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Decluttering the Genealogy Office

December finds me taking a hiatus from active genealogical research. I devote the time instead to finishing up my research project for the year and cleaning up my office.

Now that January has arrived, I have a less cluttered workspace. Over the holidays, I worked to get rid of some materials I no longer need:

  1. Our office worktable had several stacks of work in progress. I admit they were all mine. I discarded or filed most of them, and now we have some clear space available.
  2. Many years ago, I joined a couple of genealogical societies that published monthly or quarterly newsmagazines. I saved them all. Last year I realized that much of the material in these magazines was time sensitive and of no use today. I went through these back issues, preserved the articles worth keeping, and discarded the rest. This freed up some valuable shelf space in the office.
  3. Several years ago, I inherited a cousin’s research library and work. The books sit on shelves, and file cabinets hold her research papers. And then there is The Box. Full of miscellaneous material, it sits on the office floor. I have begun working through it to file or discard its contents. Before long, I will be able to remove the empty box from our office.

My office remains stuffed with genealogical material despite this effort. I simply have too much, and many things from the cousin relate to her family, not mine. I need to get rid of it, and I have a plan to deal with that.

Instead of waiting until next December to resume the decluttering, I plan to go through the office systematically. Taking one drawer, one shelf, or one notebook at a time, I will work on purging something of the contents every day.

I wonder what my office will look like next December.

Irish Jane

Now that the new year has begun, a new research project beckons.

For the first time, I will attempt to document the lives of some of my Irish ancestors. First up, Jane Lawless (d. 1853).

I learned Jane’s name from my great-grandfather’s marriage license. She was his mother. Further investigation reveals her marriage to Daniel Ryan at Peoria, IL in 1851. Daniel’s Civil War pension file confirms this and gives me the year of her death.

Jane’s name, if she is indeed the same person, appears on only one U. S. census record, 1850. At that time, she lived in the Peoria household of the man I presume was her father, Thomas Lawless, along with several other children. As we know, the 1850 census does not spell out family relationships, so I need some other evidence that Thomas was the father of Jane.

I located an 1849 ship passenger list from Ireland showing a Lawless family that looks much like the one on the 1850 census. Jane and several other children sailed on the Home with Thomas Lawless, but again no family relationships are specified.

Find A Grave records for Thomas and some of the other members of his household tell me the family originated in County Louth, Ireland. That County has a baptism record for Jane Lawless, born to Thomas Lawless and Bridget Hamill in 1826.

Is Jane, daughter of Thomas and Bridget, the same Jane who sailed to America in 1849, and the same Jane who married Daniel Ryan in 1851? A birth year conflict remains to be resolved. The baptized baby Jane was born in 1826. The ship passenger Jane was 20 years old in 1849 with an implied birth year of 1829. The young woman on the census was 21, again with an implied birth year of 1829.

I need some more information about Jane before I can make the claim that all these records refer to the same person. I have found no death information for Jane other than a mention in her husband’s pension application file. She died long before the state of Illinois began keeping death records. I plan to check whether there are any county-level records. Jane has no FindAGrave memorial, so I need to look for a church death record and a burial record for her. One of these could provide more information about her.

The Thomas Lawless I believe to be my Jane’s father outlived her. Perhaps he left a will that mentioned her son. That would link the generations together.

Thomas passed away in LaSalle County, Illinois in 1870. Family Search has the LaSalle county probate records digitized, but they are locked. Earlier this week I submitted a lookup request to find out whether Thomas Lawless had an estate that was probated.

Once I have exhausted these research ideas for Jane, my next step will be to document the lives of all the people I believe to be Thomas’ children and Jane’s siblings. One of them may have left behind more clues that can knit this family together better.

Before I take off and try to do research on a family in County Louth, I want to make sure I have the right one.


2022 Arrives

Another year has arrived. What will it bring?

I look forward to another year of rewarding research, involvement in lineage societies, and the upcoming Palatines to America conference in Denver.

What is on your genealogy agenda?

Happy New Year!

