The Lovely Exceptions

I recently realized while reading a few insightful blog articles that I’ve seen the changes in attitude toward social politics unfold before me just by logging onto my genealogy website.

When I first started researching on Ancestry.com, there was no way for me to enter my spouse as a man and there was no way to enter my father and his siblings into the database without falsely implying that my grandparents were married.

I get it; the family tree is all about procreation. And for a very long time that meant filling out generation after generation of pink and blue boxes. As humans, it’s natural for us to want (need?) that kind of order. For genealogists it’s especially true. There are to-date 2,679 people residing in my family tree. If I’m going to make any headway learning about all of them I need to have some systematized way to organize and research them. I admit in order to jimmy people into my family tree I’ve had to pigeonhole them.

But I realize the danger in that. Genealogists must stay open minded because they “encounter” a huge variety of people. It’s impossible to plug every person into your tree– let alone in the world– into the same set of 10 categories and expect them all to fit perfectly. The genealogy databases must have realized the error in that as well. Most databases have since widened their nets, so to speak, on their categories.

Plus, complying to those given categories cuts off the good stories for which we genealogists are searching. For instance, in the case of omitting my partner from my family tree due to a lack of options, I would be slicing off a loving and enduring relationship to future generations. They also wouldn’t see that they had a gay relative (which I can tell you is important, especially for younger gay relatives). In the case of my grandparents, if I left the “Married” box checked I would be leaving out a whole rich (and long) story to tell of why they never married. Which is a story for another time.

Here’s an every-day example: I had to fill out insurance forms recently. When I got to the marital status part I was at a loss. My marital status was not listed as an option. But filling in the circle next to ‘Single’ felt like an insult to my partner of 13 years. And filling out ‘Married’ felt wrong too. I was an exception.

Let’s face it, sometimes the answers to those form questions are complicated. Race, occupation, religion? And the exceptions we take when answering them are some of what makes us interesting and defines who we are. These personal, lovely exceptions should not be disqualified or marginalized simply because they’re not listed as someone else’s set of options.

This point was reinforced to me when I read Kat’s tender piece Tips for Dealing with My Child (and Me). Obviously, I knew transgendered and intersex folks had parents and siblings and grandparents who loved them and wanted to include them on their family trees. But Kat’s piece drove home the fact that there is no option in most family tree databases for people who do not consider themselves either male or female . The data field requires a check in either box Male or Female.

Not long after I read Kat’s post, another Kat posted a narrative of the day she changed her name: What’s In A Name? I can imagine it’s possible that, for whatever reason, she is entered into her family’s tree with her dead name. But she gives a thoughtful and incisive argument as to why she shouldn’t be. (Note: Some transgendered people prefer she or he. Some opt for the pronoun see, or they. When in doubt, politely ask.)

Having volunteered for years at a GLBTQ Youth Group in the past, I had thought myself well informed on the subject. But after reading these pieces, I realized that I really didn’t know much about the Transgender and Intersex issues of today, such as the vocabulary I’d never heard: cisgendered, cissexism, genderqueer, transphobia.  But these posts made me want to dig deeper into the topic. I watched this informative movie at transjersey.org’s blog to get me up to speed: Middle Sexes: Redefining He and She.

I’m very grateful to all of the bloggers for the reminder that categorizing comes at a cost, and that our exceptions add beauty and truth to our lives.

The Trouble With Women (it’s not what it sounds like)

Whenever my partner enters the room while I’m digging into the past, I’m either bent over the laptop taking notes, furiously typing another search into a search engine, or, and most likely, I’m muttering to myself. I’m sure, to him, I have the same constipated look on my face as Russell Crowe’s characters in 80% of his movie.

But concentration is necessary. I am resurrecting lives after all.

Chamberlain affidavit
Christiana Chamberlain’s affidavit. I love how flowery the language is, but the editor in me wants to take a red pen to most of it!

Case in point: reviewing the document at left that was in the pile of papers my family received from my Genealogical Fairy Godmother.

On December 17, 1888, a seventy-year-old woman named Christiana Chamberlain trudged into the office of a county clerk in Wellington, Kansas, and asked him to write an affidavit. She swore an oath to the man that what she was about to say was absolute truth. The lawyer reached for a piece of lined paper and his quill pen and began to write.

Christiana tells the lawyer that she was present at a wedding some 45 years before in a place called Mascedonia, Ontario County, New York. (Click here for larger version and transcript of the affidavit.) Pretty straight forward, huh?

