February 2nd, 2011

A Genealogical Story: Part 1

Once upon a time, when I was a little girl, I thought my father's stories about Where His Father Came From were pretty cool. When we went to see the Hiram Chittenden Locks in Ballard, we heard about the dams in Holland. If there was a tulip, we heard about tulips. I'm not sure what brought up the windmills or wooden shoes. Because we were Jehovah's Witnesses, unfortunately, there were no Sinter Klaas and Zwarte Piet stories (sort of a bummer, really).

When I was a little older, my mother's mother died. She had led an eventful life involving four children by her first husband, second and third husbands (one of whom was very short term; the other of whom fathered my half-uncle and was much beloved. Inevitably, in one of my mother's stories, he found out he had cancer and shot himself, thus ending the few happy years in her life.), years without meat resulting in my mother's lifelong hatred of beans, and eventually, a fourth husband, Great-uncle Adolph, one of the younger brother's of the first husband. Quite biblical, really.

That grandmother stayed with us sometimes when I was quite young -- the kind of grandmother who provided at least some assistance in raising grand-littles. I remember walks in the neighborhood in which she taught us (or at least me) which plants you could eat: dandelions, chamomile. In retrospect, this is actually a little terrifying. Cool, but terrifying. At the time, it seemed normal (my dad talked about Euell Gibbons a lot). When she died, my mother was the executor of her estate. For a variety of reasons, no one else was able to travel with her (younger sister too young, next up too unreliable, oldest couldn't take time off school; dad stayed home to watch the kids -- I do sort of wonder what that was like). As a result, I (as a 14 year old or so) went with her. In combination with a couple earlier trips, this cemented my fascination with the extended Mennonite family in Canada. When a spare copy of the family genealogy became available, I snapped it up and never let it go. (Really, what kind of teenager does _that_? I was never normal.)

I believe my father's father -- the one who came over on the boat from Holland -- had died a little before this.

In any event, when I was 15 and a half, I got my learner's permit, and spent more time alone in the company of my father than before or since. Among the nuggets of information conveyed during these drives (and pathetic attempts to parallel park) was that my paternal grandparent was not, in fact, named Sam. At the time, this was shocking. Grandpa Sam was not Sam? What was his name? Simon, which between the Dutch pronunciation and then-common ideas of what-an-appropriate-name-was, his brother Harry told him to change to Sam. Oh, and Harry wasn't Harry, either: he was Hein. (<-- A little hazy on whether my father told me that at the time.)

While I was in college, my father's mother's mother's clan (Poldervaart) had a reunion. Mostly this was sort of a crowning achievement in the life of Belva Vera Harris Poldervaart, and one she surely had earned. But we were Poldervaarts too, so we went to the reunion, where we saw all the other branches of the family a lot more documented than ours and first really started to get a handle on how everyone in Skagit Valley was (a) Dutch (b) related to each other and (c) not communicating with us because my grandfather was quite religious and rigid about socializing with people of any other religion.

If you're following along at home and taking a drink every time I collect a bound family genealogy, this is your second drink.

A variety of other people died and I made a slight effort to collect the little programs and other ephemera associated with their funerals. I kept them in an album along with copies of other family pictures.

Before I was born, my father's sister was a missionary for the Jehovah's Witnesses. There are some funny stories associated with this (notably, her learning about homosexuality because men in a non-Mediterranean country were referred to as "Greek" when they really obviously were not. She told my mother this story as a ha-ha-jokes-on-me story, and my mother eventually told me when she was trying to find out if it was really true that the ancient Greeks had done the things they were reputed to have done. Yes, mother, and much, much worse. Why do you think I complain about the classics so much? Turns out she hadn't actually been listening to me. Please do not interpret this as me slamming homosexuality. I am instead attacking the classical Greek pedophilia.), but her two sons became missionaries eventually. When the oldest was in Georgia (not the one in the US) and before the younger son had gone to South Africa, my aunt and cousin went to visit my other cousin in Georgia.

At this point in time, my aunt had the paperwork and other detritus of her father and my grandfather, since her mother and my grandmother had died and her older brother was not the executor. In this paperwork, she had discovered that her father had been in touch with siblings back in the Netherlands. Siblings? In the Netherlands? Never heard of those! Being a frugal and curious woman, she and her younger son stopped in the Netherlands on the way to Georgia and tracked down one of her cousins (daughter of one of those siblings who stayed home). By the time they connected, they had only time for a very brief visit (on the order of an hour) and then my aunt and cousin had to catch their flight. I heard about this story before I cut ties with Jehovah's Witnesses and hence lost most contact with that part of my family.

