FamHist Blog

Family History Research Hints and Tips

Gold In Your Drawers

Sometimes we have to look in the mirror and shake our heads in wonder.  The person in the reflection doesn’t look as dumb as they feel, but it is hard to argue with facts.

Gold in old filesI’ve looked for clues to aid in the quest to find of one of my ancestors for years.  The results were always the same.  Nothing.  I’ve reread my research notes, rethought my research strategy and recommitted it to writing.  The new plan required plotting possible migration routes of my ancestors, deep delving into the Family History Library Catalog and subsequent printing of dozens of pages of source materials that need  to be explored at the library.  A hand clasp binder is sitting on my desk bulging with these pages, group sheets, summaries of old research activities and the new plan.

I won’t need most of them now.  One last reading of a page that I’d photocopied over a generation ago resolved much of the issue.  I had to reread it four or five times to believe what I was seeing.  I even suspected that it was a ‘new’ page that someone had slipped in to my file.  Surely, I couldn’t have missed that brief sentence so many times ….. but of course I had.

We are creatures of habit.  We form impressions that often eclipse reality.  I remember reading the document on a microfilm reader when I first found it.  I took notes from the page and even traced some of the hard to read writing on the page that day.  I’ve probably looked at the page and the photocopy of the microfilm page a hundred times since then but my mind knew what it contained, and hence, the little sentence was apparently ignored, skipped or had become invisible to my mind.

How often have you reread your old research notes and reviewed the documents you’ve collected in your own ancestral quest?  If you haven’t used a fine tooth comb review of them lately, make an entry on your calendar to look through them again.  Mine them for hidden Gold.

Perhaps we have to turn the paper 50 degrees side to side to see something new.  Thomas Jonathan 81st year Personally, I’ve found that reading the data out loud is the best method to restart my frozen cognitive research review process.  My ears hear information that the lobes of my brain used for reading seem to obscure.

Give it a try.  You’ll probably find real treasures in your papers.  Treasures that you’ve owned for years.  Treasures that may open new windows in your quest.

Once you have finished your perusal and have then settled down enough to stop exclaiming your wahoo’s (and some of the grin off has melted off your face), walk to the bathroom, turn on the light and take a good look at the clueless person who is staring back at you.  Do they look any smarter now?

Lesson learned.  Go a little slower.  Review frequently.  Look at the data through a different window.  Gold.  There is Gold in there!

28 May 2009 Posted by | Certificates, Documents, Genealogy | Leave a comment

Recording Life ~ Fishing

My father had a unique skill in interpersonal relationships.  Without selling someone something they didn’t want, he could nonetheless divert their objections as if he was Obi-Wan in the Star Wars movie.

The power company needed to install a new feeder circuit in a fast growing city in Utah.  Everyone wanted the power for their homes, offices and stores but none of them wanted the power lines necessary to provide that service.  Frustrated with months of fruitless powerline conversations, public meetings and incentives, the district manager responsible for the city turned to my father.

“Elwood, I’m taking you out of your position as foreman and am giving you a car, line plans and little if no money.”  “Go get the right-of-way we have to have to upgrade that feeder circuit before the whole south end of the city goes black!”

Great!  An assignment that had stymied numerous ‘professional’ right-of-way agents, management and even high level city officials.  “Get the right-of-way”.  “Much of the city will be in a permanent blackout by July – three months away.”  “You have little money to spend.”  In those days, little money was the $100 contingent fund in district offices.  Management authorized their district managers to spend up to that amount without having to go through an arduous budget hearing.

Opening the rusted trunk lock on the 1962 Ford, he placed a bucket full of wood stakes, wood lathe, fluorescent marking tape and a hammer inside.  A puff of smoke always followed the vehicle when a foot pressed the accelerator.  Two hundred plus thousand miles of start, stop, idling city driving will cause that problem in a meter reading vehicle.

Within three weeks, Dad’s uniquely calm reasoning had awaken the common sense in all but one property owner along the route.  He hadn’t approached the old man yet.  Having heard the stories by the legions who had preceded him in the quest, he opted to resolve the issue last and with finality.

