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Genealogists worldwide salivated for months  in anticipation of the release of the 1940 US Federal Census Myself included. I’m not quite old enough to see myself in the census but I knew I would see my mother, father and my brother. Also a few grandparents would be listed and I would finally find out who they were living with in their old age as well as where. I kind of think there’s a little gypsy in some of my ancestors. They just couldn’t stay put for too long. And they kept bouncing back and forth from Virginia to Pennsylvania and back again if they didn’t have any other place to explore at the moment. I like that about them.

Of course the states I was looking for were not among the first few to be indexed so I still had a little wait beyond April 1, 2012. And wait I did, still salivating, wish and hoping until finally I could get my hands on that long awaiting electronic hoard of knowledge.

The 1940 Census, being the first that has been released electronically makes me  think of all the census gone before that were amassed on hundreds of thousands of rolls of microfilm. What a difference a decade makes.

First begun in 1790, the US Federal Census has evolved into a gold mine, and I do mean G-O-L-D -M-I-N-Eof data and information without which genealogy research would still be in the dark ages.

Census

1790 was just a list of the Heads of Households with tick marks for the sex and age group of all free persons in the house and the same for slaves. Following the tick marks you could figure if he had a wife and about how old the children were. With a little wishful thinking you could figure out if your ancestor was one of those tick marks. In 1840 they asked about Revolutionary War pensioners so that was helpful to find your war hero and in 1850 they finally asked for the names of all the persons in the household, as well as occupations, real estate values, etc.

In 1860 the first Slave Census was taken as well as the regular one. Unfortunately, a lot of slaves were not listed by name, only sex, age and some general description. 1890, the one census that so many of us want so badly, burned in a fire and was almost completely lost. Kind of like the Southern court records after the Civil War. There are some fragmental records but of course, none that I want.

Ancestry.com, in addition to all the US Federal Census has a collection of UK and Canadian Census. The United States was the first country to make sure that all their citizens were accounted for so they would receive the state and federal representation they were entitled to. Individual States (not all) took citizen census as well and I have found a few at FamilySearch.com

I remember when they took the census in 2010. Fortunately or unfortunately, I was one who received the long form census. At the time I thought it was a pain to fill out pages and pages of stuff.   But then I thought how convenient it was. It came in the mail, I could sit in the comfort of my air conditioned home, put it down whenever I wanted and come back to when I had time.

Our ancestors were treated differently. Someone came to the door or up the drive to the farm house, usually on horseback or on foot. Interrupting their day, they took up their time, asked a bunch of personal questions and then went away never to be seen or heard from again. If you remembered something later you should have reported it was too late. But they did it because they thought it was important. Being counted was important to them and it’s important to me. And I am so grateful to them all.

So when the next census comes along and you get that all important form in the mail, take the time to fill it out as accurately as you can and send it back. Stand up and be counted.  Some people didn’t even send the census form back in 2010 and their descendants are going to be real disappointed in them.

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My Aunt Min isn’t really my aunt. She was my grandmother’s aunt. That makes her my great aunt. Her sister Catherine was eighteen years older than her so she was nearer my grandmother’s age and lived with her when they were old ladies together. Aunt Min lived to be 99 years old and I was privileged to know her. I remember her as a little old lady with white hair and it wasn’t until I started my family history search that I came to know her as a real person who was a child at one time.

She was a young girl of five when the Civil War began. As an adult she had several tales to tell of the times. One was about Stonewall Jackson. Unbelievably I found the story in a book called Shenandoah Voices. Folklore, Legends and Traditions of the Valley, by John L. Heatwole. Like all genealogists (yes, you know you do this), when ever I see a book related to anywhere my ancestors lived I check out the index for their surnames. Lo and behold there was her name – TWICE. Ordered the book of course and devoured it as soon as it arrived. As well as Aunt Min, there was reference to another great aunt and my great great grandmother

Seems Minnie Hedrick (my aunt Min) was swinging in a pear treeone day in June of 1862 after several days of rain. Soldiers on horses paused to drink water from the well in the front yard. Min, being Min immediately went up to one of the big horses and told the soldier not to go up that road ’cause it was all muddy from the rain. He told her he’d been up many a muddy road and that wouldn’t bother him. As they left she asked another soldier who that was and he told her it was Stonewall Jackson. All through her life Aunt Min cherished the experience and told the story often. It was retold in her obituary when she died in 1956 at age 99.

