Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Our Name in History: A Review

It was the early-1930s, Great Depression, my grandfather and a couple friends hopped a train in St. Louis and rode it to California. Upon arriving in California, my grandfather saw a large building with the name Newmark on it. He had no idea he had relatives in California. So, naturally, he walked inside and asked for a job. And they told him to go away. They were probably nice about it, but it was the Great Depression, and there were no jobs available. Not even for potential distant cousins. No jobs were found, so the friends hopped another train, and rode back to St. Louis. My grandfather married my grandmother, had a successful career as a lawyer and a judge, and all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds (to quote Voltaire). However, when he heard about a family history book entitled, California Family Newmark, he bought a copy.

So when Ancestry recently announced they were publishing their "Our Name in History" series, I knew I had to buy a copy of "The Newmark Name in History," in memory of my grandfather. I knew the books had to be created by computer, pulling data from Ancestry's databases to create charts and graphs and mixed together with stock text. But there was still a chance the charts and graphs could be interesting, as well as the stock text.

So before I get into the full review, you're probably wanting to know what I think:
Q: Is the book worth $29.95?
A: It depends.

Someone who has spent significant time researching their family history already isn't likely to learn much, or get too many leads. In their introduction, Ancestry is careful to insert two disclaimers: 1) this information is about the surname in general, and not about the reader's specific ancestors. 2) data shouldn't be confused with fact. I will illustrate both of these disclaimers in the review.

However, I feel this book would be a good first book for a son or grandson of high school/college age, or an adult friend who has shown some interest in genealogy, but doesn't quite know where to start. There is a section at the back that provides tips on research, and organization, along with some sample forms to get one started. The data that is presented should whet their appetite.


The Newmark Name in History is 94 pages. When I browsed through the different surnames at Amazon, the longest volumes were 98 pages, so there is some information other surnames have, that the Newmark surname doesn’t. My guess is that since Newmarks appear in the United States about 1840, the missing 4 pages cover the years prior to that. However, 4 pages seems short to do that in. It is possible there is some variance in volumes, and more material was provided on the 19th century in mine than there would be for surnames that had a presence in America in earlier times.

I do have ancestors who were here during the Revolutionary War; the Vaneverys. Interestingly, the Vanevery Name in History is a shorter volume than The Newmark Name. My suspicion is that several pages on 19th century immigration are missing. It’s good that there is variance; but it means I can’t give a complete review from one volume. But still, I think I can give you a good idea of what you will receive.

Stock Material

There are a lot of pages devoted to history accounts, from immigrant journals, to discussions on name changes, Ellis Island, the Westward Expansion, medical advances in the delivering of babies, letters from soldiers, the Civil War, WWI, WWII, Literacy rates, and other topics. Mostly devoted to America, but there was a section on England too (perhaps only because the Newmark surname had a British presence) Working Conditions in Britain in the 1880s, Queen Victoria’s death, and a general article on immigration from England to the US. Those who are interested in history will probably find the articles interesting. It does provide a good illustration of the lives people led during the various decades. (Each individual article is only a page in length at most.)

Pages 78-85 are a section devoted to a five-step process for researching, and organizing your family tree. Following this is a blank sample Family Tree Chart, Family Group Sheet, and Research Log. Then there is a glossary of Family History terms, and a list of sources, including a lot of websites. This would have been the most natural section to push Ancestry, but they only include it in a list of other websites, including FamilySearch, CyndisList, FamilyHistory, Rootsweb, USGenWeb, and VitalRec. I was impressed by, and appreciated the restraint they showed in advertising their website.

Surname Specific material

Charts/Graphs (extensive list, but not complete list)
Place Names (Buildings and Streets with the surname in them. Hopefully, if your surname is Main, they don’t include a complete list.)
Places of Origin (pulled from passenger lists)
Ports of Departure
Most Common Ship Names
Ten Earliest Immigrants, with arrival date, departure port, and ship name (Maybe you’ll get lucky, I didn’t)
A graph charting the number of arrivals per year from 1823 to 1943
Distribution of Households in 1840, 1851 (England), 1880, 1881 (England), 1901 (England), 1911 (Canada), 1920, 2000 (source for 2000: Phone Directories)
Literacy distribution by age in the 1920s
Distribution (by state) of WWI Draft Registrants, WWII Army Enlistment
Occupations in 1880 (US), 1881 (England)
Most Popular Given Names by Decade (1880s, 1900s, 1920s, 1940s, 1960s)
Home Ownership rates in the 1920s by age
Graph of Life Expentancy by year (1939-1999) versus general public
Most Common Causes of Death
Most Common Cemeteries for Veterans Burials

There is also the occasional ‘silly data’ such as the most common day of the week for a birth or a death in your family. I guess there are people who might think that’s significant.

There are times when it becomes painfully obvious that a computer produced the volume instead of a human. For example, for “Places of Origin for Newmark Immigrants” the chart shows that most immigrants (38) came from Russia. So they include below the chart a generic paragraph about generic Russian immigration. “The first Russians in the United States were explorers from Siberia that settled in Alaska in 1784…The large number of Russian immigrants declined in 1952 when the Soviet government began threatening those who tried to emigrate.” However, 37 immigrants came from England, 8 came from Great Britain, and 5 came from London. If a human had created the book, there would be a paragraph on immigration from England. However, ironically, I know that a good number of Newmarks only stopped briefly in England (my family was there for 15 years), and really originated in Poland or Russia. So in actuality, while the data indicates the majority came from England, the majority really didn’t originate there. Similarly, in 1880, out of the top five occupations for Newmarks are “Keeping House” and “Keeps House”. The sixth most common occupation got pushed off the list by the duplication.

In summary, I don’t think I have any new leads for research (except the long list of websites in the back pages under “Selected Sources”). I’m not disappointed. Some of the information is at least fun to have. There is a significant amount of good reading material about life in America. And the section on research and organization could be beneficial for any beginner. (Which I still am.) These books appear to be meant for the newcomer to genealogy and family history. They’re meant to ignite the spark.

I don’t have a large interest in buying a copy for any of my other surnames, since I am almost certain most of the stock material will be repeated, and I don’t expect to learn anything truly essential to my research. However, I might get a copy of the Vanevery volume since they immigrated in the 17th and 18th centuries, and while I don't know for certain, there might be some good articles on that time period. There also could be more information on Canada, since that's the part of my family that were Loyalists and they fled to Canada for a couple generations after the Revolutionary War.

Instructions on how to add text to, and otherwise alter Amazon images as done at top of entry.

1 comment:

Janice said...


Thanks for your honest evaluation of the "Our Name in History" books. They remind me of a similar series of books that scam artists used to sell by mail years ago....