Q: “I’d like to learn more about my family but I don’t know how to get started…”
This is probably one of the most common things I hear people say when I encourage them to look into their family history. My first suggestion is to not think too far ahead-start with the absolute basics.
To begin-let’s have a look at a Pedigree Chart. A pedigree chart is what comes to the mind of most people when they hear, “family tree” or “genealogy”. It’s the tree like chart that shows the people you directly descend from.
Due to lack of space, most printed versions don’t typically show a whole lot for siblings, aunts, uncles, etc. Once you start using genealogy programs to build your tree-there is more space and flexibility to show other descendants of your ancestors.
Below is a great example of a basic Pedigree Chart…
So, where do you get started? You start with the person you know best…
Looking at the pedigree chart above, you are the base of your tree (far left box). Like any other family member or ancestor, your story matters. Take a second to fill out your full name, date and place of birth, date and place of marriage and the name of your spouse (if you are married). If you are filling this out-you are obviously still alive and kicking so we can skip date and place of death for now.
Besides being a sobering reminder of our mortality, there is another reason/need for the date and place of death in the first box. We’ll get to that in a bit.
Next you move on to your parents.
There are two ways of doing this… you can fill it in yourself (if you know your parents birth, marriage and death information) OR (if your parents are living) you could call, email or visit them and ask them for help filling in their boxes.
Now move on to your grandparents.
If you are lucky enough to have your grandparents-VISIT them and ask them for help! If they have passed, ask your parents for help filling in their parent’s information. If your parents have passed-reach out to your siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins for help. You’d be surprised by how much information other family members might remember. They may even have documents on hand that will provide you with information you’re looking for.
With any luck, as you reach out beyond your immediate family, you may find another family member who is also researching the family. It’s like hitting the genealogy jackpot when this happens. You could end up with a ton of new information with one phone call, email or visit… again I suggest visit.
You are going to continue to work your way as far back as you can go with the help of your family. As you do this, you are going to see holes of missing information. Take note of the missing information-the next step will be learning what documents are needed and where to go in hopes of obtaining the information.
What If I Have The Names Of My 2nd Great Grandparents?
If you find yourself lucky enough to go back further than your great grandparents and have run out of room on the pedigree chart-no need to worry! Here’s where the spaces for information on death come in handy for the first box…
On a new pedigree chart, you will fill in the base of the tree (the far left box) with the information of one of your great grandparents. So, the last generation on your first pedigree chart becomes the first generation or “base” on the next. You will have one new pedigree chart for each great grandparent (total of 8) filling in the names of their parents, grandparents, etc. as you discover the information. Run out of room again? Repeat-last generation becomes base.
“…genealogy is so overwhelming…”
It really doesn’t have to be. Like anything else, it’s all about breaking the entire process down into smaller steps.
Step One- Start With The Basics.
Reach out to your family for help with the pedigree chart
Fill the sheets out in pencil (information can change)
Worry about chasing records after (lovingly) interrogating your family
Keep yourself organized
I always suggest that newbies start on paper before jumping to the technology that’s available. The sheets that I introduce you to will help you understand the basics and give you an idea of what you should be looking for. Once you get a feel for the process, you can use the sheets to input the information into a genealogy program.
Next week, I’ll introduce you to another worksheet that will help you gather and organize more information about your family, beyond what can fit on the pedigree chart. Until then-get a feel for the pedigree chart and if you have any questions don’t be shy! Leave them below in the comments and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.
Born and raised in New England, I grew up hearing about the celebrations that take place in Boston every year on St. Patrick’s Day. To say my boyfriend and I were excited to be experiencing it for ourselves for the first time was an understatement. Driving into the city to meet up with friends, we really had no idea what we were getting into. While live Irish music filled the streets, there were lines out the door of every restaurant, pub and club. People were dressed head-to-toe in green, and you could tell they’d been in Boston all day.
As we walked the crowded streets, an old saying popped into my head: “Everybody’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day” and it got the genealogist in me thinking.
From 1845 until 1850, Ireland’s population of 8.5 million people suffered immensely of starvation and disease due to one of the 19th century’s greatest catastrophes, “The Great Hunger.” Brought on by potato crops devastated by a disease known as potato blight, one third of Ireland’s population — which depended on the potato as their main source of food — watched helplessly as their crops were ravaged. To make matters worse, the British government added to Ireland’s suffering by continuing to export large quantities of food and livestock from Ireland despite the fact that people were dying of hunger.
While a million people died of starvation and disease, half a million people were evicted from their homes, thrown into a life of poverty. As a result, in a desperate attempt to survive, two million of them left Ireland emigrating to England, Scotland, Australia, Canada and the United States.
Although Boston was quick to respond to the potato famine, sending 800 tons of food, supplies and clothing to Ireland in March 1847, Bostonians were less than thrilled when Irish refugees began pouring into their city by the thousands. In 1847 alone, 37,000 sick and impoverished Irish immigrants landed in Boston settling along the city’s waterfront in cramped shacks. Fleeing their homeland in hope of survival and opportunity, our Irish ancestors were faced with intolerance and adversity.
