Thursday, February 28, 2013

ROOTS - Researching Your Family History

by Jerry Johnson

The most common questions that we receive at the Sutton Historical Society involve genealogy or family history. People know that some ancestor or other relative once lived in Sutton and they are looking for information about that person.

Let’s first talk about genealogy research and how we learn who our ancestors were and the basic information about them. Next we’ll move onto the real fun of genealogy – how to fill out the stories of those folks we found in that original research.        

Genealogy is the study of families and the tracing of their lineages and history. It is a study of the past. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, it’s criticized as a waste of time but bear with me. There may be justification to that feeling, especially if we concentrate solely on the cold data about the dates and locations of our ancestors’ births, marriages and deaths. But the second part, the stories, should hold the interest of even the most cynical.

Genealogy has been around a long time. It was a big thing for royalty. The Prince needed to prove his right to the throne when dad died. American’s version of royalty may be Mayflower or Winthrop fleet descendants. The D. A. R. (Daughters of the American Revolution) has long been a significant patriotic organization with membership restricted to women who can provide documentation that they have a direct ancestor who played some role in the U. S. Revolution.

So, how do you find out who your ancestors were?

You likely already have a start. I’ll guess that you knew your parents, even your grandparents. Some people remember their great-grandparents though not many.

Do you remember your grandparents talking about their parents and grandparents? Pretty boring stuff, wasn't it? The comment we hear from almost everyone looking for help is, “Damn, I wish I’d listened or even asked a few questions.”

But that was then; this is now.

Basic genealogy research begins by writing down the dates and places of births, marriages and deaths of relatives you now know about. You will have some blanks but now you know where to start.

Next ask older relatives or friends who may have known your relatives; look for available records – old photos, family bibles, copies of wills and old papers in dusty boxes in the closet. Check out the cemetery for dates of birth/death. Grandpa wasn't buried in Sutton? Check out  Not all cemeteries are listed there, but many across the country are.

Put the names of your great-grandparents into a Google search. This can be more productive with even earlier ancestors. I have dozens of ancestors who were mentioned in county histories or family books written since the colonial period. Hundreds of such books are at various online sites, often free or reasonable to download.
A four-generation Pedigree Chart graphically depicts a person with
parents, grandparents and great-grandparents – 15 people.

Soon, someone will suggest joining one of the online research sites. Consider it. There are several such sites but I’ll mention, the folks who sponsored the TV show, “Who Do You Think You Are?” There are several levels of membership and occasional “free” deals. Find someone who already belongs and check it out. Or call me. I can talk about it; do demonstrations or even a sales pitch.

You will want to spring for a software packages to put you family information into a manageable data base. Constructing an extensive family tree with paper and pencil is agony – it probably won’t happen. I use two packages, Family Tree Maker and Roots Magic. Family Tree Maker is closely integrated with greatly increasing the value of both – synergy, I think they call it.

After you have entered your family data, these software packages enable you to create reports showing ancestors, descendants, relationships, etc. You can easily produce a decent book of your family. has hundreds of easily accessible data bases. There are censuses, U.S. and foreign, vital records from states and counties, books and importantly, the family trees of tens of thousands of people who have already posted their own family trees. It’s very likely that some distant relative of yours has already researched a part of your family, uploaded their family tree and it’s just waiting for you. This information is not guaranteed, there may be errors but you’ll have valuable clues at your fingertips or perhaps several completed generations.

Set some goals. Look for your immigrants. Which ancestors came to America? My latest immigrant is a grandfather who immigrated at the age of two in 1873. Others were grandparents and great-grandparents. But one of my grandmothers has lines going back to colonial 1600’s where I have yet to find many of the immigrants.

Your goals need not stop at the Atlantic. Even medieval Europeans kept records. Be ready for surprises. You may connect with a previously researched line that goes back to Charlemagne, William the Conqueror, Robert the Bruce, royal families and all manner of folks in the encyclopedia. I’ve found all those – they may even be true!

This basic genealogy work will produce your family tree, your pedigree chart showing your known ancestors. But you may not want to stop there. Most of your direct ancestors had siblings. Go ahead and find those siblings; you’ll generally look at the parents of that ancestor and look for all their children, your aunts and uncles at some level – great grand aunts and other folks identified by specific relationships. Then you may begin to trace the descendants of those people, your cousins at some level – second cousins, once removed and other such specific relationships. You’ll need to research (Google works) to learn about these relationships.

