Category Archives: Family Biographies/Histories

Digital Storytelling to Capture Family Stories

Genealogists long ago adapted family stories and photographs as a means of sharing their family history, but I have not seen a great deal of digital storytelling in family history yet. Digital storytelling is a relatively new mode of storytelling. Depending on your level of expertise, you might want to take a class to learn how to do it. If you do, I can’t recommend the Center for Digital Storytelling more highly. I took one of their three-day courses for educators last summer in Denver. However, they offer workshops for people from all walks of life.

Because my grandparents are still living and actually live in the Denver area, I took the opportunity to interview them. I had most success capturing their voices with my computer, but if you have a good camera for taking video, you may choose to capture video instead. Even if you are not able to interview family members, you can still tell a digital story about them. Take a look at this guideline for writing good digital stories:

This presentation was created by Joe Lambert and follows the Center for Digital Storytelling’s elements of creating a good digital story.

The first step, Owning Your Insight, involves finding your story and deciding what story to tell. One important thing I learned is that somehow, even if you are telling someone else’s story, the story also needs to be about you. You need to bring insight and connection to the story you tell. It is easy to fall into the trap of telling an ancestor of family member’s story and taking yourself out of the equation, but your story will offer more to connect to if it is also about you. The facilitator in my workshop recognized this problem in my own digital story idea, and she challenged me to figure out “how is this story about you?” That is not to say you can’t tell the story of a family member or ancestor, but you want to identify why you want to tell their story. What do you connect to in their own story? Are you proud? Embarrassed? Consider your own insight and what it will bring to telling the story of your family. This video is a good example of what I’m talking about:

Holly McClelland was one of the facilitators in my workshop, and what she does in this story is really turn the focus on herself and her own feelings about her relationship with her father rather than discuss her father, whose story she can’t truly tell. You might not feel comfortable sharing these types of stories with an audience. It’s up to you to decide how personal to be.

Next, CDS recommends Owning Your Emotions. This part is tough. Family stories can sometimes be very personal, and you should only share what you feel comfortable sharing. Your feelings should come through in the story. Sometimes I find that I discover how I feel in the process of creating the story itself. Here is a video that I think is a great example of owning your emotions:

Daniel Weinshenker is the Rocky Mountain/Midwest Region Director at CDS.

Step three involves Finding the Moment. This is the part of the story you want to tell. It’s best to keep stories fairly short. In fact, my CDS workshop facilitator recommended five minutes or less. So you need to get to the essence right away. What is the moment of change? What is the turning point? That moment will determine what story you decide to tell. I like the way this story zeroes in on one moment:

The moment in this film, as I see it, is discovering that what was lost was found again in a discovery of old film.

Seeing Your Story involves selecting the images and video you want to use. Don’t necessarily put this step first, but it is okay to begin selecting images as you are thinking about the story you want to tell. You might find that the images suggest a story you want to tell. Images do not have to be your own, but you will want to use images that are either in the public domain or licensed by Creative Commons unless you want to pay to license copyrighted images. Here is an example of a video made with only a handful of images. The rest is public domain footage from

Josef: A Digital Story from Brad Johnson on Vimeo.

As Johnson explains, “95% of the images and footage is from I have about 5 shots of my grandfather in there that are mine.” He adds, “I was experimenting with telling a personal story using footage that was ‘public’ and that was about the ‘larger, American immigrant’ story that seems part of our collective identity (or at least for many of us).”

Hearing Your Story is your opportunity to either use interviews or your own recorded narration to tell the story. As I said, we were advised to keep the story to five minutes or less. That’s between 300-500 words, and really should be on the lower end. Once you draft your script or storyboard, you will quickly discover it’s not very long. It will be important to zero in on one story. Remember, you can always make other digital stories to tell other parts of the story. The best digital stories clock in from two to five minutes or so. Five minutes is really on the longer end. They are snapshots of a moment in time rather than a full documentary.  Some video-making software comes with sound effects and music, but you will probably find that you want to explore options for music. It’s important to be careful of copyright concerns when using music. I look for music that is Creative Commons licensed. The perfect piece of music will really pull your whole video together.

What strikes me most about this particular video is that the music is perfect and perfectly timed to go with the pictures and narrative. I find it to be a great example of the power of a simple but perfect piece of music to create a digital story.

