Sunday, April 23, 2017

How Did You Get Here?

This week has been a rough one for me for reasons I will not go into. Instead of explaining what I did in my travels up my family tree, I found myself reading another blog that relates to the question, 'How did you get here?' It is a question I bet everyone who has an interest in discovering the details of their own family tree have asked and can have several meanings. Obviously, the general question about one's family history relating to genealogy is probably the foremost question, but for me, it was something else.

Here is my story.

As a reader of my blog knows, I am not a professional genealogist and as far as I know, there are no other people in my family that have ever been interested in our shared family history. I know this because if there had been anyone interested in discovering our shared past or in leaving some information for our future generations, there would be documents or stories or photos with details. I have no documents of any kind and very few photos, most of which have very little or no information written on them.

I was not left with one significant date; what I know I have learned through painstaking online research. Much of what I thought I knew as a child - like my Irish ancestry - turned out to be inaccurate and things I did not know - like my significant Quebec connection - turned out to be a major part of my family history. My early knowledge of my family was restricted to several New England states; it did not include a rather substantial, fairly recent branch in Utah and Nevada. And all of that is only one one side of my family, my father's. I have not even begun looking at my maternal grandmother's Quebec history for one basic reason - I do not have a good recollection of my high school French!

So, with little to go on, poor childhood memories, and no adult before pushing my interest in the 'family history' direction, how did I get here? It really is pretty simple, though the process took almost 40 years to ferment into an action plan.

In 1967, an historian and anthropologist, Harold Courlander, wrote a novel that became the focal point in a libel court case involving what would become one of the most significant books in the 1970's. You may know the Alex Haley book by the wildly popular 1977 television miniseries....Roots.

Though Roots was later shown to be largely fictional - the genealogical basis was contested almost immediately upon publication in 1976 - the book and miniseries helped initiate a national interest in learning about one's own family history. Ours is a nation of immigrants, whether African, English, Irish, or the original American Indian residents. We all have an interest in knowing how we got here.

I never saw the television series - my wife was in grad school and we were raising our first child at the time, so there was no television in the house - but I did have access to a library and managed to check the rather hefty book out. I read it cover to cover over the course of a few weeks working the night shift at a local retirement home where I had a job.

I can say that book did ignite the ember that eventually became a full-blown fire of interest in my family history. That fire continues today and is the reason I do what I do and why I write about it. That is how I got here.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

My First Real Brick Wall

Here it is. It had come. I knew it would happen. I knew I would get to one. There is no surprise.

There is no comfort in knowing that.

I am at the point in my climb up my family tree where further progress is proving quite difficult…and I am not far up my tree at all. You may recall I grew up and spent most of my young life overseas, away from grandparents and their - and my - non-family relatives. When they all died - my parents, their siblings, and all four of my grandparents are dead - none of them had left any documentation to go on, so my search has been slow, laborious, and often frustrating.

As you have read if you have read my previous blog posts - and I hope you have...or will! - I have learned (and validated) things about my grandparents that differed significantly from what I thought I knew growing up. I learned that, contrary to my young knowledge, many of them were actually born here in the USA. In fact, not only were they born here in the United States, there is a long history of native-USA-born relatives in my tree. There is also a Canadian connection through my maternal grandmother, Nine Lillian Thompson, about which I knew nothing. I had been taught that she was a Scot!

But as I get to my second great-grandparent level, I have encountered a problem I knew existed, knew I would encounter, and hoped I would be able to resolve without too much difficulty.

Because I have no records and have many relatives with the same or similar names, differentiating among them is becoming difficult. Add to that the fact that enumerators of both United States and England census reports tend to spell one major branch of my tree, my maternal grandmother's BATTY side, as either BATTY or BATTEY. 

Not having any documentation from anyone about their past, I have been unable in some cases to validate that this person's or that person's record or document is, in fact, a relative. I wrote last time that I found a record of a relative whose name was illegible either because it had been erased, damaged by water, or for some other reason. 

As you know, I use the online resources of, Family Tree Maker, and Family Search because I do not have the resources to visit the locations and review the source documents in person, but in this one case, I doubt it would make any difference. My online sources provide high-quality reproductions; the original document would not magically have my ancestor's name appear.

So when I get to a point in my search that has many "Batty" or "Burke" names living in the same general area at the same general time, it is difficult to determine which, IF ANY, of those names is a relative. 
That is where I am now.

