Thursday, December 27, 2012

Discoveries in the Chicago History Museum – Part I

Whenever you plan a research trip, time is a very big factor – there never seems to be enough time to visit all the places of interest, and this is especially true in Chicago. When I was making my itinerary, I was trying to choose between the Chicago Public Library and the Chicago History Museum. I only had time for one. I am fortunate that I decided to follow someone’s suggestion and chose the Chicago History Museum because that happened to be the place where one of my mysteries was solved. 
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license
Who led me to the Chicago History Museum? Some months ago, Jacqi Stevens , a fellow genealogy blogger, made a comment on my blog, asking if I knew about a locally-focused family history group called Chicago Genealogy. I didn’t. Jacqi said it was a Facebook group.
Facebook logo,, 2006, Wikimedia
Fortunately, I had opened a Facebook account some time ago for genealogy purposes. I requested admission to the group and began receiving members’ postings.

As I came close to leaving on my trip to Chicago in September 2012, I asked the group for their suggestions on the best places to do research in the city. One of the members said that I should definitely not miss the Chicago History Museum. I am so grateful that I heeded this advice. After spending two days at the Newberry Library, (see Oct 31st post) I headed over to the Chicago History Museum.

One caveat about visiting the Museum for research is that the Research Center doesn’t open until 1:00:
September - May
Tuesday through Friday: 1 - 4:30 pm
Saturday: 10 am - 4:30 pm
Somehow despite all my planning, I had forgotten the 1:00 opening time. I arrived at a few hours early, but that turned out to be a good thing because I was in time for a tour and lunch in the Museum cafeteria where you can eat a tasty meal in the sun room overlooking the Museum grounds.

The tour takes place in The Exelon Wing, “Chicago: Crossroads of America.” This glimpse into nineteenth and twentieth century Chicago, including an authentic elevated railroad car, really puts you in the mood for some more exploration upstairs in the Research Center. 
South Side Elevated Railroad car 1, built 1892. On display at the Chicago History Museum, 25 October 2007; Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

At l:00 sharp I was waiting at the door. As you know from visiting different libraries and research facilities, each one has its own set of rules for protection of its precious documents, photographs and other historical memorabilia. At the Research Center, you are asked to lock your purse in a locker, to use only pencils for writing, and to wear white gloves  when handling photographs.
Two archivists/librarians were at the front desk to greet me and asked what I was looking for. I was interested in finding a Sanborn map of Chicago that might show three cottages that my great grandmother, Mary Kearney/Carney Kries Lauer owned. The addresses of these cottages were 125, 127, and 129 South Irving Avenue. I knew about these properties because they were listed in the divorce record of Mary Kearney/Carney Kries Lauer and Otto Lauer in 1925 in Chicago, Cook County.
I had hired Kim Stankiewicz, a researcher at Genlighten, to look for land records on these South Irving cottages and to search for the property chain of ownership. Although Kim contacted several sources who might have had access to property records, none responded to her inquiries. However, she consulted a criss-cross or reverse directory from 1928 which listed Mary Kearney/Carney Kries Lauer as the occupant and owner of 125 South Irving Avenue between Monroe Street and 118th  Street.
I was very happy when one of the librarians located a Sanborn map from 1917 that showed the three dwellings right where they were supposed to be on South Irving:
Sanborn, Chicago, 1917 Vol. 7, p. 2
However, the librarian also produced a second Sanborn map from 1950 where the cottages had vanished. So now I knew that sometime between 1928 and 1950, the cottages were torn down.
My visit to the Chicago History Museum was very profitable. In addition to the Sanborn maps that verified the location of my ancestral cottages, I also found a history of the Near West Side that gives an incredible look into how the inhabitants of that area lived. Look for more on this amazing historical study in a future post.

Categories: genealogy groups, genealogy tools

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Stepping back to Nineteenth Century Chicago

You’re invited on a trip back to nineteenth century Chicago. We’ll drop in on the Near West Side around Halsted and Maxwell Streets. Your ticket for this adventure is an almost forgotten nineteenth century novel, Just Folks by Clara Elizabeth Laughlin, first published in 1907.
Inside cover of Just Folks, available through InterLibrary Loan

I was introduced to Just Folks when I was preparing for my research trip to Chicago in September of 2012. I was googling sources about life in the 1870s in the Near West Side, the neighborhood where my Carney/Kearney family lived. I happened upon the website for the Northern Illinois University Libraries’ Illinois Periodicals Online(IPO) project. The goal of IPO is to digitize Illinois-based magazines so that the public will have easy access. 

