Military Records

Concordia Parish’s World War II Casualties

I don’t write much about Concordia Parish, which is a shame considering the Stark branch of my tree spent considerable time there.

So, when I saw a list of World War II casualties sorted by parish on the National Archives’ website, I decided to see if I could tell the stories of the Concordia Parish boys who went off to war and never returned home. There were only a dozen. Excuse me while I dive into newspaper archives.

Side note: Wondering about those acronyms in the list of the dead? So was I! Here’s a quick explanation:

DNB: Died non-battle

DOW: Died of Wounds Received in Action

FOD: Foreign object damage

KIA: Killed in action

Moss, ferns, palmettos and flowers decorated the stage at Waterproof High School in 1938 when the sheriff awarded high school diplomas. John Abel should have been among the 18 seniors laughing as “Aline Jeannette delighted the class with a few ‘Memories of the Class of ’38,'” but he skipped his high school graduation. He’d left Waterproof after exams for a job.

In 1940, when he filled out his draft card, he was working at Planters Supply Co. in Ferriday. Just a year later, he was in the Army and trained in California and Texas before joining the fight overseas.

The first word his family received was that he was missing after being shot down in the skies over Berlin. Three months later, the Army confirmed his death. Abel was buried, age 26, in Natchez.

The eulogy written by the “Tensas Gazette” when Robert D. Calhoun Jr. died in France is a tribute to the closeness of small towns.

“We have known him throughout the days of his fine, young life, and our grief over his sacrifice to the ravages of war overwhelms us beyond the power of expression,” the newspaper wrote.

Certainly, Calhoun seemed to have been a shining star, a credit to a family well versed in success. His father was a lawyer, an author and the parish treasurer. His grandfather was a judge.

Young Calhoun attended LSU and got a job with the English department at a Georgia university. In 1942, he joined the first invading forces in North Africa. A sniper’s bullet killed him in France just two years later. The War Department sent his mother a telegram breaking the news.

Calhoun left behind a wife and a baby son.

James Culpepper was a doctor’s son who grew up in Concordia Parish and found work in the wholesale grocery industry. He married Dora Nelson in 1940, took a short honeymoon and settled in Ferriday.

He would die on a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean. Judging by his death date, he was likely among the first casualties of the Battle of Peleliu. The island of Peleliu was occupied in 1944 by thousands of Japanese soldiers, who’d boobytrapped the beaches with mines and explosives. Complicating matters even further, it was extremely hot that September when the invasion started. Landing on the beaches, U.S. troops faced mines, explosives, heavy gunfire and heat exhaustion if they were to succeed in overtaking the airfield that was their ultimate destination.

His mother’s obituary said Culpepper died in the beachhead landing invasion. He’s buried in the Manila American Cemetery.

Sidney, I’m confused. Why are you listed as a Concordia Parish resident when you’re buried in Jefferson Parish? Even more baffling, Dardar is a south Louisiana name and you seem to have lived in Jefferson Parish most of your life.

I think this one’s a mistake unless there’s a Concordia Parish connection I’m missing.

David Dixson is buried in the same French military cemetery as my great uncle. Also like my great uncle, he was awarded the Purple Heart.

Sadly, I could find very little about David – just a scant mention in the newspaper of his death in 1945.

Details were scarce when the War Department notified the Fairbanks family of Ferriday that their son had been killed in action in 1944.

Clay Fairbanks had been a high school football star, known for his enthusiasm and personality. Although he grew up in Concordia Parish, he was born in New Orleans. His parents named him Henry Clay Whittaker although he seemed to go by Clay or C. W. He joined the Army in 1942 and achieved the rank of sergeant.

A few weeks after his death, more details emerged. He’d died of a heart attack in Hawaii.

There’s an unhappy footnote to this story. His father, who worked as a railway conductor, died just a few months later after being struck by a moving train.

George S. Heyen and A. J. Hickingbottom are a mystery. I’ll try to come back to them.

