Apr 30, 2016

Entering the Tardis: Genealogy Block Party!

Elizabeth O'Neal at "Little Bytes of Life" has started something that should have a great future:  The Genealogy Block Party.  She sets up a situation, and bloggers jump in and write about it.  This is my kind of fun, so I'm participating.  (Good thing I discovered it, because the deadline is midnight tonight!)  So here's the situation:


You and The Doctor (of Doctor Who fame) have just finished saving the Earth from nasty, alien monsters. As your reward, The Doctor has offered to take you for a ride in his TARDIS to meet one of your ancestors!

  • Who is the ancestor you will meet?
  • What question(s) do you need him/her to answer?
  • Is there a problem you can help your ancestor solve?
  • Will you reveal your true identity to your ancestor? If so, how will your visit impact the future? (Remember what happened to Rose when she went back to meet her father.)
  • Will you bring your ancestor to the future to meet his/her descendants? What will be the outcome, if you do?

This is such a hard one!  Who will I choose?  I have to choose my great-grandmother, Annie Schwietering Ortmann (1856 - 1936).  She doesn't present a brick wall, since I can follow her line way back in Germany, but I have so many questions that I'd give anything to have a chance to meet her.

I'd probably need a couple of hours to talk to her because my list of questions is long!  I'm going to put aside 19th vs. 21st century proprieties and ask my questions bluntly -- no time to pussy-foot around.  Here goes.

How did you meet your husband, Joseph Ortmann?  You were married in Tremont, New York -- is that where you met him?  You were 18 and he was 29; what attracted you to him?  Was the idea that he was a Civil War veteran appealing?  Was he handsome?  Funny? Kind?

This is one of my frank questions:  You were four months pregnant when you and Joseph married -- is that why you married him?  Was it a shotgun wedding?  Would you have married him otherwise?  

Another blunt question:  Between the ages of 19 and 44, you gave birth to 12 children, three of whom died.  How did you feel about having that many children?  Was it just an accepted thing, being pregnant every other year?  Being Catholic, did you use any birth control at all?  Did you ever say, "Not tonight, Joe," or was it your duty to be there for him any time he was in the mood?  (Sorry, really, for getting so personal.)

Why did your family move so often?  When I look at both state and federal censuses, I see that you're always living in a different place in either New York or New Jersey.  Were you moving to a bigger place?  Was it upward or downward mobility?  Joseph had quite a few different jobs over the years; was it feast or famine, depending on how he was doing, and did the "famine" parts of the cycle cause you to have to move?  In 1900 you were living at 327 W. 36th Avenue, undoubtedly a tenement, in Hell's Kitchen, an unpleasant and dangerous place.  Was it ever better than that?

Was this the kind of place where you lived?

With so many children, what were your living conditions like? How many rooms did you have in your apartments?  Where did you all sleep?  How did you cook for all those people, do laundry, clean?  I'm assuming that as the children grew up, they were tasked with helping around the house and with the younger children, but wasn't it hard for you?  Were you always tired?  

Your daughter Anna never married, never left home, although she seems to have worked at various sewing kinds of jobs -- was Anna mentally or physically disabled?  Was she born somewhat prematurely?  

Why in the world did Joseph try to pass himself off as Irish rather than German?  As a German immigrant, wasn't it obvious that he wasn't Irish?  Did this all result from a mix-up during the Civil War that he was just trying to live with, or did he actually, intentionally, say that he was Irish?  Wasn't it worse at that time to be Irish, rather than German?  This created terrible problems when he and later you wanted to receive his pension, but in a way I'm grateful for it, because all the confusion resulted in a 60-page pension file I was able to get from the National Archives.  

Why was my grandfather, William Ortmann, disowned?  Was it really because he married a Lutheran, or was there some other reason?  Did you never see him again or meet his son, my father?  If disowning him was Joseph's stance, did you ever sneak off to see your youngest grandchild? Did you see them after Joseph passed away?  My grandmother said that no one in the family ever talked to him again -- I have a hard time understanding that, and if it's so, it's very sad.