To make matters worse, I have validated relatives with James, John, Samuel, William, and Edward names galore, as I am sure many other Christian-based families have. In fact, I am currently evaluating one branch I found with all those names used as sons, fathers, grandsons, and grandfathers...and I have not found a connection to a known relative in my own tree. I am sure there is one, I am sure I will find it, but this brick wall is, indeed, very sturdy.

Keep in mind that is with relatively close ancestors; I really do not loo relish getting into the 5th or 6th great-grandparent level. They will all live in areas of England, Ireland, and Scotland that are very far removed from where I am now. 

My tree is growing, the branches expanding, and the leaves increasing in numbers. Not having records, documents, or oral histories has proven to make this process much more difficult than I really anticipated.

I have not even started on my maternal grandmother's Thompson Canadian side. I have no documents on her, either, and her line seems to hail from Quebec, with lots of records in French, so won't that be a fun journey! 

But that is for later...

Saturday, April 8, 2017

So You Found a Whole New Line of Relatives

While looking at the 1900 U.S. federal census to validate one name I found on a gravestone marker, EDWARD H BURKE, I discovered what I think is an entire new line of relatives. Let me explain.

First, as you might recall from my previous posts, I have a lot of "John Burke" relatives, including my maternal grandfather, JOHN FRANCIS BURKE. In fact, I started looking at him when I started this climb up my own family tree years ago. In the process and in addition to John Francis, I found John Edward, and two John Richard's, a generation apart, though they are not shown as "Senior" and/or "Junior." There is also EDWARD HENRY BURKE, brother to my maternal grandfather, who is married to CATHERINE PALMER FAUSTINE. It is while looking into her records and her gravestone that I found what I think are new ancestors.

While looking at the Salem Ward 3, Massachusetts, 1900 Census, taken 06 June 1900,  I discovered a previously unknown family with the same last name as my known relatives,  but none of whom show up in my current tree. In the order they are listed on the Census, they are:
  • JOHN F BURKE -- born Dec 1838 (Head)
  • MARY A -- Jan 1866 (Wife)
  • JOSEPH P -- May 1888 (son)
  • WILLIAM H -- July 1889 (son)
  • MARY M -- Aug 1882 (daughter)
  • ELIZABETH E -- Oct 1893 (daughter)
  • FRANCIS T -- Oct 1896 (son)
  • CATHERINE -- May 1900 (newborn daughter; no middle initial shown)
My next project is to determine if these Burkes are my relations. The name, city, state, and timeframe match, but "Burke" is a very popular name in that time and area, so much care must be taken before adding them to the tree.

So far, there are possible entries in 1910 and 1930 Censuses, but Baby Catherine does not show up; perhaps she died in childhood or her name was misspelled - a KATHERINE T BURKE does show up in the Salem, Mass, birth records, but the original find does not include a middle initial. More validation is needed.

For beginners like me, finding familiar names is very exciting and possibly important. It is also critically important that these names be properly vetted and validated before assuming they are ancestors. For me, adding these names to my family tree on and Family Tree Maker allows their powerful search algorithms to work for me by going places I cannot go and searching records I cannot access personally. I am suspicious and cautious. Until this new family is validated, I am not prepared to say I have new relatives.

But this is the exciting part of genealogy, isn't it?

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

This Is What a Brick Wall Looks Like

In a Facebook post elsewhere, I mentioned that beginners to genealogy might not really understand what a so-called 'brick wall' is. It is a term often used but rarely defined, for good reason. These brick walls can come in many shapes and sizes, can be physical or missing records, or as in this case, one illegible part of an otherwise good record, most likely because of some damage and the passage of time.

My maternal grandfather is JOHN FRANCIS BURKE. His father, my great-grandfather, is JOHN RICHARD BURKE. *HIS* father, my 2nd great-grandfather, was always known to me as JOHN RICHARD BURKE, but honestly, I have had difficulty validating that beyond a reasonable doubt. I have no records of any of my grandparents' families, including names, so getting a good picture of them has been difficult.

I thought I was secure in my knowledge of my 2nd great-grandfather BURKE's name until I came onto this Massachusetts birth record. It is hand-done and quite old. Presumably, there has been some damage to the original document (probably water damage to the original ink), thus making his first name illegible.

Look at the last line of the record. He was born 16 Feb 1866 in Lancaster, Massachusetts. His mother is Bridget Head and his father is John Burke; both those names are validated. His, however...

