Sunday, February 27, 2011

Ger Mandolin Orchestra: 2011

Ger Mandolin Orchestra, c. 1933
Avner Yonai was inspired by a photograph of his grandfather's mandolin orchestra in Góra Kalwaria (Ger in Yiddish), Poland, to create a new version of the orchestra.  Many of Avner's relatives in Ger died in the Holocaust.  He decided to resurrect the orchestra as a memorial to those relatives.

A Facebook page is dedicated to the orchestra, and articles have appeared on Tablet and Yad Vashem.  A lot of research has been dedicated to trying to determine just what music the orchestra would likely have played.

While researching the orchestra, Avner has found information about his family members who left Ger and connected with long-lost relatives in Israel.  He discovered that his mother and uncle were named after members of the family who perished during the war.

The new Ger Mandolin Orchestra will perform as part of the 26th Annual Jewish Music Festival, taking place March 5-13 in the San Francisco Bay area.  The orchestra's performance will be on Sunday, March 6, at 2:00 p.m. at Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse, 2020 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA 94704.

Even though the repertoire for the performance is pretty well set, if you happen to know anything about what mandolin orchestras in Poland might have been playing in the 1920's and 1930's, Avner would be happy to hear from you.

More Family History on Television

Who Do You Think You Are? is one of the few television programs specifically focused on family history, but other programs sometimes have family history moments and touch on research techniques and resources genealogists use.  I've seen some interesting stories lately that I wanted to share.  I love finding family history and good research resources in unexpected places.

I watch a lot of History Detectives on PBS.  The premise is that people contact the program because they have some kind of artifact they want to know the history of, and the professional researchers do the legwork and come back with the answers.  (Kind of like Who Do You Think You Are?, but with no pretense of who is doing the research.)  The primary emphasis of the program is on history, but a few stories focus on individuals.  As with WDYTYA?, the research is done beforehand so they can determine if they have a viable story.

A segment in one episode investigated a letter purportedly written by Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross.  The letter was dated July 1866 and reported the death of Israel Brown; it was sent to J. Blair Welch in Burnt Cabins, Pennsylvania.  The owner of the letter wanted to know how Brown died, who Welch was, and if it was really Barton's signature.  The researcher, Eduardo Pagán, created a short sketch of Brown and his family and how Welch was connected to him.  Among other resources, Pagán used Barton's Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army, the "Roll of Missing Men" lists she had published in newspapers, an online database of prisoners in Andersonville Prison, and a visit to Florence (South Carolina) Stockade.  The epilog discussed the use of dog tags for identification of soldiers and why they became necessary.

Another segment of the same episode focused on a typed notebook and domestic spying during World War I.  The person who sent the inquiry had a notebook of his great-grandfather's which appeared to record surveillance information.  His great-grandfather had been in military intelligence; he wanted to know if the notebook really was "spy stuff."  Researcher Gwendolyn Wright looked at an employee file (available at the National Archives because he was a government employee) of the great-grandfather and letters he had written to piece together a picture of him and his work.  The investigation followed the well known anarchist Emma Goldman, among other people, and the Socialist newspaper the New York Call (which I used in my Triangle Fire research) played an important part.

A piece of fabric with the words "Dixon" and "Grand Island, 1911" on it was the item in a segment from another episode.  The contributor found it among her grandfather's possessions.  She thought the name Dixon might refer to a famous early aviator but wondered why her grandfather would have possessed it.  Elyse Luray's research concentrated on Dixon and his short career, but the important point in this one for me was that newspaper research was used to pinpoint her grandfather's location at a critical time and explain why he had the fabric.

One contributor bought what he thought was a former slave's freedom paper at a flea market.  Tukufu Zuberi researched emancipation records to determine when John Jubilee Jackson was freed (and found a physical description of him) and ship's crew lists to follow Jackson's career as a sailor.  He discovered not only that the paper actually was a seaman's protection certificate, created to ensure that free blacks would not be taken into custody as escaped slaves, but also found a side trip Jackson had taken to Haiti soon after the Slave Revolt.  The epilog for the segment talked about resources helpful in researching black American genealogy.

Not specific to family history research, but a children's program had a surprising real research moment.  The PBS Kids program Fetch! is part game show, part reality TV, and part spoof.  The show has real kids who do challenges, use science, and (kind of) compete against each other.  On a recent episode they had the kids go to the library and do research using microfilm!  Sorry I can't give a link to the episode; the Fetch! site is not geared to finding a specific episode.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

"Who Do You Think You Are?" - Kim Cattrall

I'm going to start off by saying that I knew almost nothing about Kim Cattrall before I watched her episode of Who Do You Think You Are?  I knew her name because Sex and the City is so well known, but I have never watched that program.  So I really had no preconceptions of what she might be like.  Now that I have seen the show, I think she must be a very strong person to have decided to pursue the story she did.  (Last season's comparable episode was that of Susan Sarandon, who pursued the story of her grandmother who disappeared.  I remember when I saw that episode I was not surprised Sarandon would take on that kind of a challenge.)

