Some thoughts on Rootstech and Tips for Future Attendees

taken from

As many of you already know, I had the opportunity to attend the Rootstech genealogy conference at the beginning of this month. To say the least, I was excited to finally be able attend this year and, as expected, I learned SO MUCH.

Some of you may be considering attending a future Rootstech event. While no two people will come away from such an event with the exact same experience, perhaps my thoughts here may clarify, at least a little bit, what you can expect from the world’s largest family history conference.

Before I begin I should probably tell you that I did not get to enjoy Rootstech in its entirety. Unlike the many people who travel from out of town solely to participate in this conference, I, as a local, still had to balance my normal day to day responsibilities with my course attendance. Besides all this, I missed half of Friday’s classes and all of Saturday’s to be with my family during a difficult time. I did not attend any general sessions, computer labs or sponsored lunches. That said, I still think my abbreviated time allowed for me to see what this conference is about and hopefully offer some tips for future participants.

I think above all, Rootstech is exciting! The expo hall alone is “the stuff dreams are made of” with booth after booth of genealogy related products and services. I can think of no other instance where you can be surrounded by so many like-minded people who share your passion for finding ancestors. Perhaps best of all is the opportunity Rootstech affords those of us who are just hungry to learn. We all want to become better genealogists, right? Well, no matter your skill level or research interest, there are Rootstech classes for you.

In fact, the variety of activities are so plentiful, you will likely NOT be able to learn, see and do everything you would like to. In nearly every block of classroom time, I with difficulty had to choose between no less than 3 classes I wanted to attend — not to mention trying to find time to speak to all the expo hall vendors in the time between classes and during lunch. The good news is that if you sign up for the entire event, you can download the syllabi to ALL of the classroom sessions. So even if you didn’t get to attend a class you really wanted to, you still have an opportunity to learn something from that instructor on that topic.

So, with this said, here are my tips for anyone considering attending Rootstech for the first time.

1. Plan ahead – Download the Rootstech app on your mobile device and schedule the classes you most want to attend. Keep in mind that your personalized schedule is a merely an organizational tool. All classes are first come first serve so be sure you know WHERE you need to be and WHEN. Arrive early. I, unfortunately lost out when I read the wrong classroom number for a popular session. By the time I realized my mistake and walked to the correct classroom, almost every seat was taken. I took a calculated risk and sat in a seat that although empty of a person, had a conference bag on top of it. Two minutes before the start of the session, the person who put her bag on the seat walked in and I had to leave. By the time I reached the classroom for my second choice of class, it was full too. Although the seat saving practice is questionable to say the least, I should have gotten to the initial classroom earlier. So, my bad.

Besides making sure you leave plenty of time to get to the classes you want, also be sure to download and, if you like taking pen and paper notes, print the class syllabi ahead of time. I was shocked by how many people failed to do so. I saw so many people frustrated because the syllabi weren’t being handed out (which in my honest opinion is a bit of an unreasonable expectation) or when they didn’t have time to copy the presenter’s slideshow word for word.

2. Be prepared to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time. Set reasonable time expectations – Rootstech is huge. That’s part of its excitement and appeal. However, if you plan to do EVERYTHING at Rootstech, you will be tired before long. Which is fine. Just know what to expect. It’s like traveling to the destination of a lifetime. Do everything you can while you are there, but be prepared to need a vacation from your vacation.

If you are planning on attending Rootstech AND researching at the Family History Library on the same days, just know something will likely have to give. Consider arriving early or staying after the conference to conduct your research, or choose to give up some of what Rootstech has to offer in order to have the time and energy to devote to the FHL.

The best time to explore the expo hall is honestly during a block of time set aside for classroom instruction. To me, classroom time was more important than exploring the expo, so I only set foot in the expo hall during its busiest times – lunch and between classes. It is obviously a lot harder to get your questions answered when you are fighting crowds.

3. Choose classes based on skill level as well as topic – I took away something from EVERY single class session I attended. However, I was most satisfied with the classes I took which fell under the “advanced” category. Some of the beginner or intermediate sessions, while still informative, felt a bit underwhelming, like the instructors could have addressed many more points in the time allotted but chose to reinforce one main point. Obviously, the attendee must honestly evaluate his or her skill level and choose classes accordingly. Look beyond the catchy titles and consider the class description, skill level and instructor bio.

