Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My New Year’s Genealogy Research and Blogging Resolutions

Carnival of Genealogy, 63rd Edition: What plans do you have for your genealogy research next year? How about for your blogging? No groaning or whining now. Write 'em up and let us know!


I wanted to have some sort of exciting goal or resolution for next year, but as I reviewed my research this year, it became apparent that I had been a bad girl, Dear Genea-Santa – oh, wait, wrong Carnival. There was too much collection and not enough assimilation of the collected materials. Therefore, my number one genealogy-related resolution – boring and pathetic as it is – is to TRANSCRIBE MORE MATERIALS. If I made a list of all the documents I need to transcribe and if I had any verse-writing talent at all (that’s an awfully big “if”), I could probably produce a list that could be sung to the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”: 300 newspaper articles, a dozen Civil War service records, two Confederate Pension applications, 50+ obituaries, and hundreds of death certificates. (Not to mention a few birth certificates, marriage licenses, funeral cards, and letters.) A serious dent needs to be put in this pile before I add anything to it (and being the packrat that most genealogists are, I am of course contemplating doing just that in the near future). The exciting “search” part of genealogy needs to be balanced by the tedious “housekeeping” part. Of course, there’s nothing that says I won’t discover something important and exciting in the course of scanning, organizing, and transcribing materials. So I’ll get to it – on January 2nd, 2009.

My blogging resolution? To become more technically proficient at blogging. On a scale of 0 to 10, I’m probably at 0+ right now. However, with the help of sites such as the Facebook Bootcamp for Genea-Bloggers (see link at left), I’m getting better bit by bit, although the different ways for following blogs and getting feeds have me a bit dazed. So any efforts to educate me are welcome: Just what exactly do all those widgets and feeds do?

Blogging/Genealogy Resolution added at a late date:

I usually refrain from making overly ambitious resolutions, so I am not going to make one of the big genealogy resolutions – writing down the story of my life for my own descendants. That’s just too large an undertaking. However, I can cut that resolution down to size: I resolve to do the job in small bites, a memory at a time. To that end I am going to aim at committing one memory a week to paper and if I succeed in doing that, it will show up on the blog for “Memory Monday.”

Sunday, December 28, 2008

My Brick Wall: Susan Elizabeth Smith Bonner Brinlee


(Warning: The following post is rather long. This is my “special” brick wall, so I am attempting to include as much information as possible, and I welcome any and all advice on how to break through this brick wall.)

All genealogy researchers have many brick walls, of course, in the sense that each family line hits a brick wall at some point, whether earlier or later, but the definition of this term, in the way it is generally used, appears to include an element of selection. That is, not every “dead end” ancestor inspires the researcher with the same strong desire to learn more about that person and find his or her family. The number of persons in a family tree who might be considered brick walls varies from researcher to researcher; among that group there is often one person in particular who has a special claim to the title of “brick wall.”

When I first got hooked on genealogy – meaning that I knew this was going to go beyond a few Internet searches based on idle curiosity – I set myself a very modest goal based on my appalling, near total ignorance of my family tree: I just wanted to know who all of my great-grandparents were. Within the space of a year, I had found all eight of them, and for seven out of the eight, I knew who their parents were, as well.

The eighth great-grandparent is my “special” brick wall: Susan Elizabeth Smith Bonner Brinlee. I will set forth what little information I am aware of, and none of this information can be taken as absolutely reliable. Among Brinlee researchers there are different theories and versions of the facts, so I can only cite what little evidence there is.

Name: It is generally believed that her maiden name was Susan Elizabeth Smith and that prior to her marriage to my great-grandfather Hiram Carroll Brinlee Jr. she had married a man named Bonner, who died young. She appears to have gone by the nickname “Lizzie.” I have found death certificates for three of her four known children: Lawrence Carroll Brinlee (my grandfather), Austin Franklin Brinlee, and Cordelia Brinlee Clinton. Austin’s death certificate indicates that her maiden name was Susan E. Smith, Cordelia’s says it was Lizzie Smith, and only my grandfather’s death certificate indicates a serious variation from these two: Elizabeth Baker. However, the informant on my grandfather’s death certificate was my grandmother, Sallie Norman Brinlee, and I believe her recall of Lizzie’s last name was less reliable because Lizzie lived with Austin’s and Odell’s families in later years; Baker may have been my grandmother’s attempt to recall the name Bonner.

