FamHist Blog

Family History Research Hints and Tips

Google Docs Comments and Discussions in Genealogy

Genealogy research teams should seriously consider using the collaborative features in Google Docs to share and document their assignments and progress in collaborative research.

A research plan using Docs is available to your team members any time and in any place that they have Internet access and no special services are required other than a Google account.

There are two collaborative tools you’ll want to use with a research document: 

Comments and Discussions.

A comment has been commonly used by most of us for years when we insert a comment into a shared document.  Discussions associated with a document are new.  The discussions stream can obviously trace its lineage back to Google Wave. While it does not include all of the features of Wave, its usefulness in collaborative research documents is undeniable.

Team members will find these tools simple to use: 

Create a research document in a Google Documents and then share it with everyone on the research team giving them edit rights.   They can be notified of document creation and updates using any email or other contact address, but  they will need a Google account to view and participate in collaborative additions to the document.  Login by going to https://docs.google.com  The document will automatically show in the document list for anyone who has view or edit rights.

Comments can be added to the document by anyone on the team.  The comment entries list both a time stamp and username of the person creating them.  Insert > Comment


A Discussion is an ongoing separate dialog that is linked to the document.  They are created by clicking on the “Discussions” button at the top of the page.


The Discussion is viewable in a floating frame over the document.


Other team members viewing the document are announced when they open the document.


Teams can create a never-ending research document for a common ancestor, a family, history of an ancestral home town, etc.  Add photos, movies, links, drawings, or any other discoveries found during the research process. 

Comments stay with the document unless they are deleted. They will print with the document, so you may need to copy the document to a new doc or delete the comments if you don’t want them on a printed document.

If team members don’t want to receive email notes when changes are made to the document, they can turn them off in the Discussions > Discussion Notification Settings.  Sharing settings are found in the Sharing > Sharing Settings.

Collaborative research plans and results tracking are extremely useful and productive tools for research teams.  Active teams invariably produce far greater research results than the success of any single member of the team. 

Create a plan and give it a try for your research teams.  It works .. very well.



Using Discussions in Google Docs

16 March 2011 Posted by | Genealogy, Research | , , , | Leave a comment

A Ghost On The Back Stair

Not long ago, I was contacted by a lady that lives in a home that was built on the rear-most part of my ancestors property in New England.  She enjoys genealogy but her current quest is the result of a ghost that lives in her home and sometimes says “Hello” to her family in a clear intelligible friendly voice when they are climbing the back stairs.

Those occurrences prompted her to start a search of the genealogy of her property through the years.  My ancestors owned the land her home sits on for four or five generations of the family and are hence candidates for the possible source of the friendly ghost. 

I can’t image them hanging around the property all these years.  They were never idle in life and I doubt if their personality has changed in the afterlife. I suppose a passing “Hello” wouldn’t be out of character though if they were in the neighborhood.

We all have unusual or unique experiences when we are engaged in family history research.  If you are like me, you too sometimes hear someone speak to you when you are deep in uffish genealogy thought or hot on the trail of that final piece of evidence that will open the door in an ancestral brickwall. 

It happens.  It is so common place that it hardly bears noting in our research lives.   The arrival of unexpected snail or email with genealogy data and records attached is expected.  The longer we engage in genealogical research, the more common the experiences become in our quest.

Their frequency and magnitude seem to be directly proportional to several factors: New researchers earnestly working to find their ancestral trees and more seasoned researchers who post, share and ‘do something’ with the data they find in their hard-won research victories.

Were I to record the thousands of unique assist experiences I’ve enjoyed over the years, my fingers would long tire of typing and another large storage drive would be required to hold all of the data bits from the stories. 

No, I’m not advocating that you start recording the silence around you to hear unseen or unheard voices, nor do I advocate anyone seeking contact with the spirit world.  I’m just appreciative when an unexpected contact, data attachment or the occasional pat on the head happens just when it is most needed in my ancestral quest.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to say “Good Night” when you close down your workstation in the wee hours of the night.  Who’s going to hear you except those helpful ancestors that are watching over your shoulder….

Remembering Yesterday

11 January 2011 Posted by | Genealogy, Research | , , | Leave a comment

The Genealogy Zombie

Some days are better than others even if the cause of the ‘better’ is our own absent mindedness.  Witness the discovery today of notes and pages on the shelf of an out-of-sight book case in my office from a multiple day research trip to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.

