Ancestor's Picture in the Newspapers? Three Steps to an Amazing Photograph

I found a genealogy gold mine in the newspaper this week. And then with a little creativity and a couple of good contacts, I doubled my findings.

First, I used my favorite newspaper subscription site,, and found an article about an ancestor I have been researching. The article had lots of goodies for me, but none greater than the photographs of Cullen Brown, his sister Fannie Brown, and his wife Helen Goshaw. Here's their three pictures in the context of the February 19, 1905 edition of The Duluth News Tribune.


I've been researching Helen Goshaw as a potential main character for my next edition of Legacy Unlocked! and never imagined I'd find her photograph. Here's a zoomed-in and cropped image of Helen:


Then I started to get greedy. Or maybe creative is a better word. While the photograph find was priceless, I wondered if I could get a better copy of it. Without, I never would have found the picture, and so thanks again to them! But I wanted better quality. That's when I contacted Robert of the Twin Cities Legacy User Group. I asked if he would visit the Minnesota Historical Society (such an amazing place!), locate the newspaper (either the original or the microfilm edition), and snap a digital image of it for me. To my surprise, he responded to my email within minutes (thanks again Robert!) and said he would try to fulfill my request the next day when he was scheduled to be at their library.

The following day he emailed me the digital photographs he took of the microfilmed edition of the Duluth News Tribune. Look at Helen's picture:



Most people would be thankful enough already, but I had one more idea. I contacted my friend, Miles Abernathy of and asked if he could do anything more with Helen's photograph. Again - minutes later I received a response (talk about instant genealogical gratification!) that he would see what he could do. Two days later he sent this:


Stunning, isn't it!

I guess the only thing better would be to find the original photograph in one of their descendant's photo albums. Yet without it, I am very pleased with what I have found. Thanks again to, Robert, and to And thanks to Cullen and Helen for sneaking out of the house (and out of the county) to get married back in 1905. And thanks to Cullen's sister for doing the exact same thing just months earlier. It made for a story good enough to get their pictures in the newspaper! If any of my kids try this, they'll find their picture in the Obituaries.


Looking Past Land and Probate Records

by Marian Pierre-Louis

Following my recent blog post Bring Down Those Brick Walls! I received this response from Elizabeth:

"There has been a lot of discussion lately about land and probate use. The conversations make the assumption that everyone either owned land or had a will. This is not the case for most people who lived in non-rural areas. My family members have lived in the New York City area for more than a few generations. They were always tenants. The first real-property on both sides of the family was purchased by my parents in the 1950s and they were the first to have wills. So my brick walls will not benefit from this discussion. Believe me I have looked. How about some suggestions for the rest of us?"

Let's see if we can come up with some suggestions for Elizabeth.


New York State Census, 1865 from

Before we start, I need to point out that I don't have two very important pieces of information: the time period in which Elizabeth is having trouble or the specific county in New York City where her ancestors lived. We also need to mention that New York nearly invented the phrase "Brick Wall!" New York suffers from a dearth of extant records making it one of the hardest states to research in.

New York City is made up of five boroughs in five separate counties: Bronx in Bronx County, Brooklyn in Kings County, Manhattan in New York County, Queens in Queens County and Staten Island in Richmond County. Research strategies may vary depending on where your ancestors lived.

Since we are talking about bringing down brick walls I'm making the assumption that research has already been done on low hanging fruit such as US Federal census records and vital records. One place you might want to start, if you haven't already are the New York State Census records. These are available for free on for the years 1855, 1865, 1875, 1892, 1905, 1915, and 1925.

The census records list the individual names of family members, place of birth, ages and occupations along with some other details. The 1905, 1915 and 1925 census even list the street address. (Please note that some of the record images are viewable on while others require a subscription to to view the original image.) If your ancestors are New York-born, the 1855, 1865 and 1875 censuses will tell you what county they were born in. That may be critical in guiding you to new locations to focus your research.

When dealing with tenants, non-land owners, I would head straight for city directories. On I found a database called New York City City Directories that starts as early as 1836 and as late as 1947. Unfortunately, Ancestry doesn't list which specific years are covered in the database so don't consider those years as hard and fast. If you can find your ancestor in a city directory then you can locate their neighborhood. Armed with information about their neighborhood you can try to establish which place of worship they frequented. Start by selecting churches or temples within two square miles of your ancestors' homes. If you can't find the records online then contact the churches or temples directly asking for information about your ancestors.

Another wonderful resource for New York City ancestry is the Italian Genealogical Group website. Despite the title's focus on Italian records they actually have transcribed many New York City records, regardless of ethnicity. Be sure to search their databases for information on your ancestors.

