21 September 2021

How to Be a Family Tree Myth Buster

I've been building a robust family tree for my son's girlfriend since August. She lost her father in late July, and my son told her, "I'll bet my mom can build your tree for you."

It's been easy because her family has been in one corner of Pennsylvania for centuries. To someone like me, whose first immigrant ancestor set foot in America in 1892, that's amazing.

Proving or disproving family lore should be a fun challenge for any genealogy fan.
Proving or disproving family lore should be a fun challenge for any genealogy fan.

At first I struggled with how big I wanted to make this family tree. There's so much documentation, and each couple seems to have had ten children. To get this done, I shifted my focus to her direct line. I especially wanted to identify the country of origin for each immigrant ancestor.

She doesn't know what (as in, what nationality) her last name is. I can't imagine not knowing. I discovered her last name was originally French—possibly with a different spelling. Plus she has Austrian, Irish, and English ancestors.

I've generated a few large family trees and descendant reports so far. Then I remembered a memory she shared with me.

Myth #1: This Acclaimed Artist is My Relative

As a student, she visited a local museum and saw a painting by a man with her last name. She pointed to it and said, "That's my family." The tour guide or teacher gave her a look that seemed to say, "Sure, kid. Whatever you say." But her mother had told her that this famous artist was her relative.

I set out to discover the artist's relationship to her family. Wikipedia told me who his parents were, and Ancestry helped my find the rest. Now I can prove this artist is her 2nd cousin 5 times removed. Interestingly, his death certificate says he poisoned himself due to "melancholia."

As I worked to place the artist in the family tree, I saw that his parents were not yet in there. But this Quaker family left behind many records. The artist's grandfather, who was already in the family tree, had 10 children listed on a church record. The 9th child was the father of the artist.

Myth #1: TRUE

It's great when the facts and documents come together. This bit of family lore is TRUE.
It's great when the facts and documents come together. This bit of family lore is TRUE.

Does your family have its own myths about notable relatives?

Myth #2: The Captain of the Titanic is My Relative

My sons' paternal grandfather told us his great uncle was Captain Edward Smith of the Titanic. As a great nephew, he became a member of a Titanic historical society. His mother Lillian felt ashamed that her father's brother was the captain.

Years later, when I caught the genealogy bug, I decided to document my sons' famous ancestor. Immediately I hit a dead end. Not a brick wall. A dead end that made the captain's relationship to my sons impossible.

The captain had no brothers. He had a half-sister and a daughter. The captain was born in Staffordshire, England. He married in Lancashire, and lived with his wife and child in Hampshire.

Meanwhile, the Smith family in my tree is very incomplete. I haven't found Lillian's father Walter Smith's town of origin in England. (To keep things straight, Lillian is my sons' great grandmother who said she was the captain's niece.) But Walter married a woman with a long history in Derbyshire.

I'm not familiar with all the shires in England, so I turned to a map. The captain's place of birth (Staffordshire) is a one-hour drive from Lillian's mother's place of birth (Derbyshire). (One hour on today's modern roads.) I'm going to ignore Captain Smith's professional time in:

  • Lancashire (he moved there because it's a northern port)
  • Hampshire (he lived there because it's a southern port).

I wondered if Walter Smith was Captain Edward Smith's 1st cousin, since he had no brothers. To prove that, I need to trace Walter Smith further back to see if he ever lived in Staffordshire. It won't matter that their name is Smith, will it?

I know Walter Smith sailed to America in 1891 from the northern port of Liverpool in Lancashire. I know he returned to England because he married his wife Elizabeth Merrin in Derbyshire in 1896. I hoped to find his U.S. arrival in 1897 with his wife.

Derbyshire records have helped me a lot with Elizabeth Merrin's family already. Now I see a marriage record for Walter Smith and Elizabeth Merrin. It seems they lived at the same street address in Derbyshire when they married.

Of course I went straight to Google Maps with the address. I wondered if it was a big apartment building. Nope. It's a store with an apartment or two above it. Maybe their families were close (literally).

Looking at the suggested records for Walter Smith on Ancestry, I found an 1871 census. His age and the name of his father are a match, but I need many more documents to prove this is Walter. Right now it seems as if he was born and raised in Derbyshire.

My working conclusion: There's no reason to think Walter Smith from Derbyshire is a close relative of Captain Smith from Staffordshire.

Myth #2: FALSE

This family myth was easily proven false; the belief of great grandma Lillian will forever be a mystery.

When trying to prove or disprove some bit of family lore, be sure to investigate both sides. Gather as many documents as possible on family members. And research the famous person who somehow worked their way into your family's story.

14 September 2021

Add Context to Your Family Tree With Historic Photos

You might say my family tree is all business and no flavor. The media in my tree are vital records, military records, censuses, and ship manifests. I have a few images of places where my ancestors lived and worked, but not nearly enough.

You may recall that I'm building an extensive family tree for my son's girlfriend, V. Her family has been in one part of Pennsylvania for centuries.

I decided to browse the Historic American Buildings digital collection from the Library of Congress. I was focusing on V's part of Pennsylvania. As I browsed the collection online, I saw some buildings I know from my years of living there.

Then I noticed the Friends Meeting House and Cemetery that played a huge role in her family history. I downloaded a few images from the website for free. The plan is to use these images in the large family trees and book I plan to create for her.

Historic photos of a factory helped me identify an old family photo.
Historic photos of a factory helped me identify an old family photo.

