Month: December 2010

Ancestors and Family Trees, Part Four: Advice for beginners

This is the final post in a four part series. You can also click these links to see Part One, Part Two and Part Three.

For the final post in this series, I wanted to share some great advice I got from members of the Cambria County Genealogy Project mailing list. They were kind enough to share their ideas with me, and now I’ll share them with you.


Forget everything you ever learned about spelling, because even if “my family always spelled our surname this way” it doesn’t mean that’s how it appears in the records.  The Irishman speaking to the German wrote down what he thought you said and may not have asked for a clarification of information.

If you can’t find someone by their last name but believe they lived in the area, try searching by the first names of different family members, hopefully there will be at least one person not named John, Joseph, Catherine or Mary.  On the other hand, the fact that a family had a son named Edward J., age 2; John E., age 9; Teddy, age 21; and E.J., age 33; appearing on four decades of census records doesn’t mean there were four sons, it may be one son going through name changes, the dates the census was taken, and who was providing the information to the census takers.  On the other hand, if you wonder why the family moved every few years, maybe they didn’t, and it was the county or township lines being redrawn.

Question authority.  I’ve transcribed thousands of headstones, census and church records, wills, and obituaries. And no matter how careful I’ve been, mistakes have occurred.  I’ve had to resurrect the dead (hey, I’m alive, that’s my birthdate on my parents headstone), move graves, perform sex changes, divorce siblings, add second and third marriages, and collapse down 3 generations of a family to 1 (father, son, grandfather all the same person in different time periods).

Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.  “Wow, this family research is easy, I found my family in just 3 weeks, I’m related to six different people on the Mayflower and we also appear in the Domesday Book.”  (Editor’s note: Not quite that easy!)  None of my families came through Ellis Island, it wasn’t opened until 1892.  Mine arrived between 1830 and 1870.  Several came through the Port of Baltimore, but not all the records are there.  And no, the immigration official didn’t force your great-grandfather to change the spelling of the family name, time and local speaking patterns probably had a hand in that.

Join the mailing lists for the county(s) where your family lived.  Yes, some barely generate any traffic and others slam you with emails, none that are about your families.  Remember, the delete key is your friend.  But it only takes one email to help you scale that brick wall.  If at all possible, document where you obtained the information, even if it’s you personally adding your parents, siblings, grandparents, etc.  Add more than just a name, birth and death date, add color to your family.  Dad was in the army during WWII and fought in the African and Italian campaigns and received the EMCO and Bronze star; great-uncle George was gassed in WWI, he died at the dinner table because he choked to death on a biscuit; great-uncle Joe and aunt Anna eloped to Maryland, they had 3 children and he died in a mining cave-in in 1931.  (Lisa)


(As a journalist, I can relate to this one – there’s a saying for journalists that goes “if your mother says it’s sunny, go outside and check!”)

Just because it’s ‘carved in stone,’ don’t stop there. Get another source.

For example, tombstones. Sometimes they are purchased years later, when the family has the money to get one. And along those same lines – just because it’s an official document doesn’t make it true. My great grandfather’s official date of death was 27 May 1937. However, his obituary appeared in the newspaper printed the day before. (Editor’s note: I can testify to this one; my great grandfather’s first and middle names were reversed on his obituary and, I believe, on his gravestone as well.)  (Diann)


When viewing available records, it’s important to understand the environment in which the records were created.

Think about the census takers walking around the town carrying this oversized book, knocking on doors, asking people when they were born, how many children are still alive (at a time where many children born to a family did not survive). Factor in it’s a hot June day or a cold January, or while you’re traveling on horseback into the hills of Cambria County. (Editor’s note: Johnstown is in the Allegheny Mountains, and is filled with steep hills and valleys.)

Talking to people who don’t speak English or not the same language as the census taker, have a fear of government from their home country and for all this you get paid a penny per household.  I’m surprised anyone got counted correctly. I try to remember what the information gathering process must have been like back then when I review census information or any old documents. My hats off to the census takers for what they did accomplish. 


