Sometimes a story that needs to be told could be right outside your door. Perhaps you just failed to comprehend, or it just grew too familiar and as a result, gave it no real thought. This post is a small footnote in the telling of this much larger story, and I hope a means for some to help find their family’s story. This story was found in my wife’s backyard in her childhood home
This is a picture of my brother-in-law playing Frisbee with his young nephew (out of picture) in my wife’s family backyard. The two trees with the overgrown bushes between them are the Treadwell family graves. In the upper right hand part of the picture you can see part of Lake Champlain. That is Treadwell Bay. My wife and I use to walk through her grandfather’s pastures to swim and picnic there when we were dating.
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Written by Lela Nargi
Originally published on Mental Floss:
Genealogy is one of the most popular hobbies in the United States and a billion-dollar industry, but few people know what actually goes into tracking down ancestors—let alone putting information about them into any kind of context. Mental Floss talked to three professional genealogists to learn more about their increasingly in-demand profession, and discovered why they love weird last names, why they’re indebted to the Mormons and the Quakers, and how television is making their job more difficult.
1. MOST OF THEM DON’T HAVE DEGREES IN THE FIELD.
There’s only one accredited four-year genealogy degree program in the U.S.—bachelors at Brigham Young University in Utah. Those who can’t make it to Utah can enroll in certificate programs, such as the one offered at Boston University, where Melinde Byrne teaches. “A lot of people sign up [at certificate programs] thinking it’ll be simple,” she says. Unfortunately, lots of people then fail when they discover how much work the program really is. Learning how to use databases, evaluate evidence, document research, locate and search public records, and define genealogical terms is essential knowledge for genealogists-in-training. Other course offerings may teach about ethics in DNA testing, how to read historical documents in multiple languages, and the best methods for writing historical narratives.
But those who don’t want to commit to a whole certificate can take advantage of other, less formal options, such as classes in conjunction with library science programs, lectures offered by historical and other societies, and week-long intensives at institutes around the country.
2. THEY’RE BOUND BY PROFESSIONAL STANDARDS TO CONDUCT “EXHAUSTIVE” RESEARCH.
Unlike, say, doctors or lawyers, genealogists don’t need a specific qualification to practice. But they’re still guided by professional standards—including the five Genealogical Proof Standards developed by the Board for Certification of Genealogists, a non-profit in D.C. The five standards are considered best practices for coming “as close as possible to what actually happened in history,” and include 1) “reasonably exhaustive research,” 2) “complete and accurate source citations,” 3) “thorough analysis and correlation,” 4) “resolution of conflicting evidence,” and 5) a “soundly written conclusion based on the strongest evidence.”
Professional researchers may have differing opinions about what constitutes “reasonably exhaustive” research, but most agree that it means visiting archives and making sure to cover all the bases—for example, looking at not just a death certificate to confirm a name and age, but census, birth, and burial records as well, to build a fuller picture and to corroborate it. “If you don’t do all the steps in the genealogical proof standard, then the conclusions aren’t convincing,” Byrne says.
3. THEY OFTEN DISCOVER THEY HAVE A KNACK FOR GENEALOGY WHEN THEY’RE INVESTIGATING THEIR OWN FAMILIES FOR FUN.
Byrne, for example, looked into her family’s history and discovered that “my own father and mother would never have met if my great grandmother in Alsace-Lorraine hadn’t had a goiter.” This medical condition led her to circumvent Ellis Island’s rigorous physical exam in favor of entering the country via Boston, setting a whole new family history—and her parents’ eventual meeting—in motion.
Genealogists will often continue to use their research tools on their own families later in their careers, too. Lee Arnold, who oversees the collections at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP), has used them to research his family’s past. “One of my ancestors fought with the South Carolina militia during the Revolutionary War,” he says, and service records indicated that he’d “lost his horse.” To Arnold, who grew up on a horse farm, “That meant, I fell off my horse and he beat me back to the barn.” He later learned that the phrase actually meant that a person’s horse had been shot out from under him. These are the kinds of details that get people hooked on genealogy, according to the experts—“how their lives compare to mine, how … the things they did and didn’t do helped to form me,” Byrne says.
