I love the high that comes from picking all the low hanging fruit of genealogy. You know what I mean – sitting at your desk using all the online resources that allow you to do the quick leapfrogging linking one family to another through the census records that come every 10 years like clockwork. The censuses that have everyone accounted for, grandparents living in the house, children clearly identified and no ambiguity if you have the right one all tied up with a nice bow. You quickly find other digital resources such as birth and death records, military service, city directories and newspapers to fill in the gaps. But then the inevitable happens, you run up against the abyss – the family or portions of the family disappear, you can’t make the jump to the previous generation, some behavior of a member of the family is inexplicable and/or questions just keep coming up that you can’t answer sitting at your desk.
So what to do, what to do? You get out your handy dandy toolbox of research techniques and methods that you have acquired through formal and informal education. You create timelines, look at maps, look again at the old records for critical clues you may have missed and determine what records are still out there that don’t exist online. And then you take a road trip!
And that is just what I have done for the last 2 months – road tripping around the United States to see family, friends and, of course, do genealogical research in the towns where my family lived. One of those places was Mazomanie, Wisconsin where my 2nd Great Grandfather William Cork and his family lived from 1870-1916. This trip illuminated critical historical facts about the family that would not have been achieved without the visit. Here are the highlights:
1) I connected with Virgil, the historian at the Mazomanie Historical Society. He met with me in his home (the society was closed for the season) where he had copies of all the records in his own library. The list of items he found for me is too long for me to put in a blog, but they included obituaries, and illuminating references to the family in the local paper that are not indexed, and are only partially available online. The obituaries made connections to their extended family that had immigrated with them and gave the names of their parents in England.
2) The Mazomanie Historical Society also had a picture and biography of William Cork from the local high school publication where he served 14 years as the clerk of the Board of Education. Virgil was incredibly kind and helpful, and he will continue to be a resource if I have additional questions. You usually can’t make those kinds of connections via phone or e-mail.
3) At the Wisconsin Historical Society, I was able to go to visit the Archives. There I was able to hold and copy William’s original will and probate records. Within these documents I could see his character and his relationships to his children.
4) The Archives also had the records for the Wisconsin Institute for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb at Delavan, where William’s son Hugh attended from 1869-1876. I reviewed all the boxes and found Hugh’s admission and attendance records.
5) At the Wisconsin State Vital Records Office and the Wisconsin Historical Society Library, I was able to get birth, marriage and death certificates for many of William’s family members.
6) And finally I was able to walk through the town of Mazamonie and see where he lived, worked, attended church, took the train and was buried. There is no research online that can compare to seeing where your ancestors lived.
So what made my trip so successful was utilizing the skills I have honed over the years by taking classes from experienced genealogists. As genealogists, we are always looking for ways to improve our abilities, become more efficient at our craft and enhance our research with additional sources. Attending conferences and classes given by the experts in our field is an essential way to do that. We are fortunate to have national, and regional, professionals teaching at Washington State Genealogy Conference on the subject of “Improved Genealogy Through Better Methods and Techniques” on August 15-16. I encourage you to take advantage of this and attend. No telling what you will learn and the discoveries that await for you online or on a trip!