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A Genealogist In The Archives: September 2016

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Mercantile: Where Our Ancestors Shopped

The Mercantile or sometimes called The General Store is where many of our ancestors shopped. There would have been so much to see in these kinds of stores. The penny candy on display in the candy jars, a barrel of crackers, the wheel of cheese and of course the caskets. Yes, I said caskets!

Wiseman & Sykes General Merchandise Letterhead, ca. 1933, Houston County, TN. Archives

Today, when we walk into the mall or our favorite grocery store we will most likely not see caskets for sale. But in the local mercantile, in the 1700's-1900's, it was common to see caskets on display and for sale. It was also common for the mercantile to be the local undertaker or funeral director. The mercantile letterhead would list as part of their services and product offerings "Funeral Director" or "Undertaker".

C.C. Cook & Company Letterhead, ca. 1921, Houston County, TN. Archives

This is why it is important to research the local businesses where our ancestors lived, especially the local mercantile or general store. These businesses generated store ledgers, piles of receipts, accounts payable records and even a record of who bought a casket for their dearly departed. These records could be in an archive, historical society, genealogical society, library or local museum.

Records for the local mercantile could list anything purchased at the store, including caskets. There could be invoices or receipts that specifically list fees for embalming, caskets, clothes to dress the deceased, etc. like this account receipt from the Sparkman General Merchandise Store. When searching for death information on an ancestor, these records could prove to be helpful.

E.P. Sparkman General Merchandise/Funeral Director account invoice, ca. 1939, Houston County, TN. Archives

Records for the local mercantile or general store will be located in either the Vertical Files Collections or the Manuscript Collections in an archive. Ask the archivist about the local stores in the area and if there are records available. The records for the local mercantile can be a gold mine for the genealogist.



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Thursday, September 22, 2016

Vertical Files vs Manuscript Collections: How Are They Different?

Working in a county archive on a daily basis, I am surrounded by original records, photographs and ephemera. It is my job to organize the records we have in the Houston County (TN) Archives so that they are accessible to the pubic and that includes many of the wonderful genealogists that come through my door everyday.

Houston County, Tennessee Entrance

Recently, I had a wonderful conversation with Pat Richley-Erickson, better known as Dear Myrtle ( about the differences between Vertical Files and Manuscript  Collections and how to help the genealogist know the benefits of both to their research. We both agreed that Vertical Files are a "hodgepodge" of documents and ephemera while Manuscript Collections are distinctively different and are a collection of highly curated groups of records. We also agreed that these two record sources are essential to genealogy research.

Items in the McAuley Surname Vertical File, Houston County, TN. Archives

In my opinion, Vertical Files and Manuscript Collections are two of the most underused and misunderstood record collections that a genealogist has at their disposal. A lot of genealogists don't even know to ask about these specific collections when they are doing research at an archive. One of the reasons for the "mystery" surrounding these record sources is these records are not sitting on shelves in the research area for the researchers to access themselves. These record sources are usually stored in back rooms or vaults and they have to be requested to be seen. Normally, genealogists have to request files be pulled from the Vertical Files Collection and boxes to be pulled from the Manuscript Collections and brought to them in the research room. Genealogists need to know that archivist are there to help them. They stand at the ready to pull records that you request and they are ready to share the fantastic records found in Vertical Files and Manuscript Collections.

Vertical Files Cabinets, Houston County, TN. Archives

Like I mentioned before, Vertical Files are a "hodgepodge" of all different kinds of documents, newspaper clippings, ephemera and memorabilia. These items are normally donated to the archive by patrons piece by piece or they could have been found in a box of "stuff" that was donated to the archives. The archives staff then files the items by either Surname or by Subject. For instance, if there is a newspaper clipping of an obituary for John Brown, it would go in the BROWN file in the Vertical Files Collection. If someone donated a letterhead document from the WISEMAN FUNERAL HOME, that document would be filed in the WISEMAN FUNERAL HOME file. The archivist should have an index available for the researcher to consult to see if there are any surnames or subjects that are of interest to them and then they can request that those files be pulled and brought to them for researching.