The reason she took the trouble to tell a lawyer this was to help a widow reclaim money from her late husband’s Civil War pension. That widow happens to be my 2nd great-grandmother, Emily Chelesta Patterson. I knew very little about Emily’s life before she married, just maiden name (Patterson), the state in which she was born, and a rough birth year. And I knew even less of Emily’s mother or father, nor any siblings she may have.

That’s the trouble with finding our female relatives’ stories: they’re as integral as the men to the plot lines of our families, but their childhoods are hidden behind their husbands’ last names.

Up until scrutinizing this old letter, my family agreed that Emily’s husband, Thomas Wilson, had been married twice. The snippet below from the 1850 Census lists a woman named Anna living with Thomas and his children. Every census after that lists Emily as the woman of the house and mother to George, Mary, Ambrose, Joanna and Emogene. The names Anna and Emily are different enough and different ages and places of birth were listed for them. We had each looked at this record and assumed Anna had passed away, and Thomas had married Emily to help him care for his 5 children. But Christiana’s statement verifies that Emily was Thomas’s wife when the 1850 census was taken. So Anna was Emily, and I had the happy task of erasing a name off my To Research list.

One simple misunderstood name set the researchers off the track for years.
One simple misheard name set us researchers off track for 10 years. Source: 1850 United States Federal Census, New York, Ontario County, Manchester town, p. 71

But then it occurred to me that the 45 years between the marriage in 1843, and the affidavit written in 1888 was a mighty long time. Christiana lived in Wellington, Kansas, at the time she gave the affidavit; Emily lived in Shiawassee County, Michigan. They must have been very tight for Emily to have asked such a favor from so far away. Seems like Emily could have asked younger family members to attest to the marriage—siblings or cousins who might have attended. The two women would have to be as close as sisters to maintain such a friendship for so long. Sisters? Wait a minute.

So, I started researching Christiana, tracking her and her family back in time from Kansas and sure enough, I eventually found a marriage record that a Christiana Patterson married a man named Chamberlain in Illinois. After living in Kansas a while, the Chamberlains moved to Orange County, California. When Christiana passed away in her home in 1908, her niece Joanna (Emily’s daughter) lived in a house around the corner. Ha ha, success! I still have to do the work to prove that my theory is correct, but I now had strong clues to follow to research my enigmatic great-grandmother.

(You might be thinking: Why didn’t the affidavit mention their relationship? Well, the statement goes on to attest that Christiana had no personal stakes in Emily receiving her husband’s money. Mentioning their relationship could have marred her integrity.)

That’s what I mean by resurrecting people’s lives. I had to go back into the “fantasyland of the past” to get into the circumstances of the people involved in that affidavit in order to piece together that Emily and Christiana were sisters (allegedly, probably).

And to think if I hadn’t gone through my Fairy Godmother’s papers for the 101st time I might not have ever made that important connection. It really is so gratifying to solve another piece of the family history puzzle, like Sudoku only using people to fill in the boxes instead of numbers!

*This post was inspired by the DPWriting Challenge, whose prompt this week was to teach something.

The Gene Pool: Coincidences

Every now and then I like to sum up a few genealogy-related items I’ve come across in pop culture. I call it The Gene Pool because I’m clever.

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Item #1: Oh my god, you’re European!
via the Internet

Samantha logged onto Facebook one day and read a message from a woman in England telling her that she had a doppelganger. She clicked a link to the woman’s Facebook profile and couldn’t believe what she saw. A year and a half later they’re documenting their story. I love this kind of stuff.


Read more here.

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Item #2: No Coincidence, No Story
via radio and the Internet

Family researchers often find themselves in situations where they have to decide whether a coincidence is happenstance or a pattern taking shape. So, when I heard the first story about coincidences on an NPR broadcast, I was hooked!

After hearing the hour long broadcast, I couldn’t stop telling everyone I saw about the significance of a man giving his girlfriend a dollar with her name written on it (minute 22 in the podcast below), or the odd story of a man being given a picture of a toddler in a stroller taken 18 years ago and noticing his own grandmother perfectly framed in the background (minute 9:14 in the podcast below). And the other 13 stories gave me goose pimples, too.

Listen to the broadcast here. This one is a bit of a time commitment, come back to it when you’re washing dishes or cleaning house this weekend. I promise you won’t be sorry.