When you begin Assembling Your Story, economy and pacing are important. You want the images and video clips to line up well with the narrative and music. You shouldn’t feel the need to fill up the entire space with words. Sometimes you can allow images and music to fill in and speak. “Lost and Found” by Susan Becker above is a well-paced story.

Your last consideration is Sharing Your Story. Who is the audience? How do you want to share it? There are lots of online video sites, such as YouTube and Vimeo. You can also create DVD’s and share the videos with loved ones who might want a copy.

I created these two videos based on interviews I did with my grandparents.

I used some images footage of the Seabees in World War II and some images taken of the Army’s 7th Division on Attu as well as censored letters, but aside from those pieces, the images all belong to my family.

I liked how this came out, but I wish I had done more with the music and practiced a bit more economy in the storytelling. My video with my grandmother integrated these two elements a little better.

I am very happy with how the music works, and I like the pacing. I found this story, even though it is my grandmother’s story, really has the personal connection, the “moment,” when my grandmother reveals she hasn’t been able to sew. She had just recovered from a serious illness, and she has since been able to sew a little bit. It’s sad to me to enjoy something so much and not be able to do it.

In my next post, I’ll discuss some of the more technical aspects, such as where to find images and music and how to record yourself. Because all software is different, I won’t post a tutorial as such, but should you decide to create a video, either taking a class or finding online tutorials for your specific video editing software will help.

Margaret: The Story of a Name

My younger daughter is named Margaret for her grandmother, my husband’s mother. We call her Maggie. Her name means “pearl,” and there is a version of the name in almost any European culture you can think of. Right off the top of my head, I can name the French Marguerite, the Italian Margherita, the Spanish Margarita, the Welsh Marared, and the Scottish Marjorie. It is an old name, too, and may even have its origin in Sanskrit. At one time, it was a very popular name: It was the second most popular girls’ name in the early 1900’s. It is less common today, but if you look at the name’s statistics in Wolfram-Alpha, you notice it enjoyed a tiny uptick in popularity in the years prior to my daughter’s birth (around the time of the new millennium), which could explain why my daughter has encountered at least two other Maggies at school when we were sure she would likely be the only one.

What my husband and I didn’t realize when we gave our daughter this name was that it would connect her to a family tradition that dates back at least 300 years, possibly longer. The name is a thread that has run through my husband’s family since at least the early eighteenth century. After I learned this information, my daughter’s name became even more meaningful to me, and I am so glad we chose it.

My husband’s mother, the Margaret we named our daughter for, was likely named for her mother, Margaret Emma Ledbetter (1916-1995). Margaret Emma Ledbetter was the daughter of Clarence Ledbetter (1868-1935) and Rosanna Belle Beasley (1881-1946). The family was from Hickman County, Tennessee. Rosanna Beasley’s paternal grandmother was Margaret Etta Pugh Beasley (1827-1898). Here is a picture of her with her husband, Littleberry Beasley (1817-1895):

Littleberry Beasley and Margaret Etta Pugh

I also found a photograph of her headstone:

Margaret Pugh Beasley

She is buried in Lyles, Hickman County, Tennessee. Her mother was Prudence Jane Nicks (1794-1887). Prudence was born in Guilford County, North Carolina and died in Hickman County, Tennessee. Her paternal grandmother, Margaret Doaks Nicks (1752-1798) is likely the inspiration for her daughter’s name, but Margaret Doaks Nicks’s mother-in-law was Margaret Edwards Nicks (1717-ca. 1756). She is the earliest Margaret I can find, but I have a hunch that if I could trace the line further back, I would find more Margarets. I like the idea of passing this name along. I hope that we will have more Margarets in the family, but this name has (unfortunately) fallen in popularity, and it may be that our Margaret and any descendants she might have might not feel as strongly about passing it on as I might wish.

Walter Swier

Laura Helen Schmidt and Walter SwierIn some recent posts, I have discussed my natural great-grandfathers on my father’s side, Frank Chatman (or Chapman) and Omar Alfred Gearhart. After Omar Alfred Gearhart’s death, his family sunk into dire poverty. Some of the children, excluding the older children and the baby Omar Alfred Gearhart, Jr., were put up for adoption. My grandfather was adopted by Walter Swier and his wife Laura Helen Schmidt Swier.

I have written about this adoption before. Essentially Gertrude Perkins Gearhart brought her plight—she had heard state authorities were moving to remove her children from her home—to her pastor, who discussed the matter with his church congregation. The members of the church congregation came forward to adopt the children and enabled most of them, with the exception of my grandfather’s brother Frank, to grow up knowing each other and their natural mother.

