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Monthly Archives: February 2012

Spellchecker! Why is my Last Name Spelled Wrong?

When you are doing research based on surnames, often times you will be going along seemingly well and then suddenly come to an abrupt stop. Why? You can’t find any more records under the name “Smith” – spelled S-M-I-T-H. Look a little closer-I bet if you go back a few more years, you’ll find plenty more information about the “Smithe” (spelled S-M-I-T-H-E) or “Smyth” (spelled S-M-Y-T-H) family. Fact is, over the years last names have changed drastically, so be sure to search under lots of possible spellings before you give up completely.

In recent times, last names have changed for reputation reasons. For example, if there is a black sheep in your immediate family, some may choose to begin separating themselves from the stereotype by spelling their name differently. Also, new immigrants to the United States may feel they need to change their last name to become more Americanized. For example, a Hispanic family may change from Martinez to simply Martin to fit into the community better.

This happened a long time ago too. Back when there was a mad exodus from Europe to the United States, many families changed their names to fit into the American culture better. This especially happened with British immigrants who simply changed the British spelling to an American form. Mistakes were often made on Ellis Island as well. Because of the sheer volume of immigrants, workers moved as quickly as possible, so lots of typos occurred and some of these names stuck. Because of the many different languages and accents, people misheard one another as well, or workers just didn’t take the time to ask for the correct spelling-there wasn’t time, so last names were spelled as they sounded in the English language. To avoid the complications with getting this corrected, most simply took the new name.

During this time period and earlier, many people didn’t know the difference anyway. Because the general public could not read or write, even members of the same family spelled their last names differently. If you obtain really old records, you might see your family name spelled two or more different ways in the same document. It was also not uncommon for people to sign their names as an “X,” instead of spelling it out.

When you research, keep this in mind. It is vital to your documentation that you learn the history not only of your family but of the spelling of your name as well. Search through records with an eye for error and learn to detect instances when your surname evolved.

Software: What Every Genealogist should Know about Computers

Since many homes have a personal computer, and almost all libraries have computers you can use to access the Internet, one way for genealogists to organize and record their information is by using family history programs. Available online and at your local computer or media store, programs that help you with your research are often easier to use than you think. Don’t let your lack of computer skills discourage you from looking into buying one of these programs. All these resources work in different ways, so make sure you do your research before purchasing something, since they can cost as much as a few hundred dollars.

If you don’t know a lot about computers, your first step is probably to employ the help of someone who does. You can ask your local librarian for help using the Internet, or you can take a course at your local community college. Often, these are one-time only events that are offered for free and taught by students. If this is not an option for you, ask for help from someone in the 16- to 25-year-old range. The younger generations grew up needing to know how to use computers to get by in their daily lives, so someone of this age can help you get started with your research.

Begin by searching online for product descriptions and reviews. A good place to start is with companies who sell many different types of software, because these reviews tend to be more unbiased. Amazon.com, which became famous for selling books, sells many types of genealogical research software programs, and not only does the company post reviews, but you can read user reviews to the product as well.

Decide what factors are important to you. First and foremost, set a budget and try to stick to it. Realize that you will get what you pay for, so the more tools you want, the more you will pay. Online, you can access many free services, but the disadvantage to this is that you are not always able to record all of your information, and unless you can do that, the program is not very useful, since you’ll have to use it in conjunction with a written notebook or other computer files.

After you set a budget, look at your options within that price range. Tools commonly used on this type of software include family health charts, family trees, pedigrees, timelines, and basic information pages. What type of tools do you need? By comparing products, with the help of someone who knows a little bit about computers, you can choose one that is right for you and your skill level.

So Many Dates: How a Timeline Can Help Your Get

So Many Dates: How a Timeline Can Help Your Get Organized

One of the biggest challenges for beginning genealogists is getting organized. When you start, there are millions of different resources at your fingertips, and you may already know a good deal about your family history, at least about the most recent family members. One of the tools you can use to help you organize your information and see your research more clearly is a timeline. These can be simple or advanced, but in either case it is a good way to find gaps in your research.

The most basic type of timeline is the ascendance chart. Simply start with yourself, branching off to the left and the right for your parents, and then branching off again for your grandparents. This type of timeline usually does not include more than five generations, and is most beneficial for older people who want to uncover facts about generations close to themselves who have passed away. Some things to include on your timeline are dates for births, deaths, marriages, religious rights, name changes, retirements, military service, births of children, and moves. You may also wish to include other dates that are significant to your family. The easiest way to do this is by using a color-coding system-blue for marriage, green for births of children, and so forth. Be aware that many things may happen on the same date, so leave ample room to write. For example, your parents may have gotten married the same year you were born and the same year that your grandmother retired and the same year your great-grandfather died. Color-coding helps you keep this information clear.

