Italian Immigrant Ancestor Helped Carve Mount Rushmore!

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott shows what he found in newspapers about a friend’s ancestor who helped carve Mount Rushmore.

Almost all of us have stories of immigrant ancestors who came to the United States and toiled to make a better life for themselves and their families. Many, like mine, did so in relative anonymity. However, not too long ago I came across one immigrant to America who did his toiling in plain sight…and I mean really in plain sight!

photo of Luigi Del Bianco carving the left eye of Abraham Lincoln on Mount Rushmore

Luigi Del Bianco carving the left eye of Abraham Lincoln on Mount Rushmore. Photograph credit: Windows Live Photo Gallery.

A few weeks ago I was working on my wife’s Italian ancestry, especially her immigrant grandparents who came to America from the Molise district of central Italy. As I was working on this, I received an email from Lou Del Bianco. Lou’s family also came from Italy to the United States in search of the proverbial “better life.” While my wife’s ancestors were miners and agricultural laborers, Lou’s grandfather, Luigi Del Bianco, was different. He was a classically-trained sculptor, who as a young man studied in Austria and Venice.

Lou had quite a story to tell and he was interested in having it promoted on my website (http://OnwardToOurPast.com) and on my Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/OnwardToOurPast). Once I heard the basics of Lou’s story, I was hooked!

So naturally the first thing I did was click over to GenealogyBank.com to see what I might find on Lou’s grandfather, Luigi. As usual, I was not disappointed and I was able to add to Lou’s knowledge about his grandfather and his work.

The first story that I found was an article explaining Luigi’s arrival on his job: as Chief Carver on Mount Rushmore! Yep, the Mount Rushmore! As I said, this story is about one immigrant who “did his toiling in plain sight”!

According to the newspaper article, Luigi was the right-hand man to Gutzon Borglum, the driving force and lead on the Mount Rushmore project.

Borglum Aide Arrives to Assist in Rushmore Work, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 4 May 1933

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota) 4 May 1933, page 10

While there were over 400 men working on the giant carving, Luigi was one of only two trained sculptors, and as a result was named as the Chief Carver by Borglum. He spent an amazing seven years carving on the Mount Rushmore monument from 1933 to 1940.

As I continued to search in GenealogyBank.com’s online newspaper archives, I found some great stories about the carving of the Mount Rushmore memorial. I enjoyed an old news article published in the Tampa Tribune from 1927, when the Mount Rushmore project was still little more than an idea in Borglum’s head.

Start Soon Carving Head of Washington on Mount Rushmore, Tampa Tribune newspaper article 31 March 1927

Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Florida), 31 March 1927, page 23

The following historical newspaper article reports the hilarious exchange of telegrams between Borglum and President Calvin Coolidge regarding the history that President Coolidge wanted carved on Mount Rushmore, and Borglum’s attempt to cut the wordy President’s text down to size.

For Intimate Correspondence, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 29 May 1930

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 29 May 1930, page 6

Here is an old news article reporting that Luigi kept a life-size cast of the fist and arm of famed Italian heavyweight boxing champion Primo Carnera in his studio—a  model which folks often mistook for a sledgehammer!

Hills Sculptor Knew Carnera as Youth in Italy, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 29 June 1933

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 29 June 1933, page 2

I have since learned even more about Luigi Del Bianco, this amazing Italian American immigrant, who—although  not well known—accomplished some of the best known work in our entire nation, artistic carving that millions of tourists have viewed with awe and wonder.

In addition to reading about Luigi on GenalogyBank.com you can also discover more about his life and work at http://www.luigimountrushmore.com, or you can see how the hit television show Cake Boss recently baked a Mount Rushmore cake in honor of Luigi on Lou’s website at http://www.findlou.com.

Want to Get the Younger Generation into Genealogy? Pass Down Your Old Family Stories

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott tells how he got his grandsons interested in genealogy by enhancing his family stories with articles from old newspapers.

When I was growing up, I was blessed to be in a family that told lots of stories. Looking back, I believe that this storytelling is one of the key reasons I became intrigued with genealogy later in my life. As a young boy, I was frequently being regaled with stories by one family member or another. The stories often involved growing up in “the old country,” sometimes about how much life had changed. Many were family stories that, while based in truth, were often embellished with more than a bit of exaggeration.

I recall very well my Aunt Gladys telling stories of the trouble she constantly found herself in due to the schemes hatched by my mother, and the story of the eye in the back of her head. There was my grandfather telling stories about being a “lad” in Cornwall.  Then there was my Uncle Jim—family storyteller extraordinaire! He was always willing to tell his stories about his time fighting in three wars as a member of the United States Navy, getting marooned on a deserted South Seas island, his various tattoos, or how he was chosen to accompany the giant telescope mirrors manufactured by Warner and Swasey Company from Cleveland all across America on the railroads.

