Solve Your Genealogy Brick Wall

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Lately, I seem to read about someone’s genealogical “brick wall” on every post I read on various genealogy sites. Are these truly all brick walls? I don’t think so. A brick wall to me means a problem that you have been working on for a long time with little success. I’ve seen posts where people indicate that they’ve been ‘doing genealogy for a few weeks and have hit a brick wall’. I’m not sure that qualifies. What that says to me is that they’ve done some straight searching on one (or more) of the big genealogy sites and had no results for their search of ‘Ann Thomas’. So, for those folks, and for those of us who have persistent and long-standing brick walls, here are a few tried and tested tips that may help you break through that wall:

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What do I mean by writing it out? Writing out your research in a report will help you see areas that you may have missed when it comes to further research. Write a paragraph if a report sounds overwhelming. Just put the facts together and see if they make sense. Could great aunt Betsie have had a baby in New York state and appear the next day in California on a census? That’s an extreme example but it does help us see where we may have erroneous information or where we may have missed a vital clue in our research.

And while you’re writing it out, are you using a research log to keep track of where you’ve already searched? We save ourselves time and money when we don’t keep repeating the same searches in the same database. A good place to start learning about research logs is at the FamilySearch Wiki.

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Timelines are excellent tools for organizing all the data you already have and looking at where your ancestor was at a specific time. Are there holes in your research? Are there geographic areas that you haven’t yet searched for records? What record collections might exist based on that specific area and time? Did you miss some critical information? A timeline can help answer those questions. Timelines don’t have to be fancy. You can handwrite your own or use the timeline feature built into many genealogy software programs. You can use a spreadsheet such as Excel or Google Sheets, or create a bulleted timeline in a word processing program. Below is an example of a simple timeline I created in Word to track my great grandfather, John Bellas. He traveled often between County Durham, England and the diamond mines in South Africa so a timeline was a great way to keep track of him and the geographic areas I should be concentrating on when looking for records.

Example timeline

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You don’t know what you don’t know! What I mean by that is, you can’t say you’ve hit a brick wall if you haven’t researched in every available record set for that particular piece of information. Educate yourself on the areas your ancestors lived in. What records are available? What records may not exist (think burned counties if you’re doing U.S. research or census records if you’re doing South African research). Did county or country boundaries move? If so, when? And how does that affect where you’re searching?

A great place to educate yourself on available records is the FamilySearch Wiki. Simply input your search term (e.g. Isle of Man or Iowa or South Africa and so on) and the Wiki will point you to what is available for that particular geographic area.

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Another great way to educate yourself, this time specifically on British Isles research, is GENUKI. Covering England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, GENUKI is, as it describes itself, ‘a virtual reference library of genealogical information’.

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Educate yourself also means learning methodology and strategies for research. Have you used the FAN (Family, Associates and Neighbors) principle to try to break your brick wall? Have you used DNA? Do you need to learn strategies for locating female ancestors? These are all great methods to learn and use. Read case studies in academic journals like the National Genealogy Society Quarterly and The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, and study how other genealogists solved their brick walls. Watch webinars, read books and blog posts, and attend conferences and classes.

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Sometimes we get too close to our research. Walking away and letting it sit for a few days or a week will help us look at it with a new perspective when we come back to it. And that leads me to Tip 5:

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Ask a friend or colleague to take a look. Perhaps someone who is familiar with the area you’re doing research in or who can give you ideas for further research strategies.

And finally, know that the clue to solving that brick wall may lie in an offsite archive, library or courthouse. Not everything is online as much as we wish it were!

Good luck! I hope 2020 means lots of breakthroughs for you.

Do you have any tips for breaking through that brick wall? I’d love to hear them if you do.

 

RootsTech London 2019 is coming!

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Where will you be on October 24? Hopefully in London, enjoying the experience that is RootsTech! There is nothing like it. It’s the best of all worlds…informative classes presented by experienced genealogists, an Exhibition hall featuring over 100 stands devoted to everything genealogy, and world-famous keynote speakers who will bring their passion for family history to the stage, each in their own unique way. You will walk away feeling inspired, uplifted and eager to put all your newly learned information into practice.

Take a peek at the recently released schedule (subject to change) and you’ll see an excellent variety of classes to choose from, covering all aspects of genealogy:

London Schedule

RootsTech London has a variety of passes, one of which is sure to fit your schedule. Right now you can take advantage of early bird pricing for the popular 3-day pass at £99 (which allows access to ALL the sessions in the registration price), and for the 1-day pass at £49.