Just a few days before his death in 1945, Harry Hodge received a certificate for bravery. After his death, he posthumously received the Purple Heart.

He died in action against the enemy in Germany, according to the local newspaper.

Harry came from a fairly prominent family. His mother’s cousin was a congressman. His grandfather was a civil engineer.

His parents, Harry Sr. and Betty Dickson, married in 1910. They had three sons and a daughter before Harry Sr. died age 53 in 1924. Harry Jr. would’ve been just 13 at the time.

In 1940, Harry was living with his mother’s sister, who was married to a doctor, on Sycamore Street in Vidalia. It was a large household filled with extended family. Harry was working as a rodman.

Alas, James W. Johnson is a mystery for now.

I had to look up the town of New Era. It’s on the western edge of Concordia Parish.

New Era is where Vernon Reeves’ parents were living when he enlisted into the Army in 1940. Vernon came from a huge family. His sister Hattie would later name her son Vernon.

Vernon died a prisoner of war in Italy. While I don’t know the details, I feel certain that he died a hero. According to his grave listing, he was awarded the Purple Heart, Combat Infantryman Badge, American Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal and the Prisoner of War Medal.

Sam Turner is another mystery.

St. Mary Parish Genealogy, Templet family

Killed on her way to church

See Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Morgan City? That was Cordelia Dantin Budge LeBlanc’s destination the morning of June 22, 1958.

The church really wasn’t a long walk from her Railroad Avenue home. She just had to cross the railroad tracks. There’s even a small flight of concrete steps to help pedestrians navigate the descent from the raised track to the street in front of the church. It was on this flight of steps that Cordelia was found.

Whether she fell trying to rush across the tracks to avoid a train or was actually hit by a train is unclear. No one seems to have witnessed the accident. What’s clear is her injuries were extensive: broken ribs, broken arm, brain concussion and internal injuries. She lingered for a few days before dying just a few months shy of her 82nd birthday.

Born a Dantin, Cordilia spent her early years in Thibodaux but most of her life in Morgan City. Her parents were Theophile Dantin and Irene Templet. Widowed in 1918 when her husband died of the Spanish flu, she seems to have always lived near the church she was trying to attend when she died.

New Orleans, Penisson Family

A dying sister’s letter to her brother

Myrrha Font

Someone’s done a fabulous job of posting the letters and pictures of the Salvador Font-Celestine Penisson family. The Fonts spent much of their married life in New Orleans raising an enormous family. Judging from the correspondence left behind, they were a family who liked to write letters and get together for gatherings.

I’m related to them indirectly through Celestine since the Penissions figure into my family tree. So, I spent a Saturday evening reading through the family letters. One in particular broke my heart.

Salvador and Celestine’s oldest child, Fred, married Leonore Jones and had a large family of one son and six daughters. Only the son, Fred. Jr., married, but his sisters reveled in his family once his children started arriving.

Myrrha, Fred Jr.’s youngest sister, praised each of her brother’s children in a letter she wrote for his birthday while being treated for tuberculosis at a sanatorium in Covington.

She described her eldest niece, Marion, as a lovely girl with a brilliant career. Marion may have been enrolled by that point at Tulane University, quite an achievement for a young lady in 1919.

Nephew Billy was sure to give his parents plenty of happy days.

And, the baby – Allie – was an original who’d apparently been asking about her aunt even though she was only 7 at the time. Myrrha vowed to write Allie a letter of her own.

Whether Myrrha got the opportunity to write that letter is doubtful. She confessed to her brother that she was no better than she’d been before arriving at the sanatorium. A week later, she died.

In her letter, she admitted to a weak spirit, despondency and worrying about choking to death. Yet, she also hoped to stand the trial with patience should it come. She faced death with bravery and a strong faith. Hopefully, death was swift.

Cemeteries, terrebonne parish

The mystery of the Canning graves in Gibson

When you line up family graves like the Brady Bunch and just put names without dates, you confuse people.

