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Monday, March 29, 2010

An Island Getaway-For-Good

It's a genealogist's worst nightmare: 800,000+ burials and only one marked grave.

Most New Yorkers don’t even know it’s there. Hart Island, near the popular summer spot City Island, is one of the world’s largest cemeteries, and the U.S.’s largest potter’s field, where the indigent and unidentifiable have been buried en masse since just after the Civil War.
At one time the island also housed a prison, a boys’ workhouse, a Nike Ajax nuclear missile silo, and for four months in 1865, it was a prisoner of war camp used to house captured Confederate Troops, more than 250 of whom died and were buried here. The only grave with a marker is that of an unnamed baby who died in 1980, New York City’s first AIDS casualty, buried in isolation. [Link]

Saturday, March 27, 2010

99 and Holding

The consul general of Barbados in New York is obliged to visit local Barbadians who've reached 100 years of age on their birthdays. Mae Bishop will have none of it.

According to her birth certificate, she will turn 102 on May 16. But with the feistiness and independence that have characterized her long life, she has steadfastly refused to acknowledge that she has lived a century.
For Mrs. Bishop’s 100th birthday in 2008, the family held a party and allowed the previous consul general, a family friend, to attend. But it decided to respect Mrs. Bishop’s sensitivities by sending invitations that referred to “the 70th anniversary of her 30th birthday.”

Mrs. Bishop did quick work on the greeting cards she received that mentioned a 100th birthday, tearing out the offending number and leaving the rest of each card intact. During the party, Ms. Hylton-Springer recalled, her mother turned to a friend and said, “I don’t know what they’re going to do when I’m 100, because they’re making such a big fuss now.” [Link]

Friday, March 19, 2010

Disowning Myrtle

Via Nina Lentini's Life Without End:

She was born Myrtle Hart, at 85 Morrell Street in New Brunswick. However, as she would admit to anyone, she loathed the name Myrtle, so she would introduce herself by the name of Chris(tianne), her baptismal name, to which she finally changed legally at the advanced age of 81. [Link]

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

RIP April 17, 1917

Maine lawmakers eager to protect our privacy must be relieved that Elwyn W. Lancaster has passed away.

Elwyn had a remarkable memory for dates and numbers and was known in the community as the "Birthday Man." He loved to greet people by their birth dates as he sat at McDonald's. Often times, he would receive birthday cards signed only with birth dates. He could recite hundreds of birthdays, anniversaries and social security numbers. He was even interviewed by the local news station for this tremendous talent. [Link]

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Needs a Vowel Removement

The proofreader of the Topeka Capital-Journal may soon be replaced by a 13-year-old.

A 13-year-old who began reading when he was in kindergarten won the 2010 Topeka Capital-Journal Regional Spelling Bee in the 25th round when he spelled "geneaology," the study of family history. [Link, via]

Monday, March 08, 2010

Another Genealogue Link Dump

Genealogy, American Style

Interesting discussion over at Genea-Musings here and here regarding the question whether an American of Colonial descent should be able to document his complete ancestry back ten generations.

The problems Randy brings up are rooted in our unique American history:

  1. Ours is a federal system of government. Any requirements for BMD registration were first imposed by 13 diverse colonies and their various governments, later by the states. These requirements have converged toward universal registration, but even today some states have policies that other states would never countenance.
  2. Ours is a secular nation. No state church means there is a bright line between civil and religious registration of BMDs, and no consistent policy among churches on registering them. (There are days when I wish all my ancestors had emigrated from Quebec.)

    Also, the penalties for skipping civil registration were less draconian than the potential costs of not inviting a priest to your wedding or neglecting to baptize your infant. The penalty for not reporting or recording a birth, marriage or death in Maine in 1844 was $1, and rarely imposed. That's pretty cheap compared to the twin threats of eternal damnation and mother-in-law disapproval.
  3. Ours was a country of frontiers. For much of our history land was settled before it was governed. This was true not only in the West, but even at the uninhabited fringes of long-settled states like Maine. BMDs here were recorded at the local level, generally with no requirement to report them to the county or state. If no local government yet existed, the events went unrecorded. Some couples traveled miles to the nearest incorporated settlement to ensure that their marriage intentions were recorded, but births and deaths in these families were recorded only privately, if at all.
In short, I agree with Randy that the chances of someone with deep American roots finding all 1,023 names in a ten-generation pedigree chart are negligible. The chances of finding these names through BMDs alone are zero. If your ancestors were African American or Native American, make that negative zero.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Who Does He Think He Is?

Neil Genzlinger's New York Times column on tonight's premiere of "Who Do You Think You Are?" warns potential family historians not to get their hopes up.

Some of us may take the genealogical plunge expecting cool family stories like the ones the celebrities get, only to find that we’ve been ordinary and uninteresting since we were living in caves.
My own tree, for instance, shows that, on my father’s side, Great-Grandpa Fred and Great-Grandma Elisa came to the United States from Germany on the same ship, the Noordland, in June 1889, apparently meeting onboard, down in steerage. That’s nice, but more legacy-conscious ancestors would have instead survived the Johnstown flood, smashed a Champagne bottle at the opening of the Eiffel Tower or refereed the legendary 75-round bare-knuckle fight between John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain, all of which took place that same year. [Link, via]
I can't tell which premise the writer bases his argument on: Does he believe that celebrities have more "interesting" ancestries than the rest of us? Or does he think that the celebrities featured on WDYTYA were chosen because their ancestors were not "ordinary"?

I've researched a few celebrities' genealogies over the years, and the conclusion I've drawn is that they are fairly representative of the population at large. Sure, there are some whose careers were founded on the careers of their ancestors (I'm looking at you, Drew Barrymore), but most sprang from stock as "ordinary and uninteresting" as that which gave rise to Neil Genzlinger. If the celebrities appearing on the show have interesting ancestors, it's only because every celebrity has interesting ancestors.

Of course, judgments of "interestingness" are subjective, and snobbery has had a place in genealogy from the start. But the vast majority of committed genealogists—the genealogists I know and whose writing and company I enjoy—are as pleased to find a turnip farmer in their tree as to find a king. If information on the turnip farmer's life is scanty, it's because it was never recorded. It's not because that information was not worth recording.

In place of Genzlinger's warning, I'll offer my own: If you intend to become a genealogist, leave your snobbishness behind. It will only get in the way of appreciating the lives of your dead ancestors and your living cousins.

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