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.