Genealogy Blog

An Excellent Addition to Your Reference Shelf: The Craft of Research

15 Aug 2013

When I was attending the Institute for Genealogical and Historical Research earlier this summer, I took a stroll through the campus store. One of my friends pointed to a book they had on sale and told me I just had to have it. I bought it on her recommendation, and am glad I did.


The Craft of Research


The book is the thirdd edition of The Craft of Research, by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Columb, and Joseph M. Williams. It is published by the University of Chicago Press, the same publisher as The Chicago Manual of Style. Although geared towards college students, it has much good advice for genealogical researchers as well.

The book is divided into five sections:

  1. Research, Researchers, and Readers
  2. Asking Questions, Finding Answers
  3. Making a Claim and Supporting It
  4. Planning, Drafting, and Revising
  5. Some Last Considerations

Each section is further divided into individual chapters. Not every chapter will be entirely applicable, but most will offer some level of assistance.

The prologue to section three, for example, says:

“Once you’ve accumulated a stack of notes, photocopies, and summaries, don’t keep piling them up until they spill off your desk (or you lose track of them on your hard drive). It’s time to impose some order on what you’ve found. . . You need a . . . powerful principle of organization, one based not on your data but on the solution to your problem and the logic of its support. That support takes the form of a research argument.”

This is exactly what we as genealogists do.

Each chapter is further subdivided into brief explanations of concepts. There are charts and diagrams to illustrate some points. Many chapters also have Quick Tips. These are checklists, tools, and tricks for different concepts. One of my favorites is “Qualifying Claims to Enhance Your Credibility.” This tip reminds you to use qualifiers in statements you make. A common genealogical example would be:

Since John and Mary (Smith) Doe were the only family leaving records in Springfield during the years surrounding her birth, they are most likely the parents of Jane. There remains the possibility that a transient Doe family might have come in and out of town during this period without leaving any permanent records.

The qualifiers most likely, and the second sentence show the reader that you understand that there is another possibility. No matter how unlikely, it is still possible. Acknowledging this makes the reader trust you and your research more.

The Craft of Research, Third Edition, is a valuable addition to your reference shelf. It is available in both print and electronic versions. It is available from a wide variety of online and brick-and-mortar booksellers, and the prices vary from seller to seller, so (as Booth, Columb, and Williams would say) do your research wisely!

Tips from the Sound of Music on Reading Old Documents

14 Aug 2013


Images of original records are becoming more widely available every day. Archives and repositories are actively scanning materials and putting them online. Being able to read and understand them will help you move your research in new directions. It doesn’t matter whether the documents are from the 16th century or the 20th, you can learn to read and understand them. Here are three tips, with advice from the Rogers and Hammerstein’s classic The Sound of Music, to help you.

1. Read the Document Straight Through

When looking at a document for the first time, the temptation is to jump around looking for names, places, and other significant terms. This can actually work against you. You might miss significant information. Julie Andrews has been telling you for years “Let’s start at the very beginning; a very good place to start.” Read the document straight through. Even if you don’t understand some of the words, you stand less of a chance of missing anything.

2. Understand the Hand

As Ms. Andrews also says “When you read you begin with ABC . . .” Those of us over the age of forty who grew up in America learned either the Palmer Method (taught through the 1950s and 19602) or the Zaner-Bloser Method (popular in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s). But there have been numerous hands through the centuries. The first step is to discover when a document was created. Then research what hands were in popular use at the time. Then you can look at alphabet books to help you read the handwriting.

3. Transcribe the Document

The best way to understand the document is to transcribe it as you read. Read through word by word, writing the words as you move through the document. If you can’t read a word, mark it with an underline or capital X for each letter you can’t read. You can go back and look at these later. As you read through the document, you will get more familiar with the handwriting of the scribe who created the document, and you may be able to recognize more and more letters as you go along. It may be frustrating as you move through the document, and on more than one occasion you will want to express your frustration as the nuns did “How do you solve a problem like this writing? How do you read a word and pin it down?” but if you keep going, it will get easier for you.

The biggest key to success is the same as the way the casts of the musical and the movie versions of The Sound of Music got nominated for and won so many Tony Awards and Oscars: practice, practice, practice. The more you repeat this process, the more adept you will get at reading and understand original records.

