Archive for the ‘Genealogy in 15 Minutes’ Category

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.


Helpful Hints For Writing Exciting Family Histories

Thursday, July 10th, 2008

By Amanda Forson,, Inc.

Although the reasons for collecting family history information may differ, over time there is usually interest in publishing results in book form. Whether the publication is uploaded to the Internet, privately printed, or published through a company such as Genealogical Publishing Company, getting some aspects of the writing and research process right make for a better book.

Day One: Gather what you have found about the family lines that you want in the book. This step may be obvious, but without it, little can be accomplished.

Day Two: Consult with other living relatives to see who or what they would like to see in the book. If they do not know enough about the families being researched to give an opinion, then proceed with what you planned to publish. If they have definite opinions, listen to them and include what you can. When publishing a book it helps to produce something that others want to read, buy, and/or finance.

Day Three: While researching, and before writing, gather more information from historical sources than you think you will need. Often, genealogists are less-likely to allow their ancestor to “live” within his or her environment, stripping away the historical nature of documents in favor of simply proving a date or a place that it gives. Documents are bed-rock to prove ancestor’s lives, yes, but keeping the ancestor within the context of their time and space leads to faster results and happier researching. It is surprising how often histories of places are overlooked. Not simply town or county histories should be consulted, as those should be a natural part of researching for the particular ancestors, but also checking over books dealing with the social history and general events of the era help. Although not a primary source, per se, looking through secondary sources for a feel of the color and flavor of a period is a crucial step in preparation for writing a good, thorough history of any ancestor.

Recently-discovered town history information for an ancestor of mine has given credence to family stories that I otherwise did not necessarily doubt, but considered with hints of skepticism. The ancestor in particular supposedly ran off and joined the circus. Until I found out that a town nearby where he grew up was famous for circus-style acts, performers, etc., I listened patiently yet skeptically to the tales. Finding the town history that heavily mentioned circus acts and performers at the same time that my ancestor supposedly ran off to join and traveled with circus members gave a much more-anchored look into his life events than I was otherwise willing to believe. Consider the historical events and works aspects of a “second witness” in our trial of proof over error.

Day Four: Create an outline. When outlining, use day three’s research, and make sure to include how your ancestor was part of history. If there are any parts of the life history that are uncertain, do not make them up. Read more, and then write. Here is where the outlining and/or writing gets double-checked. Try creating a time-line for the ancestor in question, or use computer-generated models to see what is known.

There are certain aspects of the daily lives of my ancestors about which I may have little to no knowledge, such as what life was like when they were children. “Normal” research (i.e. censuses) may provide small clues, such as perhaps going to school (child’s “occupation”, etc.), but unless I try to find out what school was like in the 1840s, how far my ancestor went with school, what training the teachers had, and what they were teaching, I am uncertain about what to include for that portion of the ancestor’s life. In this particular example, going to school in 1840 vs. 1880 vs. 1920 vs. 1980 are very different things. I may have a bachelor’s degree, and this may be acceptable as an “ending point” in education for one time period, but my ancestor may have gone to a “normal school” for two years (equivalent to post-secondary, junior college) and considered this the highest education possible. In another case, eighth grade may have been the highest level of schooling for another ancestor.

This could easily be the case in any aspect of an ancestor’s life depending upon the research done up to the time of writing. This step is to help the writer take a step away and evaluate what they know about the ancestor, and what is documented knowledge of not just the ancestor’s life, but of the time in which the ancestor lived. Good questions to ask for the writer would be whether their ancestor was typical for time? By typical, did he or she work before the age of twelve? What kind of education did he or she have? Were there unusual family circumstances or family tragedies? Was there an epidemic in the area? Was his or her religion the dominant one of the area? Were any close friends killed by accident, as in farming, factory, or other work? Did he or she marry young or later? Were there first or second marriages? Were there divorces?

Consider these questions and write what is known for every case. As you are going through these questions, it is likely that others will come up. Write down the question first, and then the answer. As you are writing for more ancestors, having written down the questions that came to mind will greatly benefit future efforts to document life histories.

