Bust a Brick Wall with a Phone Call

Stores on Sunday in Vincennes, Ind.

Stores on Sunday in Vincennes, Ind., courtesy of the Library of Congress Archives. I learned this past week that my family were tenant farmers there in the early 1900s. This is a picture of the downtown area… and it looks the same the last time I was there. Different signs, but the buildings are still there.

Over the past month, I’ve been reviewing my family research, looking for any shred, scrap or string of information that could unravel my next break through. Which is what happened.

I have been living in misery trying to locate something stating the death and place of my 3rd Great-grandfather, James McCraw (or McGraw) Combs. A cousin I met online told me he died in Keensburg, Wabash County, Ill. on January 23, 1885. Her information came from another cousin, whose sister had done extensive research on the family over 20 years ago. I wrote to the Wabash County Clerk’s office and received a reply that said they had no cemetery, probate or death record for James. After e-mailing back and forth with my cousin, we concluded that she would try to track down the sources. Fingers crossed.

Since I have no patient bone in my body, I returned to the files. That is when I noticed something that hadn’t registered before: a footnote at the bottom of a page I had printed off of FamilySearch. A year ago, when I really started delving into genealogy, I made a copy of the Ancestral Files for any family member I could find. One of them was for James. I couldn’t believe I’d overlooked this before, but the footnote stated: “family records, bible records in possession of Eliza Kinman, Bloomington, Ind. Eliza’s father was Willis Franklin Combs.” This had to be the ever present, but never found, Eliza Jane—the woman my grandmother got all her information from. She was the reason I’d heard stories about the Mayflower growing up.

Because Google is my friend, I entered her name (a married name I didn’t know) into the search box and hoped that I would find something, anything, which could lead me to her. To my amazement, a transcript of an interview she had done in the 1970s popped up. It was located in the Indiana State Library manuscript section [http://www.in.gov/library/2530.htm], but I was unable to obtain a copy without written permission from the manuscript holder. It is held at the Lewis Historical Library in Vincennes, Ind., and after a conversation with the librarian there, a copy of the transcript was on its way.

You have to admit—this was a bit of a bold move. I didn’t know what the transcript was about. I had no idea what she said, or if it contained anything that could help me. However, the simple idea that a relative of mine gave an interview talking about her life gave me goose bumps. This could really add flavor and character to my family’s story.

A hefty 50-page transcript—the interview Eliza Combs Emmons Kinman gave on March 27, 1973—arrived a week later. In a moment of complete giddiness, I opened the manila envelope and drew out the manuscript. Immediately, I called my dad and read it to him over the phone. Yes, all 50 pages. It blew my mind away. This interview was a part of the Oral History project from Vincennes University. The interviewer, Thomas Krasen, was at the time the director of the Lewis Historical Library, and was interviewing people about their lives during the Great Depression in Knox County, Ind.  Eliza and her family were tenant farmers on the Brevoort farms there.

It was fascinating. Eliza periodically talked about her life as a child at the same farm where her family rented land for a few years: a piece of information that my father and I never knew.  We only knew that they lived in Orange County, Ind. She talked about what she and her siblings did, what crops they grew, what was wild to eat, canning fruits and veggies, going to school, her step-mother, and so much more. My father would interject bits of information, telling me exactly where the places she was talking about were, who the different people in the community were, bits of back-story on the area, and other things that I would never have known without his memory.

Lesson learned: Check and re-check files for new information, and never, ever, be too scared to call a library for a transcript.  You, too, could unravel a path to your dream breakthrough.


Family Tree Firsts is an ongoing blog series featuring newbie genealogist Shannon Bennett of Locust Grove, Va.


Getting your own research in order may reveal an overlooked or forgotten bit of information, just as Shannon’s did. Try our Organize Your Genealogy independent study course, on sale for $74.99!

8 thoughts on “Bust a Brick Wall with a Phone Call

  1. Nope… Still looking for that information. He is a very stubborn fellow and doesn’t want to give up his secrets it seems. I now am considering trying to plot his route from Indiana to Illinois to see if there are any clues along the way. His daughter Permelia and her husband stayed in the Keenesburg area when her mother and 2 of her brothers left for Missouri. I am thinking of looking into her more to see if I can find a link. Fingers crossed!

  2. Oh, and because I have been asked: Eliza was the grand-daughter to James Combs. That is thier connection.

  3. It is very exciting to come across a first person account from the past. I’ve been lucky to come across a couple similar things. One was given me by a very experienced researcher, and some others have come by following through
    on Ancestry starred items.

  4. have you found James McCraw Combs in the 1880 census?
    if so was he widowed by this time? if so there may not be a
    will/probate available if living with this family/children.
    -did the family in the area have a church or cemetery that was used for burials.
    good luck, keep up posted :)
    GJ

  5. My personal blog can be found at: http://tntfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/

    In the 1880 census James and his family were living in Columbia Township, Dubois County, Indiana next door to his oldest son William and his family. Somehow in 5 years they moved. There is a family story told to me by a new cousin about why they moved. My family didn’t have this story, but by the time it was supposed to have happened my ancestor had already moved out and had his own family. Supposedly James caught another man trying court his wife and in a jealous rage shot him. They had to flee the area quickly so that he would not get caught. True? No idea.

    I was contacted last spring by a descendant of James and Mary’s daughter Permilia, who married and stayed in Illinois. Recently I wrote back to her asking if she had leads on his place of death. No word yet. The Wabash County Illinois Clerk’s office has no record of his death, burial, probate, or cemetery in their records.

  6. My personal blog can be found at: http://tntfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/

    In the 1880 census James and his family were living in Columbia Township, Dubois County, Indiana next door to his oldest son William and his family. Somehow in 5 years they moved.

    There is a family story told to me by a new cousin about why they moved. My family didn’t have this story, but by the time it was supposed to have happened my ancestor had already moved out and had his own family. Supposedly James caught another man trying court his wife and in a jealous rage shot him. They had to flee the area quickly so that he would not get caught. True? No idea.

    I was contacted last spring by a descendant of James and Mary’s daughter Permilia, who married and stayed in Illinois. Recently I wrote back to her asking if she had leads on his place of death. No word yet. The Wabash County Illinois Clerk’s office has no record of his death, burial, probate, or cemetery in their records.

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