Rescuing Your Family’s Treasures From a Natural Diaster- Like Flooding!

By Donna Gawell

(Update in September 2018: This article was written last year after seeing the incredible loss some people experienced in the flooding. Please share with your friends on the East Coast.)

It is the wise person who learns from the mistakes and tragedies of others. Americans were glued to their TVs for weeks after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma witnessing residents drag out mattresses, sofas, and chairs from their flooded homes, and our hearts ached for their loss. Furniture and household items can be replaced, but some of our most precious items might be lost forever.

Family photos, records, and documents are amongst the most difficult to replace. A grandfather’s original naturalization document, parents’ wedding photos, and their own baby pictures might be floating in a massive soup of muddy water. Those of us who don’t live by the coast have our own natural and manmade disasters such as tornadoes and fire that can cause similar destruction.

Your Family’s Heritage and Story

You may be the guardian of your family’s history or just the owner of a few scrapbooks. Some people don’t appreciate their ownership responsibilities, not understanding that they are the guardians of their ancestors’ legacies. The thought that you are the only one who cares about these documents is misguided. The desire to know more about our history is hotwired in some from birth but comes later in others. A thirty year old launching their career while raising a family may show minimal interest. Trust me: your children or maybe their descendants will someday care. We were all there once. It is up to you to consider various ways to save what your descendants will someday treasure. That box of old artifacts you passed down to your son might be thrown in the trash bin during a nasty divorce.

Learn from Professional Genealogists: The Diversification Principle

So, what steps can be taken to avoid this heartbreak? The underlying principle is that your losses will be minimal if you diversify. Just like the wisdom about portfolio diversification from your financial advisor, genealogists will tell you that you should consider at least one or two strategies for more secure preservation. That said, none of these ideas can guarantee your precious items survival if you suffer a fire in the midst of a digital shutdown compliments of Kim Jung Un. These suggestions will give you some assurance that our family treasures and heirlooms items can be preserved and protected.

Share with Your Family

The best advice is to share with others! While most of my siblings and cousins willingly share precious family photos, I have encountered one cousin who is holding on to the items she inherited with a death grip. It is sad we can’t-do anything to change her distorted thinking, but we can proceed with what we all have and ignore those who have an attitude.

Access to a scanner is essential although taking a photo of a document or picture is second best. Sort out the items most precious to you and create a folder with subdirectories to keep scans in order. You can also store the photos sent to you in these folders. Be sure to label them with the first and last names of the items, not just “Grandpa, or mom.” Try to give a date and place.

I have organized small family gatherings of cousins with the sole purpose of sharing what we each have, and these have turned into memorable events. We all walked away benefitting greatly. Try to invite someone who is tech-savvy and has access to a scanner.

For those family and friends who live far away, ask them to send you copies of the photos and documents by email. Of course, reciprocate to those who have offered their treasures. You are on your way to becoming the family historian.

Create digital family history books- for free!

Donna’s Family History Books Available on Amazon

Many people have a desire to make a scrapbook and love the creativity of all the cute details. As a genealogist, I am more practical. Consider this: who is going to inherit this one scrapbook, and who has room or even wants your huge collection? Even if you have just one child, they will likely have at least a few children. You get the point. A digital scrapbook makes so much sense since you can easily produce multiple copies for less than the cost of conventional scrapbooks when you consider the necessary investment in supplies.

I started out using sites like Shutterfly, and there are hundreds of companies that offer a similar service including your local drug store. The problem is that the cost for each book gets out of control at about $34 for a 9×9, 20-page book. Most companies do not offer a significant discount for multiple copies. The books were lovely but became cost prohibitive for my goal of sharing with the family.

That is when I began to use sites like Create Space, Amazon’s self-publishing company. As an author, I had a few self-published non-fiction books on Create Space and saw that it was a relatively easy process, more efficient and less expensive. There are several “print on demand” companies similar to Create Space such as Lulu and Ingram Spark. Use caution in selecting your company as some are more like old-fashioned vanity presses from the past. They want you to make an investment up front−not a good idea! You don’t want to be stuck with a case of books in your basement that cost you hundreds or even thousands of dollars up front. Note: CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing are merging on Amazon in Oct. 2019.

