family tree

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!


Ancestors and Family Trees, Part Three: Clearing the path

The Johnstown Incline. (A little too steep for me!)

NOTE: Click here for Part One or Part Two of this series.

Let’s face it: unless you are a professional genealogist – or a librarian – the methods and resources used to research your family tree will be unfamiliar to you. There’s a lot to learn and a lot to understand.

And no matter how effective your searching is, part of it is luck of the draw. How many other researchers have cleared the path for you? If someone else has researched your tree, or has worked to document and archive information in your area, you’re far more likely to succeed in your searching.

And one of the reasons I wanted to write this series of posts in my blog is to sing the high praises of the people who cleared the path for me.

I live in Chicago now, but I was born and raised just outside of Pittsburgh. And both of my parents were born and raised near Johnstown, Pennsylvania. You know – mountains, railroads…..the setting for All The Right Moves and Slap Shot, and oh yeah….major floods every 60 years or so?

Johnstown may not be the biggest city in the country, but aside from its rich history and its beautiful mountains, it also can boast one of the best organized, best documented mother lodes of genealogical resources. In the entire country, folks.

I’ve looked at other cities and done research for ancestors or relatives in almost every area of the country, and the Cambria County genealogical project puts most others to shame. I have yet to find a resources with as much depth and detail as this one. (And lucky for me, at least three-fourths of my tree is in Cambria County!)

There are so many people who make great contributions to the project (and who have helped me personally) that I couldn’t name them all. But a big hats off must go to Lynne Canterbury and Diann Olsen, who are leaders of the efforts in Cambria County.

THEY WANT YOU: If you are interested in genealogy, it’s really important to get involved not just in your own research but to help the genealogy project in your area.

I know the people I’ve mentioned above appreciate the praise, but more than that, they need help. If there’s a genealogical group doing this kind of research in your area, I can guarantee they are an all volunteer enterprise. They can use a set of eyes or hands to help.

What would you do? You might be entering names and data into a spreadsheet. You may be asked to read a few issues of an old newspaper and document any names and events of local citizens that appear in print. Or if you’ve a wiz at HTML, you may be asked to help build a Web page.

I’d like to especially encourage any younger armchair genealogists to get involved. Many groups have a limited number of volunteers that are elderly, and in order to keep these projects alive and viable (with new ideas, new technology and new energy), people must continue to get involved.

Next: The final part of this series, with some suggestions from my friends at the CamGenPA project.

Ancestors and Family Trees, Part Two: Research and resources

If you’re just wading into the waters of family tree research, there are a lot of resources available – in addition to the ubiquitous, which I discussed in the last post, there’s a lot of other places to look for information and a lot of other ways to organize it.

Here’s a list of some of those resources.

The US Census

Pros: The most complete resource and a must have for any genealogist. You may be able to access this via your local library without having a membership to a genealogy Web site.

Cons: The Census was conducted by people, so there’s a certain factor of human error. Misspellings and incorrect information can make your ancestor harder to find. And the entire 1890 census (save a few thousand files) was burned in a fire, which can create an information gap for ancestors who were born during that time.

Family Search

Pros: A free site that was primarily compiled as a project of the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons). An information resource for many other genealogy Web sites. (Ever notice they’re all based in Utah?) Offers a number of free resources, including some video classes on how to search. Did I mention it was F-R-Double E free?

Cons: Records can be incomplete or challenging to read; the originals are seldom displayed.

GED-COM genealogy files

Pros: A great way to organize and share information. Gedcom files can be the basis for infomation that makes its way to Family Search or Provides a structure for information and a repository.

Cons: Only as good as the information entered into it. If you’re not a technically savvy person or code-friendly, it might be a nightmare to learn. Sites like mimic many parts of a gedcom in a more user-friendly format.


Pros: It sounds amazingly simple, but seriously? Put your ancestors’ first, middle and last name into Google Search (and maybe the city, county and/or state) and you’d be amazed at what pops up. I’ve found a surprising amount of information, either because my ancestors’ name popped up in scanned documents or because someone else had already done the research and posted it online.

