Listen, I like Ancestry.com just fine, but every once in a while I get a little bug-eyed at how much it just keeps growing and growing, merging into everything that lies in its path. Some days it’s hard not to feel like Steve McQueen and friends confronting the Blob outside that funky 1950s movie theater.
I continue to poke and prod at Ancestry’s sprawling holdings — not only the obvious stuff like censuses, but at esoterica like the family histories, church histories and old society programs squirreled away in the card catalog. However, I freely admit there are days when the sheer volume of material (and quirky search engine) overwhelm me.
That’s when I’m grateful that it is still possible to find online repositories that are focused and personal labors of love, like ConnorsGenealogy.
This is a site maintained by California researcher Pat Connors, and once I get past that fact I honestly don’t know where to begin, there is such a variety of well-organized information here. On the home page, there are regular updates about what’s new and what’s coming up, a very good starting point.
If you are interested in Irish research, this is a great place to visit. There are photos and townland maps, arranged by county. There are also baptisms and marriage listings for Connors/O’Connors and various other surname interests of Pat’s, and even if you’re not related, you’d be surprised what might be in there. For instance, I don’t think I’m related to Pat, but because there happens to be a Troy, N.Y. section to the site, I stumbled across a date for my great-great-grandfather’s declaration of intent.
But even without that, I’d love this site for its wealth of general information about Ireland, its surname registries and the energy that bounces through the entire endeavor. Sites like this have the real-person touch that can help a beginner chart a path that takes them beyond the index-searching stage. Which is where we all need to go, sooner or later.
I’ve blogged already about the Civil War pension records pertaining to Martin Haigney, my great-great-grandfather who served at the Watervliet Arsenal in West Troy, N.Y. Previously I wrote about the joys of discovery, the fun of organizing all that paperwork and the larger social implications of the pension system — all lofty, rewarding stuff.
Today, however, we descend into the bowels of the file. Literally.
It started at the dining room table, which was probably not the best place to be dissecting a Civil War medical record. Still, when I noticed not one, but four diagnoses of cholera in Martin’s medical history, I couldn’t help blurting out my astonishment.
“Cholera? What’s that? Is it serious? Do you throw up?” The eldest daughter suddenly lost interest in her cinnamon Pop-Tarts.
“Four times? That’s highly unlikely,” said Mr. Archaeologist, who in real life is an actuary and keeps track of statistics and stuff.
“Shush, you two,” I said, re-checking the page. [Note: Mr. Archaeologist is a casualty actuary, not a life actuary, so it was OK to shush him. -- Ed.]
Yes, there it was on the record, four times. Here is the transcribed list from a War Department memo of 24 January 1899:
- Aug. 7 to 9 54, Cholera Morb.;
- Sept. 18 to 20, 54, Diarrhea;
- Mar. 5 to 8, 55, Pneumonia;
- Aug. 29 to Sept. 1, 57, Sick;
- Nov. 13 to 15, 57, Influenza;
- Aug. 16 to 19, 59, Cholera Morb.;
- Aug. 8 to 12, 60, Diarrhea;
- Sept. 6 to 9, 61, Cholera Morb.;
- Nov. 2 to 4, 61, (no diagnosis);
- Aug. 20, 62, Diarrhea;
- Feb. 2 &3, 64, Diarrhea;
- Mar. 17 to 30, 64, Measles;
- June 9 to 11, 64, Diarrhea;
- Aug. 5 to 7, 64, Dysentery;
- Jan. 23 to 29, 65, Tonsillitis;
- July 11 to 12, 65, Diarrhea;
- Jan. 5 to 12, 66, Dysentery;
- June 29 to July 1, 66, Rheumatism from exposure to cold & rain, ret’d to duty as – Hagney, Corp[? illegible];
- July 24 to 26, 66, Cholera Morbus;
- Jan. 19 to 21, 67, Lumbago, ret’d to duty;
- Nothing further found
“Eeeww,” said the eldest daughter, who had managed to finish her Pop-Tarts anyway.
“That’s some gut,” said Mr. Archaeologist brightly. [Note: Actually, his comments have been somewhat edited -- Ed.]
Indeed. But what was going on with all those reports of cholera? Everyone knows how how swiftly cholera claimed its victims. From what I’ve read, it was possible to survive it back in the day, once. But to have it four times and live to get a pension? C’mon.
It turns out this is a classic example of reading a 19th-century list with 21st-century eyes. The clue is in the fourth instance, where the diagnosis is spelled out as “cholera morbus.” A quick Google led me to the Wikipedia entry on gastroenteritis, where my mystery was solved, although I had to scroll to the bottom of the entry for the payoff.
