Archive for the ‘STARTING GENEALOGY’ Category

Recently, a blog reader asked me how she could take the next step to break down a brick wall by renting some microfilm records through her local FamilySearch Center (formerly known as Family History Centers).  It occurs to me that a lot of people might have this question.  In fact, I should take my own advice and rent more microfilm.

You can find the locations of the FamilySearch Centers here.

Why rent microfilm?

Basically, it’s ALWAYS right to look at primary source and original records, to not rely on indices, and to not rely exclusively on someone else’s interpretation of original records, such as in a compiled genealogy.  But I suppose many people only turn to original records when more easily accessible information has failed them.

A probate volume from North Kingstown, Rhode Island

A probate volume from North Kingstown, Rhode Island

If you live close to the locations of your ancestors, you would probably prefer to visit the original record books in person.  In southern New England, that can be cumbersome, and usually you will be on your own at a town hall or other local repository to navigate the records or, in the opposite extreme, be required to write out each request individually and have a clerk do the searching for you, returning with a photocopy and no opportunity for you to look around at nearby records.  And that assumes that you have researched the repositories enough to know where your particular record should be.  And that you are able to conduct these visits during Monday through Friday business hours.

If you live far away from your records, or if you get bogged down trying to visit the repositories you need, the local FamilySearch Center can be a simpler solution. Through the Family History Library, located in Utah, there are over a million rolls of microfilm available of records from many parts of the world.  At my location, each roll rental would be $7.50.  There are many types of records recorded on microfilm including property, probate, vital, local government, census, church, cemetery, court, tax, and military, but of course not all materials are available for all locations.

Town Hall, Westerly, Rhode Island

Town Hall, Westerly, Rhode Island

How do you find what microfilm record you need?

You will need to seriously consider what type of record set is likely to yield further information on your genealogical search.  If you are following  local society meetings, research journals, webinars, blogs, and various helpful books, you will have studied many examples of how others solved their problems.  Think about what type of records might give you new information not available elsewhere.  Decide on a strategy.

Of course, as my reader mentioned, one could always go to the Family History Center and get some assistance in deciding what microfilm to order.  You can find the locations of the Family History Centers here.  Plus, each center keeps a few materials on hand already which could be used for free.  The volunteer staff at my local FamilySearch Center are very nice.  The concern I have is that the staff person might be busy on the day you visit, or, it may not be convenient for you to visit twice, therefore, you might want to ORDER the films using the online system, wait until you hear that they have arrived at the FamilySearch Center you designated, and then go and read them.

To search and order on your own, you should spend some time perusing the online catalog.

Go to FamilySearch.org and log in (create an account if you don’t have one).

You want the CATALOG screen.

Look for the CATALOG section at FamilySearch.org

Look for the CATALOG section at FamilySearch.org

Notice that the first option for searching within the catalog is Place Name.  Try typing the town, county or state into that box.  See what comes up.  Ultimately, you may want to try all those place options.  Try searches for family names as well, or keywords.  Remember, you are looking for record SETS here, not individual records.

I typed Smithfield and used the choices that popped up to select Rhode Island-Providence-Smithfield.  This gave me the topics available, and number of record sets for each:

Microfilm for Smithfield, Rhode Island

Microfilm for Smithfield, Rhode Island

You can see the topics covered.  Clicking on a topic brings up the record sets available. Clicking on a record set shows the microfilm or microfiche numbers.  Each record set may be broken into more than one microfilm roll.

Rolls of microfilm in that collecition

Rolls of microfilm in that collection

Clicking on Deed records 1871-1916 (Smithfield, Rhode Island) brings up three microfilm rolls. IF the content had been available in other media, such as a book or on the web, that would have been noted on this screen.  But no harm, at this point, in doing a little search yourself.  If the content is available as a book, there is no way to rent that, but try looking  for that book online or in a nearby library.

Note that the last film in the list says “Item 1.”  That means that particular roll of microfilm contains additional content.  Look for this item first on the roll.

How do you order microfilm?

Clicking on the microfilm NUMBER, from the screen above, brings you to an order screen.  Be sure, at this point, that you have logged in, and that you have selected a home location for the FamilySearch Center where you  plan to read your microfilm.

Once you have loaded one or more films into your shopping cart, you can check out and pay.  You will be notified when the film arrives, and at that point you will need to go to the FamilySearch Center you selected, during open hours, to view it.  Be sure you know the date on which your film will be returned to Utah, and use it before that.

Before ordering, always be sure you check out the availability of the material online, either through the FamilySearch page for that record set, or by (for instance) googling the name of a book or record set.