At the time of the adoption the Swiers had no sons of their own, but they had three daughters: Helen Marie (born 15 March 1921, about nine months older than my grandfather), Carol Mae (born 12 December 1925), and Naomi Ruth (born 2 October 1928).

Swiers circa 1930
Swiers circa 1930

Later the family would welcome Elizabeth Ann on 4 October 1931 and Dorcas Pauline on 13 March 1933.


1940 Swier Children
1940 Swier Children

From everything I’ve learned about Walter Swier and Laura Schmidt Swier, as well as the rest of their family, I am convinced my grandfather was supremely lucky to become a part of their family. They were kind, generous, intelligent people.

Walter Swier was the son of Dutch immigrants Dirk and Aaltje Swier. He was born on 1 May 1894 in Sioux County, Iowa, after his parents had emigrated to America in March, 1893. Dirk’s decision to immigrate followed the advice of his doctor, who advised him to move to a place with a hot, dry climate to alleviate a lung condition. I’m not sure what his lung condition was, but tubercular patients were often advised to move to warmer climates. They eventually settled in Moxee, Washington, near Yakima.

Walter married Laura Helen Schmidt on 15 March 1920. By the 1930 census, the family were living in Cowiche, Washington, where they held huge family gatherings that my dad recalls attending. Walter grew apples, which seems to be one of most typically “Washington” occupations to have.

I cannot find his World War I draft registration card, but the 1930 Census lists him as a World War I veteran. There is a Walter Swier who appears on muster rolls for the US Marine Corps during the war, but I cannot be certain he is my great-grandfather because another Walter Swier born the year after my grandfather in South Dakota does have a World War I draft registration card.

On the occasion of his parents’ 50th anniversary, Walter Swier wrote a tribute to his parents that was read at a family gathering by Walter’s daughter Betty.

Because of adoption and other more mysterious family events, my father has four grandfathers instead of two. Of the four grandfathers, Walter Swier is the only one he knew in his lifetime, as his other grandfathers were either deceased or not a part of his life. My father has very fond memories of Walter Swier. Before he shipped out for service in Vietnam, my father visited his family, including his grandfather Walter, in Washington. It would be the last time he would see his grandfather, who died on 5 July 1974.

The Civil War in My Family

The Civil War began 150 years ago today. Several of my direct ancestors fought in the Civil War, but I have yet to find a relative fighting on the Union side, even though some of them lived in the North during the conflict.

Shelby McDaniel

My third great-grandfather Shelby McDaniel served in the 9th Texas Field Battery (Lamar Artillery). I actually have a copy of his service record courtesy of my cousin Chris. He was a private under Captain James M. Daniel’s Artillery and was 26 years old on the first muster roll. He went into service on January 18, 1862 at Paris, Texas and was to serve for the duration of the war. The descriptive roll taken on April 8, 1862 describes him as 5 feet 9 inches with a dark complexion, dark eyes, and dark hair. His occupation is listed as mason, his birthplace as South Carolina. At that time his “body [was] sound and health [was] good.” However, by the muster roll in May and June of 1862, he is listed as sick in a hospital in Little Rock, AR. I’m not sure what illness he had, but suspect it was one of the usual war time ailments such as dysentery. It looks like he was released and either was not well yet or became sick again because the muster roll for September and October of 1862 says he is sick in camp from June 1862. He was back in the hospital in Little Rock in November and December of 1862. The remarks say he had been in the general hospital since November 11, 1862. By the March and April, 1863 muster roll, the remarks indicate he was “detailed com. dept., Little Rock, Ark., Oct, 1862 by order Maj. Gen. Holmes.” I believe that his orders changed and perhaps due to his illness, he was transferred to the commissary department (if that is indeed what the abbreviations mean), but I can’t be positive. By the November and December, 1863 muster roll, he had deserted and been dropped from the roll. I can’t say as I blame him much, given he had been sick well over a year.

My descent from Shelby McDaniel:

Shelby McDaniel
+ Mary Shelby McDaniel
++ Elmer Theodore Thurman
+++ Doris LaNell Thurman
++++ Patti Jo Cunningham
+++++ Dana Michelle Swier

William Jones Bowling

William Jones BowlingI shared what I know about another third great-grandfather, William Jones Bowling, in a previous post, but I never published my transcription of his pension application, and given the wider scope of this post, I think I will save publication for later this week. In the post I linked, I noted that William Jones Bowling became a minister as a result of his experiences as a POW during the war.

