Thursday, August 16, 2018

Did your ancestor get sent off with a 35-line memorial poem?

My great-grandfather's oldest brother, Joel Thrall (1792-1827), went from Vermont to Quebec to Ohio, where he died outside of Columbus, leaving behind him a mysterious widow (wife #3), a trail of bad debts, a skeleton (in addition to his own), and a 35-line memorial mourning poem.

I knew nothing of this when I set out to write him up. (Beware those dull-seeming relatives!)

The first part of his story is now out in the summer issue of the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, AKA The Journal of American Genealogy. The second and last part (scheduled for fall) follows Joel's son Homer (with wife #1), who became a Methodist missionary in Texas and a Confederate apologist, and his daughter Rachel (with wife #2), whose grandchildren are scattered across Canada and the U.S. She is the source of all of Joel's living descendants, but he was not present at her christening. It seems unlikely that she knew him, but she and half-brother Homer probably met when he paid a flying visit to Quebec in later life (1884).

FYI would-be writers: The Register is not all New England all the time; it is interested in out-migrations as well.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Another look at old reference books

Last week I got to spend some time in a college town (Charleston, Illinois), and I picked up a nice hefty reference book in a used-book store: The Reader's Companion to American History, edited by Eric Foner and John A. Garraty (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991). It's just the kind of thing to have on hand to check up whether you need an upgrade on who exactly Elizabeth Blackwell was, or a quick look at agriculture (and especially when Wikipedia is having a bad day).

I didn't pay much attention to the publication date -- those who work with dead people rarely need historical context for the last 27 years -- but when I reviewed the titles of the entries I realized that the book itself is a historical artifact and a creature of its time. The Cold War was just barely over; Bush I was president; many individuals with entries (Benjamin Spock) were still alive.

There are no entries for computers, technology, terrorism, or trolls. I found myself wondering what the large group of historians involved would have added and subtracted if they were tasked with producing a similar book of similar length (1226 pages) today. What would they cut to make way for more recent events and conditions?

None of this made me regret my purchase; quite the opposite. It is in fact a member of an interesting group of books: the last of the enormous compendia, like Hoosier Faiths or Ancestry's Red Book. It's a relic of a time, not really that long ago, when information was relatively scarce. It's not just a well-grounded source for earlier history, it is itself a part of history too. (And a still-changing part: I see a Kindle edition is available.)

Monday, August 6, 2018

Another reason why mug books are a starting point, not an end point

Sometimes good research on a poorly-thought-out question leaves thing -- appropriately -- unclear. In the March 2018 issue of Indiana Genealogist (which just appeared in my mailbox), South Bend librarian Greaa Fisher investigates the supposed "first white child born in Fort Wayne." There are multiple candidates. Past accounts apparently gave preference to the offspring of families who stuck around or were not French.