Story Time

Over the course of 2017, I have been pursuing several growth opportunities that have become available to me. One area I have been focused intently is writing and storytelling in order to practice and improve the monthly content for the blog as well as improve in writing about our ancestors. Among those I have already completed is Lisa Alzo’s writing courses entitled THE WRITE STUFF.

As I pondered what subjects I wanted to write about, I kept feeling the need to record the memories from my childhood as well as write down the stories my parents told me growing up. Over the summer I began posting a few of the stories I could remember, each of which prompted recollection of other memories I will be writing about in the future.

Last February I was a virtual attendee to the 2017 RootsTech Conference. There were several new companies which were recently formed with their mission to encourage storytelling through various methods, including phone apps and computer software. Some of these ideas can be found at Family Tree Magazine or reviewing the RootsTech 2017 archived sessions.

Whether it was through the many letter exchanges or during the infrequent visits during my youth, my grandfather shared many stories of his own which at the time I did not fully appreciate. He spoke about people who had lived before I was born and had long since passed away. His stories were usually about unfamiliar topics, mostly involving neighbors or people he worked with. I did not see a need to give them much attention unless they were directly connected to me, but certainly regret not having the foresight to see their importance at the time.

I will be sorting through his letters and compiling into stories for future blog posts.  Another story idea was generated by grandmother’s diary which details of when she and my grandfather met as well as his entry into military service.

Since ancient times, families learned of their past through sharing of stories through oral tradition. As part of our interviewing exercise, it is highly recommended to prompt our eldest living ancestors to share their stories before their own memories begin to fade and the story is lost to the ages.

While I know I could never tell the stories the same way as my parents did, I hope to at least pass on as many of the stories they shared with me as possible. Think of stories that your parents or grandparents have told you that would make an interesting writing project and share your ideas in the comments.




Oh Christmas Tree

When my brother and I were little, we used to fight over the decorations my mom would put out. I remember a large green glass bulb that was on my mom’s tree every year. After my mom passed, my brother had the ornament for the first year or so, then passed it along to me. I was so nervous about it getting broken, so I passed it along to my sister. It has survived and has since remained a tradition with my sister to find a special spot for it on her tree every year. I have many other ornaments from my mom which have become a decorating tradition for me to personally place on the tree.  My wife exposed me to her Elf-on-a-Shelf traditions I had not heard of before we met but has since become part of our annual decorations. There are other inspirations for making new traditions of our own.

It was a crisp winter morning two years ago that had an experience that inspired the decorations we put up starting last year but really was not complete until this year. While I had seen the lone cardinal contrasted against the snow covered branches before, I had never seen more than one together. This was a whole tree full of red-breasted birds perched among the intertwined branches! There were far too many to count! Before I could snap a picture, many had already flown away.

We identify the cardinal as a reminder of our loved ones who have passed during the holidays. Whenever we see one, we point it out as an opportunity to remember them. For me it is a reminder of my mom. My wife connects the sightings with her grandmother since it was also her favorite bird.

Our first year together, we opted for a silver and blue accented tree with a blue tree skirt trimmed in silver letter “Merry Christmas” along with matching blue and silver stockings for each member of the family. Two redbirds were strategically placed in the tree, ensuring that each would be seen. We were window shopping this year and found a cookie jar that prompted a change for this season.

Next, my wife’s friend made a wreath that was trimmed in red. We also found red stockings, and decided on red ornaments with poinsettia flower accents. The poinsettia table cloth and cardinal themed poinsettia tree skirt just made the theme come together. We later found cardinal salt and pepper shakers that we put out for our holiday meals. Two large poinsettia plants were also purchased.

While we now have the option of red or blue, I highly suspect the red will win again next year. What decorations do you put out as reminders of your Christmas traditions?

Thankful Traditions

In this season of approaching holidays, I have been reminiscing on those memories from the season that stir fond recollections of the past, but far too often induce the painful remembrance of empty seats at the Thanksgiving dinner table.

Recently, the topic of family holiday traditions has been discussed at my dinner table and the options of ham or turkey were presented as possible dinner choices. Growing up it was always a tradition of the Thanksgiving Turkey and a Christmas Ham. I offered to change it up this time with a catered meal with a barbecue option but also considered smoked or deep fried turkey so that she did not have to spend three days of prep work in the kitchen. She offered to make the traditional turkey for our Thanksgiving feast.

