Author Archives: Rebecca

Scary Superstitions

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With Halloween approaching, it got me thinking about death. I’m probably not alone. Have you ever wondered why a woman wears black while in mourning?  Or why people stopped the clocks after a family member died?  Or what the different symbols mean in cemetery art?  Or how your ancestors mourned the passing of their friends and family?

Death is a part of our lives, but had much more of a presence in the lives of our ancestors when we consider mortality rates and the shorter life-spans of some of our earlier relatives.   To better understand our ancestors, and the culture of death they lived with, try a few of these little genealogical exercises.  We may end up exorcising our own ignorance about death and funeral traditions among our dearly departed:

Read.  Some of my favorites at this time of year are –

Surf the Web.  Lots of information is available online, here’s some to get you started –

Experience:  Get out and have some spooky fun, or help make records more available for others –

  • Take photos of headstones at a local cemetery and upload them at FindaGrave.com or Interment.net
  • I am my own great-grandmother?  If you’ve got the time and are making a costume, how about a little genealogical cosplay?  Make a historical costume based on an ancestor’s time or heritage.
  • Rescue a cemetery.  So many cemeteries in our communities are being lost to neglect and swallowed up by nature.  It will take time and organization, but you may want to get together with a local historical or genealogical group to clean up a “forgotten” cemetery.

Remember.  As always, a ghost story is fun, but a life story is what genealogy and family history is all about.  Find a way to remember your ancestors in scrapbooks, narratives, or video.  Just remember and appreciate.

8 Tips For Hiring the Right Professional Genealogist

Are you stumped with your family history research? The information you’re looking for could be too far for you to travel, in another language you can’t read, or just outside of your experience to be able to tackle.  So you’re probably considering hiring some outside help. Professional genealogists can be a valuable resource. But before you hire one, though, here are some tips and tricks:

 

1.  Know What You Want.  Have a specific goal in mind for the researcher, and you will more likely get specific results.  Rather than asking the researcher to “Find all your Johnsons,” you might want her to determine whether your great-grandfather John Johnson was born in this country or immigrated, and from where.

2. Collect Your Information.  The more information you can give a researcher, the better their search will begin.  If you have documents such as birth records, obituaries, names of known relatives and children, or even family legends, your researcher needs to know it.  Organize the information simply, in an email or letter, with copies of documents.  Make sure to let the researcher know where each piece of information came from.  Did you find it online, or was it passed down from Aunt Mable who knew the family?  I once did some pro-bono work for a person; I asked for all relevant information on the ancestor.  I then spent several hours to find a certain piece of information which I thought was a clue finding the goal.  When I spoke to the client about it, she responded testily that they already knew that bit of information, and wondered why I wasted my time.  Because they hadn’t shared all that they knew. You’d hate for those wasted hours to have cost you money.

3. Choose a Locality-, Ethnicity- or Language-Specific Genealogist.  Would you ask your dentist to perform heart surgery?  Of course not, nor the reverse.  Genealogists have specialties too.  Once you know your goal, you can find a researcher that is knowledgeable about that place, language, or the nuances of that culture’s records and customs.  If someone comes to me asking for research outside of my expertise, I am happy to direct them to others with the experience they are looking for.

4.  Do your homework. A search engine (Google, Bing, or Ask.com) can give you pages of hits for genealogists able to research your family.  How to sort them out?  Your first email or contact with a prospective researcher can help you determine if that researcher or group is right for you and if the costs seem within your reach.  Use your search engine to look for reviews on any research firm.  Look also for journal articles or blogs that the private consultant may have written to help you gauge their experience.  As a private consultant, I offer clients a sample of work for their review or a reference upon request.

5.  Make use of professional organizations.  There are nationwide genealogical organizations that inspire high levels of ethics from their members.  These have online searchable lists to help you find a genealogist’s field of expertise and experience.  Try the Board for Certification of GenealogistsSM (BCGSM), the The International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional GenealogistsSM (ICAPGenSM), or the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG).

6. What is a CGSM or AGSM?  These postnomials are indications that the researcher has passed a professional peer review of their skills through testing or submission of a portfolio.  BCGSM offers the designation of CGSM, or Certified GenealogistSM.  ICAPGenSM awards an AGSM, or Accredited GenealogistSM.  Go to their websites to find out more about their rigorous testing requirements.  Remember, however, that there are many well-respected genealogists who do not have these certifications, but are more than worthy to undertake your family’s research.

7.  Sign a contract.  As in any work you expect to have done, having a contract is best.  Most professional researchers have contracts to help define the research goal, price, time limit set, and responsibilities of both parties.  Having this in writing helps avoid misunderstandings in future.

8. Expect quality, but be reasonable.  Unfortunately, until time machines are invented, no genealogist can guarantee that your goal will be met, especially with limited time.  What you do want is a genealogist who is experienced, efficient, and adheres to a code of ethics such as the BCG’s Genealogical Proof Standard or ICAPGen’s Professional Ethics.

