The rewards of genealogy

Last night, suffering from a long day and a pinch of insomnia, and frustrated with modern, medical science’s ability to put me to sleep, I posted an entry that wasn’t exactly an advertisement for genealogy. As it happens, I enjoy it immensely – whatever the reasons may be.

If I may, I’d like to bore you with one family member in particular I’ve been studying who fascinates me. Rev John M Rice (the link takes you to a page on my web site with details about his life, though it contains a few spoilers for the rest of this entry) is my great-great grandfather. He is my paternal grandmother’s paternal grandfather. Part of my fascination lies with a real, tangible connection I have with him. I’m sitting in his bed as I type this entry, a rope bed we think was made sometime in the mid 19th century. While my grandmother wasn’t old enough to remember her grandfather Rice when he died (she was two), she was fascinated by the stories her parents, brothers and sisters shared with her. My grandmother was much younger than her siblings, born very late in her parents lives. Her closest sibling was more than ten years older. Many of them were more like an aunt or uncle. According to my aunt, she loved this bed. It wasn’t an unhealthy love, like you’d love a living thing, but as far as belongings went, it was something she valued above many others. But my connection goes beyond owning something from my family’s history, or my grandmothers affinity for it. My grandmother inherited it when a sibling died, and I remember sleeping in it when we visited her house as a child. But there’s more.

My great-great grandfather Rice holds a special place in my heart, even though I never met the man, through the stories I’ve heard. He was a college student at Gettysburg College in 1860, and a seminarian at the Gettysburg Theological seminary in 1862- ordained in 1864. He wrote detailed accounts about being present for the famous Gettysburg battlefield commemoration. (I don’t have a copy or transcription of his letters and diary, but I know relatives who’ve read them, and I’m dying to get a copy. My aunt has promised me one.) His stories are endearing to me because the punch line of the story sounds like something that would happen to me. His account detailed, moving, and well written, but says nothing about the President being there. He missed it. That is SO me. When I was in high school my pastor leaned on me heavily to consider going to seminary myself. While I was honored, I didn’t think it was my calling. I’ve often wondered if it was something I could carry off, something I would have been good at or enjoyed; and it would have been particularly interesting to go the seminary in Gettysburg myself, following in my Rice ancestor’s footsteps. Shortly after being ordained, he and Hannah were missionaries in Africa. For all I know he could have been over there pushing Christianity and western culture on an indigenous people who needed/wanted neither. But I like to think he was over there with good intentions, trying to help the hungry… those not as fortunate as himself, and I wonder if he was the kind of man I’ve always aspired to be: someone who saw life as an opportunity to help people in need, who sometimes placed the needs of others above his own. His mission trip was cut short by Yellow Fever though. His diary supposedly notes he and Hannah learned the news of Lincoln being shot from a passing ship on the way home across the Atlantic.

These last couple weeks of genealogical mania, I’ve been scouring the web for information on John Rice (in between my data clean up efforts). It’s born fruit. I found a scanned copy of a book from the 1920s about the history of the seminary in Gettysburg. In it, I found a brief summary for each alumnus before 1920 – including my great-great grandfather.

I knew from various resources his wife’s name was Hannah Zeigler, but I was having trouble tracking down where she was from. But this Wednesday night I was up later than I wanted to be, and I found a transcribed newspaper section from The Adams Sentinel, containing the marriage announcement of John and Hannah. I knew (approximately) when they were married from prior research (within a few years), but I didn’t know exactly when or where. With this new piece of information, suggesting Hannah was from Gettysburg (they were likely married while John was a student), I was able to track down a Hannah M Zeigler, born the same year, from recently indexed census records from 1850, 60, and 70 from Gettysburg, giving me some pretty good evidence of who her parents were. Census records can be off, misspelling names and getting other data just plain wrong, but given that there weren’t any other Hannah (or Anna) Zeiglers in Gettysburg with the same birth date (or particularly close) in each of these censuses; plus the newspaper article and book excerpt, I’m pretty sure I’ve found my match. I’m stoked.

The famous battle occurred after they were married, so I don’t know if any records were lost, but my next step is to see if any vital records exist in Gettysburg (Adams Co, PA) to back this up.

It’s been a pretty exciting week – even if I’ve been feeling lousy for much of it. It’s been a huge pick me up when I really needed it.

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The meaning of roots

I’ve been doing a lot work on my family tree this week. I found a few new possible branches, but mostly I’ve been cleaning up, and there’s a lot of it left to do.

I do most of my research online, and one set of data lives there. Another set, my master copy, lives on my hard drive, mirrored on a second, AND backed up to a remote server.

Yes, I’m that paranoid.

