Category Archives: Genealogy tips

Phantasmic art insights

I love to visit art museums, especially when visitors are allowed to take photos. It’s a wonderful research-gathering tool, especially if you’re looking for glimpses of how people looked and lived before photography came along.

That said, paintings of some eras and peoples are easier to find than others. Lately I’ve discovered that European cultures like France, Italy, England, and Germany are better represented than places like Scotland. On a visit to the Boston Museum of Art earlier this year, I found not one single painting by a Scottish artist. I even inquired at the information desk just to be sure. No, nothing about Scotland or by Scottish artists, I was told.

Therefore, being able to visit the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh was a huge breakthrough. In honor of the October Hallowe’en month, I offer this example of one of my finds there, a painting called “The Spell.”

The brass plate beneath the painting reads:

Sir William Fettes Douglas (1822-1891)
THE SPELL
The superstition was common in many countries that it was possible, by word of power and magic, to force the dead to reveal the secrets of the unseen world. The Rosicrucians and Illuminati of the Middle Ages being especially accused of violating the tombs for this unholy purpose.

Beside the painting is a further explanation of the artwork (I also take photos of those so I can identify the paintings when I get back home):

The magician here is endeavoring to raise the spirit of a dead man. The mood of the painting is enhanced by the number of strange diagrams and mathematical calculations together with the glimpse of moonlit water and ancient standing stones.

It’s awesome to go to museums themselves for this type of elucidation about the art and artist, the time period, and more. The next best thing is exploring art images online. This week, for instance, I happened upon the Scottish artist Thomas Faed. His work is a wonderful glimpse into the life of Scots in the 19th century. Using Google search, type in “Thomas Faed artist” and then select images for a wonderful overview of his paintings.

18th-century fisherfolk

I’m continually impressed by the diversity of characters living in the Highlands of Scotland in the 18th century. Yesterday, I came across a resource at the Inverness Library, a terrific summary of The Old Statistical Accounts. These accounts were sent to Sir John Sinclair in response to a lengthy questionnaire sent out to parish ministers. They often returned them with quite lengthy, colorful descriptions of their parishioners.

Here’s an example, a write-up about “fisherwives.”

The distinctiveness of the fisherfolk in the numerous fishing villages [of Scotland], especially those of the east coast, is [often] highlighted. … it is of the women that most of the ministers write. The account from Rathven, for example (taking in four fishing towns — Buckie, Port-easy, Findochtie, Port-nockie), states: ‘The fisher-wives lead a most laborious life. They assist in dragging the boats on to the beach, and in launching them. They sometimes, in frosty weather, and at unseasonable hours, carry their husbands on board, and ashore again, to keep them dry. They receive the fish from the boats, carry them fresh, or after salting, to their customers, and to market, at the distance, sometimes, of many miles, through bad roads, and in a stormy season. … many [women] are pretty, and dress to advantage on holidays.’

From “Parish Life in Eighteenth-Century Scotland: A Review of the Old Statistical Account.” Maisie Stevens, Scottish Cultural Press, 1995

What’s more, this drawing is supplied — a picture of the women carrying their fishermen:

Should you be studying your Highlander genealogy and what your ancestors may have experienced in the late 1700s, I highly recommend this book.

Research is proceeding apace

Before heading off on this journey, I was nervous I wouldn’t find what I’m looking for. First person accounts by Scottish immigrants to the Ohio River area in the early 1800’s make mention of events — shipwrecks, infant births and deaths, ancestors signing the Covenant in their own blood — which I’m finding it difficult to verify.

The family history account of Duncan and Nancy Fraser begins thus:

Not wishing to rear his family in Scotland (after three of his uncles had been burned at the stake for their faith in Christ), Duncan Fraser (who was tailor to Lord Cavanough [sic]) started to America with his wife Nancy (both were Highland Scots from near Edinborough [sic]) and their four children — three girls and a boy, Daniel, in the year 1804.

