Ancestry Blog » Site The official blog of Ancestry Fri, 30 Jan 2015 14:28:21 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Resolutions: Organizing Your Genealogy Research in 2015 Mon, 26 Jan 2015 14:51:45 +0000 Ancestry Team Read more]]> This is a guest post by Denise May Levenick.

Did you turn your calendar to a new year and vow to get your genealogy papers and files organized in 2015? January is National Organizing Month, and a great time to review, revamp, and reorganize so you can spend your time looking for ancestors instead of misplaced papers and files. Here is a week’s worth of strategies to help you move forward in conquering the information deluge.

1. Clear Your DesktopCalendar 2015 In The Retro Style, Vintage Background

It can be hard to focus on the task at hand when your computer desktop is cluttered with files and folders. Instead of saving downloads and working projects to the desktop, create a folder for your current research session or project and park working files inside. If you typically download image files of census records and other information found on, save those files directly to the appropriate folder in your file system or to a Current Research folder on your desktop.

A Current Research folder can also act as a “holding zone” for files you need to enter in your genealogy database, transcribe, or analyze. Periodically, move files to their final location for easy access.

2. Rename Files with Meaningful Filenames

It’s easier to find and use image files when the filenames make sense. Rename files to a standard system, using whatever format and arrangement you prefer. Many researchers adopt a format of Who – When — What – Where. But within this style, there can be many variations. Your files will be easier to sort and use if you maintain a consistent style.

For instance, begin a filename with the surname followed by first name, followed by the date, event, and place:

  • marshburn-robert_1870_birthcert_ma-boston
  • orangewood-maryanne_1920_uscensus_co-denver

Decide if you will use spaces or hyphens and dashes to separate parts of the filename, such as name, date, event; and if you will use upper or lower case, or a combination of the two. My preferences include:

  • short filenames
  • only lower case letters
  • hyphens and dashes between parts of the filename
  • avoiding special characters such as <>/?:;,.{}!@#$%^&*().

You may prefer to use all upper case for surnames or more descriptive names, but aim for consistency in whatever style you use.

3. Create a Filenaming Cheat Sheet

If you work on your family history research sporadically, it can be hard to remember a specific filenaming system. Decide on a style you prefer, and create a custom Filenaming Cheat Sheet for easy reference. Type a few examples of typical filenames, print a few copies, and place one next to your computer and another with your travelling research materials. It’s a simple, yet helpful aid to keep your genealogy files and folders easy to find and use.

4. Organize the Paper Piles

Most genealogists aren’t quite ready to go completely paperless, yet we need a way to organize and access both paper and digital files. Manila file folders and three-ring-binders are traditional choices for storing paper files, organized by surname, family line, source type, locality, or another grouping. Files might also be arranged by ahnentafel number or an individual or family number assigned by a genealogy database program. Sometimes it’s helpful to use different organizing systems for different projects, such as binders for current work and file folders for loose papers yet to be analyzed and entered in a database.

One popular paper filing system adds color coding to help visually organize files. First developed by genealogist Mary E.V. Hill and known as The FamilyRoots Organizer Color-Coding System, this system has been widely copied and adopted by many family historians. Mary’s method uses colored file folders in a Family File Box to organize each family line. Each of your grandparents uses a different color so it’s easy to see where papers belong:

  • blue
  • green
  • red
  • yellow

The system is explained at Mary’s website, where you can also find information about her webinar and how to add matching color to your genealogy database.

If your current system isn’t working, try to determine where it’s broken and how to make it better. Maybe you need a paper Inbox on your desk to corral loose printouts and a timer at the end of the day as a reminder to file papers before you turn out the light. Try not to get distracted by the quest for the “perfect” genealogy filing system; instead, find a good fit for your workstyle and adapt the system to work for you.

5. Find an Organizing Buddy or Group

The Internet is a great place to find new ideas and connect with like-minded people. Whether you want to reorganize your paper files, de-clutter your hard drive, or master information overload, join other genealogists sharing ideas and successes. Discover family history groups on Pinterest, Google+, and Facebook, and become a regular reader of your favorite genealogy blogs.

