FamHist Blog

Family History Research Hints and Tips

A Matter of Temporary Insanity

There are times when you just have to sit and shake you head.  There are no words to describe the situation fully.   Today hosted one of those events for me.

I have been searching for one of my ancestral family for years without success.  I’ve looked at my research notes repeatedly hoping that they would offer up a clue or initiate a thought process that I hadn’t explored already.  The result was always the same.  No missed clues, no new ideas, nothing found in new searches.

That was until today.  My Pavlonian trained mind was apparently working with a disconnect because when I looked at the name in my records today, I realized that I’d written down the wrong surname way back when.  The expected name wasn’t there. 

When first entering the data, I had written the surname of one of my Danish ancestors rather than the very similar name that I should have been looking for all of this time. 

insane certificate No matter how many times I’ve looked at the problem, my brain saw the name it expected to see…. the one it was familiar with after years of use.  Not believing I could make this error and not find it for so long, I typed the name without looking at the screen.   Looking up, there it was … the wrong name again! 

I wonder how many of our research brick walls are self-created or at least self-defeating errors like this? 

After a few minutes of head shaking, I started searching again using the correct name and immediately hit pay dirt.  All of that time wasted just because I’m apparently nuts at random intervals.

If you have brickwalls that have stumped you too, take the time to SLOWLY read the data in your records compared to what you’ve added to your database. 

I don’t know whether to hope you have made a similar mistake or not, but just hope that if you have, you quickly find and fix it and are successful in your own ancestral quest.

31 January 2009 Posted by | Research Tips | , | Leave a comment

Slow Burn to War

While researching further information on my ancestors who served as soldiers in the Revolutionary War, I realized that over the years, my memory regarding the sequence of events leading up to and during the war was faulty.

CONSTITUTION P1 Over time the nuggets of information and stories we find about our ancestors tend to create divergent parallel universes in our minds.  The longer the period of our research and larger number of persons in our quest often result in a struggle to remember which universe is the ‘real’ one.

In my mind, the ‘Battle of Bunker (Breeds) Hill’ shifted closer to the end of the Revolutionary War rather than being near the leading edge.  I’d been using a false timeline in my mind when assigning search parameters.  Once dates, places and events are set in our memories, we usually don’t refer back to hard copy to confirm them again.   We just pull the information from the mental universe we’ve created for them.   “I know that.  Why waste my time to keep looking it up?”

When I found the error in dates, I started studying the Revolution and wondered why my ancestors chose to fight the British.   The classic stories from grade and high school years are wonderful, but they don’t tell the whole story.

The shots at Lexington and Concord were fired in April 1775.  The adoption of the Declaration of Independence wasn’t until over a year later in July 1776.

The British won a great victory in the French and Indian War in 1763 and suddenly found themselves with a huge empire in the eastern third of North America.   Governing this large territory was going to require more than the few clerks and nominally powerful governors that had existed up to this point in time.

Larger government, additional troops for policing and protection and other governmental functions cost money and the King of England knew that the burden should fall on those who required these services, not the citizens from other areas of the empire.

Legislative acts began to be passed by the English Parliament: The Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts and Coercive Acts arrived on the shores of North America.  All involved taxes and regulations that impacted the Colonists, but that they didn’t have any voice in their creation.  The slow burn began.

The First Continental Congress in 1774 and even the Second Continental Congress that extended through 1775 up to July 1776 offered solutions that probably would have soothed the feelings of the Colonists, but King George III and Lord North would not listen to them.  The Sovereign did not take instructions or input from his subjects.  It was an impossible thought.

My Revolutionary War combatant ancestors were all independent by nature and constantly rubbing them wrong with aloof legislation was akin to a continued friction that starts a fire.  By the time of the outbreak of hostilities in Lexington, all were ready to fight.  The slow burn was now a hot fire in their minds and acts.

Jonathan Thomas was a farmer and seasoned backwoods hunter in New Hampshire and Maine.  He didn’t need someone thousands of miles away telling him how to survive and live his life.  Jonathan fought to win.  The rules of war were abandoned.  Guerilla war was his forte’.

Abiel Chandler was still in his teens when the men in Bristol, New Hampshire formed their militia.  War may have looked more exciting through the eyes of a young man with less life experience, but his convictions ran deep in his nature.  He fought in the war and remained in the militia as a captain for a large percentage of his life.

