the circle of life

Death doesn’t bargain.
~August Strindberg, The Dance of Death~

For nearly ten months now I have been deeply immersed in discovering the intricate, and often captivating, lives and times of my ancestors.  Every infinitesimal find, every human newly-connected to my tree fills me with an inexplicable sense of thrill and wonder. Each document scoured, pondered, and precisely catalogued provides me with tangible evidence of their lives and how, through their existence, there came to be ‘me’.

You might call it an obsession. I prefer to call it a passion.

IT JUST SOUNDS LESS CRAZY.

Cynthia (Mann) Walker (1814-1897), my 3X great grandmother buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Adrian, Michigan

Sometimes, however, after long hours of searching, I turn off my computer with a permeating sense of sorrow, a certain numbness that keeps me lying awake at night feeling a mysterious empathy for family never known and long gone.

I experience this melancholy most often after reviewing death records, understandable given the weighty nature of these documents.  However, death records very often reveal missing pieces to the puzzle found nowhere else, and they have proven to be invaluable in my searches.

Through death records I’ve discovered the identities of ancestors’ parents and their birthplace, previously unknown maiden names of the women folk, and in one instance, the fact that my ancestor had a different biological set of parents than the ones detailed on every other document I’d archived about her.

BIG SCOOP INDEED.

In the large scope of genealogy, I have found that even more relevant than the hard facts they provide, death records give us an intimate glimpse into the everyday lives of people, recording events that must have shaped them in intensely profound ways. 

Sometimes death records reveal babies and young children who arrived and departed within the 10-year gap of the U.S. censuses, humans forgotten to documented time other than the scars carved into the hearts of their mothers.  Sometimes the documents remember stillborn babies, nameless and graveless. And sometimes they record unspeakable tragic life events.

While searching for information on a particularly interesting branch of my tree, the Jordan’s of Lenawee County, Michigan I entered the variant spelling of ‘Jordon’.  From that search, I discovered an unrelated family of Jordons who, over the course of two weeks in December 1880, lost four children between the ages of 2 and 14, from a cholera epidemic.  The last child died on December 25th.  Christmas Day.  As a mother, I cannot even begin to fathom such a loss.

These events are also sobering in the fact that in 2011, we are immune, both physically and statistically, to them. These diseases are just not something that would cross our minds to fear today. 

In my own family tracings, I’ve learned of a stillborn baby unknown and un-mentioned in any of our history, a toddler who died of a ‘brain infection’, and parents who lost two children under the age of four from scarlet fever, ten years apart.

As death records show, the 1800’s were perilous times.  Not only did children and babies die at an alarming rate, adults were also prone to sometimes unusual fates.

I have stumbled upon records wherein …

… 60-year farmer was ‘crushed to death when run over by his team of horses’

… 3-year old twins ate poison weeds

… 5-year old girl overdosed on laudanum from the family medicine case

… 45-year old man ‘shot by his own gun’

… 38-year old woman ‘kicked in the head by a cow’

And the death diagnosis of ‘dropsy’ was notated on a full quarter of all the records I reviewed.

NO, I DID NOT KNOW WHAT IT MEANT.  YES, I LOOKED IT UP.

So.  The obvious depressing nature of death aside, I applaud the State of Michigan for it’s incredibly valuable (free) databases of death records.  For an amateur genealogist like myself, they provide hours of in-depth investigation that often reaps bountiful rewards.

 

Seeking Michigan.org
http://www.seekingmichigan.org
A wealth of information, including (but not limited too) actual scans of death record documents 1897 – 1920 and historical photos, including Civil War soliders from the State of Michigan.

Michigan Department of Community Health
http://www.mdch.state.mi.us/PHA/OSR/gendisx/search.htm
Easy-to-use database of Michigan death records from 1867 – 1897.

Lenawee County Researchers
http://lenaweecountyfamilyresearchers.weebly.com/research-help.html
Direct links to familysearch.org databases for Michigan.  If you’re looking for ancestors specifically in Michigan, these direct links narrow down the number of records on familysearch.org as a whole that you need to review.

Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library
http://www.rbhayes.org
Information for the State of Ohio, I cannot say enough good things about this organization.  I’ve ordered historical documents online, as well as interacted with library staff.  To say they are efficient and professional is an understatement.  

I want to give a special shout out to Nan Card of the Rutherford B. Hayes Library for her speedy assistance and attention to detail.

AND NOW, A WORD OF CAUTION. 

