Census records are fun!

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

I can see my friends and family members shaking their heads in disgust. They like listening to books on tape, scuba diving, skiing, doing yoga, playing golf and playing cards. I like doing those things too, but I’m the weirdo in my family who likes reading death certificates and poring through census records. I have a group of friends who enjoy the same pursuits, so I know I’m not alone. This post is not for my friends who do genealogy, but for those of you who don’t.

Some genealogists/wanna-be genealogists hate the census records. Why would someone feel that strongly about data? I’ve been given a few reasons: 1) Census records were never meant to be genealogy tools: they are designed to allocate resources and shuffle the 435 members of the House of Representatives based on population shifts; 2) Some people didn’t or don’t complete them; and 3) Some people lie. Yes, really.

I know it too, but the records are useful in helping me research people. I use them as a tool to supplement my research, not stand alone. When they are available, I like them. Why? 1) The census places people in a location at a specific point in time; 2) I can see the profession and determine if I’ve got the right family. If I know my 2nd great grandfather was a farmer, but I find a William Dunn in Mount Comfort, Indiana, with a different profession, it’s probably not the right guy; and 3) Depending on the decade, they can provide so much more information. Fun fact: I’ve been working on my future son-in-law’s ancestry. His mother’s side is 100% Italian and his father’s is 100% Irish. His mother’s people were primarily bakers; his father’s people ran the gamut. There were a few priests, lots of laborers and one snake keeper at the Bronx zoo! In all the records I’ve seen, the snake keeper was my first and probably my last.

I can’t change the fact that sometimes my wandering ancestors were in between a move. I can’t change the fact that people-especially women-lie about their age (no, I don’t find it amusing to watch a person progressively lop off a few years each decade). I also can’t change the fact that there were several decades where women AND men identified as widows/widowers instead of divorcees (shameful!). I just choose to focus on the stuff I can see and use.

Before I embarked on this hobby, I had never seen a census record before. I’ve completed them personally and for business, but I hadn’t thought about them beyond the mundane task it tends to be.

Before 1850, the federal census only named the head of the household and listed age groups of the members of the household. Researching women prior to 1850 can be very frustrating, if not impossible. The 1850, 1860 and 1870 census records do not identify the relationship of the people living in the household; that didn’t happen until 1880. But they do ask for birthplace and age, so that’s helpful.

In 1880, the federal census became extremely useful in my research. It not only listed the relationship of the members of each household, but also enumerated the birth place of the parents as well as marital status. If a family member is sick, the illness is stated as well. My definition of sick and the instructions for the census taker are different, though. They considered being blind a sickness.

Census records are subject to the 72 year rule per federal law. That is, they are protected from public release for 72 years for privacy reasons. The 1950 census will be released in April 2022. To people who complain about that, I say be happy we aren’t in a country where the 100 year rule is invoked.

The 1890 Federal Census is lost forever: Part 1 and Part 2. It is the bane of my existence and my friends and I periodically lament this huge loss. There was so much that happened between 1880 and 1900 and that demographic record is lost forever. Sigh. The saddest part about it is that most historians feel that had they moved the damaged records to offsite storage and held off on the destruction of the records, technology could probably have saved many of them. Thanks, Congress.

The 1900 census is one of my favorite tools to use. It contains so much useful information, including the birth month and year, how many children the woman has had and how many are still alive, whether or not the person can read, write or speak English, and still states the birthplaces of the parents. Understanding our immigration was important for a long time. Keeping in mind that many states did not issue birth, marriage or death certificates until about 1907ish, this census can be helpful in searching for children who might have come to adulthood (or died) between 1880-1900.

Some things that I didn’t know when I started doing this work, but learned from other people or on my own: In the 1800s, many people (especially women) were illiterate. The Federal census was recorded by census takers, who visited the households. Some of the handwriting is atrocious and difficult to read; some of the records are written in pencil and are faint; and often the census taker phonetically spelled names. You might be surprised at how those names are mangled. Visualize their spelling of Surrepta or Tremilious… and yes, those are names in my extended family tree. Then there are the records that only have initials for the first and middle names.

You just never know what surprises await you. And for some reason, I find this as fun as playing golf or going to the movies.

Kevin’s Volga German Ancestors

Germans in the Ukraine?

Fred and Caraline Heckel on their wedding day in 1927, Bowdle, SD

When I married Kevin back in 1990, I had limited knowledge of his ancestry. What he was told was “Dad was 100% Norwegian and Mom was 50% Russian and 50% German”. His mom’s maiden name is Heckel, so that seemed plausible on the surface. He was told that his maternal grandmother, Caraline, traveled thousands of miles when she was young from Russia to North Dakota. That is true, but it would later be revealed that it was also true for the ancestors of her husband, Freidrich “Fred” Heckel, whose father was also born in Russia and emigrated to North Dakota. Carrie was born in Kassel, as was Fred’s father, Theobald. Coincidence? Yeah, probably not.

I did wonder, “Why were German people living in Russia?”

When I started doing this as a bonafide hobby, Victoria asked me to make sure I included her father’s side in my research. Anyone who knows me knows that I rarely turn down a request made by my daughter. After all, her dad’s side is her legacy as well, and documenting them might be important to any future grandchildren I might have. I asked her dad to bring over all the stuff he had and he complied.

He brought one document I hadn’t seen, which he acquired after we divorced from his now late aunt. She was pretty darn good at recording her mother’s genealogy. Her information was impeccably accurate, and included photos and details. Using Ancestry.com, it didn’t take me very much time to get the Heckel and Pleinis families back to the late 1890s and early 1900s, and the census records provided good information when they emigrated from Russia to the United States. That’s when I realized–I mean it was truly an a-ha moment–that neither of those surnames were Russian. Apparently, I’m not the brightest bulb in the chandelier.