My younger sister had left the Jehovah's Witnesses straight out of high school. I reconnected with her when I left, when she was living in Paris (yes, the one in France). Stupidly, I did not get it together to visit her while she was there on the State Department's dime, and wound up instead visiting her on her husband's next posting, to Warsaw, Poland. My connection going home was through Schiphol, because I still hadn't figured out that only an idiot flies anything but SAS across the pond, at least when going to Northern Europe.

When we were all much younger, there were some books about Holland floating around the families. We used to look through the black and white photos and try to figure out who in our family resembled someone in the photos. It worked really well for me and two of my sisters; my eldest sister, not so much. When I was in elementary school and we had to do projects on Some Country, I usually picked Holland. But when I was older, I quit thinking so much about how We Are Dutch. When I got divorced, I picked my maternal grandmother's maiden name, rather than going back to the Dutch last name I was born with.

Thus, poor adult me, almost 30, coming home from Poland, struck dumb by how most of the people in the airport -- and everyone, almost, who worked there -- sounded like a cousin, or uncle or aunt or some relative, or at least someone from the small towns my father grew up in and around. Different language, same cadence, same tones, same _voices_, same _faces_, and everyone had our color hair and our eyes. When you've been away from home for over a week and (despite having learned more Polish on the flight over than my sister learned in a couple years) feeling linguistically successful when the right food showed up at a restaurant, and you're in a completely strange airport and going through a second round of security, you just do not expect to feel so utterly at home, so surrounded by your own people. It still makes me tear up (<-- not a joke) remembering that feeling.

It took me a few years to get back there. I wrote a letter to my aunt, to ask her for contact information. I wrote a letter to the Netherlands, and got email back asking me to explain who I was. When I went there, I didn't rent a car; I took the train, and let's just say where my family lived at the time wasn't served by a sneltrein. I asked the people running the desk at the hostel to make sure I had the right route picked out. They were mystified that I wanted to go there: that's a place that people _leave_. It took three hours to get there (what with a wait at the transfer) and I had no idea where I was going to spend the night. But my father's first cousin and her husband took me in and fed me, housed me and showed me around for several days. Along with a drive to the even tinier town my grandfather and her father were born in (and a visit to a church), she told me a little about her life and her (adopted) sons and their lives and her father. And we visited the widow of one of her brother's, and I heard about how her brother had competed in the Elfstedentocht.

She had a lot of funny stories about "Tante Sip", including a little about the silver ship, and Sip's imaginary wedding. And she had a sad story about my grandfather contacting her parents to visit as part of a trip to Amsterdam to attend a Jehovah's Witness convention after the war. Her mother wanted nothing to do with those crazy people, and as near as we can tell, that was more or less the end of any conversation across the pond. I don't blame my cousin's mother at all. I know a little about Friesland and religion, and if there's one thing worth remembering it's that these people have had it with nutty, schismatic religions. Then she went upstairs to get some things that my grandfather had sent in the 1970s. Some school pictures of his grand children: there I was in 2nd grade, and all three of my sisters as well.

Let me tell you that very little brings home the certainty that one is with family quite as completely as discovering they have a 2nd grade picture of you.

She also had a piece of paper with a brief family tree and a 3x5 card with a name and phone number on it. The family tree showed her father, my grandfather and their siblings and a few other people. The name was the name of the one child of the brother who came to the US who was _not_ by grandfather. The phone number no longer reached her. My dad's cousin wanted to know if I knew this woman. I did not. But she gave me the card, and I said I'd try to find her.

A Genealogical Story: Part 2

It's 2002. I have a piece of paper with a limited family tree on it and a 3x5 card with a name. It's a woman's name, but it isn't: it's Mrs. husband's name. I got precisely nowhere quite quickly.

By the end of 2003, I'd moved across country. In 2004 I went back to the Netherlands to visit family again, this time with my fiance. In 2005 I moved back to Seattle and had a son. In 2006 we moved back to the east coast. In 2008 I had a daughter. In 2009, I got a death announcement for my father's cousin's husband the same month I moved to Massachusetts. Also during this time, I signed up ancestry.com and took a few whacks at the problem from the known-dead side: my great uncle. I found his naturalization paperwork, and it mentioned a daughter, which gave me three names for the girl who would become Mrs. husband's name. Unfortunately, not only did her father decide my grandfather should be Sam and he should be Harry, he decided their last name should be Smith. While I absolutely sympathize and wholeheartedly endorse the decision as a person, as an amateur genealogist it makes me want to cry. Fortunately, the daughter had married a man with a highly unusual surname, and one with an easily identifiable identity: Jewish.