Historic Landmarks as a Research Tool

13 Aug 2013

This past week, the city of Boston seized a neglected property in the Mattapan section. It is in a less affluent section of the city, so one might not be entirely surprised, thinking this sort of thing happens all the time, especially in a city as large as Boston. While that may be true, this property has specific historical significance. And the story of this property might help you in your own research.

The property is the Fowler-Clark Farm. The farm includes a house, stable, and a half acre of undeveloped property. The stable dates from around 1860, but the house itself was built at least between 1786 and 1806, and possibly earlier. The process of the seizure of the property has taken more then seven years, and that process created a wonderful paper trail.

In 2005, the city started the process of getting historic landmark status designated for the farm. Not much of colonial Boston remains standing today. Much of it was destroyed by fires, especially the Great Fire of 1876. In addition, much was lost in the name of public improvement. The farm is located in Mattapan, a section of Dorchester. Dorchester was not a part of the city until 1870 when it was annexed to Boston. Until annexation, Dorchester was very rural and agricultural whose farms produced food for the city. After annexation, many of the large landowners subdivided and developed their properties into small plots for homes for the burgeoning population of the city.

Back in 2005 a study was commissioned on the Fowler-Clark property to support a declaration of landmark status. The report includes a section on the historic significance of the area and the farm itself. It includes source citations for primary and secondary sources that were used to trace the history of the farm as well as Dorchester and Boston.


Fowler Clark Farm

Mural of the Fowler-Clark Farm painted inside the farmhouse. From the Boston Globe.


Tracing the history of the farm also shows a bit of genealogy. It shows the original owner Stephen Fowler passing it to his grandson Samuel in 1786. From Samuel it passed to his wife Mary, then to their son Samuel, Jr., who passed 1820. Part of it is then sold at auction, and part goes to his siblings and their heirs. From there it went to the Baker family  and the Sanderson family in 1824. In 1837 it was sold to the Clark family, in whose possession it remained for more than a century. In 1940 it was sold to the Millers, who sold it in 1941 to Jorge and Ida Epstein. Ownership was transferred to a trust in Ida Epstein’s name. The property was seized from the trust last week.

When researching your family, look for historical properties in the area. Of special interest should be the ones that have received landmark status. Looking at the paperwork generated for the historical commissions will give you a better understanding of the area, and provide you with resources that they used to compile the report which may be of assistance to you in your research. You can read the Fowler-Clark Farm report online as an example of what you might find.

DNA Testing: 23andMe is Top of the Class

10 Aug 2013

There are a number of places for genealogists to get their DNA tested. Several years ago I had mine done. This past year, I had it tested with a different company to see what the results would be. Advances in testing over the years would make it likely that there would be differences.

23andMe (the name comes from the 23 chromosomes you get from each parent) did the testing this time. I must say, I am very pleased with the results overall. The test itself was extremely simple. You order it and pay for it online, and a test package is sent to you. I spent a few moments filling a tube with saliva. Then packaged it up in the included envelope. A few weeks later you will receive an email that your results are ready.

The 23andMe website has been dramatically remodeled, and I find it very easy to use. The Ancestry Composition section shows you what percentage of your DNA comes vrom various populations around the world. My standard estimate states that I am 99.7% European, 0.1% Middle Eastern and North African, and 0.2% unassigned (other populations include Sub-Saharan African, South Asian, East Asian & Native American, and Oceanian). You can also get conservative or more speculative estimates that might change your numbers slightly. Unassigned represents DNA that is found in a very wide area and cannot be narrowed down further. Each of those groups can be subdivided further. For example, I have 8.1% British and Irish ancestry and 2.3% Italian.




One interesting test result was the percentage of Neanderthal DNA that I carry. It is known that Homoneanderthalis interbred with homo sapiens. Although the Neanderthals went extinct about 30,000 years ago, the DNA survives today through the interbreeding. Traces of it exist in all modern humans outside of Africa. Each of us carries between 1 and 4 percent. I am in the 62nd percentile with 2.8%.

On area shows the countries where people with sections of DNA close to my own appear. In my case, the top five countries are France, Ireland, Poland, Ukraine, and Sweden. Now, I have traced almost every single branch of my family back to Europe. I know that I have ancestors in France and Ireland. There is no evidence to support any ancestors from Poland, Ukraine, or Sweden, so I’m not certain where this comes from unless it is people who migrated more than 500 years ago.

