Genealogy Blog

You Can’t Go Home Again – Especially Online

20 Jun 2015

Although I am now a Bostonian (and have been for a quarter-century), I was raised in Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts. The vast majority of the last three generations of my family has been focused in this area. Unlike many of my friends, who lived in a single house, my family moved a bit. Earlier this week, while down in Rhode Island for my cousin’s funeral, we took a side trip to drive by the house were I was spent my young childhood.

 

The house at 14 Barberry Hill Road where I grew up. (from the collection of the author, used with permission)

The house at 14 Barberry Hill Road where I grew up. (from the collection of the author, used with permission)

 

In looking for additional information about the house online, I was reminded of the many dangers of doing online property research, and why it cannot be relied upon.

 

  1. The property where I lived from ages 5 to 12 is in the town of Cumberland, Rhode Island. Like many small jurisdictions, the government does not have a lot of money. As such, there are no official records available online. This immediately is cause for concern. While not always 100% accurate, government records are a much better place to start.
  2. Since I had the exact address I did a Google search. At first I wasn’t certain I had the same place. Then I realized that the name of the road had changed. Not only that, but it was much longer. We built the house, and it was only the sixth one on the street. One more was built shortly before we moved. Today, there are more than a dozen. Fortunately the name of the street hadn’t changed much. And the house number had not changed. From drive-bys in the 1990s, I knew that they put small additions on the master bedroom and the kitchen, and installed an inground pool. These were visible on Google Maps.
  3. I found an online valuation company, Certified Revaluation Company, that showed the history of the home’s ownership back to my parents, the first owners. May parents sold the house in March of 1977, too far back to show the sale price online. The couple that purchased it owned it for 28 years, selling it only in 2005 to Paul Parks, Jr. and Et Ux Jean Russo-Parks. But the major problem is that the pool was said to be built in 1965. This is off by a factor of almost 20 years.
  4. I looked at Zillow and Trulia, two popular property valuation sites. Trulia states that the house was built in 1965, and is 1,968 square feet. Zillow also says that it was built in 1965, that it is 2,016 square feet, with a finished basement that is 1,864 square feet. That would leave 152 square feet for the entire main floor. Even if I didn’t know the house, I could tell that this is a mistake. They are also both incorrect about the year of construction. It was build over the winter of 1968/69.
  5. Even small, but important, details can be wrong. Other Google results took me to a website called LocateFamily.com. This listed Jean Russo-Parks as a male and a religious leader at the Wesley United Methodist Church in the town of Lincoln. But the valuation site said that Paul Parks, Jr. and Jean Russo-Parks were married. Since same-sex marriage was not yet legal in Rhode Island in 2005, there is a conflict. A quick search found an obituary for Jean in 2011, confirming that she was indeed a woman.

 

When doing online property research, it is very important to follow up with research in original records at government repositories. So much of the information can be wrong. You can have the details completely wrong.

Filling in the Dash – And Much More

16 Jun 2015

Genealogists spend vast amounts of time fiiling in the dash of their ancestors. By dash, of course, I mean the en-dash that separates the dates of birth and death for an individual. While it can be exciting to be able to do this for our ancestors from times past, it is a sad duty to have to do it in the present.

Last week, my cousin Andrew passed away after a brave fight with cancer, brought on by chemicals he worked with when he was young. He is the second of the eighteen cousins on my mother’s side of the family to go, both far younger than they should have. I have just returned from the wake and funeral. While it was a time of great sadness, there were also great moments of reconnecting with family members whom we don’t get to see often enough.

It didn’t take long for the genealogist to pop out once I arrived. Andrew’s brother-in-law was standing in the hallway and we started talking. His son came over to say hello. I hadn’t seen him in many years. He is now thirty years old and lives not far from me in Boston. He is interested in his paternal heritage, which is Armenian. His grandmother’s side were survivors of the Armenian Genocide, whilst his grandfather’s side has been in the U.S. since the 1880s. We had an enjoyable discussion of resources, etc.

It didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to all of the relatives in the room. He had questions about who people were, and how we are all related. It was nice to see a younger family member be so interested. I also told him many stories of his great-grandparents (my grandparents) who both died before he was born. He was also astounded when I explained the age range in my generation spans more than forty years. His eldest uncle (and my eldest first cousin), Raymond, is sixty-three years old. He is two years older than our uncle, Roger, who is sixty-one. Roger’s twin daughters only just turned twenty years old a couple of weeks ago.

For me, it was a great opportunity to catch up on the younger generations. Three of my cousins are grandparents themselves. I was able to collect more information on these new additions to the family. It was also amazing to see the family resemblances. My cousins asked me to put together a video with pictures of their late brother, which I gladly did. They sent me the photographs, and as I was sorting them, I saw a Christmas picture from the early 1970s, and said to myself “What is my mother doing there?” Then I looked again and realized it couldn’t be my mother. It was actually my grandmother.

Wakes and funerals are difficult times. They are very frequently a mixed bag of emotions. Sadness is combined with the joy of seeing family members one hasn’t seen in awhile. I wouldn’t suggest breaking out a notebook and writing things down (although a simple reminder note or two has been known to make their way into my phone), but use the time to set definite plans to get together again in person soon. Then you can really get some genealogy done.

 

The picture of my cousins taken a few years ago (from the collection o the author, used with permission).

The picture of my cousins and I, taken a few years ago. (from the collection o the author, used with permission)

 

A few years ago, the first of my generation of cousins passed away. After the funeral, his brother hosted a get-together for the family. We laughed and cried some more, and talked. And I brought my camera. I got a photograph of my mother with her sister and brothers (probably the last one that will ever be taken of them). Then I got all of the children who were there into the picture as well (twelve out of the seventeen surviving cousins). I had copies made of both photographs for all of the cousins.

This time around, my cousin’s son and I will soon be getting together for dinner and researching into his Armenian roots. My mother’s cousin and I will be getting together soon so I can share information with her, and she can show me the wedding portrait of my great-great-grandparents back in the 1870s.

Using Historical Fiction and Non-Fiction in Genealogy

05 Jun 2015

Like many genealogists, I am a voracious reader. I still have my Hardy Boys books from when I was a young boy, and a collection of Star Trek books acquired over three decades. Agatha Christie’s many detective and Sherlock Holmes kept me company on many an evening. And as far back as I can remember, I have loved reading historical fiction and non-fiction. While these can be helpful, one must be careful when using them for genealogical research.

One of my favorite authors when I was a teenager was John Jakes. His eight-volume saga The Kent Family Chronicles that took the family of Philippe Charbonneau from mid-eighteenth-century France to early-twentieth century America got me hooked. Not surprising for a budding genealogist. When I was a bit older, I got hooked on the works of William Martin. He is a Massachusetts author of a number of works of historical fiction, many in the form of mysteries.

John Jakes

These authors represent the best of those who write historical fiction. They spend countless hours researching events, places, and people to put their works in the proper context. They mix real people with fictional characters. It is important to remember, however, that even the characters based on real people are participating in fictional events, in fictional ways. Even when the setting is events that actually happened, most of the specific accounts are fictional. One must be careful about incorporating this information into family history research.

While this may not be surprising, it may surprise you to learn that you must also be careful about incorporating non-fiction historical works. While dates and places of historical events are usually without question, other information is often subject to interpretation. Remember that in most cases, the victor gets to write the history. But in reality, there are often multiple versions of history.

For example, for my French-Canadian ancestors, the Battle of the Plains of Abraham was critical to every aspect of their life. At the end, France ceded Canada to Britain. This one battle changed the course of history on the entire North American continent. I have histories of this event that were published in the United States, Canada, and England. Each of them tells a different part of the story.

In addition, with the passage of time, new evidence often comes to light that changes the interpretation of events. Time and distance also can make a difference. It is often easier to view events with more impartiality. So be certain to read a wide variety of historical discourses before adding information to your family history.

