FamHist Blog

Family History Research Hints and Tips

GPS and Lost Graves

I’ve visited the grave of my great grandfather a number of times over the years.  It was usually covered with Memorial Day flowers as were most of the graves in the cemetery.   It is a memory of a sea of color and fragrant smells – folks greeting each other, pointing to headstones and markers – a reunion of sorts.

In the last decade, mylar windmills, balloons and plastic blossoms have almost overwhelmed the iris, peonies, babies breath and snowball floral tributes left by us older folks.  There seem to be fewer of us visiting the burial locations of our families now.   There are too many big boy toys, outing distractions and to some degree, lack of respect for our lineage that has become associated with Memorial Day in recent years.

I try to show our grandchildren where their ancestors are buried with pilgrimages to the cemetery every year or so hoping they will retain the ancestral memories after I’m gone or can’t remember them myself in some future day.

Apparently that future day is arriving even as I write this note.  I couldn’t find my great grandfather’s grave this year.  I couldn’t find my aunt’s grave.

There are only 20,000+ burials in the cemetery where their bodies reside and the old parts really haven’t changed that much but apparently someone moved their graves during the past couple of years.

At first I chuckled.  Then I frowned and visually searched for the familiar landmarks that I’ve known since my youth.  Finding some of them, I tried to triangulate and ‘walk to the graves’ like I’d done as a young man.   That didn’t work.  Someone really had moved the graves!

Apparently, the only thing that had moved were a few synaptic links in my brain because after an hour of walking up and down row after row of markers, I finally found the headstones.  I enjoyed reading the markers during my walk but had other graves to visit, clean and photograph that day.

I’ve visited the graves of my ancestors in Plymouth, Massachusetts several times, but during the last visit, I couldn’t walk right to the ones that “I was sure of”.  When have you fly across country to visit a cemetery, ‘wasting’ time to find a grave that you knew you can ‘walk to in my sleep’ but can’t find any longer is an expensive and frustrating exercise.

Could it be that I’ve now been to so many cemeteries in so many locations that they are starting to merge in to a blended picture in my memory?  Probably so.  Have I lost synaptic connections?  Probably so.  Hence, I purchased a GPS specifically for my traveling genealogy kit.

gps-display Now when I visit a cemetery, any cemetery, I record the lat / long coordinates of the headstones of my ancestors.  That data is entered in my database directly tied to their burial data.  Yes, I know that my commercial GPS handheld is only accurate to 14 feet or so of the real spot I’m standing on, even if it has acquired eight or more satellites, but, that means that I should only have to walk a maximum of 28 feet in any direction to find the grave in the future if I can’t ‘walk to it in my sleep’ that day.  I can do that in short order.

I record the information on Find-a-grave, Names In Stone, Picasa, Panoramio, my own genealogy sites and other websites when I post headstone photos on them as well.  Maybe the information will help someone else in the future.  Additionally, I can use my web enabled cell phone to look at those sites and remind me where the graves are located in future visits.

One thing is certain.  I will continue to visit more and more cemeteries in the future.  The blended memory picture of them in my mind will continue to meld into an even more generic image as time goes on.  I’ll probably forget how to exactly walk to even more of the graves too.

I won’t be alone.  You’re all walking down the same path with me.  Some of you are ahead of me.  Some of you are behind but if you love to visit cemeteries like I do, you are right on track to arrive at the same destination eventually.   If you haven’t purchased a GPS handheld or have the software in your iPhone or other device, you might as well put one on your ‘stuff I want list’ so your family and friends will know what to get you for Christmas, birthday or graduation.

Once you start documenting the exact location of graves, you’ll find that it adds to the fun of cemetery visits and you too will be able to find your great grandfathers grave in the future.

17 June 2009 Posted by | Cemetery, GPS, Headstones, Photos | , , , , | Leave a 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

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

Who Is THAT?

I have a number of boxes in my family history closet that are full of old photos.  I sort through them from time to time, scanning a few more during each pass and add the images to family histories I write or as attachments to records in my database.   That is good.   Photos truly do add context and broader knowledge to the ‘facts’ about a person or family.

Let’s face it.  Most of us are visual learners and photos not only grab our attention but entertain us long enough to stay engaged in reading raw text.

Some of the folks in the images are pretty funny looking though.

My grandchildren see photos of me in my teen years and laugh out loud at the slightly longer hair, plaid pants that sometimes had bell bottoms.  I guess you just had to be there to appreciate the times.  I was just a quiet kid from a small town and could be described as the definition of ‘average’ or ‘clean cut’.  Secretly, I have to agree with the laughter though.   I looked funny compared to the styles today.

No wonder we think the folks in the old photos are dressed so strangely.  They looked normal in their time and place, but that time and place isn’t our current time and style.

The old photos add context to the stories of their lives though.  My grandfather and his older sibling brothers buttoned the top button on their suit jackets and left the rest unbuttoned.  Their pants were shorter than the style worn today.  The shoes they wore in the photos were usually boots.   Boots worn long and hard and rarely polished, even for the photos.

My great grandmothers wore dresses that were dark in color, often black.   The dresses seemingly had hundreds of buttons and were heavily embroidered with dark thread or accessorized with fancy lace.  I’m sure that there were many layer of petticoats under them as well as other long undergarments.   I still don’t know how the ladies didn’t pass out from heat stroke after being buried under all of the layers of clothing.

Carefully tipping photos forward as I browse through the rest of the box, I see photos with no names on the back and many faces that don’t look even slightly familiar to any other face on other photos in the box.   Who are these folks?  I know the images would be precious to someone, maybe even me if I only knew who they were. AF Boys

I inherited many of the photos, was given many others, found some in garage sales, others in antique shops, etc.   You can’t just trash these treasures even though some people have done just that.  What is the best way to share them with the greatest number of people hoping that someone can identify them?

