Paying it Forward. Or is that Backward?

Every successful family historian has benefited at one time or another from the help of someone else.  Sometimes it is the librarian located miles away that takes the time to search a document and email it to you.  Sometimes, it is the busy town clerk who scours through many years of records looking for that missing marriage certificate.  Most often, this help comes from a fellow genealogist who shares their tree or a document that otherwise might never come to light.  Modern technology such as email and smartphones have made this sharing of information more important, and indeed more possible, than ever before.  Today, I had an opportunity to take a few minutes from my schedule to pay back in some small the many favors others have done for me in my years of research.

Most genealogists have used FindAGrave.com.  It is a tremendous resource for finding your ancestors’ burial locations and information about cemeteries.  On more than one occasion, I have been lucky enough to find an ancestor of mine in this online database.  Occasionally, there is even a photograph of the headstone to accompany the entry.  If an entry exists and no photo is available, you can click an option to request a local volunteer to take a photo for you.  Sometimes it happens, and sometimes it doesn’t.

About a year ago, I signed up as a volunteer for my local area.  Why not?  How much time could it take to drive to a local cemetery and take a photo.  For a long time, nothing happened.  Then, about a month ago, three requests appeared simultaneously in my email inbox.  All three were from the same person.  They were for graves in the New Somerville Cemetery in Somerville, NJ, which is a large cemetery about three miles from where I live. I must confess that my initial reaction was not one of enthusiasm. It was another obligation inserted into an already busy schedule full of work and family obligations.  I saved the email requests and went about my life.

Several times over the next few weeks I checked my email and saw the requests still awaiting my attention.  I checked the database to see if another volunteer in the area had taken me off the hook, but no such luck.  The requests were still open.  It was up to me to either do what so many have done for me or ignore the request and chalk it up to being just too busy.  This morning, I started doing some research on my own family tree and started entering a piece of information that someone had shared with me a while back.  It dawned on me that I wouldn’t have that information if the person who sent it had been “too busy” to help.  I determined to take a little time out of my morning to drive over to the cemetery and see if I could find the three graves in question.

The Three Graves at New Somerville Cemetery

The Three Graves at New Somerville Cemetery

As I mentioned, the cemetery is close to home, and it only took me about fifteen minutes to get there.  The cemetery caretaker there gave me a map with the three graves clearly marked, and in just a few minutes I was standing in front of them.  All were in the same plot.  I took photos, which included not just the three people in question but several other family members as well.  I uploaded them to FindAGrave.com on the spot and was on my way back home less than an hour after I set out.

What I had done in no way furthered my own research.  It didn’t sove any of the mysteries lurking in my family tree.   I hope, however, that maybe it solved a mystery for someone else.  Maybe it even broke down one of those dreaded brick walls. If it did, I will probably never know, but either way it required very little effort on my part.  In fact, putting it off and making excuses was probably more effort than the process itself.  The moral to the story is a simple one.  Take the time to pay it forward.  Someone else may be doing just that for you right now.

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Where the Streets Have “New” Names

One of my favorite things to do as a genealogist is to discover exactly where my ancestors lived. I don’t mean just the city or town, but rather the exact place they lived. If I can determine an actual street address from a census or other record, the very first thing I do is locate it on a map, usually through Google Maps. Then, I see if there is a street view available so I can make a virtual visit to my ancestor’s old residence. Very often, even with an exact address, I am disappointed by the result. The site of an old nineteenth century house is now a gas station, or an apartment complex, or worse yet an abandoned lot. In one extreme case, my grandparents’ old home on Long Island seems to now be part of the main runway at Kennedy Airport!

I have always had a special affinity in my research for my great grandfather Isaac Scott Conklin. First, he is my most recent ancestor for whom I don’t have any pictures, so I can only imagine what he looked like. Second, as I mentioned in an earlier post, he at some point in his life started using the name Scott as his given name, which made him one of the earliest brick walls I had to overcome in my research. Third, since he lived from 1859 until 1912, he represents a time for me that is very different from present times, but not so distant that I can’t relate to his experiences and surroundings.

