New Year, New Plans

Thank you to Peg for sharing her experience and giving us concrete information about directions we can take to start a family tree or story. Inspiring ideas and concrete decisions to be made. Sharing like this is an excellent way to motivate and to teach others!

It’s true that the DNA aspect of genealogy can be limited in some ways. As children of immigrants, we may know the names of and have even met our relatives, as I have, and so I was not completely surprised that my DNA test showed me as 99% Lithuanian. And although the services provided through sites such as Ancestry can reveal relatives we did not previously know, there is also the possibility of being queried by people who have no connection to our relatives. I was recently questioned by someone who thinks we are related, but none of the names, places or dates match at all.

What does knowing my ethnicity give me? Proof – possibly, but there are currently all kinds of doubts being cast upon the testing and its accuracy.  (By the way, no one in our generation – dragged to Saturday school and folk-dancing, forbidden from dating “others” and scolded for not speaking Lithuanian – truly had much doubt as to our ethnic background.) Possibly more useful is the analysis showing predisposition to certain diseases, but there again, it may be solid evidence only in some cases, and how useful is it in reality? How can you prepare? Fodder for dinner conversations – do we want to know, or not, and how much?

I think Peg is right that collecting material for the family story is most important: this is what we would like to preserve for the next generation, to find and mark our place in history, in a sense. Every family has a story. And displaced families especially need some sort of anchor in a mixed society here in North America. So, back to the box. It does now have files named according to family branches. As soon as I declutter the sewing paraphernalia that’s currently on my office futon, I will bring it out and aim for chronology. And inspired by Peg, I will begin to compile my family history. I must remember – it does not have to be a Pulitzer Prize contender. My notes and my thoughts in my own handwriting will be more revealing as to who I am.

You never know what you’ll find in your Box! This was my baby tag.

Logic dictates that I begin my story with my parents’ arrival in Canada, as it is easier than trying to go backward from there, for now. A future visit to Lithuania and the tiny cemetery that my grandparents are buried in by the old homestead, while it is still standing, is in my plan for Part Two.

I invite you to tell your story, or the story of your efforts, here and now, for others to read and be inspired. Give us even just a few comments to egg us on…

Genealogy as a Story

Nice to meet you! I am Peg, the web developer for www.lithuanianheritage.ca. Like you I have a passion for genealogy, starting about three years ago. I am not Lithuanian but, just like you, my family immigrated to Canada. I want to know where my family came from and why.

Margaret Jackson and her father James

Margaret Jackson and her father James about 1916

My interest started with two old silver teaspoons: one marked “London”, one marked “St. Nazaire”. They were a gift from my great aunt when I was a teenager. All I knew was that she, despite being a small-town Canadian girl of English origin, had trained as a nurse in Scranton Pennsylvania and then served with the American Red Cross in World War I. I had to find out where she’d gone, what she’d done and why she did it. That was the start for me.

Genealogy and DNA

I think that genealogy study comes in three flavours. Each one needs a separate approach but all three have the same underpinnings.

The first is the analysis of DNA. Of course, you have seen the ads on television for DNA testing from sources such as ancestry.ca and 123andme. Finding out that your ethnic background is either singular or very diverse can be both fun and helpful. You may be able to limit your search to a specific part of the world or it may open up leads you hadn’t thought of. In Scotland people have been using DNA with a great deal of precision in a tribal sense. Haplogroups are a big area of study but I am afraid that I use mine more for cocktail chatter than anything.

The Family Tree

My DNA map: where did the Swedish come from?

The second type of study would be what is called a “Name Search”, the type where you create a family tree. This type requires the most detective work of all. It can be incredibly frustrating as you chase for months for a single fact that has eluded you and then exhilarating when you find it. This type of research often provides the surprises and the unexpected. My family name “Douglas” is about as Scottish as it comes. Imagine my surprise to find that this part of my family is actually from southern Ireland and came to Canada, like many Irish, in the Great Famine period. This single fact changes how I think of my family by quite a bit.

In my family tree I have two Samuel Marlborough Douglases (father and son) who between them had 6 wives, four of whom were named “Mary”! The only way I can keep it all straight is to document it carefully.

The Ontario Genealogical Society provides very helpful forms on which you can record your data: https://wellington.ogs.on.ca/ The forms are found under the “Getting Started” tab on their main page. I use the Vital Statistics form (for details of birth, marriage and death) for each individual, the Family Group record to group family members together, and the Pedigree chart to create a family tree. The forms become invaluable when time elapses between finding facts and to help work out conflicts in information.

They particularly encourage you to document the source of your data: essential if you ever need to reverifywhat you found. I also group all my information by person in a tree structure of folders on my computer. My father Ted’s folder contains his information plus two subfolders for his mother and father. Ted’s father Fred’s folder contains his information plus subfolders for Fred’s two parents. In each folder I’ve put images (jpgs or pdfs) of vital documents such as birth, marriage, death registrations, census lists etc. That way I can go back and reverify anything I need to.

As I search for records I try to remember that most of the data was recorded by hand and that the recorder didn’t necessarily have good handwriting. I always need to search for: Douglas, Dauglas, Daglas, Dugles, Dhuglas (Gaelic), Dogles, Douglass, Duglas… you get the idea. At the Archives we’ve been told that finding information on Lithuanian families can be difficult but you may find items if you search for the Polish or Russian version of your name, remembering that dark time when the Lithuanian language and culture were suppressed.

Storytelling

You may have guessed by now that my favourite type of genealogy is to tell the story of a person in my family. Why did this person come to Canada? How did their family influence the direction of their life? Where did they go and what did they do when they got there? In addition to learning about my ancestor, this type of genealogy allows me to do a deeper dive into the social history of a specific time period.

Besides photos and letters, these stories usually need some name research to help place the person in their family context and to fill out details of their life. So those forms I mentioned in Name research are really useful as you create a story.

Is writing a story like this difficult? Starting can be rough but once you are immersed in another person’s life it becomes much easier. My stories have been given as gifts to my parents and had far more impact than I could have imagined. They were amazed at what I was able to find. I answered a lot of questions that had been around the family for years but had never been answered. And it called forth bits of knowledge to help me move forward on other family members. I would never describe myself as a good writer but these books are treasured and are pulled out regularly.

Getting and Giving

The big trick is just to get started somehow, anyhow. I the case of my aunt I started with an email to the American Red Cross. After all, it was the only fact I had. A wonderful volunteer answered me almost immediately with suggestions on where to go looking and how to do it and I was off and running. There was a bit of back tracking because of errors in some of the record keeping. Eventually, and with a couple of referrals back to the volunteer, I was able to become certain that I had the right story.

Much of the nursing she did was for sick soldiers in the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918

Wide, contextual searches help too. I did a lot of research on nursing in World War I in order to understand what it was like for the nurses going off to war. I got really lucky: one of the books for general research had a wealth of photos from the specific hospital at which she served. Among those photos was a picture of the whole nursing staff and there she was!

I also want to commend to you www.familysearch.org. This website is a huge resource and collates most of the free genealogical data sources on the web. Although it has been sponsored by the Church of the Latter Day Saints, its orientation is non-denominational and I haven’t found a reason not to use them. They also have local family history centers which you may visit in person. These are staffed by volunteers who are mostly not members of the LDS and can help you get started. As with all genealogical data, the origin of the data needs to be evaluated before using it.

Another is www.wikitree.org which has the ambitious task of creating one giant family tree for the whole world!

You can give back by volunteering to work on genealogical projects yourself for an Archive or one of the databases like familysearch. For example, familysearch uses volunteers to read and transcribe records from new sources which are then added to the database.

Finally…

I am hoping that this post will help you find the type of genealogy you really want to do, then get started. Every time I go backwards in time I find out something new. I would love to hear what you’ve found out for yourself.

Now back to finding out exactly when George Douglas came to Canada.

Come forth!

Readers and relatives – come forth! 

The time has come to confess. Writing a blog is much more difficult than one might think. It can also be quite boring if no one provides feedback. Throwing your thoughts out into the ether is easy enough, but realizing that they linger there, lonely and cold, can be a deterrent to sending any further envoys. I can see both sides of the equation and provide a multitude of excuses for both readers and potential respondents, because I am guilty of using them myself: summer, laziness, other projects, work, family, travel.

The lesson is: never give up. As in any project, initial enthusiasm may wane if no relatives respond to a Facebook page you have set up to unite them and make your plans accessible. Have I actually contacted some or any of them to tell them clearly what my expectations are? As in any form of teamwork, I am responsible for providing some leadership, guidelines and examples.

Bertha Mikenas - in Southern Ontario tobacco field

My sister’s sister-in-law Birute Mikenas on her parents’ tobacco farm in Tillsonburg, Ontario

Even while a project simmers on a back burner, inspiration may come in strange and unsolicited ways. Research on an article for Lithuanian Heritage Magazine about Lithuanian tobacco farmers in Southern Ontario renewed my interest in refining information about my own ties to that area – I spent most summers of my early youth there with an aunt and uncle. When someone mentions Delhi, it creates an immediate understanding of a whole other lifestyle than I knew in the city. It evokes seeing vast fields of giant-leaved tobacco plants, the unforgettable smell of tobacco drying in kilns, and praying for rain, but please – no hail…

This in turn encourages me to write down the names of the people I knew, talk to others who knew them, tell their story before it’s too late. Many of our elders are gone, so we rely on cousins and old acquaintances to help remember or connect the sketches of our past. Why is it important? Most likely because our true roots are overseas, and we have little or no “proof” of it in our hands, as do some of our friends whose families handed down homesteads and histories in what seems to be the here and now as opposed to a distant, foreign past. We lack a real connection with it, unless our parents made supreme efforts to educate us about that past and gave us opportunities to go back there.

The question then is — why do we search for our roots? Why is it important? I offer this as a starting point for a discussion. In my view, for children of immigrants living in a country of immigrants it is particularly meaningful to have a sense of connection to something more permanent than ourselves, something unique. The desire for permanence may be particularly important to the children of refugees. A person born and raised in Lithuania does not have to prove they are Lithuanian – it’s inherent, like the colour of their eyes. In Canada, Lithuanians are judged by whether or not they speak Lithuanian and how well, which wave of immigration they hail from, and how they are connected to the Community. We strive to display or explain our heritage and our interest in it. Why? One reason may be a need to portray our uniqueness in a giant mosaic of ethnicities, or – in a mass of average Canadians (if there is such a group, referred to in the US as “Middle America”).

Finally, and mostly, defining our connections with our family network and history can give us and our children a satisfying context and a sense of inclusion in a vast anonymous world.

 

 

 

 

 

Mousing Around for Details

Bring out the pipe, the hat with earflaps, and be a Sherlock!

At some point, the photos and documents your have in your family records and memorabilia box may not be enough. You know where your parents lived, that is – wherever you grew up. Chicago, Montreal, Toronto, Boston… You have pictures of some relatives, sufficient information for a good start on a Family Tree. The wheels have begun turning in your head and you realize that you want to know the whole family story from as far back as possible. No one else in the family is as excited as you are, because a) they’re too young, or b) they’re lazy, or c) they don’t know how to go about it. Apparently, you can hire someone to do this, but it’s much more fun to do it yourself, because it’s interesting and educational detective work (also known as research). All you need is your computer (and mouse, if you still use one)!

For example, you may have met or heard of cousins, as I have, with whom you can compare family trees, but the connection is not crystal-clear. From our latest conversations, I now know that the cousins in question found relatives in a town called Rokiškis. Contacting them would be the simplest way to discover how our fathers are related. You may also write to the local museum (find it on the city‘s website) to ask for a link to any available archives. Official archive services (archyvai.lt) may require an application form and a fee. Cemetery records are available via the internet, however the date of death is usually required, as I found out from my query to a cemetery in Kaunas.

Delving into archival websites such as birth/death records and immigration is not simple. There are a great number of websites, and one needs a substantial amount of time and patience to find what you need. However the journey can be fascinating. If you are interested in dog-paddling through the internet, www.cyndislist.com has a comprehensive list of worldwide genealogy sites, (Lithuanians are not featured prominently). The site www.dpcamps.org gives a vast list of sites which require some navigation skills, but I found nothing relating to the DP camp my parents were in (Regensburg), which I will pursue further. However I did find a concise history of DP‘s by Mel Jay at https://owlcation.com/humanities/Lithuanian-Diaspora-A-History-of-WW-2-Lithuanian-Displaced-Persons, with suggested reading, and an article from „Lituanus“ by Linas Saldukas titled „Culture in Adversity: the Lithuanian DP experience“. These are the things that distract me from my task, but they‘re so interesting…

If time is limited, your first line of questioning should be directed at any and all existing relatives. Write to them, call them, ask for photos, dates of birth, marriage, death. BEFORE IT‘S TOO LATE!

My grandparents’ homestead in Kalniečiai, 1938 (Rokiškis area)

Also, you can launch a second line of attack: today I created a Facebook page to reach out to relatives who are already on FB or have emails. Anyone can be invited, but the page is „secret“, that is – only invited members can see it. I kept thinking about the best way to reach out to relatives in Europe, South America and here in North America, and decided to jump in. I put up a photo of our grandparents‘ homestead, and I hope to get some responses. At least it will be something interesting to read on FB…

 

But seriously…

A new year – and with it, fresh resolve to get organized!…

Your papers and photos are collected (hopefully in some kind of order that is clear to you), and you are ready to take your next step. What will it be? This depends on several factors. You need to ask yourself, and perhaps your family, a few questions. First of all, what is your goal?

This is actually the key question for the entire exercise, which will require a real time commitment. Why are you doing this? If you have very few relatives – or none, you may want to find some. It’s very exciting to discover new “people”, someone who is connected to you through your ancestors. An example is my third cousin in Pennsylvania, who connects me to an earlier historical time than the post-war DP story that I knew about from my parents. There was in fact a pre-war exodus of Lithuanians who left their country to make a better living working in the mines in Pennsylvania. To have actual cousins emerging from that era is fascinating. It means I am connected to more than just my parents, my sister, and their immediate families. I am part of a clan.

Because of our background as children of DP’s, many of us may feel that we don’t have a concrete sense of place or history. I would like to follow the thread of belonging not just for myself, but for my children and their children. In our “later” years, it seems, we tend look for those threads and find meaning in them. Laying out the thread and weaving it together makes us feel part of a larger, more important, more meaningful tapestry.

So as we delve into our family ties, we need to decide whether we want to set up a) a family tree, b) a family history, c) a network of living relatives, or maybe – all of the above. Probably the simplest approach is to start with the family tree.

A sample family tree template

For a family tree alone, you can use a template (www.familytreetemplates.net), which is quite straightforward. Most allow entries for family member names, surnames, dates of birth and death, with a variety of layouts diagramatically showing relationships. These are not the same as genealogical programs.

Programs provide more features. A Lithuanian-language website that I found (although it may be dated) http://www.polia.info/Genealogija/Programos.htm outlines a number of genealogical programs. The best seems to be http://www.myheritage.com/genealogy, which allows you to create a family tree on the internet, or download the Family Tree Builder http://www.myheritage.com/family-tree-builder. It is free, and supports Lithuanian language for names and surnames with our specific diacriticals (special signs on letters such as š, č, etc.). These would be important even for non-Lithuanian speakers, because correct diacriticals make the names authentic. Other features are error recognition (warnings when dates do not align, for example), and search tools.

The family tree is a good starting point, because it does not require any more information than name/surname, relationship, date of birth and date of death. Simple. What if you don’t know these dates (or can’t remember them, or… can’t find the scrap you wrote them on)? Maybe there is a photo of grandfather’s headstone somewhere in the pile. Especially in the early post-war decades, they were often sent to us by relatives in Lithuania, together with the ghastly shots of everyone with sadder than usual faces standing around the open coffin of the deceased. If there is no photo of the headstone showing d.o.b. and d.o.d., contact the cemetery (e.g., St. John’s Lithuanian Cemetery, Mississauga). If there are no relatives you can contact in Lithuania to find out where someone is buried, a search may be possible through the municipality. For example, there is a listing of cemeteries in Kaunas and contact information for each. I was informed by one cemetery office there that queries must include the year of death, name and surname is not enough.

Turning your attention to your genealogical tasks for just half an hour a day or even an hour every few days will bring you satisfying results – and there’s no exam!