Published By Abby Klionsky.
This article is presented as ongoing research into the history of the 1524 N. Lake Shore Drive, and its original inhabitants.
The family tree of Eleanor Robinson Countiss looks chaotic, I’ll be the first to admit. But it’s an organized chaos, and by the end of this post you’ll have a better idea of how it came together – and maybe enough tips to start putting together your own family tree!
Building a family tree is a bit like being a detective. Or at the very least, it’s like putting together a very complicated jigsaw puzzle. That’s because each previous generation of your direct ancestors has exponentially more family members than the ones that came after it. You have two biological parents, and each of them had two biological parents, and each of them had two biological parents… so your tree would have two parents, four grandparents, and eight great-grandparents! That doesn’t take into account siblings, divorces and remarriages and the resulting children, aunts, uncles, cousins, and anyone else who makes their way into your family. Just imagine how many people might be involved if you’re making a tree that extends back three generations to your great-grandparents and continues two generations below you to your grandchildren!
So you can see how a family tree can get pretty messy pretty quickly.
That’s not the only thing that makes a tree messy: to start, you also have to have at least some basic biographic information on some of your family members. Why is that complicated? You know your name and birthday, and you probably know your parents’ full names and birthdays, and you likely know this information for your grandparents, but by the time you get to your great-grandparents, it’s much harder. Human memory is only so powerful. Generally, people are better at remembering stories and narratives than they are at recalling facts like names and dates. That’s why you may be able to retell the story of how your great-grandmother was the first woman in her family to finish high school, but be hard-pressed to remember her maiden name or the dates of her birth, marriage, and death.
When we started this project, we already had some important biographic details about her life. For example, we knew the names of her parents, her first and second husbands, and her children. And every bit of information that we had was a clue to finding more. With her parents’ names, we could use census records (available through www.ancestry.com at your local Chicago Public Library) and the Find A Grave database (www.findagrave.com) to find the names of their other children, Eleanor’s siblings. With those same tools, we put together a sketch that included Eleanor’s parents, grandparents, and children, and their birth, marriage, and death dates and locations wherever possible.
As a fairly public figure who was the daughter of a successful business executive, Eleanor’s tree was perhaps somewhat easier to trace than someone else’s might have been. Because her father John Kelly Robinson was an executive of the Diamond Match Company (and an heiress to his fortune), information about his life is published in Ohio local history books, some of which are available online. Likewise, we used similar tools (all of which are freely available with an internet connection!) to trace Eleanor’s children and add them and their children and grandchildren to the tree.
As it stands now, the family tree that we’ve put together goes back to Eleanor’s maternal and paternal grandparents, and extends to her great-grandchildren. Spanning six generations, nearly 75 people are represented on the tree, nearly half of whom are direct descendants of Eleanor, her first husband Frederick Downer Countiss, and her second husband Lawrence Harley Whiting, including ten grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. To respect the wishes of Eleanor’s family, we will not publish biographic information of living family members. The tree is a work in progress, and as we continue our research on Eleanor and her family, we hope to learn more about the lasting impact that this remarkable Chicagoan has had.
You can download the Family Tree as an interactive HTML file from Dropbox. Once downloaded, the HTML file can be run in any web-browser.
Abby Klionsky is currently Collections Intern – Permanent Collection, and Research Intern – Mansion History at the International Museum of Surgical Science.