Saturday, November 28, 2015

Genealogy's Serendipity

Every so often a genealogical discovery is made that comes on the heels of some twist of fate that seems more than coincidental. It's as if some unseen force had a hand in the serendipitous find.

Several years ago, I connected with an elderly first cousin three times removed. Her grandfather, Francis Stephen Lamb, was my 3rd great-grandfather. 

Through persistent sleuth work, I found her address and mailed her a letter. Her response was music to my ears: "I have the answers to all of your questions." From snail mail, our correspondence evolved to email. We traded messages back and forth for several months. She didn't own a computer, but would respond each week while she was at her local family history center. We even spoke on the phone a couple times.

She had a wealth of knowledge about our shared family history. Like a sponge, I soaked up all the stories and information she would share.

She told me, sadly, that no photos existed of Francis. She had never seen one. I resigned myself to the fact that we would never know what he looked like.

Yesterday, on Thanksgiving, I learned from this cousin's daughter that she had died last year on Thanksgiving. 

I was saddened both to learn the news and to discover that I was unaware of her passing for an entire year. I searched online for her obituary. Turning to, a series of clicks through her family line brought me to Francis' memorial page. 

After the page loaded, I was very pleasantly surprised ecstatic to see a photo of Francis that had been uploaded by another user earlier this year. He had been photographed after all!

It felt serendipitous to discover the photo on the same day I learned of the passing of his granddaughter who believed no such picture existed. Perhaps she had a hand in directing me to the picture. 

This Thanksgiving, I'm thankful for distant cousins who share family history and hair-raising, serendipitous finds that bring you face-to-face with your ancestors.
Francis Stephen Lamb pictured with two of his children.
Photo used by permission.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Ancestral Strangers: Top 5 Unknown Photos

Genealogists count themselves fortunate when they have old family photos. The older the better!

Images play a tangible role in bringing family history to life. You can scrutinize for facial similarities, marvel at the fashion trends from decades ago, and imagine a personality based only on a glint in the eye. A picture tells a story in a way unlike any other component in genealogy's toolkit. Is it any wonder genealogists prize them so highly?

If we're fortunate, all of our photos are labeled and we know the identities of those captured on film. Unfortunately, that's rarely the case. My collection - like many, I'm sure - includes dozens of pictures that were never labeled. I'm afraid the identities may be lost to time unless a distant cousin comes forward with answers.

I've had great success using this blog and other social media to connect with distant cousins and collaboratively identify some previously unknown pictured individuals. Remember when I identified the photo of my 4th great-grandfather George Chalkley Haworth?

Among my unknown photos, I have a small handful that I prize above the others and hope to identify. Perhaps they're my direct ancestors waiting for me to uncover the clue that will give them back their name and a spot on the family tree.

Without further ado, I share with you my Top 5 Unknown Photos:

Number One: 
This is my favorite unknown photo. It's a tintype and the woman's stern gaze pulls me in with her serious no-nonsense demeanor. She was in a family photo album that belonged to a maternal great-grandmother.

I speculate the photo dates to the 1870s based on the woman's approximate age, her fashion, and that it's a tintype. Working with this timeline, I wonder if she may be one of my 4th great-grandmothers. Is she Mary Ann (Miser) Benedick who lived in Plainville, Kansas until her death at 92 years of age in 1901? Or is it Sophronia (Rogers) Dornon who died at the age of 57 in 1872? Or maybe it's someone altogether different; perhaps just a friendly neighbor always willing to loan a cup of sugar. Hopefully a cousin is out there with a labeled copy and the answer. 

    Number Two: 
    The second photo was in the same album as the woman ranked number one above. In fact, it's the only other tintype in the album and sits opposite her photo. Surely they must be from the same family line, right?

    It looks to me like it could be from the 1860s or 1870s. Are they sons of the woman pictured above? The man on the left appears similar to my 3rd great-grandfather Albert Benedick who was born in 1849. If he was pictured, it would lend credence to the photo above being Mary Ann (Miser) Benedick.

