Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Questions About Me, Find-A-Grave and DNA

Melissa asks:
"Are you on Facebook? Can I add you as a friend?"

Yes I am on Facebook. I am listed as Michele Simmons Lewis. I am also on Google+ as Michele Simmons Lewis. I love networking with researchers all over the world so friend away! I love Facebook/Google+ for genealogy. That is where I hear about all of the current events in the genealogy world as well as educational opportunities.

Don asks:
"Do you do research for other people or just for yourself?"

I take on a limited number of clients. I do not do paid research as a full time business. I also do a fair amount of pro bono work.

Macelyn asks:
When you were talking about errors on Find A Grave you said that the person that entered the information put Ferry Belle but the photograph of the tombstone said Fairy Bell. Do you think maybe that the person that put Ferry Belle knows something that we don't like Ferry Belle was her real name?

If a person posts something on Find-A-Grave that is different than what is actually inscribed on the marker, then they need to explain WHY they recorded something different, preferably with a good source citation. Ferry Belle may indeed have been the proper spelling but how do we know this? Did it come from a Bible? A marriage license? An obituary? Was the source for the information a better source than an inscribed cemetery marker? We can't know that unless we have all the facts.

Question from Marcia:
"Have you done DNA testing? Did you find out anything you didn't know?"

I have done autosomal DNA and I did find something interesting. My mother is German. Her family has been in Germany/Prussia for as far back as I can go. I found that I have cousins here in the United States from my German side. What that means is, even though my mother's family did not emigrate some of her direct line ancestor's siblings did. I haven't tried to untangle those lines yet but it should be interesting. yDNA is next on my list. I am a female (duh) and my father is dead so I will need to enlist the help of one of my uncles. I am still not sure if I will do mtDNA. I do have my German lines back to the early 1600s but there aren't as many genealogists in Germany so there are not as many German DNA samples to compare with. I might wait awhile on that one.

Anne asks:
"Are any of your kids interested in genealogy? Mine couldn't care less."

One of my daughters in interested. Back before, she would go with me when I went to the library to look at miles of microfilm. She has helped me with about 50 cemetery surveys and she used to help me enter all of the data in my file. She won first place for a big genealogy project/presentation she did at the Georgia state 4-H competition when she was 14. Now that she is older, married and in college, she doesn't have much time for it right now but she does go with me to take photos for Find-A-Grave when she can. I still keep her up to date with what I am working on and she is still interested. The other kids listen to the stories of their ancestors only because I make them.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Pedigree Analysis

This is another one of those analyzing the data type posts. I am working on some family lines in Jefferson County, Georgia. I am trying to put together a skeleton of the families I am interested in using the federal census and marriage records (digital images of Georgia marriage records are available on Georgia's Virtual Vault). I am also working back and forth between Find-A-Grave and the obituaries found in the Augusta Chronicle. There are a couple of family cemeteries for the surnames I am working with and I am looking at every person buried in those cemeteries (This would be a Cluster Genealogy technique). There are a couple of people that popped up that I know are related but I am not sure how so I went to and New FamilySearch to get some clues so that I can then find some records that will verify the information. So far so good.

When you are looking at compiled genealogies, whether online or in a book, you really need to be analyzing the information you see. It is real easy to be led astray by information that you don't immediately realize is in error. Here are a few examples I found yesterday. All of these were on

1) Husband and wife were married 03 Sep 1814 (I was able to verify this with a marriage license). Their son is listed as being born 1808. The math doesn't add up. Was the husband married before or maybe it was the wife. Obviously more research is needed to clear this one up.

2) Husband and wife were married 27 Oct 1856 (I was able to verify this with a marriage license). The wife's parents were listed on the family group sheet. Looking at the census records the wife is found in the household of the listed parents in 1850 but she is only 2 years old (and you can follow her through to the 1860 as a 12 year old). This would mean she married at age 8 and was back living with her parents at age 12. I realize that Georgia is famous for its young marriages but I don't think this is the case here. These are two different people.

3) I found a man that fathered 3 children after he died (I verified the death with an obituary and tombstone photograph). The person on Ancestry didn't have a death date for the man so he/she didn't realize that the children he/she had listed couldn't have been his.

4) I found a man married to 1) Martha 2) Elizabeth. The person didn't have marriage records to support this. He/She assumed two wives because of a name change in the census. 1850 Martha E., 1860 Martha, 1870 Elizabeth, 1880 Lizzy M. The first 5 children were attached to wife Martha and the one child born after 1870 were attached to wife Elizabeth. The man actually married Martha Elizabeth in 1849. Her name is spelled out completely on their marriage license. Further evidence that there was only one wife; no gap greater than 2 years between children, husband and wife buried next to each other but other wife not found, no 2nd marriage record found in the marriage books which are complete for this county, obituaries for the 5 of the 6 known children were found and they list their mother as Martha, including the youngest child that was attached to wife Elizabeth.

5) I have a man that died in 1890 but married in 1901. This could have been a simple typo but in this case it wasn't. It is two different men (first cousins as a matter of fact).

6) I found a family with 14 children. The first two were born when the wife was 9 and 11. Not likely. I checked the census records and here are the ages recorded for the wife:
1850 - Sarah Rachels, age 18
1860 - Sarah A. E. Rachels, age 19
1870 - Sarah Rachells, age 29
1880 - Sarah Rachel, age 38
1900 - Sarah Rachel, born Apr 1840, age 60
1910 - Sarah Rachels, age 68

The person on Ancestry had his tree linked to these census records but apparently he/she didn't see the discrepancy between the 1850 and the 1860 census. Could Richard Rachels have been married to TWO Sarahs? The answer is yes. There were two Sarahs.
Richard married Miss Sarah Ann McDaniel on 16 Aug 1849 in Hancock County (Marriage book 1808-1875, page 85)
Richard married Miss Sarah A. E. Screws on 27 Mar 1856 in Jefferson County (Marriage book A, page 391)

The person on Ancestry also missed that Sarah listed the 2nd oldest child as her "stepdaughter" on the 1910 census. Stepdaughter Ranie was still unmarried at age 57 and living with her stepmother. This is the only census with a step designation.

A lot of the data you find in family trees posted on the internet is not sourced properly. Even so, you can still look at the data and use it as a possible clue and then look for documentation to support it. Before you do that though, take a close look at the information because you just might see some impossible situations that you can immediately rule out which will save you some time.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis

Monday, October 29, 2012

Always Request a Photograph

Disclaimer: I LOVE Find-A-Grave. I think it is a wonderful resource but you must evaluate everything you find on F-A-G with a skeptical eye.

I have told you before how important it is to request photos for anyone on F-A-G that you are researching if there isn't a photo already. Here are some examples why. I requested 15 photographs of grave markers at the Rachels - Screws Family Cemetery in Jefferson County, Georgia. A wonderful volunteer photographer named "Platypus" went out and got all my photos for me. Out of the 15 requests there were 4 errors found when the photos were compared to the information on the memorials. That is a pretty high error rate. If there is no photo, I do not use Find-A-Grave as a source.

These are all simple data entry errors which are very easy to make. I will be sending the person managing these memorials a request for an edit.

Always, always, always request a photograph if there isn't one.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis

Sunday, October 28, 2012

DNA in a Nutshell

This blog post is a nutshell version of what you need to know about DNA. Here are the definitions of the three types of genealogy specific DNA tests you can take:

  • yDNA
    This test is for MALES only. yDNA is passed from father to son down the generations with very little change. This test will give you information to follow a single surname back through time and the goal is to find common ancestors with other people. If you are female, you can still take advantage of this by submitting the DNA of your father, brother, uncle or male first cousin with the same surname.
  • mtDNA
    This test can be done by males and females but only females pass mtDNA on to the next generation. Whether a male or a female takes this test, it will follow the maternal line only, mother, her mother, her mother, her mother etc. so it will be crossing a new surname with each generation.
  • Autosomal DNA
    This test can be done by males and females. This one is very different. It looks at your DNA across all lines. The purpose of this test is to link you up with LIVING relatives that you have. The results will tell you who your cousins are (1st-4th are very accurate, 5th-6th are pretty accurate, anything past that is iffy). Of course this test is only able to hook you up with other people that have also taken the test.

Things you need to know:

  • All DNA tests have to be used in conjunction with accurate pedigrees. You will be comparing your family tree with other people that have also done DNA testing.
  • If the surname you are working with isn't one that has had a lot of DNA testing, you won't have near as much success as with those surnames that have had a lot of testing done, HOWEVER, you still want you get your data out there because as time goes by, more and more people will be getting tested and you will start having connections.
  • You can join surname projects where everyone with the same surname is put into a database that compiles the data and compares/contrasts it to help you find matches and to help separate all of the different lines that have the same surname.