4. Download the syllabus to every class which interests you – To me, the opportunity to have the syllabus from every class offered at Rootstech is alone worth the price of attendance. As I said earlier, you likely won’t be able to attend every session, so if nothing else, read the syllabi!!

5. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself and network, but keep your expectations reasonable. All those genealogists under one roof! Some of the best in the business! Yes, you can network at Rootstech and don’t be afraid to do so. Not everyone wants to talk, but many people do. Nevertheless, keep in mind that EVERYBODY is busy at Rootstech. A smaller genealogy conference or better yet, a genealogical institute are likely better networking events to really get your name out there.

6. Don’t be “that” genealogist – A fellow genealogist at Rootstech remarked something to the effect that genealogists as a whole are notorious for being cheap, for complaining about everything and for nitpicking at other genealogists. I thought about this later. Genealogy can be an expensive hobby. When it comes to my own personal research, a lot of things need to get put on the back burner simply because I can’t afford to send away for every record I would like right now. Does that make me cheap?

Is it a bad thing that genealogists are sticklers for accuracy? Not necessarily. It keeps us ethical. As with anything, there is a wrong way and a right way to go about things. I think perhaps, the behavior of a few can give the rest of us a bad name. And I got a say, I witnessed some bad behavior at Rootstech.

Complaining — I heard a lot. At one point, I met some people who worked for Familysearch. I thanked them for what they do and remarked on how great a service FamilySearch is for genealogists (People: Its free! Millions of records!!). Imagine my surprise when these individuals told me I was the first person who had anything positive to say them about the website and how everybody else they talked to told them everything they thought was wrong with it.

Rude behavior: Please, don’t be the person to throw your coat on the coat check table without waiting in line or paying the nominal fee who then walks away.

And yes, it is a violation of copyright to take photos of every slideshow in a presentation. So, please don’t keep doing so when the instructor nicely asks you not to.

Ok, I’m done lecturing. Rant over.

7. Enter the Giveaways – You never know, you might win something great! I was very excited this year to receive an email from NGS saying I had won a drawing I had entered at Rootstech for free enrollment in their new class, “Researching Your World War I Ancestors.” Never expected I would actually win, but here I am, enjoying this class immensely. Perhaps I’ll write a review when I’ve completed the course.

In short, I thought Rootstech was great. I am very grateful to everyone who helped make it happen.

If you missed this year’s conference, you can still watch a number of sessions here.

Exciting Things Happening at Almost Home; Or TV Shows, Research Focus and Rootstech


At the end of 2015, I alluded to some exciting things that have been happening at Almost Home. One opportunity I wanted to share came as I recently completed some work for the Travel Channel’s, The Dead Files. I love that a (growing) number of television shows, such as The Dead Files are utilizing the services of genealogists. The partnership gives exposure to our profession, and ignites that spark of curiosity in many viewers. At the same time, I like to think the expertise we genealogists provide makes it a win-win for all involved. After all, we know better than anyone that truth IS often “stranger than fiction” and you really “can’t make this stuff up!” I found this project fun and interesting and I would certainly welcome any similar opportunities in the future.

On another note, I think I am coming close to really nailing down a genealogy research focus. It is no doubt apparent to the readers here that many areas of genealogy research easily capture my attention. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, but this tendency does present a couple of difficulties. One, I tend to jump around in my own personal research as a result. So instead of having a really thorough picture of one branch or segment of my family tree, I have a kind of piecemeal conglomeration of facts sometimes producing more questions than answers.

Similarly, without a research focus, I am concerned I am not reaching the highest level of expertise I might otherwise attain as a genealogist. As I’ve written before, I have a goal to one day earn a Certified Genealogist credential. The process to earn that credential requires that I declare and write a portfolio that relates to a chosen research focus. While the transient nature of our life as military family presents its own challenges to my finding that niche, I think I’ve found a specialty to which this lifestyle might actually work to my advantage.

All that said, I am not quite ready YET to make any major announcements regarding the future direction of my research services of this blog. I am hoping to network with and ask advice from a few people at Salt Lake City’s upcoming “Rootstech” event before I settle on this direction.

Speaking of Rootstech, can I just say, I am so excited to be able to attend this event this year!? I am ready to LEARN more and hope to MEET many of you there!! No doubt the event will inspire some future posts as well. Stay tuned.

