Archive for the ‘Genealogical Tips’ Category

Unofficial Marriage Records, Gretna Green, and Complications

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

There are several kinds of official records of marriages (see this earlier post), but many unofficial sources can also be useful to family historians trying to learn the name of an ancestor’s spouse or the date of a marriage. Whether or not an unofficial source’s information about a marriage is precise or complete, it can provide useful clues.

Some of these unofficial records may provide information which is not recorded in official sources. For example, a 1960 Idaho State Journal article about my aunt’s wedding reports that her sister – my mother – came from Salt Lake City, Utah, for the wedding. The article also describes the bride’s wedding dress, which may be of little genealogical consequence, but nonetheless interests some of her offspring more than half a century later.

Anniversary notice in newspapers

Anniversary notice in newspapers

Here are some sources to consider:

  • Personal records of officiators or other participants or family members
  • Family Bibles
  • Newspaper announcements of engagements, weddings, and anniversaries
  • Children’s birth records or announcements
  • Census records
  • Tax records (at least as to marital status)
  • Occupational records (marital status and spouse name)
  • Death records
  • Obituaries
  • Military records
  • Pension records
  • Living relatives, within the limits of memory
  • Old wedding announcements kept in that box in the attic.

Don’t neglect the World Wide Web; some of this information is now searchable online, and more recent marriages may be noted in online newsletters or web sites of towns and churches.


Finding and Using Official Marriage Records

Monday, February 24th, 2014

Marriage records are one of the oldest types of records kept by churches and governments. Their form and content vary widely from place to place and over time. They tend to be issued locally, though it is now common for them to be archived at the state or national level. In the United States weddings are performed and documented according to state law; elsewhere these matters are often regulated at the national level.

Marriage records usually contain the full names of the bride and groom, though some early official records of marriages in some places named only the husband. They may include several dates, of which the wedding date — the date the ceremony was performed — is preferred for genealogical purposes. Lacking that date, you may have to settle for the license date, bond date, recording date, or another relevant date. (Tip: In many marriage record formats, it’s easy to mistake one of these dates for another, and the actual wedding date is not the most obvious date. Use caution!)

Wedding Photos

Wedding Photos

Official marriage records may also contain:


The Sides We Don’t See (or Commit a Small Act of Family History this Season)

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

The holiday season provides excellent opportunities to commit small acts of family history. With just a little effort, we can learn new things about people in our family trees.

People we know, even family members with whom we’ve lived, have sides we may not see or consider. These are facets of their personalities or experience which enrich our sense of who they are or were, if we can discover them through some act of family history.

Consider, for example, my first grade teacher, Miss Keller. (The name is changed to protect her, in case she’s more innocent than we thought at the time.) Miss Keller was mean. She yelled at us. She punished the whole class for the minor offenses of one or two students, which is as quick a way to pique a child’s sense of injustice as any. She also taught us to count in German.


What’s in a Name?

Thursday, December 12th, 2013
people in the our tree

The people in the our tree

I have been trying to think of how best to get my children excited about genealogy for a while now. I long assumed they were much too young, and I would worry about it when they were older. Teenagers, maybe? I have since realized they are more than ready now.

I first realized it two years ago, when my three year old brought home a family tree he had made in preschool. It started with him and included me, my husband, his brother and “the baby.” At the time, I was pregnant but hadn’t announced it outside the family. The family tree project forced an announcement, since the preschool teacher was also my next-door neighbor.

This week I decided to make another family tree with my boys. To make it more interesting, we would mostly focus on my sons’ namesakes. My older son, now seven, is named after his father and grandfather. My five year old is named for two of his great-grandfathers.

My goal is to help my boys understand why their names are special. I want them to know something about the men they are named after and take a little pride in their names. My older son doesn’t like to be called by his given name. He even gets angry, when we remind him that his real name is Nathan, not Trey. This is a bit of a sore spot for him and his grandfather. Maybe making our tree will help that situation too.

