As you can probably tell, I’m addicted to books, and have been all of my life. Yes, I do take advantage of e-book offerings from my public library, as well as request e-journal articles via… More
From day one, I declared that Genealogy Literacy would be a truth zone – and after breaking through a recent brick wall, I knew I had to share this journey of discovery. For you see, this research unveiled an ugly truth: My long-standing brick wall had stood firmly in my path until I was able to strip away the whitewashing put in place to divert descendants from the truth.
Let me begin by saying that many researchers have encountered whitewashing in various forms. Most African American researchers with enslaved ancestors encounter systemic whitewashing of their history through heinous laws and customs put in place that stripped families of their identity to perpetuate the evils of slavery. And while I have always been an advocate for healing through a more inclusive research approach, the story below demonstrates how vital it is for ALL of us to strip away the mindsets of the past and dive headlong into a full FAN Club approach.
A hard truth about the FAN Club:
So, we’ve all been taught about the FAN Club research method – Friends, Acquaintances, & Neighbors (or Family, Acquaintances, & Neighbors) – but can I get a show of hands how many of us actively search African American records for our white family surnames? When encountering that title on the shelf about AA cemeteries or marriages – if we don’t think our family is inside, do we just breeze on by? Years ago, I would have said, “yeah, guilty as charged.” But in the past decade or so, the desire to help bring families together through research has shifted my information gathering strategies, and I find myself in AA records on purpose to help connect people and better understand communities.
A Big Crack in the Wall:
A few years ago, I was researching an African American family from Bracken County, Kentucky – and I have to say, some locals there have created a beautiful resource – African American records, Bracken County, Kentucky : 1797-1999 – a two volume set of transcribed AA documents discovered throughout the county. Marriages, Court Cases, School Records, Taxes, etc. You name it, they pulled it and transcribed/indexed it to create one of the most useful local resources I’ve ever used. So, while I was there, I decided to look up all of my Bracken County associated families in the index. This was rather quickly done, because I do not have a large number of branches from this county, and most are mid-19th century German immigrants – but I also descend from a long line of Anglo families from the county next door. As my search was not yielding any fruit, I decided to try a surname from the neighboring county that had remained a brick wall for myself and previous generations. What I found not only cracked the wall, but brought it tumbling down – and unveiled the whitewashing that had built the wall through a false family narrative.
Two Marys and a Barbary:
My brick wall began in neighboring Pendleton County. My 4th Great Grandfather, Samuel Cox, had married 3 women over his lifetime – the first two named Mary and the last named Barbary. With his estate division, Barbary was easy to identify, and even fill in her backstory as the former widow of a neighbor, Ross McCall. The other two Marys were much harder to distinguish. Over the previous generations, some family members had mixed up the women’s surnames. A divorce case for Mary #2 was able to identify her potential surnames (yes, she had more than a couple in the depositions), leaving the first Mary (my ancestor) with the pre-marriage surname of Dean. As my 4th Great Grandparents were not married in this area, we only knew her surname from the Barton Papers – a collection of family interviews taken throughout Pendleton County by Edward Everett Barton, a local attorney of the 1930s & 40s. Since he interviewed various descendant branches, the stories differed on who her parents might have been.
Abel or Michael Dean?
The family group sheets compiled from these interviews identified her probable father as Abel or Michael Dean, but did not include a location for either man. Even the Cox family was a bit of a location enigma. The Barton Papers said Samuel Cox was either “born at the fort above Augusta” or from Pennsylvania. OK, so with the surname of Cox, this was a needle in a haystack. All I knew, is that the Cox family came from farther points east. And I suspected the lack of Dean information indicated the same migration pattern. This turned out to be accurate, but unless I had picked up that book, I may not have discovered the truth for many, many years.
Deed of Emancipation:
In 1830, Bracken County, Kentucky, there was an emancipation filed in court to free an enslaved family: Jenny or “Jinny”, and her three children – Aaron, Emily, and John Caesar. As part of this process, Jenny, Emily and John Caesar were all presented in court to record their description along with a $500 bond to ensure they would not become wards of the county. Jenny is described as “black”, about 30 years old, left eye blind of cataract, standing 4 feet 2 inches. Emily was described as 6 years old and “yellowish” in color. John Caesar was only 4 weeks old with “yellowish” complexion. My biggest question about this document, was: Where was Aaron? Why was he not presented in court with the others? Obviously, with the children described as having “yellowish” skin, I’m thinking Michael was their father. But I had more research to do.
Michael’s Will, 1832:
The next item in this book connected to Michael Dean was his will of 1832. In this document he makes sure, once again, that all of his slaves are free upon his death, but with one addition. He then gives Jenny his 50 acres and residence for her to live in throughout her lifetime. After her life is over, the property was to go to Aaron and his heirs forever. There is no mention of Emily or John Caesar inheriting anything from Michael, only Aaron. As I was also trying to piece together the known white children of Michael Dean, there is a mention of one in his will, Rebecca Morris.
These documents gave me the push I needed to investigate further, with this new county of focus. From further research, I discovered that Michael was a Revolutionary War Pensioner, previously of Lewis County Kentucky, and that he had other white children documented: John, Rebecca, Thurisa, and Abel + others yet to be positively identified. His pension application in 1818/1820 described a sorry existence. A man (aged about 80) and wife (aged about 73) who were practically destitute and living in a meager cabin on 50 “rented” acres. He had served on the Virginia Continental Line for 2 years – ending his service in March 1778 at Valley Forge – Ironically, making it through the horrible winter at Valley Forge, but then high tailing it out once his service ended that March. He and his wife were both described as “decrepit” and only owning a horse and cow. More importantly, no mention of enslaved individuals. All of this testimony resulted in him receiving $8 per month until his death.
Bracken County Reveals:
In searching for Michael, there is no indication that he owned slaves around the time of his pension application. However, very soon after, his son Abel appears on the tax lists, and each man takes turns paying taxes on enslaved individuals for the next several years. The number of slaves fluctuates as well. At first there is only 1, then 2, and as these individuals either move from place to place, or are simply covered in taxes by each man in turn, the maximum number of slaves covered in the taxes, up until the emancipation is 4. After the emancipation, Abel is paying taxes on a few extra slaves, but his number is scratched out and reduced by 2 – perhaps indicating the odd nature of the ownership? Clearly Michael is claiming ownership by taking Jenny and her children to court to have them freed. Also, despite Michael claiming he only rented his land and cabin in the pension testimony, he clearly owns his property as he gives instructions on its dispersal in his will. When looking at the Court Orders for Bracken County, Abel would appear to fight some of this – I could not find an actual court challenge – but Abel is instructed to bring his father’s will to court, more than once – and it appears he did not comply as the will is later presented to court by the Executor Robert Elrod.
