Digging History Blog

I Know February is Black History Month . . .

just by glancing at Digging History stats — even if I didn’t already know what is commemorated during this month.  Why is that? Last year, one story (and it’s a good one!) received hundreds of views during February and beyond – the story about Sarah E. Goode, an African American woman who invented a cabinet bed.  The same pattern is occurring this year with multiple daily views of the article. I imagine that many of the views belong to students (or “innovators” as they are called) of Chicago’s Goode STEM Academy who are perhaps tasked each February with writing a story about their school’s namesake.  I’m happy to be used as a reference for this interesting story.  However, I hope those young people take time to look around Digging History for more articles about unique and unusual events in history – or read a Tombstone Tuesday article or two. Kids (of all ages), if you’re looking for other interesting African Americans in United States history try these articles:  Bessie Coleman, Stagecoach Mary, Phillis Wheatley, Ellen and William Craft or this fascinating article about freed slaves who owned their own slaves.  You can learn about the Underground Railroad by reading “The Mapmaker’s Children”.  Here’s a thought-provoking article: When and Why Did African Americans Stop Supporting the Party of Lincoln?  There’s even a Ghost Town Wednesday article about a Kansas town which was for a time home to a significant African American population.  These two African Americans had the most unusual names: Mary Susan Ann Rebecca Yankee Doodle Jay-Ho Bonaparte Dekelter Payne Spencer and Tonsillitis Jackson (you won’t believe his siblings’... read more
Book Review Thursday:  Heaven’s Ditch:  God, Gold and Murder on the Erie Canal

Book Review Thursday: Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold and Murder on the Erie Canal

A dear friend who recently passed away once wrote an article about his ancestors and reflected on how, as the nineteenth century dawned, lifestyles began to change.  Before the 1800’s life was much the same through generations of families.  Then, the nineteenth century – what my friend called “The Century of Acceleration” – dawned and with it rapid change from beginning to end (and of course, beyond). America had just concluded its war for independence and many were looking to the west to expand beyond the confines of the eastern seaboard and the original thirteen colonies.  One of the major challenges the expanding nation would encounter was better ways to transport goods back and forth from the established urban and rural areas of the east to those who chose to venture to the west.  Yes, roads could have been carved through the mountains and forests, but what about a waterway to convey those needed supplies? Many had thought of building a canal system but Jesse Hawley, who took it upon himself to survey the Mohawk Valley, was the many who finally got it done, but only after petitioning the New York State Legislature and gaining the support of Governor DeWitt Clinton.  The challenges were great with varying altitudes and rises along the proposed three hundred and sixty-mile canal.  A system of locks would become necessary to accommodate those variances. Many mocked the idea but on October 26, 1825 the canal opened for business.  Along the way, however, there were other events of note occurring along the canal some would call “Heaven’s Ditch”.  The book’s subtitle says it all: God,... read more
Military History Monday:  Finding Your Family Heroes

Military History Monday: Finding Your Family Heroes

Lately I’ve been working with clients who have asked me to find a Revolutionary War ancestor so they can join either Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) or Sons of the American Revolution (SAR).  It gives me a great sense of pleasure when I can finally inform them, yes, you have a direct-line ancestor who served in some capacity in America’s struggle for independence.  Immediately a smile of joy and pride spreads across their face and they say, “really?”. I have also had people who tell me they’re not sure they want to know more about their family history, implying it might be less than stellar.  I can assure them, however, that if you keep looking you’ll more often than not find something redemptive.  A case in point was one friend whose family were alcoholics and her family, neither her father or mother’s side, would talk about their history.  What a shame that was! While her father, grandfather and possibly great grandfather may have struggled with alcohol, her great-great grandfather was a minister who lived in a part of New York during a revolutionary period in American religious history where the likes of Charles Finney faithfully preached the Gospel in the early decades of the nineteenth century.  Perhaps her great-great grandfather had been converted by Finney or another evangelist of the time. The area in New York which encompassed several counties of central and western New York came to be known as “The Burned Over District” or “burnt district”, as Finney called it in his 1876 autobiography.  In his opinion the area had been so over-evangelized and there was... read more
Book Review Thursday:  The Brigade:  An Epic Story of Vengeance, Salvation and WWII

Book Review Thursday: The Brigade: An Epic Story of Vengeance, Salvation and WWII

Howard Blum’s latest book is about many things as the sub-title implies: Vengeance, Salvation and World War II.  Palestine was under British control and in November 1944 the British finally agreed to send five thousand Jewish soldiers to fight the Nazis.  This may be surprising to some people who assumed Jews weren’t allowed to fight back against Nazi tyranny and the horrors of the Holocaust. While the brigade’s contributions had very little influence on the eventual outcome, still they were extremely proud to have been allowed to serve.  In fact, at times it was downright frustrating to be held back to participate in only minor operations.  Yet, when given the chance to fight the Jewish Brigade proved themselves more than adequate to the task at hand.  Of course, by the time the brigade was sent to Europe the war was winding down.  Five months later Hitler and the Germans were soundly defeated. The men chosen to serve in the brigade had been living in Palestine, having migrated there from various parts of the world.  At this time, of course, the State of Israel was non-existent.  It was extremely heart-wrenching for the brigade to witness first-hand the persecution of their brethren at the hands of the Nazis.  That’s when things got rather interesting. As one reads the book it sounds much like a novel.  However, this is a true story of how this group not only ably served, but once the war had ended remained “on duty” while pillaging the enemy and exacting vengeance.  It’s quite an interesting story full of details of exploits these fiercely and proudly Jewish men... read more
Tombstone Tuesday:  John Elam Whitehead, a case study for finding elusive ancestors (On a Wing and a Hunch)

