Ancestry.com Blog http://blogs.ancestry.com/cm Fri, 22 Aug 2014 15:32:25 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.5.2 Kelsey Grammer Researches His Grandmother’s Turbulent Familyhttp://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/2014/08/21/kelsey-grammer-researches-his-grandmothers-turbulent-family/ http://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/2014/08/21/kelsey-grammer-researches-his-grandmothers-turbulent-family/#comments Thu, 21 Aug 2014 22:03:39 +0000 wexon http://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/?p=5462 “Now there’s all these names alive and sort of flickering in my imagination.” —Kelsey Grammer Cheers and Frasier star Kelsey Grammer grew up with his mother, sister, and mother’s parents: Grandpa Gordon and “Gam,” as he called his grandmother Evangeline. He feels his grandmother’s influence to this day, but he knows little about her—Gam never… Read more

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Kelsey Grammer
“Now there’s all these names alive and sort of flickering in my imagination.”
—Kelsey Grammer

Cheers and Frasier star Kelsey Grammer grew up with his mother, sister, and mother’s parents: Grandpa Gordon and “Gam,” as he called his grandmother Evangeline. He feels his grandmother’s influence to this day, but he knows little about her—Gam never spoke about her mother, and Kelsey doesn’t even know his great-grandparents’ first names.

A search of census records reveals that Kelsey and Gam shared something in common: in 1910, Evangeline is living with her mother and grandparents, with no father in the home. And for the first time, he learns his great-grandmother’s name: Genevieve Geddes.

Kelsey turns to newspaper accounts to find more of the story. Genevieve married Ellis L. Dimmick in Oakland in 1905 and filed for divorce in 1913, charging neglect and desertion. Her death certificate shows that she remarried but died relatively young of cirrhosis of the liver—a clue to a possible hard life. But why did Ellis abandon his wife and child?

With a name, Kelsey can now search for Ellis, who enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1908 at age 29. His record includes the statement “authorized to enlist waiving marriage.” In other words, Ellis is claiming that he has no dependents. A year and half later, he’s discharged as “undesirable” for excessive drinking and being AOL. His character is assessed in a single word: “Bad.”

But Kelsey surmises that maybe he wasn’t all bad. On Ellis’s 1918 WWI draft registration card. By then he is living at the Hotel Shattuck, working as a night porter. On the line for next of kin he has listed his daughter, Evangeline, address unknown. Ellis at least acknowledged that his daughter existed.

Ellis’s death certificate leaves Kelsey another question to answer. Ellis’s parents, Joseph and Mary Dimmick, were born in Iowa and Ohio, respectively. So how did the family end up in California?

The 1850 census yields a clue: Joseph Dimmick as one of 12 children with his parents, Joseph Sr. and Comfort, in Rushville, Illinois. The family arrived in Oregon in 1852—which means they were among the thousands of pioneers who crossed the continent on the Oregon Trail looking for land and a new start. Kelsey travels to eastern Oregon to walk a section of the trail his ancestors traveled and read from a remarkable find: a journal Joseph Sr.’s nephew kept while he traveled with the Dimmick’s company. It tells the story of Joseph and Comfort’s oldest son, Thomas, dying of cholera and being “buried alone on the plains,” while his family continued on.

Only one question remains—did the Dimmicks get the land they came west for?

Land records show that Joseph and Comfort received their rights to 311 acres in 1858, just two years before Joseph died. Kelsey’s final stop is a visit to the land where he can stand where his family stood and see what they saw.

Reflecting on what he’s discovered about his past, Kelsey says, “Some succeeded and some didn’t. Genevieve and Ellis, my great-grandparents, just couldn’t do it. The others, boy, they stand tall.”

Watch clips of the episode on TLC.com


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The Civil War’s Biggest Killer? Lack of Good Medical Carehttp://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/2014/08/21/the-civil-wars-biggest-killer-lack-of-good-medical-care/ http://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/2014/08/21/the-civil-wars-biggest-killer-lack-of-good-medical-care/#comments Thu, 21 Aug 2014 20:32:55 +0000 Ancestry.com http://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/?p=5461 When the U.S. Civil War started in 1861, medical knowledge was still primitive. Battlefield doctors didn’t understand infection or the importance of sterile conditions during surgery. In fact, the country was just coming out of a period when doctors used bloodletting, purging, and blistering to cure ailments. So it’s no wonder Civil War soldiers were… Read more

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Civil war

[Photo credit: dfbphotos on Flickr]

When the U.S. Civil War started in 1861, medical knowledge was still primitive. Battlefield doctors didn’t understand infection or the importance of sterile conditions during surgery. In fact, the country was just coming out of a period when doctors used bloodletting, purging, and blistering to cure ailments. So it’s no wonder Civil War soldiers were more likely to die from disease than combat.

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The numbers are staggering: Some estimates say 750,000 soldiers died during the Civil War, about two-thirds of them from disease. That included three in five on the Union side and perhaps two out of every three Confederates.

When thousands of new Civil War soldiers came together for training, epidemics of chicken pox, mumps, whooping cough, measles, malaria, and tuberculosis, among others, tore through the camps with their poor sanitation and bad hygiene. Along with “killed in battle” and “vulnus sclopeticum” (a Latin term for a gunshot wound), Civil War death registers are full of men who died of typhoid, dysentery, pneumonia, and chronic diarrhea.

