A Grave Mistake - Even if it's Written in Stone it Could be Wrong

A Grave Mistake - Even if it's Written in Stone it Could be Wrong

This is my great-grandfather Alexander McGinnis' tombstone in Crown Cemetery, near Morriston, Ontario. You can see that his date of birth is 1844. My uncle took me to this cemetery when I was starting my research into my father's family tree. After seeing the tombstone, I copied the information inscribed and dutifully entered 1844 into my genealogy program as Alex's date of birth.

McGinnis Alex Cemetery Tombstone
Photo by Lorine McGinnis Schulze

Then I searched census records for Alex, and the more I found, the more discrepancies were revealed. Each census recorded him with a variety of ages that of course resulted in an equal variety of estimated years of birth.

* In 1861 his age was recorded as 12, giving him a year of birth of circa 1849
* In 1871 his age was recorded as 23, giving him a year of birth of circa 1848
* In 1881 his age was recorded as 30, giving him a year of birth of circa 1851
* In 1891 his age was recorded as 41, giving him a year of birth of circa 1850
* In 1901 his age was recorded as 43, giving him a year of birth of circa 1857
* In 1911 his age was recorded as 62, and the record year of birth was 1848

I knew the questions asked about an individual’s age varied on different census years. That meant that different questions, such as what was the individual's age at last birthday, at next birthday, or right now, would result in an age range of a few years.

Alex's years of birth, except for 1901 census, were fairly consistently showing his date of birth to be between 1848 and 1851. But that was quite different from the 1844 date of birth shown on his tombstone!

I decided to find his marriage record. But that was no help either. At his marriage in September 1876 he gave his age as 22. That put his year of birth at circa 1854. Surely he knew how old he was, or so I reasoned at the time. So perhaps the 1854-year was most accurate. But what about that tombstone?

I eventually discovered that his eldest daughter Mary had paid for his stone and had it engraved. My uncle had also questioned the year of birth on Alex's tombstone but apparently Aunt Mary had always insisted that she celebrated her father's birthday every year and thus she certainly knew how old he was, therefore she knew when he was born.

Alex and his family were Roman Catholic. I knew what church the family attended but the records of that church were not available to the public nor were they microfilmed. Then came a bit of luck. A few years ago the church began offering a research service. For a reasonable fee the church secretary would look through the original church books for a record.

I sent a request for the baptism of Alex, and soon received a copy in the mail. He was baptised on 3 February 1850 but born on 3 November 1849. His tombstone, erected by his daughter, was out by five years.

McGINNIS Baptism Alex 1850
Baptism of Alexander from Church of our Lady, Guelph, Ontario

So why the discrepancies? Why did Alex not give his correct age when he married in 1876? He was actually 27 years old that year, so why did he say he was 22? The census years were fairly close to his correct year of birth so obviously he knew his age. It is not uncommon to find that an ancestor might not his or her exact age but Alex appeared to know his (except for the 1901 census)

Then I realized that the marriage registrations are copies of what was sent in by the minister. So the original entry may indeed have read "27" but the "7" could have been misread as a "2" resulting in the incorrect age of 22 for Alex.

So everything can be explained except for the 1901 census record and the tombstone inscription. But can we explain the census record? Yes. We do not know who gave the information to the census taker. In 1901 Alex lived with his sister, her husband and daughter, and his mother who was in her late 70s. Depending who the census taker spoke to, the age given for Alex could be quite incorrect.

That brings us back to the original culprit - that darned tombstone. Aunt Mary was 60 when her father Alex died. She thought he was 91. In reality he was 87. Was she confused? Had she never known her father's real age? Or did Alex tell his family his wrong age as he reached his 80s?

My mother did that. She turned 92 in 2006, but for two years prior to that birthday she had been adding a year or two on to her real age. In July 2006 she told everyone at a family reunion that she was 93 and would be 94 on her birthday in September. So she added two years to her real age. She was as sharp as a tack so I still have no idea why she fibbed to make herself older. I'm the only one of my siblings who seems to know her actual age, my brothers and sister believe whatever she tells them. If they were to have a tombstone inscribed for her, it's almost guaranteed it would have the wrong year of birth.

And thus we have the moral of my story of a Grave Mistake - that even if it's written in stone it could be wrong.

If you'd like to learn more about cemetery records, watch any of the four classes on the topic in the Legacy library.


Lorine McGinnis Schulze is a Canadian genealogist who has been involved with genealogy and history for more than thirty years. In 1996 Lorine created the Olive Tree Genealogy website and its companion blog. Lorine is the author of many published genealogical and historical articles and books.




Riding Grandfather's Paper Express: Genealogical Research in U.S. Railroad Records

Riding Granfather's Paper Express

How did your ancestors experience the effects of railroads in America? The introduction of steam locomotives into American commerce and daily life in the 19th century changed the way people would experience their nation and its landscape. For many, the advent of steam locomotives and completion of major projects like the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 represented the American idea of manifest destiny. Completing a transportation system that spanned from one coast to another signified that America fully commanded its land, able to utilize it as much as was desired for the nation’s prosperity.

However, achieving manifest destiny and propelling commerce into the future was rarely accomplished without the cost of human life. The construction of the Hoosac Tunnel in Berkshire County, Massachusetts took 195 lives and injured countless more from accidents and explosions.[1] Even riding the railroads was risky business. On Sep 8, 1894, an accident in the Hoosac Tunnel claimed the lives of William Terpinning of Syracuse, New York and George Minnick of Fitchburg, Massachusetts when a miscommunication by the track signalman resulted in a head-on collision between two trains.[2]

Finding records of railroad employees and particular incidents can be difficult. Researchers need to know the company for which they worked, the dates of service, and some basic genealogical information, in order to be certain of whether records survive. Railroads were not heavily regulated until the 20th century and the transient nature of workers means that early records do not often survive. With that said, there are many resources available for finding more information about railroad personnel and this article intends to break these down for the purpose of the genealogist.

