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Genealogical Jackpot

Genealogists keep an ancestor’s age in mind when looking for records. A standard question is whether a man was eligible to have served in one of our nation’s wars. If so, did he apply for a pension?

Pension application files can be rich sources of genealogical information. People wanted those pensions. They provided every document they could to strengthen their case. The government saved it all.

I had never been lucky enough to find one of these for any of my family members, until now. Last week I located an application filed by Bridget Ryan, widow of my second great-grandfather Daniel Ryan (1829-1863).

Daniel enlisted for a three-year term of service in the Union Army from Illinois in 1861. He died in Louisiana two years later from disease.

The Fold 3 subscription database has digitized copies of Civil War pension applications, and I was able to find Bridget’s. It is 76 pages long, due to some controversy.

The packet is chock-full of interesting documents:

  1. Certificates for Daniel’s marriages to each of his two wives.
  2. Catholic priest affidavits attesting to the baptisms of Daniel’s sons with each of the wives.
  3. Verification of Daniel’s military service from the U. S. Adjutant General office.
  4. Verification of Daniel’s death from the U. S. Surgeon General office.
  5. Guardianship information for the first son.
  6. Paperwork from the first son contesting the right of the widow and second son to receive a pension.
  7. Place of residence for the widow and the first son.

It would have taken a long time to collect these documents individually. Finding all of them in one convenient place saved me a lot of time.

Daniel suffered an untimely death during the Civil War. He left behind a tangled family life. The pension application based on his service gave this descendant a means to begin unraveling it.

The 1840 U.S. Census Revisited

Except for my Brick Wall ancestors, I thought I had completed all the U. S. census work on my family. Then I read an article by Kathy Petlewski, MSLS, in the NGS Magazine and found that I had overlooked something in the 1840 U.S. census.

This was the last census that listed only heads of household by name. Everyone else was represented with just a tick mark. Yet, unbeknownst to me until now, this census record had a second page. In 1840 the federal government collected information about veterans, military pensioners, and their dependents.

It listed the name of anyone in the household who was receiving a pension regardless of whether that person was the head of household or not. How did I miss this? Was any military information recorded for my family?

Some of my paternal ancestors lived in the United States in 1840, so I decided to take a look at these third and fourth great-grandparents:

  1. Thomas Reed (1783-1852) lived at Ashmore, Illinois. No pensioners resided in this household. Thomas’ son Caleb (1818-1903), my ancestor, lived with him in 1840 and was represented by a tick mark.
  2. John Carter (1790-1841) also lived at Ashmore. He was not a veteran, either.
  3. Rhoda Hall Dunbar (1784-1850) was a widow in Stow, Ohio by 1840. Her husband and my ancestor Benjamin E. Dunbar was a veteran of the War of 1812 but had died in 1831. His militia service lasted only 3 days, and Rhoda was not receiving a widow’s pension.
  4. Gershom Hall (1760-1844) was Rhoda’s father and a Revolutionary War veteran living in Harwich, Massachusetts. He was not receiving a pension.

I have been unable to locate some of my Brick Wall ancestors on the 1840 U.S. census:

  1. Daniel Sherman (abt. 1800-bef. 1870). He resided mostly in Kentucky, but two of his children, Eliza (b. abt. 1838) and Thomas (my ancestor b. 1841) were reportedly born somewhere in Ohio. The only Daniel Sherman family I have found on the 1840 census for Ohio does not perfectly match my Sherman family. No one there was receiving a pension.
  2. John Davis Riddle (1821-1896). He may have been living in Ohio in 1840, but I have not found a census record for him. Perhaps he was still a tick mark. I do not know the names of his parents nor whether they were living in 1840.

My dad’s remaining ancestral families, the Ryans and Stilgenbauers, arrived in the United States after 1840. My mother’s Scandinavian family did not immigrate until the 20th century. No use looking for any of them on the 1840 census.

I thought I was on to something when I learned about page 2 of the 1840 census records. Unfortunately, no one in my family made the list.

Help Is at Hand

During the pandemic we have needed to do most of our genealogical research from home. When online databases contain the records we need, all goes well. When those records are digitized but locked and inaccessible from a home computer, things do not go so well.

Family Search has many agreements whereby a researcher can look at a record only from a computer at a Family History Center. Yet these Centers have been closed for months.

I experienced the problem again when I needed the marriage record for Richard Ryan and Catherine Shea who were married in Illinois in 1879. Family Search has abstracted the record, but the image of the record was locked. Every genealogist knows it is better to look at the image of a record than an abstract of it.