Doctors often prescribed coffee, whiskey, and quinine in situations where today they would prescribe antibiotics. Of course, antibiotics hadn’t yet been discovered, and when a minor war wound became infected, it often led to death.

Wounds to limbs were common, which often led to the limb being amputated because there were no other techniques to prevent gangrene. Civil War surgeons performed a tremendous number of amputations, and many had it down to a 10-minute procedure. With the enormous number of patients, and often a lack of water, hands and instruments were seldom washed between amputations, which led to high rates of infection. However, it’s estimated that 75 percent of amputation patients survived.

American Poet Walt Whitman was a nurse in the war and wrote about seeing “a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, &c, a full load for a one-horse cart” at a Virginia camp hospital in 1862.

Surgeons used chloroform or alcohol to partially sedate their patients, who often didn’t feel pain during an operation but were not totally unconscious, either. Confederate General Stonewall Jackson reported that he heard the sound of the saw cutting through his arm bone but did not feel any pain.

The enormous numbers of casualties from disease and wounds in the early years of the war led to much improved and advanced procedures by the end of it. The Union Army implemented standard equipment, division hospitals, and detailed medical records.

The Confederates had far fewer resources and initially sent wounded soldiers home on furlough to recover because of the lack of field hospitals, though that ended gradually when the army began building hospitals in Southern cities. Their first surgeons were required to bring their own supplies.

Clara Barton nursed soldiers on the front lines of the Civil War and was called the “Angel of the Battlefield.” After the war, as a result of what she’d seen, she founded the American Red Cross.

You can find medical and burial records among the searchable Civil War records on Ancestry.com

— Leslie Lang

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Was Your Grandmother a Girl Scout?http://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/2014/08/20/was-your-grandmother-a-girl-scout/ http://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/2014/08/20/was-your-grandmother-a-girl-scout/#comments Wed, 20 Aug 2014 19:47:48 +0000 Ancestry.com http://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/?p=5456 Musician Taylor Swift, herself once a Girl Scout, tweeted she was “beyond stoked” when some Girl Scouts came to an event of hers and brought her Girl Scout cookies. Other famous former Girl Scouts include Nancy Reagan, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Laura Bush, Katie Couric, Barbara Walters, and Mariah Carey. Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore, Debbie… Read more

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Girl scout

[Photo credit: Seattle Municipal Archives on Flickr]

Musician Taylor Swift, herself once a Girl Scout, tweeted she was “beyond stoked” when some Girl Scouts came to an event of hers and brought her Girl Scout cookies.

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Other famous former Girl Scouts include Nancy Reagan, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Laura Bush, Katie Couric, Barbara Walters, and Mariah Carey. Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore, Debbie Reynolds, and Dinah Shore were Girl Scouts, and so was Shirley Temple. Astronaut Sallie Ride was a Girl Scout, as was author/feminist Gloria Steinem.

Martha Stewart was a Girl Scout in her hometown of Nutley, New Jersey, and once said, “I remember getting a lot of badges because of course I was an overachiever.”

It was Juliette “Daisy” Low who started the Girl Guides when she gathered together 18 girls in Savannah, Georgia, in 1912. The name soon changed to Girl Scouts, and ever since, Girl Scouts’ activities have often mirrored what was happening in the nation.

WWI — On the Home Front

During World War I, Girl Scouts sold Liberty bonds, made “trench candles” for soldiers, helped in hospitals, learned to grow and preserve food, and even collected peach pits that were used in gas mask filters (who knew?).

Those Famous Cookies

The Girl Scout cookie tradition started in 1917, when the Mistletoe Troop in Muskogee, Okahoma decided to bake cookies and sell them in their school cafeteria as a fundraiser. Ninety years later, in 2007, Girl Scouts sold about 200 million boxes of Thin Mints, Samoas, and other favorites.

The Roaring 20s

By 1920, only eight years after the first troop met, there were almost 70,000 Girl Scouts nationwide, including in the territory of Hawaii (my great-grandmother was the first Girl Scout leader on Hawaii’s Big Island).

Image from 1933 Sears fall catalog (courtersy of Ancestry.com)

Image from 1933 Sears fall catalog (courtesy of Ancestry.com)

Doing the Depression

During the Depression, Girl Scouts gathered clothes and food for the poor. They made quilts, carved wooden toys, canned food, and helped in hospitals. If you had the money, you could order your official Girl Scout Handbook or knife from the Sears catalog.

Soldiering on During WWII

Girl Scouts again helped in the war effort during World War II, operating bicycle courier services, planting Victory Gardens, and collecting fat and scrap metal for use here in the U.S. They gathered 1.5 million pieces of clothing that were then sent to overseas war victims.

Japanese-American girls confined to American internment camps during World War II formed Girl Scout troops in the camps.

Modern Times

In the 1970s, when Vietnamese refugee children arrived in the U.S., Girl Scouts helped them adapt to their new homes.

More recently, the Girl Scouts have started programs to teach girls to “just say no to drugs,” “Project Safe Time” for latchkey girls home alone after school, and a “Girl Scouts Beyond Bars” program for mother-daughter prison visits.

