Family History Research

Connecting Families Online, a lesson learned

Several months ago I received a message from a woman on Ancestry.com named Jean who was working on her Hammer family and we found a connection. Her Catherine Hammer was the sister of my Dorothy Hammer from Bohemia. While we were making this connection, another woman connected with us. This woman thought her John Hammer was a possible sibling to our Catherine and Dorothy. Their parents were Vaclav and Rosie Hammer.

Now Jean and I had documents to prove the relationship between our siblings and parents. This woman had no idea who John’s parents were, but thought the birth year fit and the fact he lived in Chicago fit. She basically wanted me to prove whether or not her John was the same as my John. Not a lot to go on when trying to prove or say “yes I believe this could be the same person.” I love a good mystery and helping people who are stuck, but you have to provide information to get me going.

Many emails were exchanged between this woman and myself and she provided one or two new clues in each email such as when he was married, who he married, where he lived, what spellings of the last name she had encountered (Hammer, Hamer, Hemr, Hamr). She had a naturalization document for him as a Minor and the date of naturalization. She found him on the 1892 Chicago Voter Registration. I became very frustrated because the more I searched based on what information she was giving me, when I contacted her again she would tell me she already had that information. It was a frustrating for me.

More information was provided via email but still not enough to say yes or no to John. At this time I was also tracing each child of Vaclav and Rosie, and their spouses through census and knew who the nieces and nephews were for my Dorothy Hammer. Jean and I were updating our trees on Ancestry.com and would notify each other if we found something exciting. It was at this point that this woman brought up a letter written to John by a cousin. When she gave me the name of the cousin and address of the letter I was immediately able to connect John to the family. The cousin was a niece of Dorothy. Tracking the families addresses made making the connection easier too.

I learned a big lesson in this connection and that is if you are asking for help, you should provide the person helping you with as much information as you can. This will result in less backtracking for the helper and less confusion. A connection, or lack thereof, may occur much more quickly if more information is given up front. I love helping people who are stuck facing a brick wall. It is a challenge for me to see if I can get over it because I am looking at it with new eyes. Because I love and need the challenge, I will continue to help people when asked, but I think I will ask for as much information as they have up front before I start the search.

Have you had a similar frustrating experience helping someone online? What did you learn? Please post in the comments so we can all learn new ways to help others.

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Telling the story of your “Silent Women”

History and women’s history are two important components of a well rounded family history. What is important to recognize is that these components are often left out when family history researchers tell the stories of their families. Why are these components left out? I believe it is because family history researchers do not know the importance of incorporating history into family histories and they do not know the great wealth of resources available to them when researching the stories of their family, especially women.

I would like to tell you the story of my great grandmother Anna Svihlik Tregler. Between 1915 and 1925, Anna made a few trips back and forth between Bohemia, which became Czechoslovakia, and the United States, specifically Chicago. From information I have gathered, she was bringing her children over and then returning to Eastern Europe with her husband for reasons unknown. She married her second husband, Jaroslav, in Chicago in 1915, three years after the birth of my grandfather, Jerry. Family story is, when Jaroslav died in 1922, he left Anna and Jerry with a small sum of money. As a result, Jaroslav’s family did not want Anna to leave Czechoslovakia because she would have taken her money with her. Anna decided to leave Czechoslovakia for the last time in 1925 and wanted to take my grandfather, Jerry, to Chicago.  Apparently the Tregler family tried to prevent Anna from leaving so she sought help from Thomas Masaryk in order to leave the country. Anna was successful and arrived in the United States April 14, 1925.

This story is interesting at first glance, but what is the importance? Anna’s story offers a combination of world history, U.S. history, Chicago history and women’s history. When I heard the story for the first time I wondered why Anna left Bohemia. In the end, why did she ask Thomas Masaryk for help and who was he?

In researching Anna’s story on and off over the last 14 years, I began finding answers to these questions and of course, finding more questions I wanted answers to. Why did Anna leave Bohemia and then after returning, Czechoslovakia? The exact answer will never be known, but by looking at the history of Czechoslovakia and Europe during her lifetime, I can see the political, social and economic upheavals occurring before and after World War I. These upheavals gave me possible reasons why Anna left. Why did she enlist the help of Thomas Masaryk and who was he? Masaryk was the first President of Czechoslovakia when it became an independent nation on October 28, 1918 at the end of World War I. He was still the President in 1925 and although I have no documentation to prove he assisted Anna, I suppose it is possible. Another mystery!

