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Genealogy Gems in Historical Newspapers

Newspapers are a genealogy goldmine. Birth, death and marriages announcements provide information on major family events. Graduation announcements list the names of students who graduated from the local schools. Advertisements provide information on businesses or other entrepreneurial activities. I found several advertisements for pool halls that were owned by my 2nd great grand uncle, Charles Cutch, in the 1890’s, as well as, an advertisement for a very interesting “bathing apparatus” he was selling in 1919.

 

Source:  The Colored American February 20, 1904 (Washington, DC) Page 6.  Chronicling America. Web. 1May 2014.

Source: The Colored American February 20, 1904 (Washington, DC) Page 6. Chronicling America. Web. Date Month Year Accessed. May 2014

 

Source:  The Colored American February 20, 1904 (Washington, DC) Page 6.  Chronicling America. Web. Accessed May 2014.

Source: The Colored American February 20, 1904 (Washington, DC) Page 6. Chronicling America. Web. Accessed May 2014.

 

1919 07 04 - Bathing Apperatus Ad-short

Source: The Washington Post July 4, 1919 (Washington, DC) Page 10. Chronicling America. Web. Accessed May 2014.

Local news columns and editorials provide information on various activities where an ancestor lived. I found numerous news articles on my grandfather and his activities in various social and community organizations. There were also several poems he had written, as well as, a letter that he had written to the editor.

Sometimes a news article may be written about an ancestor. I learned that in 1894 my great-grandfather, Overton Woodfork, was stabbed and had his throat slashed by a drunken newspaper reporter who lived in the flats where Overton worked as an elevator operator. I also learned that in 1949, my 2nd great grand aunt, Ethel Cutch, was hit by a bus while she was crossing the street and died a few days later of her injuries.

Source: The Evening Star January 7, 1894 (Washington, DC) Page 8. Chronicling America. Web. Accessed May 2014.

 

Source: The Washington Post April 21, 1949 (Washington, DC) Page B1.ProQuest. Web. Accessed May 2014.

 

I found several news articles about Charles Cutch that gave insight into his business activities and his run-ins with the law. In 1897, Charles owned a store at 5th and K Street Street NW in Washington, DC. The store was robbed one night when someone smashed the windows and stole some tobacco and four pounds of candy. Two teenagers were later found guilty of housebreaking by a jury in Criminal Court but got off with a stern warning from the judge and a suspended sentence after the jury recommended mercy because of their age.

By 1900 Charles and brother, Joseph, owned a pool hall on the 20th block of K street NW. The pool hall was the scene of several disturbances. One night in 1901 Charles was arrested for discharging his revolver during a disagreement with a patron over payment.

Charles and his brother also owned a pool hall at 11th and U street NW. The pool hall was located just outside a section of the city that was called Striver’s Row.   The area was given the name because it was the home of many educated Negro professionals who lived in the city.

The residents soon became weary of the disturbances associated with the pool hall. In 1904, several residents appeared before the District Commissioner to protest the renewal of Charles’ license to operate the pool hall. The proceedings of these hearings are documented in several newspaper articles.

 

Source:  The Evening Star November 29, 1904 (Washington, DC) Page 12.  ProQuest. Web. Accessed May 2014.

Source: The Evening Star November 29, 1904 (Washington, DC) Page 12. ProQuest. Web. Accessed May 2014.

 

Source: The Evening Star December 6, 1904 (Washington, DC) Page 5 ProQuest. Web. Accessed May 2014.

 

Source: The Washington Post November 30, 1904 (Washington, DC) Page 10. ProQuest. Web. Accessed May 2014.

Source: The Washington Post November 30, 1904 (Washington, DC) Page 10. ProQuest. Web. Accessed May 2014.

Charles appears in the news again in 1913 when he was arrested for shooting his revolver during a fight with another man. The Legal Record section of the newspaper provides a summary of the court action in the months that followed his arrest. Charles was charged with assault with a dangerous weapon and he pleaded not guilty. He was found guilty, committed with a bail of $2000.and few days later a motion for a new trail was filed.

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Source: The Washington Post September 26, 1913 (Washington, DC) Page 3. ProQuest. Web. Accessed May 2014.