As they settled into their run-down flats, our ancestors were then confronted with the challenge of finding work. Due to anti-Irish job discrimination and lack of experience, many found themselves working as servants, which lead to some Americans viewing the Irish as an uneducated servant race. If they weren’t working as servants they took up jobs in factories and worked as laborers. Resented by the American working class for their willingness to work for meager wages, their determination to make it in America was unjustly viewed as greedy and desperate.
Ostracized for their religion and ridiculed for their home life, the Irish were discriminated against on many different levels. Many parents decided to scrap popular Irish names such as Bridget and Patrick in an attempt to Americanize their children, while escaping the derogatory meanings the names had taken on in America. It wasn’t uncommon to find cartoons regularly featured in Boston newspapers depicting the Irish as immoral, illiterate alcoholics who were always looking for a party and a fight.
As I walked the streets of Boston with my boyfriend and friends, I found it impossible not to smile. Surrounded by a sea of people dressed in green, I couldn’t help but wonder how my ancestors would have felt seeing their descendants openly celebrating their Irish heritage in the streets.
Leaving behind the starvation and poverty they faced in Ireland for a fresh start and chance of survival in America was hardly an easy transition. Thanks to their hard work, determination and resilience they were able to survive the famine and make America home.
Anyone who has spent years researching their family history will tell you to be prepared for hidden surprises. The lives of our ancestors were just as complicated back then as our lives are today. I think most of us tend to forget they were living breathing people until we start uncovering their lives through the paper trail they left behind. Even after 20 years of research, uncovering my family’s secrets, I must admit that one of my ancestors left me speechless and feeling a little lost last night.
My 2nd great grandmother Alice McCurdy had been a bit of a mystery to me for many years. I knew she existed, she appeared on my great grandfather’s death certificate and I was able to find a marriage certificate for her and my 2nd great grandfather, Melville Williams. However, it wasn’t until the last couple of weeks that some new documents emerged, which helped fill in some missing pieces to her story.
About a week ago I had stumbled upon her death certificate online. I felt like I had hit the jackpot with that discovery since she had been a difficult one to track. From the death certificate I learned she was only 34 when she passed away… the same age I am now. To make matters worse, she left behind a husband and three young children, one of which was my great grandfather Robert Henry Williams.
I had figured she had died young over the years since she didn’t appear in the 1900 census living with her husband, children and parents, Henry Martin McCrudy and Frances Abby Hinds. Given the situation, I figured her parents must have moved in to help Melville with the children. It wasn’t until I got this missing puzzle piece (Alice’s death record) that I was able to learn she died of “Phthisis”, commonly known as Tuberculosis or “consumption”.
As most of us know today tuberculosis was a horrible infectious disease. Many people died from it since it was easily spread by air through the coughs and sneezes of an affected person. Tuberculosis victims would end up weak and gaunt, coughing up blood while suffering from night sweats and extreme weight loss. In many cases, those who were kind enough to care for infected victims ended up coming down with the disease themselves. This was the case for my great grandfather, Percy Leslie’s 16-year-old sister who came down with it after caring for an elderly neighbor who suffered from it.
Learning that this was how my 2nd great grandmother died, I felt horrible. What a terrible thing for the family to witness and for Alice, what a horrible end. At the same time, I felt so fortunate that the disease did not spread to the rest of the family. Had it spread, I would not be here today. Learning her cause of death also made me think back on the many TB hospitals I have visited over the years and the awful stories that came out of them. Did Alice end up in one of these hospitals? That is now on my list of things to research next.
Just as I was finally getting over this new bit of news surrounding Alice’s death, researching her father Henry Martin McCurdy let me in on another family secret.
A few weeks ago I decided to go back through my family tree as an attempt to fill in missing information and just to clean it up. I began writing outlines for each family member, double checking all the details and making more of a story out of the information I had gathered. After finishing up on Alice, I moved on to her father last night. Going through Henry’s information I saw that he married Frances Abby Hinds on January 6, 1864 in Boston, Massachusetts. Skipping ahead to the 1870 U.S. Federal Census I found Henry (age 31) and Frances (age 30) living in Pittston, Maine. Recording all the information I could gather on Henry, I then moved on to the 1880 U.S. Federal Census where I noticed… something just doesn’t add up.
In the 1880 census my 2nd great grandmother Alice makes her first appearance, however I realized that it said she was 13 years old. “Well, this can’t be right…” I thought. If she was 13 in the 1880 census, she should have appeared in the 1870 census with her parents. Knowing that an age being off on a census isn’t that uncommon, I figured I would take a closer look… and there it was…
Alice was adopted. Just like that, in a matter of seconds everything I thought I knew about my McCurdy branch was wrong. Two little letters left me with a million questions and a sick feeling in my stomach.