4. SOME OF THEM CHARGE MORE THAN $100 AN HOUR.
Genealogists are often hired by families who are curious about their past or hoping to join lineage societies such as the Colonial Dames; by specific libraries or archives; or by companies such as ancestry.com, who have genealogists on staff. Fees generally vary by experience and project, although they tend to start around $20/hour (for simple record searches) and go over $100/hour, with a mid-range of around $55 per hour.
Arnold says there are three levels of genealogical research he’ll personally take on: research limited to HSP’s holdings; research that takes him anywhere in the Philadelphia area; and “our Cadillac version, where we’ll get nana to talk to us about her life in the shtetl.”
5. THEIR RESEARCH SOMETIMES UNCOVERS FAMILY SECRETS.
Be careful what you wish for when you decide to go deep: “I always tell prospective clients, ‘This can be life-changing,'” Byrne says. “‘You may find half-siblings and other relatives you never imagined existed.’”
HSP’s director of research services, David Haugaard, says that clients can be stunned to learn about family members who were deliberately kept hidden. “Within so many families there are people who are written off … somebody might have [had] a mentally ill sibling who was kept secret. It’s less common today than it was, so when people are doing genealogy, it’s not uncommon to learn about people in fairly recent history [who were ignored]. You start to learn that the family was more complex than realized.”
6. BIBLES CAN BE UNEXPECTEDLY USEFUL.
Genealogists use plenty of sources you might not suspect would be helpful. Family bibles, in particular, can offer a wealth of relevant tidbits, since they were once often used to record births, deaths, and marriages. Scrapbooks, tax and church records, land deeds, and the 1870 Census (the first to list African Americans after emancipation) can also be goldmines. So can letters, whether provided by the family or found in manuscript collections, which might casually mention a family member’s birthday or offer snippets about day-to-day existence. “You can gather lots of information from them in a real-life kind of way,” Byrne says.
7. THEY OFTEN FIND MISTAKES IN ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS.
Genealogists know it’s key to consult paper sources—and to give a critical eye to the “facts” they offer. Arnold recalls a colleague becoming confused when an ancestry site listed her grandfather as white and from North Carolina when she knew he was black and from Louisiana. “I was able to go into the original documents and see that they had been transcribed wrong,” Arnold says—a common occurrence for sites outsourcing work to other countries. (Another common transcription error: mistaking a florid handwritten 17th century S for an F.)
That doesn’t mean paper sources are error-free, of course. Sometimes mistakes were made in the original documents themselves: Census workers may have misspelled names or miscounted children; priests may have mismarked birth dates on baptismal certificates. Pros know how to cross-reference all that, too … with more documents!
8. THE WEIRDER YOUR LAST NAME, THE MORE THEY LIKE IT.
“I often tell people we’re like private investigators looking for dead people—we know your ancestors have to be there; you didn’t just hatch from an egg,” Arnold says. “The problem is, it’s so labor-intensive for a common name; you could spend hours looking at the wrong Smith. It’s better if you have an obscure last name.” Names like Brown, White, Jones, and Johnson are especially tough—although matters can be made easier if family members had a distinctive first name (“Napoleon Jones” will be easier than “John Jones,” for example).
9. THERE’S A WHOLE FIELD THAT DEALS WITH LEGAL CASES.
Forensic genealogists—like Byrne—apply genealogical tools and principles to cases with legal ramifications. In the process, they often solve mysteries. Byrne might track down a next of kin for someone seeking the heir to a family fortune, or to repatriate the remains of a soldier killed in action. One of Byrne’s colleagues helped a woman prove that the man who kidnapped her as a girl was not her father—and was, in fact, a grisly serial killer. Another forensic genealogist discredited a woman who claimed she was raised by wolves and that she killed Nazis while hiding out in the woods. Sometimes, Byrne says, the tip-off comes just from talking to relatives; in the wolf case, for example, “Her first cousin was still living and he basically said, ‘Misha always had such an incredible imagination.’”
The man thought to be the Golden State Killer and East Area Rapist was also caught using forensic genealogy strategies. Police compared DNA found at the killer’s crime scenes with DNA test results from an unidentified genealogy site and found a match with a user of the site. The user wasn’t the killer himself, but by going through their family tree for the potential suspect who matched clues in the case, police found their man. “The techniques used to find the Golden State Killer combined solid police work with genetic genealogists’ principles,” Byrne says. “This is done routinely to reunite children and birth families, to identify the remains of KIA or MIA soldiers, and increasingly to identify John Does, Jane Does, and Baby Does.”
10. THEY’RE GRATEFUL TO THE MORMONS …
A good number of online records exist thanks to the efforts of Mormons. For years, they’ve been sending missionaries to HSP and other archives to scan hundreds of thousands of family histories, usually in exchange for a royalty and free access to the scans for the society’s patrons. What’s their interest? Posthumous baptisms for the family members who weren’t Mormon—so they can stay together in heaven. Genealogists agree the scans are a tremendous asset to researchers, with a caveat: Not even close to everything is scanned, and mistakes are also common. “You still need to use as many different paper sources as you can,” Haugaard advises.
11. … AND THE QUAKERS.
Some things would make genealogical research a snap—for example, if your ancestors were Quakers. According to Haugaard, that’s because the Quakers were always issuing certificates; when someone moved, say, to use as an introduction at the Quaker Meeting in a new town, and also when they were kicked out of the community. “Lots of [mid-18th century] Quakers got in trouble for fighting, or drinking, or marrying out of unity, then were disowned,” Haugaard says. What that means is, “Basically, they kept great records.”
12. GENEALOGY SHOWS DRIVE THEM NUTS.
Grudgingly, Arnold admits that TV shows like Finding Your Roots and Genealogy Roadshow have “introduced people to genealogy and made it really hot—I mean, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an ancestry.com commercial.” But the shows have also given people unreasonable expectations about what genealogy can and cannot do. Byrne says, “People don’t understand that [the history] is not all laid out in front of you” as it typically is on TV. Arnold says he fields requests from patrons who ask him to “‘Tell me about my ancestors, just like that guy on TV did.’ They think it’s easy and quick.” In fact, what Arnold calls those “ta-da” moments offered by hosts like Henry Louis Gates Jr. are actually made possible by professional genealogists hired to painstakingly research ancestry over the course of days, weeks, months.
13. IT’S EASIER FOR THEM TO RESEARCH YOUR ANCESTORS IF THEY WERE RICH.
Ancestors with less money—who maybe didn’t own property or pay taxes—can be less likely to leave a paper trail. But employment agency, almshouse, prison, and orphanage records can get the research ball rolling, as can advertisements offering rewards for runaway indentured servants. Haugaard explains that charity society records also frequently provide details: Society workers would visit families and “make records indicating the woman of the household’s name, how many people were in the household, what religion they were, and what charity they received, like coal or groceries.”
14. PERSECUTED GROUPS CAN BE A MAJOR CHALLENGE.
Three groups of people looking for their roots make Arnold steel himself for some rigorous research. If the case involves African Americans, Native Americans, or Jews, “I know this is going to be a tough one,” he says. That’s because their records are often scant or nonexistent. Slaves often weren’t allowed to marry (or their marriages were never recorded); Native Americans didn’t traditionally write their histories down; and Jews fleeing Europe during World War II often had all family records destroyed as synagogues and villages were torched. Sometimes, their papers were falsified in order for people to survive.
These factors make picking up someone’s trail difficult, if not impossible. “I had one woman come in to a talk I was giving and say, ‘How do I start? All my ancestors were killed in the Holocaust,’” Arnold remembers. “And I said, ‘Alright, then your ancestry starts with you. Document your life for your [descendants].”
15. THEY MIGHT ENCOURAGE YOU TO THINK TWICE ABOUT DNA TESTING.
According to Arnold, DNA test results can be sketchy. His own experience with DNA tests from seven companies yielded seven different results, some of them “bizarre”: “One said my family was from Tuscany, but I’m paler than a Presbyterian. Another said I was 5 percent African American. Another said I was Swedish—and that probably means that they found a gene from some randy Viking pillaging the Scots Irish 1000 years ago.”
Part of the problem is that DNA test kits are dependent on data from other people who have taken the tests, which means they are more accurate for some well-represented groups than others. (For example, an American with Irish background taking the test may get a more reliable result than someone whose ancestors were of Middle Eastern descent, since people from the Middle East tend to be less represented in the database.) Also, different companies are working with different data sets, and using different algorithms—which can produce different results.
Haugaard also says that DNA testing may tell you some things you don’t want to know. He recounts a story about a man who connected deeply with his Irish heritage, yet DNA testing undertaken by his family showed he was Jewish, switched at birth with an Irish-American baby. “He passed away before he could learn that,” Haugaard says.
An interview with Family History for Youth podcast.
Becky Villareal is retired teacher, presenter, family genealogist, and author of three fictional children’s books and one young adult book dealing with genealogical research. She spends her time speaking at schools and genealogical societies, writing, and taking care of grandchildren.
on Family History for Youth
- Becky shares how she discovered a love of genealogy as searched for her maternal ancestors
- Hear the reasons why Becky cares about sharing family history with her children and grandchildren
- Discover the delightful tale of Gianna the Great
- Gain insight on how to discuss difficult family history situations with kids
- Learn Becky’s best tips from her teaching days about how to hook elementary age children on family history
Since we can’t get together in person, come say hello onInstagramor drop…
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A great article!
“When the legend becomes fact…print the legend”:
The tragic death of Johann Conrad “JC” Muehleisen
By Jacqueline L. Starkey
Melcena Irvine Millison, 1889 – from family collection
My feisty, opinionated grandmother detested her middle name. That name was Melcena, given to her in honor of her grandmother, Melcena Millison. As a child, I was fascinated by this name that appeared to be handed down to unwilling recipients and was thankful that my parents did not follow family naming traditions.
When I began researching my maternal line, Melcena’s life was a focus area. I quickly found that to understand Melcena, I had to learn about her father, my third-great-grandfather, then known as Unknown Millison. Since no family researchers had yet identified him, he was a true brick wall. My research to break down that wall led me on a virtual journey starting in Germany and ending in Deadwood, South Dakota. Along…
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Pictures have a way of inspiring my writing and this one, in particular, speaks volumes.
This is what the artist, Nyree Reynolds, says about her wonderful painting.
Sometimes events happen in life that forces us to remember. We go about our busy lives – taking kids to soccer and football, or picking up grandchildren (depending on your phase of life) and trying to fit exercise into our schedule and then bam! Something happens and we are forced into remembering our ancestors – those who have gone before us or even those we have had lifelong relationships that have passed. That happened to me this week.
When my mom called to tell me my Aunt Linda had passed away I wasn’t surprised. She really hasn’t been with us for several years. Her mind has been trapped by dementia and the lively, kind sometimes sassy aunt I adored just wasn’t herself for so very long. But at the news of her passing I was surprised by the sadness I felt, but also the happiness as my memories of her came flooding back. I talked to my husband about it, who hadn’t really known my aunt when she was healthy, I talked to my kids, because they knew how much I loved her, but the true remembering didn’t come until I talked to my sister. We talked for a long time about close experiences we each had with her and how thankful we were for parents who gave us opportunities to love our aunts and uncles even though we love and miss them when they are gone. But the most important part of our talk was, you guessed it, the remembering.
For the past few nights since her death, as I’ve tried to find sleep I remember her. The way she smelled (of some kind of floral lotion she wore), the way she looked (always beautiful – perfect makeup and hair) and the way she sounded (she was from Texas and her southern drawl was both appealing and comforting.) She could shop like no other and put on a “supper” spread that would make anyone hungry. Those memories are sweet to me and I feel the need to capture them. But remembering her late at night isn’t enough. I need to document her life – remember her with purpose. How? Write it down! Journal it! Record her life story somewhere so other people can enjoy it. That is the true power in remembering.
A few weeks ago I wrote about how important it is to teach our children to remember who they are. (Read it here.) But why is it important for adults to remember our family history and stories? I have a few ideas.
Remembering ancestors gives us confidence.
Everyone deserves to be remembered.
It brings us closer to our living and dead relatives.
It helps us understand who we are.
Uncovering the mysteries of our ancestors keeps our minds sharp and it is fun!
1. Remembering ancestors gives us confidence.
I have done quite a bit of research as to why telling our children their family stories gives them confidence and it only makes sense it does the same for us as adults. How many of your great-grandparents can you name? Do you know a story for each? Discovering those stories can be somewhat of a miracle in our lives. The other day my husband made a huge discovery with his family history, finding an ancestor that fought in the Revolutionary War directly with George Washington. Wow! No matter how distant that relative is, how can you not feel good about yourself knowing someone with your blood rubbed elbows with George Washington? Professional genealogist, Jacqueline Kirk, said she got “hooked” on genealogy when she found a census record from the UK 1901 census. She learned new skills and found she had a talent for the work. “When my husband died family history gave me an escape from grief. I have made so many friends in the family history world and at a time when my confidence was low family history research restored my self-esteem. I owe it a lot,” she said.
It seems the confidence that comes from remembering is two-pronged: Yes, finding family stories takes time and energy, but once a project is completed it is something to be proud of. That gives us confidence. Also, learning the amazing stories of our families can fortify us to combat hard things. The video below by Sheri Dew speaks to that point.
2. Everyone deserves to be remembered.
At RootsTech this past year one of the quotes that stood out to me the most came from FamilySearch CEO, Steve Rockwood: “Everyone deserves to be remembered.” As he said it you could hear a collective intake of breath around the room. Such a simple thought, but so profound. Yes, everyone does deserve to be remembered. I was working on a project earlier this year trying to piece some sort of story together from a gentleman’s family during Civil War times. As I was looking at the lists of names and dates a semblance of a life well-lived started to come together. Until that project, he was a name on a census. With some diligent digging, he emerged as a Civil War Veteran who traveled back and forth between his home and the battlefield. He was remembered. And he more than deserved it.
Family historian, Liz Gauffreau, started researching her maternal grandmother’s education after being inspired by a photograph of her university days during World War I. Now she feels a kinship to her that she didn’t have when she was alive. “What means the most to me is that I’ve been able to show this side of her through my blog. She was such a private person that the family sold her short,” she said. She deserved to be remembered and Liz did it right.
3. It brings us closer to our relatives – both living and dead.
It’s no secret that remembering brings us closer to our relatives who have gone before, but what about those still alive? About 20 years ago my husband and I did a project where we interviewed every family member on my mother’s side from my grandma and grandpa right down to my youngest cousin. We had dozens of videotapes chronicling all the memories shared. Last year we digitized them and shared them on our family Facebook page just a week before our family reunion. The reaction was something special. My cousin Chris Ellis wrote, “I love this so much. Thank you, Matt and Rachel, for this. It is really emotional for me to hear Grandpa and Grandma voices and the stories. That is shorthand for it made me cry… and laugh, and made me happy.” His was one of many echoing the same sentiment. Our family had this moment of closeness because we all remembered together.
I think for many of us who remember our ancestors through genealogy or story writing we feel a tug of the divine as we do the work. I am a firm believer those ancestors are close by helping us find their dates and their stories. That spark keeps us going in the work and we feel a sense of closeness that is hard to describe to others until we experience it ourselves. The phrase “angels among us” comes to mind. My writing partner, Rhonda Lauritzen, had one of those moments and writes about it in detail here. She talked about waking with a start at 3 a.m. Instead of lying awake in bed, she decided to get up and do some work. She started to peruse the Utah Genealogical Society newsletter and ran across a story that loosely related to an ancestor’s story she and her brother had spoken about the day before. She emailed it to him with a quick note: “I thought I’d forward in light of our conversation yesterday.’ A few hours later, Matthew emails me back and says, ‘Very Interesting, Rhonda. Look at the last full paragraph on page two. The Indian girl, Waddie, is the exact girl I was reading about and mentioned to you.’” Rhonda said,
“The hairs on my arm prickle, as though I was awakened at 3 a.m. to find this story. As though the story wants to be known.”
Rhonda wondered if the Native American woman in the story, Nellie Leithead Justet, wanted to be remembered.
4. It helps us understand who we are.
As adults, although we don’t always like to admit it out loud, we feel a little lost at times. We wonder what our purpose is or if we are doing it right. My oldest child is 23 and I am still waiting to feel like a “grown-up” myself! Remembering our family gives us purpose and helps us understand who we are.
Diane Lund belongs to the Geneablogger’s Tribe and found an interesting sense of belonging in doing some family history research.
“I started researching after I found a purple velvet cover photo album with photos from the mid 19th century. It belonged to my grandmother. I only recognized a couple of people, so I started to look for any writing or clues in the photos. There were a few pictures that were taken in Rome – odd, since my grandmother was from Pennsylvania. My brother was able to identify the photographer was the official Vatican photographer. One of the photos was my great grandmother’s brother, John, who was sent to Rome to study and who became a Catholic priest. I found the marriage record for my great grandparents, Ida and Charles, and Fr. John was the officiant. It means a little more to me because my uncle was a Catholic priest and was the officiant at my parents’ and my sister’s wedding and my brother is a Catholic priest and he was the officiant at my wedding.”
For Diane and so many others, finding a link or connection to an ancestor we have something in common with gives us a greater sense of self. Seeing old photos and seeing family resemblances is only the beginning of the commonalities that link our families together. DNA is helping people make breakthrough discoveries about themselves and others. I loved what renowned DNA expert CeCe Moore had to say at RootsTech in 2017. In her keynote address, CeCe noted that DNA helps human beings connect – something we all long for. “It’s providing answers to hundreds of thousands – maybe even millions of people,” she said. One of the most important things she’s learned is how strong biological bonds are. She doesn’t want to push aside nurturing, but has found that our ancestors live on through us and that nature has a “profound effect on who we are.” DNA helps genealogists find out everything they can, not just what appears on a chart. Read more about DNA and connections here.
5. Uncovering the mysteries of our ancestors keeps our minds sharp and it is fun!
I was talking to my aunt recently about why she loves family history and she said, “I feel like I’m an investigator putting together an important puzzle.” And she’s right. Family history and trying to find the stories so we can remember keeps us thinking and keeps our minds sharp. Remembering isn’t about living in the past it’s about giving meaning to lives well-lived so we can have one of those well-lived lives ourselves. Unlocking and discovering our ancestors keeps us on our toes in a new and interesting way. Last summer I was looking for some photos of my great-grandmother on FamilySearch. I was shocked to find a large downloaded history that I didn’t know existed. After all, only my grandfather and his descendants knew the history, right? Wrong. This relative wrote these words: “I hope that someone will come along that has the talent of writing to write this better than I can. For now here is the history.” I believe she wrote those words for me over 20 years ago. Now I need to get to work to write the history into story form. I’m glad she was looking out for me to keep my mind sharp and help me to remember.
I hope that one day I will be that helpful for someone else. We find connections to places and events through remembering family stories the provide deep and abiding spiritual and personal connections. The hard life stories of our ancestors make us stronger as well. Please enjoy a few related to articles to the place, history and overcoming obstacles that make remembering all the more important.
At the end of all the remembering it does us no good if we don’t either record it orally or write it down. One of the best things that can be done is to create a story that can be cherished for generations. Here are a few tips to get the ball rolling.
Whatever way you enjoy uncovering the family history and telling family stories, the key is to do it now and it will be enough. Pick a category of family history to work on and get started. We would love to hear your feedback on why you love to remember! Please share a few ideas and stories of your own remembering journey!
Rachel J. Trotter is a senior writer/editor at Evalogue.Life – Tell Your Story. She tells people’s stories and shares hers to encourage others. She loves family storytelling. A graduate of Weber State University, she has had articles featured on LDSLiving.com and Mormon.org. She and her husband Mat have six children and live on the East Bench in Ogden, Utah.
A wonderful video from Chickasaw TV