I think what stood out in this episode was that Cattrall really appeared to be doing most of the research because the bulk of the show was personal interviews with people, starting with her visit to her mother and two aunts.  The three sisters didn't have much information, though, so the search would have gone nowhere without the work of the professional researchers.  It was gratifying to hear the total lack of pretense on the part of Cattrall when she said she had asked a researcher to see what could be found. And without the pivotal marriage certificate found by that researcher (which generated a quite honest, and surprisingly unbleeped, response from Cattrall), there still would have been a brick wall.

After learning that her grandfather had married a second time in Durham County, Cattrall went there for further research.  The archivist showed her the voter registration lists and the birth registers, but neither was bookmarked, and Cattrall turned the pages herself.  Now, why she scanned the pages in the birth register instead of looking in an index for Baugh births, I don't know.  She went from there to the most recent known address to look for more information about her grandfather.  I would have tried to pursue city directories or phone books to try to track the family a few more years forward; maybe that was done behind the scenes?

I don't know if the show's researchers found Maisie's address or if she really was discovered by looking in the phone book, but finding her was a logical step.  It was amusing to see when Cattrall arrived and Maisie's daughter opened the door, the daughter was obviously unsurprised to see the visitor but trying to act surprised.  But during the conversation in the flat, even though you know it had to been somewhat rehearsed and the cameras were there, I saw a lot of honest facial expressions.  It was interesting to see the juxtaposition of two very different perspectives on George Baugh. did not appear in the program until about 47 minutes past the hour -- a refreshing surprise.  The use of it at that point in the research even made sense, because most people would not be able to just pick up and go to Australia to continue the research.  The fact that Cattrall did not want to meet the Australian relatives was probably the real reason the show did not continue its habit of wide-ranging travel.

When Cattrall returned to Vancouver to tell her mother and aunts what she had learned, it was plainly a painful and emotional revelation.  One hopes that on some level they are still happy they went through the process and found the answer, because now they no longer have to wonder.

When Cattrall said she did not want to meet the relatives in Australia, I was thinking things could get very awkward now that the episode was airing.  It is emphasized when doing genealogical research to respect the privacy of living individuals; I didn't really think the show would air without prior notification to people mentioned in it.  It was good to see the epilog that said her mother and aunts had made contact with their half-siblings.

In other news about Who Do You Think You Are?, NBC announced that it had already renewed the program for a third season.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Always More to Learn

1866 Map of Mississippi
Tuesday night and Wednesday night I attended genealogy classes.  I firmly believe there is always more to learn, and more knowledge never hurts when doing research.

Tuesday's class was "Finding Country Cousins in Land and Property Records", by Susan Goss Johnston.  The class was part of the Intermediate Genealogy Series presented by the California Genealogical Society and the Oakland Regional Family History Center.  The emphasis in the class was that land records can often be used to prove family connections when no other records are available.  Several types of property records were discussed, including federal lands, state lands, and existing claims.  We looked at the differences between metes and bounds, and townships and ranges.  Case studies showed how looking at who bought (or acquired) land when, where, and from whom can help you figure out relationships, migration patterns, and life cycle events such as marriages and deaths.  I've done some property research, but not in complicated cases, so it was interesting to see how you can connect family members through the transactions, and I did learn a lot.  Next week's class is "Seeking City Slickers in Lesser-Known Records."  I think it will be a good one also!

Wednesday night I attended the monthly African American Research Workshop held at the ORFHC.  This month's topic was location-based genealogy -- looking at how the physical geography of the area in which people lived affected the ways in which they interacted with other people and with the world around them.  The first thing we talked about was Tobler's First Law of Geography:  "Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things."  For genealogy, this means that people are more likely to marry people who live close to them.  We then watched the first two parts (there's a third part, but we didn't see it) of Bernie Gracy's "Breaking Down Walls with Location-based Genealogy" on YouTube (Part 1, Part 2).  He demonstrates with maps the factors that led to families living close to each other and shows in censuses the results of those close relationships and how he tracked down family members.  I've used some of the logic and techniques he discusses, but I never had a name for the method before.  The videos are available on YouTube for anyone to view and learn from, which is very generous of Gracy.

Now all I need to do is find some research where I can put this new information to use and shift it to long-term memory ....

Monday, February 21, 2011

Yad Vashem Names Recovery Project, February 28

On Monday, February 28, Jessica Minturn will discuss the Names Recovery Project, in which San Francisco Jewish Family and Children's Services partners with the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Israel, at a meeting of the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society.  The meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. at Congregation Beth Am, 26790 Arastradero Road Rm. 5/6, Los Altos Hills, California.  Doors open at 7:00 p.m.

The vital effort to recover the names of all 6 million Jews who died in the Shoah is growing ever more urgent as time passes.   JFCS is seeking more volunteers to help.  They offer training and hope to reach out to as many Holocaust survivors as possible who can add to the listings in Yad Vashem's central database.   About 4 million names are currently listed, about two thirds of the estimated number of victims.  To preserve the past for future generations is a goal of SFBAJGS.   Come learn how you can help!

