Category Archives: Advice

New Year, Old Genealogical Problems

If you use the New Year to reinvigorate your genealogical research, how long does it take before you are throwing your hands up in frustration all over again?  Six months?  One month?  A week and a half?  You are not alone.  This year, let’s see if we can look at the old genealogical brick wall with new eyes using a few tricks:

  1. Research Log Re-boot:  If you don’t have a research log, you may end up repeating research or (worse!) missing clues that you need.  Take everything you know about the ancestor and create a research log with it.  Yes, this will take some time, but it is a critical part of re-assessing your research.  If you already have a research log, or are about to create one, try this idea:  Instead of putting your research in the order in which it was undertaken, put each item of found or attempted research into a category, such as probate, vital records, land records, census, military, family stories and bibles, etc.  Do you notice any record groups you have ignored?  You may have focused more on censuses and military records, and completely missed land records!
  2. New or Updated Websites:  You have some favorite go-to websites, we all do.  How about checking someplace that you haven’t before, haven’t checked in a while, or did not think may apply.  Genealogical websites are constantly updating their holdings.  Try a new newspaper website like Genealogybank.com (fee-based), NewspaperArchive (fee-based, available free at any LDS Family History Center), The Library of Congress’ Chronicling America page, or any local historic newspaper available through your public library’s website.  I was astounded at the amount of new digitized records available at FamilySearch, and solved a client’s research problem right from my home computer with the probate and land records available there.
  3. Learn Some History.  Perhaps part of your research problem is perspective.  What happened in your ancestor’s area during their life that may have affected the records they would have made?  Was a battle fought then?  Did county lines change?  Were they part of the religious reformation of the early 1800s?  A client recently spoke bitterly about a 3rd great-grandfather who abandoned his family.  As we looked at the timeline, I asked if the grand-father had served in the Civil War, and on which side.  The client had not thought about it before.  As it turns out, the ancestral family lived in a part of Virginia severely hit by the tragedies of War, and the grandfather was a young Confederate veteran.  We talked about the possibility of undiagnosed post-traumatic stress for both spouses.  We may never know exactly what caused their split, but knowing these little bits of history puts the family into a different light.
  4. Internet-heavy Research: The Microwave vs. the Stove.  As researchers, we are so very spoiled (no, I am not complaining).  So much is online at our fingertips.  However, relying too heavily on sources found online can blind us to records that are only available in State Archives, local historical societies, and local courthouses, etc.  Here’s my analogy for this problem:  In my kitchen I have both a stove with an oven and a microwave.  As you can imagine, I use both in almost all of my cooking.  I love my microwave because it is fast and easy, however I just can’t cook everything in it.  Sauces, eggs, pies, cookies, and sauteed vegetables just don’t quite work if I use the microwave to cook them.  I have to use the stove for some things.  Other things I really prefer using the microwave for.  In all my cooking, I use both of these tools.  In research, your microwave is like internet research: fast and relatively easy.  Your oven is more like on-site research or records your order through the mail; it will take longer, but the benefits are undeniable.  Use both your tools, and learn the benefits and limitations of each.
  5. Investigate the Neighbors.  If you are stuck, try a completely different approach: Neighbors and extended relatives.  Put down your research for that elusive ancestor and start up a new project for a neighbor of the ancestor or a relative (or presumed relative) in the area.  You may end up seeing their paths cross with the ancestor you’ve been working on and give you a new clue for your mystery man.  A great tool for this is Elizabeth Shown Mills’ new quick-sheet, The Historical Biographer’s Guide to Cluster Research.

Hopefully I have given you some ideas.  The main point is not to give up.  Remember that even if you haven’t found that elusive ancestor, you have gained experience and education, and your time is not wasted.  Tell us some ideas that you have used to re-invigorate your research, we’d love to hear!

Happy Hunting!

Why should I keep a journal, or make a film about my life?

Many years ago I began keeping a daily journal about my life’s activities.  Over the years I have found it interesting to go back and see what I was doing, feeling, and thinking years ago. Recently, while reading an old journal entry, I read about a heated disagreement I had with a friend. With hindsight I realize now I had acted petty and immature.  It made me appreciate that I’ve done some growing up since then!

A few days ago it dawned on me that many of the reasons for journaling could also be applied to the value of making a personal history film or video biography.

