Saturday, November 21, 2009

Make the Most of Occupation in Census Research

When I started working on my family history, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to occupation. My parents were teachers, and all my known grandfathers and uncles were plain old generic farmers. I was disappointed that I didn’t have any really interesting ancestors like doctors, ship captains, clergymen or even factory workers. But, as I researched more families, I learned how important occupation can be to identifying an ancestor across census years or matching ancestors in different kinds of records

Let me share one example. I was trying to learn more about a Holland-born family I found living in 1870 among my Dutch relatives in Hardin County, Iowa. To start, I was unsure of names. The head of household was 50 year-old Pieter Kingma, or possibly Ringma. Pieter was a “painter.” Living with Pieter and his apparent wife were five individuals, aged 10-25, listed under an unfamiliar name that looked something like “Sourumia” (Ancestry index: “Sousrema”). All were born in Holland, but the name didn’t sound Dutch to me. I speculated that the five younger individuals might be step-children. Among them were 16 year-old Adam and his 20 year-old sister Eve. Dutch? Really?

Oh yes, Adam’s occupation was “painter apprentice.”

I needed to find these people in 1880. Uncertainty over the names complicated the search. Using various combinations of first names, ages and birth places, I was not able to find any good candidates anywhere in Iowa in 1880.

I was about to give up, but decided to try a 50-state search for any man named Peter and born in Holland a few years either side of 1815. I was rewarded with more than 200 matches – a small enough number to browse. I found a Peter Kingma, age 63, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was a painter. In the same household was a 24 year-old Adam, born in Holland.

I was able to find Peter in 1880 by searching on first name and paying attention to occupation. Adam and his siblings were identified as step-children of Peter Kingma. indexes the step-childrens’ last name as “Funoma,” but on the census manuscript the name looks more like Sunoma. Searches in later censuses revealed the name to be Sonnema, which turns out to be a good Frisian name traceable in records from The Netherlands.

The census-taker recorded Peter’s occupation as “painter-house” and Adam’s as “furniture varnisher” – good matches for Pieter and Adam of 1870.

I hadn’t expected an Iowa family to migrate east during this time, but it was perfectly natural for a Frisian family to move to the Dutch-Frisian stronghold of southwestern Michigan. Attention to first names helped, but the clincher was occupation.

Time and again, occupation has helped me match individuals across census years or across different kinds of records. John Lee’s occupation as a railroad porter helped me prove that John Lee living in Dorset in 1861 was the same man as Bartholomew Lee living in Bristol in 1851 (see “The Three Cs of Genealogical Research, Family Chronicle, February 2009). Similarly, Christian Gerloff’s occupation as a wagon-maker in the 1850 Iowa census allowed me to match him with the Christian Gerloff, wheelwright, listed on an 1843 Baltimore passenger arrival manifest. I now pay close attention to occupation!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Immigration Stories in the U.S. Census

As I've prepared this week for a talk at the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, I've been thinking about how to talk to non-genealogists about the census. I've come up with two themes:
  • The U.S. census records and preserves immigration stories, and
  • When it becomes public in 2082, the 2010 census will provide a snapshot of our families for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Most Americans have immigrant ancestors. The U.S. Census is part immigration storybook. The 1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930 censuses asked questions about immigration and citizenship status. This information, combined with information about birth place, give family history researchers the basics of their families' immigration story, and lead to other sources that help complete the story.

The 1900 census tells us that Charles Falk of Two Harbors, Minnesota, came to America in 1890. It says his first five children, aged 10 to 20, were born in Sweden. Four more children, aged 1 to 7, had been born in Minnesota. The census says Charles and Louisa had been married 20 years.

According to the 1910 census for Minneapolis, Andrew Pafko came to America from Hungary in 1906. A 10 year-old daughter had been born in Hungary, while a 4 year-old daughter and 2 year-old son were born in Minnesota. The family spoke Slovak, suggesting they were from the part of the Austria-Hungary now know as Slovakia.

We learn from the 1920 census for St. Paul, Minnesota, that Thomas Reeves came to the U.S. in 1909, became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1919, was married and had a 6 month-old daughter. Thomas and wife Mary were born in Ireland, and the census-taker recorded their language as "Irish." Living with them was Thomas' brother-in-law Patrick McCarthy, giving a hint to Mary's maiden name.

