My name is Kathleen, and I have been researching my family history since I was a child. I love to go into county courthouses and smell the old books and paper... or is it dust? This blog will focus on the stories I've heard over the years and the research methods I follow. I am particularly interested in data management and cloud genealogy.

Some of my personal areas of interest include Southern Maryland and DC (Robie, Rhodes, Grimes, Lindsey), NY state (Hill, Cookingham, Flynn, Rhodes, Skinner, Wheeler, Mead, Havens, Trotter), NJ (Parcell), North Carolina and Eastern TN (Lynch, Seabolt, Spears), MO (Wilcox, Kiddell), and CA (Simi, Grady)

I am always happy to compare notes or share my experiences, so please leave a comment!

Friday, November 21, 2014

A letter from your great-grandmother....

I recently read a blogpost on about the Oklahoma Historical Society's exhibit on the Century Chest, a 100-year old time capsule that was recently opened in Oklahoma City.  I am fascinated by the very idea of communicating directly with another time, like a message in the bottle.  Last April, I watched via live streaming as this huge time capsule was opened, and was absolutely riveted as the messages from the past were slowly discovered.  But the great news is that the collection has been scanned and is now available online.

My sense is that people tend to submit material for time capsules much as they might prepare for meeting a delegation from a foreign country -- contributing formal, descriptive information about city and state institutions, and producing proclamations commemorating the event.   Predictably, such material is dry and boring and of interest only to historians.  

This time capsule certainly had a lot of this type of material, but also contained wonderful artifacts of 1913, such as clothing, popular magazines and music, appliances, wax voice recordings, and -- most exciting for the family historian -- letters to descendants.   

I read every one of these letters, and was in tears the entire time.  One woman clearly couldn't imagine her four-year old daughter ever being a mother, let alone an "ancestor;" another wrote about her family's moves from North Carolina through several other states before ending up in Oklahoma; and yet another wrote about her descent from royalty.  The one that really choked me up was this one -- you can hear her voice:

I am fortunate enough to live in a historic home -- we are the third family to own it since it was built back in the 1800s.  We created a time capsule when we moved in, which we buried in the foundation. I think the best way to create a time capsule is to put in what you would hope to find yourself, so we added old farm papers and photos that had been saved from the previous owners, our own family photos, and long, personal letters from each one of us telling about our lives and our hopes for the future.  Every good time capsule has to have buried treasure, so we put in packets of flower seeds, bags of coins from all over the world, and old jewelry (nothing really of value today, but who knows in the future!) 

Now, if only I could come back as a fly on the wall when they open it!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Exploring a little-used source for Southern research!

I love finding new sources.  Half the fun of genealogy is ferreting out new information... the kind that most people don't bother to chase after.  The Draper manuscripts are one such source, a monumental collection of original documents, notes, and correspondence collected by Lyman Draper and relating to the history of the American South in the period from the French and Indian War through the War of 1812.  These manuscripts were the original materials Draper collected over many years, which he used to write his 1881 historyKing's Mountain and Its Heroes.   
Recently I attended a webinar on the Draper manuscripts, courtesy of Legacy Family Tree software company.  The webinar provided an invaluable rundown on the rich content of this collection and how to access it.  The difficulties lie in the fact that it is not indexed, has a complicated structure making it difficult to navigate, and copies are not readily available to most researchers.   The webinar guides the researcher through the collection and provides examples of the kinds of detailed information that might be found there. has digitized some of the calendars for the Draper collection, making the document summaries completely searchable (go to Card Catalog, search on the keyword "Draper," and from there enter your own search terms).  Since I have quite a lot of Southern blood, I was anxious to try it and see what I could find.    

Boy, I hit the jackpot with information on William Green, and I am so excited I can hardly stand it!  He has been a "potential ancestor" for some time -- several undocumented family trees on Ancestry suggest a connection with my own but I had not yet seen any evidence for this.  Now, after one quick Ancestry search, I had something to work with:  I identified 30 documents in the Draper Collection containing information about this man.

William Green was an interesting figure; he was a Tory officer who fought against the Americans at the Battle of King's Mountain, but afterwards became a private soldier and spy for the American side.  His story is one of those few that help us imagine the real person who was trying desperately to survive during the Revolutionary War.  In King's Mountain and its Heroes, Draper noted that Green and a companion were among the Tories taken prisoner by the Americans after the battle:

Lyman Draper, Kings Mountain and its Heroes.
If a good story like this one made it into the final draft of Draper's book, imagine the details yet to be discovered in the manuscript collection!  Of those 30 references to William Green that I found in the Draper calendars on, the one that jumped out at me was this: 

You see, this Mrs. Mooney, née Charlotte Green, is my documented 4th-great grandmother... the proverbial missing link!!  

