FamHist Blog

Family History Research Hints and Tips

Good Morning! Who Died?

I may be unique, but I doubt it.  Every morning I arise, mumble “goo morgan” to my wife and then stumble off to glance at the front page of the newspaper.  My real goal is to read the obituary page however.  Did any of my extended cousins or their spouses die? 

Logie Charles Obituary2 17 Jul 1903 lg Unfortunately, too many of them seem to be doing it now.  Also unfortunately, I’ve read the obituaries of too many younger folks and acquaintances in the last few months.  Frequently, the names on the obituary page are familiar but I can’t remember exactly how I know their name.  I dutifully read dozens of obituaries every month of people that I don’t know.  Sometimes though, the listing is about a cousin that I’ve only met through my genealogy database.

Genealogy.  That of course is the real reason I read so many obituaries every month.  I would read them to hear about friends and extended family anyway but not with such refined searches except for the possibility of finding genealogy ‘gold’ hidden in the listings.

Obituaries are invaluable resources to genealogists.  The facts in them are often wrong or “off” a little because of the stress on the family at the time but the names and places are generally accurate. 

Some obituaries are only sparsely populated while others are rich with details about the person and their life.

Obituaries from the turn of the century are often lengthy stories about the deceased individual. 

The obituary for one of my great grandmothers is almost a half page long, complete with her photo and comments by friends and religious leaders.  When I found it, I didn’t even try to obey the ‘Silence’ signs in the library.   “Hah!”  “Look at that!”  My exclamations gained the attention of everyone on that floor. I could only manage a grin and a finger point at the page before finally telling them that “I found my great grandmother”.  Shaking their heads at the eccentric behavior of one of those ‘genealogists’, the other patrons went back to their studies and research. 

The smile on my face stayed in place all day.  I greeted everyone a little more cheerfully during the visit and had extreme patience with the young desk attendant who tried to restock the paper in the copy machine.

Frequently, I find obituaries or death articles in digital newspapers online.  Sometimes, I can’t imagine why they are in a newspaper from a distant town, but am grateful because the local newspaper of the time was destroyed by uncaring corporations who purchased the name and subscriber list of the local publication, but had no interest in the years of published content.

Absent the indexing and hosting of online digital images of newspapers, I wouldn’t have found the majority of the obituaries now safely stored in my sources folder.

Are you enjoying similar success with similar finds in your own research?  If you haven’t, don your Sherlock cap and enter into the fray.  Today is a good day to put a smile on your face too.  

When you have thoroughly mined the Internet and need to physically visit a library, take the stairs and not the elevator.  Unfortunately, they probably won’t be quite like those in this video though.



21 October 2009 Posted by | Genealogy, Obituaries | , , , | Leave a comment

Find-a-grave Comes of Age

When I started posting tombstone photos and histories on the Find-a-grave website over nine years ago, the site content was still fairly small.  On rare occasion, I’d find a photo of the marker of an extended family member, but that was enough to encourage me to continue posting.

Find-a-grave_logoEventually, I posted a request for the photo of my 4th great grandfathers tombstone in Massachusetts and a wonderful volunteer quickly responded and posted it on the Find-a-grave site.  I couldn’t travel there and felt the same way as the people who had thanked me for posting tombstone photos from my part of the world.

Four or five hours on a Saturday morning photo shoot usually produces 300 – 400 photos to post on the site.  It takes me far longer to rotate, tweak, resize and crop the images than taking the photos, but that is ok because I usually find that at least some of the photos are of the markers of my own extended family.  If I could post the photos quickly, I probably wouldn’t read the names so closely or allow them to ‘ring the bell’ in my memory that causes me to search my databases for a possible family tie.

Sometimes, a search of the site turned up a marker for a family member that I’d had a difficult time finding.  Even though the tombstone information usually included only their name, birth and death years, the information still provided a death date and location that I could use to help in my ancestral quest.

I often commented that I wished there was a way to link the memorials together as families because not only could my links help other people searching for families members memorials that I’d created but links created by others would certainly be of equal value in my own ancestral quest.

