Author Archives: Rebecca

Where in the World is…? Changes in Naming Cities, Streets, and House Numbers

 

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Where in the World is Northfield, Saratoga County, New York?  Good question. Turns out it’s nowhere .  When my 5th great-grandmother, Elizabeth (Kennicutt) Whitman, was born there in October of 1801 it was a newly-formed village.  In 1799 and 1800 the area had been part of the town of Providence, but it was growing so Northfield was incorporated on 13 March 1801.  Soon, the town founders were embarrassed to find there was already a Northfield in New York, so they renamed it Edinburg (Sylvester, History of Saratoga County, New York, 372).  In those few months between name changes, little Elizabeth was born.

Never Fear, Genealogical Help is Here.  Name changes to towns and cities are more common than you might think.  You’re not the only one looking for that elusive town.  There are genealogists and historians who have taken the time to search out some of these changes.  Examples are found in many places.  If you have New York ancestors, try GenWeb’s “Changes in Names of New York State Towns.”  For city and town changes in your ancestor’s county, check historic gazetteers, usually found in the county historical society or county library.   Watch out, though.  Your ancestor’s elusive town may not have changed its name, it may be that the county lines changed around it over time and you’re just looking in the wrong county. Use early local maps, gazetteers, or Thornton & Dollarhide’s Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920 for those changing county and state lines.

Changing Streets?  Street name changes are some of the most common.  Street names  changed as towns grew or were merged, or someone was honored in the town.  Big cities see lots of changes.  For early street changes you may have to do  a little detective work.  Use early maps to find the original street you are looking for. Many are online at the Library of Congress website, including some overseas maps.  Compare those with your favorite online mapping website.  Some streets are just gone to make way for freeways or parks.

Still having trouble?  City directories are your best bet.  Often a city directory will have listings of where the streets were during that time, with associated cross-streets.  Use these to pinpoint the streets you are looking for.  Once, when looking for a client’s ancestor who lived in Baltimore in 1819, I found that he lived on South Eutaw Street “near the brickyards.”  It took a bit of digging in city directories and newspapers to find brickyards in that area (advertisements were very helpful from both).  With the help of an early map of Baltimore by Poppleton in 1822, I narrowed down the area to the blocks on South Eutaw between Camden and Conway Streets.  With a chuckle, I informed my clients that if they’d like to visit the area the ancestor lived in, they should try left field, Camden Yards!  Just another example of how changing cities can be.

Changing House Numbers?  Sometimes specific addresses are given in our ancestor’s records (deeds, obituaries, military pensions, later censuses), and knowing who else is in that house or in the area can be helpful to our search.  Again, city directories are a big help here.  The Boyd’s 1869 city directory for Washington D.C. is quoted as saying:

“Many of our streets need renumbering, especially 7th, 9th, and F streets, and Pennsylvania and New York avenues.  There are squares having duplicate numbers, and in some cases triplicate numbers.  In fact, the whole city ought to be renumbered.”

City directories are found in county historical societies, state archives, libraries, and on microfilm.  Before you take a trip, though, try your luck online.  I like the ConnerGenealogy website on Baltimore city directories, especially the downloadable pdf of the pages from the 1887 Baltimore City Directory detailing the numbering changes in the city that had happened in 1886.  The site also addresses Baltimore’s street name changes.  Perhaps someone has done similar work on your ancestor’s area?

Changing Our Perspective.  Looking for changing geography, town names, and house numbers can often lead to researching even more carefully the area where our ancestor lived.  This in-depth style searching may open up your perspective into a closer-to-life idea of type of life your ancestor really lived.  “Seeing” his or her neighborhood is a little like seeing back in history and appreciating the struggles or advantages they had in their community.  Take some time to turn back the clock.

Highlights and Headaches of Using Lineage Applications

What’s a Lineage Application?  People apply to join societies based on their link to an ancestor who was involved in a specific historical event or heritage.  When doing so, the applicant must supply a personal genealogy, generation by generation, to prove their link between themselves and the ancestor.  Examples of lineage societies include:

- National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution

- General Society of Mayflower Descendants

- General Society of the War of 1812

- Colonial Dames

- Order of Founders and Patriots of America

And more… check out Cyndi’s List for links to many of these.

