FamHist Blog

Family History Research Hints and Tips

Don’t Wear That Plaid – or Else!

While working on my Scots ancestry this week, I spent a little time looking at my Scottish made ties and caps that represent the tartans of my various Scottish ancestral clans.

We all know that it is difficult to prove true ancestry to any of the famous clan surnames back to the distant past because early clans were more closely associated with tribes or commonly allied groups rather than just a family surname.   Most members took on the name of their clan as their surname rather than the name of their father.

Black Stewart Clan members generally stayed together in common causes to protect their lands, families and interests.  At times, some members would change allegiance to anther clan.  These decisions had significantly more personal impact than swapping political parties today but did happen.

The wearing of the clan tartan was important, involving pride, allegiance, marking of territory and ideals.

Did you know that tartans were once outlawed by the English Government?

After the Battle of Culloden on 16 Apr 1746, the Duke of Cumberland earned the reputation of ‘Butcher’ because of his savage treatment of the survivors.  Scotland was divided on both sides of the conflict and in an attempt to stop clan loyalties from combining and continue to fight, the English Parliament passed a law that prohibited the carrying of arms by “such Persons who have lately raised and carried on a most wicked and audacious Rebellion against his Majesty, in favour of a Popish Pretenter.”

The law also declared that no one in Scotland other than those employed as Officers an Soldiers of his Majesties Forces “could on any Pretence whatsoever, wear or put on the Clothes commonly called Highland Clothes” or in other words, Scottish Tartans.

Dress StewartThe first offense of wearing the tartan carried a penalty of six months in jail.  The second offense carried the penalty of being “transported to any of his Majesty’s Plantations beyond the Seas, there to remain for the space of seven years.”   In other words, it generally meant being shipped off to America.

The law was meant to disarm and humiliate the rebels who fought against the crown.

British soldiers patrolled the Scottish highlands and lowlands for years looking for anyone breaking this law.

Stories have been handed down of the brutal treatment of any law breakers.

One example was of a McKay from the far northwestern tip of Scotland being arrested for wearing his tartan.  When questioned, he claimed that he didn’t know anything about the law due to the distance of his home from the population centers to the south.

As he was being hauled off by the troops, they were attacked by a large group of women who secured his release.  Unfortunately, the British sent a larger contingent to find these “miscreants” and both the man and his rescuers were arrested and jailed.

Magistrates often turned a blind eye to the law when locals wore their tartans.  Unfortunately, when this was discovered by the Kings men, they were arrested and also jailed for six months.

Innes_TartanThe law was repealed in 1757 when Prime Minister William Pitt chose to commission new Highland regiments to fight the French in the war with them in America.  Outcry from the politicians over this decision was quickly quieted when these regiments proved their worth in battle.

In 1760, George III, became the English King and the hard-core Jacobites were put out of power.  Because of the legendary actions of the Highland regiments, political opinion toward the banning of wearing clan tartans diminished.

On 17 Jun 1782, the Marquis of Graham, who was one of the leaders in the Highland Society in London, rose in Parliament and moved that the law prohibiting the wearing of the Scottish Highland dress be repealed.  On 1 Jul 1782, an act to that effect received royal assent and it was again lawful for the Scots to wear their tartans.

And so, here I sit in my office, legally holding and occasionally wearing the tartans worn by my many Scots ancestors.  I like some of the colors and designs better than others but that is based simply on my personal taste, not on the valor, ideals and attendant relationship they represent to any of the clans.

I love and honor all of my Scots ancestors.  Equally.  I am fascinated by them, their lives, struggles and amazingly tenacious ability to cling to life in a most inhospitable environment.  My Scots ancestors often fought each other and my ancestors who were English kings.  I wish they hadn’t had these brutal battles but because of them, I have a history of ancestors that probably wouldn’t exist otherwise.

Today, when I speak to some of the older Scots gentlemen, I usually don’t understand much of what they say, but love listening to them.  As much as I’d love speaking to most of my ancestors face to face today, I’d probably have the same problem with most if not all of them.  I suppose they’d feel the same way listening to my western twang.

So on this snowy December day, my best holiday wishes go to all my ancestors and because of the tartans held in my hands, especially to my Anderson, Bruce, Buchanan, Campbell, Cumming, Davidson, Forbes, Fraser, Grant, Gordon, Hay, Innes, Keith, Logie, MacLeod, McMahon, Murray, Ross, Stewart and Urquhart ancestors and the minor families who associated with them.

22 December 2008 Posted by | Research Tips | | 1 Comment

The Kirke’s (Churches) of Bornholm Island – Denmark

One branch of my ancestry lived on Bornholm Island in the Baltic Sea for hundreds of years.   The island is located east of Denmark, north of Poland and South of Sweden, covers 227 square miles and the language is a dialect of Danish called “bornhlmsk”.