So, a Girl Scout today might perform slightly different activities than her Girl Scout grandmother, but both of them lived by the same motto: “Be prepared.”
— Leslie Lang

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The American Vacation: Circa 1900http://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/2014/08/20/the-american-vacation-circa-1900-a-history/ http://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/2014/08/20/the-american-vacation-circa-1900-a-history/#comments Wed, 20 Aug 2014 18:32:19 +0000 Ancestry.com http://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/?p=5451 It’s hard to believe today, but leisure was considered a questionable pursuit for much of American history. Thanks to the Protestant work ethic and endless days in the fields, time off was barely a consideration for most people. But as cities grew crowded and unsanitary in the mid-19th century, fresh air increasingly seemed like a… Read more

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It’s hard to believe today, but leisure was considered a questionable pursuit for much of American history. Thanks to the Protestant work ethic and endless days in the fields, time off was barely a consideration for most people.

But as cities grew crowded and unsanitary in the mid-19th century, fresh air increasingly seemed like a good idea. In fact, doctors prescribed it. So it was only in the 1850s that the word “vacation” took on its current meaning — though it would be another 75 years before most workers had any use for the term, according to Cindy Aron’s Working at Play.

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Whether your great-grandparents even took a vacation depends on their social class. Here’s a look at five historic resort areas that illustrate the range of American vacations in the decades around 1900.

adirondack-lodge

Adirondack Lodge circa 1921. (Courtesy of SL Stoddard ALD via Wikimedia)

1. The Adirondacks, New York

As the West opened up in the 19th century, Americans came to view the wilderness as part of their national identity. In Hudson River School paintings and Ralph Waldo Emerson essays, reverence of the land emerged as a cultural force. For the intellectual elite, camping trips became a chance to discover the rugged individualism forged from time outdoors.

In 1858, artist and journalist William Stillman led a group of friends, including Emerson, to the Adirondacks, which he dubbed The Philosophers’ Camp in a painting. A decade later, a Boston preacher named William Murray published a bestselling guidebook to the area, replete with advice and how-tos, depicting it as Eden in upstate New York.

Though many travelers found camping there more challenging than advertised, the Adirondacks quickly became a popular getaway for city residents. By 1875, there were about 200 hotels and campsites, and stagecoaches made it accessible to the middle class. Wealthy vacationers built their own resorts, such as the Ausable Club, to protect the land from development — and themselves from the riffraff.

2. Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts

When the Obamas chose to vacation here early in his presidency, it came as no surprise. This Martha’s Vineyard town has long been a summer destination for African Americans, especially among the elite. That history dates to the late-1700s, when freed black workers toiled in the fishing industry and gradually attracted others. In the latter part of the 19th century, African Americans also came to Oak Bluffs to attend religious revivals, multiday camps that were popular across the country at the time.

Around the turn of the 20th century, middle-class black residents from Boston and New York began renting summer homes, as their descendants have continued to do, or staying in black-owned inns. In the 1960s, when other parts of the island were still off-limits to blacks, Harlem labor leader Joseph Overton hosted civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. Other historically African-American resort towns include Long Island’s Sag Harbor and Highland Beach on the Chesapeake Bay, where a son of Frederick Douglass built a cottage in 1894.

Beach group

Beach group in Atlantic City, 1901. (Courtesy of Thiophene_Guy via Flickr)

3. Atlantic City, New Jersey

In the 1820s, a physician envisioned this temperate slice of the Jersey Shore as a health resort. He eventually persuaded the Camden and Atlantic Railroad to make the city its terminus, a task completed in 1854, and tourism took off. Though it was initially marketed as a resort for the wealthy, its proximity to Philadelphia made it a feasible day trip for city workers.

Promoters soon changed tack, advertising to the middle and working classes, and luxury and affordable hotels were developed side by side. Its famous boardwalk, completed in 1870, brought together an unusually mixed group of classes and ethnicities, including Jewish immigrants and African Americans. In 1910, Atlantic City had 3 million summer visitors; in 1939 that number was up to 16 million. If your ancestors lived in Philadelphia or New York around the turn of the century, it’s likely they passed some leisure hours here.

4. Newport, Rhode Island

A major colonial harbor, Newport has seen summer vacationers since the 18th century, when South Carolina planters sailed north to escape the heat. After a damaging occupation during the Revolutionary War, Newport reinvented itself as a summer retreat for artists, academics, professionals, and writers like Henry James.

Many Irish families settled here in the 1820s, drawn by its relative tolerance of Catholics, and have remained since. The New York Yacht Club began traveling there in 1844, establishing the harbor as a sailing destination, as it still is today. The crowd grew more opulent during the Gilded Age, when families like the Vanderbilts built enormous seaside mansions they called “cottages,” and on some pages of the 1900 U.S. census, servants outnumber family members by more than 2 to 1. However, there was a larger working-class presence in Newport than you might expect, due to the fishing industry and the need for domestic help.

5. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming/Montana/Idaho

Established in 1872, Yellowstone was America’s first national park. The territory that became Yellowstone had been well known among explorers and was especially notable for its geysers. The movement to protect our natural landscape grew out of the same romanticism that brought vacationers to the Adirondacks. Emerson and Henry David Thoreau advocated exploring nature but limiting the influence of civilization there, which led to the federal park system. (The Park Service wasn’t established until 1916, until which time the U.S. Army ran Yellowstone.)

In 1883, the completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad made the park accessible from the East, and attendance increased five-fold. The railroad even built the park’s first hotel, Lake Yellowstone Lodge, in 1889-91, and others soon followed. By 1922, the park was hosting over 50,000 annual visitors. Of that, just 1,500 stayed in hotels, according to Working at Play. The rest — the working and middle class — camped.

— Rebecca Dalzell

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Valerie Bertinelli explores her family’s roots in Italy and Englandhttp://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/2014/08/14/valerie-bertinelli-explores-her-familys-roots-in-italy-and-england/ http://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/2014/08/14/valerie-bertinelli-explores-her-familys-roots-in-italy-and-england/#comments Thu, 14 Aug 2014 22:42:57 +0000 wexon http://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/?p=5424 “They really made my world a better place because of the things that they did.” —Valerie Bertinelli Actress and author Valerie Bertinelli has always identified with her father’s Italian heritage and remembers watching her “Nonni” (grandmother) cook at big family dinners. But that’s about as far back as her history goes. Now Valerie “doesn’t want… Read more

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“They really made my world a better place because of the things that they did.”
—Valerie Bertinelli

Actress and author Valerie Bertinelli has always identified with her father’s Italian heritage and remembers watching her “Nonni” (grandmother) cook at big family dinners. But that’s about as far back as her history goes. Now Valerie “doesn’t want to live in the dark anymore”—and her son, Wolfie, wants to know if they have a family crest.

Valerie begins by sitting down with her parents to learn what they know. Her father shares a picture of Valerie’s great-grandmother, Maria Mancia, standing behind a gelato cart. And Valerie’s mom says her sister once said they were English, and her mother’s name was Elizabeth Adams Chambers. Now Valerie has clues on both sides.

A search of U.S. census records shows Maria and her daughter Angelina—Valerie’s grandmother—living in Lackawanna, Pennsylvania, so Valerie heads to the Lackawanna Historical Society to see what she can discover.

First, she examines a deed in which Maria grants the rights to her farm to her daughter and son-in-law within a week of her husband’s death. Then a newspaper article that leaves Valerie stunned: Maria’s husband, Gregorio, killed himself after firing two shots at his wife. Maria survived by playing dead.

Maria’s own obituary, 20 years later, reveals her maiden name: Possio. This clue lets Valerie use a passenger list (which lists Maria’s occupation as “cook”) to follow Maria and Angelina back to Lanzo, Italy. There, she finds a 1910 marriage document for Maria’s first marriage to Francesco Crosa. Unfortunately, Francesco died of a heart attack the next year.

But Maria has left one thing more behind, along with the photo and perhaps Valerie’s love for cooking: a third cousin who is still living in Lanzo and has a postcard that Maria sent to his father as she was getting ready to leave Italy for the United States. Her Italian journey has proven to be a rewarding experience.

Then it’s off to London to trace her mother’s English roots, which actually run deep in New Jersey before going back to England. Her New Jersey ancestors include a Mary Claypoole who turns out to be a “gateway ancestor,” a link to a family with a well-documented line.

Valerie’s Claypooles include a surprise: her 8x great-grandfather, James Claypoole, a leader among the Quakers both in England and later in the U.S. Valerie is surprised at this Quaker connection, especially when she learns James was a friend of William Penn and signed Penn’s Frame of Government, one of the first constitutions in the world.

Two generations further back she finds another James Claypoole. He changed the family’s fortunes by moving from the yeoman class to the gentry and was granted a coat of arms (Wolfie will be excited). This move to the upper classes allowed for social climbing among his descendants, and his son and heir, Adam, married into another “gateway” family, the Wingfields. Tracing this line back leads Valerie to her 16x great-grandfather: Edward I, King of England.

Valerie returns home with gifts for both her father and mother: a postcard written by her great-grandmother for Pops and a king in the family for Mom.

“It’s a history of people on both sides of my family who have wanted to make good for themselves and have wanted to improve their lives and improve the lives of their loved ones,” Valerie muses. “And that’s where I feel a connection because I’ve always wanted to improve the lives of the people that I love.”

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10 Strange But True Facts About the Revolutionary Warhttp://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/2014/08/13/10-strange-but-true-facts-about-the-revolutionary-war/ http://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/2014/08/13/10-strange-but-true-facts-about-the-revolutionary-war/#comments Wed, 13 Aug 2014 23:00:41 +0000 Ancestry.com http://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/?p=5422 For a war about taxes, the American Revolution sure wasn’t boring. Tales of the scrappy Colonists’ rebellion against King George III made many of us history buffs back in elementary school. (Even as adults, some of us still geek out over Revolutionary War records on Ancestry.com.) But those textbooks didn’t teach us everything there is… Read more

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Declaration of independence

[Photo credit: Shutterstock]

For a war about taxes, the American Revolution sure wasn’t boring. Tales of the scrappy Colonists’ rebellion against King George III made many of us history buffs back in elementary school. (Even as adults, some of us still geek out over Revolutionary War records on Ancestry.com.) But those textbooks didn’t teach us everything there is to know about the war that shaped our country between 1775 and 1781. Here are some bizarre, quirky, and fascinating facts about the Revolution:

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1. The Boston Tea Party Had a Sequel

No, we’re not talking about those rabble-rousers in the modern Republican Party. We all know about the initial incident on December 16, 1773, when Boston’s Sons of Liberty dressed as Mohawk Indians and tossed 342 chests of tea from three ships into the Boston Harbor to protest the taxes imposed in the Tea Act. But we forget that they felt the need to hammer the point home with a second party, on March 7, 1774 — probably because they grabbed only 16 chests of tea.

