Friday, April 17, 2015

The Girl at the Top of the Stairway

A single cardstock photo and a cryptic set of family history notes launched a family history adventure several years ago. Jim Fawkner, with a bayoneted rifle, stovepipe hat, and G.A.R. ceremonial uniform faced the photographer sometime about 1870. The notes named James Coleman Fawkner and Julia Ann Angell, describing Julia as a southern girl standing at the top of a stairway. James apparently saw her standing there and declared, "I'll be back to marry you."

He kept his promise. This and several blog posts to follow will, in fits and starts, tell the story of the Fawkner family. Family history is rarely as linear as a time-line might suggest. Instead, the path of discovery zigs and zags, and the evidence does not arrive in chronological order.

In this case, there at least was a simple starting point. Elizabeth Ann Ehlenbach died 3 February 1952 in Superior, Wisconsin. Her obituary said she was born in Missouri and came to Duluth, Minnesota, in 1893. Her death certificate named her parents: James and Julia Ann Fawkner. A third document filled in some of the blanks. A handwritten funeral memorial booklet stated "Mrs. Ehlenbach was born in Sturgeon, Mo., July 25, 1870. Her father James Coleman Fawkner, and mother Julia Ann Angell, both born in the U.S., were married near Sturgeon, Mo., Nov. 10, 1862. Her father, a Volunteer from Illinois, served four years in the Union army.

The memorial booklet placed the family in Arcola, Illinois, prior to the move to Duluth. The first order of business was to find the family there. The Fawkner name is not common, but many variants of the name, including Faulkner and Faulconer, are. The 1880 U.S. Census enumerated the family of James and Julia "Falkner" in Coles County, Illinois, just a few miles across the county line from Arcola, which lies near the southern border of Douglas County. The family consisted of:

- James Falkner, 51, born Kentucky,
- Julia, 38, born Missouri,
- Grant, 16, born Missouri,
- Cyrus, 10, born Missouri,
- Elizabeth, 9, born Missouri,
- Mattie, 6, born Illinois,
- Attie, 6, born Illinois, and
- Henry, 3, born Illinois.

The family had apparently moved to Illinois between about 1871 and 1874.  Finding the family in Missouri was not quite as easy because Soundex searches for Fawkner (F236) or Faulkner/Faulconer (F425) do not turn up the family. Instead, a page-by-page search found the family of James C. and Julia A. "Falker" in Township 51 North of Boone County; the post office was at Sturgeon.

I was a beginner at the time, so I was quite pleased with my census sleuthing. I had no clue toward finding James Fawkner ("Falkner?") prior to 1870, so the next step required a little luck. The next installment of this blog will take James Fawkner back to 1850 -- although his whereabouts in 1860 will remain unknown through several more installments.

LESSON:  Start with a certainly known ancestor. Work back a generation at a time.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A New Blog Beginning

I just returned from the 54th Annual Ohio Genealogical Society Conference in Columbus all fired up to tackle new projects.  That is what spending a few days with family history enthusiasts can do. One of those "new" projects is  is actually an old project that has lain dormant for a couple of years. That would be this blog.

On my flight home, I ruminated (sounds like something a cow would do) about blogging topics. I realized that I have more stories to share than you would ever want to sit through at the same time. But, you might be able to tolerate one per week.  So, this is my plan: I will blog the first four Fridays of each month; on Fifth Friday, I will rest (probably).

That means 48 postings per year.  I already have a list of topics that should get us through the first year. The hard part will be disciplining myself to stay on schedule. I have in mind fairly short posts -- perhaps only three or four paragraphs -- just long enough to share a research or family history story that might enlighten, or even entertain.

Most of my posts will draw from my research into some 200 years of the Fawkner family of Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Minnesota, and points west. Many people have thought that, perhaps, Fawkner is an odd variant of Fonkert. Not true. The Fawkner characters come from my wife's family tree.  I have a drawer-full of sometimes amazing, other times amusing, and sometimes sad, stories about the Fawkners.  I am inclined to categorize these posts under "Fawkner Follies," although that is perhaps a tad irreverent for a family that suffered many tragedies.

