Friday, June 17, 2011

2011 Road Trip

For several years now, my daughter and I have taken a genealogical road trip together at least once a year. Each trip has produced some amazing discoveries about our ancestors ... and about ourselves! My daughter and I have a great time on these trips. We start laughing before we pull away from the curb at the beginning and don't stop laughing until we have unloaded the car.

This year's trip was no exception. We flew into Oklahoma City, OK and rented a car. Then we drove to several locations in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri where our research had shown several of our ancestors to have lived at various times in their lives. Although the primary purpose of the trip was to learn more about the places, times, and conditions in which our ancestors had lived, we also discovered several new facts and met some wonderful and fascinating people along the way.

Our first stop was Ponca City, Oklahoma. We knew that my great-great-grandfather, William Henry Pellman, was buried there and we wanted to photograph and document his grave site. Accoring to Find-A-Grave and other sources he was buried in Oak Grove Cemetery, but we soon learned that was only part of the story. Oak Grove Cemetery no longer exists! It's original site near the town of Uncas, Oklahoma has been under the waters of Kaw Lake since 1974. So all the graves from the original Oak Grove Cemetery were relocated to the IOOF Cemetery in Ponca City, Oklahoma by the federal government. His grave is now in what is called the Oak Grove Section of the IOOF Cemetery.

About ten years ago, I had contacted the curator of the Kaw City Museum inquiring about my great-grandfather, George Frederick Pellman, who -- according to family folklore -- had lived there in the early 1900s. I was told quite firmly that there was no evidence whatsoever that he had ever lived in Kaw City and that I was probably being told "tall tales" by my grandfather, aunts and uncles. So our next stop was the Ponca City Library to see what we could learn for ourselves. There we found Guss Henry Pellman named in an index of articles from the Kaw City Times newspaper in 1903. While searching the microfilm for the article, we came across several ads in 1902 and 1903 for G. F. Pellman's Kaw City Meat Market!

Armed with this information, our next stop was Kaw City, Oklahoma. Reaching town, we saw the sign for the Kaw Museum and pulled in -- not realizing that the Kaw Museum and the Kaw City Museum were two very different places. After a wonderful and informative visit at the Kaw Museum, the museum director arranged for us to be met at the Kaw City Museum by Tom, a member of the Kanza (Kaw) Nation, who gave us a personal tour of the facility. After seeing photographs and exhibits depicting what life was like at the time our ancestors were living in Kaw City, Tom led us to a back room in which they had preserved the actual US Post Office window that had been in Guss Henry Pellman's (my great-granduncle) general store along with a journal in which he, as Town Clerk, had handwritten numerous entries in 1903 and 1904!

From there we had to make a beeline to Farley, Missouri because we got word that the church in which birth, baptism, marriage, and other records pertaining to our ancestors was in danger of being flooded within a few days. When we got there we learned that the records had already been removed from the church building for safe-keeping, but the pastor was able to locate them and went out of his way to make them available to us. We were able to copy and photograph more than a dozen pages documenting our family's involvement in the early history of St. John's Lutheran Church in Farley. My great-great-grandparents (William Henry Pellman and Louisa Elise (Meier) Pellman) were both listed among its founding members. My grandfather, John Guss Pellman, was born in Farley before any government agency was keeping birth records in Missouri, so his baptismal record ("Tauf Register") is the only written record of his birth -- and we found that his name is officially recorded as Johann August Pellmann.

We spent most of the next day finding and photographing the gravesites of Pellman and Schimmel ancestors in the Farley area. The headstone of my great-great-grandmother, Louisa Elise (Meier) Pellman, is entirely in German: "Hier ruht Elise Pellmann geboren Meier geb. 6 Juli 1832 gest. 16 Jan. 1889". Beneath this is an inscription in German that I am still attempting to read and translate from the rubbing my daughter made of it. Several other 19th century headstones were inscribed in German, as well. It seems that the first generation or two did not want to let go of their Prussian/German roots ...

The next day we met with Laverne Taulbee, the Platte County Archivist, in Platte City. We arranged this meeting through Facebook, something that could never have happened just a few years ago! Ms. Taulbee was a tremendous help and provided us with copies of several remarkable documents concerning the Schimmel side of our family. While we were meeting with her an "old-timer" (meaning he'd lived in the area a long time; not that he was particularly old) stopped in to the archivist's office. Ms. Taulbee mentioned to him that we were out-of-towners doing ancestral research. With no other introduction he looked across the room at me and proclaimned: "You must be a Schimmel; you've got Schimmel eyes!" That remark made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up! He spent quite a long time with us, discussing Schimmel family history and showing us on a map where we could find such landmarks as the Schimmel Bend of the Platte River. Just one of many extraordinary encounters on this trip!

