Thursday, December 26, 2013

Anne Louise Hirshson Shows Up

When I started this blog, it was specifically to explore my paternal ancestry.  To answer the many questions I have about my father's people, and to indulge in my passion for African American genealogy.  It's not that I am uninterested in my maternal ancestry, it's just not where the mystery lies.  And, as I have said before,  I love a good mystery.

But recently, I have been reminded of something Barack Obama wrote in the preface to the second edition of his moving memoir, Dreams from My Father.  Describing the huge void his mother's death left in his life, he said that had he known he was going to lose her he might have written less about the absent parent, his father, and celebrated more the one who was "the single constant in my life."

It is, I suppose, only natural to be curious about the absent parent, to seek to fill in the gaps, to want to discover what is unknown.  But it doesn't mean the known parent is any less loved.

A few days ago, I changed the tag line on my blog so that it no longer calls out solely to my paternal ancestors.  Yesterday, in my Christmas post, I mentioned some of my maternal ancestors.

This, apparently, was not sufficient homage.  The Mother line is NOT to be denied.  

Though I have dedicated my blog to answering the ancestors' call, my mother may have felt that I wasn't listening carefully enough to her, so she called me out, as affronted mothers are prone to do.  

"So, you aren't going to mention me in your blog...I'll just crash your cousin's blog!"  

Now I didn't actually hear this when I woke up this morning, and saw a picture of my mother in a post on Teresa Vega's blog Radiant Roots, Boricua Branches, but I could definitely imagine my mother orchestrating this to get my attention.  

Anne Louise Hirshson wasn't a pushy or particularly bold woman, but she had her pride.  And the thing she was most proud of was her kids.  She would very definitely want me to give credit where credit is due, and in that, she has a point. She and I both loved my father, but he was an occasional visitor in our lives.  She was there, always.

She was a single mother, working two jobs to support her two children. She read to us, took us to the beach for picnics, let us find ourselves in school, played beautiful music, and encouraged our creativity.  Mostly, she loved us, in her own way.  She wasn't much for organized religion after growing up a preacher's kid, but we both knew it was her prayers and her model of sheer obstinacy that got me through graduate school and back home to teach at her alma mater.  It was her scraping together her meager salaries that launched my brother and I, made it possible for us to have homes in one of the most expensive areas in the country.

I am going to continue to search for my paternal ancestors, but I want the record to show that I know I am who I am because of the Mother line, whether it is my love of a good book or great art (my grandmother, Eda Roscoe Biggs,  was the artist who painted the pictures of Louis Hirshson and Anne Linnehan Hirshson in Teresa's post), or the sea (my great grandmother, Frances Augusta Roscoe grew up in Hall's Harbor, Nova Scotia), or my knowledge that a dutiful daughter best not ever neglect to mention her mother again!   

Hope you're happy now, Mom.  You know that's all I ever wanted for you.

Counting My (Genealogical) Blessings This Christmas

The presents have been cleared away, the holiday meal and movie enjoyed, and now in the last hours of Christmas day I am coming to terms with the fact that the one thing I had been secretly hoping for—a genealogical breakthrough to tie the paper trail on my paternal line to DNA cousins—isn’t going to materialize in time for this year’s celebration.  Instead of becoming discouraged, as I have so many times in my family history quest, I decided to reflect on all the things I have to be grateful for on this journey.  It has been a remarkable year of discoveries, and when I stop to count my blessings, I feel renewed energy for the next steps in my quest.  Here’s a list of some the genealogical gifts of the past year that I am most grateful for:
       1.  The story of Julia Linnehan, my maternal great grandmother’s sister, came to me via a newly discovered 3rd cousin 1x removed, Teresa Vega.  Teresa’s blog, Radiant Roots, Boricua Branches includes a two parter on Julia. Teresa has been my inspiration this year. Her desire to reach out and know the family connected to a painful estrangement made me realize that my insecurity about tracking all of my family lines was silly. Worse, it was blocking the opportunity for re-connection and healing.