Years later it came as no surprise to me that, as my children were growing up, I took on the role of family storyteller.

Just a week ago, I found myself sitting with my grandchildren and wondering how I could “talk some genealogy” with them. They were visiting us from their home that happens to be practically in the shadow of Disney World, Epcot, etc. It now seems so simple, but at the time it struck me like a bolt of lightning: I should be telling them our family stories! So I began by telling my grandsons all about my favorite amusement park. It was named Euclid Beach Park, located in Cleveland, Ohio, and as a kid it was heaven-on-earth to me.

photo of the author's grandmother and family having a picnic at Euclid Beach Park in Cleveland, Ohio

Scott Phillips’s grandmother Ina and some of her family having a picnic at Euclid Beach Park, date uncertain. Family photo is from the author’s collection.

Going to Euclid Beach Park for family gatherings was clearly the most special event of my year! We’d make a day of it from opening to well after dark, complete with a picnic lunch of my Cornish grandmother’s famous pasty and sausage rolls. As I wove the story, I could tell my grandsons were having a hard time buying into my excitement about what a special place Euclid Beach was. So what could I do?

I grabbed my iPad and off we clicked to GenealogyBank.com to see what I could show the boys about Euclid Beach Park. By the time I was done, everyone in the house was clustered around my grandsons and me. They were all rapt and enjoying the journey back in time, complete with my family stories to enhance them. Yep, the newspaper articles I found were that good.

I was overjoyed to see three generations enjoying what got me excited about genealogy so many decades before: family stories, but this time vastly improved through technology and GenealogyBank.com.

As I clicked, the first story—in a cache of hundreds—was about the season opener of the park in 1905, the crowds that attended, and what a significant event this was.

Euclid Beach Park Opened, Plain Dealer newspaper article 28 May 1905

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 28 May 1905, page 6

Plus, since it is true that “boys will be boys,” my grandsons were especially enjoying the “action” stories I soon found and read to them about famed naval aviation pioneer Glenn H. Curtiss’s attempt to set a naval aviation record from Euclid Beach Park, a trapeze artist falling to his death from an aerial balloon, and ferry boats smashing into one another.

Steamers Crash Together in River, Plain Dealer newspaper article 17 June 1901

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 17 June 1901, page 1

Then even I got excited! I found an old article that showed, nice and close up, my very favorite (still to this day) amusement park ride in the world, “The Flying Turns.” The historical newspaper article was complete, showing younger riders in all stages of happiness as they rode this amazing ride, which was a rollercoaster set inside 2/3s of a wooden tube with no rails! Centrifugal force took care of keeping you inside and it was quite the ride.

Crazy Days of Summer, Plain Dealer newspaper article 26 July 1964

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 26 July 1964, page 107

I was so happy! With just a few easy clicks there we were and Euclid Beach was staying alive for another generation of the Phillips family. Even better, my grandsons were enjoying genealogy without even realizing it. Sometimes stories passed down from generation to generation can be the best!

Family Memories: Finding My Grandfather’s Stories in the Newspaper

When I was a kid my grandfather would drive us over to see the old family sites in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. I remember grandpa was quite the storyteller. Every corner had a story attached to it, including the story of Joseph Plummer (1774-1862) of Meredith.

collage of newspaper articles about New Hampshire hermit Joseph Plummer

Collage of newspaper articles about New Hampshire hermit Joseph Plummer

Why was that story memorable? Because Plummer was a hermit.

A hermit…that was kind of spooky, mysterious…but there we were—parked near his grave. My grandfather showed us where Plummer’s cabin stood. As we drove around the Lakes Region, my grandfather brought us to the old Baptist Church where some of our relatives were once baptized on Christmas Day—after chopping a hole in the ice. Later, he showed us the place where another relative was buried in a glass coffin, a sealed vat of alcohol, in an attempt to prevent his body from decomposition by being buried in the ground.

These were great stories I heard while growing up in New Hampshire. It didn’t matter that we didn’t have TV; we had our grandfather to keep us spellbound with his stories—“our” stories. Today, remembering his storytelling provides some of my fondest memories of time spent with grandpa when I was young.

Over the years I have found documentation in old newspapers that filled in my memory of the stories he told us when we were children.

Bingo: here is another one of my grandpa’s stories verified. I found information in an old newspaper article about the New Hampshire hermit Joseph Plummer that my grandfather told us about.

Over the years the newspapers wrote a dozen articles about Joseph Plummer, giving many of the details of his life.

He was interviewed in 1862 and asked his age: “he answered: ‘I was born the 9th hour of the 13th day of October, in 1774.’”

New Hampshire hermit Joseph Plummer, Deseret News newspaper article 15 October 1862

Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah), 15 October 1862, page 123

Another news report gave an episode in Plummer’s life that my grandfather didn’t include in his telling of the hermit’s story.

