Things I’ve Learned in Ten Years of Newsletter Editing, by Juliana Smith

ten.bmpThis week marks a big milestone for me. It was this week ten years ago, that I was hired on full time at Ancestry as editor of the Ancestry Daily News (this newsletter/blog’s predecessor).

Wow, have things changed! had a few hundred databases online when I started in 1998, but there were no censuses or record images online at that point. To search those records we would have to travel to repositories that held the microfilm and we were thankful for the head-of-household indexes that were available. Of course they weren’t online yet either–we didn’t get head-of-household census indexes online until early March 1999. Census images began being posted in 2000 along with Civil War Pension Index Cards. There was no, although was a popular and fast-growing online resource. And DNA testing? What’s that about?

When I first took the job, I had a young toddler in the house. Now my beautiful daughter is proud to tell people she’s almost as tall as I am and will soon pass me up! Over the years I had to learn to find a balance between work and family, although I still occasionally burn dinner when I get caught up in my work. Fortunately my office is next to the kitchen so I can smell the damage before flames erupt.

As I’m in a reminiscent mood today, I thought I’d share some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years here at Ancestry.

Finding Holes
If I ever want to find a hole in an area of my research, I should plan an article around that very topic. Never fails. As soon as I start writing about how I made this amazing find, I’ll find holes in my logic. But it’s a good way to keep my research on track. Try it. Write up a brief summary of the research steps you’ve taken and keep it with your research log. Not only does putting it in writing help you to better analyze your research, but years from now when you’re wondering how the heck you came to that conclusion, it will be right there for you.

Trial by Fire
If you want to learn about something, try to write about it. I guess that’s why they made us write reports in school. The best history class of my life has come in the past couple years by writing The Year Was… columns for the newsletter. Try it with one of your ancestors. Research the year they were born, immigrated, married, etc. As you learn about the events of the time, you may find that you better understand what prompted their decisions.

When I was researching The Year was 1902, I found that a huge coal mining strike occurred in the United States. My great-grandfather immigrated to the U.S. in 1902. He even went back home and came back again with more family members. He was a coal miner, as were the other family members, and it’s possible they were recruited to fill in for striking miners. Continue reading

Using Ancestry: An Immigration Story

by Juliana Smith

Last week as I wrote about enhancing record images, I chose the 1910 census image of my second great-grandmother, Catherine (Huggins) Dennis. As I enhanced the faded record, I found something that made me go back and reassess conclusions I had drawn regarding the family’s immigration.

The 1910 Census
The census image listed Catherine Dennis, age 66, living in the same dwelling as her son Francis and his family, but as the head of her household, which included her step-son William and daughter Margaret. The item that caught my eye as I worked to make the image more legible was her year of immigration. Although still tough to make out, it looked like 1849.

I had been unable to locate the family coming to the U.S. in passenger arrival records, despite some pretty long nights looking through the Immigration Collection at Thinking that perhaps they had come in through Canada as some of my other ancestors did, I had set aside that search to focus on other things. With this find, my curiosity got the best of me and I tossed aside my photo editing article for a bit to explore.

The first thing I did was to pull up the timeline I created for Catherine. The 1849 date didn’t match with what I had previously thought. We had estimated that the family had immigrated to the U.S. somewhere around 1843 or 1844, based on the dates and places of birth of Catherine and her younger sister Anne. Since that date was given to the enumerator more than sixty years after the event, it wouldn’t be surprising for her to have remembered that date incorrectly, but a thought struck me. What if they didn’t all travel together? Continue reading

Help for Hard-to-Read Images, by Juliana Smith

1910 Catherine Dennis census crops.bmpSo you’ve found what you think might be your ancestor in the census. The problem is, when you view the image, what you find sends your heart plummeting. The image is a) too dark, b) too light, or c) looks like a chimpanzee with writer’s cramp wrote it. So what’s a twenty-first-century family historian to do? Let’s explore some options.

