Now that the snow and ice are finally beating a retreat, it’s time to start thinking about how to handle all those cemetery clean-up chores. Whether it’s hiring a herd of goats to clear out the underbrush, washing the stones clean, or calling in an expert for a day (or two) of hands-on restoration, I think everyone will agree that there’s never a shortage of things that need to be done where historical cemeteries are concerned.
And if there’s ever been one on-going restoration/genealogical task, it’s the deciphering of all those illegible headstones to discover who’s really hanging out under there.
Several weeks ago, I had the unique opportunity to speak with Linda Hjelm and David Waggoner who are hard at work locating the Civil War veterans buried in the Hillside Cemetery in Issaquah, Washington. Linda figures out the names and hunts down the history while David and his wife Barbara, help with obtaining replacement markers.
Despite the worn out stones, transposed date of birth/death dates, and misspelled names, they’ve tracked down over 17 Civil War veterans at Hillside, and believe there are still more out there. In this post, Linda generously shares with BTG readers some of her hard-won detective wisdom.
Step 1: So who’s on the stone?
This is just common sense, yet before a search can get underway, you have to know who’s out there. Sometimes the headstone’s tipped so badly, the only way to get an idea of the name is to take as many pictures of it from as many angles as possible, and then use the zoom feature (either on the camera or through your computer’s photo program) to figure out the letters.
If the letters prove to be almost illegible, Linda suggests making a rubbing (using tissue paper and some sidewalk chalk) to make the letters ‘pop’ more.
Step 2: Prepping for the Plunge
Here’s Linda’s primary secret to researching that too many people (including yours truly) fail to keep in mind: There is NO replacement for looking at actual records, especially when you’re searching online indexes. Why? Because the quality of an online index is based on someone else’s typing skills.
Specifically, you might have the right person, but whoever entered the information into the index may have transposed death dates with birth dates. Be prepared to step away from the computer, roll up your sleeves, and get your hands dusty.
Step 3: The Deep End of The Pool
Now comes the fun part. You’ve got the veteran’s name and the burial site, so what’s the first step toward finding out more about your man? One or more of these hints should help you strike gold.
- Got a nice chunk of information on your veteran? Try using the paid military records search feature on Ancestry.com.
- Want to dig a little deeper? Search the 1890 Veterans Census site on Ancestry.com that shows both Union and Confederate soldiers and their widows.
- Don’t want to pay the Ancestry.com fee? Complete a family search on the Latter Day Saints (LDS) website. It’s got probably the biggest number of genealogical records out there, and it’s free. Note: LDS also has family history centers scattered around the world which can come in handy if the information you need is on their microfilm. Right now, they’re in the process of digitizing it all, but if you have to go to the centers, you can rent the film at a low cost for a specific period of time.
- Check the May 31 issue or prior, for local Memorial Day newspapers that run the names of all the vets both living and dead. Many times, the papers even run photos of the veterans.
- If the Memorial Day papers don’t pan out, make a note of the death date and then pore through the local papers’ obituaries. Linda says she checks each year’s issue to see what came out prior to Memorial Day because many times, the families come back to put flowers on the graves and the newspapers mention those who came to visit.
- Check the state census records because some states take a census more than once a decade. Note: Just because a state says they don’t have a particular year’s census doesn’t mean you should stop looking. It just might be mis-filed. Linda remembers discovering an original census in a library.
- If the veteran comes from a small town, check with the local historical society. Perhaps there are some old letters or photos that could shed some light on the person and his family.
- Finally, if you discover that the veteran was born and raised in a particular town, see if there are any churches that date back to his time. There may be a chance that the vestry has family baptismal, marriage, and/or death records you can search.
- Last but not least, Google the name when all else fails. You’ll be surprised what comes up.
So now that we’ve gotten some new hints on how to search out veterans, let’s ask the most interesting question of all. Just what was it that got Linda started down this path in the first place?
The answer: A mystery.
The Hillside Cemetery Board was already researching faded headstones when a member decided to add in the overlooked Civil War veterans. The spark that hooked Linda was the enigmatic Charles Swartwood. “I couldn’t figure him out,” she said. “All the military records I’d seen for that time are on 5×7 cards that are pre-printed and done by hand, except for Charles’, and his records are typed. Perhaps he was a member of what passed for the CIA in those days.”
She’s still determined to find out.
P.S. Don’t’ forget to check back on Thursday when BTG readers can read some of David Waggoner’s tips on how non-families can get a veteran’s replacement headstone from the Veterans’ Administration. Hint: It’s difficult, but not impossible.