OK, in my last post on church records I might have been too fuzzily philosophical. Now it’s time to consider the nitty-gritty as embodied in a message that’s a perennial on Rootsweb listserves. Here is my paraphrase:
Why is it that I never get a response when I write to a church asking for a sacramental record, even if I enclose a donation? No matter how nicely I phrase it, my letter goes unanswered.
I have to say I haven’t had this experience. Maybe I’m really lucky, but I’ve always gotten a record, or at least a response from a real person saying they couldn’t help me. This was also the experience noted by a number of seasoned researchers on my list.
Still: Why do some letters just keep going to the Great Request Bin in the sky? A few possibilities:
The query was too broad. Even a search within a single given calendar year can be a big task in an old, fragile and barely readable ledger for a big city parish. Assuming someone does have the time to settle in with the Anno 1898 volume and cautiously page through it, they will confront crabbed, archaic script and spotty recordkeeping. They may well miss something. “Pray for this guy,” said a staffer showing me a particularly sloppy page, about the pastor who compiled it. “He clearly needed help.”
The query was too detailed. Keep it concise and focused on the records you believe the church holds and the people to whom these specific records pertain. Resist the temptation to include the minutiae of tangential family connections, relationship theories or detailed summaries of your research to date. They don’t need to know why you need the record. They might, in fact, move on to a query that gets straight to the point.
It’s the wrong church. This happens even (especially?) if you know a lot about a certain area, and are sure the evidence points to Church X. Except it’s really Church Y. I once assumed that since the three youngest children had been buried in ripe old age at Church X in the town of their birth, it followed that that was the parish where the family baptized everybody. Wrongo. These three children and their five brothers and sisters were all baptized clear across town at Church Y. What saved me was that the archivist who oversees the records for both these churches (and four more besides) has started digitizing the records, and found my family with a surname search. Otherwise, the answer might have been: “Sorry, we can’t help you.”
It’s the right church but it’s closed. Or it’s consolidated. This trend has accelerated in urban neighborhoods. My recent research in the Capital District involved two parishes in the process of being merged with several other parishes. Are the records gone? Of course not, but it took some poking around to figure out whom to contact. In the case of Roman Catholic parishes, start by asking the diocesan archivist, who should have up-to-date information on where records from closed parishes have been transferred. (You might still end up going on a scavenger hunt, but it’s a start.)
The record is there, but too time-consuming/difficult to access. I visited one church where the ledgers had literally fallen apart. At one point the oldest pages were reposing, if you could call it that, in no particular order in piles. The staff had gotten as far as slipping each page into an archival sleeve and sorting them into acid-free boxes by (I believe) five-year increments. The church secretary showed me the box where the record I sought had been filed. She then opened up a desk drawer and pointed to a section of folders that took up a third of the space. “These are all my genealogy requests,” she said. She is administrative assistant for a newly formed parish that used to be three separate parishes. She just can’t get to them.
So what can you do to brighten your chances?
I missed this in the mad rush to Christmas Day!
On Dec. 23, the New Jersey State Archives launched a new database: World War I Casualties: Descriptive Cards and Photographs. It includes 3,427 entries for New Jersey soldiers killed during 1917-1918. These entries reflect data cards issued to adjutant generals for recording details about soldiers killed in action (or who died of other causes while on duty). Often, they include a photograph as well.
If you go to the link, you can search by surname. The list of results will tell you whether there’s a card there and whether it has a photo as well.
I don’t have any NJ-based World War I soldiers in my own tree, but I pulled up an entry to see what can be seen. It included a service photograph plus a nice clear scan of the index card, which includes spaces for the soldier’s name, residence of record, birthplace, age, service record, engagements fought in, rank, date of service, date of death and name of the person notified of the death.
Even if every space isn’t filled in (this particular card didn’t list the engagements fought), there is still lots of potentially useful information. And the photos are incredible.
(H/t to the NJ-GSNJ mail list.)
The volunteers of the Troy (N.Y.) Irish Genealogy Society (TIGS) have added another link to an impressive chain of database projects: a Surrogate Court Index for Rensselaer County, N.Y. covering 1786-1917. A nice gift just in time for the holidays.
Here are the details from the society:
ANNOUNCING NEW DATABASE
RENSSELAER COUNTY, NEW YORK
SURROGATE COURT INDEX
A. An index of 31,325 Rensselaer County Surrogate Court Records from 1786 to 1917 has now been added to the Troy Irish Genealogy (TIGS) website. These records, especially those prior to 1880 will be of great interest to genealogy researchers. The information in this data base was copied from a file in the Rensselaer County Historical Society, 57 Second Street, Troy, New York.
