genealogy research

The Power of a Letter – Shared with a Genealogist

Sometimes we are lucky enough to have a friend who entrusts us with a special gift. About a year ago I was that lucky person. And about a month ago, my friend—who is the most magnificent writer—shared her story. Mitchell Kyd, AKA Yvonne Butts-Mitchell, said that I could share it here.

As genealogists, we are told to analyze documents to glean and evaluate every bit of information we can. We check for originality, who provided the information, and if the information is direct or indirect (or negative) evidence to answer a question we have about our ancestors. It sounds so impersonal, until someone like Yvonne tells the story behind the research.

Yvonne handed me her gift–a letter written in November, 1926. Following is the story she wrote about that letter, based on my genealogy research. Please check out her blog, Dead Mouse Diaries, for great reads about everyday life–the life that most of our ancestors led.

News from the Path Valley Hotel, Episode #96: The Power of a Letter

In a very ordinary way, my cousin Candy handed me an extraordinary gift last spring: a little, yellowed envelope she had found among her mother’s things. The postmark was pale and blurred but discernible: November, 1926. It had been addressed to her grandmother Florence. Why her mother had kept it all those years remains a mystery to us both but Candy knew I’d enjoy it. Although we shared a grandmother on our dads’ side, the letter had been an exchange between our maternal grandmothers,  mailed to hers and written by mine.

At first blush, it was an exchange of news between two high school friends who had been separated by distance and life changes. From the start, it offered the promise of a delightful peek behind the curtain for this storyteller, but something seemed unsettling.

I knew instantly the thick, black pencil strokes on the envelope didn’t look like my grandmother’s handwriting but the name in the return address seemed unmistakable. In the style of the day, the writer had used her husband’s formal name, my pap’s, with a “Mrs.” preceding it.  When I pulled out the letter, I was thrown off again, struck that the writing style seemed off somehow, not my grandmother’s fluid lines and careful grammar. I skipped ahead to the signature on the last page. Again, it was signed as “Mrs.” The writer was certainly my pap’s young wife.

The pages were filled with girl talk, the young bride wrote to ask her friend Florence about her baby and how her life was going as a young mother.  She asked her friend how she liked having her hair shingled and what she wanted for Christmas, then added: “Maybe you are like me. Take anything I get.”

It was a line of news on the second page that stopped me cold. The letter told of family deaths, including the writer’s sister who had left seven young children behind. I remember running my finger over the handwriting then, looking again at the signature, going back to the postmark. My grandmother never had a sister and she married Pap in 1930. The tears welled up as I realized then what a treasure I was holding in my hand, a key to a family mystery.

When I was very young, Pap used to take me to visit a woman we called Grandma Horn. Although she was always delighted to see us both, and always treated me with the best grandma-like affection, I never understood how our lives fit together. My “real” grandma, Pap’s wife, never went with us but always sent her regards. Grandma Horn returned the sentiment.

I don’t remember when Grandma Horn died. I didn’t go to her funeral but I’m sure Pap did, probably 50-something years ago. Sometime after that, I started to catch bits and pieces of her story: my pap had been married once before and Grandma Horn had been his first mother-in-law. The letter I was holding had been written by her daughter Helen.

In very vague terms, I’ve known for decades that Pap’s first wife Helen had died and that he had lost an infant son, too. End of story. Even my mother didn’t know much more. The hush wasn’t really a cover up, I learned later; the memories were simply too painful. Time passes; memories fade. The generations before us disappear and are reduced to an occasional comment at a random family gathering. I learned nothing more about Helen or their son until my mother showed me her cemetery marker three years ago.

When the gift of a letter connected me with Helen and the woman I loved as Grandma Horn, I shared the story with close friends, among them genealogist Pam Anderson. In her hands, Helen’s letter opened doors that had been locked in my family history. Pam dug into public records and newspaper files. Her research and tenacity brought me census records, marriage applications, birth certificates and obituaries. Here’s a sampling of what her excavations uncovered, all triggered by one letter from a seventeen-year-old newlywed:

Grandma Horn’s first name was Ida; she had been a maid. Helen’s dad, Grandma Horn’s husband, was David, a laborer, who was 23 years older than Ida when they married. Both had children from former relationships. Although Ida could read and write, David made an “X” on the marriage application rather than adding a signature indicating he was illiterate. He did own property which meant he had made his way in the world, regardless.