Image Editing
Many of the records we use today were microfilmed when that technology was in its infancy. So it’s no wonder we run across faded images or dark, hard-to-read records. Photo-editing tools are great for optimizing record images that are in digital format. I use Photoshop Elements, but many of the photo-editing programs out there have the same or similar options. Here are a few ideas for sprucing up those difficult to decipher images:

Darken highlights. I had a really faint 1910 census entry for my great-great-grandmother. Using the “Darken Highlights” function that is available in the Quick Fix mode, I was able to make the image much more readable. In this first set you can see the before and after images. Click on the image to enlarge it. The “before” image is in the center so that you can compare it with both of the edited images I’ve posted.

Invert. Another option for lighter images is to invert the colors (i.e., the background would change to black with white writing on it). Again, click on the first set of images to see the enlarged example.  Continue reading

Memorial Day Resources to Honor the Veterans in Your Family Tree

Just wanted to take a minute to wish all of you a safe and happy Memorial Day! I plan to observe the weekend here at home, and hope to find some time to research some of the military heroes in our family tree. Don’t forget, Ancestry is offering free access to military databases through May 31st. (Click here for more information on that promotion.)  If you want to learn more about what military databases are available at Ancestry and how to get the most from them, you can now download a free PDF file of Military Records at, by Esther Yu Sumner. Click here to download the e-book now.

Also, I wanted to give a special thanks to everyone who shared their WWII era memories on last week’s The Year Was 1943 post here on the blog. What a fascinating trip through time! If you missed some or all of the comments, click here to read them. There are some amazing stories there and some of them may give you ideas for interview questions for family members who also lived through that era. I know I came up with a few I want to discuss with my Dad.

Have a great holiday!


Ancestry Insider Article on Incomplete Databases

As I was browsing the blogs this week, I found an article on the Ancestry Insider blog in response to a question regarding Ancestry’s posting of databases that aren’t complete. The Insider does a good job of explaining the reasons that this happens and it also brought up a couple things to keep in mind.

First, always be sure to check back periodically on databases that you have previously searched, but in which you have been unsuccessful in locating an ancestor. There may have been updates.  While I do try to include major updates in the newsletter, I can’t always fit all of them. You can also keep tabs on recent updates by checking the Recently Added Databases page.  I do include a link to that in every issue of the Ancestry Weekly Journal and here on the blog each week, just below the new databases.

Secondly, don’t forget to read the database descriptions that can be found just below the main search box on the database page, and click through when necessary to capture all the pertinent information. You may find the reason why you haven’t been able to locate that ancestor was there in the description all along.


Hidden Truths: The Chicago Cemetery and Lincoln Park

View of Chicago from Lincoln ParkThe other day I caught the tail end of a news report about the old Chicago Cemetery located in and around what is now Chicago’s Lincoln Park. After living in that area for seven years back in the eighties and early nineties, I was familiar with the fact that Lincoln Park was once a cemetery and that many bodies ended up being left behind once the cemetery closed. I jotted down a note to look for more information on the news story that I had missed and this morning I did just that.

In doing so I found the website that was the subject of the story, and for anyone who has roots in Chicago, it’s well worth a visit. I could only spend about twenty minutes browsing it this morning but listened to a couple fascinating audio clips and plan to go back and revisit the site soon. This project by Pamela Bannos can be found at: 

Click here to read the Chicago Tribune article about the site and the new markers. (Accessing the article may require free registration.)

A Garden Philosophy for Family History, by Juliana Smith

Juliana's garden--purple irisWorking in my yard is one of my favorite things to do–next to chasing ancestors of course. This past Saturday was beautiful and I got the opportunity to go out and do some weeding and planting and just generally have fun in the yard. As I worked relocating plants, filling planters and weeding, my mind wandered and I found myself drawing parallels between my two favorite pastimes. Today I thought I’d share a few that I came up with while I was out playing in the dirt.

