"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

Those who went before

By on January 27, 2020 in Uncategorized with 1 Comment
Edward Shull died at 34 of typhoid fever. His widow, Alverda Shull, was also dead within four years, leaving five orphans.

An axe murder, a captain lost at sea, a Puritan who arrived in 1631, an accused witch — oh the stories revealed in genealogy research

By Lief Carlsen

I vividly remember the moment I saw the words “stone mason” written in the occupation column of the 1880 census form. 

I was in the basement of the Wenatchee library, poring over what seemed like an endless spool of microfilm, looking for some mention of John Stofer, my great-great-grandfather, when suddenly there it was, in black and white, a record of a man I had never known and knew nothing about except his name. And he had been a stone mason!

I struggle to explain why those words had such an effect on me. 

Of course I had known that I had a great-great-grandfather. We all, of necessity, have eight of them. 

But for most of my life, I gave the matter little, if any thought. As a boy, I had known three of my grandparents and heard a few stories about great-grandparents but that was as far as my interest in genealogy had gone. 

When I decided, in 1996, to put together a little family history for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, I started poking around and digging up what I could from various sources. 

Mostly what I uncovered were names and dates but very little about the character and accomplishments of the ancestors themselves. 

So when I saw that census form that had been filled out in impeccable handwriting by someone named Asbury H. Neel on the 9th day of June, 1880, in Monroe Township, Guernsey County, Ohio, it was almost as if I were standing in the presence of John Stofer, talking to my great-great-grandfather — like I knew him, even if just a little. 

Add to that the fact that I had chosen the same line of work as John Stofer even though I had never heard of the man. Had I stumbled onto a kind of destiny?

Genealogy was a much more cumbersome pursuit in 1996 than it is today. After encountering several dead ends in my search and having enough information to make what I considered an adequate family history, I photocopied the information, boxed up my papers and forgot all about the subject. 

Fast forward to 2019 when I found myself with some spare time and I signed on to ancestry.com, a website designed to aid those with curiosity about their forebears. What a difference 23 years makes!

What had taken me months of research in 1996 was available in a few minutes in 2019. The digitalization of records — census, death certificates, marriage certificates, newspapers, etc. — has made easily and instantly accessible what had been hidden in dusty archives and library microfilm in 1996.

Whereas my research in 1996 had required months of letter writing and visits to the library, I could now accomplish much more quickly on my iPhone, all the while sitting in my easy chair. 

A plan was forming in my brain: I would put together, in book form, all the information I was gathering. That way, when my children or grandchildren someday get the bug and get curious about their ancestry, the information will all be available. 

So why not let them discover the information for themselves you might ask? Surely future technology advances will have streamlined genealogical research even further than it is today. 

The answer is that much of that information will never be available on the internet. It lies in family photographs that will be lost to house cleaning and in the memories of individuals who will be long dead by that time. 

Already I have regretted that I didn’t pay closer attention to my grandmother when she talked about her grandmother, the talented artist who painted the beautiful picture of a sailboat that hangs on my mother’s wall. 

And what about her step-grandfather who captained that boat and was lost at sea? There is no record that I can find of either of these people and their accomplishments. Those facts died with my grandmother. They are probably lost forever.

Genealogy websites like ancestry.com offer bookmaking services for those who want a hardcopy of their research but they were not flexible enough to accommodate the type of book I had in mind. 

I discovered a website called Blurb which offers free software that enabled me to combine photos and text to provide a much more complete description of my and my wife’s ancestors. 

And what stories there are to be found. 

I learned that I have an ancestor (Elizabeth Austin) who was one of the accused witches of the Salem witch trials in 1692. Another ancestor (Jabez Tarr) fought at the battle of Bunker Hill in the American Revolution. Mary (my wife) has an ancestor who was a moonshiner who was robbed and murdered with an axe to the head.

These disclosures led to a good-natured rivalry between my wife and me. 

Initially, I appeared to be the clear winner of this rivalry with a long list of distinguished New England families compared to her moonshining hillbilly ancestors. 

And then a crack appeared in my winning slate. Among her nearly pure German ancestry, most of them recent immigrants, was a marriage of her great-grandfather to an Irish woman. 

Following this woman’s ancestry back I found one English ancestor after another until I arrived at an English Puritan named John Furman who had sailed with Governor John Winthrop in 1631 to establish the Massachusetts Bay Colony. That date trumped my earliest ancestors by several years. 

I immediately de-emphasized the importance “first to arrive.” After all, I explained to Mary, such a distant ancestor comprises a minuscule fraction of one’s DNA.

Even though the digitalization of records has made ancestry research much easier, it is still a time-consuming endeavor. 

I presently have 672 unexplored “hints” that have turned up on my family tree. Whether I will ever deal with all of them is doubtful. 

The more of them I look into, the more paths of inquiry seem to arise. 

But recent discoveries regarding my maternal grandmother’s parents have whetted my appetite. 

Grandma Reenie never talked much about her childhood and I now know why. Records show that her father, Edward Shull, a handsome man who had a thriving construction business, died suddenly at age 34 of typhoid fever. 

Her mother, Alverda Shull, a tall, thin, stately woman, was left with five children and no income. She soon lost her house. She had to move in with her sister where she took in other people’s dirty laundry in an attempt to pay her bills. Within four years, she, too, died — of tuberculosis. 

Reenie and her brothers were separated and sent to live with various families. 

It’s a heartbreaking tale and it makes me wonder what other stories, both tragic and uplifting, lie undiscovered in the existing records. 

It is my hope that the book I am putting together will capture some of these stories for my descendants.

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  1. Rachel says:

    I can’t wait to read the hard copy

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