Sometimes You Succeed (or Finding My Brothers’ Graves)

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

My four siblings and I were born in Boulder, Colorado, back in a previous century. My older brother, Alan, died the day he was born. Do the math; I never met him. One of my younger brothers, Douglas, died three days after he was born, but I never met him, either. My older sister recalls seeing him and attending the small funeral. One of the ironies of life in the modern world is that both died of complications of an Rh-factor problem. Less than two decades later, this problem was quite manageable and reliably survivable.

My only related memory is of visiting my brothers’ graves at a small cemetery near the Boulder airport. I remember cards in plastic, marking the graves until gravestones would be installed.

We left Boulder for southeastern Idaho when I was ten. I was the first to return, and that was more that 30 years later. My parents’ recollection was that they never bought gravestones. There has been talk for some years of needing to go back to Boulder and take care of that.

My family and I were vacationing in the Denver and Colorado Springs areas several years ago, and we decided to spend a day in Boulder. I took them on a short tour of landmarks, including the home where I spent my first decade; the nearby park through which I was not supposed to walk on my way home from school, but often did; and my first elementary school, now renamed. I took some photos, then managed to lose the memory card containing them before returning home.

We went to one — or maybe it’s a hundred — of Boulder’s main attractions, the Pearl Street pedestrian mall. I left the family there and went to find the nearest cemetery to the airport, according to an online map. It was as I remembered it, including the airport’s landing pattern. My mission was to get information which would help us finally to place gravestones at my brothers’ graves and, if possible, to find the graves themselves.

Nineteen Kinds of Death Records and Their Uses

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

Last month, I listed 28 places to find birth information, and the number could have been higher. Death records are less ubiquitous, probably because documents with birth dates accumulate for a lifetime. But there are still several excellent places to find death records, and some of them have a wealth of other information.

Death records

Examples of death certificates and obituary

Death Certificates

The official record in modern times is a death certificate. Depending on the time and place, it may be issued by a doctor or other medical practitioner who attended the deceased, or by an official registrar of vital records. Besides providing the name of the deceased and the time and place of death, it may include various details. In fact, death certificates can be interesting reading. (Sorry, is that too grim?) You may find:

  • cause of death (sometimes in grisly detail)
  • last place of residence
  • age at death
  • birth information
  • marriage data, including marital status and spouse’s name
  • burial information
  • parents of the deceased and their birthplaces

As with birth certificates, every jurisdiction has its own rules about when death certificates become publicly available, who can obtain them in the meantime, and the processes for obtaining them. The Internet is your best friend, when you need to find where and how to obtain an official copy of a death certificate. For example, if I were searching for my brother’s death certificate, I’d start with this search term: “Colorado death certificate.”

For genealogical purposes, WorldVitalRecords itself could prove to be your best friend. We have indexed hundreds of millions of death records from around the world, and many of our one billion family tree records also contain death information.

The Ancestor Effect and Other Benefits of Genealogy

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

I have five grandchildren now; the fifth just arrived. They’re a little cuter than yours, and adorable, amazing, and brilliant. I find myself drawn to write stories for them – my stories, my parents’ stories, and stories I recall hearing about generations I never even met. These stories must be preserved, but I’ve never before taken the time to do it.

I’m learning where I came from, and I want my grandchildren to understand where they came from, too. In the process I’m coming to understand something about my grandchildren that I didn’t know when my own children were young. They need to be taught genealogy when they are young, so that it becomes a natural part of their daily experience.

Clare and three more generations

Clockwise from top: My mother, myself, twin granddaughters, and my daughter, their mother.

Some people explore their family history for religious or medical reasons, or simply because they want to understand who they are. But recent research suggests another good reason for doing it – and for starting young. Unfortunately, it’s also a good reason for me to feel a little more guilty for not getting as much done as soon as I might have.

For a decade I’ve practiced as a mental health therapist. This means I need to keep up on the research in my field, which is how I recently discovered an article in the European Journal of Social Psychology about “the ancestor effect.”


Is DNA Right for You?

