Thursday, June 30, 2011

Into the Ether

Reading other people’s material often inspires me. It doesn’t matter what the subject—if it includes a statement that sparks an idea, no matter how esoteric the topic, my mind is off, speeding from the nexus of author’s point and my discovery, to develop a new thought. That is my way of holding “conversations” with the authors I read.

This week, I’ve been reading a collection of articles edited by Kenneth Partridge, assembled under the 2010 title of Social Networking. I know: nothing to do with genealogy. It was the nexus of these thoughts and mine that provided the link to genealogy.

The article in Partridge’s collection that caught my attention was, “The Life and Death of Online Communities.” Of course, author Phoebe Connelly probably didn’t have genealogy forums in mind when she researched that article for The American Prospect. But the warning should be taken to heart in our online communities, also.

Beginning with a historical tour of the rise and fall of GeoCities (remember that?), Phoebe Connelly paints a picture of websites such as GeoCities and the more recent MySpace as “digital commons.” Yet those virtual gathering places, unlike their analog predecessors of centuries past, are not public places, per se, but digitally-crafted areas offered for community use via the auspices of corporations and other official entities. Connelly asks, “Given that we are stuck with much of our digital commons existing on corporate-controlled sites, what then happens when the corporation decides to close its doors?”

A thought.

That is what got me remembering Bill Navey yesterday. From his prodigious output in family research, it seems Bill must have spent a major proportion of his later years pursuing his genealogical brick walls. He made it a point to share what he found, using the online resources of the time. His discoveries are salted away in member-contributor websites much like GeoCities. And with one flip of a switch, all that research—along with the multitude of other members’ sites—can vanish into the ether.

On a brighter note, at least in GeoCities’ case, there are teams working to archive the material from the now-defunct entity. While some might shrug off the closure of such digital catch-alls as no great loss, archivists working to preserve the site’s contents have come across “meticulously detailed outlines of Roma history,” for instance. Obviously, someone cared enough to post these materials online so others could see and use them.

Thinking about the demise of GeoCities—no matter how garish the contents may have seemed to you—puts one in mind of all the genealogical research that has been posted in many of these same free spaces. What is to become of all that research, now hosted by sure-bet entities from commercially-driven to the benefactor of nonprofit Rootsweb, when the well runs dry for their operations? Who will preserve those records then?

The mantra of the computer age has always been to have a back-up. What happens when the entire computer world needs a backup? We’ve had illumination on parchment. We’ve had pen and paper. We’ve had printing presses. We’ve had magnetic tape. We’ve had CDs. Connect the dots: there will be new media in our future that will sweep out the old—and along with them, all the valuable knowledge that was carefully stored within.

As Connelly observed, “it’s a stark reminder that just because something is published on the Internet doesn’t mean it will last forever.”

Where will your genealogy records be, then?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Kin and Kindred Spirits

I’ve been off, reading again. I ran into this book at the library, and its pages provide me with all sorts of inspiration for writing and research projects. I was going to blog about those ideas today—I promise I was—but in researching the topic for today’s post, I happened to cross a bunny trail.

Okay, I detoured. Confession: I followed the bunny trail.

Where I ended up—and I assure you, I’ll share the “before the nexus” story tomorrow—was at a site that must be seeking to serve as a storehouse of more information than I’d ever want to know on the “outlaws” of one side of my mother’s family line. The way I got there was this:

I was recalling a researcher that I had met, years ago, while working on my mother’s Boothe line. This line, as you might have suspected, presents its own brick wall in the person of an early 1800s child named William Alexander Boothe. He had been born in Nansemond, Virginia, but had left town, supposedly after a financial debacle. He had surfaced, miles from home and as a widower with his two sons, in an obscure town in the eastern hills of Tennessee. At some point, he married again, and began the family from which I am descended.

That point is well documented. It’s the previous marriage and parentage in Virginia that has been a mystery to those of us descendants researching his origins.

That’s how I met Bill. Bill—actually, William R. Navey—was another genealogy enthusiast, and he just happened to share some of the same family roots as I did. He turned out to be a third cousin of my mother, although she never knew him. I never knew Bill, before I stumbled across his forum postings. We first met online, although we eventually had a long visit by telephone to compare notes and commiserate over our mutual brick wall.

Some time after I chatted with Bill, I stumbled upon pockets of data he had posted on the Boothe family in various 1990s-style home pages. He was prolific! He had never mentioned those to me, though they would have helped further my quest to document descendants as well as ancestors. I found his cache, years later, via Google.

Today, while reading my library book, I remembered Bill’s home pages and online postings. Rmembering put me in the mood to retrace my steps and find those sites. That task couldn’t be as easy as picking up the phone to call him, for I had stumbled forlornly upon a notice of the southern gentleman’s passing several years ago. So I resorted to my previous matchmaker and again Googled him.

That’s where the bunny trail seduced me. While I couldn’t find the sites I had remembered from over a decade ago, I found a WordPress blog that replicated some of Bill’s descendant charts. Fascinated with this unexpected discovery, I poked around the blog, hoping to find an explanation of why the Navey research was included at this website.

I never could find the answer to that question, but while I looked around, I discovered someone who must be a kindred spirit if not a flesh-and-blood relative. Could this be a next-generation working relationship in the making?

Everything from the title to the slightest archived post had a whiff of déjà vu to it. The blog’s title included one of my favorite icons for catch-all-isms, The Kitchen Sink. The blog creator caught the same vision I’ve had for researching family links: not merely rehearsing dull facts of not-so-vital statistics, but seeking to finger the essence of personhood of relatives long-gone yet somehow still alive through our own existence.

Cathy Ann Abernathy, the blog’s creator, turns out to be a weaver in addition to writer and genealogist. Each facet of her being is evident as she weaves a full spectrum of her life’s interests into her blog posts. I never have been one for segmenting the aspects of personhood, and can so relate to this approach. Perhaps that’s why the theme of a tapestry has had such a pull on me. This time, however, I’m not weaving strands of dead people’s stories; I’m connecting the loose ends of living threads. My search for the stories of long-gone relatives has tied me up in the lives and interests of people like Bill and Cathy.

