The Long Goodbye

It’s half past midnight as I start this post and the events of the past four days are not letting my mind nor body find peace tonight. This past Thursday I received a call from my aunt, my Grandma Rose was not expected to live another day. Friday crawled by then Saturday night I received another call, she was gone.

The passing of my grandmother was not unexpected. Ever since I had a rather vivid dream a month or two ago I expected a call from my aunt any day. In my dream, my grandmother and I were sitting at my dining room table talking about everything, anything just like before she got sick. Then towards the end she said, “Well kid, I am going to go now. I just wanted to come say goodbye.” Although it sounds mad, a big part of me believes, feels, knows that by some miracle a part of her being was able to untangle itself from the Alzheimer’s and the laws of science so that we could have one last conversation.

I feel heartbroken. I feel mad. I feel robbed.

Our relationship had a bit of unconventional start. Due to family matters, a true relationship was not able to even begin to form until I was about 15 or 16. We had some pretty big obstacles to overcome, issues to discuss, things that happened to be forgiven, all while navigating simply getting to know one another from a distance of 1,200 miles. It was at times messy, but, other than having more time together I wouldn’t change a thing about it. Despite these challenges we were able to build an incredibly strong relationship based upon second chances, forgiveness, and unconditional love. We did not give up on one another. I am proud of what we built.

The conversations we had to get there dealt with things that I don’t think many in a grandparent-grandchild relationship ever do. I got to know and appreciate her in ways I may have not otherwise. Our relationship may have not ever looked like a typical grandparent-grandchild one from the outside but that never bothered me. In a way, we had something better, something more.

My Grandma Rose's High School Portrait.
My Grandma Rose’s High School Portrait.

Grandma Rose became someone I could always count on for emotional support. Providing emotional support for an INFJ like me is not an easy task but there she was. She always rooted for me, always believed in me. If she didn’t understand or agree with something I was doing, she’d ask me questions but then she’d support me anyway. She just wanted to know that I thought things through and wanted me to make decisions in my best interest. She wanted to know about every part of my life. She was invested completely in my happiness. She wanted to make sure I always felt her love and support.

Then one day during one of our phone calls she didn’t ask me about my dogs- something she did without fail. It happened again on our next call and was accompanied by some red flags I had seen before. I began to fear that the same disease that claimed the life of my grandfather in 2005 was starting to creep in and was going to eventually take her too.  I could hear the heartbreak in her voice several months later when she finally admitted what was wrong. From there, her condition rapidly worsened as the Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s took control of her body and her mind.

Watching a loved one suffer from Alzheimer’s is not something I would wish on anyone. It means losing the person you love twice. First, as their memories, personality, and everything that made them who they are is steadily erased before your eyes leaving behind a shell of someone you once knew. Then, when their body finally gives out you have to come face to face with the reality that there will be no miracle. Their suffering is finally at end, but, they are truly gone.

I don’t want to remember Grandma Rose as she was these last few years. That horrible disease doesn’t deserve to steal my memories of her as it stole her memories of me. I want to remember the way she laughed, her brilliant smile, her quirky sense of humor, the calm tone of her voice, and the way she would call me “Kass” or “kid.” I want to remember how much she used to love hearing about my latest genealogy finds.  I want to remember how she was so afraid of birds that with a mere a feather on a hat my aunt cornered her in antique mall where she proceeded to squeal like a little girl. I want to remember how on that same road trip she made us spend probably a good hour rearranging the car to squeeze an old pump in the back. I want to remember her as the woman in her 60s who decided to take up tap and Irish step dancing. Vibrant, loving, and unyielding.

I love you Grandma Rose.

Save the Date

I am pleased to announce that McGarry’s Pub of Maple Plain, Minnesota (Twin Cities area) will be holding a fundraiser for my research into the life of Captain James McGarry. The fundraiser will be held the weekend of September 17, 2016 as a part of their Half Way to St.Patrick’s Day Celebration.  McGarry’s Pub is owned and operated by Bill McGarry, a descendant of the Captain’s brother Henry.

I will update this post as more details become available. In the meanwhile, please take a moment to check out their website and Facebook page. Their food looks mouthwatering! Words cannot express how grateful I am to have Bill organize this and how much support from the Captain’s living relatives means to me.

Donations can also be made at

Because he was loved.

137 years ago today, Captain James McGarry died.

Well known. Well liked. Well respected. But, famous he certainly was not.

His memory could have very easily faded into complete obscurity. It nearly has.

He died too soon, before his life could be documented by those clinging to the romance of the steamboat era.

He died too soon, in the prime of his life with many accomplishments behind him and likely just as many, if not more, before him.

He died too soon, his passing coming as a shock to all of those who knew him.

For years his memory has teetered on the edge of obscurity, overlooked by historians but kept alive because he was loved.

Because he was loved his family grieved so profoundly that the hardest of hearts feels heavy when reading of how that grief was expressed.

