Thursday, February 23, 2023

Family History as Ancestors Lived It

Famed Presidential scholar/author Doris Kearns Goodwin makes an important point about writing history, which also applies to family history. 

Dr. Goodwin recommends writing history from the perspective of what someone knew at the time, not what we know today as we look back on the past and see events and their consequences.

What did they know, when did they know it?

As an example, in her research for writing about President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Dr. Goodwin carefully studied their diaries and letters, to get a sense of their thoughts and emotions at particular points in time, particularly over the course of World War II.

Her goal was to write so "the reader could feel what it was like to be Franklin and Eleanor at that time, which means that if they made mistakes, you could at least understand why they did. If they did something admirable, you could feel it with them."

In terms of family history, our ancestors had no way of knowing what would happen when they decided to leave their home country, or get married, or join the military, or change jobs. Today, we can be Monday morning quarterbacks, applauding some ancestors' moves while questioning others. But what could they have known at the time they faced that decision and at each step of the way afterward?

Tell the story as the ancestor lived it

What was it like for my aunt Dorothy Schwartz (1919-2001), a daughter of Hungarian immigrants, to decide to join the WACs in WWII, and eventually make a dangerous trip overseas to serve in war zones? I have some idea about her day-to-day story as it unfolded, thanks to news articles, letters home, family meeting minutes, and the recollections of a friend she made on board the RMS Aquitania when going to war. The NY Times and other publications covered the voyage to Europe because Dorothy and her WAC unit was the first sent overseas in WWII.

As background, Dorothy worked for a few years after high school before attending Hunter College in New York City, her home town. She was ardently pro-democracy during college--her quotes on the subject were included in local news coverage of the time. Dorothy didn't have a clue how World War II would turn out, but she was determined to do her part when she applied for the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps. She didn't even know whether she would be chosen to serve, because 35 women applied for each open position. Once she was chosen, her life took a very different direction than if she had stayed in New York and finished college. Remember, she was only in her early 20s.

Dorothy's letters home during training and after deployment showed her learning to be part of a WAC team, gaining an appreciation for the immense tasks ahead, and developing into a squadron leader. They also revealed her pride in the professionalism she and her WAC colleagues displayed, despite being underestimated by many men in the military and in everyday life. This was a theme that came up over and over again--countering misperceptions through hard work and super-professionalism.

Ancestor's story in context

Decisions like Dorothy's aren't easy, and they change not just the individual's life, but the entire family's situation. Dorothy left her aging parents and her beloved twin sister to become a WAC. She never dreamed she would be away from home for nearly 3 years, nor did she imagine serving alongside Allied bombing squadrons. 

Her letters reveal she felt intense pressure to perform perfectly because thousands of lives depended on her accuracy in recording and transcribing bombing orders. When Dorothy finally came home, she had a huge sense of accomplishment in helping to win the war and fresh confidence in her own capabilities.

We know how these decisions turned out, but our ancestors had to live each day without any idea of the eventual outcome. If we tell as much of the story as we can learn, tell it as it unfolded from the ancestor's perspective, we can help our relatives and future generations appreciate the true drama and suspense of family history. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Happy Twin Birthday


Happy twin birthday to Sis and me, shown here in winter bonnets, all snuggly settled into our deluxe baby buggy. 

We were clearly ready for a bit of a joy-ride around our corner of the Bronx, New York. This is one of my fave photos from our early childhood!

Saturday, February 18, 2023

My Family Tree Word Cloud


Here are the main names on my family tree, including many of those who married into my maternal and paternal lines. Fun to see them in a tree shape! 

Thanks to the free online word cloud generator here, which includes a tree shape and the option to customize colors, sizes, and fonts, not just names. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

In Memory of Cousin Annie Jacobs, 1895-1896


My 1c2r Annie Jacobs died on this day in 1896, only 13 months old. She was the third child of my great uncle Joseph Jacobs (1864-1918) and his wife, Eva Michalovsky Jacobs (1869-1941).

As shown on her death cert above, little Annie died of bronchitis, with other illnesses contributing to her death. She was buried in the Plungianer society plot of Mount Zion Cemetery in Queens, New York. 

