When Your Genealogical Wishes Come True

Photo courtesy of PBS

Like me, you probably have spent years searching for a document to prove an identity or relationship.

Perhaps you were looking for proof of where an individual lived between census years.

Maybe you are trying to pinpoint when a family relocated to another area.

You’ve searched high and low and after checking the regular recommendations, went as far as boots on the ground.  Then you began looking in unlikely places with the hope that just maybe the record you seek will appear.

Geez, I’ve even talked to pictures of the deceased based on author and genealogist Henry Z. Jones Jr.’s books that seemed to work for some genealogists.

This year I have discovered several documents that shed light on my husband and my ancestors and I’m going to spend the next few blog posts discussing how I FINALLY have gotten closer to finding what I was looking for.

I’m beginning this series with the most unusual way I located my husband’s maternal grandmother’s family’s school records. I never saw this one coming.

Back in 2014, I began looking for Elsie’s school records because I had acquired her 8th-grade exams and certificates for school attendance and I was writing a book about her husband’s line, Perseverance Amidst Adversity.

I was living in Florida and contacted Crown Point, Indiana, the county seat of Lake County, to try to locate Elsie’s enrollment records because the family changed the spelling of their last name and I wanted to see when it evolved from Johannesson to Johnson. I was told the records were never received from Gary.

I tried calling Gary but never got a response. Their main library had been shut down for lack of funding and the messages I left at a school district office were never returned.

Looking over the documents again I realized that the program for the 8th grade graduation that I had obtained from a relative stated Elsie resided in Miller, which was an unincorporated area in 1910 when she was in school. The diploma, however, stated she was attending school in Hobart, a town southeast of Miller. I called Hobart and was told that the records had been turned over to Gary when Miller became a part of Gary in 1919. This is a good reminder that boundaries change while the person of interest never moved.

I then tried contacting the county’s library and museums. No one had the record. Next, I tried the Indiana State Archives (ISA) which is supposed to keep records for schools that are no longer in existence, IF the school district has also ceased to exist. Elsie had attended a one-room schoolhouse, long gone. ISA also keeps records for districts that are or were unable to maintain the records. They had nothing.

Obviously, I had first tried all the usual online sources and even some smaller ones, like Genweb and at that time, Rootsweb. Nothing.

So, imagine my surprise one day when I was walking through the New England Genealogical and Biographical Society in Boston and decided to look at the Indiana shelf. There was a transcription of Lake County, Indiana school records and there was an Elsie, just not mine. To be honest, I was surprised that there were two Elsie Johnsons, close in age, in the same small school district but I shouldn’t have been because Johnson is not an uncommon surname. Elsie’s record I found listed her father, who had enrolled her, along with the enrollment date. She was a few years older than my Elsie.

In 2020 I created a lecture on the importance of school records and one of my slides shows the record for “Elsie that is not related” to my husband. I include it as I reminder to attendees how there is often more than one person at the same time in the same place with the same name. I also add that I’m hopeful that one day, I’ll find the records I seek, even though I’ve been told they don’t exist.

Hope is a beautiful thing and doesn’t just work for Pandora! I never give up hope of breaking through brick walls and finding other records that will enrich the lives of my ancestors.

Earlier this year I wrote a journal article for the Indiana Genealogist on the importance of school records that was published September 1. In the article, I mention the Boston find and my hope that one day I’ll locate Elsie’s records.

This article was read by Lynn Jackson, a librarian at the Lake County Public Library. It is the same library where I began my genealogical journey in the late 1960s.

Lynn realized that the library was in the process of scanning the enrollment records for Indiana University North West. She did not find Elsie’s page, however, she did find the school enumeration records for Elsie’s half-siblings and a sister. I could not believe it!

First, I had never had someone read a journal article I wrote and took the time to search for a missing record I noted. My appreciation for this kind, knowledgeable librarian is immense! Give this lady a raise!

Second, I’m kicking myself as I had reached out to IU NW years ago, but I never asked about school records. I asked about city directories as I mentioned in another lecture on interviewing how I never clarified my grandmother’s response about where the family first lived when they moved to Gary. My grandmother responded on the corner of Washington and Ridge Road. It hadn’t dawned on me to ask which corner; obviously, there are 4 and it was between census years. I had contacted IU NW for city directories they hold but it wasn’t for the years I needed.

Thirdly, I’d like to remind you that you must reach out again to archives to verify that they don’t have the information. Perhaps they acquired what you needed after you had first checked or, like me with a past blog about mysterious John Duer, a more knowledgeable staff member will look and find the record in an unlikely place. Lynn recommended I reach out to them to see if they have further information on Elsie which is a wonderful idea.

The enumeration record found does show that Johnson was used for the family when Elsie’s older sister by one year began her school career. Yes, the information is limited but there is so much to discover even when data is not exactly what you are looking for.

The moral of the story, look everywhere, make contacts far and wide, and write a journal article. Who would have thought that?!

Beneficial Conference Take Aways You Can Use, Too

Every conference is a learning experience and today was no exception.  My local genealogy society sponsored four presentations by Dr. Thomas Jones, PhD, CG, FASG, FUGA and one break out session by a local genealogist.  

I’ve lost count of how many in person and online presentations I’ve attended given by Tom.  In every one, he always makes the most difficult scenarios seem easy to resolve.  I enjoying following his logic in drawing a conclusion based on the records he has or has not found.  

The program today started with the beginner level, progressed quickly and then ended with an upbeat – you can (and should) do this approach.  Here’s my four biggest take aways that can help your research:

  • Tom lamented that he wasted nearly 20 years at the beginning of his family history career by not reading genealogical journals.  I made the exact same mistake.  If you’re a newbie, you will benefit from reading articles published by the National Genealogical Society, The American Genealogist, New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, New England Historic and Genealogical Society, your state societies and more.  No, the articles probably aren’t going to help you name your brick wall ancestor but they will provide the tools that others used to discover what you’re having difficulty locating.  No excuse if being a member of all of these societies aren’t in your budget; your local public library probably has a subscription. If not, ask for a year’s membership as a birthday gift.  Find a friend interested in genealogy and each of you become a member of one and share the journals.  Post on Craig’s List or go on eBay and search if someone is selling their collection.  I’m trying to be a good environmental steward so I’ve stopped getting hard copies in the mail and read the articles online. When I did get the paper version, I always donated to my local library when I was done. Pass yours on, too!
  • Tom reminded us to “consider everything and trust nothing.”  Personally, I think that’s good advice not just for genealogy.  He was referring to online family trees and in print family genealogies.  It’s not too difficult to tell which are well researched.  It is a must to check out the citations to confirm the accuracy.  
  • “Inconvenience is not a reason for drawing a conclusion; get as close as you can to original records.”  I’m blending Tom’s quote with the breakout session I attended on England and Wales records.  I do some, but not a whole lot, of English and Welsh research. I wasn’t aware that the British equivalent to the U.S. National Archives has only 5% of their records online. I don’t know what the latest percentage estimates are for U.S. records but whatever the amount, not everything is available from the comfort of your home computer. True, it’s not always convenient to have to do boots on the ground but it is necessary.  
  • “Gather the stories you’ve been told, write them down and share them.” Definite words of wisdom!  For my long time readers, you know that was one of the reasons why I started blogging. I wanted a place to connect with my far flung relatives by sharing the stories passed down to me by my maternal grandmother.  Every family has heartwarming tales and whispered lore.  Write it down, check it out and pass it on before it’s been forgotten.  Your descendants will be so thankful you did!

Last, as promised, here’s a shout out to one of my New Port Richey followers that happened to be in line in front of me today.  It was awesome meeting you in person.  Happy Hunting!