Sunday, December 12, 2010

Who or What Inspired You to Pursue Family History?

I've been asked this question more times that I can remember . . . and can't say there was one 'single' spark, but there were certainly a few very important events that contributed significantly to my own family history pursuits. The first one that comes to mind was the airing of Roots on American television in January 1977. At the time, I was just 14 years old and a Freshman in high school. My parents, four siblings, and grandmother all watched the series each night. It raised many questions for me about the history of our country, slavery, but also about the arrival of my own ancestors from Ireland and Italy. Hard to believe that was nearly 34 years ago - seems like yesterday in some ways. At that time, there was just one television in the home and even then we had basically 3 channels - ABC, NBC, and CBS. If you wanted to change the channel, you actually had to get up out of your seat and turn the analog dial (or have one of your kids do it for you, ha).

I wonder if I had video games, the Internet, a cell phone with texting or any of the other 'wonders' of modern technology, I wonder if I would have even watched Roots at all? Probably not. It turns out to be a good thing that it aired how it did, when it did. Today, programming barely stands a chance. One or two episodes, a peek at the ratings, and it's thumbs up or thumbs down.

Two other things that come to mind that sparked my initial interest were the American Bi-Centennial in 1976 and, for me, two years earlier in 1974 was the Tri-Centennial celebration in my home town, the city of Waterbury, Connecticut. Both those events were surrounded with non-stop nostalgia and looking back, so it was perhaps only natural that these three things combined led me down the path of addition toward genealogy.

Share your story - I'd love to read who inspired you and/or what events helped jumpstart your family tree.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Anniversary of the Attack on Pearl Harbor

Today is sixty-nine years since the surprise attack on the United States at Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. I sat with a friend this evening - he's 86 years old - and he shared his very clear recollections of that day. He was sitting in his family room on the East side of Bridgeport, Connecticut, listening to the family radio (an old wooden Philco radio that he also described in detail). He heard the announcer share the news and said his first reaction was, "What's a Pearl Harbor?"

Today, the words Pearl Harbor immediately call to mind the shocking events of that Sunday morning years earlier. That beautiful and peaceful place will forever be remembered by the events that shaped American history 69 years ago today.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Jumpstart Tip #17 - Dating a Photographer's Mark

Ditota Family, Cleveland, OH

The best way for me to share this tip is to describe a challenge that I faced with a photograph from my own family. The image (shown below) is a formal portrait of four adult men and a young boy. The men are all dressed in 3-piece suits and holding cigars. The first clue I had was that it was among my maternal grandmother's possessions and passed to me upon her death. So, I could somewhat safely assume the photo belonged to that 'half' of my family tree (meaning, not my paternal half). Now, it's entirely possible this isn't a family connection at all - it may be a portrait of some special friends, but in either case I'll want to understand why it was given to and then saved for all those years by my grandmother.

My family was/is from Waterbury, Connecticut. As far as I knew, all my research had shown arrivals from Italy coming straight to Waterbury and staying there, not traveling or migrating to any other part of the United States. The photograph has a photographers stamp on the cardboard mounting - it reads:
Fine Art Studio Co.
2096 Murray Hill Rd.
Cleveland, Ohio
(S.A.) Garfield 534 R.

Certainly photographic experts (see Maureen Taylor's website) can tell you the likely time period based on the photographic technique and clothing, but there is a also a relatively simple way to narrow the timeframe when the photo was taken.

Consulting a collection of City Directories for Cleveland, Ohio, you can find a listing for the photographer and match the address to a date. Some businesses operated for decades, but moved multiple times for various reasons. You may find that you can narrow the date range to within just a few years.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Remembrance Day (Armistice Day)


The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month — this year I have the honor of being in Canberra, the capital city of Australia, for Remembrance Day. The Australian War Memorial is very impressive and surely I would need a full day or possibly longer to properly view all the exhibits.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Google Your Family Tree - Two Years Young!

Dan Lynch

Google Your Family Tree was officially 'born' on this date in 2008. The book began shipping on November 11, 2008, but made its' debut at the Connecticut Society of Genealogists Annual Fall Seminar in Cromwell CT. Author Dan Lynch was on hand with his daughter Eliza and her friend Hannah to introduce the book and sign copies!

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Jumpstart Tip #9 - Interview A Family Member This Month!

Don't wait, think it through, come up with a list of potential candidates, and promise yourself you're going to complete at least one family interview before this month is over. After all, October is Family History month!!

Your best candidates are those that are older than you and, ideally, among the most senior members of your extended family. Be mindful of health issues that may impact their ability to help, but if you can identify one or more senior members of your family that are in reasonably good health and with a clear memory, as well as an interest and ability to speak with you, then you're in good shape.

