Saturday, December 15, 2012

Sympathy Saturday - The truth about Santa

"Santa's not real," my daughter proclaimed yesterday morning when my mother-in-law mentioned him in passing. As I proudly beamed at my spawn for reaching a new stage in her development, I think my mother-in-law, who was visibly shaken, died a little inside.

They continued to discuss the matter, my 8-year-old asserting that it's just the parents, my mother-in-law scrambling to suggest that the parents are just Santa's helpers. The kid wasn't buying it.

My daughter didn't argue in the way she would if Grandma tried to assert that 2+2=5. Nor did she laugh like she does when Grandma asks her silly questions like why she has 12 toes. She simply stated her case in a way that said, "I know you don't believe the lie, either."

Her grandmother laughed as she made her last attempts to convince this child to hold on to Santa just one more year. But it was that nervous laugh. She made one last joke blaming public school, then walked away. Defeated.

This is very similar to how it went down when I was a kid. I declared that my mom was Santa. She denied it, but Christmas morning I pointed out that the "From Santa" written on the gifts was clearly her handwriting.

While I was proud of myself for solving the case, my mom was clearly disappointed that I had spoiled this aspect of Christmas for her. I never understood why, and I guess I still don't.

My mom was over it by the next Christmas. And I suspect it was nice to not have to stay up all night to place the presents from Santa under the tree after we finally fell asleep. But I know she took those Christmas Eve vigils very seriously.

I may not exactly understand why it hurts, but I chose Sympathy Saturday for this little tidbit of my continuing family history to acknowledge all of the women in my family who were devastated by hearing the truth about Santa.

Friday, December 14, 2012

I'm back... and I have a plan

Well, my genealogy research burnout had a much longer impact than I had anticipated. But a stress-free Thanksgiving and West Caribbean cruise have given me a much-needed rest.

I've indulged in many of my other interests; painting, learning about digital photography, aquiring new and improved household cleaning products (loving the Swiffer Wet Jet!), and even collected a few more tidbits for my genealogy research.

I realize the key is to pace myself so I don't find myself chasing dead-ends for days at a time. And I really need to focus on organizing the data I already have.

My plan is to spend one or two days a week working only on organization. I'll need to test out several genealogy programs for the computer and decide which is most suited to my needs. Then move on to data entry.

I know the hardest part will be when I get to the data entry, because I'm going to want to go chasing down ancestral siblings I have limited information on. But I will try to just stick to entering everything I already have first.

And try not to be too intimidated by formulating source citations. Yes, I'll go back and reread Citing Your Sources Can Be Fun. I can do this. I will do this.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Research burnout: The inevitable consequence of the undiscipled approach

Photo by Oliver Kendal @ Flickr
As the 12 subscribers to Sifting Through the Past may (or may not) have noticed, I have not written a blog post in some weeks. This is for two reasons; 1. I went on a two-week smash-and-grab hunt for documentation on a particularly interesting ancestor, and 2. I was so burned out on genealogy research afterward that my brain hurt every time my thoughts drifted to the topic.
If there is any lesson in this, I suppose it would be, "Don't do as I do." Or, do. Unless you are in the middle of professional genealogy research for a client, I don't really see the harm in taking an extended break from it after an intensive period of non-stop overexposure to your family history.

So, after a couple of weeks spent doing little more than recovering from my genealogy bender by putting the house back in order, reading dystopian fiction, and playing some old-school SimCity 2000, my brain is no longer threatening to melt at the thought of genealogy.

I even managed to resume my column at The Examiner this morning with a budget genealogy post about the Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspaper Digital Archive (the very resource that kicked off this documentation spree in the first place). Next week I plan to post here and there about the other resources that fueled my family history frenzy, and maybe a bit of what I found.

But for now, I have a couple of more loads of laundry to finish, and some chicken to toss in the slow cooker.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Surname Saturday: Norman

We were told we were descended from vikings (among other European roots). I'm sure this postulation came more from historical associations with the word Norman than any oral family traditions that may have been passed down.
Merriam-Webster has this to say:

Origin of NORMAN
Middle English, from Anglo-French Normant, from Old Norse Northmann-, Northmathr Norseman, from northr north + mann-, mathr man; akin to Old English north north and to Old English man man
First Known Use: 13th century

We come from the land of the ice and snow...?

Despite the rather extraordinary claims, I haven't been able to confirm a Norman ancestor outside of Texas. My Norman line makes its first reliable appearance in Gonzales County, when my ggg-grandfather Benjamin F. Norman married widow Mary E. Stevens Townsend on November 10, 1854.

According to the 1860 and 1870 censuses, Benjamin F. Norman was born in Alabama around 1835, he was literate, and neither of his parents were of foreign birth. Exhaustive research into Benjamin Normans that somewhat fit this description has led me to suspect that he may have been the son of Charles Norman of Benton County, Alabama.

Of course, this is still speculative, as the only evidence I have to support the notion is that I have been unable to trace Charles' B. F. Norman beyond the 1850 census. So, currently, my Norman line is still much more Texan than viking.

More about Benjamin F. Norman

Benjamin Norman died before 1879, when his widow married Isaac S. Steen. The Gonzales County history center also had muster rolls for a Benjamin F. Norman in the Texas 22nd Cavalry, Company G. However, his age on the muster rolls have him several years younger than he should have been during the Civil War. Inconsistent ages have actually been a bane with several of my Gonzales County ancestors, but that is an issue for another time.