Who is Alice? Where did she come from and who were her birth parents? Why did they give her up? The only time I have dealt with adoption in my family the child was adopted by another family member… could this be the case with Alice? Then at least part of the tree I had for her would still be correct. However this all made me wonder, how many ancestors do we have hiding in our trees that were adopted and we have no idea? Entire sections of our tree would be wrong when it comes to tracing bloodlines. If it weren’t for me deciding to clean up my tree and this one document pointing out the adoption, I would have never known.
While I am now left feeling blindsided and facing a new roadblock with Alice, I can’t help but also feel very appreciative towards Henry Martin McCrudy and Francis Abby Hinds. They not only took in my second great grandmother, they took in her children after she passed away. As I said, the 1900 census showed Henry and Frances living in the house of Alice’s husband but the 1910 census showed the kids still living with Frances (who was then widowed) with their father no where to be found.
Last night I learned that it doesn’t matter how long you have been into genealogy or how much you think you know about your family, there is always room to be surprised.
Have you dealt with adoption in your family tree? Any advice on breaking through the dead end? Are you currently battling that road block? Keep an eye out for updates on Alice’s story as I attempt to find the names of Alice’s birth parents.
Searching for our ancestors can be just as frustrating as it is rewarding, especially when you hit a dead end. There are times you will be fortunate enough to have the name of your ancestor and still have no luck finding their documents.
How can this be?
Below is a list of things to consider when researching that stubborn ancestor.
Full names: When interviewing family members about your ancestors, be sure to ask them for first, middle and last names. Also, be sure to ask if the spelling is correct to the best of their knowledge.
Example: William Percy Leslie (first, middle, last)
When you surpass your family’s memory, you will find yourself facing the challenge of learning the names of unknown ancestors through documents. In this case, it is just as important to do your best to find the full name of your ancestor.
Why is my ancestor’s full name so important?
If your ancestor has a common name, it isn’t uncommon to find several people with the same first and last name living within the same time period, in the same area. Having the middle name-even just the middle initial-will help narrow your search and provide you with more concrete findings.
Middle Names: Let’s say you are researching your ancestor, William Percy Leslie and you are getting nowhere searching for him by his full name. Try searching for him under his middle and last name only OR by his middle name first, then his first and last.
Example: Percy Leslie or Percy William Leslie
Why search for my ancestor under their middle name?
Funny enough, our ancestors weren’t very formal when it came to record taking. It isn’t uncommon to find ancestors going by their middle name instead of their first name-even in official documents. This is especially common in census records. You may even find your ancestor frequently interchanges between both first and middle name from record to record.
Why would my ancestor go by their middle name?
Many times I have seen this in cases where sons are named after their fathers or daughters are named after their mothers. So, instead of having two William Leslies in a household, the son would be called by his middle name, Percy. In other cases-it may be as simple as your ancestor William just preferred his middle name over his first.
Initials: Lets say you have tried searching for William Percy Leslie, William Leslie, Percy Leslie or Percy William Leslie and you are still not having any luck. Try searching for William by his initials.
Example: W.P. Leslie or W. Leslie or P. Leslie or P.W. Leslie
Why would I search for my ancestor by their initials?
Searching by initials can be helpful since many times, that is all that is used in records. This is especially true on census records and can be common on military records. Try all four variations in the example above when searching and you just might find your ancestor hiding in a document after all!
Nicknames: No luck with full name, middle names or initials? Try searching for your ancestor by their nickname.
Example: Bill Leslie or Bill Percy Leslie
Why search for a nickname?
Just like middle names and initials, it wasn’t uncommon for our ancestors to go by nicknames in official documents.
What if I don’t know of a nickname being used?
Look at your ancestor’s name. Give it your best logical guess or guesses and search. Can’t hurt to try!
Abbreviations: Yes, there are more options to search! Many times I have found my ancestors names abbreviated on documents (census, military, death certificates, etc.)
Example: Wm. Leslie or Wm. Percy Leslie
What names are commonly abbreviated?
You would be surprised by how many names have abbreviations beyond nicknames. Some of the most common ones I have come across are Jno. (John), Jas. (James), Chas. (Charles), Marg. (Margaret), Sar. (Sarah) and Thos. (Thomas).
Spelling Variations: Since this doesn’t really work with the name William as an example… let’s use my name. My first name is Kristin. Let’s say I was your ancestor and you tried looking for me using all the options listed above and still you found nothing. You could then try searching for variations of my name.
Example: Kristin, Kristen, Kristyn, Christin, etc.
Why should I search for spelling variations?
As an example, your ancestor wouldn’t have filled out a census record. So, it is possible the enumerator may have used a different spelling variation when recording your ancestor’s information. They would have gone with a spelling variation they were most familiar with, which may not have been the one your ancestor used.
Name Spelt Phonetically: Let’s say your ancestor has a name that isn’t common. How might you spell their name phonetically?
Why is this important?
