Wednesday, January 20, 2016

My favorite family history documents

I recently saw a Tweet from FamilySearch asking people what their favorite family history document was. That was a really interesting question to think about, and the more I thought about it, the more favorites I came up with. It was impossible to narrow down to just one document, so here are my top five favorites, in no particular order.

1. The marriage certificate for Christ Hoffman and Mary Sitzman (Maria Zitzmann)
When I got started in family history, I was dismayed to find out my great-great-grandmother Mary Sitzman had left this world with sealed lips as to where she and her family came from. Her daughter Rosie said nothing, and her granddaughter, my grandma Blossom, knew nothing. Years of searching based on the few clues I did have yielded nothing. This marriage record proved the key to blowing that brick wall to smithereens. Mary gave her birth town as Rosshaupt, a tiny village in western Bohemia (now called Rozvadov and part of the Czech Republic), and that one clue led to many, many, many discoveries. I've now got information on Mary's ancestors going back to 1700s and even 1600s on some lines. All from one little marriage record! It taught me that seemingly insurmountable brick walls can be overcome, even with one simple document.

2. 1910 US-Canadian border crossing of Samuel and Helena Joseph
For years, all we knew about my great-grandmother Augusta (Joseph) Gibson's family was that they came from "Germany". They were Germans, spoke German, and came to Canada before moving to Montana. Records pointed to Berlin and "Toran", Germany, but those leads proved to be dead ends. Then a few years ago, at a Family History Fair up in Bellevue, I was going over my recent discovery of this border crossing Augusta's father Samuel Joseph and sister Helena made in 1910 (Sam and Helena are listed on lines 17-18). It lists a lot of great information - relatives in the country they are leaving, name of person and address they are going to, when they first came to Canada, name of the ship, and (best of all) birthplace. Sam's birthplace was listed as "Gitomar, Russia", and Helena's as "Ulanowka, Russia". I went to the display table for the SGGEE and asked their representative to help me figure out what these places were. She figured out Gitomar was actually Zhitomir, a pretty big city in the Volhynia region of what's now Ukraine. Ulanowka is a smaller village a few miles west of Zhitomir. Boy was I excited! That piece of info led me to other discoveries, allowing me to trace Sam's family back to his grandparents in Poland. This was the first time I'd ever traced a line of my family back to their point of origin in the old world, and it felt great! This was my first real breakthrough, and I still feel the deepest genealogical connection to my Joseph ancestors, largely in part to this discovery.

3. Bergstad family Bible page
Several years ago, I got a phone call from someone who said they were related to me. They'd gotten my cell number from an old genealogy website I'd put up, and wanted to send me some info on my/our Bergstad ancestors. I was really excited, but didn't want to get my hopes up too much, because she wouldn't say exactly what she was sending. The package arrived, and the contents knocked my socks off! Picture after picture after picture of my ancestors and their families, with people identified clearly; typewritten histories of various people; and this - a scan of a page from the Bergstad family Bible! This was the first time I'd ever heard of there being a family Bible on any of my ancestral lines. This page covers one generation, and I don't know whose handwriting it is, but it's all in Norwegian, and doesn't even mention the Bergstad name (which first appears as their surname in 1880). It was fascinating to see them listed in the old Norwegian patronymic style. It just drove it home in my mind that these were new Americans, still living their old culture in their new home.

 4. Harris family photos
When I was 19, I was serving a mission for my church in Japan, when I got a letter from my Grandma Sally Crawford. In it, she sent me a pedigree chart she put together of her ancestors, the first of any genealogy-related document I'd ever seen for my family. Attached to the unfamiliar names were actual photos, including the two above (Thomas W. Harris on the left, Frank and Charlotte (Scribner) Harris on the right). I'd never heard of these people or seen these pictures, and I had a sudden, intense desire to know more about them. I had to wait a couple years until my mission was finished, but when I got home, I delved right into researching my family tree, even making a presentation on the subject in college just a couple months later. It was fascinating stuff, and I'm even more captivated by it 17 years later.

5. John Gibson family - 1881 New Brunswick census
If I absolutely had to pick one favorite document, this would be it. This was my very first discovery in family history research. My mom told me my paternal great-great-grandparents, John and Catherine (Cain) Gibson came from Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, and that my great-grandfather John Frederick Gibson was born there about 1884. I somehow found there were records for the area for the 1881 census. I pulled out the microfilm for Saint John, sat down at a microfilm reader and started cranking. Within just a few minutes, I found them! I thought to myself "this genealogy stuff is easy!" If I only knew... I am glad that first discovery came so readily, because it encouraged me to start really researching my family history.

So there you have it, my top five favorite family history documents. Let me know what your favorites are and why.

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