FamHist Blog

Family History Research Hints and Tips

The Twig That Knocked Down A Brick Wall

None of the descendants of Hiram Anderson had been able to find his ancestry.  A single scant clue to his lineage was in the note stating that he was born ‘on the north branch of the Potomac River.

Single individuals and cousin groups had searched for the meaning of this phrase for years.  Finally, two cousins who live many states away contacted me via the web and our ancestral musings rekindled the quest.

I lived closest to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, so the task to spend whatever time required to break this brick wall in our ancestry fell to me.  There were only two days available in my schedule for months ahead, so I spent them at the library from door opening to door closing.  If a book or film had any reference to any Anderson in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia or West Virginia, I copied the page, listed the source reference on it and tucked it into my briefcase to review later during late night hours at home.  My time in the library was too valuable to spend any of it analyzing the pages.

There were a lot of promising clues but none detailed any facts that could tie our Hiram Anderson to the Anderson families in that area.

ForsheyAndersonTwig.jpgNight after night, I extracted the facts on the photocopied pages into a new database that I’d created for this quest.  All the handwritten notes, drawings and poor copies were scanned and enlarged to be studied on my computer monitors.

This activity continued for weeks with no success and then one night I noticed some tiny writing on the branches of a hand-drawn image of a family tree.  Hiram’s uncle had long ago had drawn the tree for his extended family and a copy of it survived to be published in a family history.  When I enlarged the area of interest by 500%, Christmas arrived early.

There, detailed in small print, was the name of Hiram Anderson with the correct names of his siblings.  He was the son of William Anderson and Nancy Ann Forshee.  The puzzle pieces all fell into place.  Because his parents names were in the database that I’d created from the research copies, I was able to construct both sides of Hiram’s ancestry for several generations.

Hiram’s parents move their family from Anderson’s Bottom in Hampshire County, Virginia west to Fairfield, Ohio in April 1806. In February, 1807, Hiram’s mother died leaving William with six children. The youngest, Rachel, was only two years old at that time. The family struggled to survive on the frontier, building a log home, clearing the land for farming and growing enough food to eat.

As with most early settlers in frontier settings, births, marriages and deaths were usually only recorded in a family bible, if they were recorded at all. This was true for the Anderson family.

William Anderson’s father, Thomas Anderson, served as a captain in the Revolutionary War and was involved in the surrender of Cornwallis that effectively ended the war. He had also served as a captain in the local militia protecting the settlements in western Virginia from attacks by the Indians and British. Both he and his father, William, knew George Washington personally. As a young man, General Washington worked as a surveyor and frequently stayed with the Anderson family. Service to their country and fellow men was deeply instilled into the hearts and minds of the men of the Anderson family.

At the outbreak of the War of 1812, William Anderson and three of his brothers joined the militia in defense of the fledgling United States against the British and their Indian warriors. Three of the brothers didn’t survive to returned home. Among them was Hiram’s father, William Anderson, who had died at Fort Malden, Ontario, Canada. Hiram was left to support and raise his younger siblings alone.

No wonder birth, death and other records were difficult to find. A move to the frontier where record keeping was scarce. A mother dying soon thereafter leaving a husband and six children scrambling to survive and carve out a home and farm from the raw land. A war that took the father from the home to never return.

I’d love to shake the hand of my great grand uncle who drew the family tree so there was a record of Hiram’s lineage that was created by someone who knew him personally.

Fortunately, several primary and many secondary sources were in the stack of copied records about the Anderson Family.  Because I had time at home to carefully sift through the pages, details emerged that helped fill blank lines in my database. They also pointed me to other areas to search including specific documents and sources that were in the Library in Salt Lake and some that required written requests and associated fees.

The twig on the tree expanded to bring down our brick wall.  To date, we have only found circumstantial evidence of Hiram’s ancestry in other records.  The hand-drawn tree by his uncle is the only record that lists Hiram with his parents.

Sometimes the smallest clues bring great rewards.  Moral: Never give up.  Check, double check and even triple check all of the data from your research.  The smallest element may be the seed that expands to break down your brick wall.

15 July 2009 Posted by | Documents | , , , | 1 Comment

1,000th Cousin Contact

1,000 extended cousins have now contacted me after finding my websites.  Years ago, I wondered if the effort to create the sites was worth the investment of time.   I wish all of my investments had such fantastic returns.

Slow Joe The contacts have been mutually beneficial for all of us.  I share information that I’ve found about our joint family during my lifetime of research and they share information that they have inherited or have found in their own ancestral quest.

All of us have unique perspectives and advantages of local resources and family knowledge.  The combination of our efforts in continued research always produces more than the sum of our two data repositories.  Perhaps it is generated by the spark of renewed interest resulting from our contact, but it is probably due to many factors especially the complimentary engagement of our skills and perspectives.

If you are reading this you are probably already using the Internet and social tools focused in genealogy in your own quest.  If you aren’t enjoying a lot of contacts yet, don’t give up.  Keep posting your successes, your brick wall lineages and the surnames and locations you are researching.

Help others if you can.  You’ll always receive substantial interest from this investment of your time, talents and resources.

