My name is Kathleen, and I have been researching my family history since I was a child. I love to go into county courthouses and smell the old books and paper... or is it dust? This blog will focus on the stories I've heard over the years and the research methods I follow. I am particularly interested in data management and cloud genealogy.

Some of my personal areas of interest include Southern Maryland and DC (Robie, Rhodes, Grimes, Lindsey), NY state (Hill, Cookingham, Flynn, Rhodes, Skinner, Wheeler, Mead, Havens, Trotter), NJ (Parcell), North Carolina and Eastern TN (Lynch, Seabolt, Spears), MO (Wilcox, Kiddell), and CA (Simi, Grady)

I am always happy to compare notes or share my experiences, so please leave a comment!

Friday, April 11, 2014

FTM, where have you been all my life?

I switched over from PC to Macs about five years ago, and the only thing I was unhappy about in the change was the stunning lack of choice in Mac-based family tree software.  Using Parallels to run my old Legacy family tree program was a complete non-starter because it was too awkward and slow, so the only choice was to plunk down the cash for Reunion.  Reunion was quite a bit more expensive than the (practically nonexistent) alternatives, but all the reviews said it was the only choice for the serious researcher who wanted to thoroughly document sources.  

Well, that experience was less than stellar... in fact, the difficulties I faced working with sources and documenting ongoing research in Reunion led me to set up my research templates for the Bento database program.  Although Bento was not a genealogy program, it worked well and allowed me to relate my data in useful ways.  Unfortunately File Maker stopped supporting it last year so I knew it was time to move on.  I tried Zotero, which is a wonderful tool for managing your research, but the problem is getting your data out of the program (it doesn't export readily into any format other than academic bibliographies).  Evernote is good, too, but I just can't integrate it easily into my routine.  It also feels too much like a big photo album -- and I like to see my data as text, too!

Another complicating issue for me is the staggering number of data management tools I've used in my time -- beginning with pencils and paper files back in the 1970s, and moving through several different iterations of software as computers came onto the scene.  The difficulties migrating my data over the years, compounded by changing standards in my data collection methodology (to put it politely), have resulted in a rather messy database.  So I have been using Bento to record my new sources (hoping that it will continue to work) and trying to clean up my Reunion files in my spare time.  

By chance I read a message about Family Tree Maker on an message board the other day, and on a whim I downloaded it to see if it was any good.  FTM was cheap -- a fraction of the cost of Reunion -- so I figured I could toss it if it wasn't useful.  

OMG (to quote my children)!!!!!  In the two days I've been playing with FTM, I've made major inroads on cleaning up my sources, places, and people; I've added masses of photos; and I am starting to integrate my Bento data.  This program is just so much more intuitive and easy to use than Reunion.  I love how I can include active web links directly in my source citations and easily link my saved document images to the citations as well.  It may seem like a small detail, but having one central location where I can see an individual's entire status -- facts, sources, and images -- is critical to my sense of control over my data.
And did I say it was intuitive and easy to use?  There's a lot to be said for simplicity -- it is highly correlated to actual use!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

A Microcosm of the Revolution

Recently I completed a fascinating project for my local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR).  I researched the ancestors of all our members in an attempt to discover who we were as a chapter during the Revolutionary War.  This was quite different from the usual way of looking at history -- focusing attention on a person or event in the past to glean some insight about it today.   I took the opposite approach, and examined a specific group of people in the present to try to get a sense of who we were in the past.

Of the 59 ancestors I researched, only one lived in our town!
Map credit: David Rumsey Maps
We were born in America, and we were born abroad; we lived in (almost) all the 13 colonies; and we fought in most of the major battles of the Revolution, and many smaller ones, too.  I think the thing that surprised me most was how much the ancestors of the women in my small Connecticut town represented the Revolutionary War as a whole.  

We were a microcosm of the nascent American Republic -- farmers, merchants, politicians, and educators.  Among other things, our ancestors served as soldiers, officers, sailors, gunsmiths, mattrosses, drummers, scouts, and prisoners of war.  Thank heaven so many applied for pensions, because they can be a goldmine of information.  This man provided six pages just like this one, detailing exactly where he was and what he was doing throughout the war: -- Pension of Jacob Snell, NY #S23429 (p. 41)
Another man had to submit a page from his family Bible in order to apply for his pension.  Imagine how you'd feel if this was your family! -- Pension of David Lockwood, CT #W26223 (p.2)
Much as I would like to link up my presentation here, I can't because it ties in heavily to proprietary DAR data.  But if you join the DAR, I'd be happy to share!  One thing I can talk about, though, are the tools I used to create the presentation.  