In many cases there are documents that your ancestors did not fill out themselves. In this case, the person responsible for filling out the record may have spelt your ancestor’s name by sound. This is a common problem when it comes to foreign or unique names and can pose quite a challenge when it comes to searching for documents.
Consider all phonetic variations and try searching. It may seem like a needle in a haystack but sometimes the extra effort pays off.
Transcriber Error: Still having trouble finding your ancestor? Sometimes you will find transcribers have misread the documents they are adding to internet databases.
Many transcribers do not get paid for their time-they are amazing people who work hard to get documents online. However, they are also human and at times make mistakes. It could be as simple as a typo or they have misread the document.
Old cursive documents can be near impossible to read. Think about it, sometimes E’s look like I’s or vise versa, U’s can look like N’s or vise versa and so on. Look at your ancestor’s name. What letters may have been misread by the transcriber? Pull those letters out, add the possible replacements and see if anything comes up.
Name Changes: Be sure to ask your family about any known name changes, especially concerning last names. When it comes to researching an ancestor be ready to search for them under both names.
Example: Let’s take a look at my great grandfather, Abramo Biajo Donato Cautilli. When he came to the states with his family, the spelling of his last name got changed to Cantelli. Possibly a record taker error-who knows.
From there, Abramo hated that people in the U.S. called him Abraham. For his confirmation, he took on the name Biajo so he could call himself Joe. From then on, the man born as Abramo Cautilli became Joseph Cantelli.
In order to find all of Joseph’s documents I had to search every name possibility-full name, middle name, initials, nicknames, abbreviations, spelling variations, phonetic variations, name changes and possible transcriber errors.
Although the list of search options above may sound like quite the task to take on, having the patience to search each possibility can really pay off. Be patient and focus on one ancestor at a time!
If you have found the suggestions above to be helpful in your own search or you have any search suggestions you like to add to the list, please comment below!
Tracing my Italian roots has been difficult to say the least, especially when it comes to name changes or my ancestors names being misspelled. However, I was stumped with a new mystery when I came across three separate passenger lists that listed my 2nd great grand father, Andrea Cautilli.
At first, I figured it must just be multiple men with the same or a similar name but the more I examined and cross referenced the documents I realized all three were in fact records of Andrea’s travels.
Passenger List: New York, New York
On March 22, 1897, “Andria Cantilli” arrived in New York, New York on La Champagne, having departed from Havre. My 2nd great grandfather was only 27 years old when he arrived in the United States with his brother “Sevidio” (Cesidio Cautilli), age 30. Andria, whose occupation was listed as a workman, brought with him only one bag of luggage.
In this 1st document, a couple of details stood out. I knew that my great grand father, Andrea was from Italy and I knew he had an older brother named Cesidio. Although I knew Andrea and Cesidio’s names where spelt incorrectly on this document, I knew this was a common problem in records concerning Italian immigrants and assumed there was a good chance that this was my 2nd great grandfather and his brother.
Passenger List: Boston, Massachusetts
“Andrea Cantilli”, who was from San Donato in Southern Italy, sailed from Naples on the S.S. Cambroman and landed in Boston, Massachusetts on July 1, 1902. At the age of 32 he paid his way to the United States, landing in Boston with only $24.00 in his pocket. This document listed him as married, able to read and write, working as a stonecutter and mentioned that he had been in the United States before, from 1897-1900. Along with this information, the document provided a few other strange details, including the fact that he was not a Polygamist, that he was in good metal and physical health and was not deformed or crippled. In Boston, Andrea planned to stay with his friend, Carmine Cantilli.
This document, paired with the first passenger list provided a few more details and helped confirm that the two documents were pertaining to the same person. First of all, I grew up hearing about my family being from San Donato, Italy-that checked out. 2nd, although it lists Andrea as staying with a friend in Boston, I knew my great grandfather had a brother named Carmine Cautilli. Another thing that got my interest was that I knew Andrea’s son, my great grandfather Abramo was a stonecutter-did Abramo follow in his father’s footsteps? Finally, this record confirmed that Andrea had also traveled to the Untied States in 1897, which helped link the first and second passenger lists to the the same man.
Passenger List: Boston, Massachusetts
On April 22, 1909, Andrea Cautilli sailed from Naples, Italy on the S.S. Cauopic and arrived in Boston, Massachusetts. Andrea was from Southern Italy, in Caserta, San Donato. Listed as his “nearest relative or friend” in Italy is his wife, Angela who lived in San Donato. Andrea was 39 years old, working as a stonecutter, was able to read and write and was headed for his final destination in West Quincy, Massachusetts.
This third passenger list continued to make sense of the previous two. It also gave me a more specific location as to where my family was from in Italy and even mentioned my 2nd great grandmother, whose name was Angela. Finally, it mentioned Quincy, Massachusetts-the location my Cautilli family settled.
