Autograph Books: More Genealogical Gold


Autograph books. A bit of a novelty in today’s world, but I still have the one my parents gave me when I was in the fifth grade. I asked all my school friends to write in it, mainly so it wouldn’t draw attention when I asked the boy I’d secretly been crushing on since AT LEAST fourth grade. It went nowhere, by the way. The little 3×5 album traveled with me to England the next December when we visited my family in Northamptonshire for the holidays. The Brits really know how to fill a page with rhyming wit, and reading their words of wisdom masked in no small amount of silliness stills makes me smile. It’s tucked in a special box of childhood ephemera and remains one of my treasures.


In my work at the ECHS archives, I’ve discovered many family collections contain autograph books, and they never fail to provide interesting insight into their young owners’ lives. Last week, I was thrilled to find two in the Virginia Drown Smith Collection, dating back to the 1880s. Beautiful and charming in their own right, they reveal something of the personalities of the owners and their friends and family, and they also confirm relationships suggested by other colder, dryer records [finally coming to my point :-)]

Master Cyril Myron Drown’s autograph book begins with sage advice from his father Hosea:

Strive to improve in some way each day
so that you cannot say with regret at night
‘This day was lost.’

It’s filled with many tender sentiments such as the entry from his cousin Jessie Drown:

May virtue guide and love direct
This little boy whom I respect.
                ~March 15, 1884

The humor of a brother, January 27, 1889:

Remember Me When
Far far off where the
Wood chucks die off Whooping
                ~Your brother, Samuel H. Drown

And this, from his younger brother:


Vintage children’s autograph books are miniature wonders. If your ancestors’ family papers were donated to a local archive, or if you are lucky enough to find a personal stash of family memorabilia tucked away in the attic of your ancestral home, be sure to keep an eye out these little gems. They are a wonderful find!

In closing, I’ll leave you with my own Father’s words of wisdom, dated Winter 1974:


This page is gold-so in life be bold;
if it appears green-believe what you have seen;
if it appears blue-remember I’m watching you;
if it appears red-keep a cool head; and
if days might seem black-just never look back.

Thank you, Dad!
Autograph books belonging to two of Hosea Drown’s children, Victoria Drown Smith Collection, No. 149, Erie County (PA) Historical Society Library & Archives, Erie.

Nuggets of Gold: Our Ancestors’ Diaries

My very first assignment as a volunteer at the Erie County Historical Society was to transcribe the 1859-1862 Diary of Hosea Drown. It was love at first sight 🙂 Hosea was born in Greene Township around 1833 and lived his entire life in this county. He was many things: He farmed with his father and brothers; he taught school in the earliest schoolhouse in Belle Valley; and he served as constable, as well as several other offices as needs arose. In later life, having retired from farming, he moved his family to town and sold real estate. Although a simple man in many respects, one thing became clear to me as I read his diary. Hosea was an educated man. A man of deep thought and good conscience. A man with introspection enough to understand himself and those around him, an appreciation for an individual’s role in community, and the forethought to document what went on in his.


I had an opportunity, while working on another project this week, to revisit Hosea’s diary, and I was instantly reminded of the wealth of information to be gleaned in these sort of archival treasures.

Hosea Drown was born fifty-two years before the advent of vital registrations, but his observations on family and the society all around him paint a much richer picture of our ancestors’ nineteenth-century lives than any vital record I’ve ever seen.

A few entries from 1859 Spelling, punctuation, or lack there of, is Hosea’s own:

13 February: FRANK BECKAS died this morning at Eagle village after a long illness.

27 March: Went up to see JOSEPH HIRT who is sick with the measels.

7 April: Went up to see JOSEPH HIRT in the evening he is very sick & his recovery is rather doubtful.

8 April: Went up to set up at night with JOSEPH HIRT who is not expected to live he has the nervous fever.

12 April: Went to the funeral of JOSEPH HIRT who died yesterday aged 21 years he was a youth much respected by all who knew him. The good & noble are seldom left till the last they are taken seemingly to be drawn from the temptations of evil—we are rapt up in a misery which death alone can unfold.

3 April: Sunday, I felt slightly indisposed but I went over to see how LEROY PINNEY was he is getting better—sick with the typhoid fever.

16 April: LEROY PINNEY died of typhoid this morning, at the age of fourteen.

24 October: We went out to GEORGE OGER’s wedding we had an enviable time without a doubt any quantity to eat & cider to drink. There was a dance at night but it was considerably crowded.

-ALBERT was there although he wasn’t invited he was allowed a seat with those that were or at least he took it—towards the noon of night the unfortunates began to pipe up some unearthly music & sounds outside but as soon as they observed there was no one to step it off they began to consider it wouldn’t pay & decamped accordingly though not ‘till they had unloosed a horse & upset old HUMPETER’s wagon & rack in the middle of the road.’

