Research Tip of the Week

This week my tip is about a simple grade school concept that can be helpful in organizing your genealogical research. I think we all learned how to make a simple timeline at some point in early education. The concept is simple. A straight line with marks to show notable events in chronological order.

Family History Timelines

In family history research creating timelines can be a quick and straightforward way to visually understand what documents you need to find as part of your research. No fancy software or websites required; I often jot down a quick timeline on scratch paper with a pencil. For more elaborate timelines there are software programs and websites that allow the creation of detailed timelines.

A quick refresher

The concept is simple. A line, typically straight, from left to right. The dates at each end will be determined by the topic of your timeline. If you were researching the lifetime of one ancestor your start date would be the year the person was born, and the end date would be the year of death. Between your start and end dates, fill in events that may have generated records during your ancestor’s lifetime.

What to include?

Any records that your ancestor generated between your start and end dates are worth considering for inclusion on your timeline. Census records are a document that people in the United States generate every decade. If your ancestor lived in the United States between 1790 and today, census records might be an item to list on your timeline. If your ancestor lived during a period of military conflict, they may have generated records related to that event. Marriage is another even that leaves a paper trail that you may want to list on your timeline. The birth of children is another noteworthy event to include.

Why create a timeline?

Timelines can be useful in genealogy in several ways. They can help you build a research plan by showing the records you should be looking for in your research. They can help your research stay on track by letting you easily see the records you have found and the ones that you still need to find. Timelines are especially useful when trying to find determine if a research subject is two people with the same name or the correct person by letting you compare events and places in their timeline. As a tool in the genealogy toolbox, timelines can help push complicated research to the next level.

Genealogy timelines in action

Here is a timeline I have created to help me work on my brick wall ancestor Emma Davis. Emma was my great-great grandmother. I have more questions than answers about Emma. The family lore is that my great-great grandfather, James Spence, left Emma early on in their relationship and took their three young children to Michigan. Further tales tell the story of Emma remarrying and being under the impression that her children with James died in an epidemic and that when her grown children found her later she refused to accept them because she had told her new family the story about their death.

timeline of Emma Davis
Timeline of Emma Davis

A newspaper clipping from 1887 indicate she disappeared from Marblehead, Ohio and I have found no conclusive proof of her existence after that, or a death record. Did Emma drown herself or did she start a new life?

7 April 1887 Stark County Democrat

What is the truth? Who knows? Often records don’t tell the whole story. I want to find as many records as I can so that I might know as much of the story as possible. This timeline helps me organize my research. My research into Emma won’t be complete until I can locate all the documents that she generated during her lifetime.

As I find documents, I can add them and compare my facts with others to make sure things add up and I remain on the correct track. The 1880 census has been especially helpful in eliminating incorrect possibilities. While not impossible, it is improbable that she shows up in two places on the 1880 census.

My timeline for Emma Davis doubles as a research plan. I use excel for mine which allows me to add my documents right to the workbook. I can link the source documents which I have loaded onto another page of the workbook to my timeline. My timeline is visually basic, but it is easy to dress up the worksheet with photos, images, or other eye dressing for situations where you are sharing your information.

Do you use timelines in your genealogy research? What great discoveries have timelines helped you uncover in your searches?

Part Three: Tearing Down Brick Walls – Spence Family Mystery

Finally a Breakthrough?

My Spence line has been a challenge.  Going into my research on this line I had very little knowledge about this branch of my family.  My Grandmother, my connection to this line is still alive and her mind is intact even at 89 years old, but sadly there just isn’t a lot of family knowledge about her father’s family.  Although my Grandmother reports that her own mother was very interested in genealogy and loved history the passion was not passed down to her only daughter so much information was lost to time.

I have spent hundreds of hours scouring records trying to find the pieces that fit the puzzle I had been given.  Most of my sessions have ended in frustration and more questions than answers.  Finally I think I have had a possible breakthrough in my hunt.