Thanks to these numerous news articles, I now have a better understanding of my ancestors and the communities in which they lived and worked.

There are several methods for accessing online newspaper databases. ProQuest provides online archives to numerous newspapers. These databases can be accessed from most public library websites. Check with your local library for more information. The Chronicling America website provides free access to historic U.S. newspapers from 1836-1922. This website is a great resource because it contains many newspapers that are no longer in print. An internet search for “historical newspapers online” will return many lists of historical newspapers by state.

Genealogy Gems in Land Records

Land records are an excellent source of genealogy information. They can give clues to the surname of female ancestors who have married, as well as, the names of an ancestor’s parents, spouse and children. When used in combination with other resources, land records can be a great asset to your genealogy research.

Many states have an online database of land and property tax records.  In some cases a user account must be created to access the information.  The index can be viewed for free and document images can be viewed for a nominal fee. The index detail usually contains enough information for genealogy research; occasionally it may be necessary to purchase a document image to obtain more details.

There are several ways to search land records, but two search methods are best for genealogy research: Grantor/Grantee and Lot/Square.  The Grantor/Grantee search can be used to locate property owned by an individual. The grantor is the old owner of the property (usually the seller) and the grantee is the new owner (usually the buyer).  The Lot/Square search method can be used to locate all the owners for a property.

The Real Property Tax database can be used to locate the Lot/Square for an address.  Most property tax databases only have information for property that is currently standing.   Therefore, you may not be able to find information for property that has been demolished or the street name has changed.

The following example illustrates how I used land records along with other resources to make progress in solving one of my genealogy mysteries.  Since many of individuals in the example are living or recently deceased, I have changed the names and other pertinent information to protect their privacy.

Family oral history states that the grandmother of Marissa Farr was the sister of my ancestor named Catherine Streeter. One of my research challenges was to identify the name of Marissa Farr’s grandmother and determine if there was a connection to my Streeter ancestors. I knew Marissa Farr lived in Washington, DC and the ancestor in question was born in Virginia, moved to Washington, DC where she lived until she died.

I started my research with a search for Marissa Farr in Ancestry.com which yielded a Social Security Death Index (SSDI) record and a US Public Records Index.  I used the date of death from the SSDI record to obtain Marissa’s obituary which provided the names of her children and a living sibling.

I then performed a Grantor/Grantee search for Marissa Farr in the Washington DC land records and retrieved several records. I sorted the list by Lot/Square and Filing Date in order to view the information for each Lot/Square in chronological order.

From this information I noted that Marissa was associated with three properties, which I will refer to a Property A, Property B and Property C.  The next step was to perform a Lot/Square search in the land records for each property.  One land record for Property A immediately caught my eye because it contained the name Marissa Riddle Farr.  I assumed Riddle was Marissa’s maiden name so I started with that record.  The record index detail showed:

Grantor

Grantee

Farr, Marissa Riddle Morris, Martha Riddle
Mercer, Dorothy Riddle
Morris, Martha Riddle
Riddle, Thomas

From this information I surmised that Riddle was Marissa Farr’s maiden name and the other people listed were her siblings and/or parents.

I searched the census for Marissa Riddle in Washington, DC and located her in the 1920 Census in the household of Thomas Riddle.  Martha, Dorothy and a younger Thomas along with several other children were also listed in the household. This information supported my theory that Riddle was Marissa’s maiden name and the individuals listed in the land record were her siblings.  The census record also gave the names of Marissa’s parents (Thomas and Leslie Riddle).

I performed another search of the census for Thomas Riddle in Washington, DC and located records for the family in the 1910, 1930 and 1940 censuses. The 1940 census showed the family living at 123 Maple in Washington, DC.  I searched the Real Property database for the address in order to obtain the lot/square. The lot/square for the address matched the lot/square for Property A.

I then searched the land records for the lot/square associated with Property A and sorted the results in ascending order by filing date.  The online land records database only went back to the early 1920’s and the property appeared to have had been in the family before the 1920’s.

Reviewing the index details for the land records provided a wealth of information to develop more theories. I continued to search the census records, marriage records, birth records and obituaries to find information to support or refute my theories.

