FamHist Blog

Family History Research Hints and Tips

Christmas in April

Christmas came to our house on Apr 30th this year.  Years ago, I saw the diary of my great grandfather, David Lewis Drew, in Copperopolis, California.  One of my older distant cousins had it in his possession.  He allowed me to take one photo of it and then sent me on my way.  When I developed the film, none of the photos on it were any good.  The film stock was bad from the factory.

David Lewis Drew's Diary When my cousin died, his attorney called and asked if I had anything coming to me.  I mentioned that my cousin said I could have the diary, but that was the end of the conversation.  I never heard from him again.

Last week, a second cousin in California found my website and sent me a note.  She’d had the diary in her possession since the death and had recently looked at it with renewed interest.  Searching the web, she found my family history website and sent me a note

Long story short.  The journal is sitting in front of me as I write this note.  I can’t keep it but I’m touching it and will scan the pages.  They contain all my great grandfathers recorded thoughts during his first year in California during the tail end of the gold rush.  He left Plymouth, Massachusetts, sailed down around the Cape in a very long voyage and joined the rest of multitudes who were looking for their fortunes. 

Long ago, I transcribed the diary text from an old historical newsletter found in the Calaveras County Historical Society vaults.  It can be seen here

David Lewis Drew Two contiguous entries state that he finished the Bible and started reading it again the next night.  I love those two entries.

Over the years, several folks from around the country have contacted me about the diary.  Their ancestors are mentioned in its pages.  One of them is a professional genealogy speaker and uses my site and the entry about her great granduncle in her speeches.   I just talked to her and am going to send her a copy of the image for that page, etc.   She is as excited about it (her soon to be “held” treasure) as I am about my good fortune.

Looking at the names of great grandpa’s mining partner and other associates, I decided to find out who they were in life.  Two of the three men he partnered or worked with in the gold fields were his distant cousins!  In fact, his primary partner, Len Covington, was a distant cousin seven times over.  That happens when families live in the same area like Plymouth, Massachusetts for three hundred years before the descendants start to scatter around the world.  The other part-time partner was ‘only’ a cousin four times. 

Did these fellows decide to leave Plymouth for the wild and woolly gold fields in California together?  I’m trying to trace down any ship passenger records to see if they traveled together.  It was a very long trip across land and many of not most of the folks from Massachusetts who participated in the gold rush traveled went by ship.  Apparently, some of the intrepid young men opted to sail First Entry - David Lewis Drew Diarythrough the Gulf of Mexico and hike across Panama where they took passage on another ship to Sacramento. 

The remainder took the long journey south around the Cape of South America and then back up the west coast of the Americas to Sacramento.  No matter which path these folks took to find their fortunes, the trip was long and arduous. 

Now for the rest of the story…  Also in the package were a dozen photographs of David Drew’s family in California.  Working from the smallest photo to the largest, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  I think I have a photo of my brick wall ancestor, Thomas Farrar!  I’ve looked for him for over 50 years.  I can’t prove it yet, but will spend considerable time trying to find out the truth behind the photo.

Next were photos of all of David’s children except my grandfather (he ran away to Utah at age 16 and apparently was disinherited from the family).  

I was finally down to the last photo.   It is in the largest old mounting cover.   Opening the flaps, I found a photo of my father and aunt when they were youngsters.  It was obviously taken during at the same photo setting as a photo we have but none of the living descendants of my Utah Drew grandparents have ever seen this pose before.  It is in mint condition…  Wonderful…  AND I like the pose better…

I know a few of you have had similar experiences like this during your own ancestral quest and can appreciate my excitement. 

Christmas presents?  They are nothing.   It was Christmas at our home on April 30th.  The photos and diary are valued beyond price in my opinion.




2 May 2009 Posted by | Diaries, Journals, Photos | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Kindness of Alexander Duff

Not all of the life of my 8th great grandmother, Jane O’Laggan, was perfect.  Born near the Glenlivet River in Laggan, Morayshire, Scotland to James O’Laggan, she married David MacWilliam of the Stewart Clan when she was eighteen.   The young couple were not rich, but David was able to make their lives comfortable with the earnings from his mill and a home at Pittyvaich, Morayshire

The land produced few crops but there was enough feed for the family to own some sheep and several cows.  Winters were especially hard but the residents of Dufftown were Pittyvaich Morayshire Scotland Mapresilient and hundreds of generations had passed down the skills to survive in the ofttimes difficult climate.

The MacWilliam’s had a growing family of young children when disaster struck.  David became ill and died, leaving Jane with little income and in debt.

After struggling for a short time, David’s cousin, Alexander Duff, turned his eye to the family.  

