News and a Genealogy Birthdate Story

18-kjel0139of89-copyOn August 23rd, our family welcomed our second child, our first daughter, into the world! From now on, this date will have special significance to our family. For years to come on this date, we will celebrate her and reminisce about the day she was born.

It is interesting how this specific date is the one we will celebrate. I was certain she would arrive much earlier and all indicators supported this hunch. Yet, because of certain risks, my doctors insisted on scheduling the date of her “eviction” should she decide not to come on her own. August 23 was suggested and we agreed. Even though the number 23 carries positive connotations for any true Chicago sports fan, at the time I didn’t consider too carefully how I really felt about the date, because surely, I reasoned, she would come before then. Yet, as my due date came and went and this date loomed closer and closer, I began googling “This day in history” and famous birthdays on this date. Of course, once she arrived, I realized just how little these things truly matter and how the end goal is to have a healthy baby, which, thankfully, we do. Nevertheless, my genealogy research tells me I am not the first parent to care about the date on which her child is born.

My grandmother was born on December 18, 1919 – or so we always thought and so we always celebrated. This “fact” was supported by pretty air tight evidence. My mom said this was my Grammy’s birthday and my Grammy herself claimed this as her birthday. I found a copy of Grammy’s birth certificate at the FHL and indeed, the document said she was born on December 18th.[1] The only even remotely interesting thing about the document was that it was a delayed birth certificate, meaning it was written after the fact. My grandmother was born at home, at a time when Illinois vital statistics were regulated, but not always complied with[2], so it would seem that no official birth certificate was created at the time of her birth.

Then one day, when I am back home in Chicagoland, visiting family, the conversation turned to genealogy. My mom told me that she has a copy of my Grammy’s birth certificate if I wanted it. I explained how I already possessed a copy, but the topic prompted my mother to remember something:

“You know how sometimes Grammy misremembers things?” My mom asked. “Well, that’s another thing she got wrong. She once told me she was actually born on a different date, but her parents changed it because they didn’t like the date or something.”

“Wait, what?!” I replied.

“Yeah, she said they changed it, but they couldn’t have. Her birth certificate says she was born on December 18th.”

“Mom. . .” I explained, “Her birth certificate was a delayed certificate! — Meaning it was created after the fact and her father reported the date on which she was born. She was born at home, so no official certificate was created at a hospital or anything. It’s very possible they changed the date!”

In no time, we retrieved the birth certificate and I showed Mom how we know that the information was reported by my great grandfather in 1935, more than 15 years after my grandmother was born.

So, if the story my grandmother told is true, why would my great grandparents have changed my grandmother’s birthday?

While of course, I couldn’t swear to it, and knew I would likely never be able to prove my theory, I then and there developed my own beliefs about my grandmother’s true birthdate. I believe my Sicilian great grandparents, like most Sicilians of their time and place were fairly superstitious people. In their culture, 17 was considered an unlucky number.[3] So what do you do when your child is born on a day marked by this auspicious number? You simply say your child was born then next day! In this case, December 18.

Fast forward some weeks after this conversation with my mom when I find my Sicilian great-grandfather’s naturalization papers. On the 1924 document, he gave the names of his children and their birthdates. There, at the top, his firstborn child (my grandmother) is listed along with her birthdate: 17 December 1919!!![4]

Now, this may not be 100% proof that my theory was correct, but I’d say it’s looking pretty good!

The fact of the matter is that good genealogy research necessitates that we always take our ancestors’ birthdates with a grain of salt. Our modern idea of birthdays and how they are remembered and celebrated is often very different from those of our ancestors. The research ramifications of this truth are significant. I hope to expound on this idea in a future post.

But for now, I must go, since my two week old is about to wake up from her nap!

[1] Privately held by author

[2] Illinois Vital Records, “FamilySearch”, (https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/Illinois_Vital_Records#References : accessed 6 August 2016)

[3] Ethel Alec-Tweedie, Sunny Sicily, (London: Hutchinson, 1904), 125; downloaded from Google Books.

