Coffin Plates – An Overlooked Genealogy Resource

Coffin Plates or plaques are a very unique resource for genealogists. Coffin plates are decorative metal plaques that contain the name and death date of the deceased.


1873 Coffin Plate from B. L. Massey Collection
1873 Coffin Plate from B. L. Massey Collection


Coffin Plates in North America

The oldest coffin plates date from around the 17th century and gained popularity in North America in the 19th century. When a loved one died, the family would hire a local blacksmith, a metalworker, a silversmith, or a coffin plate manufacturer to create a metal plaque and engrave it with details of the deceased person. Depending on the financial resources of the survivors, coffin plates ranged in size, metals used to create them, and how much information was engraved. Common metals used were lead, pewter, silver, brass, copper, zinc or tin.

For a basic funeral, a simple lead plate would be engraved with the name of the deceased, date of death and the age of the departed. The plate was then nailed to the lid of the coffin or propped up on the lid. Families with more money could afford a plate of a more expensive metal and a more elaborate design.

In the late 1840s the first machine made coffin plates began to appear. The earliest machine-made plates were simple shapes stamped out of a flat piece of metal. More elaborate shapes with intricate stamped designs began to appear and by the 1860s there were catalogues of shapes and designs that survivors could look through to choose the coffin plate they wanted. 

1848 Coffin Plate from B. L. Massey Collection
1848 Coffin Plate from B. L. Massey Collection


By the middle of the 19th century almost every family could afford to have a coffin plate put on the coffin of their loved one. During this time period it was a common practice to display the coffin plate on a wooden stand on the lid of the coffin. Sometimes it was placed on a nearby table along with a photo of the deceased. The family then  took the coffin plate home as a remembrance of their loved one. Many such plates were tucked away in drawers and passed on in families but others were framed and hung on walls in the home. 

This practice of taking the coffin plate home started in the early 1840s and was particularly popular in the North Eastern United States - Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island. This practice peaked circa 1880 to 1899 and by the 1920s it had fallen out of favour.

Coffin Plates in the United Kingdom

In England the small decorative coffin plates popular in North America were not used as much. English burials for the more famous or wealthy inhabitants usually had a large breastplate attached to the deceased's coffin. These breastplates, usually 12 to 15 inches in height, were meant to be buried with the coffin and the only time you will see them is if a cemetery has to be relocated.

Breast Plate from United Kingdom from B.L. Massey Collection
Breast Plate from United Kingdom from B.L. Massey Collection


In that case, graves are dug up and coffins removed to be transported to their new location. Occasionally the attached breastplates are removed and you will sometimes find them for sale to collectors. They were often made of brass or copper and had ornate shapes such as shields.

 An interesting tidbit about such breastplates is that one that was attached to Oliver Cromwell's coffin was removed in 1661 when his coffin was opened. Last December Cromwell's coffin plate was auctioned off at Sotheby's where it sold for GBP £ 74,500  (US $117, 352.40).

Family Treasures

Your family may have an ancestor's coffin plate or you may be lucky enough to find one in an antique store or flea market. The coffin plate of my great-great-grandfather was found in a local antique store and I was able to purchase it from the man who bought it.

1904 Coffin Plate owned by L. McGinnis Schulze
1904 Coffin Plate owned by L. McGinnis Schulze

My husband inherited the coffin plate of his grandmother's sister who died at the age of 2, and a few years ago he purchased another ancestor's coffin plate at an estate sale for his great-grandmother's brother.

Resources for Coffin Plates

If you are stuck finding a death record for an ancestor or you simply want to flesh out his or her details, you may want to hunt for a coffin plate. Ancestors At Rest website has an extensive database of coffin plates online with images.


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.

Three Tips for Finding Your Pennsylvania Ancestors Online

Pennsylvania has an abundance of resources for genealogists, and the good news is that many of them can now be accessed online. Here are three tips to unlock information about your Keystone ancestors in digitized record collections.


1. Start with FamilySearch.  It’s no secret that FamilySearch  is often the first online stop for many genealogists. For the Pennsylvania researcher, there are plenty of records available in the free digitized collections on the FamilySearch website  You can either or click the “Browse All Collections” link then “United States” and “Pennsylvania.” Here are the current collections (Note: Be sure to read the description of each collection to learn how complete it is as not all records may be included, and note the date the collection was last updated).

 Pennsylvania Obituaries, 1977-2010

Pennsylvania Obituary and Marriage Collection, 1947-2010

Pennsylvania, Births and Christenings, 1709-1950  

Pennsylvania, County Marriages, 1885-1950

Pennsylvania, Crew Lists arriving at Erie, 1952-1957         

Pennsylvania, Eastern District Naturalization Indexes, 1795-1952

Pennsylvania, Eastern District Petitions for Naturalization, 1795-1931

Pennsylvania, Grand Army of the Republic Membership Records, 1866-1956

Pennsylvania, Landing Reports of Aliens, 1798-1828         

Pennsylvania, Marriages, 1709-1940

Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Case Files of Chinese Immigrants, 1900-1923

Pennsylvania, Philadelphia City Births, 1860-1906 

Pennsylvania, Philadelphia City Death Certificates, 1803-1915     

Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Marriage Indexes, 1885-1951  

Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Passenger List Index Cards, 1883-1948

Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Passenger Lists Index, 1800-1906       

Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Passenger Lists, 1800-1882     

Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Passenger Lists, 1883-1945     

Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Seamen's Proofs of Citizenship, 1791-1861

Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh City Deaths, 1870-1905   

Pennsylvania, Probate Records, 1683-1994

 To access the list of collections for Pennsylvania, go to


Below is a passenger list record I found for my great-grandfather Jan Alzo found in the on Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Passenger List Index Cards, 1883-1948 collection on FamilySearch.



"Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Passenger List Index Cards, 1883-1948," database with images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 7 September 2015), Jan Alzo, 1898; citing Immigration, NARA microfilm publication T526 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.); FHL microfilm 1,380,256.


Also, don’t forget to check the FamilySearch Wiki for Pennsylvania for details on how to get started with Pennsylvania Genealogy research and for other information.

2. Find the Freebies. Genealogists love free databases. You can find plenty of free Pennsylvania resources if you know where to look. Try USGenWeb (check by county) for its volunteer added collections such as obituaries, cemetery lists and more, or GoogleBooks for items such as town histories, biographies and other historical documents.  The Pennsylvania State Archives located in Harrisburg, holds many documents for genealogy research including county records, military records, land records, census records, naturalization records and ships' passenger lists, and some pre-1906 vital records, as well as records of state government, and papers of private citizens and organizations relevant to Pennsylvania history.  While you won’t be able to search bigger collections online, use the website for the online guide to records so you can plan a research trip there.  In addition, some subscription sites often have some free databases. For example, Fold3 has selected databases available even to non-subscribers . One such publication/record set is The Pennsylvania Archives (early PA government records) – not to be confused with the Pennsylvania State Archives noted above!


3. Go to a Group. Facebook Groups are a great way to connect with other researchers searching for Pennsylvania roots. Simply log in to your Facebook account and search for Pennsylvania groups by town or county or topic (for example: Allegheny County, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Cemeteries, or Pennsylvania Genealogy). A quick way to learn about the groups available is to access the list Genealogical & Historical Groups/Pages on Facebook list compiled by Katherine Wilson. Don’t forget the smaller groups and pages too (I belong to several groups for my hometown of Duquesne, Pennsylvania and made it a point to like page for the Mifflin Township Historical Society). You will be amazed at the historical information you will find in these groups and pages and you connect with other Pennsylvania researchers.

Want even more tips on how to find your Pennsylvania ancestors online? Check out my my new bonus webinar Best Online Resources for Pennsylvania Genealogy  available to Family Tree Webinar subscribers. This webinar follows on from my Researching Your Pennsylvania Ancestors webinar.  In addition, the Pennsylvania Genealogy Legacy QuickGuide contains even more research tips and online resources.


Lisa A. Alzo, M.F.A., is a freelance writer, instructor and lecturer specializing in genealogy and creative nonfiction. She is a frequent presenter for the Legacy Family Tree Webinars series and can be contacted via

Connecting with Cousins Abroad (part 1): I Love Sweden

Guest blogger Eric Stroschein is currently in Stockholm, Sweden connecting with relatives and researching his ancestry. This is the first of a series of articles from his visit to the old country.

  Letters from Stockholm

Making connections is at the heart of genealogy. Piecing together the puzzle of who our ancestors were and where they came from, becomes the framework of our research. All genealogists eventually run into a wall that seems insurmountable and the problems can look unsolvable. Cousins can hold key information critical to answering these questions and connecting with them is vital. Locating and connecting with living relatives not only can enhances our research but can be emotionally and spiritually rewarding as well.

My research journey began a number of years ago as a hobbyist. One of the first institutes I attended was the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy (SLIG) held annually in January in Salt Lake City, Utah. I chose to take the Advanced Swedish course coordinated by Geoff Fröberg Morris. Having learned so much about Swedish records and research from him, I still have revelations today and say, “Oh that is what Geoff was talking about.” One of the best pieces of advice I gleaned was to find cousins in Sweden and connect with them. If they too are genealogists then you just may have hit the mother lode.

Over the years I have connected with several cousins in Sweden. Websites dedicated to Swedish genealogy like Rötters[i] and Dysbyt[ii] have aided me in my search for family abroad. Thirteen years ago I connected with a cousin Anne Eek of Stockholm. Anne had a friend who was doing her own genealogy so Anne asked her friend if she would look up her family. They found an inquiry I had posted about my Hogner family in Sweden. Anne immediately responded and we connected. She is my third cousin once removed.

Anne was very gracious and excited to connect with family in the United States. She sent me a lot of information about the Hogner family in Sweden. I, in turn, sent her what I had so she could include it in the new printing of the Edh-släkten[iii] kalender[iv]. Edh-släkten was formed in 1946 “to strengthen the relations within the family and care for the memories of our family history.” We are the descendants of Johnathan Lindström (1794-1870) and Anne Eugenia Gonon (1811-1885), my third great grandparents. Our association holds a family reunion somewhere in Sweden or Russia every three years. Below is a picture of the very first banquet.


Our progenitor, Johnathan, had immigrated to St. Petersburg, Russia in about 1810 to ply his trade as a coppersmith. He began to work for a French wine merchant named François de Gonon. François and his family had also moved to St. Petersburg to escape the French Revolution. François had employed Johnathan as a coppersmith to aid in his business of brewing beer and distilling spirits. Johnathan fell in love with the boss’s daughter, Anne Eugenie, and married her 20 October 1829 in St. Petersburg. Eventually François and Johnathan became partners and both became very wealthy. It was from St. Petersburg in about 1842 that Johnathan had decided to retire back to Sweden and purchased the farm he later named Edh. This farm name is the inspiration for the name of the family association, Edh-släkten.

