5 Sources to Find Physical Characteristics of Your Ancestor


As we research our ancestors in historical records, we start to get to know them. As researchers, we learn about their wealth (or lack thereof), the type of land they owned, and their military service. We can learn about their religion and possibly even the contents of their household.

But do you ever wonder what your ancestors looked like?

How tall was your great grandfather? Which side of the family did you get your blues eyes from? What color hair did your ancestor have? Did you ancestors have any physical deformities?

Even if you have no photographs of your ancestors, you can find descriptions of their physical characteristics.

Let’s take look at 5 sources for finding a description of an ancestor’s physical characteristics and potentially a photograph. 

1. Draft Cards - A man’s physical characteristics were listed on WWI and WWII draft cards. Height, weight (slight, medium or stout), hair color, and eye color were recorded. Race was also included. If your ancestor had a physical deformity, that was listed as well.  

WWI Draft C Howard
WWI Draft Card for Connie M. Howard of Lee County, NC (Source: Ancestry.com)

This example shows that Connie M. Howard of Lee County, NC was of medium height and medium build with brown eyes and black hair. No physical deformities are noted.

2. Civilian Conservation Corps Records - Part of the New Deal by President Roosevelt, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was a public relief corps dating from 1933-1942. The CCC program was specifically for unmarried and unemployed men. Roads, parks and improvement to other federal lands and natural resources were built by the CCC.  

A young man’s height, weight, eye color, hair color, complexion, and physical deformities were included on their admission and discharge papers.

3. Jail Records- Was your ancestor on the wrong side of the law? Admission records into a jail or prison likely will include a description of the inmate which can be very descriptive. In addition to the usual height, weight, eye and hair color, and complexion, descriptions of scars and tattoos are frequently included.

Take a look at the detailed physical description of 1866 Sing Sing Prison inmate Charles Miller.  Beyond the basics, we have a clear description of his scars and even how his mouth inclines to the left.

Sing sing prison admission
1866 Sing Sing Prison Admission Record (Source: Ancestry.com)

4. Passport Applications - Your ancestor’s passport application is another potential source to learn about your ancestor’s physical characteristics. Similar to the records above, passport applications asked for height, weight, eye and hair color, complexion and more.

As a bonus, you may find a photograph of your ancestor attached to the application.

Passport Abraham Jacobs 1923
1921 Passport Application of Abraham Jacobs (Source: Ancestry.com)

5. Yearbooks - High school and college yearbooks are another source for finding what your ancestor looked like by actually finding their photograph.  More and more yearbooks are being digitized and made available online. Researchers may be surprised to find how early yearbooks date back. In addition to searching for yearbooks on the large genealogy databases, check state archives and university digital collections.

Digital NC is one example where researchers of NC ancestors can find digitized yearbooks online dating back to 1890. The new MyHeritage Yearbook Collection is another.

Finding an actual photograph of an ancestor is not always possible, but researchers can search for descriptions of an individual’s physical characteristics.  Just as an individual’s household contents can be determined from wills and estate sales, an individual’s physical characteristics can be determined by searching the records he/she left behind.


Lisa Lisson is a genealogist, blogger and Etsy-prenuer who writes about her never-ending pursuit of ancestors, the “how” of genealogy research and the importance of sharing genealogy research with our families. Specializing in North Carolina and southern Virginia research, she also provides genealogical research services to clients. In researching her own family history, Lisa discovered a passion for oral history and its role in genealogy research. You can find Lisa online at Lisa Lisson.com.

Managing Client Files in Legacy

Managing Client Files in Legacy

This article assumes that you are comfortable using Legacy (not for beginners).

There are a lot of certified, accredited, and professional genealogists that use Legacy not only for their personal genealogy but also for their client files. There is a nifty file structure trick that will not only keep everything organized for you but will also make it easy for you to send a client's file to them that has all of their data and media. They will be able the open it in Legacy and continue their research without having to worry about broken media links. If your client doesn't already use Legacy, you can give them the link to download the free Standard Version which will give them access to everything you have sent and a link to our collection of Legacy 101 Articles to help them get started on the right foot. 

