Ancestry Blog » Site The official blog of Ancestry Wed, 01 Apr 2015 08:07:49 +0000 en-US hourly 1 ABC’s of Commonly Used Nicknames (A-C) Tue, 31 Mar 2015 17:14:19 +0000 Jessica Murray Read more]]> Abc LetterIf you’ve spent a significant amount of time researching your family history, you’ve probably run into many of your ancestors referred to with a nickname in records, including censuses.

Being familiar with nicknames that your ancestor may have used could help you overcome that “brick wall.” It can also prevent the frustration of discovering that that “other” person is actually someone you’ve already identified in your tree.

Keep in mind that some nicknames may have been common in the region where your ancestor came from, and there are many nicknames not commonly-used today that were widely used by our ancestors.

Over the coming weeks, we’ll be breaking down first names for men and women and offering some respective nicknames. Hopefully, this will be helpful to you as you come across variant names in your family history research,

A – Female 
AbigailNabby, Abby, Gail, Gubby
Adaline/AdelineAddy, Ada, Dell, Lena
AdelaideAdele, Addy, Della, Heidi
AdeleDell, Addy
AgnesAggy, Inez, Nessa
AileenAllie, Lena
AlbertaAllie, Bert, Bertie
AlexandraAlex, Alla, Sandy
AlfredaAlfy, Freda, Frieda, Freddy
AliceAllie, Elsie, Lisa
AmandaManda, Mandy
AmeliaEmily, Mel, Millie
Ann/AnneAnnie, Nan, Nana, Nanny, Nancy
Antoinette/AntoniaNette, Tony, Netta, Ann
Arabella/ArabelleAra, Arry, Belle, Bella
ArleneArly, Lena
ArmenaArry, Mena
ArmintaArry, Minta
Augusta/AugustinaAggy, Tina, Gatsy, Gussie, Tina
A – Male
AaronErin, Ron, Ronnie
AbelAb, Abe, Ed, Ebbie
Abraham, AbramAbe
AdamAd, Ade
AdelbertAd, Ade, Albert, Bert, Elbert
Adolph/AdolphusAd, Olph, Dolph
AlbertAl, Bert, Elbert
AldrichAl, Rich, Richie
AlexanderAl, Alex, Sandy
AlfredAl, Fred
AlonzoAl, Lon, Lonzo
AndersonAnder, Andy, Sonny
AndrewAndy, Drew
AugustAuggie, Gus
B – Female
BarbaraBab, Babs, Barby, Barbie, Bobbie
BeatriceBea, Trix, Trixie, Trisha
BelindaBelle, Linda
BerthaBirdie, Bert, Bertie
BethanyBeth, Theny
BridgetBiddie, Biddy, Bridie
B – Male
BarnabasBarney, Berney
BartholomewBart, Bartel, Bat, Mees
BenedictBen, Bennie
BenjaminBen, Benjy, Bennie
BernardBarney, Berney
BradfordBrad, Brady, Ford
BroderickBrady, Brody, Ricky
BronsonBron, Sonny
C – Female
CamilleCammie, Cammy, Millie
Carol/Caroline/CarolynCallie, Carol, Carrie, Cassie, Lynn, Caddie
CassandraCassie, Sandra, Sandy
Catherine/CathleenCassie, Cathy, Katie, Kay, Kit, Kittie, Kitty, Trina, Rina
CeciliaCelia, Cissy
CharlotteChar, Lotta, Lottie, Lotty
Christine/ChristinaChris, Crissy, Christy, Tina
ClarissaClara, Cissy
CordeliaCordy, Delia
CorneliaCorny, Nelle, Nelly
C – Male
CalvinCal, Vin, Vinny
CameronCam, Ron, Ronny
CedricCed, Rick
CharlesCarl, Charlie, Chick, Chuck
ChesterChes, Chess, Chet
Christopher/Chris/ChristianChris, Kit
ClarenceClair, Clare
CliffordCliff, Ford
CliftonCliff, Tony
CourtneyCourt, Curt
CorneliusCon, Conny, Neil

What common or uncommon nicknames have you found in your family history research?


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WDYTYA Recap: Sean Hayes Finds Order in Petty Session Court Records Mon, 30 Mar 2015 13:39:36 +0000 Ancestry Team Read more]]> Sean Hayes

Trouble seemed to follow Sean Hayes’ ancestors down generations and even over an ocean. But trouble, especially when it led to clashes with the law, became a lynchpin in uncovering Sean’s story.

Researching ancestors in Ireland has always required some creativity due to the loss of 19th-century census returns. Censuses are a staple in U.S. research, and researching families in Ireland without them can be a challenge. But it can also lead to the discovery of some very fascinating alternative records. One of these is the Petty Sessions Court records.

The Petty Sessions Courts were organized in Ireland in the 1820s, but most areas don’t have records available until about the 1850s. Most court districts have records available between the 1840s or 1850s and 1913. These courts were held on the local level and mainly dealt with minor crimes and squabbles between individuals within the court district.