Another surprise came when my wife offered to make some of the delicious desserts I have been deprived of for more than a decade since my mother’s passing, among which is my mother’s pumpkin pie recipe. My grandmother made a version of the pie she called a “black-faced pumpkin pie” which I recalled to be heavy on the molasses.


While my wife and I have been making new memories together as a blended family, such as visiting the pumpkin patch for our prized orange orb, we also cling to some of the many traditions which we each grew up with, like the annual ritual of watching the Macy’s Parade and eagerly awaiting the Snoopy float.

By now I hope you have been able to obtain your own copy of the Conner Cousins Family Cookbook that was put together for the reunion over Labor Day.  As I understand, it sold out and orders were continuing to pour in through online ordering.

The spiral-bound cookbook is available at The Book Patch for $10 each plus shipping. All proceeds go to The Conner Cousins Committee who put together the annual reunions for the descendants of Willie and Laura Conner as well as the many related branches.

Since working on the cookbook, I have decided to conduct a similar project next year for my mother’s recipes. What family traditions do you plan to keep alive in your annual holiday gatherings?



Speaking of the Dead

Even when our interview opportunities do not provide much detail into our family history, there are many other ways to start building their story. With a bit of sleuthing, we gather much of our information from the bits of clues our ancestors left behind.

The condition of the cemetery, grave, or headstone should be taken into consideration. For instance, when we find our ancestor interred in a long-forgotten and neglected or non-public cemetery, this may be an indication that they were buried by nearby neighbors or family. It also shows that they may have been too poor to afford a proper headstone. I have one such instance where no marker existed but there were other indications of a burial.

Many years ago, I visited the Conner homestead in Overton County, Tennessee. A cousin who was showing me around pointed to a non-native plant growing near an out-of-place rock that he believed to be the grave site of Elizabeth Dennis Conner, the first wife of my 4th Great Grandfather, James Cornelius Conner. It was found amongst a clump of trees a good distance away from the homestead and cemetery. While my direct ancestors were each buried in the family plot or across the road at Old Bethel Cemetery, I am still searching for more information on her death and burial.

One way may produce results is by thoroughly searching those interred in the family cemetery. When an ancestor is buried in a church cemetery, we can look for church membership directories and parishioner lists within the dates indicated on their headstone. We can also deduce a rough idea for the date of marriage based on the grave marker and consider the church as one possibility to hold the early marriage records before they were recorded on the county level. Walking through the cemetery and finding the headstone of a relative can narrow the timeframe in which to search for our ancestors but can also lead to other clues.

When we visit during Memorial Day or Veterans day, we can easily spot any ancestors who served by the flags placed by veterans groups. Personal items and flowers usually indicate living relatives regularly visiting the cemetery. There may be local family members we were previously unaware of.

Visiting national cemeteries can often help us to learn more about those who were killed in action by locating groups of their fellow fallen who served in the same unit. An ancestor with a military marker can lead to an abundance of otherwise unknown information.

The symbols carved onto a marker can indicate various important facts related to the lives of our ancestors. They are a great way to point to unit histories, bounty or warranty land deeds, pension files, as well as muster rolls. Many headstones will also indicate the religious preferences of our ancestor.

These markers provide a wealth of other information we may otherwise overlook. For instance, I found Masonic symbolism on the grave marker of an ancestor. It was the only indication of his affiliation I was able to find. Occasionally the marker itself is shaped in ways that are significant.

One of the most prolific grave markers I have seen is the headstone of 2nd Lieutenant Nathaniel Grigsby who served during the Civil War which includes an epitaph of his indignation toward those he felt responsible. His marker shows why it is important to check all sides of a headstone, especially if irregularly shaped. When we do not know where our ancestor may have been buried, we can consult the state databases for death certificates of our ancestor or their descendants.

