The Oxford English Dictionary defines proximity as “nearness in space, time, or relationship.” That’s a great definition for an important tool of genealogy.

Proximity is useful in figuring out family history in the absence of direct evidence such as lineage notes or official records. Relationships are typically established between people who are proximate in space and time. Generations ago one’s social environment would have been largely limited to a day’s travel on horseback or foot. So if a genealogist is trying to deduce or confirm relationships, i.e. build family trees, it’s helpful to establish that the people lived in the same area at the time in question.

Censuses dating as far back as the 1840s were useful in placing people in an area at a given time. City or area directories were also helpful, especially for years between censuses. And land records were good in identifying locations of farm families.

These kinds of documents helped discover relationships among our ancestors:

They showed the rocky relationship between Leonard and Pearl Schutze in the early 1900s in the L.A. area. The couple lived separately as much as they lived together over the years. (Pearl eventually had an affair outside their marriage and committed suicide when it fell apart.)

They helped build Jane Hannah’s branch of the family tree, showing that a pair of Hannah brothers, undoubtedly her siblings, purchased a farm next door to her future husband’s family. Following the paper trail of one of those brothers showed when the family immigrated to America and from which city in Ireland.

Proximity can also be determined by vital records, such as birth, death, and marriage registrations which document place.

When I was searching for the birth family of John Campbell in Scotland there was a plethora of possibilities for a man with such a common name. His gravestone determined his birth year (time). His marriage (relationship) to Isabella McLean led to the probability that his birth family lived near Isabella’s (space). Sure enough, there was a Campbell family living on the Gallochoilly farmstead adjacent to Isabella’s that gave birth to a John Campbell in the matching year. Though proximity wasn’t definitive proof, it — combined with examining all other John Campbells of the shire in that timeframe — was solid evidence that this family was by far the most likely candidate for the family tree.

The North Knapdale parish register shows the parents, farmstead, and birth date for John Campbell

Just as documents provided evidence of time and space, maps were useful in verifying spacial proximity. In the John Campbell example, it was only through old ordnance maps of Scotland that we could establish the locations of farmsteads and their proximity to each other. The same goes for 19th century township or county atlases in the United States and Canada which showed farms by family name. They documented the clustering of families in the same vicinity and showed how many marriages were spawned by the collocation of the bride and groom’s families in the area.

The concept of proximity was a terrific tool, but it admittedly may apply less to modern times than it did in the past. Generations ago families lived and worked on farms and there were limited opportunities (i.e. small local populations) to establish relationships. In the modern era people live in densely populated urban communities and work away from home so there are far more social opportunities. Add to that the increased mobility of modern transportation, mega churches drawing wide-ranging congregations, e-learning replacing fixed location schools, and the prevalence of electronic interactions, such as dating sites, and spacial proximity expands exponentially, making it potentially less useful.

In my own case, I met my wife on a blind date arranged by mutual friends. We didn’t live close by, we didn’t attend the same schools, we didn’t work in the same location, and our birth families lived a couple of hundred miles apart. A future genealogist would have a hard time trying to reconstruct our family trees using proximity as a tool. But of course in the modern era, there’s no lack of official documentation, so proximity isn’t as vital. As an aside, though, the proximity concept still applied, as it was through mutual friends (relationship) that we met, and at the time she lived with her grandmother (relationship), which placed us in adjoining counties of geographical (space) proximity.

There’s an iconic moment in the movie The Graduate when a family friend, Mr. McGuire, gives career advice to the newly minted college graduate Benjamin:

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

I guess you could say that I’ve found one word that has helped me a lot in family research. Are you listening? Yes? Proximity.

Farewell to Microfilm

A recent announcement by FamilySearch heralded a new era in research technology:

“FamilySearch … plans to discontinue its 80-year-old microfilm distribution service. The transition is the result of significant progress made in FamilySearch’s microfilm digitization efforts and the obsolescence of microfilm technology. … Online access to digital images of the world’s historic records allows FamilySearch to service more people around the globe, faster and more efficiently.”

I read the announcement with some trepidation. I’d researched our Scottish ancestors for a number of years using microfilm at the local Family History Center (FHC) and I wasn’t sure how the transition to digital imagery would impact that research.

It turns out the new technology is a quantum leap forward.

Microfilm wasn’t cheap to use, costing $7.50 per roll to borrow. And since our ancestors came from a number of parishes, there were several rolls involved. Once delivered to the local FHC, the rolls had to be threaded into microfilm viewers in a darkened room and the reels turned by hand to look at the pages sequentially. Copying down the information, or printing or photographing it, was time consuming. The copies were of poor quality.  And the loans were for about a month, putting time constraints on the research.

With digital technology all those problems went away. There is no fee. You’re not confined to looking at only one parish at a time. It’s faster and easier to skip through the images. And the quality of downloaded images is superb compared to their analog predecessors.

Neil Livingston-Janet McNair Marriage from the Craignish Parish Register

Yes, you can still only find the parish records at a Family History Center. But all in all, it’s goodbye (and good riddance) to microfilm technology, and a welcome hello to digitization. In the near future I’ll post the family’s parish records to the DAEDALUS feature on our web site.

Ghosts of the Past

Old soldiers never die … they just come back to haunt you.

That was the case with Barney Anthony, my great-great grandfather. When my wife and I took a road trip to Michigan this year I wanted to stop at the Michigan Soldiers’ Home in Grand Rapids where this Civil War soldier was one of the inaugural patients when it opened in 1886. As mentioned in a previous blog, Barney joined the Union Army when he was 52 — likely just to collect the signing bonus — and only spent 3-1/2 months in training before being released for “old age,” thereby avoiding deployment.

In his senior years he applied for admission to the Michigan Soldiers’ Home with a laundry list of disabilities he attributed to his military “service,” and in my humble opinion stiffed the state for room and board and medical care. Admittedly, that kind of attitude may be a little judgmental on my part.

The original Soldiers’ Home building, erected in 1886. (From a framed picture on a wall of the current structure.)

The visit to the Home was both sobering and uplifting. My friend Lenny and I walked the halls and visited some of the common areas where former servicemen — many missing limbs — gathered in wheelchairs to socialize. Some were on the covered patio smoking cigarettes or just taking in the early evening air. The servicemen were stoic; the staff was kind and caring. The long-term effects of war were quietly suffered within the walls of the Home and it was a jolting reminder of what we owe people who risked and sacrificed so much.

Well, apparently Barney thought I needed a little attitude adjustment concerning his own service. He wasn’t about to let me leave without a little sacrifice of my own. I’m sure it was his guiding spirit that steered some yokel into backing his pickup truck into the front of my automobile. I could almost hear Barney’s rheumy laugh as the grill on my car caved in and began to look like what I imagined was his gap-toothed grin. Touche, Barney. I’m not likely to forget this little visit into your past. Apparently you still have a few tricks left up the sleeve of that uniform.

But the ghostly lure of Barney and his wife Jane also got us up to the Traverse City area, and that was a good experience. We ate at fish restaurants on the bay, spent a day tasting wines on the Mission peninsula, climbed into an old lighthouse tower, and shopped for Michigan cherry products. It was beautiful. And the people were great: the owner of the cherry store kept her shop open for our late arrival, and a researcher at the public library gave me tips on finding the family in the library’s on-line archives of the Traverse City newspapers.

The newspaper archives yielded an obituary on Jane (nee Hannah) Anthony which answered some long-standing questions. Some of the details in the biography were inaccurate, but it gave a good overview of her life. And, yes, it turned out the obit was hiding on the internet like a ghost hiding in the attic.

We visited the location near Grawn, Michigan, where Barney and Jane lived with their son in their waning years and we stopped by their graves. It was touching that next to them their infant granddaughter was laid to rest. Grandparents would like that sort of thing.

And finally, the ghost of families past was resurrected at a reunion in my sister Sarah’s back yard.

Generations ago the Schutze and Schrotzberger families were closely linked by marriage, blood, and friendship. Over time those relationships faded. A couple of years back, however, one member of the Schrotzberger clan got in touch with me through our mutual interest in family history, and she came to see the family while we were back in Michigan. If there is a heaven, I’m quite sure there would have been smiles on the faces of our great-great grandparents who were the common ancestors of the Schutze and Schrotzberger attendees of the reunion. I know there were plenty of smiles among the current-day clans.

The Schrotzberger attendee, JoAnn, is seated in the front row at left.