Friday, February 26, 2010

A different take on 19th-century law

On H-Net, Timothy S. Huebner reviews Laura F. Edwards's new book The People and Their Peace: Legal Culture and the Transformation of Inequality in the Post-Revolutionary South,
(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009). The book is based on micro-research in six counties in North and South Carolina. This passage from the review caught my attention, and it wouldn't surprise me if something similar were true in other regions, especially near the frontier:

Courts developed around magistrates in order to deal with more serious
offenses, but Edwards convincingly shows that in the final analysis
the people wielded considerable power within this system. Possessing
a deep sense of their responsibility to the community, as well as a
basic understanding of local legal processes, men and women--whether
black or white, rich or poor--routinely brought complaints against
others for breaching the peace. Such complaints empowered individuals
at the same time that they preserved existing hierarchy. "Local
officials considered complaints on a case-by-case basis, righting
specific wrongs done to the metaphorical public body without extending
additional rights to any category of dependents," Edwards explains (p.
110). Thus, local officials responding to complaints could "undercut
the domestic authority of one husband or one master" without making
any generalized rule that affected husbands or masters (p. 110).

I haven't met up with the book itself yet, but I hope to soon.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Got Van Buren County ancestors?

A nice set of 1906 township plat maps for Van Buren County, Michigan, is available on line through Michigan State University. If you're rusty on Michigan geography, Van Buren is the second county up Lake Michigan on the west side of the state, just north of Berrien (St. Joseph) and just west of Kalamazoo. If your research target owned land there, you can find them, but it'll be a quicker process if you know which township.

P.S. OOPS...somewhere along the line I forgot to remember to mention that my first sight of this link was over at In Deeds. Thanks!!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

thanks... those who voted MMH into the good company of Family Tree Magazine's top 40 genealogy blogs. Others in the "regional & local" category hail from Sandusky and California. Check out the whole list. I've already found some I should be reading -- and quoting!

Monday, February 22, 2010


The news is not good from Michigan. For all those who live or work there, here's the informative letter from the Michigan Genealogical Council on the situation as of February 21. The Library of Michigan faces a 23% budget cut; its staff will soon be reduced to 30 (once it was 100); and many services and non-Michigan holdings are likely to be terminated. Lobbying may help a little, but we may have to hope that institutions with better funding will be able to take up some of the slack.

Hoosiers shouldn't look down on Michigan's troubles; the Indiana State Archives has been poorly housed, underfunded, and understaffed for many years. The staff and volunteers are great, but they need better support.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Part of Berrien County, Michigan, is in Kalamazoo?

Recently I quoted a non-genealogist archives user on the value of consulting with the keepers of the records -- well, the other day the advice came to life when Sharon Carlson, the director of Western Michigan University's Archives and Regional History Collections in Kalamazoo, advised me to go beyond the newspaper research I had planned and consult the index created by former director Wayne C. Mann as part of his own research.

It's actually more what I would call a "living index," because he photocopied various newspaper articles and other items, and filed one copy each under each surname mentioned in the article. No brick walls collapsed, but I found information on friends and associates of my research target that I never could have in any other way.

It's been microfilmed (43 reels!) and the Family History Library calls it "The Southern Berrien County, Michigan Index" and notes that it tends to cover the townships on either side of the state line from Rolling Prairie to South Bend on the Indiana side and Berrien and St. Joseph counties on the Michigan side. So, depending on your geographical orientation, you may wish to consult this Berrien County resource either in Kalamazoo or Salt Lake City.

(And just FYI: if you're looking for Berrien County probate court records after 1838, you'll find them, not in Kalamazoo, but in Berrien Springs at the Berrien County Historical Association, which is an archive as well.)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Why didn't my ancestors stop in Crawfordsville?

Valerie Beaudrault at the New England Historical and Genealogical Society's Enews (10 February) calls attention to the awesome amount of digitized information for west central Indiana's Montgomery County at the Crawfordsville Public Library District web site.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Research Confidential: How to Visit an Archive

The new anthology edited by Northwestern University sociologist Eszter Hargittai, Research Confidential: Solutions to Problems Most Social Scientists Pretend They Never Have (University of Michigan Press), features young researchers telling more truth than usual about the details of their research work. Some of the chapters are very relevant to genealogy, oral history, and microhistory.