The most exciting one is Google Earth.  I love the ability to tell a map-based story, and Google Earth not only allows you to show points on a map, but to adjust the perspective at each point and include data and images.  You can save your data in a .kmz file, and share your story with others.  Even better, Google Earth includes the ability to record your story as you zoom around the globe, but I couldn't make it work in time for my presentation.  All my embedded labels and links were lost whenever I recorded a tour, so I used Power Point instead.  Still, Google Earth has the potential for being a wonderful way to place your ancestors' stories in their physical context -- that is, once I straighten out the problem I'm having with animation! 

Just to give you some idea of what I'm talking about and show you the possibilities, here is a very brief segment on the burning of Fairfield, 7 July 1779  that I recorded using Snagit.  There is no audio with this clip, but would be easy to add.  I will keep playing with Google Earth to see what I can come up with, so stay tuned!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Technology vs. Accuracy… it is not a zero-sum game!

My second year at RootsTech was just as fascinating as the first. The conference is an energetic mix of the major genealogy companies, independent technology developers, and of course, consumers.   I am excited to see all the resources that are going into making family history available to all.  The LDS church's theological mandate to gather data on ancestors has played an indescribably important role in historical records preservation, and they continue to be leaders in innovative ways to make data readily accessible.  That being said, the emphasis -- at least in public -- was to dumb down family history in order to capture the attention of those who might not be dedicated researchers.

So my first impression of the conference this year was disappointing.  Conference goers were told that family history is EASY and FUN -- sort of like playing Tetris on your computer.  Classes focused on how to interview family members to gather their stories, or how to use social media to connect with cousins.  

Barriers to entry for new users were described only in terms of time, or ability to keep track of data.  I didn't hear much about the critical need to accurately record the sources of your data… and forget about having some understanding of history and the reasons various records were created in the first place.  We live in an age of instant gratification, and to focus on those aspects of genealogy that require rigor and discipline might certainly be a significant barrier to entry for many people.

Things improved on the second day of the conference, and I felt so much better after hearing The Legal Genealogist, Judy Russell's, keynote speech.  Her talk was brilliant, centering on the idea that oral history is lost in just three generations.  She reminded us of how little we actually know about our own parents and grandparents (do YOU know what your mother's first illness as a child was, or what was your paternal grandfather's favorite toy?)  While the topic of family stories resonated with the wider audience, the more important message was that these stories need to be purposefully and accurately documented so they are not lost to future generations.

Collaboration was another major theme of the keynote speeches:  but what was meant by this term was finding more ways to connect with one another via FaceBook-esque user interfaces, or by making more records available by crowd-sourcing indexing efforts, not by improving the reliability of research collaboration.  

Collaboration was also discussed in terms of creating partnerships to share expertise and resources between the major commercial firms and smaller entities such as local genealogical societies or independent software developers.  All this will presumably help their respective bottom lines, but I am looking for a community of serious, like-minded researchers!  I love technology and all the connectivity it brings, but unless you come together with a common purpose -- accuracy -- it is just fluff.  And fluff won't stand the test of time.

A final theme that was emphasized this year was the need to get DNA tests performed on as many family members as you can afford to test.  The quality of autosomal DNA data continues to improve as the data set grows, and they estimate that it won't be long before there will be enough information to tell you what your 6th great-grandfather looked like, not to mention how many of his descendants are out there, waiting to find you so you can collaborate on finding the paper trail connecting you!

My favorite lectures of the entire conference were both by Dr. Thomas Jones, co-editor of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly and author of Mastering Genealogical Proof.  He said that future generations will benefit tremendously from the advances in technology that we are learning about now.  All the records we spend so much time and energy to find today will be easily available online.  Dr. Jones suggests that unless we are willing to put in the time and effort to document our sources and study the history of our ancestors' lives, our energy might be better spent on accurately and completely capturing all the data we have on our own lives -- and that includes our DNA.

I went to RootsTech from the perspective of a committed genealogist.  I want my research to be thorough, well-documented, and accurate.  I intend to create a reliable product that will stand the test of time.  Simultaneously, I recognize that technology helps us satisfy the basic human need for community and connectivity.  Technology also encourages new interest in genealogy, and that can only add to the overall knowledge base.  Furthermore, we have a right to interesting family stories that engage us at a human level -- as Todd Hansen said in his keynote speech, every single one of us has a fascinating story locked up inside.  

So why can't we have both accuracy and an open, interconnected world? 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

FHL, here I come!

My husband and I came out to Salt Lake City a few days early to go skiing in the beautiful mountains only 20 minutes outside the city.  

But of course, winter being what it is, his flight home was canceled, so he spent an extra day in SLC and got to see a bit of what fascinates me about coming out to Utah….
Me… surprised while retrieving a microfilm

….the Family History Library! 

The resources of this library, as anyone reading this knows, are breathtakingly vast, and I'm so glad my husband had the chance to see it.  He now has a better sense of why I go weak at the knees just thinking about coming here.

