Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Brick walls

Anyone who does enough genealogy will inevitably hit a brick wall. All the easy research has been done, even some where you had to dig a little deeper, and suddenly, your family line just disappears and seemingly ends. Obviously, they didn't. Everybody comes from somebody before them, but if there are no records going further back, then your brick wall might as well have just spontaneously come to life. In many cases (at least on my family tree), the brick wall seems to be the immigrant ancestor. You can find them on all the census forms. You can find them on a ship passenger manifest. But now you have to rely on foreign vital records for research, some of which might be in a language you don't understand, some of which might not exist at all. Irish genealogy seems to be the hardest for me, even though it's also the most recent.

Now, my Raynor side has been in America for so long that on some branches I hit brick walls way before the immigrant ancestor. One that is particularly frustrating is Jacob Raynor, my 5th great-grandfather. Jacob is the common ancestor that brought cousin April E. into my life, as she is probably even more frustrated than I am by this common brick wall of ours (and so I'm hoping her diligence in researching him will be very helpful!)

Various Raynor genealogists have listed this Jacob, husband of Rebecca Raynor, as one of two people - Jacob, son of Daniel, born 1771 or Jacob, son of Joseph, born 1754. Daniel Raynor moved upstate, and based on her research, April is convinced that Jacob, son of Daniel, is not our guy.

So does that make Jacob, son of Joseph, our Jacob? I have yet to find any proof linking a Jacob and Joseph together. April is intent on researching wills and estate listings, though the lack of organization of those records at Hofstra University make that task an enormous undertaking. Families often repeated names - Jacob and Rebecca had a son, Joseph, so Jacob's father could be a Joseph, although Rebecca's father's name seems to have been Joseph as well. Prior to 1850, census records only list heads of household and other vital records become harder to come by. We know Jacob was dead by 1850 (as Rebecca is listed as a widow in the census), but we don't know where he's buried. Jacob, son of Joseph, came from somewhere, but I don't know who it came from or the reliability of where that person got that information. Sometimes, it can get so frustrating that all you want to do is bang your head repeatedly against said brick wall.

When that happens, I put that branch aside. I focus on another branch, or on adding cousins or rounding out information on those I already have. And then I go back, hopefully with fresh eyes and a renewed spirit of enthusiasm - after all, half the fun of genealogy is the challenge in figuring out the puzzle, right? Sometimes you just need a new idea, approach the wall from a different avenue, and if you're lucky, you'll start to find chinks. Many brick walls can crumble and even be broken down.

I had successfully researched my Dauch family line back to a ship passenger manifest from 1845: parents Nicolas and Eva, and children Andreas, Marie and Thomas, my 3rd great-grandfather. I had come back to this family recently to try and trace my Dauch cousins, not go back further than Nicolas and Eva, but inputting a name into Ancestry brought up a family tree posted by a man in Germany, tracing Nicolas and Eva back three or four more generations. Are those names sourced? No. Are they reliable? I have no idea. But this new information puts a chink into the brick wall that was Nicolas and Eva, a place to go from and try and bring this wall down.

Inevitably, we'll all hit the ultimate brick wall, the one that will stand the test of time. But new information, reliable or not, can be found every day. People just starting to become interested in genealogy will share what they know. Sometimes you need luck, sometimes creativity and ingenuity, and sometimes you'll find that the thing you were banging your head against wasn't a brick wall after all.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Ancestor profile: Hulda Lindemann and the General Slocum disaster

Hulda Lindemann is not a direct ancestor of mine. She is the sister of my 2nd great grandmother, Augusta Lindemann Stutzmann, but her story, what I can discern of it, is an interesting though tragic one.

Hulda, like her parents and siblings, was born in Germany. She was born about July 1876 and emigrated to the United States about 1891. The family settled in Queens and Brooklyn, New York.

Her sister and my 2nd great-grandmother, Augusta, married very well, marrying Rudolph Stutzmann, a successful funeral home director and later founder and president of Ridgewood Savings Bank, and it's possible that prior to her marriage she worked as a servant but she married in 1899, so there are no records of her prior to her married life. There are records, though, that her sisters, including Hulda, found work as servants in other people's homes.

In 1900, Hulda was working as a serving for the Feldhusen family: patriarch George, a saloon manager; his wife Maria; and their son, Nicholas. They lived a couple blocks north of Washington Square Park in Manhattan.

On June 15, 1904, St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Little Germany chartered the General Slocum, a passenger ship, for an annual trip that included sailing up the East River before heading to Long Island for a picnic. They had been doing this for 17 years. From maps, it seems the Feldhusens lived just outside Little Germany, but being German immigrants, perhaps they were parishioners at St. Mark's, or had family and friends who were members. Whatever the case, Maria and Nicholas Feldhusen were among the more than 1,300 passengers (most of whom were women and children) who boarded the General Slocum that day, accompanied by the family servant, Hulda Lindemann.

Now, in June of 1904, Hulda was almost 28 years old. All three of her sisters and both her brothers were married (3 of those siblings being younger than her). Not judging, since I am 28 and unmarried, but in 1904, when all her siblings had managed to be married off, I have to wonder why Hulda was not. Her sisters had stopped serving others and started families of their own, but Hulda remained in the Feldhusen house. What was it that kept her there? Whatever it was, it killed her.

The General Slocum caught fire by 10 a.m. that day. Most of the lifevests and lifeboats on board were useless. Instead of running the ship aground (and possibly spreading the fire on shore), the captain of the General Slocum stayed on course. Most of the passengers were unable to swim. Besides those that succumbed to the flames, many drowned, and some were crushed when the upper levels of the ship collapsed. In all, an estimated 1,021 people died, with 321 survivors. Prior to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the General Slocum disaster was the worst loss-of-life disaster in New York City.

