by Linnea Travis Miller
Genealogy The science or study of family descent
Ah - so you didn't like science in school? Guess what - you’re a scientist? All scientists "use a method of attack to their problem. First you develop a hypothesis – well, you do know who YOU are. Next, the collection and organizing of data: this is the point where you will stay for years and years and years - how humbling. Your work is never done. You will have conclusions along the way, which are very exciting, but, you’ll never be quite finished with the project. And once you're "hooked" - hey, what can I say? That’s Genealogy.
This section, hopefully, will help you with the collection and organization of your data. We will be sharing short family histories that have been sent to us by people that are requesting further help from our readers in passing that "roadblock." We're also interested in publishing short queries on your behalf. If you have general questions regarding your research, we will try to help you through this section. So, send your questions in and we can get "rolling" on this joint effort!
What I have found during my research is, the most interesting part of genealogy is not the people themselves, but what the customs and living conditions were in their day. Why did they come? Once they were here, why did they migrate further? What foods and traditions did these immigrants bring from the "old country' and which ones are still being observed today? Our family is our history, whether it has been here for two or three hundred years or just one generation, it’s interesting. It’s who we are. Most people remember from elementary school that the early settlers of the pre-United States came here to escape religious persecution in their homeland, whether it was the Pilgrims or the Palatinates, the Mennonite or the Quaker - the list can go on and on. How many of you remember that what is now the state of Rhode Island had originally been settled as a penal colony? Or that interest in coming to Pennsylvania was very low until William Penn went to Germany to market his new "free" colony, particularly to the Mennonite? Or that thousands of emigrants died on the many voyages and still needed their passage paid when they arrived? It’s interesting and it's real - these are your ancestors!
If you're tracing your family roots, you've probably talked to a lot of relatives, been to many historical societies, visited libraries and taken many walks through cemeteries. Good research skills are very important, but one also has to be a bit creative. Things do not always fall into a neat little pattern, where parents and grandparents are found in books or other’s notes. Genealogy can be a definite “hands-on" experience.
One of the highlights I have found in my research is finding an ancestor's tombstone. Each time I locate one of them, the thrill is the same. As I walk up to it, often after much footwork and searching. I have the same thought, "Gotcha!!!" For most of the larger cemeteries, which are easily found as you drive through your ancestor's locale, the records of burials are easily found at the cemetery office, the church or the local historical society. The smaller graveyards, those who have been moved for the benefit of "progress" and those found in farmer’s fields are the problem. Not only are these "cornfield" cemeteries often difficult to locate, but how do you know who's buried there, especially when many of the stones are unreadable or missing. Many of these smaller graveyards have been cataloged by very thoughtful researchers and those records have been donated to the local historical society or library.
We should feel very indebted to those people who have taken the time to document the inscriptions on these older tombstones, especially the ones on the farms. Many people are not even aware of these burying grounds until they "bump" into the information at the local historical society or library. All of a sudden you've found a whole family, plus more people you never knew about.
A little background on older 'burying grounds"
Churches maintained the earlier cemeteries. Public grounds did not come into their own until the late 1800's. Mainly families had a burying place on their farms, oft-times within site of the main house. You sometimes can find many generations on this plot of ground. Family cemeteries were still used into the early 1900's in central Pennsylvania.
I spoke to Tom Lehman of Lebanon County, Pennsylvania. Tom is a genealogist who took the time to methodically document many of the farm cemeteries in this area. Tom stresses that the most important thing to do before you visit the farm cemetery is to seek permission from the property owners. Most farmers do not appreciate people tramping through their fields,especially at planting time. By asking first you may also gain additional information about the family and may even find out about a second or third previously unknown area with more family burials.
Another important point that Tom mentions is to disturb as little as possible. If you must move an over turned stone in order to read it make sure it is replaced exactly as found. Tom tells about one field cemetery he visited where someone before him had moved all the stones in order to get better light in which to read them. They were all lined up against the fence! Often husbands, wives and children are buried together, moving the stones upsets the identification of family-members. especially if you're looking for verification. Also, by returning everything as it was found allows future seekers a better chance of gaining permission to view the stones.
Tom recommends visiting field cemeteries in early spring or late fall, before or after planting and harvest. Another reason to choose these seasons is that the overgrowth is at a minimum with much less brambles and briars to walk through. I will add another reason; less wildlife! How many have walked up to an overturned stone only to find a snake sunning itself?
Most of the field cemeteries which Tom visited are considered "abandoned;" no family is around any longer for the upkeep. Some have even been plowed over or built upon, (acht, progress!). Most of the stones were of a crude marble or sandstone. Either way, some inscriptions were very difficult to decipher. I usually bring a spray bottle of water along with me. Sometimes this helps to "bring out" the letters and dates. Also, time of day has a lot to do with the ability to read the stones. Try to make your visit in the morning. I have learned most people were buried with their feet facing East? That way they will be ready when the Lord appears from the East on His second coming.
I'm sure many of you can recall interesting or funny experiences from your cemetery visits. I'd like to share one from a friend. “We were led from the family homestead to the very cemetery where the ancestors were buried. However, after following the map we were provided with, all that we could see concerning the cemetery was just a farmer's field. Nonetheless, undaunted we started out over the vague land through the fields until we spotted a grove of trees in the middle of it. Ah hah! No farmer has a grove of trees in the middle of his fields. That's where the cemetery must be. And so we headed straight for the trees, found the cemetery, crawled through the cabled-in area and looked around.'We paused a moment inside the sunlight-speckled dimness of the cemetery. Looking around at the broken tombstones among the low brush and the deep animal excavations. It was obvious that it had not been cared for in many years. But rather than being saddened by the sight we were thrilled to be standing in the midst of the graves of our ancestors' family.
"Slowly we picked our way from one stone to the other, cautiously avoiding the holes and brambles. We examined each stone and the inscriptions on them. We were mostly interested in finding the graves of our ancestors, but we wrote down the inscriptions of all the stones because we were not that well acquainted with the first of our new family and it was obvious that the entire family was buried there. We took pictures of the stones, hoping that some of them might prove to be the graves of a grandmother or grandfather.
"There was one tombstone that intrigued us more than the others. It was larger and obviously older than the rest and we felt that it was the grave of either Henry Jacobs or his son, George Sr. (our direct ancestors). It was of a bluish slate and about half the face of it had broken off in layers. Only a partial inscription was left.
"To the right of the stone was only the very base of what was obviously a similar tombstone and small pieces of slate were scattered around on the ground nearby. Norma had been picking through the pieces in the hopes of finding bits of inscriptions on them. Soon she was seriously digging with her hands into the soft earth in front of the base of the missing stone in an attempt to find more pieces. Then with the aid of a stick she had picked up, she was able to dig down a few inches and came up with a much larger piece of slate. With anticipation. we examined it, but there was no inscription.
"Inspired by her efforts, I found a good stout stick and started helping. What a scene we must have made, Norma in her fur coat and me perspiring in my fleece-lined jacket, both of us on our hands and knees, digging furiously in an overgrown cemetery in the middle of some farmers field. We had just given new meaning to the phrase "digging up your ancestors." It wasn't long before we took off our coats and draped them over the upright tombstone. It almost seemed sacrilegious, but we hoped Grandpa wouldn't mind.
"We kept digging downward, finding larger and larger layers of tombstone, none with an inscription. We had dug about a foot down when we found a larger piece about two feet tall and one foot wide. As it lay embedded in the earth, we brushed the dirt off the surface, but found no inscription. We carefully dug around and under it with our fingers, trying to get a good grasp on it So that we could lift it out in one piece. Carefully we pulled it out and turned it over. There was a little bit of an inscription on it We reverently propped it up next to the upright stone.
"We paused to catch our breath and satisfied that we had seen all that there was to see in the cemetery. we brushed the russet-brown earth from our hands as well as we could and started back down the lane, occasionally stopping to pick at the burdocks that had fastened themselves all over our clothing.
"lt wasn't until much later when I studied the notes I had taken at the Historical Society and compared them with the few clues we had literally dug up that day that I realized we had dug up our great-great-great-great-great-grandmother, Maria Jacob, wife of George Sr. Maria was born 29, December 1726 and died January 1,1801. And I'm certain that Grandmaw and Grandpaw were happy that we visited them that day almost 200 years later!"
Used with permission from Vee L. Housman
Note: This is a reprint from the January 1997 issue of, "The Legacy Magazine," a division of US Legacies.com
Copyright 1997 The Legacy Magazine
All rights reserved, Unauthorized reproduction in any manner is strictly prohibited
without the prior permission of
"The Legacy Magazine", Linnea Miller, and/or Vee L. Houseman