Then one day earlier this year, my wish was granted by the kind folks at find-a-grave.  Users had seen the site slow down over the years and at times it was neigh unto impossible to keep a working connection long enough to post a string of new records.  We received a note asking us to be patient because the system was being ‘worked on’.

Worked on it was, because late one night the site failed while I was posting.  When I tried it again an hour later, it was up and running and the search speed was terrific.  The migration to new servers was completed.  Not long thereafter users noted some new changes on each memorial.  We could LINK Records!

Find-a-grave Family LinksSince then, I’ve seen a substantial increase of messages regarding records I’ve posted on the site.  The notes asking me to link records that I’ve created to the records of their parents, siblings, children.  With them, I spend time creating the links for families that are posted.

We are also posting a lot of individual photos, histories, family photos and other information that are turning the site into a wonderful genealogical resource.  Several weeks ago, I found the full descendancy of one of my ‘lost’ great granduncles that a distant cousin had posted.  They did a masterful job by including numerous death certificates, documented histories and comments that allowed me to track and verify the information independently.

I’ve since found that it wasn’t a one-off experience.  Other difficult-to-find lines are starting to surface.  Click, click, click and I’m climbing the tree back to our common ancestors.  Nice!

Mentioning my photo forays and postings to cousins in England, I soon received emails from them with photos of the tombstones that they passed everyday on their morning walks.  Their notes asked if I’d post them so the families of the deceased might have the images available to find in their own quests.   Nice twice.  I couldn’t visit England to take the photos and truth is … even if I did visit, I’d be too busy finding my own ancestral records and homes to take time out to take photos of tombstones in locations I had no reason to visit.

If you haven’t visited Find-a-grave for a while, visit today.  Check to see if some of your own ‘lost’ relatives have been found and linked by a kind unknown cousin.

If you don’t already have an account, sign up and join in the fun.  It’s free!  Pay-it-forward by taking tombstone photos in your area and posting them on the site.   Payment will return to you.  Possibly in unlikely ways but always with a lot of interest.

15 October 2009 Posted by | Genealogy | , , , | 3 Comments

I Wear A Seat Belt When Doing Genealogy

I always wear a seat belt.  It makes it harder for aliens to suck me out of the window of my car.

Like most genealogy fans, I’m addicted to researching my lineage and associated families.  The addiction started over a half century ago and if anything has intensified every year since then.

MarvinMartian Many other researchers from around the world with my surname have contacted me over the years hoping to find common ancestry and to share research efforts.  Surprisingly, very few of the folks are related to me prior to the early 1400’s.  We wish we could find a closer tie, but alas, it hasn’t happened so far.

One of my ‘cousins’ has been in contact with me on and off for many years.  He hit a brick wall early in his research and hasn’t been able to topple it even with his most intense efforts.  Finally hoping to find a keyhole that peers into the lineage I’ve traced, I was asked if I’d take a DNA test hoping we’d find enough of a match to at least provide some encouragement in his quest.

Unfortunately, he asked for the DNA test results of an alien.

We waited for weeks before the first set of results arrived.  Opening them, I was relieved to see that the lab agreed that I was alive but was sad that there weren’t many other facts to explore.  About a month later, the rest of the results arrived.  My ‘cousin’ and I may be related, but if so, it is only because we both have two legs.

Intrigued with the concept of genealogical ‘research’ through DNA, I started reading about how to correctly interpret the results of DNA tests.

That may have been a bad choice on my part.  Thus far, I’ve found that I have almost no DNA ties to any other human on record.

I think I’m an alien.

I was born 14 years after my next closest sibling and due to size, coloring and interests have often wondered if I was left on the back step of my parents home and they never got around to telling me.

My oldest brother took my mother to the hospital when I was born because my father wasn’t home at the moment.  He and my mother told me the story many times.  My mother even elaborated on the story noting that the doctor said, “It’s a Boy! He has Red Hair!”, to which my mother replied, “That’s not Red, that’s Rust!”

I’ve always enjoyed that story but now that I’ve spent so much time trying to find DNA ties to other humans, I’m more disposed to believing that I was dropped off at my parents home by aliens.  I’m probably part of a major alien conspiracy that hasn’t been exposed yet.

