My Ancestral Ghost


I am haunted by a ghost. Late into the night his bent and gnarly figure creeps into my thoughts, his eyes black and cavernous. Never-ending lines fold across his face and though his form is without definition, I sense his presence as solid and rooted as an old oak tree.

A ghost; waiting patiently for my recognition of his being.

Driven by my ghost's yearning for attention, his centuries-old need to be heard, I listen and I search. Toiling and digging, I read and re-read all the documents and records I have found on my ghost, desperately searching out answers to the rest of his story. I rip through the papers, hastily flipping past one lead to the next and as I sift through facts and fiction, I almost feel the coolness of his breath linger against my neck.

But oddly, I do not recoil; sensing instead a strange warmth of familiarity.

A ghost. My Civil War ancestral ghost and I welcome his haunting.

Wouldn't it be fun to discover your ancestor is a ghost?! Just consider the intrigue you would have, the haunting playfulness of an old ancestral ghost. If you have been researching your ancestors for long, you will begin to feel their presence; as if they shiver with excitement of their discovery. It is their moment of recognition, a time for them to shine in the spotlight once more.

As we approach the haunting of the season--the wispy cool winds beckoning our thoughts--it becomes easy to imagine an ancestor providing guidance to our search. And there are times I could use their help! But whether you believe in ghosts or not, you cannot deny a sense of presence of your ancestors as you search for their story.

Just listen...they may be giving you a clue!

For a fun treat during this Halloween season, explore some of the Civil War ghost books such as Civil War Ghost Trails by Mark Nesbitt or Haunted Battlefields of the South by Bryan Bush. And for even more fun, flip through's article on the legend of Abraham Lincoln's ghost, his lanky spirit creeping amongst the hallow halls of the White House.

Happy ghost hunting and don't be surprised if you feel a cool breath languish across the back of your neck tonight as you search for your ancestors.

Keep searching for answers,


I just completed reading a lovely book: Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry. It is in the first person voice of an elderly woman; a remembrance of her life from young adulthood until her senior years. The author describes an ordinary life, one woven with relationships of ordinary people living off the land: a tight community of farmers experiencing the changing world as they saw and lived it.

Although the book evokes a feeling of a memoir, it is fiction though I suspect the author's personal life is reflected within the prose. And though it is lacking in plot--as memoirs are--the character's story of a common life grasps the reader, unfolding truths and conflicts that we all wrangle with within our own lives.

It is a life. And that, alone, is captivating.

Memoirs have grown into a sought after genre for both writers and readers. It is no longer reserved for great movie stars or brilliant leaders. Everyday people are writing their life stories. They are telling, in their own words, their life, their experiences, their thoughts and readers relish the intrigue and commonality of learning from each other's lives.

Now consider this: What if our ancestors, our grandparents and great-grandparents, even our parents, wrote their own memoirs. The stories we struggle to find, handed to us as easy and gently as opening a newspaper on a slow, rainy Sunday; all there for us to soak up and experience and languish in.

How easy genealogy would be!

And so, as we dream of the possibilities we might have had, if only our ancestors had penned their life in story, we should consider an option, one we have complete control over: write our own memoir.

Now is the time to set in motion a written story of your life. I am not suggesting a full-fledge, yearlong novel of a memoir. It does not have to be in any particular form--you are the author of your story and you can write it as you like. But placing on paper (or computer), your life experience is a gift to your family, generations of descendants, and to yourself.

Dates of marriage and births and graduations and anniversaries--all of the information we seek out on our ancestors are certainly a must. But you have an opportunity to fill in the blanks in the story of your life.

There will always be great unknowns of your ancestor's lives, but you have a chance to grasp control of your own story and tell it as you would want your descendants to hear it.

A gift: one that will be precious to your descendants and most definitely--to yourself.

Keep searching for answers,

Democratic National Convention; Philadelphia, 1948
An element of the intrigue of genealogy is the wonder of whom we take after: The mysteries of our DNA, our imprint, and which ancestors held physical similarities to our own.

