Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Great Aunt Jennie, Gentle Influencer

I absolutely love the in-laws on both sides of my family tree. Today I want to focus on the loving, generous woman who married into my grandmother's Farkas family and became a gentle influencer through the decades.

Jennie [sometimes Jenny] Katz (1886-1974) was born on this day 138 years ago in Malomfalva, Romania. She came to New York in her 20s, and met my great uncle Alexander Farkas (1885-1948) through their involvement in the Kossuth Ferencz Hungarian Literary Sick and Benevolent Society. Alex was one of the founders of this nonprofit group that provided medical assistance, literacy assistance, and burial assistance to Hungarian immigrants in the Big Apple. 

Jennie and Alex married on Christmas Eve in 1916, both 30 years old, with family from both sides attending the wedding. He was in the garment business, she was a talented dressmaker able to copy any style after seeing it in a magazine, no pattern needed. Although the couple had no children together, they were very devoted to family. In fact, it was gentle Jennie who made the suggestion that was a game-changer for her husband's entire family.

It was Jennie's idea to start a family circle that would meet regularly, not just on holidays but all year round. The "charter members" were her husband Alex and his 10 siblings, with their spouses (if any). This family circle evolved into the Farkas Family Tree, a major focal point of social activities starting in 1933 and stretching for the next three decades. The children of charter members became full-fledged members of the tree at the age of 16, even grandchildren ultimately became members, and all enjoyed the camaraderie and food at meetings, year after year, thanks to Jennie's suggestion. 

In 1959, when one of Jennie's nephews was the family tree's historian, he wrote this moving tribute to her:

I would like to dedicate this, my first Farkas Family Tree report, to one of our most ardent members. In her own quiet way, she was probably more responsible than any other in the birth of the Farkas Family Tree. Since the inception of the Tree, I would venture to say that she has been about the most ardent supporter of our organization, and just about the most regular attender of meetings. With great respect and much love, I dedicate this report to Jenny Farkas--AUNT JENNY.

At top is a photo of one pillar at the entrance to the Kossuth Association's burial plot at Mt. Hebron Cemetery in New York, showing Jennie's name. She had been instrumental in making sure immigrants served by the Kossuth Association had affordable burial arrangements, and in planning the entrance gates to the plot. Jennie, her husband Alex, and many in the Farkas Family Tree were buried in this plot.

On this anniversary of Jennie's birth, I want to honor her gentle, loving influence on my Farkas ancestors and keep her memory alive for the future. 

"Influencer" is this week's #52Ancestors genealogy prompt from Amy Johnson Crow.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Connecting Family History with History

Yesterday, I pushed the button to order one copy of my latest bite-sized family history project. It's a 6" x 6" photo book about my husband's ancestral connections to five Mayflower passengers. 

Not expensive, not an in-depth project, just a brief take on an important movement in history that had a major impact on Wood family history. I'm forever grateful to a 2c1r who did a deep-dive to follow the Wood lineage back to these Mayflower ancestors.

Before I order multiple copies of the book, I want to be sure it looks the way I envisioned it. Once I have the actual book in my hands, I can examine it carefully, decide on any edits, and then order another single copy to check how the second version looks. Ordering with discount codes, of course ;)

At top, the front cover and spine of my book, the first I've made with Mixbook.com. For the covers, I selected a glossy background with a look of linen texture. Inside pages are light tan background with brown title text and black body text, blue for captions. I found it easy to align headlines and body text on facing pages. Also I learned how to shift pages or photos or spreads when rearranging the order of some content. There are more features to learn, but this was a fun intro to a site I've never used but heard good things about. 

In addition to bite-sized bios of Isaac Allerton, Mary Norris Allerton, Mary Allerton, Francis Cooke, and Degory Priest, I wrote about the social and historical context of the Mayflower voyage. Above, the two-page spread I created to briefly explain the Mayflower Compact, written and signed in November, 1620 as the ship was anchored off present-day Cape Cod. I added the inkwell for visual interest, and used a shadow effect to set off the atmospheric image of the handwritten Compact (not an original, but a later copy).

My book notes that the Compact was signed by three of the five Mayflower passengers in the Wood family tree. (The other two were female and not eligible to sign.) Every schoolchild in America is taught about the Mayflower Compact--now my grandchildren will be able to feel a more personal family-history link to this pivotal event in history. Just as important, this part of family history is less likely to be forgotten in the future.

I can't wait to turn the pages of my book, in about two weeks!

