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! 



New tips

I haven’t been posting here as often as I like/want. Writing my master’s thesis is sucking up the majority of my time and creativity. 

But I have, in a few spare moments here and there, found a few new things.

A distant cousin contacted me a few months ago and tipped me about the following websites.


But you’re not Italian? Neither am I. What this site has is an amazing database of New York City records where it has been possible for me to find the certificate numbers of deaths and marriages in my tree. 


I haven’t yet spent a lot of time on this site. But so far it’s helped me locate the shtetl of Delyatitz, which the Robinowitz family hailed from. Now I know that the town was located in modern-day Belarus. I’ve really only used the shtetl finder function, but the rest of the site looks like it will be helpful when I get more information on the Citron branch.

The next thing I’ve found is that it’s much cheaper to order records from New York City than to use VitalCheck.

“The Municipal Archives maintains records of births reported in the five Boroughs of New York City (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens and Staten Island), prior to 1910; deaths reported prior to 1949; and marriages reported prior to 1930. For a complete description of the vital records collection, please see a list of the Municipal Archives Holdings. Vital record copies are $15.00 each.”

I ordered four death certificates and one marriage certificate. That grand total came to about $88 (including shipping). I would have spent more than that ordering two records through vital check. If you have relatives that lived and died in NYC during the time periods they have listed- you will save a ton of money if you want the documents. I once spent $48 on a single death certificate from Los Angeles that I ordered through VitalCheck.

I want the documents to see: a) cause of death, b) parental information, c) dates.

Right now I’m on the hunt for Fani Citron. She is my 2nd great grandmother. Just last weekend I realized that she came to the US when she was a child. I think I’ve found a ship’s passenger list with her arriving with her mother and three brothers. So far I haven’t been able to figure out who her father was. But I’m assuming the family was coming to join him- so he must be here somewhere.

Two of the records I ordered from NYC are hers- a death certificate and a marriage certificate. Hopefully those will provide some more information.

I’ll be back at some point, when I emerge from the 1918 influenza pandemic (my thesis topic). It’s due alarmingly soon and I need to finish it!!!

Pearl Harbor Day


Today is Pearl Harbor Day. I cannot even begin to imagine how horrific that day was. My grandfather was there but he said very little about that day. He died 26 years ago, I wish I had the opportunity to talk to him more about the war (as I’m a history nerd) and also his family (since I’m also a genealogy nerd).

I know my Pop Pop joined the Army in 1940, but I don’t know why. Whether he felt it was an escape from the mines in Carbon County, Pennsylvania, or whether he believed war was brewing- I’ll never know. I can imagine that being stationed in Hawaii was something amazing- about as far from home as possible, that is until December 7, 1941. 

Pop Pop told us that he was on guard duty and saw the planes coming, he picked up his rifle and began to shoot at those planes. His superior officer told him to hold fire, that those were not enemy planes- it was just a drill. Soon it became painfully obvious it wasn’t. 

Other than Pearl Harbor, which I had to practically drag out of him, my Pop Pop talked very little about the war. The little I know is based on family lore and the scant information provided by his Honorable Discharge form.

I know he was sent to the Pacific theater and, from his form, that he participated in the Battle of Hollandia. He arrived at Tanahmerah Bay in New Guinea April 22, 1944 and was wounded in action on May 3rd. I know he was a squad leader and a rifle marksman. He was awarded the American Defense Service Ribbon, the Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, Combat Infantry Badge, the Asiatic Pacific Theater Ribbon, and an award for Good Conduct. I wish I knew what he got the Bronze Star for, I aim to find out at some point soon.

One story, that my dad had told me, was that my Pop Pop had killed a Japanese soldier and, as many soldiers did, went through the dead man’s belongings. Apparently inside his wallet were pictures of the dead man and his family. Every year on the anniversary of that event, my grandfather withdrew to remember the incident. 

