Sunday, February 14, 2021

My Ancestor Was a Canal Boatman

William Armstrong's signature on promissory note, 1849
In the 1850 U.S. census of Putnam, Muskingum County, Ohio, William Armstrong, my great-great-great grandfather, is listed as a canal boatman. In the 1840 U.S. census of Putnam, one person in the household (William) is listed at being engaged in "navigation". William would have worked on the Muskingum River, which was part of the Ohio and Erie Canal system, built between 1825-1832. He was born in England (which had an extensive canal system) in 1788, and it's entirely possible that he was brought up as a canal boatman. William's wife, Ann Alexander (1799-1878),  and their three oldest children were born in Pennsylvania, and the family moved to Putnam around 1825, just as canal construction was beginning in Ohio.

Plans for two Ohio canal systems, the Ohio and Erie Canal and the Miami and Erie Canal, began in 1822, when the Ohio legislature created the Ohio Canal Commission. Construction of the Ohio and Erie Canal began on July 4, 1825.  Hundreds of miles of trenches were dug, then lined with sandstone. Water storage reservoirs also had to be dug to insure a water supply for canals during times of drought. Buckeye Lake in Licking County began as a canal reservoir. All this digging was done by hand with picks and shovels and wheelbarrows. Thousands of workers, many of them immigrants, worked from dawn to dusk for 30 cents an hour, which was a very decent wage in the 1820's. 

Erie Canal packet boat, about 1830
  The residents of Putnam and of Zanesville, its neighbor across the river, were linked to the Ohio and  Erie Canal via a feeder canal known as the Muskingum Side Cut. This 2.6 mile feeder canal gave Muskingum County farmers and manufacturers access to markets from  Portsmouth to Cleveland and the towns in between. It also gave them access to Pennsylvania and points east via the Pennsylvania and Ohio Canal, and to the Ohio River and points south, all the way to New Orleans. Canal boatmen moved people, and more importantly produce, livestock, manufactured goods, dry goods, and medicines, all around the state and beyond.

Many canal boatmen, especially those who ventured far and wide, lived with their families on their boats, and were part of a tightly-knit, rough and tumble culture. Canal boatmen were vital to commerce, but were considered by many citizens to be disreputable and sometimes dangerous, and were shunned by "respectable" people.

Then there were the canal boatmen like William who worked on the water but lived on the land. William and his family lived between 3rd and 4th Streets in Putnam, along a main road then known as Seminary Street. I can't be certain from the real estate records I've seen, but since William and Ann bought and sold at least five lots in Putnam between 1828 and 1841, they probably owned their house. They also owned and worked some farmland in the area of Shannon, Ohio. So while William identified as canal boatman, he wasn't part of the culture. In fact, the personal items assessed for Probate in November 1851 show that William and his family were well-off and probably regarded as quite respectable.

Probate case no. 3095
Muskingum County, Ohio
Probate Court

Itemized bills submitted by six local merchants are a large part of the papers in William's Probate file. They suggest that William's canal boat may have been a floating store. This type of canal boat was common on the Ohio River, and there's no reason to think one or more didn't float along the Muskingum River as well. It might not hold the romance of narrowboats or keelboats, but floating stores--square, flat-roofed boats fitted with shelves and a counter--provided essential (and sometimes luxury) goods to small communities and isolated settlers who lived near the river. William probably received a merchant's discount, and then marked up the items for sale so he could make a profit, and he may have filled specific orders for customers. In at least one case, William took items on consignment. T. Wilbur & Sons submitted a bill to the estate for three water jugs and six spittoons, adding "The above bill was taken to be Solde and [he was to] pay us one half [of what] he got for them."

Those itemized bills give us a glimpse into what William's customers needed and wanted. For example, between March 13 and July 5, 1851, in separate lots, William purchased a total of 9 3/4 lbs. of butter, 9 yds. of poplin, 4 yds. of nankeen, 8 yds. of lawn, 15 yds. of calico, and 6 1/4 yds. of ribbon from L. & P. Wiles. From E. A. Farquhar, medical doctor and druggist, William purchased such items in quantity as liniment, cholera syrup, and chocolate. William evidently acted as a proxy for Dr. Farquhar for those with specific health concerns. William's Probate file includes a scrap of paper in Farquhar's handwriting, advising that two pieces of patient information be answered: "1st the name & age of the patient and how long sick 2nd If a breast complaint, state the particulars of the cough." 

