The Thrill of Discovery

Genealogy is addictive. Yes there are the constant brick walls, mysteries, and puzzles that often seem to have no solution. But once in awhile, things just fall into place and the thrill of discovery is overwhelming.

Recently, I’ve been lucky enough to experience that thrill, and it all started with this picture.


My grandmother has had this photograph for years. She knew that her father, Sol, was in it (back row, center), as well as her grandfather, Sam, (seated, third from right). Other than those two people, we had NO idea who anyone else was. I guessed that Sam was probably sitting next to his father and that Sam’s wife, Fannie, was probably the woman standing directly behind him. But there was just no way of knowing for sure.

As for everyone else in the photo, where the photo was taken, when, and why- it was anyone’s guess. The only thing that was certain was that no one in my family knew anything for sure about the picture.

As I’ve researched this branch of the tree, I’ve made small discoveries along the way. We never knew that Sam’s parents had emigrated- I was able to find Sam living with them in the 1900 census- lucky break!! Tracing that couple, Meyer and Chana, I was able to discover Chana’s maiden name from one of their son’s death certificates.

Not too long after I added that name to my tree, I was contacted by a cousin who was related through that line, the Spinners. His 2nd great grandfather was my 3rd great grandmother’s brother. He reached out to me and we talked on the phone and exchanged emails. Gary was of great help- correcting a few mistakes I had made and allowing me to benefit from his research.

A few months ago, Gary had emailed me regarding a cousin and her father’s birth certificate. I emailed this new cousin and hoped that a new connection could be made. I was not disappointed.

Instead, I found that this new cousin, Hillary, had all of the answers to the questions we had regarding the portrait. Not only did she know when the photo was taken (1924), but also where (New York), and why (Meyer and Chana’s 50th wedding anniversary). She was even able to send me a copy of the menu from the event!

And, the proverbial icing on the cake, she had a key, made by another cousin, that not only named every single person in the photo, but also provided a short description of them as well! Her grandfather was my 2nd great grandfather’s brother and is seated, third from left, in the portrait.

What an amazing email to read! Finally, names for all of those faces!!! It was probably the best day in my genealogy journey.

Hillary was able to come to our family reunion and meet everyone- it was truly a great day.

Two weeks later, Hillary and I met in New York to look for the graves of our shared ancestors, Meyer and Chana. They are buried at Mt. Zion Cemetery in Queens. I was hopeful that we would find them, but also anxious that we wouldn’t. Mt. Zion is a massive graveyard, and many parts of the cemetery are not in the best of shape.But, as fate would have it, we were able to find them without too much trouble.

                                20150629_132049     20150629_132658

It was a very emotional moment. For me, it was the culmination of years of research and the chance to meet a piece of my past. We cried as we read the prayer and cleared the overgrowth from their graves. It was an awesome experience.

But the journey is far from over. I recently contacted another cousin, descended from a family member in the portrait.

I’m hoping to establish friendships with the new cousins I’ve met, and will hopefully continue to find.

It all started with that picture, which thankfully no one discarded despite only knowing it was a portrait of family. I feel that Meyer and Chana would be happy to see their descendants forging relationships with their cousins and keeping that family link alive.

We may be separated by distance, but we all have the same origin. Like a tree, we may have our own separate branches, but we all have the same roots. I am so thankful that I’ve been able to find these ancestors, thankful for the help I’ve had along the way, thankful for the people I’ve met.

I can’t wait to continue this journey and meet more family, make more discoveries, and keep the memory of Meyer and Chana alive.


Strange Little Tidbit

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had an affinity for Duke University- particularly Blue Devils basketball program. My husband says it’s due to their successes in the tournament in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s- especially 1991 and 1992 which were the Christian Laettner years. The problem with his theory is that my family had no interest in sports. My dad watched boxing periodically, but even then it was only heavy-weights. We never watched football or baseball so I honestly don’t know where this came from.

