Genealogy Blog

Five Tips for Building Your Genealogy Reference Shelf

24 Apr 2015


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.

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


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.


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


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.

5 Blogs You Should Be Reading

29 Nov 2014

Like many of you, I am a voracious reader. Fiction or non-fiction matters little. I enjoy escaping into the pages of a book to enjoy a good story. I also enjoy learning, and love finding new tips and tricks for research, or just everyday life. This is one reason I enjoy reading blogs. Here are five genealogy related blogs that I enjoy, and think that you will find interesting and informative as well. These may or may not be as well known as folks like the Legal Genealogist Judy G. Russell, but they are every bit as informative.

1. Prologue: Pieces of History
Prologue is the official journal of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. The title comes from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, where Antonio says “What’s past is prologue.” It means that our history impacts our present, and our future. It is engraved into the base of the statue of Future on one corner of the National Archives building in Washington, D.C. This blog continues the magazine’s tradition into the online environment. Posts come from staff at all NARA branches and presidential libraries, not just the staff at Archives I. They contain very interesting and informative stories about items and collections held around the country.


Prologue Pieces of History


2. Historic House Blog
This is an interesting blog run by Michael J. Emmons, Jr., a research assistant at the Center for Historic Architecture and Design at the University of Delaware. Since 2008, he has discussed a wide variety of historic buildings from around the country. Some, such as a saltbox home built in 1720 in my hometown, are in danger of being destroyed. Others simply have interesting stories. While he does not post frequently, the stories are always interesting, and if you appreciate history and old homes, you will enjoy this blog. I suggest adding this to your RSS feed so when he does make a new contribution you will be notified.

3. New England Folklore
If you have New England ancestors, you will enjoy this blog immensely. I have known author Peter Muise for many years, having gone to high school with his husband Tony. Peter is a native New Englander, and he is fascinated by folklore. He writes about all kinds of interesting topics from all around New England, with an interesting story telling style. Recent posts have included stories on The History of Cranberry Sauce, The Devil Builds a Barn, and Have You Seen a Fairy? Tell the Fairy Investigation Society!

4. Genealogy Tip of the Day
Likewise, I have known Michael John Neil for a number of years. We served together on the board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies a number of years ago.  He writes several blogs, but Genealogy Tip of the Day is one I recommend to everyone. Each day he writes a brief post that will point you to resources or give you advice for researching that you will find extremely valuable.

5. Hoosier Daddy?
My friend and colleague Michael Lacopo has been speaking around the country for years. Earlier this year he decided to try his hand at a blog. He wanted to use his story of the search for his mother’s birth parents as a way to help people understand how to use DNA for genealogical research. Somewhere along the way, however, he got caught up in the thrill of the chase. His writing style is superb, and I guarantee will have you enthralled within a few posts. He was quite rightfully developed a large following. The twists and turns of the story leave everyone enthralled, and he is the King of the Cliffhanger. Every time he finishes a post, his fans fill his Facebook page clamoring for more. He writes in a way that captures the thoughts of everyone, and we can all identify with the frustrations of the convolutions the trail has taken. Use it as a perfect example of how you can tell your own story. Just do yourself a favor, and start reading from the beginning.

Don’t Get Caught Writing Historical Fiction

27 Oct 2014

One-hundred-fifty-six years ago today, in a four-story brownstone on East 20th Street in Manhattan, a boy was born who would one of the biggest impacts on the United States as any one individual ever has. Today, Theodore Roosevelt is most widely known for being the youngest president in history, his charge up San Juan Hill, his face on Mount Rushmore, and the phrase “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” But he was a great deal more than that.

From his youth, Teddy Roosevelt was part of the merchant class. He was well off and well-educated. He went to Harvard, and while a sophomore there his father passed away. Soon after graduating he married Alice Hathaway Lee. She died at their New York City home on February 12, 1884, two days after the birth of their daughter Alice. Later that same day, his mother died at the same home.



Image of Teddy Roosevelt from Wikimedia Commons.

Image of Teddy Roosevelt from Wikimedia Commons.


His political career began, naturally with the Republican Party. He started as member of the New York State Assembly in 1882. After the death of his wife, he went to the Dakotas for a few years where he lived as a rancher. He returned to public life, serving as a police commissioner for New York City, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of New York, Vice-President and President of the United States.

