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The Ghost of Aaron Young

Over the last six years I have taken part in hundreds of paranormal investigations and, as many of you know by now, I have been obsessed with genealogy since I was in the fourth grade. That said, I am often surprised by how different genealogy and the paranormal are viewed considering the strong similarities between the two.

The first similarity, being the most obvious, is the fact that both genealogy and paranormal investigation revolve around researching the dead. When it comes to the actual historical research on a location, all the same steps are taken that would be used to trace an ancestor. Think about it: If the paranormal theories are correct, and locations are haunted by people who have passed, who were those people? Finally both genealogy and paranormal investigation have a common motivator; they are both used to fill our need of keeping the dead alive.

Despite these similarities, genealogy is commonly viewed as the past-time of grandparents, while paranormal investigation is extremely popular across all age groups.

Why is this? Especially when genealogy gives you the ability to hunt the ghosts of your own past, rather than any old ghost in any old location.

Keeping the above in mind, I wanted to share with you one of my favorite paranormal investigations that is a great example of just how much genealogy and the paranormal have in common.

Several years ago I had the pleasure of investigating a bed and breakfast in Virginia known as Edgewood Plantation. While there were several paranormal claims reported over the years from owners and visitors, there was one in particular I was assigned to research.

The claim was tied to a little cabin in the back of the property, where a woman checked in for a long weekend and claimed she was woken in the middle of the night by the ghost of a Civil War soldier. What’s more, the ghost supposedly introduced himself as Aaron Young III. The following morning, even though she had booked her stay for several nights, the woman checked out saying she was unable to sleep because this young confederate soldier would not stop talking.

Since the owner of the bed and breakfast had no knowledge of anyone named Aaron Young being connected to the property, it became my job to research the name. Utilizing the information I was given about the supposed ghostly experience, I decided the first thing to do is check Civil War military records for the name Aaron Young III. To my surprise, a total of nine Aaron Young’s surfaced; six were union soldiers and three were confederate. Since the woman claimed the ghost she saw was a confederate soldier, I immediately crossed the union soldiers off my list.

Turning my attention to the three confederate soldiers I found, two were from Virginia and one was from Tennessee. With a bit of digging I was able to determine that the man from Tennessee never fought in Virginia, so I saw no need to research him further.

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With only private Aaron B. Young of the 31st Virginia Infantry Company C and 2nd Lieutenant Aaron B. Young of the 20th Virginia Cavalry Company F remaining, I began to see some similarities between the two. The most obvious was the middle initial. However, after closer inspection of their military records, I also noticed they shared the same date of birth and place of birth, which brought me to the conclusion they were the same man.

Aaron B. Young had started out as a private in the 31st Infantry. Due to the severe number of casualties within that regiment, he was moved to the 20th Cavalry where he was eventually promoted to 2nd Lieutenant. The only thing that left me confused at this point were the several documents contradicting whether or not Aaron survived the war.

One record in particular stated he had died at war from a gunshot wound while serving in the 31st Regiment, which was clearly inaccurate since I had proof he went on to fight in the 20th Cavalry. There were also several other records that claimed he died due to illness, while others listed him as absent recovering from an illness.

All of this confusion left me with two questions: Did Aaron B. Young survive the Civil War? And was he the third male to carry the name in his family?

In order to find the answers to these questions, I turned to the internet.

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With the basic information I had on Aaron he was not a hard one to find due to his military records. Although Aaron Bell Young was not the third male to carry the name in his family, he did survive the Civil War. In fact, he went on to marry twice and had a total of 21 children.

At this point, it would be fair to say that I had become obsessed with researching Aaron’s life and the thought of him possibly haunting Edgewood Plantation. I was left wondering, “Could I place Aaron at Edgewood?” To try to answer this question I had to consider the history behind Edgewood Plantation and needed to re-examine Aaron’s military records.

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Going through Aaron’s military records again, depending on their accuracy, I was able to place him within 15 miles of the plantation by mapping out the distance between the battles his regiments took part in around Edgewood. That — mixed with the fact that Edgewood was used as a signal post by the Confederate Army to spy on the Union Army camped at nearby Berkley plantation with more than 100,000 troops — really made me question if Aaron B. Young would have come in contact with Edgewood.

