Friday, December 31, 2010

An End-Of-Year Thought - The Comfort Zone

The winter-dark leaves on the rhododendron visible from the kitchen window are beginning to open up from the tight curl they’ve recently wrapped themselves into, indicating that it’s now above freezing outside again.  Inside, the furnace is running, making some folks in unfriendly, oil-rich countries very happy. 

Things are all cozy inside.  The thermostat says the temperature inside the house is in the “comfort zone”.

Comfort zone.  Flannel sheets at night. Well-worn slippers to navigate cold floors.  A beat-up cardigan. Oatmeal for breakfast. Noodle soup later on.  Comfort zone.  Hard to beat!

The usual End of the Year activities include getting next year’s calendar up to date and making sure all the “writeoff-able” end-of-year business bills are paid, since tax time is almost upon us. It's nice to do it here in the Comfort Zone.

Some people make resolutions; I don’t bother anymore, since I’d rather save my “resolve” for more important things.  Nonetheless, since New Year’s Eve is a kind of “catch up and reflect” day, I tend to offer myself advice for the year ahead. (Yes, Self, I know I said I’d get back to work on that book I started writing last spring, but stuff got in the way.) 

So, in the spirit of public charity and graceful giving, I’ll share one piece of that New Year’s Eve advice with you. It’s just advice; you can take it or leave it.  Still, you might find it useful.

Listen up - here it comes:   since a new year is barreling down on us (and you want it to be better than the last one, right?), try to get out of your “comfort zone” on a fairly regular basis when it comes to your research habits. Here’s why that’s important:

The older you get, the easier it is to do the same thing over and over again.  Pretty soon, you’re an “expert” about something. Next thing you know, you spend lots of your time with that “thing” you’re now an expert about.  Sometimes, people even ask for your opinion or advice because, after all, you do that same thing all the time.  You’re The Expert.

Problem is, you may not even notice that many of those other skills that I like to call your “peripheral skills” are drying up and wasting away from lack of use. 

Here’s an example:  Genealogists tend to read lots of stuff that directly relates to the things they do when they’re researching. If you work a lot in the northeastern states during the colonial period and are considered an “expert” on, say, migration into Massachusetts in the 1630s, you’re probably on top of most of the new things that are being published.  Chances are you’re very comfortable with that location and time period, research-wise.

However, the very best researchers know the importance of casting a wide net, not only to be sure they’re not missing something important, but also to keep their peripheral skills sharp.  So, when the New Year rolls around, plan on getting out of your research comfort zone and learning/researching something new.  It’ll keep your research and analytical skills much sharper.

For example, you might try expanding your historic world view, especially since you’ve probably forgotten much of what you’ve learned in school. 

Let’s say you’re cozy with Massachusetts in 1640.  You know the records available for research.  You know the Major Players of the time period.  You know the social structure, the religious views, etc.  You’ve read all THE IMPORTANT BOOKS.

If you want to get out of your comfort zone, perhaps you should investigate what was happening in Virginia during that same time period. Or better yet, travel farther afield.  What was going on in the area that is now Arizona and New Mexico in 1640?  How about in China?  Think about the slave trade: what was life like along the coast of West Africa in 1640?  Or perhaps, in Egypt?

Then there’s language, words and word origins.  I’m not suggesting that you need to necessarily learn a new language, but would a review of Latin and Latinate legal phrases be worth your while and take you out of your research comfort zone? It would certainly improve your research skills.  For example, when you find the legal term “messuage” in a document, do you know its origin?  Have you studied the economic activity of the mid 17th century well enough to know how things like property, tools and livestock were valued?

Maybe it’s time to learn a bit about architecture since, after all, the people we research had to live somewhere. Do you know what quoining is and why some bricklayers used Flemish bond?  What does a 17th century nail look like? What’s an adze? Did they use the same building tools in New England and in New France? Oh, yeah – just how big is an arpent?

Recently, as archivists moved the thousands of boxes of papers of the late Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia to their new home at Shepherd College, one of his staffers pointed out one of his dictionaries.  It was well-worn, heavily underlined and annotated in the margins.  The staffer pointed out that Byrd (1917 -2010) set out years earlier to learn at least one or two new words every single day. 

Byrd, the longest serving member of Congress ever in the United States,  understood the importance of getting out of the Comfort Zone every day – even when he didn’t have to.

Getting out of that cozy comfort zone is good for the research soul.  Give it a shot in 2011.
Have a Happy!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A 19th Century Map Worth Studying

If you’ve ever looked at our Jonathan Sheppard Books website, you know that we have more than a passing interest in maps. Maps can often present information in dramatic ways that words cannot.

So, it was great to see a unique historic Civil War era map featured on the New York Times website earlier this month.   It became even more timely last week – all because of a fancy dress ball.