2. Sweet Revenge

While it was common practice for Patriots to tar and feather Loyalists, the Daughters of Liberty had a less painful alternative: They used molasses and flowers instead.

3. Where’s the Independence?

The word “independence” never appears in the Declaration of Independence — rather, it’s titled “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.”

4. Drag King on the Front Line

In 1782, 21-year-old Deborah Sampson dressed as a man, called herself Robert Shurtlieff Sampson (after a deceased brother), and enlisted in the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment of the Continental Army. She served for over a year, until a doctor discovered her secret while treating her for an unhealed injury. She was discharged with honor.

5. Forget That Paul Revere Guy, Meet Sybil

The Boston silversmith was actually accompanied by as many as 40 other men on his midnight ride to sound the alarm that the British were coming. But two years later, 16-year-old Sybil Ludington, the daughter of a colonel, rode 40 miles on her own from 9 p.m. to dawn to alert New York militia members that the Brits were burning down Danbury, Connecticut.

6. British Invasion on Broadway

In cities such as New York that were controlled by the British Army, some soldiers took time to act in professionally produced plays during the war.

7. Jack Sparrow, Patriot?

Since they didn’t have money for a big navy, the Continental Congress hired privateers, aka pirates, to attack British ships. They were then supposed to split the booty with the U.S.

8. The First CIA

Spying played a huge role in the war, and agents on both sides sent messages using invisible ink.

9. Thank That French Kid

The Marquis de Lafayette, who was instrumental in General Washington’s defeat of the British at Yorktown in 1781, was only 19 when he joined the Continental Army as a major general in 1777.

10. George Washington’s Teeth Were a Lie

The general’s dentures weren’t made of wood, as legend has it, but rather of hippopotamus ivory and cows’ teeth, held in place by metal springs. Fancy!

—Sabrina Rojas Weiss

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Last Word: First-Person Accounts of American Slaveryhttp://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/2014/08/13/last-word-first-person-accounts-of-american-slavery/ http://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/2014/08/13/last-word-first-person-accounts-of-american-slavery/#comments Wed, 13 Aug 2014 21:49:43 +0000 Ancestry.com http://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/?p=5421 During the Depression, when the U.S. government was trying to put to work one person in every family that had an unemployed breadwinner, some remarkable things were done. Between 1935 and 1943, the Works Project Administration (WPA) hired almost 8 million unemployed people across the country to build new roads, bridges, schools, botanical gardens, zoos,… Read more

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American Slavery

[Photo credit: Library of Congress]

During the Depression, when the U.S. government was trying to put to work one person in every family that had an unemployed breadwinner, some remarkable things were done. Between 1935 and 1943, the Works Project Administration (WPA) hired almost 8 million unemployed people across the country to build new roads, bridges, schools, botanical gardens, zoos, and the like and to work on projects having to do with art, music, and theater.

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And they did another incredible thing: Between 1936 and 1938, they hired WPA writers to interview people who had lived in slavery. These writers documented more than 2,300 first-person accounts of what live under slavery had been like. WPA workers also took black-and-white photos of about 500 of the people interviewed.

It’s often very difficult to trace a black American family’s history to earlier than 1870 because that’s the first U.S. census that identified all African-Americans by name. These interviews, though (which actually started in 1929 at two universities before the WPA became involved), can help. The interviews with former slaves at Ancestry.com are searchable and generally include the person’s parents’ names, their spouse and children, where they lived, and the names of former owners. Most paint vivid, detailed pictures of what life was like on the plantations. You can imagine how moving it would be to find an ancestor in this collection who told of his or her family and how they grew up and lived.

There are details about birth:

From James Lucas, born October 11, 1833, former slave of Jefferson Davis, Natchez, Adams County, Mississippi

“My young Marster give me my age when he heired de prope’ty of his uncle, Marse W. B. Withers. He was a-goin’ through de papers an’ aburnin’ some of ‘em when he foun’ de one ’bout me. Den he says, ‘Jim, dissen’s ’bout you. It gives yo’ birthday.’

“I recollec’ a heap ’bout slav’ry-times, but I’s all by myse’f now. All o’ my friend’s has lef’ me. Even Marse Fleming has passed on. He was a little boy when I was a grown man.

“I was born in a cotton fiel’ in cotton pickin’ time, an’ de wimmins fixed my mammy up so she didn’ hardly lose no time at all. My mammy sho’ was healthy. Her name was Silvey an’ her mammy come over to dis country in a big ship. Somebody give her the name o’ Betty, but twant her right name. Folks couldn’ un’erstan’ a word she say. It was some sort o’ gibberish dey called gulluh-talk, an’ it soun’ dat funny. My pappy was Bill Lucas.

