Friday, June 12, 2015

In light of recent prison escape events: Charles Ricklefs, career criminal, in the 1940 census

This is an image from the 1940 U.S. census of a listing for my great grand uncle Charles Ricklefs, once again in prison, I believe this time for the bank robbery in Mattituck, Long Island. He actually started out being sentenced 15-30 years to Sing Sing Prison in 1938, eligible for parole in 1948 - but as you can see from this picture, by 1940 he was a resident of Clinton State Prison in the way upstate New York village of Dannemora. These names should sound familiar to you as Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora is where those two murderers escaped from last week - it's still in the news because they're still on the run. Charlie is still in Dannemora in 1942 per his World War II draft registration. I don't know what happened to him after that, but I hope Dannemora was his last stop after 30 years of being in and out of the prison system. Oh those black sheep - they sure do make family history research more interesting!!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Nobody's family is perfect: all the hullabaloo over Ben Affleck and "Finding Your Roots"

Whether or not you're interested in genealogy, you've probably seen all the news articles about Ben Affleck asking that a slave-owning ancestor of his not be included in his story on the Henry Louis Gates Jr. PBS genealogy show "Finding Your Roots." For some reason, it's even front page news on some websites. As a writer and a family historian, I have two points to make on this story.

The first, in defense of Gates, is that just because the discovery of Affleck's slave-holding ancestor was omitted from what aired doesn't mean it was deliberately excluded at Affleck's request. On any of these genealogy shows - on any show, really - all we're getting is an abbreviated glimpse of the story. We are all the product of thousands of years and millions of people - can't cover 'em all in one third of an hour long episode! Every family tree we see on any of these genealogy programs is edited for time, for entertainment value, for drama or for interest. And no disrespect to any of those people, but not everybody on your tree provides a compelling story to viewers - they might be compelling to you as part of your personal story but they might not even be all that interesting to you, either. It happens. Sometimes people just live ordinary lives. That's probably most people. From a writer's perspective, the omission of Affleck's controversial ancestor might simply be for editorial reasons - maybe he didn't fit with the story they were weaving. "Finding Your Roots" in particular covers a lot about the history of American slavery, from both sides - celebrities with slaves in their family trees and celebrities with slave owners in their trees. On this show, Affleck's slave owner ancestor is not necessarily an interesting and/or unique storyline, and possibly not as compelling as some of his other found ancestors.

My second point is important whether or not the show and Gates acquiesced to Affleck's request, and especially in light of his request - nobody's family is perfect. The course of our family histories is imperfect because our family trees are made up of individual humans, who are imperfect. We have to learn from the mistakes of our ancestors. By showing these imperfect people and events, we can show that we can become better as individual people, as a society, as the human race by not ignoring the unpleasantness of the past, by acknowledging it and moving forward in a positive manner. It does a great disservice to genealogy and to humankind to gloss over periods of terrible atrocities and the individuals who participated in them, such as American slavery. We all have those stories. Shows like "Who Do You Think You Are?" in particular have become somewhat guilty of whitewashing ancestors of questionable character in recent years, with a noted exception of the recent Sean Hayes episode - uncovering the generational cycle of paternal criminal activity and family abandonment helped Sean not only find compassion for the father who left him but also helped him determine to break the cycle. Though it was not his act, Ben Affleck should be embarrassed that he had slave-holding ancestors - it's a national embarrassment. But he's not alone in it. He would have been better off acknowledging it on camera, if the showrunners deemed it important enough to be part of his story, and then acknowledging that he's happy to be a part of the process that continues to fight against discrimination and inequality of minorities and all people, or something to that effect.

What are your thoughts on this incident? I'd love to hear!

Monday, April 20, 2015

Some genealogy quotes for a lazy, rainy Monday

It's hard to get going on days like this. Meaning Mondays. But on top of that, it's dark, dreary, and rainy out. So today I'm embracing the lazy and sharing a few genealogy quotes that always strike my fancy and remind me how important it is to keep doing what it is we do - not just because we love doing it, but because it needs to be done, even on lazy, rainy Mondays. Hope your week gets only better from here!




Sunday, April 5, 2015

Today is a good day.



Today is a good day.

Today, April 5, is a special day. For anyone who is Christian, today is Easter, the holiest day of the liturgical year. Christianity molded many generations of my family, and church records, both Catholic and Protestant, have been invaluable in my family history research.

