Posts Tagged ‘american history’

On Friday I discovered that the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) Library had recently subscribed to the site HistoryGeo.com, which I subsequently discovered is a relatively new subscription site. The site has two major collections so far, the “First Landowners Project” (by which they appear to mean the first person/organization/etc. to own land under the American system of landownership) and the “Antique Maps Collection.” I spent a while exploring the First Landowners Project. Their aim is to have all the first public-land-state landowners in their database, though they do not yet include all public-land states.

As longtime readers are likely aware, I like to use test cases where I already know the answer when I am first testing a research tool that is new to me. So I first tried to find my great-great-grandparents, who were homesteaders in the part of Dakota Territory that is now South Dakota, but immediately discovered that neither Dakota is included yet. Most of the homesteaders I am personally researching lived in Dakota Territory. So I moved on to Iowa, and some people where I did not know the answer for sure – I knew they lived in Iowa but did not know if they would return results. The database allows you to input the surname and be as vague as searching all the included public-land states to as specific as only searching a single county in a single state.

I first looked for Richardsons in Lee County, Iowa, but did not find the family I was seeking. Then I tried Hills in Johnson County, Iowa, and was pleasantly surprised to get relevant results for my cousin and her husband, who had moved from New Hampshire to Iowa circa 1850. The results come up as little circled numbers if there are multiple hits in one area, and as little green people if there is only one result. The more you zoom in, the more the circled numbers turn into individual green people. I zoomed in far enough to see that my cousin and her husband bought adjacent land patents in Johnson County. The map lists owners’ names and the date each patent was awarded. My cousin and her husband each bought one-fourth of a parcel in 1850, and my cousin bought an adjacent parcel in 1852, so that together the couple owned three-quarters of the quadrant. If you click on the individual parcel HistoryGeo’s system tells you more information, including under which law the person(s) purchased the land. Seeing through this system that they were awarded cash-entry land patents, I went over to the Bureau of Land Management’s General Land Office (BLM GLO) site and found their patents on it. I was also able to print the current screen view of the HistoryGeo map showing my cousin and her husband, and because the system uses current view to print, I was even able to print two maps – a wider shot showing a good number of their neighbors, and a more zoomed view better showing the shape of their individual parcels.

I then tried to find my Breese family in Greenwood County, Kansas, who had relocated there from New York. I’m sure they were homesteaders, but they did not come up in the search results. The name is spelled a wide variety of ways in records, and I didn’t take the time to search all the variants I know, so I cannot say for sure that they are not included. I do know that they are not on the BLM GLO site even though they were homesteaders, which is probably because they bought their homestead via the Osage Trust lands (created as the Osages were removed to Indian Territory by the US government), so I am not sure if that is also why I did not find them in the HistoryGeo database. Though I was not able to locate the family, when I searched HistoryGeo it still brought up a map of the Greenwood County area (as you should find any time you place an unsuccessful search of a specific area), and I noted with interest that a Massachusetts college and an Indiana college were listed as the landowners of several parcels in the county. Out of curiosity I tried test searches for the colleges’ property in Greenwood County, but neither the state name nor a few other keywords in their names brought them up as results, so the database search engine seems to only be keyed to peoples’ names.

After this I did a few general searches for unusual surnames to see where they were distributed around the included public-land states. As a fairly visual learner, I found the way the numbers for multiple hits pop up around the map of the United States to be helpful in quickly gauging their distribution. It was fast and easy to zoom in on a couple several-hits states for each surname to get a better sense of distribution within the state. It seems like a tool that would be very helpful for anyone doing a one-name study. I found that in areas of counties where the land was broken down into small lots, instead of showing names and years on the map, the square on the map would say something like ‘Individual Lot Owners – Click for a List of Names.’ These lot owners’ names did turn up in the search, so that you knew to click through to the list if someone with the surname was on it. I also found that the database included warrantees who sold their land as well as the people who bought it from the warrantee, and that if multiple people with different surnames bought a patent together, the database included all of them.