Five Tips for Finding Those Who Died in Military Service

22 May 2015

Five

This weekend we celebrate Memorial Day. This is the day we reserve to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives in service to their country. Since the American Revolution started in 1775, it is estimated that the United States has lost almost 665,000 men and women in military conflicts. Here are some tips to help you find information about your ancestors who died in military conflicts.

1. Pension Files

One great place to look for information about soldiers and sailors who died in service is through the pension files. Widows often applied for pensions for themselves and their dependent children. In the case of someone who died unmarried, one can often find pension applications from the parents. These files will usually contain information about the circumstances of the death, although the amount of detail can vary widely.

2. Service Records

Service records usually won’t contain too many details about someone who was killed in service. That said, there should be at least a mention of the date of the termination of service, which would be the day the person died. Armed with that information, one can go looking for more details. Looking for unit histories or official documents about the movements of the unit on the date in question can shed immense light and provide additional clues. Depending on the time period, service records can be found at the National Archives or at state archives. For pre-twentieth-century conflicts one can often find published works as well.

3. National Personnel Records Center

This branch of the National Archives holds very valuable information for men and women who served in the military, as well as in civil service to the government of the United States. Unfortunately, a 1973 fire at the facility saw massive destruction of records, with 80% of the records of Army personnel discharged between 1912 and 1959 destroyed, along with 75% of the Air Force records for service between 1947 and 1963 show surnames after Hubbard. That said, there are other records that did survive. One of these record sets is information on the transport of the bodies of those killed in service back to their homes.

4. American Battle Monuments Commission

More than 218,000 servicemembers who were killed in service overseas were never returned home. Their remains are buried or memorialized in cemeteries around the globe. The American Battle Monuments Commission overseas . There is a database online of those interred and memorialized in ABMC facilities. Where possible, it includes the rank and branch of service, the unit, place of entering service, the conflict, the date of death, and where he or she was buried. It contains the exact information needed to locate the grave within the cemetery as well. Direct family members can also order lithographs of the gravestone or memorial tablet as well.

5. Newspapers

Once you have a date of death, from family records or above sources, check the local newspapers. They often reported on the deaths of local individuals, sometimes in great detail. One other benefit is that you can often find information on survivors, and sometimes interviews with family and friends who knew the deceased. Remember that it sometimes took awhile for news of a death to reach home. And if the servicemember was returned home for burial, check around the date of the burial as well as the date of death.

 

Honoring Our Mothers: The Filles du Roi

10 May 2015

This weekend we in the United States celebrate Mother’s Day. As genealogists, we not only honor the women who gave birth to us, but all of the mothers in our family trees. Recently I was reminded of a very special group of my foremothers, the Filles du Roi.

Back in the 17th century, the colony of New France had a large imbalance in the population. There far more men than women in the colony. Because of this, fewer children were being born, and the population was stagnating. By 663, the population was only 2,500 inhabitants, as compared to the 80,000 who lived in the English colonies to the south.

From 1634 to 1662 the colony was under the control of the Copmagnie des Cents Associés (the Company of 100 Associates). They brought over a number of filles à marier (marriageable girls). Unfortunately, the program was not active enough. During those eighteen years, only 200 women were brought over. One of the major problems was inducing women to leave Europe and go to the Canadian wilderness for the rest of their lives.

In 1663 a new effort, the Filles de Roi program, began. Under this program, young women were given a dowry by the crown as an incentive to go to New France. The program started off slowly, but increased once Jean Talon was appointed intendant of the colony in 1665.

 

Arrival_of_the_Brides_-_Eleanor_Fortescue-Brickdale

 

The women were lucky. Once they arrived, they got to choose who they would marry. This was a luxury not afforded women in France. There, they married whomever their father directed them to marry. In New France, they had their pick of men, and if they didn’t like the first one, they would move on to another. The records are filled with contracts of marriage for Filles de Roi that did not end in marriage. The women ended up marrying another man.

Each of the women had to provide a copy of their birth certificate. They also needed to provide a letter from their parish priest or the local magistrate attesting to their ability to get married. This requirement was instituted after it was discovered that several of the women who went to Canada had left husbands behind in France.