You may see my problem already, but if not I’ll explain. By keeping two separate databases (one online and another on my hard drive), I sometimes update one but not the other. Usually it’s the online database that’s neglected, but not always. You may ask why it’s necessary to keep a copy online at all, but it has it’s advantages. By sharing my info I help other folks, and occasionally I get a message from a distant cousin I never knew existed, offering pictures, stories, and information I didn’t have. I wouldn’t make any of those connections without belonging to the online community.

So why have the database on my hard drive then? Simple. Trust. I trust me. I trust my backup scheme. I don’t trust a for-profit company with years of research. So I’m cleaning up this week, looking for data missing from either and resolving conflicts. It’s tedious work, but it’s a labor of love.

But some ask why. I ask myself too. Why? I thought about it a lot today, often when I should’ve been doing something else. My mind is like that. There’s just no stopping it when it sets it’s mind to something. There are the obvious reasons: fascination with the history, interest in where I come from, and the occasional surprise (though sometimes I could do without… like finding out I may be a 10th cousin of the Bush twins – though at least it’s through Barbara’s family, so that’s at least something). It also fills a void created by living in a migratory society. I never lived near my grandparents or their siblings. My grandparents died when I was young and we rarely (if ever) visited the others. Maybe the world of the last century is one that exists only in my mind, but I envision neighborhoods filled with extended family. I see folks gathering for big holiday celebrations, sharing stories and their shared history.

Living today, in Florida, severed from my roots in the northeast, I missed that sharing. I’ve tried to make up for it in the last few years, reaching out to family I’ve never met, or haven’t seen in thirty plus years. Mind you, I’m only thirty eight. Some haven’t returned my letters. Others reply but either don’t remember much due to age and disease, or are in the same boat I am. Some have been extremely helpful, but they’ve been rare.

More than anything though, I think I’m still trying to find out who I am.

And this is where I become a cliche: poor, middle class white man suffers identity crisis. Oh yeah, I can feel the pity flowing in.

Maybe it’s cliche for good reason. Maybe you feel the same way at times. I often feel surprised to find myself where I am today. A piece of me still feels weird to be married with two kids. It seems so unlikely. I still feel like that shy kid in school who didn’t have any friends, let alone GIRL friends. Anther piece feels weird to be working a full time job, paying bills… being (relatively) responsible. The summer between six and seventh grade I drove with my father to Pennsylvania to visit his parents. It gave us a lot of time to talk, and I wanted to talk about responsibilities. I wanted to know why he didn’t feel overwhelmed by them all. I’m sure he had a great answer, and I didn’t hear any of it. I was too busy being a sixth grader, having a panic attack about the responsibilities I’d face as an adult. I have no idea how I got here from there.

So I think (at least in part) I’ve been looking to my ancestors for my identity. But it occurs to me genealogy is good for many things, but not this. I am not my great-great grandfather. And let me get something straight right now: I’m definitely NOT my ninth cousin, once removed (dubya).

No one is me but me. I’ve have to decide who I am on my own.

Good God, I can’t believe it’s after 3am already. I hope sleep claims me soon. I wonder if I’m the only person in the world who’s immune to the effects of prescription sleep aids. Damn you Ambien! You too Lunesta! I’m not one to call people out in (semi) public, but YOU two are worthless. You hear ME? WORTHLESS!


Rods and cones

Call it generational bias. Blame it on the way history is taught in school (with one exception, in my case). The world before 1960 seems black and white. I hear it in the stories older generations tell.

It’s not, of course. The world isn’t just filled with gray, it’s filled with all the colors of the spectrum.

I’ve been fooling around with a birthday gift the last few days: a film scanner I’ve been lusting over to scan my grandfather’s slides (as in photography). I never thought color film was available on the consumer market until much later, but hidden in the stuff scavenged from my grandmother’s things was a box of one hundred color slides… taken between 1942 and 1944.

Seeing baby pictures of my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandparents, and half a dozen aunts and uncles (with a few greats to go around) in color has been a thrill.

I know, I’m easily duped, but pictures are a powerful medium. Seeing so many old pictures in black, white, sepia, and the silvery highlights of the really old ones contributed to my bias… my feelings that modern society tended to be morally superior.

Considering where we are, isn’t that sad?

I’d never admit it to you, but I think it’s always been there, looking down my nose with contempt on “the good old days.”

These pictures reminded me we’ve been seeing more than black and white for a long time. The capacity for critical thought goes back beyond the 1960s.

Even our ancestors had rods and cones.

Mom & grandma - 3 Mom and Grandma Conner

My grandmother Conner holds my three week old mother in the Fall of 1942

*If you’re out there Christy, I don’t want to hear about photosensitive ganglion cells.

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Have you seen me?


I don’t who I am.