My descent from William Jones Bowling:

William Jones Bowling
+ Stella Ophelia Bowling
++ Herman Cunningham
+++ Udell Oliver Cunningham
++++ Patti Jo Cunningham
+++++ Dana Michelle Swier

John Thomas Stallings

Another third great-grandfather applied for a pension in 1913 when he was living in Swisher County, Texas. The Stallings and Jennings families were some of the first families to settle in Swisher County in the Texas Panhandle. In his application, John Thomas Stallings states that

I surrendered in front of Petersburg, Virginia on April 23 1865 and was discharged from Federal Military Prison at Point Lookout, Maryland about the first of July 1865 the exact date of which I do not now recall.

It sounds like he was attempting to defend Petersburg at the time that it fell in April, 1865, an event that signaled the end of the war for the Confederacy. This website gives more information about his regiment’s movements during the war.

He was 69 when he made the application and lists his birthplace as Bedford County, Tennessee. He states he had been living in Texas since November 1881. He also says that he was unable to work at the time he applied for the pension. He says his command was organized in Unionville, Tennessee, and it appears he enlisted as soon as the war began in the spring of 1861 and served for the duration of the war with Company F, 23rd Tennessee Infantry. As far as I know, he was quite proud of his service in the Confederate Army; his grave marker mentions his service. A transcription of his marker from at Rose Hill Cemetery in Tulia, Texas, reads:

STALLINGS, John Thomas
23 Dec 1843 – 4 May 1916

My descent from John Thomas Stallings:

John Thomas Stallings
+ Mary A. Silla Stallings
++ Annie Lola Jennings
+++ Udell Oliver Cunningham
++++ Patti Jo Cunningham
+++++ Dana Michelle Swier

John B. Jennings

John B. Jennings enlisted on June 13, 1862 at Tupelo, Mississippi for Alabama Confederate service, Co. E, 16th Regiment, infantry for 3 years, private, but it is unclear if he is the same John B. Jennings that was my third great-grandfather; the 16th Regiment companies were raised in Franklin and Lawrence Counties. The record gives little information, does not mention where the company fought, and, evidently, he was not wounded. John’s granddaughter, my great-grandmother Annie Lola Jennings “heard that he was in the Civil War.” A family member possesses a small framed photograph; on the back is written “John Jennings, Florence AL, United Confederate Veteran, 19th Reunion, Albert Sidney Johnston.” He’s a rather mysterious figure in general, however, so it doesn’t surprise me that his Confederate records are also shadowy.

My descent from John B. Jennings:

John B. Jennings
+ Veto Curry Jennings
++ Annie Lola Jennings
+++ Udell Oliver Cunningham
++++ Patti Jo Cunningham
+++++ Dana Michelle Swier

Four of my mother’s second great-grandfathers served on the Confederate side in the war. I have not been able to verify service for her other second great-grandfathers Johnson Franklin Cunningham, John L. Willis, or Nathan Taylor Meeks. Johnson Franklin Cunningham may have been a bit on the older side when the war began. He would have been 38. My grandfather tells a story he heard from a relative about this ancestor being in the war, but I can find no service record. He lived in Oglethorpe County, Georgia at the time. John L. Willis may have been too young, having been born in 1849. He lived in Franklin County, Alabama during the war. Nathan Taylor Meeks was born in 1847 and may also have been a bit too young, certainly at the beginning of the war, but I could find no record that he enlisted later. He lived in Tippah County, Mississippi during the war. I have not been able to determine the name of her remaining second great-grandfather, but I do know the family was likely living in Illinois at the time, and it stands to reason that if he was of age to serve, he may have served in the Union.

On my father’s side, four of his second great-grandfathers were of age to serve, but I can find no service records. Conrad L. Gearhart lived in Licking County, Ohio at the time of the war; I’m not sure where Joseph Alfred Willhide lived, but he was in Iowa by 1880 after having been born in Maryland; William Henry Young was living in Sibley County, Minnesota, and Wilson Wages was living in Magoffin County, Kentucky. It stands to reason any or all of them might have fought for the Union, while Wilson Wages could as easily have fought on the side of the Confederacy. However, I could find no records. I do not know who his other four second great-grandfathers are with any certainty.