The 1930 census found Italian-born Eugene Lattanzio living with his uncle Leonard Gaultieri in Two Harbors, Minnesota. His uncle's surname gives a clue to Eugene's mother's name. Unfortunately, Eugene's year of immigration is unreadable in the 1930 census, but the 1920 census says he had arrived in 1915, and had filed a declaration of intent to become a citizen.

In each case, the census information gives clues for finding other records of genealogical interest, including marriages, birth records for children, and passenger arrival records.

Information about individuals in the upcoming 2010 census will be held confidential for 72 years (under current law), becoming available to researchers in 2082. When you complete your 2010 census return, you will be archiving information that will help your grandchildren and great-grandchildren reconstruct their ancestors lives. Many of us will someday be ancestors.

Friday, October 23, 2009

A bit of Method for our Madness

I’m giving a lecture this weekend entitled “Genealogical Detours: Using Indirect Evidence to Solve Genealogical Problems.” I’ve given the lecture several times, but have been doing some thinking and a little revising as I always do before a repeat performance.

First, I’ve been thinking about my audience. I’m speaking at the Southern Minnesota Genealogy Expo in Mankato. I’m giving a plenary session talk, so I need to be mindful of the wide range of experience that people bring to such an event. Some will be real beginners, others will be very experienced and sophisticated researchers. Some will enjoy discussion of methodology, others will say listening to someone blab about methodology is like taking a sleeping pill.

Is methodology too heavy a topic for beginners? I don’t think so. The “ology” part of the word makes it sound pretty pedantic – like biology or sociology. But, just as biology is about life and sociology is about society, methodology is about method. And, we all actually do know something about life, society, and yes, method. We don’t have to be academics to appreciate the subjects. And, we don’t have to do genealogy very long to realize that a bit of method can make our madness more productive.

The other thing I’ve thought about is the phrase “indirect evidence.” We talk about indirect evidence being different than direct evidence. In Elizabeth Shown Mills’ words, “direct evidence is that which addresses a particular matter and points to a conclusion without the addition of other supporting evidence.” A marriage registration, with no other information at hand, directly answers the question of when a couple was married. “Indirect evidence is circumstantial information that requires us to supply a thought process (and perhaps other evidence) to convert its detail into a reliable conclusion” (Evidence: Citation and Analysis for the Family Historian, p. 45).

For me, the key words here are “information” and “convert.” Sources provide information – names, dates, relationships, etc.. We think about the relationship of this information to our research question, and in the process convert it into evidence. We create evidence from information found in sources.

I have actually come to find myself a little uncomfortable with the phrase “indirect evidence.” I prefer to think of information, which when analyzed and correlated with other information from other sources, leads to an indirect answer to the research question.

I like to think of Three C’s for converting information from sources into evidence that can support a conclusion: corroborate, correlate and conclude. For an example of what I mean, see my article in Family Chronicle magazine (“The Three C’s of Genealogical Research,” February 2009, p. 54).

Sunday, October 11, 2009

J. H. Fonkert Publications

Writing is essential in genealogy. At different times, it is a device for preserving memory, organizing our thoughts and sharing findings and insights. I provide writing and editing assistance for genealogists and family historians that want a little help creating their family history book or report. Here is a resume of my genealogy writing.

Journal Articles

"Clara V. Moore and Carrie Peterson: Proving a Double Enumeration in the 1910 Census,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly, 96 (March 2008), 5-12.
“The GEO in Genealogy: Using Geographic Information and Maps in Family History,” The Septs, 28:2 (July 2007).
“In Search of Early Dutch Settlers in Minnesota,” Minnesota Genealogist, 39:1 (Spring 2008), 16-21.
“John Welhaven: the Case of a Borrowed Name,” Minnesota Genealogist, 38:1 (Spring 2007), 22-28.
“The Search for George S. Fawkner,” Minnesota Genealogist, 40:2 (Summer 2009), 22-26.
“Two A. P. Overlands in Fergus Falls: Sorting Out Identities,” Minnesota Genealogist, 39:2 (Summer 2008), 15-20.