Because he was loved his siblings, nephews, and nieces held dear his memory and shared his legacy with the next generation, then another, and yet another seemingly defying the effects of passing time for well over 100 years.

Because he was loved, his memory did not fade into obscurity.

So today let us not remember him for the achievements made on the river but as the man who was loved as a brother and as an uncle.

Captain James McGarry

Joseph Hill’s Moustache

Joseph Hill is an intriguing character in the history of the Upper Missouri. He was an early settler of the region and a prominent businessman who came from an interesting background but died from a painful growth on his spine at all too young of an age. He worked side by side with some of Montana’s greatest early businessman and had connections to none other than our old friend Captain James McGarry. Joseph Hill was part owner of the steamer Benton and served as clerk for the steamer’s maiden voyage in 1875. As you may recall if you follow my blog, McGarry oversaw the building of the Benton, was part owner, and served as her captain from 1875 through 1877.

Joseph Hill also had a rather intriguing moustache.  A face adorned with an impressive moustache was cause for high praise and even conducive to romance. For instance, take the May 7, 1875 edition of the New Northwest which shared the following supposed Spanish proverb “A kiss without a moustache is like an egg without salt.”

Joseph’s moustache was impressive enough to make the papers at least twice.  That is, to date I have found two articles and suspect there may indeed be more. Joseph’s moustache first made the newspapers when on March 11, 1875 the Helena Weekly Herald commented “Mr. Joseph Hill…is successfully growing a Missouri moustache.” It is unclear if he had difficulty growing the said moustache, if a previous calamity had befallen it, either way the demise of his moustache in 1876 made the papers. This time in the Benton Record:

Sept 1 1876 p3 col1-b

Oh what a tragedy to occur as the result of a intently reading the bible (cough, cough). We are able to glean some idea of what his moustache looked like from the details included the article. Despite the fact that the moustache was considered “young and tender,” it appears it was long since it would not grow back out until the following spring. What exactly is a Missouri moustache? I’m not sure, but, it does sound rather grand. Perhaps I can find a picture of Mr. Hill and his grand moustache when I’m out in Montana later this year.

What do you think of this article? Satire or were they serious? Perhaps a little of both? And, what of Joseph Hill’s explanation- likely or a good cover story?

O Captain! My Captain!

DeSoto Lake, once a part of the Missouri River, frozen over in February.

I first came across the name Captain James McGarry back in 2012. I knew then there was something special about this steamboat captain, but, fully delving into his story had to go on the back burner until after I finished my masters. Once I was able to delve in, just how special he and his story are quickly became clear. I am what I refer to as a “stay-at-home historian.” What that means is that I’m an independent historian, but, I am also a stay-at-home mom.  Funding is hard to come by and the records I can order depend largely on what’s left over from the family budget at the end of the month. Over the last couple of months I began to realize just how quickly I was running out of free resources or records that could be obtained with ‘left over money.’ I needed funding. I needed it soon or else all the work I’ve done would be for nothing- my research would stall.

The prospect of not being able to properly tell the Captain’s story is a source of anxiety for me. I look at his story and I see not only a noble man but a way to bring a part of history that most may not even really consider to a new audience. I see it as something that sparks someone’s imagination and makes them think, “History is actually cool.” There is a certainly a unique kind of appeal and draw to it. Along the way I developed a hunch, a feeling, whatever you want to call it that this would also be “it” for me. That this would be the story that gets noticed. Hopefully, I’m not jinxing myself by saying this, but, so far it is turning out to be just that. I was over the moon when the paper about him that I presented at the Missouri Valley History Conference received an award from my alma mater . Over the moon does not begin to describe how I feel today. I am proud to announce that I am one of five recipients of the BYU Charles Redd Center’s Independent Research and Creative Works Award. It will fund a significant portion of my research, primarily my research trip to Helena, Montana. I have also setup a GoFundMe account to help with the remainder of the costs.

As excited as I am, I am also greatly humbled. Sometimes you do not find research projects, they find you. I am thankful the story of Captain McGarry found me. Tonight when my husband and I pop a bottle of champagne in celebration we will not only toast my supporters, we will toast the Captain- may I tell his story well.

Captain McGarry in 1874

On St. Patrick’s Day, 1874, Captain James McGarry participated in a large procession celebrating St. Patrick, the virtues of Ireland, and the Irish spirit. But, how do I know this?

The year 1874 is of particular interest to me because it is one year in which it appears the captain spent more time off of the river than he did working on the river- seemingly an anomaly. Admittedly, I could be wrong. I still have much more to research. One clue I have as to his whereabouts during this year is a mention of him in the March 20, 1874 edition of the Sioux City Journal that states Captain Shaw reported seeing Captain McGarry in St. Louis. Shaw stated McGarry was marching in “the St. Patrick’s Procession carrying a tassel on the leading banner.” Tantalizing clue isn’t it?

Newspaper articles make for tricky sources- sometimes they are perfectly reliable, sometimes they contain just a few errors, and other times they are complete works of fiction. Can I trust the information in this particular article? My first impression of this particular article is that the information it contains is probably mostly true. It is not out of the ordinary for the topic of discussion to turn to activities of steamboat captains who were considered high members of society in the river communities. There is nothing particularly salacious about this article and I have seen the name Captain Shaw referenced in conjunction with Captain McGarry’s several other times. The exact nature of their relationship is just one of many aspects of McGarry’s life that I am investigating, but, I can say with confidence the two were at the very least acquaintances.

St. Louis 1874
St. Louis, Missouri Circa 1874- Library of Congress

I found a newspaper article detailing the St. Patrick’s Procession in St. Louis. Unfortunately, the article does not mention McGarry by name. Through other articles from other newspapers independent of each other, I was able to confirm that McGarry was in St. Louis that spring. There is at least one other newspaper from the St. Louis area that I can and will order via interlibrary loan so that I can check those articles to see if by chance he was mentioned by name in their reports on the parade. I am particularly hopeful as the editor of this newspaper was at the very least a great admirer if not friend of Captain McGarry’s.

It is very easy to go down rabbit holes when working on any research project. I have had to ask myself frequently throughout this project is this a rabbit hole worth pursuing? As I read through the newspaper article the first time, I started squealing with delight. Yes, I realize that sounds crazy but fortunately my family has gotten quite accustomed to my screams, shrills, squeaks, and outright talking to records that I come across. It is a part of how I process information! Anyhow…I squealed because it was not just a normal parade, it was a Saint Patrick’s Day Procession. It was a huge parade that was rather ceremonious that arguably contained significant political overtones. McGarry left Ireland between 1846 and 1848- yet here he was in 1874 honoring his heritage in a big way despite spending 10+ years in Canada and the difference in the United States.  In my opinion-that is kind of cool. More than that though is the distinct possibility that McGarry may have been a member of one of the societies who marched in the parade. I think the strongest contender is the Hibernian Benevolent Society. If it turns out he was a member of a benevolent society, based upon everything I already know about him, it would not surprise me one bit.

At present time, my research instincts say he was there and was a member of one of those societies, but, my OCD says to keep checking until I run out of things I can check. And oh the list of things I have to check….

I realize some maybe questioning where my citations are…well I’ve referenced two articles at least. I am hesitant to reveal the extent of my sources, what those sources are, and my methodology because some hack has tried to copy and outright steal my research before. Discussing my current project in this much detail is a bit nerve wracking as it is. If it really bothers you, feel free to email me and we can discuss it. At a future date when my research is complete, I will be sharing how I pulled it all together in a variety of ways and want to make sure my future plans are not undermined by handing all of that information to the aforementioned hack. 


History Tips for Genealogists

As both a historian and a genealogist, I sometimes find myself caught between what feels like two very different worlds. I find myself defending historian’s views and methods to genealogists, defending genealogist’s methods and views to historians, and shaking my head at the misplaced bias that can be found on either side. It is a shame there is a divide because in my opinion each side has much to learn from one another…more on that later. For now, I have a few basic tips for genealogists who are conducting research in order to add historical context to their ancestors’ lives.

old-books-436498_1920 (3)

1) Do not limit yourself to just one book about your topic of inquiry. Each book is written by an individual with their unique interpretation of the facts who may approach the topic from say an economic perspective whereas another historian may counter the author’s arguments or focus on the social or political aspects. The more books and articles you read, the better informed you will be. There is a temptation to focus on social histories because it is felt that is what most impacted our ancestors’ lives. However, if you leave out other histories such as political and economic ones, then you are leaving out a part of the bigger picture. If you are really up for learning something new and expanding your horizons, try attending a history conference.

2) Be weary of book sale deals. I love a good deal. My local library frequently sells their old books for just a couple bucks or for as little as 50 cents.  I’m not saying do not buy books from sales like these. Just keep in mind that these are old books after all. That book you are reading may contain outdated interpretations and information. It may still be worth your time in that it can help you understand the development of the way history looks at a particular topic. Make sure to read it with a grain of salt and keep in mind how the cultural attitudes of the time in which it was written may have affected the content.

3) Question where the information came from. Check the notes and bibliography section of the book you are interested in. If there is no bibliography or notes, be highly skeptical. When it comes to dealing with people….whether you are talking to someone who is a self-proclaimed expert or someone who has M.A. or Ph.D. behind their name, ask them about what they’ve studied. Historians are a lot like genealogists- we like to talk about our research and where we find our information.  At the MVHC last week, many fellow historians approached me about my steamboat captain research wanting to know what records I used and for recommended books/articles. Just don’t be impetuous when you asking your questions.  I realize this may seem like an odd tip to some, but, I just hate it when I see someone unwittingly being fed misinformation either by a less than reputable book or person.

Happy reading!