      2.  I was able to share with Teresa the discovery of the marriage records for William Linnehan and Ellen Shaunnessy of Buttevant, Cork, Ireland, which helped us learn their father’s names.  William and Ellen are my maternal grandfather’s maternal grandparents.  I also learned the names of his paternal grandparents, Zorach Hirshson and Bertha Harris, who married in Riga, Latvia.
      3.  Knowledge of my connection to several descendants of Melugeon families, another gift that came via Teresa.  In learning more about the Melugeons, and another tri-racial group, the Lumbees, I gained important insight into aspects of my paternal ancestry.  There is a large and growing Facebook group, Primos Geneticos, trying to trace our connections with the help of DNA testing.  We’re all becoming wizards—and this has really opened up my understanding of genetic genealogy, as have the wonderful posts of Roberta Estes on the DNAeXplained-GeneticGenealogy blog.

      4.  My paternal grandfather’s name.  I wrote a post about some of the difficulties in tracking Joseph Cannady in records, but until a wild card search last May (just last names, for all the marriages in Blount County between 1910 and 1920) I had spent untold hours over many years searching in all the wrong places for the wrong name. Now, with the name, and some DNA clues, the search for the needle in the proverbial haystack can at least be narrowed down quite a bit. 

      5.   A new attitude and approach concerning my research.  I had too easily accepted the idea of “brick walls,” until I read the excellent post by Robyn of Reclaiming Kin suggesting that most such walls are artificial.  Her post made me realize that there were many more steps I needed to be taking in my research to address difficult challenges.  They say when the student is ready, the teacher appears, and so it was shortly after reading Robyn’s post that I found myself in the newly formed Facebook group, African American Genealogy and Slave Ancestry Research, with the very stern but loving Principal, Luckie Daniels.  One of AAGSAR's mottoes is " no brick walls permitted" In the few short months of its existence, AAGSAR has been a huge boon to its members, challenging even long-time and savvy family historians to bump up their research and technology skills and to take their knowledge of African American genealogy mainstream.  For relative newbies like myself, it has meant getting out of my comfort zone to take my research to a new level.  I am just one of dozens who have begun to document my research online in blogs.  We’ll have a major roll out of new blogs for our January 5th, 2014 Blogfest (see Diane Haddad’s write-up on Family Tree magazine’ s genealogyinsider here).

      So all in all, I’d say it’s been a good year for gifts.  And now I have the tools, and the communities, to help go after that other gift I was looking for.  That’s my spring 2014 challenge: to connect the dots between DNA and the paper trail.  What’s yours?

Friday, December 20, 2013

Cousins, Community, and So-Called Coincidences

I got a kick out of the post, Everybody cousin, on the Gardener’s Footprint blog, because it described something I believe is true—anywhere you look, anybody could be your cousin.  Perhaps a distant cousin, but a cousin nevertheless.  In fact, my cousin Maurice joked that people are going to have to add DNA tests to their prenup agreements to make sure their future spouse is a distant enough cousin to make it okay to be kissin’ cousins.  (He didn’t say that exactly, but you get my drift). 

Once you take a DNA test, you begin to realize just how many people are cousins. I have almost 1000 cousins in my “Extended DNA Family” on
My relative list
And these cousins are literally everywhere, from South Africa to South America to South Carolina.    Well, I don’t have any cousins that I know of in South Dakota, but that may just be because they haven’t tested yet. 

One thing I have cherished in my genealogy journey is getting to know some of my DNA cousins through Facebook.  Even though many of us are pretty distant cousins, and others are actually cousins of cousins, we have joined together to form a community, Primos Geneticos (Cousins Genetic).  Just like the AAGSAR community (which, of course, includes many cousins and cousins of cousins), we support one another, pray for one another, share stories both funny and sad, laugh at each other’s jokes, and importantly, help each other in the never-ending quest to trace our family histories.   

As we trace our histories together in these virtual communities, we have discovered many so-called coincidences.  For example, Andrea, one of the AAGSAR family, writes a post about her Shinault family and happens to mention someone named Gamble who traveled with the family from Virginia to New York. I commented that my godfather's Gamble line has links to Virginia.  Later, when I post about Charles Henry Gamble, who was born in Norfolk, Andrea is sure there is a connection.  I can’t wait to see if we can trace it.  When another member of AAGSAR, Xzanthia, helped me to search for military records for Charles Henry, it led to the discovery that he had ties to her hometown, Chattanooga. (According to,  Xzanthia and I are—you guessed it—distant cousins).   