Once I went through these three documents, cross examined the information and determined that they all were referring to the same man I couldn’t help but wonder, why did he travel to the United States three separate times? During that time it wasn’t a quick seven to eight hour flight over the Atlantic Ocean… it was at least two miserable weeks trapped on a boat. Not to mention-how the hell was he able to afford the multiple trips?
This new information got my family’s imagination going… was Andrea up to some criminal funny business that lead to his several trips across the ocean? Because that’s the only rational conclusion-everyone’s Italian family must have mafia connections, right? Was there some large Cautilli fortune out there that we were never made aware of? I wonder… who was left the treasure map…
After hours of crazy (but fun) outlandish guesses, I decided to do a search on Italian Immigration in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s.
Stepping back to take a look at Italian history around the time my 2nd great grandfather left provided me with some answers regarding his several trips. In fact, it was not uncommon for Italian men to make several journeys to the Untied States during that time period, they were even referred to as “Birds of Passage”.
So what made these Italian men flock to the United States?
From 1876 through 1976 Italy suffered from political, economical and environmental troubles. During this time period Italy was made up of several different states that were all busy fighting each other. In 1860 they were faced with a 10-year civil war, which lead to one million people being slaughtered by the Italian Army of occupation. From what I read, a majority of those targeted were southern Italians… where my family was from.
Following the war, Italy (especially southern) was confronted with an extreme economic depression. The northern Italians who basically ran the government took the opportunity to over tax the southern Italians into poverty. To make matters worse, there was a lack of natural resources, which lead to little to no industry.
To add to the destruction following the war, political corruption and weak economy Italy was hit with a series of natural disasters. There were two volcanoes that erupted burying entire towns and an earthquake in 1908, which killed 100,000 people from the tsunami that followed.
Needless to say southern Italy was a mess when men decided to leave their families (parents or spouses and children) to look for work in America. The plan however was never to stay here, it was to come to the United States to make money during the busy work months to send home to their families and then return home once the work season came to an end. This earned them the name, “Birds of Passage”. This trip across the sea in search of work became a common thing, part of growing up. They were trying to make life for their families back home better AND life in Italy better by getting temporary work here. Once these men made enough to live comfortably in Italy they would return home and stay there while others, after several trips, decided to stay here and become citizens.
From the sounds of it, my 2nd great grandfather Andrea and his brothers were “Birds of Passage”. His final trip to the United States would have happened just a year after the 1908 earthquake. Once he got settled in Quincy, Massachusetts he sent for his wife and three sons to come over in 1910.
Why did he decide to change his plans and make the US his home? That is something I will never know the exact reason for. However, with a little research into Italy’s history I am able to come up with a basic understanding of factors that probably played a part in his decision.
This is also an excellent example of what I love about genealogy-it gives us an awareness and appreciation for the very personal touch past events played in our very own existence.
My great grandfather, Abramo Donato Cantelli was born in San Donato, Italy on February 4, 1903. He was only six years old when he boarded a ship headed to America called the Canopic Line with his mother and two brothers. After two seasick weeks they finally landed in Boston where Abramo’s father was waiting for their arrival.
Abramo attended school until he was 12 years old, leaving to work at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, MA to help his family. There he made $80 a week working on destroyer ships during WWI. It was at this job, he began to hate his name. His co-workers regularly picked on him for it, “There’s a lot of ignorant people, they make you feel like two cents”. Due to the constant harassment, for his confirmation, he took on the name Biajo so he could call himself Joe. From then on, he was known as Joseph Cantelli.
Joe started an apprenticeship as a stonecutter in South Quincy around the age of 21. He worked on several different jobs but the one I was told most about was a statue of a woman. He worked on the folds of her dress as well as some writing. No one in the family seems to know where this statue ended up but we do know Tiffany’s of New York bought it. During the Great Depression he said that “It was impossible to live on stonecutting…Life is too hard. In the depression if you wanted to buy a nickel for six cents you couldn’t do it”.
My great grandfather was extremely proud to become an American and worked hard to fit in. Besides the name change, he refused to teach his kids to speak Italian. He would often tell them, “In America, you speak like an American!”. Joe would only speak Italian with his parents, brothers and sister. As much as I admire his pride and hard work, it also bums me out that this part of my family’s culture wasn’t passed down. Today, the best my grandmother can do is swear in Italian and I’m left trying to learn with CD’s and books!
My great grandfather gave a lot of advice through his own life experiences concerning work, family and remembering to enjoy the simple things. It’s his advice on relationships and marriage that have really stuck with me most.
Joe met my great grandmother Kathryn Mary Gaynor at a dance. They were married October 14, 1923 in Randolph, MA with a simple ceremony to keep costs down. The thing that I love about my great grandparents is how crazy they were about each other. I remember talking to my grandmother’s sister Kitty about it. She told me a story about how they were so affectionate with each other, even late in life; they could make others around them blush.
In a day and age where divorce is common, I really want what they had for myself. I have had several friends my age, who’ve been divorced, joke that I need a “practice marriage”. The idea of this being funny saddens me. Being a bit of a hopeless romantic in a “me generation” is difficult at times to hold on to. His advice on relationships and marriage holds true, especially in today’s society. Today we are so plugged into technology; we are forgetting how to communicate outside of it.
