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Greetings: this blog has lots of photos and illustrations, as well as tons of text. It was designed using a large monitor and works best with Chrome, Mozilla or Safari. It does not seem to work well with Internet Explorer or Microsoft Edge.

Also, the footnotes are not reliably “live”: for many of them, you will have to manually scroll down to locate each footnote text, and then manually reverse-scroll back to your place in the main text. I don’t have an incentive to fix this situation. 

Outline of this Preface:

0.1.  About the Methodology: Diligence, Patience, and Cross-Verification

0.2    Sources of Information

0.3     “Why the History Lessons?”

0.4     Drop the ego!

0.5    “But these are only a few family lines!”

0.6     “But those people were racists! Why do I care about them?”

0.7     Our ancestors’ environmental impacts

0.8     Acknowledgements

0.9     Fair Use

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Warren Appler Williss and Dorothy Berger tin 2 fixed

Grandma Dorothy with Grandpa Warren, c. 1930, both still in their late teens. They remained together until they both passed away, 7 decades later.  Original on tintype and found in Grandma Lulu’s scrapbook. Copy cleaned up a bit thanks to Geoffrey C.

Greetings to all Williss & Berger cousins and kin:

Over the years, I urged Grandma Dorothy and Grandpa Warren Williss, as well as Sally, to “spill the beans” on the family roots. I never got very far. Actually, it was always the same response: a small number of repetitive anecdotes, plus some vague descriptions.

I did not start researching these roots seriously until 1994, shortly after Sally died. That is when I made a trip to visit Grandma Dorothy and Grandpa Warren. Since then, my research has been on and off over the years —  with the spurts of “off” due not only to the need to live my life, but also because of the frustration of running into seemingly intractable roadblocks. This blog sets out what I feel are the most important discoveries. There is always more to do. I have been meaning to write this up for years; indeed portions of this text have actually been written as long ago as the mid-2000s. The final push came as I realized I need to memorialize what I have found before I forget it.

Following are some points I would like my readers to consider:

0.1.  About The Methodology: Diligence, Patience, and Cross-Verification

This family tree’s history was handed to us with very large gaps in information. For some family lines, lots of reliable information is readily findable. In other lines, very little is available, and success comes only in fits and starts. After more than a quarter century of researching Williss-Berger family roots, perhaps my most valuable lesson is that the only path to success is through a combination of diligence, patience, and an ongoing cross-verification of facts found. The only method that works is to carefully apply these principals to trace each generation from one to the next one that preceded it.

About Cross-Verification, and Why It’s Essential.

As one researcher named Ella Foy O’Gorman stated simply in 1947, tracing the family tree is

much like a flight of stairs. Each step of the stairs must be attached to the step above and to the step below. In Genealogy this means that there must be satisfactory proof connecting each generation with the generation that precedes it and with the one that follows.[1] 

For an interesting analysis on the importance of facts verification in genealogy, take a look at some excellent articles by Robin Willis, specifically, the article “What Is “Proof” Of Family History?”.[2] She aptly points out the difference between evidence and proof, and how it is the role of evidence to establish the proof of a fact. Excellent, short discussion.

When I mention “cross-verification” in this blog, it is just layperson speak for supportive or corroborating evidence of an ultimate fact or conclusion. It is neither scientific nor legalistic. However, it follows a solid path. When I use the term in this blog, I simply mean that a specific  fact or piece of evidence  makes a conclusion or assumption more likely than not to be true. For example: we might think Ancestor X was living in a certain community at a certain time, based on a US Census entry of someone with the same name and age as our Ancestor  X. Census entries provide substantial cross-verification of facts for any ancestor by revealing household facts such as the names, ages and birth locations of everyone else living in Ancestor X’s household. Each of the household facts reported in the Census entry is cross-verification for our own Ancestor X. Additional cross-verification will be found whenever Ancestor X appears in a later Census record a decade later, often with the same household members and at the same location.  We have solid cross-verification for our ancestor’s family household setup for at least the time span between the two Census entries.

Mind you, I have learned that in the course of tracing family history, nothing is ever 100% certain. I intend to write with confidence in asserting the facts as I have found the record to show, but in several cases I will simply point out that such and such of a fact “may” or is “possibly” be the case. That’s because the there may be some evidence supporting the contention, but further verification is needed. Of course, I am writing here in generalities, but I would hope the point is borne clear in the discussion of the history.