Kevin knew less information than I did, so asking him for more details was a non-issue. He knew what he was told. So I called my dad. My parents are history buffs, so I figured I’d start there. Unfortunately, Dad couldn’t help me, but suggested I pull out an old map and Google. He also suggested I get in touch with a Russian studies professor at one of the universities, which I didn’t do. I didn’t know anyone else in my circle who had a similar circumstance in their past. So this was a search that I had to make on my own. To be honest, I wasn’t confident in my ability to research because this was only a few months after I started working on my own ancestry.

To my surprise and delight, the Google search bore fruit almost immediately. Pulling up the old maps was a great idea. Several months later, I saw my family during the holidays and discovered that my cousin majored in German studies in college before joining the Army. I think it’s weird that Tom would major in such an obscure degree path, but he was stationed in Germany for a tour or two, and his mother was of German descent, so maybe not so strange after all. He later told me that he feels a pull toward Germany that he just can’t ignore and loves everything about German history and culture. Anyway, Tom gave Kevin’s people a name: Volga Germans.

You can read the link on the history of their “invitation” to leave Germany or Prussia as it was called to migrate along the Volga River. I have the ability to look at this from a vantage point of looking back without any skin in the game, but I’m not sure it was as successful an execution as it was in theory. These Germans did not speak Russian as their first language (if they spoke it at all); they established German Lutheran churches, and they basically moved their German culture to their new home. Their culture was kept alive for more than 125 years–intact. They named their children German names, and they named their towns the same names as their familiar homes in Germany. For example, there are places in Germany named Kessel and Hesse; the towns where his people lived in the Ukraine were Kessel and Hesse. When I’m researching sometimes I have to take a break and clear my head so I can stay focused. It’s something I have to do when researching my Buhlers as well. Germans are confusing!

It then became my goal to get them back to Germany. I think I might have been able to trace his Heckel line back to a Gottfried Heckel. When I get my peeps done to the point where they’re settled until the 1950 census is published (2022), I’ll probably devote most of my time to Kevin’s peeps. If I’ve got the right people, Gottfried and his family were in the early waves of migration to the Ukraine. (Does anyone else picture Gilbert Gottfried here like me?)

The link explains their arrival in Russia and their exit, but it wasn’t until I listened to this podcast that the story became personal. The story in the podcast takes his family to Canada; Kevin’s people stayed in North Dakota before heading west to Montana. I’ve since found some of his grandmother’s siblings and their descendants in North and South Dakota as well as Montana. These people were hearty stock. I mean REALLY hearty. Caraline “Carrie” Pleinis Heckel was one of 8 children (and a twin); they left Russia in 1911 when she was four. Her father, Martin, died in 1913 as he walked home in a North Dakota blizzard and froze to death. Carrie’s mother, Margaretha, remarried in 1916 to a man who had also been born in the Gluekstal region of the Ukraine. They had a blended family (he was a widower with 5 children), and when it was all said and done, Margaretha and Bernhard had 13 children between them.

There is quite a bit of information out there to those who want to learn more about the Volga Germans. The ones who stayed in Russia were later persecuted and told to go home; they were forbidden to speak in German in public or in their homes. They wound up in German concentration camps post World War I. Their fate was predictably tragic during World War II. If Kevin and his cousins were aware of this today, they would be thankful that their people saw the writing on the wall and got out before World War I.

I’m proud for Victoria to know that her paternal ancestors were such determined and intrepid people. She should be proud too!

Fred and Carrie Heckel, probably taken Christmas 1959. Fred died October 8, 1960–and I doubt they had a Christmas tree up in October!

Religious Freedom?

My Mayflower roots and Protestant past

Photo by Christian Johnson from FreeImages

Have you ever wondered how deep your religious roots are steeped in your past? Was it a conscious choice or one that was passed down to you through generations of faith? In my case, it was both.

When I was a kid, most everyone around me was Catholic, and I was pretty sure my family had been Catholic for centuries. Yah, no. In fact, it might be a complete accident. My paternal grandmother was half Swedish and half German. Her Buhler German side started out as Lutheran and became Catholic at some point in the mid-1800s. Her Swedish mother, Regina Sandin Buhler, was also Lutheran when she left Sweden but not raised in the faith once she was on US soil. Her older brother married a very Irish Catholic woman and converted. My great grandmother made a decision that was likely influenced by her brother and his wife. So Dad and his siblings were raised Catholic. My heathen mother converted when I was 8.

Dad’s father’s side had Presbyterian roots that went back to Scotland. After moving to Indiana, his people primarily settled in to the Methodist and Baptist faiths, though there are Quakers in my Whitaker line.

My mother was raised in the Congregational faith. Her parents were Congregationalists, and her father’s side were mostly Congregational going way back. My maternal cousins were Methodists. I didn’t know anyone in my childhood who was raised in her faith. They now operate under a big umbrella called the United Church of Christ. I didn’t know squat about the Congregationalists as a young adult. Again, my grandmother was a crappy source for discussing this kind of stuff. It wasn’t until I started traipsing about the country that I discovered that her DNA is steeped in Congregationalism. If you read my post about Thompson and Sibbill Maxwell, they were founding members of the First Congregational Church of Buckland.

Mom’s religious tapestry is woven with a whole lot of conscientious religious objection and rebellion. I think I inherited this from her chromosomes. I seldom see anything–including religion–in terms of black and white. There is a whole lot of gray. Because of that muddled color, I can see things from a whole lot of perspectives and understand them. There are some issues that clearly are black and white for me, but overall, I consider myself gray.