Once your husband passed away, were you able to live a quiet and happy life?  You were poor, that's certain, with an income of $40 a month from Joseph's pension; did any of your many children help to make life easier for you?  (Herman, in particular, was rather prosperous.)  Did you live a quiet but happy life?  Were you able to spend time with your grandchildren?

Did you have dreams, Annie?  Was your hope always to be a wife and mother, or did you have other dreams?  Did you want to paint, or travel, or write -- or were those things foolish notions for a woman of your class and time?  What were you good at?  Embroidery? Did you like to sing?  I've always assumed that the musical talent in our family came from our grandmother's side, not yours, but I don't know that for sure.  Maybe you were musical too.  You were literate -- did you like to read?  (Did you ever have time?)

I think the biggest problems you had must have been related to poverty and to Joseph's changing jobs all the time.  I'd like to go back in time and make you "Queen for a Day," to take you away from where you lived for a little while, to a place where you could rest and feel safe and even be pampered.   

I would definitely reveal myself as her great-granddaughter.  I guess this should have been a harder choice, but I don't think I could stand not telling her and not being able to give her a long, long hug.  (All I'd have to do is explain about the Tardis, right?)  The one thing that I would hope to change would be her attitude toward her son, my grandfather.  My father's maternal grandmother was long gone; maybe he would have enjoyed having a grandmother in Annie.  I think I could have made my grandparents and father happier if I could reconnect them with their family . . . but then I could be wrong.  I can't know what the reasons were.

I can't decide whether I would bring Annie Ortmann to the future.  Would it make her happy to know that life became better for her descendants, or would it make her more unhappy about her present circumstances?  None of us, starting with her children's generation, lived in such poverty -- maybe she had an idea that things were going to get better in the future.

What an interesting exercise this has been!  Thanks, Elizabeth, for the prompt, and I'll look forward to joining you again next time.  (By the way, I am the Renegade Time Lord known as "The Explorer."  Sounds about right.)

Apr 29, 2016

Facebook Friday: Using Facebook Groups to Further Your Genealogical Projects

Some of us spend too much time on Facebook (I'm raising my hand, here); others say they have no time for it and haven't joined -- they'd rather interact face-to-face than online.  But if you're not using Facebook as a resource for your genealogical research, you're missing a type of social interaction that can be a wellspring of information rather than a vast sinkhole of time.

Many types of genealogical groups exist on Facebook.  Some have a general focus, such as "Technology for Genealogy," where you can get advice on which scanner to buy or how to back up your research, or "The Organized Genealogist," where you can discuss how keep on top of things with checklists or what should go into surname binders.  Thomas MacEntee's "Genealogy Do-Over" will give you a whole course on getting and keeping everything in order.

Genealogy and Newspapers

Other groups will help you with aspects of your research.  "Genealogy and Newspapers" features various newspaper repositories and helps members locate historical publications.  It also has links to online newspaper collections.  One of my most-used sites is "Genealogical Translations" -- this group's multilingual members give generously of their time to help others with translations, including interpretations of difficult types of handwriting.

Many groups focus on genealogy in particular areas; since all my family roots go back to Germany, I'm a member of "German Genealogy" and groups for specific areas such as "Genealogia Silesiae Superioris" (for the former German state of Silesia), or "Ahnenforschung im Werra-Meissner-Kreis," a group for a small locality in Hessen.  A quick look reveals groups focused on Spanish genealogy ("Genealog"), Irish genealogy ("KC Irish Roots," "Irish Genealogy") and others ("Polish Genealogical Society of Connecticut and the Northeast").

Mexican Genealogy

Societies and libraries of various kinds also offer groups.  You can interact with people from the "New England Historic Genealogical Society," "The Denver Public Library Western History and Genealogy Department," or "The Douglas E. Goldman Jewish Genealogy Center."  "GuadalajaraDispensas" offers names extracted from marriage registers over three centuries; the "Online Searchable Death Indexes and Records Group" will give you information on how to find death records for your ancestors.

New England Historic Genealogical Society

If you are very lucky (as, happily, I am), you will find a group about one of your family surnames.  My mother was a Berneburg, and I found a Facebook group created by a family genealogy society in Germany, the "Berneburg-Werneburg" group.  This led to many new sprouts on that particular branch of my tree.  Explore your surnames -- you might come across a "History of the Sandrock Family" or "Gorbea Family" group.

