Monday, February 29, 2016

Military Monday - Learning More About Capt William Nelson

A recent e-mail from a nephew contained the photo above, taken during a visit to a local historical center, and an important question: "Are we related?" After all, there are several William Nelsons in my husband's family tree. I had just finished with a big project and was looking for something different on which to focus. Learning more about Capt William Nelson seemed like a good place to start.

Using the information from the photo, I was able to find some additional military information about William Norborne Nelson on At the age of 30 Nelson had enlisted as a captain in Company C of the Second Virginia Infantry, mustering in at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia in April of 1861. During the battle of First Manassas, 21 July 1861, he was wounded and was away from his unit from a number of months due to the wound he received. Finally, his health lead to his being discharged from the Confederate army on 18 May 1862.

Googling I found mention of Captain Nelson in Virginia at War, 1861 by William Davis. One snippet of information about Capt Nelson mentioned that Company C was known as the “Nelson Rifles”. The book also related that Nelson was wounded so severely in the left breast that he was never really able to return to active duty. That further explained his short period of military service.

Later, checking US census records from 1860-1900, I saw that Nelson had returned home to Clarke County, Virginia, where he was a farmer for the rest of his life.

FindAGrave provided photos of the two markers memorializing Captain Nelson. His memorial page also listed the names of his parents, siblings, wife, and two of his children.

Then, I stumbled upon something I had not ever found in any of my previous research - a poem written in honor of someone I was researching. Francis Orray Ticknor wrote "The Virginians of the Valley" in memory of William Norborne Nelson and the other Confederate soldiers who had fought at Manassas.(1)

I ended up starting a separate family tree in Family Tree Maker based on the information I had found about William Norborne Nelson. This gave me a way to keep up with the information I found using various resources. 

But, in answer to my nephew's question, no, William Norborne Nelson was not a relative of our family. I was not able to find any connection between this William Nelson and all of my husband's family scattered across North Georgia. 

My research wasn't wasted, however,  because I was able to exchange several e-mails with my nephew as we shared information and our interest in Capt Nelson. We both marveled at Nelson's recovery from a chest wound during a time period when medical practice coupled with poor battlefield sanitation would usually have lead to a soldier's death, not to his recovery. Being a retired military officer, my nephew contributed how William Nelson was most likely the company commander of the Nelson Rifles since the company bore his name. So what if William Norborne wasn't our Nelson family's relative; he was still an interesting individual to research.

Lessons learned: 

  • Never be surprised at the various places in which you can find information about someone.
  • Even it is turns out not to be a relative, you can still enjoy the hunt and the story.

(1) Ticknor, Francis Orray. The Poems of Francis Orray Ticknor. Neale, 1911; accessed on Google Books, Feb 2016.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Exploring a Branch of the Birch (Family) Tree

The Birch Tree
By Randi Hausken via Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes to break through a brick wall, you just have to try something different. Speculate. Question. Follow a hunch. Sometimes it gets you nowhere. Sometimes trying a new way can help you discover a new branch on your family tree.

I was continuing on my quest to locate wills for as many of my direct ancestors as possible. I had found an informative will for my 3GGrandfather William Houton Smiley, plus I knew the names of direct Smiley ancestors for several generations further back. I hadn't been very successful, however, in learning about the ancestors of his wife Susan Birch.

William Houton Smiley was first married to Sarah Birch. After she died, leaving behind several small children, William married her sister Susan Birch. Together William and Susan had nine more children, one of whom was my second GGrandfather Thomas Bainbridge Smiley. Although I wanted to know more about the Birch sisters, I just had not found the right avenue to do so.

The first Ah-Ha moment came as I was looking on FindAGrave at the interment list for the Quigley Cemetery in Crawford Pennsylvania, the site where both William Smiley and my 3GGrandmother Susan Birch Smiley were buried. For the first time I noticed a whole group of Birches buried in the same cemetery, 30 out of the 97 burials listed. Surely these people had to be related somehow to Susan Birch Smiley.

When I looked at the 1840 census for Vernon Township, Crawford County, Pennsylvania, I noticed another list of names that would be worth investigating. William Smiley was listed right in the middle of a series of Birch families headed by Thomas, James, Johnson, James Sr, and George Birch. Finding that the same family members lived close by and were buried in the same cemetery suggested there had to be a family connection.

1840 census for Vernon Township, Crawford County, Pennsylvania,

Looking at the names and age tally marks, it seemed that the Birch males might all be related, living on parts of family land. If so, then the family patriarch might be James Birch Sr, age 80-90 in 1840; the other Birch males were younger, within the 30-50 age range.

