Tuesday, October 12, 2010

It Doesn't Have to be a Treasure Map to Lead You to Gold

Just like a carpenter can't finish a job without his tool belt, a good family researcher must have his or her own set of tools, and no tool kit is complete without a collection of maps.

There are many different types of maps: street maps, topographical maps, census maps, railway maps, insurance maps, old survey maps and highway maps, just to name a few.  Each type of map can provide alternative views of the same area, allowing you to interpret why your ancestors ended up where they did.  

A topographical map, for example, which shows the physical characteristics of an certain area, might give you an idea as to why you ancestor decided to settle in that specific place.  Was he a farmer?  Perhaps the land near the river was very fertile.  Were there steep hills nearby?  How would that affect the routes he chose to navigate the area?  

Railway maps can help you determine which routes your ancestor used to travel the country.  They might even indicate why your ancestor chose his home place.  

Census maps are especially useful.  Not only do they illustrate the physical boundaries of counties during a specific time period, but they also show how county lines shifted over time.  This is key when searching for records.  For example, perhaps your ancestor lived in one county, and he lived on the same property  for his entire life, yet when you search that county for his will and estate records, nothing turns up.  Why?  By examining census maps, you would discover that while your ancestor never moved, the county line did, which is why his estate papers would be in an adjacent county. 

Highway maps can also prove to be helpful when you're tracking ancestors.  With few exceptions, many modern-day highways mirror the migration routes taken centuries earlier.  These maps can give you an idea of the paths your ancestor might have taken when moving from one place to another.

There are many different components of a successful family researcher's tool kit, maps being only one of them.  Don't underestimate the importance of studying and collecting different types of maps.  One of them might just provide the missing piece to your family puzzle.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Don't Follow the Herd

When researching your family history, it's easy to become overly excited when you stumble upon the ultimate gold mine:  a completed branch of your family tree that someone else has already researched... or so you think.

But BEWARE!  So much of "internet genealogy" is nothing more than folklore.  So many people online are eager to post their so-called family trees, but what they neglect to do is actually research the line themselves or provide any documentation whatsoever.  Just because someone else says it's so, doesn't mean that it actually is.

I have stumbled upon this time and time again, and by conducting my own thorough research, have actually debunked lots of family tree "myths" that are currently circulating on the internet.

Case in point:  The Washington Family

The publications that can be found on the Washington family are endless, from small-time family history books to reknowned genealogical publications... and it seems that everyone (and their mother) tries to connect to one specific line of the Washington family, all the way back to one specific immigrant ancestor: Colonel John Washington of Westmoreland County, Virginia.  Colonel John Washington was an ancestor of General George Washington, the first President of the United States, and was a very prominent man in Virginia history.  So, of course, it would be pretty cool to be able to claim him as an ancestor.

I was thrilled at the idea of having this Washington line as part of my family tree, and I kept finding publication after publication that said that my Richard Washington (I had proved my lineage up to this point) was the son of Colonel John Washington.  Hooray! (I thought, but - thankfully - I didn't stop digging there.)

While Colonel John Washington certainly existed and has left an impressive list of descendants, my Richard Washington was actually the son of ANOTHER John Washington, living at the same time in Surry County, Virginia, several counties away.  Two guys with the same name at the same time in about the same place.  This happens all too often but can easily be overlooked if in-depth research isn't conducted.  The key in finding the truth - in this example - was due to the examination of land records in Virginia.  Close observation of these deeds made it apparent that there were two John Washingtons.

But here's the cool thing...  I didn't miss out on being able to claim a famous ancestor, just because I'm not linked directly to Colonel John.  I'm still a Washington.  In all reality, Colonel John Washington and my John Washington of Surry County, Virginia, are believed to be first cousins.  They share the same grandfather and the same Royal Ancestral lineage. 

So, don't follow the herd.  Just because it's easier to go along with the information that is already out there, doesn't make that information accurate.  Do your own digging.  You might stumble upon a fact that's even more exciting than you had anticipated... and, more importantly, you can leave a legacy of quality and reliable research for others family researchers who will follow.  Just remember to cite your sources.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Building Your Genealogy Library

Whether you are just starting to research your family history or are a seasoned professional working in the field of genealogy, one of the most important things you can do to aid yourself in your research is to build your own genealogy reference library.  This is vital because not everything you need to know can be found online.  The following list of books should not be considered complete or all-inclusive in any way, but should be used solely as a guide to help you start building your own collection.

