Take a second look: How revisiting old research can lead to new insights

Once in a while, it’s a good thing to go back and take another look at past research. With the passing of time and additional research, a second look over notes from past research can spark new insights.

Several years ago when I lived in New York City, I jumped on Metro North’s Hudson line and took a trip to Poughkeepsie. My great grandparents settled there after immigrating from Hungary in the early 20th century, and my grandfather was born and raised there. I’d never been (that I remembered, anyway), and wanted to see what the town was like and where they lived. I also knew that my great grandparents, Josef and Julia Silber, were buried in the Schomre Israel Cemetery near Vassar College, and I wanted to see who else might have been buried there and what information I could gather from their gravestones.

Silber plot

Visiting my ancestors at the Schomre Israel Cemetery in Poughkeepsie, NY

I was thrilled to find that there were several relatives buried in the same cemetery. Many of my grandfather’s siblings and aunts and uncles were also there. I was especially pleased to find the grave of my great-great grandfather, Ignatz Schwartz, there was well. I took lots of pictures of gravestones, including many that might be connected to my family even though I don’t know how they might, or even IF they might be.

Like many Jewish gravestones, all of my relatives graves had Hebrew inscriptions as well as English. A friend graciously translated the Hebrew for me on several of them, and I kept that in a document with my other genealogy research notes. Most helpful in these inscriptions was the listing of their Hebrew names, which include the names of their fathers. This confirmed a couple of things that I had found earlier, in particular that my great grandfather, Josef, was actually called Simon before coming to America. (His Hebrew name was Shimon Yehuda, and all records show his first name as Simon until the 1920 U.S. Census–his first in the United States.)

The other day I was looking at those translations for the first time in a while, and I noticed a name that instantly made a connection in my mind–one that I hadn’t made before. Before going to Poughkeepsie, I knew from my great grandparents’ marriage record in Hungary that his parents were named Samuel Silber and Czeczilia Kupferstein, and that his brother’s (Isidore’s) marriage record says that his parents were Saji Silber and Terez Kupferstein. (Read more here.) But I still couldn’t find anything to verify if these two couples were the same couple.

Gravestone of my great grandfather, Josef Silber

Gravestone of my great grandfather, Josef Silber

Here’s where taking another look at the gravestone translations led to a minor breakthrough. Josef’s and Isidore’s gravestones both listed them as sons of Isaiah. And the gravestone of one of Josef’s sons, Samuel, lists his Hebrew name as Shaia.

For some reason it immediately occurred to me that “Saji” in Hungary would be pronounced the same (or very close to the same) as “Shaia”. And “Shaia” is a alternate version of “Isaiah”. While this isn’t definitive proof of anything, it’s certainly provides a strong indication that Saji Silber and Samuel Silber (my great-great grandfather) may indeed be the same person–Saji/Shaia being his Hebrew name and Samuel being his Germanic name–and that my grandfather’s older brother, Shaia/Samuel Silber, was named after his grandfather, Saji/Samuel Silber.

Gravestone of Samuel Silber

Gravestone of Samuel Silber

I don’t know why I didn’t make this connection before. I had all the records and information. The important part is that what sparked this realization was revisiting old research notes.

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New York Family History Conference–Day 2: DNA recap

I have to be honest. I was on the fence about coming to the New York State Family History Conference. My own family history doesn’t have much in the way of New York, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend the money. Genealogy can be an expensive hobby at times with all the subscription sites, society memberships, record copy and microfilm orders, and DNA tests. There’s only so much in the way of vacation time I can take from the job that pays for all this as well, so I kind of have to prioritize where to spend the money and time.

But this conference had a full day of seminars scheduled on genetic genealogy. That’s something that I’ve been interested in since I first started hearing about it several years ago, and a full day of learning from the best was tugging at my heartstrings. So I decided to go for it. As I posted earlier, definitely no regrets with the non-genetic genealogy sessions, and genetic sessions were just as inspiring for me.

Five sessions, all about using DNA as a tool for genealogy, presented by Blaine Bettinger, Ph.D., JD, and Judy Russell, JD, CG, CGL. Blaine is arguably the leading expert in genetic genealogy—he is The Genetic Genealogist, after all. And I’ll admit that he was a key factor that drew me to this conference. DNA was the lure, but Blaine got me hook, line and sinker! If you’re going to learn something, learn from the best.

Blaine did three sessions: an general introduction to using DNA in genealogy, a session devoted to mitochondrial DNA and y-chromosome DNA testing and their applications in genealogy, and one devoted to autosomal DNA tests.