.

The index detail for another land record showed:

Grantor

Grantee

Riddle, Leslie Mercer, Clifton
Riddle, Thomas Mercer, Dorothy

Base on the research I had just completed, I knew that Leslie and Thomas were Marissa’s parents and Dorothy was Marissa’s sister.  I surmised that Clifton was Dorothy’s husband.  A search of the marriage index confirmed that Clifton was Dorothy’s husband and Dorothy’s maiden name was Riddle.

The index detail for a third land record for Property A showed:

Grantor

Grantee

Morris, Martha Riddle Morris, Martha Riddle
Morris, Richard

From this information I surmised that Richard was Martha’s husband.  A search of the marriage index showed her husband’s name was Charles not Richard.  I located a SSDI record for Martha and used the date of death from the record to locate her obituary.  From her obituary, I learned that Richard was her son and the names of her other children.

I continued the process with all of the land records for Property A and gathered more information about the Riddle family.

When I had completed my research with the land records for Property A, I focused my attention on the land records for Property B. The index detail for one record showed:

Grantor

Grantee

Dawson, M Farr, M

Since the index detail did not provide much information, I purchased the document image to obtain additional insight. The document showed Marissa changing her name on the land record from “Marissa Dawson” to “Marissa Farr” after a divorce. From this information I surmised, Farr was Marissa surname after a second marriage and Dawson was her surname after her first marriage.

A second land record for Property B showed:

Grantor

Grantee

XYZ Development Company Dawson, George
Dawson, Marissa N

From this document I surmised that George Dawson was Marissa’s first husband. I located George and Marissa Dawson in the 1940 Census. Also living in the household were several children and lodgers.  The names of two of the children matched the children’s names in Marissa Farr’s obituary.  Three lodgers were Clifton, Dorothy and Doris Mercer. Base on the information obtained for the Riddle family while researching the land records for Property A and the ages of the Mercers’, I knew Dorothy Mercer was Marissa’s sister and Clifton was Dorothy’s husband and surmised Doris was Clifton’s and Dorothy’s daughter.  I searched the marriage index and found a record for George Dawson and Marissa Riddle .  The marriage information confirmed that Marissa Riddle and Marissa Dawson were the same person and George Dawson was her husband.

The index detail for the third land record for Property B did not provide much information either, so I purchased that document image as well.  The document was a Waiver and Quite Claim Deed which identified the name of Marissa’s second husband, William E. Farr.  I searched the marriage index and found an entry for Marissa N Riddle and William Ellsworth Farr.

I also searched the Real Property Tax database for the address found in the US Public Records Index for Marissa Farr.  The search results showed the lot/square matched the lot/square for Property B.

The land record for Property C showed the property was owned by William Farr’s parents and several of their children and their spouses.  Since I was not interested in William Farr, I did not do further research.

In then focused my attention on finding the names of Marissa Farr’s grandparents (specifically her grandmothers) in order to make the connection between the grandmother and my ancestor. I knew my ancestor was born in Virginia; however, I had conflicting information on the exact location.  Family oral history stated she was from Fluvanna Virginia, her death certificate indicates she was born in Blue Valley, Virginia and the birth certificate for one of her children indicates she was born in Almar, Virginia.

From the census records, I knew that Marissa’s father (Thomas Riddle) and both his parents were born in Virginia.  I did a search for Thomas Riddle in Ancestry.com.  The results showed more than one Thomas Riddle around his age who was born in Virginia.

I decided to focus my research on Marissa’s mother (Leslie Riddle).  I used the birth date from Marissa’s Farr’s SSDI record to request a copy of Marissa’s birth certificate which indicated Leslie’s maiden name was Sumner.

I performed a search on Ancestry.com for Leslie Sumner and found her in the 1900 household of Micah Sumner along with his wife Isabel and their children.  The family was also located in the 1880, and 1910 censuses.  In the 1880 census, the household of Micah Sumner consisted of his wife, children, a cousin and two boarders named Catherine Streeter and Lee Streeter.  In the 1910 census, the household of Micah Sumner consisted of his wife, children, a three other people.  Two of the people are a husband and wife named Emma and Clifton Jenkins and a 83 year old widow named Sarah Streeter.

