Saturday, March 15, 2008

Finding Charlie Stone

Brick walls or other missing information in your ancestral research are common to all of us. Frequently, the information we need is fairly close to us in time, yet seems to be as elusive as the exact birth date of an ancestor born in 1582.

Our ancestor was born or died in a sparsely populated county or area and government and church records were never created for them for one reason or another. Therefore, their missing information is impossible to find. Right?

That may not be true in more cases than you'd think.

In 1985, my wife an I traveled to Calaveras County, California looking for information on my 2nd great grandparents and their family. The only information I had about them was that they lived and died in Copperopolis, a tiny mining town on the shoulder of the Sierra Nevada's. The mines had long since closed and the population could be counted on the fingers of both hands (well, maybe you had to use some of your toes too).

Not finding anyone in the tiny store who knew anything about my family, I asked for directions to the cemetery. It was divided into four sections by rock walls and occupied by past residents who belonged to various faiths, organizations and the populace in general.

When we found the headstones and burial plot of my ancestors and some of their family, I was delighted. Finally, I'd seen and touched something tangible that proved their lives. I could see that someone cared about them, because of a few desert plants and bushes that had been planted around the plot. An old coffee can and quart Mason bottle were sitting against the California oak tree in the plot and were obviously used to carry water to the plantings.

Wondering how I could contact the 'care taker' of these plants, it came to me to write a note on the back of my business card and put it in the bottle and the bottle inside the coffee can asking them to please contact me. Who knew if they would or how long it would take? I had high hopes and they weren't dashed. Several days later, I received a letter and family information from the distant cousin who cared for the cemetery plants. Gold was found in the old California Gold Country again!!

We made a second trip to Calaveras County and after talking to the good folks in the Calaveras County Historical Society were told that I needed to talk to Charlie Stone in Copperopolis. He was the unofficial town historian and may have some information to help me in my quest.

It didn't take long to find Charlie and Rhoda Stone's home in tiny Copperopolis. Rhoda opened the door to my knocking and invited us in. One whole wall of their living room was covered from floor to ceiling with stacks of paper, books and documents about early Copperopolis and Calaveras County. They were writing a book about the area and all of these records were part of their research.

Charlie came home a few minutes later and after we introduced ourselves to him and related our quest to find my ancestors, his face lit up and he said, "I have something for you .... right here". Reaching into one of the towering stacks of paper he pulled a dozen pages out. I held my breath thinking the entire stack would soon be an avalanche hitting the floor but Charlie knew his stacking skills better than I.

He turned to me and said, "These are the records of your people". "Here are their birth, marriage and death dates and places". "Oh, and by the way, here is a photo of your great grandmother in her buggy when she was a young woman." Time stopped. The grin on my face was permanent. He offered to make copies of all of it for me and off we went to the telephone company service trailer to make them.

I had in my hands something more precious than gold in my estimation.

When we walked back into his home, he stopped and thought for a minute and then said, "That isn't all of the information I'm supposed to give you". Moving several inches of papers around on his desk, he retrieved a slip of paper with a name and address on it. "This is the name and address of your cousin". "He stopped here to talk to me last summer, riding his Harley and looking for information about any surviving family." "There aren't any of them still here, but he gave me his address just in case any ever showed up".

As soon as we got home, I wrote my cousin a letter and sent copies of all of our common ancestry that I'd found in my life long ancestral quest. Three days later, I received a telephone call. He asked if I was the person who had sent the letter and information. When I said yes, he asked how I'd gotten his address. I told him the story about visiting Charlie Stone and that Charlie, true to his word, had passed on his name and address to a family member looking for our common ancestry.

The line was silent for almost a minute. When he started to speak again he was still suspicious of me. Due to problems in his life, none of their accounts, ownerships or other records listed him. Everything was in his wife's maiden name. He said it was "Impossible for Charlie Stone to give you my address." "I've never heard of Charlie Stone." "I haven't been in Copperopolis for over 40 years." "I don't have a motorcycle!" "We only moved into our current home less than nine months ago, long after the date Charlie said I'd visited him."

We talked for a little while about our families and ancestry and I discovered that he'd lost all contact with his family and close ancestors over the years. Tender moments and comments ensued and he had to hang up because he couldn't control his emotions any longer.

Brick walls came down both in my ancestral quest and in my family search in general due to my visit with Charlie Stone. Was I guided by an unseen force? You bet I was and I'm extremely grateful for it.

Charlie wrote his book (I own one) and is gone now. My cousin has also passed on, but the experience of meeting this old unofficial town historian and then 'meeting' my cousin on a telephone call will always be with me.