Last week, some folks in Charleston, South Carolina hosted a “Secession Ball”  to mark the beginning of the Civil War Sesquicentennial. The ball was held exactly 150 years after South Carolina representatives signed their Ordinance of Secession on December 20, 1860. A few days later, on Christmas Eve 1860, the South Carolina representatives issued a document titled “A Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union”.    Slavery and its future (or the lack of same) under the government headed by newly elected Abraham Lincoln was a major issue of concern.

On April 12th 1861, the first engagement of the Civil War took place at Fort Sumter – in Charleston, South Carolina’s harbor.

About five months later, in September 1861, the United States Coast Survey published a fascinating map showing the distribution of the slave population in the southern states, based on the information in the 1860 census. The data were presented on a county by county basis, both numerically and with shading, making it easy to see those counties where slaves made up the largest percentage of the population.

The map cost 50 cents and the proceeds from the map’s sale were to be used for the benefit of the sick and wounded soldiers of the U. S. Army.  You can see the map here.   [Hint: Click on the “PDF of map” hyperlink; it will let you look at the great detail available.]

The map was – for its time – a superb way to present complicated data, especially considering the number of people who could not read English.

An interesting side-note: at the time the map was published, the United States Coast Survey – a leader in the development of innovative, content-rich maps -  was headed by Alexander Dallas Bache (1806 – 1867), the great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin.

Bache, a West Point graduate and a professor of natural philosophy and chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, was appointed Coast Survey superintendent in 1843 upon the death of its first leader Ferdinand Hassler. He remained in that position until his death in 1867. Among his other accomplishments, Bache was one of the founders and the first president of the National Academy of Sciences.  His papers, including his diaries and personal letters, are now housed in Washington at the Smithsonian Institution.

Source note: The "Negroes, Negroes" broadside above is from -
Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library Advertising Ephemera Collection - Database #A0160
Emergence of Advertising On-Line Project
John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Let's All Have a Holly Jolly!

I was considerably underwhelmed by the Christmas card choices available in most places this year.  

Sure, there are lots of specialty cards (including greetings purportedly from the family pets) and lots of both funny ha-ha and funny peculiar cards. There were cards with recorded music, including those with the voices of singers who left the planet years ago, plus lots of political and risque cards.

It made me realize just how good the fancy old (1890s - 1905s) Christmas postcards actually were.  Here's a few from the batch of postcards in the Jonathan Sheppard Books "general antiquarian - ephemera book fair" stock for your holiday amusement.  All are of U.S. origin and from the period above. 

Best of all, none of them sing at you...




Enjoy the Holidays!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

But First - Some Shameless Self-Promotion - The Article

Okay, here's the bit of shameless self-promotion. 

The current issue of “American Ancestors Journal” – the annual supplement that appears in the October issue of the “New England Historical and Genealogical Register” and deals with “non-New England” families – is now out. (That’s “Volume 164 - October 2010” of the “Register” for those who have electronic access to the journal on

My article, titled “The Shanley Family of Steuben County, New York in the Nineteenth Century” starts on page 352.  In the style of a narrative genealogy, it treats an extended Irish Catholic immigrant farm family who migrated from County Longford to central New York shortly after An Gorta Mór (the Great Hunger).

The goal of the article?   To provide the documentary evidence that (1.) there were three full brothers (Bernard, Patrick and Michael Shanley) and one half-brother (John Shanley) – all adult children of Alexander Shanley - who all arrived in Steuben County from County Longford, Ireland in the decade after 1845 and that (2.) their widowed mother Honorah (Cosgrove) Shanley also joined them in Steuben County.

The problems? There is no single document that connects all the Shanley brothers to each other and to their mother Honorah Shanley. They apparently arrived in Steuben County at different times. There are no probate records for Honorah Shanley that identify her children. No obituary marked her death and her grave has not yet been located. Her sons’ administrations do not reference their parents or their any of their siblings.  To further complicate matters, the half-brother John Shanley, who arrived in Steuben County with a wife and four adult children of his own, was closer in age to his father’s widow Honorah Shanley than to her three sons (who were his half-brothers.)  Finally, it’s 19th century New York we’re dealing with -  so official vital records are non-existent and church records are spotty at best.

Unlike the vast majority of their neighbors in Steuben County (who were mostly Protestant farmers born in New York, New England or New Jersey), the Irish Catholic Shanleys were part of a distinct, very small minority and near the bottom of the socioeconomic spectrum, especially in the early years following their arrival in central New York. At times, they worked as part of the servant class that staffed the houses and farms of their more affluent neighbors. References to the Shanleys in published histories are very few and very far between. There are no Shanley diaries or Shanley letters.  In a word, finding the proper documentary evidence of the Shanley family relationships and their life in Steuben County was “challenging.”