I searched for Micah Sumner in the marriage, birth and death index and retrieved a marriage record for Micah Sumner and Elizabeth Patton, ten birth records and a death record for Micah Sumner.   I was somewhat disappointed that the marriage index record indicated Elizabeth’s maiden name was Patton. I  was hoping her maiden name would be Streeter.

The first few birth index records showed the mother’s name as Elizabeth Patton.  A few others showed the mother’s maiden name as “Elizabeth Streeter Patton”. All of the birth index records indicate Elizabeth was born in Virginia.  Three of the records indicated Elizabeth was born in Albemarle, Virginia (The county was spelled slightly different on each record).

I still have more research to do, but my research using land records has provided the following clues that lead me to believe Elizabeth Patton may be related to Catherine Streeter:

  • Catherine Streeter and Lee Streeter are boarders in the 1880 household of Micah Sumner.  There is a nine year age difference between Elizabeth and Catherine (Elizabeth is older) and a one year age difference between Catherine and Lee.  Catherine, Lee and Elizabeth may be siblings or Catherine may be Elizabeth’s sister and Lee may be Catherine’s husband.
  • Sarah Streeter is a boarder in the 1910 household of Micah Sumner. Sarah may be Elizabeth’s mother.
  • Elizabeth’s full maiden name is listed as Elizabeth Streeter Patton on several of her children’s birth records.  Perhaps Elizabeth’s marriage to Micah Sumner was her second marriage and Patton is her surname from her first marriage.
  • Catherine Streeter’s place of birth of one of her children’s birth certificates is Almar, Virginia.  It is a stretch but Almar may be a misspelling of a mispronunciation of Albemarle.

This example was somewhat lengthy, but I hope you picked up a few tips on how to use land records along with other resources to research your family history.   With the exception of Marissa Riddle’s birth certificate, I was able to perform all of the research online using the following resources:

  • Ancestry.com to view census records, the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), the US Public Records Index, as well as, city directories. I did not mention City Directories in my example, but I used them as well. I have found that many of the City Directories are not indexed or often contain transcription errors.  Therefore, it is not a good idea to depend on the search feature to locate a name. Instead it is best to directly access the directory for the specific city and year; and browse through the pages to locate the individual.
  • Familysearch.org to view the Marriage, Birth and Death record index, as well as, the actual marriage record.  The website also has free access to census records and the Social Security Death Index.
  • Legacy.com to obtain obituaries.
  • Local newspaper obituary database
  • State online Recorder of the Deeds database to access land records.
  • State online Real Property Tax database to locate lot/square for property using an address.

Revisiting Resources and Repositories

When researching your family history, it is a good idea to revisit resources and repositories that you have used in the past. New information may have been added since your last visit or you may have gained additional knowledge that will make you see the information in a new light. Such was the case with my paternal great grandfather, Overton Woodfork.

From my research, I knew that Overton’s parents were William and Louisa Woolfolk and his mother’s maiden name was Shakespeare. I also knew from my research with the census (via ancestry.com) and the DC City Directories (using microfilm and the actual directories) that Overton had lived in Caroline County, Virginia during the 1870’s and early 1880’s; Washington DC during the late 1890’s and the 1900’s; and returned to Caroline County, Virginia during the 1930’s where he died in 1933. There were time periods, where he seemed to disappear and I did not know where else to look for him since, to my knowledge, he had only lived in Caroline County, Virginia and Washington, DC.

I had recently learned that one of my Shakespeare ancestors, Martha Shakespeare Lewis, and her husband, Arthur, had moved from Caroline County, Virginia to the Walnut Hills area of Cincinnati, Ohio in the 1890’s where they lived until she died in 1915 and he died in 1935.  I also knew that some of my Shakespeare ancestors had moved from Caroline County, Virginia to Baltimore, Maryland.