When I googled for “life in 19th century Chicago,” one of the hits was an article by Robert Bray, “The Chicago Novel, 1890-1915.”  Mr. Bray mentioned two novels that I was quite familiar with from high school and college: Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser and The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. But Mr. Bray also discussed several novels about life in late 1800s Chicago written by women, one of which was Just Folks. Although the book is hard to find, the complete text of  Just Folks is available on-line.

The main character in the novel is Beth Tully, a young woman who has just arrived in Chicago from a small Illinois town to be a juvenile probation officer on the Near West Side, which is shown in the map below:
1876 map of Chicago from, wikimedia

Laughlin’s opening lines plunge the reader into the environs of the Near West Side, mentioning two neighborhood streets, a government building, and America’s first settlement house, Hull House:

“On her way over from the Juvenile Court building, on Ewing Street east of Halsted, Beth Tully stopped at the arched entrance to Hull House….” (p. 1)

This building at 771 West Ewing Street  has the distinction of being the first juvenile court building in the world. Later in this posting, we'll see why this court devoted to juveniles was placed on the Near West Side.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the Near West Side was one of the most crowded, poverty-filled areas in Chicago. The Chicago Fire of 1871 was a large contributing factor to the gross overcrowding as people who lost their homes to the flames fled to the Near West Side. Also, before and after the fire, a continuing stream of new immigrants came to this part of town because of the proximity to factory jobs and the availability of low rent housing. 

The housing stock in the Near West Side may have been cheap and plentiful, but there was a downside – people were packed into flimsy tenement buildings that were dark, had no running water, had few privies for the number of tenants, and were prone to fires.
Photo Courtesy Chicago History Museum Archive, Slums Exteriors

Laughlin does a good job of describing the interior of a tenement: 

“The house was of a familiar type, two tenants on each floor and four rooms constituting each tenement. The kitchens were in the middle of the house and off each kitchen was a tiny bedroom. The ‘front room’ of the rear dwellers overlooked the back yard, the alley, and the backs of houses on the next street; and off it was a small bedroom. The front room of the other tenants on each floor …overlooked Maxwell Street; and off it was a small bedroom.” (p.8)

Laughlin captures the overwhelming presence of poverty that permeated every square inch of the Near West Side:

“Beth followed the woman through the ‘front room’…into the kitchen, which was stifling with heat and damp and that peculiar acrid odor – compounded of mustiness and personal uncleanness and stale odors of strong cooking – which every visitor to the homes of the poor knows as ‘the poverty smell.’”  (p. 27)

Now that we are familiar with the scent of poverty in 19th century Chicago’s Near West Side, we are treated to a word picture by Laughlin of some of the busiest streets in that area:

“(from Henry Street)They went over to Halsted…and walked slowly up to Madison on the east side of the street where, for some occult reason, the five-cent theatre does not flourish. From this comparatively sedate side, they looked over to the gaudy other side where penny arcades and saloons with free vaudeville, and nickelodeons, and gaudy Greek candy parlors, vie with the groggeries (saloons) and the pawnshops in number.” (p. 95)

Following  Laughlin’s verbal description of Madison Street, here is a photograph of Maxwell Street, that is mentioned often in Just Folks, to give you a visual impression of the area:
(Credit: Photo Courtesy of Barnes Crosby and Chicago Historical Society; found on

Laughlin not only gives us a geographic grounding in the Near West Side, she also gives us a glimpse of the basic institutions in the people’s lives. Just Folks began with the Juvenile Courthouse which played a big part in the day-to-day life of the people because poverty can spawn hopelessness, and without hope the young can turn to crime as a way out.

One institution that worked to bring hope to its neighbors on the Near West Side was Hull House.

Hull House, Smith Hall, view north on South Halsted, 1910, wikimedia, from
The American Memory Collections, Library of Congress
Jane Adams established Hull House in 1889 because she wanted to provide help to the very poor in this area. In Laughlin’s book, Beth Tully thought that she could learn how to help the people by living amidst them rather than on the grounds of Hull House. Through the sentiments of Tully (p.4), Laughlin presents the mission of Hull House from the viewpoint of the people it served: rather than asking what the people wanted, those in charge of the House gave what they thought was needed. And sometimes these were the same and other times they were not.

