Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Troublesome Tombstone Tamed: Determining the Death Date of 5th Great Grandpa John Dunham

The row with the tombstones for John Dunham's family.
Old tombstones have their positive and negative sides. (And I don’t mean their fronts and backs.) On the positive side – they exist! On the negative side – they can be very worn with age from the elements (or accidents or vandals) which can make reading them difficult and photographing them challenging. With the internet and various gravesite/tombstone-focused websites, today it is quite likely you do not have to leave your couch/chair to see a desired tombstone.

But sometimes you just have to visit the darn thing in person if you really want learn the answer you seek.

Just such a case was the tombstone of my 5th Great Grandfather John Dunham. He is buried in the Quaker Cemetery in the town of Orchard Park (formerly East Hamburgh), Erie County, New York. The problem with his tombstone is that the death year is hard to read and has been that way for a long time.

I first came across a tombstone reading of his resting place in October 2000 on a website for Erie County, New York, Cemeteries.(1) The researcher who did the reading was quite honest rather than arbitrarily picking a death year. It could be one of three years: 1846, 1812 or 1816.

Frustrating? Yes. Not knowing which death year was correct makes a big difference in this case because his tombstone is one that gives the age at death rather than a specific birth date. Change the death year and it changes the birth year and … who you might be dealing with.

During an email exchange in 2001, another researcher gave another reading of the tombstone with a death year of 1816.(2) Though, to be honest, we don’t know if it was her personal reading of the tombstone or another person’s reading because we didn't think to ask at the time.

Find-A-Grave Memorial Page
In December of 2009, a Find-A-Grave memorial page was created for John Dunham’s tombstone.(3, 3revised) Again, the entry gave the death year as 1816. Though I'm not positive, I think this was the page creator's reading since this person added a photograph of the tombstone also. Due to the photo being lower resolution and small in size, it could provide no solution to the death year problem regardless of who was looking at the photo.

But after studying this photo for some time, I was able to note a few things. Besides being worn in the location of the death year, the exaggerated thick/thin of the serif font used for the carving contributes to making this tombstone hard to read. I also could not help to think that a stone carver skilled enough to hand-carve the name in such a tight arc would not likely leave a large gap between the 8 and 6 if the number was a 1. But the space would be of an appropriate size if the number was a worn 4.

 Chart of Various Readings of John Dunham's Tombstone

Date of Reading
2000 Oct 17 (or earlier)
2001 Jan 29
2009 Dec 16
2009 Dec 16
Partial Cemetery Reading by Leo J Katharine M. Koop with additional names by Mrs. Kritzer posted on Erie County, NY, Cemeteries website (1)
by Sue Kulp (researcher) in her email correspondence (no indication if this was her personal reading or another’s) (2)
Find A Grave Memorial Page Entry created by Mary Kester Rude (3)
Find A Grave Memorial Page photograph by Mary Kester Rude [note: my reading of this photograph at the time found]
John Dunham
John Dunham
John Dunham
John Dunham
Date of Death
23 Jan 1846 or 12 or 1816
22 Jan 1816
23d 1st mo. 1846 or 1816
Age at Death
91 yrs 2 mo 9 da
lot #31
Not filled in
91 y’rs 2 mo 9 d’s

Now at the time I spotted the tombstone reading in 2000 I really was not sure if this John Dunham was my direct ancestor. He was one of two suspects but he was the one my gut said was the correct one. So as you do research looking for proof, you collect things and hang on to them … just in case. And you look at alternate records for the answers you seek.

In this John Dunham’s case:
  • the Quaker meeting records yielded no answer what so ever to his death year; 
  • there is no civil death record because New York did not start keeping civil records until much later; 
  • a search of probate records resulted in no records found for him; 
  • a search of land records resulted in no records found for him; 
  • a search of census showed no entry for him as head of his own household and no corresponding tick mark in the right age bracket in his son’s household except for the year 1840. 

So I suspected the year 1846 was the correct death year BUT it was at best circumstantial. At a standstill, I researched elsewhere and on other parts of my family tree.

A few years ago as hard-to-access, original records started to be digitized, I was finally able to put some of the “stubborn” family pieces together. Though my evidence is still circumstantial in my link between the fourth and fifth generation, it is a well-researched and analyzed conclusion that as of this August includes some DNA evidence.

My research again lead me back to John Dunham buried in the Quaker Cemetery and the unanswered question of the death year carved into that tombstone.

What was I to do? Answer: Take a road trip to the grave to see it for myself and, hopefully, arrive at a decisive answer.

Since I knew the tombstone was hard to read, I came more prepared than I would for one of my typical cemetery visits. I decided that if I could not make a decisive reading either by simply reading/observing the carving in its natural state or by using plain water sprayed onto the carving, then if the tombstone was not flaking or deteriorating I would try two alternate methods: making an aluminum foil impression and/or a wax rubbing. (See my post on tombstone reading methods for more details, tips and do's and don'ts.)

An aluminum foil impression is done by placing a sheet of foil on the carved surface. Then a clean, soft, fluffy brush (like a makeup brush) is used to gently impress the carving onto the foil. Usually, this puts less stress on the surface of the tombstone than a traditional wax rubbing because far less pressure is needed to make the impression. The downside is that the foil rubbing is fragile and saving it for posterity can be difficult. But viewing/photographing the foil on the tombstone can greatly aid in reading the carvings. Viewing/photographing at different angles and even shining/bouncing light at different angles against the foil while taking pictures can further help you. (See my post on tombstone reading methods for more details, tips and do's and don't.)