B. To view these records go to the Troy Irish Genealogy website at: http://www.rootsweb.com/~nytigs/ and click on PROJECTS and then click on RENSSELAER COUNTY SURROGATE COURT INDEX. It should be noted that these records, like most of the TIGS data series, cover the general population in the area and are NOT restricted to Irish surnames.
C. For each name in the on-line index there is a Surrogate Court Record folder that may contain various original source documents such as Wills, Letters of Administration, Guardianship Papers, Invoice of Property, Depositions Concerning a Person’s Death, etc. The on-line index shows the following information for each record which may help you identify those records that will be of interest to you:
1. NAME – Last, first, middle name or initials if any, and titles like Dr., Rev., etc.
2. FILE NUMBER – Used to locate the files at the Rensselaer County Historical Society.
3. LOCATION – Gives name of city, town or state of residence.
4. DATE – May be year of death or year of legal issue.
5. INV. – Indicates when there is an inventory of household goods in the record.
An invoice may be in the records EVEN if this column is not checked.
6. COMMENTS – This column will have an interesting comment for each name.
Some comments may show marital status (bachelor, spinster, widow, widower),
while other comments may show maiden names, occupations, name of
street residence, relationships (wife, husband, mother, father, son daughter,
etc.) and number of children.
D. Copies of any original source documents that are contained in the file folder for each name can be requested from the Rensselaer County Historical Society. The TIGS website has a PRINTABLE FORM that can be used when requesting copies from RCHS. For each request there is a $5.00 fee which will cover RCHS’s cost of locating and pulling a singular file folder from the archives. After the file folder is located, RCHS will contact the requester about the contents of the file to see which documents they want copied at a cost of .25 cents per page plus postage for mailing.
E. Hopefully this new on-line index, along with the many other TIGS projects will be useful to Troy area genealogy researchers.
TIGS Project Coordinator
Clifton Park, NY
The other day I was reviewing my online files, which are in a quite a state, and I rediscovered one of my signature Primitive Word Charts™ compiling data encountered in a Civil War pension file about my gg-grandfather Martin Haigney’s date of birth.
It’s another one of those exercises in How Old Do You Think You Are? Here goes!
|1890||Martin says he is 57 on his initial application.
Birth year: Approximately 1833.
|1890||Martin’s neighbors say he is “about sixty”.
Birth year: Approximately 1830.
|1897||Martin says he is 66 on his application for an increase.
Birth year: Approximately 1831.
|1907||Martin gives his date of birth as 2 March 1831 on his declaration for continuance of his pension. He states age as “past age of 75 years.”|
|1907||Army records supplied in support of Martin’s declaration of 1907 state his age on (a) 7 Mar 1859 as 27 and his age on (b) 7 Mar 1864 as 32.
Birth year (a) 1832; Birth year (b) 1832.
|1907||Martin’s affadavit affirms that to the best of his recollection he was 22 years old on his first enlistment, 7 March 1854. He says he must have been born in 1832, not 1831 as stated on his initial 1907 application.|
|1908||Martin gives his date of birth as 18 March 1832 in an application for an increase.|
|1908||Martin’s date of birth is noted as 18 March 1832 in approval of increase|
- Martin did not know the exact date or year of his birth:
- He gives an age on his initial application that doesn’t agree with the age he would be from information on later applications.
- He furnishes two different birthdays – 2 March and 18 March – on different documents.
- In his affidavit of 1907, he says his age at the time of his first enlistment is “to the best of my recollection.”
- Note that the birth month and the enlistment month are the same. It is possible that the birth date given was a guess pegged to a date everybody did actually agree upon – the date Martin first enlisted in the army.
- The pension forms do not uniformly require birth dates. The early forms asked only for age.
- At this point a birth year of 1832 seems to be a decent estimate. Using the information from the Army’s enlistment records, we know the age Martin gave at his re-enlistment in 1859 was 27. At least this record was compiled closest to whatever the actual date was.
- Of course, all this information is only from one source — the pension file. The census birth date estimates skip around: 1832 in the 1860 census; 1830 in the 1870 census; 1827 in the 1880 census; 1835 in the 1900 census; 1830 in the 1910 census. His tombstone lists a birthdate of 1829.
What is the moral of this particular tale, you might ask? There might not be much of one, but I’ll take a stab at it:
First: “To the best of my recollection” sure doesn’t mean “my exact recollection” on anybody’s part.
Second: You know when they say to use a wide date range when searching databases, no matter what you know you know about a person? Listen to them.
Note From The Dept. of Mangled Prose: Ha! I just noticed that I labeled Part One “When Were He Born Again?” A product of the post-turkey-day haze, I guess. Should I change it, or should it stand as part of the historical record? Decisions, decisions.
