Dark ages? Maybe a little gray.

Oh, dear.  Should I really quote the already-widely-quoted Mormon Times article about librarian Curt Witcher’s speech and the coming genealogical Dark Age?

But ignoring it is a little like visiting Chicago on a certain day in 1871 and neglecting to mention they’d had a fire. So many points and posts! Randy Seaver at GeneaMusings did a nice summary, in which James Tanner’s careful reasoning stood out, as usual.

So here’s my only two cents: As a former writer of newspaper articles, I recognize the technique of cherry-picking eye-catching quotes to make a snappy story. Not to say that this reporter turned in a bad story. I’m just saying that we as readers have to be aware when our hot buttons are being pushed, slow down and read carefully.

For instance, there’s the alarming quote: “People are losing interest and focus on keeping the thoughts and the words for future generations.” On second read, this is a bit unclear, and the reporter didn’t expand upon just what Mr. Witcher meant by it. If it means that the rush to digitize may be leaving important records in the dust, well, that’s a definite concern.

But if it means that we as individuals are losing this focus, I think the jury’s out. Certainly the rich profusion of genealogy blogs indicates an interest in sharing our personal thoughts and research. And yet (again): How are we archiving ourselves? Not an idle question … I wrote for an Internet startup in the dark ages of 1998 and can testify to the pain of belatedly realizing that many of my “clips” are no longer clippable!

So although I count myself among the hopeful, I appreciate Mr. Witcher’s remarks (as reported) as a timely wakeup call. We are living in an age of wrenching transitions, and we need to be keeping an eye on the repositories as they negotiate these changes. And on ourselves, too.

A dose of well-placed concern can be a good thing.


Reunions and research, perfect together

This week the Archaeologist attends a gathering of her husband’s tribe. With five family groups plus one matriarch represented, it qualifies as a reunion, if not one of those massive roundups of descendants that I hope to attend one day. (Or organize, if I get crazy enough.)

Reunions, large or small, are where the family genealogists get a lot of work done.

Of course the point is to spend rewarding time with family, and I wouldn’t promote a lot of family harmony if I spent the entire reunion with a tape recorder and a magnifying glass. But these are occasions where nosing around about family business is part of the fun, and genealogy is definitely on the program of festivities.

Some of the basic housekeeping tasks I try to accomplish include:

• Getting identities and background information for old photos;

• Going over recent research finds with relatives to see if they shake loose any additional memories;

• Showing off family group sheets to younger relatives who ask about them. It’s great to take these opportunities with little kids who are genuinely curious. Five minutes or so is probably what most younger children can sit still for, but who knows? Those five minutes might uncover a budding genealogist down the road.

It’s nice to think about a summer filled with families sharing memories – and information. If you have family reunions, what do you try to accomplish for your research while you’re there?


Timelines

I was mucho enjoying Dick Eastman’s review of the photography compilation The Last Muster: Images of the Revolutionary War Generation by Maureen Taylor. Some Revolutionary War veterans lived into the dawn of the age of photography, and Taylor’s book collects as many of their images as she could track down. It’s jarring to consider Continental Army soldiers posing for a photographer. Yet there they are, very old, often frail, but living links to a legendary past.

Time and generations are fluid, a point we often miss because of internal assumptions. Recently at a dinner with old friends, a trivia challenge was thrown down: Who is the earliest president to still have living grandchildren?

Good one! I was trying to think of presidents with considerably younger wives or second marriages. My guesses were Theodore Roosevelt or just possibly Grover Cleveland (the only president who got married in the White House! More trivia!).

But the answer, apparently, is John Tyler (1790-1862), president from 1841-45, or forty years before Cleveland. As of 2009 there were two living Tyler grandsons through his son Lyon Gardiner Tyler (1853-1935): Lyon Jr., born in 1924, and Harrison Ruffin, born in 1928. A jaw-dropper, but upon consideration, an understandable genealogy tale. It’s a not-unprecedented combination of longevity and fertile second marriages to much younger wives — in Tyler’s case, Julia Gardiner, 30 years his junior and the mother of Lyon Gardiner Tyler.

I saw another example of this a couple of weeks ago in the story of a (living) nephew of a Civil War veteran who worked to replace the marker on his uncle’s grave. This, too, was a tale of two marriages and two succeeding generations of males producing children late in their lives.

While there is nothing quite that extreme in my own family tree, there does seem to be a pattern of later-than-usual marriages. Our timelines are a bit stretched out, as a result. When my 12-year-old had to make a family tree a few years ago, the teacher couldn’t help noticing that she had a grandfather born in 1913, the sort of date most of the other kids were putting down for the births of their great-grandparents.

But families don’t always reproduce on trend. It is a useful thing to remember the next time we’re trying to figure out a time frame in which to search for Ancestor X. Better not say, “She couldn’t possibly have been so-and-so’s grandchild!” until we’re sure that’s really true.


On free lunches (or the lack of them)

My Google alert for genealogy turned up some alarm this past week about the dangers of relying too heavily on the Internet for genealogy research.