Each December I meet up with a blogging buddy to review the past year and set new goals for the coming months. We talk about new ideas, commit our goals to paper, and check in periodically to cajole and encourage each other. So far it’s worked to push us toward more writing, researching, and organizing.

Social media sites like Facebook and Google+ boast active genealogy communities where it’s easy to interact with other family historians who might also struggle with getting, and staying, organized. If you’re new to these services, follow along (or “lurk”) for a while to learn the etiquette; then join in to share your thoughts and ask for ideas.

6. Commit Your Goals to Paper

You don’t have to share your organizing goals if you don’t want to, but you’re more likely to accomplish your objectives if you write them down. I’ve found it helps to keep my goals simple, do-able, and focused. For instance, the past few years I’ve set one goal in each of three areas:

  • writing
  • research
  • organizing

This gives me variety and options, without becoming overwhelming. Throughout the year, I try to set milestone goals toward completing the bigger objective. You may not think of yourself as a “writer,” but all researchers need to compile their work at some point – even if it’s making notes in a database program. Selecting two or three general subjects can help focus your thinking and clarify what you want to accomplish.

7. Make It a Habit

Becoming an organized genealogist takes time and repetition of routine tasks. Cheat sheets, reminders, and encouraging friends can help keep you on track until the day arrives when you don’t even have to think about your genealogy research workflow. The trick is to get started, and keep going.

Denise May Levenick is a family historian and writer with a passion for preserving and sharing family treasures of all kinds. She is the creator of the award-winning genealogy blog, and author of How to Archive Family Keepsakes (Family Tree Books, 2012) available at

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Tracking the Service of a World War I Veteran for our UK Branch Out Winner Sat, 24 Jan 2015 11:53:41 +0000 Brian Gallagher Read more]]>  


By Neil Holden, AncestryProGenealogists

Alan Small recently won our Branch Out Sweepstakes, and received 20 hours of research with AncestryProGenealogists. High on Alan’s list of interests were the experiences and movements of his grandfather, John James Collins, who served in the British military both before and during World War I. Our research provided detailed context for John’s service, and highlighted the value of a resource that is sometimes overlooked—military pension records.

John James Collins was born on 6 June 1876 in Walsall, Staffordshire, England, the son of Irish immigrants. He signed up for the British Army in 1895 and enlisted in the Royal Irish Regiment. He served through to 1908, and during that time was well-travelled. In 1898 John was stationed in Mhow, located in western India, then a part of the British Empire. He arrived shortly after Tirah Campaign, a military conflict against native tribes in northern India. However, John’s stay in Mhow was certainly not uneventful; in February 1900 a perilous fire broke out in the Commissariat stack-yard in Mhow, and the battalion took charge in putting it out. A regimental history states that the soldiers were commended for their “promptitude” and “zeal” in handling the danger.




John’s battalion was reassigned to South Africa in 1902 to assist with the ongoing Second Boer War, but the war ended just before the battalion arrived, meaning that John had again, fortunately, just missed out on a conflict. He was later sent back to India, spending time in Rawalpindi, now a city in Pakistan. However, he saw more than his fair share of warfare during World War I. After finishing his original term of service, John James Collins signed up for the military reserve, and was consequently activated in the summer of 1914. He was sent to front lines in 1915 and saw the worst of the war’s horrors at the town of Ypres in May 1915. John was among the soldiers who were incapacitated by the use of poison gas and sent back to Great Britain to recover, later serving the remainder of his time stationed in Ireland. In addition to being a victim of a gas attack, John also suffered from deafness as a result of shell concussion.




