Friday, January 11, 2013

Thank you, F. Warren Bittner

  As a genealogist, it’s frustrating to me that apparently all my ancestral lines lead back to European peasants—records are scarce and entries in history books, even local history, uncommon. Acknowledgement and documentation of an ordinary life of hardship doesn’t often make it into print for descendants to discover and exclaim, “here’s my ancestor, and what he did and how he lived.”

For this reason, I was thrilled to read F. Warren Bittner’s recent article, a winner of the 2011 Family History Writing Contest, “Without Land, Occupation, Rights, or Marriage Privilege: The Büttner Family from Bavaria to New York.”1 Bittner does an outstanding job of mining records and applying a knowledge of local social history and laws to those records, resulting in an enhanced and documented picture of one Bavarian family’s life in poverty.

Bittner chooses the Büttner men’s efforts to marry as his springboard for examining property, occupations, and rights of village residency. Despite couples’ attempts to legally wed, restrictions put in place by village, guild, and district authorities resulted in illegitimate children; towns disputed each other over which must take responsibility and allow the family group to settle within the community. Repeatedly members of the Büttner family attempted to break down barriers to a marginally better life.

In the course of the article Bittner discusses sexual mores, the amount of land needed to support a family, the social status of weavers, a change in laws and courts in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, the disadvantage of being bound to the land and the far greater disadvantage of being landless. He draws on tenancy records, maps, land files, marriage hearings, military papers, and the usual church registers in the course of his research. Footnotes refer to what appears to be a definitive library of eighteenth and nineteenth century Bavarian social history, including titles such as Property, Production, and Family in Neckarhausen: 1780-1870; and German Home Towns: Community, State, and General Estate, 1648-1871; and The Village in Court: Arson, Infanticide, and Poaching in the Court Records of Upper Bavaria, 1848-1910; and “Village Spinning Bees: Sexual Culture and Free Time among Rural Youth in Early Modern Germany.”2 The result is a broad picture of the miserable social and legal conditions in which the Büttners struggled to exist. Bittner sums up their situation well when he writes, “Leonhard and Margaretha lived in a different world in the same villages as their neighbors with higher status.”3 Bittner shows us that world.

There are two take-aways from this article: one, it is possible to learn—and say—much more about those who lived “at the bottom of the village hierarchy”;4 and two, it takes a good deal of work. The pay-off however is huge, for both the subjects’ descendants and others researching the geographical area. This article is a model, an inspiration, and a bench-mark. Thank you, F. Warren Bittner, for showing us so thoroughly and so elegantly that it is indeed possible to document, describe, and honor the lives of our peasant ancestors.

1 F. Warren Bittner, “Without Land, Occupation, Rights, or Marriage Privilege: The Bütnner Family from Bavaria to New York,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 100 (September 2012): 165-187.
2 I marked twenty-eight of the titles he refers to with the notations “read” or “look up”; I have Bavarian lines of my own to research!
3 Bittner, “The Büttner Family from Bavaria to New York,” 187.
4 Bittner, “The Büttner Family from Bavaria to New York,” 169.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Daily life in colonial New England

Do you ever discover by chance a book so good that you’re actually miffed that no one had ever brought it to your attention? Do you find yourself checking the publication date and exclaiming to an empty room (or a stranger sitting next to you on the subway), “This came out several years ago, for pete’s sake—how come I haven’t heard about it??” That was my reaction a few months ago after stumbling across Jerald E. Brown’s The Years of the Life of Samuel Lane, 1718-1806: A New Hampshire Man and His World1 in a local indie book store.

Samuel Lane—tanner, shoemaker, family man, property owner, surveyor, trader, community and congregation leader—liked to read and write, kept detailed business records and daybooks, and enjoyed making lists as a way of reviewing his life. Brown uses the collection of Lane family documents to exemplify life in a particular time and place, and in turn uses historical sources to expand upon the details in Lane’s writings. The book is not a biography moving chronologically through Lane’s life, introducing us to the personalities of his neighbors or describing family events as they occur. Rather, we get a sense of the man and his interactions with his community, the needs of a family and how those needs were met, and the daily activities entailed in various occupations. On every page author Brown defines, explains, and illuminates.