If you still haven't found anything new about your ancestors then it is time to seek some research guidance help. Right from within the Legacy Family Tree software you get can specific suggestions about your ancestors. The software will suggest specific record groups as well as county histories and collections to search.

Another resource you should try if you haven't already, is the Family Search Wiki. This resource has extensive information on New York City research. Wherever possible it links directly to the record groups mentioned.

Thomas MacEntee's webinar and Legacy QuickGuide provide many clues and strategies for researching your New York ancestors that you may not have thought of.

And lastly, you should definitely refer to the recently published New York Family History Research Guide and Gazetteer by the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society. This 840 page work provides a comprehensive look at New York records and resources.

In terms of specifically bringing down brick walls, an effective strategy is to seek examples by others who have already solved challenging research problems in the same location where you are having trouble. The two main publications I would focus on are the National Genealogical Society Quarterly and the New York Genealogical and Biographical Record. Search these publications for example articles that cover the same county where your ancestors lived. Learn how the authors solved their problems and look at the footnotes to see what records they used.

African American research, regardless of location, can be some of the toughest research to unravel. For this reason well-documented narratives can provide a great source of inspiration or information regardless of your race. Check out a book like Black Gotham by Carla Peterson and pay close attention to the records she used to document her ancestors.

Finally, you will likely have to dip into manuscripts and special collections to find information about particularly stubborn ancestors. Luckily you have one of the most incredible resources right in your local area - the New York Public Library. Start online by reviewing the Research section of their website. You will find links to special collections and manuscripts as well as online articles, databases and digital collections. When searching for your ancestors in special collections expand your search beyond their names to include their neighborhood, their churches and their ethnicity. While your ancestors are likely not indexed by name, this broader search will bring you to information about their community.

Hopefully this article has provided you will some new suggestions for researching challenging New York City ancestors. If not, then I would suggest joining a local genealogical or historical society in your county of interest. The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society provides and extensive list of organizations on their website.

If anyone else has any suggestions for Elizabeth, please leave them in the comments. Good luck and let us know if you make any progress!

Marian Pierre-Louis is the Social Media Marketing Manager for Legacy Family Tree. She is also the host of The Genealogy Professional podcast. Check out her webinars in the Legacy library.

Bring Down Those Brick Walls!

By Marian Pierre-Louis

Genealogists like a good challenge. Brick walls are the ultimate challenge. We may love them or hate them but they keep up researching actively for years, sometimes even generations, in an attempt to break them down.

Image from [New York, Probate Records, 1629-1971," images, FamilySearch (,221584701 : accessed 25 April 2015), Jefferson > Wills 1848-1854 vol 1-2 > image 96 of 655; county courthouses, New York.]

As many of you know, one of the best places to learn how to break down brick walls is in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly (NGSQ). The NGSQ is a journal provided to members of the National Genealogical Society. This publication is geared toward teaching genealogists how to solve difficult research problems.

After you read a few issues of the NGSQ you'll notice a pattern. Many of the articles are focused on using probate and land records. If you're serious about solving challenging genealogical problems then probate and land records should be your go-to sources of information.

Traditionally, more casual genealogists have shied away from using land and probate records. That's because these records have been hard to access. Most of them haven't been digitized. They have been available via microfilm but it could mean ordering many films in order to get all the indexes and relevant record years you might need. The other challenge is the courts themselves. They are typically open working hours - nine to five, Monday to Friday. For folks who can't take time off of work this has posed a great challenge.

Working with deeds and probate can be a real challenge too. Probate records may be found in copybooks with each document filed chronologically. That could mean pulling up to ten books if the probate of an estate dragged on for many years. On the flip side, you may be given a file with all the original "loose papers" from the probate settlement. Many genealogists are left confused by the volume and variety of the documents and are left wondering what they all mean.

Land records can be easy to work with if you have a specific book and page number but if you don't it means wading through index volumes that themselves can be challenging to decipher. And when you have an ancestor who bought a lot of properties, it can be difficult to sort out which individual piece of property is the one where the homestead was located.

Before you get discouraged and give up on the thought of using probate and land records, know that you have an ally in your corner. Over the last year or two has been working diligently to get these records online. With online access, you can take some free time over a weekend to figure out these records and then reap the rewards of the genealogical treasure that they hold.

Perhaps the most beneficial set of probate and land records that has put online is the one for New York state. Anyone with New York ancestors knows that researching there is an exercise in hope and patience. digitized and made available online for free two databases: New York, Land Records, 1630-1975 and New York, Probate Records, 1629-1971.