The Story Gets Lost:
Personally, I was thrilled to find this family. And I would love further still to reconnect with descendants of Jenny and her children. But I found it disappointing that my family had kept silent on this story. You see, I did find a marriage record in Lewis County for Polly Dean and Samuel Cox, with the consent given by Polly’s father “M. Dean” – putting to bed that Michael was her father and Abel was her brother. And I know that Mary died rather young, and with Samuel’s subsequent marriages and sensational divorce, it’s no wonder that my branch of the family lost this story. Or, am I giving them a pass where one doesn’t belong? In the context of society in 1830/32, this action by Michael was completely out of the ordinary. With his will bestowing his property upon a formerly enslaved family – this would have been considered to be scandalous – and I so wanted to know how my branch of the family felt about this action. If my suspicion is correct, one of the men likely fathered Jenny’s children. Meaning that Aaron, Emily, and John Caesar would have been siblings or nieces/nephews to my Samuel and Mary. Did they care? Were they embarrassed by this? It was a very public action to free them, and Michael had done just that.
While my branch kept silent about this action when passing along family lore – they did leave me one clue about their potential feelings. Remember when the list of enslaved individuals presented in court lacked one member? Aaron had been conspicuously absent from the court presentation. I speculated that maybe he was sick and could not make it, or that he had run away. Bracken County Kentucky lies on the Ohio River, just across from Ripley Ohio (Brown County) – a known hotbed for the underground railroad in the upcoming years. As the months passed, I figured that this portion of his story may never be known. And this is when I found a hashmark that changed everything. In the 1830 census – taken the same year that the emancipation was filed in Bracken County Court, my 4th great grandparents, Samuel and Mary, in neighboring Pendleton County, have a young man living in their household that is in the column: Free Colored Persons – Males, 10-24 in age. That little hashmark in this column gave me goosebumps. Is this the missing Aaron? I certainly hope so. If this is Aaron, there is a good likelihood that my grandparents were supportive of this emancipation action. If my speculation is correct, and Aaron is the son of Michael or Abel, then Mary had welcomed her newly freed brother or nephew into their home – and I’m guessing to offer protection. But why did no one ever tell us about this relationship?
The Story Becomes Whitewashed:
Fast forward to another moment of serendipity – Within the same time frame as the above discovery, I was in the process of trying to join the DAR. As I was reviewing my Patriot options, Michael Dean and his record came up. So, I paid for the associated application papers and supplemental documentation packet that belonged to a member descended through another daughter, Thurisa. The supplemental packet contained a letter from another of Michael’s descendants, a great great granddaughter, Julia Herrmann. In her letter she relates the story as thus:
“My Great Great Grandfather had a plantation in Kentucky and owned slaves. The ______? War ruined him financially. His family left him. Two slaves, a man (young) and his wife stayed with G G Grandfather and G G Grandmother and when G G Grandfather died, he willed the plantation to the two slaves who had worked and taken care of my Great Great Grandparents.”
And so the story, while not forgotten or censored out of this branch’s narrative, was whitewashed into the typical benevolent master/faithful servant tripe – transforming Jenny and Aaron to husband and wife, instead of mother and son – and erasing any hint of parental complexity.
There is an ironic post script about this line of narrative. The Barton Papers have a notation about Michael Dean’s financial hardship, and it relates to Abel who was the youngest: One of Michael’s sons, John, living in Washington County Kentucky had to travel to Bracken County in 1827 to care for his elderly parents. The reason? According to the Barton Papers: Michael and his wife had “conveyed their small estate to the youngest son who then turned them out in their extreme old age.”
I think this is another narrative covered in whitewash. There was clearly some family drama going on that the later descendants noted but purposefully made vague to hide what was truly happening. And by 1827, Abel and Michael have been sharing the taxes and/or location of the enslaved family for several years – until Michael suddenly has enough in 1830 and frees the entire lot. Again, the whitewashing was so thick, it’s still preventing us from seeing the full picture of this family crisis.
After Michael’s Death – Tracing Jenny’s Family:
One of the biggest mysteries that came out of the emancipation action was the fate of Jenny and her family. I could not find Jenny nor Aaron paying any taxes on this newly inherited land – nor could I find her in 1840 census records. In 1845, suddenly, the taxes are being paid on 57 acres by “Dean’s Devisees”.
According to the 1891 edition of Black’s Law – this term refers to the persons “to whom lands or other real property are devised or given by will.” I could not find record of taxes being paid on this property prior to this date. However, another obstacle arose in discovering the chosen surname of the newly freed family. Did they take the Dean surname? If so, none of them are paying taxes on this piece of property until 1845 – which is a tad odd. I then looked for any woman with the given name of Jenny or Jinny paying taxes on land during these years from 1832 to 1845. Nothing.
The estate sale of Michael Dean’s remaining personal property is also a whitewashed hot mess. Among the list of personal items being sold that day, Jenny is indeed listed as being the purchaser of several items. Unfortunately, instead of including a surname like everyone else on the list – she was simply listed as “Black Jenny”. Trust me, for a while, I looked for a ‘Jenny Black’ in all of the records I had perused earlier. Nothing. And of course, that’s when it hit me that they were not using the word “black” as a surname.
Aaron to the Research Rescue, Followed by a Cold Trail:
The good news is that after searching court and deed records many years beyond the emancipation, I found a deed transaction detailing Aaron’s act of selling the land. And best of all it gave me a direction for Aaron. First, he had retained the surname “Dean” – and had married a woman named Ellen – and they both lived in Brown County Ohio! This was golden information that even spelled out his connection to the land – the document says that he had inherited this land via the will of Michael Dean. This was a slam dunk – and I had one of those joyous, yet vocal moments in the silent state archives! One thing to note – I am not sure that Aaron and his wife actually came down to Bracken County to sell the land or whether this was handled by an attorney – simply because there is no mention of Aaron’s race. He is not referred to as a ‘free person of color’ nor ‘colored’, etc. Is this proving he never crossed the river to conduct this business, or does this mean he was light enough to be passing? The jury is still out on that one.
After this glorious find, the trail suddenly goes cold. I cannot find Aaron Dean in the 1850 Brown County census at all – and I even resorted to paging through each entry to catch a misspelled surname or similar family unit. I have searched other surrounding counties, and found nothing to match. Needless to say, I am still on the hunt for Aaron, and I need to take a trip north to dig into more physical records – but he has gifted me with marvelous clues to take forward!
