19 April 2019

5 Tips for Researching the In-Laws

When the family names and places aren't yours, how can you be sure it's them?

I wouldn't research my ex-in-laws at all if they weren't my sons' ancestors. But since they are, once in a while I check to see what else I can learn about them.

The main problem with researching your in-laws is the lack of familiarity. When it's your family, the names and places you discover are familiar. You can remember how Grandpa always mentioned the name of his hometown. You heard your mom talk about her great uncle living in a little room in her building.

But when it's not your family, you have so much less to go on. What can you do?

When my 1st son was born, I filled in a family tree chart in his baby book. My ex-mother- and father-in-law gave me the names for their side of the family. The baby-book chart only goes back as far as the baby's great grandparents. But it's a good start.

Here are 5 tips for building that less-familiar family tree.

One document after another, you can make progress on that in-law's family tree.
One document after another, you can make progress on that in-law's family tree.

1. Start With the Easy Documents

Try to find the latest census record you can for the family. For me, that's the 1940 census for each of my ex-husband's parents. (Let's call them ex-Mom and ex-Dad.) This is the first step to learning more about the families.

These census pages tell me where ex-Mom and ex-Dad lived in 1940 and 1935. They confirm ex-Mom's siblings' names and that ex-Dad was an only child. Now I have the approximate birth years and birth places of their parents.

Each tidbit of information gives clues to help find more documents. Keep building on each fact you learn.

A seemingly meaningless memory came in handy when I found Uncle Anton.
An odd little memory came in handy when I found Uncle Anton.

2. Try to Remember Details

One snippet of a memory proved to be very helpful. I remember visiting my ex-in-laws' vacation home in the 1980s. I went up to the attic to fetch something and saw an old hat. It was a black bowler hat with a sheen to it. Pinned to it was a piece of paper that said "Uncle Anton's hat".

Knowing there was an Uncle Anton helped me positively identify the family in the 1900 census. Both father and son were named Anton. Another son, John, was ex-Mom's father.

That meant I'd found another generation, plus siblings. And that led to many more documents.

A rock-solid bit of family lore—debunked!
A rock-solid bit of family lore—debunked!

3. Investigate Family Stories

For years we thought ex-Dad's mother's uncle was Captain Smith who went down at the helm of the Titanic. I met ex-Dad's mom. This sweet old woman was deeply ashamed that her father Walter Smith's brother was the captain. My ex-Dad even belonged to a Titanic historic association.

When my son's school friends didn't believe he was related to Captain Smith, I said, "Now I know how to prove it." So I used my new genealogy research skills and quickly learned…wait for it…Captain Smith had no siblings! That is, he had only half-siblings whose last name was Hancock, not Smith.

What went wrong there? My ex-Dad came to realize the truth, but by then, his mom had passed away.

Have you heard any family stories with a single drop of historical fact you can investigate?

4. Follow the Paper Trail

Here's where you need to be careful. Without first-hand knowledge of the family, it will be impossible to be sure of some documents.

For example, take ex-Mom's maternal grandfather Edmund. The 1910 U.S. Federal Census says he arrived in America in 1889 and was naturalized by 1910.

I found an 1889 ship manifest with a man from Ireland who is the right age and has the right name. But ship manifests in 1889 don't offer much information. How can I be sure this is my guy? For now I've saved the URL of the manifest, but I haven't added it to my family tree.

The best way to prove I'm looking at the right Edmund is to find his naturalization papers. So far, I can't find those papers.

5. Seek Out Relatives

Of course you should never trust someone else's family tree if it has no sources. But you can use it for clues.

I found a relative with a published family tree. This took ex-Dad's paternal line back several generations. Using this tree as a guide, I searched for documents on Ancestry.com to prove whether the tree was right or wrong.

With this helpful tree, I went back as far as a set of 5th great grandparents for my sons.

If you use someone else's tree for its clues, be sure to cite the tree as a source. I'm happy when I can replace that family tree citation with a more formal source (like "England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538–1975"). But until you have proof in hand, add a citation so you know where you found this detail.

While you may never get as far on your in-laws side as you do on your own, you can do it justice. Use your skills to gather every piece of low-hanging fruit. And see where it leads you.

16 April 2019

Why Do You Work on Your Family Tree?

How hard you work at genealogy depends on motivation, and a touch of fever.

Everyone has a reason for starting to build their family tree. What was yours? Was it:

  • to solve a family mystery?
  • to connect to your roots?
  • health and heredity needs?
  • a search for royal or famous ancestors?
  • a school assignment?
  • because everybody else is doing it?

Once you catch genealogy fever, you may forget your first motivation. And if you have caught the fever, that's good. You'll be more likely to practice thorough, careful genealogy.

Here's how my own interest began, and where I am now.

In 2003 as I was planning my wedding, my husband-to-be was planning our honeymoon in Italy. I'd never been to Italy, and I knew so little about my family history there. It was at my wedding that I learned my great grandmother's last name was Caruso.

Here's the moment my genealogy obsession began, in Grandpa's hometown.
Here's the moment my genealogy obsession began, in Grandpa's hometown.

While staying in Sorrento, we took a day trip to the town where my grandfather was born: Colle Sannita. It was a life-changing experience for me. I felt as if something were calling to me. I felt I belonged there. I felt as if I could melt into the ground itself.

Back home, I wanted to learn more. Where did the branches of my family tree begin hundreds of years ago?

That strong emotional feeling I had in Italy made me start working on my family tree.

Today, 16 years later, I've got a carefully built family tree with more than 20,000 people. Nearly every Italian in my tree was born within a 15-mile radius. That means I can harvest thousands of relatives from the vital records of one town. And I did. I found out I'm related by blood or marriage to almost everyone in my grandfathers' hometowns.

Some will say that what I'm doing is not family history. Well, my ancestors were illiterate. They survived by working their land. These vital records are all that remains.

If my obsessive labor of love sounds crazy, consider this:

DNA Matches

The more families I build from these 19th century documents, the more DNA matches I can connect to. I've had a lot of luck lately picking a DNA match with any size tree, and working to find our connection. As I build more families, I'm building connections to more of my DNA matches.


My "overkill" approach is the reason I know the names of a good number of my 6th, 7th, and 8th great grandparents. Maybe I had to find marriage records for a bunch of siblings before I found the earlier generation. To me, it's totally worth the effort.

How much will you miss if you only look at your direct ancestors?
How much will you miss if you only look at your direct ancestors?

Hometown Knowledge

Deep dives into my towns' documents made me familiar with:

  • the townspeople's last names
  • the street and neighborhood names
  • some of their customs.

I'm no longer shocked when a 19th century Italian man remarries one month after his wife died. Seeing how common it was for a widower to marry a much younger woman and have more kids helped me. It's no longer gross that my great great grandfather's second wife was his daughter's age.

I took my obsessive genealogy techniques to a new level this past weekend. I started looking at every document in my vital record collection. These are the thousands of documents I downloaded from my ancestral hometowns. I'm reviewing each one and seeing if it fits in my tree. If it does:

  • I crop the document image in Photoshop
  • add information to the image file
  • add the document to that person in Family Tree Maker
  • make note of it in my document tracker
  • turn that line green in my inventory spreadsheet. Green means it's in my family tree.
As I add more documents, my family tree becomes stronger.
As I add more documents, my family tree becomes stronger.

So far, I did this for one towns' 1809 births, deaths, and marriages. The moment I finished, I moved on to 1810 births. It's crazy to think how many people and relationships I'll add to my tree by doing this.

Not as obsessed as me? OK. You don't have to piece together the family of your 5th cousin 4 times removed. But I'll keep going.

Because the people from these documents are more than names and dates. They're calling to me. We belong to one another. They are what makes my family tree come alive.

12 April 2019

The Basics of a Well-Crafted Family Tree

If genealogy were a race, we'd all lose! Take the time to do it right.

We all know how exciting it is. You finally found that one document you really need for your family tree!

Let's say it's a census form that tells you an immigration year. You're so eager to find that ship manifest that you skip the details. You enter only part of the new information from the census form. You plan to come back and do it the right way. But what if you never do?

If you don't harvest this information now, you may never do it.
If you don't harvest this information now, you may never do it.

That census form may have a bunch of children to add to your family. Or it may have the wife's maiden name. But you might forget you have all those facts waiting for you.

No matter how much that next document is calling you, it's time for some discipline. Doing things the right way, every time, will give you a better family tree. It will help you avoid making mistakes.

Take the time to process each new document as you find it. If it's a census form, record the birth year, address, and occupation (if there is one) for each member of the household. Attach the image of the census to each person in your tree who's on that page.

Being thorough, and following 4 basic guidelines, will give you a well-crafted family.

1. Consistency

Choose a style and stick to it. This will make your tree more professional, and make you more proud of your work.

Names. Do you want to put last names in CAPITAL LETTERS? Then do it each time. I prefer to record everyone's given name. My great grandfather was known as Patsy Marino in America, he's Pasquale Iamarino in my tree. You can record the "also known as" facts separately.

Dates. Countries around the world use different date formats, so try to be more universal. I find that DD Mon YYYY is clear. 29 Jul 1969. 01 Jan 1856. Choose your style and be consistent.

Places. Family Tree Maker is great about suggesting proper place names as you type. If an old address doesn't exist anymore, I like to enter it how it was.

I'm consistent in using the word "County" in my U.S. addresses. I find "Hampton, Elizabeth, Virginia, USA" to seem like a confusing list of names. But Hampton, Elizabeth County, Virginia, USA makes so much more sense. (Note: "County" doesn't appear in this Family Tree Maker view, but it's there in each person's facts.)

Be consistent in how you enter your facts, and you'll reap the benefits.
Be consistent in how you enter your facts, and you'll reap the benefits.

2. Sources

Don't skip them! When you return to work on a particular family 3 years from now, you're not going to know where you got your "facts" from. How reliable are they? Should you start from scratch?

Record your sources immediately. It doesn't have to be hard. See "6 Easy Steps to Valuable Source Citations".

3. Documents

Capture an image of every document you find for your people. Attach them to the right people in your tree. Annotate the images with information about them and where they came from. See "Add Proof and a Breadcrumb to Family Tree Documents".

If you follow the pattern you create, you'll always enter information the right way.
If you follow the pattern you create, you'll always enter information the right way.

4. Logic

I have a new term I want to trademark. GeneaLOGICAL™. We all need to have our logical hats on when we're doing genealogy. Your software program may be able to help with that. It can alert you when you've attached a baby to a man who's been dead more than 9 months, or a girl who's under 13 years old.

If you aren't using software that can alert you to problems, be on your toes. Did you attach a baby to its grandfather instead of its father? Did you attach the baby to the wrong couple with similar names? See "Organize Your Genealogy Research By Choosing Your Style".

So take your time. Be complete, consistent, and logical. That next document isn't going anywhere, and you want your tree to be ready for it.