All of these details are outlined in the pension file that pertains to John’s service. Many of the men who survived World War I applied for a pension, although many such applications were rejected. These pension records are referred to as the “unburnt collection,” since they have largely survived and were not lost during World War II. Many of the “burnt collection,” the World War I service records, were lost, and so there is great value in learning whether or not a military ancestor applied for a pension. As Alan Small found out, they can provide a wealth of information about our ancestors’ lives.

Follow Ancestry on Facebook and  Twitter and join the genealogy conversation.


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North Dakota State Research Guide Available Now Mon, 12 Jan 2015 16:01:55 +0000 Jessica Murray Read more]]> North Dakota State Flag

North Dakota State Flag

The great state of North Dakota is next on our list of free state research guides we’re making available.

The first European settlers to North Dakota arrived in the 18th century and were fur traders employed by the Missouri Fur company.

Not long after, the settlements of Selkirk Colony, on the Red and Assiniboine rivers, and the Pembina settlement were established.


Brush up on your North Dakota state history with these five things you might not have known about the Roughrider state.

1. With the treaties signed by the Sioux in 1867 and 1868, the population of North Dakota increased from 16,000 people to 191,000 during the Dakota Boom years from 1879 to 1886.

2. Land in North Dakota could be purchased from either the Northern Pacific Railroad or directly from the federal government land offices under the Homestead or Timber Culture acts.

3. North Dakota earned its statehood on November 2, 1889.

4. North Dakota first appears in the federal census in 1850 as Pembina County, Minnesota Territory.

5.  North Dakota passed a law in 1893 requiring the registration of birth and death records with township clerks. This law was repealed in 1895 and reenacted in 1899.


Want to learn more? Download our free research guide for the North Dakota. If you’re looking for information on another U.S. location, check out our entire list of U.S. guides.



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Welcome to U.S. Capital…and Our Latest Free Research Guide! Fri, 09 Jan 2015 15:42:30 +0000 Juliana Szucs Read more]]> WashingtonDCAs we wind down our series of free research guides for the U.S., we’ve just added the District of Columbia. To celebrate, here are five things you might not have known about our nation’s capital.

1. The 10-mile by 10-mile diamond-shaped tract that was initially ceded by the states of Maryland and Virginia for the new nation’s capital was selected by President George Washington. It initially included parts of Fairfax County, Virginia, and Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties, Maryland.

2. In 1846, the portion of the District of Columbia that was ceded by Virginia was returned to Virginia. When the land was returned, so were the records created in that interim between the founding of the capital in 1801 and the retrocession of 1846.

3. During the War of 1812, the British burned the new Capitol building, the White House, the Treasury, and the building housing the Departments of State, Navy, and War. Americans began the burning of the Navy Yard prior to the arrival of the British, and the British burned what was left of it. While the British spared most of the private property in the city, a severe thunderstorm the following day wrought even more damage.

4. The Compromise of 1850 banned the sale of slaves in the District of Columbia, although slavery was still permitted. Despite the continuing institution of slavery, free African Americans were drawn to the area and by 1860 free persons of color outnumbered slaves by a margin of three to one.

5. Following the economic Panic of 1893, unemployed workers led by Ohio businessman and politician Jacob Coxey marched across the country on Washington, D.C. The goal of “Coxey’s Army” was to  pressure Washington to allocate funds to government projects that would create jobs. While it wasn’t entirely successful, it did open some eyes to the growing Populist movement.

Want to learn more? Or perhaps you’d like to see what family history resources are available for the nation’s capital? Download our free research guide for the District of Columbia. If you’re looking for information on another U.S. location, check out our entire list of U.S. guides.

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South African Record Collections Now on Ancestry Thu, 08 Jan 2015 16:04:01 +0000 Ancestry Team Read more]]> No need to travel south of the equator to access our newest South African records collections, which include South Africa, Voter Indexes, 1719-1996.

South African Flag MapThis index of voters from South Africa won’t tell you whether your ancestors were a yea or a nay, but you might find the voter’s name, residence, occupation, birth date, and more. Additionally, the index may provide spouse’s name, maiden name, employer, gender, qualifications to vote, race, even weapons or numbers of pigs owned.

