Category Archives: Holidays

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.

Holiday Gatherings: A Perfect Time for Family History

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As we prepare for the holidays, let us take advantage of the time we spend with relatives to ask about their own lives or the lives of ancestors they may have known, or might have inherited documents or stories about.  One of the most effective family history research tools we have is our living family.  Holiday gatherings are a perfect time for meeting with family members for stories or an interview.  Planning ahead is the key to success.

To prepare for an upcoming gathering where you might be able to find out more about ancestors, try one or more of these ideas:

Decide which family groups or stories you want to talk to relatives about.  It’s best to focus and not try to overwhelm the people you are interviewing with all your questions on the family.  Choose one or two family groups to start with, for example, ask about Great-Grandpa’s three wives and 17 children, or if Great-Uncle Dolphus really did go west to pan for gold in ’49?  Often, those stories will lead to others.

Ask ahead for an interview.  Call or contact the people you want to talk to at least a week or two before your holiday gathering. Let them know what you’d like to talk about and what to expect.  Giving your interview subject a chance to think about the ancestors you are interested in gives them time to think and they’re less likely to be stumped for story ideas.  They may even remember some family photos or memorabilia to bring with them.  Most of all, they will likely be more willing to talk if you ask ahead than if the first they hear of it is over the table at the holiday feast, just as they’re contemplating their after dinner nap time.

Read up on interview techniques and questions.  I like the basic interview questionnaire prepared by FamilySearch (a printable pdf document).  Other great resources are Kimberly Powell’s article, “50 Questions for Family History Interviews,” or  Alice Chapin’s book Reaching Back. AARP also has some fun Story Starters. Many of these are designed for a person to record their own family history, but the same questions can spark family stories of ancestors of long ago.

Plan how to record the interview: There are three basic types of ways to record your interviews.  1) Taking notes by hand, 2) audio recording, or 3) video.  The pros and cons are:

  • Taking notes by hand.  Pro:  The least intimidating to the shy interview subject.  Con: It’s slow, you are likely to miss things, or garble your own notes.
  • Audio Recording.  Pro:  Not very intimidating or distracting to the interview subject.  Con:  Background noise!  Even worse is when you have more than one person in the room answering questions over one another, its hard to transcribe later.
  • Video.  Pro:  This is my favorite method.  If multiple people speak, it is easier to distinguish the speakers.  You also have some great footage for future video productions, such as a Reel Tributes personal documentary.  Con:  Your interview subject may be so shy or uncomfortable in front of the camera (How’s my hair?  Is this my best side?) that you may not get the information you need.

It’s not a test.  Many interviewees may feel like the interview questions are more like test questions, despite your best efforts to make them comfortable.  Start off with something you know that they know, not a question they may not have the answer to.  Start with leads like, “I heard you got in trouble for smashing a cookie jar when you were little…”  or “Didn’t you have a dog named Buddy…?”  Also try taking photos with you that might inspire stories.

Accept now that you won’t get everything in one interview.  Sometimes we are so anxious to get the information we want, we may cut off some stories the family member is telling to get to what we believe is the “meat” of our interview.  Sit back, relax, and enjoy. You won’t get everything you want in one interview.  What you will do, though, is build a stronger relationship with the interview subject.  This may lead to that person calling up later with photos, memorabilia, or information they found, especially if the interview was a positive experience.

In essence, family history is about family.  Enjoy your time making new memories about sharing old memories, and build those relationships even stronger.  Happy Holidays!

Giving Thanks for Our Immigrant Ancestors

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Did your ancestors participate in the very first Thanksgiving?  Tough to tell. Very few of us can trace our lines to those early immigrants.  We can, however, appreciate what our own ancestors did to come to this land, and why they made those choices.  Thanksgiving isn’t just about Pilgrim stories, its also about those who brought their own families here over the generations.

What is Your Immigrant Story?

Let’s take some time to appreciate our immigrant history, and ask questions or research their stories.  Ask yourself:

  • Did your ancestors come because of religious persecution?  To avoid war?
  • Did they only intend on making a living and go back to the mother land, but never actually returned?
  • Did they come through Ellis Island, or even before that?
  • How did their American experience change their culture, customs, and names?
  • Does your family still carry on any customs from your immigrant ancestors’ lands?  Foods, language, holiday traditions?
  • Did they travel first class or steerage?  What was the difference?
  • What jobs did the ancestor take when they came?  What challenges did they face?

How Can I Research My Immigrant Family?

Here are some tips to starting a research project on discovering your immigrant ancestor:

  • First, ask the family for stories – what have they heard?
  • Researching an immigrant from the 1900s is easier than researching one in the 1700s.  Start with later generations.
  • Do you really know where they came from?  Start with censuses.  For example, one census may say they were from Poland, another may say “Galicia.”  Poland was broken up into three parts in the mid-1800s and Polish immigrants from Galicia were on the Russian-controlled side.  Research the history of the lands for better insights.
  • Death records may give more information on birthplaces. Check the death records for their children too.
  • Church records sometimes state the place your ancestor “removed” from when they came to that congregation.  Which churches were closest to where they lived for their denomination?
  • Check for cemetery headstones – they may have specific birthplaces or symbols that indicate origin.
  • Did they naturalize?  When did they arrive?  The 1900 census asks those questions, and some others ask related questions.  The dates given were sometimes  incorrect, but it gives an idea of where to start.
  • They may have petitioned for naturalization in a local county court or in federal court.  Check both.
  • Many websites give information on a particular culture or immigrant group.  A good link to these is on Cyndi’s List and the FamilySearch Wiki.

