February 2, 2016

Ready, Set: How to Watch RootsTech from Home

The genealogy world lens is focused on Salt Lake City right now in preparation for RootsTech 2016. Thousands are converging there for four days of classes, exhibits, keynote presentations, and entertainment starting Wednesday, February 3. It’s expected to be the largest family history conference in North America, if not the world.

And I won’t be there.

But I’m not going to sit and feel sorry for myself. I intend to follow along and join in the fun from afar. And if you’re stuck at home like me, so can you.

FamilySearch, which produces RootsTech in conjunction with numerous sponsors, is once again providing global live streaming of selected sessions. With the help of social media, you can hear the latest news, read recaps, see photos, watch videos, and even communicate with other participants.

Just as those attending in person need to pack and plan, it helps to spend a little time preparing to follow RootsTech virtually. Here’s some tips to help you get ready to join the audience that will be watching from around the globe:

1. Get familiar with the RootsTech website, www.rootstech.org. Here you can see the full schedule of classes, learn about the keynote speakers, and find lists and links to exhibitors and ambassadors—many of the people who will be reporting live from RootsTech. This is also where you’ll tune in to watch live streaming sessions, which are offered Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

2. Click on Live Stream Schedule to find the sessions that will be broadcast globally in real time. Note the times of the ones you want to watch—and remember to convert them from Mountain Time (MST) to your local time zone. If there are some you can’t fit into your schedule, don’t despair—the videos will be available afterward, on the same website.

Here’s some live streaming classes I have on my must-see list:
  • Amy Crow: Best Websites and Apps for Local History (Thurs. 1:30 pm)
  • Lisa Louise Cooke: Proven Methodology for Using Google in Genealogy (Fri. 1:30 pm)
  • Peggy Lauritzen: Homespun and Calico: Researching Our Foremothers (Sat. 3:00 pm)
  • James Ison: Using the Genealogical Proof Standard for Success (Sat. 4:30 pm)

3. Download the syllabus materials for the live stream sessions, as well as other sessions that interest you. That’s right, the handouts for all classes have been posted on the website. I’ve found this is actually a multi-step process:
  • Click on 2016 Classes to see class titles and descriptions. Use the left sidebar to filter your choices, or click on the Speakers tab to find sessions offered by particular speakers. Note the code number for the class.
  • Example: Tom Jones is teaching “Solutions for Missing and Scarce Records,” code number RT8290
  • Go back to the homepage, click on Class Syllabus, and find that class by opening up the selections for the appropriate category (this one is in "RootsTech 3000 and above"). You’ll see a PDF of the handout.
  • If you like, save the syllabus in a RootsTech folder on your desktop, or in Dropbox, Evernote, or another cloud service. (I like Evernote because it indexes every word in the document, so I can easily find things again.)
  • Of course, this isn’t the same as actually seeing or hearing the presentation being given, but it's still pretty cool, and can give you some helpful hints and resources to refer to

The Class Schedule page offers several ways to find classes that interest you

4. Get your social media engine revved up to follow the action on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+. Twitter is especially fun because the commentary is so immediate. Some exhibit hall vendors offer special deals that they extend to viewers at home, and you’ll hear about those, too. Look for and use the official hashtag, #RootsTech. 

Twitter will be buzzing with #RootsTech posts

5. Follow some of the bloggers listed as Ambassadors to see recaps, photos, and the latest news. They’re all good, so you can’t go wrong. But if you can only pick one, I’d suggest you follow Randy Seaver’s Genea-Musings. In past years, Randy has done compilations of posts from numerous bloggers, saving you some legwork. He’ll give you a good taste for what’s going on.

6. Remember to tune in to watch the live streaming. The feed will start automatically on the RootsTech homepage at the scheduled time. You don’t have to register, sign in, or do anything except watch.

And that’s how you, too, can share in the fun and discovery of RootsTech without leaving home. The kicker? It’s absolutely free. Thank you, FamilySearch!


January 27, 2016

Avoiding Ancestor Identity Mix-Ups

Let’s face it—it can be hard to tell your ancestors apart from others with similar names, ages, and residences. It’s especially hard when all you have to go on is a single record, a short listing in an index or database, or a name in someone else’s online family tree.

In fact, it’s kind of like picking your suitcase out from a long line of similarly sized and colored bags on the baggage claim belt. How can you be sure you’ve got the right one?

That’s a problem every genealogist faces at some point. So it’s good to have a few strategies up your sleeve. After all, who wants to waste time tracking a false lead, or have to go back and prune stray branches off their tree later?

