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!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

How my ancestor helped create the Constitution

Today is Constitution Day!  

My ancestor did not help draft the Constitution, nor did he vote on it -- but his misfortune in 1786 helped create a consensus that America needed a stronger national government.

On September 17, 1787, the fledgling United States adopted a constitution protecting the individual liberties of its citizens, and defining the roles, rights, and responsibilities of the states and the federal government.  After the Revolution, the country had been governed by the Articles of Confederation, which left the central government relatively powerless compared to the states.  Within a few years it became clear that the Articles did not provide enough protection for American citizens -- economically and militarily.  

This is where I come in.  

One day several years ago, when my youngest was still in Middle School, I sat down to help her with her history homework.  I opened the textbook to the chapter she was working on, and was floored by what I saw:

Call to Freedom by Sterling Stuckey & Linda Salvucci, published by Holt, Rinehart & Wilson, 2003

You see, Thomas Amis is my 5th great-grandfather.  I have studied his life in the course of my family history research, but never imagined that his experience would be used as an example of the "straw that broke the camel's back," leading to the creation of the U.S. Constitution.  

 A member of the North Carolina legislature in 1776 that unanimously ratified the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Amis was also an entrepreneur -- perfectly suited to frontier living.  During the Revolution, he was Commissary to the 3rd Regiment of the North Carolina Continental Line.  He sourced the food and supplies for a large segment of the army during the Revolution, and presumably made a nice margin on every sale.  

In 1786, the mood among western settlers was unsettled.  Spain's threat to cut off Americans' access to trade directly impacted their livelihood.  The confiscation of Amis' goods was just the latest in a long series of actions by the Spanish hindering trade.  Those who lived on the western frontier were a tough, self-sufficient breed.  When they faced a problem, they didn't wait for government to solve it, but picked up their rifles and took action.  Even if Congress had resolved to address this situation, however, it was powerless to act under the Articles of Confederation. 

Tempers were on a hair trigger as Amis returned home and news spread of his treatment by the Spanish commandant at Natchez.  Matters could have gone either way, as was evident from a letter written by William Blount and Benjamin Hawkins, Congressmen from North Carolina, to an unnamed member of the North Carolina legislature:

In a postscript, Blount and Hawkins warn of the dangers should the public anger get out of hand:

In the end, Thomas Amis never recovered his lost cargo, and he bequeathed his claim on the goods to his son, John, who accompanied him on the ill-fated trading expedition.

Hawkins Co TN Wills, Liber 1, p. 1.  Will of Thomas Amis, 16 Nov 1797,

Sometime around 1787, Thomas Amis moved west with his family to Hawkins County, in what eventually became Tennessee.  There he set up a trading post, grist mill, and supply center on the main road heading west.  His home is still meticulously preserved by another descendant -- one of these days I hope to visit!

One last insight to Amis' character -- I think he had a quick wit and a certain sense of irony.  In 1788, he returned to the North Carolina legislature representing Hawkins County, where he supported the efforts of settlers to create the new state of Franklin on the western frontier.  Samuel Cole Williams' History of the Lost State of Franklingives an entertaining account of one debate between Amis and John Tipton, who was a vehement opponent of the proposed new state.  Heated words were exchanged on the floor of the senate, which nearly led to a fist fight.  

Amis was reproached by his colleague, James Roddy, for provoking an angry response from Tipton and was urged to "soothe his feelings" in the future.  They agreed that Roddy, a more temperate character, would resume the debate with Tipton the following day.  The next day, Roddy took the floor, but hardly began speaking when Tipton, enraged, sprang from his seat and seized Roddy by the throat.  Amis then called out from the sidelines: "Soothe him, Colonel, Soothe him!"

*Heritage Books, facsimile of the 1933 edition, pp 246-247

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Finding Family in Geneva

Exchange Street, Geneva, NY
Geneva is a small city in the Finger Lakes region of central New York, known for its beautiful scenery and popular wineries.  It is also my grandfather's hometown, which he left in the 1930s to find work elsewhere.  Life being what it so often is, my father grew up in a different part of the state and didn't get to know his father's relatives.  

In this Facebook age, we forget how easy it was to drift apart and lose touch, but that's what happened in my Dad's family.... that is, until I met Carol through DNA testing (you can read about that story here)... and the rest, as they say, is history.  

I just returned from our first family gathering, reuniting descendants of the five sons of John J. and Julia Mary (Flynn) Hill. I've written about this family before (see "Trust but Verify" and "Crossing the Pond"), and this trip was my chance (and my Dad's) to finally meet this branch of our family.  I loved seeing all those intense blue eyes -- it was a tangible reminder of our shared DNA.  [Overheard at the reunion:  The Hills have eyes...]