Isaac Scott was born and grew up on a farm in Schoharie County, New York along with at least three sisters and one brother. He left home by the time he was twenty and eventually wound up in Norwich, Connecticut, where he lived for the last twenty-five or so years of his life. He apparently became a carriage maker there, and then a carpenter. I was thrilled to discover that he appeared in almost every Norwich city directory from 1888 until his death. For the last twenty or so years of that time he was listed as a carpenter, sometimes shown as working for an individual named F.E. Beckwith. His address during all the years he was a carpenter is given as 27 Connell Street. I was in my glory. All I had to do was look up the address on a map and I could visit the location first on my computer, then in person. It would be possible for me to walk in the footsteps of one of my “favorite” members of the family tree, except for one slight problem. There was no Connell Street in Norwich.

Connell Street on 1912 Map

Connell Street on 1912 Map

My first panicked thought was that the street had been obliterated by a super highway, or maybe a shopping mall, or even an inconveniently placed Burger King. One comforting thought was that a major international airport in Norwich didn’t seem to pose much of a threat, but nevertheless I was disappointed to say the least. I turned therefore to a favorite trusted source. I am a lover of old maps and have often found them useful in my research. It often surprises me how closely they match current maps, particularly in areas that were and still are fairly densely populated. So off to the maps I went. A quick Google search for Norwich, CT historical maps brought me to the University of Connecticut MAGIC Historical Maps Collection, and lo and behold there was listed a map entitled “An Aero View of Norwich, Connecticut – 1912” This was the very year Isaac Scott Conklin died. I was able to download an extremely high definition version of the map in TIF format. Once I loaded this up in the Windows picture viewer on my computer, I was able to zoom in to easily view every street name on the map. In only a few minutes, I was standing (in my mind at least) on Connell Street in the western part of town. It was a very short street populated by only a handful of houses.  I took note that it was alongside Osgood Avenue between West Main and Peck Streets.

Beckwith Street on Google Maps

Beckwith Street on Google Maps

Back to Google maps I went. There I did a search for West Main Street in Norwich. I located the corner of Osgood and West Main, then moved over one block to the east where Connell Street should be. What I found was Beckwith Street, which I immediately recalled was the name of the person my great grandfather is listed as working for in the city directories. This was too much of a coincidence to ignore, and I knew for certain I had the right street. Connell had become Beckwith. I did a street view of 27 Connell Street and saw the front of the house. The number 27 was clearly visible on the door, and a quick Zillow real estate search indicated that the house had been built in the 1880’s. I was confident that I was almost certainly looking at the house that Isaac Scott Conklin lived in and raised my grandfather in for the last twenty years of his life. All that remains now is to stop by the next time I am in New England and walk the very same street he called home. You never know, maybe the current residents will even let me take a peek inside.

Probable Isaac Scott Conklin house in Norwich

Probable Isaac Scott Conklin house in Norwich

ResearchNotes: If you are looking for historic maps of Connecticut, the University of Connecticut website is a wonderful resource. A link can be found here. Historic maps can be a very valuable resource. Many from the nineteenth century show the names of residents, churches, businesses, cemeteries, and exact building locations. I have used them many times in my research.  Google Maps is another great resource.  Its street view feature can transport you right to your destination more quickly, and much more cheaply, than any airline.  Also, don’t be afraid to use untraditional sources.  Am example is the Zillow real estate website I mentioned in my post.  It can give you insightful information about a property such as the number of rooms and in some cases when it was built.  All of this helps add color to what is often the grayscale facts and figures of your family history.

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A Descendant of Royalty – Sort of

I just made a big discovery in my genealogical research.  I’m a descendant of French Royalty.  Well, not exactly.  I should probably explain.  I’m descended from a young woman named Elizabeth Crétel, who was one of a group of women known as the Filles du Roi, which is French for the King’s Daughters.  Does this mean I can put King Louis XIV in my family tree? Not quite, but I can say I wouldn’t be here if not for him.

In the early days of New France, the vast majority of settlers were men. Conditions were harsh. The winters were cold. Many of the men worked as trappers and lived a lifestyle not conducive to raising a family. The result was dissatisfaction among the men and, more importantly to the French government, slow growth in the population of the colony. This was a particular concern since the British colonies to the south were growing rapidly. The colonial balance of power was slanting decidedly to the British, so the king took action. He called upon the women of France to help solve his problem.

L’arrivée des Filles du Roi / Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale – avant 1927 Bibliothèque et Archives Canada – Domaine public

L’arrivée des Filles du Roi / Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale – avant 1927
Bibliothèque et Archives Canada – Domaine public

At the urging of Jean Talon, the Intendant of New France, the king agreed to sponsor the passage of at least 500 women to travel to the New World.  For each of the women, the king provided a dowry, clothes, transportation, and other benefits. Local parish priests and others immediately set about the task of recruiting the young women.  Many, but not all, were orphans. The promise of a better life and a family in America proved attractive to many, and some 750 to 850 young women made the journey into an uncertain future during the period 1663 to 1673.

