Unique Visitors
Total Page Views

"View Teri Hjelmstad's profile on LinkedIn">
Recent Comments

A Wartime Visit to Russia

Russia commands the news headlines these days. Yet again, they invade Ukraine, as they did when they seized Crimea in 2014. Because of the unrest at that time, We were apprehensive about making a genealogical visit to Russia that spring.

Knowing that the country had mobilized, we wondered whether it would be safe for Americans to visit Vyborg, a city northwest of St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland. I wanted to see the place my Finnish ancestors had lived in the early 20th century when Vyborg was part of Russia’s Duchy of Finland. At the time, the city was called by its Finnish name, Viipuri. Today, only ethnic Russians live there. The Finns left after being compelled to transfer ownership to Russia after WWII.

My great-grandfather’s Finnish family lived in the Vyborg area and worked at various occupations, including undertakers and carpenters. My great-grandparents Ada Alina Lampinen and Alexander Mattila were married in Viipuri in 1904. They emigrated to the United States in 1905.

As I eyed the news reports in 2014, my genealogical curiosity to see the place won out. Ukraine seemed far away, so we decided to make the stop in Vyborg during a longer trip through Finland. We learned we did not even need a visa to enter Russia provided we gave advance notice, arrived by water, and stayed in Russia no longer than three days.

Finland leases from Russia the Saimaa Canal (which the Finns had built in 1845) connecting their city Lappeenranta with Vyborg. They conduct regular boat trips between the cities.

We booked our passage and exchanged some American dollars for Russian rubles.

On the embarkation day, we left most of our belongings, particularly our electronic devices, behind in Finland. We packed a backpack with only what we needed overnight and hopped on the canal boat.

These 5-hour canal boat rides to and from Vyborg were some of the most delightful excursions we have ever taken. The scenery was beautiful, and the Finns were fun-loving travel companions.

An accordion player provided entertainment, and everyone sang along. Finnish is a phonetic language, and with a song sheet it was easy to chime in.

When we arrived in Vyborg, we lined up to present our passports. Everyone ahead of us was casually waived through. When my husband/tech advisor handed his American passport to the border control agent, her head snapped up, and she gave him a long look. Then she stamped it and sent him on his way. I was next, and I, too, stepped into Russia.

Vyborg seemed like a step back in time. The vibe of the city seemed unchanged from the days when Finland owned it in the 1940’s.

Our hotel, purportedly the nicest one in town, was a throwback to another era. We received one room key on a large fob. The tiny elevator could accommodate only one person at a time, so we took the stairs to our room. There we found bedding neatly stacked on the twin beds. Guests were expected to make their own.

When we presented ourselves for dinner at the hotel dining room, no one came to seat us. Our tour director noticed our plight and explained that the staff was frightened to serve us. He soothed them, and they agreed we could eat there.

Rather than seating us in the common dining room, they opened an opulent special room just for us and proceeded to serve us a magnificent multi-course meal. We wondered if they thought this is how Americans are accustomed to eating. When we paid our bill, the total came to the equivalent of $35.00.

They next day, we were free to roam the city provided we did not leave the city limits. Vyborg is a walkable city, beautifully laid out long ago by the Finns, so we stayed on foot. We looked for the neighborhood where my great-grandparents had lived. Nearby, we found the revolutionary Vladimir Lenin’s house marked with a commemorative plaque.

A highlight of our walking tour was Vyborg Castle. This medieval fortress was built by the Swedes in 1293. We bought tickets to go inside and climbed the rickety stairs to the top. We could barely see the harbor through the dirty windows.

Back on the ground, my husband/tech advisor was sorely in need of a rest room. We had no idea how to read the Cyrillic directional signs. He could not seem to get the staff to understand his request. Finally, he resorted to the potty dance that all parents recognize. Broad smiles broke out as they understood what he needed. They graciously showed us the way to a primitive bathroom.