 

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Item # 3: History Detectives
via television

I’m really late to this party,  but I figure if I wasn’t aware of PBS’s History Detectives even after 10 seasons of being on the air, then others might not know about it either. It is exactly the kind of tv program someone who knew me pretty well would tell me about!

It’s similar to Antiques Roadshow, only instead of appraising objects from the past, the detectives research the story behind the objects. In a recent episode, a woman inherited a beautiful electric guitar from her father who had worked in the music business. Her father told her it was the very guitar Bob Dylan played at his infamous Newport Folk Festival performance. So the detective went out to verify the story.

That example is a little less genealogy oriented, than others. They’ve also investigated the story behind two stolen Civil War derringers (I had to look up the word) and the validity of a woman’s claim that she inherited royal jewels. My point is that this show covers the whole gamut of people’s interests — music, art, culture, writing, architecture, sports, military– not to mention my three blogging loves: history, sociology, and genealogy.

Check out their website or watch a segment about a book of African American spirituals:

 

Like what I did here? Read my first Gene Pool installment!

Do you know about any history, sociology, or genealogy stories  I can use for upcoming Gene Pools? Tell me about it.

Have any interesting coincidences happen to you lately? I’d love to hear it. Or just tell me what you thought of my finds.

 

The Creeper of the Family Tree

Sums it up pretty well.
Sums it up pretty well.

A few times a week, especially when I’m feeling logy at work, I’ll jog up and down the three flights of stairs in my office building. I do sets of exercises each time I reach the tucked-away basement. I used to do my jack knifes, squats, and pushups at the top of the stairs, but people would often be spooked when they turned into the stairwell and spotted me huffing and puffing on the landing situated just before the stairs open out onto the roof. The location I used before that was a recess in the hallway near the service elevator. I moved from there when not one, but two different dogs came over and sniffed my scalp as I did my push-ups (my office building is pet friendly). Those dogs made me feel a little vulnerable. So, I moved to the barely used basement for my privacy and to maintain other peoples’ sense of security.

Perhaps if I wore a bow tie while I exercised I would scare less people.
Perhaps if I wore a bow tie while I exercised I would scare less people.

The drawback to exercising in the basement is that it’s directly adjacent to the back door of the building. Many office workers take their cell phones to that landing, or they’ll pause there to finish conversations with co-workers before going back up to their desks. As a result, I find myself overhearing a lot of strangers’ conversations without their knowledge. My perfectly innocent presence still scares them when I emerge from the dank basement to cross between them mid-conversation and continue my jog up the stairs. I should also mention that my office building houses about 20 different companies, so these are people who don’t know me as anyone other than that weird guy that likes to scare people and enjoys having his scalp sniffed by dogs.

In other words, I’m the inadvertent office creeper.

Me, after a workout
Me, after a workout

And sometimes, I must admit, I feel a little like my family’s genealogical creeper: lurking in unseen corners, overhearing the snippets of their lives I find on documents and pictures, surprising newly found relatives on Facebook asking for info about their relatives after sniffing them out.

That’s why I’ve all but given up researching living relatives. As much as I would like to bring my distant cousins together, it feels intrusive and a little stalker-y knowing my connections to people who don’t know me. Also, I realized early on in my research that my feelings of connection to my relatives went unrequited more often than not (not to discount my family members who were open to connecting).

That was a hard lesson I had to learn just about out of the gate. I found some relatives and was instantly rejected because of bad blood. I just couldn’t understand their rebuffs  at first. What’s the big deal?, I thought, the past is past.

But it’s not.

If that were true, genealogy wouldn’t exist. Let’s face it: families are messy. There’s a lot of baggage there. And genealogists like me are set on rifling through it like the NSA does a suspicious suitcase. The past is directly tied to our present. Some events in the past are still so raw and tangible that a single name might burble up the pain or joy we associate with it to our surfaces like blood to a blushing cheek. And some details in our past can transfer to seemingly unrelated people and things. An inconsistent parent can deem an entire branch of a family tree unsavory. Words left unsaid to a loved one can fester and make a person want to never talk about that person again.  I realize that now. (Insert grateful prayer here about having to learn that lesson as opposed to having to live it.)