The earliest document I know of on which Lizzie’s name and age appear is the Marriage License for her and Hiram Brinlee, and on that document her name is given as Mrs. S. L. Bonner. Another document with her name is her Confederate Widow’s Application for a Pension; there and in appended documents her name is given as Mrs. Susan Elizabeth Brinlee, Susan E. Lizzie Brinlee, and Mrs. S. L. Brinlee, and she herself signs one note “Susan E. Brinlee.”

Age: This is the area with the largest amount of conflicting information, and though most researchers agree on some time around 1868 for her date of birth, that agreement is not universal. The aforementioned marriage license, which was dated 1 Dec 1892, indicates that she was 23 years old at that time. According to a Post-It left on a WorldConnect genealogy for the Brinlees by a second cousin, Lizzie’s Bible lists her date of birth as April 4, 1856. If this is true, her age at her death on 7 September 1958 would have been 102. Perhaps the year was misread or was entered later in her life when she may have forgotten the actual year of her birth, but I believe various pieces of evidence indicate that 1856 is too early for Lizzie’s year of birth.

For one thing, Lizzie’s youngest known child, Cecil Odell Brinlee, was born in 1908. If Lizzie was born in 1856, she would have been 51 or 52 when Odell was born – possible, but not very likely. Unfortunately, Lizzie does not appear with Hiram on the 1900 census, which could have been a good corroborating source to use with the marriage license. Hiram is shown only with his son from his previous marriage, Louis, and a hired hand. Perhaps Lizzie and the children were living elsewhere, but so far I have not been able to find them and I suspect that Hiram simply spoke with the census taker outside the house and for whatever reason did not care to provide information on the rest of the family.

Lizzie first appears on the census in 1910 (dated 4 May 1910), where her age is given as 41, and the 1920 census (dated 30 Jan 1920) is consistent with this, giving her age as 50. By 1930 (21 Apr 1930), however, the advanced age of 73 is claimed for her. Information provided by her on her Confederate Widow’s Pension Application may shed a little bit of light on this. On that document, dated 27 July 1925, she gives her age as 68, and this is consistent with the 73 on the 1930 census. However, there is a note written by Lizzie that is appended to the application (the date is September 10th, and the year as written could be 1929 or 1924) in which she writes: “i have lost my correct age i am somewhere in 60 i am not 75.” So she may have been losing track of her actual age by this time. No disrespect intended (and her note does indicate that she is trying to be honest), but I have seen a few ancestors age on these applications (there was a minimum age requirement).

Lizzie’s death certificate gives her date of birth (provided by son C. O. Brinlee) as 4 April 1860 and the age cited in her obituary (Plano Star Courier, 31 July 1958) gives her age at death as 98. This is a bit more plausible than 1856, but I still think 1860 is at least a few years too early. I have a copy of a photograph that must have been taken sometime around 1916-1920, based on the appearance of her sons Austin and Odell, and from that photograph I do not think she could have been much over 50.

Place of birth of Lizzie and her parents: All three censuses on which Lizzie is known to appear indicate that she was born in Tennessee; that state also appears on her death certificate and obituary, as well as on the death certificate of her son Lawrence. Knoxville County has been cited as the county in which she was born, but I do not know what the source for this is. The 1910 and 1920 censuses give North Carolina as the state of her parents’ birth; 1930 gives Tennessee. It is still too early to make any assumptions based on this information.

