It was Christmas in the early 70’s. I’m thinking about 1972. I was a proud owner of a Polaroid Instant Camera; I seem to recall a bit of family drama, which resulted in this gift from my dad. For my birthday I received some film for the camera, and since this was a rare occurrence (I am sure it was pricey) I rationed it accordingly. When I was 9, my parents separated, my mom, and I moved frequently. My limited picture collection saw a lot of miles, and today very few remain. The pictures weren’t very good, but one has made it into my scrapbooks, it was the subject that warranted the placement.
There was knock at the back door, and in walked a fellow that I didn’t recognize. He was old; probably ancient would have been a better description, at least to my young eyes. I tried to make my escape but I received a non-verbal cue from my mom that it would be rude to scamper off, with a firm grip on my shoulder I was plunked down at the kitchen table. I can’t recall the tales, but I do remember the man was utterly fascinating, and had a lot of stories I could not resist. My camera was in the next room, and I wanted a picture. Being a bit shy I wouldn’t dare ask for him to pose, so I took one on the “sly” from the floor. I doubt it went unnoticed, if the noise of the camera didn’t clue him in, the smell of the chemicals would hardly be missed. To his credit, he didn’t call me out on it, and I have my fond memory of him and his visit.
All I know about my subject was that he was a brother of one of my Great Grandfathers. My mom told me he was Uncle Bill Fennimore, a merchant marine and that he would pop by the house from time to time. Since Willie Fennimore of that family did not see his 4th year, it had to be another brother, either Clarence, or Raymond. My father told me the picture was of Uncle Ray, which would make sense, as Clarence was married and had children. His visits would most likely include more than a solitary fellow, so my picture is most likely of Raymond Jaques Fennimore, bachelor, and merchant marine.
Although Raymond wasn’t my direct ancestor, many years later I am still interested in the kind old man I met as a child. Although he was not the youngest, it seems he was the last one home with his mother. His father William was incapacitated by a head injury and the financial front must have been a bit dire. In the 1910 Federal Census we find Raymond 17, living along with his mother Matilda, his younger sister aged 14 appears to have moved out to make her way in the world. Perhaps Ray was already out in the ocean, at this point, and simply found his way home between voyages. A common theme seems to be late filings of paperwork due to being at sea. One of the first documents I ever received for Raymond was his application for a social security number (SS5 form). On this form it is indicated that his employer was the S.S. American Farmer, Pier 62, NYC and that he had an urgent filing because he was a seaman and never received his previous number. In May 1943, Raymond’s WWII draft registration indicated he was late filing because he had been out to sea as a Fireman aboard a ship. Although he registered for the WWI, And WWII drafts he doesn’t appear to have served directly in the armed forces in either of these wars, but is working on ships during both time periods.
Thanks to Ancestry.com I have been able to find some additional information on Uncle Ray. Passenger lists are not restricted to immigrants to America and the multiple comings and goings of our ancestors can be found on Ancestry.com and EllisIsland.org. Many of his trips are documented in various passenger and crew lists on a few online repositories. He went to many different places, but the one that seemed to catch my eye was a return in April 1943 to Boston Mass, from Iceland. My first observation was this would have been during WWII, and it probably an assignment on behalf of the war effort. I dug a little deeper into the document and noticed that my Uncle’s name with many other’s was crossed out with an indication that one should refer to “sheet number 4, Citizen’s Manifest”, so all that remained were 13 “foreign sailors” with, certain columns completed, as this was really a list of “Alien” arrivals. When I scrolled down to the bottom of the page I couldn’t help but notice “13* includes (8) survivors”. I know very little about maritime terminology, but if this possibly means that only 61% of the foreign born occupants survived the trip; I have to think “Deadliest Catch” crews have nothing on these guys. I decide to do a little research on the role of the merchant marine in WWII, and the vessel.