Once your results come back, 23andMe checks for relations based on identical sections of DNA. My profile shows 984 people in the database are related to me. These individuals are grouped into categories. Close relatives are first cousins or closer (siblings, parents, etc.). I have none of those (not surprising to me). The next group is 2nd and 3rd cousins. There are 53 of those in the database. This is an intriguing number to me. I have 58 second cousins and 63 third cousins (with likely an additional 5-10 third cousins that have not yet been identified). This means that more than 40% of my second and third cousins have been tested. That would appear to be a large percentage. The largest group is 711 people who are 4th cousins. There are 220 people who are more distantly related.

One of the nice things about 23andMe as opposed to other genealogical websites is that they also test for health issues. These range from minor to major. It is important to remember, that many of these are indicators, and are based on averages. For example, one indicator said I likely had brown eyes, which is true. Another shows I have decreased odds of male pattern baldness. More serious ones show that I do not carry the gene that makes me less susceptible to getting HIV. One of the most serious, however, is the presence of the gene for Alzheimer’s. You even have to answer several times that you actually want to know whether you carry it.

I cannot recommend 23andMe more highly. The testing is excellent, and goes beyond the ordinary services from the usual genealogy results. And, unlike some services, you can download the raw data from your test results at any time so you can upload them to other databases for comparisons and connections. Give it a try, you will be surprised what you find. It may be the best $99 you spend this year.

What kind of genealogical research have you done this summer?

10 Aug 2013

We asked and you answered! Last week we asked what kind of genealogical research have you done this summer? At least 57% of you have researched online and 17% of you were able to get to a repository to research. We hope that you will be able to continue to sneak in some research time throughout the rest of the summer and we are looking forward to helping you every step of the way. Don’t forget to check out our bi-monthly newsletter or Facebook page to take the next poll and see how you compare with your fellow genealogists.


News and Blog Posts for Genealogists, August 9, 2013

09 Aug 2013

Following are some recent news stories and blog posts of interest to genealogists. I hope you find them as engaging and informative as I do.

Back in 1964, newborn Paul Fronczak was kidnapped by a woman pretending to be a nurse. More than a year later, police returned him to his parents. Or so they thought. Recent DNA testing has proven that Paul is not the child of the Fronczaks. He does not yet know who he is, and an investigation is being reopened. You can read more about how DNA will help Paul determine who he really is, and possibly help identify where the real Paul Fronczak is, in Man Discovers He Wasn’t Kidnapped Baby; FBI Reopens 49-Year-Old Mystery on CNN.

Copyright laws were put in place to insure that content creators, such as authors and composers, would get fair compensation for their work, and to stimulate the creation of such work. Unfortunately, as the twentieth century progressed, more corporations (such as movie and television studios and record companies) got into the business of creating content. Their movement to change copyright law to protect their profits has had devastating effects on creativity. A recent story in The Atlantic shows that a book published when Chester Arthur (the 21st president) was in office has a greater possibility of still being in print that one published under the administration of Ronald Reagan (the 40th president). Read more in The Hole in our Collective Memory: How Copyright Made Mid-Century Books Vanish.

Judy Russell, The Legal Genealogist, has an interesting post this week about probate. Using an example from Wisconsin, she shows where to look when the information is missing. There is likely a very good reason for it to not be there. Discover more in The Missing Term in the Will.


Congressional Cemetery Goats


Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., dates back more than two hundred years. In addition to 90 former members of Congress, it is the final resting place of a vice-president, a Supreme Court Justice, J. Edgar Hover, Matthew Brady, and John Philip Sousa among others. Long neglected, there is now a preservation group dedicated to cleaning it up and preserving the integrity of the monuments. This week they have an old-school project going on: they are cleaning up a particularly rocky and rickety section of the cemetery by using herds of goats. Read more in Why Are There Currently Goats in Congressional Cemetery?

Finally, this week, we have an interesting story from Discover magazine. Have the experiences of your ancestors left an indelible mark on you through the genes you have inherited from them? Biologists and geneticists now believe that it is possible to pass on epigenetic mutations to your descendants. Read more in Grandma’s Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Genes.


The Three Rs of Research

08 Aug 2013

The other day I wrote a blog post about families whose surnames daughter out. In this post I used my own family as an example. Among the descendants of my great-great grandparents, Abraham Leclerc and Celina Lavallée, there is only one known male in the sixth generation that carries the surname.

