Tourists from all over the world come to the United States and seek out our grandest pieces of civic art, and, through them, learn about our national story.  The Lincoln Memorial.  Mount Rushmore.  The Statue of Liberty.  Cities throughout the United States abound with less well known examples of civic art that tell smaller, more localized and more detailed parts of our national story, like the Clarksburg, West Virginia sculpture in front of the court house.

Civic art calls out to be looked at, both from a distance and from close up.  It has a story to tell, and, at its best,  is designed to draw you ever closer to study the subtle details. That way, you will likely think more carefully about the more detailed parts of the story.

Here’s a view of the Hopen sculpture from the front, and from a distance:

You can tell right off that there’s a story being told here.  In fact, the story begins on the left side of the sculpture. Here’s what it looks like from the side, portraying the first people to live here:

As you move from left to right, you can see the faces changing and the immigrant story unfolding.  By the time you reach the far right, the figures represent the new European arrivals of the early 20th century.  [Note: Clarksburg hosts one of the largest Italian festivals in the United States.]  The figures are not meant to be specific individuals; rather, they are meant to represent the diverse types of people who come together to form communities over time.

Sometimes, you might miss a few details at first glance.  For example, I’m pretty sure that most folks miss the coal miner (see below) with his pick crawling out of the mine until they study the sculpture a bit more carefully.

 Of course, civic art reflects the time and place of its creation, with all its cultural baggage, telling us the story that its creators were commissioned to tell.  Not everyone’s story gets told correctly, and in some cases, there are stories that never get told at all.

“The Immigrants” tells us the classic story of West Virginia’s first settlers – native Americans, explorers, farmers, craftspeople and business folk – utilizing about 16 or 17 representative figures. 

But wait a minute - What’s missing here?  Frankly it’s a problem that I notice with a lot of civic art.  In fact, any genealogist will probably recognize it immediately. 

The tiny babe in arms notwithstanding, only two of the representational adult figures are women. That leaves a whole lot of the story of immigration and settlement untold and unremembered. 

And that's why we need to tell more stories.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Back From Being On The Road; Glad I Had The Digital Voice Recorder

Harrison Co. Court House 
in Clarksburg, WV 

It’s no easy feat to get yourself re-organized after a week-long research trip in West Virginia courthouses.  

After the customary unpacking, getting caught up with the personal and business email and the handling the accumulated business stuff, it’s finally time to sort out all those notes, photocopies and photos.  Then, it’ll be time to transcribe stuff, record-link the new stuff to the old stuff and finally see just what it all means.

First off, the photos of documents are at a minimum for this trip.  Why is that, you ask? Well that’s because all the county clerks’ offices we visited had prominently-posted signs warning that cameras of any kind – including cell phone cameras – were no longer permitted in the record room.  Usually, that warning was next to a sign advising that copies could be had for $1.50 for each of the first two and then for a buck thereafter.  Therefore, copies of uncomplicated, mostly boiler-plate deeds could easily cost about three or four bucks.  When you have a list of several hundred early 19th century deeds in one county, like we had, that can add up to big money pretty quickly. Do the math.

Needless to say, we went back to our research roots and abstracted or transcribed stuff. Mostly – but not entirely - on paper.  With pencils. Just like we used to do in 1965. With a couple of exceptions.

In Harrison County, this camera ban in the County Clerk’s Record Room seems to have gone into effect sometime in the summer of 2011. Strangely, the staff of the clerk of the Circuit Court one floor above took the opposite position about copies.  It was okay to take non-flash pictures with a digital camera or cell phone, but they would not make actual photocopies.  Plus, there was no charge to use the camera. Go figure.

That "cameras okay" position in Circuit Court enabled me to get this great image from a packet of documents that concerned an 1807 Chancery Court lawsuit between Isaac Hinkle and his cousin Jacob Elsworth and his wife.  It's a summons issued to William Thornhill and William Patton to serve as witnesses in the case.

In a few cases, especially when time was at a premium or I had severe writer’s cramp, I decided to use my trusty Olympus VN - 4100PC digital voice recorder. The recorder is small – about 4 inches by 1.5 inches – and thin, and fits neatly in my shirt pocket. As long as you don’t mind having people look at you funny (they think you’re talking to yourself, mostly), it’s a reasonable alternative to writing stuff down, especially if the thought of abstracting 50 or so deeds on a court house visit seems daunting.

