2015 NGS Family History Conference

Last week was spent at the National Genealogical Society’s 2015 Family History Conference in St. Charles, Missouri. This was my third NGS conference in as many years, and as always, it was a fantastic time of education, inspiration, and connecting with colleagues and friends.

IMG_0792Despite missing the first morning and final afternoon of the conference, I managed to pack in fourteen sessions in addition to the NGS luncheon and a lovely breakfast hosted by Findmypast. (No, I didn’t get much sleep.) From legal lingo with Judy Russell to tracing kinships through indirect evidence with Elizabeth Shown Mills, I came away with plenty of new ideas for tracking down some of my more elusive ancestors. Other sessions ranged from Federal Military Pensions to Scandinavians in the Midwest, and I also enjoyed learning about Illinois resources, pre-statehood and beyond, as a number of my ancestors entered Illinois Territory more than two hundred years ago.

One standout session was Baerbel Johnson’s “So You Think You Want to Get Married: German Marriage Records, Laws, and Customs.” Let’s just say that all of the obstacles in the way of marriage during different points in German history – including age restrictions (brides had to be twenty-two and grooms had to be twenty-five!), parental permission, proof of means of support, and taxes galore – go a long way in explaining just why so many German children may have been born out of wedlock.

My favorite discovery from a session? That would have to be HistoryGeo.com, a resource that maps “First Landowners” and can pinpoint the exact site of your ancestor’s land on Google Maps in just a few clicks. This eliminates the need to painstakingly cross-reference historic plat maps with modern road maps as I did last summer when identifying the location of the homestead of one of my ancestors. If you have any first landowners in your family tree, this is a resource you won’t want to miss.

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At this year’s conference, I especially enjoyed getting to spend time with two fellow members of the Leadership Team of the NextGen Genealogy Network. We hosted an informal meetup event for other young genealogists in their twenties, thirties, and into their forties – and those who lend their support, including a friend of mine from graduate school. A handful of us stuck around to swap our best family stories into the night, and from black sheep to DNA discoveries, we covered it all. It was the perfect way to pause and unwind halfway into the conference!

All in all, I was impressed with the stellar organization of this year’s conference by the National Genealogical Society, the St. Louis Genealogical Society, and conference center staff, as well as the tireless speakers, volunteers, and exhibit hall vendors. The conference center was a short walk from my hotel, and there was a Cracker Barrel in between – what more could one want? Oh, food trucks, of course. Lots of fun details of the conference were captured on Twitter under #NGS2015GEN.

I didn’t have the chance on this trip to explore what historic St. Charles and St. Louis have to offer, but I will definitely need to return at some point for a research venture – after all, my southern Illinois ancestors settled just a couple of hours away. Now I know how to find their land!

Read about the 2014 NGS Family History Conference (Richmond) here.
Read Ten Tips for NGS Family History Conference Attendees here.

A Glimpse of Hyde County

Three years ago, my husband and I were in our final year of graduate school and in search of something to do over spring break. We lived in Northern Virginia at the time, so my husband suggested exploring the Outer Banks – about a five hour drive south. As soon as I determined that the Outer Banks were only a stone’s throw from mainland Hyde County, North Carolina, I was on board.

Why the fuss about Hyde County? I knew that this was the place from which my Stilley ancestors – who settled on the Illinois frontier in the early nineteenth century – had likely hailed. And for me, the ideal vacation includes at least some genealogical or historical element, paired, of course, with beautiful scenery, good local food, plenty of photo ops, and a travel companion willing to humor me.

