Archive for Sunday, May 30, 2010

Search for ancestors ‘addictive’

Douglas County Genealogical Society member Mary Burchill is pictured Thursday near the grave of her distant cousin and abolitionist Amos Dresser and his wife Ann Jane. The city of Lawrence is now providing a searchable database of city cemeteries, which will help for locating the whereabouts of those buried and will also be particularly useful to genealogists.

Douglas County Genealogical Society member Mary Burchill is pictured Thursday near the grave of her distant cousin and abolitionist Amos Dresser and his wife Ann Jane. The city of Lawrence is now providing a searchable database of city cemeteries, which will help for locating the whereabouts of those buried and will also be particularly useful to genealogists.

May 30, 2010


It is something Poe would write.

Mary Burchill walks the grounds of Oak Hill Cemetery — stabbing the soil with her steel rod.

In these rolling hills — where notables ranging from legendary Kansas University basketball coach Phog Allen to Kansas’ first U.S. Senator, James Lane, lie — there is a body of a man named Amos Dresser. A notable abolitionist he was, who came to Lawrence to die in 1904. Burchill has Dresser blood in her, and a curiosity about a possible forefather.

Reader poll
Have you ever done genealogy research on your family?

or See the results without voting


So, she stabs, stabs, stabs the ground.

Geez, he’s supposed to be here. At least that’s what the folks down at the cemetery office said.

But Burchill knows with this business of bodies, it is not always so simple. Sometimes the old headstones sink, topple or become covered. So, she stabs with her rod to see if a tombstone is hidden just beneath the soil.

Burchill knows of such somber graveyard details. Burchill is a grave hunter.

Well, as a leader of the Douglas County Genealogical Society, she is really more of a genealogist.

But come on, grave hunter sounds way cooler.

• • •

Grave hunters of all stripes just got a Memorial Day present from the city of Lawrence. On Friday, the city added a new feature to its website — — that allows people to type in the name of anyone who they believe is buried in one of the three cemeteries operated by the city.

Hit a search button, and the computer will churn out the cemetery — either Oak Hill, Memorial Park or Maple Grove — the date of burial, and the section number and lot number of the grave.

Online maps of the three cemeteries are available to get users the rest of the way there. The new tool won’t only be helpful to genealogists. Local florists, who often get asked to make deliveries to a tombstone, also are excited about the addition.

“I’ve spent three hours looking for a grave,” said Carey Engle, an owner of Englewood Florists, 1101 Mass. “In the rain. It is usually raining.”

More people than you may think search for graves throughout the year. Mitch Young, who supervises the maintenance of the cemeteries for Lawrence Parks and Recreation, said his staff receives about 20 phone calls and 10 e-mails or letters each week asking about grave locations. And the numbers have been increasing over the years.

“It used to be 30, 40 years ago everybody knew where all their loved ones were buried,” Young said. “But now, people have less time. Grandkids don’t have time to go to the cemetery to learn all that. So, there’s a lot more research that goes on as time goes by.”

• • •

Burchill knows all about research. Walking the grounds of a graveyard is actually the fun part. Reading rolls of microfilm of old newspapers, searching through stacks of marriage certificates, mining data from military records can be the tough part.

“It can get tedious,” said Burchill, who has been conducting genealogy work on her family for about 25 years.

But then, like the patient fisherman, she hooks one every once in a while.

“You want to be careful, if you ever start this,” Burchill said. “It is addictive. It is fascinating.”

Burchill started out by trying to gain entry into the Daughters of the American Revolution, which requires you to show you had an ancestor who fought in the war. Burchill accomplished that, and then traced her family’s roots all the way back to 1632. She’s still filling in details.

“My mother’s side came over during the French Revolution. I’m sure there is a really good story there. I just haven’t found it yet,” Burchill said. “My aunt insists that we’re royalty. But of course everybody insists that they’re royalty.”

For the time being, though, some people actually can prove it. Burchill isn’t sure that always will be the case. Much of a genealogist’s treasure is found in letters ancestors wrote or old-time newspaper articles announcing Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So had moved to the community. In other words, communication of a different age.

“What is somebody like me going to be reading 50 years from now?” Burchill asked. “E-mails? I don’t think so. People delete those. I don’t know how you are going to trace a person’s progress through life with e-mails and Facebook.”

• • •

But that is a worry for another day.

Here at Oak Hill, there is a search to finish. The ground is now perforated. The rod has come up empty. Sometimes the graves win. Burchill understands that. She begins to walk back to her car, and crosses the cemetery road.

“And then I run into,” she says, “there was Amos Dresser’s tombstone. I was just on the wrong side of the road. It was like ‘Eureka, I’ve found it.’”

She had found Amos Dresser. But had she found kin? Oh, that will take lots of paperwork. Microfiche and minutia await. Maybe.

“Oh, all us Dressers are related somehow,” Burchill said. “I’m claiming him, anyway.”


Ron Holzwarth 7 years, 12 months ago

Adoptions and the now common practice of divorce and remarriage will sure complicate the future genealogist's tasks. And of course, the common practice of childbirth without the bother of marriage will be troublesome also.

My personal adoption issue is Baby John Doe, an abandoned infant found at 2400 Alabama Street here in Lawrence on January 19, 1986.

Frank A Janzen 7 years, 12 months ago

Very good piece, Chad. I sent this to my relatives who are digging into our past. The question, unaswered, was, "What will our ancestors be able to find out about our own lives, with email and Internet info being lost in space?" No hard copies!!!

mom_of_three 7 years, 12 months ago

I have found the same thing, multi. When I was searching for info about my great grandfather, I found several on ancestry with information, but none of it was verified. Well, it is now! Luckily, the two I reached out to are distant cousins who updated their info with what I found. I am now searching for additional information about other family members.

Christine Anderson 7 years, 12 months ago

Shoot, I guess I'm lucky. Four generations of my family on my dad's side are in the graveyard of the same small Lutheran church in Wi. Makes them rather easy to find.

headdoctor 7 years, 12 months ago

Search for ancestors may be addictive but I find it a pain and I don't have the patience for it. I would rather invest my time on family now and forward instead of people I never knew. While I find it interesting to a degree I can't justify the time or expense. I see some are concerned about modern practices for child birth, etc. The old ways were not much better. Nothing like spending weeks searching for a child based on clues of the father, then realize it is a case of not the right pop or exactly which wife was it. Family being admitted to a sanitarium or the daughter that disgraced the family and was removed from the history always makes for a good chance to go in circles chasing your own tail.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.