If a researcher has the basic information such as names, dates, and places, possibly a family story, but no history, they certainly do not have a complete story of the lives of their ancestors. Val Greenwood said it best, in his book, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, “Genealogy and history (religious, economic, social and political) cannot be separated. Men cannot be dissociated from the times and places in which they lived and still be understood. It is impossible to recognize the full extent of research possibilities if you are not aware of the historical background from which your ancestor came.” In a sense, researchers have separated history from genealogy. What Greenwood is telling us is that we must know history to put out ancestors into the historical context in which they lived. He is also saying that by putting our ancestors into historical context, we understand exactly what resources are available to us in our research. Once researchers understand how to incorporate history into their family histories, it is time to move forward to researching the women in our past.

As researchers collect all these names, dates, and places, they strive to see how far back they can trace their paternal lines. In essence, family history researchers focus more on the lives and stories of men, rather than women. When writing women’s history, Christina Schaefer wrote, “Women’s history should not reflect only an isolated tale of victims, but should give a full context of the events which women helped to shape.” Scahefer goes on to state, “Looking for women requires a readjustment in how we view traditional record sources.” (Source: The Hidden Half of the Family by Christina Schaefer). With these ideas in mind, it is my hope to leave you with a greater understanding of what resources are available to you as a family historian incorporating history, and more specifically, women’s history into your family stories and give you a new perspective on some already used sources.

I would like to share a few topics family history researchers can examine about the lives of their female ancestors. Please understand there are many more topics about which stories can be written. Researchers can examine a specific period in their ancestor’s life and compare it to other time periods with these topics in mind. Not only do you want to examine the lives of your matrilineal line, but also of sisters, cousins, and aunts, of the women you are researching. It is interesting to compare the women not only across generations, but within the generation. Here are some possible topics.

  • Was the woman married or single? If married, at what age did she marry?
  • What were her roles? What was expected of her as a woman, wife, mother, friend, daughter?
  • Was she educated? If she had formal education, how much education did she have? If she did not have formal education, what skills did she learn growing up? Was she encouraged to further her education if formally educated?
  • What was her occupation? Did she work inside or outside of the home or both?
  • Where did she live? Alone? With a spouse and children? With her family?
  • When and how did she come to the United States if she was an immigrant?
  • Was she involved in any women’s clubs?
  • Did she work during World War I or World War II?
  • Was she a pioneer somewhere in the United States?
  • Was she in Chicago and experience any major historical event such as the Great Chicago Fire or World’s Columbian Exposition, etc.? This is a specific example to Chicago but can be applied to any city and major event.

As an example, I did a study comparing the roles of married women in my family. I looked at my grandmother and her mother. I looked at their roles in the family, what was expected of them, whether they worked inside or out of the home, and where they lived in relation to their families. The time period was roughly the 1930s. I then looked at my mother in comparison to my grandmother and finally myself. It was interesting to see how different the generations were in comparison to one another.

Now that you have an idea about the types of stories you could write, where do you find the information for these stories? The best place to start is with home sources. These are the same sources used to fine pure genealogical data such as names, dates, and places of events in your family. Examined more closely, these sources help you find clues about the lives of your female ancestors. As in pure family history research, it is also very important to document your sources so you know from where the information came.

Next I would encourage you to find books about women’s history for the time period in which your ancestor lived. Find books specifically about tracing women’s history such as The Hidden Half of the Family by Christina Schaefer or Discovering Your Female Ancestors by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack. These books will be reviewed on my blog in an upcoming post.

Go online and Google women’s history and specific topics in which you are interested. Talk to others online via blogs, message boards, and other online forums about women’s topics. The possibilities are endless for finding information on women.

In conclusion, I used a quote from Christina Schaefer’s, The Hidden Half of the Family, “Looking for women requires a readjustment in how we view traditional record sources.” Readjusting our view and use of these tools as family history researchers, will allow us to start researching the lives of our female ancestors and being to write their stories.

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Websites to Follow

I found a few great websites to share with you this week in an effort to provide more resources for finding the history of our homes and cities. I hope you find them useful!

