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How Do You Unravel a Genealogical Mystery?

How Do You Unravel a Genealogical Mystery?

Have you ever had this happen? You find a letter, a document, something of genealogical value. But you know very little about it. Now what? How do you analyze the information that it contains?

Take this letter for example. It was purchased with some other ephemera.[1] If I wanted to learn more about it, where would I start?

Nell Howard Enloe letter to mom


I would first want to read the letter to get a sense of what it's about. After an initial reading, it seems that the letter

  • is presumably to a family member (“Dear Mother”);
  • discusses the weather, everyday activities, food, gardening, visitors;
  • mentions other people (Stewart, Peter, Larry);
  • the writer lives in an apartment with no phone;
  • the writer works a job six-days-a-week until 5:30 pm;
  • is signed Nell Howard (possibly the recipient’s daughter but could be a daughter-in-law).

So what do we not know based on this letter?

  • What date the letter was written. Someone penciled in 1944 at the top left-hand side, and the letter has “Friday” typed on the right-hand side, but it's not clear when and by whom 1944 was penciled in nor what month/day. However, the letter writer does refer to "this summer," so it may have been written during the summer months.
  • It’s apparent that 1944 might be possible for the year the letter is written since she refers to food rationing at the bottom of the letter, "How’s the food situation with you? Can you get meat for your points? We just use eggs and let the meat go for very rare occasions.”
  • She writes about living in Washington, but is that Washington state or Washington DC or some other place (assuming this is a letter writer in the United States)?
  • She mentions names but no relationship (Stewart, Peter, Larry). Because no one is listed with a surname, they may be family or close friends that the mother would know. It seems like Stewart lives with Nell (the letter writer), so maybe it's her husband. If so, is Howard his surname? But it could also be her son or some other family member.
  • We don’t know the mother’s real name. The envelope would have solved this question, but it wasn't part of the materials purchased.
  • The mother might live with other people since the letter is signed “Lots of Love to Everyone…”

Who Cares?

Now you might be thinking, "who cares?" What does a letter with little information outside of talking about food and recipes have with genealogy research? What is genealogically relevant in this letter?

That's a good question, and it's one that people ask when we "stray" from the typical genealogy documents. But this letter provides us with two things necessary for our family history research. Even though the letter offers a vague time period, it places five people at a specific time. Nell is writing about people who are alive as of the writing of the letter and prior. And obviously, she too is also alive. So if we weren’t sure about this family and when their death dates were, they most likely were alive around 1943 and even the early part of 1944 (if this is 1944, but we don’t know what month).

Secondly, the everyday lives of our ancestors can help us tell their story. This includes what they are eating (or not eating) and how they are dealing with food rationing during wartime. How could we take that information and use it to tell a story about Nell’s life?

What Questions Do You Have?

As I look at what this letter tells me about Nell, I still have questions. Aside from everyone's identity, some of the details seem to refer to activities that are specific to that time and place. For example, the comment about “red points,”  "community canning kitchens," and “Gack Attack."

So now what? How would you start your research? Research starts with a question, and the most obvious one is, who is Nell Howard? We could try to answer that by searching genealogy records from the 1940s and then go from there. Where could we look? How would you look?

How would you unravel the mystery if it was your family history research? What sources would you check? Let me know in the comments below, and we will unravel more of this mystery next week.


[1] Special thanks to genealogist and writer Angela Rodesky for providing me this letter.


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Wedowee is a town in Alabama. Red points could be used for meat, sugar and coffee during WWII rationing. Yes, there are lots of clues in that letter!

One other significant clue in the letter is the reference to "Wedowee" which is a city in Randolph County, Alabama. Perhaps this is the mother's residence.

I'm intrigued by the writer wishing Peter could visit with Larry b/c "we would have so enjoyed a visit with her."

Identifying female names for which Peter was a nickname & trying to link them w/the other names in the letter might help identify the writer/recipient.

My grandparents lived next to a woman named Blanche. She was always called Pete, though I don't know why. I'd guess she was born in the late 19th/early 20th century.

She would probably sign a letter to her mother as "Nell" without a last name. So I would say Howard is probably her husband. I have many letters from wife who adds the husband's name as the letter is "from" the both of them.

The letter sounded a lot like the letter my Dad wrote from Washington DC during the war. Long days, six days a week. So I searched the Washington Post for Gack the Attack and found nothing. then I looked at my keyboard for possible typos. I decided Back the Attack was most promising. BINGO. Washington Post June 12, 1944. Back the Attack to sell War Bonds on the grounds of Washington Monument from June 12 to July 7, 1944

So the letter writer mentioned canning peaches. In a Washington Post Article dated July 18, 1944 the Woman's Land Army was seeking 500 women to pick peaches in Virginia. This time line fits well with the letter mention of peaches.
WOMEN RECRUITED TO HARVEST FRUIT: Land Army Enlists Helpers in All States for Gathering and Canning Produce ARMY PLEA FROM PACIFIC Officer Writes Stressing Value of Juices and Preserved Edibles in Combat Tours
By BESS FURMANSpecial to THE NEW YORK TIMES. New York Times (1923-Current file); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]18 July 1944: 12.

I live in New Zealand and so far as I am aware 'canning' is an American/ Canadian term for preserving fruit and vegetables which we call 'bottling' out here and probably in the UK as well? We used quart jars in our day with metal lids and rubber seals. That up until about the 1980s when purchased orchard fruit became too expensive and desert eaten less as they contained the 'enemy' white sugar! Fruit is season or store bought cans only these days.
A few people continue to preserve but only where theye have access to home orchards. I used to do peaches and stewed apples...possibly about 100 jars a season. Once we lived on a farm even the menfolk came in to help peel the fruit.
I wonder what the Continentals/Europeans called it?
I have a photo of my grandmother taken after fruit picking possibly in the 1950s. She was from Lancashire and a cook by profession so would have been used to doing that for the 'folks' she worked for. Out here they lived on Farms.

Fascinating article and letter! As an Australian, I just had to go onto Google Maps and find Wedowee - lol! And I may have searched for Nell Howard on Ancestry! Very much looking forward to further updates about this letter.

Fascinating article and letter! As an Australian, I just had to go onto Google Maps and find Wedowee - lol! And I may have searched for Nell Howard on Ancestry! Very much looking forward to further updates about this letter.

I'm totally guessing:
I think it's September (1944) when the weather starts to get cold sometimes, the very end of the peach season in Washington DC.

I think Nell and Peter are sisters who grew up in Wedowee and their husbands are Howard and Larry respectively. Stewart is Nell's son. Maybe Peter and Larry still live in Wedowee, Ala. or nearby.

I would start by searching the 1940 Census for those first names living together in those towns, with the birthplace of Alabama, based on those hunches.

In addition to the above suggestions, I would also search local newspapers in Wedowee and the county. Chances are good that there might be an article or mention of any local person who was working in Washington, DC. That might help us identify the surname of the letter writer and of Larry, the visitor to DC (assuming, of course, that Larry is also from Wedowee, which might not be the case).

How about the weather?

THE WEATHER OF 1944 IN THE UNITED STATES › rescue › mwr › mwr-073-01-0004

The document says that Norfolk Virginia suffered its most severe drought in history during the month of June, so I imagine conditions next door in DC were not much different. Hot and dry continued through to August, followed by hurricane season in September (just like today).

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