The top three DNA companies are:

  • Family Tree DNA
    This company does all three tests.
  • 23 and Me
    They do autosomal DNA only (they also do medical DNA testing but autosomal is the only one they do that is genealogy specific).
    Ancestry does all three tests but their autosomal test is still in beta testing. Ancestry does not release their raw data which means you can't take your results to another company and plug into their databases. This is a major drawback. There are rumors that Ancestry is planning to allow the release of the raw data in the future. We shall see.

Here is one that is still in beta testing that is a bit different but still very interesting. It is put out by the National Geographic Society. It is a combo yDNA and mtDNA test (woman would only get the the mtDNA part so they should have a close male relative take the test for them). They do not release the raw data but say on their website that they are planning to do so. Their emphasis seems to be on origins and migration more than genealogy. This is a big research project where the results will eventually be published (in the public domain). They do have a partnership with Family Tree DNA. I am not sure if this is one that genealogists would be as interested in but if they will take raw data from other companies it might be worth getting involved in this project.

To get a more comprehensive education about DNA, I encourage to to watch the two FREE webinars by DNA expert Ugo Perego:

The Family History Library has a FREE course on yDNA specifically:

Relative Roots has Four DNA webinars:

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Questions About Hearsay Evidence, Analyzing the Data, Land Descriptions and Mistakes in Documents

Public Service Announcement: There are only 5 more FREE Legacy Family Tree Webinars left in 2012. The 2013 schedule isn't out yet. They are: Researching Your Canadian Ancestors - An Overview by Claire V. Brisson-Banks, Genealogy for Novices: Where Do We Begin? by Linda Geiger, The Big 4 U.S. Record Sources by Mary Hill, 10 Ideas for Great Gifts Using Your Family Photos by Thomas MacEntee and Researching Your Irish Ancestors: Beyond the Basics by Judith Eccles Wight.

Mark asks:
"About the letter you mentioned in your Unusual Sources post, could you even use that as a source? It isn't really any sort of official document. Wouldn't that be hearsay evidence?"

The letter would be a source for the death/burial of the man mentioned. The lady that wrote the letter was the man's daughter and the letter was written shortly after his death (she was announcing the death to the extended family). I consider this a very credible source. This would be no different than using a family Bible as a source. You need to ask yourself was the person that wrote the information in a position to have first hand knowledge. If I wrote a letter to a friend of mine telling her all about when my daughter Kelly was born that would be considered credible since I am in a position to know when and where Kelly was born. Genealogists use personal letters, diaries, and journals all the time as sources. You just need to evaluate how credible you think the information is. You also do this with official documents. Many times the information contained in "official" documents is in incorrect. Think of all of the errors on census records. I have a marriage record of one of my relatives where he stated it was his first marriage when it was really his 3rd. EVERY piece must be evaluated no matter where it came from.

Question from Darren:
"When you are "analyzing the data" [see Analyzing the Data and More Analyzing the Data] do you enter your theories into your file or do you put all this information into the notes area?"

It depends. Date estimations go right into the file as do places guesses. I can use qualifiers for both such as "about 1843," "before 1900," "after 1702," "between 06 Feb 1806 and 1808" etc. and "of North Carolina," "Marion County, Mississippi (probable)," "Choctaw County, Alabama (most likely)" etc. I do explain how I came up with these approximations in my notes. Things more involved than dates and places go in the notes such as theories on who a person's spouse was and theories on who the most likely parents are. As soon as I have my circumstantial case written up then I can add things like that to the actual database.

Question from Kathy:
"Have you ever found a land description that you couldn't draw out?"

Public Land Survey System (PLSS), no.
Metes and Bounds, yes.

T. J. asks:
"What do you do when you see something on a census record that you know isn't right? The 1930 census has my grandfather's name and age wrong but it is definitely him."

You record ALL information that you find, even if it conflicts with the other data that you have. All of the genealogy programs have the capability to record alternate names and conflicting information. In Legacy (the computer program that I use), I would enter the name as an AKA with the census as a source. I would enter the birth year in as a conflicting birth date event with the census as the source. In the notes area of the event I would explain why I think the date to be incorrect. You need to do this so that you can show that you checked the 1930 census and that you are aware of the conflicting data that it contains. What you don't want to do is ignore it, or worse, change the data to what you think it should be.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis

Friday, October 26, 2012

Fishing Expedition (AKA Cluster/Collateral Genealogy) - A Brick Wall Buster

Fishing expeditions, AKA cluster or collateral genealogy, can be one of the best ways to bulldoze a brick wall. In a nutshell, cluster/collateral genealogy is researching the people surrounding your ancestor.

Your ancestor was not isolated. He/she had relatives, friends, neighbors, fellow church goers, fellow workers etc. Researching these people is a back door approach to finding out more about your person of interest.

Here are some ideas:

  • Research the neighbors you find on the census records. Follow them through the census years to see if maybe they migrated with your ancestor. People normally did not migrate alone. They migrated in groups of family and friends. If you have been unable to figure out where your ancestor came from, you might be able to figure it out by tracing the people he might have traveled with.
  • If your ancestor had a Metes and Bounds land description, the owners of the adjoining land will be named.
  • If your ancestor had a Public Land Survey System (PLSS) land description, find out who everyone was that was in the same section and the surrounding sections. You can easily do this on the Bureau of Land Management website.
  • Take a close look at the witnesses on deeds, wills, marriage licenses etc. Witnesses were most often family or very close friends.
  • Take the time to research the siblings and the siblings' spouses of your direct line.
  • Research everyone in the same county that had the same surname during the time period when your ancestor lived.
  • If you have church records for your ancestor, research all of the people mentioned in those church records during the same time period.
  • Check out the people buried in the same cemetery, especially if it is a small rural one. If it is a big city cemetery look at the people in the same plot.

So what do you do with all of this information? All of the top genealogy database programs will allow you to add an "unlinked" person. You can do everything to this person that you can do to anyone else in your file. You can add all of their known relatives and then you will have a mini tree. You can have a lot of these little trees. As you find familial connections, you can start linking them up making bigger trees and hopefully you will eventually be able to link them to your main tree. The number of trees I have in my file fluctuates greatly as I am working on these collateral lines. At this moment in time I have 11 trees in my file. Your genealogy program will have a way for you to list these trees so that you can always see at a glance what is going on.

Here is an example of how you would use this. Samuel Seegar is my 4th great grandfather. He was born about 1796 in Georgia and died 01 Oct 1852 in Madison County, Georgia. In 1820 and 1830 he was in Burke County, Georgia. Burke County happens to be a burned county (the courthouse burned in 1825 and again in 1856 with close to a total records loss). I know he married someone named Nancy but I have no idea of her surname. It just so happens that the Augusta Chronicle is available and Burke county announcements were posted in there. Between the available census records and the newspaper I was able to come up with several other Seegars in this county at the same time. Seegar is not that common of a surname so I can be pretty confident that these men are all related, George, Joab, John, Benjamin, Charles F. and another Samuel. I added all these men to my file with the hopes of linking them up eventually. There are no federal census records for the state of Georgia prior to 1820 with one exception, Oglethorpe County 1800. Of course there are no Seegars there. That would have been too easy! These records were burned by the British during the War of 1812. Because we have no census records for 1790, 1800 and 1810, it is a little harder tracking migration patterns. I can show that some of these Seegars do show up in Madison County for the 1840 census with my Samuel Seegar which further solidifies the case that they were in fact related. The more names you have to work with the better. So my strategy from here will be:

  • Research the Georgia Headright and Bounty Plats for the Seegars(these are metes and bounds) to see where they lived in relation to each other and see who their neighbors were. I also want to note who the chainbearers were. The chainbearers could easily be family, friends, neighbors etc.
  • Search for these neighbors in the Augusta Chronicle to see what tidbits I can find.
  • Search any available Burke County tax books to see if I can narrow down when the Seegars and the neighbors came to this county. My hope is that they DID come from another county that wasn't burned. Even in burned counties you will usually find tax records. Many times they were not stored in the courthouse and they were also sent to the state.
  • Going forward in time, see if any of the neighbors also migrated to Madison County when Samuel did. If so, then there is probably more than just a neighbor relationship but possibly a familial one as well.
  • There is a known Georgia migration route from the Burke County area, through the Wilkes County area, to the Madison County area. The records of the counties along the way need to be checked for Seegars. Finding them in non burned counties will be the key.
  • Wills need to be pulled for everyone that made it to Madison County. Unlike Burke County, the Madison County wills survived. If wife Nancy's parents also migrated, and they died in Madison County, Nancy may be named as "my daughter Nancy Seegar" which would make the connection to her parents and give us a surname.

