Being Mortals, What Matters in the End?

Death notice, The Star, and North Carolina Gazette, 29 July 1825:


At the residence of James Rainey, Esq. in Caswell County,

on the 19th instant, Mrs. Anne Samuel, aged 89 years, leaving

behind her near a hundred descendants.¹

Have you read the book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the Endby Atul Gawande? Dr. Gawande is an American physician who has seen from inside the medical system, and from the patient viewpoint, how aging and death is perceived and dealt with in America. He tells us that doctors are not at all prepared to talk with patients and families about illness or dying. Americans are conditioned to think in terms of getting oldsters in “safe” places, following the accepted way in our times.  The aging person, the focus of this “move to safety” does not ask the right questions, or effectively voice their wishes. Families and patients alike defer to the medical system for the answer of ‘what to do with Mom.’ But, in fact, medical intervention, often extends the suffering and mental agony of end of life for the patient and their families.

Dr. Gawande gives us hope in his book. Innovative changes in concepts for institutional living for the aged or infirm (otherwise known as assisted living, nursing homes, or senior communities) place individual autonomy, quality of daily life over simply giving care to the end. “Safe” isn’t the only criteria, but what has meaning for the individual. Other options exist for seniors such as Intentional Communities, cooperative groups for seniors in neighborhoods to make needed services more accessible to those remaining in their homes.

What struck me in reading Being Mortalis that we, the elders need to do some hard thinking, planning and talking  long before one falls and breaks the hip and the kids, who live far away, come rushing in to put Mom in a “safe” place. Without the communication before the emergency, without  planning (whether the kids are willing to communicate or not), one faces a hurry-up decision most likely not to your liking! The responsibility is ours, so is our future. There are options and possibilities to explore. It does matter.

As a genealogist, over and over I’ve seen the family as the caregiver either for an elder or a young invalid or “defective” child (as the 1880 census labeled). Families lived in close proximity or even in the same household. They often worked the farm or small business together. Grandparents helped with children. If help was needed, family was there, friends and neighbors too. As I examine the Census records, it is clear that family members intentionally live close to one another in rural areas, and in towns too. Living in close proximity quite often made it possible for elders to remain in their homes with help close if needed.  Census and other documents also show the elderly living in a household, which may not be a parent living in a son or daughter’s home, but instead with cousins  or other relatives. Sure there were probably some issues with the aged or sick or invalid in the household, but that was then the accepted way. “Heaven’s Gate Nursing Home” wasn’t yet open for business.

Now back to Anne Samuel who died 19 July 1825 at the home of her daughter, Nancy Samuel Rainey in Caswell County, North Carolina. Anne had lived with the Raineys for at least twenty years. She was likely a productive part of the household. She had been widowed in 1777, then went on to run a sizable farm, provide food and materials to the Revolutionary War troops and raise ten children.

One of Anne Samuel’s daughters, Sally, ran her own farm as a widow for about 25 years, with two adult children (widowers themselves) living in her home. When Sally died in 1849, the adult children, now themselves elderly, went to live with a cousin, helping on his farm.

John and Margaret Samuel sold their farm in Kansas in 1885 and moved to be close to their daughter in Bourbon County, Kansas. John was 67, quite frail, was no longer able to farm his land. Margaret, age 63, was losing her sight. When John, a Civil War veteran, died in 1996 at age 79, their widowed daughter, Mattie, moved in with her now blind Mother. Years earlier, John and Margaret had taken in Mattie and her husband in their time of need.

James Gillan, who had lived in many years in McLean County, Illinois, close to his children and other relatives, was taken in by his daughter after suffering a stroke in 1906. He died at age 84 in 1907 at his daughter’s home. James Gillan, himself an Irish immigrant, also helped many relatives come to America and find work in the mid 1800’s.

My father remembered his grandparents, Frank and Abbie McCoy, well as they came to live with his family when they were very old and infirm, cared for to the end by his mother, Lola. Lola’s parents had taken in her young cousin when his widowed mother died. Frank and Abbie had also helped care for their terminally ill grandson.

These are just a few of my kinfolk who lived to the end of their lives in the accepted way of the times. For the most part, families, friends and neighbors were there to help and in turn were helped as well in their later years without the  barriers to quality of life by the medical system and institutions in place now and accepted as the way in our times.

  1. Death notice for Anne Samuel, The Star, and North Carolina Gazette, Raleigh, North Carolina, 29 July 1825, V.X.VI. ReelRaNCS, w-3, North Carolina State Archives.

