8 Things to Consider When Planning a Family History Trip

Are you thinking of visiting the place where your ancestors lived? Are you wanting to find the house they lived in, or another piece of history that they contributed to? Here are 8 things to consider when planning your family history trip:

1. Prepare. You will benefit from your trip so much more if you prepare before you go. Decide what you want to see, contact any family members in the area before you get there, and plan out your time. Make sure you know the hours of all of the places you want to go. Nothing is worse than getting to your destination, only to find the building you wanted to go in is closed.

2. Bring a travel companion. Two heads are better than one, especially when you’re trying to remember all of the names, dates and places that you’re researching.

3. Find lodging close to your destination. Even if you need to stay in a shabby little motel, it will be better than driving an hour each way, every day, to your destination.

4. Make appointments. Consider making an appointment to meet with an archivist, genealogist, librarian, church official, or historian who can help you make the most of your visit.

5. Meet new family members. One of my favorite things about going on family history trips, is meeting distant cousins. They always have new information I’ve never seen about my ancestors, and they love to chat and create friendships. Don’t be afraid to dig a little to find someone who is related to you in the area you’ll be visiting.

6. Don’t skip the cemeteries. With FindAGrave and other online helps, many tombstones are online. But if you’re making a trip to where your ancestors lived, don’t skip visiting the cemetery where your ancestor is buried. You can learn a lot from where they are buried, and who they are buried near. You may find some new family connections you didn’t know about, or discover what happened to a daughter by seeing her married name on the tombstone next to your ancestor’s. Cemeteries often have records that you can obtain from the office or local sexton. Many times these records contain a lot more information than what’s on the tombstone.

7. Locate where your ancestors lived. There are a few ways to do this, depending on how long ago your ancestors lived in their city. GoogleEarth is a great app that lets you enter an address, and see the house from the street level. This will give you a great idea of what the house looks like so you can find it when you get there. If your ancestor lived a long time ago, you can look at plat maps online or in libraries/archives. They show the last name of the land owners, and help you pinpoint where the land was. You can compare it to a modern day map and go visit the land. If they are not on a plat map, you can look up the land records of when they bought land, which will have the description of the land included. You may need to ask for help to pinpoint exactly where the land is, depending on the location and time frame. Once you find where your ancestors lived, it will help you get a sense of how close they were to others, to the local church, to the town, etc. It is such a neat experience to see exactly where an ancestor walked, worked, and lived.

8. Record everything. You’ll think that you will remember the stories you hear or the things you see, but you won’t. Trust me. Take pictures of everything, and take notes about everything. Years later you will be glad to have those details written down. You can share what you learned with your family members or on your online tree, and many can benefit.

6 Tricks and Resources Professional Genealogists Use for Their Research

Sometimes it seems like the leap from a hobbyist to a professional genealogist is too big. First there is getting a degree, and then possibly a credential, and then working as a professional. However, just by knowing a few tricks and resources, you can easily become an intermediate or advanced genealogist!

1. Get offline. This is perhaps one of the hardest things for hobbyists to do. Online research is so convenient, and it’s much easier to give up by declaring that the records for your ancestor just don’t exist, or they’re too hard to find. However, there are TONS of available records that are not yet online! It is important to research some documents in person, as this is the only way they can be found. Another mistake is that some people don’t realize that the information online may not be complete. By having the original record, you can be sure you’re not missing some vital pieces of information. Make sure to find out what records are kept at the state archives, the county archives, the local libraries, the county courthouse, and the local genealogical and historical societies. The availability of the records, and the record types, will vary by location. It will take several phone calls, maybe some money, and either travel or hiring someone to find what you’re looking for. But in the end, the information you find will be well worth the time and money!

2. Learn about the area. Professional genealogists don’t always know how to find things in every area off the top of their head. They have to do some pre-research about the area. Make sure to find resources that can help you research a specific area. If you are researching in the United States, a great little-known resource is found at the National Genealogical Society website. They have booklets for about half of the states (at the time of this writing), and more are added as they are completed. These booklets are invaluable for researching in a specific state. The booklet contains a list of the major repositories along with their website/address, the record types that are useful for research there, popular religions along with contact information for their headquarters, and much more. You can either order a paper copy, or a pdf copy. The printed copies are more expensive than pdf, and if you are a member, they are discounted. Go here to learn more: http://www.ngsgenealogy.org/cs/research_in_the_states Another resource is the FamilySearch Wiki, which has information on several countries as well as each state in the United States. They have videos about different topics for each area. It’s worth checking out: https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/index.php

3. Perform a “thoroughly exhaustive search.” In the professional circle, it is expected that when researching information, a thoroughly exhaustive search will be performed. This doesn’t mean that you can be sure of a birth date after finding two documents. It is important to find all of the documents that could possibly exist with the information in question. Different documents will have more or less reliability, and it is important to search out all of the documents to come to a conclusion on the most correct answer. (See “Why Records Have Conflicting Information” below, for more about the reliability of records.)

