Ephemera: A Powerful Genealogy Research Tactic 2

peoIn addition to being a genealogist, like you, in “real life” I wear multiple hats.  One of those hats is as a member of the P.E.O. Sisterhood, founded in 1869 by seven women while they were attending Iowa Wesleyan College, in their home town of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.

Today, the sisterhood has 230,000 members and refers to itself as a “Philanthropic Educational Organization which celebrates the advancement of women.”  Primarily, P.E.O. supports women’s education through scholarships, grants and loans.  Cottey College, a women’s college, is owned and supported by P.E.O.

Early in 2013, I volunteered to be the speaker for our local area January 2014 P.E.O. Founders’ Day celebration.  As a topic, I immediately decided that I wanted to research the genealogy of all seven, not necessarily to learn about their ancestors, but, to learn more about them, what they did with their lives before after college, and before and after the founding of P.E.O.  If possible, I wanted to find out if they left any ephemera or memorabilia that would demonstrate who they were, as opposed to what they did.

My hope was any discovered ephemera would enable me to gain insight into their characters, their memories, their lives.   I was not disappointed.

Over the course of many months I gathered over 125 pieces of ephemera including newspaper articles, personal letters, photos, journal articles written by them, and stories about them, their relations and their descendants.  Some stories came from descendants.  I even found a piece of sheet music, published in 1902, on eBay, with the lyrics written by one of the seven. In fact, I ended up gathering much more material that I could possibly cover in one speech, that I created a book, The P.E.O. Founders’ Scrapbook, containing the collection:

Of the seven founders, Alice Coffin and Ella Stewart never married and have no descendants.  Materials gathered about them came from friends and other relations.  Of the five that married, Mary Allen, Alice Bird, Hattie Briggs, Suela Pearson and Franc Roads; three currently have living descendants I was fortunate to locate and share their ancestors ephemera.

Perhaps one of the most interesting find was a letter written by Alice Bird, recounting her memories of learning of her brother’s capture as a prisoner of war during the Civil War.  Being born in 1850 meant that Alice was about 11 when the Civil War began and age 14 when her brother, Hiram Thornton Bird, whom she called Thornton, age 18, was captured. Alice and Thornton’s father was Dr. Wellington Bird, a well-respected physician in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.

The January 1951 issue of The P.E.O. Record (a magazine published by the sisterhood) printed a copy of Alice’s letter to her brother. In her letter, Alice recounts, “I thought of how sad our home was with you and father gone to war, and I begged mother to let me go to Uncle Charley Willets over one Saturday.  While there we went on Saturday night to a spelling school at Ebenezer school house and as they were choosing sides a man rushed in and screamed, ‘Great battle at Franklin and Nashville.  John Beeler is killed and lots of our boys are wounded, and Thornton Bird of Mt. Pleasant is missing.’  The next morning Uncle Charley brought me home and there sat mother and Mira weeping.  I think our mother was never the care-free creature she was before. ‘The poor soldiers’ were on her conscience all her life.  In a few days we heard that you were a prisoner at Macon, Georgia, then carried to Charleston workhouse.  Then being in the hospital employ you were exchanged, and in a few months came the telegram from New York City, ‘Here in butter nut clothes. Send me a hundred dollars.’ We could not send the money then by telegraph but had to wait until evening before the money could go in a letter.  When you came home you were no longer a boy not more than eighteen years old, but a man, an old man in experience.”

This letter, to me, illustrated how the War affected her life, and her family’s life – even before she became a student at Iowa Wesleyan College. It made her more “real” and “relatable” to me other than just a name in history.

And. after reading her letter, I wondered how much impact her father’s career as a physician had upon his son being in the hospital employ upon capture – and, in the end did it account for his release?  What do you think?

Copies of the book, The P.E.O. Founders’ Scrapbook, can be purchased from:

Create Space.  For a 15% discount use code 4ZHQXX6J.

Amazon in  Kindle or Paperback version.


Sharon Atkins_croppedSharon Atkins

An avid genealogist since 1980, Sharon is passionate about genealogy research and sharing the excitement of the pursuit of family history with others to help them discover “their personal connection to history.”  Sharon is a popular genealogy speaker and a teacher of “how to” genealogy classes who thrives on coaching other family history researchers and performing genealogy research for clients. She launched “It’s All Relatives” in 2012 and is a member of APG (Association of Professional Genealogists), NAGS (Northern Arizona Genealogy Society) and AzCPG (Arizona Council of Professional Genealogists.)



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