I think I may be a Giese or a Petznick, but even that’s really just a guess (based on the stack of pictures I was in). As long as we’re guessing, I might as well add that someone suspects my family came to America from Germany sometime between 1881 and 1885 (according to US Census records). I’m told this same “someone” has spent months (not all at once) looking through immigration records and passenger rolls looking for a good match, but there were a whole bunch of folks with the name “Giese” arriving in New York at the same time, making it pretty much impossible. And it’s not like the boy Wilhelm’s first name, or date of birth, is helping much either. There were several.

It’s a little frustrating to see the care that went into preserving my picture: carefully wrapped up and protected from the elements – without a hint to suggest who I might be.


A navy blue suitcase

There’s an old suitcase that sits in the corner of my room. With the exception of a pocket watch and a small toolbox from my grandfather, and a grooming kit from my great-grandfather, it contains everything I own from my mother’s side of the family. Well, I use the word “own” loosely. I’ve actually borrowed it from my mother (semi-permanently – she hasn’t been around to ask for it back). It contains letters, postcards, unmarked photographs, obituaries, and an old slide rule (from my grandfather’s days at the GE lab). It’s a growing treasure of information, containing all the things I’ve found rooting around my parents’ house, looking for stuff my mother forgot about years ago.

This weekend I was finally getting around to going through the latest batch of stuff I found, sorting through dates and family relationships revealed in old obituaries, and doing online searches to connect the dots. That’s how I came across Uncle Charles’ obituary in his local newspaper last night. A few weeks ago I learned that my mother has a cousin that’s still alive, and my father sends her a Christmas card every year. That’s also when I learned my mother’s Uncle Charles, my grandmother’s brother, died earlier this year. (I’d thought he’d passed away years ago.)

It may not surprise you to learn that I’m the sentimental member of the immediate family. My wife’s the strong, independent one, while I’m the one that keeps things. Some of it’s odd, like the ticket stubs from movies, concerts, and sports events (including every college football game during my UF years). Some of it’s cherished and uniquely irreplaceable, like the letter my grandparents (paternal) wrote me when I was born, stored away in a safe deposit box with some savings bonds they bought, neither of which I knew existed until I graduated from college, years after their passing. Reading of their unconditional love so many years later, while knowing them and having fond memories of our time shared, is something I can’t adequately explain/express. It may not shock you to learn that although Uncle Charles was a man I never met, or if I did I was very young, I took the news of his passing hard.

Looking through the old family pictures, slowly piecing together who they were, discovering my roots in the process, has been both gratifying and saddening. All of them look like fascinating people, people I’ll never really know. I wish I could reach through time, talk to them, learn their stories, introduce myself, my kids, let them know someone still cares, let them know someone is grateful for the rich foundation they’ve laid.

That’s the part of genealogy I find hard. All of it seems so tantalizingly close, yet ultimately forever out of reach. That’s what I was thinking about when I read my great-uncle Charles’ obituary last night.

Another letter has gone out in the mail, to try and connect with his family. I just can’t get over the fact it’s a couple months too late. By all accounts it appears Uncle Charles had a large, loving family, so he probably didn’t need the affection of a distant nephew he didn’t know.

No, the loss* is all mine.

*Again, I use a word loosely. His loss is something I’m sure his wife, children, grandchildren, and friends feel deeply. I’m just some putz from across the country who’s prone to fits of self-pity.

Gentlemen, start your wet-vacs!

Yeah, I’m sure you want to read a letter I’m sending to a stranger in Vermont. Although, if you’ve been reading for a while and you’re still coming back, maybe you won’t mind so much.

I wonder if I’m overdoing the “complete stranger bit?”


Dear (concealed),

If I were you I’d be wondering who I am. I’m pretty sure you have no idea who I am, and to be frank, I’m not at all sure who you are either.

I should explain.

A little over six years ago my grandmother died. She was many things: generous, kind, and loving; but she wasn’t talkative. While she was alive I remember trying many times to draw her out, to tell me something about her family in Vermont. Every time I asked she only made vague references to her brother (hidden), his wife (blacked out), how they were nice, and how she got lots of maple syrup. I learned a little more about her family after she died when I took up genealogy as a hobby, and went through some of the old pictures and letters she left me; but it wasn’t much. I knew she had more family but I didn’t know if they were still alive; and even if they were, I didn’t know where to start looking.

This weekend I was going through some of my parent’s old stuff and I found another box of letters, documents, and pictures. Among them was a collection of cards from a (cloaked) (with pictures of young children, who I won’t name now – just in case I’ve got the wrong person) with no return address, but postmarked 15 odd years ago from (hidden), VT. I knew a few people from my grandmother’s side of the family came from (masked) from my genealogy research (albeit a hundred ago)… so I looked up the (shielded) phone listings for a (obscured)… and took a chance that you might be the same (screened) that addressed my grandmother as “Aunt Betty.”

