Thursday, December 30, 2010

Favorite Narrative Family History Books

During the holidays and particularly on my long flight to and from Hawaii, I was able to do a little bit of reading. (Imagine that.) It was quite a production even for me to select which books I wanted to bring on the plane with me – I had such a long list of things I wanted to read. I ended up bringing a ridiculous amount of books (I think I had 5 books), of which I only read part of one. In ordering my books, I began reflecting on some of the best “family history” books I have read. I thought I would share some of these.

First, my criteria: I did not choose any “instructive” how-to books. These books had to be narratives. They had to be nonfiction and cover several generations of a family’s story. Some of them are old, and some are new - and on my desk right now. (Of course, my book would go at the top of this list, but these are ideas for after you’ve FINISHED reading my book!)

1. Family by Ian Frazier. This is one of the books that truly shaped my course in life. I read it as a college student and instantly knew that I wanted to write a book like that someday. This book describes Frazier’s “ordinary” family through several generations of American history. Frazier is the master of understatement. I have tried to model this in my own writing – describing actions that show emotions instead of always stating emotions directly. For example, he describes losing his brother when he was young. He tells about his parents getting back in the car after his brother’s death, describes their slow, methodical actions. Then states simply “It was the worst day of my life.” That’s all he needs to say. It’s so powerful! One of my favorite quotes, one that I use in my book lecture, comes from this book. Frazier says (I am paraphrasing): While we are required to love all of our descendents equally, the same doesn’t apply to our ancestors. We are allowed to have favorite ancestors because they aren’t around to know about it.

2. The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home by George Howe Colt. He uses the history of his family’s vacation home to describe his family and the changes that have come over them – and their environment - during the past one hundred years. (The house is on the Cape which endears it to me even more.)

3. Red House: Being a Mostly Accurate Account of New England’s Oldest Continuously Lived-In House. Here’s another New England house book. Messer parallels the life of the family that owned this house for generations with her own family who buys the house.

4. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang. This is possibly my favorite book of all time. Everyone, everyone, should read it. Chang traces her Chinese family through three generations, weaving in the incredible events of Chinese history that shaped them – and those around them.

5. The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family by Duong Van Mai Elliott. Fascinating! Elliott’s book starts in the past in rural Vietnman and finishes with Elliott’s life as her family escapes from Saigon and she eventually marries an American man.

6. Mosaic: A Chronicle of Five Generations by Diane Armstrong. This tells the story of a Jewish family beginning in 1890 and stretching to present day, including stories of her family during the Nazi regime.

7. In My Blood: Six Generations of Madness and Desire in an American Family by John Sedgwick. This is the book I read on the plane to Hawaii. I’m about two-thirds finished with it. The thread that extends through time as he traces the generations of his family is mental illness. I’m enjoying the book.

8. Shaking the Family Tree by Buzzy Jackson. I ordered this in from the library, but haven’t started it yet.

Of course, this is only a few of many possibilities. I would love to hear other people's favorite books in this category.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

My Family History Christmas Present

I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas. We had a delightful day with our kids and my parents. Monday morning, we will travel to New York City for a couple of days to see more family.

I wanted to share a little with you about a gift I got this year from my mother. Under my tree were three binders:

1) The "Document Binder", as my mom called it, contained pages and pages of documentation of my life. This binder contained a vareity of papers such as my birth certificate, kindergarten report card, standardized test scores, a newspaper announcement from when I won a story writing contest in second grade and got to read it on the local radio, a school newspaper article announcing the winners of the kite-flying contest (I won 3rd place in the "most unique" category), swimming class certificates of completion, dance recital programs, my high school graduation program, etc.

2) A Photo Album of my childhood. The photos began with baby pictures and school pictures such as this one:

There were sections with my siblings and me, as well as some photos of me with my grandparents and great-grandparents. The one below shows my brother Mathew (age 1), my great-grandmother, and me (age 3).

A section at the back was entitled "Heritage." Here, my mother had placed photos of her parents, my dad's parents, both of my parents as children, and pictures from my parents' wedding.

3) The last binder was the thickest. It contains dozens and dozens of family letters my mother had written to her family when I was growing up. They're full of stories of me writing on my walls with crayons, blessing the butter, bread, and even my shoes in the dinner prayers, and sleeping with a dozen dolls in my bed. They stretch until when I was adult and include some letters that I wrote to my parents from college, and even my mother's reaction when she learned I was pregnant with my first child. One of my favorite letters is dated October 1979. It's a letter my mom wrote to me on my third birthday. I wanted to share a couple of sentences from it:

"When I think of you, I think of scraped knees and golden hair clear full of sand. You love hot dogs, going to the park, and having books read to you. You dislike sharing your toys with Mathew (my younger brother) and being quiet and sitting still in church. You can ride your trike all by yourself almost all of the way over to the university and back. You can count and read the alphabet. Because you act so smart and are so tall, everyone thinks you're older than you are. But when I tuck you in bed and you put your little arms around my neck and give me a hug, you seem so small and vulnerable. I wish that I could protect you from all of life's sorrows, but I can only hope that life will greet you with the same enthusiasm and love that you rush into it with it."

Needless to say, these binders were my favorite gift. Part of the reason, of course, is because the family historian in me was cheering at how these pictures and letters had been collected and preserved. But the bigger part was because of the memories and feelings these binders brought flooding back into my mind. It made me motivated to save some of these important things - documents, photos, and letters - for my children so that someday perhaps I can give them a gift as special as the one my mom gave me today.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Hawaii Part III (last one - I promise)

I promise to post something useful about genealogy research after this, but I just had to finish with some pictures from our last two days in Hawaii.

Sunday morning, we began adrive up north, stopping in the little town of Hanalei to attend church. The northern coast of Kauai is absolutely amazing. Kauai is known as the Garden Island, and it's easy to see why. We felt like we were driving through a jungle. Here's a picture of the scenery across the street from the church.