The book is divided into five main parts: an introduction titled “A New Hampshire Man and His Place in the World,” and four chapters, “Mastering a Trade,” “Shaping Community,” “Exchanging Commodities,” and “Building Continuity.” Nearly every two-page spread includes at least one illustration, e.g., maps, contemporary illustrations or newspaper articles, documents, photos of extant items contemporary to Lane (or belonging to the family), pages from Lane’s own papers, and tables of land measure and currency conversion.

I thoroughly enjoyed every page of this book. I learned more about colonial New England agriculture and animal husbandry; about bartering and keeping track of who owed whom what when money didn’t exchange hands; about surveying tricky bits of land, the opening of new townships, and deeds and their dower thirds and the fraction of a house that a widow could end up with—and much much more. I had some knowledge of many of the topics in the book, but Brown invariably taught me more.

The book itself is beautifully designed and laid out. Honestly, I don’t usually notice these things—I’m all about the words and the pictures, and the heck with aesthetics. The type here is clean and sharp and clear; a scholar’s margin is sometimes used for small illustrations and captions, but otherwise available to cretins like me who insist on creating a penciled dialogue with a book. Citations and comments are in endnotes at the back of the book; ordinarily I prefer footnotes, but in this case I think that they would detract from the beauty of the page and so endnotes were in fact the better way to go. The work is very well sourced, and I marked a good number of citations with “read!”— to learn more about colonial New England history. The index seems well done, although I penciled in a few additional entries of my own. I was happy to find that a few blank pages follow the index— I always appreciate these for writing additional notes!

Anyone interested in eighteenth-century America will appreciate and enjoy this book—it’s a must-read. Thank you to Jerald E. Brown and Donna-Bell Garvin, for both illustrating daily life of two hundred years ago and providing a wonderful example of a scholarly yet accessible work.

1 Jerald E. Brown and Donna-Belle Garvin, The Years of the Life of Samuel Lane, 1718-1806: A New Hampshire Man and His World (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2000). The book is a condensed version of Brown's dissertation; it is edited and introduced by Garvin.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Learning Scrivener

I mentioned earlier this year that I would be taking an online course to better learn the ins and outs and bells and whistles of Scrivener1. Its makers at Literature & Latte describe Scrivener as “a powerful content-generation tool”; users refer to it as a word-processing program, as project management software, and  as “my favorite writing tool2.” While Scrivener’s click-here and drag-there interface makes the process of writing, brainstorming, and tinkering the text much easier—so much easier that you want to weep with happiness—than working in a traditional and more linear word processor, there are just soooo many options available that it’s easy to lose track of how to color-code cards on the corkboard or make a floating reference panel appear. I wanted to play with the toys, er… use the tools, without having to go on a darned treasure hunt to find them first.

Gwen Hernandez’s Scrivener for Mac3 course met my needs perfectly.

The course consisted of four weeks of lessons, posted five days a week. Color screenshots illustrated anything that might be unclear or tricky to figure out from explanation alone, or gave us a reference point to which we could compare our own results at the end of a lesson’s instructions. Each lesson finished with a homework assignment, and I thought Gwen did a good job with those. They were each brief, but left scope for stretching and trying out the trick of the day on our own work after practicing on the course material. Gwen was clearly interested in having us practice what we’d learned rather than testing us on how well we remembered where to access what—the assignment instructions frequently included a parenthetical hint on which item we needed to find under which drop-down menu. (Thank you for that, Gwen!)

Students were subscribed to a discussion board where Gwen cheerfully and thoroughly answered questions, and where students could exchange ideas and ask each other questions. The discussion board remained open for one week after lessons ended, so that those who were catching up or those who simply wanted to keep practicing still had a place to get answers from Gwen.

