Bell Anthology - Adventures in Genealogy

The Raymond M. Bell Anthology

Adventures in Genealogy
	When I was a teen-ager the genealogical bug bit me. Luckily my parents and 
grandparents were much interested and encouraged me. When I started out, there 
were no copiers, no microfilms, no computers (I'm not ready for one yet). To copy 
census records I traveled to Washington DC and hand-copied from the big original 
books. The same was true for pension records. In writing a county history, I 
wanted data on men in that county who had received Revolutionary pensions. I 
handed in a list of 500 possible names. The clerk was very obliging and after 
research was able to give me over 100 pensions to look at. I found 50 had come 
from my county. I learned later that, when ordering a pension record, I was not 
always sent a copy of ALL the papers. I got only those thought to be of interest 
(to them). At the state land office in those days I had free, unlimited access to 
books. It took 25 years to find the paper I wanted. This was after the files were 

	Today, census indexes save many hours, although some names are omitted or 
mispelled, Even the original census taker sometimes got tired and didn't get into 
every little valley. In the 1850 census I found when the data were copied into the 
government book, it was done by columns: 1) names; 2) birthplaces. The two did not 
match properly and were not rechecked. I was enabled to prove that an  ancestor of 
Richard Nixon was born, not in England, but in Pennsylvania.

	I soon found courthouses and learned the best approach. Walk right into the 
office with a briefcase, as if you were a lawyer from another county. Pick up any 
book and examine it. Look around and eventually you will find the book you want. 
Don't go into the office timidly, as if you were trespassing. These are public 
records, although the clerk's first duty is not genealogy.

	In a Kentucky courthouse the lady in charge questioned me. But when it 
turned out that I was looking up her ancestor, all was well. When an Ohio 
courthouse closed for the noon hour, I was permitted to continue, because a lawyer 
was working there too. He could keep an eye on me. In a Pennsylvania courthouse, 
the girl whom I questioned turned out to have many cemetery records, which she 
shared with me. At another Pennsylvania courthouse access to original records was 
difficult, until a new courthouse was built, and the papers moved to the basement. 
They became accessible and I easily found what I had long needed.

	Beware of clerks who say the old courthouse had burned. In my own 
courthouse, with perseverance I was allowed to search everywhere, and I found 
"lost" papers. Keep trying, if at first you cannot find it. Try to get access to 
original papers, because,sometimes, names were omitted in copying. A friend of 
mine looked in our courthouse and found what I needed. I didn't look because I 
knew it wouldn't be there. She didn't know that! It turned out that he lived in 
another county, as I knew, but he owned land in two counties. That taught me a 

	Then I found libraries, and I'd like to report that I have found nearly all 
librarians friendly and helpful, unless the oral or written request is 
unreasonable. I like open stacks and I like to browse. Sometimes an unlikely book 
contains valuable information.

	I was pleased, when, in a Massachusetts library, I found a rare name that I 
was searching. But it turned out that I had written the booklet. The same thing 
happened in Alsace, when a distant cousin asked if there was a Wotring history, 
only to be shown the one I had written. I find it better to go through a book page 
by page. The index may be in error. Fish with a big net! In a West Virginia 
library I asked for a name and was told the son of the local family historian had 
just walked in the door.

	Of course, I queried all my relatives, until I became a nuisance. My 
greatuncle had never heard of his greatuncle. (Most genealogists are considered 
freaks.) I asked my family for recollections, old letters, scrapbooks, Bible 
records. After several years of searching, I proved that we were related to a 
family in an adjoining county. When I told my greataunt, she said, We visited them 
every summer. Why didn't you tell me? You never asked me. I did get the names 
written on the backs of pictures in the old family photo albums.

	I visited lots of cemeteries and soon found that some of my pioneer 
ancestors didn't have gravestones. Were they too poor? Or maybe no stonecutter 
lived in the area. The family could identify the graves, until the last of a 
generation died. Then the cemetery became a cornfield (since there were no 
stones.). Is there anything wrong with that?

	When I visit an old country graveyard, I wear boots. The poison ivy may be 
knee-high or the grass wet. Winter is a good time to visit. Remember when an old 
stone is copied, weathering may make the 1s 4s 7s look alike, also the 3s 5s 8s. 
Be wary of dates in published books. In one case, I found that when a stone was 
put up long after a man's death, his death date was set 10 years too early. Poor 
man. And don't visit a country cemetery after dark with a flashlight. You will 
look suspicious and the neighbors may call a lawman (or woman these days).

	After I have quite a bit of good data on a family, I publish it, putting 
copies in libraries and a notice in the Genealogical Helper. (Be sure to do this.) 
This often brings a lot of new data, requiring later editions. In the Baskin 
family I got nearly a thousand queries, in another maybe twenty. Families differ.
= Don't figure on making money in a genealogical publication. You will be lucky to 
break even. And index your book. I learned that the hard way. In travel, I like to 
look up names in phone books. It may bring an interesting result, as it did for me 
in Idaho. I found the son of a distant South Carolina cousin. We got together and 
had a good visit. Later by chance he met my secretary in Spokane.