(For anyone who thinks this can be boring and dry….)

Researching family history is better than any murder mystery book I have ever read. Keep your mind open and just remember some things were treated differently then. I remember a fellow researcher once mentioned that her grandmother told her that the first child could come at any time, the rest took 9 months! People who married outside of their religion sometimes were shunned from their family – even when they lived next door!  (Mary)

Be prepared for some great juicy stories. Some of the family legends might NOT be true, but you will find other stories, completely unexpected, that ARE true. In our tree we have found more alcoholics than I ever suspected, a polygamist with 7 wives (a Mormon in 1880), a murder/suicide (a farmer husband killing wife and self in 1928 as the economic depression was hitting farmers), an assassination of a man on his own front porch, a young woman in a Union area who was a Confederate spy, a brother who died en route to the funeral of his sister; and three State Representatives. Oh, and a woman who was descended from the illegitimate daughter of my great-grandfather’s second wife (and unknown in all our censuses)!  (Carolyn)


Document.  Document.  DOCUMENT.

Source.  Source.  SOURCE.

BACK UP YOUR FILES!  Include your source documents.

Don’t assume, because it’s on the internet or in a book, that it’s 100% accurate.  Try to get your hands on a copy of the original source AND KEEP THE COPY.  A document may be on the Internet today, but it doesn’t mean it will be on there tomorrow.   Print it off.  Save a copy to your computer.  Either is fine, but both is better.

Protect your sources by printing them on acid-free paper (most printer paper is acid free now), and keeping the papers in page protectors.

Realize that your filing methods may change a dozen times as your collection grows.

Keep a record of what you have, where you’ve looked, and what you want.  It will keep you from wasting precious time and money in the future.

My personal preference is to check all the “free” places before spending money on the “pay per view” places. Join mailing lists for the surnames you’re researching and the locations.  Sit back a few days to get a “feel” for the list, then ask any questions you might have. (Lynne)


A few final thoughts from my own experience:

Create a “may be related” folder, either a paper folder or a virtual one on your computer. When you’re doing research and stumble across someone who has the same last name in the same area, you may not find an immediate connection to the person. But those connections are sometimes revealed if you go a few generations back, and you’ll find that someone who wasn’t connected to your immediate ancestry line may be a distant cousin. This has happened to me several times.

Be open minded. You may find out about things that may change how you see a parent, grandparent or ancestor. Take a deep breath before you dive in and remember that this will provide you a fuller picture of that person’s life. Be prepared for surprises, both good and bad.

If you’ve got more suggestions and advice, please share it in the comments!

Sports, crime and immunity

I’ll admit it – what I know about sports can fit on the head of a pin and you’d still have room for War and Peace.

I like watching some sports (hockey comes to mind) in a very casual way, but I’ve never been a part of the community that forms around being a fan for a team. I understand it’s really a joyful thing for a lot of people, but it just never really spoke to me.

Today a few of my friends and I had a discussion about sports figures who have been accused of, or convicted of, criminal activity. And the question I keep coming back to is this: Does a championship or a win by a sports figure excuse his/her bad behavior?

The two figures mentioned in the discussion were Michael Vick, convicted of animal abuse in connection with his dogfighting rings, and Ben Roethlisberger, who has been on two separate occasions accused (but not convicted) of rape. Of course, Kobe Bryant was accused in a similar case a few years back.

Like I said, I get the love for the home team, I really do. But at what point as an individual – or a sports community – do people stop saying, “Yeah, but he’s a really great player,” and expect him to be fired, suspended or incarcerated? 

I know people in this country had very mixed and divided feelings about the OJ Simpson trial, but I remember hearing that even then – with several people passionately advocating for his freedom or pardon because of who he was and what he did.

If you’re not a sports fan, this could apply to any notable figure. I mean, Charlie Sheen? Roman Polanski? Where is that line drawn for you?