According to Wikipedia, The S.S. Chateau Thierry served as a troop transport and that after my Uncle left its deck, it was transformed into a hospital ship. It was originally built in Hog Island for WWI but arrived a little late, only to see active duty in WWII. If the ship’s main purpose was to transport troops from Europe, then the mortality rate could definitely be high. The ship is also mentioned in a book called, “Unsung sailors: the Naval Armed Guard in World War II” by Justin F. Gleichauf. Mr Gleichauf paints a picture of ships so old that Germans didn’t bother to bomb them figuring they would sink soon enough. He also indicates they were indeed ships used in the war effort and at risk of attack. In pages 76 and 77, he discusses the trips from Iceland to Boston and mentioning a near collision between The Cheateau Thierry and another ship. Wikepedia’s entry for Merchant Marines in WWII indicates a high degree of danger “3.1 million tons of merchant ships were lost in World War II. Mariners died at a rate of 1 in 24, which was the highest rate of casualties of any service. All told, 733 American cargo ships were lost and 8,651 of the 215,000 who served perished on troubled waters and off enemy shores.” The life of a merchant marine did not sound like an easy one. Raymond Fennimore was 50 years old during this time, demanding work for a man of that age, considering many years of such wear and tear. I can’t imagine the people he met or the things he witnessed, but it must have been worth quite a few interesting stories.
In looking at his picture with grown up eyes, I see my dad by the sink in a t-shirt, scotch tape on the table, and a coffee cup. Is it late afternoon? Early evening? Uncle Ray looks tired, cigarette in one hand, and I doubt it is water in that glass he is holding. Did he enjoy the visit that day? Did my parents take the time to make him feel welcome, or were they busy preparing for Christmas and a bit distracted? I hope his visit was pleasant, and wish I had known him better, or recalled one if his stories. He passed away in 1976, hopefully surrounded by family. If you are out there Uncle Ray, I wish you a Merry Christmas.
Ancestry.com. Boston Passenger and Crew Lists, 1820-1943 [database on-line]. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington, D.C.; Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at Boston, Massachusetts, 1917-1943; Microfilm Serial: T938; Microfilm Roll: 454. Viewed 15 December 2011.
Ancestry.com. 1910 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2006. Year: 1910; Census Place: Passaic, Morris, New Jersey; Roll: T624_903; Page: 5A; Enumeration District: 0036; Image: 90; FHL Number: 1374916. . Viewed 15 December 2011.
Ancestry.com. U.S. World War II Draft Registration Cards, 1942 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010. Viewed 15 December 2011.
United States, Selective Service System. Selective Service Registration Cards, World War II: Fourth Registration. National Archives and Records Administration Branch locations: National Archives and Records Administration Region Branches.
Gleichauf, Justin. Unsung sailors: the Naval Armed Guard in World War II. Annapolis: MD, 1990. Web. <http://books.google.com/books?id=TgFx3m0ySd8C&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0
SS Form Raymond Fennimore, “Freedom of Information Act” Washington, DC. Image in possession of Elizabeth Pellicane, Private residence.
“S.S. Chateau Thierry .” Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia.org, 2011. Web. <Wikipedia.org>. Viewed 15 December 2011.
“United States Merchant Marine.” Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia.org, 2011. Web. <Wikipedia.org>. Viewed 15 December 2011.
Thank you Veterans for serving and putting your personal safety at risk to protect our country. Today I will be thinking of you all but in particular I will consider the ones in my circle, and family that have stood with their nation and did what they felt was necessary. Not all wars are popular; there will always be questions as to whether we belonged in a particular place. We should never let these issues take away from the sacrifice made by men and women in these conflicts. Although I was quite young I can still recall the terrible treatment of our soldiers when they returned from Vietnam. I hope to never witness anything like that again.
In my field I try to locate service records, and pension files. It is a way of course to fill out the family tree, and push the research back another generation. Also one really must consider the impact these battles had on the individual. I need only look to war veterans in my family that I have known to realize it is something that stays with them their entire life. Many chose not even to discuss their experience at all or until enough years passed by to open that door once again. Some of our Veterans carry physical burdens their entire life, and others never make it home. Did they have a home to go to when they returned? Who worked the farm while they were away? What challenges did they face in their life because of their answer to our nation’s call? Don’t just use your ancestors records as a spring-board to determining their lineage, but also consider how it may have changed their lives.
I’ve traveled to many historic places throughout my life and there are a few that really impacted my thoughts on hardships our folks must have withstood. The two in particular that I have felt it most strongly are Gettysburg PA, and Fort McHenry in Baltimore MD. My husband has visited the USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor and he felt it truly was a memorable trip as well. I find touring these sites opens our eyes to the experiences our service men and women may have endured.