Earlier life, possible avenues of research, and why Lizzie is the brick wall ancestor about whom I most want to know more: The reports of an earlier marriage appear to be true. The 1910 census indicates that she has been married more than once, and the 1930 census indicates that she was 17 at the time of her first marriage. I am not sure whether there are other sources for the name of her first husband, but her name does appear to be “Bonner” on the marriage license, although it looks as though “Brinlee” was entered first and “Bonner” was then written over it, so I cannot be quite sure. For some reason, in my computer folder for her and Hiram I have a separate document with a single cryptic sentence on it: “A Lizzie Smith married a W. T. Banner in McMinn County, Tennessee in 1886 – would this be the “Bonner” that we have been looking for?” If she was married at age 17 and was born in around 1868, 1886 would fit as a year of marriage. (Note to self – must put source of information on all notes!)

Some people believe that Lizzie had children with Mr. Bonner and some do not. According to the 1910 census, she had given birth to 7 children, of whom 4 were still living. Those four were my grandfather and his siblings, but it is not clear if any or all of the remaining three were Hiram’s or Mr. Bonner’s children. The years of birth for my grandfather and his siblings are 1893, 1895, 1904, and 1908. There is definitely a large enough gap for three more children from her marriage to Hiram. I am guessing that she married Mr. Bonner in Tennessee in around 1885-1886, that they came to Oklahoma for the land rush in 1889, and that he died some time shortly after that. Other scenarios are possible, but this would probably be the simplest explanation for a girl from Tennessee ending up a widow in Oklahoma. These time frames would also be sufficient for Lizzie to have had one or more children with Mr. Bonner.

Why am I so intrigued with Lizzie Brinlee? It is not just that she is the only one of my great-grandparents for whom I have been unable to find a family. There are a number of scraps of information on her that make a compelling story. She was the only great-grandparent who was still alive when I was born. My Uncle Bill remembers her cooking for him when he was a young man getting ready to join the Navy. There are stories that she was at least part Native American, though there is nothing in the single photograph I have of her that gives any strong indication of that. One particularly tantalizing piece of information was provided in the above-mentioned Post-It left by my second cousin Kathy, whose grandmother Amy Kent Brinlee had said that Lizzie “was from Tennessee and had lived with a family that had taken her in to help work, where she washed dishes by standing on a bucket. Therefore, she had to have been fairly young.” Was she orphaned, or was her family reduced to sending her out to work because they were extremely poor? I love the challenge of Lizzie – by all accounts she was very modest and said very little about herself. Her maiden name, Smith, makes the challenge of finding her family all the more difficult.

Where to go from here: While I have picked out a few Tennessee Smith families as possible candidates, that is not where I should really start looking. I can ask my Texas relatives for more information, but at this point it does not appear that there is a great deal more to find out there. I believe I should probably start in Oklahoma, where Hiram and Lizzie met and married. Hiram and Lizzie were married at White Bead Hill, Chickasaw Nation, Indian Territory; Lizzie’s residence is also listed as White Bead Hill. By 1900, they were living in Britton Township, Oklahoma County, Oklahoma Territory.

At the top of this post is a picture of Lizzie, Austin, Odell and, seated, Hiram Brinlee. Can anyone tell me anything more about Lizzie?

Friday, December 26, 2008

Getting Hooked on Genealogy, Part 2: Family Legends

From Part 1: “It all started with Google.”

I was trying to show a co-worker that I could google my maiden name, Brinlee, and could be fairly certain that anyone who showed up among the search results would be a relative by blood or marriage. What did I expect to see? Well, you know, other Brinlees.

And other Brinlees did show up, but not all of them were living Brinlees. In particular, there were two Hirams, Senior and Junior, and a George. And their identities and the stories of their lives would teach me a lesson … a fascinating lesson.

At this point I should confess: the seeds for an interest in family research were actually planted early on with me, it’s just that they didn’t germinate right away. Most of these seeds were family legends. The strange thing is that these legends did not get equal respect from me: Why did I absorb and believe the tales from my mother’s side of the family but sneer in skepticism at those from my father’s side?

I believe it has to do with the age at which I first heard these stories. I heard Mom’s stories when I was just a little kid of no more than 5 or 6. I used to beg Mom to “tell me about the Olden Days.” These stories included one about the great-grandfathers who fought on opposite sides in the Civil War and never spoke to one another again after the end of the War, even though their farms were located immediately next to one another. Another snippet passed on by Mom was: “Your (Our?) people from both sides came from South Carolina.”