I try to spend as much time as possible preparing for visits to the FHL in Salt Lake so little of my precious research time is wasted during the visit.  The preparation goes something like this:

  • Review of the research notes I’ve recorded on the Legacy database records of my brick-wall ancestors and other ancestral family members…. check.
  • Print out an individual or family report for each of the folks on my research agenda …. check.
  • Look at the family history library catalog on familysearch.org and copy the titles, authors and call numbers for books and records that may help find each of the folks on my agenda.   Paste that info into a WordPad file and when the list is complete, flip over one or more pages of the associated reports and print the titles, call numbers, etc., on it… check.
  • Now I have their vital statistics, locations, family names and research notes together on the same sheets of paper.  The ‘plan of attack’ is ready to implement… check.

At the library, I’ll also use the white space on the pages to record notes in permanent black ink.  “Finds” will have a Star to the side of them.  Thoughts and possible other research ideas will be jotted down.  A bold “NO” will be to the side of the items that didn’t pan out.

Back home, I’ll transcribe my notes by updating and adjusting my research notes and plan.  The research notes in Legacy will also include all of the research titles and call numbers and their relative worth.  That information will be used to avoid digging through the same resources again or to point me back to the items that are full of information.

I then 3-hole punch the stapled package for each individual and put the notes in each persons file folder.

Now I have a hard copy paper trail for reference even if all of my geographically scattered data backups go south at the same time.

“Yes”, you say.  “Very organized.  Very methodical.”

Well, don’t hand out accolades quite yet.

It seems I’ve forgotten that long ago, somewhere along the way, I purchased two identical zippered folders.  I probably picked them up at different times at the same store in some oft visited distant city.  They aren’t of a common design but are highly distinctive in fact.  One glance and I recognize them.

It takes a while to transcribe all my research notes from ancestral research trips into the various files and databases I use.  Lots of things happen in our lives and during the span of time between the library visit and final transcriptions and filing, some ‘stuff’ is pushed out of my memory.  Apparently, it tumbles to the ground after exiting my ear.  It is to be expected…. It only makes a small pile of dust on the floor.  Hardly noticeable.

I’ve often wondered why I continue to absent mindedly leave the zippered folder on the wrong shelf and parking spot in that backwoods bookcase.

The discovery today provided the answer to this vexing riddle.  I’ve been rotating the two identical zippered folders between my main work area and that bookcase all of this time.  My mind is trained to not waste time observing fixed items in known locations but to rather put the body on auto-pilot and let it do its thing while the mind is reviewing the research plan, daily goals and the next step in the quest.

When the body sees an empty slot on a shelf that exactly matches the folder, it is used without further thought.

Apparently, I’ve been grabbing a folder, working on it very late at night over a period of a week or so and then replacing it back in the open slot.

Unfortunately, the assigned ‘to-do’ space on my work surface is not in direct line-of-sight near the monitors.  Not immediately spotting the folder, I go into autopilot mode and again pull the folder from the bookshelf for transcription.  When I’ve finished that work at around 4 a.m. a few days later, I put it back in the empty slot.   At a later late night session, I’ll notice the folder in the to-do space, look inside and think that I’m becoming absent-minded and then send the body to file it in the bookcase.

The folders ‘parking slot’ is open but on the opposite side of the case where I thought got it.

The banner: “I’m really getting absent minded” scrolls through my mind about this time.

zombie_attackToday, the mystery came into full light when I pulled the folder off the shelf to stock it for the next research trip.  It contained my research notes and associated pages from a foray to the FHL over a year ago.  How had I let them sit all of that time without completing the associated transcription and filing?

A few minutes ago, after I completed the transcriptions and filings, the body kicked into auto pilot and tried to put the folder back on the shelf.  The slot was full!  Since this morning, someone had cloned my folder and put it in the slot!

Confusion and finally laughter ensued.  I’ve become a robot in the walls of my office and associated filing rooms.  I don’t see anything other than the items related to the task at hand.  Even some of the associated physical manipulations happens autonomously.

Oh bother!  That probably explains the loss of the dried pineapple snacks too.  My wife didn’t eat them.  I did!  I don’t even remember tasting them while my body vacated to the Genealogy Zombie mode.

I suppose genealogists can be a little too focused at times.

Look at that!  Someone brought back all my missing pens too!

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20 April 2010 Posted by | Genealogy, Research | , , | Leave a comment

Genealogy Research Live in Palm of Your Hand

I know that a number of you have iPhones.  You probably aren’t aware that you can purchase an application to let you access new FamilySearch on your phone!  Check out the mobileTree application. 

mobileTree iPhone app I keep much of my genealogy and research on my website (some public, some password protected).  Combine online data with mobileTree and the available GPS application and you have a Killer tool for doing genealogy research!

Imagine…..  The billions of records of nFS, your own data, photos, and ability to interface with all of them using a device that fits in the palm of your hand.   Visit a cemetery, get the GPS coordinates of ancestors graves, take a photo of their headstones and post it all to your site and blog(s) on the spot.  No wasted motion or memory loss!  Wow!