Thursday, January 18, 2024

WikiTree Connect-a-Thon This Weekend

For 72 hours, from Friday at 8 am Eastern US time to Monday at 8 am Eastern US time, WikiTree is holding a worldwide virtual Connect-a-Thon. 

This is an opportunity to "add missing relatives" to the giant, searchable, free family tree on WikiTree.

It's a fun "thon" because we can register to part of teams competing to add the most new profiles to the tree. I'm registered as part of Team L'Chaim, adding both Jewish and non-Jewish ancestor profiles from my line and my husband's line. 

I enjoy the sense of community throughout the weekend, and the opportunity to focus on adding profiles with bite-sized bios to commemorate those who came before. 

I'm also categorizing my ancestors to highlight specific aspects of their lives, such as "48th Highlanders of Canada" for my hubby's renowned bandmaster ancestor, Capt. John Daniel Slatter (1864-1954). If someone is searching for a member of that distinguished Toronto regiment, the category page here shows other profiles already on WikiTree. Ready to connect!

Monday, January 15, 2024

Dr. Martin Luther King at Columbia University, 1961

My hubby was the editor of the Columbia Owl campus newspaper while an undergraduate student at the School of General Studies of Columbia University in Manhattan. 

In 1961, the Owl invited Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak on the topic of voter registration and civil rights. Several hundred students from area colleges filled the theater to hear Dr. King. The event raised thousands of dollars for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization devoted to advocating for civil rights. 

Above, my hubby (in dark beard and dark tie) standing next to Dr. King before his inspiring talk. This is one of our family's favorite photos, capturing a special memory as the country celebrates Dr. Martin Luther King Day.

"Favorite photo" is Amy Johnson Crow's #52Ancestors prompt for this week. 

Friday, January 12, 2024

Book Review: "The Last Ships from Hamburg"

Written by historian Steven Ujifusa, The Last Ships from Hamburg traces the rise and fall of Hamburg as a port of hope, profit, and humanity, a jumping-off place for Jewish people and other immigrants seeking to make a new life in America. 

The main focus: the lives and business decisions of wealthy Jewish men in Germany and America who shaped the steamship industry into a well-oiled machine of immigration through East Coast ports of the United States, and beyond. With big money involved, even titans of industry who disliked Jewish execs were willing to do business with them, up to a point.

The narrative is lively and moves along at a good clip, drawing readers in by revealing fascinating personal/professional details about the powerful families that paved the way for immigrants to get out of Russia. It also puts a human face on those fleeing the Russian empire, tracing their difficult journeys to Hamburg, agonizing waits to board ships, even more agonizing waits at Ellis Island. Ujifusa also discusses the reality of American life for many new arrivals, crowded into tenements in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, barely scratching out a living with pushcarts or hunched over sewing in sweat shops. 

Ballin, Schiff, Morgan

The Hamburg-American Line's managing director and visionary leader was Hamburg-born Albert Ballin, a Jewish man who cultivated ties with Kaiser Wilhelm and other bigwigs of Germany, England, and the United States. In building up the Hamburg-America Line, he created a transportation network that brought immigrants (including Russian and Eastern European Jews) to Hamburg, screened them for health problems that might cause them to be rejected at Ellis Island, even offered kosher meals on his steamships. In fact, ticket sales to immigrants were absolutely essential to the financial stability of the Hamburg-America Line. 

Jacob Schiff was the Frankfurt-born managing partner of Kuhn, Loeb & Co, an influential US investment bank that advised powerhouse transportation firms like the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Union Pacific. In addition to being a major Jewish philanthropist, Schiff fought against the anti-immigration movement that gripped America even as persecution and pogroms threatened the lives of Jews in Russia leading up to WWI.

J.P. Morgan helped bail out the US government when it was under pressure because of dwindling gold reserves in 1895. He was a master of combining companies into giant trusts that competed on a massive scale. Although his businesses had to coexist with Jewish-managed company competitors, he disliked Jews. Yet his International Mercantile Marine shipping trust, a major player in the shipping and transportation industry, ultimately forged a deal with Albert Ballin's Hamburg-America line, to the benefit of both firms.

Crossing to safety

The book also tells the nail-biting story of hundreds of thousands of Jewish families who sailed to America from 1881-1914. Often these folks couldn't legally leave Russia, so Hamburg-America facilitated border crossings. In effect, two steamship lines were allowed to privatize the Russia-Prussia border station. They allowed immigrants with tickets for America to pass through, then moving to inspection stations for screening and fumigation. These immigrants were ultimately able to cross the pond, cheering at the Statue of Liberty as they entered New York Harbor to start over. Among the prominent descendants of Jewish immigrants are Lauren Bacall, Fanny Brice, David Sarnoff, Sam Goldwyn, and many more, including the author's great-grandparents.  

