Great Sources

While I am plotting possible roadtrips… I’m also trying to make full use of the resources I have access to at home so I’ll be talking about a few databases I’ve found—some within Ancestry and some outside it—in a few posts.

SSDIIn case you missed it—and thank you Anne and Jeff for bringing it to my attention— added a new and fabulous database at the end of July. The U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007 expands on the information in the Social Security Death Index (sample to the right) including parents’ names, actual death dates; and various forms of the name (married names, middle names) used at different times in the person’s life.

YorkEdSandyI haven’t had time to fully mine this resource but my find of the week is the transcript of my Great Uncle Edward Sandy York’s application. Other than finding out his middle name was Sandy (after his father), it is also the first document I have found that has offered a possible maiden name for my 2nd Great Grandmother Agnes. He listed her as Agnes Ingram.

This is a particularly useful resource for maiden names, married names you might not have heard before, residences to explore, etc. For one of my cousins it listed two extra married names opening up a whole other line of inquiry.  Login in at home or head out to your library or archives and dive in to this new resource.

Happy hunting,


When you feel like you’ve run out of records and the trip to New York seems impossible to plan right now… what do you do? I tend to start researching the locations, ideally to unearth more records. For this particular branch of the tree that meant researching Jefferson and St. Lawrence Counties in New York.  By looking through the St. Lawrence County Historical Association’s website I discovered the NYS Historic Newspapers project—a fabulous resource for New York researchers! Again, newspapers are the perfect resource for finding out the dirt on our black sheep relatives—what sells in the news business has not really changed… scandal and crime being top of the list. And that’s how I learned another piece of Michael O’Shea’s story.

OSheaMWatertownReunion18860428I was aware of Michael’s existence. He was an Irish immigrant and tailor in Upstate New York. I believe he is a close relative of my 3rd Great Grandfather, Patrick Shea or O’Shea and I know the men married sisters, Amy and Theresa McCumber, and the two couples were listed consecutively in the 1850 United States Census in Philadelphia, Jefferson County, New York. I had already found evidence that Michael and his wife were buried at St Patrick’s Cemetery in Rossie, New York (as was Patrick). But that was pretty much the total of my information prior to finding the newspapers.

Upon searching the NYS Historic Newspapers, I learned that Michael stopped by the hotel of George McLear in Rossie for drinks twice on the 21st of April 1886 and then while walking home that night fell into the Indian River. He was first reported missing but his body washed ashore days later.

OSheaMHisdeathwasnolossIn response, his widow, Amy, filed a civil suit against the hotel owner for serving Michael. The story plays out in articles in a number of the region’s newspapers in two counties as the case was tried, overturned and pursued again later by Michael’s daughter Rosanna. Ultimately the O’Shea’s lost the case when the defense persuaded the jury that Michael wasn’t that drunk and it had been a very dark night to be out walking without a lantern and it was likely just an accident.

His history of drinking didn’t serve the family well either as the defendant in the first trial remarked, “his death was no loss to the plaintiff as he was a worthless fellow and did nothing to support his wife.”


Happy hunting,


So as I noted, I’ve been working on a presentation on black sheep ancestors—which I’ve found a fair number of hanging out on my family tree. Some I’ve found by accident, some I obviously went looking for—like good old H.R. I’m going to write about a few of the side characters in my presentation because of their interesting stories and the great resources I found to research them.

SmithAbner1902I was trying to be better about following out the siblings of my direct ancestors and researching the siblings of Hugh and Jane Alison Massy starting with Rowland Hill and Elizabeth Massy Alison (because siblings marrying siblings). I’d hoped the double family tie might lead me to more information on my Massy-Alison family. But while the Rowland Alison family did move briefly to Detroit and it appears Jane and family followed along right after Hugh’s death, Rowland and family quickly moved on to Chicago where they settled and the research hasn’t yet led me to further revelations on my direct line. But it did lead to a few interesting characters like Abner Smith.