I guess that means, in a way, I’m a weaver, too.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Making Surnames Searchable

So you’ve been to the Forums and you can’t find the surnames you are looking for. Now what? That happened to me, and I found a way to resolve that problem. It’s just a matter of asking.

Once I discovered the names associated with my father’s Laskowski line—Aktabowski and Gramlewicz—I was excited and wanted to get to work on the research right away. I had thought this would be an easy task, since those are not very common names. Unfortunately, they were so uncommon that I couldn’t find them anywhere.

My two primary resources for online help were the forums hosted at GenForum and Rootsweb. Neither place had those surnames included in their roster. At the time, Googling the names yielded next to nothing, too.

Then, I discovered a little secret about GenForum: you can ask. And someone will have an answer you will like: a way to provide a forum for your specific surname.

Turned out there were two ways to request consideration of adding new surnames. First, there is an actual page with clickable options for adding a surname, adding a domestic location, and adding an international location. Then, for those unable to find their way to this page (and I was one of those search-challenged individuals), there is a clickable link included on the bottom right of each page in GenForum that says simply, “Add Forum.” Can’t get more streamlined than that.

The process, in my case, was so simple, I pulled it off without a hitch. And there, on GenForum, are my requested forums for both Aktabowski and Gramlewicz. However, as you probably have surmised, just one look shows how obvious it was why this research venue was not previously included in their roster: the pages have gotten next to no traffic in all the years since my request.

The case with Rootsweb was a little different. At that time, the Rootsweb subscriber lists were administered by a moderator. If you wanted a new surname added, you had to be willing to be a moderator for the list. I wasn’t quite ready for that, myself. I’m still not ready. And evidently, no one else is ready to spring for administering a mailing list for my Aktabowski or Gramlewicz lines, as I saw today when taking another look around their current list of offerings.

However, upon the merger of Rootsweb with the commercial power of Ancestry, the Rootsweb navigational bar began offering the link to Ancestry’s message boards. At that point, I hadn’t checked to see if my two surnames were on their list, but checking right now, they aren’t. However, there is a way to request other surnames be added on this site, too. Ominously, there is a clickable box at the bottom of the request form for those willing to serve as board administrator. I didn’t see any commentary on what happens to requests made by those not willing to exert the effort to make things happen, but I’m wondering if the answer will turn negative for those not willing to follow through with a little volunteer muscle.

So, if you are an initiator and want to see your ancestors’ surnames in lights (at least in a digital version online), the bottom line is: you can do this, and the more of “this” you want to do, the more you must be willing to follow through with your volunteer presence.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Gaps in the Graveyard

This may seem morbid: genealogists often find themselves photographing the subjects of their research in cemeteries. However, to set your over-active imagination at rest, these shutterbugs fly mostly during daylight hours.

I knew about these hobbyists, snapping shots of headstones and posting them online. I had actually benefited from instances of serendipitous discovery often on one such website—like when I found the obituary and cemetery record for my husband’s great-great-grandfather John Stevens, courtesy of Find A Grave. And I had recently discovered, courtesy of the Footnote Maven, the ghoulishly charming cluster of websites for The Association of Graveyard Rabbits, whose membership seems to elevate the task of graveyard photography to an art.

But when I didn’t find a picture I wanted, it got me thinking about what I could do to fill in the gap. What happened was this: posting about my husband’s distant relative William Flanagan, I remembered we had photographed his informative grave monument during a trip back east several years ago—mostly for the records provided, but also because of the inordinate size of the memorial. I thought it would be appropriate to accompany my blog post on Mr. Flanagan with an inset of that picture.

Remembering how many years it had been since snapping that set of pictures, and recalling all the many boxes of pre-digital-age records in which said photographs might be stored, I had hoped Find A Grave would come to my rescue and help me bypass what surely would be a time-consuming paper chase.

Alas, though the Chicago-area cemetery was featured in the database, Find A Grave did not have a display of the Flanagan memorial. So, back to the wood-burning version of search “engine” I’d have to go.

In the meantime, I got to thinking about all the cemetery photographs I’ve taken over the years. I’m not a swell shot, as far as camera work goes, but my renditions will suffice for the practical-minded. And sometimes, that’s all people are asking for.

So, instead of only using Find A Grave for a research outlet, I decided to give back a little and contribute some of my own work. I signed up to become a member there, and also to be a volunteer for photo requests. After all, I may as well do something useful as I unearth all my stacks of stored records. Why not make them accessible to others and help another researcher along the way?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Figuring Out Those Flanagans

So what about William Flanagan, Irishman, who got himself a very round trip from his homeland to Illinois via the far side of the world in Australia? It had been a long time since I checked online for more pieces on my Flanagan puzzle, so I decided to take a look. After all, aging means mellowing, as far as internet resources go.

However, William himself yielded little information. He was a single man. I only know from indirect references that he was related to my husband’s Tully line. But because the Tully line was one of my “brick walls,” I had hoped to use him as a way to do an end run around that black hole in the online data world.

It didn’t work. Single men who have been well thought of in the world may leave little behind in the way of family links. There was this one other hint, though....

Somewhere in all those stacks of unfiled research papers in my office was a document showing that, besides my husband’s great-grandmother Catherine, William had one more niece. Her name was Johanna Lee. She was buried in the same cemetery plot as William, along with some other people who seemed to have family connections.

At first, I didn’t know if Johanna was a relative or not. In the 1800s, it was customary in some places for a man to purchase a cemetery lot big enough to accommodate his entire family. For this reason, one research trick was to obtain the names of everyone buried in the lot. I make that my habit, but on more than one occasion have had to discard some of the names in the records because, try as I might, I can find no familial link.

Years ago, I had sent for Johanna’s death certificate, hoping it would reveal her maiden name. Unfortunately, she died just before the city of Chicago—her adopted home—instituted the policy of gathering the wealth of personal information we come to expect in more modern documents. Nowadays, death records provide the name and birthplace of each parent, as well as the deceased woman’s maiden name. I would have been satisfied with just the maiden name.

By claiming William Flanagan as her uncle, Johanna could either be descended from William’s (as yet unknown) brother or a sister. If sister, then another surname would enter into the picture—and without it, searching would become slightly more complicated. Why, oh why, I thought, couldn’t the City of Chicago have made their decision to modernize their records a few years earlier? It would have made life in the research world so much easier for me.

