Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Friday, July 31, 2009

Reading real estate legal descriptions

There are three main methods of describing real property for deeds and other conveyances; metes and bounds, the coordinate system of the U.S. Public Land Survey System and the lots and/or blocks on a subdivision plat.

Most older deeds use the metes and bounds description. Here is an example from an old Massachusetts deed:

Modern metes and bounds descriptions usually do not rely on naturally occurring landmarks, the legal descriptions start with a reference to a known surveyed point of origin. One of the basic issues with any metes and bounds description is that the description "close," that is, the boundary line of the property returns back to the point of beginning. It is interesting that over the years I have found many legal descriptions that did not close.

The U.S. Public Land Survey System is illustrated by the map at the beginning of this post. The Continental Congress passed the Land Ordinance of 1785 and then the Northwest Ordinance in 1787 to control the survey, sale, and settling of the new lands. Wikipedia.

The description of a particular ten acre (40,000 m²) parcel of land under this system might be given as NW1/4 SW1/4 SE1/4 SEC 22 T2S R3E. From Wikipedia, here is the interpretation of the legal description:
The elements of such descriptions are interpreted from right to left, so we are describing a plot of land in the township that is the third east of the Range Line (R3E) and the second south of the base line (T2S). We are also looking at section 22 in that township (refer to the grid above). Next that section is divided into quarters (160 acres each), and we should be in the SE quarter section. That section is divided again in quarters (40 acres) and the description calls for the SW quarter. Last in this description, it is quartered again (into 10-acre (40,000 m2) plots), as we want the NW quarter. So, in language, the example plot is the NW quarter of the SW quarter of the SE quarter of section 22 of the township that is the second south of the base line and the third east of the range line. Wikipedia.
In the subdivision plat system, the location of the subdivision itself is usually described either through metes and bounds or through the rectangular survey system of the U.S. Public Land Survey. Lots within the subdivision are numbered and are referenced to the recorded plat or map of the subdivision.

I will discuss this in greater detail in future posts.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Ye olde thorn

Thorn is a letter in the Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic alphabets. It represented the sound of the "th" in modern English. The original form used above lost its ascender and by the mid-15th century was indistinguishable from the letter "Y." So all of the older documents, signs and etc. that have the word "Ye" such as "Ye olde ..." are really saying "The." Use of the thorn is common in older documents but disappears around the middle of the 1800s. From Wikipedia, here is a list of the most common forms of the letter:
  • (þe) a Middle English abbreviation for the word the
  • (þt) a Middle English abbreviation for the word that
  • (þu) a rare Middle English abbreviation for the word thou (which was written early on as þu or þou)
  • (ys) an Early Modern English abbreviation for the word this
  • (ye) an Early Modern English abbreviation for the word the
  • (yt) an Early Modern English abbreviation for the word that
Except for very fake advertising, the only modern real use of the letter is in Icelandic:
The Icelandic language is the only living language to retain the letter thorn (in Icelandic; þorn, pronounced þoddn, [θ̠ɔtn̥]) in common usage. The letter is the 30th in the Icelandic alphabet and never appears at the end of a word. Its pronunciation has not varied much, but in earlier times time þorn was sometimes used instead of ð as in the word "verþa" which is verða (meaning "to become") in modern Icelandic. Wikipedia.
Recognizing the use of the thorn is one of the minor issues in reading ye olde documents.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

In Genealogical Research, Spelling Doesn't Count

Imagine you are a census enumerator in the late 1800s in a predominantly immigrant section of the U.S. Many of the people you are counting can neither read nor written in English. In fact, many of them speak little or no English. How do you insure that you have understood the names and gotten the information correct? The answer is, you don't. You simply write down what you hear and leave it at that.

Even in places where English was spoken and understood, many of the entries made on census records were done phonetically. However, phonetic transcription of names, dates, places and other information is not confined to census records. Anytime, the official transcribed information from a person under less than ideal circumstances, there was an opening for error.

I can't count the number of times I have been told by a novice researcher, that the entry I found could not be their ancestor because that isn't the way the name is spelled. In truth, the possibilities for variations in the way names are spelled is enormous assuming the person recording the information didn't just get the name wrong. I have a relatively common name -- Tanner. But it is surprising how frequently it has been heard and written as "Taylor" or "Turner." Just think about the possibilities of a name like "Nowakoski" or "Kleinschmidt."

There is an interesting article with a general discussion of the spelling problem from The Spelling Society called English spelling and its Reform: Some Observations from a Historical Perspective by Donald G. Scragg. To add some more complexity to the issue of spelling names, standardized spelling is a relatively recent phenomena. Many people historically wrote their names a variety of ways. For example, John is written as: Ion, Iohn, Jan, Jehan, Jehn, Jen, Joan, Joen, John, Johne, Johan, Johann, Johanne, Johannes, Jon, Jone and many more variations. For more variations see A Brief Discussion of Spelling Variations.

Also, don't forget nicknames and shortened names. In some cases Margaret becomes Maggie and Elizabeth becomes Betty.

One way to approach the problem of spelling is to read names out loud. In some countries, such as Spain and other Spanish language areas, this may be the only way to understand what has been written. But even in English language areas, reading the entries out loud may disentangle some phoneticized transcriptions.

Here are a number of further reference sites you may wish to review:

A short history of English spelling

English Orthography

Phonology, Phonics, and English Spelling

Historical Background to English Spelling Or, Why in the World is English Spelling So Crazy

The History of English: Spelling and Standardization in English: Historical Overview

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Using the Wikipedia map tricks for genealogy

There is a lot of everything on the Internet and sometimes it helps to have a trick or two to find what you are looking for. This is especially true of maps. Here is a trick for finding a lot of map references quickly.