My New Year’s Resolutions Need Your Help!!

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?

Finding Out More about Probate Records Part II


A few weeks ago, I admitted to some considerable knowledge gaps when it comes to probate records. Ancestry’s recent mass digitization of probate records left me with a lot of questions. I decided to reinvest some income I received doing document retrievals and educate myself on this topic. I am happy to say I finally bought Greenwood’s book, The Researchers Guide to American Genealogy, which I am loving. I also rented the BCG webinar on probate records and have otherwise been reading what genealogists who specialize in this topic have to say. While I’m still no legal expert, I’ve already learned enough to answer most of my questions and then some. 516sJvhE1bL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Here’s a summary of the initial questions I posted along with my new-found knowledge:

1. Why can’t I find records for any of my Chicago ancestors? With very few exceptions, my ancestors were Chicagoans. Before Chicago, they lived in Europe. . . . Most of these people possessed very little in terms of material goods, so it is easy to assume this fact alone accounts for this lack of probate records. However, I am beginning to think that the assumption that poor families left no probate records is something of a misnomer. . . .

While it is true that you are much more likely to find record of probate for a wealthy ancestor than a poor one, the crux of the issue isn’t really economic status, but rather ownership of property. [1] If you are researching an ancestor who was poor, but also lived in an agrarian community or in a time and place where most people of similar socio-economic status owned land, you may just find a probate record for that individual. If however, you ancestors were like mine — poor, tenement urban dwellers – well, those individuals rarely had much in the way of property or material goods to be divided among their legal heirs. Hence, there is often no record of probate.

Nevertheless, even if your ancestor had no record of probate relating to his or her estate, that person could still be mentioned in another individual’s record of probate. I had not considered this possibility before. Probate records name witnesses, executors and heirs, to name a few – and your ancestor may be among these individuals. Even more interesting, probate records can be used to find record of enslaved people, who may have been listed as property on pre-civil war probate records. Greenwood estimates that about 50% of all “people in America, historically, have either left wills or have been mentioned in them. [2] So never assume probate records won’t be of much value to your genealogical search. Whether your ancestors had money or not, they may be found in probate records.

2. It appears that most of the available records on Ancestry date from early years of the 20th century or earlier. Is this a legitimate observation, or am I totally off? If I am correct, why is this the case?

I still haven’t found a great answer to this question, but I did learn that probate cases generally fall under county jurisdictions [3] , and their availability varies by each jurisdiction. Ancestry itself put it this way, “Knowing where your ancestor’s estate was processed is step one. Step two is determining whether or not Ancestry has records for that time and place. While the U.S. Wills and Probates collection does include records from all 50 states, it does not include all U.S. probate records. Over the years some records have been destroyed by fires, and in some places, they have not been microfilmed or digitized and still are only available offline in the
county courthouse or in a local repository.” [4]

It seems logical that early probate records are more readily available because those are the ones the local courthouses or repositories have already relinquished to the microfilm and digitization process. This might also help account for my negative searches for my Chicago family, who were all relative newcomers to the United States. The courthouse might still hold their records, if any exist; which brings me to my next question:

3. Where else should I be looking? Obviously, not every US probate record ever recorded is included in Ancestry’s database. I know the Circuit Court of Cook County has an index I’ve searched in the past with some promising results. I hope to do look ups there next time I am in town.

Ancestry itself tells us its record set is not exhaustive — not that we expected it to be. The fact that so many of these records are now digitized and searchable is something to appreciate. That said, fellow blogger Randy Seaver at Genea-musings, estimates that the Ancestry collection only includes some 5-10% of all probate records already microfilmed.[5] While I would be curious to know the source of this estimate, the point is clear: there are no doubt valuable probate records still out there to be found.