But there is more than one way to corroborate a fact. And thankfully, as people increasingly use the internet as their historical repository—and allow it to be freely accessible to all—we are able to easily locate documents that used to take hours of hand searching to uncover.

And yesterday afternoon was my time to find them.

It wasn’t difficult at all. Once I got on a roll, it actually was hard to stop looking. I kept finding so many more documents. I’m now well on the way to constructing a descendant chart of Johanna's family.

Finding the surname “Lee” in a city the size of Chicago can be a daunting task. Think of the implications: Lee is a surname claimed by multiple ethnic backgrounds—from Germany to Greece to Ireland to China! Lee is also not an uncommon name. A wide-open search for just the plain surname Lee with no secondary terms can yield truckloads of records. Thank God for the power of internet search tools!

The way I found it was this: I went to the beta site of Family Search labs. Using the advanced search option, I played around with the surname Lee and the given name Johanna. I used the delimiter of Chicago to avoid getting extraneous hits. However, due to 19th century proclivity to spell creatively, I used the option to find “exact and close match.” That way, the many renderings of Johanna and, believe it or not, Lee, would all be captured—not to mention, as I continued looking, Flanagan!

Right off the bat, I found several birth records listing a Johanna Flanagan as mother and John Lee as father. As some of those records were for as-yet unnamed sons, I then searched using advanced options where I entered Johanna and John as parents, to see if any other records—census or death—would come up with those children’s given names. I did get a few, enough to reach to Johanna’s grandchildren, and add daughters-in-law’s maiden names to the record. With time, I’ll be able to connect a few more dots in that family tree.

I then checked some of those children’s names using the Rootsweb WorldConnect files. Thankfully, someone else from that line—undoubtedly an “outlaw”—has posted a tree from one of the wives’ lines. I’m glad the contributor provided her contact information. In reaching her, I now know that she also has her data posted on Ancestry and that she has updated some of it since her upload to Rootsweb. We’ll be able to work together on that line, speeding things up for both of us.

As far as Johanna’s uncle William goes, though, I haven’t yet secured that tidbit of information, that secret weapon to blast a hole wide open in the Tully-Flanagan brick wall. However, that key ingredient may be something as simple as the next step of discovering Johanna’s father’s name—and sincerely hoping that that Flanagan left a more obvious trail of his whereabouts for his descendants to find.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Black Sheep Relatives

One of the hazards of researching your family history is uncovering unexpected tales of ill repute. While I’m not sure the crimes for which Irishman William Flanagan was convicted by his British overseers would qualify today as heinous acts, they do leave a wisp of a paper trail. And I can’t pass up the chase.

It all began with the slightest shred of a clue. Uncle Ed, my source of many research hints, had once written in a letter that William Flanagan “spent many years in Australia.” No other details. This was the only bit he could provide of the story about a man living in the 1800s.

While a trip Down Under may be fashionable fun in the jet age, for an Irishman of that time period, that sort of “vacation” could only mean one thing: Transportation. That was the sentence doled out by the British for their subjects in Ireland and elsewhere found in violation of the many codes enforced at that time.

Fortunately for me, some history-minded soul of more recent years decided that archiving all the Transportation records—and other criminal records—of that era would serve the public good, and put the collection on the internet for all to see and search. That’s how I found William Flanagan.

Of course, I’m not yet sure that this is my William. It seems quite possible. The trial was held in Cork. I know from a letter to his sister, which the family still has, that the mail route to the family home was from Cork just over the county line to County Limerick, and it is quite possible that her brother also lived in that area. But if our William did indeed end up being shipped off to Australia, I can find no further records from Ireland showing that that was done. Nor can I find any records from Australia to any destination in the United States showing how William returned to meet his sister Anna who, by then, had surfaced with her daughter in Chicago. All the document states about the court case is that the trial was regarding the question of stealing trousers and “former convictions.” His trial date was set for March 22, 1851. He was sentenced to “Transportation, seven years.”

His death certificate shows only that, by the time of his passing in 1893, William had been in the state of Illinois for eighteen years, and that his place of birth was in Ireland. Nothing about Australia. His obituary was mum on the subject, too, listing only the date of his death, the church where his funeral was to be held, and the cemetery selected for burial. Presumed to be 80 years of age at the time of his death, William was a single man, so there was no one in his direct line to carry on the oral tradition of his origins. Thankfully, the obituary mentioned the link to his niece, Chris’s great-grandmother Catherine Malloy Tully. Other than that, there is little we know about the man who, through a quirk of British history, found himself unpaid passage to the far side of the world.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Documenting the Obvious

In genealogy, a part of the quest is to document key dates and events. Birth. Marriage. Death. Such documents serve to establish family links as well as certify dates and locations. People whose research goal includes being designated a “first family” of a location—national, state, or local—must gather records to demonstrate proof of their descent from key ancestors.

As for documenting generations closer to the present, the process seems redundant. There is no need to verify the self-evident, you may be thinking. And that may very well be so. In my case, though, I had this nagging need to find documentation of my own parents’ marriage.

For one thing, as squishy as my father’s answer to my incessant questions about family tree matters was, my mother’s reply to my queries about their anniversary seemed even more doubtful. After all, what bride doesn’t remember her wedding day? Yet my mother would always tell me, “Oh, it was June 24. Or June 26. I can’t remember.”

Forgetting anniversary dates has historically been within the purview of the gentleman’s side of the marriage equation. Somehow, in her characteristic Amazon Woman way, my mother had inserted this into her own repertoire.

A few years ago, I decided to settle this date issue for myself. Looking online, I researched what was required to obtain a copy of a marriage certificate. Unfortunately, the state in which my parents were married expected the inquirer to provide exact dates or pay a search fee. Telling them, “Oh, it might be the 24th or it might be the 26th” would never do—let alone the fact that I never had known the year of their marriage.

Perhaps I can avoid this tangle by researching the issue in person, I thought. And at the county level. Easier to fight city hall than to take on the entire state.

