The Bright Lights of Genealogy - Learning to Focus

The Bright Lights of Genealogy - Learning to Focus

Do you chase bright lights and shiny objects as you research genealogy or slip down the proverbial rabbit hole? It's easy to do, and I think most of us have been guilty of chasing a bright light or two.

When I was researching papers for my college degrees before the Internet, it was a pretty simple process. I used microfilm, books, periodicals, and the occasional database. I wrote down what I found on index cards with the source citation and then organized them to write a paper. When I began researching genealogy, I used a similar system.

But fast forward to today, I can go online to search for a female ancestor in a census, and the next thing I know, I'm researching 19th-century conchology and women collectors, which then, of course, leads me to wonder what books exist on the topic. And then, of course, I need to do some newspaper search. Surely there is a YouTube lecture done by a marine biologist on the subject of 19th-century women collectors of shells and seaweeds.

Well, you get the point. Often the simple genealogy question leads us in all kinds of directions. The value of the Internet is all of the information you can find. The drawback of the Internet is all the information you can find.

I'm not saying all bright lights are bad. It's important to ask questions as we research. And those bright lights can help us find sources we need to learn and tell our ancestors stories. But they can also distract us from our original research question.

So how do you avoid getting distracted as you search for your ancestors? During the height of the COVID pandemic, countless online articles excused our inability to focus on the stress, anxiety, and uncertainness. It was hard to focus when we were living amid a pandemic. There’s no doubt about that. However, now that things are getting better will our focus also improve? My guess is even in the absence of the stress of a pandemic with all of the great information at our fingertips, the answer is no.

As we search for our family history, how do we focus so we can find what we are looking for and plan additional research?

How do you focus on the task at hand? I have a few suggestions that help me though I can tell you that I definitely have my moments where I am not as disciplined as I would like.

Have a Research Question

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of having a research question and not just aimlessly researching. If you have a written research question and a plan, when those distractions happen, and they will, you can ask yourself, “what was my research question?” That might help you to go back to the matter at hand.

Keep a Research Log

I’m a huge fan of research logs. A research log provides an opportunity for you to document your research. But over time, it also helps you to see where you left off should you need to stop researching or chase a bright light. It doesn’t matter what kind of research log you keep (a pre-printed form, spreadsheet, table, etc.). What's important is that you keep it, keep it updated, and refer back to it.

Stick a Pin In It

I can sympathize with everyone who has trouble focusing. I can go from looking for information on my World War I ancestor to wondering what it was like to be on a World War-era naval ship in less than 2 minutes. When you have those bright lights that call out to you, but you don't have the time to deal with it, what can you do? Stick a pin in it.

What I mean by “stick a pin in it” is that I write down that great idea/distraction and come back to it when I can. I keep a list of notes in my iPhone Note app. That way, I know I won't forget (otherwise I will), and I know I can look it up later, whether that is tomorrow or next month. Once I have revisited it, I delete that note from the app (and add it to my research log or genealogy software, if appropriate). You might want to use a to-do list, a reminder app, or a notepad. But whatever you use, write down those great ideas and revisit them when you have time.

Give In To It

Yes, of course, there are times where I can't resist that bright light, and I go ahead and chase it. Sometimes that stops the ongoing temptation and distraction to just meet it head-on. Take a break and spend 30 minutes to an hour. Set a timer so that you can go back to what you were doing when the time is up. Otherwise, you might find yourself still awake at 1 am pondering your latest distraction.

I will admit that I set several alarms on my phone for my day to remind myself when to end/start tasks I need to complete. I find that by not having to worry about the time, I can get more done.

How Do You Dim the Bright Lights?

I’m interested in how you address the bright lights that invariably shine as you research your family history. Do you have a tip, app, or process that helps you focus? How do you keep focused on your family history? Let me know in the comments!


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.


Solving the Mystery of S. Ada Miller (Part 3)

If you have been following the story of S. Ada Miller you know that we started with a political card, asked research questions, and then did some research into S. Ada Miller and her children. If you haven’t been following along, you can read our journey so far in Part 1 and Part 2. Now, let’s go back to where we started. Was Ada Miller a County Recorder in Ames, Story, Iowa?