In other words, it was a great opportunity to dust off the Genealogical Proof Standard.

Plus, sometimes, even things carved in stone that genealogists normally take for granted can be incorrect. For example, Bernard ("Barney") Shanley, the first of the brothers to arrive in Steuben County, was a Civil War veteran; his government-issue headstone in Hammondsport’s Elmwood Cemetery has him dying on 9 September 1885, nearly a full year AFTER the Steuben Courier in Bath published his brief obituary – on 12 September 1884.

This headstone error of course gives new and personal meaning to the old saw – “Good enough for government work.”

The article is by no means the definitive work on this family; in fact, I intended it to be both a point of beginning and a point of departure, perhaps for a future article on the other immigrant members of the Shanley family - including two married sisters and possibly another brother in another county - who could not treated in depth because of space concerns.

After writing about 5500 words with 68 footnotes – not to mention numerous trips to both Steuben County repositories and the Family History Library in Salt Lake City – I know that I’ve still only scratched the surface of Shanley family history.  Moreover, I have new-found respect for all those who labor in the fields of "published genealogy", producing the articles that appear in those journals we all rely on for our facts, our reasoned opinions and our occasional inspiration.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Forging Links In The Chain Of Memory - A Thought For Thanksgiving

Early tomorrow morning, we will head east to enjoy the abundance of the Thanksgiving table with our family.  There will be four generations of us assembled, ranging in age from nearly 93 to nearly fourteen months.

We will share warm memories of holidays and feasts now long past and even warmer memories of friends and family now long gone. For some of us around the table, those memories will stretch back many decades, connecting us – at least in memory - with even earlier generations.  My mother, for example, will remember her childhood Thanksgivings in Brooklyn with her own grandmother – who was born less than three months after Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, but who was likely too young to remember the day her own father and his brother marched off to the war in far-off Virginia with New York’s 189th Volunteers.

Since it is a day of cultural and ritual memory as well as a day of celebration, we will remember the words of our grandchildren’s long-ago 11th great-grandfather, Edward Winslow (portrait below), who signed the Mayflower Compact just below William Bradford on the 11th of November 1620.
A bit more than a year later, in the chill of December 1621, Winslow wrote to his “loving and old friend” George Morton, who would later sail with his family from London for “Plymouth in New England” in the spring of 1623. In his letter, Winslow recounted the Plymouth Plantation’s first harvest and described the event that today we remember and celebrate as the first Thanksgiving.

Winslow wrote:

“We set the last Spring some twenty Acres of Indian Corn, and sowed some six Acres of Barley & Pease, and according to the manner of the Indians, we manured our ground with Herrings or rather Shads, which we have in great abundance, and take with great ease at our doors. Our Corn did prove well, & God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian-Corn, and our Barley indifferent good, but our Pease not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown, they came up very well, and blossomed, but the Sun parched them in the blossom; our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain, and others. And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

Later in the letter, before listing those few necessities that he thought Morton should bring to New England with him, such as paper for window coverings and cotton for lamp wicks, Winslow described the abundance of the New World:

“For fish and fowl, we have great abundance, fresh Cod in the Summer is but coarse meat with us, our Bay is full of Lobsters all the Summer, and affordeth variety of other Fish; in September we can take a Hogshead of Eels in a night, with small labour, & can dig them out of their beds, all the Winter we have Mussels and Other [shellfish] at our doors: Oysters we have none near, but we can have them brought by the Indians when we will; all the Spring time the earth sendeth forth naturally very good Sallet Herbs; here are Grapes, white and red, and very sweet and strong also. Strawberries, Gooseberries, Raspas, &c.   Plums of three sorts, with black and red, being almost as good as a Damsen: abundance of Roses, white, red, and damask: single, but very sweet indeed; the Country wanteth only industrious men to employ, for it would grieve your hearts (if as I) you had seen so many miles together by goodly Rivers uninhabited and withall to consider those parts of the world wherein you live, to be even greatly burdened with abundance of people.”

Winslow would no doubt be amazed to see what has grown up along the banks of those "goodly Rivers unihabited!"

May all who read this enjoy the peace and abundance of the day with family and friends, and, in the words of Edward Winslow, in “…a more special manner rejoice together.

Most of all, amidst all the feasting and rejoicing, take time to do something to forge another link in the chain of memory that binds us to generations past, so that you in turn will be linked in memory to generations yet to come.