The basic facts I started with were sparse.  I pulled the few details I could out of each record and tried to put together a picture of the events.

Evaluating Evidence

My first basic facts started at the cemetery.  I know where my Great-Great Grandfather is buried without a doubt.  He is buried in a small rural cemetery on land that according to my Grandmother was donated by him prior to his death.  He has a marked grave with his name, birth and death dates all clearly legible[1].  Starting with this information I tracked down every census and vital record I could locate and conclusively determine was the correct James Spence and began extracting further clues.

James was married at least twice although records for only one marriage have currently been located.  He was head of a household with Emily Spence in 1880 census in Ottawa County, Ohio[2].  His oldest two children (Emma and William) report Emma Jane Davis as their mother through life on legal documents.  His second marriage was to Anna Dorman, who his youngest four children report as their mother on legal documents.  Of note, Harry Spence, 3rd child of James Spence was born prior to the marriage of James and Anna so is likely the child of Emma.

I have currently only located two documents recording the possible identity of James’s parents.  One is his marriage record to Anna[3].  He records parents James Spence and Jane Davidsen.  There are no parents recorded for Anna.  The other document is the death record of James Spence[4], his daughter Emma is the informant and she provides a name of John Spence and no mother’s name.  In reconciling these contradictory documents I have given more evidence to the parents recorded by James himself as opposed to secondhand information provided by Emma about an event that happen before her birth and involved people she did not apparently know.

Summarizing the Clues

James Spence is buried in the North Brinton Cemetery in Isabella County, Michigan.  His grave is marked and his headstone is legible, he died in 1940.  His date of birth was 1853 and he was born in Canada.  His parents were James Spence and Jane Davidsen, both of Irish birth.  He was married at least once and had children with two women, Emma Jane Davis and Anna Dorman.  He had six known children, 3 with Emma Davis named Emma Jane Spence, William J Spence, and Harry Spence;  with Anna Dorman he had Mary Ann Spence, Margaret Ellen Spence, and Thomas Spence.

James and Jane Spence of Simcoe County, Ontario

After countless hours of fruitless searches I finally had what I think is a huge breakthrough in research.  At least it is currently the strongest lead found and I haven’t yet located information to rule it out.  Starting on the 1851 Canadian census[5] I locate a couple of Irish birth named James and Jane Spence living in Simcoe County, Ontario.  By the time of the 1861 Canadian census[6] this James and Jane Spence also record a son named James born in 1854.  The 1871 census[7] shows the family again, with James still in the home.  The 1881 census[8] shows an elderly James and Jane Spence still in the same place, son James is no longer noted in the area.  This would correspond with my ancestor being located in Ohio in 1880.  Currently, my assumption is that this James Spence is my ancestor.

Looking Closer…

The demographics of this Spence family match up with my James Spence but there are smaller clues that also help point to this being a successful match.  James and Jane Spence had several children, one of which was named Thomas Spence.  Thomas Spence later went on to settle in the United States…in Michigan, the same place where James later settled when he came to the United States, although they settled hundreds of miles apart in different parts of the state.  Another detail of note regarding Thomas Spence is that my James Spence named one of his sons Thomas.

Only DNA Can Tell For Sure

Are James and Jane Spence my Great-Great-Great Grandparents?  Currently my guess is yes.  I am going to continue researching this family and hope that at some point I can conclusively declare that yes these are indeed my ancestors or no they are definitely not my ancestors.  At this point it may take DNA testing of living members of the family to give the evidence needed to successfully answer this question.

