Category Archives: Advice

Give Thanks, Give Back

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At this holiday season, no matter what celebrations your are enjoying, you’re probably thinking about giving to others.  Our genealogical community is no different, in fact, the future of genealogy runs on the feet of its volunteers and donations.  Whether you can give a little or a lot, there are so many opportunities to serve.  Here are just a few:

Donate your time online.  Many websites need volunteers to work from home.  Consider giving a few minutes a day or hours a week to any of these worthy causes:

  • FamilySearch Indexing.  Help index millions of records which will then become available and word-searchable for free through the FamilySearch website.  You can choose difficulty levels from beginner to advanced.  If you are bilingual, there are records to index in many foreign languages.  The tutorials are helpful, and the simple program is downloadable from the website.
  • USGenWeb.  Volunteers are needed to adopt counties from all states in the U.S.  You might help manage the website or just index records for that county to make them available to others for free online.
  • FindAGrave and BillionGraves.  Help others find their ancestors’ final resting places by photographing their headstones and adding information about the ancestor if you can.  BillionGraves even has a app for your cell phone to allow you to attach GPS coordinates to the monument, which can be helpful when it comes to some of these enormous cemeteries.

Donate your time in person.  There is something truly rewarding about that face-to-face personal contact between family history enthusiasts.  We feed off each other’s energy, and more importantly, learn so much by working together.

  • Local historical and genealogical societies.  It is a sad fact that many of our local historical and genealogical societies are slowly dying for want of volunteers.  One of my favorite genealogical societies in Maryland has recently disbanded because not enough people were willing to help manage its functions.  Offer to help, if even once a month, and make a difference.
  • Local LDS Family History Centers.  You don’t have to be a member of the church to volunteer in these wonderful facilities.  You don’t have to be very experienced in genealogy either.  You just have to be willing to learn and help keep these local centers staffed.  In the process you’ll be interacting with other experienced family historians and have access to free websites that will only increase your knowledge.  Walk into your local center and volunteer today.

Donate financially.  Without private or corporate sponsors, the resources we use for finding our ancestors’ records will slowly dwindle and fade away. Every dollar counts.  Most contributions to genealogical projects are tax-deductible so this is definitely the time of year to take advantage of those benefits.  While not all of the places needing your financial help are listed below, here are some that you may not know about or can give you an idea of places to go.

  • #GivingTuesday.  After the rush of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, there is Giving Tuesday.  Choose from thousands of worthy causes, many of them genealogical or historical.  I love the idea of finding a cause you didn’t know you could support.
  • Local State Archives, County Archives, or State Genealogical Societies. Consider giving locally.  No matter how much we volunteer, some projects just cost money.  Your state or county may need help. In my home state, The Maryland Genealogical Society, for example, has many indexing and digitization projects that require volunteers.
  • War of 1812 Preserve the Pensions Project.  This one’s my favorite. Military pensions are one of the few record types where you could find the genealogical mother-load of information, especially for your ancestor’s vital birth, marriage, and death dates and relationships as well.  Supporting our patriots never gets old.  This one has a bonus for financial donations, every dollar you give is matched by Ancestry.com, allowing the project to digitize even more of the valuable records.  Whether you donate or not, the images of the soldiers’ pensions are available to everyone for free online at fold3.

Give a little or give a lot, you will undoubtedly get back what you give.  Who can really put a price on how generosity feels?   Did we miss your favorite place to donate time or money?  Tell us about it and share why you love it.  And from us to you, Happy Thanksgiving.

Laws Affecting Your Ancestor

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How much have you considered the impact local and federal laws had on your ancestors?  Laws played a key role in how they did business, earned money, fought wars, and married.  I came across an interesting case: Why did the ancestor go free after being convicted of manslaughter after having been “seduced by the instigation of the devil” in Maryland in 1783?  Court documents detailed the witness statements and the ruling, but not the sentence.  A peek into the early laws of Maryland gave me some clues.  Apparently, sometimes rather than being committed to prison, if it was determined that a person had acted in self-defense, a manslaughter sentence meant that the perpetrator was branded on the palm of the hand or the thumb with the letter “M,” something that would never happen today.

It is important and sometimes crucial to our research to be aware of or look for the laws that were part of the records our ancestors made, such as probate laws, land transactions, or military service.  It’s not one of the easiest things to look up, but it is worth the effort.

Ideas for Finding Early Laws

  1. Follow one of the Experts.  One of my favorite legal experts is Judy Russell, JD, CG, CGL.  Follow her blog at The Legal Genealogist for tips and little known facts about the law and our ancestors.
  2. Check out your State Law Library or State Archive.  Many archives have online searchable references to early laws, such as the Archives of Maryland online or Maryland’s State Law Library.
  3. Read up about it.  Books such as Black’s LawThe Researcher’s Guide to American GenealogyThe Source, and Redbook have sections that talk about laws or legal terminology in context of genealogical research. I am super excited about the new book by Kay Haviland Frelich and William B. Frelich, Genealogy and the Law.  I can’t wait to get my copy.  Other books, such as Anne Orthwood’s Bastard: Sex and the Law in Early Virginia, may be more specific to the subject and region you are searching for.

Just knowing more about the laws can help us rid ourselves of preconceived ideas of both why our ancestors did something or why they put up with things we do not today.  It is especially important to know more about the laws that affected women in our ancestry.   In any case, ignorance of the law is no excuse for bad research.

Tell us some interesting legal clues that you’ve uncovered in your history!

 

Spring Cleaning for the Family Historian

 

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Whitman Family History Pictures from Oklahoma 045Whitman Family History Pictures from Oklahoma 045We are the keepers of the record, the protectors of family photos, and the font of all family lore: We are the record keepers. The “Chief Memory Officers.” And we keep a lot of stuff in our quest for preserving our histories.  Cleaning and organizing all those papers, photos, and memorabilia is a big job. Here are some little ideas that might make for a big difference this Spring:

  1. Get the boxes out of the attic/basement.  Papers and photos need to live where you live – free of moisture and humidity.  While doing your normal spring cleaning, designate some newly cleaned space for your genealogical information.
  2. Organize in baby steps.  Too many boxes?  Try setting aside time to go through a box, but only to take out information for one family (not a whole surname, it is easier to file papers and memorabilia by couple or individual).  Take out the pages just for Uncle Jehoshaphat Blank and his wife Aunt Jemina (Someone) Blank.  Go through them and see if any thing needs to be a) scanned and uploaded to your online family tree, b) used for future research and put in your research log, or c) thrown away because you have duplicates of the same 1820 census.   Take them and simply put them in a labeled file folder in a dedicated filing cabinet.  Then repeat with the next couple.  Maybe put on some classic 1940s or even early jazz albums to get you in the mood while you shuffle through that box.
  3. Learn about photo preservation for your originals.  You don’t need to scrapbook them (yet), but you may avoid future damage by putting them in a safer environment (rather than that ziplock bag or sticky album). There are some great how-to articles online, try NARA’s article on removing photos from sticky albums or About.com’s section on Preserving the Past.
  4. Get help.  Genealogy is about family, so why not make organizing your family history a family affair?  Plan an organizing-get-to-know-our-ancestors party with your cousins, children, or grandchildren.
  5. Make a date.  Cleaning and organizing can be overwhelming.  Plan and calendar when you will organize in the next month.  Can you spare an hour once a week?  Two hours a month?  A little progress is still progress, and you may find that you are enjoying your hands-on family history much more than you thought.

I can’t promise that organizing will be easy, but it will always be worth it.  How many times have I found something I didn’t realize I had, or more often I find something I forgot I had but that now has new significance in light of the research I’ve recently done.  A little time here and there goes a long way.

Local Historical and Genealogical Societies: Valuable Resources for Any Researcher

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Have you been stumped with a research project, especially because the area your ancestor lived in was a mystery to you?  Needed a genealogical buddy to bounce ideas off of?  Discover the local historical societies in your ancestor’s area, and find friends and inspiration at a genealogical society in your home county. Let’s look at a few things each could be valuable for.

HISTORICAL SOCIETIES

Unless you have lived in the same area for six generations, you may not know much about the place where your ancestor lived and raised his family.  Knowing about small cemeteries, churches in the area, and the general history can help in your research. Often these historical societies are run or staffed by volunteers, and we appreciate all the time they put into restoring the history of their area.  It is always a great idea to contact historical societies in your ancestor’s area, either by phone or through their websites.  For example here are some unique records I’ve found in historical societies:

  • Private indexes of obituary records
  • Private indexes of newspaper records
  • Books on local churches
  • Cemetery indexes
  • Historic maps
  • Journals and diaries of early local citizens
  • Photographs
  • School records
  • Business records
  • Early court records (from the 1700s) thrown away by the courthouse and retrieved by the historical society staff
  • Family surname indexes
  • Donated family histories and family files
  • Newsletters about the area’s history and records
  • …and so much more!

YOUR LOCAL GENEALOGICAL SOCIETY

Do you have family who just don’t understand your need to learn more about the family tree?  Need a friend who won’t roll their eyes at your story of finding the right headstone at the cemetery?  Join a local county genealogical society.  These are also staffed by volunteers, dedicated to the preservation of family histories.  You don’t have to have ancestors from your local area to  join a local genealogical society – its about coming together and collaborative learning.  Many genealogical societies meet regularly or volunteer in projects like these:

  • Sponsoring lectures in genealogical or historical subjects
  • Collecting and indexing records for publication
  • Discussing research problems
  • Cleaning or maintaining local cemeteries or historic sites
  • Sharing information about genealogical educational opportunities both online and in the area
  • Planning trips to significant historical sites or archives.

Take some time to visit the website for the historical society in your ancestor’s area or find out the meeting times of the genealogical society in your local area.  You’ll be glad you did.  You’d be surprised how much you can learn!