Rowland had at least 5 children including Edith who married Charles Lee Caswell in 1870. The couple had two children including Charles Lee Junior who studied at Northwestern University Law School and was admitted to the Bar by the Supreme Court of the State of Illinois on 1896. He worked in practical law in Chicago until he made junior partner in the firm Smith & Caswell with Judge Abner Smith upon the Judge’s retirement from the Circuit Court Bench in 1903. Smith and Caswell can each be found among the turn of the century who’s who for Chicago prior to the fall of 1905 when Abner became the president of Bank of America and Caswell appears to have gone on to found Caswell & Healy.

DarrowonSmith19090602By April the following year Smith and several others were indicted for conspiracy leading to the wreck of the bank. Among those who lost the majority of their investments was Clarence Darrow who paid out of pocket to all small depositors and served with his partner Edgar Lee Masters (Spoon River Anthology) as attorney for the receiver, Daniel Healy, at Abner’s hearings. There are great detailed write ups in the Chicago Tribune Archives—like this one, “Smith Plea Met by New Charges”.  Abner tried every appeal possible before turning himself in to the Cook County Jail for transport to the State Penitentiary in Joliet, Illinois in May of 1909. And then the process was lengthened when the Sheriff actually refused to transport him.

SmithARasclChiTrib1909In the end he served a year and a month, and on parole in July of 1910 returned home to Chicago and practicing law. His wife Ada died in 1914, he was enumerated as a widowed lodger in 1920, and when the census came round again in 1930 he had married his former partner’s widowed mother, Mrs. Edith Alison Caswell—Rowland’s daughter and my 1st cousin 5 times removed. Abner died in 1932 at the age of 89 and Edith died a year later.

One of my biggest finds from this side trip is that the Tribune archives are fabulous for researching the notable and infamous—especially if you have Chicago roots. And as cases get messy enough you may be able to continue your research in legal reviews or biographies of notable lawyers.

For example, Reports of Cases at Common Law and in Chancery Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of the State of Illinois Vol 239 (available in Google Books) has a detailed and verbose review of the case which charged that the defendants wrongfully, wickedly, fraudulently, feloniously and unlawfully conspired, combined, and confederated… to cheat and defraud and injure the public…” and that’s leaving out a ton.

Happy hunting,


The last installment on my Pennsylvania road trip…

Where Gettysburg was a somber experience my next stop was invigorating. The next morning I got up bright and early in the city of York to do research at the York County Heritage Trust. Again, I had emailed ahead to see what I might expect and had received a very positive reply from the head archivist indicating that there was a substantial amount of information on the Helsel/Heltzel/Hoetzel families. I parking at a local ramp and walked a couple blocks to the Museum and Archives. It’s another repository that charges a daily fee for non-members and asks you to put the majority of your materials away in lockers before fully entering the premises—but it’s so worth it.

I could have spent a week here—and as it was I opted to change my plans and spend half the following day there versus making other stops on my last research day. I went in focused on the Helsel family and was very impressed with their systematic approach. With the proliferation of German names they have control spellings and numbers for their research files so, for example, the Helsel’s control spelling was “Heltze”l and the number was 2636. Armed with that, a volunteer pulled a clippings file, and the appropriate sections of cemetery, tax, estate, and vital card files. And the card files in turn led me to detailed transcriptions and facsimiles of relevant church records. And as I started going through those I realized that I could find information on almost all of my German lines within their collection. As I said, I could have stayed a week.

I spent all of day one on the Helsel’s or working through the church records. And the staff didn’t have to twist my arm to get me to come back the next morning—despite the huge one day parking garage bill. In the end that too, could have been helped if I’d asked the right questions up front. When I paid for my copies at the end of the day the receptionist told me that they had access to free parking in a temporary lot behind the building. I’m chalking the day one bill up to a city donation for having such a fabulous research facility.

Christ Lutheran Church, York, PennsylvaniaChrist Lutheran Church Cemetery, York, PennsylvaniaOn the second day, I got up a little earlier so that I had time to walk down to Christ Lutheran Church (where one branch of the family worshiped) and take photographs. At the archives I spent time on my Mohr, Morningstar, Glass, and Kuntz families—all solidly intermingled long before the same families are marrying in again upon migrating to Ohio. If I had more time I would have spent even more time researching my Dice, Coppenhaver, and Grove families. I have no doubt there would be materials to find. Maybe next trip?

