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Grave Portents

By Daniel Hubbard | January 6, 2010

It’s been said many times in genealogical circles that it is important to keep track of who an ancestor’s associates were. You never know when they will lead you to or even be previously unknown relatives. There are many places to find your ancestors’ associates. The one I’m thinking about at the moment is the cemetery, I’ll explain why in a moment.

Any kind of research is often an exercise in recognizing patterns. If you find that hard to do with written information, a good place to practice could be the cemetery. There the patterns are set out in stone, arranged for the spacial parts of your brain to appreciate. So, next time you visit a cemetery try to be aware of the area surrounding the graves you know you are interested in and look for some patterns.

Look to see if there are any apparent strangers mixed in with “your” people.

“Stranger” in this case might just be another way of saying “relative too distant to be aware of” or “relative with the wrong surname.”  By the way, being mixed in might mean being at the edge of what you recognize, not just smack dab in the middle waiting for you to ask “Who’s this?” Try looking at the obvious groupings of stones around yours and see what you would make of them. Is there an odd stone at the edge of where your ancestors are that doesn’t seem to belong to the other groupings either? If you see any reason to be suspicious, it doesn’t take all that long to try to work out how the nearby stones fit together into groups. Are there any mysteries that you might need to investigate? Could it be that one of the nearby groups is just another branch of your family— the descendants of a daughter you didn’t know about?

Be aware of any geometric arrangements to the burials.

People you don’t recognize but who fit into the same arrangement of graves as your ancestor might be interesting. I’ve found graves arranged in circles and other shapes. Some members of the circle I knew to be related but others were new to me. Even without knowing the relationships, the likelihood of a person being in the circle by chance is small, very small.

Geometry can also be a good help when reconstructing the family groupings that surround yours. The arrangement doesn’t need to be as obvious as a perfect circle to make it apparent that some stones were positioned relative to each other while other stones don’t seem to have been positioned with those stones in mind.

Look for headstones near your ancestors that look more or less the same as the type your ancestors where using.

People may have matching or similar headstones simply because the headstones date from the same period when they were in style and were, perhaps, even produced by the same person. Nevertheless, if there is a variety of styles and types of stone in use in the cemetery during the time period you’re interested in, you may be able to group people using stone style. If many of your family members have matching stones and another group of graves uses the same type of stone you may have a clue. Especially if that other group isn’t far away, you might have related families.

Pay attention to iconography

The iconography and abbreviations used on a stone can tell you more about a person than you might think. Masonic symbols are not uncommon and might lead you to a list of names of fellow lodge members. If you find the letters G.A.R. carved into a stone, it is time to look into Civil War records on the Union side, if you haven’t already. G.A.R. stands for “Grand Army of the Republic.” Those war records should tell you his (or in a few rare cases her) unit. The unit records will tell you who else was in the unit. For the most part, all those soldiers will be from the same area, because units were raised locally. If you see a few young men carrying the same surname as your soldier’s future wife, you may be on to something. Most of all, if you don’t think a symbol is mere decoration, you can try to find out what it means later but you can only check for other examples of the same symbol at the same cemetery while you are there, so take the opportunity.

Look for gaps

Don’t get so excited by the stones you see that you miss the stones you don’t see. Gaps in the pattern of stones can be telling you something. Old stones fall over and become buried. Not seeing something doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It may just mean you need to look a bit harder.

Even if there is no gap in the arrangement of visible stones, an odd spot in the grass, a gap in the lawn, can be a stone that is almost, but not quite, covered.

Don’t forget that many cemeteries still have records that you can track down

I’ve written this post assuming that the only way the cemetery can help you is through the stones. Wandering in the cemetery is exciting but remember that there may be a cemetery office or other repository that has the old records. Those records can lead you to the right spot in a large cemetery. They might explain a gap by listing a grave in that spot or show boundaries between family plots. Sometimes the old records say nothing more than you can learn from the stones; other times they won’t match the old stones. Check them if you can.