My opportunity came a couple years ago. I had a chance to travel back east, and I made sure to include in my road trip a detour to the state of New Jersey, where my parents, both New York City residents, had chosen to be wed. I had photographs of the event and knew the location of the church. Conveniently, the town in which they were married happened to be the county’s repository for such local records. And, to make the trip more fun, my cousin and his wife happened to be in town that same week.

“Hop in the car and I’ll take you there,” offered Bev from her lakeside summer cottage, and we drove downtown. It was nearly lunchtime and the office was empty except for one cover worker. She set out the paperwork I needed to complete for my request.

I stopped dead in my tracks. The page explained that a couple alternate dates could be given, but if those weren’t successful identifiers of the record, an additional search fee would be assessed—which, of course, meant an additional wait. No time for that kind of delay: I was leaving town in the morning. And I wanted to leave with the document in hand.

Silently whispering one of those desperate “Hail Mary” type prayers, I hoped the year I arbitrarily entered on the request form would produce results. I stalled, mentally rehearsing the pros and cons of each possible year of marriage.

Meanwhile, Bev—a longstanding member of the community—struck up a conversation with the clerk. Nothing like having local connections. The two women chitchatted about mutual acquaintances in town. Before I completed my paperwork, Bev had linked the woman favorably with some of her own friends and their relatives.

Doubtful about my guesses, I gave up and handed over the form. The clerk proceeded to search the old books. Meanwhile, Bev kept up her chatter.

At last, the clerk looked up and said, “I’m sorry but I don’t see any records by those names.” She started to close the book.

Bev was quick to slip in a pointed index finger and asked, “What about that?”

Opening the book so we could all see, she looked up and down the page. Desperate to grab any possible way to stall for time, we started looking backwards on the page, thankful that the previous year’s entries were also now visible to us as well as to the clerk. And there it was: the record of marriage for my own parents!

We walked out of that office, pleased that I had my copy of the document I was seeking—and glad that someone had kept up community connections all these years despite having retired to warmer climes. There is nothing like having friends of friends when you need to make a difference.

As for the question of the date—was it the 24th or the 26th?—I now had my proof on officially-sanctioned bureaucratic paper.

Fifty-nine years ago today, until death did them part, my parents had promised, “I do.”

Thursday, June 23, 2011

So You Want to Go Abroad

It’s the big dream of every American genealogist: to somehow make the leap over the ocean to the family’s countries of origin. Who wouldn’t love to walk down narrow streets of the very village where your great-great-ancestor once lived? Or to view the records dutifully kept by the priest who baptized, married or buried your ancestors?

It sounds like great fun. But the door to this adventure doesn’t open easily. Sometimes, we have to settle for a lot of the sleuthing to be virtual footwork.

That’s where subscriber-paid websites become tempting. Sites such as are adding a wealth of foreign material to their holdings, and these digital records can be opened to you for a modest price. Don’t be so quick to spring at the offer, though. I’ve found that some of the holdings in subscriber-based sites are too limited—or not focused on my particular region—to be of enough help to warrant the price tag. Yet.

In my case, there are two locations in Europe that claim my research attention: Ireland and Poland. Though I know those are the target regions for my future research, I have a lot more to accomplish before I can jump across the Big Puddle and hire a translator.

For instance, take my husband’s Irish ancestors. Though we found the declaration of intent of John Stevens to renounce his allegiance to Queen Victoria and settle in Lafayette, Indiana, and though it states that he was from County Mayo, searching for the name, John Stevens, alone would not get me far. There are dozens of men by that same name from that county in that time period.

My husband’s Tully line seemed to be a more likely candidate for research. We had family stories passed down through the generations to help guide research. We knew that the Tully family traveled from Ireland to Canada, sailing along the St. Lawrence River. While some of the family settled in Ontario, others continued through the Great Lakes. Their ultimate goal was to move to Chicago—although those in the Tully family arriving later were rebuffed by changes in United States immigration policies. Some of those later family members chose rather to head west through Canada, moving to Winnipeg and then down to the territory of North Dakota when the opportunity presented itself.

Instead of making my research goal to head straight to the source in Ireland, I had to piece together these immigrants’ tracks, in reverse. Subscribing to the pay-per-view websites made no sense, however, when I discovered many free resources, courtesy of the advice of seasoned researchers on the many forums I use. Besides, at that time, there was scant information available on the subscriber sites, anyhow, as I discovered during a two-week trial subscription.

Of course, there was the serendipity of connecting online with a new-found Canadian cousin who, through “outlaws,” provided a missing link in the family saga. Once I had that information, it was easy to find several records to corroborate the family’s account of the journey.

Sites such as Automated Genealogy provided searchable resources for Canadian census records from the 1850s to 1911. There, I moved backward in time from the western Canadian provinces to Paris village in Brant County, Ontario, where the first generation of Tully immigrants settled. Along the way—and as I also did research on all the Tully descendants from those lines—I found additional clues from a number of websites that focused on Saskatchewan and Manitoba records.

And from that jumping off place in Paris,Canada, my next step will be to find ship’s listings and then church records in “Ballina,” Ireland, wherever that is. By the time I’m ready to do that, perhaps will have acquired enough holdings to make the international subscription rate worth my while. Until then, between FamilySearch and Cyndi’s List, I should have enough free material to keep me busy.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Grandmother of Genealogy Portals

“Free” is everybody’s favorite word. When it comes to online research, however, “free” may come with caveats. One of them is: you have to find it yourself.

If you know about Cyndi’s List, though, you have found a friend in the search. Since 1996, Cyndi Howells has been aggregating links to the virtually hundreds of thousands of websites and online resources featuring aspects of genealogy large and small. Cyndi, online, is a good person to know.

Cyndi’s List began, literally, as a list. A one-page photocopy of everything genealogically useful that she had found on the web, it was a hand-out she had brought to a meeting of her local Genealogical Society. That was in September, 1995. By the time six months had passed, she had taught herself HTML and built a personal web site to share her by-now thousand-plus links. Since then, it has mushroomed as the idea caught on and people everywhere began sending her suggestions to more links.

The idea seems larger than life: the virtual Big Box of Genealogy Sites. Looking through the categories can seem overwhelming, especially for the new researcher. A recent reorganization of the website helps, but still reminds you that you are on to something BIG.

The huge list of categories—think Wish List for Santa’s Toy Shoppe—was best reassembled into pages of subcategories. A look at the original version, an alphabetical splat of everything there is to know about everything genealogical, gives you an idea of the immenseness of what is Out There. And these are just the categories. Each topic produces a sizeable list of its own at the bidding of your mere click of the mouse.

Sub-category lists help. If you already know what you are looking for, a clickable alphabet at the bottom of the home page streamlines the process of getting in the door. There is a page of “How To” categories. For newbies, there is a separate page of “How To” categories specific to beginner research issues.  If you want to know more about the process behind all the content, there are pages of categories about FAQ topics. And there is even a page about who this mysterious online Cyndi really is.

There are enough categories to fuel over 650 pages of lists of clickable genealogy sites. Want to research your family history in Slovakia? It’s there. Wondering if there is royal blood in your family line? Check here. There is even an entry for Antarctica, in case your forebears headed that far south for the winter. And, not to leave any research possibility untouched, the List also has a category for Outer Space. Pretty thorough.

Cyndi’s List—and its creator—has been featured in Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, USA Today, Parade, Wired, The New York Times, and numerous other publications over the years. Cyndi’s List has a page on Facebook. She also maintains a blog. Don't forget Cyndi's List: the book. And yes, there is even an entry for her website on Wikipedia.

Cyndi’s List is a genealogy playground big enough to need its own map. Don’t let the immense size scare you away, though. There’s plenty of room to roam. Come on down and take a look around.

Howdy. And welcome to the Texas of genealogy research.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Can’t Beat Free and Online

Sometimes the presumption is that hobbies cost money—lots of money. However, despite spending a small chunk for the program I use to organize my genealogy database, I’ve been able to find several online resources that cost me absolutely nothing to use.

There are pockets of shared material scattered all over the internet. The trick is finding where these gems are salted away. One approach is to Google your target names. Another is to use those trusty forums and ask, “Where would I find this?” A third way is to go to the giants that everyone knows and respects and see how much information can be found there—a sort of one-stop genealogical shopping trip, virtual big-box version.

Google is ubiquitous in the online world. I see no reason to ignore its finding power when doing family research. If I have a name I want to research—provided it isn’t too common—I plug it into Google’s little box to see what comes up, putting quote marks around the full name. Since we’re now also immersed in a world that includes social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, sometimes that research strategy gets flooded with too many current-day hits, so I’ve had to modify my approach and add a second search term, like “obituary” or “genealogy” to hone in on what I’m looking for. While that approach doesn’t always get me great results, it sometimes leads me to sites I hadn’t previously been aware of.

As far as the forums go, I can’t say enough positive things about those resources. Many of these sites are peopled with patient and experienced peers—people just like us who love doing family research and are happy to share what they’ve learned along the way. Even if I’m posting a query hoping for Some Kind Soul to volunteer to help me, I inevitably find someone who subscribes to the “teach a man to fish” theory and gives me a short lesson in where I can find more about the answer I’m seeking, rather than give me the handout that only “feeds” me for a day’s worth of genealogical “meals.” I’ve learned about so many free online resources that way. I’m always sure to mark those new-found sites in a genealogy folder in my Favorites file for future reference.

While it is handy to learn about the best place to find obituaries posted in Saskatoon or Regina, or marriage records posted in New Lexington, you can’t beat finding all your research answers in one convenient location. That’s why the many changes to the FamilySearch site have been so exciting. From a streamlined entry screen, you may be able to access everything from census records to actual copies of key documents for several family members. And to think that, only a few years ago, this website featured little more than the transcribed records of the 1880 US Census!

Coupled with this website is a beta version that was used in developing what is available at FamilySearch today. That site has been a bonanza of scanned documents for many of my 19th century relatives, particularly those resident in the Midwest.

As with many of the resources that can be found online, the aging process becomes an enhancement process: the more these sites are able to augment their holdings, the more that means success in your search ventures.

But why wait? Try entering some of your ancestors’ names in these sites now and take a look at what comes up. You may find—as I did one recent afternoon—that it is hard to pull yourself away from all the material you are uncovering with just the click of your mouse.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Cousins I Never Knew I Had

For the relative-deprived, there is nothing like finding a new cousin. Truth be told, that was one of my hopes when I started family research. Besides one sister, the only relatives I had of my own age when I was growing up were mostly a few cousins-once-removed—which is a concept rather difficult for an eight-year-old to wrap her head around during a summer weekend at the lake.

Somehow, I took that prejudice with me into adulthood, and into my adult endeavors in genealogy. I had read somewhere that, if you are willing to post your family tree on your website, relatives you never knew you had will flock to you. I, however, had no appetite for getting into the technical side of the internet and no intention of developing my own website, so I was out of luck there.

Plodding along at my own research, though, I stumbled upon a way to still be found by those unknown relatives. The answer came, courtesy of those genealogy forums I so appreciate.

When I’m stuck on a research problem, I post queries—those short S-O-S posts for genealogical “HELP!”—on two sites: GenForum, a site now hosted by, and the Rootsweb subscriber lists. (Now that I’m an member, I also use the message boards provided by Ancestry and merged with the material freely accessible through Rootsweb.)

What I didn’t realize—well, my head knew it, but somehow it didn’t drop to the heart of my operating system—was that those posts are archived and searchable for years to come.

One day, someone from the Gramlewicz branch of my father’s family sent me an email. Though my Gramlewicz relatives were in America in the early 1900s, this one particular branch had decided to return to Poland, and this person was a descendant of that line. Though she was born in Poland and spoke the Polish language, as a student she had decided to learn English. One day—and this whim hits a surprising number of people—she got to wondering about her family’s origins and Googled her surname to see if she could find anything online.

All those pockets of queries on different surnames and geographic locations that I had posted hither and yon over the years, still aggregated in online archives, found their way to this Polish descendant. Hoping that she could make a connection, she found my email address in the archives and contacted me.

How fun it was to go through the checking process to verify that we were, indeed, talking about the same ancestors! And how wonderful to hear the other side of the story from her perspective.

Of course, the hits are not always right on target. I’ve gotten a number of emails over the years from hopeful researchers desperate to fit my square peg in their round hole. Sometimes the wish is so great to make the fit work! But even the lessons learned from mistakes can be valuable.

I think the farthest-removed relative I’ve met online was a ninth cousin—talk about wrapping your mind around the “once removed” concept!—and this woman from Poland is a third cousin once removed. Besides requiring me to get my relationship lingo down pat, it’s been great fun making connections with relatives I never knew I had.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

For Our Fathers

All across America today, families are honoring their fathers. Of course, the intent of this celebration is to recognize one individual in each family. Throughout the ages, though, the phrase “our fathers” had the connotation of remembering, collectively, our ancestors.

In our modern celebrations, we don’t often include that concept of ancestry anymore, though we can’t help but admit that we wouldn’t be what we are today without the groundwork laid by those “fathers.” When we talk about national matters, our country’s origin owes a debt to our “founding fathers.” When we talk about the various disciplines of study that made our modern age what it is, we often refer to the “fathers” of certain branches of medicine or fields of technology. And we study what they originated through classes at institutions established through the foresight of a university’s founding fathers. The “founding” of a family should be no different.

In ancient times, especially those revolving around concepts of clans, the father—the patriarch—was the all-important leader. The beginnings of the ancient Roman civilization owed much to the strength of their fathers. The very word, “patria,” evolved from the ancient Greek, demonstrating that culture’s perspective on the impact of strong fathers.

In our current times, it would serve us well to have a broader perspective on the impact of fathers, too—not just the father in the current household, but “fathers” in the sense of those whose foresight and leadership allowed our families to be what they are today. For every family originating on foreign soil but thriving here as transplants to this country, we have a father to thank. Whether that father chose to make his move two centuries ago or two generations ago makes little difference. It is what he chose to do that makes life what it is today for us, whether we have met that man in our lifetime or not.

And for the man our family is celebrating today? Let him see himself not as an individual merely living life for today and today alone: let him understand he is taking up his position in a long chain of men whose actions and choices have made the difference for generations to come. Fathers: someday, someone’s sons and daughters whom you’ll never meet will hopefully realize with gratitude that their lives would not be the same if it weren’t for the choices that you, their unseen ancestor, have made.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Forum Comes Through Again—Maybe

There are always questions in family research—and for some of those questions, there are answers. But when you are asking your questions in the Forum, you simply must be prepared to wait.

On the occasion of my search for the passenger records for my husband’s immigrant Kelly family, however, the wait was only one day. Not bad for free!

Chris’s great-grandmother Catherine Kelly was from Ireland, we knew. The 1900 United States census reported that Catherine arrived here as a child in 1869. Her mother’s obituary, only three years later published in their adopted hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, reported the date of arrival as 1870. Which date was the right one?

Neither, it appeared.

People alive during that age must have seen time as a much more fluid state. Birthdays, dates of arrival, dates of marriage—most of the census reports I’ve seen evidently were approximations. For when the actual record appeared in reply to my forum question, it showed an arrival date of August 20, 1868.

A forum participant sent me the record. I had mentioned finding a possible passenger listing in a book at the library, but that I wasn’t certain it was the correct one. The entry from the forum note looked right, though—almost. Bless his soul, the guy who answered my query included the NARA film number as well as the Family History Center library film number so I could view the microfilm version of the record for myself.

And he transcribed the results of the search in his forum reply, too. It looked like Catherine had traveled with her mother, older brother Timothy, and younger brother Patrick. Having Dad—John—missing from the scene was not alarming. It was not unusual for the father to travel ahead, find work, earn money for passage for his family and send it home so they could come join him, so I wasn’t too concerned that John Kelly wasn’t part of the list. The only thing that made me wonder if this were correct was the missing daughter, Mary—where was she? Could this be the wrong family?

Looking back at records I had transcribed in my database, it would have been the younger sister, Mary, who would have been the infant on this trip, not Patrick. All the census records showed Patrick as born in Indiana, not Ireland. Even if I looked askance at all those glaring census errors, I had Patrick’s obituary stating he was a Fort Wayne native, to boot.

It was so tempting, though, to think once again that the census records were in error. I had found the actual name of the ship: the Denmark. I found a picture of the steamship at Norway-Heritage, this wonderful website full of immigration facts and figures. I found all sorts of documentation about the ship. It would be so nice to close the book and be done with it.

All but for Mary. I’ve heard stories of new mothers walking out of the grocery store and forgetting to take their little sleeping bundle out of the shopping cart before heading out on the drive home. But on a trans-oceanic journey?

I had to face up to it: despite the proliferation of free online search resources—everything from the Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild to the Cyndi’s List page on ships—I still couldn’t say with certainty that I had found my Kelly family.

Mary, I am certain, was too young to play the part of ingénue in “Home Alone.”
s/s Denmark, courtesy Norway-Heritage

Friday, June 17, 2011

Catherine Kelly and Catherine Kelly

The smartest way to get started in family research is the simplest: sit down with elder members of the family and ask them about the relatives they knew. I did that one day with Uncle Ed. By that time, he was in his eighties, but it was still highly evident that he was always a savvy businessman. He knew his stuff.

We began with the obvious starting point: name of his parents. He told me everything he could about William Stevens and his bride of 1912, Agnes Tully. He had kept handwritten notes from years prior so that he would be able to pass their story along. I wrote as fast as I could, not wanting to miss any notes that might turn out to be valuable hints later on.

Then to their parents’ lines. We started with the paternal: William’s dad was John Kelly Stevens of Fort Wayne, Indiana. His mother was Catherine Kelly from Ireland.

Ah, so soon we get the chance to leap the big puddle, I thought. And where in Ireland was she from? “Lakes of Killarney.”

That is the name of a region, not a town. Not even a county. But it would have to do for the time.

We moved on. Who was John Kelly Stevens’ father? “John Stevens.”

Oh. We now enter the dangerous water of name-afters. No wonder John Kelly Stevens was called John Kelly Stevens! I foresaw many duplicates of this pattern.

“And who was John Kelly Stevens’ mother?” I continued.

“But Catherine Kelly was John’s wife.”


“Then how can she be his mother?”

A confused look from the astute businessman. He didn’t know what to tell me. But that was what he had on his records.

Make that another note taken that might turn out to be a valuable hint later on....

It turns out that there are many Catherine Kellys out there in the genealogy world. As you can imagine, this decreases the certainty of any research find.

As has been so characteristic of me in my earlier work, I yearned to make a big find on one of the ships’ lists indexes, but searching for a Catherine Kelly from Ireland seemed impossible.

Once I found some census information on clusters of family names and possible dates of immigration, things got a bit clearer, but at that point, online resources were still quite slim.

I was fortunate, though, that my local library had the support of an active Genealogical Society, which translated into a sizeable selection of reference materials. It just so happened that one of the books was an index of ships’ lists.

There was a Catherine Kelly listed in that book. I scribbled down the note, took it home, but then sat on it. Something didn’t seem quite right. I couldn’t be sure that was my Catherine Kelly.

I moved on. Remembering those faithful virtual friends on the various internet forums I frequented, I posted a query about my doubts on the passenger list where I found Catherine. And waited for an answer.

Meanwhile, I pushed back one more generation, sending for documentation that would confirm John Kelly Stevens’ mother’s name. Usually, a death certificate will indicate a name, but considering the stressful circumstances surrounding the moment when an informant provides the information for the certificate, it is usually wise to cross-check with another document.

It was hard finding John Kelly Stevens’ father. I knew John had two brothers, James and William, but the probable father, John Stevens, in their hometown of Lafayette, Indiana, also had daughters. Besides, he was married to someone named Eliza. That didn’t match.

Sifting through documents, now made a bit easier with the library’s subscription to the then-nascent, I found a record stating John Kelly’s brother William Stevens’ mother was Catherine Kelly.

I kept looking and found other records to confirm: John Kelly Stevens not only had a wife named Catherine Kelly, his mother was named Catherine Kelly, too. “Kelly” in son John’s case was not a given name as is so often the case with middle names, but the passing on of a mother’s maiden name. That was customary in a certain time period and among the more prosperous segments of society, but not something I would have expected from poverty-stricken Irish fleeing a land of starvation. In retrospect, though, it made sense in explaining why John Kelly Stevens was always “John Kelly.

It took quite a few years to find the evidence, but in the end, Uncle Ed was right.

I would so have loved to tell Uncle Ed. And I would have loved to report to him my findings on where in Ireland his ancestors originated. But one fine summer day in 2005, he slipped away. I still haven’t found all the answers, of course, but when I do, I hope he’ll see what I found.

Or perhaps he already knows.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

And Here It Is

So, I live to tell of it—my harrowing tale of posting a bit of my family on the internet, out there for all to see.

Rootsweb, the generous repository of the freely-accessible genealogy data of a multitude of users worldwide, reserved the right to take up to 36 hours to make my database publicly available. Something about regularly-scheduled times to batch their computer records, I’m sure.

In reality, it didn’t take that long. Though I could hardly stand the wait, my records were online the afternoon following the evening of my virtual escapade—not even a 24 hour wait.

In the meantime, true confession: I went back to the site several times to check and see if my file was posted. I was probably as bad as a kid on a trip to the beach: “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”

Yes, we are there. And you are welcome to see for yourself.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Push the Button

It is much easier to talk about doing something than to do it—even if the “doing” involves the most user-friendly tools available. Rootsweb does have a nifty system for getting your GEDCOM-converted files uploaded in a streamlined manner. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m not a model user.

OK, I admit it: I’m not a geek. Like a foreigner who has learned the language in high school, I’m fine with listening. Just don’t ask me to talk that lingo. However, if I want to get my genealogy data online in a form that’s of any use to others, I’ll have to learn how to “talk” with the system that makes things happen.

Actually, the process wasn’t too bad. Except for the fact that I had to remind myself to keep breathing, everything went fairly smoothly. I already had a user name and password for the Rootsweb system—I think I’ve been a Rootsweb user since the late 1990s—so that was one hurdle I could bypass. The “door” into the system was clearly labeled—nothing like a clickable label shouting, “Start HERE.” Once “inside” it was just a matter of answering questions on their standardized form. (Rootsweb recommends that newbies use their standard form for first flights; frequent fliers are welcome to their customized options.)

The first step was to change my genealogy database from the format that my FamilyTreeMaker program uses to a standardized version known as a GEDCOM. That took a little hunting and pecking in my own genealogy program, but wasn’t difficult. Once I laid that groundwork, the heavy lifting was all done by Rootsweb.

It took a few attempts to get everything on the website the way I wanted. I had some general ideas of what I wanted to post for headers and footers for the pages, for instance, but found some typos that needed correction once I had a demo of the page up and running on the Rootsweb site. I’m hoping most everything is correct, now, though there are a few glitches I’m struggling with. I still can’t figure out how to make my blog addy show in HTML, for instance.

Taking a long look at the end result, though, caused me to scurry back and make some changes to posting instructions. I am one of those researchers who has learned to leave myself notes in my database when I’ve found something that might be a lead. If I don’t write it down somewhere, I end up forgetting what might turn out to be a valuable hint; if I don’t use the same place to store my notes, I end up forgetting where I wrote down the stuff I don’t want to forget! But a public site like Rootsweb is no place for my personal notes on what Aunt Mabel said in her last letters.

So back to the drawing board it was. Rather than hand scrub the notes for 12,500 people, I had to make the choice to not have any notes at all. Gone are all the obituaries and transcriptions of other documents. If someone just has to know about them, they’ll have to ask me. I’m fine with that, though—making connections is what it’s all about, isn’t it?

So...I did it. I pushed the button. And yeah, I’m still alive. Technology might not be so bad, after all.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Take a Deep Breath And...

A friend of mine just got back from hiking the falls at Yosemite National Park. I’m impressed with her accomplishment. I’ve stood at the bottom of those mountain trails and thought, “I can do this,” only to take a few steps and change my mind. Usually, my change of heart comes about halfway up the trail—too tuckered to keep going up, too phobic of heights to relish the slide down.