An Ancestry Tree Yields More Clues:
So – despite the forest of unsourced trees on Ancestry – I will occasionally search for a branch in the hopes of stumbling across a tree with valid sources attached to follow in my own research. While searching for more information about Michael, I stumbled upon a tree that included Michael and his (what I believe to be) erroneous Scottish birth. I went down the line back towards Mary, his daughter and my 4th great grandmother, when I hit at something unexpected. Whomever created this tree went to Abel and then to a black family in Ohio with the surname of “Freeman”! One of the ancestors, Joseph Riley Freeman, in his marriage record lists his own surname as “Freeman” and his father’s name as A. Dean and his mother as Eliza Robinson. The creator of the Ancestry tree believed that “A. Dean” was Abel T. Dean of Bracken/Pendleton Counties and attached his family as thus. But what I think just happened – is that the family had an inherited narrative stating that they were descended from Abel Dean, but when a record came along listing A. Dean as the father, they jumped to Abel, missing Aaron entirely. I think the generation just got disconnected and lost. Michael’s son, Abel, was only ever married to Nancy Seay, never an Eliza Robinson. But Eliza sure sounds similar to Ellen, who was listed on the deed transfer of 1852.
To make matters more poignant, the family included James Riley Freeman’s nickname “Joe Dean” – and his youngest daughter, as listed on this tree was named “Jennie”. This newly discovered family then includes other surnames in later generations: Ward, Milton, Phoenix, Merritt, Epps, etc. With locations: Greene and Clinton Counties, Ohio + Indianapolis Indiana.
As a result – I would LOVE to connect with the person who runs the Peacock Family Tree on Ancestry – I think we have much to chat about!
Obviously, I have a lot more work to do in order to confirm my surname change suspicions – and the rest of the story will depend on my findings. But the journey so far has been remarkable, and I can’t wait for the next chapter! My goal: Hugging my newly found cousins – if I can find them – and IF they want a hug (respecting their wishes, of course.)
The lesson I learned through all of this, is that so many of our brick walls are held up by centuries of whitewashing. In most cases, on purpose. In a few cases, due to a really twisted and vile version of the telephone game. But do we truly understand the magnitude of expanding our research methodology, and the resulting ripple effect of belonging and healing that can follow?
Genealogy Truth Bomb:
We have got to practice a more robust and inclusive FAN Club approach! Because I’m going to be really frank here – How dare we ever consider our research to be thorough if we profess to practice the FAN approach and ignore a significant portion of our family’s community and familial network simply because of race?! If we alter our research approach to practice a fully inclusive strategy, there is a high likelihood that we will demolish a multitude of mutual brick walls, as well as unite long separated families and begin the process of telling a more accurate history of our communities and our country.
Happy Researching, Y’all!
Welcome to 2019’s theme: Sharing.
But what does a lifestyle of sharing look like?
I could work in the archives for a lifetime and never tire of the treasures they hold. To be blunt, we do not hold them in high enough esteem where our research is concerned. As I go about my daily routine, I sometimes grab enough time to dig for forgotten treasures. Note that I said “forgotten” not “hidden”. They are not hidden – which is an often repeated fallacy about archives, simply because their volume and original state of handwritten creation prevents instant consumption – and yet, not as easily accessed due to their sheer volume, and lack of people to analyze on a microscopic level. Admittedly, some archival collections are hidden, but usually on a temporary basis as staff make their way through the act of processing for responsible access.
The “forgotten” item I encountered this week was serendipitous, simply because I discovered it while looking for something else entirely – this often happens in the archives, BTW. We begin looking for one thing, and have a really hard time getting there because of all the gems we find littering the path to our goal. The item being sought was a Civil War Diary. While I love a good CW diary as well as the next researcher, I was actually looking at the original to compare to a transcription I discovered in our uncatalogued portion of the library. You know, standard librariany duties. As I was reading the first page of the digitized original, assessing the narrative in relation to the description and scope notes (archivist lingo) – a phrase leapt off the page and stayed with me all weekend: “No original wrong lay at their door”.
The reason this phrase has haunted me was because of the author’s intent. The author was a Kentuckian, a Union soldier named John Tuttle, attempting to describe the mindset of southerners when it came to the issue of slavery. In essence, he explained their belief in terms that echoed our own struggle of today regarding the heritage of slavery. As most of us have discovered, our genealogical research often uncovers enslavement in the family tree. So many of us have been cognizant of this terrible chapter, and offered to help unite ancestors with their descendants by way of sharing names of the enslaved that we encounter in the records. I have cheered on this endeavor as a form of healing for our land – going back to the roots, and acknowledging our familial connections to those chapters of terror and cruelty. As a white person, who has discovered both enslaver and emancipator in the family tree, I am encouraged and grateful when those of African American heritage also join the voice of unity in this effort – in many cases, embracing the concept of family – and graciously reminding the descendants of the enslavers that we are not our ancestors, and nor should we carry their guilt.
Which is why this soldier’s words made me catch my breath. When describing the rationale behind fighting to keep the system of slavery in place, it appears that there was no guilt associated with their belief – which was not a complete surprise, in its essence. But this lack of guilt was based on the actions of their ancestors. In his words:
“They had been reared and educated in the belief that there was no moral wrong in holding slaves as they did. The slaves had descended to them from past generations and no original wrong lay at their door. Many of them had been sold to them by persons in the north more on account of slaves not being profitable in that latitude as they thought, than from any considerations of philanthropy or humanity.”
So let this sink in for just a minute. Apparently, because the system had been put in place by their ancestors, their maintenance of this system (and fight to keep it in place) was not wrong. He also describes their belief in a paternal relationship – caring for the enslaved in a better manner than freedom would afford. In 2018, we can see the horrific evils in that rationalization that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths throughout the days of slavery and during the bloodiest war of our history. But – can we look at ourselves and find any similarities in that rationalization?
It is a true statement that we are not the generation that enslaved people based on their race. Many lived through the first Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s – not fully understanding that it never really ended. We are merely experiencing a resurgence of the fight against the foundational issues that continue to foster inequality in various ways. Have we grown since the 1960s? Yes, of course we have – but we’re not finished!
I am frequently pained by the hostility I see among our neighbors – our fellow Americans – our family. The fabric of our society is being constantly strained and ripped apart because that fabric is woven from threads of time. Threads of slavery, injustice, cruelty, prejudice, racism, hatred – interwoven with threads of emancipation, justice, love, inclusion, equality, freedom, family connections, and most importantly, DNA. I still believe this fabric is strong, and can withstand the strains of divisive social and political forces.
But this is where I get preachy – in the hopes that we can look inward, to examine closely our own fabric.
