If Only ______ Were Here to See This

cubs-agency-hed-b-2016
photo taken from Adweek, originally from Chicago Cubs

This post has been a long time in coming — not only in the sense that the time required to write a blog post while taking care of a 2 month old and a two year old is much longer than it would otherwise be or in the sense that the topic would have been more relevant a week ago when my social media feed was dominated by feel-good sports stories instead of political rants. In a lot of ways, this post has been 108 years in the making.

I am of course talking about the fact that the Chicago Cubs, for the first time since 1908, have won the World Series. To non-Cubs fans, I am sure the media attention this story received seemed over the top, even bordering on obnoxious. Conversely, to those of us who have waited generations for this, no article or YouTube video can quite capture what this sporting event meant to us. This article maybe comes close.

Sure, there are much more important things in world than who wins a sporting event. It is a game, after all. Except, this year, it WAS actually more than JUST a game to a lot of people. I think above all, the Cub’s decade-in-the-making World Series win is a genealogy story. It is what prompted me to call my Grandma the day before game 7 to talk about how Gramps would have loved to see this team play and how if the Cubs were somehow able to pull out the win, we would be cheering on his behalf.

It’s the thought that many of my great-grandparents weren’t even in America the last time the Cubs won it all. My Irish great-grandparents arrived in 1909 and 1911 respectively, settling on Chicago’s North Side. Year after year, the Cubs played at Wrigley Field. Yet, my great-grandparents never got to see this. Up until 2 weeks ago, neither my grandparents nor my parents ever got to see this; But here we are, decades later, 4 generations of die-hard Cubs fans (My 5th generation Cubs fan son has no idea how special this is).14732310_10154501814066970_2209644246210962216_n

It’s the thought that comes to mind after we stopped raising our arms in the air and hugging those around us as tears come to our eyes, “if only _______ were here to see this.” I wrote out this statement on my Facebook page next to photos of my grandfather just after the Cubs clinched the title. My dad’s response? “They sure did it, Dad.”

When the love for a (mostly losing) sports team is passed down like that from generation to generation it becomes part of the fabric of our identity. In fact, I think in some sense it is an even stronger more enduring element of our family culture than things like religion or politics because even though we care SO much, in the end it IS just a game and we can always hope for “next year.” The millions of people who came to say thank you to this Cubs team for making this THE YEAR back me up on that statement (this in a city with TWO baseball teams). So do stories like this one.

Although I occasionally see glimpses of my immigrant ancestors’ culture and identity in my day to day life, the fact is that my life looks a lot different than theirs did. I don’t really practice religion, eat the same food, or dress the way they did. BUT, I do cheer for the same baseball team.

 

News and a Genealogy Birthdate Story

18-kjel0139of89-copyOn August 23rd, our family welcomed our second child, our first daughter, into the world! From now on, this date will have special significance to our family. For years to come on this date, we will celebrate her and reminisce about the day she was born.

It is interesting how this specific date is the one we will celebrate. I was certain she would arrive much earlier and all indicators supported this hunch. Yet, because of certain risks, my doctors insisted on scheduling the date of her “eviction” should she decide not to come on her own. August 23 was suggested and we agreed. Even though the number 23 carries positive connotations for any true Chicago sports fan, at the time I didn’t consider too carefully how I really felt about the date, because surely, I reasoned, she would come before then. Yet, as my due date came and went and this date loomed closer and closer, I began googling “This day in history” and famous birthdays on this date. Of course, once she arrived, I realized just how little these things truly matter and how the end goal is to have a healthy baby, which, thankfully, we do. Nevertheless, my genealogy research tells me I am not the first parent to care about the date on which her child is born.

My grandmother was born on December 18, 1919 – or so we always thought and so we always celebrated. This “fact” was supported by pretty air tight evidence. My mom said this was my Grammy’s birthday and my Grammy herself claimed this as her birthday. I found a copy of Grammy’s birth certificate at the FHL and indeed, the document said she was born on December 18th.[1] The only even remotely interesting thing about the document was that it was a delayed birth certificate, meaning it was written after the fact. My grandmother was born at home, at a time when Illinois vital statistics were regulated, but not always complied with[2], so it would seem that no official birth certificate was created at the time of her birth.

