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Archive for the ‘General Research’ Category

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I’m a big fan of expanding our knowledge about the various kinds of records we utilize, and I found a terrific PDF file on the history of the Social Security Program. I discovered lots of interesting tidbits I didn’t know. The History page of the Social Security website has lots of other details as well, including tallies of the votes cast for this momentous new law, the text of the original 1935 act, and photo galleries.

I hope you’ll enjoy this information as much as I did.

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Recently, I was perusing the Library of Congress’ genealogy reading room website. I clicked on the link to “Bibliographies and Guides” and the first PDF file in the list is the guide to African-American Family Histories and Related Works. I realized I hadn’t looked at this list in years so I printed it out & gave it a looksie.

Don’t you know I found one of my ancestral families on there?

Well, not a direct ancestor, but basically the family that one of my ancestors married into, the Crowders of Decatur County, TN. You know I cannot wait to get back down to the LOC in order to look at it.

So, if you haven’t looked at the list lately (or you haven’t ever looked at the list) take a look & see what you found. Many of the items I noticed were programs from family reunions that people submitted. Even that is a great find.

I’m convinced that those of us who have been researching 10 years or more (or just those of us who have researched enough to have a good collection of material) need to have submitted copies of our work for inclusion on this list. That means me too.

And while you’re at it, check the published family histories at your State Archives, local historical societies and libraries. Just like I was amazed to actually find a match, you never know what might turn up.

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From NARA's website, Summer 1997

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my Christmas/New Year holiday as you can see by my lengthy absence. I missed you all & have sufficiently awoken from my month-long slumber to try to stick my big toe back into the genealogy waters. I was reading the latest issue of Prologue magazine trying to figure out what to blog about, when I realized I was holding it in my hands.

Prologue is NARA’s official magazine, and it highlights how to utilize the rich and vast resources of the Archives. It’s been around for 30 years, but I’m often surprised how few genealogists I meet actually subscribe to the magazine. It’s $24/year (4 issues).  I have been a subscriber for many years now & I can assure you, it is one publication that I anxiously await and read from cover to cover. The magazine will expand your mind, showing you little known record groups, explaining various finding aids, and helping you navigate through the more expansive collections. The articles provide terrific historical detail on NARA’s records and agencies and America’s people. It also highlights the extraordinarily talented and brilliant professionals that work at NARA and are the “experts” in their areas. Sometimes, I even write the authors name down & track them down if I have a specific question! I have obtained numerous genealogical leads over the years from being a faithful Prologue subscriber.

I want to point out some Prologue links on NARA’s website that deserve mention.

1) In Summer 1997, a special edition of Prologue was dedicated to African-American research.  Although the original is out of print (I would love to own this one), you can read all the articles online.  Some titles include:

  • “Freedmen’s Bureau Records: An Overview”
  • “Preserving the Legacy of the US Colored Troops”
  • “The Panama Canal: The African-American Experience”
  • “Documenting the Struggle for Racial Equality in the Decade of the Sixties”

2) NARA has actually pulled all the genealogy articles, in all subject areas, out of Prologue and made them available online. Of course, all of the ones under the African-American section (different from those in the special issue) are worth solid gold. Some of my favorites in the other categories include:

  • “Native-Americans in the Census, 1860-1890″
  • “The 1930 Census in Perspective”
  • “First in the Path of the Firemen: The Fate of the 1890 Population Census”
  • “Enhancing your Family Tree with Civil War Maps”
  • “Income Tax Records of the Civil War Years”
  • “Those Elusive Early Americans: Public Lands and Claims in the American State Papers”

3) The Fall 2009 issue of Prologue featured an article called “Face to Face with History”. It discussed the rare finding of a photograph of an  African American doctor in pension files. The article described his life story.