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If you just can’t make it to London, don’t despair! RootsTech will offer a variety of classes which will be recorded and made available as part of a virtual pass. Stay tuned as those will be announced in the next few weeks. The beauty of the virtual pass is being able to watch at home in your pajamas if you like, and still experience the magic that is RootsTech!

If you’ve never heard of RootsTech and wonder what all the hype is about, you can watch some of the sessions recorded at RootsTech in Salt Lake City earlier this year. They are freely available to watch, just be sure you have enough time as you’ll want to watch them all! You can also read about my own experience at RootsTech Salt Lake City 2019 here.

As an official RootsTech London ambassador I will have a complimentary RootsTech London pass worth £149 to give away. Stay tuned for more info on that!

Come and discover your family story at RootsTech London 2019!

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Context is Key: Know the Law!

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At the time our ancestors lived, there were laws that came into being and which affected the way our ancestors lived and the documents they created.  In last week’s post, we learned how important it is to understand the collection our record is in. It is perhaps even more important to understand the laws at the time the record was created. This is particularly important in the case of probate, deed, marriage and other court records. The way a will disperses property is influenced by the laws in effect at the time. These laws may be local, state and national. Just as our lives are subject to the laws of today, our ancestors lived and created records influenced by the laws of their day.

An example: Coverture and the status of women as guardians

In the early colonies and even later in the United States, women had very few, if any, rights. Under the doctrine known as coverture, a married woman could not own property, enter into a contract or even claim legal guardianship of her children should her husband die. All her rights were subsumed under her husband’s 1. It’s important to understand this law and how it affected your female ancestors. Should you come across children in an Orphan’s Court document, with a male guardian being appointed, you would be incorrect in assuming their mother had died and that they were literally orphans. I noticed this recently on a mailing list I participate in. The poster was assuming their widowed female ancestor must have died as the guardianship document, recorded in the local Orphan’s Court, showed the five young children being assigned an adult male guardian. Widowed women held no rights, not even to be guardians of their biological children. Usually there was an inheritance in play, land or other goods, and with women having no rights to make contracts or own property, she was judged unable to properly look after her children’s affairs. A male guardian was appointed to do so. Her children were not taken from her and she still cared for them physically but anything to do with their inherited property was a matter only for the male guardian.

An example: Primogeniture or the right of the eldest son to inherit

Estate law in Colonial America (specifically the southern colonies: the Province of Maryland, the Colony of Virginia, the Provinces of North and South Carolina, and the Province of Georgia) gave the right of inheritance to the eldest son of a couple who had died intestate (without a will). This was referred to as primogeniture and applied only to land and not personal property left by the deceased. Where the deceased man had several sons, the oldest would inherit the entire estate 2. If a man had only daughters, all would inherit equal shares of the land. Should the oldest son be deceased but have a living son of his own, that son would inherit first, followed by his own siblings, in birth order if males, or all equally if females. There were complex rules of descent which had to be followed in every inheritance case. Can you see the benefit of knowing this information when you uncover an estate document from the 1700s? One benefit would be the ability to determine the birth order of children based on the order of inheritance in the document.  One caveat – the law changed often and varied by state. Be sure you understand the law at the time of the document’s creation, in the particular colony or state you’re working in.

These are only two examples of areas where laws greatly affect the way a document was created by our ancestors. There are many, many more.

Where to find information on archaic legal words?

In learning about archaic laws, you will no doubt come across unfamiliar legal words which we no longer use today.  The go to book for genealogist’s is Black’s Law Dictionary. First published in 1891 by Henry Campbell Black, this is the best place to look up those unfamiliar words. It is still being published today but it’s best to stick with the 1891 version. There are a few places online to find the 1891 version:

Where to find information on the laws of British America?

William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England can be found online at:

This volume, the first of four, was published in 1765, and is a commentary on the common laws of England. Early colonies followed English common law so this book is helpful in understanding the laws around some of the early records we may come across.

Good genealogists place their ancestors into their historical, geographical, social and cultural contexts. This involves understanding how the laws of the time affected our ancestors and the documents they created.

 


  1. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.org), “Married Women’s Property Acts in the United States,” rev. 10:35, 25 November 2018. 
  2. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.org), “Primogeniture,” rev. 00:24, 24 November 2018. 

Context is Key: Understanding the Record within the Record Collection

Records don’t exist in a vacuum. (For the purposes of this post, I am referring to microfilmed images of records we have located online). It’s important to understand the record in terms of the collection it’s found in. Once we’ve located a record, we need to ask ourselves questions about the record and the collection. Questions such as:

Who created this collection?
Does my record fit in this collection?
Is there anything unusual about my record that other records in the collection don’t have?
Is something missing that should be there?
Is the record an original or a copy?
Are there gaps in this collection?
Does the collection have an index and if it does, was the index created at the same time as the record?

