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

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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!!

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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?

Researching Urban-Dwelling Ancestors: Trick or Treat?

Happy (almost) Halloween, Everyone! Costume making, party planning, pumpkin carving – it has been a busy few weeks around here! I love sharing these traditions with my family and can’t help but think of how Halloween traditions have simultaneously evolved and endured over generations.

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photo from personal files of author. May not be used with out permission.

How priceless is this Halloween photo from one of our family albums?! It also holds a great deal genealogical of value (FAN Club, house number and more!) too.

But today, I want to write about a topic that has been on my mind a lot lately. Ironically, it was discussed on the FamilySearch Blog just yesterday. It is a truth I am learning, so I do not consider myself an expert, but here it is: Genealogy research in urban environments looks a lot different from genealogy research in small town or rural America. As mentioned in previous posts, I am currently working my way through Val Greenwood’s book, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy and I recently attended the BCG Lecture Series for the Family History Library. These educational experiences only reiterated to me this contrast between urban and rural genealogy. In fact, I buttonholed Cook County research expert, Jeanne Larzalere Bloom after the Conference to ask her about this very topic.

Sometimes, as I research my family, I feel lucky to have so many ancestors in Chicago. Other times, I find the challenges of research in a large city overwhelming. So trick or treat, here are some the pros and cons of having ancestors in urban environments:

Challenges (i.e. “tricks”)

1. Common Names

Is it just me, or does anyone else feel a little jealous when reading a case study in which the researcher uses negative research to correctly identify one individual out of maybe five others with the same name? Juxtapose this with urban research where scores of people may share a common name. For example, I have been researching one of my earliest known Irish immigrant ancestors for some time now. He is the key to a great deal of information on the family tree and the origin of a number of genealogical mysteries as well. His name? Michael Kelly. His occupation? Laborer. How on earth do I tell my Michael Kelly apart from the dozens of others with the same name living in Chicago at the same time? Though not long ago I considered this to be too daunting a task to even attempt, I have made good progress in recent months. I’m learning it takes work, but it doesn’t have to be impossible.

2. Frequent moves

In the past as well as today, people move into and out of cities frequently. Even individuals who lived in a city for all or most of their life often changed addresses multiple times [1]. This is in sharp contrast to families in rural areas which often lived on the same plot of land for generations. The example of my ancestor holds true here as well. Except for several years in the 1910s where my Michael Kelly stayed at one address, the guy moved constantly. This has been one of my biggest challenges to my proving I am following the correct person.

3. Inconsistent Spellings

If you are researching in a large city, chances are you have non-English speaking, immigrant and/or illiterate ancestors in your family line. As a result, your ancestor’s name may be grossly misspelled in the records documented by those with little familiarity with your ancestor’s foreign language, accent or traditional name-spelling [2]. Furthermore, your ancestor may have gone by a number of different names in an attempt to assimilate into American culture. This certainly necessitates a measure of creativity on the researcher’s part when using the old search box feature.

4. Lack of Property Records

Genealogists in rural communities appear to rely heavily on land records. Yet, for those of us searching our urban dwelling ancestors, we often find they owned no property [3]. The Rent or Own column on census records can provide a clue as to whether or not this is the case. Even if you think your ancestor owned property, you may have quite the task ahead of you. I can’t speak for other large cities, but I understand that when it comes to Chicago, the process involved in finding land and property records can be something of a nightmare [4] – not that that should keep us from trying. Just know what you might be in for.

5. Lack of Probate Records

A lack of property often translates to a lack of probate records, as well [5]. Many genealogists consider probate records to be among the most valuable record sets available thanks to their ability to define relationships. Unfortunately, this is one valuable source we may at times have to do without when researching in cities.

Despite these challenges, urban genealogy research is not a completely uphill battle. Here are some of the perks of having city-dwelling ancestors.

Benefits (i.e. “treats”)

1. City Directories

“In big cities . . . it is much more likely that urban ancestors appeared in city directories and that those directories still exist” wrote Duncan Kuehn on the FamilySearch Blog [6]. Even when you have an ancestor with a common name, city directories can be key to identifying that ancestor. There is a fantastic article on how to use city directories on the BCG Website. By knowing how to use them, you can often identify relationships, find employment records, identifying neighbors, understand address changes, and identify approximate dates of death [7].

2. Ethnic Neighborhoods and Churches

Though the city which your ancestor called home may have held a number of individuals with the same name, your ancestor’s immediate community may have held far fewer of them than you might think. Going back to my Michael Kelly example, I found that this ancestor of mine moved frequently, yes; But he always moved within a very small geographic region of what today is considered the near North Side/Magnificent Mile neighborhood, near Holy Name Cathedral where records show he attended church. Therefore, I can conclude that it is unlikely the person I find with the same name in the South Side Bridgeport neighborhood who attended Old St. Pat’s is the same person. The fact is, most large cities are just groups of smaller neighborhoods. So, if we learn the neighborhood, we will likely learn more about our ancestor.

Speaking of church records, urban church records are much more likely to have been preserved than rural church records [8], and many of them are digitized online. I personally have had good luck searching the Chicago Catholic Church records online at FamilySearch.

3. Newspapers – The same holds true for newspapers. It seems to me that large city newspapers are much more likely to be digitized and conveniently searchable than rural newspapers with small readership numbers. Even if you think your ancestor wouldn’t have been noteworthy enough to be mentioned in a newspaper article, you may find record of them in the classified ads [9].

4. Immigration and Naturalization records

If you have comparatively recent immigrant ancestors (generally speaking, post-1900 records contain more information than older documents) in your family line (which again, is fairly likely if you are searching in a large city), immigration and naturalization records can provide invaluable genealogical information such as town of origin, names of closest living relatives and more.

5. Preponderance of Documents

Kuehn again summed things up well when he wrote, “Big cities generate more documents and records than rural areas. They were often the first to institute death and burial records to deal with the increased health hazards that exist in cities due to pollution and overcrowding [10].”

6. Organized Cemetery Records

Generally speaking, city cemetery records are more organized and better preserved than rural cemetery records [11].

7. Genealogy Research Guides

You may not find a published book or reputable website on genealogy research for a small county America, but you are likely to find excellent city-specific research guides to America’s cities. I’ve got Loretto Dennis Szucs book, Chicago and Cook County: A Guide to Research on my current wishlist and I wrote about some of my old Chicago genealogy standbys here.

8. Employment Records

A number of individuals in my family tree worked for the Chicago Police Department and for the Chicago Surface Lines. Both of these agencies have surviving original records, as well as numerous related secondary sources just waiting to be investigated. The same is true for other large city agencies and corporations as well [12]. You may be surprised what employment records you find surviving in America’s cities.

So, there you have it. Have you noticed any other differences between research in large cities versus small towns or rural areas? Do you prefer one over the other? Do you know of any good resources on genealogy research in large cities or have any tips you would like to share?! Leave a comment or shoot me an email! I would love to hear from you!

[1] Duncan Kuehn, “Researching Your Ancestors from Large Cities,” FamilySearch Blog, 26 Oct 2015 (https://familysearch.org/blog/en/researching-ancestors-large-cities/ : Accessed 27 Oct 2015).

[2] Ibid.,

[3] Ibid.,

[4] “Land and Property,” Cook County Illinois Genealogy, FamilySearch Wiki, no date (https://familysearch.org/learn/wiki/en/Cook_County,_Illinois_Genealogy#Land_and_Property : accessed 27 Oct 2015)

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

[6] Kuehn, “Researching Your Ancestors from Large Cities.”

[7] Kathleen W. Hinckley, “Analyzing City Directories,” Online Article citing OnBoard 2 (May 1996): 16, (http://www.bcgcertification.org/skillbuilders/skbld965.html : Accessed 27 Oct 2015).

[8] Kuehn, “Researching Your Ancestors from Large Cities.”

[9] Ibid.,

[10] Ibid.,

[11] Ibid.,

[12] Ibid.,

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.

Finding Out More about Probate Records Part II

book

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. Ancestry.com (http://c.ancestry.com/cs/media/5-things-about-probate-collection.pdf : accessed 28 Sept 2015).

[5] Seaver, Randy, “Mining the Ancestry Probate Records Collection – Post 1: Pennsylvania,” Genea-musings, 8 Sept 2015 (http://www.geneamusings.com/2015/09/mining-ancestry-probate-records.html :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 (http://info.legalzoom.com/probate-make-public-4666.html : accessed 30 Sept 2015). For classification of census records see Census Records, United States Census Bureau, No Date (https://www.census.gov/history/www/genealogy/decennial_census_records/census_records_2.html : 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, (https://vimeo.com/ondemand/haitprobate : Accessed 27 Sept 2015).

5 Reasons Why Everyone Should Study Genealogy

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I’ve always been something of an “old soul.” A history buff my entire life, my hobbies and interests often fell along the fringes of what most of my peers might consider normal. Even in my twenties, I rarely stayed out late with friends, but I distinctly remember once staying up till 3 am to finish a documentary on Abraham Lincoln. That said, it is little wonder that I am attracted to the world of genealogy. It speaks my language. Still, whenever I am researching at the Family History Library or otherwise surrounded by fellow genealogists, I can’t help but be struck by the overwhelming majority of the retirement age demographic and the significant absence of a younger crowd. It baffles me that more people of all ages aren’t clamoring to research their roots. I can only conclude that most people simply don’t know what they are missing. Here are 5 reasons why I study genealogy and think you should too.
1. Genealogists solve real-life mysteries. Do you love a good mystery? If yes, you likely won’t have to delve too deeply into your family history before you are testing your own detective skills. The answer to the question may not have earth shattering consequences (though be prepared in case. . . family secrets, anyone?) but nothing beats the thrill once you finally solve that mystery.

2. Genealogy tells history’s REAL stories. We all (hopefully) learn history in school, right? But it almost always generalizes the feelings of the masses (i.e. The South was for states rights) or tells the stories of a select few (i.e. Washington stepped down from office after two terms). That’s all fine and good, but it gives only a glimpse of what history was like for the common people. It’s our ancestors who truly lived history, and it would be a shame if their experiences were forgotten. Many of my ancestors made great sacrifices for their families, their communities, their countries. Their names will never appear in any history book. I cannot change the past for them, but I can tell their stories and remember their sacrifices.

3. Genealogy brings families together. Sometimes making time for our relatives, particularly our older relatives, seems difficult in the midst of our busy lives. It is not that we don’t love our families, but sometimes it feels like a duty, one more task to check off. The solution: Interview your relatives about your family history. In almost every instance (assuming the interviewer is tactful and sensitive) the interviewee is more than happy to share and appreciates that someone cares enough to ask. The interviewer gleans priceless stories and information that might otherwise have been lost. You’ll be surprised how fast the time goes.

4. Genealogy could save your life. . . literally. Science tells us that much of our health depends upon our genetics. Learning your family health history through genealogy can give you valuable insight into decisions regarding disease prevention and early detection.

5. Their loved ones would want us to remember. Many genealogists hold to the belief that our ancestors would want us to remember them. I think this is probably true. Yet, I can say almost with certainty that everybody holds somebody else’s memory to close to their heart, whether a grandparent, a parent, a sibling, a child or friend. Sadly, we are in danger of losing these memories with the passing of each generation, and that is truly tragic. We should do our part to keep the memory of those who have already lived their time on earth alive, not only for their sake, but also for the people who loved them.