A wax rubbing involves placing a sheet of paper, cloth or Pellon interfacing (not the iron-on version) over the carved surface. Once the material is secure, colored wax is gently rubbed over the material sitting on top of the carved surface to transfer the impression. Wax, be it a cake of tombstone wax or a child’s thick width crayon, is more durable than other materials sometimes mentioned. With this method you need to use a gentle touch and be sure not to leave wax marks on the stone. Testing on a non-tombstone surface is advised to ensure there is no bleed-through of the wax through the paper/material that can damage a tombstone. (See my post on tombstone reading methods for more details, tips and do's and don't.)

As it would turn out, John Dunham’s tombstone sits under a tree which is part of the reason why it does not photograph well no matter the time of day. But the stone itself is very worn in the area on the death year. A reading by simple observation and photographs of this scenario did not result in a decisive answer. Applying plain water using a clean spray bottle to the carved area and photographs of this scenario also did not yield a decisive answer.

Plain water sprayed on carving.
Natural, nothing done to stone.

So after studying the tombstone for any loose/flaking stone or other signs of a weak surface and finding none, I made an aluminum foil impression using lightweight foil and a clean, soft brush. The result? At first I wasn’t sure (was I seeing what I wanted?) but upon reviewing the photographs I saw the answer: 1846.

An Aluminum Foil Impression makes the carving readable.

Additional tweaking of the image in PhotoShop further confirmed this.

Posterization added to photo.
Extra Contrast added to photo.
Since the stone surface was not weak or in danger, I proceeded to make a tombstone rubbing using Pellon interfacing and wax. This also brought the answer to the surface: 1846.

Pellon Interfacing and wax rubbing.
So now I have my answer, the tombstone reads:

John Dunham
23 d. 1st mo. 1846
AE. 91y’rs. 2 mo.
& 9 d’s.

And, that would make his birth date: 14 November 1754

Thanks Mary at Find-A-Grave for transferring John Dunham's memorial page to me. I have now updated his page.

Now, it would not be a road trip without something humorous happening or possibly happening to us.

We made several aluminum foil impressions at various cemeteries during this trip. Rather than throw them out, I stacked them in the trunk on top of the luggage. While at the international border waiting in line, I expressed to my passengers a concern that had just popped up in my head: If we get searched, we may have some explaining to do about the "odd" tin-foil pile in the trunk. "Well, you see officer, we're genealogists ..." Thankfully, no explanation was necessary at any of our crossings.

And remember that odd box from my second post? That box never made it to recycling. So now the "tombstone box" is holding the stack of tombstone foil impressions brought home from this trip. (I wonder if I "misplace" the box with some of the tin foil impressions in the attic if some future homeowner might discover it and an interest in family history?)

Finally, no this post does not answer my August 6th post, I've Gone Researching ... More to Follow. Though this cemetery visit is from the same trip, that answer to August 6th will be coming soon.

Note: Since some cemeteries and localities have banned tombstone rubbings to protect fragile tombstones, remember to check with each cemetery to make sure rubbings are permitted.

©2014, goneresearching. All text and photos in this post are copyrighted & owned by me (goneresearching) unless indicated otherwise. No republication (commercial or non-commercial) without prior permission. You may share (tell others) of this blog as long as you give credit and link to this site (not by downloading or copying any post). Thank you.
1 K., Kathy M., Erie County, New York Cemeteries Past and Present. (http://wnyroots.tripod.com/ : accessed 17 October 2000), “Quaker Cemetery Town of Orchard Park, Erie County, New York,” partial listing (date not stated) by Leo J. and Katharine M. Kopp with additional names listing by Mrs. Kritzer, Jewett-Holmwood Rd., Orchard Park, NY

2 Sue Kulp, New York ([email address] for private use), to (private), e-mail, 29 January 2001, “Re: John Dunham research,” Dunham Correspondence file, Dunham Research Files, Genealogy; privately held files by (private), ([email] and residence for private use.)

3 Find A Grave, Find A Grave, database and images, digital images (www.findagrave.com), memorial page for John Dunham (unknown - 1816), Find A Grave Memorial no. 45537622, citing Quaker Cemetery, Orchard Park, Erie County, New York; the entry created by Mary Kester Rude with photos submitted by Mary Kester Rude and Donna Casey. John Dunham DIED 23 d. 1 mo. 18?6 AE/ ?1 y'rs. 2 mo. & 9 d's. [note: tombstone photo is hard to read in areas, not sure of the years at death] Quaker Cemetery (Route 62, south of Eden Valley Bridge, on west side of road.).

3revised Find A Grave, Find A Grave, database and images, digital images (www.findagrave.com), memorial page for John Dunham (unknown - 1846), Find A Grave Memorial no. 45537622, citing Quaker Cemetery, Orchard Park, Erie County, New York; the entry maintained by goneresearching, originally created by Mary Kester Rude with photos submitted by Mary Kester Rude Donna Casey and goneresearching. John Dunham DIED 23 d 1st mo. 1846 AE. 91 y'rs. 2 mo. & 9 d's. Quaker Cemetery (Route 62, south of Eden Valley Bridge, on west side of road.)

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