Just How Badly Do You Want the Answer?

As I look back on past research and choose topics for new blog posts, I often think about what I had to do to uncover various branches of my family tree. Some of the information has come easily, but some of it has taken a lot of work to discover. The difficult end of research led to my blog name of Empty Branches and a choice to tell stories and share resources to help break down brick walls.

Good researchers can be self taught or professionally trained, but I believe if one overriding trait – persistence – is missing, then that researcher never going to discover hidden lines unless by chance.

Persistence can be taken two ways – it can mean physical persistence in terms of being somewhere on location for in-person research and it can mean mental persistence.

Persistence brought a smile to my face as I thought about how it has paid off for me during 35 years of genealogical addiction. Some of my research has just involved a lot of time, energy and hard work. A few of them, though, were a bit over-the-top and those are the short stories I’d like to share with you.

1. Early in my research, Dave and I visited New England. It was a hot summer day in 1981 when we visited Gloucester, Massachusetts. Although Dave wasn’t really a genealogy fan back then either, he was happy enough to wander around New England because he had never been there before. Before we left on vacation, I had discovered epitaphs recorded in the late 1800’s (in the NEHG Register) for several of my Gloucester ancestors. I didn’t know whether the gravestones still existed, but if they did, I wanted photos of them.

Visiting the Old Burying Ground in Gloucester wasn’t exactly just a walk down the street to the cemetery. We couldn’t find it so we stopped to ask directions and got back in the car. Accessing the cemetery involved driving the car through someone’s back yard (the owner said no problem!), past their fresh laundry drying on the clothes line and parked in the weeds at the bottom of a hill. We then tromped through an overgrown cemetery full of mosquitoes and other bugs for about an hour. Dave threatened to leave me, saying the stones were probably long gone, but we finally found them in the deepest part of the cemetery under the trees. My James and Deborah Sayward, buried in 1734 and 1737, had some of the oldest stones there and may have been some of the earliest burials in that particular cemetery.

2. Again in the early 1980’s, I found a death certificate for Dave’s great great grandfather, who died in 1926 in Hopkins County, Texas. I was hoping to discover his parent’s names. I knew that John C. Williams was born somewhere in Arkansas about 1847 or 1848. While the death certificate had spaces for parent’s names, the entry said the dreaded “unk.” I decided there was more than one way to skin a cat, so to speak, and headed for the Arkansas 1850 AIS census index book. Remember those books from the pre-internet days? The type print was probably the equivalent of about a size 2 font. I photocopied the two or three pages of the Williams entries along with the misspellings, like “Willaims.” At the time, my main research library was the Los Angeles Family History Center on Santa Monica Blvd., about an hour from where I lived.

I spent many, many hours over visits covering about 18 months, pulling microfilm, looking for a 2 or 3 year old John Williams. I began with “A” Williams, then “A.A”” Williams and so on. Surprisingly, there were only two or three John Williams born between 1845-1850 in Arkansas. So, who did the father of John C. Williams turn out to be? William Williams, only he wasn’t just “William,” he was “William A.” Williams. I ended up reading the microfilm for almost every Williams family living in Arkansas in 1850!

3. John C. Williams began my Williams obsession. They seemed to give all their kids the same names and I think if a county hung out a sign saying “All records here have burned,” they thought it would be a good place to live. I spent 20 years piecing together the Williams history from 1700’s Virginia to the end of the Civil War in 1865. I then self-published a 150 page, every name indexed book, making about 75 copies. I think my profit was something like $1.47 per book, but I didn’t do it for money. It was a labor of love.

4. Another over-the-top effort involved black sheep Isaac Sturgell and his wife, Mary. In the early days, I had no maiden name for Mary and I really, really wanted to know what it was. I had had no luck in all of the books I had found in libraries, so I came up with the idea of writing a letter to every clerk of every county in both Ohio and Virginia that existed by 1850. Those were the two states where I thought they had most likely married. Again, this was in the pre-internet age. All those letters were printed out and mailed with self-addressed, stamped return envelopes inside. There were well over 200 counties in those two states. My method worked, though, and I was ecstatic when the Lawrence County, Ohio county clerk mailed me the copy of their marriage record.

5. The last activity also involved Isaac Sturgell. Dave’s aunt and I were at the Missouri county courthouse where Isaac had lived. The county clerk graciously gave us free run of the vault where the old records were kept. The vault was actually a fairly good size, the ceiling was probably at least ten feet high and there was a large metal table in the middle of it to be used for looking at files that were pulled from the drawers. I found an index book that included divorce records – there was a record for Isaac. Where was that particular file folder? Yep, in the top drawer up the wall near the ceiling. There was no ladder to reach those drawers and Dave’s aunt and I were afraid if we asked for help, we would be told those drawers couldn’t be reached with anything they had in the office or that it would be too much trouble to get a ladder from the basement or whatever.

What did we do? We closed the vault door slightly so people walking by wouldn’t readily be able to see in. I then climbed up on top of the rather high table, stretched and managed to get the drawer open. I pulled a few files until I found the Sturgell divorce and we copied the contents, which I don’t think had seen the light of day since they were filed. Somehow, I managed to get the folders back in the drawer, get down off the table and not break any bones in the process.

All of these persistent-obsessive activities happened in the “olden days” and, while I would no longer be climbing on high tables to reach vault drawers, I have to admit that a current day over-the-top decision was probably my John Whitmer parental online tree experiment where I emailed 350+ tree owners. However, it satisfied my curiosity so I am happy with it.

I’d love to hear some of your stories. How did a super-effort of yours help crack a brick wall?


2 thoughts on “Just How Badly Do You Want the Answer?”

  1. Great post ! You made such a great point. I think there actually is an advantage to having having learned to research in the “good old days.” Today it is so easy to expect instant results and so many I work with give up way too soon as a result.

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