Genealogy Blog

Your Family History Toolkit Part 2

19 Sep 2013

Part two of the Family History Research Toolkit series will introduce you to more charts, forms, and check lists to help you stay on track throughout the research process.

Relationship ChartAs you get deeper in your genealogical research, the relationships between ancestors start to get very complicated. Use this chart to help clarify where your ancestor’s fall in your family tree, and how you should refer to them in your documentation.


Research LogThis form will help you keep track of the sources that you have used, and plan to use during your genealogical research. Use this form for resources found both inside and outside of the home. A research log will also help reduce the potential for duplicating your efforts because you will have a place to record every source that you have already analyzed and plan to analyze in the future. The information on this form will help you especially when you encounter conflicting information during your research because you will be able to easily cross-reference your new information with what you have previously found. Also, in genealogy it is very important to cite your sources every time you collect new information. This form will help you keep on top of citing your sources, and will help keep them organized.

The information that you should record on your research log before you search includes:

  • Name of your ancestor
  • Your selected research objective
  • The title of the source, including the author and call number
  • The name of the location where the source is kept

Once you record all of this information on your research log, you are ready to start your search. After you have finished your search, record the following information:

  • The date that you searched the source
  • The citation of the source
  • Notes about what you found or did not find
  • Whether or not you made a photocopy or transcription
  • Whether this source should be further investigated in the future

After you have recorded all of the necessary information into your research log, take the data such as dates and places, and transfer the information onto your pedigree chart and onto your family group record. Each additional entry gets you one step closer to making new discoveries.

Internal Sources ChecklistYour home, and the homes of other family members, will be rich in resources to help you discover the who, what, where, when, why, and how of your family history. This checklist provides many of the relevant items and records to look for. Do not get discouraged if you do not find all of these items, not every family has all of them. Just try your best to locate a few that will be most relevant for your personal research project. Use these items to help add to or validate the information that you have in your pedigree chart and family group sheet.

To access all of the forms in the Family History Research Toolkit, please visit the Mocavo Learning Center.

Your Family History Toolkit Part 1

18 Sep 2013

Everyone knows that keeping your records organized is essential to success over the duration of your research project. However, this is often easier said than done. Luckily there are multiple genealogy forms that will help you record your information and keep you organized along the way. Over the next two days we are going to share some checklists to help you stay on track, and other tools that you can print to help take you through your research process.


Pedigree ChartThis chart will help you record your ancestor’s most pertinent information such as their:

  • Full name and nicknames
  • Date and location of their birth
  • Date and location of their Christening
  • Spouse name, and the date and location of their marriage
  • Date and location of their death
  • Date and location of their burial

You will also be able to use this chart to build your family tree, which will be helpful if you decide to take advantage of automated online search capabilities of multiple genealogy websites. The first page of the chart can record up to five generations; however feel free to make copies of the sheet to continue building your family pedigree chart. It may be also be helpful to make a large poster.

Family Group RecordThis form will serve as your roadmap to research as you embark on your genealogical quest. On this form, you are able to record details about each individual family in your family tree. Make sure you focus on one event in one person’s life at a time when you are filling out this record. This focus will help keep you on track, and will lead you to a discovery faster. The family group record includes places for the husband, wife, and children and has spaces for more information besides birth, marriage, and death dates and places. The more information you can put on all of the records, the easier your search will be as you continue to go back through generations. It is your decision if you would like to include a child’s spouse; however, if you want to include more information, make sure your handwriting is clear in order to avoid confusing yourself in the future. The best way to start is to begin with the easiest to find information first. It will also be very important to list your source citations either on your research planner or on the back of the family group record itself. As you continue to fill out the chart, identify which areas are missing or are incomplete. This could include full names, documentation, date or place, or even a missing event.

Interview Tips & Questions GuideLiving relatives are one of the best resources when learning about your family history. Use this guide to learn how to prepare, conduct, and record an interview with a family member. Use the questions to help get your conversation started, and to ensure you get as much relevant information as possible from your interview.

Check back tomorrow to see even more tools that will help you organize your family research.