 

 

[1] http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=15977253&ref=acom

[2] Year: 1880; Census Place: Danbury, Ottawa, Ohio; Roll: 1056; Family History Film: 1255056; Page: 441C; Enumeration District: 069; Image: 0382 Ancestry.com

[3] Michigan, Marriage Records, 1867-1952 Ancestry.com

[4] Michigan, Death Records, 1867-1950 Ancestry.com

[5] Year: 1851; Census Place: York, York County, Canada West (Ontario); Schedule: A; Roll: C_11760; Page: 121; Line: 23 Ancestry.com

[6] Library and Archives Canada; Ottawa, Ontario, Canada; Census Returns For 1861; Roll: C-1072 Ancestry.com

[7] Year: 1871; Census Place: Gwillimbury West, Simcoe South, Ontario; Roll: C-9960; Page: 39; Family No: 141 Ancestry.com

[8] Year: 1881; Census Place: Gwillimbury West, Simcoe South, Ontario; Roll: C_13250; Page: 72; Family No: 336 Ancestry.com

Part Two: Tearing Down Brick Walls – Spence Family Mystery

Looking Closer

As part of discovering my Spence family roots I dug deeper into the events of the world at the time trying to determine what records might exist to help me on my search.

According to the records I have found my Spence forebears were in Ireland until sometime before 1853 when they migrated to Canada.  Spence is an ancient Scottish name so it is probably safe to assume my forebears were Protestant Scots living in the Antrim area.

Ireland in the 1840’s

During the 1840’s my Spence ancestors had no doubt began to seek out a better life elsewhere.  Historic hostilities between the Catholic and Protestant populations were never ending and starting in 1845 a famine began to sweep the country.  Faced with mass starvation and continued violence they joined a flood of people fleeing Ireland.  During the period known as the Great Hunger (1845-1852) an estimated 1 million people died due to starvation and disease while another 1 million fled the country.[1]

The Coffin Ships

Faced with the mass death in Ireland I’m sure my ancestors thought the hardest part of their journey was over once they boarded the ship for a new land.  It couldn’t be further from the truth.  Ship owners were driven by profit not humanity.  The vessels carrying the Irish across the Atlantic earned the name of coffin ships.

Unchecked travel between parts of the British Empire prior to 1847 led to massive emigration from Ireland into Canada.  In 1847, the last year before tighter regulations shifted the tide of Irish emigrants to the United States, an estimated 100,000 sailed for Canada.  38,000 Irish flooded into the city of Toronto, a city with a population of only 20,000.

The sheer number of available desperate passengers allowed ship captains to load their cargo holds to overcrowding.  Unscrupulous captains frequently under rationed their ships leading to starvation and disease spreading in the horrible conditions.  It is thought as many as 20% died while crossing the Atlantic.  Narratives of the time describe schools of sharks trailing the ships waiting for the bodies of the deceased to be thrown overboard[2].

Ship Fever

Things did not necessarily improve from there for those early Spence ancestors.  Passengers arriving from Ireland could expect to be quarantined at Grosse Isle, Quebec.  Sick passengers would remain there till death or improvement.  Healthy appearing passengers would be allowed to pass on with just a quick glance.  Typhoid fever was rampant in the horrible conditions on the ships and quickly spread to epidemic proportions in 1847 in Canada[3].  Poorly supplied and overcrowded communities struggled to fight the medical crisis.

As many as 20,000 died during the typhoid epidemic of 1847.  Mass graves holding victims exist in Grosse Isle, Toronto, New Bruswick, Bytown, and Kingston.  Many of the dead were never identified and remain recorded in the few records that exist as “unknown”.

A New World

Few passenger manifests were kept of the passengers during this period entering Canada from Ireland.  There are many Spence families in Canada by 1851.  Without a doubt somewhere in that mass of names lurk my elusive Spence relatives.  I suspect the Canadian census of 1851, 1861, and 1871 hold possibly the only chance of providing documentation of this hearty generation who overcame amazing obstacles to get to America.  I will have to examine the families in closer detail to determine which Spence may be connected.

 

Continued in Part Three: Tearing Down Brick Walls – A Spence Family Mystery

 

Sources:

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Famine_(Ireland)

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coffin_ship

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1847_North_American_typhus_epidemic

Part One: Tearing Down Brick Walls – Spence Family Mystery

 

Part One:  Tearing Down Brick Walls

Genealogy is like doing a puzzle after a two year old has played in the box.  The pieces are all there but it’s no small chore trying to find them.