4) One other thing I’d like to mention that is available on NARA’s website: their “Researchers News” newsletter is a downloadable PDF file that is created quarterly and includes all the data about what books, microfilms, databases and other records have been recently purchased or accessioned. It also details all the classes and seminars available at NARA. Make sure to bookmark this location & start downloading the issues as they become available. I read them all.

If there’s room in your genealogy budget, I highly suggest a subscription to Prologue as all of the articles from every issue of course do not make it online. But, there is a good sampling available and I hope if you haven’t explored these articles yet, you will.

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Newspapers are a wonderful genealogical source, we all know that, but one of the main reasons I suspect they still remain untapped for many of us is how difficult and cumbersome they are to research.  Although commercial enterprises like GenealogyBank and  public efforts like Chronicling America aim to make newspapers more accessible, I  must say I often find trying to sort through the digital morass just as much of a struggle.

I luckily (or crazily?) have a microfilm reader in my home that I purchased from Ebay years ago and newspapers are one of the types of time-killing resources that benefit from this. I purchased several reels of microfilm  of the local paper (the Savannah Courier) from the Tennessee State Archives. This paper covered Hardin County, TN, one of my research areas.

I thought I’d post examples of the variety of genealogical jewels that I’ve found in the pages of the Courier. There are things that you simply won’t find anywhere else.

There are the expected death and marriage notices, well before state mandated vital record-keeping, but there were lots of other things that stood out to me as I perused the pages. This is a small, very rural farming Southern community, and I was surprised to see things like a regular column on high fashion and periodic articles on international news–even serialized fiction stories. The ads are in and of themselves a telling source of social history–you see all the medical potions and crack “cures”, stoves and sewing machines, the local country stores and their wares and the schedules and prices of the steamboats that plowed the mighty Tennessee river. As you travel across time (1870s-1930s in my case) you see the changes in life brought by the advent of the car and other technological advances (especially the car–people crashed all the time!). Farming was a major theme, with articles on animal husbandry and the latest crop techniques.

Local news was big–seemingly every action a person took was “monitored” by the paper. Short trips people took (“Tom Jones went to Paducah today for a week to visit his mother”) illnesses (“John Reed is stricken with small pox and has been quarantined”) and even visits to the city of Savannah (“Mssrs. John Holt and Sol Bradley were in town today.”). I suppose the nature of a small town is just that–you pretty much know everything everybody is doing. If not, the paper will sure tell you;).

The quality of the copies varies, but hopefully, taking a look at some of these article clippings (and yes, this post is LONG) will inspire you to check your local newspaper if you haven’t yet. I suggest giving yourself a timeframe (perhaps an hour at a time) as not to destroy your eyes.  I also recommend my friend Tim Pinnick’s excellent book, “Finding and Using African-American Newspapers“, and be sure to subscribe via his website to his new email newsletter on using Black Newspapers.

Savannah Courier Clippings (the year of each post is stated in the caption)

I found postings from local courts that I used to locate court documents. This also illustrates that if your locale had fires that destroyed records, newspapers can still provide some of that information:

1888

1935

Look at all the black organizations I found evidence of. I couldn’t find data on these anyplace else:

1885

There were short periods of time where very small articles covered the black community. I would expect this to be different for different locales. In Savannah, one of the black areas was called Newtown–thus the Newtown “Dots”:

1887

While deaths of white locals were almost always covered, only periodically were deaths of blacks noted:

1890

1889

Fairs were always a big deal in rural areas, and the “colored” fair was no different and was noted every year:

1888

Hints at emigration can be found in the paper. This one I believe included some of my collateral ancestors–I wish it would have stated names!:

1909

As can be sadly expected, lynchings were often noted and the period of the late 19th century was particularly brutal. The first one is my gggrandfather’s brother. Notice how they said it was a “suicide”:

1887

1886

1890

And this ominous editorial snippet in the paper reads to me like a threat:

1889

By 1908, at least some on the community were obviously not in agreement with the methods of the “Night Riders”, but the very fact that it shows up so much as a topic tells me it was a problem:

1908

1909

1911

The crash of the titanic was a huge story in 1912. It was interesting to read this story after having seen the movie:

1912

This snippet hinted at the possibility of a semi- interracial celebration in 1919 for World War I soldiers. Everytime I read this I wonder if my great-grandfather Lawson Holt was there. It also notes the ‘Holtsville’ glee club, Holtsville being a school started by my ancestor John W. Holt.