Jessica coordinates the Holocaust Survivors Speakers Bureau and the Oral History Project at JFCS.  She has worked for the Holocaust Center of Northern California and the Bureau of Jewish Education and was a 2010 Birthright Israel NEXT Fellow.   Jessica holds a Bachelors of Arts from the University of New Mexico and Universidad de Granada, Spain in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies.

The meeting is free and anyone interested is welcome to attend.

For more information, visit the SFBAJGS Web site.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

AAGSNC Black Family History Day

Wow.  I am exhausted.  I was one of the volunteers today at the first AAGSNC Black Family History Day, hosted by the African American Genealogical Society of Northern California (AAGSNC) and the Oakland Regional Family History Center (ORFHC).  Electra Price, the organizer of the event and a well known and beloved researcher, expected about 75 people to come.  We had between 150 and 175 participants.  We were thrilled at the turnout but were kept busy every single minute.

Before the open house actually began, we had a surprise thank you ceremony and cake for Electra, who recently retired from coordinating the monthly African American Research Workshops at the ORFHC.  She appeared to be totally surprised and was self-effacing as always.  After we all told her how much we appreciated her, she reminded us that we had to get to work!

People began arriving well before 2:00, excited about the opportunity to get an overview of family history research and to have assistance in getting started.  We had several volunteer genealogists lined up to help, and we were fortunate to have Lisa Lee of show up as an extra volunteer.

Writer and historian Antoinette Broussard, author of African American Celebrations and Holiday Traditions, spoke at 3:00 and 4:00 p.m. about her great-aunt Dr. Nettie J. (Craig) Asberry.  She is completing research for a memoir about her great-aunt, who earned a doctoral degree in music in 1883 and was likely the first black woman to earn a doctorate.  From what I heard, it was an excellent presentation.

I had a special surprise of my own.  A dear friend of mine whom I had not seen since I lost my job last May came to the open house.  I was able to help her find herself in the 1930 census with her parents and her seven sisters.  She promised to come back and continue her research.

Most of the participants found at least one record relating to their family, whetting their interest to come back and look for more.  No one wanted to stop, but we had to close so we volunteers could get home and reclaim the remainder of our Sunday.  Everyone enjoyed the open house, and we're already talking about when we'll hold the next one.

Two Genealogy Journal Issues Off to the Printers

I edit two genealogy journals.  I have been the editor of The Galitzianer, the quarterly newsletter focused on Jewish research in the former Austrian province of Galicia, since November 2009, when Ed Goldstein, the former editor, stepped down after nine years.  It is published by Gesher Galicia.  I recently took on the job of editing ZichronNote, the newsletter of the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society.  Beth Galleto had been the editor for ten years.  Just my luck, they both have the same publication schedule -- February, May, August, November.  But they cover different material, and I get to work with very nice people who have interesting stories to tell, so it's a lot of fun.

The articles in the February issue of The Galitzianer are the second half of a list of 1938 Dębica, Poland, industrial permits; a review of a memoir of the town of Boryslaw, Ukraine; a reunion between a hidden child and the Polish family who helped her and her family; remembering the life of a Holocaust survivor; the methods used to search for a survivor in order to reconnect her with the family who sheltered her; a good application of DNA tests to complement traditional research; and a family gathering of several branches, reunited through research originally begun to claim an inheritance.

In the February issue of ZichronNote (my first issue) you will find the revival of an orchestra to commemorate family members lost in the Holocaust; transcribing thousands of burial records in order to help other researchers find information; twenty genealogy resolutions for the year; and the importance of translating words correctly.

Both journals have a short note about the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which occurred on March 25, 1911.  I knew about the Triangle Fire previously, but it has become more important to me because of research I did on one young woman who survived the fire by jumping out of a window but who died three days later due to her injuries.  I will write more about her on the anniversary of the fire.

Both The Galitzianer and ZichronNote are available only to members of the respective organizations. If you join either (or both) you get a subscription to the journal and help fund research projects, and you help support a hobby you enjoy.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

"Who Do You Think You Are?" - Rosie O'Donnell

Friday's episode of Who Do You Think You Are? followed Rosie O'Donnell as she researched her mother's side of the family.  Her mother died when Rosie was 10, and she mentioned that her family never talked about the past, so she knew almost nothing going into the research.

This episode had a lot of things I really liked that I have not seen in previous episodes.  Rosie said at the beginning that she wanted her research to make her ancestors fully fleshed-out individuals.  Someone in the family is the keeper of the family photos and that kind of stuff.  (He isn't a celebrity, though, so Rosie is the one who got to do the show.)  Rosie said to her brother as they were looking through the photos, "It's not gonna be as easy as it looks on TV."  (It still was that easy for her, of course, because the professional researchers did the work for her, but at least she acknowledged the work isn't easy.)  She pursued research on a collateral line of the family (something not enough people do).  She scrolled through microfilm multiple times.  You could almost think the producers were listening to comments from genealogists, but I know that's impossible, because this episode had to have been in the can for a while before it was broadcast.

I really appreciated the fact that Rosie wanted to identify the photograph that had hung on the wall of the home for so many years.  As the keeper of the photos and ephemera in my family, I have far too many photos that are still unidentified.  And I don't know if anyone is left who would recognize the people in the photos.   It was heartening to see that the cousins recognized the photo and could confirm it was indeed Anna.