How are you doing with the results of your DNA tests?  Are you part of the alien conspiracy too or have you been able to use them to prove ties to the humans?

To the other aliens out there, I say, “Aliens Unite!”  We may create a whole new area of research in the fascinating genealogical quest that humans enjoy.

I’m sure they’ll still accept us.  Source documentation may be harder for us, but think of the family stories we’ll have to tell!

See you in the Family History Library or on the Mother Ship.

17 August 2009 Posted by | DNA, Family History | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Indefatigable Thomas Ashton

Ashton Thomas portrait Born in Parr, Prescot, Lincolnshire in 1813, Thomas Ashton was the only son of Joseph and Catherine Cawley Ashton.  Joseph was a silver smith by trade and Thomas picked up the thrill of working with his hands and mind at a young age.

He married Mary Howard in 1836 and the couple quickly had two children.  In 1840, Thomas and Mary heard the message of Mormon missionaries and were baptized into that faith in 1840.  On the 8th of November 1841, the couple boarded a ship at Liverpool and migrated to America to join up with other members of the church.

Three more children were born to the couple in Iowa.  Unfortunately, the family was driven from location to location by murderous mobs along the other church members.  They eventually moved to Nauvoo, Illinois where they established a comfortable home for their family.  Once again, the mobs began to attack.  They were forced to leave Missouri after Missouri governor Lilburn Boggs issued his infamous Missouri Executive Order 44, or the ‘extermination order’ of all members of the Mormon faith.

After years of enduring privations and stress from their attacks, Mary to become so ill that sThomas Ashton Obituaryhe died in August 1849.  Thomas was left alone to raise five children while trying to yet again build a home, make a living and provide service to his church.

Calling on his metal and woodworking skills, he helped craft the famous old ‘blunderbuss’ cannon out of an old steamboat funnel during these years.  It made a great noise but wasn’t used to kill the mobsters.

Once again, the Mormons were forced out of their homes by mobs, fleeing across the frozen Mississippi River during the winter of 1846-47.  They settled in Winter Quarters, Nebraska in tents, wagons and sod homes.

The strain on the people and Thomas’ family was terrible.  Fortunately, he met and married the twenty-one-year old Sarah Elenor Mills there in September 1849.  His children again had a mother.  On August 1850, Sarah delivered a son to the Ashton family, but once again the privations of their situation was felt.  Three days later, Sarah passed away, leaving Thomas alone with six children, one of which was a three-day-old baby.

The family struggled to stay alive that fall and winter, enduring conditions that can hardly be imagined today in most areas of the world.  Fortunately, they met Araminta Lawrence, a twenty-year-old lady who was born in Canada.  On 17 February 1851, the couple married and Araminta became the ‘instant’ mother to  five children.  Thomas hadn’t been able to raise the baby in the months after the death of Sarah and he had been given to another family to raise.

In early 1851, the family left Winter Quarters with the Morris Phelps company using handcarts to carry their meager possessions.  When possible, the children rode on the cart and on occasion Araminta was able to get a brief respite from walking, but Thomas walked the entire distance from Winter Quarters to Salt Lake Valley.

Arminta Lawrence AshtonThomas eventually made a home for his family in Lehi, Utah after working in Salt Lake and Weber valleys for several years.  Another eleven children were born into the family by 1875.

Araminta was a tremendous woman and admiration for her love, tenacity and homemaking skills are still celebrated by her descendants.

Thomas served on the Lehi City Council twice, first from 1854 though 1866 and later from 1877 through 1878.  He was the water master in the city from 1861 though 1871.  Along with running a farm, he was also a carpenter, building engineer and stone mason.

Utilizing his skills to work stone, he helped build both the Nauvoo and Salt Lake Temples.

Araminta passed away on 10 Jun 1891, worn out after 59 years of life as a heroic frontier wife and mother.  Thomas’ life was filled with family, service and enjoyment when he passed away at age 89 on 22 January 1903.   He and Araminta are buried in the Lehi City cemetery.

