Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Substantial Increase in NARA Photocopying Fees

I saw in Dick Eastman's Blog today that the National Archives has proposed a major increase in their fees for photocopies of their records. Although many of the increases are substantial, most of them are reasonable, in my opinion. However, they are proposing to increase the fee for a Full Pension File copy (over 75 years old, from the Civil War Period) from $37.00 to $125.00 -- a 338% increase!

I've looked at this from a variety of viewpoints, and I just can't convince myself that this is justified. I realize that some of the Full Pension Files are lengthy, and that the postage costs alone are substantial, but to charge $125 for a Civil War era file regardless of whether it contains a dozen pages or 100 is bad policy.

I'd feel much better if the costs were more closely tied to what you received. Why not charge a reasonable flat fee for the research and then charge so much per page for copies and pass on the actual postage costs?

I understand that NARA is accepting public comment on this proposed change until April 27, 2007. Let's be sure that our voices are heard on this!

Happy Hunting!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Genealogy Vacations

Genealogy is my passion, but my “real job” is that of a travel consultant. I help families plan their vacations. So the idea of combining these two loves of mine is a “natural.” Here are a few tips to help your research trip/family vacation be successful:

Plan in advance: If at all possible, plan your trip several months in advance. This gives you time to research ahead of the trip, and to order/receive anything that will help make your trip go more smoothly.

Study Up On The Ancestors: The first thing to do is research as much as possible about your ancestors in the area you are visiting. The more information you gather ahead of time, then the better your list of questions to be answered or documents to look for will be.

Study Up On The Area: Next, learn all you can about the area you will be visiting. Pour over maps of the area, so that it will feel familiar to you when you arrive. Find out what resources are available to you in the area, like libraries, courthouses, churches, cemeteries, archives, historical societies, local genealogical organizations, etc. If possible, contact these resources before you go – to find out what their hours are, what days they are open, and what rules they have that might apply to your research. Sometimes libraries and archives have their genealogical materials listed on their website, so you can have your list already made out before you go. If not, then it’s a good idea to give them a call, explain what you’re looking for, and make a personal contact. Those personal contacts can make all the difference in a small community! When you get there, try to follow up and meet your "local contacts." It's very possible that these people will become your new friends, and even if that doesn't happen, it's nice to build some good will.

Check in With the Message Boards: And speaking of locals, I’ve found that asking for trip advice on the county Rootsweb message board is very helpful. Many of the most active participants on a given county’s board or mailing list will be local, or (or at least used to be!). They can give you directions to cemeteries, advice on local motels and restaurants, and even activity suggestions for the rest of your family to do while you’re researching!

This brings me to another important point: BALANCE. If you are traveling by yourself or with a research-buddy, you’ll probably be happy spending each and every day in front of a microfilm reader or tromping around cemeteries, but if this is a family vacation, chances are not everyone else will! Check out the area for other sightseeing opportunities or activities to enjoy. Include downtime in your schedule! For ideas, check out the state's tourism website. Most states will send you a free vacation planner -- and that will give you some ideas of what's available for the "non-genealogy" days.

Packing List: I’m sure you’ve seen this list before, but here’s a list of things you want to be sure to bring with you:

  • Digital Camera, with extra memory cards, extra batteries and the charger.
  • Laptop Computer or PDA with Genealogical software: Both, if you have them. The laptop is great to have in the evenings for entering your information as your find it. But the PDA is handy to take with you into libraries, courthouses, etc. It fits in your pocket so when you get up to move to the stacks or the microfilm room, you don’t have to worry about the security of your computer.
  • A Good Mapping Program. I use Microsoft Street & Trips, but there are others that you might like as well. Many of the mapping programs now have GPS features that could come in very handy. For European maps, I've been pleased with Multimap.
  • The Usual Cemetery Gear: Old shoes or boots, long pants, water bottles (both kinds – the kind you drink, and the kind you squirt on headstones), insect repellant, and sunscreen.

There are lots of good tips that I haven’t covered yet, but I’d be interested in hearing yours! If you have a favorite genealogy trip suggestion that you’d like to share, please leave me a comment.

Happy Hunting!

Friday, February 16, 2007

Ancestral Angels

Have you ever felt that your ancestors were guiding you or giving you a helping hand in your research?

There have been many times that I've asked for their help when I'm up against a particularly tough "brick wall," although usually they are stubbornly silent. But there have been a few times that I've followed a lead on nothing more than an unsubstantiated hunch, and been gratified to find that it paid off. And one special instance where a whole sequence of events had to be timed just right for the payoff to happen -- and it did!