“When you get married, you become one. There’s no more two. It’s 50/50. Set up a stake and both of you reach for that goal. Sometimes his trouble will spill over onto you. If you think you might hurt each other with something you’re going to say, put on the breaks, and don’t say it; don’t hurt each other. Think first about what you’re going to say. It’s communication that’s the most important thing. You’ve got to be friends. Both work together, plan together and communicate. When you don’t communicate, no one knows what’s going on, the left doesn’t know what the right is doing. That’s why there are so many divorces these days. They don’t communicate, and they don’t know what the other wants. They have different goals.”
As a female today, I have also found that sometimes I feel a little lost. Women have come so far since his generation. The sad part however, is that today women who find themselves in a demanding career are almost forced to make a choice. Do I continue to climb the ladder or do I want to have a family? It’s a sad world when you are made to feel like having a family is a “set back”. Growing up, taking pride in being a strong female, I always said I didn’t want to just be a mom… where today, I have realized it will probably be the most important role I’ll ever play.
“That’s what I like to see, two young people in a garden of flowers. That makes me happy, to see… two people always together and happy. You need to get a nice little house, with a little fence and a little workshop downstairs. It’s natural to want a house and family”. To me, he is right. I am tired of feeling like I have to reject something that is natural to want, just to prove something to a society that’s slowly losing sight of what’s important.
My great grandparents were married 61 years when Kathryn passed away, “We miss each other. I am useless with out her”. I can only hope to someday celebrate 60 years of marriage with a man who feels just as strongly about me. Someone who makes me want to be a better person by simply being around him. Jobs come and go. Money can be gained, lost and gained back again. Fancy cars and big houses prove nothing. It’s family and the people we surround ourselves with that get us through and make life worth living.
The craziest part about all of this, my great grandfather passed away in 1986, when I was only five years old. The only memory I have of him is hiding under his lawn chair at a family reunion in Quincy, MA. However, here I am 26 years later hearing and finding comfort in his words. I owe a huge thank you to my Mom’s cousin Suzy for taking the time to interview him. Had it not been for her interest in genealogy and our family in general, I never would have had the opportunity to hear them.
“Don’t go by what you see on T.V., it’s a big balloon that’s blowing up and destroying the country. Show business is no good. My wife had better legs than those women any day!”
I would like to thank Holiday Inn for partnering with me to make this post possible. As always, all opinions are my own!
– Kris Williams
Have you ever learned of a location that left you with an extreme desire to go? For me, that was the Antietam National Battlefield. Not only did I have to get there someday, I needed to get there for a specific day.
I am willing to bet many of my readers will be left wondering the same things I did when I first heard of this location and event… What is Antietam all about? And what is an Illumination Memorial?
It is amazing how much we don’t know about our own history. While I am sure every American has heard of the Civil War, I think Gettysburg will be the one and only battle they are familiar with.
Although Gettysburg is definitely one of many battles that shouldn’t be forgotten, the devastation at Antietam is one most Americans have never heard of… Unless, of course, you live local to the battlefield or you’re a Civil War buff.
So, what was Antietam?
On September 17, 1862, about 100,000 soldiers engaged in battle in the small town of Sharpsburg, Maryland. Antietam, referred to as Sharpsburg by Southerners, was a 12-hour battle that left a total of 23,000 men dead, wounded or missing. Known as “The Bloodiest One Day Battle in American History”, it was a narrow victory for the Union Army.
At the cost of 23,000 men dead, wounded or missing, what did the Union gain?
There were a few things the Union gained from the victory at Antietam.
Due to other losses, the Union’s morale among soldiers and citizens was shaken. The North needed a victory more than ever in hopes of turning things around. The win at Antietam not only give the North a badly needed morale boost, it put a stop to the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia’s first invasion into Union territory.
It also enabled Lincoln to release The Emancipation Proclamation. With its release, the North not only fought to preserve the Union, it looked to bring an end to slavery.
Finally, the victory squashed all threat of British intervention on the side of the Confederacy.
What is the Illumination Memorial all about?
The Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination is an annual event that honors the memory of each soldier who was killed, wounded or went missing during the Battle of Antietam.
On December 5, 2015, I was fortunate enough to experience their 27th Memorial Illumination, which was hosted by the Antietam National Battlefield, the American Business Women’s Association and the Washington County Convention and Visitors’ Bureau.
In memory of each solider, a candle is carefully placed on the battlefield. In total, 23,000 candles line a five-mile route that is included in a driving tour.
During this driving tour, visitors are instructed to only use their parking lights and are expected to drive through without stopping or getting out of their vehicles.
Due to the popularity of the Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination, lines to get into the event can be a two-hour wait.
I promise you; it is well worth it.