    Number Three: 
    The third photo belongs to an album on my mother's paternal line. It's a cabinet card and dates to - I would guess - the 1890s or the early 20th century. Take note of the photographer's imprint and location in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

    I wonder if it's one of my 3rd great-grandmothers on this line. Could it be Samantha Pauline (Brickey) Winkler Lee who was born in 1857 and died in 1899? She lived alternately in Arkansas and Missouri (where she was buried). In 1891 she married James Russell Lee in Fayetteville. Or could it be Mary Jane (Calfee) Wagnon who was born in 1841 and died in 1914? She lived most of her life just outside of Fayetteville in Washington County, Arkansas.

    Number Four: 
    The fourth photo also belongs to an album on my mother's paternal line. Unlike the picture above, though, it's a tintype. I think it dates to the 1870s. The man's gaze is hard and direct. His right eye looks like a cat's. I think a minor bend in the tin warped the image and created the spooky look (or is it possible that he suffered from a real ailment?).

    He could be any number of great-grandfathers on this line. Perhaps it's John W. Upton who was born in 1828 and died in 1899. Or it could be John Wagnon who lived from 1841 to 1923. Or maybe it's Samuel Winkler who lived from 1831 to sometime after 1900.

    Number Five: 
    The last photo depicts a young woman wearing a Salvation Army uniform (an important clue, I'm sure). The photographer's stamp indicates the picture was taken in Decatur, Illinois.

    There's a strong similarity to my Dornon family line. I believe the woman may be Lucinda E. Sophronia Dornon who lived from 1854 to sometime before 1910. Lucinda lived for a short time in Decatur, Illinois in the 1890s following the untimely death of her first husband Sylvester Scannel.

    I've puzzled over these photos for countless minutes. I've spent so much time thinking about who they could be that I've started to imagine which of my ancestors they may be.

    Of course, I would love for them to be my forbearers, but I concede it could all be wishful thinking. That's the curse challenge of inheriting unlabeled family photos. Let this serve as an impetus this Thanksgiving holiday to share your unknown photos with family, pick your elders' brains, and properly label them before it's too late.

    Sunday, November 8, 2015

    Pedigree Collapse Pruned My Family Tree

    Marching back ten generations, you would expect to find that you have 512 seventh great-grandparents. 

    You know how this works. It's a math thing. There's you, then your two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on until you reach the tenth generation. The numbers game dictates that there should be 512 individuals who played their part in parenting the child who would become one of your 256 sixth great-grandparents.

    Great-Grandma Nevella
    Great-Grandma's Well-Documented Gnarled Tree
    When I hit a brick wall researching my family, I like to revisit my great-grandmother Nevella's family line. It's well-documented and goes back for generations. She did such a lovely job passing along family history. It's an encouragement to see the names and dates meticulously kept.

    So imagine my surprise - as I was reveling in her well-documented family line - to discover that two of my sixth great-grandparents were siblings, and that their children - my fifth great-grandparents - married each other. Yes, my fourth great-grandfather Jerome Andrus was the child of first cousins whose fathers were brothers. Did you follow all of that?

    The shock didn't end with great-grandma Nevella's Andrus line. Her tree included another set of fifth great-grandparents who were married first cousins.

    Do you have your scratch pad ready? My fourth great-grandmother Sophronia (Rogers) Dornon was the daughter of first cousins Francis Rogers and Abigail Gould. Abigail's mother was sister to Francis' father. Abigail and Francis shared a set of grandparents: William and Judith (Downing) Rogers.
    My genealogy to-do list just got a little easier. Of the 512 seventh great-grandparent slots in my family tree, four people fill the role of eight. That's four fewer people I have to research and find. The genealogist in me is a bit relieved (now if I could just calm the hypochondriac in me who's on edge about the genetic abnormalities lurking in the DNA...).