The Cannings are buried in St. Patrick Catholic Cemetery in Gibson. They’re in an obvious family plot near the entrance close to the highway that runs between the cemetery and the bayou. Because the plot is near the garbage can for discarded flowers, they caught my attention during a recent visit – mostly because it’s a grid of graves with just names on them.

I’m not the only one who’s noticed the Cannings. The running theory on Find A Grave is that the Cannings had a bunch of children who died young. So many children.

All kidding aside, I can solve this mystery. Years ago, I discovered a book of burial records at the Houma library. It has burial records for St. Andrew, St. Lawrence and St. Patrick. I’ve tried to buy the book without success since it’s been out of print for years. So, over the years, I’ve Xeroxed the contents. In my defense, those burial records are an invaluable resource and I’m not posting the pages on the internet.

But back to the Cannings.

We have Sara, Margaret, Edward, James, Katherine and Madaline in the family plot.

James and Margaret aren’t in the burial records, but this resource says they’re James Canning and his wife, Margaret Whalen. I agree.

James Canning immigrated to Louisiana from Ireland and settled in Gibson, where he farmed and raised six children: Kate, Mary, Fannie, Sara, Edward and Madaline. According to census records, all of the children were born in Ireland. Census records are insistent – decade after decade – that the kids were born in Ireland.

Here I think the census records are wrong. James and Margaret married in Houma. It’s not likely they would’ve married twice. My theory is that James and a brother named John immigrated together to Louisiana, where James met Margaret. But, it’s a slippery path when you start making assumptions about the Cannings.

In 1900, Margaret (the mother) died, becoming the first occupant of the family plot in the Gibson cemetery. Exactly when James died is unclear, but he, too, went into the family plot.

Mary was the first of their children to die – at age 69 – in 1935. She is also buried in Gibson although I didn’t get a photo of her marker. Fannie – the only one of the siblings to marry – died next, at age 80 in 1954. Her husband, Ivy Rochelle, is buried in the Canning family plot.

Now we’re down to four children: Edward, Sara, Kate and Madaline. In 1950, they were ages 78, 82, 79 and 70. They lived together in Gibson, where they probably regaled each other with stories from their childhoods in Ireland if the census records are to be believed.

By 1960, the remaining siblings were dead. Far from dying as babies, all but one lived into their 90s.

Genealogy tools

Did your ancestor own a radio in 1930?

I came across an article today that suggests radio was the internet of the 1930s. Maybe that’s why the U.S. Census Bureau included a question about radio ownership on the 1930 census.

Forty percent of Americans owned a radio in 1930. The USDA even created a character called Aunt Sammy to dispense cooking and cleaning advice to housewives via the radio waves while they went about their day. You can check out some of Aunt Sammy’s radio recipes on the Henry Ford Museum’s website. What made them radio recipes? No idea.

I was curious what my grandmother’s radio situation was in 1930. She was sweet 16 that year and living with her aunt and uncle in Assumption Parish. The granny I knew loved music (Elvis and Conway Twitty were particular favorites) and television soap operas although she was remarkably deaf most of her life (Granny was a riddle). Did her aunt and uncle have enough money to own a radio in 1930?

Ancestry has a new tool that walks you through the 1930 census. All you have to do is find your ancestor and look at the actual census image. A window will pop up asking if you’d like to take a deeper dive.

Here’s what I learned: Granny wasn’t in school but she could read and write (this is true). She lived on what Ancestry calls Ponist Road (I believe it was actually Parish Road). She was born in Louisiana (this is true). And, now for the big reveal, did the rented home have a radio?


Are you really ready?

Are you sitting up straight?

The census taker either didn’t ask or didn’t record whether Granny or any of her neighbors had a radio.

I know. I’m disappointed as well.

Here’s Aunt Sammy’s cookie recipe to console you.