Each client will have a folder. Inside that folder will be his/her data file and a folder for their media. Where you keep this folder of client files doesn't matter a bit. They are self-contained and will have internal links between the data and the media. You can move these files on your computer on a whim and you will never have to worry about broken links.  If you send the client their entire folder, they too can put it anywhere on their computer, access it, and have no broken media links though the instructions I send the client puts the folder within the Legacy file hierarchy. For illustrative purposes I have the client files in a folder directly on my C: drive. 

Client Files
(click image to enlarge)

If you open one of the client folders this is what you will see:

Client Folder
(click image to enlarge)

Everything is nice and tidy. 

To prepare the file to send, right click their folder and select Send To > Compressed (Zipped) Folder. You will be sending them this zip file. I like to park the client's file on cloud storage and then send them a download link  You can also email the zip to them using a free service such as WeTransfer. Chances are the zip file will be too large to send via regular email if there are a lot of attached documents/photos. 

Here are the instructions to send to the client. You will need to substitute the name of their file:

1) [explain how you are getting the file to them]

2) Download the file and then double click it to open it. Inside you will see a file folder named Doe. You need to copy this entire folder (don't open it) to the \Documents\Legacy Family Tree\Data folder. If you have done this correctly, when you open the Windows Documents folder you will see the Legacy Family Tree folder inside. If you open that folder you should see a folder named Doe. Here is the full file path:
\Documents\Legacy Family Tree\Data\Doe

3) Now open Legacy. The Sample file should automatically be on your screen. Go to File > Open File. Use the Windows dialog box to navigate to \Documents\Legacy Family Tree\Data\Doe\Doe and open your new file

4) Go to Options > Customize > Locations
In Option 6.1 navigate to the \Documents\Legacy Family Tree\Data\Doe folder using the Change button
In Option 6.2 navigate to the \Documents\Legacy Family Tree\Data\Doe\Doe Media folder using the Change button
Click Save at the bottom

5) Go to Options > Customize > General Settings
In Option 1.2 make sure it is set to Open last used family file automatically

6) Now you can use your new file!


Sending the client your research file will be an added bonus for them and can be a marketing tool for you.


Michele Simmons Lewis, CG® is part of the Legacy Family Tree team at MyHeritage. She handles the enhancement suggestions that come in from our users as well as writing for Legacy News. You can usually find her hanging out on the Legacy User Group Facebook page answering questions and posting tips.


Using ArchiveGrid for Your Genealogy

ArchiveGrid homepage

ArchiveGrid. Have you used this worldwide archive catalog? If you haven’t, you’ll want to start. ArchiveGrid provides a way for you to search for archival materials for your family history no matter where in the world your ancestors came from. ArchiveGrid is a must-have resource for genealogists and with a few tips on how to use the website, you will find genealogically relevant collections in archives worldwide.

What is Available on ArchiveGrid?

First it’s important to understand what’s available on ArchiveGrid. ArchiveGrid’s website explain that it has “over 5 million records describing archival materials, bringing together information about historical documents, personal papers, family histories, and more.”

Archive collections tend to be underutilized in family history research. Why? Primarily because it  involves onsite research. These are collections that cannot be searched with a few words in an online database search box. But the treasures they hold are integral to an exhaustive search and can include facts that place your ancestor in a time and location.

ArchiveGrid result

Crafting a Keyword Search

The most important thing to remember about searching ArchiveGrid is that it’s done with a keyword search. Unlike a genealogy website where information is largely indexed by an ancestors’ name, date, and place, ArchiveGrid is cataloged by a keyword.

So what’s a keyword? It’s a word or phrase that you use to search for information for your ancestor. So consider these descriptions:

  • Where they lived
  • Their religion
  • The organizations they belonged to
  • An occupation and/or employer
  • An historical event they were a part of

Searching by place should be an important part of your search, so let me explain that a little more. Think about where your ancestor lived. Maybe they lived in Bishop, California. That’s one way to describe that place, by city and state. But you could also call it Inyo County, California. That area also has a regional nickname so you could describe it as the Owens Valley or the Eastern Sierra. As I craft my search I would want to try various searches using each of those location names.

Narrowing Your Search

When I searched ArchiveGrid for “Owens Valley, California” I received over 900 result hits. I can look at these results hits in a List View or a Summary View. The List View is just that, a list of the results. The Summary View groups hits by category, allowing me to narrow those results. These categories are People, Group, Place, Archives, Archive Locations, and Topics. If I’m planning a research trip, I might want to choose the category Archive Locations to just see the results for that location I’m traveling to. These categories can help narrow a general result list like Methodist Church to a specific archive or location to help you find relevant church records

ArchiveGrid Results List

To learn more about broadening or narrowing a search see the ArchiveGrid web page, How to Search.