Monday, November 22, 2010

US and THEM, Or Drawing that Bright Line Around “Family”

A few weeks ago, we had dinner with a small number of well-known genealogists.  Since it was a somewhat captive audience of “experts”, in between the waitress’s serving of the main course and her soliciting orders for the coffee and dessert, I raised the question, “When do those folks with whom we have a “blood kinship” (i.e., descent from a common ancestor) cease to be our “family” and become something else – or perhaps, nothing at all?”

Interestingly, the responses suggested that the question is far from simple, since there was no single point of agreement as to where the line dividing “family” from “non-family” should be drawn.

Why does this matter? Well, before we’re able to define the scope of a research project, those of us who do genealogy usually have to come to grips with that basic definitional problem, otherwise the project would grow out of control.

Exactly what do we mean when we speak of “family”?  And are we possibly stepping out onto shifting sands by even raising the question in the first place …?

Even though I’ve been doing family history and genealogy for nearly 50 years I’m still surprised to learn where non-genealogists draw the line when they’re faced with the task of defining their own “family.

For example, several years ago, while working through a large archival collection, I found a letter addressed to the individual whose career I was researching.  In it, the correspondent, who was writing what was essentially a “fan letter” to a journalist that he listened to on the radio, identified himself as a simple apple grower AND then mentioned that he was the journalist’s father’s first cousin (making him therefore the recipient’s first cousin once removed). He then proceeded to observe that he didn’t expect a personal reply to his fan letter since he and the journalist were – in his words - “barely related”.

Certainly that’s not a position that most genealogists would take!

Similarly, I received an email a short while ago from the great-grandson of my grandfather’s first cousin, asking for information about my grandfather’s major league baseball career during the World War One era and before.  In the note, he described my grandfather as his “distant relative.”

However, maybe it’s not so strange after all, since the very condition of being “related” to someone – in effect, being a full-fledged member of someone’s “family” – often brings with it certain responsibilities.  These responsibilities can be emotionally, financially or sometimes even politically demanding.

Are people who view themselves as distant relations still “family”? Are second cousins still “family”?  What about those who descend from a much more remote common ancestor born, say, in the 16th century? For that matter, what about that very same remote common ancestor him or herself? There’s no question that he or she is related as “kin” in the genetic sense, but is that individual someone who would be considered “family” in the common everyday sense of the word?  Or is that person just another member of the “Family of Man” with whom we share one of many of our genetic relationships?

Try this: if the final resting place of this remote ancestor from the 16th century was discovered and identified beyond all question, would you chip in, say, 200 of your hard-earned dollars for a grave marker? How about for your much closer (but still largely unknown) great-great grandmother?  Does your third cousin deserve a seat at your daughter’s wedding reception, simply because he’s kin? How about your favorite aunt’s grandson? Would you vote for a first cousin who was running for a state office, even if her political views were, in your opinion, more than a little weird?

Then, there are the spouses of those blood kin.  Where do they stand?

Where do YOU draw the line on family?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

“Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs…” Shakespeare’s “Richard II 3. 2

The unexplored richness of archival collections is – at least to me - a never-ending source of delight and amazement.  Here’s a great example from Great Britain.

Sir George Scharf (1820 – 1895), the son of German artist George Scharf and his wife Elizabeth Hicks, was born in London and grew up there.  Although an artist like his father, Scharf is best known as the “father” of the National Portrait Gallery in London, serving as its first secretary and director from 1857 to 1895. His papers, including his diaries chronicling life at the upper reaches of Victorian London, are now housed in the Gallery’s Heinz Archive and Library.  It’s a massive collection, described in the introduction to the finding aid as containing “445 volumes, 166 files, 659 items and 6 sets of playing cards”.

Of course, as any archivist will attest, there are never enough hours in the day to thoroughly describe every single item in a large archival collection’s finding aid.  So, it came as a great surprise when Krzysztof Adamiec, an assistant archivist working with the collection, began to investigate the contents of what appeared to be an old cigarette case, which had probably not been opened for more than a century. 

In it, he found some strips of ancient leather, some wood fragments and some notes containing body measurements, along with a sketch of a human skull by Scharf.  Further research in Scharf’s diaries strongly suggests that all this relates to an event Scharf attended in 1871 – the opening of the tomb of King Richard II, who died in 1400, after being deposed by King Henry IV.  The leather fragments are likely from the king’s glove and the wood, from his coffin.

More important, however, is the skull sketch and accompanying measurements.  Although it would not have been possible in 1871, modern forensic imaging techniques will very likely make it possible to create a reasonably accurate portrait of Richard, the son of the Black Prince and the Fair Maid of Kent. 

