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Taking a Genealogy Break

Working on a different genealogical problem than your own is like taking a break from your chores to do a crossword puzzle. It helps you focus on a different task that, in the end, can refresh your mind and help you solve your original problem.


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Do you ever get that feeling where you think if you work on your family line for one more minute you are going to scream? You feel like you aren't getting anywhere and that your 3rd great grandfather Samuel must have arrived on earth in an alien space ship? This might be the time when someone, in a helpful tone, asks you if you have checked the 1880 census or looked for a vital record, and you give them "the look." Well it is at this time that you should consider taking a genealogical break.

Now I am not suggesting to forego your beloved hobby. What I am suggesting is that if you put away that research and work on something else, it will not only give your mind a rest but it can also help you learn and improve your skills. Then when you are ready, you can go back to your research with a fresh mind and, perhaps, a fresh take that may just help you break down the proverbial brick wall.

One way I take a break on my family research is by doing someone else's. Now one way you may do this by looking up a friend's ancestors or maybe an in-law's. I am not suggesting that you need to devote days and weeks to this process. It may be simply taking a few hours to look up a name on an online database. No need to order microfilm or write letters to genealogical societies from afar. Simply use the internet to research some new names.

One approach I sometimes take is to research someone I am curious about, maybe a well-known person from history. Sometimes this research can even better help me put my ancestor in a social history perspective.

For those who are familiar with American photography, the name Dorothea Lange may be familiar. She was an American photographer that documented Depression Era poverty for the Government, including California Central Valley farm laborers. A few years ago I was saw an exhibit of these photographs at the Getty Museum in Southern California. I was struck by the haunting images Lane etook of everyday life. Being a genealogist, I appreciate the lives of everyday people and really took away from this exhibit, a respect for the difficulty in these people's lives.

One of the most haunting of these portraits is called "Migrant Mother, 1936." This is a photograph that many are familiar with. A mother with three small children huddled around her, looking off into the distance. I have always wondered about this woman. Who was she, what happened to her? Well, during a recent genealogical break I found these answers.

I started my search for this woman by first doing a little research on Dorothea Lange, the photographer. Through my research on Lange's life I found the name of the portrait, "Migrant Mother, 1936." From there I googled the phrase, "Migrant Mother Dorothea Lange." From this search I was able to find out the name of the subject, Florence Owens Thompson.

Lange states in a February 1960 issue of Popular Photography, of her encounter with her subject,

"I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet . . . She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that she had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children had killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food."

On a website put together by Florence Owens Thompson's grandson, the son of one of the children in the famous photograph, explains a little about his grandmother's life at the time of this photo. He tells us that she was married to Cleo Owens. They had come to California from Oklahoma on New Year's Eve 1924, with their three children. Like many, they had come to California looking for the American dream: opportunity, a home, a place to raise their children. Unfortunately, after the stock market crash, things went downhill for the family. Cleo lost his job at a sawmill and resorted to picking fruit. Eventually, the family was left even worse with the death of Cleo at the young age of 32 years.

In the 1930 U.S. Federal Census for Oroville Township, Butte, California, one can see Florence's family as they were in 1930. Leroy C. (known as Cleo) is listed as being 31 years old and is a clean-up man at a sawmill. He is renting his home and pays $13.00 in rent. His wife, Florence is listed as being 26 years old and does not have an occupation. With them are their five children, ranging in age from seven years to an infant. Around them are various Owens family members, most likely brothers and sisters of Cleo's that are described in the Migrant Grandson website .

An overall search for Florence Owens, shows user-submitted family trees and a OneWorldTree that shows Florence as Florence Leona Akman, daughter of Charles Akman and Mary Jane Cobb. She was born on 1 September 1903 in Oklahoma. She was married to Cleo Leroy Owens on 14 February 1921 in Oklahoma. According to the California Death Index, Florence died on 16 September 1983 in Santa Cruz County, California.

A further look at the Family Search database (, shows Florence listed in the IGI as being buried in Lakewood Memorial Cemetery in Stanislaus County, California. Information about Cleo and her parents can also be found here. This information confirms information found on Ancestry.

The photograph that gave her national recognition was a bone of contention for Thompson. She later recalled, in a 1979 interview with Bill Genzel, that she didn't say the things Lange attributed to her and that Lange told her the picture would never be published. One of her daughters later commented that her mother "was a strong woman. She was a leader. I think that's one of the reasons she resented the photo--because it didn't show her in that light."

One of the issues that came up with my research on Florence Owens Thompson and that can come up with any research that you do, is the number of fallacies I found. Many websites, including popular sites such as Wikipedia, had incorrect information that could easily be verified by additional research. Anytime online information is used, it needs to be followed up with primary sources for verification. In this case, when you are just putting your skills to test, you probably won't do that, but then again, the information will probably not go further than your home office. If you are doing the research for another person, make sure you let them know that all the information is preliminary until verified with primary sources.

Working on a different genealogical problem than your own is like taking a break from your chores to do a crossword puzzle. It helps you focus on a different task that, in the end, can refresh your mind and help you solve your original problem. Conducting a new genealogical search can be a great way to bone up on skills, practice skills, use deductive reasoning and, finally, learn about historical events that can make your personal genealogical research stronger.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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