On-Site Research Versus Researching from Home

ArchiveGrid is an important tool to learn more about what sources are out there and what is available when you plan a research trip. When we consider expanding our research to include our ancestor’s FAN Club (friends, associates, and neighbors) searching ArchiveGrid by the place our ancestor lived will help us locate materials written by those people and groups in our ancestor’s community that they interacted with or were a part of.

By conducting a search on ArchiveGrid you can find extant records.  In some cases these materials, while about a specific place, may be located in an entirely different place. Archival materials aren't  always donated to repositories in the  location they originated.

As you find relevant information, be sure to click on the green Read More button for that collection. This will help you evaluate whether that material is pertinent to your research. From there, you may consider emailing the repository to ask questions. If the collection is far from you, consider either hiring a researcher or making the trip to view it.

If you are already planning a trip, make sure you learn about what is available in the archives where you are headed. This can be done via the Summary View on ArchiveGrid, as described above, or by searching a specific archive from the home page. While ArchiveGrid is a catalog of a 1,000 archives worldwide it does not house every archival collection. However, the catalog is being added to so it’s important to check back often.

Incorporate Archives in Your Family History

Archives hold valuable records that can help you break through those ancestral brick walls. ArchiveGrid is just one way to find those records. 


Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.

Testing Your Lineage


A great way to test the validity of your research is by preparing a report for a lineage society even if you have no plans to apply. This exercise will show you if you have done good research. If you end up applying later, you will have already done the bulk of the work necessary.

NOTE: Do not contact the registrar of the lineage society unless you plan on joining!  This exercise is how you can test yourself apart from applying. Registrars spend A LOT of time getting your documentation ready for submission so please do not contact them for help unless you plan to join.

See if you can trace your line from yourself to one of your ancestors. Pick a soldier that fought in the Civil War, a soldier in the War of 1812, or a Revolutionary War soldier. If you are lucky enough to claim someone on the Mayflower as an ancestor use him/her. These are the most popular lineage societies. 

It isn’t as easy as it sounds even if you think you have a lot of documents. Documenting a person's vital events is one thing but trying to prove the familial link from parent to child is another, especially the further back in time you go. How do you know that your Marmaduke Jowers is the same Marmaduke who is named in Mordecai Jowers’s will as a surviving son?  

Here is another example. 
Let’s say you have this family group listed on the 1850 U.S. Federal census:

David Merchant, age 30, farmer, born in Georgia
Ann Merchant, age 27, born in Georgia
Wesley Merchant, age 8, born in Georgia
Marion Merchant, age 5, born in Georgia
Janie Merchant, age 3, born in Georgia
Daniel Merchant, age 1, born in Georgia

It appears that this is a husband, wife, and four children but the relationships are not specifically named. This is NOT enough to say that the listed children belong to either or both of the listed adults. It is also not enough to say that the two adults listed are actually married. A lot of people make this mistake. In the above family, the man’s wife died and his unmarried younger sister moved in to help him with the kids. It looks as though they are a married couple but they are not. One of the four children is the son of a brother whose wife died in childbirth. The father of that child felt ill equipped to raise a newborn so he handed the child over to his brother and sister to raise. So three of the children belong to David, none of the children belong to Ann, and one of the children belongs to David and Ann’s brother.

Using the same family above I can create another scenario. Ann is David’s 2nd wife. Wesley and Marion are his from his first marriage. Janie is Ann’s from her first marriage but the census taker recorded David’s surname. Daniel belongs to both of them.

Back to my original example, let’s say Mordecai Jowers left a will and in it you find, “To my son Marmaduke...” Your ancestor is Marmaduke Jowers but do you have enough to say that he is Mordecai’s son? What if you find this in the will, "To my wife, Julia..." Is this enough to say that Marmaduke's mother was Julia? The answer in both cases is no. You need more evidence. How do you know that there weren’t two Marmadukes in that area at the same time? Even though this is an unusual name you still have to treat it the same way as if his name were John Smith. How do you know that Mordecai wasn't previously married and Marmaduke is a product of that marriage?  These are the questions you will have to answer if you were really submitting a lineage society application. 