    There are just too many good research and human interest stories hanging from the Fawkner tree to put too much time between Fawkner posts, but I will from time to time intersperse other subjects so that neither readers nor author suffer Fawkner Fatigue.

    I also will draw from three smaller drawers of material, including.

    • Methods for Our Madness -- research vignettes featuring matching and separating identities and, corroborating evidence, and correlating evidence to draw a  conclusion.
    • Geo-Genealogy -- birds-eye looks at the spatial dimension of family history, including interesting maps and tips on how to make sense of your family's migrations.
    • Potpourri -- Odds and ends, including some favorite Tidball Tidbits, Morstad Moments, and Fonkert Features.
    I realize that some of the best genealogy blogs provide source citations meeting the highest standards. I do not intend these blog posts as research reports, and readers should not treat them as such. I will generally identify sources in the narratives, only using footnotes in critical moments. Parts of many of the stories I will share in this blog have been published in articles genealogy magazines and journals. When that is the case, I will point readers to the appropriate publication should they want to read more.

    Am I ready?  Am I set?  Dare I say "go?"  Be watching for my first installment in a few days.

    Monday, January 7, 2013

    Katharyn Fawkner and the Fountain of Youth

    I will be lecturing on a favorite topic next week at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy.  A core challenge in genealogical research is establishing certain identity. I will be discussing several examples of differentiating or merging identities. One case involves a woman with no known descendants, Katharyn Fawkner.

    For ages, people (especially women?) have found it convenient to trim a few years off their age. A friend of mine -- a longtime Minnesota State Demographer -- used to joke that demographers have determined that, on average, people age about a year every 12 months.  But, we genealogists often find ancestors who aged only seven or eight years between decennial censuses.

    At the time of the 1880 U.S. Census, G. S. Fawkner of St. Paul, Minnesota, had three daughters, the youngest being "M. Kate," age 3. All three were still at home in 1885, when the Minnesota census listed "Kate," age 8.  Kate, 17, was enumerated with her parents in Minneapolis in 1895. Kate was aging at a pretty normal rate.

    But, as she approached adulthood, time started to slow down. A Civil War pension file revealed that Kate's father died in San Francisco in 1897 while traveling. Three years later, the 1900 U.S. census found his widow and daughter, "Catherine Faulkner," in San Francisco; the census reported that Catherine was born in Indiana in May 1879.  This was seemingly a slight understatement of her age, but no problem.

    Time continued to slow. The 1910 U.S. census found mother and daughter in Chicago. "Katherine M." was 28, implying an 1881-82 birthdate. This was still not alarming for a young, single woman possibly hoping for a husband.

    Katharyn seems to have evaded the census enumerator in 1920 and 1930, but I picked up her trail in passenger records. She traveled to Europe at least three times during the 1930s, using passport no. 287,505. The 1930 passport application file was in the name of Katharyn Fawkner, who claimed she was born 8 May 1883 in Indianapolis; she said her father was George S. Fawkner. George's daughter had trimmed six years from her true age. She was really 53, but said she was only 47. She may have used a dated photograph to bolster her claim.

    Births were not registered in Hendricks County, Indiana, when Katharyn was born about 1877. When she applied for her passport, an associate of her deceased father entered an affidavit supporting her birth date. Her passport was now an "official" record of her birth, and she appears to have used the 1883 birth date the rest of her life.  Katharyn's death certificate repeats the claim that she was born 8 May 1883. The woman that traveled to Europe in the 1930 was the 3-year old girl living in Minnesota in 1880.

    Friday, June 1, 2012

    The Summer Genealogy Season

    Here in the Northland, our summer days are long, but our summers are short. Our big Genealogy Season is winter, when the days are short and the cold snaps are long. There just isn't enough time for genealogy. People tend their gardens and send the kids to camp in the summer.

    But, hey, genealogists need summer camp, too. Some of you will be heading to Birmingham in about a week for the ultimate genealogy summer camp at Samford. It's too late to sign up for IGHR, but there still might be a few spots open at the new GRIP institute in Pittsburgh.  I'll let others who know more about GRIP pitch it, but I want to remind you of a couple of other great summer time genealogy opportunities.