Chicago Landmarks Tour 2010 This is a blog by a man who made a goal for 2010 to see all of the Chicago Landmarks. He takes readers on a tour of an area of Chicago and posts beautiful pictures of the area and architecture. I think I will have to visit some of the places he writes about this summer with my children.

City of Chicago Landmark List If you would like to see the entire list of Chicago Landmarks, check out this site. These are the places the above blogger is visiting.  To view a PDF file of this list go here.

Chicago Architecture Foundation And finally if you live in Chicago and want more information about the history of our great city’s buildings, visit the CAF.

Now, unrelated to the home and city history sites above, I was reading Dr. Bill’s blog this morning and he posted a Follow Friday blog post that fits very well with the articles I have been writing the last week.  If you have had problems finding family on Census records, please read Bayside Blog for a great article called Census Searching: Ancestor Not Home? Ask the Neighbors, on finding that elusive ancestor. If you haven’t started following or subscribing to Dr. Bill’s blog, you should! Thanks Dr. Bill for posting this article as a recommendation!


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I can’t find my Chicago ancestor, now what?

Sunday I wrote about my Excel spreadsheet that helps me locate family members by street address. The spreadsheet is gorgeous and almost totally filled in for each person, but it took me several hours over a few days to locate some of those addresses. If you have come across the issue of “I can’t find my Chicago ancestor but I am pretty sure they stayed in the same house or area of the city, now what?” Here are a few resources to aid your search, which helped me immensely. First you need to roll up your sleeves, grab a pen and paper, cup of coffee, and get your data ready.

I know I spelled their name correctly but I cannot find them on Census in 1910. What can I do? I think it depends on how you are searching. Are you looking at Census records online through Ancestry.com or some other database? If you are, have you checked different spellings of the name? Have you changed the first letter of the name in case the transcriptionist saw it differently than you? My Dorothy Zajicek became Pajek in once census because the transcriptionist saw the Z as a P. If you are looking via Soundex on microfilm and cannot locate the name, it is possible it was misspelled on the Census so the Soundex may not help you. I had this issue in 1930 with my Holik. The Census taker wrote HAlik, not HOlik. Changes the Soundex Code. I was finally able to find it through Ancestry.com only after my grandmother and uncle had died and could no longer answer the questions that arose after I found this Census record.

I have a street address for my ancestors in 1900 but I cannot find them on Census in 1910. What can I do? If you are fairly certain your ancestor remained in the same house but you are unable to locate them by their name in a search or Soundex, there are a few resources to consult.

First, you can search the Chicago Street Address (re-numbering) Change 1909. This is a PDF file and shows the old street number by street name and the new number. In 1909 most city of Chicago street names changed. There was another change in 1911 for downtown addresses. Rand McNally has a great 1910 Map online as an additional resource.

Second, once you have checked for the changed address, you can consult a Ward Map.  There is a fantastic website called A Look at Cook, which has Census Ward Maps. Because the Wards changed slightly each census, it is helpful to use MapQuest or GoogleMaps to locate where the revised address is in the city today. That will give you an area in which to start searching the Ward Maps. When you find the Ward Map you believe is correct, you next must look at the Enumeration District. Sometimes a street is a boundary street between ED’s so you might have to search both.

When you have your ED for the Ward, you should look page by page of that section of the Census record. Find the street name on which your ancestors lived and search the names. Some Census Wards are many pages long and it may take forever. Others are shorter and will not take as long. If you are viewing the Wards through Ancestry.com, you can sort the census by State, Ward, Enumeration District. I have not tried this on microfilm yet so if you have suggestions to make it easiser for those researchers, please post your comments.

I have tried these suggestions and still cannot locate my ancestor. Now what?  I have found in my research, are a few possiblities. One, my ancestor was not added to the Census for reasons unknown. Two, they were not living where I thought they were for that Census year. If this could be the case, I would start searching their children’s Census records. I have found after a spouse dies, particularly the husband, many women in my family moved in with their children, or a child and his or her family moved in with the woman and they are listed before her on the Census. Three, did they die before the Census was taken? At the top of each Census page, the enumerator listed the date. And fourth, the name is so misspelled that it may take many hours of Ward searching to locate them.

I hope these suggestions, based on my personal research experience have helped you. Please post your own experiences. I’m sure you have run across issues I have not.

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