Through my mother’s genealogy, we are both members of the Mayflower Society. The line back to our Massachusetts Pilgrim roots is rather colorful. Mom’s paternal grandmother was Louisa Agnes Hale, daughter of Silas Fowler Hale and Lavinia Maxwell. Louisa’s grandfather, Isaac “Ward” Hale, was the older brother of Emma Hale. Emma Hale was the first wife of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church.

Ward Hale, my 3rd great grandfather, was born in 1802 in the Susquehanna Valley of Pennsylvania to Isaac Hale and Elizabeth Lewis in a Congregational family. His parents eventually became devout Methodists, though at the time they were considered Methodist Episcopal (no wonder we are all confused by these denominations). When Emma became infatuated with Joseph Smith, her parents and most of her siblings disapproved vehemently. He was an uneducated person from upstate New York (an outsider!), and he had religious convictions that were questionable. They considered him a snake oil salesman of sorts. Still, she followed her heart and left home on their fateful journey that ultimately ended in Nauvoo, Illinois, with the execution of her husband. Ward was 2 years older than Emma, and if they had been close as children, they would never speak again after she married Joseph Smith. So I suppose it’s not hard to imagine why my mother’s direct line were not Mormons. Ward was a judge in Polk County, Wisconsin, and I think I can assume that he had clear ideas of right and wrong.

Through Ward’s mother, Elizabeth Lewis, we trace her origins directly back to John and Joan Hurst Tilley through their daughter. Elizabeth Tilley was a 13 year old child when her parents sailed on the Mayflower in 1620 to Plymouth rock to avoid religious persecution. Her future husband, John Howland, was an indentured servant on the ship. Her parents both died within a year after arriving in the Massachusetts Colony, and she married John Howland in 1624 at the age of 17. The Tilleys were documented members of the Dutch Separatists in England, better known as Puritans.

Puritanism isn’t a religious denomination, rather it was a group of a several different religious groups that felt that Reformation had not achieved its purpose; they were also dissatisfied that the Church of England continued to adopt practices of the Roman Catholic faith. They were considered extremists in their day. Imagine that. Many of the Puritans were Congregationalists and Presbyterians. Most notably, the Savoy Declaration, the Congregational profession of faith, has espoused Puritan beliefs.

I was what I can now see a conflicted girl in a Catholic school. I grew up before Vatican II, and the nuns were perfectly clear when they told us that anyone who was not Catholic was going to hell. My grandmother and cousins were not Catholic, and I loved them with all my heart; my mother’s really good friend was Southern Baptist. I spent several summers going to Vacation Bible School with her sons. I loved them as much as my own family. I just couldn’t imagine them in the fires of hell because they attended a different church. I came home from school one day–upset–and wound up telling Mom. She was adamant that our friends and family who were not Catholic were NOT destined for the fiery pits of hell throughout eternity. That instruction became the basis for my own personal conundrum that exists today. I’m perfectly clear in my faith; it’s just the faith vehicle that’s not as clear. I used to consider myself somewhat of a weird type of rebel with an internal war in my soul. I’ve become friends with that rebel person and learned to accept her questions, not as a form of rebellion, but more a conscious reconciliation of black and white inside her head.

Working on my ancestry has given me some peace from the religious conflict in my past. Instead of finding my roots in Catholicism, both my maternal and paternal roots are deeply Protestant. No wonder I relate to this part of my DNA so intimately and personally?

Ancestry and Collaboration

It’s not just about the dead

Photo of the Dunn family, Mount Comfort, Indiana in 1895. My great-grandfather, George, is 2nd from left. Mark’s grandmother, Ruth, is the wee little girl, 4th from right. Their parents, Martha and William, are seated.

When I started my journey down this rabbit hole back in 2017, I didn’t plan on having a nearly full time hobby. I had enough books to read, furniture to paint and other projects around my house to keep me busy for a long time. I didn’t expect to find working on my roots so… fun.

I enjoy reading, and always have. I used to get my sister and myself in trouble by violating the “lights out” rule ALL.THE.TIME. After getting into bigger trouble than I thought was warranted, I resorted to reading under the covers with a flashlight. That solved the problem of getting in trouble, but my 10 year old self didn’t want to admit that the rules were made for good reasons. Being super tired in school the next day never stopped me.

I also enjoy researching stuff. That’s fun. It’s like I’m David and stuff is the Goliath. Maybe now that school is 35 years in my rear view mirror I’m ready to learn more things? I especially like researching on the internet. I can watch a baseball game and still be successful. I’ve learned how to get very creative with my searches and sometimes pat myself on the back for discovering obscure information.

So why didn’t I expect my love of reading and researching to provide an endless source of entertainment? It’s like I’m peanut butter and genealogy is jelly. We were meant to be! And I never knew it.

I’m not posting to sell anyone the value of embarking on this hobby. Really. It’s enough that I have friends who share my obsession and family members who are kind enough to listen to me when I discover something new. I do it for myself, so that makes it a good reason.

But the unexpected side bonus is meeting the living who are indelibly connected to me through DNA and our family tree. These people were not in my life as a child, and I had no idea they existed. My older relatives may or may not have been aware of their ancestors’ existences either. Our American culture has evolved through the years, and our ancestors have migrated. Any connection that might have been possible had we stayed in one place became improbable, if not impossible.

Along came Ancestry.com and Facebook. A dynamic duo for those of us who have moved away from ancestral homes we never knew. In the past 2 years, I’ve added to my Facebook friends and correspondent friends a slew of people I never knew. What a blessing!