When I visit my ancestral hometowns in Italy, it's very moving for me to visit my ancestors' churches. It was also moving for me to visit the railyard in Hornell, New York, where my great grandfather worked.

Why not add some historic photos of places from your ancestors' lives to your family tree? Start by going to the collection on the Library of Congress website.

Select a state or county from the list on the page, then narrow down your search. When you find a subject you want, view the images and download your favorites. I recommend downloading the jpeg format in the largest size available. It's still a relatively small file size.

I found old photos taken inside a steel plant where my grandfather worked in Youngstown, Ohio. One photo shows eight smokestacks that seem to match an old photo from my aunt's collection. I found photos of a silk mill where my great grandmother's relatives worked in Western New York State.

It adds another layer to your family tree to show the family homes then and now.
It adds another layer to your family tree to show the family homes then and now.

If your family lived in New York City, also try the New York Public Library's digital collection of photos.

Even better for my ancestors are the 1940 property tax photos of addresses in the Bronx. I've added photos of each of my parent's childhood apartment buildings to my family tree.

Don't forget to search Google for an ancestor's place of work or street address. First search for the place, then click Images to show only pictures in your results. Don't forget to also view the address on today's Google Maps. Is the building still there? How much has it changed?

I searched for a San Francisco address where my husband's relative was a private cook in 1917. I found a one-of-a-kind house on an upper-class street. My search showed me that Zillow.com values the house at almost $10 million. Seeing the house helps put this relative more firmly in context.

You can add context to your family's story. Search for and add old images of the places they lived, worked, and worshiped.

07 September 2021

3 Little Fixes for Your Family Tree

In 2019 the worst possible scenario happened to my family tree. A routine synchronization with Ancestry.com corrupted my Family Tree Maker file. For whatever reason, the file became damaged at a particular person.

My only option was not a great one. I had to download my existing tree from Ancestry to FTM as a new file. Mind you, I do all my work in FTM, and Ancestry handles a few things differently than FTM.

This new tree wasn't bad, but:

  • All my carefully crafted source citations "blew up"
  • My thousands of media files were no longer assigned to categories.

Those citations and media categories were important to me!

Ever since then, I've been fixing my citations and adding back those media categories.

I'll bet you have a handful of things you'd like to fix. Here are 3 different fixes that will strengthen your family tree.

1. Find and Replace

My family tree is about 95% 19th century Italians. When I record a person's occupation from an old Italian vital record, I enter it in Italian. For example, falegname. I have an Excel spreadsheet with 910 Italian occupation words and their translations. I've memorized some (falegname = carpenter), but I have to look up many others.

I decided it'd be better to include the word in both languages in my family tree file. To do this, I used Family Tree Maker's Find and Replace function. I searched my tree for a word like falegname and replaced it with this: falegname (carpenter).

If you find a typo or want to update what you call something, use Find and Replace.
If you find a typo or want to update what you call something, use Find and Replace.

Once in a while I'll see a typo as I begin typing something and the program offers suggestions. I saw one typo where a word (I couldn't remember which word) had a double letter a instead of a single letter a. I used Find and Replace to search for "aa"—skipping over a couple of men named Aaron until I found the word I wanted. Then I replaced that double a with a single a.

Do you have any inconsistencies in your tree notes that you'd like to fix up?

2. Make Your Media Easier to Find

FTM lets you assign a category to each media item in your family tree. These categories were all erased when I downloaded my tree from Ancestry. I'd been fixing them as I found them, but it's been a long time, and they weren't done.

Then I found the shortcut. You select multiple images in FTM's media library, right-click and choose "Categorize Media." Then you choose the right category from your list and you're done.

Categories make it easy to (for one thing) make all your family photos private.
Categories make it easy to (for one thing) make all your family photos private.

Did you know you can create custom categories? In the window where you select a category, you can click the Add button and create a custom category. My family tree has a handful of documents from the Japanese "internment" camps of World War II. I never knew how to categorize these, so I created a new category called Internment.

You can also delete standard categories that you don't want to use.

3. Put Your Places on the Map

I've spent a lot of time fixing the place names in my family tree. Long ago I saw how FTM creates a hierarchy with every address or place in your tree. There's a folder, if you will, for each country. You can expand each one to see:

  • folders for states or regions
  • then counties or provinces
  • then towns, and
  • each place you've entered.

If the program can't find a place on the map, it will have a question mark on it. This means something is wrong and needs your attention. I have three question marks at the top level of my list, but they're on purpose. I also have a couple of towns that FTM's mapping system does not recognize. Those street names are loose in a province folder, instead of being in their own town folder.

Imagine seeing at a glance all the relatives who lived at one address.
Imagine seeing at a glance all the relatives who lived at one address.

I recently updated a list of very old street names from my grandfather's hometown in Italy. Those old names don't exist anymore. Luckily, I have a reference book that helped me translate those old names into streets I can find on today's map. I keep a list handy that tells me what to enter in FTM when I see one of the ancient names on a document. Now I can find these places on my next visit.

Which of these family tree fixes resonates the most with you? I do have a fourth fix I need to do, but there is no shortcut. Downloading my tree from Ancestry wrecked my source citations by separating them. If I had one source for a census form that and shared it with six different people, I now have six separate citations. That's not how I want it to be.

That particular crisis led me to change and improve how I make source citations. Because it's an overwhelming task, at first I fixed only my direct ancestors. I fix others as I find them. Did I mention my family tree has more than 30,000 people and almost 15,000 vital records? It's a big task.

For more clean-up tasks for your family tree, see "Your All-in-One Family Tree Clean-up List."