Most importantly, I heard some stories that shed a little bit of light on the personality of Grandma Julia.  My father's cousin Jack grew up in Geneva and lived with his grandmother, so he could tell us a few things about her.  
Jack with Grandma Julia, mid-1940s
Julia was a hard-working woman.  After her husband died in 1916, she kept a boarding house, and would get up every day at 4 am to start the day's baking.  She was no-nonsense with the children, but must have had a kind heart, because she was always ready to feed hungry strangers at the back door.  

Jack told about how her five adult sons would sit in the living room drinking their whiskey; when offered a shot, Julia would grimace and protest, refusing to take more than a sip.  When the men left the room and she thought no one was watching, she would drink it straight down, pretty as you please.  

Whenever anyone was sick, she would insist they take the "cure" -- whiskey, water, and a spoon of sugar.  It got so that sometimes the kids would go into the kitchen and cough hopefully at her.  

On St. Patrick's Day, she would bake a cake, and when it came out of the oven, she would spread out newspapers and throw the cake against the door.  It would break into pieces and everyone had to eat a piece of the broken cake for good luck.

Jack told about the divisions between the Irish and the Italian kids.  The Italians had to go through the Irish neighborhood to get to school.  Jack, a slight boy, used to sit outside as bait, taunting the Italian kids.  When they started to come at him, his bigger cousins would jump out from the bushes.  If the noise got too loud, their grandmother would come out of the house with a broom to shoo everyone back to their side of the tracks.

Now here's when you know that there is the hand of fate in family history: my new cousin Carol arrived a few days before the reunion and went to visit St. Patrick's cemetery, where our great-grandparents are buried -- only to find that she had no clue where to look for them in the enormous expanse of gravestones.  Ready to give up, she ran into a gentleman walking nearby, who asked her who she was looking for.  She told him.... and Jack led her straight to the family plot.  Of course the random person she happened to meet would be the only person in Geneva who could help her!  

image courtesy of

Monday, June 23, 2014

A lesson in walking between the worlds

This morning I woke to the news that Fouad Ajami had passed away.  He was a brilliant commentator on the Arab world, featured often on CNN and in the Wall Street Journal. I knew him many years ago when I was a student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and he was my academic advisor.

Fouad came to the US as a teenager, and one of his strengths was his ability to walk between worlds; he was a product of two cultures, and was able to interpret the Arab world for a West that, at best, was puzzled by it, and at worst condemned that world without understanding it.

His genius lay in his ability to go beyond the obvious and immediate reasons events unfold as they do in the Middle East.  It wasn't merely that he drew from a deep understanding of history; rather, he could pinpoint and evoke the cultural myths and stories that motivate actors in the Arab world.  Because he spoke in words of myth and archetype, he could speak to everyone -- and this helped us understand a world that was culturally beyond our ken.  Fouad was a poet in his soul, and I was privileged to have been his student.

But why note this on a family history blog?  Fouad knew that stories motivate.  If you know a culture's stories and myths, you can understand them on a deeper level and begin to sense why things happen as they do. The same is true for individuals and families.  We need to understand our ancestor's world view, their beliefs about themselves and their place in the world.  The best way to do this is to read voraciously:  national and local histories, of course, but what about the physical world of our ancestors -- were there droughts, storms, or other natural disasters that may have impacted their lives? How did they get around -- what kind of roads were there, or did they rely on transportation by water?  What kind of things did our ancestors find entertaining -- who were the pop stars of their time?

Learning about the external circumstances of our ancestors' lives, combined with a broad understanding of historical trends, allows us to take baby steps in walking between the worlds... and bridging the gap between our own lives and the "foreign country" that is our ancestral past.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Future Genealogy... and life on Hunter's Point, 1965-1968

Although I spend so much time gathering the documentary evidence of my ancestors, I tend to give relatively little thought to my distant descendants.  It's time to change that approach; we are all links in a chain, and the links that come after us are just as important as those that came before.  More and more I'm hearing prominent genealogists (Tom Jones and Judy Russell immediately come to mind) advocate gathering your own family's story while you still can.  At Rootstech this year, Judy Russell reminded us that oral history is lost within three generations.  

The records of your life are relatively easy to find -- and will become even easier in the future with digitization and crowd-sourced indexing -- but the details of who you are as a person can be lost very quickly.  I want my descendants to know about the choices I've made and how the experiences in my life have shaped my world view.