You might have noticed me screaming posting about Civil War pension files recently. Blame my great-great-grandfather Martin Haigney, who applied for a veteran’s pension shortly after the enactment of the Disability Pension Act of June 1890.
Martin was not a civilian who joined the great volunteer army of 1861-1865 and fought through its bloody battles — what I think of as a classic Civil War veteran. He had been regular Army since March 1854, when, probably soon after arriving in the United States, he enlisted as a soldier at the Watervliet Arsenal in West Troy, N.Y. And there he served as a soldier, from 1854 until 1867.
Watervliet Arsenal went on to play a vital role in arming Union troops, no doubt about it. However, although Martin was a soldier and was part of an immense war effort, he didn’t dodge snipers at Gettysburg or scramble out of the crater at Petersburg. This left me doubtful when I first started wondering whether he might have gotten a Civil War pension. Was he really pensioner material?
Well, I failed to consider the remarkable scope of the 1890 act. Fortunately, I caught up due to a fascinating and lengthy Ohio State Law Journal article (P. Blanck, Vol. 62, 2001, .pdf file) that examines the Civil War pension system, which began in 1862.
Early on, the U.S. government established pensions for disabled veterans and the widows and orphans of the slain. “Disability” had to be expressed in specific quantities. For example, in 1862 a totally disabled private was eligible for a stipend of $8 per month. From there, it was a matter of determining fractions. Lost a finger or toe? You rated a 2 out of 8, or $2 per month. An eye? 4/8.
As the war went on, the number and magnitude of injuries forced adaptations. Congress passed modifications providing increased benefits for severely disabled soldiers. A 100 percent disabled veteran was defined as one needing “regular aid and attendance” from another person. Measles, malaria and sunstroke were added to the list of war-related conditions. Then an 1873 act took a big leap forward by compensating claims for subsequent disabilities — conditions which, though related to wartime service, didn’t appear until years later. However logical this might seem by today’s standards, it was pretty radical thinking to some commentators of the day.
But the really radical leap came in 1890. The 1890 act tied the pension system more to the idea of service rather than circumstance. It included new requirements for the length of military service. And it did not require the veteran’s disability to be directly war-related, as long as it was not caused by “vicious habits.”
As in previous acts, however, disability level = a person’s capacity for manual labor. Someone who could not perform one-half of an ablebodied man’s work was a potential pensioner.
Well, I could go on and on, because frankly I’m fascinated by yet another example of how the Civil War sparked big social changes. But for now let’s go back to Martin’s 1890 pension application, and the affidavit sworn before a county clerk in Albany, NY on 4 Sept. 1890 by two of his neighbors, David Fitzgerald and Patrick Lyons.
That we have been well and personally acquainted with Martin Haigney [sic] for 25 years, and 25 years respectively, and that since his return from the Army we certify he has been a man of good temperate habits and that the disability is of a permanent character and same is not due to his vicious habits we are near neighbors of his living only about four or five hundred yards apart and have seen him daily three and four times a week the period since he came to live in our neighborhood, about 25 years ago we have conversed with him during the same time and know that he has suffered from the disability of rheumatism in arms, legs and shoulders
He is married and has a family depending on him for their suport [sic] We know he has not been wholely [sic] confined to his house but has found laboring work wherever he could. At such light labor as he could do working in a carpenter shop sweaping [sic] floors and policing about the building at the rate of one Dollar and 12 cents per day for ten Hours work That we know he has paid what he could afford for medicine to cure his rheumatism and we know he is considerablly [sic] bent over from his disability That he is well advanced in years about sixty years of age He is not able to do a sound ablebodied mans [sic] work for he is not physically strong or sound man and we belive [sic] in propositions to his disability He is impaired fully more than one half
These guys had the right talking points:
1. Martin’s disability — severe rheumatism in arms, legs and shoulders — was real and permanent. Plus, it was severe enough that he could no longer “do a sound ablebodied mans work.” Indeed, he was “impaired fully more than one half.”
2. Martin was a man of “good temperate habits” and his disability was “not due to vicious habits.”
3. He was not averse to work. He was trying to support his family with a combination janitor/security guy job at a carpenter’s shop.
Martin’s neighbors (well, most likely the attorney helping him with his application) knew it was important to stress two key factors: degree of disability and soundness of character. Commentators throughout the post-Civil War era fretted about veterans taking advantage. “There are very few men who could not have got a certificate of disability,” groused the New York Times in 1894. “The door of fraud was thrown wide open to let those in who were not incapacitated for self-support.”
Even in 1890, Martin knew the onus was on him to prove himself the real deal.