And I was happy near the beginning of the episode, when Rosie was presented with a printout of the 1861 Canadian census page showing her family, that was mentioned but not shown on screen.  They made up for it later, when the archivist at the Québec National Archives searched the Drouin records on, but at least they showed only the search form, not the Ancestry header.  Yeah, I know, they're the principal sponsor.  As I've said before -- product placement.

But ... there was still a lot that was pretty unrealistic.  Rosie did almost all of her research by going in person to the repositories, something that is impossible for most people because of the expense, and unnecessary in a lot of instances because you can look up some of the information online.  An index to New York City deaths from 1862-1948 is available on the Italian Genealogical Group Web site; an improved search form for the database is available on Steve Morse's One-Step Webpages.  The 1900 U.S. Census, which Rosie looked at on microfilm, is available on,, and HeritageQuest (available through many libraries) at a minimum.  Most of the research was done by the professionals and waiting for Rosie when she arrived at each location.

There were also a couple of big logic problems that leaped out at me.  When Rosie and the Irish genealogist were at the church looking through the parish records, they found a fourth child who had been born in Ireland.  Rosie hypothesized that Patrick had died before the family had emigrated to Canada -- not an unreasonable idea.  Then, when she found her family in the Poor Law Union minutes at the Kildare Library, she and the librarian both read that the family had come with four children.  While I understand the focus of the segment was on the poor conditions in the workhouses, you would think there would have been at least a passing mention of the fact that Patrick had apparently been with the family when they arrived at the workhouse and the possibility (probability?) that he died there.  Wouldn't you?  Maybe something was said and it was edited out?  It just comes off as a continuity error to me.

The other place I had a major disconnect was when Rosie was looking in the newspaper in the Grand Bibliothèque for an obituary for her great-great-grandmother.  At one point she said it was "all I have to go on."  What about her great-great-grandfather?  He was born in Ireland also.  If the researchers hadn't been able to find anything in his records that said where in Ireland he was from, at least say that.  Otherwise it makes no sense why finding where her great-great-grandmother was from was her last chance.  (As an aside, Rosie was incredibly calm when she found that obituary.  All she did was say, "We have a winner!"  I would have been doing the genealogy happy dance around the film reader.)

Even when she did find the obituary, all it said was that her great-great-grandmother was from Kildare, as in County Kildare.  As anyone who has done Irish research knows, that won't get you anywhere.  You need to know the townland and the parish.  So it speaks well of the researchers the program uses that they were able to find the parish where the records were in Ireland.

I found it more than a little disconcerting that the comparison they chose to draw for the workhouse was a concentration camp.  While I am not an expert in 19th-century Irish history, I feel that does a disservice to the administrators and officials in charge of the system.  I have never heard or read that they had genocide in mind.  They might not have had deep sympathy for the people who went through the system, but they weren't trying to deliberately kill them.  It was an exaggerated and inappropriate metaphor.  A closer analog would be a homeless shelter, but that wouldn't sound as dramatic, would it?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Researching Women in Family History

Most people who have done family history research, whether for themselves or for someone else, know that it can be difficult to research women. In many countries, when a woman marries she changes her name to that of her husband, and records showing her original name may be few and far between. So when I read that Legacy Family Tree was going to have a Webinar on finding female ancestors (and for free, no less!), I immediately registered.

"Chasing Women: Finding Your Female Ancestors" was presented by Leland K. Meitzler, of Family Roots Publishing Company and There was a glitch with his PowerPoint presentation, which would not work properly in slide show mode. But we were able to view it in editing mode, and away we went.

Mr. Meitzler covered a wide range of records in which you might find pointers to a woman's maiden name, including many I have worked with before: marriage indices, family bibles, censuses (if in-laws are living with the family), birth and death certificates, probates and wills, heritage society applications, Social Security applications, pension files, and others. Two less common sources he discussed were records of consent to marry if the bride was underage, and the 1911 Arkansas Veterans Census.

(I want to find a reason to do some research in Arkansas. Apparently the 1911 Veterans Census asked for the names of the soldier's parents and grandparents, his wife's maiden name, when they were married, and the names of her parents. It reminds me of the three-page 1925 Iowa State Census, which asked for the wife's maiden name, where the couple married, names of each of their parents, and where they married, along with many other questions. State censuses rock.)

Mr. Meitzler said that he had recently discovered a consent to marry that solved a maiden name problem he had been working on. He mentioned that he "wouldn't have known to look for consent because it hadn't been filmed." This is a trap many people fall into, similar to thinking that if it isn't on the Internet, it isn't available. It's good something pointed him to the record and he found his answer.

Along with discussing the different sources, he also talked about how reliable they were and what problems each was likely to have. It was a useful presentation, and I always like to learn about new research sources.