Whether my ancestors served in the war or not, the war had a profound impact on their lives. Many on my mother’s side would eventually settle in Texas and Oklahoma, most likely because, as my grandfather always puts it, Texas was viewed as a land of opportunity. Some of my father’s family, too, continued west, eventually settling in Washington State. It is less clear whether or not the Civil War impacted them as profoundly as it did my mother’s ancestors.

Richard L. Swier

Our family was shocked and saddened to hear of the loss of my uncle, Richard Swier, on Sunday, March 27. He was 58 years old.

Rick was my father’s younger brother. He was born in Yakima, Washington on September 13, 1952. His death notice mentions three children: Richard L. Swier, Jr., Rhonda Swier, and April Martinez, who was his stepdaughter. He also had twelve grandchildren.

When I was very small, my father was in the Air Force and stationed in San Bernardino, California at the same time as Rick served in the Navy and was stationed at San Diego. He visited us a lot on the weekends. Unfortunately, I don’t remember him. My father was transferred to Germany in 1973, and I never saw Uncle Rick again after that.

Some pictures of Rick:

Clockwise from bottom, Thomas Swier (my father), David "Buck" Swier, Betty Campbell Swier holding Deborah Swier, Walter "Randy" Swier, and Richard "Rick" Swier
Rick in High School
From left to right: Rick, my grandfather David Swier, and Randy Swier
Rick and his children Rick, Jr. and Rhonda
My grandfather David Swier with Rick in his Navy uniform

Rest in peace, Uncle Rick.


Frank Chatman

Bridge into Quicksand, Kentucky
Quicksand Bridge

Last week, I began a series on my father’s grandparents, all of whom (I believe) died before I was born, or at least before I had a chance to meet them. This week’s post is likely to be short, as I know next to nothing about my great-grandfather, Frank Chatman. I did not even discover that he was my great-grandfather until a couple of years ago. Thinking I had little chance of learning anything about my paternal grandmother’s family, I ordered her birth record. I knew she was born in Breathitt County, but beyond that, I wasn’t sure of the name of the community or town. The abstract on through the Kentucky Birth Index was puzzling. I had believed my grandmother’s maiden name was Campbell, but her birth name was Fay Trusty (Fay being her middle name, as I understood it), the same as her mother’s maiden name. I wondered if perhaps she was born out of wedlock and her parents married later. Finding her and her mother on the 1930 census in Middletown, Ohio with the last name Trusty and living in the home of my grandmother’s aunt and uncle seemed to confirm the suspicion. I knew I wouldn’t solve the mystery unless I ordered a copy of my grandmother’s birth record. It was surprisingly easy to obtain. I thought I would need to offer some sort of proof of our family relationship besides just saying she was my grandmother, but no such proof was necessary. I think that’s a little scary, even if it did make things convenient for me. When I received the record, imagine my shock to discover that Osa Campbell was not my grandmother’s father. Rather, her father was a man named Frank Chatman. His occupation was listed as convict, and his home the Kentucky State Penitentiary.

Of course, my first question was What did he do? The second was Did my grandmother know this man was her father? I found out later that the answer to the second question was yes, but not until after her mother and any other family members she could ask about it had passed away. The answer to the first is more complicated. I wrote to a state archivist asking for help, and she seemed to take a genuine interest in the case. She actually sent me a copy of the 1930 census (even though I already had it). This is her reply to my first query:

Our office has received your request for a criminal record involving Frank Chatman (Breathitt County, 1929).  I have searched our records and have found no entry for Frank Chatman in Breathitt County.  If this case could have taken place in another county, please let me know.

I apologize for any inconvenience.

I wrote that I had no idea where the crime took place. Here is her reply:

I have searched our records further (primarily our prison records) and found a couple entries for a Frank Chatman.  One was for a Frank Chatman (Chapman), whose crime occurred in Martin County, and another entry whose crime occurred in Pike County.  Both were for willful murder.  If one of these Frank Chatmans is your great-grandfather, I believe it would be the one from Pike County.  This occurred in 1921, when he was 15 years old, and his sentence was only for 5 years.  I believe the Frank Chatman that you found on the 1930 census was for the Martin County Chatman–he received a life sentence, and he was 42 when his crime occurred.  I have made copies of our prison record that I will send to you, but I will also try to locate the Pike County case–likely will not have a lot of info, though.  If I find it, I will certainly send it to you.

Hope this brings a bit of clarity.

