Friday, December 31, 2010

An End-Of-Year Thought - The Comfort Zone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A 19th Century Map Worth Studying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Let's All Have a Holly Jolly!

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

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

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

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




Enjoy the Holidays!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

But First - Some Shameless Self-Promotion - The Article

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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