Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Train Day for Me Today - and a MAJOR Genealogy Event for Your Consideration

Amtrak's LakeShore Limited
I spent a good part of the day traveling via Amtrak, down and back up the Hudson River corridor between Albany (Rensselaer, actually) and Manhattan. The reason? One of the periodic meetings of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society’s (AKA the NY G&B) Education and Publication Committee, of which I’m  a member.  At these meetings, committee members get to assist the G&B staff in planning the educational program offerings for the coming months.

Today, we discussed some exciting program plans for 2011 and beyond.  But that’s still a long way off.  The year’s not over yet, and there are still some great opportunities available to hone your research skills before 2010 comes to a screeching close and tumbles into 2011.

Here’s a major NY G&B “coming event” for your consideration:

Saturday, November 6:  As part of the NY G&B’s educational program offerings, internationally known author and genealogist John Colletta, PhD., author of “They Came In Ships”, “Only a Few Bones” and “Finding Italian Roots” will come up from Washington DC and present four lectures at the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, New York, NY.  As part of his day-long “Beyond the Basics” program, Dr. Colletta will talk about (1.) Passenger Arrival Records – Advanced Problem Solving; (2.)  Naturalization Records – Advanced Problem Solving; (3.) Turning Biographical Facts Into Real Life Events: How To Build Historical Context and (4.) Breaking Through Brick Walls: Use Your HEAD.

This is shaping up to be one of the most exciting programs we’ve had in quite some time, so don’t miss out.  While November 6th may be just around the corner, there’s still time to sign up.

For more information, visit the NY G& B website here.

(HINT: I’ve never talked to ANYONE who was disappointed by John Colletta’s talks. He’s both highly entertaining and highly informative, qualities you don’t often find together in the same speaker.  Bottom-line: John knows his stuff and knows how to present it so you’ll understand it and remember it. At the end of the day, you’ll likely wonder where the time went AND you’ll be itching to start on all the great tips and pointers you’ll have picked up.)

There are some other great NY G& B programs also on the horizon for the coming weeks.  There’s a talk on squeezing more facts from census records right before Halloween and then a talk about urban genealogical research closer to Thanksgiving. Both are at the New York Public Library and are part of the joint NY G&B/ NYPL lecture series.  Then there’s the Greenwood Cemetery walking tour in late October … I could go on and on, but you can check it all out for yourself on the New York Family History School’s website here. 

Click on “Programs” on the homepage and knock yourself out.  Plan to stay awhile on the site.

That’s it for tonight, folks; after spending six hours of my day on Amtrak, I am reminded – sadly – that the United States of America is just about the only civilized/industrialized/first world nation that has effectively abandoned its passenger rail system to the wolves.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Me and the NYSAPT: Another Deadline Met!

That Big Bridge in Brooklyn

My next article for the New York State Archives Partnership Trust quarterly magazine was sent off today.

It is scheduled to appear in the January 2011 issue.

Since 2005, my articles on genealogy and family history have appeared in every issue of “Archives”, the quarterly magazine sent to all members of the New York State Archives Partnership Trust. The NYS Archives Partnership Trust is a 501(c)(3) organization that was founded in 1992 to provide support for the continued preservation of New York State’s historical and archival records.   You can learn more about the Partnership Trust here

If you have even a passing interest in New York State genealogy and history, you might want to consider becoming a member. Individual memberships are only $35.00  Membership details can be found here.

The Partnership Trust uses the revenue from memberships to provide educational programs, awards, conferences and archival services in a variety of areas throughout New York State, many of which have a direct impact on the work that genealogists do. In these days of government cutbacks and library closings, it's important to support the institutions we value whenever and wherever we can.

Remember - it's not a one-way street.  Membership has its privileges, as they say.

One of the member benefits - in addition to substantial discounts on titles published by several NYS-based scholarly presses (Columbia University Press, Cornell University Press, Fordham University Press, SUNY Press, and Syracuse University Press) -  is a subscription to the award-winning magazine “Archives”. If you'd like to learn more about the magazine, you can peruse the table of contents and many of the feature articles from past issues of  “Archives” magazine here, all the way back to the Summer of 2001.

That way, you can see just what you’ve been missing. 

Because I’m officially considered a “department” of the magazine (i.e., I'm in every issue), my genealogy columns & articles never get “featured” in these links, so you can’t read them online.  However, the good folks who did the website for the NYS Archives Partnership Trust made a coding mistake a while back.  If you click on this link, you’ll be able to download the entire 36 – page issue of the Summer 2007 issue of “Archives.”

 Shhh! Don't tell anybody, or they're likely to fix it...!!!!

Here, you’ll be able to read my article called “Clues From The Coroner” about using  - you guessed it - using coroner’s records.  I discuss some early colonial records in Albany, back when the mayor was also the coroner, and also a detailed newspaper account of an accident in a New York City school building during the 19th century that resulted in great loss of life and a multi-day coroner's inquest whose proceedings were detailed almost verbatim in the New York City newspapers of the time. Just click on the pdf link ( not the HTML link) to the lead article (Michael Doyle’s “The Forestport Breaks") and you’ll get the whole issue – all 36 pages.  My article is on page 30 – 31.

Michael Doyle’s article on the Erie Canal’s mysterious levee breaks at Forestport around the beginning of the 20th century also has a genealogical twist as well. It's a good read and you’ll find it starting on page 16.

Remember - even things that don't look "genealogical" at first can contain clues we can use in our research.  The genealogist who casts his or her research net widely can often haul in a truly amazing catch!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Masks, Myth, Memory and Family History

An Actor Considers the Mask He'll Wear
Driving back from conferences usually provides ample time for reflection on “the big picture” that all genealogists grapple with from time to time.

Here’s a thought or two that popped up on the drive back from the Maine Genealogical Society Conference this weekend.  (Note: it’s an eight hour drive, so there’s lots of time to think about things.)

It’s all about masks and family history. Here’s the story:

Several years ago, I was far from home, in a major archival repository, up to my elbows in white archival boxes, researching family history in one of those massive “So-And-So’s Personal Papers” collections that had been donated by “So-and-So’s” widow.

“So-and-So” (the individual under study) was, in his time, a well-known writer and journalist. Today, he would be considered a media “personality.”

The archival collection I was working through consisted of more than 60 tightly stuffed document boxes, each containing neatly foldered and labeled material – literally tens of thousands of pages – most of it dating from the second quarter of the 20th century (1925 – 1950 or thereabouts). The core of the collection included letters, personal and professional, both to and from him, plus his passports, telegrams, tax returns, awards, book contracts, book drafts, real estate documents and other highly personal information.

Every box had new surprises. "So-and-So" had lived in Europe, covered the Spanish Civil War, knew Hemingway and Churchill and survived the London Blitz, so every box hinted of history, romance and adventure.

Even though my time at the archives was limited to a single day, I was able to work through six of the  boxes, extracting and documenting from the collection much useful and otherwise unobtainable first-hand family information about his parents, grandparents and distant cousins on three continents.  This was all possible because of the well-prepared finding aid, which described much of the collection - and much of his life - down to folder level.  Good archival finding aids, prepared by skilled archivists, are both a thing of beauty and wondrous to behold!

As I was packing up after an intensive and exhausting day of research, I was feeling grateful to the archivists who had taken the time to process and describe the huge collection so carefully.  Because of the finding aid, I was able to zero in on the specific part of the collection I thought would be most rewarding.

