Friday, October 3, 2014

Knowing where the family records are, even if you don't have them

I have a copy of my great-great grandfather's civil war discharge and pension papers.  The copy I have is from the original that he received upon discharge in 1864.  I do not have the original and even though I act as the family genealogist, I am not really entitled to the original just because I have an computer with some names in it. 

My great-great grandfather's had 6 kids and each of those kids had between 3 and 8 kids and that only puts me at my grandfathers generation, there are about a hundred more people a generation below that.  The point is that I am one of hundreds of people who is a direct descendent to him.  The record is also in the archives if the copy in the family ever gets lost.  I was fortunate enough to talk a great uncle into letting me get one copy of the fragile document many years ago before he died.  From that one good copy I made many more copies and scans.

When my great uncle passed away that documents went to his son.  I assume they are still with him since everyone should realize the significances of the document.  The 1980's cartoon series G.I.Joe always ended each episode with a life lesson and the catch phase "...and knowing is half the battle." This phase also holds true for original documents that you have as much right to as everyone else.  Knowing where they are, having and copy for yourself and knowing that they are safe is half the battle, there is no need to fight over getting the original.

Not yours to take 
Once things go out 2 or more generations, many more people have a sake to claim on holding the original.  While it is imperative to make sure the document or picture are safe and trying to get a copy even if you have to drive the owner to Office Max so they can see you make the copy and give it back to them, you do not have to have the original and you may not be entitled to it.  But knowing where the original is, "is half the battle." 

If my house ever caught on fire and my fireproof safe where I keep important documents failed, I would know where I could get another copy of the document.  Historic documents get lost and destroyed all the time, but if they are in the family and you know who has them, you can sleep well at night with your copy.

 If you are concerned about the document, it wouldn't hurt to reach out to the family member about preservation techniques to make sure they are about to pass down the document to their family as well.  Originals are wonderful but if 100 people are just as entitled to them as you, then a copy might have to be good enough. Knowing where the originals are and even noting that in your research can give future generations an idea of what family line they went down.  

The other side of the coin
There are occasions when people want you as the family genealogist to take the original, since they might not have an interest or storage.  This might be true of pictures of distant relative that have not descendants. Great Uncle Sal was a life long bachelor, so when cousin Kelly got a box of his personal items she didn't want to throw them away and wanted you to have the box because you are the keeper of the genealogy.

In genealogy, you can end up with a lot of "stuff", books, pictures, documents and letters.  It is important to hold on to the things you get and get copies of the things you don't possess, but if you had everything you would need another whole house just to store it.  So be happy with what you have and hope that future generations have the room to store even more generations of family significance.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Social Science of Genealogy or Finding the Why?

Often times in genealogy there is a disconnect between the name of a person and the concept that this was a real person who had day to day struggles and made life decisions.  It's easy to get caught up in a static picture that of John Miller (1850-1910) who was a farmer.  But to get into the life of John Miller we have to look at where he lived, why he lived there and what he did on a daily basis.  You are more than dates and an occupation, so why limit John Miller to that too.

 Let's look at the whys of life rather than just the who, where and when

Location Why 
Knowing where relatives lived is interesting (census records are good for placing them in a location every ten years) but finding out why they got there or how they decided to pick that location is even more interesting.  It's one thing to look at immigrants, they left home due to war or famine or to seek new opportunity.  But it is another to look at where they went when they got here.  Did they move to a location because of a job specialty, because of a large ethnic population that matched them or did they have relatives here already?   Don't just accept that in 1870 your great great father is living in Hazleton, Pennsylvania.  Think about if he was there for work, living temporarily there after being discharge are the Civil War?  Understanding the world around him at the time helps us draw better conclusions.   

No two people are the same now and they weren't then either.  So how is it that two Irishmen get off the same boat in the same port but one ends up farming in Maryland and one ends up living in New York City.  Seeing why they went different ways will help understand them better as people.    

Occupation Why
Another thing to look at is what your distant relatives did for a living and why.  Most of us don't come from lines of Rockefeller so our relatives were working class folks.  But why did they choose that profession.  If your Italian relatives got off the boat and moved to the city and started a restaurant, was that because they had great cooking skills that they brought with them.  Many times people get into profession their parents were in.  Was your grandfather a farmer because his father was a farmer, or did he specifically not become a farmer because he had other aspirations?  I have a relative who had a farm but for a living had a business that blew up tree stumps with dynamite.  He may have obtained this skill during the Civil War and turned it into a career after discharge.   People both then and now use their skills and talents to make money.

