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Spring Cleaning for the Family Historian

 

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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 About.com’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

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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.

HISTORICAL SOCIETIES

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!

YOUR LOCAL GENEALOGICAL SOCIETY

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!

 

 

 

Where in the World is…? Changes in Naming Cities, Streets, and House Numbers

 

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Where in the World is Northfield, Saratoga County, New York?  Good question. Turns out it’s nowhere .  When my 5th great-grandmother, Elizabeth (Kennicutt) Whitman, was born there in October of 1801 it was a newly-formed village.  In 1799 and 1800 the area had been part of the town of Providence, but it was growing so Northfield was incorporated on 13 March 1801.  Soon, the town founders were embarrassed to find there was already a Northfield in New York, so they renamed it Edinburg (Sylvester, History of Saratoga County, New York, 372).  In those few months between name changes, little Elizabeth was born.

Never Fear, Genealogical Help is Here.  Name changes to towns and cities are more common than you might think.  You’re not the only one looking for that elusive town.  There are genealogists and historians who have taken the time to search out some of these changes.  Examples are found in many places.  If you have New York ancestors, try GenWeb’s “Changes in Names of New York State Towns.”  For city and town changes in your ancestor’s county, check historic gazetteers, usually found in the county historical society or county library.   Watch out, though.  Your ancestor’s elusive town may not have changed its name, it may be that the county lines changed around it over time and you’re just looking in the wrong county. Use early local maps, gazetteers, or Thornton & Dollarhide’s Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920 for those changing county and state lines.

Changing Streets?  Street name changes are some of the most common.  Street names  changed as towns grew or were merged, or someone was honored in the town.  Big cities see lots of changes.  For early street changes you may have to do  a little detective work.  Use early maps to find the original street you are looking for. Many are online at the Library of Congress website, including some overseas maps.  Compare those with your favorite online mapping website.  Some streets are just gone to make way for freeways or parks.

Still having trouble?  City directories are your best bet.  Often a city directory will have listings of where the streets were during that time, with associated cross-streets.  Use these to pinpoint the streets you are looking for.  Once, when looking for a client’s ancestor who lived in Baltimore in 1819, I found that he lived on South Eutaw Street “near the brickyards.”  It took a bit of digging in city directories and newspapers to find brickyards in that area (advertisements were very helpful from both).  With the help of an early map of Baltimore by Poppleton in 1822, I narrowed down the area to the blocks on South Eutaw between Camden and Conway Streets.  With a chuckle, I informed my clients that if they’d like to visit the area the ancestor lived in, they should try left field, Camden Yards!  Just another example of how changing cities can be.

Changing House Numbers?  Sometimes specific addresses are given in our ancestor’s records (deeds, obituaries, military pensions, later censuses), and knowing who else is in that house or in the area can be helpful to our search.  Again, city directories are a big help here.  The Boyd’s 1869 city directory for Washington D.C. is quoted as saying:

“Many of our streets need renumbering, especially 7th, 9th, and F streets, and Pennsylvania and New York avenues.  There are squares having duplicate numbers, and in some cases triplicate numbers.  In fact, the whole city ought to be renumbered.”

City directories are found in county historical societies, state archives, libraries, and on microfilm.  Before you take a trip, though, try your luck online.  I like the ConnerGenealogy website on Baltimore city directories, especially the downloadable pdf of the pages from the 1887 Baltimore City Directory detailing the numbering changes in the city that had happened in 1886.  The site also addresses Baltimore’s street name changes.  Perhaps someone has done similar work on your ancestor’s area?

Changing Our Perspective.  Looking for changing geography, town names, and house numbers can often lead to researching even more carefully the area where our ancestor lived.  This in-depth style searching may open up your perspective into a closer-to-life idea of type of life your ancestor really lived.  “Seeing” his or her neighborhood is a little like seeing back in history and appreciating the struggles or advantages they had in their community.  Take some time to turn back the clock.

RT’s Head Genealogist, full of useful advice

Genealogy podcast

Reel Tributes’ Head Genealogist, Rebecca Whitman Koford, was recently a Featured Guest on The Genealogy Professional Podcast.

One terrific piece of advice:  “Enjoy the journey.”

You can listen to the full interview here: http://www.TheGenealogyProfessional.com/rebecca-koford

Enjoy!

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!