Avoiding Same Name Confusion. Robin Willis’s husband Gary is also a Willis family researcher himself (and we can be grateful his own work had helped us identify our own Willis ancestors). Robin and Gary make a very important point about what they call the “same name confusion”.[3] This is a problem commonly encountered. Too often when researching family roots, we are all too quickly inclined to tag an individual as an ancestor without corroborating evidence, simply because that individual shares the same name and may have other facts common with the ancestor we are reaching. Often it may turn out to be true, in other cases the conclusion can prove false and destroy the path of research. This has certainly plagued my research! I have had to correct myself and reverse course on my research several times over the years, after undertaking cross-verification of facts that I have newly discovered. Several times I have discovered I burned myself because I took a situation of a “could be our ancestor” and assumed the facts meant they were “definitely” our my ancestor.  It’s a humbling and horribly frustrating experience, and the only way to minimize the disaster is by enforcing cross-verification with each generation studied.

Fortunately, with cross-verification, many of our American ancestors can be reliably identified in historic records, even though it can sometimes be easy to confuse them with other people we find listed in the public records who happened to share the same backgrounds, ages, and even the same names. We have one distinct advantage in researching our oldest arriving ancestors: a large number of them lived in small rural communities and this helps limit other persons in the same communities who we could mistake for our own. Of course, it’s easy to confuse uncles, fathers, brothers and cousins with one another even in tiny villages. But I have found the community size just makes it less likely. And, much of the older data we have was recorded when America was a tiny fraction of the population it is today. My own extensive searches of online US Census records reveals that many of these people in our tree were the only ones in their counties — or even states – who had their same names, ages, families and other matching facts and circumstances. At least from available records.

Cross-verification also minimizes confusion triggered by errors in the records themselves. It’s common to find many errors in old records: errors in spelling, and just outright wrongly recorded information. And, a record could sometimes contain both good and information, even about such things as birthdates and places. Thus, all available evidence about an ancestor’s vitals – name, birth, marriage, death, parents and siblings, locations, historical contexts, military records, professions, and various other facts – must be carefully identified and compared from one record to the next. In some cases a single incorrect or wrongly assumed fact can lead the entire search off-track. Cross-verification helps avoid this result.

0.2    Sources of Information

Key sources of information have I have consulted over the years have included:

  • For starters, small bits of anecdotal information, plus a small number of family photo albums. I have also connected with distant cousins. who have been vital to my search. 
  • Census and other government records including land grants, military records, and marriage and general civic and tax records. Census and many other governmental records can be found online through paid and free subscriptions and are some of the most reliable that can be found. Occasionally they contain inaccurate or misleading information, but overall they are reliably solid and consistent in helping to frame ancestors’ life events.
  • For our many Quaker and Catholic ancestors, church records going back centuries have been vital to the search. Catholic Church records were kept even of Grandma Dorothy’s peasant farmer German and Irish ancestors. Church records are both online through subscription and free services, but some records I have only been able to find only through family history libraries and, in a few cases, in-person research at church offices.

0.3     “Why the History Lessons?”

I try to recount the historical contexts in which our ancestors lived.

I am by no means an expert in American or European history. But the subject of history has been among the most significant motivators helping me along through those years of struggling to identify our ancestors and their stories. Sometimes historical events seem irrelevant to the essential facts at hand: i.e., who such-and-such of an ancestor was, where they lived, and similar basic facts. In most cases – well, at least over the last 150 years or so — we can find the technical facts we need without resort to amorphous subjects such as “history”.

So, then, why discuss it? Truth is, more often than not, historical facts and context allow us to make more sense of the facts we discover. And it’s more than just the spice of the facts we can discover.

I cannot say it better than our (very) distant cousin Philip Roger McCray who, in the prodigal “The McCrays of America” (1993), penned as follows:

“Genealogy is defined in my dictionary as “A study of family ancestors and histories.  All too often searchers, after finding family names and dates of their ancestors, stop there – forgetting to learn their stories – their histories and thereby fail to give new life and definition to those people from whom they sprang. Unless we learn what they did in their day, and as far as possible, explain what motivated them, and the environment that modified their actions, all we have done is to make a list, something about as useful and informative as a telephone directory. Genealogy is about history, and history is about people just like ourselves, who lived in quite a different environment and were affected by quite different social, religious, political and geographical forces. It is only when we understand the world they lived in that we can give these long-dead people a new kind of life in these journals.”[4]

 American and European history is essential to adding context to the facts we discover in researching family history. It’s also one of the most fun parts of about genealogy.