A lot of researchers err here. They neglect to prove the relationship between parent and child. Many times you will not be able to do this with direct evidence and you will have to put together an indirect evidence proof argument ("circumstantial" case). Even if you have direct evidence (a will that says, "to my son...”) that still may not be enough evidence to prove the connection.

When I joined the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) I had to submit a comprehensive report including all of the documents I had used. My application passed the local registrar and was sent to Washington, D.C. for final approval. For one of the parent-child relationships I had submitted an indirect evidence proof argument. The national registrar bounced my application back and said, "What if...?" I then added the needed information to show that her What If scenario could not be true. My application was then approved. I was very grateful to that registrar for going through my research that thoroughly. 

DAR certificate
(click image to enlarge)

I highly recommend that you try this. You will need source citations for every fact AND for every child-parent link. If you don't have direct evidence then you will need to put together an indirect evidence proof argument. 

Learn more about evidence analysis

Learn more about the Genealogical Proof Standard

Learn more about lineage societies


Michele Simmons Lewis, CG® is part of the Legacy Family Tree team at MyHeritage. She handles the enhancement suggestions that come in from our users as well as writing for Legacy News. You can usually find her hanging out on the Legacy User Group Facebook page answering questions and posting tips.


Vietnam Era Military Records


Several people have asked me if you can get Vietnam era compiled service records. The answer is no unless you are the veteran. If the veteran is deceased then the surviving spouse or child can get the records. When my dad died in 2004 I was able to get his entire military service record. The Air Force also sent all of my dad’s medals and ribbons which was a nice surprise and very much appreciated. I got a real kick out of reading my dad’s yearly evaluations. He had a bit of an attitude. If you knew my dad you wouldn’t be a bit surprised that his commanding officers mentioned it a time or two. He had a hot temper and liked to get into fights. He also didn’t like people telling him what to do. Even so, he was good at his job and made it to the rank of Senior Master Sergeant by the time he retired. Not bad considering he got busted a couple of times.

The National Archives at St. Louis has all the information you need to request "non-archival" records. The records are archived when it has been 62 years since the person's discharge date. At that time they become public record.

There is some Vietnam era (and later) information that has been publicly released such as causality lists, POW/MIA lists, and lists of people who received military awards and honors.



Awards and Decorations

There is one other thing you need to be aware of. On 12 July 1973 there was a fire at the National Personnel Records Center which destroyed millions of military personnel files. Read more information about that disastrous event. Luckily, my dad's file was still intact.


Michele's Dad
SMSgt Thomas Calvin Simmons


Michele Simmons Lewis, CG® is part of the Legacy Family Tree team at MyHeritage. She handles the enhancement suggestions that come in from our users as well as writing for Legacy News. You can usually find her hanging out on the Legacy User Group Facebook page answering questions and posting tips.

Women’s History Month: Tips Worth Remembering

Women’s History Month: Tips Worth Remembering


March marks Women’s History Month and what better time to remember some of the research tips Legacy Family Tree Webinars has provided for researching female ancestors? Which webinars have helped you the most in learning more about the women in your family tree? Here are four webinars to help you research the story of their lives.

Remember History

Michael L. Strauss, AG says the contributions of women in the armed forces and on the home front during World War II have been underestimated in his webinar Researching Your World War II Ancestors: Part 4 - War on the Home Front & Post-War Years. In this webinar he provides ideas for researching World War II era women including nurses who served in the United States Cadet Nurse Corps." By the end of the war in 1945 nearly 124,000 nurses served in this capacity.” Strauss points out that Ancestry.com has a database, U.S., World War II Cadet Nursing Corps Card Files, 1942-1948 which allows you to research your World War II nurse.

Historical time period is important in considering what records document your female ancestor. Make sure that you use a timeline and identify what historical events might result in additional records.

Remember Resources that Document Women

In my webinar Researching Women - Community Cookbooks and What They Tell Us About Our Ancestors,  I point out the importance of community or fundraising cookbooks in researching women’s lives. Community cookbooks serve as a city directory of women and help you confirm an ancestor’s location at a specific time. In addition, community cookbooks at the very least provide membership affiliation which can lead to additional records.