“When I was a little chap I used to wear coarse lowell-cloth shirts on de week-a-days. Dey was long an’ had big collars. When de seams ripped de hide would show through.”

And about having a mind of one’s own:

Minnie Davis, age 78, born Green County, Georgia, interviewed at 237 Billups Street, Athens, Georgia

“The Crawford children were caught teaching my mother to read and write, but they were made to stop. Mother was quick to learn and she never gave up. She would steal the newspapers and read up about the war, and she kept the other slaves posted as to how the war was progressing. She knew when the war was over, almost as soon as Marse John did.

“I don’t recall any certain reason why the slaves were punished; they needed it, I’m sure of that. Some folks need to be punished now. Miss Sue, as we called her, whipped the slaves for misbehavior. I remember one time there was quite a commotion. The town marshal came to our house to whip my mother. It had been told that she had been writing letters, asking people to buy whiskey from her, but Marse John wouldn’t let the marshal touch her. There was a jail, but I don’t recall that any of Marse John’s slaves were ever put in there. I was told that his slaves were, as a rule, well behaved and that they gave him no trouble.

“We went to church and Sunday School at the First Presbyterian Church, where the slaves were allowed to sit in the gallery. I recall that Dr. Hoyt used to pray that the Lord would drive the Yankees back. He said that ‘Niggers were born to be slaves.’ My mother said that all the time he was praying out loud like that, she was praying to herself: ‘Oh, Lord, please send the Yankees on and let them set us free.’”

And there are bits about local customs and traditions:

Charley Williams, born 1856 in New London, Union County, Arkansas, interviewed Nov. 30, 1936

“…Ah’ve hearn tell uv hants, but nevah have seed no hants. One uv mah friens what lived on the Hammonds place at Hillsboro could see em. His name wuz Elliott. One time me an Elliott wuz drivin along an Elliott said: “Charley, somebody got hole uv mah horse.” Sho nuff dat horse led right off inter de woods an comminced to buckin so Elliott and his hoss both saw de haint but ah couldn’ see hit. Yo know some people jes caint see em.

‘What am dat up dar in dat picture frame? Why dat am plaits of har (hair). Hits uv mah kin and friend’s. When we would move way off dey would cut off a plait and give hit tuh us tuh membah dem by. Mos’ uv dem is daid now but ah still membahs dem and ah kin name evah plait now.”

And looking back:

Mrs. Mattie Logan, 79 years old, Route 5, West Tulsa, Oklahoma

“This is a mighty fitting time to be telling about the slave days, for I’m just finished up celebrating my seventy-nine years of being around and the first part of my life was spent on the old John B. Lewis plantation down in old Mississippi.

“Yes, sir! my birthday is just over. September 1 it was and the year was 1858. Borned on the John B. Lewis plantation just ten mile south of Jackson in the Mississippi country. Rankin County it was. My mother’s name was Lucinda, and father’s name was Levi Miles. My mother was part Indian, for her mother was a half-blood Cherokee Indian from Virginia.

“I’m pretty old and can’t work hard anymore, but I manage to get along. I’m glad to be free and I don’t believe I could stand them slavery days now at all. I’m my own boss, get up when I want, go to bed the same way. Nobody to say this or that about what I do. Yes, I’m glad to be free!”

Some other Ancestry.com resources about formerly enslaved people include:

—Leslie Lang

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9 Typical Ellis Island Experienceshttp://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/2014/08/13/9-typical-ellis-island-experiences/ http://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/2014/08/13/9-typical-ellis-island-experiences/#comments Wed, 13 Aug 2014 21:26:59 +0000 Ancestry.com http://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/?p=5420 More than a third of all Americans can trace their ancestry to Europeans who entered America after a mandatory stop at Ellis Island. Between 1892 and 1954, more than 12 million people passed through the immigration inspection station in Upper New York Bay, and on average immigrants spent 2-5 hours there. So, what was the… Read more

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More than a third of all Americans can trace their ancestry to Europeans who entered America after a mandatory stop at Ellis Island. Between 1892 and 1954, more than 12 million people passed through the immigration inspection station in Upper New York Bay, and on average immigrants spent 2-5 hours there. So, what was the Ellis Island experience like for your forefathers and foremothers?

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More money, fewer problems: It was easier for first- or second-class passengers, who were examined for contagious diseases on the ship and could usually leave right away when it docked at New York City. Most travelers, though, were third-class or “steerage” passengers who often had to wait hours, and sometimes days, for a ferry to take them to Ellis Island.

Language barrier: It was generally chaotic at Ellis Island, and confusing for those who didn’t speak English. Interpreters, a few of whom spoke up to a dozen or more languages, were on hand to help guide immigrants to the right place.

First impressions: New arrivals were guided up a steep stairway to the Registry Room, and though they didn’t know it, a doctor at the top of the stairs watched them climb the stairs. He looked for difficulty walking, heavy breathing that might indicate a heart problem, or other signs of possible medical issues.

