Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Is there a hero in your family tree?

I use the word here generically – that is, it may be equally applied to either gender.

We tend to associate the term hero with courage in battles – to individuals who show exceptional bravery in saving others from harm. But my Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines the word primarily as: a person distinguished by courage, noble deeds, outstanding achievements, etc. There is no mention of fighting, combat or conflict of any kind. So what really defines someone as a hero?
More than 3,500 Canadian soldiers (all of them heroes) died in the Battle of Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917. There is always a flower blooming next to every headstone, no matter how remote a corner of the site it may be located. Vimy graves: Paul Kinsman blogsite; Vimy trench image: Vimy Foundation webpage; Vimy monument image: Reflections on Canadian History webpage
In their search of military records, many genealogists may find individuals in their families who were awarded medals for their acts under fire during the many wars in which countries and their people were engaged in over the centuries. We make great efforts to remember these individuals in monuments and in naming of public buildings, parks or streets.

I live in an area of Calgary that was part of a military base during the last two great wars. Street names include descriptions of military significance, such as: Valour Circle, Victoria Cross Boulevard and Burma Star Road. This is not surprising given the area’s history but it tends to reinforce our perception of heroes as being connected to armed forces activities of the past, not to everyday life.

Families can and do have other people who must be considered heroes:
·         a physician who administers to a community even at his own personal risk from contagions
·         a single mother whose focuses her entire life on the well-being of her children;
·         a wife or husband who dedicates her/his declining years to ensuring that her/his partner does suffer unreasonably from a debilitating health problem
·         a volunteer for a local or foreign charitable organization who offers time and talents to help others with lessor means or opportunities
·         an individual who moves to a far-off, or sometimes not-so-far-off location in order to build a better future for their present or future families (sometimes enduring great physical hardship and deprivation in the process)
·         a relative who takes in and takes care of children of a sibling who may have fallen on hard times
·         an individual who dedicates themselves to their community, acting as a volunteer or elected official but who assists those in need through charitable efforts or his wealth
·         a person who, in spite of his own mental or physical limitations brings joy and inspiration to others by their selfless acts

These kinds of people are true, every-day heroes! They certainly fall under that category of noble deeds.

I have found a few people in my family tree that conform to some of the descriptions I have just listed. I will also say that I have not found any that were awarded medals for bravery under fire in any battle although there were many who enlisted when wars came along and served with honour and distinction.

Engaging in the study of family histories hopefully means learning about the activities in which our ancestors took part. These are not part of the dates and places we normally search for, except for how that information might relate to historical events. We always hope we will find something written directly by family members that will comment on their lives and families. Letters are rarely preserved, even those written by our closest ancestors. Parish records might contain snippets about people from which we can discern details of their actual experiences or relationships.

One example I discovered in my genealogical research was a minister who spent weeks assisting residents in Plympton St. Mary parish in coping with a cholera epidemic which spread primarily through the urban community beginning in July in 1832. Reverend William Isaac Coppard later wrote a book on his experiences, laying out the causes of the spread of disease and the methods he and local health officials devised to treat the afflicted. The book is title Cottage Scenes During The Cholera: Being extracts from a diary written in July and August, 1832, originally published by a number of firms in 1848. The book is available in reprint and scanned versions from several sources but is also available for free download from Google books. Rev. Coppard details his time spent in the homes of families who contracted the disease from notes he kept during the epidemic

Apart from military options, family historians might ask themselves what other heroic deeds have been be unearthed in constructing their family trees.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

A little trick in finding people whose surname was changed

Most genealogists may know most of the tricks in finding people whose surnames have changed formally or when they have been recorded under the wrong name. Many years ago someone showed me one of them by finding my wife’s grandfather and great-grandmother. 

I used it myself to find first cousins who I had never met. I don’t think my mother, their aunt, ever saw them as her brother divorced their mother in 1927 when they were less than three years old. I believe she knew about them. The children of a half-brother of these individuals grew up never knowing about them either.