Periodically, I search ancestry.com for my ancestors to see if I can locate any new information. A few months ago, I decided to search for my paternal great grandfather and was surprised to see the search results contained an ‘Overton Woodfork’ in several Cincinnati, Ohio City Directories. Since Overton Woodfork is not a common name, I had a suspicion that it might be my great grandfather. The 1886 entry in the Cincinnati City Directory really caught my eye because in the section for the address it said “bds Arthur Lewis’ Walnut Hills”. Another search result was for an entry in 1887 Cincinnati City Directory contained “rooms 20 Curtis Walnut Hills”. After checking my research notes form Martha Shakespeare Lewis, I confirmed that she and her husband also lived at this address. Therefore, I am almost certain that these entries for ‘Overton Woodfork’ are my great grandfather.

Overton Woodfork in 1886 Cincinnati Ohio City Directory

1887 Cincinnati Ohio City Directory – Overton Woodfork

1887 Cincinnati Ohio City Directory – Arthur Lewis

A little while later I searched for Overton Woodfork again on ancestry.com and this time the search results also contained entries from the Baltimore City directory. After making this discovery, I decided to browse each Cincinnati City Directory and Baltimore City Directory manually during the time periods that Overton did not live in Caroline County, Virginia or Washington, DC. I found Overton Woodfork in several of the directories that did not show up in the online search results either because his name had been transcribed incorrectly or some of the names on the page had not been indexed. I also visited the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore, Maryland to search the microfilm for the Baltimore City directories that were not online.

After completing this research, I now have a more complete timeline for Overton Woodfork. There are still a few years where I don’t know where he was living, so I still have more research to do to fill in the blanks.

In addition to illustrating the importance of revisiting resources and repositories, this experience demonstrates the importance of not solely relying on online search engines to perform research. It is also necessary to browse through the original documents to search for information. You may discover new information that will help you fill in the blanks on your family tree.

History Makers in Our Midst

Summer is almost here.  Families will be gathering for barbeques, cookouts and reunions.  There will be many stories of days gone by and lots of photo albums and memorabilia to share.  As you are visiting with family this summer, why not use it as an opportunity to preserve  history.  Not only will you learn family history, you may also learn that you have history makers in your midst.

Caroline High School Literary Program
Beryl Jackson is in the first row on the left

Beryl Jackson is such a history maker. She shared her memories of being in the first group of students to desegregate the Caroline County School system when I interviewed her for a book I was writing on Union High School in Caroline County, Virginia.  In 1965, Beryl and a few other students transferred from Union High (the high school for Blacks) to Caroline High ( the high school for Whites).  Although her experience did not make national news and is not recorded in history books like the story of the Little Rock Nine, it did change the Caroline County School system forever.

Your family member’s memories have historical significance, not just for your family but for the community as well. Here are a few topics that are likely to come up during family discussions:

  1. Way of Life –What was the lifestyle of the people living in the community?
  2. Employment – How did people in the community earn a living? (ex. farming, working in steel mill)
  3. Migration – Did family members come to America from another country? Move from one area of the country to another?  What was their experience?
  4. Clubs/Social Organizations – How did family members socialize with other members of the community?
  5. Institutions – Where did family member go to school or church? What impact did these institutions have on their lives?
  6. Community/Neighborhood –Communities change overtime. What was the community like when your family member lived there?

The next time you go to a family gathering be sure to take your digital recorder and/or video camera and preserve history.

Taking an Active Role in Preserving Local History

I started researching my family history in Caroline County, Virginia in 2004.  I was frustrated by the dearth of information on African Americans.  As I talked to African Americans in the community I would hear interesting stories of their lives growing up in the county.   As I listened to their stories, I would often think what interesting information it was and that someone should preserve it.

In 2009 I decided to become that someone and take an active role in preserving the history of the communities where my anceMemories of Union High Coverstors lived. My first project would be to preserve the history of Union High School – Caroline County’s only secondary school for Negroes during the era of segregation.

I knew nothing about the school and had never written a book; however, I decided to take on the challenge.  Once I began to spread the word about the Union High History Project many people were eager to participate.  The result of the project is a book titled Memories of Union High: An Oasis in Caroline County, Virginia, 1903-1969.  The book available at amazon.com and my website.

