My mother-in-law’s family emigrated to the United States from Austria in the 19th century; that much was certain. But the Germanic village names on a handwritten family fact sheet presented the spelling confusion that occurs when an American-born child or grandchild writes down what they hear.
In this case, it took only little bit of poking around to figure out that “Tahton” was actually the village of Tadten, and “Halbthurn or Holfturn” meant Halbturn. Both of these places are in the region of southeast Austria called the Burgenland, and isn’t my mother-in-law lucky? The Burgenland Bunch has this area covered, and I mean covered.
The Burgenland Bunch is the brainchild of the late Gerry Berghold, who in 1996 started sharing tips by email with fellow Burgenlander researchers he met on AOL. The first official email newsletter came out in January 1997.
From a simple email newsletter the Burgenland Bunch has morphed into an organization whose extensive website includes archival material, surname query lists, maps and research tips. It has worked in an enthusiastic partnership with officials in present-day Burgenland — in fact, Gerry Berghold and several of the Bunch’s staff were recognized by the Austrian government for their efforts in promoting knowledge and appreciation of the Burgenland.
Gerry Berghold grew and tended the Burgenland Bunch for a decade, retiring from the organization only a month before his death in 2008, five years after being diagnosed with cancer. The Burgenland Bunch goes on due to the efforts of 15 volunteers from the United States and Austria. It’s a remarkable example of international genealogy cooperation, born out of an AOL email loop.
Recently on the LinkedIn genealogy discussion group, a link popped up to a cranky commentary prompted by NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? Don’t click through if you’re feeling a bit cranky yourself. Suffice it to say that if this guy had a TV show, it would be called Why Should Anyone Care?
I’m not sure what gets certain backs up about genealogy. Years ago, at a party, I fell into a conversation with a woman who, like me, was tracing her family tree and happily addicted to the pastime. It being the B.A. Era (Before Ancestry.com), we were harmlessly discussing microfilms and NARA repositories when the woman’s spouse came by to say hi. Upon realizing what we were talking about, he launched into a diatribe against genealogy hobbyists. He was pretty witty about it but, like, totally negative, you know? Wrecked our buzz big-time, I can tell you. His assumptions, as I recall, were:
1. Genealogy is elitist, practiced by snobs who are on a stuck-up quest for presidential and royal ancestors.
2. Genealogy is pointless, since the silly snobs will never find that royalty anyway.
3. People who are descended from nobodies, like himself, should be proud of who they are and stop the genealogy nonsense.
The conversation has stuck in my mind, not only because I wonder how that marriage turned out, but because Assumption #3 is so fascinatingly opposite of what I’ve found genealogy to be. See, I don’t think I’ve got any kings or even any colorful Fenians in my tree. Never have. The ordinary people I find are more than enough for me. Especially since nobody’s been looking out for their stories as historians have looked out for the kings, queens and presidents. (At least, not until pretty recently.)
Anti-genealogy sentiment is often driven by assumptions that it’s an elitist pursuit. True, press coverage has a way of playing up this angle. (Hey! Didya see that Brooke Shields is descended from Henri IV of France?) Less covered, but more important, is how diverse genealogical studies have become. The immigrant experience is included, thanks very much — you can read specialized works on tracing Italian, Irish, Polish ancestry. Alex Haley’s groundbreaking book Roots spurred a generation to study African-American genealogy. It’s not all about European royalty.
And yet … If people do find kings and queens in their tree, that doesn’t make them pathetic elitist snobs. It means they found somebody interesting. What are they supposed to do with these ancestors? Give them back?
Obviously I need my own TV show to process this. I think I’ll call it What’s It To You, Anyway?
JN [John Nelson] Lynch • Born Sept. 5, 1850 / Died June 6, 1917
[Rosanna Frances] his wife • Born Feb. 28, 1857 / Died May 1, 1928
Leitchfield, Grayson County, Ky.
Today I cross over to my husband’s paternal side of the family, who, in contrast to my relatively recent immigrant ancestors, are Lynches descended from William Lynch, an 18th-century resident of Brunswick County, Va. William had an excitingly high number of children — 34 by one count. My husband and children descend from William’s son Meredith.
Although I really enjoyed discussing genealogy with my late father-in-law, there’s no way I could claim expertise on this family, which is a genealogical cottage industry in its own right. A fascinating book called “Our Lynch Line” (1975), compiled by Cecil Pryor, brings together an enormous amount of data and is in the holdings of the Family History Library.
This headstone belongs to John Nelson Lynch, my husband’s great-grandfather, Sept. 5, 1860-June 6, 1917, and his wife, Rosanna Frances (Dennison), Feb. 28 1857-May 1, 1928. John Nelson was born in Washington County, Ky. but as an adult lived in Grayson County, where he farmed and taught school. He was also a Baptist preacher who rode from church to church on horseback, according to my father-in-law, who was four when John Nelson died.