Judy did two sessions: one about the ethics of DNA testing, and the final course showing how DNA results are used in genealogical research.

I’m not even going to pretend to be able to summarize the vast amount of information they presented, let alone act like I fully understood it all. I came into it with a  basic understanding of DNA, what it is, how it works. And I think I can say that I didn’t learn anything new about DNA itself, but then this wasn’t a science class. That wasn’t the point of these sessions.

The point is that DNA is no longer a curiosity or the latest trend in genealogy. DNA tests are an important tool in tracing family history, and the results are vital evidence. More and more, genealogical publications and associations are saying that DNA evidence is almost required as part of a solid proof argument, and a reasonably exhaustive search must include a DNA test.

And many times, one DNA match is not enough. I asked both Blaine, as a DNA expert, and Judy, as a board-certified genealogist, about the brick wall with my great-great-great grandmother, Mary Compton. Both said that the one mtDNA result is good evidence, but not enough to support the claim that Mary Compton is the daughter of Elias Compton and Sarah Long. They both suggested testing more people: Blaine recommended trying to find a descendant of Sarah Long’s mother and grandmother (through separate lines) to compare mtDNA with, and Judy recommended doing autosomal DNA tests for more of my cousins, aunts and uncles descended from Mary and comparing results with descendants of Elias Compton through his other children. Matching results would be a much clearer indication that I’m on the right track.

As a result of all this, I urgently made my way to the Family Tree DNA booth in the exhibit hall, and did a new mtDNA test on myself. My original test was with AncestryDNA, which doesn’t support it anymore. Also, the technology has advanced so much in the last six years that it was worth doing it over.

I’m also creating a list of family members I need to make sure to test. Judy really emphasized the need to preserve your DNA while you can, so older family members are in my target. My maternal grandparents both died before genetic genealogy was a thing, and I didn’t think to get my paternal grandparents tested before they passed away. But I have several aunts and uncles on both sides, as well as a couple siblings of some grandparents. Surely there are second and third cousins as well. I’ve met a few recently, so I know they’re out there.

Now I just have to add a DNA test line to my budget!

New York State Family History Conference 2015–Day 1 recap

This weekend I’m in Syracuse, New York for the New York State Family History Conference. Syracuse is a quick two-and-a-half hour train ride from Buffalo on Amtrak according to their schedule, which as you may know is very, let’s say, flexible. Still, I love the train and highly recommend it if you have the time and patience. It’s so much better than driving, and usually runs close-to-on-time here in New York State. Cross-country on the train is great, too, but that’s for another post.

Syracuse is a cute little town situated just southeast of the eastern end of Lake Ontario. Because of it’s location, they get a lot of snow in the winter. I mean, A LOT. I don’t know why Buffalo is so well-known for snow when Syracuse averages 30 inches more in a season. I suspect it’s because Buffalo tends to get these epic lake-effect storms and blizzards, like Snowvember 2014, the Blizzard of ’77, and many more. If you’re interested, any Buffalo native will gladly list them for you. That’s another post, too.

Like I said, I’m in Syracuse for the New York State Family History Conference. I have some New York ancestry, mostly Colonial New York. What really drew my interest for this conference is the full-day track on genetic genealogy. Those sessions are on Saturday, so more on that later. But after Day 1, I have no regrets about being here.

The day started with an excellent session by Curt Witcher, MLS, FUGA, IGSF, the Genealogy Center Manager at the Allen County Public Library. (Incidentally, this is the first time I’ve heard Curt speak, and I highly recommend him. He’s definitely knows his stuff, and has a very entertaining presentation style.) He pretty much set the tone for the day, talking about ancestral origins and how they can be a significant research clue. Many genealogists tend to get focused on our own ancestors; I’m just as guilty as any other. We forget that our ancestors weren’t the only ones leaving their homelands and moving across the oceans. Curt talked about looking at the bigger picture of why they moved, the factors that influenced where they moved, and the history and demographics in their homeland and their new home at the time they moved. One quote that stood out for me was:

Many times our ancestors migrated not because something bad was happening at home, but because another place was being marketed really well to them. He shared some stories about people who migrated to America from Europe. After arriving, they wrote back home about how wonderful it was and how much easier life was. That may or may not have been true, but either way it had the same effect: their friends and neighbors in the Old Country soon followed. As a result, genealogical studies have shown that large groups from one area in Europe mostly settled in the same small areas in the United States. If you know where you’re ancestor lived after migrating to America, a little historical research on the area can help narrow down your search for their ancestral homeland from, “Germany,” for example, to a part of Germany or even a cluster of villages in a particular part of what was then Prussia.

Curt’s also a fan of the “insomnia-busting” bibliographies. He loves bibliographies, footnotes and endnotes because they lead to more information that you many not have known about or thought to look at. And he really pushed learning about immigration patterns in general to better understand when, where and why people moved.

Overall message: genealogy is more than people; it’s sociology, demography, and social history. Don’t ignore those bits!

Next, there were a couple of sessions on using maps in researching family history by Matt Knutzen, He is the newly-minted Director of the Humanities and Social Sciences Research Division at the New York Public Library Stephen A. Schwartzman Building. He shared some amazing stuff that the NYPL is doing with their maps collections that will make them more accessible to the public as well as turn them into a fount of useful data. They’ll go from an image on a sheet of paper to a time machine, showing a vast array of information as cities and places changed through time and space. It sounds way out-of-this-world put that way, but it was fascinating stuff!

It starts with the Map Warper, which allows to overlay a historical map onto a current-day view of the same area. That in and of itself is way cool, especially when you’re trying to find places that no longer exist, like a farm from the 18th century that is now in the middle of a suburb in a major metropolitan area. But then it got even grander!

There are a host of other projects they are working on, particularly focused on New York City, that will make maps come alive. They range from plotting historical photographs and news events to the locations where they occurred; diagraming buildings and building types, with their historic addresses so we can get a better sense of how people lived and their economic statuses; cataloging old menus from restaurants, many of which no longer exist, giving us a better idea of the neighborhood life; extracting historical data from oral narratives and tagging the information on city maps. There are so many uses for this sort of technology in family history!

Even better, the whole goal is to make it available to the public, and make the software completely open-source and available to other libraries and organizations to do the same in their areas. Check out some of what they’re working on at labs.nypl.org, and particularly check out the NYC Space/Time Directory project to learn how you can help with data extractions.

Overall message: again, our ancestors lived in a bigger world than just their families. Get to know their neighborhoods to understand their stories. And technology is our BEST. FRIEND. EVER!

Third-cousin Matt Knutzen and me

Third-cousin Matt Knutzen and me

Of course, it wouldn’t be a genealogy conference without a cousin encounter. During Matt’s introduction to using maps in family history research, he used his own family as an example, and their were some very familiar names. We share a great-great grandfather, William Van Orden Carbine, making us third-cousins. During his presentation, he shared some stories that I had never heard before. I’m excited to start looking into that part of my family again, and connecting with him to learn more about what he’s found.

Finally, there was the incomparable Judy Russell, JD, CG, CGL. I never pass up a session with Judy if I can help it. She’s such a good story-teller (and she’s got some good ones), and she’s just so dang entertaining! And I LOVE her intensity about family history and stories. Her session was about using court records to tell the story of our ancestors’ lives. I was particularly interested in this session because I recently received a LOT of court records with some great and some not-so-flattering stories, and I was curious to see what other insights I could gain from her about how to use and share them.

Like the other presentations, it wasn’t just about using the records that involve our ancestors. Yes, those are good because they tell specific stories about our particular people. But even if our ancestors steered clear of the law–and they rarely did because everything involves legal records of some kind–court records can give us a glimpse of what life was like in a given area at a particular time. They can tell about the economics of the time; how much a funeral cost; what was happening in the area they lived; what types of people they lived amongst; and so much more. Again, it’s about the story of their lives, which is so much more than names, dates, and places.

It was a long, full day. The exhibit hall has some great stuff as well. I had a good discussion with the folks at Family Tree DNA about some curious results in my husband’s DNA. His second-cousin had the same results, so I’m thinking about looking into that more with them. And I’m excited about today’s genetic genealogy track sessions.

Now…COFFEE!

Our “lumbersexual” ancestors

I was looking through pictures of my ancestors and noticed, particularly with my great-great grandfathers, that they tended to sport pretty amazing beards.

Henry William Miller

Great-great-great grandfather Henry William Miller

Joseph Edouard Clausse

Great-great grandfather Joseph Edouard Clausse

This got me thinking about genetics, and wondering what I would have looked like in a day when beards like this were in fashion.

Fortunately for me, the “lumbersexual” is the new thing now. The beard, plaid shirts, scruffy hair. Ok, so they weren’t true “lumbersexuals”. No plaid (at least not in these pictures). And the hair is what it is. But most were farmers of some sort, so I’m sure they weren’t all cleaned-up like this on a daily basis.

Great-great grandfather Hyrum Rands

Great-great grandfather Hyrum Rands

Great-great grandfather William van Orden Carbine

Great-great grandfather William van Orden Carbine

So, I’m doing a little experiment in genetics. It’s an easy experiment. Doesn’t take much work–in fact, less work than normal. I’m just going to stop shaving for a while and see which ancestor I resemble the most beard-wise.

And, since I live in Buffalo and winter is ALWAYS just around the corner, it’ll make for some good insulation. Here’s too facial hair!

Shana Tova—A Good Year to All

This particular post really spoke to me, so I share it with you.

“And for the world, I will hope for peace and for a way to protect and shelter all those people all over the world who have been uprooted and seen their lives and families destroyed by war, poverty, and hatred. Today is the 14th anniversary of the day that showed us all what hatred can do. May we finally learn from it.”

Brotmanblog: A Family Journey

Once again I find myself in the midst of the early September craziness after a long, relaxing summer: several family birthdays and anniversaries, school starting (well, not for me anymore, but for my husband), and preparation for the Jewish holidays.  In my spare time, I am trying to put together the pieces of my Schoenthal research slowly but surely.  But for the next week or so, I won’t have much time to write anything coherent about my research, so I will be taking a short break.

That seems appropriate as this is the time of year when I am supposed to be contemplating the year past and making decisions about the year to come.  It’s a time to be thoughtful and thankful.  A time of making amends and making resolutions.

So I wish all who celebrate a wonderful holiday with time for your families and…

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Solid evidence for Everhardus George Frederik van Pletzen

When I ordered a bunch of Boer War compensation claim files from the National Archives in Pretoria, South Africa, I never thought they would turn out to be the golden ticket!

The van Pletzen Saga

Up until today, the only evidence I had to connect my family’s ancestors to the original van Pletzen immigrant to South Africa, Carel Johannes van Pletzen, was the Van Pletsen Saga itself. Today, however, that has changed. Thanks to the help of the Genealogical Society of South Africa, I received digital photos of several compensation claims filed by various van Pletzens after the Boer War. One of them was my great-great grandfather-in-law, Everhardus George Frederik (EGF) van Pletzen.

These files have a lot of fascinating information. Foremost, they contain detailed accounts of each individual’s experience in the Boer War. In EGF’s case, he didn’t fight with the commandoes because he was “an invalid.” It tells of his movement from the farm Gryskop in Zastron to the refugee camp at Aliwal North in May 1901. And it contains the witness testimony about his property loss claims of Susara Johanna Engelbrecht, who identifies…

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Wills and Probate Records at Ancestry.com

Ancestry.com recently released their “U.S. Wills and Probate Records” collection, and it’s free this weekend (until Sep. 7). I’ve been having a good time randomly searching for family names to see what I find. I’ve already saved quite a few records to my Shoebox so that I can look at them more later.

Wills and probate records have some great information in them that can tell you a lot about who your ancestors were. Not only will they sometimes mention family members and relationships, but they’ll tell a lot about what they valued–their possessions, land, livestock, business relationships, etc. All these details can help to paint a picture of your ancestor’s life.

One of the wills I found is for my great-great-great grandfather, William Snow. He was a Mormon pioneer, had six wives, and many children. One of the issues I’ve had with him is trying to determine exactly which children belonged to which wife. This is where his will is a godsend. He leaves each of his four surviving wives, Sally Adams Snow, Jane Mariah Shearer Snow, Ann Rogers Snow, and Roxana Leavitt Snow, the houses they lived in at the time, their household possessions,  and some land for each, with detailed descriptions of where that land is. He leaves $100 worth of stock in the “Z. C. Rio-Virgen Manufacturing Company” to “my oldest daughter Abigail Kesler whose mother was Hannah Miles deceased”. All other possessions should be divided up among his wives by the executor, according to the number of children of each, and then he lists all his children:

Their children now living as far as I know are: 1st Sally’s children – Julia Maria; Sarah S; Emma L; Chloe Louisa; Lucy Almira; Margaret and William James; To which I add Sariah H. (daugher of my deceased wife Lydia Leavitt) whom Sally adopted and raised and whom I wish to heir with Sally’s children:-
Jane Maria’s children are William; Mariah; Mary Lorena; and Mason:-
The children of Ann are Willard; Jeter; Celestia; Charles; Frank; Bernalla and Orrin Henry:- Roxana’s children by me are Melissa and John L.

So by no means should you overlook wills and probate records. They can contain valuable information to help you sort out relationships, and clues for other records (like land deeds) to look for.