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
More than ten years ago while researching the death of my great-great uncle’s wife, I stumbled upon a character who has fascinated me ever since. I’ve researched Julia and her family in newspapers, census records, city directories and coroner’s inquests, and each story I find makes me want to dig deeper and learn more…
I originally wrote the post below as part of an article I aspired to publish in a Calfornia genealogical society periodical in the hopes that one of Julia's descendants might stumble upon it and want to connect with me. However the publisher felt the proposed article (at 5000+ words) was too long and I struggled with editing out any of the many good parts, so it was never published.
Two days ago, however, I had the most delightful email from Linda, Julia's great-great granddaughter who found the family tree I posted about Julia on Ancestry.com. We've had a couple of long phone conversations and she even sent me a picture of Julia. Linda is happy to have this information about Julia and her family out there,warts and all. In the coming weeks, as my Sunday Stories blog posts, I will run all the sections of those 5000+ words I wrote. Enjoy!
I first met Julia in 1901. Even then, I wasn’t sure what her name was. It might have been Achard, it might have been Shiland. It took me years to figure out which was the right one – and why there might have been any question in the first place.
I encountered Julia from the newspaper articles about Sarah Ahern’s death.
“The Bulletin says ‘With her lips sealed as to who gave her the medicine which caused her death, Mrs. Sarah Ahern of Tiburon died suddenly Friday. The circumstances surrounding the case are such that arrest may follow the investigation made by the coroner.’” Before her death, Sarah “…would say nothing other than that a friend had given her medicine. After her death, however, Mr. Ahern found a small box and some cards bearing the name of Mrs. J.A. Achard of 415a Third Street, San Francisco. Coroner Eden was notified and held an inquest. The facts as above stated were brought out, and Dr. W.J. Wickman, the coroner's physician made an autopsy, finding that the woman was a victim of malpractice and that death was due to septicema. James Ahern, the husband, remembered seeing Mrs. Shiland visiting his wife. Mrs. Shiland was called as a witness, and was put through a rigid examination. She admitted calling on Mrs. Ahern, but denied giving her any medicine or attending her. This is the second time she has been called before the coroner's jury. Three years ago she was a witness in a San Francisco case. The jury was given the case and returned a verdict that Mrs. Ahern came to her death from blood poisoning, due to causes unknown.”
Another article indicated that the box contained pills, and that the doctors who treated Sarah after Mrs. Achard left “stated their belief that she was suffering from the effect of medicine given her by a malpractitioner.”
What were these pills? I suspected that Sarah might have committed suicide. Her fifteen-month-old daughter, Agnes Jane, had drowned February 15, 1900, after wandering into a tidal lagoon behind the family home. Could Sarah have secured some pills which would put an end to her personal grief and perhaps her guilt? Perhaps if I could find Mrs. J.A. Achard I might learn something about what those pills might have been.
More next week…
 For more about Sarah Ahern, see my blog posts from January 2016, “Suffer the Little Agnes Ahern,” “One Loss Leads to More,” and “Discover Leads to Understanding” at http://www.mkrgenealogy.com/searching-for-stories-blog/archives/01-2016
 The Marin Journal, 16 May 1901
 San Francisco Chronicle 12 May 1901, page 11 “Died of Septicaemia”
 San Francisco Call, 16 February 1900, page 4, “Mother Finds the Body of Her Child”
4, “Mother Finds the Body of Her Child”
City directories are a great resource for solving all sorts of genealogical problems. Here’s one way you can use them to narrow down a marriage date – and even find the husband! – when a woman marries.
My great-great uncle, Henry Ahern, was married to Rebecca Calkins sometime in the early 1890s. I haven’t been able to find the marriage record, but their boys, William Henry and James Bernard were born in 1894 and 1896. A few years later, Henry passed away.
Rebecca Ahern, widow, appears in the 1900 San Francisco City Directory residing at 2770 21st, the same address mentioned in Henry’s obituary. In 1901, she appears in the San Francisco directory residing at 1790 Folsom, and she continues to live at the same address in 1902, 1903 and 1904, where she is listed as working in a bakery. Also living at the same address in 1901-1905 is Rebecca’s widowed mother, Nora Calkins.
No listing Rebecca Ahern appears in the 1905 San Francisco directory. But a search using the address, 1790 Folsom, turns up a Mrs. Rebecca Macy, working in a bakery. At the same address is Orlando Macy, a blacksmith.
With the information from the directories, I was able to narrow down the time frame in which Rebecca Ahern remarried and the name of her husband. A newspaper announcement in August of 1904 shows a marriage license issued for Orlando Macy, 1716 Folsom street, age 36, and Rebecca Ahern, 1719 Folsom street, age 32.
Try searching city directories by address as well as by name. You might just solve one of your vexing genealogical questions!
"California Death Index, 1940-1997," database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:VPNJ-CJD : 26 November 2014), William H Ahern, 19 Sep 1977; Department of Public Health Services, Sacramento.
"California Death Index, 1940-1997," database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:VPCW-G3P : 26 November 2014), James B Ahern, 08 Jul 1957; Department of Public Health Services, Sacramento.
 “Deaths: Ahern,” San Francisco Chronicle, 16 February 1900, p. 10, col. 4.
 Crocker-Langley San Francisco Directory for the Year Commencing May 1900, (San Francisco, California: H.S. Crocker Company, 1900), 170. From Ancestry.com. U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.
 Crocker-Langley San Francisco Directory for the Year Commencing May 1901, (San Francisco, California: H.S. Crocker Company, 1901), 170. From Ancestry.com. U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011
 Crocker-Langley San Francisco Directory for the Year Commencing May 1902, (San Francisco, California: H.S. Crocker Company, 1902), 170. From Fold3.com.
 Crocker-Langley San Francisco Directory for the Year Commencing May 1903, (San Francisco, California: H.S. Crocker Company, 1903), 170. From Ancestry.com. U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011
 Crocker-Langley San Francisco Directory for the Year Commencing May 1904, (San Francisco, California: H.S. Crocker Company, 1904), 171. From Ancestry.com. U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011
 Crocker-Langley San Francisco Directory for the Year Commencing May 1905, (San Francisco, California: H.S. Crocker Company, 1905), 1180. From Ancestry.com. U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011
 “Marriages Licenses,” San Francisco Chronicle, 21 August 1904, p. 47, col. 6. Note, although the newspaper shows Rebecca’s address as 1719 Folsom, this may be a “sound-alike” error and should likely be 1790 Folsom per the city directory information.
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.