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WRITE TEAM: How did I get here?

Curiosity got the best of me. It started as just an interest to see what was out there but soon turned into a full-fledged hobby. Among some of the other names I’ve been called you can now add genealogist to the list.

Researching your family tree can be just as frustrating as it is rewarding. I’ve found ancestors who fought in the civil and revolutionary wars. I can also trace my history to the Mayflower. Odds are you can, too. There are over 35 million of us. Unfortunately, I can’t find definitive proof of my Foster lineage past my great-grandfather, Albert Woodsides Foster.

Albert wrote on his World War I registration card that he was born on a farm in Jackson County, Illinois. That’s it. There is no more information available. Birth records were not required to be kept in Illinois until 1877, four years after his birth. It is suggested in a document I inherited that Albert’s parents were named Samuel and Martha. I found them, maybe, in the 1880 census living in nearby Perry County but no record of Albert being their son. There is a Samuel E. Foster listed with the right age. This is where the frustration can set in.

Much of my research in early records is dependent on good penmanship and correct spelling. Mistakes are common. It’s just a guess but my great-grandfather Albert’s real name might be Samuel Elbert. But that wouldn’t explain his middle name of Woodsides.

Census data in the 1800s can be very vague. Prior to 1850 only heads of household names were recorded. Other data included how many free white people lived in the house and total number of slaves you owned.

Much can happen in the 10 years between censuses. People move, marry, re-marry, die, change names or any number of other things to add to the confusion. Sometimes they’re born without a name. My great-grandmother was one of those.

Known most of her life as Irene, my great-grandmother’s birth certificate only says she is the seventh child of Christine Bischoff. Her government-issued birth certificate does not include a name. Since you could be subject to a fine of 10 whole dollars in 1886 if you did not file the birth certificate within 30 days, time was of the essence. It didn’t matter if your new baby had a name. Who’s counting? After six kids already they probably needed to check their records to see which names were already taken.

Other bits of information you can find in your searching are occupations and nationalities. My grandmother was half Irish, half German, and a cook. She played the part well. She was pretty feisty. If you ticked her off she could knock you out then fix you a nice meal. I’ve also found Teamsters, poultry dressers, bartenders and distillers. The latter of which probably contributed to my predilection for whiskey cocktails and beer. As I keep trying to explain to my dearly beloved, it’s genetic.

Genes can also help in your quest. I sent in a DNA sample just to ensure I wasn’t barking up the wrong tree. The results confirmed what I already knew but added numbers and a little surprise. I am 75% Western European, 19% Irish/Scottish, 5% German and 1% Swedish. Turns out my fourth great-grandmother was from Sweden. Pretty cool, eh?

KEVIN FOSTER is a rural Ottawan, retired and busier than ever. He can be reached at

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