Start with a Google search for a place. For example, start a search for "Harleysville, Pennsylvania." If you do a search for the town, which is a very small place in Pennsylvania, you will find a lot of references, most of which will be commercial sites like Walmart and real estate companies. The first part of the trick is to add "wikipedia" to your search, so that the search looks like "harleysville pennsylvania wikipedia." Surprise, there is a specific Wikipedia article on Harleysville. The entry says:
Harleysville is a census-designated place (CDP) in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, United States. The population was 8,795 at the 2000 census. It belongs to the Lower Salford Township. Harleysville was settled by Pennsylvania Dutch in the 1700s.
But now comes the real part of the trick, look in the upper right hand corner of the Wikipedia article or somewhere else on the right side. There is an entry for "Coordinates." This gives the latitude and longitude of the featured location. The further surprise comes when you click on the coordinates themselves. Wikipedia then gives you a listing of every map location it can find listing the particular location! In the case of Harleysville, there are well over seventy-five different map locations referenced.

Now, you say, what about someplace really obscure? How about someplace in Europe or Africa? Of course, there are limitations on the information in Wikipedia. You might need to go to the next larger city near the location to find all the maps, but it works an amazingly high percentage of the time.

The next trick involves looking at one of the possible entries on the long list of maps. That is the Geonames Website. This Website contains over eight million placenames that are available for download free of charge. For example, I looked for "Nutrioso" a very small village in Arizona. There are four references all of which take me to maps of that location.

By adding Websites that cross-reference old place names with newer ones, you can spend some time and find a lot of information about the places where your ancestors lived or where they might have lived.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Michigan Genealogical Council organizes support for Michigan State Library

The Michigan Genealogical Council is organizing support for the Michigan State Library. Although this is a local issue in Michigan, from the perspective of genealogical records, this is a national issue also.

Here is the text of their most recent appeal for help:
Fellow Michigan genealogists and library supporters - Now is the time for Michiganians to come to the aid of our state's history and learning.Your Michigan Genealogical Council is planning a public assembly in Lansing to show our legislators and fellow citizens that we care about our state's past.On Wednesday the 5th of August, let's assemble at the State Capitol, on the lawn. nbsp;We have reserved the North and South lawns, and the steps. Time, 9:45 a.m. The State Senate goes into session at 10 a.m., the only time in the next few weeks we can be certain our legislators will be assembled at Lansing. At 10:30 a.m., we will process/march over to the Michigan Historical Center and form our Hands Around the Library. Since the perimeter of the building is around 1800 feet, it is obvious we can use as many genealogists or friends of libraries/history of all types as possible. Flags and ribbons can be held between people as well as hands and arms.We'll stay around the building probably 20 minutes starting at 11:00 a.m. -- then off to lunch, research, or museum viewing! Thanks for your support of Michigan's past … and our future. Please let us know how many from your Society will be able to participate -- and questions to Sue Irvine.

Dating back to July 15, 2009, the Michigan Genealogical Council issued the following statement:

July 15, 2009

To Whom It May Concern:

As you may be aware, Michigan is facing a huge financial crisis. Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm issued Executive Order 2009-36 dissolving the Department of History, Arts & Libraries and splitting the various functions between various other state departments. The Library of Michigan would be transferred to the Department of Education, and the Archives of Michigan would be transferred to the Department of Natural Resources. This order would take effect October 1, 2009.

What is of concern is Section B (8) of the Executive Order that states:

“Unless the Superintendent finds it impracticable, these measures shall include, but not limited to, all of the following: (a) Eliminating circulation of specific collections (including, but not limited to, the Main, Dewey, and General Reference collections, the Michigan collection, the Michigan Documents collection, and the Rare Book collection) or, alternatively, transferring such collections to other suitable institutions, . . . (c) Suspending or eliminating participation as a participating lending library in MeLCat, (d) Eliminating or transferring to other suitable institutions the Federal Documents Depository and the non-Michigan genealogy collection.”

The Executive Order directs the Superintendent of Public Instruction to continue to look for ways to reduce library costs.

Also in the Executive Order is the formation of a committee to look at how to further reduce costs for the next fiscal year. The Executive Order can be reviewed at,1607,7-168-21975---,00.html.

In response to the Executive Order, ten (10) Michigan senators have introduced bills (SB 503 – SB 527) transferring all functions of the Department of History, Arts & Libraries to the Department of State. This would include a separate pot of money from the general fund, held by the Department of Treasury, for any donations. The donations that are not spent at the end of the fiscal year remain in the account and are not transferred to the general fund. These bills are currently in a Senate subcommittee.

While the Michigan Genealogical Council understands the crises the state is in financially, we feel that breaking up the collection at the Library, which has items dating back to the 1800s, is not the answer. Once this collection is gone, there is no going back. This would be a great loss to the citizens of this state as well as those that come to our state to use this collection. This would also be a blow to all public libraries, as they receive part of their funding from the library and have access to MeLCat, which is the system used for interlibrary loan.

The Council would like to encourage everyone to contact their legislators (in person or by phone) to help save one of our most valuable resources. For a listing of Michigan legislatures, you can visit the following website: House ( and Senate (

Please contact your family, friends, coworkers, societies, listserves, and anyone else you can think and encourage them to show their support for the Library and its fabulous collection. Let us band together and save our state’s history.

Thank you for your support,
Cynthia Grostick, President
Michigan Genealogical Council

Don't forget the geography for genealogical research

I was always fascinated by maps and as a youth could spend hours looking at maps. Part of my interest came from collecting postage stamps. I was intrigued by the names of the countries, especially those that no longer existed. When I talk to younger people today, I find little or no interest in the world geography. After all, it is all right there on the computer. Also, few people have other than a very rudimentary idea about history.