Using Antiques in Your Family History

17 Sep 2013

Antique stores can be wonderful places to explore. Genealogists tend to love history, and antique shops are where history comes to life, through the objects of the past. But have you ever considered them as a tool to help you with your family history?

Many of us are lucky to own items that used to belong to our ancestors. But if you don’t have any of these items, antique stores can help by allowing you to purchase objects from earlier eras.

You can purchase tools similar to the ones that your ancestors used. If your ancestors were farmers, you might find tools that they used to grow their crops. And shops are crawling with the tools used by shoemakers.

You might find butter churns, cast iron pots, and other kitchen implements that they used for cooking. You can find a foot-pedal sewing machine like that used by your second-great grandmother to make and mend clothes for her family.

You can purchase furniture like that which they owned. Chairs, tables, and cabinets from all time periods are plentiful in these shops. As a musician, one item I have always secretly longed for is an early-twentieth-century Victrola.


Curio cabinet made by Joseph Alfred Leclerc. From the collection of the author, used with permission.

Curio cabinet made by Joseph Alfred Leclerc. From the collection of the author, used with permission.


If you are very lucky, you might have an ancestor who was a craftsman. I am fortunate to possess several pieces of furniture made by my grandfather, who was a carpenter. If you have an ancestor who was a cabinetmaker, clockmaker, or silversmith, you might be able to find items that were actually made by your ancestor.

Cindy (Maule) Lightburn comes from a long line of clockmakers in the village of Wooler, near Newcastle upon Tyne. Recently, a local antique shop owner disovered a barometer that turned out to have been made by her third-great-grandfather John Maule about 200 years ago. After having it repaired and cleaned, the barometer now hangs on a wall in her home, in the midst of  her collection clocks and watches that were all made by her ancestors. A story about Cindy and her barometer ran in the local newspaper recently.

Of course, online antique shops and auction sites (like ebay or can be quite helpful as well. You never know what you will find there. Besides making a wonderful addition to your home, they can be an investment, and a great way to show the younger generations in your family how their ancestors lived.

5 More Genealogy Lessons I Learned in Marching Band

16 Sep 2013

Three years ago, on a crisp fall day, I was walking to my office at the New England Historic Genealogical Society when I received a text message that shook me to my core. George N. Parks, my college band director (and only ten years my senior), had died. He intrinsically believed in the power of people to succeed. In the thirty-three years he was director of the University of Massachusetts Minuteman Marching Band inspired thousands of students, and thousand more through his Drum Major Academy and his drum corps activities.



His “starred thoughts” taught us many valuable lessons about life. Back in 2010, I wrote a column about how I applied my lessons from marching band to genealogy. Today, I’d like to share five more lessons about what I learned about genealogy in marching band.

1.  “Anyone can make a mistake.”

When we are researching, we can only do the best we can. Sometimes there is insufficient information. Or sometimes, we make a mistake when we are researching. A record is misread or misinterpreted. Our scholarly journals are filled with articles correcting previously published information because mistakes were made. The important thing to know is that we do the best we can with the information we currently have available to us.

2. “When things get tough, never give up.”

Brick walls can be aggravating and annoying to say the least. Often they can drive us to the point of being convinced that certain ancestors were transplanted here by aliens. Now, never giving up does not mean “continue to beat your head against a wall.” Sometimes it is best to lay down some research for awhile and focus on a different line. But remember to continue coming back to those brick walls. New resources can become available. And sometimes coming at things with a fresh eye gives helps you try a new approach that might help you break down that brick wall.

3. “You become the people you hang around.”

Find yourself some genealogy friends. Join your local genealogical society. You can go to repositories and research together. You can bounce ideas off of each other. And best of all, you can learn from each other. Surround yourself with great researchers, and you will become one yourself.

4. “One of the smartest things you can do is analyze a good teacher.”

There are many expert genealogists out there who teach us research techniques, resources, and other aspects of family history research. They do this not only by making presentations, but by writing how-to articles and publishing their work in scholarly journals and elsewhere. You can learn much from them, and not just be reading the article directly. Examine how they are approaching a problem, what resources, they use, etc. Then you can use these same techniques yourself.