Children of Ben and Mary Norman:
Mary J
John A
Susan C
Virginia A

As always, feel free to contact me if you have any interest in this line.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Thrifty Thursday: Obtaining free census images online

Finding free genealogy and family history records online is getting easier with the efforts of many volunteers to provide scanned, searchable documents for genealogy researchers. While the 1940 U.S. Census is most prominently on the minds of family history researchers these days, census records dating back as far as 1790 are available for free on the internet.

Census records at HeritageQuest

One of the largest sources of free scanned census images can be found at HeritageQuest. This repository contains U.S. Censuses from 1790 - 1820 and 1860 - 1930.

Access to HeritageQuest requires log in through a library that is subscribed to the database. To find out if your local library system is subscribed, go to your library's website and search for HeritageQuest. If found, you should be given the option to log in at HeritageQuest with your library card number from home.

The HeritageQuest search engine only matches exact terms, therefore some troubleshooting may be required for abbreviated names and surnames with alternate spellings. The advanced search option is best for this, allowing you to customize your results by county, sex, age, race and birthplace.

Census records and data at FamilySearch

While FamilySearch only provides scanned images for the 1850, 1870, 1900 and 1940 censuses, plenty of information is provided for census years 1860 - 1930 to help you improve your search results at HeritageQuest. I like to have both sites open in separate tabs when searching HeritageQuest for census images.

In most cases, FamilySearch provides a list of each person in the household, gender, age, location and birthplace information. This data can be utilized to customize HeritageQuest census searches when the name seems to be throwing your search results off the right trail.

1940 Census at Ancestry

While the 1940 census isn't the only one available for free at Ancestry, it is the most prominent until FamilySearch has finished integrating the last remaining states into their searchable database.

There is no subscription required to view and save the 1940 Census images to your computer. You will, however, need a free member account. Don't waste your 14 day free trial on this, just sign up for the free account (if you don't have one yet), then go to the 1940 Census search page.

Please feel free to share any other free census resources in the comments below.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

1940 US Census is completely searchable

Indexing of all US states on the 1940 census has been completed at Now we can search by name, even in Texas!

All that is required in order to view and download 1940 census images is a free account, so no need to utilize that 14-day free trial just yet (if you haven't already).

Most states in the 1940 US Federal Census are also searchable and available for download free at FamilySearch. All of the names have been indexed, but a handful of states, including Texas (where all of my relatives were), won't be searchable for a few more weeks.

I managed to find about half of my 1940 ancestors by browsing the enumeration districts where I thought they would be living, but many were hard to track down. I now have a complete collection of all of my husband's and my own direct lines from the 1940 census schedule. Yay!


Like with previous indexed census images, the 1940 index does have errors due to illegible handwriting, fallible informants, and surely a few typos here and there. Also, spelling variations in first and last names may be an issue, though does try to account for this situation.

If you are having no luck finding a particular ancestor, be sure to try searching instead for another relative who would have been living in the household. You can also just search for the surname within a specific area in order to uncover other relatives in the same area with a single search.

Also be sure to browse up and down census pages for relatives living nearby. I wasn't looking for my great-great grandmother yet, but stumbled across her living a few doors down from my great-grandmother's family.

Happy hunting!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Follow Friday: Citing sources from Finding Forgotten Stories

Today's blog post was inspired by a very informative presentation I watched about citing sources. Citing sources in a genealogy program has been the bane of my entire genealogy process.

Citing Your Sources Can be Fun! by Anne Gillespie Mitchell

Even five or so years into my family history research, I still find all of those little blanks, and the way the citation is organized once the data is in place, confusing to say the least. Anne Gillespie Mitchell gives a very liberating video presentation on how to plan your source citations, and talks about why it is important to cite your sources. She uses Family Tree Maker for the demonstration, but the information is transferable to any genealogy program.

I've been playing around with Personal Ancestral File from FamilySearch, and ran into the same frustrations as before when I tried Gramps and MyHeritage. Who is the "author" of a death certificate? The clerk or registrar who filed it? The county it was filed in? The state?

Anne outlines a very logical way to create a source citation that includes all of the information you need in order to find the source again, without the frustration of trying to figure out what information belongs in what box.

The best part about the presentation is that Anne points out that there is no one way to cite your sources. You just have to think about what information you will need to know in order to find the resource again, or what you need to know in order to some day find the original source, such as a book or microfilm roll.

Thanks, Anne, for taking the pressure off. It all seems so much simpler now.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Coping with Conflicting Census Data

Census records are a marvelous way to discover where your ancestors lived, what they did for a living, and who else lived in the house. But what if you find errors in the census data that call into question whether or not this is the family member you are looking for?

Who the Heck is Elizabeth?

This has been one of the most confusing census conflicts I have come across. I know George Nowell and Rebecca Joplin married on July 4th or 5th of 1894 in Hillsboro, Hill County, Texas. (The family bible says 4, the Texas Marriages index says 5). So in 1900, they would have been married 6 years, as is indicated on the census.

According to the family bible, George was born 9 April 1875, and Rebecca Joplin was born 19 March 1879 (her death certificate says 18 March 1879). So the birth months and years are also a match.

