31 January 2013


One of the benefits of having a wonderful Southern family is that the women marry young and have lots of children, then outlive many of their younger generations. This has certainly been the case in my family, which explains that I have personally known 2 of my great grandparents, Violet Nancy Greene and Callie May Fenity.

My experience with the two of them can almost be a perfect contrast. Violet was a sweet woman who enjoyed bright shades of pink lipstick and (in my four year old mind) spending time with her favorite great granddaughter (me!) We had sleep overs together in which we wore bright red matching pajamas. I remember that she snored, and she used a wheelchair. The only thing that ever frightened me about her were her stories about monkeys and that she could take her teeth out of her mouth. I nicknamed her Mom Mom Florida, after the place she would frequently leave me to spend her time. I remember that to me she was perfect, and I wanted to be just like her one day.

Callie May Fenity was never what you would call an attractive woman. Every picture I've ever seen her in has her wearing a very severe, worn expression.

By the time I came around, she was already in her 80's and 90's and the oldest woman I had ever met personally, and she became the definition of what old meant to me.

To be perfectly honest, the only things I remember about this woman is how much she terrified me. I remember how her house smelled, and how it always seemed much too small for the obligatory visits we made every holiday to go and see her. I must have instinctively placed myself in such a way as to never see her face, because I have little to no memory of looking at her. I remember the scratchy sound of her voice that reminded me of creaking wood, and the fear that she would want to kiss me. One of her index toes was permanently crossed over her big toe, and it seemed to me like the most unreasonable thing to be wrong with her foot.

My clearest memories of our visits to her home were the hundreds of knick knacks on a shelf right next to the door. They were souvenirs from places my various family members had visited. My favorites were a cast iron couple I always thought were Amish, but could have been any sort of mountain folk. There were thimbles, perfume bottles, metal dishes, too many things to touch and disturb in only one visit.

When she died, I remember that we spent an entire weekend cleaning out a tiny cluttered house, and I got a Mason jar full of buttons out of it. I pretended that it was pirate treasure.

Both of these women have the same relationship to me--they are my great grandmothers. The difference between them in my young mind was vast--one of them I enjoyed seeing immensely, and the other reminded me enough of an old witch that my overactive imagination simply wanted to get out of dodge, fast! But looking back now, I see those interactions so differently.

I see the effort my mother made to make sure that her daughters knew their ancestors, and that the aging women in our family got the chance to know and see us. I see my mother's hands woven throughout every exchange I had with both of these women, and every memory I have of them is truly a gift from her.

My mother was constantly making efforts like this. She would take us to cemeteries to visit graves, even when there was no one buried in them that we knew. She believed firmly that her children should be present at funerals and not be shielded from the concept of death. In so many of the things my mother did that seemed stupid, or crazy, or pointless, or creepy, I gained memories and perspectives that have shaped my identity today. Much of what I was able to do on my own as a teenage genealogist just starting out was because of all the things my mother did to prepare me for that role.

What I gained from those interactions with my great grandmothers doesn't have a price. The value is immense. But what it has done for my relationship with my mother hasn't even begun to come to fruition yet. I will be forever grateful for how she fought with me, dressed me up, put my coat on me, took me to see relatives, dragged me whining through cemeteries, all of it. I wouldn't trade one second of it for anything in this world.

What is our obligation to make sure that the coming generations spend quality time with their elders? Is it worth the fight and the hassle, even with young children?

My answer: Absolutely. I can't imagine where I'd be without that experience. I don't want to imagine it. And because of my mom being a mom and making me do things I didn't want to do when I was 6 years old, I never have to know how else life could have been.

Cheers to you mom!

30 January 2013


This is my motivation.

What is yours?

Alexis de Tocqueville

"History is a gallery of pictures in which there are few originals and many copies."

29 January 2013


So anyone who follows me on Twitter (which should be you, if you use Twitter, link in the blue bar!) knows that I have been doing a massive genealogy overhaul. I have decided to organize myself and all of my digital goodies I have floating around on this computer.

