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16 April 2015

How Easy Is It to Twist Them Up?

I have a work colleague whose last name is McNeil. My mother has a good friend whose last name is Macdonald. Today several times I referred to my work colleague by using the last name Macdonald until someone asked me to whom I was referring.

Is it possible that an informant on a record simply gave a similar sounding name or mixed up two names from the same language or ethnic group?

15 April 2015

Are You Only Using Indexed Records?

Indexes and finding aids to records are great, but there are still many records of genealogical value that are unindexed and have to be searched manually. Some of these records available in digital format and others are not. If you're only using records that are already indexed, you are probably missing out on a great deal of information.

14 April 2015

Who Is Grandma?

When writing up any family history information (or identifying people on a photograph), avoid use of nouns like "Grandma," "Grandpa," and other nameless references that could refer to more than one person. If Grandma's name was Ida (Trautvetter) Neill, then use Ida (Trautvetter) Neill--Grandma Neill may make sense to you , but will it make sense to someone in 100 years?

13 April 2015



This Low-German greeting was used by my Ostfriesen ancestors to mean "Hello." When was the last time you learned a word from your ancestor's native language? And if you don't have any foreign language speaking forebears, have you learned any of their slang or colloquialisms?

Even if it doesn't directly help your research, it may help you to connect with them on a different level.

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12 April 2015

Keep Your Time Lines Relative

Making an ancestral chronology or timeline is a good way to organize what you know about your ancestor and his or her life.

But try and keep the historical events included relevant to your ancestor's life instead of giving into temptation and adding every event you can think of. My 1865-era German immigrant to the United States, never lived west of the Mississippi River and died in 1912. I don't need the San Francisco Earthquake in his chronology. It's not really relevant to his life.

Adding too much to a chronology that's not related to your ancestor makes it more difficult to use the chronology as an analytical tool.

11 April 2015

Before You Visit That Courthouse

Before you leave for a remote courthouse or research facility, determine their hours, copy policies, digital camera policy, etc. Better to know before you leave than after you get there.

10 April 2015

Is It Time to Quit?

There comes a time when continuing to search for a specific document may not be in your best interest--sometimes one has to admit that a record may never be found. It even happens to me.

09 April 2015

Turn Off the Internet

When trying to problem-solve and work through a tough genealogical problem, consider brainstorming ideas while offline.

Yes...with no internet access.

Sometimes it can be tempting to immediately pursue an idea that we don't allow time to consider all options and possibilities. Consider spending a portion of your "genealogy time" offline--even if you use the computer for many genealogical tasks. You may find that it helps your focus.

Did You Get the Front and the Back?

When you look at a record or document, do you always look at the back for additional notations or comments? Some records are blank on the back--other times those scribbles have meaning. The difficulty can be in determining who wrote them and why.

08 April 2015

Do You Have the Legal?

If your ancestor owned real property, do you have the legal description of that piece of property? In states where property is described in metes and bounds, the description can mention neighbors or adjacent physical features. In states where property is described using base lines and meridians (and townships and sections) the legal description can help in determining where the property is located and in using some indexes.

07 April 2015

Do You Look to See What Precipitated That Pension Filing?

Every document is created in response to something and pension records are no different. If a widow "suddenly" applies for a widow's military pension, is it because:

  • her husband just died?
  • there was a change in the law?
  • her financial status changed?
All of these events could have created records, especially the first one. In the second case, reading the act under which she applied may give details about her husband's military service, length of their marriage, etc. And in third situation may be referenced in the widow's testimony.

At any rate, try and determine why the widow applied when she did. There may be a genealogical story behind that reason.

06 April 2015

More Detail Than Tip of the Day?

Genealogy Tip of the Day readers often email me privately or post comments in response to a tip of the day--asking for either additional suggestions or clarification. If the response is short, it's often used for a later tip. If the response is necessarily a little more detailed, it usually appears on my Rootdig blog as a post.

We try and keep the tips relatively short because that's what people tend to expect here and I want to keep the blog in that style of writing and format. If you'd like to see the longer posts, you can visit the Rootdig blog. Sometimes I'll link to those posts from here, but many times I forget to do it.