Then one day, when I am back home in Chicagoland, visiting family, the conversation turned to genealogy. My mom told me that she has a copy of my Grammy’s birth certificate if I wanted it. I explained how I already possessed a copy, but the topic prompted my mother to remember something:

“You know how sometimes Grammy misremembers things?” My mom asked. “Well, that’s another thing she got wrong. She once told me she was actually born on a different date, but her parents changed it because they didn’t like the date or something.”

“Wait, what?!” I replied.

“Yeah, she said they changed it, but they couldn’t have. Her birth certificate says she was born on December 18th.”

“Mom. . .” I explained, “Her birth certificate was a delayed certificate! — Meaning it was created after the fact and her father reported the date on which she was born. She was born at home, so no official certificate was created at a hospital or anything. It’s very possible they changed the date!”

In no time, we retrieved the birth certificate and I showed Mom how we know that the information was reported by my great grandfather in 1935, more than 15 years after my grandmother was born.

So, if the story my grandmother told is true, why would my great grandparents have changed my grandmother’s birthday?

While of course, I couldn’t swear to it, and knew I would likely never be able to prove my theory, I then and there developed my own beliefs about my grandmother’s true birthdate. I believe my Sicilian great grandparents, like most Sicilians of their time and place were fairly superstitious people. In their culture, 17 was considered an unlucky number.[3] So what do you do when your child is born on a day marked by this auspicious number? You simply say your child was born then next day! In this case, December 18.

Fast forward some weeks after this conversation with my mom when I find my Sicilian great-grandfather’s naturalization papers. On the 1924 document, he gave the names of his children and their birthdates. There, at the top, his firstborn child (my grandmother) is listed along with her birthdate: 17 December 1919!!![4]

Now, this may not be 100% proof that my theory was correct, but I’d say it’s looking pretty good!

The fact of the matter is that good genealogy research necessitates that we always take our ancestors’ birthdates with a grain of salt. Our modern idea of birthdays and how they are remembered and celebrated is often very different from those of our ancestors. The research ramifications of this truth are significant. I hope to expound on this idea in a future post.

But for now, I must go, since my two week old is about to wake up from her nap!

[1] Privately held by author

[2] Illinois Vital Records, “FamilySearch”, (https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/Illinois_Vital_Records#References : accessed 6 August 2016)

[3] Ethel Alec-Tweedie, Sunny Sicily, (London: Hutchinson, 1904), 125; downloaded from Google Books.

Also, Tweedie, Sunny Sicily, 198.

Also, Wikipedia Contributors, “17 (number),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Special:CiteThisPage&page=17_%28number%29&id=726870460 : accessed 8 September 2016).

[4] Privately held by author

15 Ways I Became a Better Genealogist in 2015

15 ways I became photo
Photos from author’s personal files. May not be used without permission.

2015 was quite a year. One for the history books, in my opinion. For one, I will never forget watching history as Thoroughbred racing’s American Pharoah won the first Triple Crown in almost 36 years. Something, as a lifelong horse lover, I had been waiting my whole life to see.

This year also saw the culmination of years of hard work when I finally reached my ultimate running goal of Qualifying for the Boston Marathon.

In 2015, my Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup and my Cubs won their first post-season playoff series at home in Wrigley Field history.

Besides these things, I will always remember 2015 as a banner year for my growth as a genealogist. As I look back on the year, I can pinpoint specific actions and experiences which fostered this growth. I still have a great deal to learn (stay tuned to for an upcoming New Year’s Resolution post), and am uncomfortable with the number of times I use the word “I” in this post. Nevertheless, I hope my experiences may inspire you. So here, in no particular order:

1. I listened to podcasts. You guys, there are so many free genealogy podcasts out there! The best part about education via podcast is that you don’t have to be sitting down to be learning. You can listen to them while you clean the house or when you are in the car or whatever. You can also download the audio to many of the free webinars out there and upload them to your listening device. My favorites include anything by Marian Pierre-Louis, and pretty much any webinar put out by the BCG or the APG. Check them out!