That is the beauty of publishing on demand or POD companies. You create the book, order maybe five very inexpensive proof copies, and then hit the publish key so your family can order their own copies!

The process is easy for anyone familiar with Microsoft Word or Apple Pages. All of these companies offer their professional design services for a fee, but have confidence! You can do this if you take a deep breath and commit a few weeks to the development.

  • Write out your family’s story
  • Insert photos and documents (family trees, copies of the census, scans of documents, etc.)
  • Do a bit of simple formatting:
  • Choose an easy to read text type and size (Roman New Times, size 12 is popular)
  • Decide on single, double spacing, etc. and indentation (all in paragraph in MSWord)
  • Left align -If you are unsure, just google formatting AND self-publishing, and many guides will pop up.
  • Use spell check and perhaps a free grammar and writing checker like Grammarly. Your work will look more professional.
  • Design your cover- it’s easy! Find a photo of your own or use a free one offered on these sites. You also make decisions about the cover layout and color background. The creator can easily make changes, save it, and come back another day to finish the process.
  • Upload your book to the site. Many will provide an ISBN for free.
  • Decide on the size of your book and if you want it in color or black and white. I use the 8.5 x 11 and color, but if your photos are all black and white, you might want to choose that option.
  • Now comes the trickiest part: pricing. On CreateSpace, you can purchase very inexpensive proof copies and reduced cost author copies of your books. The cost of selling the book to others has a bottom line because Amazon has to make some profit, but you will be able to see what the royalty you as the author will receive from your book before you make the final decision. Because all this work is my gift to the family and future generations, I simply round up the price to the next dollar. You might feel differently.
  • Submit the book for review. The company will inspect it for formatting issues and usually reply within 24 hours with suggestions or their approval. Keep in mind that the computer they use doesn’t realize that many of your photos are not high resolution, so ignore those issues. You can keep tweaking your work and resubmitting until you are satisfied.
  • Hit the approve key, and you are now an Amazon author!

Off-Site and External Backups

Backup your photos and documents in the cloud, on DVDs and flash drives or memory sticks, etc. A little research on the internet will provide instructions for those of you not familiar with these lifesavers. These backups come with their own limitations as experts warn us that the devices needed to read a DVD or memory card may be obsolete in ten years. Once again: heed the advice to diversify!

Advice for That Dreaded Disaster

There are some emergencies for which you can prepare. Consider the storage location of your photos and documents. Most basements are the worst place for these items because of inevitable mildew issues. Inspect antique clothing periodically and store them in plastic bags.

If you are forced to evacuate and leave many of your precious items behind, consider using your dishwasher as a reasonably airtight storage container. Take out all the racks and put in items that are treasures. Your dishwasher can be locked and should be reasonably waterproof. I would put the items in new zip lock bags and maybe even secure airtight plastic containers first. Might your dishwasher go floating down the street in a flood or burn up in a massive fire? Perhaps, nothing is perfect or 100% guaranteed, but this seems like a prudent alternative to leaving the items exposed on a shelf.

There are countless internet sites with instructions on how to recover photos and other items the owners thought were damaged beyond repair. I watched videos of photo restorations carried out with surgical precision as the items were carefully cut out of the wet plastic sheets and then washed. The efforts seem laborious, especially for people who have so many other emergency tasks in front of them.

Expert Advice for Damaged Photos and Documents

Try to get to flood-damaged photos within two days or they will begin to mold or stick together making saving them much more unlikely. Carefully lift any photos from the mud or dirty water. Remove photos from waterlogged albums and separate those that are stacked together. Be careful not to rub or touch the wet emulsion of the photo surface. Also, remove photos from plastic sleeves from these wet albums right away if possible.