In addition to writing a book, I have collected a large amount of Union High memorabilia and ephemera including hundreds of photographs, a complete set of yearbooks, commencement programs and school newspapers. I plan to donate these items to libraries and historical archives.  Because of the collaborative efforts of numerous ordinary people, the history of Union High School has been preserved for posterity.

You many not want to take on the monumental task of writing a book.   Here are some ways you can help preserve local history on a smaller scale:

  1. Donate items to libraries, historical archives and genealogy societies. When going through family members’ belongings, save old documents, papers, photographs, memorabilia and ephemera and donate them to a local library or archives.  A lot of historical items are classified as junk and thrown away because the person who is cleaning out an elderly or deceased person’s home is not mindful of the significance of the items.

I urge people to donate original items on a regular basis and keep copies for their records. Using this method, you or your family members will not be faced with the daunting task of sorting through a large amount of information years later.  You don’t have to organize the items just put them in a box and take them to the organization.  Some organizations may even send staff to your house to retrieve the items if you have a large amount of information.

L. R. “Jack” Davis, the funeral director of Davis Funeral Home (which later became Storke Funeral Home) in Bowling Green, VA, was responsible for moving  graves after the government purchased land in Caroline County, to establish the  AP Hill military reservation. Mr. Davis kept very detailed records in a 250+ page document which provides information of the location of graves before and after the move.

Many years later, his daughter made copies of the document and distributed it to libraries and the Caroline County historical society.  This document is an excellent resource for anyone performing genealogy research in Caroline County.  Because of the generosity of Mr. Davis’ daughter, numerous family historians and genealogist have been able to obtain valuable information about their ancestors.

  1. Write articles for newsletters.  As I research my family history I also collect information about the communities in which they lived and the organizations in which they were members.  I have written several articles for the Caroline Historical Society newsletter in order to share this information.
  1. Create a website or blog. I acquired several documents from the Fort A.P. Hill Environmental Office that continued valuable information about the people who lived in the community prior to the establishment of the military reservation.  I uploaded the documents to my website to make them more accessible.  I have been contacted by people all over the world who were very grateful for this information being on the internet since it was not feasible for them to travel to Caroline County to perform research.   Some information may be copyrighted so be sure to get permission from the owner before you post any information and documents on the internet.
  1. Give speeches and make presentations.   I have made several presentations on the subject of researching, documenting and preserving local history.  I share my experience from the Union High History Project and give tools and tips for preserving local history.
  1. Share research strategies and information with staff at libraries and historical archives.   Performing genealogy research for African Americans can be a frustrating experience, especially when researching our ancestors who were enslaved.  Because slaves were considered property, the traditional methods for performing genealogy research can not be followed.

I frequently perform research at the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  The staff is very friendly and helpful. On one occasion I struck up a conversation with several staff members who inquired about my research.  I told them I was searching through documents about my ancestor’s deceased slave owner (Elijah Wigglesworth) to learn more about my ancestors. I explained how I had to research my ancestor’s slave owner family in addition to my own

family in order locate my ancestors. I showed them how my ancestors were listed in the Inventory and Appraisement of the slave owner’s estate,  and how the document showing the distribution of his estate showed my great great grandparents family being separated when the slave owner’s estate was divide among his wife and children.  I then explained how I had to search for slaves in wills, inventories, and other court documents for each of the new slave owners to trace my ancestors’ movement during the slavery.

I pointed out that since the names of the slaves were not provided on the summary for documents in the collection I had to spend hours reading through documents in hopes of finding information on my ancestors.  They agreed this was not an easy task since many times the documents were handwritten with poor or fancy penmanship, faded and very difficult to read.

Once the CRHC understood the research strategy they began including the slave names on the summary for documents in the collection that is published on the CRHC website.  I find most staff at libraries and archives are very helpful and open to suggestions.  I recommend that you share your research strategies and ideas whenever you have a suggestion for improvement.

  1. Participate in activities to preserve the history of the communities you are researching.  In 2007, the Fort A.P. Hill Environmental Division initiated the AP Hill Oral History Project to preserve the history of the communities that existed before military reservation was established.  I was one of several individuals hired to interview people who had lived in the community.  The end result of the project was a book titled Wealthy At Heart: Oral History of Life Before AP Hill.