My favorite one-liner came from editor Hargittai from the introduction: "Good research takes longer than you expect. . . . If one is lucky, the work will only take twice as long as planned." {3}

There's some amazing material on interviews after 9/11 and with people of different social classes and ethnicities than your own. But in the end my favorite of the individual contributions was Jason Gallo on doing archival research:

Having gained access to the collection, located a suitable desk, table, or carrel to set up your equipment, and then head straight to a reference librarian or archival specialist. This is perhaps the most important task on your first day . . . . On your first visit you will make dozens of mistakes; however, the biggest mistake that you can make is not to ask a trained professional to help you with your research. . . . A professional can point you toward that record groupo, box, series, or folder of documents that contains the missing piece -- the needle in the haystack -- of your research puzzle.

I have no idea what these people think about genealogy, but we and they clearly face, and hopefully surmount, many of the same situations.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Midwestern genealogy from Vermont!

With some labor I have finally assembled all six installments of the mega-article by Joan A. Hunter, CG, "An Overland Journey from Vermont to Illinois as Recollected by Mary Holton (1793-1874) with a Genealogical Summary," published in Vermont Genealogy (full citations at end of post, back issues available for sale). These New Englanders were long-lived, prolific, and accomplished, so it will come as no surprise that Mary Holton's account occupies the first eight pages, and the genealogical summary the remaining 68! (For those with particular interest in the Holton family, the summary involves the children, grandchildren, and (in child lists) great-grandchildren of Joel Holton5 (1738-1821) of Northfield, Massachusetts and Westminster, Vermont.)

I don't know when I ever would have found this if I hadn't happened across an extra copy of Vermont Genealogy in the Porter County Public Library in Valparaiso, Indiana (which, by the way, does a far better job of making recent issues of regional and national genealogical publications available than many libraries with bigger names). The article covers family members in Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, California, and Oregon, including early settlers of places as far removed as Ashland, Oregon, and Crown Point, Indiana.

The heart of the story is in McDonough County in west-central Illinois. In the fall of 1835, eighteen Holtons made the 14-week overland journey there from Westminster, the adults being William (son of Joel) and Olive Holton, then in their 60s, and their sons William Jr. and Isaac with their families, ages six months to 64 years. Everyone made it, even though two of the babies were not expected to survive the trip; one account says they would move the baby to see if it was still alive.

Isaac had prepared well ahead of time, having purchased 160 acres in Tennessee Township, McDonough County, in 1833. (The land was in the Military Tract set aside for veterans of the War of 1812; suffice to say that Isaac did not buy it from the original veteran.) In 1849 one branch of the family acquired the first piano in the county, which people came from miles to see.

As any genealogical research will, this one finds facts that don't fit the expected historical generalities. The Holtons did not use the Erie Canal; many of them settled in McDonough, but several went back east and many others later continued on west. In other ways, they are familiar in their enthusiasms: some family members embraced Universalism and Spiritualism; another, whose story is not told or followed, apparently married the utopian experimenter John Humphrey Noyes. Another was memorialized as a founder of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society. No summary can do justice to these many gathered facts. My main wish is that the article were longer (!), as the author did not make use of the agricultural schedules of the US census.

I am grateful that Vermont Genealogy saw fit to print such a wide-ranging tale, big enough to occupy two entire issues of the magazine if it had been published all at once. It will be a good day when genealogy can support a respected publishing venue that could make an article of this type readily available in one place. Here are the citations for those who choose to seek it out. You won't be sorry.

"An Overland Journey from Vermont to Illinois as Recollected by Mary Holton (1793-1874) with a Genealogical Summary," Vermont Genealogy
10(4):183-209, October 2005
12(3):110-123, July 2007
12(4):164-171, October 2007
13(2):84-96, April 2008
13(3):116-123, July 2008
13(4):174-179, October 2008

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Midwestern genealogy in Utah

The Utah Genealogical Association's quarterly Crossroads (December 2009, volume 5, no. 1) has two articles featuring Midwesterners:

"An Illinois Farmer in Utah Territory and Subsequent Return of the Native," by Gerald M. Haslam, who uses a diary and other sources to reconstruct the gritty lives of ordinary people in the coal-mining area of Peoria County, Illinois, (the Edwards and Hanna City area) in the 1890s, when A. J. Rynearson returned to proselytize among his neighbors and relations for his Mormon faith. In retrospect the author acknowledges that Rynearson was more successful as a historian/genealogist than as an evangelist. If you have research targets in this area, you know that candid descriptions of daily life in communities like this are hard to come by -- don't miss these! Even allowing for the fact of Rynearson's being present during the worst depression before the 1930s, it still sounds pretty rough.

