Writing Genealogy: Starting Off

TitleOnlyThe moment we sit down to begin a genealogical journey, we realize we should have started long ago, actually penning to paper, in real-time, what our dearly departed had vocalized. That is especially true for the faceless; those ancestors, we never met.  What commonly happened was this; Grandfather identified his grandmother by name, and thereafter, spoke of her as “my grandmother”.    The thought to ask “what was your grandmother’s name, again”, did not occur, because her presence continued to be imagined, when referenced as “my grandmother”, even as her name faded.  It takes Grandfather to demise, to realize her name has become uncertain.

One remedy might be found in soliciting living relatives, the older the better.  Our first foray should not confront them with “what was Grandfather’s grandmother’s name”. “It was on the tip of my tongue”, will come the answer! Rather, engage in conversation, and ease around it. Hopefully it will be given up, without having to ask for it.

Before reaching out to others, daydream about Grandfather. Jot down the significant, and the silly.  Especially the silly.  When as a teen, I left the kitchen a wreck, my Grandmother, Janet (Jenny) Dickson (McArthur), would protest that it was worse than a dirty midden. Actually intoned in her Scots, I heard “dearrrtie mitten”. Controlling the sass back, I never inquired on meaning. Today, I howl when I realize it was my most strict Nana’s own version of potty mouth. While this was ancillary to Grandfather’s search, it added a rich layer to their youthful experience, in late 19th Century, Scotland. Things like that drive the genealogical journey forward.  Memories will get you in the mood.

Write down your goal, your intended time and financial commitment.  Time is money, or something.  Not all puzzles will resolve, including those that rely on finding intact documentation from long ago.  Sometimes it makes more sense to smell other roses.  Check out the deviance from your start point, from time to time.

Next, of course, gather documents already at hand. What you have may be skeletal, in which case, organizing the load should be no problem.  Otherwise, well, organizing can be discussed at a later date.

Before looking at the documents, write down: BE SKEPTICAL. Keep in mind that people of yore were just like people of today. They did not always document to the letter of the truth. Sometimes they were deceptive and sometimes understandings were different back then.

My paternal Grandfather, Mathias “Matt” Hemmingsen, serves as example of the deliciously deceptive.  His birth is inked on an 1876 Norwegian Birth Registry.1  It is quite certainly his; his siblings are also recorded, in appropriate time frame, before his and after, as well his parent’s marriage, and those of their predecessors. The family later immigrated to the Mason, Bayfield WI area of the US, over a period of five years: father first, mother followed with youngest children, then the eldest children.2 Grandfather was in that last group.

True to Norwegian naming convention, he, the son of Ole Hemmingsen, had departed as  Mathias Olsen.  Upon arrival, his surname was conformed his father’s last name, now  Hemmingson, by  American convention. Grandfather’s subsequent documentation was already complicated by a surname change, beginning around ten years of age.

His mother died following childbirth, at the time of his  US arrival. She left his father with a number of small children to care for, so he found himself on his own, working at a very young age.

Now, one of the daydreams about this Grandfather was his telling that the moniker, “dumb Norwegian” was a common derision in Wisconsin. He told us he averted the dumb bias by asserting he was born in Wisconsin. The fools would exempt Americans of nasty taunt.  He did not try to fool the Feds, though, and remained census compliant, his last being US 1900.3

He got ahead of the game and changed that up on arrival in Canada. He miraculously changed his mother’s birthing venue to Wisconsin and for some reason, nuanced his surname to Hemmingsen, as seen in his Canada 1911.4

Grandfather’s actions further complicated his forward documentation, now by two surname changes, and a purposely erroneous change of birthplace. Only he knew that!

The tweaks had no obvious adverse consequence in his time. Except that, he became known as an inventive entrepreneur and woods pioneer. He is referenced in many an article and book. As well, he is incorrectly associated on lots of genealogy trees.

Grandfather spent a decade in Norway, two in the US and six in Canada. His life accomplishments were based on a fourth grade education acquired in Norway.  When he left at ten, the twig was bent. What owes to Norway’s pride, is referenced to the United States.  More importantly, he was our Grandfather. He was born in Norway. (Should you wish to know more about him, look under “Memories” tab “From the Logging Camps”.

Grandfather’s story is not unique. There are many ways documentation will belie the truth, as it is perceived today.  Sticking with birthplace, we are in a different time when births are documented to the minute, at a specific place. In the past, a mother might cite her child’s birth variously on different documents, as the place of her usual residence, versus where she actually gave birth, versus place of baptism, etc.

Remember:  BE SKEPTICAL.

This is a good place to catch a breath.  Does anyone have a skeptical story to share?

DISCLAIMER: author is an amateur, inviting comment, correction and learning.

Notes and Sources:

Documents Accessed at:  Family Search (FS): https://familysearch.org ©2017 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

1 The National Archives of Norway, the Digital Archives  https://media.digitalarkivet.no Church book for Hatfjelldal parish 1860-1878 SAT/A-1459/823/L0324 [Mathias Berg 21JUL1876]

2 The National Archives of Norway, the Digital Archives  https://media.digitalarkivet.no Trondheim politikammer (1) Emigrantprotokoll V 23.07-25.04, 1880-1882//SAT/A-1887/1/32/L005 for Hemmingsen, Ole p.205/239 in 1882 (2) Emigrantprotokoll VII 03.07-22.03, 1885-1888// SAT/A-1887/1/32/L007 (2i) for Mathis., Berit with Einer, Marie and Harrold in 1886 p.78/190 (2ii) for Olsen Henrietta and Mathias in 1887 p.177/190

3 The United States Archive and Record Administration (NARA) College Park MD. https://www.archives.gov. US Census 1900 for Mason, Bayfield County, WI for Matt Hemmingson.

4 Library and Archives of Canada, Ottawa ON www.bac-lac.gc.ca Canada Census 1911 for Comox-Atlin, British Columbia for Mathias Hemmingsen.

Anglicized Names:  Ole Hemmingson, Berit Mathisdatter / Unknown.  Children: Henrietta Church (Hemmingson), Mathias “Matt” Hemmingson (US) / Matt Hemmingsen (CA), Edward Hemmingson (US) / Edward “Ed” Hemmingsen (CA) , Marie Hemmingson, Harold Hemmingson.  The aforementioned were all born in Norway. Not listed above, is George Hemmingson as he was born in Wisconsin, in 1887.


7 thoughts on “Writing Genealogy: Starting Off

  1. My grandmother “lied” about her age. You might think she “lied” to make herself younger, but you would be wrong. Not only did she lie about her own age she lied about my grandfathers age. My grandfather was born in 1880 and my grandmother was born in 1903. They were 23 years apart. Grandmother did the only thing that made sense she made herself older and made my grandfather younger.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Re: your post “Pedigree Collapse and DNA, Friend or Foe?” of May 1, 2018 on your awesome blog. One comes away inspired by your persistence and happy for your way with words, which makes fascinating, but complicated matters, clear. My own work was all low tech; sleuth, assess, surmise, but I’m now considering to add DNA to prove/disprove findings on my maternal grandfather. He was of an unwed mother, then adopted. Cousin marrying cousin wasn’t found in his family, or was missed, but my adoptive great aunt Mary3, had me going. She, Mary3, was my grandfather’s adoptive cousin, suspected of being his biological mother. Her maternal grandmother was Mary5. Mary3’s maternal great uncle married Mary5’s daughter and later, Mary3’s mother, married Mary5’s son. From Mary3’s perspective, Mary5’s children were variously, superscript5 /4. I got to writing around that with ease, to then find that Mary3’s paternal uncle married the daughter of Mary5’s sister, Sarah. That almost collapsed my persistence! (From BMD data at ScotlandsPeople ©Crown Copyright, National Records Scotland) DARN THOSE SUPERSCRIPTS WHICH LOOK AWFULLY LIKE REGULAR NUMBERS! Woe is me!


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