The most important thing you need to know about these databases is that they are not indexed. Having them available online without having to order microfilm or to travel to the local courthouse makes the extra effort worth it. Eventually, in time, the records will likely get indexed. In the meantime, the index books themselves have been digitized and the images placed online. What you will do is to go through the effort that you would in the courthouse. First search through the index books to find your ancestors and then go to the specific books referencing the corresponding book and page numbers that you found.

The New York land and probate records are organized by county. Locate your county and start drilling down alphabetically by last name and by time frame. Each county will be slightly different, both in how the records are indexed and in what years are covered. Once you get used to the records in one county don't presume that you will be able to follow the same system in another county. It could be completely different and you'll find that you have to invest time into learning how the next county organizes its records.

New York records are not the only land and probate files you'll find on Here are some others for you to explore:

Massachusetts, Land Records, 1620-1986
Vermont, Land Records, Early to 1900
United States Bureau of Land Management Tract Books, 1820-1908
California Probate Estate Files, 1833-1991
Texas, Probate Records, 1800-1990
New Jersey, Probate Records, 1678-1980
Florida Probate Records, 1784-1990
Tennessee, Probate Court Books, 1795-1927
Pennsylvania, Probate Records, 1683-1994

To find other locations, search for your desired location in the Historical Records section on the website.

If you're still not sure whether your target region or province has land or probate records online, then head for the Family Search Wiki. On the main page, type your location and probate or land records. For instance, try North Dakota probate. The first result will be North Dakota Probate Records which explains all about those records and where to find them. Want to find land records in Queensland, Australia? Typing Queensland Land Records will bring you to an article on Australia Land and Property.

Have you ever tried searching land or probate records before? Did you have any trouble figuring out how to make the most of them? If you have any questions, post them here in the comments and I will answer them in an upcoming blog post. 

Marian Pierre-Louis is the Social Media Marketing Manager for Legacy Family Tree. She is also the host of The Genealogy Professional podcast. Check out her webinars in the Legacy library.

New England Town Records Demystified

by Marian Pierre-Louis


Medway, Massachusetts Town Record book, 1811. From's Holbrook Collection (Medway Town Records, image 352).

Last week I wrote about how to Navigate Local Town Hall Research, specifically vital records such as birth records. Before leaving the topic I'd like to explore the different types of  New England Town Hall records.

Often when people think of Town Hall records they either think of vital records (births, marriages and deaths) or they conjure up the image of the old time chronological town records where all the information was kept in one book.

The truth is New England town records are more complicated than that. There are four  important concepts you need to understand. First, there is no one set type of record book. In fact, there are many. Second, the record books and how information is recorded will be different depending on the time period. Third, all those original record books might not be "original." Last, not all town record books are currently found in the town hall.

Original town record books

Let's tackle the issue of original town record books first. New England records started to be recorded in some part of New England in the 1620s. That's nearly 400 years ago. Over the course of that time books have gotten damaged, gone missing or been exposed to flood or fire. As a result, over the years some Town Record records have been copied into new books. In some case, this is to preserve older copies and in other cases it was to make information more accessible.

The key thing to check for is the handwriting of the information. Is chronological information all in the same handwriting with the same color or "weight" (heavy or light) of the pen? True original records should have been written as the events happened and therefore each entry should look slightly different. Is there a note at the front of the book explaining provenance? Some town clerks will make a note at the front of the book as to when the records were copied and by whom.

There  is nothing wrong with using town record books that are not originals. They may still be very old! You simply need to be aware that any derivative copy may have introduced errors. So be on the alert if anything looks incorrect. If it does, scan the page (or several pages) from top to bottom and see if you can discover where the town clerk went amiss.

Types of Record Books

There are and were many different types of Town Hall record books. The oldest books were often chronological records containing every bit of town record information from votes to taxes to births, marriages and deaths and even animal markings. The details were written as they happened but be aware that no blank space was spared. Some information will be written in the margins and if a book ran out of space, a Town Clerk might go back to find an empty spot to cram in some later information. Therefore be on the lookout for information tucked away in unusual spots. These town record books are the least likely to be digitized (though they are microfilmed) or indexed.

As the years went by and town government became more organized, individual record books were introduced. You will find separate books for town business and vital records. You many also find books for marriage intentions completely separate from recorded marriages.

Some books you may never have heard of such as warning out books (where non-residents were warned against attempting to settle in town) and strangers taken in books (where residents had to notify the town if a non-resident was staying with them for a longer period of time).