Another institution that brought hope to its members on the Near West Side was the Catholic Church. In his book The Irish Americans: A History pgs 111-115, which can be found on, Jay P. Dolan discusses the community, educational, and spiritual roles that the church played in the daily lives of its members. And it was the church that helped lift the second generation of Irish children out of poverty by teaching them the mores of America and by giving them the skills they needed to get better jobs in the parish schools, such as at Holy Family Catholic Church: 

Holy Family Church (1857) and St. Ignatius College Prep High School, (not pictured), 1869, Chicago IL, wikimedia, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The Catholic Church was there at the beginning of a person’s life to administer baptism, as Laughlin describes: 

“He was to be christened on Tuesday…in the Holy Family Church.” (p. 215)

Due to the unsanitary conditions, the lack of medical treatment and poor nutrition because of poverty, many young children died very early on the Near West Side. My great, great grandparents, John Kearney and Mary Duffy, faced this tragedy when their son, Patrick William Kearney, died at age two in 1879. The Catholic Church was also present at the end of life when people were given the last rites and buried in a Catholic cemetery, as Laughlin describes:

“…in two days after he was christened, wee Patsy was dead….They owned a single grave in Calvary (Cemetery); in it were the two children that were dead these many years….”  (p. 216-217)

In Laughlin’s book, we have seen where and how people lived on the Near West Side, where they were baptized, worshipped, went to school, and were buried (the Catholics, that is.)

One last aspect of life that was still in existence when I was growing up in Chicago in the 1950s was where they played – the amusement park of Riverview.  The Park didn’t actually open until 1904 as Riverview. Before that in the late 1800s it was called German Sharpshooter Park with picnic grounds and swings. Below is the front entrance to Riverview:

Postcard photo of the entrance of Riverview Park, Chicago circa 1908.

One of my favorite rides at Riverview was Shoot the Chutes
Postcard photo of the Chutes ride at Riverview Park, Chicago, wikimedia.
where you were carried up a tower in a small boat (kind of like an elevator.) At the top of the tower, the boat came out onto a large slide. And you shot down the “chute.”
Postcard photo of the Chutes at Riverview Park, Chicago, wikimedia

It looks like the characters in Just Folks also enjoyed riding the chutes:

“…an’ be taking’ ye t’ shoot th’ chutes.” (p. 142)

We have come to the end of our visit to the Near West Side of Chicago in the 19th century. A branch of my family started their life in Chicago right there, but fortunately the next generation was able to move out from the deep poverty. It was only a move of a few miles north to Chestnut and Wells for them, but it was a huge step in improving their quality of life.

Categories: genealogy tools

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Getting to Know an Ancestral Cemetery

To genealogists, cemeteries are repositories of much more than bodies. In fact, cemeteries may hold information on tombstones and in sexton records (if we’re really lucky) that gives us parents’ names and dates of birth and death or other details on those buried there.

To get the most out of a trip to an ancestral cemetery, one needs a little bit of “cemetery savvy” which I described in a posting of Feb22, 2012. I covered points such as at-home preparation through studying websites and calling the cemetery or sexton’s office for information. This communication may help you learn a lot about exactly where your ancestor is buried and if there are any burial cards available to tell who bought the grave lot. Also in that posting, I linked to a website which gives instructions on the do’s and don’ts of tombstone cleaning.

Before I came to Chicago on my September 2012 research trip, I had found a map of Calvary Cemetery online, and I had talked a few times with both members of the staff, John F. Geary and Thomas J. Berry. I called before I left to let them know I was coming.

Also I was fortunate to have met Craig Pfannkuche, a genealogist steeped in Chicago history, through the Newberry Library’s listing of Chicago area researchers. Craig had done some on-the-ground research for me in Chicago records a few years ago. Now it was my opportunity to meet him in person. As a true lover of Chicago and its rich past, Craig offered to be my guide to Calvary and any other place in the city.