Great grandpa and grandma, thanks for helping me find you and your family.

So, when you are trying to knock down your own ancestral 'brick walls' or fill in information about your extended families, don't forget to look for the Charlie Stone in the area where your family lived. You never know what will turn up and who you'll meet.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

What If I Have Black Sheep In My Ancestry?

I often hear concern in peoples comments about doing family history research. They are afraid they will find that some of their ancestors had difficulties in life and that their actions may taint the respectibility of their living descendants.

My response is, "Great". "Now you'll have a better chance of finding a record of them!" As we search for ancestors a little farther back in time, we are usually limited to church records of births, marriages and deaths and often have little other information about their lives. That is 'unless' they were in trouble with the law, government or society. Then their misdeeds are usually recorded in records that still exist today.

In my own lineage, my 10th great grandfather was hung for murder. Another was banned from his colony for getting his girl friend 'with child'. Others fought against the British Crown in Scotland and in early America. Several were given some of their inheritance and told to not return home again because of their wicked ways. Three of my ancient grandfathers were drawn and quartered by the British after loosing battles with them in Scotland. Many, many of my ancestors were forced to leave their native countries because of their religious beliefs.

A large number of my ancestors were hero's in battle, in statesmanship and in leadership rolls. Do I honor them above my "Black Sheep ancestors?" No, I don't. They are all people, who lived their lives and for better or worse impacted the lives of their families and many other people around them. I am proud of those who did their best, exhibited their bravery, wisdom and honesty and I often refer to them when teaching youth and others about making the right choices for the right reasons.

The actions of my "Black Sheep" ancestors actually allow me to find information about them that I'd never find otherwise. Without their 'nefarious' crimes and actions, I wouldn't have any details about them other than a name, some dates and some places. Except for the murderer, few of the crimes they committed would even rise above the norm in our society today .... but that is another topic.

Don't be afraid to research your family tree because you may find someone who didn't conduct their lives like you do, because invariably you are going to find them. Everyone has them in their ancestral tree. Learn from their mistakes and remember that strictly from a research standpoint, the 'rounders' in your family may have left you the greatest set of tracks to aid in your research for their entire branch of the family.

You may even consider joining the International Blacksheep Society of Genealogists to see if other researchers have found information on your ancestors as well as sharing the information you've discovered about them.

If we don't keep our own noses clean, one day we may be one of the Black Sheep in the ancestral tree of our descendants or conversely, we could be the ones with 'gold stars' by our names because of our exemplary lives.

Whatever you find in your family history research, be grateful that you found a little more about lineage and that your perspective of how you fit into the weave of your ancestral quilt is enhanced with each discovery.


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Grandpa Left Me What?

Over the past 10 years, I have worked with a doctor who is researching Huntington's Disease (HD). This terrible malady causes the degradation and eventual failure of neurons in brain cells and almost always ends in death at a fairly early age.

He contacted me because I had traced the descendancy and lineage of my great aunt and her husband. His first contact asked if I had ever observed or exhibited a list of symptoms that he included in his letter. I hadn't seen them in our branch of the family but did note that the profile of early deaths and other issues were frequently found in my great aunts branch of our family.

This confirmed his suspicions and I was able to put him in contact with several of my extended cousins from that branch. They knew that some members of the family had HD but had no idea of its extent and impact on the entire branch. In fact, it has devastated every family unit in that branch. Now that they know how it affects personalities and actions, they better understand why certain events occurred in the lives of some family members.

The HD gene was introduced into the family by the husband of my great aunt and thus none of the siblings of my great aunt have the problem.

Thinking about the implications of a 'bad' gene in my own genetic makeup, I started to document the cause of death of my own ancestors and their families. The results weren't a total surprise, but the problem was much more prevalent than I would have ever dreamed. My father's side of the family predominately died of heart diseases and / or heart attacks. My mother's side of the family either lived long healthy lives or had heart and nervous problems.

When I created a graphical descendancy chart for my 2nd great grandparents and colored each box showing the cause of death, it was instantly apparent that my chance of dying with heart related problems is very high.

Scientists and other researchers have used genealogical data to track the proclivity of diseases in their patients for a number of years. With the now fairly common use of DNA mapping, science is able to predict inherited genetic weaknesses with surprising precision.

If you haven't taken the time to research and study the cause of death or illnesses in your own ancestral families, you'll probably want to do it soon. The knowledge could help save your life as you use it to work with your physician to find a lifestyle and preventative treatments that will at least partially mitigate your own genetic weaknesses.