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Clio, muse of History
image in public domain

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Visit my office at SherlockHomesstl.com to browse my portfolio and then call me at 314-478-8277 or email me to make history work for you!


Clothing Clues from Family Pictures

So I have a wall of family pictures directly behind my desk – I like to think that my ancestors are smiling and encouraging me at my work 🙂  Pictures are such an interesting snapshot in time – capturing the social, economic, and personality status of the subjects.    The picture that I leveled my gaze at this morning was a portrait of my great grandparents, Christen and Agnethe Christenson with their young daughters Clara and Cora.

Christen, Agnethe, Clara and Cora Christenson ca 1908; author’s collection

]I wanted a large picture of them so you could see the details that tell a story about their life at this snapshot in time]

The Christensons lived in Winger, Minnesota when this picture was taken.  Agnethe Rindahl immigrated from the Lillehammer region of Norway when she was 10 years old and Chris was born in Wisconsin to Norwegian immigrant parents.  Their age at marriage seems unusual for the time – Agnethe was 29 – listed as “servant” in the 1895 and 1900 census, and Chris was 31 – a shopkeeper/postmaster in Winger.  They were living with their parents and other siblings so perhaps it wasn’t so unusual during that time to have to combine incomes for economic stability?  After their marriage in 1903, they set up a homestead in nearby Garden township, probably farming wheat, barley, oats, sugar beets, or potatoes – the regional crops.  Clara was born in June 1904 and Cora in October 1906.

Going back to the picture, zooming in on the 3 white circles on Agnethe’s bodice – they are beautiful pieces of lace or tatting.  There is also lace around her neck.  These perhaps were part of her wedding trousseau or taken from another dress?  She also has a long necklace that has lighter beads (pearls?) tight around her neck and the long section looks like cording with larger beads every 12 inches.  Is it tied down by her lap?  It fades out there. She is also pregnant with their first son Gilbert – a loose waist is evident compared to the cinched waist styles of the times.  Her hair looks it is curled on each side of her head and daughter Clara’s hair seems to be crimped or curled also.  Curling irons and hair crimpers were available from the Sears & Roebuck catalog in 1900 for around 50 cents (plus postage).

The girls also have beautiful crocheted lace on their dresses.  Baby Cora has a lace collar with matching trim around her cuffs and dress with a thicker lace underskirt.  Perhaps this is her christening dress?  Does she have a pearl-ish pin at her throat?  Clara looks like she is wearing a short pearl necklace on top of her scalloped collar.  She also has a ring on her middle finger and a ribbon in her hair.  Perhaps the doll came from her father’s shop or was handed down from her mother.  It has blonde hair, a decorative sash, sleep eyes (eyes that opened and closed) and some sort of blanket or coat that is fuzzed around the the head.  I don’t know much about antique bisque dolls, so would appreciate any info about the cost or style from that era.

Chris looks like he is wearing a heavy woolen high button 3 piece suit with a rounded collar shirt and striped tie – dapper.  No pocket watch or rings that I can see.

So it is interesting and unexpected to see that my Minnesota farm family has a bit of luxury what with the porcelain doll, pearls, lace and crimped hair.  Marrying at a later age and being a storekeeper before farming allowed them some extras that reflected their status in the community.  Have you ever used the clothing and accessories in your family pictures as clues to their lifestyle and personality?  Now I want to go look at some more pictures!



Joyeux Noël

If there were traditions to be observed when I was growing up, they were mostly Scandinavian.  Which makes sense as I am roughly 75% Scandinavian.  The other half of my 25% is French Canadian and unfortunately we don’t have much information on that side of the family or keep in touch with cousins as we should (I’m trying to remedy that). Now that we are in the merry season of Yule, I wonder how the French Canadian side of the family celebrated and what kind of traditions they may have had.

La bûche de Noël

A delicious sponge rolled with jam or cream or chocolate filling, decorated to look like a traditional Yule log.  I tried to make one once complete with meringue mushrooms and it did taste good…

Le réveillon

Christmas Eve was the time for the réveillon – a nightlong dinner and dancing party traditionally held after Catholic midnight mass . The word itself comes from the verb réveiller, which means “to wake up”. People would sleep during the day to be fresh and ready to feast and frolic on Christmas Eve. The réveillon usually was the biggest feast of the year – a large banquet where traditional dishes abounded –  tourtière (a uniquely French-Canadian meat pie), ragoût de patte (pig’s feet stew), ragoût de boulettes (meatball stew), turkey, vegetables, pea soup, meat pâté, roasted chestnuts, maple cream pie, etc etc. This is also where la bûche de Noël would be served.  Gifts were opened after the feast and party.