The "A-B" Drawer in Vertical Files Collection, Houston County, TN. Archive

Manuscript Collections are a completely different type of record source but one that I believe is essential and should be on every genealogists "To-Do List".

One of the best ways to explain what Manuscript Collections are is to use this visual:

I have been doing my personal genealogy research for my family and my husband's family for the past 26 years. Let's say I have decided that I want to donate everything I have collected to my local archive. This includes all documents, photographs, ephemera, notes and artifacts. I box everything up in cardboard boxes, load them in my car, drive them to the archive and drop them off. Now, the archive will take all those boxes and will give it a collection name like "The Melissa Barker Records Collection" or possibly "The Melissa Barker Genealogical Papers". Then the archivist will organize the records by type, style and date. The records will be organized into file folders and each file folder is given a number like Folder #1. Then all these folders are places in boxes and these boxes are given a number like Box #3. Most importantly a "Finding Aid" is produced to go with the Manuscript Collection. Vertical Files do not have Finding Aids! The Finding Aid is a written guide explaining what is contained in the manuscript collection and includes a box-by-box and folder-by-folder listing of what the boxes and folders have in them. Now the collection is ready for researchers!

The Irish Celebration Manuscript Collection, Houston County, TN. Archives

I truly hope that all genealogists will start asking about Vertical Files and Manuscript Collections in our many wonderful archives. They are just sitting there waiting for genealogists to discover their contents. Just because you can't see them on the shelves in the research area doesn't mean they don't exist. Ask the archivist about Vertical Files and Manuscript Collections on your next research trip!



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Friday, September 16, 2016

Constitution Day, Your Ancestors and Their Signatures

Constitution Day will be celebrated Saturday, September 17, 2016. On September 17, 1787 the Founding Fathers signed this important document in American history, the United States Constitution. The original U.S. Constitution is on display in The Rotunda at the National Archives in Washington D.C. along with the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence.

One of the most significant parts of the Constitution are the 39 signatures that grace the parchment that was signed at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Each signature was unique and historic.

Signatures on the United States Constitution, ca. 1787

As genealogists, we scour genealogical records to find the signatures of our ancestors. Like the descendants of the signers of the Constitution, documenting our ancestor's signature can be the highlight of our family history research. But sometimes it's hard to find those signatures.

Once you have sifted through your own genealogical records for signatures, where do you go next?

As an archivist, I have seen thousands of signatures on thousands of documents in the Houston County, Tennessee Archives. When I see those signatures, I think to myself "That is someone's ancestor that signed that document."

Letter and Signature of H.H. Hilman of Danville, TN. ca. 1929, Houston County, TN. Archives

The local archives where your ancestor's lived is the best place to start when looking for signatures. Just like the U.S. National Archives where the Constitution is located, our local and state archives are full of documents with signatures on them.

Signatures on a Request to Pardon Morris Dillard, ca. 1919, Houston County, TN. Archives

Maybe the local records are located at the historical society, genealogical society or in the Special Collection department of the local library. Anywhere that historical or genealogical records are stored and preserved is where you will find signatures of your ancestors.

"But my ancestor couldn't write, his signature was only an X". Many of us have ancestors that couldn't read or write and when asked to sign a document they could only mark it with an "X". That "X" is important, your ancestor drew that "X" and stated they agreed with the document that was presented to them.

Whether it's the United States Constitution or the land deed for the family farm, our ancestor's signatures are something to search for and treasure.



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Thursday, September 15, 2016

Genealogy, Archives and Handwritten Letters

On September 5, 2016, I received an email here in the Houston County (TN) Archives that I am very excited about. The person who sent the email is a genealogist who had been doing research on her ancestors and she came into possession of a wonderful, handwritten letter.