I have formed a deep connection with my second cousin Tedd Soost who is a board member for Edh-släkten. Tedd is my 2nd cousin. Born in New Jersey, he immigrated to Sweden in 1994 after marrying Monica Löwgren of Stockholm. I soon discovered his father, Jack, and my mother spent their summers together as children at Deep Creek Lake in Maryland. Yet we had never met nor knew of each other. It has been amazing to discover between Tedd and I how little our families discussed the other side of the family and Sweden. Tedd only discovered from his grandmother, two hours before his wedding to a Swedish citizen, that both of his great grandparent were born in Sweden.

Tedd and I started our conversations in late 2011 regarding attending the 2012 Edh-släkten reunion, unfortunately I was unable to make that trip. As my research broadened, I became acquainted with many more relatives in Sweden. Though I had never met my family in Sweden I felt a deep connection to them. My roots run very deep in Sweden and my cousins have shared wonderful artifacts, records, and stories that have made my family tree come alive. It was abundantly clear my cousins had a veritable treasure trove of information that any genealogist would die to examine. So I purposed in my heart not to miss the 2015 family reunion.

At the end of a very long 17 hour day filled with flights, layovers, frozen airline food, and no sleep my cousin Tedd met us at Arlanda airport. We had spent years talking on Skype, using Facebook, and emails.  But nothing can express what a treat it was to finally meet him in person. He had made arrangements for us to stay at his father-in-law’s house in Sollentuna, a suburb of Stockholm. It was a short ride from the airport.

After getting settled in, Tedd invited us to dinner at his place to meet his wife Monica and three children Linnea, Oliver, and Theodor. On the drive to his house Karen and I remarked at how similar Stockholm was to Seattle in weather and scenery, we seemed to feel right at home. When we arrived at Tedd’s home, we were warmly greeted by Monica who had alerted the children of our arrival. Oliver ran to tell his siblings, “The Americans are here, the Americans are here.” It was great to sit and talk about family with Tedd’s family and get our bearings. We had a couple of days to acclimate before the reunion.

The reunion was held at the Westmanska Palace which was a home built by Abraham Younger in 1799-1800 for him and his family. This building has an incredible history. The reunion was a two day event that included a family meeting to discuss our findings, finances, and the future of the association with about 50 family members in attendance. I was also on the agenda to speak on the use of DNA in genealogical research. Tedd had helped translate my slides into Swedish and I had all of my notes in English. This was very helpful to my relatives who speak English well but some things still get lost in translation.

I gave my presentation on the use of DNA and how it could help the association’s goals for our research. Our family has a story that Anne Eugenie Gonon was truly an illegitimate daughter of Hortense the Queen of Holland. Our family seems particularly interested in confirming or disproving this story. We have already done limited autosomal testing and one mtDNA test. It was interesting and intriguing when one of my cousins explained how she had mtDNA-tested her father, who was at the end of a direct daughter line to Anne Eugenie Gonon. She stated a person in Ohio contacted her because of a match. The person in Ohio said her mother was from Serbia and they had a family story of descending from a royal Romanian line. Made me take pause. Could this actually be true? I have definitely been the doubting Thomas. Needless to say this caused a bit of a buzz at the reunion.

This was followed by a social hour, where I finally got the privilege of meeting my cousin Anne Eek in person. She was the researcher I had email contact with thirteen years ago. It was incredible to speak with her in person. She is a lovely and gracious lady. When Anne heard I was coming from America, she was so excited that she took some priceless pictures of the family down from her walls to give them to Karen and me. Dinner followed and we were regaled with stories of relatives past and remembrances of family who had passed. It was a magical evening. I was asked to speak about the Hogners in America.

The next day we had a guided walking tour of Gamla-stan, the oldest and a very beautiful part of Stockholm. It was pouring down rain, much like the weather in Seattle at times. Karen and I were prepared - we brought rain coats. The Gamla-stan tour was all in Swedish but luckily we had my cousin Tedd and Lars Thomasson interpreting the important things. At the end of the tour everybody went to the restaurant Mårten Trotzigg to eat Biff ala Lindström. A beef dish named for Captain Henrik Lindström, one of the sons of Johnathan and Anne Eugenie. It was great to sit, talk, and connect with cousins over lunch.

After what seemed to be a whirlwind first couple of days I got a chance to reflect on the relatives I had met and the bounty of information and mementos given to me by my family members. I thought I had reached the pinnacle of our visit and the rest of our three week stay would be sightseeing and research. Boy was I in for a huge surprise. I Love Sweden.

Look for more Letters from Stockholm from Eric Stroschein over the next few weeks.

Eric Stroschein is a Forensic Genealogist. He specializes in resolving difficult genealogical questions. Eric is very active in Swedish genealogical research and has resolved many difficult problems for clients. He is especially adept at finding the origins of Swedish immigrant ancestors. Learn more about him at

[i] A Swedish genealogical message board that connects Swedish researchers from all over the world with genealogists in Sweden.

[ii] The world’s oldest computer genealogy society located in Sweden.

[iii] Edh-Släkten means Edh Family.

[iv] Kalender means descendants book.

Handwriting Helps: The Eszett, Windows Character Map, and Legacy's Character Ribbon

Can you interpret this name?