Soda at camp Wearing his normal tan Dickie work shirt, shrink-to-fit Levi’s with rolled up cuffs, work boots and a shirt pocket full of pens, pencils and a plastic template, he told the old man answering the door that he was there to finish driving the last stake in place before construction started the next morning.   The old man shouted, “What power pole on my property?”  “You aren’t doing anything on my property!”

Giving the old man a look of pity just as you would to a dunce and with a slight shake of the head, Dad pointed to the four foot tall lathe with four six-foot-long tails of fluttering survey tape centered in front of the man’s living room window.  “It’s going in there.”  “We’ll be here at 7:00 a.m. and I just wanted to let you know to not sleep in tomorrow.”

Sleep in?  The old codger probably hadn’t slept past 6 a.m. in his life.  Dad knew he was always up working around his house or yard shortly after 5:00 a.m. every morning.

With his hands on his hips, Dad looked at the stake then up at the living room window and back again at the stake.  Shaking his head, he unrolled maps.  “I’d have put it a little that way – closer to the house if I’d have designed the job, but it looks like one of the engineers has definitely taken your view into consideration.”

“What?”  “A pole in front of my window is taking my view into consideration?”  “Are they crazy?”  Commiserating with the old man, Dad agreed that a fifty foot tall pole was hard to interpret as a window even with the best imagination, but that’s what Dad’s ink dot on the plans said … “See?”  “Don’t worry, the auger on the truck is only 28” wide.  In this rocky soil, the hole will get bigger as it bounces around, but it shouldn’t end up being much over four feet wide when we’re done.”

You know the rest of the story.  After ten minutes of arguing, Dad let the man move the lathe stake to the fence line and pound it in the ground — right where he wanted it when he arrived that morning.

Turning to leave, he heard the old man say, “See.  You can’t push me around.  I’m a better negotiator than all of you”.  Yep.  Dad had brought out the best common sense negotiation skills from the old man.

Flash back to the early 1950’s.  A stream fisher all of his life, he frequented the hard to access streams where the big fish lived.  The Ute Indian Reservation in eastern Utah includes the south slope of the Uintah Mountains.  Rock Creek was a favorite stream for serious fishermen but it was both expensive to fish because of the fees associated with the permit and the permit restrictions themselves.

A fishing trip was needed.  If you stayed just a little to the west, there were excellent streams to fish.  The old Plymouth and LaFayette were loaded with tents, grub boxes, sleeping bags and fishing gear.  My sister, brother-in-law, father, mother and myself enjoyed the two hour ride to the campsite.

Plymouth and LaFayette Early the next morning, Dad and Roy went fishing and fishing was good.  Some were released.  Many were kept for breakfast back at camp.

The splashing behind them got louder.  Looking up, they saw a federal game warden riding up on his horse.  Dad lifted the front brim of his old fishing fly covered Stetson to get a good look at the wardens face.

“Good morning.”  “How is the fishing this morning?”  “Oh, its not too bad.  We’ve released all the smaller ones.  We just need enough good pan sized Brookies for a good breakfast.”  “What fly are you using?”  “Well, according to Ken Aycock over in the Basin, these rock roller flies are the best and they seem to be working this morning.”

“Ken Aycock?”  “You know Ken Aycock?”  “Sure we work together.  I’m out this way working on projects all of the time.”  “Do you know …. “ The list of names and places started to flow.

Staying close to hear when the power of the law was going to drop on them, Roy finally moved away to fish up stream while they talked.

When he came back almost an hour later, they were still talking.  The fishing creel on Dad’s hip was still full of grass and trout although they were both getting a little dry.  Dad’s old bamboo fishing rod was still in his left hand.  The three pound test leader and fly was trapped between his palm and the pole.

Finally, the warden tired of reminiscing and comparing notes on people and features in the area.  “Well, I guess I’d better ask to see your fishing licenses and permit.”  Roy’s heart stopped and his blood ran cold.  Fishing on the reservation without the permit could result in a thousand dollar penalty and loss of fishing rights for a long time.

Dad turned his head and the warden could see Dad’s fishing license in its plastic holder neatly tucked under the hat band on the right side.

“Well, you do have a permit too don’t you?”  With a guffaw, smile and a headshake, Dad said; “You don’t think we’d be fool enough to be fishing here without one do you?”  Apparently, the music of the conversation still echoed through the mind of the warden.  He turned his horse and started off saying; “No, I don’t suppose you would.”  cleaning_fish

Roy claims he didn’t start breathing again for twenty minutes, but everyone knows that even standing in water the temperature of ice, humans can’t hold their breath for more than fifteen minutes.