However, I was also greatly disappointed that they were unable to do more.  Still, even the best processor-cataloguer can’t describe what’s not there. And, to anyone who had more than a passing familiarity with the twists and turns of this man’s life, it would be obvious that the collection had been thoroughly “sanitized” before it reached the archives.

No bad times, no manuscript rejections, no record of the end of his first marriage, no “dark night of the soul” musings reflecting the self-doubt that most writers have.  There were plenty of documents detailing the foibles and failings of his sibs and co-workers, but none of the nasty bits about himself. It wasn’t as though some items had been restricted for, say, fifty years after death by the deed of gift (archivists usually note that in the finding aid); sadly, they just weren’t there.

Maybe he purged those things himself before he died.  However, another possibility is much more likely.

Consider the possibility that the widow wanted future researchers and historians to see him as she preferred, wearing those bright unblemished masks of public and private success.  Perhaps she wanted to protect his story – his myth – by removing the documents that didn’t quite measure up to the man who wore the mask.

The point of all this?  Simply put, it's a question that all family historians need to face.  How do we deal with those less-than-perfect, less-than- savoury bits that are part of everyone’s family story? After we –the family historians - do the basic “born-married-died” part of genealogy, we’re left with all those voids in our ancestors’ lives in between. Some of those voids are chaotic and frequently, they are neither pretty nor happy.

Do we ignore those things or "tidy them up"?

Most families weave carefully constructed myths to cover those cold, dark voids. In those myths, our ancestors often wear masks, like the actors in ancient Greek theatre. Our family memories and our family traditions percolate up out of these myths and then get passed from generation to generation, with the players in the family story often hiding safely behind their pretty or heroic masks.

What we see is not necessarily what was.
Actor Contemplating His Mask

As researchers, we need to realize the importance of being able to separate family fact from family myth and ancestral faces from ancestral masks, not only for ourselves but for those who come after us. Those life stories that record failure along with success and those portraits that show the cares and ravages of time are much more interesting and make for much more accurate family memories.

Frankly, every family deserves to know the truth about its history, no matter what it might be.

Bottom-lining it, that’s what we as family historians should do best – we should create, write down and pass on the true family memories, thus saving them from oblivion. We have an obligation to do it without creating more myths and masks, no matter how attractive they may be.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Buddy, Could You Spare A Petabit?

It’s always a good day when I learn a new word.  Today’s new word was PETABIT.

15th century table abacus
Frankly, the thought of it still makes my brain hurt.

Now, if you already know what a petabit is, this will all seem a bit ho-hum.  But if “petabit” does not roll trippingly off your tongue in polite regular conversation (“Hey, Clyde, how many petabits should I get?”), you’re likely not alone.

A petabit is a unit of computer storage, equal to one quadrillion binary bits. Medieval mathematicians had difficulty representing the concept of "quadrillion" on their abacuses (or abaci).  Here's why -

What does one quadrillion look like – in numbers?  Try 1,000,000,000,000,000.

That’s considerably more than the books I have on my shelves. It’s actually more digits than will fit on my hand-held pocket calculator.  If you’re still curious, take a peek here to see what a cube of one quadrillion stacked pennies would look like, compared to the Empire State Building and other notably large structures.

Anyway, according to Mark Brown’s article in Wired-UK, computer scientists in China are working on developing a six (count ‘em) SIX petabit five-inch computer hard drive.  That’s a hard drive that could store the data that now fits on 200, 000 DVDs or 500 million of those plastic floppy disks you’ve got in the bottom of your desk drawer.

500, 000, 000 floppy disks – got the picture?

Granted, these hard drives aren’t quite ready for prime time yet, but in a few more years …

Consider what this could potentially mean for family researchers.  Most of us, could never fill up more than a small fraction of a six-petabit hard drive with our own files, but what about the potential for the storage of digitized images of archival records?  Next, consider the possibilities of using such drives to create a kind of decentralized “virtual archives.”  For example, as document digitization continues apace, it’s not inconceivable to think that in not too distant future, it will be possible to store the digitized equivalent of the Family History Library’s entire microfilm collection on a small set of interconnected hard drives at every Family History Center around the world.

A few years ago, futurist Ray Kurzweil suggested that a technological “singularity” would occur in the 21st century.  It’s fun to think about the possibility of a kind of genealogical “singularity”, with instantaneously accessible self-indexing record sources, all conveniently accessible.

Oh, brave new world!

"All Your Base Are Belong To Us": Ancestry.com to Accquire Footnote.com

Genealogy juggernaut Ancestry.com, now a publicly held company trading on NASDAQ as ACOM for about 22 bucks and change as I write, will be acquiring iArchives  (the company that operates Footnote.com) in a deal worth $27 million, according to this morning's press release. This is on the heels of their acquisition of Sweden's Genline earlier this year.

Tim Sullivan, the president and CEO of Ancestry.com, described the Footnote acquisition as "...highly complementary to Ancestry.com's online family history offering."

Specific operational details are not discussed in the press release.  It is likely that more will be forthcoming as the market absorbs this information.  So far, the market seems to like the Ancestry.com acquisition plan; ACOM stock has been inching upward from the seventeen dollar mark earlier this summer.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"Lutherans, Mormons and the Estonian State Archives" - from the Bad News Might Also Be Good News Department

About three weeks ago, Baltic Reports, the website that reports the daily news from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia had an interesting story titled “Estonian Lutherans Lash Out At Mormons.”  The issue was the controversy over the Estonian government’s permitting the LDS Church to film and digitize records in the Estonian State Archives.  According the State Archives, the cooperative agreement resulted in the digitization of records faster and more efficiently that the State Archives could have done on its own. The Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, to which 15% of Estonians belong, doesn’t think this arrangement (in place since the early 1990s) is a great idea, fearing it might result in the re-baptism of their Lutheran ancestors.

Here’s the “of interest to U.S. genealogists” part.  Embedded in the story was a link to the Rahvusarchiiv (the Estonian State Archives) and their digital record collection.  The homepage of the Estonian State Archives has a small British flag at the top right; if you click on it, you’ll get an English language version of the homepage, explaining what’s available.

There are also links to regional archives in Estonia and to back issues of the journal published by the Archives called “Tuna” (that’s “Past” in Estonian). Plus, there are links to the Estonian Film Archives and the Archives Shop.

The specific link to their English language “Geneology” (sic) page is here.

In order to search and use the actual digital records, you’ll need to register. Plus, you’ll find that most of the site beyond the homepage is written in Estonian (but of course you probably already suspected that might be the case, since it is, after all, the Estonian State Archives…).

Thus, it might be a good idea to get yourself an Estonian dictionary or a close Estonian friend.

It’s almost enough to make you want to discover an Estonian ancestor – or perhaps a client with Estonian ancestors –  just to poke around the site.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Check of The Genealogical Calendar Reveals - It's Almost Lobster Day!

Here in the great Northeast, the “Official Genealogical Year” tends to be rather short; it’s only about 6 and a half months long, give or take a week or two. The Genealogical Event Months that make up the Genealogical Year are April, May and part of June, followed later in the year by part of August, September, October and part of November.

There are two seasons – Spring/Almost Summer and Late Summer/Fall – and for the rest of the year, the calendar is pretty much devoid of major (and even minor) events.  Occasionally, an event or two takes place outside these times, but it’s truly rare.

So, even though the Official Genealogical Year is getting short, there are still plenty of things to do.

