Category Archives: Ancestry tips

Laws Affecting Your Ancestor

scales of justice

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!


Amazing Apps for Genealogy


I am all for the digital age.  The amount of records being scanned, indexed, and made available to the public grows everyday. Resources for learning about genealogical records and method are available at our fingertips.  The challenge with the digital age is keeping up with it.  I may not be a fast learner, but I’m tenacious and I don’t want to be left behind. And I bet you feel the same way.

Genealogical applications for tablets and smart phones.  Where there is technology, genealogy will follow.  It makes sense that genealogists, people who spend a lot of time sorting out the microhistory of their ancestor’s lives, would want tools to organize or improve that search.  Here’s just a sample of some I have been playing with and others I look forward to using.

Apps I have.  I am just getting into this as a new tablet user, but I am already having a lot of fun with the following apps:

  •’s app.  I like being able to take my tree with me.  I’ve found that when I open Hints (those now iconic shaky leaves) and follow the links to the original documents, such as a census, the images are clear and easy to manage.  The format has taken some getting used to, but I find that in all cases, it just takes a bit of persistence to get acclimated to it.
  • War of 1812 Sites.  Sponsored by PBS and others, this app gives short histories of different battlefields, maps their location, and allows you to plan a travel route to visit these War of 1812 historic sites.  The app is well put together and easy to use.  This app, and others like it for learning or experiencing history, are just so much fun.
  • FindAGrave app.  Like the FindAGrave website, this app allows for searching by name or cemetery.  I liked the idea that when I allowed it to use my location, it showed me the photo requests in my area.  Being one that fully believes in the principle of “Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness,”  I plan to go take some photos today.
  • BillionGraves app.  I like the concept of this app a lot, and it seems well organized.  Like FindAGrave, the point is to photograph cemetery monuments in your area and upload them to the website for all to enjoy.  My problems were this: 1) I couldn’t use the app to search for people who had already been photographed, and 2) I think that because my tablet is not 4g enabled, somehow the part of the app for taking photos was not working, there was no icon for the camera feature.
  • Voice Recorder apps.  There’s a lot of them out there.  The one I got was free, so the downside to that, as with many free apps is that I have to put up with advertisements.  The value of having a voice recorder is great.  Often I want to interview a relative about their life or who they remember.  Having one of these is so much more convenient than bringing another hand-held device. Check out your app store for one that will fit your needs.
  • Google.  Whether it’s a Google app or or any other search feature, it comes in handy when looking for something quickly.  Even when research is going well, I always “Google” the person I am researching just in case there’s a family-based website or other website or even Google book that mentions the ancestor.
  • Dropbox.  Dropbox is the most-used cloud-storage site, and is critical for genealogists. I use it to share powerpoint presentations or large numbers of photos or anything that is too big to email a client or fellow researcher.
  • FamilyMap.  I wasn’t too impressed with this app.  It is pretty, but it doesn’t do much.  It connects with your tree on FamilySearch (but wasn’t made by them) and puts virtual pushpins into a map indicating where each ancestor was born.  But that’s it.  It has a nice display, and may be useful to some, but I was hoping for a map that would allow me to track one or more ancestors’ migrations.

Apps I want.

  • Evernote.  I keep hearing from my genealogy friends what a powerful tool this is for organizing research.  I am told there is a little bit of a learning curve to it, but its worth it.  Jordan Jones does a great blog about how he uses it on the Evernote website.
  • Metes and Bounds Basic.  I just may have to get this one soon.  It is designed to map out land descriptions that follow the old metes and bounds descriptions, you know… “Start at a white oak…”

Apps I wish would come.

  • FamilySearch Indexing.  FamilySearch rolled out a beta version of their indexing program as an app a while back, but has since pulled it.  I can’t wait until it comes back, I want to have this on the go with me while I wait at the doctor’s office or kid’s soccer practices.
  • Timeline mapping.  I’d like to see an app that takes a timeline created for the ancestor and maps out the locations and indicates the time the ancestor was there.  I’d like to also have it compare other ancestors’ timelines on the same map.
  • Genealogy Blog notifications.  I’d like to put in a search term I’m interested in, like mapping for example, and have the app alert me when genealogy blogs or podcasts are posted on that subject.

Continuing Technological Education. There’s so much I still need to learn.  I thought I was tech-savvy, but every day I feel less and less savvy.  We’ve got to keep up with genealogy technology tools and practice using them.  The future of our history is in our hands!


Spring Cleaning for the Family Historian


Whitman Family History Pictures from Oklahoma 045Whitman Family History Pictures from Oklahoma 045Whitman Family History Pictures from Oklahoma 045

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’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

hist soc


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.


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!


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!




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!