Because of the small land size and remote location, residents tended to live there for many generations.  Churches are called Kirke’s and on Bornholm, the design and styles are truly unique.  They are well kept and I’m lucky because there are so many great Danish census and church records documenting the residents there over the past 400 years.

Of course those of us not living where patronymics were used in naming convention may struggle a little in tracing lineages.

It isn’t too difficult understanding the principle when Lars Jensen is the son of Jens Andersen who was the son of Anders Hansen.  The first name of the father becomes the surname of the child.   Just add ‘sen’ for the men and ‘datter’ for the ladies.  It’s simple right?

Well, not always.  Sometimes a location was tacked on to the name as well.  An example is Hans Hansen Riis. Of course, there are many other variations in naming that existed there too, but after a few days of research, you’ll generally get the ‘drift’ of how it all worked.

Unfortunately, there weren’t too many unique first names used on the island … Hans, Jorgen, Jens, Anders, Peder, Bendt, Lars, Esper, etc.  So how do you track your family when there are a ton of men with common names and you aren’t sure which one is yours?

Research takes some thoughtful reasoning.  Surnames are only a clue to the father’s name.   They don’t continue down through the family unless you are lucky and descend through Hans the son of Hans who was also the son of Hans and hence end up with three Hansen’s in a row.   Of course that really isn’t that much help since there are a lot of unrelated Hansen’s in the area.  Remember how common the first name ‘Hans’ is…..   Hopefully, your ancestor had a middle name too, which narrows down the number of possibilities.

I’m sure that there is a very good method to trace patronymic lineages.  I’ve read a lot of instruction books on the subject but have found that for me personally, the best way to find my ancestors is to inventory all the church and census records in the area, compare birth years and locations and then narrow down the probable candidates to a list of names, places and dates.  By adding the known birth date of a child and you now have two points of reference in addition to the birth location of the child.

To the readers, if you have great hints, tips and instructions about researching ancestors who used patronymics as a naming convention, leave a note and links on this post so we can all benefit from your knowledge.

I rely on touring the ancestral locations and look for probable migratory patterns.  I’ve described using Google Earth as a research tool in other postings.  It is my constant companion when I’m doing research farther back in time.   I plot the results of ‘probable’ or ‘possibles’ individuals and locations, save the file and add the known locations.

The visual representation helps in the quest.  Granted, folks may have moved long distances back then, but usually the ‘distance movers’ are few in numbers.  Most folks stayed in a fairly small radius on a map.  You just need the town and parish names so you can start your search.

During the evenings this week, I’ve toured all the churches, graveyards and farmlands where my ancestors lived on Bornholm using Google Earth.   Thanks to other users who have posted photos of the locations and have attached them to the database, I’ve had a grand time.  Although the smells and ambiance were missing, my imagination filled in a lot of the blanks.   I can still smell the fish smoke houses when I think about them.

If you’d like to take a quick tour of the churches that served my ancestors using Google Earth, click here.  Once the program launches, just click on Tools > Play Tour.  (Yes, I’m assuming you already have the free Google Earth program installed on your computer).

Have you created files of the birth, marriage, death and burial locations of your family yet?  If not, go for it.   It is easy and you’ll quickly find out how useful this tool is in your research and ancestral remembrance.

If you’d like a quick photo tour of the beautiful and unique Bornholm island and its buildings, play the video below.

20 December 2008 Posted by | Research Tips | , , , | Leave a comment

Embedded History

Standing in line with other fourth graders, I dropped my lunch ticket and bent over to pick it up from the floor.   The fellow behind me had two newly sharpened pencils sticking out of his pocket and turned to talk to some one just as my head went down.   I’ve had a one-eighth inch piece of lead from one of them embedded in my ear ever since.


Our grandchildren and possibly even our children don’t know that story.  Like my friend, grandpa Pickles, our grandchildren consider me to be ancient of days.  Maybe they should.  Who uses pencils and memorized trig functions in school anymore?

They don’t know why I don’t have much feeling in my body due to a spinal injury as a pre-teen when a car ran a red light and hit the young newspaper boy.  Even if told they probably couldn’t relate because they don’t have any reference points in their own life experiences.

I often wonder about why my own ancestors worked in certain occupations or are listed as having certain idiosyncrasies.

My grandchildren don’t realize that I am hyper-alert whenever using power tools because I watched my father slice his thumb lengthwise on a table saw when I was nine.

I’ve often been rewarded in my ancestral quest when opening my mind to more than dates and places.   Watching for the “why’s” and “what for’s” is often more helpful to my research than just the raw facts.

Reading the disability statements in the Revolutionary War pension application of my ancestor gives me the hint that he probably had lead poisoning from a wound in battle slowly destroying his health.  Not all fragments from the bullet were removed due to their location and the medical skills of the day.

The impact from his deteriorating health was heavily felt by his family as it became more and more difficult to manually work to support them.