I've read Brooklyn newspaper accounts of the disaster in the days that followed it, and they are devastating - a child who watched his whole family die, a mother who can't find any of her children, countless fathers who spent a last normal day at work only to come home and hear what had happened to their wives and children. There's a list of victims' names, identified from their remains, and the names Maria and Nicholas Feldhusen (age 12) are on it. In the 1910 census, George Feldhusen is a widower and living alone.

There's no Hulda Lindemann on the list. Like with 9/11, a lot of the victims just weren't able to be identified. But her family knows that after that day, she never came home. Her parents, Casper and Eva, are buried in Lutheran Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens, and though Hulda has no resting place, Lutheran Cemetery is where many of the General Slocum victims were buried, and where a monument was erected in 1905 to honor the unidentified dead.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Mad props to Ancestry.com

The Internet is a wonderful tool for accomplishing any kind of research. Unfortunately, because you don't have to be an expert and have credentials to post information to the web, there is a lot of drek out there. A lot. The Internet has filled the world of genealogy with countless amounts of misinformation - someone posts unsubstantiated information, which is copied by somebody else, which is copied by someone else, and its soon taken as fact. It almost makes genealogy research harder. I'm all for helping other genealogists out, for sharing of family research, but I'm also of the belief that if they can't back that information up, then you need to before you use it and pass it along to others.

So, lots of drek - anybody with access to the Internet can post their family tree, substantiated or not. But there's a wealth of good, factual information, a lot of primary sources that the Internet has opened access to, and for that, it has made genealogy research worlds easier. It's just all about being a savvy surfer.

For me, my Internet genealogy goldmine has been Ancestry.com. I started with a free trial and was quickly hooked. Like the rest of the Internet, there are parts of Ancestry that shouldn't be taken at its word - anybody can post an unsourced, unresearched family tree on their site. But the Ancestry community page lets you meet and talk with others looking for the same information you are - both family members I met doing genealogy, Milt Haase and April Earle, found me through Ancestry. And people can post queries from all over the world, so if you're doing research on your family from an obscure town in Germany, there just might be another user from that town who can help you out.

But most important about Ancestry are the primary sources it has unlocked, and that information has been a vital part of building my tree. I won't list every record they hold, but I have personally found important and interesting information from the U.S. census (they have them from 1790-1930, with the exception of the 1890 census, which was destroyed by a fire); the Canadian census; ship passenger manifests; naturalization records; newspaper obituaries; birth, death, and marriage records from individual states such as North Carolina, Minnesota, Texas, and California; passport applications; and banking records. The records available on the site run the gamut from broad, universal records like the U.S. census to special, regional records for a particular town or time period.

Of course, you don't ever get something for nothing. You have to pay to get access to Ancestry, and there are plans based on what records you want access to...full access to the site is somewhat pricey, but for someone like me who uses the site practically every day and who uses more than census records, it might be worth it to pay that price.

I don't think Ancestry is the only pay site out there with this wealth of information, either, but its the one I use and the one I love. Two snaps to them for making my research so much easier and restoring my faith in the Internet as a viable research tool.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Genealogical mystery: When did John Horgan die?

I have in my possession the clipped obituary of my 3rd great-grandfather, John Horgan. It reads: "On April 10, John Horgan, beloved husband of the late Julia Murphy and father of Mary E. Gorry, native City of Cork, Ireland. Funeral from his late residence, 352 E. 16th St., on Sunday, April 12, at 2 p.m."

The clipping is helpful in many regards - lists his late wife along with her maiden name, lists address, lists where he was born, lists date of death. Doesn't list year of death. Leaves out that one very important detail. And it's very, very difficult to find a death certificate without that bit of information.

The clipping is of that one obit, too small to show what newspaper it came from much less what date it ran. I let it slide for a little while, before I finally put my Nancy Drew cap on and decided there was just too much information there, too many clues, to just give up on ever knowing the date.

I went with the obvious first: he had to have died after 14 Aug 1890, because that's when his daughter Mary was married, and in the obit she's listed with her married name. Going a step further, I realized it listed his funeral as being *Sunday*, April 12. April 12 only falls on that day of the week every couple of years and luckily my genealogy program, Personal Ancestral File, has a date calculator on it. Starting with the year 1890, April 12 falls on a Sunday in the years 1891, 1896, 1903, 1908, 1914, 1925, 1931, 1936, 1942, and 1953. Ten years is certainly much more doable than 60.

But could I narrow it down even further? I decided to flip the obituary over and see what was written on the other side of the newspaper page.

It happens to be a headline: "Griffo beats William in fight between 'Kids.'"

A Google search turned up the information that Young Griffo was an Australian boxer who came to the U.S. in 1893 and was pretty much retired by 1911, dead by 1927. That left me with the possible years of 1896, 1903, 1908, or maybe 1914. Looking for the date of the actual fight turned out to be next to impossible, partly because I didn't know the exact name, Kid Williams (not William), that Young Griffo was fighting. But 4 years is a much easier search than 10.

As it turns out, sending away for a death certificate to the Municipal Archives still proved fruitless and I think the one time I traveled there myself there were still too many microfilmed records to scroll through (I was looking for other records as well and after a few hours, my head feels like its going to explode and I just have to go home, to continue the search another day.) It was my father who actually got his hands on the death certificate and I don't think I ever asked how he found it. But even though my legwork proved to be unnecessary, it also proved to be correct.

John Horgan died on 10 April in the year 1908.