P1050418My direct ancestor Nancy Stilley, born in 1819 in Franklin County, Illinois, can almost certainly be linked to the other Stilleys scattered throughout southern Illinois who had roots in Hyde County, North Carolina. Nancy is believed to have been a granddaughter of the Hezekiah Stilley who was a resident of Hyde County as late as 1800 and whose numerous children – later residents of southern Illinois – are named in a family Bible.1 In the interests of full disclosure (I’m looking at you, Ben Affleck), I will add that Hezekiah Stilley likely married the daughter of Hyde County landowner and slaveholder William Davis, who died there circa 1803.2 His will named eight slaves, Jemima, Gabrel, Joseph, Moses, Kesiah, Cate, Judith, and Silard, all of who were to remain with his wife and selected children after his death.3

P1050417We had only a couple of hours to spend driving through the Inner Banks of Hyde County, but while this was not an in-depth research venture, it was still incredible to get a feel for the landscape that would have been familiar to my ancestors. I was glad to find that the county is still very rural; according to the 2010 census, the population is under six thousand people, comparable to its size two centuries ago. I believe we drove for an hour through the swamps and marshes without seeing another human being, and the only signs of civilization for much of our drive were an untended boat and an abandoned but well-kept ghost town.

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Hyde County, North Carolina also encompasses Ocracoke Island, a popular tourist destination on the Outer Banks that we visited via ferry. The island boasts quaint shops, stunning herds of wild horses, and locals who speak a distinct Ocracoke brogue that traces back to the dialect of the early colonists. It’s a must-see along the Outer Banks. The Inner Banks, in sharp contrast, are on the road less traveled – but one I would most definitely like to travel again.

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The Trailblazers

Jensine Kathrine and Lars Marinus Walsted were the first of their siblings to leave Denmark for America. Sine (also spelled Sena) was eighteen and Lars Marinus twenty when they arrived in Boston on 19 April 1886 aboard the Catalonia and made their way to Council Bluffs, Pottawattamie County, Iowa.1 It would be seven years before they would see another member of their family, although eventually, all of their surviving siblings would make their way to America.

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Lars Marinus “Charles” Walsted, 21, and Jensine Kathrine “Sine” Walsted, 19, half-siblings, Council Bluffs, Iowa, 1887; digital image 2014, privately held by Dianne Anderson, 2015.

This 1887 cabinet card photograph was likely taken outside in the summertime, as real grass appears in front of the outdoorsy backdrop. In addition, Sine poses with a parasol, certainly a warm-weather accessory. Both are smartly dressed, Lars Marinus in a light-colored three-piece suit and Sine in a plaid dress with a straight skirt and snug sleeves that, as was typical of the time, do not quite reach her wrists.2 A flower is pinned at her throat. Their hats – Sine’s quite elaborate – rest at their feet. Lars Marinus parted and combed his hair neatly, while Sine’s hair is pulled back tightly and does not seem to be styled in any special way. Iowa summers can be hot and humid, rather unforgiving to the curled fringe often worn by young women of the era!

At nineteen and twenty-one, these fair-complexioned half-siblings had their lives ahead of them. Having become established among a community of Danes in the Council Bluffs area, Sine and Lars Marinus may have wanted to have their picture made so that their parents could see how well they were doing after a year away from home. As the eldest children and trailblazers for life in America, they may also have hoped to encourage their five siblings to join them when they were able. While this photograph remained in Sine’s possession until she gifted it to her daughter in 1932, it’s easy to imagine that another copy may very well have accompanied a letter home to Denmark.

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Crestleaf.com’s Guess My Family Heritage Blogathon Contest Entry

I love any incentive to digitize and share old photographs, so today I am taking part in a blog contest hosted by Crestleaf.com, a collaborative genealogy website.

Participants have been asked to share a family photograph and to invite their blog readers to guess their heritage (or, for those of us with rather diverse backgrounds, the heritage of those pictured). If you would like to take part in the contest, details are available on their blog.

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This cabinet card photograph depicts one of my ancestors, at right, with her sister. Can you guess their heritage? You are welcome to leave a comment! There is no prize for a correct answer, but I look forward to reading any responses. Check back after April 20th for the story of these sisters.

Update 4/22: Sisters Matilda Bramsen, left, and Anna Bramsen, daughters of Eric and Inger Marie (Hansen) Bramsen, were born in Denmark and later settled in South Dakota.

Thank you to Crestleaf.com for promoting the preservation of family memories through the Guess My Family Heritage Blogathon Contest!