Day Five: Write with flair. This means finding interesting ways to tell the story, using descriptive words and active verbs. The better the writing, the more likely the audience will want to read beyond page one. If dealing with more than one ancestor, start each ancestor’s account as if it is page one, and use words and phrases that grab attention.

Day Six: Revise, revise, revise. As I write, I tend to edit at the same time. After writing, I send my copy to editors. Sometimes material gets changed; sometimes it stays as it is. When writing a book, or even a smaller pamphlet to pass among relatives, have both a trusted family member and a person who is not part of the family read over the material. One will (most likely) check for readability, while the other will check for detail. Have as many people as you want look over it, giving suggestions and feedback, but not so many that the work gets bogged down in waiting on readers.

Day Seven: As was mentioned in the introduction to the article, you can publish your “book” online, at a copy shop, or through a genealogical book publisher. When the manuscript is ready, look to relatives for help, and watch for future articles in this newsletter on getting research published!

Re-Establishing Family Connections

Friday, June 27th, 2008

By Amanda Forson,, Inc.

Sometimes branches of families drift apart, or else do not keep in contact for who-knows-what reason. When there is no particular reason for family members to stay incommunicado, re-connecting is a great way of gaining family history information.

Day One: Determine which family branch(es) you want to get back in contact with, or identify particular ancestors for whom you would like further information.

In my case, there is a rare name in my ancestry that really was changed at Ellis Island. Anyone currently located in the United States with this surname is likely to be related to me. I have never met many members of the different branches of this group, though I have been looking them up as part of my research on my great-grandparent’s siblings.

Day Two:
Open your family history software and figure out who is the most recent connection to the family branch, and/or still alive. A good age range to check would be anyone currently alive between the ages of 25-70.

Day Three: Find out what contact information you can for that person. Email address is the top priority, but address and phone numbers are also good. Look the most likely person up using Google. For any addresses (email or otherwise) found, write them down and get ready to send off a large amount of emails and/or letters.

Day Four:
Continue your search on to double check whether or not they show up on the SSDI or any other databases. For any addresses (email or otherwise) found, write them down and get ready to send off a large amount of emails and/or letters.

Day Five:
Write the person you want to re-connect with a short letter asking for more information concerning the ancestor in question, and explain how you are related to that person. This should eliminate the “cold call” feeling when done well. Also be willing to provide information about your side of the living family along with the family history, as appropriate.

Day Six:
Include as SASE, and mail off the completed letter, phone the person in question, or send off the email. If the address is old, one way of checking on it is to write: Do Not Forward: Address correction Requested” on the envelope. This way you will get the letter back with the new address on it.

Day Seven:
Wait for a response. This may take more than fifteen minutes, but there are also other people that need to be researched and more mail to be sent off. Feel free to repeat the process, or to send off more than one letter on day five. Remember to change the section of how the person is related to you to reflect the relationship to each individual, and his or her gender.

Keeping a Journal

Friday, June 20th, 2008

By Amanda Forson,, Inc.

One way to make sure that family history is kept is to start with the present generation. This can be done in a number of different ways, but one of the best is through keeping a journal. This is a great way to capture details of your everyday life for present and future generations.

Day One: Decide to keep a journal and decide on the time when writing fits most easily into your schedule. This may be a once-a-day calendar, like a planner, a once a week summary of weekly events, or other formats.

Day Two: Choose a format–A Journal can be handwritten (long-hand or in shorthand, for those that know shorthand), electronic (commonly known as a blog or web log), or can be based on pictures and mementos (scrapbooking). Before choosing a format, take 15 minutes on each of the next three days to try each style. Once you have decided how you will keep your diary, make sure that the products or materials required are easily accessible.

Day Three: For a handwritten journal, (if it is to survive long after the writer is deceased) choose acid-free paper, or an acid-free blank book, and an archival pen. These are usually available at craft stores near scrapbooking supplies. If the journal is meant for ease of use and at least getting the copy down on paper, then an ordinary spiral-bound notebook and pen should suffice. These types of less permanent journals must be transcribed for preservation.