Occupational and location can go hand in hand
The point is that names and dates don't tell the whole story and the genealogist job is to put him or herself into the mind of the person.  One last personal example, I have a relative from around the turn of the century that I followed in three censuses in the first one he was at home, the second he was in St. Louis and the third he was back at home.  I could read a lot into this but with further digging I found out that he was in the publishing business and since he had 3 bothers already on the farm he left to go to St. Louis which at the time was a hub for publishers.  While in St. Louis he contracted Tuberculosis during an outbreak of while he was there.  He came home so that he could die at home with his family.  Census records and dates won't tell that story and if I was guessing I would have thought homesick or unemployment.  But the real story is more meaningful to my family tree.   

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

What classifies a recent photo

Having photos in your genealogy is great I would say even essential.  But what is the best way to keep them up to date and how should you update them?  The good news is that genealogy is a history subject rather than an missing person search(even thought it can be that at times too).  By this I mean that you are not handing out these photos for identification but a representation of what the people looked like at a point in time. 

Importance of updated pictures
Updated pictures are important if your are going to a reunion and want to know who you will be seeing.  If all your photos are from the 1970's you will be assured that you will not be able to identify anyone.  The baby is now 35 years old.  So having updated images can be helpful in this purpose.

Getting updated photo
 The best way to get updated photos is a "take it when you see them" mentality.  It may behoove you to start to bring a digital camera to function and trying to get a mug shot of everyone to connect to their profile in your genealogy.  Some functions such as family reunions lend themselves to this more than others (i.e.funerals).  Also scanning in pictures from Christmas cards is a way to update photos as well   Anytime you see the person or a picture of a person that is more recent than the one you have you should find a way to capture it.

Final photos
The fact is that over a lifetime people are constantly changing.  So having the best photo of person attached to them in your genealogy is important.  How do you want to remember them?  Just because a person died at 80 does not mean that you have to have a photo of them at 79 as the primary picture of them in the genealogy.  Having a picture of them as young and vibrant may better suit your purposes of telling the story of their life.  


Tuesday, June 3, 2014

When bad things happen

Great Uncle Bob was a cattle thief in Texas... Aunt Bertha lived in a insane asylum for 20 years.  Uncle Ted died of a drug overdose.  These events tell part of the genealogy story and are interesting, but what is the best way to document uncomfortable situations that happen in life.

Life is not perfect and our genealogy should reflect that.  Thought we must be tactful when documenting the tragedies of other family members.

/*Phone Rings*/
A: Hello
B: Hi this is cousin Joe, I just need to get the proper spelling of the prison that your husband was sentenced to last week.  It for my genealogy, thanks.
 A: /* hangs up phone */

This example is not the proper tack and too soon.

Dealing with difficult situations take discretion.  Does the family want the event recorded.  It is significant enough to merit recording.  I once had the family of a distant cousin request removal of a divorced spouse because of a domestic violence situation they didn't want to see his name in writing or have anything to do with him.  A situation like that is a judgement call on the part of the genealogist.  Alienate the family for the sake of the future generations or follow their wishes and be without one name?

Purpose and relevance
The devil is in the details.  Why are you recording this information.  There is a difference between Grandpa Joe was in juvenile hall for a week when he was 12 and Uncle Sal was sentenced to 30 to life when he was 40.  The relevance and the impact on the family tree are judgement calls. 

Not over yet
There is also the issue of closure.  There are many wonderful stories of people coming out of tragic turning their lives around and becoming productive citizens. Just because some one is down does not mean they are out and it may behoove you to not enter the story until they complete it.  

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Recording Other Religous Events

As genealogies we are fixated on BMD(birth, marriage, death) but what about other significant events in peoples life, specifically religious events.  While you may not share the religious tradition with that person or know the meaning of the event, having it in the family history can be significant for future generations.  Having documentation (photos, invitations etc.) adds to the overall picture of the person. 
Beyond the wedding.  
While a majority of weddings have some kind of religion meaning affiliated with them and we note the date the two people married.  We should go beyond that for more religious families.  I heard a joke from a priest that the people now a days come to his church to hatch, match and dispatch.  (translation: baptism, marriage and burial).  If that is the trend, capturing religious events might not apply to your family.  