Fast forward twenty plus years, and I find it incredibly odd that I’ve had such an attachment to a university I’ve never been to, in a city in which I’ve never lived. (We did live in WInston-Salem for a while when I was little, but that’s not Durham.) I find it incredibly odd because the more research I do, the more I find family attachments to the institution. 

Years ago, I met up with a distant cousin when I was visiting Jacksonville. He took me to the Rigsbee family cemetery which is located on Duke University grounds. Why is it there? Because much of the campus was once a farm that belonged to Jesse Rigsbee, my 5th great grandfather. 

Last night I was reading about my 3rd great grandfather, Norman Underwood. Underwood was a contractor whose company built some of the buildings for Trinity College. Trinity College is now Duke University. Norman’s daughter, Mary Almina, married Clarence Dixon Rigsbee. 

There are streets in Durham named after those two branches of my tree. Matter of fact, Duke University Road was, at one point, named Rigsbee Road. Norman Underwood’s home was built on Rigsbee Road. Where his home once stood is now the site of the University Apartments.

It’s all very strange. Do you think that it’s possible for an attachment to an institution can be somehow passed down through generations? It seems hard to believe that would be possible. But in reality, we knew nothing about my mother’s biological father and his origins before I started genealogy research in the early 2000’s. One can argue that it’s totally random, that I could have followed in the family’s footsteps and cared very little about any sport at all. Or, one might say that I could have picked that particular school because they did so well during that era. Or one could even say that I could have, just as easily and randomly, become a huge fan of Louisville or Kansas. But the fact remains that I’ve been a huge Duke fan for as long as I can remember without knowing all of the family history attached to the school. Weird.

So when the NCAA Tournament starts in a short while, you can be darn sure who I will be rooting for! 


Chasing the Paper Trail

I guess it proves that I’m a product of the internet age that I never thought to contact the court house regarding records. Only my paternal branch remained in one area after their arrival, so I was able to at least obtain some documents regarding some of those people. 

I have recently met a cousin I didn’t know I had- which was pretty awesome. She had told me that she had emailed the Carbon County court house regarding records and I thought “D’oh! Why have I never thought of this!!”

I received my packet yesterday, but was disappointed to find no major breakthroughs. I did get confirmation of a maiden name. I thought I might have gotten a town origin for my great grandfather, but for some reason, they listed the ethnic name of Hungary as the town. Now maybe it was a town or village at some point, but if you Google “Ungar,” only Hungary comes up. But I was happy to see that my great grandfather had become a citizen- something I didn’t know he had done.

I now have stacks of paper that I need to organize before they got lost, or ruined, or perforated by the kitten’s claws and teeth (he seems to have an affinity for chewing on cardboard and paper). 

My next plan of action is to contact the church that most of my paternal branch attended. I don’t know why, but I am nervous about doing this. I thought about it a while ago, but I’ve put it off for whatever reason.

I noticed that has now uploaded a lot of Pennsylvania death certificates but I was only able to find a few on there and ended up ruining my eyes for an evening going through the indexes of death certificates on the Pennsylvania archive site. Some years, the names are arranged using the Soundex system and then alphabetically by first name. This basically means you have to look through an entire letter for a year (or in my case- multiple years).

After a few weeks, I finally got a reply from North Carolina’s archives. They could not find a death certificate for Sheldon Shaw. I know she was buried in Raleigh, so I just assumed she had died there. But maybe she died in Arizona, where she had been living previously. I looked up the rules for obtaining death certificates from Arizona, and it doesn’t seem that I’ll be able to even try. They have some pretty strict rules about who can obtain documents, regardless of the reason. 

My husband had gotten me a book about tracing ancestors back into Europe. I was looking at it last night and there seems to be some helpful tips I haven’t tried. So I’ll be attempting some of those and I will let you know what works and what doesn’t.

Death Certificate Saturday!

About two weeks ago, my husband found this site to order Death Certificates in Pennsylvania. There are links to indices to search for document numbers, which you will need if ordering the certificates. (Birth certificates are also available- but for limited years.)

$5 each! Wow- what a bargain! Considering how much you can spend on these docs- I was pretty excited about that. And- personal checks are accepted.