Day Four: For a blog, all that is needed is a place to keep the log and a computer connection. Most blogs can be accessed readily from any computer for the editor of the blog, though they can be password-protected, enabling the writer to write only for him or herself, and only for the audience invited to read the information. has easy setup for fresh blogs that also allow for sound and pictures.

Day Five: Scrapbooking is a billion-dollar industry. It will not cost you a billion dollars by any means; going to discount department stores, there are often aisles devoted entirely to the craft. Craft stores tend to carry heavy amounts of supplies, which range from albums, paper, markers, and stickers, to specialty glues, 3-D decorations, and paper punches and scissors designed especially for the art. Entire industries have risen during the past ten years over the supplies involved, including storage of the supplies.

Scrapbooking is also a popular way of recording events and family gatherings, giving the pictures taken at such events context with the additional labeling and thematic displays that are part of the typical scrapbook.

Scrapbooking can also be a fun activity to involve children, and something that many people are doing already. Digital scrapbooking is becoming an increasingly popular art form, and seems to be the way that the general industry is moving. It may be the journal that you are already keeping and never realized it!

Day Six: Recording information in long-hand, electronically, or with attached mementos, helps preserve this information for the next generation to understand who you are and what life was like back in 19XX or 20XX. Keeping one and sharing it allows family members a chance to get to know you, and helps establish patterns and examples for future generations in order to pass down the family heritage and give a sense of place and purpose to everyday living. Take this day to share your new creation with a family member.

Day Seven: Look for more source information on your family for your journal at! Write about your search and document your reaction to finding new information.

Creating Your Own Family Yearbook

Thursday, June 5th, 2008

By Amanda Forson,

Instead of falling prey to bogus companies offering pre-made family yearbooks or histories that often include little or no real genealogical information, create your own in fifteen minutes a day.

Day One:
Determine who the book’s audience is. Ask who may be interested in receiving the yearbook. Content may be different if going to Great Aunt Martha versus going to co-ed, Amber. Start putting together a brief outline of what the book should contain, so you know what to ask for when you start gathering materials.

Day Two: If you want to write only one book for distribution to multiple parties, determine who is directly related to those people. Everyone is more interested in families that are directly related to them versus extraneous people they have never met, and will not meet. This may expand your audience, or help in knowing whether or not Susie’s birth date should be included. Do not include information requested to not be included, but, unless specifically requested, include whatever else is left. In family documents, relatives are often more offended by information that was left out once they see the finished product.

Day Three: If you want to write a yearbook that gets updated each year, consider going digital. A good digital option is a blog-style family webpage. When setting up such a blog, allow for multiple members to contribute and for picture and video uploads. Many families are currently now using family blogs, not realizing that they are creating digital yearbooks.

Day Four: If creating a paper yearbook, request pictures and information from the different family lines that are included in the book. So that those included understand how they are related to each other (you never know when a step-relative or an in-law may be looking over the book), include family group sheets and enough pedigree charts to help the generations make sense of each other.

Day Five: After gathering photographs and updates of email addresses, phone numbers, physical addresses, and general family information for the year, compile information according to your outline. This may include a brief family history introduction for the yearbook recipients. Examples of what to include could be how the family got to the country most of the family lives, where the family has lived in the past, occupations, religions, mannerisms, cultural traditions, etc. As years go by, include major milestones for family members or summaries of information from past years for help with context.

Day Six: Determine who wants a hard copy and ask them to contribute to the printing and shipping cost in exchange for a copy. If members prefer digital copies, set up a webpage or blog with a password so family members are able to view, but that is not accessible to anyone else, depending upon the information that is on the blog. Mother’s maiden names and birth years are especially important to safeguard.

Day Seven: Continue to update the information as needed. This activity could also turn into a family directory as well as yearbook, and allow for pertinent family information to be gathered into one place versus scattered among distant relatives who do not know each other well.

