Politician’s Family Trees: What’s in Them For Me? by Juliana Smith

Mark Twain is quoted as saying, “Why waste your money looking up your family tree? Just go into politics and your opponents will do it for you.” While politicians seem to be focusing more on their opponents’ jugular veins this year, there are still a lot of researchers and journalists who are equally intent on digging up their roots. No matter what we may think about the candidates or their stand on the issues, the methods professionals use to uncover their roots can also be applied to our own work.

There have been almost weekly news stories regarding the heritage of the presidential and vice-presidential candidates. With my Irish roots, I found it interesting that they all had this in common with me. This week, a press release from Ancestry.com revealed more on the candidates’ family histories, and one even featured a story about George Washington, and what would have likely happened had he decided to go along with plans for establishing a monarchy instead of a presidency. The Ancestry Publications team approached Ancestry Chief Family Historian Megan Smolenyak to do the research on the project, and the article, “The Man (or Woman) Who Would be King,” appeared in the September/October 2008 issue of Ancestry Magazine. Based on Megan’s research and some fascinating interviews, it was determined that an 82-year-old retired regional manager from San Antonio, Texas would be King of America today.

When the “Washington as King” press release was first posted on the 24/7 blog, several people commented on to say, “Why can’t that be done on my lines?” 

There are several possible answers to that question. Almost all of us become stymied in our research at some point or another, and although teams of researchers worked on these high-profile cases for quite a while, even these famous candidates probably have some lines that are tough cases to crack.  That said, there are some tricks for getting beyond those dead ends we sometimes encounter. Let’s take a look at some detours we can take:

While it may not be a good thing when a politician side-steps a question, side-stepping in your research to a sibling, or even a cousin, can be a very good thing. My third great-grandmother, Catherine Kelly, died at age twenty-six in 1851, leaving behind two children, a husband, and not much of a trail. The records of her daughter, my great-great-grandmother Emma didn’t reveal much either, but by tracing Emma’s sister Ann Eliza, we found reference to an aunt that helped us to slowly fill out the family structure. It was through this approach that we were able to finally learn the names of Catherine’s parents. Continue reading

We Need Your Feedback on the Ancestry Weekly Journal

awj_masthead.gifSorry for the light week on the blog, but it’s been crazy-busy around here. I just got back from a trip to Utah last week and then this week I spent a lot of time getting ready for the webinar I did Wednesday with Maureen Taylor. (If you missed it, it’s now available in the Ancestry Learning Center.) For those of you who caught it or are planning on watching it in the archive, I apologize on the sound quality for my portions. Apparently my phone lines need to be checked because try as we might, we could not get a good clear phone connection that night.

I have a favor I’d like to ask of you. We’re looking for some feedback on the Ancestry Weekly Journal and here on the 24/7 blog. What are your favorite items in the AWJ? Or perhaps there is something you could do without? Is the newsletter too long? Too short? What do you want more of? Less of? Is there a section that you just don’t need? What types of articles do you find the most helpful? Is weekly too often to keep up with? We want to know your needs so that we can continue to address them in the best way possible.

We thought about putting out a traditional survey, but I would like to hear what you like and dislike about the newsletter in your own words, so I thought I’d solicit some comments here on the blog. We want to make sure we’re continuing to provide you with the tools, information, and inspiration that helps you with your family history research. Thanks a lot for taking the time to share your thoughts with us!

Have a great weekend!


Avoid Detours with Historical Maps, by Juliana Smith

14th st. Brooklyn 1929 copy.gifHere in the Midwestern United States, we’re thoroughly convinced that construction season was invented to make us appreciate winter. This morning I took my daughter to school and by the time I picked her up, my alternate route was closed off, forcing me to find an alternate alternate route. In the afternoon I have to take an alternate alternate alternate route lest I risk driving through a neighborhood at precisely the time that an elementary school is being dismissed. (I made that mistake once. Never again.)

To top it off, I cannot figure out what they are doing in some of these places. I am convinced that no work is being done whatsoever except that every night some gremlin gleefully rearranges the cones and hides somewhere so that he can watch as confused commuters try to guess which lane they’re supposed to be in–and I’m a terrible guesser!

As we work on tracing our ancestors, we may find ourselves facing similar challenges. In determining what route our ancestors took in immigrating to a new country, or moving to a new destination, we may find that they too took some detours. In last week’s column, we talked about how some immigrants to the U.S. detoured through Canada. I also alluded to multiple names that have been given to the town where my great-grandmother’s family lived. That provides another geographical challenge. Changing borders, county lines, street names and numbering, and population expansion into new territories have made some of the places in which our ancestors lived all but unrecognizable.