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15 August 2009 Posted by | Ancestors, Genealogy | , , | Leave a comment

The Execution of Small Town Newspapers

If your part of the world is like ours, less ink and paper is being published that has any resemblance of the community that existed in small town newspapers of days gone by.   Electronic media is probably the main culprit but coupled with corporate greed (need?) to ever increase the bottom line, their demise has been assured.

Scene18 Newspaper organizations are laying off employees, reducing the number of pages in print by half and are becoming generic given that here only seems to be ten or so newspaper journalists remaining in the world.  Everything on the page seems to come from a common pool of articles created by one or two news organizations.   Pool all the daily and weekly articles together and the price per word goes down when you shop from the same trough.

Today, we rarely read about weddings, golden anniversaries, missionaries and who visited whom.  Instead, the news organizations have created “Community Posts” sections on their websites.  These sections were supposed to replace the hard copy weekly publications that we’ve loved for generations, but alas, they are nothing more than headline grabbers from the normal paper sprinkled with an occasional community concert, play or scout activity notice.

Gone are the papers we loved for generations.  Gone are the informative articles that were like manna to genealogists.

Looking back through my own research, almost all of the ‘knowledge’ about the lives and personalities of my ancestors came from small town papers.  At first glance, I thought that their surviving letters and notes probably had the edge, but on closer inspection of my files, it quickly became apparent that my memory was wrong.

I love touching my collection of letters and notes because my ancestors touched and created them.  That alone has a big impact on how I perceive them as data mines and probably biased my thoughts that they provided the majority of the personality facts about my ancestors.  In truth, most of my knowledge about them came from the thousands upon thousands of small town newspaper clippings in my files.

My mother was a perpetual newspaper article clipper with a determined focus on any that contained information about family and friends, near and far.  A few years before her passing, she asked what I wanted from her estate.   The answer was easy.   Her genealogy and the newspaper clippings.  In my opinion, nothing else had value by comparison.  The clippings were significant additions to my own family history research documentation.  The smell of the clippings has gifted the atmosphere in my office and genealogy library rooms in our home with the patina of old newsprint and documents.  The hard core genealogists among us know that we’d rather smell that scent than the most expensive French perfume.

Knowing that the pages of the small town papers were dripping with much more information than mom had collected, I called the editor of the small town papers in our area a couple of years ago hoping to wrangle access to their storage library.  With some vehemence, he related that the new owners, a national chain of mid-sized newspaper titles across the country, had ordered all of the old papers be trashed.  Gone were the 100 plus years of the American Fork Citizen, the Pleasant Grove Review, the Lehi Free Press.  “Trash the ‘d___’d” things right now while we watch.  We need the room for other things”.  He was still as sick at heart as I now felt.

I argued the act was a capital crime in my book – that I’d have stored them myself – that I’d have digitized them for posterity out of my own pocket.  How could anyone be so blatantly stupid to destroy them?  Pound for pound, page for page, the small town newspapers contained the richest content in that medium for a genealogist.  Now the old brittle yellow pages have turned to compost at the local land fill.

Small town newspapers of old will never be recreated in the modern world.  Our times are too full of identity thieves, privacy laws, and the sons of Satan who feed on society through theft and deception.  A current day recreation of the folksy articles in the old papers would be too inviting to these miscreants.  We already have to guard homes during funeral services for family members because the bad guys know that the family will be gone at a set time and date.  What would they do with the details found in stories of days-gone-by in a current day setting?

Fortunately, not all of the old papers have been lost.  Many colleges and other entities are digitizing some of the old papers and making them available to us through the web, libraries and other similar venues.  If you haven’t taken the time to find them and explore their content rich pages in your own ancestral quest, today would be a good day to do so.  Don’t just read these words and nod in agreement.  Dive in and find the genealogical Gold that awaits you in their pages.

In an earlier post I wrote about making the ‘Essence of New Mown Hay”.  I wish someone would create the scent of yellowed old newsprint.  A puff or two during our electronic forays into the old papers would add the aroma required to enhance the research experience.  Add a weathered old page or two of a current day newspaper for texture, turn the lights low and clutter your office.  Ahhh…. the cozy feel of researching old newspapers like it used to be in “the good old days”.

15 April 2009 Posted by | Digital Newspapers | , , , | 1 Comment