One particular relationship didn’t really come from either directly. It developed after one night of doing research on my Dunn line. And this relationship has become one I truly treasure. It came at exactly the right time in my life for the right reason. I’ll tell you a little more about how it began…

After the 2018 New Year, I was down my Dunn rabbit hole when I decided to do a Google search on someone who was my west coast haven after moving to California in 1988. She was my grandfather’s first cousin, and they adored each other. I moved to the Bay Area not knowing anyone, and my wise grandparents thought I would need someone to adopt me while I built a life on my own. Granddad gave me Ruth’s phone number, and I called her. She lived in Marin County, and became someone I could trust and visit when I needed someone who was really and truly family. Her children were grown and living across the country, she was recently widowed and had moved into her townhouse after losing her husband. We were really good for each other. The last time I saw Ruth was when my grandparents were visiting in 1989. I married in 1990 and moved to Colorado in early 1991, and somehow, Ruth and I lost touch. (What is wrong with me?)

So that night, I decided to Google her to see where she was living (with the intent of calling her), only to discover she had recently passed away at the age of 96. My heart sank at the missed opportunity. Instead, I expressed my condolences to her family and hit send.

About a month later, her son reached out to me after reading that note. He had never heard of me and wanted to know more about my time with his mother. Specifically, Mark is my dad’s 2nd cousin though 2 years older than I. We have built our cousin relationship from the obituary and have never looked back. Getting to know him and working on our family history and ancestry has been the biggest gift of all. To say I’m excited about finally meeting him in person soon is a gross understatement.

What I’ve discovered, through the musings of my other cousins, is that descendants of girls usually wind up with the family mementos. Mark’s grandmother was the youngest of 8; her older brother (my great grandfather) was the 2nd oldest. There was 14 years between them. After his mother died, he wound up with old photographs and household items that belonged to his great grandmother and my great-great grandmother. He and his sister worked diligently to make digital backups of photographs when California was on fire last summer. And I’ve been the ecstatic recipient of his digital collection. His generosity is very much appreciated.

In his collection are photographs of other extended family members–people neither one of us have ever known. I’ve located a few of them through Facebook and other means, and the results have been so rewarding. How on earth would I have connected with my 3rd cousin, Karin, in Kansas City?

Through Ancestry, I’ve collaborated with my mother’s maternal 3rd cousin and my father’s paternal 3rd cousins. These folks (Glen, Richard and Elizabeth, thank you!) have been extraordinarily helpful in my research and Val’s DAR application. The gentlemen live in California, far from our mutual roots in Minnesota and Indiana. Elizabeth is my family mentor and Indiana based cousin.

All of these photos are from Mark’s collection. As Mark says, Life is Good!

Martha Eleanor Wilson, 1869. Age 15. My great-great grandmother and Mark’s great grandmother
William Henry Harrison Dunn, 1869. Age 21. My great-great grandfather and Mark’s great grandfather.

Carefree Highway

Sibbill and Thompson Maxwell and their wandering descendants

Historical Marker in Milford, New Hampshire

I hadn’t planned on writing about my Maxwell ancestors so soon after the Nester vs. Wanderer post, but I’m listening to Spotify and Gordon Lightfoot is beckoning me to tell their tales. I think it must be the “wanderlust or trying to get free” thing preventing me from moving to any other topic out there.

These two people are probably the ones in my tree with whom I feel super connected more than most. As I mentioned earlier, this Maxwell line is the one that I researched almost entirely on my own. It’s not that I don’t feel connected to the others (I do), but my journey with them has been incredibly personal and rewarding.

I’m going to start with Sibbill, because there isn’t a whole lot of information to share on my 6th great grandmother. Born Sibbill Wyman on 29 Aug 1735 in Billerica, Massachusetts, to Thomas Wyman and Rachel Crosby, she was the youngest of three children. I truly don’t know much more about her than that. However, Massachusetts has very good town and church records for the time, and through those records, I was quickly able to trace her roots. Her paternal grandmother, Prudence Putnam, was the fourth daughter of Thomas Putnam and Ann Holyoke. The same Putnams who were accusers in the Salem Witch Trials.

Thompson Maxwell was born on 11 September 1742 in Bedford, Massachusetts, to Hugh Maxwell and Sara Corbett. Hugh was an immigrant from Northern Ireland (one of the Scots Irish Maxwells), and Sara was born in Scotland. Thompson was their youngest of seven children: five boys and two girls. His father died after being thrown from a horse in 1759 and his mother died 10 years later.

He said he was very influenced by his siblings and when two of his brothers and brother-in-law signed up for militia duty, he decided to join sign up as a volunteer in the French and Indian War at the age of 15 (1757). I believe his experiences fighting in the French and Indian War provided the seed for any future wanderlust on his part. He left home for New York, Canada and Michigan, and his experiences were published in an a manuscript in The Essex Collection in 1865. The article is an interview with Thompson, entitled “The Narrative of Major Thompson Maxwell”. It starts with a letter from the author, Mr. E. F. Miller, describing his interview conducted years earlier and providing the transcription taken from the interview notes.

The one eerie thing I read in this narrative is that Thompson Maxwell’s travels during this conflict took him to Grand Portage, which he describes geographically as on the northwest corner of Lake Superior what was then called the French Canada Territory. Grand Portage is about 35 miles from where my mother grew up in Minnesota. So very far from Bedford, Massachusetts, geographically and 7 generations away from my mother.