Solving the Mystery of S. Ada Miller (Part 3)

If we use her death certificate as evidence, then yes, she was a county recorder. However, it appears that her time in this position was short-lived since she died in 1923 and it appears she may have been elected around 1920.

We’ve exhausted the census. So where do I look next to verify her occupation? Since I am doing this from home without the benefit of in-person research, I decided to search digitized newspaper and book websites.

I found S. Ada Miller listed as the Recorder for Story County in the 1921-1922 Iowa Official Register[1]. She’s also listed in the 1923-1924 Iowa Official Register that I accessed through Hathi Trust does show S. Ada Miller as the Recorder for Story County.[2]

Iowa Official Register 1923 Hathi Trust

So I know she served right up to her death but I don’t really know anything about the election that gained her that government position.


I really didn’t find much in relation to online newspaper for S. Ada Miller. I did find mention of her membership and role in Degree of Pocahontas (remember the antique dealer mentioned that in her sticky note attached to the card. I also found some information about her role in this fraternal order in a search of Hathi Trust. But I decided to not explore that more since really want to focus on her occupation as county recorder.

One newspaper article from December 28, 1923 announcing her daughter's marriage gave a hint about S. Ada Miller’s government career:

Paul Critz and Miss Ruth Miller were married at the home of the priest of this parish Christmas eve. She is from Ames and is a daughter of Mrs. Ada Miller who was for years county recorder of Story county, and the daughter was her deputy. When her term of office expired, she became secretary to Col. Shaffer of the military department of Ames College...They had no wedding, on account of the recent death of her mother. They simply came to Washington and had Father Haragan [?] perform the wedding ceremony...[3]

So Ada was “for years” a county recorder and her daughter Ruth assisted her (Ruth would have been a teenager during this time). That doesn’t give us much to go on but suggests that perhaps she was a recorder prior to 1920 and her daughter was a part of that career. Other records might indicate the first election she won and her tenure as a recorder.

Ada's Story

Ada’s story is an important one that could provide insight into the working life of women in the early 20th century. However, for now, this is where I am ending my search. I don’t doubt that there’s so much more to be found. But my initial goal was to learn more about a card I purchased at an antique store and I’ve learned answers to some of my questions. I look forward to revisiting Ada’s story when I can.

Reader, did you find anything more about Ada? What do you know about county recorders during this time period that might add some context to her story? Please let me know in the comments.


[1] “State of Iowa 1921 – 1922 Official Record,” pg 323 available at Hathi Trust:

[2] “State of Iowa 1923 – 1924 Official Record,” pg 260 available at Hathi Trust:

[3] Alex Miller's Column. Washington County News and Comment on Current Events. Quad-City Times (Davenport, Iowa) 28 December 1923 page 14. Newspapers .com


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.


How to Approach a Genealogy Mystery with Just a Few Clues

As I browsed in an antique store one weekend, the two faces jumped out of me. That wasn’t an easy task since the card they appeared on was virtually hidden in a locked glass cabinet tucked inside a yellowed plastic envelope, and a 1950s envelope obscured part of the card. When I got someone to unlock the cabinet so I could take a look my first thought was that S. Ada Miller had to be a woman and that this might be a political campaign piece for a woman seeking to be elected at about the time of the 19th amendment.

How to Approach a Genealogy Mystery with Just a Few Clues

The card shows two children and states “Two Reasons why I am a candidate for the office of county recorder. S Ada Miller. Ames Iowa.”

Post-it 1

Post-it 2

On the back, the antique dealer wrote on a small post-it note that she had found an S. Ada Miller in the 1913 Record of the Great Council of Iowa-Degree of Pocahontas “she is listed as Great Keeper of Records.”

Quite frankly at $3.00 it was worth a risk to purchase it and learn more to satisfy my curiosity.

How Do You Start?

How do you start to research someone that you only have a few clues for? Well, first you note what clues you do have. In this case I knew:

  • Her name was S. Ada Miller or perhaps she went by Ada Miller
  • She was a woman (remember the antique dealer had already Googled her name and found her in a fraternal society, more on that below)
  • She possibly had 2 children (though it could be her grandchildren or some other relation)
  • She lived in Iowa (though maybe not Ames so I need keep that in mind)
  • She possibly was alive in the early 1900s judging from the photos.
  • She ran for a county government position and possibly held that position.

