Friday, February 19, 2010

What's in a name?

As we turn over another decade, we will see census recorders canvassing the corners of our country to ensure we have a complete and accurate count of the number of people living in the USA. The task will not be easy considering the projected number of people living in the USA, but in 2010, it is more a matter of verification than recording. Early census takers had to write down all the information and since most people were not able to read or write, it was up to the census taker to interpret how to spell names. This is one reason why you will find names in the census records with several variations.

As a quick test, try to respell your name phonetically or write it out with your opposite writing hand. Chances are you will have several variations. For example, my last name is Sanders. The original spelling was apparently "Alexander", which over time and through different linguistic cultural influences, the ALE became silent and Xander, became Sanders.

Recently, one of my ancestors was stricken with a misspelling in a different record type, but has the same effect. Either way, I didn't know it at first. Her name was May Ellis, my paternal great-great grandmother who lived from 1863-1950. It is always important to consider the sources and potential pitfalls of vital records, even if they are very legible.

The record I am referring to for May Ellis was a death certificate from Oklahoma. This document was typed and as you may know, death records contain birth dates, birth locations, parent names, burial location, cause of death, maiden name and more. For many years I did not know May's lineage, but with this one record, I saw for the first time her maiden name - Horner. Since it was typed, I was pretty sure how to spell it and started looking for more details on the family. This was an exciting find for me to say the least!

However, after many hours of searching on, I was unable to confirm any familial connection. Then I happened to find another researcher who listed May Ellis but with a different maiden name - Hamar. So I tried that maiden name and my other sources confirmed this to be a true match. What likely happened is that the typist of the death certificate misread a hand written name and in turn created a transcription error. If you imagine the spelling of Hamar in cursive with a poorly written "a" and a smudged or broken "m", you can get Horner.

There is a lot to be said for how your name is spelled as it denotes origin, even if it is spelled differently. Therefore, for those of you doing research on your family tree, be sure to check your spellings (twice) and always confirm with two or more reference sources, so that our future generations don't end up calling us by a different surname!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Heirloom photo finds family after more than 100 years

This story is about a family photo and its extra-ordinary journey over distance and time, starting in Hastings, Nebraska about 1890, moving to Seattle, Washington in the early 1900's, and finally arriving in Arizona in 2008.

Before we delve into how it found our Family, we need a bit of history about the people in the photo and to help matters, perhaps a quick look at the photo itself.

From left to right: Gilbert “Bert” Foy, Edgar “Ed” Foy (boy),
Charles “Bub” Foy, George “Pete” Foy and sitting Charles E. Foy.
The photo on the table is of Adelia Arnold Foy.
Hastings, Nebraska c1890.

My great grandfather is Edgar Foy (the boy in the photo) and great-great grandfather is Charles E Foy, civil war veteran.

The story behind the "reason" for this photo is best told by my grandmother, Margie (Foy) Wood - Edgar Foy's daughter.

After the Civil War, Charles [Sr.] lived in Whiteside County, Illinois, until 1866, when he married Adelia Arnold. In 1874, they moved to Bluehill, Nebraska, where they secured a homestead when practically all the county was undeveloped and most of the people lived in sod houses. They had to fight all plagues which assailed agricultural efforts in Nebraska.

Six children were born to this couple, Charles E., Gilbert, George, Edgar, and two children who died at infancy. The prosperous years that followed encouraged expansion of livestock feeding and farming, but when drought struck this area in 1890, the bankers in Hastings, Sam Pratt and William McKinstry, foreclosed on all of the property. With no feed for the cattle, Charles was stymied and lost everything he had worked for in sixteen years. A Sheriff’s sale was held and though he was brokenhearted, he vowed he would make a comeback soon - that no one could take his home. A short time later, a child was born without hands, another tragedy, but the saddest of all memories was the loss of his wife and the baby.

Charles Foy, the eldest son was now 21, Gilbert Foy 19 and George Foy 17. They could get work elsewhere but Edgar, nicknamed “Tink”, only 9 years old, remained with his father on the farm and attended school.

These circumstances that preceded this photo in 1890 were tragic, but sadly part of the life in the 19th century.

After taking the photo, Charles E Foy Sr. departed for Oklahoma to make his riches in the oil fields; the older brothers, Charles "Bub" and Gilbert "Bert" migrated west to Seattle, Washington and started a business, while George "Pete" went off to Alaska in search of gold. In time, Edgar went west to Colorado to homestead.

From here, the photo likely went with Gilbert Foy to Seattle, Washington, in the early 1900's. From that time point forward, it is not clear what became of the photo, but this is where the story gets interesting. 

