Friday, December 14, 2018

How Much Can Your Learn from Your Relative's Obituary?

A well-written obituary can tell you so much about a relative's descendants.

I am in awe of professional genealogists like Megan Smolenyak. She finds the living descendants of long-lost military servicemen so their remains can be returned to the family.

Living descendants are hard to find! Let's say you're looking at a family in the 1940 U.S. Census with lots of little children. Unless the boys' names are very unusual, how can you be sure where they are today? And what about the girls? How can you find them if they married? What are their names now?

The only tool I have—one that can be incredibly helpful—is a long, detailed obituary.

Do you know how many names and facts you can learn from a well-written obituary?

Imagine the deceased is your mother's third cousin. You don't know what became of her, who she married or who her kids are. Let's take a closer look at everything there is to learn from a detailed obituary.

The following is a real obituary. I've changed every single name and place to protect the family's identities. The obituary text is in black and my notes are in reddish brown.

Let's examine this obituary and put together a family tree based on the facts presented.

Joan G. Ericson Logan passed away on December 13, 2018 at the age of 96. [Ericson is her maiden name; Logan is her married name.] She was the oldest of seven children born to the late Howard B. and Grace Ann Ericson on April 15, 1922 in Jefferson City, MO. [That's a packed sentence! We have Joan's birth date and place, her parents' names, but not her mother's maiden name, and the facts that she has 6 younger siblings. We know her father is dead, but it doesn't specifically say her mother is dead, although that may be what was meant.]

Joan graduated from Jefferson City High School. She received her B.S. degree in Education from Logan State College. Then attained further studies at Indiana University, majoring in school librarianship. [We now have the names of 3 schools where Joan may be found in yearbooks, school newspapers, or other records.] Joan's teaching career, which included English, band, choir and elementary school librarian, spanned over 33 years in the State of Missouri. After retiring from the Logan Public School System, she went on to become a 9-year volunteer in the Ashcroft College Library System where she received the Volunteer of the Year Award in 2003. [We know where she was working, geographically. As a volunteer, we may expect to find her in several local newspaper articles. There was almost certainly a 2003 newspaper article about her being named Volunteer of the Year.]

Joan united with Mr. Anthony Mark Nelson, Sr. and to this union [Were they married? This seems like an unusual way to say it.], one son was born, Anthony Mark Nelson, Jr. (deceased). [We can look for an obituary for Anthony Mark Nelson, Jr. some time before Joan's death.] Anthony, Jr. married Darlene Stanton, a high school classmate and to this union, 3 children were born. [This time it says they were married, even though it's using that "union" word again. Knowing his wife's name, we can look for a marriage announcement.]

Subsequently, Joan met and married Mr. James Emery Logan, Sr. while students at Logan State College. To this union [See what I mean? This time it does say they were married.], one son was born James, Jr. He married Angela Marie Thompson and to this union 4 children were born. [Here's another marriage announcement to look for.]

Joan was a lifelong member of the United Methodist Church in Jefferson City. She served as the church pianist, organist, coordinator of the annual Christmas and Easter presentations. She was especially proud when James, Jr. was ordained as a United Methodist Elder. [Between Joan's extraordinary involvement and her son being an elder, this church definitely has information to offer about this family. Church newsletters and other publications could be very helpful to telling this family's history.]

Joan was preceded in death by her siblings, Henry, Howard, Andrew and Anthony Ericson. [We've already learned that these siblings were younger than Joan, but we now know we can look for their death records.] She leaves behind to cherish her memory two siblings Anna Elena Worthington [Anna Elena may be widowed or divorced since she has a different last name, but no husband's name is given.] and William (Irene) Ericson [William is Joan's brother and Irene is his wife. While it seems odd, this is how it's done. The spouse who is not the blood relative is mentioned in parenthesis.]; a son, James Emery Logan, Jr. (Elaine), grandchildren: Fred Nelson [the Nelson grandchildren should belong to Joan's first son Anthony Mark Nelson, Jr. and his wife Darlene Stanton.], Edgar (Maryann) Nelson and Victoria Nelson, James Emery Logan, III (Colleen), Valerie T. Simpson (Tyler) [Valerie was a Logan, and this tells us she married Tyler Simpson.], Christian F. Logan (Elizabeth) and Jacklyn Logan, 12 great grandchildren, 1 great great grandchild and a host of nieces and nephews.