My cousin Maurice, mentioned above, figures that our family links originate in South Carolina, and indicates the connection may be as long ago as 7 generations back.  But I have closer DNA cousins with links to the Gaddy's of Wadesboro, North Carolina, where Maurice’s great grandmother was born (read all about her in his two-part post).  So our relatives were neighbors in one state not so very long ago while kin in another in the more distant past.   Speaking of neighbors, the wildest so-called coincidence is one I share with my cousin, Teresa.  So far, she’s the only DNA cousin that I have a paper trail connection to as well.  But in turns out we have another connection:  we lived in the very same building in New York City though at different times.  Not just in the same small town, like my relatives and Maurice’s; not in the same neighborhood.  But in the same building, on the same floor! In a city as big as New York, how could that be?  Please, don’t tell me it’s just a coincidence.

I don’t believe in coincidences.  I have no doubt that just as our ancestors moved in circles with one another, finding strength in community, so too are they bringing us together to do this work of telling their stories.  They leave little signposts to help us find one another, and in doing so, help us to find them.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

When the Ancestors Answer Back

Charles H. Gamble military record from
Just a week ago, I wrote my first true genealogy post for this blog, a discussion of the Civil War service of Charles Henry Gamble, my godfather's maternal grandfather.  I was inspired to do so after writing a letter just a couple of days earlier to the Blount County Genealogical and Historical Society (BCGHS), requesting membership.  I felt so full as I typed the names and dates of the folks who represent my godfather's ties to Blount County, it was as if I was making an offering: yes, I will call your names so that you are not forgotten.  It seemed that this is what I am supposed to be doing, and so I jumped into writing the post about Charles Henry even before I had all the puzzle pieces in place for him.

Today, I received an email from someone in the BCGHS who had read my letter.  Years ago, she had discovered Charles' grave in
Old Quaker Cemetery on; picture uploaded by 98percentH2O
the Old Quaker Cemetery in Maryville, Tennessee, and set about gathering information about him and other Black Civil War veterans who were from or settled in Blount County.  Her information was used in a tribute this past summer to commemorate 150 years since Emancipation (here is an article describing the event).  She's offered to share the information.

Her email conveyed information I didn't know and made me realize that some of the information I have collected on my godfather's family is incorrect; and, of course, I was able to pass along some information that I had.  One of the nuggets in the email was the fact that Charles was buried next to Myra, the young daughter he and his wife, Mary, had lost. I also learned where Mary and some of their other offspring are buried.  It means so much to have this information and to know that Charles Henry and his fellow soldiers were honored in their hometown.

I know I am supposed to do the genealogist's happy dance, but I am going to be honest and tell you that my first response was an upwelling of emotion.   This very helpful informant wrote that she had not been able to find any descendants of Charles Henry and Mary Lucinda Gamble. My godfather is no longer alive to claim them.   But that is not the reason for my emotional response. It is because when I received the email, it was as if Charles Henry was reaching out to me more than a century after his passing.  I answered his call, and he answered back.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Impossible is Done

Today, leaders from around the world memorialized the great Nelson Mandela.  Twenty-seven years in a jail cell in Robben Island, who would have imagined such an outpouring of love and admiration?  The impossible is done.

Like many who participated in anti-apartheid activities, I wondered if the large corporations who benefited from the regime would ever divest, if social pressure could make a difference.  And then Nelson Mandela left prison, and what seemed impossible is done.

The fear in South Africa at the end of apartheid, as in the American South after slavery, was that those who had been oppressed would retaliate, return hate for hate, violence for the violence.  But instead, people set about trying to right the wrongs of the past rather than repeating them;  they embraced opportunity without denying it to those who had denied it to them. The impossible is done.

I voted in every presidential election since my 18th birthday, including for Rev. Jesse Jackson, but never, never thought I would see a self-identified African American take the office until that night in November 2008 when I felt my ancestors rejoicing right along with me.  The impossible is done.

Today that President spoke of the hope that Mandela gave not just to his nation, but to the world.  As Luckie Daniels noted in a post today on her blog, OurGeorgiaRoots, how extraordinary to live at a time when we see the first Black President of the United States eulogize the first Black President of South Africa.   No longer impossible, it is done.

In his eulogy, President Obama reminds us that it takes the "sacrifices of countless people--known and unknown--to see the dawn of a new day."   I think about the sacrifices of my paternal ancestors who were denied the opportunity to learn to read or write only a couple of generations before I was able to  earn a graduate degree at one of the best universities in the country. The impossible is done.