Anyway, he remained in military service for six years, until October 1763:

“We lay at Detroit without interruption until the end of the war and were discharged sometime in October. Thus ended my six years service. I returned home and thought I deserved a wife, so I got one and a good one, whose name was Sibbel Wyman. We settled in Milford, then Amherst, NH. I was in my 22nd year. She was 27. We lived happily together for 38 years, 4 months and 11 days, when she died leaving me with 5 children, four sons and a daughter. I lived in Amherst until 1777 and followed teaming to and from Boston. In 1773, I went with my team to Boston with a load of stores to the poor of the town, which at that time was shut up. I had loaded my team at John Hancock’s warehouse, and was about to return when J. Hancock requested me to drive my team up into his yard, and ordered his servants to take care of it. He requested me to be on Long Wharf at 2 pm and informed me what was to be done. I went accordingly, and joined the band under our Capt. Hughs. We mounted the ships and made tea in a trice. This done, I took my team and went home as an honest man should.”

He never ever really left the military and fought in numerous wars and conflicts (Bunker Hill, Lexington and the War of 1812) until he was a very old man. In 1812, he would have been 70; his grandson also served in that war in New York, a boon that I wouldn’t realize until I went looking for him. His oldest son, Hugh, is my 5th great grandfather; he, too, was not a young man in 1812 and died in Canandaigua in 1813. Without a will.

Through my genealogy research, I discovered that Thompson’s brother, Benjamin, was a 2nd Lieutenant in the Revolutionary War, serving in the 5th company of the 5th Hampshire County regiment in Massachusetts. His oldest brother, Hugh, also served in the Revolutionary War and went on to be a noteworthy surveyor of the Preemption Line and who died at sea in 1799. Hugh kept field notes of his time as a surveyor, and his manuscript has been transcribed and published; the original manuscript is apparently still in the possession of his descendants. I have read it, and it’s quite the experience.

Back to the interview. My 6th great grandfather detailed his life through those years of war. He continued:

“In 1800, party spirit having risen very high in Massachusetts, I moved with my family [I believe it was with his wife and son, James] to the State of Ohio, on the Big Miami, County of Butler. I remained there quietly and followed farming. In 1802 my first wife died. In 1807, July 6th, I married again to a Mrs. Little, widow of Capt. Little of the Revolution. In May, 1812, Gen’l Hull sent for me to pilot his army through to Detroit. I joined him at Dayton, Ohio, on the 1st day of June–Piloted the army through to Detroit–was made prisoner there–lost my faithful mare, saddle and bridle and remained with the wounded and sick about a month. I then returned home down the lake to Cleaveland and thence by land got to my family October 2nd. Soon after, a mob rose up to attack me. [A mob attacking a 70 year old man?]”

He then described how he had gone to Cincinnati and his wife was visiting her son and his family when his house was burned down. All that was left was his sword, which he had carried safe with him since the Battle of Bunker Hill. By the time he got home, he had received word that his wife had died. When he was 74, he was taken prisoner at Fort Erie. He entered into a conversation with one of his captors, who recalled that his father and uncle had told him that they had served with him [Maxwell] in the Revolutionary War. When Thompson confirmed that he knew both men, he was instantly placed into a private home and given food and clothing before being released.

In the end, Thompson Maxwell moved to the Detroit area and married a third and final time to a woman only known as Eleanor, in 1823. He indicated that he traveled on horseback at least once to visit family in New York and Massachusetts around this time. It’s probable that he met his great grandson (my third great grandfather, who was 5 years old) on that trip. In his later years, he apparently had lost everything and applied for a war pension for his service in the Revolutionary War. His plea was emotional on my end: he described giving his life to his country and not being able to afford food or clothing. He died 24 October 1832 at the age of 90. He’s buried at the Wallaceville Historical Cemetery, Eleanor’s family cemetery, in Dearborn Heights. The Colonial Dames placed and commemorated a burial marker for the plot thought to be his grave. I haven’t visited it yet.

I began researching Thompson Maxwell and his descendants about two years ago with the intention of applying for a supplemental DAR application. Although the information I researched was fairly straightforward, I had to meet genealogy proof standards. My problem started when linking Thompson’s son, Hugh, to his grandson, Erastus. It was a problem because Hugh died suddenly in 1813 without a will. I was still a novice in this genealogy game, became dejected, until I received good advice. I have some really good people in my genealogy group; it finally clicked when my DAR registrar urged me to look for probate and land records for answers. I also lamented how I lost four years of physical time in New York when Victoria went to college there, and wondered how on earth I was going to look through those records in New York from my sofa in Colorado. Fortunately, Family Search resolved that challenge; with some help from a knowledgeable genealogist in Canandaigua, she was able to help me piece together the probate and land records to New York law, establishing Erastus to his father that way. I was so excited, I yelled out a whoop in the library, until I realized…

…that my REAL problem was linking Erastus to his son, William. William was born in 1818 in Albany, New York, and died in 1891 in Osceola, Wisconsin. He actually had a death certificate, but it didn’t name his parents. His obituary was merely a death notice: “William W. Maxwell died yesterday of pneumonia.” Not helpful. His brother, James, died in 1910, and his death notice read, “Full obituary to be printed in the next issue”. Yeah, that never happened either. I found out that newspapers often did that to encourage families to pay for a full blown obituary. If they didn’t pay, it didn’t get published.

It took a trip to western Wisconsin last October to find one cemetery land deed to tie William indirectly but not inconsequentially to his father and brother (whose death certificate DID name his father). Earlier in this post, I referred to Erastus’ service in the War of 1812 as a boon. It was a boon because he, too, died intestate, about 1873. Then I found his pension application, which spelled out specifics, to include his wife’s maiden name and their marriage date and place (Attica, New York). It really was a boon, because without it, I have no other information that provides direct proof of her or their marriage. I don’t think he ever got that pension because the letters abruptly ceased in 1872. If you think that the government didn’t give its citizens trouble back then, think again. Erastus Maxwell made his case to his government for more than two years. I think he died before it was resolved. Which may have been the goal of people in Washington all along?