So what do I not know and have research questions about?

  • What did the “S” in her name stand for and did she ever go by that name or simply Ada?
  • What time period did she live in?
  • Was Miller a married name? If so, what is her husband’s name?
  • Are the two children pictured her children, another relation, or just children with no relationship to her?
  • Did she live in Ames, Iowa?
  • Did she become a County Recorder?
  • Why did she run for County Recorder (the card gives a possible clue)
  • Can I learn more about this item?

Now that I’ve identified what I know and my research questions, I need to start considering where to research. An obvious first step is to conduct a search on a genealogy website and see if I can locate her in the U.S. Census. If I can find her, that might confirm if she had children, a spouse, her approximate age, and where she lived. It might also give me an occupation. However, it’s not uncommon to find working women listed as a “housewife” in the census so I can’t make an assumption that the census will help with occupation.

Once I find her in the census and get that information I can then move on to other sources. For example, I should look for:

  • Vital Records (for her and possible children)
  • City Directories
  • Burial
  • Government Records (that might confirm her work if she was elected)

Because she ran for a city government position, I should expect to find her listed in newspapers. So I need to look for articles about her in online newspaper websites. I would also look in digitized books for possible local and family histories, directories, county reports, and other location-specific items.

Besides possibly being involved in government I know that the antique dealer found her name in a book or other records for the “Great Council of Iowa – Degree of Pocahontas.” The dealer didn’t say where this information comes from and I still need to verify this find. I’m assuming that the Degree of Pocahontas is referring to the female auxiliary to the fraternal order, the Improved Order of Red Men. This may mean additional records and at the least, it provides social context to her life. It also may mean she was married and her husband was in the Improved Order of Red Men fraternal order.

I can also expand my search by learning more about resources in Iowa by consulting the FamilySearch Research Wiki as well as specifically look in the FamilySearch Catalog for Iowa and the county for Ames, Iowa (Story). I do know that I will need to check:

  • Digitized newspaper websites
  • Genealogy websites
  • FamilySearch Catalog (and the Historical Records collection as well as the Digital Book Library)
  • Google Books

Before I start researching what else should I consider? Anything missing? What would you check? I’m interested in your thoughts and ideas.

In Part 2 we delve deeper into the case of S. Ada Miller.


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.


Rediscovering the FamilySearch Research Wiki

As I prepared for my webinar presentation Learning More about American Female Ancestors Prior to 1850 for the marathon this month, I started looking at what resources I could pass along to the Legacy Webinars audience. One of my struggles as I work on a presentation is finding the “right” resources to help the audience. In some cases, I feel uncertain whether to even mention familiar resources since they are probably too “well-known” for the majority of family history researchers.

FamilySearch is a website that should be very familiar to researchers. Because it is so familiar, I think we sometimes take it for granted or assume it has nothing to offer our current genealogy research project. It’s no surprise that I recommend taking a look at the FamilySearch Research Wiki to learn more about a location, record or, resource. It's a resource we need to not take for granted.

Rediscovering the FamilySearch Research Wiki

As I considered American women’s lives prior to 1850 and the various states and eras webinar participants would be researching, I searched books, journal articles, websites, and documents. But one resource that I went back to time and time again was FamilySearch.

The Research Wiki has over 95,000 articles and growing. It’s a resource I always go to to learn more about a location and its records. If you haven’t used the Wiki before, it’s About page states,

The FamilySearch Research Wiki is a free, online genealogical guide created and maintained by FamilySearch, a non-profit organization. It contains links to genealogy databases, websites, other resources, research strategies, and genealogical guidance to assist in the search for your  ancestors. Articles included are locality pages for countries around the world and topic pages that include pertinent genealogy record types explaining how to use the record, what it contains, and how to find it.[1]

Wiki US colonial

For my webinar, I found a great page about United States Colonial Records that included various states and the year of the earliest church, land, and court records. A great resource to orient you to the very earliest US records.

Wiki Table

My wiki “discovery” is a good example of how important it is to dive deep into a resource to make sure you truly glean everything you can from it. Each country and state page on the Research Wiki has a box with Wiki Topics. It’s a good idea to take your time and click on each link to see what it can teach you about that record type. But that’s not all the wiki provides, research guidance, tools such as maps, topics necessary to genealogy such as migration and handwriting. Clicking around that Wiki Topic box is a must for good research.