In some families it is significant and should be recorded.  I am talking about events like confirmations, first communions and  bar mitzvahs, possibly expanding to ordination into ministry.  These kind of events usually don’t grace the pages of our genealogy book, but it would interesting to see where and when granddad received a religious sacrament.

I’m not saying you have to record every place or time the little Joey goes to Sunday School (though you could).  But noting the significant events (that require a Hallmark card) no matter the faith tradition or your own understanding of it’s significance.  This could even be an opportunity to talk with someone about what it means to them to receive this event and include that in the genealogy too.   


Monday, May 5, 2014

Asking for a resume?

In the olden days people apprenticed for and became an occupation, usually in the family.  People were farmers or blacksmiths and that’s what they did.  In more recent times people worked for a company for a lifetime then retired with their pension (“Great Uncle Joe worked for Bethlehem Steel”).  You may not have the actual job but you knew he was a steelworker. As genealogist we had that information in the records filed under occupation.  

The problem is that occupation is not longer occupation.  People move from company to company and from job to job and it is getting harder to document all the transitions in peoples lives.  The solution is to get the information straight from the horse's mouth and ask for a resume.  If a person is willing to give a resume to a random HR person, why not the family genealogist?  

Having a resume tracks the timeline of where a person worked and what they did.  So if Aunt Sue was a corporate mogul then quit to open a cupcake shop, you have a record of it.  This does not even have to be the person’s “official” resume.  It is more of a work history with dates, company and job title.  Having this you can keep up with the past work history and come back for future changes.  

If the person does not have a resume just go through and ask where they worked, when and for how long.  Write up the work history and add it to the family story.

People are more mobile than ever and job titles can be deceiving about what they actually do. Asking for a resume and putting into your software is a novel way to document occupation.  So if a future generation goes to work for IBM, instead of saying "your Uncle Bill worked there in the 1980's" you can say "Uncle Bill worked there from 1985-1988 as a Systems Analyst in the Washington DC field office."

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

One story... One recipe... with meaning

Note: Thank you to all of you for the well wishes on the birth of my child.  Mother and baby are doing well.  

One Story...

Summer is a time for family gatherings and functions (or dysfunction depending on your family).  This is also a time for what I refer to as “genealogy on the go”.  This is the time when you have family members that you may only see once a year and you don’t have a lot of time to sit with in depth conversation with everyone(or anyone sometimes).  But it is still a great time to gather useful stories to add to your genealogy records.

During this time together it is great to get one good story that you are unfamiliar with, how people met, first dates, military time.and the like.  This will get you interesting information that you did not know before.  Avoid controversial subjects and keep it light.  I recently got a recap of my fathers time during the draft and I know that the first date my grandparents went on was to see Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein (my grandmother fell asleep during the movie).  These short concise stories allow for more conversation than the typical “how have you been” conversations that can lead to nothing.  I once witnessed two of my relative talking that have not seen each other in over a decade and the conversation went as follows”

R1: “And how have things been going with you?”
R2: “Same old, Same old.”
So much for open ended questions.

But quick jogs down memory lane even if others know the story and you don’t, unless they have them written down, nobody will know the story in fifty years and we will have more questions than answers.  These are interesting party conversations that make up genealogy for the future generations that can be passed down while not taking a lot of time to get the story.

One recipe...

Many families have a traditional food that always makes its way onto the holiday table.  This may be something that everyone likes or may be something that nobody likes.  But what is the story behind this food and how did it come to land on our table.  It’s too easy to say “grandma always had it for Christmas”.  Try and find out why grandma had it, was it native to the area she grew up?  Was it something brought over from the old country?  

My personal family food is Hominy, a white corn product.  I was never sure what it was but it appeared on the table year after year.  I had no problem with it, it was tasty, but no one outside of my family knew what i was talking about when I referred to it.  My family food origin came from my grandmothers Pennsylvania Dutch roots as it was a tradition for them.  

Finding out the origin of a food that is always there brings more genealogical significance to it, though it may not make it taste better .  You may also want to look into getting the recipe  so even if you don’t like the particular dish you can have a record that it exist so that if someone down the road wanted to see what it was like it will not only be the stuff of legends but something that is tangible and repeatable and full of memories and meaning.