Saturday, August 31, 2013

Valerie Eichler Lair, guest blogger

A family historian just starting out posted on The Organized Genealogist Facebook group page that she was confused by all of the acronyms we were using.  I mentioned that I should write about this on the blog and Valerie Eichler Lair volunteered to cover the topic for me in a guest blog.  Val is a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists and is the proprietor of Val’s Roots Professional Genealogy Services in Albert Lea, Minnesota.  She is also the author of four books and many articles including ones published in the Association of Professional Genealogy Quarterly.  No list can be all inclusive but Val’s list will give you a great start.

Genealogy Alphabet Soup
Valerie Eichler Lair
Professional Genealogist

From the moment I started teaching genealogy classes in 1989, I gave my students in the Beginner Genealogy Course a basic introduction to Genealogy Alphabet Soup. There are many people starting out in their family history journey who do not know the lingo. This list is by no means all-inclusive, but it’s a good start. Feel free to pass this along to others and to add your own alphabet to the soup recipe.

Abt. or abt. About
Aft. or aft. After
AG Accredited Genealogist
APG Association of Professional Genealogists
APGQ Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly
BCG Board for Certification of Genealogists
Bef. or bef. Before

British Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research


Bureau of Land Management

ca. Circa
CAFG Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy (Dallas)
CAR National Society, Children of the American Revolution
Cath. Catholic
CDA Colonial Dames of America
CDAXVII Colonial Dames of the 17th Century
Cem. Cemetery
Census abbrev.: Do---=Ditto;  Al=Alien;  Pa=Papers;  Na-Naturalized
CG Certified Genealogist
CGL Certified Genealogical Lecturer
Ch. Church
Co. County
DAC National Society Daughters of the American Colonists
DAR Daughters of the American Revolution
DCW Daughters of Colonial Wars
EE Evidence Explained (book by Elizabeth Shown Mills)
et al. Latin meaning “and others”
et uxor/et ux. Latin meaning “and his wife”

Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists

FGS Federation of Genealogical Societies
FHC Family History Center
FHL Family History Library
FHLC Family History Library Catalog

Fellow of the National Genealogical Society

FTM Family Tree Maker (software program)

Fellow of the Utah Genealogical Association

GRIP Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh
GSG Genealogical Speakers Guild
Hosp. Hospital

Institute of Genealogical and Historical Research (at Samford Univ.)


International Genealogical Index

ILL Interlibrary Loan
ISBGFH International Society for British Genealogy and Family History
LOC Library of Congress
Luth. Lutheran
NARA National Archives and Records Administration
NEHGS New England Historic Genealogical Society
NGS National Genealogical Society

National Institute on Genealogical Research (at National Archives)


National Society Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR)


National Society Sons of the American Revolution (SAR)

NUCMC National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections

New York Genealogical and Biographical Society

NYGBR New York Genealogical and Biographical Society Record

Personal Ancestral File (software program)

PERSI Periodical Source Index
ProGen* Professional Genealogy (book compiled by Elizabeth Shown Mills)

New England Historical and Genealogical Register


Sons of the American Revolution

SCV Sons of Confederate Veterans
SLIG Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy
SUVCW Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War
TAG The American Genealogist
TMG The Master Genealogist (software program)
Twp. Township
UDC United Daughters of the Confederacy
UGA Utah Genealogical Association

* If you see ProGen with a number behind it like ProGen 18, this is a study group based on Elizabeth Shown Mills’ book.  You can read more about this at ProGen Study Groups. If you are ready to take your research to the next level I highly recommend it [comment added by Michele]

If there are other abbreviations that you think are important, add them to the comments section.

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis

Friday, August 30, 2013

Outside help


You can’t know everything about everything.  Even the top professional genealogists (ProGens) hire other genealogists to do focused research for them.  If you have never worked with Massachusetts records before it might be a good idea to have a Massachusetts researcher help you.  He/she already knows what is available and will be able to find what you are looking for a lot faster and possibly even cheaper than you can.  He/she probably has access to repositories that you don’t readily have access to.  If you need to contact the Polish Archives for some records but you don’t speak a work of Polish there are people that can help you find the records and translate them.

Professional researchers aren’t cheap, however, there are some easy ways to limit the cost.  You need to give the researcher a focused research goal.  We have already talked about how important this is in your own research.  It is just as important here.  ProGens  love to do research so if you give them an open ended research goal like, “My 4th great-grandfather was John Doe.  I can’t seem to find out anything about him.  Can you help?”  the ProGen has just been given the green light to go off in as many directions as he/she can find.  You work with ProGens the same way you do your own research, one small research goal at a time. 

Before you enlist the help of a ProGen, you need to gather everything you have already done and get all of that research in an organized format.  Again, this is the same thing that you do for yourself when working on a brick wall.  You want to have all of your sources cited correctly.  You need to write a narrative report that explains what you have already found and what you are still looking for.  You need to provide copies of all the documents you have found.  This will give the ProGen a good starting point so that he/she doesn’t duplicate what you have already done which of course will cost you more money. 

