Archive for November, 2012

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through interviews with the subject themselves as well as family members, friends and associates, as well as through historical documents, newspaper clippings and other publications.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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November 19th, 2012

Know Your History, Find Those Records

Whenever I visit a library or a bookstore I am astounded by the number of books and periodicals that exist on military history. You can find books about armies, navies and every other military branch in existence, or historical. There are numerous accounts and analyses of individual units, engagements and strategies, form the present back to ancient times that have been published in books, journals, magazines and other media. You van find books and magazines about specific military equipment and transport such as; horses, jeeps, tanks, ships, airplanes, even detailed documentation on every weapon ever conceived.

When I think about it, there is no excuse for my not knowing more about military history than I should, and I still wouldn’t; unless I hadn’t found out how much a knowledge of military history could help me to locate military records. We all understand the importance of placing our ancestors and family members into historical context. This is entirely true when you are researching someone who served in the military. There is great personal and genealogical benefit to be had from studying the history of the country in which your ancestor lived, and particularly about the military at the time. Knowing what the requirements for service were and what conflicts the country was involved in can help you to understand what records might be available, and where you might find them.

In times of war it has been known for governments to enforce conscription or force people to join the military. For example; in the United Statesin the years 1917 and 1918 (World War 1), many young men were drafted by the military to boost the armed forces for fighting in Europe. Young men in particular age ranges were required to present themselves to the local draft board to fill out a draft card. Knowing the age ranges of the males who were required to register will prompt you to the early nineteenth century; it is an advantage to know that compulsory military service was required even during times of peace. You might then wish to investigate the existence of military records for your ancestor.

When You Can’t Find the Records

Many famous military leaders such as Horatio Nelson, Robert E. Lee, George Washington, and more recently George S. Patton, left detailed accounts of their military and personal lives. When there are no military records for your ancestor, unit histories, battle accounts and analysis, diaries and memoirs may provide some detail. It became especially fashionable for officers and veterans alike to compose exhaustive memoirs and historical accounts of their experiences. These accounts often contain many names of the officers and enlisted men they served with, in some cases complete rosters are included with anecdotal personal material about some individuals. In some instances these personal accounts and memoirs may be the only surviving details about soldiers who lost their lives to battle or disease.

There are as many historical accounts as personal ones regarding military units and the battles they took part in. Often these narratives include details from official records and eye witness accounts of events. You can find much of this type of material at military heritage organizations and societies, many of which have or are in the process of digitizing them and placing them online. The Daughters of the American Revolution are a well known society in the United States, while Ireland has the Military Heritage of Ireland Trust, Veterans Affairs Canada is a useful site if you’re searching Canadian ancestors, while in Great Britain the Society for Army Historical Research may be of assistance.

These are by no means the only organizations that are dedicated to preserving military records and histories. There are also countless magazines that are based on military and historical themes, among them are; World War II, Civil War Times, Naval History, Canadian Journal of History, and BBC History Magazine. Too often we rely solely on online sources, but if you are researching military ancestors, it is worth picking up a copy of one of these publications to see if it may be relevant to your search. They can definitely help to place your ancestors into context with the historical events of their time and may be well worth the small investment required to subscribe.

Whenever you begin to research an ancestor who has served in the military it is a good idea to do some preliminary footwork by investigating the geographical location and the time period in which the event occurred. Doing so will enlighten you as to what records you may hope to find. Once you know what was created, you can begin looking into where they might be kept. When you find your ancestor in military records, it’s a good idea to note the information in an accurate, clear and concise manner. We have some special Free Downloadable Genealogy Forms that may be of assistance. Feel free to download one of your own, and begin charting your family tree today!

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November 12th, 2012

Be Careful of Birthplaces in Census Records

One of the biggest headaches I’ve received from trying to find my relatives in the census is the inconsistencies I’ve noticed when giving the location of their birth. Several times I have found an ancestor, or thought so, only to find in the next or previous census that the person of that identical name and age had given a different birthplace. After much confusion, frustration and countless checking and re-checking of records, it turned out that I had the right person in each census – they had just given a different birthplace each time to the enumerator.

The truth is, many of our ancestors didn’t know where they were born, especially those who were orphans or adoptees. In other cases the parents had moved a long way from where the child was born when he or she was very young. Accordingly, the child had no knowledge of their native parish or county when they became of age. Of course the majority of the populace did know where they were born. The problem however is that there may have been a variety of ways to describe that place. Sometimes you can find an exact address with house number, street name, town and/or county, but all too often you encounter the dreaded “not known” in the address column.

Common Problems with Birthplaces 

I was looking for my ancestors in the 1891 Census of England and Wales when I first encountered the problem with birthplaces. The page on which my ancestor was listed had thirty entries in total. Of those thirty, only half of them gave their birthplace in the common county, parish format, and of the other half, four gave only the name of the county, eight were born overseas, two had “not known” as their entry, which left only one person with a street address – London, St. Martin’s St. My ancestor at least had their county and parish listed, so I was able to trace them further. It did take some doing though!

My great, great uncle James Oliver had actually been born inLondon, but he had relocated outside the city when he was younger, first to Leeds, and then toNewcastle. I had to search around a bit to find him in subsequent and previous census reports, but I eventually did.  The interesting thing was that he had his birthplace listed six different ways in six different census returns. In 1851 it wasLondon, in 1861London, Holborn: 1871 was Middlesex, Newton St, Holborn; in 1881 he hadLondon, Middlesex; 1891 wasLondon, Newton St, Holborn, and finally in 1901 it was different again listed asLondon,St. John’sWood. None of them were wrong however; they just referred to the same place in different ways.

Poor Law Issues

Some people were genuinely unsure of their birthplace, but others may have given incorrect information on purpose. The lives of the Victorian working class were greatly affected by the Poor Law, and many feared being taken from their homes and placed back in their parish of birth – their parish of legal settlement according to the law. The fear of being sent back to their birthplace and placed in a workhouse was so great that many of our ancestors lied in the census, even though the administration guaranteed confidentiality.

Boundary Problems

I also came across a few issues with county boundaries during my research. The previously mentioned great uncle of mine was actually born in Hertfordshire, but you may recall his birthplace listed Middlesex as his county of birth. Initially I was stumped by the discrepancy, but on consulting a map noticed that my uncle’s address was very close to the Middlesex border, so it was easy to see how the mistake may have been made. Occasionally heads of household gave the enumerator the name of the closest market town to which their children were born rather than the actual place. On occasion that market town was across county boundaries, again making for a confusing circumstance. Keep an eye out for historical county boundary changes as well.

There is really no telling what you can find in census records. Though they are indeed popular and valuable genealogical documents, they are prone to common errors. You basically need to make the most of what you do find, and work your way around the obstacles that these mistakes create. Look for your ancestors in each of the censuses. This way you will get a feel for the patterns in the data, making it easier for you to pick out rogue entries. Once you accept that census returns aren’t as accurate as we’d like them to be, and become familiar with the various errors commonly found within, you’ll find that tracking those elusive ancestors will be that mush easier.

Once you find your ancestor in the census returns, feel free to download one of our Free Census Forms. They are professionally designed to make for both a professional presentation, and an efficient and effective mans of recording genealogical data.

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November 5th, 2012

Remember our Veterans – Canadian Veteran’s Week

Canadian Veteran’s Week begins every year on November 5th and runs to November 11th. This year there is a wealth of events being held across Canada to recognize the achievements and contributions our veterans have made over the years, and to honour those who gave their lives so that we could freely live our own. Veterans Affairs Canada is asking people to show appreciation for our military patriarchs with their actions rather than by their emotions this year. They have laid out what they call the “Remembrance Challenge”, and list a number of ways that we can demonstrate that appreciation. There are also a series of videos

One of the ways they suggest to show support and gratitude to our War vets is to listen to them talk about their experiences. This may not be possible for everyone, but it juggled my memory about several websites where you could listen to Canadian War Veterans speak of their experiences online. For those who may not be able to get to an event to listen to veterans speak in person, these sites are a great alternative. In fact there is a lot you can do online to meet the requirements of the remembrance challenge, and I will mention them as well in this Blog. First though, let me introduce you to some of the websites where you can hear our veterans speak of their wartime experiences, and then I’ll show you where you can show your appreciation online.

The first place is at Veterans Affairs Canada website itself, where over fifteen hundred hours of conversations with war vets have been recorded. On their Audio Archives page, you can listen to first hand accounts of individual soldier’s experiences in the First World War. Real life experiences of runners (messengers who kept communications with headquarters alive when signal lines were down), officers, medal winners, company clerks, even spies, can be heard and experienced. Listening to these accounts really drives home the sacrifices our veterans made, and the horrors and hardships they had to endure to preserve the freedom we enjoy today. There are also a series of videos available in their Multimedia Center entitled Heroes Remember, where you can listen to and watch veterans such as Mr. Marshall recount stories of loss and hardship, or the sadness veterans feel every Remembrance Day. In his own words;

“I enjoyed my stint in the army. I enjoyed it. It means everything to me. I sit there in that kitchen and I watch it and I think of all my friends who gave their lives and I think of all the other friends of mine who I soldiered with while I was over there, but mostly those. I lost a lot of friends over there. I lost a lot of friends over there. And I sit in the kitchen there by myself and I just, the tears just flow and I just can’t, I just can’t help it. And I’m sure that if they ever stop recognizing Remembrance Day, the populous would very soon forget about those fellows that lay in them cemeteries overseas there especially in France and Germany and Italy, Belgium, Holland, they’re all over there.”

It’s very moving stuff, but our veterans deserve our attention, and we all need to be reminded of just what they did for us during the World Wars. There is no doubt in my mind, that after hearing these touching stories, you will want to express your appreciation for their services. You can do so by visiting the Canada Remembers Facebook page and posting your sentiments on their wall. There is much more material on Veterans Affairs Canada website such as diaries and letters written by young soldiers. It is the very least we can do to honor their brave service and courageous sacrifice. We must never forget these honorable men who fought and gave their lives for our country, and for the world. However you choose to remember them, remind others of what this week represents, and help to keep the memories of one of our most treasured resources alive.

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