As I snag bits and pieces of information about the Seegars and their neighbors I just keep adding it to my file. It is possible that I will thoroughly research a person that isn't connected to the family at all but what's the harm? Sometimes that happens but you have to go off on these tangents if you what to find out more about your ancestor through the back door.

I have done step one (research the Georgia Headright and Bounty Plats) and found the Seegars in Burke County very early. The earliest entry is 1786 for George Seegar. It appears that George is older than the rest of the Seegars which makes him a potential father. It also puts him back far enough in time that I might be able to pick him up in the Georgia Colonial Records (39 volumes, thank goodness there is an index!) If George is in fact my Samuel's father (Samuel was born about 1796) that would mean Samuel was actually born in Burke County which isn't a good thing. He would have also married in Burke County which again isn't a good thing. I can still hope that his wife Nancy's parents migrated with them to Madison County so I still have to check the later records in my list. I am telling you this to show you how your focus and direction will change every time you get a new fact in. Genealogy research is very fluid.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Starting Over

Public Service Announcements:
Woo hoo! Score one for cemetery preservation! This cemetery is about 8 miles from my house. Judge Rules Georgia Power Can't Cut Trees at King Cemetery.

We now have over 100 people following this blog via email! Not bad considering we have only been around for 3 months. I want to thank everyone that takes the time to read the blog and I enjoy your feedback so E-MAIL ME!

If you missed yesterday's webinar Your Civil War Ancestors: Beginning Your Research by certified genealogist Michael Hait, you have 10 days to watch it free.

Comment from Trudy:
"I have my genealogy information in Family Tree Maker. I did not source my findings and want to basically start over with Legacy and source all my information. I have yet to even get started with this project. At this point it just seems so overwhelming. Like most family historians, I have tons of documents, books, photographs all needing to be organized and most needing to be scanned. Just not sure how to get started. I can easily get strayed from this project into something more enjoyable like hunting for a family member to give a found piece of their family history.

I feel your pain. I was once in this same position. It is a VERY big project but I promise you, you won’t regret it. Whether you keep your stuff in FTM or you switch to Legacy, starting over and sourcing everything properly is a good idea. Besides the obvious reason of getting your info in the correct format, you will find errors that you didn’t know you had and you will discover things you didn’t know you knew!

How many people do you have in your file? Depending on how many you have decides which strategy you should take. A small file means you can just work on everyone one at a time (in family groups). A large file means you should start with your direct line, then add the siblings of your direct line, and then you can go from there. Legacy has a way to tag people. You can tag everyone in your file and then untag them one at a time as you get done with them.

I would scan the documents and photos in as you use them as sources that way you won't get overwhelmed by having to scan in 500 documents at one time. This will give you time to really analyze each document. You need to come up with a Computer Filing System that makes sense to you. You need to write a full citation right on the documents before you scan. On the photos you need to add a border and then write a full citation. You can do this with photo editing software or you can simply write the citation on a piece of paper and scan it right next to the photo. You can then link the document/photo to the person(s) in your file.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Public Land Survey System

Public Service Announcement: The burials at Arlington National Cemetery are now online and searchable.

Every since the blog post on Metes and Bounds I have been promising a follow-up post on the other method of surveying land, the Public Land Survey System (PLSS) which is also known as the Rectangular System. Here is a map that shows which states use the PLSS. PLSS is a lot easier than plotting out parcels using Metes and Bounds.

This is a land description using the PLSS for land owned by Benjamin Franklin Simmons (3 parcels):
Township 3 North, Range 14 West, Section 29, SW¼NE¼
Township 3 North, Range 14 West, Section 29, W½SE¼
Township 3 North, Range 14 West, Section 29, NE¼SW¼

This system uses a grid. You start with a principle meridian which runs north and south (lines of longitude). Each one of these has a name. The name of the principle meridian for the above parcels is St. Stephens. Between these principle meridians are range lines (also north and south). The ones left of the principle meridian are WEST and the ones that are to the right of the principle meridian are EAST. Perpendicular to the principle meridians are the base lines (lines of latitude). Between the base lines are township lines. The ones above the base line are NORTH and below the baseline are SOUTH. Here is a map showing the principle meridians and the baselines.

Now we have our basic grid pattern. Here is a closeup of what it looks like when you add the range and township lines in between the principle meridians and base lines. Look at the first graphic on this page. Now we can start to decipher the description of the parcels. Assuming the principle meridian in this graphic is St. Stephens, to find Township 3 North, Range 14 West is easy peasy. Starting at where the principle meridian and the base line intersect, you go up (north) 3 squares and then left (west) 14 squares.

Each square shown on the above graphic is a "Township." Each township is 6 miles square and has 36 one mile square sections like THIS. Again, easy peasy. Look at the parcel description again. We now know where Township 3 North, Range 14 West, Section 29 is. Section 29 is one mile square (640 acres).

Below is a blowup of Section 29 with the three parcels mapped out. I am not very good with graphics and stuff so don't expect a professional picture.

St. Stephens Principle Meridian
Township 3 North, Range 14 West, Section 29, SW¼NE¼
Township 3 North, Range 14 West, Section 29, W½SE¼
Township 3 North, Range 14 West, Section 29, NE¼SW¼

You need to subdivide the section as needed to get to the exact parcel. I drew in a couple of reference lines. You have to read the description BACKWARDS. This is where most people mess up. For the first parcel I need to find the NE¼ first, then the SW¼ of that. The way you say it is, "The SW¼ of the NE¼." (If you say it that way it makes more sense). For the second parcel I need to find the SE¼ first and then the W½ of that. With the 3rd parcel I need to find the SW¼ first and then the NE¼ of that. Once you plot it out you can see that the three parcels are adjoining.

Now you can get land descriptions from all your ancestors and plot them and see who was living next to whom. It is a lot of fun. By the way, each little section within a section is called an aliquot in case you see that word.

Here is another example. These two men are in the same Township/Range/Section. James Elexander Simmons is the son-in-law of Albert Gallitan Graham.

James Elexander Simmons
Township 4 North, Range 14 West, Section 31, NW¼SW¼
Township 4 North, Range 14 West, Section 31, W½NW¼

Albert Gallitan Graham
Township 4 North, Range 14 West, Section 31, E½SW¼
Township 4 North, Range 14 West, Section 31, SE¼NW¼

I think plotting out PLSS parcels is so much more fun than metes and bounds but that's just me. I know of genealogists that really love the challenge of drawing out the complicated metes and bounds descriptions.

Now here comes the really cool thing you can do with PLSS. You can go to the Bureau of Land Management Search Page and plug in a specific Township/Range/Section and see everyone that was granted a patent in that section! One caveat though. This will not tell you everyone that owned landed in the section over time. It only will show you the original patentees. Remember, land patents are FEDERAL records. After the original patents were issued the subsequent transactions would be at the county level through land deeds. However, this is a GREAT way to plot out the original neighbors. I did a search for T4NR14W where James and Albert lived. By the way, T4NR14W is shorthand for the township and range and you will see it written like this all the time. Here is a list of the original patentees for this section:

John Cameron (one of my relatives but he wasn't related to Albert or James that I know of)
Albert G. Graham (my 2nd great grandfather)
Giles I. Graham (Albert's nephew)
Sarah O. Hartfield (not sure but definitely a relative with that Hartfield surname)
James E. Simmons (my great-grandfather and son-in-law to Albert)
Benjamin and James Vosper (not sure)
Jesse Whidden (Albert's stepson)

For this to work you really need to also map out the surrounding sections but I am sure you can see how useful this can be.

Here is something that you can do with PLSS land descriptions that you can't do with metes and bounds. You can take a present day map that has the township, range and sections marked and see exactly where your ancestor's land was. The DeLorme Atlas books have this marked for those states that use PLSS. Understanding exactly where you ancestor lived really brings their history to life. Many genealogists purposely travel to their ancestor's land just to be able to say that that stood where their ancestor once stood.

Another place you will see township and range designations are on census records and school records. They will also be in county level deeds and even in cemetery survey books. If you can plot out all of the cemeteries in a certain section then you will have better luck in finding where your ancestor was buried.

