Two doors down from the house in which I grew up sat a big, unusually imposing Victorian house on a huge lot.
“House” doesn’t do it justice; it wasn’t what you’d call a Victorian charmer. It was subdivided into five apartments, but truthfully, it was hard to imagine a single family rattling around in that big barn. It also had the widest, flattest driveway in the east end of town, where every kid on my street learned to ride a bicycle, provided the landlord wasn’t looking.
The grownups called it “the orphanage,” a description I didn’t take 100 percent seriously. It sounded made up. Why would an orphanage be sitting in the middle of a suburban neighborhood, anyway? The grownups also said that our property, and our neighbor’s, too, once belonged to the orphanage. This was interesting, but not nearly as interesting as the odd objects we found now and then, digging around in our backyard — patent medicine bottles, bits of crockery and once, something that looked like a toy doll’s bottle. We thought they were buried treasure. The grownups said they were from the orphanage. We rolled our eyes.
A few months ago I was doing census searches on Ancestry.com, trying and failing to break through one of my brick walls. To give myself a break, I decided to browse the 1910 census for my hometown. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see what the big Victorian barn really was in the olden days? Answer: The Children’s Home. In residence were a superintendent, an assistant superintendent and a female domestic servant, plus 11 girls and 10 boys.
The grownups had it right, after all.
How strange that I’d grown up practically next door to an orphanage — a real Victorian orphanage. How long was it an orphanage? How many children passed through its doors?
Since I have at least one adopted relative in my family tree, the topic of orphanages and adoptions in the 19th and early 20th centuries has always interested me. I was mainly interested in the history behind the landmark of my childhood, but I also hoped that studying it might give me insight into my own family’s encounters with adoption.
My curiosity led me to look at more census records, some old news clippings and, eventually, at a detailed register of the children who passed through the home in its first few years of existence. The orphanage’s story is the story of children whose families fell through the cracks in a time of no safety nets. Sometimes the fall was broken, sometimes not. I will share more of what I learned in my next post.
Next: Why did children go to the orphanage? Not always for the reasons you’d think.
My mother-in-law’s family emigrated to the United States from Austria in the 19th century; that much was certain. But the Germanic village names on a handwritten family fact sheet presented the spelling confusion that occurs when an American-born child or grandchild writes down what they hear.
In this case, it took only little bit of poking around to figure out that “Tahton” was actually the village of Tadten, and “Halbthurn or Holfturn” meant Halbturn. Both of these places are in the region of southeast Austria called the Burgenland, and isn’t my mother-in-law lucky? The Burgenland Bunch has this area covered, and I mean covered.
The Burgenland Bunch is the brainchild of the late Gerry Berghold, who in 1996 started sharing tips by email with fellow Burgenlander researchers he met on AOL. The first official email newsletter came out in January 1997.
From a simple email newsletter the Burgenland Bunch has morphed into an organization whose extensive website includes archival material, surname query lists, maps and research tips. It has worked in an enthusiastic partnership with officials in present-day Burgenland — in fact, Gerry Berghold and several of the Bunch’s staff were recognized by the Austrian government for their efforts in promoting knowledge and appreciation of the Burgenland.
Gerry Berghold grew and tended the Burgenland Bunch for a decade, retiring from the organization only a month before his death in 2008, five years after being diagnosed with cancer. The Burgenland Bunch goes on due to the efforts of 15 volunteers from the United States and Austria. It’s a remarkable example of international genealogy cooperation, born out of an AOL email loop.
Recently on the LinkedIn genealogy discussion group, a link popped up to a cranky commentary prompted by NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? Don’t click through if you’re feeling a bit cranky yourself. Suffice it to say that if this guy had a TV show, it would be called Why Should Anyone Care?
I’m not sure what gets certain backs up about genealogy. Years ago, at a party, I fell into a conversation with a woman who, like me, was tracing her family tree and happily addicted to the pastime. It being the B.A. Era (Before Ancestry.com), we were harmlessly discussing microfilms and NARA repositories when the woman’s spouse came by to say hi. Upon realizing what we were talking about, he launched into a diatribe against genealogy hobbyists. He was pretty witty about it but, like, totally negative, you know? Wrecked our buzz big-time, I can tell you. His assumptions, as I recall, were:
1. Genealogy is elitist, practiced by snobs who are on a stuck-up quest for presidential and royal ancestors.
2. Genealogy is pointless, since the silly snobs will never find that royalty anyway.
3. People who are descended from nobodies, like himself, should be proud of who they are and stop the genealogy nonsense.