You can see what voter lists are included in this database by viewing the Record Source drop down menu in the search form. This will give you a feel for the places and years included. By selecting from the list and clicking exact, you can confine your search to a particular list.

Another new collection we’ve added is the South Africa, Birth and Baptism Records, 1700s-1900s. This index of birth and baptism details has been extracted from birth and baptismal records from institutions throughout South Africa, including more than one hundred churches. Most of the events in this collection took place in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, though there are a few earlier and later records as well.

Looking for more South African record collections? Visit our Recently Added and Updated Collections on Ancestry page regularly to see the latest collections we’ve added and stay tuned for more!


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Finding the Hidden Stories in Your Tree Fri, 02 Jan 2015 13:05:48 +0000 Juliana Szucs Read more]]> Picture1Technology is a wonderful thing. With a few clicks of a mouse, we can find the records of our ancestors and attach them to our online tree in minutes. But sometimes we go a little too fast. Those records we so quickly hide in our tree hold the keys to our next research steps. Even better, they hold the stories of our family.

Sure we see the names, places, and dates, but are we taking the time to understand what those dates and places mean. We can find out if we just examine what we already have in our trees, ask the right questions, and put the information in perspective.

In our most recent Five-Minute Find video, I share some tips for ferreting out the stories that may be hidden in your family tree. Watch the “Five-Minute Find: Finding the Stories in the Records” below:

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Massachusetts State Research Guide Now Available Tue, 30 Dec 2014 15:39:01 +0000 Jessica Murray Read more]]> Boston, Massachusetts

Boston, Massachusetts

With the long-standing history of Massachusetts, you can expect interesting and rich collections to assist your family history research. Here are five things you may not have known about Massachusetts:

1. Massachusetts was the sixth state to ratify the U.S. Constitution and be granted statehood.

2. Four United States Presidents were born in Massachusetts: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, John F. Kennedy, and George H.W. Bush.

3. Boston Common, located in Boston, became the first public park in America.

4. The majority of New England settlers immigrated for religious reasons rather than economic reasons. Most of them were middle class, skilled craftsman and merchants.

5. Cambridge, Massachusetts is home to Harvard University, the first college established in North America.

Our new free guide “Massachusetts State Research Guide: Family History Resources in the Bay State” has links to resources, a timeline, and a general history of the state. It will help you navigate the waters of Massachusetts state research. Be sure to check out the other state research guides that are available in the Ancestry Learning Center as well.

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Discovering U.S. Passenger Lists on Ancestry Mon, 29 Dec 2014 18:16:11 +0000 Jessica Murray Read more]]> If you’re kicking off the new year with a commitment to research your family history, we suggest you check out the United States passenger list collection currently available on Ancestry. There are 132 collections that represent over 140 million records. Hopefully, one or more contains information on your immigrant ancestor that helps to build the story that leads to you.

Juliana Szucs created this helpful guide to get you started. Visit the Slideshare below and happy researching!


Have you found your immigrant ancestor on a passenger list? Let us know in the comments below!

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Welcome to the First State! Delaware State Research Guide Fri, 26 Dec 2014 14:00:55 +0000 Anne Gillespie Mitchell Read more]]> Delaware was the first state to ratify the U.S. Constitution on December 7, 1787.

Library of Congress, “Mill on the Brandywine,” pen and watercolor, John Rubens Smith, ca 1828

Library of Congress, “Mill on the Brandywine,” pen and watercolor, John Rubens Smith, ca 1828

Five things you may not have known about the First State:

  1. Delaware is 96 miles long and at it’s widest point 35 miles across.
  2. The first recognized settlement of Europeans was called New Sweden in 1638.
  3. Seaford, Delaware is known as the Nylon Capital of the World, due to DuPont first producing nylon in a factory there.
  4. Delaware is the only state without any  national parks, seashores, historic sites, battlefields, memorials, or monuments.
  5. John Dickinson, a Delaware native,  was called the Penman of the Revolution for his writings on independence.
Our new free state guide, “Delaware Research Guide: Family History Sources in the First State,” has an overview and timeline of the state, along with resources to explore when searching for your Delaware ancestors. Guides for other states are also available in the Learning Center under Free State Research Guides.
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How to Find a Woman: Tracing Mottie Winters Through 1800s Kentucky Mon, 22 Dec 2014 13:00:31 +0000 Ancestry Team Read more]]> By Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Juliana Szucs, Family Historian for Ancestry

I am new to and I am hoping you can help me. My great-great-grandmother is S. Mottie Winters. She was born 22 January 1866, possibly in Tennessee, and died 18 May 1891 in Murray, Kentucky. She is listed on Find A Grave, but that is the only mention I can find of her. She died shortly after she married Peter Gardner Winters. They had one daughter, Gladys (my great-grandmother).

Peter married Sallie (Ellis, I think). They had five or six children and there is no more mention of Mottie. I’d like some help in finding out more about her. — Barbara Cassell

Dear Barbara,

It’s completely understandable that you are having a difficult time locating information on Mottie. Until recently, when women married, their identity became cloaked under their husband’s surname. To compound the problem you face, you have only an initial for your ancestor’s first name and the name “Mottie,” for her middle name, which is most probably a nickname; in fact, “Mottie” is sometimes a nickname for Martha. Another challenge you’re facing is the gap in documentation left by the destruction of the 1890 U.S. federal census after a fire at the Commerce Department in Washington, D.C., in 1921.

Finding Mottie’s death record would have been our ideal starting point. But when we searched Kentucky, Death Records, 1852-1953 on Ancestry, we were unable to locate her death. As we browsed through the years available for Calloway County, where the town of Murray is located, it was easy to see why. There is a gap in the records between 1878 and 1902. Although the first legislation aimed at the civil registration of all births and deaths in Kentucky was passed in 1852, compliance was sporadic until the 20th century.

Since we won’t be able to find the family in the 1890 census, the one census year when they would most likely have been enumerated together, we started our search with Mottie’s daughter and husband, Gladys Winters and Peter Gardner Winters in the 1900 census. Even though Mottie had died by this time, finding father and daughter together would give us details about each of them that will help us identify the family in other records that we might find. Murray is in Calloway County, Kentucky, and we found Gladys and Peter (listed as P.G.) Winters living in Liberty, Calloway County, Kentucky. Peter has already remarried to Sallie and they have two additional children by this time.

Mottie Winters_1

Jumping back to the 1880 census, we find a Peter G. Winters living with his parents. Because of Calloway County’s location along the Kentucky/Tennessee state line, we searched for Peter Winters in Tennessee as well and located only one other Peter Winters in either state. Details in that record made it easy to eliminate him.

Mottie Winters_2

Knowing that Peter was in Calloway County, Kentucky, in both of the censuses surrounding the couple’s marriage, we worked on the assumption that this was the most likely site for their marriage. Searching for a marriage record, we found a marriage index entry for P.G. Winters and S.M. Tucker. Knowing that the actual record could include important details not found in the index, we obtained a copy of that record. (This is very, very important, when searching for any ancestor; indexes only go so far.) On the marriage bond, the ages are relatively consistent with the records we have found to date, and Calloway County is listed as the birth place for both the bride and groom. Although the parents are not named, their birthplaces are given, and the record tells us that the couple was to be married at “T.J. Tucker’s.”

Mottie Winters_3

Turning back to the 1880 census, we found an entry, also in Liberty, in Calloway County, Kentucky, for Thomas J. Tucker. Thomas is the father of a daughter named Sarah M. Tucker, and Sarah is of the correct age to be S. Mottie Winters! We found this entry in the same township where Peter and the Winters family were enumerated, and the entries are only three census pages apart, which means that they lived fairly near each other, a good sign that this is indeed S. Mottie Winters.