This weekend, for example, we exhibited at the 7th annual “Life in the Past Lane” Conference sponsored by the Friends of NARA – Pittsfield at the classy Williams Inn, in bucolic Williamstown, MA. If you missed it this year, plan on joining us next year for the 8th annual event.  The location will be the same and the date has already been set for Saturday, September 17, 2011.

Jonathan Sheppard Books - 10 Minutes Before Opening
Leslie Albrecht Huber Discusses Ways To Improve Your Organizational Skills
Above are a few pix of (a.) the Jonathan Sheppard Books display and (b.) Leslie Albrecht Huber presenting her talk on “getting organized” -  for genealogists.


The View From Point Lookout
 Next weekend, we’ll be enjoying the cool sea breezes in idyllic Northport, Maine while we’re exhibiting at the Annual Family History Conference sponsored by the Maine Genealogical Society.  The conference, with Dick Eastman as the keynote speaker, will be held next Saturday (September 25) at the Point Lookout Resort and Conference Center, 67 Atlantic Highway, Northport, Maine. 

Here, you can learn about wikis for genealogy, emerging technology, researching WWII ancestors, preserving digital photos and a host of other useful topics. The organizers have put together three tracks (count ‘em, THREE) of breakout sessions to insure that you’ll have plenty of topical choices.

Plus, you’ll be on the coast of Maine (which in itself is hard to beat, especially this time of year). 
Rumor has it that they have lobsters in those parts down east…

For more information and a link to the registration info, visit the conference website at http://www.maineroots.org/.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Aaarrrrggh! Here There be Pirates!

Avast! Today is International Talk like a Pirate Day!

A Ladrone Pirate Attack
Thus, it seems like an appropriate occasion to recount the story of Granddaughter and Grandson’s 5th great-grandfather and his encounter with guys who talked liked pirates all the time – because they were.  The kind of “piratish” they spoke was a dialect of Chinese, as spoken on the islands in the China Sea that the Portuguese called the Ladrones.

Here’s the story:

Turn the clock back about 201 years and imagine 27 year old Captain William Sturgis, a China trader born on Cape Cod, now in command of the ship Atahualpa out of Boston.  Although relatively young, Sturgis had been plying the Pacific for some time, sailing from Boston around the Horn, then up the Pacific coast to a site near present day Vancouver where he would trade with the Pacific Coast Indians for otter skins.

These otter skins – thousands of pounds of them – were then loaded on board the Atahualpa for the trip to Canton in China, where they were greatly prized by the Mandarins.  Sturgis and his factors traded the skins, gold coins and other merchandise for tea, silks, porcelain and other wonders of the Orient and then headed back to Boston, where these treasures of the East would fetch high prices.

Triangular trips of this kind took more than a year to complete.  Aside from the usual dangers that might befall a small wooden ship on the rough seas, there were human dangers as well, especially when the ship reached the China coast.

Pirates ruled the waters and pirates knew the New England ships carried gold coins.

On 26 September 1809, while the Atahualpa was docked in the port city of Canton taking on Chinese export goods, Sturgis took some time off to catch up on correspondence.  His letter to an unnamed Boston colleague was given to the captain of a ship departing for Boston for transport and delivery. The letter reached New England early in 1810, several weeks before Sturgis himself returned.

A portion of the letter described an encounter with pirates in which Sturgis and his crew were greatly outnumbered.  Alerted to the letter’s contents by the recipient, the Boston newspapers printed the “Sturgis and the Pirates” story in late January. Shortly, the story was reprinted in dozens of newspapers around the country.

Here’s what Sturgis wrote about the pirate attack:

Your favor of May 1st was handed to me, the 2nd inst. at Macao, where I was waiting for convoy, and repairing the damage sustained in an engagement with a fleet of pirates.
Chinese Pirate Junks
In the evening of the 22d of August, I anchored in Macao roads, and early on the 23d sent a boat with my first officer and four seamen on shore, for a pilot, as is customary.  During their absence, we were attacked by twenty one vessels, called, by the Chinese, Junks, manned with two thousand men, and carrying from four to twenty eight guns, each.  They first attempted to board us, which we prevented, by cutting our cable, and setting some sails. They next endeavored to set fire to the ship, and were again disappointed.  A constant firing was kept up, on both sides, for 75 minutes.  The great number of men on board their vessels induced a belief, that many must have been killed.  We have ascertained, that one Junk lost thirty men in the contest.  Our preservation was indeed miraculous.
Hundreds of spectators were on the neighboring hills, and, for 45 minutes, not one of them thought it even possible for us to escape.  I had but 10 persons on board the ship, at the time, and fortunately,  not one of them was wounded, though many shot, struck, in almost every part of the hull, and our sails and rigging were much cut to pieces.
A few of those Pirates (here called Ladrones) have infested this coast for some time past; within the last two years, they have become very formidable, and are now supposed to amount, at least, to fifty thousand men, having 600 vessels, some of them very large. The government of this country is so extremely supine in regard to its enemies, and so arbitrary and oppressive to its subjects, that is what now styled only a rebellion, will probably, in a short time, become a revolution.   Indeed the leaders have become so venal and corrupt, that some change appears inevitable.

Shortly after his return from this trip, Sturgis got married, settled down and started a family.  He and his friend John Bryant began a trading partnership and by 1845 the Boston firm of Bryant and Sturgis controlled a significant portion of all the China trade from ports in California and Hawai’i, making both John Bryant and William Sturgis very wealthy men.

Before he died, Sturgis purchased his boyhood home in Barnstable and in his will, donated it (along with a cash endowment and a significant portion of his personal book collection) to be used as a library by the people of Barnstable. Today, the Sturgis Library is a gem, with a great archives and genealogical collection, a super website and helpful and attentive staff.

So, if you live near Boston, today might be a good day the visit the Fairmont Hotel at Battery Wharf and take a peek at the meeting room named in his honor.  But here's a word of advice:  please don’t talk like a pirate in the Captain William Sturgis room.

Remember - Captain Sturgis did not like people who talked like pirates. So, who knows what might happen!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Archives, Oil, the "Trail of Tears" and a View of New France

Last week, the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma and the University of Tulsa announced a joint project that would add 25,000 square feet to the Gilcrease Museum, a repository not well known to many genealogists east of the Mississippi.  The new addition will create space for what will be known as the Helmerich Research Center and the Gilcrease National Archive.  This $15 million project will be paid for largely through private funds, seeded with a $5 million matching gift from Walt Helmerich III, chairman of Helmerich & Payne, a large Tulsa based contract oil drilling company with more than 5,000 employees.

The Gilcrease Museum (subtitled “The Museum of the Americas”) was started as a private museum by Tulsa oilman Thomas Gilcrease (1890 – 1962)  and was deeded to the City of Tulsa in the mid-1950s. While mostly known for its art and anthropology collections, the Gilcrease also has a little known, but highly significant library and archives, housing more than 100,000 rare volumes of Americana and some amazing documents.

Much of the collection focuses on Native Americans – Thomas Gilcrease himself was an enrolled member of the Creek nation – and on the early exploration of the Mississippi Valley, once part of New France. For example, the Gilcrease archives has more than 40,000 manuscript pages of Spanish colonial records,  the papers of Cherokee Chief John Ross (1790 – 1866) – who was known as the Cherokee “Moses” and who drafted the Cherokee constitution after his tribe’s removal to Oklahoma.  The Gilcrease also holds the papers of Choctaw Chief Peter Pitchlynn (1806 -1881), who was elected Principal Chief of the Choctaws in 1864.