Tombstone Tuesday: John Elam Whitehead, a case study for finding elusive ancestors (On a Wing and a Hunch)

It’s been awhile since I posted an article.  I’ve been busy with other projects — writing and research.  From my latest ancestry research project I’d like to share a case study for finding elusive ancestors.  If you’re searching for some of those, perhaps it will encourage you to keep digging. When I begin a research project I never know what I’ll find (don’t we all know that!)  My client had begun her search awhile back and recently received her Ancestry DNA results, yet still didn’t know a whole lot about her family history.  In her possession are two books representing significant research published several years ago on two lines:  Belshe and Minear. Those types of books can certainly be helpful, but if you don’t understand how to interpret the research what good are they.  Still, once I found the names of the ancestors I knew were part of her line, it rolled out quickly. That was great to get a line or two started and begin exploring more in-depth research (and verification), but there were still many mysteries to be solved.  One in particular was my client’s great grandfather John Elam Whitehead, a Methodist Episcopal minister. John Elam Whitehead:  Who Were His Parents? I like to start out with census records, particularly for anyone born in 1835 and after because they usually begin to show up with their parents in the 1850 census.  I had an approximate date for John’s birth (around 1852) and soon found his grave stone at Find-A-Grave.  The inscription only contained birth year and death year (1852-1937). Of course, I first began searching, not only... read more
Book Review Thursday:  Chasing the Last Laugh:  Mark Twain’s Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour

Book Review Thursday: Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain’s Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour

So much has been written about Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain.  One might assume there couldn’t possibly be one more book written about one of America’s most beloved characters.  Author Richard Zacks, however, has managed to do just that in his latest book. Zacks brought the story to life through Twain’s never published notebooks and correspondence, bringing a unique perspective to a somewhat “dark period” in the author’s life.  Mark Twain was a highly successful humorist and author, but as a businessman he failed in 1894 after investing in an ill-conceived invention which never quite lived up to its potential. As a result his publishing company went under; buried in debt, he declared bankruptcy.  His wife Olivia (Livy), a coal heiress, was heartsick at the possibility of their good name being sullied.  Twain promised Livy he would pay back every penny despite the fact there was no legal responsibility to do so once he filed for bankruptcy.  But, how to do that? Twain, at this point in his life, really hated the idea of performing, yet it seemed the only way to make headway against the mountains of debt.  He was fifty-nine years of age but set out to make good on his word by embarking on an around-the-world comedy tour.  After traveling throughout the American West he and Livy and daughter Clara set sail for places like Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa where he entertained sold-out audiences. The book tells the story of their travels and adventures (and let’s face it with Mark Twain, some misadventures), including a wild ride down a Himalayan mountain, while interspersing... read more
Far-Out Friday:  The Curiosities of Julia, the Misnomered Bear Woman (it was a Victorian thing)

Far-Out Friday: The Curiosities of Julia, the Misnomered Bear Woman (it was a Victorian thing)

Let’s face it – the Victorians had an insatiable curiosity for all things freakish.  Such was the case of a woman who was variously referred to as  “Bear Woman”, “Ape Woman”, “Baboon Lady” or more perhaps aptly and succinctly, but nonetheless cruelly, the “world’s ugliest woman”.  After she died following childbirth in 1860, her body was mummified (at the request of her entpreneurially-minded husband, Theodore Lent) and put on display as the “The Embalmed Nondescript”. Julia Pastrana was an indigenous Mexican believed to have been born in the early l830’s in the state of Sinoloa.  Born with two genetic conditions, hypertrichosis and gingival hyperplasia (the former a condition exhibiting abnormal amounts of body hair and the latter a condition marked by an exaggerated and overgrown jaw resulting from excessive fibrous connective tissue), she was purported to have been discovered by a woman who had lost her way after she and her friends hiked up into the mountains to bathe in 1829. As explained in a newspaper account in 1855 (which may or may not have been factually accurate, given that era and its penchant for sensationalism): In 1829 several women went up from Copala (a little town just at the edge of the mountains) to a small pond above, on the side of the mountain, to bathe, after their custom; on their returning home they missed Mrs. Espinosa, one of their companions; all endeavors to find her proved fruitless, and it was believed that she was drowned, until six years afterwards a Ranchero, who was hunting for his cattle on this mountain, heard a voice in a cave, which... read more

Book Review Thursday: Two World War II Spy Stories

I’ve been lax of late in writing here at Digging History as I’ve undertaken some ancestry and book research projects.  I’ve also been inundated with trying to keep up with library books I’ve had on hold all coming my way at the same time it seems.  In the last two weeks I’ve read two somewhat-related books about World War II spies – one about a woman who to many in the world of MI6 and OSS during the war was known only as “Cynthia” and the other about an American family living in Paris who joined the Resistance and paid a dear price. The Last Goodnight I am a fan of Howard Blum.  I eagerly wait for his new books to be released and make sure I’m in line to check it out as soon as I can from the library.  After seeing initial reviews of his latest book, I wasn’t so sure I’d like it or not. Truth be told I had mixed feelings about the book – it was hard to decide if Betty Pack (a.k.a. “Cynthia”) was a true patriot or perhaps just a nymphomaniac whom the British and Americans exploited.  One reviewer suggested she may have been possessed of narcissistic personality disorder.  I’m not sure about that, but Ms. Pack seemed to have little or no compunction about “putting herself out there” as a temptress. As a young woman she married an older man, a British diplomat, and almost immediately began cheating on him and did so throughout their marriage.  She seemed to fall in and out of love with men other than her husband... read more
Book Review Thursday:  The Secrets of the Notebook: A Woman’s Quest to Uncover Her Royal Family Secret

Book Review Thursday: The Secrets of the Notebook: A Woman’s Quest to Uncover Her Royal Family Secret

Even after the author’s family fled Nazi Germany to take refuge in London, they still faced danger as Hitler’s blitzkrieg pounded England.  On the day Eve Haas (nee Jaretzki) turned sixteen her father showed her a piece of family history, a notebook, which contained secrets about her family’s history.  Years later after both of her parents had passed away Eve finally came into possession of the notebook.  Although her family had warned against researching the secrets lodged in the notebook, Eve decided to pursue it nonetheless.  The notebook’s opening inscription alone was intriguing enough to propel her forward, ignoring her family’s warnings. By this time she had a family of her own, having been raised as a non-orthodox, secular Jew.  Her grandmother had been left behind and more than likely suffered death at the hands of the brutal Nazi regime.  The details which began to unfold revealed one startling revelation after another, but in order to get the complete story Eve and her husband had to find a way to access records which at this time were stored in Communist East Germany. The process of discovering her family’s secret history took years of patience and research and Ms. Haas gives a thorough account of  both triumphs and disappointments.  At the heart of what she discovered was a touching love story and the identities of her great-great grandparents, one of which was Prussian royalty (and a distant relative of England’s Queen Victoria).  Due to the treachery of his own family and attempts on his young wife Emilie’s life, Prince August was forced to take extraordinary measures to protect their only... read more
Ghost Town Wednesday:  Shafter, The Silver Capital of Texas

Ghost Town Wednesday: Shafter, The Silver Capital of Texas

This area of Texas is home to just a handful of residents these days, but once boasted a population of four thousand.  The town was named for Colonel (later General) William R. Shafter, commander at Fort Davis, and located about eighteen miles north of Presidio.  It became a mining town after rancher John W. Spencer found silver ore there in September 1880. Shafter had the sample assayed and found it contained enough silver to make it profitable to mine – profitable enough for Shafter himself to invest.  Spencer had thought it prudent to share his secret with Shafter since the area was prone to periodic Indian attacks.  Protection would be needed to carry out successful mining operations. Shafter called upon two of his military associates, Lieutenants John L. Bullis and Louis Wilhelmi to join his venture (and clear the area of unfriendlies).  The following month Shafter and his partners asked the state of Texas to sell them nine sections of school land in the Chinati Mountains.  Eventually only four sections were purchased, but lacking capital the partners leased part of their acreage to a California mining group.  Shafter later obtained financial backing in San Francisco and the Presidio Mining Company was organized in the summer of 1883. The company contracted with Shafter, Wilhelmi and Spencer individually to purchase their interests, each receiving five thousand shares of stock and $1,600 cash.  Bullis had purchased two sections in his wife’s name, but when the company’s manager William Noyes found deposits on the Bullis acreage (valued at $45 per ton), a dispute arose.  Bullis claimed the two sections had been purchased outright... read more

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  1. Alpine Avalanche, 02 Jan 2014.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Francis Trevelyan Buckland, Curiosities of Natural History, Volume 2 (London:  1868), 42.
  4. Boston Herald, 18 Sep 1855, p. 4
  5. Buckland, p. 42
  6. Boston Herald, 18 Sep 1855, p. 4
  7. Terre Haute Wabash Express, 12 Dec 1855, p. 2
  8. Semi-Weekly Standard (Raleigh, North Carolina), 09 Feb 1956, p. 3
  9. Morning Chronicle (London), 03 Jul 1857, p. 1
  10. Edgefield Advertiser (Edgefield, SC), 02 Jun 1858, p. 2
  11. Boston Daily Advertiser, 17 Feb 1862, p. 2
  12. Buckland, p. 41
  13. Buckland, p. 42
  14. Additional Resource:  Behold! The Heartbreaking, Hair-Raising Tale Of Freak Show Star Julia Pastrana, Mexico’s Monkey Woman