We usually think of genealogy research as tracing our ancestors but another common project is to find all of the descendants of some ancestor. My mother’s first genealogy interest was in finding all of the descendants of her great, grandparents. Only after she had completed that project did she begin to look for any ancestral lines.
A four-generation Descendant List is indented
 to graphically show family members for each 
generation at the same level. Genealogy software
 packages offer a variety of reports including 
large, multi-page charts that can double as 

O.K., now you’ve built your family tree; you have some cold, hard facts about some of your ancestors: their names, birthdates, birth places, marriage information and death information. You can reconstruct family relationships and you know where different ancestral families came from. Maybe that’s enough for you.

But there can be more and for me, this is the fun part of genealogy. Think of it as, “What Did You Do in the War Great-Grandfather?”

This part is what happens when you turn the collection of names, dates and places on a genealogy chart into stories?

Most of this is my personal set of stories, first, because I already know the material and secondly, I’ve so many stories.

While visiting friends in Maine a few years ago, we took the opportunity to stop in Oxford County where my great, great grandfather Isaiah Walton was born. I once found, and purchases a history of the county on That book described a grist mill run by Isaiah’s grandfather Ebenezer Hutchinson “…on the outlet to Moose Pond.” We found Moose Pond on the map and talked to some locals who’d heard that there had been a mill on that stream near a little gift shop. The stream was across from the shop and a few yards upstream were the remains of a dam similar to that of a restored grist mill about ten miles away.
End of a successful family history field trip – site of great, great,
great, great grandfather’s grist mill that he sold in 1812.

I hope you've had the feeling I had with my foot resting on the stones of my 4th great grandfather’s mill dam, a mill he sold in 1812 to start a family migration from Maine, to Ohio, to Indiana and to Edgar where my grandmother stopped before the family continued to western Kansas.

Some, maybe most, family memories are not so positive. I knew Isaiah Walton’s wife died in Indiana before he followed his daughter’s family to Edgar but I did not know “the rest of the story” until standing in a small graveyard in the middle of a field northeast of Commiskey, Indiana. There was the grave of Eliza Jane (Hall) Walton, who died in October, 1864 next to a stone reading “Infant of Eliza Jane Hall Walton 1864.” My great, great grandmother died having baby number ten, six years after her ninth and at the age of 47.

Family deaths often came in bunches. A number in Sutton share this family story. When Alice (Oakley) Vauck was born in Morrison, Illinois in 1884 she joined sisters Stella and Isabelle age 4 and 2. Shortly after Alice’s first birthday Isabella died on February 22nd. Two days later Stella died. Now our imaginations take over. Was there some communicable disease, an accident or what?  My family folklore did include their story. Does the Vauck family folklore tell us what happened? They were buried next to their grandfather and my great, grandfather James A. Cassell in the cemetery in Morrison.

Each of these stories will be topped by another waiting to be found. My 7th great, grandmother died in 1700 leaving Joseph Hutchinson of Salem, Massachusetts with seven kids age 2 to 11. Two years later the youngest three died on February 16th, 18th and March first. Eight-year old Ebenezer (grandfather of the Ebenezer above) and the older kids survived.

Now you can begin to picture the details of life 150 or 300 years ago under circumstances that had to tax those folks to the fullest. How do you feed and care for a family, by yourself, in winter, in early 18th century Salem? And it was often in winter that diseases and fatigue took their toll. At some point when you learn of the close call of an ancestor you may begin an existential conversation with yourself. Don’t go there.

My wife’s family has not been disappointing in providing stories. Her 6th great, grandmother, Ann Hostettler and two of her children were killed the night of September 19th, 1757 in what is known in Berks County, Pennsylvania as the Hostettler Massacre. See though that account supports September 29th as the date – historical facts can be squishy. An Indian named Tom Lions was believed to have killed Rita’s 6th great, grandmother. Tom Lions has a web site. No, really. See  - bet you didn’t see that coming. Rita’s existential conversation centers on Ann’s daughter Barbara, married four years earlier and living down the road when her parents were attacked.

We don’t always think in terms of individuals or families. We can think of larger groups as do many in Sutton. The stories of the German-Russian families is the story of major migrations of large groups, first migrations from Germany to South Russia then a lengthy period of migration to America including Sutton.