Late that afternoon, as we awaited the arrival of the canal boat for our return trip, we stopped in our hotel bar for a shot of superb Russian vodka. Then we boarded the boat without incident.

During this trip into Russia, we had interactions with only a few people. Although they seemed reserved and suspicious of us, they helped us when they understood what we needed. No one bothered us during our walk around the city. They were happy to sell us merchandise at the market and tickets at the castle. With an intervention from a trilingual Finn, we had a fine evening meal at the hotel.

We felt like we had a glimpse of the real Russian population during this trip. They were conducting their businesses and going about their everyday lives, just as we do. We imagine we were watched while we were there, but it was not obvious if we were.

These people did not seem like warmongers. It is heartbreaking today to see these same people feeling compelled to invade their neighbors.

The Crimean takeover back in 2014 was non-violent. We felt we could take the risk to enter Russia for a brief visit. We would not make the same decision in 2022.

Genealogy Trip Planning

Since the pandemic began, we have cancelled two annual vacations. Only once during the past two years have we spent the night away from home, and that was on a camping trip. Now we have begun to look forward to a couple of genealogy getaways scheduled for later this year:

  1. Palatines to America National Conference. The 2022 PalAm conference will be held at the Doubletree Hotel in Denver on June 16-18. I am already registered. I need not fly anywhere for this because Denver is within easy driving distance. Conference attendees will hear two full days of lectures on German research by Dr. Wolfgang Grams from Germany and Daniel Jones, AG, from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Other events will include a banquet and a bus tour of “German Denver” hosted by well-known local historian, Dr. Tom Noel.
  2. Upper Midwest Research Trip. My husband/tech advisor and I will take a road trip later this year to visit many of the states where our ancestors lived during the 19th century. We will drive through the towns they knew and visit repositories that might hold information we cannot find online. Special stops will include Vesterheim, the National Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa; the Allen County Public Library in Ft. Wayne, Indiana; the Lincoln Log Cabin historic site in Coles County, Illinois; and the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve in Kansas.

Trips like these require some advance preparation. Already we are getting in the mindset to do some networking with other German researchers at the PalAm conference. We are putting together maps, lists of records to seek, and cemeteries to visit for the Midwestern driving trip. We are hoping to accumulate much new family information and break down a brick wall or two.

After waiting so long to take another genealogy trip, taking two in one year presents a real treat. I want to make the most of each opportunity. Planning well ahead is the key to genealogical success this year.

A Presidential Connection

On this President’s Day weekend, I like to think about my connection to one American President in particular, Abraham Lincoln.

My family lived near his more than once:

  1. 1650’s, Hingham, Massachusetts. My Lincoln and Dunbar ancestors settled in this community 20 miles south of Boston. The Dunbars arrived from Scotland about 1653. The President’s ancestor Mordecai Lincoln was born in Hingham just 4 years later in 1657. The population of this early town was small then, so perhaps the Dunbars and the Lincolns knew one another.
  2. Early 1800’s, Nelson County, Kentucky. My Reed and Kirkham ancestors moved to Nelson County from Pennsylvania after the Revolutionary War. Nelson is the parent county for Hardin County, where Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809.
  3. 1829, Coles County, Illinois. My Reeds became original settlers in Coles County when they moved north and settled there in 1829. The President’s father moved the Lincoln family to the same county the following year. Although the future President was nearly grown by then, he moved along with his family, and Illinois became known as the Land of Lincoln.

Common places may not be the only link I have to President Lincoln. I believe I am related to him.

People from the English town of Hingham, Norfolk, England founded Hingham, Massachusetts. Both the President’s family and my Lincoln family were from Hingham in England.

I have not done the research myself, but I think our most recent common ancestor was Robert Lincoln, jr. (1525-1556) who lived in Hingham, Norfolk, England. He was my 12th great-grandfather and the President’s 8th great-grandfather. This makes us 8th cousins, five times removed.

