Thursday, 11 April 2013

Family Tree Research - Bringing Your Ancestors 'Back to Life'

As a family historian, you are going to have good days and bad.

The good days might see you discover a new line of your family, maybe a sibling of a great-grandparent with lots of supporting evidence.  Your heart beats a little bit faster and your great grandparents look a little less lonely on their particular branch of the tree.

On bad days, you discover nothing or hit a brick wall and feel like you have wasted money on your subscription to whichever site you are using and you also think that brick wall means "that's it!"  You've finished!  You've gotten as far as you can go.

But don't give up.  There is more to family tree research than putting names down on a piece of paper.

Let's face it, a few months into your research, you're already sick of looking at your own surname and your own home town appearing over and over again.

If you find someone born in a different county or state, you feel like you've struck gold - your family weren't always living in your town - some of them had to move there; and given the decade you are looking at, maybe they had to move there on foot, or on a horse and cart.

Now imagine if you were moving to the next state or the next town; could you do it easily?  Knowing that because the new town is hundreds of miles away, you might never return?  You might be leaving behind parents or brothers and sisters.  In those days, you might never see them again and only contact them by letter (if you could read and write).

So if you're stuck or you hit a brick wall, why not head off in another direction?

I Wonder What Their Town Looked Like Back Then?

  • You know their names
  • You know where they lived, you might even know the name of the street (census?)
  • You know when they lived there - 1881? 1901? 1911?

Time for some real history - you have the internet at your disposal.

Go onto Google images and put in the name of your town and the year you are researching,

e.g. Plumstead, 1881 or Arlington, Texas 1901.

Let's see what Google images returns for this.

This is an image called The Lake, Plumstead and appears on the following website:

I should say, at this point, that my ancestors moved FROM Plumstead to North East England, looking at this idyllic photo makes me wonder why?

And how does Arlington, Texas fair on Google images (why Texas you ask?  I am watching a baseball game in the UK between the Rangers and the LA Angels and I have a soft spot for Texas).

This photo is of 'Mineral Well' taken in about 1900 which was basically, the centre of Arlington when it was being established.

Isn't it an amazing photo when you think about what Arlington has become?  Look at the horses in the muddy street and the street is brimming with people.

The photo is from the following website:

So don't be so quick to slam shut your laptop or switch off your PC.

Go on Google images and try to at least know something more about the place in which your ancestors lived.

Imagine wearing those clothes and walking down those streets.

Is the sun shining?  Or is it the depths of winter and people are huddled against the cold.

Save the images to your Family Tree Folder and print them off for your file.

Suddenly the ancestors you've had success in finding have a home and you know what their home town looked like at the time that they were walking around.

Here's a little video about one of my ancestors - I found out that he died in a mining accident in 1884, leaving his children orphaned (his wife had died the year before aged 27).  Did I just want them to be names on a page? No.  I needed to bring myself a bit closer to them and this is how I did it.

Let me know about your family research adventures.  If you are from the north east of England, you might enjoy the videos featured in this article about Geordie folk band, The Unthanks; they get back down to what the nineteenth century was really like in this area -keep it real!

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Family Tree Research - Skeletons in The Closet

Admit it!  You start your family tree journey on a wing and a prayer with your own surname and if you're lucky a grandparent still alive to give you some stories to build upon.

Family tree research is exciting when you first begin.

Back in the day (1987ish), all I had was a notepad and my parent's stories of their parents, aunts and uncles.  My dad knew his grandfather was a Welshman, my mam knew her grandfather was a Tyne waterman.

I drifted down to my local history library and spent hours mulling over cemetery indexes, microfiched 1881 census and St Catherine's Indexes.  It took hours, often overlooked by grumpy librarians checking that you paid for your crappy dry silver copies of microfiched Gazette pages.

Now of course, new genealogists can get a week or two free on Ancestry.Com (or or GenesReunited among other sites.  I won't lie, I love and made recent contact with a cousin once removed in Australia and we're rattling off emails to one another and sharing photos and stories and it is just wonderful.  It is like finding the missing pieces to a jigsaw.

But what about discovering skeletons in the closet?

I learnt a valuable lesson recently about not putting my twenty first century thoughts and feelings into something that was going on in 1851 between my great x 3 grandmother and her family and yet, it has been a tricky business trying to 'disconnect' from it when the job of a family tree researcher is to basically join the dots.

I won't go into the gory details except to say that it involved her abandoning her young children to go in search of a man.  My research shows her finding him, marrying him (not a time for everyone to say 'Awww' just yet!) and then returning to her home town to have more children with him but not be reunited with her other children.

Each subsequent census entry reveals her children living with either her sister or her parents and then of course, the children grow up themselves and marry.

I have fought with myself over this woman, really I have.

I got to a point where I had to log out of my computer for about a week because I could not find anything to show me that she was reconciled with her children.

And then I thought to myself  'What gives you the right to judge?' And it was a wake up call.

Genealogy is full of skeletons in the closet and it is your job as a researcher to find them but it is not your job to make sense of them beyond the evidence you find.

Evidence in the case of family tree research  = dates, names,places,births,deaths,etc,etc.  

I could not prove that she was not reconciled with her children.  I could not prove that she never saw them again so I had to step back and present JUST the evidence.

She was widowed young, left to bring up four young children and maybe she went looking for my great x 3 grandfather because she was alone and vulnerable?  Who knows? I DON'T!!!!

I have learnt an important lesson though.  Yes, they have my surname and I am a genetic mix of all of them but I do not know anything about them as people - I can put meat on their bones to some extent  by learning about how they lived but it is just unfair of me to judge them!

Accept and embrace your family tree skeletons in the closet - they must have had their reasons for doing what they did but they lived in a time you did not, when things were very, very different. And actually, it's none of your business!  

They didn't ask you to go back in time and dig 'em up, that was your decision - and remember, they're long dead but you can still learn to respect them.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Researching WW1 Deaths In Your Family Tree

World War One Family Tree Research - Extra Research Tips

This is the gravestone of Henry Waterhouse.  He died on 11th April 1918, aged 26.

He is buried in Lijssenthoek, Belgium.

He was a Royal Engineer, a 'sapper'.  They cleared mines, built bridges and paths across trenches and they dug tunnels.  It was all very important crucial work, hard work.  I didn't do it credit in that sentence but I gave you the gist.

Henry or knowing my family, most probably 'Harry' spent the last 4 years of his life up to his neck in mud, working hard every day in terrible conditions.

Harry was not married.  The telegram bearing the terrible news of his death went to his parents in Percy Main, North Tyneside - Harry Waterhouse, a young, brave Geordie.

My family tree adventures on led me to discover that Henry had 'died of wounds' on 11th April 1918.  That's all the info that's included on the postcard sized information card about this brave lad.

It tells me a date and theatre of war - France & Flanders' - it is so generic isn't it? 'France & Flanders'

But for me, it just wasn't enough.

I don't have a photo of Harry Waterhouse, I'll probably never have one.  He was my great-grandmother's younger brother and that postcard sized info card wasn't enough to satisfy my curiosity about Harry and his experience of World War One.

I felt very sad for him.  I felt sadder still when my research uncovered a further 2 brothers killed in the same war.

My great-great grandparents had 3 postcards home to tell them their boys were gone forever; it is difficult to imagine what they went through.

So Harry, Charles and John Waterhouse all lost their lives in WW1.  Charles died first in 1915, leaving a widow Mary and 3 children aged 11, 6 and 4.  Mary got that postcard too.  John died between Charles and Harry in 1916.  John was not married, maybe that was a good thing.

There is no need to accept that the little military info card needs to be the be all and end all of your memory keeping of these men.

I was pleased to find the information on Ancestry but I wanted to know more about where they died and about the battles in which they lost their lives.
Thankfully, when it comes to the 'Great' War, there is a wealth of information available if you know where to find it.

So armed with the small snippets of info I had - the dates of their deaths, I first wanted to know which battles they died in.

I can't vouch for this exactly - they may have been hospitalised in a battle and died later but usually there are not huge gaps between the battles and it is very well chronicled.

So I went to Dates of WW1 Battles and discovered that Harry's death occurred at the Battle of Cambrai, a battle in which many tanks were used.  95,000 men lost their lives.

Harry is buried at Lijssenhoek in Belgium, he has a neat little gravestone which bears his name, rank and serial number.  It has flowers planted and is well maintained.  I thank the person who does this for his family almost 100 years after he died.  I also thank the person who photographed every gravestone and put in on the War Graves Photographic Project website.  This has been an epic project for whoever decided to take it on; they deserve the respect of all WW1 family historians.

Harry exists somewhere for my family should any of us decide we would like to pay our respects if we are ever in Belgium.

John also has his own gravestone.  He is buried at Maroueil British Cemetery in France.  He was in the 2nd/20th London Regiment; unusual for a Northumbrian man who would usually join the Fusiliers except John's dad, George was a Woolwich lad and it looks like John joined a Kent regiment to honour his dad?  I like to think so any way.  John died at the Somme, just a day into the battle.

Sadly, Charles has no grave.  He is buried out there somewhere under all of those poppies in Belgium; killed at the Battle of Ypres.  His name is engraved in the granite at the Menin Memorial, the rather beautiful white edifice honouring the British dead without grave markers.

Charles was in the 2nd Northumbria Fusiliers.  If you come from this part of England, you're usually either in the Durham Light Infantry of the Northumbria Fusiliers.

Charles died at one of the war's bloodiest battles.  He was 33 years old.  It is possible from my research that another of their brothers survived the war.  

The family's experience of the great war is one I cannot even begin to imagine. it is hard enough to imagine outliving one of your children, never mind three of them.

It was important for me as a family historian to learn more that what was hand written on a postcard.  As someone who shares their genes, I owed it to them to find out where they died and where they are now laid to rest.

To any family historians out there - don't stop with the names on a card.  Don't be satisfied with knowing when they died.  Find out more about their experience and your research experience will be all the richer for it.

They become more than just names 2 or 3 generations back - I can never know Harry, Charles or John but I can honour them in my family history by sharing their experience, their battles, their resting place with anyone who reads my family's history.

Happy researching!