Today is the first day of Rootstech, but I just want to quickly mention a new app I used at the library yesterday.  I often use my iPad to take photo notes when I'm researching, but this time I used a scanning App called "Turbo Scan" and was thrilled to see the results I got.  I love the high-quality microfilm scanners you can use at the FHL, but they can be a little fiddly to use, which makes it all the harder if there is a line of people waiting.  With Turbo Scan, I take three shots of any image I want, and the program somehow merges them into one highly readable document.

This is a document I scanned directly from the microfilm reader.  I am really pleased with the quality. I am blowing it up large so you can see what I'm talking about.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Rootstech 2014 -- an update on collaboration?

There has been complete radio silence on this channel for some time…. I've been working on a presentation I am preparing for my DAR chapter, focusing on the stories of our members' patriots and just who we were during the Revolutionary War.  We have 81 members, with 57 unique ancestors, so that has been quite a lot of research!  I'm using Google Earth as the vehicle to tell these stories, so I'm learning the program as I go.  Full time work, and so engrossing.

But now I have to tear myself away from 1776, because I've arrived in Salt Lake City to attend Rootstech 2014!

An article on Family Search's blog yesterday announced that the company expects to put all the world's historical records online in one generation.  The article was focused on the need to collaborate on indexing projects and to increase participation by non-English speakers in order to meet this goal.  What caught my eye, though, was contained in the accompanying info graphic.  Family Search's ultimate goal is to create the "one family tree of mankind."  Not really news, except for the fact that they seem to think that it is simply a matter of having all the world's sources in digital form.

My concern lies in how those sources are used.  Technology makes it very easy to grab a name and attach it to your tree without checking to be sure that you are attributing the correct record to the correct ancestor.  So many people had the same name -- even people with "unusual" names -- that you simply can't assume it is your ancestor without thorough investigation.  Not everyone who wants to compile their family tree has the patience to make an academic study of their family.

I've written about my frustrations with Family Search's one tree of mankind (see "Hell Hath No Fury Like A Woman Scorned), and I think that this prominent force in the genealogy world can do much more to allay the concerns of serious researchers.  Collaboration is vital, no question, but it can't be a free-for-all; there must be rules.  I am hoping to hear this addressed at Rootstech.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

St. Louis civil war-era cartes de visite

One branch of my husband's family emigrated from Ireland to St. Louis, Missouri by way of Canada in the 1840s.  We inherited a photo album full of cartes de visite, many of which have revenue stamps on the back, dating them to the civil war era.  Unfortunately, none of the individuals are identified, although in many cases the photographic studios are printed on the back.  So, if you have ancestors who were neighbors of the Andrew Wilcox family of St. Louis, maybe you will find them in this collection:

More later…..

Monday, December 9, 2013

The past is present

One night last week I dreamed I received a cache of old family documents and papers, all wrapped in their original ribbons and strings…. it was a genealogist's treasure trove. As I opened each package, I reveled in the complexity and wonder of it all: The papers were old and brittle, the writing cramped and hard to read, but somehow these artifacts had survived time, and were a tangible link to the past.  The dream was colored in rich, deep tones of sepia, brown, and olive green.

Finally, I unwrapped the twine from one last, rather small box, expecting to find more papers. Instead, what I found was a bundle of roots curled around a large seed.  As I opened the box, the tangle of roots and vines slowly took on color and shape, and resolved itself into a living thing before my eyes -- a beautiful, vibrant flower.  The colors, too, changed from sepia to technicolor, and reminded me of the scene in the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy opens the door from the black and white world of Kansas into the brilliance of Oz.
photo credit: my own photo

As genealogists, we are the ones with the patience and interest to wade through the dry artifacts of another time, and it is our task to give them life.  Our work demonstrates that all that is considered to be "history"-- dry and old -- is still alive…. in each one of us.  

Furthermore, DNA shows that if you go back far enough, we are really just one family.  Separation is one of humanity's deepest existential pains, but we are starting to understand that we are part of a whole, and can never be separate… and by breathing life into the past we are no longer separated from it.  

The day after my dream, DNA evidence helped me make a connection with a new (fifth) cousin.  Our common ancestor, Thomas Amis, is a person whose experiences in life impacted our country's history (that's a story for another day), and there are many people online who claim descent from him.  Somehow, though, the discovery of a concrete link through DNA made this particular connection seem more meaningful than the usual online meeting of a fellow researcher.  We are the living proofs that he existed!  I love how family history research is creating new communities in ways we could never even dream of before.  

Postscript:  My last blogpost was a diatribe about my frustrations with the collaborative family tree on, and how crowd-sourcing the family tree of mankind may not be such a great idea…. Well, I'm not sure if anyone at FamilySearch reads my blog, but two days after my post, someone from within the organization fixed my problem.  I am very grateful for that, and so is my 2nd great-grandmother; she is now linked back to her family.  My position hasn't changed, though.  I still say that there must be some kind of safeguard to ensure that the information included in the family trees are well sourced. At the very least, properly documented lines should be harder to edit in order to minimize gratuitous changes in the data set.