If you've not been in touch with someone in a while, it is best to announce your call with a card or letter. Let them know you're interested in your family tree and wondered if they might be able to help.

Prioritize what you'd like to know for each call. In some cases, finding out just one piece of information can well worth the time. Keep in mind what you hear is personal recollection and so it will need to be verified using other sources, but it's a great starting point. You may simply want to inquire about a maiden name or the names of brothers and sisters for a member of your common family.

If you can get permission, record the conversation (audio or video, in person or by phone). It will make it easier for you to listen without missing something. Even if you take careful notes, recording the call for later playback will be a great help.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Family History Month 2010

October is National Family History Month in the United States. If it has been a while since you tended to your family tree, then make this the month that you make some forward progress.

Get your papers, review your notes, and set at least one goal for the month and see if you can't get going again!

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.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Jumpstart Tip #3 - Create A Family Birthday List

This may seem a bit simple, but I wonder if you have considered how a birthday list can help you with your family tree?

Start with a sheet of paper or preferably a new document on your computer. The computer makes it so much easier to correct mistakes and to reorder things in case you get a date wrong.

Start with your name and birth date. Easy enough. Then work sideways, then backwards. By sideways, I mean list the names of siblings and their birth dates. Then list your parents and THEIR siblings. If you know an exact date, list it (i.e. - 10 May 1948). If you're not sure, record what you think and include a question mark (i.e. - 10/11 May 1948 or 10 May 1948/49 or May/June 1948). You can also use abbreviations commonly used when dealing with dates in family history - ABT for About, BEF for Before, AFT for After. So, if you know a cousin was born before your, but you're not sure when, you can record the date as BEF 1950 (assuming your year of birth is 1950 in this example).

Once you have this list, identify two or three people on the list with birthdays in the next month or two. Send them each a card a few days early when the day comes, even if it has been several years since you last had contact. As part of your message, let them know you've been thinking about your extended family and are beginning to work on your family tree. They will certainly be in touch with other family members on their birthday and will likely mention your surprise card to others. Word will travel that you're working on the family tree.

Be sure to include your current mailing address, phone number, and an email address if you have one. If you use Facebook, you can also let them know to seek you out there as well. If the person you're contacting may not immediately know who you are, then be sure to introduce yourself and include a little detail explaining how you are related.

I've never met a person who didn't enjoy getting a surprise birthday card in the mail!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Jumpstart Tip #2 - Matching Folders

Over many years, I've seen that family historians fall into at least one of two camps, but sometimes both. In the first camp are those who use 3-ring binders to organize all their family history notes and documents. In the second camp are those who use folders. Then there are people like me who use a combination of both, sometimes duplicating items intentionally.

Which ever method you choose is fine, as long as you do something to keep your ever growing collection of content organized. One benefit to using folders (meaning physical folders) is that you can replicate your folder system online as well. Use Surname, Placename, and other folders on your computer desktop, as well as in your email client, and also to keep your web browser 'Favorites' or 'Bookmarks' organized.

Don't forget too that you can nest folders inside one another just like in your physical file drawers. This can help you keep like groups together.

There are many benefits to this type of online foldering system and it's never too late to start. You can always create folders and gradually move files to where they belong. If you're not sure how to start, simply create a folder named GENEALOGY or FAMILY HISTORY and gradually move all your related files and documents into that main folder. Then you may wish to create Sub-Folders, perhaps one for your paternal line and another for your maternal line. Gradually move files into one of those two folders. Continue creating sub-folders and moving files until you can quickly locate and save your documents and files. You'll find this takes time to set up, but will save you a LOT of time in the long run.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Jumpstart Tip #1 - Share 3 Things This Week!

As I begin work on my next genealogy book, Jumpstart Your Family Tree, it seems only appropriate that I fully leverage the technology at my disposal for the benefit of any interested readers.

My Jumpstart Tips will be a way to keep the community engaged with new ideas relevant to family history research. Whether you are just starting out or need a periodic reminder to keep you motivated . . . I'll try to cover the spectrum of ideas. If you use Twitter, then you may wish to follow these tips there too!

In some cases, the tips may be from friends of mine, many of whom are expert in certain aspects of family history throughout the world. I'll certainly give credit where and when it is due. Enjoy and spread the word!

So for my first tip, I'll simply remind you to GET MOVING! Family history isn't something you will finish in a week or two. Or even a year or two, but you can make progress EVERY DAY if you try.

One of the best ways to find things is to actually let them find you. I'd suggest finding 2 or 3 of the most interesting photographs, letters, documents or other items in your possession. Scan or photograph them, then send either via email or some other means to a few carefully selected family members - those you think may have similarly interesting items in their possession. By GIVING first, you will likely find that others will be more willing to SHARE what they may have. The more unique the items you share, the more likely they are to generate something interesting in return!