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Family History Research Hints and Tips

Finding Thomas Farrar ~ Attacking a Brick Wall

Little was known about my 2nd great grandfather, Thomas Farrar.  Time and location had separated his descendants.  Family stories and memories died over the generations. 

A cousin recorded a few notes about Thomas that she’d heard over the years and passed them on to my mother.   She related that he was from England, that his wife had died while still young and he had moved west to Copperopolis, California bringing his two small daughters with him in the mid-1850’s.  End of story.

When I visited my great grandmothers grave in Copperopolis, California, I noted the inscription on her tombstone said that she was a native of South Carolina.  I had a reference point to start the search.  The stone said that Grandma Helen Farrar Drew was born in 1851 and I knew she was age ten or younger when grandpa Thomas Farrar took Helen and her sister, Julia, west to California.   The 1860 census for South Carolina probably wouldn’t provide any help in finding the family and that quickly proved true.

1850 Census and Town History

Did Thomas and his wife, Mary Tirrill live in South Carolina in 1850?  After a long search, I found them there in Lexington.  The census entry said Thomas and Edith Farrar.  Edith?  Her name was a mystery for a quite a while, until I found a book titled “History of Bristol, Grafton, New Hampshire” by R. W. Musgrove.  In it, Musgrove listed Mary as a child in the family of Seth and Azuba Chandler Tirrill.  Her full name was Mary Adith Tirrill and her family lived in far northern town of Farrar Thomas 1850 Census Lexington County South Carolina2Stewartstown, New Hampshire.  

The ear of a southern census taker no doubt heard the New England accent of Mary or the English accent of Thomas pronounce grandma’s name as Edith.  This census record told me that she went by her middle name … at least at that point in time. 

Thomas was listed as coming from England.  Importantly, the young couple were living with Jno. and Sibla Farrar and their four children, William, Alfred, Sarah and Samuel who were also born in England.   Were they Family?  I assumed “Yes” and knew that Jno. = John, so I had more clues. 

Thinking that the family emigrated together, I now had six more match points for ships passenger records.

Ship Passenger Records

Occasionally, researchers are lucky and find their ancestors listed in passenger records with no misspellings.  I was looking for a pre-1850 record, which always proves to be a more difficult search.   Ellis Island hadn’t been created as an immigration point yet, so I looked for records on the Castle Garden site which lists information on immigrants through New York from 1830 – 1892. 

Success … but not until I looked at the data with an open mind.   Thomas along with John and Sibla’s family did travel together, however, their name was listed as Fanin not Farrar.  I knew that I had to search for spellings other than those I was familiar with and that proved true yet again.   Traveling to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, I found them listed on a CD of ships passengers records but this time listed as Farran.  Because of the numerous match points of first names, I knew that this Thomas was my Thomas Farrar.  They had traveled on the ship Columbine from London.


The History of Bristol, New Hampshire book said that grandma had died in Walworth, Wisconsin.  I never would have looked for the family there without that information.  What were they doing there? 

The answer took a lot of research effort.  I had to find records on most of Mary’s family and cousins to find the clues.  Other than some lumbering and sawmills there wasn’t much industry in Stewartstown, New Hampshire to support a new ‘crop’ of young men needing to start their adult lives and support their families.  Many of them migrated westward in search of their fortunes or at least in search of the opportunities offered on the ‘frontier’.  Several of Mary’s brothers and some cousins moved to Wisconsin with that thought in mind.  I surmise that Thomas Farrar heard of their plans and related them to his brother John, because they moved there too.

Another trip to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City provided great rewards in my quest.   I found the naturalization applications of both Thomas and John Farrar in Walworth County.  Thomas’ application stated that he was born in England in 1820 and had arrived in America in 1847.  The arrival date matched the ships passenger record information. 

The day at the library provided further rewards.  The Walworth County Historical Society had inventoried the cemeteries in their area and their publication had newly arrived at the library.  Looking through it, I found the burial listing for grandma Mary Tirrill Farrar, her son, Thomas and her mother-in-law, Elizabeth Farrar in the Brick Church Cemetery.  After three decades of looking, I’d found gold.  I contacted a member of the society and shortly thereafter had photos of their tombstones to add to their records.

Hopping the Pond and Tombstone Records

I could trace Thomas forward in time in California until he disappeared after moving to Sacramento after 1870.  How was I going to trace his lineage in England?   The passenger information and naturalization Farrar_Burials_Brick_Church_Cemetery2smrecords told me that he was from England and had left from London.  Wonderful! …. There were thousands of Farrar’s in and around London.  Thomas and John were very common names.  How could I find ‘my’ Thomas in that group?