Cemetery Upkeep – The True Meaning of Memorial Day

Monday, May 26th, 2008

By Amanda Forson,

Started as a day for remembering fallen Civil War soldiers, Memorial Day evolved into a national holiday in 1971. On this day, local relatives help to clean up grave sites, especially in places where there aren’t maintenance fees for graves. Cemetery maintenance can be as simple as paying for the maintenance by the grounds crew at a cemetery to as complex as planting flowers where allowed. Most discount stores have silk flowers available for purchasing for the day’s events.

Here are some tips for making Memorial Day about the person, and not simply a gardening exercise:

Day One: Choose an ancestor or family in a local cemetery, preferably a relative when possible.

Day Two:
Research the person or family chosen. Try to find out as much as possible about this person or family.

Day Three: Post the findings on the Internet to help possible researchers from the family.

Day Four:
Check with the local cemetery to see what the normal or current grounds-keeping requirements are.

Day Five: Either contribute to the upkeep of the grave(s) at the cemetery, or organize a group (whether family or other genealogy enthusiasts, or friends looking for a useful way of spending Memorial Day) to help with the upkeep.

Day Six: Making sure to keep within the guidelines and laws of the area, prepare for the gardening work by obtaining gloves, trowels or small shovels, rakes, and either self-seeding annuals or non-vine perennial flowers. Remember to bring along bottled water for workers, and if possible, serve refreshments afterwards. If the person in question had a military record, placing a flag at the gravesite is appropriate during daytime hours.

Day Seven: Go to work! Carry out your plan. Share with the workers (either when driving over, in some sort of small ceremony, or while working at the site) what was learned about the person in your research. Consider posting before and after pictures of the grave site to a website, and sharing them with other family members. This task can easily be started by one person and turned into a group effort, or kept the effort of one. If scouts are looking for activities, this could make a great Eagle Scout project depending upon the cemetery and the size of the job needed.

Saving Historic Places

Thursday, April 17th, 2008

By Amanda Forson,

The National Register of Historic Places is a function of the National Park Service, Department of the Interior that preserves certain locations that have to do with local, state, and/or national significance.

Day One: If you think that your location should be listed on the register, the guidelines for what is usually approved are found at the following URL: After reviewing the guidelines and deciding that your property or that of a historical society, genealogical society, or other place should be on the register, a few suggestions follow on the next days.

Day Two:
Find out whether or not the building is already on the register. Why make more work for yourself if it has already been done? The list is available at:

Day Three: If the definitions from Day One are not descriptive enough for you, the following may help:

Day Four:
In order to complete the forms necessary to receive registration on the National Register, the following instructions would be useful:

Day Five: The actual form for nominating the property is here: To add more information, use the following:

Day Six: There is also the possibility of submitting more than one property at a time, especially since the National Register is determined by historical significance. Some places may not be historically significant by themselves, but when submitted as a group, the area becomes more important.

Day Seven:
If in doubt, look over the following sample nomination: This can give you an idea of what those with decision-making power are looking for.

In-Depth Study of an Area

Thursday, April 10th, 2008

By Amanda Forson,

This is meant to help you understand the historical and geographical context of the ancestor(s) in question.

Day One: Do a Google Search for a place of interest and relevance to your ancestors. Read websites and wiki articles having to do with this particular place.

Day Two: Look up books (travel, historical, genealogical, etc.) on the place of interest in your local library. Check out books that seem to be of interest.

Day Three: Start reading the books of interest you found at the library.

Day Four: Check the special collections section of college and university libraries in the area of interest for possible information on the particular ancestor or the time-period in which he or she lived.

Day Five: Search for periodicals published in the area in question.

Day Six: Search for historical societies and genealogical societies in the area to see what kind of information they have published on the families that are of interest.

Day Seven: Read through back issues of historical society magazines, if available.

Housekeeping – Cleaning Up Those Locations

Thursday, February 7th, 2008

By Amanda Forson,

With only fifteen minutes used per day, this could take up a month’s worth of days depending upon the size of the file and the extent of location morass. It is easier to break up some projects more than it is for others, or is a useful activity when a family member wants to help but has no idea how to help with research. This task is time-consuming and mind-numbing, but necessary to get a database thoroughly cleaned out and useful. For those of LDS faith, this also helps eliminate duplications in work for the dead.

