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, 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.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Hell Hath No Fury Like a Woman Scorned

FamilySearch says this woman has no father!
(George W. Seabolt and wife Nancy Amanda Spears ca 1885;
Nancy was the daughter of Lazarus Spears and his second wife, Mary Elizabeth Amis)

My friends would describe me as a mild-mannered, easy-going kind of person -- laid back, even -- who doesn't get upset easily.  For my part, I consider myself to be flexible and willing to see both sides of the coin….

….  which is why I was surprised to find myself shaking with fury after receiving one of those emails FamilySearch sends you about the ancestors you are "watching" on their website.

You might recall that last spring I wrote about my excitement with FamilySearch's new collaborative family tree of mankind: "They're Not My Ancestors, They're Ours!" I had been disillusioned with's lack of control over how users appropriated other users' data, and thought that the only way to circumvent this problem was to work collaboratively on one tree.

I still believe that working together is the best way for researchers to create an accurate depiction of our ancestors' families and relationships.  The only thing is, I forgot that people use a site like FamilySearch for many different reasons, and not all of them reflect the goals of accurate scholarship.

Now comes my tale of woe:  last April, I wrote about how I was happily using indexes created on Fold3 to cross-check Revolutionary War pensions for information about people other than the ones who were named on the record itself.  One of the records -- a widow's pension for a man named Lazarus Jones -- had a goldmine of information for my ancestor, Lazarus Spears of Hawkins County, Tennessee.  The pension had been applied for fraudulently in one state by a son of the deceased, while the mother applied for it directly in another state.  Clearly they didn't talk much!  My ancestor and many others were called on to give evidence in the case, which resulted in a lot of family data that I had never seen before (this is a family that has been fairly well researched, albeit without published sources).

So, filled with ideas of "one family tree of mankind," I painstakingly entered all my new sources on the FamilySearch website.  My data extended beyond my ancestor Lazarus, to his father Samuel, Samuel's siblings, and their home back in North Carolina.  Now here's where my optimism about this idea of crowd-sourcing ancestors started to fade.  When I started to look at Samuel's family tree, I faced a tangle of children born fifty years before the parents and families with 20 children, many with similar names but vastly different births…. you get the picture. It was too ugly and too complicated to unravel, and frustrating because the kernels of truth were in there!  So I decided to ignore the crazy stuff and focus my efforts solely on Lazarus and his family.  

Fast forward to a few months later.  I get an email from FamilySearch saying that changes have been made to Lazarus Spears….. Someone had created a new person named "Lazarus Spiers," connected him to the first marriage and deleted the link of my Lazarus to this family, somehow deleting all my carefully sourced data in the process.  I was furious, and wrote to FamilySearch asking how this could happen.  In return, I received an anodyne response to the effect that well, you can always undo any changes that are made, and we do encourage our users to cite their sources….  NO!  It was too much work in the first place to redo it just because some idiot thinks that her ancestor never had a second family.

And now, here I am worked up all over again because I just got another email from FamilySearch.  This time, some guy replaced the link to my research, but severed the tie of anyone named Lazarus Spears (or even Spiers) to his second family….which happens to be mine.  If this guy could accept my data about Lazarus from the Jones pension file, why couldn't he also accept my sources for Lazarus' second marriage? Why delete it????

Yes, the beauty of a crowd-sourced tree is also its greatest fault -- that is, we all have a hand in it.  However I firmly believe that FamilySearch should do a much better job at policing changes made to their family tree site.  For instance, changes should be much more difficult to make if sources are attached.  Maybe they should also require notification of the person who entered the data in the first place, so a discussion could take place before the changes go into effect.  

Or maybe, FamilySearch should just call it what it is…. the IGI for the 21st century.  No more, no less.  

And as for me -- I hate to say this, but I'm cleaning out my Reunion files and, against the grain, I'm keeping my research on my own computer for now….. once bitten twice shy...

Friday, November 15, 2013

The more things change, the more they stay the same

It used to be -- back in the day -- when you couldn't find the subject of your search in an index, you would have to search the old-fashioned way, page by page, through the original records.  Sometimes that meant a trip to the county courthouse or the local archives, but more often than not, you spent hours hunched over microfilms, searching line by line for "your" person.  