I haven’t yet visited this cemetery myself — the photo is from one of my sisters-in-law. Even several years ago when it was taken, the condition of the stone presented a challenge, so I wonder what the situation is now. At any rate, since I live pretty far away from this churchyard, I’m glad to have this photo.
Oh noes, genealogy wrecked my family: The biggest news story for genealogists last week was doubtless the Warwick University study, in which researchers determined that probing into family history might tick off your relatives. Followup studies of genealogy enthusiasts uncovered reactions ranging from “Duh” to “Oh, wow, did I just yawn? Sorry!”
That second sentence? I made it up. But the results as reported did have a duh-worthy quality. Many of the issues cited are longstanding staples of genealogy forums — what to do when you find out that Great-Grandma married Great-Grandpa when she was two months pregnant, for example. Tact and empathy are always in order when a bombshell lands. In his amusing take at the Genealogue, Chris Dunham submits that the difficulties described in the study “are more about being unpleasant human beings than about making unpleasant discoveries.” Which, I believe, nails it nicely.
Genealogy as tourist lure: Really? Roots-finding trips to Ireland are certainly a staple, so it can’t be surprising that a five-star hotel in County Clare, Ireland has hired on-site genealogists to assist guests who are researching Irish roots. Rich American guests, probably. Hope they don’t destroy family harmony while they’re at it.
Replanting the online family tree: Dean at GenLighten talks about advances in public document citation online and ways in which they might lead to a new generation of online genealogy collaboration. I’m intrigued by the notion of a Wikipedia-style way of doing online trees. Online data sharing has been a blessing beyond doubt, but a mixed one. Who hasn’t heard a complaint about bad data being unthinkingly cut and pasted and cut again? Increasing our ability to cite sound data is a good thing.
Have a great week, and don’t go starting any family feuds, OK?
You might have noticed that I have a weakness for old recipes — those underestimated windows into the past.
Back when I was a newspaper/foodie sort of person, one of my favorite jobs was reading over the recipe-query column — the more vintage the query, the better. I just loved readers who wanted to know how to make an icebox cake. If it were in my power, I’d have given them a year’s free subscription simply for using the word “icebox.”
The Old Foodie understands this love of vintage recipes, and does a wonderful job of blending fascinating historical material with a sharp eye for cultural context. For instance, The Foodie has most recently written a three-part series on “Emergency Food,” including a great post on suggestions given to British cooks in 1939 for how to stock and stretch their wartime larders.
Also, as a person of Irish descent I have to pay tribute to someone who includes a special section on “Historic Potato Recipes.”
If you have an old family recipe you’re trying to make sense of, or if you’re just interested in trying to imagine how your great-great-great-grandparents might have shopped for and cooked their food, this site is the perfect read.
A cassette tape isn’t the most elegant heirloom — not in the same league as an Art Deco brooch, for sure.
Still, among the most precious items in my family history treasure chest are two audio tapes. Made more than two decades apart with two different voices, they don’t have a lot in common. Except that each is an irreplaceable record of a voice from the past.
The first tape was probably made sometime in the 1970s and features singing by my father, who died in 1983. It’s a mix of Irish-tenor classics, including “Danny Boy.” Dad had a great voice, and I’m sure he had a blast performing for posterity. About ten years after my father died, it was given by a dental-school classmate of his to one of my cousins, who passed it on to us, and copies were made for all seven of my dad’s children.
For ten years after that, I never listened to it. I would start to play it, then stop. I can’t tell you why. After all, one of the saddest moments in grieving a loved one is the point at which you realize you no longer remember exactly how their voice sounded — it’s like losing them all over again. And here I was with my father’s voice on tape, not able to push the Play button. Maybe I was afraid that somehow his voice wouldn’t sound as wonderful as I remembered.
Anyway, on to the second tape. This one is of my father-in-law; it was made by my husband a few years before his father died, of a conversation they had together about my father-in-law’s boyhood. This tape became very important even before my father-in-law actually passed, because not long after it was made, he suffered a stroke that affected his speech — not 100 percent, but enough so that detailed conversations were difficult. I recently rediscovered the tape when I found it in a box of odds and ends my kids had tossed together and decided to claim for their own. It is now rescued and marked: Do Not Touch On Pain of Death.
You may be wondering whether I ever did listen to Tape No. 1. The answer is yes — after my father-in-law died, and my mother-in-law asked me if I would sing “Danny Boy” at his memorial service.
Of course I thought about the tape. I also thought about how my dad owned “Danny Boy” in our family, and what he’d think about me singing it — he was particular about getting it right. And I thought that probably now was the time to listen to the tape, to get a couple of pointers from the master so I could do my best for my mother-in-law.
So yes, I finally listened to the tape. And my dad sounded just as good as I remembered. He still owns “Danny Boy.” Although I must say, my version isn’t too shabby, either.