Sean Hayes’s great-great grandfather Patrick Hayes lived in County Kerry, Ireland, between 1842 and 1923. Typically, records available for Patrick would include baptism, marriage, death, and perhaps a few taxation records. However, with the Petty Sessions Court records, we were able to locate Patrick in more than 100 additional contemporary records! These records told about his life in Ballylongford as a boatman and gave us loads of personal detail about his life that basic birth, marriage, and death records don’t generally contain.

For example, after the death of his first wife, Patrick Hayes’s appearances in court increased dramatically. It seems he was greatly affected by the loss of his wife and may have responded by getting himself into trouble. Patrick remarried about seven years after his first wife died. The Petty Sessions Court records show Patrick filing assault charges against two of his young adult children around the time Patrick remarried. Is it possible that the fighting had something to do with their soon-to-be stepmother?

Sean Hayes_1

For Sean Hayes, the Petty Sessions Court records brought his ancestors to life by providing unexpected and stark details about their day-to-day interactions with each other and their community. Petty Sessions Court records have the potential to help anyone researching in Ireland to find exciting and colorful details about their ancestors’ lives—whether trouble dogged their footsteps or not.

Tips from AncestryProGenealogists:

When researching in the Petty Sessions Court records, it’s helpful to keep the following things in mind:

  • It’s important to first know the specific location or townland where your ancestor lived. Due to the commonality of both given names and surnames in Ireland, you’ll need a specific town or townland to be able to differentiate your ancestor from everyone else. For example, there were over 300 entries in the Petty Sessions Court records for men named Patrick Hayes just in County Kerry. Knowing he was from Ballylongford was essential in narrowing down which entries pertained to Sean’s ancestor.
  • If it is difficult to narrow down which results pertain to your ancestor, it may be helpful to research extended family members, such as siblings or cousins. Maybe a sibling will have a less common given name than your direct ancestor and can be identified in records more easily.

Learn more about Sean’s journey or watch episode recaps from previous seasons on Watch more celebrities discover their family history on all-new episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? Sundays 10|9c on TLC.

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Women Soldiers in the Civil War: How Did They Get Away With It? Thu, 26 Mar 2015 14:00:05 +0000 Becky Hepinstall Read more]]> Elizabeth Finnern’s gravestone sits in a tranquil cemetery in Indiana. Just a simple stone, marking a quiet spot where a husband and wife rest for eternity. But there is something quite unique about this particular headstone – the last line: “Both members of Co. D. 81 Reg. O.V.I.” and underneath, the explanation: “She served in male attire untill (sic) her sex was detected when she was detailed as a nurse serving 3 years.”

Elizabeth Finnern, who rests with her husband, John, was one of the hundreds of courageous women who fought disguised as men during the Civil War.  But wouldn’t a woman like her have given herself away? Could a woman, no matter how sly and clever, really pass as a male soldier?

My sister, Kathy, and I were fascinated to learn about some of these women during the course of our research for our novel, Sisters of Shiloh, which is about two sisters who disguise themselves as men and enlist as soldiers in the Civil War. As we crafted our characters and placed them in scenes of camp life with other soldiers, we needed to find out how these women were able to pull off their deceit.


Frances Clalin Clayton

To our 21st century minds, the idea that a woman could pretend to be a man and live among them as a fellow soldier – sharing tents with them, eating with them, fighting together – and not be discovered seems ridiculous. Take a glance at the photo of Frances Clayton. You’re probably thinking to yourself “Sure, she’s not the most feminine lady, but I can tell that’s a woman.”

While it might be harder for us to be fooled today, during that era the customs of the times and the Victorian mindset in general helped these women in their deceptions. In broad terms, to a nineteenth century man, if you wore pants, you must also be a man. Now, that is not to say that there may have been times when a farm girl might wear her brother’s trousers to do manual labor or some other task in private, but even that would have been rare, and in public, women wore long skirts. Once a woman bound her breasts, cut her hair and donned the often oversized and ill-fitting uniforms of the day, the ruse was easier to pull off.

But most of these determined women knew that cutting their hair and donning men’s clothing would only take them so far. Many of them practiced their pretense – working to lower their voices, adjusting their walk, and taking up “manly” habits like swearing, spitting, tobacco-chewing and card playing.

They didn’t have to worry much about being in close quarters with the other men – soldiers often went for months without changing clothes, even sleeping in their boots and coats. They bathed just as infrequently, and people of this time were generally more private, so not bathing in a group would not have aroused suspicion. The camp latrines were filthy and spread disease, and were avoided by many, so answering the call of nature privately in the woods would not have seemed odd.

Getting into the army was not difficult either. Before 1872, the medical examinations required to join the army did not involve the removal of clothing, so this aided in their ability to fool the military doctors. Southern Army recruits were so desperately needed that as long as one appeared generally healthy, had enough teeth to tear a cartridge, enough strength to hoist a gun, and enough fingers to pull a trigger, they were welcomed with open arms.

There are many accounts from male soldiers who suspected something was “off” about one of these effeminate looking soldiers but just couldn’t figure out what it was. The fact that these women didn’t shave was glossed over as being due to the fact that they must be younger teenaged boys. Even though there were official age requirements in both armies, they were rarely enforced and children as young as ten were allowed to participate as drummer-boys. It is unconscionable for us to imagine allowing children or young teenagers on a battlefield today, but it was common in that era.

