Seen: Cemeteries, Mysteries and Storms

I did promise I’d be back, so here I am. I have been working hard in the meantime.

Really! Vacation’s been over for something like a week-and-a-half. And the genealogy’s been humming. In addition to the Big Breakthrough I stumbled upon just before I left, there was a Big Brown Envelope awaiting me in the pile of while-you-were-away mail, courtesy of “New York State Department of Health — GENEALOGY.” And we all know what that means. Busy, busy, busy. Citations, citations, citations. More on that anon.

Also, for some reason the news has had stuff in it. That wacky news. For instance:

• A man abandoned as a baby in a New Jersey store in 1964 still doesn’t know who he is, but recent DNA testing results might help.

This slide show is a beautifully photographed, and extremely depressing, view of how neglect and overgrowth have completely overrun historic Woodland Cemetery in Newark, N.J. (By the way, if you think you have ancestors there and are seeking burial location information, two wonderful people named Mary Lish and John Sass might be able to help.)

• But here is some lovely news: Intense genealogical sleuthing makes possible a surprising reunion of extended family seven decades after the Holocaust.

Special Superstorm Sandy Edition: The Archaeologist has spent some quality time in recent weeks on the beautiful beaches of Belmar, N.J., where the boardwalk is back (although pavilions and other touches must await the summer of 2014). It’s been wonderful to float in the waves and contemplate the concept of human resilience. But as this story from Union Beach, N.J. indicates, the road back from Superstorm Sandy continues to be a long one. This event is remaking the face of the coastline, for better or worse.

So it’s good to see that people are chronicling this long and epic road. Check out the oral-history projects below; maybe you can share a Superstorm Sandy story of your own.

New Jersey:

Heroes of Superstorm Sandy, a project sponsored by the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.

New York City:

Stories of Super Storm Sandy, sponsored by the Brooklyn Historical Society and the New York City chapter of the Association of Personal Historians.

Long Island:

A Hofstra University professor, Mary Anne Trasciatti, is collecting stories from residents of Long Beach and surrounding communities, according to a Wall Street Journal article.

If you know of other Superstorm Sandy oral-history initiatives, please drop a note in the comments.


Blog Note: Going Coastal

The Archaeologist recently experienced one of those painful paradoxes.

This is the one where a person is about to depart for a seashore holiday, surrounded by boxes of Indispensable Seashore Stuff like sunscreen, bug spray, beach towels and the seventeen boxes of mac ‘n’ cheese that the offspring are not using as their main nutritional foundation, they’re just emergency rations, honestly …

Ahem. To resume: What would be A Very Frustrating Thing in such circumstances?

A breakthrough on a genealogical brick wall, that’s what. Of all the things to happen when one is about to depart from one’s hometown library haunts and Internet connections!

Alas, we cannot pick and choose the timing of these matters. So a  full account of the excitement must wait until I return.

Meanwhile, I have had to content myself with other people’s ancestors. On Block Island, I took the three-mile (round-trip) walk from the ferry slip to the island’s hilltop cemetery — very much worth it for the exercise, the peaceful atmosphere, and the lovely view:

Cemetery atop the hill, Block Island.

Meanwhile, on the mainland, there have been nice sunsets.

photo (7)

And sea breezes.

photo (8)

But as nice as it is to get away, it will also be very nice to get back home. And get digging.

See you soon.


My Show: How Do You Think You Spell That?

I married into one of the easy names. Once in a blue moon, someone tries to spell it  “Linch,” the way my husband’s ancestors did in 18th-century Virginia, but basically, it’s easy. (To spell, not to research, which I realize is a whole other story.)

In contrast, my birth name is made for alternate spellings. I use what my great-great-grandfather settled upon in the 1870s. More likely, someone settled upon it for him, since the evidence is abundant that my immigrant ancestor was illiterate, signing his mark for important papers well into his old age. Starting in the 1872 West Troy directory, my branch spelled their surname “Haigney” and Haigneys they remained, thank God.

But research still must account for the alternate spellings random officials bestowed upon us. And with the spellings other Haigney families liked better.

Searching for possible extended family of my immigrant ancestor, I recently concluded an in-depth Troy city-directory search for the Haigney surname. I limited myself to reasonable variations, based on what I’ve encountered in 15+ years of research: Hagney, Heagney, Heaganey, Heagany, Hageny, Hagany, Haigney/Heigney/Haigeney/Heigeney and Hegney/Higney. Again, reasonable:  For sanity’s sake, I did not attempt to mind-meld with the sort of thinking that led a 1900 census enumerator to call my great-great-grandfather “Haggemy.” (Although if I saw one of these in the directory, of course I’d look hard at it.)