My ancestors were among the many who left Eastern Europe and crossed the Atlantic to safety before World War I. The book cites 1907 as the peak year for European immigration to America, with more than a million newcomers passing through Ellis Island. However, as the final chapters chronicle, anti-immigration sentiment among powerful US legislators and the social elite increased the pressure to slam shut the door to new arrivals. By 1923, Congress had passed new laws that made it all but impossible for immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe to make it to America. 

Ups and Downs of the Hamburg-America Line

Because I have ancestors who boarded Hamburg-American ships in Hamburg or Cuxhaven, I was particularly interested in the mechanics of getting immigrants from one place to another. The author explains that Russia, in particular, didn't make it easy for anyone to leave...officially. But the Hamburg-America line had agents who could help immigrants with steamship tickets to cross borders, get to ports via railroad or other transportation, and find them decent shelter until their ships departed. 

My ancestor, Bela Roth (1860-1941), brother-in-law to my great-grandmother, left Hungary for New York City twice on ships of the Hamburg-American line. In 1907, he and his family sailed from Hamburg to New York aboard the fairly luxurious Kaiserin Auguste Victoria, a Hamburg-America ship originally launched in 1889 with great fanfare, as this book describes. 

Also in the book is the story of the Hamburg-America's SS Vaterland, which made its maiden voyage from Cuxhaven to America in May of 1914. My Bela Roth, a merchant, sailed with his family on the same Vaterland from Cuxhaven to New York in July of 1914. This time, he remained in New York, declaring his intention to apply for citizenship in 1917. 

The Vaterland was a sleek, speedy ship that, on August 1, 1914, happened to be docked at Hoboken, New Jersey when Germany and Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia in the aftermath of the murder of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg.

With the onset of war, thousands of immigrants were stranded in German ports, holding tickets for America. The author describes the desperation of the steamship lines, trying to stay financially solvent, and the scrambling of Jacob Schiff and others trying to get Jewish people out of the Russian Empire without the convenience of the usual German ports. It was the end of an era in so many ways.

If you have immigrant ancestors who sailed to America during the period of 1881-1914, especially if they were leaving from Russia or Eastern Europe and arriving on the East Coast, I heartily recommend picking up this book. See Publishers Weekly write-up here.

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Top Four Blog Posts of 2023


During 2023, I wrote 117 posts. These four had the most views of the year:

  • In Beta at Ancestry: Top Hints. Read the full post here. I was interested in testing this new Ancestry feature, which were designed to show hints that "will help you make better discoveries." Well, no more top hints, only hints on Ancestry. The usual hints, organized according to all hints, record hints, photo hints, story hints, tree hints, and 1950 US Census hints. I do check hints on occasion, when I'm focusing on a particular ancestor, but I don't go systematically through the thousands of hints for each tree.
  • Prepping for the 1931 Canadian Census Release. Read the full post here. Good info for planning, and putting Census answers into context. Rather than try to find elusive Canadian ancestors through searching by home address, I waited for indexing and easily found most of my targeted ancestors. As Gail Dever recently noted, the 1931 Canadian Census is now fully indexed and conveniently searchable (with multiple variables) on FamilySearch. 
  • Dating Family Photos, Investigating Photographers. Read the full post here. I've tried the MyHeritage PhotoDater on multiple photos and I like how it attempts to narrow the range of years, giving me a bit of a headstart. I still like researching photographers like Beldegreen, who took many of the photos of my immigrant maternal grandparents.
  • Are Genealogy Blogs Still Relevant? Read full post here. This is my 16th year of genealogy blogging (and my 26th year of researching family history). Yes, I definitely think genealogy blogs remain relevant, even in this era of videos and short-form social media platforms. As I said in my August post, I sincerely appreciate the genealogy bloggers who have been offering tips and tricks and stories and more. You all inspire me to keep digging and keep blogging. 

Sunday, January 7, 2024

Book Review: "So You Think You Know George Washington?"


Because my birthday is February 22d, I'm of course interested in George Washington, who was born on that day. Actually, according to the Julian calendar used at the time, Washington was born on February 11th. When the Gregorian calendar was adopted in the American colonies in 1752, his birthday was adjusted to be February 22d. 