What did the future hold for these women? After a difficult and dangerous voyage across the Atlantic with their chaperone, the women were taken in by the Ursuline nuns in Quebec. The sisters nursed them back to health after the trip, then arranged social gatherings with the eligible and qualified bachelors in the area. If they met a man that they wanted to marry, a contract was signed in anticipation of an upcoming wedding. Sometimes the contracts were annulled, and the women were never forced to marry. If they couldn’t find a suitable suitor, they continued upriver to Trois-Rivières and eventually ended up in Montreal.  In many respects, it was a seventeenth century version of the TV show The Bachelor.

It is often said that almost everyone with French-Canadian ancestry has at least one member of the Filles du Roi in their family tree. Often there are many. These truly were the Mothers of their Country. They were often better educated than their husbands and ran the households while the husbands worked.  My recently discovered ancestor Elizabeth Crétel was born in 1649 in Rouen, a city in the Normandy region of France.  She arrived in Quebec aboard Le Prince Maurice on July 30, 1671, and married Nicolas Langlois, a weaver, on October 26, 1671. At the time, she had been in America less than three months.  They settled in the village of Neuville, just west of Quebec City.  The king would have been happy with his investment as Elizabeth and Nicolas went on to have ten children, including my ancestor Nicolas, who was born in 1679.  How many other countless descendants must have come from this union alone?

I guess I’m not descended from royalty after all, at least not in the classic sense. Nevertheless, these young women were probably far more amazing than the proper ladies of the royal court in many respects. They were brave, smart and dedicated women who ventured far from home to help establish a great nation. So I think maybe I am descended from royalty after all.

Check out the Maple Stars and Stripes website for more information about the Filles du Roi.  This is also a great website and podcast for anyone doing French-Canadian research.

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The Facts Aren’t Always Carved in Stone

Visiting an ancestor’s final resting place can be one of the most rewarding experiences for a family history researcher. It is, of course, a great source of information on birth dates, death dates, and relationships. It is also often the closest physical connection you will ever make with them. It can, however, result in some surprises and unanswered questions. One suggestion I always make to beginning genealogists is not to stop with the cemetery visit. The answers to some of your questions may often be found in the cemetery office.

Isaac Scott Conklin Gravestone

Isaac Scott Conklin Gravestone

A perfect example of this in my own research is the final resting place of my great grandfather Isaac Scott Conklin, who throughout most of his life seems to have eschewed his first name and gone by the name Scott Conklin. I had some difficulty in my early research finding Isaac because of this fact, but eventually discovered him living in Norwich, Connecticut under the name Scott Conklin. He was a carpenter there for many years before his death in 1912. From his death record I was able to determine that he was buried at River Bend Cemetery in Westerly, Rhode Island.

I contacted the cemetery and was given his burial location, and about fifteen years ago, I visited the cemetery with my father and mother. I quickly found his gravestone, which listed him as I. Scott Conklin, 1860-1912. There was a footstone at the plot that read simply I.S.C. He seems to have had no desire to acknowledge the name Isaac even upon his death! Also listed with him on the fairly impressive monument were his sister-in-law Julia B. Taylor, her husband George B. Taylor, and their daughter Cassie Taylor, who had died as a child. Conspicuously missing was Isaac’s wife of many years, Jane Taylor.

Isaac had died at the age of 53, and I knew his wife had outlived him. In fact, I found her in the 1915 state census living in Westerly, but was unable to find her in any subsequent census and I quickly jumped to the conclusion that she had probably remarried and was buried with her new husband. This would turn out to be a perfect example of why one should never jump to conclusions, especially when doing family history research.

Burial Record

Burial Record

Jane was not my great grandmother, but rather had married Isaac after his first wife and my great grandmother Mary Reynolds had died giving birth to my grandfather. Therefore, the search for her in her later years was not the highest priority in my research. From time to time, I would check post-1915 records to see if I could find her, but to no avail. A few months ago, while going through some of my early research to add proper documentation and sources, I contacted the River Bend Cemetery to request a copy of Isaac Scott Conklin’s burial record. I emailed them in the morning and the very helpful caretaker there had emailed me back the document by that same afternoon. To my surprise, listed right below I. Scott Conklin on the record was Jane Conklin, who had been buried alongside him in July, 1939. She had been there all along!

