Many years ago we saw people poring over old volumes in genealogical libraries and couldn't understand what they were doing or why. The why, for us, turns out to be pretty simple: it puts a personal emphasis on historical events. Trying to understand the lives of our relatives, we find ourselves learning about the economics, the technology, the politics and religion of the times and places where those relatives lived. In fact, since most of one's relatives turn out to be ordinary people, it turns out that our slant on history is that of the ordinary person, rather than the rulers or powerful people. The whole process seems to make history a lot more human. Our cottage in Truro
As to what genealogists do, it's like being a detective. The basic questions are easy to ask: who were your parents, and your parents' parents, and your parents' parents' parents' . . . ? But how do you find out? It depends on what kind of records were kept, and how accessible those records are to modern people. There are birth certificates and baptismal records and gravestone inscriptions and obituaries and marriage licenses and tax lists and census returns and property records and probate records and employment, school, military, hospital, . . . records. In fact we can say that we have never run out of ideas to try to solve a genealogical puzzle; we've just run out of time or decided to work on a different branch of the family tree. So while there are definitely relatives we haven't found, we can't say we're stuck anywhere.
We find, as do most genealogists, that it's seldom enough just to study the parents; it's also very useful to learn about the siblings. Until quite recently, most families were quite large, and often one can find a clue to the parents by studying the siblings. A common case is that there was more than one marriage. This can be quite puzzling until you figure it out. Up to quite recently, and even today in areas with poor health care, women often died in childbirth. The husband would often remarry to find a partner to help raise the children, and then there would often be more children. If the man had a dangerous job, he might die young, in which case his widow might seek to remarry to find support for the young children. But if you see a census record with John and Mary and children Alice, William and Sarah, you have no way of telling which of those children, if any, were born to Mary, or to John.
In England, the 55 million people are broken up into some 25,000 parishes of the Church of England. And the most important genealogical records in England are the parish registers. The problem is that people moved around a lot, then as well as now. If you don't find a person's baptismal record in the same parish where he or she was married, where do you look? Until very recently, there were no national or even county-wide indexes, so the answer was you laboriously tried the neighboring parishes one at a time. But if you found a Tom Jones born at about the right time, how do you know there wasn't another Tom Jones in another parish born about the right time? In other words, doing genealogy can be quite frustrating. It requires lots of patience -- which can be the stock in trade of retired people. Fortunately the computer has made it possible to develop some very powerful database search tools, and a lot of genealogical volunteers today are transcribing records into computer databases. This makes us happy, but we do have a caveat: be accurate! We have already found many incorrect secondary records (that is, copies of original information, or copies of copies).
Before we started this, our family memories were imprecise. Great grandfather Thomas Rowe, we remembered, was from St. Austell in Cornwall. Now we can tell you that the St. Austell district has many parishes, including St. Mewan, Creed, St. Ewe, and others, and we can also tell you that in the parish of Creed there are many towns, such as Sticker, and crossroads, such as Hewas Water (the bus stops there today), and that a few hundred yards north of Hewas Water (but just across the Parish boundary into St. Ewe) is the site of an old quarry known as Pothole, and that next to that quarry in the mid-nineteenth century were some few houses (they were all meticulously drawn by the Royal Ordnance Survey engineers who made the maps). Now we know that Thomas Rowe lived in one of those houses. We also know that his grandfather Josiah Johns was the blacksmith and innkeeper down the road in Hewas Water, and that Josiah, in addition to running the smithy and pub, farmed a number of small lots, including the fields kept for the benefit of the Poor of the Parish. We can also tell you that houses in Sticker and Hewas Water today are selling for $300,000 and up.
We know, too, that at age 12 Thomas was working in the mines. If he was lucky, he stayed in school until age 10, but he might have started working even younger. His sisters worked, too, as mine girls, who broke up the ore to get at the tin. But in the 1860s the price of tin was plummeting and Cornish miners were losing their jobs by the thousands. How did this family scratch together enough money to bring all nine of them across the ocean to America? Possibly Thomas' father, William Rowe, had become an expert miner, because one of his children's obituaries states that he found a job in Wilkes-Barre in 1865 developing a mine there. In any event, William and Thomas, his eldest son, came over in 1865, and Peggy and the rest of the children followed on the S.S. City of Boston the next year. From a personal point of view, they were certainly lucky to have exchanged the poverty of the Cornish mines for the relative prosperity and status of midwestern farmers. Those that stayed behind continued to suffer, for the economy of Cornwall has never since been very strong.
Each of the libraries in Truro has a character different from the others. We have now been to four, counting the County Record Office which is really an archive rather than the standard library.