Brick walls, or dead ends, are a part of any family tree.  I think of them as that stray puzzle piece the two year old swallowed. It’s not gone but it will take serious digging to find it and it is not going to be fun.

I have encountered many brick walls doing my own genealogy.  One that I still haven’t cracked is my maternal Grandmother’s father’s line.  My Great Grandfather’s name was William J Spence.

 

IMG_0025crop
William J Spence

 

 

William J Spence was born in Ohio in 1880.  His parents were James Spence and Emma Jane Davis.[1]

 

 

The household of a James and Emily Spence is located on 1880 census in Ottawa County, Ohio, with no children. This seems like a likely match.  Presently this might be the only source document recording Emma with her present during recording.[2]

 

 

 

 

Emma disappears after 1880 except mention in marriage and death records of her children

Notes and Tasks on Emma Davis:

  • Is Davis a maiden name or was it a later married name?
  • Look in Ohio and Canada for marriage record for Spence and Davis abt 1880
  • Look for Davis birth record in Ohio and Canada
  • Look for Davis families that could possibly be Emma’s family near the James and Emma on the 1880 census
  • Harry is a strong possibility for her father’s given name. Second son of James and Emma was named Harry

 

SPENCE Travels

 

North Atlantic PS map.jpg
The Spence Family Migration from Approx 1830 to 1900

 

  • According to records currently located James Spence was born in Canada to Irish born parents.
  • It’s possible his father was named John, James, or William.
  • His mother may have been named Jane Davidsen.
  • His parents likely married in Ireland or Canada prior to 1853.
  • Sometime prior to 1854 the James parents traveled from Ireland to Canada where James was born.
  • James migrated to US; first to Ohio where older children with Emma Jane Davis were born around 1880
  • James then migrated to Michigan married his second wife, Anna and lived out his life.

Looking at all these clues together I need to find an Irish household living in Canada at the time of the 1871 census.  There are at least 105 Spence living in Canada in 1871

Of those records only 1 at a first glance seems like a remote possibility.  The demographics of the family aren’t a perfect match but they are close enough to warrant a deeper look.  If nothing else I need to rule this family out.

1871canadacensuskingstonontariowilliamspence
William and Ann Spence with son James in Kingston, Ontario 1871

http://search.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?db=1871canada&indiv=try&h=83790

James Spence in Kingston, Ontario

This household lives in Cataraqui Ward, Kingston, Ontario.  They claim Ontario birth but Irish origin and religion is listed as Church of England.[3]

  • The head of household is William born in 1832. William is definitely a family name so we can count this as positive evidence.  The age would be of the proper range to be James’ father so that is another positive.
  • The lady of the house is listed as Ann. That does not match up with our one piece of secondary evidence stating James mother was Jane however that in and of itself is not a rule out.  The name could have been Jane Ann or Ann Jane or it could be a second spouse.  Her age demographics do not rule her out or add supporting evidence.  Her origin is listed as French which is a contradiction; however James named one of his daughters Mary Ann which could be supporting evidence.
  • Oldest son James is definitely a strong likely match for our ancestor. He was born in Canada in 1854 of Irish origin.
  • Other names in the household are Margaret, Nancy, and Ellen. Our ancestor James named one of his daughters Margaret Ellen.  This could be possible supporting evidence.

There is nothing in these details that necessarily rules them out as a match, we do have a few weak clues to support the possibility it’s the correct family.

 

Continued Soon –  Part Two: A Closer Look at William and Ann Spence of Kingston, Ontario

Looking closer at the records on William and Ann Spence and family to determine if they are possibly the parents of Grandpa James Spence

[1] Ancestry.com. Michigan, Marriage Records, 1867-1952 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015. Original data: Michigan, Marriage Records, 1867–1952. Michigan Department of Community Health, Division for Vital Records and Health Statistics.

