Saturday, April 30, 2011

Let's Start at the Very Beginning (A Very Good Place to Start)

Today I drove to a library in Albany to speak to the Capital District Genealogical Society about “Writing A Page-Turning (But True) Family History.” I have only been to Albany one other time – that was in October to do an interview with Joe Donahue on the Roundtable (a show on Northeast Public Radio) about my book and about genealogy in general. But as I was looking at my schedule this week (trying to get myself organized), I realized that I am speaking at that exact same library in Albany next week – giving the exact same lecture – but to a different group. Quite a coincidence, don’t you think?

Like everyone else, I get lots of email. I mean to answer all of them. Really I do. But it doesn’t always happen. There’s just only so many hours in the day. I get lots of email from people who ask me questions about their specific genealogy research problems. Some of them are complex problems, but many of them are questions from people who are just starting to do genealogy research and don’t know where to turn or what to do first. So, since I don’t get around to answering all these emails individually, I thought I would address some of these basic beginning steps all at once here.

What should you do when you first begin tracing your family? Here are ten do’s and don’ts to help you get started.

1) DO start with yourself and your own family. You are the first person on your family tree. Make sure you have the relevant documents for yourself and your own family. Then move back to your parents and grandparents. You would be surprised at how many people do not know basic information about their parents or grandparents. Many people don’t know their parents’ marriage date – or even the maiden names of grandmothers. Track down this information first.

2) DON’T get ahead of yourself. Don’t try to start your research with some famous ancestor in the 1800s. You will want to work your way back one generation at a time – ensuring that the connections are correct and you actually are related to this person in the first place.

3) DON’T try to tackle your entire family tree at once. Besides being overwhelming and discouraging, this is also impossible. You will want to eventually choose one family line to focus on.

4) DO educate yourself. Check out books from the library about how to get started in genealogy research. Find a book about how to do research in the particular place your family lived. Join a genealogy society and learn from their classes – and from talking to people there who may be more experienced.

5) DON’T miss the resources on Under the “learn” tab, check out the different Wiki pages to get oriented on a wide variety of topics. For example, type in “German Research” to get a detailed guide on researching German ancestors. You can also find guides for each of the 50 states and most Western European countries – as well as other places too.

6) DO develop a system to organize your research results. For one thing, you will need a computer software program. You can download PAF from There are many other options you can purchase. These allow you to enter information about your family and also list the sources.

7) DO contact family members. Express your interest in gathering information about the family. Find out what others might have or might know that can be useful to you.

8) DON’T swallow online family trees whole – or lineage society records – or really any other record for that matter. Online family trees are riddled with errors from minor inaccuracies to completely incorrect people listed on your tree. You will want to do as I suggested and start with yourself and move back one family at a time, verifying what you find – even if you find a large family tree online.

9) DON’T miss opportunities to interview family members. Documents will be there (okay, not always – but generally), but family members won’t. Get their memories and experience recorded before they slip away.

10) DO take advantage of online sources, but DON’T expect to do all your genealogy research online – or assume that all needed records are online.

By the way, my daughter got a Sound of Music CD for Christmas and lately I often have Doe a Deer in my head - can you tell? The other song I have in my head a lot lately is Here Comes the Sun because my son got a Beatles CD. I don't mind too much because I actually really like both CDs - and it's certainly better than My Little Pony which I have also found myself singing while alone in my car before (maybe that is too embarrassing to admit...)

Monday, April 25, 2011

A Free Conference, a Book Review, and Some Easter Pictures

Spring break is over and it’s back to regular life for me. What that means this week is three lectures: tomorrow to the Central Massachusetts Genealogy Society (CMGS) in Gardner. They meet at 7 p.m. at the American Legion building (22 Elm Street). On Friday, I am speaking at a conference that should be of interest to those interested in genealogy within reasonable driving distances of Worcester, MA. The library (with the help of Kay Sheldon and others) is hosting a two day genealogical conference that is completely free. Pretty exciting, don’t you think? You can read more about it HERE. I’m speaking on Friday afternoon at 3:45 on Beyond Names And Dates: Uncovering Your Ancestors’ Stories. You’ll see a long list of lectures on a variety of topics – some by well known lecturers, and some by lectures who are not so well-known (but I know many of them and they’ll be great!). Then on Saturday, I’m driving to Albany, New York to speak to the Capital District Genealogical Society (LINK) on “Writing a Page-Turning (But True) Family History.” It will be a busy week! (I will also be driving children to a total of two softball practices, two soccer practices, two soccer games, two piano lessons, and two dance classes, among other things. Spring is the busiest season in the genealogy world – but it’s also the busiest season in the parents-of-school-aged-children world since so many sports take place now.)