After church, we continued our drive to the end of the road - literally. The road on the northern coast of Kauai ends at the Na Pali mountains, which are too rugged for roads. The Na Pali coast is known for its breathtaking beauty, but the only way to see it is by helicopter, boat, or hiking. The first two options are out for me because of my suspectibility to motion sickness, so we had opted for hiking (my preference anyway). We started at Ke'e beach on the well-known Kalalau trail. We only planned to go the first two miles to the Hanakapaia Beach. Not to be cliche, but really I don't think there is any way to describe how absolutely beautiful the hike was. The photos don't do it justice. But here's a couple anyway!

When we got back, we were covered in mud and dripping wet (it drizzled for most of the hike). That night, we enjoyed an anniversary dinner - we've been married twelve years!

Monday was our last day in Kauai. We were worried that the weather would foil our plans (it rained basically the entire time we were in Kauai - I guess a place doesn't become the "Garden Island" without a lot of rain!), but it didn't. We drove to Waimea Canyon, known as the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific."

Before returning to the airport, we also made a quick stop at Spouting Horn, a lava tube where the ocean spurts up through.

I can't resist one more image of Kauai. Every place we went - the canyon, the beach, the jungle, our hotel, etc. - there were wild chickens and roosters (known as moa) everywhere.

I wanted to close my vacation posts with a little thought (yes - I'm waxing philosophical about vacations....). From the time I left Massachusetts, until the time I got to the Honolulu airport, I only checked my email - or got online at all - one time. I didn't lay awake at night and think about all the things I had to do. I didn't stress about how my book was or wasn't selling. And somehow, the world still didn't collapse. It has been an intense few months - but for a while, life wasn't intense. It was about beaches and flip flops and yummy food.

Obviously, life can't always be about beaches. And obviously I can't go to Hawaii every month - or even every year. But I can take a break from intensity, just by choosing to let go of the intensity - even for a little while.

I know - easier said than done. But I think it's worth a try every now and then.

Hawaii Part II

We are now in the Honolulu airport waiting for our flight back to Massachusetts (via San Francisco). It was a fabulous trip. It already feels like a dream. I wanted to share some more pictures in a post today and then hopefully finish tomorrow.

Friday, after George's meetings, we headed east from Waikiki to the Nuuanu Pali lookout. We could see green cliffs stretching to the beautiful, blue ocean.

We stopped for a few minutes to see the Byodo-In temple, an exact replica of a 900-year-old temple in Japan.

Next, we drove to Kualoa ranch where we had reservations for an ATV tour of the mountains. The views were breathtaking - and the ATVs were fun too! Lots of movies have been filmed in these mountains including Jurassic Park.

We finished the day with a picnic at Koala Beach, across the street from the ranch. Our view included a little island known as "Chinaman's Hat."

The next morning, we caught a quick flight to the island of Kauai where we would be staying in the town of Lihue for two nights. We grabbed some of the famous Saimin noodles for lunch before driving a few miles north to the town of Kapaa. Here, we had reservations for a kayaking trip. We kayaked a few miles up the Wailua River. Then our guide led us on a one-mile hike to Secret Falls where we took a little swim before hiking and kayaking back.

We finished the day with dinner at the cutest little place ever, called Kalapaki Beach Hut, right on the beach near Lihue.

Tomorrow, I'll post a few more from pictures from our last two days. I'll see my kids in less then 24 hours! I can't wait! (I do wish I could skip the twelve hours of flights ahead.)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Hawaii Part 1

We have now been here in Hawaii for two and a half days. Of course, I am missing my kids like crazy! But they are in good hands with my parents. We have talked and emailed pictures (Sarah Ann, my five-year-old, said "If you send me pictures mommy, then I won't miss you so much!").

But - we are having a great time. Hawaii is amazing! The weather is sunny and perfect. The beach and mountains are gorgeous. We are staying on Waikiki beach - which actually probably wouldn't be my first choice, but that's where my husband's meetings are. Waikiki is beautiful, I just usually prefer to stay in a little less touristy places. My husband is at his meetings right now so I decided to share a couple of photos.

We flew in on Monday evening and didn't do much but roll into bed. We still haven't completely adjusted to the five hour time change. I have woken up by 6 a.m. every morning (so much for sleeping in - it's impossible....)

Wednesday morning, we drove to Pearl Harbor to see the USS Arizona Memorial. I have included a picture below. The entire place is very nice and tastefully done. We watched a short video and then took a little boat over to the memorial that is right over the actual sunken ship where around 1000 people lost their lives on December 7, 1941.

Next, we drove up around the north shore to see the famous waves of the "surfing capital of the world."

Finally, we headed to the Polynesian Cultural Center where we spent the rest of the day visiting recreated villages from all across Polynesia, and enjoying a luau, and show. The villages and shows featured college students from the various areas of Polynesia showcasing the song and dance of their island. The night finished with a spectacular fire dance where several young men twirled and tossed sticks burning from both ends. (I could hardly watch!)Below are some of the dancers during the canoe pageant.

Yesterday, we began the day early with a visit to Hanauma Bay, about 30 minutes east of Waikiki. The bay itself is breathtaking. We rented snorkel equipment (we had never been snorkeling before) and headed out into the water. We soon found ourselves swimming directly above a coral reef among fish and even a giant sea turtle. Here's a picture from the top of the walkway looking down into the bay.

We concluded the day on Waikiki beach. We took a quick swim, watched the sunset (below), saw a hula show, and had a nice dinner at Duke's Canoe Club.

We have more fun plans on Oahu today before catching a flight in the morning to Kauai.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Lectures This Week

This week I gave two really fun lectures about my book. First, on Wednesday I spoke to the Genealogy Club of Newtown (Connecticut). I drove up early and enjoyed a delicious dinner with Ray and Mary Maki, the founders, and Marian Wood, the program chair. Both Mary and Marian have blogs. You can read about the lecture on Mary’s blog or at Marian’s blog. The group meets at the Newtown library, which has a really interesting history. The money to build the library (and several other buildings in town) was left by a wealthy woman who lived in Newtown around the turn of the twentieth century. The library even has a genealogy room. The group was fabulous – so fun and interactive. As a speaker, it really makes a difference to have an audience that is responsive. (And it sure beats having someone snoring on the front row – which I have also had happen!)