Perhaps the best known gem in the Gilcrease manuscript collection is a document known as the “Codex Canadiensis”, a 79 page heavily illustrated manuscript most likely created by Jesuit missionary Louis Nicholas, who was born in France in 1634 and arrived in New France in 1664. The Codex dates from about 1700 and is filled with drawings of the plants and animals of New France and also contains rare first-hand information (and drawings) of the “First Nations” peoples and artifacts that Father Nicholas encountered.

Several years ago, the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) collaborated with the Gilcrease to create a virtual online exhibition featuring the Codex. A completely digitized version of the original manuscript is available here on LAC’s website.  You can examine it page by page and marvel at the images therein.

Of particular interest to researchers with ancestors in North America by 1700, the first two pages are manuscript maps. The first shows the Mississippi valley from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and the second shows eastern Canada and the area to the south as far as Virginia.  It is interesting to note that the coast of New England (“Nouvelle Angleterre”) , as seen through Father Nicholas’ eyes, has few recognizable features – no “Cape Cod hook”, for example- , while Lake Champlain is the size of an inland sea. The territory of the Five Nations of the Iroquois is shown west of New England.  To the east is shown the “Ocean de Canada”.

The lesson here is brief and simple: there are great manuscript collections in archives all over North America waiting to be explored, especially if we are willing to look beyond the usual imaginary geographic “boxes” that we all tend to lock ourselves in as a matter of custom and convenience.

Friday, September 17, 2010

From “The More Things Change…” Department: The New Steerage Class

"State of the Art" Transportation in the mid -19th Century

My bedtime reading tends to be eclectic, since there are always more books than time and since one thing usually leads to another, topically.

Generally, there are a half-dozen or more books, journals and articles scattered around the house, each with a bookmark or two, and all waiting to be picked up again and perused.  For example, last night I scanned a couple or three articles in the latest “Magazine of Virginia Genealogy”, then read another chapter in How We Decide by the incredibly brilliant and witty Jonah Lehrer, who makes neuroscience seem almost as much fun as genealogy.

Then, while searching for something else entirely, I found an intriguing piece written by William Henry Rideing (1853 – 1918) more than 130 years ago about the immigrant voyage across the Atlantic.  Called “The Immigrant’s Progress”, it was first published in Scribner’s Monthly magazine in the September 1877 issue.

In it, Rideing describes the conditions in what was known as “steerage class” on immigrant ships headed from Europe to North America.  He writes:

But the accommodations for emigrants remained shamefully defective, and nearly twenty out of every hundred passengers died at sea of fever or starvation. The steerage deck was usually about five feet high, without ventilation or light, and in this space the bunks were ranged in two or three tiers.

The health of the passengers was further impaired by another evil which, up to a very recent date, prevailed on board emigrant vessels. The emigrants were expected to provide and cook their own food. Many embarked without any provisions at all, or an insufficient quantity, and others found no opportunity to cook what they had. On the upper deck of the vessel there were two small galleys, about five feet wide and four feet deep, each supplied with a grate, and these were the only arrangements made for cooking the food of several hundred persons.

Thousands never lived to see their destination. Out of about ninety-eight thousand laborers sent from Ireland to Canada after the famine of 1846, nearly twenty-five thousand perished in consequence of the poor rations and defective ventilation of the ships. Later still, in 1868, on one vessel alone,—the “ Leibnitz,” from Hamburg,—over one hundred passengers died, out of five hundred

As I said earlier,  one thing usually leads to another.  As soon as I finished the Rideing article, I remembered the news flash I had seen earlier that morning.  Apparently, some folks who design aircraft cabin interiors have decided that there’s lots of extra space going unused (and unsold) up there in the wild blue yonder.  So, they’ve come up with some new seating that will be unveiled at an upcoming trade show in Long Beach next week.

I’m sure that if you fly a lot, you’ll be thrilled.

So, take a quick peek.  Here’s the link.

Considering that in-flight airline food is now scarce to non-existent, (perhaps reminiscent of Rideing’s description above) and that check-in procedures bring to mind the herding of steers through cattle corrals in slaughterhouses, I'm compelled to ask the obvious question:

Is this the new 21st century "steerage class"?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Does Anybody Know What A Book Really Is Anymore?

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimated that about 172,000 books were published in the United States in 2005.

That’s 172,000 titles, not individual books, so you can do the math (say, 1,000 or 2,000 books per title) to figure out how many individual books that might have been.

Chances are, you never got around to reading most of them.  And, knowing how the supply/demand chain of publishing works, I can safely speculate that a large proportion of those titles are now out of print, their unsold copies sent to recycling centers or (gasp) landfills. As any antiquarian book dealer will tell you, the third edition of an author’s fourth book is a whole lot more uncommon than the first edition of an author’s first book.

In fact, when publishers let a bad book go out of print, it’s usually a charitable act, as far as the author’s reputation is concerned.

For many of us, books are important.  After all, we’ve always had books and we always will.  Except when we didn’t and when we won’t.  We’ll always have libraries with books. Except when we might not. People learn by reading books. Except when they can’t and when they don’t.

As the song goes, “These times, they are a –changin’”.

Frankly, the very definitions that anchor our literate worlds are changing.  We speak of “e-books”, except that it’s hard to define what’s specifically “book” about them.  Can you donate your old no-longer-needed e-book to your local library sale or sell it on eBay?  Can you loan it to a friend without loaning that friend your “e-reader”?

Actually, no, you can’t.

So, is it the reader itself that’s “book-like”, because it kinda looks like you’re reading a “glue & paper” book?  If you accidently leave it in your driveway and the delivery guy runs over it, what happens to your collection of mysteries? Or cookbooks? Or whatever?

If the words that are printed on the pages of Melville’s Moby Dick appeared as a scroll on your television below filmed images of a sea voyage, would that be a “book”, too?

Can you use your Kindle as kindling when the power goes out and you need to light a fire to keep warm?

It’s all so confusing!

For those concerned with the very concept that is “The Book” and where it is going in the future, there’s an interesting conference being planned at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in Cambridge, MA for October 28 – 29.   Built around the theme of “Why Books”, the conference will explore “…the form and function of the book in a rapidly changing media ecology.”   It also promises to discuss “… the public-policy implications of new media forms and will explore some of the major functions that we identify with books today: production and diffusion; storage and retrieval; and reception and use.”

The best part may well be the Thursday sessions, which will take “…preregistered participants on “site visits” to various local institutions, including a printing press, a conservation lab, a digital humanities center, and special collections of books and manuscripts.”

Even better – it’s free and open to the public (but you must pre-register online here by October 15th.)

For yet more information, here the blurb from the Radcliffe Institute  and a link to the article describing the issue in greater depth, entitled “Why Books? Why Not”

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Can Oral History Uncover Family Links That Stretch Across New York from Derry To Montana?

The Butte, Montana Skyline

More than a dozen years ago, I began collecting every scrap of data I could find on a group of Irish Catholic immigrant families who settled in the Finger Lakes region of New York State near Hammondsport as early as 1838. These families, who were joined by others in a series of chain migrations that spanned more than four decades, formed the nucleus of my personal prosopography (group biography) project.

