Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Organizing and Storing Your Family History Data – My Thoughts

A friend of mine, actually an uncle of my grandsons, has recently been the recipient of his aunt’s voluminous family history files and is now going through the process of organizing and storing them. His Aunt Marion worked for decades assembling information about their family, storing most of it on paper, though. She was never really efficient or familiar with computers and genealogy programs. So Sandy’s task of preserving the data is immense.

He has asked how I keep my files and what programs I use as he is aware of the years I have put into finding family information. He does access my family data on our personal website which uses The Next Generation software – which I do heartily recommend for people who want to put their material online and accessible to other family members.

Sandy is like many people, using laptops as a primary method of working. I still have a desktop that is in use all day, every day, with two large monitors so that I can open several files and websites at the same time. I also like the ideas of being able to see more of the files I am working at and using a separate keyboard. It’s just the way I work.

Sandy has asked my advice about family history software and computer equipment on a few occasions. I don’t usually write here about how to organize data, as there are so many others who offer such great advice. But I thought I would answer his questions as part of a blog post and share some of my thoughts on organization and preservation of data with other readers. So here are some of Sandy’s questions and comments over the past several weeks along with my replies to him:

Wayne:  I was informed that you have now taken charge of all Marion’s boxes of family files. Over the years she gave me lists and summaries of family information but not copies of actual BMD or other documents. Through my own subscriptions I have downloaded a few documents, mostly censuses. But I have not spent a lot of time with the families.

Sandy: I have huge numbers of BMDs and many other original documents and letters.  Many early photos as well. This family treasure is open to you of course. I will need to email you quite extensively in a few months from now on the best equipment to buy and how best to arrange this material. I figure it will take me several years to input everything, but that is what i am going to do. I look forward to doing the work and am now taking a first look at everything. I have already started to add much data to MyHeritage set up. You have access to this I believe. God knows I have grabbed hundreds of pieces of data from your info online!

Wayne: I am happy to help with any organization suggestions. I was glad to hear that Marion’s vast treasure trove of data was not trashed and that someone like you with an interest in family history took it all over. Yes I do have access to your family tree on MyHeritage but have to confess I have spent practically no time looking at it. Just did so and discovered so many photos of your ancestors as a start. Wonderful! It does look like you have a great beginning with your family tree on MyHeritage.

In terms of sharing documents and files, we might set up a Dropbox where each of us can put copies and take copies. I have done away with a lot of paper files now, except for the originals that have come down through family members. They are, in my mind, the same as antiques and physical memorabilia and need to be kept. Any documents I have found online are stored digitally now, in specific family files, on my computer  – and backed up offsite in the cloud, of course (never forget to do that).

I only have my entire tree on our Shepheard family site – although it needs a bit of updating. I did end up with a copy on MyHeritage years ago because I had stored it with a predecessor company that was taken over by MyHeritage. It is woefully out-of-date but I still get notices of matches regularly through my subscription. Unfortunately many of those matches are wrong or I never hear from other tree-owners when I ask questions or confirm matches.

I do regularly visit Ancestry and have found several relatives on some trees there. I have made a few contacts there with who I have shared information. I also have had (related) people contact me through my blog posts look me up, as well as through the websites I maintain for my Online Parish Clerk volunteer position.

Anyway I am looking forward to learning more about my grandsons’ family through you.

Sandy: I have purchased a MacBook Air. It is quite small, but I do my work on a small table in my bedroom or on my lap in the living room on my Lazyboy.  I also have an apple iPad and will probably buy an iPhone as well. Apple does not seem to like sharing with android, so, I will go all Mac.

Wayne: Good luck with your organization of all the new data. There are some genealogical programs suitable for Mac users of course if you want to keep your data on your own machine where, incidentally and most importantly, it can be backed up to one of the cloud servers. If you are not already connected to something like Carbonite or one of the others then I very strongly recommend it. I have had a computer crash before and lost hundreds of files and emails I had saved, including my latest family history summary. I do not want to go through that again, especially with all the data and photos I have stored digitally. My daughter has us set up on Carbonite which automatically scans our computers and updates regularly. I am copying this email to her in case you want to consult with her about the technology.

I do recommend that you scan all documents and photos and keep them on your own computer or other device and so they can be backed up. The originals should be placed in archival binders, file folders or boxes to preserve them. All my family photos are now in binders for safekeeping and future access. You may have read my blog post on Digitizing Memories a few months ago. All of our immediate family albums have been scanned and I am in the process of uploading them to Google Photos so that our kids and grandkids can see them. I will do the same with the six leather-bound albums of historical photos one of these days. The individual photos in those, though, have been scanned and are on my computer. That is one of the very important things to do with such material so that if anything happens to the paper records (floods, fire, vandalism, etc.) you will still have the memories saved.

