What (Still) Captivates Me About Genealogy
Howdy, all, after a good long while. And happy 2020.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Whispering Across the Campfire. And though a kind of yawning chasm has tended to open up between my posts, especially of late, this year I’ve resolved to open up the archives and spill what contents I’ve accumulated, maybe dig into a new mystery or two.
And resume, today, with a kind of retrospective question. What (still) captivates me about genealogy, anyway?
I got to thinking about this while considering how much family history research has changed since I came off of a book tour in summer 2008 and was challenged to see how many more ancestors I could add to a tree at Geni.com than my wife’s cousin, Carl. That we could even do that online, back then, tapping into my journalistic research skills and tenacity to get the details just right, probably was what originally sucked me in.
But from the first school assignments early in elementary school, there was something innately satisfying to me about filling in every branch I could on the family tree. I’d lost sight of that challenge, probably like a lot of people who fill out the names and file them away in a book or a binder. So much of the genealogy I was exposed to between the ages of, say, 10, and that all-nighter at age 32, was dry, ponderous. Names and dates, dates and names. Typically spelled incorrectly. Perpetually off by a digit or two, and nearly always colored by memory’s romantic fallacy.
There was something unspeakably tyrannical in the form and structure of genealogy as practiced in self-published family tomes. Plodding in their lines of detail. And hypocritical in their tendency to get whole blocks of it wrong. With the chief crime of being inescapably boring.
But by summer 2008 my links with my family’s past were loosening. My grandpa Ley passed away that July, a short year and half after Grandma the previous January. My parents had moved away from the county in Ohio where 200 years of family, on both sides, had laid roots. And I had been seven years gone from the state myself, to Chicago, with two new grapes on the family vine to my credit.
It began to sink in that some scenes would never be replayed. We’d never again live those seemingly endless times around the big table in the Ley kitchen, Grandpa reeling off stories, often tales that ended with both he and Grandma singing. What would become of all the old albums, the slides, the portraits on the piano, packed away or shuttled off to charity (or the dump) like their coats in the hall closet, the things they’d carried home from the war, or work; the sheaves of letters tucked onto a shelf? How would we remember? Where would we find home?
By the glow of our big desktop monitor in the spare bedroom, I began to find a new answer. And get hooked by it.
The aim, at the beginning, was simple, a game: what could I dig up, how far back could I go, simply by taking the little anecdotal pieces I’d always heard from Mom, and Dad, and my grandparents, and plugging them into search engines, guided by my own curiosity and that tenacious skepticism honed in my short professional career to that point in Ohio and Illinois newsrooms. What stories could I uncover?
The databases back then were barely starting to come online. I wouldn’t use Ancestry.com for another couple years. Instead, I relied on the reporter’s knack of stitching together several sources. And questing unblinkingly till I’d gotten double, triple, quadruple verification.
Of course, working around the inevitable roadblocks would eventually require me getting out of the office chair and trekking cross country to local libraries, connecting with relatives old and newly discovered via email, and then in-person. Tromping around cemeteries to see with my own eyes evidence of ancestors before. That only sunk the hooks in deeper. You might say, blood deep.
Genealogy has always been about blood: the family connection we can’t escape, sometimes compounded by the non-blood families we make for ourselves. And these days, some might say the “holy grail” of genealogy is putting aside all that paper research and gumshoeing and spitting into a tube, sealing it up, and mailing it off to the Mormons for verification in their ever-expanding database of lives lived, down to the DNA. And I can certainly understand how for some people, those who have not inherited the trove of documents, or been bound by inertia to a patch of geography for generations, or whose own histories have wound a mysterious path, just how magical that development is: to connect, to reveal, to finally know.
So I’m acknowledging just how huge an accomplishment that database is. But it just doesn’t get my socks going up and down. It’s a trick of chemistry that, to me, makes blood, somehow, impersonal.
So what gets me going about genealogy? The excitement has been in personally connecting the dots — not leaving it up to a lab. Making my own discoveries — at times backtracking a node or two, reversing course, correcting the path. Reasonably assured of my DNA connection to the thousands of names I’ve already jotted in my electronic tree, I’ve skipped the saliva-gram altogether, and found my own grails to pursue.