If you have a PLSS description that you are having a hard time plotting send it to me and I will do a graphic (a crude sort of graphic) for you.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Unusual Sources

Public Service Announcement: The New England Chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists is offering a webinar by Thomas W. Jones on CD. I have just ordered my copy. I have heard Thomas Jones speak before and he is good. Please take a look at Seeing the Forest AND the Trees (and Their Leaves): Mastering the Craft of Genealogical Documentation, a Hands-on Workshop.

Loyal blog reader Trudy sent me a very interesting email. I am not including the letter that she attached to protect the privacy of anyone that is still living (the letter was written in 1971) and to not violate any copyright. I changed the names of the persons from the letter that Trudy mentioned.

I wanted to share with you a letter I found in a box that I purchased at an auction (I’ve attached a scan). When this letter was written I believe there was only the intent to inform the readers that a family member had passed away. The writer of the letter, Gloria, included tons of genealogical information. I’ve highlighted some of the areas that include family information. Some of the information gives specifics, such as date of death. Other information gives you clues, such as Morton and Gloria having more than one child. I searched for a “Smithers” family member and was able to locate one. The original letter will be in the mail tomorrow to this family member. I sent this to you in case you might want to do a blog about unusual sources."

You were right, Trudy. I would love to use this in a blog post. I know that the family member you tracked down was just thrilled to hear from you. There are genealogists that do this full time. They look for things just like this at auctions, estate sales and on Ebay and many treasures have been saved from possible destruction. They take the time to track down the descendants and return the items to the rightful descendant just as you have done.

I hope this story will encourage the readers of this blog to always be on the lookout for things like this when they visit flea markets, yard/garage sales, estates sales and while browsing on Ebay. It is such a shame when historical artifacts are discarded and destroyed.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis

Monday, October 22, 2012

Questions About Transitional Genealogists, Middle Eastern Ethnicity and Census Forms

Public Service Announcement: I am going through the National Genealogical Society's Home Study Course. I am doing it as a refresher/skills updater but also so that I will know enough about the course to be able to review/recommend it. So far I am enjoying it immensely.

Mo asks:
"You have mentioned the Transitional Genealogists mailing list that is for hobbyists wanting to maybe become professionals. Is that list open to anyone?"

Yes it is. You can sign up at Transitional Genealogists Forum.

Question from Kayla:
"Recently, I came across the following article. In here, it goes on to explain how she found that the Ramey family originally came from Egypt and she indeed found she had Egyptian DNA following a test. My question is, I am also a Ramey, from the same family, as they are in my family tree. If she says that a test has proved that her Ramey DNA was top world match Egyptian, what are the chances that I as well could have Egyptian DNA as well, since I am part of her Ramey family?

A DNA test won't tell you if you have Egyptian ancestors specifically but rather it will tell you that you have Middle Eastern ethnicity (assuming that you do). DNA tests can't tell you what country your ancestors lived in, only what their ethnic group is. For example, even if I was born in Egypt and lived there my entire life my DNA would still show that I am 52% British Isles, 43% Central European, and 5% Native American.

You need to look at this person's family tree and identify common DIRECT LINE ancestors and go from there. If the direct line ancestor is Middle Eastern in ethnicity, then you would also have this in your DNA. The percentage depends on how far back this ancestor is and how many direct line ancestors you have that are also Middle Eastern.

Don asks:
"Do you write out your census information by hand on blank census forms?"

No. I save a copy of the actual census page to my computer and then I do an extract and put that in my file. Here is an extract from the 1850 federal census in Pike County, Alabama:

John McMichael, age 23, male, farmer, born in GA
Elisabeth McMichael, age 21, female, born in GA
John McMichael, age 3, male, born in AL
Phebe McMichael, age 1, female, born in AL

Here is one from the 1830 federal census in Burke County, Georgia. In this one you can see how I add who I think each person is:

Samuel Seegar
2 free white males age 5 to under 10 [sons Solomon and Samuel]
1 free white male age 30 to under 40 [Samuel]
3 free white females under age 5 [daughter Mary and two unknowns]
1 free white female age 5 to under 10 [daughter Charlotta]
1 free white female age 20 to under 30 [wife Nancy]

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis

Sunday, October 21, 2012

More Analyzing the Data

The blog post Analzying the Data was a very popular one so I thought I would another one with some additional examples. I picked a couple of normal families out of my file.

Case Study #1, 1850 Federal Census, Perry County, MS1
Silas Simmons, age 56, farmer, born in SC
Janet Simmons, age 55, born in SC
Mary Simmons, age 27, born in MS
James Simmons, age 22, farmer, born in MS
John Simmons, age 19, farmer, born in MS
Liza Simmons, age 15, born in MS
Benjamin Simmons, age 13, born in MS
Elizabeth Simmons, age 9, born in MS
Thomas Simmons, age 7, born in MS

We are assuming that Silas and Janet are married and the others listed in the household are their children. We do have to make some assumptions but those assumptions could change as more information comes in. Also, this family lived in a county where there was a complete records loss in 1877 due to a courthouse fire. That is why you will see a lot of "about" dates.

  • Silas and Janet migrated to MS before 1823 [Silas and Janet were born in SC but daughter Mary was born in MS about 1823]
  • Janet was about 29 when oldest daughter Mary was born. There could be older children that are no longer living at home
  • There is a gap of 5 years between Mary and James. There could be another child there.
  • There is a 4 year gap between John and Liza. There could be another child there.
  • There is a 4 year gap between Benjamin and Elizabeth. There could be another child there.
  • Janet was about 49 when Thomas was born so there probably aren't any younger children.
  • Silas and Janet both died after 06 Oct 1850 [when the census was taken]

After further investigation, here is what was found on each of the above points.

  • Silas actually came to the Mississippi Territory with his parents between 04 Jun 1797 and 20 May 1801.2 I "think" I know who Janet's father was but I am still in the process of proving it; therefore, I can't narrow her migration to Mississippi down any further than to say it would have been before 1815 when Silas and Janet married (based on the birth of their oldest known child Elizabeth who was born 13 Sep 1816.3 See the next point to found that newly found oldest child)
  • There were two more children older than Mary; Elizabeth and William4 [both married before 18505]
  • There are actually TWO more children in this 5 year gap. Nancy and Abner6 who both married before 1850.7
  • No child was found that would have been born in this gap.
  • According to the 1840 census there was another daughter that would have been 10 to 15 years old on the 1850 that is missing.8
  • Thomas was the youngest child found. It is possible that Janet did have a younger child but he/she would have died before the 1860 census.
  • Silas died between 19 Feb 18569 [when he appeared in court for his land warrant] and 18 Aug 186010 [His youngest children are now living with their oldest sister Elizabeth and her husband]. Janet died between the two censuses.

If there had been a larger gap in the children's ages and/or an age difference between Silas and Janet you would also be thinking along the lines of another marriage for one or both of them. This particular example did not have this but I wanted to mention it so that you will be looking for that sort of thing. Silas and Janet's case study is a very straight forward one that is pretty easy to work with. The next one is a bit more involved with very little info to go on. This is an active case so I don't know if my theories are correct yet.

Case Study #2, Solomon Patton and Lydia Orr
What we know:

  • Lydia Orr received an orphan's draw in the 1805 Georgia Land Lottery.11 The land received was in Oglethorpe County, Georgia.
  • Lydia Orr married Solomon Patton on 11 Feb 1806 in Wilkes County, Georgia.12
  • The 1830 census shows that Lydia Patton is now head of household.13 It has her as age 40 to under 50. [Unable to find Solomon and Lydia in the 1820 census. There are no earlier censuses for Georgia EXCEPT for 1800 Oglethorpe County]
  • We do find Solomon Patton in the 1800 Oglethorpe County census14. Solomon appears to have been older than Lydia and was married at least once before. The census puts Solomon's date of birth between 1776 and 1794 and he has a female in the same age bracket in his household.
    6 free white males under age 10
    1 free white male age 10 to under 16
    1 free white male age 26 to under 45
    1 free white female age 26 to under 45


  • Knowing that during this time period most women didn't marry until they were at least 18 that would put Lydia's date of birth before 1789. The 1830 census puts her date of birth between 1781 and 1790 so those two dates correlate. We can narrow it to 1781 and 1788.
  • Her land draw in 1805 was as an orphan so Orr is her maiden name. Her name on her marriage license is Lydia Orr so Solomon was her first marriage. It is possible she remarried after Solomon died. Lydia is enumerated in 1830 as head of household (Solomon is assumed dead) but could have married after the 1830 census was taken. She is not found in the 1840 census under Lydia Orr so she has either died or remarried.
  • She married in Wilkes County but her land draw was the year before in Oglethorpe. It is more likely that her parents died in Oglethorpe County (the two counties are side by side).