When people act on behalf of what is right, what is just, what is good, they learn the truth of what Nelson Mandela taught us: "It always seems impossible until it is done."

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Charles Henry Gamble, USCT: Putting the Pieces Together

Image is from; puzzle created with
     I enjoyed Delores Summons’ post, Elementary My Dear Watson, likening the search for relatives to a diligent detective's work hunting down each clue to solve a mystery.  I always love a good mystery, but my own genealogical pursuits are often more like another favorite pastime: putting together jigsaw puzzles.   I like to start with  the edge pieces, then fill in one section at a time, until finally the picture starts to emerge, making it easier to see where the remaining pieces fit in the overall scheme.  As with puzzles, I am always sifting through the “pieces” I've collected about my family, seeing where they belong.  With this person over here, or have I tried to force a piece that doesn't belong?
      My current puzzle involves my godfather’s maternal grandfather, who appears on the 1870 and 1880 census' as Henry Gamble of Maryville, TN, my father’s hometown.   The 1870 census lists Henry's birthplace as Tennessee, while the 1880 census and all but one of the documents for his children list Henry's birthplace as Virginia. His date of birth is given as 1840 on the 1870 census, but 1844 in the 1880 census.
    One important puzzle piece I soon learned was that just as I am called by one name, but use another on legal documents, so too did Henry.  The record of his marriage to Mary Lucinda Wilson in 1868 lists him as Chas. H. Gamble.  When he and Mary Lucinda had to bury their first daughter and fifth child, Myra J. Gamble (1878-1887), he is listed as C. Henry Gamble.  While the various people and places listed on all these records line up so that I am fairly confident that they are all referring to the same man, this wasn't the case when I started looking for his military records.
    With the help of another African-American Genealogy & Slave Ancestry Research (AAGSAR) member, Xzanthia Yvonne Zuber, who offered to do look-ups for some of us on, I thought I had located the records of the correct Charles Gamble serving in the United States Colored Troops as a member of the 1st Heavy Artillery regiment organized in February 1864 in Knoxville, TN.  The pieces seemed to fit:  this Charles was from Blount County (Maryville is part of Blount), and Knoxville is just up the road from Maryville.
Poster from
Perhaps, Charles, was one of the many who heard the Union army was recruiting and made his way to join up; or it could be that he was enslaved and his owner was seeking the $300. bounty paid to owners who freed their slaves for military service. Tennessee was not included in the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, so serving in the Army or working for it was one way for enslaved persons to gain their freedom. 
    One curious puzzle piece in the records Xzanthia found: Charles Gamble was absent from duty from September through November 1865 because he was “in arrest.”
    I was happily putting together my puzzle when I found two other records on 1) pension claims filed on behalf of Charles Henry Gamble in 1890, and his widow, Mary Lucinda, after Charles Henry’s death in October 1895; and 2) a request for a military headstone for Charles Henry.  Both of these records gave another USCT regiment: the 42nd Infantry, Company E.  Being enamored of my puzzle as it was coming together, I first tried to make these pieces fit.  Maybe Charles had started out in the 1st Heavy Artillery, and then was transferred to the 42nd Infantry.
Cover of Doback's 2011 book
This seemed plausible enough, especially when I read in William Doback’s book, Freedom by the Sword. US Colored Troops 1863-1867, that the 42nd regiment was organized to include soldiers deemed fit for garrison or “laborer” duty rather than field operations.  Men in other regiments were routinely transferred to the 42nd for medical reasons.  

     However, the discrepancy was enough of a concern to me that, like Delores’ dogged detective, I knew I had to follow up and so I took out a trial membership to  I learned that there were two different men named Charles Gamble who served in the USCT, although as we’ll see they may well have crossed paths.The new records I found were for a Charles H. Gamble, from Norfolk, Virginia, who joined the 42nd regiment in Chattanooga, TN in October 1864.   His physical description was entirely different than the first Charles, eliminating the possibility that they were the same person.  Charles H. was younger, taller, had gray eyes, and a “yellow” complexion.  Since Henry Gamble was listed as a mulatto in the 1870 census, this description seems to fit.   His enlistment papers show that the 42nd was indeed a special “invalid” unit because the examiner crossed out “able-bodied soldier” and substituted “soldier in this regiment.”
Enlistment document for Charles H. Gamble from