    At the top (or the front) of the list is the Southern California Genealogy Jamboree next week in Burbank. I will be attending for the first time, and am excited to be offering three lectures. I'll be talking about finding Grandpa's land on maps, tricks to finding pre-1850 ancestors, and testing the veracity of family lore. I am having a great time preparing the family lore talk. Using the case of John Fawkner's three previously unknown wives, I will be showing how family lore can be partially true, exaggerated or incomplete. If you haven't already registered, get yourself to the Jamboree website (

    Next on my agenda is the 2013 Federation of Genealogical Society conferences in Birmingham in August. So you can't get to IGHR? You can still do some genealogy in Birmingham. I will be presenting a version of the Fawkner story there, plus offering a Society Day talk on defining mission and standards for society journals. Learn more at

    The most urgent beginning of summer news is this: Registration opens Saturday, June 2, for next January's Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. I will be there leading a case study exercise in Course 10 -- the genealogy practicum course coordinated by Angela McGhie and Kimberly Powell. This course opened to rave reviews last January. The other instructors for the 2013 are Tom Jones, J. Mark Lowe, Stefani Evans and William Litchman. But, there's more. Yes, there are 10 other courses to choose from. And, if you get your homework done early, you can hang out in the Family History Library two blocks away.  Afterall, it will be January -- a great time of year for some indoors genealogy exercise.

    Sunday, May 6, 2012

    Why do Editors ask You to Write?

    That clever old journalist-genealogist, Harold Henderson, has a knack of cutting to the chase. In his Midwestern Microhistory blog this morning, he mused about why more of us don't raise our hands when journal and newsletter editors beg us to write. I'm going to tackle the problem from another direction.

    Why do the editors ask?

    Actually, they wish they didn't have to ask. They are busy people. They don't enjoy begging. But, they have deadlines to meet, and they really don't want to use fluffy filler stuff to fill up the last two pages of this month's issue. You can make them very happy by pitching an idea for an article.

    But, really why do they ask?

    They ask because they and their societies think you probably have something to offer. It might be a research article that models good analysis and writing. It might be an article that shares your expertise about a particular, underused record set or an overlooked library or archive in your area. It might be an account of a memorable research trip or discovery that will inspire readers. If you're not sure what the editor is looking for, ask. And, be sure to take a look at past issues of a journal or newsletter to see what kinds of articles it prints.

    But, why do they want to publish a journal, anyway?

    Too often, it is because that's what their society has always done. But, there are, in fact, good reasons for publishing a journal in these days of rising costs. Part of a society's mission is to help its members become better family history researchers. A modest journal, well done, can do two things. First, It can teach by showing. A good article gives aspiring writers something to aim toward. In almost every talk a give, I encourage beginners to write for the same reasons Harold Henderson does. Writing is a test of our evidence and our logic, and thus part of the genealogical analysis process. Good musicians learn by listening to music -- and practicing. Good writers learn by reading -- and practicing. 

    Second, just like anyone else, writers respond to recognition and reward. Reward your writers by giving them a place to publish. Most will never publish their genealogy in the top-tier academic journals. State and local journals and newsletters give them another option. I have not yet met a writer that hasn't been excited to see their article in print.

    Oh yes, there is one more reason editors ask you to write. It's a dirty secret: They like to edit. O.K., there is probably a less threatening way to say that. Let's try: They enjoy helping writers get the articles ready for print and making writers look good. Your editor is your ally. You and the editor have the same goal -- a readable and enjoyable product for the reader.

    So, Harold is right when he says that the editors are going to be "so happy" to hear from you. As managing editor of Minnesota Genealogist, I know look forward to hearing your ideas for articles. And, there's a bunch of editors around the world who would agree.

    Friday, April 27, 2012

    Genealogy Journals need Writers and Readers

    This morning Dick Eastman again did what he does so well. He focused attention on an issue that has potential to reshape the genealogy world. He asked: "Are genealogy journals too expensive?" (Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter, 27 April 2012). It is a question I've been thinking about as managing editor of the Minnesota Genealogical Society's quarterly journal, Minnesota Genealogist.

