Queries - they can break through that logjam and help us find out that, yes indeed, great-great-uncle John did live in Centerville and that his wife was named Matilda, not Mary.
A query can also open up a whole new vista of research when someone tells us about the historical society or the collection of city directories that we didn't know existed.
But all too often our query just lies there in a journal or in cyberspace gathering dust. We begin to wonder if anybody out there even saw it.
Jerry Connors of New Haven, Conn., reads the Luzerne County Genweb and tries his best to help his fellow genealogists. He believes he knows why some queries fail to draw profitable replies.
Often, he says, ``People who are requesting some help do not provide enough information in their request so that you can give them a proper answer.''
Connors might well be on to something. Once in a while you really do see a query that merely asks if anyone knows anything about, for example, ``the Wilson family.'' Even if a time frame is given, what can a responder say? In a community the size of the Wilkes-Barre area, there might have been dozens of families with that name a century ago.
Of course if you merely want to know if someone else is researching that surname, there is no problem. But if you are looking for actual information, include anything you know in the way of first names, variant spellings of the surname, nation of origin, occupation, church, address, sons and daughters. Use the genealogist's standard shorthand (b. for ``born,'' and so on).
Do that because any scrap of information can potentially suggest a starting point to the person reading through the queries on an online site or in a magazine or paper. The name of a church or denomination in a query might bring a mailing address and telephone number or a centennial book full of early names. A reference to your ancestor's death in a coal mine accident, even if the mine's name is garbled, could produce a newspaper article or at least the date.
No, you don't have to include names of uncle John and aunt Matilda's grandchildren and their spouses. That's not likely to draw help. Keep your query concise, but pack it with data that can give a helpful responder some possible points of entry.
Connors, who likes to go online and post information from old newspapers, is bedeviled by a related problem, one that surfaces when people contact him about his postings.
``People assume that the article that they are interested in is the only one you have ever posted. So I get requests like `Is Mrs. Smith's daughter named Mary?' '' I have no idea who Mrs. Smith is or when I posted it, unless there is an insertion date or a paper date.''
The bottom line is pretty clear. Take your time when composing your query. Include as much relevant data as you can in four or five lines. And when you are replying to someone who has offered you information, indicate the specific message or posting you are talking about, plus the key date.
Events: Does your quest for your Civil War ancestors sometimes seem like a losing battle? Don't run up the white flag just yet. Reinforcements are at hand.
Stop by the meeting of the Northeast Pennsylvania Genealogical Society on Tuesday evening and meet Ryan Lindbuchler, a local Civil War expert. Lindbuchler, a history teacher at Lake-Lehman High School, has compiled a listing of the burial sites of thousands of Civil War soldiers and sailors throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania, many in little-known cemeteries.
He is also a prominent Civil War re-enactor, serving as captain of Company K of the 81st Pennsylvania PVI (Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry), the original of which was raised in Luzerne County. His unit appears frequently in parades and encampments throughout the area.
Lindbuchler will talk about accessing military and pension records from the National Archives. These records, of course, are the primary sources of information about the individual veterans. Pension records contain a good deal of biography and name the veterans' wives.
He will also talk about the problem most beginning researchers face: how to find out what regiment the ancestor served in. It is necessary to know the regiment in order to access most material. In his talk, he will point genealogists to the most useful local sources of information and discuss the way these sources can expand the family researcher's picture of an ancestor.
Lindbuchler's listing of burial sites, soon to be published by the Luzerne County Historical Society, has taken years to compile and should prove indispensable to area family history researchers. It even includes the few Confederate veterans buried in Northeastern Pennsylvania cemeteries.
The meeting is set for 7 p.m. at the Veterans Hospital, near Wyoming Valley Mall. You don't have to be a society member to attend.
Local History Moment: Halloween, anyone? The Wilkes-Barre area has had many reports of supernatural doings over the years, but 1986 saw the community's most entertainingly spooky events ever. In August of that year, West Pittston residents Jack and Janet Smurl alleged a demonic force was terrorizing them and their children in their Chase Street home. Local and out-of-town reporters immediately descended on their quiet street, along with famous ``ghost hunters'' Ed and Lorraine Warren of Connecticut who pronounced the house haunted and held backyard press conferences. After a few weeks the uproar subsided, but the incidents produced a 1988 book called ``The Haunted,'' by local writer Robert Curran, and a 1991 prime-time TV movie starring Sally Kirkland.
News Notes: Some 25 people stopped by my genealogy presentation at Boscov's Department Store last Sunday. We enjoyed a pleasant afternoon of talking about getting started in genealogy, finding local resources and solving problems. I'll be offering at least one more Sunday afternoon session early next year. Watch for Boscov's two-page ad in the paper.
The Swetland Homestead has reopened after renovations. This Wyoming showplace, owned by the Luzerne County Historical Society, offers a glimpse of the life of a local family from frontier days through the late 19th century. Hours are Thursdays and Fridays 1 to 4 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $3 for adults, $1 for children and free to society members.
The Pittston Library recently received a donation of $15,000 from M&T Bank toward its new building. The library expects to move into its new quarters, right in the same neighborhood, in June 2001. It is now housed in a room in Pittston City Hall.
Remember, this column is now accessible through your computer at timesleader.com. Then click on ``Generations.''
Have you solved some tough genealogical problems in your research? Do you have some tips you'd like to share with others? Would you like to report a success story? Drop me a line here at the paper. I'll get in touch with you and help you bring the benefits of your experience to others.
Tom Mooney, The Times Leader, 15 N. Main St., Wilkes-Barre, Pa. 18711. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org