We know our trees. We’ve been researching them for years – decades even. When examining the fabric of our family, we understand the complexity of the weave. And even though the guilt of slavery may not be on our generation, if we examine the fabric close enough, we can see the threads of our own guilt. We carry the guilt of our own generation. What does that guilt look like? It looks like apathy. It looks like an oblivious existence of comfort. It looks like trees without diversity – and trust me – if you have no diversity in your tree, you are not searching hard enough, or you are choosing to prune away the uncomfortably branches. DNA is lighting up our trees with colorful leaves that we did not know of, or we chose not to see due to that heavy fabric we kept as a blindfold.
Guilt can only be overcome if we make a healthy and conscious effort to change things for the better. We do not have the power to change all of the wrongs in this world, nor in this country, but we have the power of our generation to examine our fabric and think about what makes us tick. What does our tree tell us? Beyond the research, as we are learning from science, even memories of our ancestors can influence the reactions and fears that drive our motivations today. If that is true – then what memories or beliefs influence us in ways that are not healthy for our society? As a prism scatters light, so can these memories and beliefs passed down through teaching or DNA be scattered and projected through our own lives. In many cases, we don’t realize how much we are influenced by the past generations – even those we have never met.
When I think back about my own childhood, and the things I witnessed from my grandparents and parents, I know that they shaped who I became. And as I learned more, educated myself about diverse cultures and groups – about the fabric of our society, I grew to a place of cultivation. I began ripping out the weeds of their teaching. The weeds or poison ivy of thought that they learned, and passed to me. Do not get me wrong, my grandparents and parents taught me wonderful things, and I admire each and every one of them. But humanity is flawed, and not everything we learn from the previous generation should be honored or allowed to flourish for another generation. It’s time to weed some of those things that make us hesitant to reach out and make things better.
So, why am I writing this to a genealogy audience? Because I firmly believe a huge portion of the power to change lies in our hands. The more the records and spit connect us, the more we can start acting like family. If a member of your family is mistreated, how quickly do you come to their defense, to help them achieve justice? Pretty darned quick. As we come to the realization that we are all family, and as we strive to share this concept with those who care nothing for genealogy, we lead them toward empathy, compassion, and reconciliation.
I am also increasingly disheartened by the low numbers of white folks attending programs or sessions presented on African American genealogy/history – and other non-anglo based classes for that matter. It is shameful how few attend these wonderful classes. Go ahead and tell yourself that you don’t attend because it doesn’t apply to your research or ancestry – go ahead – just try. Because that doesn’t wash! If your ancestors were here beyond one generation, let alone before the Civil War, your family was a part of that history. What if you can’t find a slave owner in your tree? Congratulations, but did your family benefit from the slave economy? Of course they did. That network/system was in place for generations, and your ancestors were a part of it, whether they actively traded in human flesh as a commodity or not. They chose a side in the War driven by slavery – do you really think their side of choice was simply due to geography? Of course not – the issues leading up to that war were numerous and important to most. The records used to research enslaved families involved white owner families – so take a positive step and attend more of these sessions! I guarantee you will learn something helpful about your own research, and are sure to learn more about how our families can connect on a deeper level!
As speakers and genealogy teachers, we are quick to promote context as a way of understanding our ancestors’ lives and their motivations for life choices. If we continue to preach context and fail to promote digging into African American historical subjects, we are choosing to foster an atmosphere of division. How arrogant are we that we ignore the historical subjects of diverse American groups because we have arrogantly, and erroneously, determined that they do not fit into our family tree?
What else can we do? Well, I’m a Goonie generation, and I continue to say “This is OUR time!” – I love seeing the weaving of new fabric out there among diverse groups in the genealogy world – but we have to increase this effort a thousand fold! It is NOT enough! The good of those who help share the names of the enslaved in blogs and trees are drowned out by those who choose to erase or ignore the names they encounter – simply because, while they will not accept the guilt, they display actions driven by shame. Which is also driven by a romanticized mythology that perpetuates the heinous lie of the perfect or unblemished family tree!
This is OUR time, folks. We can choose to be forces for good in our generational time here on this planet, or we can choose to spread the weeds of division passed down to us. Of all the traditions and sacred beliefs we share across time, from one generation to the next, please do not sacrifice the future of our country on the traditions born from hate and prejudice. Weed our gardens through love and familial restoration. We were handed this society by our ancestors, but it’s our choice how we shape it for the next generation.
 Tuttle, John W. John W. Tuttle Civil War Memoir. 1860-1867. (Kentucky Historical Society Archives, Frankfort KY, SC 406), pg. 1(2).
As a librarian, I almost thought this information irrelevant. I don’t need to know about an individual’s past nor the purpose behind their information seeking behavior. But then she explained further. Apparently, one of the real concerns they have in this type of facility is preventing any further crimes by the inmates. Either through their own hand, or through the hand of someone they know outside the prison walls. According to information she had about previous genealogical inquiries, she said there is a pattern of research via correspondence that can lead to contact with a living person which violates the inmate’s terms of incarceration. For instance, contact with previous victims, future potential victims, trial witnesses, judges, jury members, or even their own children who may be off limits. After all, she said, they have all the time in the world, and if they can research their way to a helpful cousin who can provide contact information, they will readily exercise the necessary patience for such an endeavor.
To elaborate, she outlined some things to watch out for:
- Be cautious when they are asking for you to research a descendant trail. Obviously, as genealogists, we usually seek ancestors in a backwards trajectory. For research requests that may have an ulterior motive, they may list a distant ancestor, give you the line they have worked, and are now asking for you to connect to a generation that quickly leads into the 20th century.
- For any request that asks you to connect to recent family or living people, do not respond. We already understand this to be a no-no in sharing our own trees, so this rule should also dictate our response to research requests.
- Don’t be lured into sympathy research via an adoption story. They rely heavily on the kindness of strangers, and understand the plea to discover one’s lost origins due to an adoption will likely garner needed information.
- Their goal may not be the final piece of information, but rather, for you to just fill in a piece of the puzzle, helping them to write to the next person, seeking the next level of connection.
- Just remember that some of them can be extremely charming and artful in their deception. Be very suspicious of eloquent flattery and detailed emotional pleas.
At the end of the day, the situation is very sad – and I personally feel that many requests we receive from behind prison walls are legitimate. With so much time to think, and perhaps when it’s too late do the research, many may want nothing more than to understand where they came from. Just be careful and use the above warning to evaluate your appropriate response.
As much as I hate to say this, it’s time we get smart and vet our memberships to Facebook Genealogy Groups. Just this morning I was scolded and publicly shamed in a very popular Facebook Genealogy group that contains over 16,000 members. My crime? Asking a poster (within a comment string) to consider sharing her state specific story with our state historical society publication – which happens to be a free educational resource for all – created and hosted by a government archival/artifact repository. Good grief!