I spent January of 2011 sick with a series of colds. I had a very short attention span, a laptop, and ancestry.com to help me out when I got sick of facebook games. I went after my other known-Dutch heritage (the Poldervaarts of the reunion), because I had great documentation and I was going in the right direction (backwards). After some random googling and finding other people's stambooms with relevant names in them, I quickly stumbled upon genlias.com, which is the national collection of civil registries in the Netherlands. That got me back to the early 1800s. Eventually, I realized that the local registries sometimes have more information than genlias has, and worked on Tresoar for a while, getting me even further back.

This was a very mechanical process: enter name. Pick the right one (usually pretty obvious). Look at the record. If it is a marriage record, add the spouse, add approximate birth dates, add parents for both spouses. Enter both names. Look for children. Add children. Lather, rinse, repeat. Look for death records. Look for birth records for the parents. Look for marriage records for the parents. Etc. I wasn't even doing anything sophisticated involving property records.

While I was in there, I figured I might as well go tracking up from my grandfather and his siblings (and across and down, as well, where I could find marriages and birth records -- records for living people don't seem to be accessible online in genlias).

It occurred to me, looking at all those marriage records, that I might be able to answer some long-standing questions about my maternal grandmother's ancestry (known non-Dutch -- the only one of four) if I could find her marriage record. I was reasonably certain she married in Manitoba, and when I discovered their marriage records were online (at least sufficiently old ones), I typed in her name and her husband's name and was utterly stunned to not only find the record, but to discover Canadian marriage records had parents' fields and they were all filled in. Once I had the information in my tree, it showed me someone else's tree that had a similar group of people. An exchange of messages later, and I knew I had the right people. Between his (and his wife's) work (his wife is a distant relative on that side), and other trees on ancestry.com, I kept tracing lines back until I got to pre-Revolutionary War Kentucky and decided to do something else for a while.

With so many surprising successes, I decided to take another shot at Mrs. husband's name. I revisited that naturalization record. I tried to find the (now lost) paperwork (it'll turn up). No luck, but my memory is good enough to remember _that_ name. After all, husband's first name was the same as her father's and that last name was memorable. I got a social security death record for Mr. and Mrs. husband fairly quickly. Next up: what happened to my great-aunt? In the course of searching for her (and great-uncle's) marriage license on the Washington State digital archives website, I stumbled across Mrs. and Mrs. husband's marriage license.

The marriage records have scanned copies of the license which inconsistently have ages of parties and consistently have witness signatures. Mr. husband and one of the witnesses shared that unusual last name, which sent me back to the 1930 census record. That column that looked like "Turkey" was now quite clearly "Turkey" and I was deeply suspicious of Mom ("Molly") and Dad ("Sam"). I started thinking maybe what my great-uncle and grandfather did was awful common.

But now what? I had probably topped out on Mr. husband. I was totally failing on my great-aunt: no name, no death record, no marriage license, no birth record, no nothing. The goal, of course, had changed. With Mrs. husband deceased, I needed to find kids, and I wasn't going to find birth records for living people online.

Back to googling, where the brothers first names and that unusual last name found me a Sephardic congregation in the right metropolitan area with a list of members who served in various wars. How encouraging! Then, in a bizarre twist, I found headstones for everyone (including "Molly" who, as suspected, wasn't born "Molly" and "Sam", ditto) which got me birth dates and death dates and reassured me that this name _really_ was as unusual as I thought it was. I dutifully transcribed the information into ancestry.com without giving a lot of thought to the location of the headstones. Then I thought, jeez, what if they're in totally the wrong place? Up I go in the website to try to find an address. Which I did.

For the first 23 years of my life, I lived in a house on the corner of a cul-de-sac and a busier street. On the other side of that busier street was a Jewish cemetery (that regular readers of this blog know my father made dumb jokes about "they're dying to get in there", "they make great neighbors because they are quiet"). I walked around in that cemetery. Mostly, it was the big thing that I had to go around (it was fenced) to get to my best friend's house. But since I was about five, "Sam" was buried there. "Molly" joined him, and, after I graduated from high school, so did my father's cousin's husband. After I moved out, that witness on the marriage certificated was buried there, too.

