In my quest to find the anonymous author of the 1831 travel diary, the first clue to pop up was almost too indistinct to be of much use. Heraldic bookplates emblazoned with “BAKER” were pasted inside the cover of each volume. Take a look:
Baker bookplate from diary
This narrowed my search to a few thousand individuals, assuming “Baker” on the crest indicated his family name, not the name of the bookshop where the diarist purchased the blank diaries. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a single Baker in my family’s history. Genealogical research usually starts with a current name and traces it back through time. To identify my diarist, I had to reverse the process. I hunted for a 19th century name using sketchy clues buried in hundreds of pages of handwritten text. Which clues would lead further along the right path and which would dump me at the end of a blind alley?
Good news: after extensive searching, I found the diarist. When I tried to trace his descendants to the present day, however, I encountered sad news: two of his children died in childhood. There’s a reasonable chance he had other children who lived to produce further generations, but with a name as common as Baker, I’ve not found enough evidence to prove it.
If you have anyone named Baker in your genealogy, check old books which have been passed down through your family for a bookplate like the one above. If you find one, you could be holding a missing piece of the puzzle. Please respond—you’ll make my day year.
Rummage through your drawer of family memorabilia, quiz your elders, or log on to your genealogical software—we have a mystery to solve.
In the 1960’s my aunt entrusted a crumbling travel diary to my care, based on my promise to transcribe the faded pages. Only after a thirty-year career typing computer code instead of diary entries did I find the time to seriously tackle the project. But from day one, the mystery of the diarist’s identity exasperated me like an itch I couldn’t scratch. No one knew who wrote the diary or how it ended up amongst my great-grandfather’s papers in the family attic. Over the last seven years I’ve followed every thread of a clue left behind in that fine script. Through the magic of the internet—Ta Da!—I discovered his name, who he married after his trip, even where he’s buried. The only disappointment in my quest was learning that he had no connection whatsoever to my family’s heritage. He’s definitely not my triple-great-grandfather. So, you ask, where’s the unsolved mystery?
Here is where you come in. I’m hoping that the same internet which produced his identity with enable me to crowdsource the elusive answers to two questions:
- Did the diarist have any children who lived to adulthood?
- Does the diarist have any living descendants, like you, for instance?
Without divulging any spoilers from my book, here are five facts to look for in your family’s records:
- The diarist’s surname was Baker, unfortunately quite a common name.
- He was a young American in 1831, implying a birth year in the early 1800’s.
- He was unmarried as of 1831.
- He was a man of means, enough to fund an extensive European Grand Tour.
- His hometown was Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
If you have an ancestor who meets these criteria, please respond either with a comment or via my Contact page. If not, spread the word to those who you think may have a connection. I’ve not yet finished the Acknowledgements page in my book. Give me a good reason to add your name to it!
If you’re curious to see if my plan succeeds, revisit this blog for updates.