When small children are part of a divorce, they often end up with one parent and never see the other one again. That may be especially true if the divorce was bitter and full custody of the children was obtained by one parent. In past times it was usually the mother who got the kids. Not that that was in necessarily unreasonable for many of those cases but it was most common.

My Uncle Randall Miller was married a few times. In between marriages, he lived with another one or two women. He was not a mean or nasty individual. In fact he was quite gregarious, kind and well-meaning, at least as far as we knew him. He just couldn’t seem to settle down for a long period with one partner.

Randall was born in Oklahoma in 1902, on a homestead near Yukon, OK. The family moved to Kansas in 1904. Randall’s parents, my grandparents, rented and operated several farms around the region before finally moving to the Pacific Northwest in 1914. They settled in Oregon for several years, where my mother was born.

Randall’s first marriage was to Violet Marie Gosney, on 10 June 1922, in Bend, OR. They had two children together: Richard, born in 1924 and Betty Jean, born in 1925. The records stop there for the Miller children. The next we hear of Randall is when he married Dorothy Tyler in 1928.

There is no record of Violet Marie, Richard or Betty Jean with the surname of Miller. I looked as well for them with the name Gosney, thinking perhaps she had taken back her maiden name after the divorce. No luck there either. Then I tried the trick of looking just for the three people with their forenames. Very quickly I found them all on both the 1930 and 1940 censuses, living in Oregon, but with the surname of Conner. By 1930 there were two other children in the Conner family: Clarence Dale, born in 1927; and Peggy Marie, born in 1929. Another arrived in 1935 - Patsy Lee. Later information found indicated another son, William, was born sometime after 1940.
Portion of 1930 US Census showing the Clarence LeRoy and Violet Marie (Gosney) family living in Portland, Oregon
Now there is some conflicting information on the census about the second marriages of Randall and Violet Marie. The 1930 US censuses show the ages of the parties at the date of their “first” marriage. In both cases it appears that Randall’s and Violet’s ages correspond to the married people on the census rather than a previous union. From that information one would normally assume that any children were of the parents shown. A search for the later Conner children resulted in finding death records that confirmed their mother’s maiden name was Gosney, though, essentially tying the circle back to Randall. Whether or not Richard and Betty Jean were formally adopted by Clarence Conner I do not know yet.

Tracing the family members through their first names only resulted in finding valuable information about my first cousins and their half-siblings. I still do not have all the data I would like but I have a good start.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Natural Disasters and Family Misfortunes 6: Floods

Natural events that will come to mind for most readers, and that many may have been affected by, are floods – whether of the rapid overnight or slow-developing over weeks type. Floods are normal things; they happen every year and in almost every river valley. Sometimes they are minor events; other times they are devastating – to people and communities. But they have been part of natural phenomena forever.

Historically most farming communities have benefited by river flooding that brought moisture and deposited rich new sediment across fields.

Seared into human memory, though, are the major, disastrous varieties, when infrastructure and human lives were lost on a grand scale. For family historians, again, such events may have ended up forcing people to migrate or left chaos among the lives of survivors.

In any year, as far back as records exist, one may find descriptions of floods that disrupted communities and took lives.

Naturally occurring floods are almost always a result of major storms. Exceptions are those that arrive as tsunamis (see blog post of 20 June 2017). Along shorelines floods may arise from sea surges, those also produced by storms in the open ocean. Every continent has had its share of large-scale flooding. Those with very extensive river systems or large collection areas may suffer through floods extending over vast areas.

In Europe the greatest disasters from flooding resulting from storm surges, coming ashore mostly from the North Sea. The 1287 St. Lucia flood is reported to have killed 50,000 to 80,000 people in the Netherlands and northern Germany. What had been a large fresh water lake surrounded by farming communities and fronted by barrier islands and peat swamps was turned into an extension of the North Sea – the Zuiderzee. There were undoubtedly many similar floods in the region as sea level rose following the last major ice age. There would be many more such storms in succeeding centuries, particularly during the Little Ice Age (AD 1315-1850), until residents learned to mostly control them with dams, dykes and surge barriers.

