Reflections on 2012

Every New Year’s Eve, before my wife and I watch “To Catch a Thief,” we review the events of the past year and speculate on what the coming year will bring. I look forward to that discussion even more than seeing the divine Grace Kelly onscreen in the 1955 Hitchcock classic.

For this genealogist, 2012 was a particularly good year. My research trip to Chicago revealed that my g-g-grandfather was the first entry in the Cook County tract books for the family’s longtime property, several years before I had originally thought. Subsequent research in the Recorder of Deeds office confirmed this, as well as an earlier marriage.

The other big discovery of the year centered around the Kamp family of western Pennsylvania. For years, I was unable to find any trace of Frank Kamp or his wife Mary following the 1920 Census. Yet with the December 2011 changes to the vital records laws regarding public access to Pennsylvania vital records, the floodgates opened to my personal research. Indeed, I had finally solved my most enduring and frustrating genealogical mystery. As it turned out, Mary Kamp died in 1927, and her husband Frank died later in 1940; both are buried in Mount Lebanon Cemetery, the same cemetery I visited a few years ago researching a different line of the family. As with any discovery, new questions immediately surface. Where was Frank in the 1930 and 1940 censuses, and why am I struggling to find him?

Professionally, 2012 also brought big changes, the most important being a new position at the Archives of Michigan. Now as a Senior Archivist, I work closely with the Abrams Foundation Historical Collection, as well as outreach and programming in support of the Archives’ outstanding holdings. I look forward to the challenges of my new position, learning the intricacies of an exciting and unique archival collection, and maintaining my relationships with the Michigan genealogical community. Recently elected to the Board of Directors, I also look forward to becoming more involved with the Federation of Genealogical Societies.

So what will 2013 bring? With a March trip to Salt Lake City and a fall jaunt to Fort Wayne (IN) already on the schedule, I can hope for an exciting and rewarding year of genealogical discovery.

The Next Generation of Family Historians

A few weeks ago, the Archives of Michigan was visited by Junior Troop #123 of the Girl Scouts of Michigan.

After a brief introductory discussion about family history, the girls looked at a few selections from the Archives’ collections, including a map of Michigan, Michigan (as Lansing was originally known), a state prison register of inmates (complete with mug shots), records of naturalization from Ingham County, and a Sanborn Fire Insurance map of downtown Lansing and the State Capitol. Some of the more compelling questions included: “How old is that map? – It looks really old!,” “What is Prohibition?,” “What does naturalization mean?”, and “Why is that building pink?”

The real fun started when the girls began their online explorations at Ancestry, FamilySearch, and several other destinations. A few weeks before, I had encouraged the kids to talk with their families to better prepare them for their upcoming visit to the Archives. A very encouraging sign was that many of the girls had filled out the pedigree charts and family group sheets I had left with them; the foundational conversations with the family had clearly taken place. In my experience, success for a beginner – whether a 4th grader or a retiree – can be directly attributed to having spent the time on preliminary research: talking to family members, identifying and charting out the names, dates, people, and places on the family tree. In short, getting a good sense of who was where when.

Some of the Girl Scouts located 1940 U.S. Census records of their families, while others enjoyed looking at the 1860 entry for Abraham Lincoln or the 1940 page with a young Martin Luther King, Jr. Some learned that their family had a radio in 1930 (still my all-time favorite census question), while others identified a grandparent as a child in the 1940 Census. The key with this first foray into genealogy was to discover something that was personal to them or captured their interest; whether they found an actual ancestor or not was almost irrelevant. An enriching and positive first experience makes it more likely the beginner will return, and bringing something home to show their family reinforces that notion.

One of the Junior Girl Scouts in attendance was my oldest daughter, a real treat for me. These last few years, she’s been very interested in my research, even tagging along on a cemetery walk. Although I’m certain it’s a stalling technique to stay up past her bedtime, she will often ask to look at “Daddy’s books” and the family images on my computer. At the Archives, my daughter was thrilled to find her grandfather in the 1940 Census in Detroit as a toddler; the idea of “Grandpa B.” as a youngster was particularly enchanting.

Perhaps the most rewarding outcome from the Junior Girl Scouts visit was that my daughter and I talked at length about my wife’s side of the family. With deep roots in Detroit, that branch of our tree has many discoveries waiting to be made. Indeed, given my work experience at the Library of Michigan and now at the Archives of Michigan – and the ready access to piles of records and resources inherent there – I am ashamed to admit that I have worked very little on that side of the family. With her renewed interest in the family and a relatively blank slate to work from, my daughter and I can make the discoveries together. I can’t think of a better way to spend some time with her.

Revisiting Old Photographs

In my research, I came across an impressive collection of family photographs. Certainly a big find, and equally important, it offered me a new project! Many of the photographs were not labeled or identified, so as I scanned the collection, it was important to label everything as best I could, leaving many of the photos with a simple and unfortunate title – “Unknown.” In the field of family history research, is there a more frustrating word?

