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.


They came on a truck

A few months ago life presented us with a rare opportunity. My aunt was moving to a smaller place and couldn’t keep all of her furniture. We got a call, asking us if we wanted it – otherwise she would have to sell it or give it away. Normally Cheryl would answer a question like this with an unqualified and unequivocal: “No, we’ve already got too much stuff.”

It became my mission in life to change her mind.

It was my aunt’s furniture, but she wasn’t the original owner. Neither were the previous owners, nor the ones before them.

In the early to mid 1800s, the Kauffmans settled in Walker Township, PA. They built a house and made a home. They made more than one actually, but one in particular stands out. It was never more than a small family farm, but I always knew it as the Kauffman family farm – a focal point for my family’s history – in a country that doesn’t have much more (in terms of time). I’ve only been there a handful of times, the last more than twenty years ago, but I look back on them now as almost religious experiences. In its later years, as fewer people lived at the farm, some of the original belongings at the house scattered. Quite a bit ended up at my grandparent’s house, mixed in with some old Rice family furniture (my grandmother’s family).

My aunt got it all (or most anyway) when my grandmother moved into a nursing home. Now I was getting a turn. (To be fair, I didn’t have to do much convincing. Cheryl knew it meant a lot to me. I’m very lucky, in many ways.)

The furniture arrived Wednesday afternoon, after weeks of anticipation.

We’re still making room for it all, but it’s exciting – and a little scary. No one in my family lives in a house that could be mistaken for a museum. Furniture gets used, and I’m afraid of being the one to break something after over 150 years of service.

The rope bedNow we have an old rope bed, the same one I slept in when I visited my grandparents as a child. My great-great grandfather Rice (or someone in his immediate family) was probably sleeping in it around the time Florida became a state, before the Civil War. A dresser, dining room table, and (buffet like) cabinet came with it – among other things. Some of it was made by my great-great grandfather Kauffman.

I’m just as excited as ever to have it, but the little boy in me who lets anxiety get the better of him feels the weight of responsibility – the keeper of family history. I had a few small pieces already. When my grandfather died he left me some of the small tools used by the early Kauffmans of Walker Township, but it was different. Old tools can be safely and easily stored, not that anyone has much use for 150 year old planer.

The grain binYou’d think having children would make me used to responsibility. After all, it is just stuff, right? I’ve never cared much about my stuff – with a couple of exceptions, but these are not like a television or computer designed for obsolescence. A grain bin finished with milk paint, built by my great-great grandfather Kauffman, sits in my family room. It’s basically a tall brown box. I’ve had it less than a week and it already means more to me than my bike. A month ago I didn’t know what milk paint was. I get chills and a little choked up lying on the bed, thinking about my grandparents, the time I spent with them, and the family I never met who sat where I lie now. The forks in my family tree suddenly feel like a straight line.

Is it still just stuff?

I’m not quite into the idolatry realm, or even valuing objects more than people, but I suddenly feel like I have more to lose. I like having a home and I’d be upset if we lost it, but I don’t think it would have been an emotional loss – assuming the people in my life were ok. I can’t say that now.

The buffetI can’t decide whether it’s unhealthy to place this kind of value in things. Granted, this is different than a desire to accumulate things for their own sake. These things have come to be more than they were, by what they’ve come to represent: family, loved ones, shared history… and yet… none depend on the thing. If the bed goes up in flames I still have family, loved ones, and shared history.

I think I’m ok as long as I DON’T start to value them more than the people in my life. We’re allowed to let things make us happy, right?

Maybe emotional attachment to the things we have isn’t as bad as lust for the things we don’t, and I’m confusing the two. Are we (in general) a disposable society relative to other parts of the world? Do we make fewer emotional connections to things, with a perpetual eye for the greener grass? Maybe valuing some things, depending on what they are, makes us less superficial, not more.

Maybe, in my typical fashion, I’ve WAY over-thought this.