Why Jane wasn’t listed on the headstone is a mystery, particularly since her sister and brother-in-law were buried later and are listed. The moral to the story is, however, quite simple. Never rely completely on what is shown on the headstone, but always try to obtain a copy of the burial record. This isn’t always possible of course. Often there are no records for abandoned or private cemeteries. Also, early records may have been lost or may not have been kept in an organized fashion. Nevertheless, if the records are available through the cemetery office or an archive, always try to obtain a copy. The record can provide a wealth of information in addition to the names of those buried there such as who bought the plot, how much they paid, and even where the individuals are buried within the plot. It can also provide those valuable tidbits of information that aren’t always carved in stone.

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A Gift from Mr. Howells

Anyone who has spent any time doing genealogical research knows the frustration that can come from trying to find out even the most basic facts. Whether it be the birthplace of that mysterious great grandfather or the whereabouts of your grandparents in the 1930 census, the search for these details can involve immense amounts of time and effort. Certainly there is great satisfaction when, and if, the prized information is uncovered, but often we are left wanting by the lack of personal detail that is contained in dates and place names. Every now and then, however, we are fortunate enough to stumble upon a true genealogical treasure. For me, this was the case when I was researching my wife’s family.

William Dean Howells

William Dean Howells

For the most part, my wife’s family history is much more fully documented than my own. Her Wick family was prominent in Youngstown, Ohio’s history and some of her other ancestral lines were well known as well. One of these was William Dean Howells, one of the most famous American authors of the nineteenth century. When I began my research into her family, however, it was not known to me whether he was a direct ancestor or not. Thanks to the abundance of information available about him, I was able to quickly determine that he was not, but rather was her third great uncle. Their common ancestor was his father (and her third great grandfather) William Cooper Howells.

First a little bit about William Dean Howells. He was born in 1837 in Ohio. He became well known as a writer for the Atlantic Monthly as well as his many other works. Perhaps his best known efforts are his novels “The Rise of Silas Lapham and “A Traveler from Altruria as well his short story “Christmas Every Day”’. The latter was made into a Family Channel TV movie in 1996 as part of their 25 Days of Christmas. Howells, who earned the nickname The Dean of American Letters, also became good friends with Mark Twain. His correspondence with Twain is one of the most important collections in American literature and he is credited by many with having a great influence on the style of his friend Twain.

William Cooper Howells

William Cooper Howells

His primary contribution to my wife’s family history was not his own writing. Instead, it was the fact that he influenced his father, William Cooper Howells, to write down and preserve his own reminiscences of his early life as an immigrant to America. The resulting “Recollections of Life in Ohio, 1813-1840” was published in 1895. The forward, written by his famous son, begins:

“It was at my suggestion that my father began, ten or twelve years ago, to set down the facts of his early life. At first the record was meant for his family only,,,”

The book is truly the genealogical goldmine every family historian dreams of. First hand genealogical information is found from the very beginning:

“I was born in the village of Hay, on the river Wye, in the county of Brecon, in South Wales, on the 15th of May, 1807. My father, Joseph Howells, was a native of the same place, and (as I have heard) was born in the same house and same room as myself, in 1783, in the month of June. His father, Thomas Howells, who was by trade a watchmaker, had followed his business in London, where he also married He soon after settled in Hay, which was near his native place in the adjoining county of Radnor, and engaged in the manufacture of Welsh flannels, a favorite style of woolen goods at that time.”

The amount of basic information in these three sentences alone could well represent countless hours of research. More important, however, is the depth of information he conveys. Not just dates and places, but a true sense of what his life was like, even down to the details of his first horse:

“With the opening of the spring of 1819, I entered upon a most delightful round of novelties. We had the ground of one of our fields plowed, and we planted them in corn and other spring crops including garden making, which father took to himself as his specialty working at it on Saturdays, when home from town. Father bought a black pony, bearing the name of Paddy,that was about as tough and lazy a lump of horse flesh as I ever saw. He was one of the ponies that the boatmen who made trips down the river in flat boats to New Orleans, and returned over land, were in the habit of buying of the Choctaw Indians, to ride home on. This one had been ridden home by a man who was prepared to sell him cheap ; and I think father bought him for twenty-eight dollars. But he served me as a horse, and for hacking about and going to mill he did very well, as he would carry three bushels of wheat and me on the top of it, or as many of the children as we could pile on. And, as it turned out to be a very dry season, it fell to my lot to go to distant mills to get grinding done and Paddy and I made many a mile of moderate travel in Jefferson county”.

