I began doing family history research over twenty years ago, back in the days of the first PAF release and dial-up Prodigy. Somewhere along the line I took a very long breather due to a very busy career. When I returned to family history research about three years ago, it was a very different landscape. Needless to say I felt I needed to get “caught up” on all the changes, so I started attending workshops, conferences, and online tutorials....anything that would bring my research skills and particularly my genealogy-related technological skills up to date.
Now, while I’m not an expert, I do enjoy teaching an occasional class and helping others navigate the technological mine fields to get to what they need. But there is one area of those “mine fields” I never really appreciated until just recently. Today I wish to share that story and the miracle that goes with it.
Although any professional will tell you that a very important first step, after checking your family resources, is to check other compiled sources, I have traditionally skipped that part. Somewhere along the line I had developed a huge prejudice against compiled family trees, finding too many errors, un-sourced work, and copied pedigrees. Unless I was truly “stuck”, I didn’t even use them for “clues”.
I apparently carried that prejudice into this new more-technologically-advanced world. Oh, I’d posted a couple of photos and things on Footnote, but why? Just to try it out and see how it worked. I still hadn’t set up a family tree on Ancestry, in spite of everyone talking about the “shaky leaf”, and I rarely checked the family trees on any website for leads. In fact, most of the time, I bypassed the general search and went right to what I was looking for. For some reason, last December, I broke that rule, and gained the benefit.
The story, which I won’t include in detail, begins with my great-grandmother, Harriet Brooks Skidmore, who was literally carried across the plains on a pillow at the age of four because she was so fragile and weak. Her grandmother, Maria (Long) Brooks, sent a burial blanket with her family “just in case”. I decided to research this Brooks line for a class project last semester (yes, I’m 56, and yes, I’m talking on-campus class).
The primary focus in the end was to resolve two questions about Harriet’s grandparents, “Captain” Josiah Brooks and Maria Long. And yes, because it was required of the class, I consulted compiled sources. They agreed with I had already gleaned from family sources....there were two opinions as to Josiah’s parents, and Maria Long was a dead end (in spite of the family having her actual death date and place from some unknown source). And while I had a lot of fun along the way, following the family through Kansas to Oregon, finding newspaper extracts about marriages and deaths, and reading some amazing family histories written about Harriet and her family, I ended the semester with the same problem. Only by that point in time, I had three opinions as to Josiah’s parents, two conflicting bible record extractions, no indication of what Josiah was a “Captain” of, and still nothing more on Maria, not even a confirmation of the supposed death date/place passed down through time.
Trust me, this was not due to a lack of research. In fact, I spent over one hundred hours on this project (no, the class didn’t require that much; as usual I went overboard). While much of that time was spent on a preliminary survey, a census study, and a locality survey related to the course requirements, about fifty hours was related to online and library searches for vital and other related records. I dug deep, and still at the end of the semester, came up short.
Of massive concern was the theory that these family members were all born in Christiana, Delaware, and yet after searching every potential parish and civil record available in that area, I could not find records to prove that. Census records showed them in the White Clay Creek Hundred (of which Christiana is a part) prior to migrating west; an 1868 land map showed three of Josiah’s brothers just southwest of Christiana; and the three newspaper extracts all mentioned that they lived in the White Clay Creek Hundred. One would think, then, that a search of parish records in Christiana and surrounding areas would have produced exactly what I wanted. Not. I had begun to think whoever passed that information down the pipe had a very bad memory.
I was quite happy to put the unfinished work along with a copy of my class report on the bookshelf and take a breather. And then the miracle occurred.
I was about twenty minutes into a Hallmark Christmas movie when something said “you really ought to go check for information on Josiah’s brothers”. I’m thinking, next generation, new problem, time to relax. But you and I know that isn’t how it works. Once a genealogy-related mystery or thought enters our minds, we can’t let it go. So, I turned off the TV, turned on the computer, logged into Ancestry.com and began entering the Brooks brothers names (in the general search window with all the boxes checked--family histories, stories, photos, etc.--all those things I normally pass by).
I enter the first name. Nothing. Next name, nothing. Next name, nothing. Fine! I tried the brother who didn’t own land and had a very odd name--Winslow. Still Nothing.
Fortunately, Ancestry attempts to provide leads to things that “might be” related, so I scrolled down the page to see what they offered. And there it was! Part of a letter from a Maria Brooks to a Mr. Sanders, referring to her husband as Josiah. Maria Brooks actually was a pretty common name back then, but with Josiah as a spouse? What are the odds?
I immediately emailed the person who posted it; ends up she lives not far from me. She put me in contact with the individual in Chicago who “inherited” a box of letters from yet someone else. Within 24 hours I had in my hand (ok, on my computer) a scanned copy of a six-page handwritten letter documenting the deaths of two children, a recent move, Josiah’s subsequent change of occupation which brought him the new title of “Captain”, the price of commodities, and other historically interesting things. A six-page handwritten letter, back in the late 1850s, from one friend (not a relative) to another, and with her own signature “Maria Brooks.”
That was the miracle. But first note how and when it came. Not in the middle of my intense research through records online and off. Not in my rush to meet class requirements. And not while writing and re-writing the 26-page narrative report. Instead, it came when I finally had a calm, quiet, stress-free moment and a little patience. It came when I was willing to get past my prejudices and search records that others have found useful for years! AND it came because someone else was wise enough to scan and share parts of that letter!
I learned a great lesson that day. Technology has moved family history research into a new realm and I needed to move with it. OK, I thought I had embraced all that technology had to offer, but that wasn’t true. When it came to this one area--compiled records, online sharing of documents, etc.--I really was back in the dark ages. As the result of this experience, I not only gained new leads on grandma Maria, but I gained a new appreciation for both on-line collaboration and sharing of resources. I even dropped a few prejudices (ok, I lowered the fence) as interestingly enough that letter was attached as a resource on (yes, you guessed it) a compiled family tree!