Railroad worker. Image Source: Library of Congress.
Image Source: Library of Congress


Railroad Records in the National Archives

Records related to railroad personnel are located throughout several record groups in the National Archives. Those that are most valuable to the genealogist would have to be the pension files for retired railroad workers. The first federal railroad retirement system was created in the 1930s to repair the defects of previous pension programs put in place by the private sector. At first declared unconstitutional, Congress created an agreeable railroad retirement system under the Railroad Retirement and Carriers’ Taxing Act of 1937. This congressional act put the system under control of the Railroad Retirement Board and allowed employees to retire with benefits after the age of 65 or between 60-64 if they had served at least 30 years. Later amendments in 1946 and 1951 allowed for survivor benefits and annuities for the spouses.[3]

These files can vary greatly in size, from 20 to 200 pages, but the genealogical information is substantial. A researcher could find the following information:

  • Applicant’s full name, date and place of birth, names of parents, current address
  • Record of applicant’s prior services
  • Names of beneficiaries, usually spouses or children, and their relationship to the employee
  • Forms which provide the documentation the worker submitted in support of a claim, i.e. vital records, baptism certificates, statement of insurance policies, etc. Copies of the actual records were only made if completed by the person filing the claim file
  • For claim files in which the spouse completed an application for annuities, the spouse provided their name, date and place of birth, parents names, previous marriages and names and birth dates of minors living with them at the time of the application
  • If the worker was seeking annuities for disability, they were required to complete a physical examination and have the physician submit a report that included a detailed medical profile

These claim files equal genealogy gold. How does a researcher check to see if a claim file exists for a particular individual? Claim files held by the Railroad Retirement Board only exist from 1937 to the present day, so the individual in question must have retired or deceased after 1 Jan 1937. Fortunately, there is now an online index for these records through the Midwest Genealogy Center. The index will provide researchers with the surname and initial of the forename, the date of death, claim number, and which repository holds custody of the file. Most of the claim files have been transferred from the Railroad Retirement Board to the National Archives at Atlanta. For a firsthand perspective, I recommend checking out Debbie Mieszala’s article "All Aboard! Railroad Retirement Board Records" on the Advancing Genealogist blog which describes her experience in using a claim file for genealogical research.

Other sources of genealogical information can be gleaned from NARA Record Group (RG) 134, Records of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). The ICC was created in 1887 to more effectively regulate the railroads and investigate safety concerns. RG 134 actually contains some information on non-railroad personnel through the land acquisition forms, 1914-1939, valuation maps, and land field notes of ICC appraisers relating to the current value of real estate adjacent to railroad rights-of-way, 1915-28. These sources provide the names of people who owned parcels of land adjacent or on the railroad right-of-way at the time of the company’s acquisition.

RG 134 also contains railroad accident investigation reports, but only starting in 1911, because the Federal Government was not involved in railroad accidents until Congress passed the Accident Reports Act on 6 May 1910. An individual who endangered themselves to save lives in a railroad accident may have a Medal of Honor case file in RG 134. These run from 1905 to 1955. In 1967, the function of railroad accident investigations was transferred to the Office of Safety, Federal Railroad Administration (Record Group 399). Reproductions of these investigative reports up to 1994 can be viewed online through the Department of Transportation (DOT) website, in which they are organized by year and then by the railroad company which owned the train involved in the accident. For incidents prior to 1911, researchers should try newspapers or court records to find out more information about a particular incident, as many filed claims against the railroad companies and employees were tried for reckless endangerment, manslaughter, or homicide.[4]

A lot of railroad history and information involving particular incidents remains scattered throughout Records of the District Courts (Record Group 21). District Court proceedings are held by the regional branches of the National Archives and those pertaining to railroads consist of civil cases involving racial discrimination, working conditions, retirement benefits, claims for damages to property, injuries and deaths resulting from railroad incidents.[5] Below is the indictment of John L. Williams, in which Williams was found guilty for providing false information in his claim for retirement benefits.

Record Group 21, U.S. v. John L. Williams Jr., Eastern Dist. of Louisiana, Criminal Case No. 29445. Image Source: National Archives and Records Administration
Record Group 21, U.S. v. John L. Williams Jr., Eastern Dist. of Louisiana, Criminal Case No. 29445. Image Source: National Archives and Records Administration


Only a few employee rosters survive in the National Archives. The only ones are rosters of railway postal clerks, 1855-97, in the Records of the Post Office Department (Record Group 28) and lists of employees of U.S Military Railroads in Alexandria, Virginia, during the Civil War, in the Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General (Record Group 92).[6]

Company Records

Beyond the National Archives, records of railroad employees remain in the custody of dozens of local archives. The personnel listings are incomplete at best. I highly recommend downloading Jim Sponholz’s guide entitled "Locations of Railroad Genealogical Materials." This guide explains what employee records survive for each company, the dates they span and which repository has custody of these records or whether an online index exists.

Railroad Magazines

Many companies and even employees published magazines that chronicle a great deal of history about the railroads in the United States. They often include lists of current employees, detailed life histories of retiring employees, and information on the day-to-day life on the railroad. Jim Sponholz’s Rootsweb page is the authoritative source on the whereabouts of these magazines, as they are once again very scattered. Some publications are digitized, like the Journal of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, available on Google Books, and the Frisco Railroad magazine, through the Springfield-Greene County Library. Better yet, some institutions have even put together name indexes for their company magazines, such as the Boston and Maine Railroad Historical Society.

The railroads touched the lives of their ancestors in many ways, sometimes very tragically. Is there a story involving trains or railroad employees in your family tree? Depending on the time and place in which your ancestor was involved with the railroads, you may very well be riding a long way on the paper express to genealogy gold.


Jake Fletcher is a professional genealogist, educator and blogger. Jake has been researching and writing about his ancestors since 2008 on his research blog. He currently volunteers as a research assistant at the National Archives in Waltham, Massachusetts and is Vice President of the New England Association of Professional Genealogists (NEAPG).