Fading Christmas Traditions

The Nordic immigrants in my family arrived in America in the early 20th century. They brought with them their way of celebrating Christmas.

In this tradition, families gathered on Christmas Eve to share holiday food and exchange gifts. Santa Claus (Julenisse in Norway and Joulupukki in Finland) would knock on the door to leave a special gift for each child in the household.

The next morning, on Christmas Day, these devout people attended their Lutheran church to mark the Savior’s birth.

I have always loved celebrating the Christmas holiday this way, but it is becoming harder as the years go by. The Scandinavians have assimilated into the American way of life, and their former practices have given way to the dominant culture.

Yet even as most people seem to have switched to opening Christmas gifts in the morning on the 25th, I would rather attend church then. This presents a problem for me because most Lutheran churches no longer hold a service on Christmas Day. On the day before Christmas, they bend over backwards to have services all day and evening, and then tell you to stay home on Christ’s birthday.

This year my own congregation has decided to follow the new pattern and skip a Christmas Day service. I asked the church office to point me to another congregation in the area that still schedules a December 25 worship service. They could not.

After some internet searching, I finally found one. Only one. You can bet I will be in the pew there on Christmas morning, even as this tradition fades away all around me.

Julfest Time

At this time of year, Norwegians enjoy a Julfest to celebrate the solstice and the festival of Christmas.

Some parts of the U. S. hold large events with Nordic Markets and bonfires. They serve traditional Norwegian treats such as lefse, pickled herring, pea soup, and cookies, lots and lots of cookies.

Our local Sons of Norway lodge held a Julfest this month. We focused on the cookies for our party. Everyone brought some to exchange.

A few people brought more modern recipes, but several of the traditional cookies appeared as well:

  1. Krumkake—a waffle cookie made on a two-sided iron griddle,
  2. Sandbakkelse—sand tarts made in tins of different shapes
  3. Pepperkakker—spiced cookies
  4. Spritz cookies—a simple cookie dough pressed through a decorative disk
  5. Fattigmann—dough twisted into a fancy shape and deep fried
  6. Serinakaker—Norwegian butter cookies
  7. Rosettes—deep fried lacy treats made with a special rosette iron

After the Julfest, my husband/tech advisor and I took home a heaping plate of all sorts of cookies. We have been enjoying them all week.


A Family of Black Sheep

Families come in all shapes and sizes. Often they have individual members who contribute to society in ways that benefit everyone. Mine, not so much. One could describe many of our relatives as black sheep ancestors, or those who behaved in disreputable or disgraceful ways.

When I found a new branch of my dad’s family this year, I should not have been surprised to find that it, too, is peopled with black sheep. Every one of my dad’s grandparents had skeletons in the closet:

  1. Reed. My great-grandfather left his family and squandered his inheritance on fruitless land speculation. A Reed cousin defected to East Germany during the Cold War.
  2. Riddle. A distant great-uncle sued his brother over the family farm, leaving his sibling destitute and without means to make a living. Another brother served time for larceny and then became a reclusive sheepherder in Montana.
  3. Ryan. Over three generations, these men abandoned their children, either leaving them to be raised by relatives or placing them in orphanages. Some cousins were Nebraska bootleggers during Prohibition.
  4. Sherman. These blacksmiths believed in homemade money. Several were arrested for counterfeiting. One was shot and killed in his bed by a disgruntled associate.

As I uncover more of this doubtful legacy, I begin to wonder about the advice our great-grandfather Reed left with his offspring. He told them, “You inherited a good name, now keep it that way.”

Oh, the irony.


In Need of a Local Map

This week I wanted a map of the Nebraska area where my great-grandparents lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They homesteaded northeast of Palisade in Hayes County. I needed something that would locate their farms and provide some surrounding context.

My road atlas provided a political map with towns, roads, and county boundaries, but I was hoping for even more information. I remembered that I had once attended a seminar on using maps for genealogical research. Perhaps the instructor had offered some suggestions on where to look for the type of map I envisioned.