I will say this: I don’t remember Granny ever making cookies during her long life. Meatloaf, yes. Spaghetti, yes. Bread pudding, yes. Cookies? Those were lemon flavored and came from the country store. So, I’m doubtful she was an Aunt Sammy fan. I’m also doubtful her family home had electricity in 1930 or that they would’ve sprung for batteries to operate a radio.

New Orleans, Uncategorized

Louisiana’s Madame X

An impulsive moment brought me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in November, where I discovered a Louisiana connection. More on that in a moment.

Months ago, before my Instagram account was hacked by someone in Nigeria, I saw an ad for a conversation between Nigella Lawson and Ina Garten in Brooklyn. I thought about it for a week and then bought two tickets. I love their cookbooks, their cooking shows and their social media. And, the last time we were in New York, the Twin Towers still stood. So, why not take a trip to New York City and admire the fall colors?

We spent a beautiful, breezy November week walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, exploring DUMBO, admiring awe-inspiring churches, choking back tears at the 9/11 Museum, visiting the biggest bookstore ever, stepping carefully away from a sidewalk rat, seeing two renowned cooks and rambling through the rain at Central Park before my husband dropped me off at the entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

If you’ve never been to this museum, I have to insist that you go – even if you’re not in the area to see two cooks talk about the danger of cooking with a mandolin.

The museum wasn’t on the itinerary this trip. We’ve been before, and my husband can speed walk through a museum faster than an elderly mall walker. But I really, really wanted to go. I couldn’t stop thinking about that ancient Egyptian temple built thousands of years ago along the Nile and transplanted, block by block, to the Met. I wanted to turn the corner once again for the big reveal of that temple in the middle of Manhattan. So, we compromised. I went to the Met. My husband went to the Carlyle and sat in the sumptuous bar soaking up the atmosphere and chasing away the rain with hot toddies.

If you’ve never been to the Metropolitan, take a moment to study the floor plan and develop a battle plan since this is a huge museum. I circled the galleries containing the art I just had to see. However, I kept getting distracted. I planned, for example, to visit the Astor Chinese Garden Court. I did not plan to be stopped in my tracks by gorgeous, kimono-inspired fashion on my way to the court.

Another distraction was Madame X.

Currently on view in Gallery 771, this stunning portrait by John Singer Sargent features Madame Pierre Gautreau, who was born as Virginie Amélie Avegno in New Orleans on Jan 29, 1859. The painting was considered risque (look at the amount of pale white skin on display, the figure-revealing dress, the strap inching down her shoulder) in the 1880s, prompting Sargent to mask the subject’s identity by referring to her as Madame X.

I wanted to know more about Madame X. A long piece in a December 1984 edition of the Baton Rouge Advocate newspaper filled in the rest of her story.

Amelie was born in New Orleans, supposedly in a house that still stands on Toulouse Street. Today, it’s a towering, salmon-colored townhome worth millions of dollars. No doubt, it was equally as nice in Amelie’s time. That’s it above in a drawing from the Historic New Orleans Collection.

Her father was Anatole Placide Avegno, a merchant’s son who raised his own regiment to fight in the Civil War. Unfortunately, he had a flair for fashion that led him to outfit the regiment in brightly colored uniforms that included flared pantaloons. He stood out on the battlefield and soon was fatally wounded. He tried to get back home only to die on the way.

Her mother was Marie Virginie de Ternant, who spent her childhood drifting between France and her family’s sprawling plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish.

Paris is a common thread in the family history. After Marie Virginie’s father died young, her mother found solace in Paris and retreated there often with her young daughter in tow. Marie Virginie would make the same trek with her own daughter years later after becoming a young widow.

It was in Paris that Amelie became the bride of banker and ship owner Pierre Gautreau (pictured above). Her uncle traveled from Louisiana to walk her down the aisle. Married life didn’t prevent Amelie from making the rounds of Parisian society. She was known for her beauty. Artist Edward Simmons wrote that she “walked as Virgil speaks of goddesses – sliding – and seems to take no steps.”