The next was thanks to a lead from Ms. Taulbee, who suggested that we visit Weston, Missouri and the Weston Museum -- which we did the next day. Weston is a quaint town nestled in the hills above the Platte Valley. It was once a major tobacco growing area and home to a thriving Germanic community who found it remarkably similar in appearance and climate to their homeland. Joseph Sabastan Schimmel, Sr. (my great-great-great-grandfather) was among its early settlers, and the Weston Museum had a copy of his naturalization record from 1848 in its archives. Some of his descendants -- our cousins -- still live in Weston! And my great-great-grandfather, Joseph Sabastan Schimmel, Jr., was born in Weston in 1844, but later moved to Farley.

We spent two more days locating and photographing gravesites and landmarks in Leavenworth, Kansas. We were able to locate and photograph the home in which my great-grandparents, George Frederick Pellman and Mary Victoria (Schimmel) Pellman, lived from 1910 until their deaths in the early 1940s, as well as the homes of my Uncle Fritz Pellman and Uncle Dutch Pellman. The NuWay Drive-In restaurant that my Uncle Dutch and Aunt Rose owned and operated in the '40s and '50s is still in business, so my daughter and I had lunch there and had a fascinating conversation about its history with the current owner. We also found and photographed the gravesites of most of my Pellman ancestors who are buried in the Leavenworth area, but it was heartbreaking to find that most of the grave markers of our Trum ancestors have been destroyed -- even those only a half-century old!

My daughter had to return home to start summer school in order to meet the prerequisites for her pre-calculus class this fall, so I completed the remainder of the road trip solo. After seeing her off at the Kansas City airport, I headed south to Pleasanton, Kansas, long thought to be the birthplace of my grandmother, Vivian Grace (Jenner) Pellman. When I was first collecting documents for my application to the Sons of the American Revolution, I was told by the Kansas Office of Vital Records that no birth records were kept prior to 1911 in Kansas. Even the Linn County Clerk's office told me rather tersely that they had no birth records for the time my grandmother was born. The state office lied! The county clerk's office was simply too lazy to tell me the whole story. But I did eventually find my grandmother's birth record ... in the tiny museum in Pleasanton, Kansas!

It's called the Linn County Historical Museum & Genealogy Library. Not only is it chock-a-block full of 19th- and early-20th century artifacts and photos, but the volunteers who work there are extremely patient and helpful -- unlike the vastly overpaid state and county employees who are nothing but utter wastes of the taxpayers' hard-earned money. It turns out that records were, in fact, kept by the Linn County Clerk, but those records -- the originals, mind you -- are now in the capable hands of the Linn County Historical Museum & Genealogy Library. The director and her staff spent hours helping me pore through their records, and we were able to piece together a significantly more complete record of the relationships between the Jenner, Hartley, and Bonn families of 19th century Linn County. In the process, I made two startling discoveries ...

The first is that my grandmother had a sister she had never spoken of and is not recorded anywhere in family or public records we have previously examined. It is probable that my grandmother did not even remember having this sister. Her name was Margaret Ann Jenner. She was born 16 December 1888 and lived just less than a month, dying on 15 January 1889. My grandmother was only about two years old when Margaret was born and died, so she may have had no recollection of those events later in life. The other big shock was learning that my grandmother was not actually born in Pleasanton, and that she is not listed as "Vivian Grace Jenner" on her official birth record. The record states that she was born in the nearby town of Potosi, Kansas and lists no name for her. Instead, it lists her only as "1st Female".

About an hour west I stopped in the town of Iola, Kansas where my grandmother said she was raised, and where the family is listed on the 1910 US Census as living at 909 South Street. Just as with the other local museums, the director of the Allen County Museum went out of his way and stayed after closing to help me find records regarding my Jenner ancestors. There are no houses still standing at two of the addresses we found for the family on South Street and East Douglas, but their former home at 624 No. Walnut is still in excellent condition and I was able to photograph it for my family records.

My last stop was at Cedar Vale, Kansas, where my great-grandfather, George Frederick Pellman, and his family moved briefly after leaving Kaw City. Joel Haden Jr. was kind enough to open up the local museum for me well after its normal hours and let me roam about freely, photographing the exhibits that gave a sense of what life was like in Cedar Vale in 1905. I was searching for a reason that my great-grandfather might have chosen Cedar Vale, of all places, to settle after uprooting from Kaw City, where he had two brothers and their families -- and thanks to Mr. Haden I may have found the answer in the museum. It will take further research to establish, but one of the prominent families in turn-of-the-century Cedar Vale was the Ackers, according to information I found in the museum, and George's brother Guss was married to Jennie Acker. I suspect that after the oil boom in Kaw City began to subside, his meat market couldn't sustain his growing family and the Ackers found work for him in Cedar Vale. By 1910, however, he was back in Leavenworth, working as a butcher.

