Category: Genealogy Clues

May 7th, 2013

Putting Your Family on the Map – Finding Your Ancestors and Mapping Their History

I remember when I was young that my grandfather had a large wall-sized Map of the World which he used to plot the travels of one of his sons (my uncle) around the globe. Said uncle was a merchant seaman, and would let my grandfather know exactly where he was or had been, and granddad would place colored pins on those locations. After 15 years of my uncle’s travels the map was so heavy from the huge amount of pins it was literally falling off the wall, but what a conversation piece it made! Peopled love talking about both family and exotic foreign locations and this is what inspired me to plot the immigration patterns of my ancestors in a similar fashion.

Organizing Your Family Immigration History

The first thing I did before even purchasing a decent sized map was to list every ancestor that I knew of at the time, their place of birth or burial if applicable, last known place of residence, their dates of birth and death, and if I knew it – the year of their emigration. Of course for some I had more information than others, but what data I did have led me to other important facts about my family. I first sorted through all of the old documentation and photos I had in my possession, and put aside any information that placed somebody at a particular location at a specific time. These would become my first map points.  I chose red colored pins for this purpose, but of course you can invent your own color code system. For some ancestors I had information about where they lived, but not the time frame during they lived there. For these challenges I found the Period Approximation Chart very useful.

How to use the Period Approximation Chart

In one instance I had the birth dates of my great-great grandfather’s children, but there were rumours amongst our family members that they might not have been married. I decided to search for a marriage record for them, and the Period Approximation Chart gave me a ballpark time span to look for it in. You will notice that the chart is quite simple. It has three columns; one marked Date Wanted, the second titled Known Information, and the final column contains the Formula you should use. The date I wanted was Marriage, the Known Information I had was the birth dates of several children, and hence I used the corresponding Formula. I haven’t as yet found the marriage record, but at least I have minimized the time frame in which I should look.

Use Gazetteers to Pinpoint Place Names

In some instances documentation I had referred to place names associated with some of my relatives, yet contained no details of where that place might be. In some cases there are villages or towns around the world bearing the same name, and consequently finding the exact one in which your ancestor lived can prove challenging.  In such cases gazetteers are extremely helpful, as they list every place with that name and give a variety of information about each one. The minimum that they will do is to provide you with the region where your relative lived, and some even provide the latitude and longitude. Many countries have their own gazetteers, so if you have an idea of the country or region, you can simply Google a gazetteer for that area.  Keep in mind though, that especially in the UK regions, more than one village with the same name can be located in a single county, so take the time to make sure you have the correct one before searching for further documentation.

Using Land Records to Plot Your Map

I found it much easier to use land records and enter them into some land-plotting software before I transferred the information onto my wall map. I used DeedMapper, but there are others available that you can find by searching online for land plotting programs. What you do is take the information that you glean from land records and enter it into the software which creates a map showing land boundaries, but also organizes your data in a compact, easily accessible format. Before you decide whether or not to purchase and use DeedMapper, you can view their nine tutorial videos which show you the full potential of the program.

Use GIS (Geographical Information Systems) Software to Create Maps

GIS software is also a neat and unique way to create maps, as it allows you to build them using layers of information. You can start with a simple outline of a country, then add a second layer showing towns or villages, then a third denoting specific house or building locations and so on. You can build as many layers as you wish, even showing natural features such as rivers or streams, but to utilize GIS software you’ll need a GIS data viewer. This is basically another type of software, and a free version can be found at The software is called ArcGISExplorer, and can be downloaded, or you can use an online version. You can research data at Data.Gov or the GIS Data Depot.

Directories and newspapers can also yield a wealth of information, both biographical and geographical. Make use of as many sources as you can, including libraries and local genealogy and geographical societies. Once you have collected and organized as much data as possible on your ancestors, you can begin transferring it onto your wall map. Mine took me the better part of three years to complete, but I never lack for interesting conversation when we have visitors!

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April 30th, 2013

Principles to Perfect Your Researching Skills

I have just been reading Val Greenwood’s The Researchers Guide to American Genealogy, in which I came across what I think is a very interesting point. She said; “Perhaps the one thing that would improve the quality of research being done, more than any other single factor, would be a concern for complete families rather than just direct lines.” What she meant of course was that more research should be done regarding collateral kin and associates, but this of course is easier said than done. This type of research involves working with many different records in quite large numbers, and one must be able to instantly recognize what is of value in each, and what is not. It’s difficult enough sometimes researching direct line descendants, but what she said I think is also quite true.

Studying ancestors in their full context has evolved from simply looking for siblings to searching for important companions as well. But it doesn’t just stop there; in-laws, associates, and friends are then placed within their own geographical, cultural and sociological elements. The benefit of this type of genealogical research is that it places your ancestor and his associates in their historical content as well as developing them as individuals. Sometimes known as “cluster genealogy”, it can be very demanding, but equally as rewarding.

There are certain principles however that can make a full genealogical study such as this a little easier. Understanding the relationships between different parties, and how those relationships play out and affect each person, can help genealogists to solve the hardest genealogical problems. The key is in remembering that the relationships between people are important, not just names.

Some Helpful Principles and Their Genealogical Inferences

One thing that sociologists have discovered is that the strongest family ties are between women, the most enduring bond being between mothers and daughters. The implication of this principle for genealogists is that; the best family sources for your genealogical study are probably those related to people with a different surname than the one you’re researching.

Regarding Western society, studies have shown that ties to the family of the wife are stronger than those of her husband, unless the husband’s ties are connected to his occupation. How this is important to genealogical research is that: besides understanding the blood ties between family members, a researcher must also comprehend the business and economic dynamics of family relationships.