Amelie also wasn’t shy. She flaunted her cleavage and was rumored to be unfaithful to her husband. At the beach, she hired a strong man to carry her, Cleopatra like, across the hot sands.

As soon as he saw her, Sargent became obsessed with painting her portrait. Her skin, he later said was “uniform lavender or blotting paper color all over.” That would probably be the arsenic Amelie used to drain the color from her skin.

Amelie sat 30 times for the portrait. Sargent was exacting in his approach, even choosing the sassy dress she wore. He was young and ambitious. He wanted this to be a sensation. Both he and Amelie were social climbers. They viewed the portrait as an opportunity to cheekily dazzle French society.

Problems emerged long before the portrait was shown to the public. Sargent tired of Amelie’s “hopeless laziness.” Amelie, no doubt, was restless about the long sittings. She had a young daughter and social engagements. Still, Amelie seemed pleased with Sargent’s work.

The portrait was designed to titillate. In the original version, one dress strap snaked down Amelie’s shoulder. The black dress is a sharp contrast to the sickly shade of porcelain skin on display in an apparent nod to the complexion of consumption patients.

The unveiling at the Salon of 1884 was a disaster. Amelie became a caricature, the Morticia Addams of her day. Critics compared her to a corpse. “The bluish coloring atrocious,” the New York Times sniped.

Amelie’s mother was mortified, saying her daughter was lost. Certainly, society shunned Amelie, forcing her to take the arm of low ranking escorts when she went to the opera. Sargent fled to London, taking the painting with him. His ambition took a deep dive.

It wasn’t until 1916 that he sold the painting to the Met. All those years later, the debacle was fresh in his mind. He didn’t want Amelie’s name attached to the portrait because of “the row I had with the lady years ago.” Amelie became Madame X. Today, the museum identifies her as Madame Pierre Gautreau. Sargent restored the fallen dress strap to its proper place on her shoulder before relinquishing what he called his best work.

Amelie died a year before her portrait made its way to the Met. She outlived her husband and daughter even though she was only 56 when she died. She’s buried in France, the country that shunned her allure. Today, she’s a sensation.

Assumption Parish Genealogy, Court records

What Narcisse Templet left behind

I’ve been reading through successions – or, as you might know them, probate records.

Really, I’m avoiding cleaning out closets and finally parting with those Kate Middleton-style wedges I foolishly bought and then discovered I couldn’t walk in. Seriously. I teetered. I don’t know how she does it. Maybe this is what separates the royals from commoners.

But back to successions. These are a valuable genealogy tool in Louisiana because they contain so much information. They usually contain the death date, summaries of family meetings, the names of the surviving spouse and children (and sometimes grandchildren if a child died before the parent) and a list of property. In the 1800s, the list of property often included every pot and pan in the house.

Narcisse Templet died in 1865. He left a widow, Irene Melancon, and seven surviving children.

After his death, Narcisse’s property was inventoried and sold. Even blankets, rope, flour, spectacles and salt went into the sale pile.

It’s a fascinating look at what he left behind – and what his neighbors snapped up.


The murder of a priest in 1857

Hurricanes are a bad thing for Pointe a la Hache, which is poorly protected from them. Father Savelli met a different type of destruction in 1857.

Here’s what I knew.

Stefano Dolese/Doleze/Dolise immigrated from Italy and settled in Plaquemines Parish’s Pointe a la Hache, where he died a horrible death in the summer of 1857. His house caught fire. He rushed to his son’s bedroom only to find the door locked. Not knowing the son had already escaped through the window, he broke down the door, bursting into the bedroom just as the fire reached seven kegs of gunpowder in a neighboring room. Afterward, only bits of Stefano were found.

Here’s what I didn’t know until today.

After Stefano’s death, his widow started sleeping with the local priest, resulting in an even more horrific death not even six months after the fire.

Here’s the story.

I came across a piece of this history in a book called “The Catholic Church in Louisiana.” It’s one of my favorite books in the genealogy collection at the Main Library in Baton Rouge. Basically, it’s a history of all the Catholic churches in Louisiana. You would think it would be a dry read. It’s not. Granted, the writeup tilts heavily in favor of the church.