Our road trip seemed to pass in the time it took to read this blog. There was so much more we wanted to do, but had to leave undone. We will definitely be going back to these areas on a future road trip. If you've never made a genealogy road trip, I highly recommend it -- especially if you can share the adventure with a friend or loved one! They are satisfying on so many levels. Not only can you fill in missing pieces to your genealogical puzzle, but you gain a real sense of how your ancestors lived, and why they make some of the choices they made. In the early years, genealogy was all about names, dates, and places for me -- just filling in the blanks in my family tree. But more recently it has become about learning what sort of people my ancestors were and what motivated and inspired them to do the things they did. A road trip is a wonderfully enriching way to discover what kind of people your ancestors were. And along the way you are sure to meet some fascinating, warm, and friendly people ... and an occasional grouch!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Worth The Cost?

I've been arguing with myself for a couple of years now over doing a DNA test for ancestral research purposes. I just got another ad for DNA testing -- this one was from the National Geographic Society. and others have been pushing it for a long time now.

But I keep hesitating.

I'll admit that part of my hesitation is that I just don't understand that much about it. I've read all the ads they've sent me, researched it on several different websites, read the Wikipedia article, ... and either there's something I'm missing or I just don't think I'll get enough out of it. Either that, or they are all really bad at explaining the benefits of DNA testing.

Don't get me wrong, they are superb at hyping the virtues of DNA testing -- how you'll learn where your ancestors came from, find long-lost ancestors and relatives, etc. -- but when you read the details it sure doesn't sound like that is very likely. But, like I said, maybe there's something I'm fundamentally missing about genealogical DNA testing, so I'm going to describe what I currently understand and hope that, if I'm wrong about it, someone more knowledgeable will come along and correct me.

There appear to be two types of DNA test: the Y-chromosome test (Y-DNA) and the mitochondrial DNA test (MtDNA). Or, of course, you can buy a package deal that includes both. It looks like anyone can have a MtDNA test done, but only males can do a Y-DNA test since females do not receive a Y-chromosome. Y-DNA tests can be done in a wide range of levels of precision. The most basic Y-DNA tests look at only about 10 or 12 markers, more thorough tests examine 33, 46, or 67 markers, and there are a few vendors offering a 111-marker test. The more markers the test includes, the more accurately it will identify others who share your family line. MtDNA tests fall into three categories: those that test only the HVR1 sequence, those that test the HVR1 and HVR2 sequences, and those that examine the the entire MtDNA sequence including the "coding sequence". The MtDNA test identifies only the direct matrilineal descent -- your mother's mother's mother's mother's mother's ... and so on ... mother.

So the first thing that jumps off the page at me is that I'm plunking down all this money just to take a peek at two of my family lines: the exclusively patrilineal descent of my father, and the exclusively matrilineal descent of my mother. In other words, the Y-DNA test will display only the genetic information for my male Pellman ancestors and whatever they may have been called before taking the name Pellman, and the MtDNA test will look at the zig-zagging path through all the woman of whatever surname are in my mother's direct ancestry. So it will look at the sequence from Mom to Winnie Kerr to Maria Groves to Martha Baxter to whoever her mother was, and so on.

Now, at first blush both of those seem promising avenues of pursuit. So far I've only been able to trace my direct paternal lineage back to my great-great-grandfather, William Henry Pellman and my mother's matrilineal descent to my great-great-grandmother, Martha Baxter. So DNA testing offers the promise of a huge breakthrough on both fronts!!! But how?! And that's where I begin to question the benefits of the testing.

DNA cannot identify specific ancestors. It can only assign a probability -- based on the number of identical DNA markers -- that two or more people share a common ancestor within the last several generations. It cannot even identify the specific MRCA (most recent common ancestor) with certainty; only with a stated degree of probability. Worse yet, the only way it can do that is if both individuals are in the DNA database and both individuals have consented to the release of their information. This raises my big question: how likely is that that someone would have done genealogical DNA testing and consented to the release of the test results, but not bothered to post their ancestral information on one of the dozens of searchable genealogical databases or the World Family Tree? If they are interested enough to pay a sizable sum of money for DNA testing and willing to share those results publicly wouldn't they have been interested enough to share what they already knew about their own ancestry? If so, I would have already found them on some search engine and made the connection!