Can you figure out what it might be? Was it erased? Is that water damage? I do not have access to the original document, so if you have a clue, leave a comment. It is a tough one to get over, this brick wall!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Going deep...while going long

Last month, I asked a question of you readers: Do I go "deep" into the individuals as I climb my family tree, or do I go "long" and add more names, dates, and events to their lives? The answers were, as I expected, thoughtfully provided. Many commenters explained that doing both is important and that by "going long," while validating and confirming information that would lead to other ancestors, I would, of course, also be "going deep."

The wisdom of this was confirmed earlier.

One day, I chose to spend some time looking into the background of my maternal grandfather, JOHN FRANCIS BURKE. To refresh your memory, I always thought he was an immigrant from Ireland; I learned that was not true and he was, in fact, born and raised in Wilton, New Hampshire. His father was born and raised in Wilton and it was his great grandfather, WALTER BURKE, my third great-grandfather, who was the first Irish immigrant on his side of my family. Learning a fact that conflicted with my earliest childhood beliefs was really what motivated me to begin working on my family tree in retirement.

While I was working on Grampy John's past, I somehow came across the name of a distant relative I had not heard or seen before:


Finding that name turned out to be a shocking, exciting discovery.

probably came to Clarence through an "shaking leaf" hint, which is how I come to many new names. What was unique and very exciting to me was finding a distant relative from the Desert Southwest of the USA. Prior to this and for most of my life, I thought all my relatives were immigrants from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Canada. Finding a connection to Utah and Nevada opens up an entirely unexpected, very exciting new area to me. Learning that some, perhaps many, of my distant relatives were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), the Mormons, was exciting. I knew of my own connection to Christian religions including Catholics, Presbyterians, and the Church of England, but finding an LDS connection was new and unexpected. My former spouse was LDS and during our marriage, I learned a lot about that part of Christianity.

Because I knew nothing about my family connection to our West before, I allowed myself to spend some time learning about Clarence and my other distant ancestors. So far, I have learned they mostly lived in Utah and Nevada, in the late 20th Century timeframe. Most of them seem to have been born and raised, and were married in Salt Lake City, probably in one of the many LDS temples there. It is not uncommon for our modern population to relocate and the LDS community is no different. In Las Vegas, Nevada, my relative CLARENCE HARDING RIVES, was an LDS Church leader, a Boy Scout executive, and a retired Clark County deputy sheriff.

I spent some time working to find the original name that connected my grandfather, JOHN FRANCIS BURKE, to my family tree in the Desert Southwest. I wanted my excitement to lead me to "good" clues that I could validate, of course, and so far, I seem to have been successful. I still am curious about that connection to an area I never knew about until very recently. It is important to note that the branch of my family tree is pretty far from the trunk (to overuse the "tree" analogy.) According to, Clarence Harding Rives is the brother-in-law of my 1st cousin 1x removed. As a neophyte to genealogy, I have no mental concept of how he relates to someone I know; clearly he does and understanding how well enough to be able to describe it to my own children is my current focus. (Recall that I have no first cousins - my Dad was an only child and my Mom had only one unmarried, childless sister - so finding the branches that connect me to him is important.)

This is post is part of my on-going project to decide whether to "go deep" or to "go long." As I wrote before, most commenters suggested that doing both at the same time is the way to go. One made the spot-on point that genealogy is a long-term project that can lead the researcher in unexpected ways to unexpected, exciting finds. 

Finding Clarence is an example of going deep. Very deep. It is akin to making a deep-sea dive far beyond any one has ever done before. Down there, a diver would see things totally new and unexpected. That is what happened to me. Now I must determine through which known relative he relates to me and see how far out West my tree branches go. I do recall my only Aunt, CHARLEENE FRANCES BURKE, living and working as a teacher for the US Department of Defense in Alamogordo, New Mexico, but I do not know why she moved there or if she knew anyone when she was there. Perhaps she did and CHARLES HARDING RIVES is part of that connection.

That would be the "going long" part.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Go deep or go long?

I have been away for a couple of weeks while one of my daughters gave birth to a new granddaughter, another leaf on my family tree! There were some issues, though not medical, really. This was not her first child and normally, the 'due date' is fairly accurate, usually within a day or two or three. Obstetrical science has progressed, the technology is marvelous, and the science behind it amazing. Yet it remains a huge unknown; Mother Nature and a woman's body are the final determinants as to when birth will occur, not medical know-how.

In my daughter's case, that meant my leaving her house after a 10-day stay without having had the opportunity to hold my new granddaughter after birth.

It also meant I missed the birth by 24 hours! Twenty. Four. Hours.

Ah, if only...

But 'if only' does not count, so now I am back home and at this family search business, which I have worked on for a couple of years.