    A Wrench in our Ancestral Exponential Growth
    It really shouldn't come as a surprise that pedigree collapse pruned my family tree. Population statisticians are quick to point out the dilemma with genealogy's math game - the numbers simply aren't there. 

    Sure, in theory, the further you climb back into your family tree the more people you would expect to find. But mankind's population shrinks as you go back in time, which throws a wrench in our ancestry's exponential growth. Close marriages were a result - and necessity - of this smaller population. (If you haven't already, be sure to check out Tim Urban's brilliant blog Your Family: Past, Present, and Future for some serious mind-blowing number crunching.)

    There are legitimate reasons for close marriages throughout history. For centuries, technology precluded humans from moving great distances. There were no airplanes, trains, or cars. Movement was limited, so many societies lived in tight knit communities. Marriage within those communities was bound to cross family lines. In fact, Robin Fox, a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, is on the record approximating that "80 percent of all marriages in history have been between second cousins or closer."

    Kissing Cousins 
    The dynamics of society only a few generations ago left few options: families would eventually intermarry (and put a whole new spin on the term kissing cousins!). 

    This eyebrow-raising reality (by today's moral standards) will save me precious research time. I'm thankful for that! Is it so wrong to root for pedigree collapse? I suppose as long as I don't come out of it suffering like Spain's King Charles II whose physical, mental, and emotional ailments have been attributed to the fact that only 32 people filled his 64 fourth great-grandparent slots. Yikes! I suppose there is a tipping point. 

    In the meantime, I wish all of us time-strapped genealogists a genetically tasteful and well-balanced dose of pedigree collapse.

    Saturday, October 31, 2015

    Where My Ancestors Walked

    "We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls." - Ana├»s Nin

    Sometime between 1880 and 1883, a young farmer left his Italian hometown of Potenza. Giuseppe Ruoti joined the thousands of Italians emigrating to the United States. He left behind everything he knew and everyone. He spoke no English and had little money to his name.  

    In February 1890, Maria Filomena La Rocca arrived at New York City's Castle Garden. Just shy of her 15th birthday, Maria also left behind her family and Potenza's familiarity. She spoke no English, and could not read or write.

    Less than a month later, Maria was in Denver and married to Giuseppe. Over the course of their nearly 30-year marriage, my 2nd great-grandparents had eleven children and built a new life for themselves in America.

    Where My Ancestors Walked
    After discovering that Maria and Giuseppe were from Potenza, I added it to the itinerary for my already-planned Italian vacation. I had to see their hometown. I wanted to walk in my ancestors' steps.

    Potenza is the capital city of the comune (province) of Potenza and the larger Basilicata region in the south of Italy. The town's historic roots are situated on a hilltop that is now surrounded by sprawling growth below. Nestled in the Apennine Mountains, the air is crisp and the horizon peppered with green peaks and hills.

    As my train from Naples snaked its way through the Apennines, I was struck by the rugged mountain scenery and lush valleys. Colorado must have reminded Giuseppe and Maria of their homeland. What a comfort it must have been.

    As the train pulled into Potenza Centrale station, I was able to see the magnitude of growth. The town was now a full-fledged city with dozens of apartment buildings clustered at the base of the hill. My short visit was focused on the historic core, so I got into a taxi. 

    The driver was a woman who was excited to have an American in her car. As she sped up the winding hilltop road, she chatted happily - in Italian. It was clear to me that Potenza was off the tourist beaten path and English was not as prevalent. 

    Take Me To Church
    The car made sharp turns down narrow alleyways that were built, I imagined, before the invention of the automobile. We stopped outside of a squat stone church. My driver jumped out of the car and opened my door. She eagerly handed me her business card. "Donna Taxi" was her company's name (literally Woman Taxi). 

    As she pulled away, I walked up to the church. A light drizzle had started. 

