Monday, September 27, 2010

African American Research in New England

One of the areas of genealogy that I am keenly interested in is the somewhat unknown niche of African American research in New England. When people think of African American research they typically think of the South or Midwest of the United States. And rightly so, most of the African American population originated or migrated to these areas.

New England, however, has a rich African American history of its own. New England does not escape the tarnished history of slavery. And even though slavery ended much earlier in New England than in the south, New Englanders where complicit in extending and promoting the slave trade for their monetary gain.

In a recent article in The Boston Globe called "New England’s hidden history: More than we like to think, the North was built on slavery", journalist Francie Latour provides an introduction that encompasses the intricacies of the forgotten history of African Americans in New England. 

I would encourage anyone with an interest in learning more on this topic to start with this article.  I know I will find it handy to refer people to it.

If you discover, as I did, that you are compelled to learn more about the story of African Americans in New England then take a look at a bibliography that I've created and made available on my website. It will provide you will a list of further resources on the subject.

If you are already interested in African American history/genealogy in New England, drop me a line and let me know you are out there.  It would be wonderful to discover others who are as interested in the topic as I am.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Where does genealogy end and history begin?

What exactly is genealogy? Sometimes we take our research so far that I'm not sure when it leaves genealogy and becomes history.

I've been trying to work through in my mind the difference between genealogy and history. Add to that the concept of a reasonably exhaustive search and I get a little confused.

In my mind, genealogy is mostly about people, dates and building family relationships. History is a broader category of events that happen to society as a whole whether local, statewide or national.

Is a reasonably exhaustive search restricted to those items that relate to dates and family relationships? When a genealogist reads a detailed journal about an ancestor that adds "meat to the bones" does that go beyond genealogy and embark on history?


To help me think through this I decided to look up the definition of genealogy. has this definition:


–noun, plural -gies.
1. a record or account of the ancestry and descent of a person, family, group, etc.
2. the study of family ancestries and histories.
3. descent from an original form or progenitor; lineage; ancestry.

Next I checked out the definition of history:


–noun, plural -ries.
1. the branch of knowledge dealing with past events.
2. a continuous, systematic narrative of past events as relating to a particular people, country, period, person, etc., usually written as a chronological account; chronicle: a history of France; a Medical history of the patient.
3. the aggregate of past events.
4. the record of past events and times, esp. in connection with the human race.
5. a past notable for its important, unusual, or interesting events: a ship with a history.
6. acts, ideas, or events that will or can shape the course of the future; immediate but significant happenings: Firsthand observers of our space program see history in the making.
7. a systematic account of any set of natural phenomena without particular reference to time: a history of the American eagle.
8. a drama representing historical events: Shakespeare's comedies, histories, and tragedies.

The definition of genealogy seems very specifically about tracing ancestry.  But it doesn't define for me exactly what items are considered essential for genealogy.  The definitions of history are broader and relate more broadly to people as a whole group.  However, genealogy would appear to be a subset of definition #4 above.

As genealogists, sometimes we do very extensive research so much so that we can write biographical summaries of our ancestors that could be considered history.  Where is the line between the two?

Am I a genealogist when I connect the dots between my ancestors, a local historian when I research in-depth the life of one ancestor, or an historian when I look at the events that impacted the lives of generations of my ancestors?

Someone please tell me if I am a genealogist, local historian, historian or all three!  How do you separate genealogy and history? And what do you consider yourself?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Family Memoirs: Include Your Siblings

If you have siblings you've probably realized by now that you don't see eye to eye on everything. In fact, you can attend the same events and walk away with completely different experiences. Different points of view can be a real boon to capturing your family memories.

When I was a kid, my brothers and I took a family vacation to Jamaica with our Mom. I had so much fun going to the beach and to restaurants. I also remember being haunted by the poverty. My oldest brother, on the other hand, was bored. He spent most of his week reading under a palm tree. If we were to share recollections of that event now we would very likely have completely different memories.

Sometime when you have a to chance to visit with your siblings - even if it has to be on the phone - ask them to recall a specific event. Perhaps Christmas at Aunt Betty's house when you were kids. Ask them how they remember that experience.

Ideally, afterward, you would encourage them to write down their version of the event. If they protest, write down to the best of your ability, a recap of the conversation. When you finish writing send them a copy.

One of the best ways to get people writing is to start the writing process for them. You'll find that when they receive your document they will want to edit or re-write it. All the better for ensuring you capture their point of view.

Difficult situations from the past can also be handled this way. If your parents were divorced when you were young, you and siblings may remember it differently. Ask your siblings to recall or write about their memory of that time in your lives. Not only will it show you had different experiences it may just provide a healing experience as well.

The more siblings you have the more varied the memories of your event or situation will be. Contact your siblings soon and start capturing the events of your own childhood.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Is an Economic Downturn Good for Genealogy?

I was reading the Wall Street Journal this morning. On page 1 of the Marketplace section is an article about the fashion industry going retro. Gucci Chief Executive Patrizio di Marco was quoted as saying, "Every single brand in the universe, especially in this industry, is talking about heritage..."

When the economy turns bad, Americans turn nostalgic. It's human nature I guess. As we suffer through difficult times, we long for, and reminisce, about better days. It seems quite predictable that an economic downtown would to translate to a longing for the past in the marketplace. The Wall Street Journal seems to agree with me when they say, "Fashion's current retro trend is at least partly due to the economic downturn."

If an economic downturn leads to nostalgia then perhaps that means a boon in the marketplace for genealogy. The recent television debuts of Faces of America and Who Do You Think You Are? couldn't have come at a better time. They are hitting the small screen just as America is longing for its past.

Let's look at the positive side of this downturn. The time is ripe for genealogy to soar as America's favorite activity. Perhaps these hard economic times will introduce a whole new generation to discovering their ancestry and their heritage.

What do you think? Do you agree?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Follow Friday: Two posts that will change the way you think about your research

There were two blog posts that particularly struck a cord with me this week. I believe these two articles can make you re-think the way you approach your genealogical research.

"Learning from genealogical failure" by Michael Hait

This discusses a reasonably exhaustive genealogical search and evaluating conflicting evidence.  Michael provides a very useful example to clarify his discussion showing how the birth of an ancestor was actually in one state when all the other evidence pointed to another.  He then moves on to the topic of the importance of recording negative searches.  This article will give you new ideas and encourage you to continue working on your difficult searches.

"Ellis Island Oral Histories- How I learned Something New!" by Heather Rojo

This post also explores the depth one should research without explicitly talking about reasonably exhaustive research.  Heather talks about how she thought that the Ellis Island Oral History database had nothing to offer her because she didn't find anything directly related to her ancestors.  Then a blog post from another writer got her thinking differently.  By changing her approach she found a wealth of information about her ancestors that she never knew before.

These two articles will change the way you approach your research and may help you work through some challenging obstacles just by asking you to think differently.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Have we met?

Laura Prescott just left me a post on my Facebook wall that said "have I met you?" She was being facetious, of course, but it brings back a memory.

Just a few years ago I was a new member in the New England Chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG). I didn't know many genealogists yet. I went to a meeting that was held at NARA in Waltham. I took a seat and the room filled up. Arriving late was Laura Prescott. There weren't too many chairs left so she took the seat next to me. I remember thinking to myself "Wow, Laura Prescott is setting next to me!" I'm not trying to be funny. Laura is one of the most well-known genealogists in New England. After she sat down, she pulled out a salad and started eating away. She apologized to me profusely, saying that she was starving. Not only was this amazing genealogist sitting next to me but she was apologizing to me. What a night!

We've talked many times since that night. I'm happy to say that I now count Laura as one of my favorite colleagues and friends.

For those of you thinking about getting involved in professional genealogy consider joining your local chapter of APG. The reward and fun you will have networking and interacting with your colleagues is priceless.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Speaker Tip: Don't Just Check Your Web Links

Do Check Your Web Links

Recently I was updating my handout for a house history talk.  I give this talk frequently so I update the handout almost monthly.  Part of updating a handout includes checking to make sure all of your links are still correct.  You should take the time to click through every link to make sure they are still working the week or day of the talk.  It can be quite embarrassing to direct your audience to links that don't work.

There is, however, another danger out there you need to keep your eye on.

Watch for Companies that Change URLs

Every so often a company will re-brand itself. They may change their company name or perhaps just their web address.  The challenging part is that they do this slowly over time to give their members or customers time to adapt.  You may still be using the old address on your handout.  A few months down the road your audience will revisit the handout and try the url to find it is no longer available.

A current example of this in the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS).  As a speaker who focuses predominantly on New England research I share their web address quite often. They haven't changed their name but they have changed their web address.  Their old address is  Recently they changed their address to  Currently both sites are functioning.  I would anticipate that sometime in the future they will phase out  I am still using the old address because I am a creature of habit.  Yet I need to keep in mind that it will be better for my lecture attendees if I update that address now and get them started using the new address.

Update Your Handouts 

Before your next talk take a moment to review your handout.  Check all links to make sure they are still accurate.  And think about whether any of the sites may transitioning their urls.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A New Year's Wish List and then some

Martin Hollick, over at The Slovak Yankee, recently made some New Year's resolutions.  As a fellow New Englander I can identify with his desire to start the New Year in September rather than January 1st.  Whether a student or a mother, I've always felt September was a time of renewal and new beginnings.  Honestly, January 1st in New England does not provide a whole lot of inspiration for re-energizing and re-calibrating.  For me, January is all about hot chocolate, warm blankets and snuggling.

In support of Martin's sentiments I've decided to list my own September New Year's Resolutions for my personal genealogical research.

  • Prioritize my family research goals to establish a Top 10 list of ancestors to research
  • Create brief bios for those ancestors complete with footnotes.
  • Scan and digitally file all old family photos then place them on CD to share with family members
  • Revitalize my Edwards Family blog and add to it weekly
  • Plan another research trip to the ancestral homestead in New York with my Dad
  • Learn to use technology better to aid in the discovery and sharing of my family research
How about some weekly goals?!!

After reading Martin's post I read another intriguing one at the blog "Finding Josephine."  The  most recent blog post lays out weekly goals.  These are different from resolutions in that they should be realistically attainable during one week.  Finding Josephine lists three goals for the week. For myself, I think I will choose just one.

GOAL FOR THIS WEEK:  Do a survey of the records available for Bath, Maine from 1750 - 1860.  This will be background information that will allow me to create a research plan for my ancestor, David Turner Shaw.

Time to get to work!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Family Memoirs: What's in a Name?

In my last post, I talked about personal migration patterns.  I emailed that to some family members to encourage them to accept the challenge of writing their history.  In the response I got from my Uncle Bob, he referred to me as Maid Marian.

My Uncle Bob has always referred to me as Maid Marian.  He is the only one who does.  It's a term of endearment, which, from him, I absolutely love.

It got me thinking about names. There is the name that is visible on official family records and then there is the name that family members actually call us.  I know that in certain Spanish or French cultures where Marie/Maria or Jean is used as the first name, the second name is actually the name that is used with family or friends.

In my family, my name is the only one that is not a diminutive or nick name.  My name is Marian and that's what people call me.  But my two brothers are very different.  They each have nicknames/family names that are fairly different from their formal names.  Both of the nicknames were whims of my mother.  I'm not sure why she didn't come up with one for me! Many families have names that are used only by family members while the more formal names are used by less intimate associates or sometimes not at all.

What names are used in your family? Have you ever given thought to the fact that your descendants will not be aware of these names?  They will know you by the names you leave behind in official records.  If you want your descendants to know you by your family name, write it down.  Take a moment to write a few paragraphs about your siblings, parents, children, etc.  Leave a breadcrumb for your descendants to know you better.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Family Memoirs: Don't Forget Your Personal Migration Stories

I am very interested in historical migration, where people went and why. That often gets me thinking about the present. I notice with my own family that we have certain annual migration patterns - visiting family, regular vacation spots, etc.

When I think about my own annual migration pattern it often gets me thinking about past generations and their migrations patterns. If I go on vacation to the same spot every year or visit my siblings, then maybe past generations did the same.

In my mind I am shifting from thinking about the big historic lifetime migrations, say out of New England to the West, to the smaller annual migrations families make. Much can be learned by looking at the annual migrations patterns.

In our own lives our we often overlook our own migration patterns as unimportant. It's just a vacation or visit after all. However, future generations may wonder why did you go to Montreal every year? Without a family connection they may be left wondering.

For instance, my great grandfather, Seeber Edwards, lived his whole adult life in Providence, Rhode Island. Yet I know that he was born on a farm in Glen, Montgomery County, New York. A number of his siblings continued to live out their lives in Glen. I also know that he purchased property in Port St. Lucie, Florida. Whether it was just land or a property with a house on it, I don't know. With this information I can reconstruct that his annual migration patterns may have included one or two of these locations.

Each generation has different migration patterns. My father was raised in a different state than I was. His connections were different too. With the frequency that people move these days, personal migration patterns can change every decade or perhaps even less.

Write Your Story Now

Do your children, grandchildren and descendants a favor and write a brief description of the migration patterns so far in your own life. Let them know why you spent a week in a cottage in Maine every summer. Or stopped to feed the ducks every year at a certain pond in Rhode Island. For that matter, let them know you that you attended the county fair each year.

If you can, write down your parents' migration patterns too. Or better yet, if they are still around, ask them to write it!

Get writing folks! Don't leave your history to public records that may be closed or lost in a digital catastrophe. Give your descendants their own history book to learn from.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

It's Time to Think Out of the Box

I became passionate about genealogy through personal experience.  After I started seriously researching my own family history I experienced a sense of connectedness that was profound.  It wasn't important that my ancestors were mostly farmers and peasants.  What was important important is that they belonged to me and I belonged to them.  I haven't been able to let go of my passion for genealogy ever since.

My passion is a bit overflowing and ever since I've wanted other people to experience the same satisfaction that comes from family history and genealogical research as I've experienced.  I wouldn't mind if the whole country became as obsessed with genealogy as they are with football and baseball.

For this reason, I really try to keep close tabs on the pulse of genealogy.  Over the years we've seen a gradual increase in general interest in genealogy with the PBS programs African American Lives and Ancestors.

Last year things started to really heat up with PBS' Faces of America and NBC's Who Do You Think You Are? (WDYTYA)  Dare I be so bold as to say that WDYTYA was the tipping point?

WDYTYA represents the first serious attempt to bring genealogy to the people.  And it seems to be working.  Not only is WDYTYA coming back for a second season but now the Disney Channel is getting on board as well.  They will be broadcasting a genealogy program geared toward kids.

So why do I care about all this?

I love the genealogical community - both non-profits and the for profits.  I want to see them thrive.

I started tooting the horn a numbers of years ago (on the APG list) saying that the big genealogy wave is coming.  It's here NOW.

What are you doing about it?

In a previous post (The Holy Grail: New Genealogists) I wrote about the importance of connecting with these new potential genealogists and gave suggestions for how different sectors of the genealogical community could engage them.

Thinking Out of the Box

Now I am tracking examples of groups and organizations that are putting ideas into action.  Those groups that are thinking out of the box to attract new genealogists who are not coming from traditional channels.  I'm pleased to say that I am starting to see it happen.


In yesterday's "The Weekly Genealogist" eNews the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) announced that they are teaming up with the Boston Center for Adult Education (BCAE) to provide genealogy classes in September.   This was a brilliant move of thinking out of the box to attract a new audience.  If you want the attention of the 20- and 30-something crowd in Boston then BCAE is the place to do it.  They regularly hold classes on all sorts of topics including the ever popular wine tasting.  The timing is perfect for adding a genealogy class. Now if NEHGS were really clever they would cross the river and do the same thing with the perhaps even more hip, Cambridge Center for Adult Education.

The Providence, Rhode Island Public Library

In October the Providence Public Library will be holding its first ever First Annual Genealogy Symposium.  For a first time event, they are going all out.  They will be hosting three speakers with the headliner being none other than Megan Smolenyak followed right on her heels by The Photo Detective, Maureen Taylor.  I will disclose that I am the third speaker but honestly that was just luck on my part. They picked me from the Boston Public Library posted schedule.  They didn't know my name beforehand.  While technically holding a genealogy symposium is not "Out of the Box" it does show a non-genealogical organization that is very much in tune with what their audience wants and they are ready to provide it.

Note to genealogical organizations:  Keep your eye on public libraries - they have a great sense of what their patrons want.  Why not be proactive and approach them about a program?

The Massachusetts Society of Genealogists (MSOG)

The MSOG Middlesex Chapter is responding to current trends by providing a new "Family Research Day" in addition to their regular Annual Meeting Seminar.  The Family Research Day will be held this Saturday, September 11, 2010.   What is unusual about this program is that beginning genealogy classes are being offered throughout the entire day not just during one track.  That shows a recognition of current trends and initiative to provide a place for new genealogists to gather and learn.

Are you thinking Out of the Box?

Do you have more examples of groups or businesses that are thinking out of the box to engage the latest wave of new genealogists?  If so, send them to me. I'd love to write about them as well.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Community Reference Links - the Wave of the Future

This morning I received a post from The Ancestry Insider titled "Killer Cool! Wow!!!"  With a title like that I knew there had to be something good inside and I wasn't disapointed.

Even before reading the post I saw a graphic that displayed, and Family Photoloom icons all together on one page.  "Interesting!"  I thought to myself, "I wonder what this is all about."

It's all about Community Reference Links

The Ancestry Insider explains that "Community Reference Links is an emerging technology that enables you and the rest of the genealogy community to hook together everything about your ancestor that is on the web. This includes artifacts, photographs, and stories that pertain to an ancestor."

Granted, I don't know much about this because I am seeing it here for the first time.  It seems that the new FamilySearch Tree will have the capability to gather the information about your Ancestors from various places on the internet and provide links to them from within new FamilySearch Tree. 

I wonder how accurate the use of the word "everything" is above.  It seems to me that there are always some spoilers who will prevent their pages from being pulled in by other applications.

Community Reference Links will exponentially allow genealogists to share information with greater ease.  I love the concept.  Kudos to FamilySearch for implementing it.  It will only be a matter of time before everybody does it.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Individual vs. Business Facebook Accounts

I just have to write a quick note here and share some of my thoughts.

Facebook has "accounts" (which can be "friended") for individuals and "pages" for businesses, products and other entities which can be "liked".

It is getting more and more complicated, for me anyway, as genealogists are using individual accounts for their business.

If you are going to use an account for your business please put some information on your INFO tab page that identifies who you are.

Here's why I say this, I get lots of queries about genealogy.  Most of them are NOT in my area of expertise.  So I am constantly referring people to other genealogists.

This morning I saw a post from a Facebook friend with a "business" account.  This Facebook friend looked very knowledgeable about New York.  I would like to contact this person but there is no name anywhere in the posts or on the info page.

I know, you are saying "just send the person an email."  Unfortunately I'm a bit of an old fuddy duddy.  I like to know who I am contacting first.  When I friended this person originally maybe I knew they were, but since then I have lost the connection between the real person and the company name.  So many genealogists are known better by their real name rather than their company.

So just a thought for those of you using Facebook individual accounts for your business instead of a business page - put your name(s) on your page.  Thanks!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Have you visited your local library lately?

I think one of the toughest things about being a blogger is that there are so many great ideas and discussions happening everywhere.  Too many ideas and not enough time to write and ponder further.  For instance, this morning I received The Weekly Genealogist eNews newsletter from NEHGS.  In it there were two items that really got me thinking and I haven't even made it through the whole newsletter yet. 

Today's newsletter posted the results to last week's survey which asked readers how often they visit their local public library for genealogy research.  The results showed that 33% never go to their library for genealogy research and 50% never use the library website.

NEHGS makes a great point that those people likely believe that if a library doesn't have a genealogy section/room then it has nothing to offer.  I would suggest you read the article (not online at this moment but likely will be soon) to learn about the great resources that every library offers genealogists.

This got me thinking.  Have you done an analysis of all that your local public library has to offer?

I have to ask myself first - how much do I know about my library?

My library does have a little local history room.  For being such a small room, it is jammed packed with helpful items.  Every time I visit I find new discoveries.  For instance, this room contains many of the "tan books" for Massachusetts - the vital records up to 1850.  It also has a number of other genealogical standard books, most particular to Massachusetts.  However, I can also find special items such as oral history tapes, old maps (some of which have copies that are for sale), old newspapers, old local yearbooks, town reports and residents lists.  One of my favorite groups of items are the binders put together by local residents full of newspaper clippings and information about the town. I am quite happy to spend hours in this room when I get the chance.  That happens far too rarely.

There is much more available in my library than what is found in the history room.  Sometimes I forget that.  My library offers access to on its in-house computers.  I don't use this feature much because I have my own US-only subscription.  However, if I were to do international research I would definitely take advantage of that.

My library also has a genealogy section in the regular stacks.  This is the section I tend to forget about most.  I have to admit that my library's genealogy skill book section is woefully small compared to other local libraries.  After you check out the genealogy books in your own library there is one more section of the stacks you need to visit.  Search the catalog to find the local history books.  This is where you will find those huge county histories (affectionately referred to as mug books by genealogists) that may contain the names of your ancestors.  You will likely also find the Images of America series of books by Arcadia Publishing that provides historical photos of local places.  Also, don't forget, if you don't find the books you are looking for  you can ask your library to order them.  It doesn't guarantee that they will buy the books but it will definitely put the books on their radar and let the library know that their patrons are interested in genealogy.  My library has pre-made slips that can be filled out for requesting new books.

But wait - there's more.

Don't forget to check out the video and audio book sections.  The video section will have many PBS programs including Faces of America.  In the audio book section I regularly take out the Great Courses Series CDs on American history which are wonderful to listen to on long driving trips.

My local library also puts a lot of local history resources up on its website.  There you can find vital records, a cemetery transcription and genealogical information on the early settlers.  I use it regularly because it's so easy to access.

In addition to all that you still have more options in the form of your knowledgeable  library staff and library network/interlibrary loan.

I challenge you to survey your local public library and see what you can find.  You can post your results here in the comment field or you can write a post on your own blog and leave me with a link to follow.

I'm looking forward to seeing what you discover!