Tuesday, October 17, 2006

History Matters

All across the country today, people are participating in "One Day in History," whereby ordinary citizens make entries on a "mass blog for the national record" (recording details of their day, their thoughts, etc.) which will be stored by the British Library as "a historical record of our national life."

It's part of the "History Matters" campaign run by a number of prominent historians and heritage organizations in England & Wales (e.g. the National Trust, the Council for British Archaeology, and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, among many others).

It's a brilliant idea! You can read diary entries of people who've participated so far (some touching, some mundane, all probably fascinating to future generations). I can't wait to make my entry.

Before I started getting into history, including researching my own family's genealogy, I never considered all the public records that bear my name and personal information as part of any kind of historic record: things like tax records, a drivers license application, a voter registration card, the deed to our house in DC, etc. However, these are the tools historians use all the time, and, with the right amount of imagination, they can help us build fascinating accounts of otherwise ordinary people's lives.

Take Flossie Mae Buffington, my great-grandmother, the mother of my paternal grandmother.

Not being close with my father or his side of the family, I didn't even know her name until I officially requested my grandmother's social security card application from the 1940s, on which she recorded, in her own handwriting, her parents names.

Starting with this one clue, and progressing through a wide variety of public records, I was able to piece together Flossie Mae's life from her birth in the 1880s, to turn of the century Chicago where she met and married my great-grandfather, Harry Gerts, to the frontier of Saskatchewan, Canada, where she moved with her husband and his extended family (his 2 brothers, their wives, and his 50 year old father) to live as a homesteader, farming land given to them by the Canadian government (and now a town called Gallivan).

During my research, I regularly sent out dozens upon dozens of requests to various archives and civic entities. Every so often, an official envelope would arrive in my mailbox containing an old marriage certificate, death certificate, or something equally thrilling. With each little piece of information I filled in more and more of the picture.

Thanks to the archives of the Saskatchewan Dept. of Interior, I know that Harry and Flossie Mae lived that first season in a 17 X 30 sod house and had "2 mules, 1 horse, 2 mares, 1 colt, 1 sow, 5 cows and 5 calves." The transition to this new life could not have been easy for these native Chicagoans, used to street cars, electricity, telephones, theater, shopping, crowds. In all previous census records I found, Harry listed his occupation as "clerk." Could a city person who worked a white-collar desk job all his life really know what to expect out there in the Canadian wilderness? From what I've read about the area back then, it might as well have been Antarctica (and judging from a simple Google search, it doesn't seem to have developed much beyond that even today). What motivated Harry to leave the city and try his hand at farming in the first place? Was my great grandmother crazy to go with him? Naive? Really in love?

They were unlucky those first few years. To weed out land speculators, the government required each family to pass a probation period before being given the deed to the land--they had to prove they'd cultivated a certain amount of land and lived on it continuously for, I believe, at least two years. Judging from their homesteading records, by the second year deadline they hadn't met their obligations. It seems Harry's brother died the first year (1905) and Harry came down with Typhoid fever the following season, leaving my great-great-grandfather, Charles Gerts, to do the lionshare of the work. I was surprised to find myself teary eyed reading my great-great-grandfather's handwriting as he explained the reason they were behind. "My oldest boy died the first year."

And their luck does not seem to have improved.

By the 1920 census, Flossie Mae shows up as a member of her parents' household in Chicago, listed as widowed. I don't know when Harry died, but based on scraps of information I've collected, I know it wasn't until 1913 at the earliest. Flossie Mae had my grandmother, Dorothy, on the homestead in 1911, but her second child was born December 1913 in Chicago. Why did she travel more than 1,000 miles back to Chicago while pregnant? Does this mean that Harry had died by that point? Or was it simply to avoid a long, bitter winter with a newborn? My father once mentioned that that Harry died of influenza. Perhaps that was during the great pandemic of 1918-1919? That also fits with Flossie Mae being widowed in Chicago by 1920.

Regardless of when Harry died, the fact that Flossie Mae returned to Chicago makes me wonder how she felt about being a farmer, whether she missed city life, and how she got along with her husband's relatives. Wouldn't they have taken care of her and her children after she was widowed? Years earlier, after Harry's brother's death and during his bout with Typhoid, the family pulled together to keep their homestead afloat. So, why not this time? Were they too destitute to help her, or did she refuse their offer, preferring at that point to cut her losses? Why did she leave all that she had worked for? Would she have stayed if she liked her inlaws better? Were her chances of finding a new husband very poor in Saskatchewan? Was she just sick of having a dirt floor?

Unfortunately, this isn't the kind of information you can glean from public records, not usually anyway.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just saw this post yesterday 8/25/09 for the first time. I am one of Flossie Mae Buffington's grandsons. Email me at (sgerts"at" comcast"dot"net) and I will be happy to provide details. Email address disguised to prevent automatic spam. Hope to hear from you soon!