- Posts for Family History Friday category
Vital Records | Our Prairie Nest
Vital Records

I am adamant about collecting primary sources. That which can’t be found online must be obtained from the appropriate authority. How do you obtain birth, marriage, and death records? Every state is different but, in my case, I usually write to the Town Clerk of the town in which the event occurred.

Requesting Vital Records

When I draft a letter to the Town Clerk for records, I state that I’m requesting the record for genealogical purposes. I give the date, or at least a date range, for the event, and as much identifying information as possible. If there is something I am specifically seeking (perhaps a decedent’s mother’s maiden name), I state that in the letter, just to ensure that all the information is included in the certified record.

Most records in New England range from $5 to $10 per town. Some are a little more expensive, so it’s good to check ahead of time. If I request multiple records from one town, I enclose multiple checks. That way, if they don’t have every record, they can return my check, but keep the others.

I always enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope. I usually write a little note under the return address, such as “E. Shaw death,” so I know what’s in the envelope when it comes back to me.

I always sign off my letter with an expression of appreciation for the Town Clerk’s time and assistance. They have many other things to do with their day, and searching for my ancestor’s birth, marriage or death record isn’t at the top of their to-do list. So I sincerely thank them for their time.

Organizing Vital Records

I organize my collection of vital records in two ways.

I keep an Excel spreadsheet, which is arranged alphabetically by surname. Women are always listed by their maiden name (if known). I record marriages twice, but the actual physical record goes under the husband’s name.

As far as the physical records, I organize them the same way. I have two binders (for now), and the records are kept in archival page protectors, arranged alphabetically. I have a printed index inserted in the front and, if necessary, back of each binder so I know which records are contained within.

Going Digital

One of these days in the very near future, I plan to scan all of these (as well as other) documents to my PC, external hard drive, thumb drive, and cloud drives. This is for safety’s sake. In the event of an emergency, I wouldn’t have time to grab the binders. However, to have vital records, family writings, and photographs stored to various storage mediums will give me a sense of security. The physical items could possibly be lost, whether in an emergency or in a move. So I would like the ability to reproduce them, if necessary.

On a pleasanter note, it would be great to be able to email documents and photographs to family members if they are interested in seeing them. So scanning and saving everything to various drives would help with sharing with family.

Genealogy and Social Media | Our Prairie Nest
Genealogy & Social Media

As the internet offers us more and more places to connect, it can be tricky to determine who you “ought” to follow on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms. There are many recommendations out there – some that are considered staples of social media/the online community in genealogy.

It’s well worth checking out the suggestions on “Top 100” lists and the like, but sometimes finding the right folks or blogs to follow on social media is as simple as a few search terms.

What do you want to get out of making these connections online? Do you want to find potential distant cousins and other people with similar research interests? Do you want to keep up to date on more general genealogical news or the latest scientific advances with DNA? Would you like to find people local to you or communicate with genealogists in other countries?

And, once you find these people, what next? What should you do with these connections? What is the point of a widespread network if you don’t make use of it, or participate in it?

Sometimes, it is nice to sit back and watch news, ideas, and more scroll by in your Twitter feed. But it won’t necessarily help break through that brick wall or bring you closer to uncovering what happened to an ancestor who apparently dropped off the face of the earth.

Take time to reach out to the people with shared research interests, or even who live in the area where your family resided decades or centuries ago. Before the internet, we sent each other letters – even long-distance relatives! Email makes it even easier to say, “Dear John Smith, I noticed your post on the Genealogy.com Smith forum, and I do believe we may have an ancestral connection via Robert Smith.”

We tend to be a friendly lot, so most of us will respond courteously – probably even excited to hear from you. So use that social media to be social and have some fun with it! You might make an unexpected discovery along the way. 🙂

Getting Started with Genealogy | Our Prairie Nest
Getting Started with Genealogy

I work with someone who asks me a LOT of questions about genealogy – how do I figure out this or that, how do I know how closely DNA matches are connected, and where do I find answers to particular questions? So I thought it might be a good time for a good old-fashioned “how to” post on the first steps to take if you would like to research your genealogy.

Here’s a little caveat: Genealogy is not just addictive, but contagious.  The two questions people ask me most often are “Will you help me find…?” and “How do I start working on my own genealogy?” Once you start, your friends and family might want to get in on the fun.

First, I will give you the most essential piece of advice: write it down. All of it. This applies to everything you will do and everything you will encounter. Write it down. One day, you might ask yourself, “Wait – where did I get the information that great-great-grandpa smoked imported stogies and worked as a stone mason?” By writing down the publication or conversation with a family member, you’ll have your source. For example, this particular tidbit comes from the family history my great-great-aunt Espezzia dictated in 1991 with two of her sisters, including my Nana (great-grandmother).

Step 1: Gather Information

Your initial step should be to write down everything you already know about your family. Who is related to whom? Do you know where and when your parents were born? What about your grandparents and great-grandparents? Do you know where and when they died or were married?

Write down every single bit of knowledge you have on your family, even if it’s a note such as “Aunt Mary said Great-Grandma ran a dry goods store.” Your Aunt Mary might not remember the name of the store and she might give you a vague location, saying, “It was in Boston or Cambridge or somewhere around there…” But write it down nonetheless.