Gwen had us set up a little mock writing project for the course so that everyone was trying the exact same thing; it made it easier for her, too, when one of us had a question, because she knew where we had started and what results we should have gotten. (And if any of us messed up our project too badly, she'd give us a copy of whatever form it was supposed to be for that day, so that we didn't lose time trying to fix things just to get going again.)

I spent an hour or two a day working my way through the lesson and doing the homework. Often I was a day or two behind, and judging from posts in the discussion board, that was a common occurrence, but the course is well-designed to allow for that. Some students clearly spent more time than I did on the lessons, applied the day’s new knowledge to projects of their own, tested variations of what we’d learned, and came to the discussion board with thoughtful questions (frequently with screenshots of what they’d tried).

Different people learn in different ways. Some folks coming to Scrivener will explore and play and master it well. Others will read the tutorial or manual or one of the commercially available books and watch the videos and read the blog posts and do just fine from there. But for those who need or would simply enjoy a systematic and comprehensive tour, Gwen’s course is IT. And the price is totally reasonable. Literature & Latte even offers a 30 day free trial of Scrivener, meaning a person can try it out thoroughly without the cost of the software, while taking this course. (Just to be clear: it’s the software that has the free trial; you’d still have to pay for Gwen’s course.)

So, bravo to Gwen Hernandez for designing an excellent online course for a wonderful piece of software! I think just about any writer would enjoy using Scrivener, and I look forward to more genealogists integrating it into their research and writing processes and then starting conversations about how they’re using it.



3 Gwen also offers a Scrivener for Windows course; see for both courses. Gwen is also the author of Scrivener for Dummies.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Post-NIGR: books that came home with me

I’m sure it will be no surprise to anyone who knows me that I acquired a few books during my several days in Washington. I carefully weighed my suitcase before leaving so I’d have an idea just how much I could add without incurring a charge for an overweight bag on the return trip, and I still had to shift about four pounds to my backpack when I checked in for my flight home.

I actually didn’t buy too much; my shelves already overflow with books waiting to be digested! But here are the goodies I picked up:

David A. Gerber, American Immigration: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). While the title claims “very short” and the book is a small 4.5” x 6.75”, don’t be deceived. The print is small but clear, and the text is 135 pages long; not a skimpy book at all. I expected a discussion of immigration laws and the identities of ethnic groups arriving at different times in American history and their reasons for immigrating, but Gerber goes much further than that. Laws are not created in a vacuum of course, and so he explains attitudes towards immigrants as well as politics. Much of it sounds painfully current and familiar. The book is well-indexed. I’m about half-way through this book; it’s the perfect size and weight to carry in a purse or bag.

John P. Deeben, Genealogy Tool Kit: Getting Started on Your Family History at the National Archives (Washington, D.C.: Foundation for the National Archives, 2012). One of our NIGR lecturers brought this one to our attention, but noted that it’s “very basic.” I browsed through a display copy and decided to get it (p.s. NIGR attendees get a 20% discount at the NARA bookstore, in case anyone needs more incentive to attend the institute). I’m still taking a close look at it, but I rather like it. While it assumes that the reader is new to genealogy, and it apparently covers only records at NARA, I think it will be especially useful to those like me who are unfamiliar with or weak on military records. Stayed tuned; I hope to write another post about this book soon.

Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York: Random House, 2008). I don’t know whether to be tickled or aghast that my close friends, upon reading a book about death on a massive scale, would think (correctly) “oh, Julie would love this!” Sad but true. Actually, my interest tends to be in community responses and recovery to said unhappy events, as well as (or more than) the causes. A friend and fellow NIGR attendee brought this book to my attention, and I am looking forward to reading it especially because my research that week was focused on Civil War records. I’ve been forewarned that it can be somewhat depressing reading.

One print item that I was glad to find and bring home was a single sheet of paper, “Exploring the Library of Congress via the Internet: Quick Reference Guide to the Library of Congress Web Site.” I find the web sites of both NARA and the LOC rather overwhelming, so this double-sided paper is a huge help. You think there’d be a link to it right up front on the LOC website, but you’d be wrong. The only way I was able to find an online copy was to google the title; here’s one of the links I found for the PDF: I’m rather tempted to check out the page within the website titled “Exquisite Corpse Adventure.”