It has been shown that immigration or other geographical mobility does not break the social relationships among family members. This information can be especially useful when researching records that may have been destroyed by a fir, floods, or neglect. In such cases; the records detailing the various relationships of family members may have been maintained by a person outside of the geographical location in which you are presently searching, someone removed from the area of destruction.

It is also important to understand the language of the era in which you are researching, as terminology for family relationships may have been different from those used today. If a family relationship is misinterpreted, it could sabotage an entire family tree. For example the terms daughter-in-law and son-in-law at one time meant a child of a spouse from a previous marriage.

Always remember that genealogy is as much about relationships as it is name gathering. People are joined not just by blood, but by law and emotions as well. If you limit your research to only blood relatives of your ancestor, you may miss out on critical clues and important documents.

Sometimes the legal records created by family members who had no heirs, beneficiaries, or descendants can be more useful than those who did. Never overlook a family member, and obtain all the information and data that you can regarding every ancestor.

In colonial times it was assumed that after marriage, spousal relatives became the same as your own. For example, the wife’s nieces and nephews would become the husband’s, and he their uncle. This is a common assumption, but presumptuous in genealogy.

These principles of course can be applied to any genealogical search, but are especially relevant when researching collateral kin. A good practice is to search all the records of any families you think you may be connected to. It is easy to complain that pursuing every collateral line you encounter will produce an impossible amount of surnames to manage, but with modern technology – computers and software – it is made much easier. A last tip is to learn more about the community of the people you are researching. Every culture and community produces records outside of those required by governments. Find those records, and you will undoubtedly find more ancestors and their associates.

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November 26th, 2012

Biographies – Building Bridges to the Past

Many beginning genealogists overlook biographies as a source as they figure their ancestor wasn’t famous or important enough to have one written about them. That may well be true, but if not the subject of a biography, your ancestor may have been mentioned in one, or even its writer. Furthermore, though not the subject of a full blown biography, there could be a biographical sketch of your ancestor somewhere; a shorter, more concise description of their life. County histories are often a source of biographical information, and should never be overlooked as a source of this type of free ancestry record.

I have found out much about my ancestors in biographies, even though none on my relatives were famous. They were socially prominent in their communities however, some large and some small, and I would never have got to know them on the level I have if I had overlooked biographies as a source. More than a source of vital data such as birth, death and marriage dates, biographies can reveal more intimate details about your ancestor; who their friends were, what they were passionate about, what they did for a living, and how well they did it. They don’t just provide data about our ancestors; they reveal their personality, which is the true essence of genealogy – getting to really know our ancestors.

What is a Biography?

Many beginning family historians might not fully understand what a biography is. A biography is a work written about a particular person by someone else. It can be in the form a memoir, summarising their accomplishments and illuminating their personality (a biographical sketch), or can be in the form of a more detailed personal history. Facts are gathered about the subject through interviews with the subject themselves as well as family members, friends and associates, as well as through historical documents, newspaper clippings and other publications. An autobiography is the story of a person’s life written by the person themselves.

Usually biographies are written about someone who is famous or otherwise distinguished, and most commonly published as a book. They are by no means limited to the rich and famous though, and it is quite possible your ancestors biography may have been published somewhere. Centuries ago towns and cities were smaller, much less populated than they are today, and the chances of your ancestor playing a more socially prominent role increase accordingly. As mentioned earlier, even if a biography has not been written about them, they may feature in someone else’s.

Where to Look for Biographies

As it is with any genealogical information, home is the best place to begin looking for biographies and related publications. By related publications I mean memoirs, personal histories; even diaries and letters may be pieced together to form a biography. Your search should extend to the homes of your relatives as well, as they may have personal documents and memorabilia that may be missing pieces of the puzzle. Even if you don’t find a biography, the information you do find may point to schools, workplaces, fraternal organizations, societies, clubs, and other groups that publish them.

Once you’ve exhausted your search of home sources, local libraries are an excellent follow-up source, especially ones in the area where your ancestor lived. Within the library you will want to check local histories from the period your relative lived in. City, county and town directories may all point to possible locations of a biography, and may even contain one. A much overlooked source within libraries is their vertical files. Vertical files are collections of source material that can contain clippings, newspaper obituaries, and other printed material on subjects of a specific interest. If you know your ancestor was a farmer or member of a specific organization for instance, you would look in vertical files related to that subject.

Beyond the library your search can continue in the records of schools, fraternal organizations, clubs, and military organizations for example. State archives and libraries are also a valuable source as they often contain bibliographical collections. Within these collections are a variety of books and biographical sketches that many people, prominent and otherwise, are mentioned. Local history societies and genealogical societies may also prove helpful, as they specialize in collecting information about the people within their communities.

Regardless of whether the information you find on your ancestor can be considered a biography or not, it is still precious genealogical data. Like all valuable family history information, it should be recorded accurately and in an organized fashion. We have designed some Free Downloadable Genealogy Forms to help you with all of your family history research. As always, we are committed to providing you with free genealogy resources, and invite you to download one now to begin your own family history project.

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August 11th, 2011

Who’s the Babe in the Bikini? – Fashions, Photographs and Family Members

My cousin and I were browsing through a collection of old family photos when we came across a picture of some people on a beach. “Wow, who’s the babe in the bikini he asked”? I had no idea where finding the answer to that question would lead me at the time, but it was a good and interesting question, the answer to which I decided to actively pursue. It was my first foray into genealogical research, though I didn’t consider it as such as the time; I was just trying to find out who that babe was – for my cousin’s sake, not my own! What I also discovered was that the fashions that people are wearing in old photographs can reveal important genealogical information that can lead us further along in our quest to find lost ancestors.


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