2. I exercised. I know this sounds a little ridiculous, but I sincerely can’t say enough about the value of getting away from the computer screen and getting your heart rate up. We genealogists tend to sit too long, intensely staring at screens and microfilm readers. Exercise helps loosen the tension from sitting and protect our health. For me personally, exercise gives me energy. So when my son goes down for his naps, instead of taking one too, I have the energy to work.

As you probably guessed by my aforementioned reference to the Boston Marathon, I love to run. Running provides a great opportunity to listen to those genealogy podcasts! It also just seems to spur creative thought. When I’m not listening to podcasts, I’m usually working out my genealogical brick walls or finding inspiration for blog posts.

3. I joined genealogical societies. In 2015, I joined the National Genealogical Society and the Chicago Genealogical Society. I can’t tell you how much I have learned from reading their publications, particularly those from NGS.

4. I took online courses. I currently stay home with my 2 year old. Consequently, I learn from home and I (mostly) work from home. Online learning provides classroom quality instruction without requiring me to actually be in a classroom. This year I completed several courses from the NGS and I am currently working my way through John Grenham’s Irish Ancestors course.

5. I read recommended books. There are so many genealogy books out there, sometimes it’s difficult to know which ones will most aid us in our efforts. I found there are a few books out there that come recommended time and again by top genealogists. Those are the books I’ve tried to acquire for my library and in each case, I have not been disappointed.

6. I started Almost Home. Few forms of learning are more effective than “learning by doing.” Client projects have stretched me and have also given me confidence in how much I have learned.

7. I joined the Association of Professional Genealogists. My membership in this organization has given Almost Home great exposure leading to some pretty exciting opportunities I hope to share more about in the future. The association’s email list provides another source of learning and an ever-present network of professionals to whom I can go for advice.

8. I admitted knowledge gaps. When I admit my knowledge gaps, I am more motivated to fill them. A few short months ago, I knew next to nothing about probate records, which I find almost embarrassing now that I know their value. Yet, just this week, I worked out a really difficult client problem relating to probate records, thanks to the steps I took to educate myself. I’m still no legal expert, but it was a proud moment.

9. I spent time significant time researching at the Family History Library. When we moved to Salt Lake, I knew we wouldn’t be here forever. I committed to getting the most out of living here while I could. That means I make at least weekly trips to the FHL, spending a minimum of 2 hours at a time. Even accounting for weeks that I traveled, or couldn’t make it for one reason or another, I spent at least 100 hours researching at this repository this year . . . and there’s still so much more to do there.

You may not have access to this library where you live, but you may live close to a Family History Center. If you aren’t already familiar with their holdings and the FHL’s loan program, I encourage you to check it out.

10. I diversified my repository research. Besides the FHL, I also spent time this year researching at the Chicago History Museum, Chicago’s Newberry Library, Daughters of Utah Pioneers, Utah State Archives, and the Salt Lake City Recorders Office.

11. I interviewed family members. While I certainly interviewed family members in years past, in 2015, I took better care to record or take notes on those interviews.

12. I investigated “old shoeboxes.” This practice led to a number of new clues and helped solve a few mysteries too. Read more here.

13. I learned under some the best at the BCG lecture series. Read more here.

14. I buckled down on source citations. I still have a long way to go in terms of getting accurate source citations attached to all my records, but I am happy to say I am making progress.

15. I learned from more experienced genealogists. I don’t read as many blogs as I would like and I don’t interact with other genealogists as much as I would like, but when I am able to connect with others, whether electronically or in person, I want their advice. I want to know their stories and learn from their experiences. That includes you. In what ways did you become a better genealogist in 2015?

Researching Urban-Dwelling Ancestors: Trick or Treat?