5. “There are three stages in life: You believe in Santa Claus; You don’t believe in Santa Claus; You become Santa Claus.”

When we are first learning about how to research, we tend to be extremely excited. We look at other researchers and say to ourselves “How did they figure that out?” Then the day comes when we become experienced and research finds become a bit old hat. But the best time comes after that. When you share your knowledge with others, and get to see their eyes light up because they are finding more ancestors because of what you taught them.

The day after George died, he was at the top of all Google searches worldwide. His influence and impact on so many people was incredible. Out of all the things he taught us, the most important, and one I have tried to live my life by is this: “It is never too late to be what you might have become.”

News Stories for Genealogists, September 13, 2013

13 Sep 2013

This week we have some interesting stories, from America’s Latest Obsession to two different takes on obituaries that descendants will love to read. I hope you find them as interesting as I do.

Genealogy was in the news last week on the Huffington Post. Doug Bremner is a self-published author, and he wrote an article about how he got involved in it. The bit where he gets a telephone call from his bank about suspicious charges on his card is one that will probably sound very familiar to experienced genealogists. Read about it in Genealogy — America’s Latest Obsession.

Sarah Engler also contributed a story to Real Simple magazine about getting involved in genealogy. As she puts it, she is “a typical mutt (German, English, Scottish, Norwegian), and I had always figured that my ancestors ate hoecake in sod houses.” She spoke with Corey Oieson from the Association of Professional Genealogists about a wide variety of genealogy websites, and what they are useful for. You can read the full story in Finding Your Roots.

KOMO news in Seattle, Washington, aired an interesting story out of the nearby town of Arlington. When the Smoke family moved out of their farm, they found a 150-year old diary written by a Union soldier from Kentucky. They passed it to a neighbor who was active in the local genealogical society, and the society found a good home for the diary. You can read more of the story and watch a short video in Civil War Diary Turns Up in Arlington Home.

Funk i Consulting  is a consulting company in the Ukraine. They have some interesting inspirational parts of their website. The recently posted an interesting infographic of world religions. It starts with the origins of Chinese Folk Taoism about 2000 BCE and brings them up to the present day, showing the various major offshoots through the years, including how modern Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all had their origins with the Ancient Israelites. Although the site is in Russian, the infographic is labeled in English, and you can see it at The World Religions Tree Infographics.


World Religions


Finally this week we have two obituaries that couldn’t be more different. The children of Marianne Theresa Johnson-Reddick clearly have nothing but painful memories of their mother. The obituary starts off by saying that she “is survived by her 6 of 8 children whom she spent her lifetime torturing in every way possible.” The obituary has been posted all over the internet, and even made the news on USA Today in Scathing Obituary Goes Viral, Reveals Abuse, Neglect. You can read the full text of the original obituary in the Reno Gazette-Journal. The children of Mary Agnes “Pink” Mullaney, however, had much better things to say about their mom. They say that “we were blessed to learn many valuable lessons from Pink during her 85 years, among them: Never throw away used panty hose. . .” The rest of the obituary is filled with wonderful things she taught them. You can read it in This Woman’s Obituary is the Best Thing You’ll Read Today. Each of these obituaries is far from humdrum, although for different reasons, and generations to come will certainly appreciate reading them.

The Great Migration Newsletter: An Essential Resource

12 Sep 2013

Twenty-five years ago the New England Historic Genealogical Society embarked on a massive endeavor. The Great Migration Study Project was to be a major, scholarly study of the earliest immigrants to New England. More than two decades later, the project has produced some of the best work ever published on the topic.

While people focus tremendously on the published sketches of immigrants, they often miss another valuable contribution: The Great Migration Newsletter. The newsletter has been published quarterly since 1990. While the sketches focus on individuals, the newsletter is focused more on general and social history for the immigrants, the places they settled, and the records they left behind. It was also to be used to provide updates on the status of the books of sketches being published.