Also, Tweedie, Sunny Sicily, 198.

Also, Wikipedia Contributors, “17 (number),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Special:CiteThisPage&page=17_%28number%29&id=726870460 : accessed 8 September 2016).

[4] Privately held by author

My New Year’s Resolutions Need Your Help!!

resolved
Here it is, nearly the middle of January and I’m just now sharing my New Year’s Resolutions. Considering we were hit with one of those weeks. . . complete with a nasty case of food poisoning AND car trouble, I am just grateful to be writing at all.

2016 will be a year of change, it seems. I have alluded to at least one of these changes in a previous post, so I guess it is time to tell you that we will be leaving Salt Lake city soon. . . too soon, if you ask me. We have yet to receive official orders to our next duty station, so I won’t say exactly where we are going; But, I will tell you that it is one of the 13 original colonies!!

Many of my resolutions came to me as I anticipated what a new geographic region will mean to my genealogy education and career. Others are projects I have been meaning to take on for some time. A few of them require some expert advice, because I really don’t know where to begin in order to accomplish them. I would be very grateful for any insight my fellow genealogists can offer! So here they are, in no particular order:

1. Make the Most of My Remaining Time in Salt Lake – It has been a dream to spend so many hours over the last year and half researching at the world famous Family History Library. I am so grateful for all that facility provides AND for their evening and Saturday hours (since I stay home during the day with my son). Yet, it is difficult to believe I will soon have to leave this amazing resource. I still have so much I want to do there. I need to take advantage of every opportunity, even on those cold, dark evenings when I might be tempted to stay home and turn on the TV!

2. Give Back by Becoming Involved in Military Repatriation Cases – Did you know that some genealogists work to find living descendants of killed or MIA veterans whose remains were never identified in order that those individuals’ remains may finally be identified through DNA testing? I first heard of this when listening to a genealogy podcast and have tried to learn more on the topic. There are so many ways we as genealogists can give back, but when I heard about these efforts, I knew this was something of which I wanted to be a part.

Unfortunately, I am having trouble getting started. I joined an organization of volunteer genealogists a while back and offered my services, but I never heard anymore. I made a few inquiries, but still nothing. If you know how I might be able to be a part of these efforts, please contact me!

3. Attach Source Citations to Genealogy Documents – Source citations are not something I generally look forward to writing, and to be honest, I am still not 100% confident in my source-citation-writing-ability. I spend a lot of time pouring over Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained. Yet, because I know how important they are and how attaching them to my documents will actually save me time in the future and make me a better genealogist, I think will call 2016 the year of the source citation. I plan to take another class or two on the topic and really buckle down on this project.

4. Continue to Take Formal Genealogy Courses – I don’t know if 2016 will be the year I can really dedicate myself to a concentrated, rigorous class or program, because you know, the whole cross-country-move and mother-of-a-toddler situation, but I would like to take some courses that I can chip away at as I have time. I currently have my eye on few offerings from the National Genealogical Society. I will keep you posted.

5. Become More Skilled at Newspaper Research – I think I am OK at newspaper research. I can find obits and major news stories if I know the dates for which I should be searching. Yet, I feel like I could do a lot more with newspapers if I understood how better to search them, both those online as well as those that might be on microfilm. I am convinced there are a few tricks I need to learn. I am hoping to read a book or take a class on the topic. So, fellow genealogists, if you have any recommendations, I am all ears!!!

6. Learn more about Tax Records and Land Records – Genealogy research at our new geographic location will be very different from anything I’ve done in the past, which I am actually super excited about. It may seem counter-intuitive that a person who is “married to the military” could have a successful genealogy career with so much moving around, but I hold a different perspective. The nuances of each geographic region only help expand my knowledge and expertise. I know that where I am going, tax and land records are going to be essential to understanding the local history and the families who lived there. So I better start studying!

