Thursday, November 13, 2014

#52Ancestors (45) SMITH: Everybody's Got One

Everyone has a SMITH in their tree, right?

Some SMITH's you have lots of information on and others, well, not so much. My #52Ancestor falls into the 'not so much' category.

Joannah SMITH is a maternal great-great-great-grandmother. Her given name is spelled various ways: Joanna, Johanna, Johannah.

I know more about her from the end of her life going backward, so we will start at the end.

Joannah died 12 July 1885 in Locke Township, Ingham County, Michigan at about age 60. She is buried in Rowley Cemetery next to her husband Elias C. MAXSON.



Joannah was the mother of seven daughters: Susannah, Hannah, Mary Jane, Laura, Emeline, Alice and Minerva.

The MAXSON's were enumerated on the following censuses:
  • 1880: Locke Township, Ingham, Michigan
  • 1870: Locke Township, Ingham, Michigan
  • 1860: Locke Township, Ingham, Michigan
  • 1850: Marion Township, Livingston, Michigan

Their second daughter Hannah was born in Marion Township in 1849, and their oldest daughter Susannah was born in 1845 in New York. Like many other families in Ingham County, Michigan, the MAXSON's migrated westward from New York. Elias MAXSON was born in Wyoming County, New York, so it is pretty likely that they were married there as well.

There were a few SMITH families in the same part of Wyoming County as the MAXSON's. But with their marriage before 1850, there was no opportunity for Joannah to be listed individually on a census. And attempting to guess which family she may be from is just speculation.

Some day, though, there will be that elusive record that points me to Joannah's family.

For now, I'm glad I only have one SMITH line of descent.


© 2014 Sally Knudsen


Monday, November 3, 2014

The Most Amazing Slave Story You've Never Heard

Since I have been researching and blogging about my own family, I find myself a little more in tune to history: local, regional, international. Sometimes you learn about someone or something and the story never leaves you. This is my small attempt at spreading the amazing true life story of "Free Frank."

And it happened completely by chance.

what is left of New Philadelphia

My first encounter with Free Frank was through a 2008 PBS Time Team America television program. It was mostly an archaeological show with a little history for background. The archaeological dig was taking place in rural western Illinois, and I thought, hmm, some day I'd like to check that out.

Friday was that day.

We traveled to the Mississippi River town of Quincy for our son's cross country meet (long trip, long story, good ending!). Along the desolate stretch of Interstate 72, west of Springfield, was this sign:


We had a little daylight left and there was no way I was not stopping. Only a few miles off the interstate were the signs directing us to New Philadelphia, a town that no longer is, but that has an amazing history.

Frank was born in 1777 in South Carolina to an African-born slave. His master, George McWhorter, moved to the new frontier of Kentucky. Frank "married" Lucy, a slave from a nearby farm. Frank was industrious, and in addition to his forced labor, hired himself out (with part of his pay going to George) to other farms. In the wilds of Kentucky during the War of 1812, he was also able to learn to produce saltpeter, the main ingredient in gunpowder.

In 1817, he used his saved money to purchase Lucy's freedom. And then he purchased his own. And then he purchased the freedom of three of his slave-born children. And their spouses. And his grandchildren. All told, he earned and spent about $14,000 to secure freedom for his family (about $250,000 in today's money!).

Frank also started investing in farmland of his own, buying small parcels in Pike County, Illinois. By 1830, he was dangerously traveling back and forth between slave Kentucky and free Illinois, preparing the land for settlement.

Not only did Frank purchase land, he was well-versed in many aspects of property ownership. He and Lucy successfully defended themselves in a civil suit, and he was able to purchase the Illinois land, when every effort to dissuade black property ownership was employed by authorities.

New Philadelphia was officially platted in 1836 - the first town platted by a free black man in the United States

By 1839, Frank owned 800 acres in Hadley Township, all settled by his family and other free blacks. It was likely a stop on the Underground Railroad. By the 1880's, the town faded away as railroads and other improvements were made elsewhere.

Frank, Lucy, and family
1850 US census: Township Five, Pike County, Illinois

Frank died in 1854. I truly wanted to visit the family cemetery, but it is on private property and accessible only by a hike through the brush.

Today, New Philadelphia is merely a rolling farm field of memories. But the perseverance of Free Frank should live forever. It was truly an honor to stand where he stood.




Illinois River, about 10 miles away

rolling farmland near New Philadelphia

Here are some links about Free Frank and New Philadelphia:





History: don't let it pass you by.

© 2014 Sally Knudsen

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

#52Ancestors (43) John Patrick Riley

This week's #52Ancestors is John Patrick RILEY, a paternal great-grandfather. He is the son of my last post about Thomas RILEY.

John Patrick was born in Lockport, Will, Illinois on 28 February 1872. In 1902, he married Rena Clara BLANCHARD. Together they had 11 children:

  • John Louis
  • Andrew
  • Virginia Mary
  • Edward
  • Elizabeth
  • Irene
  • Joseph Blanchard
  • Bernice Mary
  • James
  • Joan Rosemary
  • George Blanchard

John worked in the specialized construction trade of structural iron working. A number of the children were born in Chicago, where the family moved as John labored on some of Chicago's early skyscrapers.

John and Rena, c 1940

They made their way back to Lockport in the 1920's where they remained. They had many grandchildren to spoil as well.

John died on 4 June 1955. He is buried in a large family plot in South Lockport Cemetery in Lockport. He wife, sister Elizabeth, and several of his children are buried with him.



© 2014 Sally Knudsen

Monday, October 27, 2014

#52Ancestors (42) Thomas Riley of County Westmeath

My entry to the #52Ancestors calendar this week is a paternal great-great-grandfather, Thomas RILEY.

Riley family c 1913, Thomas on far right

Thomas is one of my connections back to Ireland. Born about 1840, he emigrated to the United States as a child, based on information reported on census records. He married Mary Ann McWEENEY on 3 Jun 1865 in Lockport, Will, Illinois. Their marriage is listed in the county clerk index, but the clerk's office was unable to locate a copy of their actual marriage license or return.

RILEY and its variants have made it difficult to pinpoint Thomas in 1850 or 1860 census records. The fact that I don't know his parents or any siblings doesn't help, either.

He first appears in records on the 1870 census in Lockport, Will, Illinois. I love that he is listed as a 'canal captain' and Mary Ann as a 'canal boat cook.' The Illinois and Michigan Canal was a huge undertaking that employed thousands of immigrants in areas southwest of Chicago. You can learn more about the canal here.


He remained in Lockport for the rest of his life, appearing as a laborer in censuses of 1880 and 1900.

Thomas and Mary Ann had four known children:
  • Elizabeth (Lizzie), 1866-1948, never married
  • James Charles, 1868-1906, never married
  • John Patrick, 1872-1955, married Rena Clara Blanchard, 11 children
  • Andrew, 1880-1889
Thomas' death record from Saint Dennis Church in Lockport states he was born in County Westmeath in Ireland, and he was 75 years old when he died. That's my only current lead in Ireland.


He died in 1915 and is buried in South Lockport Cemetery but he and Mary Ann have no stone.


© 2014 Sally Knudsen

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Six Degrees of Joliet

There is that phrase people use when trying to explain the closeness of one person to another: Six Degrees of Separation.

There's also the more common version among celebrities: Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

But we'll stick to Six Degrees of Regular Folks for the purposes of this post ;)

Over the past couple of years, I've become friends with Kelly, another local mother. Her youngest and my youngest are high school classmates and cross country teammates. We have mutual friends, so as our lives overlapped, we also became friends of both the real life and Facebook variety.

Slowly, through various conversations, we discovered similar interests and backgrounds. We knew many of the same people growing up. We graduated the same year, but from different high schools in Joliet, Illinois.

Joliet is an old working-class town that was built on mining and steel, and was settled by lots of immigrant laborers from Ireland (mine), Italy and eastern Europe (hers).

Kelly and I know this history, and jokingly thought it would be funny if we really were related. But truth is better than fiction. Here's how the connection went down (in the official investigation kind of way!):

I ran into Kelly and her family, including her mother Kathleen, at our kids' cross country meet last weekend. Kelly introduced my as her crazy genealogy friend and we joked about how we might be related. Her mother asked my maiden name (McBride) and she says, 'oh I knew some McBride's when I was little!' It was my dad and aunt.

I texted Kelly later in the day for more details about her mom, then called my dad to shake loose some of his memories. Hearing the surprise in his voice was awesome!

We planned a breakfast get-together and spent about two hours talking and listening to our parents share old memories. Kelly's grandparents (Pat and Tom, her mom's parents) and my grandparents (Red and Bee as she knew them, my dad's parents) became friends as far back as the 1940's. We suspect it was through work in one of the local mills. My dad also remembers Pat's father, a widower, who lived with Pat and Tom. So we have five generations of our families intertwining over the years.

As was the social custom, our grandparents were always getting together to visit, and brought along their children. As kids, our parents played board games and socialized, too. And then, as my dad and aunt were a bit older, they didn't see their young friends again - until this week. It was a reunion 60 years in the making!

Our four grandparents stayed friends until they all started passing away. Pat was one of the last people to visit with my grandmother before her death in 2000. My dad was particularly happy to thank Kathleen for her parent's friendship with his, right until the end.

We haven't yet discovered if we're genealogically related, but all of the priceless stories I heard about our families' social relationship were more than I could ever glean from paper records.

Kelly    Kathleen    Jack    Sally
© 2014 Sally Knudsen

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

#52Ancestors (41) Virginie Richard Blanchette, Mother of Fourteen

This week's #52Ancestors is one of the women in my line who, while most likely Belgian, might actually be the genealogy alien dropped from outer space. I know a lot about her short adult life but little about her childhood and family.

Virginie Marie RICHARD is almost certainly from Belgium. Based on family lore and the cemetery records, she was born on 4 July 1849. Her adult children consistently listed Belgium as her place of birth on their own census records throughout their lives.

Blanchette family c 1887, Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin

I do have a cousin who has written a lovely book of family stories passed down about Virginie and her husband, Louis BLANCHETTE. The book covers their lives after they met in Oconto County, Wisconsin around 1865.

I used this book as a guide as I worked on this family. But I also did my own independent research. As I rather expected, my records led to a number of different conclusions. I'm sure the book has nuggets of truth but I have also surmised that some of the stories have the people, families, and locations mixed up. No doubt this will happen over 150 years. So the information regarding Virginie may or may not be correct. I'll continue to use it as a guide for reference.

My work on other records, including census and immigration, has come to a grinding halt. I focused primarily on the 1860 census, when she would be about 11 years old, and have almost searched northern Wisconsin person by person. There was a large Belgian population, as well as French-speaking Canadians. I cannot find a single appropriate match for Virginie.

So here is what I do know:

  • born 4 July 1849, possibly with a male twin, in Belgium
  • married Louis Blanchette about 1866 in Oconto County, Wisconsin
  • was the mother of 14 children, including two sets of twins
  • died about a month after childbirth, on 17 March 1888 outside Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin

Virginie was only 39 years old when she died. The perils of her husband and children have been written about previously in my blog.

Virginia, wife of Louis Blanchard
Hope Cemetery, Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin

She is one of my ancestors that I really feel is hiding on me. Sometimes you have a theory, or some inkling of a location, but with her I have nothing.

Do you have any experience with Belgian records? Ideas on a search I haven't thought of yet? Let me know!