For starters, and strictly as to the subject of immigration to the US, a fascinating and easy-to-read illustrated history of American immigration can be found at the Liberty-Ellis Island website.[5]

0.4     Drop the Ego!

The hobby of researching one’s family roots in the modern Internet era shares one important characteristic with the “selfie culture” that is so widespread on social media today: both are fundamentally rooted in a self-centered focus that can cater to an unhealthy level of narcissism.  

Some people place a great emphasis on taking “pride” in their ancestry. But regardless of your ethnic or cultural background, no one gets to take “pride” in what their ancestors did hundreds of years ago; none of us was alive at that time and therefore had no involvement or influence whatsoever on what our ancestors did. Our “pride” in our ancestors is therefore really irrelevant. Still, we are entitled to be proud of ourselves and who we are with the benefit of (or despite of) the background of our ancestors. But we don’t get to claim victory because they were victorious: were that the case, we would also have to accept responsibility for their worst actions. We don’t get to choose our ancestors. We also don’t get to choose the “attractive” histories in our ancestry and ignore the all of the dirty laundry.[6]

Another risk in being “proud” of your roots is that someone else can always, always one-up you on stories. Our reality is shared by the vast majority of Americans: most of our immigrant ancestors were either middle class enough to afford to pay for the boat trip here, or just dirt poor. There is nothing to brag about. Share an interesting story, and the next one you find or hear is from a direct descendant of a Founding Father. And if that person shares a story, they may next hear of one from a descendant of European royalty. And so forth. It’s a never-ending cycle of one-upping. Most people are not Mayflower descendants — and there is no reason it should be otherwise. There are many immigrants who contributed to the building of America. And that include all of our peasant immigrant ancestors, and the sinners as well as the saints.

0.5    “But These Are Only a Few Lines!”

An important point to remember is that we as individuals can only research particular lines through the generations. Ancestry.com says it has identified hundreds of my cousins within the 4th degree. But it seems impossible to research and report on every line dating back centuries. And you will find only limited research here outside of paternal lines. Naturally, this is because historically women adopted their husband’s surnames. However, I have reported in female lines when I have  found sufficient records to construct the history.

You will see a number of references to siblings and first cousins. Family relationships are among the strongest sources of cross-verification. In some cases, there is so little data about our ancestor that the only way to reconstructed their biography is by researching their siblings. This means the family tree I have assembled has over 370 relatives –of which total only one quarter are our direct, lineal ancestors. But I have included stories about the lives of some of these other ancestor relatives that I discovered along the way.

0.6      “But those people were racists! Why do I care about them?”

How many times have I heard this from friends and relatives when I tell them about my/ our ancestors, some of whom were farmers who — like their peers — relied upon slave labor for their operations, or who did things that pretty much everyone today would consider evil?

Okay: how about this: how about I think you should care because these people are your own roots?

I approach genealogy with these considerations:

  • every major world religion recognizes that every person has the potential for committing acts that are either good or evil;
  • human beings are complex creatures, and many people are known to be very talented or to do great and wonderful things for humanity, but at the same time end up doing things many people find horrible (and I don’t want to have to provide examples here);
  • we don’t choose who we descend from, and the “pride in my ancestry” element of genealogy should today instead morph into “pride in who I am, given — or despite — how my ancestors lived”;
  • whether our ancestors were good or evil is not for us to decide – we are entitled to judge their acts against our own set of morals, but it is important to remember that our sole power is to choose what we do with the facts that we discover about them;
  • we have not only biological connections with our ancestors, we are all directly formed by and impacted by the cumulative and collective cultural traditions as passed down through the generations of “our people”;
  • all of our ancestors, including the ones who did horrible things, are, in fact, “our people”;
  • the USA was built on a firm foundation of not only the blood and heroric acts of European immigrants, but also on the backs of enslaved Africans and the genocide of Native tribes. The USA has been all of these things, wrapped into one.

And if you descend from the Williss-Berger family tree, the folks identified here are, in fact, YOUR people. Some of them did great things for their communities and humanity; others, perhaps not much at all; still others, evil. How about the real response to the question is: “You should care about these people because it is irresponsible to ignore history.”  If your ancestors owned slaves, brutally murdered Native Americans, or did other horrible things, you have some moral obligations: (1) understand the facts; (2) own them as your own societal history.

GettyImages-513681845-Horizontal - Manifest destiny from History.com website

This is the personification of Manifest Destiny, floating westward over the North American continent. She is glorifying land speculation, land grabbing, the eviction of  Native American peoples, the mindless, wholesale killing of wildlife, and technological progress including trains and telegraph lines. (Gast, John, Spirit of the Frontier, 1872) (Wikimedia Commons).

0.7      Our Ancestors’ Environmental Impacts

I am sadly at a loss to find the origin of the following quote (so someone correct me if you have it), but it goes something like this: “Had Christopher Columbus been required to do an Environmental Impact Statement, he might never have gotten permission to land.”

There are lots of reports about the impacts of the white superiority philosophy underlying American expansion and exceptionalism. Just as important, but typically overlooked, is the vast devastation to North America’s ecology that our ancestors collectively caused. I make passing comments in this blog because I feel it is important to remember that our United States of America was not built only on the heroic efforts of 18th Century Patriots, the labors of slaves and the working class, or on the theft of Indian lands or Genocide. American history can also be defined by the plundering of the Continent’s resources, and the wholesale, reckless slaughter of the wild, native landscape.

There are number of books on this subject, but I think the overall situation was succinctly summarized in the article “A History of Wildlife in North America” by wildlife scientists Peter Moyle and Mary Orland,  as follows:

“The richness and abundance of wildlife, especially edible wildlife, during the first 3.5 centuries of colonization and settlement in North America was, from all accounts, awe-inspiring (Warren 2003). Passenger pigeons flew overhead in endless thundering flocks; salmon choked the rivers, to be pitch-forked out as fertilizer; huge herds of bison, antelope, and elk roamed the prairies; whales and seals yielded endless shiploads of oil to burn in lamps. As a result, Americans assumed the supply of such creatures was virtually infinite, a bounty to be harvested at any time for human use. Local depletions of wildlife were noted, but there was always more wildlife over the next range of hills. Some towns and states in this era did try to impose hunting seasons on selected animals to give the game an opportunity to reproduce, but such laws were rarely enforced. More common was the payment of bounties on predators, such as the bounties of one penny each given for wolves by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. This was an era of local extinctions where forests were cleared and streams were dammed. While direct negative impacts of westerners on wildlife were relatively small during this era, attitudes that led to the uninhibited destruction of wildlife and wildlife habitat became established. Specifically, the agrarian view that nature needed to be tamed and put to use allowed the widespread destruction of wildlife seen in the next era, and fit in well with the demands of the emerging industrial economy.”[6.5]

Most of the immigrant ancestors I discuss in this blog – – OUR people —  collectively, came here and scoured the landscape to turn it into a vast agricultural landscape. They violently ripped out the native scrub, grassy and brush vegetation from the ground, drained entire wetland ecosystems, purposefully wiped out species of fauna, and cut down entire forests, and no reason but for the sake of agriculture and human consumption. They left only tiny scraps of the wilderness behind. Most every “usable” inch of land was taken early on, and squeezed with only personal profits in mind.

We cannot get a whole picture of how our ancestors lived — – and what they contributed to our TODAY — unless we remember that the rich natural resources are what really made America originally strong. Today we have inherited a system of random open spaces, parks and privately-owned mineral, water and land resources, but the quality and availability of them depends entirely on our own effective management of them, for ourselves as well as for future generations. We don’t have the luxury that our ancestors did of just moving over to the “next range of hills”, as stated in the article.

I have certainly wondered what exact damage our ancestors did, even sometimes pondering if there is way to estimate the impacts in each case. But it’s not my intent to go there here, because the environmental history of the USA is itself a deep subject outside the scope of this family tree summary.[7]  Still, I cannot help but wonder about the price our North American environment has had to pay for our privilege of being here today.

Does Our Technology Deprive Our Understanding of How Our Ancestors Lived?

Finally, I wonder how our own dependence on modern technology might inhibit us from really getting a seriously good sense for how our ancestors lived. Today, people of all ages are constantly “tuned in” to electronic devices. People are addicted to the Internet and their phones. They will even use their phones and gadgets while in church, in a lecture hall, while walking on a crowded sidewalk, and while driving on busy freeways. But, most of the ancestors discussed here had no such media: they lived and died never knowing about electric power, televisions, radios, computers, the Internet, telephones, automobiles, airplanes and everything else of the 20th Century and beyond.