On another note, I received in the mail a recent issue of the VASA Star, which is the publication for the international organization of VASA – an group that celebrates Swedish heritage. If you have Swedish roots, you might want to check out their website. They have branches located all over the country, including many in Massachusetts. They hold monthly meetings as well as periodic larger gatherings. Anyway, a recent issue of their publication reviewed my book, The Journey Takers. The review is rather lengthy, but I wanted to share the first few paragraphs:

“Leslie Albrecht Huber’s book The Journey Takers is a highly interesting account of how emigration from three European countries through seven generations crystallize into the family in which the author and her children so far are the latest members. In addition she has gone back three generations in the three countries (Germany, Sweden, and England) and arrived in the middle of the 1700s.

The book is extraordinarily comprehensive, based on nearly ten years of very thorough genealogical research in each of the countries concerned. The footnotes and bibliography take up 55 pages.

The author has previously published hundreds of articles in the fields of genealogy and history, but this is her first book. She was honored for one of her articles in 2004 with the “Franklin D. Scott Award” by the Swedish American Historical Society in Chicago.

A book with so many factual details risks being boring, but such is not the case here. The authoress lends to the presentation her imagination, which gives life, above all to the older generations in the countries of origin and the USA. Furthermore, she portrays her own life and her family at the same time in relation to the research work carried out in each of the places visited and the people she has met there in the present. These aspects of fiction and autobiography make the book easily accessible and at times as thrilling as a novel.”

The review concludes with the following sentence: “Everyone interested in delving deeper in these matters (referring to immigration) ought to read the book, which so far has only been published in English.”

What a nice review!

Finally, I can’t resist closing with a few photos from our Easter celebrations.

We started the week by visiting my brother and his family in New York City. We visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art which was fabulous – and more kid-friendly than I expected. Here are my children and their cousins in one of the Egyptian rooms in the museum. That night, I gave a lecture at the Connetquot Library in Bohemia, NY (on Long Island).

Rachel and her friend helped make fruit pizza in preparation for our annual Easter egg hunt. This year, we had 77 people at our house!

Sarah Ann and her friends looking for eggs in the front yard.

Christian quickly figured out that there was chocolate in these eggs. After that, he became a very motivated egg hunter. In the end though, he still preferred finding balls instead of eggs in the yard.

The Easter bunny brought coordinated clothes (which about did the Easter bunny in since she had to shop with an assistant who spent his time hiding under the clothes racks at Macy’s.)

My brother and his family joined us for our Easter dinner.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Conversation With My Daughter About Evaluating Sources

Yikes! Where has the past week gone? It’s spring break this week for my kids, which means I’ll be saying the same thing again in a week. We are leaving in 30 minutes for a couple of days in New York City with my brother, but I’m hoping I have time to jot a few thoughts down. (Can you jot thought down when you’re typing on a computer?)

My oldest child, Rachel, is ten. She’s in fifth grade. Recently she came home with the assignment to write her first “research paper.” Now – remember we are talking about fifth grade research papers here. That means the entire “paper” was supposed to be a few paragraphs long. They were required to use three sources, one of which had to be an actual book – as opposed to an online source. (I’ll try to resist the urge to become nostalgic reflecting on the fact that there were no such rules when I was in fifth grade or even high school since of course there was no internet to use.)

Rachel selected the topic of “The History of Irish Step.” Yeah, I know – I should have tried to persuade her to do some sort of genealogy topic, right? She chose this all on her own since she and I had gone a few weeks before to watch Riverdance in Springfield. (Again – trying to fight the urge to depart from my topic – but WOW! – it was fabulous.)

Her class had spent an hour or so at the computer lab and so Rachel had come home with several “articles” printed out from the internet that she had found. As we sat down to look at them, she soon discovered that the articles contained conflicting information. She was baffled. She figured out quickly that they couldn’t both be correct. So, HOW could this EVER happen? HOW could INCORRECT information get online? And HOW could she know which one was correct? And finally, wouldn’t the solution to this problem be to get a book from the library? Surely, it would be correct because nobody would PUBLISH something that was WRONG.

Oh, the genealogist in me was getting so excited about the conversation that was about to follow that I could hardly contain myself. It’s a conversation I have often at genealogy meetings and conferences with people beginning their research and I couldn’t believe I was going to get to have this heart to heart with my daughter at the tender age of ten.

