Links: 5.24.10

This weekend I drove by a historic cemetery near my home, and noticed a team of volunteers with armloads of flags decorating veterans’ graves — a timely reminder that Decoration Day, now known as Memorial Day, is nearly upon us. So are this week’s links.

Reading for pleasure: Kimberley Powell shares reading tips from an unusual perspective: recreational reading with a genealogy angle. Her picks — two novels and a personal memoir — sound really interesting. Material for a genealogy book club, perhaps?

Pittsylvania roots: It appears that First Lady Michelle Obama has family roots in Virginia’s Henry and Pittsylvania counties, and a local history center is broadening its research into a connection made by Megan Smolenyak. Experts say all of the First Lady’s maternal line can be traced to this area. Now researchers are contacting many excited distant cousins in search of photos and background.

Digitizing British newspapers: According to this press release, the British Library is launching an effort to digitize 40 million pages of its historical newspapers collection and make them available online. The library’s collection spans three centuries and includes 52,000 titles. The mind boggles.

Gimmicks deconstructed: Blogger Chris Rodda, whose mother is a professional genealogist, explains with biting humor why giving Michael Walshe and his “Historical Research Center” your hard-earned cash is not the smartest genealogy research move.  She also wonders aloud why something called The History Channel is running shows like Ice Road Truckers, along with questionable genealogy ads. An excellent link to pass along the next time someone suggests you order a copy of your coat of arms for the TV room wall.

Enjoy the week!

Follow Friday: Upstate New York Newspapers

Face it, not everything can be found in The New York Times.

Actually, some people (um, my dad — cough-cough) have contended that nothing worthwhile could be found in The New York Times, especially if you actually cared about New York City news. As for news north of Westchester? Good luck. So went my father’s opinions about print journalism, as aired on outings to buy the Sunday newspapers at the candy store.

Too bad my Dad didn’t live to see the era of Internet newspaper databases.

Recently I came upon a lovely one for the Altamont Enterprise and the Knowersville Enterprise, two Albany County newspapers. The Guilderland (N.Y.) Public Library coordinated the creation of this database, whose earliest issues date  from 1884. Searching it, I was rewarded by a  list of public salaries paid by all the towns in the county. My great-grandfather Joseph F. Haigney appeared in it twice, once as a polling place inspector in Watervliet, and another time on a two-day temporary job as a clerk assisting the Canvassing Board. Scraps like this are not big revelations, but I love  them. Gather enough of them and your ancestor’s life and times slowly begin to come into focus.

Another amazing resource for useful scraps is the New York newspaper database. It encompasses over 12 million pages from a broad variety of newspapers, including the late, lamented Brooklyn Eagle. It’s been pure gold for me, turning up death notices and obituaries for my grandparents, great-grandparents and other kin, plus a news article about one of my great-aunts that’s a whole ‘nother blog post, it’s just that cool. Tom Tryniski, administrator of this resource, deserves a lot of kudos from those who benefit from it — and if you can swing it, some more tangible thank yous (if you’re so inclined, click here).

Standing up to be counted (at last)

Well, now:  A copy of a 1780s population count has turned up at Kean University in Union, N.J., just down the road from me.

Note how I’m applying my terminology, however. I’m staying away from calling it a “census” because, while accurate in the strict sense, this document isn’t the sort of thing we family researchers can spend hours obsessing over on  Naturally the word “census” may sneak into some headlines, getting people all hot and bothered.

Easy, tiger. Although very interesting, this doesn’t appear to contain information on specific names and their domiciles. It’s a tally of U.S. populations, state by state, drawn from state enumerations taken between 1781 and 1786. For some states, the tallies are broken down by age and race, but other states simply provided a total tally.

The information was found among papers belonging to John Kean, a member of a family still very much active in New Jersey politics today — former governor and 9/11 Commission member Thomas Kean is one example. (In New Jersey, Keans and Livingstons and Frelinghuysens are like the Appalachian Mountains of public life: they’ve just always been there.)

Descendants of the Kean and Livingston families donated a trove of papers to Kean University (no relation? What do you think?). And Kean University archivists have been slowly combing through what they describe as 200 years of American history, which is probably a good thing — researchers say all sorts of goodies keep turning up in odd places.

The population count, for example, was scribbled in a ledger that John Kean originally used for keeping accounts. Being a thrifty sort, he turned it over and used the reverse pages for taking notes when he was elected to the Continental Congress in 1785.

The count said that 2.2 million whites and Indians were living in the U.S.A., along with 567,000 blacks. Virginia had the biggest population, with 530,000 residents, more than half of them black. (New Jersey, by contrast, had about 159,000 residents.)