In reviewing my research on the family, I noted that I hadn’t researched those lines in quite some time. The last time I had done any work on it at all was six years ago, when I wrote an article for New England Ancestors magazine about a family tradition. And even then, it wasn’t extensive.

As I delved into the family, I was reminded of how long it had been since I last worked with the descendants of this family. I was lucky in some respects. My great-grandfather was the eldest son. There was one daughter, Josephine, older than he. There was a twenty-two year spread among the children. The last, Henri (known as Babe), was born in 1909. My grandfather was born only three years later. My grandparents owned a bar and social club from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. Because of this, when I was young I actually got to meet a number of my grandfather’s aunts, uncles, and cousins (my great-great-great aunts and uncles and their children).


Through the years, however, the descendants grew apart. The last time I saw many of them was at my grandfather’s funeral a dozen years ago. Without these personal connections, it was difficult to trace the more recent generations.

But now, there are so many more resources available. The last time I looked at the family, the 1940 census was not yet available. With the help of that census, I was able to identify several more of my grandfather’s first cousins. I was also able to determine that two of his aunts were divorced quite early (back in the 1930s, when it was not as socially acceptable).

With access to city directories, public searches, cemetery databases, online newspapers and obituary databases, and more, I was able to quickly identify almost two dozen new descendants, including one who lives only a short distance away from me in Boston.

The important lesson learned is about revisiting research. All too often, we think we are “done” with a line. Or, perhaps, that we have looked at everything available. But in today’s world, new resources are constantly becoming available. So it is important to schedule some time periodically to return to those lines that you thought were “finished” or “impossible to take any further” and review them.  You never know what additional treasures you will find when you revisit them.


Three Steps for Sharing Your Research

06 Aug 2013


One of the best parts about family history research is being able to share the information and stories that you find with other family members. There are so many ways to do this nowadays, but all have one thing in common. We want to do the best job we can with our research, so the people we are sharing with can understand what we found. We also want to know that we have found the correct information. After all, who wants to have someone else’s ancestors on their family tree? Here are two tried and true, simple tips for doing a great job with your work and sharing it the best way possible.

1. Summarize Your Work

The very act of writing out a summary of your knowledge will help you with your research. Be certain to put a footnote for the source citation of every piece of information you have. If you don’t have a source, this will appear as an empty footnote, which will show you where additional research needs to be done. When I am writing up my research, I also include information that I don’t even have yet. For example, if I don’t know when and where someone died, I write “He died.” Putting a footnote with no source provides the flag that I need to know that more research needs to be done.

2. Genealogical Review

This is a trick from the experienced professionals. Have one or two people who are experienced and competent genealogists look at your research. They will see things that you don’t. It is simply human nature. If we have too much information in our brains, then we fill in the blanks when we are reading. Those with less information cannot fill in the blanks, and can more easily find missing pieces or assumptions in our work. These reviewers may also be able to give you some ideas on how to move find solutions.

3. Writing Review

Once you have gone back and filled in the missing pieces with additional research, it is time for an independent review of your writing. It is a well-known fact — writers cannot edit themselves. It is vitally important to have someone else read through it. They will find typographical as well as grammatical errors. It is best to have someone with writing and/or editing. If you are publishing a book-length work, it is absolutely critical to have a professional editor look at your work. This is not as difficult a process as many fear, and in the end it will serve only to save you the embarrassment of publishing a work filled with problems.

Whether you are writing on a blog, an essay for your family members, or a book, these three steps will serve you well. They will ensure that people can trust your work, and that you have interpreted it correctly.

The Case of the Disappearing Surname

05 Aug 2013

Compiled genealogies often maintain their focus only on those who carry the surname forward: i.e., sons and their sons and their sons, etc. While this may be a good thing for large families with lots of sons of sons of sons, many families do not face this problem, and it behooves them to include the descendants of daughters. After all, my mother’s ancestry is 50% of my ancestry, right? In addition, many families are daughtering out, with the surnames disappearing.


Family of Abraham Leclerc and Celina Lavallee, from the collection of the author, used with permission.

Family of Abraham Leclerc and Celina Lavallee, from the collection of the author, used with permission.


This situation can happen very quickly. Let me use the example of my great-great grandparents. Abraham Leclerc and Celina Lavallée had thirteen children. But from these 13 children came only 27 grandchildren.  Of these children, 9 were sons: Joseph (my great-grandfather), Olivier, Arthur, Majorique, Onile, Antoine, Charles, Abraham, and Henri. But these 9 were responsible for 21 of the grandchildren (one daughter had 4 children, one had 2, and the other two had no children).

