FamHist Blog

Family History Research Hints and Tips

The Slow Death of Handwriting

After spending several nights trying to interpret the handwriting on old census records, I realized that I haven’t written anything extensive on paper for a long time.  

How does my handwriting now compare to what it did when I was young?   Well, it depends on the day.  Some days, my current hand strokes produce very legible well-formed text.  On other days, the message still leaves my brain but seems to degrade by the time it reaches my hand and my writing suffers as a result.

Of course, some days I’m apparently dyslexic when using a keyboard and some days it isn’t a problem.   One thing is for sure though, the less I write by hand, the more the quality of my handwriting suffers.  

I took a calligraphy class years ago and enjoyed learning how to apply artful strokes to build alphabetic characters.  Unfortunately, that skill set has settled back into the primordial goo from lack of use.

Chandler Abiel signature The handwriting of my ancestors has always fascinated me.  I constantly look for any examples of it on old documents and am happy when I find their signature and ecstatic when I find a letter or more lengthy document that came from their hand. 

I’m using my great grandfathers letters as a base for the current series of postings on my lineagekeeper blog.  The letters are treasure in my estimation.  Not only do they convey his sometimes irascible humor, but they are windows into his personality, life, loves and concerns.  His character, mannerisms and view of his fellow man would be lost without them.   Grandpa and his family would be reduced to the basic statistics that are so common to family history researchers: Name, Dates, Places .. end of story.

If you’ve read my earlier notes, you know how much I love the old account books, family records on bible and remembrance pages and legal documents that were created by my ancestors.  They are Treasure.  Pure treasure.

The topic of handwrDrew David L signatureiting was on my mind when I found story on the BBC Magazine website titled “The Slow Death of Handwriting”.    I couldn’t resist parroting its title for this note.  The article posits that handwriting will soon be a thing of the past because we are all moving to computers to communicate, send cards, keep our financial records and historical documents.  

Shaking my head in dismay, I realized that the article describes me and probably you too.  Unless we make a conscious effort to convey our handwritten words to paper, any extensive writing we do today is via our keyboard.  That’s not to say that I still don’t burn through pens and stacks of note paper, but the ink I usually spread today is limited to brief notes, rows of record numbers from my genealogical database or telephone numbers.  None of my longer notes are handwritten now.

I mourn its loss but truth is, other than my journal which I purposely record by hand, I probably won’t go back to doing much extensive handwriting.  It is just too slow and my spelling errors don’t automatically correct themselves or at least tell me that I’m probably wrong. 

How about you?  Are you contributing to the mass extinction of the art?  If not, how are you feeding its continued existence?  Personally, I have written letters to my children that they will receive after I die.  Hopefully the words and the letters themselves with be esteemed as treasure to them too.

If you have interest in learning more about handwriting and the personalities behind it, watch the video below and the associated videos on the same page.  If you are a genealogist, the series of videos will serve you well in your ancestral quest.



26 February 2009 Posted by | Genealogy | , , , , | 1 Comment

Destroy That Drive

A fellow recently demonstrated his ability to recover data from a hard drive whose data had been overwritten a seven times using a data shredder program set to a supposed DOD data destruction standard.

If you have ever had any experience with identity theft, you understand why the hackles on the back of my neck stood up when I read the story.  I’m a genealogist.  I have a lot of data on my hard drives that contains private information about living individuals. 

From time to time I buy a new computer or hard drives and migrate my data to them.  I’ve always wiped my old drives with partition removers and then a five or six overwrites with data shredder programs thinking I was ‘protecting’ my data from dumpster divers.  In most cases, I probably did, but now, I’m not so sure.

I have a friend who manages computers worldwide that contain extremely sensitive data.  He leaves nothing to chance when retiring an old hard drive.  He takes out into the parking lot and breaks the disk platters into many pieces and throws the pieces in multiple dumpsters scattered around the city.

Is this an extreme action?  Maybe a little, but having had experience with identity theft, I find that I’m inclined to agree with his policy.  I don’t use a ten pound double-jack hammer on my old drives, but do use a 3/8” drill bit to create twenty or so holes in the drive platters before tossing them.  Additional scratches and gouges on the platters are encouraged during this process.

How are you disposing of your old computers and hard drives?   Are you carefully doing your best to remove the data using a method other than just dragging your data files to the trash and then deleting them?  Are you crushing your old floppies that had data on them? 