Which is precisely the reason I wrote my latest article, “Mistaken Identities,” for Family Tree Magazine. In it, I offer seven strategies for making sure the records you claim actually belong to your ancestors.

All seven strategies are easy to implement, and can help you keep your genealogy hunt on track. I talk about:
  • the best way to use online family trees
  • how to see what’s behind an index or database listing
  • how tools like charts and timelines can help
  • what a map can show you
  • why you should get to know your ancestor's network
  • the danger of making assumptions
  • how to play devil’s advocate to settle tricky questions

The article is filled with details and examples. You’ll find it in the January/February 2016 issue of Family Tree Magazine. For a little preview, check out my interview with Lisa Louise Cooke in this newly-released podcast. It was a real thrill for me to talk with Lisa, who I’ve admired for a long time.

The current issue of Family Tree Magazine has a lot of other great articles too, all aimed at being “Your 2016 Genealogy Discovery Guide.” Authors include Sunny Jane Morton, Harold Henderson, David Fryxell, Karin Berry, Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, Denise Levenick, and Maureen Taylor. If you’re not a subscriber, you might be able to find a copy at your local bookstore (my Barnes & Noble’s carries it), or see the Family Tree Magazine website to order one. You can also get it as a digital download if you prefer.

I hope you find the article helpful and inspiring. I’d love to hear your feedback, as well as any other tips you might have for avoiding mix-ups. Here’s wishing you a successful year of finding your ancestors!


Photo of flight baggage by skeddy in NYC, used under terms of Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license

December 31, 2015

For Auld Lang Syne: Patron Song of Genealogists

As we close out the old year and welcome in the new one, I’d like to share with you my favorite version of “Auld Lang Syne,” performed by James Taylor. I confess to listening to this haunting yet hopeful tune when I’m feeling reflective year-round, not just during the holidays.

According to Wikipedia, the original poem that provides the lyrics was written by Scottish poet Robert Burns in 1788. The music is a traditional folk song. In fact, the origins of the song may stretch back to an earlier ballad printed by James Watson in 1711. However you figure it, that’s a lot of New Year’s Eves ago.

But what does it mean? The original Scottish title can be loosely translated to “long, long ago,” “old times,” or “days gone by.” The lyrics ask whether old times, and old friends, should be forgotten. They seem to remind us, in the words of a traditional camp song, to “Make new friends, but keep the old; one is silver, and the other gold.” It’s sung on New Year’s Eve in English-speaking countries around the world, and played on other occasions as well.

As family historians, we do our best to keep the memories of old times, and the legends of people who lived long gone, alive. We are preservationists at heart. The message of “Auld Lang Syne” is one that speaks to what we do each time we research and tell the stories of our ancestors. When you think about it, it could be the patron song of genealogists.

I hope you enjoy this rendition of “Auld Lang Syne.” May you have a new year filled with peace, prosperity, good health, and good times!


Note: This post originally appeared on A Sense of Family on December 31, 2012. How time flies! If you remember it from then, thank you for being such a loyal reader, and I hope you enjoy it just as much this time around.  

November 13, 2015

Researching Civil War Veterans in G.A.R. Records

Do you have a Union Civil War veteran in your family tree? If so, have you checked to see if he joined a local Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) post?

G.A.R. units sprang up in communities throughout the U.S. (especially the northern states) in the latter part of the 19th century. While essentially a fraternal organization offering camaraderie for Civil War vets, G.A.R. meetings also provided men with information about things like changes in pension laws or requirements. Each local Post was part of a statewide Department, which in turn reported to the national Commander.

And lucky for us, they kept good records of their members. Many have been lost, but some have survived and are now in various archival collections.

What can G.A.R. records tell you about your ancestor?
The most helpful information often comes from a record-keeping journal called the Post Descriptive Book. This is essentially the local post’s inventory of its members. The post descriptive books that I’ve seen (all from Ohio) contain the following:
  • Veteran’s name
  • Member number (indicates order in which he joined the post)
  • City or township of residence
  • Occupation
  • Date of birth
  • Place of birth (city or county if same state, otherwise name of state or foreign country)
  • Date of military enlistment
  • Military rank
  • Company or companies he served in
  • Date of discharge 

That’s a lot of good information!

Other sources to look for include the post’s application for charter, its members’ applications for membership, and the post’s quarterly muster rolls. If you discover your ancestor was an officer of the post or served as a delegate to one of the Department (state) or National Encampments, you might find even more records of interest.

