Summer 2013: My wife and I are driving from California to a genealogy conference in Boston. She's something of a specialist in family research, but I consider myself a beginner; I have depth in a few areas, but little breadth. I'm hoping to learn some new skills, to expand my sources of family info.
On the drive, we're stopping at several small towns which were important in my family history... when the GPS can untangle our route.
One of those towns is Lynch, Nebraska, where my grandfather Kalal was born on his Czech-immigrant parents' farm in 1898. Thanks to my mother, I know quite a bit about my grandfather, but details about the rest of his family in the US are a bit sketchy.
In the 1900 US census list, the first four Kalal children were born to Josef Kálal's Bohemian first wife Anna; she died in 1891. Josef quickly re-married, and the next three surviving Kalal children (including my grandfather Augustín, or August) were born to Josef's second wife Karolína, an immigrant from Moravia.
At the time, Lynch was an active farming community of several hundred people, many of them Bohemian and Moravian immigrants like my great-grandparents. But government and services were limited; Boyd County had been incorporated only a few years before my grandfather was born and was one of the last parts of the state to be settled.
From family lore and findagrave.com, I know that my great-grandparents and their three unmarried children were buried in the ZCBJ WFLA cemetery in Lynch, one of many "Bohemian" cemeteries organized by immigrant Czech communities in the US, especially in the plains states. Because there are no Kalals from my family still in the area, the Lynch cemetery is an important stop on our journey.
It's a serene and pleasant site, with some shade from the hot summer sun. The Kalal graves are all in a row. We find Frank, the oldest son of Josef's second wife Karolína, who served in WWI and died in 1977. And we find Elizabeth, born as Alžběta but nicknamed "Pink" because of her red hair; she served as a nurse with the US Army in WWI. Elizabeth's story is tragic; she had an affair with a married doctor, became pregnant, then killed herself in 1928. My grandfather, very fond of his half-sister, was torn by her death.
The other Kálal child buried here is Josef Jr., died at 21 years old in 1903. Josef Jr. was the first child of Anna, and the only Kálal child to have been born in Bohemia; he emigrated with his parents when he was only two.
We know very little about Josef Jr; he died in Lynch when my grandfather was only 5 years old; no stories were passed down, and this part of the US was practically a frontier, with few records kept (my grandfather was born at home with no attendant and no record). We can only speculate that Josef Jr. had died of disease or some similar cause.
But the memorial for Josef Jr. in the cemetery reveals the family's sorrow at his death. The inscription is in Czech and not all the letters are completely readable now, but in English the words appear to say:
Here sweetly resting, our beloved son, Josef Kálal, born 19 March 1882, died 19 December 1903 - his grieving parents Kálal
I find this very moving, even more than 100 years later.
We spend a couple of nights in the area, sample the local Americanized Czech cuisine, and continue on our way to Boston, stopping in a few other towns where my families had lived to see and photograph former residences, business sites, and cemeteries; not all of our searches are successful, but often it's interesting and rewarding just to stand where my ancestors had once stood... or sat.
When we arrive in Boston, we register for the genealogy conference and settle in for several days of talks and study.
The first morning of the conference, a week after I stood in the cemetery in Lynch, I attend a lecture in Boston on the use of historic newspaper archives as a supplemental (and sometimes data-rich) source of family history information. Although our family scrapbooks include a few newspaper clippings (obituary and nuptials notices), I haven't really searched newspaper archives for info about my family. It's a useful lecture for me, generous in search tips and online links; the day is busy but I make a mental note to try this when I have time.
But I'm too curious to let this sit long; I start experimenting that same evening after the day's lectures are done...
I learn that some of the good newspaper archives are accessible to the layperson without subscription, including the excellent "Chronicling America" website jointly sponsored by the US Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities; it's a free and easily searchable online site.
I start by trying to find any mention of Josef Kálal Sr.'s first wife, Anna; as with Josef Jr., my family knows very little about Anna, not even where her grave is. These initial newspaper searches are frustrating; I find no mention of Anna, and some of the search terms return newsprint words which poorly match; "Kalal" becomes "estate" or even "fatal"!
But I realize that, of course, these are insignificant farmers who lived in a frontier area far from population centers; why would any of my family appear in any newspaper, anywhere?
As with many internet searches, the results depend very much on my search terms and the dates and locations I select. Very quickly I find two mentions of Joe Kalal in Lynch, Nebraska!
But it's not my great-grandfather, Josef Sr.; it's his first son, Josef Jr. And the headline jumps out at me when I open the page...
I check the death date against our family records and the inscription on Josef Jr.'s headstone; it's definitely him. This is a horrible story; not only did he take his own life, but it happened almost in front of the family; and worse, following and probably because of an argument within the family. I can't even imagine the emotional scar this violence would have left on those present who were old enough to understand. My grandfather was too young at the time, fortunately, but the shadow on the family must have persisted for years.
Some details in the article are wrong: Josef Jr. was 21 when he died, not 20 as reported, but it's possible the family did not recall his birth year correctly. The published date of the newspaper, Christmas 1903, was printed as "December 52, 1903" on the paper's first page; that's clearly a typo.
Some other details are probably correct, and reveal information my family did not previously know: the two oldest sons were living apart from the rest of the family (perhaps they were working on another farm), even though the surviving brother was only 17 at the time; and the father, Josef Sr. was living in Wilber NE, at least 100 miles away.
The other paper reports mostly the same facts, in a briefer and slightly less lurid account. We won't be escaping this story, even if there are some conflicting small details (the two spellings of Wilber NE are actually two different towns in Nebraska).
The results of this first experiment with historic newspaper archives?
One family question answered, and a few new family facts added, but several new family questions opened as well. A reasonable "score", even if a few nightmares may also result...
It turns out that this sort of discovery is not limited to my family, and can even occur soon after a honeymoon. Although unrelated to us, the news item recorded here appears on the same date and page as my family's disaster.
So I'll keep trying to find info about my families and their communities in old newspapers, and now I'm better prepared for the occasional shock...!