1. 1850 U.S. census, Perry County, Mississippi, population schedule, p. 384 [stamped], dwelling 185, family 185, Silas Simmons household; National Archives and Records Administration microfilm M432, roll 379.

2. James Simmons, Jr. Family Bible, The Holy Bible (Philadelphia: Kimber and Sharpless, n.d.), “Family Record”; privately held by Homer Kees (Baton Rouge, Louisiana); The Kimber and Sharplesss publishing company was in business 1807 – 1844 [John Wright, Early Bible of America (New York: Thomas Whittaker, 1892), 123.] The earliest entries are in one same hand, the later entries are in a different hand and the latest entries are in a third hand. Per Mr. Kees, the Bible passed from James to his youngest child Charity Green Simmons who was Mr. Kees’ grandmother. He inherited the Bible from her. James Simmons, Jr. was Silas' younger brother. His date of birth of 04 Jun 1797 [in SC] is recorded as well as the date of death of their mother, 20 May 1801 [in MS].

3. Simmons and Simmons, The Family Simmons Living in Perry and Forrest County, Mississippi on Leaf River and Black Creek, Early 1800s Thru 1995,6; Howard Simmons had interviewed George Simmons, grandson of Silas Simmons, several times between 1937 and 1946. Howard states that George was in possession of Silas Simmons’ family Bible and he copied information out of it. However, Howard failed to record the publication information. Howard Simmons is now deceased and the location of the Bible is not known.

4. Ibid.

5. 1850 U.S. census, Perry County, Mississippi, population schedule, p. 387 [stamped], dwelling 264, family 264, Henry Dearman household; National Archives and Records Administration microfilm M432, roll 379; 1850 U.S. census, Perry County, Mississippi, population schedule, p. 384 [stamped], dwelling 184, family 184, William Simmons household; National Archives and Records Administration microfilm M432, roll 379.

6. Simmons and Simmons, The Family Simmons Living in Perry and Forrest County, Mississippi on Leaf River and Black Creek, Early 1800s Thru 1995,6

7. 1850 U.S. census, Perry County, Mississippi, population schedule, p. 387 [stamped], dwelling 260, family 260, John Guluspie household; National Archives and Records Administration microfilm M432, roll 379; 1850 U.S. census, Perry County, Mississippi, population schedule, p. 384 [stamped], dwelling 184, family 184, Abner Simmons household; National Archives and Records Administration microfilm M432, roll 379.

8. 1840 U.S. census, Perry County, Mississippi, p. 180 [stamped], line 5, Silas Simmons household; National Archives and Records Administration microfilm M704, roll 217.

9. Silas Simmons War of 1812 bounty land warrant file 64098 (Act of 1850), RG 15, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

10. 1860 U.S. census, Perry County, Mississippi, population schedule, Southern District, p. 19 [penned], dwelling 127, family 117, Henry Dearman household; National Archives and Records Administration microfilm M653, roll 589.

11. Georgia Surveyor General, “Land Lottery Grants, District 5 1805-1806,” loose certificates, alphabetically arranged, Lyddia Orr, Baldwin County, Georgia; FHL microfilm 511958; The land grant was in Oglethorpe County but filed in Baldwin.

12. Wilkes County, Georgia, Marriage Book 1806-1834: 15, Solomon Patton-Lydia Orr, 1806.

13. 1830 U.S. census, Wilkes County, Georgia, Militia District 167, p. 320 [penned], line 11, Lydia Pattern household; National Archives and Records Administration microfilm M29, roll 21.

14. Jeanne Arguelles, "1800 Federal Census, Oglethorpe County, Georgia," transcription, USGenWeb Archives (, Solomon Patton household; Captain Mathew's District.

P.S. This will probably be the last time you see linked footnotes on this blog. They are a major pain to format so from now on it will be simple footnotes. You will have to do your own scrolling back and forth. Also, if you have a family you would like me to use as an example for analyzing the data just send me what you know.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Resources Checklist

Public Service Announcement: The Library of Congress has a new FREE bi-monthly magazine called Library of Congress Magazine. Here is yet another freebie that will keep you up-to-date with what is going on. Thank you National Genealogical Society for posting this on Facebook (another reason why you need to "like" genealogy pages).

Having some sort of resources checklist is essential so that you don't miss any available records. You can use this checklist to formulate your research plan before you actually start digging into records. I believe the more organized you are the more successful you will be. You will need to tailor your checklist a bit depending on the time period and the location. The basic record sets won't change but the location specific records available in Rhode Island are very different than the ones in South Carolina and the records you will find when researching in the 1700s is different than what you will find in the 1900s.

Here are two different style forms that will help you design something that will work best for you. The first is a fill-in-the-blank type form and the other is just a list that you can cross off as you check each one.

If you use Legacy Family Tree there is a built in research guidance feature that customizes the list of things you need to check based on all of the info you have entered on the person such as dates and locations. Every suggestion has three options, ignore, to-do and done which is a really nice way to keep track of things. It also puts in the date that you checked each resource so that if it is a resource that is updated regularly you can decide whether or not it is time to recheck it. I really like Legacy's Research Guidance. You can tell it what fact you are looking for (birth, marriage, death, parents, siblings etc.) and it will give you just those resources that will help you with that goal. Since I have a research calendar for each specific goal this feature really helps me.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis

Friday, October 19, 2012

Researching in Other Countries

Public Service Announcement: Governor Deal of the state of Georgia has restored funding to the Georgia Archives so the Archives will remain open for the time being. You can read the press release HERE.

Question from Sabine:
"My 2nd great grandfather from Poland. I don’t know a thing about Poland. I am not sure what I should do first."

There are 5 things you need to know when you are researching in a new country. You need to have a basic knowledge of their history, geography, culture, language and what records are available. If I was just starting out with the country of Poland, here are the resources I would consult.

When you are looking at the history of Poland, you need to understand that several countries were intertwined with them in history, namely Germany/Prussia, Russia, Austria, Hungary, Bohemia/Czechoslovakia. You will need to understand the history of the entire area. Poland has a very tumultuous history. Knowing what was going on will help you understand WHY people did certain things like emmigrate to other areas. This is something you can read up on easily at any library.

You need a good present day map of Poland so that you have a reference point. I like to have a paper map that I can look at but you can use online maps such as Google Maps. Most genealogy database programs will let you plot out points on a map so that you can view movement/migration. This is very helpful. There is a program called Centennia that will show you country boundary changes over time. It includes quite a bit of history for you to read as well.

Understanding the day to day life of the country and time period you are studying helps you understand why your person of interest did the things that he did. Birth, marriage, death, and burial customs, festivals, religion, food, music, literature etc. Again, this is research that can be easily done at your local library.

You need to at least know the words you will find in genealogical records. If you are really ambitious, you can learn the rudiments of the language itself. Here are a couple of resources that will help you.

What records exist? Where are they housed? How do you get copies? Here are some FamilySearch courses that will help you with that.

Here are some other pages that will teach you what you need to know about Polish Records.

No matter what country you need to do research in, you will have better success if you take the time to learn about the history, geography, culture, language and what records are available.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Questions From Recent Blog Posts - Find-A-Grave, Estimating Dates, Date and Location Qualifiers and Evidence Explained

Public Service Announcement:
I want y'all to read an excellent blog post by Kathleen Scarlett O'Hara Naylor that demonstrates how you analyze data. It is also a good example of looking at data and it not being what it seems to be. You can read it at, On Serendipity, and Obstinately Ignoring Conflicting Evidence.

Question from Mollie:
"When you see a error on Find-A-Grave how much luck have you had getting the person to correct it?"

Most of the time I have gotten very good responses. Once in a while I get no response at all and that usually means the person is no longer active on Find-A-Grave. In those cases I send an e-mail to and they take care of it.

Ben asks:
I have a question about your Estimating Dates post. What if you have several generations in a row with no dates? Couldn't your guesses be way off?