That, of course, underscores the value of archival collections.  It is impossible even for the creators of the collection to know the uses to which the information in them will be put as time goes on.  What may seem no more than a curiosity to one generation may become valuable primary source data to the next.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Still Searching for Elusive Ancestral Information? On The Importance Of Casting A Wide Net

In my prosopography presentation called “Birds of a Feather” (you can read the description here; it’s the sixth one ), I stress the importance of casting a wide net in the search for records about any given ancestor.  After all, we all come into contact with a wide assortment of people throughout our lives and, because of these intersections, information about each one of us is often co-mingled with information about those with whom we interact. 

It is, of course, also true about the information relating to our ancestors.

Beginning genealogists often restrict their searches to their direct-line ancestors, disregarding those ancestral sibs, cousins and the like, so it’s not surprising that they hit brick walls fairly early on in their searches. The idea of undertaking a prosopography-like study – trying to investigate every possible contact – is usually more than they want to consider.

Similarly, in my talk on understanding and using archival collections (it’s the fourth talk on the same page), I emphasize that things are not always where we expect them to be.  Records travel, sometimes surreptitiously.  Institutions purchase records from dealers, often because of what the records relate to, not because of whom they reference or where they’re from. Frankly, archivists and librarians think differently than genealogists when it comes to determining what’s in need of collecting.

So, if the institution collects in the medical field, a nineteenth century physician’s business ledger is of interest, no matter where it’s from or who kept it.

Records also can get lost, then get re-discovered. Provenance is often murky or non-existent. You can never be certain where “the good stuff” will turn up, and if it ever does, it may be far, far from home.

Years ago, researchers could spend years looking for things without success because (a.) the records they needed were not were they expected them to be and (b.) the net they cast in search of records or ancestral contacts wasn’t quite wide enough. 

Institutional digitization projects are helping to close that gap.

Case in point - The University of Chicago Library’s Special Collections Research Center has undertaken a major digitization initiative to make large parts of their archives and manuscript collections more accessible to researchers. Online finding aids provide researchers with links to actual record images from a variety of collections. You can read more about the project here.

This afternoon, I discovered the digitized Thomas Winston Papers.  Winston, an Illinois surgeon born in Wales who served during the Civil War then moved to Lawrence, Kansas, was in charge of the hospital for Union troops in Danville, Kentucky.  Of course, not all soldiers who were treated and who died in the hospital were from Illinois.  Browsing part of this collection turned up several interesting “finds” illustrating the points I mentioned above.

A perusal of Box One, Folder Five, titled “Military Effects of Deceased Soldiers” showed that it contains 90 pages of information relating to soldiers who died in Winston’s hospital.

What kind of information?  While much of it is businesslike and routine – inventory lists or clothing items, receipts for shipping personal effects – one item stood out.

The item was a letter from David Eshleman of Bedford County, Pennsylvania (page 52 of 90), who wrote to Dr. Winston on February 23, 1863, enquiring about his son Benjamin’s personal effects. He wrote:

Dier sir I am informed that My son Benjamin F. Eshleman Dide at that place and was buried and it was very painful News to me I shood have been glad to have seen Him before he dide but his illness was two short for me to see that if you wood be so kind to me Lett me know what is become of his Efects that He had at his death I wood like to know if you cood Give me any information conserning them you Wood Ablidge me

Shortly after receiving the letter, Winston prepared an inventory of Benjamin Eshleman’s personal effects - $28.00 in cash, plus clothing – and noted on the inventory that Eshleman died in his hospital (Hospital No. 2, Danville) on the 18th of January 1863. This inventory is page 37of 90.

There are also digitized images of two receipts from the Adams Express Company, one dated March 10, 1863 for the $28.00 that Winston sent to David Eshleman and another dated March 13th for a box sent to Eshleman containing his son’s few items of clothing.

Although Benjamin F. Eshleman died young and unmarried, several of his siblings married and had children.  Chances are, this poignant letter from David Eshleman is one of the few – and perhaps the only – examples of his letter-writing that his descendants may ever see.  For anyone tracing this family, it would be a great find.

Digitization does indeed make things more accessible.  Nonetheless, researchers still need to think through their research conundrums, turning over every possible rock in search of records. The Eshleman letter is far, far from home, in an unlikely collection.

Here’s the link to the Thomas Winston Papers  .  This link will take you to the folder containing the letter from David Eshleman.  It’s page 51.

No matter the nature of your research project, remember to think broadly and cast a wide net for information.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

In Flanders Fields The Poppies Blow...

Poppy Field by John Beniston (2002)
Tomorrow is Armistice Day. Or, as it’s called in Canada and Great Britain, Remembrance Day.

 Or, if you’re too young to actually remember why it’s called either (and how it got to be a special day in the first place), it’s simply Veterans Day.

The post office and the banks will be closed. Your newspaper and television ads will try to woo you over to the belief that it’s a national day of sales, with extra-special deals for veterans.

Don’t believe it.  There’s more to the day than that.

