Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Jumpstart Tip #8 - Reading Obituaries

Anna Orsatti Ditoto - Obituary
If you have a collection of family documents and photographs tucked away somewhere in your home, chances are good that there is at least one obituary or funeral notice for a member of your extended family. In the example shown at left, this clipping was given to me in 1991 along with other documents that had been saved by my maternal grandmother.

You can see that even a relatively brief obituary is rich with detail about family history. Even if you have read them in the past, you should take out any obituaries in your collection and carefully read them once again.

> Who are all the family members listed?
> What is their relationship to the deceased?
> Are there people missing that you thought would be listed?
> Are there other place names mentioned?
> Are ages or dates mentioned?
> What newspaper and date did the clipping come from?
> Is the name of a cemetery, Church or funeral home mentioned?
> Are Pall Bearers named and, if so, who are they?

You may be surprised how many more clues you can obtain by simply going back and reading obituaries that may have been tucked away for a few years. Each clue can lead to other family discoveries.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Happy Birthday Google!

Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday dear Gooooooogle, Happy Birthday to you! I can't think of any 12-year-old doing quite so well as Google.

There are reports of different dates online, but all sources seem to pinpoint the birth of Google, Inc. to September 1998. Oh, if only I had thought to write a check to the co-founders back in those early days!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Jumpstart Tip #7 - Chronology Documents

In all the world, there are just two different groups of family historians - those who have hit a brick wall with their research, and those who will. It doesn't matter how experienced or how long a person has been doing research, the circumstances of our families will challenge the best of us.

One thing I find particularly useful in breaking through a brick wall is to develop a Chronology Document from the point of view of the particular ancestor that is challenging me. I start by collecting and then writing (or typing) all that I know and ordering events by date. Anywhere their name appears, I place a date or partial date, a description, and the source for the information. As I continue to add information, I continue to sort and resort. Include birth information, baptism, appearance in a census, reference as a sibling on other birth certificates, mention as a surviving relative in an obituary . . . basically anything you can get your hands on.

This will serve as a quick reference as you continue in your attempt to unravel the mystery for this individual. Perhaps it is his or her parents you are trying to locate and you don't have a birth certificate. Knowing the information for siblings can be helpful since one of those certificates may list the parents names.

These documents can also be useful later if you choose to write a biography for a particular ancestor. I have several such documents created in Microsoft Word and for events that I 'assume' or 'suspect' happened, I sometimes will enter them in my document and change the font color to red to highlight that it is work that remains to be completed.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Jumpstart Tip #6 - Back Up Your Computer Files

If you're wondering how this is a 'Jumpstart Tip' then you have clearly never lost a computer hard drive or had your computer stolen or damaged. It can take years to recreate all that work you may have done - even if you've just recently started.

Here are a few tips to help. Among the many folder on my computer hard drive, I have ONE main folder named 'Genealogy' and EVERYTHING dealing with my family history is in there. Sub-folders by surname, place name, data type (census, naturalization, etc.), presentations, correspondence, photos, and more are all organized within. I even have a folder called 'To File' with items I'm either still working on or have not yet decided where to file. I will frequently copy the entire contents of this GENEALOGY folder to a separate USB drive (or two). I keep one in my fireproof safe and will also often bring a copy and leave it at my brother's house 90 minutes away.

There are also online services if you prefer that will automatically back up your entire computer hard drive. I choose to copy my files by major folder because I can then just take the USB drive with me quite easily to family functions, libraries, archives or other places.

If you have not backed your files up recently, stop reading my tips and go back your files up now! This blog will be here when you are done.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Jumpstart Tip #5 - Name Files Carefully When Sharing Online

Mary Phelan, Waterbury CT


We all likely recall the story of Hansel and Gretel who left breadcrumbs to mark their trail. Well, in this age of Google and other search engines (yes, there are a few others), we can learn a thing or two from that childhood story.

You see, on the Internet, keywords are the name of the game. Search engines 'crawl' web pages searching for words and phrases, scoring various elements of the page for their relevancy based on those terms. Then one day, a user comes along with a query and - Presto - the search engine responds with precisely what they are looking for. BUT, where does all that content come from to begin with?

If you have a blog or family website or are submitting photos, articles, or other documents online to be viewed and shared by others - be sure you are leaving a careful trail of breadcrumbs back to your door. Here's what I mean.

Digital photos and scanners are wonderful tools and now very low cost, therefore enabling just about anyone with a computer to convert photos and documents into a digital image (this is referred to as 'digitization'). You may have already done this. Perhaps you've scanned entire batches of your family photos for safe keeping, preservation, and sharing. Now I want to ask - how did you name those files? The scanner may offer to name them for you and will result in files named scan001.jpg, scan002.jpg, scan003.jpg - that's a problem. When was the last time you searched the web hoping to find someone with the surname scan001? In fact, I just did a quick Google search while writing this tip and found more than 10,000 images named 'scan001.jpg' so that's not going to help much.

You should go back and rename your files. If just one person, then I suggest leading with surname then lastname. Example using my grandfather's name, call the file lynch_patrick_1945.jpg or lynch_patrick_connecticut.jpg or something similar. Use either an underscore (_) or a dash (-) to separate words so that search engines will be able to index the file and ultimately connect future searchers back to you and your photo.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Jumpstart Tip #4 - Explore A Family Story

If you've not read this before, let me be the first - every family has a story or two or three. Sure, some have more than others and yes, some are more interesting than others. Bottom line, if there is a story that has been shared for a generation or two or more in your family, chances are good that there is some element of truth at the foundation of the story.

Certainly any story will have been embellished over time, whether intentionally or not. Memories fade, as the story is told and retold, it changes in many ways. The great news for family historians in this new millennium is that many of these stories stand a good chance of being unraveled. Many, but certainly not all.

I have been able to unravel two family mysteries over the years, both before the advent of the Internet as we know it. Both were solved first by obtaining death certificates for the individuals in question (the family legends in each case had to do with their cause of death). Upon reviewing the cause of death for each, I knew there would be something more than a simple obituary in the newspaper. With an exact date of death, I then turned to the local newspapers (on microfilm in this case) and filled in the missing pieces. The 'fractured skull' which led to the death of my great grandfather was the result of a fall from a forth floor veranda during a heat wave. The 'traumatic decapitation' was, as you might expect, covered in extremly gruesome detail in the newspapers of 1912. The article headline read, "Man Decapitated By Iron Weight In Local Factory."

The 'legend' was that he was hit and killed by a trolley car. As many historical newspapers are being digitized and still other documents are being shared online by individuals, historical and genealogical societies, libraries, archives, and others - you never know what you may be able to find . . . but it's certainly worth a look!

You can click on the image below to view a full-size death certificate. Note the primary cause of death is listed as 'Traumatic Decapitation' and the secondary cause of death is 'Leg & Arm Severed' - certainly not something you want to find for your ancestors.