It seems Plummer didn’t quite know how to go about dating the Deacon’s daughter. His brothers married two other of the Fox daughters—but for Joseph it wasn’t to be, despite his apparent determination: “Joseph on one occasion made up his mind to sally forth from his retreat and woo the remaining daughter.”

Unfortunately for Joseph, as the old article relates, “He was somewhat original in his method and broke down in his project.”

A Hermit's Attempt at Courtship, Washington Reporter newspaper article 19 February 1873

Washington Reporter (Washington, Pennsylvania), 19 February 1873, page 7

After failing in his attempt at romance, Plummer bought land and built his cabin far from the “crowds” and cares of the world.

Hermit's Home Today, Broad Ax newspaper article 21 May 1898

Broad Ax (Salt Lake City, Utah), 21 May 1898, page 2

These old newspaper article clippings bring back memories of time spent with my grandfather and add depth to the stories he told us as children. They provide perfect material for family memory books and scrapbooking projects to share with family generations to come so that they remember grandpa and his stories. Family stories are a treasure—even more so when we can document and expand on them in the deep newspaper archives of GenealogyBank.

 

 

Mining for My Italian-American Wife’s Minnesota Hometown History

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott tells about researching his ancestors’ lives and the history of the Mesabi Iron Range in northern Minnesota where they lived.

The most significant blessing in my life was when the young woman who is now my wife of 37 years said “yes” to my proposal of marriage. During our courtship I learned that she and her family were living in a part of the country that I was not particularly familiar with. OK, wait, I will rephrase that and be more honest about it. While the blessing part is 100% accurate, the fact of the matter is that when I met my future wife I did not know a plug nickel’s worth about her hometown area, which is located on the Mesabi Iron Range in northern Minnesota. One of my favorite aspects of genealogy is learning the history of the times that goes along with discovering our ancestors and their information.

Learning the ancestry essentials from my wife was easy. Her family is 100% Italian on both sides, all four of her grandparents emigrated from central Italy to northern Minnesota for economic opportunity, I was going to be the first non-Italian to ever join her family (but that’s a story for a different time), northern Minnesota is far more beautiful than I had ever imagined, and the area owes its prosperity, and future, to the iron ore hiding in the soils of the Mesabi Iron Range.

photo of workers at the Scranton Mine in Minnesota in 1932

Author’s grandfather-in-law, Pasquale, during the Great Depression at the mines of the Mesabi Iron Range. This was the entire annual output of the ore from the Scranton Mine in all of 1932. From the collection of Scott Phillips.

Several years ago, as I was researching deeply into my wife’s Italian ancestry, I realized I had a hankering to learn even more about the history, background, and the life and times of the area in northern Minnesota that her Italian immigrant grandparents chose to call their new home. While I knew a lot from wonderful stories told to me by her grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, and especially her parents, I was looking forward to learning even more.

So naturally I found myself clicking over to GenealogyBank.com to delve deeper into her Italian family’s past!

Utilizing the “Advanced Search” feature on the site, I began by looking up such keyword terms as Mesabi Iron Range, Hibbing, Chisholm, Eveleth, Minnesota, while tossing in a surname and a few other terms periodically. My depth of understanding was growing with every old newspaper article I was reading. As the expression goes, “It’s the next best thing to being there.”

For me, one of the most impressive features of GenealogyBank.com is the geographic reach of their more than 6,100 newspapers, which I was having a blast researching. It was thrilling to be reading a full page story from 1890 in the Chicago Herald titled “Mountains of Riches,” all about the early times on the Mesabi Range.

Mountains of Riches, Chicago Herald newspaper article 14 October 1891

Chicago Herald (Chicago, Illinois), 14 October 1890, page 9

Another interesting historical newspaper article was about the challenges of building the first railroad from Duluth, Minnesota, on the shores of Lake Superior to the towns on the Iron Range, published in the Duluth News-Tribune.

A Road to the Mesabi, Duluth News-Tribune newspaper article 6 June 1891

Duluth News-Tribune (Duluth, Minnesota), 6 June 1891, page 2

Of course, being an avid American baseball fan it was personally thrilling to find an old newspaper article in the Marietta Journal, in Marietta, Georgia, on a story from the movie Field of Dreams that was relating the true story of Doctor Archibald “Moonlight” Graham. This time the story was being told by our family friend and a newspaper editor herself, Ms. Veda Ponikvar, of Minnesota’s Chisholm Free Press.

Real Character in 'Field of Dreams' Has Point of View, Marietta Journal newspaper article, 1 June 1991

Marietta Journal (Marietta, Georgia), 1 June 1991, page 2

Then just for what seemed like good measure, I found myself reading an obituary from the Hibbing Daily Tribune for one of my wife’s uncles. It was an obituary that I didn’t have in my family tree.

