As soon as you discover it, you know you have something special.
Whether it’s an elusive Census record, a long-sought birth certificate, or an obituary feared forever lost, certain family history documents illuminate your ancestry with bright, undeniable light.
Perhaps an artifact helps open up a whole new line of family history. Maybe it confirms family memories long part of your legacy. Or a document might simply help you get to know ancestors better with everyday details about their lives.
Whatever the case, family history documents open up exciting worlds of genealogical discovery.
This is in full evidence in the compelling family history finds of genealogists Lorine McGinnis Schulze and Robin Foster. Enjoy learning about their genealogy discoveries – then preserve family memories of your own on FamilySearch’s improved Memories page.
My husband’s ancestors have lived in the same small town for over 170 years. He grew up surrounded by his family heritage and the buildings his family lived and worked in. Stories were told about ancestors long dead. However, there was one glaring omission in his family record. No one knew anything about his 3rd great-grandfather William Massey. There were no stories, no family heirlooms passed down. William’s tombstone was all that remained to provide birth and death dates.
Then one day my husband came across a newspaper clipping that set us on a journey that would take over 10 years to complete. That newspaper clipping was an interview with William’s daughter, Marion Gibbs (Massey) Birtch. The St. Marys Journal-Argus article, published on Thursday, July 7, 1927, and titled, “Old Boys Recall Incidents of Bygone Days,” read in part:
“Mrs. Birtch, despite her 73 years, is yet very active and possessed of a very good memory. She was the daughter of the late William Massey…. When the Civil War broke out in the States Mrs. Birtch’s father went to Tennessee and joined Grant’s Army and after the war he was so broken in health that after spending six months in a Federal Hospital he was discharged and came home to St. Marys where he died.”
Could this newspaper account of William Massey’s life be verified?
Our search took us to dusty archives and humid basements. We spent more hours than I can count scrolling through reels of microfilm, looking for any sign of William enlisted in the Civil War. We even hired an on-site genealogist to scour records at a NARA facility. But it was all in vain.
Then a few years ago we stumbled on a Criminal Assize Clerk Criminal Indictment file which mentioned William Massey being charged with larceny in Perth County in 1863.
From the indictment in October 1863 we learned that in February 1863 William stole $888.00 from the American Express Co. while transporting the money from one place to another. It seemed a very foolish crime since the town he lived in was very small and he was the only driver – which made him the only possible suspect! But there was no other information in the indictment so we did not know what happened next.
Did he flee Canada before a trial and run off to the Civil War? Perhaps he went to trial and was found guilty but fled before going to jail? Either scenario fit with the fact that on June 24, 1864, our William transferred all his land holdings in St Mary’s to his wife Ellen.
We were in for yet another surprise as we followed the trail of this long-ago mystery. An index reference to a William Massey being incarcerated in the Stratford jail in 1864 popped up in one of my many searches. Sending for the full document was the breakthrough we needed in our 10-year search! The excitement in our house was palpable as we eagerly tore open the envelope.
We learned then that William was tried, found guilty and given six months at hard labor in the Stratford Jail on April 18, 1863. His sentence began December 10, 1863, and he was released June 10, 1864. Thus we learned the truth – that William was incarcerated in the Stratford Jail and was not in Tennessee fighting on the Union side.
Sadly William died a year and a half after his release from jail. We think the jail term may have hastened William’s early death. He was 41 when he served his time at hard labor. And it would have been very hard. Conditions at the jail were not good; there was very little ventilation, and it was cold in winter and hot in summer. Disease was almost certainly rampant.
So as sad as it is to think of William suffering as he must have, and as much as we would have loved to have had a Civil War ancestor, we are delighted to have found yet another bit of detail to help us form our story of this ancestor.
The other very welcome bit of information we gleaned from the jail records was that William had lived in Canada for 20 years. This gave us an approximate year of 1841 as his immigration from Ireland. We had previously only known William was in Quebec at least by 1843 when he married. But we did not know if he arrived in Quebec as a child (perhaps with parents) or as a young man.
Who says one small document cannot change an entire field of ancestry research? New paths open, new information found and added and an entirely new picture of William Massey has been formed.
The record that provided Lorine and her husband with insight into William Massey’s life.
If I were to reveal the family history document that gave me the greatest excitement to discover, you would probably think that I could not have picked a more basic document. Well, what excites me the most is not the document itself, but the way I discovered it. Here’s my story:
My end-of-the-line ancestor on my family tree was Elenia Coleman Chick (1860–1933), my 2nd great-grandmother. I had interviewed my grandmother and her siblings before they died, and either their memories had faded, or they never knew Elenia’s parents. I was so distraught not knowing if I could ever be sure about relying on records without the help of my family to confirm my findings.
Because I had researched each of Elenia’s grandchildren and their families, I remembered that Elenia had a grandchild still living in New York. She was in her 90s but very alert. I never met her, and I had to get her phone number from my mother who kept in touch with her. Cousin Congee was only familiar to me from family stories and Census records, but as soon as she answered the phone she warmed up to me quickly because she remembered being present when my mother was born.
I asked her about her grandmother Elenia and if she remembered any of her siblings or parents. There was silence on the phone, and then she said, “No honey. I do not remember anything.” I did not want to leave her feeling disappointed because she could not remember. A feeling came over me, and the next thing I heard myself saying was:
“That is okay, Congee, because you know what?”
“What?” she asked.
“You are going to go to sleep, and you are going to have a dream. When you wake up you will remember. When I call you back, you will be able to tell me,” I said.
“Okay,” she said. We hung up. I was so startled at what I had promised her, and I did not understand how I even knew to promise it. I called her back in one or two weeks. The first thing I asked her was if she remembered anything. She told me she that remembered her great grandmother’s name was Sue, and her children were Elenia, Hiram, Ann, Sally, Lula, Cleora, and Mary.
I could not wait to get off the phone to look them up on the 1880 Census. The earliest I had documented Elenia was on the 1900 Census. Now you know why I said in the beginning you would think I picked the simplest record possible to be the most excited about!
The 1880 Census record providing Robin Foster with a major family history breakthrough
I searched for Sue Coleman, and I discovered Cousin Congee had given each child’s name in birth order! On January 12, 2013, her 99-year-long sojourn came to an end. What a joyous meeting that must have been – most likely similar to this embrace:
Two sisters’ children: Cousin Congee Taylor (left) and Grandma Otis E. Vance (right)
How envious I am, and how my soul yearns for my day to look into the faces of those long since passed. Nothing is more important than family. I will be forever grateful to Congee for helping me to find my 3rd great-grandmother. Future generations will know her name. I did find Sue’s husband on a different record later, but that is another story!
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