It is a thrill to find a picture of an ancestor, several generations back, with your hair color or smile. But what about the intangibles? Do you believe your way of thinking is influenced by your environment or instead, wired by your DNA?

Recent scientific studies on our political leanings reveal some fascinating results. They provide evidence to the theory that we tend to tip our hat to one political view not solely due to our environment, but as a result of our DNA. Genes passed to us from our ancestors wire our brain to process information a certain way that is in turn, reflected in our political views.

Learning the political leanings of our ancestors provide a tasty treat when describing their histories. It can give depth to their story, an aspect of their personalities. And as our heads swirl in the current crossfire of the presidential election, we can drift into a more enjoyable pastime by exploring our ancestor's politics.

Discovering if an ancestor was liberal or conservative in their political thinking is a tricky endeavor but if you keep your eyes open for clues, you can whittle the truth. Family stories sometimes pass along a great grandparent's political affiliation and occasionally you can discern political leanings as a result of an ancestor's name.

I have an ancestor named after Benjamin Franklin, a founding father and eventual abolitionist. My ancestor's parents must have held high regard of their son's namesake. Though I can't pinpoint their political affiliation I can make assumptions of my ancestral political leanings by knowing their fondness of Ben Franklin.

Irish Republicans raised my great grandmother, but my mother observed her grandmother's strong admiration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, holding still with every word spoken during his great radio speeches.

Your ancestor's political associations can be imbedded within journals or family bibles. I recently was provided a copy of a great aunt's travel journal as she made her way to the 1948 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia; a fun fund and a great twist to a family history.

So escape the current mind-numbing political barbs and delve deeper into your family history by examining your ancestors with a political eye.

And as a treat, you just might discover whose political DNA you closely possess.

Keep searching for answers,

Wesley crept up the wooden steps, his frail crooked body moving tepidly along each rung. The chatter of children lilted through the walls and he paused to listen; hoping to recognize a voice. Reaching into his pocket, he fingered a ragged picture and pulled it out, focusing his eyes on the three impish faces staring back.They were his children, half-orphans of the Civil War. Motherless from the brutality of a cruel war, Wesley placed his children in the arms of the St. Louis Catholic school praying they would be in a safe-haven; a respite far from the depraved outside world.

Wesley knocked against the door, his heart seemingly louder than his fist. A woman opened the door and gazed toward the disheveled Union soldier. A conversation pursued and Wesley raised the picture upward for the woman to see. The tall, plump woman lowered her glasses, her brow wrinkled as her eyes peered at the three young faces.

"We don't have your children, sir. They're not here any longer."

Wesley's heart slowed and he questioned whether he heard clearly what the woman said. His children are gone? The war was only a blip; a minor deviation compared to this.


Children's orphanages in America bloomed from the 19th century into the beginning of the 20th century. Children orphaned from the ravages of cholera and smallpox were gathered and sent to state-run homes for children operated by churches. Children of immigrants whose parents died within the poverty-stricken and overpopulated eastern cities were sent westward, filling the state and church-run orphanages.

And then there were the young victims of the Civil War. Children were gathered and placed into boarding schools and church schools for their protection. But as I have learned with my ancestor's story, many of the children were not orphans. Instead, their parents placed them in what they considered safe-havens, only to learn their children were taken aboard the Orphan Train as indentured servants.

If you stumble across this kind of story within your family history  you will have a formidable task in your research but it can be done. Orphanages operated by state and local governments maintained better records and a good place start your research is within the state's archives. Go well prepared with a name, age, birthplace of the child, names of parents and to whom the child was indentured, if known.

If a religious group operated the orphanage, the records may be archived at their state or national headquarters. Also, local and state historical societies may be a good resource for your search. And if you ancestor was an indentured servant selected during one of the Orphan Train's whistle stops, his/her records could be (believe it or not) found within the county courthouse deed books.

If your research lands you within the realm of lost children, don't stall out. The task may be great but the story begs to be told. War, disease and poverty played a significant role in shaping our ancestor's lives and some of them lost their families as a result. Get your hands dirty and dig deeper for the truth.

We owe it to them to finish the story they never knew.

Keep searching for answers,

(Genealogy In St. Louis)