The ironic point of this interaction, is that I always double check the group rules before posting or commenting – because every group can be VERY different. In this case, they only prohibited advertising services or products “for sell” [for sale]. As a non-profit, free educational resource, I was in no way soliciting anything that resulted in a profit – nor was I even advertising – it was a suggestion at the bottom of a very long comment string.
But here’s how they handled this situation. They removed my comment and then made a new post calling me out for this shameful behavior. Most group admins will take down a comment or post and quietly message the offender – unless this was a repeat offense, or a problem they keep having with many others. Nope. They instead chose to publicly rebuke my “offense” when in fact, I hadn’t violated anyone’s rules. The admin of the day stated that I should have known better, and continued to lecture that I was ignorant of standard “netiquette”.
Unfortunately, my apology and clarification that this was not in their rules (because, you know, I researched their own rules list) simply fanned the flames, and it was apparent that, just like Caesar, the offense was declared, judgement and punishment were handed out and no words of defence would be accepted. So let it be written, so let it be done! Sorry folks, that is an environment that is contrary to the world of kindness I know to be genealogy.
Many of you have witnessed this scenario before as well as become concerned over Facebook abuses in all forms reported in the news. In fact, several users have already left Facebook due to these reports. Over the years, I have embraced Facebook due to the engaging groups of collective advice and dialog. Many of the groups are wonderful! However, I have also witnessed conversations turn ugly in the blink of an eye. Facebook is a place where many people feel it’s OK to be hateful to one another, bully and insult one another, and demonstrate the very worst of humanity.
But let’s take a closer look at genealogy groups in particular.
The best genealogy groups are usually topic or location specific. Local genealogy groups by state or county are research/dialog rock stars! They provide invaluable insights to those of us who are out of town – a true “pay-it-forward” kindness in the form of “boots on the ground” volunteers. It is apparent that they love their community and want to share the historical/genealogical love. I have been the recipient of many acts of genealogy kindness from these research angels, which demonstrates the goodness and kindness of the genealogy community, and why Facebook is still a place to get some rock-solid advice and assistance.
The not so good:
The least helpful groups out there are usually too broad in focus to provide much more than cute memes and a burgoo of stories that might be fun, or might be silly, but do not provide much educational advice or meaningful dialog. Their topics are so various that following along becomes mentally exhausting, with little educational meat to show for your efforts. In worst case scenarios, the atmosphere turns toxic, with rampant criticism, insults, shaming, bullying, which often begins with or is encouraged by the behavior of the admins.
Lessons & Takeaways – please evaluate your membership in FB genealogy groups based on these helpful Tips:
- When you become a new member, take a really close look around before engaging with the other members. Read all group policies or rules FIRST before commenting OR posting ANYTHING! Also, be sure to read the comments below these rules – they can be very telling. In the group that bullied me this morning, there was a telltale comment from another victim that had simply posted a small story about a relative that had died, which included a link to the obit. As she was grieving, she didn’t notice the link included a Go Fund Me section for family assistance. She was apologetic, but it was clear from the conversation that the admins would not back down on their rebuke. As she was clearly sad after losing a loved one, this admin behavior was particularly mean spirited. Of course, I didn’t see this until I started poking around after my own rebuke.
- READ THE ‘ABOUT’ PAGE! This is vital to getting a feel for the intent behind those who created or admin the group! Unfortunately, once I began digging into the About section, I discovered an advertisement about their new magazine they created as an offshoot of the group. Which leads me to believe they were not upset that I broke an invisible rule – but rather upset that my comment pointed Kentucky researchers to a free educational publication. They clearly viewed my post as content competition, and hid their bullying behind tech shaming and absolutism.
- Go over the admin list, their genealogy backgrounds, and their past interactions among the group. I have been a FB group admin many times in the past, and I can tell you it’s a thankless job with many hours spent wrangling trolls and herding cats. But if the admins have no genealogical educational/professional background and they are truly hobbyists that do not help educate others, walk away quickly or their rule police will haul you away at any perceived infraction! Also a red flag: When they declare the group to be a “drama free zone” they’re not talking about themselves – just you! The admins can be as dramatic as they like, and you have no power against it – so again, leave quickly!
- Review previous conversations – is the group helpful, encouraging, educational, and welcoming – or are they simply opinionated without educational substance? Might I remind everyone that false trees and unsourced genealogy is the modern scourge of genealogy – if we don’t surround ourselves with educational groups, we don’t grow. And with the fictional trees that have flooded online databases, these types of groups can contribute to the problem with their proliferation of unsourced advice.
- Bye, Felicia! How many have seen this dismissal used within FB Group conversations? You will often see this used to dismiss anyone who chooses to disagree with the collective, or more importantly, the admins. The person who dares disagree, and voices their contradictory opinion is dismissed by the group as irrelevant – either just before they leave the group willingly, or are ejected. Make no mistake, this too is a form of bullying. It has become all too common among the hive mind of FB Groups. Whatever you do, do not upset the admins or the most powerful group participants! They surround the lone voice in order to silence it – rejoicing in their victory once the voice has been removed. Just like the Borg mind – Resistance is futile. The moral of this point in the story: once the group dislikes your contradictory stance, just leave. They aren’t worth your time – find a welcoming place that fosters a healthy collaborative environment. Oh, and just a reminder that healthy dialog includes diverse opinions.
- And as a supplemental point to the above, defending your actions or even trying to apologize will not be of any help. Admins who enjoy the power too much will not listen and would love nothing more than to vote you off the island, regardless of whether your words make common sense. I had one person remove a post in an abandoned historic structures group because it listed the address, which was against their rules – but the property was for sale! The realtor wanted the address publicized to drum up interest and save the property from ruin! Despite this reasonable exception, the admin loved their power more than saving a historic property, sending a clear signal that they would never listen to reason beyond their own, so I just quietly left the group.
I know this post will not be popular – as it reminds us that even roses have thorns – and ignoring their presence does not prevent us from getting stuck. It is high time we recognize the other heinous part of Facebook beyond the privacy breaches: the bullying and abuse of power to silence diverse thought. More importantly, when the genealogical community has a hard time being civil to one another in this environment, it’s time to reevaluate our participation! Life is too short and the research too long to treat others in this fashion. There are so many wonderful Facebook Genealogy Groups out there – but proceed with caution and BE SELECTIVE – be kind, and if they throw you to the wolves, dust yourself off and find a healthy, welcoming genealogy space.
Happy Researching, Y’all!