Mike D'Aquila Newspaper Obituary, Hibbing Daily Tribune newspaper article, 21 September 1999

Hibbing Daily Tribune (Hibbing, Minnesota), 21 September 1999

This obituary brought back wonderful memories of family times gone by—especially since the article was noting that his funeral was held in The Church of the Immaculate Conception, which I was quickly remembering was known all over the Iron Range simply as “the Italian Church” since daily Mass was still said in Latin and Italian. There I was, all over again, sitting in those church pews surrounded by family.

Now here I sit, smiling and teary-eyed all at the same time.

 

A Murder in the Family Tree: Policeman Stabbed to Death

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott reports a sad discovery when doing his family history research—finding a murder in his family tree.

Ever have one of those eerie experiences that make you just a little bit scared in your family history work? I did and it happened early in my genealogy research when I decided to visit the Woodland Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio. I had been wanting to visit this cemetery for some time as I have faint memories of visiting there with my family when I was a very young boy. Additionally, in my genealogy research, I have discovered that our family has more than 160 deceased family members resting eternally in Woodland Cemetery.

On this particular cemetery visit I was planning on paying my respects to my great grandfather’s sister, Theresa Sluka. As I arrived at her grave I not only found her gravestone, but I found a substantial family burial plot. I was madly clicking photos and writing down notes as to location, directions, etc., when one of the Sluka family gravestones caught my attention.

Up until that visit, I had never seen a gravestone that held portraits captured in porcelain. The small obelisk in front of me held not one portrait, but two. As I came closer, I realized that for the first time I was gazing at the likenesses of my cousins, Albert and Frank Sluka. Both looked remarkably young and then I noticed that Albert died at just 29 (1877-1907) and his brother, Frank, wearing a uniform of some sort in his portrait, died at only 33 (1878-1912).

gravestone portrait of Albert Sluka (1877-1907)

Gravestone portrait of Albert Sluka (1877-1907)

It wasn’t an hour later that I was booting up my computer and digging into these two family members. Beginning with Albert, my first stop was at GenealogyBank.com and I was not disappointed. On the first page of search results there was an article from the front page of the Plain Dealer:

Policeman Dies in Street Fight, Plain Dealer newspaper article, 28 March 1907

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 28 March 1907, page 1

I felt as if the headline was screaming at me. I couldn’t believe what I was reading: “Policeman Dies in Street Fight. Is Stabbed Just Once, but Life Ebbs Away in Short Time.”

Only three blocks from the very cemetery where I had been standing only an hour earlier, my cousin, wearing his badge and working as a “Special Policeman,” was stabbed to death by a man he had bounced from a dancehall! The old newspaper article explained the crime scene and reported that his brother was a member of the Cleveland Police Department. My curiosity, being fully piqued at this point, kept me looking further.

Amidst the tragedy of this police murder story, I discovered in another newspaper article that the Cleveland Police did indeed get their man, who was a fellow by the name of Harry Fertel:

Murder Charge Rests Lightly, Plain Dealer newspaper article, 29 March 1907

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 29 March 1907, page 2

The news of Albert Sluka’s murder was carried in other newspapers in other states, such as this historical news article which appeared on the front page of an Indiana paper:

Policeman Stabbed to Death, Elkhart Truth newspaper article, 28 March 1907

Elkhart Truth (Elkhart, Indiana), 28 March 1907, page 1

GenealogyBank.com was finding, and I was reading, news stories that covered the initial reports of the assault and crime, and explanations of the impact of the murder on my ancestors including this: “The aged father and mother of the dead policeman are brokenhearted. All day long they sat sobbing beside the casket in the little front room of their home at 5311 McBride Av., S.E…”

I was even learning about my great aunt trying to get her son’s killer sentenced to serve his time in the Penitentiary rather than the Ohio State Reformatory—which itself was none too nice, as revealed in the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption (the movie was filmed at the Ohio State Reformatory).

Mother Seeks Revenge, Plain Dealer newspaper article, 15 May 1907

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 15 May 1907, page 3

Ever since that first day of those discoveries about my cousin Albert and his murder, I have been further augmenting my knowledge of this family tragedy with information available from the coroner’s autopsy report, trial transcripts, jail records, and more.

The one thing I can tell you for certain is that reading those early newspaper articles sure beats any TV courtroom drama I have ever seen, because, as they say, “This Is Family.”

 

Genealogist Chips Away at His Family History ‘Brick Wall’

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott tells how the discovery of a faded news clipping in the drawer of an old desk provided an important clue about his family history.

The most impenetrable brick wall in my personal genealogy quest began as, and continues to be, my maternal great grandfather, Joseph K. Vicha.

When I was starting my genealogy the sum total of our family’s knowledge about my great grandfather Vicha was his name, his wife’s name (Anna Knechtl), and a penciled note of unknown date and author that simply stated “Joseph K. Vicha – Pisec (sic).” Nothing more.