I’m sure there were many small things, like in every family, that my French Canadian side did out of tradition.  I wish I had more pictures of that side, or knew more stories, or had some relics from them.  I guess I could step up my game and try some of this holiday dishes (maybe my second bûche de Noël would be prettier) in order to feel closer to my francophone family.

Parris family
The Joseph Parris family, ca 1890; the only picture in the author’s collection
Cara Jensen is owner of Sherlock Homes historical consulting & genealogy, where she provides expert services on cultural preservation and ancestral discovery. She is a member of the National Genealogical Society, National Council on Public History, and American Association for State and Local History. You can find Cara on Twitter @cjjens

The Recipe Box

I’m sure many of you have a collection of family recipes.  I think our tastes are a blend of genetic, cultural,  and regional factors – I know some of my favorite recipes have been added since we’ve moved ‘south’ to St Louis – flavors and tastes that I hadn’t been exposed to as a child.   But have you stopped to recognize and document the stories behind the recipes?  Who gave this recipe to you and how did they come across it?  Was it something they grew up with or something they discovered?  I was reminded of this as I asked my Aunt Linnea for her pecan pie recipe this morning.  She is also a Southern transplant, so I’m thinking her recipe came from her time in South Carolina, not from her childhood in Minnesota. (I also have her chex mix recipe 🙂 )

Nea and David 2016
Aunt Nea; author’s collection

I  have my French Canadian great grandmother’s recipe for cream cake, which my  mother remembers eating for her birthday.  I’ve tried making it several times, but I think recipes that are generations older suffer because our ingredients are different now.  The cake I made was dry, but maybe that’s just how it was? (or I just need to become a better baker – lol)  My cousin asked for the recipe and has had it for her birthday too.

Esther Parris
Great grandmother Esther Parris ca 1910; author’s collection
1st attempt at cream cake; author’s collection
Amy and Abigail and creamcake
Cousins Amy & Abigail and their cream cake; author’s collection

I have my neighbor’s cheese ball recipe, which she made for my husband every time we got together for dinner – he makes and eats it now in her memory.  I have my mother’s recipes for peanut brittle, gingersnaps, and ham balls.  I have my husband’s grandmother’s recipe for Danish æbleskiver, which we turn in the pan using HER mother’s steel knitting needles.  I have a handwritten note from my Korean friend for ‘BBQ’ with differing ingredients for pork and beef.  My mother-in-law has given me her recipes for bran muffins and her famous caramels.  I remember making tomato soup in the hot summer with my best friend’s family and think of her when I make it now.

Lela aged 14
husband’s grandmother Lela Rattenborg Jensen; author’s collection
my kids making æbleskiver; author’s collection

What recipes do you have in your collections that have come from family and friends?  Do you know their stories and secrets?  I certainly need to document my recipe box more carefully and deliberately!

My own house history

Isn’t there a quote or saying about not doing your own jobs if you are in the business?  Like an auto mechanic letting her own car get run down, or a piano tuner with a horrible sounding piano?  I’m guilty of something like that.  I’ve never written my own house history.  Gulp.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done the research – in fact, that is what propelled me into starting this business.  Figuring out where to go for what records, maps, plats, deeds, pictures was part of the discovery process.  I have oodles of research on my own house, but have never gotten around to writing it up in the same format that my clients get.  Plus, I started this 15 years ago (no blogs or social media then!) and so many resources have been digitized and put online, which changes the game too.  So I’m cutting this week’s post short to actually go do my own house history report.  It would be a good thing to have, don’t you think?

17 Apr 1898
“My House”, 01 May 1898 St Louis Post Dispatch pg 37. newspapers.com.

Surf and Turf

Being the granddaughter of Minnesotan farmers and growing up in a rural community, I am familiar with the agrarian life. Familiar with slowing down for tractors towing grain laden wagons in the Fall and the beautiful sight of parallel rows of green sprouting from black fields in the Spring.  So when I started looking into another vein of my Norwegian heritage, the ones who lived on an island hugging the Arctic Circle, I was curious and intrigued as to how they lived.

My Johnsons lived in the Helgeland region, the southernmost part of North Norway.  This region is characterized by mountains with names like ‘Seven Sisters’,’Rødøy Lion’ and the ‘Dønna man’ rising up from the ocean.