We can answer those questions in two ways:

First, by studying our record image and the images that come before it and after it on the microfilm. We can compare handwriting – is it all the same in the collection (indicating perhaps a clerk copied the information from elsewhere)? Have we gone to the beginning of the film (or the beginning of the Item number on the film) and studied any images that may appear of the book cover that our record comes from? As we do so, we gather information which helps us place our record in context.

Second, we can study the collection description, which is what this post focuses on.

Where to find collection descriptions?

A quick example using Ancestry

One of the results in a search for Patty Dawley, born about 1771 in Vermont, is a death record.

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The top red arrow in the image above points to the title of the collection that the record is found in. In this example, the record is in Ancestry’s collection titled, ‘Vermont, Vital Records, 1720-1908’. The red arrow in the middle gives us further source information on the collection, including where the original data came from and which repository was responsible for first compiling the collection.

The red arrow toward the bottom points to the description of the collection and this is where Ancestry does a decent job of describing the collection further. Click on the Learn more… in the blue circle and a page will appear with a search box at the top, allowing you to search only within this collection. But page down, past the Source Information we just saw on the previous page. Here we are given more information (see image below) about the collection, including a brief history of when vital records were kept in Vermont, when the law came into being which dictated the keeping of those vital records and the availability of the records. Any known gaps in the records are also given. All of this information helps us to place into context our specific record. Perhaps even more than that, the description of the collection allows us to determine whether a record we are seeking exists in this particular collection.

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Another example using FamilySearch

Familysearch.org offers excellent descriptions of its record collections. Begin here at the Category: FamilySearch Historical Records Published Collections. This is an alphabetical listing of all the FamilySearch historical record collections (only the published ones). Find the collection you are interested in and click on the link provided. We’ll use the Arizona Marriages collection as an example:

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Image showing Category: FamilySearch Historical Records Published Collections

 

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Image showing Arizona Marriages collection description within the FamilySearch Historical Records Collection

There is a wealth of information on the individual collection page. The red arrow above points to the Contents of the page.  Of great importance is the general collection description which states that this is an index only collection so we will not find images of the actual marriage documents here. There is a coverage table and map showing which counties are covered by this index. There is information on what to do if you are unable to find your ancestor in the collection. The blue arrow points to the ability to access and search the collection from this page.

When we understand the record collection, we are better able to understand our specific record. Genealogists consider the weight of evidence in each document they use. Understanding why and how that document was created aids in being able to effectively weigh the evidence the document provides.

As important as it is to understand the collection our record is in, it is equally important to understand the laws at the time the record was created. Next week’s post will focus on how the laws of the time influenced the records created by our ancestors.

RootsTech 2019: Over 30 Classes on DNA!

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RootsTech is always on the cutting edge of what’s new in genealogy. Look back at RootsTech 2018 and see the emphasis on DNA from Angie Bush’s presentation “You’ve Taken a DNA test, Now What?” to Diane Southard and Lisa Louise Cooke’s, “A DNA Match with No Tree? No Problem!”. DNA is a hot topic these days and RootsTech never fails to keep up by  providing a rich variety of classes and labs focused on using DNA in our research.

RootsTech 2019 offers over 30 classes/labs on DNA!

I took a look at the 2019 conference schedule found here (it’s a tentative schedule so subject to change) and used the search box on the left of the page to only look for sessions or labs on DNA. There are over 30 different classes or labs on some aspect of DNA! That’s an incredible resource for anyone looking to learn more about how to use their DNA results. There are classes tailored to all levels of difficulty from beginners to advanced.  There are classes on which DNA tests are available and which ones to use depending on your goals, classes on using third-party tools like GEDMatch and DNAPainter, classes and labs on techniques such as using your shared matches, visual phasing, chromosome mapping, and creating a DNA triangulation table. There are classes on analyzing Y-DNA and mitochondrial DNA and classes dealing with endogamy. Whichever aspect of DNA you are interested in, there is likely a class or lab at RootsTech 2019 that will address that!

Why the emphasis on DNA?

On 28 October 2018, the Board for Certification of Genealogists came out with new standards regarding the use of DNA as another form of evidence in our research. More information can be found here. DNA results go hand in hand with other evidence in the forming of any conclusions we make. You may not be a professional genealogist or hold a credential but thorough researchers know that good, in-depth research means you look everywhere and you use everything that may help in providing an answer to your research question.  DNA evidence can be part of that reasonably exhaustive search.

