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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Background Information Research

Roughly six months ago I began writing a book about my cousin Robert Brouk. Robert was a Flying Tiger in China just before the start of the United State’s involvement in World War II. The Tigers helped the Chinese keep the Burma Road open in the fight against the Japanese.

Writing a book takes a lot of background research. Robert was such a hometown hero in Cicero, Illinois, that The Berwyn Life newspaper wrote many articles about his war service and his life after his return home in July 1942. The newspaper also formed a committee to honor Robert with a Bob Brouk Day on August 2, 1942 in Cicero. I was fortunate that my uncle made several trips to the Berwyn library to look through microfilm for articles about Robert and these articles helped give my research a boost.

I am fortunate that my library has a subscription to ProQuest, a newspaper database. The databases available to my library’s users include the Historical Chicago Tribune, National Paper Abstracts, ProQuest Newspapers, and the Historical New York Times in addition to over 2,500 others.  ProQuest allows me to search by a term, dates, limit to only certain records and change the number of posts shown. I can check a box next to a record which then allows me to email, cite, or export that article. I can view the Page Map of the page on which the article resides to see what else is on the page.  By opening an article I have several more options. I can print; save the file; search; and view the Page Map.

Not only has ProQuest allowed me to find numerous articles about Robert, I have also been able to successfully search the Historical New York Times Newspaper for immigrant ship news. John Phillip Colletta spoke in February at the DuPage Genealogical Society conference and in one session told the listeners that the New York Times has brief articles about ships coming into and leaving the Port of New York. He said at times you will find the ship being reported as docking days later than the ship log states, which could have been caused by a backup of ships or illness or weather.

Searching Frisia between January 1, 1880 to December 31, 1880 brings up many articles. Some of these are listed as Classified Ads and list the ships with incoming and outgoing mail service; ticket prices for steamships; and steamship arrivals.  Depending on the ship or the passenger, the New York Times will have articles on prominent first class passengers and their arrival in the paper.

Not only did I search newspapers for background information, but I also used online search engines to find books and articles on my specific topics, Robert Brouk, Flying Tigers, A.V.G. (American Volunteer Group) China. Some of the books I located were available through my library system. Others were not and had to be requested through WorldCat which is an international collection of books. I was able to obtain several books through WorldCat’s Interlibrary Loan program. Some books came with a $3 fee, but the money was well spent.

And finally, I am lucky the A.V.G. group has an official Association. Searching their webpages allowed me to become a member and post questions regarding Robert or the Flying Tigers. I have been in contact with the webmaster regarding their records, and even had a great email conversation with a former Armorer in Robert’s 3rd Pursuit Squadron. Always be sure to contact a local or national group for the topic on which you are researching. You never know what or who you will come in contact with that will help your research.

Have you used different sources to conduct background research for your family history? If you have, I would love to hear what they are.

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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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