The research question is, “Who were John Doe’ of Boston, MA’s parents?”  I would give an outline of John’s life as well as all research I have already done that pertains to this research question specifically.  I would present it in an organized format complete with copies of documents and sources.  You ProGen will love you for it.  Not only does it help you but it helps them.  It is very frustrating to re-do research because the client didn’t have all their ducks in a row.  If you don’t have sources, the ProGen will not just take your word for it.

Another way to limit the costs is to have the ProGen formulate a research plan but not do the actual research.  Maybe you just don’t know what you should be checking next or just unfamiliar with what is available for that area and time period.  A research plan might be all you need.  

So where do you go to find a good ProGen?


All three of the above groups have directories where you can search for a ProGen but specialty or geographic area.  This will help you find the person that is the best fit for your dilemma.  A true professional will tell you if your research goal is outside of their areas of expertise and will give you some recommendations on who might be better suited for the job.  All three of the above groups also have a code of ethics that their members must abide by.  The BCG and APG have arbitration services if you think that one of their professionals has violated the code of ethics. 

Asking for help from a ProGen is not admitting defeat.

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Deoxyribonucleic acid


yDNA – Only males can take this test.  If you are a female you will need to get a brother, uncle or a cousin that shares the surname you are interested in to take the test for you.  This test follows the DNA trail straight back through the father’s line.  One of my uncles took the test for me for my Simmons surname.  It will show the DNA of his father, his father, his father, his father etc. so if follows one surname.  yDNA comes in several different levels.  The more markers you have tested, the more it will narrow down your line.  You probably want to test at 67 markers or higher.

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) – Both males and females can take this test. This test follows the DNA trail straight back through the mother’s line.  It will change surnames with each generation so this is a harder test to work with and is used to solve specific DNA dilemmas.  I took this test.  It follows my line though Simmons (my maiden name), Weichert (my mother’s maiden name), Glaentzer (my grandmother’s maiden name), Bodenheim (my great-grandmother’s maiden name), Müller (my 2nd great-grandmother’s maiden name) etc. 

Autosomal DNA (atDNA) – Both males and females can take this test.  This test goes across all lines, paternal and maternal.  It has a completely different purpose than the other two.  This test will tell you who you are related to that is still alive.  Of course it will only show you those persons that have also taken the test.  This is how you find all of those long lost cousins out there that might have more information on your lines.  This is a popular test with adoptees because they can find their birth families.  If one of their birth parents happened to have taken the test they will get a parent hit.  If one of their birth siblings took the test then they will get a sibling hit. For most of us we will be getting cousin hits.  yDNA and mtDNA are passed down from  parent to child relatively unchanged.  atDNA isn’t quite like that.  It is only accurate for about 4 or 5 generations.  If you get an predicted 8th cousin hit that isn’t going to be much use to you.  What you are hoping for are 1st through 4th cousin hits.  Remember, this will be links to your cousins that are alive.


 I have tested with all three companies.  The more databases you get your DNA into the more luck you will have using DNA as a tool.  If you want to use FTDNA, be aware that their tests go on sale frequently so you might want to wait for a sale before you buy a kit from them.

Another DNA resource I would like to mention is a FREE service called GedMatch.  You can upload your raw data and this is another way to get your autosomal DNA out there. 

DNA is a powerful weapon in your brick wall arsenal but don’t think it will solve all of your problems.  You must have an accurate pedigree to go along with your DNA for it to be any use to you at all.

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Effective online database searches


Searching online databases and indexes is a learned art.  Each website has its own quirks so what works for doesn’t necessarily work for FamilySearch.  Here are some general principles to get you started.

Always search with every bit of info you have to make the search as tight as possible.  If that doesn’t work then slowly expand your search parameters outward.  This will decrease the number of unrelated hits you will get.  You can first expand outward by making the name not as exact.  If that doesn’t work then you are play with the dates and play with the location.  It takes time to do this but you will still find what you are looking for quicker than if you put in John Doe, New Jersey as your starting point. and FamilySearch have the ability to do fuzzy name searches.  They use things like the Soundex, phonetic equivalent, initials etc. but don’t rely on just that.  One thing you need to look out for is when the first letter of the name has been indexed incorrectly because the fuzzy search probably won’t pick it up.  For example, if I am looking for Thomas Simmons and the name was indexed as Thomas Timmons the Soundex and phonetics aren’t going to find my person.  You still have to play with the name spellings.  While I am on that, just because a name is indexed a certain way doesn’t mean that is how it is spelled on the actual document.  This is but one of the many reasons you need to get the original document and not rely on an index.  Indexers make errors. 