Almost 2/3 of the women had lost one or both of their parents. This was a large motivator for many, who otherwise would have had to live their lives in a convent, or marry someone with few prospects, certainly not a prospect many desired.

The program reached its peak between 1669 and 1671, when well over one hundred women immigrated each year. During the ten years that the program was in existence, 768 women went to New France. The vast majority stayed, but a few did return to France. Historians have noted that the end of the program was a major turning point in the history of Canada. Had it continued, the colony likely would have seen a much larger increase in population, allowing it to repel the English invasion in the mid-eighteenth century that resulted in the Conquest.

Almost every living descendant of the early colonists can trace their ancestry back to at least one of the Filles de Roi. In reviewing my own ancestry (which is entirely French-Canadian), I have 104 of these young women in my ancestry, many of them on my mother’s side. This Mother’s Day, I remember and thank them for taking the risk of going to a brave new land. If you have French-Canadian ancestry, check Peter J. Gagné’s book, King’s Daughters and Founding Mothers: The Filles du Roi, 1663 – 1673, for more information about the program and  list of the women who immigrated under this program.

 

Five Tips for Building Your Genealogy Reference Shelf

24 Apr 2015

Five

One of the most important tools in genealogical research is the reference shelf. Looking up names in online databases is wonderful, but if you don’t understand the records, the time and place in which they were created, the words used, etc., you will have difficulty determining your actual ancestors from others who have the same name. This is where reference works come in. They help you to understand what you are dealing with. Here are some tips for what to include as you build your genealogy reference shelf.

Dictionaries
I have several dictionaries in my reference area, including two that my father used in high school and college. Some I use to translate between French and English. Some of them are from the 19th century. Online dictionaries often contain only modern definitions. This is especially true of online translation tools, which can make their use for genealogical purposes very dangerous. One mistranslated word can cause major problems for your research.

Geographic Resources
Online sources can help with modern geography, but it can be difficult to find historical information from them. I have numerous gazetteers and geographical dictionaries from the 19th and 20th centuries. I also have a number of atlases, such as the 1994 edition of the Historical Atlas of the United States from the National Geographic Society. Atlases like this provide a huge amount of information besides maps. For example, there are maps that show what crops were grown in the different areas of the United States, what livestock were raised, migration routes, and more.

Research Guides
General methodology works are important, especially when you are getting started. Val Greenwood’s The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy has helped many Americans get started with their research. Although dated, it is still very helpful in understanding the basics of research.  I purchased a copy of Ancestral Trails, a detailed guide to researching British ancestors, for expanding my knowledge of British research. For example, when I first started researching, I got a copy of Guide to Genealogical research in the National Archives of the United States. Now there is a new version, called the Genealogy Tool Kit: Getting Started on Your Family History at the National Archives. I also obtained copies of books on researching ancestors in the British Army and the Royal Navy, to help with the complex system of records available there.

Social Guides
Understanding the social and legal environments around records is important. I have a number of legal and social histories to help with this. Among these are Inheritance in America From Colonial Times to the Present, which delves into the history of probate. Another is Women and the Law of Property in Early America, showing what, exactly, women’s rights were in respect to owning property.

Regional Guides
General methodology books are good, but guides that apply to your area of research are even better. For example, those who have research in the northeast will find the Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research from the New England Historic Genealogical Society and the New York Family History Research Guide and Gazetteer from the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society to be indispensible. [note: I am the editor of the New England book, and helped with the production of the New York book, but I receive no royalties, payment, or any other benefit from sales of the books. And many others will be happy to tell you how indispensible these books are.]

 

 

Three Resources for Mayflower and Pilgrim Research

22 Mar 2015

Three

If your research leads you to family that lived in southeastern Massachusetts, there is a good chance that you may discover ancestors who lived in the Plymouth Colony. If you are very lucky, you might even find that you have some who arrived on the Mayflower. Here are three resources to help you find out more about Mayflower ancestors.