Photos in frames need to be saved when they are still soaking wet, otherwise, the photo surface will stick to the glass as it dries and you will not be able to separate them without damaging the photo emulsion. To successfully remove a wet photo from a picture frame, keep the glass and photo together. Holding both, rinse with clear flowing water, using the water stream to gently separate the photo from the glass.

If you have time and adequate space immediately after the disaster, lay each wet photo face up on any clean blotting paper, such as a paper towel. Do not use newspapers or printed paper towels because the ink may transfer to your wet photos. Change out the blotting paper every hour or two until the photos dry. If possible, try to dry the photos inside, as sun and wind will cause photos to curl more quickly.

After the photo is dried you can remove any mud or dirt by gently rinsing both sides of the photo in a bucket or sink of clear, cold water. Don’t rub the photos and be sure to change the water frequently.

If you don’t have time right away to dry your damaged photos, rinse them to remove any mud and debris. Carefully stack the wet photos between sheets of wax or parchment paper and seal them in a Ziploc type plastic bag. Some experts recommend freezing the photos to inhibit damage. This way photos can be defrosted, separated and air-dried later when you have the time to do it properly. Others believe that freezing will cause small cracks to appear and don’t recommend it.

It is important to note that some historical photographs are very sensitive to water damage and may not be recoverable. Older photographs should also not be frozen without first consulting a professional conservator. You may also want to send any damaged heirloom photos to a professional photo restorer after drying.

Rescued and restored photos can give the owners a little piece of themselves back when so much has been lost. The stories from recent natural disasters should motivate all of us to write that family book and make the preservation of your photos a priority.

 

A Real Puritan Woman: Joan Braybrooke Penny

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Mehitabel’s Evil Stepmother : Joan Braybrooke Penney

Joan Braybrooke, one of the main characters in “The Shadow of Salem: The Redemption of Mehitabel Braybrooke, had every reason to be angry. Her husband, Richard Braybrooke, and their indentured servant were accused of fornication in 1652 by the courts in Ipswich, Massachusetts.  After being whipped and fined, Richard fulfilled the next part of his sentence: he was to raise his infant daughter Mehitabel in the Braybrooke home.

It was also a historical fact that Joan held Mehitabel in contempt throughout her childhood. The Braybrooke’s neighbors attributed their opinions of sixteen-year-old Mehitabel to their conversations with her stepmother Joan. The actual court records quote them to describe Mehitabel as “unchaste and spiteful,” and as “a liar and a thief.”

How tragic that Mehitabel would be the only child in the Braybrooke household. Joan Braybrooke was a barren woman; a situation considered a sign of God’s disfavor in the Puritan culture.

Joan made it into the Ipswich court records for her own offenses on several occasions. In 1653, she was brought into the quarterly court for “wearing a silk scarf,” a crime in Massachusetts if her husband’s property was valued at less than 200 pounds. The Puritans viewed the wearing of lace or silks as a privilege only for the wealthy. She was proven not guilty on that charge. Joan was also charged four years later with “a breach of the Sabbath” for “carrying a half bushel of corn or pease” on her way to church. The Puritans had rather draconian punishments for those who violated the Sabbath rest!

The most dramatic event in Joan’s life came in the year 1692 with an accusation that would be punishable by death if proven true.  Read about Joan Braybrooke Penney in The Shadow of Salem. 

This article is part of a series telling the history of some of the real Puritan women who were part of Mehitabel’s life in the historical novel In the Shadow of Salem. The book is in print and e-book format through Amazon.   Linked here:  https://amzn.to/2GWUHzO

My Grandparents’ $5.00 Gift

 

My Polish immigrant grandparents who immigrated around 1906 sent $5 twice a year to thirteen sets of families they left behind in Poland. The Polish cousins who told me this story didn’t mention the years but emphasized how this gift helped them get through some very desperate times. The entire family in this small Polish village was severely impacted by the two world wars, the worldwide depression, and then the decades behind the Iron Curtain. A few of their oldest siblings also immigrated, but the immigration act of 1924 made coming to America almost impossible for most Central and Eastern Europeans. The law discriminated in favor of those immigrants who came from Northern and Western Europe. The younger siblings were forced to stay behind in the villages and work as poor farmers.