Cousin Alexander was a rotter, according to a rare document that I found on a shelf in the basement of the Banffshire Field Club, titled “The Gordon’s of Laggan” written by John Malcolm Bulloch.

The document covers my Gordon ancestry and associated lineages.  The ancestral research was commissioned by my 5th great granduncle, Cosmo Gordon.  The MacWilliam branch of our family notes that there were two David MacWilliam’s in succession.  Reading from the entry for David MacWilliam Sr., a sad commentary spills off the page.

“David, his son, married Jane, daughter of James O’Laggan, and died while a young man, leaving her a widow with several children.  She was prevailed upon to dispose of Pittyvaich and the mill to Alexander Duff of Braco, her husband’s cousin, in terms as little creditable to him as disreputable to herself, it being constantly reported in that part of the country that she sat down in the mill dam to stop the mill that he might take infeftment of it, the miller refusing to do it.  Be this as it may, her children were reduced to great distress, for which Braco appeared perfectly indifferent, being a man callous to humanity, as well as natural affection, if he could by any means gratify his thirst for the acquirement of lands.  The daughter (Jane O’Laggan) then married John Forbes of Keithack, son to Gordon Arthur Forbes, and left several children.”

With no thanks to Alexander Duff, the MacWilliam children survived these deep impacts on their lives.  One of the daughters, Anne MacWilliam, is my seventh great grandmother.  Anne married James Gordon of the Gordon family in about 1712.   James was born in Achlochrach, Morayshire and the couple were the grandparents the above mentioned Cosmo Gordon and my fifth great grandmother, Elizabeth Gordon.

Once again, history has recorded the bad deeds and avarice of man.  He couldn’t take any of his lands and properties with him when he passed but in their place left a sad story that will ne’r be forgotten.



4 April 2009 Posted by | Histories | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Slow Death of Handwriting

After spending several nights trying to interpret the handwriting on old census records, I realized that I haven’t written anything extensive on paper for a long time.  

How does my handwriting now compare to what it did when I was young?   Well, it depends on the day.  Some days, my current hand strokes produce very legible well-formed text.  On other days, the message still leaves my brain but seems to degrade by the time it reaches my hand and my writing suffers as a result.

Of course, some days I’m apparently dyslexic when using a keyboard and some days it isn’t a problem.   One thing is for sure though, the less I write by hand, the more the quality of my handwriting suffers.  

I took a calligraphy class years ago and enjoyed learning how to apply artful strokes to build alphabetic characters.  Unfortunately, that skill set has settled back into the primordial goo from lack of use.

Chandler Abiel signature The handwriting of my ancestors has always fascinated me.  I constantly look for any examples of it on old documents and am happy when I find their signature and ecstatic when I find a letter or more lengthy document that came from their hand. 

I’m using my great grandfathers letters as a base for the current series of postings on my lineagekeeper blog.  The letters are treasure in my estimation.  Not only do they convey his sometimes irascible humor, but they are windows into his personality, life, loves and concerns.  His character, mannerisms and view of his fellow man would be lost without them.   Grandpa and his family would be reduced to the basic statistics that are so common to family history researchers: Name, Dates, Places .. end of story.

If you’ve read my earlier notes, you know how much I love the old account books, family records on bible and remembrance pages and legal documents that were created by my ancestors.  They are Treasure.  Pure treasure.

The topic of handwrDrew David L signatureiting was on my mind when I found story on the BBC Magazine website titled “The Slow Death of Handwriting”.    I couldn’t resist parroting its title for this note.  The article posits that handwriting will soon be a thing of the past because we are all moving to computers to communicate, send cards, keep our financial records and historical documents.  

Shaking my head in dismay, I realized that the article describes me and probably you too.  Unless we make a conscious effort to convey our handwritten words to paper, any extensive writing we do today is via our keyboard.  That’s not to say that I still don’t burn through pens and stacks of note paper, but the ink I usually spread today is limited to brief notes, rows of record numbers from my genealogical database or telephone numbers.  None of my longer notes are handwritten now.

I mourn its loss but truth is, other than my journal which I purposely record by hand, I probably won’t go back to doing much extensive handwriting.  It is just too slow and my spelling errors don’t automatically correct themselves or at least tell me that I’m probably wrong. 

How about you?  Are you contributing to the mass extinction of the art?  If not, how are you feeding its continued existence?  Personally, I have written letters to my children that they will receive after I die.  Hopefully the words and the letters themselves with be esteemed as treasure to them too.

If you have interest in learning more about handwriting and the personalities behind it, watch the video below and the associated videos on the same page.  If you are a genealogist, the series of videos will serve you well in your ancestral quest.



26 February 2009 Posted by | Genealogy | , , , , | 1 Comment