For those folks so inclined, reality telly this month has had some pretty interesting offerings. Besides the usual, we had Jamie Oliver seemingly annoying the entire population of Huntington, West Virginia in “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” and, (in order of appearance), Sarah Jessica Parker, Emmett Smith, Lisa Kudrow and Matthew Broderick (I wonder if he and Sarah Jessica gave Lisa a “twofer” in terms of a fee for this) wandering around the countryside, through libraries, battlefields, etc. searching for their roots (with the occasional mention of “go to Ancestry.com”), in “Who Do You Think You Are.”
This American version of the UK show of the same title follows the format of “celebrity with no clue of family history getting whisked around and handed research materials already dug up by professional historians and genealogists in places as far afield as the Ukraine, Africa and Gold Rush era California. In 45 minutes plus commercial breaks, all the loose ends are tied up in neat little bows to the accompaniment of greatly raised eyebrows, expressions of amazement and a few tears.”
Don’t let anyone think that I don’t appreciate the show. If nothing else, it will get thousands of people to sign onto Ancestry.com and get sucked into the world of family history courtesy of the freebie short-term membership and a couple of searches in various census records. For some folks, that will be enough. For others, however, it will hit them pretty quickly that if you had the sort of family that traveled around or came from someplace else, then this is going to cost you some money.
So, from that aspect, the show is a little bit misleading because for most of us who are not professional historians or who are not familiar with certain types of records (who knew that the Connecticut State Archives had all the muster papers, in order, for people who had volunteered for the Civil War from that state?), doing this can take a lot of time, energy and expense money. But let me show you what I found out with my membership with the aforementioned arm of the LDS Church (sorry, but it’s true – the same can be said of FamilySearch.org as well but both are very useful).
The lady in the photograph at the top of this is my mother’s grandmother: Elizabeth Briggs Smith. All I knew about her was through my mother’s family stories and consisted of the following:
1) She lived in Yorkshire – the whole family lived in Yorkshire;
2) Supposedly, she was a pig farmer;
3) She also put my mother’s mother “out to service” at the age of twelve;
4) She supposedly buried three husbands before she died herself at the age of 55;
5) My grandmother had a sister named Olive and supposedly a brother. Family mythology ran that this boy was really Olive’s son and because there was so much difference in age between Olive and my grandmother, she was brought up with the boy as her brother.
Last year, the DH and I went over to England to visit relatives and take part in a little “family reunion.” Everyone was notified, invited and asked to bring whatever they had – photographs, papers, letters, etc. One of the older cousins had become the holder of “a” family Bible which he brought with him. The amount of information we were able to share around was amazing. The DH retired to a separate room and as we finished discussing particular collections, he took them, laid them out, took photos of them (which I uploaded to Flickr.com when we got back).
What we came back with from THAT was the following for Mrs. Briggs Smith:
1) That “family Bible” was a gift that she had bought for Olive and started to fill in. Somehow, it came back into the family. I still don’t know how that happened;
2) The “brother” was named Byron Kingsmore in the Bible and he was born two years after my grandmother;
3) The third husband was named “Hynchcliffe.”
There was a lot of information about my mother’s sisters and brothers but not worth discussing for what I’m doing here.
Since I’ve gotten home, I’ve been noodling around with Mrs. Briggs Smith Hynchcliffe (and goodness knows who else) and got back to her more recently because of several things.
First, Ancestry.com is not a static site. You have to hand it to them; they are out there rustling up, transcribing and scanning records from all over the world. So, though there were some things on the site a year ago that were helpful, there are a lot more now from the UK. So, I see doing genealogy as being like a pot of stew on the back of the stove: Every once in a while, you pull it back up to the front, stir it around and see what comes out. Part of it is that you might have things that don’t make sense today, but six months from now with another little bit of information, all the dots get connected.