[1] Charles Cahoon, comp. “Hoosac Tunnel Accident Victims,” Boston & Maine Railroad Historical Society (http://www.bmrrhs.org/on-lines-archives/: accessed 14 May 2016).

[2] “Two Men Killed and Others Injured in Hoosac Tunnel,” Vermont Phoenix, 14 Sep 1894, p.7, col.1, image copy, Library of Congress (http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn98060050/1894-09-14/ed-1/seq-7: accessed 14 May 2016), Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

[3] “Railroad Retirement Handbook – Chapter 1: Development of the Railroad Retirement System.” U.S. Railroad Retirement Board (https://www.rrb.gov/general/handbook/chapter1.asp#: accessed 14 May 2016).

[4] A detailed explanation of RG 134 is on pages 29-42. See David A. Pfeiffer, Comp. Records Relating to North American Railroads, Reference Information Paper 91, (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, Revised 2004).

[5] Pfeiffer, Records Relating to North American Railroads, 114.

[6] Pfeiffer, Records Relating to North American Railroads, 12.


My first look at FindMyPast's new 100 million marriage records

FindMyPast has been known as the leader for genealogy in the British Isles, but with their recent announcement of their addition of 100 million United States marriage records, they are beginning to attract attention from this side of the pond as well - including mine. In February they published the first 33 million of these records, and just this week they announced the availability of the next 10 million records.

After my recent successful experience with uploading part of my tree to FindMyPast for the first time (see it again in the after-webinar party here), I thought I would start over and this time upload my entire tree. I was hopeful that the same green hints that appeared for my small tree would begin to appear for the U.S. side of my tree, thus alerting me to those ancestors it found in the new marriage record collection. The entire uploading process took a little less than an hour (not bad for having 23,540 individuals in my tree), yet a couple of days later the hints have not yet started to appear. Perhaps the reason for the delay was that my tree was so large. I'll keep checking back.

In the meantime, I am anxious to begin searching the new marriage records, of which sixty percent have never before been published anywhere online. My first step was to query my Legacy family file to see which married couples had incomplete information about their date or place of marriage. Astonishingly, there were 8,301 individuals who had no place of marriage recorded. Many of them had partial or complete dates, but no marriage place. Blank! Wow, could I ever use this new marriage collection. Here's how I created the list in Legacy.

1) At Search > Find I filled in the following information:


Notice that I left the "What to look for" field blank. This would give me a list of all individuals who were married, but didn't have a marriage place recorded.

2) Click on the Create List button and the Search List will appear.


Notice here that Clayton Robert McCall's marriage information is completely blank. I simply haven't previously found the record. This list can then be printed to paper or to PDF by clicking on the Print button. And for you advanced Legacy users, I could also TAG everyone in this list so I can quickly refer back to them again.

I thought I'd give the new marriage collection a try by searching for Clayton and Ruth's marriage record. His parents were from Tennessee but moved first to Hancock County, Illinois and then to Yamhill County, Oregon in the 1860s. So these were three potential places they could have married.

Next, at FindMyPast.com, under the Search menu, I clicked on the "A-Z of records sets" link.


Then I typed "United States" into the Search box which narrowed down the list of collections, and clicked on the "United States Marriages" link.


Knowing that Clayton McCall was a fairly uncommon name, I entered only his name and clicked the search button.


Of the 493 results, numbers 4-6 have a Clayton R. McCall married to a Ruth E. in Yamhill County, Oregon in 1915. Even Clayton's birth year as shown in the index matched my records. Getting exciting! But then, I get excited for ANY new record I find, have you ever noticed that?


The first of the three records was a digitized image of the county's marriage index:


The next gave their marriage date and ages:


And the last entry was the same as the second, but it appeared to be the index sorted by the bride.


So...I was hoping for a copy of the actual marriage record (makes me sound a little spoiled, eh?) but at least now I have the date, volume, and page number so I can request a copy of the original. I'll go add a new To Do item in Legacy for this task before I forget:


One down, 8,299 to go. It looks like my relationship with FindMyPast is going to get a lot closer in these next few months. And that sleep I was hoping for - well, that can wait.

Break Down Those Brick Walls

How many times have you been stuck on an ancestor, unable to get back any further in your search? You’ve searched for years for parents or an exact birth location without success. I’m pretty sure we’ve all reached that place, that formidable brick wall, many times in our genealogy research.

Let's assume you have not been able to find your great-great grandmother's maiden name. You know her first name is Mary but there is no notation of her former surname on the records you’ve found.

You’ve done all the right things. You’ve looked for her son Henry, your great-grandfather in all the usual record sources - in marriage records, birth records and obituaries. You searched for the family in census records. You searched church records, vital registrations, and newspapers for obituaries. You’ve concentrated on great-grandfather Henry and great-great grandmother Mary because those are your direct ancestors.

Great-grandpa Henry’s marriage record showed his mother with her married name. There was no help there. You found his death registration and viewed it in anticipation. But sadly the informant (great-great grandpa's second wife) didn't know her mother-in-law’s maiden name.

Henry’s obituary was no help. Neither was his mother Mary’s. Obituaries for both great-grandpa and his mother were interesting but there was no mention of her maiden name or her parents. What to do now?

It’s time to start researching Henry’s siblings!

Why search siblings? You're only interested in YOUR ancestor, right? WRONG!

Remember that your ancestor and his siblings shared the same parents, and those parents are your next generation back. That’s right – the generation you’re looking for. Somewhere in a sibling record may very well be Great-grandmother Mary’s maiden name, the names of her parents, and a great deal more. You will never know until you start looking.

Look for great great grandpa's youngest sister's marriage record. Look for his brothers' death records. Research each sibling in turn as if they were your direct ancestors, and follow the standard genealogical research methods. Find every document you can on each sibling.

Researching and tracking siblings, finding their marriages, children, deaths and all other details about their lives can provide you with those long-sought answers to your brickwall.