I’d just add that the belief in a Big Rock Candy Mountain of genealogy wonders predates the arrival of Ancestry.com. A lot of people love the idea that somewhere, somehow, all the genealogy records they need will be in a single place. If they evolve beyond a casual interest in genealogy, they soon find out that:

1. People generate all sorts of records in all sorts of places, some of which don’t share their records with big repositories, whether out of inertia or sheer desire to be annoying.

2. If you go back far enough, people didn’t generate much in the way of records, period. In which case no “central repository” is going to give you everything you need, anyway.

3. The way home to Kansas, Dorothy, is with your own two feet. You just gotta belieeeeveee.

When I first started my genealogy quest, Internet databases were practically nonexistent. But the Big Rock Candy Mountain idea was still out there.

I’d often talk to a relative about setting up an interview, only to be told that I simply HAD to journey to Salt Lake City (or order up a couple of FHL microfilms) and I’d find everything I needed to know. It was funny how people never saw themselves as my most important genealogy source. No, there had to be a Big Universal Official Source somewhere.

So I wouldn’t say the Internet caused this situation, although it certainly has intensified things. The problem is the myth of a one-stop solution, and it’s worth a good rant.

Because getting past this idea of the Universal Genealogy Bat Cave is so important. It’s such a barrier to creative thinking and problem solving. And once it drops by the wayside, a lot of supposedly impregnable brick walls can come tumbling down.


Surprise! Maggie’s 91st birthday

I hit a gold mine this morning in Ancestry.com’s newspaper image database for the Times-Record of Troy, N.Y. Out of the blue, too!

This database had disappointed me before. However, a chance tweak of the search form this morning turned up so much stuff, and so unexpectedly, that it’s worth another post or two about tweaking search forms and defying expectations. (You’ve been warned.)

For now, I’m having a blast working my way through the treasure trove of clippings. They feature my great-great aunts, Margaret [Haigney] Roache and Mary [Haigney] Walker, and my great-great uncle, Martin T. Haigney.

Many of the clips are from a local-news page that took the terms “local” and “news” to lengths that are unimaginable today. When I studied journalism, we would talk about empathizing with our readership (yes, it was a while ago). Even so, that didn’t mean covering stories like a college sophomore “spending the holiday vacation with his parents,” or Mrs. So-and-so’s hospitalization from a broken hip.  The news business hasn’t been that personal for a long, long time.

My great-great aunt Margaret's 91st birthday was top headline news in 1961.

But back in the 1950s and early 1960s, news was extremely personal in the Troy Times-Record, and what good luck for me. I’ve got a lot of new leads to pursue on those summertime genealogy day trips I was musing about a couple of days ago.

In the meantime, listen to this Very Important News Item from 1961 about my great-great aunt Margaret:

Mrs. Margaret Roach prepared a birthday party yesterday.

She baked a cake and set the table for the party which was for herself. It was her 91st birthday.

The wisp of a woman, who weighs less than 90 pounds, lives alone at 2509 2nd Ave. Many of the friends whom she has been associated with throughout the years were present. She was born in Watervliet … She now lives alone and cooks, sews, shops and does about everything else for herself. She voted at the polls last November because she felt it her duty. In her leisure time, she reads and is up to date on the various news happenings. She wears glasses because of a cataract operation performed one year ago, but her eyesight is still as keen as her hearing.

There is a TON of other terrific stuff in the story, including biographical details about Margaret, her late husband James, her father and her siblings. Above all, it has those wonderful personal details that form a perfect  snapshot of Margaret, still truckin’ along and throwing herself birthday parties into her 90s.

The unnamed reporter who covered this nearly 50 years ago couldn’t have known what a big favor his little human-interest story would do for me and my genealogy research. But thanks anyway!


Treasure Chest Thursday: Letter Full of Memories

The word is out that I’m a sucker for old stuff, so I’m a leading candidate for a call when people are cleaning out their filing cabinets. Not that I mind. Can anyone appreciate orphaned manila folders the way I do?

Several years ago, my mother-in-law gave me a manila folder labeled LYNCH SURNAME, containing some of my father-in-law’s genealogy notes. It isn’t a thick folder because my father-in-law wasn’t the genealogist of record in his  generation. That would be his cousin Eileen, whose career as a dedicated researcher and volunteer probably warrants its own book, never mind a separate blog post.

The treasure of the folder is a draft of a letter that I presume my father-in-law eventually sent in response to a query by  his genealogist cousin about their Beatty forebears. It contains some interesting notes on the family, along with a couple of priceless anecdotes.

• “I never knew my granddad Beatty except as ‘Dick’ Beatty. He was a singing teacher and used singing books w/numbers instead of the musical symbols as is used today. I have seen some of these books.” (This doesn’t sound exactly like shape note singing, which my father-in-law mentioned his grandfather teaching, and which does use note symbols  — but I sure wish I’d seen these books, too!)

• “I think I mentioned to you the occurrence where Jim Bob crawled up into a hollow tree and Bill having seen his father chop rabbits out of a tree, proceeded to start chopping about where Jim Bob’s head was. Their mother our grandmother missed the boys and went looking for them. She found them before Bill cut too deeply into the tree and almost surely would have killed Jim Bob.”

That last story sounds like it came straight out of a novel, which is not surprising. Stories like that don’t grow on trees. Even hollow ones.


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.


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