Category Archives: Ancestry tips

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  The Church’s contributions to the preservation of innumerable historical documents has helped the genealogical community for decades.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.

How Should I Use Citations In Genealogical Research?

Have you ever begun a new project, gone online to research, or looked through old handwritten family records, and found conflicting facts such as different birthplaces or dates?  Which is true?  In order to judge which, if either, fact is likely to be true we want to find out where the fact came from.  The questions genealogists often ask when looking at a fact are:

  1. Who reported the fact – who was the “informant?” (The ancestor, the grandchild of the ancestor, or the neighbor, etc.?)
  2. How close was that person to the event? (Were they a witness or did they hear about that birth/death/burial second-hand?)
  3. Has this information been re-copied to this document, and can errors have been introduced in the transcription? (By a clerk, minister, indexer?)

Knowing the answer to these questions helps the researcher “weigh the evidence.”  True, it isn’t an infallible system, but it is a good place to start.

The Key: No researcher can begin to weigh the evidence and compare facts without actually knowing where the information came from.   A citation, properly crafted, holds the:

  • WHO …could have been the informant?
  • WHAT …type of record is it and does it have identifying registration numbers associated with it?
  • WHY …was the record created?
  • WHEN …was the record created?
  • WHERE …can I get this record again if I need to refer to it or find other relatives in surrounding records like it?

Citations are the hammer in the nail of effective research

Many of us remember making bibliographies or footnoting our research papers from high school or college, and know that there are standard citation styles.  You may have used the  Modern Language Association (MLA) style, the Chicago Manual of Style, or others.  If you are comfortable with a certain style, then use that.  It is better to use something, and use it consistently, than to not cite your sources at all. You might consider, however, a style beautifully geared specifically for genealogical research: Elizabeth Shown Mills’ book, Evidence Explained.  Regardless, the importance of citing every fact cannot be overstated!

Without knowing where a fact came from, how can you judge its reliability?  If you can’t be sure of your information, how effective can your research be?  When researching, keep notes – in research logs, in a genealogy software program, in a book you are writing.  No matter where you put the results of your research, remember to note the Who-What-Why-When-Where in a consistent format that will be easily understood by other researchers, and by yourself if you find you need to put the research away for now and come back to it months or years later.

Citations are worth the few minutes to note, and valuable for weighing any evidence that later conflicts with your findings.  You will thank yourself every time.

Write in and let us know how having or not having citations have changed your research, we’d love to hear from you!

 

Planning Your Genealogical Research Trip

We, as genealogists and family historians, are willing to go to some lengths to find information on our family lines.  When we have exhausted the available resources online or on microfilm through LDS family history centers, occasionally we need to take an on-site research trip.  It is an inescapable fact that some of the things we need are only available in person. These one-of-a-kind documents may be crucial to our research. You might be asking yourself, “How do I take a successful trip to conduct family history research?”

One of the keys to success in any research is planning.  If you need to visit a courthouse, county clerk’s office, research library, historical society, or archive, here are eight important steps to complete before you go.

  1. Review the 0nline catalogs.  Find out what their holdings are and make a list of what you want to see, in order of its priority.  Often you can search by a location or surname.  Watch out, many of these have listings for different types of records in separate online catalogs.  Keep looking.
  2. Make a To-do List.  In your list, remind yourself WHAT book, microfilm, or record series you are looking for, WHY you are looking for it (searching for Aunt Mildred’s husband’s name), and WHERE in the building it may be.  Many places have multiple levels or specialized rooms for separate collections.
  3. Check the key info. Check online for hours, fees, parking, lockers, where to eat, and especially closing dates for holidays.  Don’t get stuck at a locked building or spending all day trying to park your car.  I got stuck once because I thought Memorial Day was a perfect time for me to go, but it was apparently a perfect time for the staff to close up too.
  4. Read the Records structure.  Every archive arranges their information differently.  Take time to check the location’s website for an online tutorial, or user guidelines. Ask friends if they’ve had experience there or check the Wiki at FamilySearch, and input the name of the place you are going.  Researchers from all over have shared their experience about places to research, and so much more.
  5. Gather supplies.  What can you take into the building?  Can you take your laptop, scanner, or camera?  What are the photocopying policies?  How much?  Many places will not allow you to use their copier, or do not have open shelves.  Allow for the extra time for staff to help you or records to be pulled.  Are you taking lunch, or packing a small snack?  Make sure you take extra batteries or the charger for your camera.  Not every place has internet access, so don’t rely on getting your information from the cloud. Have a paper copy or information on your laptop or tablet.
  6. Plan for more than one day. If this is your first time at a certain place and you have a lot you need to search, do not expect to get it done in one day.  In all likelihood, you may take a significant amount of time just getting settled and getting used to the facility.  Be realistic about what you can find, and if possible plan for more than one day of research.
  7. Make a Plan B.  Things never work out the way you plan, so plan some more.  If somewhere is unexpectedly closed (power outage or other emergency), where else can you go in the area?  Cemeteries are rarely closed.  The main county library often has a historical or genealogical collection for the area.
  8. Be open to happy accidents.  On my first baby-genealogist research trip I made a lot of mistakes, but I also planned well and it benefitted me every time. On a five-day trip to Genesee County, New York, I found that I was finished at the historical society early one afternoon.  I hated to waste any time, so I pulled out my Plan B.  In Genesee, the county courthouse and county clerk are in separate buildings.  I went to the county clerk’s office because my Plan B was to re-visit the town clerk, but for some reason I couldn’t find the phone number to see if they were still open.  As I walked into the office I stood in line patiently, and an older man walked up to ask if I needed any help.  I told him my problem and he said he thought he had the number in his office.  It turned out that he was the County Clerk himself.  We got to talking and he showed me the deed records.  He was kind, but a little skeptical that I knew what I wanted.  I whipped out my binder with my plan, copies of censuses, and other information and showed him that I knew exactly when my ancestors came into the county.  He was amazed at the organization and looked over at a near-by secretary saying, “Okay, she’s hired.” Needless to say, as I worked he looked over my shoulder from time to time, and would say things like, “I know I have a map for that area over here, would you like to see it?”  There was my ancestor, named on the map.  I love happy accidents!

The more planning that goes into your trip ahead of time, the more you will get out of your research. Why waste time during your trip when you can plot your course before you go?

Tell us your success stories with on-site research, we’d love to hear from you!

Confessions of a Census Enumerator

Have you ever searched for family in any of the Federal Censuses and been tear-your-hair-out-frustrated?  People’s places of birth, ages, relationships, and naturalization dates fluctuate from one census to another.  You can’t find someone you know is in that city, no matter how you try.  The handwriting is atrocious and the spelling is worse!

In 2010 a friend told me that the US Census Bureau was hiring in our town, and I thought that this might be an opportunity to understand a little more about what went into enumerating the census.  Some of the things I learned even as modern-day census enumerator gave me a deeper appreciation of the struggles a census taker in earlier times may have.  Some lessons were eye-opening. Others were simply scary.

  • It’s the law. In the modern census, you are enumerated by mail.  If you do not fill in your form and return it in time, that is when your friendly neighborhood enumerator comes to call.  Most people just forgot and often had the paperwork somewhere nearby.  Quite a number of homes had to be qualified as unlived in.  Many people were extremely argumentative, and did not believe the census to be really legal.  Rarely do people realize that the law directing enumeration of the populous is a provision in the Constitution, Article 1, Section 2.
  • Try, and try again. As an enumerator, we were required to try a home a minimum of three times, even if we had been rebuffed the first time.  If there were no results, we were to ask the neighbors.
  • Listen to the kids. The law today directs that a resident of the home as young as age 14 could answer questions about the household if no other adult was available.  I would try and go back to the home when an adult was home, but I did have to ask a child more than once about the household.
  • Gender rules. It was interesting to see which enumerators in our group had the most success.  We met together for training and to turn in our results weekly.  The tall, strong-looking men were answered the least by residents.  The women came in with the most results.  Why?  Having a stranger at your door today is no more scary than at any other time.  People are wary of opening the door to strange men.  Strange women (especially very short women with bright smiling faces like mine) are not intimidating.  People wanted to talk to us, give us something to drink, and have us sit and rest.
  • Keep it local. The Census Bureau purposefully has enumerators work within their own neighborhoods.  First, we already know our way around.  Second, the idea is that we are comfortable where we lived.  I rarely enumerated more than four miles from my home.  Even so, I ran into many situations where people spoke languages I did not understand, and they could not understand me.  How likely was that to happen to an immigrant ancestor of yours?
  • I wasn’t scary, but… People who were naturalized citizens were the most anxious to talk to me.  They wanted me to know they were legal citizens and proud of it.  Others would not believe that we weren’t secret agents of the INS, FBI, or CIA.
  • There are some dangers. There were a lot more dogs in my neighborhood than I realized.  Big ones.  It was intimidating to enter a yard that was clearly protected by Kujo’s cousin.
  • Don’t assume anything. It was the rule that we had to ask the householder to pronounce their race, not assume it by observation.  My favorite answer to the question from a determined looking man was “human race.”
  • It’s huge. I had not realized how many people lived in my neighborhood, and was awed by the scale of the census project.
  • I saw some things I’d rather soon forget. Yes, people do answer the door in their underwear.  Enough said.

So, before you curse the name of the 1880 enumerator who came to your ancestor’s door, try to imagine it from the other side.  For more information on the history of census enumeration and its impact on genealogical research today, try “Chapter 13: Census Returns” in Val D. Greenwood’s book, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy.  Another favorite is Kathleen Hinkley’s well-written Your Guide to the American Census.

Remember the old saying, “With information comes inspiration.”