Now, all I have to do to add William Green to my family tree is track down this document on microfilm....

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Finding the Missing Pieces

I've been a listener of Lisa Louise Cooke's Genealogy Gems podcast for awhile now -- I love Lisa's friendly style and her great ideas for using technology for family history research.  She often tells stories of the serendipitous connections made by people who share their research online.  

Think about it, we are all just part of a whole:  your old family movies also include neighbors who attended your family birthday parties, your photos include people and places in your ancestral communities, and your memorabilia include events that other people participated in as well.

I was reminded of this recently, when I got an email from a woman named Carla who had seen my blogpost from Memorial Day 2013.  In that post, inspired by one of Lisa's podcasts, I wrote about my father-in-law's experiences during World War II as an Army doctor attached to the 1777th Construction Engineer Battalion in the European and Pacific theaters.  I included a Google map with a scanned copy of his unit's "travelogue" and photos from every place they were stationed, as well as relevant newsreels I found on YouTube.  Altogether, it provided an in-depth perspective on his unit's experiences in the last years of the war.

This is what Carla wrote:


I just found your blog about the 1777th Engineering Construction Battalion.   My father was a member of the 1777th Engineering Construction Battalion out of Ft. Sill, Ok.  Although I saw no reference to Oklahoma in your blog or map detail I can only assume they are the same group.  My father told us next to nothing about his time in the service.  He did mention working in Japan after the war helping clean up.  He was a bulldozer operator and said he worked in the kitchen also.  So when I saw your picture of the "kitchen ablaze" in Agoo, I burst into laughter.....oh, let's just pretend it was my dad's fault.  LOL...he never enjoyed working in the kitchen let's just say.

The only time I can actually recall him working in the kitchen was when my mother was making homemade rolls.  She would call him into the kitchen and he would have them "rolled" in no time.  Typically rolling them against the counter with multiples at one time.  A skill he attributed to from working in the kitchen while in the Army.

My father, Junior T Montgomery (based on the discharge paperwork) but who went by the name Thomas Montgomery afterwards died of cancer in June 1990.  I sometimes wonder if the time spent in Japan had anything to do with his dealth.

The discharge papers that I have from the Army shows that he departed on November 2, 1945 for AP (Asia Pacific) and arrived November 21, 1945.  It also shows returning July 29, 1946 and arriving back on August 10, 1946.

Thank you for your detail on their movements.  I have often wondered.  I submitted a request for his medals several years ago.  At that time I also requested a detail of the travels done.  The government replied stating the archives had burned in a fire years ago.  So finding your information has been a gift.  Something I can now share with my kids.

My father brought back with him some Occupied Japan china, some weapons, and binoculars from Japan.  I plan on dividing up the items and gving them to my children.  I will add the Travelogue to the collection.

Again, thank you. 

Carla Montgomery Matto

"No, not enemy action -- kitchen ablaze at Agoo" -- Henry Tesluk, 1945

Making those connections and helping someone find the missing pieces of their story is one of the true joys of genealogy in the internet age. 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Gather your own family documents!

I have been tracking down my family history all my life, ferreting out every detail possible about all those ancestral lives that contributed in some way to my own.  But it wasn't until I became involved in the DAR, and particularly in my role as chapter Registrar, that I realized the glaring error in my ways:  I never collected documents for the living members of my family.  Clearly, my reasoning was: "why bother, just to prove what I already know?"  

I know why we tend not to get these documents.  The process of gathering them is a hassle.... you have to send a request to the town, county, or state where the event took place (every location has different rules, of course), send in a check.... and then wait.  Some states are tougher than others.  I (rhetorically) asked my great-grandmother, Jessie Lee Lynch, why she had to be visiting her daughter in New Jersey when she died, instead of staying home in Maryland? 
Jessie Lee Seabolt Lynch

Didn't she know that New Jersey takes much longer than Maryland to respond to vital records requests?  Not only that, but I had to furnish NJ officials with the same number of proofs that I did for my DAR application in order to show I had a right to her death certificate.  Actually, NJ needed more hand-holding, because I had to write a letter explaining what the certificates meant (the DAR understands how to read them!)

When I joined the DAR, most of my known patriots were on my mother's side of the family.  That's when I began to understand the importance of having a full set of vital records for my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.  So you'd think that I would have started right away to collect all the vital records for my father's parents and grandparents.  Wrong.  I guess it's just harder to make that effort without an impetus.  

Not too long ago I found my impetus, in the form of new data linking my Dad's line to two Revolutionary War patriots.  One of them, David Vermilyea of Albany, NY, had a rather interesting heritage.  He was the grandson of Johannes Vermilyea, a member of Jacob Leisler's council of ministers and part of the famous Leisler's Rebellion of 1689-1691.  How exciting...he would be my first ancestor who was sentenced to be executed!  

My happy dance faded away, though, as I recalled that while this line is thoroughly documented from Johannes in New Amsterdam down five generations to my great-grandfather, Foster Cookingham in Chatham, NY.... there's the minor detail of a few missing vital records for Foster's wife and daughter, my great-grandmother and grandmother.  Did I mention that New York state is now taking about 8 months to fulfill orders for vital records?  It's so frustrating because I knew my grandmother -- and her mother, too -- it would be so easy just to write "personal knowledge" on the application and be done with it.  Sigh.

So even if you aren't addicted to joining lineage societies, please take that extra step and gather all the family documents you possibly can.  Ask your living relatives for copies of their vital records so you won't have to wait those agonizing months and months before you can even submit the application to add another supplemental ancestor to your collection.

Your descendants will thank you.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

How my ancestor helped create the Constitution

Today is Constitution Day!  

My ancestor did not help draft the Constitution, nor did he vote on it -- but his misfortune in 1786 helped create a consensus that America needed a stronger national government.

On September 17, 1787, the fledgling United States adopted a constitution protecting the individual liberties of its citizens, and defining the roles, rights, and responsibilities of the states and the federal government.  After the Revolution, the country had been governed by the Articles of Confederation, which left the central government relatively powerless compared to the states.  Within a few years it became clear that the Articles did not provide enough protection for American citizens -- economically and militarily.  

This is where I come in.  

One day several years ago, when my youngest was still in Middle School, I sat down to help her with her history homework.  I opened the textbook to the chapter she was working on, and was floored by what I saw:

Call to Freedom by Sterling Stuckey & Linda Salvucci, published by Holt, Rinehart & Wilson, 2003

You see, Thomas Amis is my 5th great-grandfather.  I have studied his life in the course of my family history research, but never imagined that his experience would be used as an example of the "straw that broke the camel's back," leading to the creation of the U.S. Constitution.  

 A member of the North Carolina legislature in 1776 that unanimously ratified the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Amis was also an entrepreneur -- perfectly suited to frontier living.  During the Revolution, he was Commissary to the 3rd Regiment of the North Carolina Continental Line.  He sourced the food and supplies for a large segment of the army during the Revolution, and presumably made a nice margin on every sale.  

In 1786, the mood among western settlers was unsettled.  Spain's threat to cut off Americans' access to trade directly impacted their livelihood.  The confiscation of Amis' goods was just the latest in a long series of actions by the Spanish hindering trade.  Those who lived on the western frontier were a tough, self-sufficient breed.  When they faced a problem, they didn't wait for government to solve it, but picked up their rifles and took action.  Even if Congress had resolved to address this situation, however, it was powerless to act under the Articles of Confederation. 

Tempers were on a hair trigger as Amis returned home and news spread of his treatment by the Spanish commandant at Natchez.  Matters could have gone either way, as was evident from a letter written by William Blount and Benjamin Hawkins, Congressmen from North Carolina, to an unnamed member of the North Carolina legislature:

In a postscript, Blount and Hawkins warn of the dangers should the public anger get out of hand:

In the end, Thomas Amis never recovered his lost cargo, and he bequeathed his claim on the goods to his son, John, who accompanied him on the ill-fated trading expedition.

Hawkins Co TN Wills, Liber 1, p. 1.  Will of Thomas Amis, 16 Nov 1797,

Sometime around 1787, Thomas Amis moved west with his family to Hawkins County, in what eventually became Tennessee.  There he set up a trading post, grist mill, and supply center on the main road heading west.  His home is still meticulously preserved by another descendant -- one of these days I hope to visit!

One last insight to Amis' character -- I think he had a quick wit and a certain sense of irony.  In 1788, he returned to the North Carolina legislature representing Hawkins County, where he supported the efforts of settlers to create the new state of Franklin on the western frontier.  Samuel Cole Williams' History of the Lost State of Franklingives an entertaining account of one debate between Amis and John Tipton, who was a vehement opponent of the proposed new state.  Heated words were exchanged on the floor of the senate, which nearly led to a fist fight.  

Amis was reproached by his colleague, James Roddy, for provoking an angry response from Tipton and was urged to "soothe his feelings" in the future.  They agreed that Roddy, a more temperate character, would resume the debate with Tipton the following day.  The next day, Roddy took the floor, but hardly began speaking when Tipton, enraged, sprang from his seat and seized Roddy by the throat.  Amis then called out from the sidelines: "Soothe him, Colonel, Soothe him!"