Two funny things about this name: On the one hand, it’s really very rare, however you spell it. For instance, when I searched for my great-great-grandfather in the Irish Family History Foundation’s baptisms database, I found only 10 Martin Haigneys (this includes variants) for all of Ireland in 1793-1911. It’s easy to get spoiled with searches like that.

On the other hand, the abundant spelling variations, and the freedom with which 19th-century Haigneys employed them, are a challenge to the confident pronouncement of my elders: “If they’re a Haigney, we must be related.”

Who is everyone, anyway? And what is our name? Sometimes after an intensive search, seeing all the variations play out, a surname starts looking like a funhouse mirror. How much of it belongs to me, and how much of it belongs to some 19th-century courthouse clerk’s imagination of how those Gaelic noises were supposed to look?

When I was a child, it seemed that my father and his siblings were the only Haigneys in the whole world. Then the Internet showed us that there were others, not as abundant as Smiths, certainly, but we no longer existed in a vacuum.

And then the genealogical databases expanded to give panoramic views of how fluid spelling was of this surname, how it varied not just from family to family, but changed within individual lifetimes. It was also apparent that not all Haigney families were created equal. Some U.S. groups, like mine, were poor immigrants who found opportunities through army service and industrial jobs. Others gravitated quickly toward white-collar employment like clerking and teaching.

What do these educational and economic differences mean? How do they play out with Haigneys in other parts of the world – the ones who stayed in Ireland, the ones who migrated to England and Australia? Why did my immigrant ancestor grow up in County Tipperary, when many accounts state with confidence that the Haigney surname is welded to County Tyrone? Are those Hagneys and Heaganys in the Troy directories closely connected to my West Troy Haigneys?

What, in short, is really in a name? It’s one of the background questions that keep my fascination with genealogy humming along.


Google Reader Public Service Announcement

A big confession: I am not very attached to Google Reader. I have trouble forming attachments  like that. It’s been a real problem emotionally for me and Google Reader over the years of our relationship.

Google Reader was all like, “Liz, you’re never there for me.”

And I was like, “I know, Google Reader, but I just have trust issues. I can’t silence that little inner voice that’s telling me maybe someday, YOU won’t be there for ME.”

And Google Reader was all, “How can you say that? I would NEVER!” So I’d have to be all, “Oh hon, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it. Let’s just call for some takeout and open some wine, OK?”

So guess what! Google Reader is going away by the end of today.

Maybe I was right to have trust issues, hon.

So: If you DO read this blog using Google Reader, you will need to form another relationship, although I trust you have already done so. Some suggestions are here. Also, Thomas McEntee updated the Geneabloggers readership on what the change will mean, here.


On Reading Footnotes

I am an avid consumer of footnotes. As a wee thing, I distinctly remember devouring my mother’s paperback copy of Lady Antonia Fraser’s Mary, Queen of Scots and tearing the pages in flipping them back and forth to savor the footnotes and endnotes.

(In my defense, those pages were awfully thin. My mom also got mad at me for getting orange juice stains on the pages due to reading photo (7)at the breakfast table, but that’s another story.)

But if I was tiresome about footnotes as a child, I am absolutely insufferable about them now. Genealogy has made me a footnote connoisseur — scratch that,  an obsessive. An addict. It’s almost not healthy, the way I can ditch a well-crafted historical narrative in favor of a juicily detailed footnote. (For instance, Mary Beth Norton’s In The Devil’s Snare has Gorgeous.  Footnotes. It’s a groundbreaking study of the Salem witch trials, too, but whatever.)

My interest in genealogy has set me a certain standard for footnoting, and that’s generally a good thing. If you’re stuck in front of an ancestral brick wall, throw a book at it, is what I say. A well-researched, well-cited history set in your ancestor’s place of residence might well lead you to a key source you hadn’t thought of.

However, one bummer about my footnote fetish is how quickly it can ruin a book for me. For instance, I just bought an ebook-format biography — a recent, well-reviewed book about a personality I’d always found intriguing, and I was pretty excited to read it. But I quickly found myself getting frustrated at the frequency with which the author got hazy on biographical details that I thought would be fairly easy to clarify with decent genealogical research. Or if they couldn’t be clarified, I’d hope to see the attempt to do so.

My irritation bubbled over at a footnote that cited 1880 and 1900 census reports for a family group and went on to say: “Those for 1870 and 1890 either don’t remain or were never taken [for the town in question].”