Plus, if you do it right, it’s not very obtrusive or offensive, even if there are a lot of other people working in the record room or research facility.

Generally, when I come to a document I want to transcribe or abstract, I discreetly turn the recorder on, stick it in my shirt pocket, and start talking in a loud whisper.  When I finish, I reach into my pocket and push the “off” button.

On this trip, I tried not to be any louder than the under-thirty title searchers who were bantering back and forth about their last Saturday night dates. (“He’s was just, you know, so full of himself, you know, and I had to buy all my own shots and like, you know, the bar bill was nearly forty bucks and I swear I only had three or maybe four drinks . . .”)

Using a digital tape recorder to collect information is a skill that takes a bit of time to develop. 

For example, if you’re doing an actual document transcription, it’s important to remember to note the spelling of all names (personal and place) and any other words that are spelled in a non-standard way.   Plus, you need to remember to actually SAY the punctuation marks, paragraph and end-of-line breaks, capitalized words and all the other minutiae that you’ll want to appear when you actually type up the document in question.  

Most important of all, you MUST remember to provide yourself with a proper citation so that a week or so later, you’ll be able to tell where you actually found the document that you spent time dictating.  Was it on microform, an original book, a typed transcription or what?  Page number?  Book number?  Physical location? You know the drill.  You know what you need. Unless you note it while you’re doing it, you WILL most certainly forget.  Trust me on this.

In addition, because it’s a lot harder than it seems, it’s always a good idea to practice this voice recorder technique ahead of time with a couple of short but somewhat complicated documents until you get the hang of it.  After all, you don’t want to travel 600 miles from home, dictate stuff into a digital recorder and then drive all the way back only to learn that you failed to note the book and page number of a will, or the spelling of a witness name.  (Fortunately, I learned this skill many years ago when I was blessed with a secretary who was a whiz at shorthand, but lousy when it came to punctuation and paragraphing. )

Bottom line: a $50 - $75 investment in a digital voice recorder that can store over 100 hours’ worth of files  can be well worth it for a genealogist caught in a situation where cameras are banned and copies are expensive.

Next time, after I get through listening to and typing up some of my “sotto voce” recorded abstracts, I’ll tell you about some of the more interesting things I found.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

In the Shadow of the Family Tree – The Story of “G.W. James Acting Adjutant”

[Last night, I promised I would tell you the story of "G. W. James  -  Acting Adjutant".  If you haven't read that earlier post, you should start there, just so  you have the proper context for today's story. ]

One of the many interesting documents in the new Fold 3 collection of the 54th Massachusetts is a regimental roster of commissioned officers dated June of 1865. 

By then, the war was over. Lee had surrendered, Lincoln had been assassinated, and the Grand Review of the Armies – a two-day victory parade through Washington – had already taken place the month before. 

Whatever happened to that “G. W. James   Acting Adjutant” whose name appeared on “Special Orders No. 2” just below that of his commanding officer Col. Robert Gould Shaw a little more than two years earlier?  

Shaw had been killed in battle on July 18, 1863, but what about G.W. James?  Did he survive? 

Who was he, anyway?

The roster for June 1865 tells part of the story.  It shows that “Garth W. James”, now a captain, was still alive.  It also shows that he had first enlisted as a private on September 12, 1862.  Born in July of 1845, he was barely 17 at the time he enlisted and was still only 17 when he served as Shaw’s adjutant in March of 1863. His name, along with his enlistment details,  appears at the very end of the list below:

Some other records of the 54th also show that while “Garth” was his “official” first name, nearly everyone who knew him used his nickname of “Wilkie”.  It even appeared that way in the official records of the 54th from time to time. 

Here he is as “Wilkie”, being assigned by Shaw to the regiment’s “D” company as a 2nd lieutenant, along with his close friend, Cabot Jackson Russel:

Of course, “Wilkie” wasn’t really James’ actual first name, either.  His father had named his third son “Garth Wilkinson James” in honor of his close friend James John Garth Wilkinson (1812 –1899) a English homeopathic physician, philosopher and social reformer who had introduced the elder James to the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg a few years before Wilkie was born.