4. Sometimes the answers are not spelled out in any document. This can also be a tough one for hobbyists. You are looking for concrete proof of the parents of your ancestor, but there are no documents that declare the names of the parents! This is very common. Professionals use several documents to prove things indirectly, and come to a sound conclusion once there is enough evidence to suggest a likely answer. They will also research all of the other possibilities to rule them out, narrowing down the likely answer. This makes many hobbyists uncomfortable, but in most cases, this is the only way. Professionals know that the answer may change if new information comes to light after they make a conclusion. Give it a try! Start researching all of the possibilities, and narrow down and research some more, until you can come up with a likely answer to your research question.

5. Write it down. Professionals don’t come up with conclusions based on their genius. They keep research logs, create timelines, create family trees with dates, and transcribe written documents. By keeping track of the information you find, you will notice patterns or details you didn’t notice before. Timelines can help you visually conclude that a child couldn’t have been born in that family, or that there could be a missing child. Timelines can help you organize the details of relocating, epidemics, severe weather, etc. and how those events impacted the family. Transcribing written documents can help you filter the information much easier. You can objectively look at the information and come to conclusions.

6. Research the FAN club. Many times professionals need to research a person’s “FAN club” in order to break down brick walls. FAN is an acronym for Family, Associates, and Neighbors. It sounds time consuming, and it is. But by researching the people that interacted and lived near an ancestor, more information can be obtained. Perhaps a neighbor married the daughter of your ancestor’s family and moved to a new state. The possibilities are endless, and this is a step that is important not to look over.

By using these tricks and resources, you will find yourself feeling more comfortable and confident about your genealogical research. So, what are you waiting for? Go find those ancestors!

4 Things You Need to Know about Immigration Records

Let’s face it… Unless you are full-blood Native American, you have ancestors who immigrated to the U.S. at some point. Here are 4 things you need to know before you start searching for them.

1. Ellis Island is not the only place to look for immigration records. In fact, they only have records from 1892-1924. More people immigrated to the U.S. through other places/means/time periods than those who came through Ellis Island. However, you may have a family story about an ancestor who came through Ellis Island. I did too. After years of searching, I found that they actually sailed to Canada and crossed the boarder into the U.S. that way. The lesson here is, don’t get caught up on Ellis Island records. Another largely used immigration center was Castle Garden. There were 11 million immigrants who came through Castle Garden from 1820-1892. They have a searchable database at: http://www.castlegarden.org/ If you are confident your ancestor did come through Ellis Island, the best database to search is by usingSteve Morse’s “Ellis Island Gold Form” found at http://stevemorse.org. The Ellis Island search is very picky. You have to enter the name exactly. This poses a problem for most immigrants because their names were spelled wrong, or could not be translated into English the way they sounded in their native language. Steve Morse created a database that lets you have wildcards and sounds-like searches.

2. Which brings me to my next point. Don’t get caught up on the spelling of names. Names change over time, and especially when there was a move to another country. Try searching for just first names, ages, occupations, places of birth, etc. if the last name search isn’t showing results. Make sure to use variations of names. Try spelling the last name phonetically, or use wildcards such as * or ? in place of variant letters.

3. There are many types of immigration records to search, and many places to search. Don’t forget boarder crossings, ship/passenger records, emigration records (kept in the country they left), and naturalization records. Each record has different information, and not all records will be available for each of your ancestors. Also, it is important to know that not all passenger records are created equal. For the most part, the older the record, the less the information there will be. Ancestry has some great collections, but they don’t have everything. FamilySearch has a great informational page with links for free searches for most of the ports, as well as websites that are helpful: https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/United_States_Immigration_Online_Genealogy_Records

4. It was very common for families to travel separately. Sometimes they sent one or two family members ahead, until they could save up for more money. A clue for finding the year they immigrated is checking the 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 census records. There is a column indicating the year of immigration. It may be different for each of the family members, so make sure to check all of the years listed.

Learning about your immigrant ancestors can be very rewarding! It’s amazing to think about what they went through so we could enjoy a country of liberty and dreams!

5 Things You Can Learn from Your Ancestor’s Photograph

A picture is worth 1,000 words, right? When studying the photographs of your ancestors, you can actually learn a lot more about them than it might seem at first.