For every Jennie Hodgers, who served undetected as Pvt. Albert Cashier for a full three-year enlistment (and went on to live in the guise of a man for the remainder of her life), there were others who only got away with it for a short time. Sarah Collins of Wisconsin was found out because of the “unmanly” way she had been seen putting on her socks and shoes. Sarah Bradbury and Ella Reno, both serving under General Phillip Sheridan but whose true identities were known only to each other, managed to find some applejack brandy and, after imbibing way too much, fell into a river and nearly drowned. They were revealed to be women by the soldiers who pulled them from the water, and were hastily dismissed from the army. Mary Smith was relieved of duty after drawing suspicion because of the way she wrung out a dish cloth. Another woman was initially noticed because of her fair complexion and small hands. And Mary Catherine Murphy was called out because of her laugh.

Elizabeth Finnern, Mary Brown and Satronia Smith were detected while in the ranks, but were not immediately dismissed and were allowed to stay and serve as nurses. All had enlisted with their husbands. Once discovered, some women were allowed to stay and serve as medical aides, laundresses or clerks. Others refused to give up soldiering and enlisted in other regiments after being exposed and dismissed, as in the wonderful case of Lizzie Compton, who was so determined to fight that she joined the army seven different times!


From Chalmette, Louisiana, Chalmette National Cemetery, 1864-2003 on Ancestry

Many were only discovered after being wounded, as was the case with Mary Owens, Frances Day, Frances Hook, Mary Galloway and Catherine Davidson. Others suffered from the contagions that accompanied army life and were revealed while seeking medical care. Sarah Rosetta Wakeman served for almost two years in the New York infantry before contracting a debilitating intestinal ailment that led to her death in 1864. But despite being in a hospital for more than a month before her death, it does not appear that her sex was ever detected and her grave was marked with the name of her alias, Private Lyons Wakeman. (You can read more about Sarah in this Ancestry blog post.)

Our principle characters in Sisters of Shiloh, Libby and Josephine, did not really live, but their characters are woven from the details of these real women who traded in their skirts for dirty uniforms and swapped out their cooking spoons for bayonets. The fact that the actual female soldiers felt passionate enough about their causes that they were willing to go to war and fight is amazing all by itself. But the fact that they had to hide their true natures in order to do it makes their feats even more astonishing.

It was courageous blood that coursed through their veins. Do you share it?

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The Legend of Harvey Setzer Tue, 24 Mar 2015 13:00:49 +0000 Ancestry Team Read more]]> By Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Paul Rawlins, Editorial Manager at Ancestry

My grandfather’s sister, Lillian Wilson, married a man by the name of Harvey G. Setzer in Weippe, Idaho, Shoshone County, on July 3, 1890. Harvey was a miner and contracted consumption. The doctor prescribed a warmer, drier climate so they moved to Valle Vista, San Diego, California, in November 1890. He died there in January 1891.  My grandfather also told me that Harvey drove a wagon in 1885 carrying five Chinese men accused of murder to the federal court in Walla Walla, Washington. Vigilantes waylaid them and hanged the prisoners.

I have searched for anything that could give me more information on Harvey G. Setzer but have hit a wall at every turn. Do you have any suggestions where to look?  —Jeannie


Dear Jeannie,

Every search for our unknown ancestors always begins by confirming facts that a person believes to be true about their known ancestors.  You would be amazed at how many simple “facts” a family has passed down through stories repeated at the dinner table and family gatherings turn out not to be exact in their details, having become elaborated on over time, like a game of “Telephone” that we all played as children.  So we start this exciting process by carefully examining documents such as birth certificates, death records, etc., which can contain even more details about your ancestors and can provide clues to finding the ancestors you didn’t know you have. In your case, we started with Harvey and Lillian’s marriage. Here they are in the Idaho Marriage Index.

Huff Po_1

The actual marriage record doesn’t tell us much more about Harvey or his wife, Lillian, so next we turned to U.S. census records.

Since the 1890 census was largely destroyed, we started our search for Harvey in the 1880 census. He doesn’t have a very common name, and, fortunately for your quest, only one Harvey Setzer surfaced in the entire database: a single man, age 25, living in Leadville, Colorado, working as a miner, just as you believed your ancestor did! This was a very good sign.

Huff Po_2

Harvey Setzer on the 1880 federal census at Ancestry

A search of city directories also turned up a Harvey G. Setzer—confirming the middle initial you gave us—in Leadville, working as a miner in 1880. So it’s looking like a good fit.

Huff Po_3

The 1880 census provides another clue as well: this Harvey Setzer was born in Missouri. We didn’t find Harvey in the 1870 census, but he’s there in 1860 with a whole family of Setzers living in Gentry, Missouri. (William Setzer, the head of household, appears on the prior page.)

Huff Po_5

The William Setzer family on the 1860 federal census at Ancestry

There’s only one hitch: our 1880 Harvey claimed on the census that his parents, William and Elizabeth, were born in Maine, but the parents listed on the 1860 census said they were born in Kentucky. Knowing that the image of the 1880 census we’re looking at is actually a copy made from another handwritten document, there is always a possibility that MO or another abbreviation was mistranscribed as Maine.  Since so many other things that you told us about Harvey had been proven so far, we decided to keep following this trail.