Over the years of my searching, I can happily report that I have been successful in finding my great grandfather’s birth family, home village in Bohemia (Czech Republic now) of Milevsko, and have traced this family line back to the mid-1600s in Bohemia. However, he still disappears from view in 1911. But what wonderful things I am finding in the years between his birth in 1862 and his disappearance in 1911!

What I am discovering to be an extraordinarily useful method in my work is to expand the search terms I am using in GenealogyBank.com and other places.

A couple of examples might help me explain this best.

Quite by chance, my cousin was rummaging through an old family desk when he came across an envelope. It held a barely legible, torn, and undated newspaper clipping. This article showed me that my great grandfather was a labor union activist with something called the C.L.U. in Cleveland, Ohio.

old, faded newspaper clipping about J. K. Vicha, the author's ancestor

Old, faded newspaper clipping that provided the author his first clue in tracing his ancestor J. K. Vicha

Upon learning this I immediately started searching anew on GenalogyBank.com. I searched using terms such as C.L.U., Central Labor Union, and Joseph K. Vicha in the search boxes and I struck gold!

My first hit was an article from the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, dated 28 November 1896 and headlined “Vicha Will Resign. Will Retire From the Presidency of the C.L.U.” I still feel pleased when I think back on that discovery, and am thankful the newspaper articles in GenealogyBank.com are very carefully digitized and come complete with attribution of newspaper and date.

Vicha Will Resign, Plain Dealer newspaper clipping 28 November 1896

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 28 November 1896, page 2

This early article held the new clue that my great grandfather was seeking an appointment from Ohio’s governor, Asa S. Bushnell, to become the superintendent of the Free Employment Bureau. On I went with new searches looking into the Free Employment Bureau in Cleveland and sure enough there was more to be learned! Soon I was discovering that my great grandfather was also a close political advisor to Robert E. McKisson, a two-term mayor of the City of Cleveland from 1895 to 1898.

Mayor McKisson Had His Picture Taken at a Bohemian Reunion, Plain Dealer newspaper article 27 June 1898

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 27 June 1898, page 5

I was fast learning to follow each seemingly unrelated, but actually related, clue in article after article. For instance, moving from Vicha I found myself searching on Central Labor Union, then moving to C.L.U., Mayor Robert McKisson, Labor Unrest, Cloakmakers’ Strike, Lumbermen’s Strike, Czech, Bohemian, and the name of each company where my great grandfather was reported to have been working. One especially nice aspect of GenealogyBank.com is that it not only contains papers from the major Cleveland daily, the Plain Dealer, but it also has issues from the Cleveland Gazette and the Cleveland Leader.

Real Condition Given by Superintendent Vicha of the Cleveland Free Employment Office, Cleveland Gazette newspaper article 15 December 1900

Cleveland Gazette (Cleveland, Ohio), 15 December 1900, page 1

While searching each new term, it was exciting to find that while my great grandfather did start out as a tailor just like his father, he:

  • became a Union organizer
  • was active in some of the most contentious labor strikes in the history of Cleveland
  • was elected the president of the Central Labor Union
  • received a gubernatorial appointment as the superintendent of the State of Ohio Free Employment Bureau in Cleveland
  • fought against sweatshops and child labor in Cleveland
  • authored a bill for the Ohio State Legislature to provide for the teaching of Bohemian (Czech) in the public schools
  • worked as a political advisor to Mayor McKisson
  • was instrumental in the mayor’s campaigning in the Bohemian community of Cleveland
  • and, while making some of the most powerful enemies one could have (such as Mark Hanna, Max Hayes, and United States President William McKinley), great grandfather Vicha was also recognized as one of the most influential Bohemians in Cleveland at that time

Unfortunately, my great grandfather does simply disappear in 1911. Family legend has it that he was branded “persona non grata” by his political and business-community enemies in Cleveland and was forced to leave in order to find work and survive.

Undeterred, I am continuing my hunt—chipping away at the brick wall that is Joseph K. Vicha after 1911. I just have this feeling that the resources of GenealogyBank.com are going to hold the key for me!

Family Search Uncovers Circus Elephant Story

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott speaks of his love of genealogy, and shares some of the family history discoveries he’s made—including the tale of an ancestor, a zookeeper, who was nearly trampled to death by Minnie, the lone elephant at Cleveland’s Brookfield Zoo, in 1915!

Right off the bat I’ll admit it. I’m a genealogy nut! My wife calls my pursuit of family history “our shadow.” My favorite quote is “I used to have a life and then I started doing genealogy.” Plus, I am hoping for another grandchild, simply because I have a myriad of historic family names that I think need to be carried on. I wonder what my chances are for either Lovejoy Cinderella for a granddaughter or Sylvia Marathan for a grandson?

