Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Tuesday's Tips~Getting By With Help from Our Friends-Wendy Mathias

This edition of Tuesday's Tips come from Wendy Mathias from the Jolette Etc. blog.

Imagine calling the historical society to inquire about any resources that might contain information about your great-great grandfather. Imagine the volunteer on duty that day says, “We have no family genealogy about him, but I see in an old ledger belonging to the local tailor that your great-great grandfather ordered a black frock coat for $6 in November 1863.” Would you not prefer THAT little entry to simply determining that “6/10/1857” meant “June 10” not “October 6”?

Until a few years ago, whenever I read the advice to contact a genealogical or historical society to search for records not available online, I cringed. I pictured a small number of old people who met to share their personal research or to save an old building from demolition. What could they possibly offer me? After all, my ancestors were poor dirt-farmers and dirt-poor farmers, not likely to have done anything to earn them a spot in a local history book.

Even though I live 250 miles away, I joined the Greene County Historical Society in Virginia and learned very quickly how passionate they are about preserving local history. I can’t be there to attend meetings or man the museum, but I participate by indexing some of the Society’s rare acquisitions. Taken together, the indexing projects have opened my eyes to all that a historical or genealogy society can offer family historians like me.

1.     Voter Registration Records - Until I indexed a set of voter registration books for the Greene County Historical Society, I thought, “Big deal. I don’t care if my ancestor voted or not.” What makes the books interesting though are the kinds of genealogical clues that might be there. For example, voter books can help you determine if your ancestor moved within the county or away all together. Not only is the date of registration in a precinct recorded, but all transfers to a new precinct or from a former precinct identify the location and date. Depending on the generosity of the registrar, another surprising feature that MIGHT be found is an abbreviated family tree. When several citizens had the same name, the registrar might add parenthetical clarification such as “John Smith (son of Thomas)” or “Ben Jones (brother of William).” Sometimes a description of where a person lived such as “3 miles southeast of McMullen’s Mill” was noted. You might also learn if your female ancestors were among the first to take advantage of the 19th Amendment.
2.     Family research - Not all families donate their personal research in beautifully bound books complete with photos, an index, and list of sources. File folders and 3-ring binders are the norm. More often than not, families turn over their loved one’s box of photos, letters, notes and other odds’n’ends to the local society because libraries are reluctant to take a collection of unorganized “stuff.” I indexed the contents of several scrapbooks containing over 50 years-worth of personal items like greeting cards, receipts, and programs. Even if your family was not related to the creator of this scrapbook, you would still want to check it for all the newspaper clippings of obituaries, church and school events, local news and features on local history.
3.     Merchant daybooks and ledgers - Any society that has received such records can provide researchers an amazing window into their ancestors’ lives. One of the general store’s daybooks that I indexed for Greene County showed me the generosity (and comparative wealth) of my ancestor who paid a neighbor’s bill. The titles of textbooks being ordered by the schoolmaster showed me what kind of education my ancestors may have received. Clues about their standard of living were apparent in the fabric they purchased, their method of payment, and by whether they went to the store in person or sent a servant. Random details like purchasing hair dye or ordering a wedding suit will surely bring an ancestor to life in ways that a vital record will not.
4.     School Board Minutes - The minutes that I indexed date from the beginning of public education in Greene County. Topics covered in meetings included how to raise money for the schools, how much money was to be allocated for construction, approval of textbooks, and how much teachers would be paid. But it’s the names in the minutes that will keep you looking: members of the School Board, officers, the list of teachers, names of students receiving a scholarship to college, names of those who sold a small corner of the family farm for the county to build a school.

Obviously the kinds of resources available will vary from society to society. I hope that this small sample of holdings at the Greene County Historical Society will prompt you to run, not walk, to your favorite society in search of your ancestor’s life between the dashes.

Wendy Mathias is a family historian who has been researching her many Virginia family lines ever since her mother dragged her along to a Family History Center to help take notes 30 years ago. Wendy shares old photos and her research on her blog, Jollett Etc. When not researching her own family, she assists others. As Registrar for the Fort Nelson Chapter of DAR, Wendy helps women in their search for a patriot ancestor and in gathering supporting documents to apply for membership. She has participated in many indexing projects for DAR, FamilySearch, and the Greene County Historical Society. Wendy and her husband Barry divide their time between their home in Chesapeake, Virginia and their vacation home at Smith Mountain Lake. They have 2 daughters and 4 grandchildren.
Visit Wendy at Jollett Etc

Thank so much for helping us to understand what may be found at a historical or genealogical society!

Have you taken advantage of the historical and genealogical societies where your ancestors lived? What treasures have you discovered?

Thanks so much for stopping by!
Helping you climb your family tree,

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