Putting Meat on the Bones

by Terry Hogan

It’s important to put the meat on the bones. That is, to set your genealogical research and your ancestors in context of the period. This transforms your research from a dry data book to a story. If you do your research carefully and document your sources, the story won’t be fictional. So, that’s easy enough to say, but how do you do it?

First, you find your ancestors and make sure they’re yours. Document sources of information and rely on original documents whenever possible. Copies of birth certificates, marriage records, tax records, military records and census records can be appended to your paper version, or scanned into your electronic database. These documents add credibility to your work and also help to maintain information, immediately at hand, where data came from.

Next, look at where your ancestors were and see if you know why and how they got there. In the 1800s, many folks moved with family members and neighbors from one area to another. For example, in some of my research, I found that a clump of folks moved from Montgomery County, North Carolina and settled in Todd and Logan Counties, Kentucky around 1850. Settlers often settled with others of the same nationality. You can look around Galesburg and Knox County and see the exceptionally large influence of Swedes. Settlers often moved west in the 1800s along fairly well established routes. Many "Hoosiers" (an early generic term used in Illinois to describe anyone from the South and not particularly associated with Indiana) originated in the Carolinas and traveled through, and perhaps stayed for a while in Kentucky, before passing through southern Indiana into Illinois. The Ohio River and established trails through the mountains tended to funnel westbound travelers along common pathways.

Civil War participation is a tremendous opportunity for genealogists. Hundreds of thousands of men and boys fought in the war, resulting in paper records ranging from military records to pension applications and widow pension applications. Also don’t forget the possibility of stays in the Soldiers and Sailors homes. Civil War records are usually good for age, physical description, date and location of enlistment, unit, rank, etc. Don’t forget to look at who else is in the company with your ancestor. In the Civil War, units were formed in a local geographic area; thus you may find brothers, fathers, and/or in-laws, who enlisted with the one you know about. If your ancestor enlisted in an Illinois unit, much information is now available "on-line" over the Internet. You can also search records of the Soldiers and Sailors Home in Quincy via the Internet. Once you find the relative, you can apply for copies of the records.

You can also find what battles your ancestor fought in once you know his unit and his term on enlistment. Each unit has an Adjutant General’s history of the unit that summarizes the "life" of the unit. It provides a summary of the movements, battles, and moralities that allows you to go to the library and learn more about the Civil War battles. Your ancestor’s individual Civil War records are most likely available from the National Archives in Washington D.C. which will conduct a search and send you copies of the relevant records for a reasonable fee, if you can’t go to D.C. and do the search yourself. If you seek the military records, also ask about pension records. With these unit and individual records, you have the opportunity to put a lot of meat on the bones. You’ll likely know his age, size, color of eyes, where he traveled while in the military, whether he was promoted, wounded, captured, etc. The pension records will provide family member names, birth dates, and probably the location and date of marriage.

I should also note that there are considerable Civil War records for southern (Confederate) units available in individual states and also at the National Archives. More and more seems to be coming "on-line" searchable on the Internet. Trust but verify as data are only as good as the weakest link. Get your lead, and then verify with copies of original documents whenever possible.

Also do Internet and library searches for privately (non-governmental) published histories of the military unit that your ancestor served in. Many units have books written by Civil War veterans, or have diaries that were published after the death of Civil War veterans. For example, my own great grandfather, Jasper Newton Hogan, served in Company H of the 91st Illinois Infantry from 1862 to the end of the war. Another member of Company H published a book on recollections of the war. A copy of the book was available at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. It is full of funny and sad recollections by men that he served with. That’s "meat on the bones". How did I find out about the book, you may wonder. It was easy. I did Internet searches, using various ways of saying "91st Illinois Infantry" including "91st Volunteer Illinois Infantry", "Ninety-first Illinois Infantry", and "Ninety-first Illinois Volunteer Infantry". I used the Google search engine and used quotes around the phrases.

Pension records usually provide information about health, and family members- name of wife, date and location of marriage, and children, ages, etc. Correspondence may also show if/when the ancestor moved as the ancestor would have to advise the agency of his new location in order to receive his pension.

Of course, if you are lucky, you may find an ancestor in one or more of the county histories that were published from the mid-1800s and into the early 1900s. Some originals were lacking indexes, but some reprints have had indexes prepared by dedicated local genealogical societies. These tend to be "good news" write-ups, but do provide information about family history, education, vocation, etc. Also, look in the general history and military history sections as the ancestor may have held a local public office, served in a locally established military unit, or in some other manner been included in the areas outside of the biographical area. If you are really lucky, you may find a "photo" of the ancestor, or perhaps a rendering of his farm, home, factory, or his purebred horse or livestock. As an example, one of the individuals I was researching showed up in the biographical section of a county history. It mentioned that he was taken prisoner by the Confederate "Morgan’s Raiders", when they crossed the Ohio River and struck southern Indiana. The individual was a civilian living in Illinois, but had traveled to southern Indiana on business. This raid through southern Indiana is well documented and makes good meat on the bones.

Finally, as obvious as it sounds, don’t forget to do an Internet search on the name of the ancestor and his immediate kin. It might surprise you. If it is a common name, you’ll likely want to narrow the search by adding geographic references. But you might get lucky. Some years ago, I wrote an article for Backtracking that dealt with Abraham Lincoln failing to show up before the US Supreme Court, concerning a land issue in Warren County, Illinois. I stumbled across this by doing an Internet search on the name of the ancestor. He was listed as a party to the legal case that was before the land’s highest court. Research on the Lincoln Legal Papers turned up the case and it was mentioned in an article on the Internet that "popped up" with my search. Sometimes you get lucky if you look long enough. Lincoln was representing this individual and others in the chain of ownership of the land, but he failed to file written arguments before the Court and failed to show up for the oral argument. Despite this failure of legal representation, the ancestor lost on a close, split decision. Now that adds some interest to the family history- more meat for the bones.

Locally, in my reading up on the history of Galesburg and Knox County and other nearby areas, e.g. Bishop Hill, I included reading Carl Sandburg’s autobiography of growing up in Galesburg- "Always the Young Strangers" (1952/53). This book describes Galesburg through a young Swedish lad’s eyes. And, once again, being lucky, he mentioned (very briefly) an ancestor of mine in the book- M.O. Williamson. It’s not a lot, but Carl is a Pulitzer Prize winning author, so it adds a little interest to the family story. M.O. was a harness maker in Wataga who entered politics and banking and became the Illinois State Treasurer. He was also part of the committee to oversee the construction of the current Lincoln tomb in Springfield. As such, it is documented that he was one of the last to see Lincoln’s remains before it was placed in the new tomb. (Lincoln’s remains were viewed in order to be able to attest of their presence. Attempts had been made to steal his body and the viewing was done to quiet rumors that his body "had gone missing". More meat on the bones.

Speaking of death, don’t forget the obituaries. That is where I encountered the first version of the story of M.O. Williamson and Lincoln’s remains. From this, I confirmed it by newspaper articles on file at the Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which included a photo of M.O. and the other members of the committee and specifically mentions them viewing the remains. Thus, there is more than just family oral tradition- Documentation and meat on the bones.

Continuing to use M.O. as an example, his obituary also says that he was born on board a sailing vessel en route to the United States from Sweden. "M. O." stands for Moses Ocean, attesting to the account. But by research, and a little luck, Nils Olsson’s fantastic book "Swedish Passenger Arrivals in New York. 1820-1850" (1967) shows the family leaving Gavle (a Swedish seaport) in 1850 and arriving in New York harbor (pre-Ellis Island). The ship is shown to be the Swedish bark, "Maria". Olsson’s book shows M.O. as a newborn infant on the passenger manifest. And the federal government, being what it is, I was able to get a photocopy of the original 1850 passenger manifest for the Maria’s voyage from the National Achieves, thereby providing clear documentation. Nils’ research also provided footnote information on the family that allowed me to track down where they came from in Sweden. The old family home still stands and I now have photographs. Meat for the bones

I wrote an article for Backtracking about their move from Sweden to Wataga, and was subsequently surprised to receive an email from living relatives in Sweden who came across the article while they were searching the Internet for genealogical information. They provided me photos of the old family Swedish homestead, and also photocopies of letters written in Wataga in the early 1850s and mailed "home" to Sweden (in Swedish, of course) and a photocopy of a photo they had taken in America and shipped to Sweden. This is clearly an example of "better to be lucky than good," but it does provide evidence that prudent publication of genealogical information on the Internet may prove helpful. But, I personally would be cautious of providing contemporary or near-contemporary information, as there are too many "bad guys" out there.

All this stuff can get confusing. One way to help minimize the confusion is to develop a timeline for each ancestor (or family generation), using dates, locations, and whatever you know about them. Work to fill in the blanks. Keep in mind events that may influence their behavior- wars, financial upheavals, floods, famines, disease, opening of new lands for settlement, gold rush, and the like.

It takes time but time is what you have. There are no deadlines, except those that you impose. Better to take the time and do it right. To paraphrase, genealogy without documentation is only fiction. Take the time, broaden the research, and put meat on the bones.

Don’t shy away from "bad news". I haven’t known too many folks that didn’t have a few flaws- some bigger than others. "Fess up" to it. The world is full of bad things happening and I’m willing to bet that those bad guys have relatives. I’m "guessin" that even Hitler had kin. Make the most of it. Well, maybe not Hitler.

If you are going to have any chance at all to interest one of the next generation in picking up and carrying on the family history, it will take a little meat on the bones. After all, there’s nothing like a horse thief to make for good reading.