The first child born to George and Rebecca Nowell was Della on 2 June 1895 according to the bible and her death certificate. Now here is the second inconsistency we come across. The census has "Ardella" born one month before George and Rebecca were married.

However, looking to the date the census was taken (29 June 1900), my Della would have just turned 5, so the age still matches. But that brings up another problem - if George and Rebecca were married in July, they wouldn't have celebrated their 6th anniversary yet.

So, back to the family bible, John Nowell was born 6 Nov 1897. Okay, that one fits. Additionally, all of the birth locations for self and parents match what I know.

How do I reconcile the number of hits versus the number of misses? And the wife's first name seems like a huge miss!

Why Errors May Occur on US Censuses

It wasn't until 1940 that census takers began recording who the informant for a household was. Browsing through 1940 census records, I noticed several instances of neighbors or landlords being the informant for a family unit.

Like death certificates, the information found on a census is only as reliable as the person who supplied it. But prior to 1940, there is no way to know who provided the information on US censuses.

But could a neighbor be so close on months and years of birth, but be completely wrong about the wife's first name? Is it possible that the census taker got the names from another source because no one was home, then went back for the rest of the information without double-checking the names?

Other Ways to Investigate

If I had been able to find George Nowell, born in Texas between 1874 and 1876 married to an Elizabeth on the 1910, 1920 or 1930 census, I would have simply dropped it there. But I couldn't find them. This isn't proof, but it does encourage one to keep looking for other information.

Also living in Comanche County in 1900 were my George Nowell's brother, John R Nowell and family, in the same enumeration district. In fact, in order of visitation, John Nowell was 191, and George Nowell was 195.

George and John's parents, Joseph B and Mattie Nowell, are also living in Comanche County, in a neighboring district, with their sister, Bettie Francis. This isn't firm proof, but it is highly suggestive. Oh, and did I mention, there are the only 3 Nowell households in Comanche County on the 1900 census (that I can find, anyway).

In 1910, I find George and Rebecca, in Comanche County, with children Della, John, George, Zula and Maggie. This time all of the names and ages match up. George's parents are still in Comanche County, as is his brother John's family. They are still the only Nowell's I can find in the county.

Again, this doesn't prove that "Elizabeth" was really Rebecca, but I can't discount the possibility that someone simply gave the census taker the wrong name, with some of the dates slightly skewed.

Other ways to confirm the location of your ancestors when census records are somewhat sketchy include tax rolls, land records, and death certificates of children who may have died young.


Have you encountered census data that matched everything but one or two glaring details? Were you able to reconcile the information you found, or are you still trying? Please share your own experiences with conflicting census data, either on your own blog, or in the comments below.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

On Cleaning Tombstones

This blog post was inspired by the fact that I was unable to comment on To Clean or Not to Clean... because I don't have one of the required profiles. So I'm commenting here instead.

The comment I was going to submit was this:

Tending the tombstones of family was very important to my great-grandmother, and I have gone out and washed the tombstones of my grandparents and great grandparents to get the bird poop off (water and nylon brush). While I can understand that some people would rather keep the antiquated look of an old cemetery, I for one would be very appreciative if someone decided to tidy up and make the tombstones of my ancestors easier to find and read.

But since I'm already here, I'll elaborate a bit. My mom took her grandmother to the cemetery on a fairly regular basis to replace the flowers and straighten things up around our relatives graves. It was very important to her, and was perhaps a way of showing her respect and love.

So a couple of years ago, my cousins and I had the idea to go out to the cemetery and replace the flowers. I hadn't been out there in years, and had no idea what condition the tombstones would be in. So I brought a couple of jugs of water and a nylon brush with me to make sure I could get some nice photos for Find a Grave.

Obviously, these tombstones aren't very old, so all we were cleaning off was bird poop, lawn clippings and dirt. We had a great time giving Grandma, Granddaddy, Nanny, Papaw and Aunt Winnie their "baths", and I will bring along my brush and some water when we go back out there next month.

I honestly didn't realize that there was such a debate over whether or not to clean tombstones until today. I do understand that old tombstones have to be cleaned carefully and properly, to avoid damaging them, and I wouldn't suggest using anything but water unless you have consulted with an expert.

I've never gone around straightening up and cleaning the tombstones of others, but I truly appreciate those who care enough to do it, and do it right.

So if you haven't already, check out To Clean or Not to Clean.... Alisha provides some great tips on how restore old tombstones without causing further damage, and shows the dramatic difference that it makes.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Follow Friday: Friday the 13th Thrillers

In celebration of Friday the 13th, I thought it would be fitting to follow some of the most "thrilling" Thriller Thursday posts I have come across at GeneaBloggers. While I know we are generally shocked/appalled/saddened to find such stories in our family histories, it is also fascinating to uncover such notorious events in our past.

Thus, here follows some of the most intriguing, gruesome and tragic family history death, murder or near-miss stories I have come across on Geneabloggers' Thriller Thursday daily writing prompts.

Feel free to share stories or links to similar unfortunate incidents in your own family history in the comments below.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Texas Deaths, 1977 - 1986

The wonderful volunteers at FamilySearch are in the process of indexing the Texas death certificates from between 1977 and 1986. Some of the images are already searchable, but if you can't find what you are looking for, you can also browse the images.