One of the things that I wanted to find out was what was Elizabeth Briggs Smith’s maiden name, because she passed down to the rest of us some pretty nasty genetic issues, I’m always on the lookout for sickness and death information to see where that trail leads. But every census I could find (and the UK Census goes back to 1801, but they only started to collect useful information in 1841) just listed her as “Wife: Elizabeth.” Recently, I tried an end run and tried to find out what happened to ol’ Byron Kingsmore (who on the census is always referred to as Byron K. B. Smith – as you can see, poor old Mr. Briggs, long dead, was bring dragged along for posterity) and found him on a census where they asked for the maiden name of his mother, which he’d listed as “Elizabeth Earnshaw.”
This is a name I had never heard before. Ever. So, I started working back with Elizabeth Earnshaw with a birthdate of about 1840. I found her on the 1841 Census listed this way:
Elizabeth Earnshaw, aged 75, head of household
Ann Earnshaw, aged 35
John Earnshaw, aged 33 (Ag laborer)
Henry Earnshaw, aged 30 (Coal miner)
Elizabeth Earnshaw, aged 11 months
Sarah Sanderson, aged 41
John Sanderson, aged 9
I followed all of these folks back and forth through the 1851 and 1861 Censuses. Elizabeth Earnshaw (the elder) and Ann Earnshaw disappear. I assume that the grandmother died. Ann might have married but I have not found anything yet there. In the 1861 census, I can’t find the younger Elizabeth Earnshaw. But I did find John Earnshaw and checked the Census page image, where right next door was – Elizabeth Briggs, her husband Thomas and her son Fred. Since I had already worked Elizabeth Briggs Smith back from my grandmother’s birth, I knew that in the original family, my great grandmother’s first child was named Fred.
So what are the chances that John Earnshaw who had lived all of my great grandmother’s life in the same household with her, would live next door to her when she was a young married wife? Pretty good. At first, I made the guess that John Earnshaw was her father and that his wife had died. In a much later Census, he was listed as “unmarried.” If he’d had a wife, he would have been listed as a “widower” – so John was not her father?
Where did Elizabeth Earnshaw come from?
Today, by visiting FamilySearch.org (and a little bit of luck because they haven’t transcribed all the parish records), I found out. I searched for the birth/baptismal/christening record for Elizabeth Earnshaw, born 1840 in Wath Upon Dearne, Yorkshire and there she was. And there her mother was. And no father. Her mother was Ann Earnshaw.
My great grandmother was born “out of wedlock” as they used to say. And she was brought up in this large extended household until she got married, but she did not move away. That entire family stayed right in that Wath/Rotherham/West Melton area. My grandmother was born there and started her early married life there. When my grandfather got a job down-country, they moved there, which is where two of their babies are buried, killed in the 1918 flu pandemic. That is also where my mother was born. But, after that, they moved again – and moved right back into the same district, where all the other children were born and where my mother grew up and went to school until she left to go to Scotland to go to nursing school.
And that is a whole other story – but knowing that my great grandmother was illegitimate answers a question I always had, which was: Why was my grandfather’s family in Scotland so hot to snatch the kids away from the family and bring them up to Scotland for school? Now I understand: My grandfather’s family saw themselves as very upright, Presbyterian, educated people. And they considered the Briggs Smith etc. to be their version of trash. Their “good deed” would be to try and “save” as many as they could – and they did. They reached down and pulled up my mom’s eldest sister Jean (who ended up as the executive assistant to the president of the Scottish National Bus Company), my mother (who got placed in nursing school and became a nurse midwife before she met my father – and that’s another story), and her two sisters, who were sent to teacher’s college and made their careers that way. The war intervened for the rest.
At the moment, I’m really sort of at a block – my great grandmother’s grandmother (the first Elizabeth Earnshaw) was, at least by the 1841 Census, born some time around 1766. If I want to get anything more there, I’m going to have to make arrangements to actually go to that area, visit, go to the records offices and the parish records. Oh, and another thing I found out: Earnshaw is to Yorkshire as the name Jones is to Wales.
The plot thickens.