NARA offers a wide variety of useful research and finding aids for their many (many) (many) record groups and series and subseries. Some of them are available on the website; many are available in print, free (my tax dollars at work; yours too). A couple of the NIGR lecturers passed out particular Reference Information Papers (RIP) as accompanying material to their syllabi, and I requested more while I was there. See for links to various free and $$ publications. I came away a number of publications including: Military Service Records at the National Archives (RIP 109), Using Civilian Records for Genealogical Research in the National Archives Washington, DC, Area (RIP 110), Black Family Research: Records of Post-Civil War Federal Agencies at the National Archives (RIP 108), and Research in the Land Entry Files of the General Land Office (RIP 114).

Now to find a place for these new books on my already-full shelves….

Friday, July 27, 2012

NIGR: wrap-up

Well, NIGR is over and I did not meet my goal of blogging about it every day. The days were full!

We had a similar schedule each day. We started at 9 am on Monday, but thereafter at 10 am so that those who wished could do an hour of research before the first lecture. We always had fifteen minutes between lectures and an hour for lunch. There’s a small cafeteria in the basement; leaving NARA to get lunch was an option, but most of us tried to minimize the number of times that we had to go through the security process and so stayed inside the building. If there was an optional evening event such as our visit to the DAR Library, there was enough time to get dinner between the last lecture and the event. NARA is open until 9 pm Wednesday through Friday, so research was another option those evenings. There are some wonderful restaurants quite near the Archives, providing the opportunity to end the day with a very nice meal.

Our classroom was actually the Archivist’s Reception Room (which explains why it was so beautiful). We were allowed to leave our NIGR notebooks and any papers in the room overnight, so that we need not carry them back and forth. I opted to take my notebook back to the hotel and just brought the syllabus of the day with me each time, and I think a few others did the same. There was always a good variety of drinks and snacks available in the room, which was much appreciated. I was surprised at how cool the old building was kept in the heat; several of us kept sweaters and shawls handy.

I was so impressed with our lecturers’ knowledge and presentation skills; there was only one instance where I felt that the lecture’s take-aways were rather elementary and the discussion of records anecdotal rather than systematic.

Figuring out the NARA security rules of the day was always interesting: did they want my laptop in or out of bag going through the machine? could I use a clear plastic bag for carrying laptop, cellphone/camera, and mouse into the documents room or not? It could be frustrating.

As I think I mentioned in my first post, I was initially glad that I had brought the Genie Guide to Research at NARA with me; but honestly, once the course began I did not consult it again. It will remain an important reference book on my shelf, but I don’t think I’ll need to bring it on future research trips—the research guides and record experts in the Finding Aids Room are the on-site resources for figuring out which records are pertinent.

Speaking of the experts—Navy experts don’t like to be asked about Army records; Army experts don’t like to be asked about Navy records. You’ve been forewarned!

One thing that surprised me was that I didn’t need to know all that “record group-subgroup-series-file unit-record item” stuff in order to request a record. I was even more surprised to find that my requested record did not come neatly labeled with all that info! (Call me naïve.) It kind of made sense when I saw the pull slip returned to me—it notes the physical location (stack, shelf, etc.) rather than the original administrative categorization. But this meant that creating a citation for my requested record entailed, you know, work. Thank goodness for Elizabeth Shown Mills’s recent post on just this issue: [1]

Most of my research this trip was in Civil War records, although I also made use of the microfilmed newspaper collection at the Library of Congress for some non-military research. Since I had the luxury of some extra days in Washington, I took time to go through the records I’d ordered rather than just quickly scanning them and going on to the next set of records. I spent most of my research time one day in looking at a three volume set of the Regimental Descriptive Books (Civil War) of the Sixth Michigan Heavy Artillery. I knew that my guy would only appear at the end (I was right) and that I was unlikely to find new info about him (right again), but it was very interesting to see what all was contained in those three volumes, and the number of different places that individuals (including civilians) were named.