In my quest for unearthing the past, I use a variety of resources and online databases.  I have also contacted cemetery sextons direct who have been vastly helpful in my endeavors and I have visited the graves of my ancestors who are relatively local to my area.

OKAY.  MUST PAUSE A MOMENT.

Can I give one more shout out to Dan Righter of Brookside Cemetery in Tecumseh, Michigan who has shown the utmost professionalism and responded to my gabillion email requests with not only accurate, vaulable information, but the patience of a saint. 

You’ll hear more about Dan Righter in another blog soon to come.  Dan is my hero.

ANYHOO.  BACK TO MY WORD OF CAUTION.

Doing online searches I have found an inordinate amount of research sites linking back to Archives.com.  I won’t even link them here because I found the site to be eons less than useful. I signed up for this pay-for-searching database on a trial basis.  I couldn’t even find documents I’d already located on the free databases and cancelled within 30 minutes of searching.

Now if I could only get them to stop sending me teaser emails about the documents I’m missing, my life would be complete.

i am nothing without you

Very deep, very deep is the well of the past. Should we not call it bottomless?
~Thomas Mann~

Having spent an undefinable amount of time the past few months delving into my predecessors, I still consider myself nothing more than a mere novice in the endeavor of unearthing Intriguing Tidbits Concerning My Ancestors.  As a huge fan of history in general and with an overblown penchant for organization and love of minute details, genealogy had only to whisper its compelling sweetness in my ear just once and I was hooked.

four generations circa mid-1940’s. my mother is the little girl looking down, my grandmother is on the far left, middle is my great grandmother, far right is my great, great grandmother

YOU HAD ME AT ‘DNA’.

In the short span I’ve been immersed into my new hobby, I’ve discovered much about from whence I came.

Most of my ancestors were simple, everyday people.  The majority of the men folk were farmers, an honest, if not completely insecure and/or unreliable way, to earn a living.  And according to more than one census, the women ‘kept house’.  I’ll bet they cooked as well, a trait that obviously did not swim downstream in the gene pool.

IT IS NOT MY INTENT,  HARD-WORKING GRANDMOTHER CHEFS, THAT I BRING
SHAME TO OUR LINE.

FORGIVE ME.

I have yet to find any of my ancestors who were ‘professionals’ in the sense we’d define careers today.  To date, and going back over 250 years, I have uncovered no records to indicate that any of my direct lineage attended a college or university.  They may have.  I just haven’t found any evidence to that effect.

Many of the families consisted of over eight children; my 2X great grandparents on my maternal side had ten children.  The overall average was approximately five surviving offspring.

Young children and babies tallied in one census were sometimes absent in the subsequent years, from which I can only surmise a death.  This seems to happen frequently.

Women who were widowed often remarried very shortly thereafter, more than likely to a widower with children.  This type of life event can make it difficult to trace a concise path from a maiden name to a first married name then a second married name.  Unraveling the mystery is part of the charm, but can lead to dead ends in a line.  Which, as you can imagine, is not so charming.

Of all the branches I’ve climbed in my tree, it’s been my observation that once a line is settled in one area they generally tended to stay put. If they moved, it was a relatively short distance from where they started.  For instance, the majority of my ancestors on my maternal side emerged from Pennsylvania-Ohio-Indiana.  If the documents stated an ancestor moved ‘west’ it was within the context of the American landscape at the time.  ‘West’ meant Ohio or Indiana.  Which, in reality, from Pennsylvania, would have been ‘west’.

Based on this social trend, I have no Southern roots.

OH FIDDLE DEE DEE.

As to a few specifics of My People …

My 5X great grandfather on my maternal side, Isaac Headley (born in 1735) served in the Revolutionary War in a New Jersey militia.

Isaac’s son, my 4X great grandfather, Benjamin Headley was the first tax assessor in Morris County, New Jersey.

Going back to the late 1700’s on my maternal side, my ancestors were Pennsylvania Dutch.
I’m assuming that explains my immense love of Shoo-Fly pie.

BLESS THEM.

My 2x great grandmother on my maternal side, Sarah Jane Watson, by family accounts was reported to be a full-blooded Cherokee.  Although I’ve yet to unearth any photos of her, family photos of her daughter (my great grandmother) would support that belief as she has all the physical attributes of a Native American.  Sarah Jane is listed in every census as ‘white’, however, it might have been politically incorrect at the time to claim Native American heritage.  ‘Watson’ is reputed to have been Anglican-ized from the Cherokee name of ‘Watsoni’.

My 3x great grandfather’s last name was Pickleheimer.  For some reason,
I find that fact quite amusing.