This letter was not found in an archive, at a library or at any records repository. This letter was found in another genealogists personal records collection. Because the letter deals with the Danville School that was once in Houston County, Tennessee, the genealogist thought that I would like a copy of the letter to add to our collection of Danville School Records here in the archives. We do not have very much in the way of records for this particular school, so I was very happy to get a copy of this letter. She was gracious enough to send me very good scans of the 3-page letter that is about her Great Grand Uncle Professor T.B. Loggins.

Danville School Letter, ca. 1887, pg. 1, Houston County, TN. Archives

The letter is dated November 7, 1887. Houston County was formed in 1871 and the Danville School was one of the first schools established in the western part of the county. Part of the letter states: Prof. R.B. Loggins, who has been connected with the schools of our district for some time past, as principal has in the exercise of his judgement, as to what is best to promote his own interests, severed his connection with said schools and where as we, the directors of said district, desire to give some expression to our high appreciation of his worth as a teacher and gentleman.

The letter continues on with a recommendation "To Whom it May Concern" for Prof. R.B. Loggins in his next employment. The letter is signed by W.F. Grafield, Secretary and A.(Archibald) Cathey, President.

Danville School Letter, ca. 1887, pg. 2, Houston County, TN. Archives

Old handwritten letters are an extinct form of communication. With the invention of email and then social media communcations, almost no one sits down and writes letters anymore. Preserving old letters is so very important whether they are in the collections of family genealogists or are housed in a local archive.

I would also like to say that sharing your genealogy records with local archives, libraries, historical societies and genealogical societies is also important. Just like this letter that I received adds to our history of the Danville School. You may have documents or letters that gives historical information about communities, schools, businesses or local events. Sharing these documents with the local archives helps us to save our history and tell the story of our community.

Danville School Letter, ca. 1887, pg. 3, Houston County, TN. Archives

I would encourage you to make copies of those records and photographs that would be important to the history of a community and find a local archive to share them. You may be the only person that has that original document that has information that should be preserved in a local archive.

Many local archives will accept copies of documents or scans of documents so you wouldn't have to give them the original records. However, when and if you decide to donate your records, please contact the archive and ask them about their records donation policies.


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Saturday, September 10, 2016

National Grandparents Day and The Anniversary of 9/11...

Sunday, September 11th. is both National Grandparents Day and the 15th Anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

I had wanted to write a blog post about National Grandparents Day but realized that it falls on the same day as we remember that tragic day in United States history. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that as an archivist and genealogist I could bring these two together in a meaningful blog post.

National Grandparents Day was originated with Marian McQuade, a housewife in Fayette County, West Virginia. Her primary goal for the holiday was to shine a light on the lonely elderly in nursing homes. She also hoped to get grandchildren to tap into the wisdom and heritage their grandparents could provide. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter proclaimed the First Sunday after Labor Day to be Grandparents Day.

Founder of National Grandparents Day

On September 11, 2001 the United States experienced the most horrific terrorist attack on the World Trade Center or "Twin Towers" as they were called in New York City, The Pentagon, and in a field in Shanksville, PA. It is said that everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when the 9/11 attacks occurred.

The World Trade Center in New York City

This got me to thinking about the last time people said "Do you remember where you were when...". I thought of events such as "The Bombing of Pearl Harbor", "The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy", "The Assassination of Martin Luther King". These events were all very tragic and very memorable for our Grandparents and maybe even for you.

As a genealogist and archivist, part of my job and joy is to document stories. Family stories, community stories and life event stories. I would like to encourage all of you to talk to your Grandparents and ask them where they were and what they were doing when 9/11 happened, when Pearl Harbor was bombed or when Martin Luther King was assassinated. Spend some time with your Grandparents this weekend, talk to them, document their life stories before it's too late. Use a recording device to record their stories or just use old fashioned pen and paper and write it down.

If you are a Grandparent, sit your grandchildren down and tell them your life experiences. What you saw, what you lived through and your accomplishments. It is said that our family stories can be lost in just two generations if not told and passed down to our children, grandchildren and other descendants.