As I remember, the fish were very good eating although I was really hungry by the time they arrived back in camp to be cooked.

Another Elwood Drew story to add to the book.  There are hundreds of them.  Probably thousands.  Forty years after his death, I still hear them from time to time, especially from people who were children in the families that received his quiet assistance.

There are choices.  There are consequences.  Paying it forward will eventually rebound to your own assistance.

I suppose you’ve recorded your own similar family stories so they won’t be lost in the next generations.  Without them, how will your grandchildren know your parents and grandparents?  Don’t let them be lost to time.

Spend a little time and effort and record your own precious family stories.  They are the flavor, texture, smell and substance that extend the memory of our ancestors.

9 May 2009 Posted by | Journals | , , , | Leave a comment

More Genealogy Research Aids

Author and podcaster, Lisa Louise Cooke, posted a new vidcast on her site recently about a new ‘beta’ tool called Google News Timeline.   The timeline tool displays news, magazine, book and other documents that discuss events in history.  Enter keywords and / or dates in your search and you’ll see results presented by day, week and month of the year.  Google News Timeline is a significant resource to family history researchers.

See Lisa’s vidcast at the bottom of this post. 

The Google News Timeline is located here.


Of course, published materials decrease significantly the farther you go back in time, but don’t let that deter your timeline searches.   You may be surprised with the results from these searches.

Recently, I noted that the New York Times is now posting a lot of old articles on their site.  Search for names or events on the search box on the site.  The old articles are in .pdf format.  Most are free but some of the more lengthy articles require a subscription to the archival services at the Times.

Listening to Lisa’s vidcast, I wondered if she had ever seen the wonderful articles about the San Francisco earthquake that the USGS has posted.  They include Google Earth (free download) files that show the fault lines and ‘shake’ values of the quake during the event.  Additionally, they have added before and after photos showing the destruction down to the house level.   Even though the earthquake is called the ‘San Francisco earthquake’ it affected a significant section of California and the Google Earth files show its impact in those rarely noted locations. 

If you don’t have Google Earth installed on your computer, download it from here, then install the free program.  The files associated with the earthquake are listed as links on in the articles on the USGS site.  Browse to the links from the home page and you’ll see them under each article heading.

If you haven’t used Google Earth before, you are missing a real treat.  Not only does it let you view all locations on the earth, but it also includes the sea floor topography for all the oceans on earth and it also includes a full view and tour of all the celestial bodies.

Why am I focusing on Google Earth?  The answer is simple.  Technology has pushed through the brick and mortar walls of schools and extends knowledge, learning and research opportunities to our home computers, mobile laptops and mobile phones.  Google Earth is one of the tools that enable the spread of virtual education and knowledge. 

Mashups of various technological tools allow educators and folks like you and I to create interesting presentations of our research, stories and topics of interest in ways that exceed anything known just a few short years ago.  We are only limited by our imagination and desire to learn the use of technology.  The technological tools that most family history researchers will embrace is actually very simple to use.  We just have take the time to read the instructions and then apply the knowledge.

I know most folks think they can’t create presentations, podcasts or vidcasts, but you really can.  Believe it.  You CAN produce presentations that will help you in your ancestral quest.  They WILL draw the interest of family members and others who are researching your common lineage if you post them on a blog or on your website and tell folks about it.

Now is the time to use the tools at hand to accelerate your research efforts.  Go for it!   You are the only person saying that you can’t do it.  You know how much you love proving wrong that surprisingly older stranger that you see in the mirror every morning.

Start today by installing Google Earth.  Then use it to find the cemeteries where four or five generations of your ancestors are buried.  Mark them and create a slideshow of them to show to your family.   Change the angle of the inward zoom.  Spin the earth under you.  Label your bookmarks.  Put them in the order you want then save the file.

Once completed, you’ll be able to send the file to family members and other researchers.   Remember that sharing a file like this almost always produces information in response and it frequently is the information or clues that you are seeking.