Aunt Min second from the left

The second story involved apple butter (my favorite) and renegade soldiers. Minnie was only eight years old when Sheridan descended on the Valley. The family had such valuables as they owned and meager foodstuffs hidden away as did everyone in the Cross Keys, Virginia area. The farm had been searched more than once but one morning when the women were alone, a Union soldier came riding up to the gate. He demanded their silver or money. They told him they had none. As he went into a rage and started opening and emptying the kitchen cupboards, my grandmother Eliza, Min and her sister Lizzie went to hide in the attic.

When the boy in blue discovered them gone, he started to searching the house and eventually climbed the ladder to the attic. Terrified, Eliza grabbed the closest thing at hand, a gallon size crock of apple butter and threw it at his head. Her aim was true and the soldier died almost instantly.

Eliza and little Min dragged him out of the house and up to the orchard and buried him in a sinkhole. She never told anyone until she was very old. Unfortunately, there’s someone’s ancestor who will never be found.

She married and lived most of her life in Washington, DC, became widowed and lived for awhile with her unmarried son Earl. She had several children, all gone now but maybe I’ll find some of her descendents. I don’t remember when she died in 1956 although I should and she is not buried in the family plot in Petersburg, Virginia. That’s a mystery for another day and I do love a mystery.

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You can’t go home again. Well….. you can but it’s a pretty bumpy trip. Things have changed, people have moved and you feel the disappointment of discovering that childhood is just a memory and you really are that old woman in the mirror. But I digress.

Last year when I visited my daughter in Pennsylvania, I also spent a few days with my brother and sister-in-law. Of course my brother and I had to do the sentimental journey and visit the old neighborhoods.

First row House

First place we visited was the house we lived in when my brother was born. The sad little row housewasn’t as big as he remembered. It was run down, in need of paint and the postage stamp sized front yard was full of weeds. It was just a big disappointment. But I took pictures for remembrance. I had never lived there but he had so that was important to me.

Second Row House

The second place we visited was the house where the family lived when I was born. I marched right up to the door to ask the resident if it would be o.k. to take some pictures. I was hoping he would ask us in but it was obvious from peaking in the door that he was awaiting the Horders TV production team to arrive any minute to start filming. We did chat for a while and I told him that the tree out front was planted by my father the year I was born. He said there used to be a lot of trees on the street but they had all died except for the one in front of his house. I took pictures of the house and the tree. We moved from there when I was about two years old.

Finally we went back to the old neighborhood, the house that I remembered growing up. It was gone. Just……  gone. It had been torn down years ago. I wasn’t shocked because my brother had told me it was gone. But it was startling to see that vacant lot where once a home had stood. I remember my Dad used to say that if they ever tore our house down the rest of the block would fall since we had a three store and the rest of the block was all two-story. But our house was gone and the rest of the block or row houses still stood. I saw that the first house’s address proved that three houses had been torn down, not just mine. They must have been very narrow houses even though I remember our house as being big. Very big. I scooped up a brick left behind on the vacant lot where my childhood home had been, (that gave TSA cause to pause when it showed up in my luggage x-ray), took a bunch of pictures, got back in the car and turned my back on the old neighborhood. I won’t go back.

Sad for sure, but a good way to remember that the people hold your heart and memories,  not the places. My brother and I spent the evening doing the  “remember whens” and the “remember whos” until tears ran down my face with laughter. It was a good journey down memory lane but I guess you really can’t go home again.

My Tree

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I have to admit, I’m not a real good genealogist. So far I haven’t checked out any wills, deeds, property sales or anything like that. And I hop around a lot. When I get bored not finding anything on one ancestor I hop over to research another. All the books tell you not to do that. It’s a genealogy no-no. But I have a lot of fun with my family research. I mean, it’s all out there somewhere and as far as all that boring stuff is concerned, it’s not going anywhere. I am confident that it will still be there if I ever get around to going after it.