Tennessee State Death Certificate for G.W. Conner #31908, Tennessee State Library and Archives; Nashville, Tennessee; Tennessee Death Records, 1908-1959; Roll #: 13

The death certificate of my 3rd Great Grandfather, George Washington Conner not only lists his residence, birthplace and date of birth, parents, occupation, informant, date and cause of death, as well as location of internment and date of burial. He was buried by his neighbors from Monroe, Tennessee and listed as married at the time of death, indicating his wife was still living at the time.

The death certificate also can provide much information about our ancestors that would often be overlooked. On most death certificates after 1900, the coroner indicated the cause of death in words as well as a three or four digit code. This is the International Classification of Diseases which has had many revisions since its inception. It is important to ensure what revision would have been in place at the time to obtain the code that is designated on the form. Since the 11 September 2001 attacks, a new classification was developed for deaths caused by terrorism.

We should also consider the style of the marker and if it fits within the time period of the death. Given that he was interred by neighbors, G.W. Conner’s date of death shown on the grave marker can only be speculative without further evidence. In this case,  several of the markers are likely to have been placed at the same time and further exploration of similar stones in the family plot will be conducted to find their origin.

While headstones and death certificates are an excellent way to determine the birth and death of an ancestor, it is the dash in between where we should focus our research and build their story.

Echoes From the Past

Sorting through the contents of a box pulled from the attic, I found the cassette recorder that I had used in college to record lectures for note taking. Some of the instructors spoke so fast that handwritten notes were almost impossible to keep up with. For studying, I could playback the recording and fill in the information that they covered in their lectures, but didn’t make it to handouts or get written down during class.

Feeling somewhat nostalgic, I remembered my first tape recorder as a boy. I would sneak my recorder into the room where my dad was playing guitar and singing. On occasion he would have accompaniment with one of his cousins, but most of the time it was a solo performance of his favorite Hank Williams songs or a rendition of “Country Roads”, a ballad made popular by John Denver.

As we discovered over the last several months, oral history projects are very important to preserve our family stories, provide a background for our research, and can provide many details that simply following a paper trail for our generations past cannot provide. While we are most familiar with interviews in printed form such as a book, magazine, or newspaper article, an audio recording of an ancestor speaking can give us so much more than the written word.

One such interview was conducted with my Great Grandmother Laura Mae (Bell) Conner by a cousin, Jackie Lynn Snow and later transcribed for publication. Entitled “No Cars and Not Much School”, it won second place in an Oral History project at Green County High School in Kentucky. The two-page article appears on pages 16 and 17 from the Spring, 1978 Convention issue (Vol. XIX, No. 3) of KENTUCKY HERITAGE, a magazine of the Kentucky Junior Historical Society. Unfortunately the taped interview that had been submitted for the contest was never returned.

“Granny” Conner spoke about many issues about life in the early 1900s in rural Russell County, Kentucky. Some of the stories I had heard before but had been forgotten, such as the September 12, 1931 Baseball Game shooting. However, there were many other details in the interview that I was not aware of prior to reading it. For instance, I had not known that the baseball shooting had actually occurred at a field that was built at the Conner family farm or that she kept several of the bullets that had been fired that day.

From the interview, I learned that Jesse James had passed through Russell County during his exploits and swapped horses with one of my relatives while fleeing after a bank robbery. I was also unaware that my great grandfather had left his family and his farm to take factory work in Indiana for a season. There is so much that can be learned from an oral interview if you simply ask.

George William “Willie” Conner & Laura May (Bell) Conner

Popular long before the telephone became commonly found in every household as families began spread farther apart geographically, many would make cassette recordings that were mailed in place of handwritten letters. Especially helpful when a relative had vision impairment or couldn’t read, hearing the voices of a loved one across the miles can bring comfort to those longing for a little bit of home that a paper and ink letter cannot provide. My mother had some of these cassette mailers that were among the items in a box that I inherited upon her passing, so I’m sure to discover audio letters and recordings as I go through her letters when continue my genealogical research as part of a future Do-Over project.

I received one such cassette tape from cousin Terry Conner that was recorded by his father Jay during a visit with his parents. Recorded sometime prior to his death in December 1970, my Great Grandfather Willie Conner gives a brief audio recital of a poem or verse he learned during his childhood with Granny Conner providing correction in the background. I am hopeful that someone will be able to recognize it and let me know where the verse he quoted was from. It does not contain much in the way of informative content, but I am ecstatic to have an audio recording that has my great grandparents speaking.