It’s important to remember the types of sources women are more likely to appear in. Don’t limit your search to only the familiar government sources, expand it to include sources that document her everyday life.

Remember the Men in Her Life

Bernice Bennett's United States Colored Troops Civil War Widows' Pension Applications: Tell the Story points out that Civil War widows, both black and white, were required to provide proof of marriage. That proof may include documents like marriage certificates, birth and death records, bible records, family letters and depositions from witnesses. What's unique to the United States Colored Troops’ pension records  is the inclusion of the name and location of the slave owner and information about slave marriages. It’s through the information found in these pension records that you can find her story including facts that are difficult to prove like a slave’s marriage.

Remember that in order to do an exhaustive research on female ancestors we need to take into consideration what records document her family and we need to consider her FAN Club (friends, associates and neighbors).

Remember the Law

It’s important to remember that paper trail for women is influenced by the law and its impact on women during the historical time she lived. Legacy webinar presenter Judy Russell, JD, CG, CGL emphasizes the importance of the law in her webinars and helps researchers better understand how to research with the law in mind. Family historians should take note of laws that affected the ability of women to own property, vote, and exercise their rights of citizenship. Judy’s webinar Martha Benschura - Enemy Alien  reminds us that citizenship, or the lack or,  can lead to records that go beyond naturalization.  

One book that will help you better understand laws that affected American women is Christina Schaefer's The Hidden Half of the Family: A Sourcebook for Women's Genealogy.

What Has Legacy Taught You About Female Ancestors?

Many of the over 600 webinars Legacy now offers in its library holds lessons for researching female ancestors. The above are just some webinars you may want to watch or re-watch. What has Legacy Family Tree Webinars taught you about researching your female ancestors?


Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.


Henrietta Louise Holder’s Story (Sometimes Things Are Not What They Seem)

Henrietta Louise Holder’s Story (Sometimes Things Are Not What They Seem)

Henrietta** was the sister of one of my direct ancestors. I wanted to gather her basic information and hopefully write a short bio on her. What I found was a complete dead-end.

In 1870 and 1880 Henrietta was living with her parents and siblings. I found her 1882 marriage to Douglas Crandall so I expected to find Douglas and Henrietta as a married couple in the 1900 census. Instead I found Douglas listed as a widower and living with his parents. Not good.

By 1910 Douglas is living with his second wife Ella. The census records clearly show that Henrietta was dead, right? Douglas is buried in the family cemetery but there was no marker for Henrietta nor is she in any of the other local cemeteries. Unfortunately, her death was before this state mandated death certificates. Her bio was a bit sparse but at least I knew who her parents were and who she married. I also knew she had three children with husband Douglas because two sons were listed on the 1900 census with their widowed father and a daughter, who had died at age 4 months, was found in the family cemetery. 

The breakthrough was an email from one of Henrietta’s direct descendants. She had seen some of my Holder memorials on Find-A-Grave and guessed I was tied to Henrietta’s line somehow. She asked if I happened to have a photograph of Henrietta. I told her I didn’t but I sent her two photos of Henrietta’s brother. The return email was a shocker. Henrietta didn’t die until 1931, at least 31 years later than I had thought. Henrietta had been declared "insane" in 1899 and was sent to the state hospital where she remained until her death. This was totally unexpected and it again showed me not to assume anything. This descendant sent me copies of the court documents (ex parte order and service*) as well as Henrietta’s complete medical file from the state hospital. It was an absolute goldmine of information.

*An ex parte order, in this context,  is an order for involuntary commitment. It is any temporary order issued at the request of one person when the other party is not there. You will also see these as restraining orders and temporary custody orders. The service is when the sheriff serves the order on the person named, again, in this context it was when the sheriff took custody of Henrietta and delivered her to the state hospital.

Henrietta is buried in the state hospital cemetery in an unmarked grave. I was now able to order her death certificate. I went back to the county clerk and requested Douglas and Henrietta's divorce decree, clean copies of the ex parte order and service, and Douglas and second wife Ella's marriage record. I had so much more information about Henrietta and was able to write a nice bio. I still have a lot of unanswered questions but you never know, another unexpected email might hold the answers.

