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Tuesday, 01 November 2016
30-Day Family History Writing Challenge: Day 1
Posted by Diane
Inspired by November's National Writing Month (known as NaNoWriMo online), the editors of Family Tree are kicking off the 30-Day Family History Writing Challenge.
Each day in November, we'll share a writing prompt on the front page of FamilyTreeMagazine.com that will help you use your research in a new, creative way. We will also post the prompt on this page. Spend as much or as little time on each prompt as you can—after all, it's your family's story! You can also follow along on Facebook and Twitter, where you can share your writing with us and other genealogists.
For Day 1, the prompt is: Write a letter to an ancestor you've never met. Include questions you've always wanted to ask him or her, plus some that reflect what you've already learned about your ancestor (for example, "Do you enjoy your new job?" or "How are you coping with your father's death?").
Madge Maril, genealogy intern at Family Tree Magazine, wrote this letter to her Great-Grandfather:
Dear Harry Aaron Maril,
Your story is the one that began my lifelong interest in my genealogy. You were the Maril that was born in Europe but left in order to pursue a better life in America—or so the story goes.
You and your wife Katherine bore one of my favorite people I have ever had the pleasure to know: my grandfather. Grandpa Bill was warm, loving, intelligent, kind, and most of all, absolutely hilarious with a sense of humor so dry it made you need a glass of water after talking to him.
Grandpa was always very shy about his upbringing, so I have so many questions about you. I know that growing up during the Great Depression was extremely hard on our family and that it was Great-Grandma Kate that urged her son to become a doctor in order to make a name for himself and generate some income.
I’m still not sure exactly where you are even from, Harry! Where were you born?! In the 1915 Census, it’s marked that you were born in Germany. In the 1920 Census, it’s marked you were born in Russia. In the 1940 Census, it’s marked that you were born in Lithuania. Then, on your registration card, you wrote that you were born in “Alaes Lorine”, France.
The genealogists of the family think you may have been fibbing in order to cover up that you were German during the war. I think you spelled Alsace-Lorraine wrong on purpose, in a way to show you aren’t really from there at all… maybe as a clue to the future generations you knew would look into it. Which answers the question I’ve always had about where Grandpa Bill got his dry sense of humor.
Until you write back, I guess I’ll keep researching. I’m determined to figure out where your hometown is!
Tuesday, 01 November 2016 15:38:51 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)
How to Learn What Your Ancestor's Life Was Really Like
Posted by Diane
Genealogists are increasingly interested in knowing not just their
ancestors' names and important dates, but also what they did every
day, where they went and what they saw. What their lives were really
This will do (at least) two things for you:
- It'll improve your research by helping you form theories about
your ancestors' lives and figure out where to look for records.
For example, learning about the history of German immigrants to
your family's American hometown might help you see that the
overwhelming majority came from a particular part of Germany.
Maybe that's where your family came from, too.
Here are a few ways you can step into the shoes of your ancestors
and learn more about their everyday lives.
- It'll help you understand your family's story and put it
together in a way that makes sense. This is an important step
for writing your family history, as you'll learn in our Genealogist's
Essential Writing Workshop (it starts online Nov.
Go beyond basic records
My great-great-grandfather's 1923 estate inventory lists the contents of
the family cigar store and home, helping me picture how the family lived.
The cigar business' 1880 industrial census detailed the number of
employees (three men, two women), their wages (.50 to $1 per day) and more.
I've written about before, newspaper articles have given me
great information about my grandfather's youth in an orphanage.
Visit the places
A bunch of years ago, I got to interview
author Ian Frazier about writing his family history book Family
(MacMillan). He advised going to places important to your ancestors,
trying to get as close as possible to they way it was during their
lives. Go to family homesteads, neighborhoods, churches and schools. If the places no longer exist or you can't get there, find
Another way to virtually visit an ancestor's home is to learn
everything you can about it: When it was built, when your family
acquired it, who lived there before and after your family, what it
looked like, how it changed over the years.
Peruse local histories and guides
Guides to area history help you learn where your family would've gone to church and school, and what they saw each day.
I have book with self-guided walking tours of my Cincinnati German
families' Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, with pictures of buildings
and descriptions of their former functions. Local histories
published when your ancestor was alive give you a first-person
account of places and events.
Find old photos and maps
Libraries, historical societies and online memory collections are
full of historical photos of buildings, streets and neighborhoods.
Try searching for a place in the Library
of Congress online collections.
Maps also give you details on buildings and neighborhoods. This
Sanborn map shows my Cincinnati ancestor's home and cigar business
on the corner. You can see it was on the front of the lot, two rooms
on the first floor, three stories, with a three-story side porch and
two outbuildings in the back.
Gather relatives' memories
My grandma is gone now, but I treasure the times I sat with her and
looked at old pictures on my phone. She'd reveal snippets of her
life as a girl: How both of her grandmothers had player pianos (but favored different music). How she loved her one dress that wasn't a hand-me-down. How the family dog would ride along on the running board
of the car, then walk home when the family got where
they were going.
Even if no relatives are around to ask, you might have home
sources—letters, journals, photos—that share family memories of
times gone by.
Write it down
Interested in putting together your family history research into a
Follow our 30-Day
Family History Writing Challenge daily prompts (Family Tree
Magazine editors will be sharing some of our own family
stories here on the blog) and take it up a notch with the Genealogist's
Essential Writing Workshop at FamilyTreeUniversity.com
Research Tips | Social History
Tuesday, 01 November 2016 12:19:16 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)
Tuesday, 25 October 2016
Nine Kinds of Ancestor Death Records You Should Look For
Posted by Diane
Genealogists start with death—meaning that we generally
research ancestors from their deaths and moving back in time. But
death-record searches can be challenging for several reasons,
including when relatives died before statewide vital record-keeping or their names were recorded oddly.
If you can't find a death certificate for a relative, look for
other death records for the time and place he died. If you've found one death record, look for others. Different types
of records might have different details, and they provide
additional documentation that you have the right death date and
You'll learn how to find and analyze death information in Family
Tree University's three-day crash course, Tricks and
Treats in Death Records.
Here are nine kinds of old death records to look for (including examples I've found in my
The State Death Certificate
Once statewide death recording began (in the early 1900s
for most states), counties created standard-format death certificates and sent copies to the state vital records office. Our free
downloadable Vital Records Chart lists when these official
death certificates began for each state. You can order them from county and state
vital record offices, possibly with privacy
restrictions (such as proving a relationship to the deceased) if the
death was less than 25 or 50 years ago.
The Local Death Record
You're not necessarily out of luck if your ancestor died before statewide death records. Many cities and towns issued their own
death certificates, which varied in format. They may be available
microfilmed or digitized via a local library or archive, the state
archive, or online at a genealogy website such as FamilySearch or Ancestry.com.
The Death Register
Local jurisdictions may have
recorded deaths in a table form, such as this register with the death date, cause and place, along with the deceased's name, age, birthplace, parents' names and address (all if known). The columns span two pages. Look for death registers in the same places as local death records.
Substitute Death Records
Before statewide vital records begin, death recording can be hit or
miss. Luckily, many types of records can substitute for death
records, providing similar information. That includes the cemetery record:
the census mortality schedule:
the church death record:
and the probate file and the obituary and the burial permit and more. I haven't even touched on
indexes to all these records.
Learn all about the different types of death records, where to find
them and how to analyze them for clues—and false leads!—in Family
Tree University's three-day crash course, Tricks and
Treats in Death Records.
This crash course runs Oct. 31-Nov. 2, and includes
video classes and a conference message board for getting help from
your instructor and fellow students. See the Tricks
and Treats in Death Records crash course program at
Cemeteries | Research Tips | Vital Records
Tuesday, 25 October 2016 08:30:13 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Tuesday, 04 October 2016
9 Things You Can Learn About Your Ancestors From the Cemetery
Posted by Diane
Changing scenery and pleasant temperatures make Fall an especially
good time to visit cemeteries (alongside a genealogy buddy for fun
and safety). Seeing the gravestone and viewing records in the
cemetery office may yield ancestry information you won't find in an
online database of burials—although online databases are very
issue of Family Tree Magazine, October/November 2016,
has our Genealogy Workbook on cemetery research. You'll also find
essential guidance in Family Tree University's two-week course on Doing
Cemetery Research (your access to course materials starts as
soon as you register).
Here are nine things you can learn about ancestors from the
- name and birth and death dates. Most tombstones have
the deceased's name (although sometimes you get the dreaded "his
wife") and at least a year of birth and death. But you also
might learn parents' names. One of my family cemeteries has a
searchable database that includes parents' names, if known. It's
the only place I've found parents' names for my
third-great-grandmother Elizabeth Butler Norris. (A visit to this cemetery is in order to view records—they may contain information beyond what's in the database.)
- relationships, either named on the stone or deduced
from nearby stones and further research. I found two "mystery
men" buried in my family plot, and subsequent research led me to
my third-great-grandmother's first marriage. Here's
my post about that.
- babies you didn't know to look for, because they were
born and died between censuses and/or before official birth
records. Some of my family cemeteries have separate "infant"
sections, and tiny stones are easily overgrown, so you might
find clues by searching in a database or through records in the
cemetery office, even if there's no telltale marker in a family
- maiden names. They may be on a woman's grave marker
or on a burial record, if it names parents or if her father or
another relative owned the plot. Or you may discover the maiden
name by researching those buried near her. It's a bit hard to see in this photo, but my great-great-grandmother's stone has her maiden name,
an outline for Family Tree University's two-week Doing Cemetery
Research course by clicking here, and check out the
October/November Family Tree Magazine in
ShopFamilyTree.com (it's available in
print or as
a digital download).
- membership in fraternal societies, religious
organizations or unions, revealed by symbols on the
a nice collection of photos of gravestone symbols and their
interpretations. These can lead you to records of
the fraternal society.
- immigrant place of origin. This is one I haven't
encountered in my own research, but genealogy experts recommend
checking burial records and gravestones for immigrant birth
found a photo on the Everyone Has a Story blog of an Irish
immigrant's tombstone with his county and parish of birth.
- religion, especially if the person is buried in a
cemetery affiliated with a church. If not, a burial record might
include a religion or the name of a church where services were
- cause of death. Rarely, it might be engraved on a
the examples on this Rootsweb page. They include "was
killed by a fall from a building" and "while ... viewing a span
of horses he was suddenly kicked by one of them in the lower
part of his bowels."
More likely, though, you'll get clues to point your research in a
direction. The same death date on a woman's
gravestone and a nearby child's could indicate a mother died in
childbirth. Several deaths around the same time
might indicate an epidemic. A young man's death during wartime
could mean he died in service.
Cemeteries | Family Tree Magazine articles | Family Tree University | Research Tips
Tuesday, 04 October 2016 10:26:33 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Monday, 03 October 2016
3 Ways to Use GEDmatch in Your DNA Research
Posted by Diane
You’ve spent money on a DNA test for yourself and possibly one or more relatives, but what do you do with those results once you've got them? How can you wring every bit of knowledge out of those results and get the most for your money?
Third-party tools (many of which are free) give genealogists more ways of exploring and analyzing their DNA test results. DNA expert and author of The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy Blaine Bettinger shares three ways you can analyze your results with GEDmatch, one of the most commonly used genetic genealogy tools:
The image above, a screenshot from GEDmatch's home page, displays some of the analyses GEDmatch can run. For more on tools available at GEDmatch and other third-party sites, check out The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy, available in both print and e-book versions at ShopFamilyTree.com.
- Find genetic cousins in the GEDmatch database.
Unless you’ve tested at all three testing companies (23andMe, AncestryDNA, and Family Tree DNA), your DNA isn't being compared to all test-takers. GEDmatch, however, has thousands of test results from each of the testing companies, allowing your DNA to be compared to the DNA of those who had their DNA tested by other companies. After you’ve uploaded your own raw data to GEDmatch, you can compare your DNA to all those test-takers and (hopefully) identify even more genetic cousins.
- Identify shared segments of DNA.
Not all the genetic genealogy testing companies provide information about shared segments. Each shared segment at GEDmatch, however, can be identified by chromosome number, start location, stop location, and total size. This can be helpful for genealogists interested in chromosome mapping and triangulation.
- Analyze your DNA with other ethnicity calculators.
Biogeographical estimates, also called “ethnicity” estimates, aren't an exact determination of your genealogical ethnicity. Instead, these calculations are just estimates based on imperfect modern-day populations. Accordingly, you shouldn’t take these estimates to the bank.
Instead, look for patterns or trends among multiple ethnicity calculators at the testing companies and at GEDmatch, and focus on estimates at the continental level (Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe), which tend to be more accurate.
Genealogy books | Genealogy Web Sites | Genetic Genealogy
Monday, 03 October 2016 13:55:22 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Tuesday, 27 September 2016
Simple Steps to Solve Your Genealogy Research Problems
Posted by Diane
A cousin I met online (one who attended my grandparents’ wedding as
a child!) asked me to look at a research problem on a line we don’t
Her great-aunt Elizabeth Schalk was born April 4, 1893, married
Wesley Thomas in 1910, and became a widow two years later.
Then she disappeared.
Was Elizabeth “lost” under a second husband’s surname? That’s not an
uncommon situation with female relatives. In a similar scenario, you
might know an ancestor by a spouse's name, and have trouble
discovering her maiden name so you can find her parents.
Bootcamp for Genealogists, happening online Oct. 3-9, will
help you formulate strategies to research this and other genealogy
problems: unknown immigration, mysterious places of origin, missing
from the census, your usual appeared-from-nowhere or
The workshop will show you how to use some of the same principles
that led us to Elizabeth:
1. Develop a theory that could explain what happened:
Elizabeth remarried, began using her new husband's name, and
possibly moved away. This might involve doing research into what was
going on in the particular time and place.
2. Determine what type of record would provide information
about your theory. Local research guides can help here. In this
case, a marriage record such as a certificate, license, bann or
newspaper announcement showing an Elizabeth Thomas getting married
3. Look for the records. Major genealogy database sites like
Ancestry.com, FamilySearch, Findmypast and MyHeritage are good places to
start. But don't overlook lesser-known sites, such as the local
historical or genealogical society website, or resources you can
find through the USGenWeb
I came up empty on big genealogy sites, but the Hamilton County (Ohio) Genealogical
Society website had an indexed 1915 marriage bann for an
Elizabeth Thomas marrying Herman J. Bley.
You might need to look offline for published indexes, or if you have
a narrow enough time frame, browse original records at a repository
or on microfilm.
4. Find additional evidence. Elizabeth Bley's census
listings and Social Security Death Index record were consistent with
what we knew about Elizabeth Thomas. My cousin ordered Elizabeth
Bley's 1981 death certificate, which put the nail in the coffin of
this brick wall, so to speak, with the right maiden name and
Bootcamp for Genealogists starts Monday, Oct. 3, and includes
seven video sessions (which you can download for viewing whenever
you want), written material, exercises to apply to your own
research, and an exclusive workshop message board to exchange
questions and ideas with other attendees.
out more about this genealogy learning opportunity at
Tuesday, 27 September 2016 12:41:28 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Monday, 26 September 2016
Quick Tip: Sifting Through DNA Matches
Posted by Diane
If you’ve taken an autosomal DNA test at 23andMe, AncestryDNA, or Family Tree DNA, you likely have a long list of genetic cousins. After sequencing portions of your DNA, the testing company compares your results to the results of other test-takers in its database. If you share enough DNA with another test-taker in the database, you’ll see that person in your list of matches.
The company evaluates how close you might be to another test-taker based on the amount of shared DNA. See the image for a sample list of AncestryDNA matches (with usernames blurred for privacy).
In this guest post, Blaine Bettinger, DNA expert and author of The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy, shares a quick tip for identifying your DNA matches with the best chance of aiding your research.
For test-takers with ancestry in well-represented areas (such as Europe), the list of genetic matches may be thousands of people long. A few of those matches might be close, but most will be distant matches who share just a small segment of DNA. How should you process all those matches? Which ones should you focus on to attempt to find your common ancestry?
Focus on your closest matches first to increase your chances of finding family members and learning more about your family tree. If you’re lucky enough to have a predicted second cousin or closer, review that match’s family tree (if the match has provided one) for familiar names or places from your own family tree. Since the relationship is so close, you may only need to build his or her tree out for a couple of generations.
If the match doesn’t have a family tree, you might be able to build one for them or contact the match and ask for one.
What do I mean by your "closest" matches? Simple: The ones with whom you have an estimated relationship of fourth cousins or closer. You have a pretty good chance of finding common ancestry (such as a great-grandparent) with second cousins or closer, and a decent chance of doing the same (i.e., finding a shared second or third great-grandparent) with predicted third and fourth cousins. Beyond predicted fourth cousins, however, you'll have difficulty finding a common ancestor. In most cases, you'll only want to pursue these more distant matches if you have additional concrete evidence that you share ancestors.
Learn more about analyzing DNA matches and using test results in your research in The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy, available in both print and e-book versions at ShopFamilyTree.com.
Pin this article for later!
Genealogy books | Genetic Genealogy
Monday, 26 September 2016 11:38:41 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Monday, 19 September 2016
How to Handle Surprises in Your DNA
Posted by Diane
DNA testing is a powerful new tool for genealogists. And just like any other genealogical record, it's capable of revealing secrets.
For example, the results of a DNA test can reveal relationships that were either long-forgotten, or were long-held family secrets. Knowing this, what should you do when you discover a secret in your family?
Genetic genealogy expert and author of the new book The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy Blaine Bettinger shares some tips for handling surprises in your DNA findings:
You can follow a few important steps before testing that will help prepare you and the test-taker for potential surprises:
And what should you do if you find something unexpected in your research? If you uncover an unknown relationship or family secret, break the discovery to the affected relatives slowly and carefully. Are you absolutely certain about your conclusion, or is there room for other interpretations? What can you do to confirm the result before sharing information that might not be correct?
- Explain to prospective test-takers that you may discover family secrets and unknown relationships through a DNA test. The test-taker can then make an informed decision about whether or not to test, and will be better prepared for possible outcomes.
- You can also ask the test-taker—again, before testing—whether he or she would even like to know any surprises or unexpected findings that are uncovered. Some family members may decide that they'd rather not know, and that decision will guide how you respond to any discovery you make.
Once you’re sure you’ve discovered an unknown relationship or family secret, you must then decide what to do with that information. Even if the relationship you've found is hundreds of years old, it will likely have an impact on living individuals and thus must be considered carefully. If the family member involved has indicated that she wants to know about any uncovered surprises, you can thoughtfully and gently share the new information with her, keeping the emotional impact of the discovery in mind. If the family member has indicated that he'd rather not know, you have a responsibility not to share that information with him.
For thousands of people, the discovery of family secrets is an inevitable part of genetic genealogy—but that doesn't mean those secrets should always be divulged.
Learn more about the ethics of DNA testing—as well as the Genetic Genealogy Standards that guide ethical DNA testing and research—in The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy, available in both print and e-book versions at ShopFamilyTree.com.
Genealogy books | Genetic Genealogy
Monday, 19 September 2016 11:10:17 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Tuesday, 13 September 2016
3 Tips for Choosing a DNA Relative to Test
Posted by Diane
Average Amount of Autosomal DNA Shared With Relatives
Genetic genealogy, using DNA to study ethnicity and identify genetic cousins, is becoming an essential part of doing genealogy. If you’ve tested yourself and want to explore DNA tests for family, which relative should you ask to take a DNA test? Are some cousins or relatives better to test?
Here are some tips from guest blogger and DNA expert Blaine T. Bettinger, author of the new book The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy, for finding the right relative to help you break through that brick wall with DNA:
Blaine provides more tips and hints for identifying the best person to test in his new book, The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy. You can find both print and e-book versions of the book online at ShopFamilyTree.com.
- Test the oldest generation first. Testing the oldest generation available is often the best course of action. The members of this generation might not be available to test in the future, so it's important to get a DNA sample with an older relative's permission as soon as possible.
Additionally, this generation is often genetically closer to your research questions, meaning older ancestors may have more autosomal DNA (atDNA) from the ancestor of interest.
- Test relatives likely to share DNA with you. As you can see in the image above (red boxes indicate what percentage of atDNA you share, on average, with each relative), second cousins and closer always share at least some DNA, but many third cousins do not. If possible, test relatives who are most likely to share DNA with you. But if your genealogical question relates to an ancestor further back in time, you might have to test distant cousins to get the evidence you need.
- Test relatives who can provide the proper type of DNA. Genetic genealogy has no exact rules, but you'll want to remember some key principles as you identify people to test: While atDNA (the kind of DNA most tests examine) is usually inherited from each parent equally, other types of DNA follow different inheritance patterns.
For example, children receive their mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from their mothers, and males inherit their Y-chromosomal DNA (Y-DNA) from their fathers. If you’re researching an ancestor in your Y-DNA line, you'll likely want to obtain DNA from a male relative in that same Y-DNA line (e.g., your brother, your father, your father's brothers, your paternal grandfather).
Similarly, if you’re researching an ancestor in your mtDNA line, you'll probably start with DNA from a relative in that same mtDNA line (e.g., your siblings, your mother or her siblings, your maternal grandmother). Testing multiple types of DNA may provide you with even more information to help you attack your question!
Genealogy books | Genetic Genealogy
Tuesday, 13 September 2016 10:37:26 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Tuesday, 06 September 2016
9 Tips For a Terrific Fall 2016 Virtual Genealogy Conference
Posted by Diane
2016 Virtual Conference is coming right up Sept. 16-18, with
online genealogy learning opportunities in video classes on genetic
genealogy and DNA, using Ancestry.com, identifying old mystery
photos and more; plus live chats; our exclusive conference message
boards and more.
Now, you can save $25 on Virtual Conference registration when
you enter coupon code FTMSEPT25 at checkout. Register
Watch this quick video tour for an idea how the conference works,
and take in these tips for making the most of this genealogy event.
1. Once you complete your registration, you'll receive an email with
instructions on logging in to participate. Read through the email
(if you have any questions, feel free to email Family Tree
University), and be sure to save it. You'll also get reminders as
the conference gets closer.
2. The welcome page has helpful hints about getting around the
conference, viewing classes and using the message boards, so check
3. The video classes are recorded, so you can watch them whenever
you want during the conference, and download them to your computer
to watch later. It's helpful to watch any you're especially
interested in early in the conference so you have plenty of time to
ask questions on the mesage boards.
4. Live chats are scheduled. Be sure to account for time zones when
you're planning your weekend. We post transcripts on the message
boards for anyone who missed them (and so chat participants don't
have to frantically take notes).
5. If any live chat topics have inspired related questions, you can
get them ready in a Word document before the chat so you can just
copy and paste into the chat window.
6. If you have kids, have some independent activities to keep them
occupied and snacks ready to grab.
7. Have your favorite genealogy snacks and drinks ready, too. It'll
be pretzel crisps and coffee for me.
8. Three topic threads to look for in the message boards:
Of course, there'll also be other threads relating to the video
classes, research brick walls, old family recipes and lots more.
- The introduction board: Tell us who you are, where
you're from, what you hope to get out of the conference and
anything else you want to share.
- The surname board: Post the surnames you're researching
and the place those relatives lived.
- The tech questions board: We'll be checking this one
throughout the conference for any tech issues that come up.
9. When responding to someone's comment in a busy live chat, it
helps to start with their name: "Diane, I hear passport records
are..." Other comments will appear between the original comment and
your response, so this helps connect the two.
out the Fall 2016 Virtual Conference program and register now at
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Family Tree University | Genealogy Events
Tuesday, 06 September 2016 09:55:28 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)