It’s a mystery … since this account is about the turn of the 18th to the 19th century, the reference to three uncles burned at the stake for their faith in Christ seems out of place. The Covenant martyrdoms happened in the previous century, in the 1600s, didn’t they? So was this account referring to great uncles? or to 2x- or 3x-great uncles?

One place I hoped to glean more insights was at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. I only had two days to spend, so prepared as much as I could in advance. Users of the library have to apply for a library card. I saved time by registering online here. I still needed to show an identification with my current address, but the process of getting a card definitely went more quickly.

Once in the library reading room, I began at the enquiries desk. If you want to take photos (which I did), I had to fill out paperwork and display a yellow card. First thing, I used the main catalogue to order documents not available on the open shelves (most of them), as it can take up to an hour for the material to be brought out.

And here’s where I messed up. The order slip in Special Collections had a blank for specifying my table number. Hence, I assumed materials would be delivered to my table, a common practice at other libraries. I sat waiting for a full hour before going up to make an inquiry (enquiry), only to learn I had was supposed to pick it up at the desk. My material had been there all along.

So, about those martyrs. Not sure I’ve found the event, but the book Martyrs and Heroes of the Scottish Covenant by George Gilfillan did a beautiful job of clueing me into the power struggles of the Scottish reformation. About Duncan Fraser’s “uncles,” however, I haven’t scored any specifics. It’s a tangent, anyway, not the main focus of this immigration tale. I was mainly interested in the historical context, and found great resources and voices.

Not in the National Library, but on the internet, I found a website indicating that 95 people in Edinburgh were executed for their faith in Christ in the 1600’s. What’s more, it’s estimated that “perhaps 30,000 may have died for their beliefs and Presbytery during the whole of the Scottish Reformation.”

First, why Minnesota?

First question, why is the International Germanic Genealogy Partners Conference (IGGP) being held in Minnesota? Sure, the state is centrally located and all, but somehow, I pictured a higher percentage of Germanic Americans in Wisconsin, say, or Iowa. Apparently, Minnesota is way up there, too. A May 2017 article at Midwest Weekend reports that Minnesota has around 38 percent, just under the 44 percent and 40 percent of Wisconsin and Iowa, respectively.

On the first full day of my visit here, I prowled around looking for German genealogy resources. Mostly, they turned out to be in Saint Paul, the sister of the Twin Cities and capital of Minnesota. First stop, the Germanic-American Institute (GAI). Located in the historic Summit Avenue neighborhood, the restored mansion (nine fireplaces!) is a terrific venue for programs such as a German language immersion school for kids, adult education programs and language clubs, and a German book library.

“What else is worth seeing in the area?” I asked when I stopped in the office, adding that I was hot on the trail of German American heritage sites in particular.

The office assistant looked at me quizzically, with a light furrow in her brow. “For the most part, they’re not singled out. I mean, the German American culture is pretty intertwined with the whole history of the town. But there is that restoration of murals in the Capitol Building. They were in the basement, it used to be a Rathskeller. You know about that?”

No I did not. A Rathskeller is a German term for a basement beer hall or restaurant. A beer hall at the State Capitol of Minnesota?  Enticing indeed. I resolved to make the Minnesota State Capitol Building my next stop, a drop dead gorgeous sandstone and marble structure. The building was so huge, and my mission so singular that upon entering, I went directly to the Information desk.

“I hear you’ve just opened a Rathskeller with murals in this building?” I said.


The info desk guy hesitated. “Well now, the Rathskeller’s always been there,” he said. “We’ve only recently restored it.” After pointing me in the right direction, he handed me a sheet with all the German mottoes now restored on the walls of the Rathskeller, just the way God, and the good German immigrants of Minnesota, intended. Mottoes like: “First do your duty, then drink and laugh.” And, “First test, then praise.” And, “As time flies we are nearing eternity.”