I’d like to recognize my war veterans, and offer my appreciation for their efforts. Without your sacrifices who knows what freedoms we would not have today. Here is also to hoping that someday we won’t have any conflicts at all.
Brian, My Stepfather – Vietnam War
Joseph, My Father –in Law – Korean War
Walter, My Grandfather – World War II
Joseph, My Second Great Grandfather – Spanish American War
Peleg, My Fifth Great-Grandfather – War of 1812
Peleg, My Sixth Great- Grandfather – Revolutionary War
Recently I was asked to pull some records at the state archive. They were not the regular birth, marriage, deaths but rather a manuscript from early 20th century. Although the records are on the NJ DARM website, and only one set indicates that portions may still be considered unavailable, pretty much the entire set is currently closed. I pushed a little and convinced the archivist to at least look into the index and see if the surname I was researching appeared. It did not, but there wasn’t much of an index either. I knew my client would be disappointed, when you are digging that deep it’s because many other avenues have been exhausted. The archivist informed me that the reason the records were closed is they are 97 years old, just shy of 100, and technically some of the people mentioned could still be alive. New Jersey has pretty tough privacy laws when it comes to records; I doubt you will ever see our birth/marriage/death certificates on-line at ancestry. This can make it a challenge to find some of the more recent generations when conducting research. Some may question why it is so difficult to find one’s ancestors in the lovely garden state, but I found out first hand sometimes you can encounter a living relative and there can be some implications.
One of my paternal great-grandfathers was born in 1886 and had passed away before I was born. I had very little to go on with this family and I was a newbie to this family history thing. After a year or so and having encountered my first brick wall (which still exists after 16 years), I went old school and sent out letters. I included a letter on pretty stationary, my request for information, a SASE, and a family tree, as I knew it. This hefty package was sent to about 20 recipients that had the surname in the vicinity of my forebears. I wasn’t expecting much but I was desperate. I got a call from one fellow that felt pressured to respond from a local historian he gave me some insight, but clearly he wasn’t really into the whole walk down memory lane. I received a very nice letter from another woman, not much to share but she was interested and then I received the call. He introduced himself and told me he had received my family tree and letter and he would be glad to help me the best he could. Much to my surprise he was the same generation as my great grandfather, and in all honesty I assumed he had passed, and I just hadn’t found the record. My own grandmother (his children’s “peer”) was in her late 80’s. After I picked up myself off the floor we talked quite a bit. He was friendly, bright, and I really enjoyed speaking with him. Towards the end of our call he wanted to ask me a question. He noted on the family tree that his older brother had died, and asked me what proof I had of his death. I only had the social security death index, and an obituary, but the name was very unique, and the address was one that he had lived for a while, so I felt fairly confident he had passed away. I read the obituary, and my newfound cousin, said “yes that was my brother, I just had no idea he had died; you see we had lost contact.” He explained that every family seems to have one that drifts away from the pack, and that was the case with his brother. I didn’t know what to say, I really was speechless. This was something I did for fun, and my activity brought sadness to another person. I apologized profusely and was so sorry he had to find out in this manner. He seemed ok, but I just had the feeling that he wished he spoke to his brother one last time.
I wondered how I could have missed the possibility that my relative could be living. On reviewing my tree I did see I was descended from the first child in every generation, while he was descended from the youngest, and was the youngest of 13. Throw in longevity that seems to run in my family, and it was not really extraordinary. While I really didn’t divulge anything extremely sensitive such as a prison record, or a child born out of wedlock, still my research was a bit of a shock for someone else. Because of this at all costs, I do my best to be conscious of how my findings may impact the living. Not every footnote belongs on an online family tree. I’m not saying hide facts, but consider the privacy of the living before you post it for the entire world to see. If someone gets in touch, then fine be forthright, but in my opinion some things should be kept in that “private” tree. When dealing with clients, of course disclose everything, but again tread with care.
While my client is very disappointed, the nature of the records in that box would have some personal information that could be unsettling if one of the children is still alive. Maybe the state is overly cautious; maybe it is not I guess it’s up to each of us to decide the boundaries. Just be aware you might be providing some unwanted information that could impact another person. There is probably a better way to deliver some data than on a piece of paper, stated simply as a fact.