Happy (almost) Halloween, Everyone! Costume making, party planning, pumpkin carving – it has been a busy few weeks around here! I love sharing these traditions with my family and can’t help but think of how Halloween traditions have simultaneously evolved and endured over generations.

IMG_0421 copy
photo from personal files of author. May not be used with out permission.

How priceless is this Halloween photo from one of our family albums?! It also holds a great deal genealogical of value (FAN Club, house number and more!) too.

But today, I want to write about a topic that has been on my mind a lot lately. Ironically, it was discussed on the FamilySearch Blog just yesterday. It is a truth I am learning, so I do not consider myself an expert, but here it is: Genealogy research in urban environments looks a lot different from genealogy research in small town or rural America. As mentioned in previous posts, I am currently working my way through Val Greenwood’s book, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy and I recently attended the BCG Lecture Series for the Family History Library. These educational experiences only reiterated to me this contrast between urban and rural genealogy. In fact, I buttonholed Cook County research expert, Jeanne Larzalere Bloom after the Conference to ask her about this very topic.

Sometimes, as I research my family, I feel lucky to have so many ancestors in Chicago. Other times, I find the challenges of research in a large city overwhelming. So trick or treat, here are some the pros and cons of having ancestors in urban environments:

Challenges (i.e. “tricks”)

1. Common Names

Is it just me, or does anyone else feel a little jealous when reading a case study in which the researcher uses negative research to correctly identify one individual out of maybe five others with the same name? Juxtapose this with urban research where scores of people may share a common name. For example, I have been researching one of my earliest known Irish immigrant ancestors for some time now. He is the key to a great deal of information on the family tree and the origin of a number of genealogical mysteries as well. His name? Michael Kelly. His occupation? Laborer. How on earth do I tell my Michael Kelly apart from the dozens of others with the same name living in Chicago at the same time? Though not long ago I considered this to be too daunting a task to even attempt, I have made good progress in recent months. I’m learning it takes work, but it doesn’t have to be impossible.

2. Frequent moves

In the past as well as today, people move into and out of cities frequently. Even individuals who lived in a city for all or most of their life often changed addresses multiple times [1]. This is in sharp contrast to families in rural areas which often lived on the same plot of land for generations. The example of my ancestor holds true here as well. Except for several years in the 1910s where my Michael Kelly stayed at one address, the guy moved constantly. This has been one of my biggest challenges to my proving I am following the correct person.

3. Inconsistent Spellings

If you are researching in a large city, chances are you have non-English speaking, immigrant and/or illiterate ancestors in your family line. As a result, your ancestor’s name may be grossly misspelled in the records documented by those with little familiarity with your ancestor’s foreign language, accent or traditional name-spelling [2]. Furthermore, your ancestor may have gone by a number of different names in an attempt to assimilate into American culture. This certainly necessitates a measure of creativity on the researcher’s part when using the old search box feature.

4. Lack of Property Records

Genealogists in rural communities appear to rely heavily on land records. Yet, for those of us searching our urban dwelling ancestors, we often find they owned no property [3]. The Rent or Own column on census records can provide a clue as to whether or not this is the case. Even if you think your ancestor owned property, you may have quite the task ahead of you. I can’t speak for other large cities, but I understand that when it comes to Chicago, the process involved in finding land and property records can be something of a nightmare [4] – not that that should keep us from trying. Just know what you might be in for.

5. Lack of Probate Records

A lack of property often translates to a lack of probate records, as well [5]. Many genealogists consider probate records to be among the most valuable record sets available thanks to their ability to define relationships. Unfortunately, this is one valuable source we may at times have to do without when researching in cities.

Despite these challenges, urban genealogy research is not a completely uphill battle. Here are some of the perks of having city-dwelling ancestors.

Benefits (i.e. “treats”)

1. City Directories

“In big cities . . . it is much more likely that urban ancestors appeared in city directories and that those directories still exist” wrote Duncan Kuehn on the FamilySearch Blog [6]. Even when you have an ancestor with a common name, city directories can be key to identifying that ancestor. There is a fantastic article on how to use city directories on the BCG Website. By knowing how to use them, you can often identify relationships, find employment records, identifying neighbors, understand address changes, and identify approximate dates of death [7].