Then on Friday, I went to my daughter’s fifth grade class at Chestnut Hill. I had a blast talking to those fifth graders. I got so many questions! On just one slide, there would be about six kids with their hands in the air. They wanted to know why our ancestors had so many children, what would have happened if my ancestors’ parents threw him overboard, if people gave their children Tylenol back then, if my ancestor got typhoid fever at the same time her mother died from it, and what would happen if a kid sneaked onto one of the covered wagons to ride when crossing the plains when he was supposed to be walking. Some of those are certainly questions I had never been asked before!

By the way, if you are thinking of ordering The Journey Takers as a Christmas present, you should consider ordering it from Deseret Book or Seagull Book (it’s cheapest here - $17.95). Amazon says they can’t guarantee it will arrive on time for Christmas. (Who knows why….)

My little Christian finally seems like himself today. He has been so sad and clingy all week. I could tell he felt better today because he spent his time roaming around the kitchen, opening all the cupboards and pulling everything out. As I was trying to help my other kids decorate Christmas cookies, Christian took several pot lids into the bathroom (I don’t know why) and of course dumped all the spaghetti noodles out again (I ought to smarten up and move those noodles, don’t you think?) That’s the Christian we know and love.

Two more days until we leave for Hawaii! Yesterday when my kids got on the bus to go to school, it was 3 degrees. On Tuesday, I will be sitting on the beach in flip flops and short sleeves. Amazing.

Maybe I should move to Hawaii.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Your Family's Name Was Not Changed at Ellis Island

This week we had some people over for dinner. During the course of our discussion, I asked one of them about the origins of his surname. (What can I say? I’m a genealogist – I’m always fascinated by where people’s names come from.) He told me that it had been spelled differently in Sweden, but then his family immigrated and they changed it at Ellis Island.

If you are a genealogist, you are cringing now. I know you are. I had to concentrate to not actually cringe when he said it.

If you’re not a genealogist, then maybe you don’t know why we are all cringing. Maybe you even have a similar story for your name.

Well, I hate to be the one to break it to you then: Your family’s name was not changed at Ellis Island. And neither was this person’s name. This may be the number two myth in genealogy (next only to the “I’m-descended-from-royalty/Indian-princess/Charlemagne/noble-who-fell-in-love-with-a-peasant-girl-and-stowed-away-on-a-ship-to-America-in-order-to-escape-the-Prussian-military-myth”).

First, many of the people who say this didn’t even have family that came through Ellis Island. Ellis Island didn’t open until 1892. Immigrants who came to New York prior to this probably came to Castle Garden which served as the port of arrival from 1855 until 1890.

Second, there was not a conspiracy by the officials at Ellis Island to change as many names as possible and make it difficult for their future descendents to ever trace their heritage.

Have many family names changed in spelling from their “original” spelling in Europe? Absolutely. But it wasn’t because of a massive change at Ellis Island. So why have these spellings changed then?

Well, there are several things to keep in mind. First, often there never was a “correct” way to spell the name in the first place – even in Europe. Our ancestors spelled phonetically – based on how things were pronounced, how they sounded. They were not overly concerned with what exact letters were included. You will often find names spelled multiple ways within one record. Also our ancestors, and even record keepers, were often only semi-literate. They had bigger things to worry about in life besides “i before e, except after c.”

The other piece of this is that things got more complicated when our ancestors came to the US and another language was involved. These foreign names were unfamiliar to US record keepers. The recorder heard the name – as it was spoken in its original language – and recorded it as he heard it in English.

Yes, sometimes names were written “incorrectly” (which is actually impossible since if there isn’t a “correct” way to write a name, then there can’t really be an “incorrect” way either) at Ellis Island. But, this is usually just another warping of a name that had been – and would be – warped into many forms. Just because an official wrote a name a certain way in the passenger arrival records, did not mean our ancestor was forced to spell his or her name that way forever afterward.

In fact, names usually continued to warp and change after Ellis Island. If you collect a stack of records throughout an immigrant ancestor’s life, you will most likely see the name morphing over time – not a sudden break at Ellis Island (or Castle Garden). Some of ancestors made conscious choices to change their name’s spelling in order to make it sound more “American.” Sometimes, it just gradually drifted to a more “American” spelling. Then of course, some people’s names shifted drastically into a name that appears to be completely unrelated to the name they had before. Sometimes there are reasons for this that we can figure out when we understand naming patterns. Other times, there appears to be absolutely no logic behind the change at all.

Those ancestors are the most fun of all, right?

For more information on name changes, you can read my article about it here from Everton’s Genealogical Helper. Or, if you have a special interest in patronymics, read my introductory article from Ancestry Magazine here.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Christmas crazies

It’s a new week – and not just any week – a week in December. I’m sure I am not the only person out there that feels that weeks in December are fundamentally different than weeks in any other part of the year. I LOVE December and I LOVE Christmas. But it also makes my life a little crazy. Here are some items on my list for the week:

-Two lectures. I will be speaking to the Newtown Genealogy Club in Connecticut this Wednesday at 7 p.m. about my book. I am looking forward to my lecture. Then, on Friday I am doing a very special lecture. I will be speaking to my daughter’s fifth grade class (and another class) about my book. I spoke to eight fourth grade classes in October and it was so fun! I loved the creative, thoughtful, unexpected questions and comments I got. I will be sure and write more about it after the presentation.

-Submitting an article for an upcoming issue of the Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly entitled “Get Published in Magazines: Tips for Getting Your Words in Print.” This is based on a lecture I gave this past August in Knoxville, TN at the National APG Conference in conjunction with FGS (Federation of Genealogical Societies) Conference. You can watch the lecture online. You can also see most of the other presentations given at the conference at the APG website also on such useful topics as marketing, choosing continuing educational experiences, and your online presence. Check out the list here.

-Christmas cookies. We have a tradition of making Christmas cookies every year – LOTS of Christmas cookies. We have four kinds in the freezer already. We have three kinds left to go this week: gingerbread, Spritz, and a new one called “almond delights.” Over the weekend we will decorate and deliver all of them (hopefully…). I really enjoy making cookies with my kids, but every year it is an exercise in patience and in not micromanaging (snowmen can be green and it’s’ okay for the cookie to have five different kinds of sprinkles….)

-Christmas shopping. I am almost done…just a few hard ones left. And, there’s still one big gift left for my kids. It’s a surprise so I can’t tell you yet!