But, if today's students lack an understanding of history, their lack of geography is abysmal. One of the key issues in understanding the history of a family is the political, social and physical geography that influenced where they lived and where their records may have been kept. An example from my own ancestors who lived in Northern Arizona on the Colorado Plateau. One of the constant physical challenges was lack of an adequate water supply. In the small town of Joseph City, the settlers built a whole series of dams trying to tame the Little Colorado River, only to have their dams washed away in the very infrequent floods. Central to an understanding of this small community, is an understanding of the constant struggle just to survive in a dry, harsh climate. At the same time, all of the settlers were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and their family connections were all in Utah and back to the Eastern U.S. Even though they lived very much closer to the other Arizona towns, they had almost no contact with the southern part of the state, except for the other Mormon colonies. The bulk of the records of these Church members are in the archives of the Church in Salt Lake City, Utah not, for the most part, in Arizona.

But the geographical issues can affect family history even more dramatically. One of the most difficult areas to do genealogical research is that part of Europe lying between Germany and Russia. The political subdivisions have changed so much many of the towns have two or three or more names and have been in more than three different countries. Even in the U.S. the changes in the political subdivisions such as state and county boundaries will determine where family records can be found. Fortunately, there are a wealth of maps and historical records showing the boundary changes on both national and local levels.

In talking to people searching for their family history, I am constantly reminded that very few of them realize that they must be aware of the county/state/country where the event took place at the time of the event. As an example, in every published book on my family for almost a hundred years (quite a few books by the way) my Great-grandfather is shown as being born in San Bernardino County, California. There is just one problem, the county did not exist at the time he was born. If there were any records, they were in Los Angeles County, the jurisdiction at the time of his birth. By perpetuating this inaccuracy, generations of family members have copied the inaccurate information into thousands of family group records. In this case, it makes little difference to future research, but in some cases the same mistake could become the proverbial brick wall. Always record the place as it existed at the time of the event.

When talking to researchers, I am often amazed at their lack of interest in the geography. When trying to determine which person of the same name is their ancestor, I find that people often have no idea of the geography. In one recent case, a researcher was convinced that two people with similar names who lived in two different towns in Illinois were related until I pointed out that they lived hundreds of miles apart. She had not bothered to look a see where the two towns were located.

Unless you understand the geography, there is little chance of continuing to move backward in your family history.

Tune in again, for more discussion on how to find geographic information.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Family History Archive jumps over 1200 items

Just five days ago I reported that the Family History Archive of digitized family history books had jumped over 1,100 items. Now, just a few days later, another 1,278 items have been added to the collection. Since the beginning of June over 5000 items have been added to this valuable resource. As of 26 July 2009, the total stands at 40386 items.

Understanding the historical context

I have frequently commented both in oral presentations and in writing, that genealogists too often ignore the historical context of their investigations. Research cannot be conducted well in a vacuum. A good example is the so-called "Irish Potato Famine" (Irish: An Gorta Mór) or the The Great Hunger. During the period between 1845 and 1852 it is reported that the Irish population was reduced by up to 25%. Now, if you think about this for a minute, you can see that due to this cause and many others there is an explanation, in part, for the huge Irish immigration into the United States. You can also surmise that the upheaval in Irish society caused by the emmigration and the famine may have affected the record keeping. Wikipedia. My own Irish ancestors left Ireland during the Great Famine and emmigrated to Canada along with hundreds of thousands of others.

The above is just one example of the impact background history can have on genealogy because first and foremost, genealogy is history.

The need for historical context is constant. Another example, many Americans trace their ancestry through Ohio. Late in the 1700s some of this land was known as the Western Reserve of Connecticut and was subject to a series of land speculations and developments. Without understanding how the land was developed and sold, it is nearly impossible to understand the movement of the families who purchased land from the developers during this time.

The examples go on and on. You cannot really understand your family without also understanding the historical context. Begin by reading a general book on the history of the area where your family originated. Then become more specific. Read about the local area and gather information about settlement patterns, land ownership, church membership and other historical details. All of this information will be useful in building a real understanding of your family and in extending lines and finding lost family members.

Friday, July 24, 2009

How do you do research? Looking for the arrow

When I was young, I had a relatively powerful bow for shooting arrows. Unfortunately, once shot, if I missed the target, the arrows often disappeared into the brush at the back of our large yard. I would sometime spend an hour or so looking for the arrows. Many times the arrows ended up being quite a distance from where I assumed them to be. But by systematically searching along the paths of the arrows, I almost always found them, eventually.

The key to this analogy to genealogy is the word "eventually." I was almost always surprised at how far the arrows would go. The techniques I developed in looking for arrows or lost balls, frisbees and other objects has helped me in finding my ancestors and helping others with the same goal.

One of the most common challenges in searching for ancestors is "what do I do now and where do I look next?" In working with both beginners and those more advanced in their searching, I find that there is a common misunderstanding of the "research process." Knowing how to do research is a learned skill (with a measure of art thrown in). Some people think you learn how to do research in school, but unfortunately, writing research papers in grade school or high school, usually does not give any real understanding of the methodology of research beyond merely copying from a book or online sources. Having taught at both the high school and college level, I find that most students just don't "get" the idea of basic research. That same disability carries over into the adult world of family history. It is very difficult to help potential family historians develop the healthy combination of scepticism and inquiry that can result in true research.

Many writers have compared genealogical inquiry to detective work. I tend to think that overly romanticizes the subject, but some of the detective-like tools may be helpful. What is even more helpful is understanding some basic concepts of research.