Friday, March 1st, 2013

Anyone who has watched television in the past two decades knows the value of DNA evidence. Comparing two samples of DNA is a great way to convict or exonerate a suspect or to identify a victim. If two samples of human deoxyribonucleic acid are identical, they came from the same person, because DNA encodes all of a person’s genetic information, and no two people have exactly the same DNA. It’s better than fingerprints. DNA can also show relationships between two people, because relatives have similar (but not identical) DNA.

The idea of using DNA for genealogy inspires images of digging up old grave sites to procure a sample. But you won’t need a shovel. You yourself are a walking record of your ancestors. Some pieces of your genetic makeup have come from recent ancestors; others have been handed down from generation to generation over hundreds of years.

DNA Double Helix

Your DNA determines the characteristics you inherit from your parents. For genealogy testing, specific markers (snippets of genetic code) on the last chromosome pair have been identified as the most stable markers, that is, they remain most consistent over time. Some of your inherited traits may be obvious; you may have your father’s nose and your grandmother’s toes. But your DNA also contains less obvious traits which come down to you from more distant generations.

This means that your DNA includes a record of long-forgotten ancestors.

There are three main types of DNA tests used in genealogy.


We all inherit an X chromosome from our mother. Males also receive a Y chromosome from their father.

Testing of the male line includes looking at shared markers on the Y chromosome. Depending on how much detail you want, you may look at 12, 37, or 67 markers.  Because the Y chromosome is only passed through the paternal line, Y-DNA testing can only be administered to a male. The results provide insight into the male ancestors of that individual’s paternal line, including identifying the haplogroup — essentially, your place in the genetic tree of the world.


Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is contained in the cytoplasm of the cell, rather than the nucleus. This type of DNA is passed by a mother to both male and female offspring without any mixing, so your mtDNA is the same as your mother’s mtDNA, which is the same as her mother’s mtDNA. mtDNA changes very slowly, so it cannot determine close relationships as well as it can determine general relatedness. If two people have an exact match in their mtDNA, then they share a common maternal ancestor, but it is hard to determine if this is a recent ancestor or one who lived hundreds of years ago. It is important to keep in mind with this test that a male’s mtDNA comes only from his mother and is not passed on to his offspring. Your maternal line haplogroup is identified with an mtDNA test.

The DNA tests that identified the bodies of the Romanovs, the Russian imperial family, utilized mtDNA from a sample provided by Prince Philip, who shares the same maternal line from Queen Victoria.


The newest form of DNA testing for genealogy is called Autosomal testing. Over 700,000 locations on the DNA are tested to identify any shared ancestor within the last five generations. You also will gain insight into your ethnic makeup. If you’ve reached a dead end in your research, to the point that you don’t even know where to look, autosomal DNA testing can give you some direction. It will also help you to connect with living relatives whose DNA is on file for comparison.

At the St George Family History Expo this month, I listened to a wonderful talk given by a representative of The Genetic Genealogy Consultant. She shared a story of connections her own autosomal test results made possible. Getting in touch with a matched relative allowed her family to reconnect with a distant cousin who spent hours and hours with her father in their childhood but had since lost touch.

Picking a test

DNA testing can be both exciting and overwhelming. Whether you are looking for new insights into your existing pedigree, a place to start, or ways to connect with living relatives, there is information in your DNA that will unlock resources and leads for your research.

If you are like me, you don’t readily spend your hard-earned money on the latest, greatest technology. I have yet to switch over to a smart phone, much to my colleagues’ amusement,

Choose a DNA test based on which line you want to explore.

because every year there is something better. In the past much of the benefit of DNA testing was to add to the research and development of the field. In order for results to be meaningful, they must be compared with known markers. Family Tree DNA has the largest database, including DNA information on over 400,000 people. The field of genealogical DNA testing has arrived. It has become a dependable treasure trove of information to expand your traditional research efforts, and it will only get better.