The Cornwall County Record Office (CRO) is principally intended to archive ancient documents, but they seem willing enough to bring the reader a pair of white gloves and the old book or manuscript to peruse lovingly. It has recently moved into new quarters, and the search room is beautifully equipped with work tables with power outlets for computers and reading ramps to help protect old books. Judging from comments by fellow genealogists, the move is greatly welcomed, because for the first time searchers can retrieve many of the records themselves. Unfortunately, all kinds of scanning and photocopying by the reader are prohibited, and the copies made by the staff start at 50 p a sheet. So the work goes slowly, tediously copying out the information by pencil. The records we have used most often are microfiche copies of Parish Registers, which contain lists of baptisms, marriages and burials back to the 1500s, filed by Parish. We're just discovering the lovely results of a 2002 project by the CRO staff: All of their probate records have been put on microfilm and filed for the whole county, first by first letter of last name, then by year of death. This is in contrast with the parish records of baptisms, marriages and burials, because there are few effective indexes across parish lines. Perhaps it's because they have so many ancient records, but we can't help being impressed by the love and attention the English lavish on archival storage. Some of you may remember our report of two summers ago, when we were aghast at the condition of the official Cleveland city archives! Several times now we've seen citizens of Cornwall carefully carrying in bundles of materials to deposit in the archives; and, wonder of wonders, they are always appreciatively received by the staff.
The Cornwall Family History Society is a lively group which we joined last fall, knowing that we'd like to connect with some local Truro genealogists. We even met a New Zealand couple, on the road for months tracing their ancestors. They haven't sold their house like us, though! The CFHS occupies a second floor space right downtown, where the walls are chockfull of a variety of books, and the volunteer staff is happy to suggest places to look. They have the nineteenth century census records on microfiche, and two cases full of contributed family histories, but their great treasure is a computer database containing thousands of the records found on the microfiche at the CRO. This tool enables one to search for a baptism, say, by name anywhere in the county. Even though the population of Cornwall is less than half a million, the number of people, dead and alive, indexed in the county records, is well over ten million! And a name like Rowe (our starting point) is, people keep telling us, very common in Cornwall!
The Courtney Library is a product of a unique English institution: the private scientific and educational society. The library is part of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, founded in 1818 (Patron: H. M. The Queen) and is peopled by British eccentrics, gleefully studying aerial photographs of fields and hedgerows or old newspapers. No doubt when it started it had many wealthy benefactors, but these days it is apparently hurting for funds. We deduce this because everything appears to be in a run-down or sometimes chaotic state. There are rows of shelves that disappear into a murky gloom where only the Gravestones leaning against wall librarians and perhaps a few trusted volunteers are permitted to venture. And the collections all seem to be somewhat sporadic. They have some microfilms of parish registers (dating from the 1950s when the Utah Genealogical Society swept through English records centres like a tornado) and a creaky old hand cranked microfilm reader which predates anything we saw in the U.S. The frustrating thing is that the Courtney probably has in its collection some priceless artifacts; but owing to the old English distrust of government its unlikely that they will find their way into the competent and well-funded hands of the CRO staff for preservation and dissemination.
The fourth library in Truro is the public library, originally the gift of a local philanthropist. Their computers are significantly more capable than the computers at the local internet cafe; they are free to locals and charge the same fees to visitors. So how will the cafe stay in business? We couldn't get the Windows 98 computers at the cafe to accept the CD we burned on our laptop, but the public library's machines run XP professional, thank you very much. We'll be taking out a visitor's membership so we can check out books; it's free but for a ten pound refundable deposit.
Today we're off to a fifth library, the Cornish Studies Library in Redruth, the next town down the track to the west.
On Sunday we visited nearby St. Austell, just to walk around and see the town closest to the countryside where most of the recent Rowe ancestors St. Austell parish church lived. We disembarked after an 18-minute train ride at the station. Part of the old wooden architecture has been preserved, but the working station is now located in a sterile modern grey cube. Right next to the station is what we first took to be the St. Austell churchyard, but turned out to be a city park lined with gravestones salvaged from the burying ground near the church. It reminded us of New Haven, where the stones were moved from prime downtown real estate to a park six or seven blocks away. Who knows what happened to the bones -- in either location. We walked down the hill, where the church bells were ringing for Sunday services, and wandered the streets for an hour or so. A man sat in a pub window, just finished with his breakfast; he was evidently the proprietor, as the pubs are closed. But a clothing store was open early for business, as was a sandwich shop right across the street from the church. The pharmacy was open for urgent requirements, and quite a few people seemed to be claiming urgency. We felt the shops in St. Austell were distinctly less attractive than those in Truro, although the town is approximately the same size -- small. Once again there were lots of real estate agents, and we were interested to note that houses in Sticker, where our ancestor and his children had worked in the mines, just eking out a living, were now for sale for 150,000 to 350,000 pounds. At $1.70 to the pound, those are pretty stiff prices. By and large, we've been told, the purchasers are not Cornish. So no doubt the local heritage will soon be washed away by the flood of city folk with money to spend on a summer "cottage." St. Austell did not cheer us up, but we were grateful to have come and expanded our understanding of Cornwall past and present.