The trouble with accepting either of these men as my great-grandfather is that the first is about the right age, but he shouldn’t have been in prison at the time of my grandmother’s birth—according to the record, he served five years, which means he should have been out of prison before my grandmother was born. Now if his case took some time to come to trial, it could make sense. How did he only get five years for murder? He was fifteen, but one would think his sentence would have been longer even so. The other one that the archivist says was 42 and which I found on the census introduces some confusion. The census says he was 27, which makes him also a fairly good fit for my great-grandfather despite what the archivist said. Both Pike and Martin counties are not far from Breathitt County, and either is a logical place of origin for my great-grandfather.

I think the only way I will find out the truth is to go to Kentucky and do some research in newspapers and libraries both in Breathitt County, where my grandmother was born, and through the prison archives. It seems somehow fitting that the name of the town in which my grandmother was born is Quicksand. The story inspired me to write a book that remains unedited in a file on my computer. I did find a fellow member with some intriguing information in her family tree. If  I win Who Do You Think You Are? sweepstakes, I know what case I’m going to put my professional genealogist on. I sure wish I was able to pursue this thread now, though.

Omar Alfred Gearhart

Some time ago, I began a series of posts on relatives I remembered from my lifetime, writing about the four great-grandparents I knew on my mother’s side of the family. I did not personally know any of my great-grandparents on my father’s side. All of them probably* died before I was born, and things are complicated by the fact that my grandfather David Swier was adopted, so he has two sets of parents: his adoptive parents and his natural parents. I have been able to learn a great deal about them both through research and through connecting with cousins who descend from the same family.

In this series, I plan to share what I know of my great-grandparents on my father’s side, beginning with my natural great-grandfather, Omar Alfred Gearhart.

Omar Alfred Gearhart (standing) with brothers John and George

Omar Alfred Gearhart had the unusual birthday of February 29, 1884. He was born in Colo, Story County, Iowa to George Douglas Gearhart and Ruth Ella Willhide.

I learned a lot about Omar Alfred Gearhart from his World War I draft registration card. He was living in Spokane, Washington on September 12, 1918 when he registered. My grandfather David would be born in that same city in 1921; however, the 1920 census lists Omar’s residence as Wallula, Walla Walla County, Washington. He is described as having a medium height and build, gray eyes, and black hair. His wife’s name is given as Gertrude Gearhart. Gertrude was born Gertrude Nettie Perkins.


Omar Alfred Gearhart and Gertrude Nettie Perkins with their oldest child John Douglas Gearhart

They married on Christmas Day in 1910.

His occupation is listed as “Laborer, Mechanical” on his draft card, and indeed he owned a garage later on. I wish he had passed his aptitude for car mechanics on to me, but he did pass it to his son and grandson (my father). At the time of his draft registration, however, he was working for the city of Spokane. I wonder if he might have been responsible for keeping city vehicles in working order. Omar Alfred Gearhart would have been a young man when the earliest cars were manufactured, and I find it interesting that he was on the ground floor of this new industry.

Family lore holds that he survived gunshot wound to the head, but that the head injury altered his personality. I don’t know the circumstances, but he would later be murdered in his garage by his business partner, leaving behind Gertrude, who was pregnant, and their eleven children. Gertrude was unable to work, and though the eldest children picked up work here and there, ultimately the family was torn apart when Gertrude gave her children up for adoption.

In a letter to her daughter Bessie, Gertrude shares some family information, including that she believed her husband’s origins were Dutch. They were not. The family who adopted my grandfather was Dutch, but his natural ancestors on his father’s side were German—Pennsylvania Dutch, corruption of the German Deutsch, which may be the source of Gertrude’s confusion.

While Omar Alfred Gearhart’s parents would remain in Story County, Iowa for the rest of their lives, Omar moved to Washington State. I’m not sure what brought him there. He was certainly living there before 1910 when he appears on the census in Moran, Spokane County, Washington. In the 1900 census, he is still living in Iowa with his parents, which makes sense, as he was 16 years old.

At one time, his brother John was living with him (1920 census), and it appears as though they were in business together. Interestingly, family researchers seem to have some confusion about his location. Another John Gearhart living in Missoula, Montana and married to a woman named Margaret appears to have been grafted onto this tree. He can’t have been in both Missoula and Wallula, Washington in 1920, and the census clearly lists John Edward Gearhart as Omar’s brother, so there can be no confusion about whether he’s the correct person. I have no reason to believe John Gearhart was involved in Omar’s death, but I also cannot find him or his wife in the 1930 census, which would have been taken in either the year before or the year that the murder took place. I should note the Missoula, Montana John Gearhart was also born in Iowa, although in 1884 rather than 1880. Perhaps he was a cousin or other relative of John Edward and Omar Alfred Gearhart’s. It’s confusing, though, because he was in Montana when he registered for the draft during World War I.

I should note, however, that I also can’t find Omar Alfred Gearhart on the 1930 census; though his death date was given by Gertrude in a letter to her daughter Bessie as December 29, 1930, this date doesn’t make sense with other information because my grandfather had already been adopted by the Swiers by the time the 1930 census was taken, and his sister Jessie and brothers John and Donald were living in different homes, all listed as boarders. However, it could be that the details of the story are confused and that the children were taken away before their father died. On the other hand, in that same letter, Gertrude couldn’t remember the date Bessie was born, and she also said her husband was Dutch. I couldn’t find the other children or Gertrude on the 1930 census, either. I hope that the 1940 census may shed some light on what happened, but until I can do some serious searching in newspaper archives, I don’t think I’ll learn much more about Omar’s death. I do have one living great-aunt, but she did not remember the details of the event and indeed didn’t realize she’d been adopted until my grandfather told her about it at school. She would have been around two years old or so when it happened.

*I don’t know when my great-grandfather Frank Chatman died.

The Danahers

My aunt Carolyn sent me a lot of photos hoping to solve a mystery. In the hopes that perhaps someone might happen upon this blog and help me identify the pictures, I plan to write a series of posts about what I know of the photos. I am going to start with some photos I do have identified. Carolyn suspects the photos are from the same family of Kennedys. My great-great-grandmother Mary Elizabeth Kennedy Bowling was a member of this family.

Michael Danaher was born in Maryland to Irish immigrant parents and married Adelia Parthenia Kennedy in 25 Jul. 1866 in Fayette County, Tennessee. In the 1880 census, his occupation is described as owner and superintendent of a shingle mill, and the family were living in Ludington, Mason County, Michigan. I should note that some of his son’s records identify Michael’s birthplace as Pennsylvania.

Michael Danaher
Photo identified as Michael Danaher

Their daughter May became an artist. Here is her picture.

May Danaher
May Danaher

Isn’t she beautiful? She was my great-great grandmother Stella Bowling Cunningham’s first cousin. In her diary, she recorded that cousin May gave her a breast pin as a wedding gift. Stella married Amos Blakey Cunningham on 30 May 1894. Stella’s mother Mary Elizabeth Kennedy Bowling was sister to May’s mother Adelia Parthenia Kennedy Danaher. The fact that the Bowlings and Danahers stayed close is demonstrated by the fact that Mary Elizabeth Kennedy Bowling named one of her sons Oliver Danaher Bowling. Sadly, the child only lived to the age of two. Mary Elizabeth Kennedy Bowling gave birth to eleven children, but six of them would die in childhood. Stella refers to her aunt Adelia Parthenia Kennedy Danaher as “Aunt Delia” in her diary. Mary and Delia were daughters of William Wesley Kennedy and Cynthia Walker Palmer. I’ve seen some erroneous information on family trees linking William Wesley Kennedy to a woman named Malinda Richardson. To my knowledge, he was never married to anyone else, and his wife’s name on census records is always given as some variation of the name Cynthia:

  • 1850 Census, Tippah County, MS: Cynthia W.
  • 1860 Census, Tippah County, MS: Cintha W.
  • 1870 Census, Lauderdale County, AL: C. W.

The Alabama Marriage Collection also has a record of his marriage to Cynthia W. Palmer on 10 Mar. 1840. A reminder to check your sources before attaching people to your tree, folks. This is how major confusion sets in.

May Danaher painted this summer landscape in 1924 (found via Artfull Eye Gallery):

May Danaher art

Here is cousin May with LulaBab Danaher (her name is given as Lulu Babb on the 1880 Census). I am not sure of the exact spelling of her name, as it is given several different ways: Lula Babb, Lulu Babb, Lula, and LulaBab being some variations.

