Friday, November 24, 2017

You can do hard things! -- Episode #1

An experience from over a year ago keeps coming back to my mind. It involved a second-great-grandmother who seemed determined to keep her parentage a secret. And being somewhat lazy, I had conveniently convinced myself I'd never be able to battle through that brick wall of finding a female with a very common surname. After all, I'd already spent multiple decades trying to deal with a related brick wall which didn't seem to be yielding a single bit of mortar, much less a brick!

The enigma was Elizabeth GRAY who had married William SCOTT, son of the major brick wall occupant. According to the census records, Elizabeth was born in Ohio. A family Bible gave her precise birth date as 4 March 1812. But there was more than one GRAY family in Ohio that early—even more than one in Belmont County where the family later lived. Yes, I had stared at that very short branch of my pedigree chart for many years with nary an impetus to tackle her.

However, in the middle the year 2016 in the middle of the night in the middle of a cross-country trip in the middle of the unlikely town of Topeka, Kansas, Elizabeth threw down the gauntlet. And I picked it up. I had the distinct impression that it was time to find Elizabeth's family! And I knew that, although it wouldn't be easy, it would be doable.

So what made the difference? Probably the most important element was that I had taken the opportunity to immerse myself in a learning environment. May I pause to doff my hat to all those who contribute to genealogy education, especially my friend Holly T. Hansen. She has devoted her time, her resources, and a goodly number of sleepless nights to teaching people how to research their family history. She is surrounded by an equally devoted team. Over the past two years, they have produced an impressive number of learning tools which everyone would be wise to investigate. (Visit her website,, and take a look around.)

As a minor part of Holly's team, I proofread and edit her published materials. In the process, a lot of information has streamed through my mind. Some of it stuck. Some of it took two or three times through to really stick, which is why repetition is such a valuable teacher and so easily available through Family History Expos. Nevertheless, the result was that my research arsenal had expanded over the years I have worked with Holly.

Figuring that there was no time like the present, I carried my laptop into the bathroom, closed the door, and began the search. 

Several years before, I had stumbled across a clue while researching the unusual name of Canby (sometimes Camby) MOORE. My third-great-grandfather David SCOTT, Sr., had sold Camby a couple of acres in Belmont County, Ohio. Having learned to explore any and every connection to my family, I started off down Camby's rabbit hole. Imagine my delight when I learned that he had married a Jane GRAY . . . in Belmont County! That seemed more than fortuitous. That seemed miraculous!!! 

At that time, my toolkit didn't contain the necessary expertise to pursue the lead any further. However, on that obscure July night in that obscure motel bathroom, I pulled out the first tool. I Googled Camby MOORE and Jane GRAY. Someone had posted another clue: Jane GRAY's parents were John GRAY and Jane HARPER. 

We were launched!!!

Join us next week for Episode #2.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Middle-of-the-Night Visitors and Clues

Approximately 38 years and three weeks ago, I was at home in an apartment in Wheaton, Maryland, working on typing up a couple of years worth of genealogical research. I'd already been to Colorado a few months previous so was not traveling that holiday season.

As I typed away into the wee hours of one morning, I suddenly had a strong impression that someone had come to visit. Unseen and silent, his presence was still so powerful that I kept waiting for him to make an accidental noise. Living alone, you would assume that I would have been anxious about this experience. However, there was nothing threatening about his being there.

Eventually, I realized that he wanted me to see something in my notes. I turned page after page to see if he'd give me a clue about where to look. Nothing. With every find I've made in the ensuing years, I've wondered if that was what he wanted me to see.

No one's been visiting to any degree lately, except for new ideas and new information (much of it fueled by DNA tests). Nevertheless, as I read through the 1856 Des Moines County, Iowa, census page by page for probably the eighth or ninth time, I'm seeing little tidbits that could be clues. And having these pass through my brain, I find myself wondering how many details I'm sliding right over that could be part of a solution to my 40-year-old research problem. (I've pretty much given up on the "one" key piece of information that will trigger the crumbling of the brick wall.)

What to do? What to do? The only thing I can figure out to do is keep looking, keep reading, keep talking, keep learning, keep pondering, keep guessing, keep extrapolating, keep trying to notice all the aberrations and trying to figure out the whys and the wherefores.

Because that's what family historians do...either accompanied or all on their own.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The threads

It wasn’t a breakthrough for me, although it was another justification for all the hours of abstracting I’ve done with pen or typewriter or computer in hand. All the entries of the same surname in the same county. Hour after hour of tedious recording. All in the hopes of finding some thread tying these people into my David SCOTT, Sr., or his family (whoever they turn out to be).

One of the SCOTT entries did turn out to help another researcher. Yippee! No, really, yippee! How grand that there was a clue that assisted him.