I printed out the request form, filled it out and sent it out in the mail. 

Today we got a packet of death certificates in the mail. My husband had much better luck with new information. Me….not so much.

My paternal branch has been in this country only since the late 1800’s- early 1900’s and most of that time in Pennsylvania- specifically Carbon County, because that’s where the coal mines were. I am missing one set of 2nd great grandparents and three sets of 3rd great grandparents- I was hopeful.

But it was not to be. The death certificates I got had “Unknown” listed for parents- there were two fathers filled in- one missing a first name, and the other not even a complete first name. So…what’s a genealogist to do????

A couple of things I did learn.

1. I had best watch out for my kidneys- I’m surprised how many ancestors I’ve found kidney failure to be their cause of death!

2. I finally have a personal link to the 1918 influenza pandemic.



Paul Eremus was my 2nd great grandfather. Until my husband found this site, I wasn’t sure exactly when he died. I knew he was alive in the beginning of 1918 because there is a World War I draft card- but his wife is listed as a widow in the 1920 census. I knew, from the draft card, that he was residing in a sanatorium with tuberculosis. So I figured he died there, but I didn’t know when. Now i know he died on October 12, 1918 from pneumonia and influenza. I’m assuming that the tuberculosis disease would’ve made it impossible for him to survive the influenza virus- especially because that virus was particularly nasty. Considering that plenty of healthy people in his age range died as a result of the pandemic, it’s no surprise that he wouldn’t have had a chance when his lungs were already weakened due to tuberculosis.

Maybe that’s weird that I find that interesting to the point of exciting- but I’ve been studying the 1918 pandemic for years now and the fact that one of my relatives died from it makes it even more real.

In other news, I am awaiting a copy of Sheldon Shaw’s death certificate which I ordered from the NC Bureau of Vital Statistics. They’re a little more stringent with their rules. I had to get a certified check or money order and also send a copy of my driver’s license. Their charge was $24 plus an extra $15 if you want the process expedited (I didn’t). I hope they’re able to find it because I don’t know what name she was using when she died- so I just listed them all. Sheldon Shaw Rigsbee Clifton- hopefully the dates of birth and death will eliminate any possible duplicates. Distant relatives have said she committed suicide- I’d like to know for sure.

If anyone might have a guess as to what Paul’s father’s name could have been I’d appreciate any input!!!

The Jewish Name Game

I just received two of the death certificates I ordered from New York City.

One belonged to my great grandmother which has given me the exact date of death and also the cemetery in which she was supposedly buried. Naturally, as is my luck, I can’t find her listed in the cemetery records. It can never be that easy!


The other belonged to my 2nd great grandmother which gave me a lot of information. Her parents’ names- particularly her father’s name, were on the certificate as well as, bonus- her mother’s maiden name. It also listed her cause of death, address at the time of death, and again cemetery.


Now, regarding Fannie’s certificate, I should have a lot new information to look for. Yeah…well, not really. Searching for Mendel Citron has given me nothing- not even a census record. The same with Sarah Ostrow- although I have found quite a few things regarding birth records in Poland- I have no way of being sure it’s the right person.

Complicating matters is the Jewish name dilemma. Most practicing Jews had two names- their everyday name, and their Hebrew name. So while Fannie might have been known by that moniker- it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the name she was buried with, she may have been buried under (no pun intended) her Hebrew name. I, of course, have no idea what that might have been.

This plays into the fact that I can’t find her parents in any census records- I should at least be able to find them in 1900 or 1910. So either A) they were missed by the census takers, B) the names have been transcribed or originally recorded incorrectly, or C) they used different names, which again, I have no idea what they would be.

I’m assuming that “Washington” listed as the cemetery in which Fannie is buried is the Washington Cemetery in Brooklyn, but, big surprise, she’s not listed in their records.

I’m hoping that when Fannie’s marriage certificate comes in it will confirm her parent’s names and maybe, dare I hope, give an origin that isn’t as vague as Austria. With my luck, it will say Russia.

