A Gift for the Ages

The story A Gift for the Ages appears in the current issue of Mennonite Family History.


A Gift For the Ages  by Lorraine Frantz Edwards

What could this old lady—with limited resources—give her children and grandchildren? She owned no Real Estate, no stocks or bonds. Her household items were well-worn. She had computer skills and she had a passion for genealogy. She’d document the ancestry of her in-laws (and “out”-laws); she’d “climb the family trees.” 

No longer the familiar names of Old German Baptist Brethren, and Mennonite, ancestors, and their descendants. Now a virtual phone book of known—and unknown—surnames. For example: Duerksen, and Gaede, from Russia, and Rainwater (Google search suggests NOT Native American). 

Challenges were numerous—and embraced. Several incidents of individuals with identical given name and surname erroneously (in Ancestry.com) attached to the family tree. Search records, document children, compare dates and locations. Discard the “duplicate” who wasn’t the spouse. Example: Dorothy Mae Kirby married to Stanley Lee Cotton. Two such marriages, two couples, several men named Stanley Lee Cotton. 

Working with surnames “in the Deep South” proved to be a very unique experience—a “first” for someone with twenty-plus years experience “climbing the family tree.” Specifically: Grover Cleveland Blackwell. Several men… and two with similar birth year. The only way to properly identify them: Document their spouse and children, and examine their resident localities. Where did they live; was it consistent with known information? Eventually the “maternal grandfather” (of her son’s father) was positively accepted, and documented. Documenting men named Andrew Jackson Blackwell and Napoleon Bonaparte Blackwell posed a whole new search criteria. Check each “source” for the reference to race. Sometimes simply “B” or “W,” sometimes “black” or “white.” The “hints” on Ancestry did not discriminate: Five, ten, fifteen… and each “hint” had to be scrutinized. Sadly “black” Blackwells had been attached to our “white” Blackwell tree by careless subscribers to Ancestry.com

Often the given name was simply “A.T” or “S.W.” Frequently the name is spelled different from one Census to another (and detective work required): “Agnew” on one is “Andrew” on another. For the women: Lizzie, Eliza and/or “E.A.” 

What could the old lady give her grandchildren? Answer: A well-documented, accurate list of their ancestors, their ancestor’s children, and children’s children. A tree full of aunts, uncles and cousins. (If and when they have a DNA test, they can find that fourth or fifth cousin on their tree.) Hours, days, weeks…. Accuracy was imperative; no hastily prepared, or “copied” from Ancestry individual Member Family Tree(s). The old lady admits she compared her work to that of Ancestry individual Member Family Tree(s) and witnessed obvious duplicates, and inconsistencies. (Three daughters named Eliza, Lizzie, and E.A., with same birth date.) Two, or three, marriages while wife number-one was still alive. Didn’t the owner of that Ancestry tree see the discrepancy? A man in his 70’s didn’t leave Mississippi and marry a woman in Ohio—and have more children! (In Real Estate they say “location, location, location.”

Speaking of “location.” this question came to mind: “Why did this widow die in Texas after a (documented) lifetime in Mississippi?” The answer was apparent when all the children were documented. Widowed mother was living with married son or daughter, in Texas. 

Climbing the trees for grandchildren revealed unexpected fruit. In two places, two uniquely different “trees,” the branches overlapped. What a joy to find her sixth great-grandfather, William Glover Vestal, was the father of David, and James, two branches of the tree. Grandma (Lorraine) and granddaughters are cousins.

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