Saturday, June 27, 2015

Grandma Doris - More Bowling Pins!

I posted a few weeks ago about the stash of bowling pins - the kind you wear, not the kind you knock down - my mom and I came across as we went through some of my Grandma Doris' things while prepping for a flea market. Grandma passed away at the beginning of April and a LOT of her things ended up with us.

(Side Note: If her spirit was watching from somewhere, seeing us getting ready for a flea market probably made Grandma smile a little bit - I'm pretty sure half her adult life was spent at flea markets, selling Mary Kay and an assortment of thingimbobs.)

Anyway, Grandma didn't just bowl, she lived bowling - and was pretty good - and her jewelry boxed attested to that. Our first go round revealed 26 pins, from the Washington, DC Women's Bowling Association, Virgina State Women's Bowling Association, Women's International Bowling Conference, and more. Welp, we found two more!

The one at the top of the page may be my new favorite out of all of them, b/c... Tasmanian Devil. I mean, really, y'all. This sends me back to my Looney Toons youth - Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs. But anyway...Both pins have been added to the collection, and I actually hope we find more. Plus we have tons of pictures of Grandma posing with her teammates at tournaments, so maybe we can match a few pictures to pins?

Speaking of which, one of the other things that came back up with us from DC were Grandma Doris' photo albums. If she had been born a little later, she would have been a scrapbooker, with all the fancy doodads, special papers, stickers and scissors that cut decorative edges. As it was, she filled album after album with labeled pictures, some with commentary, some with dialogue bubbles (yep!). There are 19 of them.

So one of my next genealogy tasks is going through these babies, scanning and cataloging the photos, and then making the hard (or digital) copies available to folks in the family who want them. Did I mention there are 19 albums? I need to get cracking!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Mystery Monday: Women, Who Art Ye?!

Update: I've made progress on this mystery! Click here and here for details.

So, there are these three women. They all have the same maiden name. They are all from the same state. Their parents’ names are eerily similar. And they all appear connected to one woman in my family tree. But I don’t know how – or even if – they are related to each other!

The line of the Social Security Number Application my Great-Grandmother Katherine completed listing her mother's name.

Let’s start with the clear connection: my Great-Grandmother Katherine Shepherd. Her mother’s name is Rose Anne (or Rose Anna or Roseanne or Rosa Anne) Shepherd. But what is her maiden name, according to several records Katherine and others completed? Rose Allen. And where is she from, according to the 1910 Census and other records? Virginia, as are both of her parents.

1910 Census (Salem, New Jersey) for Samuel, Rose and Katherine Shepherd.

Katherine has a “cousin” (we don’t know yet if it’s a biological cousin or a play cousin, precisely because of this mystery) named Eleanor Kilson. They both grew up in Salem, New Jersey and they appear pretty close – in Katherine’s apartment after her death were several pictures of herself with Eleanor, plus lots of papers and photos of Eleanor’s brothers and sister. Eleanor’s mother’s name is Bertha Kilson. What does her marriage certificate say her maiden name is? Bertha Allen. And that she’s from Orange County, Virginia.

1912 Marriage Certificate for Bertha Allen and Waymon Kilson

Katherine moves to Washington, DC between 1918 and 1920, and into the household of Oswald Petite and his wife, Eleanor Petite. And what is this Eleanor's maiden name, according to her marriage license? Eleanor Allen.

Segment of 1912 Marriage License App, License and Return for Oswald Petite and Eleanor Allen

In the 1920 Census, Katherine is listed as Oswald’s niece (he’s the Head of Household). In the 1930 Census, after Oswald has passed and Eleanor is Head of Household, Katherine is listed as Eleanor’s cousin, and Katherine’s son, my grandfather Louis, is listed as Eleanor’s nephew. The 1920 and 1930 Censuses both list where each person and their parents are from. Eleanor (and both parents) are from Virginia. Katherine’s mother is from Virginia.

1920 Census showing Eleanor Petite and Katherine Shepherd's birthplaces and those of parents

1930 Census showing same as above

Oh, and that thing about their parents’ names? Records suggest that Rose’s are Jannis Ellis and Robert Ellis, that Bertha’s are Roberta Allen and Robert Allen, and that Eleanor’s mother is Elenor Ellis. And, just for kicks, there’s a Luke Ellis – also from Virgina, as are his parents – living in Eleanor’s household in 1930. He, like my great-grandmother Katherine, is listed as Eleanor’s cousin.

To Summarize, here's what we know based on census and vital records:

Are they sisters? Are they cousins? Are they mumble mumble no guesses?

Alright, so how am I going to solve this mystery? Obviously I need to do some more census digging. I’ve done many an online search for various combinations of these men and women living in family groupings in Virginia, with no luck. Perhaps birth records in Virginia will be useful – I have Orange County as a starting point. Obituaries, if I can find them, would likely be very helpful!

I'm also tracking Luke Ellis - the "cousin" living with Eleanor and Katherine in DC in 1930 - back through as many records as I can, and then fleshing out the households and families to whom he’s connected. (When researchers tell you organization is key, believe them!) One tantalizing tidbit from this line of digging is that in 1900, there’s a Luke Ellis living in the household of James Stearns and Charlotte (Ellis) Stearns in Orange County, VA. He’s listed as their grandson. Also in the household? An Ellen Allen, also listed as their grandchild! And both she and Eleanor Allen – the one living in DC by 1910 - are born about 1890; we may be on to something here!

So, do you have any recommendations for ferreting out the answer to this mystery? Or do you have information that may help us figure out what the relationship is between Rose Ann, Bertha and Eleanor Allen? Please leave your comments below!

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Family Preserves: Beatrice (Harris) Johnson / West

My first serious foray into family history research was a cookbook called Family Preserves that I put together for my high school senior project. I reached out to members of my family on both sides and picked their brains about their family trees, their favorite or signature recipes, and the people, places and stories in their lives that these recipes conjured up.

I knew some of the details of my ancestry on both sides already, but this was the first time I had specifically invited folks to tell me what they knew, and really the first time I witnessed the power of remembering and sharing, and felt the excitement of recording and preserving.

Every now and then, I think I’ll use this space to pull out a story or a recipe from Family Preserves, to keep the chain of sharing alive. I know a lot more than I did back then, so let's think of these as both a trip down memory lane and a jumping off point for more conversation.

Here’s how I introduced my great grandmother Beatrice (Harris) Johnson / West. Have pity on my writing - I was 17!


Great Grandma Beatrice was born Beatrice Harris on April 14, 1915 in Montgomery, Alabama. She was the eldest of two children, both girls – her sister Lillian was born almost exactly 2 years later, in April of 1917. Their parents were Ardenia Harris (maiden name possibly Jackson) and, according to records, Solomon Harris, both born in 1897.

Great Grandma Beatrice's story will take quite a few posts to tell (and that's without all the other stories I'm sure my family has to share!), but here's a quick and dirty sketch:

1918 - The family is still living in Montgomery, Alabama, where dad Solomon works for a grocer.

1930 - The family - minus Solomon, so far as I can tell - is living in Majestic, Alabama, an unincoporated coal mining town not too far from Birmingham. Mom Ardenia runs a boarding house, which becomes significant later on.

My Great Grandmother Beatrice, date unknown.

Between 1930 and 1940 - Both Beatrice and Lillian start families, and mom Ardenia remarries.

By 1940 - Beatrice and husband Theodore Johnson move north and east to another mining town, Powhatan Point, Ohio, but two of Beatrice's children are still with Beatrice's mom Ardenia in Alabama, at least when the 1940 census is taken. Sister Lillian is still in Alabama, in the same town as their mom, but she'll soon move north and slightly west, to Kewanee, IL.

1947 - Beatrice marries Raymond Montgomery West. They are living in Yorkville, OH, about 26 miles north of Powhatan Point along the Ohio River.

1947 -1971 - Beatrice and Ray continue to grow and raise the family, and see the children start their own families. Beatrice is active in her church.

1971 - Husband Ray West passes away.

1986 - Former husband Theodore Johnson passes away.

1987 - Beatrice's children hold the first Harris/Johnson/West Family Reunion.

1991 - Beatrice passes away in Ohio at 76 years old.

I'll be fleshing this timeline out in future posts - Beatrice was a person, not a list of dates, after all - and I'm looking forward to talking with relatives and learning more about her. She lived through several wars and the Civil Rights Movement, participated in the Great Migration, and raised 10 kids (including the woman who raised my father). She was born before Alaska and Hawaii became states, was 4 when Prohibition started, 5 when women got the right to vote and was 12 when Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic and the first movie with sound was released.  Polaroid cameras and atomic bombs were developed during her lifetime. So was prepackaged sliced bread. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and John Lennon were all born and killed during her lifetime. And yet all of these things were probably only swirling in the background as she was a daughter, a sister, a mother, a wife, a parishioner, and a community member. She had her own stories to tell, and priorities.

Family, I hope you'll also share what you know - pictures, documents, stories - so we can share (and preserve!) an even better understanding of who she was and how she shaped our family with generations to come!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

I've Got Mail!

Something came in the mail today! I've known for a while now that my mom's cousin, France Davis - France, not Francis, mind you - wrote a book. I remember it being talked about at a family reunion a couple of years back, but I was too cheap poor and in college or a recent graduate and didn't buy it. Welp, you guessed it, I went ahead and ordered the book online a few days ago and when I came home today, it was waiting for me!

Cousin France is actually my mom's first cousin, once removed. What does that mean? Mom's maternal great-grandfather, Reverend July Cooper, was Cousin France's grandfather, or put another way, Mom's maternal grandfather Noah Cooper and Cousin France's mom Julia (Cooper) Davis were siblings. So, yeah, I get to use the fancy term "first cousin once removed" for them and if you throw me in the mix, he's my "first cousin twice removed."

Sings to self: I'm so fancy, you already know...Just kidding. I had to look it up on this chart to get the terminology right.

Anyway, I bought the book because at our last reunion, last summer, the suggestion was made that the next reunion be held in our ancestral town, Gough, (Burke County) Georgia. Then we could visit the land the family still owned, see the family cemetery, and really connect to the place we came from. (My great-grandparents Noah and Nancy (Thomas) Cooper moved from Georgia to Washington, DC in the 1930s.) And I remembered someone saying, on several occasions, that there was even a town named after us down there, a Cooperstown or Coopersville. It popped up in my mind a few months ago and so I did what everyone else does - I googled it. Lo and behold, France's book popped up as a hit, with the names of a bunch of my family members! So, I took a really long time to get around to it and bought the book.

One of my favorite photos of my great grandparents, Noah Cooper and Nancy (Thomas) Cooper.
I unwrapped the package, but my mom opened the book before I did! She very generously closed the book again until I sat down, though. Then we dove in and started looking at the pictures. (Just doing what I was taught in school - skim a thing first to get the general idea and then go back and read for details!)

It's pretty cool to see family members that I recognize in a published book. And of course my mom has more memories of these folks, especially of the older ones who've passed. There's even images of pages from my 2x great aunt Julia's family bible (earliest date 1858)! How neat!

I'm looking forward to sitting down and really reading this, both to learn about our Cousin France (who is still living, and is a pastor out in Utah as far as I know), and to learn about my Cooper roots. I haven't researched this branch of the family as much as I have others, because several other folks are already very capably doing so, but, hey, I want to know the stories, too!

Monday, June 15, 2015

Mystery Monday: Who's Your Daddy, Louis Shepherd?

One of my friends likes to refer to the genealogy group I belong to as the “Who’s Your Daddy?” group. I know it's tongue in cheek, but it drives me a little crazy! Yet, for my maternal grandfather, Louis Allen Shepherd, it’s right on the money – it’s the biggest question we wish we had an answer to!

A rather mysterious photo of my grandfather Louis Allen Shepherd.

My mom and her four siblings all agree that their father didn’t talk much about his childhood. They know he was born 29 Dec 1922 in Washington, DC and that his mother was named Katherine – one of my uncles even lived with their grandmother for a bit in New York City. They knew their dad had grown up in Washington, DC, and one of them remembered that he had a “play mother” in the city named Mrs. Foy. And finally, they knew he had – and they remembered visiting – cousins (or “cousins”) in New Jersey. Pretty much everything else about their dad's early years has to be taken from governmental records. So, where could we look for information about his father?

You’d think finding out his father – at least his legally recognized one – would be as simple as looking at his birth certificate. Unfortunately Louis’ birth certificate provides no answer - the area for father is left blank! Furthermore, there a space to mark whether the child is “legitimate” or “illegitimate” and it’s the latter that’s left visible for Granddad Louis. No help here.

Let’s go back to his mother, Katherine, for a moment. We know her mother Rose died in New Jersey in 1916 and that by 1920 (and possibly sooner), Katherine had moved to Washington, DC, where she lived with the Petites, to whom she may have been related. (More on this in a later post.) Two years later, she gave birth to my grandfather. Could his father have been someone from Jersey that she visited back home or who visited her in DC? Could it have been someone she met in her new city? Or someone just passing through?

What about other documents that might list his father, or even provide clues? My grandfather filled out three applications for marriage licenses – none of them asks for the names of the prospective bride and groom’s parents.

How about the 1930 Census, which at least would give us a hint as to where Louis’ father was from? We struck out! The census reports that his mother is from Pennsylvania, but his father is from…the United States. Womp.

Louis' mom Katherine is listed here by her married name, Banks, but she got married in 1927, when Louis was already five. It doesn't rule out Mr. Banks as his father, but there's no proof that he is.

The last document we have that might give a clue is literally one of his last documents: his Certificate of Death. But again, we struck out! At the line for Father’s Name: “Unknown”. And had a name been given, we would have had to take it with a grain of salt: my Grandma Doris was the informant, and she was much removed from his childhood life, as they married when he was in his forties. Furthermore, when she listed the name of his mother, she listed it as Alice, which we know to be incorrect. Grief, we’re guessing, clouded her memory. 

So, what’s next for solving this mystery? Realistically, we may never know the answer. If my grandfather ever knew, he may have had good reasons for not sharing. Or maybe he never knew himself. And the circumstances of his conception may not have been ones my great-grandmother Katherine was happy about or comfortable with, reality being what it is. Life is difficult sometimes.

I think one of our next steps will be to ask one of my mom’s brothers to take a DNA test. If we’re lucky, we’ll find someone who shares his paternal DNA and we’ll be able to open a few doors there. If not, it’ll still be an interesting foray into the world of genetic genealogy. My grandfather served in the Civilian Conservation Corps; while his discharge papers have no field for parents, perhaps one of his related papers does? We'll send away for the file. Or perhaps his application for a Social Security Number would say? The catch 22 is that for privacy reasons, the SSA will redact the names of the parents unless 1) the person who was applying for the number is over 100 years old, 2) the parents can be proved to be over 120, or you can prove that the parents are dead! (You can see how that becomes a problematic cycle!)

What do you think? Do you have suggestions for other avenues to explore as we try to solve this mystery? Or might you have a clue to help unlock this door? Let me know below!

Friday, June 12, 2015

Bowled Over by Bowling Pins

As some of you already know, my Grandma Doris passed away earlier this year. Technically, Doris Elizabeth (Reid) Shepherd was my step-grandmother – my mom’s stepmother – but she’s the only grandmother I’ve ever known on that side of my family. My biological grandma, Elnora Mae (Cooper) Shepherd, passed away when my mom was 5 years old. (In a strange twist of metaphysical fate, both grandmothers passed away on April 1st, forty-eight years apart.)

One of the things Grandma Doris’ passing has meant is that a ton of her stuff is now at my parents’ house. Now that it’s yard sale season, we’re going through boxes and bags to see what can be let go, and what we want to keep (which, it turns out, is basically anything with sentimental value). Look what came out of one envelope of costume jewelry:

Grandma Doris was a bowler. Actually, that fails as a descriptive statement. Grandma Doris had a deep, abiding and passionate love of bowling and she gave a lot of her time and energy to both playing the sport and supporting it. Among her many bowling commitments, she was a member (and sometimes officer) of the Washington, DC Area Women’s Bowling Association for many years.

A love of bowling was something that my grandma had in common with her husband, my Granddad Louis, and my mom and aunt remember family trips to places like Lebanon, PA and Aliquippa, PA so their parents could compete in bowling tournaments. I didn’t find any Lebanon pins, but I did find a few from the Virginia State Women’s Bowling Association and the Ocean County, New Jersey Women’s Bowling Association:

She also had more than a few from the Women’s International Bowling Congress, plus one from the National Duckpin Bowling Congress:

(I’m not gonna lie – I had to look up what “duckpin bowling” was. According to, it is “a variation of 10-pin bowling where the balls and pins are significantly smaller making the game much harder.”)

In total, I counted 26 pins in that one envelope. I wonder if there are more hiding somewhere else? Either way, maybe we’ll come up with a good way of displaying these – my dad has already suggested mounting them in a nice frame for a conversation piece.

This is just a sliver of my Grandma Doris’ bowling story – I’ll be coming back to this topic more than a few times, so stay tuned! In the meantime, do you have a story or memory about Doris Shepherd the Bowler?

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Why We're Gathered Here Today

My first stab at family history, aka my high school Senior Project.

This is a blog about family. This is a blog about uncovering the stories of the people who came before me. This is a blog about understanding how I got to be where I am, because of how my parents and grandparents and great-grands beyond got to be where they are and were.

I’ve been doing family history research off and on since 2001, and much more seriously since about 2007. A fair amount of the credit (or blame, depending on how you look at it!) goes to two of my high school teachers. One, my AP U.S. History teacher, assigned this awesome project where we went to the historic Woodland Cemetery in West Philadelphia, chose a headstone, and researched that person’s life through records at archives and repositories across the city. To be honest, I don’t remember a darn thing about the person my group chose – not even his name. But what I do remember is how cool it was to get to search through historical records and actually find out what this person’s life looked like at a time when the world looked different than the one I knew. (It’s also the first, and only, time – to date – that I’ve eaten lunch in a cemetery. I’m a terrible Victorian!)

Around the same time – maybe junior or senior year - my English teacher had us read Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Spoiler alert, if you’ve never read it, there’s a children’s rhyme that pops up several times in the story that turns out to reference the family history of the story’s protagonist. There’s a haunting coolness to that that made me wonder what I might be able to find out about my own family. I took that question and ran with it – my senior project was a cookbook with family recipes that I got by visiting and interviewing family members in DC and Columbus, OH.

What really sealed the deal, though, was something my Grandma in Ohio told me before I went away to college. (Nope, not a deep, dark secret!) She told me that when she heard what college I’d decided to go to, she went to church and told her fellowship how proud she was to be the daughter of a coal miner whose granddaughter was going to Harvard. The sense of motion, the sense of time, and really, the sense of history in that statement – especially knowing how and where both my parents grew up – has stuck with me to this day. So has the question of what I could learn about my coal mining ancestors, and all the other folks who came before me, on both sides of my family.

In the past 14 years, I’ve answered a lot of questions, and raised a thousand more! I’m going to use this blog to share a lot of the information that I’ve found, first and foremost with my family, but also with all my genealogy and history buddies (and hopefully new ones as well). Maybe I’ll even connect with new family, or with fellow researchers who can help me break down brick walls in my family history.

I’m looking forward to this blogging journey and hope that you all – family and friends – will take it with me. More than that, I hope you’ll participate: sharing stories, memories, photos, and family recipes, and maybe writing a post here and there for me to share! At the least, I hope you’ll leave comments, ask questions, or just tell other folks about what’s here, so we can keep this information – our stories – alive for generations of family to come. 

P.S. My posts won’t all be this long!