In the novel People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks,* the central character, Hanna Heath, is a rare-book expert and conservator. Hanna describes her work as not merely technical but having something to do with an “intuition about the past” wherein she links “research with imagination” and eventually adds a “few grains to the sandbox of human knowledge.”
I resonate with those thoughts when it comes to doing family history research. I’ve been researching for some twenty-plus years. So now when I go on a hunt, I usually have a feel for what records I can find to uncover a little more about an individual and flesh out a more concrete identity. Sharing it with others is my way of adding a few grains to the sandbox of human knowledge about the past.
Take for instance my recent foray into the ancestry of Harvey B. Potter. I knew about Harvey because his great-granddaughter showed me a picture of him and said that he played the fiddle all over the area. His youngest daughter Velda was born in 1917, over ten years after the last daughter was born.
|Lottie (Herrick) Potter holding her daughter Velda**|
She was somewhat spoiled then, according the family, as the youngest of five girls. Harvey was married to Lottie Herrick and they had Gertrude, Olive, Doris, Alice and Velda.
|Harvey & Lottie Potter with their five daughters|
Of Harvey’s ancestry, the only clues I had to start out with was that his parents were Alpha Potter and Susie Hitchcock. Harvey was born about 1875 and died in 1948. He is buried with his wife in Black Creek Cemetery in Black Creek, New York a hamlet of the town of New Hudson in Allegany County.
By running through searches of census records online and other tidbits of information gleaned from the familysearch.org website, I eventually found that Harvey’s grandfather was also named Harvey B. Potter. This first Harvey was found in the 1855 NY State Census in the town of Wirt, Allegany County, New York. He was a 22-year-old farmer with a 23-year-old wife named Amanda and his son Alpha, just one year old. The state census indicated that both Harvey and Amanda had been residing in that town for six months.
The next time the family was found was in 1870 when Amanda Potter, her son Alpha and a 9-year-old by the name of Elijah V. Potter were living in the town of Caneadea (also Allegany County, New York). Five years later, in the 1875 NY State Census, Amanda M. Potter was a housekeeper in the William Crawford family in the town of Belfast (Allegany County, New York). Twelve-year-old Elijah V. Potter was also living with the family. The last I saw of Elijah V. Potter census-wise was during the 1892 NY State Census, when he was listed after the Elam Seward and Frederick Cline families as a 31-year-old shoemaker.
The most curious record was Elijah V. Potter listed in the US Veteran Administration Payment Cards 1907-1933 on familysearch.org. The card had dates of 1902 and 1920 and a certificate number of 552427. The name of the soldier was Harvey B. Potter with service listed as “Sgt B6 Mich V Cav.” Finally a google search yielded posts from 2004 and 2007 by Nancy Dearing Rossbacher, a descendant of the second Harvey B. Potter’s father, Isaac B. Potter, indicating that Isaac originally lived in the Caneadea, New York area in 1850 and migrated to the Grand Rapids, Michigan area.
A combination of clues and tracking methods illuminated one man’s ancestry in a matter of hours thanks to the ease and convenience of the internet. Now after collecting the facts, a more comprehensive story can be told, one that can add to the historical knowledge of the area and its people. It is knowledge like this that can sometimes spark a writer’s interest and lead to great reads such as in the historical fiction novels Geraldine Brooks has written.
*Probably all novel writers use liberties when writing historical fiction and perhaps Vienna, Austria was different than the United States, but my research and knowledge of old photographs here in the U.S. indicates that ambrotypes waned in usage in the 1860s. Brooks has one of her characters unearth an ambrotype dating from the 1890s.
**All photos courtesy LuAnne Everett