2. Ethnic Neighborhoods and Churches

Though the city which your ancestor called home may have held a number of individuals with the same name, your ancestor’s immediate community may have held far fewer of them than you might think. Going back to my Michael Kelly example, I found that this ancestor of mine moved frequently, yes; But he always moved within a very small geographic region of what today is considered the near North Side/Magnificent Mile neighborhood, near Holy Name Cathedral where records show he attended church. Therefore, I can conclude that it is unlikely the person I find with the same name in the South Side Bridgeport neighborhood who attended Old St. Pat’s is the same person. The fact is, most large cities are just groups of smaller neighborhoods. So, if we learn the neighborhood, we will likely learn more about our ancestor.

Speaking of church records, urban church records are much more likely to have been preserved than rural church records [8], and many of them are digitized online. I personally have had good luck searching the Chicago Catholic Church records online at FamilySearch.

3. Newspapers – The same holds true for newspapers. It seems to me that large city newspapers are much more likely to be digitized and conveniently searchable than rural newspapers with small readership numbers. Even if you think your ancestor wouldn’t have been noteworthy enough to be mentioned in a newspaper article, you may find record of them in the classified ads [9].

4. Immigration and Naturalization records

If you have comparatively recent immigrant ancestors (generally speaking, post-1900 records contain more information than older documents) in your family line (which again, is fairly likely if you are searching in a large city), immigration and naturalization records can provide invaluable genealogical information such as town of origin, names of closest living relatives and more.

5. Preponderance of Documents

Kuehn again summed things up well when he wrote, “Big cities generate more documents and records than rural areas. They were often the first to institute death and burial records to deal with the increased health hazards that exist in cities due to pollution and overcrowding [10].”

6. Organized Cemetery Records

Generally speaking, city cemetery records are more organized and better preserved than rural cemetery records [11].

7. Genealogy Research Guides

You may not find a published book or reputable website on genealogy research for a small county America, but you are likely to find excellent city-specific research guides to America’s cities. I’ve got Loretto Dennis Szucs book, Chicago and Cook County: A Guide to Research on my current wishlist and I wrote about some of my old Chicago genealogy standbys here.

8. Employment Records

A number of individuals in my family tree worked for the Chicago Police Department and for the Chicago Surface Lines. Both of these agencies have surviving original records, as well as numerous related secondary sources just waiting to be investigated. The same is true for other large city agencies and corporations as well [12]. You may be surprised what employment records you find surviving in America’s cities.

So, there you have it. Have you noticed any other differences between research in large cities versus small towns or rural areas? Do you prefer one over the other? Do you know of any good resources on genealogy research in large cities or have any tips you would like to share?! Leave a comment or shoot me an email! I would love to hear from you!

[1] Duncan Kuehn, “Researching Your Ancestors from Large Cities,” FamilySearch Blog, 26 Oct 2015 (https://familysearch.org/blog/en/researching-ancestors-large-cities/ : Accessed 27 Oct 2015).

[2] Ibid.,

[3] Ibid.,

[4] “Land and Property,” Cook County Illinois Genealogy, FamilySearch Wiki, no date (https://familysearch.org/learn/wiki/en/Cook_County,_Illinois_Genealogy#Land_and_Property : accessed 27 Oct 2015)

[5]Val D. Greenwood, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, 3d ed. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Col, 2000), 310-311.

[6] Kuehn, “Researching Your Ancestors from Large Cities.”

[7] Kathleen W. Hinckley, “Analyzing City Directories,” Online Article citing OnBoard 2 (May 1996): 16, (http://www.bcgcertification.org/skillbuilders/skbld965.html : Accessed 27 Oct 2015).

[8] Kuehn, “Researching Your Ancestors from Large Cities.”

[9] Ibid.,

[10] Ibid.,

[11] Ibid.,

[12] Ibid.,