Saturday, June 26, 2010

Data Mining = Detail 'Gold'

It took me 20 years to find some of the basics about my father’s cousin Harvey. Then I ran his name through Google Books ... and I ran his wife’s maiden name ... and then, for good measure, I ran his employer’s name.

When I was a little kid not much interested in jewelry, Harvey’s widow sent my father a locket with no photos inside and a pair of gold cuff links – all gold in color but I still don’t know if they have monetary value.

I was more interested in the story that Harvey had been a gold miner – maybe in Washington or Oregon or even Alaska. That spelled adventure to a kid. Still does! I’ve seen two versions of Call of the Wild! And I have to wonder if Harvey read the novel that came out when he was a young man and decided to light out ...

My father didn’t know much about Harvey who was a couple of decades older. From obits and courthouse records BW (before web), I learned a bit about Harvey’s family. Sad. His mother was committed to a state hospital. His little sister died of illness at age 13. His younger brother eventually joined the mother at the state hospital after a series of events around his hometown that must have embarrassed a young man in the early 1900s.

From a WWI draft registration I found Harvey in Alaska and connected him to his father in St. Joe, MO ... where I found his father’s new family and more sadness. Again from court records I learned that Harvey occasionally returned to Indiana to take care of his mother’s and his brother’s affairs ... including her funeral. I began to like Harvey when I read that he purchased gravestones for his mother and his sister – who were buried in separate cemeteries.

From funeral records I learned that Harvey’s widow, Grace, nearly 40 years later sent money for the funeral and burial of Harvey’s brother, although I don’t believe she ever met him. These were people who took care of what they saw as obligations.

In the small farm community where Harvey grew up I found a letter he had written from Alaska to a friend who shared it with the local newspaper which had been indexed by the library. That letter gave me a timeframe and clues to a place, an employer, and an occupation. I dabbled deeply in online sources that then were becoming available and kissed a few frogs that did not morph into Harvey.

I assumed Harvey and Grace had retired to Cincinnati, Ohio, where she once had lived. From an Ohio death certificate for Grace I learned the sister’s married surname and contacted her family. With a telephone call I learned that Harvey had died in the state of Washington not long after I was born. His widow had returned to Cincinnati to live with her sister, which explained why my efforts to find Harvey there had been so frustrating. Before that weekend ended, a helpful researcher in Washington had emailed me Harvey’s obit.

But I still didn’t know much about Harvey’s life. Grace’s grand-nephew (I believe) thought that, when he had accompanied his grandmother on visits, the couple had existed in pretty hard circumstances, but he had been a little boy and didn’t remember a lot. I’m not a name-date-place collector. I wanted details.

How did Harvey meet Grace? When and where were they married? Why did they leave their Alaskan island for Washington? Census excursions answered some of those questions. Grace was enumerated in 1920 as a 43-year-old single nurse in a native village on the opposite side of the same huge island where Harvey, 38, had been an electrician at a copper mine in his 1918 draft registration.

From the Alaska State Library Google found online photos of the copper mines, of the native village where Grace lived, and of the marble quarry where Harvey and Grace spent 1930.

Enter Google books. The first thing I remember finding was a lawsuit about a contested election: James Wickersham versus Charles Sulzer. I’m not sure it was even separated out as Google Books at that time. Could the Mr. Sellers mentioned in that document from the Government Printing Office possibly be the Harvey I was researching? I’d never heard anything about him doing anything besides mining and I was skeptical. He was a marble quarry watchman in 1930.

From online newspapers I learned that indeed Harvey had been more or less a campaign manager for Sulzer who had been elected to Congress from Alaska Territory. Google found a photo of Sulzer campaigning with two younger men, one of whom I feel sure is Harvey.

Googling the names told me that Sulzer was a brother of the New York governor who fought Tammany Hall and that he died before returning to Washington DC to take office after winning a contested election race against James Wickersham. The lawsuit I had found was against Charles Sulzer, deceased. It provided some campaign details from the parties’ varying viewpoints.

But I still didn’t know what Grace was doing in Alaska until I googled her maiden name. I learned that Grace’s arrival and assistance had been greatly anticipated by the head nurse who had written a profile of the village as well as describing her work for the publication of the Presbyterian organization that sponsored them. Without Google Books I never would have found that connection.

I also found that Charles Sulzer had written agricultural experiment station reports on the garden at the copper mine for some of the years that Harvey had been employed. Who knew you could grow vegetables in Alaska? Okay, I’ve learned a bit about Alaska since then – especially Alaska Territory. Love those government publications!

Best of all I learned – again by searching Google Books – that Harvey had been a weather observer for years, reporting temperatures and precipitation for his isolated location. The end of the reports gives me a possible time for Grace and Harvey’s move to the Lower 48.

I return irregularly to these online publications that grow by the day. My hope is to “data mine” more of the detail “gold” I almost certainly would not have found without searching Google Books.

© 2010 Charlotte Sellers

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