Today, two years ago, was also the day I entered the hospital to give birth to my daughter, the first of the next generation in my immediate family. I am so grateful for her and can't wait till she's old enough to tell about our family history! So far, she’s still the only one, though she has a cousin on her father’s side and many second cousins on my side – I see them playing together, which brings back many fond memories of being young and playing with my cousins. My cousins were some of my first friends, and over the years as a family historian, I have connected with many cousins beyond the second-cousin circle, to fourth, fifth, and many more. While these cousins aren’t playmates, some of have become friends, and almost all of them have become very important partners in researching our common family trees. 

Today also would have been the 100th birthday of my grandmother, Mary Cronin Raynor, who passed away last May at the age of 99. She was my genealogy inspiration and mentor, as those of you who read this blog regularly well know. Though I am sad to be missing celebrating this milestone birthday with her in person, I know the 99 years she was here with us all were years well spent. I also know she is spending her first birthday in heaven celebrating with all her family – from those she knew well like her parents and husband to those from further in the past who she spent so many years trying to find. 

Today is a good day.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Éirinn go Brách - a Happy St. Patrick's Day to you all!

Unless you're deaf, dumb, blind, and live under a rock, you are aware, I'm sure, that today is St. Patrick's Day. I am half Irish - my mom was half Irish, and my dad is as well - and though I have a tendency to identify more with my German side of late, my Irish pride can't help but spilleth over every year on this date. My Irish ancestors have been some of my toughest nuts to crack, and I am still for the most part unsuccessful tracing any of those lines further than a generation back in the old country. I know a lot about many of them, though, on this side of the pond, though I have a few who have maintained their Irish mystery, much to my chagrin.

I boast ancestors from Counties Cavan, Westmeath, Cork, Limerick, Kerry, and Longford. My Gorrys and Corrs were here in New York by the mid- to late-1840s, refugees of the terrible Great Potato Famine, and on the other side of my tree, the Cronins didn't arrive till the mid-1890s, searching for new opportunities in a new land. My great-grandfather, Timothy Cronin, is the most recent immigrant on my tree, generation-wise and year-wise - my family has been here so long that a lot of the culture from their European homelands has been lost, though some of the Irish has managed to live on, passed down to us by Timothy's daughter, Mary, my grandmother. It is she who first told me about leprechauns, and how her father saw one once when he was living as a boy in Ireland. Well, my grandmother would never lie, and her father probably never lied to her, so when my elementary school teacher asked us to name made up creatures and one of my classmates threw out leprechauns among all the dragons, unicorns, and fairies, I promptly raised my hand and announced to my whole class that leprechauns were, in fact, real.

My grandmother used to complain about the leprechauns a lot - they are a mischievous lot and apparently continued to play tricks on her and hide her belongings well into her later years, even here in New York. I live in her old apartment now and have yet to see a leprechaun, though whenever I lose my keys or misplace a book or some other item, I have a feeling there are some wee Irish shoemakers behind it. My grandmother passed away last year and would've celebrated her 100th birthday in a couple of weeks and today, especially, I really miss her.

So today I will raise a pint and teach my 2 year old, who is half Latina and only a quarter Irish but looks more Irish than I do, how to say "slàinte" instead of her usual "cheers" (she'll be drinking milk btw!). As they say, "If you're lucky enough to be Irish, you're lucky enough." Luckily, today we're all Irish, in spirit if not ancestry, so wherever you are and whomever you're with, a Happy St. Patrick's Day to you all!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Genealogy Roadshow New Orleans Redux

Last night's episode of Genealogy Roadshow was confusing at first, since they were already there this season, but it appears they split each city visit into two episodes...just in case you were also a little lost. But maybe it was just me.

I still don't have the time to properly review this show but last night's episode really spoke to me on a personal level, so I felt compelled to comment on a few things:

  • When Joshua Taylor was helping the first guest, the man whose family lost all their photos and documents during Katrina, he visited and talked about local archives and historical societies, smaller, localized repositories where one can find family Bibles, letters, photos, and other mementos that have been donated to their holdings. Everybody should know about these places. Does every archive have every single family Bible ever made? No. Is it guaranteed you will find a photo of Great-Grandpa Cletus in their files? No. But you never know who might have inherited this photo or that letter and who might not have had anyone to pass it along to...and it's actually a wonderful suggestion for anyone who has their hands on these things who doesn't have anyone in their family to pass it to - don't throw it out! Donate it to somebody - I guarantee some society or archive will want it. I came across a wonderful photo on the Internet, completely by accident, from the late 1890s of my great-grandfather, about age 10, his little sister, and his parents - I had never seen a photo of any of these people any younger than 50 years of age, and I had only ever seen one other photo of my great-great grandparents. And where did I find it? In a digitized photo collection of the Freeport Memorial Library - somehow they had gotten their hands on a photo of my family. I don't know who had been in possession of it but I'm glad the photo made its way there and not into the trash bin!
  • My husband's family is from Honduras, and many of them worked on the banana plantations, or for the railroads or shipping companies that brought the produce from Central America to the United States...several of his relatives, including his great-grandfather, sailed into New Orleans many times in the early 1900s. There's actually a decent size Honduran population in the city because it is the port through which most people from that country arrive...so hearing the woman's story about her great-grandfather was of particular interest to me.
  • The woman who was trying to find out if her great-grandfather actually had a sister, Alice, or if he had imagined her all those years...that story was heartwrenching. The fact that he actually did have a little sister, name unknown, who died as an infant when he was about 5, and then he lost his mother only a few months later, and then his father remarried to "New Mother" - she didn't even have a name! - then the FATHER died only a few years later, and New Mother sent this woman's great-grandfather away to school, didn't return for him, and he ended up in an orphanage??? Yikes. But that's sometimes what we discover - the hard, sad side of life. The story reminded me a little of my own great-great grandmother, who lost twin girls as infants, then her husband died quite suddenly in his late 20s leaving her a 20-something year old widow with two young sons, one of which died shortly after before the age of 10. She never remarried and because she had to work, her late husband's three siblings basically raised my great grandfather, the only surviving child. Life is hard and sad sometimes.
What did you think of the episode?

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Snowy Saturday nostalgia & thoughts on Genealogy Roadshow

Snowy winter days always make me nostalgic - today the snow was melty and sticking, perfect for building a snowman and having a snowball fight with my husband and 22-month-old daughter...first time she got to experience that. Afterward, we came in and I made hot chocolate for everyone. Just reminded me of my childhood, playing in the snow, having fun and getting all cold and coming inside where my mom would make us hot chocolate. Still waiting for snow deep enough to take my daughter sledding for the first time - might even take her to the hill where I used to go as a kid!

Hope everyone's been checking out this season of Genealogy Roadshow on PBS. For some good, insightful reviews of these episodes, check out Cousin April's blog at Digging Up the Dirt on My Dead People. I don't enjoy this show quite as much as I do Who Do You Think You Are and Finding Your Roots but I just had a couple of bullet points to make about it:
  • Unlike the other two shows I mentioned, it's a bit refreshing to see the everyday person, and not celebrities, getting help with their family trees.
  • I love Josh Taylor, one of the expert genealogists on Genealogy Roadshow - I think he's fantastic at what he does and it would be awesome to work with him doing family history research, but it drives me absolutely nuts that he pronounces it "jen-ealogy" and not "jean-ealogy" like everyone else I know. Who knows - maybe he's right and it's the rest of us who are all wrong, but it's like nails on a chalkboard to me whenever he says it!
  • I think Cousin April might have pointed this out in one of her reviews, but one thing that bothered me about the first season of Genealogy Roadshow is that it seemed like everybody was trying to connect to a famous person in history. That's annoying. Yes, it's cool if and when it happens, but your family is your family, whether they're famous or not, and you don't have to have a famous ancestor to have a super interesting and awesome or infamous and nuts ancestor. And yes, it's cool if you can find a gateway ancestor that links you to European royalty but for most of us, that gateway ancestor is so far back that that connection is fairly meaningless - not to burst anyone's bubble, but practically everyone of European descent can claim William the Conqueror as an ancestor. My point is, though, that this season seems to have stepped away from that, which is awesome, and seems to be focusing on the unique and interesting individuals and stories that are important to the particular person or family.
That's all for now. Keep your eyes out for the return of Who Do You Think You Are sometime next month, I think...and just an fyi, I'm in the middle of figuring out how to move this blog over to Wordpress, so if and when that change ever happens, I'll keep you posted. If you're in the middle of this snowy day - have fun building a snowman, drink some hot chocolate, then come inside, get warm, and look through all those old photos of your childhood snowy days - this kind of day is PERFECT for nostalgia!!

Enjoy your weekend!