**All names have been changed at the request of Henrietta's grandchildren

Michele Simmons Lewis, CG® is part of the Legacy Family Tree team at MyHeritage. She handles the enhancement suggestions that come in from our users as well as writing for Legacy News. You can usually find her hanging out on the Legacy User Group Facebook page answering questions and posting tips.

Where's the Original?


One of the golden rules of genealogy is that the original document is always best but what happens if there is no original? I have two examples for you.  

Here is what I had written in my marriage notes for Eli Meredith and Martha McMichael:

Jane Doe* at the Pike County, AL Circuit Court Clerk's Office states that Eli and Martha show up in their marriage index but when she went to the marriage book itself to make a copy the page was missing. [*name changed]

I made that note probably 25 years ago. Back then I wasn't smart enough to try and find microfilm. I recently revisited this couple. FamilySearch now has the Alabama county marriage books online.  Look what I found.

Meredith-McMichael marriage
(click image to enlarge)

 Pike County, Alabama, Marriage Book B: 229, Meredith-McMichal, 1856; digital image, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : accessed 22 December 2017).

[Page 229 also includes the solemnization but I cropped it out because of the space constraints of the blog]

The Genealogical Society of Utah microfilmed this book on 29 October 1979 (before the records were lost) and in this case the microfilm is better than the original. I do want to add that as a general rule microfilm is as good as the original (and is considered an original for sourcing purposes) as long as you have no suspicions that the film was altered or doesn't represent the original faithfully. In many cases you will go to microfilm first. My second example is more dramatic.

I found the marriage of David McMichael and Sarah Cimbro [Kimbrough] in an index. I contacted the Greene County, Georgia Probate Court and they advised me that their earliest marriage records were lost including the one I needed (Murphy's Law). The marriage did appear in their official index. My next move was to see if the Greene County's marriage books had been microfilmed. They were microfilmed on 20 March 1957 so I thought I was on to something. I pulled up the microfilm on FamilySearch and found something that I didn't want to see. The earliest marriages had been copied into an index but the original book apparently no longer exists. The inscription at the front of the book reads:

"A Record of Persons Names who have obtained Licenses for Marriage — By Wm Phillips — Register of Probates for Greene Co."

The index is all in the same hand (Mr. Phillips). I don't know when the index was created but before the book was lost. As a double check I called the Georgia State Archives. All they have is a copy of the Family History Library film. Here is a snippet:

David McMichael - Sarah Cimbro marriage
(click image to enlarge)

Greene County, Georgia, Marriage License Index 1786-1810, McMichael-Cimbro, 1789; digital image, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : accessed 22 December 2017); The original marriage bonds, licenses, and solemnizations have been lost. At some point the probate clerk created an index of these marriages which now serves as the only official record.

You always want to see the original record yourself (digital image/microfilm considered original as long as you are confident it is a faithful copy) but sometimes it simply isn't possible. There are other scenarios to consider. It might be cost prohibitive to get an image of an original document especially if a repository requires onsite research. Some documents have not been microfilmed and the repository deems them too delicate to be handled. If this is the case, those documents are usually in the queue to be digitized by expert archivists. If I use an index as my source I will explain why as part of my citation so my readers will understand why I used what I did.

Michele Simmons Lewis, CG® is part of the Legacy Family Tree team at MyHeritage. She handles the enhancement suggestions that come in from our users as well as writing for Legacy News. You can usually find her hanging out on the Legacy User Group Facebook page answering questions and posting tips.

Using DNA to Break Down a Brick Wall

Using DNA to Break Down a Brick Wall


Back in July I was contacted by a distant cousin. He found me through a blog post I had written that had mentioned my 3rd great grandmother, Pleasant Ann Clawson. I was elated to receive his email. This was my first contact with another Clawson descendant. But I was feeling somewhat apprehensive as well. You see, Pleasant Ann Clawson was my second most stubborn brick wall. I wasn't sure what I'd be able to tell my new cousin.

I've been researching Pleasant Ann for about 12 years. She was born in 1823 in Indiana County, Pennsylvania. She died in 1902, four years before the start of the Pennsylvania death certificates, and took the secret of her parent's names with her.

My biggest problem, besides lack of records in early Pennsylvania, is that the Clawson family is very large! My strategy was to start with the very early censuses, find the heads of households and recreate the families. After that I tried tracking down land and probate records for the best male candidates. Nothing came of it.