The Webinar is available on the Legacy Family Tree Webinar page for viewing until March 16. On the same page are links to other archived Webinars, and registration information for upcoming presentations. I wasn't able to attend the newspaper presentation by Thomas Kemp when it happened, and I plan to view the archived file. Legacy Family Tree Webinars are a great resource, and I really appreciate the fact that they put them on for free.  It is a great service to the world of genealogy.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Black Family History Day 2011

The African American Genealogical Society of Northern California and the Oakland Regional Family History Center are working together to present an open house to celebrate black genealogy, culture, and tradition in honor of Black History Month.  The open house will take place on Sunday, February 20, from 2:00-5:00 p.m. at the Oakland Regional Family History Center, 4766 Lincoln Avenue, Oakland, CA 94602.  It is free and open to the public.

Writer and historian Antoinette Broussard, author of African American Celebrations and Holiday Traditions, will be a featured speaker at 3:00 and 4:00 p.m. in the Visitors’ Center theater, upstairs from the Family History Center.  Volunteer genealogists (including me) will be available to answer genealogy questions and provide individual research assistance.

To receive a free consultation for a four-generation ancestry chart and for further information, call (877) 884-2843.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011 and the Importance of Transcription

At the Sunday, February 13, meeting of the SFBAJGS, Margery Bell of the Oakland Regional Family History Center talked about in the past, present, and future.  She gave an overview of some of the site's history, demonstrated tools that are currently available, and talked a little about what is anticipated for the future. is in a state of transition.  Several different sites, including the old site and some beta sites, are being combined into one super-site.  The site has free educational resources, historical records, and family trees.  There is already a wealth of information available, and more is being added daily.  Some of the ideas for the future are linking documentation to individuals in order to substantiate facts, and the capability of uploading scans of personal documents and photos of family artifacts to share them with other researchers.  It is exciting to have so much available, and for free!  You should check back on a regular basis to see what has been added and what changes have been implemented.

Most genealogists are probably familiar with's massive ongoing project to transcribe and put online the LDS church's vast collection of microfilmed records.  (Personal rant:  The church calls this indexing, but the volunteers aren't actually creating indices.  They are *transcribing* information from records, and those transcriptions are compiled by programmers into searchable databases, which are the indices.)  Thinking about the church's transcription project reminded me of other items that should be transcribed.

The importance of transcription goes beyond public records of the types that have been microfilmed by the church.  Families often have historical items -- diaries, letters, family bibles.  Those items should be transcribed also, and the transcriptions shared with family members, at least.  Having only one copy of something increases the risk of losing the information.  Old paper is suspectible to ink bleeding, ink fading, and paper dissolution.  Items can be lost or stolen.  Fire and water can damage precious items.  Even if you still have the item, the paper in a diary can become so fragile that you can no longer turn the pages, or the ink can fade so that you cannot read it.

Monday night I was watching Antiques Roadshow.  One of the items appraised was a signal book used by the guest's great-great-grandfather during the U.S. Civil War.  This was the signal man's handwritten notes of the orders he was given and to whom he sent the information.  Pages were dated 1863; there were orders that had come from General U.S. Grant.  The appraiser, Rafael Eledge, said he had never actually seen a signal book in the 20 years he has been working with Civil War artifacts.  But that book is probably just sitting in a drawer in its owner's home again, the information locked inside it.

I wrote to Antiques Roadshow once through their Web form after a similar appraisal of paper items.  I asked why they didn't encourage the appraisers to suggest to guests that they transcribe the written information so that it can be shared, not only by family members but by scholars and researchers.  Not surprisingly, I received an autosponder e-mail:  "Thank you for your inquiry.  Many questions can be answered by visiting our FAQ page.  Blah blah blah."  So much for that idea, I thought.  But then a day or two later, an actual person from AR sent a message telling me what a great idea it was and that he was going to pass it on to a producer.  Unfortunately, nothing seems to have come of it, because I have not once seen an appraiser say anything about transcribing.

What family artifacts do you have that you haven't transcribed?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

"Who Do You Think You Are?" - Tim McGraw

Tim McGraw's story tonight on Who Do You Think You Are? wasn't as compelling in some ways as that of Vanessa Williams -- free black versus slave family lines make for good drama -- but it was easier to find more direct parallels between McGraw's life and those of his ancestors.  Several of his ancestors pushed themselves and didn't play it safe, and he recognized some of that spirit in himself.  I admit I guessed the surveyor was George Washington as soon as McGraw asked about him, but that's because I remembered that Washington started out as a surveyor (a penchant for remembering weird little pieces of information comes in very handy when doing genealogical research).  The Elvis Presley connection was a surprise, though.  I would never have guessed the name started out as Presslauer.

The show overall followed formula.  It was nice to see McGraw start his search by talking to a relative.  It's possible his Uncle Hank might be the oldest family member still around (they didn't mention he played baseball also).  Then McGraw started gallivanting around the country -- Lee's Summit, Missouri; Rye Cove, Virginia; Richmond, Virginia; Shenandoah Valley, Virginia; Washington, D.C.; New York City.  He spoke with a genealogist, several professors, a curator.  Records were ready and waiting for him at each stop.  The leaps made based on what was presented on screen were astounding, though I'm sure that the background research we didn't get to see backs it all up.  But it presents an unrealistic picture to viewers who don't understand how many hours that research took, and that most people don't go in person to every repository when doing research.