Photo taken by Bert Schuster 9/24/2012
Well, the big day finally came. I was so excited to be standing in front of the Calvary Cemetery Office, wearing my backpack filled with tombstone cleaning supplies. So many times I had pictured myself right here, at the edge of the cemetery, ready to find the grave of Patrick William Kearney, the brother of my great grandmother, Mary Kearney Kries Lauer.

Photo taken by Pat Spears 9/24/2012
Photo courtesy of Calvary Cemetery
Our first step was to say hello to Tom Berry  who was on duty the morning of our visit. He directed Craig, my husband Bert, and me to the kiosk which houses a computer database that gives grave location information.  All you have to do is key in your ancestor’s name, and a cemetery map comes up with a diagram of the grave location for this person. I put in the name of Patrick William Kearney and printed out the map. Then we headed to Section H, Block 25, Lot 191. 

Photo taken by Bert Schuster 9/24/2012
I knew there was no marker for Patrick’s grave as Tom Berry had told me that it was a charity grave. Luckily Craig was with me or I would not have been able to locate the block or the lot. He has quite a bit of cemetery sleuthing experience. Using the larger cemetery map and an enlarged

image of Section H, Craig was able to identify Block 25, Lot 191. For the first time in 133 years, someone had come to honor the memory of two-year old Patrick William Kearney.
Patrick William Kearney gravesite, Calvary Cemetery
Only after I left Chicago and returned home did I realize that I wanted to check into putting a monument on Patrick’s grave. More about this in a future posting.

Our next stop was to visit the grave site of the Sweeney/Brookins/Dinan family, a collateral group in the Kearney/Carney network of friends, associates and neighbors. It took a little longer to find the family plot as there were so many tombstones in Section U, Lot S18. Unfortunately there was only one marker for this group of eleven family members.

  This marker was barely visible under the grass that had grown over it and the hard clumps of dirt that clung to the grass. And here is where I learned that I needed to bring yet another tool to the cemetery:
Craig was on his knees, busily pulling aside grass and brushing dirt away so that we could more easily read the marker.
Photo taken by Bert Schuster 9/24/2012

At last, we could make out the inscription: Ida M. Schuerman and Walter C. Schuerman.
Photo taken by Bert Schuster 9/24/2012

 I believe that Ida was the granddaughter of Catherine Sweeney Brookins Dinan. Catherine was one of the baptismal sponsors, along with her son Charles Dinan, for my great grandmother’s first child, Henrietta Kreis.

And so ended our day at the cemetery.  We had talked first with the staff
Photo taken by Pat Spears 9/24/2012
of the cemetery who had given me much information over the years before my visit. We had printed out maps from a new technology  -- the kiosk -- available at Chicago Catholic cemeteries. Using the maps, we had found one unmarked grave for an ancestor and a marked grave for a collateral family member. And best of all, I had reaped the benefits of having a local person, Craig, show us around the cemetery. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Walking in their Shoes

Most of us genealogists have wished one time or another that we could really “know” how our ancestors lived. We want to know what their world was like. What was a typical day like in the life of our ancestor? How did our ancestors handle life’s challenges? In other words, we wish we could walk in their shoes.

For many of us one of the most fascinating times of our ancestors’ lives is when they emigrated from their homelands. What made them leave? How did they feel about leaving?  What was the journey to America like for them? Where did they first settle in America?

I stumbled across a travel diary written in 1833 that gave me the opportunity to follow the journey of a party of Swiss German emigrants through France to the port of Le Havre, across the Atlantic Ocean, across the eastern part of the US on the Erie Canal and down the Mississippi River to St. Louis. How did I find this wonderful piece of history?
I had been preparing for a research trip to Chicago for several months. I described this preparation in my posts of June 24, 2012,  July 4, 2012, and August 21, 2012

I learned from reading genealogical how-to books how important it is to prepare for a research trip by studying the websites of the sites you plan to visit. When I looked up the Newberry Library website, I found there is an on-line catalog that you can use from home to search for materials.  Many libraries and archives have this feature, so it is a good idea to check out the availability of catalog searching at home no matter your research destination. This could you save valuable on-the-ground research time. 

In the Newberry on-line catalog, I searched for: “Swiss immigration to America,” and on the third page of the results, this title leapt out from the rest:

On the first day of my two-day sojourn at the Newberry, I went to the second floor and filled out a research request form for the diary. The document was written in 1833 by Joseph Suppiger, Jr., a nephew of Dr. Kaspar Koepfli, who was the leader of the group who were heading to America.

As I leaved through Mr. Suppiger’s diary, I was astounded to find that so many of the concerns of these nineteenth century travelers were similar to the ones we have today. Although technology has changed dramatically and made much about moving around the world or within a country easier, some things don’t change, such as:
  • Having to plan ahead: starting back at home the traveler looks into modes of transportation, plans an itinerary, makes a budget
  • Before a big move, people tend to get rid of extra furniture, large pieces that would cost too much to ship or transport. Sometimes under the pressure of moving deadlines, people are forced to part with possessions for much less than they think they are worth.
  • Often times, when a traveler gets to the place that he or she saw or read about in a brochure, the actual accommodations don’t match up
  • On the road breakdowns may occur when they are least expected
  • Unexpected fees, tolls and other costs can overwhelm a traveler’s budget
  • Travelers look for guidebooks and tips from those who have gone before

Fishing Boats Leaving the Harbor, Le Havre {{PD-1923}}, 
I felt so privileged to travel with Mr. Suppiger across France to the port of Havre, to see with his eyes what the country was like and to watch the leaders in his group negotiate with wagon drivers and inn keepers on the road to the port city. Then Mr. Suppiger introduces his reader to the perils of seeking a seaworthy boat in which to cross the Atlantic. And that is no easy task. It seems that even back then, people tried to cheat travelers out of their money through scams ranging from taking deposits on ships that never showed up or that were in such poor condition that no person in his/her right mind would trust them to cross the ocean to promising stellar accommodations and delivering standing room only on the deck, if you were lucky.

Winter North Atlantic - Water over deck and hatches, storm with huge waves,
And how many of us long to know what the ocean voyage to America was like for our ancestors? Mr. Suppiger keeps us so well informed of the weather conditions, the food, the scenery, and the types of accommodations suffered by passengers that we feel we are right there with them.

Once the Swiss party reaches New York, we get a real treat: we see the New York of 1833 through Mr. Suppiger’s eyes:
 “The shops here rival in splendor those in Paris. I would not have expected to find shops filled with such fine wares….It is much more agreeable to walk through the straight, regularly laid-out streets here than in Paris.” (p. 89)

Below we see an example of  19th century New York department store architecture, albeit some years after Mr. Suppiger's visit, in this photo of Bloomingdales, a company that was started in 1860 by two brothers named Lyman and Joseph Bloomingdale. 

Bloomingdale's 59th Street store in New York in the late 1800s. Photo: Courtesy Of Bloomingdale's / SF

The next part of the diary takes us up the Erie Canal, from Albany to Buffalo, and what a journey it is! We have the rare opportunity to see America the way it looked in the early 1800s as Mr. Suppiger describes the land that he sees as the boat goes up the canal.

The Ohio and Erie Canal in 1902 Source: 
In many places he describes seeing virgin forests with a few very small settlements cropping up here and there. He is very excited when he sees small hills that break up the monotonous flatlands.  Suppiger is amazed at the traffic on the canal:
“The activity on this canal must be seen to be believed. Not the busiest waterway in Switzerland…can be compared with it. There are said to be thirteen hundred canalboats operating on it.” (p. 100)

Duchess (steamboat) promotional handbill, front. Printed ca. 1888,
At the end of the canal in Buffalo, the group engages a steamboat for the trip down the Mississippi to St. Louis when the diary ends. In order to provide the reader with an idea of what the new world was like to these Swiss emigrants, the editor, John C. Abbott, included portions of two more documents written by other members of the group.

First, we need to clarify that Dr. Kaspar Koepfli and his party did not purchase land in St. Louis or any other place in Missouri for a couple of reasons; one being that they found no parcel that had sufficient cleared land ready for farming. And second, they did not want to settle in a state that allowed slavery.
Flag map of Illinois, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported,

After much searching, Dr. Koepfli and his group purchased a site 30 miles from St. Louis across the Mississippi in Illinois that they named “New Switzerland” and which was later called “Highland.” Dr. Koepfli described the land as:
“…a lovely district, richly endowed by nature….You will find it has good, fertile soil in which most products can be raised at a profit. There is prairie as far as one can see, with sufficient grazing for herds of a thousand cattle….Also, there is enough wood in the forests for building a large number of farms. The region has good water, with springs in the woods….it is near enough to the Mississippi so that produce can be hauled to St. Louis without great expense.” (p. 136)

One of the most valuable parts of the diary and the accompanying descriptions of New Switzerland are the notes to those who follow. Here Mr. Suppiger and members of the Koepfli family offer their advice to perspective emigrants. It is so like a Frommers Guide that I wonder once more, is there anything new under the sun?

 So ends the journey to New Switzerland. I hope that you can find this book and get a glimpse into 19th century America.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Using a Digital Camera to Copy Documents

On September 19, 2012, Legacy Family Tree offered one of its series of webinars. The subject of this webinar was how to use a digital camera to make very good copies of documents, presented by Mary E.V. Hill.  You can purchase a CD of this webinar at Legacy Family Tree.

But why would you use a camera when portable scanners, even hand-held ones, are now available? In many archives and libraries, scanners are not allowed. On the other hand, digital cameras, if you turn off the flash, are accepted by most research institutions as safe to us on fragile documents. And in some instances, such as when you need to copy many documents on a microfilm reader, using a camera can make the job go fast.

Ms. Hill begins her presentation with a description of the basic features you need in a digital camera if you want to make excellent image copies. Perhaps the most important feature you need is a function wheel which allows you to turn off automatic mode and to make changes to the auto settings.  Leaving your camera on automatic setting does not result in good quality document copies. Later in the webinar Ms. Hill explains that genealogists need be concerned with just a few settings, thereby reducing performance anxiety in some of us less technical people.

Ms. Hill states that there are only four basic functions that you will need to control (using function wheel) in order to make great copies, and she shows you how to set each one (great visuals):

  1.    Flash on/off
  2.    Macro or Tulip (close-up)
  3.    Film speed -- International Organization for Standardization (ISO)
  4.    White balance (to get the best possible color)

After the function wheel, there is another feature Ms. Hill recommends if you are in the camera purchase mode. And that is a flip-out LCD preview screen. This allows you to easily shoot from the different angles. 

Finally, Ms. Hill suggests several accessories to make your digital camera document photographing go very smoothly. First, a copy stand can give you stability and hands-free, close-up, stable picture-taking. Second, a camera clamp (such as the Sunpak ClampPod Pro) allows you to a fix your camera on to a microfilm reader in order to photograph the projected  image. Ms. Hill goes through this process in the webinar, showing you where to clamp the camera for the best shots. A third recommended accessory is the tripod. Ms. Hill suggests that you consider selecting a tripod with a reversible center pole which allows you get closer to an image in certain situations while keeping everything in focus.

While researching about taking digital document photos, I found a site by Adam Costanzo. Mr. Costanzo delves deeper into some of the ways you can improve your digital photos of documents. I find reading about the same subject by several authors helps my learning. 

After listening to Ms. Hill’s webinar, I felt energized and ready to outfit myself to take some digital document photos at the Family History Center near me. This presentation took me from knowing nothing about this subject to feeling confident in my ability to take on this project.

Categories: genealogy education, genealogy tools

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Putting my Chicago Ancestors in their Historical Context

I have often read this advice in genealogy literature: go beyond putting names and dates on your ancestors by digging into history to put them into the context of their times. What occupations did they have? What was their socio-economic level? What was going on in their neighborhoods, in America, in the world? And that’s what I wanted to answer for my Chicago ancestors.

Attribution: Flanker, wikimedia
My great grandfather, Henry Kreis, was a teamster in the late 1800s in Chicago. But what did a teamster do in these early pre-highway, pre-eighteen wheeler truck days?

I did a google search on the “history of teamsters in Chicago” and came up with a reference to Dr. Liesl Miller Orenic, a professor at Dominican University in Chicago, who is working on a history of Chicago’s Teamsters Local 743. I hoped that Professor Orenic might be able to steer me towards some sources on early teamsters in Chicago, so I e-mailed her:

“I am a genealogist and recently found out that some of my Irish ancestors were teamsters in Chicago in the 1880s. I have tried looking for definitions of "teamster" in the 1800s but can only find very general meanings. On the a3 Genealogy blog, I found this definition: "The Online Etymology Dictionary states a teamster is “a person who drives a team of horses, especially in hauling freight.” Can you direct me to any… information on teamsters in early Chicago?”