What? Browse over 1 million images?! Of course not, that would take ages. Fortunately, they have been divided into groups and subgroups.

First, the death certificates are divided by year. Next they are sub-divided into month and county, or range of counties alphabetically. From there, they may or may not be in any particular order.

So, to browse for my great grandmother's death certificate, I will choose 1980, then find the March certificates for McLennan County. March for McLennan County is divided between Volume 40 (Kendall - McLennan) and Volume 41 (McLennan - Nueces), so from there I have to decide if I want to start with Volume 40 and search for where the McLennan County certificates begin, or run through the images of this county in Volume 41 first, since McLennan will be the first county in that group.

I'm going to go with the latter first, and if I don't find it there, I'll go back to Volume 40. Happy hunting!

Friday, July 6, 2012

Tip: Research One Ancestor at a Time

When you begin compiling your family tree, it is very easy to start chasing branch information in every direction. While it can be fun to find out about ancestors you never knew existed, it can also send you chasing down the wrong line if you don't collect enough data to be sure.

If you can maintain focus on researching one family member at a time, you will have more sources to help you confirm (or disprove) those ancestors you have very little information about.

Have a Strategy

Create a plan for collecting information about an ancestor. Have a look at your paper and pencil pedigree, and see what is missing.

One possible strategy would be to start with your father, and follow along the numerical reference numbers of each family tree member, collecting (and recording!) as much data as you can find for each ancestor before moving on to the next.

Or you could work along one particular line, perhaps researching each ancestor along your paternal line, or maternal line first. Just make sure you spend time working on each member of your family tree so that nothing gets overlooked.

Start Researching

If you have developed a strategy, you already know which ancestor you want to start with. Now you need to search all of your available online resources (we'll get to genealogy libraries and other repositories when we have enough data to know what we are looking for).

I like to start with FamilySearch because it is free and has an extensive collection of Texas family history resources. Enter the data you know about your relative, and see what comes up.

If you don't find anything, go for something more specific, such as a marriage record. If you know the state where your ancestor was likely married, enter that in the marriage location. Remove the first names if you are still not getting any results. Be sure to add the spouse's last name, if you know it.

If you know the names of the ancestor's parents, search for birth records or indexes by searching the parents names and location. If that doesn't work, try just searching the parent's last names.

If the state's death certificates have been indexed, you can also find data by searching just for the parents' names or last names. This is a great way to find the children of an ancestor who's children would have died within a specific state during the period in which death certificates are currently available to the public.

For census records, search the name and residence location during a given census year. If you don't know where the ancestor lived, leave the location blank and look for clues (spouse, children) that will help you find the correct family unit.

Be sure to check Find A Grave to see if photos or information about an ancestor's grave site are available.

Record Findings

Save all scanned images you find, and copy textual data into a notepad or word pad text file along with the source information. Be sure to give all files a name that will make the data easy to find again.

Also write down your new findings on your pedigree and family group records.

Don't Get Discouraged

Some relatives are just very difficult to find much information on. If you've spent the whole day searching online databases, to no avail, it's okay. Move on to another ancestor. You can come back to that one later, perhaps when you are prepared to visit a genealogy library or local history archive.

Please feel free to share your own tips and strategies for online research of ancestors.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Getting Started With Genealogy - Family Group Records

Family group records or sheets are a great way to keep information about families organized and updated as you learn more. They hold information about the husband, wife and children within a family unit.

What You'll Need

First, print out some blank family group records. I use the one from because it includes a cause of death field, but there are many free family group record templates available online. and both provide free family group records, or you can search Google or even make your own custom form with a spreadsheet program if you can't find one you like.

Second, you are going to need your sources. Physical sources should always be kept together in an easily accessible location. The sources you find online should be downloaded if they are scanned images or PDFs, or recorded in a notebook or text file if not a downloadable resource.

Start Filling in What You Know

Go ahead and fill out a family group sheet with your parents as the husband and wife, and you and your siblings as the children. Only enter the information you have sources for, such as your birth certificate (which you should have by now, if not, order one from your local county court house), family bibles, marriage records or what you are absolutely certain of.

For example, I don't think it is imperative to get copies of your siblings' birth and marriage records if you have had enough experience with celebrating their birthdays and anniversaries to know the dates. However, it sure won't hurt if you can get them. Even an email from your siblings giving the dates and places of major events in their lives will suffice as documentation, just be sure to print it out or save it to your computer.

You will, if not right now, eventually, want a record of your parents' marriage. If you don't already have it, add it to your "to do" list. Same with death certificates, if either of your parents or any siblings are deceased.

Continue in this same manner with your grandparents' family units and so on.

Cite Your Sources

You can do this on the back of the family group record. Simply write down the documents or other sources where you obtained the information (your birth certificate, a family bible, a transcribed interview with a relative, etc.), and where the source is located (in your possession, on your computer, the county clerk, the genealogy library, etc.).

Also indicate what information was provided by each source, as some documents will provide data on more than one event. For example, a death certificate usually contains birth date, birth location, death date and location, parent names, cause of death, and burial information.

Keep Your Family Group Records Updated

Every time you discover new information about an individual in your pedigree, update your family group sheet. This is why I always recommend filling these out in pencil.

You may, as I have, discover that the birth date you found on a death certificate is in conflict with a birth record you recently found. The birth record would take precedence over the death record for the birth date because it was recorded closer to the time that the event happened.

