Thursday, March 10, 2016

My favorite question -- "Why There?"

How many times have you heard a curious child ask, "Why?"  I'm afraid I've lost a bit of my innocent childhood curiosity, but in my dotage, my favorite family history question is "Why There?"

We genealogists spend a lot of time on who (names), what (births, marriages, and deaths), when (dates) and where (location). Our databases are full of who, what, when, and where. Those databases don't usually have a place for "Why?" I'm especially interested in migration and the geography of family history. I always wonder: why did they settle there?

  • Why did Johan Månson settle in Iowa? (see November 2015 post)
  • Why did Sipke Zorgdrager immigrate to Stephenson County, Illinois (see March 3, 2016 post)
  • Why did James Fawkner take his young family to Fort Madison, Iowa? (see June 4, 2015 post)
I think this question so enriches family history research that I developing a new lecture titled "Why Were They There" for presentation at the Southern California Genealogical Society's Jamboree in June ( and the Northwest Genealogy Conference in Arlington, Washington, in August (

Probably the two most obvious reasons for an ancestor settling there are livelihood opportunities or friends or relatives who preceded them. Chain migration is classic. One satisfied immigrant from a family, or even an entire village, often became a magnet for many more to follow. The result, especially in the western Midwest and Great Plains, is a map dotted with hundreds of urban neighborhoods and small towns with strong ethnic identities that persist a hundred or more years later.

I am still unsettled about just which case studies I will use in my lecture. Johan Månson, Sipke Zorgdrager, and James Fawkner are all candidates. But, I'm also thinking about why, only a week after his marriage in Bristol, England, John Tidball took his wife to a southern Minnesota farm in 1884. I'm also wondering why a Italian teenager landed in a small town on the North Shore of Lake Superior. And why, my young German great-grandfather went directly to southeast Iowa in 1866.

Perhaps my favorite "why there" story involves a casket. Katharyn Fawkner did in Los Angeles in 1954. The story of how she got from Minnesota to California, which an in-between stop in  Chicago, is a good one. But this is the story about her life after death. You see, her California death certificate stated that burial was in Woodland Cemetery in New York City. Why there? The answer involves a cousin who married into wealth. The story is a bit too involved to tell this week, but if Katharyn's spirit moves me, I might tell it next week. This, of course, also could by my segue way back to the Fawkner family -- a family about which there is so much more to share.

1 comment:

  1. Hello, Mr Fonkert. I was able to watch the latter half of your recent excellent BCG presentation, the first part of which I missed due to circumstances beyond my control. So went looking for it, and in the process came across your blog. Read your introduction, which I immediately related to: that is pretty much my own motivations as I go about getting my own blog ready.

    Then I read your take on migration, which also resonated. I am finding my own questions "why there" and "why then" are driving more and more of my research. These are critical question, I believe. And what fun to explore! Though I am not nearly as experienced as you I now find myself building entire stories out of what I find in the census for a single town or neighborhood, and shedding light on the lives of my family in the process.

    Your story about the burial of Kathryn Faulkner made me think about what is likely to be the first story on my blog- about the burial of the grandmother whose middle name I share. She died in 1984. Her wish was to be buried in the plot next to her first husband, who had died in 1929, and buried in Twin Falls, Idaho. Grandma died on the Oregon coast. It was difficult and expensive to ship a coffin from there, across all of Oregon and half of Idaho. So her two elderly brothers, who had driven out from Idaho in a huge, aging, circa 1960s station wagon, had the casket loaded into the ample cargo space. Sans transport permit, they drove through the night that weekend to take her back to be buried beside her husband and father of her nine children.

    Years later, when I visited their graves, I learned that nearly everyone buried in that part of the old cemetery were relatives of mine.

    Haven't found your presentation online yet, but will keep my eye out for it. BCG will eventually make it available. And hope I get a chance sometime to see your talk on migration as well!