Wiki box

As we approach new research we are so excited to see what we can find by entering a name, date, and location in a website search engine that we don’t take the time to do some preliminary discovery of what is possible for that date and place. The FamilySearch Research Wiki helps you do better research. It’s important to take some time to explore the Wiki before you do that search. Educating yourself about research makes you a better (and more successful) researcher.


[1] “FamilySearch Wiki: FamilySearch Research Wiki,” FamilySearch Research Wiki ( accessed 15 April 2021).


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.


Yes, Cookbooks are a Genealogy Source


Everyone who knows me knows that I love using cookbooks for genealogy. I know when you envision a cookbook your first thought isn’t that it’s a genealogy source. Obviously, not all cookbooks are genealogy sources. That latest cookbook from your favorite food celebrity is most likely not genealogically relevant. But that community cookbook definitely is.

What are genealogy sources? Genealogy sources have names, dates, and places. They help us either connect family members to each other or place a person in time and location. The latter is what community cookbooks do.

Community cookbooks or fundraising cookbooks are just one type of cookbook that has genealogical value. Another are the cookbooks published by newspapers that include reader recipes. These cookbooks are similar to community cookbooks in that they provide a name, date, and place. In some cases, the recipes may have originally appeared in the newspaper but then were combined together and published as a cookbook.

Rare Recipes and Budget Savers

I was reminded of what a rich resource newspaper cookbooks are when I was transcribing one from my collection for a new project by the Wichita Genealogical Society (Kansas). This project seeks to index Kansas cookbooks, allowing researchers to search for their female ancestors in a resource where her name and place can be found.*

I decided to transcribe my copy of Rare Recipes and Budget Savers (Volume 1) from The Wichita Eagle newspaper. First published in 1966, my copy is the seventeenth printing from October 1977.

Kasnas cookbook cover
Rare Recipes and Budget Savers as compiled from the Columns of the Wichita Eagle's HomeTown News, Volume 1.

I LOVE this cookbook. It not only includes women’s names but also their residence, including a street address if they are in Wichita, and in some cases extra information about their family, their ancestors, and more.

Kansas cookbook grape dumplings

Consider just a few of this booklet’s entries. This one for Wild Grape Dumplings includes the recipe contributor’s name, the name of a Kiowa woman who gave the contributor the recipe and the city both women were from (pg. 8).

Kansas cookbook what to do and how to do it

This compilation of tips titled, What to Do and How to Do It (pg. 13) includes the contributor and her mother’s name and street address. (yes, the names used are their husband’s name as is often the case in older cookbooks).

Kansas cookbook cornbread dressing

You never know what a cookbook might reveal. Consider this recipe for Cornbread Dressing (pg.33). Not only is the name of the contributor and her street address in Wichita included but you know she was not always a Kansas resident because she provides the state she is originally from, Georgia.

Kansas cookbook lime pickles

In this recipe for Lime Pickles, the reader learns the name of the recipe contributor, Elizabeth Capps and her sister Mrs. W.B. Wallace, as well as their street address (pg. 37).

You get the idea. This cookbook includes women’s names (or their married name), addresses, and in some cases, familial relationships. This directory of women is an important genealogical source for those trying to place their female family members in time and place.**

What's a Genealogical Source?

Is this a genealogical source? Of course! It provides names, dates, and location. Although we don’t find other important genealogical information such as a vital record event, cookbooks help us locate women in a specific location in time.



*This index is for members only but you can see what they offer from their website.

** Yes, there are some recipes contributed by men in this cookbook, but just a few.


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.

5 Things You Can Learn from a Genealogy Database

How do you research an ancestor using a genealogy website? The most popular way is to enter a name, birth year, and place, and then click the Search button, right? Well, that’s one way to search for your ancestors but it’s not the only or best way.

Becoming familiar with a database where you expect to find an ancestor is crucial. Genealogy websites provide valuable information about individual databases in their collections that can help you better understand what is available, where it is from, and how to search it.

Let’s use a database from MyHeritage to illustrate this. Instead of conducting a search, I went to Research and then in the drop-down menu chose the collection Birth, Marriage & Death.