I have enjoyed my activities immensely. I have learned many things about my ancestors going back several generations. I have learned things about my immediate grandparents that completely shocked me and changed the preconceived memories I have always had about their pasts. I have learned things about where they came from in England - eventually, I hope to get to Ireland, too, but that will have to wait because validated facts about my Irish ancestry are in very short supply.

In short, I have learned some of the Who, Where, When about some of the people in my past I either did not know well (because I was brought up a Third Culture Kid overseas, the son of a US diplomat) or did not know at all (because of their deaths.) I have been contacted by and am in touch with the only cousin I know about, a second cousin who remembers me and my family from my childhood. I still can barely explain the excitement I feel just knowing her, even though I have no memory of us ever meeting.

Those factors, combined with my insatiable curiosity and drive to fill in the blanks - chasms, really -  in my past, have led me to wonder more about the What and Why parts of my ancestors' pasts. What made my ancestors do what they did? Why did they do what they did (beyond the 'improve life for us' immigration issue.) What did they do when they were there, wherever that was? What was going on in their neighborhood, town, state, country, at the time? What did they have to do with the adults of some children whose names I recall from my pre-Middle East life?

The pressing question now is:

Should I continue "going long," meaning going farther and farther back into my past? I will fill out my family tree with names, dates, and places. But that is pretty much all I will be doing...filling in those chasms. I would not know much about the individuals belonging to those names.

Or do I change tack slightly and start "going deep," meaning do I spend more time, energy, and probably money going deeper into the individuals that I already know?

To me, that is akin to putting more leaves on my family tree - as my daughter has just done with the birth of my granddaughter, Charlotte - instead of focusing on adding branches in faraway places like Ireland.

I need your help, dear readers, of all kinds. I do not want to become a semi-professional genealogist; I am still doing this for me, but I am also aware enough of my own personality to know that I will never be able to stop; I never have enough information.

I would like the input of friends, family, the genealogists, professional or not, who have been doing this much longer than me and really anyone reading who might have greater insight into the Who, What, Where, When, and Why, factors involved in climbing up ones family tree.

So let me know. Write a comment. Send me an email. Find a carrier pigeon. Use a smoke signal or semaphore, though, honestly, they probably will not work very well.

Let me hear from you!

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Location, Location, Location

As in real estate, the specific details are important.

Many of my English relatives hail from "Manchester." I put it in parentheses for the reasons I explained last time - city size. If one is from London or Chicago or Beijing or Mexico City, having the city name, alone, might be good enough for most purposes.

But it definitely is not enough when trying to determine the location of an ancestor's past to validate that "this" Burke, for example, is the right one and "that" Burke is not.

As I have been working on that validation, I have come to realize that most of the 'hits' I have for my Manchester ancestors are in the east-to-northeast part of the greater Manchester area. Places with names like Huddersfield and Saddleworth and Ashton-under-Lyne and Mossley and Oldham. Some of them are a pretty good distance, considering the time of my investigation, the late 19th Century.

One of the characteristics of beginning a genealogical trip, I am learning, is that I will become much more aware of old geographical boundaries, old versus current place names, and, hopefully in this case, any possible reasons for population movement. So, as a retired investigator, I ask myself questions. Some will have answers, some might not.

  • Why would my ancestors only come from one general direction of a greater metropolitan area in the late 1870's to the early 1900's? 
  • Was there a disease or agricultural or manufacturing or other reason to move? 
  • What information am I missing that I need to find?
  • What do I not know that I need to know?

Perhaps all this seems like going overboard, like digging up too much information. And just to put a name on a list. I do not think so. As I have said, I have relatives with common names - like the 'Burke' example above - and I really want to make my tree as accurate as I can. My previous life as an investigator makes just picking any ol' name willy-nilly an unacceptable tactic.

Besides, so many online family trees are interconnected by the Big Four genealogy sites; having accurate information in those trees helps us all. Beginners like me should always be cautious and a bit suspicious, especially because, in my case, my hope is to give a product to my children and grandchildren that I never had -- information about their families.

So now, off to the history books to learn about population movements in northern England near the Scottish border beginning about 1870.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Challenge: How to Determine the "Right" Place

In past posts, I wrote about my challenges determining, for example, which "John Burke" is my grandfather and which is my 3rd great-grandfather and which is not a relative at all. Without having documentation like a family Bible or detailed photographs or even oral history, making sure I am satisfied that 'this one' is the right one and 'that one' is not has been the biggest challenge, along with the urge to pick 'this one' or 'that one.'