Although I live over 100 miles from Caroline County, I was still able to contribute to the project by interviewing former residents who lived near me.  All interviewers were required to take an oral history training class.  Therefore, not only did I help preserve the history of the community where my ancestors lived, I also learned techniques for performing oral history research that I still use today.

 

  1. Support genealogy and historical societies.   Most genealogy and historical societies rely heavily on volunteers and donations. I urge you to volunteer at the genealogy and historical societies where you perform research, become a member and make financial donations.

Preserving local history is not just the responsibility of professional historians.  It must start with the ordinary people who live, work and have an interest in the community.  I urge you to follow the above steps to help preserve the history of the communities where you and your ancestors lived.

Genealogy Tips in Memory of My Mother – 2011

My mother is the person who piqued my interest family and local history.  As a child I loved looking through her photo albums and memorabilia.   I can remember looking at her 4th grade report card where the teacher wrote “Needs watching” and thinking “Oh, Mama was bad in school!!!”  As a child, I got a kick out of knowing that my mother sometimes got in trouble too.

One of my favorite pictures was of Howard University’s 19th Annual May Festival from May of 1946.  My mother was an attendant in the queen’s court and to me she and the other ladies looked like princesses.

Howard University 1946 May Queen and Court

Howard University 1946 May Queen and Court - My mother is to the left of the flag on the right.

My mother would also share her memories of growing up in Washington, DC.  As we traveled around the city she would point out landmarks (or where landmarks used to be) and share tidbits of information.

When my mother passed away I wrote an article containing genealogy tips in her memory in my Woodfork Genealogy newsletter. Today is the 3rd anniversary of her death and so I am posting the newsletter to my blog in her memory.

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Genealogy Tips in Memory of My Mother

My mother, Dorothy L. Woodfork, passed away on Sunday, November 16th. She had been in a nursing home for four years and had numerous health problems.  I watched as her health continued to deteriorate with each passing day. Her passing was not a sad occasion for me because she is finally free and at peace.

With her passing, the number of elders on the maternal side of my family tree has been reduced.  My mother was 82 and one of the oldest in her family.  Fortunately, she had done an excellent job of preserving her family history.  In honor of my mother’s memory, this Woodfork Genealogy Newsletter shares some of the steps she took to preserve our family history.

Document What You Know

My mother had written down all of the family members she could remember in a notebook.  After my grandmother’s funeral, the family members had gathered at her house for the repast.  My mother passed around the notebook and asked everyone to document their family.  This notebook has been a great asset to my genealogy research and I treasure it today.

In 1997, at the age of 71, my mother wrote her memoir. She wrote it out in long-hand on notebook paper.  In it she described her life growing up in Washington, DC from the 1920′s forward.  She gave it to my daughter to type.  Everyone got busy with life and the document was put on the back burner.  In 2004, I started cleaning out her house after she was moved to the nursing home.  I remembered the document and resumed work on it again.  By this time, my mother’s memory had started to fade because she had dementia, so completing the document was a race against time.

My mother and I worked on the document together through the fall and winter. I had a hard time reading some of her handwriting (she had Parkinson’s disease which made her handwriting small and shaky) and she had a hard time remembering what she had written.  But between the two of us, we were able to figure out much of what she had written.   I supplemented the information with pictures and other memorabilia she had saved. The result was a document that not only gave great insight into my mother’s life, but also the history of Washington, DC.  I made copies of the document and gave one to each of her children and grandchildren as a Christmas present from her in 2004.  This would be her last Christmas present to them.  On Christmas Day, I brought her from the nursing home to my house for Christmas dinner.  She looked on anxiously as my daughters unwrapped their gift and whispered to me, “Do you think they like it?”  I assured her they did.  My mother’s memoir is truly a family treasure that can be passed on to future generations.

Preserve Family Memorabilia

My mother saved EVERYTHING. She believed that everything could be used again “one day”.   When I was cleaning out her out house I found all sorts of stuff.  There was a four foot tube full of plastic grocery bags.  As I pulled the bags from the tube, I kept thinking that there must be something else in this tube, but it was not.  There was a huge box of cardboard boxes of every shape and size you could imagine.  There was also a huge container of twine and string. You name it and she probably had saved it.