Once I finished scanning, I was excited to have crossed a project off my to-do list and anxious to start something new, so I never went back and really studied my “Unknown” images. So, I’ve started a new project and made it a point to go back and revisit those photos, and rename or relabel those individuals I can accordingly. There is never enough time in one night to go through the entire set, so I make an effort to do a reasonable number per night, perhaps 5 or 10 images. It will take me a while to go through the collection, but if I identify even a few ancestors in the photographs, it will have been worth it.

One of my ancestral re-discoveries is this gem of Sophus and Rose Hansen.

Sophus and Rose Hansen, August 1922.

Readers of this blog might remember the Hansen’s from the “Looks As If We Had a Fight Here” post. When I had first scanned this image, outside of the date, there were no identifying marks, so I was unable to determine who the couple was. Indeed, this was one of the first images I had worked with, so although not named in this particular image, they certainly were in different photographs far deeper into the pile. Only by going back and carefully reviewing those images, both the known and unknown, was I able to identify Sophus and Rose and extract them from my pile of Unknown’s.

I’ve been pleased with how many photographs I’ve now been able to identify at least one ancestor in the image. Clearly, something I should have done right away. A lesson learned!

X Marks the Spot

As a local history librarian, I have worked very closely with the Death Records, 1897-1920 collection available online at Seeking Michigan. Totaling nearly 1 million certificates, this collection covers a critical period in Michigan’s history, the point where the state became the worldwide epicenter of the automotive industry. Drawn by the lure of steady work and wages, thousands of families migrated to Michigan from all over the United States and around the world.

As a family history researcher, I am particularly fascinated with off-the-beaten path records, those unintended, peculiar, or otherwise accidental certificates. One terrific example at Seeking Michigan is Edith Constance Fraser, who died in Windsor, Ontario on 24 January 1900. Born in Canada in 1867, Ms. Fraser was the daughter of Alexander and Mary Fraser, and was buried at Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit on 26 January 1900.

Edith Fraser death, 24 January 1900, Wayne County, MI

So what is an Ontario death doing amidst a collection of Michigan records? The large “X” across the certificate indicates that the record is invalidated, suggesting that a true “official” record exists elsewhere under a different jurisdictional authority; in this case, Ontario, Canada. For whatever reason, a Michigan record was filed under Wayne County for Ms. Fraser, perhaps because the burial took place in Detroit. In the recent past, finding this example would have been next to impossible, as the existing indexes only included valid certificates; today with online access, researchers can easily find any certificate in the collection, whether an official record or one branded with an “X.”

Now let’s explore the corresponding “official” Ontario death record for Edith Fraser.

Edith Fraser death, 24 Jan 1900, Essex County, ONT (009289)

This record not only reinforces some of the data gleaned from the Michigan certificate, but also offers new information, including Ms. Fraser’s residence in Essex County and her religious affiliation. All good material, but more important is what is NOT shown – parents’ names, cemetery, name and address of undertaker, and date of burial – information all provided on the Michigan record.

When comparing the Michigan and Ontario records side by side, although each provides unique information, one can argue that the Michigan record offers far more genealogical value than the Ontario one. The point here, then, is that in some cases, there may be a second – and possibly quite different – record; this would be true particularly with families near a county, state, or international boundary, or ancestors that are buried in a different location than where they lived. The invalid or “X” record may provide important fields of data, such as parents’ names, that the official certificate does not. Depending on the state and time period, then, perhaps the accidental record is superior to the official one, much like the Edith Fraser example above.

Other out-of-state examples abound in Seeking Michigan, including death certificates from as far as Oakland, California, St. Louis, Missouri, and Cleveland, Ohio. In the case of Edith Fraser, a genealogy researcher would be delighted with her paper-trail legacy of dying twice. Each record provides unique insight into her life and family, while simultaneously opening new avenues of research. What more could one ask for?

Harrison Park, Kalamazoo MI (My first blog post!)

I grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and over my 20+ years living there, I drove past Harrison Park thousands of times. Located on the northeast edge of town, the small triangular-shaped park is in what was the city’s Polish neighborhood. Growing up, I remember my Dad pointing out several buildings in the neighborhood that tied back to the family.

A few years ago, my Dad mentioned that there was a monument at Harrison Park, dedicated to the fallen men of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam that were from that neighborhood. With two ancestors that were killed during World War II, my curiosity was piqued.

My next visit to Kalamazoo included a stop at Harrison Park, and sure enough, there was the monument. Among the men listed were Francis Piotrowski (1918-1944) and George Topoll (1918-1943), my ancestors.

Harrison Park monument, Kalamazoo (MI)Discovering the monument was certainly important, but the big find was the lodge number and name of the Polish National Alliance (#2144, White Eagle Society), the fraternal group that dedicated the monument as a memorial to those Polish men who had died during the war. Francis’ father – Stanley, my great-grandfather – was very active with the PNA, and I now had identified the lodge he’d been active with.

I’d driven past Harrison Park thousands of times over the years, but had never noticed the monument, its historical significance, nor its important genealogical value. I had been so focused on the names and dates on my family tree, learning as much and as quickly as possible, I had failed to take a step back and explore the historical context of my ancestors’ lives – the neighborhood they called home, the parks they played in, and the national events that shaped their lives. I had nearly missed a vital piece of my family’s story in the old neighborhood. A lesson learned!