If you don’t want to attempt this by hand, you can also use a computer to make a timeline. Many software programs are available, but be sure to research the functions of each one before making a purchase, since this can get expensive. Sometimes you can download a trial version from the Internet to get a feel for the program, and this is especially useful to make sure it is a good fit for your needs.

Timelines can help you figure out a lot of things. For instance, if you want to find out the date that your grandfather died, fill in as much other information as you can first. Obviously, that date will be after his last child was born, but if you can’t remember him, then it was before you were born (or at least before you were very old). Information about your grandmother may also determine your grandfather’s death date-did she remarry? Is there a point in her life where she needed to get a job, which might indicate that her spouse passed away? By putting together the pieces of the puzzle, you can then find a range of dates for research. This works not only for deaths, but for all information, so timelines are invaluable.

Ship Shape Research

Since the early 1800s, immigrants to the United States have been plentiful-and so have records of their voyage. Luckily for those interested in learning about their family history, almost all of the millions of immigrants to America were registered at Ellis Island when they came across the ocean on ships, and this extensive list of travelers is one of the best resources a researcher can use to find their ancestors. Ship passenger lists can be your best tools to start your search for your family tree.

Until after the end of the French Revolution, there are few records, because immigrants were not required to register. After this, there was an explosion of people moving to the United States and conditions aboard ships deteriorated. To help relive this problem, the government began to regulate the number of passengers a ship could carry, which required that names and dates be recorded and submitted to Ellis Island officials.

Of course, over time, many lists were lost. However, many more survived and those have since become property of the National Archive, with copies being held by the Department of State as well. In the late 1970s, copies of the lists from five of the major United States ports (Boston, New York, New Orleans, Baltimore, and Philadelphia) were also given to the Balch Institute Center for Immigration Research in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It is safe to say that, although there was some loss, the bulk of the passengers listed have been saved and are now on microfilm for safekeeping.

By law, after 1819 the following things had to be recorded on the passenger list: name, age, gender, country of allegiance, country of intended destination, and occupation. Later law required information such as country of origin, more specific intended location, previous address, marital status, amount of money, prison records, and health status. By the turn of the century, passenger lists carried 21 points of information. Soon, a physical description was added as well.

The National Archives is in the process of creating indexes for all of the existing passenger lists. This is the best place to start if you know the name of your ancestor. Remember that earlier records will be harder to read and may not exist at all. The indexes are arranged by port, so try to find this information, or at least make an educated guess, to start your search. Once you find the passenger list you need, you can continue on to other countries in your quest for your ancestors.

Praying for Answers

When you’ve seemed to hit a dead end in your genealogical research, one place you might turn for help is the church. No, I don’t mean you should pray for answers. While this may give you some peace of mind if you are religious, a better step is to find churches where your family has been members and ask for records. Often, churches keep records of births, deaths, marriages, communion, baptisms, and other vital events in their members’ lives. These records are sometimes hundreds of years old and can provide you with endless clues as to how to continue researching your relatives.

First, contact the church where your parents or grandparents were members. If this is a local place, you can visit in person, but you can also email the church secretary or write to the religious leader. Some churches also keep records of new members and what church they previously belonged to, so even if you don’t know where your great-grandparents went to church, records from your grandparents’ church may give you a clue. If you have no idea where to start with some of your even older relatives, try visiting the older churches in the town where they lived. Even if you can’t find them, you may find other ancestors recorded in the church log.

Graveyards are invaluable tools as well. If the churches did not keep good records, or if your ancestors did not attend, they still have to be buried somewhere. Walk through some of the smaller cemeteries in town to see if you recognize any surnames, or, if available, ask the person in charge for a list of people buried in the cemetery. Make rubbings or take pictures of their tombstones for your records and take note as to who else is buried in the family plot.

Another place to look associated with churches is religious organizations. These organizations, such as the Knights of Columbus or Masonic Lodge always keep extensive records, and some of the lodge members may be able to point you to the correct graveyard to find your family. Many religious organizations even have old photographs that they are willing to share or can offer you information about your relative’s involvement with the group.

Overall, don’t ignore religious clues, even if you are not religious yourself. When your great-grandparents (and older generations) were alive, they most likely belonged to one church or another. Church records, cemeteries, and religious organizations’ files are a great source for tracking down more information about your family history.