That's one of the factoids in the new book by Jack Darrell Crowder, So You Think You Know George Washington? Stories They Didn't Tell You in School! Crowder is a retired teacher and the author of other books about US history, including Victory or Death: Military Decisions That Changed the Course of American Revolution and Women Patriots in the American Revolution.

This new book does not have a traditional biographical narrative. Each chapter is a collection of sections about different aspects of Washington's life. Readers can dip in and out of any chapter, or any page, and read fascinating snippets about Washington's life and legend. 

Chapters are organized according to "The Man" (his early life, his humor, his romances, his religion, his occupations, and so on), "The General" (his military career, views of his military success, close calls, and more), and "The President" (dealing with the national debt, being chosen as president, choosing honorific titles for the President and Lady Washington, inauguration, end of second term, death). Since his presidency is so well known, and is the subject of numerous books, the last is the shortest section. Instead, Crowder devotes more space to dispelling myths about Washington's earlier life and his military career.

The author poses intriguing questions, and answers them, in a very readable way, such as:

  • How did Washington feel about slavery? (pp. 111-2, he never spoke out against it but later decided it was morally wrong)
  • Did he always favor independence for America? (pp. 135-6, he didn't start out in favor)
  • Did he kneel in prayer? (p. 87, he didn't like to kneel, but Martha Washington did kneel during prayer)

I particularly liked chapter 3, George Washington, Body and Soul, which opens with a section titled "Physical Appearance of Washington." In my mind's eye, he has powdered white hair, as he looked during his presidency. But actually the author describes him as having reddish brown hair, and being more than a bit of a dandy about wearing fine clothes.

Chapter 12 was also quite interesting, because it traces Washington's military career from 1752 to 1757, a period when he was involved in the French and Indian War, became "a hero...well, sort of" in 1755, and what he learned that would help him win the American Revolution.

Most of the illustrations look good, with the exception of some pixelated images. The author includes a lengthy bibliography for those who want to dig deeper. But I do wish the book had been more carefully proofread to avoid distracting typos. Finally, the list price of $45 seems a bit pricey.  

I tend to prefer traditional biographies rather than "stories they didn't tell you in school," but if you or your family want to learn more about George Washington as a man, a general, and a president, this book will fit the bill. 

Disclosure:  I received a free review copy from Genealogical.com, but I want to stress that the opinions in this book review are entirely my own.

Thursday, January 4, 2024

Book Review: "Valiant Women"

If any of your female ancestors served during World War II as one of the 350,000 WAAC/WACs, WAVES, SPARS, MCWRs, or WASPs in uniform, I heartily recommend reading Valiant Women by Lena Andrews.

Andrews has written a very engaging, informative history of "the extraordinary American servicewomen who helped win World War II," who resumed their civilian lives with a sense of satisfaction but little or no public acknowledgement of their indispensable roles in the military. As the author notes, women in uniform were part of the "Greatest Generation" yet their WWII roles are often overlooked.

Rocky road to women's service

The book's main focus is the sometimes rocky road to establishing US military women's programs, recruiting women with the right skills, and putting them in the right places to support the US war effort. The US Army was the first of the armed forces to create a women's service, going all out to attract the best and most skilled women--which it did, with thousands and thousands applying to enlist. On the other hand, Andrews shows how the leaders of the US Marines were much less enthusiastic about a women's program, although they ultimately went along with the idea. 

The story behind each service's approach to women in the military is fascinating. The author has a knack for putting a lot into a few words and holding the reader's interest throughout. And she does a superb job of sketching historical and military context without slowing down the story, which gets pretty lively.  

Quotes add personality

The personal memories and experiences of female veterans, based on author interviews, bring to life the social and bureaucratic obstacles they had to overcome in order to serve their country. From the historical record and from their own words quoted in the book, it's clear that women in uniform strove to do their very best at any and every assignment, from pilots and stenographers and mail sorters to translators and chemists and map-makers. Andrews deftly captures the essence of their experiences, both the ups and the downs, whether the women served stateside or overseas.

My aunt, WAC Sgt. Dorothy Schwartz, was an expert stenographer, one of the top in her unit. I can see echoes and confirmations of her experiences in Valiant Women. In the book, a WAVE thinks back to her wartime assignment, creating oceanographic maps for the US military. "I confess I was terrified at all of the complications," she admits, knowing how essential the charts were to Allied commanders. My aunt felt similarly as she transcribed orders for bomber crews: many lives were at stake, so her transcriptions had to be accurate as well as speedy. It was a huge responsibility, and what she did made a difference every day. 