Genealogical Education Columns in The Septs (journal of the Irish Genealogical Society, International)

“The Genealogist’s Best Friend: the Census,” 29:1 (January 2008), 20-22.
“Filling the Gaps in Your Family History Timeline: State Censuses,” 29:2 (April 2008).
“Tracking Ancestors to America: Records Marking Five Stages of Migration,” 29:3 (July 2008), 146-149.
“All Genealogists were Once Beginners,” 29:4 (October 2008) 188-190.
“Set the Table for Success: A Simple Technique for Making Sense of Your Evidence,” 30:1 (January 2009), 26-30.
“Beginning Genealogy: What to do When all the Pieces Don’t Come in the Same Box,” forthcoming 30:2 (April 2009).
“Following Clues Across the Water: The John Lee Family of England and Ireland.” 30:4 (October 2009), 170-73.

Magazine articles

“The Three C’s of Genealogical Research,” Family Chronicle (February 2009), p. 54.
“Six Morstad Siblings from Gran, Hadeland, Norway: Immigration to Wisconsin and Minnesota,” The Brua, quarterly of the Hadeland Lag, May 2006.

Review articles

“Some Family: The Mormons and How Humanity Keeps Track of Itself: Review and Commentary,” The Septs, 29:2 (April 2008), 98-102.
“Book Review: Joseph A. Amato, Coal Cousins,” Minnesota Genealogist, 40:2), Summer 2009, p. 30.
“Review: Genline Family Finder,” Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly, 24:3 (September 2009), 119-20.

Self-published research reports

Investigation into the Origins of James C. Fawkner, 22 pp., October 2004. Self-published; copy in collection of Allen County Public Library, Ft. Wayne (IN), and Danville (IN) Public Library.
Ancestors of Carrie Ehlenbach: a Three Generation Kinship Determination Project, 56 pp., January 2007. Self-published; copy in collection of Allen County Public Library, Ft. Wayne, Indiana.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Root-digging at a "Cluster Reunion"

If you want to break through a genealogical brick wall, follow the associates -- that is, the extended family, friends, neighbors or business associates of your ancestor. This "big picture" approach to family history research is sometimes called "cluster genealogy." In her book, The Sleuth Book for Genealogists, Emily Anne Croom devotes an entire chapter to cluster genealogy.

I just returned from what might be called a "cluster reunion." This is a family reunion on a grand scale. In this case, it was the Dutch Cousins Reunion bringing together a diverse group of families associated with the Low Dutch Colony of Kentucky in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Led by Carolyn Leonard of Oklahoma, the Low Dutch descendants converged on Harrodsburg, Kentucky the last weekend in September.

Mind you, although I'm Dutch, I'm completely unrelated to the Low Dutch. But I'm researching an intrepid Methodist minister -- my wife's third great-grandfather -- who married a Low Dutch meisje. The marriage did not go well, but the resulting divorce case has given me new leads for my research. But, it was the people I met at the reunion that led to two unexpected leads.

First, I encountered the hero of the restoration of the Low Dutch church built in 1800. I'm not sure how he is connected to the Low Dutch, but it looks like he is a distant cousin of my wife. He is willing to do a DNA test that might prove my theory about the origin of John Fawkner.

Second, quite by accident, I heard another reunion attendee mention that she was from Montrose, Iowa. Did my ears perk up! I knew that two of John Fawkner's sons had lived in Montrose in the 1850s. I had never realized that their next door neighbors were Low Dutch from Kentucky. This discovery helps solidfy my working theory about family relationships.

The key to this reunion for me was the cluster part of it. This was more than a family reunion, it was a gathering of a community. I highly recommend the experience.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Mine original records for genealogical gold

I'm sitting in Frankfort, Kentucky, pondering genealogy lessons after five hours reading documents from a single 1820s divorce case. This is a long story which can't be done full justice in a short blog post -- a much longer research report is on my to-do list.