Step 2: Talk to Your Family

The next thing I urge people to do when they come to me for advice about how to research their family tree, is talk to family members. Begin visiting with or contacting those family members you are closest to, and start asking them questions. Keep in mind that parents or grandparents can forget things sometimes, which leaves us with more questions than answers.  But that’s all right! Treat every tidbit of information as a clue. For now, you are gathering all the information you can. Verifying and building on it will come later.

In particular, I encourage you to speak to your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, great-aunts, great-uncles, and cousins, especially older cousins in the same generations as your parents and grandparents. Don’t leave out anyone, unless you think they might treat your queries with hostility. I know my Nana’s (grandmother’s; yes, we call both of them Nana) first cousins have shared some very interesting information that my Nana or others did not recall, or share with me.

These older generations are precious.  You may learn everything you need to know from one person, or you might get conflicting information from a few people that can help you narrow down some of your questions. I’ve had plenty of people come to me with family information that was incorrect, and that’s perfectly fine! The point of compiling this initial information is to confirm it, if possible.

To this day, I am most grateful to my great-great aunt, Espezzia, who took the time to share her story on tape and paper. The document everyone in our family now has is full of recollections by my great-grandmother and two of her sisters of their parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, and uncles, and their lives during their childhood. The sisters who worked on the family history were all nearly 90-years-old at the time, and the document itself is invaluable to their descendants.

Why did they do this? Had someone thought to ask Espezzia, her sisters, and brothers about their childhoods or their parents’ lives in Italy? I don’t know, but I’m so glad these women took the initiative to put their thoughts on paper for future generations.

Likewise, I’ve “interviewed” my Nana, my grandfather, my grandmother, cousins of theirs, my second cousins, an aunt, and my father. Genealogy is not just about adding names, dates, and places to a family tree. It’s akin to stepping back in time and putting yourself in your ancestors’ shoes. Talk to the older generations in your family now – don’t let the chance pass you by!

Step 3: Organizing the Information

Now that you’ve written down what you know about your family, and what they know, and what the people they know know… You get the idea. You should now have pages of notes. Perhaps it’s a single piece of lined paper with incomplete names and dates, and guesses as to places. Or maybe you have a smattering of emails from different relatives.

Paper genealogy is still where I feel most comfortable when it comes to collecting and organizing information. It makes life simpler to pull out a binder of charts or vital records for an “at a glance” look at things. Never underestimate the power of the basics. Most of us start out with these. I don’t know if any genealogists ever really phase them out of their work, even with all that family history software can do for us!

Now you need forms to organize your information into easy to read formats. You can Google the following forms and find PDF templates. I’m partial to the free forms available from Family Tree Magazine’s website at www.FamilyTreeMagazine.com. You are looking for the following forms:

  • Five-Generation Ancestor Chart aka Pedigree Chart
  • Family Group Sheet

The five-generation ancestor chart is your most basic form and probably similar to what you might envision when you think of what a family tree looks like. It lays out your ancestors starting with you as number one. Use yourself as the starting point on chart number one by filling in your name on the very first line on the chart. Your parents will be next, and then their parents, and so forth. The standard practice is to list the men on the top line and the women on the line below them.

These charts allow you to go back a few generations, recording names and dates and places of birth, marriage, and death. It doesn’t go in depth about the people’s lives. Instead, it gives an overview of yourself or the ancestor listed on the first line, parents, grandparents, and so on.

This chart will give you an at-a-glance view of your ancestry and make it easy to see the areas where more information is needed. I recommend filling in any uncertain information with pencil first. You can always erase it and use pen later when you confirm a name, date, or place.

When you get to the fifth generation, it’s time to begin a new chart starting with the last people on those sixteen lines on the right side of the page. You will assign each of those people a chart number, and then begin a new chart, i.e. chart 2 will start with person 17 on chart 1, chart 3 will start with person 18 on chart 1, and so on. Your chart will look something like this:

Pedigree Chart showing the ancestors of my great-great-aunt Espezzia.

Don’t worry if there are blanks in the chart. The point of genealogy is to fill those blanks and learn more about these people who – at this point – are probably just names and numbers to you. Soon you will know that Great-Grandpa Benjamin wasn’t just some man born January 1, 1900 in Dayton, Ohio. If you play your cards right, you’ll also learn he was a shoemaker with a penchant for wearing the same overalls every day and smoking a pipe, which his second wife absolutely despised but put up with anyway because she loved him so much.

You’ll notice, however, there’s no room to add such commentary to the five-generation ancestor chart. In fact, this form is only meant for direct ancestors, not collateral relatives. So it’s time to make use of the Family Group Sheet.

As you will see, this form has room to record much more information. Specifically, this allows you to write the names of a couple, their dates of life events (birth, marriage, and death), the names of their parents, and the names and life events of the couples’ children. Once completed, you will end up with something like this:

Family Group Sheet (page 1 of 3) showing my great-great grandparents and the first 4 of their 8 children.

This form allows you to expand on the information about a particular couple and their children, which is especially useful if you need to employ advanced research tactics such as sideways searching aka “the FAN Club” (something I will try to post about one of these days).

A couple other forms you may want to have on hand are:

  • Correspondence Log – handy for tracking emails and letters you write in your search for information.
  • Research Worksheet or Journal – useful for tracking the sources you’ve already checked for a specific ancestor
  • Research Calendar – a good way to track the dates of visits you’ve made to various locations for your research
  • Research Checklist – a comprehensive listing of resources that you can check off as you view them for a specific ancestor

These forms are also available at Family Tree Magazine’s website or via a Google search.

This is the first step to organizing your information and research efforts into a logical format. However, don’t throw out your initial notes, particularly if there were questionable names, dates, and places! Either save or scan your notes. If they are handwritten, you may choose to transcribe them and print a copy.

I will try to post about genealogy software available and digitizing all of this. But I suggest keeping everything you’ve gathered together in one place, even if you ultimately scan and digitize it in some way. You may find that everything fits in a large manila envelope or folder at this point if you’re just starting. Don’t worry – when it’s time to outgrow that initial storage, there are many different systems for organizing your information.

Step 4: The Fun Stuff – Research!

Armed with knowledge and ready to learn more, you click to open your internet browser, and type the word “genealogy” in a search engine. Various results pop up and you select the most popular of them all – a behemoth of a genealogy site you’ve seen advertising during episodes of “Who Do You Think You Are” that, for a price, will give you access to everything you could ever want – censuses, vital records, books, and more!

Hold it right there. Back away from the keyboard.

As eager as you are to begin your journey, let’s talk about genealogy as a big business. There are the sites that offer a complete history of your surname, along with a lovely coat of arms to display on your wall. I hope by now, most people have learned those sites are nothing but public information brokers, and won’t give you anything of value.

Then there are the sites that do offer legitimate information for a subscription. I’m here to say put the credit card down and take a look at these gems before paying big bucks for access to genealogical records:

These are the initial sites to which I refer new researchers because they’re free and offer a wealth of information. I also like to suggest going to the state or regional genealogical society pertinent to your family history (for me, it’s the New England Historic Genealogical Society) and seeing what they have available if you become a member.

That’s not to say you won’t get good value for your dollar with any of the subscription sites. However, you will find censuses, vital records, military records, immigration records, and more at FamilySearch. And, if you are so inclined, you can give back as a volunteer in the future by transcribing records for them.

Finally, a warning: don’t copy every family tree you see online. It’s tempting, sure, but treat those family trees as hints and then verify information before adding it to your own!

Of course, there is so much more to learn about genealogy. These are just simple first steps to get anyone started tracing their genealogy or learning about their family history. As you go forward from here, there are many different directions and layers to this endeavor, and a different path for everyone. 🙂

The Wood Family of Blue Hill | Our Prairie Nest
The Wood Family of Blue Hill, Maine

The first aspect of family history I heard about as a child was that my paternal ancestors founded the town of Blue Hill, Hancock County, Maine. As the story goes, Joseph Wood (my ancestor) and John Roundy left Massachusetts in 1762 to explore what would ultimately become Maine. They created the town of Blue Hill out of the wilderness.

A long line of my paternal grandparents lived in Blue Hill, starting with Joseph (b. 15 Feb 1720, Beverly, Essex, Massachusetts; d. 20 Jun 1813, Blue Hill) and his wife, Ruth Haskell (b. 16 Nov 1721, Beverly; d. 6 Apr 1814, Blue Hill). They had Joseph Wood (b. 27 Dec 1750, Beverly; d. 18 Dec 1811, Blue Hill), who married Eleanor Carter (b. 19 Oct 1757, Harpswell, Cumberland, Maine; d. 5 Apr 1806, Blue Hill) on 11 Sept 1776 in Blue Hill.

Joseph and Eleanor had Andrew Wood (1786-1850) who married Hannah Ober (1787-1830). Their son, Benjamin Stone (sometimes listed as Stover) Wood (1826-1881), married Susan Whitmore (1828-1861), thus adding extensively to my dozens of Mayflower lines.

Their son, Lemuel Augustus Wood (b. 1845 and pictured at the start of this post), is my great-great grandfather. Lemuel married Susan Pickering in 1867, but she passed away in 1879 in Boston, Massachusetts. Lemuel was the last of my ancestors born in Blue Hill, and he and Susan didn’t appear to have any children. If they did, none of them lived to adulthood.

Lemuel then married my great-great grandma, Georgianna Winsor in 1884 (more Mayflower through there; maybe someday I will post about how my parents, all 4 of my grandparents, and most of my 8 great-grandparents are related to one another).

Georgianna was probably considered an old maid by then at the age of 33 (she was born in 1851). They had one daughter, who was born and died the same day. And then they had my dear great-grandpa Lewis Preston Wood in 1892 in Boston. My beloved great-grandpa passed away when I was 6, but I remember him very well.

Great-Grandpa and Great-Grandma Wood (her maiden name was also Wood, but no relation) had 8 children. My grandfather, Vincent Wood, was the third-born, but the first to pass away in 1995. Grandpa, of course, gave me my dad, and here I am.