Before the 20th century, the term “gastroenteritis” was not commonly used. What would now be diagnosed as gastroenteritis may have instead been diagnosed more specifically as typhoid fever or “cholera morbus”, among others, or less specifically as “griping of the guts”, “surfeit”, “flux”, “colic”, “bowel complaint”, or any one of a number of other archaic names for acute diarrhea. Historians, genealogists, and other researchers should keep in mind that gastroenteritis was not considered a discrete diagnosis until fairly recently.
The listing of my great-great-grandfather’s ailments certainly seems to point to a chronic gastrointestinal condition. Or maybe to a chronically compromised drinking water supply.
So consider “cholera morbus” your archaic diagnosis of the day. And since I’m feeling generous, here’s an extensive list of archaic disease terminology to consult at your leisure.
I recommend waiting until after breakfast, however.
Today, as you probably know, is Columbus Day. But you may not know that it is also author Elmore Leonard‘s 85th birthday. Plus, I was amused to learn that it is the launch of “winter coat season“, at least according to stylists who say buying a new winter coat annually is a must, lest one’s look become tired. (They don’t say what to do when your wallet becomes tired, though. )
More important, if you’ve planned a long-weekend getaway to a city that houses a National Archives repository and were thinking of stopping by, don’t forget they’re closed today, along with many other libraries and archives — check before you go!
Italian ancestry: October is Italian-American Heritage Month, and if it turns your attention toward exploring Italian roots, here’s a nice collection of articles from the Family Tree Magazine archives. (Some of them are Plus Edition; full text available to subscribers only.)
Disastrous knowledge: At JewishGen Blog, Ann Rabinowitz writes about famines and famine relief in Part Four of an interesting series on disasters and their bearing on genealogy.
Internet doubts: In the Victoria (TX) Advocate, columnist Martha Jones considers what is lost and what is gained in the age of quick online database access to census records. Her point: Convenience is gained; context may be lost. “I have come to realize that even though researching census records through microfilm reels took hours and hours, as a genealogist, I could begin to find the ‘flavor of the community’ in those pages of yore.”
Internet togetherness: Across the continent from Jones, Montreal writer Danielle Murray takes a more benign view of the Internet age, focusing on its ability to reconnect distant relatives. She contrasts her fascination with people-finding to the traditional genealogy practiced by her Uncle Milt: “Uncle Milt was a true genealogist — he went backward. I, on the other hand, have searched sideways. He hunted the dead; I’ve gone after the living. I don’t know if there’s a name for that.”
Read it forward: I love this post at Roots and Rambles on “reading history forward“; it explores the contrast between experiencing historic events in real time and recounting them decades after the fact in a history book, and considers what that means as we piece together family history.
Have a great week — and a great holiday, if you’re lucky enough to get today off!
Writing family history would be a heck of a lot easier if our forebears just thought a bit more of themselves. Those of us related to prominent individuals are lucky: The big cheeses of the world tend to leave more traces. They’re more likely to have thought their lives were worth recording for posterity. The little cheeses, not so much.
True, once in a while a non-royal, non-presidential family comes along that’s addicted to writing letters or keeping diaries, like the Paston family in 15th-century England.
But you don’t find Paston types growing on just any family tree.
And once in a while something comes along that is so big, and so universal, it sparks a correspondingly big and universal desire to bear witness. (Think of the Civil War era!)
Still, in between monumental military conflicts and the March 1887 coal invoice are all sorts of events that don’t rate a separate chapter in the history books. Nonetheless, they leave you wishing you could picture the part played by your long-ago relatives. File them under notable but not epochal, I suppose.
I’d love to know what my Capital District forebears were up to during these happenings, for example:
• The unrest at the Watervliet Arsenal in West Troy, N.Y. an outgrowth of the infamous 1863 draft riots in New York City.
• The great Troy fire of 1862.
• The Hudson River floods of 1913.
• And I wonder what they thought of Kate Mullaney, who organized the Troy laundresses into a force demanding better working conditions for the women and girls in the collar factories.
What history do you wish you could recover from your family tree?
Editor’s Note: Every once in a while one sees something on a bulletin board or mailing list that makes one want to channel one’s inner Lady Bracknell, or at least one’s inner Miss Manners.
Even in the freewheeling world of electronic communications, it is rude to respond: “Doubt I will attend this. … Nothing new to hear” to the announcement of an upcoming genealogy conference.
Opinion duly noted, however.