We have all heard the expressions, “make your mark” or “put your X on the line”, but do you know where they come from? Chances are if you’ve researched for a while you’ve encountered a document where someone signed their name with an X. Legal documents such as land or will records frequently contain such signatures. Often the presence of an X is an indication that the signer could not read or write, an important clue when you are trying to determine the social and economic status of an ancestor. There are exceptions, however. It is not uncommon to find a literate but very elderly person signing with an X. This is particularly true with wills where the signer may have been too frail to sign their complete name.
While Xs were common in early American documents, there were also a host of unique marks used by Europeans. For example, a few years ago on a trip to Sweden I encountered an index of marks used by the farmer’s in Bergsjö, one of my ancestral villages. The mark was used in place of a signature on legal documents. While marks are personal and not passed from father to son, often the son’s mark would resemble his father’s. Perhaps a mark that looks like the letter A would lose one leg, or a mark that resembles a T would be shortened or lengthened. Still, to the townsfolk, that mark was as unique as a signature.
Marks or “bumerker” used by Norwegian villagers- www.norwayheritage.com
Signatures and marks are not only compelling for their visual interest but also because they can help us to distinguish our ancestor from others with similar names living in the same region at the same time. For instance, if two James Johnsons aged 40 were living in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania in 1783, one a farmer, one a town clerk, how can you tell them apart? If you attributed the service of town clerk to your ancestor but your James Johnson signed his will with an “x”, it is likely he was the farmer and not the clerk. Many public offices and professions required reading and writing skills. Similarly, if you find the same two men served in the local militia or in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, it is likely that the James Johnson who could read and write would hold a higher rank than the man who could not.
Though being illiterate likely limited the public offices, military ranks and possibly the overall success (in today’s terms) of many of our ancestors, it was the norm for most of human history and is certainly nothing to be ashamed of. For an informative and fascinating project, try locating the wills, military pensions or land records of each of your direct ancestors and create a family tree that charts their educational progress through the generations. Instead of photographs, clip an image of their signature, or in the case of those that couldn’t read and write, their mark. Not only will this unique tree be beautiful to look at but it will being a tangible reminder of your ancestor’s achievements.
Frank Parmenter’s mangled body was placed in a potter’s field in Courtenay, British Columbia with no family members present to mourn him. At just 38 years old, his body was whirled around a shaft in a shingle mill when his clothing became caught in a wheel. An inquest into his death was held and the incident was ruled an accident. And so ended the life of a mysterious and troubled man, a fugitive, an outcast, a loner and this genealogist’s greatest conundrum, until now.
Frank was born March 24, 1884 in Mount Carmel, Illinois, the first boy and number five of 13 children. His father, Charles Allen Parmenter, was a farmer by trade and a respected man from a family influential in Illinois politics and military history. Charles married Mary Broedel on Christmas Day 1874. He was only 19 and his wife 15 on the day of their marriage. On March 24th, 1884 with four daughters ranging from one to five (including my great, great-grandmother Laura Ethel), Charles must have been excited to hear that he finally had a son (the first of four).
Destruction from the 1887 Mount Carmel Tornado
Life in Mount Carmel was not easy for the Parmenters. In September of 1887 a tornado tore through the town, killing 16, leaving 100 families homeless and destroying all the government buildings including the courthouse. It is likely that the Parmenters suffered significant property damage. It took years for Mount Carmel to rebuild their community and recover from the hardship inflicted by mother nature. By 1902, Charles Allen and Mary Parmenter sold out and moved their family to Washington State and settled in Centralia where they commenced farming. Life in Centralia was peaceful and productive. Newpaper articles from the era show the family gathering often for birthdays, anniversaries and weddings. However, in 1907 the news had changed and brought incredible shame to the family.
Frank Parmenter was released from prison a few days later and while there was tension in the family, it was thought to be over. It was, until Frank was imprisoned again on April 16, 1909 for stealing another bicycle. This time when he returned home he was told he could never return. His father turned him out of the house and family letters from decades later say that he was never heard from again. Some family members said they heard a rumor that Frank went to Canada and died there but after nearly 15 years of searching for him I had almost given up.
