The Casting Plug
As a very young boy, I spent many hours in the back yard with my dad learning to cast before I ever set foot on the shoreline with rod and reel in hand eagerly anticipating the first “big catch”. My dad tied a weighted yellow plastic obelisk called a practice plug to simulate a barbed lure or bait and sinker at the end my line.
Thoroughly deficient in the area of natural ability to cast properly, it took quite a bit of patience on his part for me to develop the proper timing needed. The skill of releasing my thumb from the button at the right moment to prevent a thud kicking up dust at my feet or casting it into the trees did not come easily to me.
When he finally took me fishing outside the confines of our back yard, I wanted to show him that his efforts and his faith in me hadn’t been fruitless. I just knew I was going to catch a “whopper”! Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the first time my line had to be untimely severed and another lure sacrificed as a permanent ornament of my shame, dangling from the branches far out of reach of anyone on shore. Soon after, he gave me a cane pole so that I would not have the trouble of the reel and release.
However, he couldn’t have been a prouder father when his five-year-old boy came back with his first sunfish after grandpa took him to a favorite spot and provided a few pointers and a bit more practice of the basics without the reel and release button to worry about.
The cane pole is about as rudimentary to fishing as you can get, just a stick with line tied to it. The “bobber” floating atop the water was far more advanced than the pole. It acted as a signaling device to alert the angler when a fish was nibbling on the baited hook under the surface. Grandpa taught me to wait for the fish to stop nibbling and run with the bait. This was time to yank the pole and “set” the hook.
When I started in genealogy, I did far too much tree fishing, getting my lines tangled in someone else’s mess, finding out that I’ve been searching in the wrong pond all along. As I have since learned, especially over the past year of study, sometimes all we need is a little more guidance, patient practice, and the experience we gain when using the right bait and fishing in the right spot produces success after success.
Untangle the Mangle or Cut Your Line?
Early on I knew that to get back to immigrant ancestors, I would need to work with others to achieve that lofty goal. However, some did not share my desire to be as accurate as possible. The number of absolutely bogus trees has only multiplied as more and more weekend hobbyists copy and paste every incorrect relationship or fact that they can. I used to go out of my way to send corrections to each of those I found, but it became an elaborate whack-a-mole game and wasted time and effort. I decided to get more serious about my own research instead of trying to fix everyone else’s. It was time to cut the line rather than continue trying to untangle the mangle and start over.
As part of a Genealogy Do-Over project, I will be looking at my past research accomplishments with a plan to apply what I have been learning as if I am starting over with myself and working backward. It was back to basics.
Fishing from the Shoreline – A Given & Surname Study
As outlined last month, not only does our surname give us clues into our family origins, our given and middle names can provide a connection to those whom we descend from. I related how my own middle name connected with my grandfather, and his name to his grandfather, and he his grandfather. It was one of the ways I have been able to build connections that had not been documented before. Luckily my branch of Conner lineage stayed in the same area from about 1806 when my immigrant ancestor moved his family from Virginia to bounty land he had received for his service in the revolutionary war until my father moved to Indiana in the 1960s to look for work after completion of his service in the Army. However, some of my other lines moved around more often and aren’t so easily traced.
The Seine Net – Census Records
Before I hit my teens, my father taught me to use a seine net to catch fish, mostly minnows to use as bait for catching the bigger lake fish. State and Federal Census records can act as your net to gather a lot of information about your ancestors that you can use to bring in the “big catch” later. Many census records included enumeration maps which will give you the layout of how the census takers walked from one house to the next.
Ancestral Spear Fishing: Timelines Narrow Your Target
Census records are generally one of my primary sources to search first and one of my first steps is to use the census to build a timeline. A thorough review of every census record will lead to you other records, such as if your ancestor owned or rented, their occupation, where they lived, and who resided within their household. It can also help to determine relationships between those living at the same residence, next door to each other, or just down the street.
Hiding in Plain Sight
There are many times I have followed an ancestor every year in the census to a certain point who then seem to vanish without a trace. It is quite common to lose track of women after they move out of the house and marry, losing their maiden name and connection to the established family patterns. They marry and begin to have children, sometimes going by a totally different given name or a nickname that they have not went by on any other record.
