Last week, as I was reading another blog, I immediately felt frozen by the question proposed: "Who is your favorite ancestor?" The question, for me, was provocative. I had never considered just one ancestor as my favorite but I felt challenged by the query posed.

Considering the amount of time and research I have spent on my family history, one would think the answer would pop-up easily within my head. But with each ancestor's story unfolding as I delve into their history, I have grown quite fond of  many of my ancestors.

But as I scan over my family tree and consider the story of each, my soul pulls me toward one particular ancestor, a great-great grandfather. The story I have uncovered of my little Frenchman from Arkansas, reads like a long, heart-wrenching novel.

My ancestor found himself living within a web of Confederate sympathizers in Texas when the Civil War broke out. Where many would have joined the side closest to them, my ancestor risked his life to escape to the Arkansas Union line. As a result, he lost his first wife and children to the destruction of a bloody, brutal war. And though my great-great grandfather lived meagerly until his death, I find his strength and convictions heroic.

I suppose another question and one that for me is most difficult would be: "Who is your least favorite ancestor?"

If you have studied your family history enough then you have occasionally been blindsided by ancestors you found distasteful. But should we give them less study? Are their lives and stories not as important to our history as the heroes and heroines?

I revealed in a previous blog my delight at discovering scoundrels. Should we shudder with embarrassment of their deviations or proudly peel away the layers, revealing their dirty warts and all.

There is no wrong or right answer to any of these questions. They, instead, give you an opportunity to reflect on each ancestor closer. And as you study, perhaps you will be  challenged to learn more of your ancestors in order to answer more thoroughly the questions. 

But consider this: As you answer the questions, the challenge reveals not only stories of your ancestors but also your story. Because those that we most admire will have qualities we strive for. And those least appealing will be those with characteristics we struggle against.

Take the challenge and ponder your answers. It is an exercise that will bring you closer to your ancestors and surprisingly, to your own self.

Keep searching for answers,


Scour A Corner


Just when I feel confident I have turned every leaf and scoured every corner, I am blindsided by a new avenue for discovering an ancestor. And I was recently surprised with the finding of an ancestor's name on a proceedings list of a Masonic lodge in Washington County, Arkansas.

The Freemasons are a worldwide fraternity with a history of members that include many of our American Forefathers such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Paul Revere. The philosophy of the Freemason fraternity is similar to the core principles of the American Constitution and include beliefs such as personal study, self-improvement and the liberty of the individual.

The ideals of the right to worship freely along with an emphasis in public education and a tradition of philanthropy partner well with the mainstay of America's core convictions, which is why Freemasonry has thrived for centuries.

Though I am still seeking the evidence, I believe at least four of my ancestors were Freemasons, but uncovering their membership list can be challenging. Like the majority of fraternities, the inner workings of Freemasonry is draped in secrecy, but to the delight of genealogists many Masonic lodges are opening their vaults to researchers.

The George Washington Masonic Memorial has begun digital archives. They are inviting Masonic grand lodges to add their records to the Memorial's searchable database. Currently, grand lodges of Kentucky, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Washington and West Virginia are within the Memorial's collection.

Another good source to help with your search is through the Masonic Library and Museum Association. On this site, you can access links to many of the Masonic libraries in several states and Canada along with easy contact to their librarians.

I found details of my ancestor on his Masonic lodge list within Goodspeed's History of Northwest Arkansas, a publication within the local genealogical library. Many small county genealogical libraries are a good source for the archived records of the counties' local Masonic lodges.

If you have never considered your ancestor's membership within the Freemasonry then you should. The fraternity was especially popular in the 18th and 19th centuries and though the records will consist mostly of membership lists, it will provide additional sources and documentation of an ancestor during gaps in the US Census records.

So turn up another leaf and scourer another corner. Seek out your ancestor's Freemasonry membership lists, adding a sweet detail to the history of your ancestor and their story.

Keep searching for answers,

(Source: Masonic Service Association)
Example of a Chicago Portrait Studio bubble glass picture frame
I love sifting through old photos but looking at a picture and feeling uncertain of the identity of the person staring back, is frequently perplexing and frustrating.

And often, a tad eerie.

I inherited, by default, a large oval portrait of a rather handsome looking gent. His hair slicked to the sides and mustache nicely polished, my anonymous ancestor sports a vested suit and tie most certainly purchased from a fine haberdashery. But unfortunately, no name of the gentleman is found on the back of the picture, leaving me guessing whom this character might be.

Considering that the identity of the portrait studio could provide clues to my nameless ancestor, I studied the curved cardboard backside of the photo for a studio name. But the stamp has, over time, crumbled and disappeared leaving only a fine, unreadable imprint of the studio stamp.

Recalling the cleverness of my 4th cousin when he brushed an ancestor's tombstone with shaving cream for easier readability, it dawned on me the same technique can be applied to indented lettering on old photos. So I snatched a piece of chalk from my desk drawer and lightly rubbed it against the indention, brushing off the surface and revealing the inscription:

"Chicago Portrait Company"

Ok, I thought, that's interesting, but I am not aware of an ancestor living in Chicago.

Still with no clue to the identity of my anonymous chap, I proceeded with what I know best: I researched the Chicago Portrait Company. And I became intrigued with its history.

The Chicago Portrait Company left a fascinating and quirky mark in history. It was in operation from 1893 through 1940 and though its offices were indeed in Chicago, the company was in fact a base for traveling salesmen throughout the country.