If you are who I think you are, this may help explain who I am: my mother’s name is (somebody get me a thesaurus) and my grandmother was (not for you to know). If I’ve got the right person, I’m guessing you might be a daughter/grand-daughter of (some dude you don’t know). It’s also possible that I’ve got the wrong person, completely misinterpreted your relationship to my grandmother, or really creeped you out – me seeming to be some strange long-distance stalker from Florida.

I hope I’ve got the right person, and you don’t think it’s too strange being contacted this way. If you are (the right person), I hope you wouldn’t mind writing me back. For a long time I’ve felt like I’ve been missing half my family’s history, and I’d love to hear anything you might be willing to share.

If you’d feel more comfortable writing back, having seen who I am, feel free to have a look at my family web site: mykauffman.com. Otherwise, I can be reached by email at: (it’s already listed elsewhere so why am I hiding it now?), or by snail mail at: (no chance)

In the interim, thanks for taking the time to read this letter from a complete stranger… and thanks in advance for considering my request.

With warm regards,



Me, me… scared little me

First of all, I want to get one thing straight. I don’t mean this as a woe is me entry. Besides a few chronic worries, life has been good.

All right, now that I’ve got the disclaimer out of the way… the last 24 hours have been interesting, but for reasons that no one but me is fully aware. You could read that sentence and conclude (or at least suspect) that I’ve taken my own psychotic break from reality. It would be a fair guess, but it’d be wrong. But come back and play again soon! In the mean time, we’ve got some lovely parting gifts for you.

This post.

O.K., lousy gift, I know.

I’ve been doing some thinking about family and what the word home means to different people. These are not topics that are unique to me; not by a long shot. Admittedly, I’m a culturally retarded American, but from my view it seems like moving from one place to another is The American Story. I feel like I play a bit part in the perpetual American diaspora. We settle, we have kids, we move on. We’re never satisfied with where we are, so we move on in search of those greener pastures, only they never seem to get greener – they just keep getting different.

My family isn’t a perfect example. After all, my kids live in a city with two sets of grandparents – not to mention and aunt, uncle and two cousins within an hour drive. At the same time, no one besides my kids were born here. My wife and my mother are only children, and my father had just one sister (with one nephew). So even if we did all live in one place we wouldn’t take up much space.

All of this explains why I’m so interested in genealogy. I want to belong to something. The only problem with genealogy is it can be too dry. Most often it involves names and dates, facts and figures. I can get all kinds of information from newspapers, census records, and vital statistics offices… but none of this tells me who these people were. It doesn’t tell me their story.

I love my family, but I want to know more. Due to my mother’s condition she remembers little of her family. Her mother, when she was alive, didn’t like to talk about herself. My maternal grandfather died when I was very young, so he was never around to ask. This means half of my heritage is missing. On top of our relative isolation, I feel like I’ve been cheated out of half a family history. I know lots of names and dates, but I know nothing of who they were.

I’ve been thinking about all this because I found something this weekend – Friday night to be exact. I saw a collection of my grandmother’s things at my parent’s house. With my father’s blessing, I did a little ransacking. I found a bunch of cards addressed to my grandmother, referring to her as “aunt.” The name signed on the card is one I’ve never heard before. The cards were all at least 15 years old and didn’t include a return address, but they had a postmark from a small town in Vermont. A quick search of the online phone directories produced a possible mailing address.

I’ve spent all evening wondering if I should write this person a letter. I know my grandmother had a brother, and her family came from Vermont. I know from my genealogy research that some of my ancestors had lived in this same town. Still, I’m hesitant to take the leap. I’m worried about writing a perfect stranger a letter and sounding like a kook (at best), or a deranged long-distance stalker (at worst). Yet the possible pay-off seems to good to pass up. I could find that missing half of my family.

I’ve got the letter all typed up. Now I just have to find the courage to mail it.

Slow and steady

Today was the first day since the chemotherapy started that I can honestly say I enjoyed. No, the cancerboy isn’t back to 100 percent; not even 75 if truth be told. There was this unfortunate incident with a plunger and a toilet that I don’t even want to talk about, other than to say the ordeal left me physically drained.

Although, working out your plumbing related issues with the business end of a big stick could do that to anyone.

The secret to today’s upswing was striking a bit of genealogical gold. I’ve been doing a little work trying to find/obtain documentation to back up my prior research… and today several pieces fell together. I had a pretty strong indication that a few of my ancestors fought in the American Revolution, but I’d had trouble finding the documents to prove it. Today it all fell together.

My wife thinks this is positively wonderful, and my daughter should apply for membership with the Daughters of the American Revolution as soon as she’s eligible (you have to be 18). I’m not sure I share her enthusiasm. Maybe it’s just me, but the whole thing seems a little pretentious… not to mention the group has a history of racial discrimination.

In any case, I’m happy as a clam just knowing.