Get your ABCs: Doctors and nurses made very quick checks of people’s face, hair, neck, and hands that came to be called “six-second physicals.” They sometimes wrote letters on an immigrant’s clothes with chalk, which indicated a suspected health problem. About two of every 10 or 11 immigrants got a letter meaning they needed further screening. “H” meant a possible heart condition, “LCD” meant “loathsome contagious disease,” and “Pg” stood for pregnancy. “X” meant mental defect.

Background check: Arriving immigrants were asked questions about their name, occupation, any criminal history, and how much money they carried (the U.S. government wanted them to have between $18 and $25).

See ya, kid: If a child 12 years old or older was found to be sick, he or she was sent back — alone — and released at the port where they had started out. If a sick child was under 12, a parent was required to accompany them back to where they had come from.

Welcome to America: A wooden column outside the Registry Room was known as the Kissing Post, where new arrivals were greeted by friends and relatives already in America, usually with lots of tears and hugs and kisses.

— Leslie Lang

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One If By Land — What Type of Transportation Did Your Ancestors Use?http://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/2014/08/08/one-if-by-land-what-type-of-transportation-did-your-ancestors-use/ http://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/2014/08/08/one-if-by-land-what-type-of-transportation-did-your-ancestors-use/#comments Fri, 08 Aug 2014 23:29:04 +0000 Ancestry.com http://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/?p=5418 How did your ancestors get around? Go back far enough, and they primarily walked or rode horses (which were domesticated about 4,000-3,000 B.C.). But how about in more recent times? Not sure? Have a look at Ancestry’s helpful explanation of its maps, atlases and Gazetteers collection from across the U.S. Looking at the lay of… Read more

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Type of transportation

[Photo credit: Library of Congress]

How did your ancestors get around? Go back far enough, and they primarily walked or rode horses (which were domesticated about 4,000-3,000 B.C.). But how about in more recent times?

Not sure? Have a look at Ancestry’s helpful explanation of its maps, atlases and Gazetteers collection from across the U.S. Looking at the lay of the land, and knowing what places they moved between, might give you some clues about your forebears’ lives. And this general info might help, too:

1400s

Though Leonardo da Vinci came up with the idea of “flying machines” back in the late 1400s, and drew hundreds of drawings of how his theory of flight might work, he was many, many years before his—and manned flight’s—time.

1500s

Travel was still slow and leisurely. Most people didn’t travel far from home. Those who did walked or took a stagecoach, which traveled through the English countryside at about 2 mph.

1600s

Transportation was starting to be a bit more organized. Stagecoaches were running between major English towns regularly, but they were expensive, uncomfortable (they traveled on rough roads and had no springs), and there was danger of being held up on the highway. Turnpike roads opened, which you had to pay to use.

The first omnibus, or organized public transit system in a city, seems to have started up in Paris in 1662—though it failed when its founder died, and omnibuses didn’t show up again for about 150 years after that.

Some wealthy people in England and Europe were carried in sedan chairs.

Sedan Chairs

[Photo credit: Library of Congress]

1700s

By this time, stagecoaches in England were traveling a little faster, but not much—about 5.5 mph. The first steamboats appeared. In America’s pioneer era of the 1700s and 1800s, cowboys were traveling on horses, families in wagons, and goods by stagecoach.

1800s

Travel was getting faster. The 1800s saw a lot of innovation in transportation, with the first modern bicycles, first steam-powered locomotive, the first motorcycle, and the first cable car.

But first and foremost, it was the era of the railway: The first passenger horse-drawn railway opened in 1806 in South Wales, UK. In 1825, the first public steam railway in the world was operating in northeast England. By the mid-19th century, railways had connected most towns in Britain and a few decades later, many smaller villages as well.

The first underground railway in Britain was built in London in 1863. Steam locomotives pulled the carriages. The first electric underground trains began running in London in 1890.

And things were speeding up on the ocean, too. Whereas before it took several weeks to cross the Atlantic, in 1838 a steamship made the journey in an unprecedented 19 days.

And then came the potential for even more speed: cars. In 1885 and 1885, Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler made their first cars. The motorbike, too, was patented in 1885.

1900s

From 1890 to about 1920, it was all about the streetcar in bigger American cities as well as European ones. The Paris Metro (underground railway) opened in 1900, the Wright Brothers flew the first engined airplane in 1903, and in that same year, Henry Ford improved the assembly line for manufacturing automobiles.

And then cars took off; that was in the 1920s. The first automobile was the Ford Model T. The highway era started in American in 1945, and it hasn’t slowed down yet.

—Leslie Lang

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What It Was Like on the REAL Oregon Trail?http://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/2014/08/08/what-it-was-like-on-the-real-oregon-trail/ http://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/2014/08/08/what-it-was-like-on-the-real-oregon-trail/#comments Fri, 08 Aug 2014 22:37:17 +0000 Ancestry.com http://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/?p=5415 Whether you were addicted to The Oregon Trail on your Apple IIc as a kid, got hooked on it on Facebook as an adult, or just have an affinity for old Westerns, you probably think you have an idea of what life was like for our pioneer ancestors who made the journey to the Pacific… Read more

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Oregon Trail

[Photo credit: Shutterstock]

Whether you were addicted to The Oregon Trail on your Apple IIc as a kid, got hooked on it on Facebook as an adult, or just have an affinity for old Westerns, you probably think you have an idea of what life was like for our pioneer ancestors who made the journey to the Pacific in the mid-1800s.