What many people today don’t know is his dedication to all people. As he moved the ranks, he would continually come into conflict with fellow Republicans. As president he often came into conflict with the party. He felt a certain responsibility to look out for average Americans. He was known as the “trust-buster” for  bringing anti-trust lawsuits that destroyed virtual and actually monopolies, including Standard Oil, the largest oil company  at the time. He was also responsible for passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug act, improving health standards for everyone. He created the U.S. Forest Service, and during his presidency he turned 230 million acres into protected public lands. Although identified as a Republican, he more and more stood for progressive issue, and went on to form the Progressive Party in 1912.

Teddy Roosevelt is a perfect example of someone who doesn’t behave in ways we might expect. His background would lead us to assume that he would be a paragon of Republican values, supporting corporate America against the working class. Instead, he turned out to be a paragon of progressiveness. Creating a middle road that would lead to success for all.  When examining our ancestors’ lives, it is tempting to create personalities for them, assumptions based on what others like him or her might have done. Before making presumptions, be certain to have empirical evidence to support your conclusions, otherwise you will be writing historical fiction.

In closing, I would like to share with you one of my favorite quotes from Teddy Roosevelt: “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

5 Great History Podcasts

23 Oct 2014


Podcasts are a wonderful way to learn. They can fun as well as informative. And what a great way to pass the time while commuting – or while doing your chores around the house. I listen to a number of podcasts. Some of them are just for fun (like Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!), while others are informative (such as Grammar Girl’s podcast). Here are five history podcasts that I think you might enjoy.

1. Journal of American History Podcast

The Journal of American History is the official quarterly publication of the Organization of American Historians. In 2008, they started an official podcast that now appears bi-monthly. Among the topics covered are “The Last of the Doughboys, The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War;” “Citizens of Nowhere: Fugitive Slaves and Free African Americans in Mexico, 1833–1857;” and “’Moving Byond Rags to Riches,’ New York’s Famine Irish Immigrants and Their Surprising Savings Accounts.”

2. Past & Present Podcast

In 2005, Colonial Williamsburg started a podcast to talk about the living history museum. The podcasts feature the men and women who work as interpreters, chefs, tradesmen, musicians, historians, librarians, curators, and so on. The podcast airs weekly, and you can listen, download, or read a transcript for each of the episodes. Some of the topics that you might find interesting include “The Bloody Battlefield,” about the life and duties of a military surgeon; “Spies in the Library,” about materials concerning 18th-century spies; and “George Washington Sneezed Here,” about colonial treatments for the common cold.

3. Stuff You Missed in History Class

This fascinating podcast comes to us from the folks at How Stuff Works. The subject matters vary greatly, from history mysteries, and hoaxes, legal history, and military history, to pirates, royalty, and shipwrecks.  Several new episodes come out each month, and an accompanying blog covers the topics of the podcasts. Recent topics of interest include the two-part “Ethan Allen” (about the Revolutionary War hero); “The Lady Juliana” (about women colonizing Australia); and “The Heathen School” (about the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall, Connecticut).

4. The History Chicks

Beckett Graham and Susan Volledweider are the History Chicks. They take an oftentimes humorous view at history, with a focus on the roles women have played. They have told the stories of Agatha Christie, Sybil Ludington, Carrie Nation, and life in Elizabethan times.

5. Rex Factor

This British podcast is a takeoff on the X Factor. It has been described as “a two-blokes-in-a-pub, light-hearted format marking all England’s monarchs and deciding if they have the Rex Factor or not. But actually the work behind it is impressive.” Over the past four years, the duo of Graham Duke and Ali Hood has covered all of England’s monarchs from the Saxon Alfred the Great through the current monarch from the house of Windsor, Elizabeth II. They are now preparing to start a series on the monarchs of Scotland.

Celebrate Family History Month with 5 Ideas for Creating Holiday Gifts

30 Sep 2014


Fall is my favorite time of year. In New England, we have a cool crisp days and evenings and the beautiful scenery from the foliage as the leaves as turn. Taking long walks on a sunny afternoon with the leaves crunching beneath your feet is the best way to enjoy this season. That said, nothing last forever. Fall will quickly be over and winter will soon be upon us. And we all know what that means. The holidays will be here before you know it!


