Links, 4.18.11

Originally these links led off with a nifty little item about Dr. Benjamin Franklin Stephenson, founder of the G.A.R., but it ran away and became a post of its own, which you can go read now if you want. The other links and I can wait. We’ll only be a little bit insulted.

O Canada: Diane Lynn Tibert writes that Ellis Island records can be of use to Canadian researchers, too. She illustrates with examples drawn from an index of Newfoundland family names found among Ellis Island arrivals. It’s one of those things that makes perfect sense once someone else points it out to you.

Royal stuff: In other Canada news, Kate Middleton has a Canadian connection. Her grandfather, Peter, served at an R.A.F. airbase in Alberta during the Second World War, and, in happier prewar times, visited Quebec as a schoolboy. I have not been keeping up with all the Kate genealogy news, so consider this a belated apology. (edited to add: Hey! Here is Kate’s family tree!)

Bronx memories: Always good to see a glimpse of big-city genealogy, this time from the Bronx. Mehroz Baig at Digital Bronx talks to family researchers with an interest in this corner of the world, including a woman from Yorkshire, England, who tracked down some long-lost cousins.

State treasures: Tampa Bay columnist Sharon Tate Moody, whose articles are consistently top-notch, scores a particular winner with this look at state archives and how much they can help your genealogy research. As she points out, not everything is digitized — so sooner or later every researcher who gets serious should consider a physical visit to the archives.

Customer data: Here’s a business-writer view of Ancestry.com, courtesy of Investor’s Business Daily, which gives the online genealogy giant a nod of approval for attracting new customers. They also credit Ancestry with a “reasonable churn rate” — i.e., the amount of customers lost over a given period. Apparently Ancestry loses about 4 percent of its customers per month, compared to telecom and cable companies’ 2 to 3 percent. (The churn rate drops to about 2 percent for Ancestry subscribers whose memberships extend beyond six months.)

Fun and games: Aaaand … We now reach the intersection of gaming and genealogy with Family Village, a Facebook game launching next week. It will allow you to build a virtual town and populate it with avatars of your ancestors. They’ll be able to build houses, work jobs and buy stuff, all keyed to their own timelines — as the Salt Lake City Tribune points out, your great-grandfather can buy a Model T. The meanie in me considers that all this may not be so much fun as it sounds — “Whee! Great-grandma doesn’t have the vote!” But it does sound like it could be terribly educational.

Video pointers: Have you seen some of the National Archives videos on genealogy research? Here’s a nice one on researching regular Army soldiers. I will totally admit that once upon a time, I wasted much brain space wondering where a couple of my ancestors’ military service records were because I did not understand the distinction between volunteer and regular Army stuff. Don’t let this happen to you.

Happy Pesach if it applies — first seder is tonight, yes? Meanwhile the Archaeologist is warming up her vocal cords for the multi-service choir marathon known as the Triduum. Oh yes, and hiding candy from young people. Enjoy your week!


A G.A.R. Remembrance

The Springfield, Ill. State Journal-Register ran a nice recollection of  Dr. Benjamin Franklin Stephenson, the founder of the G.A.R. He was honored last week at a gravesite ceremony in Petersburg, Ill., 146 years after he created the flagship support organization for Union Army veterans.

The Grand Army of the Republic, to use its full name, was a real landmark — the first and largest U.S. veterans’ organization, instrumental in creating an awareness of the challenges faced by returning Civil War veterans and by survivors of the fallen. The institution of the service-based Civil War pension benefit owes quite a bit to the concerns of citizens like Stephenson, a major and regimental surgeon. (So thanks for all those pension files, Dr. Stephenson!)

At its peak, the G.A.R.’s membership was nearly half a million, with 7,000 posts throughout the country. (The last member died in 1956.) With numbers like that, it’s not surprising that the G.A.R. acronym required no explanation back in the day, any more than “V.F.W.” would now. Memories fade, of course. As a reporting intern, I covered the ceremonial opening of a time capsule from the 1880s, found in a building in in New Brunswick, N.J. Among the papers inside was memorabilia from the now-mysterious G.A.R.; a local historian had to explain what it was.

G.A.R. post records can be quite illuminating for researchers with Union Army veterans in their tree. This is good to keep in mind if you ever find the “G.A.R.” insignia on an ancestor’s tombstone.

As far as I know these records aren’t collected in any centralized way, but if you know where your ancestor lived, it’s worth checking into G.A.R. post history with local research societies, or with regional chapters of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.


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