Outsiders: The Forgotten Resource

When you are deep in your genealogical research, it is easy to become so caught up in your own family that you forget other people even exist. However, sources outside your family can provide a lot of insight into your work, making your job as a researcher easier and more productive. Don’t overlook people just because they have a different last name!

First, network with other people researching their family histories. To do this, you can register as a member of one of the numerous genealogy organizations or websites or you can simply approach others in the family history section of your local library. Remember to be courteous of others’ time, but most people will be happy to have a partner in research. You can help each other find sources, share tips, or just generally discuss the hobby of family tree research.

The second categories of people that will be of great interest to you are friends of the family. Just as your children today have friends visit the house for play dates, your grandparents probably spent time with the other children in their neighborhood, many of whom are probably still living, even if your own parents are dead. Track them down. If they are willing to spend some time with you, they may be able to help you fill in the missing pieces about your older family members and identify people in photographs from that time period. Even if your older relatives are still living, friends of the family are important resources-every person remembers different details, so together you will have much more information. You can even orchestrate a reunion between your relatives and their childhood friends. This way, you’re doing something nice to say thank you for their time, but you will also be sure to hear many stories as they reminisce together, some of which could be important for your research.

Lastly, don’t forget about the other older adults in your community, namely teachers and ministers. Churches and school often keep very good records, so while the priest who presided over your great-grandmothers’ wedding may have long since passed away, his journals were probably passed down to the priests that followed him. The same is true for teachers. If you find the school district that is the descendent of the little schoolhouse your ancestors attended, they may have some documents of use to you. Overall, just open yourself up to people in the community. If nothing else, you’ll hear some good stories about the past that you can tell your own children someday.

Net Networks: Finding Relatives Online

Hands down, the most valuable tool for modern genealogy researchers is the Internet. While the Internet is of course a great way to perform searches and generally learn about the art of hunting for your ancestors, one of the most overlooked uses is networking. If you are just beginning your research, join one or many of the thousands of message boards on the Internet to find contacts and gain insight from people who have been doing this for years. You never know-you might even find a long-lost relative online!

First, decide what kind of message board is appropriate for you. Yahoo, America Online, and various genealogy sites have special message boards set up to help researchers. You can join one or many, and most are completely free as long as you register with a valid email account. Be safe-remember to never give out personal information, such as your home phone number, on the web, because predators can use this to find you. Also, consider a fun screen name that reflects your surname, rather than one which is your entire name. For example, instead of using “joe_allen_smith123” as your name under which you will speak to other members, you might consider something like “smith_boy456” or “looking_for_smiths789.” You can even use something more generic should as “love_my_family246.” Most of the time, you will need to use both letters and numbers, so use numbers that don’t mean anything personal. Use caution, but don’t let fear keep you from this great resource.

Message boards all have their own individual goals, so make sure you sign up for one that fits your needs before filling out the registration. For example, some are for beginners, so if you have no need to discuss simple things, such as birth records, you might rather sign up for the advanced message board. Also, read some of the previous posts to get a feel for the population using the message board. Sometimes, people will use lots of profanity, which may make you uncomfortable, or discuss one aspect of genealogy, such as family health. Sign up for what you need.

Message boards work in two ways-giving help and getting help. Although you may not gain anything personally from answering someone’s question, remember to do it from time to time anyway, since someone is taking the time to answer yours. Message boards can lead you to a variety of sources and even help you locate people who are researching similar surnames, so this is a great option for beginners who have a personal computer.

How to Research Your Family Health

Genetics is an important part of any family tree, as well as any single person’s personal health. Once you understand how the process of inheriting health traits works, it is time to start researching your pedigree. This can be a difficult process, but by taking a close look at your parents’ health histories, and then continuing to work your way back through the generations, you can help you and your children maintain good health conditions or be prepared for problems that may develop in the future. Not everything is treatable or preventable, but knowing your family health history will help you and your doctor make the most educated decisions possible.

When you begin to compile a family health history, your first step is to record information for yourself and your closest living relatives. Even if your grandparents or parents are not living anymore, by speaking to uncles, aunts, and cousins, you can determine some of the diseases that may be common in your family. Record this information carefully and then ask your doctor for help interpreting it. For example, if your sister has a disease that is only possible by receiving two faulty genes, both of your parents and at least two of your grandparents must have been carriers. This means there’s a chance that you are a carrier as well, and you should find your husband’s status to determine if your future children will be at risk.

There are many resources for finding family history. After speaking with relatives who are still living about personal health, ask if they have any information about relatives who have since passed away. You can also check death records for causes of death, which is important if they died due to a specific genetic disease, rather than naturally of old age or by accident. Military records are also an excellent source for this, as are immigration records. Remember, to establish a good family heath history, you don’t need to go back in time 20 generations-four or five should be enough to trace the majority of genetically transmitted diseases that are common in your family.