There were also poor records, tax books and accounts books listing all the financial transactions of the town. The accounts books are a particular treasure because they might make reference to payment for grave diggers or coffin makers for deaths that otherwise went unrecorded.

Some town halls, particularly in states like Connecticut, Vermont and Rhode Island, where information is recorded at the town level rather than the county level also have deeds and probate records.

How information is recorded

You are most likely familiar with census records. You know that the oldest census records hold the least amount of information and as you come forward in time, you find greater details. Town record books are like that as well. There are three basic types of recorded information: long form chronological text, register style and certificate style.

The earliest records were written long form with little separation by topic except perhaps by headers or a note in the margin. In the 1800s register style took over. Here you find information such as births, marriages and deaths in a list with many people on one page. The information is standardized into  columns. As we head into the 20th century, life event information is recorded certificate style in individual certificates such as a modern birth or death certificates.

Finding Town Records Books

You would think that all town record books are located in the local town hall but that is not the case! Some record books were moved so that they could be better protected or preserved. Other books were moved, such as account books, because they were no longer deemed critical by town clerks. You will often find these books in the care of the local historical society or the historical room of the local library. To find them, check online card catalogs when you can, call the historical society or ask the town clerk.

In other, more unusual cases, town record books might be found in the home of the local town clerk. This is a very old fashioned practice which is not the case in most places. However, some very small rural towns may not have a lot of space and therefore the books get moved to make room for modern records.

If you'd like to learn more about New England Town Records here are some further resources:

Benton, Josiah Henry. Warning Out in New England. Boston: W.B. Clarke Company, 1911.

Friend, Esther L. “Notifications and Warnings Out: Strangers Taken Into Wrentham, Massachusetts, Between 1731 and 1812.” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register Vol. 141(1987): 179-188. [This provides a good summary of "strangers" before getting into the detailed Wrentham information.]

Gutman, Robert. “Birth and Death Registration in Massachusetts. I. The Colonial Background, 1639-1800.” The Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly Vol. 36, No.1 (Jan. 1958): 58-74

Herndon, Ruth Wallis.  Unwelcome Americans: Living on the Margin in Early New England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Lainhart, Ann S. Digging for Genealogical Treasure in New England Town Records. Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1996.

Marian Pierre-Louis is the Social Media Marketing Manager for Legacy Family Tree. She is also the host of The Genealogy Professional podcast. Check out her webinars in the Legacy library.

Navigate Local Town Hall Research

by Marian Pierre-Louis

The ease of accessing documents online is indisputable and a great advancement to genealogical research. I have to admit, though, that I still prefer to research in original record books. Perhaps it's my location here in New England. We are blessed with local records still kept in their original town or city.

When I research people from my local town I can access vital records online from databases on the website, or More often than not I prefer to drive two miles up the road to my local town hall and see the records for myself.

The records held at the town (or city) level are the originals. Copies are sent to the state level and are recorded in copybooks. The data contained in the two sets of records can vary. For instance, for a birth record, the local copy may include the mother's maiden name whereas the state copy will likely leave that off.

There are challenges, however, to working in original records. The records are not indexed electronically so you can't type in a name and have the record you want suddenly appear. There are still indexes but you have to use them the old fashioned way - you need to look them up in the index book. That will give you the volume and page number you need to refer to in the original record volumes. If you have many vital records to look up it could take quite an effort finding the references in the index book(s) and then locating each book you need for the records. Of course, if you are researching in a very short time frame you may be lucky enough to find all the records you need in one book.

Another challenge is the handwriting. On the major database sites you can still view the original records and handwriting but you have the advantage of having someone else read and index the records for you ahead of time. All you have to do is verify the handwriting against what has been indexed in the record. You're on your own in a town hall. You will not likely find help or handwriting expertise from the local staff.

You have to be meticulous when researching in local records so as not to introduce typos in your notes. You could waste time if you transpose or write down the wrong volume and page number for a record. After spending considerable time looking for a record you can't find, you'll be forced back to the index to check your notes again and to discover where you made your error.

You'll also have to be very careful to copy down all the information you find in the record accurately. In addition to the handwriting, you'll want to make sure you don't introduce any errors in your transcriptions.

The last thing you'll want to be very careful about is collecting the information for your citation. Original record books may not have pages numbers so it is easy to forget that you need determine the page number and write it down. Also, the title of the book may only be on the spine. It's easy to forget to record that too!