Of course, finding their graves might not be helpful either. 

Multiple people have looked at these tombstones belonging to my 2nd great grandparents



and have been unable to translate the inscriptions. This is because they are in Yiddish, which basically no one nowadays knows how to read. If they had been in Hebrew, it would have been no problem- but apparently there’s enough variation between Yiddish and Hebrew that they are not mutually intelligible.

I’ve been trying to get on to the website, but I’m guessing it’s down for something or other right now. I’m very curious about Sara’s last name Ostrow. It seems there are multiple towns in Poland with that name. Would she have the town name as her last name or would someone just have pinned it on her because that’s where she was from?? And is Ostrow even the original last name? No idea.

We shall see if I find anything today. I’m hoping, but not hopeful. 

P.S. If anyone knows how to read Yiddish, or knows someone who does, hit me up!!!

Camera Shy?

I spent this weekend working on my thesis.

HAHAHA- Of course I didn’t!!

What I did spend a lot of time doing was looking through old yearbooks from Meredith College- which lucky for me, are available online.

I started looking because of this:


(Left column, fifth and sixth paragraphs)

There’s Sheldon Shaw, my great grandmother. 

This clipping is from the Twig, a publication of Meredith College, located in Raleigh, North Carolina. It’s dated May 6, 1927. 

I desperately want to find a picture of Sheldon. We have nothing from that branch of the family- no pictures, no documents, no memories- nothing. Besides growing up without her father, my mother also had no connection with his family. I don’t know whose choice that was, and considering most of them are deceased (or in John Rigsbee’s case, presumed dead), it’s really a moot point by now.

So I was in contact with a cousin from the Allen branch (Hazel Allen being Sheldon’s mother) and she told me that those yearbooks were available online. 

My search yielded no results. No mention of her in any of the yearbooks. Then it struck me that she was 14 years old in 1927. I’m not familiar with the format of Meredith College in the 1920’s. My cousin said they used to have high school level classes as well, but they stopped that practice in 1917. So what was she doing there? I have no idea. I looked through yearbooks page by page from 1926-1933 and found nothing.

It seems odd to me that Sheldon was obviously a socialite and I have yet to find a single picture of her. I’ve found articles in newspapers with Miss Sheldon Shaw is going to visit her friend, Miss So-and-So, or Miss So-and-So is coming to visit Miss Sheldon Shaw. I’ve also found that she was presented in the 1931 North Carolina Debutante Ball. So you’d think there has to be a photo of her somewhere!!!

I hate to think that somewhere, in an antique shop is her picture in a box of old photos being sold for a dollar a piece. “Instant ancestors” someone once called them.

I have some emails out trying to get in touch with the archivist/historian/equivalent of Meredith College to try to figure out what Sheldon was doing there. I am also trying to find if the Debutante Ball has any sort of archives or historical records.

Once again I’ve hit a brick wall. Sheldon is one of the ever-elusive leaves on my family tree.

I might as well go back to my paper, at least that’s one mystery that’s already been solved!

Global Family Reunion

A.J. Jacobs is one of my favorite authors. So when I found out his next book was about genealogy I was super-excited. Then I saw that he’s planning on hosting a “Global Family Reunion,” well just awesome!

Jacobs has written books about



reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica,




following all Biblical rules for a year,




using himself as a guinea pig- most memorably (for me) when he outsourced his life for a month,





in which he focuses on health by trying all sorts of fad diets.

Anyways, Jacob’s goal is to beat the world record for largest family reunion, currently held by the Porteau-Boileve family in France. So he needs at least 4,514 relatives to show up.

I don’t know that I would use the sites that he is using for his research (wikitree, geni, werelate) because I have spent way too much time on my tree to allow some random person to change things collaborate. But I suppose it’s fun for discovering distant cousins and putting together a loose genealogical record.

I aim to go to this reunion. We’ve sent Jacobs the information he asked for to prove relationships and I’m hoping to find out that we are, however distantly, related.

New York Times article:

More info at Jacobs’ website: