By Lori Samuelson
Like you, there are many family mysteries I’d love to solve. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have just five minutes with an ancestor to have your questions answered? Since that’s not an option, we must rely on other methods to find the information we seek.
In our fast paced world, tweets, texts, and emails are the go-to method to get results quickly, followed by phone calls, snail mail and face-to-face interaction. No matter what method is selected, one of the simplest tools to insure success is to communicate effectively.
Effective communication begins with clarifying to ourselves what we are requesting. Then, by clearly expressing our thoughts, our message can be conveyed. Sometimes, what is obvious to ourselves is not necessarily understandable to others so discussing with a trusted individual what you hope to express may be wise. Emphasizing key points further enhances the exchange. Effective communication, however, is not one way and shouldn’t end there. It is imperative to listen carefully and process the received response, then respectfully respond.
The processing part is where I needed work. Here’s what happened:
My husband’s cousins and I were on the hunt for the death date of Wilson Williams, their 4x’s Great Grandfather who had resided in Roslyn Harbor, New York. Wilson’s wife, Margaret Hicks Williams, was buried in Christ Church Cemetery, Nassau, New York in 1807 but no stone could be found for Wilson. Last recorded in the 1830 U.S. Federal census, his son having relocated to upstate New York and no space next to Margaret, we thought Wilson was buried elsewhere. During a cemetery visit, the cousin asked the church’s staff for Margaret’s burial card but was told no records exist. That ended the communication and was a fatal (no pun intended) error that extended our brick wall.
Although the interaction began with a clear request for Margaret’s burial card, the response that no records exist was not fully processed by us. Perhaps other records were available to provide the information we sought but that little word “no” halted us.
I like to think in genealogy that “no” is not always the final answer but it took me time to reach that conclusion. Fast forward a few years and I decided to try again. That old cliché about insanity as repeating the same thing and expecting a different result might apply but my rationale was a different contact method and staff member’s involvement might produce a different result. This time, I emailed the church office the following:
“Good Morning! I’m trying to locate the death or internment date for family member Wilson Williams. His wife, Margaret Hicks Williams, was buried in your church cemetery in 1807 and I’d appreciate if you could check your church’s records for Wilson.”
Although my message was clear and concise with key points bolded, the response I received a few days later was no burial records exist. A second “no” could have been the end of the story but this time around I processed the meaning of “no burial records exist.”
Since the outcome wasn’t what I hoped, I began to brainstorm alternatives. My list included:
- Was there ever burial records for this cemetery?
- If so, when did they disappear?
- If not, what other sources exist to provide the death date?
- Who might be knowledgeable regarding these questions?
By processing the response I was able to move forward and find a death date for Wilson. The church secretary was correct but her statement was incomplete; burial records do not exist at the church but a transcription of a transcription is available on microfilm. Using an area history written in 1884, I learned that church members were divided on the hiring of a new pastor which resulted in two being employed. After 10 years, the congregation split and the leaving pastor took the records with him to a new town and denomination. Those records were eventually donated to a historical society and transcribed. No one knows what happened to the original documents but by the 1940’s the transcription was in tatters and was re-transcribed. The second transcription is what was microfilmed:
Williams, Wilson Williams; died, March –?, 1831; aged 76 years
On a microfilm of cemetery markers I found:
Williams, Margaret, wife of Wilson Williams, died April 26, 1807 in her 64th year
F.W. A common field stone marked “F. W.”
W.W. A common field stone marked “W. W.”
Without reading the area history I wouldn’t have known to look for records under Dutch Reformed as the church is Episcopalian. Although Wilson’s stone has disappeared, we know it once existed.
Effective communication helped me achieve my desired results. By processing the message received and moving past “no,” I was able to problem solve and successfully reach my goal.