Here's what I do to ensure a successful trip to the local town hall:

1) Photograph the actual record book (if you are allowed to do this). Pose the book at an angle so that you can see both the spine and the cover. If the inside of the book has a title page be sure to photograph that too. I actually do this whenever I do onsite research (even for modern books), at libraries and archives so that I can gather the citation information.

2) Make a chart BEFORE you go to the archives that will contain all the information you will be recording. If you are unfamiliar with the records, you may have to guess what items the records will include. For instance, if you are recording a birth record, make a chart that includes the name of the child, the father's name, the mother's name, the birth date, birth location and parent's residence. Be aware that different information will be available in different time periods. The farther back you go the less information you will find. In my Plan Your Way to Research Success webinar I referred to these as data collection sheets (Legacy members can find it in the webinar library).

What type of chart you make is up to your personal preference as well as the restriction of the town hall you will be visiting. Some places will let you bring in a computer. If that is the case you may want to keep your chart in a program like MS Word or Excel. Also consider whether there will be internet access. You might not be able to use internet or cloud resources until you get back to your home or hotel. If the town hall only lets you use paper and pencil be sure you print out a copy of your chart before you leave.

3) Create a citation template. I like to use the book Evidence Explained by Elizabeth Shown Mills to determine what information I should collect. For a birth record in a vital record register (list style as opposed to individual certificates) I can find examples on page 426 of her book. I will then type out the citation using the information I already know and put XXs for the information that will be collected during the visit. I will also include columns in my data chart for volume and page number for each individual record (see image below).

If you create a chart with this information ahead of time you will be much more likely to gather the information you need so you don't have to make a second trip.

There are challenges to researching original records in a New England Town Hall but the touch of the old records books and the ambiance of actually being in the town where your ancestors lived should make it all worth it!

The form below is available for download for your personal use:
Download PDF version

Download MS Word version (editable)


Click to enlarge

Marian Pierre-Louis is the Social Media Marketing Manager for Legacy Family Tree. She is also the host of The Genealogy Professional podcast. Check out her webinars in the Legacy library.


Putting a Face on Your Ancestors

by Marian Pierre-Louis


How do you react to the shadow people? That's what I call the pink and blue profile silhouettes in most family history software programs. They are place holders for real photos but when you don't have photos of your ancestors they just become shadow people.

Personally, I ignore the shadow people. I don't even see them anymore. I don't want to get my hopes up so I just pretend they don't exist. Until recently.

I have been working hard on finding my great great grandmother, Charlotte Hill who died at age 33 in 1862. Discovering the location of her gravestone was a great thrill. This is likely the closest I'll come to a physical connection with her. There may be a extant photograph of her somewhere but whether her name was written on the back or whether a descendant has the photo are two things I'll likely never know.

Since I spent so much time researching Charlotte I inevitably spent quite a bit of time researching her husband, William Chandler Learned, who lived a long life, and her two children. In addition I also researched William's second and third wives and the children produced from those marriages.

My great-grandmother, Clara (Charlotte's daughter), was only 9 years old when William married his third wife, Adda Setchel, in 1868. Adda lived to the ripe old age 86. She was part of Clara's life for 60 years before her death and it's probably safe to say that she was the only mother Clara ever knew.

At first, I hadn't really considered researching the other wives but I'm glad I changed my mind because it changed everything for me.

While researching the entire family I discovered that Adda and her daughter, Abbie liked to travel. I came across ship passenger lists from their trips to Europe. The real gold came when I found them in the US Passport Applications, 1795-1925 database on The early passports, from 1914 and earlier, may contain descriptions of our ancestors. You'll find information about age, stature, eye color, hair color, complexion and the shape of their forehead, nose, mouth, chin and face. What a wonderful surprise to find details about how an ancestor looked!

If you are lucky enough to have ancestors who traveled abroad between 1915 and 1925 you will be rewarded with an actual photograph of your ancestor! From this database I discovered photos of Adda Setchel and her daughter Abbie Learned.

I already had some photos of my great-grandmother, Clara. Since she and Abbie were half sisters it was fun to compare their features. I tried to imagine which traits Clara and Abbie both inherited from their paternal Learned side and which they got from their respective mothers. Abbie had a brother, William Setchel Learned, and I had a photo of him as well. Quite a handsome chap!

Now with photos of 3 out of 5 siblings and one mother I was ready to start replacing the shadow people in my family tree!

What a treat it is to look at a pedigree chart and see actual faces instead of silhouettes! This transformation has encouraged me to seek out more images of my ancestors. It may be difficult but I will work hard to find more photos.