On the day that I was pole-axed to discover these relatives were buried across the street from where I grew up, I had woken up thinking I had a good explanation for doing a messy, sprawling, family tree with no discipline, that just went wherever it took me: who knows who might be living down the street from you, a relative not even very distant, if you don't do a big enough tree to find them all?

My first thought was that I really should contact the Sephardic congregation; they could clearly put me in contact with relatives, especially since my father's cousin's husband's headstone said "beloved husband and father", which suggested there really were children out there to find. Much later, however, I asked the question I should have asked much sooner.

What institution documented our lives during the mid 20th century? The newspaper.

I signed up for the Seattle Times archives ($26.95 for one month of access, up to 100 articles). I found an obituary for my father's cousin's husband, listing the survivors which confirmed I had the right woman and got me names of three children and the existence of four grandchildren. Further searching found me spouses for some of the children, and birth dates on two of the grandchildren and occupations for a couple of the children.

At that point, I resorted to facebook. Because who wouldn't? And there they were: the names I had and a few more besides that looked like the grandchildren of the woman I had started out in search of and perhaps some spouses. They interconnected through each other's friends pages. So I sent one of them a message.

And she replied. She is indeed the daughter of the woman I went in search of, and she is curious about her Dutch heritage. I picked the daughter, rather than a son or grandchild. Her name is her mother's, reversed. I figured such a woman would surely be the guardian of any saved papers and her brief message confirmed that as well. I've barely been able to think all day, I'm so excited, which is why I took a little break to write all this down.

A Genealogical Story: The Moral

(1) Keep paperwork that documents random relatives that you don't generally stay in touch with. You don't need to be particularly orderly about this; just try not to throw it away. I haven't had to resort to a photograph yet, but I probably will, and photos really suck compared to other paperwork. (I'm still attempting to dig up my maternal grandmother's 2nd and/or 3rd husbands).

(2) Mooch off other people's work. Websites that connect family trees (such as ancestry.com) and also just random googling off of unusual names.

(3) Look for electronic datasets. And then look again. ancestry.com collects a bunch of datasets, but I could not find my great-uncle's death record. I _could_ find it in the Washington State digital archives, as a Social Security Death Record -- but those are in ancestry.com and I couldn't find it there. There are Dutch marriage/birth/death records in ancestry.com, but it's not clear what that collection is -- it isn't everything in genlias, but it has more than genlias seems to have in some ways.

(4) That family legend? Break it down into its component parts. Be suspicious, but don't just assume it's false because there may be important clues in it that will be helpful later.

It used to be a whole lot of letter writing and typing and meticulous record keeping to do this stuff. Now, it's a whole lot of googling and electronic matching. There are probably people out there who would sniff and say the quality has gone right downhill (and in some cases, they're definitely right -- nothing else explains a father field having someone younger in it than the person they supposedly fathered. ancestry.com really tries to stop you from doing this, but people do it anyway and then other people copy it). But I'm working off of paper genealogies for part of this and they are definitely not error-free, and it's way easier to fix an error in an electronic tree than it is on typed and photocopied family group sheets.

Weirdly, I've never read a book about how to do this stuff; I sort of grew up with it. I've ordered a couple because it seems so _wrong_ not to have read a book about it, and there are still points where I'm learning obvious things very slowly. (Newspapers! Newspapers!)

Another Genealogical Story

My mother's maiden name is unusual. It is mostly limited geographically to a part of Canada (and parts of the Midwest in the US). I was recently quite shocked to see it on a hockey jersey in a television ad, but then again, limited geographically to _Canada_. Family legend says that we are originally Dutch and that our Mennonite ancestors had to leave the Netherlands because of religious persecution (<-- The Dutch are not tolerant because they are pro-diversity. They are tolerant because they're really tired of the fighting. It's a choice, and historically a recent and tenuous one.). They traveled around Europe for a while before settling in the Crimea, which was a good time and a good place for them. Unfortunately, the tsars changed the deal eventually, and they decided to move to Canada, where they settled in two villages in the middle of the country.

By the time I was hearing the story, the family telling it to me lived near Calgary, so I initially assumed they meant Alberta. No, I was told, it was in Manitoba; people had since spread out to get land of their own. That (and a huge number of nth cousins n times removed) were what I knew about my mother's maiden name.