And of course, the ubiquitous references.  The genealogist who did not say, "Let's look for your ancestor in records," or "Let's look for your ancestor in the census," but who said, "Let's look on"  One of those particularly annoying commercials -- "You don't have to know what you're looking for, you just need to start looking."  If you don't know what you're looking for, how in the world will you know what it is when you find it?  It reminds me of a current Jack in the Box commercial, where Jack is explaining product placement to his wife.

I think my favorite parts of the episode were when McGraw was reading out loud, trying to puzzle out the centuries-old handwriting.  It certainly looked and sounded real as he stumbled over some of the words.  If it wasn't, please don't burst my bubble.

I'm going to go out on a limb here.  I predict that not one celebrity on this season of WDYTYA is going to do any real research of his own beyond talking to relatives, but that each one will simply visit repositories around the country and the world and find researchers who have everything prepared for him, ready to be handed to him on a figurative silver platter.

Of course, now that I've said that, it'll come back to bite me.  But you know what?  That's okay.  I would rather be proven wrong and have *someone* do some research of his own.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Polish Jewish Records, Family History Art Project, and More

Orkney Islands
Sometimes I wander far afield online. Here are links to some recent articles about family history related topics, some of them from sites one would not normally expect genealogists to be perusing:

Philip Trauring has a blog called Blood and Frogs, in reference to two of the Biblical plagues. He recently wrote an excellent explanation of how to use the JRI-Poland indices and how to order records based on your search results.
Finding and Getting Copies of Jewish Records in Poland

A 17-year-old student in Wales used some fortuitously discovered old family letters as the basis for her A-level art project. (I still don't really understand the British school system, but you can read a detailed explanation of A levels here.)  She traveled about 600 miles to do some of the family history research for her project. And hearkening back to getting kids interested in genealogy, a topic I have discussed before, part of what sparked her interest was her father telling her the story of the letters' discovery.
Family History Turns into A Level Art Work

You think your family tree is complicated? Meet Andrew Solomon. I thought this was a wonderful story, and it illustrates some interesting points about how families are defined. Unfortunately, the online version of the article does not seem to include the family tree graphic that was in the print edition, which is the version I saw first. That graphic was a story in itself.
Meet My Real Modern Family

Do you have any female "computers" in your family tee? What's that you say? Computers don't have gender? They used to, when it was a job title. They did top secret work for the U.S. government.
Rediscovering World War II's Female "Computers"

Routine genetic tests performed by doctors can shed unexpected, and problematic, light on a child's family history.
Gene Test Results Can Put Clinicians on the Spot

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Online Newspaper Resources

Tuesday night and Wednesday morning I taught classes on how to use online newspaper archives for genealogical research.  Between both classes it was a total of about 65 people.  I've never done back-to-back classes before, and I was surprised at how tiring it was.  I really enjoy teaching the class, though, and everyone seemed to appreciate the information.  After the Wednesday morning class several attendees went straight to computers and started putting their new knowledge to work.

Two attendees had taken the class before and said they were back because they know I always add new information!  That's the way things work with the Internet -- new stuff goes up all the time.  I update my presentation every time I teach the class with whatever I have come across since the last time.  But how can anyone keep track of everything?

The first time I taught this class, I bemoaned the fact that there wasn't one central resource where all these online archives were listed, so that someone looking for a newspaper online would need to look in only one place.  Before I taught the class the second time, I found something that could come pretty close.

The site that I think has the potential to become this central resource is a Wikipedia page with a list of online newspaper archives.  (I found it when searching for something else.)  The beauty of this site is that it's Wikipedia, so *everyone* can add resources to it.  If you find a newspaper site that isn't listed, add it!  It's impossible for any one person to know or learn about every new resource, but if everyone contributes new listings, we all will benefit.  So far the page has links to content from 42 countries (I recently added Croatia).

A new portal I learned about Tuesday night after the class was over (I added it to the Wednesday morning class) seems to be trying to create the same type of resource, but specifically for U.S. and Caribbean newspapers.  It's the Catalog of Digital Historical Newspapers (NewspaperCat), hosted at the University of Florida.  The home page says that the "goal [is] to include links to as many US and Caribbean newspapers with archival digital content as possible."  They have a search function, but it searches for the newspaper name, not its content.  They say they already have links to more than 1,000 titles (which so far mostly seem to be from Florida and the Caribbean), and they encourage submissions of new links.  The only downside is that you don't get the satisfaction of adding the link yourself.

With these two sites, you can find an awful lot of newspaper content online.  If you want to learn better ways to search that content, you should take my class sometime.  The next time I am teaching it is March 17 in Stockton, California, for the San Joaquin Genealogical Society.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

San Francisco History Expo -- But No Family History

The San Francisco Museum and Historical Society is putting on a "history expo" this coming weekend, February 12 and 13.  More than twenty groups will showcase their contributions to San Francisco's history.  But there is a significant omission from the list of exhibitors:  No genealogical societies are participating.  And why are they not participating?  Because they weren't invited!

When the president of the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society asked about the possibility of participating, on behalf of his group and the California Genealogical Society (which has only been around since 1898), he was told they were already full up and that they would add the genealogical societies to the list for what "might be" another event in the future, "if this is successful."