City Hall, Providence, from Picturesque Rhode Island by W. Munro, 1881

City Hall, Providence, from Picturesque Rhode Island by W. Munro, 1881

Last step: visit your FamilySearch Center to read the microfilm

Check out the hours of your local center or library.  If it’s in a church building, remember that you are visiting someone’s church and dress and conduct yourself appropriately.  The entry to the FamilySearch Center is usually marked and visible from the parking lot.  I would suggest, once you get used to all this, that you further challenge yourself to learn how to copy the pages you read from microfilm onto your own flash drive so that you can take that home, and enlarge and study the pages further, and store them on your own computer.

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It can be tough to know where to start when you decide to look for your ancestors.  Many people I “meet” through this blog have questions about getting started, and I thought they would like to see a list of some ideas about starting out.  Ultimately those beginners will want to reach out to those far more expert than me for guidance and some serious learning.  But these tips may help you get to that point.

  1. ASK QUESTIONS.  If you have relatives and family friends, ask them questions.  Get them talking.  Have relatives write the names, plus some dates and places if possible, for their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents.  Most people can take a stab at this.  If they know more, try to record more.
  2. COLLECT STUFF.   Borrow, take pictures or photocopies of, or scan all the family pictures, certificates, vital records, obituaries, funeral programs, bible records, invitations, newspaper articles, or stories that you can find.  Don’t worry about whether it seems relevant now.  The older the item is, the better.  Collect copies of pictures even if you don’t know who they are, and note the source.
  3. START WITH YOURSELF.  Your tree starts with you.  But how will you start recording it?  When I first started genealogy, I created my own information sheet, made copies, and began to fill them out and save them in a three-ring binder with copies of documents and other info.  I later learned this form is called a Family Group Sheet.  If you are more comfortable starting with paper at first, download family group sheets and other forms from the blank forms page at Ancestry.com.
  4. LOOK FOR EVIDENCE  (warning: this step takes 40 years).   Starting with known things, experiment with documenting facts like your parents’ birth dates or your grandparents’ households in the early 1900’s.  You can order public records in person or by mail, or use the internet, especially if you are seeking pre-1940 records.  One site for free, older birth, marriage and death records is FamilySearch.org.  I personally find it worthwhile to subscribe to Ancestry.com and use, for instance, their census records (you’ll need BLANK CENSUS FORMS from Access Genealogy so you can clearly see the headings, and if you get frustrated, try these tips from Ancestry.)  At this point you should start realizing there are lots of people out there with the same names, and the farther back you go, the less significant spelling is.  You will also realize that many, many trees you see online are full of errors.  The best thing an online tree might offer you is sources for information, which you can check yourself.
  5. ORGANIZE YOUR INFO.  Well, there’s no avoiding it now, there are papers all over the place and you need to organize the beginnings of your official tree, which could eventually grow to thousands of people.  If you have not opened a paid Ancestry.com account and begun a tree there, think about using genealogy software on your own computer.  I own RootsMagic, Legacy, and Family Tree Maker.  Of these, Legacy is my favorite, and it has a less-powerful free version (I haven’t tried that.)  Rootsmagic also has a free version. But keep some sort of files or binders around too.
  6. GO TO THE LIBRARY.  Many libraries have some free subscriptions such as Ancestry.com and HeritageQuest, and they have local newspapers on microfilm.  They also have some genealogy books – look in classification CS in the Reference and Adult sections.  While you’re there, check out books or movies that will enlighten you about important eras in your family history – was someone in the Civil War?  At Ellis Island?  Working in a coal mine?   Survived the San Francisco earthquake?  Nothing will help your genealogy more than understanding the history they lived through.
  7. FIND BOOKS ONLINE.  Once you get your family story back far enough, you may find that someone has compiled a family tree for part of your family, or for a particular location where your family lived. These may be fabulous or very badly done, and everything in between. Look for these books online (try googling LASTNAME genealogy).  If the book was published before 1923 it may be available for download from Archive.org or Google Books.  If published after 1923, you may find a listing for it in WorldCat.org and the nearest location of a paper copy.  Two other great places to find genealogy books are the Card Catalog of Ancestry.com and the BOOKS section of FamilySearch.org.
  8. ARRIVE AT THE PROBLEMS.  There will be plenty of success at first using census records and vital records, and a smattering of newspaper articles, genealogy books, family mementos, military records, and obituaries.  This will give you a false sense that everything will be solved that way.  You’ll get annoyed when that theory doesn’t work well.  You’ll suspect your ancestors dropped in from Mars around 1808.  Congratulations.  You have now completed your initial survey (sometimes called “name collecting.”)  Time to start doing genealogy.
  9. GET SOME GUIDANCE AND GET GOING.  There is so much to learn about probate records, deeds, maps, city directories, cemeteries, newspapers, compiled genealogies, military records, immigration records, genealogy journals, census and vital records, laws affecting your ancestors, and local history.  They are all likely to hold the hidden secrets of your family tree.  Not to mention forms, software, reference books, research plans, and documentation.  Start with a general how-to book like the “Idiot’s Guide” or an “Everything” book, or start by searching for beginning genealogy webinars or courses.  Subscribe to Family Tree Magazine.  Attend some local meetings.  Read blogs.  Talk to people at your local Family History Center or to volunteer genealogists at your local library (ask a reference librarian if such help might be available).  Think through one problem at a time and just start getting out to repositories, town halls, cemeteries, archives, historical societies and genealogy libraries.  Be polite and ask questions.
  10. AND LASTLY, THIS IS THE HARD ONE, THE ONE YOU WILL WANT TO IGNORE.  No one does that right away, you think.  Here it is:  RECORD WHERE YOU GOT EACH AND EVERY FACT.  It is not as painful as you think.  Use the system in the software or, if you are using Ancestry.com, some of it will be done for you, for instance when you attach a census record to a fact like “Residence, 1910.”  For all else, record it yourself.  If you want to be lazy, just record it any consistent way, as long as it’s clear to you.  You could always fix those later.  But what you really can’t do is remember the sources for thousands of facts and record them later.