In another post, I will devote some time to William Maxwell, his wife, Julia, and daughter, Lavinia. If I feel any real, solid direct connection to a specific Maxwell ancestor, it would be William–who is my 3rd great grandfather. Touching his tombstone made me cry. I think Val was really worried about me.

During my trips to Buckland, Massachusetts, and Saint Croix Falls, Wisconsin, I met some beyond wonderful people who really helped me tie this family together. I want to give them the credit that is due them. When I visited Buckland, it was the 3rd of July, and almost everything was closed to prepare for the 4th. I stumbled into their library and told the librarian why I was there. She took me back to a room that contained a very old book that turned out to be the first written record of town history. It was handwritten in colonial script and contained the names of the 16 founding members of the First Congregational Church of Buckland. Two of those names were Thompson and Sibbill Maxwell. She gave me the name and phone number for the town historian, who also edits the newsletter for the Congregational church, and we’ve become friends. One of these days, I’m going to meet her in person.

The folks in Wisconsin put up with me for MONTHS without complaining about me (at least to my face!). One of them is with a local genealogy society; her husband is a distant cousin on my Hale side, and it turned out that she is related to my Maxwell clan through marriage. These women took time out of their personal lives to head to court houses and libraries to help me look for information. In the end, my trip there last fall bore the biggest payoff in a land document that created a cemetery and trustees between my Maxwell family members.

This trip with them has been so incredibly rewarding. I feel like I know each of them personally. It doesn’t hurt that Sibbill and Thompson’s only daughter was named Betsey. I’ve had distant family members tell me that the Maxwell men they know or have known share common traits: tall, lanky, sandy hair and gray eyes. If I close my eyes tightly, I can conjure up an image for each of them. If that weren’t enough, I named my adopted shelter dog Thompson Maxwell and my adopted shelter Siamese cat Sibbill. I hope my ancestors are not insulted and see this as my ultimate tip of the hat for a heartfelt and fun journey with them.

In the end, I decided I didn’t want to use Thompson Maxwell for my supplemental. At least yet. I decided to give him to my sister for her application into the DAR. She graduated from the Naval Academy and enjoys military history. I decided to let her go in under our most decorated ancestor. I consider it a labor of love to her and Thompson and Sibbill Maxwell. In the end, it’s always been about love and family.

Nesters and Wanderers

Should I stay or should I go?

Are you the person who never wanted to leave the place you were born and/or raised? Or were you one who knew you were inevitably going to leave? Did your family ever share stories of why your family left the old world or moved from one state to another or migrated west?

I come from a very long line of people who leave. Wanderers. There are people in my immediate family who are not wanderers: people like my dad, who was born in Washington, and with the exception of childhood moves with his parents, has remained in the Washington area most of his life; or my dad’s maternal line, who mostly stayed in Washington as well; and my brother. Specifically, I come from a line of women who leave, and my daughter is continuing the tradition. I also married a wanderer who descends from wanderers.

I never really thought about it too much until I started working on my genealogy lines. It was then that I discovered it just might be in my DNA. Going way back, my ancestors picked up and moved.

Almost all of the time, the reasons people left were income/jobs, land opportunities, political climate, and religious persecution. I think the first two are pretty relevant today.

When I first left Virginia for California in 1988, most people thought I was crazy. I moved to Northern California, where I knew NO ONE. Not one soul. I took a job and just left. I didn’t think twice about it. I felt compelled to leave, and had felt that way since I was young. I have never second guessed my decision, though periodically I do entertain the idea of moving back because I miss my family and friends. Especially now that my daughter lives there. There were times when I felt like a freak.

I often wonder if my ancestors had similar motivations? Why would my 6th great grandfather, born and raised northwest of Boston, who lived in New England most of his adult life, leave for Ohio via New York at the age of 60 and ultimately die in Detroit? I’ve found his narratives and he indicated that things got rough. Some of that rough was political (he fought in the Revolutionary War–and was a member of the Boston Tea Party– and the War of 1812, among others), and other “rough” was financial. I will be writing about him all by himself at a later date, because my journey with him and his descendants has taken me places I never imagined. I’ve met some wonderful people in Massachusetts, New York and Wisconsin on my quest, and I will tell that story soon. Thompson Maxwell is probably my favorite research subject. I am fairly certain that this has to do with the fact that he’s the one ancestor I’ve researched without my dad’s help.

I wonder why his wife, Sibbill Wyman Maxwell, who was born in Billerica and lived in New England all of her life as well, would agree to leave her entire family at the age of 67 and head to Ohio? A place she had never seen? I wonder how her family felt when she died in Ohio and was not buried with her people? That trip had to be difficult, especially for seniors.

Last summer, Valerie and I flew back east to spend the 4th of July with Victoria, who was living in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, at the time. We flew to Albany and then drove over the mountain. It’s a beautiful 45-minute drive. On that drive, you might blink and not see the sign for Stephentown (NY), the birthplace of my 4th great grandmother, who married the grandson of Thompson and Sibbill Maxwell. I was traipsing the path that my ancestors did. The funny thing is that 3 years ago, when Val and I drove that same road with Vic, I had absolutely no idea that my ancestral past and her new home were very well acquainted.