	I joined societies in the United States and in Germany. Their publications 
are most helpful. In the case of Germany I found the correct ancestry for Dwight 
Eisenhower. Letters to the societies are generally answered - sometimes with many 
pages of good data. In speaking to genealogical groups I often benefit. In 
Maryland I found out about my Ensminger family in Alsace. In Kansas I found an 
unknown history of a part of my home county. In Illinois after a speech I was 
shown a photo album with some unidentified pictures. They turned out to be my 
father, my grandfather and other relatives. That is why genealogists have so much 
fun. I even found in the Congressional Record a Bell Bible record copied, pension 

	I have had the good fortune of addressing groups in various parts of the 
country. It is challenging to speak to 400 genuine genealogists and to answer 
questions for an hour. My thanks go to those who plan these meetings, and who are 
such excellent hosts. They always do a great job for me.

	Naturally, a genealogist lives for mail. In my Seibert family a copy of the 
1738 German baptismal certificate was preserved. A letter to the present pastor 
referred me to Koblenz. Here a kind man sent me many pages of data (for a small 
fee, of course) going back to the 1500s. I find that about 75% of my letters of 
inquiry are answered. But one lady wouldn't share her data - no indeed. And how 
many times I have sent data to people, who never tell me whether they got it or 
say, Thank you. Be sure to say - Thanks. I found it best in writing to Alsace to 
address the letter in French and write the letter in German.

	I wish all searches ended like my Williamson one. Everything I touched 
"turned to gold", and with the help of a lady in Michigan I got the scattered 
branches from a dozen sources all put together, and, of course, published.

	Aerial photos and modern maps, when compared to 1785 warrant maps, have 
enabled me to locate where the old farm was and to visit it. Here is a good time 
to thank the ladies of our local library whose years of indexing have saved me 
many hours.

	I end up searching for ancestors of people like Nancy Hanks, George Custer, 
Warren Harding, Princess Diana (New Jersey and Chillicothe) and Richard Nixon. His 
ancestors once  lived in Washington County (Pennsylvania). Looking up the Nixon 
ancestry gave me contacts with many fine people, plus a box of avocadas from his 
parents and a visit to the White House. In 1973 I delivered White House pens to 
rectors of seven churches in England, that were associated with the Nixon 

	It was great fun to trace Mark Twain's (previously unknown) ancestry  from 
Missouri to Tennessee to Kentucky to West Virginia to Virginia to New Jersey to 
Massachusetts to central England in the 1500s - Prince and Pauper times.

	An old record of the American Inskeep family said they came about 1700 from 
"Fooford".  So I took a chance and drove to Fulford, Staffordshire. I stopped at a 
little store and asked if they had ever heard of the Inskeep family. Oh yes, they 
live several miles down the road. My hunch was right.

	When I visited the Georgia home of Alexander H. Stephens, Confederate Vice-
President, it helped when I reported that I was a distant cousin. I visited the 
grave of his grandfather who had gone from Pennsylvania to Georgia soon after the 
Revolution. I got to meet the Vice-President's grandnephew. He filled me in on 
Stephens lore and showed me an autographed photo of Abraham Lincoln, which Lincoln 
had given to the grandnephew's father.

	I have an ancestor named John Smith. He wrote it Johannes Schmidt. Don't we 
all have a John Smith in our ancestry? Anyway, in my family they kept all the 
papers. At a Tennessee hotel I found an old bachelor, who took me up to his room 
and showed me a little-known family chart. It took me a while to locate him.

	As an amateur radio operator I learned about a source in Ohio, that I did 
not know existed - a Trimmer history. I have found in old newspapers many gems. 
Such searching is a slow process, but don't overlook it. You'll be surprised what 
you may find.

	A man from Texas visited our local library looking up his "ancestor". I had 
to give him the sad news that his ancestor was drowned at 14 in our county many 
years ago. Later he found his real ancestor. I made a lady who joined the DAR 
(years ago) unhappy by telling her that her ancestor was six, when the war began.

	I went to ogden, Utah, where my mother was born in 1880. I was looking for 
her birthplace. I knew the name of the street. But that street turned out to be in 
modern suburb. A visit to city hall revealed that the streets had been renamed 
many years ago.

	The nice part is that you never run out of ancestors. If you were born in 
1950, a century earlier gives you 8 ancestors, 200 years gives you 64, 300 512. By 
1550 you have 4096 possible ancestors. That is about when people started to use 
surnames. So maybe you will have to stop here. I regret to say that some may be 
listed in jail records, but, who knows, some may have belonged to royal families 
(none of mine, sad to say).

	In a tradition there is often a grain of truth. In one family a son went to 
a lake (turned out to be central New York), another went to a mountain (which was 
located in central Pennsylvania). Of course, it is unlikely that your ancestor 
served under Washington. He was likely a private who never saw Washington. But I 
never neglect a "tradition".

	Genealogy is an admirable hobby or profession. I have learned a lot of 
history and geography. In fact local history and families are closely connected. I 
have met many nice people. We have helped each other. Some correspondents I have 
never met, but they are old friends and I know a lot about them. Genealogical 
research adds to the permanent record of our country. It helps us understand those 
who went before. Can we do as well as they did?

	Above all, be a modern Sherlock Holmes, and as I always say,

This article was transcribed by George and Mary Ann Plance in August 1998.

Raymond M. Bell Anthology     Genealogy in Washington Co., PA

Published with permission of Raymond M. Bell.