Recently becoming more common to genealogy are battle accounts recorded with service members. I was able to determine more information about my uncle Roger’s service in Vietnam and the battle in which he and his best friend were killed in action. Accounts of their heroic service as told by their fellow soldiers has been preserved at the 4th Cavalry Association.

In addition to written and audio accounts, video recordings such as the Veterans History Project conducted for PBS may be available for our ancestors. Accounts from those still living can provide valuable insight into military service even after our direct ancestor who served has long since passed. Our local PBS station conducted an interview with Harley Richardson who served in World War II.

I was able to record the interview and share with many of his family members who were unable to view it when it originally aired, but more importantly preserve it my son who is directly descended from Mr. Richardson on his mother’s side. The Richardson and the associated branches schedule family reunions every five years. They hired a local company who attended the reunion and created a video which was made available for purchase by family members. As time went by, family members themselves conducted interviews with their elders which were included in the videos.

You may want to enlist the services of a talented relative to create a recording of your own family reunions as well as the stories of the older generations. If your relatives can bring a video camera to the next gathering, this should be a project given priority throughout the day.

In 1999, the Conner family made a tribute video with a segment for each of Willie and Laura’s twelve children. Each of the children living spoke for a few minutes sharing their own personal memories and segments were created in remembrance for those who had already passed. In a wrap-up segment, my great uncle Norman Conner narrated several reel-to-reel videos from his collection that he had recorded during the 1970s.

We have come a long way in our ability to preserve audio and videos:

Edison’s cylinders Early Photography
Discs made of wax and vinyl Animated Stills
Reel-to-reel Silent Films
8-tracks Colorized Movies
Cassettes Portable Video Cameras
Compact Discs YouTube & Vimeo
Mp3 Smart Phone Cameras
Cloud Music Library Digital Movies

Luckily I still had an old boombox for the cassette conversion and a VHS player to convert the video tapes to DVD. One of my projects this year is to make each video available digitally and preserve for future generations through storage in the cloud. Over the next several months, I will be looking into various technologies to conduct interviews through Skype, Facetime, or web-casting as a means of recording and preserving our family interviews.

The first step in your preparation should be a choice between “paper or plastic”. Will you use a pencil and notebook paper or will you use a tape recorder, camcorder, or cell phone that can be preserved along with the transcribed interview? If you do not have the means to purchase good video equipment or rent an audio studio, then you make due with what you have available now.

The next step in your interview preparation should include familiarizing yourself with the technology you have available. For instance, if you plan to record your interview, you should be aware of any time constraints or software limitations prior to actually scheduling any interviews. Find the best software apps and tools that are suited for your needs then spend time in practice to ensure quality results. You may even want to have redundancy and backup plans in place before hand.

Conducting interviews face-to-face is preferred to phone conversations or letter writing exchanges. You can get visual cues from their facial expressions as whether or not to continue with any uncomfortable topics. It would be a good idea to come with some questions already prepared prior to the interview, but also allow the conversation to direct your line of questioning and good follow up questions rather than sticking to a scripted interrogation.

In some cases you may want to provide a list of questions you intend to ask so the person you are interviewing can prepare but also allow for flexibility when their retelling requires additional clarification. You will want to have a pen and paper with you to make notes even if the interview is being recorded.

Set a specific time window that you plan to conduct the interview and try to keep as closely to the time allotted as possible. You should want the person being interviewed to remain open to future interviews so you should respect their time and ask for additional time at a future date if needed or they seem open to further sharing and time does not allow the interview to continue until another time.

Conduct as much of the general genealogy as possible in advance. Your questions can then be narrowed to specific areas and help to develop direct questions for the interview far ahead of time. There are plenty of example questions online that can be utilized for a reference, but I think many are far too generalized for what I would choose to use.

I would also prepare a timeline of family and historical events to refer to throughout the interview and may ask a question such as “what is your earliest childhood memory?” to determine a starting place and ask the questions in a logical order rather than jump around.

Many of our ancestors have their personal stories and memories preserved through letters, publications, and both audio or video interviews. We can hire out the service to others, or with a little bit of preparation, we could conduct interviews with our oldest living relatives ourselves to ensure the details of their recollections are recorded for posterity and shared with future generations.