Interestingly, among the estate papers, there is no mention of a boat. However, William's sons might have been part owners of the boat and possibly William turned it over to them just prior to his death. There is evidence that two of his sons, Alexander T. Armstrong (1818-1859) and William Armstrong (1825-1874), worked with their father. In 1850, Alexander told the census-taker that he was a "Trader", and William said he was a "Boatman".

The exact date of William's death isn't known, but can be narrowed down. His last known merchant transaction was dated July 5, 1851, and on August 9, 1851, Jonathon Brelsford submitted a bill to the estate for "digging grave for dec'd". William is buried with his wife Ann in Woodlawn, but there are no markers, even though a receipt in the Probate file shows that Ann paid for a gravestone for her husband. 

Rivers and canals continued to be sources of transportation for goods and people until the early part of the 20th century, but even at the time of William's death, railroads had begun to cut into canal boatmen's revenues, and forecast the end of an era.

The Muskingum River with Putnam in the background, 1846

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Book Recommendations for Your New Year's Family Research

 You might have resolved in 2021 to do more research into your family history. Whether you've just recently begun your genealogy journey or are a seasoned researcher, there's a reference book or two out there for you. 

The internet has lulled us into a false sense that books are no longer needed. Yet, having a book at your fingertips can provide focus, making it easier to locate the specific information you need at the moment. Internet searches, regardless of how effectively you might use qualifiers, can still result in an overwhelming number of results. 

Over the years, I've acquired a number of genealogical resource books that I think are worth the space they take up on a shelf, as well as the price. If you're thinking seriously of upping your genealogy game in 2021, here are some resources I strongly recommend:

  • The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy, 4th ed. by Val D. Greenwood. This is the most authoritative resource for American genealogists. It's valuable for all levels of research, but it's priceless for beginners and novices in providing not only an introduction to the types of records that exist, but more importantly how to evaluate and organize the information you find. 
  • Red Book: American State, County & Town Sources, 3rd ed. by Alice Eichholz (Ed.) This book was created by Ancestry. Organized by state, this resource provides specific information on the records and holdings for every county in the United States.
  • Land and Property Resources in the United States by E. Wade Hone. This is another Ancestry publication. It provides historical background on the types of land records generated from colonial days to the present, and how to locate these records. It explains how lands were/are measured (just how much is a "rod"?), how Federal lands were apportioned and sold, how land ownership is transferred between individuals. It also includes a section on Native American land records. In short, everything you need to know in order to effectively use U.S. land records is in this book.
  • Hidden Sources: Family History in Unlikely Places by Laura Szucs Pfeiffer. Also an Ancestry publication, this book might be what a more seasoned researcher, who's exhausted conventional sources, will find useful. There are dozens and dozens of resources easily overlooked. Do you have an inventor in the family? How about searching patent books? Do you have some litigious ancestors? How about court records? Speaking of which, if you have ancestors who settled in Muskingum County before 1850 (and were litigious), Muskingum County Chancery Court records are a genealogical goldmine!
  • Ohio Photographers, 1839-1900, 2nd ed. by Diane VanSkiver Gagel. If you're lucky enough to have very old family photos for your Muskingum County (or any Ohio county) family, here's a useful resource, especially if those photos aren't identified by anything except the name of the studio where the photo was taken. Was your photo taken in Mrs. Rich's studio in Zanesville? Then it was taken between 1872 and 1889. If you have a Rich Studio photo of a man you think is your great-great-great grandfather, but you know he died in 1868, think again. The book provides short biographies of Ohio photographers, as well as some basic information about early photographic methods. As long as we're on the subject of photography resources, I can't say enough good things about two slender books helpful in dating old photos: Dating Old Photographs, 1840-1929 and More Dating Old Photographs, 1840-1829 published by Family Chronicle. These two books have helped me immensely to assign an approximate date to dozens of my own family photos, thus allowing me to identify some of the subjects.
  • James L. Murphy's Checklist of 19th-Century Bluebird Potters and Potteries in Muskingum County, Ohio
    by Jeff Carsdadden and Richard Gartley (Eds.) If you have potters in your family (and it's a rare Muskingum County family that doesn't), this massive book has it all: Information about types of bluebird pottery, illustrations, maps, and best of all, biographies (although many are brief) of every person who ever threw a pot in Muskingum County. 
  • Google Your Family Tree: Unlock the Hidden Power of Google by Daniel M. Lynch. Lastly, this is the book for you if you're going to bypass other books and surf the web for family history. In an informal, non-technical way, this book shows you how to search more effectively, so you can narrow down the number of returns you'll get when you try to Google your great-great grandmother, Mary Smith.
All these books can be purchased new, but you'll also find good used copies at lower prices. Just surf the web for used book dealers.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Letters to Santa


