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# Sunday, 06 November 2016
30-Day Family History Writing Challenge: Day 6
Posted by Diane

We're six days into the NaNoWriMo-inspired 30-Day Family History Writing Challenge.  Today's post is from guest editor, Vanessa Wieland, who writes in response to this prompt:

Select your favorite family photo, and write about the moments just before and/or after the photo was taken. Why was it taken? Was your ancestor happy to be in it?

This is a portrait of my great-great grandmother, Elizabeth Samuels. The occasion of this photo is presumably a happy one. According to the note on the back, it was taken on her 80th birthday. She seems to be listening here, perhaps to the photographer directing her to tilt her head just so and look over his shoulder. Perhaps she’s reflecting on her birthday plans. Was there a party? Perhaps the thought of cake is inspiring that smile.

My grandfather instilled in me an appreciation for my Welsh heritage, but seeing this photo was the first time I felt such a strong connection to an ancestor I’ve never met. As it turns out, I was born on my great-great grandmother’s birthday.

My grandfather mentioned loving her accent as a child, but he didn’t talk about her that much; his family stories tended to revolve far more around his Uncle Dan. Yet it’s her voice that echoes through them both in the strong sense of family she instilled in them - and through them, to my mother, my sister, and myself. 

When we first found this photo, it was as we were cleaning out the house of another of her descendants. The occasion was not a happy one; my mother’s cousin had passed and my grandfather was the closest living relative, so it fell to him - and us - to sift through a near-stranger’s belongings and tie up any loose ends.

Yet within those belongings, we found two items of note that my mother claimed; a cameo brooch and this photo. My mother found the brooch first and recalled seeing it as a child, but could not remember where. It wasn’t until a few days later that we came across this photo, and saw the same brooch pinned to Elizabeth’s blouse. The brooch was surprise enough, but even now, I'm struck by how much my mother looks like her.

I love this photo not just because I was born on her birthday, and a few decades after this photo was taken, but because the smile on her face seems to reflect a genuine contentment along with a sense of anticipation. I imagine her thinking, "I'm really looking forward to celebrating with my family, and a nice piece of cake."

Writing about your family history
Sunday, 06 November 2016 16:50:02 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [4]
# 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 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!

Your Great-Granddaughter,

Madge Maril

Genealogy fun
Tuesday, 01 November 2016 15:38:51 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [0]
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 like

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.
  • 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. 7!). 
Here are a few ways you can step into the shoes of your ancestors and learn more about their everyday lives.

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.

As 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 similar places.  

Research buildings
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 written narrative?

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 Nov. 7-13.

Research Tips | Social History
Tuesday, 01 November 2016 12:19:16 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [0]
# 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 place. 

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 research):

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

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)  #  Comments [0]
# 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 helpful, too.

The latest 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 cemetery:
  • 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 plot.
  • 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, Ladenkoetter:
  • membership in fraternal societies, religious organizations or unions, revealed by symbols on the gravestone. Here's 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 places. I 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 held. 

  • cause of death. Rarely, it might be engraved on a headstone, like 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.

See 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 (it's available in print or as a digital download).

Cemeteries | Family Tree Magazine articles | Family Tree University | Research Tips
Tuesday, 04 October 2016 10:26:33 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #  Comments [0]
# 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:
  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.
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

Genealogy books | Genealogy Web Sites | Genetic Genealogy
Monday, 03 October 2016 13:55:22 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #  Comments [1]
# 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 share.

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.

Our Problem-Solving 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 dropped-off-the-face-of-the-Earth ancestors.

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 after 1912.

3. Look for the records. Major genealogy database sites like, 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 county site.

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 parents' names.

The Problem-Solving 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.

Find out more about this genealogy learning opportunity at

Tuesday, 27 September 2016 12:41:28 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #  Comments [1]
# 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

Pin this article for later!

Genealogy books | Genetic Genealogy
Monday, 26 September 2016 11:38:41 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #  Comments [1]
# 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:
  1.  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.

  2. 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.
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?

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

Genealogy books | Genetic Genealogy
Monday, 19 September 2016 11:10:17 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #  Comments [7]
# 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:
  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

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

Genealogy books | Genetic Genealogy
Tuesday, 13 September 2016 10:37:26 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #  Comments [3]