The church, for example, would like to characterize this saga as an assassination. Others might call it justifiable homicide. Let me set the scene.

The community of Pointe a la Hache – located near New Orleans in Plaquemines Parish – is vulnerable to hurricanes. The population’s dwindled since Hurricane Katrina. In 1845, however, the community was growing enough to earn its first resident priest. Father Nicholas Savelli – a native of Italy – arrived in 1845 and started preaching from a church built atop an Indian Mound. Within less than 10 years, it would all come to a very bloody end.

According to the book, Father Nicholas Savelli was going about his business tending to the Catholic population of Plaquemines Parish in 1857 when “sentiment against the priest flared up and fanned by gossip and slander, soon blazed into bitter hatred.” A message was sent to the priest about a sick parishioner. Father Savelli set off and reached a point in the road where murderers were waiting in the bushes to ambush him and stab him 36 times. They then found a bathtub, deposited the priest’s body in it, stripped him, mutilated him, filled the tub with whiskey, drank the whiskey that was marinating in the priest’s body parts, danced in an orgy until dawn and left the priest’s clothes hanging in the confessional. Quite the day in 1857 Plaquemines Parish.

The book attributes the murder to anti-clericalism. Newspaper stories from the era fill in the rest of the details.

A man named Dominique Ormes was arrested as one of the murderers. He quickly started talking.

According to Ormes, who seems to have married into the Dolese family, Father Savelli started visiting Stefano Dolese’s widow every night after Stefano’s unfortunate death. Exactly what happened during those visits was in dispute. One relative said the priest slept with the widow. Another said he stroked her bosom with his cane to excite her. The widow herself said, yes, the priest stroked her bosom with his cane but it was just to convince her to move in with her mother.

Whatever happened, the Dolese family didn’t like it. Their neighbors didn’t like it. The Dolese family was well respected in Plaquemines Parish. On Oct. 3, 1857, the priest and many members of the community met up on the highway. Father Savelli wouldn’t leave the encounter alive.

What happened to the priest’s murderers is unclear. The Catholic Church eventually sent in a new priest who presumably stayed away from the Widow Dolese. There was mention in the newspapers of arrests but no further mention of trials.

There is one postscript buried in the church archives.

The priest’s father wrote Archbishop Anthony Blanc in 1858 thanking him for sending documents that apparently questioned the imputations of shame in his son’s death. He also had a favor to ask. It seems that Savelli had never done anything for his family, which included his parents, four brothers and a sister, but had promised to support them once he’d regained from the church the money he’d spent building a church, a presbytery, a cemetery, a garden with 600 feet of oranges and several chapels.

Would it be possible, Savelli’s father wrote, for the family to get a reimbursement?

Genealogy tools

My very own genealogical Narnia

It’s not the door to Narnia, but it’s close …

A few years ago, I was rooting around on Ancestry when I discovered my very own genealogical Narnia. I consider it consolation for all those hours I spent in my grandmother’s quilt-filled armoire hoping – hoping, oh so much – that the back of it would open into a secret world filled with snow, sleigh rides, talking animals and Turkish Delight. I even memorized a map of Narnia I found in my uncle’s childhood bedroom just in case I needed to navigate this fascinating world. Like algebra, it turned out to be useless knowledge.

I’m going to share my secret in case you also spent your childhood crouched atop a pile of old-smelling quilts looking for Narnia. The secret is a cache of Louisiana court records on Ancestry. For the most part, they’re not indexed, but they are sorted by parish. This means they don’t show up in the search engine, making them a somewhat hidden portal. This little treasure trove came in handy when someone asked me recently for help locating records on the Opelousas Post.

Opelousas is in St. Landry Parish, near Lafayette. It was home to an Indian tribe called the Opelousa when Europeans moved in and established a trading post long before Louisiana became a state. The post switched from French to Spanish hands over the decades.