The jolly version of Santa, 1881

Once upon a time, Santa Claus wrote letters to children. Actually, it was parents, posing as Santa, who wrote the letters, admonishing their children for misbehaving, and recommending areas for improvement--or else! Santa was a strict disciplinarian in those days, not the jolly fellow we know now. In early 19th century illustrations, he usually carried a birch rod, and, not surprisingly, any children pictured nearby were crying.

Around the mid-19th century, Santa stopped sending letters, and instead began receiving letters from children. The history of letters to Santa doesn't explain why this change occurred, but it coincided with the advent of direct mail delivery to homes in urban areas, mailboxes, and a drop in postage costs. Children were probably relieved to have the opportunity to tell Santa their version of the behavior issue, as well as to put in a request for that special gift on Christmas Day. 

For years, the postal service directed letters to Santa to the Dead Letter Office. Some charitable organizations sought permission to respond to the letters, but the requests were denied, since opening mail to another individual, even a mythical one, is against the law. In 1913, the Postmaster General made an exception to that law, and charitable organizations took on the task of reading the letters, and seeing that some wishes came true. This practice continues, but today, organizations can only access letters addressed explicitly to "Santa Claus", not "Kris Kringle", "St. Nicholas", or any other variant which could result in mail to families surnamed "Nicholas" or "Kringle" being misdirected.

Around the turn of the 20th century, children were encouraged to send their Santa letters to the local newspaper for publication. Newspapers even offered prizes for the best letter. If you have a subscription to or, you can access Zanesville newspapers. Search by December dates, and you'll find dozens and dozens of short letters to Santa from Muskingum County children. To my delight, I stumbled on some letters written by Daisy and Charles Melick, my great-aunt Xema (Armstrong) Melick's children.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Thanksgiving Day Preparations

Thanksgiving Day is much-loved day celebrated by all kinds, colors, and creeds of Americans. Thanksgiving is the day we enjoy--and give thanks--for the opportunity to share a giant meal with family and friends. And for many of us, Thanksgiving means there will be price-slashing sales on just about everything, both before and after the celebratory day. This has been true for at least 100 years, as these Zanesville Times Recorder advertisements from the first half of the 20th century show.

On November 28, 1905, two days before Thanksgiving, the H. H. Sturtevant Co. ran a full page ad, headed with the banner above, offering sales on a wide variety of merchandise. Get your Thanksgiving garments and table linens here! The "dry goods" store was located at 3rd and Main.

The above ad and the three following appeared in the November 21, 1910 edition of the Times Recorder, three days before Thanksgiving. The Bailey Drug company was a family-owned business that had been around since 1836. William H. Slack began as a meat wholesaler around 1880. His success allowed him to invest in real estate in downtown Zanesville. He owned a building at Sixth and Main, and the Sharpe Building on Fifth. His retail market might have been located in one of those buildings. George Harvey Geist's shoe store was located at Seventh and Main. He later took over the Zane Shoe Co., which manufactured children's shoes. In 1925, Geist was robbed and murdered while working at his office. I could not find any information about the "Pure Food" store.

The Bon-Ton was a department store chain founded in York, Pennsylvania in 1898. Throughout the first part of the 20th century, The Bon-Ton acquired a number of other retailers, such as Elder-Beerman, and operated under those names. The above ad and the two following appeared in the Times Recorder on November 22, 1920, three days before Thanksgiving. No information could be found on the Deacon or Watkins establishments.

The above and the following ads appeared in the Times Recorder on November 26, 1930, the day before Thanksgiving. W. R. Baker founded the company in 1885. It was owned and operated by four generations before being purchased by Nickles' Bakery in 1970. The bakery's bread was marketed throughout southeastern and central Ohio under the names Plezol, Butternut, and Miami Made. A J. W. Knapp operated the Shaw Furnishing and Carpet Co. in Zanesville in 1918. He might have established the business in the ad below.

J. W. Bonifield was a nationally known hardware retailer, very active in civic and business associations. This ad and the one below ran in the Times Recorder on November 15, 1940, six days before Thanksgiving.

The ads above and below appeared in the November 21, 1950 edition of the Times Recorder, two days before Thanksgiving. Both ads are for "chain" stores, which by mid-20th century were replacing independent and family-owned retail establishments. The ad below is part of a larger National Brands Store advertisement.


Monday, June 22, 2020

MCCOGS' Upcoming Publication

The Licking River feeds into the Muskingum River at Zanesville, Ohio, and like most rivers, it will flood at least once a year, usually in the spring. But there were times in history when the river produced large-scale floods that could be destructive to life and property, especially when the flood waters reached a heavily populated area.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rendering of proposed dam
At least twice in the 20th century, in 1913 and 1937, the Licking River brought devastating floods to the city of Zanesville. Throughout human history, the solution to minimizing flood damage has been to build a dam to control the waters. The Dillon reservoir and dam, authorized under the federal Flood Control Act of 1938, was part of a network of reservoirs throughout the Muskingum Valley meant to provide flood control for the Ohio River Basin, but Dillon’s primary purpose was to reduce the threat of serious flooding of a major city.
What seemed good for Zanesville and points south, however, was literally devastating to those whose homes and livelihoods were within the construction zone; their needs were deemed insignificant in the face of what officials perceived to be the  greater need. The reality is that in a face-off between a David and a Goliath, David usually gets trampled. In the case of the construction of Dillon Dam, Irville, Nashport, and Pleasant Valley, tragically, didn’t have a chance.

Eight years after the passage of the flood control legislation—in 1946—the Dillon Dam project got underway, with the relocation of 19 miles of Baltimore and Ohio Railroad track. Funding problems and the Korean War halted work. In the mid-1950’s, the Zanesville, McConnelsville, and Marietta Chambers of Commerce, in conjunction with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, launched a campaign to push construction with headlines such as: “After 40 years—Ohio’s Licking River still threatens rich Muskingum Valley”.  In August, 1956, President Eisenhower authorized the funds needed to resume work, and the project went forward to its completion in 1960.
Early stages of Dillon Dam construction

Dillon Dam cost the federal government $33,000,000; it cost the 700 inhabitants of three hamlets along the Licking River—Irville, Nashport, and Pleasant Valley—their homes, their communities, and for many, their generational roots. The 10,000 acres required by the Dillon Dam project encompassed these tiny communities; the people who lived in them were forced to abandon or move their homes, stores, churches, schools, and even their cemeteries. Although several families relocated in an area called “new” Nashport, the sense of community once found in these places could never be fully replicated.

Irville church
Irville was founded in 1814, along the stage coach route between Columbus and Zanesville. It was granted a post office in 1816. There was a tavern to serve travelers, two churches, a couple of stores, a medical services provider, a brick manufacturer, and two fraternal lodges.

Nashport, west of Irville, was laid out in 1827 and became a tiny but thriving waystation on the Ohio Canal. In addition to providing accommodations for travelers and warehouses for goods being transported on the canal, Nashport had two general stores, a mill, two blacksmith shops, and several churches. There were two fruit orchard businesses. In the latter part of the 19th-early 20th century, Nashport was a stop on the Inter-Urban Railroad that ran along the Licking River between Newark and Zanesville.

Main Street, Nashport, about 1910
Settles General Store, Nashport
Pleasant Valley, which was granted its own post office in 1855, consisted primarily of large family farms, but still boasted, in addition to a post office, a general store, a blacksmith shop, a pottery manufacturer, a grist mill, and a saw mill.

Pleasant Valley's Too Slick School, about 1905. Names listed below.

Sixty years have passed since the inhabitants of these communities were dispersed and their buildings removed or demolished. These places are gone completely. For those who once lived in these communities, and for their descendants, memories—and some photos—are all that remain. Before long, all memory of these places will have vanished as completely as the physical structures.

MCCOGS’ mission is to preserve family history. Place is critical to that history, and so members of MCCOGS have been gathering photos and conducting interviews during the past several months. These memories are being compiled into a book, Before Dillon: Memories of the Lost Villages of Irville, Nashport, and Pleasant Valley. We hope to have this book available for purchase by the end of this year.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Observing Decoration/Memorial Day

Advertisement run by a local store in
the Zanesville Times Recorder, 1887 
On Monday, May 25, at 3:00 P.M. local time, Americans are asked to remember those men and women who gave their lives to the defense of the nation. During Memorial Day weekends, many Americans will decorate graves with flowers, and some readers will recall when this observance was known as Decoration Day.

Gen. John A. Logan
General John A. Logan, a retired Union army general and commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), issued a proclamation on May 5, 1868:

The 30th day of May 1868 is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the last rebellion and whose bodies now lie in almost every city village and hamlet churchyard in the land.

Logan's proclamation was meant, of course, for the northern states. The general is said to have got the idea from the southern states, where the mothers, daughters, wives, and sweethearts of the Confederate dead had been decorating their loved ones graves annually since 1865, usually between April and June. (Some southern states still observe Confederate Memorial Day.) In another version of where Logan's inspiration originated, newly freed slaves in South Carolina re-interred hastily buried Union soldiers and covered the graves with flowers in April 1865. In 1966, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution naming Waterloo, New York as the official site of the first Decoration/Memorial Day observance. Waterloo druggist Henry C. Welles and county clerk John B. Murray were credited with founding the holiday, however, researchers have shown this is entirely mythological. In fact, there are so many competing claims as to how, when, and where America's Decoration Day began, there is actually a research center devoted to resolving these questions at Columbus (Georgia) State University. To date, there apparently are no definitive answers, except for the acknowledgement that placing flowers on military graves is a practice observed throughout time and across cultures.
Zanesville Times Recorder memorial to Union soldiers

The Decoration Day called for by Logan was observed in twenty-seven states and 127 cemeteries that first year, and each observance was entirely local and individual. In 1871, Michigan declared Decoration Day a state holiday, and other northern states followed suit over the next twenty years. Decoration Day officially became Memorial Day in 1967, and was declared a federal holiday in 1971, although throughout its (northern) history, the names were used interchangeably.

On May 30, 1884, in West Virginia and Maryland, both Union and Confederate veterans participated in the ceremonies of remembrance. As time moved on, more and more Decoration Day observances became joint ventures. It wasn't until World War I, however, that Decoration Day was expanded to honor those Americans who had fallen in any war. Up to that time, the day focused exclusively on the American Civil War.

Memorial Day tributes left at G.A.R. statue in Fultonham Cemetery

Sunday, April 19, 2020

The Pandemic of 1918-1920

Zanesville Times Recorder, October 4, 1919
We're in the midst of a pandemic, a global health crisis that requires us to think and act in different, often new ways. Covid-19 confounds us, inconveniences us, frightens us, and at its worst, kills us.

One hundred years ago, in March 1920, the dreaded (and misnamed) Spanish Influenza pandemic, that began in autumn 1918, came to an end. The flu ravaged every part of the globe for a year and a half, infecting 500 million people (one-third of the world's population) and killing at least 50 million. It came in three waves, with the second one (1919) being the deadliest.

We've seen a lot of images, and heard many news stories of the personal toll taken by today's novel coronavirus. Below are photos from around the world, and headlines from the Zanesville Times-Recorder, all from the period of the Great Influenza (a more accurate name than "Spanish Flu"), that are hauntingly familiar.

Police officers in Seattle, Washington, 1918
U.S. Navy corpsmen ready to receive influenza patients at U.S. Naval Hospital,
Mare Island, California, 1918

October 7, 1918

Japanese school girls wearing protective masks

Seattle streetcar conductor orders man to don mask
before boarding, 1918
October 10, 1918

While schools were closed, American schoolchildren made toys for war refugees

Serbian soldiers in an influenza ward in the Netherlands, 1918

February 11, 1920

Oakland, California Municipal Auditorium turned into
temporary influenza hospital, 1918

Office worker wears protective mask, 1918

Australian quarantine camp, 1919
Physic class at the University of Montana being held outside, 1919.
 The open-air was believed to prevent the spread of the disease.

March 3, 1920

Emergency hospital set up in Brookline, Massachusetts to
care for influenza patients, 1918

Street cleaner in New York City, 1918. The NY Dept. of
Health's motto for city workers: "Better ridiculous than dead"

Red Cross Motor Corps transport an influenza victim in St. Louis, Missouri, 1918
December 11, 1918
Boston nurses in protective gear, spring 1919