Above all, spend some time this Thanksgiving holiday thinking about our ancestors who made the brave journey to America. Take the opportunity of  quality time with your relatives to discuss the family lore and uncover new stories about your past. If you learn something exciting, let us know!

Love and Marriage: Genealogical Records of Walking Down the Aisle

Marriage records are some of the earliest records available in the United States that offer a wealth of genealogical gems.  They may include the ages of the bride and groom, their residences, and sometimes a parent or other relative’s name.

Modern marriage records can help us understand earlier records.  If you are married, think about the variety of records leading up to the wedding.  Did you go to the courthouse to apply for a license?  Was a notice of the engagement, or of the wedding placed in a local newspaper?  Were you married at a church, and did the church note it in their records?  If married at the church, the pastor/priest/officiator was required to report his or her completion of that ceremony to the local court.  If married civilly, was there a record of the wedding at the courthouse separate from that first license you applied for?  Did the court and/or church give you a private certificate, suitable for framing?  Did you send out invitations or annoucements? Were photos taken at your wedding?  Did friends or relatives write or blog about the celebration?  Looking at all these situations, we can see at least eight different types of records created about the event.  Think of your ancestors’ weddings in much the same way: if a record of the marriage isn’t in one place, it may be in another.

Here’s a very brief review of the types of marriage records that may be available in a variety of places:

State and Local Records

Marriage records are not federal records.  They have always been maintained and governed by the county or state in which they occured.  Investigate the laws regarding marriage in your ancestor’s state and time period.

  1. Consents:  Written parental permission for a child to be married, especially if underaged.  Sometimes these are found to confirm that the child is of age.
  2. Marriage bonds:  A financial contract to hopefully avoid litigation of the marriage is nullified.  Usually signed by the groom and a male representative of the bride’s family.
  3. Marriage banns: Church declaration or posting of an intended marriage, to give the congregation an opportunity to oppose the marriage if there is a just cause to prevent it, i.e. the groom has another wife in the next county.
  4. Applications:  The application to marry often asks the bride and groom about ages, birthplaces, parent’s names, and previous marriages.  Check to see how early these were used in the county you’re searching.
  5. License: Court approval of the marriage application.  These are often found at the bottom of the application in most pre-printed court books.  Note that the date of marriage application or license is not always the same as the date of the wedding!
  6. Minister’s Returns:  Sometimes these are separate reports from ministers or Justices of the Peace that a marriage ceremony was preformed.  The clerk should be noting these at the bottom of the marriage application/license.  If there is no return it may indicate that 1) the marriage did not occur, or 2) the minister didn’t make it back to the clerk to report.  If there is no return, you may need to look for other indications of co-habitation after the date of the license.
  7. Divorce Records:  When couples break up, they make a lot of records.  Early divorces were granted only on the state level, but were overseen later by county courts.  Check Chancery and Equity records, or ask the clerk of the court.

Church Records

  1. Minister or Church Clerk books:  Church records vary from church to church and often from one minister to another.  The marriages may be recorded together, chronologically, or mixed in with other rites, such as baptism or burials.
  2. Church minutes:  If there are no records of marriages, check the minutes for listings of members.  Spouses may be referred to when they join or move.

Newspapers

  1. Wedding Annoucements:  For my own grandparents, I found multiple news articles.  There were at least two listings of bridal showers, the pre-wedding announcement, the post-wedding announcement, and an entire article on who attended and what they wore with a photo of the happy couple looking dubiously at a wedding present they’d just unwrapped.  Thank goodness for small town newspapers!  Don’t forget to check for those silver anniversary announcements too.

Private Family Records

The wonderful thing about family records of weddings is that they are so diverse and can be held by so many different family members.  Get to know second and third cousins who may have inherited unique memoribilia.  These may include:

  • Invitations
  • Marriage Certificates
  • Photos
  • Journals and Letters
  • Family Bibles

Take some time to “walk down the aisle” with your ancestors and search for their marriage records. Find out more by reading up on early marriage practices and customs.  If your ancestors were of African-American descent, be aware that sometimes those records were kept separately.  If your ancestor participated in the Revolution, War of 1812, or Civil War, look for evidences of marriage produced by widows and heirs in pension applications.  For more information, read the wonderful article by Johni Cerny and Sandra H. Luebking, “Research in Marriage and Divorce Records” in the Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy.  You can also check for online guides about marriage records that are specific to time periods or countries at FamilySearch.org.  Happy Valentine’s Day!

 

This Year, Store Your Memories in a Jar

 

2013 has just begun and undoubtedly will be a year full of grand events and stories.

But how will you remember them all?

We’re here to tell you about a fun and easy way to preserve the year’s most pleasurable and meaningful memories. This idea is one that could be particularly sweet for families with school age children.

As memorable events occur throughout the year, take a few moments to write about the highlights of that event on a piece of paper. Then place the note in a jar.  Keep scrap paper, pen and a glass jar in a prominent place—ideally your living room or kitchen— for easy access.

This effort can be a wonderful activity for a family to do together. By June, you might even need to get a larger jar!

At the end of the year, set aside a special time, perhaps during the holiday season, to read and share with each other the year’s memories.

Here are just some of the possible results of this effort:

  • Family bonding throughout the year and especially over the holidays
  • Memories recalled and cherished for years to come
  • Validation of children’s favorite stories and recollections
  • Memories preserved for future generations

Think how cool it would be if you had a jar full of memories from when you were 10, growing up in a very different time from today.

It’s never to late to start this activity. What sorts of memories do you think you might be sharing by the end of the year?

Get your jar ready and find out. Happy 2013!