It also lets us feel the sort of emotion that no death certificate can convey, as in the poignant description of his death found in William Dean Howells’ introduction:

“…almost his last intelligible words were to his nurse, to whom he said, with a certain habitual formality of speech, “I wish you to understand that I am very grateful to you for your care of me.”  A week before his death, his final recovery seemed at hand, and when he was attacked by an acute disorder, within four days of the end, his physician thought that he would get well.  It was not to be. The noon of a silent August day, whose strange and peculiar beauty he would have enjoyed beyond us all, found turn drawing his last breaths, and he died before the afternoon had begun to wane, with those who were dear to him about him, elderly men and women, but children still in their love for him, and in their bereavement.”

I call this a genealogical treasure not simply because it saves countless hours of tedious research, but more importantly because it lets us go back in time to visit with our ancestors. It introduces us to his grandfather Thomas, the watchmaker, in the tiny Welch village of Hay. It lets us join in on those lazy walks with young William and his trusted horse Paddy on the way to market. It brings us to his bedside as he takes his last breaths in the presence of a loving family. It is a remarkable gift from William to descendants he could only meet through words, and It is my hope that all of us who consider ourselves family historians get to take this journey at least once in our research.

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The Mystery of Alfred Axworthy (Part 2)

In my last post, I wrote about my difficulties in tracing the life and ancestry of my grandfather, Alfred Axworthy. My grandfather, who lived his whole life in Devonshire, England should have been fairly easy to trace, at least in terms of his birth date and census records. However, there were no records of him that I could find in any of the British census records other than his Royal Navy entry for 1901 while serving aboard the HMS Renown. In 1891, he was not present in his parent’s household in Plympton St. Mary, and in fact there was no record of him or his parents in previous census years. Frustrated in my efforts, I put the search for Alfred Axworthy on hold for several years while I pursued more satisfying branches of the family tree.

Joseph Axworthy in the 1841 Census

Joseph Axworthy in the 1841 Census

During that time period, indexes of the English census records and parish registers became more comprehensive and easier to access online at sites like Ancestry.com and FindMyPast.com. So, with fresh energy and more experience as a family history researcher under my belt, I returned to my Axworthy line. I decided to begin with Alfred’s father, Joseph Axworthy. My renewed search began with Joseph’s early life, and sure enough I found a solid candidate in 1841. Joseph Axworthy, age three, was living in the household of Jane Axworthy, who was 45, in the town of Plympton St. Mary. He was exactly where he should be. He was there with his brother Thomas, who was only ten weeks old at the time of the census. There was also another female, Elizabeth Axworthy, who was listed as twenty years old. Relationships are not given in this census, so Joseph could be the son of either Jane or Elizabeth. He could also be neither, a nephew perhaps. The interesting thing is that there were no adult males in the household. This was my first hint at a possible insight into the Axworthy mystery.

The logical next step was to push ahead in time and look for Joseph in 1851, but once again he was not there. Joseph, who should have been about thirteen years old, was once again missing, but not for long. I searched for Jane Axworthy in 1851 and quickly found her in Plympton St. Mary. In fact, I found Joseph and his brother Thomas as well. Both were the correct ages and every available detail matched up except for one. Joseph and Thomas Axworthy, now listed as the grandchildren of Jane Axworthy, had somehow become Joseph and Thomas Truscott. There was no Elizabeth, who logic would say was their mother and the daughter of Jane. A new mystery had presented itself. How did Joseph, and his brother Thomas, go from being Axworthys to Truscotts. Two possibilities presented themselves. One was that the two young boys were adopted and assumed the name of their stepfather, but there was no father or mother present. Another was that they were both illegitimate, but then why the name switch? I continued my research by moving forward in time.