Get to Know Your Location
It took me a while after moving into this house to figure out what plants work best, and where. I had to study the amount of sunlight each area of the yard gets, and when I buy new plants to go in a particular section, I check the tags to make sure they’ll do well in the space where I’m planting them.

Just as we have to get familiar with our garden features, we need to be familiar with our ancestors’ surroundings. We need to know what churches, cemeteries, and municipal offices were in the vicinity. What repositories are currently holding the records created in that area for the time span we are researching? What events might have impacted them during the time in which they lived there?

Create a locality file that you can use for reference. Include the holdings of local repositories, vital record availability, maps, church and cemetery information (including dates of establishment), a history folder with interesting historical tidbits, and possibly a timeline of the area in question. Not only will putting this file together better acquaint you with the history that impacted your ancestors, but you’ll find that it’s a reference tool that you’ll be able to use time and time again. Continue reading

Mental Floss Article: 10 of the Most Common Place Names in the U.S.

Here’s a good reminder to always record the complete place name in our family history records from the Mental Floss blog. I am so glad my ancestors aren’t from Washington, Wisconsin!

BTW, I got my husband, my mother-in-law, and my father a subscription to Mental Floss magazine last year and we are all enjoying it. Check out their blog for a taste of what is in the magazine. If you’re a trivia buff like I am, I think you’ll enjoy it.

Have a great weekend!


Free Tools for Family Historians, by Juliana Smith

Google Map St James.bmpMost of the records we utilize in our research weren’t really created with family historians in mind. Similarly many tools are available online now that weren’t specifically created for us, but they sure can be helpful as we seek information about our ancestors. Today I thought I’d share a list of some of my favorite non-genealogy tools.

Having trouble interpreting a record for one of your non-English speaking ancestors? AltaVista’s Babelfish translator will translate text or entire Web pages for you in many languages.

Looking for more information about a battle in which your ancestor fought during the Civil War? Or perhaps your ancestor was a Philadelphia policeman and you’d like to learn more about the history of that police force. What were the working conditions of the industry in which your ancestors were engaged? The answers to these and many other questions can often be found in publications not found in your local bookstore. WorldCat will not only alert you to their existence, but when you enter your zip code it will give you a list of libraries that have those publications in their collection.

Census Enumerator Instructions (IPUMS)
Census enumerators were given very specific instructions when it came to recording the answers your ancestors gave. Reading these instructions can be very helpful in more fully understanding the records. This site includes the original instructions for the years 1850-1950.

Ever wondered whether a historic event prompted your ancestors to pick up and leave the country they had called home for generations? Wikipedia can give you some ideas. Search for a year and you’ll get a chronology of world events from that year. This free online encyclopedia is a great first step, but you should verify your findings with more authoritative sources. Although much of what you see will be correct, I have found numerous errors such as events listed under the wrong year. Continue reading

My Ancestors on Nightline!

Dyers on Nightline-resize.bmpOn Wednesday night, my uncle called my mom to let her know that her ancestors were on ABC’s Nightline. You can imagine the surprise to find that indeed, my great-grandparents and their children were featured in a segment on the possibility that in 150,000 years flaws in the Y-chromosome will render men extinct.

The story is titled Envisioning a World Without Men: Scientist Says Female-Only Reproduction Is Only a Few Years Away and the video clip is available online. It features geneticist, Bryan Sykes, who is the author of The Seven Daughters of Eve and Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland.

The story is interesting in and of itself, but imagine our surprise to see our ancestors featured in it! We’re not sure how ABC got the photograph, but since it has appeared in several Ancestry publications, I’m guessing it must have made it into a media kit.

Raymond Francis DyerThe photograph is of the Dyer family and the girl in the bottom left corner is my grandmother. Behind her is the aunt who raised my mother. I like to think that Pop Dyer would be pleased that his family photograph was shown around the world. He was very photogenic and we are lucky to have quite a few photographs of him, from his early days, to his later years as he posed in his swimsuit when he was older. Here’s another photograph of Pop looking quite chic in his suit and holding his bowler hat.