Alexander Erdbeer @CC

Kristoffer Johnson and his wife Ingri Jorgensdatter, my 2nd great grandparents, lived on one such island.  How their life must have been.  Boats, nets, salt in the air, fish smell, sounds of sea birds – so different than the landlubber lifestyle to which I am accustomed!  Especially the food – I imagine they did not dine on pork chops, beef steaks and corn on the cob as I did (though maybe the mashed potatoes?).  What cycles did they observe that would correspond to the planting and harvesting seasons that a farming community depends on.  The children would have grown up playing in and around the sea instead of my backyard cornfields and creekbeds.

Kristoffer and Ingri immigrated to the United States in 1880, bringing their children Ida, Jørgen (my great grandfather George), and Ragnvald, settling in western Minnesota.  How shocking for them must the transition have been to go from coastal views to the endless plains! They adapted and survived.

I look forward to visiting Helgeland (it motivates my daily Norwegian language lessons) to learn firsthand the sights, smells, tastes, and sounds of what my ancestors experienced.  But until then, I will try to find out more about my Arctic island ancestors – maybe trying to incorporating more seafood into my diet in their honor, much to the chagrin of my meat and potato loving husband – haha!


Back in the saddle again

After almost a year hiatus from my beloved Sherlock Homes and with great apologies to my readers, I am ready to begin again.  I’m ramping up my business and marketing plans, setting short and long term goals, and determined to network and get my name out there.  I’m excited to be volunteering down at the Missouri State Archives once again, have joined a small business group, and joined the National Council on Public History, the American Historical Organization and renewed my memberships to the National Genealogical Society and the Missouri History Museum.  Whew!  So look for me to post once a week about interesting tidbits in history and genealogy.  I’m happy to be back 🙂

Call the Midwife

Tina Johnson's Mother
Marit Stavem Paulsdatter (1843-1926), family collection

So my 2nd great grandmother (stor bestemor – I have to keep practicing my norsk)  was a midwife.  Marit Stavem Paulsdatter was born 25 April 1843 in Lesja Norway (middle upper central-ish) and immigrated with her husband Amund Olson to Minneapolis in 1869.  I have family lore that she went to Oslo to study as a midwife, but cannot find any verification. (Yet!!) She was listed as “Mrs A Olson, midwife” in the 1871 Minneapolis city directory and was listed in the 1880 census as being a ‘housekeeper – midwife’ (husband Amund was listed as a stonemason).  The 1882 Minneapolis city directory gives her a separate listing as “Mrs Mary Olson, midwife” – this is a big deal as women did not very often get a recognition for their work, and probably meant she was either advertising or well known in her community.  Also, her husband being a stonemason could have conferred her some status.

By this time, she had 2 children and another on the way (my oldemor) yet she still kept practicing.  The 1885, 1890, 1894 (now as Mrs. Marit Olson) ,1897, 1901, 1903, 1907, and 1910 Minneapolis city directories listed her at the same address.

In 1910, she was listed in 2 censuses  – not impossible as they were taken over the course of several months.  She was in her usual location in Minneapolis, (though interestingly listed as divorced and her husband Amund was not living with her) then she was listed as living with her daughter’s family in Pembina, MN.  It makes sense as her daughter was expecting her 5th baby and probably needed expert midwifery mothering!

Marit was living in Minneapolis with her youngest single daughter Ella in 1920 while her (ex?) husband Amund was living in Pembina MN with their other daughter and her family.  She passed away at the home of her daughter in 1926 at the age of 83.

So Marit seems like an interesting woman – educated in Norway as a midwife, immigrating to America, raising her own children, divorcing or separating from her husband, and continuing her profession until into her 70th years.  Proud to be her barnebarn.

p.s. – feel free to contact me at 314-292-9153 to learn more about your ancestors — CJ

Detective Work and a New Cousin

(I hope I can tell this story clearly enough without using the names – I don’t want to betray any privacy without permissions)

So I was recently contacted through Ancestry (a genealogy database that I have subscribed to for ages) by someone who had done their DNA test and reached out to me as their 4th cousin.  Now I’ve gotten those requests before and I usually reply cordially, with a “nice to meet you, thanks for contacting me”, but this one was more intriguing.  She said that her mother was adopted and she knew who her birth grandmother was (I’ll call her EM) but my dna match was from what she suspected was her birth grandFATHER’s side (whom she knew nothing about).  She told me a few background details that sent me scurrying to those branches of my family tree to check things out. (I love a good mystery)

So I thought if I could place the family of her grandmother (EM) near or around the suspected grandfather’s family (JG), there may be some evidence that my JG was indeed her grandfather.

