Illinois Ancestors: Genealogists face many challenges

Illinois Ancestors: Genealogists face many challenges

Genealogists soon discover that tracing one's ancestors can be a challenging project. Facing dead ends or brick walls are obstacles to be expected but are usually far outweighed by pleasant findings and often surprising discoveries. Some personal examples seem appropriate.

In an attempt to find more about my husband's Platt ancestors on Long Island, I purchased a set of books containing the earliest town records of Hempstead, N.Y. Although details of many Platts were included in these books, there was nothing to document the ancestry of Gilbert Platt (born 1830 NY; died 1877 IN), and the volumes were carefully stored. Subsequent research proved most interesting, however. My husband and I had other ancestors in Hempstead. My Robert Jackson and my husband's Richard Gildersleeve were early settlers in that area and their names appear together on many of the town's earliest records. They obviously knew each other. I am sure they never thought their descendants, 300 years later, would meet and marry!

My parents were most proud of the fact that I was the first in our families to obtain a college degree. I hadn't the slightest idea then that genealogy was a hobby I would later pursue, and little did any of us realize that my family history research would prove that I am a distant cousin of Cornell University's founder, Ezra Cornell. We are both descendants of Thomas and Rebecca (Briggs) Cornell.

While researching my colonial ancestors, I was fortunate to find others interested in that period of history. Specifically, I had shared data on my Elizabeth Fones (1610—ca 1668) who had married William Hallett (1616-1706), and I was told about an interesting novel written about that lady. "The Winthrop Woman" by Anya Seton (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1858) is based on historical evidence and even includes a "facsimile letter to John Winthrop Jr. from Elizabeth written under stress 'from aboard the vessel' at Pequot (New London) Connecticut, 1649." This thrilling work should be read by all of Elizabeth (Fones) Winthrop Feake Hallett's descendants. I was able to purchase used copies of that book to give to our four children. I hope all later descendants will enjoy the book as well.

One of my earliest challenges was to contact the town in Germany from which my emigrant ancestors had come. A document of my grandfather, Christopher Borjes, stated he was from Neuenkirchen, Germany, and my mentor, Bertha Kamm, suggested I write a letter to the postmaster of that town asking to have an enclosed letter forwarded to someone in that town who could help me find information on that individual. I enclosed International Reply Coupons to cover postage expense — similar to SASEs (self-addressed stamped envelopes). This was back in the 1970s, "BI," Before Internet, and all the information it provides. Fortunately, that postmaster was kind enough to reply — but only to tell me there were many towns in Germany with the name Neuenkirchen (meaning "new church"); however, his letter included a list of those Neuenkirchens along with the names of the nearest large city of each. Not to be undaunted, I wrote a similar letter to the Neuenkirchen location nearest a seaport, Bremer, since my grandfather had been employed by the North German Lloyd Shipping Company. The response from the postmaster, or rather, postmistress, was most enlightening. She included photographs of the thatched-roof home where my grandparents had lived and my mother's sisters (twins) had been born. It was a special treat to give a copy of that photo to my dear mother, who had known nothing of her parents' origins.

I still have many brick walls to overcome. Where is my emigrant ancestor, George Christian Feistel, buried? Where are there any records of my great-great-grandfather, Albert Porter, whose two sons fought in Illinois units during the Civil War? Who were Gilbert Platt's parents?


It is unfortunate that some of us may learn that an ancestor had been labeled as a witch, either in this country or abroad. Such an offense was usually punishable by death. Today, there is extensive data on witches on the Internet. Do a Google search for witch; include a location, such as Salem, for specific information. Has the witch in your ancestry been memorialized?


Many families have a "black sheep." Perhaps a runaway spouse, an unwed mother or even an imprisoned criminal may be included in family records. There is less stigma attached to such behavior today, but nevertheless, such information should be included in a family tree. As Michael John Neil advises (at, stick to the facts and don't be judgmental.

Researching one's ancestors can be both troublesome (tricks) and rewarding (treats), but such a project can be most gratifying. Be sure to detail such triumphs for future generations rather than only data on pedigree charts and family group sheets.

No price can be placed on the treasures and joys that genealogical researching can bring.

Queries, genealogical questions from researchers and genealogical materials readers would like to share will be printed in this column free. Joan Griffis may be reached via email at or by sending a letter to Illinois Ancestors, c/o The News-Gazette, P.O. Box 677, Champaign, IL 61824-0677.