It is not an easy undertaking. It has involved many random folders with unlabeled images scattered in various locations on both hard drives and flash drives, and the last two times I've worked on it have involved me sitting at the computer for 6 hours at a time.

(Including bathroom and Dr. Who breaks, of course. And spending a week out of commission because of the flu.)

But digital organization is important for the same reason that labeling and organizing real photos and records is important--how is someone (including you) supposed to remember/recognize an important document if they have no way to determine what it is?

What I'm learning now, as I'm organizing and labeling certain data I've had for about 5 years now, is that by the time you "get around" to this sort of thing, you no longer remember the things you might need to know in order to perform the task. Oops.

But hindsight teaches, regret only demotivates.

So the valuable question is: How should I label, organize, and store my digital family history data?

How should I label my family history data?

To give a suggestion of what I prefer to do, here is a file name of a census record from my collection:

"Loveless, William_1870 RockCo NC Census."  
Last name, First name_Year Abbreviated county name State Type of document

Just by seeing this file name, I know it's William Loveless and his family from the 1870 Census, in Rockingham County, North Carolina. Anyone who looks at it can probably figure out the same thing. They may not know who William Loveless is, but they would have a much easier time figuring it out if they had to do so.

Come up with a system that works for you and makes sense to you. Then stick to your system. If you do this every time you download a digital file, you never have to go back and figure it out again later. Unless you're like me and you only label census records.

So, I think the important emphasis for this question is how you SHOULDN'T do it.

  1. Do not do nothing. If your file labels are the same tags they received when you downloaded them from the web or uploaded them from your digital camera, they are totally unsearchable. As helpful as the file name "DSCN1027" is of a digital scan of 5 obituaries from the Keatts line, it could certainly be improved. Something as simple as KeattsObituaries1 (in the event of multiple pages) can be more helpful than random numbers and letters. This is identical to a shoe box full of old photographs with absolutely nothing written on the back and no one who remembers who they are. Tragic.
  2. Beware of shortcuts. Once we understand the importance of labeling our files, the realization sets in that it becomes a boring task. We find ways to abbreviate and cut corners to make it easier. But is your system possible to follow by someone other than you? Is it consistent? Is it searchable? And perhaps the most direct question of all: Is it a fat hot mess? If yes, What are you gonna do about it? (That's where I was about two weeks ago, FYI)
  3. Deal effectively with delegation. Do you have multiple family members working from the same family tree, or different lines? Are they working off of at least a similar pattern as you? Because if you ask a beloved niece/granddaughter/cousin/brother to help you and you do not give them specific instructions in regards to organization and labeling, it may end up being more of a hassle than a help. Simple instructions of how you would like them to label their documents and photos can help tremendously.
  4. Be aware of how you plan to organize the information. There are a variety of ways to organize family history information--everyone has their preference and what works for the way they think and their family. But however you choose to do it, your file labels should help you organize. If you label all of your photos and documents by geographic location and you want to organize them by the first and last name of the people to whom they apply, that information won't be readily available to you just by glancing at the file name. This is exactly the kind of inconsistency we want to avoid because the time I spend trying to figure things out is time I will never get back.
On that note...

How should I organize my family history data?

The answer to this question is truly different not only for every family, but for each genealogist at their phase in the process. When I was a novice, I organized everything geographically because it was easiest for me to differentiate between my father and mother's families. My mom's family was from Maryland and Tennessee, and my father's was from Virginia and North Carolina. But as my mother's family grew in terms of the information I uncovered, I discovered many people who were also from Virginia, and my system fell apart. Because of that, my suggestions are:
  1. Be adaptable. If something doesn't work anymore, change your approach. Something else I used to do that I found ineffective was keeping documents separate from photos. That created a mess in which all of my family history data is strewn between My Documents, My Pictures, My Downloads, My Desktop, and my flash drive. By being adaptable, I can change this. And by being determined despite my current fever coming and going, I will vanquish too!
  2. Keep it simple. I have found the simplest way is to organize by last name. I started out with folders for entire lines by last name. Within that folder, I have begun creating individual folders for people by first and last name. I'm not sure that this will work for me in the long run--sometimes I want to scan over all of the documents for a line quickly so I can find any unfinished projects of mine. I have quite a few digital copies of cemeteries I have never touched because they take time. If I shove them into a folder within a folder, I may never get back to them again. My desire to be organized cannot further contribute to my weakness for procrastination.
  3. Make time to organize. I honestly don't think my organization issues would have gotten as bad as they are had I just done it little by little over time, especially during dry spells when I had no new data coming in. Had I seen organization as a part of what I have to do as a family historian, I would have treated my data much differently.

How do I store my family history data?

There are no long-term data storage options when it comes to digital media. There is no such thing as a hard drive or a flash drive or a server that will last forever. I am terrible at losing flash drives, and they have a relatively short lifespan. External hard drives can live even less time, as I just discovered. Because mine, you know, BROKE!

So, I want to get away from constant fussing with storing things on a flash drive and a computer. I'm willing to let someone else do the heavy lifting on storage for me at this point. In order to get a more maintenance-free digital storage, I recommend online data storage. There are quite a few options available. Before you choose yours, keep a couple of things in mind.
  1. Do your homework. Family history data isn't just your sensitive data--it's the sensitive data of other people. Before you start using just any data storage service, find out if it's secure. How long has the website been around, or likely to be around? Do they have a free storage option? Do you prefer a paid service? How much storage space do they offer? How much space do you need? Do they cancel your account for inactivity? Do they allow other people to see and download your data by default? Decide what features you want, and determine who is able to give you those features for the right price.
  2. Make sure it's something you can/will use. This was why I ultimately decided to go with Google Drive. Everything I own and use is Google-based. And even though Google Drive only offers 5 GB of space, they don't count any Google Docs from that limit. So if I convert my data into a Google Docs format, I can potentially have unlimited space. The fact that Google Drive comes with a desktop app that allows me to open it almost as a folder on my computer allows me to work seamlessly with my other files and programs. Google Drive also has an Android app which will allow me to see and access that data on both my Kindle Fire and my phone. That accessibility was impressive, and something I really want to see played out in how I do family history work.
  3. Alternatives to Google: Here are a few of the other options I explored. If you are a Windows/Hotmail user, you already have access to online storage in Windows Live Skydrive. They offer you 7 GB of free storage. The interface for it is similar to Windows 8, which may give it a certain learning curve. The largest free storage limit I have found so far comes from MediaFire, who offer a ridiculous 50 GB. The interface looks very straightforward and easy to use. Set your files to private if you don't want the whole world to be able to download them though.
From this experience I have learned a fundamental difference between true organization and cleanup. Cleanup is when a mess has been created, and the mess is put away the same way it always has been. Organization in the actual change in behavior that keeps the mess from happening. My goal for my family history endeavors is to be organized so I can avoid the hassle of cleanup. I know that as I achieve that, my productivity will only go up, as well as the satisfaction I find in genealogy done right the first time.

17 January 2013

Granite Mountain Records Vault

This collection is impressive, and any genealogist would love to get their hands on the records in this place

And because of FamilySearch Indexing, that's becoming more and more possible.

As a volunteer opportunity that offers projects in languages from all over the world, it's a fast and easy way to offer what money cannot buy--the ability to be reconnected to family members, both the living and the dead.

Volunteering with FamilySearch Indexing is fast and easy. Through an easy-to-download program, you can download batches from dozens of different projects. Simply follow the instructions and you can help to digitize this collection, one page at a time, making them available to the users who need them.

Visit the FamilySearch's indexing page to get started.

George Bernard Shaw

"If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”


That's hilarious.

Get it on zazzle for $1.95

Cast Iron Memories

Just came across this picture as I was organizing my family history data. They're cast iron knick knacks that I used to play with as a kid when I had to go to Callie May Fenity's house. She was my great grandmother, and she is honestly one of the oldest people I have ever met.  She had an entire shelf of these sorts of things that I would play with out of a desperate hope that no one would make me kiss her because she scared me.

The things you remember right?

16 January 2013


So I had a recent breakthrough of which I am still tingling with excitement.

This is John Clark and Nancy Bray. They are my great great great grandparents. They lived from the 1830's and on through the turn of the century. I had no idea this picture even existed until I made the rounds, so to speak, at Thanksgiving with all of the older members of my family. My great great Aunt Josie told me about this picture, and I already knew I had to come back down to see her. But that wasn't even the most valuable piece of information I found when we did go back.

Entering a relative's home to do an interview/exploration (for lack of a better word) can sometimes feel awkward. But they are some of the most important work you can do because of the things you discover--both in terms of knowledge that would be otherwise unknown because only they remember it, and for all the accidental discoveries. This visit was an example of both.

After making digital copies of many of her pictures with my fiance's camera phone, I had some quality photo finds.

My great great grandmother Laura Clark

My great grandmother, Violet Nancy Greene

And don't get me wrong, I was really grateful to have the chance. The photo of John and Nancy was already worth the hour-long drive down to Baltimore for me. But I could just feel in my bones that there was more. There was something else I needed to find, there was another reason I was there.

What do you do in that moment? That was my question. I don't remember that I prayed consciously, but the prayer of course was there in my heart. I could feel that there were people there waiting to be found. It's a feeling I can't describe, but I'm sure many genealogists know.

"Aunt Josie, do you have any other photo albums I could look at?" I asked.

"Yeah, down in that cabinet. I don't know where it is, but it's a small one," she kindly obliged me. She promptly went back to talking to (and flirting with) my fiance. The women in my family are so cute and so funny when they're 80.

I hit the box, with all of its assorted envelopes and unassuming articles. Maybe that photo album was what I was needing. I wasn't sure. But I knew I couldn't leave until I figured it out.

As I removed layers of increasingly interesting strata from the small cardboard box, I can across two more photo albums. One was about the size of a small address book, full of black and white pictures. The other was a medium sized album with no cover. But those weren't the finds of the day.

Underneath the albums were dozens of funeral programs, obituaries, and pieces of personal histories. I nearly died of excitement.

My favorite find was this lovely little score. It was written by Mary Ethel Ferguson, sister of Violet Greene and Aunt Josie. I don't know the occasion, but it is a beautiful tribute to their mother Laura Clark.

It's hard for me to describe the personal significance of this heartfelt expression of love--not just for their mother, but for God Himself. I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the only member in my family. The rest of my family have their own private views of God and the importance of faith, but it isn't an open subject or motivating factor in their lives. We don't really have a religious identity as a family. This leaves me feeling alone and misunderstood, and craving the companionship of at least one person who understands my motivations and priorities. Couldn't there be just ONE person in my family who could understand? I've asked myself that before.

And, as it turns out, there are. And there may be many. They just happen to be dead.

Mary Ethel Greene Ferguson
And the reality is, faith as a tradition doesn't appear to have ever been absent from my family, nor did it "die off," as it may have previously appeared to me. It was simply carried off by other branches of the family tree, in the hearts of men and women I have never met. Ethel's writing is evidence enough of that, and I look forward to meeting her someday.

The funeral programs of all these deceased members of my family were interesting. Even though these deaths are separated by many years, and even different parts of Tennessee where this part of my family is from, many of the programs are printed on the same paper--all of them with the 23rd Psalm on them. I know that is unremarkable for funeral materials, but these funeral programs are identical--same green cover and everything. I'm wondering if it's a tradition of whatever church to which they belonged--perhaps of the same pastor whose name appears in many of them.

One day, I hope to make a journey to Tennessee and to discover what is left of them there. Now that I have their burial information, the chance of doing this is becoming a more concrete possibility. 

All because of one visit to an aging relative, one question, one hunch unignored.

But Genealogy goes with everything

Even math.

George Santayana

"History is always written wrong, and so always needs to be rewritten."