With the Truscott connection in mind, moving forward went amazingly smoothly. In 1861, Joseph Truscott (shown as Triscott in the record) was listed as married to Margaret. This fit perfectly with Alfred’s marriage record, which showed his parents as Joseph and Margaret. In 1871, Joseph and Margaret were still in Plympton, but by now their family had grown to four children. Then, in 1881, Alfred finally made his first appearance in the census records. He was living with his parents Joseph and Margaret and several of his siblings in Plympton. I had now successfully placed Joseph in every available census and had finally located the young Alfred. There was just one problem. My grandfather Alfred Axworthy was Alfred Truscott in 1881. Furthermore, his father, who had started out as Joseph Axworthy in 1841, was shown as Joseph Truscott in every census from 1851 through 1881. Then, quite mysteriously, he reverted back to being Joseph Axworthy for the three of the censuses dated from 1891 through 1911. Not only that, all of his children, including Alfred, switched from the surname Truscott to Axworthy at the same time! This was confirmed by checking several of their marriage records.

Joseph & Thomas Truscott Baptism

Joseph & Thomas Truscott Baptism

One more non-census related piece of the puzzle came to my attention recently. An examination of the parish registers of Plympton St. Mary yielded the baptism entry for Joseph and Thomas Axworthy. Both were baptized on the same day, November 20th of 1842. This was immediately after Thomas had been born, but when Joseph was about two years old. Two revealing facts are included, or rather excluded, from the record. The parents of both boys are listed as Elizabeth Axworthy, but no father’s name is given. Also, no birth date is given for either of the boys despite the fact that this information is given for every other baptism on the page. Their mother Elizabeth, who would be Alfred Axworthy’s grandmother, has never been found in any record after 1841. This includes death records. In addition to this record, I was also able for find Alfred Axworthy’s baptism record in the same parish in 1876. He is listed as Alfred Truscott, the son of Joseph and Margaret Truscott.

So, in some respects, the mystery of Alfred Axworthy is solved in my mind. I know when and where he was born as well as where he lived throughout his life. I know who his grandparents were and where they were born and lived as well. I was even able to push the Axworthy line back two more generations through Elizabeth and Jane. Furthermore, I concluded that Alfred’s father Joseph was the illegitimate son of Elizabeth Axworthy, a not uncommon occurrence at that time for families of their social status. I found this revelation to be interesting from a family history perspective. It is in no way disturbing to me since all of us since the beginning of time have faced circumstances that no others should judge. These were working people who struggled every day to live and love as best they could. They are my ancestors, and I am proud of that fact.

I am left with two enduring mysteries however. Where does the name Truscott fit in? Is it the name of the missing father of Joseph and Thomas? Is it the name of a man that Elizabeth later married? I have no evidence of the latter possibility, and no good candidate for the first. More intriguing to me is the question of why did Joseph Truscott, born an Axworthy, revert back to using the name Axworthy when he was a man in his forties? And why did all of his children, including my grandfather, do the same? My hunch is that he discovered at this time relatively late in life that he was in fact illegitimate, but this is only a hunch. It is one of those pieces of information that I call a “soft” genealogical fact. The answer won’t likely be found in any official record. It is probably lost in time, but I hope that if I listen carefully enough I may still hear this particular quiet echo in time come to me in the future to provide the answer.

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The Mystery of Alfred Axworthy (Part 1)

I first started my genealogical research probably about twenty years ago. At that time, both my parents were still alive, and I started where all family historians start, with them.  I gathered as much information as possible from what they knew from their own memories and what they had been told growing up.  On my father’s side, there was quite a bit to work with since he possessed a family bible that went back to the 1860’s as well as the fact that he had lived with his grandparents while growing up on Long Island.  The situation with my mother was quite different.  She had come over to America from Devonshire, England as a war bride just after World War II.  She knew very little going back prior to her parents other than the names of her grandparents, but at least that was a start.

HMS Renown at the Alfred Axworthy served onboard

HMS Renown at the Alfred Axworthy served onboard

While research on my father’s side moved along quickly at first, the same cannot be said on my mother’s side.  The problems began with her father, Alfred Axworthy.  According to my mother, he was a market gardener who had at one time served in the Royal Navy.  I was able to quickly obtain his death record from 1964, which indicated that he was 89 years old at the time of his death.  So a birth year of about 1875 seemed in order. I soon obtained his marriage record which gave his parent’s names as Joseph and Margaret Axworthy.  I also obtained his military records which showed he was a stoker in the navy from 1897 until 1909, and a 1901 census record showing he was then a stoker on the HMS Renown stationed in the Mediterranean.  Things were fitting together and progressing nicely.