Last night it was a COLLINS, thanks to David’s wife’s being a COLLINS. An 1815 land record in Mifflin County, Pennsylvania, tied a researcher back to her Mifflin County roots through Crawford County, Pennsylvania, to her Henry COLLINS who died in 1793!

True, others have contributed to my understanding through bits and pieces of their preserved notes. But when will there be that golden SCOTT thread that will weave all the SCOTTs and COLLINSes and ROBSONs and HENDERSONs and [VAN] SWEARINGENs and PATTERSONs and BRICEs and GRAYs into some comprehensible tapestry?

In the meantime, let last night serve as a reminder that we need to be looking, EVERYWHERE...... for clues, no matter how minute, no matter how remote, no matter how illogical, no matter how unlikely. As long as life endures and eyes see and hands write and brains cogitate, we must pluck the pieces from whatever source is presented.

It just might be that there are other less tangible beings who are trying to guide us to the end of the requisite thread. May we listen and work and trust them.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Aim high...but not too high!

Just a quick thought (since I should be working right now).

Many of us have lofty goals in mind for our genealogy publishing career. I would love to be able to write a book about all the descendants of my research nemesis, David SCOTT, Sr. (1791-1866...seen him around anywhere???).

But there are two problems with that. First of all, the reality is that there are descendants being born every day, so I'll never keep up.

Secondly, I'll never have ALL the information about him. For crying out loud, I've been studying him for almost 40 years and still don't have his parents or siblings identified. Now, given the nature of our glorious pastime, that information could miraculously appear the next time I do a search (not likely, but possible).

Perhaps I would be much better off to define and fill out the individual blocks of the glorious mansion I want eventually to build. In other words, maybe I should write (and share) a research report on what I know about David himself—just him, not his children, not his spouse. Exhaust my notes for his data and then move on to someone else.

This became apparent a few days ago when I finally broke down and wrote to all the submitters of information for David’s father-in-law. I included a copy of his transcribed (and highlighted) will. I asked for help in providing sources for relationships that have been passed down for a long, long time, but for which I have not one single documentation. Maybe someone among the hundreds—yes, perhaps thousands—of descendants of this man might have that record. Maybe some of them have never seen his will.

So maybe it’s time for us to share what we know more generously and stop gloating that we were the ones to find the long-lost will or the little sliver of information that might turn someone else’s find into a meaningful clue...if we would only make it available to them.

Maybe that’s not a problem for anyone else but me. But I think I’m going to revise my approach to research and start working with more systems, however imperfect they might be, so I can collaborate with more people interested in the same people who have been bugging me for decades.

Perhaps if we all record and share a little more freely, we can expand the common knowledge (as well as eliminate some of the buggy information that has crept in along the way).

Here’s to recording and sharing!

Monday, December 27, 2010

The after-Christmas doldrums

Since things may be slowing down a little for the next couple of weeks, might I suggest an experiment that would consume just a little of your free time?

Try tracing your maternal line. This became of interest to me when I got a report back on my mitochondrial DNA and started learning something about it. From what I understand, that material gets passed down directly from mother to child. I’m not even sure it changes very much, if at all. But I was really surprised to see where my matriarchal tree went.

I think we are so focused on the paternal lines (perhaps because they’re the easiest to find) that we fail to appreciate those odd-numbered lines on the pedigree chart.

So just for fun, find out who your earliest known contributor of mtDNA is (i.e., your mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s...well, you get the idea!).

Thursday, September 9, 2010


    "Part of doing great work is being na├»ve enough to not realize
that you’re undertaking things that are quite possibly not possible.”
— Jason Bagley, creator of “the Old Spice ad”

I’ve been thinking a lot the past few days—as I’ve worn out my eyes reading the old script of a hundred or so images I brought back with me from Pennsylvania—that maybe what I’m trying to do is not going to be possible. Maybe the records simply aren’t there. Maybe the people were so busy living their lives and trying to survive that no one took the time to do anything beyond that which was required for subsistance.

They may have written letters. But they apparently went to people who were not pack rats (darn!) Those of the next generation may have been very efficient about throwing away paper which no longer them. Great-grandpa’s letters from California? Well, first of all, he abandoned the rest of the family. So why should we care what he had to say? Into the burn barrel with you! Great-great-grandpa’s letters from the middle of Iowa? He didn’t treat Great-great-grandma all that well, so I think we can dismiss him also. Great-great-great-grandpa’s letters which he saved from the cousins in Scotland who hadn’t had the courage to emigrate to the less-than-civilized colonies? Oh, that’s old stuff. No one’s going to need those anymore.

They probably did take the trouble to get married by a clergyman of some sort. But in Pennsylvania, it wasn’t until the early or mid-1880s that the state cared about those marriages. In the meantime, the clergyman may have kept a record of his officiatings. But the mother church may not have requested anything from him, and he may have figured that record was his property. What happened to it once he passed away? Good cleaners-out probably performed their highly efficient role once more and tossed it all out when the house was being cleared. Same thing with all the infant baptisms that occurred out there in the wilderness where circuit riders risked their lives to minister to the people. And what about the hundreds of thousands of people who were buried in the back yard or the church yard without benefit of an enduring monument to mark the place?