Cons: May not work if you have an incredibly common name – or if, like my ancestors, your ancestors decided to give the same name to a dozen or so members of your extended family.

Newspapers and magazines

Pros: A fantastic resources, particularly for newspapers printed between about 1850 and 1980, when most areas had at least one daily newspaper (if not more) and focused more on local content. Weekly papers can also be great – I’ve posted before about how the weekly social round-up was like the predecessor of the Facebook status update. A wealth of information, including obituaries, wedding announcements, and news articles. One of the best things about

Cons: Can be difficult to search. Most older papers are on microfilm, and if you don’t have an exact date or a specific person you’re looking for, the time investment can be serious. Libraries and tend not to have the complete archives of most papers.

State Archives

Pros: You may be able to get marriage records and death certificates from your state’s vital records department or from state archives.

Cons: You can rarely get birth certificates (for privacy/fraud reasons) and you usually must establish a direct lineage for the other information, which means that you can’t use this resources for more extended members of the family.

Social Security Death Index

Pros: A great way to establish when an ancestor or relative passed away.

Cons: But only if they’ve died since 1973.  Limited files are available before 1973.

Church records

Pros: Can provide some of the most detailed records about your ancestors, including crucial pieces that may not be anywhere else about the joys and sorrows of any family (birth, death, marriage).

Cons: A true wild card; depends on the stance your church takes on the privacy of these records. Can get potentially complicated if records were “fudged” to hide an illegitimate child or divorce.

Military records

Pros: A detailed resource for information about ancestors who served in the armed forces. Can provide vivid details about your ancestors’ experience during their service, or explain how they died in battle.

Cons: Perhaps unsurprisingly, there can be a lot of red tape to cut through to find this information. What you’re asked to verify in order to get the information….is often the same piece of information you’re seeking. As with the Census, some files have been lost to fire.

Other resources:

  • There are a number of sites that are message-board based which can be great spots to exchange information.,, and Cousin Connect are but a few.
  • Aside from newspapers and magazines, libraries have many other resources. To name just a few: phone directories, local yearbooks, maps, and minutes of city meetings.
  • It may not be the first place anyone wants to look, but court files and prison records can also tell a story (a true story, though perhaps a troubling one) of ancestors on the wrong side of the law.
  • And sometimes the simplest place to start is to talk to older family members. They might be able to give you details – family photos, family Bible pages, documents and papers – that no public resources would ever have.

These are just a few places to look.

Kimberly Powell has written two great guides to genealogy research that are especially useful for beginners: The Everything Guide to Online Genealogy and The Everything Family Tree Book. If you decide to wade deeper into the genealogy research waters, these are great places to start (and at $15 a book, a pretty good deal).

What resources have you found useful?

Ancestors and Family Trees, Part One: Laying the foundations

Over the next several days, I’ll be featuring a series of posts here in this blog that are all about genealogy and family tree research. I’ve got a lot of information to share and will hopefully create an interesting space for discussion.

But before I explore those details, I wanted to start at square one: Why are we searching? How are we searching in today’s social media landscape? And what is, anyway?

As people, we’ve been creating family histories and genealogies for centuries. Families in China and in some European countries regularly have genealogies dating back to the 12th century, while some date back even farther.

But there’s no doubt that researching your family tree has become a popular trend over the last few years. That’s probably due to one of several shows on television raising people’s awareness of the art of genealogy.

This year, there was NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are, an adaptation of a successful British series that’s been running for a few years. That show profiles notable public figures and traces their family histories. This past season profiled Susan Sarandon and Lisa Kudrow, among others.

There’s also several shows that have been done for PBS by Professor Henry Louis Gates. He’s done a series on African-American family histories, and in this past year, also profiled (in the show Faces of America) notable figures – Meryl Streep, Stephen Colbert and American-born Queen Noor of Jordan among them – tracing their histories back centuries.

