How to Find Ancestors in City Directories

February 24, 2012 at 2:00 am | Posted in Genealogy Research Strategies, Genealogy Resources | Leave a comment
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Walter Disney - Artist - KC Slide Company
Walter Disney – Artist – KC Slide Company – 1920 KC City Directory

City directories are one of the unsung heroes of genealogy research.  They offer many treasures for the genealogist who takes the time to crack open a book or browse the microfilm rolls.

What are City Directories?

City directories are the precursors to phone books, and they fulfill a similar role for the citizen and the publisher.  Long before the era of the telephone, publishers would create city directories for much the same reasons of communiciating resident information and profiting from advertising.  The publisher would solicit advertising from local businesses as a revenue source.  Then the publisher would collect the names and addresses of all the city residents and distribute the books – again, just like phone books – to all the residents. Continue Reading How to Find Ancestors in City Directories…


How to Use Pre-1850 Censuses for Genealogy Research

February 21, 2012 at 3:19 am | Posted in Genealogy Research Strategies | 1 Comment
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1790 to 1840 Census Worksheet by Dollarhide
1790 to 1840 Census Worksheet by Dollarhide

Many genealogists, including myself, have cut our research teeth on the US Censuses.  Why not, they are an excellent tool for identifying family relationships, building personal timelines, opening doors to military and land research, and much more.

Plus in the Internet-age, it is much, much easier to find someone using a database than fishing through reels of microfilm even when we are aided by handy paper indexes.  You simply can move through more spellings, more options in a fraction of the time compared to 10 years ago. Continue Reading How to Use Pre-1850 Censuses for Genealogy Research…

Maximizing the Genealogy Research Negative Space

February 16, 2012 at 2:23 am | Posted in Genealogy Research Strategies | Leave a comment
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So much of discussion about genealogy research is about “finding.”  How to find, where to find, and best practices in finding. Why? Because we’re eager to identify positive results that lead to a better understanding of our ancestors.  We anxiously look to find answers, and we often feel that the absense of “finding” is “losing” as in losing time or wasting effort in our pursuits.

The Negative Space

Unfortunately, the often uncelebrated, unappreciated negative space is overlooked.  The negative space that I’m referring to is the blank, white paper around the letters on a page.  It is the dark, black night sky around the brilliant stars.  And for genealogists it is the pile of books, list of websites, hours of late night searching that did not result in a clear cut answer.  Negative space is the boundaries upon which your answer – the positive result – you’re looking for is framed.  It does have value, even importance in shaping the answers we ultimately seek.

The Value of Negative Space

Negative space is a rich learning environment.  It is where you can make mistakes, try new techniques, learn about new resources, ask the improbable questions and learn.  The value is in the learning that you gain from today that you can apply tomorrow.  The value is in the newly won knowledge that you can share with others.  On a whim you check a county history for information on your ancestor’s military service.  It isn’t there, but you take a couple minutes to see what else is found in a county history.

Negative space is a shaping tool.  It tells you where the answers are not – or at least they aren’t there today.  You know as you pursue your research you have information that the ancestor in question isn’t showing up in the tax lists in Virginia in the time period in question.  That points you to further questions.  Is he not there?  Or is he not paying taxes for some reason – not old enough, not an owner of property, etc.  The negative space frames the conversation you’re having in your head more specifically and quite productively.

Negative space is a door opener. So, you don’t find the answer in the book or other resource you’re working with.  Does the resource point you to other resources?  Does it have a bibliography in the back with other materials that may be valueable?  Does it mention other record types (published genealogies, birth, marriage, death records, military records) that have potential?  Maybe it points you to another repository that you never heard of before.  There could be a local historical society or a cemetery or a university archive that may have just the answers you are for.

Negative Space Only Has Value When

As you can see, I think there is a lot of value to negative space.  It’s perfectly okay to not find.  It’s part of the journey in so many ways.  But, negative space only has value when you record it.  As a master of looking at the same resource repeatedly and still not finding the answer to the same question, I have learned the hard way to record “negative finds.”  Make a note, start a running list, open a spreadsheet or whatever works for you to list every place you’ve looked and not found.  Bonus points if you make comments about your negative find – what were you looking for, what questions did the negative find stir up, and where could you go from here.