    In May 1864, Giuseppe was baptized inside Chiesa di San Michele. The Normanesque building's origins date to the 12th century. It's very likely this building hosted baptisms, marriages, and funerals for generations of my Italian ancestors.

    Chiesa di San Michele - Potenza, Italy

    Stepping inside, I passed an elderly gentleman pulling on his raincoat. He eyed me and nodded his head. The dark interior of the church was cut by light pouring in through a narrow window above the altar. I sat in a pew and eyed the church.

    Walking up to the altar, I placed a coin in the donation box and lit a candle. A statue of Saint Michael the Archangel kept a close eye on me with his sword raised ominously overhead. 

    Chiesa di San Michele altar - Potenza, Italy

    I found a small baptismal font. Was this font used for Giuseppe's baptism over 150 years ago? Quite possibly. I was struck by the church's simplicity. There were no ornate Baroque garnishes in the church. The stone and lighting made it feel cozy as though I were at home.

    Chiesa di San Michele baptismal font

    A side aisle had a bulletin board with flyers advertising upcoming church events. I tacked a photo of Giuseppe and Maria to the board. Like a good genealogist, I wrote on the back of the picture, providing their names, that they were born in Potenza, and my name and contact information. I also noted that they lived and died in Denver, which, I later learned, is a Sister City with Potenza. Perhaps I'll hear from a distant cousin. 

    Giuseppe and Maria (La Rocca) Ruoti

    It's difficult to describe what it's like to walk the streets where your ancestors lived. Perhaps more profound is the awe-inspiring experience of standing inside a sacred place where the most intimate moments of their lives were celebrated. 

    Maria left 125 years ago and joined Giuseppe in search of a new state and opportunities. I returned seeking a greater understanding of them and the souls that came before. Back outside the church, the drizzle had stopped and the sun's rays began piercing the clouds. It certainly didn't feel like I was alone on this journey. 

    Sunday, September 27, 2015

    Italian Family History Road Trip Countdown

    The clock is counting down. This time next week I'll be in Italy. 

    No, I haven't started to pack. I'm too busy with my last-minute Italian genealogy research.

    Yes, there will be plenty of time for Mediterranean beaches, Tuscan hill towns, and countless museums to past civilizations. But there will also be a bit of family history.

    I cannot wait! Well, I sort of can. You see, I've been fighting a race against the clock to identify key genealogical information that will make the family history portion of the trip more rewarding.

    Who's Who?
    Giuseppe and Maria (La Rocca) Ruoti - born in Potenza, Italy
    My great-grandmother's parents, Giuseppe and Maria (La Rocca) Ruoti, were both born in the comune of Potenza in southern Italy. 

    Could I locate their birth records and identify the church where they were baptized? 

    What about their parents? Could I identify the church in which my 3rd great-grandparents were married?

    How cool would it be to step foot in the same church where my family history was made?

    My challenge: would the documents exist to help me identify these locations? With less than a week before I depart, would I be able to gain access to these materials?

    I turned to, my go-to database for Italian records. Happily, they had Civil Registrations online for births, marriages, and deaths covering the years 1866-1910. 

    Those records yielded Maria La Rocca's birth record (born in 1875) and death records for both of her parents. Unfortunately, this set of civil registrations didn't mention baptism or funeral locations. There were no clues to which churches hosted these solemn events, and there was no birth record in this database for Giueseppe who was born in 1864.

    Another FamilySearch database caught my eye. Potenza Civil Registrations from the State Archives covering the years 1697-1923. Did you say 17th century records? Yes, please!

    I clicked on the link and watched as the page loaded my worst nightmare. The clock continued to tick.

    My heart sank. I'd come to the end of the research road within the comfort of my home. I would have to venture out (or, I suspect, convert to Mormonism). The hyperlink pointed me to the family history center in Washington, DC: the Daughters of the American Revolution.