The best advice is to get started now! If you have any recordings from past reunions, published interviews of family members, any audio interviews or recordings of our family on cassette or VHS tapes that you would like to make available through digital means, please let me know.

This month I am launching several new areas of the website and am now offering automatic delivery of the monthly newsletter directly to your in-box! New subscribers this month will get immediate access to download the free Worry-Free Interview Checklist. Hurry, it’s only available for a limited time. You won’t want to miss what we have planned for next month!

Your comments are greatly appreciated and will help to guide future topics, so please leave feedback below and LIKE or SHARE is you found this post valuable to you.

Vittles From Granny’s Table

A few weekends ago, I received a surprise phone call from my Aunt Carol. She and her husband, David Kerns, were traveling with their son and would be passing through town on their way out west. Their plans included a stop-over at the Oklahoma City Memorial and hoped I could meet them there the following morning. As it had been about fifteen years since I had visited them at their home on the outskirts of Jamestown, Kentucky I naturally agreed.

We met just beyond the reflecting pool after they had taken the tour through the memorial. It wasn’t long before the conversation turned to her memories of my great grandparents, Willie and Laura Conner. It did not take long before Granny’s cooking took center stage. Aunt Carol described the chicken and dumplings Granny made as if she had tasted them only yesterday. Among my favorite smells are those that remind me of Granny’s kitchen. I was soon lost in my own remembrances of the “vittles” at Granny’s table.

I don’t recall any of our visits being announced ahead of time or any calls to forewarn her that company was on the way. I know that no matter who was coming, day or night, expected guest or surprise visitor, she would always have supper ready. I don’t know how she managed, but it was always like a buffet – more food than we could ever expect to eat!

I would trade almost anything for a taste of her beans, fried potatoes, and cornbread. I remembered one of our last trips when I was exposed to granny’s “ketchup”. With the consistency of chunky salsa, it was added to the bowl of beans to ‘dress it up’ as she would say. I liked to crumble one piece of cornbread in with the beans and “ketchup”, then have another served with her homemade butter. My mouth watered with every mile for the feast that surely awaited our arrival.

There was always a stop at an old country store to stock up on Grape NEHI and moonpies – a ten-year-old’s favorite diet plan. The journey from Indiana along two-lane blacktop state roads and unnamed roads to Granny’s provided quite an adventure! Once we turned off the pavement and journeyed down the last stretch of narrow gravel road, I knew we were getting close! The trail to granny’s house wasn’t over the river and through the woods, but it was pretty close. Little more than a cow path, the trail wound dangerously close between trees and disappeared into more than one small stream before emerging beyond the muddy waters on the opposing embankment. It seemed our family car was ill-equipped to travel on a road seemed to have been designed to accommodate horse-drawn wagons, but we pressed on.

Often our progress would be delayed by a few stray cows standing in our path. Stubborn and oblivious to the sound of impatient children hollering and waving frantically from the backseat, the herd only dispersed when the mood suited them and not a moment before. Almost like a canal boat passing through a system of locks, the frequent stops to open and shut gates prevented wandering cows from escape.

I always wondered if the winding trail through the cattle gates was created to give her ample time to prepare the food or just to make the trip more interesting, but I could never remember the number of gates we had to pass through before we could reach our destination. I do not recall the absence of “are we there yet?” as we closed each gate.

When we finally pulled up to Granny’s doorstep, she was standing at the door. “Come on in. You hungry? I’ll have food on the table in just a few minutes.” I don’t think the screen door had been closed by the last person in our entourage when Granny waved us to the table.

As the adults continued into late-night conversation, she would direct weary-eyed children toward her room. Words do little to express the feeling of a full belly nestled in grannie’s feather bed wrapped in one of her amazing homemade quilts as raindrops on a metal roof lulled a tired ten-year-old to sleep, but most of Granny’s children, grand children, and great-grand children  probably have similar memories.

Several years ago, her descendants put together a recipe book called “Cookin’ with the Conners” which is now long out of print. A call went out to a shared Facebook group about planning another edition. I quickly volunteered and am currently compiling the last few recipes that have been contributed. I am yet hopeful that some kind soul will come forward and submit that “ketchup” recipe!