A grandmother in my ancestral tree obviously died from Alzheimer’s disease at a fairly young age and was said to have lost her mind in the year or two previous to her death.

I suppose family and friends referred to her as ‘poor old grandma Bennett who lost her mind’.   The impact on her family was substantial because of the substantial personality change and sudden dependency of the once stalwart matriarch of a large family.

Of course, our interpretation of the causes or diagnosis of problems is tenuous as we peer back through the lens looking across time, but often we can recognize symptoms and their almost certain results.

I suppose that if our ancestors looked back through the same lens at us in our day, they’d often shake their heads and using their closer to nature common sense reference points think that we are harming ourselves in our own life choices.

Either way, the time spent thinking about the events and reference points of the person in the study gives better insight into their lives, environment and personalities.

Trying to understand the conditions and lives of our ancestors make them more ‘real’ to us.  More depth of knowledge about their stories and lives establishes a dimensional character that we can relate to and remember.

Think about your own ancestors without looking at your pedigree charts or databases first.   Which individuals come to mind first?  Which ones can you easily discuss when asked?

I’ll bet it isn’t the ones with just dates and places associated with their names.   It is the ones that you’ve taken the time to clothe with facets of their reality and life experiences.

Don’t forget to embed history and stories into an ancestors record while doing ancestral research.  Even if it is only the story about a piece of pencil lead in their ear.

9 December 2008 Posted by | Research Tips | , | 2 Comments

If Wishes Were…..


We all have certain presents we’d like to receive for Christmas but know that they’ll probably never actually appear.

In 1986 I made slight detour coming home from business meetings in northern California and stopped in Angel’s Camp, California to meet a long lost cousin.   When I arrived, I found him teaching tennis to some youth on a tennis court, sweaty, a little winded and extremely busy.

The Diary

My cousin, Gerald Turner, had inherited two precious possessions from our common great grandfather.  I asked to see David Lewis Drew’s diary.  He pointed toward his office and said go ahead look at them.  The diary was small, about 4″ x 6″ and an inch thick.  It was filled with entries from David’s first year in California during the Gold Rush in Calaveras County.   I took two photos of the pages with the little disposable camera I had purchased after my camera died two days earlier, hoping they would turn out and I’d at least have a sample of grandpa’s writing.  Neither of the photos were readable after the film was developed but the photo of the old secretary was ok.

I thanked Gerald for allowing me to see and handle them.  During our closing remarks, I mentioned that I’d love have them if he ever decided to dispose of them and emphasized that the diary was especially precious in my opinion.   He said that he’d like to see them stay in the family, shook hands and turned to greet the next tennis class that had just arrived.

Gerald died not too long afterward and I was called by his estate attorney asking if I wanted anything from his estate.   I replied that I wanted the journal and would love to have the secretary.   The phone was silent for a few moments and then he said that he was sorry, but that neither item was in the estate.

Where had they gone?  He promised to look into it but was never able to find what happened to them.  I had touched and briefly read pages in the diary.   How I wish it would show up under the tree this Christmas.  It is priceless to me but probably just junk to almost everyone else.

The Box of Records

While reading letters Gerald’s sister, Hattie, had written to my mother, she mentioned that her mother had all of the genealogical records and documents that our great aunt, Julia Drew Tower had collected during her life including items given her by our Tirrill aunts in Stewartstown, New Hampshire.

They were stored in an old box in Hattie’s mothers home.   When she died the box disappeared.   Hattie’s letter listed the items in the box and I wished I could see and copy them.   I’m sick that they were probably thrown away.   Again, they were probably just trash to others, but would be like diamonds to me.    I’d be ecstatic if the box and contents showed up under the tree this year.  How I wish they would…

The Miracles

Walking down the hall to my office today, I stopped to look at all the large old photos of my ancestors hanging on the walls.  I still can’t believe that I have them.

When I was about seven, my mother took me with her to my grandfathers house.   Her siblings were cleaning ‘stuff’ out of the old home and tearing down the old barn.   The old trash wood from the barn and much of the ‘stuff’ from inside the home were tossed into a fire so it didn’t have to be hauled off to a garbage dump.

Old magazines, clothing, stacks of family papers and other items were quickly dispatched before we arrived.  My mother was disturbed that they had been destroyed before she had a chance to look through them for ancestral records and mementos from her youth.  We wished we’d arrived earlier to intervene.

When were getting ready to leave, she suddenly had an idea.  Maybe something was still left in the attic behind the trap door.  Crawling up on the sink in the bathroom, I tipped the attic door open and crawled up into the dusty and dank attic space.   I didn’t have a flashlight, so I used my hands to feel around to find anything left there.

Mom’s intuition was right.  There were dusty old framed photos leaning against a rafter brace behind the door that you wouldn’t see unless looking for them specifically.   The photos were of my great grandparents and second great grandparents.  Wow!  I found treasure.