The digital age hasn't really changed a thing.  With this push to index the massive amounts of records that are now available online has come a new twist on the old problem.  Indexing is being farmed out to non-native English speakers who can do the work cheaply and quickly -- but with a commensurate rise in the error rate.  

I am the Registrar of my local DAR chapter, and am confronting a problem that I don't think has existed on this scale before:  original documents that clearly contain data about an individual, but with indexing errors significant enough to prevent anyone else from finding those documents using a search engine.  I just submitted an application for my mother to join the DAR and I swear, while every single document I used came from the internet, not one could be found using a search engine!  Good thing I know how to cite my sources -- If I just used "" or "" no one would be able to replicate my work.  

Nancy A. Spears indexed as "Nancy A. Spencer"

Every member of this household was incorrectly assigned the surname "Routh" except for the head, who was correctly indexed with the surname "Seabolt."  Come on, this is common sense!

Thomas Covert indexed as "James"
So we are back to the old days.  If you can't find your guy in the database, chances are he really might be there, just hidden by a poor indexing job.  Now don't get me wrong -- I'm thrilled to have so much data available at our fingertips.   I'm just saying we need to be as vigilant as ever about checking the original sources.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Crossing the Pond!

There is definitely a trip to Ireland brewing here!  

My cousins and I have cracked a mystery -- we now know that our Flynn family came to America from the town of Doonour, in the parish of Muintervara, civil district of Durrus/Kilcrohane, county Cork.

Awhile back I wrote about how DNA evidence connected me with a second cousin whose branch of the family had lost touch with mine over the years.  Well, that contact has expanded via Facebook to include many more cousins -- and we have created a virtual community there.  I'm so excited because for so long I've felt like the lone voice in the wilderness, and it's nice to find others who are just as excited about the family of John Joseph Hill and Julia Mary Flynn as I am.

My last blog post was a summary of my findings about our Flynn family, including the fact that I had just discovered their origins in County Cork, Ireland -- a huge breakthrough for this "brick wall" family! Flynn is a very common name and it was a daunting task to find our Flynn's in all of Ireland, but at least narrowing it down to a county was helpful.

I was so used to being the lone genealogy wolf in my family that I was thrilled when one of my Facebook cousins found Irishgenealogy, a website run by the Irish Ministry for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.  They have digitized Catholic baptismal and marriage records for several regions.... including Cork!  A simple search on the name of the child together with the name of the parents yielded a goldmine for our family, but I was excited as much for the community that discovered this, as for the discovery itself.  So three cheers for cousin Louise!

From assorted records generated in the United States, we know that Margaret Kelly (b. ca 1830) married John Flynn, and they had seven children in Ireland -- five of whom were still alive in 1910; two had died prior to 1900.  We can identify four of the five living children: 
  • James E., b. 9 Oct 1861
  • Julia Mary, b. Jun 1864
  • Margaret (or Maggie), b. Jul 1872
  • Agnes (or Aggie), b. Jul 1874
The records of Muintervara parish, in the southwestern part of county Cork, indicate that John Flynn and Margaret Kelly had five children, listed in black below.  If you probe a bit more, you will find that a John Flynn and a "Margaret Re-" had a daughter, Anne, baptized 2 Sep 1866. Further, a John Flynn and a "Margaret Reilly" had a daughter Abby, baptized on 12 July 1874. When you look at the original parish records, it looks like the transcriber made an error.  In both these cases the mother's maiden name in the original text looks remarkably like "Kelly" to me, and "Abby" is surely the priest's misunderstanding the name "Aggie"..... Adding these two records brings the total children born to this couple up to seven, all known children matching their American counterparts.  Unfortunately the church records do not include burials, so we don't know more about the other three children, whether they died in Ireland or after emigrating.  

