Louis Zwart (1866-1934) and his wife Anna Duker (1867-1941) enjoyed the outdoors in their leisure time and often camped at Montauk Point, Long Island, New York. They are my Dutch great-grandparents.
My maternal grandmother, among her great many other talents and concerns, did genealogy. She collected photographs, albums, newspaper clippings, sent away for documents, hand wrote charts of relationships, kept a detailed calendar of birthdays and anniversaries, and wrote an autobiography. When she divided up her heirloom dishes and linens to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, she dictated out stories with photos about previous owners and makers: herself, her sisters, her mother, her aunts, her grandmothers, her churches. Because of my grandmother, I know more than I thought I might about my mother’s family history.
On my paternal side, my first cousin played a similar role. She was a scrapbooking consultant and designed attractive family trees of her closest relatives, mounted photographs of our paternal grandmother’s life as a teenager and young mother in albums with short and sweet captions (where she knew anything at all). Our childless uncle (the oldest of three brothers) and our childless great-uncle told her and my dad what they could remember, but many of their stories and legends disappeared into myth and darkness of the Old Countries, difficult to back up with documentation.
In university I studied history and took a class where I was required to do a family history research report from primary and secondary documents. This might have been the first time I spoke to my grandmother in seriousness about her ancestors. And I have been eternally grateful for that week ever since. My paper focused on our American Civil War ancestor, a farming man who emigrated from Yorkshire England to follow his uncle to Illinois who’d done the same some years earlier.
When I uploaded a version of my family tree online, I was contacted by a woman who shared this Civil War ancestor, but was related through his second wife instead of my gg-grandmother, his first wife. My grandmother was aware of her but they’d lost touch. She’d actually visited Yorkshire to learn more about our veteran’s birth, and christening, and life there. She discovered his parents, some siblings, and grandparents’ names and villages.
My father’s lineage had been proving even more frustrating. My dad wrote an autobiography about the same time I was in university studying all my maternal grandmother’s old notes. His style was to preserve memories and places and correlations, but not necessarily specific dates. Well-known online records websites like Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, and Newspapers.com had yet to disclose many relevant documents from the geographical area where they lived in the early 20th century: City of New York and Long Island. I had a story that one set of paternal great-grandparents – a carpenter/joiner and his wife – had emigrated (either separately long before their marriage or together eloping) from Bornholm, Denmark, and the other set – a Jewish diamond polisher and his Dutch Reformed wife – from the Netherlands, but no proof besides the odd federal censuses. And while invaluable in many ways, censuses have inherent problems in accuracy. So that was my brick wall.
But I kept at it. Those genealogy websites kept adding more church records, marriage records, death records, the 1940 Census was released and indexed, more newspapers were digitized and collected.
In late 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic and shutdown, a maternal first cousin invited me to help with a 3D digital art project which would combine real family history stories with the larger European-American immigrant experience. Her passion contagious, I revisited my tree and my notes for my dad’s Dutch and Danish relatives. I did a fresh deep dive across the internet for New York records and struck pay dirt. I was able to trace individuals another generation back in both the Netherlands and Denmark via translated church birth and marriage records. I found new immigration ship manifests, a naturalization intent document, transcriptions of New York state death indices, property transfer notices.
The most incredible document came from a newly discovered second cousin in Florida (thank you, WhitePages and Facebook!). She had an actual copy of our great-grandfather’s military registration, all in Danish, but had never translated it; so I did that! And it confirmed his parents’ names and three cities he’d lived in before moving to New York.
For both halves of my paternal background, I organized intensive timelines, fashioned socio-economic context, and finally wrote focused narratives for my cousin’s project. I never met them, but my grandparents and great-grandparents came alive.
Like a piece of art, a genealogy is never finished, only abandoned, so I keep discovering more little pieces of my direct family and adding facts and interpretation to my narratives. Newly available publications on Newspapers.com in Spring 2021 gave me death articles (if sparse on information) for my Danish great-grandparents. Another article linked my Danish great-grandmother to the Order of the Eastern Star fraternal order. She served on the entertainment committee of an event to raise money for a new Masons and O.E.S. lodge in Queens.
These brick walls broke, but individual blocks in them are still missing, like more marriage, burial, divorce or death documents from New Jersey and New York. If genealogy were easy, everyone would do it and everyone would solve their family histories faster.