Wilkie's famous older brother -
novelist Henry James
For much of his life, Wilkie James lived under the ever-expanding shadow spread by his famous family of over-achievers.  His grandfather – Irish immigrant and Albany merchant William James – had been one of the most successful businessmen in America, leaving his children a very comfortable fortune that relieved them of the burden of working for a living.  His father Henry James was a well-known theologian and friend of nearly all the New England Transcendentalist literati, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.  His older brother William James would grow up to become the world-famous Harvard psychologist and philosopher while his other older brother Henry James was on his way to becoming America’s most famous and prolific expatriate novelist.

Neither Wilkie nor his younger brother Robertson James were drawn to the literary or intellectual pursuits that consumed other members of the James family.  That gene seemed to have passed them by. Both still in their teens, they wanted to be men of action. When the Civil War broke out, the obvious opportunity for action stared them in the face. Staunch abolitionists, both brothers enlisted – first Wilkie, then Robertson.

Wilkie transferred to Shaw’s regiment as soon as it was organized in 1863; Robertson joined the 55th Massachusetts, also a regiment of black volunteer recruits, as an officer around the same time.  He was not yet 17.

Today’s story, however, is about Wilkie.

As you may know, after training outside of Boston at Readville,  the Massachusetts 54th sailed for South Carolina.  Some months later, on the evening of July 18, 1863, they were ordered to attack Fort Wagner, the Confederate stronghold in Charleston harbor.  The 54th’s commanding officer, Col. Robert Gould Shaw, was killed leading the attack, which would prove to be ill-planned by the Union generals and thus, unsuccessful. 

That much is history, well written and well-documented. But Wilkie’s story on that day is rarely told.

Enter the almost 18-year old Garth Wilkinson James, his sword in one hand and his cap in the other, following behind Col. Shaw in the din and smoke of the battle, rallying the men of the 54th.  Bullets whizzed by, but Wilkie forged ahead, leading the soldiers toward the fort’s parapet.

Wilkie was hit in the foot and in the side, but still he pressed on until he could no longer move because of the pain and the loss of blood.  He fell, severely wounded and exhausted. 

It is not clear whether Shaw was killed before Wilkie fell, or it was the other way round. Stories vary and memories can be faulty.

Wilkie James was found on the battlefield by ambulance men.  He was barely alive and taken to a tent that was serving as the Sanitary Commission’s field hospital.  

Some days later, he was located there by the father of his fellow officer and closest friend Cabot Jackson Russel.  Young Russel had also been shot and was missing.  Mr. Russel had come south in search of his son, but his search proved to be in vain; Cabot’s body was never found. When Russel returned north by ship, he brought his son’s friend Wilkie with him on a stretcher, taking him to  Newport, Rhode Island, where Wilkie’s parents were then living. Wilkie spent months in recovery, for the first weeks slipping in and out of consciousness.

Eventually he felt well enough to return to his regiment as the roster at the top of the page clearly shows.

Many years later, in 1890, Chicago lithographers Louis Kurz and Alexander Allison issued a large print called “Storming Fort Wagner”.  The Library of Congress copy below shows Col. Shaw, mortally wounded, about to fall. 

(Note: clicking on the picture will bring it up enlarged in another window.)

Behind him, there’s an officer with a sword in one hand and his hat in the other (see detail below).

That’s Wilkie.

Did it really happen the way Kurz and Allison portrayed it? Hard to say.  That’s the way some people remembered it. 

Seven years earlier, on November 23, 1883, the New York Times reprinted a short article that had originally appeared in the Milwaukee Wisconsin newspaper on November 16th.  It began:

The death of Garth Wilkinson James, which had been expected by his friends for some time past, occurred last evening shortly after 5 o’clock, at his residence, 473 Jefferson-street.