The other great thing about this time of year is our celebration of Family History Month in October in the United States. What better way to celebrate that to start thinking about sharing your genealogical research with your family over the holidays. It takes time to look at your research get things together and create gifts based on your research to present to your family over the holidays. If you start now you just might have time to get them finished before the holidays hit. There are so many ways you can share your family stories with the current generations. Here are a few examples of gifts that you can create that will mean so much to them. Presents from the store are wonderful, but gifts from the heart like these, Means so much more.


Compose a Family Calendar
It is quite common to see people use use photographs of the family to create a calendar. As a genealogists, you can set up a 2015 calendar your family using the information found in your research. Taking information from your database that has important dates and places that hope meaning for your family and your ancestors and mark them on the calendar. The obvious ones to include our dates and places of birth marriage and death, but there are many more that you can add. For example, include dates when people moved from one place to another, or other significant events such as an ancestor changing jobs or receiving a promotion etc.


Decorative Family Tree
One way to share your ancestry with the family is to create a decorative family tree. There are companies out there, such as Family Chartmasters, that will take your data and create a lovely printed family tree. These can vary from fan charts too expensive descendent and relationship charts that can include images of your ancestors as well. There also vendors out there that can supply you with a template to create your own handwritten chart. A few years back, I found a chart on beautiful parchment paper with A hand colored fan chart in the shape of a tree at the top and A five generation Ahnentafel underneath. Since the empty blocks in the tree have the Ahentafel number in them, even non-genealogists can easily determine the relationships between people.


Write a Family History Book
What better way to share your research than writing your ancestors‘ stories and sharing them in a book. In today’s world of print-on-demand digital printing there are a world of options available to you. You can write a formal compiled genealogy, or put together an illustrated book with lots of stories and pictures. Or, you could even combine the two that has stories with a compiled genealogy at the end. The best part is that it doesn’t have to be the entire family. Just pick a few lines to discuss. You can do different lines at different times, and have gifts ready for many holidays into the future!


Make a Multimeda Presentation
It has never been easier to create slideshows and videos with your family history. There are apps and software programs to help you in many ways. Combing oral history interview recordings with photographs and narration, you can produce a very valuable gift. Don’t forget to add images of original documents as well. These can be just as interesting to your family members.


Create a Collage
There are many ways to create a collage. Many craft stores have ornate frames in the shape of trees that you can simple insert your photographs into. You can also create a collage with software and print it out as a poster or other large-dimension image to put into a single frame. You can also print a number of images in different sizes and get a number of individual frames to put them in. The recipients can then create their own collages when hanging the frames on a wall.

Three Tips for Self-Publishing Your Family History

05 Sep 2014


One of the great benefits of today’s technology age is how much easier it is to share our genealogical research. Self-publishing has come a long way in the last few years. Here are three tips for taking advantage of the wide variety of services for taking control of publishing your family stories.

1. Get editorial assistance.

It is a well-known truism that one cannot edit or proofread one’s own work. Our minds already know what we wanted to say, so when we try to edit or proofread ourselves, we miss many of the mistakes we have made. If you have a friend with editorial experience, you might be able to convince them to help you. But, if not, there are other options available to you. Editor World is one option. They can provide you with editorial assistance for a fee, with reasonable turnaround time.

2.  Pay for a designer.

Part of being creating a good publication is paying attention to the design. And I’m not referring to the cover design (which is the first thing everyone thinks of). I am talking about the interior layout of the book. This includes font, type size, margins, justifications, headers, footers, chapter breaks, and much more. Each and every one of these may sound inconsequential, but can have a major impact. What happens if you make the margins too small? Part of the text will be illegible because it will be in the gutter (where the pages attach to the binding), and part will be unreadable because the reader’s fingers will be blocking the text. A professional can put this together for you and you will have a fantastic product at the end. For more hints, read How Much Attention Should You Pay to Book Design.

3. Don’t violate copyright.

This may be the most difficult one to adhere to. You must be careful where you take information from, and how you use it. While facts (such as dates and places of birth, marriage, and death) are not copyrightable, the words used to convey that information are. Do not directly copy text but use your own words. Even more important are images. Remember that copyright currently lasts for 70 years after the death of the creator. All those family photographs in your possession? Copyright belongs to the person who took the photograph, and to his/her heirs. The key date at the moment is 1944.