Even if he had, though, what could have happened to him at Edgewood that would lead him to haunt the location especially since he had not died there? Still, whether or not Edgewood is haunted by the ghost of Aaron Young, his ghost is alive and well — in the genealogical sense — through the stories of his descendants.

The episode featuring Edgewood Plantation, with my research involving Aaron, aired months later. And this led to another interesting twist: I was emailed by one of his descendants.

As we had told the owner of Edgewood, I explained to his descendant that it was nearly impossible to prove beyond a doubt that Aaron haunted the location. However, for paranormal investigators, it was interesting to find that a confederate soldier by the name of Aaron Young did exist in the area.

As different as these two worlds may seem at first glance, it was my love of history and genealogy that pushed me into the paranormal. It gave me the opportunity to use my research skills in historical locations I never dreamed of having the opportunity to visit. From old abandoned hospitals, jails and places of historical importance in the United States, to European castles, World War II forts and Mayan Ruins, I was intrigued by the idea that the past may still be playing out in those locations.

It also made me question, if ghosts are people who have passed, who might my ancestors be haunting?

 

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(Aaron Young Picture With His Sons)

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The Importance of Knowing Your Family’s Medical History

I can still remember the look on my doctor’s face when she asked me for my family’s medical history. All she saw was this teenage girl sitting in front of her; I can tell you she did not expect the laundry list of information that came out of me. I rattled off all the information I knew starting with my great grandparents. When I was finally done and she realized I caught her looking at me strangely, she was quick to explain, “Most people don’t know more than their parent’s medical history…”

 

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At that point I had been into genealogy for several years and even as a kid it didn’t take me long to see a pattern in my family’s medical history. Sitting with my grandparents talking about ancestors I had never met, it was only natural to eventually ask how they passed. After awhile I even made a habit of asking my grandparents about illnesses they or their family members had suffered from. Eventually I started to get my hands on death certificates and I made note of the cause of death listed on each record.

From the research I had done, I learned there are several things that my family and I needed be aware of. For the men in my family heart attacks at a fairly young age are not uncommon. While one of my great grandmothers lost her battle with breast cancer, another beat cervical and ovarian cancer. Then there were a few things that affected both men and women in my family, namely other forms of cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s.

Although all of this may sound depressing, it is important information to know since there are several medical conditions that are believed to be hereditary. Some of these conditions include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, breast and ovarian cancer, glaucoma, Alzheimer’s, allergies and depression.

It is also not uncommon, whether caused genetically or environmentally, that things like alcoholism, drug abuse and learning disabilities have also been found to run through families.

I encourage people to keep record of their family’s medical history, not only will it add to your research, it could save your life or the life of a loved one. Look into your ancestor’s death records, sit with your family, ask questions, record the information and share your findings. Knowing what has afflicted your family in the past will give you and future generations a chance at prevention.

 

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Genealogy Correspondence Sheets: How Do I Get Started?

Over the last couple of weeks I have introduced you to two worksheets that are commonly used when doing family research, Pedigree Charts and Family Group Sheets. Continuing with the How Do I Get Started? series, let’s take a look at another helpful worksheet, Genealogy Correspondence Sheets.

What is the purpose of the worksheet?

The whole idea behind the correspondence sheet is to keep track of the people you have come in contact with while researching your family tree. Once you step out beyond your immediate family and really start digging, keeping track of who’s who can get confusing. You forget who you contacted and why you contacted them, you forget if they were helpful and you lose track of how to keep in contact. Here is one solution for staying organized.

Have a look at the Genealogy Correspondence Sheet below…

Correspondance sheet 1For the most part, I believe this sheet is pretty self-explanatory but let’s give it a walk through just in case!

Surname: In this spot I write in a surname… let’s say I write in “Williams” this means every contact on this sheet will connect to me through a shared Williams ancestor. I could have another sheet for “Leslie”, another for “Cantelli” and so on. The point is-everyone listed as a contact on the sheet has a connection to the surname it is assigned to.

Contact Date: When did you first reach out to the contact you are about to list in the (next) name column?

Name: What is the name of this newly found contact? Be polite-know their name. Save the “Hey Cuz” greeting for when you actually get to know them.