The Historical Society has several family histories for Yost, Griess, Ulmer, Fuehrer, Schmer families and others. But the common story among them has been best told by Sutton’s own Jim Griess in his definitive history, “The German Russians: Those Who Came to Sutton.” This 335-page, almost formidable book tells how the ancestral families of many in Sutton lived first in southwest Germany before there was a “Germany”, why they left, how they went to South Russia, how they lived there, then why they left Russia and how, and why they came to Sutton.
“The German Russians: Those Who Came to Sutton” – 
THE family history for much of our town’s population, 
a fine story and an important contribution to the history
 of Sutton, Nebraska.

Jim describes the stories of several specific families and mentions many more. Nearly all Sutton “Russian” families, as they were first called came from either Norka or Balzer near the Volga River (Volga Deutsch) or from Worms or Rohrbach near Odessa (Black Sea Russians) almost 700 miles to the southeast in today’s Ukraine. 

 But the overall, common “Big Picture” of the group is the clear strength of the book. I’m not sure I can emphasize enough what a treasure the Jim Griess book is for the many in Sutton, and throughout the Dakotas, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas and elsewhere who share this particular heritage. Few people or groups have a better single source for the complete story of their family history – and a good story it is. (Available at the Sutton Museum, step right up, they are moving fast.) Hours and hours of additional reading material is easily found on the internet.

My reference above was, “What did you do in the war, great, grandfather?” James Demetris Rowlison, my great, grandfather was in the 82nd Indiana Infantry for the entire Civil War, one of only two in Company A to serve from Muster-In to Muster-Out. From January to July in 1864, James kept a diary in a small black book, not an exciting blow-by-blow account of battles and skirmishes but mostly the stuff of the daily grind. He does mention “skirmish lines” and “firing” and only when you track the 82nd in histories do you realize he saw some horrendous action.

The Diary was known throughout the family and my mother painstakingly transcribed it. I posted the full text and his notes on a web site many years ago, but only saw the actual diary once. After my mother died we were not able to find the diary – still haven’t. Whether she moved it, my father accidently cast it out, or whatever, it is not to be found. I had to disclose this at a family reunion a couple of years ago.

Last year, my third cousin visited the Rowlison home town of Lancaster, Indiana. She stopped in Sutton on her way home and handed me a bound edition of James’s Diary printed in a script font and complete with pictures I recall from that old web site. At the end of the text, I’m given full credit for the research and resources for the book – it had been copied from my web site and now helps support the local museum. Great, grandpa Rowlison’s diary is not lost, it lives and lives better than ever, another story fleshed out from the names, dates and places on the genealogy chart and brought to life where great, grandsons and great, granddaughters can take pride in their family history.

There is a risk when digging into your past – you may find some connection that could be disturbing. James Demetris Rowlison, Civil War soldier is someone that any great, grandson would be proud to claim, and I am. However, his aunt Martha grafted a gnarled branch onto our family tree when, in July, 1839 she married a fellow named John Milton Chivington. Mr. Chivington served as an officer in the Civil War before becoming a fire-and-brimstone Methodist preacher in the west, settling for a time in Omaha before moving to frontier Denver. In Denver he became close with politicians in the Colorado Territorial government earning an appointment as commander of a Colorado Territorial Infantry Unit in 1864 just after the Indian raids along the Republican River in south Nebraska.

Col. Chivington’s infantry unit consisted of a motley group including some Denver bar flies looking to “kill themselves some Indians.” They did. The Sand Creek Massacre, also known as the Chivington Massacre was the work of my 2nd great grand aunt’s husband. Not a close relative, but close enough under the circumstances. An undetermined number of Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians, probably 150 to 250 were killed including many women and children.

The good colonel later further tarnished his image when, after my 2nd great, grand aunt had died and their son Thomas had died John Chivington married his daughter-in-law Sarah. Sarah's parents took serious exception to this turn of events publishing a card in the New York Times on January 11, 1868 in which they said that marriage "...was unknown to us, and a thing we very much regret." They stated that had they known of these plans they would have taken steps to "...prevent the consummation of so vile an outrage, even if violent measures were necessary."

Then, of course, unsurprisingly, Col. Chinvington abandoned the woman.

This posting is based on an article that first appeared in the October and November, 2011 issues of Sutton Life Magazine. For more information on this local Sutton treasure, contact the publisher, Jarod Griess at 510 W. Cedar in Sutton, 68979 or at

1 comment:

Anne said...

I've Googled trying to find the diary. My husband's great grandfather, Samuel Percifield, was in the 82nd Indiana Volunteer Infantry too(Company H). I would love to read the diary. Where might I find it?