The Teething Hat

It can be said that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, so you never entirely know the value of any discarded item. I was looking through a family photo album and recalled one such previously long neglected item that I had not thought about in many years. You normally keep valuables locked away in a safe or stored in a vault at your bank, but what would you do with a teething hat?

The significance of this worn-out styrofoam safari hat was proof that I had met my great grandfather, George William “Willie” Conner at least once in my life. This uniquely important heirloom and I appeared together in only two almost simultaneous photographs. In each picture my great grandpa Willie is holding me as an infant less than a year old, still in diapers. I recall one of the pictures captured me reaching for the hat as it rested atop his head. The next in the sequence is again of him holding me, but this time with the hat firmly in my grasp, gnawing on the edge. I recall growing up with the story as my mom told it, hearing he was not in the least bit upset that I was permanently marring a hat he wore daily while working around the farm. I am told that he was even laughing about it.

I asked my mom if I could keep the two pictures during a visit but sometime long ago I had removed the pictures from the album when it started coming apart and both photos had since been misplaced. I started asking my relatives if it was possible that my mother had shared copies of the pictures with them. Unfortunately, no one seemed to have seen the pictures I was looking for and the only direct connection I had with my great grandfather was forever lost.

Many months later, my great aunt Ada responded that she didn’t have the picture I was looking for, but would look around for others that she was certain that I would like to see and invited me to attend the family reunion which was happening later that year as an opportunity to share them with me.

At the reunion as the afternoon music was winding down and attendees began gathering their dishes and making the preparations to return home, I was approached by aunt Ada who asked me to stay for a while longer. She went to her vehicle in the parking lot and returned with a brown paper sack and a stack of photographs. As I thumbed through the stack, I finally got to pictures of my great grandfather.

She started speaking as she pointed to a photo of her father atop a tractor with the same hat that I remembered from the two pictures I was looking for. “That’s the hat!” she eagerly exclaimed. She explained that she could not recall exactly when he started wearing the hat, most likely in the early to mid-1960’s. She reached for the paper sack she had brought from her car as she spoke of her father. “He had worn the hat almost every day,” she stated as tears began to well up in her eyes. She lifted her glasses to her forehead and swabbed the pools beneath her eyes with a handkerchief that she had tucked in her sleeve for occasions such as these when bittersweet memories of lost loved ones are remembered as their stories are shared. He had worn the hat up to the day he was hospitalized with an illness that eventually led to his death four days before Christmas 1970.

“After daddy died, mama had been sorting through his things” she explained as she reached inside the paper sack. She pulled out the hat that I had been asking about and handed it to me. At the time her father died, aunt Ada had been working as a florist creating flower arrangements. Her mother thought she could have used the hat as a base to hold the artificial flowers she worked with. It wasn’t long after that she retired from the flower shop and stored the old discarded hat in her basement where it had remained unused and almost forgotten for the next thirty years!

As I examined the ancient-looking artifact more closely, she pointed to the evidence of an infant’s teeth-marks still clearly visible. “I had thought of throwing it out with the weekly trash on many occasions, but for some reason or other I just never got around to it” she explained. In stunned disbelief, I was amazed that this fragile item had remained intact for me to be reunited with all these years later. While the hunt for my missing photographs is still on-going, I am thankful for the tangible evidence now in my hands that connects beyond a distant memory of a lost photograph.

You cannot simply discard items that you consider unusable or without purpose. What may seem like irrelevant trash to someone not familiar with its provenance, you may possess heirlooms of significance to someone else if that item was handed down through the generations. Think of items that would seem common to your ancestors as part of their daily life and seemingly unimportant. Before throwing them out, remember that the item may hold a personal significance to someone else.

Please LIKE, SHARE and comment with your own story of an heirloom our ancestors may have thought of throwing away but instead passed down to you through the generations. 

Father in a Box

She never had time for a husband. As the eldest of her ten siblings, she was left to raise them when both of their parents died within three years of each other and no other relative could financially support all of them as the Great Depression had hit an already economically poor rural farming community.

