The people I‘ve met through my interest in family history have always been the best part of it. I’ve met so many wonderful people, but the strangers who went out of their way to be kind and helpful when I was just a teenager and starting out have always held a special place in my heart. They started as strangers who quickly became family. Here is my memory of one surprise meeting.
I became interested in family history as an older kid, and by the time I started college I was teaching myself how to research, asking family members to take me to the old family cemeteries and show me the old home sites, and interviewing all of the elders to take down what they remembered. The research then was much more difficult, pre-internet, digitized records, and easily accessible record indexes. To find the records, one had to either visit or write to far-flung courthouses, libraries, and archives. We didn’t call around because there were high charges for long-distance. It was painstakingly slow to research this way.
When I started, I knew there were six Claussen brothers (born 1836 – 1849 in Illinois) and I was descended from the youngest, Alexander. I knew that three of them had “gone West” while the others remained in Illinois. I set out to learn everything I could about each one and to find living descendants willing to talk to me, so I could hear the stories that came down to them about our family.
No one in my family knew descendants of any of the other brothers, so where to start? First, I learned where most of the brothers settled from the census records. It was no easy task in the 1970s to even gain access to the census reports, but I was determined. Once I learned where they each settled, I began seeking out phone books from those places with the help of pubic librarians. I made a list of all the Claussens in the phone books for those places of early settlement, generations ago. Fortunately, none of them settled in urban areas or it would have been impossible. I began writing to these strangers with the same name. I explained I was a college student living with my parents in Bethalto and I was interested in family history. I asked them to write me back if they were descended from one of the brothers and would be willing to share information with me about them and their descendants. Responses were rare, unsurprisingly.
One Sunday afternoon the doorbell rang at our house in Bethalto and I opened it to find a smartly dressed older couple on the doorstep (old to me at the time was over 40). The first thing I remember thinking is how much the gentleman reminded me of some of the older Claussen men in my family. They introduced themselves as Ernest and Stella Claussen of Ava, Illinois. They had received my letter and wanted to visit in person with me and my parents. They had driven 95 miles after church that day to pop in and say hello. I was thrilled.
Ernest was a descendant of James Henry Claussen who he explained had farmed the bottomlands along the Mississippi River in Jackson County, arriving there about 1872 with his wife and eight children. They invited us down, so one Saturday Dad and I drove to Ava and Ernest and Stella showed us the area where his ancestors had lived. We visited lovely Glenn Cemetery on the hill where generations of his family lay at rest. They served us lunch in their home and we met their daughter, Virginia. I asked lots of questions and scribbled down notes. Lastly, we took photos together before we headed home. Virginia and I began exchanging letters and she even made a couple of trips to the county courthouse to find records for me. Ernest patiently responded to my letters of follow-up questions. I later transferred to nearby SIU Carbondale to finish college and I was welcomed into their Ava home again on several occasions. Ernest and Stella and their daughter Virginia have been gone quite a few years now, but I will always be grateful to them for welcoming me into their circle as if I were a close cousin rather than a distant one.