You can try the Passport Applications database to find photos of your ancestors. Be aware, however, that not everyone's ancestors will be included. Your ancestors needed to be wealthy enough to travel abroad and to pay for the passport application fee. But don't discount your ancestors, took a look anyway. Your ancestors may just yet surprise you!

If you have another unusual public source for ancestor photos please be sure to let us all know. It would be wonderful to convert as many silhouettes as possible to actual faces.



Marian Pierre-Louis is the Social Media Marketing Manager for Legacy Family Tree. She is also the host of The Genealogy Professional podcast. Check out her webinars in the Legacy library.

Five Fabulous Digital Tools to Power Your Life Story

Thanks to guest-blogger Lisa Alzo for this great article!

Does the thought of writing your life story scare you? Even just a little bit? Perhaps you struggle to find the right words, don't know where to begin, or worry that nobody will want to read your finished product. Often, just the very idea of sharing intimate moments through memoir can stop us before we even put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. As genealogists, we often focus our efforts on chronicling the lives of our ancestors, leaving our own stories to wait until another time. 

IStock_000045146630Medium-300So if the thought of writing freezes you with fear, or conjures up a litany of excuses (it’s too difficult, not enough time, unsure of where to begin, etc.), here are five fabulous digital tools to help you get your story out there.

1. Day One Journal (Mac App $9.99; iPhone/iPad $4.99). Many writers like to keep a diary or journal, and the entries often serve as the outline, or even the meat of the memoir. The Day One Journal takes the diary/journal concept virtual. This app is easy to use, and works well for ideas or making that memory list. The bonus of keeping a digital journal with Day One is that, at any point, you can effortlessly search through your entries, email them, or sync through Dropbox. The app also supports tags, photo uploads, and more. The convenience of this handy app is a great step to move your memoir forward, and makes it easy to turn your notes into a book. [Note: Android users might like Day Journal or one of these alternatives]. [Note: this app is a personal favorite of mine.]

2. Dragon.  (Windows, Mac, and App versions-cost varies from free - $199.99). Some writers find it easier to dictate a story than type it. Dragon turns what you say into text. While there is a bit of work required to set it up to recognize your speech, and results will vary, this program is quite useful when you are unable or don’t want to type. Whether you choose the full computer version of Dragon, or its mobile apps for Android, iPhone/iPad, this tool gives you a way to tell your story like you are sitting across from your best friend or a favorite relative. 

[Want to learn more about dictation tools? Register for the Legacy webinar “Can You Hear Me Now? Voice Recognition Software for Genealogists” to be held on 5 December 2014.]

3. Saving Memories Forever (iPhone/iPad; Android. Free, and premium versions). Many writers turn to writing prompts to help jumpstart a story. The Saving Memories Forever App works like a series of writing prompts–only with audio. Start by creating a free account and adding yourself as a storyteller. Use the prompts (Childhood, Teenage Years, Adult, etc.) to record your story in your voice, and then start writing from your answers. There is a new feature called the audio diary (perfect for memoirs). You can record stories with a free account, but if you want to attach pictures and text files you’ll need to go premium.

4. Vine (free iOS, Android, Windows). Vine is a mobile service that lets you create and share short looping videos. Download the app, then set up your profile (or use your Twitter account) and your posted videos will appear there for others to follow, or you can share via Twitter or Facebook, or you can opt to protect your posts until you are ready to let the world view them. Vine videos are short and sweet—a great way to practice saying what you want in less words. This app is great for capturing current life moments (in very short segments) as they happen. You could also use it to reminisce on a trip back to see your childhood home, or record memories about a favorite toy, family vacation, etc. Search for “memoir” to see how others have used this tool.

5. Voyzee (iPhone/iPad, Android; free). Voyzee is an all-in-one mobile storyteller that lets you combine your photos and movies, and even your own voice into one shareable story.  Voyzee’s tag line is: “Your Story. Your voice.” What could be better for the Memoirist?  In the simplest of terms, a memoir is really an album of the many snapshots of our lives. You can use Voyzee to take those snapshots to storyboard your memoir, combining voice-over narration, photos, videos, captions, filters, and more to create a full story, a beginning, middle, and end. Voyzee even has its own social network where you can share your movies, and follow other users, or you can share via Twitter, Facebook, email, etc. Watch this cute Voyzee video to see you are never too young to start writing your memoir!

As always, users should carefully read the Terms of Service (TOS) for any online app or tool before signing up or using it.

Once you find the right digital tool(s), you can jumpstart your memories by downloading a copy of my free Life Stories Writing Guide (— this handy guide contains questions you can use document your own life story and/or to interview others about significant life events to gather, preserve and share precious memories, or to leave a legacy for future generations.