And given the interests of today, you might find a DNA group to connect with; I belong to the "U4 Haplogroup" and "German Language Area DNA Research Project" groups.

German Language Area DNA Research Project

Beyond answering members' questions and discussing relevant issues, groups often offer many resources in their "Files" section.  My "German Genealogy" group maintains a 10-page Word document on German links and resources, and my "Genealogy! Just Ask!" group hosts an ever-growing surnames list to which you can add your family names.

I personally have received a tremendous amount of help from these groups, and I offer what little I can when the opportunity comes up.  We all know that as a species, genealogists are among the most generous and helpful people on earth, and with so many of them hanging around on Facebook just waiting to be asked, you can't afford not to make use of this incredible resource.  Start searching for genealogical groups today!

Have you joined genealogical groups on Facebook?  How have they helped you?

[5/1/16 Update:  I have just learned of Katherine R. Willson's list of genealogical Facebook groups.  With over 8,000 groups included, it will surely offer something of interest to everyone.  Gail Dever has also compiled a list specifically for Canadian groups.]

Apr 27, 2016

Lying in Literature, Politics . . . and Genealogy.

I used to teach a class on memoir, autobiographical writing usually covering a limited part of the author's life.  One foundation of memoir is something called the Autobiographical Pact, which means, in essence, that the author offers to the reader the truth of his or her life, and the reader accepts it as such.  This is what differentiates autobiography from fiction; in fiction, no such pact exists, and both writer and reader accept the writing as not-truth. Sometimes readers will search for truths about the writer's life in fiction, but there's no guarantee that truth will be found, because no prior agreement exists, in the case of fiction.

I can demonstrate the Autobiographical Pact in action for you if I bring to mind the arc of publication of James Frey's 2003 book, A Million Little Pieces.  Marketed as a hard-hitting account of one man's descent into drug and alcohol addiction, his rehab experience and eventual recovery, the book had a mixed reception.  But when Oprah chose the book for her book club in 2005, sales skyrocketed and for 15 weeks it sat at number one on the New York Times best seller list.  All was well until January 2006, when it was revealed that much of the story was fabricated or altered from the initial experiences.  Though Frey maintained that the book was "the essential truth of my life," the book was branded as a "literary forgery" and Random House offered to refund the money of anyone who felt they had been defrauded by the book.  The book is now published with a statement of the author and the publisher as to its veracity, and it sits on the "fiction" rather than "non-fiction" shelves of many libraries.

Why does it matter that Frey fictionalized parts of his book?  No one would have cared if he had presented it as a work of fiction from the get-go (in fact, he shopped the manuscript around as a novel but got no takers, so he began calling it a memoir).  Readers cared because they had bought into the autobiographical pact, believing the book to be true, and when it turned out to be fiction, they felt betrayed.

I've been thinking about lies and lying lately and the pact that humans have with one another that they will tell the truth, and that if they are caught out in a lie, the liar will feel shame and embarrassment and will "take it back," the lie, that is.   With the current U.S. presidential campaign, one candidate or another is accused of lying every day, it seems, but so far I haven't seen much shame and embarrassment when someone is caught out in a lie.  (That's politics, I guess.)  Should we have the same pact with candidates for high office?

How does this connect to genealogy?  Stick with me, here.  As miners of the past, as family historians, we inevitably come across lies of various kinds:  tall tales, embellishments, fudging of the truth, and so on.  A woman hides the fact that she's been married before and had a child.  A man gets a minister to drop his two little daughters off at an orphanage and say their father is dead.  Stories of descent from royalty are exposed as false (I feel badly when those people find out the truth on Genealogy Road Show).  We've all come across truths that contradict what the authorities -- our parents, our grandparents -- have told us.

Maybe these lies didn't cause any great harm.  Maybe these lies had a tremendously negative effect on people -- the lie certainly did in the case of the two little girls dropped off at the orphanage.  Maybe the lies were never discovered in their time.  But how do we feel when the lies are exposed?  Do we feel betrayed?  Do we wish we could confront that ancestor and make them set things to right?  Do we become complicit in the lie by not exposing it, so as not to hurt family still alive?  Or do we bring out the truth and set the record straight?  How do we decide?