Unless I'm missing something crucial about how DNA test results are compared and shared, the odds of my learning something new about specific ancestors are extremely low.

So, absent a one-in-a-million discovery that leads to identifying one of two possible great-great-great-grandparents, I stand to gain little or no information that would identify a specific ancestor I haven't already found. And the DNA tests do nothing to identify members of other lines in my family tree -- of which I have already discovered more than 500 different surnames. So, unless those other lines somehow don't matter as much as the two that I can trace through DNA, it's usefulness is extremely limited.

The other thing the DNA testing companies tout is that they identify haplotypes and haplogroups. Whoopee! A haplotype is just a group of people who share a common set of genetic similarities. A haplogroup is a larger group of people who share a broader set of genetic commonalities. Often these haplogroups seem to have lived in the same geographic area for a long time, so it means that you might be able to determine that your ancient ancestors were from a particular geographnic region ... Well, not all of your ancient ancestors, but the ancient ancestors who are from just two of your thousands of ancestral lines. So, if my maternal grandfather was of African descent, for example, neither the Y-DNA nor MtDNA test would reveal it! Am I missing something, or is that not really much help in the greater scheme of things?

The high-precision DNA tests run $500 to $1,000 for both Y-DNA and MtDNA. There are low-precision tests available for $150 to $300, which examine only a dozen or so Y-DNA markers and just the HVR1 sequence, but I can't justify either expense for what little either is likely to reveal with any certainty. So, for the moment, I'm waiting until the price comes down significantly.

If I've overlooked anything important in my analysis, I hope my readers will set me straight, so please feel free to comment if you think I'm missing something.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Kindness of Strangers

Each new year seems to encourage a time of reflection on the year just past, and New Year 2010 was no exception to this. Among my many reflections on the events of 2009, my family, my work, and my friends, I realized that 2009 had produced remarkable progress for me in breaking through several major genealogical barriers.

In both major lines of my mother's family -- Willis on her father's side and Kerr on her mother's side -- I began 2009 having been at an impass for years. On the Willis side, we only knew what we had all known for decades: that her father was Leonard John Willis (my namesake), her grandfather was William Willis, and her great-grandfather was Judge William Willis, QC. On the Kerr side, we knew even less: only that her mother was Winnifred Violet Kerr and her grandfather was the Rev. John Kerr. Despite years of inquiry, we had never been able to learn more about either side of her family, and neither my mother nor I knew of any living relatives who would have any more information on them than we already possessed.

But that was to change dramatically in 2009!

Early in the year, a fellow genealogist recommended that I check the UK website, Scotland's People, for information about my great-grandfather, the Rev. John Kerr. That led me to discover that his father was David Kerr (born 1828 in Dalton, Dumfriesshire, Scotland), a fact I noted in my July 2009 blog entitled, "It's CARE; Not CUR." In November, I stumbled across another UK website while googling around -- a genealogy community called RootsChat. Within 30 days, I had learned another three generations of our Kerr ancestry! So, by year end we knew that David Kerr's father was John Kerr (born 1786), his grandfather was John Kerr (born 1756), and his great-grandfather was James Kerr (born 1718), all of Dumfriesshire, Scotland.

Similarly, by mid-year I had discovered two more generations of my Willis ancestry. William Willis's father was Thomas Willis, Jr. of Dunstable, Bedfordshire, and his grandfather was Thomas Willis, Sr. of Toddington, Bedfordshire. Furthermore, I had also learned that Judge William Willis had served a term as a member of Parliament from Colchester, in addition to his years of service as a Queen's Council judge.

But, what caught my notice as I reflected on these discoveries was that none of them were the result of the new technologies I was employing. To be sure, new and improved technologies played a supporting role in the discoveries, but what actually led me to them was a who; not a what. In fact, several who's.

It was the people on RootsChat who provided the names, birthplaces, marriage information, and memorial inscriptions for my Kerr ancestors. This was information they had spent years collecting. Several of them live in or near Dumfriesshire and had gathered much of the information by visiting old parish churches, burial grounds, and local libraries and town offices. It was information some of them had made considerable expense obtaining, yet they all shared it freely with me. Similarly, it was people on the staff of Toddington Baptist Church who provided me with information and copies from the church's old records concerning the Willis family.

Genealogy is all about relationships. Ordinarily, we focus on the relationships between ourselves and the ancestors we are researching, but I've found that the relationships we build -- often with (formerly) complete strangers -- are equally important and more rewarding than the relationships we learn about in the process.