Friday, January 29, 2010

Death and the American Civil War

That's the subtitle of Drew Gilpin Faust's acclaimed 2008 book This Republic of Suffering. (And yes, I know I've already posted on it once!) For genealogists in particular it is interesting to know that the war began without any systematic plan for reporting casualties and deaths.

Today it's taken for granted that a warmaking government is responsible to account for the dead to their survivors. "But in 1861, neither the Union nor the Confederate government recognized this as a responsibility." {103} And in practice the plans that were improvised left many thousands of dead never specifically accounted for. Faust writes, "It was in some sense information as much as individuals that was 'missing' in Civil War America." Read the whole thing.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

La Porte County (IN) Genealogical Society has a blog

For those with northwest Indiana interests, my home genealogical society in La Porte County has a new blog, mainly for announcements and accounts of meetings and other activities. Since I'm the secretary I get to make most of the posts, but I will not normally be duplicating posts between this personal blog and that official one. (OK, just this once: If you're in the area, we have an interesting program lined up for February 9.)

Monday, January 25, 2010

Methodology Monday: another look at "mug books"

Those old county histories have always been a bit dodgy sources for genealogy -- requiring vigilance at least, and a realization that they left out those who couldn't afford listing -- but there is also good reason not to take their history without several grains of salt.

A new book from the University of Minnesota Press (not seen by me, said to be due out in March or April) goes into this in some detail. In Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England, historian Jean M. O'Brien drew on "more than six hundred local histories from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island written between 1820 and 1880" whose authors "insisted, often in mournful tones, that New England's original inhabitants, the Indians, had become extinct, even though many Indians still lived in the very towns being chronicled."

Friday, January 22, 2010

Half as many kids 1790-1840

There is a school of thought among some genealogists that one ought not to write about things that would have embarrassed one's ancestors if they were alive to hear or read it. If you are in that school, you should definitely not betake yourself to a good library (or this link) and you should definitely not read historian Gloria L. Main's article "Rocking the Cradle: Downsizing the New England Family," Journal of Interdisciplinary History 37(1):35-58, published in 2006.

OK. Now for the rest of us: like most scholarly articles, this one is part of an ongoing conversation and is very condensed in style (especially as to statistical methods). And so it's always hazardous for a newcomer and non-historian to jump in and quote, because I may not be able to distinguish between what Main says that is new to the conversation and what is old hat, or between the accepted facts and her new and less fully accepted ideas. (Also I don't know if the conversation has advanced in the subsequent four years.) But it is a conversation genealogists might want to have an ear on.

The fact is that New England families average only about half as many children in 1790-1840 as they had before. The mystery is how and why. Main writes,

Ordinary families living in New England's countryside who avoided or terminated pregnancies did so without the aid of any new contraceptive technology or medical knowledge. ... it was far more difficult to prevent babies in the New England of 1800 than it is today in Bangladesh.
She draws on the rich well of New England vital records and family histories, noting that "The best of them have been refereed by professionals and published by reputable presses." She also has some interesting things to say about them that affect both their genealogical and historical value: "Since male heads of large households generated longer paper trails, genealogies are inevitable biased toward large families iwth many male descendants." Of course there's also the Revolutionary-era decline in record-keeping and increase in mobility. But "under-recording of births and deaths, especially of females, by town clerks in New England occurred from the outset." She's got the numbers.

Main also has a detailed discussion of the few ways that New Englanders could have limited their family size. For this venue, suffice to say it was not easy or fun. So why did they do it? The statistics she marshals do not suggest that children had become an economic burden, but they may have become a time burden. Fewer babies do correlate with less farming in a county as of 1820, and also with more meetinghouses and libraries than average. Main's suggestion:
Since women outnumbered men in church membership in early New England and were better educated and more politically aware than ever before, rising female status within the family may explain the greater willingness of men to cooperate in helping their wives avoid pregnancy.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

They were never just farmers

The GenealogyGals don't post every day, but the posts are worth waiting for. My eye was caught by this story from a grandfather's grandfather:

In the winter time [probably 1853-1860] there was absolutely no work for young men around Wakeman, [Huron County, Ohio] just a case of waiting for spring planting. Once the fall crops had been harvested, there’d be several months that they had to wait without much to do. One year, my grandfather saw an ad in the Cincinnati Enquirer asking for woodcutters along the Mississippi to prepare wood for the steam boats. ...
If you can resist clicking to read the whole thing, you're stronger than me.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Genealogy in the phone books Chicago-style

If you do Chicago, you should already be reading the blog ChicagoGenealogy. Today she takes up Chicago telephone books 1878-1971. You'll want to know about them if only because the city directories peter out in the 1920s.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Methodology Monday in 18th-century Louisiana

The discussion group of the Great Lakes APG chapter recently took up an article by Elizabeth Shown Mills published in the July/October 1997 Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Issue of The American Genealogist: "Deliberate Fraud and Mangled Evidence: The Search for the Fictional Family of Anne Marie Philippe of Natchitoches, Louisiana." (If you haven't heard Mills speak and are a Midwesterner, don't even try to pronounce that place name.)

The article is worth digging out of your nearest good genealogy library even if you don't have research targets in the 1700s in that territory, because it's at least a three-in-one. (Copies are still available for $20 from the TAG website.)

