Skip to content

RESEARCH AND OLD STORIES

My grandmother Emily Cramer was gathering stories and filling out genealogy sheets long before family history was the popular pursuit it is today.  It would be decades before Ancestry.com or DNA testing were even ideas in someone’s mind.  She obtained information through old family records and correspondence with distant relatives.  Replies to letters took weeks or longer to return to her.

Emily’s grandfather Daniel Tyler who died in 1906, also carried on extensive correspondence to gain information about our family.  Replies to his letters took months to return to him in Utah. 

Today I can log into online accounts at Ancestry.com or Family Search.org and instantly find information about family members who died decades ago. Fold3 provides all kinds of military information and Email is infinitely faster than sending letters through the Postal Service or by Pony Express.  That doesn’t mean researching family history is easy but it is easier than it used to be. 

As a child I lived next door to my grandmother and grew up hearing tales about my Mormon ancestors, so when I finished transcribing the Revolutionary War and New York Justice Court records in John Comins book I decided to write some short stories about the seven generations of people who have cared for it.  I told myself that since I had copies of Grandma’s family stories to work from it would only take a short time to complete the seven biographies, one of which would be my own.

The first story was fairly easy to write.  The old book itself provided clues about John Comins Jr.; census and military pension records yielded more.  He is mentioned frequently in a book about Fairfield, New York.  I completed the information I had for him and moved on to his daughter Elizabeth. 

Four years later I am still looking for information about Elizabeth Comins Tyler.  Piecing together the sparse and elusive threads of her life has been a challenge I didn’t anticipate.  Much of the limited information I found was incorrect or contradictory and took hours to validate.  Even trips to places she had lived failed to produce the final details of her life that I am searching for.  I feel like she is a well-known friend who is reluctant to share her secrets with me.  I wrote what I could and moved on to the next generation, but my search for Elizabeth is not over.

Excerpt from Long Journeys: As was typical for women of the time little is recorded about Elizabeth.  The few statistics available are inconsistent from one source to another.  She was born in 1779 or 1789.  She was the fifth child in her parents’ family, or she was the first.  She married in 1806 at either 17 or 27 years of age.  She had 11 children, the first born a year after her marriage in 1807 and the last in 1831 at which time she would have been 42 or 52.  She died in 1840 or 1880 or 1890, in Beaver Township, Pennsylvania, or Beaver, Utah or, in one listing Beaver, Beaver.  Her children mentioned her only briefly as they wrote about their own lives.

HOW TO READ AN OLD BOOK

Unless you have some training in transcribing old documents you should probably take a class or find a tutorial to study before you start.  No one told me that!

The old book which is the basis for Long Journeys was handwritten by my fourth-great-grandfather John Comins Jr. between 1778 and 1812.  It contains records of payments he made to teamsters during the Revolutionary War as well as charts of supplies hauled and horses and wagons consigned to him.  Twenty years later he was Justice of the Peace in Herkimer County, New York and used it to record his court cases. In 1812 he used a few remaining blank pages to record payments to laborers who worked on his farm.

Although the book had been in my care for more than 20 years I had read only a few entries when I decided in 2015 that I would transcribe its contents.  The pages were brittle and water-marked; the handwriting faded.  John Comins had beautiful penmanship that is incredibly hard to read.  I had no idea writing had changed so much in 200 years. 

If a word looks like it has an F followed by a small s somewhere in it, it is more likely ss.  However that rather long letter you thought was an F could just as well be a capital Z or J or maybe even P

Words may be hyphenated at any point, with a dash after the letter that starts the hyphenation and a double dash on the next line.  For example: On August 22, 1800 six plaintiffs filed suit against Luther Winslow for $11.83 – being the pro-

=portionable sum due by the said Luther to the Plaintiffs . . .  And yes, that would be an appropriate place to hyphenate the word today.  Perhaps more interesting is that each plaintiff will receive less than $2.00 if they win their case.