EM worked at the Albert L Stockman beauty shop in 1940,41,42. The address was 218 Lyceum Bldg, which was on W. Superior (corner of 2nd) which was part of the ‘Bowery District’. (that historic part of Duluth was demolished in the 60s in the name of urban renewal) She lived with her family and son (whom she kept and raised) nearby.  JG was married with 4 daughters in 1940. He worked at the First Street store (131 W First Av corner of 2nd Ave). He was unmarried by 1942 and living at 2801 W. Superior and then remarried in 1946 (she was listed in 1948 as a beauty operator). A theory could be that since his work was so close to EM’s shop (same cross street, one block up), that they may have met? Coincidence also that he became divorced around the birth of EM’s second child as well (1942) …

So I sent these details off and she responded that there was a family rumor about her grandmother being ‘a mistress’ (there’s usually some truth to those family rumors) and that she looked at the 4 daughters of JG from 1940 and one of them popped up on her DNA matches as a second cousin!  Confirmation and mystery solved?

She contacted this second cousin and it was confirmed that JG was their common grandfather so she is hoping to get to know her new relatives and see pictures of her half-Aunts and cousins.  Her great grandmother and my great grandmother were sisters, so we are more distant, but still family.

I am so happy that this worked out for her.  I’m honored to have been involved and to have provided some resources to help.  This is one of the most satisfying parts of being a professional genealogist and historian.  And also a big shout out of thanks to old City Directories being transcribed and indexed!!

p.s. – feel free to contact me at 314-292-9153 for your family mysteries — CJ

Quirky Hobbies

I love transcribing historical records and I’m not ashamed to admit it.  Because I use digitized, searchable records almost daily in my research, I consider indulging this hobby as contributing and enhancing my business success.  (At least that’s how I justify the obsession)

photo courtesy of DariuszSankowski, CC0 Creative Commons

Currently, I’m working at the Smithsonian Digital Volunteers site and transcribing records of the Freedmen’s Bureau.

The Bureau of Refugees, Freemen, and Abandoned Lands, often referred to as the Freedmen’s Bureau, was established on March 3, 1865. The duties of the Freedmen’s Bureau included supervision of all affairs relating to refugees, freedmen, and the custody of abandoned lands and property. These documents come from the Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of North Carolina, Series 4: Letters Received.

However, I am not the speediest transcriber as I have a researcher’s penchant for looking up every minute detail and fact – I have learned so many interesting details about post-Civil War reconstruction in North Carolina that I feel I could write a book. (well, not really, but…)  I also transcribe for the Missouri State Archives and Ancestry’s World Archives Project.

So if you happen to ask me what I’m working on, be prepared for my obsessive rant about some detailed account of what I’ve been transcribing lately.  Because if I’m between ‘paying’ research projects, that is more than likely what I’ll talk about.  It’s one of my quirky hobbies!


Call me at (314) 773-2881 or contact me to discuss your historical research, legal, writing, or genealogy needs.

Reblogged: “Neighborhood Watering Holes”, Marquis, 2005

My “Peeking into the Past” column and this article originally ran in the Lafayette Square ‘Marquis’, which was published monthly by the Virginia Publishing Company until 2011. It’s always fun to go back and see what I was working on in years past – it inspires me to keep digging too!

Peeking into the Past: Neighborhood Watering Holes

By Cara Jensen

Around the turn of the century, St. Louis was known as “first in shoes, first in booze, and last in the American League”. It seemed St Louis residents took this slogan to heart, as there were over 1100 saloons/saloon employees listed in the city directory in 1890! The term highball was said to have been coined at a St. Louis saloon that catered to railroad workers. The drinking glass was nicknamed a ball, and the workers who only had time for a quick drink started calling their whiskey and water a “highball”. In 1874, St. Louis native M.W. Heron, bartending in New Orleans, created a peach-flavored bourbon whiskey that became known as “the grand old drink of the South.” Heron named his invention Cuffs and Buttons, a takeoff on a popular beverage of the era called Top Hat and Tails. He changed the name to Southern Comfort only after moving back to St. Louis. Whether you prefer to call them bars, pubs, taverns, or ale houses, here are a few that called this area home:

1700 Russell: McKinley Heights saloon run by Leonard Bachmann.

2400 Menard: Soulard establishment operated by Robert Zanto and family.

1700 S. 11th: LaSalle canteen run by Anton Filip who resided at 1046 Soulard Ave.

1700 Geyer: Soulard taproom operated by Thomas Hause.

900 Geyer: Soulard pub owned by Bernard Duesterhaus.

2800 Missouri: Benton Park tavern kept by August P. Koebbe.

1800 Park: Lafayette Square lounge managed by John Schnieder.

NE corner of Menard/Emmet: Soulard saloon run by Charles Kreichelt who lived nearby at 1019 Emmet.