Neither could I. Until I remembered something that Jim Beidler taught in Wednesday's webinar, German Names and Naming Patterns. And while this was from a Swedish record, the principle of the handwriting applies.

In the Question/Answer session (timestamp 1:20:21) a viewer asked Jim to explain the "double-S". He taught that this letter, known as an eszett, is easily confused with a capital B, and is no longer used in modern German handwriting. Here's what it looks like typed: 


Can you pick out the eszett in the image above? Knowing that this character represents back-to-back s's (is that even how to write the plural of s?) makes the surname easier to interpret. And with a little familial context, it is most certainly:


Any guesses on the given name? Try real hard not to look at the answer in the next line.


I never would have figured out the given name if it stood alone like this, but with the surrounding information in the record and what I had already learned about the family, it was easier to decipher that this was indeed Per Andersson, my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather, born in 1709 in Sweden.

Character Map

With my newly-found interest in researching my Swedish ancestors (thanks to another recent webinar) I've been wearing out the Windows 10 Character Map to type letters not found in my English alphabet. To find this tool, press the Windows button + Q, which brings up the Search dialog. Then type Character Map and click on its result. This is what it looks like:


Click on the letter you want to use, and look for the "Keystroke" in the lower right corner.


Zooming in a bit, we can see that to type this character, you'd need to press the ALT key, and then type the numbers 0223.


Here's the result:


So, I've been memorizing the keystrokes for ä, å, and ö, the letters I use most commonly when doing data entry for my Swedish ancestors.

ALT+0228 = ä

ALT+0229 = å

ALT+0246 = ö

Legacy's Character Ribbon

Legacy has a built-in tool that makes it 100 times easier than using Windows' Character Map. Basically, any place you can type, Legacy's Character Ribbon will be available. By default, 6 common characters are shown. Just click once on the desired character, and it will be typed wherever your cursor is. 



To use or add other characters to the ribbon, click on the blue box, double-click on the desired character, and click the Return Characters button. There's room on the ribbon for your favorite 8.

If you want to see this in action, check out the after-webinar party in this webinar (timestamp 1:34:36).

Lesson learned

Never miss Webinar Wednesday. Although the topic may not appear to be relevant to your immediate research, what you learn can often be applied to what you are working on. So thanks to the viewer in Wednesday's webinar for asking the question, and thanks to Jim Beidler for a terrific explanation!

Find Your Ancestor on Ships Passenger Lists to Canada After 1865

Genealogists are often looking for our immigrant ancestor's arrival in North America. Finding an ancestor on a ship's passenger list depends on the country of departure and the country of arrival.  Most countries did not keep outbound lists so genealogists must find out what lists survived in the arrival country and where they are held.

In 1803, the British Parliament enacted legislation to regulate vessels carrying emigrants to North America. The master of vessel was required to prepare a list of passengers and to deposit it at the port of departure. 

Ships passenger lists arriving in the United States were kept from 1820 on. Canadian passenger lists are another story. There are no comprehensive ships passenger lists of immigrants arriving in Canada prior to 1865. Until that year, the government did not require that shipping companies keep their passenger manifests. 

If your ancestor arrived in Canada after 1865 you are in luck. Library and Archives Canada has Canadian ships passenger lists from 1865 to 1935 online. The lists contain information on each passenger such as name, age, country of origin, occupation and intended destination. Formats differ by years and unfortunately there is little consistency.

Researchers can search Library and Archives Canada (LAC) Passenger Lists, 1865-1922 by ship name or year of arrival.   These lists are not indexed by individuals on Library and Archives Canada except for arrivals in Quebec. Available years vary by Arrival ports.

  • Québec (May 1st, 1865 to April 24th, 1900) - searchable by passenger name
  • Halifax, Nova Scotia (January 1881 to October 2, 1922)
  • Saint John, New Brunswick (January 4, 1900 to September 30, 1922)
  • North Sydney, Nova Scotia (November 22, 1906 to August 31, 1922)
  • Vancouver, British Columbia (January 4, 1905 to September 28, 1922)
  • Victoria, British Columbia (April 18, 1905 to September 30, 1922)
  • via New York (1906-1931) and other eastern United States ports (1905-1928) - these are lists of passengers stating they were going on to Canada. In 1905 the Canadian immigration service began to collect extracts of passenger lists kept at the east coast ports of New York, Baltimore, Boston, Portland, Philadelphia and Providence
1913 Passenger list on
1913 Passenger List courtesy


FamilySearch has Canadian Passenger Lists 1881-1922   Genealogists can search the index by surname. Images of ship's passenger lists are also available for the ports of Quebec City, 1900-1921; Halifax, 1881-1922; Saint John, 1900-1912; North Sydney, 1906-1912; Vancouver, 1905-1912; Victoria, 1905-1912; New York, 1906-1912; and Eastern US Ports, 1905-1912. The lists for United States ports include only those names of passengers with intentions of proceeding directly to Canada.

You can also search the Passenger Lists and Border Entries, 1925-1935 database on Library and Archives Canada.  This is a series of old nominal indexes for the period 1925 to 1935. They provide the volumes and page numbers on which the names of Canadian immigrants appear in the passenger lists. The indexes generally do not include the names of returning Canadians, tourists, visitors and immigrants en route to the United States. To locate those references, researchers must consult the original passenger lists.