So first, I am going to look at the county level. As I already suspected, the Circuit Court of Cook County is a repository I need to investigate if I want to do more digging.[6]

Second, I am going to look over the FamilySearch probate holdings for Cook County again. While the FHL catalog is a logical place to search for probate records (For any genealogist, but for me especially since I am local), it is by no means the only archive containing microfilmed probate records. It seems worth your time to investigate these types of facilities for records pertaining to your ancestor’s local area. [7]

Finally, although I doubt whether I will find any useful to my personal family genealogy, in order to leave no stone unturned, I should check and see if there are any compilations or abstracts of probate records already published. Greenwood recommends using these when the originals cannot be obtained, which is sometimes the case for early records.[8]

Of course, between these various repositories and sources, there is bound to be some overlap. I don’t want to waste time searching for the same documents, but I want to make sure I cast my net as widely as possible. A detailed research log will be paramount here. Check out Seaver’s state by state research table strategy for keeping track of probate record searches.

4. What about privacy laws? Ancestry says they have records dated as recently as 2005. How is it I can easily access a 10 year old probate record, but I have to wait 72 years for the census?

The answer to this question is pretty simple, if somewhat illogical. Even though probate records give lot more information regarding matters some families might wish to keep private, the fact is they are simply classified as public record. Census records, on the other hand, are not designated as public record until 72 years after they were created.[9]

5. I’m really not familiar with law/legal terms. What does all this stuff mean and how did the process work?

I think the language and process of probate records can make them seem intimidating, when in reality, they are not that complicated. After just a few weeks of research, the process makes a lot more sense to me than it did initially. However, even though probate records need not intimidate genealogists, they still must be understood within their historical context. Greenwood wrote, “. . . the more you know about the legal processes which bring probate record into existence (within limits of course) the more value they will have for you. . . .” [10] Understanding the historical and legal context of a document will often necessitate further research. For example, in his lecture for the BCG, Hait gave an example where his understanding of a specific statute regarding the legal age of a probate witness helped him correctly identify an individual. Sometimes finding out exactly what the law said for the time period and jurisdiction you are researching will require extra effort. Hait recommended university law libraries and even Google Books as good starting places should your analysis require such research. [11]

In any case, my self-made crash course in probate records showed me there are a number of resources out there for those of us who lack a law background. Here are just a few resource I found along the way:

718TB3MSFTL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.gif–Black’s Law Dictionary by Henry Campbell Black

–Estate Inventories and How to Use Them by Kenneth L. Smith

–Judy G. Russell’s blog, “The Legal Genealogist” – a quick search for “probate records” brought up so many interesting posts! If you are not familiar with Russell or her blog, be sure to check it out.

Well, I’m glad to say I’m no longer completely in the dark regarding probate records. Iam  excited to see what I can dig up next time I’m in Chicago. Of course, my probate record research revealed to me new, additional topics about which I want learn next. My reading list gets ever longer. Nothing wrong with that.

[1] Val D. Greenwood, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, 3d ed. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Col, 2000), 310-311.

[2] Ibid., 310.

[3] Ibid., 312, 345.

[4] “5 Things You Should Know to Get the Most from the Probate Collection at Ancestry,” Article. ( : accessed 28 Sept 2015).

[5] Seaver, Randy, “Mining the Ancestry Probate Records Collection – Post 1: Pennsylvania,” Genea-musings, 8 Sept 2015 ( :accessed 30 Sept 2015.

[6] According to the state by state guide in Val D. Greenwood, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, 3d. ed., 345-349.

[7]Ibid., 349.

[8] Ibid., 349.

[9] For classification of probate records see Teo Spengler, “Does Probate Make a Will Public,” Legal Zoom Website, No date ( : accessed 30 Sept 2015). For classification of census records see Census Records, United States Census Bureau, No Date ( : accessed 30 Sept 2015).

[10] Val D. Greenwood, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, 3d. ed., 326.

[11] Michael Hait, “Of Sound Mind and Body: Using Probate Records in your Research” BCG Webinar, 17 Nov 2014, ( : Accessed 27 Sept 2015).

Try This Research Strategy to Find an Elusive Female Ancestor OR My Family Connection to Laura Ingalls Wilder


Today I will share with you how just this past week, I successfully located a fairly elusive female ancestor and why I am so glad I cared enough to keep looking for her.
Before I begin I think you should know a couple of things.

1. I am not originally from Utah, nor did I ever think I would one day live in Utah.

2. My husband and I are now stationed in Salt Lake City.

3. Ironically, my Grandfather’s stepdad –my Step-Great Grandfather (?) — whom I will refer to as “Grandpa Boyer,” was born in a nearby county.