One of the individuals in my project was a farmer named Patrick York, who came with his parents to Trenton, New Jersey and then moved to New York State.

On Wednesday, 23 February 1892, the Hammondsport Herald, the weekly newspaper published in this small Steuben County NY village at the foot of Lake Keuka, noted the passing of Patrick York, age 63, a native of County Derry, Ireland, who had arrived in America about 1852 and settled in Hammondsport during the Civil War. 

Ten years later, the Herald reported the death of his wife’s sister, Bridget Quinn, herself a former Hammondsport resident, far away in Butte, Montana. By then, York’s daughters Minnie and Nancy had also moved to Butte and found employment there as school teachers.  Another of his daughters, Mattie York, married attorney (later Judge) William J. Naughten in Hammondsport in 1903 and then moved to Butte, where her sisters and her husband’s brother James Naughten were living. She was joined in Butte a year later by her unmarried sister Nellie York.

One of her husband’s brothers, Rev. Francis James Naughten, had been the pastor of St. Gabriel’s Church in Hammondsport for many years. By 1904, Father Naughten had been transferred to the Catholic Church in nearby Hornellsville, but most of his close relatives, by blood and marriage, lived far away in Butte, Montana.

Why Butte?

The story of Butte, Montana is a uniquely American story of immigrant success.  It is also the story of the Irish laboring class, who came in waves, directly from Ireland, from Irish urban ghetto communities in the Midwest and Northeast, and from places like Steuben County, New York in search of work and fortune.  

Butte was a mining town, home to Cavan immigrant Marcus Daly, whose Anaconda Copper mine made him fabulously wealthy.  Butte was overwhelmingly Irish, an "Irishtown", with robust Ancient Order of Hibernians and Clann-na-Gael chapters, five Catholic parishes (one of which – St. Patrick’s – claimed 10,000 members by 1901), and neighborhoods called "Dublin Gulch" and "Corktown".

The story of Butte’s Irish community was wonderfully told in 1989 by David M. Emmons in his masterful book called The Butte Irish: Class and Ethnicity in an American Mining Town, 1875 – 1925. My personal interest, of course, was in the magnetic draw Butte seemed to have for the rural eastern Irish, who grew up in places like Hammondsport, NY.  Little is known about what actually drew them to Butte.   

Was it extended family? Letters from friends? Newspaper accounts? Recruiters?

Someday, I may find the answer to the question of why Patrick York’s four daughters all moved from Steuben County to Butte, Montana.  In fact, the possibility of finding that answer was just greatly improved by the announcement that Michael Collins, Ireland’s ambassador to the United States, has presented a check for $100,000 to the University of Montana – Missoula to help support an oral history project called “The Gathering: Collected Oral Histories of the Irish in Montana”, which will be housed at the Butte – Silver Bow Public Archives. Details can be found on Montana Sen. Max Baucus’s website here

On behalf of all of us who trace the fortunes of Irish immigrant families, and as my Derry-born great-great grandmother (who knew Patrick York and his daughters) would likely say – “Go raibh mile math agaibh”, Mr. Ambassador!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

KoolTool: WHAT... ‽ You Need an Interrobang‽ REALLY‽‽‽

From time to time, I need to point out to inquiring cousins who get bitten by the genealogy bug that their immigrant ancestor came from a place in Germany called “Schmölln”.  Now, this town is not only hard for speakers of American English to pronounce (it sounds a little tiny bit like “Schmeel’n”, but not exactly…) but it’s also hard to write because of THAT LETTER.

Hint: look at your computer keyboard.  Do you see the letter “ö”? Probably not.

Suppose you had an ancestor who hailed from the southern part of Moravia, an area called (in German) “Südmähren”? Can you find the letters “ü” or “ä” on your keyboard? Again, probably not.

Maybe you have no German ancestors, but perhaps you want to transcribe a letter in French that describes your Canadian great-grandfather when he was a young boy (garçon) living in a house near a forest (forêt) in northern Québec?  Can you look down and see the “ç”, the “ê” or the “é” on your keyboard?

Now what, since these special letters aren’t optional?

Of course, there are any number of shortcuts you can use to reproduce those letters and a host of other symbols, most of which involve dropdown boxes, macros, multiple keystrokes or “hold down a key with one hand + type a number code with the other” combinations.

These days, I like things simple and uncomplicated, which is why I use www.copypastecharacter.com. First of all, it’s free, which is always a good thing.  Secondly, it’s simple – just one page. You just find the letter, character, or symbol you want to use and left-click on it.  That’s the “copy” part. Then, go to whatever you’re writing, right-click and hit “paste”.  The letter, character or symbol drops right into place.

No fuss, no muss, no code.

Plus, thirdly, it’s fun.

Need a snowman like this   ?? How about some pointy fingers ☞ ☜??? Maybe a pair of scissors  ?? Perhaps an airplane ?? A pencil ?? They’ve got you covered in those departments, too …and all on one simple point ‘n click page.

Best part? They’re highly versatile. You can paste things into spreadsheets, word processing documents, Facebook, and more, even this blogpost.  Plus, for iPhone users, there’s an app for that, too!

Visit the site and bookmark it. You can thank designers Konst & Teknik and programmer Martin Ström over there in Sweden for thinking it up and doing all the work.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Boxes Forgotten, Boxes Discovered: Some Good News from Providence!

Providence, RI - mid 19th century

Booksellers have far more “rules of thumb” about the book world in general than they have thumbs.  One rule is “Always look at the bottom shelves first when scouting another dealer’s stock; after all, nobody likes to bend down, so the best stuff on the bottom shelves often goes unnoticed.”

Another rule is “If you find a book you believe is a hidden treasure or diamond in the rough, buy it.  Don’t quibble about price, especially if it’s at all close to what you think it should cost. You’ll likely never see it again if you don’t buy it on the spot.”  In fact, most experienced book dealers, like fishermen, have long, involved stories about all the great books that got away.

Nobody ever complains about the books they’ve bought – just the ones that they “coulda, shoulda” bought and didn’t.

The next rule of thumb is the bane of bookseller’s spouses. Simply put, here’s the rule: “Books worth owning like to live on shelves. Or in stacks. Stacks of books in the living room. Stacks of books in the bedroom. Stacks of books in the dining room. It’s a proven fact that Books Die in Boxes. Books thrive and flourish in stacks where people can see them.”

So, booksellers know from years of experience that if you buy a special book/pamphlet/manuscript and bring it home to spend more time with it (i.e. you want to read it, take notes, etc.), don’t EVER put it in a box with a lid. Every experienced bookseller knows that an uncatalogued book in a box is a book lost. You might as well keep it in a storage locker in Ulan Bator, because in a week or so, new shiny objects (in the form of yet more books) will command your attention and the book that was once the desired object of your affection will have slipped into the dark recesses of memory’s basement.

Cats have greater attention spans than many booksellers.

The point of all this is not to tell you about the quirky ways of bookselling, but rather about human nature and storing things of importance. Most of us play bit parts in that ongoing drama of life known as Short Attention Span Theatre.  After all, that’s why the old adage “out of sight, out of mind” has hung around so long.  That’s why libraries have catalogs and why archives inventory and process collections, creating detailed finding aids in the process.

Even professionals (librarians, archivists, booksellers) slip up from time to time.  Things get put in boxes, uncatalogued and uninventoried, always with the best of intentions. When that happens, things get lost, sometimes for a very, very, very long time.  Fortunately, however, they can also get re-discovered...sometimes.