After I returned home on Friday, I discovered that Sunny had posted a brief blog post about HistoryGeo at Lisa Louise Cooke’s site the same day: “Land Ownership Maps: New Online Property Map Tools for U.S. Genealogy Research.” While Sunny’s post and HistoryGeo’s own site both take the angle of using the site for genealogy, I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t also be useful for people doing historical research in the same time frame.

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My great-great-grandmother, Adelia Sturtevant, went by “Addie.” Addie’s life started out fairly typical for her time and place. Born in 1844, she was the daughter of Isaac and Harriet (Bell) Sturtevant, two of the large number of transplants from New England to northern Ohio. Addie’s mother Harriet died when Addie was fairly young, and Isaac remarried to an Ohio-born woman named Hortensia. But Addie’s father and stepmother went on to do something that was quite unusual at the time – they sent their daughter Addie to college.

They chose a college near their home of Cleveland – Oberlin College, the first college in the world to admit both men and women. As a student at Oberlin in the early 1860’s, Addie went to school with students that were both men and women, and both white and African-American. Addie was also in one of the most abolitionist college environments in this period around the start of the US Civil War, with many of the staff at Oberlin having left Ohio State University for Oberlin because they were unhappy with Ohio State’s stance on slavery. Addie was likely at Oberlin when the first African-American woman to attain a college degree, Mary Jane Patterson, did so there in 1862. Oberlin’s strong stand on abolition may have been part of the appeal for Addie’s New-England-born father Isaac.

Addie at college

Addie (on left) with an unknown friend at college. Undated on back but from the early 1860’s. This is an 1800’s copy of the original photo; based on my research of the photographer, the original was very likely a daguerreotype and the copy may have been done by the same photographer, who advertised the ability to make copies for customers. The edges are clipped (most obvious with the cut-off edge of the “O” in Ohio), but it is not clear whether this happened when the original copy was made or at some later date.

Historically, I can discern much of what Addie’s college environment would have been like – and how unusual she would have been as a woman who attended college at all – but not what she thought of it, nor how it affected the rest of her life. It’s likely that she was influenced by being in an environment that was so diverse for the time period, and quite possible that she was anti-slavery, but I have no direct evidence for this to date, only speculation. Regardless of this, her father and stepmother’s choice – and her opportunity – were extraordinary for the time period.

While Addie was at college, a young man named Charles C. Burnett enlisted in the Union Army in Indiana. Charles had been born in a rural area near Cleveland, Ohio, but his family had moved to Indiana while he was growing up. Like Addie, Charles watched his mother die while he was young, and his father remarried. Charles’s stepmother was a teacher before marriage, but the strong emphasis on education that she brought to the family was one that the younger family members would reap, not Charles. Charles was honorably discharged partway through the Civil War, and at some point he moved on his own back to his home state of Ohio, settling in the city of Cleveland and leaving his family behind in Indiana.

Charles in US Civil War uniform

Charles C. Burnett donned his Union uniform from the US Civil War for this photo much later in his life. The original copy of this photo has a large crease in it, which was very kindly digitally removed from my scan by fellow researcher Nina.

I do not yet know how or when, but somehow Charles and Addie met in the large city where they lived. They married in Cleveland’s county, Cuyahoga County, on Valentine’s Day 1867 in a double wedding with one of Addie’s siblings. Many other Union veterans of the Civil War were marrying around this same time.

Addie and Charles - marriage record

The record for the double marriage of Addie and her groom Charles, and Addie’s brother Charles and his bride Hattie, in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, on Valentine’s Day 1867. Scan from FamilySearch’s Ohio County Marriages collection.

Women’s education was growing rapidly in 19th century America. The century started with many girls in many regions expected only to go to primary/elementary school, if any formal schooling at all, though some regions (especially many areas of New England) had been placing an emphasis on basic education for all children for a long time. But then secondary schools for girls started to open in more and more locations, and then women began attending colleges, especially colleges beyond female seminary schools. Godey’s Lady’s Book was the most popular women’s magazine of 19th century America, and when Sarah Josepha Hale took over as the editor in 1836, she increasingly used the magazine as a platform to spread her belief that American housewives should be well-educated. The following year, Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College) was founded. It was important as it was the first American all-women’s college to have rigorous entrance requirements and an endowment.

Portrait of Addie as a young woman

Addie in an undated portrait; it is possible this was her wedding portrait.

Many modern historians talk about “presentism” – roughly defined as judging the past by today’s mores, thinking, and standards – and often criticize others for supposedly viewing the past through it. Personally I have long thought that the reverse is more likely to occur; to assume that people in the past weren’t like people today, to assume that things were so drastically different that we can never even theorize as to motivations, actions, thinking of the past. Many people are surprised to discover that a woman in my tree attended college that far in the past. The assumption is in a way the opposite of presentism; it’s an assumption that nobody in the early to mid-1800’s had the motivation and ability to provide a lengthy education for women.

From the records that have survived which I have viewed so far, I do not know what Isaac and his second wife’s motivations were for sending Addie to college, nor whether they had any particular expectations for what her life would be like after she finished. I also don’t know what Addie herself might have wanted from her life, nor whether she felt constrained by the gender roles of the time or felt comfortable in them or somewhere in between the two, nor whether she supported women’s suffrage as a number of prominent American women, including some Oberlin alumnae, already did at that time. Many women who were abolitionists came to believe that the same arguments that were typically used against slavery supported universal suffrage.  I also have no idea from the surviving records that I have viewed as to what her would-be husband Charles thought of having a wife who was better educated than he was, nor can I even be certain that he knew she was, though I certainly hope for both their sakes that she felt comfortable enough in their relationship to tell him.

Whatever Addie privately believed and hoped, she publicly married and became a housewife and mother, as the majority of the college-educated American women at that time and for decades to come would do. The indication I have to date that Addie’s love of learning and knowledge would last a lifetime is the third and final photo I inherited of her, taken decades later in her life.

Older Addie reading

Addie appears to be content as she reads a book in this photo taken much later in her life than the other two. Date unknown.

Charles died in 1898, only 55 years old. The paper trail indicates that after this Addie moved from state to state as she rotated between the locations of her widely scattered adult children. She applied for a widow’s pension based on Charles’s service in the Union in the Civil War, but was initially rejected because at the time they was only for widows whose Union-serving husbands had died during the Civil War or been declared disabled due to something that happened to them during the War. She reapplied when the law was widened to any widow and this time her application was accepted. She died in 1916 at the house of the daughter and son-in-law that were living in Cincinnati, Ohio. A family story indicates that this son-in-law, a professor, did not believe there was any use to educating women, as he is said to have told his daughter that educating dogs and women was equally pointless. I sometimes hope Addie had some strong opinions of her own to give him on that subject. Addie’s body was shipped back to Cleveland, where she was buried beside her husband Charles in the lot where her mother, father, and stepmother had also been buried in Lake View Cemetery.

I had initially intended to finish and post this draft on Election Day here in the States, which I obviously didn’t do as it is nearly a month later now. The reason is because when I, as a woman, go into that booth to fill out my ballot, I do so consciously remembering all the women before me – in my own tree around the world, and all the others – who did/do not have that option, and by speaking my voice I am honoring them. I do not know whether Addie would have voted if she’d had the opportunity, but I do know that she never got the chance.

“Women of Philadelphia! allow me as a Southern woman, with much attachment to the land of my birth, to entreat you to come up to this work. Especially let me urge you to petition. Men may settle this and other questions at the ballot-box, but you have no such right; it is only through petitions that you can reach the Legislature. It is therefore peculiarly your duty to petition. Do you say, ‘It does no good?’ The South already turns pale at the number sent.”

– Angelina Grimké, noted abolitionist & universal suffragist who was from a slaveholding family, in a mobbed public speech given in 1838


For anyone interested in public education (not colleges) in the U. S., I suggest The Rise of Literacy and the Common School in the United States: A Socioeconomic Analysis to 1870 by Lee Soltow and Edward Stevens (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981). While it has a lot of statistical analysis, it breaks literacy and school attendance down into regions, age groups, sex, etc., in a way that few if any other books do. While as an historical researcher I don’t agree with all of their conclusions, they provide enough of the raw data on which they base them for the reader to at least somewhat judge for themselves.

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My great-great-grandparents, David and Clara, started out with lives about as ordinary as possible for Vermont as it neared the middle of the 19th century. David’s parents were farmers; Clara’s parents and her uncle and aunt together ran the general store in the small town that the farms surrounded. Clara’s father was the town postmaster, as was typical for merchants in small towns then. It’s very likely that Clara and David knew each other from childhood, though I have no direct evidence to support that theory. However they met, they married at the end of 1860. I often wonder about what their lives were like then. Did they know that war was coming?

A year later they gave birth to their first child, whose birth was registered without a name by the town clerk. The Civil War was raging by then, and Vermont would go on to have what many believe was  the highest per capita casualty rate in the country. But David and Clara were busy raising a family and running a farm. If they had opinions about the war – and I find it a bit hard to believe that any Vermonter, living in the first place to outlaw slavery in what would become the US, didn’t – those were not included in the family papers that were passed down to me.

Two years later, in the middle of the war, they gave birth to their only other known child. If they had further children, these children didn’t even survive long enough for their short lives to be registered at the town hall. Such a small number of children was not typical of American families at this time. But the demographics of the country were changing. With only two children to raise, David and Clara gave their all to ensuring they had good educations. This was a wise move, as Vermont would shortly lose much of its population as young people sized up their chances in an overcrowded small state after the war ended. And so it came to be that the son of two small-town Vermonters – and my would-be great-grandfather – went to law school and moved to one of the largest cities in the United States, Cincinnati, in search of a brighter future than what was available where he had originated.

My great-grandfather as a young man

My great-grandfather in an albumen photo taken shortly after he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio.

With most people I research, all I can do for their day-to-day lives is speculate based on available outside records & reading social history. But my great-grandfather is a different story. His family saved many of his papers. He had the active social life typical of a young man then or now upon his move to the big city. One of  several saved invitations follows.

Handwritten invitation to play cards

Invitation for my great-grandfather to play cards. The writer wrote so exuberantly that she wrote off the right edge of the paper. While this is dated only ‘Saturday,’ based on the bundle of papers with it, it was very likely from late 1880’s Cincinnati.

My great-grandfather’s life would change dramatically in the span of one year, as he was appointed Clerk of a US Appellate Court and married my great-grandmother. In his journal, also passed down to me, he calls it the most important year of his life.

My great-grandfather in his office at the courthouse

My great-grandfather in his office at the courthouse, dated very shortly after he was appointed Clerk of a US Appellate Court.

Through the comparably large number of my great-grandfather’s items that the family saved, I have a much better sense than I typically would that I probably would have gotten along very well with him. Telephones were rather new to Cincinnati while he was clerking, and he used the courthouse stationery to express his displeasure at the cutting of trees, perhaps hoping that it would add extra weight to his complaint. It’s the kind of letter that I would write today. His copy of his letter has a notation indicating he received a response, but that is not among the saved items.

My great-grandfather's letter regarding the telephone company cutting trees

My great-grandfather’s 1903 letter regarding the telephone company cutting trees, written on courthouse stationery.

My great-grandfather also kept a scrapbook of items he found interesting in newspapers and other sources. Through this I discovered hints to his opinion on women’s suffrage:

A clipping on the American womens suffrage movement

Looking to have been clipped from a newspaper, this commentary on the American women’s suffrage movement seems to me to be wry. From my great-grandfather’s scrapbook.

My great-grandfather would not live to see American women win the federal right to vote, though from the above clipping I suspect this man who had devoted his adult life to studying, understanding, and writing on American law would have been pleased.

My great-grandfather committed suicide in 1915. I found out through my genealogical research, though after I discovered it I found out that this was one family secret that the family already knew – they just hadn’t told me. The family story I heard in response to my discovery is that he had had cancer for many years and the pain had gotten to be too much for him to bear. I subsequently discovered that another family story is that he had killed himself to spare his family the debt of what he believed to be an incurable disease. His death was carried in numerous newspapers around the country, openly reported as a suicide. Most of the articles said that he had had a long-term illness for many years and had only very recently become despondent over it. I don’t see any reason all three of these stories couldn’t be true.

My great-grandfather’s cemetery card is one of the few at the cemetery where “Disease” has been left blank:

A clip of my great-grandfather's internment record.

My great-grandmother was owner of the lot where he was interred, and likely provided the information on the card.

His death certificate was not so obtuse:

A clip from my great-grandfather's death certificate, showing cause of death

A clip from my great-grandfather’s Ohio death certificate, listing cause of death as:
“hemorrhage resulting from
incised wounds of wrist & throat

I mentioned this to one of his in-laws, who said that the family story had been that he had shot himself and that it had never made any sense as the family had not been known to have any guns in the house since moving to the city. As some of you already know, I am a tremendous proponent of telling relatives the truth; this is probably the only time I ever haven’t done so, as I think they find some comfort in thinking it was a fast, easy death, not the messy one it really was. (His few living blood relatives don’t read this blog.)

My great-grandfather’s entire story deserves to be told, from his birth to his painful and pain-causing death. I’m finishing and posting this draft today because it is World Mental Health Day and this year’s focus is depression. I think it’s easy for people to say “No one is ever given more than they can handle” but that has always annoyed me as if this were true, there would be no such thing as suicide. There should be no shame in telling people that one is depressed or has some other mental health problem, nor in asking for help if one is suicidal, but too often these are feelings and thoughts that people keep to themselves. To me, the best way to raise awareness is to discuss these issues openly, though of course the choice is up to each individual for themselves and each family historian for their family’s history. I doubt I ever would have discovered my great-grandfather had committed suicide if I hadn’t started researching my family’s history, and if that doesn’t speak to the stigma still held by so many regarding suicide, I don’t know what does.

I have no way to know if my great-grandfather told anyone he was despondent beforehand, nor how long he contemplated suicide before he carried out his thoughts. I can’t say whether it was the right choice for him, only that it is still affecting his family nearly a century later, for better and for worse.

“Don’t tell me how they found her
Because I don’t wanna know
Wildflowers all around her
Down in the dirt where they grow
She was all alone in the middle of spring
Don’t tell me there’s a reason for everything
‘Cause every face hides a mind
That gets tired of trying
And every mind hides a heart
That shelters thoughts of dying.”

Lisa Mednick

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I’m one of those historical researchers who reads the entire page of the newspaper when I find an article of interest, who reads the surrounding pages of a census enumeration, the entire county’s tax rolls, the whole parish register book. I find everything interesting! This week I was researching a particular historical story in newspapers and accidentally discovered this article:


Section 1 of an article from p. 3 of the 29 December 1885 New York Herald. (Scan courtesy of FultonHistory.com.)

Like most Americans (I hope), I know about how widespread lynchings of African-Americans were in America. This headline startled me, though. As if lynchings weren’t bad enough, people were being burned at the stake by mobs, too – and then the events were being reported in what read to me as a rather chipper way (That scoundrel got what he deserved! Everyone helped! We had a grand time burning someone alive!) in newspapers around the country.