However, on November 25, 1800 in the case of Wiliam Grimes vs. William Fenner:

The Jury after hearing the evidence of the parties went to there room under the care of said Constable and after being absent about Five Hours Returned and the Cort asked said jury if they had agreed on there verdick and was ans-

=wered that the jury had not and could not agree and as it was midnight and the last day of the week was contin-

=uing descent . . .    This is an interesting case for other reasons than the unusual hyphenations.  It appears the jury stayed out until after midnight on a Saturday night and since the Court could not be in session on Sunday the case had to be dismissed.  The plaintiff was charged with all costs.

Some of the people who filed suit or had suits filed against them were listed on multiple occasions.  One of those people, a man whose name I originally transcribed as Ezra Griffin, filed 54 lawsuits.  I assumed he was the richest man in town, lent money freely and then sued those who didn’t repay him.  I learned from census records that his name was actually Ezra Crippen.  In 1802 he was granted a license by the Fairfield Board of Commissioners to sell liquor in his home.  Now I wonder if those 54 lawsuits were filed to collect on overdue bar tabs.

Later I learned that both John Comins’ and Ezra Crippen’s headstones read that they were patriots of the Revolutionary War.

I spent about 4 months photographing the pages of the old book and then transcribing them.  It was a slow, frustrating and thoroughly enjoyable project.

Excerpt from Long Journeys: Transcribing was an arduous process that evolved with each page.  I began copying by hand what I saw in the book, then going back later to type what I had written.  Then I learned old documents and books should never be touched.  It is recommended that tweezers be used to turn the pages and white gloves worn throughout the process.  The pages should also be protected from excessive light.  I mounted a digital camera on a tripod beside my kitchen table and photographed each page, then downloaded the pictures to my computer, numbering them as I went.  Eventually I learned to use a split screen so I could transcribe from the photos and at the same time type what I was reading.  It was captivating and addictive work that took several months to complete.

Pic 594, Willard, Goodrich, Doty, Colburn, Doty vs Luther Winslow, August 1800

Nathaniel Willard, Thomas Goodrich, Leonard Doty, Amos Colburn, James Thomson and Dorus Doty Vs. Luther Winslow – Note-this is one of the more legible entries in the book. Most are far more faded.

The Evolution of Writing

After winning a new Schwinn bicycle for my entry in an essay contest – why I should ride my bicycle safely – and seeing my name in the local newspaper, I decided to be a writer.  I was 12 years old.  While my friends were choosing to be nurses or teachers when we grew up I dreamed of writing books. I didn’t intend it to be a career. Girls in my family and peer group were not encouraged to have careers.  We would be homemakers first.  If we worked at all it would be no more than a temporary pastime until marriage and babies came along. 

Many years passed. The marriage and babies came as did full time jobs (never careers no matter how many years they lasted).  My children grew up and had babies of their own; the grandchildren grew up and made me a great-grandmother.

Through those years I did write but the many other chapters in the story of my own life took precedence over my dream of writing about others. 

In my twenties I entered a magazine short-story contest and was so embarrassed when the manuscript was returned that I tore it to shreds and never told a soul.  Many years later I learned that most of the famous writers whose work I read received numerous rejections before finally publishing their first story.  I wish I had saved my tale to see just how bad (or good) it was.

Occasionally I took a class and renewed my dream of writing, though it was always short lived.  I wrote scripts for fashion shows, eulogies for family funerals, a motivational seminar which I presented numerous times, a bi-monthly newsletter for a local support group and too many business letters to count..  Still I would not have been comfortable telling anyone I was a writer.

Excerpt From Long Journeys: Finally I have taken the liberty to call myself a writer and committed to spend whatever time is necessary to complete these stories about the guardians of an old book and the search for my ancestor Elizabeth.  Some days I get several pages written; others I spend researching, scanning through records I already have or looking for new ones online, sending emails to strangers who may have the answers I need, or just looking out my back window remembering childhood stories.

The Old Book

LONG JOURNEYS  tells the story of the travels of an old handwritten book through the lives of the people who have cared for it since 1778.  Its journey began in the East – Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania – then followed the Mormon Trail from Kirtland, Ohio, Far West, Missouri and Nauvoo, Illinois to Utah and many years later came under my guardianship in eastern Idaho.   That it survived at all is remarkable.  In addition to the tale of the book itself and the people who cared for it, my personal trek through research and writing is yet another facet of LONG JOURNEYS.

The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me!

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

post