Readers may want to mention in the comments anything I’ve left out.  thanks!

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Graphics:  Dover “Full-Color Old-Time Vignettes” CD-Rom. 

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I have finally succeeded in properly organizing my bookmarks.  In the process, I found some that I think I should be using more.  Here they are.

  1. Start Your Military Service Record Request from the National Archives.  I had my mom sign this form requesting my grandfather’s WW1 service records.  Unfortunately, they were not available, most likely because they had been destroyed in a 1973 fire.
  2. The Easy Google Genealogy Searcher will increase your google searching skills.  Yup, it’s easy.
  3. Geneabloggers – Search All Blogs    Search thousands of genealogy blogs for the name or term you’re seeking – this valuable site is provided by Thomas MacEntee.
  4. The Generations Project   From BYUtv, each show features a sensitive portrayal of the journey to find family history.
  5. FindAGrave   You probably already have this.  Just checking.
  6. Stephen Morse Search Tools   Search faster using these nifty tools that optimize the search experience on many popular genealogy sites.
  7. Evernote.com    Download this utility to your pc, tablet and smartphone and access your lists and information from any of those devices.  Combine Evernote with Clearly to save text from a web page instantly and have handy access to it later.
  8. Geneabloggers – Blogs By Type   Find a genealogy blog in your area of interest – this valuable site is provided by Thomas MacEntee.
  9. VistaPrint.com   If you’re going to a meeting or conference, or just being friendly at the library, don’t forget your genealogy business cards.  Be sure to print your family names on the back of the card!
  10. Family History Books allows a single search of online books from many genealogy libraries.  Clicking on a search result will bring up the actual book.  Using quotes around a name can help narrow the search.
  11. Learn from master genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills by reading the numerous case studies she presents on her website.  Her work completely inspires me.  Doing the kind of in-depth work she does is why we all got into genealogy.  But we’ve got a long, long way to go.
  12. The Genealogical Association of Nova Scotia has a growing collection of online records, which you can access by becoming a member.
  13. Lulu.com   You can publish a new (that is, with embedded fonts) pdf document as a book on lulu.com, pretty reasonably.  If you want, you can put a book together that you make public on that site, so your relatives or group members can purchase it on their own.
  14. Legacy Family Tree Webinars   If you read through the upcoming topics and presenters, you’ll want to sign up for these helpful webinars.
  15. EBay   EBay has print and electronic genealogy and history books for sale as well as local postcards and ephemera.  Be sure to save some searches in the Genealogy section located under “Everything Else”.
  16. Genealogy Guys Podcast  Only if you’re very new to genealogy are you NOT hooked on this ongoing podcast from Drew, George, and several feline production assistants.
  17. Chronicling America from the Library of Congress does two things.  You can search digital archives of historical newspapers (there is not much New England content) or you can use the “US Newspaper Directory” to locate newspaper holdings within libraries.  This tells you where to find the local newspaper that might help you.
  18. Mocavo  is the genealogist’s web searching site.  It limits the search to only sources likely to produce historical or genealogical information.  It’s especially helpful for names that are common words, like “Darling” or “Miles”.  I can never decide if a paid “Plus” subscription would be worth it.  If anyone wants to recommend it, leave a comment.
  19. Fulton History (sometimes called “Fulton Postcards”) is a unique looking site that allows you to search through historical New York State newspapers.
  20. Step away from the computer and go look at a roll of microfilm that you can order from the Family History Library (scroll down to “Search our library catalog”).  Ordering can be done online, and the microfilm can be viewed at your local Family History Center.  With over two million rolls, this is a great way to look at original sources from far away places.  Enter your place name to see what rolls are in the collection.