A bonus is that you will have a much better idea of great-grandpa Henry’s family and their lives. He will be more alive for you and you will have an intimate sense of him as a real person not just a name and a few dates on your Pedigree Chart. You may be quite surprised at the interesting facts you’ll find on his siblings. When I searched my great-grandfather Stephen Peer’s family, I discovered that his brother Harmen Peer was the first base jumper in North America.  Further research led me to my great-grandfather’s cousin Stephen Peer who was a tightrope walker and who died walking his tightrope over Niagara Falls.  What great stories to add to story-telling time with my grandchildren!

Here’s an example of another benefit to researching an entire family. After more than 30 years of researching my Peer family, I had gathered so much information on the five sons of the immigrant ancestor that I compiled it all into six volumes of books on the Peer family in North America which other descendants can purchase and which my children and grandchildren are being given this Christmas.  So my research is being shared and interested descendants may find some answers to their own personal brickwalls!

So remember – search those siblings. Don’t overlook turning any stone available to you in your hunt for your own ancestor.

There are four Brick Wall classes in the Legacy Family Tree Webinar Library. Start learning today!


Lorine McGinnis Schulze is a Canadian genealogist who has been involved with genealogy and history for more than thirty years. In 1996 Lorine created the Olive Tree Genealogy website and its companion blog. Lorine is the author of many published genealogical and historical articles and books.

Was Great Grandpa's Name Changed at Ellis Island?


"My great-grandpa's name was changed at Ellis Island!" How often have we genealogists heard this statement? Sadly, this is a commonly held misconception. There is not one shred of evidence to support the claim that officials changed the names of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island.

Officials not only did not have the time to start assigning new names to incoming passengers they didn't have the authority to do so. 

Check how many ships were arriving daily and how many passengers on average were on each one, then think about the lineups of immigrants waiting to be cleared. Yes, it’s about the math, it’s about the sheer numbers of immigrants arriving in any one day, month or year. There was no time for officials to do more than process each immigrant as quickly as possible.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Ellis Island Arrivals. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Sometimes an arriving immigrant used an incorrect name such as the surname of a stepfather rather than the biological father, or a name the family had adopted for other reasons. It is also important to remember that names of passengers were taken at the port of departure. These were entered on the ship’s manifest (which we commonly refer to as a passenger list). How the name was entered when the immigrant left their country is how the name was received at the incoming arrival port.

Sometimes an immigrant deliberately falsified their name and arrived under the name of someone else. Often these falsified arrival names were changed by the immigrants themselves later in life, such as when they applied for naturalization papers, or some form of pension, or they wanted to vote in elections.

If an immigrant's new name did not match that shown on their official immigration record such as a ship's passenger list, he or she might face difficulties voting, in legal proceedings, or naturalization.

One of the most common reason that an ancestor's name on the manifest does not match the surname your father and grandfather have used, is that it was a name unfamiliar to English speaking clerks, and was entered phonetically in other documents, such as census records. For example the surname Przybyszewskl is not only challenging for North Americans to spell, but also to pronounce. It can easily be incorrectly recorded and eventually may become the standard and new name.

Sometimes an immigrant chose to "Americanize" their surname themselves and simply began using a new name a year or so after settling in America. Americanizing a surname usually meant making it more familiar to English speakers and spellers. Many of these Americanized names were simply shortened from their original version, for example Kohnovalsky could become Cohn.

First names can also be inadvertently or intentionally changed by the immigrant himself or by a clerk recording the name phonetically. My husband’s Belgium born great grandfather’s name was Archie. Or so we thought. But baptism records in Belgium proved it was Achilles, which is pronounced Aw-shee. That sounds like Archie and so he became Archie to his friends in his new land of Canada.

Names in other countries and non-English languages are often changed to their English equivalent. My sister’s father-in-law was baptised as Waclaw in Poland. He is found under that name on his 1927 passenger list. But one year later he was recorded under the English equivalent of Walter as he crossed the border from America to Canada.

Another reason why an immigrant’s name can be different than his birth name is when a nickname was the name given by the immigrant himself. My grandmother’s original legal name was Ruth, but her family called her Dolly. She gave that name on official records but it was her decision, and was not arbitrarily assigned to her by immigration officials. My husband’s grandfather was Leon Thomas but he was always called Charlie and was the name he used on all official documents.

Below are some sample letters representing typical cases of immigrants who made their own decisions to change their surnames.

How Diamond became Cohen
How Kohnovalsky became Cohn
How Bahash became Amber
How Shukowsky became Zakotsky
How Asszony became Miazaroz
 An excellent article on this topic called "American Names / Declaring Independence" can be found at Immigrant Name Changes



Lorine McGinnis Schulze is a Canadian genealogist who has been involved with genealogy and history for more than thirty years. In 1996 Lorine created the Olive Tree Genealogy website and its companion blog. Lorine is the author of many published genealogical and historical articles and books.

Adding Historical Context to Your Ancestor's Life

Nothing hits me in the gut more than knowing that a direct ancestor of mine spearheaded an Indian massacre. In January 1863, Colonel Patrick E. Connor and his regiment wreaked havoc at Bear Creek in southeastern Idaho, resulting in hundreds of casualties for the Shoshoni Indian Tribe and their families. Being descended from a decorated war hero, to whom I owe my middle name, does not generate the feelings of pride or excitement it once did. However, the relationship of Americans and indigenous tribes was complex to say the least. Without disregarding the atrocities committed by General Connor, Americans settling out west were victims of raids and brutality by the Western tribes as well. This article is not meant to debate the ethics of one side against the other, but rather to briefly demonstrate how research, thus adding historical context, gives us a fuller understanding of our ancestor’s lives and their actions.

Whether we're dealing with the more light-hearted fare of day-to-day life or events that taint our family history, adding historical context is an important process to bring us closer to our ancestors. The world of genealogy is catching on to this with great interest; more and more researchers are looking for ways to add “meat on the bones” and to bring to light the time-period of their ancestors and what their experiences were like. When we research the history around our ancestors, they become more than names on a branch, but people with a story to tell, that can captivate you, your family, and future generations. My experience in genealogy has proven repeatedly, that our history textbooks from grade school overlooked the amazing history retold through the stories of everyday people.