Sadly, the Rathskeller was empty of food and drink and hence, people; I dearly hope a convivial spirit will inspire Minnesota legislators in the future to talk through difficulties over a pint in that pleasant, tiled, daylit room from time to time. Meanwhile, I understand there is a restoration project going on for the oldest surviving lagerbier saloon in the Twin Cities, the Waldmann Brewery & Wurstery, for which there is a Kickstarter campaign here.

I also made it to the Minnesota History Center Library, also in St. Paul, taking a brief hour to browse the wealth of genealogy and history resources in their holdings. However, I did not have a chance to get to the main event in town, for German genealogists, that is: the Germanic Genealogy Society’s library at Concordia University, which houses 2200 books and periodicals relating to German genealogy.

At the end of the day I was sharing with friends Katie and Sam about how beautiful Saint Paul, and its namesake church, both are. “Yeah, well, they used to call it something different–Pig’s Eye Landing,” Katie told me. “After a guy who had a tavern down on the river.” Surprisingly, that former name is not on the Germans. The name came from the French Canadian tavern owner, Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant. Who knew?

Tips for family history albums

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“The New Bonnet” 1858 by Francis William Edmond, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, NY

Two weekends ago, I gave a session at the Write on the Sound Conference in Edmonds called “For the Record,” about ways to write about and publish your family history. A popular approach is to design a “family history album” online. Many sites will assist with genealogy “scrapbooks” or family history albums. A few links to vendors are found on Cyndis list here.

"The Power of Music" 1847, William Sidney Mount Cleveland Art Museum

“The Power of Music” 1847, William Sidney Mount
Cleveland Art Museum

Additional options for creating an album: Snapfish, Shutterfly, and my friend David Williams’s favorite Magcloud. These companies provide design templates and instructions for uploading text, photos and graphics to create your personal album. At Magcloud, you can give relatives and friends the option of downloading the digital book for free, and/or buying a hard copy edition for a pretty fair price.

"The Penny Wedding" 1819 by Alexander Carse The Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh

“The Penny Wedding” 1819 by Alexander Carse
The Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh

Regarding graphics, the choices for visuals become slimmer before the invention of photography, first accessible to middle-class families in the mid-1800s. These days we’re so reliant on photography we tend to forget a very helpful alternative. Paintings. Before the camera, painters were the portrayers of everyday life. I’ve found that many art museums allow non-flash photos, so whenever I’m doing research I bring along my camera.

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“Return from the Church Fair” circa 1859-1860 by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller Old National Gallery in Berlin

If you do include a photo of a painting in your album, it’s helpful to include a caption noting the title, the artist and year, and the museum where you snapped the picture. How do you get all that detail down? Photograph the painting first, then follow that up with a photo of the label next to it for later reference.

Honestly, I didn’t think of this resource myself — my writing friend Michele Genthon pointed it out. Thanks, Michele. In this post, I’ve included just a few of the many paintings by artists who have brilliantly captured life in former times.

Cleveland and Cuyahoga County Genealogy resources

Recently, I bumped into the website Cleveland and its Neighborhoods, which has a wealth of “History, Genealogy, and Other Peripheral Subjects pertaining to Cleveland, Ohio” compiled by Laura Hine. It’s an incredibly comprehensive resource, one that didn’t readily pop up during my novel research, so I thought I’d give it a shout out here.

cleve neighbors

At the bottom of the “Cleveland and Its Neighborhoods” home page is another link to Hine’s sister site: “just about everything that you need to know about doing genealogy research in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County.” Tips and go-to topics include: Births, Deaths, Suburbs that maintain their own Birth and Death Certificates, Obituaries, Funeral Homes, Marriages, Cemeteries, Catholic Church records, Useful Cuyahoga County Websites, Other Cuyahoga County Genealogy Collections, Property Deeds – Recorder’s Office, Cuyahoga County Audito, Courts in Cuyahoga County, Cuyahoga County Probate Court Estate Case Files – Index and Images, Cuyahoga County Naturalization Records, Census, City Directories, Maps and Atlases, Military, Newspapers, Schools, Taxes and Voter Information.