7. Contact Distant Family – Listen, I like people. I enjoy meeting new people and hearing their stories. That said, I am also introvert at heart. I can be shy and I don’t particularly like to talk on the phone. While I enjoy speaking in front of a crowd, I get nervous at the thought of calling someone I’ve never met and asking a favor of them.

As genealogists, we know how amazing these interactions can be if we are just willing to get out of our comfort zone. I have a few people in my family, whom I’ve either never met, or met when I was, you know, three, whom I have been meaning to call. Yet, I keep procrastinating, worried that I might be bothering them. Afterall, not everybody shares my passion for genealogy, and what if I inadvertently step into some sensitive topic and end up offending them? These are all excuses I know. I just need to make the effort.

8. Write more – I would really like to start writing reports, case studies, proof arguments, etc. for my own family. I could use the practice and the process will inevitably help prepare me for my ultimate goal of one day writing a portfolio that will pass the rigorous standards of the Board for Certification of Genealogists. Its time. So 2016 is year!

How about you? What did you resolve for 2016?

15 Ways I Became a Better Genealogist in 2015

15 ways I became photo
Photos from author’s personal files. May not be used without permission.

2015 was quite a year. One for the history books, in my opinion. For one, I will never forget watching history as Thoroughbred racing’s American Pharoah won the first Triple Crown in almost 36 years. Something, as a lifelong horse lover, I had been waiting my whole life to see.

This year also saw the culmination of years of hard work when I finally reached my ultimate running goal of Qualifying for the Boston Marathon.

In 2015, my Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup and my Cubs won their first post-season playoff series at home in Wrigley Field history.

Besides these things, I will always remember 2015 as a banner year for my growth as a genealogist. As I look back on the year, I can pinpoint specific actions and experiences which fostered this growth. I still have a great deal to learn (stay tuned to for an upcoming New Year’s Resolution post), and am uncomfortable with the number of times I use the word “I” in this post. Nevertheless, I hope my experiences may inspire you. So here, in no particular order:

1. I listened to podcasts. You guys, there are so many free genealogy podcasts out there! The best part about education via podcast is that you don’t have to be sitting down to be learning. You can listen to them while you clean the house or when you are in the car or whatever. You can also download the audio to many of the free webinars out there and upload them to your listening device. My favorites include anything by Marian Pierre-Louis, and pretty much any webinar put out by the BCG or the APG. Check them out!

2. I exercised. I know this sounds a little ridiculous, but I sincerely can’t say enough about the value of getting away from the computer screen and getting your heart rate up. We genealogists tend to sit too long, intensely staring at screens and microfilm readers. Exercise helps loosen the tension from sitting and protect our health. For me personally, exercise gives me energy. So when my son goes down for his naps, instead of taking one too, I have the energy to work.

As you probably guessed by my aforementioned reference to the Boston Marathon, I love to run. Running provides a great opportunity to listen to those genealogy podcasts! It also just seems to spur creative thought. When I’m not listening to podcasts, I’m usually working out my genealogical brick walls or finding inspiration for blog posts.

3. I joined genealogical societies. In 2015, I joined the National Genealogical Society and the Chicago Genealogical Society. I can’t tell you how much I have learned from reading their publications, particularly those from NGS.

4. I took online courses. I currently stay home with my 2 year old. Consequently, I learn from home and I (mostly) work from home. Online learning provides classroom quality instruction without requiring me to actually be in a classroom. This year I completed several courses from the NGS and I am currently working my way through John Grenham’s Irish Ancestors course.

5. I read recommended books. There are so many genealogy books out there, sometimes it’s difficult to know which ones will most aid us in our efforts. I found there are a few books out there that come recommended time and again by top genealogists. Those are the books I’ve tried to acquire for my library and in each case, I have not been disappointed.

6. I started Almost Home. Few forms of learning are more effective than “learning by doing.” Client projects have stretched me and have also given me confidence in how much I have learned.

7. I joined the Association of Professional Genealogists. My membership in this organization has given Almost Home great exposure leading to some pretty exciting opportunities I hope to share more about in the future. The association’s email list provides another source of learning and an ever-present network of professionals to whom I can go for advice.