But it was sometime during my teen years that I heard stories from my father’s side, the Brinlees: all of us Brinlees were related somehow to Collin McKinney, we had German blood and Native American blood in our lines, Grandma took up family research but got disgusted and gave it up when she kept finding horse thieves and other criminals. OK, maybe I believed the Native American part a little bit, because I wanted to and because so many Brinlees have straight dark hair and angular features. And the criminal part was believable, too, because Brinlees were, well, Brinlees. But the German part – I thought someone had gotten confused because one of my Brinlee uncles was married to a lady from Germany. And the McKinney connection? Must have been fantasy; no way we could be connected to this pioneer leader of Texas and one of the framers of the Texas declaration of Independence.

But that was exactly what my on-a-whim search turned up: The two brothers who adopted Brinlee as the spelling for the family name (apparently it was originally Brindley), Hiram Sr. and George, married two daughters of Daniel McKinney, brother of Collin McKinney. Daniel died in 1825, soon after the McKinneys came to Texas in 1824, and Collin and his wife raised the girls. Accompanying the McKinneys from Kentucky to Texas were the Brinlee brothers, who eventually married the girls. So everyone who has a family line spelled Brinlee is related to Collin McKinney. One of Hiram Carroll and Elizabeth Ann McKinney Brinlee’s sons was Hiram Carroll Brinlee, Jr., and one of his sons was Lawrence Carroll Brinlee, my grandfather. And it turns out that there is a German (Palatine German) connection through the McKinneys, too.

Finding the connection was fascinating, but even more fascinating was the way it forced me to rethink my opinion of the Brinlees. What other legends were true? I started to search for other information online on the Brinlees and McKinneys; there was quite a lot. Then I remembered that my cousin Paul had sent me some information on my mother’s mother’s side of the family, the Floyds – “A History of the Floyd Family” by Eunice Sandling – and that this history contained the outlines for a pretty good start on a family tree for the Floyds. If I could find this much information on the Brinlees, what might I find on the families on the Floyd side?

Getting Hooked on Genealogy, Part 1: My Third Anniversary in Genealogy

On September 1 of this year (or should I say 1 Sep 2008?) I celebrated my third anniversary in genealogy. Why didn’t I blog about it then? For most of the usual reasons – other pressing concerns left me with little time, and the significance of it for me merits more than a few hastily written lines. The actual date might have been September 2 – I’m not sure – but September 1 is a convenient day to remember. The first year I celebrated by subscribing to Ancestry and the second year I think I bought a couple of genealogy books. This year I didn’t do much, but I did start my genealogy blog in August, so that was a sort of celebration.

Why celebrate this anniversary? Some might ask whether that isn’t a silly anniversary to celebrate, but it is significant to me. It was much like starting (or perhaps I should say getting sucked into) a big adventure. Never could I have anticipated how stimulating and exciting I would find this “hobby” to be. Finding new relatives, solving mysteries, reconnecting with close relatives, and meeting distant relatives and other researchers are part of the attraction. My research has opened up a genuine interest in history, taught me a lot about research techniques that I never learned in college, and helped me to reach out to people I might otherwise never have met.

Many of my posts just present the results of my research in a straightforward way, but I also like to discuss how I found (or was led to) the information, much as I love to hear and read about how others do their research. Reading other blogs has been illuminating – not only have I learned a great deal about the “How” of genealogy, but also about the “Why” of genealogy. (This would be a great Carnival of Genealogy topic; it may have been done before, but since I am a newcomer, I can claim ignorance…) The two main themes behind the “Why” seem to be continuing a family tradition, that is, being surrounded by people interested in family history from childhood, and the chance encounter through surfing that leads to discoveries that leads to … well, you know what happens from there. I belong to the second group. As I recall how I got “sucked in,” it still seems a little bit incredible to me. It all started with Google.

[To be continued (in a multipost series, I hope).]

