May 5th, 2011

Hitting the Genealogy Jackpot: How I Learned My Family’s “Personality”

familyrootsI’ve scoured all sorts of records – and, eureka! I’ve found ancestor names, birthdates, occupations… Okay, cool. Good job, Leah. But now what? It’s like winning $20 in a scratch-off lottery ticket: a little unexpected but not far-fetched, and really exciting for as long as the money lasts. But I’m not playing the genealogy lotto for a short-stack of green bills. I want a giant, unwieldy check delivered to my home with balloons and TV cameras; gimme the GOOD stuff:  Who were these people? What were their lives like? What were their values?

Figuring this stuff out is not nearly as hard as it sounds. It just takes a little extra research, a curious mind, and an ability to read between the lines. (Visits to the library help, too.) Here’s my family story:

Grace, my g-g-grandmother, came from a well-to-do Missouri family. Her father was a doctor, served the Union as a surgeon, owned land in multiple states, and was a literal millionaire. Grace married my g-g-grandfather, a telegraph operator. At the turn of the century, the two of them, with their five children, lived in a small Illinois town.

Despite the level of skill and expertise required to be a telegraph operator, the job didn’t pay well. In rural areas, telegraph operators often worked in conjunction with the railroads. (It’s no surprise that most of their neighbors worked for the railroad.) At that time, the railroad line was owned by St. Louis, Indianapolis and Eastern Railroad Company – operating at a deficit. I’d say that that money well was pretty, well, dry.

Supporting a family of seven on a small salary is no easy task. Grace was a housewife, three children were in school, and their youngest son was only 5. But their oldest son, my g-grandfather Earl, was 18 and employed as a stenographer. I don’t think it’s a big leap to assume that Earl was probably helping his dad support the family.

Fast forward. Earl is a father, and the strong work ethic demonstrated in his youth has served him well. Really well. He’s a businessman, has his own company. He’s giving his daughter (my Nana) the kind of life Grace had growing up.

But like Grace, Nana marries a talented man of humble means. And taking care of a family of six is no easy task. But her son, my father, is like his grandfather Earl, stepping up to the plate as an 18-year-old, helping to get those bills paid.

My family is no longer a list of names, birthdates, and occupations. They’ve become real people with real struggles and real strength of character. I come from a line of hard workers, and women who married for love.

Want to give your family the personality test? Come to the library and let us help you find books and articles that bring your ancestor’s story to life, answering questions like: Why would my ancestor emigrate from Ireland in the 1840s? How much money would a shoemaker from Philadelphia make in 1875? Why did my grandfather apply for the WWII draft as a foreign-born 45-year-old?

Attend our ongoing genealogy and local history programs, find census records through Heritage Quest, check out some genealogy books, research your family in context in our history and local history collections, or consult a librarian.

Are you ready to hit the genealogy jackpot?


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December 23rd, 2010

True or False: Your Family’s Epic Stories

nanaMy Nana was a woman of integrity, but some of her family tales seemed so tall that the line between “this is unbelievable” and “this is so unbelievable it must be true” was a blur. Although I’m hardwired to trust family anecdotes, I’m a researcher by trade, and I just can’t help myself: I need to dig for evidence. Armed with a library card, family documents, and a spirit of discovery, I’m setting out to prove (or debunk) Nana’s most crowd-pleasing claims.

Story #1: Nana invented the Pillsbury Doughboy – just not for Pillsbury.
Preliminary Findings: I started my search with our Magazines database and discovered that the Chicago-based Leo Burnett Company is credited with the first generation Doughboy. Nana was educated at the famous Art Institute of Chicago, and I have seen a restaurant menu she drew.  My great-grandfather owned a Chicago-based jam company (a census found on Heritage Quest, while mostly illegible, lists him as “Vice President” as of that year). While that doesn’t prove she invented the Doughboy, it at least establishes that she was an artist in Chicago during the time-period, and a doughboy sketch for a jam company is not far-fetched. Nana said that her version and the Pillsbury version were nearly identical.

Story #2: Nana went on a date with Al Capone’s nephew.
Preliminary Findings: According to Capone: The Man and the Era, ole Scarface had five nephews. Four are sons of “Two-Gun” Hart, Capone’s estranged brother who, ironically, made a life for himself in Nebraska as a Prohibition Officer. So far I haven’t been able to connect his boys with Chicago. That leaves Ralph “Risky” Capone, Jr.  He was the right age for her, their childhood homes were less than 10 minutes apart, and, of course, she was quite the catch. Nana said that the man she dated tragically ended his life. Library materials show that “Risky” Ralph, ashamed of the family name, committed suicide after his father, Ralph “Bottles” Capone, testified in front of Senator Kefauver’s special committee on organized crime. Sounds like a match.

Story #3: We are descended from Mary, Queen of Scots.
Preliminary Findings: This is tricky and likely will take me years to do the research required to trace my line back to the 16th century. Mary was arguably the most famous ruler in Scotland’s history, cousin to Queen Elizabeth I of England. Although it sounds far-fetched, it’s certainly possible; my Nana was a Stewart, and Mary was of the Stewart line (also seen in its French spelling, Stuart).

With persistence and access to the right resources, I might be able to find the definite answers to these riddles. Interested in doing some of your own sleuthing? Check out some of our great genealogy books, poke around Heritage Quest, visit the local history section of the Elkton Central Library, or visit our friends at the Cecil County Historical Society on Main Street in Elkton.

What are your family’s interesting stories?


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