I wondered whether to write to the county for this record when I remembered hearing that Family Search has instituted a free lookup service for those records we cannot view from home. I decided to try it.

Using an online request form (https://www.familysearch.org/blog/en/library-lookup-service-fhl/), I filled in as many of the fields as I could. One line asked for the image number, but how would I know that when I cannot search the Illinois marriage images? I left that line blank. For all the other fields, I provided as much information as I could to make sure the researcher could zero in on the correct record.

Once I submitted the form, I received a message saying I would receive a reply within two weeks.

Imagine my surprise when I opened my e-mail the next morning. There was a message from Family Search with the requested record attached. Not just the marriage record, but also the marriage license and an affidavit confirming the parties’ eligibility to be married. I also received the researcher’s notes. That’s what I call service.

I am delighted that Family Search has come up with a way for us to gain access to a closed record. The marriage return in this case contained the signatures of Richard Ryan and Catherine Shea.

Now I can compare Richard’s signature found here to the one on his homestead application to make sure I have the right man. No abstract of a record would allow me to do this.

Until the Family History Centers fully reopen, we are fortunate that Family Search is offering this outstanding service.

 

A New Branch of the Tree

A genealogical discovery upended my research plan for the summer. This month a couple of DNA tests revealed the identity of my previously unknown great-grandfather.

Of course, I dropped everything else to do some research on him. He lived much of his life in the 20th century and left many records:

  1. U. S. census. I found him for every decennial, but his first appearance, in 1860, was not straightforward. He lived with his maternal grandfather that year and was listed with that surname, not his own.
  2. Newspapers. My ancestor homesteaded in Hayes County, Nebraska. The local papers have been digitized and are available on Newspapers.com. His name appears several times when he bought or sold land and engaged in political activities. He had on obituary which says nothing about my grandmother.
  3. Land records. This man long was a candidate for my great-grandfather because he had legal dealings with my great-grandmother, Laura Riddle (1853-1933). He served as a witness for her homestead application, and he bought land from her. He lived next door.
  4. FindAGrave.com. This website links my ancestor to other members of his family. This gives me a roadmap to follow in searching for primary sources about him and his parents.

My next step is to follow up on those clues and locate some original records. This week I submitted to the State of Nebraska an application for my ancestor’s 1925 death certificate. I hope it includes the names of his parents to confirm the information on posted on FindAGrave.

The newspaper carried a notice of petition for probate of his estate, so I will contact Hayes County for a copy of that file. As far as I know, he never acknowledged or supported my grandmother as his daughter, but I will not know for sure until I look at his probate case to see if it mentions her.

My ancestor had a homestead, and I need to request a copy of his file. Did my great-grandmother reciprocate by serving as a witness for him? Were women allowed to do that in the 1890’s?

All this leaves me with a big unanswered question. Should I contact my ancestor’s other descendants, the half cousins whose DNA we match? They may not know that we even exist. Have they looked at their match lists and wondered who we are and how we are related?

This out-of-wedlock event took place in 1895-96, a long time ago. Perhaps enough time has passed for the shock such news creates to be softened.

I would love to know whether my grandmother looked like her father’s family. I long to ask them for a copy of a photo of him if they have one. I was thrilled to find a portrait of my dad’s half-cousin posted on his FindAGrave site, and I thought I could see a family resemblance between him and some of my grandmother’s children.

My newly found ancestor holds the key to 12.5% of my heritage. Filling in this blank space on my family tree is so satisfying.

Re-living My Childhood

Last week my husband/tech advisor and I took a vacation to the Black Hills of South Dakota. We stayed in a cabin in Custer State Park. I had not been to that region in a couple of decades.

The area just north of there used to be familiar territory for me because my grandparents lived in Rapid City. My parents were married there, and I was baptized there. My family spent a week or two there most summers.

We would take in all the local sites during those visits—Mt. Rushmore, Storybook Island, Reptile Gardens, Dinosaur Park, Canyon Lake, and Keystone. I took my first and only helicopter ride when I was a young teenager.

On this trip we stayed in the Custer area, not Rapid City. We drove all around the park and saw bison, wild turkeys and donkeys, deer, vultures, and a coyote. One day we hiked around Sylvan Lake. Another day we looked at the stockade on French Creek near where gold was discovered in 1874.

Visiting the Black Hills again brought back many good memories of childhood vacations. My family is all gone from that area now, so I do not get there often. I am glad I had the chance to visit that beautiful area again this year.

Genealogy Databases Reveal a Life

Genealogical research has changed since the last century. More and more information continues to be available online. Nowadays I can fill my days doing research from home.

