One year during middle school my gifted class did a project on family history. We each had to talk to our relatives and put together as comprehensive of a family tree as we could.
One kid managed to track down his family through the civil war. Needless to say, he got extra credit.
Me? It was like I was dropped here from outer space.
My mom knew back to her grandparents on her mother's side (they had immigrated to the US, and we just didn't know anything about who their parents were). On her dad's side? Grandpa had been an orphan, so we only knew a few sparse facts.
On my Dad's side? All we knew were my grandparents. That's it. Nobody else. Great-grandparents? No names. My dad knew the name of both of his step-grandfathers, but that was it.
Needless to say this whole family history thing always intrigued me. I couldn't quite get my head around how people could create new generations but those generations would have no real knowledge of what had come before them.
Years passed, but finally, thanks to the Internet, I was able to make some headway. Back when I was still living in NY (so sometime around 2002-2003) I first found Ancestry.com and reviewed the 1930 census data. I found my maternal grandfather at the orphanage and I was able to find my paternal grandmother living in Princeton. I found out her sister's name and the names of her half-siblings. Also her mother's first name (Caroline) and her step-father. My Great-Grandfather had died when my Grandmother was very young and her mother had remarried. While I knew that my Grandmother's maiden name was Phillips, I wasn't able to ascertain my Great-Grandmother's maiden name.
Years passed, and about last year or so I started dabbling again on Ancestry. Armed with the knowledge that my Great-Grandmother's name had been Caroline Phillips after her first marriage, and that her second marriage was to a man named George Bromm I cast a wider search net. Through reviewing local newspaper records I found a marriage announcement from Trenton between a Ms. Caroline M. Drammond and George Bromm. The announcement gave me her address in Trenton around 1920. So, I began looking in earnest for Ms. Drammond.
Little did I know at the time that the newspaper announcement was a misprint.
After some more diligent searching I was able to locate a Ms. Caroline M. Phillips in Chester, Pennsylvania, with two daughters (Marguerite and Mary, being my Grandmother and her sister, respectively). Ms. Phillips also had two men living with her. William Diamond and George Diamond. Were they boarders? Turns out these men were her father and brother.
By reviewing the next earliest census record I was able to find more of the Diamond clan, this time with Caroline listed as a Diamond instead of a Phillips. However, Phillips is a common name. I wasn't certain she was the right woman until I looked a little closer at the neighbors listed on her census page. Who was her next door neighbor in 1910? Mr. John Phillips. At the time of the 1910 census, John Phillips was married to a woman named Sadie (nee Wright) and he had two children, Merrill (a 3 year old boy) and Dorothy (a 14 month old girl). John's younger brother, Thomas, also lived with the family. (Unfortunately, though, I wasn't able to find a record for John earlier than this date which is conclusively him). With this information I was able to contact Delaware County's records department and order copies of the marriage records for John and Sadie and John and Caroline (who were married in 1914). I also obtained the probate documentation for John, who passed away in 1918.
I was pretty confident at this point that I had found my relatives. Luckily for me, the Diamond family had lived in Chester for many years. William, my Great-Great Grandfather had married a local woman named Mary Dooley (my Great-Great Grandmother). Mary's parents were Michael and Rebecca Dooley. Michael was originally from Ireland, by way of Delaware, and fought in the Civil War, being wounded at Gettysburg.
William Diamond was one of the sons of George Diamond (my Great-Great-Great Grandfather). George had come to Chester from Brooklyn. George had originally immigrated from Ireland to Brooklyn and married Annie McCullough. George also fought in the Civil War. (Extra Credit, here I come!)
Meanwhile I was also having a little bit of luck with my dad's father's side of the family. I managed to find where they had lived in Northern New Jersey, and find the family originally living in Brooklyn after having immigrated from Acri, Italy.
All of this was very exciting. Though I have to say, I was still a bit skeptical about all of it since I'm just sitting here at home trying to connect dots on a computer screen. Was I right? Who knew?
My Mom had always joked that my Dad's family weren't picture takers. And it seemed true-- compared to my mom's family (where no occasion was complete without photos) there really weren't many pictures at all of my Dad's side. So, I was rather surprised when I visited with my grandfather (my Dad's dad) back in October and he had a photo of his grandparents and their sons (including his father) from their time in Brooklyn in the early part of the 20th century. There they were: Anthony, Rose, Michael, Joseph, Peter, Angelo and Anthony (because you can never have too many Anthony's, apparently). He also confirmed that yes, his mother's name was Angelina. He also told me that my Great-Grandmother (Caroline Diamond Phillips Bromm) was buried in Princeton-- though quick research of the burial records couldn't confirm this. This was kind of a big deal because finally, I was starting to get some real information and photos.
Sadly, my Grandfather passed away earlier this month. During the process of organizing his affairs my parents and I have started to find photos and records. First I found my Grandfather's baptismal record and birth certificate. Both included his mother's full name and confirmed that our last name was originally spelled differently (as Ancestry.com had shown in the census records). In going through some family jewelry I found a gold wedding band with the inscription "CMD JHP May 12, 1914". It was my Great-Grandmother's wedding band. I also found a bracelet inscribed CMD 1912. My Dad found his Great-Grandfather's pocketwatch (the chain of which, appears to be visible in the family photo my Grandfather had shown us).
Finally, today we located my Grandmother's bible. In it she had written a short family tree on the inside pages. It included the birth and death dates for Caroline Diamond, her daughter, Mary Diamond (my Great-Aunt) and also in it was a mass card for Dorothy Bentivolgio (nee Phillips), my Grandmother's half-sister, daughter of John and Sadie Phillips. The bible also includes grave locations in Princeton for both Caroline and Mary and it included information that John Phillips (and his younger brother Thomas) had spent time in the St. Vincent's Orphanage for Catholic and German children in Philadelphia (which may explain why I have been unable to locate earlier records for John).
I have found two photos-- one which I think may be Caroline and one which may be John, but there is no information written on the back of either. I don't think at this point that I'll ever be sure. I'm happy that I have confirmation that the research I've done so far is accurate. I'm also glad that I already feel like I know these people, even if I don't have the stories that went with their lives.
My search is continuing for information about my maternal grandfather. Searches in Trenton at the New Jersey State Archives couldn't locate his birth certificate. The Orphanage records have been destroyed and the Catholic Diocese which managed the Orphanage does not seem to have any records relating to his time there. I hired a genealogist to help solve some of the mystery and she was able to obtain a copy of my Grandparent's marriage certificate. This provided my Great-Grandmother's name, but so far searches under her name have not been fruitful. I do know that my Grandfather was born in Passaic, so at least that is a start.
What have I learned? Pass on your stories while you can. Though doing the detective work and research on Ancestry has been a fun challenge, I would have much rather had a foundation directly from family members. If you have a story, tell it. Write it down for your children or grandchildren and don't put it on a shelf for thirty years. Pass it down.