I started out with discussing with her how information gets online. Anyone can put it there. Anyone. Here I am putting this online right now. Nobody is making sure I know what I’m talking about (a question you may have already asked yourself…) One of her sources was Wikipedia – the ultimate example of anyone putting anything online. (I’m not slamming Wikipedia – actually, I’m a big fan but it doesn’t mean I take it as gospel truth.)

This made her head spin and she suddenly became concerned not just about the conflicting information, but about ALL the information she had found. How did she know that ANY of it was true? Hooray! I wish every genealogist asked herself this very question when she found something online. She noticed that some of the “facts” were in every article. Those must be true then, right? They couldn’t all get it wrong.

Oh yes they most certainly could. Again, this is an argument I hear a lot. ALL the family charts say the father is this person. Therefore, he must be. This is nonsensical logic. All those charts could be very well be based on the same original chart that was wrong in the first place. They are just all repeating the same information. If you repeat incorrect information one hundred times, it doesn’t somehow become correct.

But, she reasoned, there’s still hope that a book will straighten it all out. Again, I had to burst her little bubble (poor kid). There are lots and lots of books out there with lots and lots of incorrect information. Nobody fact checked my book, for instance. In fact, only a very few of the magazines I write for fact check articles I submit either. (Once FamilyFun called to verify that my daughter really was the age I said she was in an article. This made me laugh since they were asking me – the original provider of the information – to verify that the information I provided was correct. Luckily, I hadn’t forgotten how old my daughter was in the few months since I had sent in the article.)

It’s enough to throw your hands up in despair, isn’t it? Well never fear. Just as there is no hope remaining, in enters ORIGINAL records. It’s at this point when my daughter gave me a look that said, “You’ve got to be kidding.” I didn’t even begin the discussion of original records that are WRONG. Instead I just said, “Don’t worry. It’s a fifth grade paper. Your teacher doesn’t expect you to dig through archives in Ireland to find original records of Irish Step. I’m sure Wikipedia will be just fine.”

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Two Common Mistakes People Make Tracing Immigrant Ancestors

NERGC is over now for two years. It was such a fun conference that I was sad to see it end. I‘ll post a couple of pictures at the end of the post.

Over the past three weekends, I have spoken at three fairly major conferences: The Fairfax Genealogical Society Spring Conference, The Ohio Genealogical Society Conference, and the New England Regional Genealogical Conference. During those three weeks, I have had lots of opportunities to talk to people about their immigrant ancestors – and their immigration research hurdles. This has gotten me thinking….

Of course, there are a wide variety of reasons that we may have trouble finding our immigrant ancestors. It is certainly possible that a person could be doing everything “right” and still be having trouble finding their immigrants ancestors. Some of these research problems can be very tricky and our ancestors aren’t always in the records we think they should be.

That said, I have noticed two major mistakes that people tend to make that prevent them from finding their ancestors. If you’ve been doing research for a while, you may not find these surprising. (And you may have different opinions. I’d be curious to what others feel are the most common mistakes that prevent people from finding immigrant ancestors.)

1) Flexibility in name spellings. There’s a quote I use in one of my lectures from William Thorndale in The Source that says, “An enormous amount of genealogical research fails because people do not take simple precautions in searching for spelling variants.” This is ESPECIALLY true in immigration research. (And no – it wasn’t because your ancestor’s name was changed at Ellis Island. You can read my thoughts on that here.)

There are lots of reasons that our ancestors’ names change spelling and many of them are covered in my post on Ellis Island. But what it comes down to are a couple of things: our ancestors spelled phonetically – based on how things sounded instead of how they were written. Spelling was not important to them. Add to that the language barriers that occurred when our immigrant ancestors said their names to US record keepers. Often they were unfamiliar names spoken with unfamiliar accents and sounds. And the record keeper wasn’t that concerned about spelling either. Think of EVERY possible way your ancestors could have spelled his or her name. Also become familiar with how the name may have been pronounced in the country of origin. As a researcher, you must be flexible – and sometimes creative. You can read more in my article here.

2) Trying to jump to Western European records without fully utilizing US records. Often people ask me what GERMAN (or SWEDISH or ITALIAN etc.) records they can use to find their immigrant ancestors. In many cases I tell them, “You can’t use any German records. You need to use US records.” In most cases, you need the European home town FIRST before you can start using Western European records. Sometimes, if you have fairly specific information, other Western European records will be accessible before you have a town name. For example, if you know the state or county etc. and it happens to have some type of large, indexed database available, you might be able to check this.