For my recently discovered turn-of-the-last century ancestor, I have been amazed at the amount of information I could collect about his life in a short time without leaving the house or mailing a letter to the county. A few databases contain enough information for me to create a good profile of his life:

  1. FindAGrave.com. My ancestor’s cemetery marker has been photographed and posted here. Someone added biographical information and links to monuments for a parent and a child.
  2. Ancestry.com. Here I found both state and federal census records that offer my ancestor’s place of residence and the composition of his household.
  3. Newspapers.com. This site has a searchable collection of county newspapers from my ancestor’s lifetime. I learned a bit about his daily life from news items describing his travels, land transactions, and political activities. I also found his 1925 obituary.
  4. Glorecords.blm.gov. The Bureau of Land Management’s general land office records give me access to my ancestor’s homestead file and tell me the location of some of the land he owned.

In days gone by, I would have needed to write numerous letters and visit repositories, courthouses, and cemeteries to gather this much data. It would have taken months.

Today, once this man’s identity was discovered through a DNA test (another technological advance in itself), I was able to use 21st century technology to compile a tremendous amount of information about him in just a few days.

The Mystery Man and the DNA Test

Well, well, well. That famous genealogy serendipity has struck again.

As I pondered taking an Ancestry DNA test seeking a match to the family of the Irish widower I suspect to be my great-grandfather, I received an e-mail from a sibling.

Guess who just took a DNA test at Ancestry? Guess who has a close DNA match to the great-grandsons of the Irish widower?

I think we have found the ancestor whose identity remained hidden for 125 years. An ancestor from whom my sibling and I each receive 12.5% of our DNA.

I can finally begin to fill in that huge empty space on my family tree. I have a lot of research to do.

A Step Closer to the Mystery Man

The identity of my great-grandfather remains unknown. Grace Riddle Reed (1896-1976), “Grandma Grace”, was born to her single mother Laura Riddle (1853-1933) on a homestead near Palisade, Nebraska. Grandma claimed not to know who her father was, and if other family members did know, they weren’t talking.

Over the years I have scoured the Nebraska records looking for a clue to the man’s identity. The kind folks at the genealogy center in McCook finally counseled that my best hope is probably a DNA match.

As I have waited for that, I have assembled some evidence that might help when a match arrives, if it ever does:

  1. Laura acquired government land three times between 1885 and the early 1900’s. These transactions coincide with the time during which Grandma Grace was born. I have assembled the names of all the men who served as witnesses for Laura and to whom she sold land.
  2. I have created a map of the neighborhood where Laura lived in 1900 and located a census list of the names of the neighbors.
  3. I continue to analyze my Dad’s DNA matches. His ethnicity estimate includes quite a bit of Irish that I cannot account for in other family lines. One of Laura’s long-time neighbors and associates was an Irish widower, so I constructed a family tree for him, just in case.

Dad’s closest DNA match, other than members of the immediate family, is a Nebraska woman who was born about the same time he was. She was adopted from a foundling home and does not know her birth family. The DNA testing company surmises that she and Dad are second cousins.

Over the years, I have worked with her family trying to identify a common ancestor. We determined that he or she likely lived in the McCook, NE area. We tentatively eliminated the woman’s maternal line based on some bare-bones information from her birth certificate. This left us to focus paternal lines, perhaps my mystery man’s.

Last week the family contacted me again. They have a new DNA match, and they wanted to know if I recognized the surname. I did!

The Irish widower had grandchildren with that name.

After my initial excitement, I took stock of where we stand now. The purported second cousin has a DNA match to someone with the same surname as the Irish widower’s family. The location and timelines work out to support kinship with him. If we, too, are related to that same Irish family, the woman and Dad would be first cousins once removed, a similar degree of relationship as second cousin.

I checked Dad’s DNA match lists again and was disappointed that no one with the newly-identified surname appears there. I need to ask the woman’s family which testing company showed their new match.

Could it have been on Ancestry? We have no test results on file there. That company twice rejected Dad’s saliva sample.

I have not tested there. Maybe it is time I did. They are a bigger pond to fish. Perhaps members of the Irish widower’s family are in their database. The only problem is that I am another generation removed from our mystery ancestor and less likely to have a meaningful match.

Still, it is worth a try. If I, too, could show a DNA match with the family of my great-grandmother’s Irish friend, the mystery would be solved.

 

Benjamin Dunbar of Halifax, MA

The Dunbar family in Massachusetts was my ancestral line. The last head of my family to live there was Benjamin E. Dunbar (1776-1831). I have documented his adult life, and now I want to know more about his birth family.