1. In family pictures, you might be able to identify which child was the focus of the picture by how the children were dressed, and where they were positioned in the photograph. The appearing “favorite child” may have been the focus of the picture due to them being the youngest, or the first time this child was in a picture.

2. Wealth can be determined by the clothes your ancestors were wearing, as well as the details you spot. Sometimes they had a very fancy outfit on, implying wealth. However, if you look closer at the shoes, you might find that they were basic, scuffed, or farmer type shoes. Another sign of economic status is the background of the picture. Some pictures have fancy backgrounds that professionals supplied, while the poorer families hung a blanket behind them. Pay attention to the smaller details to help determine economic status.

3. Family pictures can be helpful in identifying birth order and ages. If you have a family picture and you haven’t identified who they are yet, you can guess the ages and age spans of of the children to help map out the family dynamics to help your search. You may even have a photograph with an extra child who didn’t show up on a census record because they may have passed away as a child.

4. Hair, eye color, or specific facial features can be helpful in determining how people in an unidentified picture might be related. I have a picture of a family that no one can identify. But the eyes and the ears of the mother and child are unmistakably from my grandfather’s side of the family. If you have a picture of someone with brown eyes, but most of your ancestors have blue eyes, it might help you trace that picture to the correct ancestral line (there are exceptions, as some blue eyed parents can have a brown eyed child). Take a careful look at your pictures to help identify relationships.

5. By looking at the clothes, hair styles, and accessories (hats, ruffles, etc.) you can identify the time period that the picture was taken. This can help when you have a photograph of people who are not known to you.

A lot can be learned from looking at your ancestors’ photographs. Pull some out today, and give it a try! You may learn something new about them!

Where to Look for Photos of Ancestors

Are you on the hunt for some great photos? Here are some ideas of where to look.

1. Relatives. You may have already thought to ask relatives, such as siblings, parents, grandparents, etc. But have you contacted distant relatives? I have found some great photos I’ve never seen before from 2nd and 3rd cousins and great-aunts/uncles. Remember, pictures were given to lots of relatives at the time, who may have passed the pictures to their descendants, who are your distant cousins. They may not want to pull out that box in the attic until you make a visit to their home, so don’t give up too easily when contacting them. Most people are thrilled to have a visitor to share the stories of the pictures with! Or if they are tech savvy, they could scan and email the pictures to you!

2. County Histories. These are one of my favorite sources! Most counties created a historical book at their centennial commemoration. Most of them asked for photo and biography submissions of families from each town. They sometimes had pictures of clubs, organizations, school children, military servicemen, and other great group photos. You may find photos of the local churches and school houses, as well as the local businesses. County Histories can be a gold mine of photos!

3. FamilySearch. FamilySearch is a great website where millions of people are collaborating by adding photos and stories of ancestors. You’ll need to sign up for a free account, and then search for an ancestor’s name in the “Tree” tab. The farther back you go, the better chances you have of finding an ancestor. People are uploading documents such as death certificates, journals, newspaper articles, as well as a plethora of pictures!

4. Historical and Genealogical Societies. There are state, county, and city societies all over the United States. Google the area you are researching to see what society is available. Many times they have collected pictures and stories of the residents in the area and compiled them in books. There may not be copies anywhere else except the society. Sometimes they sell the books, and other times you can make copies. These little gems can be the key to finding a picture of that elusive ancestor!

5. Yearbooks. Did you know that many archives have copies of yearbooks? They may be at a state or county archive, or at a local or county library. You may also find some at the historical or genealogical library. These can be great to find an ancestor when they were younger, as well as see some of the activities they participated in.

6. Newspapers. Often times we think of photographs as a single copy buried in a box. But don’t forget that pictures were often posted in the newspaper! These could include marriage announcements, obituaries, and general fun stories about your relative. Newspapers used to be the Facebook of the day, so much of the content was the social happenings. Don’t miss out on some great stories and pictures that have been preserved in newspapers!

7. Organizations. If your relative was a member of the Freemasons, a military group, a local society, or other organization, chances are there were group photos taken. See if you can contact the organization to find out where the older photos are kept. You may find an ancestor at an age you’ve never seen them before!

I wish you all the best on your hunt for more great photographs! And don’t forget, once you get your hands on an amazing one, make sure to preserve it by making a digital copy and distributing it to your relatives to enjoy!

When to Hire a Professional Genealogist

We’ve all been there. The brick wall. That elusive ancestor that just can’t be found in any records.  So when do you throw in the towel and hire a professional to do the research for you? And is it really worth the money? How can you trust the person you’re hiring?