Sometimes It Takes a Depth Finder
Then there are those restless wanderers who due to some event pull up stakes and seek greener pastures elsewhere. Men such as my Great-Great Grandfather, Seth Hovis born near Nashville, Brown County, Indiana on 21 September 1851. He and his wife Mary Catherine Foreman were married on 29 May 1873. They had four daughters and one son who died very young. After 20 years of marriage, the couple separated on 1 October 1893. By this time only the youngest two daughters remained in the home.
According to the divorce filings, he resided in neighboring Jackson County and was not properly served. At the bottom of the statement filed by his attorney in November 1893, there is a line scratched out that says he was heading to the state of Illinois for work. After that, I have found no further records. Many years ago, a descendant placed a comment on an internet message board that he sent a postcard to one of his daughters informing her that he was teaching in Missouri. Mary Catherine resided in Indianapolis for many years and is found in City Directories listed as a “widow of Seth Hovis”. She remarried to Isaac Abernathy on 2 August 1926.
Just a few years ago, several death certificates made available to the public by the Missouri Secretary of State. It was there that a link was discovered to a death certificate for “Seth Hovers” on 14 October 1927 at the age of 76. According to the information it contained, he passed of malaria and was buried at the Dunklin County Missouri Poor Farm. While it was a great clue, it was still only a small catch compared to what is needed to solve the missing thirty-plus years of Seth’s latter years.
I have searched for the message about the elusive postcard to determine where he lived and confirm the limited information available on the death certificate is actually my ancestor, but thus far I only have verbal acknowledgement of its existence. I have also searched for the location of the Poor Farm Cemetery. Searching online, I found a Plat Map for Dunklin County that shows the Poor Farm and adjacent properties. I overlaid the Plat Map onto a modern aerial photograph and found Gregory Cemetery and Gregory school to be the closest in approximation to the poor farm. I have searched for census records from 1920, 1910, and 1900 and found no listing for Seth at the farm or residing in the county. Born too late for Civil War service, Seth was not to be found in pension records which would have helped to fill in the gaps during this timeframe.
Casting a Wider Net
Unless your ancestor was a Civil War veteran and appears in the unburned 1890 Veterans Schedule, the twenty-year gap between 1880 and 1900 Federal Census Records may be one of those areas where an ancestor is hard to find if they moved. Unfortunately the 1890 Veterans Schedule was of no help in busting a long-held family myth regarding the disappearance of my 3rd Great Grandfather, William N. Gossett. However, his Civil War pension records provided all that was needed to begin untangling the web of untruth surrounding his “untimely demise”.
During the Civil War, soldiers passing through Clinton County, Kentucky contracted a local prominent land surveyor to help them transport supplies through the area while finding to help them transport supplies through the area best route that would prevent an ambush by Rebel forces also combing the area for supplies. Exposure to the inclement weather for an extended period of time led to him succumbing to pneumonia leaving his wife Lucinda to care for their home and several children alone.
Several years later, William Gossett married the aforementioned surveyor’s widow and the couple soon gave birth to a daughter, Winnie Tennessee Gossett. They were married a short eight years before Lucinda passed away. The tall tale that continues to be told by some descendants of the surveyor is that the older of the children confronted William, worried and angry that he might be taking land that once belonged to their father. In a fit of rage, they “drove him off” and later caught up with him and killed him. However, he remained alive in Nebraska with his own land until he passed in 1884.
The Big Catch
Having an online public tree is often referred to as “cousin bait” that will enable you to connect with other relatives. While collaboration is helpful to find our elusive ancestors, it is no substitute for hard work and well-sourced research. Always do your own fishing rather than get tangled in undocumented, inaccurate, or nugatory online trees. Our ancestors are more than just a collection of names differentiated by birth and death dates with a few scattered census records in between. But starting with census records will not only allow you to build a timeline and map the migration of your family, it will also catch clues that cast a net over the information that will lead you to other records that is sometimes hiding in plain sight. Eventually the “whopper” of a major new discovery will fall into your hands.
Starting with ourselves, we build an accurate timeline back through the records to past generations. Practice, patience, and persistent diligence are always the best practice for future success we must remember to first use the live bait. Establish contact with our oldest living relatives. In a future post we will be discussing interviewing tips and techniques where we can begin adding depth and detail. What questions would you have for your ancestors if you could ask them? Reply in the comments section with questions you would ask. Also be sure to like the page and individual topics you would like to see expanded in future posts. It will help our community grow through sharing with relatives and younger generations.