I suspect that you are talking about when you find a family line on one of the family trees submitted to or the like. Sometimes someone will have John Doe with a father named James Doe whose father was Michael Doe, whose father was David Doe whose father was Matthew Doe but there are no specifics at all. If you copy this into your file then you are already making a big mistake. The correct way to do research is backward in time from the known to the unknown, working on one generation at a time. Use what you find on as a clue. If you know that John Doe is your ancestor then you need to just work on him filling in as much info as you can before trying to work on his father James Doe. You also need to find the connection between John and James using direct evidence or indirect evidence. If you use indirect evidence then you will need to write up your case (indirect evidence is circumstantial evidence and you have to explain it). Then you can go on to Michael Doe, again making the paper trail connection for the father and son relationship. If you do this, then you won't have the problem you described in your question. Also, see Barbara's question below for more info that might help you.

Question from Barbara:
"I know who my ancestor's parents were because of a will dated 14 Feb 1830 but I have no other information on them and I have no idea how to estimate birth, marriage and death dates for them."

I asked Barbara when her known ancestor was born (abt 1797 per census records). The will in question named her ancestor as well as naming the deceased wife at the time the will was made. I would caution Barbara not to assume that this wife is in fact her ancestor's mother but that is another subject.

I would use the ancestor's date of birth as a starting point. Back in the 1700s it was unusual for a male to marry before age 21 so we will assume the father was at least 22 when the ancestor was born which would put his date of birth bef. 1776. I would then see if I could find the man in the 1830, 1820, 1810 and 1800 census to get birth year ranges which should narrow it down further. (His will is dated 14 Feb 1830 but I don't know when it was probated. He might have been alive for the 1830 census). I would also be looking at tax records to see the first year the man shows up (in most cases he would have been at least 21 to have been taxed). The man's death date will be between 14 Feb 1830 (the date the will was signed) and the date it was probated (Barbara didn't give me that). The wife's date of death will be aft. 14 Feb 1830. We still don't know if this is actually the mother of the ancestor but for now we will assume she is his one and only wife. Most 18th century females didn't marry before age 18 (there are exceptions of course but we have to start somewhere). We will say that she was at least 19 when Barbara's ancestor was born so her date of birth would be bef. 1779. As far as a marriage date goes, Barbara's ancestor was the only child listed in the will so for now we will assume she is an only child (probably not the case). That would put their marriage date at abt. 1796. As Barbara gets more information in she can adjust the dates. As far as where her ancestor's father was born, if Barbara's ancestor (or any siblings she uncovers) lived until the 1880 census then she could check there. The 1880 was the first to name where a person's parents were born. If not, I would put that he was "of Columbia County, Georgia" (where the will was signed) until she finds earlier records that might give a different location.

Question from Deb:
"Is it going to mess up my locations in Legacy if I use "of" a certain place?"

You are correct in thinking that Legacy isn't specifically set up for using "of" but the program tolerates you doing it. I don't know how the other genealogy database programs handle this. You can it in Legacy as long as you remember to put the "of" right in front of the location still using the 4 place holders format. For my James Simmons, I would put , , of South Carolina, United States. In the Master Location List this will sort as a legitimate state but under O. So, if I sort my locations by state, "of South Carolina" will appear right above Ohio. If I get more specific and say something like , of Perry County, Mississippi, United States, Legacy will balk a bit and tell you that there was never a county in the state of Mississippi named "of Perry." Just ignore it. Whenever you are using the word "of" it always goes in the birth location field. The point is to use the earliest known location that you know your ancestor to have been and hopefully that will lead you to where he was born. You would never put "of" in the marriage or in the death fields. In those it is more appropriate to use one of the other qualifiers like "most likely." You can use "most likely" in the birth field too if you have some indirect evidence to support it. "Of" is used when you don't have any compelling evidence for a specific location so you use their earliest known location.

Question from D. P.:
"I bought a copy of Evidence Explained and I am totally overwhelmed. Do genealogists really follow this? How are you supposed to remember it all?"

Yes, genealogists really cite their sources this way. As far as I know, no one has the book memorized (except maybe Elizabeth Shown Mills!). I constantly refer to the book. It is one of the books that has a permanent home on the floor right next to my chair. I use colored tabs that stick up at the top. I have them labeled with the sources that I use so that I can flip to the right page quickly.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Problems With Find-A-Grave

Public service announcements:
1) Harold Henderson, certified genealogist, has a great blog poat on why you should always try and get the original marriage record and not rely on an index. I have talked about this before but Harold's post is a great reminder. Please take a look at Marriage Records and Indexes: Choose the Original.

2) When you send me a question I send a response via email right away. Your question will appear on the blog for all to see at a later time. Sometimes I hold questions and then bring them out in blogs on specific topics. I just wanted to let you know that you won't have to wait for your answer.

3) Today is Marian Pierre-Louis's much anticipated Legacy Webinar, Ten Brick Wall Tips for Intermediate Researchers. Marian's webinar last year on Ten Brick Wall Tips for Beginning Researchers was a smash hit. The webinar is at 2pm EST today (17 Oct 2012). It is free but you do have to register. There is a 2000 person limit for the webinar and I will tell you now that a lot more people than that will be trying to get in so you need to join the webinar early. If you don't get it don't worry, the webinar will be archived for free for 10 days and you can watch it whenever you want to. After that it will be put on CD and offered for sale. You don't want to miss this.

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming:

Someone posted something very disturbing on the Edgefield County, SC mailing list at Rootsweb. This is copied and pasted from the publicly available archives on Rootsweb:

"It came to my attention, at the last meeting of the Nevada State Genealogical Society that some tombstones found on Find-A-Grave, may not really exist. The wife of one of the Society members received a message through Ancestry that there was a tombstone at FAG for someone in her family tree. When she checked, there was a tombstone for her husband's great-grandfather. They had visited the grave in a San Francisco cemetery at Colma, and knew the grave had no tombstone. He called the cemetery, they confirmed the grave had no tombstone. He wrote to the submitter who was only willing to provide general information as to the location and finally stopped answering his e-mails. This individual has a website that offers find-a-tombstone service for a fee. The image did not correspond to the location of the grave, although the information on the fake tombstone was correct, it was incomplete. This and other clues indicate the tombstone itself was Photo Shopped.

Another member told about tombstones in FAG for a cemetery in Virginia City, Nevada, where someone has posted photos of actual graves, along with biographical information and photos of the dead person. The problem is the biography is fiction and the photos are those of other people and were copied from the collection in the local historical society. My advice is to be very careful of the information you find on Find-A-Grave, and give it the same kind of scrutiny you should give any other genealogical information you find on the web."

Call me naïve but I would have never suspected that people were photoshopping tombstone pictures for profit. I am sure that this is very isolated but still.

I thought I would point out a couple of other problems on Find-A-Grave that you should be aware of. Before I go into that, I want to say that I think Find-A-Grave is wonderful. I have been a volunteer photographer for almost 3 years. I have had many of my own requests fulfilled by other photographers. However, there are just a couple of things you need to watch out for.

Always look at the photograph. Blow it up if you need to. Sometimes the dates the person inputted into the memorial do not match what is actually on the marker. It is a simple data entry error. People will also add things that aren't on the marker like full dates when only the years are inscribed or full names when only initials are inscribed. If your ancestor has a memorial but no photo you need to request one. Seeing the marker yourself is more credible than relying on a cemetery surveyor.

Many times people will add extra info to the memorial including biographies, links to other family members, obituaries etc. Remember not to take this as gospel. If they transcribed the obituary you need to find it in the paper yourself or you will never know if the transcription is accurate. Don't believe the family links on face value either because they could easily be in error.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Basics of Citing Your Sources

Not citing my sources was the single biggest mistake I made 21 years ago when I first started researching my family. I was so excited to find things I just wrote them down. Back in those days everything was on paper and I had to travel to find anything (no!) In about 1995 I purchased Family Tree Maker (I think it was version 3?) and started converting all of my paper files over to the computer. When I went through and reviewed everything I suddenly realized I had no idea where I had gotten all of this information. It took me several years to re-research everything just so I could source it. The problem is, I didn't source things correctly. I would put things like, "1850 census" or "marriage license." This of course was better than what I had been doing but not near good enough.

In 1997, Elizabeth Shown Mills published the book, Evidence! Citation and Analysis for the Family Historian. Her book was the catalyst for me becoming a more professional researcher. I now knew how I was supposed to cite things. Yes, you guessed it, I had to go back over everything and re-source it again. I will say that this process did have some advantages. As I reexamined everything I saw things that I hadn't seen before and a few brick walls tumbled. I also had everything much more organized so that I could find what I was looking for easily. I took formal genealogy classes through Brigham Young University in 2001 which further honed my skills.

