Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Oregon Trail first-hand

It was a hard day:

"The hardest day we have had The wind blew a perfect gale all day & the dust flew in clouds & no water to cook with or for the Horses"... 

so wrote Fleury Fayette Keith in longhand as he began his trek to cross the Plains in May of 1850... and yes it is a strange name--and that is another story!

It was a journey we readers can only imagine. After walking about 20 miles a day every day, he arrived in Weaverville, California on August 31st.

If you fly across the country you may well take the route that covers the Oregon Trail, and if you look closely, you can see the landmarks encountered by the travelers, including the important and long Platte River. The best and most interesting sources of information on the routes and the hardships and rewards can be found in original diaries.

Look to the following resources for the stories in the original, and sometimes in the original manuscript...these are really stories of the individual in the context of history in the happening...poignant and fascinating.

Recommended websites are:

American Memory Library of Congress: Trails to Utah and the Pacific: Diaries and Letters 1846-1869.

Trails of Hope, a digital collection of diaries of gold rush adventurers, is an excellent resource for understanding the physical and mental experiences of the Argonauts as they trekked westward. The digitized collection has the images of the original diaries scanned and also has transcriptions. The collection is held in the Harold B. Lee Library of Brigham Young University. There are also interactive maps and illustrations, so you can follow the diarists along their journey, and see just where they encountered buffalo, salt ponds, graves of fallen travelers, and all manner of difficulties. All of this can be found at It is inspiring and fascinating, even if you have no connection to anyone on the trails.

 There you will find the story of F.F. Keith who traveled from Jefferson County, New York to California in 1850, documenting the howling of the wolves, the treacherous crossings of rivers, the amazing geographical landmarks, crossing the Sierras having abandoned the wagons and seeing big trees for the first time.

Other good websites for Oregon Trail diaries:

Paper Trail (The Oregon-California Trails Association)

The Overland Trail


Sunday, March 29, 2015

Who created the Thomas Brothers Maps?

The Thomas Brothers maps are very useful for finding directions, and in turn finding directions can be very useful in genealogy. To turn all of that around, what might be the genealogical background of George Coupland Thomas of the Thomas Brothers?

He and his brothers Gilbert and Leonard created the Thomas Brothers Maps and guides which were very popular in California before the internet began to help us out with directions. According to Susan Spano, Los Angeles Times travel writer, "They made old-fashioned folding maps obsolete by developing page-by-page gridded maps bound in a book." See her article of 2002 online at Spano describes how the Thomas Brothers maps went digital. But the company has been around a long time. Many California residents may remember consulting the handy hard-copy soft-cover books for detailed street map information.

According to my research, George Coupland Thomas, born in England, died in Alameda County in 1955. His father, Richard Coupland Fleming Thomas, was born in 1841 in Tintern, Wales, and died in 1924 in Alameda County, California. He was buried at Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, Alameda.
George's mother was Hannah Louisa Thomas, born in 1850 in Knaresborough, Yorkshire, England. Her parents were George Dermott Thomas, born 1824 in Bristol, Gloucestershire, England, and Hannah Mollard, of Warwickshire, England. Richard Coupland Fleming Thomas's parents were William Heard Thomas and Mary Ann Georgiana Coupland (see the naming pattern?). Parents for William Heard Thomas and for George Demott Thomas were William Heard Thomas Sr. and Mary Georgiana Dermott. Result--cousins of some sort--you tell me what kind! William Heard Thomas was, predictably, son of William Thomas and Elizabeth Heard. Let no name be left uninherited. William Heard Thomas Jr. was born in Clifton, Gloucestershire, England. My initial interest in this family is through their connection to the Brodribb families, of whom actor Henry (John Brodribb) Irving is best known.
Thomas was at that time an insurance agent in Bristol. But NOW I am interested in the fact that the brothers settled in Alameda County, California. Tracing their lives since their arrival in California has been fascinating. As noted in my hiking blog, one of the brothers, Gilbert, who owned a company called Blue Print, ventured with a buddy from East Oakland, probably his own neighborhood at the time up to the summit of Mt. Diablo and then back to East Oakland. Yes, that took a long time, but was completed in one full day.