A Genealogy Christmas

The title of this post reminds me of “A Tuna Christmas,” one of our favorite Christmas traditions in the Koehl household, and on Christmas Eve my husband, daughters and I watched it once again. No matter how many times we have seen it, every viewing puts us into hopeless fits of laughter. I think of it as putting my children in touch with their Texas roots. My husband has met enough of my Texas friends and relatives to know which character corresponds to which of these friends or relatives. And those pathetic-looking Christmas trees look awfully familiar to me…

Oh, yes, the subject of this post – a genealogy Christmas. This has several meanings for me. For one thing, it is always nice to receive a genealogy-related Christmas present, and this year I was fortunate: my husband (with my help) bought me a genealogy book. Last year I helpfully gave him a wish-list of books from Southern Historical Press, but he was unable to get the online order form to work and it was too late to mail an order in. Then there are some of my favorite gifts from the past – my favorite coffee mug from my mother (chipped, but we were able to repair it), a three-bar cross pendant from my husband, hand-made picture frames from my daughters. There was an additional gift for me this Christmas that will have genealogy benefits - my youngest daughter got a new laptop computer to replace the family hand-me-down she has been using (handed down from dad to older daughter to younger daughter), so now I get the old laptop! It will no longer stay closed and is a bit creaky, but I don't care. Up to this point I have done all research on my Mac Mini in my upstairs office (formerly a bedroom, now my inner sanctum), but I do not like to hide away during prime "family time" hours. Now I can do what the rest of my family does in our family room - watch TV/read/do computer stuff while still talking to other family members. (Full disclosure - this is a family that reads at the table, which is considered a cardinal sin in some families. Our rule is that you can do it, but you have to be open to conversing and sharing with others seated at the table. Similarly, surfing/e-mailing/blogging can be done in the family room, but you are expected to talk and share with others.) So this year, I hope to be a more active blogger!

I also relate a genealogy Christmas to the pictures and letters people send to me in their Christmas cards. These are some of our best Christmas presents, and after I put away all the Christmas decorations and cards, I carefully put the photos in my albums and put the letters together with all the family records and keepsakes that I want to pass down to my children. One delightful and unexpected present this year came from our wonderful petsitter, who gave us picture frame magnets with pictures of our three cats that she must have taken one of the times that she took care of our cats for us.

Christmas is also a time I remember past Christmases and past family traditions, such as helping my mother make “boozy fruit cake” on the Friday after Thanksgiving, then following the ritual for keeping it moist and tasty, which was to carefully add a little bit of whiskey to it every two or three days until Christmas. My children are too old to go see Santa any more, but when they were little we took them to see the “real Santa” at our local garden center. He must be the real Santa – he always takes his time with each child, explaining and demonstrating the real meaning of Christmas for the children and their parents. His beautifully and imaginatively decorated Christmas workshop contains a large box for the children to bring presents that Santa will distribute to children in some of the poorest neighborhoods on Christmas Eve.

As someone who wants to preserve as much family history as possible for my children, I should devote much more attention to taking, organizing, and preserving pictures, and yet I cannot count how many “events” I have forgotten to bring my camera to; nor do we remember very often to take pictures on “ordinary” days. On Christmas, however, we always take pictures, so that’s another genealogical benefit of Christmas.

One of the best genealogy-related benefits of Christmas for our family is that it is one of the few times of the year that we really have some “down time”; that is both deliberate and built in to the way we celebrate Christmas. After preparing and eating Holy Supper (the final no-meat meal of the St. Phillip’s Fast) right after sundown, we attend midnight Liturgy at church on Christmas Eve and usually do not get home until 2:30 a.m. or later, so that we always sleep in rather late. After everyone has woken up, we graze on Christmas snacks and leftovers from Holy Supper (the mushroom-sauerkraut-barley soup will last at least a week), get our Christmas stockings, give the cats their presents from their stockings (usually catnip-related), call relatives, and slowly open our presents. The rest of the day is usually spent watching new videos, reading new books, and listening to new music. This gives me the time to do a little research or genealogy blogging. At first I felt a little strange about blogging on Christmas, but when I checked my readers for recent posts on some of the blogs I follow, I saw that a lot of people blog on Christmas!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Tombstone of Hiram C. Brinlee