Citing your sources properly is a big thing in the genealogy world. In 2007, Elizabeth Shown Mills updated and expanded her first book to include every possible source you might have to cite. Her 2nd book is Evidence Explained, Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. This book is considered the authoritative guide to sources. This book can be very intimidating to new researchers, however. It is 885 pages! (Her first book was 124 pages). If you use any of the top genealogy programs like Legacy Family Tree, Family TreeMaker or RootsMagic, their citation templates are based on "Evidence Explained" and all you have to do is fill in the blanks and you will get a good citation. Even though these programs make it easy for you, I still think it is a good idea to understand the basics of why we cite things the way we do.

There are some general principles of citation:

Every fact not common knowledge must have a citation
If you are doing a timeline and you mention that that Civil War began on 12 Apr 1861 you don't necessarily need to cite that because it is considered common knowledge and easily found in any encyclopedia. If you state that Mildred Ann Davis was born on 14 Feb 1845 in Columbia County, Georgia, married on 22 Jun 1855 in Columbia County, Georgia and died 02 Jan 1872 in Richmond County, Georgia you need to cite a source for every one of those facts.

Only cite sources that you have personally checked
This one trips people up. Let's say you are looking at a family tree posted on and you find that John Brown married Jane Smith on 06 Jul 1894 in Lincolnton, Lincoln County, Georgia. The tree belongs to someone named Mary White and she cites her source for the marriage as Lincoln County Marriage Book A, page 42. Your source is Ms. White's Family Group Sheet or her GEDCOM file NOT the marriage license! If you want to cite the marriage license (and you should want to) then you need to get a copy of it yourself. Same with compiled genealogy books. If you read a book that someone did on the Brown family and that person cited a bunch of documents your source is the book, not the documents.

Your citation must have enough information so that anyone coming behind you could easily find the source
If I listed a source as "1850 census" how easy would it be for you to find the correct page? You don't know which state let alone which county. Here is how I cite the 1850 census:

1850 U.S. census, Perry County, Mississippi, population schedule, p. 384 [stamped], dwelling 185, family 185, Silas Simmons household; National Archives and Records Administration microfilm M432, roll 379.

Evidence Explained adds which repository ( and the date it was accessed. I don't put this in the citation because you can find this census page at several repositories, your choice. I do it this way to make the citation shorter and easier to read but that is just me. You do have room to tweak as long you don't lose any essential information.

Your citations must be consistent
Once you decide how you plan to cite a marriage record then every marriage record needs to be cited the same way. Here are some marriage records:

  • Lamar County, Mississippi Circuit Court Marriage Book 11: 215, Walter Simmons-Mrs. Elizabeth Johnson, 1949.
  • Marion County, Mississippi Circuit Court, Marriage Book D: 30, A. G. Graham-Miss Mary Whidden, 1867.
  • Jasper County, Georgia Probate Court, Marriage Book 1821-1835: 58, Christopher C. Frith-Hannah McMichael, 1824.
  • Choctaw County, Alabama Circuit Court, Marriage Book 1: 115, Mathew Filmore Patton-Sarah Caroline McMichael, 1873.

Evidence explained only uses the bride and groom's last name. I prefer to put their name as written so that I can see how it was spelled and if the woman had a Miss or Mrs. designation. You can see that me changing it this way doesn't change your ability to find the record.

Every scholarly journal I know of, as well as the Board for the Certification of Genealogists (BCG) and the International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists (ICAPGen), want you to use either Evidence Explained or The Chicago Manual of Style as your citation style guide. I will say that citing your sources is as much an art as it is a science so there is some room for tweaking by the individual author. As long as your tweaks still follow the general rules you should be okay. Evidence Explained has a great section about the fundamentals of citations in the front of the book. You need to write your own style guide so that you can keep up with whatever tweaks you make because you want to make sure you are consistent. I do have a style sheet in Microsoft Word that has examples of all of the different types of documents I commonly cite but I also have my Evidence Explained book with notes in the margins and little tabs on the pages so that I can find the citations I need quickly. I will also say that even though you have a built in citation generator in the genealogy database program that you use, you still need Evidence Explained so that you understand why you are doing what are doing and to make double sure that your auto generated citations are really up to par.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Importance of Estimating Dates and Adding Probable Locations

When at all possible, you should estimate your person of interest's birth, marriage, and death dates. You don't want someone in your file to have nothing but a name attached. You need approximate dates to lead you to possible records. Use what records you have to come up with these dates even if direct evidence documents don't exist.

Here are some real life examples:

  • George Seegar born before 1766 [based on land ownership records]
  • John McMichael, Sr. married about 1748 [based on the birth date of his oldest known child]
  • Sarah (Kimbrough) McMichael died between 11 Aug 1850 and 09 Jun 1860 [based on the census records]

You can also throw in a few places as well by using the term "of" and "most likely":

James Simmons, Sr. migrated from South Carolina to the Mississippi Territory between 1797 and 1801. Two of his known sons were born in South Carolina [1794 and 1797]. I have no direct or indirect evidence at this point to say that James was born in South Carolina but what I can say is, "James Simmons, Sr. of South Carolina, born 14 August 1764." That alerts the reader that I don't know if he was born in South Carolina but I can show that he lived there at one time.

"James C. Simmons married Celia Anna Yates about 1856, most likely in Perry County, Mississippi." In this case there are no marriage records for Perry County prior to 1877 [courthouse fire]. I have estimated their date of marriage based on the fact that their oldest known child was born 15 Jan 1857. James was living in Perry County in 1850 and in 1860 [census records]. Wife Celia was also living in Perry County in 1850 and 1860 [census records]. Even though I can't prove the marriage took place in Perry County, it most likely did.

You can use other qualifiers such as possibly and probably, depending on how sure you are of your hypothesis. Adding approximate dates and probable locations helps lead your research in the right direction for finding possible records. It also makes your research more readable and alive for anyone reading your work.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Knowing Your Locations

Yesterday an expert in Irish research told me that my Irish brick wall was actually the Great Wall of China. OUCH!

Now on to knowing your locations...

I have been known to harp about how important it is to really know the location where you are doing research. This week on the Association of Professional Genealogists [APG] mailing list there was a discussion about families that were enumerated twice in the same census year*. Someone posted their experience with this:

"I have two 1930 censuses for Archie Fuller and family (Mary and Paul). The first one was enumerated on 3 Apr 1930 in Blackman Twp, Jackson, Mich. and the second one was enumerated 29 Apr 1930 in Meridian Twp, Ingham, Mich."
Someone else posted a very interesting response:
"I'm a little late to the party as I am catching up on my email, but your question immediately caught my attention, as I grew up in Blackman Township, Jackson County, Michigan. As you might guess from the township name, the Michigan meridian is running along these townships, as is "Meridian Road." You can visit the tiny little park they set up where the meridian and baseline cross. (Meridian Baseline Historic State Park.) Blackman is T2S R1W, and Meridian is T4N R1W. I love seeing the different Meridian Roads and Baseline Roads across the country, as well as the USGS markers and so on. Anyway, I would definitely be looking at maps and deeds. The locations are close to one another - they literally could have been in one in the morning and the other in the afternoon of April 1, 1930! It's difficult to know whether the 2nd enumerator failed to use the official census date rather than the date he or she visited the home. Perhaps you can find other information in a city directory or deed that provides more information."
Now that is the kind of information that can prove to be very useful! The more you know about the location the more records you will find.
*Permission granted by both parties to quote their conversation in this blog.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Continuing Education

Public Service Announcement: For those of you who are following the presidential election, here is something you might find interesting. Genealogist Tom Kemp (of fame) has a blog post about how President Obama and Governor Mitt Romney are related to each other. To take a look at what he has uncovered, click on Obama & Romney Are Related! Genealogy Infographic.

Now back to our originally scheduled topic. Here is a list of quality continuing education opportunities for those who already have the basics under their belt:

The National Genealogical Society [NGS] has several PDF and online continuing education courses covering specialized areas of research. Everything that comes out of the NGS is quality. Also check with your state genealogical society. They too may have some continuing education webinars. I know that the Georgia Genealogical Society does and I am signed up to watch one live on Georgia Land Lotteries on the 15th.

Samford University Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research [IGHR]. This one isn't cheap but it is the cream of the crop of continuing education for the intermediate to advanced researcher. The next session is 09-14 Jun 2013, registration opens Jan 2013.