From 1919–1924 individual manifest forms (Form 30) were often used instead of passenger lists as the official immigration record. Form 30 records consist of 96 digitized films which are available for browsing on Collections Canada.

1920Form30FUllerCharles great grandpa 1920 copy
Example of Form 30 front side for my great-grandfather Charles Fuller, courtesy


1920 Form30FullerCharles great grandpa 1920p2 copy
Example of Form 30 reverse side Charles Fuller courtesy


Library and Archives Canada also holds the passenger lists for Home Children, 1869-1930. Between 1869 and the late 1930s, over 100,000 young people were sent to Canada from Great Britain during the child emigration movement. After arriving by ship, the children were sent to distributing homes, and then went on to farmers in the area. Although many of the children were poorly treated and abused, others experienced a much better life than what awaited them in England.

If you are searching for an arrival from January 1, 1936 onwards, these records of immigrants arriving at Canadian land and seaports are in the custody of Citizenship and Immigration Canada. They must be requested from that agency by a Canadian citizen or an individual residing in Canada.

For a fee of $5.00 (cheque or money order payable to the Receiver General for Canada) researchers can submit a request to:

Citizenship and Immigration Canada
Access to Information and Privacy Division
Ottawa, ON  K1A 1L1

The submitter must indicate that the record is being requested under Access to Information and a signed consent from the person concerned or proof that he or she has been deceased for 20 years. If the person would be more than 110 years old, no proof of death is required.

If you do not know when your ancestor arrived in Canada, there are other records you can search for clues:

  • The 1901, 1906, 1911, 1916 and 1921 Canadian Census indicate year of arrival for immigrants.
  • Land Records are helpful because immigrants often applied for land shortly after arrival.
  • Death Records sometimes indicate how many years the deceased had resided in Canada.
  • Statistic Canada's National Registration of 1940  asked year of arrival. This was the compulsory registration of all persons, 16 years of age or older, between 1940 and 1946

Other free resources for miscellaneous ships' passenger lists arriving in Canada after 1865 are:

Ships' Passenger Lists 1865 to present at Olive Tree Genealogy

Ships' Passenger Lists from 1865 on The Ships List


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.

What is Your Family Reunion Like?

This past weekend I attended a family reunion. The funny thing is - we don't call it a family reunion. We might call it a family gathering. In essence, though, for me it absolutely is a family reunion. The ever decreasing older generations of my father's side of the family gather for a wonderful weekend each year in an idyllic New England coastal town. There are twenty of us at most.

The weekend is full of trips to the beach, kayaking, watching sunsets and then it climaxes with an all-family BBQ on the deck. Perhaps it's not your typical idea of a family reunion but for us it provides time for catching up and strengthening ties. However, there is little talk of genealogy or the people who came before us.

The Pierre-Louis boys kayaking with their uncle.

My mother's side of the family has a completely different type of reunion. They gather inland on a farm in the Amish country an hour north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania once every four years. All the descendants for my grandparents generation (my grandfather and his two siblings) attend and over the years it has grown to include distant cousins by marriage. All told there are probably 40-50+ people attending from all generations.

We spend the weekend entirely on the farm except for sleeping in our hotel rooms. Activities include archery, shooting, soccer and hay rides. But similar to my Dad's family there is much talking, laughter and catching up. This side of the family is much more inclined, however, to talk about the ancestors. You'll even find people pulling out documents, old photos and sharing information.

The New England reunion takes me an hour to drive to and planning only a week in advance.  The Pittsburgh reunion involves a 10 hour drive and booking hotel rooms almost a year in advance. They both have their differences but each add to my sense of who I am and where I came from

Geoff Rasmussen recently attended his 3-generational family reunion near Mount Hood in Oregon. He describes his family reunion this way:

"My favorite part of our reunion at Mt. Hood was the impromptu discussion and viewing of our family's pictures. I plugged my laptop into the TV to show everyone the family pictures we had just taken that day. Then one of my brothers asked to see pictures of our family when we will young. In seconds, I was able to display all of our family's group pictures from birth to the present. Because I had previously tagged all of my digital pictures in Photoshop Elements, it filtered through the 20+ thousand pictures, displayed only those with all 8 of us in the picture, and we had a wonderful trip down memory lane. The grandkids had a blast seeing what their parents, aunts, and uncles looked like."

Genealogist True Lewis' family reunion is probably a little different than most.  She attends a really large family reunion every other year. This year there were over 260 people in attendance.

Her family reunion comprises the descendants of great grandfather Ike Ivery, his 3 wives and 23 children. They hold the reunion every two years, which started in 1975, switching between the North and South. They are so organized they already have locations for future reunions - Orlando in 2017 and New Jersey in 2019. To get organized they maintain a Facebook page.

Photo courtesy of True A. Lewis

As genealogists we tend to focus on the dead rather than the living. Family reunions are an important way to strengthen ties among living family members no matter what type of reunion you have.  It could be as small as five people or as large as hundreds or even thousands. Whatever the size of your family try to schedule time together. Family reunions allow you to strengthen the idea that family history is an important family value. And that will help you ensure that all the research you've done will be passed down to the next generation.

Did you have a family reunion this year? What was it like? How far did you travel? And what was the highlight for you?

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.