I pulled out his handout from 2014 (yes, I saved it!). I saw that he had given us a list of major map websites.

After seven years, I wondered how many of these could still be viable. I did recognize a few such as the USGS topographic maps, the David Rumsey map collection, and the Library of Congress map collection. I decided against starting with these.

The topo maps on the USGS site show only topographic information. I find the Rumsey site and the LOC site cumbersome to use. It takes me a long time to find what I am looking for, and I have a hard time trying to print what I need. I wanted a faster result.

The seminar handout listed another site that I decided to try. I was delighted to find that it still exists. It is called the National Map (, and it is maintained by the United States Geological Survey. As a government service, it is free to use.

The home page has a link to the National Map viewer. You can zoom in to any location in the United States. The resulting map of the Palisade, Nebraska area was exactly what I sought.

My map includes so many things of interest:

  1. Political entities like the town of Palisade, its nearby highways, and the Burlington Northern railroad line,
  2. Land survey section lines and numbers for the surrounding area,
  3. Waterways like Frenchman Creek and the Culbertson Canal,
  4. Places like the local cemetery, a dam, and a gravel pit,
  5. Topography lines to help me understand the elevations of the land.

My map is wonderful, exactly what I needed. The National Map website is simple to navigate, and it is easy to print a map.

I plan to return to this site to find other locations from my family’s history. Maps provide a great way to visualize the places they lived.

Thanksgiving Plans Change

We thought this year would be different.

We have two grown sons and their families who live nearby, and we anticipated spending Thanksgiving with some of them.

Then a couple of people developed coughs earlier this week. Covid tests came back positive.

We are thankful that all the unwell seem to be recovering at home without complications.

But the Thanksgiving family gathering has had to be cancelled. Each nuclear family will eat the festive meal separately.

Those of us who can do so will meet for a Zoom call with the extended family in the afternoon. We did this last year when no one could meet in person. Now again this year it is the only option for the locals to visit one another.

Despite the change in plans, my husband/tech advisor and I will enjoy the holiday. Zooming with the relatives and eating a delicious turkey dinner together does not sound so bad.

At least I am not trying to fly anywhere.



Writing Again

The Christmas season approaches. Each year I write an ancestor’s biographical sketch to send around to family members. I get these ready every November. In prior years I have completed work on all the great-grandparents and second great-grandparents that I could identify.

This year I had intended to move back a generation and begin working on my third great grandparents. I spent about half the year researching one of them, Benjamin E. Dunbar (1776-1851) of Chatham, MA.

Then a surprise DNA match arrived over the summer. Suddenly I knew the identity of a previously unknown great-grandfather. This man’s family branch had been a huge hole in my family tree. Now I had his name.

I dropped everything else to learn all I could about him. He became the focus of my biographical sketch for this year.

His death certificate and probate file arrived in the mail this month just in time for me to complete my 2021 project. I now have everything I need to tell his story.

Soon I will get it printed and send it around to the family in time for Christmas.

Veteran’s Day Ahead

This week we honor all the veterans of our armed forces. Coming from a family where many members have served, I like to take note of the day.

It will be a special one for me this time. In August, my application to become a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) was approved. I was eligible by virtue of descent from a veteran of the Revolutionary War.

My ancestor was Gershom Hall (1760-1844), a Patriot from Massachusetts. He enlisted at Barnstable County on 1 Sep 1780. He then served as a Private under Captain Nathaniel Freeman in Lt. Col. Enoch Hallett’s regiment where he served 2 mos., 4 days, including 4 days (75 miles) travel home. The unit was stationed in Rhode Island to reinforce the Continental Army. Gershom Hall was discharged 31 Oct 1780.

As we honor him and others on Veteran’s Day this week, we have an additional reason to remember our former servicemen. In Colorado we will commemorate the centennial of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The DAR chapter in Aurora, CO will host a Veteran’s Day event at the Colorado Freedom Memorial. The ceremony will include the welcome of honored guests, a history of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a wreath laying, and the National Salute.

Join us at 10:30.