Then, searching through an online newspaper archive I discovered something that sent my pulse racing.
So Frank hadn’t gone far. Just a few weeks after being turned away from home Frank robbed a hotel and landed himself in prison. This time he was sentenced and sent first to a labor farm in Skaget Valley and then, to the state peniteniary in Walla Walla. As luck would have it, the Washington State Digital Archives had Frank Parmenter’s mug shot and a detailed personal description.
Two years later Frank was released and made his way for the Canadian border. He stopped along the way in Bellingham and forged a document at a Western Union office with the name of his father’s neighbor in Centralia. Suspecting something wasn’t right, they called the sheriff and Frank was soon arrested and sent back to prison in Lewis County. Then, another search of the local newspapers and a BIG surprise:
Another article a week later indicated that Frank Parmenter had not been found. He never was. The rumor in the family that he had gone to Canada stuck in my mind and I began searching online to find Candian documents for anyone named Frank Parmenter. Within hours I located a WWI Draft Registration for Frank Parmenter. He was residing in Beesborough Bay, British Columbia and he was a logger at the time. He listed his father as his nearest relative. Excited by the new find I dug
deeper into Canadian records hoping to find a census record for him. My next search, however returned a British Columbia Death Index entry for just four years later. Heavy-hearted, I ordered the death certificate for Frank and the newspaper death notice from the library in Courtenay. The obituary of the man I had been searching over a decade for was too short:
Frank Parmenter has taken on legendary status in my mind. Leaving no wife or children behind, Frank would be all but forgotten if it hadn’t been for the family rumors and my inability to accept his disappearance. Now, more than 100 years after he broke out of prison, escaped the law and vanished from my hometown the mystery has been solved.
The Parmenter Family – Taken while Frank was in prison. He is the only child out of 13 that was not photographed. The only known photo of Frank Parmenter is his mug shot.
A recent move to the Sunshine State and to a larger home than my NYC apartment has reminded me of the benefit of having a space committed to genealogy. For 17 years, I have worked from a small desk or kitchen table trying to organize documents into neat binders and files but have never found an ideal system. We all begin this journey with a handful of documents, then as more trickle in we devise some plan for organizing them. A typical first attempt at taming the clutter is to place everything into files, labeled by surname, family group or record type. After a few years, suddenly it’s difficult to find documents. One folder fills up and we create an overflow folder. Pretty soon the simple alphabetical approach no longer works because there are multiple spellings for the same surname. Then it’s just a slow decline into complete and utter chaos.
Now that limited space is no longer an excuse, I’ve been working on creating the ultimate genealogy room. Photographs have been painstakingly protected against the threat of humidity (more instructions in an upcoming post). Documents were scanned, numbered and filed in a system similar to those used by county clerks. Remarkably, everything is now contained in one room, no longer scattered over every flat surface in my home.
The organizing system that I have created is easy to use and will last a lifetime:
Step 1: Divide all documents into the following categories:
- Vital: Birth, Marriage and Death
- Newspaper: Articles and Obituaries
- Legal: Probate, Land, Divorce and Criminal
- Letters and Manuscripts
Step 2: After the records are sorted, give each document a unique number. For vital records the numbers start with V followed by B for birth, M for marriage, or D for death. Then add a four digit number beginning with 0001 (e.g. VB0001 for the first birth certificate, VM0001 for the first marriage record and VD0001 for the first death record).
Step 3: Scan each document and then name the digital image file after the number of the document – e.g. VB0001.jpg. It’s important to note that the documents do not need to be sorted by date, name or place, only by category.
Step 4: Organize the digital images in desktop folders named after the categories listed under step 1.
Step 5: Store the original documents in heavy-duty acid-free sheet protectors (available at any office supply store). Place them by number order in binders labeled by the same categories above. Use index dividers to separate documents by subcategories. To fit two documents in one page protector, place a piece of acid-free paper between the documents. Use tiny labels on the outside of the page protectors to number each document, don’t mark the document itself. If you have a large collection I recommend using 3” binders. Legal sized sheet protectors and binders are also available.