William Bennett was a fairly recent immigrant from France.  He came to America for more freedoms than those experienced in France.  He undoubtedly took up arms early in the war because he was wounded in the early Battle of Bunker Hill.  He is listed as one of the personal guards of General Washington.  One of many, but one of them.  His wounds stayed with him for life, partially crippling him, but he willingly paid the price.

Stephen Churchill was already a lieutenant in the militia in Plymouth, Massachusetts and served as a captain for most of the remainder of the war.  An able and popular leader, his signature and written messages are found on many documents supporting those requesting military retirements and benefits throughout later years.

William Anderson escaped from the English as a young Scottish soldier who supported Prince James.  The English tried to capture and kill him before he escaped to Virginia prior to 1720.  Never a friend of the English, Colonel William Anderson was a friend to a tall young surveyor who often stopped by his farm on the North Fork of the Potomac to stay for a few days, obtain supplies or just to say hello.  As time went on this tall young man returned to visit William frequently while in service to the King battling the French and native Americans in the French and Indian War.

During the Revolutionary War, the same tall man stopped by for rest and supplies for his army.  William Anderson called him George.  His men called him General Washington.

William’s only surviving son, Thomas Anderson, had fought the French and Indians most of his life to protect his parents and neighbors on the very edge of the ‘civilization’ established by the white men of Europe.  By the time of the Battle of Yorktown, he commanded a company under General Washington at the surrender of General Cornwallis.

The slow burn was evident in each of these men.  The flash to fully engage in battle for the nebulous concept of self-government exploded in them when the relatively small skirmishes in Lexington and Concord occurred.

I’ve always been extremely grateful to those who fought for and established the Constitution and freedoms of this country.  Little did I dream that many of my ancestors were actively involved in obtaining this inestimable gift.

After years of tracing my lineage I wanted to know more about these folks than names and dates.  Finding and adding that ‘color’ to their bare facts exposed the personalities and environmental experiences of both my Revolutionary War Hero ancestors and my other ancestors who supported the war for self-governance in other non-combatant ways.

Their universe in my mind may still need to be refined, but it is closer to the truth now that I know them a little better through studying their lives.

I think we all have similar embers in our being.  Embers that are easily inflamed against those who would take these hard won freedoms from us.

23 January 2009 Posted by | Research Tips | , | Leave a comment

Those Wacky Styles

Looking through some old photos of my wife and myself today, I laughed out loud a few times.

Wearing striped bell bottoms or Levi’s that always look too short seemed to be the order of the day.   Why did I wear my Levi’s so short?  Every photo showed three inches of socks showing between the bottom of my pants and my shoes. Why?

Yeah, they were shink-to-fits but couldn’t I just add enough length when purchasing them?  I remember having ‘cheat’ grass sticking in my socks all of the time and grousing about it.  Duh!

Why did my father buy his Levi’s so long and then roll them up with several folds?  Why were John Wayne’s pants so short in every movie of his that I’ve seen lately?  No wonder he had to wear cowboy boots or else his legs would have been bare half way up his calf.

I kind of remember the ‘cool’ factor associated with bell bottoms.  Mine weren’t too wild but my wife had more ‘flare’ in her taste of the style.  Were we sane in the early 60’s?  I think we were more sane than the more current “butt” showing styles that are so aberrant when measured against common sense, but wonder what we were thinking at the time.

Looking at old photos of my ancestors, apparently, insanity is a continuing condition in human clothing styles.  I don’t know of any woman who would consider wearing the clothing of the 1800’s today.  Women seem to always take the worst hit in the extremity of ‘style’.

The cartoon strip ‘Herman’ gets it right all too often.   See the comparison below of Herman to the hat worn by my great grandaunt in 1900 Plymouth, Massachusetts.  The color in the cartoon seems to be the only difference in the hat ugliness scale.

uglyhat Drew Sally Ann 3

There are some great blogs and websites that will help you place approximate times on your old photos.  When I mentioned the ‘60’s styles, you probably all had images of the era come to mind.   As we look farther back in time, it is a little more difficult to assign the decade(s) associated with a ‘style’ because they are father away from our reference points.