The salesmen or "drummers" fanned out across the rural countryside, knocking on doors selling beautiful handmade portraits of revered ancestor's photos, often replicas of tintypes redone in pastel, crayon or sepia.

The appeal was the price, $2.00-$3.00, but these fast-talking salesmen made their money in the "hook": delivering the finished portraits in large, beautiful burled wood frames with curved glass.

The cost of the portrait with the frame was of course, much more, but the "line" to the recipient was "no obligation to purchase the frame." Difficult to resist the finished portrait in its lovely frame, the unsuspecting customers doled out the dollars to the Chicago Portrait Company.

But the "sinker" to the scheme was that the expensive looking "burled wood frames" were not solid wood at all, but cheap replicas made from painted plaster.

The Chicago Portrait Company made a quick fortune off of people's sympathies, especially rural families who had little access to "big city" studios. But ironically, the company tumbled after they were sued in North Carolina for failure to pay taxes on out-of-state sales.

And so, I go back to my large, oval, bubble glass portrait of my ancestor, his identity still unknown but I am now intrigued not by the history of my anonymous ancestor, but of the legend behind the portrait itself.

The quirky story behind the commissioning of the portrait of my ancestor and the history of the Chicago Portrait Company.

And how my family fell victim to its scheme: hook, line and sinker.

Keep searching for answers,

The small township where I grew up is dying. The playground of the red brick schoolhouse I attended sits empty of children, void of tether ball tournaments and gym teachers disrupting play with screeching whistles and stern looks. The empty buildings have been demoted to hosting the school district's castaway furniture; echos of giggling children's voices heard only by lonely walls late at night.

The church that hosted bible schools and senior suppers is dissolving, sucked into a vacuum of a rootless area that is no longer a village. It is, instead, a grouping of people who are disconnected by a lack of structure: A little suburb of Tulsa that never incorporated.

My childhood home is not a victim of a poor economy. It is the aftermath of decades of family migrations; a sieve that without a structured foundation, collapsed into a ghost town similar to thousands of other ghost towns dotting the rural landscapes of America.

There will always be villages that fail to thrive while others continue to bloom. It is a natural progression of survival of the fittest; an evolving panorama that never stays the same.

But how do we, as family historians, adjust with the change and what on earth does this have to do with genealogy?

There are townships of some of our ancestors that are mere shells of their former selves; towns that faded when their main industry died or when the railroad or highway was rebuilt, leaving them to weaken and wither.

But the interest of the town's history and villagers remain, especially to genealogists seeking sources of ancestors who lived within the townships long ago.

If you are searching for remnants and history of your ancestor's ghost town, go to Ghost This well done website is fun to explore, covering tidbits of information on skeleton towns all across America.

Ghost Town USA is a Rootsweb site whose mission statement includes "Preserving the history of America's fading and vanished towns," and features a "ghost town of the month."

Legends of America is a wonderful website, brimming with historical information on possibly every ghost town in the U.S. If you have discovered your ancestor's village is lost within history, go to this website. You may likely find it's home within the site's pages.

As family historians, we are not only preserving the history of our ancestors but of the towns where they lived. And perhaps gaining insight into the history of your ancestor's ghost town, will give a peek into the life of your ancestor.

And maybe, breathe a little life back into their town.

Keep searching for answers,

As we relish in the relief of a day off from work during tomorrow's glorious Labor Day holiday, our hobby of digging for new and enticing sources of family history does not have to take a vacation too.

Labor unions, the very institutions that were founded on a desire of better working conditions for the workingman and whose activism spurred the institution of the holiday we all enjoy, can hold realms of archives important for genealogists.

Though the identity of the true founder of Labor Day has never been discerned, the evolution of labor unions certainly gave bloom to the holiday's creation. It was spun out of the Labor Movement in the late 19th century and became a federal holiday in 1894.

And it is important to gain awareness of why labor unions were created and the history surrounding its beginnings. A workingman's life was much different in the late 1800's than ours is today. While we are fortunate to enjoy forty-hour work weeks, eight-hour a day jobs and paid vacations, our ancestors average work day during the height of the Industrial Revolution meant twelve-hour days, seven days a week, just to eke out a paltry living.

Our ancestors worked in mines, factories and mills that were unsafe, most lacking access to fresh air, sanitary facilities and breaks. Our grandfathers and great grandfather's lives were literally placed at risk just by going to work everyday.

So they became unified in their desire for improved working conditions and wages and labor unions were formed, thus improving the workingman's lives, their families' lives and eventually our lives.

Many labor unions have preserved volumes of records, some of which may contain relevant information for genealogical purposes. It is not a source we immediately consider but as I have learned, almost any type of archived record of an ancestor can be useful in genealogy.

If you are uncertain of your ancestor's labor union membership, consider their trade if known and then research for the appropriate chapter of a union in their state of residence.

If your ancestor was active in one of the twentieth century trade or labor unions, the Archives of Labor at Wayne State University in Detroit, may hold information on him. There you can find the record holdings of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Union of Farm Workers and Industrial Workers of the World, to name a few.

Other sources to explore are the United Mine Workers, Teamsters, United Automobile Workers and International Ladies Garment Workers. And if you are not confident of you grandfather and great grandfather's trade, explore the 1930 and 1940 US Census for clues.

As genealogy grows, so do our resources and with every turn, new avenues for research are discovered. And just imagine the possibilities if you discover your great grandfather's records within his labor union archives.

It will be another great source to explore and an even better story to retell.

Keep searching for answers,

(Source: Wiki Index)