His answer to a simple question

Posted for the meme Genealogy Blog Party hosted by Elizabeth O’Neal of Little Bytes of Life. September’s theme is “Back-to-School” and invites posts discussing essential genealogical lessons.

My maternal aunt, Dolores [surname withheld], and Leland E [surname withheld] were married in McLean County, North Dakota, in December 1975. According to their marriage record, Leland E was 49 years old at the time, meaning he was born in approximately 1926. Significantly, their marriage license indicates that Leland was never previously divorced. That detail prompted what has become a fortnight’s-long adventure into the genealogy of two large families with, as far as I can tell, a single contact within (i.e., Dolores and Leland E) my maternal family tree.


A search of find-a-grave.com yielded one listing for a Leland E [surname withheld], and, sure enough, that person’s details (e.g., age, location) were remarkably similar to what I expected for my Leland E, but the posting indicated this Leland E was married to someone other than my aunt, and that the couple were parents to five children. This discovery nearly convinced me that my Leland E was a different person than the one memorialized at find-a-grave, but I wasn’t quite ready to give up. [I failed twice here: (1) I did not query related surnames within the same cemetery and (2) once I did, I didn’t immediately recognize the much earlier death of a possible spouse compared to when my Leland E died.]

My next step was to order a copy of Leland E’s death certificate, hoping it would list my aunt as spouse/next of kin. That turned out not to be the case, though the spouse on the death certificate was not the same person associated with Leland E’s find-a-grave entry. Later, it occurred to me to check find-a-grave.com and newspaper obituaries for the spouse reported on Leland E’s death certificate. Finally, a breakthrough!

genealogybank.com and find-a-grave.com both had obituaries for Leland E’s end-of-life spouse and, fortunately, those accounts had sufficient detail for me to conclude that my Leland E could have been married to my aunt and his end-of-life spouse (i.e., they didn’t marry until 1987) before the find-a-grave Leland’s death in 1992.

Meantime, I began investigating the extended family of Leland’s presumed first wife and have, as a result, pieced together a hypothesis for what has turned out to be a fairly complex series of relationships. One of the most significant clues was a newspapers.com clipping from the Bismarck (ND) Tribune in June 1954 where Mr. and Mrs. Leland E [surname withheld] were listed as attendees at the marriage of a couple where the groom turned out to be a sibling of Leland E’s first wife. My current hypothesis is:

  1. Leland E was first married in the mid-1940s and was widowed at the time he and my aunt Dolores were married. His first wife died in 1972, and the five children mentioned for both their find-a-grave memorials are almost certainly their children together.
  2. Leland and Dolores divorced sometime before 1987 when Leland married his end-of-life spouse.

I haven’t yet requested divorce documentation for Dolores and Leland E, but that certainly seems the most likely resolution to their relationship. Of course, I won’t be entirely satisfied with my tentative conclusion (that my aunt Dolores and this Leland E were married) until/unless I obtain divorce papers for the couple or an obituary for Leland E that corroborates this conclusion. I’ve since requested marriage information and an obituary search for Leland and his first wife from the archives at the State Historical Society of North Dakota. I’m hopeful those details will finalize this aspect of my family tree.

Schooling-wise, per this month’s prompt, my first self-lesson is to mine records for every detail, no matter how minor. The statement that Leland E had not been divorced before his union with my aunt Dolores was significant in this case. Second, I should have checked for people with Leland’s surname in the cemetery where he is buried. Third, I need to continually remind myself to be receptive to alternative explanations and willing to investigate even far-fetched connections because they might just turn out to be the one that proves the case!

I was fortunate in this investigation that my aunt’s spouse had a fairly uncommon given name, and that he was born and/or lived in a sparsely populated state, thus limiting other possibilities. I also have other indexed records that support my conclusions, e.g., Ancestry’s various public record indexes, but I’m always cautious about indexed records because of I can’t personally view the information.

Genealogy Potluck

Posted for the meme Genealogy Blog Party hosted by Elizabeth O’Neal of Little Bytes of Life. August’s theme is “Genealogy Potluck” and invites posts revealing writers’ favorite genealogy resources. I hope others will enjoy my “dish,” and I’m certainly looking forward to a new “recipe” or two as I learn about other writers’ favorite genealogy finds.

My maternal great grandparents, Anton and Barbara (Ehli) Armbrust and Joseph and Agnes (Heiser) Jaeger, immigrated to the United States in 1892 and 1889 respectively, settling with their families in or near Stark County in southwestern North Dakota. They and many others came from Ukraine, Russia, but their heritage was German rather than Russian. These “Germans from Russia,” as they eventually became known, settled in the U.S. midwest (Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Colorado, among others) and Canada, and some migrated again further west to California and Oregon.

Official records about these early ancestors and their children are scarce—census records, marriage licenses and certificates, and a few draft registration cards are available—but personal information is even more rare. You will understand, then, why I was so pleased to discover two organizations that collect and make available obituaries for people of this ethnic/geographic background.

I became aware of the first organization, American Historical Society of Germans from Russia[1] [in my experience, better viewed in Internet Explorer than Google Chrome], when I found an ancestor’s obituary on Family Search[2] in a collection entitled “United States, Obituaries, American Historical Society of Germans from Russia. 1899-2012,” but I didn’t at the time appreciate the scope of the organization’s contribution. According to the Family Search link, there are nearly 456,000 images in this collection. Many I have viewed are original newspaper clippings; others are transcriptions of newspaper obituaries.

