At Play In The Archive
Hello, People. I wish you all happiness in celebrating whichever of the Spring holidays resonates for you. I myself have been in the grips of Spring cleaning both my house and my genealogy pursuits, so this post is a mishmash of the things that have been occupying my time.
But first, a very sad announcement. My heart has not been in my writing lately because I’ve been super sad. Our darling 11-year-old dog, Stella, succumbed to the nasal cancer that had been plaguing her for almost a year, and we had to say goodbye a few weeks ago. She was the best of hounds, and the only dog I’ve ever known who would smile on command. “Say Cheese!” and Stella would wag her tail and flash her pearly whites. We miss her terribly, though I’m deriving some comfort from thinking about the wonderful xolo dog cavorting in the afterlife in the Pixar movie Coco. He reminds me a lot of Stella, both in looks and personality.
And speaking of Coco, my dear genealogy tribe, if you have not yet seen this movie, please do yourself a favor and watch it as soon as you can. It truly speaks to our calling, we loving obsessives who labor so hard to keep our family stories alive. This movie was made for us. I promise you will adore it.
And now, for some deep nerdery.
I have a confession to make. I have been a lousy genealogist because I have heretofore been very, very sloppy about source citations. It turns out that this might be genetic, because my great-grandmother Helen Hudelson Adams Yoder was also sloppy about her sources, and while she left me literally yards of genealogical records, there is nary a citation to be found. Rumor, hearsay, and wishful thinking do not sound genealogy make. William the Conquerer was my umpteenth-great-grandfather, you say? Reeeeaaally?
As Buzzy Jackson explains in her excellent book, Shaking the Family Tree: Blue Bloods, Black Sheep, and Other Obsessions of an Accidental Genealogist, many genealogists of my great-grandmother’s era were less concerned with accuracy and evidence, and more concerned with “proving” that their lineage was untainted by African or Jewish blood. If you could find a way to be descended from royalty, so much the better. My Mama Helen was a member of the DAR for 70 (yes!) of its least-inclusive years, and while I have zero insight into her exact motives (she was a lovely, dear person), I do know that her research cannot be trusted blindly. While it is great fun to imagine that I am related to many of the crowned heads of Europe, the evidence is simply not there (and the Jewish ancestry is, though not on this side). So, I have to start over.
Here are the steps to genealogy Spring cleaning, Pancho-style.
Step one: Learn. First, I consulted this ginormous book, the Bible of source citations, Evidence Explained by Elizabeth Shown Mills. I’m sure you all have copies on your nightstands already, but I was late to the party. Oh, my goodness, that was eye-opening. My source citations were F work, and I am a straight-A’s type of gal (except in math). I also listened to some very helpful podcasts on the topic. My husband wandered in during the middle of one and started laughing at me. “What the heck are you listening to?” he asked, followed by a hand gesture setting in motion the invisible propeller on top of my head. Whatever. Say it loud: I’m a nerd and I’m proud.
Step two: Don’t be part of the problem. When I first started as a genealogist (Why I Do This and Why I Do This, Part Deux), I bought an Ancestry.com subscription and proceeded to make the oldest noob mistake there is: believing everything the algorithm fed me. I accepted hints willy nilly, including utter nonsense from other users’ trees, plus I entered a bunch of iffy material from Mama Helen’s chart shown above. Pretty soon I had a snarl of unsupported facts, dates that could not possibly be correct, and more shaky leaves than I could possibly ever get through. People, you cannot research 907 ancestors at once. No, not even me.
Focus, Pancho, focus.
So, I took a hatchet to that tree and started over. My new tree covers only the ancestry of my grandfather, Robert Lessiack (the main subject of this blog so far) and I am only including things that can be supported with evidence. My tree is now much smaller, and it grows much more slowly, but at least I know that it’s closer to reality. My sources are on their way to being much cleaner, and my research skills have taken a quantum leap forward because I have strayed well beyond the low-hanging fruit that Ancestry.com offers. This is not say that I won’t ever guess — sometimes guesses lead to breakthroughs — but my guesses are clearly identified as such. This tree is currently private, but once I’m confident that it’s in good shape, I’ll make it public. When I’m ready to start on a new line, I will do it in an organized manner.
Step three: Put all this stuff somewhere. Until now, Ancestry has been my go-to for building my tree, but now that I’m only exploring one branch at a time, and I’ve expanded my explorations to MyHeritage as well (more on this later), I need a local repository to serve as my source of truth for all the branches that will eventually converge. This local repository will hold my entire tree with all associated source citations (consistently written and neatly organized, grown-up style), while my online trees will only cover the branch I am currently researching.
For this I need a tool. After looking at the entire field of native Mac tools, the current frontrunners are MacFamily Tree and Heredis, both of which are native Mac apps. I’m doing trials with both them, and will make a final decision in the next week or so. I have to say that I was deeply unimpressed with Roots Magic “for Mac” (ha!) and Family Tree Maker (Supported! Not supported! Supported again!) so I eliminated those early.
Step four: Show the physical archive some love. I recently rescued some of my Mama Helen’s photos from the chemical sandwich of doom, aka those destructive glue and plastic albums so popular in the 1970s. First I scanned every page of her precious and very helpful annotations, and then I liberated the photos using a slender metal tool. The record still exists, but the damage to the photos has been arrested.
I am fortunate to have many, many photos, documents, letters, and postcards from my mother’s side of the family, some of them dating back to the late 19th century. This physical archive is neatly organized, but currently stored in non-archival materials. That had to change. If the way you’re storing something precious will eventually cause it to disintegrate, then you’re doing it wrong. So, I placed a whopper of a Gaylord order, which arrived today. What’s in the box will handle but the tip of the iceberg, but I’ve got to start somewhere. Archival materials are very expensive, but if I’m going to keep this stuff, I need to do it right. If my own heirs want the archive, it will be in good shape for them. If they don’t, then some library will no doubt be delighted to have it. There are some historically valuable treasures in there.
Step five: Don’t get up. You’re not done scanning. I will be scanning on my deathbed, People, and I still won’t be done. If anyone is curious about how I manage my digital archive, I described the method behind the madness here. This work is never done.
So that’s the spring cleaning part. What else have I been doing?
I’ve made some interesting new discoveries about the early life of my great-great Grandfather Anton Ludwig Lessiack, and some heartbreaking discoveries about my great-grandpa Leo’s childhood back in Hamburg. I’m writing all of this up in a new post, because it’s so satisfying when new learnings lead to old mysteries being solved. Some puzzling old photos now make better sense.
I’m also trying to break down some brick walls regarding my Spielmann roots in Austria and Moravia, and my Lessiack and Puhlmann roots in Germany. I thought it might be helpful to look at a broader set of DNA results than those provided by Ancestry DNA and 23andMe, so I ordered a MyHeritage kit, swabbed my cheek, and sent it back. Now I wait. MyHeritage has a more international audience, does ethnicity estimates differently (which might suggest archives that I have not yet considered), and might lead me to encounter cousins in other countries who can shed light on the Spielmanns that my Jewish great-great Grandparents left behind, as well as any surviving relatives on the Lessiack/Puhlmann side.
Somewhere along the way I expect to run headlong into the horrors of the Holocaust (The Hidden Branch), and I’m dreading that part for a couple of reasons. One, I have little doubt that my Spielmann ancestors suffered, and I recently discovered the troubling history of the Hamburg-Amerika Line where my great-grandpa Leo spent most of his career. My upcoming posts will cover the Lessiack family travels to and from Germany in the 1930s, something that has truly perplexed me, since my great-grandmother Margaret Spielmann Lessiack was Jewish. To help me understand why people would choose to travel to Hitler’s Germany, I’ve been reading the very excellent Travellers in the Third Reich by Julia Boyd. Quite eye opening. Here is the description from the jacket:
“Travellers in the Third Reich is an extraordinary history of the rise of the Nazis based on fascinating first-hand accounts, drawing together a multitude of voices and stories, including students, politicians, musicians, diplomats, schoolchildren, communists, scholars, athletes, poets, journalists, fascists, artists, tourists, even celebrities like Charles Lindbergh and Samuel Beckett. Their experiences create a remarkable three-dimensional picture of Germany under Hitler — one so palpable that the reader will feel, hear, even breathe the atmosphere. These are the accidental eyewitnesses to history. Disturbing, absurd, moving, and ranging from the deeply trivial to the deeply tragic, their tales give a fresh insight into the complexities of the Third Reich, its paradoxes, and its ultimate destruction.”
Until next time, People. Enjoy the arrival of Spring and all the warmth and rejuvenation that it provides. Thanks for visiting.