Category Archives: Tips

What the Little Drummer Boy Can Teach Us About Genealogy

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“The Little Drummer Boy” seems to be one of those songs that you either love or hate. (I’ll be up front with you — it’s one of my favorite Christmas songs. Except the Pentatonix version. That one… not so much.) No matter how you feel about the song, I think there is an important genealogical lesson we can take away from it: Don’t read into a record things that aren’t there.

Some of the arguments that I’ve heard against “The Little Drummer Boy” revolve around the song’s setting. Mary and baby Jesus were still in the stable and the little drummer boy plays his drum as a gift for the baby. If we read the song’s lyrics, we can get a better understanding of what was going on. Here are some common arguments and what the lyrics have to say:

What mother wants to listen to drumming right after giving birth?
Where does it say she had just given birth? Yes, she’s still in the stable (as evidenced by “the ox and lamb kept time”), but it could have been several hours or even the next day. (Plus, I’m guessing that Mary had more patience than most mothers, but I’ll stick to what’s in the lyrics.)

Why would a shepherd boy have a drum?
The song doesn’t say or even infer that he’s a shepherd. He’s identified only as “a poor boy.” (People arguing this point might be confusing the song lyrics with the story told in the Rankin/Bass tv special, where the Little Drummer Boy has a lamb. However, even in the tv show, he wasn’t a shepherd.)

Snare drum. Photo by Stephan Czuratis (Jazz-face). Used under Creative Commons license.

Snare drum. Photo by Stephan Czuratis (Jazz-face). Used under Creative Commons license.

Seriously, I can’t get past this whole thing of drumming for a baby.
This is probably the most common argument. When we think of drumming, we tend to think of snare drums (like the one shown at right). They are usually played with drumsticks and tend to be rather loud.

But what do we know about the drummer boy? He’s poor. His drum is most likely a piece of hide stretched over a bowl or a short section of a hollow tree limb. The drummer boy is also little; chances are, his drum isn’t very big, either. In other words, this isn’t a drum that going to make him sound like Neil Peart. (If you’re not familiar with Neil Peart of Rush, or even if you are, watch this video beginning at the  3:15 mark.)

As for its appropriateness, Mary knew what she was getting into with this gift. (“Shall I play for you on my drum…  Mary nodded… “) And think about that for a moment. The drummer boy knew this was a gift that might not be well-received. He played his best. This doesn’t necessarily mean loud. (Ask a musician — playing softly is often much harder.) It obviously went well. (“Then He smiled at me…  me and my drum… “)

Honestly, having someone play a drum wasn’t on my top-10 list of things to receive when I had a newborn. But if we read the lyrics, we can get a better picture of the setting in which the Little Drummer Boy played for Mary and baby Jesus.

Which brings me back to genealogy. It’s easy to read something into a record something that isn’t there. Perhaps we are coloring it with our modern sensibilities. Perhaps we are jumping to conclusions that aren’t fully founded. Reading the record without reading too much into it will help your research.

You still might not like “The Little Drummer Boy,” but you can still apply the lesson of carefully reading a record and not reading things into it.

John, This Is Your Daughter: Or, How a Timeline Uncovered a Family Story

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John Peter Kingery managed to stay out of the Civil War until the 18th of August, 1864. He and his wife Elizabeth Jane had only been married for three years. They had 15-month-old son and Elizabeth Jane was pregnant with their second child. And when I say “pregnant,” I mean she was very pregnant.

Mary Kingery, daughter of John Peter and Elizabeth Jane, was born 1 September 1864. That’s a mere 14 days after John enrolled.

John probably saw his baby daughter before he left for his service with the 173rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. The 173rd didn’t muster in until 18 September. John likely didn’t leave for Gallipolis, where the 173rd was mustering, until a few days before.

Imagine what Jane (as everyone called her) went through. A young mother with a toddler and a brand new baby, and her husband is going off to war. By 1864, the war effort is boding better for the Union cause, but it certainly wasn’t a guarantee of safety for anyone who was serving at the time. What were the weeks like for her as she waited for John to return home?

Did she get a letter when John was admitted to the hospital in January 1865? Did she know about the fever and the disease that caused his hair to fall out and his legs to swell “to unusual size”? John stayed in the hospital in Nashville until March. Did Jane learn that he had been furloughed home because of his illness? I almost hope that she didn’t, because on the way home, he became more ill and ended up in the military hospital in Cincinnati, and was there for several more days. He didn’t make it back to Lawrence County until sometime in April.

We’ll never know exactly what happened at his homecoming. But it isn’t hard to imagine that he spent some time reintroducing himself to little Mary, who had grown from a newborn when he left to a 7-month-old — an eternity to a baby. 

(NOTE: If John and Jane sound familiar, you might remember the story of Jane’s death and her burial as an indigent widow.)

Genealogical Tip:
This story was buried in John’s pension file. I didn’t find it until I put together a timeline of events as they were listed in the pension. Among the events:

  • 18 August 1864 – enrolled in the 173rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, per service record abstract from the War Department, in John’s pension file
  • “about the 22nd day of August 1864” – enrolled, per John’s “Declaration for an Original Invalid Pension”
  • 1 September 1864 – birth of Mary E. Kingery, per John’s pension questionnaire, dated 23 March 1915

At first, I didn’t think that John was home when Mary was born. I needed to establish two dates: Mary’s birth and when John actually left. John’s list of his children wasn’t written until 1915. How accurate was his memory? After all, he wasn’t exactly sure when he enrolled, and in one place in his pension, he lists his marriage to Jane as being in 1862, when the marriage record from the Lawrence County Probate Court clearly shows it was 1861. (At least he had the month and the day right.)

Mary later married John C. Stumbo. The 1900 census lists her birthdate as September 1864. Other censuses are also consistent with a birth in late 1864.

So when did John leave for service with the 173rd Ohio? Enrolling doesn’t necessarily mean that he left right away. There was often a delay between the time a man enrolled and when the regiment mustered in (when it officially came together). According to the Official Roster of the Soldiers of the State of Ohio in the War of the Rebellion, the 173rd didn’t organize until September; Company E, John’s company, didn’t muster in until 18 September. In all likelihood, John didn’t leave Lawrence County for Gallipolis until closer to mid-September.

Moral of this story: Always create a timeline for your ancestors. Sometimes there is a story just waiting to be teased out.


  • Kingery, John P. Civil War pension file. 173rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Application 574110, Certificate 428276.
  • Kingery, John P. 1870 U.S. Census. Windsor Township, Lawrence County, Ohio. Page 604.
  • Roster Commission. Official Roster of the Soldiers of the State of Ohio in the War of the Rebellion. Vol. 9. Cincinnati: Ohio Valley Press, 1889.
  • Stumbo, John C. 1900 U.S. Census. Mason Township, Lawrence County, Ohio. ED 71, sheet 2A. (Showing Mary Kingery Stumbo’s birthdate.)


The Great Mango Mixup of 2013

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Before you read any further, answer this question: What do you call the item shown below?

Green Pepper

If you said “mango,” you’re most likely from somewhere in the Midwest and are part of a select group of people who know an alternate, exotic name for this commonplace veggie.

What? You’ve never heard a green pepper called a mango before? Pull up a chair and let me try to explain it to you.

Back in colonial times, produce from overseas came pickled, since it was a way that food could be stored in the days before refrigeration. This included mangoes (the orange, sweet kind.) According to The Word Detective, people in England and the colonies confused the name of the fruit and thought it referred to the pickling. Soon, a pickled dish of any variety was called a “mango.” (The Word Detective has a reference to “a mango of walnuts.” Pickled walnuts? Eww. But I digress.)

Because one popular dish was pickled green peppers, it didn’t take too long before green peppers started to be called mangoes. Why the name stuck to them and not walnuts is not explained. Nor did The Word Detective explain why it has stuck in certain parts of the Midwest and not the rest of country.

I have to admit, I was in high school before I realized that a mango could also be a sweet, orange-colored fruit. (Now I call the green things “green peppers,” mostly because I’m addicted to Food Network and that’s what they call them.)

So, what does this have to do with genealogy and family history? A couple of things. First, if you’re following Grandma’s chili recipe and it calls for “mangoes,” ask yourself if she was from the Midwest. If she was, add the green things and not the orange ones.

Second, and probably more important, it’s a reminder that words change meaning over time and can vary in usage from place to place. If you’re reading an old document and it doesn’t quite make sense, ask yourself if you’re reading it as the person wrote it or if you’re reading it with “modern” eyes.

Photo credit: “Green Pepper,” by Sharunas Jurevic. From Flickr, used under Creative Commons license. [Since he titled the photo “Green Pepper,” I’m guessing he’s not from the Midwest.]