However, using the style of dress to help establish a timeline for a family member is extremely useful in focusing the year range for our research.  Click on this Link to see the Drew home where aunt Sally was standing.  I can see her daughters and my 2nd great grandfather sitting on the porch watching the parade of men and ladies strolling by after attending the 4th of July holiday celebration in town.

We see long hot skirts and long sleeves for the women in that photo.  Long jackets and a hat on the man.  Were these folks nuts?  Didn’t they melt as easily as I do on a hot 4th of July now?  The styles locked in the period of the photo even without the date written on the back.

I use style comparisons on old photos all of the time when a date isn’t written on the back of the photo.  The approximate date really helps in my research, especially if the photographers name and business location is listed at the bottom.  With that information I can place my relatives in a general area in a fairly narrow range of years.  From that information, I can search all the records in the area and hopefully find them.

There are great sites and blogs available to help us date photos from the dress styles seen in them.  Do a quick Google search for terms such as “genealogy dress style dating” and learn from them.  I’m sure you’ll find the effort rewarding in your research.

17 January 2009 Posted by | Photos, Research Tips | , , | Leave a comment

Mad Dogs, Genealogists and Data Storage

Whenever I run into topics and words that were common in the mid-1800’s but are all but meaningless today, I consult my copy of Austin’s Indispensable Handbook and General Educator.  We love this old book.  It was written by George L. Austin, M.D., who in 707 pages covered every topic the young ladies and wives of the day absolutely had to know if they were to be successful in their role in life.

Last night I read about ‘fits’ in dogs.   Dr. Austin covered the topic with graphic descriptions that left me laughing out loud.

“Fits in a dog are often mistaken for hydrophobia, and that many a poor beast has been summarily and wrongfully slaughtered. … It is a very serious malady and its symptoms decidedly lunatic. …..   the animal kicks violently, exhibits strong rigidity, foams at the mouth and stares.”

“In this present dreamy condition he sees himself surrounded on every side by danger…… Staring at his feet he makes a bolt at someone’s leg who are only too anxious to jump aside and let the animal pass.”

59 “Hi!  Hi!  Mad dog!  Mad dog!  Boys bawl, men shout, women scream, stones are thrown and carters, secure in their vehicles, endeavor to club him as he dashes past”

Apparently this violence may all be avoided by “rubbing its nose with the syrup of buckthorn … energetically”.

My wife apparently didn’t appreciate my howls of laughter and yells of ‘Mad Dog!” at O’Dark Thirty in the middle of the night, however I did avoid having my nose energetically rubbed with the syrup of buckthorn.

I have heard cries of ‘Mad Genealogist’ or ‘Rabid Historian’ from time to time.  I don’t remember staring at my feet before running off to the library or to a cemetery but it could have happened.  I possibly have foamed at the mouth when I found the links that would knock down a ‘brick wall’ and may have frozen with ‘rigidity’ while digesting and analyzing a discovery that had been hidden from me for decades.

Our grandchildren were here with us for Christmas.  As usual, I spent some time expounding on some recent ancestral finds, showing them to the kids who sat in ‘rapt’ attention.  The ‘rapting’ probably came from my hand slapping the desk in excitement as I described these magic discoveries.

They probably watched for the kicking leg and especially for the foaming mouth as they kept one eye on their iPods or other handheld electronic marvels anticipating an especially expressive gesture by grandpa that may knock them out of their hands to the floor.

I’m sure the term  “Mad Pa!”  “Mad Pa!”  went through their minds at times.

Fortunately, as time goes by they mature and in at least the minds of some of them, the love of family history turns on and they enjoy hearing about their ancestors, seeing old photos and maps and listening to the trials, travails and successes that chronicled their lives.

Our oldest granddaughter commented on her Scots ancestry (from both of her parents) and said that at the start of every school year, she shows her teachers my genealogy websites and blogs.  The teachers use them to teach the class about not only history, but history as it applies to the family of someone in their class.  Her sister joined us and said that she does the same thing and that her teachers use them too.

Hearing these comments, I stared at my feet, possibly went rigid and thought ….  how am I going to get all of my research and copies of my photos and documents to them as they grow older, marry and react to the spark of love for family history that was passed on through my genes?

Turning my office chair to face them, my eyes wandered over the dozens of heavy three inch 3-ring binders that are full of family history documents, the hundreds of vital record and ancestral history books, the file cabinets full research that I’ve collected and indexed over a half century.

How am I going to insure that they have a copy of all this hard won information when they are ready to take up the quest?

It won’t be on paper in most cases.  It will be digital.  I’ve scanned over a terabyte of digitized images of the records, but that is only a tithe on the total needed.  A hard drive isn’t going to hold everything in my files, let alone all of the information I intend to add in the coming years.  Will a hard drive of any size even be a relevant media device in 5 years?

I’ve tried to be methodical in my file naming conventions, records storage and data backups, but the truth is, even I’m starting to find that I can’t find ‘stuff’ that I know I have.  There is just too much information in my files.  My ‘methodical’ naming conventions and file folder names and links have mutated over the years.  Most of the document are listed in my Clooz database but will it be relevant in ten years?  Will our grandchildren have the patience to navigate the folders and files to put the pieces together in an even more coherent collection?

I use Legacy as my primary genealogy program, but also have many others that I use daily.  I back up my data in the native format of these programs and also as GEDCOM files.  The GEDCOM’s strip out as much as two thirds of the information that Legacy allows me to add to my records in addition to the basic facts allowed by the GEDCOM standard.

The GEDCOM data format will survive at least until the oldest of our grandchildren gets started in family history research on their own, so they won’t lose the basic info.  Hopefully, their parents will keep the data up to date and that will help keep the data intact.

How can I ensure that the information will get to them though?  What media will I use to store it on?

One of our grandsons went from a simple hand held game received at Christmas two years ago to an Internet connected Game Boy this Christmas.  A hundred fold increase in computing power and functionality in just a couple of years.   What digital tools will he be using twenty years from now after he has finished college, is married and hopefully settled enough to at least restore grandpas old family history data?

Will our grandchildren and their families laugh at my ancestral writings and blog postings and deem them as being as arcane and antique as my enjoyment of the words in Dr. Austin’s book?  When they read my words to their children, will they wake mom with chortles of the ‘Mad Dog’ equivalent in my writings?  Probably so.  I hope they laugh with delight.  Loud and long.  I hope they love the fact that their grandfather wrote all this stuff for them.

However it happens, their exceedingly important ancestral information needs to survive.   I’ve left copies of it to be stored in the granite vaults and by the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, but that it is only a small portion of the total story.  It lacks the color, the personality ‘flesh’ created by the photos and stories that turn the names and dates into real people.

I’ll keep backing up my data constantly and trying to stay current with technology so that hopefully the work isn’t lost over time.

When I was five, I wrote a story about a handheld flat panel ‘computer’ that included slots for baby blue semi-transparent holographic chips that contained immense amounts of data.  No one could understand what I was talking about, but I knew.  The images I saw in my mind then are still just as clear as they were fifty-five years ago.  Maybe they’ll become a reality in time for me to pass on my data before I myself ‘pass on’.

What are your plans for ‘immortalizing’ your own hard work?   I hope you are spending time thinking about it and doing ‘something’ in regard to backing up your data on a REGULAR basis.   Don’t loose all your work by inaction.  Do something.

The topic of data backup and forward compatibility is a constant theme in my mind.  I’m concerned that I’m not doing enough to ensure that I’ve done all that I can to address the issue.

If you have a good “current” and / or a forward focused solution, let the rest of us know.  If I get a copy, I’ll pass it or your link on for the benefit of the rest of us who are infected with the family history gene.  Hopefully, we can all find a way of propagating our records to future generations.

10 January 2009 Posted by | Research Tips | 2 Comments

Full Circle or Infinite Loop?

After a full day of family history research finding data that supports my own records, I started wondering why it was so difficult to find information on my ancestors in the first place.  The information was available on numerous and various sites.  “Ain’t the Internet great?”, I thought.

And then I started noticing identical sourcing comments, identical typos, my idioms and occasional misspellings.  Obviously, there was a lot of copying going on.  Everywhere.

Then I noticed some obvious errors that I remember correcting over the past few years.  Upon closer inspection of the sites, I recognized that I was looking at my own data that had been posted and reposted over and over.  My old errors carried forward on these sites.

I then started searching sites that I don’t use often.  Some fine person had posted information on them that tied to my family.  Maybe the data would provide clues to help in my own ancestral quest and sourcing of my old data.  (Folks of my generation will remember that in the ‘old days’, we rarely wrote down the sources, just notes quoting pieces of the documents we’d found).

The guy posting the data was pretty good.  The dates and places matched what I had in my own constantly updated records.  Even the source quotes were the same.

And then the house of cards came tumbling down.  ‘The Guy’ was me.  I’d posted the data over the past few years during my all night research forays and had promptly forgotten all about it.

They say that driving with a lack of sleep is just like driving drunk.  I think that researching from 7 pm to 7 am is just as detrimental to your cognitive abilities as drunk driving.  I literally don’t remember posting the data, but there was my name as the poster and sure enough, my login allowed me to change the data.  Fortunately, everything I found was ‘posted’ not ‘copied’.


The wholesale copying of data isn’t new to most of us, but my experience certainly reinforced its inevitable weakness.  If you haven’t traced the data and proven it yourself, all you have is a story and as often as not, the story is wrong or full of grievous errors.

Will our posted data ever fade from the scene?  Will our errors ever be stamped into submission by well sourced corrections?  Are we forced to live with them forever?

The movie “Notting Hill” was playing in the corner of one of my screens while I was finding this mess.   Julia Roberts said something to the effect that even though today’s newspapers will soon line the bottom of canary cages, a copy of the data is always on file and would always be resurrected to embarrass us in the future.

I suppose that all but the “perfect” among us data posters will be embarrassed from now on.  The bad information will float up from the Ancestral File, the Pedigree Resource File, Ancestry Family Tree postings and of course any of the way-back screen scrapes that exist.

A number of years ago, I started embedding spellings, idioms and verbiage patterns in my notes and postings that I’d easily recognize in a future day.  It is ‘interesting’ watching them surface over and over.  Adding copyright statements aren’t relevant in relation to governmental records of dates and places and apparently aren’t all that useful when applied to the text you include in your postings either.

A few years ago, I attended the funeral of one of my uncles only to hear his eulogy parrot the one I gave at my brothers funeral a few months earlier.  Of course the names and dates and a few sentences were changed, but it was my original text, quotes and dialog.  Someone had passed on a copy of my text and apparently it fit the bill in another grieving situation.

It was an interesting experience and unfortunately caused me to smile and shake my head at the wrong time.  However, I did restrain the body shake of a quiet chuckle and thus further embarrassment was avoided.

Avoid seeing someone shake their head at you.  Yes indeed, we need to work together in our research but do it aboveboard.

Looking through my own data, I can see notes that I obviously didn’t write.  Where and when did they enter my records?  I don’t know.  Now I have to excise them and follow the source hints to recreate factual records.

Wholesale theft isn’t the answer to doing research.  Someone may actually believe your data to be 100% correct and stop doing research that may find the “hopefully few” grievous errors that you’ve introduced.

If we don’t do our own research or confirm the work done by others the ‘story’ will be perpetuated as fact until it is almost impossible to fix, repeal and supersede with truth.

The New Family Search program and database opens up the opportunity to dispute each others ‘facts’ and statements but at present can’t possibly resolve all the errors that submitters have introduced over the years.  It won’t be open to the general populace for some time if my ‘sources’ are correct.  Go ahead.  Quote me on this.  I enjoy future embarrassment.  An open chuckle is encouraged at this point.

It will be interesting watching how this issue sorts itself out, if it ever does.  Until then, make sure you contact the posters of data and work with them.  Ask if you can quote their work and / or team up with them in your common research efforts.

If you steal their data and work, shame on you for the theft and if you don’t prove the data yourself, double shame on you for aiding and abetting the perpetuation of any errors in it.

For now, I’m going back and finding additional ‘forgotten’ wee hour postings that I’ve made.  If they are wrong I’ll fix them and quote them in my research notes.  Maybe that will close the loop and that “smart guy” I discovered will be properly neutralized.  Full Circle.  The circuit should be complete and shorted out…. at least in my records.

3 January 2009 Posted by | Research Tips | , , | Leave a comment