Shared Ancestor?  Many of these societies have existed for generations, and hold genealogical gems of information in their lineage paperwork.  For a fee, or sometimes for free if you are onsite at their national headquarters, some of these societies will allow you to peruse past lineage applications, including proofs and documents related to them (generally not including those that contain information on living people).  If you share an ancestor with someone who applied for membership in one of these societies, the information and documents in their file could be of great use to you!

The Headaches.  With great patriotic zeal, many of our grandmothers and grandfathers flocked to join historically-based lineage societies, especially in the early 1900s.  Sometimes, unfortunately, the documents to prove relationships have been destroyed or lost.  Occasionally, the information is completely wrong.  Take these for example:

- In an application filed in 1933, the descendant identified her ancestor’s wife, date of marriage, five children, unit served in during that war, age and birthplace, and death date.  No documentation was attached except a letter from the War Department identifying the man’s service unit.  In researching the man, it was discovered that of the information provided his wife was correct, the date of marriage was off by five years, the service unit was wrong (two men of the same name served from that state), three children were missing from the list, the death date was right, the birth county was wrong but not the state, and the man’s birth year was off by twenty years!

- In an application filed in the late 1920s, a descendant identified the ancestor as a Colonel in the army, gave his wife’s name, children’s names, birth year, and birth state, and state served from.  The research concluded that the wife, children, and birth year and state were correct.  However, the birth year showed that the man was only age 11 at the beginning of the war, not likely to be officer material.  The original application was denied.  The application was resubmitted, but next identified the ancestor as a private in the army.  Further research concluded that while it is possible that the man could have joined late in the war as a drummer or boy soldier, he would not have matched the man he was identified as.  The problem was that the ancestor had a common name, and there were nine men of that name from that state who served in the war.  Eventually a newspaper from the late 1920s for the descendant’s home town was found with an article about the descendant and her patriotic ancestor.  The descendant was quoted as saying that they had no idea if the ancestor served, but he lived during that time, so he probably did.  The research unfortunately concluded that the ancestor did not serve at all and was not even living in the state he was to have served in during the war.

The Highlights.  While some early applications have errors, these days national lineage societies are very careful about checking and re-checking the veracity of the applications submitted to them.  They often employ talented professionals who review current applications and often re-review older applications.  I have found some amazing personal documents in lineage applications that either were a short cut in my research or were so unique as to not be found elsewhere, such as:

- Handwritten copies of marriage licenses

- Copies of Family Bible pages

- Names of Children who pre-deceased vital registrations

- Information on family migrations

- Church records, such as baptisms or funerals.

How To Get the Best Out of Lineage Applications.  In any research where you find a genealogy with lots of great information but little to no documentation, don’t discard it out of hand – use it as a backdrop to your future research.  In the first example of the application filed in 1933, the marriage date was wrong, but the city was not.  Having that to start from was a short cut – otherwise the research would have had to stretch to three possible counties.  Some clues in the children’s names helped narrow down information on their marriages, and it turned out they were married in the same church as their parents.  This led not only to the correct marriage date but also to finding the cemetery plot records.  Without that lineage application, the research would have taken much more time.  The key is to not just accept names, dates, and places in the application at face value.  Chase it down –  find the original record!  You may find more than you thought.

Thank You Lineage Societies!  While we may find good or bad in lineage application records, we thank these societies for keeping history alive through the generations.  Many society members spend volunteer hours in preserving documents, indexing records, identifying and beautifying cemeteries, or giving back to the community in other ways.  Societies such as these often promote genealogical research and collect books and microfilms on historical subjects in libraries that are open to the public.  Take time to find out if you have a great aunt or grandfather who joined one of these societies and check out the research they did to honor your common ancestor.

Happy Hunting!

New Year’s Resolution: Back up Your Genealogical Data

One of the hardest things to face is a computer crash or other catastrophe that deletes all of the genealogical information you have saved on your home computer.  Genealogical databases, stories, digitized photos and documents, research logs, and proof arguments – all gone.

We should be backing up our information often, even monthly, but if you haven’t secured your information in some time, now is the time to do so, and to make a plan for regular backups this year.

You should plan to have copies of your most important family data both in your home, in case of a computer crash, and off-site, in case of fire in the home.  Backing up your data can be done in many ways.  You should pick the ones that best suit your needs.  Some ideas for backing up data are:

  • Re-writable CDs or flash-drives.  Copy your information onto a disc or flash-drive and label it by the date saved.  Check that the CD or flash-drive is capable of handling all the data you wish to save.  Store it in a safe place.  You may consider making a second copy and sending it to a family member to keep.
  • Upgrade your saved data to current software.  Do you have old floppy discs?  Can your current computer read those anymore? Probably not.  If your information is on a CD your computer can read, is the software out of date?  I know I have old Word Documents that won’t open any longer.  This is one of the reasons your data needs to be updated regularly – saving the data is no good if you can no longer access it.
  • Email Yourself.  One of the simplest ways to store small amounts of data is to attach the data in an email to yourself.  Unless your email account clears itself regularly, the data should be accessible for quite some time.  If you use genealogical software, it is easiest to email yourself a copy of the Gedcom file from your genealogical software.  You might email it to a family member as well, in case your email is inaccessible.
  • In the Cloud.  Many sites online offer private accounts where your data can be saved on the internet, and accessible anywhere you can get internet service.  Sites like DropBox  and JustCloud offer limited data storage space for free or for low monthly rates. More storage is available for higher fees.  Compare sites and ask friends about what they like and decide which may be best for you.
  • Dedicated Genealogical Websites.  Many sites like Ancestry.com and FamilySearch FamilyTree offer buildable online family trees. Some may cost you a yearly fee, others may be free.  To use these to best advantage, make sure you are sourcing all of your facts with citations and documenting all your attachments and photos.
  • Ask for Help.  Many of us are great researchers, but not so great at computers.  Saving data or investigating cloud sites just sounds like more than we can handle, but we do understand the importance of backing up our information.  Ask for help, you may have friends or family members who can help with the technical end of information storage while you concentrate on the research.

Start the year off by breathing a sigh of relief that your data is safer than it was last year.  Schedule regular back-up dates throughout the year, and when that fateful “blue screen of death” comes to your computer, you’ll be ready.  Happy New Year!

Holiday Gatherings: A Perfect Time for Family History

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As we prepare for the holidays, let us take advantage of the time we spend with relatives to ask about their own lives or the lives of ancestors they may have known, or might have inherited documents or stories about.  One of the most effective family history research tools we have is our living family.  Holiday gatherings are a perfect time for meeting with family members for stories or an interview.  Planning ahead is the key to success.

To prepare for an upcoming gathering where you might be able to find out more about ancestors, try one or more of these ideas:

Decide which family groups or stories you want to talk to relatives about.  It’s best to focus and not try to overwhelm the people you are interviewing with all your questions on the family.  Choose one or two family groups to start with, for example, ask about Great-Grandpa’s three wives and 17 children, or if Great-Uncle Dolphus really did go west to pan for gold in ’49?  Often, those stories will lead to others.

Ask ahead for an interview.  Call or contact the people you want to talk to at least a week or two before your holiday gathering. Let them know what you’d like to talk about and what to expect.  Giving your interview subject a chance to think about the ancestors you are interested in gives them time to think and they’re less likely to be stumped for story ideas.  They may even remember some family photos or memorabilia to bring with them.  Most of all, they will likely be more willing to talk if you ask ahead than if the first they hear of it is over the table at the holiday feast, just as they’re contemplating their after dinner nap time.

Read up on interview techniques and questions.  I like the basic interview questionnaire prepared by FamilySearch (a printable pdf document).  Other great resources are Kimberly Powell’s article, “50 Questions for Family History Interviews,” or  Alice Chapin’s book Reaching Back. AARP also has some fun Story Starters. Many of these are designed for a person to record their own family history, but the same questions can spark family stories of ancestors of long ago.

Plan how to record the interview: There are three basic types of ways to record your interviews.  1) Taking notes by hand, 2) audio recording, or 3) video.  The pros and cons are:

  • Taking notes by hand.  Pro:  The least intimidating to the shy interview subject.  Con: It’s slow, you are likely to miss things, or garble your own notes.
  • Audio Recording.  Pro:  Not very intimidating or distracting to the interview subject.  Con:  Background noise!  Even worse is when you have more than one person in the room answering questions over one another, its hard to transcribe later.
  • Video.  Pro:  This is my favorite method.  If multiple people speak, it is easier to distinguish the speakers.  You also have some great footage for future video productions, such as a Reel Tributes personal documentary.  Con:  Your interview subject may be so shy or uncomfortable in front of the camera (How’s my hair?  Is this my best side?) that you may not get the information you need.

It’s not a test.  Many interviewees may feel like the interview questions are more like test questions, despite your best efforts to make them comfortable.  Start off with something you know that they know, not a question they may not have the answer to.  Start with leads like, “I heard you got in trouble for smashing a cookie jar when you were little…”  or “Didn’t you have a dog named Buddy…?”  Also try taking photos with you that might inspire stories.

Accept now that you won’t get everything in one interview.  Sometimes we are so anxious to get the information we want, we may cut off some stories the family member is telling to get to what we believe is the “meat” of our interview.  Sit back, relax, and enjoy. You won’t get everything you want in one interview.  What you will do, though, is build a stronger relationship with the interview subject.  This may lead to that person calling up later with photos, memorabilia, or information they found, especially if the interview was a positive experience.

In essence, family history is about family.  Enjoy your time making new memories about sharing old memories, and build those relationships even stronger.  Happy Holidays!

Giving Thanks for Our Immigrant Ancestors

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Did your ancestors participate in the very first Thanksgiving?  Tough to tell. Very few of us can trace our lines to those early immigrants.  We can, however, appreciate what our own ancestors did to come to this land, and why they made those choices.  Thanksgiving isn’t just about Pilgrim stories, its also about those who brought their own families here over the generations.

What is Your Immigrant Story?

Let’s take some time to appreciate our immigrant history, and ask questions or research their stories.  Ask yourself:

  • Did your ancestors come because of religious persecution?  To avoid war?
  • Did they only intend on making a living and go back to the mother land, but never actually returned?
  • Did they come through Ellis Island, or even before that?
  • How did their American experience change their culture, customs, and names?
  • Does your family still carry on any customs from your immigrant ancestors’ lands?  Foods, language, holiday traditions?
  • Did they travel first class or steerage?  What was the difference?
  • What jobs did the ancestor take when they came?  What challenges did they face?

How Can I Research My Immigrant Family?

Here are some tips to starting a research project on discovering your immigrant ancestor:

  • First, ask the family for stories – what have they heard?
  • Researching an immigrant from the 1900s is easier than researching one in the 1700s.  Start with later generations.
  • Do you really know where they came from?  Start with censuses.  For example, one census may say they were from Poland, another may say “Galicia.”  Poland was broken up into three parts in the mid-1800s and Polish immigrants from Galicia were on the Russian-controlled side.  Research the history of the lands for better insights.
  • Death records may give more information on birthplaces. Check the death records for their children too.
  • Church records sometimes state the place your ancestor “removed” from when they came to that congregation.  Which churches were closest to where they lived for their denomination?
  • Check for cemetery headstones – they may have specific birthplaces or symbols that indicate origin.
  • Did they naturalize?  When did they arrive?  The 1900 census asks those questions, and some others ask related questions.  The dates given were sometimes  incorrect, but it gives an idea of where to start.
  • They may have petitioned for naturalization in a local county court or in federal court.  Check both.
  • Many websites give information on a particular culture or immigrant group.  A good link to these is on Cyndi’s List and the FamilySearch Wiki.

Above all, spend some time this Thanksgiving holiday thinking about our ancestors who made the brave journey to America. Take the opportunity of  quality time with your relatives to discuss the family lore and uncover new stories about your past. If you learn something exciting, let us know!