Monday, June 18, 2012

Mappy Monday: Exploring Place in Family History Research

Gaining knowledge about an area and its history is invaluable to being successful in family research.

Years ago when I lived out of state, I was trying to learn more about my husband’s family in Cattaraugus County, New York. I had gotten a death certificate that said one of his ancestors was born in Waverly, New York. On a current map, I found a town called Waverly in the county of Tioga nearer the center of the state and wasted several days trying to find Westfalls there related to my husband’s family. Later on a trip to visit other relatives in Cattaraugus County, these lifelong residents told me that the current town of Otto where the family resided was once called Waverly.  A recent experience also reinforced the idea that one should become familiar with the area in which our ancestors lived.

I finally took my mother-in-law, Ruth, to Lackawanna for a family history research trip recently. I wrote about exploring her family history at this earlier post. This was an awesome opportunity for her to share with me what she remembered growing up and on several occasions during our trip, her memories helped us to be successful in our attempts. I knew nothing of the area and so her knowledge proved invaluable in understanding the information we discovered.

The first order of business on our little trip was to go the cemetery where her grandfather Backus was buried. We checked with the cemetery office first and they copied his burial card and one other with the same surname in the same section for us. They also provided us with a cemetery map and a section map. We headed over to the Holy Cross Cemetery and found the section we were looking for. We had the map backwards at first and were looking on the wrong side. Ruth remembered her father pointing out where her grandfather was buried from the road on the opposite side when she was a child, so we headed to that side instead. While we may have probably eventually found our way, her memories helped us more easily pinpoint what we looking for.

The burial card offered a lot of new information for us. We knew her grandfather’s approximate year of birth and death but had nothing exact. The burial card listed his last known address as 181 Barksdale Avenue in West Seneca. It also listed his complete date and place of birth as well as his complete date and place of death. Armed with that knowledge, we headed to the Lackawanna Public Library to see if they might have an obituary file. No luck. The librarian there told us that they did not keep obituary files as they considered those personal. I am unsure what she meant by that. Nonetheless, the librarian offered an alternative of checking with the newspaper office in Buffalo. I had a different idea and called the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Museum and Research Library and we trekked out there. Yes, they had an obituary file of about 19,000 individuals, but our guy wasn’t found among them. Instead, we were able to locate the death notice on a microfilmed copy of the newspaper housed at their facility. (We also were able to find a death notice of the other individual with the same surname that was buried in the same section of the Holy Cross Cemetery in Lackawanna as well. In cross-referencing relative names in both death notices, it appears they were not related.)  
I noticed that her grandfather’s death notice said he died suddenly in Winchester, a place I had not heard of before. “Where is Winchester?” I asked Ruth. “I’ll show you.” She replied. Again her memories and knowledge would serve to help us in our quest. On our way back through the areas of Lackawanna and West Seneca, she drove to the neighborhood where she lived as a young child. I noticed a church called Winchester Community Church. She pointed out the Winchester school building where she first started her school career. So this was Winchester. A couple of blocks over from the school, she turned into a residential district and found 181 Barnsdale Avenue where she lived as a young child. She wasn’t aware of it before, but she lived in the same house where her grandfather had lived before he died. Although the neighborhood was known as Winchester it is a part of West Seneca apparently. Knowing that kept me from barking up a wrong tree and established that although the areas were called by different names, the family lived in the same general community and did not relocate elsewhere.


  1. I enjoyed reading your blog today. I love that despite the name changes your mum was able to navigate you through it all, a great piece on the value of visiting a location and working with family to solve some key questions.

  2. Thanks for reading, Michael! I'm glad you liked it and left a comment :)