8. I admitted knowledge gaps. When I admit my knowledge gaps, I am more motivated to fill them. A few short months ago, I knew next to nothing about probate records, which I find almost embarrassing now that I know their value. Yet, just this week, I worked out a really difficult client problem relating to probate records, thanks to the steps I took to educate myself. I’m still no legal expert, but it was a proud moment.

9. I spent time significant time researching at the Family History Library. When we moved to Salt Lake, I knew we wouldn’t be here forever. I committed to getting the most out of living here while I could. That means I make at least weekly trips to the FHL, spending a minimum of 2 hours at a time. Even accounting for weeks that I traveled, or couldn’t make it for one reason or another, I spent at least 100 hours researching at this repository this year . . . and there’s still so much more to do there.

You may not have access to this library where you live, but you may live close to a Family History Center. If you aren’t already familiar with their holdings and the FHL’s loan program, I encourage you to check it out.

10. I diversified my repository research. Besides the FHL, I also spent time this year researching at the Chicago History Museum, Chicago’s Newberry Library, Daughters of Utah Pioneers, Utah State Archives, and the Salt Lake City Recorders Office.

11. I interviewed family members. While I certainly interviewed family members in years past, in 2015, I took better care to record or take notes on those interviews.

12. I investigated “old shoeboxes.” This practice led to a number of new clues and helped solve a few mysteries too. Read more here.

13. I learned under some the best at the BCG lecture series. Read more here.

14. I buckled down on source citations. I still have a long way to go in terms of getting accurate source citations attached to all my records, but I am happy to say I am making progress.

15. I learned from more experienced genealogists. I don’t read as many blogs as I would like and I don’t interact with other genealogists as much as I would like, but when I am able to connect with others, whether electronically or in person, I want their advice. I want to know their stories and learn from their experiences. That includes you. In what ways did you become a better genealogist in 2015?

BCG Lecture Series at the Family History Library

padlockOn Friday, I was lucky enough to be able to hear some of the best in the business speak at the Board for Certification of Genealogists Lecture Series for the Family History Library here in Salt Lake. The BCG is one of two agencies which provide professional credentials to genealogists who meet rigorous standards of competency. It is certainly one of my ultimate professional goals to earn a BCG certification one day.

The BCG offers this free one-day event annually as a “thank you” to the Family History Library for its contributions to the genealogical community. It was a great pleasure to be able to learn from these master genealogists and meet other likeminded individuals who find this stuff as fascinating as I do.

This year’s lectures were:

What Is “Reasonably Exhaustive Research”? By Michael Hait

The Art of Negative Space Research: Women by Jeanne Larzalere Bloom

After the Courthouse Burns: Rekindling Family History Through DNA by Judy Russell

Forensic Genealogy Meets the Genealogical Proof Standard by Michael Ramage

Margaret’s Baby’s Father and the Lessons He Taught Me – about Illegitimacy, Footloose Males, Burned Counties & More by Elizabeth Shown Mills

When Does Newfound Evidence Overturn a Proved Conclusion by Thomas W. Jones

Though my husband had a meeting he could not miss that day and my child care options fell through, I was still able to make Michael Hait’s, Jeanne Lazarlere Bloom’s, most of Elizabeth Shown Mill’s and Tom Jone’s lectures. Each of these lectures expounded on elements of the Genealogical Proof Standard with one or more case studies showing how the principles of the GPS were applied in each.

I found the case studies fascinating. The lecturers would lay out the evidence. I would wonder where it was headed and maybe even start to make assumptions. And then. . . Boom! Trump card. Goose bumps. Crowd murmurings. It was great!!