4. While I’m fairly certain there are still people living in this area who are descended from Grandpa Boyer’s same family line, I have never met any of them.

5. I recently took the time to digitally scan one of my grandfather’s old vacation scrapbooks. The scrapbook included pictures and captions from two separate family road trips (in the 1950s) to Salt Lake City where the family, including my Dad, visited with Grandpa Boyer’s Utah relatives [1] . Seeing these photos made me curious about the people in them.

I never personally met Grandpa Boyer, but those who remember him speak emphatically of his genuine kindness and tell wonderful stories which prove this of him [2] . Although he eventually settled in Chicago, he remained close with his siblings in Utah. He appears to have had an especially close relationship with one sister, whom I will call “Aunt Lu [3].”

I easily located Aunt Lu in various record sets through 1950s before her trail grew cold. Yet, I still had questions about her. Did she live a long life? Did she battle sickness the way her brother did [4] ? Where is she buried?

The most straightforward way to answer these questions would likely come from finding her death record. Problem was, I couldn’t find it. I considered searching through newspaper obituaries in hopes of finding a date of death, but without knowing whether one existed and without a clue of what dates to search, I decided that strategy might take a while. So, instead, I followed the number one research strategy to locate an elusive female ancestor: I followed a male relative instead; in this case, her husband.

I identified Aunt Lu’s husband with little trouble, following a number of clues to conclusive evidence. I won’t go into detail as that is not the scope of this post.

Even though I couldn’t find Aunt Lu’s death information, I easily found her husband’s. His 1950 death certificate named his burial place. So, at first chance, I visited the cemetery where he was buried. Sure enough, not only was he buried there, but Aunt Lu was right next to him. From her gravestone inscription, it appears she remarried at some point and lived to be nearly 90 years old  [5] . Though she remarried, she is buried next to her first husband. While this might seem unusual, I have seen this type of arrangement more than once. At any rate, I am now armed with new information to hopefully find out even more.

So, if you have read this far, you might be wondering how all this relates to Laura Ingalls Wilder. Before I connect the dots, I think you should know a couple more things:

1. Beginning with my first read of Little House in the Big Woods as a first grader, I have had a life-long fascination with all things Laura Ingalls Wilder.

2. I have read pretty much every book ever published by or about Laura Ingalls Wilder. I probably have more Laura Ingalls Wilder books on my shelf than I do genealogy books.

3. Long before I started seriously researching my family tree, my first archive repository research experience came when I traveled to the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library to photocopy Wilder’s (at the time) unpublished manuscript, Pioneer Girl.

4. When I was a kid I used to dream that maybe I was somehow related to Laura Ingalls Wilder (Which I am not. We share no ethnic heritage, and while Wilder was born in 1867 [6] , not one ancestor in my direct line came to America before the late 19th century).

Fast forward to 2014 when I began the first of a two-part, non-credit continuing-education course offered through Missouri State University on the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

A little more background:

Laura Ingalls Wilder and her husband, Almanzo Wilder had two children, a daughter, Rose, and an infant son who died shortly after his birth [7]. Rose, who today is less well known than her mother, was actually a famous journalist and author in her day, writing under the byline, Rose Wilder Lane. Through Lane’s valuable editorial advice and publishing connections, Laura Ingalls Wilder came to write and publish her famous children’s series [8]. Lane herself left no surviving children, but her personal correspondence reveals that she too had a son who did not survive infancy [9].

For some time, people like myself who cared enough to wonder knew little about Lane’s son apart from a few mentions of him found in Lane’s personal correspondence. During the time of her pregnancy, she and her husband traveled a great deal [10]. No one knew when or where the baby was born. Through the Missouri State course, I learned about new research which answered these questions. “Infant Lane” was stillborn at Holy Cross hospital in Salt Lake City. His parents were staying the Colonial Hotel at the time. He was buried in Salt Lake’s Mt. Olivet Cemetery [11] .

infantlaneburialBaby Lane’s grave bears no marker, but burial and cemetery records show the location of his final resting place [12]. Of course, I visited the cemetery and paid my respects.

Almost exactly one year later, I visited the same cemetery again. This time I came looking for Aunt Lu, my great-grandfather’s sister. I found her final resting place less than 50 yards away from that of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s only grandbaby [13] .


