Friday, March 9, 2007

Coming Forward To Go Back

Hey Everybody!
I've never met a genealogist yet, who has not encountered at least one brick wall on their family tree. In fact, if you're an ordinary genealogist like me, you probably have several. Brick walls are caused by all sorts of things like courthouse fires, ancestors being born too early to appear in the 1850 census with their parents. (I really hate that one.) Or even a traveling preacher who, on his way back to the courthouse, fell into a river and lost all of the records of marriages he'd just performed.
At any rate, I have at least four or five brick walls that I can think of right now, but one in particular was fairly interesting because of the way it was solved.
I have ancestor who was born in the late 1790's in North Carolina, near where Chimney Rock is. Absolutely gorgeous country. Anyway, I can find no record of her marriage to her husband, who, evidently owned a fairly large farm in the area. Around 1832 they moved west and settled in Illinois where they had the rest of their children. She then died in the 1850's. Her husband then re-married. So, all I managed to learn in the beginning was the approximate date of her birth and the fact that it was in North Carolina, and her first name, based off of the 1850 census. That was it, my one and only record of her, except for the slash mark that she represents in the 1830 and 1840 censuses, is the 1850 Census. She died before her husband, which meant that his will speaks of his second wife, not his first, he's buried with the second wife, not the first, and her younger children have no clear recollection of her. I checked land records to see if her name appears with her husband, and it doesn't, and I rechecked the marriage records for North Carolina for every county and there is no marriage record! It probably floated down river!
I headed to Illinois and walked through every cemetery I could find in the entire county and not only did I not find her burial record or tombstone, but I couldn't find one for her husband and the second wife, either. Eventually, several years later, some brave soul compiled all of the cemetery record for that county on-line. Apparently, there were numerous cemeteries that were considerably off the beaten path, that I hadn't found and low and behold, there she was in the records! Buried by herself. I thought this was an extremely lucky discovery, since tombstones from the 1850's, especially off in the woods, are quite difficult to find or read! But there she was, proof that the woman did exist, with her date of death and a date of birth, but still no maiden name. But, at least she was there!
So, next came the obvious. I started checking all of the death records for her children. Sometimes you get lucky and the "informant" on the death record actually knows the names of the deceased's parents. (It is important to remember though, that if the daughter or son or even grandchild of the deceased is the informant on the death record, a good percentage of the time you will get wrong information. Because the offspring doesn't always know the full correct name of their grandparents. I saw one death record that had the deceased's mother listed simply as: Mama. Sometimes you just get initials! And a lot of times you only get the first name of the mother or her married name. You don't always get the maiden name of the mother from a death record. When the full maiden name of the female ancestor from a death record does appear, you can usually hear me give a big victory cry and then a little dance to go with it.)
Tracking down her children was not so easy, aside from the one I was descended from. Girls get married and die under new names. At the turn of the twentieth century people were to still scattering, so many of her children had moved west or died before the mandatory death certificate date. A few of them that I did manage to track down, however, listed my ancestor's married name, which I already knew, or not at all on their death records.
The thing that FINALLY solved the question of the maiden name of this ancestor was an obituary. Not hers, but her son's. Nearly seventy or eighty years after she had died, her son passed on as well, and his third wife (sing her praises) not only knew the full name of his mother, the woman she'd never met, but thought to list it in her husband's obituary! (I had not been able to find his death record because I had no idea where or when he'd died. The obituary had been "compiled" from newspapers on-line and all it took to find it was to type in his name!)
It's funny how when you learn the maiden name of one of your female ancestors how they suddenly become more real to you (at least they do to me) because a surname can tell you a lot about them. If you discover your ancestors maiden name was MacLeod, then you know they probably came from Scotland. That tells you so much, right there. Or Chappuis (French), or Feinstein (Jewish) or Grumbacher (German) and on and on. When you learn the maiden name of your ancestor it's almost like a watercolor in your mind takes shape, and you can "see" her more clearly and get a feel for what she brought to the marriage. It's also funny how once you discover the maiden name, suddenly you start remembering how you've seen that name before, in conjunction with that family. Maybe they were neighbors, or attended the same church.
At any rate when people tell me that they've come to grinding halt on a particular ancestor, I remember this adventure and I suggest to them, "Have you tried coming forward?" A lot of times they already have, but sometimes they get this odd expression on their face and I say, "Try coming forward with your research to go back." You might get rewarded with a maiden name!
Hope everybody has a great week!
Rett MacPherson

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