Once you gather this information, organize it for your doctor and then ask his advice if you see any trends or patterns. Also, consider sharing your findings with everyone in your family. Although you may want to keep you health records private, if your family is at risk, the ethical thing to do is share this information.

Grave Discoveries: Visiting Cemeteries to Help you Find your Ancestors

Grave Discoveries: Visiting Cemeteries to Help you Find your Ancestors

If you’ve come to a seemingly dead end in your genealogy research, some places that you might consider visiting are cemeteries. Start with ancestors who lived nearby and who are likely to be buried close to your home-if your local cemetery is fairly small, you can simply spend an afternoon walking though it to search for familiar names. However, at larger cemeteries, you’ll need some help sifting through the hundreds, sometimes thousands of tombstones.

If the cemetery is associated with a church, contact the church secretary or religious leader and ask about their graveyard policies. Some keep a record of everyone buried and plot numbers where you can find these individuals, and they should be happy to share their records with you. On top of gaining information such as birth and death dates about the ancestor you are researching, you may also stumble upon other relatives who are buried in a family plot or names of children, spouses, parents, etc. who held the funeral. Occasionally, churches will even save obituaries or funeral information about their members, and this information can be especially valuable on your hunt for ancestors.

Cemeteries not associated with churches often are run by a committee or the government. Find the name of the contact person and they will be able to help you locate specific plots. Recently, larger cemeteries have begun putting their records onto computers, making it even easier to search surnames and other information. Within a few minutes, they can provide you with a map of the plots and a list of people with a specific surname. Save this list-even if you don’t recognize the names now, you may be able to find a connection in the future.

There are many ways to record information from tombstones. First, you can bring your camera and take a picture of each stone. Remember to be respectful of other visitors-wait until the area is clear before taking a picture, especially if your camera uses a flash. Do not stand straight in front of the stone if this is the case, because the flash will often times shine back and you won’t be able to read the information on the photograph.

Some old stones, however, cannot be adequately photographed. In this case, bring supplies to do a rubbing. Use a brush to remove debris such as dirt and bird droppings from the stone. Next, tape a large piece of paper to the stone, making sure to cover all areas of writing. Use the side of a crayon-a large black one works best-to gently rub over the stone. Your words should appear on the paper, giving you a good record of whatever is written on the stone.

When visiting cemeteries, always use caution, especially when you touch very old stones, so that you do not cause any damage. Also remember that other visitors are there to mourn and remember loved ones, so be polite and quiet while you are searching through the stones for hints to your genealogy.

Getting the Dirt on Your Relatives

When you begin doing research, you probably have no idea what you will uncover. Of course, you’ll expect to find records for things such as the military and engagements, but you could also uncover some skeletons that can make great conversation at the next family reunion. Take pride in your ancestor’s dirty little secrets-every family has a few black sheep. It just makes your family history more colorful and interesting.

Before becoming colonies, America was the place Europeans sent a lot of their criminals. Most took this as an opportunity for a second chance, with the more unruly ones being sent on to Australia. However, if your ancestors came to the United States in the 1600s or 1700s, there’s definitely a possibility that they led unlawful lives in Europe and came to the New World either as punishment or to escape charges. Finding out the circumstances of your ancestor’s immigration can be funny and interesting. Prison records, though they may be difficult to find and read, can give you an account of your black sheep.

Also, you may find some promiscuous relatives in your past. As is often the case today, it was generally a scandal to have a child out of wedlock, so if a girl found out she was pregnant before she was married, one option was to quickly marry the father (or her current beau, if they weren’t the same person!). At the time, no one may have noticed, but when you do a timeline, check out the marriage dates versus the date of the birth of the couple’s first child. If it isn’t eight and a half months or more, your ancestor probably married to avoid scandal-perhaps she didn’t even marry the true father. Didn’t you ever wonder where your red hair came from?

Don’t be surprised to find out that modern married couples are distantly related. Of course, you have every right to tease, but its nothing to be worried about. It was common practice in early America, and still within some Amish communities today, to allow the marriage of first cousins. Modern technology now warns us of the genetic dangers of this, but learning that your mother’s great-great-grandfather was a cousin to your father’s great-great-grandfather is not a big deal. Sure, it may be a little weird to think about, but in the end, it makes your research a little easier since your family tree converges a bit. Overall, go into your research with an open mind and a sense of humor. Families were (and still are) pretty wacky, so if you uncover some skeletons, don’t be ashamed.