In addition to all these items, my mother had preserved many family treasures: her report cards from elementary and high school, as well as her college transcript; wedding and funeral programs from every event she had every attended;   obituaries that she and my grandmother had saved; birth, marriage and death certificates; every personnel action paper she had been given when she worked for the government.   She had photo albums for many, many years, including photo albums that belonged to her father. There were newspaper clippings and notes that she had written that gave insight into her thoughts. The list goes on and on. She had carefully labeled all of the documents and neatly organized them in boxes.  My mother’s house was a genealogy gold mine.

I am glad I started cleaning out her house before she passed.  The process took me over a year.  Since there was no rush, I was able to carefully go through all her belongings (and there were a lot of them) and preserve the necessary items.  A lot of family history is lost when people who are not sensitive to the importance of preserving the family history clean out an elderly person’s home. Many genealogy gems are thrown away as “junk” because the person is not mindful of the significance of the documents.

In conclusion, I suggest that you talk to your family members and urge them to preserve their memories.  This can be done in many ways, they can write a memoir; you can interview them and preserve the information on audio or video tape.  Also, go through their possessions with them and help them organize and preserve family memorabilia.  Label all photos and determine the significance of artifacts they have saved.  I urge you to take these steps today.

Take Care,

Marion Woodfork Simmons

Woodfork Genealogy LLC

The Importance of Performing Thorough Research

Sylverser Roy Woodfork Sr

Sylvester Roy Woodfork Sr

My grandfather, Sylvester Roy Woodfork Sr., was a World War I veteran.  His funeral program indicates he was a member of a special class of soldiers trained in radio technology at Howard University and that he experienced combat with the Battery F, 351 Field Artillery.  I did some research and learned the 351st Field Artillery was one of several units where Negro soldiers were trained as artillery officers.

After obtaining his military records from the National Archives, I learned my grandfather was not in this unit but the 52nd Company 13th Battalion 153rd Depot Brigade in Camp Dix, New Jersey. The records also show he was a private, not an officer.  The situation illustrates the importance of performing thorough research.

Many families have family history that has been passed down from generation to generation.  In many cases this information has not been verified yet everyone accepts it as a statement of fact.  Most family historians would like to uncover exciting information about their family.  We would love to have ancestors who were movers and shakers in their community or made history in someway or another.  The truth of the matter is not every one will be that fortunate.  Some of us are the descendants of ordinary folks whose major focus in life was working hard to maintain the basic necessities of life.

As family historians we should not embellish the truth or make up stories to make our family more interesting.  We must remember it is our responsibility to have respect for the truth and the whole truth.  In cases were the truth is not pretty; there is no need to air the family’s dirty laundry or change the facts to make it better.  Just remember the old adage, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”.

I try to keep the following rules in mind when I am performing research: 1) Just because it is published does not make it true and 2) Just because someone says it does not make it true. We must remember that researching is the systematic process of collecting, analyzing and verifying information in order to establish facts.

A systematic process is repeatable.  You can demonstrate how you came to the conclusion again and again. If another person follows the same steps, they will come to the same conclusion.

Collecting, analyzing and verifying information are three very important components of performing research.  Collecting is gathering information. Memorabilia, ephemera and artifacts are excellent sources of information.  However, after the information is collected it must be analyzed.   We must ask ourselves:   Does it make sense?  Does it seem accurate? Is it from a credible source?  Verifying information requires us to locate a primary source and to cross check information against a variety of sources to determine the validity. A lot of people collect information, but they don’t analyze or verify it.  All three steps are important.

The end result of research is to establish facts.  We must be careful to make a distinction between facts and opinion.   A fact is objective information that is verifiable.  Opinion is a judgment, view or assessment. It is subjective and is not verifiable

Although it is disappointing when we find information that contradicts well-known family history, we must resist the urge to ignore the truth. It may possible that my grandfather was a member of that special unit in World War I or he may not have been.   I have to do more research to determine the facts.

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