I often wonder what went through his mind about that finding. Had he believed, as did many of his generation, that the Japanese soldiers were brown (or yellow) savages? Did finding that picture changed his mind? Had he fallen prey to the propaganda and did that picture shake him to the core? It obviously must have had a profound effect since he observed that date for the rest of his life.

Pop Pop returned home, returned to the mines- I wonder if that was a disappointment or a relief. He met and married my grandmother and they had two children. I think he did the best he could to achieve something better for them than what he had had.

I remember my Pop Pop as a quiet man with a dry sense of humor. I remember asking him what illegal means, to which he replied, “Anything that makes the eagle ill.” Rather witty, I believe. I wonder if he would have been a different person had he not experienced the war. He told us never to buy a Mitsubishi car because that company made the engines that were in the planes that bombed Pearl Harbor. I never have, partially because I can almost believe that he would haunt me for it.

He suffered from the effects of “jungle rot” for the rest of his life and always had to be careful with his feet. He died when he was 68, the major contributor to his death- black lung, a gift from the coal mines that I’m sure he tried to escape.


Just recently, I discovered that I can order his entire service record from the National Archives. It may cost upwards of $70, but I think it will be well worth it. Unfortunately, there could be a chance that I will not be able to receive his entire record because of a fire at the Archive (1890 census anyone?!). But they do claim to be able to piece together at least some record from other existing documents.

My main curiosity revolves around what he did that caused him to receive the Bronze Star. The Bronze Star isn’t just handed out, apparently it’s the fourth highest individual military award that can be bestowed and it is given out for heroic or meritorious achievement or service. So I’m very curious as to what event or action earned him the medal.

For me, this is an important part of our family history. And it would be wonderful to add that to my tree.

In the Beginning


Over ten years ago, I began working on my family tree. I had a few names to start with, and not much more. My initial goal was to find out if my mother’s biological father was still living or what fate he may have met.

I still haven’t answered that question. But I have solved so much more. I have discovered the good, the bad, and the downright ugly branches of my tree. I have found that I am descended from rabbis, Mennonites, alcoholics, actors, lawyers, miners, mathematicians, farmers, plantation owners, and so much more. 

I have spent hours looking through census records. I’ve contacted virtual strangers. And I’ve found new relatives and friends.

I believe I now know more about my family tree than my parents or grandparents ever knew. But there are a few frustrations. I have found ancestors going back quite a few generations- but I know nothing about them other than the vital statistics. That’s the problem with tracing your roots- you don’t know anything about the people. In most cases, you can’t find out anything about their personalities, let alone what they may have looked like.

And there’s the ever-present mystery of what on earth happened to this guy?????


John Underwood Rigsbee, Jr. What happened to you? Did you die a John Doe somewhere? Did you relocate overseas? Did you start over somewhere else with a new name and a new family? 

It’s ironic that I’ve been able to trace his family tree back for, in some cases, centuries and yet I still cannot find Rigsbee himself.

I’ll fully admit that I’m a genealogy nerd- I have a passion that sometimes borders on obsession. When I’ve solved a mystery, or added a new generation, it’s been the greatest feeling!

So I’ll be sharing resources, techniques, and any information I’ve learned along the way with anyone who is interested.

We may all be individuals who make our own life choices, but I have to believe that the past has shaped us in ways that we may not acknowledge. Even if it only genetic predispositions- these things are important to know. Whether it’s simply a question of possible genetic health, including mental, problems or just curiosity as to why I prefer some things over others, working on my family tree has provided some hints as to what makes me who I am. (Although being a descendant of a brilliant mathematician hasn’t helped me with algebra at all!)

I have found some websites to be more helpful than others. I’m not one of those people (who really get on my nerves) who keep their family trees “private” because they don’t want other people stealing their research. If I can save someone else the time, cost, and energy of searching for ancestors that’s perfectly fine by me. I’ve been helped along the way by people who have done a ton of research and were willing to share their findings and I have no problem doing the same.