As someone who grew up in a Northern area where the Klu Klux Klan was still very active when I was a child, I have spent a fair amount of time as an adult researching white supremacy movements and violence in America in the antebellum, Civil War, and post-Civil-War periods, counterpoints to my interest in North American & British abolitionism and the Underground Railroad. Reading historical summaries of the violence is horrific enough; here is a particularly chilling excerpt from David Grimsted’s excellent book American Mobbing, 1828-1861: Toward Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998):

In the morning [in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1855], the election went fairly quietly, though there was a knife fight between an Irishman and an American, both of whom eventually died, the Irishman in jail. In midafternoon things grew worse when Germans fired into some American election carriages, killing two men, and Know-Nothings [an anti-immigrant American political party] attacked and burned five or six German homes and a coffeehouse from which the shots apparently came. The Know-Nothing mayor dissuaded them from attacking the Catholic church. In the next few hours, random Germans were attacked, at least three fatally, and other homes and a brewery burned down. Irish in Ward Eight attacked three Americans, killing at least one, and Know-Nothings followed their retreat to a house, burned them out, and killed three. Another American death led to an attack on Quinn’s Row, a block of Irish homes, and some others, twenty in all, which were burnt. Patrick Quinn was shot and his body partly burned, and rioters beat victims fleeing the fire and, rumor declared, drove some Irish trying to escape back to a fiery death. The Know-Nothing police, inactive and maybe helpless in the shootings and burning of private property, protected the hated Louisville Times when a mob later threatened it. (pp. 233-34)

This came to be known as “Bloody Monday.” I’ve read some other accounts that claim that when the mob set buildings on fire, some of the people waited outside to shoot the people who tried to escape the fire; perhaps that is what Grimsted is referencing when he says “burned them out, and killed three.” Another Louisville mob would kill three slaves two years later.

In this climate of mob violence, it’s no wonder that people and events such as the Border Ruffians, the Bushwhackers & Jayhawkers, and the New York Draft Riots followed shortly before and during the American Civil War. And when the federal troops pulled out of the South when US President Rutherford B. Hayes (born 190 years ago yesterday) ended Reconstruction as part of a compromise to resolve the Hayes-Tilden election of 1876, it’s no wonder that mob violence quickly escalated again.

Article, part 2

Section 2 of an article from p. 3 of the 29 December 1885 New York Herald. (Scan courtesy of FultonHistory.com.)

But reading about the violence as recounted in a book like American Mobbing is completely different than reading about it first-hand in contemporary accounts. The subheadings in the second section (above), “HUNTING THE NEGRO” and “CAPTURED,” remind me starkly of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which turned every American into an accomplice to slavery, and which spurred many bounty hunters of escaped slaves to hunt in free states and some to enter Canada to hunt those that had escaped to full freedom there.

One of the most famous cases was centered on Oberlin, Ohio, the town of my alma mater, Oberlin College, which had attracted a lot of abolitionist teachers and staff who had left Ohio State University because they were unhappy with its slavery stance. Most commonly known today as “the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue,” there is now a lengthy digitized article about it, “When the Slave-Catcher Came to Town,” featuring much background information on tensions at the time. It is well worth a read for anyone even lightly interested in white American/African-American relations and/or the lead-up to the Civil War.

This specific article is noteworthy in part for what it does not say. The reporter writes, “Confronted with this evidence of his guilt, and charged with the crime, the scoundrel admitted that he had attempted . . .” As Grimsted notes in American Mobbing (p. 15), “Southern mobs always offered ‘proof’ of guilt which no one could doubt: victims were ‘whipped until they confessed’ . . .”

article on being burned at the stake, section 3

Section 3 (of 3) from an article on p. 3 of the 29 December 1885 New York Herald. (Scan courtesy of FultonHistory.com.)

No trial, not even a day’s wait: “Reed’s confession sealed his fate. It was decided that he should die at once. The majority insisted that he should be burned at the stake.” Even if Dick Reed was guilty (and I have no idea whether he was or not, and never will due to the way this proceeded), this is not the way justice should be carried out in an even marginally civilized society.

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