The Gift of New Family Members

As I was researching a project in 2017, I began to plan a genealogy research trip to the locations where my grandparents lived in 1900.  I was stimulated to undertake this project by Ian Frazier’s book Family, which was a wonderful story of his family in the American Midwest at the turn of the 20th century.  Here’s how he introduced his book:

“The twentieth century began on a Tuesday.  On that day, all of my great-grandparents but one were living in Ohio or Indiana.  Mr. and Mrs. Harry E. Frazier and their four children lived in Indianapolis, in a neighborhood of many vacant lots and telephone poles.  Mr. and Mrs. Louis W. Wickham and their three children and hired girl lived at 237 Benedict Avenue, Norwalk, Ohio.  The Reverend John Bachman and his wife and two daughters lived in New Knoxville, Ohio, where he was the pastor of the First German Reformed Church.  Mrs. Elizabeth C. Hursh and her three grown daughters and one son lived at 86 Greenfield Street, Tiffin, Ohio; her husband, Professor O.A.S. Hursh, lay in a nearby cemetery, beneath a $200 monument inscribed with a Latin quotation and the years, months, and days of his life.”

I bet I can write this, I said to myself.  So I did:

The twentieth century began on a Tuesday.  On that day, all of my great-grandparents but one were living in Illinois, Oklahoma, or Texas.  Mr. and Mrs. Warner Lismond Arnold and their eight children (including their youngest son, my grandfather John Cecil Arnold) lived in Montebello Township, Hancock County, Illinois.  Mr. and Mrs. Howard P. Ellefritz and their two children (including their oldest daughter, my grandmother Orpha Lydia Ellefritz) (they would go on to have eight more children) lived just a few miles away, in Pilot Grove Township, Hancock County, Illinois. Mrs. Franklin Anthis (Mattie) lived with her ten children (including her two-year-old daughter, my grandmother Susan Vernon Anthis) in Justice Precinct 7, Lee County, Texas; her husband Frank, who had been dead for just a little over a year, lay in Forest Grove Cemetery in Milam County, Texas, a few miles from their home.  Mattie would join him 32 years later. Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Calvin Workman, Sr., and their 11 children (including their youngest son, my grandfather Thomas Calvin Workman, Jr.), lived on the homestead in Bear Creek Township, Logan County, Oklahoma, that Tom had claimed in the Oklahoma Land Run a decade earlier.

And so this project began.  As I researched it, I began to feel the pull to visit these locations.  My family had moved around a lot – not my immediate family, as I have lived my whole life in Virginia.  But my ancestors never stayed put for every long.  My parents met and married in Arizona; my mothers family had moved there from Texas in the 1931, and my fathers family had moved there from Illinois in 1936.  World War II brought them to the east coast, where they lived the rest of their lives and where my siblings and I have lived and raised our families.

But because earlier generations had moved so much, I knew nothing about family members who stayed behind – in Illinois and Texas, but also in Oklahoma, Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky, and points east. But I wasn’t necessarily thinking about this as I planned my trip. After much planning, I took a 12-day solo research trip in January of 2018. It was fabulous.

One of the things I did in preparation for my trip was to write up posts for Facebook pages for genealogy groups in the areas I was visiting.  My posts generally said something along the lines of “I’m visiting your area in January 2018 and want to know the best sources for information, since my time there will be limited.”  Then I put in the surnames I was researching, not expecting much in return but thinking that maybe the names would strike a chord with someone.  My maternal surnames were Workman and Anthis, and my paternal surnames were Arnold and Ellefritz.

In October of 2017, probably a month or two after I put up these original posts, I got a comment from a woman in central Oklahoma.  The surname I was researching there was my mother’s maiden name, Workman, and the woman’s comment was simply “I have Workmans in central Oklahoma.”  Within a couple of hours we had identified that our grandparents were siblings, and that time and family migration had separated these parts of the family.  I had discovered my second cousin Susan, and soon became acquainted with her sister and brothers as well.

Her grandmother Tina Workman was my grandfather Tom Workman’s older sister.  The family had pulled up stakes in central Oklahoma and moved to Texas in 1915, at which point Tina was an adult and engaged to be married, so she stayed in Oklahoma.  Tom was 16 years old, so he moved with the family.  Tina never left central Oklahoma, and that’s where Susan and her extended family are  still living.  Tom moved to Texas and then on to Arizona, and my parents came to Virginia, as I mentioned earlier. 