Even if this is the case, before you jump across the ocean and start trying to use those records, gain everything you can from US records. I always ask people if they have already gathered (or tried to gather anyway…) some of those basic sources such as census records, vital records, church records, naturalization records etc. You may find the town name you need. Even if you don’t, you’ll be able to narrow your search in other records more effectively.

Also, the more information you know about your ancestor on this side of the ocean, the more likely you will be able to confirm that you have the right person on the other side of the ocean. For example, if you know your ancestor is named Johann Schmidt and he was born in 1857 in Mecklenburg and you find a birth record that “matches”, will you know you have the right person? Of course not. Similarly, often people find a person with the “right” name on a passenger list – but it can be difficult to determine if this is really your ancestor. If you know the age, traveling companions, occupation, home region, year of travel, port etc. – all this can help you identify your person.

On a side note, don’t dismiss someone who doesn’t match up perfectly either. Just as name spellings aren’t perfect in the records, other information isn’t perfect either. Having an age off a bit should not alarm you. Similarly, if the naturalization record says your ancestor came 17 years ago, but the passenger list shows 16 years – this is not a cause for throwing out the record.

The point is that the more you know about your ancestor, the more likely it is that you will be able to find him in the European records – and the more confident you will be that you are really looking at a record for your ancestor.

Here I am at NERGC with Ed Zapletal and Rick Cree at the Family Chronicle booth where my book was available for purchase

I was one of the NEAPG (New England Association of Professional Genealogists) table hosts at the luncheon on Saturday. My table's topic was German research.

Elissa Scalise Powell came for a post-NERGC visit

Friday, April 8, 2011

New England Regional Genealogical Conference

I am home for a pause from the three day NERGC (New England Regional Genealogical Conference) and just wanted to share a few thoughts. I had such a wonderful time yesterday! I love genealogy conferences in general, but I REALLY love NERGC. Here are my top reasons:

1) The People. I was trying to explain this to husband. I told him I almost felt like I was going to a high school reunion (I don’t think this helped him “get it” very much). What I meant though is that one of my favorite things about NERGC is connecting with “genealogy people” from all over New England – and beyond – that I don’t get to see very often. For just three days, they are all in one place. It’s great! I was talking to someone in the hall and he explained it to one his friends this way, “I’m going to a conference filled with people just like me, people who are all nuts about genealogy.”

2) Great Lectures. There are a wide variety of topics at NERGC, and at any one timeslot you have a number of lectures to choose from. Since the conference is in New England, you’ll find lots of lectures targeted to New England topics, even research in specific New England states. But, you don’t have to have New England roots to benefit from the conference. I spoke about immigration research yesterday, and saw other talks on census research, probate records, and on tracing ancestors from different countries. There are well-known speakers from around New England – and from across the country giving these lectures.

3) Well Run and Extremely Organized. I have the opportunity to have a very small part in the planning of NERGC. I oversee the Special Interest Groups which occurred last night. (These are informal discussion groups led by knowledgeable facilitators on different topics such as Italian Research, French-Canadian Research, Irish Research, Becoming a Professional, DNA Research, etc.) Being involved just a little gives me a peek into the running and organizing of the conference. Once again this year, I have been amazed at how well everything comes together. Everybody does their part and works together to pull it off. And of course some of these people devote a huge number of hours to making this conference run smoothly.

4) Close to Home! I only live about 40 minutes from the Springfield Marriott and Sheraton where the conference takes place. This means that I can sleep in my own bed and work around my family’s schedule a bit more. Yesterday, I got my kids on the bus, dropped my toddler off with a babysitter and headed to my third grader’s school – dressed in my suit since I was speaking at 12:15. At Taylor’s school, I helped the kids with some activities designed to increase their understanding of children’s lives in the 1700s and 1800s. One of these activities consisted of shaking milk until it became butter. As I was shaking this Tupperware in my suit, the teacher commented, “Don’t worry if some buttermilk leaks from the container and sprays on your clothes. It always does this.” Yikes! I tried to shake it away from me so I wouldn’t have to stand in front of a room full of people with buttermilk all over my clothes. Then, I jumped in my car and headed to NERGC.