Based on the children’s birthplaces on the 1860 census, the Setzer family appears to have been living in Kentucky in 1850, so we searched for Harvey’s parents, W. L. and Elizabeth, in the 1850 census. And we found them with their oldest daughter, Catherine, along with an unnamed infant. But William and Elizabeth still report being born in Kentucky. The “Maine” in the 1880 census is looking more like a mistake. (Remember, census takers were only human, and were often overworked and underpaid, so mistakes did happen, for a whole slew of reasons. When you are convinced that the trail is warm, press on!)

Next we wanted to find a record of Elizabeth and William’s marriage. Based on their oldest child’s age in the 1850 census, it may have taken place around 1847 in Kentucky. In the 1850 census, William and Elizabeth are living in Hardin County, Kentucky, which was a lucky break because Hardin County’s marriage records are online. And in those records, we found one for a William L. Setzer (son of John) and an Elizabeth Holloway, married 26 November 1846. As a side note, a 66-year-old John and 67-year-old Ruth Setzer were living with the family on the 1860 census, so they should be William’s parents.  So now, through this one record, you have learned Elizabeth’s maiden name (Holloway) and her father’s name (George). If the Missouri connection pans out, you can take Harvey’s family back another full generation!

From here, we wanted to see if we could find when Harvey made the move to Idaho. Incredibly, we found your ancestor’s name in a history of the early settlers in northern Idaho! And it puts him in Idaho before 1885. Ellen H. Richards, in her book entitled An Illustrated History of North Idaho: Embracing Nez Perces, Idaho, Latah, Kootenai and Shoshone Counties, State of Idaho, says the following about your great-uncle:

The first permanent settler in the Weippe section, it is said, was Wellington Landon, who took up his abode on the present town site of Weippe October 6, 1875. … In 1879 Patrick Gaffney settled with his family on land contiguous to the Landon place, and later came Harvey Setzer, William Gamble, Levi Goodwin and a family named French. These were the only inhabitants of this rich grazing section until after the country was surveyed in 1884, when a small addition to their numbers was attracted to the legion.

This puts Harvey in the right place at the right time for the dreadful lynching story to be true.  We were eager to see if this was so.  And it turns out that this horrible event actually did occur.

Huff Po_6

Newspapers as far away as the Atlanta Constitution (26 September 1885, shown above) reported on this unwarranted attack on the victims, including a wealthy businessman, which took place in late September of that year.  But our best lead came from Bernice Pullen at the Clearwater Historical Museum, who sent us a passage from And Five Were Hanged by Layne Gellner Spencer. It tells the story much as you heard it, and while Harvey isn’t mentioned by name, Gellner does provide details you can use to search for more information in additional newspapers. Or you might visit the Idaho State Historical Society and the Shoshone County Courthouse and examine county court records or the minute books of county commissioners for details about this gruesome incident.

Now, what about Harvey’s death?  We had no luck finding a record of Harvey’s death…in the State of California. But he wasn’t forgotten back home. The 22 January 1892 issue of the Albany Ledger, a Missouri paper, included a notice reporting that Harvey had died in Vista, California, on about 18 January 1892 (not 1891).

Huff Po_7

In addition, the notice reports that Harvey was survived by his sister-in-law, Mrs. Jennie Setzer. We know from census records that Jennie married Harvey’s brother Palser (or Palmer). Therefore, this is the proof we were seeking at the beginning of our search, confirming that the Missouri Setzers are, in fact, Harvey’s family!  Sometimes the most valuable clues are buried in the smallest and least obvious places.

For more details on the lynchings, you could search in newspapers and obtain a copy of Gellner’s book. You might continue your search for details about Harvey’s last days and his death by looking for sanitariums in or around San Diego County, since Harvey had tuberculosis. You could also try putting in a “grave request” on the “Find A Grave” website, in case anybody happens across his headstone. And, with all you now know about Harvey’s family, you can start working further back in time on both his parents’ lines, uncovering more ancestors on both his mother’s and his father’s family trees. We happen to know that William’s parents’ 1819 marriage appears in the Hardin County records as well, complete with Ruth’s maiden name (Harris) and father’s name (Samuel).  We think that you will find a wealth of detail about Harvey’s fascinating family, if you decide to continue your search.

We hope that the details we’ve found put you a few steps closer to finding Harvey—and proving whether or not your family’s legend that he was driving that wagon is true.

Do you have a mystery in your own family tree?  Or have you wondered what family history discoveries you could make with a DNA test? Send Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and his team of Ancestry experts your question at


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Who Do You Think You Are? Recap: What’s in a Name? Mon, 23 Mar 2015 14:04:30 +0000 Ancestry Team Read more]]> We like to think Shakespeare was channeling his inner family historian when he penned the famous line “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Talk to any expert genealogist and they will tell you that relying on an ancestor’s name alone can be a mistake.Angie Harmon_1

It can be a tough thing to wrap your head around name variations because the times we live in are so different than they were 100+ years ago. The first American dictionary wasn’t published until 1828, and estimates for 1905 state that even then 20 percent of American adults couldn’t read or write. Literacy rates in the U.S. today are believed to be near universal, hence our belief in standardized spelling. The much quoted (and difficult to attribute) phrase “a man must be a great fool who can’t spell a word more than one way” reflects an era very different from ours.

Angie Harmon’s family history journey began with her 5th great-grandfather Michael Harman, and the spelling of his last name with an “a” instead of an “o” quickly caught her eye. The fascinating story of Michael Harman’s indentured servitude, Revolutionary War service, and family life resonated deeply with Angie’s love of big families, resilience, and patriotism. Despite his name being slightly different from hers, she instantly connected with the big risks that defined Michael Harman’s life—there was something about him that transcended his name.

Angie Harmon_2Those gut feelings can be good guides, as the name Michael Harman, interestingly enough, turned out to be a very common one in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, during the Colonial period. The story of Angie’s 5th great-grandfather had to be very carefully pieced together, as since his name wasn’t going to be enough to identify him. Two characteristics helped us find him: his occupation, and his signature.

Michael’s record of indenture states he was to serve John Houts, a tanner. Later records of Michael’s life show he continued to work as a tanner, later owning his own tanning yard. His occupation became a way of identifying him beyond his name.

The other unique identifier for Michael was his signature. His “mark” is pointed out twice in the episode, showing he likely could not read or write.  However,Angie_Harmon3 Angie_Harmon4 we noticed how unique his mark was: more of a lower case “t” or slanted “x” with a long tail or “o”. Other deeds and probate records showed the same pattern.

Using his unique “signature,” in addition to age, place, and family member names, helped us build the case that we had the right guy. While initially daunting, taking the time to understand the nuances, quirks, and characteristics of a person is how you will get to know them—because they were and are ultimately more than just a name.

Tips from Ancestry ProGenealogists        

Running into an ancestor with a common name is more a matter of “when” than “if.” When sifting through a group of people with the same name, here are some tips:

  • Create timelines for each person with the same name, collect documents and information about them, and closely track unique information: age, place of birth, residence or address, occupation, and names of family members. In learning as much as you can about your ancestor and his associations, it will be easier to distinguish him from other people with the same name.
  • Pay attention to handwriting. If a document is especially difficult to read, create a chart of list of the scribe’s alphabet. How are similar letters like i and j or u, r, v, n, and m different? Having a list of “rules” will make smudged or rushed entries more manageable.
  • Having a broader understanding of the community your ancestor lived in will help you identify larger trends, like whether or not a name or occupation is common or unusual. Adding local contextual history to your timeline helps bring your ancestor’s story to life

Learn more about Angie’s journey or watch the full episode on Watch more celebrities discover their family history on all-new episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? Sundays 10|9c on TLC.

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Become Fluent in Irish Slang Thu, 12 Mar 2015 14:08:19 +0000 Jessica Murray Read more]]> Irish FlagWith St. Patrick’s Day just around the corner, most hometown St. Patrick’s Day parades and festivals will kick off this weekend. If you’re looking to beef up on your Irish slang, look no further than our list of words used throughout Ireland and their meanings.

Bad dosebad illness
Bag of taytosbag of potato chips
Belthit or assault
Be widebe careful
Birdgirl or girlfriend
Blackguardperson that is up to no good
Black StuffGuinness
Bloodyused for emphasizing an adjective
Bucketingraining heavily
Carry-onargument or noise
Chipperfish and chips restaurant
Donkey’s Yearsa long time
Fryfried breakfast
Grandfine or lovely
Hump offgo away or leave me alone
Ice LollyPopsicle
Jadedfatigued or very tired
Jammersvery busy
Off your nutcrazy
Ole Ladymother
Ole Manfather
Pollutedvery drunk
Pull your socks upGet to work or get busy
Rashersbacon slices
Snogto make out or kiss
Snugpub booth
Soundreally nice
Twistedvery drunk
Up to ninetynear boiling point
Wet the teamake tea

And if showing off your new Irish vocabulary isn’t enough, learn the origin of the saying “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” here and download your festive St. Patrick’s Day badges to brag about your Irish heritage on social media.

Share a creative sentence in the comments below using one or more of these Irish slang words. Ready, Set, Go!

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Plan Ahead: Protect Your Genealogy from Disaster Wed, 11 Mar 2015 13:00:06 +0000 Denise May Levenick Read more]]> With spring floods and hurricane season just around the corner, a recent episode of Genealogy Roadshow shared a story with a timely reminder for “genealogy preparedness.”  New Orleans resident Andrew Sentilles came to the the New Orleans Board of Trade Episode of the PBS Genealogy Roadshows how looking for help to recreate the family history he lost when photos and documents were swept away by Hurricane Katrina.

Josh Taylor with Andrew Sentilles and family on the 
New Orleans Episode of PBS Genealogy Roadshow

Josh Taylor with Andrew Sentilles and family on the 
New Orleans Episode of PBS Genealogy Roadshow

Genealogist Josh Taylor showed how local archives can help recreate those lost family records using rich resources such as family Bible collections, personal journals, scrapbooks, and ephemera. The Genealogy Roadshow researchers were able to assemble a far-reaching family history for Sentilles, who came away from the experience vowing to put copies of the family history in “everybody’s hands and we won’t be losing it in any storm ever again!”

Like many genealogists who have learned about disaster recovery the hard way, Sentilles has heard the chants “Backup your Data” and “Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe.” Unfortunately, so many families lose treasured photos, documents, and keepsakes every year to disasters of all kinds. I live in Southern California where wildfires are a threat, but you may live where tornadoes, hurricanes, or floods are a worry. Anyone who lives in a house or apartment is at risk for damage and loss to their personal collections from a house fire or burst plumbing.

Thousands of New Orleans families lost everything to Hurricane Katrina.

Thousands of New Orleans families lost everything to Hurricane Katrina.

Tips to Safeguard  Your Home Archive

When you look for a location to store your family keepsakes, think about potential hazards and steer clear of danger areas:

  • Avoid garages, basements, and attics
  • Keep away from plumbing and electrical wiring, either exposed or hidden inside the walls
  • Keep storage boxes on raised shelving off the ground
  • Keep treasures away from windows, doors and fireplaces
  • Avoid heating and air conditioning vents

Backup 3 – 2 -1

Andrew Sentilles has the right idea — make lots of digital copies and give them to everyone! Don’t keep all your genealogy data and priceless heirlooms in one place. The Backup 3 – 2 – 1 strategy is a good one:

  • 3 copies
  • 2 different media (DVDs and external hard drives or cloud storage)
  • 1 copy offsite (in the cloud, at your office, or with a relative)

Multiple copies give your photos and documents a better chance to survive disaster. After you’ve made those digital copies, save the originals in archival storage in your BEST archival storage location. And, sleep better when the wind tears through the trees knowing that you have digital copies in the Cloud, with your cousins, and on an external hard drive at your office.

Safeguard Family Heirlooms

Digital images of photographs, family letters, and treasured heirlooms will never fully replace a lost keepsake, but pictures and stories can preserve the memories of a special piece of furniture, a quilt, or a framed photograph. Take time to document the family heirlooms in your home and write down the provenance and significance of the items. You might create a simple Family Keepsake album with photos and stories that can be printed or shared as a digital slideshow, or you might want to upload images to a family website or blog. Read my article Before the The Pirate Toy Chest Became an Heirloom for ideas on researching and recording the story of a family treasure.

After you’ve assembled your heirloom history, share it widely with family, friends, and other researchers. Consider uploading images and stories to genealogy sites such as or to the online heirloom history site The Heirloom Registry.

When Disaster Strikes

Safety first! If your home is hit by fire, flood, or other disaster, focus on safeguarding personal and family safety. When it’s safe to turn your attention to family treasures, keep in mind a few basic tips:

  • Water-logged or fire-damaged items can pose health hazards; you may need plastic gloves, air filter masks, or other protection.
  • Inspect archival storage for damage. If container lids have come open, the contents may be wet and damaged. Remove wet photos and documents and freeze or air dry within 48 hours.
  • Wet wooden furniture, textiles, metal clocks or instruments will need air drying. Remove photos from frames if possible and dry.
  • Collect loose items and store temporarily.

To freeze wet paper or photographs for later drying, place a sheet of regular kitchen wax paper between wet photos to keep them from sticking together, place the stacked items inside zipper type plastic bags, and freeze until you have time to defrost and air dry.

If your electricity and freezer are not working, air dry photos flat on a clean sheet or hanging from a line with clothespins. Air circulation will help items to dry faster.

Don’t despair. Professional conservators can often salvage or repair items. Consult the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) for experts in your state or county.

Plan Ahead

A regular computer backup plan is a good first step to safeguard your genealogy research and images, but remember to include family photos and memorabilia in your disaster preparedness plan. Think about the items that are most precious to you and your family — granddad’s pocket watch, a handmade lace tablecloth from the old country, or a family Bible. Know how to locate your treasures quickly so that you can take them with you if you are evacuated from your home, and share digital images and stories to preserve your family legacy.

Photos: PBS Genealogy Roadshow

Denise May Levenick is the author of How to Archive Family Keepsakes: Learn How to Preserve Family Photos, Memorabilia & Genealogy Records, and the new book How to Archive Family Photos (coming Spring 2015). For more ideas on preserving your family treasures, visit Denise’s

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Was Your Great-Great-Grandmother a Civil War Soldier? Tue, 10 Mar 2015 13:00:07 +0000 Becky Hepinstall Read more]]> Sarah Edmonds, as Frank Thompson (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Sarah Edmonds, as Frank Thompson (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

It’s an old daguerreotype, faded now with time and passed down through many generations. A sweet-faced young woman looks back at you, her mouth upturned gently and eyes seeming to look into yours. It’s the face of your great-great-grandmother, who lived through the Civil War. Perhaps you’ve wondered how she coped when her husband, brother, father, suitor or fiancé left for the the war? What was life like for her when the soldiers marched away?

But have you ever considered that maybe she didn’t stay behind. What if you have another Civil War soldier in your family – and it was a woman? There are more than 400 documented cases of women who served, not to mention countless others whose deeds were never recorded or were lost.

These female warriors were no shrinking violets, wilting magnolias, hot-house lilies or any other euphemism for genteel ladies of the era. These women were fierce.

Twelve years ago, my sister, Kathy, and I set out to learn more about the real women who fought, and weave some of the threads of their true stories into a fictional account about two sisters who disguise themselves as men and join the Stonewall Brigade. (Our novel, Sisters of Shiloh, was recently released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.) These female soldiers fascinated us. What would cause a woman, particularly of that era, to essentially turn away from her womanly instincts and choose to participate in such a bloody, brutal conflict?

The existence of these female soldiers was occasionally acknowledged by both armies, during and after the war. But it was often assumed that they were either mentally imbalanced or must have been prostitutes or “loose women.” The truth was far from it. The men that fought on both sides of this war did so for a variety of reasons, and the same was true of the women. Some followed a loved one, some dreamed of adventure, some sought vengeance, some needed the pay, and some felt it was their patriotic duty.

In our novel, Sisters of Shiloh, one of our main characters, Libby, finds her husband dead on the Antietam battlefield and vows to avenge his death. She decides that the lives of 21 Union soldiers must be taken to represent each year of his too-short life. This may seem far-fetched for a refined lady of the time, but this detail was taken directly from the case of Charlotte Hope, whose fiancé had been killed in a Union raid in 1861. She joined the 1st Virginia Cavalry and vowed to shoot 21 Union soldiers – one for each year of his life.

Many of the women who served dressed as men are merely anonymous footnotes to history; they are either mentioned in passing in a letter home, or the discovery of their bodies on the battlefield is alluded to in a battlefield report. Luckily, there are still scores of women who bravely fought and whose names were recorded. Many who survived the war and went on to marry and have families. Their descendants live among us.

Catherine E. Davidson fought with the 28th Ohio Infantry in the battle of Antietam. She was shot in the right arm during that grisly fight and was carried to an ambulance wagon by Andrew Gregg Curtain, the Governor of Pennsylvania. She believed herself to be mortally wounded, and gave Curtain her ring, with her initials carved inside, to thank him for assisting her. Her arm was amputated between her shoulder and elbow and her secret was revealed, so she was dismissed from the Army. A short time later, she visited the Governor in the parlor of the Continental Hotel in Philadelphia, and rushed to him to thank him for helping her on the battlefield. Of course he was surprised, as he had not been aware that the soldier he had helped was a woman. She showed him her initials in the ring she had given him, which he was still wearing. When he tried to return it to her, she refused, telling him that, “The finger that used to wear that ring will never wear it any more. The hand is dead, but the soldier still lives.”

Mary Galloway was also at the battle of Antietam. She had fallen in love with a young Union officer named Henry Barnard that autumn and couldn’t bear to see him march away. She donned a uniform, cut her hair short and followed the army, trying to find Henry’s regiment. She had not yet found him when the battle began and she was struck in the neck by a bullet. She lay wounded on the battlefield for more than a day, refusing to let the male medical attendants examine her. Clara Barton, who would become famous as a nurse during the war, attended her. Mary divulged her secret to Clara, along with her despair over not knowing Henry’s fate. Clara convinced Mary to reveal herself to the surgeon and get medical attention for her wound. Later, while tending to other wounded soldiers in the hospital, Clara Barton came across a young soldier suffering the ravages of a fever brought on by a gangrenous arm – he was calling for his beloved Mary. Clara Barton was able to find Mary Galloway and bring her to Henry’s bedside, where she comforted him through the amputation of his arm. Mary and Henry both left the army, were married, and had a daughter that they named Clara.

Sarah Emma Edmonds Seelye is one of the most well-known female soldiers from the Civil War (see her photo above). She was eager to fight for the Union and enlisted as a private under the alias of Franklin Thompson with the 2nd Michigan Infantry in 1861. She fought in many battles, including First and Second Manassas, Antietam and Fredericksburg, but contracted malaria in the spring of 1863. She feared that seeking treatment would betray her secret, so she slipped away from the army, which led to Franklin Thompson being charged with desertion. In July of 1884, after several of her former army comrades submitted affidavits on her behalf, an Act of Congress cleared her of the desertion charges and she was awarded a soldier’s pension. She was the only woman ever included in the Grand Army of the Republic. She married after the war and had three children.

Sarah Emmons Pension

Frances Clayton served in a Missouri artillery unit with her husband, Elmer. They fought side by side at the battle of Stones River in 1862, when her husband was killed directly in front of her. She did not dissolve into hysterics and throw herself upon him. Instead, she stepped over his body and continued the advance, firing her gun as she went. She did not reveal herself even then and continued to serve in the army until she was wounded in 1863 and discharged from the army.

Martha Parks Lindley could not bear to be separated from her husband, William. Leaving their two children in the care of her sister, she followed him into service under the name of Jim Smith. She served undetected in the army for three years before mustering out of service and returning to her children. Her husband survived the war and reunited with his family, and they had two more children.

My favorite account is of a woman who fought at Fredericksburg – a ferocious, grisly battle fought in freezing, snowy conditions. She engaged the enemy so bravely that she received a field promotion – and she was eight months pregnant! We know this because her Colonel, Elijah H. Cavins, wrote home to his wife one month later:

A corporal was promoted to sergeant for gallant conduct at the battle of Fredericksburgh [sic], since which time the sergeant has become the mother of a child.

