Remembering Our American Veterans on Memorial Day 2013

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, as we head into the Memorial Day weekend, Gena writes about how her family honors the veterans buried at Riverside National Cemetery in Southern California.

On Monday, Americans will pause to remember those who have died while serving their country. Memorial Day, originally known as Decoration Day, was first officially celebrated on 30 May 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery. Up until the time of World War I, the day was meant to honor those who served in the Civil War. Succeeding wars have given Americans many more lives to honor.

Do you have plans this Memorial Day 2013? Whether it’s researching a military ancestor or taking part in a community remembrance, there are numerous ways to spend this Memorial Day holiday. For the last four years, Memorial Day has had a significant meaning for my family. For us, preparations for Memorial Day begin the first Saturday in May when my sons’ Boy Scout Troop starts fundraising. The donations they seek fund a project that has come to have great meaning for the Scouts: buying U.S. flags to adorn American veterans’ graves. These flags, each approximately two feet tall, are placed at the head of the gravestones at the Riverside National Cemetery in Southern California every Memorial Day. Each year the Scouts add to their collection of flags; this year they hope to increase the number of flags to 2,500.

Boy Scout placing U.S. flag on a veteran's grave at Riverside National Cemetery

Photo credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega

The Saturday before Memorial Day, Boy Scouts and their families get together and place these flags, one by one, at the same space right above each gravestone. As they place each flag they pause to say the name of the veteran buried there and what war or battle they fought in. The Scoutmasters have instilled in the Scouts that this is a sacred duty, remembering those who served their country—the ceremonious tradition of paying respects to our fallen soldiers is not to be taken lightly. As each American flag is placed to mark the soldiers’ graves you can hear boys exclaim things like “wow, this person fought in World War I” or “he was in the Navy like my dad.” I’ve seen entire families take a few minutes to read the gravestone and reflect on the person buried beneath.

photo of U.S. flags placed on veterans' graves at Riverside National Cemetery

Photo credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega

As a genealogist, this Boy Scout activity every year is one of my favorites. Generations ago, it wasn’t so uncommon for families to visit cemeteries, gather around the resting place of a family member, enjoy the park-like surroundings, and maybe even have a picnic. Today this is a rare occurrence and for most children, cemeteries are places that hold a morbid curiosity at best.

This Memorial Day project for my sons’ Boy Scout Troop helps them connect with cemeteries and the very real lives of the people who are buried there—which in turn leads to an interest in past lives and their own ancestors’ stories. I want families to see genealogy as an exciting pursuit—not one that is merely about gathering names, dates and places, but rather a pursuit that is active and centers on the stories of everyday lives.

Our Troop isn’t the only group at the Riverside National Cemetery on the Saturday before Memorial Day. Girl Scout groups, veterans, and church congregations are there as well, placing U.S. flags with a common goal: to honor all the veterans buried in those 900+ acres. With the Riverside National Cemetery being the most active in the National Cemetery system, it is an awesome task. Those fields of American flags will serve as a visual reminder of the lives buried there when Memorial Day activities commence Monday morning.

U.S. flags placed on veterans' graves at Riverside National Cemetery

Photo credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega

The Tuesday after Memorial Day, I will be at the cemetery with my kids pulling each flag out of the ground while we stop and read each name etched on the corresponding gravestone. Those flags will then be cleaned and placed into storage so that they can be used by the Troop again next year when we prepare for Memorial Day 2014.

What about the Kids? Researching Your Family Tree’s Children

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena writes about the family history challenge of researching your ancestors’ lives when they were children.

My sons have had the opportunity to visit more cemeteries and hear more genealogy presentations than most family historians. They’ve been a captive audience as I give genealogy talks to conferences, societies, and libraries. They even have a few of my genealogy presentations memorized. Unimpressed by the family history topics I cover, my youngest always asks: “why don’t you ever talk about researching kids?”

old photo of children from Gena Philibert-Ortega's collection

Old photo of children, from the author’s collection

It’s a fair question considering that all of our ancestors started life as children. My guess is that most family historians would reply that children don’t leave a record trail, or that their lives aren’t as documented as adults—and that is why genealogists don’t spend much time researching their ancestors’ early years.

But there are instances where children do leave a paper trail. A visit to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois, reinforced this fact to our family when we viewed a photographic exhibit of Civil War soldiers. Boys as young as 9 years served in the Civil War, and some of them were photographed.

photo of an unidentified young Civil War soldier in Union uniform and forage cap, from the Library of Congress

Photo: Unidentified young Civil War soldier in Union uniform and forage cap. Credit: Library of Congress.

From: Library of Congress. Flickr, The Commons. Accessed 23 March 2013.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/library_of_congress/5229153190/

While children are too young to leave the type of documentation reserved for adults, they do leave behind records. A birth record or church christening announcement may start your search, depending on the time period. School records are another choice for researching kids. Don’t forget the variety of articles found in a local newspaper.

Obviously the era the child grew up in will determine what mentions could be found in the newspapers. But some ideas include:

Organizations

What organizations or clubs did the child belong to? By learning more about the history of the place your ancestor was from, you may identify groups that they may have taken part in, including organizations that were social, educational, ethnic or religious in nature.

The Boy Scouts of Black Wolf and B.P., Lexington Herald newspaper article 25 September 1910

Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 25 September 1910, page 4

Although far from comprehensive, here is a list of some groups from the 20th century:

School

In a previous blog article, “Searching Family History: Old School Records in the Newspaper,” I explored the types of newspaper articles that listed teachers and students.

As explained in that blog article, there are numerous types of articles mentioning children. From their achievements and awards, to sporting events and even misdeeds, you can find mentions of school children in local newspapers. One of the pluses to digitized newspapers is that a search of just a name can assist you in finding these mentions. Consider limiting your search by date as you explore GenealogyBank, allowing you to focus on an ancestor’s early years.

Letters to Santa

Reading letters to Santa from the late 19th and early 20th centuries reminds one how much better off materially most people are now.

Letters to Santa from the Children, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 16 December 1906

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 16 December 1906, page 9

These letters range from requests for toys or food to desperate pleas for almost anything their parents couldn’t afford. These letters often include the child’s name and, in some cases, an address. What a great find to see the requests of your family member to the jolly guy in the red suit!

Dear Old Santa Claus, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 21 December 1899

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 21 December 1899, page 2

Social History

As with any genealogy research, consider social history when learning more about children from past generations. Use the newspapers as a local history source to get a sense of what organizations and activities your ancestors may have been involved in during their younger years. Read histories of the time to learn more about what childhood was like during their era. By learning more about the locality of your ancestor, you can learn more about what types of activities they may have enjoyed. Gaps in specific family records can be filled with broader social history information.

Keep your own children’s interests in mind! Including stories about their ancestors’ childhoods will stimulate present and future generations of children to take more interest in the family history you are documenting and preserving.