Happy hunting,


I recently came upon this blogpost from The Art of Manliness on a trend the writer noticed on the ease and intimacy of men in the past in photographs. It made me think of these photos from our family collection. The following are both shots of my Great Grandfather Robert Shea and his friends. The first (which I’ve posted before) is with his fellow patients at the Michigan State Sanatorium. The other is with a friend I do not recognize (though I think I have other pictures of) and I’m not sure where the photo was taken.

Happy hunting,


Robert James Shea (2nd from right) at Howell Tubercular Sanatorium c. 1920Robert Shea (Left) and Friend

Old Bostwick Lake Congregational Church, Cannon Twp, MIIt’s that time of year again… Sunday is the Michigan Antiquarian Book and Paper Show (9:30-5 pm) which not only satisfies my interest in collecting books but is also my primary source for postcards to illustrate and round out my genealogy. I tend to collect regular and real photo postcards of street scenes and buildings that were important to my family. So Rockford street scenes dominate my collection. But I also have representative works from Grand Rapids, Howell (the Sanatorium), Leelanau/Grand Traverse, and Ypsilanti as well. And, every once in a while, I even stumble across a postcard actually sent by a distant relative or a friend of the family.

This is a relatively common postcard of Old Bostwick Lake Congregational Church in Cannon Township, Kent County, Michigan which included among its charter members: my Grandpa Bailey’s Great Grandparents, Smith and Eunice Bailey, and two of their married daughters—Eunice Pitcher and Chloe Scott. Many of the Bailey’s and their allied families were buried in the attached cemetery known as Old Bostwick or Marshall Cemetery. The congregation was organized on 06 June 1846 and still exists today in its current incarnation on Belding Rd in Rockford.

Happy hunting.


I’ve had a few questions about connecting slaves and owners since my WMGS talk last month. This is not something I’m an expert in. But I am a good researcher in general so, my advice is to gather every bit of information you can on the former slave family.

  • Pay close attention to all of the locations associated with the family.
  • Look at any evidence of transactions you can—like land, produce, and labor.
  • Follow every side line—siblings, families that seem associated with the one you’re more interested in—African American or Caucasian.
  • Use the Slave Schedules to find possible owners based on age and sex—if you don’t have a better idea start where they were in 1870 but be aware that families sometimes moved with freedom sometimes only a county over and sometimes much farther.
  • Search Slave Narratives through the Library of Congress, Documenting the American South, or in
  • Search the Freedman’s Bank Records through (often accessible through local libraries)

Once you’ve got a few possibilities start researching the slaveholding families in just as much detail as you would your own. Look at land and probate records, and hunt down plantation records (these could be tucked away in university and state archives).

And if you don’t find that magical record that states clearly the connection between slave and owner, then, look for patterns. For my family that meant recognizing that you could plot the places where my ancestors appeared on a map and have it match up with a certain set of westward moving slave owners—so while I’m not certain which slaveholder was ours the odds are it’s one of a relatively small number of interconnected families.

Unless you are unbelievably lucky this will be time consuming and could take years to track down the right records. Be persistent, flexible, and thorough.

But don’t take my word for it. Track down these great resources for more detailed and expert help:

  • Burroughs, Tony. 2001. Black roots: a beginner’s guide to tracing the African American family tree. New York: Fireside Book.
  • Gates, Henry Louis. 2007. Finding Oprah’s roots: finding your own. New York: Crown Publishers.
  • Howell, Barbara Thompson. 1999. How to trace your African-American roots: discovering your unique history. Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Pub. Group.
  • Smith, Franklin Carter, and Emily Anne Croom. 2003. A genealogist’s guide to discovering your African-American ancestors: how to find and record your unique heritage. Cincinnati: Betterway Books.
  • Witcher, Curt Bryan. African American genealogy: a bibliography and guide to sources. Fort Wayne, Ind: Round Tower Books, 2000.

Happy hunting,


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