Losing the general store her parents had owned and operated for many years combined with the daily struggle of mounting grief and an enormous responsibility of raising the children, her patience shortened and her demeanor hardened. She became a strict disciplinarian, which transferred easily into the occupation she chose to support her brothers and sisters.

Miss Emma Davis stood before a roomful of sleepy students, many of them fighting off the weight of their drooping eyelids as they slumped in their seats. Some chins propped on elbows – the only thing keeping their heads from bouncing off the wooden tops of their desks, each of them weary from their morning chores and their long walk to the drafty one-room schoolhouse.

It would seem as though all of the proverbial “uphill walk to school in ten feet of snow” stories originated from Russell County, Kentucky’s rural schools. Many of the kids that Miss Davis taught arrived to school each day without shoes.

Their days out of school were spent walking along the county roads gathering anything that could be repurposed. When their shoes wore out, they combed the country roads looking for an animal that had been stuck by a passing car. The carcasses that were not too decayed were taken home to a Granny who had mastered the art of mending shoes with whatever they could stomach to bring home.

The lucky students who were able to attend studied from the hand-me-down books that their older siblings had carried until farm life required that they remain home to work on the farm.
The path many had to take wandered through the dense woods or meandered along graveled cow trails that were called Kentucky’s public roads in the 1940s. One such road passed far too near an area claimed by a hermit whose only joy seemed to come when emerging from the darkened forest just behind a startled group of schoolchildren as they made their commutes to and from school each day.

His clothes no more than tattered rags hanging on his bearded frame like faded banners streaming in the wind from a rusty flag pole. The boys grew more courageous as the distance increased with their foe and they began to throw gravel and provoke with taunting words, their rocks falling far short of their intended target. After many months of this daily ritual the wild man of the woods threw his own rocks that landed far past the group of emboldened miscreants, showing each of them they could each be hit easily until they arrived at their destination safely behind closed doors. Most of the group chose to proceed to and from school with no further provocation, but some chose to learn the hard way and had a bite-shaped scar as a permanent reminder of their poor choices.

The teacher scrawled a chalk rectangle on the blackboard and turned around to select a student for the next task. With hand extended to present the stick of chalk to her next “victim”, she mentally sorted through those not yet called for their turn to demonstrate a proficiency in spelling abilities.

Almost routinely scanning beyond the usual raised hands of the girls sitting in front who had already shown a natural ability in the subject, she began searching for the boys slumped in their seats and ducking their heads just below her gaze.

Those too tall to hide attempted to look busy with work assigned to the older kids in the higher grades while avoiding making any eye contact, as if the absence of their attention would cause their teacher to look elsewhere.

“Paul!” Miss Emma Davis exclaimed. “Come to the board and put FATHER in the box!” He just knew she was going to call on him. Having your aunt as your schoolteacher almost guarantees being called upon more often than the other students.

Rather than heeding her instructions, Paul glanced to his right and nudged the boy seated next to him. It was his uncle who was younger by only a few months. He had not been called all week while Paul had spent several days in a row washing the chalkboard long after everyone else had sprinted outside for recess. “Raise your hand!” Paul whispered. After protecting him from the class bully on the playground, Paul hoped that his outgoing uncle would take the hit on this one.

However, the teacher already wise to the plan called his name again. “Paul!” she exclaimed, her limited patience already stretched thin, especially if it looks like her nephew was once again deliberately trying to avoid any acknowledgement of her instructions or a respectful response. Paul couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to impress either of the twin Dicken girls, both of whom he was quite fond of, seated in the front row with their raised hands still waving, eager to be called. However, he made an enormous error in judgment he would soon regret. Paul stood up and proudly exclaimed “Sorry teacher, but my father won’t fit in that little box, he’s too big!”

The raucous jeers erupted across the room, masking the sound of the approaching teacher’s footsteps across the exposed wood floor. The painful pinch on his earlobe let him know that a line had most certainly been crossed and he would soon find himself behind the woodshed subjected to the wrath of a switch-wielding Miss Emma. He was sure that even the wild man of the woods had overheard his screams as they echoed across the hills and valleys. He never was sure if he had only imagined the crazed laughter from the distant woods through each of his whimpering sobs as he struggled for air in each shortened breath.