Many people went by their nicknames their entire life and had no problem using them on official documents.  Mary Elizabeth Doe might be Polly (a common nickname for Mary, don’t ask me why), Eliza or Lizzie.  Many people went by their middle name so if you only know your ancestor as John Doe, You might not realize that Jim Doe (James) is the same person, John James Doe.

If you are not getting any hits and your ancestor has a nice unusual first name search by that.  If the last name is really messed up you might do better with a first name.  There are a limited number of Marmadukes in South Carolina in 1850. 

Sometimes you have no other choice but to search by location only.  I will tell you that this is the one time that microfilm has a distinct advantage over digital images.  If I need to search an entire county for someone I can whizz through a roll of microfilm a lot faster than loading digital images one at a time, especially if the connection is slow. 

Another trick for the census records specifically is to search for any known neighbors.  Your person of interest’s name could be so badly mangled in the index that you won’t be able to find them under their own name but their next door neighbor has a nice easy name that the indexer didn’t mess up.

Newspaper searches have their own quirks.  If you are looking for an obituary and you have no idea where or when the person died, you can sometimes find them by using a name and a place of birth.  For example, If I had no idea that Thomas Simmons died in Tavenier, Florida, I could run a search with Thomas Simmons and Purvis (Mississippi).  Many times they put where the person was born.  This will narrow my results down to pretty much 1.  You can also search by known descendants.  This works well for a woman who remarried and you didn’t know it. 

The more flexible and creative you are with your online searches the more success you will have.

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

He was named after whom?


Here is a common naming pattern found in Irish families (and this does not mean that every Irish family did this, it is just something you need to look out for).

First male child – paternal grandfather
Second male child – maternal grandfather
Third male child – father
Fourth male child – father’s eldest brother
First female child – maternal grandmother
Second female child – paternal grandmother
Third female child – mother
Fourth female child – mother’s eldest sister

Many families named children after grandparents and the father and mother’s brothers and sisters even if it wasn’t in such a structured way as listed above.  Sometimes there is a prominent person in the family so everyone wants to name their child after him.  Just recently there was a discussion on one of the mailing lists, I can’t remember if it was the APG or the TGF list, about a man who in his will pretty much said that if he grandsons weren’t named for him he wouldn’t leave anything to them.  So, all of this man’s children named a son after their father.  Of course something like this is a nightmare for genealogists when you have 16 men named Aloysius Grigsby.  On the surface you would think it would be easy with an unusual name like that but not so!

The one you have to be really careful with is the suffixes, senior and junior.  In modern times this almost always means a father and son relationship but that wasn’t always so.  It was used when there were two men in the community that had the same name, regardless of their relationship.  They could be uncle and nephew, two cousins or no relationship at all.  When the elder one died, the younger usually got promoted to senior.  This was true even if they did happen to be father and son. 

Another thing you need to watch out for are children in the same family with the same name.  If a child died early they might give that name to another child.  You will also see the maiden name of the mother as the middle name of all of the children.  Another fun one is just naming kids similar names just for the fun of it.  Here are a couple examples:

Samuel Wood married Susannah Clement.  Their children were named Obediah Clement, Simon Clement and Francis Clement Wood. 

Silas Simmons and his wife Janet had 12 children but several had very similar names.  They had Elizabeth, Melinda Eliza, Matilda Elizabeth, Mary Jane Angarone and Mary Nancy.  That is way too many Elizabeth/Eliza and Marys for me!

My grandfather’s name was William Houston Simmons.  He had an older brother named Walter William.  I guess my great-grandparents liked the name William. 

One more thing you need to watch out for.  Birth names and christening/baptismal names are not necessarily the same thing.  You might also have another name at confirmation (Catholic).  It just makes it all the more fun for genealogists to track down which child belongs to which parent.

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis

Monday, August 26, 2013

Confined by no boundaries


Here is an example.  James Simmons staked his claim in the Mississippi Territory in abt. 1799.  At that time his land was located in Adams County.  On 04 Jun 1800, his land was now located in the newly formed Washington County.  On 21 Dec 1809, his land was now in Wayne County.  He actually bought the land on 17 Feb 1817 and at that time it was located in Greene County.  As of 03 Feb 1820 his land was in Perry County.  After James’ death, his land changed counties again to Forrest County.  His descendants were now living on it. 

Knowing when the boundaries changed and what land was involved is essential to being able to track down any records that were generated.  One big hint though.  Sometimes the boundaries were not as clear cut as you might think.  If you can’t find a record in one county and your person of interest lived near a border, you might want to check on that other county to be on the safe side.

So how can you possibly know all of the boundary changes.  One of the best ways is a program called AniMap. Not only does it give you the dates of change but you can see a visual of the boundary changes over time.  You can plot out specific locations on the map to give you a reference.  The following screen shots are from AniMap.

Here is where James’ land was located in 1799.



Here is it in 1800.


Here is it in 1809.


Here is it in 1811.