If you don’t know the actual history of the day, it’s time to research it.  If you don’t know the poem that Canadian physician, poet, artist and instructor at McGill University’s Medical School, Lt. Col. John Alexander McCrae wrote in 1915, it’s time to learn it.  Here’s the link, at the Arlington National Cemetery website

The poem first appeared in print in the English periodical Punch on 8 December 1915. I committed the poem to memory when I was in the eighth grade. To this day, I can recite all fifteen lines of it, just as McCrae wrote it, probably in May of 1915.  Less than three years after he penned those lines, on 28 January 1918, McCrae, then the commandant of the McGill-supported Number 3 Canadian General Hospital at Boulogne, France, died of pneumonia.  The “war to end all wars” still raged. McCrae was buried in Wimereux Cemetery in France, far from his birthplace in Guelph, Ontario.

Nonetheless, no matter what you call the day tomorrow, and no matter how you feel about sending young men and women off to far away places to fight and risk their lives in the name of [fill in the blank here], please take the time at eleven o’clock on this eleventh day of the eleventh month, to remember them.

Do not break faith.

For those of us who are genealogists/ family historians, our veterans’ service records are sources of information that are of inestimable value.  The role of the National Archives and Records Administration in their continued preservation cannot be underestimated.

In honor of Veteran’s Day, the National Archives has released a three-minute “behind the scenes” video showing exactly what happens when a veteran requests his/her service record from the National Archives in National  Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, Missouri.

In this video, you can see how the records are stored at the Military Personnel Records Center and how requests are processed. The footage of the 1973 fire in the NPRC - St. Louis that destroyed millions of records and the painstaking work that goes into the restoration of burned but still-salvageable military service records are also part of the video.  It’s on YouTube and you can watch it here.

Since it’s part of NARA’s “Inside The Vault” short video series, you can also find links to similar “behind the scenes” NARA videos on this page, on the right-hand side.

If you want to read today’s NARA press release on this Veterans Day video, here’s the link.

So, when tomorrow rolls around, remember to take time to remember.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The World Series, The Giants and A Family Connection

The Giants, formerly of New York, and currently of San Francisco, are baseball's new World's Champions, having won the 2010 World Series.

My grandfather, the first Mel Wolfgang, and the man for whom I am named, would no doubt have mixed feelings about that.  On one hand, he'd probably observe that it's about time, since the last time the Giants were baseball's world champions was way back in 1954.

On the other hand, he'd likely remember that it was John McGraw's New York Giants that shared the field with his own team - the Chicago White Sox - in the World Series contest of 1917.

The White Sox were victorious that year, and several sports writers noted that "Little Mel", as he was called, pitched more during the Series than any of the other White Sox pitchers, even though he didn't pitch a single inning in a single Series game.

How could this be?

Mel worked behind the scenes, pitching batting practice every morning of the Series to his Sox team members.  Other pitchers got the credit for  actually winning the games, but as the astute sports writers of the time noted, the White Sox players would not likely have played or batted nearly as well had it not been for Wolfgang's behind-the-scenes hard work in the bullpen.

Mel wasn't one of the World Series stars, but like folks in many other walks of life, he played an important role in making it all work for his team.  That's what teamwork is all about. In baseball, as in many other endeavours, it's not about the individual.  It's about the team.

When the 1917 Series was over, Mel went home to Albany, New York where his local family, friends and fans met him at the train and held a huge torchlight parade in his honor, along with a formal dinner with speeches, telegram messages from political notables and floral tributes.   Local papers noted that Mel, who was somewhat shy, hid behind one of the floral displays at on the head table for most of the dinner.

Mel's baseball career, from 1905 when as a fifteen year old he started playing sandlot baseball in Albany and shortly had his own team, until 1921 when he finally retired from professional baseball, was regularly chronicled in newspapers all over America.

For those who work as family historians, newspapers are great sources of information.

The news story above, published in March of 1913 during spring training with the White Sox,  detailed Mel's earlier baseball career with Albany of the New York State league and with Lowell of the New England league.  

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Hallowe'en Candy History


Okay, it being Hallowe'en and all that, I just couldn't resist one more post.

If the history and tradition of this holiday intrigues you - especially the candy part - , follow this link to one of Samira Kawash's guest articles over on the Atlantic website.   This one is all about candy corn; there are links to three others, all Hallowe'en candy related.

And who would know more?  Samira Kawash is a professor emerita from Rutgers, specializes in all things candy and blogs on candy history and opinion on her own site at


Back in Time For Hallowe'en! Boooo!

Mnemosyne’s Magic Mirror has been clouded over for the past several weeks, since my attention has been directed to:

(a.) revising and updating my presentation called “Squeezing More Facts from Census Records”.  The presentation was part of the joint NY Genealogical and Biographical Society – New York Public Library’s Family History lecture series and took place at the New York Public Library last Tuesday night (October 26th).

