Thank you, Mr. Census Man

Elizabeth Keller's headstone, Beaver Creek Cemetery, Maryland

Elizabeth Keller’s headstone, Beaver Creek Cemetery, Maryland

I got my mother addicted to Ancestry.com, the family research website.

She took over my grandfather’s genealogical research years ago, doubled the size of his data collection, and computerized it, but she didn’t see any reason to pay a website for information she probably already had.

What we both discovered is that 1) census records and city directories have tidbits of information that draw a larger picture; and 2) seeing your ancestors’ names, pinpointed in time on a screen, provides almost the same rush as finding their gravestones.

It’s weird to think that there was a ten-minute period in 1850 when a census-taker came to the door of a house in Funkstown, Maryland, asked my great-great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Keller, a bunch of questions about her husband and the 12 of their 15 children still living, and then went away, never again to return to Elizabeth’s consciousness. Meanwhile, the residue of that little interview has persisted through 150 years to be coughed out into the present and create an explosion of excitement in my heart when it comes up in pixels, all of those 12 children lined up, with their ages, under their parents’ names, confirming the names in our records. There is one additional bit of news: John Keller and his four oldest sons are identified as farmers.

And from such scraps of information, we attempt to reconstruct lives.

We already knew that John Keller died in 1859 and that the Kellers lived in Funkstown during the Civil War. In 1870, census records show Elizabeth Keller still in Funkstown with her twin daughters, Libbie and Jennie, aged 22. I know from other sources that the rest of her children have died, married, or gone off to Denver, Colorado.

The only exception is 26-year-old Samuel, who is living, according to the census, in Baltimore with his second cousins and their parents, the Stonebrakers. Mary Jane Stonebraker, whom he will eventually marry, is 19. Samuel, his uncle, and his cousin Joseph are working as druggists.

Four married Keller brothers raised their families in close proximity to their mother, including B. Franklin, my great-great-grandfather. His brother Solomon was in Funkstown in 1870, having married Clara Stonebraker, Mary Jane’s older sister, in 1864.

The first of their two sons, the record states, was born in Canada in 1865.

There is no evidence that any of the Keller boys served in the military during the war, although two of them were of draft age. They were Southern sympathizers in a divided state that was officially in the Union. It was probably to avoid the Union draft that Solomon took his wife to neutral Canada, where there were several Confederate enclaves.

Meanwhile, the census suggests, the twin spinsters were stuck taking care of their 62-year-old mother. Perhaps that’s why the girls never married. They died within two years of each other, in their late 20s, and were outlived by their mother.

It’s mind-boggling to receive these little scenarios from the past, and all from some anonymous person with a census form and a pen in his hand.

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