But talking to people, finding obscure jewels of gossip and factoids about the family makes me smile. It’s the detective spirit in me I guess. I love a good mystery. Here’s one thing I did early on in my journey that really paid off. At the time I didn’t have a lot of information. I knew where my grandparents were buried because I’d been to several family funerals there. My father is buried alongside them and his were the only dates I had.  One Saturday afternoon I got out my paper with the names on it and called the Blandford Cemetery office in Petersburg, Virginia. A very nice lady named Jackie answered the phone and I asked her if by any chance I could get some information from their files. She said “sure”.

I gave her the surname I was looking for and boy, did she give it to me! Every person in that cemetery with the same last name was fair game. Apparently it was a rainy Saturday afternoon in Petersburg and Jackie was bored. She gave me the names of all of them, birth dates, death dates and more information then I could have hoped for. Before the 1950s the cemetery records contained the place of birth and the cause of death for the deceased. The German tradition of everyone being buried together meant that most of the children were buried in the family plot. That is how I found out that my grandmother and several of the older boys were born in Rockingham County, Virginia. Never knew that. I thought they came from Petersburg,  Philadelphia or North Dakota. That’s the only  places I ever heard of when I was growing up.  She also gave me all their addresses when they died, funeral homes that took care of the arrangements, birth dates, etc. I ended that afternoon with a new best friend and tons of data to include in my family tree. I spent the rest of the day grinning like an idiot.

A few weeks later, trying to get my hands on my grandfather’s death certificate was proving to be a complicated chore. But because of my new friend Jackie, I knew the funeral home so I called them and asked if they had records that went back that far. Apparently they keep those records forever and the gentleman I talked to informed me that I wouldn’t find a death certificate in Virginia because my grandfather had died in Philadelphia and was shipped home to be buried in Petersburg. Well that little tidbit made all the difference in the world. With it I was able to find a death certificate. Never did find an obituary though.

So the next boring afternoon you’re sitting around wondering which direction to take your research, back up, regroup and do some thinking outside the box. The least normal idea just might pay off.

Grandmother Volz

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Facts and figures make up the bulk of information that genealogists collect, chart, and savor. We’ve got those dates memorized, got the family names etched in our memories and we’ve got city, states and street names documented solidly on our family trees.

You may know that grandpa was a miller. Or grandma could have been the first female doctor in her county. But unless you are blessed with diaries and family papers, you don’t know much about the day-to-day lives of all those people who make us who we are. And you may never know. But with a little detective work you can find out what was happening around them while they went through life.

As an example let’s look at my great-grandfather who was a private in the Confederacy. I did find his army records in the national archives and paid a handsome price to get a copy of them. What I learned was shocking. It appears that every so often during the whole war, he went AWOL, then came back. What? How could that be? My ancestor a deserter? No way.

Enter a great magazine named Civil War Times. My local library has this magazine and it’s full of Civil War history as well as what was happening in communities both north and south during the war. What I found out was that in the South they thought the war would be short-lived. They only signed up for one year so they had to have all kinds of incentives to keep the boys fighting. I discovered that my ancestor like a lot of farmers, went home every spring to put a crop in the field. So he wasn’t a deserter after all. He was just a farmer who needed to provide for his family.

Another ancestor of an extended family member migrated from Ireland along with so many of his relatives. What was happening in his life to encourage them all to immigrate at the same time? A short history lesson about the potato famine answered that question fast. So now I had insight into his life. He lived in a rural area, probably a farmer and couldn’t feed his family because of the potato famine. So many Irish immigrated to the United States and Canada for the very same reason. Second only to the Germans, the Irish immigration was one of the largest groups of new citizens to North America.

So many magazines like Civil War Times, Military History, Colonial Times, WWII or Wild West will give you a peek into the life styles of our ancestors. You’ll find occupations, hair styles, fashion, and lots of little details that you just don’t know from reading facts and figures.  The larger bookstores like Books-A-Million and Barnes and Noble have huge magazine sections. You can sit there for hours, making notes and not spend a dime. But it is nice to buy at least one magazine so you don’t appear a total cheapskate.

Libraries also have many, many magazines of interest to the genealogist. And some libraries will get a subscription to one that you want to read if you ask them.

Civil War Wife

I know it’s not as great as finding diaries, family Bibles, journals and letters but magazines that tell the history of different periods when your ancestors were alive can help you put a little flesh on the bones of your research.