A major flood hit north-central England in November 1771. A storm broke over the highlands of the Pennines with heavy rain for several days combined with melting of snow in the highest reaches. All rivers flowing out of the region, to the north, south, east and west overflowed their banks, from the source areas to the tidal inlets, over 60 miles in the cases of the Tyne, Tees and Wear Rivers.

In many areas the water arrived in flash-floods with water levels rising over the eaves of houses within minutes. Buildings of all types, ships tied up along the wharves, goods left lying on quays, farm animals and implements and, of course, people were swept away in the raging currents. Bridges, including the 500-year old Tyne Bridge at Newcastle, were unable to withstand the onslaught of water and were destroyed. In some areas, water levels in the lower reaches were over 12 feet above normal, high spring tides.
Gaps through Pennine Mountains; Topographic Map of the UK; Mercator projection
Etching of Tyne Bridge at Newcastle after the 1771 flood; source – Newcastle Libraries
In North America, the Mississippi River and all of its major tributaries have consistently inundated lands adjacent to their water courses. They are not called floodplains for no reason!

The drainage area for the Mississippi encompasses 1,245,000 square miles. From its source in Minnesota, it takes on the flow from 10 major tributaries, eventually dumping millions of tons of sediment into its delta area in the Gulf of Mexico. During frequent floods it also delivers substantial volumes of new soil to surrounding farmland in all the river valleys.
Mississippi River tributaries, from USGS data
There have been dozens of major flood episodes in the Mississippi basin, from upriver storms, hurricanes arriving from the Gulf of Mexico or exceptional snow melt from the Rocky Mountains and runoff in the tributaries coming from there. The lower Mississippi always seemed to get the brunt of the excess water. The earliest report of a flood is from 1543 when Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto arrived at the confluence of the Mississippi and Arkansas Rivers.

The most disastrous flood in recorded history in the United States happened in 1927 as exceptional amounts of rain fell along many of the major tributaries of the central part of the basin. Over 27,000 acres were covered with water, with depths up to 30 feet, primarily in the states of Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. More than 700,000 people were left homeless; 500 people died. Many of the displaced, particularly those in the labouring class, gave up on the region and migrated to northern and Midwestern cities. Following this event, the US Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1928, charging the US Army Corps of Engineers with the task of establishing controls on the flow and flooding of the river system.
1927 Mississippi River flooded areas - Records of the Coast and Geodetic Survey, RG; source – Public Domain
In China, major rivers have also experienced widespread flooding over the centuries. The best documented are, of course, the most recent. In 1931, a combination of melting of large snow accumulations in the western mountain ranges, exceptional and heavy rain in the central regions and cyclone activity from the eastern ocean saw substantial more volumes of water in the system than normal. In addition, “[e]xcessive deforestation, wetland reclamation, and the over-extension of river dyke networks transformed regular flood pulses, which were an integral feature of the fluvial ecosystem, into destructive inundations, which wrought chaos upon human communities.” (
Great flood at Gaoyou, Jingsu province; source - The Great Floods of 1931 at Gaoyou website
Rebuilding of dykes following the disastrous flooding in 1931; Sampans transport the soil to Gaoyou Dikes on the Grand Canal, Jiangsu Province. Source - The Great Floods of 1931 at Gaoyou website
The cumulative causes, both natural and manmade, resulted in a devastating event that affected 52 million people with two million deaths. Following the event many programs were initiated to build new and better dyke systems and institute flood control measures. These were built largely from manual labour of thousands of workers.

Such large-scale floods are not unique to modern times. No doubt all river systems have seen excessive precipitation that resulted in widespread inundation. Where no people were around
to witness the events, they would not be considered as disasters. Today most regions are highly populated meaning that even minor flooding can do significant damage and affect many communities.

Family historians may well find some of their ancestors were affected by floods. Such evidence can be found in newspapers of the day, written up in parish or estate accounts or detailed in many books and other publications.