Fortunately, historical maps are becoming increasingly available online. Ancestry has a fantastic collection of historical maps, gazetteers, and atlases that we can use to get a better view of the landscape as it was in the days of our ancestors. Here are a few of my favorites:

U.S. Land Ownership Maps and Atlases
There are two databases that feature land ownership maps and atlases for the U.S.

Both databases are browsable by state and then by city or county. I found several New York City and Brooklyn maps that I didn’t even know were available. For example, there is an 1850 Map of New York City. On it you’ll find lists of hotels, including the infamous Tammany Hall (which I just realized happens to be very close to where my Irish Kellys were living in 1850), public buildings, squares and markets, cemeteries, charitable institutions, schools, parks, and churches. Continue reading

Cousins via Canada? by Juliana Smith

Ludevit Skokan, line 5, page 1Last week I posted a press release on the blog about a new database of Canadian Passenger Lists, 1865-1935 that was added to Ancestry.ca. Available to Ancestry.ca and World Deluxe subscribers this collection includes roughly 7.2 million names of passengers arriving in Canadian ports.

While this is fantastic news for folks with Canadian roots, it’s also good for many Americans, who may not realize that they have cousins in Canada or Ludevit Skokan -Canadian PL 1927 2.gifancestors who traveled through our northerly neighbor on the way to the U.S.

When the database first rolled, I got that gleam in my eye that comes when I see an opportunity to learn something new about my family. I already knew that my Kelly ancestors had come to the U.S. after first stopping in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in the 1820s. Perhaps some of my later Irish immigrants did as well. For much of the nineteenth century, travel to Canada was cheaper than a direct route to the U.S. and at times was promoted by steamship companies. Many immigrants followed that advice.

With this in mind, I was tempted to drop everything and start pillaging that database in search of family, but alas, after an extended weekend I had a full plate with work and a ton of things to do around the house, so I made a mental note to search it later. A few days went by and I had a call from our friend Megan Smolenyak. We were talking about the database and she reminded me that in 1921, when the U.S. began imposing quotas on immigrants according to nationality, many eastern Europeans turned their eyes toward Canada.

According to They Became Americans,

“The emergency immigration quotas heavily favored natives of northern and western Europe and all but closed the door to southern and eastern Europeans.”

While my Polish and Hungarian ancestors arrived around the turn of the century, might I find other relatives? That thought put me over the edge. I was off!
Continue reading

Federation of Eastern European Family History Societies-Updated Website

This week I was checking out the Canadian Passenger Arrival Records that were recently posted on Ancestry.ca in search of some connections to my Hungarian ancestors. As I was looking for information regarding locations, I happened across the newly updated website of the Federation of Eastern European Family History Societies (FEEFHS). If you have ancestors from Eastern Europe, this fantastic website is a must-see.

FEEFHS has had an outstanding presence on the Internet for more than ten years. (I’m not sure of the exact date, but I know they already had a pretty extensive presence when I was compiling the first edition of the Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book back in 1997.) At any rate, I love this newly revised website.

The FEEFHS Map Room alone is worth the visit, but the new layout makes it easier than ever to find the many resources available, by country, region, or religion/ethinicity. You can check it out yourself at www.feefhs.org.

Thoughts from the Road, by Juliana Smith

This past weekend an aunt and uncle of mine celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary. When we woke early Saturday to make the trip, my handy-dandy rain gauge told me we had already received somewhere around five to six inches of rain. (OK. it’s not really a rain gauge, more of an empty bucket, but the weatherman backed me up on the numbers.) With all that rain, it was decided that my husband would stay home on sump-pump duty while my daughter and I made the trek to Cleveland. While I was on the road, several parallels came to mind and I tucked them away to share with you this week.

One of the first things that occurred to me during the long drive was that our ancestors didn’t always travel together either. Don’t dismiss that passenger list entry, simply because you don’t see the entire family on the manifest. It may have been a case of chain migration, with one or both parents immigrating alone, and the children following later—perhaps all at once, or maybe a few at a time. The family may have wanted to get established in their new home, or perhaps they had to wait until they could afford to send for the remainder of the family.

Geographical and Natural Barriers
So back to my travels. We left in the pouring rain, hoping to pass it by, but in the end we drove for five and a half hours in a non-stop monsoon. So the ride home had to be better, right? Nope. It started out nicely enough, but Hurricane Ike met me at the Indiana state line and let’s just say that my fingerprints are now firmly embedded in my steering wheel! Then to top it off, as we were nearing home, my husband called to inform me that 1-80/94, which was the main route home, was closed due to flooding. So I had to take a roundabout detour, which landed me in one of the many construction zones that sprout up in the summer months.

