Family Lore – Famous Ancestors?

I have often had inquiries from “family researchers” who want to find their “famous” Revolutionary War Major, a governor of some early state, wealthy land owner, even movie stars. Their grandmother told them they were related…..

Let me give you an example. “Lucy Hunt” has begun a family history project with two or three generations,  with some primary evidence (birth certs she got from Mom), but more info that is secondhand or undetermined source. As Lucy knows her parents, and probably her grandparents, she likely has gathered factual basic information-dates and place of births, marriages, deaths for example. However, jumping ahead several undocumented generations, to connect to Clara Barton or even further back, George Washington himself, is not valid genealogy.

Genealogy is widely popular today. Commercial online companies and purveyors of of millions of books, videos, heraldry sources, and software, promote genealogy “as easy as clicking online” to find your kinfolk. Lucy and millions of other people new to genealogy and enthused about finding their family, boast of the “thousands” of family members they have found on Ancestry.com. Lucy established a tree online, which is also highly promoted, and attached “proof” such as census, info from other trees, and info found on the database –none of which has she put through the process of proof…likely she is unaware of that step.  Lucy, still seeking her connection to Clara Barton has dug up some stories about the famous Civil War nurse and is excited to find that someone in her Grandmother’s family came from the same city as Clara….Chicago!

So what is the process? How do you create an accurate family tree? Genealogy is the construction of a family history that reflects historical reality as closely as possible is developed through:

  • A reasonably exhaustive search for proof, emphasizing original or firsthand information.
  • Documenting all findings by properly recording sources and citations.
  • Analysis of evidentiary findings; comparing and testing your sources is essential to accuracy of your genealogy.
  • Resolution of conflicting evidence.
  • Writing and recording an accurate family record.

The above are the components of the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) for genealogical research…. which is NOT what Lucy has done.

The field of genealogy has changed in emphasis over the past ten to twenty years . It is still immensely popular as a “hobby,” still commercialized too, but a shift has taken place. Our national, state and local genealogical organizations and institutions now promote genealogy as scholarly research, offering classes, seminars and other resources in pursuit of solid genealogy practices. Universities, libraries, and archives worldwide hold the history of our people and they, too, promote good research standards. DNA also helps identify ancestral lines and those that don’t belong on your tree too!

The other aspect of Lucy’s quest for connection to a celebrity, is that she is overlooking the real people in her family that passed on parts of themselves, in one way or another, to her. One of the joys of good research techniques, is learning about the life of your ancestor in terms of how they lived it, and discovering the person.

We have all sorts of people in our families, including a possible famous or notable persons, or hard-working folk who raised children, passed on beliefs, interests, physical characteristics, love of the arts or a particular occupation…to you.

By researching with good skills, as per the Genealogical Proof Standard, you will create an accurate history of your real ancestors and find interesting, maybe even “famous” people in your tree. For example:

Anne Samuel (1736-1825), Caswell County, North Carolina; she was designated a Revolutionary War Patriot, as per records in the National Archives, D.A.R., North Carolina legislative records archive. Anne Samuel was my 5th great grandmother, “who  furnished supplies to the militia.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Girls Going to College Back in the Day?

gillanevaphoto-2

Eva Gillan, 1885

In 1870 America, there were only 500 public high schools with enrollment of about 50,000 students (U.S. population was almost 40 million in 1870 as per census data). At that time, enrollment had opened to accept females, mostly to be trained as teachers. Reading, writing and arithmetic curriculums were also expanding to train working class youth in skilled trades to meet the needs of a country fast changing in the second phase of the Industrial Revolution.

While secondary schools were growing in many states, many did not have courses that prepared students for college, thus students could not pass entrance exams. Many colleges in that era, offered “preparatory schools,” to fill the gap, but also to expand their college student enrollments. Families of means sent their children to such college based academies, particularly when those schools were close to home.

Eva Gillan, at age 16, was in the Junior class, 1879-1880, of the Preparatory School of Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Illinois. In the junior year, the curriculum included arithmetic, English grammar, geography, Latin, algebra, English analysis, U.S. History, elocution, English composition, physiology, and criticism.

Two of Eva’s brother’s, David and James also attended Illinois Wesleyan University. James was a freshman in the Preparatory courses during the same period Eva attended. James continued his studies and was later listed in census records as “professor of education,” then a few years later on the Board of Education in Omaha, Nebraska. David Gillan, graduated in 1881. In the Illinois Wesleyan University Alumni Roll, published in 1929, David is shown as having achieved a B.A., and M.A. [1]  David H. Gillan, served as a Methodist Minister in southern California for twenty-five year; he also established a date farm there.

The Academic and Teachers Course, as the preparatory school at Illinois Wesleyan University was called, gave the following description of the course in the university’s 1879 catalog:
“This course is arranged with reference to a thorough preparation for college; also to qualify young men and women for teaching in common and graded schools, and further, to furnish the basis of a business education to those whose time will not allow them to complete a full college course.” [2]

Eva Gillan and two of her sisters, Mary J and Addie Gillan, attended Illinois State University, 1880-1882. In records available for those years, Eva completed course work in reading, spelling, arithmetic, geography, diction, writing, history, drawing, theory and practice (probably related to teaching). [3]

James and Jane McClure Gillan, parents of Eva, Mary, Addie, James M. And David H. Gillan were strong advocates for education for both males and females, as evidenced by sending daughters to college as well as sons. James and Sarah were immigrants from County Antrim, Ireland, both educated and literate. James was instrumental in the establishment of schools in McLean County, Illinois.

Years later, Eva Gillan Samuel, enrolled her three children in the preparatory school, Academy (1907) of Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas. She found the high schools in Kansas then did not prepare her children for further education as her father as discovered back in 1879. From the Baker University Catalogue of 1906-1907, in explaining the existence of an academy at Baker University, ‘many localities do not provide academic opportunities for students which prepare them for college course work;” further the statement cites lack of libraries, literary societies, lecture courses and elementary knowledge of grammar, arithmetic, physiology, US history, government and geography required to pass entrance exams for college. The Academy at Baker University had four courses of study: Classical, Philosophical, Scientific, and Literature and Art. Graduation from the Academy ensured acceptance into the Collegiate Department without further examination.’[4]

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[1] Illinois Wesleyan University Alumni Roll, published in “Illinois Wesleyan University Bulletin,” Series XXVII, no. 2, June, 1929; Illinois Wesleyan University Library Archives and Special Collections; copy provided to Bonnie Samuel, June 2015.
[2] Annual Catalogue of the Illinois Wesleyan University, 1880-81, Bloomington, Illinois, Bulletin Printing and Publishing Co., 1881, Illinois Wesleyan University Library Archives and Special Collections; copy provided to Bonnie Samuel, June 2015.
[3] Letter from Gardner VanDyke, Registrar, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois, 9 Feb 1971 to Bonnie Samuel, Des Moines, Iowa; citing records found in archives for the attendance of Eva Gillan.
[4] Kay Brandt, Reference Librarian, Baker University, Baldwin City, Kansas (BRADT@HARVEY.BAKERU.EDU, 12 March 1997) to Bonnie Samuel, Albuquerque, New Mexico; providing copy of partial 1906-07 Baker University Catalog describing the Academy, pp. 76-81; an email with info on the Academy and findings of enrollment of Raymond, Ferne and Beula Samuel.

Keeping History Alive

In 1976, Alex Haley’s book, Roots, was an instant best seller. In 1977, Roots, became a TV miniseries that broke records for viewership. It was the compelling story of Kunta Kinte, a man captured in Ghana, enslaved and brought to the United States. Kunta Kinte never forgot his African family and heritage, proudly and passionately passing on his ancestor’s names and stories.

Roots and Kunta Kinte’s story awakened viewers curiosity and a desire to know about one’s own family and history. Genealogy, once a primarily scholarly pursuit, was now the “hobby” of people everywhere. In the 10-15 years following Roots, I and many thousands of Americans haunted the libraries, courthouses, archives, cemeteries and other repositories of family and historical data. We used the postal system to request records and kept findings on paper and filed our research in binders and filing cabinets.

Many libraries offered genealogy classes, provided family group and pedigree forms and help to the new wave of researchers. State and county genealogical societies emerged and grew. Existing national genealogy groups reached out to the new researchers and urged them to become members. Of course, the commercial market recognized the potential in the genealogy craze and how-to books, subscription magazines and journals sprang up, as did designer pedigree charts.

Back in those days, many family researchers were dedicated to good methodologies, accuracy and took pride in their findings. Many others were happy to find ancestors and fill in pedigree charts to take to their family reunions. Then there were many whose genealogy research fell somewhere between serious researchers and pedigree chartists.

Through the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s technology and the internet were developing fast, becoming accessible to anyone. In 1983 Ancestry launched a genealogy newsletter, then a popular subscription magazine that accelerated the growth of family research enthusiasts. In 1996, Ancestry opened an online, fee based, searchable database, which was an immediate success! Other databases and informational sites quickly populated the internet with genealogy offerings – most fee based, some free.

Today genealogy is a $2 billion industry and holds 2nd place as the most popular “hobby” in the United States. But is genealogy a “hobby” or a serious research endeavor? That depends. Our national genealogical organizations have changed their message over the past few years, from “hobby” status offerings to greater emphasis on the scholarly research process, documentation and proof standards.

There are many reasons for this change of focus, not the least of which was pressure from research professionals, a question of sustainability of the “hobby” status, and market feasibility. Family researchers were showing signs of frustration, realizing they lacked the resource knowledge and research skills to compile a “real family tree.” Many wanted to “get organized” and understand how to research effectively.

As a result, we began to see a shift in programming and the marketing message resulting in emphasis on research skills, documentation, analysis of evidence and writing accurate family stories. The shift in focus also precipitated new revenue in genealogical resources.

National and state conferences now regularly headline speakers known for their expertise in research skills and methods, organization and writing classes too. The Genealogy Proof Standard and DNA are essential course offerings too. Genealogical and Public Libraries also offer ongoing programming in these subjects – classes fill quickly.

There are still varying tiers of those pursuing their family histories, but the more focused family historian is a rapidly growing segment. That segment needs the libraries, the archives and ethnic museums, court houses, cemeteries, vital records, military papers, historical venues, and technology and the internet too. Perhaps even more important is that segment is helping keep history alive.

 

Bonnie Samuel, All Rights Reserved,©2018

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