Researching the Musician in Your Family

Genealogical records are useful in understanding a musician’s background.  Consider the case of a well-known American composer and bandleader John Philip Sousa. He was born in Washington DC, 6 Mar 1854 to John Antonio Sousa and Elizabeth Trinkaus. The Sousa family was living in Washington DC in the 1860 Census. Antonio Sousa was head of the household and a 34 year old musician from Spain. Antonio’s wife, Elizabeth, was born in a place called “Hessedat,” confirmed to be a part of Germany.[1] Just one source tells us that Sousa had an upbringing in performing arts and we can even speculate how a culturally diverse background influenced his voice in music. Records also teach us that Antonio was a musician for the United States Marine Corps, adding more understanding John Philip Sousa’s decision to enlist in the marines at the age of fourteen. I hear more often than not that talent runs in the family; a little genealogy detective work can easily solidify one’s story of musical heritage.

Eleven musicians posed with their musical instruments, in the Washington, D.C. area, ca 1925.
Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Have you thought about how many different types of genealogy records can be applied to researching ancestors who were musicians? In addition to sources that researchers are most likely familiar with, there are sources specific to this occupation. Music in all of its forms has been integral to the human social experience. The ways in which we can learn about musicians and their relevant history are numerous and unique.

Existing scholarship on the use of genealogy records specific to musicians is rare; therefore, I have outlined an original methodology to guide researchers in learning about musical ancestors.



 I.  Start with basic biographical research

 If your musical ancestor had gained some notoriety for his talent, he will most likely be found in one of the numerous databases and encyclopedias for artists. Most of the information provided relates to a chronology of their career and achievements. The most genealogically relevant information is given name and vitals. It is important to identify the given name to trace the musician in their early life. Many artists assumed aliases when on stage and in the public eye. For example, if you were trying to research the genealogy of jazz singer Billie Holiday, you would need to know she was born ‘Elinore Harris’ and later changed her name to Eleanor Fagan.[2]

A good collection to check is the American Genealogical Biographical Index (AGBI). The original AGBI is housed at the Godfrey Memorial Library (Middletown, CT) and can also be searched online using Online biography websites found through Google should only be supplemental to reliable reference works. A growing musician encyclopedia that is useful and reliable is the Database of Recorded American Music (DRAM). DRAM is a great tool for researching a musician online, and continuously catalogs recorded music, composers, and ensembles.

Check WorldCat for  The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians in the reference section of your local library. This is by the far the best-published reference work for music and related terminology. There will most likely also be smaller collections of biographies related to a particular music genre. Individual biographies provided in county histories (also known as mugbooks or gazetteer) are a good source for local musicians. The Gazetteer for Caledonia and Essex County, Vermont 1764-1887, for example, tells that Judge Ephraim Paddock of St. Johnsbury was a "skillful musician" and appeased many with his talents.[3]

 II.  Search Records that State Occupation

Many different types of records will provide the occupation of the individual. Popular examples would be the Census Records or City Directories. This form of research only works if the ancestor chose to state music as their primary occupation. Even today, some musicians struggle to make full time careers out of their passion and have to perform other occupations. If information from relatives has not been previously exhausted,  it is at this point in the investigation that talking to family members would be useful.

 III.  Newspapers

 Newspapers are an excellent primary source for researching musicians, bands, and music history. For example, the obituary of John Metcalf, published 24 Aug 1810  in Old Colony Gazette (New Bedford, MA) describes him as a fiddler named ‘Blind Jack’ who died near ‘Knaresborough, Eng.’ at the age of 96.[4] You might even be able to find your ancestors because an upcoming concert was plugged in the local newspaper. Their name could be featured in a concert program like this one [See Below]. Check FamilySearch Wiki for Digitized Newspaper Collections and Library of Congress’ Historical Newspaper Directory.

Evening star. (Washington, D.C.), 31 Jan. 1920. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Courtesy of Library of Congress.


 IV.  Organizations that Hired Musicians

 Music has been performed throughout history for the enjoyment of people. Many of our local and federal institutions would organize a band or ensemble for the benefit of the local population. Two organizations that come to mind are churches and the military. Researching about musicians in the Armed Forces is possible through genealogy education regarding military service. Those interested in the history of military bands should consult scholarship and further reading:

  • Camus, Raoul F. Military Music of the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1976.
  • Garofalo, Robert, and Mark Elrod. A Pictorial History of Civil War Era Musical Instruments & Military Bands. Charleston, W.Va.: Pictorial Histories Pub. Co., 1985.

V.  Records for Musician Unions

Many universities and historical societies hold the papers of the local musician union. These are unpublished textual records that include member lists, minutes for meetings, and other associated information.  Here are some examples of the finding aids available in university catalogs.

 VI.  Researching Music, Culture, and Folklife

 An ancestor’s musical contribution, large or small, fits in a larger pattern of expression identified mostly through culture. It is important to explore your ancestor’s life in a different way through broader historical context. A country’s archives will usually have some information about the development of their music and folklife. Folklife is a newer term relating to the study of folklore. The study of folk life includes all material culture and oral tradition as inter-related. America’s Library of Congress (LOC) houses a large collection devoted to the history of American Music. Researchers can perform a name or subject search in the Performing Arts Encyclopedia for sound recordings, textual collections, photographs, and more. LOC also houses a growing database called American Memory that contains essays on American Music and Folklife. Scholarship on music from around the world can be found in JSTOR’s database of scholarly articles.

The guide is open to new additions and revisions from other researchers. My own desire to merge the worlds of music and genealogy has led me to consider creating a database for genealogical sketches of musicians. Family historians should feel fortunate if they are able to listen to their ancestors’ recorded performance. It provides a new window into their lives and a more complete view of their humanity.