The newsletter has maintained the same format since the very beginning. Each issue was eight pages, and includes:

  • One or two feature articles
  • Editor’s Effusions column from project director Robert Charles Anderson
  • Review of recent published literature on the subject
  • Focus section that discusses one of the towns settled by the immigrants, a specific records, or a group of records

Here are a couple of examples of past issues of the newsletter. In the October–December 1998 (Vol. 7, No. 4), the feature article was the last in a four-part section on the passenger ships that arrived in 1635, the Editor’s Effusions column discussed how new technology meant that hand-copied transcriptions of records was no longer required. The Focus section was devoted to the town of Hingham, Massachusetts. And the recent literature included articles from ten  individuals, many of them Fellows of the American Society of Genealogists.

In the April–June 2003 issue (Vol. 12, No. 2), the feature article discussed the office of town constable (part of a series on town offices). The Editor’s Effusions discussed the upcoming book about to be published. The Focus section discussed correspondence, including the Winthrop Papers, the Pynchon Papers, and the correspondence of Roger Williams and John Cotton amongst others. The recent literature section includes seven journal articles and a compiled genealogy by Elaine Forman Crane.




You can read subscribe to either an online version of the newsletter ($10/yr) or print version ($20/yr).  NEHGS has also published the first twenty years in a single volume with a comprehensive index. The Great Migration Newsletter, Volumes 1–20 is available for $27.95 from their online store. If you have early-seventeenth century ancestors in New England, this is a collection you cannot do without. You can find out more about The entire project, or subscribe to the newsletter, at

The Largest Potter’s Field in the World: Hart Island

11 Sep 2013

Hart Island, about a mile long and a quarter mile wide, lies at the western end of Long Island Sound. Purchased by the city of New York in 1869, it is the easternmost part of the Bronx. The origins of its name are shrouded in history, with numerous versions being promulgated.

In 1865, the island was used as a prison for Confederate soldiers. More than two-hundred of them died and were buried there. Their remains, along with those of some Union soldiers buried on the island, were later transferred to Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Over the years the island has been the home of a convalescent home, city prison, lunatic asylum, boy’s workhouse, tubercularium, home for delinquent boys, and drug rehab center among others. It has been uninhabited since 1976.

The city started using it as a potter’s field shortly after it purchased the island in 1869. Since 24-year-old Louisa Van Slyke, the first person buried there, as many as one million burials have taken place. The 101-acre cemetery is now the largest publicly-funded burying ground in the world.

One-third of all burials are infants and stillborn babies. Until 1913 babies and adults were buried together in mass graves. That practice has now changed. Because many individuals are now identified after burial (through fingerprints, medical records, DNA, etc.), unidentified individuals are buried in single graves. This allows for easier disinterment if the individual is later identified. Those individuals whose names are known are buried in common graves. Prisoners from the Rykers Island Prison Complex bury the dead.

The graves are not marked (save for the first child buried there who died of AIDS). Visiting the island must be approved by the Department of Correction. Visits are restricted to once a month, and visitors can only go as far as a gazebo near the dock.

A small nonprofit organization called the Hart Island Project is working to get more public access to the cemetery. Using Freedom of Information Act requests, they have put together a database of burials there. Unfortunately, a fire on the island destroyed many of the earlier burial records in 1977. Surviving records from 1883 to 1961 are at the Municipal Archives. Their database  (available by subscription that supports the group’s work) currently has more than 60,000 burials that have taken place since 1980. The city’s Department of Correction has followed their lead, and now has a database of burials on its own website, available for free.


Hart Island


The group is also working to get greater physical access to the island for the public. This, of course, is complicated by the fact that burials are conducted by prisoners from Rykers. If you have ancestors who disappeared in New York City, they may have ended up at Hart Island. The Kingston Lounge, self-described as being dedicated to “Guerrilla preservation and urban archaeology. Brooklyn and beyond,” visited the island in 2008 and posted some images from the visit on the Kingston Lounge blog.

Vincent Van Gogh and the Genealogists

10 Sep 2013

When I was growing up, like many other kids my age, I was enthralled with the British television show Doctor Who (on PBS of course, no BBC America or Netflix back then). Tom Baker is forever enshrined in my mind as the Doctor. I decided to catch up on the activities of the new Doctors, thanks to Netflix.