     Though the 42nd regiment was confined to garrison duty for the duration of the war, this was hardly easy or light duty as Doback notes in Freedom by the Sword. The garrison was constantly under pressure from guerrilla raids by rebels who particularly targeted black soldiers.  Doback quotes one of the commanders who reported that his troops were ill-quartered, under constant attack, and many were sick.  Chuck Hamilton, in a wonderful blog post on the role of African Americans in Chattanooga from the civil war on, notes that the 42nd regiment engaged in building roads and Chattanooga’s first bridge as well as guarding the garrison.  It was in Hamilton’s blog that I learned a very interesting fact: In August of 1865, the 42nd, and several other US Colored infantry regiments were joined by the 1st Heavy Artillery regiment in Chattanooga, forming the 2nd Colored Brigade.  So from August 1865, both Charles Gamble and Charles H. Gamble were in the same brigade, though different regiments.  But there is even more reason to think that their paths might have crossed: Charles H. Gamble, like Charles Gamble, was absent, “in arrest,” and under confinement in September through November 1865!  They very likely were in the brig together for some of that time.  The records for Charles H. Gamble give more information:  he was arrested for mutinous conduct in Chattanooga and tried in Huntsville, Alabama.  The case against him was “not approved,” and he was returned to his regiment and mustered out shortly thereafter, on Jan. 31, 1866.  Charles Gamble was also returned to his regiment and mustered out on March 31, 1866.
Proceedings against Charles H. Gamble obtained via

     While I am delighted to learn of my godfather's grandfather’s service (and that of his namesake, for that matter, and of the 20,000 other African American men from Tennessee who served in the Union Army), the records have pointed out just how many missing pieces there are to this puzzle.  What malady consigned Charles Henry Gamble to the invalid regiment?  I have my suspicions, and will only note here that two of his sons also had medical issues related to their military service, though another served without incident as did my godfather, who served in WWII.  Was Charles Henry in Tennessee before the war, as I had previously assumed, or did he make his way from Virginia?  Why the age discrepancies between the military and census records?    And, last but not least, what was his “mutinous conduct” in the fall of 1865 and did this involve the other Charles Gamble? I hope to gather more pieces to my puzzle by reviewing Charles Henry’s pension file, which I have ordered through the National Archives.   If nothing else, it will help me to confirm if I finally have the right Charles Henry Gamble!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Ready, Set, Go

     I have been reluctant to do a genealogy blog.  I don’t have the usual stories and photos that are the “stuff” of such blogs, and the close kin who might provide these family history gems have long since passed on.  My genealogical quest wasn't sparked by tales told across generations, but rather the absence of them.  Oh, I do have a few stories and photos inherited from my mother, and a couple of hours on the internet easily yields information on 9 generations of her ancestry, tracing back to Scotland, Ireland, and Latvia, among other European countries.  It is my father’s line that I know next to nothing about.  I don't even know his name.
     What little I do know about my father and his line I've learned  through DNA testing, my genealogical explorations, and just recently through  the information I've been given by newly discovered second cousins.   I know that my father and his family were part of the African diaspora and at least some of them had ties to Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia, with significant roots in Louisiana.  Like a lot of African Americans from the South, it seems he made his way West and to the San Francisco Bay Area as part of the great migration.  He had to have arrived by early 1955, but I suspect that he came before or during World War II like so many others did. Perhaps he served in the military like my godfather did, or he came to work in the shipyards like my brother's father.
     I would love to know who my father is, who his people are.  Who my people are.  I've always wanted to know about them, my ancestors.  What are their names, their stories? My ancestors hold a part of my own story that has always been a mystery to me.  It is as simple as wanting to know if I will find my features in the faces of my ancestors, and as complex as wanting to know what of them besides looks might live on in me. 
     In the end, it is the quest to know these ancestors that propels me to overcome my reluctance to do a genealogy blog.  They have opened the doors, in some cases barely peeking through, while in others they have burst through demanding that I pay full attention and take note.  It seems they want to be known by me as much as I have longed to know them. They want their stories of heartache and joy, hardship and accomplishment to be discovered and told, their names to be called, their spirits to be honored.  No more silence, they seem to be saying, no more secrets.  Now is the time to reclaim and reconnect with my father’s people, my people.  I will do my best to answer the ancestors’ call.