1. General Society of Mayflower Descendants

The GSMD is dedicated to “education and lineage research on the journey of the Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower in 1620 and their lineal descent.” GSMD is the umbrella organization for the state societies which individual joins. Among many other activities (including maintaining a research library), one of their major projects is the “Silver Books.” These compiled genealogies trace the descendants of Mayflower passengers down throw the fifth generation. Amongst the other resources on the website, you can find the official list of passengers from whom one must prove descent in order to join.

2. MayflowerHistory.com

Caleb Johnson is a well-known Mayflower genealogist, serving (amongst  other activities) as editor of the Mayflower Descendant (the journal of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants). He created the MayflowerHistory website to help researchers discover more about and help prove their descent from passengers on the Mayflower. The site has links to Pilgrim history, Mayflower Genealogy, sources for research, and online version of out-of-copyright works about the Mayflower,  her passengers, and their descendants.

3. Leiden American Pilgrim Museum Foundation

Jeremy Bangs is the leading scholar on Pilgrims and Mayflower research. He is director of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum Foundation, which tells the story of the Pilgrims in a house built in Leiden in 1370. There is also an active project to transcribe, edit, and publish documents and records relating to the Pilgrims. Jeremy himself is a prolific writer and his articles appear widely in historical and genealogical publications. You can find out more about

 

5 Free Resources for Identifying Locations

21 Feb 2015

Five

One of the most important parts of researching your ancestors is locating them. Knowing where they lived is the critical first part. Without this, it is impossible to find other records. Here are five free resources for identifying locations your ancestors may have lived.

Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names
The Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles has a mission “to further knowledge and to advance understanding of the visual arts.” As part of their work, the institute has created a database of names from around the world. Although the purpose is to aid art historians and catalogers in their work, it is available online for anyone to use.

Geographic Names Information System
The GNIS was created by the United States Geological Survey and the United States Board on Geographic Names. It contains information about current and historical “physical and cultural geographic features” in the United States. Locations are defined by state, county, USGS topographic map, and geographic coordinates.

USGS Historical Topgraphic Map Explorer
This is another great project of the U.S. Geological Survey. The USGS creates the official topographic maps for the entire nation. They have taken historical maps through current maps and loaded them onto a website. Simply enter a location, then select a map year from the timeline. Maps date back to 1890.

USMA Library Digital Collections
The United States Military Academy has a long history at West Point dating back to 1802. The library has extensive collections of maps, many predating the founding of the academy. Now many of these are available for free to use as part of the library’s digital collections effort. The viewer allows users to zoom in to examine the maps in great detail in a very legible manner.

Norman B. Leventhal Map Center
The Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library has extensive cartographic holdings dating back to the 15th century. The center holds 5,000 atlases and 200,000 historical maps. As part of preservation efforts, many of these maps are being digitized and made available online.

Peppy, Posh, and Stash: Words as Clues in Your Genealogical Research

13 Jan 2015

One of the pitfalls of genealogy is learning not to impart modern meanings on our ancestors. Nowhere is this more key than in working with original documents. The language in documents can be key in identifying them. Using words as clues in your genealogical research can be a tremendous help to you.

Words come and go from our lexicon. And often they stay, but meanings changing. One example of this comes from the past year, where the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has now added a second definition of the word “literally.” Because of the excessive use of this term by ill-informed and undereducated individuals, it now also means exactly the opposite, figuratively.

Words can also be very helpful. If you have undated documents you are trying to identify, examining the language can help you. Knowing when words entered common use can assist you. It will not be possible to narrow it to a specific date, but certainly can get you into an approximate time period.

A couple of weeks ago the Boston Globe ran an interesting piece about words. Instead of the typical year-end review of words that had entered the dictionary in the past year, the piece looked back at words that entered the lexicon in 1914. Some of these are still used today, but others have already come and gone.

 

1914 Words

 

The start of World War I brought us a number of words we commonly use today. Some make sense, such as air raid (bombs dropped from aircraft), trench coat (a waterproof coat worn by the military in the trenches), and even Balkanization (dividing a region into separate units).  Another commonly used word whose origins you may not know: doohickey (military slang for a small, nondescript object, especially a mechanical one).