[2] Year: 1880; Census Place: Danbury, Ottawa, Ohio; Roll: 1056; Family History Film: 1255056; Page: 441C; Enumeration District: 069; Image: 0382

[3] Year: 1871; Census Place: Cataraqui Ward, Kingston, Ontario; Roll: C-10000; Page: 93; Family No: 396 Ancestry.com and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 1871 Census of Canada [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2009

 

Oral Traditions and Family Lore

Who Knew?  It Turns Out Grandma Did!

Recently I became aware of a familial connection to a Mayflower Pilgrim.  Apparently Great (times 10) Grandpa, George Soule, way back in the line was an indentured servant on the ship when it made that legendary landing at Plymouth Rock.

It seems ironic to me that I grew up in a family that celebrated those adventurous pilgrims each year with elaborate dinners and big family gatherings yet most of us, myself included, were unaware of how close to home that celebration truly was.  Never once, not a single solitary time, was it ever mentioned to me growing up that we were Mayflower descendants.  It seems this interesting tidbit of family lore was deemed unimportant somewhere along the way and no one talked about it until the information was in danger of being lost.

The Value of Asking Questions and Sharing Stories

When asked about it, my Grandmother, the Mayflower descendant, admitted that she had heard of the information growing up.  It was no big surprise to her.  She was aware of the information all along.  Here she was in her late eighties sitting on this interesting piece of family lore.

45184_mayflower_lg

This instance makes it painfully obvious how important it is for each generation to make an effort to preserve and share the information on our heritage for future generations.  We need to lay stones in our wake for our own descendants to eventually trace and follow.  We need to tell the stories and share the knowledge so that it’s not lost.

Researching into the ancestors in this forgotten family line has led to many discoveries and connections.  I have found connections to Lizzie Borden, and Abraham Lincoln.  I located ancestors who founded towns, served in government, and built buildings that still stand hundreds of years later.  One line turned up the lost heirs to an English estate.  All these discoveries were a breath away from being lost and had already been basically forgotten in my family line.

Grandma Buried Her Skeletons

Occasionally brick walls are built by our ancestors on purpose, that was the case with one of my paternal Great Grandmothers.  She lived until I reached adulthood and I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time asking about her past.  To say she was not forthcoming is to make an understatement.  Her opinion was if everyone knew all the things she had done in her past no one would like her.  I would pry; she would hesitantly provide little details, but it was like pulling teeth.  It took me years to crack some of the brick walls in her family.

My Great Grandmother had escaped an abusive husband early in life.  According to her she smacked him in the head with a skillet, snatched up the baby, and didn’t quit running till she hit Iowa…from Arkansas.  She remarried, her husband adopted her only child, and her ex husband never gave her any problems after that but I’m sure she had a rough time surviving during those years as a single mother.  I have to assume because she was unwilling to discuss it.  I have heard family rumors she resorted to prostitution, there are whispers of running alcohol during the prohibition years, but she was unwilling to tell so large periods of her life will likely forever remain a mystery.  Whatever dark secrets she had Grandma took to the grave with her.

12376434_1670003749883725_115932398000067363_n

Wednesday is for Weddings

Weddings are a gift to the genealogist

Marriage records are invaluable when performing pre-1850 genealogical research on female ancestors.  Prior to 1850 only heads of households were listed on the census.  Locating that elusive 200-year-old marriage record could make all the difference in the quest for great-great grandmother’s name.

Here is a favorite wedding day photo of mine.  The photo is from May 28, 1949 when my paternal grandparents, Jay Dee Fulkerson Jr and Loree Jane Ashley, were married in Flint, Michigan.  Pictured with the new couple are both sets of parents.

11215519_1670006833216750_6870076702609412908_n

Left to Right: Moman Harold Fulkerson, Lilly Mae Weatherspoon, Jay Dee Fulkerson Sr, Loree Jane Ashley, Sarah Eckler, Myron Ashley

Prior to this photo I had never seen a photo of my grandmother’s parents.  In fact, my grandmother’s father, Myron Ashley, pictured on the right with a cigarette in his hand died the year after this photo was taken.  His wife, Sarah Eckler, and my grandfather, Jay Dee Fulkerson Jr, both died before I was born.