My best clue to sorting out these Clawsons was the 1860 US Federal Census where Pleasant McClarren (her married name), age 30, was found right next door to James Clawson, age 35, and family. I spent my efforts trying to chase James Clawson's family tree but never figured out who his parents were either.

What was I going to say to my new cousin? I was still mulling over my response in January when MyHeritage came out with a chromosome browser for their dna results.  I took a much keener interest then and started to really dig deep into the tools provided with the dna. I found I could do a surname search and on a whim searched for Clawson. What did I find but a dna match that was a direct surname descendant of the Clawsons!

Before getting too excited I realized the match only had a tree for himself, his father and grandfather. I would not be deterred.  If searching in the 1800s wouldn't bring results then I would start with an unfinished tree that is proven to be tied to me through dna. And so I started researching someone else's tree!

Recreating the tree of a known dna match proved to be a much easier task.  Perhaps being descended from a male Clawson instead of a female Clawson made finding records easier. Without too much trouble I made it back to William Clawson (1815-1888) and who was very conveniently brother to James Clawson (abt. 1825-1890), the same James who lived next door to my Pleasant in 1860.

My philosophy about solving unknown parentage brick walls is that it is a two-step process. First you determine who the probable parents are and then you prove that you have the right parents. I used this exact same process with Geoff's Nathan Brown brick wall.

So far, because of this dna match, I have determined a likely candidate for the family of my Pleasant Ann Clawson - John Clawson and his wife Elizabeth Wincher (with sons William and James among other children).  A nice gaps exists in 1823 right where my Pleasant would fit into the birth order.

With step one finished let's hope it won't be too difficult a process proving that I have the right family!


Learn how Marian found the parents for Geoff's ancestor Nathan Brown in these two webinars in the Legacy library:

Part 1 - Brick Walls: Cracking the Case of Nathan Brown's Parents

Part 2 - Pointing Fingers at Ancestors' Siblings - Breaking Down Brick Walls with Collateral Research

Other Brick Wall webinars in the Legacy Library


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.



Persistence Pays Off

Persistence Pays Off

I was researching a German soldier who had been interred in a Russian POW camp during World War II. His family never saw him again and didn't know what happened to him after the War was over. I had very little information about him. The Russians did not release him until 1948 (I found this out later). The soldier was incapacitated in some way but the details were fuzzy. I did know that he died in the town of Göttingen because this was recorded in the family's "Stammbuch." A Stammbuch is an official record book that families keep of their birth, death, and marriage records. It include the civil document numbers which is very helpful to researchers. With this information I was able to obtain his death certificate. The death certificate lists the address where he died as Rosdorferweg 70.


August's death certificate
(click image to enlarge)


I plugged that address into Google Maps and this is what I found.  The address belongs to a hospital.

Google map image


So was it a hospital in 1949?  I emailed them and asked. 

Hospital in Göttingen


They told me that yes, they are the same hospital that was in operation in 1949.  I asked them if they had the medical records from that time period. They told me that the old medical records had been turned over to the Stadtarchiv Göttingen. They were kind enough to provide me with a contact person there.


Stadtarchiv Göttingen


The Stadtarchiv told me that the records were now being housed at the Niedersächsisches Landesarchiv in Wolfenbüttel.  I was again given a contact person.

Niedersächsisches Landesarchiv


I contacted the Landesarchiv and they advised that they would write back when they knew whether or not they had this man's records. I got my answer less than a week later.

“Sie können von der Akte des Landeskrankenhauses Göttingen, die [NAME REDACTED] betrifft (NLA Hannover Hann. 155 Göttingen [FILE NUMBER REDACTED]), Kopien in Auftrag geben. Die Akte umfasst ca. 75 Seiten.”

They found the man's medical file, seventy-five pages worth. They mailed me a CD with crystal clear images. His medical file provided a lot of answers to the questions his family had had for their entire lives. 

This entire process took several months but I was on a mission and wasn't about to give up. I honestly thought that there was no way these medical records still existed but I knew I had to go through all of the steps to find out for sure. 


Michele Simmons Lewis, CG® is part of the Legacy Family Tree team at MyHeritage. She handles the enhancement suggestions that come in from our users as well as writing for Legacy News. You can usually find her hanging out on the Legacy User Group Facebook page answering questions and posting tips.