How do you know what post your ancestor might have joined?
Men typically joined the post closest to where they were living at the time. So the first thing to do is find your veteran in the 1870,1880, and 1900 federal censuses, and perhaps the surviving remnants of the 1890 veteran’s schedule. City and county directories can also be helpful.

Once you know his residence, visit the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War’s Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) Records Project. They’ve assembled state-by-state listings of all known G.A.R. posts. You might also check old county histories, which often named the local G.A.R. units with pride. In addition, the obituaries and cemetery markers of former soldiers sometimes indicate their G.A.R. affiliations.

Most G.A.R. posts are identified by both a number and a name. The name was often selected to honor a local military or public figure. I'd also like to mention that Larry Stevens has compiled a very helpful list of Ohio G.A.R. Posts, organized by county.

Where can you find G.A.R. records?
The FamilySearch Wiki article, “Union Veterans’ and Lineage Society Records,” is a good place to start. It indicates that the Family History Library has films for Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, Oregon, South Dakota, and Utah G.A.R. units, and discusses Illinois records. Collections for Kansas and New York are available at Ancestry.com. 

If your ancestor didn’t live in one of those states, your best bet is to check your state archives or state library to see if it has any G.A.R. records in its collection. You might also check university libraries or other regional or local repositories. Since I’m most familiar with Ohio, I’ll use that as an example. A search for “Grand Army of the Republic” in the Ohio History Connection’s (OHC) Online Collections Catalog of manuscripts and state archives returns a number of results. Among them is MSS 715: Grand Army of the Republic, Dept. of Ohio Records, 1876-1936.

Now, normally I’d suggest you look at the collection’s finding aid to see exactly what it includes, but this particular collection is in the process of being reorganized for better preservation, and the new finding aid isn’t out yet. The records are still available for use, though, and the archivists are happy to help you find what you need. I’ll warn you that the holdings are hit-or-miss, with good records for some posts and next to nothing for others. I suspect that’s probably the case in other states as well.

Those of you with Ohio connections might like to know that OHC has the post descriptive books for Posts 34, 107, 109, 665, 674, 704, 717, 728, 746, and 752. They also have a scattering of muster rolls, applications for charter, election reports, minute books, encampment registers, and financial account books.

For example, here’s the application for the charter of Post 156, known as Groce’s Post, in Chillicothe, Pickaway County, Ohio. It was chartered on 4 November 1881:

Notice all the different inks and handwritings. It looks like each of these charter members filled out his own information, giving you his signature and a sample of his handwriting. Pretty cool, huh? Of course the post went on to gain many more members—this just documents those who were in on its founding. And it doesn’t provide any personal information. That’s why the descriptive books are such gems, when you can find them. This particular one is missing.

Will G.A.R. records tell you who your ancestor’s parents were?
Well, no, at least not directly. But they can provide additional pieces of evidence to help you identify potential parents and answer other questions about him. And they give you a ready-made circle of friends and associates who knew him, which can lead to more records. In genealogy, widening the circle around your target can be just the ticket to narrowing in on the answer you seek.

If you’ve used G.A.R. records, I’d be interested to know what you found. And if you haven’t, I hope this might encourage you to give them a try. It’s one more way to uncover the fascinating story of your Civil War veteran’s life.


G.A.R. postcard image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, attributed to Derry Public Library.

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October 20, 2015

Back in the Saddle

My dad, Edward (Eddie) Ballenger

Those of you who follow this blog may have noticed it's been a bit quiet around here lately. The truth is, I experienced a personal high and low in the same week in June, and it’s taken me awhile to find my balance again.

The high point was that I attended Judy Russell’s course, Advanced Methodology & Evidence Analysis, at the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research (IGHR) at Samford University. And it was fantastic! Judy, the other instructors, and my fellow classmates made for an amazing learning experience. I was honored to be one of the recipients of the Birdie Monk Holsclaw Memorial Scholarship, along with my dear friend and colleague Laura Prescott. 

Completing this course was a goal I’ve had for a long time, and it was all I hoped it’d be.

The low point was that my father passed away while I was there. He had been ill for some time, but not critically so, and his death was unexpected. Wrestling with my emotions and the decision of whether or not to leave Samford and go home took more than a little wind out of my sails (an analogy my dad, an avid sailor, would appreciate). In the end, the funeral was slated for the following week, and I was able to help with arrangements from afar by sending digitized photos for his memorial slideshow. I finished the course and still got home two days before calling hours.

Simultaneously, in another state, my 91-year-old father-in-law became ill, and we literally flew from my father’s funeral to be with him. Happily, he recovered and is doing pretty well now, all things considered.

Needless to say, though, the whole experience left me drained. Blogging ended up being the last thing on my mind. As time went by, it seemed harder and harder to pick it up again.

But thanks to encouragement from my friends and family, I’m back. As genealogists, we talk about our ancestors’ friends and associates as a critical component of their lives. Well, it works that way in the present too, doesn’t it? Those close to us have a way of standing by us and nudging us to continue on.

Today happens to be the fifth anniversary of the day I oh-so-tentatively entered my first post on A Sense of Family. So it’s the perfect time to say thank you to all my readers, whether you’ve followed me from the beginning, just recently stumbled upon my site, or fall somewhere in-between. A special thanks to everyone who has stuck by me through this quiet time. I hope to get back to blogging more regularly and sharing more of my discoveries with you in the coming year.

And I hope you’ll share with me as well, because it’s much more fun that way! I love seeing your comments and questions.

On we go... 


June 1, 2015

How to Archive Family Photos: help for managing digital overload

Do you have a digital mess on your hands? Taken hundreds or thousands of photos that have never seen light beyond a screen? Wish you knew how to manage them, and maybe actually print, share, or create something with them?

For me, the answers are yes, yes, and YES.

Thankfully, help has arrived. Denise May Levenick, aka The Family Curator, has written a wonderful new book called How to Archive Family Photos. It outlines strategies and ideas for changing the way you work with digital images to better be able to find, preserve, and enjoy them. In just a few days, it’s transformed how I manage my digital photo collection.

Lest that seem overwhelming, Levenick offers a piece of advice in the first chapter: start where you are, with your current batch of smartphone or camera photos, and go forward from there. Once you get a workflow established, it’s easier to go back and bring your older files into the fold.

The whole concept that there is a workflow to managing digital images, and that it can be streamlined for efficiency, was an eye-opener for me. Professional photographers call it Digital Asset Management (DAM). It’s a simple seven-step process that covers everything from capturing the image (taking a picture) to editing, exporting, and sharing it. Levenick provides multiple examples of how to create a customized workflow to suit your particular goals and situation.

I've needed a system like this desperately. When I bought my first digital camera, it felt liberating to be able to take hundreds of pictures on a tiny card, rather than 24 shots on a roll of film. I learned to upload them to my computer, where they routinely appeared in My Pictures folder or iPhoto. More recently, I started doing the same thing with images taken on my phone.

And there they’ve sat. Countless images, priceless memories, adrift in a sea of computer files.

Except that’s not the half of it. As a genealogist, I’ve also digitized old cabinet cards, tiny early 20th century photos, faded mid-century snapshots, and old menus and keepsakes. I’ve taken pictures of tombstones in numerous cemeteries, and made digital copies of probate packets and pension files.

How, then, do I go about creating an organized system out of this jumble of modern events and historical treasures? How do I integrate images captured on my camera, smartphone, and tablet with those imported from my scanner, in such a way that I can quickly find things I want later? And how can I make sure I don’t lose all this stuff as time goes by?

How to Archive Family Photos answers all these questions, along with some I didn't even know to ask. Here are the strategies I’ve been looking for. The book’s straightforward, encouraging approach gave me the incentive and tools to get started on this long-overdue process.

Levenick offers practical advice for every step of the way, including:
  • photo management solutions for both PC and Mac users
  • file naming and organizing strategies
  • online storage and photo sharing options
  • equipment for digitizing, preserving, and backing up images
  • keys to scanning, organizing, and safely storing heirloom prints

In the final chapters, Levenick explores methods of getting photos out of your files and into a form where they can be enjoyed and appreciated. She explains how to create a variety of simple photo projects, including cards, collages, calendars, scrapbook pages, Facebook cover photos, and home d├ęcor. She also discusses many options for creating photo books, as well as smartphone and tablet apps for sharing on the go. I've done a few of these already, and am eager to try more.

For anyone wishing to bring order to a growing digital image collection, gain peace of mind that the collection is securely preserved, and discover ways to share and enjoy favorite pictures, I highly recommend How to Archive Family Photos. It’s a bargain at roughly what I used to pay to get a couple rolls of film developed. I bought my book from Family Tree Magazine's  ShopFamilyTree, and it’s also available on Amazon. There's a Kindle version if you prefer to read electronically.

This is one of those books I know I'll be returning to again and again. It's earned a spot beside my computer, where I can use it to keep refining my workflow and playing with new projects. If you're wrestling with digital image overload, I think you'll find it indispensable, too. 



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