12 November 2010


     Clues lurk in the most amazing places. Often, they are right under our noses but hidden from view. My friend Rosemarie surely has faery folk in her family tree, since she is always finding clues hidden in family heirlooms and records (I wrote a while back about the clues her Irish grandfather left in a collection of poems he wrote).
     Recently, a framed document that had been hanging on her wall fell, and its frame broke. The document was her late husband's discharge certificate from the USMC. Her mother in law had framed the certificate, along with some of the family treasures. As Rosemarie took apart the matting in order to get the document reframed, she found a form on the back of the certificate. The form contained a complete account of her husband's career in the Marines, from enlistment to discharge. Details included dates, places, and pay rates.
     Rosemarie's story reminded me that clues are often shielded from our view. Notes are sometimes written on the back of documents and photos. Sometimes these notes are cryptic, often they contain clues to our ancestor's lives. Sometimes they are hidden behind frames, mats, or photo mountings.
     A note scribbled on the hidden back of a baptismal certificate proved to be the one clue that blew open the door to discovering ancestors I had lost all hope of finding. The certificate was in a plastic folder, and its back was obscured by another document. On a hunch one day,  I pulled it out of the folder. On the back was this scribbled note:

I knew the date was not the date of  my grandfather's death, even though it was on his baptismal certificate. The date turned out to be that of the death of my great grandfather, of whom the family knew nothing. Starting with this date of death, I was able to trace my family all the way back to their village in Poland.
     What heirloom, photos, or documents do you have that might contain hidden clues? Don't forget to examine carefully any books you might have inherited from ancestors. One woman brought her family Bible to one of my talks. In between the pages, she had found pressed flowers, notes, and lace. I have found bookmarks made out of obituary notices. I have also found funeral cards in prayer books.
     I am sure Rosemarie is eyeing those other documents and heirlooms her mother in law had framed. Whether to dismantle a framed heirloom or an old scrapbook is a tough question. I have attended a few classes on archival preservation, and am sensitive to the value of keeping an heirloom "as is." The frame or scrapbook is often an heirloom in itself. You may wish to consult a professional before tearing apart a frame or ripping photos out of an album. Do, however, check the backs of any documents you might have in your binders or files. A note that meant nothing to you years ago might today prove instrumental to your research.
     Hmmm, maybe one of my ancestors hid valuable stock certificates or an original copy of the Declaration of Independence behind the photo of Aunt Maggie.....