Recently, while making preparations for the possible disastrous effects of Hurricane Earl, municipal archivists in the city of Providence, Rhode Island came across some boxes in the basement of City Hall.  The forlorn, damp-stained boxes contained things that had been around for a very, very long time – things that had escaped the notice of the city archivists.

What sort of things? Original manuscript records. City council meeting minutes that date back to just after the Revolutionary War. Thousands of pages, including a manuscript recording the votes of citizens on whether to approve the 1831 city charter.

More is yet to be discovered, as city archivists pore over the find, foldering and cataloguing the records for researchers’ use. This is indeed good news, especially for family historians with Rhode Island roots.

You can actually see some of the newly-found records and listen to Providence city archivist Paul Campbell discuss the find on this short WHDH-TV clip here.

And ... to my friends who like to think that everything in New England has already been discovered and is all on the Internet ... two words...


Sunday, September 12, 2010

"Strange and Ungenial": Missionaries and Immigrants in 1847

Since the Fall conference season starts up next weekend with the Friends of NARA – Pittsfield’s annual “Life in the Past Lane” conference at which we’re exhibiting, this weekend has been given over to many of those routine housekeeping tasks that booksellers take on from time to time.

Incoming books get sorted, priced and catalogued; books get moved from one case to another so that topics can stay together; boxes that have been stashed in corners and closets get opened and inventoried.

In this labor-intensive process, all kinds of things come to light. 

Tonight, I’m paging through a pamphlet entitled “The Twenty First Report of the American Home Missionary Society, Presented To the Executive Committee At The Annual Meeting, May 12, 1847; With An Appendix”, printed by “William Osborn, Spruce-Street, corner of Nassau”,  in New York City in 1847.

Chances are, it’s a reference most genealogists (even seasoned professionals) have never seen or even heard of.  Frankly, I haven't seen this particular copy for ten years or more, even though it's been on the shelves ( since it's been hiding (mis-shelved) in the "bibliography" section...)

Yet, where else might we learn that Rev E. P. Noel, of Plum Grove, Ray County, Missouri was, for the past year, “…tried by severe illness in his own family.”  Or that Rev. William K. Platt, of the Presbyterian Church of Milton, NY had five conversions in his congregation during the year. Or that the wife of Rev. J. W. Smith of Benton, Windsor and Eaton Rapids, Michigan died during the year.

The report summarizes, in tabular form and in one or two lines of tiny 6-point type, the activities of 972 ministers around the country. Most of the reports are mundane, describing the state of religion and the cash contributions received.  However, every now and then, the reports contain a gem of information, unobtainable elsewhere.

For example, the Rev. William D. Williams of the Welsh Congregation in Holland Patent, NY reported that his church was “exceedingly poor” and had “…no library but the Bible.” The Rev. Addison Lyman, who divided his time between congregations in Geneseo and Sharon, Illinois, reported that he had been “…deeply afflicted by the death of Mrs. L.”  The Rev. Alfred Hawes, who pastored the Presbyterian Church in Marion, Grant County, Indiana, reported that the “…sound of the 'church-going bell' was first heard this year” in his church.

Tiny bits of historical information, but each unique in its own right.

For genealogists with a minister-ancestor, these kinds of reports may help to locate his whereabouts in a particular year.  Since the reports were published annually, their utility in documenting ministers’ migratory patterns cannot be underestimated.

Of particular interest in this report are the Society’s views on its own future and that of the United States.  In 1846 – 1847, the issue of immigration loomed large. In the “Future Enlargement” section, we find the following observation:

The destroying angel is abroad, scourging hitherward the oppressed and starving of the older nations.  Through Canada, by every Atlantic port, and up the Mississippi they are coming – Irish, Germans, French , Swedes, Norwegians – not merely to occupy our soil – to that they are welcome – but to infuse into the very lifeblood of our social existence, strange and ungenial elements.  Shall year after year pass on, and nothing more be done than we are now doing, to meet this emergency?”

I suspect that there are a large number of Irish-Americans, German-Americans, French-Americans, Swedish-Americans, and Norwegian-Americans (most of whom think of themselves simply as “Americans” today) who would find it passing strange that their ancestors a bit more than a century and a half ago were viewed by mainstream (Anglo-Saxon) Americans as an object of great fear - as an “emergency”, in fact, bringing “strange and ungenial elements” into the United States.

What was there to fear?

As the report pointed out, "Jesuitism will lay its plots and weave its toils..." and "youth [will be] seduced into the paths of frivolity and licentiousness."

The more things change…

Thursday, September 9, 2010

NARA's Matthew Brady Civil War Pix - Free on Flickr

Here’s a quickie link for tonight:

Just in case you may have missed it earlier (it was announced on the National Archives blog last month), NARA has uploaded of 40 sets of Matthew Brady’s Civil War photographs on Flickr.  The photos are now arranged topically and are a great resource for those of us who had ancestors in the Civil War. 

If you haven’t ever seen them, they’re worth a look.

And, now that they're arranged by topic, they're worth a second or third look!

Here's the direct link to Brady photos on the the Flickr site.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The London Blitz - Newly Discovered Color Film Footage

Seventy years ago today, the great City of London was in flames.

For 76 days, beginning on 7 September 1940, German planes bombed the city and the surrounding countryside.  By the time the daily air raids stopped in 1941, more than 20,000 Londoners had lost their lives.  The Blitz, as it was known, was one of those life-changing events for all who witnessed and lived through it.

In memory of the 70th anniversary of the London Blitz, rare color film footage of the bombing damage, filmed within hours of the attacks, has been  made available for the first time.

Filmed by amateur filmmaker A.E. Reneson Coucher, who was an air raid warden at the time of the Blitz, the footage has spent nearly 70 years in an attic, unseen, until now.  Thanks to the St. Marylebone Society, the film has been digitized and is now freely available at "The West End At War" website.

The fact that the film is in color makes it well worth watching.

Check out the five film clips, identified as “Pages From St. Marylebone's War Diary”, while they're available.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

KoolTool: A Handful of Dates

Monday's child is fair of face,
Tuesday's child is full of grace…

Ancient Mayan Calendar
As genealogists, we’re constantly dealing with names, dates and the inevitable passage of time. We note birthdays, marriages, deaths and other significant events in our files and databases. We calculate birthdates from the ages and death dates found on worn tombstone inscriptions; we build timelines for the folks we trace, often asking ourselves, “How old was he/she when… (fill in the event under study).

Whenever I’m writing a capsule biography of an ancestor or a long-ago relative, I like to keep one of the many calendar/calculator tools that are freely available on the web open on my laptop.  First of all, I use it to find out the specific day of the week on which a vital event occurred.  (I never knew how common Sunday funerals and mid-week weddings used to be until I started checking for “day of the week” information).  Then, I use it to calculate the “How old were they when…” questions.

These days, I gravitate to http://www.timeanddate.com/, a free website with some useful tools that genealogists and family historians will enjoy.  Here, I can call up a calendar for any year with a few keystrokes by going to the “Calendar for Any Year” section at the top of the page and selecting “choose another year”.  I simply enter the year I want to see.  For example, one of my great-grandfathers was born on 19 August 1851.  By calling up a calendar for that year, I quickly learn that he was born on a Tuesday.