RootsTech 2019 will be a great way to gain more education on exactly when and how to use DNA, in conjunction with documentary evidence, to answer that stubborn research question you may have.

*Don’t forget to visit the Expo Hall in between all your DNA classes to take advantage of the special prices on DNA kits. Every year that I’ve attended RootsTech (this will be my 5th year!) there have been great specials on DNA kits, I expect 2019 will be the same.

Hope to see you February 27 – March 2, 2019 at RootsTech!

 

 

 

Seaman’s Protection Certificates – An Unusual Source

In an earlier post I compared Ancestry’s then new “U.S., Army Transport Service, Passenger Lists, 1910-1939” to draft registrations to answer the question of whether someone who registered for the draft actually went on to serve. I used as an example, the five Zimmerman brothers, who all registered for the draft but didn’t all end up serving. One of those brothers, Charles Stephen Zimmerman, was in training with the Merchant Marines in June 1918 and therefore exempt from military service. In the course of my research into Charles and his Merchant Marine service I came across an unusual and remarkable source. A source which not only gave a physical description of Charles, but also had his thumb print, his signature, date and place of birth and current age, and best of all, his photograph. The source was Charles’ application for a Seaman’s Protection Certificate made on 14 August 1918.1

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What are Seaman’s Protection Certificates?

According to NARA (The National Archives and Records Administration) these documents were issued during the late 18th century through the early half of the 20th century, at all U.S. ocean and Great Lakes ports, and served as a seaman’s passport. Those applying had to be United States citizens and had to provide evidence of such in the form of a birth certificate, or an affidavit by a relative or friend, or a citation to naturalization proceedings. 2 Often those documents were appended to the application. In Charles’ case, no other documents are in his file but there is a note indicating he provided his birth certificate, from the parish priest at St. Mary’s church in Stockton, California.

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“Affiant produced birth cert. from Parish Priest St. Mary’s Church Stockton showing place of birth as Stockton Cal.”

The history of the Seaman’s Protection Certificate

These certificates were first issued to American sailors to prevent them from being impressed into service by British warships in the period leading up to the War of 1812. Impressment was the forced recruitment of men, practiced most often by the British Navy, into service on their ships.

During the years of American slavery, free men of color who were sailors or seamen, were also issued these protection certificates to prove they were not slaves when stopped by officials or slave catchers. Frederick Douglass himself used the ‘protection papers’ of a free man of color, a sailor, to escape: 3

“It was the custom in the State of Maryland to require of the free colored people to have what were called free papers. This instrument they were required to renew very often, and by charging a fee for this writing, considerable sums from time to time were collected by the State. In these papers the name, age, color, height and form of the free man were described, together with any scars or other marks upon his person which could assist in his identification. This device of slaveholding ingenuity, like other devices of wickedness, in some measure defeated itself—since more than one man could be found to answer the same general description. Hence many slaves could escape by impersonating the owner of one set of papers; and this was often done as follows: A slave nearly or sufficiently answering the description set forth in the papers, would borrow or hire them till he could by their means escape to a free state, and then, by mail or otherwise, return them to the owner. The operation was a hazardous one for the lender as well as for the borrower. A failure on the part of the fugitive to send back the papers would imperil his benefactor, and the discovery of the papers in possession of the wrong man would imperil both the fugitive and his friend. It was therefore an act of supreme trust on the part of a freeman of color thus to put in jeopardy his own liberty that another might be free. It was, however, not infrequently bravely done, and was seldom discovered. I was not so fortunate as to sufficiently resemble any of my free acquaintances as to answer the description of their papers. But I had one friend—a sailor—who owned a sailor’s protection, which answered somewhat the purpose of free papers—describing his person and certifying to the fact that he was a free American sailor. The instrument had at its head the American eagle, which at once gave it the appearance of an authorized document. This protection did not, when in my hands, describe its bearer very accurately. Indeed, it called for a man much darker than myself, and close examination of it would have caused my arrest at the start.” 

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Example of Seaman’s Protection Certificate from 1854. Image credit: “Seaman’s Protection Certificate for Samuel Fox, August 12, 1854.” African American Odyssey: Free Blacks in the Antebellum Period, Documenting Freedom, Black History Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

According to an article in Prologue, the magazine of the National Archives, almost a third of applications were for free men of color. 4 African American research can be difficult, these Seaman’s Protection certificates can be great value to those researchers. The Prologue article is excellent and worth reading to get further information on this unusual source.

The use of these certificates as a form of identification went on until just before the Civil War and then was reintroduced for a short period during the World War 1 time frame which is when Charles S. Zimmerman applied for one.

Besides giving Charles’ physical description and date and place of birth, the certificate also indicated where Charles had trained and the ship he was expected to join. For those seamen who were not born in the United States, their certificates may contain information on where and when they were naturalized, including the names of their parents. Those who witnessed the application were sometimes related to the applicant, providing further clues to follow.

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Charles S. Zimmerman in uniform

Seaman’s Protection Certificates are definitely an unusual source for genealogists, with an interesting history. It’s worth your time to take a look and see if your ancestor may have applied for one.  Both Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org have collections of Seaman’s Certificates, search their catalogs using the keyword ‘Seaman’ or ‘Seaman’s Protection’.

This post was written for the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge from Amy Johnson Crow. Week 38 prompt: Unusual Source

 


  1. “U.S., Applications for Seaman’s Protection Certificates, 1916-1940”, database with images, Ancestry.com, (www.ancestry.com : accessed 20 September 2018), application for Charles S. Zimmerman, number 9882; citing NARA; Application for Seaman´s Protection Certificates; NAI: 2788575; Record Group Title: Records of the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation; Record Group Number: 41; Box Number: 112 – San Francisco. 
  2. “Applications for Seaman’s Protection Certificates, 1916-1940”, index, NARA (http://www.catalog.archives.gov : accessed 20 September 2018), Records of the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation, 1774-1982, Record Group: 41. 
  3. Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Hartford, Connecticut : Park Publishing Co., 1882), 223-224; digital images, Archive.org (https://archive.org/details/lifetimesoffrede1882doug : accessed 20 September 2018). 
  4. Ruth Priest Dixon, “Genealogical Fallout from the War of 1812”, Prologue. Spring 1992, Vol. 24, No. 1. National Archives (https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1992/spring/seamans-protection.html : accessed 20 September 2018). 

RootsTech 2019

RootsTech registration opens tomorrow, on 20 September 2018, and a tentative schedule has just gone up. It’s subject to change but take a look and see the incredible variety of classes that will be offered!

2019 will be my 5th year attending RootsTech and my first year as a RootsTech Ambassador. I’m excited to see what’s in store. A few weeks ago, RootsTech announced that they would be expanding to London in 2019! What an incredible opportunity for those who live in the UK and Europe to experience RootsTech for themselves. You can find more information here.

Have you attended RootsTech? Thinking about going in 2019?  Here are my Top 5 reasons to attend RootsTech:

 1.  Making connections. RootsTech 2019’s theme is “Connect. Belong.” There is nothing more exhilarating than being in a place with thousands of other people who share your passion for genealogy, and feeling like you are where you belong. But even more than that, RootsTech brings together family and friends…those you know, and those you discover. For the last three years, RootsTech has been the meeting place for myself and my good friend, Kandace. We met about 18 years ago in Colorado as new moms with baby boys. Our families grew and we moved to different states but stayed in touch. In 2016, I invited Kandace to attend RootsTech with me and a tradition was born. Every year since we have met in Salt Lake City to attend RootsTech together. Connecting is what RootsTech does so well.

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2.  With over 300 classes to pick from, you will find one that suits you perfectly. From beginners to those who are advanced researchers, RootsTech offers a great variety of classes. Challenge yourself to learn something new.

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3.  The Expo Hall. Hundreds of vendors, offering just about everything you can think of to do with genealogy. Be sure to allow yourself a good chunk of time to visit the Expo Hall. There is so much to see, so many vendors to talk to, presentations to attend and swag to collect. It’s one of my favorite things about RootsTech!

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4.  Keynote Speakers. Be inspired by interesting and engaging keynote speakers. Two of my favorite speakers from 2018 were Scott Hamilton and Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. I look forward to hearing who the speakers will be for 2019!

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5.  Proximity to the Family History Library. RootsTech takes place at the Salt Palace Convention Center, only a block from the Family History Library. Spend some quality research time here among the thousands of records and books. Each year I fly into Salt Lake City a day or two before RootsTech starts so that I can work in the Library.

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I hope you’ll join me at RootsTech 2019!  Registration for RootsTech 2019 opens tomorrow, 20 September 2018. Register early to take advantage of early bird pricing! Look out for the free RootsTech pass I’ll be giving away on my blog.

And for more information on everything RootsTech, check out the Road to RootsTech 2019 here.