Returning to FindAGrave, I looked at the memorial page for a James Birch who was born about 1758 and had died 15 June 1852. This lifespan seemed to match with the age tally for James Birch Sr in the 1840 census. All of this was starting to interest me, but there just wasn't anything solid to prove a connection between William Smiley, his wife Susan Birch Smiley, and all these other Birches.

However, once I started to speculate on possibilities, I thought of some research avenues through which I might find some concrete information. If this James Birch Sr had died in 1852 in Crawford County, Pennsylvania, he might have left a will. My next step was to look for a will. It turned out that the Crawford County Will Books accessed on did not contain a name index, but at least the wills were recorded in chronological order. After skimming over about 40 pages of wills from 1852, I found a will for a James Birtch that had been recorded in June of 1852. The name had a slightly different spelling from the "James Birch" of Quigley Cemetery, but the date corresponded with the FindAGrave memorial page.

This time I read over the will slowly, taking notes of names, and finally doing a happy dance when I saw that wonderful phrase "... to my daughter Susan Smiley". Yes! That hunch had paid off as I finally found the father of Sarah Birch and Susan Birch. And things didn't stop there. The will contained a list of bequests to be made to specific individuals, almost all of whom were identified by name as well as by the relationship to James Birtch Sr.

Will of James Birch Sr (1) with names of beneficiaries underlined

By the time I finished reading the will, I had the following names and relationships to add to my family tree:

1. sons Thomas Birtch, Johnson Birtch, and James Birtch Jr
2. Mariah Battillion [see #10]
3. Rebbecca Battes [another daughter or granddaughter perhaps, see #9]
4. daughter Susan Smiley
5. James B Smiley, son of Wm Smiley [and daughter Sarah Birch Smiley]
6. Nancy Gehr, daughter of Wm Smiley [and daughter Sarah Birch Smiley]
7. daughter Anna Hues
8. daughter Eliza Byers
9. Hiram Battes, son of daughter Maria
10. daughter Maria Battallion

Later when I looked at the 1850 census for James Birch in Crawford County, Pennsylvania, it made sense to find him living in the Battallion household. And the bequest which William Smiley had made to a Nancy Gehr in his will was finally understandable.

Now, I hope to find marriage records for the rest of the Birch family members mentioned in the will. I'll also be recording in Family Tree Maker the burial sites of some Birch family members listed on FindAGrave, especially those buried in the Quigley Cemetery. The will also mentioned a pending Birtch vs Battes lawsuit which might affect the disbursements. Wouldn't that be interesting to learn about!

Lessons Learned:

  • The cemetery and census connections turned out to be examples of looking at Family Acquaintances and Neighbors to learn more about an individual. Just as it is often worthwhile to look at all the names on a census page, it was also helpful to look at the list of the interments at Quigley Cemetery. 
  • I'm glad I followed the hunch to look for a will for the eldest of the Birch men. Doing so lead me to my 4GGrandfather as well as some other relatives. Even if the search for James Birch's will had proved to be fruitless, I would have just recorded my search strategy in my Research Log. 
  • This experience will probably prompt me to explore a hunch or speculation in the future as a way to chip away at a brick wall.

(1) Pennsylvania, Wills and Probate Records, 1683-1993, Crawford County, Will Books, Vol A-B, 1813-1853, p 448-449, will of James Birch, 19 Sep 1850; accessed

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Tuesday's Tip - And That Is Why It Is Called Research

Sherlock Holmes, source: Pixabay

It looked like a good day for staying home and doing some online research. Dreary afternoon, temperature dropping, rain alternating with snow. Time to seriously look for marriage records for some ancestors and relatives, all of whom had lived in or near Elbert County, Georgia.

I had already tried the usual places. For me, this meant starting with the Marriage Records on Microfilm collection on Georgia's Virtual Vault. The only problem was that the earliest records posted there for Elbert County started with 1835, later than the time period I needed. I hadn't been able to find marriage records I was seeking on either Ancestry's collections of early United States Marriage Records or on similar databases available on

Previously I had used the unindexed probate records available on to locate information that wasn't available on Ancestry's indexed collections. Looking over the FamilySearch links to 30 image only record collections for Georgia, I saw a collection of records from Elbert County, Georgia. This collection dated back to the 1790s and included church, cemetery, school, and vital records collections. The Vital Records collection was labeled by year, making it easy to search for specific years as needed.

Georgia, Elbert County Records, 1790-2002

Each box of records contained an average of 450-500 records. Soon after I started looking for familiar names, I realized that I did not need to look at every record in the collection, One image would be of the front of the record, such as this marriage record for Dozier Brown and Polly Herndon.

Since this was the marriage license for a relative, I would then look at the next image to see the back of the license. Had this not been the license for a relative, I would have skipped from image 16 to image 18 and read the next new license.

Two other factors were part of my search in these early 1800s marriage licenses. It turned out that the specific document for a marriage license changed through the years. As I moved from box to box of licenses, I could adjust where a new type of license appeared on my screen, then succeeding license images would show up centered on my screen and easy to read, with only minimal adjustment to view the image.

The second factor lead me to look at the names of both the groom and the bride on each license image I viewed. It didn't matter that most boxes of licenses were arranged alphabetically by groom's name. I needed to also look for a bride's name on the image. Looking at each license became particularly important in cases where the license was followed by a marriage bond record which just might include the name of the bride's father.

The whole process took most of the afternoon and a few cups of hot tea, but it was worthwhile. I recorded the years I had searched on my Research Log so I won't accidentally go through this process again. I ended up locating several marriage records, some new to my research, others the original source for information previously seen only in a database.

My takeaway tip was to spend more time going through other potentially helpful image-only records. Once you get accustomed to the record format, it becomes easier to skim over the image and locate names, dates, locations on a record. Admittedly it does involve looking at a number of screens, but it pays off when you locate a nugget of new information. Just as all genealogy information is not digitized and online, neither is all online information indexed. So many records can be accessed only by searching through them yourself. After all, this searching reminds us why it is called research.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

New Year, New Numbers, New Goals

GOALS source:

The new year is a time for doing more than making resolutions. It's also a good time to look back over the past year, evaluate efforts, and set some personal goals.

A year ago, I posted about finding my ancestor score, as I looked at how many of my direct ancestors I had actually been able to name. Both Randy Seaver in a blog post and Christa Cowan of's YouTube videos had suggested reasons to do this, and the new year is a logical time to repeat the report. I described my methodology and my results in a previous post

Here is my latest report based on my research in 2015. In running the report I added a new column at the right, how many new direct ancestors I had identified in the past year. It was exciting to see that I now know the surname and given name of 25% of my direct ancestors, compared with only 18% last year.

GenerationRelationship# in generation# identified% identified2015 increase
52 GreatGrandparents1616100%
63 GreatGrandparents323197%1
74 GreatGrandparents645688%14
85 GreatGrandparents1285644%20
96 GreatGrandparents2565722%37
107 GreatGrandparents512296%3

It was relatively easy to explain that increase. I was a participant in Round One of Thomas McEntee's Genealogy Do-Over. What a difference my research took when I because more focused and more methodical in maintaining my research log. I chose to focus on learning more about my Norwegian ancestors, relatives constituting a fourth of my family tree. The majority of new ancestors I discovered in generations 7, 8, and 9 were among these Norwegian ancestors.

Besides learning names, birth dates, baptismal dates, marriage information, and death dates of these ancestors, I also learned about a variety of resources that spurred on my Norwegian research. With the help of Google Translate, I even got where I could "read" a number of the records I had located. I felt a real growth in my research skills and tools.

The best part, thought, was coming to see these ancestors as people. People who moved from farm to farm. People who lived with waves of illness that decimated the families. People who chose to immigrate to America. People who chose to stay in Norway. Because of this, most of my posts in January through March of 2015 concerned these Norwegian ancestors.

Participating in the Genealogy Do-Over was well worth the time. Whether you are a beginning researcher or have been at it for a long time, I would encourage you to look at the G D-O web site and consider participating in the program activities. 

Now for 2016. Over the past few months, I've been plowing through the wills and probate records available through both and Each will, each record of probate returns seems to provide a new tidbit of information. I've taken a break from my regular posts as I've been reading virtually every line of each record I find. Tedious at times, but definitely worth it.

Goal 1 is to continue to explore these will and probate records for my family tree and then for my husband's also.

Goal 2 is to help a family member learn more about her family history. Because the majority of her ancestors and relatives seem to be clustered for several generations in a few neighboring Georgia counties, I'm already seeming how helpful it will be to use the Cluster Research approach, looking at Family, Associates, and Neighbors, as suggested by Elizabeth Shown Mills.

Goal 3 relates to Family Tree Maker. Like so many other users of FTM, I was surprised to learn of Ancestry's decision to no longer update or sell this product. Over 2016 I expect to decide my final reaction to this news. Will I stick with FTM even after moving to Windows 10 on my research laptop or just stay using Windows 7? Will I switch to another brand of genealogy software? Will I hope that some other company opts to add FTM to their line of products? Whatever my decision, my research will continue.

So there are my goals - records to continue researching, a research approach with which to become more proficient, and a software decision to may. And maybe, along the way, I'll find some new stories to celebrate.

Happy 2016 to all of you.