Monday, September 17, 2012

Identifying Unmarked Family Photos: Charles and Anna Schmidt

The photo below is Charles Schmidt (1860-1942) and his wife Anna Mueller (possibly Miller) (1864-1956). It was probably taken on their wedding day, judging by the flowers on his lapel. Charles Schmidt was the brother of my great-grandfather, Frank Schmidt, and the photo was given to me by Frank's daughter, Agnes, who was my grandmother. Charles and Frank were raised in Greenville, Wisconsin, which is not far from New London where, judging by the photographer's mark, the photo was taken.


I know the above photo is Charles and Anna Schmidt because my grandmother, who knew them well, told me; perhaps more importantly, she also wrote it on the back of the photograph. I probably would not have remembered their names when I rediscovered the photo in a box some years later - after Agnes had died.

The photo below did not come to me from immediate family. This was in the album owned by a distant cousin - who did not know anything about her family history, and thus, the names that were written on some of the pictures were meaningless to her, making identifying the photos from her scans and emails very challenging. 

Before trying to identify anything from the album, I took a look at the lineage of the woman who originally owned it - my grandmother's first cousin, Mary. Mary was descended from Charles A. Schmidt, the elder brother of my great-grandfather Frank Smith; both were the sons to Anton Joseph Schmidt and his wife, Theresa Kommer. An album belonging to a descendant of Charles would also likely contain images of Anna's family - the Mullers. Depending on who originally owned the album, it could potentially contain images of other, more distant relations, as well.

The photo below is the first one Mary's daughter sent me, and I realized very quickly it was not the one I was looking for - the children were all wrong. I was looking for, I believed, a family group that included my great-grandfather, Frank - but Frank had two older sisters, which immediately ruled out this photo. There were also not enough children - the blended family of Theresa and Franz Joseph Kneisel was huge.

In looking more closely at the photo, though, I noticed that the order and ages of the children, based on census records, was entirely correct to the Charles and Anna Schmidt. Their children were: Frank (B. 1886), Emma (b. 1888), Edward (b. 1889), John (b. 1892), and Elizabeth (b. 1894). 


I noted also that the photo was taken at a studio in Appleton, not far from where Charles and Anna lived (in New London, according to census records). Holding up the two photos side by side, it certainly appears as though it could be the same couple, aged about ten years - which would be about right, as the wedding photo and family photo are about ten years apart.

I had the good fortune to have yet another photo in my own collection:


This one is also from my grandmother. The woman on the right I know to be her sister, my great-aunt Emma Smith. The photo is is marked on the back "This is Emma Smith and her cousin on her father's side." I had long suspected that the cousin in question was Emma Schmidt - and looking at the woman on the left, and comparing her to the little girl in the family picture, it seems likely it is the same girl. Their fathers were very close, and the girls - both named Emma - were born within a year of each other.

I am confident that the family group is the Charles Schmidt family, based on the source of the album, the comparison to a known photo of the the family, and the census records for the family. It was nice to get confirmation of my suspicion that the cousin in the second photo was who I thought it might be.


Friday, September 14, 2012

Review: The Genealogist's Internet, by Peter Christian

We live in an era when genealogy has become much more accessible to the masses, due to fact that so many records are being indexed and digitized, and now are available online - and with more coming available each day. There's a downside to this, of course: It can be overwhelming to know where to start, or where to go next. For those researching in the United Kingdom, though, there is a helpful guide to online resources:  The Genealogist's Internet: The Essential Guide to Researching Your Family History Online, by Peter Christian.  The book was produced by the National Archives, is now in its fifth edition, and is primarily focused on records from that area. It is an excellent resource for anyone researching in that part of the world.

The book is broken into chapters focused on the different types of resources (military, census, church, tax). Each section includes an explanation of the types of records you can expect to find, and how to interpret and use those records. It then explains the various online record repositories broken out geographically, with useful information on the strengths and weaknesses of each collection, as well as cost information where needed. 

Those who are new to UK and Irish research will find this book an invaluable tool. There are explanations of numerous types of records that are unique to the United Kingdom, such as:
  • Civil registrations - when they began, how to locate them, and what may be found in them
  • Records related to England's colonial period, such as those related to transportation of convicts
  • Occupations, including both an explanation of the various terms and where to look for company and trade union records  
  • The unique problems posed by Irish records, such as the anglicization of names
I found the explanations of the different records types to be full of information that would help keep research focused and productive. The section on church information explains why many collections are incomplete or unavailable; however, it also goes into things like church courts - a record type I would never have thought to look for because I never knew such a thing existed. They sound like interesting records, too: matrimonial disputes, and disputes between clergy and parishioners, often about tithes.

The book  also has sections that discuss general difficulties encountered in using technology to conduct genealogical research, such as indexing errors, how to conduct different types of searches (wildcard versus Soundex, etc), and recommendations on how to handle various file types one might wish to download and store. There are even chapters covering internet etiquette and privacy issues. 

Finally, the authors thought ahead: Since  The Genealogist's Internet  provides hundred of web addresses, all of which can change in the blink of an eye, they have created a website of all the links in the book - which will be updated as links change. 

The Genealogist's Internet is much more than a collection of links, though: It is a well-researched,  comprehensive, accessible research aid for anyone who wishes to conduct genealogical research in Great Britain and Ireland. Recommended.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Generous Genealogy: Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness - Again

I adored Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness. For those of you who never experienced it, it was a genealogy site full of volunteers who charged no more than gas and copying costs - and many times, not even that - to retrieve records someplace that they had access to ... but you did not.

It was a simple site - nothing fancy - but those of us who used it didn't need anything fancy. We needed a trip to the courthouse or an archive or a cemetery that was too far away for us to get to. The volunteers were often more than helpful: since they knew the area, they would direct you not only to things you were looking for, but quite often suggested things that you might not have been aware of.

The site disappeared a while back when the person who organized it died. I was sad to see it go.

Someone should do something like that again, I thought - and so they have: A website called Generous Genealogists has sprung up, and put out a call for volunteers. Modeled on the original Random Acts website - but a touch more elegant-looking - the site is free to use.

If you have the time or ability to help them out - please go volunteer. It's almost as much a thrill to help someone else break through their brick wall, as it is to break through one of your own.

I wish the team at Generous Genealogists every success, and I'm excited to follow their progress and development.

Have you volunteered for Generous Genealogists? Please share your story in the comments.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Identifying Unmarked Family Photos: Theresa Kommer Schmidt Kneisel

I wrote previously about my frustrations in trying to identify a photo from an old album of unmarked family photographs. I was so disheartened by the experience that I stopped researching that part of the family for nearly two years.

Only on my recent discovery of an error I had made on Theresa Kommer's death date did I decide to revisit that part of the family. I ran across a very old post on the Fox Valley Genealogical Society website that provided me with the clue I needed to finally begin tracing Theresa's line back to Europe. I contacted the woman who had made the post, who was descended from Theresa's daughter Elizabeth - my great-grandfather Frank's older sister. The original poster offered to send me a copy of her research folder, and I requested "any photos she might have of that part of the family." I received a thick sheaf of documents, and an assortment of family photos, including this one:


Theresa Kommer and her second husband, Franz Joseph Kneisel. 
Photo taken about 1890.

She also included photographs of Anna Kneisel, the daughter of the couple above, and Elizabeth Schmidt, from Theresa's first marriage.

Elizabeth Schmidt Melzer Bauer (1854-1931)

Interestingly, when I went back to the photos I had received from the unmarked album, one was a duplicate: A wedding photo of Anna Kneisel was in both sets.

I put the the photo that I knew for sure was Theresa and her second husband, next to the photo I believed might be Theresa and her second husband, to see if I could make a final determination:


Are these the same people, aged ten years? 
(Left: FJ Kneisel and Theresa Kommer; Right: Scan #5.)

I'm still not sure. It is especially difficult to compare the two as neither of the pictures is an especially good quality scan. There is nothing super-obvious to link the two pairs, no matching jewelry, clothing, photo studio, etc.

I asked my cousin Linda her opinion, and she compared both photos and said she wasn't sure, either. She did, however, make another side-by-side comparison:


The resemblance is striking, is it not? I see two possibilities: First, that the photo on the left is of a much older Elizabeth Schmidt; or, that the photo is, as I think, Elizabeth Schmidt's mother Theresa Kommer. The unidentified photo was taken in Appleton, and both women lived there.

The problem with the idea of the photo on the left being Elizabeth Schmidt and one of her husbands is this: She wasn't very lucky in her marriages. Her first husband (Bernard Melzer) died not long after they married; and she divorced her second husband (Anton Bauer) after a brief marriage - the 1905 census shows them living in separate households. She did not marry a third time, so it is unlikely there is a photo of her in her old age with a husband.

It seems very likely to me that The Unidentified Couple of "Scan #5" really is Franz Joseph Kneisel and Theresa Kommer. What do you think?




Monday, September 3, 2012

Brick Wall Breakthroughs: Theresa Kommer Schmidt Kneisel

For a long time, my storied ancestor Theresa Kommer Schmidt Kneisel has represented a brick wall in my research: No death certificate or obituary that I could locate, no indication on the ship's manifest as to her town of origin, and the added problem of having a husband named "Schmidt" - hardly an unusual name. But recently, I noticed that I had her death date incorrect in my records. I had a date of 1900, but noticed she was listed in a town directory as late as 1908, and a biography of her son Charles published in a town history gave a death date of 1908. I realized that if I had made an error with such a simple fact, I had not even begun to do my work on Theresa, and decided to go back and start pulling together more facts about Theresa.

I decided to start with the most interesting place: The trial of Joshua Wilson, the Stockbridge Indian who murdered Theresa's husband Joseph, my great-great-grandfather, in 1863. I contacted the Cofrin Library Area Research Center, which I have worked with in the past to retrieve old wills and divorce records. The Archivist told me that yes, there were still court records from that era, but asked if I could pin down the trial date more precisely as those early records were not indexed.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Identifying Unmarked Family Photos: Theresa Kommer Schmidt Kneisel

Many years ago, on my annual Wisconsin Christmas visit, my grandmother took me to visit a cousin in Appleton - a woman whose exact relationship to us was always a little fuzzy to me. This cousin, Mary, had a large photo album filled with ancient photos, and we paged through the album slowly and carefully. Some of the photos I recognized - my great-grandparents, Frank and Anna. One of the photos was of my great-great-grandmother, Theresa Kommer.

It was quite astonishing to see a picture of a woman with such a compelling history. It is easy to conjure up visions of the hardship of her life: Theresa grieving for her murdered husband, far from her homeland and family, being forced to remarry out of necessity, and living out the rest of her life in great sadness. I don't recall thinking she looked sad though. I do remember wishing I could stare her picture for hours.

I wanted to make a copy of the photo, but Mary refused. This was in the days before scanners, and I imagine she did not trust a 16-year-old girl to safely return her family treasures. I promptly forgot about the whole thing until a couple of years ago.

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