As in journaling, a personal history film provides you with the opportunity to:

  1. Document the stories of your life – the good, the bad and the ugly!
  2. Record the great things that have happened to you and to your family over the years.
  3. Record how you have felt about the world around you.
  4. Record your personal and professional achievements (and disappointments).
  5. Record hopes, dreams and beliefs – for yourself and for your family.  Learned life lessons and wisdom become clearer with age.
  6. Record meaningful personal and family events to pass down to future generations – even those yet unborn!
  7. Provide an opportunity to express gratitude for the opportunities and things you have.
  8. Record significant events in the world around you and how they have affected you personally (such as WWII, social and global financial changes, etc.)
  9. Provide an opportunity to reflect on and evaluate the experiences of your life.
  10. Share relevant stories of the past for the benefit of future generations.

Everyone has a life to celebrate.  Lessons learned, problems solved, tragedies survived, observations made, creativity expressed and maturity gained.

For whatever stories about your life you’d like to share, consider a journal or a personal history film in 2013.

The annual letter: A cherished family tradition

Twenty-four years ago I decided to enclose a one-page personal letter with each one of our Christmas cards.

My goal: to share with our family and friends the highlights of the year’s activities.  Fifty or so people have received our letters and the response from them was positive. We, in turn, received many interesting and creative Christmas letters.

Fortunately, I had the good sense to keep a copy of each year’s Christmas letter.  Every year I place the newest letter in a Christmas green binder for safekeeping. This year as I read those letters once again I realized that the letters give a pretty good history of the highlights of our family’s activities over the last twenty-four years. Little did I know just how precious these letters would become as the years have passed by.

In 1988, the letters recall our being stationed in Nicosia, Cyprus and living a cautious and careful life of an American Embassy family. On December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 departing Heathrow Airport was bombed while flying over Lockerbie, Scotland.  One of our own security officers was on board the flight.  Several days later, my husband and I attended the memorial service to honor this young man at the US Embassy in Nicosia.  After this tragic event our ambassador ordered that Americans should not meet in large groups for fear of additional attacks.  As a result my two daughters’ school Christmas parties were canceled and Americans did not gather that year for their traditional Christmas party at the Marine House.

In 1990, we were living outside of London and my young daughters attended a British school for two years. Before leaving England, my friends gave a party in my honor.  The party took the form of British High Tea – a dressy afternoon event where fancy finger foods and punch were served.  Within a week’s time, we were back in Virginia and attending the Prince William County Fair.  By the end of that day we had seen pigs, sheep and cows and even watched a truck pull.  I thought to myself, what a change of lifestyle! In the next years our two daughters grew from being little girls with pronounced British accents to young and independent American women. From learning to ride their bicycles, to working on Algebra and French homework, to taking drivers ed and scaring the daylights out of their parents, and then going off to college— it is all there on the pages of our family’s Christmas letters.

Thirty-eight years ago, it was just my husband and me. Today, our family has grown to eight people.  The lives of all eight of us are recounted on the pages of those Christmas letters.

As I read these letters I realized how many things had slipped from my memory. And what a shame it would have been if those family memories had been lost forever.

And that reminds me…I’d better get writing this year’s letter.  Our friends and family are waiting and my Christmas green binder has an empty page protector marked “2012”.

How about you?  Do you write a yearly letter? How do you record the history of your family?  If you don’t, perhaps 2012 is the time to start. Enjoy! 

Your Genealogical Wish List for the Holidays

As much as we like to give during the holiday season – admit it – we like to receive too.  And as it is possible that the ones you love don’t quite understand how much you love working on your family history, you may just have to give yourself a genealogical gift this year.

What is your wish-list?  I will share mine, and perhaps it will give you some ideas for what you may need or gift ideas for our significant others.  Please know that the following are not endorsements for these products, just a few of my personal preferences.