I’ve chosen to scan them in high resolution and post them on the web in two places.   One is on my website on my “Most Wanted” “Mystery Photos” page and the other is on Footnote.com.    The Footnote site says that they are the world’s shoe box, so I’m taking them up on it.   I post the photos with titles that include a probable location the photo was taken and an approximate year in the title.  I also annotate each photo so it is easily searchable.

One of the great things about Footnote is that if you spotlight photo or document and add some intelligent text to the name and description of the text, they are indexed by Google (usually overnight) and are available to anyone searching for old photos by area or name who use the Google search engine.

A simple search for Charles Logie Footnote in Google brings up not only his headstone but the annotations that I’ve made on many headstone photos and other records.  Other researchers are finding my postings of headstones and other photos on Footnote.   I know because they either leave comments or send me notes and ask for copies or want to communicate about the images.

Do you have old photos of ‘unknown’ people and places in your files too?  If so, scan them, post them on Footnote using a free or subscription account and share them with the world.  I know how excited I’ve been when I have found photos pertaining to my ancestral families that were posted by acts of genealogical kindness by others.

Be a ‘Santa’ and take the opportunity to give someone else an early Christmas present.   Scan your old photos and post them.   The effort is all just part of “Paying It Forward“.

13 July 2008 Posted by | Photos | Leave a comment

Find Me on “The Wall”

The team at Footnote.com have been working on a very special project for the past few months. They’ve captured images of the Vietnam Wall in Washington D.C. and have added a tremendous amount of information to the names of every person listed on it.

The work has been infectious to team members and others who have seen it. It is your turn now. Visit it at http://www.footnote.com/thewall

The entire wall has been masterfully photographed and is searchable by name. Who is represented by all of these names? They are the fallen heros of the Vietnam war.

The statistics listed are astounding. 58,322 names, 2,056 bodies not recovered and an average age of 22.8 years.

When you find your family member, friend or other name, click on their name and you are presented with their information, such as date of birth, date of death, branch of the service and other significant information.

Now that this page exists, you can add photos, written remembrances, histories and other details about them so today’s and tomorrow’s generations will not forget them, their bravery and their service to the nation.

Click here to watch the comments by one Vietnam Veteran about finding the name of his friend on the wall. You too will begin to feel the “infection” that seeing these names evokes in your heart. Watching the short video is time well spent.

The names represent real people, each with a unique story who died in service to their country.

Not only is the physical site of the wall sacred ground, but now its specific digital location becomes sacred ground.

There is no cost to view the wall or to add comments. Sit down and take a tour of the wall today.

Is it a historical presentation? Yes. A family history presentation? YES!

All of us hope that someone remembers us after we too have passed on. Now, you can remember your fallen family and friends by using “The Wall” and adding remembrances and photos of them.

21 March 2008 Posted by | Photos | , | Leave a comment

Genealogy – Get Them Interested Young

I’ve visited with several young men in our area in the past few months as they were working on their Boy Scout Genealogy Merit Badge. Not all of them were fully ‘infected’ with the genealogy ‘disease’ yet, but they have at least been exposed to this fun and addictive hobby.

Frequently, I see adults buying stamp collecting kits for our youth but seemingly failing to introduce them to the much more rewarding hobby of family history. My mother introduced me to family history research when I was six and I’ve enjoyed it since. There is always another ‘brick wall’ puzzle to solve. I enjoy trading my occupational hat for my ‘Sherlock’ family history hat whenever possible and exercising my mind as a genealogy sleuth.

If you haven’t exposed your children, grandchildren or young friends to genealogy yet, now is the time. Here in the northern hemisphere, it is winter and so inside activities rule the day.

Buy a $4.50 hanging file folder box from Walmart for each of your young folks then create some research, photos and records collection goals and send them on their quest. We all played some form of auto bingo when our parents were trying to keep us entertained on long auto trips when we were young. Perhaps you could create a similar game but have it involve family history items. If you need some ‘How Do I Get Started Help’ ideas, click here.

Don’t forget to include interviews with yourselves as well as grandparents, aunts and uncles on the list, so you will have someone else to not only help entertain them for a while, but give them information that may be new to even you.

Since you are already interested in family history, consider volunteering to be a genealogy merit badge counselor in your area if there isn’t one already.

Here’s a list of items that I ask the scouts in our area to complete as part of their Genealogy merit badge preparation. You can read the current merit badge requirements here.

Genealogy Merit Badge

To Do List – At Home

  • Create a timeline for yourself or one of your parents. Write a short biography for the person that explains the events on the timeline. i.e. Birth, marriage, broken arm, brother / sister born, graduated from school or a grade, etc.
  • Interview someone in your family and write down the information. Mom, Dad, grandparent, etc. Ask them questions about when and where they were born. What is their favorite food? Did they like school? Do they have a nickname? What is their favorite color? Favorite snack food? Etc.
  • Get the full names, birth, marriage and death dates (if they have passed away) and places these things happened for your parents and grandparents. You should know your own birth date and birthplace … Right?
  • Fill out the family group form for your family… parents and your brothers and sisters
  • Fill out the pedigree chart starting with you.
  • Collect the full names, birth dates, birthplaces and marriage information for your parents’ siblings (their brothers and sisters) and for your grandparents (all four grandparents).

There isn’t a similar badge for girl scouts, but meeting the same requirements would certainly qualify for an award from parents, grandparents, mentors or even many church groups.

Teach them young and they will remember the lessons throughout their lives.

24 January 2008 Posted by | FamilySearch, Genealogy, Photos, 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