-Taking everything else into consideration the generality of the crew & the temptations the wedding went off grand in the extreme & agreeable enough to make every old maid & bach’ envy the lot of the wedded pair—except the girls generally drank a fearful amount of cider.

Despite the fact that Hosea fails to name George’s wife, the value of this entry goes beyond that of a marriage license application, which, while typically brimming with its own genealogical gold, really provides little beyond the cold, dry facts of the matter. I’d take this kind of detail any day 🙂

1859-1862 Diary of Hosea Drown, Victoria Drown Smith Collection, No. 149, Erie County (PA) Historical Society Library & Archives, Erie.

Index to N.W. Russell’s Manuscript on Erie County History

The pioneers of Erie County were proud of their efforts to settle the wilds of what was only newly part of Northwest Pennsylvania, and the Russell family was no different. Captain Nathaniel Williard Russell, son of early settler Hamlin Russell, and grandson of Revolutionary War patriot Nathaniel Russell, of Connecticut, is credited with recording much of the county’s early days. He wrote a series of newspaper articles on the History of Erie County which ran in The (Erie) Gazette from 1870 to 1886. He also co–authored Part II of Warner & Beers’ county history. An index of names from his original manuscript, housed at the Erie County Historical Society’s Library & Archives, was compiled by the Erie Society for Genealogical Research (ESGR) in 2001.That index is in the process of being published, over a number of issues, in the ESGR’s quarterly bulletin, Keystone Kuzzins, wherein, if you sign up to have the issues sent to you digitally, you will be able to search on names.

The impetus for Russell’s work, according to the publishers of Warner & Beers’ 1884 History of Erie County, a death bed conversation between Nathaniel and his ailing father Hamlin, in which the elder man is alleged to have said:1

I have made a great mistake in not keeping, for the good of future generations, a historical record of the advent and progress of the early settlers. Your retentive memory can yet collect them, and put them in a shape that will be of great use to the inhabitants hereafter. Promise me you will do so.

And, so he did, in the form of a weekly column in the Erie Gazette, spanning 1870–1886.2  He also co–authored, with Benjamin Whitman, Part II of Warner & Beers History, dealing with the settlement and development of the county. Nelson also acknowledges his reliance on Nathaniel’s work in his Biographical, Dictionary, and Historical Reference, published in 1896.3

Apart from the fact that, as researchers, we are fortunate there was such a man as Nathaniel Russell, with a passion for history and a wish, much like our own, to preserve it for future generations, we must also take heed: We are the Nathan Russells of our time. As you study the documents made by your ancestors, and diligently record the information within, also task yourself with noting the history of the eras and the context in which your ancestors made those records. It makes a difference. It gives us a better understanding of our origins and heritage and preserves it for those who pick up the work we leave behind, either to carry it on or merely to learn from whence they came.


1.  The History of Erie County… (Chicago: Warner & Beers, 1884), iii.

2.  See WorldCat’s listing on the newspaper articles at : accessed May 2015.

3.  S.B. Nelson, Biographical, Dictionary, and Historical Reference Book of Erie County, Pennsylvania (Erie: S.B. Nelson, 1896), iii.


Finding Genealogical Gems Tucked Away in Libraries & Archives

I volunteered last month in the ECHS Library & Archives, tasked with packing a special collection of rare books, readying them for the impending move to the archives new location on 6th Street. The particular unit I worked on contained three shelves of books from the Battles Collection. I might have gotten the job done sooner, but as I picked up each title to wrap it in tissue and bubble wrap, an overwhelming curiosity urged me to open its cover, and look through the first few pages. I was particularly drawn to, no surprise, the dictionaries, grammar, and spelling books, inscribed with the names of their young owners. Many of them belonged to CHARLOTTE M. and JAMES WEBSTER, JR., of New York and, later, Girard. Naturally, having a penchant for family history, I wondered all kinds of things: Were they siblings? Did both survive to adulthood? Did Charlotte use her education, privileged as she must have been to be receiving a formal one in the first decade of the 1800s? And, how were they related to the Battles family?

It occurred to me that this small collection of schoolbooks, dating from as early as 1786, is a rich source of information about the Webster family. The subject and condition of the books hint at the family’s lifestyle and provide context to their family activities. The copyright dates place the family in a particular decade and suggest ages of the children. The inscriptions in the front situate the family and suggests migration patterns. The use of such things as “Jr.” in a name provides clues to paternity. The very signature themselves could potentially be useful in establishing identity in records made by persons of the same names later in life. Wow! I can definitely see this kind of resource coming in handy when reconstructing families who predate more typical types of genealogy sources, both here in Erie County, and elsewhere. So, add this to your arsenal of records to check when creating your research plans. Check catalogs at historical societies, libraries, and archives in the communities where your ancestors live. And don’t forget—if your find something useful, take the time to write a complete source citation!!

(This article was originally published in the November 2014 issue of Keystone Kuzzins, the Erie Society for Genealogical Research’s quarterly newsletter.)