Vic knew I wanted to research while I was there, so she indulged me by taking off and driving us to Ashfield, Buckland and Chesterfield. We stood on the ground that my 6th great grandparents and their children and grandchildren knew very well. The landscape is stunning. Victoria is quick to remind me that winter is horrible there. I know! But as we had lunch in Shelburne Falls and looked around, I asked her if she could imagine putting all of her belongings in a covered wagon, and making a move from Buckland to Albany and beyond? We both decided that our ancestors would be disappointed in our wimpiness (is that a word?). We wouldn’t last more than 3 days in the conditions in which they did.

Before everyone agrees with me on that point, let me say I think our ancestors would be absolutely overwhelmed at the pace of our lives in 2019. I don’t think they would be able to fare well with all the distractions that are in our faces on a daily basis either.

One side note: people who live in Massachusetts celebrate the 4th of July like no others I’ve ever seen. Their outward displays of patriotism are impressive. These people deck out their homes, streets, churches, government buildings and businesses. It was so fun to see these little townships put their celebrations on display. I digress.

I’ve been helping one of my oldest and dearest friends research her lines back to the Revolutionary War for her DAR application. While she has mainly lived in Northern Virginia, her parents and ancestors were nesters in Pennsylvania. Her father’s people were eastern European immigrants who found work in the coal mines. Her mother’s people were German immigrants who were mostly farmers. While she lamented that they were “boring”, I quickly corrected her: “They’re nesters! Nesters have their own contributions, and they sure make it a lot easier for me to research them!” I hope she takes solace in the fact that her people have left an indelible mark on the land their forefathers plowed, and that’s something to admire. She’s very connected with them, and I believe this is why she’s never had the slightest itch to leave. Which is a decision I hope she doesn’t regret either.

I now have a deep appreciation for the choices our ancestors made, both nesters and wanderers.

Elisha Chadwell Creech and his grand adventures

To infinity… and beyond!

Remnants of old covered wagon, Chatfield State Park, Littleton, Colorado

In the span of a few days, since starting this blog, I came to realize that several–if not most–of my great-great grandparents were the adventurous types. Mom calls them intrepid. While this ancestor is not a European immigrant, he was industrious and was quite the traveler for his time. I wish I could impress you by stating that this post is the “fruit” I collected while doing hard core research. That would be a lie.

Elisha Chadwell Creech is the grandfather of my Mom’s father, who was also named Elisha. He was born in 1831 in Lee County, Virginia, to Elias and Mary “Polly” Gilbert Creech, their third child and second son. Elisha Chadwell’s great grandfather, John, was one of my ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War, as was Polly Gilbert’s father, Samuel. Right now, these lines are a work in process because I have to pore through land and probate records to finish up the applications to link the early generations. The Creech’s have been a nightmare to research because of their propensity for naming their sons Elijah, Elias, Eli and Elisha and every variation of that name. Elisha Chadwell had many first cousins with the same names. Adding to the confusion, most of them remained in Lee County or Harlan County, Kentucky. They make my head spin.

How do I know what I know about Elisha Chadwell Creech? The simple, unvarnished truth is because he made it very easy for me by writing a mini, though incomplete, memoir. I cannot properly express my delight and gratitude for this boon. The information he shared in his transcribed biography has proven invaluable when working on his people.

His parents left Lee County when he was young and migrated west; his father died unexpectedly in 1841 in Jamestown, Missouri, and it is only through the most minute clues that I’ve been able to find out more about what happened to his mother and siblings. What really turned out to be a major leap forward for my research was the “thru lines” feature in Ancestry.com. DNA linked me to a bunch of people with the surname of “Scritch”, and it was through Elisha’s memoir that I was able to figure out who they were and how they fit in my tree.

Before I share Elisha’s excellent adventure, I want to retell some of the things he shared about leaving Virginia for Missouri and then Illinois. If you are the kind of person who can imagine yourself as the star in this play, their journey might give you pause. I, for one, hold his mother in high esteem: she was one bad-ass pioneer woman. And I’d put money on her beating out Ree Drummond for that title too.

Elias Creech left Virginia around 1839, and the original plan was to head west to Illinois with a like-minded friend, leaving his wife and children behind in Virginia until he sent for them. He had a change of heart in Illinois and decided to continue on to Missouri to meet up with his cousin, a man referred to as Col. Hughes. He staked a claim in Jamestown, Missouri, and claimed squatter’s rights to 160 acres. He built a house and barn, planted crops, bought livestock, and then instructed his wife to sell their property and head west to join him. I was able to locate the land deed in Lee County in 1840 between he and Elijah (his father), apparently reselling his land back to his dad; in addition, I found another deed there for John Gilbert, Polly’s brother, at the same time, which coincides with the timeline in the biography.

Polly, her brother, John, and 7 young children headed west through Tennessee, traveling in a flat boat down the Tennessee River, making it to Florence, Alabama. They arrived in Alabama, where the townsfolk were battling raging epidemics of yellow fever and cholera; two of her kiddos fell ill, so she decided to stay put for awhile. She wrote Elias and asked him to come meet them so they could travel back together. She waited three months for a reply as she nursed the children back to health. When the response arrived, it was from her husband’s cousin, Col. Hughes, letting her know that Elias had died two months prior, about the time when he sent for her. Polly wrote back and asked Col. Hughes to sell the claim. A reply letter then arrived from Col. Hughes’ wife, indicating her husband been killed by some of the “rough element”. She considered returning home, but they had sold their property and she had no home left in Virginia. Ultimately, she decided to abandon the claim in Jamestown altogether and headed to St. Louis. Shortly after arriving in St. Louis, her brother, John Gilbert, died.

A quick sidebar to ponder. Polly was illiterate and without a means to provide for herself and her children; there was no life insurance and she would have probably had great difficulty finding employment. Heck, women weren’t even enumerated in the 1840 census, so that should pretty much say everything for the average woman in the mid 19th century. I can’t begin to imagine how she might have felt, but if I were her, I would have been terrified.