So, I often wonder if my research is ticking my ancestors off, like it did those relative who rejected my interest in them. Knowing that quite a few of my ancestors sought and successfully led quiet, honest lives. Perhaps, they weren’t the kind to talk about themselves. Or I wonder if they would rather I stick to the facts instead of making up my own flouncy stories about them. Perhaps more to my point, I wonder if they’d rather not be researched by me at all. Most of them probably wouldn’t have agreed (while they were living) with my life as a gay man. They were after all solid, modest Midwesterners living their lives as best they could in the capsules of their time. Some or most of them might have thought less of me, might have disowned me, might have sent me off to ‘conversion therapy’ camps, might have ignored me completely.

But I hope not. (Insert another grateful prayer here about the ability for times to change and for my very supportive family.) I hope they’re happy I’m interested in their lives, happy in my efforts to remember and learn from them, happy to have lights shine on events that no longer elicit bad feelings, happy I’m spreading their tales. I happen to believe, among many other things, that our relatives can see our lives from our perspective after they’ve passed, and I’d like to think that they know that I’m striving for the same goals they did: exacting my own quiet, honest life the best way I can in the capsule of my own time.

Surprisingly, that task has involved a lot more gasping strangers and dog snouts than I ever expected.

 

The Gene Pool: Paul Fronczak and San Miguel

I find my time writing and my time researching are currently at odds with each other. My solution is to sum up a few genealogy-related items I’ve come across in the media. I’m calling it The Gene Pool because I’m clever.

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Item #1:

The mystery continues in the Paul Fronczak case. Have you heard this story?

Here's where the story starts. This is stuff you can't make up!
Here’s where the story starts. This is stuff you can’t make up!

Fifty years ago, a baby named Paul Fronczak was stolen from a Chicago hospital by a woman dressed as a nurse. Months later, a baby is found in a field in New Jersey and is believed to be Paul. The elated parents took the baby in believing him to be theirs. This was back in 1964.

Recently, the man raised as Paul Fronczak took a DNA test that revealed he was not actually the kidnapped baby. So he decides to find out who he is and what happened to the real Paul Fronczak.

Click on the newspaper article above or google the thorough (if somewhat smarmily produced) ABC news story if you haven’t heard it. It’s worth it; there are so many unexpected twists and turns. And thanks to advances in DNA mapping, we no longer have to rely on the shapes of baby’s ears to identify them.

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Item #2, no spoilers:

The author of The Road to Wellville and The Women tackles yet another place and time. Two families living on a remote island off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, from the 1880s to the 1940s weather wars, the Depression, and a whole lotta sheep.

San Miguel by T. C. Boyle
San Miguel by T. C. Boyle

T. C. Boyle has long been a favorite author of mine. The way he weaves a fictional story around the hard data of actual events is masterful. The three segments of the book feel a little more like character sketches than a story with an arc. But the care with which Boyle writes about them makes up for the seeming lack of connection between the two families. This book made me realize that the fiction I’ve been writing about my family is heavily influenced by his work.

Boyle creates a solid tone and setting in the wind-swept, barren terrain of San Miguel island. He also manages to gently insert his theme of environmentalism into the story. The eventual mistreatment of the island leads directly to the outcome of their stories. The author also plays around with the idea of technology changing people’s lives. Nowadays, the internet is just another tool we use everyday. We don’t think much about the time it took to creep into our lives, how extraordinary it seemed at first, and the changes we made to fit it into society. Boyle’s introduction of the radio and the airplane into the Lester’s secluded life made me look at those everyday items as new and wondrous.

I got so caught up in the story of the living, breathing people upon which this book is based that I had to go into my Ancestry account and see what I could find on the two families. Here’s a couple items with no spoilers:

 

This phone directory from 1905 shows Capt. Waters's declaration as the President of a bunch of sheep.
This phone directory from 1905 shows Capt. Waters’s declaration as the President of a bunch of sheep.
The Lesters 1940 census
And this 1940 census record shows that the mild annoyance of manning the weather station kept the Lesters afloat on the island.

I’m withholding my opinions about this book so as not to spoil it for any of you interested in reading it. If you do read it, and want to discuss it with me, please comment on this post! Comment on it anyway, let me know you’re out there, instead of just being a statistic on this site.

Delano, Herbert Walker, and Hussein; or, The Stories Middle Names Tell

Don't be fooled by her humble expression. This woman is a troublemaker.
Don’t be fooled by her humble expression. This woman is a troublemaker.

Meet my 2nd great grandmother, Olivia. Or at least I think this is her. And I think that’s the name she went by. The truth is I’m not completely sure who she is or what she called herself. I do know that, despite her innocent look at the camera, she was a troublemaker. Confused? Let me explain.