Here's the proposed listing of John and Margaret Flynn's family, with the addition of the two likely candidates in blue :
  • Patrick, baptized 28 Feb 1858
  • James, baptized 20 Oct 1861
  • Julia, baptized 27 Jun 1864
  • Anne, baptized 2 Sep 1866
  • Denis, baptized 3 Jul 1870
  • Margarita, baptized 14 Jul 1872 (this priest wrote everything in Latin)
  • Abby (Aggie?), baptized 12 July 1874
The icing on the cake is the discovery of a marriage record for John, age 40 and Margaret, age 26. They were married on 18 September 1855 in Muintervara parish, and it was a second marriage for John.  Their parents were identified as Edward Flynn, farmer and Timothy Kelly, laborer.  Just for fun, I looked to see if I could find a marriage for either of the parents.  Nothing came up for Edward Flynn in this parish, but "Timy Kelly" married Julia Leary in Bantry on 29 April 1830, and were the parents of Margaret Kelly, who was baptized on 22 May 1831.  Julia was a common name in Ireland at the time, but still, if we find corroborating evidence for the relationship of Julia Leary to Margaret Kelly, the fact that Margaret named her daughter "Julia" would add weight to that conclusion. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Trust but Verify...

I still have the notes I took the first time I interviewed a relative about our family history.  I was around twelve years old and saw myself as quite the detective, with my small spiral notepad in hand and a pencil behind my ear.  My grandfather told me that his parents were immigrants.  His father came from England and his mother from Ireland -- and that she had come to America alone, on a cattle boat.

Of course, I asked all the wrong questions and left out the most important ones, but those notes are precious to me because my grandfather died before I had the chance to sit down with him again and do it right.  So the notes I took as a twelve-year old were all I had to direct my research.  

But..... as we all know well:  you can't take any evidence at face value, even from the best of sources.  For years I assumed my great-grandmother Julia had no family in America, because her son told me that she came over by herself.  If I had just accepted Granddad's statement as literal fact, I would still be staring at that dreaded brick wall.  

The secret is to keep asking questions about your hypotheses, play devil's advocate...and please, don't assume the records are all 100% accurate! (I've got another blog post coming up about how an "official" city marriage record is dead wrong....)  So follow that old Russian proverb from the cold war and "trust, but verify!"  

For those who are interested in the family of Julia Flynn and John Joseph Hill of Geneva, New York, here are some details on my research process:

The first evidence I found for Julia Flynn was her 1896 marriage to John Joseph Hill in Geneva -- the marriage record gives us a link to an earlier generation by including the names of their parents (Julia was the daughter of Margaret Kelly and John Flynn; John Joseph was the son of Thomas Hill and Elizabeth Scott).  After that, Julia and John Joseph appear in the 1900 and 1910 federal census of Geneva (Julia is also found in all other census enumerations through 1940).  The only other records I have for them are John Joseph's 1916 death certificate and both of their burial records from St. Patrick's Cemetery in Geneva.   As recent immigrants, they didn't leave much of a trail.
John Joseph Hill, Julia Flynn Hill and son Robert, ante 1916
Not too long ago, FamilySearch digitized many of the NY State censuses, which provided the break I needed.  The 1892 state census was taken four years before Julia's marriage, so I searched for her under her maiden name, "Flynn" and, as expected, found her in Geneva:

One problem with the 1892 NY census was that it did not list people by household; it is just one running list of individuals.  You can only guess about the composition of the households by seeing who is enumerated next to whom.  In this case, Julia appeared at the top of the page, but if you look at the person directly before her in the list, you find this:

 Margaret Flynn..... hmmm.... I know from her marriage record that Julia's mother's name was Margaret.  I wonder if this could be her??????

So next I went back to the 1900 census of Geneva, and found a Margaret Flynn of about the same age listed as "mother-in-law" in the household of Agnes and William O'Brien.  And, applying genealogy rule #1, I went back and rechecked my earlier sources:
  • I found that an Agnes Flynn had witnessed Julia and John Joseph's 1896 marriage.
  • My grandfather had said that his mother had two sisters and a brother:  Aggie, Maggie, and Jim.  Somehow, over the years (since I was 12...) I had forgotten that detail!  It just reminds me how important it is to reexamine your sources every now and then.  Facts that you overlook one time may jump out at you when you look at them later.