This article also assumes that a genealogical database for a family exists, and is intended for users with at least 1,000 or more “names” in a database.

Day One: Open the genealogical software of choice and find the master list of locations. For purposes of this article, Legacy Family Tree will be used as the example. For Legacy, that would be done by going to View-Master List-Location.

Day Two: Look at the list and see whether there is punctuation, numbers, or other information in the location fields besides the town, county, and state, or the parish, district, province, etc. Personal preference delineates how to look at places. I prefer sorting locations from smallest to largest as is the acceptable postal and geopolitical designations for my country. Other countries use different designations. It is up to the individual to decide how to look at locations, but for the case of this article, going from smallest location up to the country specification will be my designations.

Day Three: When noticing and wanting to edit punctuation, click on Edit on the right side of the screen and eliminate the excess punctuation. Excess <>’s, “Of,” commas starting a location, and other similar punctuation can be removed as wanted. After removing excessive primary punctuation, begin removing extra periods.

Day Four: Usually the screen will prompt whether you prefer to update all records with that designation. Personal preference is to update all records for purposes of brevity of the location list and constancy in specific areas, depending upon the time frame.

As my relatives come from different counties in the United States, various parishes in England, geographical regions of Slovakia, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, and Scotland, there are at least that many places that need checking eventually. The more likely that I have one designation for the smallest place, instead of many designations; the more likely it is that I find all the relatives who lived in that area.

Example: Cold Spring, Putnam, New York
could be: Cold Springs, Putnam, New York
Cold Spring, Putnam County, New York
Cold Spring, Putnam, New York, USA
Cold Spring, Putnam County, New York, USA
Cold Springs, Putnam County, New York, USA

If searching for a place, all of these different options may be on the Master List. There could also be wrong counties or wrong place spellings, such as “Cold Springs” versus the correct, “Cold Spring.” Whenever possible, correct the different options to reflect ONE location. If possible, check for accuracy while correcting the location list. If lacking time for that, it is possible to do a mass US County Verification later.

Day Five: The designations for day four certainly do not pertain to when an area’s names evolved over time. When dealing with someone who lived and died in the same place, technically it is the same geographical location. However, it is also different places as an area grew or boundaries shifted. Use whatever was right for the time period.

Example: A person born in Honolulu, Oahu, Territory of Hawaii, USA in 1952 who died in 1963, but lived in the same house the entire time would have died in Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii, USA.

Day Six: If time was not taken during the Day Five step, check for the counties now. Various software means help with checking this information. There is a US County Verifier on Legacy and other family history programs. There is also AniMap, and other software that aids in verifying county, country, or other location information.

Day Seven: Re-save your file with the clean information to make sure that your clean copy stays clean. Share it with family now, and upload it to to make faster connections with others interested in similar locations. As always, keep checking back at for new information!

Labeling Without Punishing

Thursday, January 10th, 2008

By Amanda Forson,
How to Keep Sources and Citation Information Together Without Damaging the Document

Day One: Choose a document for labeling.

Day Two: Type or write the citation on acid-free paper.

Day Three: Place the acid-free citation inside the same folder as the document, if the document is filed.

Day Four: Place in a plastic sheet protector placed next to the document, also in its own plastic sheet protector, dependent upon the document size.

Day Five: For ease of use later, a good idea would be to collect all citations for an individual’s documents and place two copies in files:
a) copy of citations in item order as the items are in the files currently.
b) copy of citations in alpha order, ensuring that a citation does not receive undue double attention.

This works best when the citations are typed on a computer/word processor and are easily maneuvered as wanted.

Day Six: Make sure all document citations are included in genealogical software, or included on websites to make sure that they are published along with family information.

Day Seven: When finding new documents (and if there is the ability to control settings on the copies made), allow a half inch around the side of the document for labeling on the actual document, eliminating further need for separate labels in the future.

Note: When doing this, cite the FULL citation, not simply film numbers. The point of the citation is to get a researcher back to the part of film where the document is located or to the original as quickly as possible. A lone film number means nothing without context.