Ann Theopold Chaplin, in The Descendants of Robert Dunbar of Hingham, Massachusetts (1992), gives us the bare outline. His father, also named Benjamin, was born in 1749, and he died before 1779. His son and namesake Benjamin probably had no memory of him. There was one other child, a younger brother named Hosea. The mother was named Hannah. This family lived at Halifax.

I have learned that Hosea eventually moved to Vermont where he married Rachel White. They settled first in upstate New York and then went on to Lenawee County, Michigan.

In the meantime, my ancestor Benjamin E. Dunbar had gone to Cape Cod where he married Rhoda Hall and set up a saltworks. Shortly before he died, he moved his family to Summit County, Ohio. His widow and three of his daughters (Susannah Cutting, Olive Riddle, and Laura Fuller) later settled three counties away from Hosea’s family in St. Joseph County, Michigan.

None of this sheds any light on the life of the senior Benjamin Dunbar of Halifax.

Chaplin’s book tells us that he was married twice, and Hannah was the second wife. The first was Ruth Pratt whom he married 4 March 1772 at Halifax. I decided to begin my quest for details about Benjamin Dunbar by searching for information about her.

This week I was unable to identify her in any other Massachusetts records although an online search turned up four possibilities:

  1. Ruth Pratt born 24 November 1740 at Bridgewater to David and Ann Pratt. This Ruth probably was the same Ruth who married Obadiah Bates on 27 May 1762 at Bridgewater.
  2. Ruth Pratt born 13 May 1742 at Middleboro to Phineas and Sarah Pratt. This Ruth married John Rickard on 24 May 1764.
  3. Ruth Prat born 1 October 1745 at Plymouth to William Prat and Mary Young. The family tree posted on Ancestry.com for this family says they relocated to North Carolina while Ruth was still a child.
  4. Ruth Pratt b. 1752 at East Bridgewater, d. Dec. 1775 at Halifax. Several family trees on Ancestry claim this is the woman who married Benjamin E. Dunbar, but none provide any sources. Still, these dates are new information not provided in Chaplin’s book, and this Ruth matches the person I seek.

I think I can rule out the first three women as the wife of my Benjamin. Perhaps I can find some corroborating evidence in the Bridgewater and Halifax records showing that Ruth #4 was Benjamin’s first wife. I do not want to take the word of an unsourced, online family tree.

Finding information about women, particularly during Colonial times, presents a challenge. I may not be able to find anything more about Ruth Pratt. Yet a thorough research on Benjamin requires that I look at all the people in his life.

The Return to In-Person Meetings

Since early last year, our local genealogical and lineage societies have met virtually on Zoom. This summer, many that I belong to will meet in person for the first time in many months.

  1. Colorado Genealogical Society. Next week the Lunch Bunch from this group will gather at a Mexican food restaurant to eat together for the first time since the pandemic began. Regular meetings of the Society will continue on Zoom at least until the remodeling project at the Denver Public Library is completed several months from now. Once the library reopens, this group may continue to have some guest speakers appear on Zoom because many members and speakers like the convenience of participating from home. The Board has decided to continue using Zoom for its meetings to avoid arranging for meeting space and to enable people who live further away to serve on the Board.
  2. General Society of Mayflower Descendants, Colorado Chapter. Last weekend we all enjoyed the annual summer picnic at Castlewood Canyon State Park. This picnic normally takes place at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, but that facility remains closed to the public. The state park provided us with a lovely setting overlooking the canyon. My husband/tech advisor and I hiked the nature trail along the rim when the picnic ended.
  3. Highlands Ranch Genealogical Society. This group normally meets at the local Family History Center, but that facility has not yet re-opened. This Society has no summertime meetings.
  4. Sons of Norway. We already met in person for a picnic in May will do so again in August. This group just received word that our Lutheran church meeting place is open again for our monthly Lodge meetings. The first one of those will be in September. I serve on the SofN Board, and I hope those meetings will continue on Zoom. The genealogy study group has decided to remain on Zoom to make it easier for people from other Lodges to join in.

As the pandemic ebbs, the genealogy world will look a little different. We have learned that we need not hold all meetings in person to remain viable.

I hope these clubs can find a balance between virtual and in-person meetings. Virtual meetings offer convenience and the opportunity for faraway people to participate. They eliminate the need to schedule and pay for meeting rooms. They save on commute time.

Face-to-face meetings enable us to build and maintain personal connections. Many people join genealogical and lineage societies because of the social opportunities they provide. We do not want to lose that.

Our group leaders have a new tool in virtual meetings, and they must use it wisely as our nation reopens. A good mix would be nice.