Aside from a personal time capsule (which, by the way, my family and I have actually created and buried in the foundation of our home!), the next best gift to the future would be an autobiography. For mine, I've decided to start with the time our family lived in Hunter's Point, San Francisco.  

My Dad was a career Naval officer, with advanced degrees in naval architecture/marine engineering and, later, in business administration.  In 1965, we were living in Boston, when he received orders to report to Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard in California.  

The Navy never did things the easy way -- most of our moves involved crossing a continent or an ocean.  (I told a story about this particular trip when I first started blogging, in "Tales of an Old Cattle Wrangler.")  We arrived in San Francisco in June -- my mother was thrilled to be in California!
I think San Francisco was one of my mother's favorite places to live

The shipyard was fairly close to the city...and there was the usual close Navy community, so inside the base, we fit right in.
source: Google Maps, personal knowledge

Our quarters were on Innes Avenue, just a block from the main gate:
1962 Map of Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard (source:; annotations are my own)

As you can see, the Hunter's Point shipyard was surrounded on three sides by water.  The fourth side was comprised of the Hunter's Point and Bayview neighborhoods, which were relatively isolated parts of San Francisco with limited access to public transportation.  The population in this area was predominantly low-income African-American families; poverty and crime were rampant.  

The mid-sixties were difficult years for America, as we struggled with creating a just society for all.  While the lack of civil rights was perhaps more obvious in parts of the country where Jim Crow laws physically separated the races, places like San Francisco were equally discriminating:  to put it simply, African-Americans had far fewer opportunities for housing, employment, and education.  It was more insidious in San Francisco by the very fact that the effects of racism were hidden in pockets of poverty that most people never saw.  (Kelly & VerPlanck, p. 10)

Living in this new world, what struck me was the smell.  I had no frame of reference for this, so I complained to my mother that it smelled like the circus.  It was, in fact, the remnants of San Francisco's once-thriving slaughterhouses, which remained in this part of the city through the 1960s.  (Kelley & VerPlanck, p. 7)

A picture of a friend taken in our front yard -- you can see all the heavy industry right next door!
Living on base was like living in any small town -- we had a movie theater, community center, churches and a library.  We did not have schools on the base, however, and so the Navy provided bus transportation to various schools in San Francisco.  My bus driver was named Merle, and I just loved him; he knew all the kids by name and would laugh and joke with everyone.  My favorite place to sit was right behind him so we could talk.  Everyone knew that this was my spot. 
I'm on the far left, with other "Navy Juniors" and Merle

One day, though, I got on the bus and was horrified to see that Merle was not driving and my seat was taken.  

By an MP with a rifle, no less.  

I remember standing there with my arms akimbo, glaring at the soldier, as if the force of my indignation would make him move.  He didn't smile, or even look at me, and eventually I got the picture and found another seat.

Over the next few days and weeks, we kids knew that there was a lot going on outside the base.  For one thing, there were more crowds out on the streets surrounding us, and rocks and bottles were thrown over the fence from the outside.  One family, whose quarters directly adjoined the fence, had to move because of the smoke bombs and molotov cocktails that were thrown into their yard.

...And the armed MP continued to ride our school bus for several weeks afterwards.

I never knew the details of the disturbances until just recently, when I started to do the research for this blogpost.  I learned that on September 27, 1966, a white policeman shot a black teenager who supposedly refused to stop for questioning after a car was stolen.  This was the final straw for a community already smoldering with resentment against whites who marginalized them and essentially blamed them for their own poverty.  Riots broke out and the governor called in the National Guard.  Even back then, I knew that there was some reason that black people and white people didn't get along, but for the life of me, I couldn't figure out what it could be.  

You see, Sheila, my best friend from school, was black.  And yes, we had fights, but we always made up later.  I don't remember exactly where Sheila lived, but it was in the general vicinity of the base -- sadly, I could visit her, but she was never able to visit me.  I remember one such visit; we went around telling everyone in her neighborhood that we were cousins.  I'll never forget how I felt when a boy said, "no, you can't be cousins -- she's caucasian!" ... and the way he said it, he might have been saying: she's the devil.
My second grade class at St. Paulus -- here I am with Sheila
Now I want you to understand that I'm just reporting my memories -- clearly not reality as it existed for the Hunter's Point and Bayview communities.  For that, I refer you to any number of websites and articles about the riots in 1966.  But this was my first exposure to the concept of "difference." 

Photo credit: "The 1966 Hunters Point Rebellion," The San Francisco Bay View; National Black Newspaper, 2 Sep 2011
...was literally just a few blocks away from this:
photos taken at 560 Innes Avenue, Hunter's Point
I was very much aware of the disparity between our lives and those of the people in the surrounding communities.  It was hard not to be, driving through them every day going to school.  As a little child, though, all you could do was to hold it in your heart -- to be reconciled and healed someday.