Here is is in 1820.


And here is where James’ property is located today.

His property never moved. 

You can get the exact dates new jurisdictions were formed in many places (books, FamilySearch Wiki, Wikipedia etc.) but Ani-Map shows you much more.  I do not work for AniMap nor do I receive any compensation for mentioning them.  I just like their program.

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Collateral research

Elizabeth Shown Mills, one of the top genealogists in the country, coined the phrase “FAN Club.”  This is an excellent strategy for breaking down brick walls. 


Yesterday I told you that people tended to migrate with their friends, family and neighbors.  There was safety in numbers.  If you can’t work your ancestor back in time to where they came from try working the neighbors and extended family back.  If you can, then you can start looking for your ancestor in that county.

Another thing you need to consider is that in isolated areas there is a limited number of people available for marriage so many times neighbors and associates are also extended family members.  You can draw a 10 miles radius from your family member and then look at the people within that circle as possible relatives.  Even in large cities people tended to marry within their own circles, either close friends/neighbors, church members or children of dad’s coworkers.

In-laws (father-in-law, brother-in-law, son-in-law)  will show up on documents as witnesses and executors/administrators of wills. Siblings and parents of the wife you don’t have a maiden name for usually live nearby. 

If you think someone is related but you just aren’t sure, you can add them to your database as an unlinked individual.  All of the genealogy program will allow you to do this.  You can then work on them just like you work on anyone else.  If you find the connection, it takes two seconds to attach them into the right spot on your tree.  If you never make that connection all of that research won’t go to waste because that person is someone’s ancestor and they will be grateful for the work that you did.  Right now I have 11 separate trees in my files.  That means I have been working on 10 other lines that I think will eventually hook into mine.

Another fun place to look for relatives is in a cemetery.  People tend to be buried near their family members.

Many times you can find out more about your ancestor by sneaking in the back door and it can be a lot of fun to do it that way.  It is almost like you are outsmarting your elusive ancestor.


Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Where did your ancestor come from and where did he go?


Let’s say you are looking at the 1850 census and you have a middle aged couple with a few kids ranging in age from older teen to youngster.  You go back to the 1840 and you can’t find them.  They should have still been a family in 1840 but where are they.  In a perfect world you would be able to find them using an index. Magically they would appear in another county and in another state.  By now you should know that this rarely happens.  Before you start playing around with the search parameters it helps if you can narrow down the location a bit.  Where might they have come from?  When people migrated they usually followed established trails and they usually traveled with neighbors, friends or family (keep that second statement in the back of your mind because we will be getting to that tomorrow).  Resources for old trails and roads abound in books and online.  Historians use them as well as genealogists.  Here is an example:


I used the Fall Line Road as an example in the lecture because it includes the city of Augusta (where I was lecturing).  If I were trying to work a family backward in time I would go up the trail.  This isn’t going to tell you exactly where they came from but rather narrow down where you need to look.  Also look at side trails leading to the main trail.  If I am looking at an Augusta, Georgia family I would narrow my search to South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia.

Here is a little blurb that I wrote for a National Genealogical Society Home Study Course assignment.  I was showing how Jacob Perry and his family could have migrated from Robeson County, North Carolina to Perry County, Mississippi.  In this case I knew where he started and where he ended up so why would I bother to try and map out his route?  Migrations took time and the family could have easily generated a few records along the way.

Jacob Perry and his family’s migration from Robeson County, North Carolina to Perry County, Georgia most likely followed known migration trails. The Fall Line or Southern Road Trail passes right through Robeson County and goes to Montgomery, Alabama.[1] From Montgomery there are two possibilities. Jacob could have taken the Alabama-Mobile Trail to Mobile, Alabama and then the Mobile-Natchez Trail straight into Perry County, Mississippi.[2] Another possibility has Jacob taking the Alabama-Choctaw-Natchez Trail out of Montgomery to Meridian, Mississippi and then south on the Choctaw-Bay St. Louis Trail which would put him very close to Perry County.[3]

Looking at migrations is just another piece of the puzzle, the puzzle being your ancestor’s life.  Even if you know exactly where he came from and where he went you still want to do this little exercise to give more depth and interest to your biographies. 

[1] A. Lee Everton, editor, The Handybook for Genealogists 10th Ed. (Draper, Utah: Everton Publisher, 2002), 855.
[2] Ibid., 860.
[3] Ibid.

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis

Friday, August 23, 2013

People timelines

We talked about timelines of places but you also need to look at the timelines of people.


Excluding bigamy, the above statements are pretty much true.   You want to include every single document/event your ancestor appears on, census, tax records, land records, military records, vitals documents, everything.  All of the top genealogy database programs have built in timelines that are generated automatically as you add data.  Some people prefer to hand type the information into a spreadsheet because they feel they have more control.

Here is my timeline for Silas Simmons  This report was generated by Legacy Family Tree. 





