A Blog for Genealogical News, Random Thoughts, and BSOs.

“Ok, I get the ‘genealogical news and random thoughts part, but BSO?  What the heck is a BSO?”  BSO stands for Bright Shiny Object.  Similar to a Rabbit Hole, or…’Oooh, Squirrel!’  It’s one of those little findings or ideas that just completely catches your imagination.  Sometimes they’re great as they lead you down fascinating little used paths to new and valuable information.  Those you follow diligently until you’ve examined them carefully and put them in their proper place in a report or file.  Others, though…others will not lead to a path; they lead only out into the weeds.  But what to do with them?  We had to pick them up to determine whether they were relevant to our search.  Must all of our findings suit some immediate purpose?  I say no.  They are so shiny after all and shouldn’t they be admired, too?  They shall have a place and their place shall be here, on this blog.

Please feel free to share your own BSOs!  You can add them to the comments section or email me your post, along with how you prefer to be credited (anonymous or by name/handle) and I will happily add it to the collection.

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Details, Details

 

      Newspapers haven’t always had armies of journalists on the hunt for interesting stories to publish.  Prior to the last few decades, many newspapers filled their columns and enticed their readers with stories taken from other newspapers.  This particular habit is very helpful when you’re researching areas where the local paper is no longer available, but it sometimes amounts to another round of the old game of telephone.  You know, where one person whispers a secret to the person next to them and that person tells the next and so on until the last person reveals the version of the story that they heard.  Inevitably, details get lost and the message gets changed.

On 9 August 1920, the Alexandria Gazette published a short blurb about the explosion of a sawmill boiler that occurred near the town of Houston (now the Town of Halifax) in Halifax County.  I found this article while searching for mention of the death of my great-grandfather, Beverly Oscar Burton, in 1920.  According to the family story, he died in a boiler explosion so powerful that people could feel it in town, four miles away.  His death certificate confirmed that he died on 30 July 1920 in Halifax County due to a sawmill boiler explosion.(1)  The only problem?   According to the paper, two men died in the explosion and neither of them was Beverly Burton.

 

 

“Virginia News,” Alexandria Gazette (Virginia), 9 August 1920, p 7, col 6.

 

 

The article in this case, printed in Alexandria based on information from Danville about an incident that occurred in Halifax, named the two men killed in the explosion as Robert O. Burton and Sandy Tucker.  My family story mentioned that someone else had died, but without any names.  A death certificate confirmed that Sandy Tucker, Jr., a seventeen year old ‘colored’ boy, died in a boiler explosion on 30 July 1920,(2) the same date and cause as found for Beverly Burton.  The death certificate also named Sandy’s employer as B. Burton.  But no death certificate was found for any Robert Burton for that year.(3)

So how did the Alexandria Gazette end up printing that Robert O. Burton died in the explosion instead of Beverly O. Burton?  Probably the same way information changes in the telephone game, where the loss of one tiny detail at each telling creates a large change at the end.  For example, say a local newspaper reported that Beverly Oscar Burton died in an explosion.  Someone from a nearby city paper reads the article and wants to re-print it, but chooses to save space by using only the man’s initials, B.O. Burton.  On the other side of the state, a newspaperman reads about a grisly explosion and decides to share, but maybe he reads the name as BOB Burton.  He knows that ‘Bob’ is a common nickname for ‘Robert’ and may have heard of Robert Oswald Burton of Halifax, a well-known preacher, or his son by the same name who was a well-known lawyer, so he decides to honor the decedent by printing his full name instead of a nickname.  Just that easily, Beverly Oscar Burton is lost and Robert O. Burton takes his place.  His family back in Halifax probably never even knew about it.

If I had been searching only for ‘Beverly Burton,’ I’d have missed this article.  If the details hadn’t been so unusual and so remarkably close to my family story, I might not have even taken a second look.  By following up on unique details, I found my answer.

 

  1. Virginia, State Board of Health, death certificate #17453 (1920), Beverly Oscar Burton; digital image, “Virginia Death Records, 1912-2014,” Ancestry (www.ancestry.com : accessed 14 Feb 2017).
  2. Virginia, State Board of Health, death certificate #17461 (1920), Sandy Tucker Jr.; digital image, “Virginia Death Records, 1912-2014,” Ancestry (www.ancestry.com : accessed 14 Feb 2017).
  3. “Virginia Death Records, 1912-2014,” Ancestry (www.ancestry.com : accessed 14 Feb 2017), search for last name ‘Burton’ and date ‘1920’ in Halifax County, Virginia.
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Wife and Mother, and More

Some see family history as just a list of names and even genealogists can be trapped in that view when it comes to the women in a lineage.  After all, for centuries women were told that their best possible contribution to society was to be a wife and a mother.  Any other dreams or aspirations would only interfere with that goal, so they were ruthlessly repressed.  Some did dream, though.  Sadly, many of those dreams were lost with them and we will never know what more our female ancestors could have accomplished.  But perhaps not all…

Several years ago, my Aunt Becky (a.k.a. Gloria “Rebecca” Milton, who married my uncle Bobby in 1975) gave me this picture of my father’s mother, Thurva “Chippy” Sharp.  She looks to be in her twenties then, and I was startled at how much I resemble her.  I wanted to know more about this woman.  I knew she was born in Concord, North Carolina, on 25 July 1915 to Robert Bascombe Sharp and Evelyn Wells.  Her family moved to South Boston, Virginia, during the 1920s where her father took work in the cotton mill.  She married my grandfather, Walter Macon Burton, about 1940 and had six children – four boys and two girls.  I know she died on 10 March 1981.  I was old enough to meet her, but not quite old enough to remember her when she died.  So I started asking relatives about her.

I would have expected my father to have the most stories, but I think I put him on the spot without any lead ins to pull out those old memories.  (I’m going to have to try again, more subtly next time.)  He told me that she just adored her grandkids and loved showing off pictures of us.  My mother’s brother told me that he remembered playing card games with her whenever he visited.  But what really struck me, and inspired this post, was something my aunt told me.  The same aunt who gave me that picture, Aunt Becky.

I saw her again just a few weeks ago and asked her what she remembered about my grandmother.  She told me that my grandmother always struck her as a little bit sad.  Thurva loved her family, of course, but she always seemed to be missing something.  She was a very smart woman, and loved reading National Geographic magazine.   Aunt Becky suspected that she had dreams of doing more with her life, of traveling or having some career outside of being a wife and mother.  This insight, offered by her daughter-in-law, has shown her in an entirely new light for me.  I grew up knowing that a career was not only possible, it was highly encouraged.  I could choose to do whatever I wanted, but she could not.

I like to think that very fact fulfills one of her dreams, that the grand-daughters whose pictures she loved to show off now have the opportunities she never had.  It also confirms in me a commitment to honoring all of my grandmothers by trying as best I can to remember them as whole people, not just names on a list.

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The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

I recently spoke with a woman who had an interest in researching her family tree but was worried about what she might find out. She knew she was adopted and that her conception was the result of an extramarital affair. Did the pregnancy break up the marriage? What about the other children in the family? She’s not sure she wants to find out for certain. Another acquaintance told me that she didn’t want to know anything more about her ancestors. She said she knew enough about her family to be pretty sure that her family history would be loaded with…well, scoundrels to be polite.

This is actually a valid consideration. I firmly believe in the adage, “Don’t ask the question if you’re not sure you want to hear the answer.” These women, and many others just like them, need to decide that for themselves before they start their search. They may find out things about their ancestors that doesn’t fit with our current beliefs in society and morality. The PBS show “Finding Your Roots” ignited a scandal when one of their star clients found out that some of his ancestors were slave owners. He was ashamed and sought to have the information buried. I personally found out that I had ancestors who owned slaves and even one who was convicted of murder and sent to prison! Anyone interested in their family history must be prepared to hear that some of their ancestors may not have been the saintly figures they would like to claim.

As you progress in your research, the number of people in your tree increases exponentially. At 10 generations, you’re looking at over 2000 men and women just in your direct bloodline, not counting any siblings. If you’re lucky enough to go further back than that, you could be looking at tens or even hundreds of thousands of people. Odds are, you’re going to find something about at least some of them that you won’t like. That’s OK. You don’t have to approve of everything that your ancestors did or believed; nor do you have to apologize for them. The fact that your ancestors owned slaves doesn’t make you a racist just as a murderous ancestor doesn’t make you (or me!) a criminal.

Yes, you might find people in your tree that you might not wish to invite to your family reunion, but then again you are also likely to find some of the bravest, most admirable people you can imagine. You’ll see them survive and thrive through the most horrific circumstances. Perhaps you’ll find ancestors who left everyone and everything they knew to travel, penniless, to a new world where they found their place and built a legacy. Or maybe you are descended from slaves who endured so much and yet took their freedom and made a life for themselves always looking and working toward a better future. You may find, as I did, heroes of the American Revolution, ones who didn’t appear in the history books but were just as essential a part of the founding of our nation as any others.

Whoever you find in your family tree, whether heroes or simple farmers, there will be lessons you can learn from them.  I learned that life gets hard sometimes but you still pick yourself up and move on. I compare some of my hardships with what my ancestors went through and realize that my situation is not nearly so bad and if they could make it then so can I.   I learned that my family helped to build a nation and that I also have a place in it and a responsibility to continue to improve upon their work.

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Typhoid Tragedy in Halifax, VA

I hesitate to call the subject of this post a ‘BSO’ because it’s not so bright and shiny, but it did catch my eye just the same.  I was researching my own family, looking for death records in Halifax County, Virginia and found a very helpful page on Rootsweb where a woman named Martha Hills very generously transcribed death records for Halifax County between 1853 and 1870.  I carefully checked each page and found several clues to follow up on for my research but something else caught my eye on the very first page.  The names ‘Coleman & Jane Nichols’ on the 1853 list.  I noticed them in particular because they were repeated five times in a row under the heading, ‘Name of Parents’:

  • Archer W. Nichols           8 July           18y 8m            Coleman & Jane Nichols
  • Catherine D. Nichols      13 July         7y 1m               Coleman & Jane Nichols
  • Nancy J. Nichols              14 July        10y 10m          Coleman & Jane Nichols
  • Elizabeth R. Nichols       14 July         11y 4m             Coleman & Jane Nichols
  • Lidwell Nichols                17 July         9y                     Coleman & Jane Nichols

According to this transcription, Coleman and Jane Nichols lost 5 children ranging from 7 to 18 years old in just 9 short days in the summer of 1853.  During my years as a paramedic, I had the misfortune to attend the deaths of several children from newborns to teenagers and the pain I saw in their parent’s faces broke my heart every time.  When I saw these entries, I couldn’t help but picture this couple having to report these deaths to the town clerk, probably all at once considering the time frame, and it broke my heart one more time.  I just had to know:  How did they die?  The time frame was very close, but not exact, and the list included children of both genders and a wide age range, which strongly suggested some rampant infection was to blame.  According to Martha Hills’ notes, the abstract she transcribed didn’t include information regarding the cause of death so I had to look elsewhere.

The Library of Virginia, among their many efforts to preserve and archive Virginia’s historical records, is working on a Death Indexing Project sponsored by the Virginia Genealogical Society.  Though not complete, this online database provides a searchable index to some of the thousands of death records created from 1853 to 1896.  It was there I turned to find the author of the Coleman family tragedy — Typhoid Fever, a bacterial infection spread by eating or drinking contaminated food or water.  Though it’s rare to find in the U.S. today, the lack of indoor plumbing, vaccines, or focus on hand washing made it a very real threat to our ancestors.

In addition to a name search, the Death Index also allows for searching by keyword so I queried the database for any deaths reported due to typhoid in Halifax County.  It returned 328 results over the 43 year period in that one county. (Compliance with the registration law was spotty; not all deaths were reported and the process was skipped entirely for some years in certain jurisdictions, particularly during the Civil War.)  The county of Halifax apparently suffered a significant outbreak that year with 29 deaths reported and attributed to typhoid fever, the most of any year recorded in the database.  Most years saw between 1 and 5 cases, with a few small outbreaks of 11-15 deaths.  Besides the 1853 outbreak that ravaged the Coleman family, the county suffered four more significant (more than 20 deaths in a year) outbreaks of typhoid before the end of the registration period in 1896.

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Universal Adult Male Literacy in 1850s NC?

Henderson County, NC universal literacy in the 1850s?

I found this little nugget in the American Advocate out of Kinston, NC, courtesy of Newspapers.com.  It was tucked away at the bottom of the 4th column on the second page of the 25 August 1858 issue and somehow it just grabbed my imagination.  Historically, writers have had a tendency toward hyperbole and I know that it is highly unlikely that this guy actually made any sort of scientific inquiry into this topic.  Did that stop me from checking it out?  Absolutely not.

Henderson County was created out of Buncombe County in the mountains of western North Carolina along the South Carolina border in 1838.  There were two districts for that county’s 1860 U.S. Federal Census:  Hendersonville and “Not Stated.”  I couldn’t help but be a little impressed when I noticed that column 13, which asked whether any resident over the age of 20 was not able to read and write, was blank throughout all 9 pages of Hendersonville’s census.  Then I got to the “Not Stated” section for residents outside of town and saw that there was definitely more than one adult male noted to be unable to read and write.  [1860 U.S. Census, Henderson County, NC, population schedule: digital images, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com: accessed 8 November 2015); from Family History Library microfilm publication 803901, roll M653_901]

I had my answer but I was still intrigued by the comparison to New England’s educational system so I kept looking. Although North Carolina’s original state constitution included a provision for free public schools, the process suffered decades of delays until the 1830s and ’40s saw an incredible push in organization.  In February of 1858 the Superintendent of Common Schools, Rev. Dr. Calvin H. Wiley, published an article in the North Carolina Journal of Education comparing North Carolina schools to the rest of the country.  Dr. Wiley concluded that

“Upon a calm review of the entire facts, it is neither immodest nor unjust to assert that North Carolina is clearly ahead of all the slave-holding States with her system of public instruction, while she compares favorably in several respects with some of the New England and North-western States.”

Unfortunately, Charles Lee Smith reported in 1888 that “the public-school system had reached its highest efficiency at the outbreak of the (Civil) War. As a result of that conflict the permanent school fund was almost entirely destroyed, and the public schools were closed until about 1870.”  [Charles Lee Smith, The History of Education in North Carolina (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1888), 164-170.  Available online from the University of North Carolina at:  http://docsouth.unc.edu/true/smith/smith.html#p164]

Now that this little BSO has been polished and filed away, where was I?  Oh, yeah.  Research!

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