Finding Family

As an extension of my genealogy research, I’ve been working on a video project, documenting the process of discovery that I’ve been on with my family this year. When my Mom and I traveled South in July, I took a Flip camera along to record various moments of the journey. Between the videos and documents found, I think it ends up being a pretty interesting story to tell. I’m calling the video “Finding Family.”

One aspect of documenting the story of discovering my family’s history that brings to light a frustrating barrier is our lack of family photos. Since I have no living grandparents, and neither of my parents were particularly nostalgic about holding onto old photos when they would have had access to them, we just don’t have many images of our ancestors. And when we started to think about who would have access to photos, as well as any other details about the family, we came up with some cousins who might be the key to what we’ve needed. Only problem is we don’t have relationships with these (or any) cousins – on either side of my family. Good news is this research project has not only introduced me to ancestors and their remarkable stories, it’s also been an excuse to find the living family. Family with photos, perhaps.

Well, the first new family I’ve found in this process actually found me. Using her ancestry.com account, she found that we have an ancestor in common. Our great grandfathers were brothers, meaning we have the same 2nd great grandfather – Calvin Strother. So she sent me a short email through ancestry, asking if I was indeed related to the Strothers, and if I might have more information about the family. I was so excited to hear from her. We quickly got into long email exchanges about our families and what we could piece together about the Strothers. I would happy-cry uncontrollably, looking at photos of my new cousin, her family, and the one photo she had of her great grandfather, James – my great grandfather’s brother.

James Strother - Sparta, Illinois c. 1925

I see an unexpected resemblance between him and my father.

Dad

 

She shared details she knew about our 2nd great grandmother and the date of her death, based on a letter her great grandfather received from one of the other brothers, asking for money to help with their mother’s burial costs. Perhaps my great grandfather received a similar letter.  I shared information I found about Calvin’s involvement in a controversial 1876 election in South Carolina. He and his brother were among the first black voters to begin voting democratic and faced tons of harassment as a result. Transcripts of their depositions in the trial that followed are fascinating. So anyway, my new cousin and I were so happy to have found each other. I’m looking forward to meeting her at some point.

 

1876 Deposition Transcript

And then there’s the white woman who received the surprise phone call from her black cousin. I described in an earlier post the discovery that my great grandfather’s white father has family still in Dawson, GA. My 2nd great grandfather and Kathy’s grandmother were siblings. Now since her grandmother never talked about her brother’s black family, cousin Kathy couldn’t give us much information or any photos of my great grandfather or his siblings. But we did leave Dawson with photos of my 3rd great grandparents.

 

Francis and Fanny Harper - 3rd greats

More recently, as I’ve been wrapping up the video project, I’ve gotten more and more frustrated by the complete lack of photos of my mother’s father. In spite of the fact that I knew him well and I was in college when he died, I don’t have access to one photo of him. So my mom and I decided she would reach out to a long lost cousin – her first cousin.

After my mom’s parents were divorced and she moved from Jacksonville to Philadelphia with her mother, she lost touch with much of her father’s family. But since her father and his father were brothers, and she knew him until she was about 9, we figured it wouldn’t hurt to write him a sincere, handwritten note (note to self: if you don’t want someone to write sincere, unsolicited, handwritten notes to you in the future, make sure you can’t be found on google).

Just a few days later, they were speaking on the phone for hours. And he was learning to use a scanner in order to begin sharing the many photos he has of my mother’s family, including my grandfather, great grandfather, great grandmother, and even my 2nd great grandfather (Thomas W. Long). Many of these photos will be of people I’ve never before seen. Fortunately, he described his mother (my grandfather’s sister-in-law) as a pack rat. The possibilities of what he will share are endless.

 

Long Family - sometime in the mid to late '50s.

To hold us over, he shared one incredible photo of my mother and uncle with my grandparents. This is the first photo I’ve ever seen of my mother at this age – same for my grandparents. Pop looks so cool and happy. Nana just looks lovely.

I think most people associate genealogy research only with making connections to the past – at least I used to. But I’m learning that it also creates opportunities to find family and connect in the present, making up for lost time…and lost photos.