Certainly Agnes must be "Aggie!"  I checked to see if there were any newspaper articles about her on  Old Fulton Postcards, and found a 1948 obituary, which included information that she left a sister, Mrs. Julia Hill, and five nephews.  Score!
Geneva (NY) Daily Times, 3 March 1948

Julia's sister Margaret's story is more poignant.  In the 1910 census, the O'Brien household included a widowed Margaret Fitton, identified as William O'Brien's sister-in-law.  This household also included his wife Agnes C., a 7-year old nephew John V. Fitton, and his mother-in-law, Margaret Flynn.  By the 1915 NY state census, both the O'Brien and Fitton families had moved to Rochester, and the younger Margaret had remarried.  Her second husband, John Culhane, was a widower, and they had a blended household  consisting of his two children, Margaret's son, and her mother.  So with that outline of their family structure, I then went back to the newspapers and discovered her story.

On 27 September 1898, the Geneva Advertiser reported that John Fitton had become totally blind, saying: "It came on him very suddenly early in the summer.  He was at work, and at first he says spots seemed to float before his eyes, then everything seemed to turn yellow, then dark, and he hastened home while he was able to get there."  Doctors gave him very little hope of regaining his vision, and the paper editorialized: "Brethren, this is tough.  He is a young man, with a wife but no children, and the future cannot be bright for him." According to the census records, their only son, John V. Fitton, was born ca. 1903, after his father became blind.

The Geneva Daily Times carried this story in its edition of 27 April 1905:

The article continues on, describing John's last moments in great detail. To me, the most interesting thing about it is that it ends by naming the parents, siblings, and child of the deceased, but notes only that he left "a widow," without naming her.  Am I being paranoid to think that this might be an example of anti-Irish sentiment?  The article also ties together several clues from other sources -- it confirms that John A. and Margaret Fitton lived on Burrall Street, the same street as Julia and John Joseph Hill.  It also confirms that John A.'s father lived on Main Street, as did a Dr. Hopkins, who treated him after he took the arsenic.  In the 1900 census, a Margaret Fitton was enumerated as a married servant in the household of a Dr. William Hopkins, residing on Main Street in Geneva!

The underlying theme of this entire research project is to find Julia's origins in Ireland.  Once I knew Julia's sisters and mother were in America, too, I did a few searches on, and found the following passenger record from the port of Philadelphia, dated 12 August 1888, which looks suspiciously like our family:

Unfortunately, no record was made of their home town, so the search continues.

Still, out of all the Flynn siblings, I really knew nothing about Julia's brother Jim.  The notes I took when I interviewed my grandfather all those years ago suggest that he died in St. Louis.  That was good luck, because the Missouri state archives has placed a wealth of data online, and I was easily able to find this:

This was a major breakthrough -- the first documented evidence I've found so far of this family's place of origin in Ireland.  (I'll leave the ensuing happy dance to your imagination!)

As you can see, this is ongoing research.  I still need to find the death certificate for the matriarch, Margaret Flynn, as well as birth and marriage records for Julia's sisters and their families.  This is high on my "to do" list for my next visit to the National Archives in Manhattan, which is the closest repository for the NY birth/marriage/death index.  Another open question is when and where were they all naturalized?  As early as 1892, the Flynn women appear as "citizens" on the census.  Sometimes this was just the census taker being lazy, but it was consistent enough to make me think that they had a male relative who was naturalized and through whom they automatically became citizens.  Was this James, or did their father, John, come over as well?  The latter doesn't seem likely because the mother didn't arrive in America until 1888.  Maybe now I know where to look, I can find records for the family in County Cork!

Click this link to see a spreadsheet summarizing all the documents I have found for this family.  I find it a really useful way to see all the data I have for one person at a glance. By examining the consistency of the data, together with the reliability of each data source, I can more readily assess the accuracy of my evidence.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Some thoughts on having a genealogy elevator pitch

I just returned from the inaugural New York State Family History Conference in Syracuse.  While there have been New York tracks at other conferences, at last there is an event focusing solely on research in New York State.  Sponsors expect this to be a biennial event, and I certainly plan on attending the next one in 2015!