The Jacobs family suffered many hardships and losses after arriving in New York City from Russia. Joe came first in 1882, bringing his mother Rachel Shuham Jacobs within a few years. He became a US citizen in 1888, and married another immigrant, Eva Michalovsky in New York City on March 2, 1890. He initially worked as a cap-maker and a tailor to support his family, but as his health declined, he later worked as a janitor.

Joe and Eva had four daughters and two sons together. Sadly, Annie was the first of their children to die, followed by Pauline in 1907 (at age 6) and Flora in 1923 (at age 32). Joseph's mother Rachel died in 1915, and he himself died in 1918 of Parkinson's, after being hospitalized for nearly a decade. 

Dear cousin Annie, I'm keeping your memory alive as I blog about you, and put your story on public family trees, 127 years after you passed away.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Happy Valentine's Day, 1912 and 1946

 My husband's uncle Wallis W. Wood (1905-1957) was six years old when he received this colorful Valentine's Day card from an aunt and uncle.

It was postmarked 12 February 1912, sent from Chicago to Cleveland. 

The senders were Nellie (Rachel Ellen) Wood Kirby and her second husband, Arthur Kirby

How many six-year-olds get mail? Wallis (the correct spelling of his given name, not the wrong spelling shown on the card) was probably happy to see this pretty card from relatives!

My father, Harold Burk (1909-1978) sent the flowery card (below) to my mother (Daisy Schwartz Burk, 1919-1981) on the first Valentine's Day after they were engaged in 1946. 

Dad made heavy use of greeting cards throughout the year, sending Mom a mushy or funny greeting nearly every month right up until their wedding on Thanksgiving weekend of 1946. She saved them all, and today they're safely tucked away in an archival box, preserved for the next generation and beyond.

Dear readers, Happy Valentine's Day 2023.

Thursday, February 9, 2023

Put Your Genealogical Proof on Your Tree(s)

Last night, Shelley Bishop gave a terrific talk to my local genealogical society, titled "Avoiding an Ancestor ID Crisis." She suggested writing a proof statement to clarify your evidence and reasoning when trying to determine which individual is actually your ancestor.

But what about public family trees that show the wrong individual instead of the person you can now prove is the real ancestor? Or collaborative trees where someone is perpetuating incorrect info? I have some ideas, please read on!

Ask questions, answer questions

A decade ago, nearly all public family trees showed the mother of Lucinda Helen Bentley Shank as S.L. Hixon, based on an old county history book. Above is the page in question, where a sentence notes: "The first children born where those of S.L. Hixon and Wm. T. Bentley, in 1835." (See green arrow.)

Reading that source, I had questions: Why would S.L. Hixon be named that way, rather than with a given name and the surname of Bentley? Also, reading the rest of the page, it seemed clear that S.L. Hixon was male, since he had a first wife named Nancy (above the green arrow) and is mentioned in the final sentence as "Mr. Hixon."

My theory was that the book was naming only the fathers of the first two babies born among settlers in 1835. Digging deeper, I was able to locate and order a death record for Lucinda. Although only an extract was available at that time, it clearly showed Olivia Morgan as the mother's maiden name, NOT S.L. Hixon. 

Therefore, I added Olivia Morgan as a new name to my family tree, and uploaded the death cert extract as proof she was Lucinda's mother. Six other people subsequently saved the extract as source to their family trees. Later, Lucinda's actual death cert became available and I attached it as my source, as well. Even though death certs aren't necessarily completely accurate, I felt fairly confident because I found Olivia's name on another child's documents. 

On Ancestry, I posted the S.L. Hixon page on Olivia Morgan's profile (since she was, after all, the wife of Wm T. Bentley and mother of one of the first babies born to settlers). Soon afterward, someone posted a question on the "comments" section of the source page, asking how I found Olivia to be the mother. Shown above, I explained my reasoning. Happily, over time, Olivia Morgan replaced S.L. Hixon as the mother on dozens of family trees!