How this family traveled! In a matter of decades, they covered the distance from England to Wales to Alameda County, California, where they produced useful maps for California residents. Next challenge: why did they choose the San Francisco Bay area as a place to settle?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Letters from Van Dieman's Land

Above: a page showing Benjamin Wait listed as a convict, with a life sentence, and noting his ship and place of origin (Upper Canada) from  Tasmanian Colonial Convict, Passenger and Land Records. Various collections (30 series). Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office, Hobart, Tasmania as available online at

I read with interest the post on the Olive Tree Genealogy Blog about the Patriot War of 1837 (a futile attempt on the part of Americans to "help" settled British-Canadians revolt against the British government) and about those New York rebels who were captured by the British and sent to Australia--specifically Tasmania, at that time called Van Dieman's Land. Many of those northern New Yorkers were pardoned and made it back to their home country, while a few remained in Australia. Near the top of the list displayed at the Olive Tree Genealogy Blog of those men transported to Van Dieman's Land aboard the ship the Marquis of Hastings is the name Benjamin Wait.

For those interested in the story of one man who remained in Australia (Ira Polley), see my blog post titled  Australian Descendants of Jefferson County, New York settlers.

I happen to have (handed down to me over the ages) the book written by Benjamin Wait during his imprisonment. The book includes the letters and exhaustive efforts of his wife (including travel abroad) to get him released. It is a wonderful small brown book published in 1843 and it tells firsthand a fascinating story.

Wait, with a few other convicts escaped and returned to New York.

Fortunately for all who might be interested in the story, you won't have to ask me to borrow the book--a scanned version of the text can be found at See the text at

Monday, March 16, 2015

What speed bumps (pun intended--see photo) can you encounter in your own language as you rush through research?

We all take it for granted that we speak our own language and perhaps one or two or a half or so more. We can get along in our own country and maybe a few others. That works.

But we may get complacent and forget that research demands that we remain flexible about language usage in the context of time and place, because it is indeed dynamic, often culture-oriented, and ever-changing.
Even for those working in English only--
What are the words you need to know to research the British of 1860? The Welsh or Australians of 1890? If you read the American census records, do you know what a cordwainer is?

And what about the Canadians of 2015?

A "sleeping policeman" is a speed bump.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Your British ancestors (or their relatives) in the Old Bailey (British Court)

You've heard of The Old Bailey. There is a website: The proceedings of Old Bailey: London's Central Criminal Court, 1674-1913. Chances are, if you have an ancestral name that might have flitted through London during those years you may have a distant relative whose case was tried in the Old Bailey. It may not be an ancestor you can easily identify, but just seeing that that last name with which you are so familiar is there in the prison can be oh so fun. The transcripts of the cases are there, easy to find and read, and all very entertaining.

Just for example, if you put in the surname Ninnes you find the abstract of the record for William Ninnes, including his crime (stealing 12 postage stamps from his master) and his punishment (18 months in prison). An easily clickable graphic takes you to a scan of the original record from the 1800's.

The website is very easy to use and to search: Old Bailey of London. Enjoy!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Spanish California genealogy research

For families of Spanish-American heritage who may have resided in or near the missions up to 1850, I recommend the following: Mission records as gleaned and annotated by the Huntington Early California Population Project (see:, and as gleaned and annotated by Dorothy Mutnick in her books on the families of the missions. The Early California Population Project records are accessible online, and the database has scans for many of its records, which allows the researcher to see the words as written by the scribe at the time. These records go back to the late 1700s. The database has even made connections between records for individuals, so that a marriage record may be linked to a death record for the same person. Most of the information written in Spanish has been translated or transcribed so that it is easy to understand the content. A third database which can be helpful is Los Californianos (, a website devoted to the history and genealogy of the early hispanic settlers of Alta California. Using all three, you can build a family history for the early Spanish-Californian residents of California.