“That’s it?” You might ask. “Someone you are (sort of) related to happens to be buried near a relative of Laura Ingalls Wilder?”

Yeah, that’s it. Nothing earth shattering, I know. But when I take all the components of this story together – my move to Salt Lake, my Grandpa’s scrapbook, the Missouri State course – and how all these things came together, leading me to this discovery, I can’t help but find it all coincidental and more than a little remarkable.

What say you?

[1] [Name withheld] Scrapbook. ca. 1948-1960; privately held by [name and address for private use,] Illinois, 2015.

[2] [Name withheld], phone conversation with author, 4 March 2015; notes in authors files. Also [name withheld], Illinois [e-address for private use], to author, email 18 May 2015, “Grandpa Boyer,” Gmail Genealogy Folder, privately held by author, [(E-address), & street address for private use,] Salt Lake City, Utah. This email describes how “Grandpa Boyer” played with his grandson for hours on end even when “Grandpa Boyer” undoubtedly felt very sick from his battle with cancer.

[3]Sheena Stovall, National Archives, St. Louis, Missouri [e-address for private use] to author, email, 17 August 2015, Boyer, [first name withheld] Military Records, Gmail Genealogy Folder, privately held by author, [[E-address), & street address for private use,] Salt Lake City, Utah. This email states that [“Grandpa Boyer’s”] military service records list [“Aunt Lu”] as his next of kin. Also see [Names withheld] & Boyer Relatives photograph, circa 1952, digital image ca. 2015, privately held by author, [address for private use,] Salt Lake City, Utah, 2015. The photo, most likely taken at the Boyer home in Chicago shows “Aunt Lu” sitting at the feet of “Grandpa Boyer” with her arm resting on his knee. His dress and appearance suggest the photo was taken at the time of his sickness, probably shortly before his passing. The rest of the family is gathered around them.

[4][name withheld] to author, email, 18 May 2015. According to the email, “Grandpa Boyer” eventually lost a battle with cancer.

[5]Mt. Olivet Cemetery (Salt Lake City, Utah), undated map, cross referenced with office records for [name withheld], privately held by author, Salt Lake City, 2014. Also, Mt. Olivet Cemetery (Salt Lake City, Utah), [“Aunt Lu”] grave marker; photographed by author, 11 Sept 2015.

[6]Pamela Smith Hill, Laura Ingalls Wilder, A Writer’s Life (Pierre: South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2007) 3. Also Donald Zochert, Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder (New York: Avon, 1976), 221.

[7]Pamela Smith Hill, Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life (Pierre: South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2007), 66-70. Also, Donald Zochert, Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder (New York: Avon, 1976), 192

[8]Pamela Smith Hill, Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life (Pierre: South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2007), numerous pages. Also, Barbara M Walker, “Ghosts in the Little House?,” The Best of the Lore (DeSmet, SD: QQP/Midstates, 2007), 40.

[9]Pamela Smith Hill, “Mini-Lecture: A Research Update on Rose Wilder Lane and Her Infant Son,” Missouri State University, Laura Ingalls Wilder: Exploring Her Work and Writing Life, Part I (CN-1622-LAURA-INGALLS-WILDER), Module 3, Biographical Overview, Part 3, (Accessed via Canvas Network: 14 Sept 2015).

[10]Pamela Smith Hill, “Mini-Lecture: A Research Update on Rose Wilder Lane and Her Infant Son,” Missouri State University, Laura Ingalls Wilder: Exploring Her Work and Writing Life, Part I (CN-1622-LAURA-INGALLS-WILDER), Module 3, Biographical Overview, Part 3, (Accessed via Canvas Network: 14 Sept 2015).

[11]Hill Pamela Smith, “Mini-Lecture: A Research Update on Rose Wilder Lane and Her Infant Son,” Missouri State University, Laura Ingalls Wilder: Exploring Her Work and Writing Life, Part I, Module 3. Also, “Utah Death Certificates, 1904-1956,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 15 September 2015), Salt Lake > Salt Lake City > 1909 > image 1246 of 1404; citing series 81448; Utah State Archives Research Center, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[12] Mt. Olivet Cemetery (Salt Lake City, Utah), undated map, cross referenced with office records for Nov 1909 burial of Infant Lane, privately held by author, Salt Lake City, 2014. Also, “Mt. Olivet Cemetery Reocrds,” Salt Lake City, Entry number 6668 for Lane, Infant, page 197, FHL film number 26,552.

[13] Mt. Olivet Cemetery (Salt Lake City, Utah), proximity based on personal knowledge and reading of “Aunt Lu’s” grave marker by author, 11 Sept 2015.

Learning More about Probate Records


So how many of you spent a good part of your weekend searching through the new probates and wills at Ancestry? Were you successful?

I promised I would report back if I found anything, and I did find one probate record for someone in the Utah branch of my family tree. The branch to which I refer is not a blood line, but a family line through marriage. I, nevertheless, still claim it as my own. The record proved valuable for many reasons:

1. It contains the married names of females in the family line.

2. It names family members previous research had not identified.

3. It confirms relationships previous research initially uncovered.

4. It lists addresses of individuals in the family line who were among the benefactors.

5. It includes a description and the exact coordinates of the family “ranch” (Since, ironically, we are stationed only a few miles from this place, I can actually go see this property. Pretty excited about that).

6. It delineates which family heirlooms were bequeathed to whom, providing insight into the sentiments of what the family considered valuable.

7. It provides clues to the family’s financial situation in 1927, including their possession of stock (This is an interesting consideration when I remember the speculation of the 1920s leading to the crash of 1929. I can only assume the stocks lost their value just a few years later).

So, in the case of this one branch of the tree, my search was successful. However, the new records at Ancestry have left me with more questions than answers. Judging from the multitude of recent Facebook posts, emails, etc. I’ve seen among the genealogy community, I am not the only with questions. Here are just a few questions to which I (and probably others) would like to find answers:

1. Why can’t I find records for any of my Chicago ancestors? With very few exceptions, my ancestors were Chicagoans. Before Chicago, they lived in Europe. As I wrote in a previous post, most of these people possessed very little in terms of material goods, so it is easy to assume this fact alone accounts for this lack of probate records. However, I am beginning to think that the assumption that poor families left no probate records is something of a misnomer. More on this later.

2. It appears that most of the available records on Ancestry date from early years of the 20th century or earlier. Is this a legitimate observation, or am I totally off? If I am correct, why is this the case?

3. Where else should I be looking? Obviously, not every US probate record ever recorded is included in Ancestry’s database. I know the Circuit Court of Cook County has an index I’ve searched in the past with some promising results. I hope to do look ups there next time I am in town.

4. What about privacy laws? Ancestry says they have records dated as recently as 2005. How is it I can easily access a 10 year old probate record, but I have to wait 72 years for the census?

5. I’m not very familiar with the law and legal terminology. What does all this stuff mean and how did the process work?

In hopes of answering these questions, I have found a few resources that I want to check out in the coming weeks:

1. Val Greenwood’s book The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy has been on my wishlist for some time now. I am a little embarrassed to admit that I don’t have this mainstay of the genealogy profession on my shelf. . . yet. Now, I am even more anxious to get it. I understand the book dedicates three chapters to probate records. Besides describing the historical context of probate records and who is more likely to have left them, the chapter also provides a wonderful glossary of legal terms common in probate records((1)).

2. Michael Hait presented a webinar for the BCG titled “‘Of Sound Mind and Body’ Using Probate Records in Your Research” last November. A recording of the hour and half long lecture is available for rent for $2.99 through Vimeo. I personally love listening to webinars as a way to improve my genealogy chops. I can often convert the files to an mp3s and listen to them on my ipod when I’m out running instead of trying to find time to sit at the computer and watch them.

3. also offers a webinar on probate records taught by Marian Pierre-Louis. Marian Pierre-Louis is one my all-time favorite genealogy lecturers. She has an NPR quality voice and is very clear and easy to follow. At $39.99, the webinar is not cheap, but the phrase, “. . .even poor ancestors may have left behind a probate file chock-full of valuable information” in the webinar’s description piques my interest. Hopefully I’ll have some room in the budget to buy this webinar soon.

Well, obviously I have a lot of learning to do! What about you?! Did you find any probate records at Ancestry? Do you have a good probate record resource you would like to share? Let me know!

((1))“Probate Records: Val Greenwood on Probate Records Research Guide,” Beloit Public Library: Stateline Genealogy Club, 11 August 2015 ( accessed 9 Septmber 2015).