Just don’t jump to conclusions

Positions, shapes, style of marker and iconography are all only clues. Sometimes they are very strong clues; sometimes fairly weak ones. Whatever hints they give you, they are only useful with further checking. They aren’t proof. After all, even finding the same surname in the same cemetery is only a clue.

Uncovering Perly Ann Chadwick's stone. It was just a suspicious spot in the grass.

A clue in progress

I’ve been thinking about these things because there is a stone in my own research that is sitting there waiting to tell its story. One of the many family plots that hold my ancestors is in what is now called Fort Howard Memorial Park in what was once Fort Howard, Wisconsin but is now a part of Green Bay. On that plot is a grave that makes little sense to me or any of my equally interested and diligent relatives. The stone reads, “Perly Ann, wife of Thom. S. Chadwick, d. Mar. 23, 1863, ae. 57.” The problem here is that as far as we know we aren’t related to any Chadwicks. The plot is full of Hubbards. One older relative wrote, without proof, that a daughter of the patriarch of the family married a Chadwick but not only is there no proof of the marriage, there is no proof that the daughter, supposedly named Mary Ann, ever existed, not even a check mark in a census. Also, this marriage wouldn’t even have occurred in the correct generation. Perly Ann was born almost as early as the oldest Hubbards buried there and so is too old to be a daughter. For all we know now, this one stone is the origin of the story of the daughter who married a Chadwick, which would make the whole discussion rather circular. Nevertheless, she is a “stranger buried among our people.” So we are left to wonder—who was she?

Recently, I finally found the first additional evidence that Thomas Chadwick existed when I found him in the 1855 state census of Wisconsin living in Howard near some of my ancestors (another hint of possible association). Then by going line by line through likely towns in 1860 I found them in nearby Suamico. Thomas Chardwick from New York and Purley Chardwick from Massachusetts. A cousin soon figured out that not only was there the issue of the spelling of the surname used by the enumerator but she had been indexed as “Curley Ann.”

So far these new discoveries have not led anywhere. Yet she may turn out to be someone’s sister and since the ancestry of the family’s matriarch is unknown, we could have an important clue. So, we keep looking and if she happened to have been born Perly Ann Dean, preferably not just anywhere in Massachusetts but somewhere around Pittsfield, so much the better.

No matter who she was, the answer is likely to be interesting.

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5 Responses to “Grave Portents”

  1. Herstoryan Says:
    January 6th, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    Great post! I love how you write. Your thoughts are so clear and well laid out – so easy and enjoyable to read. I love your blog!

  2. Daniel Hubbard Says:
    January 7th, 2010 at 12:27 am

    Wow, thanks for the compliments! It’s great to know when a post succeeds and a bit of general encouragement doesn’t hurt either. I just hope that somewhere in the country it is actually cemetery weather. I’ll soon be looking at shoveling a foot of snow. Not the best of conditions for spotting fallen stones.

    Cheers,
    Dan

  3. Matt O'Brien Says:
    January 8th, 2010 at 4:46 am

    Great post! I’ve just begun the genealogy hobby and have added your blog to my list of regular resources. Looking forward now to spring so I can begin combing through graveyards. (Of course, that’ll also mean the end of the snow season, another thing to look forward to!)

  4. Daniel Hubbard Says:
    January 8th, 2010 at 10:25 am

    Maybe that’s why I wrote this post as a snowstorm approached; I was subconsciously yearning for spring. Looking outside, I will now be quite consciously yearning for spring until I get the driveway cleared. I love the cycle of the seasons- it’s the leaves in the gutters and snow on the driveway that I could do without.

    Thanks for letting me know you enjoy the blog and good luck to you as you start your research!

  5. Nancy Says:
    January 12th, 2010 at 12:28 am

    Hi. I just gave you a Happy 101 Award. Go to My Ancestors and Me at http://www.nancysfamilyhistoryblog.blogspot.com to learn about it.

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