Address/Email/Phone: Make note of their contact details so you know how to make contact with them again. Also, which is the best way to reach them? Some people prefer email over phone, others prefer phone over email and some still like to send copies by mail rather than scans.

Purpose: What was the purpose for reaching out to them? In this space it might be worth making note of the common ancestor you share, then a reminder of why you reached out to them in the first place.

Reply Date: Writing down the date you reached out to your new contact and the date they responded is helpful. With a quick glance at this sheet you can tell if it’s been 2 days since you reached out to them or two months. If it has been awhile and you still haven’t heard back-it might be time to try again.

Result: Were they helpful? Were they able to provide answers for your questions? Do they plan to send/scan documents? Did they not have information to provide but sent the contact info of someone who might? Did they receive your request for help warmly… or did they tell you in a round about way to go to hell?

Were they a contact that made big promises to help if you sent them your work first-then didn’t follow through after you sent everything you have? Trust me-I have run into more than one genealogy hoarder-glad to receive whatever you send but have no intention to share what they have. Write in “Hoarder” and move on!

Whatever the response, leave yourself a note saying whether or not they were helpful, how they were helpful, how you might be able to help them and whether or not you should stay in touch or avoid them at all costs.

Staying Organized

I cannot stress enough how important staying organized and up to date is when researching your family. With genealogy, you are going to meet so many new people you really want to do your best to keep them all straight and the last thing you want to do is lose a good contact!

If the worksheets aren’t your style, make use of a notebook or create a similar document on your computer. Be sure to record all the same information (surname, contact date, name, address/email/phone, purpose, reply date and result) and anything else you might find helpful.

The Pleasantly, Unexpected Surprise…

Be prepared to meet people (total strangers) that become closer to you than some of your immediate family. The friendships I have made with distant cousins over the past 20 years has been one of the most unexpected, surprising and best parts.

Until Next Week

Get cracking on those pedigree charts and family group sheets and start making use of the Genealogy Correspondence Sheet! If you guys have any questions or comments-don’t be shy! Please post them in the comments below and I’ll get to them asap!

Good Luck and happy hunting!

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Family Group Sheets: How Do I Get Started?

Last week I introduced you newbies to Pedigree Charts, which are the most commonly used charts in family research. As promised, this week I wanted to familiarize you with another commonly used worksheet: Family Group Sheets.

Where Pedigree Charts cover the absolute basics, birth, marriage, death and the people you descend directly from, Family Groups Sheets include much more information about each family unit. They are extremely useful tools for gathering and organizing more in depth information and give you a more complete look into each family’s structure.

Below is a great example of a Family Group Sheet.

Family Group Sheet No 1

Where do you begin on the Family Group Sheet? You begin with the same person you started the Pedigree Chart with…

You.

Let’s focus first on your family (you, your siblings and your parents).

Looking at the Family Group Sheet the top section covers the “Husband” which in this case would be your father. You would list his full name: first, middle and last. For spelling variations you would record any nicknames he may have or any other variations of the spelling of his name.

  • Spelling variations are actually extremely important to make note of. Did/does your father go by any nicknames? Have they changed their name? Do/did they go by their middle name rather than their first? I will cover the importance of this in a future blog-until then be sure to record all and any names the person in question goes by.

The next spots on the “Husband’s” section of the worksheet cover birth, marriage, death and burial information. Here you can record dates as well as places of each event. At the far right of this section there is a space for health or other miscellaneous info. Did your father suffer from any illnesses in his lifetime? What was his cause of death (if he has passed)? These are also important details to know.

  • The importance of knowing health related issues will be covered in a future blog, until then be sure to ask and record the information.

The last half of the “Husband’s” section includes spaces to record other details about your father’s life, including occupation, other marriages, church affiliation, date and place of christening/baptism and military service. Fill in any relevant information.

Finally the “Husband’s” section comes to a close with a box to include a photo of your father and spaces to record the full names of his parents (your grandparents).

Done filling out Dad’s information?

Next you would move on to the “Wife’s” section, which would be your mother in this case. The only real difference when filling out this section would be your mother’s name. Be sure to record her full name using her maiden name, not married name. If she had been married before marrying your father or had been remarried following your father be sure to include those married names under Spelling Variations.