To choose which kit or kits are right for you, look at your pedigree and decide what you would like to find out. For example, I’m stuck in the 1800s on my grandfather’s father’s line. I’m told there is German blood, but the surname is Scottish. The best thing for me to do in this case is to find the oldest living descendant in that line and test their paternal line with a Y-DNA test. If I am interested in my mother’s mother’s Irish roots, I need to administer an mtDNA test to my Mother or a female descendant of that line.  All it takes is a simple and painless cheek swab. (Watch this tutorial.)

Know What to Expect

It is important to know what to expect from your results. The report you receive can be very technical. Don’t despair if your high school biology is a bit rusty. There are many wonderful help articles to help you through the details. For example, this one at the Blair DNA Project gives insight into what a DNA test can do for you. Here is a good list they give of insights you can gain from your results:

1)      Identification that you and another participant share a common ancestor.

2)      Y-DNA and mtDNA results give you an idea of how far back a common ancestor lived and the migration path of that ancestral line through the identification of the maternal or paternal haplogroup.

3)      Evidence of a suspected connection between yourself and another participant.

4)      Prove that the test taker is not related to an individual or family.

5)      Autosomal test results provide an amazing detailed description of your ethnic makeup.

Finally, remember that DNA testing alone is not as meaningful as DNA testing paired with traditional research. To get the most out of your DNA test results, use the information as you would any new development in your search. It will open doors and suggest new connections. Ask for help from a professional, if you are not sure how the results can expand your tree.

Nine Ways to Make Family History a Habit

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Are you into family history for the fun of it? Okay, I agree, we need a stronger word than fun. May I try that again?

Are you into family history for the joy of it?

That’s reason enough, but there are other possibilities. You may feel a duty to your ancestors, to help them live on in their descendants’ memories. You may feel a sense of obligation to your posterity, to help them understand who they are and whence they came. For some, it’s a religious duty. Or perhaps you’re driven by a more personal desire, to figure out who you are and whence you came. All of these are perfectly good motives.

I don’t claim that you even need a motive, or that you should report it to me or anyone else. But, for the sake of discussion, let’s assume that you have some discernible reason for engaging in family history.

Let’s also assume that your own involvement is important to you, not just your work product. If only the result matters — if family history to you is like cleaning the oven, replacing the broken sewer line, or having your gall bladder removed — you might hire a professional genealogist and let him or her worry about it. That’s fine; professional genealogists have to eat, too. But this post is for people who want to be involved, not just have the work done. (more…)

The Darndest Things – Are We Recording Them?

Tuesday, December 18th, 2012

The Darndest Things – Are We Recording Them?

As the old saying goes, “Kids say the darndest things!” Many of us older folks also say and do amazing things. Are we losing them as soon as they happen? Or are we recording them to preserve our own histories?

A year ago I wrote my goal to spend 20 minutes a day journaling, so that I would have a good history to pass on. I did badly! A more realistic goal may be 20 minutes a week. It’s less time, but it’s more likely to happen.



As we spend holidays with family and relatives, let’s also spend time writing down not only Grandma’s stories but our own as well.

Here are a few questions you can ask yourself or others. The sample responses are from my own journal.

Journaling Questions

Where were you today? Describe what you smelled, felt, heard – the full experience.

(Example.) Today was another day at work. The day passed by quickly. I was excited to get home as there are only a few more days until Christmas and since it’s the weekend my wife and I planned on going Christmas shopping. We have intentionally delayed our shopping trips this year as we have been fixing up some areas of the house that have waiting way too long for some upgrades. Our worn out carpet has been replaced with some nice but inexpensive laminate wood flooring. Our Formica counters in the kitchen are no more. My wife and I had a great 20 hours or so building our own one of a kind granite counters. We love them. The whole house looks much better.

Today our youngest said the funniest thing! He shares a room with our 16 year old son and being much younger he sometimes likes to sleep in his second bed – the loft bed we made a while back in his closet. Its not as warm in the loft so when I found him there I asked – oh, why are you in here? He thought about it and said – Well, I just decided it was time to move back in. At six that was pretty cute. (more…)