My Visit to Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination…
Starting my day at Visitor’s Center, I had a chat with the staff before grabbing some pamphlets and a self-guided Battlefield tour.
Jumping back into my rental, I started to make my way around Antietam’s 11 points of interest. However, before I could even focus on Antietam’s history something else caught my eye.
The first thing I noticed, which was hard to miss, were the volunteers. I had gotten to the battlefield around 10am but you could tell they had started their day hours earlier.
They were everywhere.
Young and old… Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, veterans, local organizations and residents. Working in large groups, they carefully placed each luminary. Using rope, they worked tirelessly to be sure each was placed with the others in straight lines.
Watching the process and the number of people involved was pretty impressive.
While there are several points of interest at Antietam, I have decided to highlight the ones that affected me the most during my visit since It would be impossible to cover each location and monument properly in this short article.
Built in 1852, this little church became the center of several attacks made by the Union Army against the Confederates. As if a battle breaking out around a church wasn’t odd enough – the use for it following the battle would put a chill up most spines.
Like most homes and buildings at the time, the church was used as a makeshift hospital looking after some of the 17,000 wounded soldiers. Some even believe the church was used as an embalming station by the Union Army following the battle of Antietam.
The three-hour battle, which took place on The Sunken Road is an unimaginable one. In that short period of time, 5,500 men were killed or wounded… earning the otherwise quaint, country road the name, Bloody Lane.
It was on this 1.5-mile trail that 2,200 Confederates did all they could to hold off 10,000 Union soldiers.
The survivor’s stories of the battle are horrific to say the least. Then there are the photographs that show the old farm road over flowing with the dead…
For a place that would otherwise be viewed as peaceful countryside – this location was once someone’s worst nightmare and final resting spot.
As I stood where 5,500 men once fell… I couldn’t help but get upset.
Antietam National Cemetery
Antietam National Cemetery was created to solve problems the large number of dead created for the living. Originally, soldiers were buried where they fell in shallow graves. Before long, the bodies started resurfacing.
Besides the fact this would be a horrific sight, this problem would lead to disease and death for those living in Sharpsburg. In order to solve the problem, money was raised to build a cemetery to bury the dead.
At first, the plan was to bury both Union and Confederate soldiers in the new cemetery. However, tensions between the North and South were still too fresh. To deal with the problem, Confederates were moved to three local cemeteries while 4,776 Union soldiers were moved to the newly created, Antietam National Cemetery.
Before it became a cemetery, this plot of land was used by Confederate artillery. Today, you can visit and pay respects to the Union soldiers who were buried here, as well as dead from four other wars.
There were a few things that hit me emotionally at this location…
One was knowing those buried here were just fraction of those who died during the Battle of Antietam…
Second, For every stone that bared the name of the dead… there were several markers that just displayed a number. The number of bodies that weren’t identified are heart breaking. Imagine how many families saw their loved ones off only to hear nothing in the end. I’m sure in their hearts they knew their loved one’s fate… but not knowing the how, when or where they were laid to rest must have been hard to deal with.
Finally, the statue of a Union private, which stood in the middle of the cemetery, was hard to miss. Encircling this statue were lines to a poem, followed by headstones… his comrades, that all seemed to be standing at attention.
The Antietam National Battlefield Illumination
Headed back to the Visitor’s Center with a new appreciation of Antietam, I was lucky enough to attend the Illumination Ceremony.
During the Illumination Ceremony, many people involved in the memorial including organizers, volunteers and state representatives spoke on the importance of the Memorial Illumination and what it has meant to them personally. There was prayer and song for those who died during battle. At one point TAPS could be heard from Dunker Church followed by Amazing Grace on bagpipes from the Visitor’s Center.
It was during this ceremony that I learned the Antietam National Battlefield Illumination was in its 27th year and 1,500 people volunteer annually to help setup the candles.
The fact that that many still people care today, about an event that happened so long ago, left me speechless.
There were several points during the ceremony that touched me, but the moment that stuck with me most of all came when a musician approached the microphone.
Taking to his guitar he began to play as he sang the words to Hallelujah. His voice and the words to the song eerily drifted over the battlefield and with it my heart sank.
The reality of my trip, of the whole experience had finally hit. With a fresh pair of eyes and a sun that was quickly setting, I stood surrounded by thousands of flickering little bags of light.
These flickering little bags of light stood in formation, stretching for as far as I could see in all directions.
23,000… each representing a husband, father, brother, son, uncle and friend who had died, had been wounded or had gone missing where I stood in a 12-hour battle.
I stood imagining the shadows of these men standing beside me. I imagined the sounds and smell of the gun and cannon fire. I imagined the chaos, horror and fear that would come with battle. I imagined the dead, the dying and the wounded crying out for help.
To say I was overwhelmed with emotion would be an understatement. I wondered if it were strange to be so emotional over an event that took place long before I was born?
As the ceremony came to an end and the crowd began to disperse, I found myself left behind in the silence with a handful of others who had permits to photograph the memorial.
As I sat, surrounded by candlelight, I realized two things.
One was that numbers are cold and are incapable of telling the full story. Simply hearing or reading the number 23,000 does not make the same impression as seeing that number physically represented. I found the candles made it easier to grasp just how devastating Antietam was.
The second thing I realized, no distinction was made when it came to who was Confederate and who was Union. No one cared. The purpose of the memorial wasn’t to remember one side or the other. Who won or who lost. The point was… They were all American.
The Civil War wasn’t some far off battle fought between two foreign lands. It was fought in our own backyards and pitted our ancestors against each other. It tore families apart, leaving in its wake hundreds of thousands of dead and left a generation of Americans in shambles.
At a time when our country couldn’t be more divided, there are many lessons to be learned at Antietam that couldn’t be more important.
I would encourage everyone reading this article to visit.
From the history of the Antietam Battlefield itself, as well as the buildings and memorials that stand as reminders of the past, to the 1,500 volunteers that give up countless hours to thoughtfully place each candle and the hundreds if not thousands who wait to enter the memorial each year…
The Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination is an experience I will never forget.
I will be forever grateful to the Holiday Inn for helping me check this must see destination off my list and – I look forward to returning one day.
Usually when I mention my genealogy addiction what I get in return from others is sincere interest. They wish they knew how to get started, they ask me for advice on how to get started or the genealogy bug has also bitten them and we trade stories.
Every now and then though, I’ll meet someone with zero interest. I mean… zero. Not only do they not have any interest, they don’t see the point or why it’s important.
“Genealogy? Really? What’s the point? What does some guy who died decades ago have to do with me?”
This is usually when I try to keep my head from exploding. What does some guy who died decades ago have to do with you? One word…
If you are one of these people-I ask you to bear with me and hear me out. If you are someone who’s interested in researching your family-let me give you another reason to be interested. And for those of you who already get it… let me give you a reason to smile today (because you’ll get where I am going).
So, let’s get started….
I’m going to have you use your imagination for a second… don’t fight it! Just roll with me here… Let’s say your 10th great grandfather’s name is Noah Washburn and just for fun… let’s pretend this is him…
Again… obviously the photo isn’t that old-nor is the guy in the picture named Noah Washburn (pretending).
Back to your handsome, 10th great grandfather, Noah Washburn…
Let’s think about Noah’s life for a second. Like our lives, there would have been everyday things that happened in his life that would have been out of his control. Things he would have needed to overcome or survive. Such as…
Natural Disasters: tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes, wild fires, mudslides, hurricanes, bitterly cold winters, floods, avalanches, droughts, and the list goes on.
Epidemics: Influenza, Tuberculosis, Smallpox, the Black Death, etc.
Famines: The Great Famine, Bengal Famine, Chalisa Famine, etc. (wrong time periods but you get the point)
War: Millions to choose from…
Work Related Accidents: shipwrecks, mining accidents, hunting accidents, shepherd trampled by a heard of stampeding sheep…
…Just making sure you’re still awake.
The point is-there would have been a TON of things Noah would have had to survive long enough to have his children. If he did not survive the above, your behind wouldn’t be sitting comfortably in your computer chair, sofa, etc. reading this blog.
You would never have existed.
Now let’s take it a step further. Think about all the decisions we make on a daily basis that change the course of our lives. Sometimes they are big choices-Will I pick up and move to another state? Will I quit my job and start my own business? Other times the choices you make seem small and not worth remembering. However, in the grand scheme of things, those little choices can lead to major changes in our life. Will I stay in tonight or will I go to my friend’s party where I will meet my future husband?
So let’s look back at Noah for a second.
Maybe he decided to take on a job other than the one he chose?
Maybe instead of working on the family farm he decided to join the military?
Maybe he decided to move to another town, village or country instead of staying put?
Maybe he decided to marry another woman before getting the chance to meet your 10th great grandmother?
Maybe he did marry your 10th great grandmother but instead of them having 5 kids they decided to have 3…and your 9th great grandfather would have been their 4th child?
The point being-if Noah made any choices differently (major ones or little ones that added up to major change) it could have put his life on a completely different path which may have ended with you never existing.
Now lets take this even further…
You have two parents…
Four grand parents…
Eight great grandparents…
Sixteen 2nd great grand parents…
And 32 3rd great grand parents…
Stopping there for now, that’s a total of 62 people you directly descend from.
Had any one of those 62 people not survived the uncontrollable or made decisions other than the ones they made-any ONE of them… You would not exist. And let’s not forget-the same is true about the hundreds of thousands of others I didn’t have the space to represent in restroom symbol people.
So, for those who insist on asking, “Genealogy? Really? What’s the point? What does some guy who died decades ago have to do with me?”
Are you one of the guilty people who found genealogy to be pointless and have a change of heart? Are you a newbie and hadn’t thought of the above? Been at it awhile and have something to add?! Don’t be shy-comment below! I love to hear from you guys.