Fast forward. One of my first cousins is a bit of an ass. (Ha! We're all asses. But he stands out a bit, even among us. Only a bit, tho. Probably just means he's slightly more spectrumy than the rest of us. Altho that does not explain him slamming his younger brother's head in a door repeatedly until another brother stopped him. Maybe more than a bit of an ass, come to think of it.) I only see him at funerals, anymore, and then mostly if I don't see him first. (<-- Not a joke.) He was the first (maybe only) person on that side of the family to pursue a PhD, and he didn't get it (in English. Go ahead and laugh. I often do.). When asked, he'd say he just didn't finish his dissertation, but he actually never really got started on the dissertation. His theory was that we weren't actually Dutch at all, but German. Usually when he said this, I'd just pre-emptively say, hey, I know _I'm_ Dutch and point to my father, but the point he was making was regarding my mother's father and his father's father and the Canadian Mennonites in general. His argument was convoluted but revolved around the surname in question not being Dutch.

Fast forward. While I was in the Netherlands, I ask my cousin and her husband about the surname and told them about the pronunciation. By this point, I knew enough Dutch to have gotten somewhat suspicious of the Dutch theory -- but I knew a lot more German, and I knew that theory made even less sense. My cousin's husband proposed a couple alternate spellings but said he had never heard of it either.

Fast forward. I moved to Mayberry, NH (<-- not the real town name) and volunteered at a library. Sometimes I would be reading shelves, which is to say, making sure all the books are in proper order on the shelves. In the course of doing this, I found a copy of _Through Fire and Water_, a Herald Press history of Anabaptists and Mennonites. I'm sorry to say that until I picked it up, it had _never_ occurred to me to attempt to find my relatives in _history_. We just didn't seem important enough to write about. This is an incredible cognitive lapse on my part. I've enjoyed reading about _much_ more obscure things. After reading the book and ordering more, I knew that based on our faith history, we really weren't Dutch: we were Frys. Menno Simons was a priest in _Pingjum_. Already, the two sides of my heritage were converging. Yet I still had no answer on that obscure last name. You can still find Wiebes in Frysland -- but not my mother's maiden name.

I did more research. I got out the self-published genealogy for the clan and googled the oldest guy in the tree. I found other people researching him. I found the boat he came over on (and inevitably, I've misplaced this research as well). I found lists of the Kleine Gemeinde with his name. I found the tiny village they founded back in Russia as a splinter group. It was clear that if I was willing to dig through paper records, I could go back as far as I had the patience for.

Then I found GAMEO: http://www.gameo.org/

For a while, I just wasted time reading random entries that confirmed what had rapidly become very apparent. Mennonites aren't exactly mainstream, and my branch was the batshit crazy branch, a discovery which was simultaneously depressing and relieving -- it's not just me thinking these people are weird. Eventually (months later, IIRC), it occurred to me to just check the surname entry for my name. And there, spelled out as plain as could be: common among Prussian Mennonites, probably of Dutch background, derived from Matthew. I'm sure my annoying cousin would argue, see! That _proves_ we're German, not Dutch.

Whatever, G. It's not a question of whether we're German or Dutch. The question is whether we're Dutch or Frys.

a little blast from the past

I used facebook to get in touch with a descendant of my great-uncle Harry. We've had a couple of exchanges -- I gave her full access to my ancestry.com tree and a few pages of description of Harry's brother Sam's descendants and she told me the name I've been missing, Harry's wife.

Stunningly, once I _had_ that name, it took me less than five minutes to find her death record, which, in addition to having the death date and her birth date, quite helpfully had fully filled in parents name fields and a spouse field so I was absolutely sure I had the right one. Thus, parents! Very exciting. Next up: a marriage record! I don't know why I couldn't find it via Harry's name (altho, unhelpfully, they got married in Seattle even tho both were living in Skagit at the time).

The witness fields and officiant field all shared a last name, and it wasn't either of the parties. That was unusual enough to send me looking for the officiant and look! He was in on the dedication of Swedish Hospital.


Emil Friborg married my great-uncle.

This is _such_ a fun hobby.

Oh, and ancestry.com turned up a full name and birth year match for my great-aunt-by-marriage. She's an immigrant, too, but turns up in the England and Wales dataset. I'll have to do more research before I really believe it. [ETA: Yeah, that wasn't true.]