It's the Sound Not the Spelling

The chance that your ancestor's last name is spelled consistently throughout his entire life is slim. The sooner this fact is acknowledged, the better. 

What the genealogist should generally look for are spellings that "sound the same" as the intended last name. 

It's important to get beyond "this can't be my person because the name is not spelled right." Sometimes there is no "right" way to spell a name, especially if your ancestor was unable to read. Even literate ancestors had their names spelled in a variety of ways. And on top of spelling variations are transcription errors and handwriting difficulties.

So I'm not too concerned if Peter Bieger is:
  • Peter Biegers
  • Peter Berger
  • Peter Beger
  • Peter Biegert
As those are reasonable variations. Peter Haase is not.

05 April 2015

Look at All Levels

For the location where your ancestor lived, have you looked for records at all governmental jurisdictional levels, including town/village, township, county, state, and nation? If your ancestors were members of a church, there may be records at the village or parish level and sometimes duplicate copies of church records were kept in a larger administrative office--sometimes.

Only focusing on one level may cause you to overlook something.

04 April 2015

Online Trees Are Clues--Clues--Not Gospel

I will be honest. When I'm stuck on a person or family and am seeming to make no headway, I will look and see if their name appears in any of the online trees on the various sites. Submitted trees are only as accurate as the compiler, the information they used, and their research methodology. Some compilers are careful about their research and others are not.

However, when using these trees, I:

  • never copy the information into my tree-ever;
  • search the tree for sources (besides other trees);
  • use the dates/places/relationships given to suggest sources that might confirm that information;
  • remember the conclusions could be invalid and only spend so much time trying to confirm them;
  • try and contact the submitter;
  • never copy the information into my tree-ever (that's worth including twice).
Compiled trees can be inaccurate, just like published books. I continue to use books carefully and treat the trees the same way.

My Event and Announcement List

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03 April 2015

Talk to the Living Now

Resources are fragile. But no genealogical resource is more fragile than the human mind. Ask those questions now before it is too late. The courthouse, cemetery, library, and website will be there tomorrow. Aunt Martha might not.

02 April 2015

Please Copy

It is not unusual in pre-1900 newspaper articles to see the phrase "please copy" at the end of the article along with a name of a newspaper or city. That was a notation that the story would hold some interest for the readers of that paper as well.

That phrase "please copy Warsaw Signal" could be a clue the person mentioned in the article would be known to readers of that paper.

And that could be a clue.

01 April 2015

Cast a Wide Net For Pictures

Are you only concentrating on family members when trying to identify who is pictured in photographs? Depending on the age of the photo, there may be "non-relatives" still living who may be able to tell you who is in the picture.

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31 March 2015

I'm Primarily Looking for Primary Information

Genealogy terminology can be frustrating for beginning and experienced family researchers. However a certain amount of understanding is helpful so that one can understand what others mean and because that understanding can make your research stronger.

Primary information is one of those terms. "Information" isn't often defined in the genealogical literature and we'll save a discussion of that for another day on the Rootdig blog. However, primary information is information obtained from someone who had first hand knowledge of the information they are conveying. Ideally, they are sharing that information while their memory is accurate. Any other information is said to be secondary.

Whether a given piece of primary information is correct is another story. 

30 March 2015

Granddad Is Not in that Basketball Team Picture

For years, I had assumed that my grandfather was one of the basketball players in this picture of the 1930-1931 Basco, Illinois, team. My mother and I weren't certain which one he was, but thought that because he had it, he must have been in it.

It turns out he was not in the picture, but just happened to have been given a copy of it by someone else. When the individuals in the picture were identified, he was not one of them.

Which explains why we couldn't figure out who he was in the picture.

What are you assuming?

1,000 Documents Do Not Mean Proof!

Just because you see a "fact" written in 1,000 places does not mean that it is true. Genealogical analysis can't be covered in a short tip and we're not going to try, but remember:

  • Different records that say the same thing may have had the same original "source" if Grandma Barbara was the one who always gave the information. Just because she repeated it over and over does not make it true.
  • 1,000 online trees that agree does not mean they are correct. It just means that they probably have the same original "source," right or wrong.
Whether a written reference to a "fact" is "wrong or right," depends upon our perceived reliability of the record and the informant.