National Institute for Genealogical Studies. They have individual courses on specific topics which are very in depth (beginning, intermediate, advanced levels) or you can take an entire course of study in a specialty area. They have a lot of courses on non-USA locations.

Here are some other continuing education opportunities and these are FREE:

One of my favorites are all of the video and slide presentation courses available at FamilySearch. They have hundreds of beginner, intermediate and advances courses on every subject imaginable. I browse their offerings on a regular basis and I usually end up watching something. They are adding new titles all the time.

Another one of my favorites is the Legacy Family Tree Webinars. The top of the top genealogists give lectures here. Normally you would pay a lot of money to hear these same speakers at national conferences. This is an opportunity that you don't want to pass up. You can listen to the webinars live for free and then Legacy makes them available for 10 days in their archives for free. After that, they put them on a CD and sell them for $9.95 (still a bargain). Some of their webinars are free forever. When you look through the archives those that are still free or free forever will have green "watch now" buttons. You can register for these in advance. There is only room for 2000 people to watch the webinars live so you need to log in early on the day of the webinar. If you don't get it you still have 10 days to watch it. The advantage of watching it live is you can ask questions of the presenter and they always give out great door prizes.

Something that you might not readily recognize as a continuing education opportunity is being subscribed to the top genealogical journals. You will see experts present genealogical cases and you will learn so much by reading them. Here are three of the top journals that present scholarly work:

Speaking of reading scholarly articles, there is a NGSQ study group that meets once a month online. This is an opportunity to meet with other researchers to discuss what you have read. This one isn't for the faint of heart because not only are you expected to participate but you will also be taking turns moderating the discussion. You don't need to be a member of the NGS to participate but you will need to get a hold of the articles that will be discussed. You can access them online if you are a member or through a library if you are not. There is a printed schedule that is put out ahead of time. There are groups that do video chat and they also have text based chats for those (like me) that would prefer not to do the video thing. When you sign up, you will be given complete instructions. For more information you can e-mail Sheri Fenley. If you love to learn then you might also want to check out Sheri's blog, The Educated Genealogist.

Honing your skills and keeping up-to-date with what is going on in the world of genealogy will only make you a better researcher.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis

Friday, October 12, 2012

Formal Education

Doris and Marina both ask:
"What genealogy classes do you recommend?"

I received my formal education in 2001 through Brigham Young University's Independent Study Program. Unfortunately, they no longer offer these courses. There are some other good programs out there though.

National Genealogical Society's [NGS] Family History Skills. This one is a very basic overview course that is available to members of the NGS only. This course is a freebie and if you are a member of the NGS you really should take advantage of it.

National Genealogical Society's American Genealogy Home Study Course. I have heard nothing but great things about this program. I have ordered it myself so I can go through it as a refresher/update. You can never get enough education. There is a discount if you are a member of the NGS.

If you want a VERY comprehensive program take a look at Boston University's Genealogical Research Program. This one is geared to those that want to pursue genealogy as a profession. If I had the money I would do this one in a heartbeat. If anyone out there wants to pay my tuition just let me know. This one has college credit attached to it.

The American Certificate in Genealogical Studies is another very comprehensive program. You can take complete courses of study or individual classes (those will be mentioned on tomorrow's post on continuing education).

I want to mention the Pro Gen Study Group even though this is not really geared for beginners. The focus of the group is rather unique. The group studies the book Professional Genealogy, A Manual for Researchers, Writers, Editors, Lecturers and Librarians by Elizabeth Shown Mills. This book is essential (in my opinion) for anyone contemplating genealogy as a profession. The Pro Gen Study group goes through this book chapter by chapter and there are assignments to complete. The groups are mentored by a certified genealogist. There is a waiting list.

Tomorrow I will list some continuing education opportunities after you have the basics under your belt.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis

Thursday, October 11, 2012


I wanted to talk a bit about the social security form SS-5. I have answered a couple of questions about SS-s on the blog but I wanted to go into a little more detail today.

An SS-5 is the social security application form and they become public record when the person dies (with some caveats which I will explain a little further down). I used to get SS-5s all the time because they only cost $7. The government decided that SS-5s could be a lucrative business so they upped the price to $27 so I don't request them very often anymore.

The Social Security Act was signed into law on 14 Aug 1935 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Not everyone signed up right away though so you will find people that fell though the cracks, especially woman that never worked. It isn't until many years later that everyone signed up. Most researchers are familiar with the Social Security Death Index. The problem with this index is that it isn't complete for deaths prior to 1962. 1962 is when the SS Administration automated their records.

So what is on an SS-5? You will see the applicant's name, social security number, home address, age and date of birth, place of birth, home address, occupation, place of employment, marital status, names of parents and you will be able to see the person's signature if they could sign. If not, you will see that they marked with an X which lets you know that they were not literate. The forms changed a bit over the years so you might not get all of this info on every form.

To request a copy of someone's SS-5, you need to use THIS FORM. You will see that it is cheaper to order a computer extract of the form but I will tell you that you are better off seeing the actual form itself. You must make the request online or via snail mail. Your local SS office will not be able to pull the record for you because they are on microfilm. Now the caveats:

  1. If the person is not proven dead, they will not release the SS-5 unless the person's birth date is at least 120 years ago. If you have a death certificate for the person they will take this as proof.
  2. They are now withholding the name of the parents of the applicant unless you can prove the parents are deceased, or the applicant was born more than 120 years ago if their death is not proven, or the applicant was born over 100 years ago if their death is proven. This is a new restriction. This one is kind of funny to me. The reason you would want the names of the parents is if you didn't know the names of the parents. If you don't know the names of the parents how can you prove that they are dead? Oh well.
  3. They no longer release the social security number (you don't need it anyway so this isn't a biggie). This too is a new restriction.

Here is a copy of my great uncle’s SS-5. On this particular one, I ordered it thinking I wouldn’t learn anything new. I just wanted to have the record since it was available. However, when I received it in the mail I got a pleasant surprise. I had no idea his first name was Rufus. Every census record, his military record, his death certificate, his tombstone, everything only had Elmore. Every relative I spoke with only knew him as Elmore. When I looked at the document and saw that his full name was Rufus Elmore Simmons that was pretty exciting for me.

Since Elmore's is a bit hard to read, here is another one. This one belongs to one of Elmore’s first cousins, Mack Columbus Simmons.

I hope you noticed who Mack's mother was, Mary Catherine Boon[e], daughter of Daniel Boon [sort of an inside joke for those that follow the blog].

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Few Random Thoughts

Sherlock Holmes has now left the blog. I want to thank all of the kind emails I received about the series. I hope you learned a new research technique or two that will help you find out more about your family tree.

I have changed the name of the blog to Ancestoring which is the name of my genealogy business. I decided to do this because even though my focus has been answering the questions of genealogists just starting out (one of my most favorite things to do) I also write articles on research techniques and I give examples from my own research. I don't want people thinking that the blog is limited to answering questions. Having said that, please keep the questions coming and send me any of your ideas you have for possible blog articles. I want to give you the information you need. I have also added a search box so now you can search all of the past articles using the keyword of your choice. I also added a photo of me on the About Me page in case you are curious about what I look like in real life.

Almost all of my personal and professional research is in the southern states. This week I was researching an early 19th century Massachusetts couple for a client. WOW! Now I know why researchers love the New England states! I am simply amazed with the number of records that are available up there for this time period. I am seriously jealous of New England researchers. I found the town records for Charlestown [near Boston] for births and deaths that made me drool. Not only that, the Boston area newspapers covered vital events (births, marriages, deaths) much more thoroughly than I have found in any paper in the south. I was able to put together a complete Family Group sheet in no time at all. Now I am going back to learn more about the family members which isn't as hard as you might think considering how good the newspapers are. One of the children of this couple left Charlestown to make his fortune in the California Gold Rush. He left Boston Harbor on 11 Jan 1849 on his adventure. Unfortunately, word came back to Boston that he died in a San Fransisco hospital on 14 Dec 1849. I get so excited when I read things like this. Genealogy is never boring.

Speaking of New England, I want to tell you about a book I just finished reading. It is The Naked Quaker by Diane Rapaport. Diane was doing some research in 17th and 18th century New England court records and was amazed at the stories she found. Apparently the Puritans loved to take each other to court over anything at all which is a genealogist's dream. Diane tells some of the stories she found. The title, The Naked Quaker, comes from one of the court cases in which a Quaker was protesting the law that everyone must attend church every Sunday. Unfortunately, the law specified it had to be the Puritan church so that was a problem for the Quakers. To learn more you will need to read the book.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis