Category Archives: Family history

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!