The tagline of the expo is "Piecing Together Our Past."  That's what genealogists and family historians do every day.  Well, maybe this event will go well and they'll have another one, and we can add family history to San Francisco's history.  I'm not sure how they're planning on measuring success, though.  The event is free, so there won't be any tickets to track attendance accurately.

If you go to the expo, I encourage you to mention your interest in genealogy to the event organizers.  If there is a survey of some sort, suggest that next year they include genealogical organizations as well.  (If you aren't going, there is a contact link on the Web site.)  After all, when you research your ancestors, you need to understand the times they lived in, and when you learn about history, you are learning about the people who lived at those times.  Genealogy is, at its best, the placing of a person in the context of his time -- and isn't that what a history expo should be all about?

For more information about the expo, visit

(Special thanks to reader Carol Townsend for her feedback on this post.)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

"What's New at", February 13

Using the vast resources available at is the subject of the next meeting of the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society, on Sunday, February 13. The meeting begins at 1:00 p.m. at the Oakland Regional Family History Center, 4766 Lincoln Avenue, Oakland, CA 94602. Doors open at 12:30 p.m. is undergoing some major changes over the next several months. Many of them are already available, while others are coming soon. Get the inside scoop on what has happened, what is going to happen, and how it will help you with your research. Also learn a few techniques that may help you use the online catalog of the Bay Area Family History Centers more effectively. After the talk attendees will have use of the library until 4:00 p.m.

Speaker Margery H. Bell has been a genealogy researcher for some 35 years. She has worked in the Oakland Regional Family History Center for about 27 years and now serves there as an Assistant Director. She teaches throughout the Bay Area and wrote "Line upon Line: A Beginner’s Guide to Genealogy", which is published with Ancestral Quest software.

Attendance is free and anyone interested is welcome to attend.

For more information, visit the SFBAJGS Web site.

Genealogy Seminar and "Who Do You Think You Are?"

Saturday was the second day of the Santa Clara County Historical and Genealogical Society and California State Genealogical Alliance weekend.  About 175 people from all over the Bay Area attended the meeting at the Santa Clara LDS church.  The presentations were "Land: Digging Deeper Online and Off" by Cath Madden Trindle, CG (stepping in at the last minute for Melinda Kashuba, who was not able to come), "Courthouse Records in Cyberspace" by Junel Davidsen, CG, "I Wish I Had Asked: A Guide to Doing Oral History Interviews" by Peggy Rossi, and "Spreadsheets in Genealogy" by Cat Nielsen.

Cath gave a broad overview of the different types of land records that exist, which types are likely to be found in which states, a glimpse into what can be found online, and archives in other countries.  Junel gave an online tour of several sites that have indices and actual downloadable scans of court records.  Her main point was that many government offices currently have records online, and more are likely to do so in the future, except in California.  Peggy outlined a series of steps to follow if you want to do oral history interviews with family members.  She explained the steps clearly, and I was happy to hear her emphasize the importance of transcribing the interviews and sharing them with other family members.  Cat talked about the utility of spreadsheets in analyzing information you have collected in your research.  She showed examples of spreadsheets with census data, city directory information, timelines, and studying all people with one surname in a given location.  While I learned something from each speaker, I think I enjoyed Cat's talk the most.  She had everyone laughing many times, and her tweaks on what you can do with spreadsheets gave me some good ideas.

After I returned home, I finally was able to watch the Vanessa Williams episode of Who Do You Think You Are? that I missed Friday night.  I enjoyed it quite a bit, especially the tintype of her great-great-grandfather in his service file at the National Archives (I have to wonder if that was planted; I'm not saying it was, just that I wonder).  Both of the stories the producers chose to follow in her family were compelling and interesting.  But I'm confused by some of Dick Eastman's comments on the episode in his post of February 4.  He said he felt that Vanessa Williams was doing the research herself, instead of being fed information by professionals.  Um, did I miss that in the episode?  What I saw was the historian in Oyster Bay showing her the book with David Carll's enlistment and the land record, the archivist in D.C. showing her the already pulled service file of David Carll, the Civil War historian in South Carolina showing her around locations he had researched, the genealogist showing her the enlarged printout of the 1910 census with her family at the top of the page, the archivist at the Tennessee State Archives showing her the engraving and some information that had already been pulled, and ditto at the Nashville Public Library and the Shelby County Archives.  The only thing Vanessa Williams did herself was look at the 1870 census on (our obligatory product placement, specifically announced by Miss Williams herself before the screen shot).

Speaking of the look-up, I have gotten in the habit of double-checking what they show on TV to see if I get the same results.  I noticed that Miss Williams typed in "Carll" for the last name but that the census page showed "Carle" for the name.  I tested it myself a few minutes ago.  "Carll" will pull up the correct record, because both spellings are listed in the index.  But while the census page says that David Carll was mulatto, the results page for David Carll in Oyster Bay said that he was white.  Maybe will correct that?

While I'm nitpicking, there were some interesting mathematical errors in the dialog.  David Carll's enlistment record showed that he enlisted on January 3, 1864, and the Oyster Bay historian stated that blacks were allowed to enlist as of December 23, 1863 -- a difference of ten days.  But the historian said that David Carll enlisted "within the week" after he could do so.  Later, when they were looking at the record of Carll's land purchase, they said it was dated January 7, 1864, but Miss Williams said he bought the land five days later.  The last time I checked, 7 - 3 = 4, not 5.  Then when Miss Williams was looking at the 1870 census, she was musing to herself and said that David Carll was married before the war and enlisted for his family.  The oldest child in the household is 3 years old, which means he was born about 1866-1867, i.e., after the war.  Who is checking the continuity in the scripts on this show?

There was more, but I know -- it's entertainment.  I shouldn't be taking it this seriously.  It just seems that these are things that wouldn't be that difficult to catch, if someone was trying to do so.  Being more accurate is considered a positive thing in genealogy; why can't it be that way in a show (supposedly) about genealogy?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Busy Genealogy Weekend

The New York Evening Call
Sometimes everything just seems to happen at once!  My life has been jam-packed with genealogy starting on Thursday and it's continuing through Sunday.

Thursday I was at the Oakland Public Library studying Socialist newspapers from 1911, looking for information about a young woman who died due to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.  What I was hoping to find was mention of a family member, because while I'm pretty sure the girl who died is the same as the person in the family I am researching, I want better documentation than what I currently have.  Unfortunately, as can often happen in genealogy, the hoped-for information wasn't there.  I'm starting to run out of places to look.

Friday was the first day of a two-day meeting organized by the Santa Clara County Historical and Genealogical Society and the California State Genealogical Alliance.  CSGA had a combined board and annual meeting in the morning, and in the afternoon attendees received a tour of the genealogy collection at the Santa Clara (City) Central Park Library, where the meeting was held.  SCCHGS has an arrangement with the library and houses its collection there, and the library also has genealogy books and periodicals.  Local History Librarian Mary Hanel gave our group an overview of the collection, which has a strong focus on Santa Clara County and California.  The collection includes such things as microfilms of San Jose funeral home books, aerial photos of Santa Clara, high school yearbooks, and township atlases.  It is an excellent resource, and the library and SCCHGS both have online indices and databases.  While I was at the library I applied for a library card, and now I can use the database of the historical San Jose Mercury News from the comfort of my home.

Friday night, of course, was the first episode of the second season of Who Do You Think You Are? -- which I missed.  I had an appointment that had been shuffled around during the week, and finally ended up at 8:00 p.m. on Friday.  The good news is that I'll be able to catch up (I was hoping tonight, but no luck so far) online, because NBC has been posting all the episodes.  I hope everyone else enjoyed it!

Saturday is the second day of the SCCHGS/CSGA weekend, which will be at the Santa Clara Family History Center.  We'll have presentations on land records, courthouse records, oral history interviews, and using spreadsheets in genealogy.  And Sunday I'll be in Vallejo, leading a genealogy group there.

Wouldn't it be great to have this much genealogy all the time?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Hook 'em While They're Young

My Great-great-grandparents
I began researching my family history when I was 13 and developed a lifelong love of genealogy.  The trigger was a junior high school assignment to list four generations of my ancestors.  But the seeds that blossomed at that time had been planted many years earlier.

From the time I was a little girl I grew up hearing many stories about my family from my mother and her mother.  I heard names of aunts and uncles, grandparents, cousins, even close family friends who weren't really related but were almost like family.  I heard about birthdays, anniversaries, death dates.  I listened to stories about growing up in New York, Baltimore, Miami.  I was told that my great-grandfather's original name before he came to this country was Gorodetsky and that he came from Kamanets-Podolsky, and that my great-grandmother came from Kreuzburg.

My mother also told me about my father's side of the family -- my grandfather and grandmother, more aunts and uncles and cousins.  My family had strong roots in rural New Jersey and had English ancestry.  I had relatives in New Jersey, Florida, Minnesota.

And the photographs -- birthdays, weddings, bar mitzvahs, vacations, military, studio portraits, casual settings.  And almost always being told who was in the photo and what was going on -- "This is my Uncle Willie in his uniform during World War I."  "This is the wedding of my Aunt Ruchel.  The whole family was there, including all four Esther Leahs."  "This is my parents' engagement photo."  "This is your father working on one of his cars.  See, there's your uncle hanging over the engine watching him."  "Here's a picture from when your father and I got married."

So when I took my first steps into research, I didn't think of my ancestors as dry names and dates on a page.  They were people I had heard about all my life.  They were real to me.  They were my family.

So many people start researching their families when they've retired, after their parents have passed away, often when they're the oldest family member left.  They regret that they didn't ask more questions of their parents, their grandparents, their aunts and uncles while they were still alive.  But often those members of the older generation didn't take the initiative either and didn't tell their children stories about the family, didn't give their children reasons to be interested.

Those of you who have children and other younger relatives, tell them stories about the family.  Let them know who their ancestors were and are.  Show them how interesting their history is.  And if you still have older relatives to talk to, call or visit and ask them about their lives.  You never know how long you'll have that opportunity.