Maybe your grandchildren are too young or they are not interested right now. Take the time to write down or record your life events for future generations. They may not be interested now but maybe one day they will be interested and they will be grateful that you took the time to write it down.

Here is a great book I found on Amazon that you can use to document your memories as a Grandparent...

If you no longer have the privilege of being able to talk to your Grandparents, maybe they are no longer living. Are you compiling their life story as a genealogist? Possibly they left diaries, journals or old letters that include life events that they wrote about. Are you preserving your Grandparents records, photographs and memorabilia so that the next generation of descendants can enjoy them and know their stories? What about your experiences with your Grandparents, are you recording those?

Here is a great journal from Amazon that will help you record your family traditions, memories, recipes and stories...

Events, tragic or happy, will continue to happen in all of our lives. As genealogists, I believe it is our privilege to document those life events to help tell our ancestor's and Grandparent's story.

This blog post is in memory of my own Grandparents:

Cody Lee LeMaster and Agnes Marie (Curtis) LeMaster


Forrest Cecil Bartram and Ida Kathryn (Drummond) Bartram

And in memory of all those that lost their lives on September 11, 2011...Never Forget!


Remember: It's Not All Online, Contact or Visit An Archive Today!

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Next Best Thing to Being There..The 2016 FGS Conference

This past week the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) Annual Conference was held in Springfield, Illinois. As much as I wanted to attend, I was not able due to my duties at the Houston County, Tennessee Archives and not having the funds to travel.

In the past, when genealogy or archive conferences took place, I would get depressed about not being able to attend. Being a lecturer, teacher and writer of genealogy research, researching in archives and records preservation, my dream is to one day go to some of these conferences and even be a speaker at them. I can only imagine the joy of meeting my peers and attending their presentations.

Instead of wallowing in my self-pity, this time I decided to do something positive and constructive from home.

First: I downloaded and then printed out the "Program Schedule". The Program Schedule has the complete schedule for the 4-day conference. This schedule includes the title of each and every presentation and the speaker who is giving that presentation. I read each and every presentation title and I also read each every presenters byline that you get to see when you clicked on their name.

Second: I faithfully followed anyone and everyone that I knew was at the FGS Conference on social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter. It was very easy to catch up on what attendees were posting to their social media accounts because most of them knew to use the "#fgs2016" designation on their social media posts. So, all I had to do was put this hashtag designation in the Facebook and Twitter search bar and all posts that had "#fgs2016" in it, I could see and read. Many attendees even posted short videos of their experiences which added to what I was able to learn vicariously through them.

Third: I read as many blog posts from attendees as I could get my hands on. Attendees would blog about who they met, what they saw in the vendor hall and the wonderful speakers and presentations they were able to attend and enjoy. They also shared what they learned, which was invaluable.

Many times they included selfies with their favorite genealogist in their social media posts or blog posts. Like this one from Julie Tarr.....

Lisa Alzo, Thomas MacEntee and Julie Tarr, Photo Courtesy of Julie Tarr.

And another....
Amy Johnson Crow and Julie Tarr. Photo Courtesy of Julie Tarr.
After studying the Program Schedule, reading everyone's Facebook posts and Tweets and reading everyone's blog posts, what did I do with everything I read and studied from home? A LOT!

I ended up with two full pages of NEW IDEAS for my own blog posts, webinars, magazine articles,etc.

These new ideas, new ways of looking at genealogy subjects that I have learned by watching, reading and listening to those that did attend the 2016 FGS Conference will be an asset to my lecture, teaching and writing career.

So, to those of you that are like me and not able to attend genealogy conferences for whatever reason, don't let that keep you from learning and growing in your genealogy research and genealogy careers.

Learn from others that are there and sharing their experiences with all of us! In this day and age of technology and social media, it's the next best thing!

And to those that were at the 2016 FGS Conference presenting, blogging, posting to Facebook and Twitter, sharing your knowledge and experience, THANK YOU!!

Remember: It's Not All Online, Contact or Visit An Archive Today!!