When you have two (or more) people with the same name in the same county at the same time timelines are invaluable.  I gave an example of Mathew Patton earlier in the brick wall presentation.  Mathew Patton was of Augusta County, Virginia. The problem was that there were three Mathew Pattons there at the same time.  I used an Excel spreadsheet to record every occurrence of all Mathew Pattons.  I was lucky in that I had a marriage record for my Mathew Patton as well as exit dates from Augusta County for my Mathew and one of the other Mathews.  My Mathew migrated to Alabama and one of the other ones migrated to Kentucky.  I had pretty close dates for the migrations via a couple of newspaper articles.  These extra dates helped me start dividing the three Mathews up.  I also noted the associations each Mathew had with other people (also on the timeline) which helped even more.  One of the Mathews was associated with people that the other two were not.  Timelines are another powerful weapon in your arsenal.

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Location timelines part 2


This is a snippet of a timeline for the state of Mississippi.  Here you will see another reason why you need location timelines.  From 1763 to 1779 this area was under English control.  From 1779 to 1798 it was under Spanish control.  Did you know that?  If you didn’t you might look in the wrong place for records. 

You need to have a general timeline for the United States as well as timelines for all of the states you are interested in.  You should also try to put together a timeline for the individual counties if you can.  You can get that information out of local history books. 

You can even have specialized timelines.  The first one shows the major US epidemics.  The second one is a piece of a US wars and conflicts timeline.




The nice thing about these types of timelines is that they don’t change.  Once you find timelines that you like you don’t have to go looking for them anymore. You can park them in your research binder and they will be there when you need them.

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Timelines of the location

There are two different kinds of timelines that will help you solve brick walls.  The first is a timeline of the location where you are are researching.


Take a look at William Morris:


I was lucky enough to find burial records for William at Magnolia Cemetery.  His grave is unmarked but the original burial records survive.  He died of yellow fever.  I immediately went to the Augusta Chronicle to see if this was a fluke or was there a yellow fever epidemic going on.  There happened to be a yellow fever epidemic in Augusta during that time.  If I didn’t have the burial records could I have figured this out?  Maybe.  I knew that William died between 1837 and 1840 (mentioned in a newspaper article in 1837 and he does not appear in the 1840 census).  If I started nosing around in the paper I would have seen the yellow fever epidemic.  He was only 40 so this is a plausible explanation for his disappearance.  This would have led me to the coroner’s records in Richmond County.  The coroner would have listed the deaths from yellow fever.  He might have not snagged all of them but it would have been well worth checking.  I would also now be looking for any unknown children that might have also died in the epidemic.  His widow and known children moved from Augusta to neighboring  Columbia County which is something I would have expected.  At the very least, when I write up William’s biography I can now include some details of the epidemic from the Augusta Chronicle which adds some depth and interest to William’s story.

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Thank you Twisted Twigs!


I want to thank Deidre Denton of Twisted Twigs on Gnarled Branches for allowing me to use this graphic in my brick wall presentation.  She has always been so generous in allowing me to use her HYSTERICAL comics.  I used this slide right after my talk about the pros and cons of online trees.  The entire room cracked up. 

If you are not subscribed to the Twisted Twigs on Gnarled Branches Facebook Page you need to be.  Deidre sends these memes out almost every day, sometimes multiple times in a day.

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis

Monday, August 19, 2013

Do your own research


The above screenshot is from Ancestry,com’s Public Member trees.  The reason there are 28 people with the wrong information is because it is common for people to just copy what they find on someone else’s tree into their own file without doing any checking at all.  I know exactly where this information comes from.  On the 1880 census Rouja is listed as the son of Ebenezer Grantham and the implied son of Celia but the 1880 census is wrong.1  Rouja is actually their grandson.  Here is the funny part.  You can pretty much discount Celia as Rouja’s mother with no work at all.  Celia would have been 53 when Rouja was born.  Not impossible these days with fertility treatments but virtually impossible in 1877.  At the very least, it should give you cause for suspicion that something isn’t right.  One census record does not constitute proof.  Remember when we talked about “a reasonably exhaustive search?”

You should do a survey of what is available in online trees and compiled genealogies in published books but you can’t just accept that information as gospel even if there are sources for the information listed (but in most cases there are no sources listed).  You must do your own research using the things that you find as clues to help you find original documentation. 

1 1880 U.S. census, St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, population schedule, 5th Ward, enumeration district (ED) 176, p. 401 [stamped], dwelling 52, family 57, Ebenezer Grantham household; digital images,  ( : accessed 23 Oct 2009); citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm T9, roll 471. 

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Compiled genealogies


The above screenshot is from FamilySearch’s Family Tree. James Simmons happens to be my 4th great-grandfather.  I always take a look at Family Tree and’s public and private member trees to see  what all is out there.  That doesn’t mean that you start copying everything you find into your file willy nilly.  Anything you see is merely a clue. 