Research involves asking questions. there may be no need to do research if you have already documented the answer, but it is nature of historical inquiry in general and especially in family history or genealogy, that finding the answer to one question merely invites further inquiry. There are always more questions than there are answers.

Here are a few steps to developing a research methodology:

1. Ask the right question. Often the question asked determines where you go to find the answer. For example, one way of asking a question might be "Where was John Jones born?" But before asking that question, you might want to ask, "What kind of records might show John Jone's birth information?" Formulating the question is the first step in the research process. It is important that the question be simple and direct, such as "In what year did _____ immigrate to America?

2. Where are you going to search? Once you focus on a research question, it is important to realize that all family history records relate to a place. This does not mean that the records will still be where they were created. Neither does it mean that the records can be easily found. What it does mean is that to answer a historical question, you must have a place to start looking.

3. Who has the records? This question leads to the common "courthouse burning" issue. Not all public records and very few private records were kept in county courthouses. It is important to understand the full breadth of record keeping activities, so that you do not miss looking at whole classes of records. I suggest reading any of the following or similar books:

Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co, 1990.

Szucs, Loretto Dennis, and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy. Provo, UT: Ancestry, 2006.

When I suggest reading, I mean read, from cover to cover. This is a good way to get a fundamental idea of the variety of records that might be available to answer a research question.

I certainly haven't exhausted this subject. I will address other issues in future posts.

Kentucky Historical Society -- a genealogical gem

The Kentucky Historical Society Website is a gem of genealogical resource. The online resources include the following:

Kentucky Historical Society Library Catalog
The library's collection of more than 90,000 published works-includes microfilm collections, computer files on CD-ROM, video recordings and other media, as well as rare books, manuscripts and mixed material collections located in the Kentucky Historical Society's Special Collections.

KHS Digital Collections
Access digital images, sound, video, and text from the KHS collections of historic photographs, manuscripts, oral history, maps, rare imprints, library resource lists, and museum artifacts.

Online Resources A listing of useful Internet resources, including subscription databases, for doing genealogical and historical research.

Guide to Kentucky Oral History Collections
Database Temporarily Unavailable
Kentucky Oral History Commission's guide describes the oral history holdings at repositories throughout the state. Researchers can browse individual collections or perform searches across all repositories.

Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky Online Digital Media Database
Database Temporarily Unavailable
A comprehensive collection of audio and video interviews and over 10,000 pages of electronic transcripts. All material is full-text searchable and can be sorted by county, subject or by decade.

Kentucky Historical Marker Database
Based on the book Roadside History: A Guide to Kentucky Highway Markers.

Kentucky Cemetery Records Database
Contains hundreds of thousands of names transcribed from gravestones across Kentucky. Volunteers have documented graves, from urban cemeteries to rural plots, as part of the Kentucky Cemetery Records Project.

Kentucky Virtual Library
KYVL provides access to library catalogs across the state, finding aids for archival collections, online databases and encyclopedias, indexes, and other reference resources. Users in the Center for Kentucky History have access to all KYVL databases. Users outside the Center can contact their local Kentucky librarian for help accessing this service.

Kentuckiana Digital Library
Gateway to rare and unique digitized collections housed in Kentucky archives. This collection includes indexed copies of hundreds of digitized local newspapers.

Take some time to explore this extensive resource.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Transcript a freeware boon to genealogists

I can't believe that I haven' t written about Transcript before. Transcript is a freeware program from Jacob Boerema. It is a practically perfect small program for transcribing from images. For example, if you download an image of census record, Transcript will allow you to open the image in the top half of your screen and then use the lower half of the screen to transcribe whatever you see. The program has built in formatting features for the text and will save or export the text to almost any word processor. The program also recognizes a variety of image formats and has a zoom feature so you can zoom in on a portion of the image you are trying to read. There are also a variety of image tools allowing you to rotate the image.

I often take digital pictures of book pages from reference materials and use this program to transcribe the text. It is so much better than opening two windows and trying to keep them aligned. Oh, did I mention the brightness tool that allows you to adjust the brightness of the image. All of this in a freeware program. It is hard to beat that.

Is there a wearable Internet device in your future

MIT Media Lab's Fluid Interfaces Group showcased a wearable computing system that allows users to display and interact with the Web on any surface - including the human body. This development blurs the distinction between the machine and the interface. ReadWriteWeb. For a really amazing video of how this works see LDS Media Talk. The video below shows the system’s main developer taking photographs with his hands, calling up Amazon review data onto the cover of a physical book, displaying information about a person he’s just met on the person’s t-shirt, and calling someone by inputting a phone number onto the palm of his hand.

No matter how far you think technology has come, there is always some new amazing thing that seems to change the way we think about using information. Given the amount of information I now use through my iPhone, I can imagine how much more information would be available through this kind of system. Just think of the possibilities.

To see more of these ideas go to the TED Ideas worth spreading Website.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Major Manuscript and Record Collections in Iowa

1906 Duesenberg from the State Historical Society of Iowa
The Iowa State Historical Society is an example of the resources local and state historical societies have to assist historical researchers. It is also important to remember that genealogical research is really history. The Iowa City Center of the State Historical Society of Iowa contains a major collection of manuscripts and records. In addition to the State Archives collections, the State Historical Society has a large collection of books, periodicals and newspapers.

It is not unusual for me to find that individuals searching their "genealogy" have little or no historic perspective. It may be that general knowledge of history is so limited, but I commonly talk to researchers that don't even make the connection between their ancestors and major events in history, like World War I and World War II. Nearly all of the family studies I read in journal articles are written as if the family lived in a vacuum, there are seldom references to local politics, religious movements, economic conditions or the larger historical picture. Unless the family lived in the Dust Bowl or suffered through the Great Depression, you would think they had no contact with the outside world at all. I can't tell you how many pioneer stories I have read about my family in the 1800s that fail to even mention the American Civil War or any other national event.