I recently read a study in the Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly (a genealogy magazine for professionals). There was a survey conducted about how many people are willing to hire professionals, and why they choose not to. (“The Perceived Value of Professional Genealogy, Part Two,” APGQ33, no. 2 (June 2018): 40-43). Only 1% of people surveyed said they would hire a professional, but ONLY as a last resort! The number one reason people are not willing to hire someone is cost. Another popular answer was that they didn’t trust the pros. So what are your options? 

Let me tell you, you have options! 

First of all, it’s important to understand that not all professional genealogists are created equal. Some have degrees, some don’t. Some are credentialed, some are not. In my experience, it’s much easier to trust a professional genealogist who is credentialed. There are two credentialing organizations in the United States. The Board of Certified Genealogists, and ICAPGen. Both require a rigorous process to obtain a credential. Genealogy reports are submitted, analyzed, and evaluated. For ICAPGen, there are tests that are required for your specialized area. It is not easy to obtain a credential. But when someone earns a credential, the organization protects them, backs them up, and represents them as someone who can be trusted. To me, that is huge!

Second, it’s interesting to note that in the study mentioned earlier, the people who are most willing to hire a professional, are other professionals! Sometimes the records that are needed are only on location. I myself have hired genealogists in Germany. The records for my ancestors were extremely difficult to find. One line of ancestors is only located in a book, in Germany. There was no way for me to access this book on my own. For another line, I didn’t know the exact location in Germany, or how to access the records. The professional I hired located the records for me and translated them. To me that was priceless! So yes, I recommend hiring a professional when you absolutely need to. And you can trust the credentialed ones! (Just go to the BCG or ICAPGen websites and search for a genealogist on there to contact directly).

Third, if you don’t want to spend thousands of dollars for a professional to research your family for you (yes, it’s extremely expensive), you can hire a genealogy coach. Yes, that’s a real thing! And I am a genealogy coach! I understand the desire to research your own ancestors. (And if it helps, I have a degree and a credential!) Hiring someone can feel like defeat, and it doesn’t help you build your own skills. That is why I love to teach people how to break down their own brick walls, and find that elusive ancestor! And this service comes at a fraction of the cost! I teach people how to research like a professional. It’s the best of both worlds. You don’t have to spend a ton of money, and you don’t have to worry if you can trust a pro doing it, because YOU get to be the pro! It’s a win/win situation! 

So the bottom line is, don’t be afraid to hire a professional if you really need to. Just know where to go to find the most trusted ones. And if you need help, and want to do it on your own, let me know! I can help you get past frustration and dead ends!

All About Military Records

If you have an ancestor that served in the military, you’re in luck! Military records can have a lot of great, valuable information. There are several types of military records.

Draft Records: A draft is when the government required citizens to sign up for military service. They may or may not have been chosen to actually serve. These records are availble for the Civil War, World War I, and World War II. The information contained in these records may include: name, birth date, birth place, current place of residence, physical description (height, hair color, eye color, any identifying marks). Draft records are very useful because in World War I, all men between 21 and 35 were required to register. For World War II, all men between 18 and 45 were required to be available for military service, and all men between 18 and 65 were required to register for the draft. This covers a lot of people in a short amount of time. Chances are good you have a relative who had to register for one of these wars.

WWI Draft

Enlistment/Muster Records: These records were created when a soldier enlisted for the war. They can contain the name, rank, company, unit, residence, physical description (height, hair color, eye color), marital status, occupation, and birth place. These records can help determine if your ancestor ended up serving in the war you are searching for.

Civil War Muster Roll

Service Records: Service records are packets containing information about each soldier. Service records can contain the name, regiment, and where the soldier was serving at the time. The leaders took roll regularly in order for the soldier to be compensated. There are rolls included in the service records. These can also show if the soldier deserted, got injured, or mustered out.

Civil War Service Record

Pension Records: If your ancestor was given a pension, or if his wife was given a widow’s pension, you have struck gold!! Pension records can contain a wealth of information of your ancestor including: name, birth date, birth place, marriage date and place, spouse’s maiden name, children’s names and birth information, death information of the soldier, information about ailments caused by the war, and affidavits from friends and neighbors. Pension records are reliable records because they were filled out by the soldier or his wife. These are great records to break down brick walls by using the dates, discovering the wife’s maiden name, or tracking the friends and neighbors to locate more family.

Civil War Pension Record

Where are they? Some military records are available on Fold3 (free access can be found at your local LDS Family History Center), but most are kept at the National Archives. Depending on the war, they may be kept in Washington, D.C. or in another NARA facility. More information can be found at https://www.archives.gov. If the records you are looking for are kept at NARA, they can be a bit pricey if you order directly from them. Another option is to hire a local researcher to make copies for you. This can save you 25%-33% off the NARA cost. There are researchers listed on the NARA website.