My father's great grandparents were Henry Donnelly and Jane Mullin, and they are one set of his immigrant ancestors. Henry and Jane came to America around 1860 from what is now Northern Ireland -- he from a little township called Derryscollop and she from Tullyrone, both in County Armagh. I'm lucky enough to know that because 30 years ago, another family researcher acquired a copy of their marriage license and shared it with us. In addition to naming the townlands that Henry & Jane were from, the marriage license also provided us with the name and location of the church in which they married: The Church of Moy, in County Tyrone (just across the river from County Armagh).

Two years ago, my family took a cruise around the British Isles, and one of our port stops was in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Since we had the whole day free, we decided to hire a couple taxis to take us to County Armagh, so we could see what the countryside of our ancestors looked like. We told the taxi drivers that we didn't know much: only that our ancestors were from Derryscollop and Tullyrone, and that they had been married in the church of Moy, in County Tyrone. The Belfast taxi drivers hadn't heard of Derryscollop or Tullyrone, but they knew where Moy was, and they were up for the adventure!

After arriving in Moy, we stopped at a little pub -- because our driver told us that this was the best place to get information. He said you'll often find "old-timers" there, who will know where the little townlands are, or where they were. The barmaid pointed out the Church of Moy to us -- just down the street (the church is pictured above). It was late on a Sunday morning, and church was still in session, so we didn't go in. We did take some time to explore the cemetery behind the church, however. Soon church was over, and shortly thereafter, the assistant vicar (a Mr. Anderson) came out to see who was wandering around the cemetery. He was very welcoming of our little group of American tourists, and asked us what names we were looking for in the churchyard. When we mentioned "Donnellys from Derryscollop" he lit right up! The vicar said that he knew a Donnelly family that still lived in Derryscollop -- and that it was such a tiny place, that there HAD to be a connection. He insisted on leading us to the Donnelly house, and then making introductions to Edwin Donnelly, the elderly gentleman who lived there. What a wonderful surprise!

Of course, this was a family vacation, not a research trip, so I didn't have my genealogy information with me. From memory I tried to think of all the Donnelly names and dates that I could share with Edwin. He made connections instantly, and it just took a few minutes to figure out that his grandfather and my dad's great-grandfather were probably brothers. Edwin's son was also visiting, and he offered to take us down the road a bit, and show us where the old Donnelly house was, where our immigrant ancestors had lived in the early to mid 18oo's.

It was an amazing, surreal experience. To start they day off thinking that we might just enjoy seeing the countryside of our forebears, and finish it off meeting our closest living Irish relative! Had our ship not been scheduled to visit Belfast on a Sunday, then we quite possibly wouldn't have met the assistant vicar of the Moy church. And of course, without his help, we wouldn't have found our Derryscollop Donnellys. I just couldn't shake the feeling that the whole day was being orchestrated by some wonderful "ancestral angels."

Some may call it coincidence, but I think "serendipity" is more like it. Thank you, thank you, Henry & Jane!

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Frugal Genealogist

“I didn’t know that genealogy was going to be such an expensive hobby!” If you’ve frequented any genealogy message boards or mailing lists over the last few years, you’ve heard something similar. It’s an understandable refrain…the genealogy websites that get the most press (Ancestry.com, most frequently) often do come with some pretty hefty price tags. Not to mention the costs involved in ordering birth, marriage and death certificates from various local entities…or pension records from the National Archives. The list goes on and on.

But two thoughts come to mind. The first is that most hobbies (obsessions?) require a financial investment, as well as an investment in time/effort. I have a golfer in my family who always needs to “upgrade” his equipment…all for the sake of improving his game. Scrap booking is one of the newer hobbies on the scene today, and having purchased scrap booking supplies as Christmas gifts, I can attest to the fact that they aren’t inexpensive either! The point is that if you are going to get serious about any hobby/activity – it’s probably going to cost some money….and after a while, it will probably cost some more.

That brings me to my second thought. There is a world of really great resources out there that are (mostly) free! Some are online, and others are in our communities. Here are just a few:

RootsWeb: What a great resource! It’s owned by the same parent company as Ancestry.com, but is a free/user contributed resource. There are message boards and mailing lists that are wonderful. I have gotten farther in my research due to help from others on Rootsweb’s message boards than I could have ever gotten on my own. And along the way, I’ve met some “new” cousins, and made some wonderful friends. We often start with the surname boards, but I’ve gotten some of my best help from people who frequent the “county” boards. Rootsweb is also the home of some amazing user-contributed databases. These databases are sorted by country/region, and include cemetery records, deeds, newspaper indexes, church records, etc.

Heritage Quest Online: This is a subscription-based website, but is often available free to library patrons through library websites. I access it via my library’s website, after logging in with my library card number. HQO has five sections: Census, Books, PERSI, Revolutionary War, and the Freedman’s Bank. In each case you can find information and often images that can be downloaded and printed right at home. They have the complete set of U.S. Census images (1790 – 1930), with name indexes for many of the years. The images are generally very clear and easy to read.

