Elizabeth O’Neal’s October Genealogy Blog Party is all about celebrating Family History Month. I originally thought I’d blog about an ancestor that I haven’t gotten to yet, but instead decided to celebrate all of them by sharing how I got bitten by the genealogy bug and never stopped.
I’ve been doing this a long time, since the 1970s, but, unlike many who started researching in that decade, I wasn’t spurred on by Alex Haley’s Roots. I was actually teaching in Mexico when Roots was televised and we couldn’t afford American TV so I never saw the show.
I’ve always been aware that my dad’s family was Slovak, but that wasn’t my motivation either. My mother’s maiden name was Adams and my grandparents lived outside Boston. Grandmother said we weren’t directly descended from the presidential family, but were related to them. She meant collaterally, but didn’t use that word.
I decided I wanted to prove either that we were descended from Henry Adams of Braintree, Massachusetts, progenitor of Presidents John and John Quincy Adams, or that we weren’t. It quickly became apparent that my Adams ancestors not only weren’t descended from Henry Adams, they were Loyalists who fled to Canada in 1783, only returning to live in the U.S. around the time of the Civil War.
That discovery only whet my appetite for more information. My maternal grandfather’s family not only gave me six Loyalists, but also six Patriots and several Canadian Planters (pre-Loyalists who settled in New Brunswick, then Nova Scotia, in the 1760s.) Before the American Revolution, his many ancestors helped populate New England from the 1630s onward.
Grandfather had died long before I started researching, but Grandmother was very interested in all I was discovering. Of course, she wanted to know about her family, too, which was a bit more difficult to research. Grandmother knew her paternal grandparents and I was able to take her New England line back two more generations before hitting a brick wall.
My brick wall 4X great grandfather, Joseph Coleman, born c1768 in Massachusetts was a tough go, which I’ve only recently – in the last couple of years – been able to crack open. Grandmother passed away in 1995, but she would have been thrilled to know that she not only had a Mayflower line, but that her Coleman family was finally traced back to Thomas Coleman in Nantucket, Massachusetts in the 1630s.
Also discovered in the Coleman family was a Dutch line, as Grandmother’s grandmother, Sarah Moriah Crouse, was the grandchild of Philip Crouse, a Dutch Loyalist from North Carolina who settled in New Brunswick, Canada.
Grandmother’s mother’s family was another 30 year+ brick wall. Her mother was Danish and Grandmother said she was always told that the family was from Copenhagen. Only knowing that her Americanized name was Anna Johnson made it quite impossible to find her family in spite of the fact that Grandmother had known her maternal grandfather, Frits Wille Oscar E. Johnson.
It wasn’t until 2011 and then with a ton of help from Ruth Maness in the Family History Library that we were able to piece together the JENSEN family story. Grandmother was correct – the Jensens were from Copenhagen. I found birth and marriage records for her mother, Frits and her grandmother, Margrethe Bruun, and identified Frits’s parents as Johannes Jensen and Johanna Elisabetha Molin, who was from Oved, Sweden. The Molin family turned out to be quite easy to research.
Johannes Jensen turned out to be another brick wall, but Ruth helped me knock holes in the wall, bit by bit. Johannes was born at the unwed mothers’ hospital in Copenhagen and given up for adoption. He became a career musician in the Danish army, married and had a family, but died at the young age of 54.
By the mid-1980s, I really wanted to know more about my Slovak family, as both my paternal grandparents had parents who emigrated from the Austrian-Hungarian Empire late in the 19th century.
Nana was able to tell me the names of her parents and all four of her grandparents, including maiden names, and dates when each died (which turned out to be quite accurate.)
I still wanted to know more, but there was only one avenue for that research at the time. I did what everyone else did and wrote a letter to the Czechoslovakian Embassy and waited. And waited. And waited some more. I waited about 18 months before a very short, to the point letter appeared saying they “had the information you requested” and to please send them $250 to receive it.
That was a LOT of money and there was no guarantee that I would receive the answer that they looked, but found nothing. I took a chance, mailed off the money, and got back about a dozen birth, marriage and death certificates! Of course, I was ecstatic!
All of the information pertained to Nana’s Scerbak family, not to my paternal grandfather’s (who I never knew because he died of TB when my dad was 10).
The Sabo (and it turns out my maiden name wasn’t Sabo, it was Kucharik!) side of the family tree was yet another brick wall because Nana didn’t know which town they came from in Slovakia.
Again, the Family History Library came to the rescue, translating my grandfather’s Pennsylvania baptismal certificate (inherited from Nana, which she didn’t know she had), which gave the birth places of his parents in today’s Slovakia. That didn’t happen until 2011!
I am a classic example of the great American melting pot, with English, Scottish, Welsh, Dutch, Danish, Swedish and Slovak roots and ancestors settling in America as early as 1620 and as late as 1890.
Beginning as most of us do, as a name collector, and then moving on to wanting to learn about my ancestors’ lives has allowed me to understand all the social, cultural and historical settings that made them the people they were and makes me the person I am.
It’s been a terrific 38 years of fun and it’s not over yet, thanks to all the new records that keep appearing.
To all of my ancestors – thank you!