Other words that entered the language that year include Gesundheit, oy vey, shish kebab, and Tochus. Each of these came into the English language from another (German, Yiddish, Turkish, and Yiddish respectively). Other words that came in 1914: backpack, big screen, crossword, peppy, posh, stash, and sociopath. Many of these are words that one might think had been around much longer. It is important to study the language in a document to help date it. Never assume when words came into common use. The tunnel under the English Channel connecting England and France was completed in 1994. It is called the Chunnel, leading one to believe it is a contemporary word, but it actually entered common use in 1914.

Some words that entered that year are no longer in use. These include billiken (a small, elf-like doll; deratization (the expulsion of rats), and scrutty (dusty, scruffy).  Examining when words like this entered and left common usage can assist you in dating a document.

The most dangerous words for genealogists, however, are those whose meanings have changed over time. For example jake was used as an adjective to mean good or okay. Today it is use to mean a fireman. Scat was a slang term for whiskey. Today it is a musical style (or something much more base). And seeing the word Roscoe in a letter might lead you to believe that you are looking for a person, while back in 1914 it was a slang term for a handgun.

When reading documents one must be careful.  This is especially important when dealing with correspondence, journals, and diaries, which are much more personal and therefore prone to nicknames and slang terminology. Making assumptions just might send you down the wrong trail.

3 Tips for Becoming a Genealogy Professional

03 Dec 2014

ThreeI’m often asked about being a professional genealogist. Some people are just curious about how one gets to do that. I will admit that when I am in non-genealogy-related social situations, I will sometimes obfuscate a bit. Giving out my profession inevitably results in an extended conversation. It usually begins with clarify that I do not work with rocks, nor do I work on women’s health issues. Then they start becoming interested. They will often start telling me about their own family history, which results in my having to bite my tongue strongly when I hear classically false stories such as the Native American in the family, the three brothers who immigrated together and separated upon arrival, or the family’s name being changed at Ellis Island.

But then there are those who are genuinely interested in how one becomes a professional in a field of amateurs. Often it is because they are considering such a transition themselves, and would like to know how to accomplish it. Here are three things to think about if you are considering becoming a professional genealogist.

1. Practice, Practice, Practice
I am very lucky. I’ve made my living as a professional genealogist for twenty-five years now (I started when I was 5. That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.). I do not have a degree in genealogy. In fact, in one of the big ironies of my life, I wanted to be a history major in college, but felt I would not be able to get a job where a history major would be useful.

That said, education is very important to being a professional. The best professionals have a certain area in which they are experts. But they also have a basic working knowledge of a wide variety of subjects. And how long does it take to become an expert? The standard developed by Malcolm Gladwell is 10,000 hours. This is not just 10,000 hours of repetition. It means 10,000 hours of working at something, learning, and adjusting your approach until becomes finely-honed. Not only do you end up with an extensive knowledge about a subject, but you also end up with a great knowledge of where to go to find answers for subjects you don’t know. The longer you have been a genealogist, the greater your chances for becoming successful as a professional.

2. Education
As part of this process, a great deal of education is necessary. We must learn all we can about genealogical research and methodology. We also need to learn about business: budgeting, finance, marketing, etc. Will we work for a company or as a private contractor? Think of these when moving through this stage:

  • Who can help me in my education process as a teacher, mentor, or even a compatriot?
  • What resources are out there, not only for genealogy, but also for becoming a professional?
  • When will I be ready to become a professional?
  • Where do I go to find resources to help me become a professional?3. Resources

3. Resources
There are a number of resources available to those interested in becoming a professional. The Association of Professional Genealogists is open to anyone who works in the field of genealogy, or those interested in working in the field. Joining will allow you access to educational opportunities. Even more importantly, it will provide you with networking opportunities to get to know other professionals.  You can also join a ProGen Study Group. These groups meet virtually and use the Professional Genealogy text edited by Elizabeth Shown Mills as a forum for developing professional-level skills. Certainly having your skillset tested by the Board for Certification of Genealogists and/or the International Commission for the Accreditation of Genealogists  will tell you if you are ready to make the leap. Marian Pierre Louis also runs an interesting podcast called the Genealogy Professional, which can give you many ideas.