Sandy: I have been learning about memory sticks and how to use them.

Wayne: Memory sticks are fine for transferring data from one place or person to another. As with other forms of copying and storage – floppy disks, VHR tapes, CDs, DVDs, etc. – very little is known about how long they will last. I think the common perception is that they won’t last forever and that eventually they will all fail, be replaced or the information on them will become degraded. The safest place I have found to preserve information is on one of the subscriber sites where storage of data is maintained in the cloud but still accessible anytime, anywhere and by anyone you choose.

By the way, whatever method you choose to organize and store information, be sure there is someone who will be able to inherit it or take over management of it when you are gone. Otherwise the information could be lost forever.

Sandy: I think that I will continue with MyHeritage and my experiment with one of the others. I haven’t seriously got a plan yet. I am still reading through the documents which will take the next six months or so.

Wayne: Once your history data is entered into whatever program you use you can throw away the scraps of paper. Again, I keep my families all in separate folders, in an overall Genealogy folder, on my hard drive, so they are easy to find, review and update. As you go back in time the numbers of families increases exponentially, so you need to keep separate files in order to be able to recall and work on the data. I find it easier to do on the computer while I know others still have file cabinets full of paper.

MyHeritage is fine for organizing data (and finding cousins) but it is not a place where everyone can access it if you want to share with family members. Nor are any of the other similar online sites. Copying information, especially photos, is challenging on MyHeritage as one cannot get a very good quality reproduction. Again it is important that you have someone who can take over the site when you are gone. Not all websites or services have a way to assign a beneficiary but most do allow a second contact person or co-manager. A serious problem can occur when a subscriber dies and no one takes over or renews the subscription. In those cases, all data may be deleted.

A separate family history website serves the purpose of sharing data as does a Dropbox folder. The latter is also a good way to store information.

Sandy: Do you secretly desire to write a dialogue or a book on your family? I have no illusions about my talent as a writer, even if I did study literature and history in college. But I see such a cavalcade of historic flow here that it makes me what to organize everything together verbally.

Wayne: I have written a book on my Shepheard ancestors in Devon. It was printed with a soft cover and distributed to those family members who were willing to pay for the cost of printing. It had histories of each generation back to my 8th great-grandparents and contained copies of all BMD, census and other records. I wanted to be able to share what I had learned with the family. I just finished a shorter version for Linda’s paternal ancestors. We have not got beyond her 2nd great-grandparents yet but at least it’s a start. My brother-in-law has done a DNA test, so we hope we can find ancestors further back through other cousins who may have also tested.

As for writing ability, I always tell people anyone can set down their thoughts. If they need help they can always find others to edit or proofread. I wrote about this in another blog post last year, Helpful Hints to Writing Anything.


Readers of this post may have many comments on technology, equipment or methodology. Feel free to share your thoughts.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Who's living with who?

A query from one of my distant cousins on the Devon Rootsweb list posed a question about why some people were labelled as visitors or lodgers when they were, in fact, related to the head of household. In the case of Pamela’s finding, it seems the head of household’s mother was referred to as a “lodger” rather than as his mother. You can find the thread of the discussion here.

Anyone who has been through census records, on any continent, which I imagine includes everyone reading this post, has likely found inconsistencies in how information was recorded – not counting misspellings – particularly with regard to relationships. Some records may not indicate there was a familial connection. Others may have the wrong relationship.

I wrote about relatives name Charles Pearson a while back (What can you find out from a will? Part 3). I was trying to track down a great-granduncle of that name. Another man named Charles Pearson had been named in his aunt’s will (Blog 170) but I was having a difficult time tracking him down as well and figuring out who his father was. I found the Charles named in the will on the 1901 England census, living with an older man of the same name. He was shown as a nephew of the older Charles. The older Charles had been born in Australia which was important information because my great-granduncle had been born there. That kind of confirmed in my mind that both were the family members. The younger Charles turned out to be the son of another great-granduncle, James Pearson who had died in 1897 when young Charles was only five years old. Anyway, young Charles ended up being mostly raised by his uncle and aunt. To make a longer story short, in 1911 he was living with his married cousin, Emmie (Pearson) Taylor, a daughter of the older Charles, but he was described as a brother-in-law of Emmie’s husband, Joseph. Quite obviously Charles and Emmie thought of themselves as siblings; either that or the enumerator did not know how to describe someone who was a cousin of the wife of the head of the household.