In the 1980's, it was located by a research in Seattle, Washington.   Time passed and a new in 2008, another researcher, MaryLynn Strickland [] began researching the photo.  She looked for the name "Foy" on and found my website and contacted me.

MaryLynn documented the "case study" which is reproduced below. This is an excellent example of great genealogical detective work!   As far as our family knows, this photo is the only known picture to exist of the entire Charles and Adelia Foy family - truly a treasure.

On behalf of my family, I thank MaryLynn for her determination, innovative research, and for graciously sending this wonderful heirloom photo back "home"!   

Foy Photo: A Case Study
It is an old, professional studio photograph of a woman’s photo on a small table with five male figures around it. The woman’s photo is a cabinet card in the style popular from the late 1860s into the 1890s. The male figures are a seated balding older man, three standing younger men and a pre-adolescent boy. The furniture consists of the small cloth covered table and an upholstered chair complete with silk tassels. A floral carpet covers the floor. The somber men wear various styles of three pieced suits with wide lapels and ties. The boy is wearing a sack coat with a bow tie and pants that might be too short for him next week.

On the back of the photo are three lines of information, “Mr. G. B. Fay, 506 Ward St Wednesday”. The photo is sepia tone on thick mat board and in remarkably good condition, given its age. There is a little water damage on the lower left corner and there are minor splotches and scratches. Along with the photo are three pages of jotted, handwritten notes by a researcher who was trying to identify the family.

The researcher was Waneta Bosshart and we have no idea how she gained possession of the photo. From her notes she may have been doing the research in about 1981, looking through city directories and land records looking for the Fay family. She found several in this area but no “G. B.” and none at “506 Ward St.” She did find a Julia Fay who died in 1903 but again nothing to tie in the five males.

Time passed and other projects took Waneta’s attention so the photo and her notes were set aside in a plastic sleeve and forgotten. After her death, Waneta’s family gave research materials such as this to the South King County Genealogical Society, judging that someone would be interested in carrying on her previous work.

This is how I received the photo. I have neither the time nor patience to spend hours in libraries poring through old city directories on the odd chance that I will spot either G. B. Fay or 506 Ward St. But I do have the internet and a quick search for the surname Fay in King County Washington turned up several families in the 1900, 1910 and 1920 censuses. Still no G. B. or anything similar. Then that little voice we so often ignore said, “Why not try FOY?” and Bingo, in the 1910 Seattle census was Gilbert B. Foy. When I looked at the image online I was not surprised to see that Gilbert and his family lived at 506 Ward Street in Seattle. (I’m not especially skillful, just very lucky.)

Now I had a base of information on which I could be certain of the family I was following. The Washington State Death Index 1907-1960, found at gave me his parents’ names and agreed with his birth date and place. I found two other Foy men with the same parents and then other Foy family members, children of the three men. I now had enough information to find the family in the 1870 Illinois and 1880 Nebraska censuses.

I could make a pretty good guess that the older man in the photo was Charles Edward Foy, father of the three younger men—Charles, Gilbert and George, all present in the 1880 census. In the 1910 census Gilbert had a five year old son so I tentatively dated the photo as 1915 or so. But it didn’t feel right; the clothing and furnishings were more 1890s and the mat board was heavier than that usually preferred in the early 20th century.

I went back to the internet and to see if there were other people researching this specific family. There I found a descendent with extensive information including the birth of a fourth son Edgar in 1881 and the death of the mother in 1891. Now everything fit and I could date the photo as being taken in the mid 1890s when the youngest son was about 11 years old.

I contacted this researcher, Brian, through and received a reply within hours. After sending him, via email, scans of the front and back of the photo, he confirmed that I had correctly identified the family and that the young Edgar was his maternal great grandfather.

From a book written by Edgar’s daughter (Brian’s grandmother) we learn the circumstances of the photo. Due to hard times, the father Charles Edward Foy was leaving the farm in Nebraska and going to Oklahoma where there was an oil boom. The three grown sons were looking for work where they could find it, eventually settling in Seattle and young Edgar was living with other relatives until he could join his father.

Charles suggested they all go into Hastings (Nebraska) and have a family photo taken before they went their separate ways. He placed the photo of their mother, Adelia Arnold Foy, on the small table around which they were gathered.

Who knows how Waneta took possession of this photo. Did Gilbert take it to a photographer to have copies made and fail to pick it up? Or was it among items in the family estate that wound up in an antique store or thrift shop? Whatever its journey so far, it has served as a wonderful learning tool and will soon be back in the possession of its rightful family.

My objective in working on this photo was to date it as accurately as possible. Identifying the subjects in the photo helped accomplish that. There is much more information available for Brian to continue his research. Gilbert’s photo has helped point the way.