10 July 2009 Posted by | Research Tips | , , | 1 Comment

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

Finding Charlie Stone

Brick walls or other missing information in your ancestral research are common to all of us. Frequently, the information we need is fairly close to us in time, yet seems to be as elusive as the exact birth date of an ancestor born in 1582.

Our ancestor was born or died in a sparsely populated county or area and government and church records were never created for them for one reason or another. Therefore, their missing information is impossible to find. Right?

That may not be true in more cases than you’d think.

In 1985, my wife an I traveled to Calaveras County, California looking for information on my 2nd great grandparents and their family. The only information I had about them was that they lived and died in Copperopolis, a tiny mining town on the shoulder of the Sierra Nevada’s. The mines had long since closed and the population could be counted on the fingers of both hands (well, maybe you had to use some of your toes too).

Not finding anyone in the tiny store who knew anything about my family, I asked for directions to the cemetery. It was divided into four sections by rock walls and occupied by past residents who belonged to various faiths, organizations and the populace in general.

When we found the headstones and burial plot of my ancestors and some of their family, I was delighted. Finally, I’d seen and touched something tangible that proved their lives. I could see that someone cared about them, because of a few desert plants and bushes that had been planted around the plot. An old coffee can and quart Mason bottle were sitting against the California oak tree in the plot and were obviously used to carry water to the plantings.

Wondering how I could contact the ‘care taker’ of these plants, it came to me to write a note on the back of my business card and put it in the bottle and the bottle inside the coffee can asking them to please contact me. Who knew if they would or how long it would take? I had high hopes and they weren’t dashed. Several days later, I received a letter and family information from the distant cousin who cared for the cemetery plants. Gold was found in the old California Gold Country again!!

We made a second trip to Calaveras County and after talking to the good folks in the Calaveras County Historical Society were told that I needed to talk to Charlie Stone in Copperopolis. He was the unofficial town historian and may have some information to help me in my quest.

It didn’t take long to find Charlie and Rhoda Stone’s home in tiny Copperopolis. Rhoda opened the door to my knocking and invited us in. One whole wall of their living room was covered from floor to ceiling with stacks of paper, books and documents about early Copperopolis and Calaveras County. They were writing a book about the area and all of these records were part of their research.

Charlie came home a few minutes later and after we introduced ourselves to him and related our quest to find my ancestors, his face lit up and he said, “I have something for you …. right here”. Reaching into one of the towering stacks of paper he pulled a dozen pages out. I held my breath thinking the entire stack would soon be an avalanche hitting the floor but Charlie knew his stacking skills better than I.

He turned to me and said, “These are the records of your people”. “Here are their birth, marriage and death dates and places”. “Oh, and by the way, here is a photo of your great grandmother in her buggy when she was a young woman.” Time stopped. The grin on my face was permanent. He offered to make copies of all of it for me and off we went to the telephone company service trailer to make them.

I had in my hands something more precious than gold in my estimation.

When we walked back into his home, he stopped and thought for a minute and then said, “That isn’t all of the information I’m supposed to give you”. Moving several inches of papers around on his desk, he retrieved a slip of paper with a name and address on it. “This is the name and address of your cousin”. “He stopped here to talk to me last summer, riding his Harley and looking for information about any surviving family.” “There aren’t any of them still here, but he gave me his address just in case any ever showed up”.

As soon as we got home, I wrote my cousin a letter and sent copies of all of our common ancestry that I’d found in my life long ancestral quest. Three days later, I received a telephone call. He asked if I was the person who had sent the letter and information. When I said yes, he asked how I’d gotten his address. I told him the story about visiting Charlie Stone and that Charlie, true to his word, had passed on his name and address to a family member looking for our common ancestry.

The line was silent for almost a minute. When he started to speak again he was still suspicious of me. Due to problems in his life, none of their accounts, ownerships or other records listed him. Everything was in his wife’s maiden name. He said it was “Impossible for Charlie Stone to give you my address.” “I’ve never heard of Charlie Stone.” “I haven’t been in Copperopolis for over 40 years.” “I don’t have a motorcycle!” “We only moved into our current home less than nine months ago, long after the date Charlie said I’d visited him.”

We talked for a little while about our families and ancestry and I discovered that he’d lost all contact with his family and close ancestors over the years. Tender moments and comments ensued and he had to hang up because he couldn’t control his emotions any longer.

Brick walls came down both in my ancestral quest and in my family search in general due to my visit with Charlie Stone. Was I guided by an unseen force? You bet I was and I’m extremely grateful for it.

Charlie wrote his book (I own one) and is gone now. My cousin has also passed on, but the experience of meeting this old unofficial town historian and then ‘meeting’ my cousin on a telephone call will always be with me.

Great grandpa and grandma, thanks for helping me find you and your family.

So, when you are trying to knock down your own ancestral ‘brick walls’ or fill in information about your extended families, don’t forget to look for the Charlie Stone in the area where your family lived. You never know what will turn up and who you’ll meet.

15 March 2008 Posted by | Research Tips | , , | 2 Comments