BUT you don't have to wait for anyone to ask a question. You can simply post your own comment about proof on a source or on your ancestor's profile. If your tree is public, any researcher can read your comment. Maybe that comment will diminish the spread of incorrect info and encourage the spread of accurate info.

Show your proof as a source

On Family Search, I posted a document and explanation to confirm that Olivia Morgan was indeed the mother of Lucinda Helen Bentley Shank. 

It's easy to do this by creating your own source on the ancestor's profile. I uploaded the death cert extract from Olivia Morgan's daughter, and wrote a sentence explaining why this source was being attached (see blue star above).

This is an easy way to share your source and reasoning with others who are researching the same ancestors--and, hopefully, persuade them to leave the facts intact based on your evidence.

UPDATE: In her comment below, Teresa Eckford recommends using the new "notes/alert" function added to FamilySearch a few months ago. Here's a link to learn more about this easy way to let others know about important research info for a particular ancestor. TY to Teresa for this excellent suggestion! 

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Deep Dive Inside the Census Process: Democracy's Data

"In every boring bureaucratic form, there lurks drama, conflict, and the quintessentially modern struggle to fit messy lives into standardized categories."

In Democracy's Data, Dr. Dan Bouk pulls back the curtain on the surprisingly contentious and complicated process of planning and implementing the US Census throughout American history. 

No boring, stale history here. His highly readable book puts the 1940 Census under the microscope as a great example of hidden stories of people and the nation--and how to tease out stories from the mass of data collected. Highly recommended!

Chapter 1, "The Question Men," is aptly named because all but two of the people who planned the 1940 US Census questionnaire were male. All were white. Government officials were well represented but so was the world of commerce, with the head of Sears, Roebuck in attendance, insurance execs, union researchers, academics, and more.

Dr. Bouk's exploration of Census design makes a key point clear: "The census 'made' the facts that its columns defined. It hid the facts that its columns denied."

So when immigration was of national concern, the 1920 US Census asked questions about citizenship status, language spoken, etc. By 1940, the Question Men were less concerned about immigration and more concerned about internal migration, one of the effects of the Great Depression, and about income levels. The questions added and removed reflected these changing priorities.

Don't miss the Epilogue, where Dr. Bouk describes his experience with the 2020 US Census, comparing the enumeration process and questions to those of earlier Census years, and explaining the ramifications of various responses.

"I want to be counted so that my individual data (and the story it tells about me and my country) will survive. I appreciate that I and all of my neighbors will have some trace of our existence preserved permanently," he writes. I share this sentiment.

Unfortunately, Dr. Bouk isn't reassured about the "permanence" of today's Census data, because the 2010 and 2020 Census data are being stored only digitally, no paper trail at all, no microfilm either. He's worried about media obsolescence and whether our 2020 Census responses will still be available in 2092, when the individual results are to be publicly revealed. I share his worry.

To hear the author speak about this book, of interest to all genealogy folks who use US Census data in their research, take a look at one of these two videos:

Sunday, February 5, 2023

Too Many Aunts and Uncles on Find a Grave?


My maternal grandmother had 10 siblings, and my paternal grandmother had 8 siblings. Most of these people married, so I'm a niece (and great-niece) by marriage as well. That's a lot of aunts, uncles, great aunts, and great uncles. 

I've been honoring their memory by not only adding them to my family trees but also creating or improving memorial pages on Find a Grave. This includes linking my ancestors' memorial pages to the pages of their parents, siblings, and children.

When I add a new memorial page, Find a Grave asks whether I'm a close relative. I answer yes and then click the box to reflect the kind of relationship. As shown directly above, the "niece/nephew" box also includes an option for "great-niece/great-nephew."

For the first time yesterday, I discovered that Find a Grave limits how many people a single user can claim in a niece or nephew relationship. At top of this post, you can see the notice displayed on Find a Grave when I attempted to have my niece relationship displayed on the memorial page of an uncle who died in the 1980s--someone I'd known and hugged.

Find a Grave's explanation is:

We limit the number of memorials you can manage within each relationship type to help prevent abuse.

There is an option to appeal to the support center...which I may do at some point. For now, at least I'm the manager of these memorial pages and can add bite-sized bios, photos, etc.