Tombstone Tuesday: Fred and Matilda (Hammond) Thoma

Fred and Matilda (Hammond) Thoma, or Fritz and Tillie as they were known in their community, spent their childhoods and the entirety of their married lives in the same rural county in northeastern Iowa. Fred Thoma was born to Bavarians William Henry and Anna Margaretta (Poesch) Thoma on 4 December 1857 in Garnavillo, Clayton County, Iowa.1 Matilda Hammond was born to Hiram H. and Eva Margaret (Stoehr) Hammond on 4 May 1859 in Volga, Clayton County, Iowa.2 While Matilda’s father was a native of Ohio and an early settler in Iowa, her mother hailed from the same Bavarian village of Weißenstadt as Matilda’s in-laws.3

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Grave of Mathilda Thoma (1857-1947) and Fred Thoma (1857-1924), Garnavillo Old Town Cemetery, Garnavillo, Clayton County, Iowa; image date unknown, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2015.

It seems likely that the couple crossed paths as children, although they lived in separate communities; the Weißenstadt immigrants were surely a close-knit bunch. Fred and Matilda married on 29 December 1879 at the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Clayton Center.4 The next year found them living in Garnavillo, where Fred was a clerk in his late father’s country store.5 That autumn, the couple became parents to the first of their eventual five children: George Hiram, Leonard Christopher Julius, Ludelia Maria, Roselyn Anna, and Norma Evaline.6 All but Norma survived to adulthood; sadly, she died in a diphtheria outbreak when she was ten years old.7

What few details are known of Fred and Matilda’s lives come from recollections of their granddaughters.8 The first thirty years of their marriage were spent in the town of Garnavillo, where Fred later had a restaurant and then worked as a laborer.9 Matilda was said to have been a midwife who delivered many children in Clayton County, although such skills were not recorded in the census. Fred allegedly had a fondness for drink, so when Matilda received an inheritance, she bought a farm away from town – and the saloons.10 The empty nesters enjoyed life in the countryside for the next fifteen years until Fred’s death in Clayton on 10 January 1925.11

As a widow, Matilda spent time in the homes of her daughter and granddaughter. In 1930, she experienced a different climate in Houston, Texas; by 1940, she had returned to the Midwest and resided in Wisconsin.12 It was there in Bridgeport, Crawford County, Wisconsin that she died on 21 August 1947 when she was approaching ninety years of age. She is buried beside her husband at the Garnavillo Old Town Cemetery.13

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Searching for Marguerite

There is both good and bad news about this photograph:

Unidentified_Marguerite_Chicoine_Adam

Unidentified photograph, ca. 1860-1866; digital image 2015, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2015. Image courtesy of D.B.

Twenty-seven years ago, my parents traveled to Massachusetts and made a stop in the community of Indian Orchard, where, my father knew, his ancestors had lived for a time in the latter half of the nineteenth century. As it turned out, these French Canadian immigrants had descendants who still lived in the area, and thanks to the staff at Saint Aloysius Parish, he was able to connect with one such descendant. Later, he began corresponding with two more cousins, both of whom were kind enough to share their research about our shared French Canadian and Acadian ancestors. Family lore and even a few photographs were also exchanged – including this photocopied image thought to be a photograph of Marguerite (Chicoine) Adam (1816-1878).1

Marguerite Chicoine is one of the first ancestral names I learned as a child and amateur family historian. I loved hearing that she was said to be Native American – a bit of family lore since (mostly) disproven, but it did work quite effectively to capture my attention at the time. I had always hoped to see the original of this photograph that was sent to us by our late cousin, but learned two years ago that an original may no longer exist. Apparently, when she was moved to a nursing home, her family history materials were thrown out.2 This serves as an important reminder to make an estate plan for the preservation of your own family history materials.

While I can’t rule out that somewhere out there, a cousin might hold another copy of this same photograph – that fortunate scenario has happened before – it’s also possible that this is the only version of this photograph that I will ever see. In any case, let’s take a look. Could this realistically be a photograph of Marguerite Chicoine?

Marguerite died in Massachusetts in 1878 at the age of 62.3 Thus, this photograph would have to predate 1878. As the photocopy indicates that this was a carte de visite – most popular between approximately 1860 and 1866 – that is entirely possible.4 All of Marguerite’s fifteen known children were born before 1862, with the exception of her youngest, who was born five years later. As Marguerite relocated with her family from Quebec to Massachusetts circa 1864-65, it seems plausible that she may have had her picture taken during this time period as a memento to share with relatives at home.5

Marguerite was fifty years old when her youngest child was born at the tail end of the most likely timeframe for this photograph; in order to have had a healthy pregnancy so late, perhaps she had a more youthful appearance than one might otherwise imagine for a mother of fifteen. The woman appears to have dark hair without noticeable graying, and her dark complexion and strong nose make it easy to see how rumors of significant Native American ancestry could have gotten started. However, I find it difficult to get a sense for her age, due in part to the poor quality of the image. Could she be over forty-five, or is this woman in fact decades younger?

Marguerite did have three daughters who would have reached adulthood by the 1860s: Marguerite Adam, Marie Adam, and Julienne Adam.6 While I do have a photograph of Marguerite, who does not appear to be a match, could this photograph show instead either Marie or Julienne as a young woman in her early to mid-twenties?

The woman wears a buttoned shirtwaist with a windowpane pattern, the sleeves neither significantly fitted nor puffed, and a high linen band collar is visible.7 Her belted skirt is of a straightforward design. Notably, it is not worn with a fashionable hoop as one would typically expect in the 1860s; this more unassuming skirt would perhaps have been in line with what a woman in rural Quebec or an immigrant in a New England mill town might wear.8 The backdrop is similarly domestic in style with a practical wooden chair and what looks to be a fireplace.

The good news? This could be a photograph of Marguerite Chicoine. It depicts a dark-complected woman of evidently simple means who was photographed in the 1860s, a physical description, socioeconomic background, and timeline that fit with what is known about Marguerite.

The bad news? We may never know for sure. It seems equally plausible that could be a photograph of one of Marguerite’s daughters or a close relative. Lacking an original for closer examination, it can still be hoped that another copy of this photograph might exist in different branch of the family, and that it may hold additional clues regarding the true identification of the mysterious dark-haired Québécois.

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A Fatal Scratch: The Death of a Pioneer Woman

Anna_Margaretha_Poesch_Thoma_Obituary“After almost a week of extreme suffering, caused from blood poisoning, Mrs. Margaretha Thoma, one of Garnavillo’s oldest residents, passed away at 4:00 o’clock last Saturday afternoon. About two weeks ago the lady accidentally scratched the back of one of her hands with a pin. The scratch at the time was a mere trifle and was given no further thought by her until a few days after when the hand began to swell and cause more or less pain. A physician was called and found it necessary to lance the hand, but desired results did not follow and twice later the lance was employed, and still no relief came to her sufferings, but instead the wound continued to grow worse and the swelling commenced extending into the arm. Everything possible was done to allay the pain and comfort her in her unendurable suffering, but nothing could be administered that would combat with the situation and the result was death came as a relief after nearly a week of incessant torture.”1

Anna Margaretha (Poesch) Thoma was born in Weißenstadt, Wunsiedel, Bavaria, the daughter of Wolfgang and Barbara Poesch.2 She came to Iowa with her family at a young age, and was later deemed “one of the venerable and loved pioneer women of Clayton County.”3 Margaretha married William Henry Thoma, a local merchant, in 1857, when she was still in her teens.4 They had eleven children before his death in 1876; Margaretha never remarried, and in fact continued to operate his mercantile in the years following his death.5 Perhaps it was this role in her community that brought her the recognition to be remembered so fondly in the years following her death from blood poisoning on 9 November 1907.6

Margaretha’s unfortunate plight might remind some of Caroline Ingalls’ encounter with a rusty nail in a particularly drama-filled episode of Little House on the Prairie. Indeed, albeit tragically, little could have been done to relieve Margaretha’s suffering at this time and place. Her age, estimated at near seventy, might also have contributed to her susceptibility to infection, whether she in fact suffered from sepsis or tetanus. Although not soon enough for Margaretha, it would be just a matter of time before the use of penicillin – and the tetanus vaccine – would become widespread. 

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