I found lots of information on black teachers and black schools every year:

1911

By the 1930s, they were printing lists of people who had lost their land to tax sales. How useful is that for us!:

1930s

Indicative of the times, minstrel shows were a big part of entertainment:

1929

A few were pretty humorous to me, with my 21st century sensibilities. This one talked about the nuisance of people letting their hogs run loose in the city:

1919

And my personal favorite–this poor man, a minister, has to announce that his wife has left him:

1888

There is lots of other information I found on the black community (on churches and ministers, for example) but I hope what I have posted has encouraged you to take that dive into these valuable records.

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j0440428 You want to take all the joy out of a genealogist’s day, just bring up the subject of source citations. I have seen faces go from glitter to gloom when you bring it up…LOL. Nevertheless, it’s one of my 10 Key Genealogical Principles, and sooner or later, if you want any of your research to be taken seriously, you’ll have to get around to doing it.

I speak from experience, as I spent the first few years of my genealogical journey happily having no knowledge or understanding of this concept. And today, because if that, I have some very critical pieces of my research that I have no idea where I got them from. You kinda think that’s never gonna happen to you.  Ahh, such sweet deception.

The uptick is, it’s not at all as difficult as it appears and once you get the swing of it, it becomes 2nd nature. You become a stronger researcher because you tend to zoom in on source citations for everything you read.   I thought I’d at least point you to a few resources online on this subject you don’t want to miss:

  • 1. Of course, Elizabeth Shown Mills is the recognized genealogy goddess in this area and her colossus Evidence Explained! is a must have for all genealogists, period. I also recommend purchasing the PDF file of this book –it is immensely useful when you are on the road and trying to reduce weight. You can get it here from Legacy or from Footnote.com. Let me note that Ms. Mills has excellent explanations for each type of source and you should take some time to actually read the sections of this book (over time of course!).
  • 2. The Board for Certification website has some of Ms. Mills articles which succinctly explain why we need to all be correctly and diligently citing our sources. No one explains it better than she does. Click on the left link marked “Skillbuilding” to access the other articles.
  • 3. All of the major genealogy software packages do source citations now. I’m a Rootsmagic fan, so of course I’ll say I like theirs the best. They incorporate all of the templates from Evidence Explained!. There are also lots of good websites that will do automatic source citations for you. I like EasyBib-it will freely create MLA style citations. Citation Machine is useful too. A good list of citation software can be found here.
  • 4. My favorite free online citation guides are the Quick Reference Card Thomas MacEntee created at Geneabloggers and the website over at Progenealogists.
  • 5.  Other nifty stuff: I like the “Cite Your Sources” sticky notes available from Fun Stuff for Genealogists. You slap one on a copy you’ve made, and it’s got all the data you need to remember to fill in for the citation. They also have “Cite Your Sources” stamps.
  • 6. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point you to Mark Tucker’s excellent video post on “A Better Way to Cite Online Sources” over at ThinkGenealogy. Check it out.

I usually pick a day where I devote a few hours to updating my source citations, either in my genealogy software or in my notebooks. I have white 3-ring binders for each family line & most of my sources (census, vitals, deeds, etc.) are printed out in each binder. Then I buy those neon-colored envelope labels, type up a page at a time and put a colored label on each source in the binder containing the correct source citation. It may sound like a lot of work, but  consider that the great bulk of your citations are the same 4 or 5 times, be they census, vitals, deeds, probate, social security, world war I drafts, etc. Then you pretty much ‘cut and paste” and change the specifics.

