Thursday, October 15, 2015

It's not as easy as makes it sound

I've mentioned before that one of the things I've gotten entangled with since beginning my volunteer association with the Baraga County Historical Museum is genealogical research. Our website indicates we have some family histories -- not many, it's true, but a few -- and we're willing to do research in local records that people living elsewhere don't have access to. Those records include the local weekly newspaper, The L'Anse Sentinel, and indexes to vital records (birth, death, marriage) that might be found at the county clerk's office. This is doing research the old-fashioned way: pulling large bound volumes off a shelf and reading line by line and page by page hoping to find something, anything, that will make the person who sent in the research request feel like they got their money's worth.

It is, to say the least, a remarkably tedious and time-consuming process. Want to find a death notice or an obit for someone who took a dirt nap in 1905? And all you know is the possible year because for some reason the death wasn't recorded at the court house? Good luck, especially when you're dealing with small town papers that have never been digitized. If the paper was a weekly, you've got a potential 52 issues to read through, page by page, because back in 1905 there was no real rhyme or reason to pagination. A 1905 L'Anse Sentinel has no specific page devoted to obituaries; there are no columns headed "Death Notices" or "Funeral Announcements." If someone relatively important died, maybe it would make the front page -- but it can be anywhere on that page. Someone who was not particularly well-known in the community, on the other hand, might not merit an actual obit or news report at all. The only mention in the paper might be one line in the column of "Baraga happenings" or "Skanee news" where tucked in among gems like "Mr. and Mrs. Walter Smith visited relatives in Ishpeming last week" and "Miss Carol Jones was feted on the occasion of her 16th birthday" will be a line saying "Mrs. Carl Erickson of Milwaukee was in town to attend her brother Isaac LeDuc's funeral."

Of course, if we're lucky and the death was recorded at the county clerk's office, no problem. We have a specific date to work with -- all we have to do is find the issue of the Sentinel that came out right after the person died. That's assuming the death was recorded, of course, or that the person was nice enough to keel over in Baraga County. Lots and lots of people died in Marquette or Houghton counties, not Baraga, because Baraga didn't have a real hospital. Want us to find a death record for someone who died out of county? Well, we're willing to do so, but first you better understand that the Houghton County courthouse is 30 miles away from the museum. If you're paying for two hours of our time, one hour of it is going just for driving to where the records are. And if we have to go to Marquette? Mapquest tells me it's 73 miles; I do know the drive time one way is about 90 minutes so don't expect us to do it unless you're willing to pay more than our usual 2 hours up front. You're going to have to fork over enough money to pay for a minimum of 4, and that's without knowing if we're going to find something. When we get research requests that look like they'd send us out of county, I tell people to contact the historical societies in those counties instead. Or, here's a thought: pick up the phone, call the county courthouse and ask if they have a death record for your ancestor. It's cheaper and faster than farming the task out to us, especially when those other counties are in the process of digitizing their older records (which is good, considering how fragile the original journals have become). 

Why am I thinking about this stuff this morning? I'm not sure -- maybe because I checked my emails and was reminded that the museum has a research client who's not satisfied that we've found everything we could about his ancestor. Family folklore had inflated the man's importance in the local community, there were also references to a falling out among siblings at some point in the past. Well, if family folklore says your ancestor was (and this is a hypothetical example, not the actual case) a banker but the death certificate gives his occupation as "laborer" and the obituary says he was a long-time employee of a local sawmill, not the bank, then family folklore is pretty obviously wrong. Not quite as bad as the classic joke among genealogists -- "You find out that the family legend that your ancestor was 'prominent in local affairs' turns out to mean he was hung publicly as a horse thief." -- but still a letdown. In any case, once I'm back up on the tundra I'll have to write the guy another letter saying that we found everything we could, and what we did find wasn't particularly easy to track down: the family has an extremely common surname.

People can be (no surprise here) a bit unpredictable when it comes to doing research for them. A couple years ago we had a research request where we came up close to totally empty-handed: the great-great-great grandparents had not been born in Baraga County, they didn't get married here, only one of their children was born here, and none died here. The family was hoping to be able to at least get photos of the house where the ancestors had lived (now a vacant lot) or worked (a sawmill that vanished before World War II). In short, very close to a total washout on information. We did find one group photo of workers from the mill that indicated their ancestor was in the photo, but the men were not individually identified -- all they'd know is that he was one of a dozen men pictured. I felt more than a tad guilty about taking the initial research fee because we found so little. Then the family members shocked the heck out of us: despite our coming up so totally blank, they gave the museum a $200 donation.

On the other hand, and I have a hunch the current client falls into this category, there are people who just don't seem to understand that sometimes we can't find anything because there is nothing to find. I suppose I could have told the man that if he'd send us more money, we'd keep looking, but I really don't want to do that when I'm reasonably sure we've already found everything that's worth finding. I just hope his letter doesn't include a complaint that he didn't get his money's worth because I know I put in a lot more hours than he paid for; I was intrigued because the extremely common name presented a challenge.

Everyone (or almost everyone) would like to have an ancestor who was important or did interesting things, but the reality is that most people live pretty ordinary lives. They work at ordinary jobs, they don't get involved in community affairs except at a low level (e.g., a veteran joins the VFW but never becomes an officer at the local post), they go through life as happy and productive people and are important to their immediate family but don't leave much of a mark in the wider world. And even when they do something this is a little out of the ordinary, will it be recorded or remembered a few years or decades later? Probably not. It won't matter if I spend 2 hours or 200 hours reading through old L'Anse Sentinels because unless the ancestor got nailed for something illegal and shows up in the court reports, most people never get their names in the paper.

Oh well. I won't know for sure what type of soothing phraseology I'll have to craft until next month when I see the actual hard copy letter. In the meantime, I think I'll work on figuring out how to update the museum's web page to make it clear that the research we do is meant to fill in the gaps left when resorting to leaves you wanting to know more than just what's on the census records or state vital records databases. might tell you that your great grandmother died in Baraga County in 1937; our research will find you her obituary.


  1. It is a good feeling to find something for someone, though. I helped a woman go through records from Norway which she had been poring over for weeks. She is a smart person (attorney), but was stumped. My rudimentary language skills and fresh look at the records came up with the ancestor in about 15 minutes and she was moved to tears.

    On this side of the lake we have Father Baraga's Cross (marker) near Schroeder. Is it the same person that your county is named after?

  2. Jono, it's the same Baraga. He got around in his early years as a missionary.

  3. I had to give it up for a while as it was making me one relative that I need to connect to the old country would sign his name in initials..and one time it looks like LJ...then it looks like IJ..then it looks like JL..I think he was running from the law.

  4. I leave the family history to my brother and my cousin. I now have third cousins in Australia. Really nice people


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