Diamonds Among the Dust
by G.G. Vandagriff
Some of my greatest breakthroughs in genealogy have come through very unlikely means.
At one point I had determined that a Jacob French from a small town in northern Massachusetts was my ancestor. Jacob Frenches are very thick on the ground in Massachusetts. In order to get my line back further, I had to find some means of narrowing down the field.
I was fairly certain that he had moved from somewhere else into the area where he died, because it was new territory in those days. Where was he born? Who of all the zillions of Frenches were his parents?
A Cobbler’s Ledger
Through some earlier detective work, I had tracked down a distant living cousin in Michigan, descended from the same line. He had a cobbler’s ledger which had been passed down to him by one of Jacob’s sons. It contained all the names of his customers and their accounts. It was not an obvious genealogical clue. But I had an idea. I spent an afternoon at my local family history library and ran all those names through the IGI (International Genealogical Index). One person by every single name in the ledger showed up in the town of Berkeley, Bristol County, Massachusetts, living in the time span suggested by the ledger! Having found all of his customers, I located where my Jacob French was from. He was also in the IGI. His temple work had been done, but I was able to link my pedigree into an existing one which went back several more generations.
Sources such as this cobbler’s ledger are lumped together in the trade and referred to as “home sources.” They may include such things as photographs, obituaries, family bibles, diaries, baby books, scrapbooks, military records, postcards, business records, memorabilia, greeting cards, old letters, deeds, home copies of official documents, samplers, old address books, pins or badges that may indicate occupation or membership in certain clubs or organizations.
The Value of Home Sources
Home sources are not always of obvious genealogical value. Often you must come to a certain place in your genealogy, as I did with the cobbler’s ledger, before they can provide the missing clue. But many times, they are sitting before your eyes, plain as day. For many years we possessed a deed, signed by my husband’s ancestor John Cooley. It was also witnessed by one Abigail Lippincott. One day it occurred to me to wonder who Abigail was and why she was on the deed. Some investigation proved that she was his fianc! They were later married, and now we have the deed framed as valuable genealogical evidence.
Cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents may possess clues they don’t know they even have. After many years of dogged research I finally uncovered the name of my grandmother’s grandmother, whom she insisted she didn’t know. One day, because of my interest in family history, she gave me a small suitcase which had belonged to my grandfather in which she had squirreled away many random items over the years. In it I found letters from Lucinda Heavlin Barber Gardner, my grandmother’s grandmother, to her son, my grandmother’s father. She didn’t even realize she had them! Oh, the years those letters would have saved me! She even had a picture of Lucinda standing with her two children.
It is vital to lay your hands on evidence such as this before it gets thrown away or destroyed when your older relatives die. Through a surname organization, I was able to get in touch with a third cousin on my French line. I called her home and her husband said she was in the hospital with congestive heart failure. We arranged a time for me to telephone her there. She was delighted to hear from me and wanted me to carry on the sleuthing she had begun. She had a room full of evidence, she said. When I didn’t hear from her, I called several weeks later to find she had died. Her husband said he was going through all her genealogy books and getting rid of everything. I reminded him that Louella had wanted me to continue her work. He promised to be on the lookout for anything that could help me. I’ll never know what he threw away, but the book he sent me contained a piece of paper stuck in the back headed, “Copied from Louisa French’s Civil War Laundry Ledger. In it were the names and birth dates of my Adolphus, his wife (and her maiden name), and each of their fifteen children. They were born in the wilderness of western New York before civil records were kept. The church in their town had long since disappeared. As far as I know this is the only existing record of the family. What if it had been thrown away with the rest of her things?
The lesson I have learned from my experience with home sources is that it is vital to find as many relatives as you can and to find out what they have in their possession which pertains to your genealogy. Even if it doesn’t further your research in terms of tangible data, it will give you an invaluable perspective on your ancestors. Anything which adds to a sense of who your forebears were is of great worth. A part of them lives on in you and it is important to learn of them and their lives and how they contributed to the person you have become.
Family History is a puzzle which can bless your life with its mysteries, discoveries, and complexities. Before it is too late, resolve to get in touch with your relatives and help them to discover the diamonds which may be hiding somewhere in their dust.
2005 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.