Some people find themselves in this situation in their quest for the summit while researching their family line. Of course, “the summit” is unattainable in genealogy, but most people never consider that possibility. They boldly persevere—just one more name, just one more generation, in this relentless pursuit. “Then I’ll stop,” they convince themselves.

Somewhere in the middle of their trek, they venture a glance at their surroundings. What they see scares them: piles of papers everywhere, with well-meaning intentions scribbled on post-its for some far-off day when they can get “around to it.” Added to this are bulging files stashed in cabinets from better-organized days. Computer files fare no differently: “Favorites” of sites whose only helpful data now are error codes and “Page Cannot Be Found” messages.

But who has time to clean up these broken links and “Round Tuit” files? There are more ancestors to be found!

When I caught myself in that situation, I realized it was time to stop searching for myself and start sharing with others. One way I wanted to do this was through Rootsweb.

I’ve mentioned before about the Rootsweb site. It has been a mainstay for my own work for years. A free site (now generously hosted by, it allows people to post their research in a publicly-searchable format. While none of that material is certifiably free of error, it provides a starting place for other hobbyists to get a toe-hold on their own family trail.

The only drawback in my good intentions to share is that I am not a tech-savvy person. I’m not new to computers or the internet by any stretch of the imagination. That is not the problem. Let’s just say...I lack the confidence to jump from my trail on the “real” mountain of my own data to the virtual mountaintop of Rootsweb’s WorldConnect Project.

Taking a look at the narrative—just the history—of the website has enough technojargon to make my resolve melt. However, after reviewing several pages of FAQs, directions, and other comments, I’m feeling like—just maybe—the real English carries enough weight to overcome the virtual verbiage.

Make it to the top, this time? Maybe, just maybe, I can do this.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Goal-Setting and Genealogy

As a homeschooling family, we’ve been to lots of conferences in the past twenty years. When you are talking about educating at home, you are talking about the need to learn in a myriad of subjects. After all, education is about preparation for the future.

There are several good lessons to be learned at conferences. There are plenty of well-qualified speakers and a smorgasbord of topics from which to choose. The choosing, however, goes well beyond just picking classes. Sometimes it requires having a sense of what to keep, what to recycle, and what to discard.

Forward-thinking. Cutting-edge. Take Goal Setting: everyone wants to sound progressive while teaching. Business-minded conference instructors try applying work site concepts to the home front. Sometimes these work great—in getting school assignments done on time, for instance. When we attended a marriage-oriented session at one conference, however, the goal-setting mantra just didn’t work for me.

Do you do Five Year Plans? Those didn’t even work for the Russians. Why would I ever want to apply that to my marriage? I hate to think how that concept would translate into spouse-speak. But there are couples out there leading workshops that certify that planning ahead, Soviet-style, is just what a marriage needs.

If it is supposed to work great for families, how about for family trees? I can’t think of any way this would be possible, but I can try imagining it...
-         “By the end of this year, I will find twenty more great-aunts and –uncles.”
-         “In two years, I will complete my search for all my great-grandparents.”
-         “In three years, I will locate my family origins in Ireland and Poland.”
-         “In four years, I will contact all the descendants of my family in Ireland and Poland.”
-         “In five years, I will find my paternal great-great-great-grandmother.”

I don’t think it will work like that.

For one thing, when planning involves making someone else fulfill your expectations without the open-endedness of mutual agreement, that ceases being planning and begins looking strangely like coercion. Granted, most of the other parties to my family research are long gone, but that doesn’t eclipse the aspect of control. We can’t plan on ordering certainty to emerge from the unknown.

But we can hope. And if hope is an adequate synonym for planning in the realm of genealogy, then I’ll set goals—at least one at a time, until I achieve each step. And I’ll keep a to-do list so I’ll be ready for the unexpected opportunity to go to key locations.

Truth be told, I’ve already got a to-do short list, and it’s my summertime quest: to post my database on a publicly-accessible site. I’ve been putting this off for years; I’m still waiting to find just that one more ancestor, the insurmountable quest of the genealogist to go back to “The Beginning.”

But that is a dream, not a goal, and I’ve got to get real. My database is going to go virtual. I’m making it my plan to give back, share—whatever noble term I can apply to it to convince myself to get it done—so that I can pass on the material that so many others have helped me find.

Hopefully, in the next few days, I’ll be able to announce that my GEDCOM has successfully been posted online. And my long-standing short list will celebrate with a duly-noted check mark. And, in the words of WALL-E the futuristic trash collector, I’ll be able to say, “Ta Da.”

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Take Another Look

With each successive addition of yet another genealogy toy on the internet, The Search becomes easier. However, “easier” sometimes makes me forget how things used to be.

A while back, I was talking with our Chicago aunt about looking into her own family line. This aunt and I are “outlaws,” but that doesn’t keep me from wanting to research her line. I love doing the research, and her line presents me with a challenge.

I didn’t think, at first, that it would be a challenge. While she was one of those people I mentioned before who was raised by someone other than her own biological parents, she still knew the names of both those absent family members. What’s more, the names were not very common, a plus for what I thought might be an easy search.

Wrong. Those names were uncommon enough to yield me zero results.

I had set the project on the back burner and worked on other things—many other things—over the last several years since that conversation.

But a thought tickling the back of my mind got me cooking on that project once again last week.

The thought: my new genealogy toys may prove to be better resources. And they were. Pulling up those old names, I ran them through search engines at my latest playground:

While searching on Ancestry can sometimes be a frustrating process—it seems overly cumbersome at some times and outright dense at others—this time, things worked wonderfully. I found a few items on census records. Better yet, Ancestry’s matching program allowed me to find someone else researching basically the same family and share that data.

I took the hints I found on that other family tree at Ancestry and looked further. Switching tracks, I went to a beta site done by the group behind the website. The virtue of this site is ease in searching plus access to scanned documents. From this one site, I was able to copy birth and marriage certificates for a number of people in that family.

Cutting and editing the documents to zero in on the specific family members of interest, I saved them as JPEGs and attached them to an email, sending them to our Chicago family for verification.

And presto! The electronic response provided instant confirmation. While some people prefer the “hunt” of hide-and-seek, in my opinion, toys that make connections like that are so worth a place in my genealogy playground. In my game, I appreciate finding answers.
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