How have you answered these questions or addressed these issues in your family tree?

A Tale of Two Blogs: A Small Reckoning

A little over 5 years ago, I started blogging.  My first blog was "One Woman, Reinvented"; a couple of years away from full retirement, I had taken up photography and wanted to share my work and the skills I was learning.  I loved the writing and met so many interesting people through my new interest and my first blog.

A couple of years later, I was actually retired and while still enjoying photography, I had become deeply involved in genealogy.  After considering whether I could maintain two blogs, I decided to focus my attention on a new blog:  "Living in the Past:  A Family History."  At first, I expected the readers to not extend far beyond my family, but over time my readership has grown.  I've found things to share with other genealogists and other bloggers, and the response has been wonderful.

I became curious about how the two blogs compared.  Here's a small reckoning as of April 26, 2106:

One Woman, Reinvented

2-1/2 years, 175 posts, 41,875 pageviews

Top posts:

My Muse? Flora, Goddess of Flowers  1681 views
Is it cruel to keep cats indoors?  818 views
Okay, about bird poop . . .   506 views

Living in the Past

3-1/4 years, 212 posts, 50,636 pageviews

Top Posts

Lost in the Homeland Part 1:  Researching Genealogy in Germany  =  6922
Lost in the Homeland Part 2:  Researching Genealogy in Germany  =   722
Once You Open the Closet Door (A Mystery Solved)    =   596

The strong response to my "Lost in the Homeland" posts have led me to expand the information in an e-book that should be available soon.  The book is intended for beginning researchers in German genealogy and will be full of resources to help you on your way.

Leave me your email on the pop-up and I'll be happy to let you know when it's out!

Apr 20, 2016

Visiting an Ancestor

I've never been able to visit an ancestor's grave.  The cemeteries where my grandparents and great-grandparents were buried don't exist any more, and my own folks, as is the custom nowadays, were cremated.  So when I realized that on my trip to New Mexico I would have the opportunity to visit a relative's grave, I knew I had to stop.

Joseph B. Ortman Jr. was a first cousin of my father, but one that he never knew, because his own father was estranged from his family.  I've written about Joseph and his family before; his life was not easy.  His mother was committed to a mental hospital and stayed there for 30+ years, until her death.  His father worked on the railroad, so he was often gone, and Joseph was left in the care of two older ladies with whom he and his father boarded. 

Joseph had no siblings, and he neither married nor had children, so I wondered when, if ever, someone had visited his grave.  Because he had been in the Navy in WWII, he was entitled to be buried in a national cemetery, in Riverside, California.  I had the section and number of his grave, so I was all set to find him.

The cemetery itself is beautiful, with fountains, statues, and meticulously well-kept grounds.  It took a bit of driving around, but I found section 33 and set off to look for his marker.

Section 33

In this section there were well over 1,000 markers.  I started off with a map and the number of the marker, but when I looked at the numbers on the markers, they didn't make any sense to me in terms of the number I had.  So I walked down the rows for a while, and it seemed like they were in some kind of order of date of death (vaguely).  So I needed to walk back to the car, a long way, to look up on Ancestry what his date was.  At that point, I left the map in the car.

Looking for the dates turned out not to be an efficient way of going, because they were all mixed up.  But as I got farther back in terms of the dates, I realized that the numbers were beginning to correspond to the number I'd written on the map . . . which was back in the car.

So I hiked back to the car again.  I got the map and started back up the row where the numbers were high, and finally discovered the marker about 20 feet from where I'd been before.  Sigh.

I sat down on the grass and began to talk to him, and I was completely taken aback with how emotional I became.  I literally watered his grave with my tears, telling him how sorry I was about his mother and how sorry I was that no one had ever been to visit him before, and so on.  I stayed quite a while and felt a strong connection to his spirit.

I wish I could visit other cemeteries, but this one proved a very moving experience for me.  I hope that by honoring him, he will rest a bit easier.  I hope that's so.

Apr 14, 2016

On my way --

Off tomorrow on a solo trip -- mostly just fun with a little genealogy thrown in.