-Piano lessons, dance class, basketball practice, activity days (a church activity), Irish step. None of these activities are mine, of course, but they are still on my list for the week!

And an update: I took my little Christian to the doctor yesterday after he scared me by coughing until his lips turned blue. He has ear infections in both ears. So now he is on antibiotics – and hopefully on the mend. (And the doctor was unimpressed by my story of him coughing until his lips turned blue, which is, of course, unrelated to the ear infections.)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

This and That

My poor little baby is still sick. He doesn’t have a fever anymore, but he definitely still has a cold. I had all these good intentions to write a really useful post with lots of genealogy information. But, you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men….

So instead I thought I’d just share some of the random thoughts dancing around in my head:

1) I missed a NERGC (New England Regional Genealogical Conference) board meeting today. If any of you are New Englanders, I hope you are looking into attending this conference. It’s a fabulous conference with speakers from across the country. This year, it will be in Springfield, MA – just forty minutes from my house. (But today was the “Christmas tree day” at our house, so I had to pass on the meeting. They didn’t need my anyway:) You can read more about the conference here. And by the way, you don't have to be a New Englander to come!

2) My book was reviewed on the latest episode of The Genealogy Guys Podcast . It must be late, because I can’t make my computer cooperate so I can hear what they said.

3) I made our kayaking reservations for our trip to Hawaii. And I made reservations for the Polynesian Cultural Center. I’ve really wanted to see the Na Pali Coast, but boats and helicopters are not an option for me (motion sickness). So, I’ve decided we’re going to hike in a couple of miles instead for what is supposedly a stunning view. Can’t wait!! Sometimes I think I missed my true calling in life – being a professional tourist (or at least a travel writer).

4) Family Chronicle is about to put out a new book entitled, “Tracing Your Civil War Ancestors.” You can pre-order it now on their website. I have Civil War ancestors – maybe someday I will trace them, instead of only tracing my European ancestors. It always makes me laugh when people assume that because I’m a “professional,” I must have “finished” tracing my family.

5) Listening to a little baby cough is about the saddest thing ever! I hope my little guy gets better soon.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


Since I recently wrote a post about the things I’m thankful for, it seems only natural to now write a complaining post. Here are my current life complaints:

1) I am sick. I am not deathly, horribly sick, but I do feel lousy. It’s really just a cold – but one of those severe colds, where my head is so fuzzy that I have a hard time forming coherent sentences because by the time I’m halfway through the sentence, I have already forgotten what I was talking about. I have the desire to climb back in my bed. But as you all know, moms don’t get “sick days” like everyone else.

2) Christian (my thirteen-month-old) is sick. He ran a fever of 103 for two days, but actually seems a bit better now. This means, I have spent large amounts of time sitting with him in the rocking chair.

3) My husband is out of town again. This, of course, confounds the problems of #1 and #2 above.

4) I am not getting anything done. Like all the rest of the world, I have long to-do list, but due to #1-3 above, have found it nearly impossible to do anything more than the laundry (wash it at least, it is still unfolded on my living room couch).

5) My computer died a couple of weeks ago, and I have been using my husband’s old computer. It insists on disconnecting itself from the internet at least once an hour. It is making me crazy! (My husband doesn’t think I need a new one – because this one works good enough. My question for him is: then why did he get a new one?)

6) As I am writing this, Christian (who definitely seems better today) has opened the hutch and pulled all the food out, including dumping nearly a pound of spaghetti noodles on the floor.

This is a picture from another day of Christian pulling food out of the hutch.

Fortunately though, there are some positives in life right now to balance these out. Here is my positive list:

1) I am going to Hawaii in less then two weeks! And I am going with just my husband. It is the first time we have gone anywhere without children together since we had children (except to a brief trip to Pittsburgh which doesn’t count because it was for adoption interviews and was stressful). My parents will stay with my kids. I have done absolutely nothing to plan this trip until the conditions described above hit. But now, since I have spent lots of time sitting in the rocking chair with Christian, I have started reading my Hawaii tour guide, and am now so excited I can hardly stand it!

2) I have a radio interview today with a Utah radio station about my book. I can do it here at home. I am going to concentrate really hard so as not to run into the problem described in #1 above in which I am unable to complete sentences that make any sense.

3) My book sold more on amazon in November than any previous month. (But it needs to sell more. December is supposed to be a big month for books. Anyone have a difficult-to-shop for person on your Christmas list? I know just the thing to get him or her….)

4) I feel rotten enough that I’m not even that concerned about all things I'm not getting done. I’m perfectly content to read about snorkeling in Hanauma Bay and kayaking on the Wailua River.

5) My husband comes back tomorrow night. The house can’t completely disintegrate by then, can it?

6) Christian is still happy – now pulling all the pots and pans out. This is the longest he has gone without me holding him since Monday evening. He looks pretty cute in his dinosaur sleeper surrounded by pans and spaghetti noodles.

7) Did I mention that I’m going to Hawaii for the first time in less than two weeks? Even better, my husband has meetings there, so the trip is highly subsidized by his work.

Well, how’s that? I have more things on my good list then my bad list. (Okay, so I may have put Hawaii twice, but I think it’s worthy of counting twice.)

Now the decision: should I clean up the spaghetti noodles or make kayaking reservations? (Or even better, put Christian down for a nap and go back to bed myself…if only….)

Monday, November 29, 2010

Regular Life and German Parish Records

After being with family from Friday, Nov 19 when I flew into DC until yesterday when the last of my siblings left from the Thanksgiving break, we are now back to “regular” life. It seems a little sad – not because regular life is so terrible, but because there’s nothing like having family around!

Today, regular life consists of grocery shopping, taking Sarah Ann to dance, supervising homework and piano practice, and catching up on emails. I thought I would answer one of my emails here on my blog. (Of course, the other thing I need to catch up after having family around is sleep…)

So, here’s my email for today:

You have a wonderful website! I would like to know where to go for parish records of the Mecklenburg-Schwerin area from 1844.
Thank you!