When lowering them down though the opening, I saw tears came to mom’s eyes.   She was delighted that they hadn’t been burned.   Eventually, she gave them to me, knowing how much I’d treasure them.

Ten years ago, my wife received a call from her great aunt saying that if she would come up to her home over the weekend she would give her some genealogy items that she would enjoy.  Once again, good fortune came to our family.  She received the same type of large old photos of her ancestors that I’d received years ago too.

Christmas came early when we received our respective ancestral photos.   We couldn’t imagine gifts of such magnificence.  Treasure!

This holiday season, verbalize your own ancestral gift wishes.   Some times, if wishes were …. they actually come true.

Start your list today.   Dear Santa…….  I want …..

5 December 2008 Posted by | Diaries, Research Tips | , | Leave a comment

No Passport. No Reservations.

I stopped living on a jet nine years ago and don’t miss the constant hassle of airports, hotels and lost hours from home and family.   The only trips I really enjoyed were those that involved family history research or visiting Disney.   Why Disney didn’t build a large complex in Plymouth County, Massachusetts, I’ll never know, but it certainly would have been perfectly sited in my opinion….. at least in the summer….

When you don’t live near the location where many if not most of your ancestors lived for generations, short visits just don’t afford enough time to visit all the libraries, vital record centers, ancestral homes and cemeteries you’d like to see.

Before your research trip, you plan out everything you want to see and put a star by the things you have to see and do.

Your schedule goes exactly as planned and so there is little time required in those areas of your research again.   Right?

I suppose that there is a statistical probability that is true for someone at  sometime, but I probably wouldn’t believe it even with proof.

In my last post, I talked about losing myself in Google Books.  I didn’t mention how much time I Google Earthspend using Google Earth in my ancestral research.

It is too bad that Google doesn’t offer frequent flyer miles, because I’d never have to pay for a flight again in my lifetime.

I don’t accomplish everything on my list when I travel on family history research trips.  I always find ancestral families that lived in the area I just visited AFTER I get home.   I never find all of the cemeteries and ancestral homes that I planned to visit.

What to do?   Research trips are expensive.   Talking momma into one more ‘exciting’ week browsing through dusty archives in the basements of a government buildings with walls covered by the requisite green tile is a tall order, even though she loves genealogy too.

There is at least a partial solution to my dilemma.  I book the next flight on Google Earth and fly back to discover the cemeteries and buildings that I wish I’d found or known about when I was there in person.

Then I start creating pin markers for each of the locations with descriptive names and save them with descriptive file names.  Soon, migration patterns emerge.  They help me better plan my next research trip to the library or ancestral location.

I create multiple files that cover a variety of topics.    One is completely comprised of cemeteries pins only.   Another is comprised of the locations where my ancestors lived.  By using different colored pins for each family, I can easily separate them into my various lineal families.

One file is based entirely on occupations and historical events.  They help me understand why many of my ancestors were constantly on the move westward, often homesteading or claiming bounty land grants for military service.   Yet another file shows me where the principal ports were located on the coast of New England and the number and color of pins tell me whether the ships based there were whalers, merchant or military ships.

With these maps, I have a quick visual reference that opens new vistas of contemplation regarding my ancestral quest.  By zooming in, around and across the various pins, I see arenas of exploration that I haven’t considered before.

Animating the burial location file allows me to visually observe migration patterns that aren’t necessarily linear.   Reading the burial locations in my database doesn’t necessarily equate to envisioning the migration path moving west, then north, then south and even back east again.  Why did they do that?  Hmmmmm.   It is time to rethink my research plan yet again.

I animate some of the files to help teach our grandchildren about their ancestors.  They are young, but watching the flight from ancestral home to ancestral home around the world is second nature in their view of the world.   They expect to have tools and presentations like this and hence pick up the meaning of what they are seeing almost immediately.

Within minutes, I have to surrender the mouse so they can run the show, explore the program and as if by osmosis, learn the interface and tools in Google Earth so they can start adding additional data points that I’ve overlooked or haven’t considered.

The virtual world is theirs but I’m not ready to give up my seat in it.  Neither should you.  If you aren’t using Google Earth in your own ancestral quest, download the free application today and get with it.   It is easy to use and of course even if you get hung up a little, just ask your kids or grandkids to help and they’ll have you up and flying in short order.

While writing this posting,  Dan Lynch left a comment on my last posting about Google Books.   He has written an excellent book called “Google Your Family Tree” that would be an excellent addition to your library and research skills.   Perhaps Santa will bring you a copy if you ask for it.

Post a note and let us know how you use Google Earth in your own ancestral quest.   I’ll bet there are hundreds of ideas that you’ve found that will benefit the entire family history community.

3 December 2008 Posted by | Research Tips | , | Leave a comment