May and LulaBab Danaher
May and LulaBab Danaher

Here is a picture of their brother Palmer, whose name likely derives from his grandmother’s maiden name:

Palmer Danaher
Palmer Danaher

Palmer’s age was given as two on the 1880 census, but his World War II draft card lists his date of birth as July 14, 1879. He looks about four or so here, I estimate this photo dates from about 1883 or 1884. I’m kind of curious about Palmer. The 1920 and 1930 censuses list him as a roomer in what looked to be some sort of large boarding house. His World War II draft card reveals this location to be the Hotel Pines. It was located on Main Street, Pine Bluff, AR. His occupation is given as lawyer. I wonder what he was doing living in that place. He was single, so it stands to reason that he did it as an expedient—someone to take care of the wifely duties he perhaps didn’t want to perform. He certainly lived there a long time. He is listed as living with his parents in 1910, but his World War I draft card dated 12 Sep. 1918 lists his residence as the Hotel Pines, so he lived there over 20 years at least.

This last photo is a mystery. It’s Kent Danaher, but I’m not sure who he is or how he’s connected to the rest of the Danahers, unless he is May, LulaBab, and Palmer’s brother Kennedy Danaher. I can only find him on the 1880 census, so I wonder if he might have died young. He definitely resembles Palmer in the face.


Kent Danaher
Kent Danaher

Black Sheep

Lake District SheepKim Cattrall learned on this week’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? that her grandfather was a bona fide black sheep. Her grandfather, George Baugh, left his young family—his wife and three daughters—and married again without taking the trouble of obtaining a divorce. He then fathered four more children with his second wife, who apparently never knew about her husband’s first family.

The episode made me think of the mysterious black sheep in my family, and when Kim Cattrall started her search, she had little more information about her grandfather than I do about my own ancestor. His name is Frank Chatman, or at least that’s all my grandmother’s birth certificate says. His place of birth is conjectured to be Kentucky. His age is given as 25 in 1929, which makes his birth year about 1904. His occupation is given as “convict” and his residence the “Kentucky State Penetenchury” [sic].

Obviously it’s a sensitive topic, and family members that might feel concern over the story are still alive. However, the reason I decided to write about it is that no one living has anything to be ashamed about, nor have they done anything wrong. You don’t get to choose your relatives.

I would love to know what he did, but so far, my efforts to find out have been hampered by my inability to take a trip to Kentucky and dig up more evidence. I know a professional genealogist could probably get to the bottom of the story. An archivist with the Commonwealth of Kentucky did try to help me, but she didn’t uncover much. She found two possible candidates, both of whom were incarcerated for willful murder, but no really solid, definitive leads. I have a hunch the search will be complicated by the fact that my great-grandfather’s name was probably not exactly “Frank Chatman.” Frank might have been a nickname, and his last name could have been Chapman or any of the other soundex varieties one might expect. Searching my grandmother’s family has revealed that folks were not too particular about spelling names correctly or even the same way twice, and census records have been downright difficult to search. I’m hoping the 1940 census will reveal some leads when it comes out next year. I have, on the other hand, been able to construct a sad, if skeletal, story about my great-grandmother, who lost two small children during infancy—one to dysentery, of all horrors. My great-grandmother herself died fairly young before the age of 60 of a heart attack.

Unfortunately, Frank Chatman, or whatever his name is, will have to remain a mystery until I have a little more time to devote to the detective hunt or unless I win’s Ultimate Family History Journey Sweepstakes.

Creative Commons License photo credit: llamnudds

The Old House in Lockney

My aunt shared with me this portrait of my great-grandparents’ home in Lockney, Texas. (Click for a larger image.)

The watercolor was painted by Ted Bell in July 1977. My great-grandparents, Herman Cunningham and Annie Jennings Cunningham, bought this house in 1936 and lived in it until they both passed away in the 1980’s.

This painting of the house is exactly like I remember it. The windmill was one of our favorite playgrounds. We used to climb it, which was probably dangerous. You can see a tree between the house and what I think was a small barn or shed. There was a knothole in that tree. My great-grandfather used to whittle and carve out of nut seeds and fruit pits—little owls, little baskets. He had hidden one of his owls in the knothole of that tree. He called me over to show it to me, and I remember being filled with wonder. I also remember feeling very special. I didn’t see my great-grandparents much, and when I did, it seemed there were always so many people that a moment of attention from my great-grandfather, whom we called Pa Pa,  felt very special.

The tree in the front of the house near the road had low-hanging branches that were perfect for climbing.

The barn had brand new kittens inside it, and the whole farm was littered with Pa Pa’s Prince Albert Tobacco cans.

It was amazing to be able to see it again in this watercolor. I’m so glad it exists.

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