If you have an iPhone, I’ll bet Santa would be happy to give you this application if you ask for it.

Continuing on this theme …..

You may not know that you can post your cemetery, research and other photos directly to your blogs via email.   Both Posterous and blogger.com allow postings this way.  All of the posts to my posterous blog are made that way.  

Suppose you are working with family and friends on genealogy and you are on a research trip.  You can share your finds with them in real-time using this method.  I usually have to find a WiFi hot spot or do a little juggling on a public computer at a library or at the FHL to make on-the-spot posts.  

When you have a active research team but haven’t worked together in real-time, you can’t imagine how the synergy in the groups builds momentum and success in your research.   They help guide your on-the-site search with information they have in their far-flung locations.

I’ve frequently experienced this synergy in real-time and guarantee it happens.   Add Skype to the mix for live video, voice and peer-to-peer file transfers and you too can make it ‘Happen’ — Real Time!

Wow #2!  I may have lived long enough to see some of my dreams become reality!  

The tools are here.  Make it happen.

16 November 2009 Posted by | Family History, Genealogy, GPS, Headstones, Research | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

"Please Pardon Momma from Jail"

Genealogical research often takes you down many paths, sometimes just because they are so interesting.  After several hours of reading interesting documents, this series of documents remained in my memory.

Dear Sir, Would You Please Pardon Momma?

18 Mar 1895 | Logan, Utah

Thirteen year old Polly Beardall found herself raising her siblings due to unfortunate events in the lives of her parents.

Apparently, her father John Gell Beardall left home in 1891 or 1892 saying the was going to Oregon to look for work and was never heard from again. He left his wife, Eliza Richards Beardall and four living children to fend for themselves in Logan, Utah.

Polly was the only daughter in the family. On 18 March 1895, she wrote a letter to the legal authorities asking them to release her mother from jail because Polly had been raising her siblings for over seven months and was worn out.

Her mother, Eliza Richards Beardall had been incarcerated for involuntary manslaughter in the county jail in Logan, Utah. The details of the case aren’t revealed in the pardon documents.

Read Polly’s poignant plead in this letter asking for her mothers release from jail so she could come home and care for her family.

Beardall Eliza Pardon Letter 1.jpg

I Scarcely Know What To Say

27 Mar 1895 | Logan, Utah

U. S. Attorney, J. W. Judd was asked by Judge W. C. Maginnis for his opinion in Polly’s pardon request.

Judge Maginnis was at a loss of words as he started penning his letter to Judd.  The impact of young Polly’s letter on both of them was obvious in their letters.

Maginnis stated that he didn’t think it was good for the children to be put in the care of their mother.

On the surface, this would seem to say that she was an unfit mother, but there is little doubt he meant that due to the indigent circumstances of the family, Eliza would struggle to support, feed and clothe her children.

Beardall Eliza Pardon Letter 2.jpg

Governor Vest …. The Decision Is Up To You

29 Mar 1895 | Logan, Utah

U. S. Attorney, J. W. Judd was asked by Judge W. C. Maginnis for his opinion in Polly’s pardon request.

Judge Maginnis was at a loss of words as he started penning his letter to Judd.  The impact of young Polly’s letter on both of them was obvious in their letters.

Maginnis stated that he didn’t think it was good for the children to be put in the care of their mother.

On the surface, this would seem to say that she was an unfit mother, but there is little doubt he meant that due to the indigent circumstances of the family, Eliza would struggle to support, feed and clothe her children.

Governor Vest …. The Decision Is Still Up To You

29 Mar 1895 | Logan, Utah

U. S. Attorney J. W. Judd, wrote a letter to Utah Governor, Caleb W. Vest stating that he couldn’t provide a recommendation for pardon, placing the decision on Governor Vest.

Beardall Eliza Pardon Letter 3.jpg

Release and Marriage

May 1895 | Logan, Utah

The pardon was granted on 1 Apr 1895 by Governor Vest and Eliza was released to go home and care for her family.. On 18 May 1895, Eliza married Azial Litchfield Riggs of Logan, Utah.

Two children, Fred and Maud, were produced from this union. Azial died when the children were in their teen years and Eliza again faced the difficult task of working a farm to provide for her family as a single mother.

Eliza died on 21 Oct 1936 in Wellsville, Utah.

Beardall Eliza Pardon Letter 4.jpg

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9 November 2009 Posted by | Genealogy, Research | , , | 1 Comment

Finding Charlie Stone

Brick walls or other missing information in your ancestral research are common to all of us. Frequently, the information we need is fairly close to us in time, yet seems to be as elusive as the exact birth date of an ancestor born in 1582.