It appears that a good time was had by all who attended, and the folks went away with some useful suggestions about the often-overlooked information that can be found in the federal censuses from 1790 to 1930. There are more events scheduled (including a day-long event with John Colletta next Saturday), so it’ll worth your while to check the schedule at the New York Family History School’s website.

(b.) revising and updating the PowerPoint slides for my presentation on “Deconstructing City Directories” next Saturday (November 6th) at the Massachusetts Society of Genealogists annual conference in Marlborough, MA at the Marriott Courtyard. This is the organization’s 35th anniversary and promises to be an extra-special event.  You can learn more here.

In addition to presenting the “city directory” talk, I’ll also be at the three “Jonathan Sheppard Books” tables, each laden with the “goodies” that genealogists need for their research.  (If you’re in the greater Worcester area, plan on attending!)

(c.) and last … but certainly not least, I’ve been making final revisions to a major genealogical article that will appear “shortly”  in a major peer-reviewed genealogical publication.  More info when it’s actually published.

So, in the spirit of Hallowe’en – the day when adults get to dress up and act like 8 year olds again – I thought I’d share a family picture (above right).

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, so I trust it will make up for the words I haven’t written recently.

This is a picture my father in costume, and was taken not on Hallowe’en, but rather sometime close to Charter Day in Albany NY in July, 1936.  Albany's Charter Day (July 22) commemorates the city of Albany’s first charter, granted by colonial governor Thomas Dongan, Earl of Limerick, in 1686.  On this particular July day in 1936 (the 250th anniversary of the Charter), the city held a celebratory parade.  My father – dressed as a Dutch burgher – rode on the Beverwyck Beer company float, since he was a supervisor there. 

The identity of the young lady with the beer stein by his side (also likely an employee of Beverwyck) is unknown (but was not my mother, who is much prettier).

The picture of the entire Beverwyck Beer float is below.  My father and his female drinking companion are on the far left.  And, considering that it was actually a brewery that sponsored the float, those kegs on the right might well have been more than props:

Monday, October 18, 2010

If You Think Genealogy and Politics Don't Belong In The Same Sentence - Move Along; Nothing To See Here...!

Warning!  This is a political post!   Proceed with caution!

For those who consider genealogy their sacrosanct apolitical “hobby”, completely divorced from those heated issues that are generally considered “politics”, I offer a simple one-word observation.

Nonsense!  (The word that first came to mind is considerably less politically correct, beginning in “B” and ending in “T”)

Sure, genealogy concerns the past and the past is, well, “over and done with” history.  Nothing we can do or say today will change that. However, it still makes sense for genealogists to understand (a.) the political decisions of the past that caused things to be the way they were had a profound effect on record-keeping and (b.) that the act of voting actually can have a profound effect on history and how we record it, and, by extension, on what we think of as genealogy. 

In other words, when it comes to genealogy, politics –and how you vote – actually matters, whether you like to admit it or not.  There’s no sense pussy-footing around the issue:  the choices you will make in a few weeks will determine how your grandchildren and great-grandchildren view history and do genealogy.

How can this be?  Well, in case you missed it, there are a number of folks running for office this year who think government is way too big and much too intrusive.  Specifically, they thought that the 2010 census was an intrusion into Americans’ personal privacy, and several sitting members of Congress advocated not filling it out. 

Others espouse the view that the government has no business funding things like libraries and archives. Or public schools. Or universities.  Or research.

No big deal, you may counter.  What’s the harm?  They’re only trying to preserve our precious tax dollars and our “individual liberty”, right?  What could go wrong?

In Canada, the conservative Harper government decided that the long-form census for 2011 was an “intrusion” into Canadians’ personal privacy and decided – against the professional advice of Statistics Canada – to make it “voluntary”.  A century from now, do you think that Canadian genealogists will thank the Harper government from protecting them from knowing their ancestors’ religion and ethnicity, thus making their family quest more challenging?  After all, no genealogist likes things to be TOO easy…

Then, there were things like the state sponsored eugenics activities in Vermont in the early 20th century  and the development of the “Plecker lists” in the state of Virginia,  to ensure that some folks couldn’t “pass” as white and thus contribute to what Walter Plecker, M.D., the state’s Registrar of Vital Statistics,  considered the “mongrelization” of the white race.

At the time, these overtly political acts had far-reaching genealogical consequences in their respective states.

But, of course, that was all a long time ago.  Now, times are different and our politics and our genealogy should always be kept completely separate, right?. After all, we’re a “live and let live” kind of people, and surely, there are two sides to every story.