As I sat in traffic in the land of orange cones, I was reminded that our ancestors were also forced to take detours. While the nearest town to your great-grandparents’ farm may have only been a mile away, rough terrain, or steep mountains may have made it more convenient for your ancestor to travel ten or twenty miles in the other direction to do business or attend church. Perhaps that’s where you’ll find records of the family in church records, court records, probates, land records, naturalizations, and other locally created records. Continue reading

The World Archives Project at Ancestry, by Juliana Smith

World Archives.bmpA little over ten years ago, I had a baby in diapers, a part-time job with a fledgling Internet company called Ancestry.com, and I had volunteered to edit the newsletter of the Chicago Genealogical Society. When a full-time job opened up at Ancestry for editor of the company’s e-zine, The Ancestry Daily News, it was my volunteer experience editing the CGS newsletter that helped me get the job.

The experience also gave me a profound respect for the work that genealogical societies do for the community. Always on the forefront of records preservation, so many records would be lost forever if it weren’t for societies taking steps to preserve them through publications, periodicals, and more recently, online databases.

Unfortunately, despite the valiant efforts of societies, government agencies, the Family History Library, and the work now being done by commercial entities, the number of records still deteriorating in their original form is staggering. Last year the New York Times estimated that at the March 2007 rate of digitization, it would take 1,800 years to digitize the estimated 9 billion text records in the National Archives. 

And that’s just the records of the National Archives! Think of all of the records in local municipalities across the U.S. and around the world, waiting to be digitized. And I thought I had a big job scanning family photographs and documents!

The World Archives Project
Fortunately, government agencies are finding hope in partnering with experienced commercial entities. In May of 2008, The Generations Network signed an agreement with the National Archives that will help speed up the digitization of some of the records mentioned in that New York Times article.

With scanners already onsite at NARA, Ancestry is now looking to harness the power of volunteers to create indexes through its new initiative, the World Archives Project.

The indexes created through the World Archives Project will be free to everyone. Images will remain behind the paid subscription wall to cover the costs of digitization, but active contributors to the project who key 900 records or more per quarter will have access to all of the images that are part of the World Archives Project–not just those that they have helped index. In addition to that, they will receive a 10 percent discount on the renewal of their Ancestry.com U.S. Deluxe membership and 15 percent on the renewal of their World Deluxe membership.

In addition, active contributors will also have a vote in what collections are indexed next. Here’s your chance to promote that collection from your ancestor’s hometown! Continue reading

Beyond the Naturalization Index, by Juliana Smith

John Menkalski alien registrationI love that thrill that comes when you find an ancestor in a database or record collection. Even after many years of researching, I still get excited. I’ll usually let out a little whoop, startling any dogs or cats that happen to be hanging around in my office, and perhaps do a little happy dance. My daughter will roll her eyes and give me that, “My mom is crazy” look, and I’ll just remind her it could be worse. Perhaps she’d like to see the dance I do when I make discoveries in libraries and other public places. Ahh, mortifying the teenager . . . good times.

Fortunately for her more and more of my happy dances can be JohnMenkalskiAlienReg002-resize.bmpdone from home. Not only do we have indexes, we also often find original records online. Even when we can’t, government agencies are finding it practical to make record requests easier through their websites by adding helpful information, indexes, and downloadable forms to submit with record requests.

Back in May, Ancestry posted nearly 2.5 million index cards to U.S. Naturalization Records, 1794-1995 to its Immigration Collection. On August 13th, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS, formerly the INS), launched its Genealogy Program to expedite our requests for older records, including naturalization records. I wondered about the relationship between the naturalization indices at Ancestry and USCIS records, and so I contacted USCIS to learn more. They gave me some helpful information for those who have found their ancestors in the index entries and are ready to request the naturalization records from the USCIS.

What records do they have?
The USCIS offers five sets of records under their new program, the largest of which are their naturalization records, which begin 27 September 1906. These are known as “C-Files.” Some C-Files are in textual form, and others have been microfilmed. When you locate your ancestor on the index, you’ll (hopefully–more on this later) find a C-File number. If the number is below 6500000, the record is on microfilm. If the C-File number is above 6500000, it will be a textual (paper) file. Textual files are a bit more expensive to order ($35) because it’s more labor intensive to retrieve them and copy them, as opposed to the files that have been microfilmed ($20).

The USCIS also has an index to all of the C-Files ($20), and you can request a search of that index if necessary. In some cases this index will be a carbon copy of the court indexes that Ancestry has posted to its website. In other cases, the format may vary a bit. In most cases, the court index cards at Ancestry will include the C-File number that is necessary to order the naturalization file for your ancestor. Continue reading

Using AncestryPress: Tips from a Completed Project, by Juliana Smith

Back in June, I wrote about an AncestryPress project my dad and I have been working on, creating a descendants book for our immediate family. At that time, we had laid the groundwork and started loading images. Once we had the book formatted and photos added we decided to get input from the rest of the family.