I’m so glad that I was able to get to NIGR this year. I learned a lot, met interesting people, and enjoyed being in Washington. I’m eager to use my new perspective on federal records at the nearby Boston branch of the National Archives, and look forward to some future trip to Washington to do more research.

[1] For some reason, my footnote didn't come through. It should be:
Elizabeth Shown Mills, “QuickLesson 4: NARA Citations & Finding Aids,” Evidence Explained: Historical Analysis, Citation & Source Usage ( : 24 July 2012).

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

NIGR: the firehose of information

Oh. my. goodness. Trying to take in everything at NIGR is like trying to drink from a firehose. Our first speaker on Tuesday morning explained that her one-hour lecture would be a condensation of a four-hour presentation. And then she was off and running, talking rapidly as we tried to keep up.  This was followed by another one-hour presentation by the same speaker. Followed by more speakers, each attempting to distill years’ and  years’ worth of experience into a useful package to enable us to navigate the 500+ record groups in the National Archives system.  This is key: the National Archives does not rearrange or combine the records that come to them. So, service records for a Civil War soldier are in one record group, his pension application in another, his medical records (if he ended up in a hospital due to wounds or illness) in another, and I refuse to even think about bounty land right now.  Anyway, we need to know that all these sets of papers are in different places and need to be requested separately.  Notations on papers in one set might well refer you to another set of papers… if you know how to interpret these things. Hence the firehose of information.

I’m beginning to feel less ignorant about military records—as in, I’m getting an idea of what I don’t know, which is the important first step. We have lectures on basic military records, Civil War medical records, pension records, discharge papers for the War of 1812, and Fold3’s military collections. Much of my own personal research time will be in the Civil War military and pension files of two or three men, supplemented (I hope) with some regimental histories. 

We had the DAR Library to ourselves for three hours last night with the undivided attention of four staff members; quite a treat! I found a North Carolina county history that I’d not come across before.  And then I found that the classmate sitting across the table from me was reading up on the same religious community in the same North Carolina county.  Gotta love the connections we make with other researchers attending NIGR! The DAR Library, by the way, is an amazingly beautiful space. I remember years and years ago when my family was taking the train cross-country and we changed in Chicago, our parents took us out on the street and we craned our necks at the skyscrapers, and Dad laughed at us little hicks awed by the city. Well, some things never change; decades after leaving farm country, I’m still awed by these things that we never saw amidst the forty acres of this and forty acres of that in rural Michigan. And so at the DAR Library I grinned to myself like a hick in the city, soaking up the beauty of the place.

Monday, July 16, 2012

NIGR: Day 1

I can’t believe today has only been one day long. Six content-rich presentations delivered with rapid-fire speed, NARA, Library of Congress (LOC), dealing with security at federal buildings, trying to remember the names of 41 other attendees (well, ok, I knew 3 or 4 already)… and now I still need to figure out what documents I want to order tomorrow.

Today’s take-away: just getting an understanding—or the beginning of an understanding—of what all is at NARA and LOC, how/where to find descriptions and finding aids, how to drill down to find the materials themselves, what all is online (whether info or digitized materials), and constant reminders of how to think outside the box when looking for info on people, places, and events. 

Things I’m still struggling with: The heat, occasionally. How to get from point A to point B (poor sense of direction!) Where in NARA and LOC I can take a tote bag or papers and where I can’t. 

Things that surprised me: How beautiful our classroom is (crystal chandeliers!); it’s well-air-conditioned too, thank goodness. The small size of the cafeteria at NARA (um, tad disappointed in options there). A lecture on military headstone records can be interesting. The Library of Congress takes the world’s worst ID photos; seriously,  makes the DMV photographer look like Annie Liebowitz. 

Things I wish I had known: I should have brought a lanyard for the two clip-on name tags I have to wear (awkward!). The Genie Guide to NARA is available in paperback—I’d bought it in hardcover. (PS—I’m glad I brought it with me on the trip; I was using it last night to refine one of my research plans.)

Tomorrow’s line-up includes military records (one of my weak points) and an evening at the DAR Library.