Another organization, the Germans from Russia Heritage Society,[3] headquartered in Bismarck, North Dakota, provides an extensive index of transcribed obituaries via the Research Library link on their home page. Ordering obituaries is accomplished via e-mail; once the requested obituaries are located, the staff e-mails to let the requester know the total cost. The transcriptions are sent shortly after they receive payment. The first obituary is $2.50 with other obituaries in the same order an additional $1.00 each plus a modest postage fee (my initial order for 20 obituaries totaled $24.50).

I found several relatives listed on the GRHS site but didn’t see listings for my maternal grandfather or my mother. I recently supplied obituaries for these relatives and was pleased to see that both have since been added to the indices. Note: for married women, search by married rather than maiden name.

Having investigated these sites a bit more thoroughly for this post, I recommend searching the Family Search link first to see what they might have about a “German from Russia” relative and then following up with North Dakota’s Germans from Russia Heritage Society (because of their extensive obituary index) and the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia and each organization’s affiliates to see what those entities might have.

Brick wall success story: The GRHS obituary index was the key to learning death date and burial information for my great aunt Elizabeth (Wehner) Ulschak. I knew from previous research on this family that their surname was frequently misspelled, so when I couldn’t find “Elizabeth Ulschak” in the index, I decided to use the Find function (Ctrl_F) to search for all occurrences of Elizabeth. Recreating the search just now, my Elizabeth was #12 of 32 in the very long “U” list and, sure enough, the surname was misspelled (Ulshak vs. Ulschak). From there, I was able to check North Dakota’s Public Death Index[4] to verify the summary information presented on the GRHS site.

[1] American Historical Society of Germans from Russia ~ http://www.ahsgr.org/
[2] United States, Obituaries, American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, 1899-2012 ~ https://familysearch.org/search/collection/2367299
[3] Germans from Russia Heritage Society ~ http://grhs.org/index.html
[4] North Dakota’s Public Death Index ~ https://apps.nd.gov/doh/certificates/deathCertSearch.htm

She was called “mama”

Posted for the meme Genealogy Blog Party hosted by Elizabeth O’Neal of Little Bytes of Life. July’s theme invites posts involving ancestors who make genealogy research “miserable.” I have my fair share of those, but my frustration with my maternal grandmother’s history has less to do with her than my own inability (thus far) to locate meaningful personal information about her.

I know next to nothing about my maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Jaeger Armbrust.[1]

I do have a few records for her, including a 1925 North Dakota state census report when Elizabeth was still at home with her parents, a 1940 U.S. census report when she is recorded as a widow with three young children, church records for her birth (1906) and death (1946), and the certificate for Elizabeth’s marriage to Daniel Armbrust in July 1925. I also have birth records for my mother, Daniel and Elizabeth’s oldest daughter, and I’m able to guess at a few other details of Elizabeth’s life based on Daniel’s records.

Don’t get me wrong—I am thrilled to have these documents and realize that other genealogists are working with even less information for their ancestors than I have for my grandmother. Still, I can’t help wishing for those elusive personal details that would give me a better understanding of Elizabeth as a person, thus enriching the factual accounts of the names, dates, and places of her life that are documented in the records I have.

Armbrust Family001

Then, a few days ago, I finally decided to open two banker’s boxes worth of family memorabilia I’ve been loaned from a sister’s estate. I sorted through everything and spotted a few truly valuable images, including one of my grandmother Elizabeth with her second child, Dolores.[2] My mother, Irene, is in the foreground of the photo with her back to the camera. Another photo, apparently taken the same day, shows Irene, Dolores, and their younger brother Elmer. I’ve concluded these photos were most likely taken in the summer of 1935, when the children were about 6, 3, and 1 respectively.

So, what other information can I glean from this photo of my grandmother? She would have been about 29 years old at the time, and her younger daughter was almost half her mother’s height. That leads me to think that my grandmother was about five feet tall, which matches the adult heights of her daughters.

Written on the back of the photo in my mother’s hand is “mama, Dolores.” I never knew before I saw this photo and its notation what Elizabeth looked like or what her children called her, but it warms my heart to have these details. I can’t help wondering, though, what I and Elizabeth’s other 14 grandchildren might have called her had she lived long enough for us to know her. Grandmama, perhaps? I can only imagine, but Grandmama Armbrust has a certain ring to it.

[1] Elizabeth (Jaeger) Armbrust was born in or near Dickinson, Stark County, North Dakota, on August 11, 1906, to Joseph and Agnes (Heiser) Jaeger. She died September 1, 1946, probably in or near Watford City, McKenzie County, North Dakota, and is buried at St. Joseph Catholic Cemetery in Dickinson, Stark County, North Dakota. Source: church baptism and burial records obtained and held by the author.
[2] Elizabeth (Jaeger) Armbrust photograph, ca. 1935; digital image ca. 2016, privately held by author. Original photograph is contained in a photo album created and owned by Irene (Armbrust) Arnold, which was subsequently located in the belongings of Irene’s daughter, Wynne (Arnold) Martin. The album is currently in the possession of the author for scanning to create a digital archive of family photographs and memorabilia.