Oregon Or the Grave! (And Other Lessons from the Oregon Trail)


If you read my posts even occasionally, you know that I am a genealogy nerd. So it should be no surprise to anyone that I am a fan of the show “Who Do You Think You Are?” on TLC. It’s one of three shows I am willing to pay for when I can’t get it online for free.

A recent episode featured Kelsey Grammer. At some point he follows his family line from California back to Illinois, and is surprised to learn that his ancestors traveled west along the Oregon Trail. I’m just going to go out on a limb and assume you all know about the Oregon Trail- and if you don’t, you should at least have a vague concept about this bit of history from the computer game. Kelsey’s family lost a son to Cholera along the way. (You probably could have guessed that.)

I have been thinking about the Oregon Trail ever since. Mostly I have been comparing my own world to the world of those early trail blazers. One of the first Oregon pioneers was a group of sixteen men from right here in Peoria, IL who called themselves the Oregon Dragoons. Their intention was to colonize Oregon on behalf of the United States; and in the spring of 1839 they set off to claim Oregon Country from the English fur traders.

I imagine Oregon seemed at least as exciting as anything happening in Peoria in 1839. Or even in 2014. The Dragoons carried a flag that said, “Oregon or the Grave!” because that’s the kind of slogans our ancestors liked. And because one of the wives sewed it for them. It may have been a bit dramatic, considering several of the group’s members only made it to Missouri before heading back to Peoria unharmed. Continue reading

Surviving the Real Thing

Viva and Edgar 1942

Grandma and Grandpa Boulter

I was Teghan’s age when my Great-Grandma Boulter died. I had been to her home on several occasions, but I’m not sure we ever had a conversation. The only thing I could have told you about her was that her birthday was on Christmas. That was an interesting fact to me back then.

Of all my family history projects, her story has been the most detailed, and complicated. I would love to have a conversation with her now but I’m not sure she would give up all her secrets. I have no intention of telling her whole story here, but there is one part of her history that I think of often.

As a mother, she endured losses that are foreign to me. If not for an interest in genealogy, I may never have even known about it. I knew her as Grandma Boulter, but her given name was Viva (something else I never knew as a kid). And Viva had ten children in her lifetime. My grandpa was number four, from her first marriage. That marriage ended in 1931.

There is a baby book she kept for her sixth child, Lillian.

Lillian was born on January 15, 1937. The book documents her milestones. Viva mentions moments of her daughter’s first smile in the bath tub, along with concern for her health. The love she had for her daughter is obvious. Lillian died that September.  Continue reading

Ghosts Are All Around Us


Today we watched as they finally tore down the Oak Street Market. It had sat vacant and vandalized for some time, and last year it was decided that it should be torn down and replaced with a community garden. Teghan enjoyed watching the demolition.That type of chaos is right up her alley, and if it hadn’t been weird we would have hung out watching a lot longer. Few things hold her attention like watching a giant mess in the making.

It was both necessary and sad. I suspect many WMU alumni experienced this market through underage alcohol purchases, or during nights that took a very wrong turn. But like most old buildings, it had a long history in the community; and a slightly more glorious past. I always wonder about the history of old buildings. I seek out stories of origin- who built it and why. I want to know their whole story, from beginning to end. But especially the beginning. Continue reading

Will and Ruth (and a few more pictures of Jack)



Back in November, I wrote a post about my husband’s great-grandparents and their son, Jack. Jack was born 100 years before my own daughter, and had some form of developmental disability. He was an example of how a happy, loving family made all the difference for him- even though we often think of those times as being much worse for children who didn’t quite fit in.

I have received a lot of messages about Jack and his family. You can read the original post here.   Continue reading

An Appreciation for the Past


Teghan knows one set of great-grandparents. She recognizes them, and she is familiar with their house. When she arrives there, she immediately seeks out a set of three small books that she has claimed as her own. If she does not find all three together- there will be screaming. I don’t know what exactly goes through her mind about why we go to this place, who these people are, or why we only see them on occasion. She doesn’t know that her great-grandparents are in Florida right now, or that they spend half the year there. I am not sure what memories are being created for her, but I know there is something there.

I was lucky enough to have known four of my great-grandparents. Our family spent every Sunday at my Great-Grandma Hill’s house, and she was a part of my life until after I was married. I wasn’t as close to my other great-grandparents, but I am now grateful for the opportunity to at least have memories of them. When I became interested in genealogy, those memories became more important, but they no longer defined my knowledge of them. At times it makes me sad that it took so long for me to know them the way I do now.  Continue reading

Veterans Day


Usually on Veterans Day I put together a short family history project to share with friends and family on Facebook. I post old letters, photos, and histories of various relatives and their roles in past wars. I haven’t been all that motivated this time. I have quite a few letters and photos of my mother’s parents who were both veterans of WWII. As I was looking back through old projects, I was struck by how much I didn’t know them.

I mean, we all have very different phases in our lives. If I make a timeline of my life, plotting every five years where I was, who I spent time with, what my daily activities were…it’s an eye opener to the way life changes. I have already lived many lives, in many places, and with many different people.

When I knew my grandparents they were in their retirement years, and I was a kid. We couldn’t possibly have known each other that well. My grandpa wasn’t exactly a kid’s best friend. He wasn’t mean, and when I watch old home movies I can see that he was always quite kind to me. There just wasn’t a lot of interaction. I am sure we would connect much better as adults, but he died when I was thirteen years old. There is so much I would like to ask him now.  Continue reading

One Hundred Years Later

First 7 Gray Children (Back: Katherine, Ruth, William, Ed (baby), Ethel. Front: Jack, Florence)


It’s no secret that I have an interest in genealogy and history (you can learn more here). It is also the one topic I can discuss with my father-in-law. I don’t need to spend any time researching Teghan’s paternal side of the family tree, because we have volumes of it. It’s amazing.

Usually we get a new binder filled with family history for Christmas. One of the most interesting installments came a few years back. It was filled with correspondence from Dave’s maternal family tree, and half were just letters. Most of these were letters from Dave’s great-grandfather to Dave’s great-grandmother. The letters began before their engagement and continued throughout their marriage (he traveled for business). The dates are from the late 1890s through the 1920s.

I will admit, the part that amazes me the most is how my father-in-law typed all these up from the handwritten versions. I know from experience that this is no easy task.

He even created a topical index.

Their names were William and Ruth. They had nine children; the oldest (Dave’s grandfather) was born in 1900, and the youngest was born in 1919. During those years quite a lot happened to Will and Ruth. William went from working in his father’s shoe store to owning his own envelope company. They lived in several houses throughout New Jersey and Brooklyn. They lost two children.

The letters give you the sense that this was a happy family; Will was definitely a man who loved his wife and children. I am working on another blog which features these letters and this family’s story (I will keep everyone updated for those who enjoy this stuff as much as I do).

But the reason that I am mentioning it here is that for the first time I really started to think about William and Ruth’s fifth child, Jack.  Continue reading

It’s All Time Travel to Me


When I was eighteen I met my future husband in a group I traveled the country with. I kept a journal. The genealogist in me cannot believe I am saying this, but I have read this thing- and it has to be destroyed. I think I may hate that girl. At least she had enough sense to marry the guy she constantly talks about being in love with. And I mean CONSTANTLY. Outside of that, I pretty much disagree with every stupid thing she has to say.

This happened once before, when as a high school senior I received a letter I had written to myself when I was in the eighth grade. It was six pages on how awesome John Lennon was. Now, the eighteen year old me still loved John Lennon (and I always will love John Lennon), but I wrote so stupidly about it that I had to throw it away.

I stand by that decision. Sometimes the idea of something is better than knowing the full reality of it.

And so, I think I will be burning those journals.

Sometimes I wonder what I will think about these blog entries or my Facebook statuses twenty years from now. Facebook. What a goldmine for future genealogists. The documented account is the final word on any matter. And by final word, I mean for all time. You want to know about history? Look for photos, film, written accounts- everything else is long gone. In this way we choose, sometimes with regret, how future generations will see us. Assuming they even choose to look for us. Continue reading