Using Your Family Group Sheets

The best part about having a family group record for each ancestor in your line is that you will have quick access to the names of their children. This will aid you in searching for extended family, which can give you great clues in finding out more about your lineage.

For example, many times older relatives would go to live with one of their children if they were no longer healthy enough to take care of themselves. Knowing all of a grandparent's siblings' names and data may help you find where a great grandparent lived out the remaining years of their life, especially if that great grandparent had a tricky name that was often spelled differently from one census to the next (yes, I'm talking about you, Miss Bettie Camilee Markham ;)).

Keep your family group sheets together, and bring them where ever you do research, whether it is on the computer, a genealogy library, a relative's house, or any place your think you might find sources.

You will also be able to use your family group sheets when you begin entering your family tree information into a genealogy program, but we will get to this later.

Question: How important is it to get official documentation on your own living siblings, and why? Please share your opinions and views in the comments section.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

13 Colonies: Free Access July 3 - July 8, 2012

In celebration of the 4th of July holiday, is providing free access to their 13 Colonies Collection through July 8th.

The 13 Colonies Collection includes over 65 million records, predominately from the states along the east coast. The records are not limited to the colonial days, simply focused primarily on the areas relating to the 13 colonies.

A free member account is required to view any of the documents offered during the Independence Day promotion at This will allow you to also save document images to your computer.

What have I found so far? Just what my husband's ancestor, Jason R. Parker (abt. 1821 - 19 Jan 1890) was up to on 18 July 1867 in Towns County, Georgia.

Feel free to share any awesome finds in the comments below! I will, too.

Tombstone Tuesday: Find A Grave

For those that haven't stumbled upon this tremendous resource, Find A Grave contains (at present) 82 million grave records, many of which are accompanied by tombstone photos. This is an excellent site for beginner genealogist to find important data and leads, as well as wonderful photos for your family history archive.

Find A Grave can be searched by name, birth date, death date and cemetery location. You can also look up a specific cemetery and search it all of the surnames you have associated with that location; a great way to discover information about aunts, uncles, cousins and extended family.

Some entries contain very little information at Find A Grave, but there are some that contain a great deal of historical data, such as my ancestor Isaac Low's Find A Grave page.

The images and data are submitted by volunteers, and if you know the cemetery where your ancestor is buried, you can submit a photo request. If you live near a cemetery, you can find requests for photos and pitch in to help others. is a free service, supported by ads and sponsored pages (to remove ads). To place or fulfill photo requests, a free member account is required.

If you have found something awesome and unexpected at Find A Grave, feel free share your find in the comments below. We love to hear about genealogy success stories.

Free Genealogy and Family History Forms at Genedocs

If you are looking for ready-made forms or templates to help organize or enrich your family history research, check out Genedocs Innovative Forms Library for a massive collection of free forms to accommodate just about every need.

The 30 available forms at Genedocs cover a variety of genealogical subjects, including an ancestor outline list, research logs, military service summary, biography templates, timelines, and comparison tools for tracking family traits and naming patterns. You will also find planning forms to help prepare for inevitable life changing events.

Note: If you don't have Microsoft Office, I've had no trouble importing the forms I've downloaded so far into OpenOffice.

Also be sure to check out the Genedocs Blog.

I, for one, will be spending this weekend transcribing census data into Census Summary Sheets.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Tip: Strategy for Organizing Documents Found Online

When you've scored your first scanned image of a family history record, you are definitely going to want a copy of it. But, since you are likely to find a number of other documents in your endeavors, you need a way to keep them organized so you can find them later.

I found out the hard way that stuffing them all into one folder with their original file name quickly leads to time-consuming confusion and chaos. Over years of trial and error, I came up with a filing system that works very well for me now. You may want to develop your own system or adapt mine to your own needs.

First, I made a Genealogy folder inside the My Documents folder. Within that folder, I created one folder for my dad's line and one for my mom's line (with their surnames as each folder name). Then within each of those folders I added folders for surnames married into that line, so I have three folders of surnames married into my Norman line. Then within those sub-folders, I continue to add surname folders as needed when I discover a new surname married into that line. Of course, these don't all have to be created at once, but can be done as you go.

Now it's time to save the document. This is my file naming strategy to help my find exactly what I'm looking for easily. First I start with what type of record it is, birth, death, marriage, census, obituary, photo, etc. Then other relevant information that will help me identify it, such as date, name of the person/people the record relates to, etc.

So, for example, I would save a census image as "census_1940_McLennan-Co-TX_Norman-George-Sr.jpg". This way, all of the census records I've found for Norman surnames are listed together, in order of year, then location, and finally head of household. If I find more than one household on the image, I'll separate the names with another underscore.

I handle death certificates a little differently. For example, death-cert_Norman-George-Sr.jpg, since all I need to know is who the death certificate is for in order to determine if it is the one I'm looking for. It is the same with obituaries, obit_Norman-George-Sr.jpg

Of course, this isn't the only way to manage the genealogy records you find online. I would love to hear about folder system and file naming strategies employed by others, as I am always working to better organize and structure my finds. Please leave a comment to share your own system.

Getting Started With Genealogy - Intro to Online Documents

So you have your paper and pencil pedigree, and whatever documents you have managed to collect. Now it's time to look for what you don't have. Grab your pedigree and have a seat, we are going to look at how to find some basic information online.