In ascending order of fulfillment to the family history researcher — this one, anyway — here are six:
6. Getting the main milestones right
Early on I vowed this blog would be devoted to family stories, instead of procedurals on how to do genealogy. But if I had to sum up my early approach, before I unearthed mysteries that relied on more advanced techniques, it’s this:
- Start with names, then track down, for each…
- … birth date and place
- … marriage date and place
- … date of death and burial place.
This formula gets repeated for every new name you discover: spouses, children, parents, siblings.
Why is it the most important course of work you can follow? Because you’re going to get those names from parents, and grandparents, or talkative uncles. All of them well-meaning — we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt — but few, if any of them, in command of all the details that are going to help you go beyond a generation or two and pluck your actual relatives’ lives from the growing sea of data out there. Not to mention the incorrect data caused by the world of well-meaning researchers — we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt — who were not as deliberate as careful little YOU.
There’s also the aggravating phenomenon, in this digital age, of incorrect transcriptions of the actual, original record. Think about how this happens. Well-meaning volunteers — we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt — who spend days of their own accord squinting at microfiche and yellowing newspapers and crumbling old volumes at the courthouse, and then typing — perhaps badly — what they perceive to be the correct spellings of your family’s series of tongue-twisting surnames and given names.
You want to be armed with the best facts when you wade into that well-meaning muck, believe me.
So I follow the old journalist’s adage, learned, oh, by the fourth week I was on that first job out of college, taught to me by my faithful editor, Eilene Guy, at the Sandusky Register: “If your mother says she loves you: CHECK IT OUT.
How do we arm ourselves against a world of sloppy data? Cross-referencing. And cross-referencing again.
Start with the names, and even dates, in a family history album. Or that are given to you by your mother, over the phone. (CHECK THEM OUT.)
Look up censuses online. There are other sources besides paying to dive into Ancestry.com right away. (And you will want to check every automatic connection trees like that make for you.) FamilySearch.org has grown into a more or less comprehensive one. And it’s free.
In the census you can peg your ancestors’ birth years plus or minus a few years by what the census taker took down. And you can cross-reference that info in 10-year snapshots. They WILL differ.
What you’re after, next, is a birth record. One that records names of parents is even better. (More names to check out!) You can cross-reference that with baptismal records, which may or may not record both the birth date and the baptism date, usually a few days after your node on the family tree sprouted into existence.
Probably the next time your ancestor enters the public record is marriage. A lot of these records are online. Either in the big databases at FamilySearch, or state databases, or sometimes printed in regional histories, which record all the weddings and couples and dates performed at churches throughout the county. You’ll get a marriage date, probably an age (more verification for the birth date), and the name and dates of, face it, your ancestor’s better half.
You’re cross-referencing that info back and forth as you trace the family’s life through subsequent censuses. There are, then, draft records, city directories, even church histories and records of professional associations that can mark further milestones. But for the basics, you’re looking for that document that records the sunset of a life.
Death records will record all sorts of useful information, including cause of death, place of death, which relative signed the papers or was made responsible for next steps. These are backed up by obituaries (which can be wrong) and burial records, even the memorial stone itself (which, still, sometimes can be wrong). But knowing the date places a bookend to that life. And sometimes is even the starting point for tracing back all the previous milestones we just mentioned.
An example of how this diligent research can go wrong: In the case of my great-grandmother Laura Foutz (in family legend, which proved correct, Christina Laurina Catherina Zeigler Foutz), I did not have a death date. And Ohio records, as of 2008, were cut off at 1953. I did not even have an agreed-upon correct spelling of her maiden name — was it Ziegler? That’s what I was told, and what I researched.
That led me to a Ziegler family with a Laura in their household, about the same age as my great-grandfather Vance Foutz, and for decades, just down the street from where Vance and Laura made their home. And a very compelling legend about a J. Ziegler who was gunned down in the tavern he owned.
Trouble was? It was all wrong. Zeigler was the correct spelling. And I eventually pruned that branch from the tree and went through that three-point checklist to verify all the new members as I backtracked.
“If your mother says she loves you, CHECK IT OUT.”
5. Tracing a branch forward
From those basic milestones, censuses and newspapers become your go-to’s for understanding how an ancestor lived, and who they marked their days with.
Censuses will children and spouses, with dates you’ve got to verify, already well-noted. And newspapers will carry lists of survivors in obituaries, and less commonly, birth notices or professional or school news about so-and-so’s kiddos-made-good.