You notice that James has birth and death dates.  That is pretty impressive considering how far back in time we are looking at.  Where did this person get these  exact dates?  There are no sources listed.  The first thing I would do is I would e-mail the submitter and ask them where they got the dates.  In this case I already know the answer to the question because I am the submitter.  So why didn’t I include the source information?  I was using Legacy to interface with New FamilySearch (the predecessor to Family Tree) and uploading sources was not possible.  I do need to go back and fix that though.  I have his exact birth and death dates because those dates are recorded in his son’s Bible which survives. 

Even if the entry is sourced, you still have to verify that source.  If someone cites a marriage certificate you want to see that marriage certificate yourself.

Tomorrow we will look at an example from where the information is not correct and many people have recorded that incorrect information in their trees.   That is why there is a big red “but” on the slide.

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Time for a nap



It may not sound like it but this is a very effective tool.  Sometimes when you are working really hard on a brick wall and getting nowhere you get tunnel vision and you start making mistakes.  You overlook things that are right there in front of you.  You have plenty of other things that you can work on so just set it aside.  Sometimes just leaving it overnight is enough but I will tell you that I have picked up brick walls that I have set aside for months and then magically the answer comes to me as I am reading through my stuff. 

This is where a research calendar comes in handy.  You can pick up where you left off without getting confused.  Everything you have already done as well as what you still  plan to do is right there.  You have a record of everything you found and what you didn’t find (negative results). You also have the background information you need so you know what you are looking for and why and if there are any limitations to your search.

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis

Friday, August 16, 2013

Time for proofreaders


We have talked about several general strategies including things like rearranging your data, limiting yourself to focused research goals, using research calendars to keep organized and conducting new research using a systematic and methodical system (GPS).  Now we are going to talk about a few specific things you can do to break through a stubborn brick wall.

Have your buddies at the local genealogical society read through your stuff.  You can bet they will have some suggestions for you.  Genealogists love to brainstorm and collaborate.  You will also want your non-genealogist friends and family to read through your work.  Since they come in with no preconceived notions, they will be able to find flaws in your train of thought and logic.  If you have all your ducks in a row, even a lay person should be able to follow along.  They will be the ones to say, “Wait a minute.  How can John Doe’s father be James Doe.  You said that James Doe fought in the Civil War.  Did he come home on a furlough or something?”

Another advantage to having someone else look at your work is that it forces you to clean it up and get it in a readable format.  Writing up your findings in a narrative may be enough in itself to show you something you didn’t see before. 

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis

Thursday, August 15, 2013




Yes, it is the GPS again.  I talk about this a lot because it really is the best way to do research.  If you adhere to a systematic and methodical approach you won’t miss things.  If you are still unfamiliar with the GPS, you can go back and read some of the other blog posts I have written. 

Step 1 – A Reasonably Exhaustive Search
Step 2 – Complete and Accurate Source Citations
Step 3 – Analysis and Correlation of the Collected Information
Step 4 – Resolution of Any Conflicting Evidence
Step 5 – A Soundly Reasoned, Coherently Written Conclusion
Mastering Genealogical Proof Study Groups

If you are using focused research questions and a research calendar, sticking to the GPS isn’t that difficult.  The hardest part for most people is writing up your findings.  Once you get into the habit of writing everything up it does get easier.  Most of your proofs will be proof statements or summaries and not full blown proof arguments.  Proof arguments are used when you are proving an indirect evidence case or resolving conflicting evidence.  Your research will be much more credible if you take the time to use the GPS.

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

How do you know what’s available?



We now have our focused research question and we have started our research calendar. What’s next?  We need to know what documents sets are available for the location we are interested in.  Once we know that, we can add pertinent sources to our research calendar.

One of the first places I go to get an idea of what all might be available is the FamilySearch Wiki.  There is a page for every county and the pages are constantly being updated by researchers with the latest info.  The second place I go is the Family History Library’s Card Catalog.  This is where I can find out what has been microfilmed.  I also check with the state archives.  Many times they have sources that no one else has.  I also check online repositories such as 

After you have done all of this research to see what is available for your location, you will want to record that information somewhere. Six months from now when you are researching someone else in this same county you will save yourself a lot of time if you saved this information.   I have a research binder in Microsoft OneNote.  I have a tab for each state and a page for each county.  It doesn’t take any time at all to record what sources I found.  I usually just copy and paste the info. 

Here is a small piece of what I have on Washington County, Mississippi. 


I did a simple copy and paste on FamilySearch and it gave me beautiful links. At the bottom of the page it automatically date and time stamps it so I know how current the information is. 

Now that you know what is available, you can add the sources you want to check to your research calendar along with a short blurb about what you are hoping to find.   