MyHeritage BMD

As you can see, I can search from this collection page. A search here will find results in any number of databases from their Birth, Marriage & Death collection. But if I know I’m looking for an English record, why not search a specific database for England so I can learn more about that particular database and better understand what I can expect and not expect to find?

To find an English ancestor, I decided to take a look at one database within this collection. The database England & Wales, Marriage Index, 1837-2005 is free so you do not need a subscription to search it. The database’s homepage tells us quite a bit about these records. Before I even start searching I’m going to take a look and learn more about these records.

MyHeritage England & Wales

Let’s look at the five things you can learn from this page.

MyHeritage england & Wales numbers

  1. This site map line shows you exactly where you are on the website. This can be helpful if you need to find your way to this database again or want to go to the collection page. Please note that if you scroll down at the bottom right there is a Categories collection that provides links to marriage & Divorce; United Kingdom; England; and Wales collections.

  2. Here’s the description for this collection. Notice it has the title, how many records are included, and information about the database. There is also a little free green button that lets you know that the database is available to anyone, even those without a subscription. At the bottom is a small arrow and when we click on that we will see the rest of this description. We’ll discuss this more later.

  3. This is the search engine. Notice that collection and database search engines may differ according to what information is searchable. In this case, the fields include name, date, marriage place, and keywords. Notice at the bottom you can check the box for an Exact Search which limited the search to exactly what you type. The other box allows for translations. At the top right is Advanced Search link which allows for search functions that include the spouse’s name and more options in name searching.

  4. Sample Record. In this case there is an image of a sample record so you can familiarize yourself with the database.

  5. Related collections. These are suggested collections that also might help your search.

Now let’s go back up to the description and see what that page says once we click on the arrow.

MyHeritage England and Wales Description

Notice that the information we are given includes a description of the records and search tips. This can be extremely important to our search and can mean the difference between finding and not finding an ancestor because it may list what the database contains versus what is missing, the source citation for the records how to best search, and any information needed to better understand these records. I often find that people become frustrated with searches or proclaim that there is nothing for their ancestor on a website because they haven’t taken the time to see what is in a particular database and what is simply not included.

Take some time with that search

Sure, you can enter a name, date, and place and see what results you receive but what about doing something different? Next time you go to that genealogy website, skip the search and instead choose a database and learn more about it. Knowing more about those individual databases can help you avoid frustration and might even provide you a new record set to search.


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.

You Say Bologna, I Say Probate Records

You Say Bologna, I Say Probate Records

Cola, bread, eggs, bologna, cheese

Eight pages of grocery items listed by date, name, and price purchased from the H.D. Powell Grocery Store in Houston County, Tennessee. In some ways it's repetitive. Bologna is always mentioned. Ice Cream now and then. These pages from H. Clay Lyle’s probate file are more than just a look at mid-century food stuff. It may tell us more about his family than what we assume at first glance. In a sense, this documentation of a grocery store debt provides us a look at a family frozen in time.

Probate records can be a goldmine for genealogists. You already know that. Even without a will, a probate file can provide valuable family history clues. That collection of documents provide information about the decedent’s death but also a look at their life. They provide genealogically relevant information such as family names, relationships, places and dates. Because a probate file might be full of information it’s easy to overlook those pages that doesn’t seem genealogically relevant. Case in point, H Clay Lyle’s debt to his local grocery store.

Hermon Clay Lyle was not yet 52 when he died in 1951. He left behind a wife and children, the youngest a teenager. His probate file is filled with information from local retailers about the debt he left behind. One of those claims is from the local grocery store and it includes details of what his family purchased over many months in 1950.