I learned a great deal that would be difficult to summarize here, but I would like to highlight a few “take-aways:”

1. Good Genealogy understands historical context.

Michael Hait provided one case study where at least half a dozen pieces of evidence supported a specific conclusion. This conclusion was logical and most genealogists would have found more than enough reason to call it valid. Yet Hait wasn’t quite satisfied with that conclusion because a few pieces of indirect evidence were missing. The key to the case came after Hait began researching an archaic term he found in an unpublished biography. The term, which to modern readers seemed to simply describe the ancestor as pious, was actually a description of the ancestor’s specific sect of the Baptist faith. As he began to understand and research this historical religious context, Hait found the key document which set the record straight.

Jeanne Bloom likewise emphasized the importance of understanding the community in which your ancestor lived, particularly as it relates to female ancestors. Bloom called this “Negative Space” research, a term borrowed from the art world in which a subject is defined by the picture around it. In genealogy, this means not only researching the woman’s close male relatives, but also that woman’s neighborhood, church, occupation, etc. Bloom encouraged the audience to read about learn as much possible about your ancestor’s environment. “Be Curious.” She said, “Let that lead to other things.”

Finally, Tom Jones made a simple statement that really struck a chord with me. He had been laying out a case study where DNA evidence helped determine the correct ancestor out of 3 possibilities. Though the DNA results allowed Jones to identify his ancestor by name, Jones felt his research on this individual had only just begun. – “A name,” he said, “is not identifying an ancestor at all.” This is SO true. It is natural to want to take the pedigree chart back a generation, but genealogy is so much more than adding a name to a pedigree chart. I want to understand who my ancestors were and how they lived as much as I possibly can.

2. Good Genealogy never underestimates the importance of the FAN club.

The “F.A.N. Club” is a well-used genealogy acronym that stands for Family, Associates and Neighbors or Friends, Associates and Neighbors. It refers to the idea of not simply researching your ancestor, but also those around them. So, for example, if you find a Baptism record for your ancestor, you would also look at the sponsors named on the baptism to see if they left any documents or clues that will aid your research of your ancestor. If this sounds far-fetched, it’s actually not. Our ancestors were part of communities, neighborhoods, religious and ethnic groups. This is a great strategy for any genealogical problem, but especially for finding those difficult to find WOMEN in our family tree. In the case studies presented in this lecture series alone, the F.A.N. club strategy provided the missing piece to a number of genealogical puzzles.

3. Good Genealogy isn’t always convenient. It takes work!

It would be nice if all public records were online, but this is far from the case. It would be nice if every historical document that mentions our ancestors were indexed, but this is far from the case too. At one point, Michael Hait showed a picture he took of a box full of papers. He explained this was a box full of unindexed, unorganized marriage records sitting in a repository in Maryland. You aren’t going to find those records neatly digitized on Ancestry. Anyone who thinks those records might hold something of genealogical value to their research has to first take the time to learn they exist and then look at each record one by one.

Speaking of genealogical value, don’t overlook a record or repository because you think its chances of holding something of value are slim. You never know until you look. Yes, it takes time and effort, but it seems to me that a willingness to be inconvenienced is one characteristic which sets great genealogists apart from mediocre ones. For example, Elizabeth Shown Mills lectured on an extremely interesting genealogical mystery, sharing step by step how that mystery was solved. The initial researcher on the case actually failed to solve the mystery. A second, more-thorough team of researchers finally cracked the case, mostly because they were willing to be inconvenienced. First, they searched not only in the state archives, but also in the local court house. Second, they paid attention to seemingly insignificant details, such as the mileage charged by the sheriff when he served summons. Third, they searched for and read each page of court records not only for the primary individual in question, but also for his F.A.N.s. Finally, they were willing to search unindexed records for those individuals.

I do admit the thought crossed my mind more than once, “Where do these people find the time?” Not only do these leaders in the genealogy community do their own research, but they also teach, write, travel, volunteer and advocate. I’m not sure how they manage to do it all, but I admire it. I can pretty much bet they have that whole research log organization thing down, and I’m guessing they don’t waste hours spinning their wheels online. But those are topics for another post.

Thanks to the BCG and to the Family History Library for making this possible! If you would like to listen to the lectures for yourself, I understand they are available here for a nominal fee.