I’ve had to make an ‘assumption’ that I still hope is correct today.  In the Brick Church Cemetery in Walworth, all of the Farrar’s are buried  next to each other.  In fact, one of the burial spaces next to Mary and young Thomas is empty but in the name of Thomas Farrar.  He’d obviously purchased a burial plot for his family when his wife and son died within months of each other.  Adjacent to their graves is the grave of Elizabeth Farrar.  Her tombstone says she was born in 1795 and died within weeks of Mary and young Thomas AND that she was the wife of Eli Farrar.  My assumption is that Elizabeth is the mother of Thomas and John Farrar and that she died from the flu epidemic that killed her daughter-in-law and grandson.  Elizabeth was old enough to be the mother of Thomas and John.   Unfortunately, I have not found any additional evidence of her existence other than the tombstone.

After a few weeks of research, it was obvious that I had to look for another way to find the Farrar family in England.  Fortunately, John Farrar married a woman with an ‘unusual’ first name.  I found John listed in the 1870, 1880 and 1900 censuses in Macon, Missouri.  His wife was listed as “Selina”.  The passenger record listed her name as “Sibla” as did the 1850 census record in Lexington, South Carolina. 

Additional research on the Internet provided a link to obituaries in Macon, Missouri, that had been transcribed into a book that was placed in the Macon library.  I contacted a very sweet librarian there and was sent a copy of all of the Farrar obituaries in the book.  Selina Farrar’s obituary revealed that she was born near Huddersfield, Yorkshire, England and that she and John were married there.  Wow!  I’d been looking in Huddersfield England mapLondon when they were actually from far north Huddersfield.  Looking at the Free BMD records on RootsWeb, I found their marriage entry in Huddersfield and have assumed that John’s family was from that area.

I still haven’t found “my” Farrar ancestry in Yorkshire.  The location seems to have been home to a huge group of Farrar’s, so I’m spending my time transcribing all of the Farrar census records in and around Huddersfield hoping to find enough clues to punch through the Brick Wall that is blocking my ancestral knowledge.

As time goes on, I’m confident that with enough hours spent in research, keeping an open mind and distrusting any of my ‘assumptions’, I’ll push through the wall.  It may be one brick at a time or I may find one keystone bit of data that causes the entire wall to collapse …. but that wall is going to come down.  Failure is not acceptable.

When you run into brick walls in your own research, remember to open your mind and look for spellings and locations that you’d never typically consider.  Assemble your known facts and review them constantly for clues that you haven’t explored.  You probably know a lot more than you think, but aren’t recognizing the clues in your hands.  Put on your Sherlock hat and assemble your thoughts on paper.  Draw a vertical timeline and add your discoveries along its length.  Then review everything you have found repeatedly over time, looking at the data through a different “window” every time.  Eventually, with focused effort, you’ll probably destroy your brick walls.  Here’s to success in all our own ancestral quests.



10 April 2009 Posted by | Cemetery Records, Census, Naturalization, Obituaries, Vital Records | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A Shovel On His Shoulder

I was out on the front lawn playing with my dog when I heard someone whistling.  Looking up, I saw my great uncle Si Bennett walking down the road toward our house with a shovel over his shoulder.

He wore his old sweat stained Stetson hat, bib overalls and work boots.  I don’t think he stood much over five foot five or six inches tall.

Bennett_Si Dark hair, hands like knurled oak brush roots and a face with canyons on it in place of wrinkles finished the picture.  One of the old-time standards could be heard coming from his puckered lips as I watched his eyes latch on to the six year old boy ahead.

Nodding to me and asking how I was this fine morning, I had to ask although I already knew the answer;  “Going up on the cemetery to dig a grave Uncle Si?”

“Yep!”  I don’t remember who he told me had died, but he was headed up to hand dig the grave.

The Alpine cemetery is really just a big hill comprised of mostly granite sand and small round rocks that were deposited by Lake Bonneville thousands of years ago.

Digging graves in that hard dry soil was difficult at best.  Si’s once pointed shovel attested to that.  The blade wasn’t much more than half as long as it was when it was new and it was worn closer to a square nose than a ‘good’ digging shovel should be.

Si didn’t have the money to buy a new shovel, but he cared about treating the dead with respect.  Irregardless of the difficulty of opening the grave, it would be ready before the funeral party arrived that day.

I don’t know how many graves uncle Si opened and closed on that hill but the count was high.  He opened the graves for his parents, several of his siblings including my grandmother and grandfather, several nieces as well as many friends and town folks.

Si and his wife Alberta spent many days pouring through old burial records finding information on those buried on the hill with no markers.  Over the years, they identified most of their final resting places and properly recorded them in the sextons burial records for the cemetery.

Later in life Si used to like to sit by the coal stove in the kitchen in the evenings to read and nap a little before going to bed for the night.

One evening his youngest daughter came home from a date and noted that her father must have just nodded off because the rocker was still slightly moving.