In Conclusion –

So let’s hear it for the white space, the negative finds that make the road to genealogy research success so rich and rewarding.  It’s the answer you’ve been looking for all along.

Four Steps to Putting Your Ancestor in Historical Context

February 12, 2012 at 6:51 am | Posted in Genealogy Research Strategies | Leave a comment
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Every genealogist is excited to collect dates and places to their ancestors’ lives. It’s a great feeling to know where and when they lived. But out of context, the information great as it isl can leave us wanting more. We want to know what their lives were like. What was happening in their world? What was the basis for any moves, military involvement, sudden or untimely deaths? Historical context can make their stories come to life.

Here are a few steps to take, when you want to venture down this road.

  1. Build a Personal Timeline – I’ve mentioned this before, but I hardly can touch an ancestor without starting a timeline. Include every event that touched their lives – even the ones not related to their birth to death story. Include their birth, marriage, and death events. Include their children’s births, marriages and deaths. Include any moves, where they lived at each point above. Include the deaths of their siblings and/or parents. Where were they at these life changing moments? Include occupations and/or employers.

Personal Date-Specific Information – This type of information is found in almost any genealogy source. Birth, marriage and death records. Census and city directories. Probate records and land records. All of these offer more dates and events to your ancestor’s story.

  1. Add Historical Events to the Timeline– Now weave in to your timeline any major events that were happening on the local, regional, national or international stage during their lifetimes.
    1. Include any wars and economic events like the Great Depression.
    2. Look for health epidemics. (Twenty-five percent of Wichita, Kansas died from an influenza outbreak the year my Dad’s sister was eight. She was one of the casualties.)
    3. If your family lived during the settling of the West, include when the pertinent states became territories, then states. When was the town founded? When did the land office (for land grants) open?
    4. What was happening with transportation? Were they in the era of wagons, trains, steam engines, aerospace?
    5. What was going on with their faith community?  Did they belong to an organized religion?

Historical Context Information – This information is best found in those “other” books in the library that don’t contain lists of dates and are so often overlooked. State, county, and town histories have a wealth of information specific to where your ancestor lived that you won’t find elsewhere. But don’t stop there. There are histories on any mode of transportation you like, and histories on any church community you can name. (The commemorative edition of The Catholic Advance, the Wichita Diocese’s Jubilee Celebration was a goldmine of information on the founding of the first parishes, of which my ancestors helped build one.) The books can be found local libraries in their “Local History” section or at state archives.  One of the best locations to find local history is in the town or county itself.   The best information on Archie, Missouri will be at the Archie Library or Archie historical society. Further, the archives can provide period materials to further shed real world light on their lives.  Don’t forget for even more local history treasures.

  1. Collate the Information – This is where the real detective and story teller in you comes out. Spread out all of your treasures on the dining room table, and let them tell you the story. Look for consistencies, inconsistencies, and questions.  Go back to your personal timeline and log all of the historical data chronologically in a spreadsheet interwoven with the personal data.  The story will start to unfold. Both questionable dates and inconsistencies will pop out immediately.
  • Why didn’t the baby move with them? Did the child die?
  • How did they get to this town if the trains weren’t available for another 20 years?
  • What must it have been like for a young girl to come to America by herself? Was there someone waiting for her? Why was her destination city where she went?  Were friends or family there?
  • Where were their loyalties in the Civil War? Does the story help explain their choices?
  • He was “of age,” but didn’t serve in the war. Why?
  1. Document the Story – The final step is to create the narrative based on your findings. Write the story, collect the pictures, and don’t forget to source everything! You – and the next generation  – will be glad you did.

Keeping Track of Genealogy Notes

February 8, 2012 at 2:52 am | Posted in How to Organize Your Genealogy Research | 1 Comment
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here's a Better Way to Record Genealogy Notes

There's a Better Way to Record Genealogy Notes

Keeping track of my notes and scribbles on my genealogy research has been, can we say, challenging?  I would love to use the excuse that my work is so engrossing – which it often is – that I just can’t be bothered with keeping clean and organized notes.  But, that’s not true.  I know better, and I’ve tried to do better using notebooks, small note pads, and sticky notes.  But still, I’ve had no luck keeping everything straight.  I have scraps that make no sense and lots of  lost and duplicated information.

And each time I use sticky notes and scrapts, my refrain is the same – I’ll remember what it is!  And each time I forget.