So as a grocery list you might be thinking, “who cares, what does this have to do with genealogy?” Bill Keaggy author of the book Milk, Eggs Vodka: Grocery Lists Lost and Found introduces his irreverent look at discarded grocery lists by writing, “Lists tell us about our neighbors, our friends, our ancestors, our species and ourselves.”[1] He goes on to tell the history of grocery lists and notes that some of the oldest grocery lists date back to the 1st century CE and are housed in the British Museum. [2]

The Powell Grocery Store inventory of what is owed by the estate of H. Clay Lyle gives us a peek at what the Lyle family was eating but it’s most likely not complete. Judging from the monotony of the few items purchased regularly at the store, it’s most likely that the family supplemented this food with others acquired in some other way. The family could have been tending a garden and thus that’s why vegetables are not found in large quantities from these lists. Maybe they canned their produce so to have food available throughout the year or in time of hardship. They could have raised chickens or hunted to provide meat for dinner (the inventory does show the purchase of eggs so it’s possible this wasn’t the case). They may have even received food in trade or barter for services. So, we shouldn’t assume that the family lived on bologna sandwiches until we do more research. However, bologna and cheese sandwiches makes sense when we see that the Lyle family included 7 children ranging in age from 18 to 4 years in 1940. Bologna sandwiches is a cheap, portable meal for feeding school-age children.

The Powell Grocery Store inventory
Photo credit: Clay Lyle Estate: Irene Lyle, Administratrix and is in Chancery Court Records of Houston County, Tennessee, Box 2, File #38. Courtesy of Houston County, Tennessee Archives

We also cannot assume that all the food purchased was consumed only by immediate family members. Other family members could have come to live with the family, especially if Mr. Lyle suffered a lengthy illness prior to death. It’s possible that when Mr. Lyle died in 1950, his family still included at least three of those children. So they had quite a few people to feed in their immediate family alone.

There are other assumptions we should avoid like “wow, that’s a lot of bologna” as you read these documents. Every store visit included some quantity of the sandwich meat (as well as other staples like bread). In genealogy we need to notice what records say as well as what they don’t say. Notice that no quantities are given in this inventory. The prices would hint at a quantity, perhaps if we used information on prices from the time period. But a simple notation of “oranges” only tells us it’s more than 1 but not much else. Bologna quantities, are not clear since this was probably purchased per pound. Cheerios would indicate a box (and yes, Cheerios existed in the 1950s, they were introduced in 1941). Buying bread would indicate that Mrs. Lyle was not baking bread, not that unusual for the time period and because sliced bread would have been readily available.

I’ve talked about what the inventory doesn’t tell us but what does it tell us? Well, it does start to provide a sense of the family’s foodways. What foods were available in Houston County, Tennessee in the 1950s? This list gives us a hint. The family enjoyed desserts and had a sweet tooth. They regularly bought Ice cream, cake, gum, cola, cookies, and pudding make appearances on the list. They do eat canned food including potted meat, Vienna sausages, and pork and beans. There’s no doubt their regular meals included milk, bananas, bread, cheese, and bologna. But occasionally other foods made an appearance such as franks (perhaps hot dogs), pickles, potatoes, and cabbage. Staples such as salt, lard, and sugar are also purchased.

There are not just food products represented in these pages. Other non-food items appear such as aspirin, hair oil, hair nets, light bulbs, Tide, pencils, wax paper, furniture polish, socks, and lotion.

For those of us who are not familiar with running a tab at the local grocery store, this could lead us to learn more about this practice and look for manuscript collections for stores in our ancestor’s hometown for possible records the store kept.

Old fashioned country store/Library of Congress

One other mystery that the list doesn’t explain has to do with the debt and the dates. Mr. Lyle died on 17 January 1951. Powell Grocery store provided the list and a statement about the debts in April 1951. However, the lists date from April 1950 to July 1950. Why are there no charges for the later half of 1950 or the beginning of 1951? Possible answers may include the closure of the store, the family temporarily moving, frequenting another store, or accepting food from another source. Further research into this question might provide some genealogically relevant information.

One last thing to consider. This list is from a probate for a man who is living in Tennessee prior to the 1950s. Like the saying goes, “the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” I am analyzing these pages as someone who has never lived in Tennessee nor ate in the 1950s. So research into the area and its food history would help me make sense of these documents.

It’s easy to quickly go through a probate file and quickly dismiss items that seemingly do not provide genealogical information. But to do so would be a mistake. Items including the seemingly ordinary list of grocery items can shed some light on a person’s life. This list is a good reminder that genealogical analysis means careful consideration of all materials connected to our ancestors.

Thanks to Melissa Barker who alerted me to this case and provided me the documents.



[1]Keaggy, Bill, Milk Eggs Vodka: Grocery Lists Lost and Found. Cincinnati: OH, F+ W Publications, 2007. Pg. 2.

