May 18, 2012

Gems in a Sea of Stones: Part I

Can you find the raw ruby in this picture?  Take a look; it’s right there.  Still don’t see it? It’s the one with the roundish, but jagged sort of edges. Maximize the photo if you still don’t see it.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait here.  Did you find it? Look again. It’ll be the one with rich-red hues.

Okay, I lied: there’s no ruby - raw or cooked - in that picture.

But searching for a gem in a sea of stones is kind of what it’s been like piecing my family tree together. 

I knew my maternal ancestors were from a small Missouri town, and I even have a rough idea of their ages.  I used that information to conduct my search…and generated records for about eight billion people with the same last name from that same small town. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But there were a lot more than one or two.

One of the records belonged to a person with a name that I had heard my mom and aunt mention numerous times while they were having conversations that kids are too bored to be bothered with. “Is this the guy?” I thought.  And who did they say he was? My cousin? A great uncle or great-grandfather? …why didn’t I listen better when I had the chance?

I rolled the dice and did what everyone does when they don’t know what to do: I Googled him and that small Missouri town just to see what would happen.  What happened was that he appeared in newspapers stories from around the country from 1901, he was in collegiate history books, referred to as part of what inspired an essay by Mark Twain, but most interestingly a newspaper story from 1991.

This couldn’t be right.  Or could it?

By then, I couldn’t let it go. I needed confirmation – I needed someone to help me piece together whether this guy was a relative and if so, which one. And now I needed to know the story behind all the stories in cyberspace.

It wasn’t like I was going to find information from immigrant ship manifests and I knew I needed a black ancestry historical reference, so I emailed one of Milwaukee’s black historical resources for help. They emailed me back very quickly, and even pointed me toward an African American Genealogical Society here in Milwaukee that I didn't even know existed.

Then, on a lark, I figured, why not email the guy who wrote the article in 1991? Through some cyber-stalking, I found him working at a Missouri newspaper. I scribbled a note, asking if he had additional information or whether he could point me to someone who did. One nervously sweaty finger pressed “SEND.”

That was in the morning. As I was telling my friend the whole long story on the phone that afternoon, an email showed up in my inbox.

It was from the newspaper guy in Missouri. “Oh my gosh, this is him” I said, grammatically incorrect and interrupting whatever my friend was saying. “It’s really him.” I swallowed hard and noticed that my palms were all sweaty again and babbled “Should I open it? Can I open it with you on phone here with me?” Now I was breathing hard. My long-suffering friend said “Yeah!  Do it! I want to know what it says too!”

I took a deep breath. “Okay. Here we go…”

The message in that email will be in my next post. That’s why this one has “Part I” in the title.


  1. OK, that's just mean!.....I HATE suspense!

    1. HAH!

      Well, at least this lets me know that people actually read this stuff. :)