Of the 9 sons, Antoine, Charles, and Henri died leaving no children. Onile and Arthur each had one daughter and no sons. This brings us down to 4 sons with grandchildren. Arthur had two children: a son and a daughter. Olivier had two sons and two daughters. Majorique had three sons and five daughters, but one son was killed at the age of nineteen in World War II, leaving only two to reach adulthood. My great-grandfather Joseph had one son (my grandfather) and four daughters.

Within two generations, there were only 6 boys left to carry on the surname. Of Abraham and Celina’s grandchildren, 78% were granddaughters or sons of daughters. My grandfather Alfred had 3 sons and 3 daughters These six children have thirteen children. Five of these are the children of daughters. My father and my Uncle Leo each had two sons and a daughter. My Uncle Roger has one son and one daughter.

This leaves us with five males who carry the name Leclerc: Myself, my brother Dennis, and my cousins Peter, Eric, and Matthew. Neither Eric nor I have any children, and at our age it is unlikely that we would have any. Dennis has two daughters and will have no more children. My cousin Peter has one son and one daughter (and I believe he is done having children as well). My cousin Matthew is in his mid-twenties and single, so he may yet have a son. But as of this moment, Peter’s son Colin is the only one to carry forward the surname of my great-grandfather Joseph.

Joseph’s brother Arthur had one son, but that son had only a daughter. Olivier’s two sons currently have no grandsons to carry forward the name. That leaves Uncle Majorique’s two surviving sons. Between them they had seven sons, six of whom might carry on the surname (one had no sons, the rest I have not yet traced).

In summary:

  • Generation 2: 9 sons (13 children)
  • Generation 3: 7 grandsons carrying surname (27 grandchildren)
  • Generation 4: 12 great-grandsons carrying surname (25 great-grandchildren)
  • Generation 5: 14 great-great-grandsons carrying surname (40 known great-great grandchildren)
  • Generation 6: 1 great-great-great-grandson carrying surname

Abraham and Celina’s children were born between 1887 and 1907. It has taken only a little more than a century for the Leclerc surname to be dropped to a handful of individuals who might carry it forward. It does not take much to realize why we should pay attention to all the descendants of our ancestors, not just those males carrying the surname. Only a small percentage do. It is vital to look at all of the family, especially if we want to be certain that their stories are preserved.


Blog posts and News Stories for Genealogists, August, 2, 2013

02 Aug 2013

This week’s gathering of blog posts news stories is filled with fun! I hope you find them interesting as well as informative.

A number of years ago, geneticists identified “Ancient Eve,” the common female ancestor of almost all humans on the planet. Tracing “Ancient Adam” has proven much more difficult. The Huffington Post reported on a number of different studies that have managed to several different common ancestors, including one who lived between 237,000 and 581,000 years ago. Read more in Genetic ‘Adam & Eve’ Chromosome Study Traces All Men to Man Who Lived 135,000 Years Ago.

The National Archives blog had an interesting story this week on Civil War Pension indexes and records. Did you know that there are five separate series of pension files? That the most commonly-used index is available online, but it is not complete? What’s the best way to obtain records for files after 1928? Get the details in C and XC Pension Files for the Civil War.

Genealogists come across many different ways in which our ancestors were buried and/or memorialized after death. Technology has only expanded these options. Musicians and music aficionados now have a new way of preserving their memory. A London company called Vinyly (get it? Pronounce it out loud) will take human ashes and press them into a vinyl record complete with music. Find out more in You Can Now Have Your Ashes Pressed Into a Vinyl Record.


Sea Fort Hotel


Many of us have ancestors who had military service of one sort or another. Many of these served in places that you can now visit as a tourist attraction. Imagine, however, being able to spend the night in the place where they served? An 1867 fort a mile off the south coast of England has been converted into a luxury hotel. It will be interesting to see if this idea catches on. Read more in Historic Sea Fort Reborn as Luxury Hotel.

I’ve discussed C.G.P. Grey before in What’s the Difference Holland and the Netherlands? Upworthy has uploaded a new interesting and entertaining video from Grey. This video discusses the strange border between the United States and Canada, which is not as straight as most people think. Watch the video at One Look at the United States-Canada Border Reveals Some Ridiculous Things.