Some of Robert Lincoln’s descendants migrated to the New World, including both the President’s family and mine. Although the family relationship is very distant, I enjoy being able to claim it.

Who Was Nellie?

Richard Ryan (1852-1925), an ancestor of mine, was raised in the La Salle County, Illinois household of his aunt and her husband, Rose and William Sullivan. The Sullivans had a large family of their own with eleven children. Some of these offspring have been difficult to distinguish from one another.

According to U. S. census records, the Sullivans had several daughters, including Elizabeth, Rose, and Sarah. Other records refer to Nellie and Sadie, nicknames that must have belonged to two of these three girls. Which nickname went with which daughter, and what happened to the third girl?

One of the three probably died young because only two are mentioned as survivors in obituaries for the parents and siblings.

A cursory internet search confirmed my hunch that Sadie was a common nickname for Sarah. Additional census records and family obituaries confirmed that Sadie was Sarah Sullivan (1873-aft. 1941).

That left Nellie’s identity in question. Was she Elizabeth, or was she Rose? Nellie is usually a nickname for girls named Ellen or Eleanor, not Elizabeth or Rose. I needed more information to figure out who Nellie was.

I began collecting more evidence:

  1. The girls’ brother Thomas A. Sullivan passed away in 1941. He was survived by a sister, Mrs. William Ahern. Elizabeth or Rose?
  2. The Illinois marriage records include a record for Rose Helen Sullivan, daughter of Rose and William Sullivan, marrying William Ahern in 1918. Rose Sullivan became Rose Ahern.
  3. Find A Grave provided the Illinois cemetery markers for the Aherns. Their inscriptions identified them as William and Nellie Ahern, who passed away in 1960 and 1961.

So it was daughter Rose who was known as Nellie. Why? Perhaps the family needed a nickname for her when she had the same proper name as her mother. Her middle name Helen may have become Nellie.

The nicknames found in some records have now been applied to the proper Sullivan sisters. Sadie was Sarah, Nellie was Rose, and Elizabeth remains unaccounted for.

Winter Genealogy Classes from Home

Some of my ancestors present unique research difficulties. When a class focusing on the problem becomes available, I try to participate.

This wintery month, I am lucky enough to find two:

  1. British Isles-Family History Records. Until last summer, I did not realize I had any recent Irish ancestry. Then I learned that a branch of my family came from Ireland in 1849. I needed a crash course in Irish research, and my local Highlands Ranch Genealogical Society came through. This month, a Family History Library volunteer spoke to us on the British Isles records they have available. His presentation was sprinkled with history, especially of Ireland. Armed with his wonderful syllabus, I am ready and eager to get started.
  2. Wanted! Dead or Alive: Researching Criminal Ancestors. I hope this upcoming webinar by American Ancestors will give me some new ideas for learning about some unsavory ancestors—the one who served time in Michigan for larceny, and the group of Illinois counterfeiters who were said to believe in homemade money.

Instead of requiring attendees to appear in person for these presentations, both groups offered them online. The American Ancestors class was always planned that way so that people across the country could participate. The local genealogy society was forced to switch to Zoom at the last minute when a snowstorm moved in.

Regardless of the reason, I am glad to have the option to get some continuing education from the comfort of home. Next up is RootsTech (, a free virtual convention scheduled for March 3-5.

Mystery Margaret

My newly discovered Irish ancestors liked to name all their women Margaret.

This week I began trying to pick apart the threads of several of them:

  1. My second great-grandmother Jane Lawless had a stepmother named Margaret (Mrs. Thomas) Lawless. The baptisms for this Margaret’s children give her maiden name as Margaret Lawless, same as her married name.
  2. Jane also had a sister named Margaret Lawless, and they were stepdaughters of the above-named Margaret Lawless.
  3. When the Lawless family settled in Peoria, Illinois, they joined two other Lawless families there. Both had wives named Margaret—Mrs. James Lawless and another Mrs. Thomas Lawless.