Our ancestor was born or died in a sparsely populated county or area and government and church records were never created for them for one reason or another. Therefore, their missing information is impossible to find. Right?

That may not be true in more cases than you’d think.

In 1985, my wife an I traveled to Calaveras County, California looking for information on my 2nd great grandparents and their family. The only information I had about them was that they lived and died in Copperopolis, a tiny mining town on the shoulder of the Sierra Nevada’s. The mines had long since closed and the population could be counted on the fingers of both hands (well, maybe you had to use some of your toes too).

Not finding anyone in the tiny store who knew anything about my family, I asked for directions to the cemetery. It was divided into four sections by rock walls and occupied by past residents who belonged to various faiths, organizations and the populace in general.

When we found the headstones and burial plot of my ancestors and some of their family, I was delighted. Finally, I’d seen and touched something tangible that proved their lives. I could see that someone cared about them, because of a few desert plants and bushes that had been planted around the plot. An old coffee can and quart Mason bottle were sitting against the California oak tree in the plot and were obviously used to carry water to the plantings.

Wondering how I could contact the ‘care taker’ of these plants, it came to me to write a note on the back of my business card and put it in the bottle and the bottle inside the coffee can asking them to please contact me. Who knew if they would or how long it would take? I had high hopes and they weren’t dashed. Several days later, I received a letter and family information from the distant cousin who cared for the cemetery plants. Gold was found in the old California Gold Country again!!

We made a second trip to Calaveras County and after talking to the good folks in the Calaveras County Historical Society were told that I needed to talk to Charlie Stone in Copperopolis. He was the unofficial town historian and may have some information to help me in my quest.

It didn’t take long to find Charlie and Rhoda Stone’s home in tiny Copperopolis. Rhoda opened the door to my knocking and invited us in. One whole wall of their living room was covered from floor to ceiling with stacks of paper, books and documents about early Copperopolis and Calaveras County. They were writing a book about the area and all of these records were part of their research.

Charlie came home a few minutes later and after we introduced ourselves to him and related our quest to find my ancestors, his face lit up and he said, “I have something for you …. right here”. Reaching into one of the towering stacks of paper he pulled a dozen pages out. I held my breath thinking the entire stack would soon be an avalanche hitting the floor but Charlie knew his stacking skills better than I.

He turned to me and said, “These are the records of your people”. “Here are their birth, marriage and death dates and places”. “Oh, and by the way, here is a photo of your great grandmother in her buggy when she was a young woman.” Time stopped. The grin on my face was permanent. He offered to make copies of all of it for me and off we went to the telephone company service trailer to make them.

I had in my hands something more precious than gold in my estimation.

When we walked back into his home, he stopped and thought for a minute and then said, “That isn’t all of the information I’m supposed to give you”. Moving several inches of papers around on his desk, he retrieved a slip of paper with a name and address on it. “This is the name and address of your cousin”. “He stopped here to talk to me last summer, riding his Harley and looking for information about any surviving family.” “There aren’t any of them still here, but he gave me his address just in case any ever showed up”.

As soon as we got home, I wrote my cousin a letter and sent copies of all of our common ancestry that I’d found in my life long ancestral quest. Three days later, I received a telephone call. He asked if I was the person who had sent the letter and information. When I said yes, he asked how I’d gotten his address. I told him the story about visiting Charlie Stone and that Charlie, true to his word, had passed on his name and address to a family member looking for our common ancestry.

The line was silent for almost a minute. When he started to speak again he was still suspicious of me. Due to problems in his life, none of their accounts, ownerships or other records listed him. Everything was in his wife’s maiden name. He said it was “Impossible for Charlie Stone to give you my address.” “I’ve never heard of Charlie Stone.” “I haven’t been in Copperopolis for over 40 years.” “I don’t have a motorcycle!” “We only moved into our current home less than nine months ago, long after the date Charlie said I’d visited him.”

We talked for a little while about our families and ancestry and I discovered that he’d lost all contact with his family and close ancestors over the years. Tender moments and comments ensued and he had to hang up because he couldn’t control his emotions any longer.

Brick walls came down both in my ancestral quest and in my family search in general due to my visit with Charlie Stone. Was I guided by an unseen force? You bet I was and I’m extremely grateful for it.

Charlie wrote his book (I own one) and is gone now. My cousin has also passed on, but the experience of meeting this old unofficial town historian and then ‘meeting’ my cousin on a telephone call will always be with me.

Great grandpa and grandma, thanks for helping me find you and your family.

So, when you are trying to knock down your own ancestral ‘brick walls’ or fill in information about your extended families, don’t forget to look for the Charlie Stone in the area where your family lived. You never know what will turn up and who you’ll meet.

15 March 2008 Posted by | Research Tips | , , | 2 Comments