That was a LOT of information. We can build a family tree from this information, plugging in the facts we have. We'll make some guesses for birth years. My rule of thumb is to estimate that a husband and wife are about the same age, they had their first child at age 25, and the children were born 3 years apart. An estimation like this will put your people's ages in the right ballpark. Your research will be a little easier when you have a rough idea of their ages.

Now, with a basic tree, we can search for all these names and find hard facts.

This tree is made entirely from information in the obituary.
This tree is made entirely from information in the obituary.
If Joan were your distant cousin, how happy would you be right now?

When the day comes that you're asked to write an obituary for a loved one, like your parent, how many genealogy clues will you include for future generations to discover? Don't skimp on the details.

Maybe it's time to let your immediate family know what you'd like your obituary to say.


Stay connected! Follow me on Twitter or Facebook and know the moment a new article comes out.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

3 Tricks for Better Genealogy Search Results

When your family won't turn up, try some tricky searches.

How many times have you searched for your relative in a set of documents and found nothing? Or maybe you found a ton of results that looked like junk to you.

There's a good chance that the search results are bad because the transcription was bad. Did the volunteer transcriber have trouble reading the bad handwriting? Did they enter dramatically wrong data into the system?

Your search is doomed to fail, right? Not necessarily.

If you use partial searches, related searches and detailed searches, you may find your family.

1. Partial searches

It was common for our ancestors to have a first name and a middle name. But how were they identified on the census form? Did the person providing the information know them by their middle name only? Or by an adopted name in their new country?

Try leaving their first name out of your search completely. Fill in their age and place of birth, but use only their last name.

Try the opposite, too. I had more luck finding my grandfather on a census with only his first name of Adam. The census-taker wrote his last name in a way I hadn't expected.

Simplify your search. Toss out the extras, and your results may improve.
Simplify your search. Toss out the extras, and your results may improve.
2. Related searches

When a family is tough to find, look at the kids. The particular combination of children's names in this family can be the key to finding them.

Do a search that includes all the kids' names. Leave off the last name and let the search focus on finding those kids together.

You can also try using the husband and wife's first names only. That combination may be what does the job.

3. Detailed searches

I'm having trouble finding my great grandfather's naturalization papers. His name often causes me problems. His given name was Pasquale Iamarino, but on some documents he is Patsy Marino. Or a combination of those names.

So I searched using his exact birth date. I didn't find him. I also searched using his birth year and town of birth, but no name.

His naturalization isn't showing up yet. But, I once found his wife's brothers on ship manifests by searching for their last name and town of birth only.

Here's an example using Pasquale Iamarino. I did a general search of all categories on Ancestry.com. I entered only his last name, his town of origin and his exact year of birth.

The results were terrific. In fact, they include one new result that I never expected to find. It's the claim ID for his railroad retirement pension. I'll have to buy a copy of it from the National Archives at Atlanta (why there?), but this is brand new information.

So many misspellings, but the results are all for my great grandfather.
So many misspellings, but the results are all for my great grandfather.
My dad says Pasquale may have had black lung disease from years of cleaning out the furnace of coal-burning train engines. He had to retire early on disability. This pension claim may tell me a lot more about what happened to him.

Also, the Suggested Records in the right column of my Ancestry.com results are very impressive! Despite all the spelling variations, that exact birth year seems to have done wonders for my search. All those records belong to my great grandfather.

The point is to experiment. Don't give up if the results don't look promising. All these genealogical records are a gigantic database. You may need to slice and dice that database to get past bad transcriptions and misspellings.

Give it a try the very next time you don't get the results you want. Do a partial search, add in related names, or toss out the names and plug in specific facts.

Working on your family tree is a big puzzle. Clever searches are yet another piece of the puzzle.

Don't get frustrated. Get clever.