One of my generous on-line relatives sent me this sweet picture of Olivia with a written note saying “This is a postcard picture addressed to Mr.  & Mrs.  N.  D.  James.  Someone wrote ‘Grandma’ on it. The question is who?” Mr. & Mrs. N. D. James are my great grandparents, which means at the very least I know that this woman is a relative. And despite the title of this entry, I know she was never President of the United States.

Back in the days of bonnets and awkward hand poses
Back in the days of bonnets and awkward hand poses

Later, I was given the picture above with a note on the back that said it was Hazel’s grandmother on the James side. Even with the hat obscuring her face, I’m certain the two pictures are of the same woman. Hazel is a daughter of Mr. and Mrs. N. D. James, so, if the writer of the note is correct, then this is definitely Grandma Olivia.

Scioto County, Ohio, marriage records
Scioto County, Ohio, marriage records: “I certify that I have joined in marriage Isaiah James and Olivina James May 7th 1848.”

Grandma Olivia was sneaky about her name. As you can see from the marriage certificate above, she is listed as Olivina. This record states Olivina married a man named Isaiah.  But I know that isn’t true, since I have further documentation that an Olivina and Josiah James married on this very date in this very county. I have chalked this version of Olivia’s name up to carelessness of the recorder.

The 1899 Council Bluffs, Iowa, phone directory
The 1899 Council Bluffs, Iowa, phone directory: what do you think a City Scavenger does for a living?
The 1917 CB Phone directory
The 1917 Council Bluffs Phone directory

Researching her further revealed 6 more versions of her name: Olivielle, Lavina, Levinia, Olive, Olivinia, and, most ridiculously, Oliver. In the 1925 Iowa census records which list mother’s and father’s names of each person, I found even Olivia’s children weren’t sure what to call her. They either told the census taker that their mother’s name was Olivia or Levina.

These phone directories to the left show Olivia’s whimsy. The fact that she could list her name in the city directory and still be recognized leads me to believe that Olivia Levina were her first and middle names and that she was known by both of them.  Or perhaps she didn’t speak very clearly. I know from numerous census records that she couldn’t read or write; maybe not having to spell it herself made her more comfortable with having an ambiguous identity. Or maybe she was just sneaky.

You can imagine finding her records after her husband passed was difficult. I never knew how her name would be spelled or which name she would give. I would never have been sure I had the right woman if I hadn’t found the phone directories linking those two names to the same person.

I’ve since learned that in Olivia’s time, going by one’s middle name was very common. At a time when parents often chose the names of their relatives for their children, middle names were used to distinguish people in the household. (No made-up names like Hashtag or Krimson Tyde for them!) I’ve talked about Eliza Ruffe. Eliza happens to be named after her mother. I found her listed as Jane or Janey on several censuses throughout her life. I’m sure this was to help the family distinguish her from her mother Eliza and her sister, Elizabeth.

Sometimes the middle name stuck around after adulthood, and sometimes the middle name was adopted after the person had grown up. I have a great aunt who was listed as Mary C. Romine for twenty years of documentation. Then, she just dropped off the records after she moved out of her parent’s house. I couldn’t find anything on her, but I noticed this woman named Delia Kindred was about the same age as her and lived down the street from Mary’s parents. I discovered a Delia Romine married a John Kindred in that small Missouri town. Later, I found Mary’s birth certificate. The “C.” stood for Cordelia.

As is the case with mine, middle names also came from the maiden names of the women in the family. They can be important keys to unlock the harder-to-find maiden names.

Knowing a relative’s middle name is important. I’ve used them to narrow down searches for ancestors with common names (as in the difference between John Smith and John Mortimer Basterton Smith). I’ve used them as hints at the family names further back in my family tree (I would bet that Basterton is a family name). I’ve even used them to pick back up on a relative’s paper trail after they seemed to have fallen off the face of the planet (I’d totally search for Morty Smith, if this were my relative).

But it’s also important to not assume a middle name or initial used once in a record is correct. Take a look at my great-grandfather Noah James in the phone directory pictures above and you’ll see why.

Some items I came across while researching that may come in handy in the future:
I needed to know what a city scavenger was. Look up Scaleraker.
More awkward poses captured in photography. (CAUTION: Don’t click if you don’t want to see pictures of dead people.)
Turns out former Presidents middle names explained a lot about where their people came from. Look at the family trees here, here, and here.