Polly ultimately remarried twice, and I’m still researching her to see if I can find more about the rest of her life; so far I can account for her as late as 1852. Her death is not addressed in his writings, so I’m on my own here. But according to his account, she and the kids wound up settling down in St. Louis before permanently settling in Bond County, Illinois. Sometime after losing Elias, the family remaining in Missouri/Illinois changed the spelling of their surname from Creech to Scritch. Until the DNA matches showed up, I had assumed they went by Creech, which is why I could never find more than what was mentioned in the memoir. Once I started using Scritch, things started to fall into place. It was also how I found out that Polly had married for the second time after being widowed. I have many DNA matches through the Scritch lines.

A side note about Bond County, Illinois. I have been there. I have actually stopped my vehicle there, and not by choice. Victoria, her boyfriend (now fiance) and I were returning to Colorado from New York after her sophomore college year when we stopped for Diet Coke, Twizzlers and more junk food just east of Bond County. I realized we had 2 choices, shared them with the kids and they unanimously chose to drive straight through home to Colorado. It was my turn to drive, so I set the speed on cruise control a little higher to make better time. It wasn’t long before I saw a state trooper whiz by in the opposite direction and held my breath… until Mike spoke up and said, “Uh oh. Mooms, he turned around in the middle of the interstate and he’s heading our way.”I received the most expensive speeding ticket I’ve ever received in my life in Bond County. Make sure you don’t speed there!

Back to the story. Elisha Chadwell left home in the fall of 1849 with a friend, who had persuaded him (his words) to head up the Mississippi River to Stillwater, Minnesota, to engage in the lumber business. I won’t regale you with all the details of his business, but he was a successful lumberman for the rest of his life, a partner in the jobbing firm of Creech, Ayers, Cross and Henney. He married a local girl named Mary Marshall Seed in 1863, whose family had emigrated from Ireland to Canada (where she was born) and then on to western Wisconsin. They raised 4 daughters and one son in the picturesque town of Saint Croix Falls. His only son and my great grandfather, James Seed Creech, also worked as a lumberman as his profession. The lumbering ended with James.

Before Elisha married Mary, he had one intriguing adventure that started in May 1859. It would seem that the townsfolk heard news of the finding gold in Pike’s Peak, so he joined a party of friends and a train of ox and provisions and headed west. The title of this chapter was aptly stated “Pike’s Peak or Bust”. The most entertaining part of his story occurred in Nebraska. They had arrived at their campsite and began setting up camp; a couple men head out to hunt while the rest stayed back to pitch tents, make dinner and tend to the animals. The folks who remained back were startled by a “blood curdling whoop”: a band of 500 Brule Sioux were were on the warpath against the Punkhaw, Pawnee and Omaha tribes. They had rounded up the Pikes Peak party’s stray horses and wanted compensation for their troubles. The party named my great-great grandfather as the negotiator, who then gave the Sioux a quarter pound of tobacco for two old mules. One of the men got so excited about getting two horses back that he gave them all their flour. The Sioux decided to only bring one horse back but not return any flour. My great-great grandfather was not happy that they were without flour for the rest of the trip either!

Ultimately, the entire journey was a true hardship due to the lack of available water. Elisha’s story really centers around their quest for water, and it’s a miracle they didn’t die of dehydration. Unbeknownst to them, a band of Omaha were hunting buffalo and followed them, eventually surrounding the entire party. They were extremely apprehensive about the approach, when the Omaha leaders asked them where they were going; they replied that they were heading to the Platte River. It turned out that the Indians were also heading in that direction and offered to let them travel with them. Ultimately, the Omaha decided they needed to head home and offered them good advice, which they took, but not until they traveled in a 40 mile circle unsuccessfully. Without finding water on the way, either.

In the end, Elisha did not remain with his party and set out on his own with his trusty rifle. Sadly, he did not finish writing about his trip to Pike’s Peak nor did he complete his memoir; perhaps he died before he could finish. It was believed that he made it to Cripple Creek, where he staked a claim in Poverty Gulch, but came up empty. Since I know the end of the story has a happy conclusion in Wisconsin, and he married Mary in 1863, I’ll assume he had safe travels back and was none worse for the wear. He became a widower in 1880 and died in 1907.

When I was in Saint Croix Falls last October, I headed to the cemetery before driving back to Minneapolis to catch a flight home. The cemetery is hilly and beautiful. There was a crew removing trees and debris, and one of them was kind enough to steer me in the right direction. Elisha, his wife, in-laws and at least one of their children are buried on a hill, at the highest point in one of the oldest sections of the cemetery. Their family grave is marked by an obelisk, and until I walked directly in front of it, could not see that it was close to toppling. I took the photo below for my dad to see. (The last time my parents were there, it was upright.) My dad has since hired a local company to do the work necessary to right the stone.

If you ever have the chance to visit western Wisconsin and the Stillwater area, I highly recommend it. The Saint Croix River is beautiful, and the towns of Stillwater (MN) and Hudson (WI) are lovely and rich with history. Val and I went on a trolley tour of Hudson and learned all about the early settlers (to include the corporate birthplace of Anderson windows). The architecture is lovely and it wouldn’t take much for me to imagine myself in one of those 19th century homes. Most of my other ancestors that settled there were from New York, and the landscape definitely reminds me of upstate New York. I’ll be going back at some point, and I’m sure the next trip will be a new learning experience. Not like Elisha Chadwell Creech’s, but fruitful for me nonetheless.

Elisha Chadwell Creech’s leaning tombstone, St. Croix Falls Cemetery, Wisconsin