[2] Pg 152.


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.


Teaching Kids Genealogy through Stamp Collecting

What were your childhood hobbies? Sure, some of you will answer “family history!” but for many of us, our hobbies included other pursuits like sports and music or collecting baseball cards. When I’ve asked my genealogy friends what they collected as children, oftentimes they mention postage stamps.

Genealogy and Stamp Collecting?

Is there any relation between stamp collecting and genealogy? Is stamp collecting an avenue to genealogy? I think it can be because of what it teaches. Lessons learned stamp collecting easily transfer to family history research.

What can stamps teach kids? Much of what good genealogists need to know, for example:

Geography: Depending on a person’s interest, stamp collections can include international stamps or concentrate on one country. Some stamps depict geography, showing maps or locations. Stamp collections can focus on the smallest country in the world, Vatican City (issuing stamps since 1920[1]) or the United Nations.


Historical Events: Stamps are great for teaching history. They commemorate historical events, depict famous people, and honor organizations. I knew about the Grand Army of the Republic long before I was a genealogist because of the 3-cent postage stamp from 1949 commemorating the final national encampment of the GAR.


Organization: If you have a stamp collection, you have to have an album to put them in. And most likely they will be organized in some way whether by country or state or topic. Genealogists tend to collect a lot of paper documents and so organization is key to keeping track of various family lines and good habits can start with stamp collecting. Just like with family history, paper and digital options exist.


Searching and Researching: My love for research most likely stems from stamp collecting. My grandfather would buy me the annual stamp yearbooks from the United States Postal Service and I would read the story about each stamp as I filled the pages. As I got older, I read magazines and other publications about stamps.


Today, researching a stamp is so much easier. Various websites could be used including the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, London’s Postal Museum, or even the Musée de La Poste in Paris, France. A list of other worldwide postal museums can be found on the Wikipedia page for Postal Museums.

Homeschooling children? Postage stamps can easily be integrated into your lesson plans and can help you teach everything from history to economics, to geography. You could even use them in a lesson on genealogy where you curate a collection of stamps that depict the places your ancestors were from, the historical events they were a part of, or even a job or other activity they took part in.


Postage Stamps and Genealogy?! Yes!

Just like many genealogists, I collected stamps starting at about 7 years old. My paternal grandfather collected stamps and regularly gifted me stamps and commemorative stamp albums. My maternal grandmother gave envelopes from her correspondence (including one from an English genealogist who was writing her regarding a look-up). Even today, I can’t help but save stamps that have to do with women’s history, like the recent Suffrage centennial stamps.

Wish your descendants were interested in family history? Of course, you can introduce them to family history research but you might also want to consider getting them hooked on stamps collecting. Stamp collecting teaches geography, history, makes one aware of historical time periods, and requires you to organize, all great habits for budding genealogists.


[1] “Postage Stamps and postal history of Vatican City,” Wikipedia ( accessed 23 July 2020).


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.


Let’s Hear it for the Genealogists


What in the world of genealogy are you thankful for? Even in a pandemic year, there are things that the genealogist might be thankful for. When I think about my own list, towards the top are the volunteer efforts of those in the genealogical community and what they contribute to our collective research. Without individuals, groups, and society volunteers, researchers would not have the scope of free indexes, transcriptions, and records available to us.

You probably have some favorite volunteer projects that are your research go-to’s. Finding aids like Cyndi’s List and Linkpendium immediately come to my mind, but there are so many more resources to explore. Naming all those projects in a blog article is difficult since there are so many. The following are just a few I randomly selected that you might want to add to your resource list. 

The Ancestor Hunt is such an important resource if you are looking for United States and Canadian historical newspapers. Don’t forget to explore the links to other records such as Yearbooks and Directories or the More link at the end of the top toolbar that has a drop-down menu of all kinds of records that are easy to miss on the website.

Online Historical Directories is the work of genealogist Miriam Robbins who also hosts a sister website called Online Historical Newspapers. This work in progress provides links to directories (yes, city directories but others as well) for countries that include the US, Canada, and Ireland. Links include resources for free and fee-based websites.