State historical societies provide some of the context for the study of our families. Seeing the museum collections gives us a context for understanding our past, not just collecting names and dates.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Don't forget your state historical society

Doll quilt, appliquéd, dove and wreath pattern, c. 1860

Every state in the U.S. has a historical society in some form or another. Some are large organizations with large budgets and huge Websites, others are more modest. In some states the historical society is affiliated with a historical museum. In all cases, historical societies have people, documents, manuscripts and artifacts that will add life and sometimes information to genealogical research.

The Wisconsin Historical Society has a very impressive Website. Its offerings for genealogy are also impressive. From their Website, here is a list of their main offerings:

Wisconsin Genealogy Index. Search more than 150,000 Wisconsin obituaries and biographical sketches published before 1999, as well as 1,000,000 births, 400,000 deaths and 1,000,000 marriages registered before September 1907.

Search for and request copies of Civil War service records using the Wisconsin Genealogical Research Service.
Browse historic images. Wisconsin Historical Images. Historical images from the 19th and 20th centuries. Find pictures of people and places or purchase reproductions.
Wisconsin Historical Collections. 1,000 articles, memoirs, interviews and other primary sources on early Wisconsin history.
Roster of Wisconsin Volunteers, War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865. Alphabetical and regimental lists of soldiers who served in Wisconsin units during the Civil War.
More about Civil War Veterans. Find every Civil War veteran, including former soldiers and sailors, who resided in the state of Wisconsin during the census years of 1885, 1895, and 1905.
Wisconsin Local History & Biography Articles
16,000 historical and biographical articles. Search by name, location, or article subject(s).
Turning Points in Wisconsin History
Find eyewitness accounts and read background essays on events your ancestors experienced.
Library-Archives Classes and Workshops

In addition, the Wisconsin Historical Society has a museum and a large online collection which includes quilts, dolls, moccasins, paintings and many other objects.

During the next few weeks, as time permits, I will be exploring some of the highlights of the state historical societies. All of these Websites from the historical societies emphasize to me the fact that the Internet is an almost endless resource waiting to be mined for information. It is unlikely that anyone will exhaust all of the resources because new information and documents are being added too fast to keep up.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Looking for grave markers

Like many genealogists, I have spent my time tramping through old cemeteries to find information about family members. Although, the online records of grave markers seem to be increasing exponentially, a survey of the records show that they are still fragmented and incomplete. Although you may hit the grave marker prize and find your ancestors' records online, there may still be a need to travel to the sites.

The most popular and by far the largest Website is Find A Grave, but your search should not stop there. Just as an example, my grandparents are buried in the Salt Lake City Cemetery in Utah. However, my grandfather, Harold Morgan, is not listed in Find A Grave. But if I go to the Utah Cemetery and Burial Database, I can immediately find his grave site and burial information. However, my paternal grandfather, Leroy Parkinson Tanner's grave marker and information is immediately available on Find A Grave. On the other hand, he has two grave markers in the St. Johns Westside Cemetery and only one of them appears in Find A Grave. The one that does not appear is the one containing information about his World War I service. However, in the Arizona Gravestone Photo Project, both of the grave markers appear and, by the way, the photos are better. See the photo at the beginning of this post.

But in the case of either of my grandfathers' graves, there is a lot of associated information that is entirely missing from an online search. For example, there are other grave markers in the St. Johns Cemetery that are near to my grandfather's grave but that information is lost online.

Almost any other state may have similar databases and issues. Another example, one of my remote ancestors, William Tanner, is found in a private Tanner Cemetery in Rhode Island. That cemetery does not appear in any of the more popular lists of cemeteries but does appear in the Rhode Island Historical Cemeteries project. Using the directions on a trip to Rhode Island, we were able to find the cemetery even though it was completely hidden and overgrown.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Always new records on Record Search Pilot

Dated 17 July 2009, but not on the Website last night on the 17th when I looked, FamilySearch's Record Search Pilot announced two new collections; the 1905 New York State Census complete with images only and the England Cheshire Non-conformist records from 1671 to 1900 indexed but with no images. Delaware State Birth Records from 1861 to 1908 are now 49% complete. Massachusetts Death Records from 1841 to 1915 are 58% complete.

These images and indexes are free and of high quality. Some of the information has either not been previously available or was only available through subscription sites. The New York State Census for 1905 contains the following information:
  • 1a. Street.
  • 1b. House number.
  • 2. Name of each person whose usual place of abode on June 1, 1905, was in this family.
    Enter surname first, then the given name and middle initial, if any.
    Include every person living on June 1, 1905.
    Omit children born since June 1, 1905.
  • 3. Relationship of each person to the head of the family.
  • 4. Color or race.
  • 5. Sex.
  • 6. Age at last birthday.
  • 7. Nativity - If born in this country write United States: if of foreign birth, write the name of the country.
  • 8. Citizenship- Number of years in the United States.
  • 9. Citizenship- Citizen or alien.
  • 10. Occupation, trade or profession of each person enumerated.
  • 11. (Occupation) Class.
  • 12. For inmates of Institutions only.
    If an inmate an institution, enter the residence (borough, city or town, and county) given when admitted.

Friday, July 17, 2009

New release dates for New FamilySearch

The Boise Temple District has been listed as the next District for the release of New FamilySearch for some time. Now, the Boise Temple District has a release date of 20 July 2009. It appears that the release date applies to all of the Stakes in the Temple District. Although New FamilySearch has been introduced to the consultants and Priesthood leaders for the remaining Wasatch Front Temples, there are no other new release dates on the official Website.