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I used to think that I didn’t really have many family photos. I had a few and my Aunt Agnes game me some but it really wasn’t very many and I had none of my parents when they were young. But when I connected with a few fourth cousins online, they shared their pictures with me. Then my father-in-law made me the keeper of all his family photos including all the ones he took during WW II when he was in Italy. Plus I harassed a cousin of mine until she sent me her pictures so I could copy them. Really, I harassed her. I gave my genealogy guru a phone card and she called my cousin every three or four months for three years. Finally got the photos and you bet I took my sweet time getting them back to her.

Then the question became what to do with them all. Oh I could get really organized and scan them all and post them in my family tree. Boring!! (I really do plan to still do that). But I wanted to do something different. A neighbor of mine has an ancestor wall just inside their front door. Of course she has very expensive frames, real wood panelling as a background and it’s really first class all the way. I wanted to do the same thing but on a more limited budget. Like, no budget.

Never one to make a firm committment to color I decided to make my background temporary. So my daughter and I got a large piece of dry wall, covered it with a beautiful  piece of rusty tomato colored synthetic suede and my husband attached it to the wall. Wanting to keep some consistency and economy to the wall I haunted thrift shops, flea markets, yard sales and dollar stores and found all the frames I needed, painted them all black and framed pictures of both my husband’s and my families.

Then my daughter and I put a huge piece of craft paper on the floor and shuffled the frames around until we liked the composition. We drew outlines of all the frames, taped the craft paper to the material, put up the pictures and then tore off the craft paper.

I have to admit it looked really great and I’ve got so many complements on my wall. At a glance I could see where I came from. It seems to help me stay grounded to know where I’m going. Even my brother liked it when he came to visit.

Ancestor Wall

Since then, I have received more photos that I would like to put up. Plus I have become bored with the colors so I have started taking the frames down, and I plan to paint them all white, change the material to a light turquoise and put the frames back up in a different configuration. I’ve found some better quality frames at the thrift shops and antique malls so I will be changing out some of the old frames.

The main change I’m doing this time is hanging them with Command hangers. The newer ones that are kind of like Velcro work fantastic. I’ve hung stuff on them and they lay flush with the wall and they will hold a lot of weight. So I feel confident that they will hold my frames just great.

I’m confident you will find a unique way to showcase your favorite family photos. This is just the one I like.

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Genealogists are a ghoulish bunch. We talk about dead people all the time, we spend hours in cemeteries where we rarely know anyone buried there and we get absolutely silly about obituaries. If you find a printed obituary about one of your ancestors you may have hit pay dirt for information. One thing to remember about obituaries is that the person who gives the information out usually knew the deceased well and the data is pretty accurate. Mostly.

Looking for inspiration to make a hit one boring day, I called the library in the town where most of my father’s family are buried. I found that the library had copies of all the old newspapers and the research librarian spent about two hours on the phone with me, finding all the obituaries she could based on death dates I gave her. I immediately sent off a check to cover copies, postage and a small donation for the library since they didn’t charge for genealogy help. In a few weeks I received a large envelope full of goodies. I spent the better part of a day reading all the obituaries. It was just like Christmas. You know that feeling. You know you do.

A good example of serendipity is the obit I received for my Aunt Agnes (my father’s older sister). My aunt Agnes was a character. She was one of the oldest of the eleven kids and my father being the youngest, she practically raised him. She drove an automobile before you had to have a license in this country, picked wild Muscadine grapes and made wine every year, held every office a woman could in the VFW auxiliary, USO and always won the best hat award at her Half Century Club meetings. Her and my Aunt Mabel went to funerals for people she didn’t even know, and when one of my uncles died, she would stay at the funeral home all night long so they wouldn’t be alone. And when the funeral was over, she would go back to the cemetery and spend hours just sitting and talking to her brother.

Even with all I thought I knew about her, the obituary gave up some great stuff. I learned that she was born in Baltimore, MD, and I always thought she was born in Petersburg, VA. I knew her grandfather was from Maryland but didn’t know the city. On a hunch I started searching Baltimore and made a few connections. I also learned that she belonged to many more groups than I had thought.

Obituaries can reveal real treasure for the family historian. Read them carefully, they’re solid gold.

Agnes Whitt

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