Even though you are doing your survey online to see what is available, not all of the documents will be available online.  As a matter of fact, only a small percentage is.  You must be willing to make phone calls and write letters or you won’t be conducting a “reasonably exhaustive search” which is part of the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS).  We will be talking more about the GPS later. 

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Research calendars



Research calendars are known by many different names, research logs, research plans, to-do lists etc.  All of the popular genealogy database software programs (Legacy, RootsMagic, Family Tree Maker, The Master Genealogist, Ancestral Quest) all have built in research calendars you can use.  By the way, “research calendar” is an older term that was in use when I first started out in 1991 and I just continue to use it.  It doesn’t matter what you call it and it doesn’t matter how you write it up, the point is that you need a systematic way of keeping track of what you are doing.

Two of the biggest advantages of using a research calendar is that you can always pick up exactly where you left off if you set your work aside for a time and you won’t accidentally recheck a source because you don’t remember checking it 6 months ago.  Another advantage is having complete citations for your sources in one place so that you can easily copy and paste them wherever you need them. It is important to document any negative results on your calendar.  Sometimes negative results can tell you as much as positives ones can. 

Here are some old posts where I discuss research calendars that you might want to go back and read. 

Research Calendars/Plans/Logs
Questions about research calendars and analyzing the data Part 1
Questions about research calendars and analyzing the data Part 2
Even more questions about research calendars

Here are a few screen shots to give you an idea. 


I want to focus on the top part of the calendar first so that I can point out a couple of things.  The background information is important because it gives you the starting point.  You want to list what you already know that might be helpful as well as anything that will keep you from spinning your wheels (knowing that there are no federal census records prior to 1820 in Wilkes County is important).  The other point I want to make is that you can see that I used an abstract book for the Georgia Land Lottery.  One of the things on my research calendar will be to get that original document.  I did get the document and there was a few clues on it that were not in the abstract book.


Here is an entry that records a negative search.  I document the source I want to check, what I am looking for specifically, and my results.  The last column is blank because I didn’t find anything.  Had I found a guardianship bond I would have documented the location of the bond in my filing system.  I would have also changed my incomplete citation to a complete on so that I could copy and paste the citation as needed.



In an earlier entry in my research calendar, I had found several references to Lydia’s father being Christopher Orr in online family trees.  Christopher Orr was found in the same county as Lydia during the same time period so it was worth checking out.  You can see that the search was negative but I still copied the record and filed it, why?  Because I haven’t ruled out another connection between Lydia and Christopher other than the father/daughter connection.  I want to keep this for possible further research.



If you notice, the date is not filled out.  That means I haven’t done this yet.  The research calendar is a fluid document.  You can keep adding things as your research goes in different directions.


As time goes by I am using the To-Do List in Legacy more and traditional research calendars less.  If I am working on my own family I use the To-Do List.  If I am working a client’s family I still use a formal research calendar.  I want to give you a couple of screen shots of what the To-Do List in Legacy looks like.

LFT1Screenshot taken from Legacy Family Tree

You can see that I am requesting a marriage record for William Simmons and his wife Mary from the Perry County Circuit Court.  Do you see how there is an asterisk next to repository?  If I were to click on the repository tab I would find the complete contact information for the Perry County Circuit Court.  I only have to enter that information once.  Every time I enter a to-do that involves the Perry County Circuit Court I can just quickly link to that information.   Since there isn’t an asterisk next to the results tab I don’t have an answer from the courthouse yet.  If I had, not only would there be something in the results tab, the close date would also be filled out. 

I can filter and sort my to-do tasks a gazillion different ways.  If I wanted to see everything that I have done or plan to do to find a marriage record for this couple all I would have to do is filter by category.


LFT2Screenshot taken from Legacy Family Tree

Here is a negative search.  Even though the document didn’t include what I was hoping for I still filed the document in my filing system in case I need it later.  The File ID field shows me where I put it.  The document did give supporting evidence to other facts about Verna that I want to record.

Again, it doesn’t matter what you use to keep track of your research nor does it matter what you call it.  The point is, you need to have an systematic, organized way to keep track of your train of thought and your efforts.

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis

Monday, August 12, 2013

A focused research question

So far we have gathered up everything that we already know and we have organized it in several different ways to see if maybe we might have missed something.  We haven’t had any luck with that so now we are ready to start with some new research.  What is our first step?


If you work with a focused research goal you will limit the number of sources you need to check to those that could actually contain information that might answer your question.  If your question is too broad you will drive yourself nuts checking everything there is out there.  You will have a hard time keeping it all organized and you will set yourself up for some serious frustration.  Once you have the first question answered, you go on to the next question until you have your ancestor’s life documented. 

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Two programs that can help you



I wrote a blog post on Clooz and Evidentia back in June so I won’t repeat it here (click on the link).   I am all for anything that will help me stay more organized.

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Manipulate your data



The first step to breaking down a brick wall is to gather up everything you have already collected and review the information.  Not only that, you need to put the data in as many different formats that you can.  The more ways you rearrange your data, the more likely you will see something that you didn’t notice before.