Here’s hoping you are all remembering to cite your sources, and that some of the points above have contribute to making that a little easier. Please chime in via comments any tips and tricks you use for source citation.

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John Smith?

John Smith?

One of the most common errors for new genealogists is falling into the trap of “The Names The Same”. What we mean by that is that because we see someone with the same name, living in the same place, we jump too quickly to assume it is our ancestor (or person of interest). This is one of the good reasons we shouldn’t jump around sporadically in census records, but rather work methodically back, slowly but surely. The goal should be to recreate identities–and a person’s identity is far more than just their name. In my previous post, I listed this concept as one of my 10 key genealogical principles.

A person’s identity is made up of things like:

  • who their spouses and children were
  • who their parents were
  • what they looked like
  • their literacy (or lack thereof)
  • who their neighbors and friends are
  • their military service (or lack thereof)
  • what their birth, marriage and death dates were
  • where (specifically) they lived
  • what their occupation was
  • what their religion was
  • what their economic/financial standing was
j0440584

Or John Smith?

…and lots of other things. I read a quote once that I love. It said if you always assume there is at least one other person living in the same area with the same name, then you will force yourself to use other criteria to identify that person. If you want to freak yourself out, Google your own name and see how many other people you find with it. Kinda scary.

We all use the census and vital records initially, but I have found that things like tax, land and court records are especially good at helping to discern identity. Everyone knows I believe in using charts in my genealogy, and this  something that can be analyzed very well with charts.  Make a list of the prospects in the first column, using numbers—for example, Jane Johnson #1, Jane Johnson # 2, etc. Then make additional columns where you fill in the distinctive data for that individual: birthdate, marriage date, spouse(s), land, occupation, children, etc.  Pretty soon, you’ll start to see patterns emerge, and you should be able to have a better sense of who was who.

Maps are important during this process–something as simple as seeing where people lived could be enough to help you see it’s not your person of interest. Complicating factors are really common names, people who lived in the same vicinity, were born around the same time and married around the same time. There are lots of examples of these things happening. And two people named Bill could marry women both named Mary. I’ve seen it!

However, the more evidence you gather and scrutinize, the more you will be able to distinguish between individuals. I am doing this “deconflicting” right now on my gggrandfather, John Smith (yes, you read that right). And you would not believe how many black John Smiths, born ca. 1880, lived in the same district of Jacksonville, Florida in the early 20th century. So this has been no simple task.

So, take a look back over your research and ask yourself if you have really done due diligence in this area. Especially if you’re stuck, have you glossed too quickly over a person, and attached him/her to your tree? I like to say if the only reason you believe someone is your ancestor is that they have the same name and are living in the same place, then you have more work to do. I’d love for people to add to my short list above of criteria that helps define identity.

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When I teach my classes, I start with the following list of what I call my “10 Key Genealogy Principles“. I have garnered these from the best & the brightest and take no credit for any of them.  These are the most useful techniques and methodologies I have learned in my years of research that I keep coming back to again & again. I hear one or more of these principles taught at every conference and in every article I read, even if they are called different things, and utilizing one or more of these has been responsible for every breakthrough I’ve ever had.

So, I share them here with you, my family–they are in no particularly order. And, I’d love to hear what principles you’d add to this list?

Robyn’s 10 Key Genealogical Principles:

  • 1. Proof is Not A Document
  • 2. Always Seek Original Sources
  • 3. Always Cite Your Sources
  • 4. Any Source Can Be Wrong
  • 5. Search Broadly and Deeply (Use Multiple Locations, Types of Records & Generations)
  • 6. Research to Uncover Identities (Not Names)
  • 7. Rebuild Communities (Don’t Collect Individuals)
  • 8. Use Evidence to Build A Case
  • 9. Watch Your Assumptions (And Revisit them Often)
  • 10. Don’t Isolate Records (View them in Context)

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