Image source: Library of Congress

We often find clues in our sources that probe us to ask, “Why did they do that?” or “Why did this happen to them?” At our disposal are voluminous resources that we can use to answer, or at least come closer to answering, these questions.


Newspapers are a great primary source for investigating historical events and they help to demonstrate the character of a particular community. Not only do they provide primary accounts of important moments in our ancestors’ lives, but they also capture the opinions and sentiments your ancestor may have held towards particular social issues. The first place I’d look for links to online newspapers databases is FamilySearch Wiki’s article, "Digital Historical Newspapers” or Cyndi’s List. Also, visit Kenneth Mark's Ancestor Hunt website which provides tremendous resources for newspaper research. There are also over 15 "always free" classes on newspaper research by Tom Kemp inn the Legacy Family Tree Webinars library.


A lot of great study has been devoted to understanding life at the workplace. Try researching the history of a specific job like coal miner or a particular company, i.e. the Boston & Maine Railroad Company, to find collections and sources that provide insight into the day-to-day life of your ancestor at work.


If your ancestor was a veteran, there are abundant websites and records documenting the activities of your ancestor’s company or regiment to help better understand their experience on the battlefield. I would start by searching your ancestor’s regiment or company because there is a very high chance somebody created a webpage on it, or you can go deeper using records of the National Archives. The document below shows Colonel Connor’s own account of the Massacre at Bear Creek, extracted from a large series of reports and correspondence published as The War of the Rebellion.




29 Jan 1863 – Engagement on the Bear River, Utah Ter. [1]   
29 Jan 1863 – Engagement on the Bear River, Utah Ter. [1]



Accessing the articles written by scholars and historians is a great way to add historical context. Less focused on genealogical research, scholarly articles can provide fuller understanding on a variety of historical subjects, i.e. the witchcraft hysteria in New England or social conditions of Irish-Americans in urban communities. These academics have gone to great lengths to pull together a variety of primary and secondary sources to give a more balanced view of history. Pertinent databases include JSTOR, Google Scholar, and Academic Search Complete by EBSCOhost. Some are free, while others require subscription access. Check your local library or university to inquire about what research databases are available within their network.


Even if family treasures like diaries and letters do not exist in your family, consider reading those of other families that relate to your research. The farther back in time we are researching, the more important these primary sources become in determining what might have been our ancestor’s thoughts, feelings, and aspirations in their day to day lives. Many have been published and edited with commentary, like The Prendergast Letters: Correspondence from Famine-Era Ireland or One Colonial Women’s World: The Life and Writings of Mehetabel Chandler Coit, while others still lie in the stacks of archives. To track down some of these, try the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections or ArchiveGrid by WorldCat. These are excellent catalogs to begin archival research.


Add some fun to your family history journey and enjoy a visit to a museum! Particularly in ones that offer living history settings, like Plimoth Plantation, the past surely does come alive. Museum guides, re-enactors, and collections on display provide a window into life as it once was. Something about experiencing history first hand cannot be recreated in any type of source or record. As a bonus, visiting a museum is a great field trip for the whole family to take, so everyone can better understand and appreciate the lives of our ancestors, but most importantly, all of the great work you as genealogists do in preserving the legacy!

Hear are a few examples of digital libraries and archives that could help with providing historical context, along with resources that provide links to some of these repositories.

"American Memory.Library of Congress.

Colonial North American Project.Harvard University Library.

Documenting the American South.University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.

Digital Collections.Library of Congress.

Nancy E. Loe. “States on Sunday Archives.” Sassy Jane Genealogy. A growing collection of free digital archives by State.

Primary Source Sets.” Digital Public Library of America.

Staff Writers. “250 Plus Killer Digital Libraries and Archives.Open Education Database (oedb.org), posted 25 Mar 2013.


[1] United States. War Dept; et.al. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. (Washington, D.C.: Govt. Printing Office, 1900), 187.


Jake Fletcher is a genealogist and blogger. Jake has been researching and writing about genealogy since 2008 on his research blog Travelogues of a Genealogist. He currently volunteers as a research assistant at the National Archives in Waltham, Massachusetts and is Vice President of the New England Association of Professional Genealogists (NEAPG).

Using Research Logs Effectively In Genealogy

Genealogy is a growth process like any other pursuit or passion. The more I got into genealogy and researching my family tree, the more of a headache it became to remember all the information and work I did. Research logs saved the day for me, because I now had an effective method for keeping track of all my searches. I always considered myself a good note-taker during school. But research logs, to me, go a step beyond just notes. They are documents of every activity we undertake in a research project about our ancestors. This was something I had to adapt as part of my personal growth as a genealogist.

 Why does it matter to be so meticulous? Because it saves you time!


Logging all of your searches and activities provides a great reference. Without a log of what websites and sources you’ve already checked, you might end up wasting time repeating searches. It’s easy for researchers to jump from one website to another, because we are in the zone of finding our ancestor. But consider slowing down a little bit and logging your searches. You might think you’ll remember, but these little details very rarely stay in our long-term memory and in a very short amount of time, we might forget!

When we take our work to a professional for a consultation, they often ask, “What have you checked already?" The researcher might say, “I’ve checked everything!,” but how are you able to back this up without evidence of the searches you’ve undertaken. While those involved in genealogy as a business consider research logs a necessity for client reports, those who are undertaking genealogy for personal enrichment should consider using the same tool. It will make you a better researcher and help with your desired genealogy goals. Logging the details of a particular search can help to easily demonstrate how you got that answer. What exactly did you enter into the search fields? Did you try a wildcard search or variation of the surname? These details really do matter.

Building and Using A Research Log

Creating a log is quite easy and you can create a template that works for you. My particular template was designed in Microsoft Word, which can be designed by clicking on the “Insert” Menu and scrolling down to “Table.” Alternatively, logging your research in a spreadsheet using Microsoft Excel works just as well.

