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.

Gillan, Sarah-grave-Colfax, ILL

Sarah Gillan’s Gravestone

James Gillan had given a corner of his property, establishing a small cemetery, called Plymouth, in 1880. When his wife Sarah died in August of that year, she was buried there. One hundred years later, I showed up. In 1979, Plymouth Cemetery had fewer than ten gravestones, most broken, some unreadable. It was overgrown, obviously not maintained. We did find the grave stone for Sarah Gillan, broken from its base, but with chalk and paper deciphered the inscription.

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

I contacted the person who submitted the information about Plymouth Cemetery to Findagrave.com and told her of my visit to the cemetery in 1979, when gravestones were there, sent her my photos and the documentation for Sarah Gillan’s burial.

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!

Cemetery, funeral home records, death certificates, obituaries and more should always be consulted whether you actually find a gravestone or not! If you are researching ancestors here in Iowa, you now have a fabulous, valuable resource on the website,  Genealogical TreasuresGT’s databases of actual records from area cemeteries and funeral homes provides you with an invaluable resource of information about your kinfolk. Several databases are now available here on GT, with many, many more to be uploaded over the next few months…take a look…find out more about your Iowa ancestors!

Being Mortals, What Matters in the End?

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

DIED

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.

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.