Otherwise you would continue through the “Wife’s” section filling in all the information you know about your mother.

Finished filling out Mom’s information?

Next you would move on to the “Children’s” section. This would be where you cover information concerning you and your siblings. Like the “Husband” and “Wife” sections, there is room to include a photo, birth, marriage, death and burial information, occupation, church, military and misc. information. The only difference is this section includes a spot to list the sex of each person as well as the number of children they have had and a section to list the name of their spouse(s).

Are you one of more than four children and have run out of room?

No need to worry. In this case, there is an extension worksheet that can be added covering just children. Below is an example of the extension sheet. As you can see there are no sections for “Husband” or “Wife” it strictly covers the children. Be sure to staple these two sheets together (Family Group Sheet with Extension Sheet for additional children).

Family Group Sheet-Page 2

Missing Information?

If you have made your way through this worksheet and you are missing information on your parents and siblings one solution is reaching out to them! As I suggested with the Pedigree Chart, visit your family members and have them fill out their sections. If you can’t make a visit, call or email them for their information.

If your family members have passed, reaching out to them directly is obviously not an option. However, if your siblings are still living they may be able to provide more information about your parents (if your parents have passed). If your siblings have passed, reach out to any children or spouses they may have had to see if they can help with missing information.

If you have done the above and you are still missing information, make note of what is missing. Your next step will be figuring out what documents you need to obtain the information and determining where you will need to go to acquire those documents.

Finished. Now What?

Once you have finished your family group sheet where you are listed as a child, you can do another if you are married with children. This time you and your spouse will be listed as the “Husband” and “Wife” (obviously) and you would fill in the “Children’s” section with your children’s information.

Keep in mind you can turn up in several Family Group Sheets.

  • In one, you will be listed as the child with your parents listed in Husband/Wife sections
  • In the Second, you will be listed as the Husband or Wife
  • In the Third, your spouse will be listed as a child (with their parents listed in the Husband/Wife sections) and you will be listed as their spouse.

Finished? Think again! *evil laugh*

For every family unit-you create a family group sheet. Once you have finished a family group sheet for you, your spouse and children… then finish one for your parents, you and your siblings you would start another for your parents.

This time, your parents become the “Children” and their parents (your grandparents) become the “Husband” and “Wife”. Once you have filled in all the information you know, you would move on to the next family unit.

Your grandparents would then become the “children” and their parents (your great grandparents) would become the “Husband” and “Wife” and so on.

As I suggested earlier, reach out to other family members for help (siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.). Go as far as you can with the information they are able to provide before turning to hunting for documents.

Don’t Stress!!!

A lot of people get overwhelmed with genealogy… I can pretty much see you panicking now… “A family group sheet for EVERY family unit?!?!”

Breath.

The worst thing you can do is get too far ahead of yourself. Focus on one family member at a time, one family unit at a time. As I said before with the Pedigree Charts, it’s all about breaking the process down into steps.

TIP: Don’t move on to the next person or family unit until you feel you have found all you can on the one you are currently working on.

Finally, keep in mind-these worksheets are here to help. They help give you direction, they help you form a more complete picture of your family and they help you organize.

So, embrace them-don’t hate them!!

Until next week… if you haven’t already-read my blog on Pedigree Charts, familiarize yourself with them as well as the Family Group Sheet and start bugging your family if you haven’t already!

Have fun and good luck!

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Pedigree Charts: How Do I Get Started?

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

Free Pedigree Chart - free family tree - Teach Me Genealogy3So, where do you get started? You start with the person you know best…

YOU.

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.

Have fun and good luck!!

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The Great Hunger: Making America Home

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The Mystery of Alice McCurdy

Alice McCurdy-Death Record

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+McCurdy

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.

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What’s in a Name: Full Names, Nicknames & Initials

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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!

Happy Hunting!

 

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!

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Italian Birds of Passage

Andrea-Cantelli-956x648

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.

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Life Advice From the Grave

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.

Joesph-Abramo

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.

Joesph and Catherine

“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!”

– Joseph Abramo Donato Biajo Cantelli