Stay connected! Follow me on Twitter or Facebook and know the moment a new article comes out.

Friday, December 7, 2018

3 Ways to Prove Your Family Tree is Correct

You may not trust someone else's family tree, but you can stand behind your facts. Right?

Every now and then you're going to find a very intriguing hint. From what you can see, it looks like it's your family. It's got a lot of names you're missing. You get a little excited.

Then you realize this potential jackpot of a family tree has no sources. No documents. They haven't even capitalized all the proper names. This is not a carefully crafted family tree.

Excitement over.

This sad story should motivate you to fortify your family tree. Make your tree be the exciting find that keeps on giving.

Here's how other genealogists are going to know your family tree is the real deal. It's extremely well-crafted. These 3 things will prove to anybody that your family tree is correct.

If your tree has this much solid evidence, who could doubt you?
If your tree has this much solid evidence, who could doubt you?

1. Official Documents

Gather and add to your tree as many government-issued documents as possible. Whatever country your ancestor is from, their government will have created certified-reliable documents, including:
  • birth records
  • census forms
  • marriage records
  • death records
  • citizenship papers
  • military records
  • passports
Other official records don't come from a government:
  • ship manifests
  • church baptism records
  • school yearbooks
  • city directories
  • newspapers
The last 3 might be the most likely to have errors, but they can provide supporting evidence.

What aren't official are stories passed down through the generations, family bibles, and my brother's college project to write about our family history. (Sorry, Jay.) You've got to strive for those official documents.

2. Official Sources

Lots of times you can't find an official document or an image of a document to support a fact. A good example is the "last place of residence" listed on the Social Security Death Index (SSDI). That's a fact you want to put in your family tree, but you haven't got any document.

That's when it's important to record the source of the fact. You can find details about the source wherever you're viewing it. If it's a website like Ancestry.com, there is a detailed description of the source. If you're in the archives looking at microfilm, the film's box or the beginning of the reel will hold some information.

What's most important is to capture the accurate name and origin of the source. "U.S., Social Security Death Index, 1935-2014; Social Security Administration. Social Security Death Index, Master File."

Then capture something more specific to your ancestor. My late step-grandmother's SSDI listing has an additional source citation: "Number: 081-07-1687; Issue State: New York; Issue Date: Before 1951".

If someone's tree has that level of documentation, are you seriously going to doubt them?

3. Supporting Sources

I spend tons of time going through Italian civil records, piecing together my ancestors' families. I love it when an ancestor's official birth record has annotations in the column. Those notes may include their marriage date and place, spouse's name, and their death date.

That's official and corroborating evidence.

Do your best to gather all a person's documents, and you'll find that you have supporting sources, too. A mother's maiden name on your ancestor's death record is not reliable. But if it matches the name on your ancestor's birth and marriage records, it is very reliable.

Make Your Tree Provable

If you've been reading this and thinking, "I'm not sure I can prove my tree is correct," you've got some work to do:
  • Start replacing your sketchier sources with more official ones. Some of my sources are "my cousin told me." That might be fine if your cousin told you "this person's nickname was Baldy." But if the facts are important, track down an official source or an official document.
  • Try to get as many documents as you can for your people. This way you'll have supporting evidence that says, "Yes, he was born on this date in this place. It says so here, here and here." Find each major, available document for the people in your tree and close the book on them.
  • Be consistent in how you record dates and names. Your online tree should show each person's full name. If you're not using software that automatically formats your dates, take the time to type them in the same style.
Hopefully you're thinking your tree is in pretty good shape. If so, keep these ideas in the back of your mind. The next time you're reviewing someone in your tree, think about how you can make their facts more bulletproof.

Make your family tree be exactly the type of tree you'd love to find as a hint!

Stay connected! Follow me on Twitter or Facebook and know the moment a new article comes out.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Closing the Book on One Family at a Time

Follow along as we figure out what's needed to "finish" documenting my grandmother's family.

It's time to work closer to home. Complete your closest families' documents.
It's time to work closer to home.
Complete your closest families' documents.
Last time I talked about 4 keys—4 things to focus on that will make you a better genealogist. One of them was "finishing" your research on individual families.

There's never going to be an end to the things you can learn about any given family in your family tree. But you can "close the book" on getting copies of their major documents.

You'll find this exercise more meaningful if you stick to your closest relatives. I'll choose my paternal grandmother Lucy, her brothers (Mike and Frank), and her parents (Pasquale and Maria Rosa).

The head of this family unit was my great grandfather Pasquale Iamarino. He was born in Italy, came to America in 1902, lived in New York and Ohio, and died in 1969.

I've had a lot of luck finding Pasquale's documents. (See "How to Use a Paper Trail to Recreate Your Ancestor's Life".) I have his:
  • 1882 birth record from Italy and his baptismal record from the church
  • 1902 ship manifest when he came to New York City
  • 1905 New York State census
  • 1906 marriage certificate with my great grandmother
  • 1908 Hornell, NY, directory
  • 1910 Federal census and 1915 New York State census
  • 1918 World War I draft registration card
  • 1920 and 1930 censuses when the family lived in Ohio
  • 1931–1935 city directories from Ohio
  • 1940 census
  • 1942 World War II draft registration card
  • 1969 death certificate from the state of Ohio
That's a pretty good haul! But there is a major piece of documentation I've never found for Pasquale. His naturalization papers.

The 1910 census calls him an Alien. The 1920 census says he had filed his naturalization papers. The 1930 census says he is a naturalized citizen. I can narrow it down further with his WWI draft registration card. In September 1918 he was a Declarant.

He began the citizenship process by September 1918, but did he file his papers in New York? He lived in Albany in June 1915, and he was an Alien on the 1915 state census. Or did he file his papers when he moved to Ohio?

I have a theory that Pasquale moved from New York to Ohio for a better opportunity with the railroad. Maybe the Erie Railroad preferred that he become a citizen.

It's a good bet that Pasquale filed his papers in the court nearest to Girard, Ohio, outside Youngstown.

My great grandfather's documents: so close to complete.
My great grandfather's documents: so close to complete.
That's one set of papers I need. What about the rest of this family of five?

For my great grandmother, Maria Rosa, I have her:
  • 1880 birth record from Italy
  • 1906 immigration record
  • 1906 marriage certificate
  • 1910–1940 censuses
  • 1931–1935 city directories from Ohio
  • 1970 death certificate
According to the 1940 census, she never became a citizen. I don't expect to find any other documents for her.

Since she doesn't seem to have become a citizen, my great grandmother's documents are complete.
Since she doesn't seem to have become a citizen, my great grandmother's documents are complete.
I'm missing my grandmother Lucy's birth and death records. Recently I solved the mystery of her missing birth record. I found her in a birth index with a misspelled last name and no first name. Now I have the document number and the wrong last name (Merino). I should be able to order that from New York, and I can order her death certificate from Ohio.

For my grandmother's brothers, my great uncle Mike and great uncle Frank, I have each census and lots of facts. As for their vital records, I have all the dates, but I don't have certificates of their births, marriages and deaths. I don't know about you, but I pay to get certificates only for my closest relatives. My dad loved these, guys, but I'm afraid I never met them.

So, the final tally of what I need before I can "close out" this family:
  • Pasquale's naturalization papers, probably from Ohio
  • Lucy's birth certificate from New York
  • Lucy's death certificate from Ohio
I'm ashamed of myself for not having purchased my grandmother's 1954 death certificate. Somehow I overlooked it. And I'm even more ashamed that I never before figured out when my great grandfather became a citizen. (It still doesn't come up in a search.)

This is exactly why I'm encouraging us all to go back to basics. Look at the families closest to you—each of your grandparents' families for starters. Figure out what's missing:
  • What can you find online?
  • What will you have to send away for?
  • What can you find on a genealogy road trip?

Take a day off from one of your distant-cousin-searches and come closer to home. Find the missing pieces for your closest relatives. Then share what you've learned with your family.

Stay connected! Follow me on Twitter or Facebook and know the moment a new article comes out.