Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Norwegian Immigrants on the Illinois Prairie

The Chicago area had unusual heat all summer, then off and on into the fall. What better way to spend a hot, late October afternoon than in a cemetery?!

Using FindAGrave to select area photo requests, I settled on a visit to Helmar Lutheran Cemetery, in rural Newark, Illinois. I had never been there and had no idea what I would find. I hoped it would be a small, accessible farm cemetery.

It was perfect!

I wandered as I usually do, to get a sense of the cemetery and it's residents. Helmar is surrounded by a new white fence and is clearly well-cared for. As also happens, I found many of the same surnames as my requests, but not all of the right people. (Sometimes I think I pick the requests that are extra-super challenging!).

I photographed several of the oldest stones. I am always attracted to those. And I had to head home. Rats!

The next weekend, I loaded up two cameras and extra batteries. You can see it coming, right? I spent a couple hours and photographed the whole cemetery.

It then takes me a while to get the photos uploaded on FindAGrave. I had to spend an inordinate amount of time on the "A's". Most of the residents here are of Norwegian descent. There are lots and lots of Anderson's! And Larson's. And Nelson's.

Ole Anderson, Bernt Larson, and Nels Nelson

As I posted the photos and read some of the biographical information, I kept seeing the same hometown: Skaanevik. I did a Google book search and found "A History of Norwegian Immigration" by George Tobias Flom. A quick scan shows several references to Skaanevik and Helmar. I hope there is a researcher or family member out there who will benefit from this information. I have no people in this cemetery or from Norway, but this type of connection fascinates me.

Learning is a beautiful thing.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Family Stories, Part 1

Recently in the Ancestry blog, Juliana Smith covered the topic of proving, or disproving, family stories. (Read it here).

I have met a few times with a cousin of my dad's. She, like me, has always been into family history. Unlike me, she was able to spend time with our common ancestors when she was a child. I have her to thank for helping to pique my genealogy curiosity after my parents received one of her family tree projects many years ago. Being a generation older, she had the advantage of knowing many more family members than me.

I had been able to research (independent of her work) a bit about our shared Blanchette or Blanchard family. My experience to this point was through online sources, such as census records and vital statistics. Cousin had the advantage of the handed-down stories.

A few years ago, Cousin self-published a book of these family stories. Primarily, it told of our ancestor, Louis Blanchard and how he left Quebec and came to settle in Wisconsin. I have a signed copy. I read it several times. Then I realized that some of it didn't really make logistical sense.

Cousin's (short) version: Louis was the last child and his mother died in childbirth, he was raised by his sister Sophia, lived with her children, was mocked for being the "outsider" and ran away to Wisconsin.

My version: Louis was indeed the last child, though his mother went on to live another 40+ years in Quebec. I have not yet found his sister's marriage record, but he did have an older sister Julia S(ophia?) Blanchette, who married a German immigrant, Charles Richards, and by 1851 were living in Saugatuck, Allegan County, Michigan. On the 1860 US census, the Richards household had a "Lois Planchet", male, aged 21, a sawyer, born in Canada. Through hours of backchecking in the Drouin records and Canadian censuses available on Ancestry.com, I have no doubt this is Louis living with his sister. Unfortunately, Cousin does not agree because the name is not spelled correctly. And how did they end up first in Michigan and not Wisconsin?

Cousin's (short) version: Louis was born Louis Onesime Blanchette on 24 Dec 1840 in Drummondville, Drummond County, Quebec. His parents were Jean Evangeliste Blanchette and Marie Baron.

My version: Louis was born Louis Blanchette (no middle name given) on 19 Jun 1838 in le Baie-du-Febvre, Yamaska County, Quebec. His parents were Seraphin Blanchette and Marie-Edesse Dionne. The easiest way to evaluate this discrepancy was to review the records. All of them! Again using the Drouin records, I made a family chart of everyone who had a son called Louis within a 10 year window of 1840. Sadly, Louis Onesime, son of Jean and Marie, died before age 2. Clearly, this is not our ancestor.

Louis, son of Seraphin and Marie-Edesse, also had a sister called Julia. As I expected, Julia's birthdate in the church records is the EXACT birthdate she had always used, and shows on her death certificate...in Michigan.

Louis was not born in Drummondville proper, but in Baie-du-Febvre, a small village nearby that included several branches of the Blanchette family. In rural Canada, small missions were built and children were often baptised at a convenient time for the priest, rather than within an actual church. The missions were not always permanent. Much like I would say to someone not familar with my small town in Illinois that I am "from Chicago", Louis stated he was "from Drummondville", the largest town of his day.

What have we learned?

Flexibility! Genealogy is fluid, not always finite, and always open to interpretation. I needed to see the storied context of our ancestors. Cousin needs to see that paper records are not always exact.

Perseverance in researching can definitely pay off. A treasure trove of records such as the Drouin collection, can hold many secrets. In this case, it held dozens of Blanchette family records. It only took time to find the correct one. Map out a plan and follow through. I had the advantage of NOT knowing what the correct date should be, so I was able to evaluate the records solely at face value.

The family stories, while not always factual, gave excellent context to my investigation. Cousin is not entirely wrong. She has the advantage of hearing these stories that I never will. Some of the information may be mixed up, or attributed to the wrong person, but they make the lure of family history research even greater.

Thanks Cousin!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Thank you Veterans

Thank you to all who have served.

My grandfather, Dallas Spencer, was a Naval Reserve officer. He was educated at Michigan State University, then Michigan State College of Agriculture, where he received his engineering degree. Initially, he worked in the bridge division of the Michigan State Highway Department.

He was a Lieutenant Commander in the 116th Naval Construction Battalion Civil Engineer Corps, working as a "seabee" during World War II. He served in Sasebo, Japan and Gulfport, Mississippi during the war. In 1946, he received his honorary discharge and returned to civilian life.

Dallas Spencer (1914-2000)

To date, my only known Civil War ancestor was Louis Blanchette a/k/a Blanchard, of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Louis, a native of Baie-du-Febvre, Quebec, Canada, settled in Wisconsin in the 1860's. He was a sawyer, or lumberman, by trade. During the Civil War, he was a Private and served in Company H, 4th Regiment of the Wisconsin Volunteer Cavalry from 1863-64. Company H was organized in Racine, Wisconsin.

Louis' company was dispatched by ship to Louisiana, where they saw action in regional skirmishes. Undoubtedly, Louis' French-speaking background came in handy. He filed for a pension at least 3 times, stating he received a debilitating hernia after a horse fell on him. He received a small pension and his children received a $50 death benefit payment in 1923.

Louis Blanchard (1840-1923)

In honor of all veterans, on this Veterans Day, 2011