Salivating yet? Access this info by clicking here: Frequently Asked Questions For Genealogy Research in Cuyahoga County

Thanks, Laura–you’re officially my Cuyahoga County genealogy maven!

Stumps in the road

When it comes to historical research, it’s all too easy to follow one thread, then another, until progress slows to the pace of a journey by horse and wagon in the 18th century.

Ohio near St Clairsville 2015

Ohio near St. Clairsville, 2015

Currently, in my studies of Scots immigrants to Ohio, I’m on the trail of pre-canal, pre-railroad travel. Via interlibrary loan, I’ve checked out a copy of Margaret Van Horn Dwight’s diary, published under the title “A Journey to Ohio in 1810.” A delightful account of an arduous trip delayed again and again, due to weather, flooding rivers, and a horse too exhausted to go on. Margaret and her companions were traveling from New Haven, Connecticut to Warren, Ohio. Below is a sample entry:

“Thursday night — Allegany (sic) Mtn Nov– 16 [1810]
We have had a warm & pleasant day till towards night, when it began to rain, as it has done every day for a fortnight — we are now at a tavern half a mile from the top of the Allegany Mt- this Mountain is 14 miles over- At the highest part of it is a most beautiful prospect of mountains- 5 or 6 ridges one after the other- … I pick’d a sprig of ivy from the top, which … came from the very backbone of America, as they all tell us — We have walk’d a great deal to day, & indeed we are oblig’d to every day, for the whole country seems one continued mtn…”

Because of the steep terrain, to spare the horse, Margaret and her companions climbed the mountains on foot, walking next to the wagon.

Another route over the Allegheny Mountains started out of Baltimore, Maryland. By the end of the 1700s, this road reached well into the Northwest Territory (present-day Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and Indiana). The first leg of the route from Baltimore went to Uniontown, Pennyslvania, a road cut in the 1750s by General Braddock’s troops during the French and Indian War. The second leg, Gist’s trace, was cut by white trader Thomas Cresap and his friend the Delaware Chief Nemacolin, and stretched from explorer Gist’s plantation in Uniontown as far as the Monongahela River at present-day Brownsville, Pennsylvania.

The third leg was cut by Ebenezer Zane around 1796. Called Zane’s Trace, it was a narrow, clumsily cut path through giant trees of the Ohio wilderness. Eventually, Zane’s trace extended from present-day Wheeling, West Virginia to Maysville, Kentucky. As the trees were felled by Zane’s men, the story goes, little care was taken about the tree stumps. As a result, wagons sometimes high-centered on stumps, or got stuck between them. It’s said that Zane’s Trace is where people first used the expression “to get stumped,” as in, stuck and going nowhere.

Huh. I know the feeling. Time for me to get off my research duff and start writing.

In the footsteps of every visitor to Amsterdam and beyond

Our first day in Amsterdam, we made a beeline to the Van Gogh Museum, where we came within about 200 yards of the place, at the back of a long line of ticket purchasers.

Van Gogh Museum“Must be because it’s a Sunday,” I muttered after about five minutes of no forward movement. “Maybe we should try again tomorrow.”

The next morning found us no closer. This time, at least we’d purchased tickets for the voucher line.

“This must be the one thing in Amsterdam every tourist does,” Dave said.

The woman in front of us turned around and nodded. One hears many different languages in this city, but just about everyone, it seems, speaks English. In the end, we only waited half an hour. The line to the Anne Frank House is the other must-see, and a wait of 2-3 hours no matter when you go. With only two days here, we had to skip it.