Then, by going to the section the lets me calculate the time duration between two dates I can enter his birthdate and the date of his wedding (6 March 1873) and quickly learn that he was 21 years, 6 months and 16 days old. And, he was married on a Thursday.  Another calculator lets me subtract age in years, months and days from a given date (i.e., a specific death date) to generate a birth date.

Timeanddate.com is produced by Steffen Thorsen and his associates in Stavanger, Norway.

While fun, none of this, of course, is earth-shattering; however, it may give us new perspectives on a vexing research problem and even give us new things to ponder.  For starters, what factors were taken into consideration when choosing a wedding date in 1873? How easy was it to arrange for a Sunday burial on short notice?

The more you know, the more you want to know even more…

Monday, September 6, 2010

Feeding My Inner Luddite

Even though it’s a holiday (and Labor Day, at that!), we’re still cataloguing books.

One of the neat things about being an antiquarian book dealer specializing in genealogy and history titles is that there’s no end to the interesting things that come across the desk and onto the shelves.  Not just the basic garden-variety "History of Such-and-Such County" or the "Genealogy of the So-and-So Family", but books on really interesting topics that most people never have time to think about, let alone read about.

For example, part of my “short pile” for the day includes a book on the homeless transients in New York State during the Great Depression, another is a history of anthrax, and yet one more is titled “The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old South.”

These are the “bread and butter” kind of titles that end up on the Jonathan Sheppard Books website, along with all the local histories and genealogies.  The real fun, however, comes when you come across something truly unusual, something that can’t be found in most libraries, isn’t available in any digitized format, and, in all probability, is something that most scholars will never hold in their hands.

In this case, it’s a small pamphlet, only 23 printed pages altogether, outlining (in archaic German) the terms of the Peace of Cateau-Cambresis.  That’s the treaty that ended the hostilities between Spain’s King Philip II and France’s King Henry II, largely over the control of what is today called Italy.  Under its  terms, France gave up Corsica, Savoy, Piedmont and Milan, but got to keep Turin, Saluzzo and Pignerol.

Boring stuff to some, perhaps, but the Peace of Cateau-Cambresis changed the map of Europe, re-ordered the balance of power and had far-reaching effects on the history of the New World by making Spain and the Hapsburg family the dominant force in the western world for more than a century.

The pamphlet's printer, Seybald Meyer, of the university town of Dillingen in Swabia (Bavaria), illustrated the title page of the treaty with a woodcut showing the joined arms of the two kings. The artist who made the woodcut is unknown.

The pamphlet itself is in near perfect condition and shows virtually no signs of wear.  The handmade paper upon which it is printed is supple, but with a noticeable, but not quite coarse, texture as you glide your fingers across its surface.  After all, the paper was made largely from rags –  handmade from recycled handmade clothing. (Perhaps the few brown flecks in the paper may have been some Dillingen maiden's skirt.) The words of the treaty, printed from Mayer’s hand-made and hand-set type, actually dig into the paper, creating tactile hills and valleys of paper and rich black ink. Those words were pressed in, a single sheet at a time, by a wooden press with a large wooden screw, all manufactured by hand and powered entirely by the printer’s own muscles.  Remember, the roots of the word "manufacture" are Latin, meaning "made by hand or by an artisan".

It’s a great example of the way things were printed in the very old days.  In this case, “the old days” is a most appropriate term, since this particular pamphlet came off Mayer’s printing press in 1559.

In 1559, Shakespeare hadn't even born yet.

1559.  Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, was formally crowned in Westminster Abbey in January of that year.  She’s mentioned in the treaty as the “Kunigin von Engelland”.   The Spanish outpost of St. Augustine in what would become Florida had not yet been founded, nor had Jamestown.  Christopher Columbus had only been dead for 53 years. George Washington would not be born for another 173 years.

1559 was a very long time ago.

Yet, despite its great age, the pamphlet looks and feels like it was printed last week. Chances are, it will look that way for at least a couple of more centuries.  (I wonder what today’s Kindles, netbooks and Ipads will look like then?)

Yes, I’m glad I have my laptop, my Internet access and all my electronic digital conveniences, but every now and then, I like to feed my inner Luddite and play with some really old books that are a joy to touch, smell and stare at.  Labor Day’s a good day to celebrate things made by hand with care.

Here’s the part of the title page, with the woodcut armorial:

And the  simple colophon on the last page, identifying the printer and place of publication:

(Note: the Bible quote above  after "LAUS DEO" (Praise God) is from Proverbs Chapter 12 Verse 20)  -
"Deceit is in the heart of those who plot evil; but joy comes to the promoters of peace."

Happy Labor Day!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Thought for Labor Day Weekend: Are Professional Genealogists Like Baroque Countertenors?

Conor Friedersdorf, an Atlantic senior editor at Andrew Sullivan’s The Daily Dish, has been posting some of the reader responses he’s received during the past week or so to the broad question “What The General Public Doesn’t Understand About My Job” (or something like that.)

This morning, he posted a response from a reader who is a classical vocalist - a professional baroque countertenor, to be precise - , but who doesn’t earn quite enough from his considerable vocal talents to keep body and soul together.

 “Anonymous Reader-Vocalist” observed that, while it’s great actually working in the arts,  “ …it's really hard breaking through the culture here where kicking a ball accurately is worth millions of dollars whereas perfect sight-reading, constant vocal practice, and good knowledge of period performance and ornamentation is considered a fun hobby for just about anyone.

Could it be that genealogists (and others who research, write, teach and lecture for pay in the family history/genealogy field) are, in the public’s mind’s eye, a lot like professional baroque countertenors? After all, it’s so much fun, why would anyone actually expect to be paid?

The series has been a great read and is definitely worth a look, especially if you’re not familiar with the daily work of Indologists, master herbalists, morticians and dating coaches.  

Enjoy the Labor Day weekend, workers!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Governors' "Papers" - Should Genealogists Care What Happens?

NYS Gov Benjamin Odell (1854 - 1926)
Periodically, the New York State Legislature introduces and passes a bill requiring the state’s governors to turn over their public papers to the New York State Archives at the end of their terms.  So far, every governor who has found one of those bills on his desk has vetoed it, usually hiding behind the magic curtain of fiscal responsibility.

“Too expensive”, he says.  “Not so,” say the archivists, “we can do it with existing space and staff.”

Nearly every newspaper in the state has urged the current governor to sign the current “Governor’s Papers Go To The Archives” bill now on his desk, but most believe he will not, despite all the compelling reasons why it might be a good idea.

The most compelling reason - all these papers concern public things done on public time with public resources and public employees to achieve public purposes - doesn't seem to ever hold much water with any of the governors.

They all seem to cling to the idea that these are their own very personal and private papers.

Right now, outgoing governors can clean out their desks and files (and those of their office staff, like their appointments secretary, who vets all gubernatorial appointments) and take it all home. Or to the landfill.

For many genealogists, this is probably a big “ho-hum” story. After all, what possible relevance to family history could “governors’ papers” have? Don’t we have bigger fish to fry, like vital records access?

Well, consider what governors do, and remember that a lot of it is that kind of “behind the scenes” work that rarely makes it into the news.

For example, governors are at the end of the line in the legislative process. All kinds of things come across their desks, including any number of bills that affect individual citizens (special pension legislation, commission appointments, memorial resolutions, etc.), along with supporting documentation that often contains dense biographical information.

Then there are things relating to “bad guys”. So, if you have any black sheep in your family (and even if you don’t), consider the case of Squire Tankard.