Susan and I had never known of each other’s existence.  The family separation was almost total, although it does not appear to have been hostile..  Susan did have one anecdote that referenced my mother, although she didn’t realize it at the time.  Her uncle (our parents’ generation) talked once about his cousin “whose name was a beautiful as her eyes.”  That was a reference to my mother, Violet Workman.  Susan and I both teared up when she told me that story.

Oh yes, and she did tell me that story in person – when we met for lunch in Oklahoma City in January of 2018, when I was on my research trip.  We both brought photos, and concluded that her grandmother looked a lot like my grandfather – not surprising for siblings!

Susan and I are in touch on Facebook now, along with her sister Liz.  Susan is creative and crafty – the pictures she posts of the quilts she sews and the clothing she makes for her grandchildren are wonderful.  Liz is a writer.  She write fantasy fiction, and is as dedicated to her craft as Susan is to hers.  Liz and I talk about writing, a lot.  My brother, who passed away in 2014, was a writer of plays and poetry, and he and Liz would have had a lot to talk about.  My writing is not creative in the same way as Liz’s is, but our shared passion for the written words ties us together.

So my “gift of genealogy” was the revelation of new family members.  When the pandemic ends, we have plans to meet in the middle somewhere – I’m in Williamsburg, Virginia, so we may meeting somewhere in Tennessee to get to know each other better.  Without genealogy, I would never have known anything about this part of my family.

My Gifts of Family History

For the last five years I have been writing my family history as a way of figuring out what I know – and, probably more importantly, what I don’t know.  By trying to string a set of facts together in a narrative, I find it easy to figure out what pieces are missing or what doesn’t make sense.

I have also found that I can improve the focus of my research and feel more productive if I am attempting to answer specific questions.  It’s only by writing these questions down, and keeping them in mind as I’m researching, that I can keep from going down the rabbit holes that attract us every day.

I have self-published a dozen or so books about my family history.  I publish them through Lulu.com, which I have found to be very simple and extremely inexpensive.  I started with examining what I knew (or thought I knew) about each of my family lines, winding my way back into American history.  I discovered that I had ancestors in 11 of the 13 colonies before the Revolution, and that none of my direct ancestors were still living east of the Appalachian Mountains by 1840 or so.  There were clearly stories to be told.

  1. I wrote about my four grandparental lines – my paternal Arnold and Ellefritz lines and my maternal Anthis and Workman lines. 
  2. Then I wrote several books that cut across my ancestral lines – one about my 15 or so Patriot ancestors who fought in the American Revolution, and one about women in my family tree who interested me. 
  3. Then I embarked on a 2-year project to write about my ancestors on their birthdates – sometimes revisiting ancestors I had already written about and adding new information as my research skills improved. 
  4. Next, I picked a year and tried to write about what was going on with my family during that year.  I picked 1900, which was a time when my great-grandparents were all young adults with young families, and their parents were still around (for the most part).  This took me to three parts of the country – western Illinois, southeast Texas, and central Oklahoma – as I delved into the broad sweep of history as well as the family decisions that had put them in these places at this time.  The project literally took me to these location – in January 2018 I visited each of these locations, walking main streets and cemeteries and haunting libraries and courthouse basements in search of information.
  5. Most recently, I embarked on a 52 Locations in 52 Weeks project – taking another sweep through the family lines that I had already worked on, increasing both the breadth and depth of my knowledge as I tried to place my ancestors in context.

And in case you were wondering – here comes the gift part.  Each time I wrote a book, I ordered enough copies of it to send it to my sister, my aunt, several of my cousins, and my children.  My aunt and cousins were generally appreciative of what I had written; my sister and my children, not so much, although my daughter has become interested enough in the stories I tell to make a couple of forays into the locations where our ancestors lived.

I plan to donate copies of the books I’ve written to a local genealogy library where I volunteer (or at least where I volunteered before COVID shut us all down).  I am content with the knowledge that when I’m gone, the research and the stories will survive me.  That is a gift to myself.