I’ve seen all different kinds of logs, some with more columns for information than others, but what remains essential for a log is capturing all the details of a search. In my template, I have rows on the top to include the surname, residences, and my desired objective. The objective is important, because we might be pursuing specific research questions on an ancestor or family. In my personal template, I included five columns for recording details of a search: 

  • Date

  • Repository or Website
  • Title of Collection
  • Keyword Search
  • Results

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 2.49.26 PM
The date is important to log, especially for online research. Many times, a domain for a private family tree website will expire and the link could be broken when we access it at a later date.

The next column is where I write in the name of the website or database I am utilizing, or if I am are working on-site at the archives, the name of that facility. "Title of Collection" would be the name of the source and for example, if I’m trying a search from the homepage of Ancestry or Family Search, I would write in “main search engine.”

The most important columns are the next two because they capture the details of what I’m looking for and how I found or didn’t find the desire information. "Keyword Search" is where I would write in the names I’m looking for, but if there are multiple search fields for vitals, parents names, residences, etc., I am sure to include those details as well. Every site responds differently to the characters we type in or if we are using a search trick like the wildcard or search tools in Google.

In the results column, I indicate whether the search was negative or “No Matches.” When searching online, I like to include the number of results I get back with every search. It’s important data to record because I might be searching too broad or too narrow. It also might provide demographic information like how many families or individuals with that name are living in a particular jurisdiction. When we do get positive results, this is where I enter in my reference to that particular source, so I can build citations more easily. Once again, this saves considerable time. When we are creating our citation, we don’t have to backtrack to every website because it’s all right there in the research logs.

If electronic research logs are your preference, you can print blank research plan right from within the Legacy Family Tree software.

To print a Blank Research Log:

1. Choose Research Log from the Reports tab of the Ribbon bar.

2. Click either Print or Preview to view the report.

 You can also extend your use of research logs by watching the Legacy Family Tree webinar "Plan Your Way to Research Success!"

You might find that meticulously logging all this data is a bit obsessive and doesn’t apply to you necessarily. But I think we can all relate to wanting to save time and work more efficiently on our family trees, so consider using a research log as a tool for your genealogical pursuits. I’ve provided some other examples that are posted online and made available for re-use:


G. David Dilts. "Research Logs." FamilySearch Wiki, last modified 24 Feb 2016.  

Colleen Greene. "Evernote for Genealogy: Research Logs and Note Links." Posted 29 Jan 2014.

"Research Trackers and Organizers.FamilyTree Magazine. 




Jake Fletcher is a genealogist, lecturer, and blogger. Jake has been researching and writing about genealogy since 2008 on his research blog Travelogues of a Genealogist. He currently volunteers as a research assistant at the National Archives in Waltham, Massachusetts and is Vice President of the New England Association of Professional Genealogists (NEAPG).

How Mobile Were Our Ancestors?

How Mobile Were Our Ancestors Library of Congress image

Do you think your ancestors stayed in one place? Guess again! A prevalent myth among genealogists is that our ancestors could not, and did not, travel freely.

The truth is that many of our ancestors traveled frequently. They were much more mobile than most of us realize. When you look across the centuries, you can find examples of our ancestors’ frequent trips in times when travel was difficult, slow, and often expensive.

While it may be true that our immigrant ancestors returned home more frequently in later centuries, after ships’ travel became faster, easier, and less expensive, we should not assume this is the case. I have found many 17th century immigrant ancestors who frequently sailed back and forth from their new land to their homeland.

17th Century Travel

Even though they could not simply hop on an airplane as we do, many of our 17th century ancestors didn’t hesitate to make the long journey home many times. I suppose it should not be surprising when we consider the fact that these early pioneers were willing to leave friends and family to settle in an unknown wilderness.

Tall Ships
Tall Ships

Many early settlers in the New World of North America travelled frequently back to Europe. Several of my Dutch ancestors who settled in New Netherland (present day New York) as early as 1630 returned to Holland on more than one occassion. Often they sailed back to settle wills or collect an inheritance from a family member. Sometimes they took a ship back to visit relatives or attend a wedding, just as we do today. Legal matters were also of importance and those were often the reason for a brief visit to their homeland.

Of course there were also individuals who might not be permanent settlers, but who travelled frequently due to the nature of their occupations. Soldiers, beaurocrats, sailors, and those with business interests were often among those non-settlers who made frequent trips from their homeland.

19th Century Travel

Many years ago I had the privilege of reading original letters sent in 1839 and 1847 from my great-great-grandfather to his mother in Illinois. In one letter he tells her how much he misses her and his siblings, and how he plans to come for a visit in the fall. 

1847 Letter Levi Excerpt
Excerpt from 1847 letter Levi Peer to Elizabeth Peer
Original letter owned by Marsha Peer (Swanson) Lindstrom

 I remember how surprised I was when I read that my ancestor lived in the wilds of what is now Ontario, which then was a newly settled country, and little more than a wilderness. There were very few roads, and no reliable method of ground transportation other than horse and wagon, only a horse, or by foot. From his home in Ontario it was over 500 miles to his mother’s home in Illinois.

Since great-great grandpa did not own a horse, it is likely that he planned on hitching a ride in a wagon going from his home to a larger center such as York (now Toronto) or Hamilton.

From there he could have taken a boat across Lake Ontario and then to Buffalo, but it is more likely he took a wagon directly to Buffalo. Once in Buffalo a boat would have taken him along the shores of Lake Erie, or he could have continued his journey by wagon. I’m quite sure he would have walked for much of the journey. At some point he likely took a raft down the Ohio River to his mother’s home in Illinois. To me that seems like an arduous journey and not one I would want to take, but the mention of his plans in his letter was casual as if it were not an unusual thing to do.

Lack of work also took our ancestors far from home. If a man could not find a job to support his family, there was nothing stopping him from travelling long distances if he heard that jobs were available elswhere. One of my Irish ancestors who left Ireland during the Famine Years to settle in Canada, left Canada for work in Colorado. His family stayed behind in their new home and he spent several years working far from home. It appears from records that he returned for visits now and again.