Not how many times it's been repeated.

29 March 2015

Newspaper and Ancestry.com Census Searching Presentations

We've released digital copies of my newspaper and Ancestry.com census searching webinars. For more information and to grow your research skills today, visit our page.

Did They Really Move?

If your American ancestor disappears in the census before 1850, consider the possibility that the county borders changed. It is also possible that the ancestor never moved but is hiding as a "tick mark" in the household of their child.

28 March 2015

We Don't Want People Knowing That

Obituaries and family members can easily hide a key detail in a person's life. According to family members, my great-grandfather died at home. His obituary in the paper indicated he died at home. He did not. After suffering from a series of strokes, the family could no longer take care of him and he was put in a state hospital several counties away where he died a few weeks later. They cared for him at home for years, but were no longer able to towards the end of his life.

That's why it took me forever to locate his death certificate--I was looking in the wrong place.

27 March 2015

Vetting the Venter...

Do you know what is meant if you encounter the word "venter?" That's the word used in this 1824 will from Tennessee. In this case the word is referring to a wife or mother as the "source of offspring." The intent here is to make it clear which children are to receive this specific inheritance.

It's not a mistaken reference to a vintner. That's something else entirely.

Genealogy Webinars

I have released genealogy webinars on a wide variety of topics. Presentations are clear, down-to-earth, and practical and easy on the wallet--and they help keep Genealogy Tip of the Day free. You can see a topic list here. Thanks to those who have ordered one of our presentations and thanks to everyone for their continued support of Genealogy Tip of the Day.  It is appreciated!

26 March 2015

Is the Maiden Name the Same as the Married Name?

Is it possible that your female relative married someone with the same last name as her maiden name? If so, she may never have actually "changed" her last name upon marriage.

25 March 2015

Who Took My Ancestor's Warrant?

Augusta Newman received a warrant for military service in the War of 1812.

Yet another man "gets his land." Why?

The reason is that Augusta Newman assigned his warrant over to that man--Thomas J. Stone. Stone likely paid Newman for the warrant.

It was sometimes easier for veterans to simply sell their warrant than to move into new federal lands and "start over."

The image with this post is from the Bureau of Land management. The surrendered warrant (which has Augusta's signature on the back where he assigns it to Stone) is at the National Archives.

24 March 2015

What Was "Good Enough?"

When analyzing the accuracy of any piece of information in a record, ask yourself what the consequences were for providing incorrect information. It's one thing to provide a wrong place of birth for the parent of someone who just died. It's another matter entirely to lie when giving court testimony (but it happens).

And is it possible that the clerk told the informant to "guess" when providing a non-essential piece of information?

23 March 2015

Mapping it out in Pencil

Sometimes it is simply faster to mark up a map with what you know--especially when people of the same name are moving around and appearing in a variety of records.

Failing to acknowledge geography can cause problems.

And sometimes it is simply faster to notate in pencil as you are thinking. There will always be time later to make a neat copy if necessary.

Sometimes making a neat copy slows me down and I lose my train of thought.

I always have blank copies of maps on paper so I can start taking notes "geographically" when necessary.

22 March 2015

Archive.org, WorldCat, Newspapers, and Census Searching Webinars

I am excited to offer four new webinars this week (25 and 27 March):

  • Archive.org--do you know how much free genealogy material is there?
  • Worldcat--search thousands of library card catalogs at once
  • Census Searching at Ancestry.com
  • Newspaper Research

Before Visiting Cemeteries on Private Property

Smaller rural cemeteries present a variety of research challenges, particularly in terms of access. Not all of these small cemeteries are publicly accessible--some may be located on private property. Access will require the permission of the landowner and that person should be contacted some time before any planned visit.  Local historical or genealogical societies may also have copies of earlier transcriptions which may have been done when stones were more legible and may be able to help determine the current owner of the property on which the cemetery is located.