Genealogy Plus Class – September 16th

Genealogy Plus starts a new series of classes Wednesday, September 16th

   Genealogy Plus is a genealogical education series featuring great speakers, knowledgeable and expert on genealogical research process, as well as historical events and documents. This is a free series, helping family researchers take their genealogy to the next level!
   Genealogy Plus meets the 3rd Wednesday of the Month, 10 am – 12 pm in the Auditorium at the Ames Public Library. Each class features a great speaker, following by a study session to explore the topic presented further in relation to your research. 


Announcing our September 16th Session

Source Documentation & Citation: Keep Calm and Cite Your Sources 

Speaker: Alice Hoyt Veen, Certified Genealogist

Alice will define sources, explain the various types of sources, tell us why source documentation is so important in your research, provide strategies for keeping track of your sources, what are the key elements  and standards for source documentation. Participants will have an opportunity to practice constructing common sources and ask plenty of questions too!

Alice Hoyt Veen has been a dedicated genealogist for more than thirty years. An Iowa native, she grew up in the farm country of Monroe and Mahaska counties, and is a graduate of Iowa State University. Her education in genealogy includes the NGS American Studies course; studies at Samford University Institute of Genealogical & Historical Research: Elizabeth Shown Mills’s “Advanced Methodology & Evidence Analysis” and Dr. Thomas Jones’s “Writing for Publication.” Professional memberships include the National Genealogical Society, the Association for Professional Genealogists and the Genealogical Speakers Guild. Alice was certified in 2014 by the Board for Certification of Genealogists.

Join us at 10 am, Ames Public Library Auditorium. You are welcome to bring your computer or may use library provided computer.


Then we saw it, now we don’t…

Sadly, cemetery grave markers disappear. Finding an ancestor’s burial is further complicated by an inconsistent or even nonexistent system of burial records. Here in central Iowa, the township clerk is the person charged with maintaining cemeteries and the records. Some do, some don’t.

Gillan home2, Colfax, ILRaycemeteryIn July 1979, my family and I, travelled to McLean County, Illinois to do a bit of ancestor sleuthing. My Gillan branch lived in the area 1865 till James Gillan’s death in 1907. Stopping by the post office in this small midwest town, I was told the old home still stands and that there was a cemetery on that property as well. Directions in hand, my patient husband, young sons and I drove to the Gillan home in Martin township, then on down the road to the cemetery.

James Gillan had given a corner of his property, establishing a small cemetery in 1880. When his wife Sarah died in August of that year, she was buried there. One hundred years later, I showed up. The cemetery had fewer than ten gravestones, most broken, some unreadable. It was overgrown, obviously not maintained. We did find the grave of Sarah Gillan, broken from its base, but with chalk and paper deciphered the inscription.Gillan, Sarah-grave-Colfax, ILL

Recently, I discovered that has no listing for Sarah Gillan. Plymouth Cemetery is listed with nine burials including “Gillan unknown,” and this note left by the Findagrave submitter:

We found this broken tombstone in this remote cemetery in Martin Twp., McLean County, Illinois 4-2-2009. As I researched the Gillan name, I have learned the Gillan family owned property 4-5 miles south of Colfax, that is just about where this cemetery is located.

Adding to the picture proof of Sarah’s burial in Plymouth Cemetery, I have a copy of her death certificate which states where she was to be buried. Then there’s the Centennial edition of the history of the area, picked up at the local library in Colfax, Illinois which contained a newsy entry on James and Sarah Gillan. Since I was kinfolk, the librarian honored me with a copy!

Genealogy Education

Example of Military Doc

Example of Military Doc

Many people, worldwide, have taken up the hunt for their own kinfolk. Genealogy is big business, enticing the new family researcher with shaky green leaves, ready made family trees-yours for the clicking, and a myriad of fee based websites that promise all sorts of information.

The overwhelming “resources” available online today perhaps frustrate more than help the family researcher. Genealogical research requires knowledge of the process and methods of research, where to find resources and an understanding of the information/resource in context of time and place. All learnable. And fascinating, too, for the family historian.

Learning and understanding the process of research and the historical context of your ancestors is part of being a genealogist. Whether you pursue genealogy certification or embark on schooling yourself, the resources today are vast and available to anyone.