Searching Online Records

Family history record sites generally provide the same basic search fields, with some slight variations or additional search and filtering properties. Start by choosing one ancestor from your pedigree that you have some personal information for, such as their birth year or a location. Unless your ancestor has an extremely unusual name, you will need a little more information to narrow your results.

If you don't know the birth year, go ahead and estimate it. Most sites offer you the ability to search within a range of specific dates, or indicate an offset of anywhere from 1 to 20 years. This will narrow your results to individuals with the same name born within the indicated time period.

Know the state, but not the county? If you have an idea of what part of the state the person was born or lived in during their life, you can open a county map for that state in a separate browser tab so that you can compare it to the counties in your search results.

For example, if you know they lived in East Texas, open up a Texas Counties map, and look for counties in the eastern part of the state. You can find state county maps at the site for the given state, or just search google for [Name of State] county map (or Parish map if the state is Louisiana).

Unless you are looking for a specific record, keep your searches fairly general. If you enter too much data, such as spouse and parents, you may end up filtering out records that don't contain this information.

Experiment with different search combinations, such as the birth year, location, and father's name to get results for different types of documents. Or search just the last name with a residence location and date range to return all records of that surname living within the given area at a particular point in time. You can also just search the parents' names to find documents relating to their children.

Name Variations

Many people go by nicknames, their middle name or even just their initials. This was no different in the past. One of my ancestors bears a different first name or initials on just about every census he appeared on. Be sure to search common nicknames ("Bill" or "Will for William", "Mattie" instead of Martha, "B. F." for Benjamin Franklin).

Also, when searching for female ancestors, run separate searches for maiden name and married name. If you don't know the maiden name, it can usually be found on birth and death records for the ancestor's children, her own death record, and on marriage records.

No Image Available

Some results will be accompanied by a scanned image of the record, but not all of them. In this case you will need to record the available data either in a .txt file (or whatever word processing file type you are familiar with), or in a notebook. This information will provide clues for further research, as well as information to help you find the physical record at a genealogy library or other history archive.

Online Family History Record Sites

This is hardly a comprehensive list, but it is enough to get you started. - A massive collection of digitized family history documents. Completely free to use. - Possibly the largest collection of genealogical documents. Some collections are free to view, others require a subscription. - Can be accessed online if your library is subscribed. Go to your library's website and search their electronic resources for HeritageQuest to see if it is available to you. Have your library card ready. - Requires a subscription.

Feel free to add your own tips for finding family history documents online in the comments!

Friday, June 29, 2012

Silver Creek Simmons Book - Will Do Look Ups

I've got a copy of The Silver Creek Simmons Family Descendants of Willis and Jane Goslyn Simmons. It was written by Edna Simmons Campbell and Hansford L. Simmons, and contains a great deal of information about the descendants of Willis Simmons, born 1784 in Wilkes County Georgia.

I will happily do look ups. If you need me to check the book for an ancestor, contact me or just leave me a comment with all of the information you already know. I'll see if I can find them for you.

My line comes through Willis' son John Richard Simmons and Margaret Rimes. Their son, William Solomon Simmons, was my ggg grandfather.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

1940 Census - 30 States Indexed and Searchable at FamilySearch

The volunteers at, who have been avidly indexing the 1940 Us Census images since it was released to the public in April of this year, now have 30 States available to search by name. That's more than half of the States, and roughly 75% of the entire 1940 Census.

The new US States added June 28 to FamilySearch's 1940 searchable records are California, Washington, Iowa, New Mexico, Nebraska and Missouri. The remaining states can still be browsed by enumeration district, but chances are, it won't be much longer before the indexing of the 1940 Census is complete. FamilySearch is hoping to complete indexing of the remaining census schedules by the end of July.

This event marks an impressive milestone for one of the largest free-to-use genealogical data repositories available online. To check out updated progress of the 1940 Census indexing project, visit

Here's a list of 1940 US Census States searchable at as of this posting:

  • Alabama

  • Alaska

  • Arizona

  • California

  • Colorado

  • Delaware

  • Florida

  • Hawaii

  • Idaho

  • Indiana

  • Iowa

  • Kansas

  • Louisiana

  • Maine

  • Minnesota (pending)

  • Mississippi

  • Missouri

  • Montana

  • Nebraska

  • New Hampshire

  • New Mexico

  • Nevada

  • North Dakota

  • Oklahoma

  • Oregon

  • Rhode Island

  • South Dakota

  • Utah

  • Vermont

  • Virginia

  • Washington

  • Wyoming

Getting Started With Genealogy Step 2 - Easy to Find Docs

Documentation is a crucial element of genealogy, as it is the only way to verify the information in your family history. Too many aspiring family researchers jump ahead of themselves and start downloading gedcoms with names of ancestors in them, just to find out later that the data is full of inaccuracies (yes, I speak from experience).

Good documentation habits will keep you off of a wild goose chase, and help you to find your answers much sooner. Keep up with your sources. We'll discuss citing your sources of documentation later, for now let's just find some.

Family Bibles

Did you inherit a bible from a parent, grandparent or great grandparent? Many bibles include pages for the owner to record their parents and grandparents names, as well as their own marriage information, and lists of births and deaths of family members.