With the explosive expansion of the railroads in the second half of the 19th century, people became more mobile than ever. Suddenly travel was easy and inexpensive, and people from many walks of life were now able to travel for work as well as for pleasure.

Passengers waiting for the Illinois Central Railroad train ca 1882  Credit: Library of Congress
Passengers waiting for the Illinois Central Railroad train ca 1882
Photo credit: Library of Congress

We should remember that our ancestors were no different than we are. They laughed, loved, cried, celebrated success, mourned over loss and failure, and missed family far away. There are numerous reasons they travelled, and we should always keep in mind that they were not stuck in one place – they travelled as needed, and when they wanted to.

What tales do you have of your traveling ancestors?


Lorine McGinnis Schulze is a Canadian genealogist who has been involved with genealogy and history for more than thirty years. In 1996 Lorine created the Olive Tree Genealogy website and its companion blog. Lorine is the author of many published genealogical and historical articles and books.



Why Do We Do Genealogy?

A friend asked an interesting question. "Why do you do genealogy?" The answer should be simple. One would think it would be something along the lines of:

"I do genealogy because I want to know who my ancestors were."

Why do we do Genealogy?
But guess what? Like most questions in life, the answer is not that simple. There are a myriad of reasons why we delve into genealogy research. Wanting to find out who our ancestors were is just the tip of the genealogy iceberg.

The reasons I currently "do genealogy" are not the same reasons I had twenty or thirty years ago. When I began my genealogy quest it was because my father had repeatedly expressed curiousity about our Irish origins. He died when I was 14 years old, and after his death I vowed to find out about our Irish McGinnis ancestors.

So my answer to that question, had it been asked those many years ago, would have been. "I do genealogy because I want to remember and honour my father."

It was a specific reason, very narrow in scope, but it sparked a broader interest in history. In fact, that is not my main reason anymore, and hasn’t been for a long time. I've grown. Genealogy has been a journey, and as on any journey, my needs and desires and goals along the way have changed.

For example I’m extremely curious. Some would say nosy. I think most of us who love genealogy would make great detectives. My personality is such that I can't let a mystery lie without digging into it. I need to find answers.

So my current answer to the original question of why I do genealogy is now much more complex.

"I do genealogy for many reasons. One is my curiousity about my ancestors - who were they, what were they like, what experiences did they live through. My love of history is part of the reason I do genealogy. My desire to solve mysteries is a huge part of my passion for genealogy. And I do genealogy because I want my children and grandchildren to know and recognize the individuals over the centuries whose lives helped make us who we are today."

Born Died written in sand

Genealogy isn't a pursuit well suited for those who require instant gratification. It's a long-term process and to those who are not like-minded it seems an incomprehensible pursuit. I've spent more hours scrolling through microfilm searching for that one entry with an ancestor's name, then I care to remember. Many people would consider those wasted hours. I don't.

Some of my family are not the least bit interested in our ancestors. Some are interested to a degree. Tell them stories of the more interesting or outrageous ancestors such as our daredevil Peer ancestor who walked Niagara Falls on a tightrope and they listen. Tell them about great great grandpa, the farmer in England, and their eyes glaze over. 

I once had a friend say to me "But why do you care? They're all dead!" I care because they made me who I am. Without them I would not be here. They are part of me, part of my genetic makeup. They also deserve to be remembered, and to continue to be part of our lives. Our children and grandchildren need to hear about those ancestors. They need to speak of them to their children, and to carry on the stories they hear from me.

Some of my relatives are not interested in my treasured photos of our ancestors. To me those are the icing on the cake! Photos make my ancestor come alive. One of my relatives told me she wasn't interested in seeing a photo of our 2nd great-grandfather. Why wasn't she interested? Because, she said "Why do I care what he looked like? I never knew him."

Why do we do genealogy?
That absolute lack of curiousity is incomprehensible to me, just as my desire to know more is incomprehensible to her. A photo allows us to know our ancestors. With a photo in my hand I can study a face then ponder over whether or not great-grandma's nose is just like my granddaughter’s.  I can visualize the ancestors in those photos living their daily lives, just as we do today. With a photo I feel a connection I can’t quite feel with only a name and a date.

I’ve been asked when my research will be done. Many family members want to know why I am still looking when I know the names of ancestors back several generations. Non-genealogists rarely understand that genealogists want to find as many details and as much information about each ancestor as they possibly can.

Even though my answer to the original question is complex and multi-faceted, I can sum my reasons up in one sentence:

Without the past there is no present, nor can we build a future.

How would you answer my friend's question, "Why do you do genealogy?"


Lorine McGinnis Schulze is a Canadian genealogist who has been involved with genealogy and history for more than thirty years. In 1996 Lorine created the Olive Tree Genealogy website and its companion blog. Lorine is the author of many published genealogical and historical articles and books.


Researching Female Ancestors in NARA's Military Records

We will never know whether U.S. Naval Reserve Yeowoman Mary Agnes Monahan, killed tragically in an auto accident on 5 Sep 1918, saw herself as a vanguard of progressing women’s equality in the United States.[1] Regardless, she and the handful of women who enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve during WWI would change American military culture permanently, forcing the government to officially recognize women as able to serve in the Armed Forces.

Rear Adm. Victor Blue (left center) chief of the Bureau of Navigation, inspects yeomen (F) on the grounds of the Washington Monument, Washington, D.C., in 1918. (19-11386). Source:Library of Congress

Americans traditionally think of men running the government and holding civic positions, as well as putting their lives on the line for freedom. As highlighted here, pertinent collections at the National Archives can provide more information about your female ancestor and how she contributed to the war effort.

Veteran’s Pensions

Many women stepped up to the plate and took care of family affairs while their husbands were on active duty. Ironically, the first NARA collection I want to highlight isn’t service records of female ancestors, but rather documentation related to female ancestors in pension records for U.S. Veterans.

