Thursday, April 27, 2017

What Is the Plan?

Like others, there are four main branches of my family tree, all immigrants from other countries.

My Dad's side, Fred James Wilkinson:
  • The Wilkinson branch (my grandfather) -- These ancestors hail from the Yorkshire and Lancashire, England, areas, mostly, though there appears to be significant movement among my late-19th Century ancestors.
  • The Batty branch (my grandmother) -- Most of these are from the same area in England.
There appears to be a lot of interplay between the Wilkinson and Batty names in the West Riding section of Yorkshire in old England. Whether this played into my lineage before their arrival at Ellis Island in the early 20th Century with millions of immigrants, I do not know.

My Mom's side, Beverly Lorraine Burke:
  • The Burke branch (my grandfather) -- The main non-USA origins of this side of the family is not quite clear yet, though certainly Ireland is a big part; I just have not learned when yet. As far as I know so far, this branch has the deepest roots in the United States of all; I might have ancestors as far back as the U.S. Civil War, but I have not validated that yet. It is this branch on which I discovered my Utah/Nevada recent relatives, the first I have discovered outside New England.
  • The Thompson branch (my grandmother) -- Most of them are from Quebec, Canada, and probably from Scotland before that, though I have not seriously started that search yet.
One of the significant brick walls on the Wilkinson branch is learning the name of my great-grandfather, my Grampy Fred's father. Recall that I have no documents and no photographs of any kind from his side of the family. I have the memory of only one oral family story - I recall my grandfather telling me his (unnamed) brother was a very good, self-taught barroom piano player with extremely strong hands.

But that is all I know. No names of relatives or significant dates to help my quest to fill in the blanks, so to speak. My Wilkinson-branch grandparents were loathe to talk about anything in their pre-USA lives. They left it all behind as they came here to get away from what they were, to start a new, better, more secure life.

Everything I know about them I have figured out with what a court would call circumstantial evidence. That is not always the best evidence to prove a case.

Learning my great-grandfather's name is an essential early step in my journey. I think it is Samuel, but without some other corroborating evidence, I am not convinced of what I think I know. Considering that what I thought I knew as a child growing up turned out to be wrong, validating my knowledge is important.

So what is the plan? It is to figure out how to learn what I do not know.

Simple enough, eh?

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. But much of what I thought I knew as a child - like what I thought was a direct Irish ancestry - turned out to be inaccurate and things I did not know - like my direct 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 very public plagiarism lawsuit against 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 for the book was contested almost immediately upon publication in 1976 - the 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 money for a television in the house - but I did have access to a library and managed to check out the rather hefty book. 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 with certainty that book did ignite the ember that eventually became a full-blown fire of interest in my family history, 40 years later. 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. What is your story?

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.

I 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.