I’m going to broaden this question to address parish records from Germany in general. Parish records have survived from many German parishes. Of course, there are some that have been lost to fire or other causes. How far they date back varies from place to place. The earliest known parish records that still exist are from 1524 in Nürnberg. In general though, it’s rare for records to date back further than the Thirty Years’ war which raged across Europe from 1618 to 1648. The widespread destruction of this war wiped out many records.

So how do you access these records? First, keep in mind that you need to know the parish church your ancestors attended. This is often not the same thing as knowing their German hometown. Most villages were not large enough to support a church of their own. Instead, people from numerous villages would come together to attend church in one village. This means that if you have the name of the hometown, you must find where people living in this town attended church. This is where you will find those all-important parish records. Many people come to the conclusion that parish records don’t exist for their ancestors, when the real problem is they are not searching for the correct town. Also, be sure you check a gazetteer to ensure you have the spelling correct. And remember that town names and jurisdictions have changed over time.

It would be nice if you could find these records online, as you can do for Swedish parish records. Unfortunately, right now there are not large collections of German parish records online. This should change in the future with FamilySearch’s Record Access program. You can see what is available for Germany now here.

Many microfilm records have been microfilmed through the LDS Church. Most of us don’t live close enough to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City to take advantage of its amazing resources. But we can still access these microfilms by ordering them to our local Family History Centers. You can search for a Family History Center near you at FamilySearch’s website (scroll down the bottom of the page where it says “Find a Family History Center”. The German states vary in how much of their parish records have been microfilmed. In Mecklenburg, nearly all of the surviving records have been microfilmed. But this is not the case everywhere.

If microfilmed parish records are not available for the towns you need, you may need to write for the record. The German archive system can be intimidating. I suggest you write directly to the church. Hopefully, if they do not have the records themselves, they will direct you to the placed that do. For information on how to write German churches (and templates to follow if you don’t know German), check out FamilySearch’s German letter writing guide.

For an overview of German church records, be sure to read the FamilySearch Wiki section on it.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Thanksgiving Tree

I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving yesterday. I’ve included a couple of pictures below of our family gathered together for our meal:

We have a tradition in our family that Thursday evening, after everyone has eaten, we gather in my living room to do the “Thanksgiving tree.” I draw a giant tree and then we cut out fall leaves from construction paper. (The finished product is always interesting since drawing is not at the top of my talent list – in fact, it’s not on my talent list at all. This year, I convinced my sister and her fiancé to do the drawing and the cutting though, so the tree definitely took a step up.) Each person gets about five leaves. Then we go around the room and, one at a time, say something we are thankful for and write it on our leaf. The kids take turns sticking them on the tree. The only rule is that you can’t say something that someone else already said. In other words, if the first person says she is thankful for her family, then nobody else can say that.

We always get a range of responses. Some are serious and heartfelt, while others are creative or just silly. Here are some the things written on our “thankful leaves” this year (each line represents one leaf):
trees, plants, fungi, and the environment
clothes, glasses, and bodies
increased financial stability
wii (this was Taylor of course – see my previous post)
second chances
Central Park
Pumpkin pie

The kids put the leaves wherever they want, which results in an interesting looking tree by the end. Here’s a picture of my children putting their leaves on the Thanksgiving tree.

This year, I have been feeling particularly grateful. For many years, there were two things I wanted more than anything else. First, I wanted another baby. We had three beautiful, wonderful children. But, both George (my husband) and I really felt like there was another little boy out there for us. I get so sick while I’m pregnant (if you’ve read my book, you’ll know a little about that), that it had become apparent that another pregnancy was probably not the right path for us. We began to look into adoption. In October of 2009, our little Christian was born. I was able to be there at the hospital to hold him on his very first day of life. He has brought so much happiness into our family. I am very grateful for him – and for my other children.

The other thing I wanted was to publish a book. In fact, from the time I was five years old, I have wanted to write books. There has never been a day of my life where I didn’t want to be an author. It was a long and winding path, but The Journey Takers was released this summer. It continues to be a long and winding path. However, right before my book came I out, I thought that no matter what happens with it, when I am 80 years old, I will look back on my life and be grateful that this lifelong dream of mine was fulfilled.

So, this year I feel like I really have everything I wanted – at least, everything I wanted that really mattered! I have been blessed.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

German Research and I-95

In my last entry, I wrote about speaking in two states in one day. Today, I have been in six states. But I didn’t speak in any of them. I just drove through.

Last night, I spoke at the German-American Heritage Museum in DC. It’s always a treat for me to do a lecture that focuses exclusively on German research, since German research was really my first love (my first genealogy love anyway!). Back when I used to take clients, I only took clients tracing German ancestors – and usually nineteenth century German ancestors.

While we’re on the topic of German research, I thought I would share a few links for anyone tracing German roots. First, I have an article online (that first appeared in Internet Genealogy Magazine) that you can read here. It’s called “Getting Acquainted with German Research Through the Internet.” A few websites have changed since I wrote this article. In particular, my favorite German site has a new address. The German Roots site is now located at www.germanroots. You may want to check out this site’s “Basic Research Guide for German Genealogy.”

Then, this morning at 6 a.m. I sat off towards home on I-95 in the car with my brother and his wife. If you haven’t spent significant time on I-95, you are really missing something in life. I have spent quite a lot of time on this road, driving between my brothers’ homes in Virginia or Maryland to New Haven, where we leave I-95 to take I-91 closer to our house in Massachusetts.

The trip between our houses, theoretically, takes seven hours. I have driven back and forth on it two to three times a year for the past four years. It has sometimes taken us seven hours – but sometimes taken much more. One time, on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, it took us almost 12 hours. (It’s good thing we had lots of books on tape or the kids might have might have been climbing the walls – or I might have been climbing the walls.) Fortunately, today it took just a bit more than seven hours.

I was so excited to arrive home and see my kids again. I promised a report on the state of my house after leaving my husband home alone in it with our four kids for four days. So, he did pretty well. He had vacuumed, swept the floor, and done all those obvious things. He hadn’t cleaned up the kids rooms (where they guests will sleep), but all things considered, I was pleasantly surprised.

There will be 15 people at my house by Thursday. So from now until then, I will be cooking. My goal is to cook enough food to have a nice Thanksgiving spread – and to last these 15 people all the way through Sunday. (Last year, we had to borrow a friend’s fridge because mine was full…) It’s a lot of cooking, but it will be fun!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Maryland and Virginia

Today I am in Hyattsville, Maryland in the apartment of my brother and his wife. I arrived here late Friday night – or technically, I suppose, early Saturday morning. That day (Saturday) I spoke in two states. That’s kind of a fun thought isn’t it? Speaking in two states in one day.

In the morning, I presented a two-hour workshop entitled “Researching and Writing Your Family’s Story” to the Fairfax Genealogical Society in Virginia. It was an enthusiastic, responsive group which made the workshop a lot of fun for me.

The thesis of the first part of my workshop is that in order to write an interesting family history, you have to gather interesting information. I share some ways to do this – even for ancestors who left little behind – no letters, diaries, etc. I point out that one way to learn more about our ancestors is to “dig deeper” in the records we already have. I think sometimes we get in a hurry to pull out the names and dates, and we miss some of the other information “hidden” in the records. Here is one of the documents I use as an example:

This is a German marriage record. It really has an amazing amount of information! (Try and find a US church with this many details from this time period – 1864. This is why I think it’s actually easier to do foreign research than US research.) Some of the things you can find in this record are: date of the marriage; date the marriage bans were read (when people had an opportunity to “object” to the marriage); name of the groom along with his occupation, where he is currently living, where he will be living soon, and his birth date and place, the name of the bride along with where she is living, and her birth date and place; and the names of the both of their fathers, the fact that they are both deceased, where they lived, and what their occupations were.

I think out ancestors’ occupations are one of the most overlooked pieces of information that in the records. And, they can tell us so much about our ancestors’ lives – especially if we take the time to do a little research to really understand these occupations.

After this lecture, I drove as fast as I could (without doing anything illegal of course) to Baltimore, Maryland where I gave my book talk at the Maryland Historical Society. Although I had driven by Baltimore many times (on I-95 on my way to DC), I realized I had never actually been to downtown Baltimore. I was surprised at the “old city” feel it had – with lots of neat, historic buildings. The Historical Society itself seemed very impressive, and I wished I had more time to wander around and look at the displays and artwork. It was also a fun lecture.

Tomorrow night, I speak at the German-American Heritage Museum.

Of course, I am missing my little kiddies. I had a fun conversation with them on the phone this afternoon. Sarah Ann (age 5) informed me that she has decided she wants to give her kindergarten teacher cheese for Christmas because she really likes to eat cheese. I suggested we make Christmas cookies instead. She then spent the next ten minutes trying to persuade me that she could make the cookies all by herself. Hmmm…..

I was excited to see a new review of my book on amazon and seagull. It's by Lori Linn Foster and says: "I enjoyed reading this book. The characters were brought to life as Leslie gave historical background information that brought me into the lives and times and places where the characters lived. I already enjoy family history; this book was a joy to read."

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Letters to Me: Castle Garden and the Wii

Like probably all of you, I get a variety of letters every day. I get letters in my e-mail inbox, letters in mailbox, and occasionally, hand-delivered letters. Today, I wanted to respond to two of them here. I’ve chosen two that I think represent the dichotomy of my life!

The first came to my e-mail last week:

Hi Leslie;

I saw your presentation at the GGG (German Genealogy Group) last week. You had a slide of an arrival record from Castle Garden in New York. I was wondering were you found these records since I thought they were all burned in a fire at Ellis Island.


PS I enjoyed your book.

Here’s my response:
Castle Garden records are not burned, but are alive and well. In fact, at that same German Genealogy Group meeting, I ate dinner with a group of people beforehand – one of whom had worked with the actual original Castle Garden arrival lists.

Castle Garden was the New York receiving station prior to Ellis Island. It functioned from 1855 until 1890. Ellis Island opened in 1892. Castle Garden has a really interesting history. You can about it here in an article I wrote a couple of years ago for History Channel Magazine. Castle Garden was the most important arrival port of its time. During some periods, nearly 80% of US arrivals came through Castle Garden.

As for records: You can access 11 million Castle Garden arrivals for free at This website covers the years 1820-1892, so it includes records of New York arrivals during times when Castle Garden was not the receiving port. Keep in mind though that the website does not have all the records for this period. It also links to transcribed entries, not original records. If you have an Ancestry subscription, or at least access to one, you can access all the New York arrivals here. These are linked to images of the actual lists.

If you have been to visit Ellis Island, you have seen Castle Garden – but probably didn’t even know it. It is the building where you buy your tickets! I find this a little sad, but the Battery Conservancy is working to restore it, so maybe it will get more recognition in the future.

Now, for the second letter…This was a hand-delivered letter from my eight-year-old son. They had an assignment in school to write a persuasive letter. (Let me preface it by saying that we have a family rule that my children can only play wii on Fridays and Saturdays – except in special circumstances such as school holidays or when children are home sick and playing wii would directly contribute to preserving everyone’s sanity.):

Dear Mom,

I love wii so please let me play wii on weekdays. I will do all my homework including spelling. I will only play for twenty minutes. A lot of my friends do. I will play outside first for an hour. A lot of my friends do. I will read for a long time. I should be able to play wii on weekdays.


Do you like how he included the fact that “a lot of his friends do” two different times?

My response: No.

It is pretty cute though, isn’t it? The truth is – he doesn’t have time to play wii on weekdays. With homework, piano practice, and then whatever of the many extracurricular activities one or the other of them is in, we don’t exactly sit around the house looking for something to do.

Here's a photo of Taylor so you can have the entire persuasive effect!

Tonight, I fly to Baltimore. It's going to be an exciting weekend!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Upcoming Lectures

This is one of those weeks where I feel a little like I’m sitting at the top of a roller coaster peeking over the edge, about to dive straight down. There’s nothing to do but grab the sides of the little cart and hang on!

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not an unpleasant roller coaster – or week. It’s just an intense one! Here are some of the upcoming highlights. Most of these events are open to public, so if you happen to be in the area, come and drop in. (Join my roller coaster ride for a couple of hours!)