While it probably won’t set off any lightning bolts for individual genealogy research, the discovery does provide a nice snapshot of the United States at the dawn of its existence.

Is that my great-uncle’s play in your catalog, sir?

I have a large, untidy pile of intriguing genealogy research questions I mean to figure out someday. One involves whether my mother’s uncle Georg Rudroff  copyrighted a play in 1909.

My mother always said her Uncle George was a character. He was my grandfather’s older brother, the one who left home first. He emigrated to New York City from Kottweinsdorf, Germany in 1896, 30 years before Grandpa did. My mother described him as a tavern keeper, the occupation listed on his 1940 death certificate. At other times he was a drug company clerk and a Brooklyn Rapid Transit motorman.

He also was a bit stage-struck, according to Mom. She was a little vague on this point, although she once mentioned that he wrote songs and tried to shop one of them to Kate Smith, who was not interested.

A few months ago when I was supposed to be working (shhh!), I got bored and plugged my mother’s maiden name into this search engine at the Library of Congress. Four results popped up, one citing an unpublished play in German by Georg Rudroff. (Two of the others involve genealogical works in German by Arno Rudroff, an expert on all things Rudroff.)

You never know who might turn up in the Library of Congress.

I emailed the Library of Congress to ask how I might go about reading this play. It’s in manuscript form and I’d have to go to Washington to take a look at it. So for now, I don’t know whether my Georg is the author, if it’s possible to be certain of that.

What is certain is that in 1909, someone named Georg Rudroff copyrighted a play called  Schwer Erkämpft (militärisches Volksstück in 4 akten). That roughly translates to Terrible Struggle (a military play in four acts).

Using “play” for “Volksstück” isn’t very helpful, because the Volksstück is a theatrical form with no real equivalent in today’s American theater. It was a populist work in which dialect was used to score dramatic and satiric points. A Volksstück might use a country-bumpkin character to poke fun at hoity-toity types, or trendy fashions. I can only imagine how a “military Volksstück” might look. Maybe Georg’s play was a forerunner of Catch-22?

Until we go on our oft-discussed trip to D.C., I’ll just have to keep wondering.

In the meantime, all I can say is: Try a surname search in the Library of Congress catalog. You never know.

Do Not Miss

In Search of the Meaning of “Mozingo.”

It’s a riveting series of articles by Los Angeles Times reporter Joe Mozingo about what happened when, after a lifetime of being asked about his surname, he decided to research it. The more he found out, the more he realized that a crucial aspect of his family’s past had been hidden for generations.

This audio-enhanced slide show is an excellent starting point, but the articles themselves are beautifully done, and well worth taking the time to read.

Links, 5.17.10

This week’s links pay tribute to a couple of interesting volunteer initiatives — plus we have genealogy classes in Ireland and advice for finding celebrities.

Southern Illinois obituaries: Wow — more than 10,000 obituaries and death notices are indexed in a recently launched database by the Genealogy Society of Southern Illinois. Obituaries and Death Notices in the Jonesboro Gazette lists names and dates of death, year by year, and is keyword searchable. To read the full obituaries you’d have to either consult the microfilmed holdings of the Gazette at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, or order a copy (for a fee) from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield. The details are on the main database page. (h/t to Linda Rush at The

Cemetery struggles: It’s either feast or famine with old cemeteries in built-out areas — either they’re centerpieces of a historic district or struggling under siege from vandals and the ravages of time. This one a few miles from where I grew up is one of the latter, but historical preservationists are trying hard to turn things around. As Mark Spivey of the Courier-News reports, Evergreen Cemetery in Plainfield, NJ has great historic interest, containing graves of many of the area’s Revolutionary War-era families, along with Civil War veterans. It also contains a 300-year-old white ash tree, said to be planted by the town’s founders. It’s good to hear about a coalition of groups raising awareness about its importance.

Summer school in Ulster: If your genealogy quest takes you to Northern Ireland, you might be interested in the Ulster History & Genealogy Summer School, a joint offering of the Ulster Historical Foundation and the University of Ulster. It runs from June 20-26 at the university’s Belfast campus, and offers opportunities to explore major repositories with assistance from the Historical Foundation’s researchers.

Finding famous ancestors: This is one of those genealogy topics that makes me cringe, since it feeds into the annoying stereotype that all genealogy hobbyists are chasing after royalty or celebrities. Happily, this article is just straightforward advice on how to follow up on family traditions that claim links to famous people. Because sometimes those family traditions might be (gasp!) on the level.

Today in 1875, the first Kentucky Derby was run in Louisville, KY. Hope your week gets off to a running start today.


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