The Lost Art of Letter Writing

Family papers and other unpublished manuscripts provide a kind of insight into the lives of our ancestors that cannot be obtained from vital records, court records, census records, and other official documents. Our ancestors’ letters, journals, clippings, and ephemera, were the stuff of their daily lives, and reading them can give us glimpses of exactly what those lives were like. They reveal their personalities, their cares and concerns. They offer explanations and a better understanding of our ancestors’ actions, and they add the color that is lacking in the black and white of their more official records.

If we are fortunate, we may discover that our ancestors’ papers are in the safekeeping of a relative, or are preserved in an archive. If not, we may still be lucky enough to find mention of them in the papers of their known associates. There are close to 1,000 letters in the Oren Reed Family Papers Addition, and while many represent the correspondence between Sophia Reed and her parents Otis Reed and Julia Nye, and her siblings, there are a substantial number of letters which Sophia received from her friends and distant relatives. If you consider that the letters people saved were the ones written to them, it makes sense that the letters contained in archive collections will frequently have more to do with friends and associates of the family.

No one can argue that the technological advances of the 20th century haven’t been wondrous, and certainly the Internet has brought the world at large into the comfort of our homes, but what of the newsy letter? Yes, paper is fragile, and handwriting can fade, but will our emails and social media activity be accessible to our descendants in another 200 years?

If not for the handwritten letter, how would we know of Julia Nye’s pride in graduating Edinboro Normal School in 1883, and her tormented decision, two years later, to turn down a teaching position to stay home and care for her father and younger brothers following the unexpected death of her mother? [1] How else would we learn of Otis Reed’s piety and his advice to daughter Sophia that playing cards are “the Devil’s greatest tools…”?[2] Could any other record of Sophia’s friend Ella Gochnauer’s marriage convey the bride’s appreciation for a wedding day that “… dawned with a leaden sky, but glints of sunshine soon appeared and when the eventful hour of nine–thirty had come, the sun was in its proper place….”? [3] How could official records possibly convey Sophia’s affection for her friends, or the importance of her lifelong correspondence with students she’d taught while living in New Jersey in the early 1900s?

Our ancestors lived lives just like ours. They had adventures, fears, hopes, and dreams; they found and lost love, felt great joy and knew terrible sorrow—the details of which would be lost to us were it not for their letters and journals. They were so much more than their birth, marriage, and death dates. Think for a moment how much of who you are will never be found in the official records you leave behind. Yes, today’s technology shrinks our world and encourages a communication which is virtually instantaneous, but will our digital history outlive us? Think of the thrill you’d feel upon discovering a collection of your great–great–grandparents’ courtship letters. What will your children’s grandchildren know of you?  Decades or centuries from now, what a treasure even one letter or journal entry written each year would be to those who come after us, eager to learn who we were. They needn’t be brilliant, just sincere. You needn’t tie them in satin ribbons, a simple cardboard box will do. They will help prevent the obscurity of forgotten souls, and will let us live on in the hearts of those we leave behind.

This article originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of Keystone Kuzzins, the quarterly bulletin of the Erie Society for Genealogical Research. The Oren Reed Family Papers Addition, and other collections like it, can be found at the Erie Historical Society’s Library & Archives, Erie, Pennsylvania.

[1] Viola Nye Nowell, handwritten letter to her sister Julia Nye, 1885; Oren Reed Family Papers Addition, box 2, ff 19.

[2] Otis Reed, handwritten letter to his daughter Sophia Reed, 1911; Oren Reed Family Papers Addition, box 7, ff 101.

[3] Ella Gochnauer McAllister, handwritten letter to Sophia Reed, 1912; Oren Reed Family Papers Addition, box 4, ff 57.

ESGR Keystone Kuzzins Database

If you’re not already a member of the Erie Society of Genealogical Society, you may not be aware that they have been been publishing a bulletin, quarterly, for the last 30 years. Aside from Society news, the bulletin has published a wealth of index information and original records found in the Society’s holdings or extracted from materials available at the Erie County Historical Society and the Erie Public Library’s Heritage Room.

An index of volume’s 1-25 is available on the ESGR website here, and if you cannot pay a visit personally to the history center on State Street or the Heritage Room at the library, where copies of the complete set of Keystone Kuzzins are available, the society offers a search and copy service for a small fee.

Some of the items included in the index are

  • extracts from a variety of 18th & 19th century Erie County family bibles
  • listings from cemeteries with Revolutionary War veterans
  • transcripts of detailed death registers printed in early Erie City Directories
  • extracts of articles from early area newspapers
  • historical articles such as a story on Erie Co. post offices in 1840
  • marriage records from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church 1828-1849
  • Civil War Navy enlistments 30 August 1862
  • Property Assessment lists 1800-1803 for Northwest Pennsylvania
I don’t believe any of this information is currently available online. Take a look at the index for other treasures you might find there!