I really, really don’t completely trust the things. Call it a case of familiarity breeding extreme suspicion. But I have to say that as a research tool, personal computers—now joined by laptops, smart phones, and tablets—have been one of the best things that ever happened to the ability to research local history.
When I started writing about local history more than 35 years ago, research meant buying books, making trips to area public libraries, looking for materials in university and college libraries and searching through bound volumes (and microfilms) of local newspapers. It was a tedious, although largely rewarding experience as I got to know the major sources by feeling, reading, and smelling them.
When my wife was working on her master’s degree in library science at Northern Illinois University, I was first introduced to the Education Resources Information Center (ERIC), an early on-line version of a computerized library of scholarly dissertations and other materials. It was, at that time, only available for access at NIU’s library, but the materials available for access were a revelation to me.
Then came the early days of the Internet and my first subscriptions to CompuServe and all the neat stuff available on the various sites there. Thanks to a lawn bowling forum on CompuServe, I was able to make connections in Scotland, Canada and Australia when I was researching the four chapters I was writing on antique ceramic carpet bowls for my buddy Paul Baumann’s fourth edition of Collecting Antique Marbles. Also thanks to CompuServe, I was able to discover the fate of one of our local boys shot down during World War II in Europe as I was working up a complete revamp of our museum’s military exhibit. The guys on CompuServe’s Military Forum got us all sorts of information, including copies of the after-action reports, that featured an eyewitness account of the shootdown over the Mediterranean.
Then along came the World Wide Web that gradually included mind-blowing resources from eBay and Ancestry.com to the free GenWeb site. Elmer Dickson, a Kendall County native who now lives in California, manages the Kendall County GenWeb site, and it’s a honey. If you can’t find out at least some information about somebody who once lived, worked, and died in Kendall County on Elmer’s site, it probably doesn’t exist.
Recently, we made heavy use of Ancestry’s wonderful resources to find out more concerning two acquisitions at the Little White School Museum here in Oswego. One was an anonymous donation, the other was a purchase on eBay.
Earlier this year, someone stopped by the museum and dropped off an old ledger book, saying they didn’t wish any recognition for donating it, and that they simply felt it belonged in the museum. I looked through the slim volume, which turned out to be an Oswego doctor’s account book, kept during 1848 and part of 1849.
Eventually, by closely reading the book, we came to the conclusion it was kept by Dr. Asa Shepherd. But none of us had ever heard of a Doctor Shepherd practicing in Oswego. The years during his practice are, unfortunately, not covered by the local press, because there was no local press at the time.
We checked the 1850 census and did find a Doctor Asa Shepherd practicing in Oswego, but he did not appear in the 1860 Census. The 1850 Census, however, gave us the name of his wife and suggested he lived on Main Street in Oswego. A quick trip to the Oswego Public Library’s Heritage Quest on-line database showed that Dr. Shepherd and family (two children, a boy and a girl, had appeared) were living near Freeport, Ill. in 1870. Another quick trip, this time to the Illinois Secretary of State’s databases, showed that Dr. Shepherd had served in a 100-day regiment during the Civil War, but that he had apparently not been married in Illinois. Or at least his name was not included in the SOS marriage database.
And I want to say the Illinois SOS database collection is one of the best in the nation. Their Civil War database, in particular, is the absolute best of its kind.
So then it was on to Ancestry.com where gradually the rest of Dr. Shepherd’s story came to light. How he practiced medicine in Oswego for six years before moving to western Illinois due to health problems. How he served as a regimental surgeon during a brief stint in the Civil War. How he and his family moved to Missouri, where he became a respected member of the community in and around Montgomery City, Mo. before his death in March 1895.
And then there’s the most recent case of Nehemiah Mead, an Oswego druggist in the early 1860s. A carte de visite photograph of Mead popped up on eBay a few weeks ago. On the front, someone had written in pencil “Uncle Nehemiah Mead,” and on the back was printed the name of the photographer, J.F. Gibbons of Oswego. We had heard of neither the photographer nor of Mr. Mead, so we decided to bid on the photograph, which we eventually won.
As it turns out, Nehemiah Mead is another of those personages who came and went so quickly they left little memory of them in their wake. We checked out our file of transcribed “Oswego” column news items published in local newspapers from the early 1850s and found that the Loyal Order of the Woodmen were meeting upstairs at “N. Mead’s store.” In the same issue of the Kendall County Free Press published at Oswego in 1863, we learned that “N. Mead” was a druggist. A check of our copy of the 1860 U.S. Census for Oswego Township showed an N. Mead, druggist, who was living with his brother, James. We checked our 1870 Kendall County Census index, but there was no Nehemiah Mead.
That led us to try a shot in the dark and check our transcribed copy of the Oswego Township Cemetery records, and by golly, we struck gold. It turned out that Nehemiah had a wife, Miranda Stoutemyer, who died in Oswego in 1864. Further, he had three children, Miranda, Rachael, and Allen, all of who died and who are buried in the Oswego Cemetery.
So then it was on to the trusty old Illinois SOS database again, and again we struck gold. Nehemiah married Miranda on Oct. 10, 1860. So between then and when the 1870 census was taken, Nehemiah had suffered the death of his wife and all three children, the last, a son Allen, dying in February 1870.
That may have been the last straw with living in Oswego because my buddy Glenn Young found that when the 1870 Census was taken in Chicago’s 4th Ward in July that year, Ancestry.com reported that Nehemiah was living there, still practicing his trade as a druggist, but listing his marital status as single with no children.
From then on, Glenn was able to track Nehemiah as he remarried Elizabeth Dunham in Cook County in 1870 before moving west to Colorado, then east to Iowa, then back to the far west of Washington State where he owned a fruit farm in the 1900, and where he died in 1918.
It’s possible we could have tracked Asa Shepherd and Nehemiah Mead down using traditional methods, but the time involved would have been truly amazing. As it is, it took a few hours of research time, looking here and there, to get an idea of who these two people were, what their lives were like, and what ultimately happened to them.
The moral of the story is that it’s a lot less likely folks will slip through the historical cracks these days and that makes the goal of telling the story of local history–no matter how obscure–all that much more fun and informative, not to mention satisfying.