Prior to the invitation to view the book, getting everyone to contribute their favorite family photos had been like pulling teeth. But once they saw the actual project, photos began pouring in. Perhaps it was the collection of bad 70s pictures we had included for each of my siblings or maybe just seeing the actual book got them a little more excited about it. Whatever the reason, we suddenly had proofreading help and a lot more pictures to add–as well as some requests to “Please, oh please, take that one out!” These changes prolonged the project a bit, but the extra work was worth it. Everyone had great ideas and our book is better for it.

As our project progressed to completion this past week, I learned a few tricks, so in today’s column I’ll share them with you.

Photo Folders
Our project was very image heavy. We were working with more than 100 photographs so we had to figure out a way to sort them so that they weren’t cumbersome to go through while we worked on the pages. To do this we saved them into folders on dad’s computer–one for each person (e.g., Juliana, Diana, etc.) Then when we loaded the images, we created corresponding folders in AncestryPress. These folders for me and my siblings, made it easy to select photos for one person’s section of the book, without wading through photos of other family members.

When people started sending in a second wave of pictures, we ran into some minor complications. With so many pictures scattered throughout the fifty-page book, it was tough to remember which were used and which were new. To avoid duplication, we created a second folder for each person (e.g., Juliana2, Diana2, etc.). This let us work only with the newest pictures. As each photo was used, we would copy it to the original “used” folder for use in future projects and delete it from the later folders. (To move images among folders, just open the folder you want to move it from, click on the image and drag it to the new folder. Then you can click on the link at the bottom of that window to remove the selected image.)

Another helpful tool in locating images in the photo folders was the search box. You can search individual files or all of the photos in AncestryPress by the name of the photograph. This was a real timesaver on a number of occasions.

When it came to working with the timeline and small print, I did two things that helped. First, I expanded my browser to “View Full Screen.” Secondly, whenever I was working with text, I used the slide bar at the top of the AncestryPress tool to zoom in on the page. With the full page on the screen, the type was just too tiny for my eyes to see, even with my reading glasses, and this helped me to make sure there were no typos. Then once I had entered and re-read the text, I went back to full screen and dealt with alignment and arrangement issues.

Editing the Timelines
The timelines turned out to be a big hit. As I mentioned in my last article, we changed the items in the timelines to include events that were more relevant to our family. We added the first airing of favorite television shows, sports events, favorite movies, and other fun trivia.

Dark BackgroundsAPress color vs white2.bmp
On the photograph pages, when we first started putting in the images, we went for lighter colored backgrounds, but as I looked through the pages, the photographs didn’t really stand out. We switched to darker backgrounds and I was amazed at how much it helped make the photos “pop” out of the book. We ended up choosing a particular background for each family in the book, so that their section was consistent with their color. Experiment with various backgrounds and textures and see what works best with the photographs on your pages.APress color vs white.bmp

Also, don’t look at just one page, look at the spread as a whole. You can do this by clicking on the Preview/Print button at the top of the tool. That way you’ll see how the pages look together, just as if you were looking at the real book. Doing this will help you keep styles consistent.

Continue reading

Your Ancestors and the Law, by Juliana Smith

It started with an e-mail from my sister asking for help with a trivia scavenger hunt that my niece was participating in. She needed to find out what food is forbidden to be eaten after 6 p.m. in Newark, New Jersey, without a doctor’s note. After a few tries, I found reference to an odd law that prohibits eating ice cream on Sunday evenings. Of course I couldn’t stop there. Like a child following a butterfly, I strayed from the task at hand (a.k.a., this column) and went off in search of other strange laws.

I learned that here in Indiana, I’m not supposed to bathe in the winter. (Sorry, I’m going to have to be an outlaw on that one!) In Florida, if you tie your elephant to the parking meter, you have to pay the meter. Now I haven’t been to Florida in a while, but is this a problem there? I would think if the police came across an elephant tied to a parking meter, the first question that popped into their heads wouldn’t be, “Hey, did he pay the meter?” And besides, where would they put the ticket? 

And of course, in Idaho, it is illegal to fish from a camel’s back. Consider yourselves warned Idahoans.

The list goes on and on and it got me thinking. My guess is that for the most part, these laws were put on the books many years ago and just never got removed, and that the bath thing goes back to the days when some thought that bathing during the winter was actually dangerous due to the risk of pneumonia. (The reasoning behind the elephant and camel laws continues to escape me.)

There were other laws that affected our ancestors, and in doing so, affect us as we seek out the records that they left. Becoming familiar with the laws of the time can help us be more successful in our searches and not waste time looking for records that don’t exist, or that exist in another place. Let’s take a look:

Immigration Law
Naturalization records are among the most prized records by genealogists. But finding them requires a little knowledge about immigration laws for the time period in which the record was created. Will there be a naturalization record for Great-grandma Rose? Prior to 1922, the answer is probably not, because women derived citizenship from their father or husband (although there were exceptions). Continue reading