|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 reorganized. 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 lesson. 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 case. 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 ancestry. 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, NEVER GIVE UP.
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.