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Like many people, I have limited space in which to make the genealogy magic happen.  Or try to, anyway.

I have about a third of a room which also serves several other purposes, including sewing room and guest room.  Lately, I’ve spent some time re-organizing it.

A big table, bookcase, and filing cabinet

The Table

The table contains the laptop, writing materials, three hole punch, a small tv, lamp, and a Sony clock with an iphone-charger on top.  It’s an old wooden table with fabric and clear vinyl fitted over the top.  The old office chair, recovered, is incredibly comfortable. And that is my actual tiny pile of papers, not doctored at all for the pictures.  Guess I have been organizing!

Doesn’t everyone have pictures of their ancestors on their “desktop”?

The Bookcase

The bookcase is an old unfinished furniture piece whose main value lies in being very big and tall.  I have some reference books that are very important to me and I find if I put them in other rooms, I forget what I have.  I need to see them as I’m sitting at the desk.  Most recently, I rearranged them and actually labelled the shelves.  I had to lose one shelf in order to make each shelf tall enough for genealogy books, but it was worth it to group things appropriately.

Oh good – there’s room for about 5 more books

The Filing Cabinet

Hubs made this beautiful filing cabinet just for me.  It holds files in the bottom, there is a top drawer for random stuff, plus a sliding pencil drawer.  Hubs is very talented!

Two-drawer cabinet made just for me

Recently, I discovered hanging binders.  I purchased these on Amazon.  I try to keep digital files, but I have accumulated some paper documents and I like them in binders.  I prefer the binders because when I pull one out on the desk, everything stays  in place and doesn’t get spread all over the table.  I thought they would go in the filing cabinet, but I prefer using that space for all other files.  So they sit in a plastic bin.

Binders by family name

The Pictures

The other corner holds an inspiring array of family photos.  I buy inexpensive frames at antique shops.  Hubs made the shelf.

Family photos

The Research Bag

In the corner, I keep a bag with my Flip-Pal (which is a portable battery-run scanner), and a research bag.  Here are the contents of the research bag:

Contents of the research bag

That’s the grand tour of the genealogy space.

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The other day I saw a question about finding the 1890 federal census and it made me wonder, what are the very first things you learn about genealogy in the United States, say, in the first six months, that you did not know before?

  1. The 1890 federal census pages are gone except for a few segments. They burned in a fire back in the 1920’s before they were reproduced in any other form.
  2. Spelling means little or nothing before about 1860. Usually, the documents that survive today weren’t even written by your ancestor. If the clerk could string some letters together and in the near future people would know that referred to your ancestor, he did his job.
  3. FamilySearch.org is helpful for finding vital records, and free.
  4. There are a surprising number of inaccuracies in the federal census records. Sure, some of it is carelessness by the census takers, but some of it is out and out lying by your ancestors. I’m not sure I have one female ancestor since 1850 who gave her correct age in the census. They always shaved a bit off. And then there’s the surprising case of my gg-grandparents listing an adult daughter in their household. Their real daughter, Jessie Billington and her husband, upstairs, list 8 and 12 year old offspring – but they never had any children. My theory is they had taken in a local single mother and her children, and were perhaps hiding this from the landlord. Anyone have another theory?

    There is no Jenette, or John and Mildred

  5. States have census records, too; often but not only in the “5” years between federal censuses. For each state, the census schedule, questions asked, and survival of the records vary widely, so you have to go state-by-state to research this.
  6. It’s all about sources. The style of footnotes may be something you will put off worrying about. But recording where you found something, or checking out where others found things, is crucial. The time you really learn this is the first time you find something SO wrong on the web that everyone else accepts as fact, or the first time you follow someone’s footnote and find a valuable book or article you weren’t aware of.
  7. The cultural norms we take for granted about the”olden days” are not all that true. People did sometimes sue other family members, they did sometimes get divorced, and they did sometimes have a child before marriage. Well – sigh – my ancestors, anyway.
  8. Newspaper articles, wills, obituaries and letters are at the heart of genealogy. At first, you wonder why people would spend years compiling names and dates. Then those names and dates lead you to the real stories you never knew about, and you get it.
  9. All old pictures are valuable, and even the undocumented ones may be decipherable by comparing identified pictures of those family members.
  10. And lastly, one of the first things you learn about genealogy is that most of your family members are not going to care all that much. But a few will, so be good to them.

I have a further post on this topic called “10 Steps For Starting Your Family History.”

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