Well, maybe not.

Additionally, it is a matter of great personal satisfaction that I have been able to trace my family roots, with documentation, to the 1500s on my father’s side (Phillipps and Cottle) in Cornwall, United Kingdom; to the early 1600s on my mother’s side (Vicha and Knechtl) in Bohemia, now the Czech Republic; and to the 1700s with my wife’s families (D’Aquila and Casagrande) in the Molise district of Italy. My Cornish and Bohemian immigrant ancestors all happened to find their separate ways to Cleveland, Ohio, between 1852 and 1911. My wife’s ancestors made their way to the Mesabi Iron Range of northern Minnesota.

The “Chase-of-the-Trace”

While the thrill of what I have dubbed the “chase-of-the-trace” is always amazing, I have to admit that, for me, the best part is more often the “little things.” You know, those human interest stories or unexpected items that one discovers pursuing genealogy and/or family histories. Sure there is the rush of excitement when we chip a brick out of a longstanding wall by finding a birth, marriage, or death certificate we’ve long been looking for, but to see the real lives of our ancestors unfold is what gets me truly excited.

A personal goal in my family tree and website (which I keep on the genealogy/social network site MyHeritage.com) is to find, capture, and then weave the threads of the culture, times, and values of our ancestors into what I call the quilt of our family history. For instance, in my family I will be the last person who will have grown up hearing Czech spoken in our home. I don’t want that memory to be lost. Not ever!

Sister Marjorie: the Chase Begins

Recently I got a phone call from a Cleveland cousin. Since I use our genealogy website as our worldwide family social network, she wanted to inform me of the passing of another cousin, Sister Marjorie. In the family we knew Sister Marjorie, before her vows, as Florence Kotrsal, a member of our Knechtl family branch. Cousin Florence had always intrigued me, especially since she was a twin (rare in our family tree) and I had not done any significant amount of work on her. As so often happens, the loss of a family member caused me to be doing something a bit too late.

First, I began learning more about her life as a member of the Order of the Sisters of Holy Humility of Mary where she lived for 73 years in Villa Maria, Pennsylvania. Next, I began to work more on her family members. I knew Florence was the daughter of Dr. Joseph J. Kotrsal (later, as with so many Slavic names in my family, “Americanized” to Kottershall) and Florence Kapl, and that Florence was the twin sister of Josephine. I began to move back in time and soon discovered I was in my favorite element, which is the early Bohemian community of Cleveland, Ohio.

As always, one of my first stops during my family history search was at GenealogyBank.com. I love the site and the coverage in the Cuyahoga County/Cleveland/Northeast, Ohio, area through the Plain Dealer and the Leader is excellent and very deep. Plus, with bated breath, I am awaiting their forthcoming additions of some of the early Cleveland Czech-language newspapers they recently acquired from the Balch Museum in Pennsylvania.

Sister Marjorie’s Father, Dr. Joseph J. Kotrsal (Kottershall)

J.J. Kotershall, Physician, Is Dead, Plain Dealer 11 December 1945

Obituary for Dr. Joseph J. Kotrsal (Kotershall), Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 11 December 1945, page 6

During my family search my first exciting discovery was that Florence’s father, Dr. Joseph J. Kotrsal, was the same medical doctor whose name I had seen frequently on death certificates and other documents. As I searched farther, I found his obituary, always a terrific find. As I read, I was amazed to see that Dr. Kotrsal was instrumental in bringing the very first x-ray machine to Cleveland, Ohio. Now you might think this would have changed him as a person or his practice, but his obituary states that he continued to focus on providing medical care in the Bohemian community of Cleveland his entire life.

An additional precept in my personal family history work is that I want to be as inclusive as possible, so I study spouses and their families for equal inclusion in my family tree. In this case, I directed my searching to Florence’s maternal grandparents, Joseph F. and Louise Mary (Babicky) Kapl.

Circus Elephant Story

But Never Again! Says Keeper Kapl of Minnie, Plain Dealer newspaper article, 23 March 1915

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 23 March 1915, page 4

The next item I found brought me to a stop. The first “hit” (of 31) in Historical Newspapers on Joseph Kapl, Florence’s grandfather, was a real keeper. Zookeeper that is! Not only was there a full newspaper article on this man, but there was a story, a terrific ink drawing of Joseph (so far the only picture anyone in the family has of him), and the unique story of how he was nearly trampled to death by Minnie, the lone elephant at Cleveland’s Brookfield Zoo, where Joseph happened to be Minnie’s keeper. Very kindly, the newspaper reporter even thought to list Joseph’s home address in the article, which matches spot-on with the 1920 United States Census listing for the Kottershall family.

Between the obituary for Dr. Kottershall and the wonderful circus elephant story with Joseph Kapl these newspaper articles gave me the exact threads I was seeking—ones that allow me to weave a bit of what the real lives of my ancestors were like into the quilt of our family history that I am still laboring over.

Ah, but what a labor of love it is!

How to Find Your Grandfather’s Birth Records Online

Every day we receive questions from our members regarding their family history searches. We are here to help!

Here’s a genealogy question we just received.

GenealogyBank Member Question:

My grandfather Hugh Cornwell was born in Prairie Grove, AR, 4/6/1883. I have been searching for a birth record for the past 20 years with no luck. Any suggestions?

“Ask the Genealogist” Response:

Arkansas vital records do not begin until 1914.

So, while you can possibly obtain a church baptismal certificate, you won’t be able to find a government birth certificate for your grandfather.

I found your grandfather’s California death certificate, which does give his date of birth along with the family surnames of his father and mother. His death certificate is available online on the FamilySearch website at https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/VPW3-9Q3.

There is another record for your grandfather in the 1900 census, which also states that he was born in April 1883. His census record is available on FamilySearch.org at https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/M9PK-R7K.

Here is a third document with genealogical information about your grandfather: his World War II draft registration card, also showing that he was born on April 6, 1883. You can view your grandfather’s military record at https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/V48Y-54Q.

So, while you cannot get a formal birth certificate—here are three U.S. government documents, created over the past 112 years, that give his date of birth. That should be the evidence you are looking for.

Let’s see how we can help you make progress in your own family history research.

All the best in your genealogy research.

How to Do Genealogical Research: Damon Family Case Study

Sometime during the next few weeks, as we continue to add new content to our online archives, GenealogyBank will reach a milestone: we will have 1 billion more records than the total we launched our website with five years ago. Wow, that’s a lot of additional genealogy records!

I wanted to see what I could find in GenealogyBank with all this added material—so I chose a family at random and set out on a genealogical research investigation.

Researching the Family of Minnie M. Damon

I picked Minnie M. Damon who married James W. Wright on 31 December 1890 in Keene, New Hampshire. With Christmas still in the air and New Year’s Eve approaching, the couple was married by the Rev. C. E. Harrington.

A search in GenealogyBank found their marriage announcement in the New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire), 7 January 1891, page 8.

wright damon marriage notice new hampshire sentinel newspaper january 7, 1891

New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire), 7 January 1891, page 8

This marriage announcement is a great genealogical find. It gives terrific details about the wedding.

And—what about those “white silk slippers” the bride wore, the same ones her mother wore when she got married 38 years before? Does someone in the family still have them?

Hmm…they were married “at the home of the bride’s mother.” Why no mention of the father? Had he died? Was there a divorce?

Genealogical Research Find 1: George Damon (Minnie’s Father)

The next step in our genealogical research is to find out even more about Minnie’s dad. Digging deeper into our online archives I found the death notice of the bride’s father. He had died just six months earlier.

george damon death notice new hampshire sentinel june 4 1890

New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire), 4 June 1890, page 8

George Damon was “aged 68 years 8 months and 27 days” when he died on 2 June 1890.

Next we want to subtract those figures from his death date to see when he was born.

George’s date of birth works out to 6 September 1821.

There is a handy site for calculating these dates: see TimeandDate.com

time and date calculator

Time and date calculator

Genealogical Research Find 2: Lucy Bowker/Damon (Minnie’s Mother)

Digging deeper into our historical newspaper archives I found the marriage record of her parents: George and Lucy (Bowker) Damon.

damon bowker marriage notice weekly eagle newspaper september 20, 1852

Weekly Eagle (Brattleboro, Vermont), 20 September 1852, page 3

Their marriage announcement was published in the Weekly Eagle (Brattleboro, Vermont), 20 September 1852, page 3.

Whoa—hold on: their marriage announcement was published in the Weekly Eagle, a Brattleboro, Vermont, newspaper?

But they lived in Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire. The newspaper even said that they were “all of” Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire.

So, why did a Vermont newspaper publish the announcement of their wedding?

map of fitzwilliam new hampshire

Map of Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire

Because newspaper editors wanted to sell papers, that’s why.

Brattleboro is only 40 miles from Fitzwilliam, and the Weekly Eagle was regularly bought and read by the residents there.

Genealogical Research Find 3: Elijah Bowker (Minnie’s Maternal Grandfather)

And here is a newspaper article about Lucy Bowker’s father, Captain Elijah Bowker, praising his life of service. It was published in the New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire), 28 June 1877, page 1.

elijah bowker tribute new hampshire sentinel newspaper june 28, 1877

New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire), 28 June 1877, page 1

What else could I find out about the Damon family in my genealogical research?

Branching Out the Damon Family Tree

I decided to do a broader genealogy search by searching on only the surname (Damon) and their hometown (Fitzwilliam).

screenshot of genealogybank's search form

GenealogyBank search form

Both “Damon” and “Fitzwilliam” are uncommon words. It is likely that all Damons from Fitzwilliam are related, but we need to sort them out to make sure.

This broad genealogy search produced a few hundred surname record results.

That is a reasonable amount of genealogy records to sift through, so I started reading through all of them.

Genealogical Research Find 4: Martha Damon (Minnie’s Aunt)

One death record in particular caught my eye. It was published in the New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire), 28 April 1826, page 3.

martha damon death notice new hampshire sentinel newspaper april 28, 1826

New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire), 28 April 1826, page 3

There in the third paragraph: “In Fitzwilliam, an infant daughter [Martha Damon, 1825-1826] of Mr. Geo. Damon.”

This little girl was the aunt of Minnie M. (Damon) Wright—the woman I started my investigation with.

Genealogical Research Find 5: George Damon and Deacon Oliver Damon (Minnie’s Paternal Grandfather and Her Paternal Great-Grandfather)

The “Geo. [George] Damon” named in this death notice was Minnie’s paternal grandfather [George Damon, 1796-1840] and the “Deacon Oliver Damon” [1758-1837] also named was her paternal great-grandfather.

OK. This newspaper obituary was for a two-year-old infant, and it would be easy to assume that such a notice would have minimal genealogical clues. But, I like to read every document.

As it turns out this obituary gives us lots of critical genealogical information:

“Deacon Oliver Damon and wife have lived in Fitzwilliam 42 years, and this [is] the first instance of mortality that has occurred in his family or among his descendants, (25 in all) during that time. Printers for Massachusetts are requested to notice this death.”

As of 1826, there were 25 descendants of the family in that area and none of them had died over the previous 42 years.

Digging deeper into GenealogyBank’s online archives I found more details in Deacon Oliver Damon’s obituary, published by the New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire), 9 November 1837, page 3.

oliver damon obituary new hampshire sentinel newspaper november 9, 1837

New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire), 9 November 1837, page 3

He was a Deacon of the Congregational Church, and he fought in the Revolutionary War. Clearly there is more genealogical research that we can do on this family.

Do you remember seeing in these obituaries the phrase “Printers in Mass. are requested to notice this death”? This note from the newspaper’s editors gives a strong indication that the Damon family has a family connection to Massachusetts.

So, the next steps in our genealogical investigation are to sort through all of the “Damon” references in and around Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire, and extend that search out to Massachusetts.

Damon?

The only “Damon” I ever heard of is the actor, Matt Damon.

I wonder if Minnie M. (Damon) Wright and Matt Damon are actually related.

Tracing the Damon family tree: to be continued…

Tracing Genealogy with Pennsylvania Death Certificates

Every day we get interesting genealogy questions from our members via our Ask the Genealogist service. The following is a good example: a member asked for help finding information about a great-grandfather.

Question:

I am looking for more information on my great-grandfather, Edgar Rhue Harner. He was born in Berks Co., PA, in 1860. He married Naomi Sines and they lived in Delaware Co., PA. No one in the family knows what happened to Edgar. I tracked census info and the last one he appears in with his family is the 1910 census, enumerated in Delaware Co, PA. After much research, I found him in the 1920 census in Norristown, PA, as a patient in the “State Hospital for the Insane.” That hospital, Norristown State Hospital, is still in existence, but I haven’t been able to get any info from them. Everything dead-ends at the 1920 census. I can find NO obituary or death record or any other info at all.

Any suggestions?

Answer from our genealogist:

Since there was no obituary published for him, you want to look for his death certificate. The state of Pennsylvania makes that easy to do. They have put up online indexes for all death certificates from 1906 to 1961 here: http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt?open=514&objID=1085804&mode=2

pennsylvania dept. of health public records death indices

Pennsylvania Dept. of Health Public Records: Death Indices

You need to click on each year and then search the index. This indexing system uses the Soundex system familiar to many genealogists; it assigns codes to sounds to track down surnames and their variants. Harner would code out to H-656.

1922 Pennsylvania death index

1922 Pennsylvania death index

And there he is listed in the deaths for 1922.

Here is your great-grandfather’s entry:

H-656:   Edgar Harner, Certificate Number 106302, Norristn (abbreviation for Norristown), died 11/17 (17 November 1922).

Pennsylvania considers death certificates that are over 50 years old public records. So, your next step is to order a copy of his death certificate.

To apply for a non-certified copy of a death certificate from 1906 through 1961: download the death application form here: 

pennsylvania dept. of health death records application

Pennsylvania Department of Health Death Records application

Mail the completed application to:

Division of Vital Records
ATTN:  Public Records
P.O. Box 1528
New Castle, PA  16103

There is a $3 fee for each non-certified copy ordered. Check or money order should be made payable to Vital Records. Mail requests are processed in approximately 4 months.