Jake Fletcher is a genealogist and blogger. He received his Bachelor Degree for History in 2013 and is now researching genealogy professionally. Jake has been researching and writing about genealogy  since high school using his blog page Travelogues of a Genealogist.

[1] Antonio Sousa, 1860 United States Census, 6th Ward, Washington, District of Columbia, dwelling no. 666.

 [2] Eleanora Fagan, 1920 US Federal Census, 5th Ward, Baltimore, Maryland, Enumeration Dist. 61, dwelling no. 108.

[3] Hamilton Childs, The Gazetteer for Caledonia and Essex County, Vermont 1764-1887, (Syracuse, NY: The Syracuse Journal Company, 1887), 60.

[4] Obituary for John Metcalf, Old Colony Gazette (New Bedford, MA), 24 Aug 1810, Vol. 2, Issue 45, page 3: accessed at Newsbank, America’s Historical Newspapers (online database).


Don’t Let Mythology Guide Your Genealogy Research!

How can you tell if the information posted by individuals on internet genealogy sites is correct? Some sites have sources but others don't. How do you know what, and when, to believe what you read online??

A good rule of thumb is....

Don't trust anything you find on the internet (or elsewhere) if it doesn't have sources.

The Importance of Sources

Without sources you can't verify the information, which means you don't know if it is accurate or if it came from a reliable source. Perhaps it came from Great Aunt Martha. Aunt Martha may have some of it right, but she may have mixed up a lot too. Word of mouth, aka family lore, is often quite wrong or confused but with a shred of truth. Without verification, a researcher has no way of knowing what’s true and what is not.

The information may have come from a book written by someone 100 years ago who didn't have access to sources we have now.

Perhaps the information was transcribed from a book that was transcribed from a microfilm which was in turn transcribed from the original. The chance of human error is greatly increased with each succeeding transcription.

Verify the Information by Checking the Source

Even if a source has been recorded for the information, you should double-check it personally. That means find the original source and verify that what you found was correct. If the information does not have a source, it is up to you, the researcher, to track down where the information came from.

If you write to whomever posted the information online you might be lucky enough to get a source citation from that person. Then you can access the original source and check to see if the information you found is correct. If you cannot get a response to your request for a source, you will have to go on a hunt or look for other records to verify the information you found.

Evaluate the Source

You also want to think about the source itself. Is the source a good one? If Great Aunt Martha gives me information on the birth or baptism of my 3rd great-grandpa and I put it online with the source recorded as "Remembrances of Great Aunt Martha", that's not necessarily a reliable or accurate source. So while it is important to source your findings, you also have to consider how reliable the source is. After all, Great Aunt Martha did have that fall from a horse when she was a child and she IS 97 years old. How accurate is her memory?

However, if I source the birth or baptismal dates with full details on the church where I saw the original record, or the published transcript of those church records, that's much more reliable. There are many good books available on how to write proper source citations, such as “Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, Third Edition” by Elizabeth Shown Mills.

Sources Can Be Misquoted

Sometimes (more often than you might think) sourced information is misquoted or misunderstood. For example on a newsgroup recently someone asked for assistance in figuring out exactly where in Ontario her great-grandfather was born. She provided a quote regarding his being born in a “...fortified town near the border with America” adding that it came from a newspaper article written about him while he was alive.

When I obtained the article I discovered she had misquoted what was actually written. The only reference to his birth stated “[He] is a Canadian…born in a distant fortified outpost on the borders of Canada and America”.

Credit: The South Australian Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1858 - 1889). 7 February 1887.

That’s quite different from her version. The American-Canadian border is found in other provinces besides Ontario. Thus her misquoting of the information was leading her astray. She had a mythical story of her great-grandfather being born in Ontario when in fact he might have been born in any one of several provinces that border on the United States. As well her use of “near the border” instead of the actual wording of “on the borders” makes a difference as to what locations fit the reference given (near vs on). It’s important to be accurate and precise when using quotes as a source.

Sources Can Be Misunderstood

Several years ago a friend asked me to help him find out where in Indiana his grandmother was born. His source for her birth was a family bible. But a check of the bible revealed that her parents were born and married in Ontario and all her siblings were recorded as being born in Ontario. All other records, such as census and death records gave her place of birth as Ontario. It seemed unlikely that she was born in the United States but what about the reference to Indiana? Further research revealed that there was a small village in Ontario called Indiana about 5 miles from where her parents were born and married and about 10 miles from the family’s location in various census records. My friend had misunderstood the original source.  

Keep This Mantra in Mind

When in doubt, remember....

"Genealogy without sources is mythology"

Don’t let your genealogy research be guided by mythology.

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.



4 Places on Facebook to Find Genealogy Help

In last week's blog post "Ancestors Please! How to ask for help online" I wrote about best practices for asking others for help on social media sites like Facebook. A number of people commented, asking where on Facebook to find genealogy help. In this post we'll explore five effective places for finding genealogy help on Facebook.

1) Your Facebook Wall

You may not realize it but your very own Facebook wall might be the place to start. Who will better know your family history than your own family? Asking genealogy questions on your wall might prompt family members to share information  you didn't know they had and they didn't realize you wanted. Keep in mind that that Facebook is not really private. Consider who else among your Facebook friends can see your discussion and decided whether the topic should better be handled in an email or not.