Amsterdam City ArchivesInstead, we opted for a 75-minute canal open-boat tour. The driver took us by the Amsterdam City Archives. (If we had another day, I’d definitely be dragging Dave here.) But you don’t have to physically stop by to appreciate archives treasures–through their website, the digital collection is extensive and impressive.

Self-Portrait at Rijksmuseum, Vincent Van GoghBack to the Van Gogh Museum, and the current exhibit (“When I Give, I Give Myself: Artists and writers respond to letters from Van Gogh”), with displays about the multitude of artists Van Gogh has inspired these last few centuries based on his brief 10-year career as an artist (1880-1890). In one letter, which Vincent wrote to his brother Theo in 1883, I  especially resonated with these words, about the “intense struggle between ‘I’m a painter’ and ‘I’m not a painter.'”:

Sometimes a frightening struggle … If something in you says ‘you aren’t a painter’ — IT’S THEN THAT YOU SHOULD PAINT, old chap … one must take it up with assurance, with a conviction that one is doing something reasonable, like the peasant guiding his plough …

Imagine. What if Van Gogh had listened to his inner critic?

Family history and archive at Inverness

imageInverness, Scotland is a land of rainbows. We’ve seen at least half a dozen during our short stay here. Despite the breathtaking beauty, the weather–forty degrees, wind gusts and intermittent, torrential rain–drove us inside. (Conversation in the Ladies WC:
She: “Having a good day?”
Me: “Excellent, regardless of the downpour.”
She: “You mean, downpours! It’s usually so much nicer in May and June. It’s just been so cold this year.”)

imageFor shelter, I sought out the Highland Archive Centre, housed in a sleek building right beside the Ness River Islands. This is great. Apparently, enough family history types have come calling to warrant an investment in this state-of-the-art facility. No appointment necessary. I was helped by really knowledgeable, and patient, assistants.

imageMy favorite hour was the last, spent browsing through the church session minutes of Croy Parish (1730-1775). Lest you roll your eyes at the dryness of it all, these were steamy pages, accusations and confessions of fornication and adultery, or attempted same, quite detailed accounts in session after session. Gives one a whole different perspective on the Presbyterian Kirk of old.

Ethnic heritage in the U.S.

There’s a map provided by the U.S. Census bureau in 2000 detailing the location of immigrant populations by ethnicity, albeit 15 years ago. In 2013, the UK’s Daily Mail wrote an article about it here.The article states that by far the largest population in the U.S. — just under 50 million in 2000 — were of German heritage.

With DNA testing becoming more common, new demographics are being worked up at places like Ancestry.com. Admittedly, the population on the Ancestry.com map numbers a quarter of a million, compared with 317 million surveyed for the 2000 census.

Now that I’m looking into the history of Scottish immigration, I’m finding the data on these maps less than enlightening. On both, a separate category for Scottish people is not delineated. Apparently, citizens of Scotland are lumped with the English, under Great Britain.

A closer look at the 2000 census map reveals the category “American”(not meaning Native Americans, who have their own separate designation). According to the Daily Mail article, these respondents called themselves Americans for political reasons, or because they are unsure of their identity.

Political reasons? Clustered mainly in the south, especially in the Appalachian mountains, so-called “Americans” chose this identity on the census due to political tensions that exist in the South regarding “those who consider themselves original settlers and those who are more recent.” What, like job seniority, where the earliest arrivals get more privileges than those who come after? Oh my.

On paper, the Scots (and Welsh) and English might fall under the same helmet. But in reality even today, a clear distinction is made between the Scottish people and the English, based on dialect, customs, and race. When it comes to that, the country of Scotland is actually two separate entities — the Highlanders, people mainly of Celtic origin whose original language was Gaelic (now spoken only in small remote areas of the Highlands), and Lowlanders, where most share a Saxon heritage with the English.

Especially for the Highland Scots, the erasure of their ethnic identity began well before their arrival in the colonies. Starting in the mid-1700s, the English had begun systematically dismantling their language, manner of dress, and clan way of life.