We have, then, four women named Margaret Lawless. Two of them had a maiden name of Lawless. Three of them had a married name of Lawless. Two of them had husbands named Thomas Lawless.

I believe I have the profiles of each of these four Margaret Lawlesses distinguished from each other—The stepmother, Jane’s sister, and the neighbor ladies.

A problem arises when I try to apply pieces of evidence to the correct woman, particularly the stepmother and the sister of my Jane:

  1. Ship passenger list for the USS Home, New York arrival on 1 May 1849. My Lawless family included only one woman named Margaret. She was 50 years old. If she was Jane’s stepmother, where was the older sister Margaret? The youngest child in the group, Michael, was just two. Was a 50-year-old his mother?
  2. Thomas Lawless household, U. S. census, 1850, Peoria County, Illinois. This record again includes only one Margaret. This woman was 25 years old, likely Thomas’ daughter and Jane’s sister. The household also includes an infant, John. Where was the 2nd wife Margaret? Was she a 51-year-old mother of this baby?
  3. St. Patrick’s Cemetery marker, Kickapoo, Peoria County, Illinois for Margaret Lawless (1809-1853). The marker states she was the wife of Thomas Lawless. This woman was too old to be the wife of the neighbor Thomas Lawless, so was she Jane’s stepmother, the wife of my Thomas Lawless? She was 10 years younger than the ship passenger Margaret Lawless, but much older than the Margaret Lawless named on the 1850 census.

Right now I cannot reconcile these pieces of information. The stepmother and stepdaughter will remain mysterious until I can locate more documentation on the lives of all the Peoria women named Margaret Lawless.



The Lawless Family of Peoria

We have some Lawless ancestors. Not that they were lawbreakers, but that was their name. These Irish immigrants settled in Peoria, Illinois, that quintessential American city.

My group arrived in New York in 1849 and was enumerated in Peoria in 1850. Three other Lawless families already lived there.

Were my people related to the others? It is tempting to assume so, but so far I have not been able to discern a kinship.

My family, as listed on the census record, almost matches their passenger arrival list (one daughter died in the interim):

  1. Thomas Lawless     46
  2. Margaret        50 on the ship record, 25 on the census
  3. Jane            21
  4. Peter            18
  5. Catherine        16 (died in 1849)
  6. James            16
  7. Bridget            15
  8. Rose            10
  9. Thomas            8
  10. Patrick            6
  11. Betsy            4
  12. Michael            3
  13. John            1/12

The other Lawless families were headed by men I believe to be father and sons:

  1. James Lawless        51
  2. Margaret        48
  3. John            21
  4. Jane            17
  5. Ellen            12


  6. Thomas Lawless    32
  7. Margaret        24
  8. Ann            2
  9. Elizabeth        0
  10. Thomas O’Brien        21


  11. Patrick            30
  12. Sarah            25
  13. Joan            7
  14. Thomas            4
  15. Jno            0

Except for Patrick’s family, the Lawlesses lived quite close to one another in Peoria in dwellings 1968, 1969, and 1971. The Thomas Lawless who arrived in the U.S. in 1849 must have headed to Peoria to join the other Lawless families there.

Were Thomas (46) and James (51) brothers? With an age difference of just 5 years, this seems possible. I have yet to find any documentation naming the parents of either man.

Public family trees name various parents for James, who immigrated as a young man in 1828. One tree suggests different parents for Thomas although no one seems to have done much research on him.

Much work remains to decipher this family relationship. Not only will I need to study unfamiliar Irish records, but the duplication of names presents an additional challenge. Did you notice that these four families have four males named Thomas? And that nearly every wife is named Margaret? Other names are repeated, too—Jane, Elizabeth/Betsy, James, John, Patrick.

This seems a messy bunch to sort out, and I will be satisfied when I have it all untangled.

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!