Two things:

A. If you’re seriously researching a family and using census records, you should know there is no either/or about why there are no 1890 census returns. Even if you’re not a genealogist.

B. Of course there were 1870 census returns for the town in question, and I found the family there in about three minutes on Ancestry. (You knew I was going to do that, right?)

Now, maybe Point A was simply a case of fuzzy phrasing, but this sort of thing really wrecks a book’s street cred for me. I’m not citing the particular work or author because (1) I haven’t finished the book yet and (2) I haven’t the heart to single out one person in particular for something I see all the time.

But I do giggle a bit sometimes in contemplating the supposed gulf between historians and genealogists. Because the best ones on both sides of the aisle know the true value of what each side is doing, and use it to their advantage. And ours.


Another Aside: The Lost Zones

Being a person with heavily urban ancestry, I find this kind of story is always close to my heart. Here is an Albany Times-Union article (h/t Don Rittner via Facebook) about a documentary project that is using old photos to reconstruct the neighborhood that was razed in the 1960s to make way for the massive Empire State Plaza complex. Mary Paley’s team is raising money on Kickstarter for the project. Paley has amazing raw material left by her father, Bob, a former photographer for the (Albany, N.Y.) Knickerbocker News who bore witness to the disappearance of more than 100 acres of a thriving neighborhood:

Derided by some as the city’s “Garlic Core” for its concentration of Italian immigrants and compared by others to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the area bounded roughly by Lincoln Park and State, Eagle and Swan streets was a teeming melting pot of Jews, Germans, Irish, Armenians and French-Canadians.

I’ve thought a lot about what we used to call urban renewal and what a force it was when I was growing up. It put a big hole in the business district of Plainfield, N.J., next door to my hometown. And moving around for newspaper jobs, I heard stories about lost neighborhoods from Stamford, Conn., to Miami, to Chicago. (I also liked the term art critic Robert Hughes used for those massive mid-century plazas: “The International Power Style of the Fifties.”) I actually consider “urban renewal” a bit inadequate as an umbrella term, because it doesn’t cover all the development forces steamrolling the urban world as the 20th century wore on.

For example, the birth of the interstate highway was another knife across the cityscape. In Philip Roth’s novel “The Human Stain,” a character laments the evisceration of a beautiful East Orange, N.J. neighborhood, cut into quarters by the Garden State Parkway and Interstate 280. (See also: Miami’s Overtown, the Cross-Bronx Expressway, et cetera.)

I want to be clear that I don’t think dreaming big and planning big are bad things (see: Burnham, Olmstead, etc.) But dreaming and planning arrogantly … it left a lot of heartbreak behind, for those who still remember the lost zones.


Career Day Report

So today I was talking to elementary-school students about being a genealogist. Not being 100 percent sure where everyone’s genealogy awareness level was, I started by handing out a simple three-generation chart and asking them to fill in the blanks — for them, their parents, and each set of grandparents.

I was proud of my awesome planning skills. What could be simpler than an itty-bitty family tree? What could be a better ice-breaker? But very quickly, brows furrowed and hands waved frantically.

“I can’t fill in a lot of the blanks, does it still count?”

“What if you don’t know who your dad’s mom was?”

“What if you only ever call them Nana and Papa?”

“What if they’re dead?”

Just like that, my little icebreaker turned into a surprisingly efficient way to explain a few home truths about genealogy:

• A family tree is the story of a family — both the living members and the ones who went before them. And people can land on the branches of the tree in lots of different ways.

• The only way to start is by writing down what you know, however much or little it is.

• We all have lots of blanks to fill in. That’s why we do this.

Career Day ended up being a lot of fun. There were some things about my presentation that went really well, others that I’d definitely tweak depending upon the age group. I talked to children in grades three and five, and it was remarkable to see the difference that two years made in terms of attention span and ability to focus on a group discussion. After the family tree, I gave a brief talk about what genealogy is, jobs genealogists can do and ways you can study to be one. (This part got shortened considerably for the younger group.)

To wrap things up, I did a simple photo-analysis activity — I passed out some printouts of vintage photos and asked the kids to pick out one detail that they thought would help someone to figure out when the picture might have been taken. I made sure to pick photos with some nice background detail — classic cars, people in distinctive uniforms, things like that. This was very popular. A couple of the kids were fired up to try out their newfound investigative skills at home.

All in all, a nice experience. Talking about something you know very well to an audience who doesn’t can really freshen up your perspective.


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