FamHist Blog

Family History Research Hints and Tips

Reading Old Handwriting

If you have ever found old documents related to your family, you’ve probably struggled to read the writing on them. I’ve puzzled over the interpretation of an old blessing document for several years with little progress. After spending an hour studying the document, I’ll lay it down for a week or month and then try to add additional words to my transcription. Often the rest period frees my mind from the interpretation that I’ve ‘locked’ in my brain and previously undecipherable words become readable.

Several methods to help us read old documents are available to all of us. Study the way the vowels are shaped throughout the document. Trace them and write them down with a alphabetic key by their side. Next, explore the document for other letters that are recognizable and add them to your list. Soon, you’ll have enough characters defined that you can interpolate the words in the document even if you can’t read some or even many of the letters.

Search the web and local family history supply stores for example lists of old writing with the alphabet listed down the side. Add these tools to your research quiver. Below is an example of 1800 English writing with the associated alphabetic letters listed in rows. Yes, it sometimes takes a lot of time to transcribe old documents, but they often provide the key items that lead us to knocking down ‘brick walls’ in our ancestral quest.

29 July 2007 Posted by | Research Tips | | Leave a comment

Family Genie Toolbar

A new tool bar dedicated to family history research called ‘Family Genie’ is now available for Internet Explorer (IE) and Firefox. The download link to it is found on Mario Hipol’s blog,

I’ve used Mario’s LDS research toolbar for some time. About two months ago I asked him if he’d ever considered creating a toolbar dedicated to family history research. He hadn’t but the idea matched his own interests and now we have a wonderful tool to help us in our research.

Mario has written all the code and is personally paying for the hosting and downloading of the toolbar code out of his own pocket, so if you try it and like it, send him a donation. You’ll find the link on the toolbar. He created the toolbar out of the goodness of his heart for folks like us, so please support him in a show of donation $ thanks.

I posted a comment about the toolbar on genealogy newsgroup site and fellow researchers started to try the new tool. After just a few of them started to use it, the word spread rapidly and the tool is becoming an overnight success.

Mario has already released an update for the toolbar and will continue to do so from time to time adding more links, features, etc. How does the saying go? …… ah, yes…. ‘Try it, you’ll like it’.

Thanks go to Mario for ‘Paying it Forward’.

Remember: TANSTAAFL (There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch) Be sure to ‘Pay it Forward‘ in some act of family history kindness too.

20 July 2007 Posted by | Research Tips | 1 Comment

Vital Record Searches

Many states are adding vital records information to their state websites. As an example, today I looked at the Massachusetts Archives pages posted under the name of William Francis Galvin, Secretary of the Commonwealth. My ancestors lived in Plymouth, Massachusetts for almost 300 years and so I hoped to find information about the family. Success! When I searched for just deaths associated with the Drew surname, I received 3 pages of records from the mid-1800’s through the early 1900’s. Almost all of the names were in my database and for many of them, this is the only source of their death years that I have in my records.

Other states have posted similar pages on their websites. To find them, search for them using various search terms in your search engine, such as Massachusetts+Vital+Records or other similar terms. I’ve already talked about finding death records on state archive sites on this blog and those listings let you view actual death certificates. Most states don’t post the death certificates but rather have index listings of births, marriages and deaths.

Be sure to fully explore the site for other information that has been listed about historical records for the state. Once more, we’ll look at the Massachusetts website. They have posted a page that describes the types of records that have been created in the state along with sample images of the records. This information is extremely useful to researchers because the researcher now knows the types of records that can be found, the years covered by the records and where to find or obtain copies of the original records in that state.

Since I’ve mentioned indexes, the question arises — Are index listings equivalent to primary source records? Well, technically no, they are not. You want to secure copies of actual primary source records to generally assure your records are correct, but the index information will certainly point you to the town, year, volume and page numbers of the primary records. So, by all means, use them as part of the sourcing of your data.

Roots TV has some very good training videos about sources that are worth review by any family history researcher. Take the time to watch at least some of them to help you correctly record and establish the quality of your source information. The longer you are involved in research, the happier you’ll be that you recorded your sources accurately from the start (or from today on).

18 July 2007 Posted by | Sources | Leave a comment

What a great time to be alive!

“What a great time to be alive!” I said it out loud again sitting in my home office last night. I work for footnote.com and see samplings of the millions of images of historical records the company is posting on our site every month. The quantity of records, historical documents and old newspapers flowing by my desk is truly staggering. Every time I think I’ve found ‘all’ of the information that exists on my ancestors, something new is posted on Footnote and other archival sites.

Last night, I decided to look for any additional information about my 5th great grandfather, Joseph Tribble and his wife, Sarah Howard. Over the years, I thought I’d found ‘all’ of the records that existed about the couple, but I was wrong. The search found a handwritten letter from grandma Sarah Howard Tribble addressed to the government as a written statement in support of a Revolutionary War retirement benefit for the widow of a veteran from Plymouth, Massachusetts. She described how she had known the widow since their youth and verified that the deceased husband had indeed been a soldier in the Contiental Army.

There weren’t any new facts about the Tribble family but reading the letter made grandma more than just a name and dates to me. I had found a window back in time allowing me to ‘see’ some of her personality both through her written words and in the unique styling of her capital ‘T’ and ‘S’. Grandma had flair! Her lettering was carefully formed when she wrote slowly but slipped into an interesting compression as she quickly wrote the last few sentences that ended her letter.

Soon, millions of images will be available on line through LDS family history libraries, from Footnote, Ancestry and other similar web sites. We can find information on our ancestors quickly and easily sitting in our PJ’s at home. Who can complain that doing family history research is too hard now? “What a great time to be alive!”

14 July 2007 Posted by | Research Tips | Leave a comment

The Unexpected Photo

Family history researchers often encounter unexpected ‘finds’ related to their research. Recently, our daughter stopped in at a local bakery to pickup a few favorite ‘honey buns’ for her family. Looking at the signs of the few businesses between her vehicle and the bakery, she saw a 3ft by 4ft photo of her grandfather and great aunt in front of a small photographers shop. The photo was taken in 1917 and was being used to advertise restoration of old damaged photographs.

She immediately called me to confirm the identity of the two young people the photo. Yes, they were my father and aunt. Our family had a small old aged and worn copy of the photo but had no idea that another copy existed.

Apparently, a copy of the original photo was in the archives of the American Fork library and when they cleaned out their files, they gave the photo to the owner of the photo shop. He thought that it would be the perfect subject of an advertisement showing his ability to restore old photos for customers.

My wife subsequently purchased a 8″x10″ copy of the photo and now our family has a very good photo of my father and aunt as youngsters.

What were the odds of me holding a precious copy of the long lost photo of my father a few minutes ago? High to non-existent! But… when we are involved in family history research the rules associated with odds making don’t seem to follow the norm. Maybe they originate somewhere in string theory.

In my experience, when we work hard to find our ancestors, we frequently encounter similar ‘fantastic’ finds. Photos magically appear, family records surface and brick walls in our research crumble unexpectedly. If you haven’t already enjoyed similar finds, stay focused in your search and expect items to unexpectedly appear from a hidden dimension.

7 July 2007 Posted by | Photos, Research Tips | , , | 1 Comment