Here in Ames, Iowa, through a collaboration of the Ames Public Library and the Story County Genealogy Society, monthly classes teach participants about the research process, resources, and the historical periods and events experienced by our ancestors. The program is “Genealogy Plus!,” a two hour class each month, formatted with a speaker the first hour, and an opportunity for assisted research the second hour on the topic presented.

Genealogy Plus! has been well attended and a success. In fact, more successful than organizers anticipated. Feedback from participants tells us why – these family genealogists “want to do it right” and …they find it rewarding and personally gratifying to develop the “expertise” to find THEIR ancestors.

So if you happen to be in the Central Iowa area, join us for these monthly classes…or search out learning opportunities in your area. There are also many classes and resources for learning online. Many state genealogy libraries, organizations, archives offer videos, streaming classes and written info too.


Place Studies…or “Yah Gotta Know the Territory!”

James-SarahYour ancestors lived in and were a part of a community. They may have purchased land, attended school, voted, celebrated life events, gone to war, owned a local business, advertised in the local paper, attended church, or broke the law! And there could be a record of any one of those everyday occurrences in a life. Clues, possible records await, but as the Music Man said, “yah gotta know the territory.”

Family historians often hunt for the most obvious of life event records – birth, marriage, death – but with some knowledge of the place, the life of your ancestors could become far more complete, even colorful! A study of place, within the timeframe of your ancestor(s) life there will very likely yield new discoveries about them.

Last month I wrote about Eva Gillan and her siblings, who in the 1870-80’s attended Illinois Wesleyan College in Bloomington, McLean County, Illinois. Eva’s parents, James and Sarah McClure Gillan, were Irish immigrants from County Antrim, arriving in Philadelphia about 1846, where they stayed about 2 years. According to James’ obit in 1907, the family migrated to Tazewell County, Illinois, “traveling by steamboat down the Ohio River and up the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers to Pekin [Illinois].”
What no wagon train?! No, the Gillan family traveled from Philadelphia to Pekin, Illinois by waterways (this tidbit found in a county history). This is a researchable moment…was this a common mode of travel in the 1850’s? What records exist of the steamboats and river travel of the time? Maybe passenger records exist. How much would it have cost? How long did it take?

After a few years in Tazewell County, James and Sarah moved to the next county, McLean (1865). James bought a large farm of 600 acres. At that time, McLean County was a prosperous place with a sizable population, flourishing businesses and train service. In 1850, Illinois Wesleyan College was established in Bloomington, Illinois.

From my research, I found that James help establish a school in his area, gave land for a cemetery, served as a county supervisor and Justice of the Peace in McLean County. He and Sarah were literate and educated people who sent at least 5 of their 10 children through school and on to college at Illinois Wesleyan and Illinois State at Normal….daughters too!

How did I find out the Gillan children went to Illinois Wesleyan…or that James was so active in his community? Hints in daughter, Eva’s obit about her going to Wesleyan and Illinois State. So I contacted both schools and was able to get transcripts and other details on siblings who attended. Schools have archives and I’ve found helpful historians and librarians at schools who are glad to help. The archivist at Wesleyan also sent me a copy of book about the history of not only Wesleyan, but the development of McLean County.

Getting to know McLean County involved contacting the area libraries, courthouses, exploring county history books and genealogy journals and newspapers in the area. The local courthouse, too, yielded land records, estate and death records. I was able to find Gillan relatives and descendants of James or his siblings still living in the area, leading to a fruitful exchange of family research and adding cousins too. There was even a story of James’ horses running off with his buggy in the local press!

James Gillan (wife, Sarah died 1880) lived in Martin township, McLean County from 1865 till his death in 1907. It was a time of great changes in that county and “knowing more about the territory” certainly led to finding more about their lives and who they were too.

Going to College…back in the day…even girls!

Eva Gillan, 1885

Eva Gillan, 1885

In 1870 America, there were only 500 public high schools with enrollment of about 50,000 students (U.S. population was almost 40 million in 1870 as per census data). At that time, enrollment had opened to accept females, mostly to be trained as teachers. Reading, writing and arithmetic curriculums were also expanding to train working class youth in skilled trades to meet the needs of a country fast changing in the second phase of the Industrial Revolution.  more

While secondary schools were growing in many states, many did not have courses that prepared students for college, thus students could not pass entrance exams. Many colleges in that era, offered “preparatory schools,” to fill the gap, but also to expand their college student enrollments. Families of means sent their children to such college based academies, particularly when those schools were close to home.

