Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Gone fishing at "Find A Grave"

Nero, we've been told, fiddled while Rome burned; and last week as the flood waters rose in Iowa, I fiddled with (or fished at) "Find A Grave," a free Web site that promises access to 24 million tombstone inscriptions. I've not counted, but would guess that's close to accurate. You can find the site here and I recommend the search engine found under "Search 24 Million Graves Records" if you'd like to fish, too.

Find A Grave got started, I think, as a repository for photographs of and information about the gravesites of famous people (that feature is to your left on the home page), then like Topsy, it just growed. The tombstones have been added by volunteers --- in many cases entire cemeteries --- and many of the inscription pages that come up have photos of tombstones attached. It is in some ways a genealogist's dream come true.

Now you're not going to find everyone --- in fact you may not find anyone you're interested in at all. But it's worth a try. As is true in fishing, it helps to have a well-stocked pond --- lots of people whose graves you'd like to find. The more dead folk you have to look for and the wider geographical area you're interested in the better chance you have of landing, well, deceased kinfolk. It also helps to have relatives with distinctive names. There are a million Joseph Browns (one of my great-grandfathers) out there; fewer named Plymmon Sanford Hayes (although he's not listed, yet).

I'm going to talk today a little about two of my biggest catches last week, and maybe will share a couple of other tales from the crypt tomorrow. I've used "Find A Grave" for a long time, leaving it behind when something else bright and shiny attracts my attention, then going back. I'm always surprised at what's been added while I've been away.

Anyhow, someone tipped me off last week that all of Violet Hill Cemetery at Perry (Iowa) had been added to Find A Grave. I had known that a brother and sister of one of my great-great-grandmothers, Sarah I (Hunter) Dunlap --- William S. Hunter and Susan (Hunter) Ginn --- were buried there along with a number of their children, so decided to take a look since I didn't have dates of birth and death for them.

What I didn't know was that Susanna Hunter, my great-great-great-grandmother, was buried there, too. Her husband, John Hunter, had died a very long time ago in Jo Daviess County, Illinois, not far from Galena, and I'd lost track of Susanna after the 1870 federal census was taken. Finding her at Violet Hill was kind of accidental, since she shares a tombstone with a woman, Jennie C. Ford, and Jennie's infant son, Eddie. Eddie died 27 August 1881 and Jennie, 30 September of the same year. So the surname carved on the tombstone is "Ford" and that name had been attributed in the Find A Grave indexing system to Susanna,too, although her inscription reads, "Susanna Hunter, Died May 20, 1881, Aged 83y, 10m, 7d."

I am assuming that Jennie was a granddaughter of Susanna, but haven't quite got that sorted out --- but I will. And I was very pleased to land that big fish --- a great-great-great-grandmother.

Since I was in a Hunter mode, I decided to type the name of my great-great-grandmother (and Susanna's daughter), Sarah I (Hunter) Dunlap, into the search engine. Lo and behold, up came the tombstone she shares with daughter Linnie in the Santa Barbara Cemetery, Santa Barbara, California.

I knew that Linnie and Sarah (known in the family as the most widely traveled corpse west of the Mississippi) were buried at Santa Barbara, but wasn't even sure they had a tombstone. So finding that tombstone was a big fish, too.

Linnie, actually Melinda Belle Hunter, was the youngest child of Franklin and Sarah I. (Hunter) Dunlap, and grew up in Rock Rapids in extreme northwest Iowa where her dad (after whom I am indirectly named, minus the "lin") was a teacher. Tuberculosis ravaged two generations of the Dunlap family. Franklin lost at least two siblings to it (and another, Eugene, to the Civil War); and four of Franklin's and Sarah's children (including my great-grandmother, Susan Elizabeth Dunlap Dent) also died of "consumption."

Franklin Dunlap died 18 July 1900 at Rock Rapids and shortly thereafter Linnie, also a teacher, developed symptoms. Determined to do everything she could to save her youngest child, Sarah left Rock Rapids with Linnie on a quest to find a place where the climate would prolong her life. They spent some time in Texas, then landed finally in Santa Barbara, where they had just completed and moved into a new home when Linnie died on 7 May 1903.

About a year later, Sarah's son, John W. Dunlap, an attorney, died at Flandreau, South Dakota, where he lived with his wife and son.

During the summer following, 1905, Sarah returned to northwest Iowa to visit her remaining children at Rock Rapids and in Flandreau. She died unexpectedly at Flandreau on 22 August 1905 and that presented a problem, since one of her final requests was to be buried beside Linnie in Santa Barbara. This was the height of summer, remember, and there was no practical way to transport a corpse no matter how carefully prepared a great distance without great unpleasantness.

So Sarah's body was brought back to Rock Rapids the day after her death (her son-in-law, Frank Wallace, was a Rock Rapdis undertaker/furniture store owner), and funeral services were held there. Her body then was taken to Cedar Rapids where it was placed in a receiving vault until winter. Then it was crated and placed aboard a train and transported to Santa Barbara for burial --- hence, the most widely traveled corpse in the West description.

There are a thousand tombstone tales out there, but I started the morning weeding flower beds at St. John's, followed that with composing this, and now I'm really way behind --- so had best move along for now.

1 comment:

Ed Abbey said...

I haven't checked "Find a Grave" for a couple years after only being disappointed. Other shiny things probably attracted my attention as well. Perhaps I need to swing back by.