26 September 2013

Victory via Google: Alfred Segree Michaels

My research on this family today has pretty much been like:

Which is to say, THIS HAS BEEN THE BEST GENEALOGY DAY EVER! Why? Because with the names I just found, I can now complete a 4 generation pedigree chart for the first time in my life. That's right--I've made it clear back to the end of the US records at least half a dozen times, but still didn't know all of my great grandparents... until today!

So as it turns out, my ancestors couldn't have picked a better place to meet in Canada than Nova Scotia. The Nova Scotia Vital Statistics page pretty much just changed my life.

So with Muriel's new birth and death information, I decided to start from the beginning to start looking for her family. Because she was born in Nova Scotia, I decided to see what Nova Scotia would have available. After Google searching "Nova Scotia genealogy," I ended up here. I typed in her information, and found her marriage record.

So from here, we learn that her husband's name is Alfred, not Albert. Normally I would be skeptical about just taking up this record when the first name is different. But the names are similar, her name and birth information match what I've been told, and there is a family legend about these people being Jamaican. How many other Michaels families of Jamaican/Nova Scotian descent can there be in Canada in 1936?

So, let's just ask the pink elephant question: is Alfred Segree Michaels black? The record doesn't say. But now because of the marriage record, I have his parents' names and where to find them: Saint Mary Parish, Jamaica.

These lines are the first time my family history research has ever left the United States. I'm descended from original settlers all across the board except on this one line. How do I go about researching Jamaican ancestry?

Please. I'm Generation Y. When I don't know something, I Google it. "Jamaica genealogy" it is.

From what I've gathered, doing Jamaican genealogy gives you two basic options. You either use the resources in Jamaica (i.e. pay someone in Jamaica to research it for you) or you use FamilySearch.

To FamilySearch we go. After adding the new names into Family Tree, I looked for Alfred and found a record of his birth in Belfield, Saint Mary

He was born on 13 September 1911 in Belfield, Saint Mary's Parish, Jamaica to John Michaels and Amy Morris. Still no indication of his race. But this really should be enough information to keep searching for him in both Canada and Jamaica.

For now I have to take a break because I don't have access to Canadian records on Ancestry.com. It requires a membership I'm simply not going to pay for, because I can get access to it for free. I can either go to the Delaware Archives, who I'm sure must have it, or I can go to the Family History Center at my church in Dover. I've already seen quite a few records on the Canadian side I'm dying to explore. 

Hopefully next week I'll be able to make the trip. When I do, this story will definitely continue, and is bound to get even more interesting from here.

Thriller Thursday: Muriel Ince Michaels

The email from Mount Royal Cemetery just arrived!

I'm so excited, I'm practically singing the Canadian national anthem!

The fact that my grandmother is Canadian probably means that I should have learned their anthem too. Even though Americans largely think they're too good to learn anything about Canada.


Here's the email they sent me:

Hi Mrs. Collins,

I have received your online request and I have searched our records and I have found;

Name: Muriel Michaels nee Ince
Widower of Albert Michaels
67 yrs. Old
Date of birth: October 30, 1913
Date of death: January 2, 1981
Date of burial: January 6, 1981
Birth place: Nova Scotia
Place of death: Royal Victoria Hospital
Burial location: L 7153-A


Grace Polifroni

(She called me Mrs. Collins. I still get excited when people do that! Sorry, newlywed thing.)

So not only did I get her burial location and the rest of her birth information, I got a SPOUSE! Now you need to understand why this is so intriguing to me.

My grandmother's name is Emily Doyle, maiden name Michaels. She had a brother, named Richard Michaels, neither of whom were raised by their parents. I was told that Richard was placed with an aunt and uncle who essentially adopted him, while my grandmother was raised in a foster home. Richard and Emily didn't even know they were siblings until they were going to their mother's funeral in 1981. And yet they both have the last name Michaels. And here now is a husband/father? with their same last name.

Now, family legend says < grain of salt > that Muriel was a black servant and had a child with the master of the house where she was working, and the child was my grandmother. < /grain of salt > It certainly would account for how dark she was, how dark my father was, and how dark I am--but you don't just believe an accusation of infidelity because someone tells you it's true. But once I found out she has a brother, and now Muriel's married husband, with the same last name? 

They're all hiding something here. And while I do think it has something to do with someone either being black or being mixed, I can't say for certain at this point. However, I did discover one thing yesterday by sheer providence alone.

So, I've told you I'm Mormon. One of the things Mormons believe is that God talks to His children, and He does it all the time. The problem with most people is that they wouldn't even know His voice if they heard it, and when He does speak most people just don't listen. When He is able to get through to us, it's called personal revelation. And personal revelation is how we're taught to learn the truth.

Well, I was watching Ask A Slave on YouTube, minding my own business, when I had one of these moments of personal revelation yesterday. And it was really as I saw a lot of other parts of my life falling into place around what I heard that really makes me feel like it's true.

If one of my ancestors was black, and living in Canada, that means that at some point he or she was a slave. That was the message. If I want to know the truth, I have to be looking through black records.

As I thought about what I was told, different pieces also began to fall into place. The Underground Railroad was the escape route out of slavery, and Canada was the ultimate goal for any runaway because that's where freedom was. So, it stands to reason that if I have a black Canadian ancestor... I may not only have a slave, I may have a runaway.

Even as I say this, I can feel that it's true all over again. I can feel it in my heart. Maybe not the part of them being a runaway, but definitely the part of having black or slave ancestry. What this means to me personally are thoughts for another day. I will say this--I feel like a hole in my identity has finally been filled.

I am thrilled that such a breakthrough only cost me $5. I couldn't be happier with the information I received. Anyone else who is thinking about buying information from the Mount Royal Cemetery in Montreal, do it. It's worth every penny.

21 September 2013

Inquiry--Muriel Ince Michaels

Having Canadian ancestors when you live in the United States can present some tricky challenges. Among these are the strict privacy laws which keep any census after 1921 tightly under wraps. Additional struggles with regards to distance and traveling limitations can make Canadian research some of the most expensive research you can do--especially if you do not know exactly what you need.

My Canadian ancestor is Muriel Ince Michaels. She is one of my paternal greatgrandmothers, Emily Michaels Doyle's mother. In a personal interview I had with my grandmother several months ago, I was able to get some information to make a head start. But I still have a long way to go before I will be able to move on from here.

According to my grandmother, Muriel Ince was born in Nova Scotia. At the time my grandmother was born in 1939, they were either living in Nova Scotia, or had already moved to Toronto. Muriel worked as a domestic in Toronto in the home of a Mrs. Reitman. When my grandmother was born, it wasn't possible for her to stay with her mother, so she was placed in a foster home with a woman named Mrs. Weeks, who raised her. My grandmother was able to maintain contact with her mother, and continued to have a relationship with her throughout her mother's life.

Map of Mount Royal Cemetery
My grandmother had a brother named Richard Michaels, who was raised by an aunt and uncle and Emily was told that he was a cousin who had been adopted. It was only when they were going to their mother's funeral that they discovered that they were actually brother and sister. He died shortly thereafter from his diabetes. He had a wife named Jenny, and two sons, David and Jason.

Muriel died on 2 January 1981, and was buried in Mount Royal Cemetery in Montreal. This fact is the only one I've been able to prove so far, when I found her entry on both the cemetery's website and on FindAGrave. I am still hoping that some kind soul will respond to my photo request for her.

The people at Mount Royal Cemetery actually accept genealogical inquiries, and for $5 (whether that's Canadian or US, it didn't specify) they will search their records and send me whatever they can find on my ancestor. At the very least they will provide me the information on the headstone, and hopefully they will be able to provide me some birth information, or at least her age. They also mentioned that they might be able to offer information on spouse or parents (in the case of children.)

I just purchased her information, even though they may only tell me where she is buried in the cemetery, because at least then I will know for sure not to bother going to the cemetery. It's worth it to me to pay $5 to eliminate them as a potential resource and avoid an expensive trip to Canada. And in the event that they are able to provide me with her age and birth place, this will be enough to allow me to take the next step in my research.

I have the audio transcripts from part of my interview with my grandmother. I haven't decided whether or not to post them because they are personal in nature in regards to many people who are still living, some of which I do not know. In time I may decide differently.

Irregardless, I have waited many years for a breakthrough on this ancestor. Fortunately my grandmother has become more loose-lipped in her old age. She wasn't willing to talk about much of her life or her mother's life beyond giving me her name. Sometimes age can soften people this way, so just because someone wasn't cooperative in the past doesn't mean they will remain that way. It doesn't hurt to ask again after time has passed. You never know what even a little more information can do to finally open up the way for more success.

11 September 2013

Where was I?--My Memory of 9/11

Millions of Americans all over the United States went outside early this morning, and lowered the flag to half mast. On the day that always seems to sneak up on me every year, one I have to consciously remember because it really was "just any other day," lowering the flag becomes the ritual marked by the most profound silence for me.

I think about where I was--in 6th grade. The morning had been strange, the teachers had been having hushed conversations in hallways, stepping out to have hurried conversations on cell phones. Every ten to fifteen minutes, the PA would interrupt and 15-20 students were being called out of school for early dismissal. Around the time the second tower was being struck, I was on my way to gym class.

I walked into that gym class in an ugly uniform, grey shirt and blue basketball shorts. I don't remember what games we played--dodge ball, capture the flag, basketball, or if I just walked around the edge of the gym because even then I hated running. I was self conscious, constantly being teased, and the greatest trauma of my day was wondering if I was going to be teased more because of my glasses, and counting down the hours until I went to karate that night. I had no concept that when I left the gym to go to 3rd period science, my world had already changed forever.

By the time I went to my science class, more than half the school had already been dismissed early because their parents had come to get them. Being 11, I had never seen anything that would force so many parents to come pick up their kids from school. I had two blue collar, working parents and I was already sure that no matter how dangerous it was--whatever it was--my parents were not coming to get me. I was the kid who was always picked up last from everything. In my mind, the only way I was going home early was if the school system decided on an early dismissal.

By the time I reached my 3rd period science class, I was demanding an explanation from my teachers about what they were watching on the news while we weren't there, then rushing to turn off as soon as any of us looked in their direction. I can't remember now if my mom came to pick us up early, or if we simply had an early dismissal because there weren't enough students left to even have 4th period English.

My mom didn't say anything about the attacks. She and I didn't have the type of relationship where we talked about anything, and I was still trying to metabolize being newly appointed to the ranks of latchkey kids of divorced parents. To say my world was turned upside down by 9/11 is false--my world had already been turned upside down about ten months beforehand by my parents, and the split family households they were trying to build up around us.

When I finally got the courage to walk into my mother's room--she was in bed with the curtains drawn and the TV on (looking back she was probably depressed, struggling with the pressures of being a new single mother) I finally blurted out a question that I'm sure didn't make any sense at all. But I had the sensation that in my upside down little world, someone had finally come through and turned off the gravity. If my whole world was going to float away, I felt like I at least deserved an explanation as to why.

She looked at me for a long time. She seemed angry about the fact that I even had to ask, or that I was demanding to know. She was quiet for a long time--trying to ignore me. But I wasn't leaving. I just stood there in the doorway, waiting. Waiting for her to tell me how life could get any more miserable than it already had been for us. To tell me that everyone was overreacting and nothing was really happening. That the world was going crazy, but it would all be better tomorrow. Finally, she put it so bluntly I feel like I had been struck--the accusation in her tone that I would be either too young or too stupid to understand what she was about to say.

"Two men hijacked planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center."

I resented the assumption that I was stupid, but I was having a hard time wrapping my mind around the implications of what she was telling me. What did that mean? Why would someone just DO something like that? It didn't make sense.

I thought for a long time before I said anything else. "Does that mean we won't be able to export goods anymore?" I asked, relying on my rudimentary understanding of the implications of what a trade center might be on economics.

"No!" she said abruptly, and settled into a silence which I knew meant she wasn't going to explain anything else. I looked at the screen, saw smoke billowing out of the Pentagon, and couldn't even calculate how that fit into the equation.

Over the next several weeks, I did come to understand what 9/11 was, and what it meant. I saw the images being played, over and over again on the news until there was an undercurrent of hysteria everywhere we went. Neighbors we had never spoken to before asking if we were "all right," phone calls almost every day from friends or family "checking in," and everywhere the topic of conversation centered around one question.

"Are we going to go to war?"

We asked the teachers, the teachers didn't know. But turning on the news and hearing the same question being tossed around like a deflating beach ball, we waited for it to finally drop. War was inevitable, that much was clear as the issue continued to developed, and everyone learned new words like "terrorism," "Al-Qaeda," and "Taliban."

None of the 11 and 12-year-olds sitting in that 6th grade classroom ever imagined that they would one day be fighting in The War on Terror ten years later.

The impression that time period made on my life was permanent. I walked away from it with a powerful sentiment of national pride. I fly the American flag outside of my home, and put it out to half mast with the others in our small town. And it is that pride in my country and its history which has shaped and molded my life to this day.

My flag at half mast on September 11th, 2013

The history of this nation has always been of ordinary men who fins the means to be successful against extraordinary odds. That strength and intelligence has been a part of our nation since it's conception. Those virtues would be impossible to eradicate from this nation through the single act of terrorism we experienced as a nation all those years ago. We will always rise stronger that we were before from the ashes of defeat, and that is a viewpoint of myself as an American, and our people as a nation I wouldn't trade for innocent, less turbulent times.

09 September 2013

Mystery Monday: Murder and Triumph in the Life of Annie Rorer Fenity

I have mentioned before that Annie Rorer Fenity has been an ongoing challenge for me in terms of trying to figure out who her parents are. She is incredibly well-documented throughout her married life, and evidence to link her and her husband and children together abound. But her past has always been a mystery. And the longer it takes to unravel someone's past, the greater the indication that they went to great lengths to hide it.

The earliest census I will be able to find her on is the 1900 census because she was born in 1885, and the 1890 census went up in flames. She is shown as living with her uncle James William Nance, her aunt Willie Nance, and her brother John Rorer.

Annie Rorer Fenity on the 1900 Census for Pittsylvania County, Virginia

I was unsure as to whether or not the Annie who appears here is my Annie. Then I realized that Pomp Fenity, her future husband, appears on the next page.

Pomp Fenity on the 1900 Census for Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Having confirmed that she is indeed the right Annie, I decided to research her aunt and uncle under the assumption that they were her guardians. Only then did the sad truth begin to unravel. In ten years of research, I have never seen a story fall into place the same way this one did.

The first time I searched for James W. Nance on Heritage Quest, I began with the next census, the 1910. There was only one entry for the entire state of Virginia for James Nance in 1910, and this was the image I found.

James William Nance on the 1910 Census for Goochland County, Virginia

Notice how the occupation for every single person on this page is "Prisoner."

I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. My heart broke for Annie, and I didn't even know the sad story in full yet. I didn't need to see the documentation to recognize this man for what he was. I've seen this story enough times in my family to see it coming from a distance at this point.

Having signed up for a free trial to Newspapers.com, I did a search for James W. Nance to see what would turn up. The hits were instantaneous.

James W. Nance in The Washington Post, "Beating Cost Her Life," 21 Sep 1906

James W. Nance in the Alexandria Gazette, "Alleged Fatal Beating"

James W. Nance beat his wife until she was covered in bruises, totally disfigured. When she tried to escape him by hiding under the bed, he dragged her out from her hiding place, and continued to pummel her until she was dead. When a neighbor came to see what the commotion was about, he found James covered in her blood. The article reveals that James and Willie both were given to fighting and alcoholism, and this kind of behavior was common for them.

At the end of the article, it says there was a witness who was refusing to speak until he was to testify in court. In all likelihood, as much as I don't want it to be true, it was probably Annie's brother John. He would have only been 17 at the time. Annie had already married the previous year, but she wasn't living far from where this happened. Just one page away as the census taker travels.

I have no doubt that she was exposed to this type of fighting when she lived with these relatives. In all likelihood, she was probably abused in her uncle's alcoholic rages as well. My heart breaks for her to think on it.

Everyone around her would have heard about this incident. In a small community like this, it would have been the only thing people were talking about. There would have been no escaping the unwanted attention, the pity and judgment in people's eyes. Knowing that the newspapers are only taking the shame of it and spreading it as far as the words can be carried. I have been in her position in that regard. It was a miserable experience I won't soon forget, and I doubt she did either.

But in discovering this tragedy, I still find something to celebrate. Knowing that she and I are family, feeling her connection to me being strengthened as I discover the truth about her, feeling the same love from her that I feel for her because of what she passed through--that is the triumph in our survival. We both have traveled the path of doing the impossible--creating something ex nihilo--literally, from nothing.

Annie Rorer Fentiy has not been an easy person to get to know. And I'm not finished yet. I've still yet to figure out who her parents were, what happened to them, and what possessed the bonehead who decided to put two innocent children into the custody of dysfunctional alcoholics. But what I have discovered so far has been worth knowing, as terrible as the truth is. I needed to know her story because I can see how she pulled herself out of the mouth of hell.

I needed to see her strength, and the reflection of it in my own.

07 September 2013

Sympathy Saturday: A Bastard's Inheritance--The Suicide of Crafton Bennett

Because yesterday, today, tomorrow, and Monday were, are, and will be exceedingly long days for me, I am not in a happy mood. To give you an idea, this was the face I made as I was sitting in my rush hour traffic today:

Isn't that just lovely? </sarcasm font>

What this means is that I am finally in the mood to sling some mud around, which is why I am going to tell you about my good ol' ancestor, Crafton Bennett. For no other reason than it gives me a legitimate reason to repeatedly use the word bastard.

To begin this story, we need to take a trip over to Google Books.

The older your ancestor is, the more you need to rely on Google Books as a resource--and not just to look for genealogies. Many of the primary sources, especially older legal documentation, is going to be available on Google Books. This was the case for Crafton Bennett.

This book is called Reports of Cases in the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia and it delineates the trials in which Crafton Bennett was the defendant against his bastard half brother, Henry Toler.

In case you weren't aware, English law from this time period had no sympathy for bastards--a term which specifically means a person who was born out of wedlock, or of an unknown father. One of the ways in which this manifested itself was that bastards could not inherit property. And the fledgling nation of the United States needed to decide whether or not they were going to continue in the same vein.

Essentially, Joseph Toler (grandfather) specifically writes into his will that Henry Toler (bastard) and his descendants are to receive of his estate, along with his daughter's other legitimate children. Crafton Bennett (non-bastard, and my ancestor) tried to nullify this clause in his grandfather's will. 

The courts decided to break with English tradition and do away with the disinheritance of bastards. Crafton Bennett returns to appeal the decision, and the book above reveals the verdict.


Crafton Bennett loses his appeal, and it is maintained that because Henry Toler was legitimized by Crafton's father, there should be nothing to inhibit his descendants from receiving their share of the inheritance. Crafton's consequence for dragging this out in court is to pay "damages and costs."

I don't have any records to show how much money that would have been. However, one could take the following news story as an indication that it was very substantial.

Suicide. --Crafton Bennett, of Pittsylvania county, Va., committed suicide, by hanging, on the 22d ult. Cause supposed to be pecuniary embarrassment.
The Richmond Daily Dispatch, April 6, 1861

Now, was Crafton's death really a suicide? I think there is certainly room to believe he was murdered and it was made to look like a suicide. How thorough was the investigation into his death? We simply can't be sure. We can only judge by what the record has given to us.

But if it was in fact a suicide, one could imagine that the monetary damages to him were severe enough that his life and self image were destroyed. He may have also possessed other vices in his life to push him to that mental anguish, or already had a depressed disposition that the verdict only exacerbated. Regardless of the twisted rationale in his mind, one thing is certain. He saw no other option than taking his own life.

The contempt between family members over an inheritance--money and slaves--erupts into an even more tragic end. And considering it was at the outbreak of the Civil War, Crafton Bennett's death becomes all too symptomatic of the incivility tearing the nation apart at the seams. The casualties of war were many, and not all of them on the battlefield.

I find it so indicative that the wealth this man sought to amass and protect is ultimately what destroyed him, and I'm sure there were many on both sides who had to learn this unfortunate lesson.

The Civil War, in my opinion, began as a contest of politics, power, and wealth--and ended as a search for civility. At the heart of that struggle, for both sides, was to accept that for as long as a man loved money more than he loved his brother, the fighting would continue.

Sometimes the journey to humility can be a cruel and unforgiving teacher.

04 September 2013

Wednesday's Child--Diphtheria epidemic of Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Looking for death records in a small community can quickly reveal the aspects of life which stand in direct contrast to our first-world comfort today. One of my earliest discoveries of this nature was in the family of Richard C. Keatts, when his children passed through the diphtheria epidemic of 1882.

He and his wife Susan E.Bennett are a well-documented family in Pittsylvania County, Virginia. They have ten children together, but the sickness will come to affect nine of them.
  1. Mary Elizabeth (23)
  2. Susan (22)
  3. Charles (20)
  4. James (16)
  5. Sarah (14)
  6. Martha (11)
  7. Richard Jr. (7)
  8. Henrietta Jane (5)
  9. John Thomas (3)
  10. Emma Virter (born in 1884, therefore was unborn at the time)
 I've included their ages in 1882 in parentheses. It helps to put the sickness into that much more of a perspective.

Dr. Chase's Third, Last and Complete Receipt Book and Household Physician from 1891 describes diphtheria this way:

This guide is an interesting look into the germ theory of the late nineteenth century. It covers a variety of illnesses, and the suggested remedies. Whether these remedies prove ineffective, or unknown, it didn't stem the tide of illness that swept through Pittsylvania County in the late summer of 1882. The Halifax Advertiser reported on September 15th, 1882:

“In the neighborhood of Pig River, Pittsylvania county, the diphtheria has been raging to an alarming extent for some three weeks or more. Over fifty deaths have occurred in one week. The doctors are unable to cope with it. Numbers of persons have died within twenty-four hours after taking it.”

Among those dozens who passed away were five of the Keatts children.
  1. Mary Elizabeth (23)
  2. Susan (22) was third, 30th of August
  3. Charles (20)
  4. James (16) died with Henrietta Jane on the same day, 3rd of September
  5. Sarah (14)
  6. Martha (11) was the first to succumb on the 24th of August
  7. Richard Jr. (7) was second to die, on the 28th of Aug
  8. Henrietta Jane (5)
  9. John Thomas (3) [Note: I have been unable to find a death date for little John, so I cannot confirm whether or not he was also taken by the outbreak. The missing 1890 census leaves a gap I haven't filled for him yet.]
 In outbreaks like this, many of the dead were buried in mass graves out of necessity. For this reason, it wouldn't surprise me if don't find individual graves or markers for these children. I simply cannot fathom how a parent can handle losing 5 of their children in less than a month--and two in the same day.

Because I live in the era of DTaP vaccines, I will never need to know what this kind of suffering is like. But that doesn't mean I can't appreciate the tragedy in the loss of life so young, and count my blessings that we live in better times today.