Which brings me to the sorry state of journalism and education these days.

In our attempt to appear “fair”, we’ve thrown elementary logic and the basic principles of science to the winds and adopted the view that all opinions have equal validity.  In other words, we’ve been suckered into the vortex of belief that there are two equal, but opposing views, to practically every issue.

Here’s View A, supported by Groups 1, 2 & 3.  Here’s opposing View B, supported by Groups 3, 4, & 5.  You decide, since both arguments are equally valid.

Problem is – while this may seem, well, - fair and balanced - this isn’t always true.  You might espouse the belief that water boils at 300 degrees and that gravity is an optional but unproven “theory”, but those views defy both logic and scientific knowledge and are not views that deserve equal time in the classroom or in the press.

You might truly believe that ancient peoples kept dinosaurs as pets because you always thought the Flintstones story was historical fact, but that doesn’t make it so, and doesn’t mean that it deserves equal time in the classroom.

Just because you are poorly educated does not mean that things you believe about history or science are correct, no matter how fervently you may believe them. Abiding faith in the correctness of your belief is rarely a substitute for facts.

However, politicians who hold similar views often get to decide what gets taught in public schools, how history is presented and what tools the next generation of children will have to help them learn.  If you think that electing politicians who think that scientific ignorance is a good thing, and that parents without any education, skills or training will always make the best educational choices for their children, you will have - in some states - lots of political choices this November.

Similarly, electing politicians who believe in closing public records, shutting down libraries and archives as “unnecessary” luxuries, or categorizing some groups of people less “worthy” than others will ensure that future generations of genealogists – if there are any – will have lots of things to keep them busy.

Of course, if you view genealogy mostly as a kind of warm and fuzzy nostalgic activity, devoid of any kind of political or historical context, where YOUR ancestors were always the “good guys”, you will not likely share this political view.

You may even think that the government that keeps the records you need for your “non-political” hobby of genealogy is the “enemy of the people”.

So, when you vote in November, ask yourself if you’re acting in your own best interest - and in the interests of genealogists in general. 

Is the guy or gal you’ve chosen really on your side?

Friday, October 15, 2010

October is Archives Month - By the Sea, By The Sea, By the Beautiful Sea

The Phillips Library - Salem, Massachusetts
Yesterday I noted that October is “Archives Month” as well as a number of other commemorative things.  So, recognizing that October is also Family History Month, it seems fitting to discuss some other recent developments in the archives world that will also be of interest to family historians. After all, family historians are now recognized as a very important subset of archives users. 

This is a significant development from several generations ago, when the term most often applied to family historians in archives was “pests”.

Archivists and special collections librarians often plan on October as “target” month for significant announcements about new developments affecting their collections.  October is often the month we learn about new finding aids, new acquisitions, new digitization projects and other similar advances.

For example, yesterday Tamara Gaydos, the manuscript archivist at the Phillips Library, announced that about 2500 manuscript records in the Library had been added to the online library catalog known as Philcat. This is Big News, and will make researchers' lives a whole lot more productive.

Why? Because the manuscripts at the Phillips Library are among the most important in New England.

For researchers interested in Essex County, Massachusetts and in New England’s early maritime history, the Phillips Library in Salem has long been the “go-to” place.  The library is part of what is now known as the Peabody Essex Museum (Granddaughter – not yet three – calls it the “PeeBee Six Museum”).

Aside from their great collections of art and artifacts, P-E-M and the Phillips Library in particular are caretakers of some tremendously important manuscript & microform material, such as the records of the Essex County Quarterly Court, General Sessions of the Pleas, and Court of Common Pleas.  Interested in the Salem Witch trials?  The Library holds the records of the special 1692 Court of Oyer and Terminer which conducted the trials. In addition, researchers will find ship’s logbooks, shipbuilder’s records as well as the complete records of the Newburyport Federal customhouse from 1789 to 1910. And much, much more.

This of course, just scratches the surface.  The Phillips Library collections are both wide and deep, covering areas of interest to genealogists on many levels.

You can explore the Library’s holdings via Philcat here.

Hint: If you enter a search term in the Philcat search box, you'll get returns that include both printed and manuscript material. If you want to limit your search to the manuscript holdings only, be sure to select that choice on the search page. 

Note also that the search engine can find only the terms/names actually used in the finding aid; it is not a complete index to all the names in any specific manuscript collection.

So, while the finding aid describing a particular set of maritime records will most often record the name of a ship’s owner and the ship’s captain in a specific ship’s logbook, the ship’s crew, passengers and people encountered along the voyage are rarely mentioned.  You’ll have to go the Library and investigate the actual contents of the manuscript logbook for yourself.

Of course, that’s why we call it “research”, not “data retrieval”. Happy hunting!