And I can’t leave y’all without a few observations on the genealogy process as a whole …

While ancestry.com has been an invaluable tool in my efforts, I would recommend that you don’t fully rely on information gleaned from members who are tracing a portion of the same lineage.  When I first joined ancestry.com the benefit of crossing paths with others who were also searching and gathering information never crossed my mind.  In retrospect, it seems obvious that there would be such a group branching off from siblings of my own direct ancestors, therefore, I can only attribute my lack of connecting the dots to that possibility as a Moment of Blundering Stupidity.

HOWEVER.

Let me show you another such stupid moment.  The screenshot of ‘John Focht’ was a ‘hint’ from another member’s tree to a common ancestor.  Do y’all see a Giant Red Flag?

CLUE:  MOTHER AND FATHER
OF JOHN FOCHT

Methinks ‘rushcitygal’ best slow down and check her math.

GLARINGLY OBVIOUS ERROR.

If an ancestor has a common name, information is going to be plentiful.  Take your time and make sure you’re chasing the right individual.  Consume slowly and digest what you’re reading.  One wrong link in the chain can create a lot of grief in loss of time and wasted effort, not to mention the fact they’re just not Your People.

WHICH WOULD BE A CRYING SHAME.

My lineage includes George A.  Smith, a 2X great grandfather.  His wife was Nancy E. Smith.  Unfortunately, I’ve yet to discern her maiden name which makes that branch difficult to trace.  I have found many censuses with both the name George A. Smith and a wife of Nancy E. with a gaggle of maiden names.  However, the information I’ve reviewed to date doesn’t match what I know to be true of my George Adam Smith.  The years don’t necessarily jive and as my George and Nancy lived in Sandusky, Ohio, George A. and Nancy E. from Missouri aren’t interchangeable, no matter how much I want them to be so I can move on.

The litmus test of correct research is that it can be backed up by more than one piece of data.  My mom and her treasure trove of antique photos of our family history have been a huge boon in my toils.  Her knowledge and historical documentation allowed me to verify the information I’d amassed from ancestry.com.  One lone document does not an ancestor make.

Prior to the 20th century, it appears the population as a whole did not necessarily possess keen spelling skills. Therefore, last names, and even general written (and printed) words, were often spelled phonetically, as evidenced by the photo of a Revolutionary War pay voucher for my 5X great-grandfather, Isaac Headley.

Not ‘Hadly’.

Nor …

Captin
Colnel
Brigedeear (three vowels together
are kinda charming)

Genaral Wilamson
Jeneury (as in the first month of the year commonly known as January)

And my personal favorite, time in ‘sarvis’.

I MIGHT BE RE-THINKING THAT WHOLE
‘NO SOUTHERN ROOTS’ THING Y’ALL.

MY NORTHERN ANCESTOR GOT PAID
FOR HIS SARVIS.

On the same topic, names were often 1) misspelled or 2) mis-transcribed from census records, military draft records and even marriage documents.  Look for variations in names.  My grandfather, Norris, is listed in the handwritten notes of a census as ‘Oris’.   This ultimately created a hiccup for others on ancestry.com who took this as gospel and called the handsome devil Oris.

IT’S NORRIS, PEOPLE.  AND HE’S MY GRANDPA.

When you find a particularly interesting person in your lineage, go a step further and research the history of the area or the important events at that point in time in which they existed.  According to recorded history of New Jersey in late 1776 and 1777, I can surmise that my 5x great-grandfather who served in the Revolutionary War was part of a voluntary militia and was involved in the Battle of Trenton under the overall direction of General George Washington.  The Battle of Trenton took place on December 26, 1776 in the location and time where Isaac Headley was officially documented to be.  As militias were temporary units, it appears shortly after that battle, he was discharged and able to return home to his family, having served ‘1 month and 27 days’ in the fight against the British.

Additionally, during the time of the Civil War many of my ancestors lived along the Ohio-Kentucky border.  Kentucky was a slave state, Ohio was not.  If slaves were able to cross the Ohio River into the Cincinnati area, where my ancestors resided, they might have escaped into freedom.  I’ve wondered on more than one occasion if any of my ancestors were abolitionists living in an area that was a hotbed for that type of anti-slavery activity.

I think what fascinates me most about researching my personal history is the humble knowledge I carry some genes, some DNA from every one of these people who existed prior to me.  They were living, breathing people who had joys and sorrows, successes and failures.  They laughed and cried as part of a history other than my own.  And although we live in different times, they are me.  And I am them.

Without them, I am nothing.