Helen was born March 2, 1909. While her marriage to my pap was not recorded in Franklin County, her letter to Florence reveals they married on February 26, 1926, just before her 17th birthday. It’s unlikely that she knew it when she was writing to Florence in November, but she was probably two months pregnant at the time. Other records show that her infant son died when two months premature, on April 12 , 1927, two days after my pap’s birthday. Helen died one week later when she was barely 18.

The baby’s death certificate calls him “John.” I’m guessing that at the time of death, Helen was too ill and my pap too overwhelmed to have declared a name. When the obituary appeared a few days later, the baby’s name was listed as Charles David, a combination of both grandfathers. Helen’s obituary in the local newspaper attributes her death to pneumonia, like most others listed that same day and the week preceding.

March 2, 2017, would be Helen’s 108th birthday. Ironically, she shared that birthday with my great-grandmother, pap’s second mother-in-law. I realize now that day that must have been rough for him to celebrate as the rest of us gathered for her cake and ice cream each year.

Helen did not leave a written account of her short time here and until last year, she was merely a cemetery marker in my layer of family history. One little letter has made her real for me and helped me pass along a part of her story.

Happy birthday, Helen. You and the little soul who was among us barely long enough to get a name have not yet been forgotten.  And to Florence, Roberta and Candy– thank you for recognizing and preserving the power of a letter.

Dead Mouse Diaries by Mitchell Kyd

The other cool thing: Helen and I share a birthday!

Another Great Pennsylvania Archives – In Our Own Franklin County Back Yard

I’ve written before about the Pennsylvania State Archives, and about the wonderful staff and their records. I’ve solved many clients’ genealogy problems because of my monthly trips to Harrisburg. However, many people are just now learning about the not-so-new resource right here in Franklin County – The Franklin County Archives.

The Franklin County Archives
The Franklin County Archives

The Archives are run by Director, Justin McHenry. Justin and his three staff members are responsible for preserving all of the records created by Franklin County Government since the county was formed in 1784. According to their website, “The Franklin County Archives is dedicated to safeguarding and preserving its history and heritage as well as providing the public with access to the documents and records pertaining to the history, administration and operation of the County.” To genealogists, the most important part of that statement is “providing the public with access to the documents and records.” And that is just what they are doing.

A couple months ago, I brought my Menno Haven Retirement Communities genealogy class to the archives to learn about the resources that are housed at there. Justin explained that the records of most interest to genealogists are being moved from the Courthouse to the Archives, and slowly being scanned so they’re available online. The goal is a one-stop-shop for people who will eventually be able to research their ancestors from the comfort of their own home.

At this time, most of the records from the County Clerk’s office have been transferred to Justin’s care – Orphans’ Court records, such as tax records and delayed birth records; also, naturalization records, administration papers, early land warrants, early rough draft surveys. Some records, like land records and tax assessment books, are categorized by township on the website. If Justin has any records in his possession that aren’t already online, he will scan them and place them in the “requests” category – NO CHARGE!!!

Franklin County history reference books have also been scanned and are available online, including the 1868 Beers Atlas of Franklin County. According to the website, “These and the other works in the ‘Reference Books’ are in the public domain and provided for you to help give a more robust search when looking for an ancestor. All of the books have been OCRd, meaning when you search for a name it will produce hits from the reference books.”

Justin McHenry, Director of the Archives
Justin McHenry, Director of the Archives

Change is usually difficult, but those of us who do genealogy research in Franklin County are excited about this change and look forward to more documents online, easily accessible to the public. Thank you, Justin!!

Finding Family in Slovakia – Part IV

Pam Meeting Milan
Pam Meeting Milan

Finally, the good part . . . We arrived on a September Thursday morning and had the day to ourselves to explore Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Friday morning was a scheduled tour of the city, then a tour of Devin Castle, where Tom and I would meet Milan Hrnčiřík by the Iron Curtain Memorial at 1:00 pm, which is exactly where he was. I had no photographs of him, but I knew him the minute I saw him – and we hugged. Our first photograph together was taken while we were waiting for Peter, Milan’s son, to drive us to lunch.

To recap – because I know this can get confusing – there were four Supena children born 1899-1909: Marie (my grandmother), Jolanka, Stefan and Helena. Marie and Stefan immigrated to the United States, but Jolanka and Helena stayed in Slovakia, and I would soon meet their children and grandchildren.

