Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Genealogy Mother Load

My genealogy research started about 10 years ago. Using the Internet as my primary research tool, I was able to find some modest information on some of my ancestors. It was about that time that a searchable version of the 1900 U.S. Census became available. Back then, my collection of data included those census pages of my family in Wisconsin, some photographs and bits of written history that I collected from family members. It was a fairly small collection. The biggest find was on my paternal grandmother's side of the family.

My grandparents were divorced when my father was young and he did not have much contact with his mother after that. Because of this, I never knew her or much about that side of the family. I am sure that it was a bit painful for my father so not much was ever said. Still, I was curious about these missing ancestors and searched for information about them. One thing I found was a biography on my great-great grandfather, Reuben Holcomb (my father's great-grandfather) and a pioneer in Wisconsin.
Did you ever have a "genealogy moment" . . . a time when you made a key discovery that opened the door to your entire family history? That happened to me in the summer of 2008.  
Although I did not realize it at the time, this would be a pivotal moment in my family search. It turned out that Reuben Holcomb was born in 1816 in New York and migrated to Wisconsin via Michigan. What was so important about this was that, prior to this discovery, I did not know of any ancestors of mine that were born in this country that early. As far as I knew, all of my ancestors were from Germany, Switzerland or Norway and they immigrated to Wisconsin between 1850 and 1880. This was huge! All of a sudden, here was someone from "out east" that was born when James Madison, a founding father, was president. What this meant of course, was that Reuben's father may have been here during colonial times. I love American History but have always felt as though I was not completely a part of it because my ancestors where not here when much of it happened. This may seem silly to most but to me it was really how I felt. So this discovery was truly amazing. After that find, however, the trail grew cold. I was not yet a serious researcher and so if I could not find it on the Internet, then I wasn't going to find it at all.

That was in 2002. For the next few years, I would occasionally search for family names but most of the time, I came up empty. But something was happening with on-line research that I was not aware of. More and more searchable information was becoming available, some for free and some for a price. Fast forward to 2008. On a Friday afternoon as the work day was ending, I started typing in some names. I was actually typing in Goldner, another of my father's ancestors, who were from Chicago. All of a sudden, I came across a Louis Goldner born in 1861. I had been to the cemetery in the western suburbs and also had an obituary for Louis so when I saw this I knew it was my Louis. The information was on a website called Kindred Konnections and I would need to fork over $18.00 for a one month membership if I wanted to get any additional information. This was the first time I had found anything in quite a while so, a little desperate, I signed-up. I did find some valuable information on Louis and his brothers and parents. Not a lot but it was stuff I did not have. Since the membership was paid for, I decided to type in some other names. So I entered Reuben Holcomb and that is when my genealogy moment happened . . . jack-pot . . . there he was. Not only was Reuben listed but also included were his ancestors all the way back to Thomas Holcombe and the beginnings of this country. I had hit the genealogy mother-load. For those of you who get into this stuff, you know the feeling I was having at that moment. I had wanted colonial ancestry and now I had it in spades. Wow!
If you want to read about Thomas and Reuben Holcomb(e) and any other ancestors of mine, go to my Archive Page and click on any post.
Something else happened that day, the ancestry bug really bit me and I got serious. I started searching the web for everything I could find on Thomas Holcombe. This led me to the Holcombe Family Website. Here I found detailed information on my line of the family and much more. It was awesome and the information lead to more information. I would spend the next couple of years trying to get a handle on all of that information. I would also make mistakes, get things wrong, fail to cross-check information or verify the facts. It was definitely a learning process and that process continues to this day.

What was interesting about my initial find was that my Reuben had just been added to the Holcombe Website in 2007. That was the year that one of his descendants provided the Holcombe Family website with a connection. It just wasn't there prior to that and so I could never find it. But I have also been lucky as Thomas Holcombe and his allied families are well documented. The discovery opened the floodgates for me. Since that time, I have accumulated over 1000 documents about my family from many sources: photo's, maps, places, names, dates. I have census records, passenger records, military records, local histories, burial information and other documents. I have also broadened my search to include more publications, additional family furnished information and numerous cemetery visits in Wisconsin and Illinois.

In about 10 years (but mostly just the last three or four) I went from knowing just a small amount about my family history to becoming the "family historian." I feel so much richer for the experience, so much more connected to places and history of this country and so grateful to all of those who have done the hard work and made their discoveries available to the rest of us. It all goes back to that Friday afternoon, where with low expectations, grasping at straws, I typed some family names into the Google search box.

Additional Reading:
Genealogy and the Internet
1940 Census - Once in a Lifetime
Two Years of Blogging about Genealogy


  1. I just want to say that your "paper" (the 4 part written family history) is simply amazing. I am a Holcombe who for the past 4 plus years has hit a huge wall in my Holcombe line, and to see such beautifully done work leaves me hope to one day get that same "genealogy moment".

    Thank you so much for sharing such a nicely done paper. I am in awe.

    1. Chad,

      Thanks for your kind words. I truly hope you find your missing connection (and I know you will). For me it was that middle period, the early 19th century that was missing. Early genealogies often lose track of people during that time frame and census records are almost useless unless you already know where your ancestors lived. The Holcombe connection was my first big break but not the last. Since that time, there have been other connections and often when I least expected it. I owe those connections to other people - researchers or family members I did not know. Keep the faith and good luck.

  2. Hi Bruce, Your blog is wonderful! I am going to post the link on our Cockerill clan page on Facebook. I am the granddaughter of Grace Hollister. And it looks like you are the grandson of Stella Hollister. Grandma Grace married CB Cockerill, as you have noted in your most thorough blog. Both of my grandmothers were first cousins so I was very interested in your blog about Francis O'Neil as well. I have been digging around for about five years and have many hand written pages, family lore and gossip from the past. It is addicting. :)

    1. Peggy,

      Thanks again for reading. There is a museum in Mapleton, Iowa and I have heard that it has a lot of info on the O'Neil family (the guy that runs the museum was supposedly given a large volume of family info from a granddaughter of Francis). Anyway, I have never followed-up on this but there is a link to the Museum on the Mapleton website. If you want to continue to talk, click on one of my contact buttons and that will send me an e-mail. Hope to hear from you.