The example I used in the lecture was my ancestor Mathew Patton of Augusta County, Virginia.  The problem I had with Mathew is that there were THREE Mathew Pattons in the same county at the same time and all three were generating records.  My brick wall was to separate the records out to the correct Mathew.   I put every single reference to Mathew Patton in an Excel spreadsheet.  I actually included all Pattons because I wanted to see if there were any correlations between the Mathews and any other specific Pattons.  I started out by using an abstract book.  The Chronicles of the Scotch-Irish Settlement in Virginia (3 volumes) by Lyman Chalkley has extracted court records from Augusta County.  My spreadsheet has 357 entries (The Pattons were pretty active record generators!). 

Because I have my data in a spreadsheet, I can sort the data by date, document type and/or person.  I had newspaper articles that gave me exit dates for two of the Mathew Pattons.  One migrated to Kentucky and one migrated to Alabama (mine).  I also knew when my Mathew Patton married and when he died because I have his marriage record and his probate.  With these added known dates I was able to include and exclude certain events on my spreadsheet and slowly I was able to separate the three men.  I still have a couple of court records that I am not sure who they belong to but the majority have been sorted out.  Once I knew which documents went with my Mathew I learned a lot more information about him.

One thing I want to add.  I used a book of court record abstracts to assist me in narrowing things down but I am sure you know by now that I also had to request actual copies of the original documents.  Indexes and abstract books are merely a tool.  No, I didn’t order all 357, only the ones that I determined pertained to my Mathew.

Your collected data needs to be in an organized format or you will get confused and you will miss something.  Tomorrow I will be talking about a couple of tools you can use to keep your data organized.

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis

Friday, August 9, 2013

Solvable brick walls fall into 3 categories



The first type of brick wall has to do with how you organize the data you have collected.  I will be giving you some ideas on how to manipulate your data to see if some answers magically appear.  The second one has to do with how knowledgeable you are about the records that are actually available for your location and time period (HINT – Everything is not online!).  I will show you how you can find this information.  The third type of brick wall isn’t near as difficult as it sounds.  We will be talking about the Genealogical Proof Standard which will be your best tool for this.   In this series I will be giving you some general strategies as well as some specific little tricks to break down your brick walls.

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis

Thursday, August 8, 2013

What is a brick wall?

The first slide is only a condensed version of my bio as an introduction.  You can read my bio on About Me.  Here is the next slide:


When you go in with the attitude that your brick wall is solvable you will be more open to digging in places you wouldn’t have looked before.  The key to breaking down a brick wall is organization, planning and knowing your resources.  We will be talking about all three. 

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Social security numbers

Shelby asked me a great question that I didn’t want to put off so I am posting it today and I will start the PowerPoint slides tomorrow.

Shelby asks:
”I have a copy of my grandmother's death cert and it has her SSN on it.  Should I black that out before uploading or does it really matter after someone is deceased?”

That is a great question because it so happens that the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) is in the news right now.  Basically, lawmakers want to take the SSDI away from researchers completely because they feel that it is an avenue for identity theft.  Genealogists rebutted saying that all they need to do is redact the social security numbers because researchers don’t need that information anyway .  The lawmakers don’t think that is good enough so they want to remove the entire thing.  They have already placed increased restrictions on the SSDI.

Most of the repositories that have the SSDI online have redacted the numbers in good faith which of course makes no difference whatsoever to genealogists.  That is the whole point.  If you had asked me this question a couple of years ago I would have said not to worry about it but because of the political climate right now I would black it out.

For more information about what is going on with the SSDI, please read Judy Russell, CG’s blog post Getting Involved on the SSDI.

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Brick wall busters

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis

IMAG0180Copyright © 2013 Edie Reyes, used with permission

Copyright © 2013 Edie Reyes, used with permission

I had such a good time last week presenting “Brick Wall Busters” to the Augusta Genealogical Society.  There was a great turnout and the presentation was well-received.  I want to put the presentation on the blog using the PowerPoint slides but I only use the slides as an outline when I am speaking so I will be filling it in with some additional narrative.  It isn’t the same as hearing it live because I tend to get very animated when I speak.  You will also miss all of the great questions that were raised and all of the tangents we went off on but I think it will still be fun. 

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis

Monday, August 5, 2013

School is in session

Every once in a while I will post something personal on the blog and today is one of those days.  My son Jimmy starts back to school today.  He is in the 11th grade.  I homeschooled all 5 of my children and Jimmy is the last one.  I take my children’s education seriously so I won’t be as available for the next 9 months.  If you email me, just be patient, I promise I will answer.  The comments to the blog are moderated to keep the spam away so there might be a delay getting comments posted. 

Can you tell what Jimmy would rather be doing than schoolwork?

100_173222005-25-2013 B

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis