I haven’t been getting much written since we returned from our vacation in Illinois for two reasons. One is that I’ve been setting up a second blog to launch soon to help find sponsors for the organization I work with. The second reason is that I’ve been working on family history research.
Most of my family on my mother’s side lived in Rhode Island. They were all immigrants – from Sweden and French Canada. You might wonder at that combination, but they all came for a chance at a better life by working in the mills that were making America great in the late 1800’s. Since hours were long, chances were good that you met and fell in love at work if you fell in love with someone outside your nationality.
Yesterday’s task was simple. Go to the town clerks’ offices in the towns where various relatives were born, married or died in order to confirm the information I had in the official town records. Once upon a time I would have obtained copies of birth certificates, etc. However, now you are required to send an application for that information to a state office in Providence, along with a $20 payment for each, in order to obtain them. Since my immigrant ancestors never did become the mill owners, I don’t have the financial wherewithal to fund such an expensive endeavor. (Just yesterday alone, I would have needed to send a dozen applications – you do the math!).
Our first stop was Cumberland, RI. It’s a relatively small mill town. Cumberland now includes what was once the separate, even smaller mill town of Ashton, RI. Ashton was where my Swedish relatives lived in mill housing. When my French-Canadian grandmother married her Swedish husband, they lived here also. My mother was born in the hospital in another town, but lived in Ashton and Cumberland until the family moved to Massachusetts.
The Cumberland Town Clerk’s office was small. The staff was very pleasant and helpful. They carried out the heavy record books for us and refiled them for us when we were done. On our unofficial rating system for things like this, they rated an A+.
The next stop was Central Falls, RI – basically just down the road a few miles. Central Falls is a bit larger than Cumberland. They also were a mill town. My French-Canadian ancestors settled in Central Falls. They were all Roman Catholic, of course. That may explain why my grandparents eloped, my Swedish grandfather being Lutheran and attending the nearby Episcopal church for convenience. It would have been unacceptable to my French-Canadian great-grandparents.
The Central Falls Town Clerk’s office was a little larger than that of Cumberland. That made sense to us. There was no one in the office when we entered, however. We could see the vault but didn’t know the procedures, so we hesitated to look without permission. After a few minutes, a young woman came in from a back room and offered to help us. She pleasantly showed us around the vault and left us to do our work. It took very little time to locate the information we needed.
Our last stop was the City of Pawtucket, RI. Many of my French-Canadian aunts and uncles had lived in this area. But we were primarily looking to verify the death information of my Swedish great-grandfather. We didn’t think this would be difficult, especially compared to the information we had obtained at our prior two stops.
We were wrong.
The Pawtucket City Clerk’s office was large and there were four women sitting at work stations with computer monitors. One woman finally pried herself from her chair to offer to help us. I told her what we needed to do. She looked like she was in pain as she took the name and probable date of death information from me. She went back to her desk as she informed us that information for that time frame was on the computer – no records were kept in the office except recent ones. The others had been shipped to the state archives in Providence, the state capital.
She could not find the information. Her attitude was, in essence, “Oh well, too bad for you. Leave me alone now.” She didn’t say that, of course, but she conveyed it well enough.
The problem, I explained, was that the name might be misspelled on the record. When immigrants came over with names that were not common to the area and accents that made understanding the names more difficult, the person who was recording the information simply sounded it out. Some were more successful than others at doing this. In looking up my Swedish great-grandfather and his children in other towns, we had already come across five different spellings of the name we were seeking – and I knew of several others from studying the US Census information for them. Clerk number one was reluctant to do more.
Gratefully, a second clerk saw what was happening and got up to help us further. I would like to commend Peggy Ramos of the Pawtucket City Clerk’s office for her help and willingness to go the extra step. Sadly, she could still not find the information in their database. I knew my cousin in Utah has somehow found that this was where he died. Why couldn’t they find the information? I have no answer for this and suspect we will have to go to the state archives to pursue it further.
So what do I mean by “Size Matters?” As we talked over dinner on our way home to Massachusetts, we realized that, at least in Rhode Island, size did matter in matters of government and bureaucracy. The smaller the town, the more efficient the clerk’s office was. The smaller the town, the more pleasant and helpful the staff was. So if you need to visit a town or city clerk’s office in Rhode Island, my wish for you is that it is in a small town. We think you’ll end up happier and better served.
One would think that a state the size of Rhode Island (i.e., the smallest in the country!) would have something to prove all the way from the smallest to the largest towns. You would think that, as small as Rhode Island is, there wouldn’t be that much information to store – they should be able to find it without too much trouble. You would think that a small state like Rhode Island would feel like family no matter where you go.
You would be wrong.
It sometimes makes me wish my ancestors were from Illinois. Now they were friendly, helpful people.