This Kentucky research stems from an 1839 Indiana probate file that named four heirs that could not be accounted for in the marriage of John Fawkner to Nancy Ann Faulconer. Apparently, John had at least one previous marriage. Prior to finding the divorce case I studied today, I had proven one previous marriage, pretty well nailed the second and strongly suspected a third. After today, I have proven the wives in two and found convincing evidence that there was a fourth (I'm counting backwards here) wife.

For some time, I have suspected that John Fawkner had roots in Fayette County, Kentucky, so I searched a microfilmed index of Fayette County circuit court records. I found an 1826 Ida Fawkner v. John Fawkner suit, and smelled a divorce. I engaged a Kentucky researcher to pull the file at the state archives. She found the file, but it was so large (at least 60 separate documents) that she only copied one summary document to give me a flavor of the case. This one document offered some tantalizing clues, with statements about John Fawkner's "children from a previous marriage" and testimony that Ida was "the toughest of all his wives."

"Of all his wives" implied that Ida was at least the third wife. There's got to be more details in the file, I thought. Indeed, there is. One witness specifically named Ida as John's third wife. Two teen-aged children from John Fawkner's previous marriage testified. Two deponents identified themselves as siblings of Ida.

The lessons are: don't stop with the index, and when you get to the original records, read all the records. I'm only two-thirds of the way through the file, and still hoping to find more clues to John Fawkner's identity. Research in original records takes time, but can be worth the results.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Family History Month In the Upper Midwest

October is Family History Month -- a popular time of year for genealogy conferences and family history fairs. The Minnesota Genealogical Society jumped the gun a bit with its 2nd Annual North Star Genealogy Conference September 18-19. It was a great success, a reflection both on our outstanding featured speaker, Claire Bettag, but also on our terrific cadre of volunteers who ran a seamless conference operation. Other Minnesota-based speakers who volunteered they services were Linda Coffin, Pat Coleman, J. H. Fonkert, Dixie Hansen, Harold Hinds, Lois Mackin, Tom Rice, Hamp Smith and Sandy Thalmann.

Family history buffs in the Upper Midwest might want to check out upcoming events in Iowa and Minnesota.

September 26 -- "Taking Root: Family History Workshop," Moorhead, Minnesota ( -- featured speaker Alan Mann.

October 3 -- Waterloo Public Library, Waterloo, Iowa -- Dr. Tom Jones, 4-session workshop

October 9-10 -- Iowa Genealogical Society Annual Conference, West Des Moines, Iowa ( -- featured speaker: Timothy Pinnock

October 24 -- South Central Minnesota Genealogy Expo, Mankato, Minnesota( -- featured speaker J. H. Fonkert.

These are small, friendly conferences where you get the chance to get to know the speakers and other conference attendees. Make one of these meetings part of your Family History Month.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Internet is not a Source

I do a lot of genealogy teaching and lecturing, and develop three or four new talks each year. The past week, I've been preparing a talk on using the internet to find ancestral origins. It sounded like a marketable topic -- something that would appeal to a broad audience. It's also one of the most difficult talks I've ever prepared. We often hear genealogy lectures on types of genealogy sources -- the census, vital records, immigration and naturalization records. This talk isn't about any one type of record, but rather about a place where we find and view information.

The internet is not a source. It is more like a library or achive -- a vast depository of both junk and gems. We find many kinds of sources posted to the internet:
  • published material (much of it "self-published)
  • transcriptions and extractions from original sources
  • digital images of original sources (both primary and secondary)

We use these materials with the same care we exercise when examinng material from traditional "non-virtual" sources.

No one, with the possible exception of Cyndi (, can keep up with everything on the internet, just like no one can know about every source in every library or archive. But, we can be smart about search strategies. That, I have decided, is the key point of my new lecture.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Low Dutch Colony of Kentucky

They say you're not much if you're not Dutch. Well, I think that's probably a bit of an exaggeration, but it is a good thing to be Dutch. My Dutch ancestors settled in the 19th-Century Iowa Dutch colonies at Pella and Orange City. Yours perhaps went to Michigan or Chicago, or maybe Wisconsin. I think of the Midwest Dutch as the "New Dutch." That would make the 17th-Century Dutch in New York the "Old Dutch."