New York has a reputation of being difficult to research due to a complex legal system, inconsistent record keeping, changing jurisdictions, and countless records lost because of fires and natural disasters. Speakers at the conference helped navigate this morass, and I left feeling that I might actually have a new plan of attack for my most challenging brick walls.

One of the best parts of going to a genealogy conference, though, is that you are surrounded by 400 others who share your seldom-appreciated obsession with dead people.  The trouble is, most of them are interested in other dead people and have not the slightest shred of interest in yours....and that's what I want to talk about.  

There is an art and a science to getting along with others at a genealogy conference!  I can't tell you the number of people I met who wanted to tell me a long and convoluted story about how they finally found their ancestral family out of ten others with the same name.  Others want to detail every step they took tracing their ancestor's home in the old country.  My perennial favorite is the type that insists on telling me that they have researched their family back to 1425 -- then proceeding to tell me all the names in their tree.   People like this must get so much indifference from their friends and family that they are desperate to share their discoveries with anyone who will listen.  

I am fortunate enough to have a wonderful husband who listens and encourages, and even occasionally asks questions, so I don't feel the need to tell my story to strangers.  (Well, I don't count this, dear reader, are free to click away at will and I won't be offended!)  

The fact is, each and every one of the people who bore us at conferences have wonderful stories to share if they could learn to package them differently.  In business, there is something called the elevator pitch.  Successful salesmen should be able to summarize their service or product in the space of a 30-second elevator ride.  

As genealogists, we should all come up with an elevator pitch describing our research interests.  Remember that no one cares as much about the details of your research as you do, so try to focus on general themes instead:  "I am researching a Wheeler family in Schoharie County that came from Connecticut around 1820".... or "my Cookingham family descended from the Palatines who settled in East Camp in the early 1700s."  We all have a lot of ancestors, just choose one to start a conversation!

Sometimes if you leave out the names, and omit the steps you took to discover the information, you are left with the bare bones of a tale that others can actually relate to.  Remember that stories have universal appeal.

I was preparing to assume the glazed look of polite boredom when a woman I met at the conference started to tell me about her research.  She told of reading the Civil War pension file of a man who stood up when his commander said get down: he was shot by the enemy and was left for dead on the battlefield.  Somehow he survived, but was seriously injured and lost his memory.  All he had to guide him was a Bible inscribed with a surname, the first initial "H," and a regiment designation.  He eventually married and had children, but for most of his life didn't know his own name, variously going by Harvey, Harold, Henry, etc.  He finally found out who he was in 1915, when he read in the paper that there was to be a reunion of the regiment listed in the Bible.  The old boys nearly had a heart attack when he showed up, all exclaiming:  "But you were killed!"  

I have no clue whose family this story belongs to, or how many hours the woman spent reading through pension applications before she came to this one.... none of that matters to anyone but her. But boy, I'm glad she shared that story!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Bento is dead, long live Zotero

I'm sure that most of you have heard by now that Filemaker has announced that it will stop selling Bento at the end of September, although the company will continue to provide technical support through the end of July 2014.

At first I was devastated....but then reason set in.  Much as I love its simplicity and elegant user interface, Bento is still an imperfect product.  I've written about its shortcomings before, but one issue was becoming more than an annoyance:  Bento is clearly not designed for actively recording data while you are searching on the internet.  You can't resize the screen to transcribe data directly into Bento with a website open at the same time.  Switching back and forth between the two screens is just too clunky for me, and I found myself frequently losing data in the process.

I've been trying to use Evernote to capture sources, but it is a bit too open-ended for me -- I still need to see my data in a spreadsheet!  Then it dawned on me.  Genealogists aren't the only people who need to track their research.... so rather than try to invent the wheel, why not look at research management tools.  There are several interesting programs designed for academic researchers out there, but I needed one that would work on a Mac (and "free" would be a nice price point) -- which led me to Zotero.

So far, I love it!  