Bibles are different, but usually, when made available, the family history pages are located near the front of the book. I have also found a Family Register located between the Old and New Testament instead, so be sure to check it thoroughly.

Also contact other family members who may possess a bible previously owned by an ancestor. They probably won't want to give it to you, but may be willing to scan the family pages and email them to you. Worst case scenario, ask them to transcribe it for you, or read it to you while you write it down. Also be sure to include the name of the person in possession of the bible and who the bible originally belonged to on the transcription for later reference.

Vital Statistics and Personal Documents

Many people will keep their personal documents and vital records together in a safe place. When someone dies, often these records are passed on to an heir. If that heir wasn't you, find out who would have inherited the deceased's personal items. While vital statistic records may be easy enough to gain from the county clerk, personal documents may be harder, especially if you don't know what you are looking for.

US States made birth and death certificates mandatory at different points in history, but if your ancestor was born after that date, there is a good chance they had to obtain a copy of their birth certificate at some point. They may have also had need to acquire a copy of an immediate relative's death certificate. Some even had heirloom marriage certificates made up, which might provide more information than the marriage license filed with the county.

Other personal documents can include things such as land sales, tax records, military service, graduation certificates, grade school memorabilia, newspaper clippings, obituaries, and much more. My husband was once practicing his lock picking skills on a strong box he found in the garage. Turned out it had belonged to his grandmother, and contained a document stating that she had married her deceased husband's brother, and shortly thereafter had the marriage annulled.

If you locate someone in the family in possession of an ancestor's personal documents, ask them to make copies and mail them to you. Offer compensation for copier fees and postage, of course. Keep all documents you find together, perhaps in a file folder or manilla envelope.

Note: If you don't already have a copy of your own birth certificate, get one. It can be obtained from the county clerk's office in the county where you were born. You should be able to find the mailing address and phone number of the county clerk online with an online search engine.

Family Photos

Also ask family members if they have any family photos or photo albums. If they live near to you, they may allow you to borrow them for scanning. Be sure to check the back of each photo for name and location data, and scan those too.

If you find a relative who is not close to you has family photos, it is possible that they would be willing to scan them for you, but the quantity of photos or their personal circumstances may not allow this. If the latter is the case, simply make a mental note (or write it down if you're forgetful) to go visit them when the chance presents itself.

Record What You Learn

If you find out anything new, such as birth or death dates, or parent names you didn't previously know, be sure to write it down on your paper pedigree chart. If you have had the need to expand your data to multiple charts, be sure to keep the pages together in a file folder, binder, or manilla envelope.

Be sure to number each chart you add according to the "continued on" number next to the last ancestor on you first chart, and keep your charts in order to make it easier to flip through to the chart you are looking for.

If you haven't started your paper and pencil pedigree, yet, see Step 1 for information and a free pedigree form you can print out.

Next Step, Researching Online

Preserve The Pensions Fund Gets Generous Donation

The Preserve the Pensions - War of 1812 Pension Digitization Fund has received a $135,000 gift in memory of Ardath Stedman, the mother of the late Jon Stedman, from who’s estate the donation originates. The generous donation will help in the Federation of Genealogical Societies' (FGS) endeavor to digitize the War of 1812 Pension records for preservation and access.

This year marks the bicentennial of the war America declared on the British in 1812. The military conflict began on 18 Jun 1812, and lasted almost three years, finally coming to an end on 18 Feb 1815. The Preserve the Pensions project hopes to complete digitization of the pension records by the bicentennial of the war's end.

The efforts of the FGS will result in free access to digital images of 180,000 pension applications from the War of 1812 for genealogy researchers. The records that have already been digitized and indexed can be found at Fold3, free of charge.

More information about the Preserve the Pensions project is available at

Getting Started With Genealogy Step 1 - Pedigree

For those just starting out on their genealogy research, where to start can be somewhat confusing, or even overwhelming. I will share what I learned, through both folly and the advice of others when I first began my family history research.

Write Down What You Know

The best place to start is by printing and filling out a pedigree chart, also known as an ancestral chart. This resource will prove invaluable, both in beginning your research, and as you continue to gain more knowledge of your ancestors. It is also going to help you keep what you learn organized.

You can find pedigree and ancestral charts for free at numerous websites, but in searching for one to recommend, I couldn't find a chart as good as the pedigree form I had been given at my local genealogy library upon my first visit. Unfortunately, neither could I find that exact form online, so I created this one (save and print as needed).

Using a Pedigree / Ancestor Chart

A pedigree is basically a spreadsheet showing parental lineage over a number of generations, which may be continued on a fresh page to reflect unlimited generations. On the first sheet of your pedigree, you will enter your name in field number 1 on the left hand side of the chart.

Note: I recommend printing out blank charts and filling them out in pencil, as it makes correcting mistakes and adding additional information, such as middle names and cities (when you at first only knew the county), much easier.

Your parents will be recorded in fields 2 and 3. Customarily, the father of the person in field 1 is number 2 on the chart, and the mother is number 3. Following this pattern, all male entries on the chart will have even numbers, and all female entries will have odd numbers (obviously the person in field 1 will be an exception to this if they are male).

Some pedigree charts don't number the individual fields, but those that do will make your research much easier as you add more generations, as well as different types of genealogy forms to your collection.