The neighborhoods where our ancestors lived in rural and small-town early USA history had to have been quiet and peaceful, at least overall and compared with today. Our ancestors didn’t have electronic sounds going, and the only sounds were dominated by birds, insect, and the wind and elements. Two hundred years or longer ago, you can be sure our rural ancestors could identify birds by their sounds; they knew the difference among trees; they could name the plants in the ground; they were overall much closer to nature, and they knew their immediate environments intimately. Today our general suburban population is ignorant, not even knowing the difference between a mockingbird and a bluebird. Our ancestors knew the difference between east and west, because they knew from which direction the sun would come to nurture their crops. Today, too many people cannot even identify the difference between east and west and would never know how to navigate anywhere without the convenience of Google Maps. Our ancestors were also able to see stars at night.

To anyone reading, I ask: how many people today could simply cease using a television or a even a phone or radio? Can you give up your smartphone for one month straight? Would you be able to stand the peace and quiet in your life?  Our ancestors in rural 17th -19th century America would not have any problem, whatsoever. In short, our separation from the environment via our modern conveniences means that, as a people, we have become ignorant about how our ancestors lived for thousands of years. We’ve separated ourselves from the environment and from how humans have lived throughout history, including our Williss-Berger ancesters.[8]

 Still, I try to imagine what things were like for them.

Census population graph, USA 1610 - 2020

Here is a chart of historic US population growth on which I have noted the historical timing of the arrival of Grandpa Warren’s and Grandma Dorothy’s immigrant ancestors.

 

0.8      Acknowledgements

I have to acknowledge the generous assistance that my Williss & Berger relatives have given to me over the years. I cannot list them all here. But special acknowledgement goes to Williss cousins Michael and Warren, who over the course of several years tolerated my numerous e-mails and calls. I also want to thank Williss cousin Carol Craven, and our more distant Williss cousins  Ann Wilson and Richard Douglass.

 0.9     Fair Use

Copyright Disclaimer Under Section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976: All of my commentary and use here of others’ images and writings are for a non-commercial use. I think it is important to support facts and opinions presented, and have striven here to grant due credit to my sources. I have zero intent to violate any copyrights. But under the law, allowance is made for “fair use” for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing. Non-profit, educational or personal use tips the balance in favor of fair use.”

With respect to all images and writings that are original here, all rights reserved by and for descendants of the ancestors covered in these pages. No permission will granted to use the images or writings on these pages for cultish or for-profit uses.  If you copy my images and post them on the web for a commercial purpose, I will trace you down and find you. (Can I be more blunt?)

********************************************************************

Footnotes

[1]      Ella Foy O’Gorman, Descendants of the Virginia Calverts (1947), p.2 (emphasis in orig.).

[2]     What is “proof” of family history?, by Robin Willis, in Digging Up Dead Relatives, accessed as of August 2018, at

 http://digupdeadrelatives.com/2018/07/11/proof-family-history/

http://digupdeadrelatives.com/2019/03/01/reprise-what-is-proof-of-family-history/

[3]    See, e.g., http://digupdeadrelatives.com/2016/06/04/same-name-confusion-sorting-out-three-men-named-lyddal-bacon-esteslyddal-estes/

[4]   McCray, Philip R., “The McCrays of America”, Heritage Books, Bowie, Maryland (1993), at Foreword, .pdf p.5.

[5]      http://www.libertyellisfoundation.org/immigration-timeline

[6]    https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/beastly-behavior/201801/the-meaning-and-meaninglessness-genealogy?amp

[6.5]  Essays on Wildlife Conservation, A history of wildlife in North America; By Peter Moyle and Mary A. Orland, Edited by Peter Moyle & Douglas Kelt; last revised July 2004; https://marinebio.org/creatures/essays-on-wildlife-conservation/3/

[7]     It’s deep, formally studied subject.  See, e.g.,

https://academic.oup.com/jah/article/100/1/94/747851

[8]     See also, about light and noise pollution:

https://www.darksky.org/light-pollution/; https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/noise-pollution-humans-wreaking-havoc-u-s-wildlife

 

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Me (on the phone): "That's "C-r-e-s-a-p".

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