The future of New FamilySearch

The Ancestry Insider has been reporting a meeting with Ron Tanner (probably a relative) the newer person in charge of New FamilySearch. This discussion has highlighted several of the severe challenges faced in the implementation of the New FamilySearch program. These challenges are particularly evident with the list of goals for an ideal program. Quoting from the 17 July 2009 post, these goals are as follows:
  • The ability to easily correct information
  • The ability to prove conclusions are accurate with source references and images
  • Invite greater peer review and collaboration
  • Allow for the evolution of a combined human family pedigree
As presently available and as the Ancestry Insider notes, New FamilySearch is a long way from these ideals.

One of the issues not discussed in the article are some of the original goals of New FamilySearch, that is to provide a simpler method of submitting names for LDS Temple ordinance work. I believe that the program certainly has reached this goal. The larger question is whether or not the program is intended to become something more than a method to keep track of Temple ordinance work? In the original announcements the program was also intended to eliminate most or all of the duplication occurring in the submission of Temple ordinances. From my perspective, New FamilySearch has been much less than successful in this regard. In fact, it appears that the program facilitates a whole new method of duplicating ordinances. I was in a meeting this past week where the presenter advocated looking at your file on New FamilySearch and then finding the green arrows (indicating the need for Temple Ordinances) and simply clicking on the arrows and submitting the work. Most of us working with the program are painfully aware of the numerous duplicate individuals in the program (IOUS or Individuals of Unusual Size). Although the ideas for future development discussed by Tanner and the Ancestry Insider are appealing, they do not address these original and fundamental issues.

I would certainly welcome any solution to the problem of inaccurate information in New FamilySearch and a Wikipedia-type model would certainly help, but I do think the original goals of the program should also be addressed.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The economy's impact on state libraries and archives

In recent posts I wrote about the potential closing of the Michigan State Library. Unfortunately, Michigan is not the only state hard hit by the economic downturn.

In a Library Journal article from March, 2009 the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records was essentially closed down shortly after moving into a new building. Due to a 75% cut in the budget for the remainder of the fiscal year, the archives staff had been cut from 13 to 3 and all of the facilities had reduced hours. Currently posted hours indicate as follows:
Archives and History Division: Open for research by appointment only every Tuesday from noon to 4:00 p.m. and every Wednesday from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.. Please call 602-926-3720 between 10:00 a.m. and noon Monday through Friday to make an appointment. Archives continues to accept research requests from patrons, but the response times will be much longer. The continuous receiving of unique records remains our top priority, please call for scheduling assistance.
However, contrary to Michigan there is apparently no movement to dump the entire collection. The Detroit FreePress ran an article yesterday on the Michigan State Library closing.

One interesting comparison is to view the ranking of the number of state employees relative to population among the states. Arizona, Florida and Nevada have some of the lowest ratios of state workers to population but the national average is 143 state employees per 10,000 residents. Both Arizona and Michigan rank in the lowest five states for combined state and local full-time employees relative to 10,000 residents. In the case of Arizona the reduction in the State Library staff from 13 to 3 had almost no impact on the overall cost of employees in the State. It is likely that the reduction in Michigan will likewise have little or close to zero impact on the State's overall budget. However the impact on the cultural and historic heritage of the state is immense.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The loss of a library impacts research

One of the most common stories in genealogical research is the loss of records, usually through a "courthouse fire." Less common, but still a major impact on the availability of records are the stories of records stored in damp courthouse basements or piled in attics. Apparently, the citizens of Michigan are faced with an even more egregious issue, the voluntary dismantling of the State Library. A recent Executive Order from the Governor of Michigan, "Executive Order No. 2009 - 36, Effective Oct. 1, 2009, Outlines Reorganization of HAL Agencies"provides for the implementation of cost saving measures, including "Eliminating circulation of specific collections (including, but not limited to, the Main, Dewey, and General Reference collections, the Michigan collection, the Michigan Documents collection, and the Rare Book collection) or, alternatively, transferring such collection to other suitable institutions." In short, the death of the library.

It is lamentable that local and state governments target the weak and defenseless whenever there is a budget crisis. In my own city, Mesa, Arizona, I have seen a budget challenged city government cut back on library services, parks, recreation and threaten fire and police and fail to address many other non-essential services. However, in Michigan's case, the cuts are irreversible. Unlike the City of Mesa, where they are cutting public swimming pools, a swimming pool can always be re-opened or rebuilt. Unfortunately, libraries, once dismantled, cannot be reconstructed. One-of-a-kind reference materials are exactly that, one-of-a-kind.

Michigan's loss is not just a private Michigan affair. The loss of a major library with extensive genealogical resources is a catastrophe. It is an indication of our society's fundamental problems that something as serious as the loss of an entire state library goes practically unnoticed. Look at the resources that may be lost. Link. Earlier in the year, there were other Executive Orders impacting the Library. See Granny's Genealogy.

This is an issue that impacts the entire genealogical community, especially, if the Governor is able to make this closure without any opposition. What about the other budget challenged states? Will closing State Libraries be seen as a politically expedient that will face little opposition?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The death of the Michigan State Library

Only recently I completed several posts about the various state archives including the Michigan State Archives. Little did I know at the time that the Michigan State Library was doomed. In addition, the Michigan State Archives is being moved from the Department of History, Arts and Libraries, (which is being abolished) to the Department of Natural Resources. The resources of the State Library, including documents and rare books are to be stored or given to some other institution. All this is being accomplished by an Executive Order, No. 2009-36 of Jennifer M. Granholm, the Governor of Michigan. Thanks for the heads up to Leland and Patty Meitzler.

You might want to check this out.