Zotero is designed for capturing bibliographic information, and it works automatically on websites that are cataloged, such as Google Books, Chronicling America, etc.  On these kind of sites, Zotero automatically grabs a .pdf copy of the data, as well as a complete citation for the source.  The right panel below is an example of a news article I found on Chronicling America, and shows what I got from one click on the Zotero bookmarklet:

Zotero works just fine on other websites such as Ancestry or FamilySearch, but you have to add the citation details manually.  It is very easy to add a link or a snapshot of the page to your record, as well as to add a transcript or other notes.  The screen re-sizes easily so I can have both Zotero and my data open at the same time making it very easy to transcribe data or make notes.  I downloaded a standalone desktop program in addition to the cloud-based version, so I have my data with me at all times. 

Now in case you are thinking this is just a citation manager, Zotero can also serve most of the functions of a relational database.  As an old-school database aficionado, I first had to wrap my mind around the fact that tags are the new way to organize and relate your data, replacing most traditional database structures.  For each source I enter in Zotero, I add a tag that relates this source to other information I am tracking.  Tags might include the names of related individuals, place names, or category of evidence.  When I later filter by tag, only those sources that match the filter are returned.  Of course, you have to think hard about the tags you use and come up with your own rules so the tags you use are meaningful to you.  But in the end it is much more streamlined and efficient, allowing you to focus on your research rather than fussing about how it is entered in the database.

 Zotero offers free online data storage for the first 300 MB, and goes up in increments after that (2 GB is $20/year, 6 GB is $60, etc.)  I'm still on the fence about that -- I'll have to see if I want to migrate all my sources to Zotero or if I will use it in conjunction with another solution.  More on this later, of course, but for now, I've got to go back to my research -- and my shiny new workflow.  I'm so happy!

Monday, May 27, 2013

Honoring those who served

Happy Memorial Day to everyone in the United States!  

I'd like to thank everyone who has served our country in any capacity, but especially those in the armed services.  It takes a special person to stand in harms way to defend our country and our values, and I am grateful for their service.

I am especially proud of my Dad, Martin Hill, who is a graduate of the US Naval Academy, and served his country for 30 years as an officer in the United States Navy.

I am also very proud of my father-in-law, Henry Tesluk, who served in World War II as an army doctor attached to the 1777th Construction Engineers in France, the Philippines, and in occupied Japan after the war.

To help tell the story of Henry's war-time experiences, I've created an interactive Google map, which is built around the travelogue that his unit produced.  Each icon on the map links to a place on their journey and contains Henry's personal photos, notes from the travelogue, as well as vintage WWII films from youtube.  I put this together so his grandchildren could understand what he went through during the war in a more personal way.

View Henry Tesluk's WWII adventures in a larger map

It's always a good idea to examine your data through different lenses, and Google maps are a good tool to help you see your ancestors geographically.   Another great resource is Treelines, which provides an elegant way of presenting the stories that may be revealed within our research.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Following the shiny ball....

I was reading Kerry Scott's blog the other day, and this post really resonated.  When I do my research --especially online -- I am constantly having to remind myself about my search objectives.  I am so easily distracted by the "shiny ball" and turn on a dime to go cavorting down a completely tangential path.  Kerry absolutely nailed it:  dead people, dead people, squirrel!

Recently I joined a few of the online subscription data sites.  I have resisted this in the past because several local libraries have subscriptions I can access, so I didn't see the point.  Rootstech and the emphasis on collaborative cloud-based genealogy changed my perspective.  Capturing and citing sources is simply easier with online material (as opposed to my old method: downloading data into a flash drive and then into my computer, where it would be added to Bento and just sit there).

Fold3 is one of my new subscriptions.  Over the years I have done military research at the National Archives and, more recently, using Heritage Quest, so I thought I had pretty much all the data there was on my ancestors' military history (now...what is it they say about hubris?)  I've been on the site 24/7 lately -- what a wealth of material!  Dangerous, too, because I've been swept into the world of tangential research.... following all the shiny new distractions that I find.

What I love the most about Fold3 is that all names appearing in a record have been indexed, not just the name on the record itself.  So, I was looking at the Revolutionary War pensions for my elusive New York patriot, Richard Rhodes, when I noticed that his widow also made statements that were included in other people's pension files.  What luck!  But then (shiny ball moment) I thought I should check out all the pension records I've viewed in the past using Heritage Quest to see if I could find other cross references.

Too much fun!  I started examining them and quickly realized why Fold3 is such a valuable resource:  they have the full set of papers in a pension file.  For one of my ancestors, Heritage Quest shows me a 10-page file.  The same file on Fold3 contains 147 pages of letters, affidavits, and bible records!  With the added value of having an index of all names appearing in a file, I have been on a feeding frenzy, darting from one name to the next, gathering new data.  I definitely have the squirrel syndrome these days.

But here comes the big question.  How do I manage all this data?  While I still love Bento as a database tool, I find that I'm changing the way I use it.  I am a believer in open research:  once someone is dead, they belong to history and the information we discover about them should be available to anyone who is interested.  So whenever I discover a piece of data that I know belongs unequivocally to an ancestor, I will use either TreeConnect or Evernote and attach it to that person using FamilySearch.  The source citation travels with the link, so others can find the original material.  I'm not worried about losing the information because I feel confident that FamilySearch will be around for a long time.  I reserve Bento for those cases where I am still gathering clues and have not yet evaluated the evidence.

Essentially, I am only recording my data in the public tree.  I'm curious, though.  Does anyone else trust FamilySearch enough to do it this way?

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

They're not my ancestors, they're OURS.... or why collaboration just makes sense!

I joined when I got back from Rootstech.  I admit it, I gave into the promise of technology.... now I'm waiting for the rewards. What I mean is that although it is great having so many sources available that I can attach -- fully cited -- to my tree, it is by no means a perfect world.

One of Ancestry's selling points is the ability to match the indexed historical data offered on their website to individuals on your family tree. The "shaky leaf"may tell you about documents that they think pertain to the person you are working on, but it doesn't absolve you from actually reading and digesting the documents they suggest. It is too easy to assume Ancestry is right, and click "attach," but remember, these matches come from a computer algorithm after all!  I can see the temptation to just grab and run, but it's important to slow down and put everything in context.

Another thing I noticed right away was that some of my own work was already up on Ancestry..... on someone else's public tree! What happened was that several months ago, I made contact with a third cousin. He suggested we exchange GEDCOM files so we could more easily compare notes. I sent him a section of my GEDCOM that was limited to that family line, but which also included research on ancestors we did not have in common. So the first "shaky leaf" I saw when I logged onto Ancestry was a suggestion I look at his family tree -- and there was all my work on ancestors that weren't even his!

I don't think he did it out of malice or any negative motive whatsoever. In fact, we had a very nice exchange, and he sent me copies of some wonderful old photos that I had never seen before. I just think that Ancestry makes it so easy for people to add information to their family tree, that they don't think about the implications of what they do. It used to be that you wouldn't think twice about sending a relative your entire GEDCOM file, because it was only going to live on their computer. Now, it gets published to the web as the property of the person who uploaded it, even though he or she did not actually put in all the work. Let me tell you, you feel one way about your data when the sources are delivered to you by Ancestry's shaky leaf, and another when you put in days or even years tracking down documents from remote repositories, slogging through irrelevant data to find that one little nugget of gold.  

Maybe it's just a problem with my ego, but I want to take responsibility for the conclusions I draw, especially if they are at odds with "common wisdom" on an ancestor. Ancestry has a big problem with data transparency. They make it easy for users to add source citations for documents they own, but not for information that is "free," i.e., members' family trees or data from outside sites such as

What makes it even more frustrating is the fact that there are so many overlapping trees on Ancestry. Everyone has their own little proprietary angle on the past -- I don't know if you've noticed, but some people can be very possessive about their ancestors! However my sense is that the interconnectivity of Web 2.0 is moving us in the direction of true collaboration in genealogy.

FamilySearch's new single family tree of mankind is a real game changer here. Every time someone adds a new piece of data or makes an editing change, it is tagged with the contributor's name. If someone comes along later and adds information, every change is noted in the database and should there be a disagreement, there are moderators who will arbitrate disputes.

So why is this important?  If the emphasis in Ancestry is data acquisition without transparency, and FamilySearch is all about open attribution and collaboration, it would seem to me that anyone who is serious about family history would lean towards the latter.