I don't have any "Old Dutch" ancestry, but I've become particularly interested in a slice of the New York-Pennsylvania-New Jersey Dutch who struck out for Kentucky in the 1880s. They formed a tight-knit colony in Mercer County, Kentucky, not far from the better known Shaker community at Pleasant Hill (to which a few Dutch defected). A group of descendants from this so-called "Low Dutch" colony is holding its third Dutch Cousins Gathering September 23-27 in Harrodsburg.

I'm going to attend. Why? Because I have been researching an elusive Methodist minister who married a daughter of the Dutch Cozine family about 1817. I don't know where John Fawkner was born, but he was married at least once before he married Ida Cozine. The Fawkner-Cozine marriage apparently didn't end very happily. I suspect religion might have played a part. At any rate, on my way to the Dutch Cousins reunion, I'm going to spend some time in the Kentucky state archives researching Ida's divorce suit against John.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

North Star Genealogy Conference

Looking to upgrade your family history research skills? Join us at the North Star Genealogy Conference September 18-19 at the Minnesota Genealogical Society Library and Research Center in South St. Paul, Minnesota.

Acclaimed genealogy educator Claire Bettag will present four talks:

* Genealogical Assumptions: Your own Worst Enemy
* Government Documents: Untapped Genealogical Treasures
* Introduction to Federal Land Records
* National Archives Records at Your Finger Tips

Claire Bettag is a Certified Genealogist and Certified Genealogical Lecturer based in Washington, D. C., where she is an expert researcher in the National Archives. She teaches at the National Institute for Genealogical Research in Washington, and at the Institute of Genealogical and Historical Research at Samford University.

Nine additional breakout sessions will feature Minnesota’s leading genealogists in three tracks: Minnesota records, Technology for Genealogy, and Family History Writing.

The conference is built around the annual Minnesota Genealogical Society Awards Banquet, scheduled for Friday evening at the South St. Paul Hotel. For a complete program and registration information, visit:

Monday, August 24, 2009

All Genealogists were once Beginners

All Genealogists were once beginners... and if they keep branching into new families and locales, they in a sense will always be beginners. I've been doing genealogical research for 15 years (rather amateurishly the first several years), but as I branch into new areas, I have to learn new tricks. I'm pretty experienced in 19th-century Midwest research, as well as Dutch and Swedish research. But, now that I am pushing some lines back to places like Virginia and Ireland, I feel like a beginner again. Guess what? It's a good feeling, because it's fun to learn.

The good news is that the basic research methods we learn are transferrable to new areas. Yes, we have to learn about new kinds of records, and even tackle new languages, but the basics of evaluating sources, correlating data and drawing reasoned conclusions is largely the same, regardless of where our ancestors came from. This is one reason I urge people doing English or German or Norwegian research to join a local or state genealogy society. When you go to a conference, don't just go to the sessions on your nationality, take in the sessions dealing with research methods or American genealogy, because you will learn skills that will help you with your ethnic research.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Upcoming Fonkert Speaking Engagements

I will do doing my favorite thing -- genealogical education -- often this Fall. Upcoming engagements include:

September 10, Olmsted County Genealogical Society, Rochester, Minnesota, "Finding your European Ancesters Online."

September 17, Dakota County Genealogical Society, South St. Paul, Minnesota, "Fish and Chips Genealogy: Finding your English Ancestors."

September 19, North Star Genealogy Conference, South St. Paul, Minnesota, "Anatomy of a Genealogy Report." See Minnesota Genealogical Society ( for details for this 2-day conference.

October 24, Southern Minnesota Genealogy Expo, Mankato State University, Mankato, Minnesota; keynote address: "Genealogical Detours: Solving Genealogical Detours with Indirect Evidence."

Friday, August 21, 2009

Customized Family History Research Services

Four Generations Genealogy is my professional genealogy research service. Watch this blog for updates on how I can help you solve your family history research problems. From time to time, I will share tips about genealogy research, as well as some of my favorite genealogy experiences.

If you live in the Dakotas-Iowa-Minnesota-Wisconsin region, plan to attend the North Star Genealogy Conference in South St. Paul, Minnesota, September 18-19. The featured speaker is Claire Bettag, an expert land records and the National Archives. Visit the website of the Minnesota Genealogical Society ( for more details.