My great-grandmother Jadwiga, a widow in Poland, born in 1865.

 

My Polish cousins whom I met on two trips in 2016 and 2018 remember the stories of my grandparents’ generosity to this day−a hundred years later! Like the scarf my grandfather sent to my cousin, the stories were handed down through the generations.

Scarf my grandparents sent to my cousin Maria

My cousins were shocked when I told them my grandparents, in my opinion, were rather poor.  They assumed my grandparents had become rich Americans. They owned their own house, but my grandfather, according to the 1940 census was a floor sweeper at a local steel mill. He became a crane operator in later years.

A family history book I wrote about my grandparents’ family history

My cousins’ perceptions made me wonder how much this $10 a year gift was worth in today’s dollars, so I did some research.

$10 a year in today’s dollars* Total to 13 families
1910 $258 $3,354.00
1920 $122.56 $1593.28
1930 $146.78 $1898.00
1940 $175.08 $2276.04
1950 $101.70 $1322.10

*From US CPI index

Those are pretty hefty sums of money, but then consider how much more they would have been worth in a depressed economy such as Poland’s during these decades. In addition, my grandparents sent medicines and clothing. I remember my First Communion dress being sent. It probably was sold on the black market for more necessary items.

Zofia, an elderly cousin who was about twenty during WWII, told me a poignant story that brought tears to my eyes. After the war, the villagers who had to evacuate their homes in 1942 were allowed back in the village. Zofia had only one tattered and worn dress, but my grandparents sent her some printed fabric. This is what she said: “Because of your grandparents’ gift, I made some nice printed dresses for myself, and I was the prettiest girl in the village. A nice man asked me to marry him, and it was all because of your grandparent’s gift of that fabric!”

My visit with Zofia in 2016

I remember her telling me that story with the same seriousness as she would have related any other war story. The end result of this gift was a good marriage, and that was a fact!

Those of us with such generous immigrant ancestors should be so proud!

The Tragic Life of A Real Puritan Woman: Rachel Clinton

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The story of Rachel Haffield Clinton’s tragic life lies buried in the early records of Ipswich, Massachusetts. Her family emigrated to New England on the sailing ship named The Planter in the spring of 1635. She grew up in an affluent household when Ipswich was a new village in the colony of Massachusetts, but the Haffield family’s fortune dwindled shortly after their arrival.

The years to come would find Rachel destitute and then accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witchcraft Trials. Rachel is one of  the fascinating characters in the newly released historical novel In the Shadow of Salem.” https://amzn.to/2GWUHzO

Continue reading

An Interview with Mehitabel Braybrook Downing

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could interview an ancestor from long ago?  Please enjoy my interview with Mehitabel Braybrooke Downing, the main character in my historical novel, In the Shadow of Salem.

DONNA: Thank you for this unique opportunity to interview you, my 8th great grandmother. Would you start out by telling me about your beginnings−your birth?

MEHITABEL: I was born in 1652 in Ipswich, Massachusetts which was a Puritan colony. My birth mother was my father’s indentured servant. She and my father were brought before the Ipswich courts for the sin of fornication, and they were both whipped, and my father was fined.

DONNA: Tell me about your early years in Ipswich.

MEHITABEL:  The courts insisted my father Richard had to take me to his home and raise me as a good Puritan child. Joan, my stepmother, always resented me and didn’t treat me kindly even though she had no children of her own. I was their only child.

DONNA: How did you and your husband, John Downing meet?

MEHITABEL: We were both born and raised in Ipswich. Everyone knew one another as the colony was still so young. He was ten years older than me, so we were not childhood playmates.

DONNA: You married him at quite a young age.

MEHITABEL:  Yes, like you mentioned in the story, most Puritan women didn’t marry until they were about twenty-two, but things were not going well for me after my time in prison for arson. John wanted to marry me, but my father also rewarded his willingness with a very handsome dowry.  My father gave John about half of his lands.

DONNA: So your in-laws really were the illustrious Emanuel and Lucy Downing?