Houston Suffragists Project. I’m so grateful to Nancy Loe of Sassy Jane Genealogy who posted about this project. In honor of the 19th amendment the Houston Genealogical Forum “a small group of genealogists, to find and preserve the historical records of Houston women voting in 1920.” The suffrage centennial inspired this group to ask “Could we identify the newly enfranchised women in 1920?” From that research question, they set out to find those women in records. A fabulous project that helps tell the story of female ancestors from Houston. Peruse the List of Women to see if you recognize a name.

The Honor Roll Project is a project founded by genealogist Heather Wilkinson Rojo that encourages others to “transcribe and photograph military honor rolls. The transcribed names make the soldiers available for search engines, so that descendants, family members, and friends can find them on the internet.” If you have an honor roll plaque in your hometown (or a town you are visiting) consider adding those names to this project. The project currently encompasses the United States, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

Olive Tree Genealogy. This work by Lorine McGinnis Schulze includes over 1,900 genealogy records in the categories of: “Passenger Lists, Immigration Tips, Canada, Military, Genealogy Guide, Loyalists, New Netherland, Native American, Palatine Genealogy, Photo Albums, Almshouse, Lunatic Records, Orphan Records, Huguenots, Mennonites, Quakers,” and more. In addition to transcribed records, you will find tutorials and genealogy guides. Do yourself a favor and spend some time perusing this website.

Online Searchable Death Indexes and Records. I’ve written before that I’m a big fan of Joe Beine. His websites are great finding aids for vital records and other genealogically relevant materials. His other websites can be found on his Professional Genealogy & Family History Research page . If you’re researching in the United States, do yourself a favor and check out his blog post on NARA’s Social Security Numident Files. His blog also provides updates about what links he has added to his websites.

Obviously, there are more projects than what I have listed including large collaborative projects like the USGenWeb. But my point was not to just give you some great links but to also get you thinking about the volunteer projects you use and love.

Thank you!

Thank you to all who have a project, big or small, that makes the difference to family history researchers. It’s a lot of work and dedication and although it’s not said enough, it is appreciated.

Do you volunteer on a project that provides resources and records to family historians? Do you know of a website that you rely on that is volunteer-driven? Please share it in the comments below.


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.



A Suffrage Thanksgiving

A Suffrage Thanksgiving

The year 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, granting American women the right to vote. However, some women already had the right to vote and had been doing so for decades prior to the 1920 federal amendment. One of those groups of women were the women of Wyoming.

Wyoming’s state motto is “Equal Rights,” reflecting their early granting of equal suffrage rights to women. (Some women in New Jersey voted much earlier in 1776 and continued to do so until 1807 when they were disenfranchised, and women in Utah were granted suffrage in 1870 but beat Wyoming women to the polls).

Food might seem irrelevant when we study suffrage, but actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Suffragists used food, cookbooks, and restaurants to spread their message of equal rights for women. Several cookbooks published by suffragists were used to spread the word and raise funds for the cause. One of these cookbooks, The Woman Suffrage Cookbook edited by Hattie A. Burr can be read for free on Google Books.

Wyoming cover

For Thanksgiving, I thought I would spotlight a suffrage cookbook published originally in 1965 to commemorate the centennial of suffrage in Wyoming. Cooking in Wyoming was published in multiple editions (I’m using the 3rd edition, published in 1969). The Wyoming State Archives’ blog Wyoming Postscripts writes of the original edition,

In 1965, First Lady Martha Close Hansen helped to compile a cookbook full of Wyoming family recipes for the 75th anniversary of statehood. This was a special anniversary for Wyoming as there were still many people living who had either seen the original statehood celebration or had heard about it from those who had lived it.[1]

What I love about this community cookbook is that it not only includes recipes but, many times, provides comments about those recipes. The following are a few Thanksgiving favorites for your recipe collection.

Looking for an appetizer idea? Here are some ideas for stuffed celery.

Wyoming celery

A roasted turkey is the star of the Thanksgiving show.

Wyoming turkey

And my favorite pie ( and the best pie) is pumpkin.

Wyoming pumpking pie


I have to show you one more recipe that made me laugh when I saw it. This is a great provenance for the evolution of this recipe.


Wyoming tomatoes


Happy Thanksgiving!

[1] “Friday Foodie: Governor’s Mansion Hollandaise Sauce,” Wyoming Postscripts ( accessed 18 November 2020).


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.