In another blog post, I referenced a Google Earth file that takes you on a flight to all the cemeteries of my ancestors on the island of Bornholm in the North Sea.  Now that you have Google Earth installed on your machine, download my file from the link near the bottom of the posting and see how a simple file used for genealogical purposes looks on your screen.  It is very simple presentation but it only took me ten minutes to create and it graphically conveys the information I wanted others to see in a format not available before.

One last time…   Try it …  Mikey, Gina, Charles, Annette (insert your name here)….  You’ll like it!



3 May 2009 Posted by | Genealogy | , , , | 1 Comment

Christmas in April

Christmas came to our house on Apr 30th this year.  Years ago, I saw the diary of my great grandfather, David Lewis Drew, in Copperopolis, California.  One of my older distant cousins had it in his possession.  He allowed me to take one photo of it and then sent me on my way.  When I developed the film, none of the photos on it were any good.  The film stock was bad from the factory.

David Lewis Drew's Diary When my cousin died, his attorney called and asked if I had anything coming to me.  I mentioned that my cousin said I could have the diary, but that was the end of the conversation.  I never heard from him again.

Last week, a second cousin in California found my website and sent me a note.  She’d had the diary in her possession since the death and had recently looked at it with renewed interest.  Searching the web, she found my family history website and sent me a note

Long story short.  The journal is sitting in front of me as I write this note.  I can’t keep it but I’m touching it and will scan the pages.  They contain all my great grandfathers recorded thoughts during his first year in California during the tail end of the gold rush.  He left Plymouth, Massachusetts, sailed down around the Cape in a very long voyage and joined the rest of multitudes who were looking for their fortunes. 

Long ago, I transcribed the diary text from an old historical newsletter found in the Calaveras County Historical Society vaults.  It can be seen here

David Lewis Drew Two contiguous entries state that he finished the Bible and started reading it again the next night.  I love those two entries.

Over the years, several folks from around the country have contacted me about the diary.  Their ancestors are mentioned in its pages.  One of them is a professional genealogy speaker and uses my site and the entry about her great granduncle in her speeches.   I just talked to her and am going to send her a copy of the image for that page, etc.   She is as excited about it (her soon to be “held” treasure) as I am about my good fortune.

Looking at the names of great grandpa’s mining partner and other associates, I decided to find out who they were in life.  Two of the three men he partnered or worked with in the gold fields were his distant cousins!  In fact, his primary partner, Len Covington, was a distant cousin seven times over.  That happens when families live in the same area like Plymouth, Massachusetts for three hundred years before the descendants start to scatter around the world.  The other part-time partner was ‘only’ a cousin four times. 

Did these fellows decide to leave Plymouth for the wild and woolly gold fields in California together?  I’m trying to trace down any ship passenger records to see if they traveled together.  It was a very long trip across land and many of not most of the folks from Massachusetts who participated in the gold rush traveled went by ship.  Apparently, some of the intrepid young men opted to sail First Entry - David Lewis Drew Diarythrough the Gulf of Mexico and hike across Panama where they took passage on another ship to Sacramento. 

The remainder took the long journey south around the Cape of South America and then back up the west coast of the Americas to Sacramento.  No matter which path these folks took to find their fortunes, the trip was long and arduous. 

Now for the rest of the story…  Also in the package were a dozen photographs of David Drew’s family in California.  Working from the smallest photo to the largest, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  I think I have a photo of my brick wall ancestor, Thomas Farrar!  I’ve looked for him for over 50 years.  I can’t prove it yet, but will spend considerable time trying to find out the truth behind the photo.

Next were photos of all of David’s children except my grandfather (he ran away to Utah at age 16 and apparently was disinherited from the family).  

I was finally down to the last photo.   It is in the largest old mounting cover.   Opening the flaps, I found a photo of my father and aunt when they were youngsters.  It was obviously taken during at the same photo setting as a photo we have but none of the living descendants of my Utah Drew grandparents have ever seen this pose before.  It is in mint condition…  Wonderful…  AND I like the pose better…

I know a few of you have had similar experiences like this during your own ancestral quest and can appreciate my excitement. 

Christmas presents?  They are nothing.   It was Christmas at our home on April 30th.  The photos and diary are valued beyond price in my opinion.




2 May 2009 Posted by | Diaries, Journals, Photos | , , , , , | Leave a comment