The conversation has stuck in my mind, not only because I wonder how that marriage turned out, but because Assumption #3 is so fascinatingly opposite of what I’ve found genealogy to be. See, I don’t think I’ve got any kings or even any colorful Fenians in my tree. Never have. The ordinary people I find are more than enough for me. Especially since nobody’s been looking out for their stories as historians have looked out for the kings, queens and presidents. (At least, not until pretty recently.)
Anti-genealogy sentiment is often driven by assumptions that it’s an elitist pursuit. True, press coverage has a way of playing up this angle. (Hey! Didya see that Brooke Shields is descended from Henri IV of France?) Less covered, but more important, is how diverse genealogical studies have become. The immigrant experience is included, thanks very much — you can read specialized works on tracing Italian, Irish, Polish ancestry. Alex Haley’s groundbreaking book Roots spurred a generation to study African-American genealogy. It’s not all about European royalty.
And yet … If people do find kings and queens in their tree, that doesn’t make them pathetic elitist snobs. It means they found somebody interesting. What are they supposed to do with these ancestors? Give them back?
Obviously I need my own TV show to process this. I think I’ll call it What’s It To You, Anyway?
JN [John Nelson] Lynch • Born Sept. 5, 1850 / Died June 6, 1917
[Rosanna Frances] his wife • Born Feb. 28, 1857 / Died May 1, 1928
Leitchfield, Grayson County, Ky.
Today I cross over to my husband’s paternal side of the family, who, in contrast to my relatively recent immigrant ancestors, are Lynches descended from William Lynch, an 18th-century resident of Brunswick County, Va. William had an excitingly high number of children — 34 by one count. My husband and children descend from William’s son Meredith.
Although I really enjoyed discussing genealogy with my late father-in-law, there’s no way I could claim expertise on this family, which is a genealogical cottage industry in its own right. A fascinating book called “Our Lynch Line” (1975), compiled by Cecil Pryor, brings together an enormous amount of data and is in the holdings of the Family History Library.
This headstone belongs to John Nelson Lynch, my husband’s great-grandfather, Sept. 5, 1860-June 6, 1917, and his wife, Rosanna Frances (Dennison), Feb. 28 1857-May 1, 1928. John Nelson was born in Washington County, Ky. but as an adult lived in Grayson County, where he farmed and taught school. He was also a Baptist preacher who rode from church to church on horseback, according to my father-in-law, who was four when John Nelson died.
I haven’t yet visited this cemetery myself — the photo is from one of my sisters-in-law. Even several years ago when it was taken, the condition of the stone presented a challenge, so I wonder what the situation is now. At any rate, since I live pretty far away from this churchyard, I’m glad to have this photo.
Oh noes, genealogy wrecked my family: The biggest news story for genealogists last week was doubtless the Warwick University study, in which researchers determined that probing into family history might tick off your relatives. Followup studies of genealogy enthusiasts uncovered reactions ranging from “Duh” to “Oh, wow, did I just yawn? Sorry!”
That second sentence? I made it up. But the results as reported did have a duh-worthy quality. Many of the issues cited are longstanding staples of genealogy forums — what to do when you find out that Great-Grandma married Great-Grandpa when she was two months pregnant, for example. Tact and empathy are always in order when a bombshell lands. In his amusing take at the Genealogue, Chris Dunham submits that the difficulties described in the study “are more about being unpleasant human beings than about making unpleasant discoveries.” Which, I believe, nails it nicely.
Genealogy as tourist lure: Really? Roots-finding trips to Ireland are certainly a staple, so it can’t be surprising that a five-star hotel in County Clare, Ireland has hired on-site genealogists to assist guests who are researching Irish roots. Rich American guests, probably. Hope they don’t destroy family harmony while they’re at it.
Replanting the online family tree: Dean at GenLighten talks about advances in public document citation online and ways in which they might lead to a new generation of online genealogy collaboration. I’m intrigued by the notion of a Wikipedia-style way of doing online trees. Online data sharing has been a blessing beyond doubt, but a mixed one. Who hasn’t heard a complaint about bad data being unthinkingly cut and pasted and cut again? Increasing our ability to cite sound data is a good thing.
Have a great week, and don’t go starting any family feuds, OK?