Remember: All of the technology in the world can’t replace creativity. You still have to write your memoir. While these digital tools and apps should not be used in place of writing, they can certainly jumpstart the process, and hopefully help you to overcome your fears of what to write, or how to say it, and provide new ways for you to get it done! 

Lisa A. Alzo is a freelance writer, instructor, and lecturer, and has been tracking her ancestors for 25 years. She is a frequent presenter for the Legacy Family Tree Webinars series and can be contacted via

Six Reasons to Blog about Your Ancestors

BlogTipsHave you ever considered starting your own genealogy blog? Many genealogists use blogging to share information, methodology or research tips but it can also be a great way to find distant relatives. And who is likely to have the information that you are searching for on your ancestors? Other descendants of course!

Here are six reasons to convince you that you should be blogging about ancestors:

1) It removes your invisibility cloak

Your distant cousins may not know that you exist. If they can't find you then they can't share information with you. When you start a blog you put information about your ancestors out on the internet. Instead of going to a surname forum or a geographic location forum your cousins can now find you with a simple Google search. To be as effective as possible write about as many individual ancestors as possible, particularly the ones with unique names. Keep in mind that you need to respect the privacy of living people. Don't share personal details about of your living relatives.

2) Your homing beacon is on 24/7

One of the reasons that blogging is such a powerful tool is that the internet is available all the time, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can write your blog post at a time that is convenient for you. Your distant cousin, who may be a night owl, could find your post at 2am in a different time zone while you are happily asleep. This means you never lose a chance to connect. Making that connection is what will help bring down your brick walls. What's even better about blogging is that you could write about your ancestor and 6 months or even 6 years later, that same post will be ready and waiting for your ancestor to find it.

3) The power of Google makes you easier to find

Thanks to search engines, Google in particular, blog posts are now easier than ever to find. If one of your cousins is searching for a common ancestor in Google and you have written a blog post about that ancestor, they will find you in a matter of seconds. Gone are the days when genealogists have to scroll through queries or obituaries to find living relatives. They can now Google their ancestors and discover bloggers like you who are actively writing about their ancestors. And if you are using as your blog host, your posts will be given a higher priority by Google which owns the site.

4) Blogging can help locate ancestral photos

Not only will blogging help you find distant cousins but those cousins often have old family photos. Blogging puts you in contact with many distant cousins who can share with you photos of your ancestors that you've never seen before. Wouldn't you love to see a photo of your great, great grandmother? Blogging will help you make the connection with that cousin who has the family photos.

5) You'll improve your research skills

Not only will blogging help you find distant cousins but it will help you become a better genealogist as well. By writing about your ancestors you will revisit the information that you've already found about them. It will also make you think about what you don't know. This analysis process will lead to discovering information that's been right in front of your eyes for ages as well as give you need clues for further research.

6) It's Free

The best thing about blogging is that it's free. If you have access to the internet then you can sign up for a free blog account from either Blogger or As mentioned earlier, Blogger is owned by Google which gives it a bump in search results but has beautiful page layouts and is just as good. Give either one a try. All it takes is creating an account and you are on your way to blogging!

To get started blogging view Blogging for Beginners with DearMYRTLE, More Blogging for Beginners with DearMYRTLE or Bogs: Easy-to-Make Web Pages. All three webinars are available now in the archives for Legacy Family Tree Webinar subscribers to watch.

Ten Tips to Get Your Relatives Talking

Gathering information from oral history interviews is an important part of genealogy research. It is the springboard for further research.  The clues gleaned from oral history interviews provide just the clues we need to explore new routes to discovering our ancestors.

Sometimes, however, it can be difficult or uncomfortable to get started or keep our ancestors talking. Here are ten tips to ease the process and lay the foundation for a great interview.

1) Start with a photograph

Sometimes it's hard for both parties in an interview to get started! Make it easier by pulling out an old photo and asking your relative what is going on in the photo as well as when it was taken and where.

2) Choose universal themes

Starting with topics that impact everyone can make the process smoother. Talk about food (everyone eats!) or clothing styles.

3) Holidays and celebrations

Birthdays are a good topic to discuss with your relatives. How did they celebrate their birthdays? Were there certain traditions each year?  If you don't make headway on the birthday topic, try national or religious holidays. Find out if you relative has any good New Year's, Christmas, or Hanukah memories of years past that they can share.