The problem began with what should have been the simplest of tasks, obtaining Alfred’s birth certificate.  The navy records indicated a birth date of June 8, 1876.  This was close enough to the census date to start a search.  British birth records are remarkably good, so it should have been no problem to track him down.  A search of 1875-1876 turned up nothing.  A broader search from 1865 to 1885 also turned up nothing.  Though a couple of Alfred Axworthys were found, there was in all cases ample evidence to rule them out as being my grandfather.   This presented a problem.  Where was Grandfather Alfred?  When and where was he born?

Alfred Axworthy in the 1901 British Census

Alfred Axworthy in the 1901 British Census

I have often found that the best way to tackle this type of issue is to skip the person in question and search for the parents in census records.  I quickly found a Joseph Axworthy married to a Margaret living in Wembury in 1891 who seemed to fit the bill, but there was no Alfred in the household.  This was disappointing, but not too shocking since at that time a working class young man of fifteen or sixteen could well be out on his own.  A further search of the 1901 census also found Joseph and Margaret in Plymstock, but still no Alfred, but of course at this time Alfred was in the navy so he was not listed in the household.  The problem centered on the 1881 census.  There was no Joseph Axworthy and no young Alfred to be found.  Another brick wall!

I won’t go in to the many failed research avenues I tried in order to get past this problem.  My mother seemed mystified by her father’s undocumented arrival in the world.  Even a letter to my aunts still living in England did not provide any answers.  I decided to take a break from my Axworthy research to pursue other more easily researched branches of the family tree.  I did this for quite some time, but my grandfather kept calling to me.  In my next blog, I will explain how improved census indexes, parish records, and the willingness to explore different possibilities, helped solve at least part of the mystery of Alfred Axworthy.

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Why Another Blog?

There are thousands, maybe millions, of blogs on the web covering every subject imaginable.  Indeed, there are many excellent blogs on the subject of history and genealogy.  So the question I had to answer before I began this endeavor was whether I had anything to add to the discussion.  Obviously, as can be seen from the fact that I am setting down these words today, I concluded that the answer is yes.  Now, it is up to you the reader to determine whether or not I was right.

I have been fascinated by history as long as I can remember.  What happened at a particular place or time?  What was the place I am standing at right now like 50, 100, or 500 years ago?  These questions pop into my mind all the time.  In fact, I tend to view almost everything in a historic perspective.  To a great extent, this interest in history as a subject goes back to my childhood days.  Some of my most wonderful memories are of days with my parents exploring historic sites in upstate New York.  Places like Fort Ticonderoga and stories of Roger’s Rangers will forever hold important places in the archives of my mind.

My interest in family history came later, but with no less passion.  Since I never met my grandparents, who had either passed away before I was born or lived along the southern coast of England where my mother was born, my knowledge of family history was limited to a few photos.  I can trace my interest, I think, to my becoming aware of a family bible that my father kept in a plastic wrapper in his desk drawer.  Though I always knew of its existence, it was just something I never much thought about.  It first had real meaning in my life when my uncle Elliott died, I remember my father taking out that bible and writing my uncle’s death date alongside the entry his father had made when Elliott was born.  It was important for my father to do that.  For him, it was the continuation of a tradition established when the first entries were made in that bible a century and a half earlier.  My father was a family historian, though he would never have thought of himself that way.

Since then, I have spent countless hours researching my family history and that of my wife Margaret.  My research has introduced me to the hardscrabble farmer Abraham Conklin, the French-Canadian Toussaint Fecteau, the Irish famine immigrant Thomas Heffernan, the Youngstown Industrialist James Lippincott Wick, and the Royal Navy seaman Alfred Axworthy among many others.  My research hasn’t just been about names and dates though.  It has brought me to fields outside Gettysburg on a death filled July afternoon.  It has brought me to earliest days of the colony of New Amsterdam. It has even brought me to the infernal bowels of the battleship HMS Renown on the Mediterranean Sea.

To me, history and genealogy are not just related disciplines.  They are one and the same, for every event in human history is ultimately the compilation of many individual genealogical events.  We living today are the descendants of those who sailed the Atlantic to create America, those who fought vainly to hold the Rock of Cashel, those who manned the fortifications on the frontiers of the Roman Empire, and even those who first decided to cultivate the land thousands of years ago.

So, my hope is that this blog will allow me to share my passion for history and genealogy.  I hope also that I will be able to share my own family history adventure in a way that is both enjoyable and educational.  If I can do that, I will feel that creating this blog was worthwhile after all.

Categories: Genealogy, History | Tags: | 2 Comments

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