    Minnesota Genealogist is a 2nd- or 3rd-tier journal that has been produced for many years as a membership benefit. Apart from rent for our library and offices, it is one of our largest single expenses, costing about $10 per member per year to print and mail. (Authors, editor and proofreaders are not paid; we do pay a small stipend to a layout and design editor).

    Eastman made a strong pitch for converting society newsletters and journals to digital distribution. There is no doubt: digital distribution is cheaper than paper and post distribution. MGS went digital with its newsletter a couple of years ago. An electronic newsletter makes sense on more than cost grounds. A newsletter deals with news, and requires timely distribution. An electronic newsletter takes much less time to prepare and distribute, making on-time monthly issues possible.

    Our journal fills a different niche. I think of it as a contribution to our genealogical education mission. While we include some society news in the journal, it is mostly devoted to research articles, teaching articles and other features that help our members be better genealogists. As part of our education program, it is reasonable to invest in its production. But, it does cost money.

    How much it is worth may depend in part on how many people read it. If only a small percentage of members read more than one article, it might not be worth the cost. We have talked about a couple of options. First, we could go digital and reduce annual dues by several dollars (perhaps still delivering a print copy to those who opt to pay a small surcharge). Second, we could unbundle the journal from our membership benefit package, and distribute it only to individuals (members and non-members) who find it worth subscribing to.

    But, it is important to think about more than money. I think there are other good reasons to publish a journal. A quality journal reflects well on a genealogy society. It says: "we know genealogy and you can get help here." And, I think there is merit in giving researchers a place to publish, and thus disseminate and preserve, their research. We want people to write up their research, and the chance to publish may give a little motivation.

    It all comes down to knowing why you are publishing a journal and what it is worth to your genealogy society. With answers to these questions, you will be prepared to choose between print and digital publication. These are hard questions, and their are no cookie-cutter answers. I will be leading a discussion on these questions at the Federation of Genealogical Society conference in Birmingham, Alabama, in August. I look forward to seeing many of you there.

    Friday, April 20, 2012

    Genealogy as a Conversation-starter

    As we pulled away from Gate G15 at MSP, I pulled out my copy of Ancestors and Relatives: Genealogy, Identity and Community by Eviatar Zerubavel. Some of you might recall that it created a bit of a stir in the genealogy community when it was published earlier this year. The middle-aged businessman in seat 35A looked over and said, "That looks interesting." I said, "Yes," and explained that I was a genealogist. He actually knew what genealogy is. He proceeded to tell me that he had traced his Visser family back to the area of Sneek in Friesland. How interesting, I thought, and told him that I was flying to Yakima to give a couple of talks on Dutch and Fries genealogy. He thought that was pretty cool. He said he was flying home -- he had grown up in Whatcom County, Washington. "Oh," I said. "I know where that is. I've got some Dutch-Frisian relatives in Whatcom County. But, I couldn't remember the name. I started going through the alphabet, starting with "A," trying to think of familiar Dutch-Frisian surnames starting with each letter in hopes of recalling the forgotten name. When I got to "Z," it hit me: Zylstra. "Zylstra!" he said. "I went to school with some Zylstras." Well, that's cool, I thought. I started to remember more. "I think my Dad's cousin had twins," I said. The guy in 35C says, "I had a friend named Peter Zylstra. I think he had sisters who were twins." Yep, the guy in 35C was a schoolmate of my Dad's cousin's kids in Sumas, Washington. The Zylstras moved from Sioux County, Iowa, to Whatcom County, Washington, about 1920, as I recall. The guy in 35C says, "Oh, then they were the 'Old Dutch'." He explained that, in Whatcom County, the "Old Dutch" came before the Depression; the "New Dutch" came after. It turns out the nice guy in 35C lived for several years in Sioux County, Iowa, where my Fonkert relatives lived. Andy Visser still works for a company in Rock Valley, Iowa, but he commutes back and forth from his home on the Olympic Peninsula across Puget Sound from Seattle. Oh yes, about the book: the Zerubavel book is provocative. It's not really about genealogy as we know it, but more about how people identify in regards to race, ethnicity, and nationality. I'm going to blog about the book in the next few weeks, so stay tuned.