Another difficult and equally challenging task related to validating the correct person is location.

In the United States, we break down our geography into states, counties or parishes, and towns or cities. With very few exceptions, most of us live in a geographical location that can be determined by knowing these three locations. Take me as an example. How I would be located is as follows:
  • State: Michigan
  • County: Kent
  • City: Caledonia or Dutton
  • Street: Yes, there is one
I list two cities because the United States Postal Service has the authority and responsibility to determine the proper mailing address for every house or apartment. I live in a rural area outside the geographical boundaries of the Town of Caledonia, an incorporated city, or Dutton, an unincorporated cluster of buildings in Kent County. The Post Office authorized the use of either name for my home's mailing address.

Other countries have different geographical breakdown; England has been my focus for the past couple of years. (In the future, I will focus on Ireland and Scotland, the other two countries from which ancestors in different branches of my family tree hailed.) London, particularly, has been one of my focal points and I have learned that the breakdown is quite different. I will not go into details because, honestly, I do not have many - I am still learning - but there is a movie title that can give a clue to the complexity of my search.

Years ago, Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant did a movie called "Notting Hill." Julia Roberts played a major American famous movie star; Hugh Grant played the owner of a small, not-very-profitable travel book store in the Notting Hill 'neighborhood' of London. The story is of the improbable and highly-unlikely love between them.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that one of my ancestors came from London, in the southeast part of England. Determining that s/he was from Notting Hill or not would be critical; just being from "London" would not be helpful in validating a name. It is a very large city with many neighborhoods with a high probability of finding like-named people all over England, especially during the late1800's and early 1900's, when a lot of international travel was taking place.

My ancestors hail from Manchester, another large English city and metropolitan borough, in the county of Lancashire, farther northwest, near Liverpool, with similar neighborhood or area names.

In situations like that, figuring out that 'this person' may be the right ancestor and 'that person' is not is critical. And challenging, sometimes seeming to be overwhelmingly difficult. I have learned much about how English cities are broken down and named and I have much, much more to learn. It is not easy keeping it straight, especially considering that changes have been made in the last 100 years.

But as I have said before, if genealogy was easy, there would be no field of study, no genealogical me.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Basic Information: What Census Data Are Available?

From (even the cool tree):

"Although censuses are a source of genealogical information, the Census Bureau does not provide these data. The Census Bureau is not able to locate missing persons, or provide recent information on individuals.

My Very First "Found" Relative!

As a reminder to any new readers, I was born to a father who was an only child and a mother who had only one never-married-and-childless sister. I grew up the son of a USAID diplomat in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey for most of my early and teenage years. I know more about my high school chums than my own family.

Consequently, I never developed strong ties to my extended USA family that many, if not most, families enjoy. I miss having those ties. As I age, connecting with my past has become more important; that is the primary reason I started my genealogical climb up my own family tree. Though all of my ancestors, my parents included, are dead, I want to do what I can to reconnect them and where they lived.

I remember hearing many names of people I have little or no memory of meeting, places I have heard about and only vaguely recall. I remember certain events that I even wonder if they ever happened anywhere but my mind. My ancestors left no written records, no verbal stories, and precious few photographs, many of which have nothing written on the back to indicate dates, names, or places. All told, with the exception of my own immediate family, four siblings and two parents, I have almost no past.

Until this week.

I have been a paid member of for several years and have slowly and arduously working on my own tree in hopes of filling some of that empty past. This week, I got an email through the Ancestry site from a person who had a LOT of information about my past. Names, places, turns out she and I are cousins, the first one I have ever "met!" Her maiden name is the same as my paternal great-grandmother, Minnie Batty, to whom we are both related in different ways. She knew my father, FRED JAMES WILKINSON, who influenced her teaching/librarian career; they even went to the same Teachers College. She knows the name of a camp where he worked when I was just a toddler, of which I have only a vague memory, but a memory that includes a very strong image of me, a nap, a bed, a hornet's nest, and boys laughing. You probably can fill in some of the blanks pretty accurately.

My cousin has been working on her own family tree since 2008. She has siblings and many memories about our shared ancestors, starting with my Great Gramma Minnie. Already, many blanks have been filled in, many questions answered, and many points of confusion clarified.

And we have just started sharing information! She is a retire librarian and a much-more experienced genealogist than I am, so you can be assured I will pick her brain for those tidbits of information I need to fill out my tree.

After all, that is what it's all about. Well, and finding my cousins!