Virginia went into her parents bedroom to tell her mother about her date and to visit for a few minutes.  Aunt Alberta said “Tell your dad to get up and come to bed or he’ll be too stiff to get up”.

Virginia shook Si’s shoulder and delivered the message but received no response.  Uncle Si had peacefully stepped out of his body and moved on.

Si and Alberta are buried in the Alpine Cemetery now.  The records they so carefully kept are now part of the official city burial records for the cemetery.  Alpine_graves_sm

Partly to honor their service, I’ve  spent time taking photos of every headstone in the cemetery and have created records for the deceased they represent on Find-a-grave.com.

I saw uncle Si’s respect for the dead over and over as a youth.  Some of it must have rubbed off on me.

How about you?   What acts of kindness have you witnessed that have become imprinted on your personalities?   How many of your characteristics are rubbing off on your family and those who know you?

We all just Pay-it-forward don’t we?  Try to to find an act of random genealogical kindness that you can perform for someone today.  It counts.  Guaranteed!

30 October 2008 Posted by | Cemetery Records | , | Leave a comment

I Saw A Man Engraving…

The batteries in my camera died while I was taking photos of headstones recently. I heard another vehicle park near me while replacing the batteries and looked to see if it someone I knew. It was just a MAV (mother’s assault vehicle or mini-van to most of you) with a small trailer behind it.

The driver was obviously reading something on a clipboard, so I went back to work on my photo project rather than stopping to say hello.

Twenty minutes later I heard a compressor start running and looked up to see the man sitting on the lawn taping a template to the blank side of a headstone that I’d photographed earlier. Engraving headstone

The lawn was missing on that side of the stone and it was evident that a burial had recently occurred there.

The sandblasting dust was soon visible but within a short period of time all was quiet again in that hollowed place. The basic facts about a person had been etched in stone and the engraver was gone.

I stopped by the stone on the way back to my vehicle to read the new information. The name was listed along with birth and death dates. The basic facts told me little about the man they described. However, some new additional script was more reveling.

In flowing prose below the dates, new text said “Beloved and Devoted Husband”. It was a counterbalance to the text under the wife’s name which read ‘Beloved and Darling Wife’. New to both sides of the stone were the words “Grandpa” and “Grandma”.

Who had created the phrases listed on the headstone? Obviously, the husband was responsible for the phrase below his wife’s name, but who was responsible for the phrase below his name? It could have been his children or grandchildren, but I had the distinct impression that the words had been given as instruction to children by their mother to be included on their father’s side of the stone after he had passed.

A story is now written in stone for their descendant to read as they visit the graves of their deceased loved ones. Grandma and grandpa loved each other. They were beloved, devoted and darling. It is a legacy as precious as gold to their children and descendants.

I love to walk through cemeteries and read the inscriptions on the markers. Histories of families, towns, areas are often pieced together as I move from stone to stone.

Today, we see many new headstones with photos of the deceased embedded or engraved in the stone along with pictures of their occupation, hobbies or interests in life. In days gone by the images usually reflected symbols of faith in the resurrection, warnings of death and even amusing phrases.

My favorite engravings have only been on the scene for a dozen or so years in my experience. The back side of upright stones show the pedigree charts of the individuals memorialized on the front side. Now what genealogist wouldn’t love to see that information?

In essence, the charts say, “read about me on the other side, but here’s how I fit into the fabric of my family. I was in “this’ family in this place at this time.”

Memorial Day is coming soon. Don’t forget to take your camera with you while you visit the burial locations of your own families and friends. Take photos for your own ancestral records and take a few more and post them on Find-a-grave and Footnote as a Pay-It-Forward gesture.

Also, take a few minutes to walk around and read the stories written in stone while you are there. Once you’ve done so, you’ll never see the cemetery in the same way again. The familiar sight of engraved names and dates will be enhanced with stories, expressions and history. You’ll become a part of that community of wonderful people because their stories will continue on in your heart and mind.

If you are like me, in every subsequent visit to the cemetery, you’ll take just a little more time to stop by and say ‘hi’ to some of your new friends or at least clean the dust and lawn clippings off of their markers just to show your respect. Friends do that for each other.

20 April 2008 Posted by | Cemetery Records | 1 Comment

Town History Books

I first started looking for second great grandma Mary Farrar in 1966, knowing very little about her other than her possible name. She was born on the far northern border of New Hampshire in the 1820’s to Seth and Azubah Chandler Tirrill.

My mother found one of my fathers cousins in California by mailing letters to everyone in and around Calaveras county with our surname asking if they were related. We had relatives!

You see, my grandfather left Calaveras county as a teen and never returned home. Two of his sisters visited he and grandmother once before he died at the age of 37 and the verbally passed down memory was the only information we had about his parents family.

No knowledge. Who were our people? We only had the few memories and a couple names that my grandmother had jotted down in an old book.