Above is a picture of the tombstone of my great-grandfather Hiram Carroll Brinlee. It reads as follows:

Hiram C. Brinlee
Capt. Mantua Co.
15 Texas BDE
Confederate States Army
1842-1920

I believe that there are at least two errors in it. The first is the date of birth, 1842. Online genealogies give two dates for Hiram Carroll Brinlee Jr.’s date of birth: 1842 (apparently from his gravestone) and 1844 (apparently from the Bessie Sims Sheppard article in Collin County, Texas, families). I tend to agree with the 1844 date; it is consistent with all but one of the censuses in which Hiram Brinlee, Jr. appears (16 in 1860, 25 in 1870, 35 in 1880, 65 in 1910, and 75 in 1920; on the 1850 census his age is given as 8). The 1900 census did not figure in my original calculations because at that point no one had been able to find him on the 1900 census. The 1844 year of birth would also make the story of the reason for termination of his first enlistment more plausible. If his service enlistment record is correct, he had turned 17 by the date of his enlistment on 10 Sep 1861. That record also indicates that he was discharged June 13 1862 at Camp Maury, Miss by the Conscript Act. The Conscript Act was passed on 13 Apr 1862; it exempted men under age 18 and over age 35 from service, but stipulated that those who qualified for this exemption at the time should continue to serve for an additional 3 months so that replacements could be found. This indicates that he had not turned 18 on 13 Apr 1862 and probably had still not turned 18 by 13 Jun 1862. The day of his birth probably came before the 10th of September in the year, but after 13 June.

Some months after making these calculations, I finally found Hiram on the 1900 census. I had searched both Texas and Oklahoma for him and tried Soundex, but the misspelling of his name still did not show up, so I looked for men named Hiram of the right age in both states and finally found Hiram C. Brinnee in Britton Township, Oklahoma Co., Oklahoma Territory, age 55, born September 1844. So I think this gives a window of September 1 to September 10 1844 for his birth.

The other item which may be misinformation is the rank given on his tombstone, Captain. H. C. Brinlee indicated on his Confederate Pension Application that he had served for about 10 months in Company D, 6th Texas Cavalry, and then again later "under Gano about 1-1/2 years." The Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System indicates that the second period of service was six months in the 3rd Regiment, Texas Infantry State Troops. He may have transferred into the 15th at the end of that service, but it does not show up anywhere that I can find so far. He was a private when he finished his first term, and I suspect he might have finished his second term at the same rank. Perhaps he was called "Captain" in later years. To get the full picture, I will have to do some searching in Footnote and find out more about these units.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Maps!


One of the unexpected and therefore all the more delightful aspects of genealogy for me has been the role played by maps in ancestor research. When I began my research, my expectations for the amount and specificity of the information I would find were very low. As I started to explore sites such as the GenWeb location-specific sites, the discovery of local maps made during the period my ancestors lived in the area and showing the location of the towns, farms, and other important sites was absolutely amazing. I hope to use these maps during future trips to locate the general areas where my ancestors' farms were situated.

Above is an 1877 map of the townships of Hopewell and Garvin in Anderson County, South Carolina found on a delightful webpage (http://www.geocities.com/williamston_sc/Township.html) on Williamston, S.C. created by Wendy Campbell. The farm of my great-grandfather Harlston Perrin ("H.P.") Moore (and his father Spencer Moore before him) is located just above the "H" and "O" in Hopewell, near Twenty-Six Mile Creek. The timing was fortunate, as H.P. and Martha Moore moved from South Carolina to Texas in 1877. To enlarge the view, just click on the map.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Getting My Husband Interested in Genealogy

My husband Stuart is a historian. This is an ideal match for a spouse who is interested in genealogy. Before meeting my husband, I had only a slight interest in history, mostly in the history of Russia and Eastern Europe – not for genealogical reasons, because I have no known ancestors from these areas, but for professional reasons: I am a linguist who specializes in the languages of these areas. Stuart was able to make history come alive for me much more than dry, sanitized textbooks ever did, and got me interested in digging into the subject in a little more depth.