The other great use of posting on your Facebook wall is to share with other genealogists. Genealogists has long since taken over Facebook and many of us use Facebook more for connecting with other genealogists than we do with old friends or family. In this case posting to your wall can be very effective.

If you don't currently have a lot of genealogy connections on Facebook start by "friending" the genealogists you do know from your local society. Once you connect with a genealogist that is very active on Facebook you'll notice that they are tied in to a much larger community of genealogists on Facebook. That will be your entry into connecting with a very large community online.

2) A Surname Group

There are many groups dedicated to specific surnames.  I belong to one group called the House of Learneds for Learned family descendants. Surname groups are perfect for posting a genealogy query but only if it relates directly to that surname.  Be sure to read the group or page description to understand what the group is all about. The description for the House of Learneds says "If you are a Learned/Larned/Learnard/Larnett, etc. (no joke!) you can join. If you can state your lineage, even better! Please keep it light - no politics or religious proselytizing. Beyond that, you may say or submit anything you want. This is YOUR Facebook page!" 

Here are some to get you started:

To find surname groups try searching Facebook for the surname plus the word "family" or "genealogy" such as "Chandler Family." Keep in mind that some groups are created for a small group of family members for staying in touch or organizing reunions rather than connecting with all descendants. Try to get a feel for what type of group it is by reading the description before asking to join.

Also, don't try asking questions about your other family lines or it might just get you kicked out of the group for being off topic.

3) A Geographic Focused Group

If you don't find a group for the surname you are looking for then try a group based on the location where your ancestors came from. This is a great way to get help from people who are experienced in researching in that same location. You may not share the same family but you may be researching the same records.

There are literally hundreds of these types of groups on Facebook. One that I belong to is the Indiana County PA Genealogy group.

Other groups include:

Not finding what you need? Katherine R. Willson has created a comprehensive list of "genealogy on Facebook" links which you can access on her website at


4) The Legacy User Group

And let's not forget the new Legacy User Group !

This group was created for people using the Legacy Family Tree software so most of the questions deal with genealogy as relates to the Legacy software.  There is a terrific amount of sharing going on the group and not only will you learn about the software but you'll get some great genealogy tips too!

Thanks to Alona Tester, Dawn Fulton, Liz Loveland, Clarise Fleck Soper, Joyce Homan and Elizabeth Handler for contributing suggestions to this article.

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.

Storyboard Basics for Family Historians: How to Get Started in Three Simple Steps

Do you struggle to put together a family history narrative? Want to learn how to plot like a pro? A storyboard could be the answer to your writing woes. Many fiction writers use storyboards to plot their novels.

A storyboard is a simple way to visually outline or map out your writing project. You can use the storyboard as your guidepost to start writing, or as chapter or section titles to take you through the writing process. If you're not sure about where or how to begin crafting a story others will want to read, here are three simple steps to help you get started with storyboarding.


1. Think like a writer, not like a genealogist. During the research phase of family history, most genealogists deal primarily with facts (names, dates, places, and other pertinent details), and use their analytical skills to "put the puzzle pieces together" and interpret the information. But, when it comes to plotting a story, you should be thinking like a writer—tapping into your inner creativity to put those facts together in an accurate, yet compelling way.

2. Write cinematically. All good stories have three basic parts: Beginning, Middle, and End (or in theatre terms, “three acts”). Although you may not think of your family's story as a movie, it often helps if you do. Try writing cinematically—breaking the story you want to tell into scenes. Scenes move your plot forward, set the tone, and highlight your voice.

3. Outline Your Ideas. Identify key points, ideas, scenes etc. you want to convey or include in your book, profile, or short story using a technique typically taught in novel writing workshops: the “Index Card" method. For a book project, the “old school” way is to get a stack (about 60) of 3 x 5 index cards and write down one scene per card (aiming for 15 scenes for Act 1, 30 for Act 2, and 15 for Act 3). This keeps the story moving.

For example, in my book, Three Slovak Women, the overall main plot is a story about three different generations of Slovak women. For Act I, my main plot is my grandmother's immigration story, and my subplots would be her family life in Slovakia, her arranged marriage to my grandfather, and her assimilation in America.

The index card method is useful because once you have your scenes written out you can shuffle the cards around to get the order you desire—the one that makes the most sense for your story. Software tools or apps make the process easier by letting you create “virtual” index cards.

One of my favorite programs is Scrivener by Literature and Latte, (available for PC and Mac), which has many useful features, including the ability to set up your projects in storyboard format using a virtual corkboard. There is a 30-day free trial available (and it runs for 30 days of actual use rather than by calendar days).

Next, transcribe or develop what you've written on each card into an outline, with your main plot (and then subplot a, b, c). This process will help you to see what does or doesn't work. (Scrivener lets you seamlessly switch to outline view, and easily shuffle your cards if you want to change, move or delete a scene). For smaller projects (for example, ancestor profiles), you would use less cards, but follow the same basic guidelines.

To learn more about creating storyboards with Scrivener, register for the upcoming Legacy webinar on Storyboard Your Family History.

Consider giving storyboarding a try. A storyboard gives you a “bird’s eye view” of your project so you can build a structure that works, see the holes in your content, and have a place to store notes, ideas, source information, and more.

Lisa A. Alzo, M.F.A., is a freelance writer, instructor and lecturer specializing in genealogy and creative nonfiction. She is a frequent presenter for the Legacy Family Tree Webinars series and can be contacted via