Tues, (Nov 16), 7 p.m., 25 Boston Road, Chelmsford, MA
Tonight, I will be at the Chelmsford Library. I will be giving my “book talk” – The Journey Takers: An Inside Look at Immigration Research. But, it will be a new version of the book talk since some of the attendees heard it already at the Massachusetts Society of Genealogists Annual Conference on November 6. I’ve added new slides and new stories. I will talk about Edmond Harris, my English journey taker – and the journey taker who usually gets left out of the book talk, even though he has the most dramatic story in the book. (Only so much information will fit in a one-hour lecture – even when I talk really fast!)

On Friday, I will take a flight to Baltimore and spend a long weekend in the DC area. I have three talks there. And, I get to stay with my brother and his wife who live in Hyattsville, MD. I’m excited to see them. Here are my DC area talks:

Sat, Nov 20, 10 a.m., 2148 Gallows Road, Dunn Loring, VA
I will present a two-hour workshop to the Fairfax Genealogical Society called: Researching and Writing Your Ancestors’ Stories. This will also be a new workshop I’ve never done before. It combines parts of two talks I’ve given in the past. But, since it’s a workshop I’ve also thrown in some “worksheets.” Maybe I’ll post some of the problems I’ll present to the workshop attendees later.

Sat, Nov 20, 2:30 p.m., 201 Monument Street, Baltimore, MD
Soon after the workshop, I’ll jump in my car and race to another state to present my “standard” book talk, The Journey Takers: An Inside Look at Immigration Research, at the Maryland Historical Society. The lecture is free to members of the Maryland Historical Society or Maryland Genealogical Society. There is a charge of $10 for others. Registration is encouraged, but walk-ins are welcome.

Mon, Nov 22, 6 p.m., 719 6th St NW, DC
This lecture will be at the German American Heritage Museum in DC. This will be yet another version of my book lecture – this time only focusing on the German immigration experience. It is free and open to the public. (Their facebook page describes my book as “riveting and detail-rich”!)

Tuesday morning I will leave with my brother and his wife to drive back to Massachusetts. On the way, we will pick up my sister and her fiancé from the Providence, RI airport (did you know Providence was on the way from DC to Amherst?).

So, the real question is: What will my house look like when I return with four additional people – one who has never been to our house before (soon to be followed by my other brother’s family of five) after having left my husband home alone with our four children for almost four days?? I’ll let you know…

Sunday, November 14, 2010

How Immigrants Paid for their Ship Voyages

We made it back from Philadelphia last night. I did four batches of laundry today. How is it that we were only gone three days and I still had four batches of laundry?

I enjoyed my visit to the American Swedish Historical Museum. I had great intentions to take a picture, but for various reasons, it didn't happen.

At my lectures, I have noticed themes in the questions people ask. There is one question in particular that I get asked about two-thirds of the time when I give my “book lecture.” Yesterday, I just focused on my Swedish “journey taker” or immigrant, Karsti Nilsdotter Karsti left Sweden alone at age seventeen to come to America. At some point during my story of her immigration, someone in the audience usually raises their hand and asks some version of this question, “How did Karsti pay to come to the US?” or, more generally, “How did our ancestors pay for the ship voyage to America?”

I thought I would answer that question here. First, keep in mind that while we often think of the “tired” the “poor” and the “huddled masses” (from Emma Lazarus’s famous poem) coming to the US, the poorest of the poor, generally, did not come. They couldn’t afford it. In the 1700s, some of the poorest, particularly from the German states, came through the redemption system, where they basically sold themselves into servitude. This had long since come to an end by the mid to late 1800s, when my “journey takers” made their voyage across the ocean. For many immigrants, crossing the ocean was a huge effort that sometimes took years of planning and saving. Sometimes immigrants sold all they had to pay for the voyage, essentially arriving in the US with next to nothing. (The Irish were a special case, as during the potato famine of the 1840s, they really were the “huddled masses” arriving in the US in desperate conditions. Often, landlords paid to send these immigrants to North America- basically, just to get rid of them. You can read more about it here.)

Karsti came after joining the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or LDS Church. The LDS Church had a program that helped its members to make the trip to “Zion,” or what would become the state of Utah. This program was known as the Perpetual Emigration Fund (or PEF). Converts could borrow money from the Church. Careful records were kept, and these members were expected to pay the money back in full. The money they put back into the system was then used to bring other members over. You can read more about it here.

Of course, immigrants outside the LDS Church received financial aid to make the trip. Some received aid from other religious or benevolent society groups. Others received aid from family or friends.

Karsti did not receive aid from the PEF. Records indicate that she paid for the trip independently. I have a theory on how she was able to do this. By the time Karsti immigrated, she had lost both of her parents. Her father had passed away a couple of years earlier when Karsti was 14. Karsti probably received a portion of his inheritance when her father died. I assume she used this to fund her journey to Utah.

On an unrelated note, my computer crashed while we were in Philadelphia. It has been on its death bed for a while (although it is only two years old), so I had been careful to keep back-ups. In fact, just a couple of weeks earlier, I had invested in an external hard drive. I am currently typing on my husband’s old computer while I decide what to do. A computer crash is always a pain, but I am very glad I had recent back-ups, or it would have been a lot worse. If you don’t have your files backed up (in more than one place), do it tonight!

Friday, November 12, 2010

New York and Philadelphia

I’m sleeping in Philadelphia tonight. From my hotel, I can see out over the Delaware River. I love visiting new places!

We spent yesterday in New York City with my brother and his family. The kids ran wild in Central Park and then we headed to Time Square. My brother reminded me of the last time we were there together. It was four years ago at Christmas, and it was so packed that we could hardly walk down the street. His then four-year-old son had told us that it felt like “a wildebeest migration.” It was busy, but not quite a wildebeest migration this time.

This morning we drove the rest of the way to Philadelphia. The last time I was in Philadelphia was two years ago when the FGS (Federation of Genealogical Societies) Conference was here. My tourist activites then lasted a total of about three hours. Besides, that was Philadelphia without children, which as you know, is not at all the same as Philadelphia with children.

The tickets were already gone for Independence Hall, so we will have to hit that in the morning. But here we are at the Liberty Bell.

Here’s another picture of it (Christian isn’t in the picture because he was asleep and Rachel looks like this because she is in the middle of yelling “Taylor keeps bumping me with his arm!” This is, of course, why Philadelphia with children is not the same as Philadelphia without children.)