Eva Gillan, at age 16, was in the Junior class, 1879-1880, of the Preparatory School of Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Illinois. In the junior year, the curriculum included arithmetic, English grammar, geography, Latin, algebra, English analysis, U.S. History, elocution, English composition, physiology, and criticism.

Two of Eva’s brother’s, David and James also attended Illinois Wesleyan University. James was a freshman in the Preparatory courses during the same period Eva attended. James continued his studies and was later listed in census records as “professor of education,” then a few years later on the Board of Education in Omaha, Nebraska. David Gillan, graduated in 1881. In the Illinois Wesleyan University Alumni Roll, published in 1929, David is shown as having achieved a B.A., and M.A. [1]  David H. Gillan, served as a Methodist Minister in southern California for twenty-five year; he also established a date farm there.

The Academic and Teachers Course, as the preparatory school at Illinois Wesleyan University was called, gave the following description of the course in the university’s 1879 catalog:
“This course is arranged with reference to a thorough preparation for college; also to qualify young men and women for teaching in common and graded schools, and further, to furnish the basis of a business education to those whose time will not allow them to complete a full college course.” [2]

Eva Gillan and two of her sisters, Mary J and Addie Gillan, attended Illinois State University, 1880-1882. In records available for those years, Eva completed course work in reading, spelling, arithmetic, geography, diction, writing, history, drawing, theory and practice (probably related to teaching). [3]

James and Jane McClure Gillan, parents of Eva, Mary, Addie, James M. And David H. Gillan were strong advocates for education for both males and females, as evidenced by sending daughters to college as well as sons. James and Sarah were immigrants from County Antrim, Ireland, both educated and literate. James was instrumental in the establishment of schools in McLean County, Illinois.

Years later, Eva Gillan Samuel, enrolled her three children in the preparatory school, Academy (1907) of Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas. She found the high schools in Kansas then did not prepare her children for further education as her father as discovered back in 1879. From the Baker University Catalogue of 1906-1907, in explaining the existence of an academy at Baker University, ‘many localities do not provide academic opportunities for students which prepare them for college course work;” further the statement cites lack of libraries, literary societies, lecture courses and elementary knowledge of grammar, arithmetic, physiology, US history, government and geography required to pass entrance exams for college. The Academy at Baker University had four courses of study: Classical, Philosophical, Scientific, and Literature and Art. Graduation from the Academy ensured acceptance into the Collegiate Department without further examination.’[4]

[1] Illinois Wesleyan University Alumni Roll, published in “Illinois Wesleyan University Bulletin,” Series XXVII, no. 2, June, 1929; Illinois Wesleyan University Library Archives and Special Collections; copy provided to Bonnie Samuel, June 2015.
[2] Annual Catalogue of the Illinois Wesleyan University, 1880-81, Bloomington, Illinois, Bulletin Printing and Publishing Co., 1881, Illinois Wesleyan University Library Archives and Special Collections; copy provided to Bonnie Samuel, June 2015.
[3] Letter from Gardner VanDyke, Registrar, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois, 9 Feb 1971 to Bonnie Samuel, Des Moines, Iowa; citing records found in archives for the attendance of Eva Gillan.
[4] Kay Brandt, Reference Librarian, Baker University, Baldwin City, Kansas (BRADT@HARVEY.BAKERU.EDU, 12 March 1997) to Bonnie Samuel, Albuquerque, New Mexico; providing copy of partial 1906-07 Baker University Catalog describing the Academy, pp. 76-81; an email with info on the Academy and findings of enrollment of Raymond, Ferne and Beula Samuel.

Let’s Talk about YOUR Genealogy

1870 United States Federal Census-1Here’s a great opportunity for those in Central Iowa (Ames) to get some expert help with those “brick walls” in their own family research.

The Story County Genealogy Society has teamed up with the Ames Public Library to sponsor two workshops this summer, free of charge, at the library. Genealogists will be available to help you find that elusive ancestor, help develop a system to organize your research materials or learn about resources and the research process. Computers will be available to use or you may bring your own. No pre-registration necessary.

Bring your research queries and join us at the Ames Public Library:
Wednesday, June 17, 10am to noon, PEO Room
Wednesday, July 15, 7:00 to 8:30 PM, FTB Auditorium

We do suggest that you write out your question, listing names, dates and places that you know as well as specifically what you want to discover. If you have related documents, please bring copies.