So you’ve found your relative on FindaGrave. And there’s even a picture of the grave marker. Score! But could there be another relative buried nearby with no marker, or with an illegible stone? As far as I’ve been able to tell, many FindAGrave memorials are created because someone walked through the cemetery and wrote down the graves that they could see. Nothing to see - no memorial. So of course, you’ll want to contact the cemetery sexton or other official to see if the cemetery has records on who else might be buried in the plot or elsewhere in the cemetery, perhaps in an unmarked or illegible grave.
I have not had great success in googling the cemetery to get contact details for the sexton. Yes, I can perhaps get a satellite image of the cemetery, and probably a link back to FindAGrave, but no contact information.
And then I got an idea. Who would have reliable contact information for a cemetery official? Why, the local funeral home, of course! If the cemetery is still taking new burials, the local funeral home is certain to know how to get in contact with someone in charge of the graveyard. Just do a Google search for funeral homes in your town of interest, and give ‘em a call. They’ll point you to the cemetery director and you’ll be on your way to getting your questions answered about just who might be buried there.
A series of TV commercials runs these days asking “What’s in your wallet?” The advertiser wants it to be their credit card. But I want it to be library cards. A lot of them!
As I tell people in my genealogy presentations, “If you only have one library card, you’re not doing it right.” I’m not advocating getting library cards you’re not legally entitled to, but often libraries have reciprocal agreements with other library systems. It has something to do with the way tax dollars are allocated.
But why do you need several library cards? Many libraries provide databases for their patrons to use, often for free, from home. Most have an Ancestry.com Library Edition subscription patrons can use when they are in the library, but many offer other resources including Heritage Quest, an Ancestry subsidiary which has a full collection of US Federal census records as well as some city directories, the social security death index and more. Other offerings for library patrons at home include newspaper websites such as “America’s Genealogybank,” “Newspaper Archives” and “19th Century Newspapers.”
A great database I’ve been using at home today is the Digital Sanborn Maps. Many libraries only provide this for their own state, or perhaps their own and the adjacent states, but I’m fortunate that Seattle Public Library provides the Digital Sanborn Maps for the entire country. These maps were produced by the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company to help them assess risk when they were considering whether to insure a parcel of property. But today we can use them to see what our ancestor’s neighborhood looked like “back in the day.”
Using FamilySearch today, I found a deed for the purchase by my great-great grandfather, John Springer in 1856 of a quarter acre parcel located in Liverpool, Onondaga County, New York. The deed tells me the lot was located in Block Number 40, gives me the boundaries “Beginning at the north west corner of said block and running southwesterly along Tamarack street five rods thence easterly on a line at right angles with Tamarack street eight rods, thence westerly on a line parallel with the line of Tamarack street five rods to Fourth street thence northerly along Fourth street eight rods to the place of beginning.”[i]
While the earliest Sanborn map I can find online in the Seattle Public Library database is from March 1911, the plots of land are still laid out in the same way, and I can see on sheet 6 in the upper left hand corner Block 40 and see just where John Springer’s property was, on the corner of Fourth and Tamarack streets. Jacob and Nicholas Springer purchased the adjacent property later that same year.[ii] The houses may be in different locations but the property boundaries are just the same on this map as they were when John and Jacob and Nicholas bought the parcels.
I love that I can sit in my home in Seattle and get a bird’s-eye view of a lot my great-great grandfather purchased over 160 years ago. All because of my library card! What’s in your wallet?
[i] Onondaga County New York Deeds, Vol. 123, p. 341, Hatch to Springer, 11 February 1856, (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QS7-L9WL-CWPV?mode=g&i=211&wc=M7C8-RPJ%3A358132901%2C360397201&cc=2078654 : accessed 23 May 2016)
[ii] Onondaga County New York Deeds, Vol. 127, p. 21, Paddock to Springer and Springer, 15 December 1856
On Sunday I posted a transcription of a letter my uncle wrote to my grandparents on 8 July 1942 describing leaving his home in San Francisco and traveling to Navy boot camp in San Diego.
When you are reading and sharing your family letters, it will be a much richer experience if you take the time to understand the context in which the letter was written. Here are some ideas to get you started in researching the context.
Look for images. Warren mentioned several places in his letter, among them the Federal Building in San Francisco and the Santa Fe railroad depot in Los Angeles. I was able to do image searches on google and find historical photos of those buildings. Libraries and state archives are another good resource for finding vintage images of buildings. With these searches I was able to go back in time and see what my uncle saw.
I knew that Warren was in the navy, and I was able to use Fold3 to discover a bit more about his experience. A 31 December 1943 muster roll from the submarine Searaven showed an enlistment date of 6 July 1942, just two days before he wrote the letter. That immediately got me thinking about what my 21-year-old uncle might have been feeling – excitement, fear, homesickness and more.
I thought about the date. July 6 was a Monday. Just two days after Independence Day, the most patriotic of holidays. I imagine the first 4th of July after Pearl Harbor must have held some particularly impassioned celebrations. Might those have perhaps prompted Warren to enlist? What was going on in San Francisco and the world at that time?
I looked at the San Francisco Chronicle and found some answers. On Sunday 5 July 1945, page 1 of the comics ran the cartoon, “Terry and the Pirates.” In this strip, the evil Chinese captor threatens Muzz and derides her independence. Mazz ponders the words of the Declaration of Independence regarding the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and how we must invest in our futures to keep those rights.
Elsewhere in the same paper, above the masthead on page 1 of the news section, was a striking photograph, the full width of the page, captioned “Yesterday, San Francisco saw a parade. San Francisco has seen other parades, many of them, but never one like this. For passing grimly down Market street marched sudden death. This was typified by a 3200-man combat team of the Army of the United States. Armed to the teeth, this unit, however, was not unique. It was only representative of hundreds of other such units in the United States and over the world ready – and anxious – for a scrap. Above, infantrymen of the unit march by with fixed baoynets.”[i] Other page 1 stories included “New Zealanders Pile Into Rommell; The Tide MAY Be Turning in Battle of Egypt,” “First Yank Flyers Skim Dutch Housetops to Bomb 3 Airdromes in Nazi Europe” and more.[ii] It seems that every day the first several pages of the Chronicle were filled with accounts of the war. Warren must have had those stories in his mind when he enlisted and as he wrote his parents of his experiences as a new recruit.
When you’re reading old correspondence, make sure you spend some time studying the history, reading the local newspapers of the time, and finding images to make your family letters and the people who wrote them come alive.
[i] San Francisco Chronicle, 5 July 1942, page 1, col 1.
[ii] San Francisco Chronicle, 5 July 1942, page 1
I took a week off from the blog. I spent some time with family celebrating the life of my dear Auntie Wilma who passed away last month. Her memorial service was on 5 May, what wold have been the 71st anniversary of her marriage to my Uncle Warren.
A few years ago when I visited Wilma, she pulled a bag of letters Warren had written to his parents, my grandparents, during his service in the Navy in WWII. I organized the letters i chronological order in a binder. I believe the letter below is the first one he wrote home, telling his mother, father and his youngest sister, Babe, what his first full day in the navy was like.
July 8, 1942
Dear Mom, Dad, Babe
Russ and I are both well and enjoying ourselves her at the San Diego Naval Base. I hope this letter finds you all well. I guess you would be interested in what has taken place the last couple of days so I’ll try to let you in on it.
After Dad left the Federal Building we stood around until about 12:00 N. and then we got a 39¢ meal ticket for lunch. We were back at 1:00 P.M. and off again about 4:30 P.M. until 6:00 P.M. During this time we had dinner with Jeanne and Nat who were waiting for us when we came out at 4:30. The took some pictures of us.
About 7:00 P.M. we left the Federal Building on Santa Fe buses and went to Oakland where we boarded the Santa Fe train. We left about 8:00 P.M. We didn’t get much sleep last night on that darn train. It was bucking and rocking and pitching all night. I dressed about 5:00 A.M. this morning hand we had breakfast in Bakersfield about 6:00 A.M. After breakfast we left by bus and arrived in L.A. about 10:00 A.M. I sent you and Ida and Jeanne and Nat cards from the Railway Station which by the way is a very beautiful building. We had a good lunch there and left by Santa Fe and pulled into San Diego about 4:00 P.M. We were then sent directly to the Naval Base where we were assigned to our bunds, had chow, and took showers. The sun is about down now and they are just striking the flag. We are supposed to hit the hay now, I think, there is a black out here every night.
Well, I think I’ll close now. I can’t give you any return address now but I’ll write again in a few days and I think I can give it to you then.
Your loving son,
P.S. Say hullo to Geo. And Rose for me. Tell them I think I will like it here. I’ll write them as soon as I get their address.
I will follow up this post on Tuesday with a bit of strategy on analyzing the context of letters like this. Stay tuned.
 - Letter from Warren Hardy Brown to Mary Jane, Ira, and Iris Brown, dated 8 July 1942.
It’s far too tempting to see a cemetery marker for an ancestor and assume she died in that place. And then spend hours trying to find the death record there. But it’s important to consider that she might have died hundreds or thousands of miles away. Even a long-time genealogist can forget this when she really really really wants to find that death record. (Now who could I be talking about....Mary??!!!)
I recently researched the Smith family of Vernon, Shiawassee, Michigan. Smith is rarely a fun name to research and this one was no exception. I found a death record on Seeking Michigan for Robert Smith, age 66 who died in Vernon and was buried at Greenwood Cemetery. FindAGrave shows a memorial for him. Though no spouse is linked to him, the photo of the memorial for Elizabeth Smith who died 13 June 1907 at age 71 is clearly another side of the same grave marker.
And that’s where the cautionary tale starts. I spent ages looking for Elizabeth’s death certificate in Shiawasse and later all of Michigan on the SeekingMichigan website. I searched for everyone named Elizabeth who died in June 1907. I searched for every person who died on 13 June 1907. I searched for all the Smiths in Shiawassee. I could not rustle up a death certificate for her. But she’s buried right there! Next to her husband!! Where, oh where, is her darn death certificate?!!!
I finally had to put Elizabeth on the back burner. Searching on Ancestry and FamilySearch I found a San Francisco area funeral home record for Robert Smith, Jr., Elizabeth and Robert’s son, which included a newspaper clipping of his death notice. Lucky for me, Robert Jr.’s sisters and daughters married people with far more imaginative surnames, including Dorward and Coppelberger. Names a genealogist can truly love.... Newspaper searches soon turned up a Flint, Michigan article indicating Elizabeth died in Los Angeles.
And then I dove down another rat hole looking for Elizabeth’s death certificate in Los Angeles. Another cautionary tale - don’t believe everything you read in a newspaper. Eventually I searched the California Death Index on FamilySearch to discover that Elizabeth died not in Los Angeles but in Alameda County. I guess to the reporter in Flint in 1910, one city in California is as good as the next!
So remember, just because someone is buried somewhere, it doesn’t mean they died anywhere near there. Be willing to search far and wide for a death certificate.
Thank you to my friend, Karrie, who lets me research her ancestors like they're my own...
 Michigan Certificate and Record of Death for Robert Smith, Sr. County of Shiawassee, Certificate No. 238. Date of Death 29 Aug 1897
 Find A Grave Memorial# 39077645 for Robert Smith in Greenwood Cemetery, Vernon, Shiawassee, Michigan (https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSln=smith&GSfn=robert&GSbyrel=all&GSdyrel=all&GSst=24&GScnty=1304&GScntry=4&GSob=n&GRid=39077645&df=all& : accessed 25 April 2017)
 Find A Grave Memorial# 39074584 for Elizabeth Smith in Greenwood Cemetery, Vernon, Shiawassee, Michigan (https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSln=Smith&GSiman=1&GSsr=41&GScid=638&GRid=39074584& : accessed 25 April 2017)
 "California, San Francisco Area Funeral Home Records, 1835-1979," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:JNVX-C8M : 28 November 2014), Robert Smith, 15 Nov 1916; citing funeral home J.S. Godeau, San Francisco, San Francisco, California, record book Vol. 20, p. 1-404, 1916-1917, San Francisco Public Library, San Francisco History and Archive Center.
 “Death of Mother,” The Flint Daily Journal, 18 June 1907, page 8, col 3 (GenealogyBank.com : accessed 25 April 2017)
 "California Death Index, 1905-1939," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QKSM-DGFS : 5 June 2015), Elizabet Smith, 13 Jun 1907; citing 13872, Department of Health Services, Vital Statistics Department, Sacramento.
Mary Kircher Roddy is a genealogist, writer and lecturer, always looking for the story. Her blog is a combination of the stories she has found and the tools she used to find them.