But if you didn’t see either of those shows, it’s almost impossible to have missed the commercials for the primary Web site for genealogists: In the last year, commercials for have been a constant fixture on TV.

I’ve seen a lot of material for beginning genealogists that teach you some of the traditional methods and try to give you tips on how to search online. But I wanted to discuss what people’s expectations are when they begin searching – and whether is a good tool for everyone.

What is has been around in one form or another for about 30 years. They’ve become more visible on the Web, and evolved into the site we see today, in the last five to ten years.

In its current state, it’s pretty user friendly, especially for beginners. (I briefly tried the site in 2005, and it didn’t seem to have nearly as much information nor was it as user friendly.)

There are mixed opinions about some information on, particularly the information that draws from other users. (While a substantial amount of Ancestry’s information comes from the Census as well as death indexes and other government databases, a significant portion also draws from the family trees of other users.)

I draw the comparison to Wikipedia: Wikipedia is a wonderful project, and it’s got a great deal of information that’s really, really useful. But it’s best used as a starting point – if you’re a kid doing a book report, it would be unwise to use Wikipedia as your only source. is a little different than Wikipedia in that it’s also a repository for information. So you really have to be careful what you save to your tree – and verify those details. (We’ll get into that in greater detail in another post.)

I don’t want to discourage anyone from using – I’ve made some really great finds on it and have probably saved hours of time I might have otherwise needed to spend sifting through microfilm in a library.

How Serious is Your Search?

Another thing you should really think about before jumping into a search is what you’d like to accomplish.

Why? Well, is a useful site, but it’s also about a dollar a day to use and access all of its resources as a paid member. Information from other sources can also cost money as well. It’s not always terribly expensive – I’ve ordered obituaries from libraries for $3 a piece – but if you’re searching for hundreds of people on your tree, those costs can add up.

Some people just want to be “casual” genealogists. They might just want to go a generation or two back in their own immediate family. Maybe they’re trying to find Grandpa’s WWII service information, or want to see grandma’s name in the census. In that case, it would probably be easier to go to a local library. Many libraries have free access to Libraries also have other resources that come with a library card, like access to HeritageQuest.

You can also use (from home), which is a database used by and that was created (and is maintained) by the Church of Latter-Day Saints.

Local libraries might also have a yearbook with pictures of your parents or grandparents.

But if you get the “bug” to do a more serious search – and it’s pretty contagious – you’re going to want to go farther back. Just understand a few things:

  • It’s an investment – of time, of money, of a lot of reading and analyzing.
  • If you’re looking for a project with a definitive flow, or a definitive ending, this one is NOT IT.

When I really jumped into this project five months ago, I knew I would be immersed in research and putting the pieces together. I had no idea that only five months later, I would have almost eleven hundred names on my tree!

For me, though, what I get in return is worth the effort. I’m learning more about my family every day, and seeing and understanding new things about my parents. I’ve learned of the existence of family members that prior to this year, I didn’t even know existed!

And I’m creating something that my siblings, their children, and all of my extended family can draw from.

At the end of the day, understanding and learning about other members of my family also makes me understand a bit more about myself. And that’s a great gift, too.

A workplace wake-up call

I’m an avid reader of Laurie Ruettimann’s blog Punk Rock HR. She talks about the workplace from both sides of the fence (the HR/management world and the employee’s cubisphere) and does so in a really refreshing, BS-free way.  (She also has great taste in music and blogs about cats and bacon, but I digress.)

A few months ago, when the West Virginia mining disaster happened, she talked about it in her blog, and I made a comment or two on that post. I mentioned that I’d had at least one relative who worked in the coal mines of western Pennsylvania. I knew several more had worked in the steel mills – not just generations ago, but in my father’s generation and also in mine.

In the time since Laurie made that post, I’ve immersed myself in researching my family tree. And wow, did I ever underestimate the head count on family members of mine working in the mines and mills.

Of course, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, mining and mill work was a huge sector of our economy, so it completely makes sense that so many of my ancestors would have been in this line of work.

I found this information in my research, though, and it blows my mind. It also has forever changed my perspective on what constitutes a “bad day at work” or a “bad job.”  It’s an obituary for an ancestor of mine and was published in the Daily Courier, a newspaper in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, on March 4, 1913.

Lewis Daniel Cobaugh, youngest son of the late Charles P. Cobaugh, the veteran Baltimore & Ohio engineer, and Rebella Parks Cobaugh, was almost instantly killed about noon yesterday at the Western Maryland railroad coaling station at Rockwood. The cable on the hoist used in lifting the coal to the chutes parted, and a bucket containing a ton or more of coal descended, and pinned the unfortunate man between the timbers and the bucket, crushing him in a horrible manner. The remains were taken to a local undertaking establishment and prepared for burial, and later were taken to the home of his mother.

The deceased is survived by his aged mother, who for the past year or more has been rendered almost helpless by reason of a stroke of apoplexy. His widow, who was Miss Ella Williams, and two children, Grace and Annabel, age six and three years respectively, survive. He is also survived by one brother and three sisters.

About 22 years ago the father of the deceased, the old engineer, “Dad” Cobaugh, as he was so familiarly known, was blown up in a locomotive explosion, and the injuries received resulted in his death. Prior to death of the father, the oldest son, William, while making a coupling in the Rockwood yards, had his head crushed by projecting rails on two loaded hot cars, dying in a few weeks after that accident. Next, Charles, a younger son, while working in the B. & O. shops at Connellsville, was stricken with malignant typhoid fever, expiring in a few weeks. A few years ago, another son, a flagman on the B & O, was pinioned by a sideswipe wreck in his caboose, directly alongside of a demolished engine, and was scalded to death.

I’m not sure what to be sad or shocked about more. The way Lewis died? The fact that he left two little girls behind? Or the fact that nearly everyone in his immediate family tried to do honorable work and paid for it with their lives?

I’d been planning a post here to talk about my ambivalence towards labor unions – at least, some of the unions in existence today. I’ve had bad experiences with some of them in my own career, and in Chicago, unions get in the way of employees and their well-being more often than they help.

But we’re living during a time when we turn on the TV and see the horrifying BP mess every night. And that drives home a message that corporations don’t, as a default setting, put people first. I’m reminded why unions came to be in the first place, and why safety and security have to be part of any workplace.

And the next time I’m having a bad Monday morning, with an inbox full of mail and a dull nagging headache, I’m going to think of these guys, and be damn glad I’ve got a job – and a safe one.

Digging in the dirt: my family tree

I’m researching my family history and trying to assemble the pieces of my family tree.

It’s been a project that I’ve been interested in for a while. I first talked to my father about the idea five years ago, and he shared some information with me and traced one line of the family tree back several generations.

The idea (and the research) gathered dust for a while, but I was fascinated by the genealogy programs that were on TV this spring: NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? and the Henry Louis Gates four-part series Faces of America.

So a few weeks ago, I finally committed to searching my family tree and started on I’ve learned some interesting facts about genealogy (most trees, particularly online, don’t list the living – it’s considered bad form to list anyone whose birth wasn’t over 100 years ago).

My interest was sparked by these shows, but I’m sure that there are other reasons I’ve been so engaged in this search. There’s nothing like hitting a big milestone birthday – say, the big 4-0 – to bring you face to face with your own mortality – and to appreciate others who came before you in a way you hadn’t before.

Losing my mom in 2007 is also a big reason for my search; we missed an opportunity to talk about this in detail when she was alive and I want to capture as much information as I can, while I can.

I’m also interested because I was the youngest (not only in my family but in my generation) and I missed out on knowing some of these people. For example, both of my grandfathers died when I was very young. I always felt like I’d only ever learned about the tip of the iceberg as far as family was concerned.

I’ll post more about my research along the way.