The basic necessities for any genealogy library are:

Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920 by William Thorndale and William Dollarhide
This book is extremely useful, as it tracks the formation of counties over time.  Perhaps the reason you can't find records of your ancestor in one particular county is because it was actually part of another county at one point.

History for Genealogists: Using Chronological Time Lines to Find and Understand Your Ancestors by Judy Jacobson
Placing your ancestor at a specific time and place using these numerous time lines can help you better understand what their world was like, or, in some cases, even help to determine their possible cause of death.  The included time lines not only cover the history of each individual U.S. state, but also include a detailed list of the epidemics in America and worldwide, military battles, migration patterns and the evolution of industrialization and transportation.

Evidence! Citation and Analysis for the Family Historian by Elizabeth Shown Mills 
This is a must-have reference book for every genealogist, and you don't have to be a professional to own the book.  Including proper source citations in your genealogical research is imperative and is an absolute must for any credible genealogist.  This not only provides a reference that you can refer to at a later point, if necessary, but it also adds validity and credibility to your research.  The book illustrates the many ways to properly cite sources, from books and online census records to tombstones and birth certificates.

Red Book: American State, County and Town Sources by Alice Eichholz, Editor
Think of this book as a genealogy phone book on steroids.  This large hard-bound book is divided into a separate chapter for each U.S. state.  Within each chapter, there are various categories and lists of sources to aid you in your research.  These sources include - but are not limited to - state libraries, state historical societies, state and county-specific periodicals and newspapers, and more.  Each entry contains full contact information (address, phone number and web address, if applicable).  It's a great way to know where to look or who to call when you're seeking that one important piece of documentation.

A To Zax: A Comprehensive Dictionary for Genealogists and Historians by Barbara Jean Evans 
Have you ever read through an old legal document as were perplexed by some of the unusual words?  This dictionary is genealogy-specific, so if you need a detailed definition of a dower right, osthouse or surety, this is your go-to book.

As you continue to expand your personal genealogy reference library, consider adding the following books, as well:

Reading Early American Handwriting by Kip Sperry 
This book gives a visual breakdown of old handwritten alphabets and is particularly useful when trying to transcribe a document from the 1600 or 1700s.

Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records by Kory L. Meyerink, Editor 
This monster of a book is a great reference tool if you need to know what information is out there just waiting to be discovered.

Black's Law Dictionary by Bryan A. Garner, Editor 
Another useful tool to keep on-hand when examining old legal documents.

There are many, many more fabulous genealogy books out there, and - again - in no way should this list be viewed as complete or all-inclusive.  More lists may follow in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.  In the meantime, look for the above books on Amazon, ebay or Half.com to start building your genealogy library today!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

New Website

I'm proud to announce the launch of The Ancestor Detector's brand new website.  Check it out --  http://www.ancestordetector.com/

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Google Book Search: Researching Your (Ancestral) Roots


This is a fantastic tool that many people might not think to utilize when doing genealogical research. 

Family Research Tips

Get as much information from all living relatives while you can. Take notes and record or videotape interviews. Ask as many questions as possible, not only about your relatives' lives and memories, but also what they know about their ancestors.

Organize, organize, organize! Set up a file system. If you are just beginning, you may want to label a file folder with each family surname that you will be tracing. As you continue researching your family history, your files will grow rapidly. If you are not organized from the beginning, you may be setting yourself up for lots of frustration.

Back up everything! Keep both hard (paper) copies of documents and digital copies, as well. If you do not own a quality scanner, you will need to purchase one. Scan every document and file both electronically and in your paper files. Do the same for all family photos, newspaper clippings and certificates. I recommend saving all electronic files on an external hard drive, so that everything will be safe in the event of a computer malfunction. I also recommend keeping duplicate copies of your records off-site. For example, you can keep a duplicate hard drive in a safety deposit box or with a relative. Or, for only $60/year, a company called Carbonite will back up your files to their servers, and if you ever need them (or they accidentally get deleted), all you have to do is download the file back to your computer. It's so easy, and is a fantastic insurance policy for the money.

Carefully identify and label all known people in family photos with an archival-safe photo pen (available at most craft or photography stores.)

Cite your sources. It is imperative that you thoroughly cite each and every record that you come across while doing your research. Label not only where the information came from (the book, courthouse, repository) but also when you accessed the information. Don't forget the little details either, like the page number, file or folder number or microfilm number.

If you're just starting your family history research and don't know where to begin, find your birth certificate and any marriage and/or divorce records that pertain to you. Do the same for your parents and grandparents. If they are deceased, be sure to also locate their death certificates, obituaries, funeral home records, or any other records that you can find. Other great family sources to try and locate are family bibles and baptism records. Many times these items will be stuffed away in old boxes in an attic, turning yellow with age. It is important to organize this documents and move them to archival-safe storage (albums or boxes) to prevent further damage. Once you've gathered all of the information that you can, contact a professional genealogist, like The Ancestor Detector, who will help you dig a little deeper into your past and help you to build your family tree.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Why Is Genealogy Important?

The reasons for tracing one's family history likely varies from one person to the next.  The things that inspire me are likely different from the things that excite you.  But regardless of who you are and where you are in life, below are some of the reasons why you should become passionate about genealogy... that is, if you aren't already completely addicted:

  • Sheer Curiosity:  Maybe you've never heard very much about your family's past?  Maybe you really want to know if Uncle Abraham was arrested for bootlegging (as family lore would have it) or if Aunt Mabel's family really did come from Ireland?  Maybe you'd like to know if a celebrity or other famous ancestor lurks in your family tree?  Whatever spurs on your curiosity, you'll never find an answer to that nagging question if you don't start looking.
  • To Preserve the Memory a Relative:  Perhaps you recently lost a parent or grandparent?  One way to honor that person's memory would be to research their family history (which is your family history, too!)  If family was important to that individual, learning more about their past is a way to further connect with them.  As an example, my grandmother (who passed away 10 years ago) was very dedicated to her family and preserving family's heirlooms.  Unfortunately, I was too young and too disinterested when she was alive to ask her about her family.  By researching my grandmother's lineage, not only have I been able to learn about her heritage, but I feel more connected to her than ever before because I knew that honoring family was so important to her.
  • To Teach Your Children:  It doesn't matter how old your children are --  Whether they have left the nest or are still in diapers, tracing your family history is an important way to educate them about where they come from (and I'm not talking about the birds and the bees here).  Teaching your children about your roots can strengthen family ties and encourage family bonding.  Create a compiled family history.  It can be a priceless heirloom for your children that can later be passed on to their children.  Teaching your children about their roots can also help them easily relate to history by making it personal.  Learning about World War I might seem a tad boring to a kid in school, but by teaching that child how Great-Grandpa Joe got drafted in 1918, and was sent to France to fight might just make that child become a little more interested in history. 
  • For Health Reasons:  It may not be the first thing that comes to mind, but one reason that some people choose to get involved in genealogy is to trace their medical history.  Death certificates, obituaries and funeral home records can hold key pieces of information.  By tracing your family history, you might discover a pattern in the cause of death for some of your relatives.  For example, learning that several of your ancestors died from a specific form of cancer or a rare disease might make you more inclined to stay on top of those physicals or seek out a specific screening test that you otherwise wouldn't.
  • To Connect with Living Relatives:  Tracing your family history can open you up to a whole other family you didn't even know existed.  The father back your research takes you, the more descendants (and living cousins) you will discover.  Not only can you connect with new relatives and form new relationships, but you might even discover that someone you've known your whole life is - in fact - related to you. 

  • To Join a Lineage Society:  Have you ever wanted to join a lineage society, like the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Sons of the Confederacy, or the Colonial Dames?  Well, in order to become a member in any hereditary society, you much first trace your lineage to find a qualifying ancestor.  For the Daughters of the American Revolution, you much prove that you are of direct descent from a soldier in the Revolutionary War.  For the Sons of the Confederacy, you must find an ancestor who rendered service to the Confederacy during the Civil War.  There are numerous lineage societies in existence that span many topics, besides military history.  These topics range from Presidential Families and Early Settlers to Scottish Clans and Royal Descent.  These groups not only work to preserve history but are also heavily involved in community service, from sponsoring scholarships to shipping items overseas to those on active military duty.

Whatever your reasons for being interested in genealogy, one thing is certain:  knowing about your family history is empowering.  Finding your roots and discovering your own story can be a real adventure.  So, don't procrastinate any further.  Get started today.