Last night I watched an episode where the Doctor (Matt Smith incarnation) visited Vincent Van Gogh about year before his suicide. At the end of the episode, the Doctor and his companion Amy Pond bring Vincent to the present to visit the Van Gogh exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay. There, he hears the curator describe him as the greatest painter ever, and one of the greatest men who ever lived. Coming back to the present after returning Vincent to his home, Amy is convinced that their visit changed history and postponed Vincent’s death. She runs into the exhibit, expecting to see hundreds of new paintings, but is disappointed to see that Vincent committed suicide just as he had before.

The story reminded me a bit of genealogical research. There are surprises for us around every corner. We never know what we will find. Vincent Van Gogh did not start painting until he was in his late twenties, but he left an extensive body of work. From then until he died at the age of 37, he created 860 oil paintings and more than 1,300 drawings, prints, sketches, and watercolors. Yet at the time of his death in 1890, he and his work were mostly unknown.

Just like Vincent, any given ancestor can leave a vast number of records. But until researchers locate them, our ancestors remain fairly unkown. And as we peel back the layers, examining record after record, we have no idea where the trail leads. How many other records are out there? And with every new record, we are able to come up with a stronger picture of that ancestor and his/her life.




And just like Vincent, no matter how much time passes, you never know when a new record will become available. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam holds the largest collection of Vincent’s works. Yesterday afternoon the museum director and senior researcher made a major announcement. After extensive research, an 1888 painting entitled “Sunset at Montmajour” has now been shown to be Vincent’s work. This is the first new work to be identified in the entire history of the museum.

The same can be said for genealogy. One can research for years or decades and suddenly a new record appears. Unsuspected and out of the blue, you are suddenly confronted with new evidence to blend in with the other research you have already put together. But it takes a lot of looking, and a lot of research, to prove that you have the proper conclusion.

Build Your Brains: Learn Cursive

07 Sep 2013



One of the most important things about genealogy is the ability to read the records. If you can’t read the original records, you cannot be guaranteed that you have the correct ancestors. Genealogical journals are filled with articles correcting previously published lineages because the original author misread an original document.

Because of this, genealogists, historians, and others have looked with alarm at the news stories of the last few years. Cursive handwriting, which dates back to the Middle Ages, is now being dropped left and right from school curricula. The reasoning is that computers have taken over and younger generations do not “need” cursive handwriting.

This, of course, strikes horror in our hearts. How can people learn about history, genealogy, and other areas without knowing cursive handwriting. Think about what it was like when you first tried to read a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century document. You could make out some of the letters and words, but needed to do a lot of work to learn how the letters were made. Now, imagine what it would be like if you didn’t even have a history of cursive writing to start with?

Last Sunday there was a great article about cursive handwriting by psychologist Charles Zanor in the Boston Globe. He writes about how he started reading letters written by a native Texan living in Connecticut during the Great Depression. He says “Or perhaps I should say that I began trying to read them, because deciphering the letters at first seemed like a hopeless task.” And that was twentieth-century handwriting!

Zanor discovered a study about to be published that discusses how cursive writing affects our ability to read. During the study, printed and cursive words were rotated 90 degrees clockwise and counterclockwise, then had subjects read the words. When presented in traditional horizontal form, printed words were misread less than 5% of the time, but cursive words were misread almost 16% of the time. When rotated, the printed word error increased to only 9%, but the cursive error grew to 53%.

The study illustrated how learning to read cursive involves developing “a complex set of cognitive and motor skills.” Clearly, we will be losing far more than the ability to read if we allow cursive to fall by the wayside. You can read Zanor’s full article on


What genealogy events have you participated in this year?

07 Sep 2013

We asked and you answered! Last week we asked how many of you were able to attend genealogy events this year. We are happy to report that 83% of you have attended some sort of genealogy event this year and 24% of you have been able to take advantage of events hosted by your local societies.


Don’t forget to check out our bi-weekly newsletter or Facebook page to take the next poll and see how you compare with your fellow genealogists.