Over 1700 new items added to Family History Archives

For the past week or so, the Family History Archives has omitted their running count of total items in the collection. It has now appeared again with a jump of over 1700 new digitized texts. As of 14 July 2009 the number stands at 38,452.

I am personally aware that at the Mesa Regional Family History Center there is an ongoing scanning project that is contributing books to the online collection. In examining items on the shelves, I know there are a lot of books and other compilations at the Mesa Regional Family History Center that are entirely unique and likely not available at any other location.
The benefit of the scanning project is that many old and out of print or very limited edition items are being reproduced and made available to anyone with Internet access. Unlike other more general collections of digitized materials, these books are all genealogy and family history related items.

The books suffer the same or similar limitations of all early family history efforts such as lack of source citations, but in some cases, as I noted above, the information preserved is unique and not readily available from any other source.

Given the fact that many online collections, particularly commercial subscription sites, claim millions and even billions of records, it may seem that this collection of 38,000 plus items is marginal. But if you realize that these items are only now, for the first time, being digitized, then you can begin to see the impact this collection will ultimately have. For example, I chose the following book at random from the Archive:

The Alward family : from manuscript and notes contained in a file in possession of the compiler

I did a search in for the item and there was no result. No other major library apparently has this book. I believe that a significant number of these books and manuscripts are available only the in the specific library contributing the item to the Family History Archive.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

1895 Minnesota State Census on Record Search Pilot

FamilySearch Record Search Pilot announced the publication of the 1895 Minnesota State Census. The records consist of an index with no images. The description indicates that microfilm copies of the original records are available at Family History Library and through the Family History Centers. The index is apparently complete.

State censuses were taken in Minnesota every ten years beginning in 1865 through 1905. The records have about the same level of reliability as any other census records. An index to these records has been previously available on A list of some of the other online locations with Minnesota Census records can be found at

Notable online digital genealogy collections

There are several notable online digital image collections that have great value to genealogists and rarely get noticed or mentioned in the lists of valuable sites. Most of these sites are available through the respective state archive sites where the collections are located. Perhaps their lack of exposure is a result of the state's restricted budgets, but I suspect it is the case that the commercial genealogy sites get a lot more attention due to their constant advertising. All of these sites (and many more) provide free access to the records.

First on my list of great sites is that of the State of Georgia. Their main collection of online images is included in their Virtual Vault. Particularly helpful are the Colonial Wills, County Maps, Georgia Death Certificates, Historic Maps, Militia Enrollment Lists, 1864, Spanish-American War Service Summary Cards, Headright and Bounty Plats and many, many more.

Also notable is the Virginia collection at Virginia Memory. For example, the Chancery Records Index has over 175,000 cases indexed with a total of 2,375,233 images of chancery causes available online. The Chancery Records Index (CRI) is a result of archival processing and indexing projects overseen by the Library of Virginia (LVA) and funded, in part, by the Virginia Circuit Court Records Preservation Program (CCRP). Each of Virginia's circuit courts created chancery records that contain considerable historical and genealogical information. Because the records rely so heavily on testimony from witnesses, they offer a unique glimpse into the lives of Virginians from the early 18th century through the First World War. I find the images a little difficult to view and, in some cases, they need to be downloaded and then viewed.

The State of Washington has 65,429,432 searchable images online. These records include King County Marriage Records from 1855 to 2000. The marriage records collection alone contains over a million records.

The Wyoming online map collection is also notable. The Historic Map Collection has more than 12,000 over-sized maps, plans, certificates, posters, and newspapers.

There are so many resources online that it could be a full-time job just keeping up with the collections.

State Archives -- the rest of the list

Here is the last part of the list of links to state archives. You may wish to see my previous two posts to get the remaining portions of the list. I next plan a list of the state historical societies.

In future posts I will highlight some of the more notable Websites from this list. In my next post I will include a completed list with all of the states and territories.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

RootsMagic 4 Updated version

RootsMagic 4 has been updated to version from the previous version. Quoting from their Website concerning the new and improved features:


- Added a feature to fix broken media / image links (in the media gallery/album do Tools > Fix broken media links)
- Added the ability to enter Helper mode for another person when using the NFS features
- Added life span (birthyear-deathyear) to parents and children’s spouses in group sheets


- Deleting a fact will now remove the shared copies of that fact instead of leaving phantom witness records (Note: we are still working on a way to delete any pre-existing phantom witness records)
- Edit source screen displays Call# in right panel if one exists
- Shouldn’t sometimes change family in family and descendant view when adding a child
- Double clicking a citation when the citation manager is opened from Explorer now opens Edit Source screen
- Box charts now include prefix and suffix on names
- FTM import now preserves nicknames entered with quotes like William “Bill” Jones

I had noticed some of these "bugs" like the difficulty with nicknames, but I can't recall running into the others. I will have to try out some of the new changes such as fixing media links and see how they work. I have been teaching a couple of regular RootsMagic 4 classes and virtually all of the feedback has been positive, except for those people who can't figure out how to use their computer at all.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

More links to state archives

In the last post I began listing links to all of the state archive Websites. I plan to do this project in two more posts and when the list is complete post a complete list. Here is the continuation of the list:

These are very useful and helpful Websites and I expect, vastly underused.

Don't forget your state archives

Will from the Georgia State Archives Website

One of the sources of genealogical information often ignored are the various state archives. Although the content of the archives varies from state to state, they all contain many records unavailable in any other location. Some states, like California, have considerable online resources, others have yet to fund any significant online presence. In some states, there is a state library or library system that holds many of the records. In other states, many of the records are in the university libraries. But whatever the combination, starting with a search at the state archives can be productive.