For one thing, it shows show even the best genealogical research has a kind of spiral character, in which you examine a set of records, then another, and then later return to the first set knowing enough more to see the same records with new eyes. For another, it ties the genealogical puzzle into the story of a chilling fragment of German history. (No spoilers here!) For a third, it chronicles a bit of the author's own journey from neophyte to sadder but wiser.

And finally, read it for the inspiration. At one stage in the research, essential information from parish registers was finally being made available -- but only in a compilation of poorly indexed abstracts, the originals remaining unavailable. Mills writes,

At this point persistent researchers part company from the fainthearted. Solving this research problem required a word-for-word, page-by-page reading of the entire volume -- indeed more than one such reading, to absorb all clues amid a myriad of name variations and phonetic spellings. {358}
Will you recognize that point when you come to it?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Empire of Liberty

That's the title of historian Gordon S. Wood's new history of the early republic, 1789-1815 -- 738 fascinating pages on a period so fuzzy and dull in my recollection that I almost didn't pick it up off the library shelf.

Having finished it, I'm glad I did pick it up. Not only does Wood understand the cast of characters, he understands what was happening. Textbooks and summaries portray this period in general, and the War of 1812 in particular, as a second war for independence. True as far as it goes, but false in the implication of a natural and foreseen unfolding.

This was a generation of surprises. From most of the Founders' point of view, the new country veered wildly out of control. Americans in 1815 were more commercial-minded, more egalitarian, and less willing to defer to their "betters" than any of the Founders were comfortable with.

The Revolutionary leaders....had an opportunity to realize an ideal world, to put the broadminded and tolerant principles of the Enlightenment into practice, to become a homogeneous, compassionate, and cosmopolitan people, and to create the kind of free and ordered society and illustrious culture that people since the Greeks and Romans had yearned for....

But little worked out quite as the founders expected.... their high-minded promise to end slavery and respect the rights of the native peoples were no match for the surging demographic forces accelerated by the Revolution. ...

The transformation Americans had experienced was unintended, for the character they celebrated in Andrew Jackson and the Hunters of Kentucky -- the romantic, undisciplined, and untutored heroes of the battle of New Orleans of 1815 -- was scarcely the character they had sought in 1789. The bumptious nationalism and the defiant abandonment of Europe expressed at the end of the War of 1812 were both repudiations of the enlightened and cosmopolitan ideals of the Revolution and attempts to come to terms with the largely unanticipated popular commercial society that had emerged from the Revolution.

Read it and discover a new aspect of your ancestors' world. And if you're looking for something about this period but a little more specialized, let his 13-page postscript bibliographical essay be your guide.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Winter 2009 Illinois State Quarterly

Three feature articles stand out in the current issue of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly:

* Sheryl Trudgian Jones tells the story behind the story of the Lillian Trudgian diaries of Galena, Illinois, now playing on her blog, "Leaves on the Trudgian Tree."

* Eric Willey enumerates the sources for Illinois divorce records from 1809 to 1961. Believe it or not, there are some statewide indexes!

* David C. Bailey, Sr., gives the first part of Union Civil War burials in Scott County.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Midwest in NGSQ

The 2009 winner of the National Genealogical Society's writing contest, Kay Haviland Freilich, CG, systematically checks out her ancestor's three-page life story and finds it mostly accurate in the December issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly: "Verifying the Autobiography of Mary (Seeds) Haviland." The family moved back and forth in a dizzying fashion, starting and ending in eastern Pennsylvania, but in the meantime frequenting Ohio, Kansas, Missouri, and southern California.

As NGSQ articles go this is a relaxing read in that there are no mind-bending methodologies or convoluted problems of identity. I learned that I had better never assume that when anybody moves, they move west! A nice touch is the agricultural information for the Paschal Seeds family from the 1885 Kansas state census; I would love to have seen how the Seeds family's farm (including a significant orchard) compared to their neighbors'.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Is your source in Google Books under a wrong name?

Those with better sound quality than mine will want to listen to a YouTube snippet embedded in David Walsh's report from the American Historical Association conference in San Diego. In it, Prof. Paul Duguid of UC Berkeley's School of Information criticizes GoogleBooks for mishandling "metadata," or in plain language, getting book titles, authors, and dates wrong. (Commenters please add or correct if I have missed anything pertinent due to poor audio.)

There are big-picture policy reasons to be worried about this (primarily that Google may already have squeezed out any significant competition, and their scanning may be the definitive one), but from the practicing genealogist's worm's-eye view, the moral is to treat the Google One just like any other source: prone to error. Look for variants, mistakes, and alternative ways of searching.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Bookends: Lest we forget

Something for genealogists working with mid-19th-century US ancestors to keep in mind (emphasis added):

"The Civil War matters to us today because it ended slavery and helped to define the meanings of freedom, citizenship, and equality," writes Drew Gilpin Faust in This Republic of Suffering. "It established a newly centralized nation-state and launched it on a trajectory of economic expansion and world influence. But for those Americans who lived in and through the Civil War, the texture of the experience, its warp and woof, was the presence of death." {xiii}

Friday, January 1, 2010

More ways to get to Fort Wayne

The Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library has its own blog and a Facebook page, as well as an e-newsletter "Genealogy Gems" previously noted here. Blog and Facebook offer links to three important resources at the library: the main catalog, the separate microtext catalog, and the online databases. The socially inclined can become fans.