Taking up genealogy pushed that interest even farther, and I began to regret passing by opportunities to learn more history when I was younger. However, even though I included my husband’s side of the family in my research and would regularly report new and exciting (at least to me) discoveries on both sides of the family to him, his reactions were mostly of the affectionate and amused but condescending dismissal type. Until I started to get into the military service of various ancestors (I forgot to mention that my husband’s primary area of interest is military history.) I began to share research quandaries and results for ancestors who served in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Black Hawk War, Civil War, World War I, and World War II. At last he was interested – in my side of the family. His interest was sincere and concrete; he volunteered to look things up for me in his own resources or to ask friends he knew to be experts in a particular area, and on his way home from a business trip he even picked up an obscure unit history on the Civil War unit of one of my great-great uncles. In particular, he is very eager to find at least one of my ancestors who fought at Gettysburg. At one point we believed that we had found that ancestor, but it turned out that we were mistaking him for another man of the same name who served in a unit of nearly the same name. Now we are trying to sort out the service history of my great-great grandfather Joseph Madison Carroll Norman who, if he did fight in all of the units listed for him in the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System, most likely did fight at Gettysburg (there couldn’t be more than one Joseph Madison Carroll Norman from Alabama, could there?). Stuart even got interested in some of my ancestors who did not fight in any wars, including a distant cousin, a 50-year-old saleslady who was the victim of a grisly homicide (four gunshot wounds to the head and back).

I am working on getting Stuart interested in his own family as well. “I’m sure some of them also fought in wars or shot someone or got shot by someone.” I should mention that Stuart’s ancestors are from Germany, Italy, and Romania (Romanian Jews) and the earliest any of them apparently came to this country would have been some time around the 1850s. I really cannot understand why he thinks that they will not be found to have led interesting lives. Before I got hooked on genealogy, I believed that my ancestors were just parts of long lines of poor farmers and laborers who had most likely never done anything out of the ordinary in their lives. Not only has genealogy taught me the opposite, but some of my favorite families are … poor farmers who led modest lives. Now, if I could just find something grisly, gruesome, or shocking about Stuart’s ancestors….

Name These People



I was going to entitle this post “Orphan Photo,” but I realized that that refers to a photograph which has somehow been separated from its original owner, with the result that the person currently in possession of it does not know the identities of the people in the picture. The photograph I am posting here has an owner – me – and I can identify several people in it. However, there are five people whom I do not know, and I would love to learn their identities.

Here are the people from left to right:

Clarice Moore Howry, Clarence “Buddy” Howry, Irene Moore Rainwater, Howard “Dock” Roberts, Madeline Moore Roberts, unknown woman with two unknown children, Albert “Ab” Moore, Frances Latham Moore, two unknown people.

Is there anyone out there who can help me solve this mystery?

Christmas Letters

Christmas Letters

The topic of this post is a somewhat loaded subject: the tradition of the annual Christmas letter is despised, ridiculed, and parodied by many – not without considerable justification – yet it persists. In fact, a few years ago, I succumbed and started the tradition in our own family. Now why would I do that and expose myself to ridicule?

There are several reasons. We had received a number of these from friends and family over the years and – surprise! – with the exception of perhaps one (and it was from someone that we are not really closely connected to by family relationship or friendship), they were all interesting (a lot of news we had not heard), well written, and even really funny. Bragging was kept to a minimum – OK, there was some subtle bragging, but nothing crass and over the top. And the bragging was mostly limited to children/grandchildren, which is legitimate, because bragging about children is one of the big reasons for having children, right? As a matter of fact, these letters and the Christmas cards that contain any significant amount of news, as well as any pictures sent with the cards, are like “mini-presents” to me, something I keep and cherish and look forward to every Christmas.

However, that in itself was not enough to tempt me to the dark side. I did not trust my writing skills or ability to avoid being obnoxiously smug over the accomplishments of my children, so I refrained for some years. I finally hit the wall one year, however – I must have been writing perhaps the 35th card, late at night, and trying for the 35th time to tailor the remarks in the card to the addressees – news they would be interested in but might not know and inquiries about what was going on in their lives. My hand and brain were cramping. On the table I had a pile of cards, pictures, and letters we had so far received, and it started to dawn on me – even taking into account the time and effort required to produce a decently-written Christmas letter (and for the really high-quality ones, I believe that’s a lot), it would still save me a lot of time and eye- and hand-strain. Another motivation was the fact that, despite my best efforts, I was terrible about keeping in touch with people and keeping them informed during the rest of the year.

So I succumbed. And after a lot of struggling, second thoughts, and finally resignation that I would never be one of the top practitioners of the art of the Christmas letter, I produced one. It almost – but not quite – seemed to be as much work as before. And I kept having problems with that imaginary “smug-o-meter,” measured in the sneers and jeers my na├»ve pride in my children would be certain to inspire. In fact, in subsequent years I would deliberately pick only a couple “thrill of victory” moments and carefully try to balance them with “agony of defeat” happenings such as our annual basement floods, crashing trees, and major household system failures (and this year, the record set by my older daughter in number of times stranded in an airport without any assistance from the guilty airline). The most surprising thing was that when I edited out certain awards, my usually modest children (the ones who used to casually thrust a certificate or medal my way and mumble in embarrassment – “Here’s another award, no big deal”) would correct what they felt was a lapse of memory – “You forgot about (insert name of award here). “ So I did not always succeed in maintaining the light, non-self-important tone I had hoped to achieve.

If I had any advice for anyone who is considering adopting this much-maligned custom, it would be not to worry overly much about the contents or writing style, other than employing a little bit of restraint and following the basic rules of grammar and style. People who enjoy Christmas letters are probably mostly interested in the news, and so much the better if they can get a laugh or two out of it. Our Christmas letter for this year was probably the easiest one for me to write, and that is probably due to the fact that I decided to write only a short one because this year has been a tiring year with a lot of frustrations. I wasn’t even going to try to be witty. And guess what? It turned out as long as any of the other letters (I hope that’s not bad) and maybe even a little funny (not due to my skills – the events were kind of funny when you put them all together – did I mention Christmas letters help you put the past year in perspective?), and there was only one brag.

So what does this have to do with genealogy? I am sure that anyone who is seriously interested in genealogy already knows. These letters are often a valuable source of information on a family, providing and filling in information on a key element that is often missing in genealogies – the highlight events of that family’s life, few of which would otherwise be found in records and are often missing from other correspondence that may survive. For this reason, I save all the Christmas letters I receive as well as all those I write. I enjoy re-reading them and the memories they bring back, much as I greatly enjoyed receiving my old high school scrapbook in the mail this year from my kind and generous Cousin Fred, whose mother (my Aunt Rene) had recovered and kept the scrapbook after my mother died. So – Christmas letters may earn the disdain of many, but I hope no genealogy buffs are among those “superior” people.

Note added immediately after this post was written: Wouldn’t you know it, just as I was finishing this post I took a break and was reading the local newspaper, when I came across an article about Christmas letters. And after briefly touching on the potential plusses of these letters, the author continues: “For others, it is a time-consuming and cringe-worthy missive that probably will head straight to the recycling bin. After, of course, the reader rolls her eyes. ‘Anyone who sends me a Christmas letter is leaving themselves open to ridicule in my house,’ says (name left out for reasons of … of …), a letter-hater in Reston.” Ouch! Well, letter-hater in Reston, my New Year’s wish for you is that you receive no personal letters this year, because I’m sure most or all of them would not meet your lofty standards. Among the advice offered in the article: “Stick to the happy.” We try not to be a Moaning Myrtle, but some of the big events in our lives are not exactly happy ones. If someone close to you passes away, you cannot pretend that that has not had a major impact, though it is a good idea to review the good memories associated with that person. And, contrary to the advice not to put in too much detail, we even include a sentence or two on our cats; after all, at least one family, friends and former neighbors who are major animal buffs, are intensely interested in any and all animal antics. So, genealogy people, just as you have to have a thick skin when interviewing the tight-lipped, uncooperative relative, you should probably also ignore the literary mavens who scorn your humble epistolary efforts – keep on writing those letters! And save them!