During early periods in history, marriage was one of the few instances in a woman’s life when her full birth name might be recorded on documents.  In lucky cases a bride’s parents may also be listed in the marriage record.  Frequently, in the case of someone who was married more than once it can be a puzzle trying to locate each different surname, and surname changes are the cause of more than a few brick walls.  Tracking down every marriage, and searching out not only maiden names but other possible surnames is a vital part of tracking maternal lines.

Frequently locating those marriage records can be a tricky endeavor because couples would travel to another area to get married.  Other vital records searches are simplified by the fact they were typically recorded in the county or state where the person lived.  Marriage records can be located in places the couple never resided.

My grandparents were from West Virginia and Michigan; they married in Angola, Indiana.  Yet another set of grandparents further back in my line, both born and buried in Michigan, they married in Canada.

Tips while researching marriage records

  • Always begin with searching for marriage records using the groom first; his surname was more likely to stay the same and if her surname is unexpected you know to look for other possible marriages.
  • Don’t limit the geographic region of your search, people have been eloping forever.
  • Marriage records can provide the bride’s maiden name….but not always… remember women changed their surnames, sometimes more often than we realize.
  • Don’t disregard a record merely because both spouses don’t match.  Dig deeper to see if it is truly different people or if there is more to the story.
Here is the marriage record of Lucy Bell Brown and Dallas Finley Shuck.

 

finlucyshuck

There are two things that could make this record tricky to locate.

  • First, Dallas Finley who is listed only as Dallas F Shuck commonly went by the name Finley during life.  You had to realize that his legal name was Dallas to locate this record.
  • Second, Lucy was a widow when she married Finley so her last name is recorded as Jamison instead of her maiden name of Brown.

 

Till Death Do Us Part…. Or Not

On the flip side of the wedding coin another valuable source of information can be divorce records.  While it’s easy to think of divorce as a modern-day habit, it happened more often than we realize in history.  Ancestry.com has a wealth of historical divorce records on their site.  Tracking down divorce records can make all the difference between accusing great grandpa of being a bigamist or realizing he might have had a few personality flaws that made him hard to live with.

My great-great-great grandfather, Leming Eckler, kept the marriage and divorce clerks of Michigan busy late in his life.  I have found several marriage and divorce records for him dating from 1858 to 1907.  As a male ancestor his surname never changed making following his trail possible.  If he had been a female ancestor it would have been nearly impossible to follow the trail of rapidly changing names.

Divorce records also help to do something few other records do; they paint a more human picture of the person being researched.  Most historical records show basic vital stats while divorce records might show character flaws such as abandonment, cruelty, or failure to support.  They may not reveal some of the more flattering details of a person but it’s another way to see a new perspective on an ancestor’s personality.

From start to end weddings leave a trail to be followed

Marriage and divorce records can hold bits of information that can be vital to putting together the lineage puzzle.  Locating marriage and divorce records can be challenging but the reward for success makes it  worth the time investment.

 

Source Information

Ancestry.com. Michigan, Marriage Records, 1867-1952 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015. Original data: Michigan, Marriage Records, 1867–1952. Michigan Department of Community Health, Division for Vital Records and Health Statistics.

Ancestry.com. Michigan, Divorce Records, 1897-1952 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014. Original data: Michigan. Divorce records. Michigan Department of Community Health, Division for Vital Records and Health Statistics, Lansing, Michigan

“West Virginia Marriages, 1780-1970,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:FTHY-MZQ : 4 December 2014), Dallas F Shuck and Lucy Belle Jamison, 1926; citing Nicholas, West Virginia, United States, , county clerks, West Virginia; FHL microfilm 495,646

http://www.wvculture.org/vrr/va_view2.aspx?FilmNumber=495646&ImageNumber=474