1801 was a busy year in the Opelousas Post.

Probably the best way to think about the Opelousas Post is as a vast colony in the wilderness. As explained in this excellent writeup, the post stretched for miles and was known as “the west.” The people who settled there crossed an ocean to live in a wilderness. They married, divorced, bought cattle, built farms and died. All of that had to be recorded.

Because the Opelousas Post existed before Louisiana became a state, it was a puzzle as to where the records would be located. I’ll save you the tumble down the rabbit hole. At one point, the St. Landry Parish Courthouse had them. In the 1980s, they were turned over to the State Archives, where they take up 1 cubic foot of space.

Now I could grab a pencil, notepad and a pair of gloves and head over to the State Archives to carefully read centuries-old documents. First, though, I checked my little Ancestry portal. And, just like that, I was transported to decades of slave sales, mortgages, marriages, deaths and squabbles in the Opelousas Post. No, I didn’t read every record that’s been scanned and placed in my portal (yes, I now think of it as my portal). Someone did that for me and summarized the records. That someone included names, the language the record is in (French, English or Spanish) and the general topic (marriage, murder or boring property sale).

It’s fascinating to get a glimpse of life in a trading post on the Louisiana frontier.

Even better, you’ll find records for just about every parish and post in the state of Louisiana. All you have to do is take the time to browse through them. If you’d like to do so while sitting atop a pile of quilts in an old armoire, I won’t judge you.

Here’s how I find this cache of records: I type “Louisiana wills Ancestry” into the Google search engine. It takes me to the collection, which is officially named “Louisiana, U.S., Wills and Probate Records, 1756-1984.” You could also just go through Ancestry’s card catalog.

You’ll land on a search page, which is only somewhat helpful and rather misleading. Only a fraction of the records is indexed. So, if the search engine doesn’t produce anything, don’t despair! The landing page also has a “Browse this collection” section on the righthand side of the page. This is the treasure trove. You can pull up records by parish, including all the records that someone hasn’t indexed for you. But … some of them contain the courthouse indexes so it’s just a matter of pulling up the digital files and flipping through those indexes. Easy peasy.

This little treasure trove can save you a trip to the courthouse to look through succession records, will books and estate inventories because a lot of them are in this portal. It’s by no means a complete collection, but I’m thankful it exists.

Happy new year!

Genealogy tools, House History, Uncategorized

The Branch mansion in Alexandria

One of my favorite ways to explore the past is through fire insurance maps. I’ve talked about Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps before, but I always discover something new when I revisit them.

The maps were launched in 1867 to help insurance agents determine the risk of insuring properties. They offer a bird’s eye view of every building on a plot of land and detail how many stories, doors and windows a dwelling had.

The first thing to do when looking at the maps is to find the key. This will explain all the notations on your ancestor’s home. Usually, it’s on the first page of a map series.

I decided to revisit the maps after driving past the home of silent film star Mary Miles Minter’s cousin in Alexandria. I’d visited the home in real estate listings and wondered why in the world it was selling for such a bargain basement price. Well, a drive past the day after Christmas ended that wonder. The neighborhood’s definitely seen better times. We didn’t even get out of the car. I wanted to see what the neighborhood looked like in 1914 so I turned to Sanborn.

Introducing the Branch Mansion, circa 1914:

With a little imagination, the neighborhood quickly comes into focus even though more than a century’s passed. 103 Bolton Avenue was the lone house on the block. A servant’s dwelling was located behind the beautiful mansion. Today, the servant’s quarters are gone as are most of the neighboring houses on 16th. The steps to one house still are there.

It happens. Houses burn down. Other times, they’re abandoned and quickly crumble.

Turning to the key, I learn more about the Bolton Mansion. It’s two stories. Oh, that building at the far right was a stable (now gone). All the houses in the neighborhood were frame. Fascinating!

These maps tend to focus on cities rather than rural areas. Enjoy!