Continue to fill out the generation chart in this fashion, adding your paternal grandparents to your father's branch of the line (fields 4 and 5), and your maternal grandparents to your mother's branch (fields 6 and 7). Fill out as much information as you think you know about each generation of your family.

If you already have names for more generations than will fit on the first page of the pedigree chart, go ahead and number this first chart as 1 in the "Chart Number ____" field. You may also notice that there are tiny little blank lines next to the name fields of the last generation on the chart, which may or may not be labeled to show their exact usage. In these blanks you will indicate which chart number each of these relatives' lineage is continued on.

To avoid future confusion, go ahead and number these blank fields from top to bottom, starting with 2 (since this is chart 1). If you have a five generation pedigree, the great great grandfather along your father's paternal branch (person number 16) will be continued on chart 2. Your maternal great-great grandmother in field number 31 will be continued on chart 17. For a four generation pedigree, the ancestor in field 8 will be continued on chart 2, and person number15 will be continued on chart 9.

You can go ahead and print out and number the charts you will need to continue each line of your family tree (what I did), or you can print them out as needed. Just be sure that you label each subsequent chart with the number corresponding the chart number you assigned to each member of the last generation appearing on chart 1.

There is also an area on the chart that will say something like, "Person Number 1 on this chart is the same as Person Number _____ on chart _____". So if you are continuing chart number 2 from person number 16 on chart 1, this person will be "the same as Person Number 16 on Chart Number 1".

Write Down What Others Know

Once you have filled in all the information you "think" you know, a good place to turn next is to older family members who may be able to offer more information. But again, I would advise that you fill out your pedigree in pencil. This is not your "official" genealogy, this is your starting information, all of which will have to be verified. Family memories are fallible, and just give you a lead to go on.

Example: My father told me his paternal grandfather was born in Holland in 1888. He had the year right, but after a very frustrating search of immigration records, I eventually came across his WWI draft registration card, which stated he had been born in Gonzales County, Texas.

So I thought maybe HIS father had been born in Holland, and the story got skewed. Nope, his father was born in Gonzales County, too. Maybe it was another generation back? Nope, Alabama. I don't have any idea how "Holland" got into the oral family history, but I haven't found any evidence to suggest that it's true. Moral: use a pencil.

Next Step, Easy to Find Documentation.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Webinars Available Online at

Robert Kehrer presented the first in a series of FamilySearch webinars on June 19, 2012 intended to aid visitors about using making the most of FamilySearch's extensive collection of free genealogical materials. The second webinar in the series was recorded June 26, and will soon be amade available online to those who missed it.

The FamilySearch Webinars have come in response to an influx of user questions about many of the online genealogy site's existing and newly added features. The webinars will focus on specific elements of the website, and instruct viewers on how to access and utilize the immense collection of free family history data.

Part 1 of the FamilySearch Webinar is primarily geared toward familiarizing visitors with FamilySearch's International Genealogical Collection (commonly referred to as the IGI), but also covers the Library Catalog and Historical Records Collection. The version of the webinar that has been posted for the public is a re-recording of the original webinar, thus it does not contain the question and answer session that followed the original broadcast.

The second part of the informative webinar series is a rebroadcast of the original, complete with the questions and responses that followed the presentation. FamilySearch Webinar Part 2 focuses on searching and browsing the constantly growing collections of records available at FamilySearch. Topics include search strategies, result filtering, how to broaden search results, use of wild cards, additional information about the IGI, using the My Source Box, and features of the FamilyTree.

FamilySearch Webinar Part 1 can be viewed here.

FamilySearch Webinar Part 2 can be viewed here. is a non-profit genealogy service provided by The Church of Latter-day Saints. The website contains a plethora of free family history records. Some of the document images that have been scanned into the genealogy data base require a member account to view, but membership and access to all of FamilySearch's resources is completely free.

Also known through history as the Genealogical Society of Utah, which was founded in 1894, the organization has been dedicated to the preservation and free sharing of family history and genealogical data in the form of microfiche, microfilm, and digital records for over a century. The vast collections at contain 2.5 billion names (and growing) from countries all over the world.

Robert Kehrer, presenter of the FamilySearch Webinars, is the Senior Manager of Search Technologies at


1940 New York Census Indexed by Name

Earlier this month, added New York to the short list of US States that can now be searched by name in the 1940 Census. Completion of the indexing of roughly 13.5 million residents of New York appearing on the 1940 US Census marks the fifth completed State (including Washington DC) can now provide name-based search results for.

Boasting an impressive 10 percent of the population in 1940, New York had the largest population of any State in the US. It is no wonder that the team avidly indexing the New York enumeration districts of the 1940 Census at has spent just over 2 months working on the project.

To search names in the 1940 US Census of New York, go to the 1940 Census at to search the indexed states, or browse by enumeration district. The 1940 Census images at Ancestry are currently viewable without a paid subscription, but a free membership is required.

States that are currently searchable by name in the 1940 U.S. Census at are Delaware, Nevada, Washington D.C., Maine and New York. The remaining 1940 US Census States are actively being indexed by staff, and will become available as each State is completed.

The 1940 United States Federal Census was the 16th census taken by the United States. It was released to the public on April 2, 2012, by the National Archives and Records Administration. In an unprecedented internet event, the images were made public in digital format by the NARA on
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