For us, life calmed down quickly after the riots subsided.  Things got back to normal, Merle returned to driving my bus, and I got my seat back.  In June of 1968, after a few months of real fear that my father would be sent to Vietnam, he was transferred instead to Japan, and we were able to move there with him.

My takeaway from this experience was that despite all our external differences, people are all the same at heart.  The truth is, life isn't fair -- and it never will be.  There will always be rich and poor, but that distinction should be a result of a person's own ability, initiative, drive, or lack thereof, but it should never, ever be based on the color of a person's skin.  

And let me tell you, there is still quite a lot of work to do before that will be the common perspective in our world.

Further Reading on Hunter's Point and the 1966 Riots

Kelly & VerPlanck Consulting, "Bayview-Hunters Point Area B Survey; San Francisco, California Historic Context Statement," Prepared for the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, 11 Feb 2010 
(  (This is a fascinating look at the historical development of this San Francisco community from the 18th century to the present, including a detailed examination of the trends leading to its isolation and blight in the post WWII years.)

Chris Carlsson, "The Hunters Point Riot; Unfinished History." on FoundSF [online digital archives] (

"1966 Hunters Point Uprising and other tales of 'San Francisco's Last Black Neighborhood,'" The San Francisco Bay View; National Black Newspaper, 24 Sep 2009


"Property Damage After Bayview Hunters Point Uprising," September 1966 [video] San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive, (

"Hunters Point Shipyard Closure Protests," 26 April 1973 [video] San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive,  (This video shows protests at the gate, which was just a block from our house.  We were long gone by 1973, but it looked just the same when we lived there.)

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Move over, Candy Crush!

....there's a new game in town!  The New York Public Library has taken crowd-sourcing data to a new level with their Building Inspector app.  In those odd moments during the day when you might otherwise play a game on your iPhone, why not help the NYPL extract data from historical maps?

The NYPL has digitized an amazing number of historical maps, and this new effort is hoping to engage the power of the crowd to capture information that the computer cannot, such as handwritten annotations or hand-painted color keys.  In the module pictured here, all you have to do is click on the correct color:

Other modules ask you to type in the number associated with a particular building, or to affirm that the red dots cover an entire building on the lot.  They make it very easy to login with your Google, Facebook, or Twitter account, and you can watch your progress on the screen as you enter data.  Believe me, it is addictive, and, dare I say it, even fun....

Why not help make history more accessible, and give it a try?

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Power of Persistence

Don't listen to the ads on TV.  Your family tree will not come together with just a few clicks of your mouse.  Genealogy is more often a story of gradually piecing together disparate bits of information into a coherent whole.  That's how it works for me...a census record might include a child with a different surname, which leads you to a previously unknown marriage, which leads to a newspaper story about another unknown child who moved west, and that child's death certificate identifies the parents' places of birth.... you get the picture.  You rarely find the prize without gathering a lot of individually unimportant clues.  However, even this kind of detective work can mostly be done online.

Sometimes old-fashioned, boots-on-the-ground legwork is what it takes to get results.  I saw a great example of this in action just the other day.  I have been working with another descendant of Lazarus Spears of Hawkins County, Tennessee to find documentation for Lazarus' children.  I have written about this family before; they are one of those you see all over the internet, lacking any clue as to where the information came from and how reliable it is.  My cousin had his own copy of the ubiquitous family group sheet -- with one difference.  His copy had an off-hand notation: "Bible owned by Mrs. XX."

The first thing he did was go to the Tennessee property assessors web page to see if there were any people in Hawkins County with the same surname as the owner of the Bible.  He found one, so proceeded to look up a marriage license for that person, which led to a surname that is often seen in the family we are researching.  He continued to search the family of this person, using the census and other public records until he found the names of living family members.

That was all he needed to pick up the phone and start dialing.  As he put it, the first person he called:  "knew nothing about being related to the Spears' but he gave me the number of another brother who also knew nothing but gave me the number of the third brother.  The third brother thought they were related to the Spears family but that was about it, and gave me the name of the sister.  So I called her and she knew they had some Spears information but didn't know much about it.  She promised to go up to "the old home place" and get some of it and call me back and she did last Thursday..."
first page from Mary Elizabeth Amis Spears' Bible
Mr. James Spears' photo used with permission

That's what I call persistence!  And what a prize... now there is a source for all those names floating around online!

I would like to express my gratitude to all the hard work done in this case by James Spears -- a truly indefatigable researcher!

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!