Step 6: After all the scanning, labeling and filing is complete, create an index sorted by surname, maiden name, given name, date, place and number (or any other relevant information). The beauty of this system is that it doesn’t matter how many documents you collect, they will always be easy to find. Each time a new document arrives scan it, number it and add it to the index. Keep the index on your computer and place a printed copy inside each binder.
The importance of organized family history documents can not be overstated. Being able to quickly find what documents you do or don’t own will avoid unnecessary energy and expense and will help you determine your next research steps.
This is the first of a series of suggested resources that go beyond names and dates and help us discover what life was really like for our ancestors.
If you have researched your family for a while, chances are you’ve collected birth, death, marriage, land, military or immigration records. You have numerous dates, locations, forms and files but have you gotten to the heart of what life was like for your ancestors? The richest genealogies incorporate the real nitty-gritty details of life in the towns our ancestors lived in.
Recall the devastating images of the aftermath of Joplin’s tornado or of hurricane Katrina. Those events were life-altering – houses lost, history lost, lives lost. The people of New Orléans and Joplin will likely be talking about the day of those terrible storms for the rest of their lives.
Coal Creek, Tennessee Mining Accident – 1902
Photo credit Gendisasters
It’s sometimes easy to forget that the generations before us faced their own disasters. Chances are most Americans haven’t a clue that a massive earthquake toppled large parts of Charleston, South Carolina in 1886, claiming between 60 and 110 lives, that in 1883 a tornado destroyed 300 houses and damaged 200 more in Rochester, Minnesota, in 1902 in Coal Creek, Tennessee, a mine explosion killed 175 men, none survived or that the entire town of Gilman’s Depot, New York burned to the ground in May 1884. Each of these disasters was a life altering event and in some cases, defining moment, for the people who had the misfortune of being in the disaster’s sphere of destruction.
Learning about devastating events like these can tell us a great deal about the lives of our ancestors. Perhaps your great, great, great-grandfather (like mine) traded his farm and moved from Money Creek, Minnesota to Centralia, Washington, not because he hoped to enter into the forestry or coal mining business, but because in a period of six months his crops were destroyed by locusts, his children became sick with diphtheria and his house burned down. Or perhaps you had family that lived in Johnstown, Pennsylvania during one of the greatest floods in American history. Or maybe a distant cousin even survived the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. Events like these brought families together, split them apart, caused some to take root and rebuild their lives and towns, others to flee and resettle – irrevocably changing the existence of those who were there, and by extension, all their descendants.
Johnstown, Pennsylvania flood – 1889
Photo credit Gendisasters
One of the greatest resources I have found for genealogy research is Gendisasters, a website dedicated to educating people about “the events that touched our ancestor’s lives”. The site allows you to search by state, type of event (tornadoes, train wrecks, floods, fires, earthquakes, you name it) or keyword so it is an incredibly fast and easy way to find information on the towns your ancestors lived in. In minutes I located newspaper articles about the Fredonia School fire that killed one adult and six young female students, including one of my ancestors, the 1887 tornado in Mount Carmel, Illinois that destroyed most of the town and likely left a lasting impression on my great, great-grandmother who was a child at the time, and the great Seattle fire that was blazing the night my family arrived after their long journey from Missouri, forcing them to take refuge in the home of a stranger for the night.
One aspect of tragedies like these, which creates a boon for genealogists, is that they generate a massive paper trail with clues for you to find out more about your ancestors. Often these stories would be picked up in papers across the country and each one might have a slightly different variation and new information. For instance, a newspaper article in the town where the event occurred might not mention a particular individual but the neighboring town or the next large city might include an interview of a relative or detail the losses of that person. You can use the dates and locations of disasters to search other resources such as www.newspaperarchive.com or www.chroniclingamerica.loc.gov, an impressive collection of digital newspaper images held by the Library of Congress.
Tornado – Rochester, Minnesotta 1883
Photo credit Gendisasters
Genealogy should be more than just learning names and dates. Fortunately, with the amazing information resources we have at our finger tips, we can piece together a virtually complete picture of what our ancestor’s did, thought, and experienced as they went through their day-to-day lives.