It’s Not What You Find, It’s What You Do With It, by Juliana Smith

We’ve come a long way technologically with family history research tools. Years ago locating a record sometimes meant many hours cranking away at a microfilm reader and often transcribing the record because there was no machine to print it out. Now, with many records, we can sit in the comfort of our homes and locate our ancestors with the click of a mouse. Another click prints a copy, and with another click we can attach it to our electronic family tree. Voila! We’re done.

Ah, not so fast. While I love the advances that technology has brought us, sometimes we’re a little too quick to attach the record to our tree and move on. That wonderful find is relegated to a kind of electronic purgatory where we never fully explore it.

Here are some steps you can take to ensure that you’re getting the most from every find:

1. Transcribe it.
While this might seem a bit tedious, the act of transcribing a record forces you to read and think about every element of the record. You’ll be amazed at how much more you can glean from a find when you examine it closely.

2. Put it in context.
Create a chronology or timeline for all the records you’ve found on your ancestor and copy your transcription into that timeline. Seeing the information in the context of other information you have found can help you to estimate important dates and learn more about your ancestor.

3. Create an action or to-do list.
While you’re plucking clues from your new find, ideas will pop into your head for follow-ups. Keep a to-do list open on your desktop and add these ideas as they come to you. That way you don’t risk forgetting about them, and the next time you get a chance to return to your research, you know exactly where to start. Continue reading

Tips from the Pros: The Benefits of Posting Family History Online, from Juliana Smith

tobin card.jpgThis Christmas I was able to give my mother a one-of-a-kind gift. A while back, I wrote about my Tobin hatters in an article that was posted to the 24/7 Family History Circle blog. A lady in England had happened across an old business card for “Tobin’s New Hat Store” in New York and posted it for sale on eBay. Thankfully, she did a quick search for more information online about Tobin hatters in New York and found my article posted on the blog. She left the information in the comments section of the blog and I was able to bid on and win the auction for that card. For a very modest sum, I was able to give my mom one of the best gifts ever! And the interesting image on the card had the whole family talking about it on Christmas night. What on earth does a donkey serenading a goose (Mother Goose?) have to do with a hat shop? If you have any thoughts on the meaning of the image, please share them with me through the comments section of the blog. I’d love to hear your ideas!

You don’t have to have a blog to broadcast your family history interests, although it is an increasingly easy and popular way to share your interests and finds publicly. Public Trees on Ancestry are a great way to connect with cousins or complete strangers who may have valuable information or long-lost heirlooms. Every day more people decide to explore their family history and search looking for leads. If your tree is out there, that search can lead possible family members to you.

Message boards are another great way to share your family surname interests and leave a breadcrumb trail for those with information to share.

How much you choose to share is entirely up to you, but even just the names, estimated dates, and locations of your ancestors may lead you to a family treasure too!

Looking Back at 2008, by Juliana Smith

As I look out my office window, I can see the snow falling, and I’m grateful to be bundled up in a warm blanket, rather than outside in the frigid temps. I can’t believe we’re just a week away from Christmas and two weeks from a new year. Where does the time go?

A lot has changed in the world since we looked hopefully at a new 2008, and while the news reports will probably focus on the more negative aspects of the year, I want to focus on the good. While we’ve certainly had some rough patches in our family, we also have much to be grateful for and that is what we will be celebrating this holiday season.

I’ve also had some good news in my family history, and as a community, we’ve seen some great new resources added to the collections at Ancestry. I browsed past newsletters to select some of the highlights to include in this article, and after going through the entire year I found that I had copied seven pages of URLs. I was going to either have to scale down a bit or this was going to be a VERY long article.

All told, Ancestry added 1.3 billion names to its collections and 52.9 million images. Wow! That’s a whole lot of scanning going on! Since this will be the last newsletter of the year, let’s look back at just a few of the collections that had us doing the happy dance this year.

Naturalization Records
Because of the nature of the naturalization process, locating naturalization records can be challenging. An immigrant ancestor may have begun the process in one location and completed it in an entirely different location, perhaps even another state. And for many years, they had various options when it came to the courts in their area. They may have naturalized in a criminal court, federal court, circuit court, or marine court, among other options. Because of the scattered nature of the records, the search can be challenging and some records might never be found. Continue reading

Anatomy of a City Directory, by Juliana Smith

Taggart's Storage Warehouses ad, Brooklyn, New York 1879 City DirectoryAs I was winterizing the house and wrestling with a particularly stubborn storm window, it came crashing down and, of course, broke. With snow and frigid temps in the weather forecast, the hubby peeked in my office today and asked me where the phone book was so he could call the hardware store and see about getting the glass replaced. Phone book? I gave him that blank stare that told him I had absolutely no clue and turned back to my computer to Google the name of the hardware store.

Years ago, even before the telephone became widely used, directories were the way to go when it came to locating people and businesses. For family historians, they’re also the way to go when you want to locate your ancestors. As I mentioned in last week’s column, I have been anxious to dive into the new collection of U.S. city directories that were posted last week, and last night I finally got my chance. I spent quite a bit of time browsing through an 1879 directory of Brooklyn, New York, and was quickly reminded of just how much directories have to offer–and how much we may miss if we only focus on that one little line that gives our ancestor’s name, occupation, and address. While this article will use the Brooklyn directory as an example, others typically followed a similar format and you may find comparable content in other areas of the U.S. and around the world.

The Joys of Online Access
When I’ve been in libraries looking through city directories on microfilm, I have to really discipline myself because my time is limited. I need to pull as many of my family names and addresses as I can in the short time I have before closing time.

As I spin through the film, my eye catches sight of advertisements for local businesses. “Ooh, is the Tobin’s hat shop advertised in this one?” It’s like dangling something shiny in front of a child. Next thing you know I’m completely distracted from my purpose and reading the directory page by page. With these directories now available online, I can sit here in my jammies and browse to my heart’s content–page by page, or skipping ahead by changing the image number.

These directories are searchable, so you can put in your ancestors surname and jump right to that page, but it can be worthwhile to take the time to browse. Because the index was created by OCR (which means a computer reads the print), unusual fonts (especially those used in advertisements) or heavy print and smudges can cause you to miss some references.

The first thing I look for is the title page in the front of the directory. This tells me the publisher and typically what kinds of things I can find in the directory. In the 1879 directory I looked at, the title page reads, “The Brooklyn City and Business Directory for the year ending May 1st, 1880, containing also A Street and Avenue Directory, A Municipal Register, and a New Map of Brooklyn.” Yeah!

Some directories will also include a table of contents with page numbers. This directory didn’t have one for the entire book, but there were indexes for some of the sections that gave page numbers. For example, on image 21 of 774, I found an index to all the advertisements. Alas, I quickly found that the Tobins didn’t advertise here.

Although the pages of the directory won’t match up with the image numbers, with a little bit of math, you can estimate how far ahead you need to jump to get from the index to the desired page. Just bear in mind that there are two directory pages on each image when you’re doing your calculations.

Introductory Information
The 1879 directory of Brooklyn included a preface from the publisher, who strongly recommended that owners of his guide attach it to their counters with chains to deter those who might “borrow” the book, rather than purchase one. The preface also often includes tidbits on what is going on in the city and this volume mentions the long-awaited Brooklyn Bridge, which would open in 1883. Look for this section to learn what was happening in your ancestor’s city.

Other introductory material I found included a page of “Names too late for insertion in regular order,” and a list of abbreviations used in the directory.  Continue reading

Staying Organized When Time is Limited, by Juliana Smith

It was a genealogical dream night. I had the house to myself with my husband at martial arts class and my daughter at play practice. And even better–Ancestry had just launched a huge collection of U.S. city directories, including some for New York City and Brooklyn. I made a cup of tea and settled in my office chair for an evening with my ancestors.

I had no sooner pulled up the database when my phone rang. It was a sales call. Thank goodness for caller ID. I ignored it and managed to get off one search, when my greyhound came in nosing me to let her out. I put her coat on, let her out and returned to work. As soon as I sat down, in came the cat. He strutted across my desk several times and I was reminded that I hadn’t given him a pill. I got up again, gave him his medicine, and sat back down. Dang, I had forgotten the dog outside. Up again to let the dog in. I didn’t even get to sit down this time when my daughter called telling me to come get her. Play practice had ended early–and so had my evening with my ancestors.

Interruptions are a fact of life, but if you’re organized, even a few minutes of research time here and there can be productive.

Desk Trays
I have long since resigned myself to the fact that my research time won’t always come to an end on my own terms. So I try to find ways to cut my research off in such a way that I can easily go back and pick up where I left off. One thing that helps me is a tray on my desk that is reserved for family history work that needs to be processed or filed.

Sometimes I’ll come home from a research trip and not have time to file everything right away. Or perhaps I was able to attach a record I found online to my online tree, but didn’t get a chance to enter the information into my genealogical software. Maybe I need to scan a record and save it electronically. Whatever the reason, unfinished business left lying around can quickly lead to problems.

Since I know I’ll probably forget where I left off when I get the chance to return to my research, I keep plastic sleeves and sticky notes so that when I’m interrupted, I can slip it into a sleeve and jot down where I am in terms of processing the information. (I use the plastic sleeves to protect the document and then put the sticky note on the outside of the sleeve to keep from damaging original documents.) Into the tray it goes, and the next time I get a free minute, I go right for that tray and pick up right where I left off.

Get Organized
I’ve also learned the hard way that it’s pretty much impossible to get any research done if it takes you twenty minutes to find what you’re looking for. Take ten minutes each day to go through and clear out that tray and any stray piles you have lying around. Even if you’ve gotten way behind in your filing (been there, done that, got the t-shirt), you can make a big dent in ten minutes.

When I do get too far behind, I add another step. I found a small file tabletop file like this one that is portable. I have folders in it with each surname and when the filing tray gets overwhelming, I can sit and sort papers while I watch TV with the family, or even while I’m waiting in the parking lot for my daughter to get out of school. Then when I get a little more time, I grab a surname file folder and file the documents in it properly in my binder. This way I don’t have to drag out all of my binders at once to get my filing done and I’m not bouncing around between families.  Continue reading

The “Favorites” List

  • Name
  • This date
  • Your current age
  • Address
  • City/State
  • Birthday
  • Birthplace
  • What are you most thankful for this year?
  • Favorite color
  • Favorite food
  • Foods that are definitely not your favorite
  • Favorite song or songs
  • Favorite band/musician or singer
  • Favorite book
  • Favorite television program
  • Favorite movie
  • Favorite movie star/celebrity
  • Favorite sport
  • Favorite subject in school
  • Favorite recess game
  • Favorite place I’ve been
  • Where I dream of going one day
  • Favorite hobby
  • Favorite pet
  • Favorite place to hang out
  • Favorite possession
  • Favorite hero/heroine (person I admire )
  • Favorite dream
  • The best thing I ever learned was…
  • Who were you named for (first name and/or middle name)?
  • Favorite vacation memory
  • Favorite bedtime story
  • What collections do you have?
  • To this day, what do you consider your most important achievement?
  • Name an important award or honor that you received.

Did we miss anything you think we should ask? Feel free to contribute to the list in the comments section below.

We’ve also added a better formatted version of this questionnaire to the Learning Center, but unfortunately, the printer-friendly function isn’t acting very “friendly.” (a.k.a., It’s busted.) But you can copy/paste it into a word processor, and then add or subtract questions, reformat, and customize it for your family. Click here to access our not-so-printer-friendly version. 😉

Happy Thanksgiving!
Juliana and Lou

Journal Your Research, by Juliana Smith

This year our daughter began taking pre-Algebra in school and she didn’t really get off to a smooth start. Accustomed to figuring out problems in her head or on a separate piece of scrap paper, she turned in her first homework assignment only to get it back with points taken off because she didn’t show her work. She was crushed. I tried to explain the rationale behind the grade and the importance of showing her work. It was a tough lesson for her but something that she’ll need for years to come. And if she chooses to follow her mother’s footsteps (Hint!), showing her thought process will be a huge help when applied to family history.

When I started writing for the newsletter, the benefits of writing about my genealogical finds became immediately clear. I’m notorious for scribbling cryptic notes in the heat of the moment. Too often, I have made an exciting discovery only to go back to it weeks or months later scratching my head and wondering what the heck I meant. “Corn, fruit, Bkln. 1850?” Is that a grocery list or something to do with my family history? As it turned out, it was a note about a probate to remind me that there was a Cornelius Kelly who had a fruit stand in Brooklyn in 1850–but that’s a story for another day.

Fortunately, when I slip up I can sometimes find a paper trail in the form of an article I have written about the find. But that’s not always the case, so I’ve since expanded the process of “showing my work.” Now, when I dive into my family’s history I journal during the process. This gives me an extended research log, and I’ve also learned over the years that the best way to find holes in my theories is to try to write about them. (Unfortunately, some of my best theories seem to self-destruct when I’m up against a deadline.)