So, if you’re trying to find some specific information about your ancestor, try obtaining their military records!

Why Records Have Conflicting Information

You found the gravestone, and you were thrilled to finally have the birth and death dates of your ancestor! You spend the money and (im)patiently wait for the death record to arrive. Finally the day comes when you open that envelope and…..


What went wrong?? You know it’s the same ancestor, so why are there different dates for the same person?

The answer is a simple one. The informant. That’s right, the person who supplied the information. The truth is, people make mistakes. And frankly, sometimes people don’t know the information, and have to guess.

Which date is the correct date?

Well, that’s a bit trickier. You have to figure out which information is more reliable, based on the informant, and when the information was given. Death records have the informant listed on the record. If you know the informant was a spouse, child, or parent, then the information is pretty reliable. If the informant was the undertaker, then the birth date probably isn’t very reliable. Gravestones are not as reliable for the dates, because we don’t know who the informant was most of the time. It could’ve been anybody, really. And let me tell you, I’ve seen plenty of incorrect gravestones.

CASE STUDY: Nannie Rowan

On her gravestone, Nannie’s birth was stated as 1861. But on her death certificate, it says she was born in 1865. By looking at the informant at the bottom of the death certificate, I can see the informant was Grace W. Smith. I know that’s Nannie’s niece. Grace was born after Nannie, so it’s possible she didn’t know what year her aunt was born.

It’s important to compare other records and do more research. That’s right, there’s a little more work to be done. Grace can be found in the 1940 census, which marked who the informant was with a circle x (unlike any of the previous census records, which do not state the informant).

Unfortunately, there are circle x’s for the Greenwood and Cooksey families, but not for Grace and Nannie. Who knows who gave that information? It could have been the neighbor. Her age estimates a birth year of about 1866. It may have been that Nannie already had her birthday that year, which would put her birth year as 1865. Now there are two documents supporting a birth year of 1865. It is interesting that Nannie was living with her niece Grace, who was her informant on her death record. Maybe she did know her birth year after all?

More searching may find an obituary, sexton records, or family bible records. There is also the possibility that Nannie didn’t know what year she was born. Many people who grew up on farms did not celebrate birth days. But by comparing lots of records and identifying the informant, you can come up with the most likely date. For now, we are sticking with 1865, since 2 of the 3 sources match, and we know who the informant was on the death record, and that informant lived with the deceased.

What about you? Do you have some discrepancies in your dates? Try identifying the informant, and comparing documents to see what information is more reliable. 

Handwriting Tips

Have you come across a written document, only to get frustrated that you can’t read the writing? Reading handwritten documents is an important part of family history. Not every document has been transcribed, and those that have are usually not comprehensive. It is important to study original documents to find all of the clues we can about the ancestor we are researching. By applying a few tricks, you’ll be able to read decipher those documents in no time!

When you see a document for the first time, it is important to take an overall inventory of the document. Looking at the date and determining the time period it was written can help you immensely. If the document was written in the 1600s in the American Colonies, it was written in Secretary Hand. There are several online resources that provide alphabets for the handwriting of each time period. It would be wise to obtain copies of these alphabet sheets to refer to while reading the document. One great resource for this is the FamilySearch Wiki.

Once the time period is determined, take a minute to browse the document. Read it quickly to get accustomed to the style of handwriting. Each scribe had their own nuances within the handwriting style they used. By becoming familiar with the scribe’s writing, you will find it easier to read the document. Notice the patterns in the document. If the scribe had a distinct way of writing a certain letter, make a note of it and pick out all of those letters in the document. Try writing down the scribe’s alphabet by picking out each letter and writing it down the way the scribe did.  You can reference the alphabet as you read through the document.

Another helpful way to read a document is to transcribe it. Write it down in your own writing. Many times when words are hard to read, we can write down the letters we know, and our brain will fill in the missing letters. We will understand the information better when we have it written down in our own handwriting, or typed out on the computer. If you come across a word you still cannot read, try finding the letters in another word you can read. Compare the letters to each other.

If you are still stuck on a word, instead of examining it closely, take a step back. Many times when we look at it closely, we can’t see the forest through the trees. When we look at the word from a distance, it gives a different perspective. You may be surprised how well this trick works! It is also important to have patience with yourself. Take a deep breath and relax. The words will come to you when you are not trying so hard.

By spending time with a document, you will find that it will become clearer to read. You will be able to figure out most, if not all of the words. When you write it down you will have a copy to refer to and study. The task will not seem so daunting when you use a few tricks to discover the message. And remember, if all else fails, feel free to have Colleen take a look at it!