Family History: The Ultimate Reality Show
Get ready to produce, direct, and star in a guaranteed ratings grabber. It's all about you—how you got here, how your ancestors got here, and the influence those folks still have on you in the form of traits and traditions.
Family history is more than filling in names and dates. It's finding the stories behind the dry facts, the stories that enable you to better understand your people and yourself.
I never knew my mother-in-law, Julia. She died years before I met my husband. Like so many children, Walter never asked his mom about her childhood and her parents.
Through genealogical research, I've been able to put some pieces together that tell me about the woman who shaped the man I love. Julia lost her father a month and a half after her birth. She was two when she and her brother Gus were orphaned. Their parents were Lithuanian immigrants who married in Chicago. Constantine got blood poisoning from a botched dental visit, giving Julia a lifelong fear of doctors. Her mother, Marijona, so the family story goes, was so depressed at her strapping husband's sudden death that she ate nothing but coffee and sweet rolls for the next two years. The Cook County Hospital physician gave the cause of her death as tuberculosis. She was 25.
I guarantee you that once you find proof of a couple of things, you won't want to stop. Everything literally relates to you! The addictive nature of genealogy has much to do with it being the second most popular hobby in America (after gardening). Another reason is that you can "play" it on so many levels. You can follow one side of the family as far back as possible. You can stay in the recent past and look for living descendants of another branch. You can exchange tips and leads with new friends who share your interest. You can detour down any number of side paths into the history of Chicago and the United States.
What's great about the techniques you'll learn in this book is that you can use them on anybody you're interested in—even beyond your family—from the past owners of your home to the personage the local park is named for. A novelist in Texas asked me to research Mary Todd Lincoln's Chicago neighborhood. I didn't know that her son Robert had brought her to live with him after his father's assassination. Using some of the strategies discussed in Chapter 6 ("Where Did My Ancestor Live?"), I was able to tell my client about the street surface, sewers, streetlights, sidewalks, and city water connections, even though the home had been demolished.
What You'll Find in This Book
When you're just starting out, it's important to know how to research as well as what to research. Most general genealogy books emphasize the what, the types of records: government, religious, military, and so on. Chicago and Cook County: A Guide to Research by Loretto Dennis Szucs is excellent at describing area sources and their locations but does not tell readers how to start their research or what steps to follow. There is no discussion of Web sites, so important to genealogy, and the 1930 U.S. census had not been released when the book was published in 1996.
From my experiences on both sides of the reference desk, as a staffer and a professional researcher, I know people think in terms of questions they want answered. They don't think in terms of record groups. So that's the way I organized the book.
The chapters in Part I give you strategies for answering the questions most beginners want to know:
You can start with any chapter you're interested in. You don't have to wade through a lot of preliminaries. Most everything you need to know about a particular question is in that chapter, with a minimum of cross-references.
The chapters in Part II help you do research with specifics, such as how to use a microfilm reader or what you can expect at the Cook County Bureau of Vital Statistics. Other chapters in Part II go into depth on topics that show up frequently in the book (for example, how to find ancestors in the U.S. census). Again, pick and choose based on your interests.
Four chapters, two in Part I and two in Part II, have been written by Jack Simpson. Jack heads the Local and Family History section of the Newberry Library, one of the top genealogical facilities in the country. I learned new things from his chapters and I know you will as well.
What You Won't Find in This Book
Finding Your Chicago Ancestors is not an exhaustive listing of every strategy and record source. Each of the chapters could easily be twice or three times as long. A 400-page book would scare you away by its size and price. I didn't want to overwhelm you; as a famous prophet once said, "I have much more to tell you but you cannot bear it now." There's only so much you can absorb at one time.
I didn't mention the exact fee charged for copies and searches and so forth, because I didn't want to outdate the text. Likewise, locations of books in research facilities can change, so I left those out.
You won't find call numbers for library holdings here. Places use different systems, and it's good for you to get familiar with them. I was also motivated by mental health considerations; I would have been lying awake nights wondering if I got a number wrong.
Lastly, you won't find the why, as in, "Why isn't there one central archive for all Chicago records?" or "Why can't people see their deceased parents' public school records?" Discussing why Cook County and Chicago records are in such a piecemeal state and why access is so haphazard would take another book. Just know that this is the state of affairs at the time of publication, and it probably won't change anytime soon.
Your Connection to Chicago
For almost 175 years, this great metropolis on the shores of a freshwater sea has sent a siren call to immigrants internal and external. I'd venture to say that most Americans have some kind of link to the City of Big Shoulders. Whether your people came west from New England in the early days of settlement or north from Mississippi in the Great Migration . . . whether they sailed from Sicily or flew from Budapest. . . you'll find the means to document them.
When you do, you'll be a Chicagoan, if not by birth, then by blood. I've lived in a lot of places and traveled to many more. Chicago is the Capital of Real: real people doing things that really matter. Welcome!