Tips from an Amateur Genealogist

Although I started my family research only earlier this year, I quickly became obsessed with it.  I also achieved an unusual amount of success in a relatively short period of time.  It’s been such a powerful experience.  I highly recommend it for any/everyone.

A few people have asked me for tips on getting started with genealogy research.  I do not claim to be an expert by any means.  But I have learned a few things along the way that may be helpful to some folks.  So I figured I’d share.  And since I had lots of success by starting online, here are a few tips for starting online family research. (Note: keep in mind I have mostly black ancestors, which in many ways informs my approach to the research.)

1) Write down who/what you know:

  • Parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, grandparent siblings, great grandparents, etc.
  • Full names (including middle names, if possible), birthdays, birth locations, death locations

2) Sign up for an ancestry.com account (they have a 14-day free trial)

  • Populate the family tree with what you know
  • Check out the hints they provide

3) Comb through these records:

Federal Census Records

  • The most recent published federal census is 1930
  • They go back in 10-year intervals (note: the 1890 census burned in a fire back in the day and, therefore, only exists in rare pieces. Don’t count on finding someone in 1890 using the federal census)
  • Go backwards – start by looking for your grandparents as children (knowing the date and place of their birth will help you find them on the census)
  • Keep in mind that only white ancestors will be found on the census prior to 1870, though free blacks should have been recorded in the northern states (I don’t have personal experience with this)
  • Each year they recorded different facts on the census.  Everything is useful, but pay careful attention to (and record) the following:
    • Names of parents, siblings, anyone else in the household
    • Birth location of individual and their parents (this is especially useful when looking for the parents of the oldest people in the household)
    • Ages/birth years (some census records will also provide the month of birth) – Note: ages and birth years are rarely precise and commonly change with each census – families frequently estimated birth dates
    • Some years the census will ask # years parents were married, providing year of marriage
    • Some of the later census records ask the household’s mother # of children born & # of children still living – compare this to who’s still in the household
    • Different spellings of names; are they using their middle names?
    • Address – at least get the city and county; later years will tell you the street name and house number (note: google the address – sometimes the street and even the house is still there)
    • Is the home Owned (“O”) or Rented (“R”)? – an owned home may give you access helpful property records
    • Literacy – who can read and write?
    • Occupation (confusion about whether a person is the same from one census to the next can sometimes be resolved by the occupation)

Federal Census Slave Schedules – 1860 and earlier

  • These records are not incredibly helpful. But if you have an idea of a slave owner’s name, and the approximate age of an enslaved ancestor, you may find these helpful.
  • They record the gender, age and race (black vs.mulatto) of black people – no names

State Census Records

  • Ancestry will pull state and federal censuses at the same time. State records are helpful because they could take place during the off years of the federal census (for example, Florida has an 1885 and 1935 census). They’re unpredictable. But take a look at what your states of interest recorded.

Marriage Licenses

  • Wife’s maiden name – this will allow you to search for a woman as a child, potentially leading to her parents
  • Date and location of marriage are important to record
  • Age at time of marriage

Death records

  • Social Security death index – with this, you have the social security #, which will help if requesting an actual death certificate from the county
  • Death Certificates – they provide lots of information, though they’re frequently not found online, and sometimes not fully completed
    • Look for: date of death, age, location and address, length of time in location, married/single/widowed, name of spouse, maiden name, name of parents

Military Records

  • WWI registration cards – ancestry has many of these.  If an ancestor would have been military age through 1918, it’s worth looking for a registration card.
    • Look for: age, physical description, address, occupation, single/married, date of registration
  • WWII registration cards – also found on ancestry
  • Civil War registration cards for Union and Confederacy also provide physical descriptions, locations, and ages. You’ll also get the name of the unit, which likely has been documented well enough to tell you the battles fought with a basic google search.

4) Some other helpful sites to try, using the information you already have:

5) Use Google – search in creative ways

  • last name, first name
  • “last name, first name”
  • “first name last name” + city, state and/or county
  • “first name last name” + birth year-death year
  • “first name last name” + occupation + location
  • any combination of the above

5) Don’t forget about siblings and spouses. They can lead to information about your direct line.  They also have interesting stories of their own.

6) Stay cool. It can be frustrating.