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But what was it really like? Did everyone get dysentery? Were they constantly fording rivers? What did they eat all that time? Here’s a bit of the real story about the Oregon Trail:

They All Had Oregon Fever

The U.S. experienced an economic depression in 1837, and many Americans began hearing tales of the fertile lands to the West. Men in particular began coming down with “Oregon Fever,” which was not a deadly disease — just an urgent desire to head west.

We Still Don’t Know How Many People Went

Settlers didn’t exactly register anywhere when they set out, so estimates vary from 250,000 to 500,000 between 1843 and 1860, according to Susan G. Butruille’s Women’s Voices From the Oregon Trail. That’s a lot fewer than the estimated 100 million people who’ve played some version of The Oregon Trail game at least once in their lives (according to the game’s official Facebook page). Most of the real-life Oregon trailblazers were families looking to farm. (Single often opted to turn south for the promise of gold in California.) In 1840, only about 13 people took the trail, but by 1852, 10,000 would set out during the year. You can search Oregon records on Ancestry.com to see exactly who made it.

First, They Saved and Sewed … a Lot

Before starting their journeys, they had to save up money — a lot. The cost of supplies for the 2,000 mile journey from Missouri to Oregon was about $1,500, or about two years’ salary for the average worker in the 19th century, according to Mel Friedman in The Oregon Trail. Women, meanwhile, had to do things like spin enough thread to weave a cover for their wagons, not to mention pack. While they did this, their other female friends sometimes made “friendship quilts” embroidered with messages so they wouldn’t forget those they left behind. Sniff!

Packing Was a Pain

They weren’t driving those huge Conestoga wagons you might be thinking of, but smaller versions, called “Prairie Schooners,” which typically measured about 4 feet by 10 feet. They held about 2,000 pounds, and most of that was food. Often, after heading out on the trail, travelers realized their loads were too heavy for the oxen, so they tossed otherwise valuable objects.

Oxen: The Original Fuel-Efficient Transportation

Unlike horses, oxen (which, for the nonfarmers among you, are usually castrated bulls) can live on prairie grass. Unfortunately, they also walk at only 2 miles an hour. Some emigrants (that’s what they called themselves, not pioneers) used mules, which were faster but, as the saying goes, also pretty stubborn. Before setting off on the trail, the emigrants had to stop in towns like Independence, Missouri, literally waiting for the grass to grow long enough to fuel their trip (around late April or early May).

Fresh-Roasted Coffee and All the Bacon You Want

Here’s the typical grocery list for an Oregon-bound wagon trainer: flour, bacon, coffee, sugar, salt, rice, chipped beef, dried beans, dried fruit, pickles, herbs and spices, and for the really lucky, a couple of chickens and a cow (though many of those died along the way). They’d bring the coffee beans green to roast and grind as needed along the way. (Maybe that’s how the people of the Pacific Northwest came to be such coffee connoisseurs.) As you can imagine, this limited diet grew pretty dull over the course of six months. “One does like a change and about the only change we have from bread and bacon is to bacon and bread,” Helen Carpenter wrote in her diary in 1857. By the way, women had to cook their meals (and bake their bread) over a hot fire fueled by buffalo chips after walking 15-20 miles all day.

Hottest Fashion of the Day

Women’s skirts at the time were floor length, which meant that not only did they get super dirty on the trails, but they were hazardous around wagon wheels and cooking fires. They were pretty handy for privacy when it came to relieving themselves, though. For three years during the great migration, some women daringly wore “bloomers,” but then they reverted back to their proper skirts.

Guidebook Fail

Yes, believe it or not, many of the travelers read guidebooks for their journey, the most popular being Lansford W. Hastings The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California. Unfortunately, Hastings hadn’t actually taken all the trails listed in the book, and one of his suggested “cut-offs” to California led to the Donner-Reed Party disaster, in which emigrants got stuck in a snowstorm in 1846. More than half of their group of 87 died, and the survivors had to eat their dead.

Pit-Stop Party

If they were making good time, the emigrants would get to Independence Rock, Wyoming (50 miles south of Casper), by July. If they got there by July 4, they’d get a much needed chance to unwind and celebrate. You can still see hundreds of names carved into the rock today.

OK, So How Did They Really Die?

An estimated 5-10 percent (depending on how many actually went) of the travelers on the Oregon trail perished along the way . The No. 1 killer was cholera (via dehydration), with particularly bad outbreaks in 1849, 1850, and 1852. Dysentery, diphtheria, and typhoid were also common on the road. All of these were spread rapidly through polluted water supplies, which was made much worse by all those people who had no idea what “germs” were at the time. Other big causes of death included wagon wheel accidents, drowning during river crossings, and accidental shootings. Not so deadly were the encounters with the Native Americans at the time, who were much more interested in trading (bigger conflicts happened after the 1860s). In order to deter grave robbers and scavenging animals, many of the dead were buried in unmarked graves right on the path, so that the wagons would pack down the earth and hide them from view quickly.
—Sabrina Rojas Weiss

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