The benefits of tracing not only your ancestor’s and immediate descendants’ lines forward is that, by understanding where siblings and uncles and aunts and the like ended up, and tracing through their descendants, you make connections — in the online data as well as in real live relationships in the world today — that can tap you into a trove of information that brings their stories alive.
The most compelling of these, for me, are pictures.
Even though my family knew a lot of the legends, told a lot of the stories — some fact, and some fanciful — I was over 30 before I even saw a picture of my great-grandfather and great-grandmother Foutz, or Johnson. I knew names that were even earlier with my Ley and Weible ancestors, but being able to gaze into their eyes, and put faces to the names, is the thrill of what involved, detailed genealogy is all about.
Take the picture above, of my great-grandmother Zula Lucrece Fisher Ley as an elaborately-coiffed, elegantly-dressed young firecracker.
Zula was subject of the second series I published on this blog, way back 10 years ago in April 2010. Her death was a story that remained with me through my boyhood: struck ill with influenza in early February of 1920, and she and the daughter she was pregnant with both died, setting my not-year-2-year-old grandpa Ley’s life on a different course than what it might have been. There was a haunting portrait of her holding grandpa as an infant that made those details all the more etched in memory.
It was one of the first stories I wanted to research in depth. And I was able to confirm the details of that tragedy right in the death records, which certainly carry a more ominous weight than the whispered reminiscences of relatives.
Happily, in the year since I’ve been able to assemble a more complete record of great-grandma Zula, including yearbook photos and newspaper articles, as well as scribbled notes in the books she studied as an elementary school teacher. But one of the first scores of my genealogical research was connecting with Noreen Moser, granddaughter of Zula’s brother, my great-great uncle Clyde Fisher.
Noreen shared this early family portrait of Zula and her parents and siblings, as well as a later one. Coming face to face with history is a powerful reminder of all that proper genealogy can be.
4. Telling the story of a life
The first mystery I pursued in genealogical research — or at least the first post on this blog — was that of the elusive, tremendously successful, Sherman Foutz.
In the patchwork genealogical research my grandma Erma Johnson Foutz conducted with Grandpa Don Foutz in the 1970s, they weren’t even sure whether Sherman was grandpa’s dad’s father or not, so much younger was Great-Grandpa Vance than his oldest brother, Sherman. There were also confusing rumors and tidbits from global researchers of Foutz history that pointed to us being Mormons, or convicts, instead of honest farmers hacking our way through the Appalachian mountains from Maryland to to settle in Ohio shortly after 1810.
But I started to piece it all together by following the census record. And navigating my way over the gap that ensued about 1890 when nearly the entire record burned. That was unfortunate for catching the first census Vance would have appeared on, being born in 1887. And some of the confusion about parentage clearly stems from Vance, as well as brother Charlie, appearing in Sherman’s household in 1900 in Washington DC, along with Sherman’s wife, Laura, but also along with their two children, Grace and Oscar, and Sherman, Vance and Charles’s parents, my great-great-grandparents, Jonathan and Rebecca Foutz.
Further research into newspaper records and local histories cemented the right connections and lineage. But Sherman’s story captivated me.
Born on a farm in Ohio, where his wife’s family also worked, he was one of the first in my family to attend schooling beyond high school. He parlayed his training into a successful career, first as an appointment to the Treasury Department in D.C. under President Grover Cleveland, then as fire insurance salesman and fraternal leader in Harrisburg and Reading, Pa.
But Sherman’s life was tragically cut short by tuberculosis in 1915. It took me years just to obtain his death certificate from Colorado — where he’d spent his last months in a sanitorium. And the record in Pennsylvania, for years, was incomplete as to the fates of his daughter, Grace, and son, Oscar, and wife, Laura. I had a death date for Laura, and grave back in Ohio, but no idea of what happened to Grace and Oscar. And eventually those mysteries deepened, as new names — a step-daughter, Catherine Rutt, a wife for Oscar, Florence Hartman — were added to the fold.
Eventually, I tracked down answers to all the burning questions. And a fuller portrait of Sherman’s life — and his family’s emerged. And I was able to connect with the continuing story of Pennsylvania Foutzes, even get invited to the reunion. That’s living genealogy.
Another view of the old Palmer homestead in Scio, Ohio as it appeared in March 2011.
3. Putting a place to a name
This blog resulted after I got out of my chair in the guest bedroom in suburban Chicago where I started my foray into family history, and set out on treks back home to Ohio to walk the same paths my ancestors did.