*Heritage Books, facsimile of the 1933 edition, pp 246-247

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Finding Family in Geneva

Exchange Street, Geneva, NY
Geneva is a small city in the Finger Lakes region of central New York, known for its beautiful scenery and popular wineries.  It is also my grandfather's hometown, which he left in the 1930s to find work elsewhere.  Life being what it so often is, my father grew up in a different part of the state and didn't get to know his father's relatives.  

In this Facebook age, we forget how easy it was to drift apart and lose touch, but that's what happened in my Dad's family.... that is, until I met Carol through DNA testing (you can read about that story here)... and the rest, as they say, is history.  

I just returned from our first family gathering, reuniting descendants of the five sons of John J. and Julia Mary (Flynn) Hill. I've written about this family before (see "Trust but Verify" and "Crossing the Pond"), and this trip was my chance (and my Dad's) to finally meet this branch of our family.  I loved seeing all those intense blue eyes -- it was a tangible reminder of our shared DNA.  [Overheard at the reunion:  The Hills have eyes...]

Most importantly, I heard some stories that shed a little bit of light on the personality of Grandma Julia.  My father's cousin Jack grew up in Geneva and lived with his grandmother, so he could tell us a few things about her.  
Jack with Grandma Julia, mid-1940s
Julia was a hard-working woman.  After her husband died in 1916, she kept a boarding house, and would get up every day at 4 am to start the day's baking.  She was no-nonsense with the children, but must have had a kind heart, because she was always ready to feed hungry strangers at the back door.  

Jack told about how her five adult sons would sit in the living room drinking their whiskey; when offered a shot, Julia would grimace and protest, refusing to take more than a sip.  When the men left the room and she thought no one was watching, she would drink it straight down, pretty as you please.  

Whenever anyone was sick, she would insist they take the "cure" -- whiskey, water, and a spoon of sugar.  It got so that sometimes the kids would go into the kitchen and cough hopefully at her.  

On St. Patrick's Day, she would bake a cake, and when it came out of the oven, she would spread out newspapers and throw the cake against the door.  It would break into pieces and everyone had to eat a piece of the broken cake for good luck.

Jack told about the divisions between the Irish and the Italian kids.  The Italians had to go through the Irish neighborhood to get to school.  Jack, a slight boy, used to sit outside as bait, taunting the Italian kids.  When they started to come at him, his bigger cousins would jump out from the bushes.  If the noise got too loud, their grandmother would come out of the house with a broom to shoo everyone back to their side of the tracks.

Now here's when you know that there is the hand of fate in family history: my new cousin Carol arrived a few days before the reunion and went to visit St. Patrick's cemetery, where our great-grandparents are buried -- only to find that she had no clue where to look for them in the enormous expanse of gravestones.  Ready to give up, she ran into a gentleman walking nearby, who asked her who she was looking for.  She told him.... and Jack led her straight to the family plot.  Of course the random person she happened to meet would be the only person in Geneva who could help her!  

image courtesy of

Monday, June 23, 2014

A lesson in walking between the worlds

This morning I woke to the news that Fouad Ajami had passed away.  He was a brilliant commentator on the Arab world, featured often on CNN and in the Wall Street Journal. I knew him many years ago when I was a student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and he was my academic advisor.

Fouad came to the US as a teenager, and one of his strengths was his ability to walk between worlds; he was a product of two cultures, and was able to interpret the Arab world for a West that, at best, was puzzled by it, and at worst condemned that world without understanding it.

His genius lay in his ability to go beyond the obvious and immediate reasons events unfold as they do in the Middle East.  It wasn't merely that he drew from a deep understanding of history; rather, he could pinpoint and evoke the cultural myths and stories that motivate actors in the Arab world.  Because he spoke in words of myth and archetype, he could speak to everyone -- and this helped us understand a world that was culturally beyond our ken.  Fouad was a poet in his soul, and I was privileged to have been his student.

But why note this on a family history blog?  Fouad knew that stories motivate.  If you know a culture's stories and myths, you can understand them on a deeper level and begin to sense why things happen as they do. The same is true for individuals and families.  We need to understand our ancestor's world view, their beliefs about themselves and their place in the world.  The best way to do this is to read voraciously:  national and local histories, of course, but what about the physical world of our ancestors -- were there droughts, storms, or other natural disasters that may have impacted their lives? How did they get around -- what kind of roads were there, or did they rely on transportation by water?  What kind of things did our ancestors find entertaining -- who were the pop stars of their time?

Learning about the external circumstances of our ancestors' lives, combined with a broad understanding of historical trends, allows us to take baby steps in walking between the worlds... and bridging the gap between our own lives and the "foreign country" that is our ancestral past.