Honoring Capt. Stratton

The final section in Valiant Women examines how women's WWII service led the way for women to become part of the regular armed forces and military reserves in the post-war era. Andrews ends with the commissioning of the US Coast Guard Cutter named for a veteran, Captain Dorothy Stratton, who headed women's Coast Guard services in WWII. Capt. Stratton gave the program its name, SPARS, drawing on the Coast Guard's slogan, "Semper Paratus--Always Ready." 

Highly recommended: Valiant Women by Lena Andrews.

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Two Birth Years in Family Lore for Minnie


What if family lore indicates two different dates for an ancestor's birth year? These two notes were handwritten by hubby's grandfather, Brice Larimer McClure. One of his sisters-in-law was Minnie Estella Steiner Halbedel, who died on this day in 1947, as shown in the note above (see blue line). Brice recorded Minnie's birth year as 1867 in that note.

Here's a second note, written at a different time by this same man, with Minnie's birth year recorded as 1868

So which year is correct? 

AI Record Finder says birth was in 1868

I asked MyHeritage's new AI Record Finder to locate church records for Minnie, providing her full name and birth place to get the process started. In response, I received several family tree records (from MyHeritage and FamilySearch), but no church records. 

Then I asked: "Show me birth info to prove Minnie's birth in 1868." The AI's response: "The records confirm that Minnie Estella Halbedel (née Steiner) was born on May 1, 1868, in Ohio. Her parents are listed as Edward George Steiner and Elizabeth Jane Steiner (born Rinehart). These details substantiate her birth date and place for your genealogical inquiry." 

Well, no. All that was shown were family trees asserting Minnie's birth year was 1868. No proof as such. Since no official birth records are available for the time and place of Minnie's birth, and church records from that time/place are scarce, how could I resolve the conflicting dates in family lore?

My research: census records, obit, death cert, gravestone

I looked at what Census data, obits, and the death cert said about Minnie's age at different points in her life, and also looked at her gravestone. I found out:

  1870 US Census - Minnie was 3 years old (implied birth year 1867)

  1880 US Census - Minnie was 13 years old (1867)

  1910 US Census - Minnie was 42 years old (Census was taken weeks before Minnie's May birthday) (1867)

  1920 US Census - Minnie was 52 years old (Census was taken weeks before Minnie's May birthday) (1867)

   1930 US Census - Minnie was 63 (Census was taken weeks before Minnie's May birthday) (1866)

   1940 US Census - Minnie was 73 (Census was taken weeks before Minnie's May birthday) (1866)

    Obituaries: Two obits noted Minnie's age as 79 when she passed away (implied birth year 1868)

    Death cert: Informant was Minnie's youngest sister, Floyda, who gave the birthday as May 1, 1868. The cert showed Minnie's age at death as 78 years, 8 months, 2 days (calculation agrees with birth year of 1868).

    Gravestone: Birth year is shown as 1867. Not the same as the death cert!

1867 or 1868?

Ordinarily, I would put more weight on what a sibling says on a death cert than on what a Census says. The informant, a sister, should know her sister's birth year. She said on the cert that it was 1868. Yet the gravestone shows the birth year as 1867, so one of the sisters or more of them believed that was the correct year.

Contemporaneous Census records of 1870-1920 point to a birth year of 1867. I put considerable weight on earlier records like these since parents are likely to know when their children were born and what their ages are.

A bit murkier: IMHO both the 1930 and 1940 US Census enumeration answers were probably meant to suggest a birth year of 1867, with the assumption that Minnie's age was "approximately 63" in 1930 and "approximately 73" in 1940. In other words, even though Minnie's birthday was a few weeks later than the date of the Census, her age was recorded as though she had already celebrated her birthday. That's what I think, anyway.

My conclusion: Minnie was almost certainly born in 1867. The detailed note about family lore most likely had the correct birth year, 1867; the briefer note about sibling birth years was most likely incorrect in asserting 1868.

Given the scant info available to MyHeritage's AI Record Finder, I understand why it told me the birth year was 1868. Yet the AI seemed so certain! Not me. I thought it was worth digging deeper. Then again, these are my husband's ancestors.

"Family lore" is the first #52Ancestors genealogy challenge of 2024 from Amy Johnson Crow. 

Monday, January 1, 2024

Soaring into the New Year with Good Luck


To start the new year in 1910, a Wood cousin received this penny postcard featuring good luck symbols and a couple of youngsters flying high in a new-fangled flying machine LOL. 

May your 2024 start with much good luck!