And to top it all off, this woman had also been wounded in the shoulder at Antietam while in her second trimester – and still managed to keep the secret that she was actually a woman. Unfortunately, although her actions are famous, nowhere is her name recorded, nor do we know what happened to her or her baby. We do not know her motives for fighting, but to continue her fight even through pregnancy, she must have believed in her cause with the most extreme ardency.

These women listed here represent a small sample of the many brave women who risked their lives to serve their cause. Could one of them be your ancestor?

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Leaving a Legacy: Wilma Pearl Mankiller Sun, 08 Mar 2015 13:00:49 +0000 Jessica Murray Read more]]> Wilma Pearl Mankiller has a unique story and background, unlike any other woman featured in our Leaving a Legacy series.

Born  in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, Wilma Pearl Mankiller descended from a long line of full-blooded Cherokee Indians on her paternal side, and had Dutch and Irish ancestry on her maternal side.

Mankiller lived in Oklahoma through her teens, until her family moved to San Francisco. The move was part of a Bureau of Indian Affairs relocation policy, an effort to lure Native Americans off reservations to cities with the promise of work.  During college, Wilma served as coordinator of Indian programs for the Oakland public schools. It was around this time in her life, Mankiller became an advocate for Native Americans.

She married in 1963, while still living in San Francisco, had two daughters, and divorced in 1976. After the divorce, she and her daughters returned to Oklahoma where she later took on her role as economic development coordinator for the Cherokee Nation.

Her Impact on History

Mankiller’s involvement in Cherokee Nation grew and in 1983 she ran for deputy chief of the Cherokee Nation and won. In 1985, she was she was named the tribe’s principal chief, becoming the first woman to serve as chief of the Cherokee Nation.


During her tenure, Mankiller is credited with expanding social service programs for Cherokee people like healthcare and education. Mankiller received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contributions in 1998. Upon her passing, President Barack Obama had the following to say about her legacy:

“As the Cherokee Nation’s first female chief, she transformed the nation-to-nation relationship between the Cherokee Nation and the federal government, and served as an inspiration to women in Indian Country and across America. Her legacy will continue to encourage and motivate all who carry on her work.”  

Want more of Wilma Mankiller’s incredible life story? Pick up a copy of her autobiography Mankiller: A Chief and Her People.

Looking for additional Native American record collections?  Find rich and detailed records in these resources:

American Indian Records on Ancestry
Historical records from 570 tribes including census counts, land allotments, marriage certificates, citizenship documents and more.

Ancestry’s Native American Research Guide 

NARA guide to the Bureau of Indian Affairs records

Oklahoma Indian & Pioneer Historical Collection

Oklahoma Historical Society Image collections


Find our other notable women here,  


Elizabeth Blackwell


Sojourner Truth


Ada Lovelace


Hedy Lamarr


Madam C.J. Walker

Cornelia Fort


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Leaving a Legacy – Cornelia Clark Fort Fri, 06 Mar 2015 15:41:45 +0000 Jessica Murray Read more]]> Cornelia Clark Fort’s Life

“I am grateful that my one talent, flying, was useful to my country.” – Cornelia Fort

As the first American pilot to encounter the Japanese air fleet during the attack on Pearl Harbor, Cornelia Fort made history for women aviators across the globe.

Cornelia was born into an affluent family in Nashville, Tennessee,and discovered her passion for flying in 1940. After earning her pilot’s license in under a year, she became an instructor, which led her to Hawaii. On December 7, 1941, Fort was on a flight lesson with a student when she avoided a near mid-air collision with a Japanese plane. The bomber was one of those who attacked Pearl Harbor.

Less than a year later, Fort joined what became known as the Women’s Auxiliary Service Pilots (WASP) and was the first female pilot in American history to die on active duty.

We can easily trace Cornelia through Ancestry records from birth, her arrival in Hawaii to death,





Cornelia Fort was commemorated by Cornelia Fort Airpark near her family home in Nashville, Tennessee, until its closure in 2011.

Her Impact on History

“This is not a time when women should be patient.  We are in a war and we need to fight it with all our ability and ever weapon possible.  WOMEN PILOTS, in this particular case, are a weapon waiting to be used.”    - Eleanor Roosevelt, 1942

In the early 1940s, it was extremely rare for women to be pilots, let alone serve in the U.S. military, but upon entering World War II, women began flying

BT-13, Commonly Flown by Cornelia Fort

BT-13, Commonly flown by female pilots in WWII

non-combat missions in the military to allow men to serve on the front lines.

This was pivotal in women’s aviation history and Cornelia was among the first of WASP to serve her country.

Author Amy Nathan captured the stories of Cornelia and other female pilots of WWII in her book, Yankee Doodle Gals: Women Pilots of WWII published by National Geographic. You can hear Amy read an account of Cornelia’s December 7th experience here.

These women dedicated their lives to aviation and proudly served their country but were never truly honored for their sacrifices until 2009, when President Obama awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to Women Airforce Service Pilots.

To learn more about other female aviators who served during WWII, you can watch Amy share the fascinating history of women of WASP by tuning in to NonFictionMinute.

You can also learn about researching Ancestry’s WWII record collections here.

Find our other notable women here,  

Elizabeth Blackwell

Sojourner Truth

Ada Lovelace

Hedy Lamarr

Madam C.J. Walker


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