Acts authorized by Congress allowed for soldiers to receive pensions based on certain eligibility requirements. If the veteran were to pass away, his widow could reapply for a pension. In her dispositions, the widow would provide important information useful to genealogists such as her maiden name, residence, marriage date and place to deceased husband, and the date/place of her husband’s death.

Fold3.com has digitized copies for Pensions and Bounty Land Applications from the Revolutionary War and War of 1812. While Fold3 also allows you to search pension index cards for later conflicts, copies of the full pension files for veterans of the Early Indian & Mexican-American war up to 1912 are only available at Archives I in Washington. Copies of pension files can be requested from the National Archives using the NATF Form 85.

Military Nurses, Matrons, and Hospital Attendants

The level of atrocity and casualties on Civil War battlefronts warranted a great need for female nurses. Individuals researching female ancestors that were hospital attendants, matrons, and nurses during the Civil War, can consult Record Group 112, Records of the Surgeon General (Army). This record group contains a series of service cards for females enlisted at hospital stations to take care of the wounded and dying. The cards are arranged alphabetically by surname and include information on place and dates of employment, salary, and the capacity in which hired.

Service cards, returns, and appointments of nurses in the Spanish-American War, 1898-1939 can be found in Record Group 112. RG 112 also holds papers of hospital stewards, 1862-93, arranged alphabetically by the name of the steward. These papers contain orders, correspondence, discharges, and personal reports of the stewards. Additional information about women serving in medical capacities for the military can also be found in Record Group 94, Records of the Office of the Adjutant General.

Women in the Civil War
Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. 


Females who enlisted in the U.S. Military

Before WWI, the only women enlisted in the U.S. Military had to disguise themselves as men. Under the Naval Act of 1916, females found a legal loophole in which they could enlist in the military, because there was no clause barring females from enrolling in U.S. Navy Reserve.In 1917, the Bureau of Marine Inspection & Navigation allowed for the inclusion of personnel who could serve in a non-combative capacity, such as “radio operators, stenographers, nurses... and many other capacities in the industrial line.”[2] 

Several hundred women, such as Mary Agnes Monahan, became yeowomen and were stationed at U.S. Naval Bases during the WWI. From this point forward, attitudes towards women’s involvement in the military changed greatly. During WWII, over 350,000 women served in the U.S. Armed Forces in five different capacities:

Women Army Auxillary Corps (WAC)

Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP)

Women Accepted For Volunteer Military Services (WAVES)

Women who service in the Marines and Coast Guard (SPARS)

Army and Navy Cadet Nursing Corps

A great deal of information related to a female service member’s occupational history is held in their Official Military Personnel File (OMPF). Copies of OMPFs can be ordered from the National Personnel Records Center using the Standard Form 180. Additional history about a veteran’s involvement in the military can be gleaned from online collections and files on Ancestry.com and Fold3.com. For information on women serving in the Cadet Nursing Corps consult, WWII Cadet Nursing Corps Card Files, available at Ancestry and Fold3.com. These cards provide the nurse’s name, location and length of service.

Obtaining a Civilian Personnel File

Historically, the U.S. Government’s work force is one dominated by men, but overtime, thanks to the women who were courageous pioneers not deterred by the status quo, they made their way into jobs traditionally reserved for men. The National Archives holds records documenting the appointment and service of federal government employees who served in military affiliated government bureaus. If you are research a federal employee, the first important step is for you to do some personal research to help narrow in on what department she served under and her years of service.

The National Archives holds Official Personnel Folders for Civilian Government Employees from 1850 to 1951. Requests for these files can be made by writing to National Archives and must include some basic information for an archivist to locate the file.[3]

Official Personnel Folders after 1951 are classified as “Federal Records” and not “Archival”, thus only certain information may be available to third party researchers. Under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), only the former employee or a third party research that receives authorization from the former employee can access the full contents of the file.[4]

 Do you have any women in your family who served in the military?


[1] “Seamen and Yeowomen Killed in Auto Accident.” The Official U.S. Bulletin, Tuesday, 10 Sep 1918, page 14. Published in Official U.S. Bulletin, Issues 402-451 (Washington, D.C.: Committee on Public Information, 1918.): accessed at Google Books.

[2] Nathaniel Patch, “The Story of the Female Yeomen during the First World War.” Prologue (Fall 2006), Vol.38, no.3: accessed at http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2006/fall/yeoman-f.html

[3] National Archives at St. Louis, “Official Personnel Folders (OPF), Archival Holdings and Access, ca. 1850-1951.” http://www.archives.gov/st-louis/archival-programs/civilian-personnel-archival/index.html

[4] National Archives at St. Louis. “Official Personnel Folders (OPF), Federal (non-archival) Holdings and Access.”: accessed at http://www.archives.gov/st-louis/civilian-personnel/index.html


Further Reading & Resources:

Archives Library Information Center. “Women.”: accessed at http://www.archives.gov/research/alic/reference/womens-history.html. This is a great list of resources for learning more about the history of Women in the United States.

National Archives at St. Louis. “ “Official Personnel Folder (OPF), Archival Holdings and Access.”: accessed at http://www.archives.gov/st-louis/archival-programs/civilian-personnel-archival/official-personnel-folders-archival-holdings-table.html

National Archives Trust Fund Board. Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives. (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1985.) See chapter 4, "Records of the Regular Army," Chapter 7, “Pension Records” and chapter 14, “Records of Civilian Government Employees.”

U.S. Naval War College - Naval Historical Collection. “Women in World War II Oral Histories.”: accessed at https://usnwcarchive.org/items/browse?collection=25

Women in Military Service For America Memorial Foundation, Inc. “History & Collections - Welcome.”: accessed at http://www.womensmemorial.org/H&C/h&cwelcome.html


Jake Fletcher is a genealogist, lecturer, and blogger. Jake has been researching and writing about genealogy since 2008 on his research blog Travelogues of a Genealogist. He currently volunteers as a research assistant at the National Archives in Waltham, Massachusetts and is Vice President of the New England Association of Professional Genealogists (NEAPG).