    I cleared my Saturday schedule to make way for hours of Italian genealogy research (does DAR allow Chianti in the research room, I wondered?). 

    When I arrived at their computer labs, I was quickly disappointed to discover that their logins do not satisfy the family history center criteria necessary to gain access to Potenza's records. My heart sank, again. 

    Access to the records remained just out of reach. The records were taunting me!

    Where There's A Will...
    Back at home, as I nursed my disappointment, it occurred to me that perhaps the records were digitized and available to Italians on an Italian website. 

    A press release announcing FamilySearch's efforts to digitize millions of Italian records pointed me to the website for Italy's National Archives. I was elated (and relieved). Records could be viewed online for free. Now. At home. Grazie mille!

    Back in full research mode, I started trawling through the records - glorious in all of their black and white imagery. Within an hour, I located the birth and baptism record for Giuseppe Ruoti. 

    My Italian family history road trip now has a site of interest. Giuseppe was baptized in Potenza's historic chiesa San Michele, which dates back to the 12th century.

    Now I'm ready for Italy. The clock can continue its countdown. Ciao!

    Friday, September 18, 2015

    Probate Shines Light on Family History's recent release of millions of U.S. probate records has been a boon for my family history research.

    As I prepare for an upcoming trip to Italy, I wondered what the records could tell me about my Italian ancestors who settled in Colorado. I'm eager to learn as much as I can about my 2nd great-grandparents Giuseppe and Maria Rosina (La Rocca) Ruoti.

    I plan to spend an afternoon wandering the streets of their hometown of Potenza. Perhaps, if I can learn the locations, I'll even be able to step inside the churches where they were baptized and prayed before sailing for America in the late 19th century.

    Trawling through the records, I found the probate file for Joseph Ruota who died in Denver on August 16, 1918.

    Joseph's probate record shines a light on his financial status in America, but also illustrates the challenges his widow was left to confront.

    What's In A Name?
    An initial challenge I frequently run into when researching my Italian ancestors who emigrated to America is pinpointing their names. Due to Anglicization, they can be difficult to identify.

    Giuseppe's probate record, for example, highlights his common name discrepancies. Parts of the probate package list his surname as Ruota, but elsewhere it's spelled as Ruote or Route. Route is the iteration that was engraved on his headstone. All are different from the Italian Ruoti with which he was born, but you can certainly see the phonetic resemblance.

    Joseph and Rosa Route grave (photo by author)
    A Family Copes With Death
    Aside from affirming the many spelling iterations of his surname, Joseph's probate record confirms his death date and that he was born in Italy. It also tells me that he was a man of modest means.

    At the time of his death, we learn that he had little to no cash. In fact, the records state simply that he had no estate. His net worth was locked up entirely in his home, which was valued at $2,500. Accounting for inflation, that's equivalent to approximately $42,000 in 2015.

    His widow, Maria Rosa Filomena (La Rocca) Route or Rosina, petitioned the court to sell the home. She desperately needed the money, so she could have financial means to provide for herself and her remaining dependents. It's heartbreaking to imagine the anguish she may have felt at the loss of her companion while also wondering how she would provide for herself and children.

    With a couple check marks, the 1920 census tells me that Rosina was unable to read or write. Joseph's 1918 probate record demonstrates her illiteracy in a more moving fashion. Newly widowed, Rosina had to make a mark where her signature was required on legal documents. It's one thing to see that in a census, but an entirely different experience to see the reality of it in her own hand.

    Maria Rosina (La Rocca) Route makes her mark

    In the 1910 census, Joseph was listed as able to read and write. He must have taken the responsibility of signing the family's legal documents. Now, after his death, all of that responsibility was on Rosina's shoulders. Her inability to write was in the public domain. What was that experience like for her?

    A Family's Legacy
    Census records are fantastic at helping to piece together families. Of course, it can be difficult once children begin moving away or daughters marry and assume new surnames. The probate record made that effort much easier.

    In outlining each of his heirs, Joseph's probate record provides their addresses and married names for his daughters. As I continue to search for Ruoti, Ruota, Ruote, or Route cousins, this information provides helpful leads.

    Joseph Route's heirs

    Joseph's newly digitized probate record has brought his family back to light and, in a sense, to life. It's another example of the value these records hold for family historians, and reinforces the ever-expanding reach of genealogy as more archives open to digitization.

    Friday, September 4, 2015

    Probate Record Lays Breadcrumb Trail

    In December 2014, my research into Burr Zelah Dornon's death expanded to include all of his children. Perhaps the collateral ancestors would shed light on his passing and burial.

    As I snooped into Burr's descendants, I discovered that his daughter Lucinda copied a page out of his book and also disappeared from history (see Lost Lucinda: Like Father Like Daughter).

    The last year of Lucinda's documented life unfolds as follows:

    • She marries Levi A. Stanley on June 11, 1899 in Gove County, Kansas. This was Lucinda's second marriage following the death of her first husband Sylvester Scannel in a Kansas prairie fire in March 1893.
    • On November 24, 1899, she and husband Levi make the society pages of the local newspaper in Plainville, Kansas. The gossipy piece tells us that the Stanleys are in town from Oklahoma visiting Levi's daughter from a previous marriage.
    • On February 9, 1900, they appear again in the society pages of the Plainville newspaper. Mr. Stanley's daughter hosts them for dinner before Levi and Lucinda return to their home in Oklahoma. 

    • On June 12, 1900, the Stanleys are enumerated in Stella Township, Woods County, Oklahoma Territory. 

    1900 U.S. Federal Census: Woods County, Oklahoma

    After this census, I couldn't find records for Levi or Lucinda. At least not until released probate records this week for Oklahoma.

    Probate Record Provides Hint
    A search for the Stanley surname turned up a series of documents for Levi in neighboring Alfalfa County. On December 14, 1916, a guardianship case was brought before the county judge by a group calling themselves the "Committee of Friends Church Cherokee." 

    In their guardianship filing, they make the case that Levi Stanley is not physically able to care for himself.
    "Levi Stanley lives alone, and is old and bed-fast, and has no one to care for him. That owing to his physical condition he is unable to care for himself or to manage his business." 
    The guardianship case quickly fizzles and gives way to probate proceedings when Levi Stanley dies two days later on December 16, 1916.

    Throughout his lengthy probate record, I saw no mention of Lucinda. Did she pre-decease him?

    Documents from Levi's probate file hint at where he was buried, and may also provide clues to Lucinda's final whereabouts. In the settling of Levi's estate two invoices are submitted for payment including a bill for his grave and burial ($21), and his casket and funeral expenses ($122.50).

    Invoices for Levi Stanley's Grave, Burial and Casket, Funeral

    The final reconciliation of his estate's expenses includes a $21 line item to M.W.A. Cemetery. What was M.W.A.? 

    There was no obvious match in my precursory review of Alfalfa County cemeteries. A quick Google search turned up a RootsWeb message board where one user identified the cemetery as the Modern Woodmen of America Cemetery. Another user indicated that the cemetery's name was changed to Cherokee Municipal Cemetery.

    $21 Payment to M.W.A Cemetery

    Cherokee Municipal Cemetery is on FindAGrave, but there was no existing memorial page for Levi Stanley. Perhaps there was no page because Levi's grave is unmarked. The probate file's many invoices never indicated that a headstone was purchased. 

    Regardless, the probate records suggest that Levi Stanley was buried in the cemetery. I've created a FindAGrave page to mark his likely burial location.

    If Lucinda did in fact pre-decease Levi, can I infer that he was buried beside his wife? That's my working theory thanks to the breadcrumb trail left by Levi's probate record.

    My next step is to reach out to Alfalfa County to see if there are existent cemetery records that confirm Lucinda's burial. To be continued.