MEHITABEL: Yes, but they had moved back to England and Emanuel had died by the time we married. Lucy was not attentive to her children she left in the colony. I heard that historians have even written about how Lucy foolishly put all her attention on Sir George, her eldest son. He certainly didn’t treat her well when she became elderly and was forced to depend on him.

DONNA: In your opinion, were the book’s details of your arson trial accurate?

MEHITABEL: Oh, yes!  As I read the court reports about the trial, I am deeply embarrassed. The records present me as a fool and pretty evil, but I was only sixteen. The fire was really a horrible mistake, but I was guilty of starting the fire with my pipe. Standing back now, it all seems so surreal.

DONNA: What about the horrible things said about you in the testimony from your neighbors?

MEHITABEL:  You can see where my neighbors got their wrong opinion of me.  My stepmother, Joan’s words were quoted by others in the court records, calling me unchaste and a liar.

DONNA: It must have been horrible living with a stepmother who hated you.

MEHITABEL: Yes, I didn’t have a loving mother to guide and teach me. The goodwives of the village would criticize and gossip about me.

DONNA: Can you talk about the incident with the pigs tearing at your clothes?

MEHITABEL:  That really did happen. Just like my setting the Perkins’ house on fire, I landed in court, and there is an account that exists to this day.

DONNA:  So, was my accounting accurate?

MEHITABEL:  Let’s just say that you were very kind, but you got the basic story correct.

DONNA:  What about John Beare?  Was he your real cousin?

MEHITABEL:  Absolutely. He lived with us for quite a few years, and father gave him some property when John Beare was of age.

DONNA: What were the most difficult times in your life?

MEHITABEL: My two times in prison were horrible experiences. Prisons back then were vile, cold, and filthy. If your family did not bring food for you, you had to pay for it. If shackles were necessary, the prisoner had to pay for them, and we were given a bill for the cost of our time in prison if we were released.

DONNA: Did I spell your name correctly?

MEHITABEL:  I notice my name was spelled differently in various records, but you chose the one I used: Mehitabel. I used that spelling in that letter “The Ten Persons of Ipswich”−the one we wrote in prison in 1692. That was my signature! Your readers should know that spelling wasn’t standardized back then. My maiden name is spelled Brabrook, Braybrooke, Brabrooke and even Brubruck on different records. Whoever was doing the writing decided on the spelling of a person’s name.

DONNA: How do you feel about having a novel written about you?

MEHITABEL: I am thrilled that finally an accurate and complete story of my life has been written. For the past 350 years, the only things known about me came from those Quarterly court records. It has been so hard to accept that my descendants could only read about my youthful foibles and sins, and even some of those were distortions. Can you imagine how hard this injustice has been to endure for over three hundred years?

DONNA: Is there anything else that the readers of your story should know?

MEHITABEL: They might be interested to know I am probably the only Puritan woman of my time who had historical documents from birth to my life’s end. Court and town records have left me with a rather scurrilous reputation, and I am grateful that you made a valiant attempt to see beyond the cold facts.

In the Shadow of Salem can be purchased on Amazon.com:

https://www.amazon.com/Shadow-Salem-Donna-Gawell/dp/1946016500/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1532380324&sr=8-2&keywords=in+the+shadow+of+salem+by+donna+gawell

 

 

What’s Your Family’s Immigration Story?

Most Americans have many family immigration stories. Those of us who are second or more generations Americans have ancestors who left their homelands under unimaginable harsh circumstances but passed on few personal records to tell their story. The typical immigrant was far too busy to keep a journal, and their descendants may have discarded the once treasured naturalization or foreign birth records.

My grandfather’s naturalization records found in the National Archives

Today, Americans whose ancestors came more than a hundred years ago might consider them as the privileged ones, but these immigrant stories are just as dramatic as modern-day people who cross America’s borders illegally or wait years until their visas are approved.  The immigrants from long ago didn’t just hop off the boat and get on with their lives. Their situation was often more desperate, and they often sacrificed much more. Continue reading