"When the Name's Not the Same," by yours truly, focusing on the intertwined problems of identity, relationship, and nomenclature in the family of Lorson/Larson/Lawson/Lewis Barnum, of DuPage, Whiteside, and Cook counties in Illinois.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Methodology Monday with the unexpected in OGSQ

The current issue of the Ohio Genealogical Society Quarterly (Winter 2009, volume 49, no. 4) had two high points for me -- first, the wonderful cover picture of the Latta family of Monroe County, Ohio, with their musical instruments 120 years ago; and second, Kelly Holderbaum's prize-winning article, "The Life of Dollie Salicia (Littrick) Stone [1909-2000]." I won't give away the tale, which comes from Putnam County, but great-grandmother Dollie's parents were not who everyone thought or said publicly. Read the whole thing at your library, or join OGS already!

The methodological point is to pay attention to conflicting evidence. Some genealogists would have hesitated or hung back or just "forgot," when they found a record that contradicted everything the family "knew" about Dollie's parentage. Holderbaum challenged the family secret. "With my Granny," she writes in conclusion, "I have learned that you never know where your research will take you, just be open and never give up. Those puzzle pieces do fit together somewhere."

Friday, February 5, 2010

Bookends Friday: The Genealogist and "Empire of Liberty"

I really should just pony up for a subscription to The Genealogist, possibly the most obscure of the top-echelon genealogy magazines. The other day I came across a free library duplicate of the Spring 2003 issue containing an excellent and lengthy article by Cameron Allen, "Lucinda Depp and Her Descendants: A Freed Black Family of Virginia and Ohio," a companion to an earlier article tracing the white Depp family from Powhatan County, Virginia, to central Ohio.

The black Depps were freed under an 1801 deed of emancipation (effective on the death of the grantor and wife), and John Depp's 1829 will, probated in 1831. Allen writes:

The most startling fact in the settlement of Depp's estate was the extreme expedition with which it was accomplished on the heels of the death of his widow, Elizabeth. Her will, made on 7 January 1835, was proved on 2 February 1835 in Powhatan County. In just two weeks from the probate of her will, all the land left to the freed slave family was sold and all the slaves not freed by the will of John Depp were sold on 16 and 17 February 1835. That has to be a record! ... Quite obviously the four projected grantees under the will had decided [ahead of time] ... that they would not take title, but, rather, sell their interest through the executor of the will and take the cash to start a new life elsewhere.
About the time I read this I had just finished Gordon S. Wood's magisterial (and to me very informative) Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815. One of his major themes is how the high-minded cosmopolitan visions of the Founders generation morphed into the bumptious, militantly provincial, and rather raw democratic enthusiasm of the next generation. (Just compare the characters of George Washington and Andrew Jackson.)

A tragic part of that story is that in the 1790s there were some good reasons to think that slavery was on the way out, in part because it grossly contradicted the ideals of liberty that had animated the American Revolution. Virginia slaveholders were less willing to break up families; Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and other southerners deplored the institution's injustice; new evangelical Baptist and Methodist denominations stood against slavery; the College of William and Mary conferred an honorary degree on the British abolitionist Granville Sharp.

It was a false dawn. A combination of technological changes, fear that the black revolution in Haiti might spread, and a few actual slave conspiracies turned things ugly. The evangelicals backed off; in 1806 a new Virginia law required freed slaves to leave the state; and the ideology of racism was reborn to justify the repression.

In this context it comes as no surprise that the white Depps' estate was probated in record time and that the black Depps had already planned to leave their home for free soil. Virginia's loss was Ohio's gain. History can illuminate genealogy.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Michiganders, man the telephones!

News via the Winter 2010 print newsletter of the Michigan Genealogical Council:

The Library of Michigan is alive, but it has a new URL ( and it's about to take a 20% budget whack. (Call your legislators!) So far they are still able to cooperate with the Archives (which now has a different budget source) in putting records on line. State census records may be next.