How about your thumb drives?  Do you keep the data on them encrypted?  The odds are that you will loose one or more of them this year or next.  It happens, especially if you are visiting libraries or other venues doing research.  We download data to the drives and in the excitement of the quest walk off at the end of a day and leave the thumb drive plugged in to the computer we were using, or on the floor after falling out of our bag, pocket, or case.  Frequently, we have all or part of our genealogy data on these drives and an unscrupulous finder may have a treasure trove of information to mine for nefarious purposes.

Think about the ramifications of someone getting the data about you and other living folks in your database and I’m sure you’ll be encouraged to make a substantive plan to remove or destroy it on your old machines.

Is the physical destruction too much work or you don’t have a drill?  Talk to the law enforcement officers in your area.  They may need some targets for their shooting range.  A hard drive painted orange may be a perfect target for some of their exercises.  Just remember to ask to observe the destruction.

If that isn’t the answer and you don’t want to destroy them yourself, consider a shop like Compax that will do the work for you.

Whatever method you use, be sure to do it.  Don’t set yourself up for a potentially disastrous problem.


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17 February 2009 Posted by | Research Tips | , | Leave a comment

Recording Life

How do you record your life?  Do you write in a journal daily?  Do you use software to record your history in regular sit-down sessions?  If so, do you print it out so it isn’t lost when your hard drive fails?

How are you recording the histories of your ancestors?  If so, you probably use a series of writing sessions that are inspired because of a story you remember or research find that you encounter.

Today, reading of a news story in Australia reminded me of a story about my father.  I’ve enjoyed it ever since one of his employees told me about it during a lunch hour years after his death.  We laughed as the story unfolded and others around us joined in the story telling session.   It seems that all of them had ‘Elwood Drew’ stories. 

A half an hour lunch soon extended to an hour and a half.  We only broke up when an interruption from my administrative assistant reminded me of a meeting.   I wish the reminder had not occurred and the session had continued.  I’ve always wondered how many other great stories I missed because of it. 

When dad was the foreman of Drew Elwood tree crew 1960the tree trimming crew for the power company, he received a call just before quitting time while filling out paperwork at his desk in the foreman’s room.  The normally noisy room became quiet as his side of the conversation was overheard.  

“I’m sorry ma’am, but I knocked on the door and got permission.”  “No, it is in short lengths or has been run through the chipper.”  “He said he owned the home.”  “We only wanted to trim it.  He insisted that we remove it.”  “You can’t transplant a fifty foot tree.  I don’t know where you’d even find one.”

By now, the door to the office was crowded with workers listening to the conversation.   Chuckles and barely contained laughter started to emanate from them.  It took a minute for Dad to recognize where the commotion was coming from.  He then realized that the caller may hear the guffaw’s and motioning for them to ‘shut up’ only brought on more laughter.

After hanging up, he told the story.  It seems that the thirty-year-old  ‘homeowner’ was actually the son of the lady who owned the home.  She arrived home from work to see that the large cottonwood tree in front of her home was missing.  After a double take, she went into her home and asked her son what had happened.   He said that the power company guys had cut it down.

Her parting comment to my father was, “He was just released from the insane asylum yesterday!!”  Dad couldn’t resist saying, “I’m sorry, but he made more sense than our conversation has so far.”  

The workers were hanging on each other howling with laughter by now.  They had been there.  They’d heard the conversation with the son.  None of them thought that he was nuts either.  He even helped them lift the large pieces into the dump truck.  A trash tree had been removed and within a week a new hardwood tree was planted on the homeowners property farther away from the power lines.    

A few years earlier dad and some of other electrical workers were on their way home from a two week project in eastern Utah.  Deer season had started the weekend before and they wanted to get home so they wouldn’t miss the second weekend of the season.

Drew Elwood 1964 Price UtahOn the high ‘Strawberry’ plateau of the Uintah National Forrest, a white tailed doe and her fawn ran onto the road immediately in front of a large oil company truck.  The doe was struck and killed instantly.  The oil company truck never slowed. 

Dad had his equipment operator stop their electrical line truck and walked over to confirm that the doe was dead and not suffering.   It was, so he cut its throat to bleed it out and then immediately cut the throat of the tiny fawn.  There was no use wasting the meat of the doe and the fawn would have died within a day or two with its mother dead.

None of the crew had their deer hunting licenses with them, so Dad put the doe behind the seat and the fawn under the seat for the trip home.

Farther down the road, a deer checking station blocked the highway.  The guys on the crew were petrified.  They could go to jail or get big fines for having the deer in their vehicle.  The law would rather see the meat rot than used to feed families in these situations.

Dad told them not to worry.  “Just let me do the talking”.   

“Hello officer.  Yes, we are on our way back from Vernal.  How has the season been going so far?   Yes, we saw a few up around the ‘Berry’.”  The officer then asked, “I don’t suppose you guys have any deer in the truck do you?”   Dad immediately answered, “Sure!  We have a doe behind the seat and a fawn under it.”   Breaking out in laughter the officer waved them on.  

The truck bucked a few times as the operator tried to get his shakes under control so he could let the clutch out smoothly.  The other three crew members were white and their mouths were so dry they couldn’t speak for a few minutes.   Only dad was chuckling.  

Stories of his innate ability to avoid trouble in situations like this were legendary at work.  All were new to me.  I should have been recording the session rather than just laughing along with everyone else.  I knew dad was a character, but the dozens of stories fleshed out a facet of his life that was totally unknown to me.

How much of your lives are you recording?  Are you recording just the names, dates and places or are you telling the stories that are the real you?  Are you writing down the absurdities that you encounter or create in the fabric of your daily existence? 

Color.  It’s all about Color.  Yes, you need a frame to hang the story on for reference providing the point and space in time, but the story is the fabric that wraps the frame and makes it take form creating a mental picture that isn’t easily forgotten.  

Be sure to include lots of Color on the frames that you are creating in your own family history records and histories.  Their texture and ‘flavor’ will make your writings as enticing as the smell of Mom’s Sunday dinners.

I use Personal Historian software to write my own history.  It might work for you too.  Whatever you use or do, just be sure to do it regularly.  Keep a back up copy on a second hard drive and off-site.   Print your story with some regularity so a hard copy is available for both archiving and to use to markup while editing your stories. 

As the day ends, if you haven’t already … remember to write some of your story while it still is today.


10 February 2009 Posted by | Life Histories | , , , | Leave a comment

Little Ones Lost

I’d heard stories about my great grandparents, Robert and Rosa Logie Bennett homesteading a farm since I was very young and often wondered about them.  Of the ten children in the Bennett family, three babies died either at birth or before they were three.  All three were buried on the family farm in there in the bottom land of Fort Canyon, Alpine, Utah.

I missed living on the old homestead by a few months and never knew where the Bennett children, Beatrice, Pansy and a stillborn son were buried.

In 1983, I asked my family about them and my oldest brother could still remember where grandpa had buried them beside each other in a small area on the north end of a section of the orchard.  Our grandmother and other family members had shown him the site many times when he was a young man.

Great grandpa Bennett had planted a large apple orchard on part of the 160 acre farm.   When we went to look for the site, all of the trees were either dead or had been removed.  I thought to myself, “This is going to be hopeless.  He won’t be able to find the spot now that it looks so different than it did years ago.”

Bennett Farm Cemetery

A few landmarks still existed, so I stood back while Bob looked around orienting himself.  Within seconds, he knew exactly where we were standing in relation to the old orchard.

He looked at the ground, turned left and started to walk calling out what the topography should look like under our feet.  Within five minutes we were at the five foot deep dip in the ground that he said we’d find.  Looking left and then right, he said we should see a wide spot in the dip fairly near our location.

Again, he was right on.  Less than twenty feet to the east the depression widened and we walked to it.  Bob raised his arm and pointed to a spot just south of the bank and stated that the babies were buried ‘right there’.  I asked if he was sure only to receive a look that answered the question better than words.

I made notes about the spot and then began stepping off the distance directly back to the road.  Having designed thousands of miles of power lines over the years, tying down a location was simple business, especially since I had wandered the location repeatedly in my youth and was very familiar with the land.

I told Alpine City employees where the graves are located and have put a map of them on my family history website hoping to keep some focus on the tiny cemetery.  I hope the babies won’t be disturbed by future building and growth in the canyon.

A new home was built just west of the graves and a road was constructed just to the north of them a few years ago.  The babies were buried the same day they died, so I doubt if caskets were used.   My ancestors probably buried them in blankets and over the 100+ years since, I doubt if any of the soft bones have survived.  I’m not as sure about the two-and-a-half year old young daughter though.

Dick Eastman mentioned a webpage that identifies cemeteries in unusual locations in one of his posts recently.  The page is well worth reading.  It will make you wonder if you have ever unknowingly passed by similar sites.   Click here to read it.

Do you know of any similar burial sites?  If so, you’ll want to let as many folks know about them as possible including government officials if they haven’t been preserved already.

There must be tens of thousands of small burial grounds like these around the U.S.   I wonder how many exist all over the world?

As for me and my wife, we long ago purchased burial lots in a well established city cemetery to receive our mortal remains.  With any luck, the property won’t become so high in value that our graves also end up in a parking lot or under a multi-unit dwelling.

6 February 2009 Posted by | Research Tips | , , , , | Leave a comment