  1. Subscriptions.  So many business are feeding our need for records.  I have a lot (don’t tell my husband!) of subscriptions to companies online including Ancestry, GenealogyBank, NewspaperArchive, and various genealogical societies whose websites offer more digitized records.  This year I’m planning to give myself a subscription to a new society, one I have been meaning to join.  Maybe it will be the Federation of Genealogical Societies or the Genealogical Speaker’s Guild.
  2. Conferences.  I could attend every genealogical conference in the country this year and still not be satisfied.  I love the feel of conferences, the commraderie, the vendors!  If I had to pick this year (and I really can’t), I think that I would enjoy the National Genealogical Society’s conference in May 2013.  On a personal note, it is located near some family and I could make the most of my visit by seeing them as well.  But let’s face it – its in VEGAS!  I am not a gambler at all, but I love the shows and the buffets.
  3. Books.  I think I would have to dedicate an entire website to the books I love on genealogy. I did an inventory once of all the books I have at Library Thing, but I had to stop once I reached 100 genealogy books, out of sheer exhaustion. Among my long list of published resources, one has been on my list for too long, and I think I just have to get it.  Its Joan L. Sevra’s Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840 – 1900, available at many stores.
  4. Stories.  It is crucial to keep stories alive.  Names and dates are well and good, but where’s the personality?  Where’s the voice?  My gift to myself will be a way to pass the story along to my siblings, my children, and all my relatives.  I can start small right now by deciding which family I want to highlight, collecting their information, and then choosing a media that best suits my story.  Of course, a Reel Tributes documentary is my first choice!  Talk about giving my ancestors their voices back. For something quicker and less expensive, ReelGenie promises to be an amazing tool. If only it were ready for this holiday season!
  5. Time.  My family thinks I am crazy (for many reasons).   This is mostly because I think a valuable family vacation should be spent in a state and local archives in New York where my ancestors came from.  What’s wrong with having family time in the cemetery, or the court house?  So I think one thing I would really like is my own “vacation” to work on my family history.   I have taken some serious time this year writing about my ancestors.  Now I want to walk where they walked.  This year: New York.  Next year: Scotland!
  6. Answers.  I would like to ask a favor of the universe.  Please send me the names of my fifth great-grandfather’s parents.  I am stuck!  Have you felt this way?  I often say that I am the only person to prove my ancestors were actually dropped by aliens, because there is no other evidence to refute it.  In all seriousness, I have taken to keeping an 8×10 framed photo of great grandpa James Wescott Whitman (1794 – 1878) in my office to inspire me.  So, if the universe is listening, that’s what I want most of all.  More family.

What genealogical treats would you like in you holiday celebrations this year?  I’d love to hear your ideas.  Inspire us with what genealogical gifts you are giving to yourself.  The trick is that when you continue to search out and celebrate your family, it becomes a gift to everyone in your family.  Happy Holidays!

Newspapers: They’re still worth reading!

We hear all the time how newspapers are dying. But don’t let that fool you. Their value to researchers remains high.  News items, especially in small towns, are a glimpse not only into our ancestor’s lives, but into the world they lived in.  How much would it have cost for shoes or for that new Model T that Grandpa was so proud of?  What were the political feelings of the time, and how do they differ from ours today?

Researching in local newspapers can also help answer many of the questions we have about our family.  Look for:

- Marriages, anniversaries, and births

- Obituaries

- Probate and Estate settlement announcements

- Visits from out of town

- Military troop movements for soldiers from the town

- Accidents and tragedies that would have affected your family

Where can I find newspapers?  First, contact the local library, historical society, or county historian in the area your ancestor lived.  Ask about indexes to newspapers, and if they are online, on microfilm, or in paper only.  Occasionally, if they are on microfilm, you can request an inter-library loan through your own county library for a small fee.  I have found unpublished index books created by local historical societies that cannot be found anywhere else.

Are newspapers online?  Many newspapers are online, but not necessarily the ones you need.  Some are indexed and some are not.  Some of the popular places to check for the paper you are interested in are:

- Library of Congress Chronicling America Project  (free)

- Newspaper Archive ($, free to use at LDS Family History Centers)

- The United States Newspaper Program

- Fold3.com ($, free to use at LDS Family History Centers and in many local libraries)

- Ancestry.com ($, free to use at LDS Family History Centers and in many local libraries)

- Genealogy Bank ($)

- Check your local library.  They often subscribe to historic newspaper sites that may be associated with surrounding areas.

What is OCR?  Online newspaper projects often use a system known as Optical Character Recognition software.  It allows newspapers to be word-by-word indexed and searchable.  It isn’t perfect, especially since the type face or copy quality of the newspaper may cause words and letters to be mis-identified.  When looking for my 5th Great-grandfather’s obituary at a site for Western New York papers, I had a hard time.  His name, James Whitman, finally came out as “Jamas” before I could identify it.  Be creative and patient in your search.

Don’t give up.  Newspaper research can be time-consuming, and is dreaded by avid genealogists.  However, it is also one of the most richest sources of information.  I finally found where James Whitman was buried.  No, not in his own obituary.  I found it in the third of FOUR obituaries for his daughter, Anna.  I knew that people often had multiple obituaries, but Anna was apparently very popular.  The third obit stated that she was being buried next to her parents.  That was the key.  Anna has a headstone, but two plots lie unmarked beside her.  Now we know.  What will you find out, with some research into the newspapers of your ancestors’ times?