I wanted to find answers to these questions: What was a typical day like for a teamster? What skills did a teamster need? What kind of living did a teamster make?

I am always amazed by the kindness and willingness of people to share their knowledge. Professor Orenic suggested a book by Dr. David Witwer, Corruption and Reform in the Teamsters Union; a preview of the book is also on-line.

In the first chapter of Professor Witwer’s book, “Building a Teamsters Union” p. 8, he explains the impact of the urbanization of America in the late nineteenth century on the occupation of teaming:

“By the end of the nineteenth century, commercial growth had transformed American cities, in turn fueling dramatic changes in the teaming industry. As railroad traffic increased and cities expanded, the business of hauling goods grew in size and scale. Teamsters formed both the first and the final links in the transportation chain. They brought goods to and from railroad depots, freight yards, and shipping docks; they also ferried people around the growing city. Most urban residents were too poor to own and maintain their own carriages. They depended on teamsters to transport them to locations not served by public transportation…. The 1860 U.S. census listed seventy-seven thousand teamsters nationwide…by 1900 more than a half-million men worked as teamsters.3” (footnotes not given in preview)

On pages 9-10, Professor Witwer gives a detailed description of how many hours a day a teamster worked, what he did during that time, and how much he was paid:

“The hours were long because a teamster was responsible for maintaining his horses and outfit (wagon and harness) and because he worked for as long as there were deliveries to make. Typically, he would arrive at the stables by 5 a.m. to water, feed, and hitch the horses. Deliveries were made all day, and then at the end of the day he returned to the stable, where, before leaving, he watered, fed, and groomed the horses. Often a teamster would not get home until 9 or 10 at night….A teamster worked such hours six days a week. On Sundays, when there were no deliveries, the teamster came in to clean and oil the harness, grease the wagon axles, and, once again, feed and water the horses. For all of this he received between $8 and $12 a week.”

On pages 8-9, Witwer outlines the tasks teaming required, thus refuting the claims in the 1860 US Census and elsewhere that teaming was an unskilled endeavor:

South Water Street, NARA,
“The census, along with many observers, described the occupation of teaming as unskilled. Those more closely connected to the working life of a teamster, however, questioned such a classification. As one team owner noted, “To drive such a team through the labyrinths of other teams, and among the cars in winter weather and escape crash and wreck requires capacity.” In fact, teaming demanded both craftlike skills and clerical abilities. A good teamster knew how to manage horses. He could get his team to pull heavier loads and deftly maneuver them in the most difficult situations. “The man who can take a team of horses and get the work out of it while at the same time keeping it in good condition and spirits, and keeping clear of accident in the crowded streets of the city deserves commendation,” observed one team owner. “He will,” the owner continued, “have his hands full.”5 When he was out making deliveries, a teamster served as the main contact between his employer and the customers. Thus he often had to be able to read and write. In many cases he served as a combination record-keeper and salesman. He built the business up by bringing in new customers, and he smoothed over day-to-day problems to keep old customers happy. 6” (footnotes not given in the books. preview)

Now I had my answers. I know what my teamster ancestors did on a typical day. I have put them into historical context.

But Professor Orenic had suggested another resource to give me a taste of the history of Chicago so that I might more fully understand the times my nineteenth century ancestors lived in. This program is:
Chicago: City of the Century (a PBS documentary) which gives the history of Chicago from the early 1800s to 1900. I found that you can order this program on It is a 4-DVD set, and what a wild and wonderful time you will have from your front-row seat, watching Chicago grow from a swampy backwater to the second largest city in America. 

The narrator tells the story of Chicago through the exploits of colorful business men and entrepreneurs, politicians, dedicated social reformers and the thousands of working men, women and children who lived, worked, and died in the city in the nineteenth century. You can find a transcript of the program online.

This experience reinforced several of the tenets of genealogy:
  • To understand your ancestors, you need to go beyond names and dates. Put flesh on the bare bones.

  • Find out how they lived and what the world was like during their lifetimes. Search for books and articles to find this historical context using online sources such as,,; and checking out non-computer sources such as libraries and historical societies.

  • Search for experts in the fields of knowledge that you are interested in. Read their books. And very often, if you contact them, they will give you suggestions and lead you to additional sources.

Categories: genealogy professional