The high point of the day was a multimedia presentation at the National Constitution Center about – of all things – the Constitution. It talked about the freedom the Constitution provides. As a genealogist interested in immigration research, I was most affected by the scenes of immigrants entering the U.S. – especially being here in Philadelphia, one of the major points of entry for immigrants in earlier centuries. Not to be sappy (because I really hate sappiness), but I couldn’t help thinking of my own ancestors and the millions just like them who took incredible risks to start new lives here where they believed they could find opportunities to create better lives for their families.

(By the way, if you are interested in immigrants who came to Philadelphia, check out one of my all-time favorite websites, German Roots. You can read about early arrivals to Philadelphia (1700s) here and about later immigrants (1800s) here.

The second high point of the day was finding Christian’s missing pacifier on the street corner of 5th and Market right outside the Independence Hall Visitor’s Center after having lost it a couple of hours earlier.

Tomorrow, I’ll speak at 1:30 p.m. at the American Swedish Historical Museum. I’m excited!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Why Everyone Should Wish They Had Swedish Roots

I just looked at my lecture page and counted that I have given my “book talk” 20 times since July 1 (this is not counting lectures on related topics). Twenty times in a little over four months! It ought to be the most polished, well-put-together lecture ever now (notice I said "ought to be"). I have lots of different versions of it: there’s the genealogy version, the general audience version, the German version, and now this weekend for the first time there will also be the Swedish version. (There’s also the version I gave to eight fourth grade classes. That was exciting!)

So, I’ve spent some time in the last couple of days adjusting my lecture to focus on the Swedish section on my book – and on Swedish immigration. As I’ve been doing this, I’m reminded at how fun Swedish research is – and how many great resources there are available to people who want to trace their Swedish roots.

In my book lecture, I often tell people that if they have Swedish ancestors, they should do the little genealogy happy dance. Here are a few reasons why everyone should wish they had Swedish roots:

1) Clerical survey records. These records are found with the parish records. They were created when the parish pastor visited the homes of people within his parish, quizzing them on their knowledge of Luther’s catechisms. They also function kind of like census records. They record names, and often birth dates and places, dates of when people moved in or out or married, occupations, and death dates (if the person died during that period). The exact structures vary, but they may be kept every five or so years.

2) Genline. A huge amount of parish records are available online through this website. You can choose from a variety of subscriptions, and aren’t forced to commit to a year membership or anything like that. Of course, when I was doing the research for The Journey Takers, genline didn’t exist and I had to order the microfilms to my local family history center. (When will there be a genline for German parish records??)

3) Swedish Emigration Databases. Swedes kept great records of emigrants after 1868. You can read the details of the different databases available at the FamilySearch wiki here.

Notice I didn’t mention the patronymic naming system. That is definitely not part of the happy dance. You can read an article I wrote several years ago for Ancestry Magazine about using patronymics here.

While I’m putting together lists, I’ve thought of another one. My husband comes back tonight after being gone for five days. I’m ecstatic. No, it’s not because I miss him so much (who has time to miss him when I’m chasing four kids by myself?). So, here’s my second list.

How to survive five days with four children and no husband:

1) Always put children to bed on time.

2) Never stay up late working unless the world will end if it doesn’t get done (finishing blogging posts doesn’t qualify). Sleep is more important than most deadlines.

3) Remember that waffles and fruit are a completely acceptable, and even relatively healthy, dinner.

4) And this one is the key: When all children are in bed and there is not one sound in the house, take a deep breath, enjoy the silence, and eat a little bit of chocolate.

When my husband is going to be out of town a lot, he buys me some chocolate before he leaves. I’ve found that chocolate in small amounts can calm nerves after almost any stressful day. You should try it.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Welcome to my blog!

So, I'm really doing it - I'm taking the plunge. I'm starting a blog! I know I'm not exactly cutting edge here, but I'm still pretty excited. I've been thinking about starting a blog for years. All of a sudden last night, I decided to stop thinking about it - and just do it. Yikes! Even though I write for magazines quite a bit and even have a new book out (The Journey Takers), writing a blog seems a little - well, scary. I'm supposed to think of something entertaining and informative to say a couple of times a week. Actually, thinking of something to say shouldn't be a problem. I ALWAYS have something to say. Now whether or not it's entertaining and informative - that's another question...

Why did I finally decide to start this long-thought-about-blog now? Nothing profound happened. Really, nothing happened at all. I just decided to stop worrying about making everything fit a certain theme - stop worrying about planning things out in advance. I decided to just start my blog - and see what happened. So, that's what I'm doing. I'm going to write about the things I love - about family, history, genealogy (particularly immigration research), and my travels. I know there are other people out there who get as excited about these things as I do. Maybe this blog can help us connect!

The blog is called The Journey Takers, after my new book that just came out this summer. The book interweaves my ancestors' experiences, all Western European immigrants, with my experiences in researching and discovering them. I have included carefully researched accounts of peasant life and ocean voyages paralleled with personal accounts of research and of motherhood. I describe the emotional impact of standing in my family's Old World churches, and the "excitement" of chasing my fourteen-month-old up and down the aisles of the Family History Library. This is also what I want to do in my blog - mix together the things I learn about genealogy research and history with the things I learn about life. Oh! But that sounds so heavy. I want the blog to be fun too!

Lately, my life seems to be in a constant whirlwind. I am doing lots of traveling and speaking to share information about The Journey Takers. I have gotten to talk to so many new people. And I have loved it! I have learned so much from their comments and questions. I want to share some of that here. With four children, all these adventures have created more than a little craziness as well. I might share a little of that here too!

This past summer, I drove from Massachusetts (where I live) to California with my four kids (ages ten to nine months at the time) and my mother (it would have been impossible without her!), doing book talks and seeing the sights. In 2010 so far, we have visited 27 states, I have spoken in 14 of them, and we have seen 7 National Parks - and many other fabulous things. It has been great. I don't have another cross-country trip planned for a while, but I do have some adventures on the horizon. This weekend, we will head to New York City and then on to Philadelphia where I'll speak at the American Swedish Historical Museum. So, stay tuned for some thoughts on tracing Swedish ancestors - and, of course, on my trip to Philly!