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 

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. 


May 27, 2015

May's Bounty

What a month this has been! Hot on the heels of the successful Ohio Genealogical Society 2015 Conference, May ushered in a bunch of family highlights. One daughter graduated with her MBA and got engaged a week later; another daughter and her friends spent a fun-filled weekend with us; I helped my mother look for a new house in Florida; and my husband and I took a two-week trip to Ireland and Spain. Now that I’m home and have a chance to catch my breath, I can’t help but feel I’ve been incredibly blessed.

It’s one of those times in life when you can almost feel the pages turning.

Even as I’m busy catching up with mail, laundry, work, and so forth, I want to make sure to preserve the memories of these times. I’ve taken hundreds of pictures and collected a dozen new Irish civil registration records on my mother-in-law’s family. I’ve uploaded all the images to my computer and backed up with Apple’s Time Machine and Mozy, so they’re safe for the moment.

But I want to get those images off my computer and enjoy them, and I want to be able to find and access them ten years from now. Which is why I was thrilled to find the copy I’d ordered of Denise Levenick’s new book, How to Archive Family Photos, waiting in my stack of mail. (You might know Denise through her blog, The Family Curator.) Even though I’m just partway through the book, I’m already getting excited about trying her ideas. This looks like exactly the kind of system I need.

So I’m going to keep reading, and I’ll give you a full review in a few days. And I plan to tell you later about how I obtained those Irish records. I’m also headed to the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research (IGHR) at Samford University in less than two weeks, which I’m very excited about. Stay tuned—life shows no signs of slowing down!


March 15, 2015

OGS Conference Early Bird Discount Ends March 18

There’s only a few days left to catch extra savings on registration for the upcoming Ohio Genealogical Society (OGS) Conference. The conference, held in downtown Columbus, runs April 9-11, 2015, with workshops and events starting April 8.

In the course of three and a half days, OGS has 44 top-notch speakers offering nearly 100 presentations, workshops, luncheons, and roundtable discussions. Judy G. Russell, The Legal Genealogist, will present a brand new keynote address, plus four additional lectures. 

I think the conference program looks flat-out amazing. Then again, I might a little partial to it. (Disclaimer: I’m serving as Program Chair, which means I’ve handled endless paperwork and emails with no pay. It also means I get to work with some of the best speakers and most dedicated volunteers in genealogy-land.) 

Whether you’re just beginning your family history search or a seasoned genealogist, or anywhere in-between, you’re sure to find something of interest. Tracks include Problem-Solving Strategies, Technology Tools, Records & Resources, DNA/Genetic Genealogy, Military Research, Sharing Family History, German Ancestors, African-American & Southern Research, Organizing & Productivity, Methods for Success, Preserving Your Heritage, Ohio Ancestors, Forensic Genealogy, and more.

Check out the schedule for yourself here. I hope you'll agree this is one you won’t want to miss. 

By registering before the March 18th early-bird deadline, you get:
  • a $40 savings on full conference registration
  • an electronic copy of the syllabus in advance, to help plan your time
  • first chance at workshops and events that might sell out 

So why wait? Visit the OGS 2015 Conference website for more information and online registration. Oh, and if you just can’t decide now, rest assured that you can still register right up to conference time, or even at the door.

Hope to see you in Columbus in April!

February 2, 2015

Learning About Genetic Genealogy, Part 2

Class at SLIG 2015, front row, left to right: Debbie Parker Wayne, CeCe Moore, Blaine Bettinger

Last week, I wrote about some of my experiences in the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy (SLIG) course, Getting Started with Genetic Genealogy. My post on Learning About Genetic Genealogy, Part 1 talked about our coverage of mtDNA (direct maternal line), Y-DNA (direct paternal line), and X-DNA testing.

CeCe Moore, one of the nation’s leading genetic genealogists, took us into the intricacies of autosomal, or atDNA, testing and analysis the latter part of the week. And what a fascinating field it is.

Autosomal DNA is valuable for genealogy because it looks at chromosome segments inherited from all ancestral lines—your whole pedigree chart. The big caveat in this is random recombination. That’s the process by which bits of your mother’s genes and bits of your father’s genes randomly mix together to create an unique individual: you. It’s why sisters and brothers share a significant amount of, but not all, traits and chromosomes.

Because of recombination, you may inherit relatively large segments of chromosomes from one ancestor, and small segments from another. Each generation, the bits get smaller, and eventually some don’t make it to you at all. So in effect, some ancestors five or six generations ago drop off your genetic pedigree chart.

AtDNA analysis for genealogy, therefore, becomes a matching game. Who among other testers matches you on a specific chromosome segment, and how does that help you identify your most recent common ancestor (MRCA)?

CeCe talked about identifying close matches by centiMorgan size, chromosome mapping, and triangulation. She discussed the methodology for working with match data on Family Tree DNA, 23andMe, and AncestryDNA. We talked about the special challenges of working with endogamous (self-contained) populations, such as Ashkenazi Jews. CeCe also shared some moving stories of the successes she has had using atDNA to identify parents of adoptees and others with an unknown birth parent.

Blaine Bettinger offered tips for using third-party tools to aid in analysis, with a special focus on GEDmatch. I found this very helpful and wished we had even more time to spend on third party tools. Blaine also discussed privacy, regulation, and ethical issues, introducing the new Genetic Genealogy Standards announced just days earlier.

One of my favorite lectures of the week was Blaine’s presentation on ethnicity, admixture, and kinship analysis. Ethnicity predictions, while far from an exact science, are one of the most intriguing components of DNA testing. Everyone who has tested in my family, at least, is curious to know where their long-ago ancestors came from.

On the last morning, Debbie Parker Wayne talked about when and how to incorporate DNA testing with traditional research to meet the Genealogical Proof Standard, and offered some citation models.

If this course sounds like something you might be interested in taking, I have good news for you. A similar course will be offered twice this summer at the Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh (GRIP), and again at SLIG next winter. Here are the details:

Practical Genetic Genealogy with Debbie Parker Wayne, CeCe Moore, and Blaine Bettinger: at GRIP, June 28-July 3, 2015, in Pittsburgh. Registration begins WED., FEBRUARY 4, at 12:00 noon Eastern time at

Practical Genetic Genealogy with Debbie Parker Wayne, Patti Hobbs, and Blaine Bettinger: at GRIP, July 19-24, 2015, in Pittsburgh. Registration begins WED., FEBRUARY 18, at 12:00 noon Eastern time at

Beginning Genetic Genealogy coordinated by Blaine Bettinger: at SLIG, January 11-15, 2016, in Salt Lake City. Registration begins June 20 at 11:00 am Eastern time at

One tip: to get the most out of an intensive study opportunity like this, it’s helpful to come in with some experience under your belt. Read about genetic genealogy, test yourself and some family members at the major testing companies, and attend any webinars, conference lectures, or local seminars on DNA you can find. That will help you catch onto the concepts more quickly, and recognize how you can apply various processes to your own research. You might start by exploring Blaine Bettinger’s blog, The Genetic Genealogist.

Just like regular genealogy, DNA research can be both time-consuming and addicting. So don’t say I didn’t warn you. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some matches to investigate…


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