Take time to choose a professional.  Ask friends for referrals or check reviews and experience online.  I know I end up “falling in love” with every one of my clients’ ancestors, because I love what I do.  Professionalism matters, especially to the quality of the films at Reel Tributes, and it is something we respect in the work of others as well.

Using FamilySearch

 

Today we’re bringing you a short introduction to some of the amazing contributions FamilySearch is making to the genealogical community online.  There are online tutorials available, but let’s first whet your appetite for this amazing research tool.

How can Family Search to help me? The Family History Library in Salt Lake is full of microfilms.  These microfilms represent filmed records from all over the world, including such things as birth records, court papers, marriages, family books, land records, and much more.  These microfilm are available and can be requested to be sent to a local Family History Center (FHC) for a nominal cost. Using these microfilms enables the researcher to broaden his or her research without too much travel.  The FamilySearch website is now putting many of these microfilms online for free, and a great number of those are linked to a search engine for faster access.

When I click the Search button what am I looking at? This first page is your access into digitized records.  You need to register first to be able to see any of the records, but it’s free.  Let’s discuss what you can do from here.

There are three distinct ways to research in FamilySearch:

  1. Search Engine.  Try entering name, dates, and location for an ancestor you are researching in the fields given at the top of the page.  Your next page will be a list of hits for that search, with closest matches listed at the top.  To look for a specific type of record, scroll down and click “Collections” in the box on the left.  This will open a smaller box with types of records hit for this search such as vital records or censuses.  These search hits represent only those microfilms which have been indexed and inputted into the search engine.  Be warned that not every microfilm or even every digitally reproduced microfilm is represented in the search engine.  FamilySearch invites volunteers to help index their digital records to make them even more accessible online through their indexing program.  When you open a hit, often it leads to an index page.  Towards the bottom of the page is a film number that the record was indexed from.  Take down this number and check the catalog to see if it is digitized, but browsable only, or available to order and send to the local FHC.
  2. Browse.  Many of the digitized microfilms are not represented yet in the search engine, but are online.  Think of these like using a microfilm on a traditional reader, but in the comfort of your own home.  From the search page, scroll down to the section “Browse by Location.”  This represents all the digitized films, but when you click on a place, you will see either a number (the number of records in this group) or the words “Browse Images.”  When you click on this it will either take you to a second page to narrow your search to a more specific location/record type or straight to the first page of the microfilm.
  3. Catalog.  If the record type you want is not in the digitized collection, check the online catalog to see if it has been microfilmed.  Remember that not everything you need has been microfilmed, but the FamilySearch staff does continue to search out records and ask permission to film new ones all the time.  A current project includes FamilySearch staff and volunteers who are working with the National Archives to digitize Civil War pensions.  To search the catalog, use a place name where your ancestor lived, and check the record types that come up.  If you found a film number from a hit off the search engine, enter it from this page as well.

You might also explore other tools from FamilySearch, such as the FamilySearch Wiki, Learning Center, Research Assistance, and more.  Technology today has made so much available to genealogists, and we appreciate all those groups who contribute their time and talents to helping us find our families.  Let us know what you’ve discovered to tell your family’s story!

 

 

Using Family History Centers

One of the things the LDS Church (Mormon) is often known for is the strong interest in genealogy.  The Church’s contributions to the preservation of innumerable historical documents has helped the genealogical community for decades.  I am often surprised, then, when I talk to baby genealogists who have never stepped into an LDS Family History Center (FHC).  If you have not visited your local center, let me give you a few reasons to make a visit a priority in your search for your ancestral kin…

1.  A Wealth of Microfilms.  Some of the first preservation of records across the world was conducted by LDS genealogists under the original direction of the Genealogical Society of Utah.  They photographed old court records, church books, and more onto microfilm.  FamilySearch, a non-profit arm of the LDS church maintains these records on and offline.  They now work at an astounding rate to digitize and index these microfilms and make them available online.  Using FamilySearch online will be our next post.  Not all microfilms are online, but are still available to order and have sent to your local FHC to be read on a microfilm reader.  Many FHCs even have microfilm readers that will digitize your selected pages from the film to print or download onto a flashdrive.  Check the catalog for records you may need from the location your ancestors came.  Clicking on a film number will take you to an online ordering system.  Select the FHC you wish the film to arrive at, pay online using your credit card or PayPal, and you will receive emails notifying you of the status of your order.  Films generally cost $7.50 for postage and handling, and are available to be viewed at your local FHC for 6-8 weeks, depending on your location.  You can pay more to extend that time.  For me, ordering a $7.50 film from an out-of-state courthouse is worth the price.

2.  Resources galore at the library.  There are two types of libraries available from FamilySearch: the Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake and smaller local libraries known as Family History Centers, often located in part of an LDS meetinghouse.  The Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, is considered by many a genealogical mecca.  People travel there from all over, individually and in special groups, to have the opportunity to view all the films, books and indexes, and special collections, most of which are on site or can be ordered within a day or so.  One popular group research trip is organized by the National Genealogical Society twice a year. Free classes are available onsite at the FHL, separate from these group trips. There is still much available in your local FHC as well.  General how-to books, maps, magazines, and indexes featuring local history are available to patrons to view within each FHC.  Each FHC has an unique collection, depending on contributions or local needs.  There is an easy-to-use FHC finder on the FamilySearch website to direct you to the one closest to you.

3.  Helpful Volunteers.  While you cannot reasonably expect to find an expert on your particular genealogical conundrum at each local FHC, what you will find are people who are dedicated volunteers willing to help the best they can.  They can help familiarize you with the center, its holdings and hours, and the websites available for free online when you visit.  You don’t have to be a member of the LDS Church to volunteer yourself, you might consider donating a few hours a month to help out there too; ask the local FHC Director for more information.

4.  Online Access to Premium Sites.  Many premium online genealogy websites have generously donated access to their collections if you are using computers at the FHC and at the FHL.  Sites such as Ancestry.com, fold3, WorldVitalRecords.com, HistoricMapWorks, and NewspaperArchive.com are just some of the collections you can peruse while you visit.  The bonus is that those helpful volunteers often have experience with these sites and can assist you in person to familiarize yourself with those online collections.

5.  Best of all, its FREE!  People are always welcome in the Family History Centers, free of charge.  You need not expect proselytizing about the LDS church, the goal in the FHCs is to help you with your family history.  The only charges you might see are for the films, and those are generously low.  Now even copies are no charge in many local FHCs.

Perhaps a quote from Maya Angelou is appropriate here.  She said:

“We need to haunt the house of history and listen anew to the ancestors’ wisdom.” 

Perhaps the Family History Library and local Family History Centers are some of those tangible houses of history filled with valuable resources to genealogists of all levels. Visit one today and let us know of your experiences there! 

 

Ancestral Signatures in Genealogy

 

Hold Still Grandpa!  As you may have already experienced in your own research, some of your ancestors rarely stayed in one place.  They migrated to new countries, moved from county to county, or the lure of the plains of the open West was too much to resist.  If you are fortunate, you can identify two families as the same if you find church records, obituaries, county histories, or deed records that state that the ancestor had been “late of…” somewhere you knew he was.  But if those records cannot be found, then what?

You may find some success in connecting migrating family by collecting your ancestors’ signatures.  Remember to make a citation of where each signature was taken, when it was taken, and under what circumstances.  Let’s see an example of signatures above.

In the picture above, how many men do you find named John/Jonathan Lewis?  All of these signatures were taken from men who lived sometime in Garrard County, Kentucky, from about 1800 to 1830.  Do you see more than three signatures?  Now compare that with the image below.

 

So many men named John!  Do you agree with the analysis?  I believe there are seven distinct signatures for seven different men.  What about number three, why include that?  It is a clerk’s copy of a “signature” from a deed, which means that the document I saw was not the original, but a handwritten copy by the county clerk.  Clerks will “sign” for the ancestor, but is rarely the ancestor’s actual signature.  Why include the clerk’s copy of number three?  The answer is that now you know that this man named Jonathan Lewis can be distinguished from the others because of his illiteracy.

When looking for ancestral John Hancocks, try these ideas:

  1. Search a variety of records.  The records above came from many different sources including deed records, marriage bonds, original wills, and chancery (equity) records.  Try also: military pensions and bounty lands, draft registrations, oaths of allegiance, coroner’s reports with jury signatures, voter registrations, court bonds, backs of photographs, letters, journals, marriage licenses, death certificates (signatures of the informants), occupational records, stocks and bonds, flyleafs in books, yearbooks and autograph books, family bibles, and many more.
  2. Try a variety of locations.  I mentioned that all these men lived at some time in Garrard County, Kentucky, but that isn’t where I found all of their signatures.  As they migrated to nearby counties, visited state courts, or moved west, I followed their migrations and picked up signatures along the way.
  3. Seek out records of family and friends.  Your ancestor may not be indexed by name in the record of an in-law or neighbor, but the record itself may contain your ancestor’s signature as a witness or bondsman.  You have to love those ancestors who worked as the court clerk, and personally signed every deed in the county book!
  4. Be aware of age and language differences.  Your ancestor’s signature can change over time.  The confident hand of a newly married 25 year-old man in a marriage bond may change from the shaky pension application for bounty land of the seventy year-old man.  Literate immigrant ancestors accustomed to the Cyrillic alphabet characters may be less “literate” in the Americanized Roman alphabet.  Watch for phonetic name spelling changes, and newly adopted Americanized names.
  5. Not all ancestors signed with an X.  A few of our predecessors were more creative with their “mark.”  While many illiterate persons signed with a simple X, some had a more personal notation, such as a specialized cross or first letter of their name.
  6. Check out a book on handwriting.  Your local library has books on handwriting comparisons if you are not sure you have a match between two names.  If that doesn’t work, ask your genealogical buddy for an extra set of eyes, or hire a handwriting expert.

Our ancestor’s lives were as complex, busy, and emotional as ours today and they left their marks in so many places.  Our job is to follow their trail and pick up those crumbs that together become the genealogical bread of life.  Tell us about a brick-wall breakthrough that you’ve had using signatures while following your ancestors through time.