Here is the first part of a list of links to each of the state archives with some of the territories also. Just click on the state to go to the state archives. In the next two posts, I will complete the list and then publish whole list in an additional post.

American Samoa
District of Columbia


Take the time to explore the archives for the states of your research interest, you may just hit the jackpot with a state like Georgia with its extensive online images.

See the next two posts for additional states.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Update on The Master Genealogist updates

Thanks to one of my readers for the following:

generationsgoneby said...

The latest version of the Master Genealogist is 7.04. If you download the trial version, you will get that version. If you decide to purchase it, that will be the version you unlock.
If you go to
You will see that currently 7.04 is the latest available version.

I am not affiliated with whollygenes in anyway, just a happy user, but thought you'd like to know what the latest version was and how to find it in the future on their website.

The challenge of large genealogical databases

The spectrum of the status of genealogical research is very broad. I encounter people who have a few names on a scrap of paper to those who have files containing tens of thousands of names. If a person has no information about his or her family, the next steps are pretty obvious. Generally, some progress in finding family members can occur almost immediately with a little effort. But what do you do with a person who inherits a huge database file of names?

Regularly, the following scenario occurs at the Mesa Regional Family History Center. Someone comes into the Center and asks for help with a file they just received from a relative. Usually, the file is in either a GEDCOM or Personal Ancestral File format. Upon opening the file I find that there are tens of thousands of names. For example, a recent file had 38,000 plus names. The experience is sort of like being dumped into the middle of the ocean in a small boat.

In making these comments I am in no way depreciating the efforts of researchers who have carefully accumulated huge files. However, if I see one more file tracing ancestry back to Charlemagne I think I will scream.

Here are a few suggestions if you find yourself or are helping someone in those circumstances:

1. Look at the file to see if there is any citation to sources. Without source citations, the information cannot be easily verified. It is possible that the file is merely a conglomeration of files downloaded directly from the Pedigree Resource File, the Ancestral File or some similar database. I usually take some time to explain to the person that without source information the file is not really what it appears to be and is probably unreliable. I must comment, however, that the explanation seldom has any effect on the person with the file.

2. Ask the person with the file if they know about or recognize any of the people. You have to start somewhere and the first issue is whether or not the file pertains to the person who has it on their flash drive or whatever. I have found that sometimes the person with the file has no idea who the people are. If this is the case, disregard the huge file and start with the person just as if they had no information at all. They need to work with their family until they can relate to someone in the huge file.

3. Look at the file to see if even makes sense. Too often, large files are full of duplicates and unrelated individuals. In an inherited file, the owner will unlikely know where or how the relationships were established. This is where they must start. There is no way to make any progress on a huge file without knowing the core family members and how they are related. Sometimes I ask the person to name from memory his or her eight great-grandparents. Sometimes that helps them to see the problem of relationships.

4. Try to visualize the scope of the file. Who are these people? This should be one of the first questions. Sometimes, the person with the file does not even appear as a member of the family. That is a good place to start. Try to connect the individual with the family in the file.

Once you have a chance to get an orientation about the validity and relationships in the file. Suggest the the person set the file aside and become acquainted with his or her own four generation family and start documenting the sources for events. Unfortunately, I have found that possessing a huge file will often discourage most of the budding researchers. They either believe that everything has been done or they are overwhelmed with numbers.

To be continued.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

All sources lie

In the online world of genealogy we are being faced with a flood of indexes and extracted records. Although very useful, these indexes are finding aids, not primary source records. Two quotes from Elizabeth Shown Mills stand out in this regard. The first is attributed to T. E. Lawrence, also known as Lawrence of Arabia, he said, "All sources lie." The second is from Ms. Mills herself, "History is not just a collection of raw facts we simply look up and copy down. The past is still a little-known universe that we explore with curiosity and confusion. As we probe its depths, we appreciate resources that save us time. We crave materials we can confidently trust. Yet historical truths are rarely rooted in either shortcuts or comfort." [see Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2007. Page 9]

Indexes are shortcuts, but they are not "historical truths." Too often, I see researchers opening an index, such as the Social Security Death Index and copying down the information without further investigation. They think, it is there in the index, so therefore it is true. Rather than focus on process by which the proffered information came to be recorded, they almost religiously accept the information as proven fact, just as described by Ms. Mills.

In the introduction to The Source, Robert Charles Anderson, states, "A common distinction is between primary and secondary sources. Many definitions have been given for these two terms. We will say that a primary record is one that was created in near chronological proximity to an even by someone who had reasonably close knowledge of the event. A secondary record, then, is one that was created at some remove from the event in question: it represent editorial conclusions based on primary records." [Szucs, Loretto Dennis, and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy. Provo, UT: Ancestry, 2006. Page1].

In what sense do all sources lie? Events occur but the record comes from memory and memory is not perfect. So in our desire to try to move closer to the actual event, where do we obtain original source material? At the beginning of this post is a downloaded copy of a parish baptismal record from the state of Campeche, Mexico comprising the first pages of the Catholic Church records beginning in 1638 at the Church of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. In almost all respects, this type of record qualifies as an original source since it was recorded by the Priest who performed the baptisms, usually the same day or shortly thereafter. Even this source may have errors however.

When you are looking at a record, before accepting the information as true or reliable, you must qualify the record and its source. In this regard, it is always better, if possible, to obtain multiple sources of information and also to use good judgment in evaluating the information.

Fortunately, due to the Internet, primary source material is becoming increasingly available. For example, Arizona Birth and Death Records. The actual death and birth certificates are digitized and online. It is probably impossible to find or list all the records that are appearing online at this time, but here are a couple of examples:

U.S. Census records [see 1850 U.S. Census]
Utah Death Certificates 1904-1956

The list can go on but that is another story.