While many parents relay mythical stories from their misspent youth to their gullible children, how many included a rock-throwing wild man? I recently asked each of my siblings to help with a future writing project. I asked them to pick a story that was shared with each of us when we were younger then write out the story out based on our individual perspective. Later we collaborate to combine our separate stories into one.

This Father’s Day, ask your dad to relate stories from his youth. If he doesn’t mind, record them with an app or video camera. Coming up next month we will use the recorded interviews for an oral history project and preserve them for future generations to enjoy! Please comment, like and share with others you may know who are interested in tracing their family genealogy. I look forward to hearing from you.

Mother’s Little Secret

Did you know that your mom has a secret? The clues to unlocking it are contained in three words spoken over you at the time of your birth. Only minutes after you were pulled from the comfort of your mother’s womb, she informed the hospital of the name you would use for the rest of your life.

In a recent Bible study, a group of friends and I discussed the words that we speak over ourselves and others. It was during this discussion that I became intrigued about the meaning of the biblical names I was reading.

From 1 Chronicles 4:9 I read the following:

His mother had named him Jabez saying, “I gave birth to him in pain.”

Although the chances are pretty slim that we will meet anyone named “labor pains”, have you ever thought of where your name actually came from or the meaning behind it? What if your name is the key to identify those who came before?

In genealogy, we are told to start with ourselves and work backward in time from the known to the unknown. By first examining the surname inherited from your father, you gain several early “wins” as you start building your tree and narrow the searching to a few select families in a given area.

Although variants of my own surname have been common for about 1,000 years, most surnames have only been in use since the middle ages. Many family names originated by a location, occupation or trade, as well as a topographical feature. Surnames started as a descriptor to distinguish between people who shared the same given name or establish a relationship between people or places.

The Gaelic Irish O’ meant “of” or “grandson of”.  In Scotland it is “Mac”, meaning “son of”. Many DNA projects utilize a surname study to determine the connections groups have to each other, but looking into the meaning can tell you much more than just a mutual biological connection.

The Conner surname originated as O’Connor or the Irish Gaelic Ó Conċuḃair, the Kings of Connacht, of which several separate and distinctive clans can be traced back to the 5th century. The Irish origins of the meaning of the surname translate to “strong willed”, “high desire”, or “wise”.

It can also mean “helping warrior”, “patron of warriors”, or “wolf-lover”. I have found one source that state the meaning as “conqueror” and it has been said that the words Caesar, Czar, and Tzar can find origins derived from the surname.

It was during my parent’s generation when naming patterns and conventions fell out of common practice. Recalling when my mother told me about my own given name, I found something unexpected. When asked about where my own name came from, she said “we had originally planned to name you David” but there were already several people in our family with the same name and they wanted something different.

While I was disappointed not to have been named after someone as well-known as David the Goliath slayer with a surname possibly meaning “conqueror”, I was happy that my parents had decided against it. However, there is a story behind the names that my parents eventually agreed upon. Apparently each of the given names used in naming of my siblings and I were friends or acquaintances of my mother. The name STEVEN is derivative of a Greek word meaning “wreath”, “crown”, “honor”, or “reward”. Literally translated as “that which surrounds or encompasses”.

Middle names are equally important in my family. My brother’s is a derivative of the middle name an uncle who was killed in Vietnam just before my parents were married. My sister shares hers with my mom’s sister. I am somewhat unique as I share mine with my grandfather who went by his middle name rather than his given name. It is also the nickname derived from the given name of my father’s oldest brother. The name RAY is of an English-Norman origin meaning “counselor” (English), “wise protector” (German), “regal” (French), or “radiant” (Latin). Both the Scottish and American meanings translate to the word “grace”. A helping warrior, encompassed by grace…I like that!

I look at my surname as the lasting inheritance and legacy I leave behind, passed down through the ages as a reminder of a past in which I am irrevocably linked. However, we should not overlook given or middle names. This post is the first in a series as we explore further our surname origins as well as delve deeper into ways to use our given and middle names to find our ancestors.

This Mother’s day, take your mom to lunch or dinner and perhaps over dessert she will share the secret of where your given given and middle names originated so that you can look up the meaning behind them. Please like, share, and comment with your own story of where your names find their origin.

Fishing on Dry Land

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.