4) Sibling Rivalry Victory-garden-wikipedia

Prod your relative with a question about sibling rivalry. Ask them who got away with everything or who always got into trouble. Did your relative have to share a bedroom or did they have their own space? Who took the longest time in the bathroom and kept everyone waiting?

5) Family Gatherings

Did your family get together with extended family or did you just keep to yourself? This, of course, could be dependent on whether or not family lived close by. How often did your relative see their cousins or extended family and where did that family live?

6) Military and War

Discussions about the military and war are common to most families. Even if your relatives and ancestors weren't in the military they may have been impacted by wars. In fact, service men and women might not want to open up about their direct military experience.  Instead focus on the impact of war back home. Did your relative ever experience rationing of food or gas? Did they ever go without certain items? Did they grow a Victory Garden?

7) School Days

Most children went to school, at least for a short period in their childhood. What was school like for your relative? How long did they attend? Did they enjoy it? What topics did they study?

8) Sports

Sports is a universal topic whether your relative played sports at school, in the neighborhood with the local kids, or simply watched their favorite teams on the tv or listened to them on the radio. What was the favorite sports in your relative's town? Who did they play with? Were there any high school or college stars in the family?

9) Deep memories

Ask your relative who the oldest family member was that they have a memory of meeting during their childhood. Where did that meeting take place? Who else was there? How many times did they get to see that person?

10) Interview two relatives together

Sometimes an interview between an interviewer and an interviewee can be awkward! Remove the discomfort by including two family members together in the conversation. Often times, relatives will have different memories of the same event.  Ask them about vacations they took together or events they attended. You may surprised by the different stories they tell!

3 Easy Steps to Rescue Your Stalled Family History Narrative

Thanks to guest author, Lisa A. Alzo, for this terrific article!

Blank pages. Problematic text. Writer’s block. Does this sound familiar? You finally committed to writing your family's story, but instead of pages of flowing text chronicling the lives of your ancestors, all you have is an empty screen and blinking cursor. Maybe you have written a draft, but don't know where to go with it. You are feeling uninspired. You ask yourself, “Why would anyone care?” If you find yourself facing these issues, here are three steps to help you rescue your stalled family history narrative.

1. Think scenes, not words. When writing, it's natural to think about the words, but when trying to capture the lives of your ancestors, think cinematically – build your narrative scene by scene. You’ll make a more dramatic impact. One way to do this is through a Storyboard. Storyboarding is a process of planning out your writing in small scenes. The “old school” way is to get some index cards and write a synopsis on each one about what you are writing. Thanks to technology, you can now do this process virtually on your computer/laptop with project management tool such as Scrivener ($45 Mac; $40 Windows; free trial), or on your smartphone or tablet with apps such as Story Skeleton (iPhone/iPad, $8.99), or Cardboard Index Cards (Android). Once you have this visual outline prepared, you can get an overview of the project and easily move pieces of the story around until you find the perfect fit. See the sample storyboard (below) for a book about my father’s days as a basketball player. I created the storyboard with Scrivener’s “virtual corkboard” feature.


2. Stop sweating over the small stuff. Are you searching for the perfect descriptive word, or that first sentence that will draw your reader in? Not done with your research? Missing source citations? If you find yourself getting hung up over commas, or dashes, or other issues and this holds you back from writing, such issues may just be excuses in disguise. So, stop worrying, and start writing! You can always go back to attend to these matters during the revision process. Focus on the story itself first, and worry about polishing your prose later on.

3. Write a bad first draft. I realize this sounds a bit odd coming from someone who earns a living as a freelance writer, over the years I have learned that this approach works well. A first draft is just that: a draft. Don’t aim for perfection out of the gate. Simply just sit down and write something—anything. Sure, you may toss most of it out later on, but there may be a sentence, a paragraph, or a scene you can develop into a great narrative. When I have a working draft I feel a sense of accomplishment, no matter how small. Each scene is a building block and each draft means I am making progress on my project. Even if it isn’t my best work, it is much better than the alternative of having nothing written at all.


The thing about family histories is that they are personal, and no two people will produce the exact same narrative. So your goal should be to write your family history, your way. The first step to achieving that goal is to break out of your writing rut—right now!

Want more tips on how to put more power behind your family stories? Click here to register for my upcoming Legacy Family Tree Webinar on June 13th: “10 Ways to Jumpstart Your Family History Narrative.” In this webinar you will learn ten simple ways to get those creative juices flowing so you can stop procrastinating and start writing.

Lisa A. Alzo is a freelance writer, instructor, and lecturer, and has been tracking her ancestors for 25 years. She is a frequent presenter for the Legacy Family Tree Webinars series and can be contacted via