The story then went on to say:

Speaking of his military career, another gentleman said:  “Wilkie was only 17 when he enlisted in one of the Massachusetts regiments and went to the front.  On account of his conspicuous bravery he was promoted by Gov. Andrew to the position of Adjutant of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Colored Infantry.  He participated in the brilliant night attack on Fort Wagner, and when Col. Shaw was disabled in the action and the regiment was wavering and about to break, the boy of 18, waving his cap above his head and calling upon men to follow him,  succeeded in rallying them, and led them on to make a splendid assault.  He received three wounds on that occasion, from the effects of which he suffered until the day of his death.”

At least that’s how the story of Wilkie at Fort Wagner was remembered by his friends.

Garth Wilkinson James died of Bright’s disease (a form of a kidney disease now called nephritis) at the young age of 38, leaving a widow and two children under 10.

Here’s the James family of Milwaukee in the 1880 census, living at the 473 Jefferson Street address mentioned in the death notice three years later.

Although he was never as successful as his older brothers and was probably fortunate to have found a wealthy wife with a half-million dollars of her own, Wilkie found his own small moment of glory.  

There’s no monument to him, but still, his act of personal bravery lives on, frozen in time, in that Kurz and Allison chromolithograph print.

A very young man with a sword, his cap in his hand and his friends falling around him, facing an uncertain future.

And what about the rest of the regiment? Did it live up to Gov. Andrew’s expectations that day and become a model fighting force of black soldiers? Here’s what Samuel W. Mason, the correspondent of the New York Herald, who witnessed the assault on Fort Wagner, wrote about the regiment: —

“I saw them fight at Wagner as none but splendid soldiers, splendidly officered, could fight, dashing through shot and shell, grape, canister, and shrapnel, and showers of bullets, and when they got close enough, fighting with clubbed muskets, and retreating when they did retreat, by command and with choice white troops for company."

Even though the 54th Massachusetts did not succeed in taking Fort Wagner that day, the story of the battle traveled far and wide throughout the land, rallying thousands of other African-American men to join the U.S. Colored Troops and take up the fight.

You see, stories have a power of their own. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

July 18th 1863 - Remembering The 54th Massachusetts

Last week, Fold 3 sent an email to subscribers with the subject line: Content Update - New Title Added.   

That new content was described as “…a multitude of documents chronicling the history and activities of the 54th Massachusetts from 1863 to 1865. They include letters, endorsements, order books, morning reports, returns, muster rolls, and miscellaneous records.”

Exactly what was the “54th Massachusetts”?

The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was also known as the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry, a regiment of black soldiers and non-commissioned officers that was raised in 1863.  One of the first regiments of black soldiers raised after the Emancipation Proclamation and the first recruited in the North, the 54th Massachusetts is pretty well-known, especially to those who saw the 1989 movie “Glory”, with Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Matthew Broderick in lead roles.

Many of the enlistees were from Massachusetts and other northeastern states; recruitment was greatly helped by the efforts of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, whose two sons - Charles and Lewis Douglass  - enlisted.  Still, there was great opposition in the north to the very idea of an all-black regiment; newspapers expressed the sentiments of many people that black men were ill-equipped to fight. 

Others, like Massachusetts Governor John Andrew – an ardent abolitionist - set out to prove them wrong.  His goal was to make the 54th Massachusetts a model fighting regiment, well-trained, well-ordered and well-equipped.

Responding to the order of Lincoln’s Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who decreed that only white commissioned officers could lead the regiment, Massachusetts Gov. John Andrew hand-picked many of the senior officers himself, recruiting them from well-connected “Boston Brahmin” abolitionist families. 

My own particular interest has been in the officer in command, who died in battle  at a place called Battery (and sometimes Fort) Wagner on the coast of South Carolina in Charleston Harbor - shot through the heart, they said  -  sometime after dusk 149 years ago today.

That officer in command of the Massachusetts 54th was Col. Robert Gould Shaw, son of Francis George Shaw (1809 – 1882) and his wife, the former Sarah Blake Sturgis (1815 – 1902).  Sarah Sturgis’s father, Nathaniel Russell Sturgis (1779 – 1856) was the first cousin of William Sturgis, about whom I’ve written several times before. William Sturgis is the grandkids’ 5th great grandfather, so Col. Robert Gould Shaw is part of their huge extended family of tens of thousands of cousins, living and dead, known and unknown.  Some of those cousins fought for the Union in the Civil War; still others fought for the Confederacy.  Families are complex like that.

[The photo at left shows one of the plaster models of Col. Shaw’s head that Augustus Saint Gaudens used for the Shaw Memorial. The model is on display at the Saint Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, New Hampshire, where I took this and the other photos on the page.]

Many members of the large Sturgis clan participated in what was known as "the China trade", hauling furs from the Pacific Northwest to China and silks and porcelains home to Boston; they did well and married well. William Sturgis and Russell Sturgis were grandsons of Thomas Sturgis and Sarah Paine, whose many descendants include folks as diverse as the actress Kyra Sedgewick (a descendant of Robert Gould Shaw’s sister Susannah), Edward William Sturgis Balfour, 9th Laird of Balbirnie (a William Sturgis descendant),  and Her Highness Sylvia Brett Brooke, wife of Charles Vyner deWindt Brooke (26 September 1874–9 May 1963), who was the last Rajah of Sarawak; she descended from another of William and Russell Sturgis’s first cousins – Lucretia Sturgis -  daughter of their uncle Samuel and the wife of Joshua Bates, a New Englander who moved to London and ran Baring’s Bank.

So, naturally, I wanted to peruse this new Fold 3 title, especially the “General Orders” records issued when the newly-formed regiment was still training at Fort Meigs in Readville, Massachusetts.  [Readville was a Boston suburb at the time; today it is part of the city’s Hyde park neighborhood.]

Records like these help us tell stories. 

Every record has its own unique story; it’s often just a matter of ferreting it out.  Of course, records can often raise even more questions than they answer and then lead researchers to new information and new understanding. But most of all, records can help us understand things that are only partly known by adding some precious detail. 

Here are just a few examples from the 54th’s “Special Orders”.  As you read them, remember that Gov. Andrew expected that the 54th would be a “model” regiment, both in performance and appearance.  This would be a uphill battle since Congress would not pay “colored” soldiers as much as white men; $3.00 a month was deducted (out of their $10 a month pay) for clothing used, and Congress also refused to give them the same $42 annual clothing allowance that white soldiers received.

“Special Orders No. 2”,  dated Camp Meigs, March 23, 1863, laid out some of what what Colonel Shaw expected from his men.  It was obvious that discipline and the ability to follow orders were paramount.  The Orders began, “On the entrance of a commissioned officer into the companies quarters the senior non-commissioned officer present will command ‘Attention’.  Each man will take his place in front of his own bunk and salute.”  

Late-night snacks were also off-limits; the Orders stressed that “No enlisted man excepting the cooks, the 1st sergeant and the non-commissioned officer in charge of the kitchen will be allowed to enter the cook house.”

Attention to detail and neatness were important as well:  “The Knapsacks will be kept habitualy [sic] packed and on the foot of the bunk.  The woolen blanket will be carefully folded and laid at the head. The india-rubber blanket spread over the bunk.

Later on, it’s obvious that Shaw wanted to insure that his men would make a good impression on the Readville locals. “Commanders of companies will be careful to allow no man to leave camp who is not neatly dressed in his uniform and in fine weather with his boots blacked.”

Special Orders No. 2 was signed:

Less than four months after issuing the orders above, Robert Gould Shaw  - all of 25 years old - was dead, buried without ceremony in a common mass grave with the soldiers who fell with him on July 18th, stripped of everything but his underwear.  In time, even the soldiers’ mass grave would disappear, washed out to sea by erosion and a series of coastal hurricanes.

Today, visitors to Boston Common will find the memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and his men that was designed years later by Augustus Saint Gaudens; my photo below was taken last year at the Saint Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, New Hampshire, where this full-size version of the Boston monument can be found.  The cropped image at the top of the post shows the detail.

July 18, 1863 was a day of carnage and a day of stories.  Most of the stories that recount that day focus on Col. Shaw or the 23 year old former slave named William H. Carney, who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his service that day. He was the first black soldier to receive that honor.

But there were other stories, not as well remembered.  One of those stories is about the very young man from a privileged background whose name and title  - G. W. James  Acting Adjutant - appears right below Shaw’s on the “Special Orders” above. 

I’ll tell you more about his story tomorrow.

Meanwhile, tonight, take a moment to remember the fallen men of the 54th Massachusetts .  

Tonight is their night, by rights.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Riddle Me This: What Do You Have When You Have 4 Million Shooks?

No matter what kind of research we do, just as soon as we move from the present to the distant past, we find ourselves tripping over words that seem to have been left there just to bedevil us.

Whether it’s the census ( i.e., ancestral occupations) or city directories (businesses and products), there’s always something we don’t understand that calls out for much more in-depth research. Being willing to take that extra step and do additional research that’s not directly related to genealogy is what makes casual researchers into serious researchers. 

There’s a truism that relates to all kinds of research: the more you know about “stuff” in general, the more successful you’re likely to be when you’re searching for something. Bottom line: the more you know, the more you’re likely to discover.

For example, there’s a “Dr. Robert Liston” who appears regularly in late 19th century Albany city directories.  He’s described as an “aurist”, a term you don’t hear much anymore in these parts.  Here’s his business listing:

Even if you don’t know what an “aurist” actually did, you could ignore the word and move on.  Or…you could do exactly as it says above and … “see page 24.”

A quick look at Liston’s full page ad informs us that he specializes in treating diseases of the ear.  Now you know – at least broadly – what an aurist did.

Chances are, if you meet the word “aurist” again in a document or reference, you’ll remember the “diseases of the ear” connection.

Elsewhere in Albany directories, we find Mr. A. Van Allen Jr. at 24 Beaver Street.  He sells foundry riddles. Chances are, the term “foundry riddles” rarely comes up in your day-to-day conversation, right?   And  I’m guessing the market for children’s jokes, puns and riddles about foundries is probably non-existent, wouldn’t you agree?

While his colored ad isn’t particularly informative, it doesn’t take much to learn from dictionary sources that “riddles” are coarse sieves used in foundry work to put sand on iron castings.

But then the fun begins.  Imagine finding that your guy was described in the same way as William Barnet in the 1899 Albany directory:

The common usage of the word “shoddy” implies things made with inferior materials or with poor quality workmanship.  In fact, that's the definition that appears when you look up the word in the two dictionary references ("A To Zax" and "What Did They Mean By That?") that I mentioned in the last post.  But, of course, city directory publishers never passed judgment on the quality of the products their advertisers made, so it must be something else.

This is where it’s helpful to have a broad general knowledge of the various industrial monographs published during the late 19th and early 20th centuries by the Census and other sources. The Abstract of the 1914 Census of Manufactures, published by the Department of Commerce - Bureau of the Census tells us that the term means something else indeed. 

In its review of the textile industries in the United States, it defines “shoddy” this way:

"Shoddy" is a generic term that is applied to recovered wool or cotton fiber, that is, the fiber obtained by passing rags, clippings, yarns, or waste through machines which reduce them to the condition of clean fiber ready for mixing with new material for spinning into yarn.

So, being a “shoddy manufacturer” isn’t so bad after all.  Just don’t show Aunt Esther the city directory ad without explanation; she’d be mortified to learn that her great-grandfather was once described as a “shoddy manufacturer”, when all along she thought he was a woolen trade magnate producing goods of the highest quality...

Another 1899 directory listing looks like this:

Okay, so just what is a “shook”?  Perhaps their larger ad on page 663 will offer some helpful hints. Let’s see:

There’s that word “shooks”  -  stuck in between “hardwood cases” and “egg carriers.”  At best, we know that it’s some kind of wooden box, but if we want to move beyond that, we’ll need some more information from an additional source.

Luckily, there’s a story in the New York Times of 21 July 1901 that pops up in a Google search of the term “shook.”  

Suddenly it all comes clear.

The story is headed: The Fruit Box Shook Trade:  Exports From Bangor Will Be Greater Than Ever Before.  Now we’re getting somewhere.  Describing the 4,000,000 boxes that will be shipped to mainland Italy and Sicily that year, the story helpfully explains just what a “shook” is:

Some folks will say, “But this isn’t genealogical research!” 

My reply is simple: maybe not on the surface, but we old-timers discovered many long years ago that learning what words mean in their historical context and knowing how and where to find obscure information about occupations, industries, and all kinds of similar minutiae is exactly the foundation upon which really good genealogy (and really good historical research in general) rests.

What I said near the top of this post bears repeating:  

The more you know, the more you’re likely to discover.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Even Though That Old Deed Says “Perches”, They Didn’t Measure His Land In Fish

For most people, it starts simply enough.  

Grab a name here.  Find a date there. 

Then add some more names.  Then, more dates.

Pretty soon,  you’re on your way to becoming a genealogist of sorts.

After a while, it becomes obvious;  you’re really not exactly where you thought you were.  Things aren’t as familiar as they seemed when you started.

You’re actually in a foreign country called The Past – sometimes a very strange and alien land – inhabited largely by dead people - people that you know far less about than you’d like.  

Sure, you may know their names and their dates and even who married who and who had which children . . . but the world they lived in is not your world. The people who populate it don’t even speak the same language.

What did they do in the evenings before electricity?  What was breakfast like in 17th century Massachusetts?  Did the tooth fairy visit kids in West Virginia in 1877?  How much did a blacksmith make for fixing a broken shovel?  How far would a woman walk to visit a friend before it was "too far away"?

Even though good researchers are mostly concerned with their own ancestral families, they soon realize that it makes sense to learn as much as possible about this mystifying foreign land, which is why most of us have shelves of books about The Way Things Were.

But of course no matter how large our personal libraries get, they’ll never answer every question that pops up in the course of a day’s research.

This issue is usually driven home while transcribing documents – especially documents like probate records – that refer to things that are often foreign to us today.

People, it seems, must have talked funny in The Past, using words that we don’t use at all today or words that  we use far, far differently.

Recently we’ve been transcribing a series of early to mid-19th century Virginia family estate appraisals and sales and all sorts of questions keep popping up, especially for us 21st century city folk.  

Exactly what is a “shovel plough”? Does a “tobacco hoe” look different from other kinds of hoes, say, a “hilling hoe”?  How many books are there likely to be in “one lot of books and a slate” that sold for 56 and a half cents in 1838 rural Virginia and what kind of books were they? Does the presence of books in a sale list imply that the deceased owner could read, or were they just for show?  What does one do with a pair of “drawing chains with back bands”?  Come to think of it, do “drawing chains” even exist without “back bands”?  And by the way … what are “drawing chains” anyway and why would I want to own them?

There are, of course, a number of resources that skilled genealogists use to find answers to many (but never ALL) of these kinds of questions.  For example, every researcher needs to have ready access to a good  - and preferably old-fashioned  - legal dictionary.  I personally like those doorstop-sized earlier (pre- 1980) editions of Black’s Law Dictionary.  Others may prefer Bouvier’s, but I tend to gravitate toward Black’s. 

For example, when you run across a “lease and release” property transaction in 19th century Virginia, it’s always good to be able to get a quick answer from Black’s as to what all this is supposed to mean.  (It’s much too complicated to explain here, but you can always look it up in Black’s…)

Also, it’s helpful to turn to Black’s when you want to know exactly why those three guys from the parish of Saint James Notham who you never heard of before were “processioning” your deceased ancestor’s farm in Goochland County in 1810. Were they walking around single file with candles, chanting like monks?
Not exactly.  

Black's points out that “processioning” was a process used to inspect, verify and record property boundaries in the days prior to formal surveying. Speaking of measuring farmland, when you see that one of the terms in your ancestor’s property line measurement was “perches”, Black’s will helpfully point out that they weren’t using fish – just a measurement that was equal to sixteen and a half feet.

Genealogists may also want to turn to any number of good dictionary-like references that explain what are now almost “foreign” words that our ancestors regularly used but have since fallen into genteel oblivion.  Personally, I like having my copy of Barbara Jean Evans’ A to Zax: A Comprehensive Dictionary for Genealogists and Historians close at hand, right beside my copy of Paul Drake’s What Did They Mean By That: A Dictionary of Historical and Genealogical Terms Old and New.  

For example, it’s helpful to learn that “cholera morbus” was not the same as what was known as “asiatic cholera” or that “tabby” was a term used to describe silk taffeta, not the family cat.

Of course, not every term you will run across will be found in the references mentioned above. Sometimes, you’ll need to do even more research to track down its true meaning. 

Sometimes, context provides a clue or two. And sometimes not.

In fact, despite checking all the references above, I still don’t know the difference between a hilling hoe and a tobacco hoe.

Next time,  I’ll be looking at a few more terms that may baffle or delight you. 

Stay tuned.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Summer Issue Of "New York Archives" Magazine Has Appeared !

As many of you know, since 2005, I’ve been writing the “Genealogy” section for the quarterly magazine published by the New York State Archives Partnership Trust called New York Archives.  

Last night, I counted up those articles I’ve written; I figured I’ve appeared in 31 of the 45 published issues.

I sent off my article for the Fall issue a few weeks ago, and, wondrous to say, my author’s copies of the current [Summer] issue arrived a few days later, just like clockwork.

So, what’s in the current issue?  

In a word, it’s a tasty summer buffet of New York history, with a little something for everyone and all with an archives connection.

For starters, there’s my “Genealogy” section.  This issue’s topic is Revisiting Those ‘Cold Case’ Files, wherein I discuss some of the research resources to be found on the NYS Archives website that can be useful in breaking down long-standing brick walls.

(And, no, I never discuss or reveal the topic of the next issue until it appears in print.  Suffice it to say, it will involve archives, New York State and genealogy.)

Then there’s Bob Arnold’s excellent article on the 74 previously unpublished letters of Civil War General Emory Upton. The letters were donated by a descendant of Upton to the Holland Purchase Historical Society in Batavia, NY – where Upton grew up - and have now been transcribed by volunteers. Bob was the first director of the Albany City-County Archives and Hall of Records before he went to the State Archives, and has a real sense of what’s “research-important”, so to speak.

Plus, the NYS State Archives’ own Kathleen Roe describes the new partnership between the NYS Archives and Ancestry.  The partnership makes the NYS Archives records now on Ancestry available to NYS residents without charge through a special account called “Ancestry New York”.  (No, not all of the Ancestry website is free – just the records that come from the NYS Archives and other selected New York archival repositories.  Note: the NYS- Ancestry collection will grow over time.)

For those with New York City German roots, there’s a gripping article about the “General Slocum” disaster in June 1904.  The “General Slocum”, a paddlewheel steamboat, had been hired by St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Manhattan’s “Little Germany” for a special outing.  1,358 passengers – all members of the German church community – were on board when a fire broke out on board.  1,021 people died, making it the largest loss-of-life disaster in New York City until September 11, 2001.  “Little Germany” was never the same after the “Slocum” fire.

Need something revolutionary?  There’s Joseph Cummins’ article on the Sons of Liberty and New York Tea Party of 1774.  Then there’s David Goddard’s article titled No Day at the Beach that chronicles the tensions between the wealthy “summer folks” and the year-round farmer-residents of Long Island’s Southampton in the late 19th century.  For gardeners, there’s a nice piece on the restoration of the garden at Bellefield on the former estate of State Senator Thomas Jefferson Newbold and his wife Sarah Lawrence (Coolidge) Newbold in Hyde Park. Bellefield is a National Park Service property next to the FDR Presidential Library.

David DeKok’s article on the typhoid epidemic of 1903 in Ithaca, New York will be of special interest to those with interest in Cornell, the regulation of public and private water systems and epidemiology. Then, last but certainly not least, is Shane White’s fascinating study of the “policy and clearing house” gambling rackets in 19th century New York City.  Who knew what great treasure could be found in the New York District Attorney Indictment Papers in the Municipal Archives?

A short piece on New York’s World War II license plates and another on the Saratoga Drink Hall (mineral spring water) complete the issue, all neatly edited into 36 well-illustrated pages.

New York Archives magazine is sent without charge four times a year to all members of the New York State Archives Partnership Trust.  Membership is $35.00 a year.  Membership has other privileges as well, all of which are spelled out on the Trust’s website.

So, if you are interested in New York history, enjoy getting discounts on books and admissions and also believe in supporting public archives – which are woefully underfunded by their governments all over North America – you should check out the website at: