The Power of Standing Where Your Ancestors Stood

A few weeks ago my family gathered for a reunion in southern Indiana, just over the border from Kentucky, where my mom’s grandfather came from. She was excited to be so close to the state of her grandfather’s ancestry and worked hard to develop a book of pictures and stories about our Kentucky ancestors to share with her grandchildren. Her desire was to cross the border into Kentucky–even though we were near western Kentucky and her ancestors came from eastern Kentucky.

She was able to make that trip with her husband and all 6 kids. We barely went over the border, and took a picture of a sign with the word Kentucky in it. She was thrilled and could barely contain her excitement to stand on Kentucky soil.


Several years ago I made the trip to Isonville, Kentucky. I talked with some old-timers who remembered their grandparents talking about crazy Richmond Ison who left Kentucky to join the Mormons in Arizona and wondering what ever happened to him. They directed me to the cemetery with the gravestones of Richmond and Martha’s two young children. How it must have broken their heart to leave these little graves behind. It was such a wonderful experience to drive around the little town and countryside and walk where they walked in the cemetery.

The first time I had this experience is when I lived in Ohio and was a brand new genealogist. My 3rd great grandfather Levi Savage was born about an hour where I lived. I showed up at the town archives and they very kindly took me under their wing and helped me trace from the 1820ish land deeds to current deeds and the current address. Due to their kindness, I was able to stand near where he lived, although I was hesitant to trespass so just stood on the street corner. The land was not developed, so I was able to get a sense of how it might have looked when Levi and his family lived there. It was powerful.

Have you had the opportunity to stand where your ancestors stood? How did you feel?


Making medicine the way my ancestors did

I spent this weekend in Plymouth, MA. Saturday morning I participated in a salve-making workshop at Plimoth Plantation. Just like our ancestors, we decided which ailments we wanted to heal, decided which herbs would be best, and participated in making the salve from start to finish.

There were only 2 participants, so lots of hands-on time. Sydney and I each decided we wanted a salve that would soothe muscle and joint pain and inflammation. Together we came up with the following list of herbs: comfrey, St John’s wort, marshmallow, callendula, smallage, rosemary, and salad burnet.

We then went out to the gardens at Plimoth Plantation to pick what we needed. We filled two big baskets–we took flowers, leaves and stalks.

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We then went back to the work area and ripped up all the buds, flowers, leaves and stalks. This is Sydney. We filled that casserole dish about 1/2 – 3/4 full.


We covered it all with olive oil and let it simmer for 2 hours. While an intern kept watch over the herbs, the workshop leader and participants went back into the village and learned more about plants. We also spent some time talking with one of the interpreters who knew quite a bit about medicine. She mentioned that while salves were made, herbs were limited in the early years of Plymouth for most people, so often herbs were used fresh. As an example, she had just been stung by a wasp and rubbed fresh thin leaf plantain and a few other herbs on it while we talked. She also mentioned bloodletting was usually done in the spring to purge the toxicity from the heavy winter diet.

Once the herbs had simmered for 2 hours and looked like this, we strained them through cheesecloth, put the pot back on the burner and melted beeswax.


At that point it was ready to pour into jars. It will keep for about a year.


In the 1600s they would have used pottery salve pots like these, covered tightly with paper or cloth, for storage.


I definitely gained a greater appreciation for all the hard work involved. I am becoming better at gardening, but am still not an expert. I broke the pruning shears and was very grateful for the breaks in the AC on a hot day. We didn’t slave over a fire, but used a stove burner.

Remembering James Marshall Mathers

James is the brother of my 3rd great grandmother.  He fought for the Union in the Civil War and was killed leading a cavalry charge against a surprise attack from Confederate forces on August 11, 1864. He left behind a sweetheart, but was not married as far as I know. Since he has no descendants, I wanted to give him a special shout out on Memorial Day.

James Mathers

Most of my ancestors were out in Utah by the time the Civil War started, so Civil War service in my family is rare. Perhaps that is one of the reasons James holds a special place in my heart. Family was dear to him. Here is a picture of James with his little sister Annie. He came all the way out to Utah with Johnston’s Army just to meet his little nephew, Levi M. Levi remembers that Uncle James gave him a red pair of boots–he cherished that memory all his life.

James and Annie Mathers

US Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles, James “Enlisted in Company L, Michigan 6th Cavalry Regiment on 13 Oct 1862.Promoted to Full 1st Lieutenant on 16 Mar 1863.Promoted to Full Captain on 31 Oct 1863.Mustered out on 11 Aug 1864 at Winchester, VA.” The mustering out would be at his death. This website gives an overview of all the different places the Michigan 6th Calvary served, including Gettysburg.

In June 2006 I was privileged to find his grave in the national cemetery in Winchester, Virginia and honor him.

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And I’m off–with an outline of a research plan

Are you like me? I start researching one ancestor, then something else catches my eye for a different ancestor and I am off in a completely different direction. In my case, it’s counter-productive and I am not getting anything done for any ancestors. So, I have decided to pick just ONE line and work on that for now.

This focus will be good for me. I am blessed to have a plethora of material, including transcriptions of diaries, for many of my ancestors. I keep thinking someday I will read them. In my new approach, I WILL read them as I will go back one generation at a time, prove the links, and then (more interesting to me), incorporate the social history. This includes reading the diaries, biographies, auto-biographies and anything else that I have or can find.

Eventually, and it might take a while, if all the generations that I currently have in my database that have been passed down through a few generations are correct, I will end up with my Loyalist ancestor Thomas Sumner, the ancestor I am really interested in right now.

Here is a rough sketch of what I know I have, or where I think I can find relevant information. It’s an outline of a research plan.

Many of these were prominent Mormons, so there is a lot on (memories, pictures, etc.) as well as diaries, LDS church records and newspapers that I can search. Some were also polygamists, so may find some interesting things in court records.

Here are the generations to get back there:

Parents (living)–know about them


Grandparents (living)–know about them. Kind of embarrassing I don’t have a picture. Working on that.

Robert Ison & Louie May Savage–

He died young, but I know some stories about him. Will seek out some newspaper articles to back them up. I have her lengthy autobiography with lots of pictures and memorabilia

Levi Mathers Savage & Hannah Adeline Hatch

Have a transcription of his diary and a scan of her journal. He was fairly prominent in Mormon Church History, so will search newspapers and LDS history as well. This was a polygamous marriage, so there may also be court records, as well as records from other wives, including Addie’s sister.

Lorenzo Hill Hatch & Catherine Karren

Have a transcription of his diary as well as a book written about him (and well documented). Another prominent Mormon, so will also search newspapers and LDS church history records. Also a polygamist.

Hezekiah Hatch & Aldura Sumner

These were the first to convert to Mormonism in this line. She died in Vermont and he died in Nauvoo, Illinois.

John Austin Sumner & Abigail Plumley

He was the son of Thomas Sumner. As far as I know, the entire family was forced out of Vermont and eventually ended up in Canada. John, along with some of the other children, came back to Vermont. Would love to find out more about that story.

Thomas Sumner & Rebecca Downer

The Loyalist ancestor–really want to find out more about his story.

How has focusing on just one or two lines, and using research plans, worked for you?

6 reasons I attend NERGC

A belated look back at NERGC 2015. This is a regional genealogical conference held every 2 years in New England. I have been going for several years and these are some of the reasons I go every year.

1) Networking. I made some new friends and will learn from them on Facebook and elsewhere. I also met in person some people that have been my Facebook friends for years. I was also able to catch up with friends that I usually only see in genealogy venues.

2) Learning. There were always several sessions on a variety of topics from which to choose–all day for 4 days. There was only one block where I didn’t find anything of interest and had some needed downtime. The big takeaway this year–I need to start using DNA in my research. The kit is on its way

3) New Business. As a follow-up to networking, I ran into 2 people who previously invited me to speak to their genealogy group. They both mentioned they would be interested in having me come back after I mentioned I had some new talks developed

4) Books–I walked away with A LOT of books. I love the exhibition hall that has so many different vendors.

5) New ideas for research/talks. I attended a session by Randy Whited about using weather in genealogy research. I have some ideas for both my own research and how I can use this in talks on social history.

6) Giving back. I always spend some time volunteering as a way to give back to the community. I was at the hospitality desk and hosted a discussion table at a luncheon.

Judy Russell (the Legal Genealogist) at NERGC


I have the privilege of interviewing Judy Russell, one of the keynote speakers at NERGC. I knew who she was long before I had the chance to meet her and listen to her speak. You may know her as a legal expert who uses that expertise to bridge the past and add historical context to her ancestors, and teaches us to do the same. You may also know her as a DNA expert. I know her as a fellow social historian/genealogist and look forward to meeting her again.

I met her in person at the Massachusetts Genealogical Council annual meeting a couple of years ago. One of her talks involved a murder case in the 1800s based on a new form (at the time) of medicine and potential medical malpractice. Since medicine in everyday life is one of my special interests (and the topic of my master’s thesis) I was hooked.

Here are my questions and her responses. I love how her humor shows through, one of the many reasons she is such a great speaker. I hope that you will come to NERGC to hear her and many other experts cover a variety of topics related to genealogy, and my favorite, bringing our ancestors to live through social history.

1) What sparked your interest in family history, and how did you come to combine law and family history?

My mother’s family is mostly Scots-Irish — that means they’re storytellers. And I grew up sitting out under the trees at my grandparents’ farm listening to the stories. Finally I realized it was time to start seeing whether any of the stories were true! Combining law and family history was simply the natural outgrowth of my formal training as a lawyer and the discovery, as a genealogist, that just about every record we use is impacted by its legal context.

2) How do you find the material and/or interesting cases you use for a blog post or lecture?

First and foremost, I’m a reader: I read books and articles and blog posts and Facebook posts and anything I can get my hands on. Some things are sent by folks who read my blog or who know I have a legal background and need help in understanding a record in their own families; some things I just stumble across. The reality is that every set of records we might ever look at will have its own set of stories — we just need to read to find them.

3) What is your favorite story that you have come across, either from your own family or someone else’s family?

One? One favorite story? For someone with Scots-Irish ancestry? That’s like asking a mother who her favorite child is! I’ve never met a story I didn’t love, and some of them are even true! (Well, at least partially. The other thing about the Scots-Irish is that we never let the truth interfere with a good story.) If I had to pick just one, I’d probably have to say it was the discovery that I qualify for membership in the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. To qualify, you have to be able to prove your ancestor lived in the Republic of Texas. Mine was indicted by the Republic of Texas. For bigamy. (I love my family.)

4) Why is adding social context to family history research so important?

Because without social context family history is just a set of begats: John and Mary begat James. The social context tells us what lives John and Mary led, how they struggled to get where they got, what it was like when James was born. What they wore, what they ate, how they lived. It’s the stories that bring our families to life, and the social context helps us tell those stories.


Bridging the Past is on vacation this week so won’t be posting other than to ask you to ponder the following questions:

What kind of vacations did your ancestors take (day trips became popular towards the end of the 19th century)?

Do trips to see extended family count as a vacation?

How do vacations today differ?

Have you written about your favorite family vacations?