The letters from our California cousin were a godsend. She had become the ‘historian’ for her generation and although her records were somewhat sparse, she had names, places, dates and lots of stories about our ancestry that were pregnant with clues.

My mother started the search first and because I was attending college, working full time and dating my future wife was of little help in the quest. She made a little headway but found many brick walls that severely impeded progress.

A few years passed and I took up the quest. Surely, I could find information about Mary Tirrill Farrar’s lineage. I’d learned to navigate large college libraries and had sort of grown up doing research in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.

Eventually, the wall started to crumble and I found my Tirrill lineage, but still only knew Mary’s birth year and place. She was still a mystery to me.

One Friday night after going to dinner with our friends, I convinced them to stop at the college library, ostensiblyTirrill Mary Adith Farrar headstone 2 so I could teach our friend how to find and use the genealogy collect there for her own research, but in reality, so I could look through the books, one more time.

Our friend quickly found books about her family and I left them engrossed reading them while I dragged my finger across the spines of the books while walking up and down the aisle. A systemic search method? No, but I’d learned to listen to other promptings when I’d tried everything I else.

Click. Click. Click. Wait! What was that? A book called “History of the Town of Bristol, Grafton County, New Hampshire. Volume II – Genealogies”. Taking the book off the shelf, I sat down in the aisle to peruse its pages.

Bristol, New Hampshire is about 120 miles south of where grandma Mary grew up, so what was I doing other than being a genealogy geek reading a book that only others of my ilk could love?

Chandler! The Chandler family was listed in the book. Mary’s mother was a Chandler. Abiel Chandler? That was Azubah Chandler’s fathers name. Turning the page, I found him listed as a married man. His children’s names were listed too.

Quickly scanning down the page, I found Azubah who married Seth Tirrill. Immediately below them was listed their oldest child, Mary Adrith Tirrill, b. Stewartstown; m. Thos Farrar, d. Walworth Wis. Four children.!!

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing after all the years of searching. A clue. Maybe even the truth about what happened to grandma Mary Adrith Tirrill Farrar.

The hard won clues gathered through years of research started to come together. Mary had apparently left Stewartstown, New Hampshire and traveled south for some reason. She met a young recent immigrant from England named Thomas Farrar and they married. They had four children! I knew of only two, my great grandmother, Helen Mary Farrar Drew and her sister Julia.

Two years passed as I continued searching for any information about Mary’s death date and Helen’s birth records with no success. Once again, out of clues or ideas, I was dragging my finger across the spines of the books at the Family History Library. Click, click. I stopped at a volume with a yellow binding. The 1850 federal census of Lexington County, South Carolina? Give me a break….. But I’d learned to listen to the feelings and sat down with the book not knowing what would turn up.

Farrar, John, his wife and children were listed. Living with them were Thomas and “Edith” Farrar. He born in England. She born in New Hampshire. Edith! She was obviously using her middle name. Adrith = Edith. Score!

They had their first child, grandma Helen, in May 1851 and apparently left South Carolina looking for better economic opportunity.

Twenty years later, the Walworth County Genealogical Society inventoried the Brick Church Cemetery located a few miles northwest of Walworth and published a book listing all the burials in it.

I happened to be in the Family History Library the day it was put on the shelves as a new purchase. It was almost time for the library to close and as is my want, I often end the day walking through the aisles of books. Click. Click. The Brick Church Cemetery book almost leapt into my hands.

There they were. There was grandma Mary, her son, Thomas Jr., her mother-in-law, Elizabeth and her husband Thomas? Wait. What? Thomas went to California and took his two daughters with him. He wasn’t buried there.

I wrote an email to the Walworth Genealogical Society and asked if anyone would go take photos of the headstones for me. I needed to read the inscriptions for myself.

A note came back the next day saying that if I would pay for the gas, this fine lady would take digital photos and send them to me.

I couldn’t write a check fast enough. A week later, I was looking at the photo of grandma Mary’s headstone. She died as a fairly young woman in Nov. 1857. Her son died as a young child in May 1857. Her mother-in-law died in July 1857. The headstones stood adjacent to each other. A nephew’s stone was two spaces to the right. The empty space was in the name of Grandpa Thomas Farrar.

No wonder he left the area. He lost most of his loved ones in a matter of months.

Finally! I had found them, 35 years after I started looking for them in earnest, all because of a book about the genealogies of residents in a town 120 miles south of where I expected to find information or clues.

When you think you’ve exhausted every possible avenue of research, don’t forget to look through books of towns in the area. These town history books were commonly written in the second half of the 1800’s and early 1900’s and are wonderful resources. You too may find GOLD in them.

If all else fails, walking down aisles of historical books dragging a finger may not hurt too! Click. Click.

6 April 2008 Posted by | Cemetery Records, Town Histories | , | Leave a comment