Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Family trees with missing branches

I've been dealing with a research request at the museum that's turned into a bit of puzzler. As a result, I have a suggestion for anyone who's contemplating doing genealogy and delving into his or her family's past: pick ancestors with unusual last names. It is not exactly fun trying to track down the ancestors of someone with a surname like, for example, Johnson in a community where every other person seems to be named Johnson. It also does not help to be dealing with ethnic groups and generations where a lot of kids were given Swedish or Finnish names at birth so they were registered as Johannes or Jussi but decided they'd rather be called John when they got older. Or maybe they disliked their first name so always used their middle name instead. Then toss in the possibility that the only name you ever heard your grandfather referred to by was actually a nickname and not his actual name at all and things will get truly frustrating.

I have, in short, spent a whole lot more time worrying about this one research request than something as simple as the normal research request should take. After investing way too many hours in the project, I still have no solid information. The grandfather in question was apparently not married in Baraga County, or, if he was, his first name was different than what the grandson remembers. Similarly, he did not die in Baraga County -- there are death certificates for persons with the name the grandson remembers, but none are the man I've been looking for. He was well-known in the community so there should be an obituary. No doubt there is, but the L'Anse Sentinel isn't indexed and I'm not prepared to spend all summer reading through 50 or 60 years worth of newspapers looking for one dead guy. I'd like to have at least one solid clue before I turn on the microfilm reader at the library. Was he buried in Baraga County? He's not on any of the grave indexes we have for the cemeteries -- the one person I've found with the right name as born too recently to be the guy I'm looking for.

The requester did give me one solid clue: his mother's name and birthday. Theoretically this would yield a birth certificate with her parents' names on it. Only one problem: his mother's birth was apparently not recorded in Baraga County either. At the time she was born, pregnant women had three choices: they could give birth at home, they could utilize a small "nursing home" operated by a nurse-midwife, or they could go to a hospital in a neighboring county. Women who could afford it often chose the last option. (Small digression: we have not progressed since then. The choices have been narrowed to one: go to a neighboring county. There are no certified midwives available to attend home births, and the local hospital doesn't have a delivery suite.) If a baby was born in Houghton or Marquette County, there'd be no record locally.

There are other possibilities: he's remembering the wrong year for her birth or he's got his grandparents' names wrong. Either one is possible.

So how much more effort am I going to put into this request? I'm not sure. I know from reading through the correspondence files at the museum that people don't like it when we come up with null results. Personally, considering how incredibly low the museum's research fee is, I think they should be amazed we're willing to do the work at all, but then again most people have no clue just how time-consuming and tedious trawling through legal records and old newspapers can be. I'd love to raise our rates -- or, better yet, find out there are actually some professional genealogists locally I could refer people to -- because right now we're so under priced it's pathetic. If I were doing research work as a contract historian, I'd charge at least $80 an hour so it kind of floors me that I'm volunteering for an organization that only charges $10. Then again, maybe that low rate is one reason people get pissy when we can't find anything. After all, how hard can we be working when we're practically giving our time away?


  1. No. The museum doesn't have an Ancestry.com account.

  2. Tell him to do it himself. Link into other people with common ancestors and share data, like any normal seeker of family trees.


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