It is with great delight that I announce my return to RootsTech after a self-imposed hiatus! I was notified last week that one of my proposals was selected for 2019! To be honest, the RootsTech conference is a pricey one, and, even with speaker assistance, I cannot always afford the trek out west to the beautiful Salt Lake City. I am just a librarian, after all! However, each year, my geeky genealogy heart yearns for this kaleidoscope of tech wonderment! It had just been too long since attending, and so I threw my speaker hat back into the ring – luckily, they picked it up, once again!
There are so many reasons why this is my favorite genealogy conference, and I won’t get into all of them, but I will feature many as the conference draws closer. My relationship with RootsTech began with its inception in 2011. That year, my business partner was selected to present two tech sessions which planted the seeds of semantic web structures which we see in use throughout many of today’s family tree software products. After multiple brainstorming sessions with Family Search developers over dinner (at RootsTech, and previously at FGS in 2010), we could see the direction our future was about to take, and today, we all reap the benefits of that first year!
Of course, we could all see the writing on the wall: We had just witnessed the birth of something truly special – a genealogy conference unlike any other! I cannot begin to list all of the great memories of RootsTech over the years! After 2011, I was fortunate enough to attend a few more years, and speak at one. By that time, I was also speaking at the other national conferences, and really busy with my day job in Kentucky. I have been so thankful for the increase in online sessions provided each year – it keeps those of us at home connected to the energy of this wonderful conference!
I know I’ve just used a lot of exclamation points, and I’m sorry, I’ll calm down now….well, only a tiny bit. In 2019, my session will be: Past Forward: Tech Tools and Strategies for Sharing Your Family History Through a Consumable Genealogy Plan. This session will explore emerging communication methods and the technological tools that make these methods possible. We will then explore the concept of “Consumable Genealogy”: packaging your family history into brief nuggets of stories, photos, recipes, audio and video memories, that are perfect for sharing and preserving in family collaboration friendly environments.
As I said earlier, you will no doubt encounter additional RootsTech focused posts leading up to and after the 2019 conference. However, I specifically chose NOT to apply to the RootsTech Ambassador program. In the past, I have praised this conference, while pointing out little areas of improvement that I encountered along the way. As my blog will always be a “truth zone” based upon a foundation of honest analysis and advice, I don’t want to filter my thoughts or experiences. Here’s a link to my previous RootsTech posts over the years, back at Journeys Past.
Thanks for enduring my giddy gushing about RootsTech, y’all! Hope to see you there!
In 2007, the University of Kentucky Libraries developed a program designed to help staff become familiar with social media. It was determined – accurately – that our students were fast adopting a new level of communication that was going to become the new norm – and we had to adapt in order to communicate effectively in the fast approaching future. But as a whole, we were woefully behind in our ability to communicate via social mediatools. Through this program, we learned how to blog (various platforms), use Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Bitly, Linkedin, RSS Feed Readers, Link Aggregators, and for extra credit: Second Life. It was essentially a ‘play as you go’ structure – we were allowed about 2 weeks per tool for testing during work time. This allowed us the flexibility to learn how to use these tools while avoiding negative impact on our work duties. The balance was perfect, and I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun at work – it gave us new energy, fostered collaboration, inspiration, and built new friendships among the staff – several friendships and collaborations emerged across campus. A lot can be said for allowing adults the opportunity to play in creative ways. I know it was the best investment they could have ever made, and it worked like a charm.
Until they mentioned SL, I had never really heard anything about it – but upon their introduction, we learned that the University had already purchased an island and was developing the space for educational purposes. A replica of our library had already been built, complete with a reference desk for information and a meeting place for several groups, including other Kentucky librarians and educators from across the state. There were other departments on the island such as Fine Arts, Drug Endangered Children Network, Political Science, E-Learning, Admissions, Psychology, Medical, etc. It was a very nice sampling of educational projects, operating together on this virtual island.
- Toured art gallery openings and original art installations that can only be experienced in 3D worlds.
- Attended live theater and musical performances.
- Danced with Abraham Lincoln AND Henry VIII!
- Given instructional genealogy and library presentations (more on that in a second).
- Attended live performances of Shakespeare plays (while dressed as Queen Elizabeth I) held in a replica of the Globe Theatre.
- Participated in a group discussion with reference librarians from around the world.
- Toured ancient Egyptian and European Renaissance cities.
- Attended memorial services for both colleagues and celebrities – and fundraising events after national tragedies.
- Edited a virtual library magazine.
- Curated and constructed exhibits – about quilts, the horse racing industry, and now genealogy.
- Attended Church services, political rallies, book talks, poetry readings, writing workshops, and toured interstellar space stations.
- Formed friendships professional relationships that are on target to last a lifetime.
- Just Genealogy: A place developed by genealogy’s own Dear Myrtle (Clarise Beaumont in SL) as a meeting space and social/educational haven for all things genealogy. You will find various groups meeting here for small group discussions, presentations, social gatherings, or just dancing.
- Second Life Virtual Genealogical Society: Also meets at Just Genealogy, but is a real organization that requires yearly dues for membership and is a part of the FGS network of organizations. Dues are very small, about $5.00 per year – making you an FGS member! They also host a monthly NGSQ Study Group which provides deeper discussions of a previously assigned NGSQ article. (This year, the focus is on DNA related articles!)
- APG SL Chapter: A real APG chapter with officers, projects, and presentations. You have to be an APG member in Real Life (RL) to be an officer in this chapter, but the SL activities are open to everyone. They focus heavily on education through discussions and presentations. This chapter was the recipient of the APG Golden Chapter Award in 2012!
In late fall 2017, the University of Kentucky Island was deleted/erased from the metaverse, which really was a full 10 years of use – they purchased the island in 2007, building the first structures and developing infrastructure to open fully in early spring 2008. Such a sad day, but, I know for certain that it was not a rejection of the technology that killed the island – but rather, a series of financial events that created a perfect storm. When the island was born, there was a significant educational discount which most universities took advantage of – but just as the recession was hitting, and budgets were cut, SL removed or drastically reduced this educational discount – effectively ensuring that some of the first cuts to go, nationwide, would be virtual classrooms/realms. Most did not survive this double whammy, and as the collegial network shrank, so did the activity. The only things that appear to continue with gusto, are international educational groups. There are multiple professional conferences that take place in SL each year which draw hundreds of faculty members from around the globe.
One final note: It has truly been a unique, yet odd, experience. Prior to technology, the term “avatar” was related to spiritual activity, namely via Hinduism: “a manifestation of a deity or released soul in bodily form on earth; an incarnate divine teacher.” Somehow, this fits the modern evolution as well. It is truly surprising how the avatar becomes anextension of your RL persona through emotions and relationships and learning. And yet, while I view her as an extension of me in the professional world, after 10 years, it is odd to see that she does not age as I do. When I first created my avatar, I was in my mid-30s and much thinner, and she now reflects that previous appearance – her waistline did not expand as mine has over the years – nor is she forming wrinkles with time. In 20 years, will she still exist, as she does now, without aging, as I continue to grow older? I suspect she will as long as SL exists – but isn’t it ironic? As we age, we do not think of ourselves as older or old – we still view the world as a young person, despite how adulting may alter our attitude. As I said before, do not underestimate the value of creative play and learning – it keeps the noggin young – and as you get lost in the virtual realm of youth and limitless exploration, you can also advance your genealogy literacy skills!
See you “in-world”! (See below for a video about getting started!)
First word of caution with a tip: I would never have guessed in a million years that someone would try to remove or move one of the images that I had added – but sure enough, the shocking moment happened when I got the notification that someone had removed and moved a photo that I had uploaded to my ancestor! I went racing to the page, only to discover that everything was fine – when you get a notification that someone has changed something on your tree – DO NOT rush over and act in furry or haste! Be careful, and look closely at the changes, because FS notifies you for ANY changes to the ancestor profiles you choose to put on your watch list – which includes movements forward and backward.
To illustrate – back to the photo image switch – the person who had removed the image, only removed the attachment of the photo – attributing it to someone else. Sounds horrifying, no? But when I looked closely, the photo was repeated in the list of changes, among others that reversed some of the previous actions. Upon inspection, clearly someone was trying to attach a child, and remove a duplicate couple, and since that process has quite a learning curve, the person was trying to correct the slip that had been made when he/she detached or deleted the wrong person!
- It’s an open tree that people can see, use, and share with no membership needed. I can easily share this with my family, and not worry about what might be locked later if someone doesn’t pay a membership. (I’m talking about down the road – not current viewable Ancestry Trees.)
- As much as my family’s involvement might result in us getting mad over the changes – I’m confident the collaboration will be great in the end (because I KNOW they have some family info that I don’t – and their input will help build a more complete ancestor story) – plus, I think we all live far enough apart that murder will not be a viable option for dispute resolution – just a genealogy joke, folks!
- With the new tools that FS is implementing for story/memory collection – this could soon evolve into a very dynamic place for preserving and sharing the family story.
- One of the major draws for me is that easy integration with the FS documents – those sources get pulled in and attached with a few clicks, and it makes sourcing information like a video game – fun, serves the purpose, and doesn’t strain my eyes as I make sure there is a comma or period in the correct places – but I’m still careful to make sure it belongs to the right people – after all, a hint is not a given match.
- And BTW, I have played with WikiTree as an alternative, but the screen layout just never stuck with me – plus, the ease of connecting actual records in FS hooked me like a duck on a junebug.
- The family passes on the collection to another willing family member who will lovingly continue Matilda’s work, and care for the collection as we all envision.
- A willing family member volunteers to take the collection, in the hopes of continuing Matilda’s work, and it goes in a basement or attic until they retire and can devote sufficient time to its care. However, if this next family member dies before taking on the work, the collection will need to find another home.
- No one in the family wants this, but realizes its value and donates it to a non-profit organization of their choice: Library, historical society, local museum, genealogical society, etc.
- The family members in charge of Matilda’s estate have no clue about the value of her genealogical research and toss the many files of research into a dumpster! Oh, the horror!
- Begin to prioritize. Most genealogy organizational how-to articles will help you organize your research into color coded folders, binders, boxes, cabinets, etc. Forget that for now. Your prioritization should begin with the most important pieces of your family collection. If you walked into the office/closet during a natural disaster and had to pick one box to take with you, what would it be? If you can’t lay your hands on one to two boxes of original family material or research, you’ve already lost the estate battle.
- One way to reduce, as I mentioned earlier, is through citing your sources without keeping a photocopy of the original. I know that makes you nervous, but it’s the goal we should all be striving for in our research. Caveat: The copies I am referring to include items that can be easily pulled up via Family Search or Ancestry, Internet Archive, or Photocopies from other books that are readily available, etc. If you have a photocopy of a record that has never been digitized, and it took a trip to the courthouse to retrieve, by all means, keep that copy. The same goes with family group sheets and family Bible record copies from relatives – these are not things you can cite and find anywhere else (usually) – so retention is a must.
- Photo albums are their own beast: consider decreasing the amount by eliminating images taken of landscapes while on vacation, blurry images, and duplicate images – pick the best – eliminate the rest (of these photo categories).
- Ephemera – While I’m a big fan of ephemera, there should be a limit on what you keep. Travel brochures, postcards with little to no family info, restaurant napkins, matchbooks, receipts, canceled checks, should all be reduced or eliminated unless there is a great story or sentimentality to the item. If you do have a large ephemera collection tied to places over the years, consider pulling those out and donating to an appropriate institution on the collection’s own merit.
- Always separate publications away from your genealogy collection. Sure, they can be in the same area during your research years, but separate them out during the organizational process. Someday, these can be donated to local libraries, or discarded if there are multitudes of copies already out there – but don’t muddy your genealogy waters with outside, mass produced publications.
On a personal note, my grandmother died a few years ago – but due to the hoarding that went on in that household, unchecked for decades, it took the full 2 years allowed to settle the estate. Even after her house had sold, we were working through the last portion of her belongings that were stored off-site in an environmentally secure storage facility. Up until the very last hours, going through that last batch of family significant items, the sheer volume of “things” and lifelong remnants was mentally and physically exhausting.
- Once you have prioritized the most important sections of your collection, go through them with a fine toothed comb of analysis. Label all of the photos. Re-house the important documents and photos into archival safe folders and boxes (this is also a nice way to differentiate between the important and less important segments).
- For each box of documents related to a surname or family, write a research report that fits into the first folder – serving as a family introduction to what’s inside and where this collection fits into the family history. This is your opportunity to use the citations I mentioned earlier – but in smaller reports that do not seem as daunting. Include photos of heirlooms in the report to connect them in family context. You can keep these electronically active as you research, updating them periodically, and placing an updated version of the report in the file every year or 6 months depending on the research activity for that branch.
- Think about the odds of the entire collection surviving – and then explore ways of sharing copies of the history. The more copies that exist out there, the better the chance of connecting to future researchers: Making a photobook history through the many self publishers out there. These books come in slick professional looking products that your family will love to pass on as important keepsakes. Also, if you don’t plan on donating the entire collection to an organization, make copies of the research reports or photobooks you wrote and donate to local libraries and museums – this allows them to survive on file for researchers.
- Do you want to donate the collection you just put together? Consider getting advice from a local professional. Contact the museum/library of your choice and ask to consult with an archivist about your genealogy collection. They can advise you on best practices, and whether they would be interested in obtaining the collection – if you already know that they woudn’t be interested, or wouldn’t make a great fit, shop around for a place that does, and then consider estate planning to make the donation a legal agreement. Also, don’t be afraid to ask them about their collection space and future collecting policies – as well as staffing levels – as this affects processing time and the future access of your collection.
- But….you have a different scenario: your research is well sourced, not bulky, but stored neatly as a digital file on your PC or in the cloud. You’ve used a wonderful genealogy software that allows your files to be shared with multiple family members. That’s great! But what happens when the software you are using upgrades after you are gone – and the file can no longer be read – save as a gedcom? Perhaps. But since we cannot see the advanced technological environment coming along, it’s a safe bet to store your reports in multiple formats, including printed reports, and make sure you keep up with best practices of data migration.
I am NOT suggesting that you have to reduce your collection to one box or binder. In some cases, that is not possible – in others, that isn’t practical. However, when we archivists process collections, we are allowed to discard elements that do not fit the collection – categorized as “processing discards” = superfluous papers with duplicate information, blank sheets, commercial (widely published) brochures/publications, damaged elements, etc. Knowing this, you may be tempted to dismiss my entire post – after all, an archivist can process my collection as they see fit after I’m gone. Really? Do you really want the reduction filter to come through someone who does not know your family and related collection?
NO – you want to retain that power and prepare to donate a unique and useful research collection.
Question: One of our academic researchers was following the life of a single African American woman in the late 19th century. As she turned to City Directories to track residences over the years, she posed a question to us regarding the creation of these directories. She wanted to know who was included in these yearly guides. Obviously, not an entire household, but not always the head of household either. Was everyone included in a City Directory or did you have to pay to be listed? After all, these were valuable resources for advertising your business during that time.
What a great question! As many as I had used over the years, I really hadn’t closely examined the creation of these resources. The impression I had of City Directories came from the gaudy fonts and large advertisements speckled throughout each volume. I suspected that inclusion was fee based, but I didn’t know that for sure. I was just happy that they listed some of my ancestors (sometimes with spouse), their occupations, and addresses over the years. Little did I know about the process of gathering these names.
As I started digging for more information, I noted that most of our directories, regardless of year were produced by outside companies – not city, state, or federal government entities – nothing official – very much like today’s phone books.
Throughout the many decades of their publication, advertisements can be found each year in the local newspapers, announcing the availability of a new City Directory – obviously offering said directory for sale, or better yet, offering subscriptions to the yearly updates. The popularity of these directories also drove sales for large advertisements within them – a pretty lucrative endeavor for the publishers!
But then I stumbled upon an amazing article published in the Louisville Courier Journal in 1888: Looking for Names – The Experience of a Canvasser for the City Directory.
This long article detailed the yearly process: from hiring the canvassers, to the questions they ask, to the people they seek for information…despite the horrible prejudices exhibited in this article (many racially disturbing descriptions) we can learn a lot from the description of the canvassing process.
From this article we learn:
- Canvassers were hired to begin work in the fall of each year.
- Each large city required a canvassing force that was 25-30 men strong – a hard choice as the applicant numbers ran into the 250-300 range!
- Obviously, the ideal candidates possessed advanced reading and writing skills (according to the article).
- Instead of a large book of sheets like the census enumerator might have carried, the City Directory canvassers carried around strips of paper to gather the information on each person employed in any type of occupation. One strip of paper for each person.
- Everyone working an occupation was included in the City Directory – as long as they could be found and counted by a Canvasser. All occupations were sought, both legal and illegal, according to the article (“opium joints” and “gambling rooms”) – how they labeled illegal occupations is beyond me – but it makes me want to take a closer look at the types of occupations listed.
- Money was NOT a part of the inclusion process, unless a business owner decided to purchase a prominent advertisement (or large/bold font) in the Directory.
- Canvassing took place from around 7am to 6pm.
- Much like the census taking process, the city was divided into districts and assigned to individual Canvassers.
- If a Canvasser was good at his job, he might be employed throughout the year to assist with the production of the Directory, through the publishing process – but for the most part, canvassing work was grueling with low pay, resulting in heavy turnover each year.
- Sometimes, our ancestors did not want to be recorded – as it is noted in this article, those who were running from creditors, or the law, or involved in illegal activities might give an alias – just our research luck!
- Confusion was rampant throughout the canvassing process – heavy accents and ethnically diverse names meant misspelled or phonetically butchered entries. As large cities were immigration hubs, many of our immigrant ancestors might have been overlooked by the Canvasser – or they may be there – just be sure to look for any possible pronunciation.
- The African American community was represented in an anecdotal story that demonstrates the precarious relationship between anyone of authority and this population group. The Canvasser complained that they were perceived as government officials and, therefore, false or reverse names were given with each subsequent year. The example given was “Andrew Jackson” given one year and “Jackson Andrew” given the next year. It was even noted that they suspected it was a list being compiled for police use.
- The Canvassers also complained that many women were not included in the Directory because many believed women performing any occupation was a sign of low class status – resulting in a refusal to admit any occupation at all – regardless of the report of neighbors.
One of my favorite stories from this article came from a household of just women: a single mother/widow – who happened to be a business owner. The household was wealthy enough to employ servants – thereby creating a brief period of confusion. The woman’s young adult daughters were of no occupation, and spent their days at home attended by the servants. The Canvasser arrived and asked about the head of the household and her occupation/business, and then asked about other residents in the home – inquiring about their profession. After first denying their mother’s occupation, the young women thought the City Directory was something of importance at first, and pressed the man to include their names. When they realized that he kept focusing on occupations they became even more offended, declaring that they were NOT of any occupation! The Canvasser then focused on their servants to add to the Directory – which offended the girls even more – apparently, their mother was a large purchaser in the southern region, but the fact had been hidden from their neighbors and social circle as this was considered to be a low class activity. Due to his experience that day, the Canvasser changed his entry for the mother to list “purchasing agent” as a matter of revenge.
After reading this article and its portrayal of the difficulties of canvassing, I can safely say, count yourself fortunate if your ancestor was listed in a City Directory. But also, much like the tax lists, it’s important to look through many consistent years of Directories – simply because our ancestors were mobile, and maybe away visiting with family to miss the Canvasser – present five years, missing for two, and then back again. Plus, note if your ancestor was a day laborer, or first generation immigrant, or one of the many disenfranchised classes of the time. For all of these groups, they may have been excluded from the City Directories, or merely listed with altered names – just because the Directories are typed, doesn’t mean the errors are any less extreme than the errors we are used to seeing in the census records. Understanding the context of your family’s place in history, and their social/racial/cultural challenges can help with your research and analysis strategies!
Happy researching! Cheri Daniels, MSLS Your Genealogy Librarian