Mottie Winters_4

While there is an inconsistency in the birthplace of the father listed on the marriage record and the birthplace listed on the 1880 census, because weddings at this time in our country’s history were often held at the home of the bride, we believe that Thomas J. Tucker is her father. That said, further documentation should be sought to identify Thomas’ actual place of birth as well as further details about this relationship.

As we searched for these families in earlier censuses, we had some difficulties locating some of the relevant parties. For example, we were able to locate Peter’s father, Dr. Solomon Winters, in Calloway County in 1860, but not in 1870. In 1860 we also found the marriage of Thomas Tucker and Carolina Skaggs, Sarah M. Tucker’s parents, in Stewart County, Tennessee, which is just to the southeast of Calloway County, Kentucky. Carolina’s family is living in Calloway County in 1860, and interestingly, her father is also a doctor.

In fact, there seemed to be a lot of doctors in this rural Kentucky county! Dr. Solomon Winters’ neighbor was also a doctor. Why so many doctors? This is quite fascinating. The area around Liberty Township was in the northeastern section of Calloway County. The county boundary to the east is the Tennessee River. An article about this area’s role in the Civil War, published by the Jackson Purchase Historical Society, The Civil War in Murray, Calloway County, Kentucky, by Robert W. Caldwell, describes the prevalence of malaria and typhoid here at this time. The need for doctors would have been critical, and at this time when anyone could hang out his shingle without a license, many men may have seized the opportunity to become “doctors,” regardless of their qualifications.

Mottie Winters_5

Dr. Solomon Winter seems to have ministered to a good number of residents; according to the 1860 census, he held real estate valued at $1,500 and his personal estate was valued at $3,000. When his estate was settled in 1890, it records a lengthy list of debts owed him, mostly likely by his patients.

During the Civil War between 1861 and 1865, Calloway County was not a safe place to live. Soldiers and ex-soldiers from both the Union and the Confederate armies roamed the area, looting and killing residents. At one point the county seat at Murray was burned. So it is perhaps not surprising that some of the residents are missing in 1870. In the 1860 census, there were 9,915 residents in the county. In 1870, that number had surprisingly dropped to 9,410 – a loss of 515 residents (5%), a possible indication that the residents here suffered through a great deal of violence. (Census Bureau Report, page 65.)

Another possible explanation is that residents in this Confederate-leaning area may have been resistant to being enumerated in the federal census following the war. Calloway County is part of what’s known as “The Jackson Purchase.” According to the Caldwell article, this area was sometimes referred to as the “South Carolina of Kentucky,” an area deeply sympathetic to the Confederacy in what was officially a Border State.

At any rate, a next step would be to do a more thorough canvassing of Calloway and neighboring counties to see if perhaps the families are hiding behind a mis-transcribed record, which happens more often that one would imagine. As we searched the 1870 census for this area, we noticed that some of the images are rather faded, but you can enhance these images by inverting the colors, and that could help you find the families if you browse through them carefully.

We’re also at a point in the history of Kentucky where the parents of many of your ancestors would have been born in another state. Make note of associates of the family and neighbors in the census who share the same state of birth as your ancestors do. Families often moved in clusters and sometimes neighbors moved through chain migration, which is when one family (or several families) from a community would venture ahead, then write home about their new circumstances, enticing other families to follow. Be sure to make note of migration patterns that are sometimes evidenced in the birthplaces of the children.

You’ll want to conduct thorough research on siblings and collateral relatives of your direct ancestors as well. The clues to your ancestor’s origins may be found on death and other records of their relatives. Plus, they’re a part of your family story, and their stories could be quite fascinating.

Another rich resource would be church records. The Find A Grave entry you found for S.M. Winters gives her burial location as Friendship Church of Christ Cemetery. She may have been affiliated with that congregation and they may have retained records of baptisms or other religious records.

Your ancestors lived in interesting, but difficult, times and places. We wish you the best of luck in discovering the rest of their intriguing story!

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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