Tankard, who was from Chautauqua County, shot his sister-in-law Margaret Beaumont with a revolver.  He was convicted of murder in Jamestown and sentenced to death in November 1899.  His sentence was to be carried out on January 15, 1900.  They didn’t lollygag much in those days.

The method of execution was to be the newly introduced electric chair, which would soon acquire the nickname of “Old Sparky”.  The gentleman who had the job of pulling the switch was euphemistically known as “The State Electrician”.

Tankard, however, spent the spring of 1901 in prison.  Why?  Because Gov. Theodore Roosevelt had granted him what is known as a “respite” less than a week before his execution, on the grounds that he may have been insane when he shot Mrs. Beaumont.  Later, Roosevelt’s successor, Benjamin Barker Odell, Jr, commuted Tankard’s sentence to life imprisonment in the State Prison for the Criminally Insane.

That’s one of the things governors do – respites, commutations and pardons. And all the background paperwork that is presented during the decision-making process becomes part of the package known as  “governor’s papers”.

For Tankard, we have documentation of Roosevelt’s actions, since he allowed the printing of the high points of his gubernatorial career in a set of volumes titled “The Public Papers of Theodore Roosevelt, Governor”.  The Tankard respite, found on page 227 in the 1900 volume, is below.

However, printed excerpts and highlights are not the same thing as “papers”.

Imagine what great family history detail could be gleaned from the actual Squire Tankard file, and the hundreds of others that Roosevelt reviewed!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Digitization Done Right!

In my earlier post on document digitization/preservation (see "Saving Your Family Stuff" in the blog archive), I suggested that digitization and preservation were both good ideas, but were not exactly synonymous. In fact, both things need to happen.

Here’s a great example of digitization done right.

The archivists at the Library of Virginia (LVA), as part of the Civil War Legacy 150 Project (that’s the Virginia Civil War Sesquicentennial), are traveling around the state, digitizing privately held documents from the Civil War era.  This won’t preserve the actual documents themselves, but it will, in the words of the Virginia archivists “…preserve their valuable intellectual content.”

Later this month (September 18th), they’ll be at the Meyera Oberndorf Central Library in Virginia Beach from 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM, available to scan “…letters, pension materials, military passes, discharge papers, diaries, hand-drawn maps, and other Civil War–era manuscripts.”

Ultimately, the scans (i.e., “intellectual content”) will be available to researchers at LVA.

Amen to that!

Genealogy Conference - The Berkshires - September - (What's Not To Like???)

It’s September. Listen. Those aren't crickets.

The clock’s ticking.

If you haven’t already done so, it’s still not too late to register for the seventh annual all-day genealogy conference called “Life in the Past Lane”, hosted by The Friends of the National Archives–Pittsfield, Silvio O. Conte National Records Center on Saturday, September 18th. As in recent years, the event will be held at the Williams Inn on the Green in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

This year, the Friends have lined up three great presenters: Leslie Albrecht Huber, Jean Nudd and Gregory Pomicter. Topics to be covered include “Get Organized! Get Control of Your Research Projects”, “Electronic Scrapbooking”, “Writing A Family History Your Family Will Want To Read” and “Using Footnote.com”.

Plus, the ever-popular “Ask the Experts” Roundtable will close out the day, with the panel fielding audience questions.

We’ll be there (as Jonathan Sheppard Books) with our tables laden with books, both new and out of print, along with lots of other businesses and societies that provide those things that genealogists just absolutely have to have.

Here’s the link for more info and a registration form for Life In The Past Lane VII.

If the speakers, topics and exhibitors weren’t enough to fully motivate you to action, here’s another big plus. It’ll be in mid-September and it will be (as I may have already said…) in WILLIAMSTOWN, MASSACHUSETTS. IN THE BERKSHIRES.

Those of us who live in these parts can attest to it being one of the best times of year to be in western Massachusetts, just down the road from Vermont and just over the line from “Upstate New Yawk”. Weather’s usually perfect, views are always great, natives are friendly and lots of the summer folk have gone home to the Big City.

When you come by for the conference, be sure to save a minute or two to check out the memorial stone on the green in front of the Williams Inn. It was erected in 1916 by the members of the Kappa Alpha Society from Williams College and is dedicated to the memory of the original settlers of the area and specifically to Sergeant William Chidester, his son James and Captain Elisha Chapin, who were ambushed and massacred at the West Hoosac blockhouse during the French and Indian War.

And, just in case you didn’t know, the Kappa Alpha Society is the oldest college social fraternity in North America, founded at Union College in Schenectady, New York in the fall of 1825.

See you there?

"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers" - (2 Henry VI - Act IV, Scene II)

Over at Medievalists.net, you can read about the two-year research project of Prof. Anthony Musson from the University of Exeter (England) in which he examined the private lives of lawyers in England during the medieval and early modern periods (1258-1558). 

Funded by an £80,640 grant from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), Prof. Musson used many of the same tools that genealogists use - taxation information, inquests, wills, property deeds and private correspondence – to research his forthcoming book called “Lawyers Laid Bare: The Private Lives of Medieval and Early Tudor Lawyers”.  [Ed. Note: not many £80,640 grants out there for genealogists/family historians, more’s the pity…]

Turns out that the lawyers (many of whom married young heiresses or wealthy widows to improve their social standing) weren’t nearly as crass or greedy as their critics portrayed them in literature, and some were even downright philanthropic.  Who knew?  Apparently not Shakespeare's Dick the Butcher, whose quote above reveals his less than kind opinion of the profession.

If you’ve got a lawyer-ancestor from that period, you may want to take a look.  Even if you don’t, it’s worth poking around the site; there’s lots of neat stuff, including a whole section on the Domesday Book.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Saving Your Family Stuff

Photographs, old letters, grandma's wedding dress, Great-aunt Hattie's teaching certificate, shoeboxes of old family postcards – as family historians, we end up collecting lots of family stuff. Much of it is old paper and nearly all of it is one-of-a-kind and irreplaceable.

These days, it's not unusual to hear genealogists talk about digitization as a “document preservation” technique. That's like calling catsup a serving of vegetables. (And just because the U.S. Department of Agriculture did that several administrations ago didn't make it so!)

While properly done scanning can provide an effective, cost-efficient way to disseminate copies of valuable paper documents to relatives and other researchers (thereby reducing the chance of damage to the originals through improper handling), it's important to remember that the digitization of old documents is not the same thing as document preservation. In fact, when archivists and records managers talk shop about “digital preservation”, they're usually referring to “born digital” documents, such as emails and computer-generated documents, not those scanned copies of Uncle Fred's 1906 death certificate or Cousin Bill's diploma.

Think of it this way: scanning an early 19th century family letter doesn’t actually “preserve” the original letter any more than photographing an early 19th century tombstone “preserves” the stone.

Since you'll still have the original paper document to deal with after you scan it, where do you turn to learn about the current “best practices” for its long-term care and preservation? It just makes sense to hear what some of the “big guns” in the preservation field have to say. Ginger Yowell of the Smithsonian Institution Archives has just tackled the information problem by directing researchers to some great advice from the country's experts in her current post titled “What Shall I Do With All This Stuff?!?” on the Smithsonian's “The Bigger Picture” blog.

Got stuff? Ms. Yowell's post, with its links to expert advice from the Northeast Document Conservation Center, the National Archives, the Library of Congress and the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, will help you take the proper steps to keep your family treasures intact for future generations.