What Doesn’t Work for Me

What doesn’t work for me is anything digital.  I know there are lots of programs to capture abstracted information.  I’m not that disciplined to always be by a computer to make that work.  Nor am I so methodical to pull up a program and type stuff in as I’m working.

What doesn’t work for me is the scrap paper, backs of charts, sticky notes.  I inevitably lose them or they lose their meaning, to which I add another note “what does this mean?”

What doesn’t work for me is notebooks.  Although they are very, very portable and I love portability, I can never find what I put in them.  Now where was that phone number, reference date or quick pedigree chart I pencilled out?  Lost.

My New Solution

As a confessed and reforming genealogy organizer, I have to tell you, I found the proverbial light in my little golden book.  It’s a simple spiral bound notebook with a hard cover (so it doesn’t fall apart with hard use).  It has good paper weight and wide lined pages.  I like wide lines because my handwriting is kind of big.  So there is nothing particularly special other than it is a good, quality 5x7ish notebook.

Here’s the System

Here’s how I’ve made this humble system work for me.

I use it for every and all notekeeping.  If there is a hard and fast rule to making this system work, this would be it.  Everything goes in the notebook.  No grabbing scrap paper, sticky notes, or the handy paper napkin.  I have to trust myself to put everything in there, otherwise I can’t trust it as the source of my notes.  After this rule there really aren’t any other hard rules, but great tips to make it work.

The next step is to use a tab-which-can-be-written-on to mark any significant information that I would like to find easily.  If it is a website I’d like to go back to, I put the name of the website on the tab.  If it is notes on a particular family, I put the family name on the tab.  If it is a to do list, I use a different colored tab and I put it across the top of the notebook, instead of the side where all of the other tabs are.  If it is research finds and negative finds for a particular source, I put the name of the source on the tab.

As you can see there is no limit – and that’s the point – as to what can go in the little notebook.  And the tabs make it super easy to find what I put in there, which has been in part the problem up to this point.

Indexing Alternative to Tabs

I shared this idea with a class I was teaching a few weeks ago.  And one of the students used the little notebook system, but she had another way of finding information.  Here’s her suggestion.  She numbers the pages of the notebook.  Wow!  Then she creates a topic index, just like a regular book at the library, in the back of the notebook.  That’s impressive.  She’s created her very own, customized reference book to support her genealogy research.  I told her then that when I grow up I want to be just like her.

Lost and Found

Because of the very portable nature of this tool, it is very susceptible to getting left behind on a genealogy trip.  I know I’ve done it before, and I’ve heard horror stories of lost genealogy treasures from others.  So here’s my suggestion.   A few years ago, I printed a bunch of address labels with my name, phone, email, address on them.  I keep them in a file in the front drawer of my filing cabinet.  As with anything I own of genealogy value, I put one of these labels on it.  Will it guarantee me that I’ll never loose my stuff or my little notebook?  No, but I know first hand the kindness of the genealogy community, and I have faith that if found, someone will go to the effort of returning it.

How about you?

I’d be eager to hear your stories of note taking and the solutions you’ve found.  This like all genealogy is a journey though the constantly evolving process of doing the research.  Where are you on your journey?

Happy researching

My (New) Best System for Organizing a Genealogy Project

February 1, 2012 at 11:09 pm | Posted in How to Organize Your Genealogy Research | Leave a comment
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A Genealogy Source Index Example
A Genealogy Source Index Example

I am one of those genealogists that goes both ways – paper and electronic records.

As much as I enjoy the digital world, I can’t let go of good, old-fashioned paper records for several reasons.  Paper is portable.  Paper is still really easy to annotate.  Paper is easy to spread across the dining room table to look at everything all at once.

Ah, but as wonderful as paper is, it poses a challenge to organize effectively so that it doesn’t take over your genealogy space, and you can find what you need with minimal cursing.  I’ve tried folders.  I’ve tried 3-ring binders.  I’ve tried according files.  And I’ve never been satisfied with the solution.  Until now.

The Secret to My New Found Organizational Success

I have to tell you I’m rather tickled at this new system, which works really well for me.  Maybe you’ll find an idea here that will help you, too.

Here’s the system.

Continue Reading My (New) Best System for Organizing a Genealogy Project…

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