What to Include
Here are some of the items that I include in my research journal:

  • How and where did I find the information? What searches did I perform during online research? How was the name indexed? Were there any irregularities or discrepancies? I also record times where I’ve failed to find an ancestor. I document the various methods I used to search, and include why I think they should be included in that record collection. Sometimes this step is very revealing. It makes me look closely at descriptive materials and sometimes I realize that there’s a very good reason they aren’t included. 
  • What was the extent of my search? Did I just search the index? Did I go all the way to the end of the register or microfilmed or digitized collection to see whether there were more records at the end? Did I browse surrounding pages (and how many), looking for other family references? 
  • When possible, I like to include a transcription of the record. It makes for easy review and this can also be copied/pasted into my family history software, family timelines, and e-mails to family history buddies. 
  • Sometimes a record may not come right out and say something, but alone or in the context of other records, it may allow you to draw conclusions. This is a great place to spell out the rationale behind any conclusions you have drawn. For example, you have an 1860 census record that says that your eleven-year-old ancestor was born in Ireland. You also have a baptism record for his sister that says she was born in 1852 in New York. From these you can estimate that the family immigrated to the U.S. somewhere between 1849 and 1852. If you spell it out here, you won’t be scratching your head a year from now trying to figure out how you arrived at that estimate. 
  • Put yourself in your ancestors’ shoes. Has something in this record changed your perceptions about the family and what was going on in their lives? What part might history have played in what you’ve learned? Did they emigrate because of war, disease, or famine? Spell out your theories. 
  • Sort out conflicting facts. Did the information in the record conflict with what you had previously thought or with what you have found in other records? Is it possible you are looking at two separate individuals or families? How can you reconcile the conflicts? How credible is the record you are looking at? Document the conflicts and look for ways you can prove or disprove your findings.
  • Chart your course for follow-up. Look at what you’ve written and make a list of follow-up steps you can take to move your case forward.

Your Journal’s Format
My process is simple. I just have an open journal (a.k.a., Word document) for each person in his or her folder on my computer, and when I work on that line, I open it up, type in the date, and create my summary using some or all of the above criteria. Mine is free form, but if it’s more helpful to you, you could easily create a template to use each time, then go through and fill in the blanks. Continue reading

Honoring Those Who Serve, by Juliana Smith

WWI Love postcard.jpgThey called it “The Great War” and it was to be “The War to End All Wars.” Tomorrow will mark the ninetieth anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended World War I. There is no shortage of information on the war that ravaged much of Europe between 1914 and 1918 and dramatically changed the map. As with most wars, many books have been written, movies and mini-series made, and websites launched chronicling the conflict.

While these types of resources are undoubtedly helpful, they are often painted with too wide a brush to give you that close-up picture of the war on the ground. The most revealing insights into war are often written by the participants themselves. My first foray into the world of writing was an article based on a collection of letters that my mother had inherited that had been written by her uncle while he was fighting in World War I. Reading those letters and then learning more about the movements of his battalion, I got a much clearer perspective of both Edwin and his involvement in World War I.

Of course, not everyone has a notebook full of letters like we did. All too often correspondence, diaries, and first-person accounts are discarded or lost to the ravages of time. Even if you don’t have gems like these written by your own ancestors, by reading the surviving correspondence of your ancestors’ contemporaries, you can still get that glimpse into the conditions they endured in the trenches, on the field of battle, in camps or prisons, and wherever else the war took them.

With Veterans’ Day tomorrow, I thought that this week it would be appropriate to learn a little more about the service of the veterans in our family tree. Here are some places you can begin your search for first-person accounts.

As I went off in search of online resources for correspondence and the diaries of military personnel serving in various conflicts, I was thrilled with what I found. War Letters is a website that has posted letters from the Civil War and both World Wars–both images and transcripts.

The Valley of the Shadow website has made available letters and diaries from both sides of the Civil War. The site focuses on the lives of people Augusta County, Virginia, and Franklin County, Pennsylvania, with accounts from before, during, and after the war. 

A search of the Card Catalog at Ancestry for war letter turned up sixteen hits, and a subsequent search for war diary produced another fourteen.

General history sites may also have personal accounts posted. I found this page with memoirs and diaries on Continue reading

Election Fever: Discovering Your Ancestors’ Politics

Election Day in New York, 1864Unless you can unplug yourself completely from the outside world, you’re probably being inundated with reminders of the upcoming election. Here in Indiana, “inundated” is an understatement. I have to say though that it’s heartening to see such interest and passion, with so many people so engaged and involved in the political process.

Last night I spent a little time exploring the political ties of some of my ancestors. I know that several of my ancestors dabbled in politics through newspaper articles and that’s where I started my searches. I found one family mentioned repeatedly in the Brooklyn Eagle online as a delegate from the 5th Ward in Brooklyn to the state Democratic convention. Another article mentioned some hard feelings between him and the powerful mayor of Brooklyn at that time.  The Brooklyn papers are full of mentions of him in attendance at weddings and funerals, and other events.

Although our ancestors may not make it into the history books with their political activities, they will often make it into newspapers, local histories, and other records where we can uncover them.  Here are some resources that can help you seek out your ancestor’s political ties:



Voter Records at Ancestry