Land could even be passed down from one generation to the next without the deed’s having to be recorded until it was time to sell it to someone outside the family. Not everyone was into filling in those pages in the family Bible, much less writing a personal or family history.

So we come along a couple of centuries later and try to weave disparate threads into a whole cloth. Is it possible that we are beating our heads (and eyes and hearts and minds) bloody against a wall that simply might never come down? Is there too little, too late?

Maybe. I guess it’s entirely possible. Will it make any difference to those of us who are somehow so mesmerized by the possibility of one more clue, one more piece of evidence, one more explanatory theory that giving up simply isn’t an option? Probably not.

And maybe, for some of us, it isn’t even the chase. Maybe it’s more the loving ties that bind us to those who have gone before, even though we don’t know them and they aren’t being very cooperative about leaving the intellectual breadcrumbs for us. Maybe it’s something eternal that draws us back again and again to reach into an empty pot in order to see if a remnant might either have been overlooked or mysteriously added.

NOTE: I’m going to add a section here that deals with my faith and the motivation some of us have for doing family history research. If you feel that this would be offensive to you or might generate uncomfortable feelings, please skip down to the next set of asterisks. Thank you!

* * *

I like the quote by Elder Boyd K. Packer (a leader in the LDS Church) who was discussing the magnitude of the work we undertake. After reminding his listeners that baptism is an essential ordinance which has to be performed here on the earth, he described the doctrine that was revealed so that even those who had passed away could have the blessing of receiving it through vicarious offerings in their behalf. Please note that the option of accepting or rejecting any act performed in their behalf is eternally available to each individual. 

We have been authorized to perform baptisms vicariously so that when they hear the gospel preached and desire to accept it, that essential ordinance will have been performed. They need not ask for any exemption from that essential ordinance. Indeed, the Lord Himself was not exempted from it.

Here and now then, we move to accomplish the work to which we are assigned. We are busily engaged in that kind of baptism. We gather the records of our kindred dead, indeed, the records of the entire human family; and in sacred temples in baptismal fonts designed as those were anciently, we perform these sacred ordinances.

“Strange,” one may say. It is passing strange. It is transcendent and supernal. The very nature of the work testifies that He is our Lord, that baptism is essential, that He taught the truth.

And so the question may be asked, “You mean you are out to provide baptism for all who have ever lived?”

And the answer is simply, “Yes.” For we have been commanded to do so.

“You mean for the entire human family? Why, that is impossible. If the preaching of the gospel to all who are living is a formidable challenge, then the vicarious work for all who have ever lived is impossible indeed.”

To that we say, “Perhaps, but we shall do it anyway.”

And once again we certify that we are not discouraged. We ask no relief of the assignment, no excuse from fulfilling it. Our effort today is modest indeed when viewed against the challenge. But since nothing is being done for them elsewhere, our accomplishments, we have come to know, have been pleasing to the Lord.

Already we have collected hundreds of millions of names, and the work goes forward in the temples and will go on in other temples that will be built. The size of the effort we do not suggest should be impressive, for we are not doing nearly as well as we should be.

Those who thoughtfully consider the work inquire about those names that cannot be collected. “What about those for whom no record was ever kept? Surely you will fail there. There is no way you can search out those names.”

To this I simply observe, “You have forgotten revelation.” Already we have been directed to many records through that process. Revelation comes to individual members as they are led to discover their family records in ways that are miraculous indeed. And there is a feeling of inspiration attending this work that can be found in no other. When we have done all that we can do, we shall be given the rest. The way will be opened up.

Every Latter-day Saint is responsible for this work. Without this work, the saving ordinances of the gospel would apply to so few who have ever lived that it could not be claimed to be true.

(Elder Boyd K. Packer, “The Redemption of the Dead,” Ens
ign, November 1975.

* * *

I find those thoughts energizing. And for those who elected not to read them, may I simply summarize by reassuring you...and all of us who get discouraged at times because of the difficulties encountered in the research...that those for whom we are searching still exist, even though we can’t see them. And they may be as interested in being found as we are in finding them, although I’m beginning to think that my family might just be a little more stubborn than some...perhaps to make the pursuit more interesting or to see if I’m truly committed. I have seen miracles occur in my own research, and know of many experienced by others as well.

We simply have to keep trying. We must not give up, regardless of the obstacles in our path.

So is it impossible? Maybe, but we’ll do it anyway! Onward and upward!!!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Just a note

Last night I posted an entry to my other blog ( after debating for some time about whether it would be more appropriate there or here. Wasn't sure it would be kosher to post both places. So, if you're curious, join me over there.