I’ve also been impressed with the “Books” section, which includes over 20,000 family and local histories. It’s as if your local library had an additional 20,000 genealogy books on their shelves, and you can read them at home!

USGenWeb: The volunteers who produce this website are dedicated to providing free genealogy websites for every state and county in the U.S. Each of the county and state websites are maintained by volunteer coordinators – so the content is different, depending on the time, talents and expertise of the local coordinators, and how active the local genealogists are that submit data for the sites. Commonly you’ll find local history, maps. User-contributed records, links to genealogy libraries and societies, and sometimes surname lists/queries.

County Genealogical Societies: While not free, membership in county or regional genealogical societies can be very worthwhile. The society for the county in which I live has dues of only $15.00 per year – and the quarterly newsletters (often 25-30 pages in length) are worth that alone! People that live nearby also enjoy the monthly educational programs. It also allows me the chance to network with people who are researching the same area (and sometimes ancestors) that I am.

State Archives: As far as I know there is some type of a “state archives” or “state historical library for each of the states in the U.S. After you’ve gotten a start on your research, you may find that a visit to the appropriate state’s archives will provide you with many more answers (and maybe some more questions, too!). Although access to the archives will probably be free, you’ll need to bring money for photocopies of the records you wish to keep. Many states also have some of the information from their archives available online – sometimes in the form of indexes, and sometimes in the form of actual images. Well worth investigating!

Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness: What a great organization! The volunteers agree to do a research task in their local area, at least once per month. You can find volunteers who will take photographs of tombstones or do look-ups for you, depending on their resources. Although the service is free, you are expected to reimburse the volunteers expenses, such as film, photocopies, postage, and possibly parking fees. Still a bargain! Many of the volunteers signed up after being helped by RAOGK, and wanted to “pay it forward.”

There are many other great (and inexpensive) resources out there. This wasn’t meant to be a comprehensive list – just a few good options that I use regularly. And of course, no matter where you get your information, please weigh it carefully, consider the sources, and document them well. Message boards, mailing lists and user-contributed databases and family trees are only as good as the research that supports them. We all know that there is a large amount of misinformation floating around the web. While that research can’t be automatically assumed to be true, it just might point you in the right direction

Happy Hunting!

Friday, February 9, 2007

Deciphering "Old" German

One of my recent undertakings is working on my church's Historical Committee. The committee's job is to take the mostly disorganized records that have accumulated over the last 114 years and create a Church Archive. Since one of the original seven founders of the church was an ancestor of my husband, this has been more of a genealogical pleasure than a chore! I get a little thrill every time I open up a box of ledgers and find the entries full of familiar names.

As the original members of the church were the children of German immigrants, and they lived in a fairly isolated area, as a rule, they only spoke German. This continued until sometime during or shortly after the first World War. None of the volunteers in our group speak or read German, so trying to decipher enough of the early records to even figure out what they are has sometimes been a challenge! We tried copying down the words and then using a German/English dictionary to look them up, but the handwriting (although beautiful) was still difficult to read.

I recently stumbled across a website that has been very helpful! It's called Omniglot, and here is a link to their German (Deutsch) page. What I found so helpful about this site is that it gives examples of the various alphabet scripts that have been used in the German language over the years, with English equivalents. The "German handwriting" style used at that time was called Sutterlin script -- and although it somewhat resembles the English alphabet I grew up with, enough letters are different to make it a real challenge! Having a "key" to the letters has been a real boon. For instance, finding out that what we thought was a lower case "f" was really an "h" has made a big difference in our translation successes!

It would still be a lot easier if at least one of us on our committee could read German (one of us does have plans to take classes). We do have resources in our area, and someday we'll undoubtedly arrange to have someone transcribe the old German texts for us...but in the meantime, this website has helped us decipher enough to be able to catalogue the record books!

Happy Hunting!

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Missouri Death Certificates

Kudos to the Missouri State Archives for the Missouri Death Certificate Project they have undertaken. They have indexed the death certificates for the years 1910 - 1956, and that index is available online via the Secretary of State's website. Even better, they are in the process of adding digital images as well. Images are available (free! in .pdf format) for 1910 - 1930, and 1950 - 1956. They must have quite a team of people working on this, because I've been amazed at how quickly they have been uploading the images.

There is so much valuable information available on death certificates. I'm proud of Missouri for making this information available, at a time when so many other states are reducing the access that we have to such records.

You can access the Missouri Death Certificates database here.

Happy Hunting!


Everything has it's beginnings -- and this post is one of mine. From the time I was eleven or twelve years old, I knew that family history held a special attraction for me. I've always felt a connection to some of my ancestors, and find it fascinating to learn more about their lives, families, work, triumphs and hardships.

My plan for this blog is for it to be a place to share news, ideas and maybe even make some connections that will help us all further our research.

Happy Hunting!