We have to stop treating our ancestors as belonging exclusively to us and start thinking of them as historical figures with whom we have a close and personal relationship. Once someone is dead, they belong to history, and as family historians we want as much detail about their lives as we can find. But we all have different pieces of the puzzle. One person may have all the family stories, while someone else inherited the silver, the Bible, the photos (or maybe just the good looks!) The only way we can achieve a better understanding of the past is for each of us to contribute our own particular piece of that puzzle! By collaboratively working on our ancestors in an environment that recognizes individual contributions, we can all share without any one of us losing our individual connection to our ancestors.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

RootsTech 2013

It has taken me awhile to absorb the implications of everything I learned at RootsTech.  It was an amazing three days of new ideas about how to pursue genealogy, and certainly has changed how I approach my own research.  Of course, I also took advantage of all the wonderful resources at the Family History Library... and even made a rather significant breakthrough on one of my problem ancestors!

The overwhelming theme was Web 2.0 and all that it makes possible:  think Facebook, Wikipedia, Youtube, Pinterest, Instagram, Yelp, TripAdvisor...... The web is no longer a place where we passively retrieve information.  We are now part of a virtual community, where we interact and collaborate with each other as both creators and consumers of information.

So it is inevitable that interaction and collaboration, this sharing of bits and pieces of our lives, would extend to genealogy.  At Rootstech, I saw four major trends that will change how we pursue family history.

The first is incorporating family stories into our genealogies.  Family history is really about families, and you draw new people into genealogy when you can hook into their emotions through family stories.  The most effective stories are the ones about those everyday moments that seem so ordinary, but which are precisely what evoke the most memories.  We were challenged to think about what our descendants will wish we had saved for them about our lives, and start capturing those memories.

Another major trend is the use of crowd sourcing to index the massive amount of data that is being digitized and brought online.  Crowd sourcing is when a task or problem is sent out to an undefined public to work on, rather than to a specific group.  The 1940 census indexing project last year was a major success because of how quickly it was completed, and at virtually no cost.  Indexing newspapers was identified as a high priority for the future because of how poorly OCR software reads newsprint.  Searches on uncorrected text will miss 4 out of 6 occurrences of a search term.

Online collaboration was the third major theme.  While users have contributed family trees online for many years, they have always been independent trees that exist side by side.  What's new today is the concept of a single human family tree, that anyone can add to or edit.  To my mind, FamilySearch is making the most efforts to ensure that this is done responsibly -- they identify every user who makes a change, provide tools for citing sources and initiating discussions and they have moderators to arbitrate disputes.

Autosomal DNA testing was the final trend that everyone was talking about at the conference -- especially after Ancestry CEO Tim Sullivan announced that they were dropping the price for the test to $99. proposes to extend their "shaky leaf" technology for data matching to DNA tests, thereby allowing customers to find relatives even in situations where the paper trails don't exist.  When you think about it, this is really an amazing feat of computing.  The autosomal tests look at roughly 700,000 SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms...that's as much as I can tell you!) compared with about 47 for the mitochondrial and Y chromosome tests that most people currently use.  So in theory, Ancestry is proposing to compare your 700,000 SNPs with roughly a million family trees in their system, AND continue to measure your data against any new data that is entered into the system.  Apparently, this kind of number crunching just wasn't possible until very recently.

So, I'm left with the question:  how do I use this information?

I've definitely been inspired to capture family stories from older generations while they are still around, and create multi-media presentations to share with family members.  I'm working on scanning photos and have even filmed a skype conversation with my father-in-law about his experiences in WWII
(note to self:  next time, use a tripod! I got a little seasick watching the video....)

This isn't exactly Web 2.0, but I bought a logitech keyboard for my iPad just before the trip, and was astounded at the difference it made when I was in the Family History Library:
I am now able to transcribe directly from the microfilm!  In the past, I've tried using a laptop, but found there was no place to put it, and it was awkward to stow away in my bag if I had to get up to get another film.  The iPad just snapped into the keyboard and slipped into my bag if I had to walk away, and opened up just where I left it.  Now that makes a computer useful!

Stay tuned, because next time I will tell you how I've integrated Evernote into my routine, and what it all means for my Research templates in Bento.  It's an exciting time for genealogy!