My first goal is Phoenix, but since I can't drive all the way to Phoenix in one day (I tried it to Las Vegas once and it about killed me), I'll be stopping over in lovely Pasadena for one night.  I've learned there's a "shabu-shabu" restaurant right across the street from the motel and so might give that a try.

Then off the next morning to my first genealogy stop:  the National Cemetery in Riverside, California.  This is my first trip to a cemetery to pay respects to a relative, in this case Joseph Bernard Ortmann, my father's cousin (whom my father never met).  Joseph was the son of my grandfather's brother, and by virtue of his having been a Navy WWII veteran, was laid to rest in a National Cemetery.  Because he was a man with no siblings who never married or had children that I have been able to discover, I'm guessing that he hasn't had any visitors in a while, maybe never.  He's a man I'm very curious about, and while I'm not expecting to gain any new insights from the visit, I'm looking forward to the stop.

Oh, why did my dad never know his cousin?  Because his father was estranged from his family, which meant that my father never knew his grandparents on that side, any of his eight uncles and aunts, or any of their children.  And also that he had a half-sister on the other side of the tree.  Family secrets, people.

From there I head to Phoenix, for the second big genealogical experience of the trip -- a visit with my cousin (my ONLY first cousin) to catch up, of course, but also to see what treasures she might have.  I'm bringing my scanner!  I'm hoping against all hope that she might have a couple of pictures that I don't have -- of our mutual great-grandparents, in particular.  Since her father was a pretty good family historian, I'm hoping that he wrote names on the backs of the pictures, as he did with me once when he visited us.

After two nights in Phoenix, I hit the road at 5 AM to make it to the Albuquerque airport by noon to pick up my New Mexico traveling companion, my apartment-mate from college days.  While it's not meeting up with an ancestor or relative, it is meeting up with someone who's such an important friend of my heart.  You know how it is when you meet up with someone you knew when you were young and not quite formed?  The years just fall away -- I'm really looking forward to seeing her.

From Albuquerque, we head up to Taos, where neither of us has been.

We spend four nights at El Monte Sagrado hotel, which looks just beautiful, and probably will take a day to drive to Santa Fe and other interesting places.

Then I retrace my route back home, with one happy coincidence -- as I go through Pasadena again, I'll be able to say hello to my watercolor teacher from Tuscany two years ago, who lives in Pasadena and will be at an art show that weekend.  Here's a link to her website:  Brenda Swenson.  You'll see some beautiful paintings there.

So . . . so much left to do today.  I'll be taking plenty of pictures and, I hope, doing a little painting or at least drawing along the way.  Stay tuned!

Apr 12, 2016

Long time no genealogy

I've been away for quite a long time.  I've been pondering the why's and wherefore's but haven't been able to come up with anything.  So I think I'll just pick up and forge ahead.

Linda Stufflebean over at Empty Branches on the Family Tree recently posted an interesting challenge -- six questions each requiring four answers.  I think I'll play along!  Here are the questions and my answers.
  1. What four places did my ancestors live that are geographically the farthest from where I live today?
Oberglogau, Silesia (now Poland -- the Langers)
Lohr, Germany (the Sieglers)
Hannover, Germany (many ancestors)
Bremerhaven, Germany (the Langer/Berneburgs)

2. What are the four most unusual given names in my family tree?

Cuntz D. Alte (Berneburg)
Hibbel (Heissenbuettel)
Hebelia (Bellmer)
Louis Fate (Earthman)
Ficke (Mehrtens)

3. What are the four most common given names in my family tree?
Johan/Joan/Johannes  (50)
Anna (40)
Mary/Maria (42)
William/Wilhelm (20)

4. Name four places on my ancestral home bucket list I’d like to visit:

Oberglogau, Silesia
Bremen, Germany
Bremerhaven, Germany
Erkeln, Germany

5. What are the four most unusual surnames in your family tree?

6. Which four brick walls would you most like to smash through?
Mabel Manson Ortmann (why was she committed to a state mental hospital?)
Sophie Bellmer  (was Christian Schulze the father of her daughter Christiane?)
Gustav Berneburg  (was his mother Hermine Kleeman or Hanne Schmidt?)
Hug ancestors (I'd like to get farther than I have so far)

And how have you been while I've been gone?

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