I feel sad to miss out today, but I suppose my husband does have to go to work sometimes! But, I’ll be back tomorrow for the last day. I am doing a book signing at 11 a.m. in the Exhibit Hall at the Family Chronicle booth. So stop by and say hello! Then, I’ll be hosting a German discussion table at the NEAPG (New England Association of Professional Genealogists) luncheon, followed by Ancestor Roadshow appointments – where people have signed up to come and talk to me for about twenty minutes each about their German brick walls.

Conference attendance was nearing 800 yesterday – which I believe is a record for NERGC. So, if you weren’t able to come this year, keep it in mind for 2013!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Hobbyists in Our Midst

I just returned last night from the Ohio Genealogical Society Conference. Of course, I had a great time. It was fun to reconnect with people I don’t see very often and talk to other people for the very first time. Another highlight for me – and this may sound strange if you are not a mom of little kids – was sleeping in a hotel room by myself. I always miss my kids and I’m relieved that I only have “local” speaking assignments for the next couple of months (including NERGC coming up this weekend!), but I cannot tell you how much I look forward to sleeping in a hotel room by myself. There is something incredibly luxurious about going to sleep at whatever time I want and waking up at whatever time I want. And my room at the Hyatt was absolutely fabulous…

Anyway, I am already digressing from the topic I mean to write on. While I was in Columbus, I began to reflect on the type of people who attend conferences like these. Now, I don’t mean age, gender, income levels, or even personalities. I mean what level of skills people who come to genealogical conferences have. Most of you probably know the answer to this question: they have all different levels of skills and backgrounds. I notice this so much as people come ask me questions after my lectures. Some of the questions begin like this, “I’m brand new to this and I just wanted to know….” This is followed by a very basic and general question such as, “I think my great-grandfather might have been born in Germany. What should I do?” On the other hand, I also have people who ask questions that begin like this, “I’ve been working on tracing my family for the past twenty years, but I’m a stuck on this one line.” The question that follows will show extensive efforts in searching a variety of documents and advanced skills in analyzing evidence.

Apart from this spectrum of skills, there is another important divide between people at conferences that we don’t talk about as much. Some are professional genealogists – or aspiring professional genealogists, while others are hobbyists. These hobbyists love doing genealogy (and may be new or may be experienced), but their only intention is to trace their own families.

These differences present unique challenges. When you are a speaking, you have to be aware that out there in your audience are hobbyists and professionals – sitting next to each other, each hoping to gain something from your lecture. And let me say - I think conferences generally do a good of job of meeting these diverse needs. My comments that follow are not a reaction or commentary on OGS at all – I just happened to be at the conference when some of my thoughts came together on this.

I feel like most of us recognize the difference in experience levels among people at conferences (or local genealogy meetings). But, sometimes I wonder if those of us who are “professionals,” sometimes forget that there are hobbyists in our midst. Not only are there hobbyists in our midst, but MOST of the people around us are hobbyists. It’s not a difference of skills necessarily; it’s a difference of goals. These hobbyists have no intention of taking on a client – ever, and have no desire to ever publish in a scholarly journal. And, that is just fine.

This should shape our approach. I especially think of this in regards to writing family histories – a topic I speak on frequently. In Ohio, I was thinking about what the main message I want to get across in my lecture is. It’s not “Make sure you use Evidence Explained – and follow it EXACTLY.” It’s not “There is only one way to number the generations in your family history that makes sense, so be sure you get it right.” I realized the main message I wanted to send was, “You can do it. You can write your family history.” I want people to leave my lecture with hope – not fear.

I am, of course, not saying we should promote sloppy research. But let’s face it: the great majority of people in my lecture have no interest in publishing in the NGSQ. They want to write a family history for their family. Lest you be alarmed, I talk about documentation in my lectures. I talk about Evidence Explained and the Chicago Manual of Style. I stress how important it is for others to be able to see where they got their information from.

I also talk about some writing techniques. I warn people about passive verbs, cheer for proofreading (despite the fact that I don’t proofread my blog much!), promote deleting adverbs in favor of using stronger verbs, etc. But, my deep thought after lying in my Hyatt room in wonderful solitude is that there is a more important message than verbs and footnotes.

I hope professional journals continue to hold their standards high. I hope those who publish in them meet these professional standards with their writing style and with thoroughness in documentation.

As for everyone else though, I want something a little different. I want people to write the best, most accurate, most well-researched family history they possibly can. But most of all, I want them to write their family history. Because a written family history – even if it doesn’t meet “professional” standards – is much better than no written family history at all. And you don’t have to be a Pulitzer Prize winning writer – or a certified genealogist – to write a family history that your family will treasure for generations to come.