Category Archives: Family Stories

Genealogical instincts

Over time and practice a family historian develops an instinct for when a recorded fact does not make sense. The following examples may serve as illustrations of genealogy as more art than science.

Thirty-seven years ago, my uncle-by-marriage, Bill Shea, made an ancestral pilgrimage to Ireland in pursuit of his County Cork great-grandparents, Dennis Shea and Eva Bard. He did not find them. Later I commented to Bill that Eva Bard was not an Irish name and seemed an unlikely match with Dennis Shea in Catholic Ireland during the last third of the nineteenth century. “How do you know her name was Eva Bard?” He replied, “That’s the name of the mother on grandfather’s death certificate.” Continue reading Genealogical instincts

Passing the torch

Portland’s current mayor, Ted Wheeler, poses with our former principal. During senior year, Ted served as class president and I as class historian, so I guess we both ran true to form!

I recently attended a gala celebrating the 150th anniversary of my high school in Portland, Oregon. When I was a student there, and even at its 125th anniversary, Lincoln was billed as the oldest public high school west of the Mississippi. However, it turns out that Lowell High School in San Francisco (presumed to be private because it’s open to only a few select students, like Boston Latin) was actually the first. Curiously enough, both schools use the colors red and white; they share the cardinal as mascot. This coincidence is even stranger when one considers that zero cardinals live on the West Coast! Continue reading Passing the torch

Dom Vitale’s war

Some of Dom Vitale’s fellow soldiers.

Last year, while going through boxes of old photos at my dad’s house, we came across a plastic bag containing hundreds of photos taken by my great-uncle Dominic Vitale during the Second World War. The photos were curled and disorganized, but on the backs of many of the photos Uncle Dom had written the names of his buddies who were in the photos, as well as dates, locations, and the names of their hometowns. I took the photos home with me, hoping to find a way to organize them electronically and eventually find relatives of his army buddies who would appreciate seeing them. Continue reading Dom Vitale’s war

Elusive sources

From time to time while researching someone’s family history, I incidentally come across a piece of information that catches my attention or leaves me intrigued. Recently I found myself in this situation while researching a family in the town of Lee, Oneida County, New York. As I often do, I searched local histories for this area of New York State to try and gather more clues for further research.

Our County and its People: A Descriptive Work on Oneida County, New York, edited by Daniel E. Wager, mentions a Colonel Alpheus Wheelock and his wife Rachel. This source claimed that Rachel was actually “a famous female physician.”[1] However, a search of the rest of this source showed no additional information about Rachel. This stuck with me and I sought to find more information about Colonel Wheelock’s “famous” wife. Continue reading Elusive sources

A troubled Sage

Courtesy of Colorado.ourcommunitynow.com.

In my mother’s house, there was a small placard stuck to the fridge near the breakfast nook. It was one of those silly magnets mom had probably picked up at Target a long time back, you know, before Y2K might have destroyed the world as we know it. A notion really, the placard was inscribed with one of those quasi-wise sayings that, along with our mother’s penchant for feeding all the neighborhood cats, spoke more about mom’s philosophy of life than she’d ever care to admit. The placard read:

“Insanity does not run in my family, rather it strolls through taking its time, getting to know everyone personally.”[1] Continue reading A troubled Sage

A Loyalist!

Grave marker of Daniel Ward (1700-1777). Courtesy of Findagrave.com

As this month will mark the 244th anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord (where my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Jason Russell was killed by British troops), I decided to do a search to see how many patriot ancestors I had. I used the “Ancestor Search” on the website of the Daughters of the American Revolution. This does not necessarily identify all patriots, but rather those for whom a descendant has joined that organization, with caveats that not all service may qualify today.

Using this search, I found 23 direct ancestors who served in the Revolutionary War. I also know of at least one more ancestor, Joseph Tourtellotte, who was not listed here, but had a wonderful pension record, bringing my total to 24. Continue reading A Loyalist!

The long way around

My ancestors are like everyone else’s ancestors, I suspect: entertaining, frustrating, sometimes obstinately invisible, always playing hide and seek, changing our perspectives and perceptions of them and of ourselves. They leave us their legacies and properties, perhaps confident that we will care for them as they themselves would without considering that we might develop other plans. Continue reading The long way around

“A perfect ‘Sallie Ward’”

Sallie Ward Lawrence Hunt Armstrong Downs (1827-1896) by George Peter Alexander Healy. Courtesy of Wikipedia.org

She was once a by-word for her beauty, with “a curious kind of popularity, more like that of a French princess in her hereditary province, in whom her people claimed a sort of ownership, than the simple admiration of republicans for a fair being highly favored of fortune. If a child had a pet kitten or a bird of remarkable beauty, it was fondly named ‘Sallie Ward.’ If a farmer rejoiced in the possession of a young lamb or heifer which he wanted to praise to the utmost degree of comparison, he would recommend it as ‘a perfect “Sallie Ward.”’ She was the ideal of all that was pure, and sacred to young people who saw her only at a distance in her father’s carriage, or walking, attended, or at church.”[1]

Sallie Ward Lawrence Hunt Armstrong Downs,[2] to give her her full array of names, was one of the most famous of the antebellum belles, the prototype of a beauty that, a generation later, would be captured by the still and then the moving picture camera. Continue reading “A perfect ‘Sallie Ward’”

Generations and geography

Anna Wassel and her family. Photo courtesy of Brittany Contratto

Recently I had an opportunity to assist someone through a consultation. She was searching for the Lithuanian origins of her great-great-great-grandparents, James and Anna Wassel. The information sent to me prior to the consultation had me hitting my head against the same brick walls that she and her family had experienced, and I was getting nervous that I might not be able to offer much in the way of guidance when we met. However, the morning of the consultation, I took another look at the family and two things jumped out at me that I had overlooked previously – undoubtedly because I didn’t have all my attention on the problem (the hazard of working a genealogical reference desk). Continue reading Generations and geography

What they endured

Detail from the Gallery of Maps. Click on image to expand it

As I prepared for a recent visit to Europe, I conducted some preliminary research, both on the new destinations I would be visiting and on my ancestral patrilineal village, where I would be staying for a few days. Like many readers, I revel in the historical aspects of travel, and I try to make connections to my personal genealogy whenever possible. Understanding the context in which an ancestor lived adds so much more complexity and depth to characters who may otherwise only appear in birth, marriage, and death records. Paying attention to details that are not immediately relevant can often lead to great future discoveries. Continue reading What they endured