Friday, December 16, 2011

Friday Farewell - A Time-Out in Memory of Christopher Hitchens

The sad news hit the wires, the mainstream, the social sites, and blogs late last night as Vanity Fair announced the death of Christopher Hitchens at the age of 62. Though it was not always easy to agree with "Hitch", his gift for writing essays, books, and whatever else came from his mind was staggering in its depth of knowledge and was of an eloquent style rarely seen today. Always in the moment and never at a loss for the perfect word, Christopher Hitchens surely will be remembered as one of the top essayists of my lifetime.

Tributes abound today, and his Vanity Fair editor, Graydon Carter, provides a touching remembrance of his friend and colleague:

I'm not sure what Mr. Hitchens would have said about genealogy, and I'm not sure that he had ever had reason to comment on it, so it may seem odd that his death is the subject here. But I enjoyed every word he wrote, knowing full well that he used every word purposefully and passionately, each bit of verbiage thoughtfully included as if to choosing or omitting a word or phrase might destroy an entire work. If only all writers could capture the reader like Hitch did. If only.

Thank you, Hitch, for sharing your gift. I'll be sipping a scotch later just for you.

Removal of Social Security Numbers from SSDI

It seems that political pressure has led to the removal of social security numbers from one of the most accessed databases in genealogy - the SSDI or Social Security Death Index, and the removal of the entire database from RootsWeb.

You can read Kimberly Powell's article for more details. What do you think about this move, and how much will it impact your research?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Tiny Cemetery – Dangerous Deeds

As promised, I return now to finish the story and intrigue surrounding my family’s tiny cemetery. We last left off with my cousins in disbelief, earth-moving machines tossing grave markers into a creek bed while looking down the barrel of a shotgun, and both sides believing that they were the rightful owners of the land in question.

I am the fourth great grandniece of Keren Reeve, born in about 1816 and daughter of the memorial subject of the tiny cemetery, Isaac Reeve, my fifth great grandfather. Keren never married, and lived the farming life with her brother, John, for many years until her death. Prior to her death on 14 May 1885, she deeded the land for the cemetery as “one acre, more or less” for the purpose of a family burial ground, a very common custom at the time in Illinois. Her parents and other family members already were at rest there, and it was Keren’s desire to preserve this land officially for that purpose.

In the 1880s, it was still commonplace in Illinois for a document such as a deed to be written, signed, and witnessed, and then taken to the court clerk for filing and affixing of the clerk’s seal. Filing at that time consisted of the clerk copying the document by hand into the clerk’s record. The dutiful clerk in Morgan County, Illinois, did just that, and as far as Keren Reeve knew, the land was preserved perpetually as the family cemetery.

Now we’ve all copied things by hand before, right? Maybe it wasn’t a deed, but some record? Or something simple, like a friend’s Christmas cookie recipe? A phone number while standing at the mall after you’ve run into someone you haven’t seen in ages?  Did you ever make a mistake and copy it wrong?

To make a long story short, that’s what the clerk had done.

I’m going to stop for a second and apologize to the reader for not having the deed images available to post here today. I wanted to finish this story for those who might be waiting to find out the gory details, but having moved not too long ago and being in the midst of planning a wedding (mine), I have not unpacked the most “precious” of my genealogical goodies. So I’m doing this next part from memory in the midst of about 30 boxes of family history materials.

The clerk of Morgan County at the time the deed was filed made an error in transcription. Illinois follows the township mapping system where everything is nice and neat and square. So instead of the cemetery being located, for example, in the NE1/4 of NE1/4 of Section 16 Township 15N Range 9W (which is actually Antioch Cemetery, just down the road) as Keren had written in the original deed, the clerk wrote “the SE1/4 of the SE1/4 of Section…”

So the comparison of the original deed in possession of my cousin and the deed as transcribed and recorded by the County Clerk showed that in essence, both parties were correct (though I have often wondered about the moral turpitude of someone bulldozing a cemetery). The moral case prevailed at this point, mostly because the damage had already been so extensively done. The new landowner stopped his destruction, and my cousins were left to tend to what was left of the tiny cemetery, which they did for many, many years. This spring, I am mounting a huge clean-up effort to bring the tiny place of rest back out of the bushes that have now overtaken it while I have been away from caretaking it. My cousins entrusted me with Keren’s original deed and all of the affidavits and research that was done to save the cemetery and it is the least I can do to continue to preserve it.

So what did I learn from this story? Original documents are original depending upon what the meaning of “original” is. The best original document you can possibly find as “proof” of the existence of a person or place is THE best source to use. It’s important to know the provenance of such an original – who had it and where was it kept for the past 100 or so years? Search, search, and search again until you are certain you have exhausted every angle, every record. Listen to the stories your relatives have to tell, because they may give you a lot of information, and be quite entertaining to boot.

And no matter how beautiful their handwriting, former clerks of the court were human, too. 

Advances in Data Storage - Since 1862

The "Abraham Lincoln Observer" blog from the Springfield, Illinois, State Journal-Register comes up with some real goodies as it seeks to protect the name of our city's favorite son. I thought this was pretty cute.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

RootsTech 2012 Can Sniff My Kindle

I belong to the Facebook page “I have more books than friends”. It’s not a high-volume site, but their posts are interesting, and I find it very comfy to belong there, sort of like relaxing on the couch with an interesting read. I’ve rarely met a book I didn’t like, especially where the topic is history or genealogy or some associated subject.

I’ve gotten over the fact that my daughter has utilized online textbooks for a few years now, though she occasionally stresses the seams of her backpack. I love the ability to download new books, and to find out-of-print books online. I keep thinking that I should have saved space by now using digital books instead of more tall shelves, but alas, I need more shelves. A couple of people who shall go unnamed have gently suggested that I might prune my library. Ummm, no.

I mention this because of a startling development in the RootsTech  2012 Conference ( This is an annual conference geared toward genealogy through technology – a very worthy undertaking and an educational opportunity that many of us cannot do without. I say that not having attended the conference personally, but by virtue of reading and hearing tons of useful output from it last year. This year, however, the RootsTech group has decided that we really only need that technology to do our research, that technology is the only concern one would have while immersed in their educational seminars.

They have banned booksellers from the conference.

I’m all for technology. It makes my life easier, and at times, it’s darn fun. I hope the group at RootsTech will rethink their position, though. If you close your eyes and sniff a Kindle (please forward me photos if you do), does it have that paper pulp woody smell, or the leatherbound feel of a slightly worn favorite book?  Maybe it’s possible to have a book’s author sign their work from your mobile phone app, but won’t it slide off into mobile oblivion when you run your fingers over it? (yes, this could be an issue with me and my touch screen Android, but I digress) And honestly, for those purists out there (makes guilty face), is a digital image really the exact same thing as the original page from the book that's in your hand?  Seriously, can you imagine a major genealogy conference without booksellers (who also sell technology books)? I say pish-posh.

To assume that attendees at RootsTech 2012 would not want to peruse the many booksellers of the genealogical sphere is absurd. A book is still a book. I have autographed genealogy books that, to me, are absolute treasures. Why not be a well-rounded genealogist, and utilize technology AND good old-fashioned books? That’s what I’ve done, and will continue to do. Hopefully, RootsTech will re-examine their position, and remember that kindness and sharing takes the genealogist just as far as technology, and sometimes, just a little bit farther.