There were places I knew, like the home my great-grandfather Robert Weible shared Great-Grandma M.A., just blocks from where I grew up.
And places I was determined to find and set my own eyes on, like the farm my great-great-great-grandfather Gideon Pfouts called home for more than 60 years in Harrison County. I’d probably driven right past that area nearly a hundred times for weekend stop at Tappan Lake in high school, and every trip back and forth from college in Pittsburgh. And never knew.
Well, from censuses you get the township name, and even the address if your families aren’t farmers in the mid-1800s. But from censuses, you go to land records, and township maps, and compare to the aerial survey. And amazingly, a lot of the borders are still visible from a thousand or so feet up. Incredible.
So, seeing Gideon’s old backyard from a computer was unbearable. I had to check it out myself.
In 2010 I took a week off work, ostensibly to hammer out a hundred or so pages to complete my master’s thesis novel for Columbia College. I holed up in my Grandma Foutz’s house, empty for months after her second husband, Max, had passed away. But I ended up spending my days chasing after history.
Visited cemeteries. A lot of cemeteries. Drove winding backroads. Connected with Johnson relatives who took me past the Palmer homestead where my great-grandma Vila Palmer Johnson grew up.
But the oddest highlights yet took place in 2011 and 2012, when, accompanied by a Foutz distant cousin I discovered by “tracing it forward” I tromped around the homesteads of Jonathan Foutz and Gideon Foutz, taking a rock for a souvenir, but otherwise not quite brave enough to knock on doors and see if our 150-year-old knowledge held up to scrutiny.
2. Looking into the eyes of your ancestor
As noted above, tracing your tree forward could put you into possession of photos and other trinkets you’d never have counted on, and that bring history alive.
But what about when they’ve been in possession of your parents, or grandparents, for years, but missing captions, or other incomplete details mean those faces would otherwise be lost to history?
My mom sent me a trove of Weible photographs and documents a few years ago, and I was sure, sure, that one of the mystery photographs was of my great-great-grandmother, Esther Bliss Goddard Weible, as a teenage girl.
By process of elimination, and cross-referencing of other photographs to branches on the tree I had thoroughly traced forward, even to distant aunts with untimely deaths, I was able to confirm as best as I could, and fill in a missing photograph on my tree.
But what’s cooler? Looking at photographs of my great-grandpa, her son, Robert Ohio Weible, whom I’m said to resemble, and Esther, there’s definitely a distinctive family resemblance. And some 150 years later, that’s pretty cool to recognize. A recognition earned through research.
1. Making a present-day connection
So, to sum up: to me, a genealogy spit-test can in no way, ever, compare to the thrills you encounter by starting with names and dates, and then uncovering photographs, faces, places and stories. Untold hours go into this. And to make that connection, forge that eureka! moment, whether online or hunched over a creaking tome in some library, is far more precious than what some database in Utah can tell me.
But even cooler? When you don’t go through all that alone.
Case in point are the visits I’ve made to cousin Dawn James in West Virgina. She’s a great-great-granddaughter of Ida Foutz Moreland, older sister to my great-grandpa Vance. We connected online — Dawn was always only too happy to point out this shocking fact to whatever folks we would encounter back in 2011 to 2014 — and spent a couple trips tromping through cemeteries and driving back roads, even knocking on doors and asking questions, even — memorably — getting shot at as we slipped down the muddy trails of our shared ancestral homestead.
What kind of damn fun is THAT? (Dawn, been waaaaay too long. Let’s do it again, soon.)
I have made connections, some faithful, some fleeting, with other nodes on the tree, other relatives pursuing their own quest, that make the journey all the more companionable and fruitful. They get it, you know? And chances are, they’ve got things that contribute to your understanding better than your own digging ever could: diaries, stories, photographs, possessions.
The most valuable artifact shared, though? Time. We are all just passing through. And to be able to connect to someone else — even more notable during our own pandemic days a hundred years removed from when our ancestors lived, painfully, through similar struggles — and to spend hours and days, soon fleeting, on the genealogical trail with them, is the stuff new legends are made of.
Happy 10th birthday to Whispering Across the Campfire. I promise to be a bit more active in this anniversary year, emptying my own archives in a series of brief, but hopefully useful posts. And yeah, unleashing the magnum opus every once in awhile.
Happy sleuthing, all!