Supena Sisters Jolanka Felix Katulik, Marie Pracser, Helena Hrncirik, ca.1948
Supena Sisters
Jolanka Felix Katulik, Marie Pracser, Helena Hrncirik, ca.1948

That Friday, I learned about the Hrnčiřík family – how Milan, his two brothers, and mother, survived World War II. His father was killed by the Nazis in the famous Slovak Uprising of 1944, and was never seen again. Milan is 87, with college degrees. He traveled the world, even coming to Chicago in the 1950s to visit my grandmother. Milan and his wife, Dorota, have two sons who run the restaurant at Devin Castle, and a daughter who was voted “ 2014 Most Loved Teacher in Slovakia.” Needless to say, he is very proud of his family. These three children are my counterparts – grandchildren of Helena (Supena) Hrnčiříková, my grandmother’s sister. After lunch, we drove to Milan’s home, former communist housing, which looks like a typical American two-story townhouse with a lush back yard and beautiful garden. We spent the afternoon with Dorota and Vlasta, his niece, talking and sharing photographs. Luckily, I discovered that most Slovaks speak English, especially the younger generation.

The next day, we drove to Nitra, our family’s ancestral town. Our first stop was the cemetery where my great grandparents are buried – the place that I first found Milan as the contact for the family plot. What I didn’t know was that just three days before our arrival, Milan had their headstone exchanged for a “better one,” just because we were coming. There were also fresh flowers on the grave, placed by Gitka, Milan’s brother, Ivan’s widow – again, just because of us. I later found out that Milan was also in constant contact with our tour agency and checked out our hotels in Bratislava and Nitra. He wanted everything to be perfect.

After the cemetery, we walked to the church where Milan’s parents (and possibly my grandparents) were married, then to the home where Milan lived with his mother and brothers after the war. Gitka Hrnčiříková now lives there with her daughter, Jana. They welcomed me as if I was a long lost daughter. We were surprised to find that Dušan, Milan’s middle brother, also drove to Nitra to meet us. He had done research on our family and later emailed me a copy of his manuscript. Dušan and his daughter, Vlasta – another granddaughter I met – are now my friends on Facebook! I had just met most of Helena Hrnčiříková’s children and grandchildren!

Milan in Front of Supena Family Home
Milan in Front of Supena Family Home

On Sunday, Milan came to meet us to go to my grandmother’s childhood home. But there was another surprise. Staying at the hotel for her husband’s 60th birthday party, was another granddaughter – Gabriela (Kutalíková) Meravá, granddaughter of Jolanka. “Your grandma-ma’s must be working up there,” said Milan, pointing to the heavens, because this was definitely not a planned meeting! We then walked to the former Supena home and shop on Podzámska Street where the Supena sisters grew up, and the Town Palace where my great grandfather worked until he died in 1918 of the Spanish Flu. The whole time, we took the photos in some of the same places that I had pictures of my grandmother.

On Monday, we said goodbye to Milan as we continued our trip to the High Tatra Mountains. But we met him four days later to have one final lunch – soup included, of course! He even came again at 7:00 am on Saturday morning to see us off. So what did I learn from our trip? First, “Supena” is not pronounced Soo-pee´-nə, as we always thought. It’s pronounced Shoo´-pay-nə. Second, my new relatives treated me as if they always knew me. My Slovak family was so welcoming that I couldn’t wait to share our adventure with my American one. Finally, I hope that everyone has the opportunity to find relatives that they don’t yet know – whether they are down the street or across the pond.

Tom and I leave tomorrow for a reunion with our Slovak family.

Finding Family in Slovakia – Part II

The first step in trying to locate my Slovak family, was to hire someone in Europe to help with my search. In December 2013, I contacted a genealogist who I hoped would find more specific records on my grandparents and their families. This would also help to determine exactly where in Slovakia my husband, Tom, and I would travel in September 2014. I belonged to the Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International, and one of the speakers at a past conference was a genealogist and tour guide from Slovakia. I looked Michal up on the internet, and immediately contacted him. He said that he lived in eastern Slovakia and my family was from the west, but he would see what he could do to locate records for me. I paid his fee and he went to work. Unfortunately, the records that he found were already accessible to me on FamilySearch, and he didn’t cite his sources for the records he did send. I also realized that he wasn’t very careful, and identified several incorrect family members that I had to correct later. But what he did do, was translate many of the baptism records that he found. One of the notes on my grandfather’s baptism record said that he married Maria Supena in Nitra on 12 October 1919. Unfortunately, instead of Edmund Pracser (the name he went by in America), my grandfather’s name was written as Edmund KONAS. Where the heck did that name come from?!?!? The marriage date was correct, but the name Konas is not even close to Pracser. There will obviously be more research to do in the future!

So I had some more information, but I still didn’t have a family contact in Slovakia. On Michal’s website, it said that he could find families. Oh Boy. Awesome. He told me to send all the information that I had. Huh. I had no confirmed names, addresses, phone numbers, or emails. So what did I have? The only clue that I could give him was the information that I found on the internet on the Slovak cemetery site touting itself as  the “official portal of Slovakian cemeteries”. There was no photograph of the tombstone, like on Find A Grave, the website that is popular in the United States. However, this site listed the “present lessee” of the cemetery plot in Nitra where my great grandparents were buried. The name was Milan Hrnčiřík. I didn’t know this person, but it was a name that sounded familiar – his last name was the same as my grandmother’s sister’s married surname – a cousin? This was the name I gave Michal . . . and crossed my fingers.

In the meantime, I needed to prepare for the actual trip. Where would we go, and would we go alone or with a guide? We chose the guide. Michal ran tours, but only in eastern Slovakia, of course. So he gave me the name and contact information for Peter Blazicek of Best Slovakia Tours. Peter worked with us to customize the entire trip, and it was well worth the money to have our own personal guide who knew the country and spoke the language. By June, everything was finalized and we were ready to go. All we had to do was find someone to visit.

It was in July that Michal found my “someone”. Milan Hrnčiřík lived in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, and the first stop on our trip. He told me that Milan spoke English, had access to his wife’s email, and was 87. I’d better hurry! He was my father’s first cousin, my grandmother’s nephew. That’s all I knew, but that was enough. I immediately emailed him and introduced myself. Following is a part of the email that he sent back in August:

Dear Pam, Hi Tom

You will visit ruins of very old guardian castle built on a high massive rock [on Friday]. Exactly here, under the high rock, on the bank of the huge Danube River is the ideal place for our historical meeting! I will be sitting on one of the four benches installed there next to the two iron curtain memorials. You really cannot miss me and the place!! Following my calculation you should reach the place between 1:00 – 1:30 PM.

At the chosen place at the foreseen time I hope we will finally have the opportunity – with the Tom´s permission – for the first time to hug each other. At this very moment you are getting to become my guests and me your host! We will celebrate the above event in the nearby standing restaurant. After ending our lunches we will move then to my family house and spend a nice afternoon drinking coffee, eating cake and  talking.

“The ideal place for our historical meeting.”
“The ideal place for our historical meeting.”

What could be better than family that didn’t know you, but were excited to meet you? All we had to do now was wait to travel to a country that no one I know had ever visited. We were ready for our adventure in September.

One Young Genealogist That Is SO Into It

Daniel's GenealogyTwo years ago, my 13 year-old nephew asked me if I was going to do his dad’s genealogy like I did his mom’s – my sister. I said sure, but he could do it. Little did I know that I created a monster, because Daniel loved the thrill of the hunt as well as the record analysis. While I was hoping to impress upon him the importance of citations and correlation of evidence, just having someone else in my family interested in genealogy was wonderful.

I started him off with paper and pencil, so his first question – so appropriate for his generation – was, “Can’t this be done on the computer?” Why yes, yes it can, but sometimes it’s good to do both. His Christmas present that year was RootsMagic 7 software. However, with computer crashes, it’s been a little slow going for him, so I told him about Drop Box. Now we share information and I can help from three hours away.

When I told others about his interest, they were jealous. How do we get the younger generation involved? Well, I wasn’t hooked until age 55, and wish I would have started sooner. Everywhere, genealogists ask the same question, so I decided to go right to the “original source” and ask the 15-year old about his genealogy experiences. Below is the interview:

Pam:    What got you interested in genealogy – besides me?

Daniel: The fact that this history of our family is so unknown and you always have a little drive to find out the secrets of your family’s past.

Pam:    Has anyone else in your family done research on your dad’s Italian side?

Daniel: No one has done much research into my family’s history. My grandmother did some, but she isn’t alive anymore.

Pam:    What is the most frustrating part? How do you deal with it?

Daniel: Losing all your data – computer malfunctions! And thinking you have a lead and it turns out there’s no way it could be possible. You just keep pushing and don’t let it hinder your motive.

Pam:    What is the best part? What do you think would attract younger people to genealogy?

Daniel: When you finally put a piece in the puzzle and it makes you satisfied to know that you’ve gone one step closer into your family’s history. You have to be a creative hands-on learner who always wants to do more.

Pam:    Do you have any friends who “get” genealogy? Should family history be taught in school?

Daniel: It’s not a highly talked about subject. If it was taught in school, it would have to be an optional class – it’s not for everyone. It would teach people what to look for when looking through documents to find what was a match. History and genealogy could be tied together. Doing projects in history to find people in the past is like finding your own family.

Pam:    How do you keep track of your genealogy family?

Daniel: I use diagrams and charts the most, on a computer program, because they show up in a “pretty diagram.” [Air quotes]

Pam:    Where are you now in your research?

Daniel: When my grandmother died, my family asked me who each family member was and how they were related. I’m working on being our family history expert.

Pam:    Any final thoughts that you’d like to share?

Daniel: Binders are useful. Organization is the key. You can’t trust electronics – don’t rely on computers for everything.


As you can see from our short chat, our two generations are closer than we think!

NEHGS – Great People, Great Resources, Great Place!

New England Historic Genealogical Society

Last month, my husband and I had the good fortune to tag along with friends on an Urban Getaway. Denis went to the NCAA wrestling finals in Manhattan, and then Theresa attended a work-related conference in Boston. I think Tom went to find us the best places to eat!

My destination was the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) in Boston to do some of my own genealogy research. I spend most of my time researching for clients whose ancestors lived in or traveled through Franklin County, Pennsylvania. Mine never made it to this neck of the woods. My mother’s side settled mainly in New York, Connecticut, and yes – Massachusetts.

One family that I am particularly fond of are the McMasters. John and Katharine (Ames) McMaster were Scots-Irish immigrants who arrived around 1720 – probably through Boston – and settled in Massachusetts. Their son, James, moved to New York by 1750. We know that he was married by the late 1740s, because that’s when the first of their nine children, David, was born. But this is also the BIG Question that my two fifth cousins, Jane from California and Terry from New York, have been working on:

“Who was the wife of James McMaster who was born c. 1712 in Ulster, Ireland and died bef. 1790 in Montgomery County, New York?”

Family tradition and an old partially documented manuscript suggest that her name was Sarah or Ann Gordon, but this has not been proven. The real purpose of my trip to Boston was to help and contribute to my cousins’ research by searching for information on the McMasters and the Gordons.

So what did I find at NEHGS?

  • First, a beautiful 7-story facility, exactly like what was described on the American Ancestors Website. I “visited” the Using the NEHGS Library page before leaving on my trip, in order to search their collections, determine what resources I wanted to look at, and locate what floor they were on.
  • But what I’ll remember is the friendly, helpful staff on every floor. Unlike some repositories that have (almost) armed guards, everyone was welcoming. Patrons are allowed to bring everything they need to do their research – lap top, back pack, camera, you name it. No lockers here.
  • The first thing on my list was a trip to the 5th Floor Stacks to request two histories of Leicester, Massachusetts and two original manuscripts – a bible record and a supplement to a family history, authored by a McMaster.
  • Next, I headed to the 7th Floor Reading Room to explore stacks and stacks of published family histories, town histories and published Massachusetts vital records. I think every book that was ever written on any McMaster family was there.
  • My final stop was to the Microfilm Collection on the 4th floor to check out New England vital records and the Massachusetts probate records that began in 1660.2016 NEHGS

So what new information did I find about the McMaster family?

What great contribution will I make to Jane’s and Terry’s hard work?

Well……nothing. Nothing new at all……..

But I don’t consider this a wasted trip. It took me a good day to get the lay of the land, and I only brought one Massachusetts family to research. There are plenty more where that came from – and I’ll be back. I may even hire an NEHGS expert to help.

As for the McMasters, the three cousins will keep searching – because the Scots-Irish are not quitters!

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