I have found many children who were living with grandparents, siblings or aunts and uncles, as shown on census records. That indicates to me that families were quite close and tended to take care of each other when times required it. Sometimes step-children were labelled as in-laws, or vice versa. Before adoption was formalized, children may have been recorded as step-children or just sons and daughters. Often they were been shown with the head of household’s name even when they had not been formally or informally adopted. I have found a few people by searching for them using their forenames only.

In my wife’s family, I found her great-grandparents, William and Mary Ann (Anderson) Milne, and her 2nd great-grandmother, Isabella (Norrie) Anderson, on the 1871 Scotland census, living at the same address. At first I was not sure these were the right people as one surname was written as Mills. The reproduction of the image was also not of great quality either which added to the uncertainty. From the names of all the people in the household, along with their ages, places of birth and occupations, though, I concluded they were Linda’s ancestors.
 
1871 Scotland Census - 111 High Street, Forres, Morayshire - showing families of William & Mary Ann Milne and Isabella Anderson (retrieved from ScotlandsPeople 4 September 2017)
On the particular census record there were two heads of families in the building. One was William, of course, and the second was Isabella Anderson. Attached to William’s family was an Elizabeth Anderson, servant. From the surname it might have been assumed this person was related. In fact we believe she was William’s sister-in-law, Mary Ann’s sister. In Isabella’s household was a two-year old, Mary Ann McLean, a granddaughter. She turned out to be the illegitimate daughter of another sister of Mary Ann and Elizabeth, Isabella. I have not yet found what happened to this Isabella. It is possible that she married or died before the 1871 census. At any rate, Mary Ann McLean was still living with her grandmother in 1881 although I have not found her after that census. So we had all kinds of history on this one document, even though some of it was confusing.

In the discussion about relationship issues on censuses, there were many suggestions about how this might come about. Most people responding think that the enumerator was “not sure who the old lady in the corner was” or had been misinformed by whoever they talked with. Both sides may have been uninformed as to the rules of recording people. In this case the enumerator may have assumed they were to fill our whether the individual was being supported as a member of the head of household’s family rather than paying rent as a lodger might. References to the rules were offered by one person in the discussion of this case. One of the last comments was, “It's worth remembering that the head of the household had to understand the census requirements and communicate the information to the enumerator. In an age of low literacy (and Devon accents) it was often up to the enumerator to make the decision.


We can only presume why such entries were made the way they were. But it is always useful to look further, especially when the surnames are the same. There may be a family member lurking as a visitor or servant.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Finding Birth Parents

Earlier this year I assisted a friend in finding her birth mother. This was my first foray into looking for parents of adoptees and I was surprised how much information there actually was available to help in the process. For privacy reasons I will refer to various people here using only forenames, not necessarily all of them the real ones.

Our friend, Karen, had two sources of information. One, of course, was the official adoption records which, in Alberta, can now be obtained by children who were put up for adoption. The file contained the following:
·         the date of birth of the child, obviously (1950)
·         the baby’s name (Adele) given to her at birth, along with the name given by the adoptive parents (Karen)
·         the full name of the mother (Mavis) at the time of the child’s birth, and her occupation (stenographer)
·         Mavis’s place of residence, at the time of the child’s birth and the mother’s usual abode (Grande Prairie, Alberta)
·         information on the mother’s and father’s families, with names redacted, but with parents’ occupations and other personal information, for example the maternal grandfather had been wounded in WWI and was now deceased

All of this information together was important in discovering Mavis’s entire family.

Karen also had her DNA tested at 23andMe which resulted in a match with another person (Terry) of close to 12%. That meant they were first cousins. In an exchange of emails, they compared family trees and names and came up with the conclusion that one of the Terry’s uncles had to be Karen’s father as Mavis did not match with anyone in Terry’s family.

You cannot always know whether all of the information given in the record is accurate or factual. In the case of the Karen’s birth father’s name and family we deduced it was not correct, either because he lied to the mother about his background or she chose not to divulge what she really knew to the adoption authorities. For example, his name was given as Emanuel Ford and his family had lived in central Alberta and he was in the military. Other data – mainly the DNA test information – suggested that was not his name which led us to the thought that perhaps the child had only been conceived in a “manual Ford” vehicle – a little play on words there.

With Mavis’s full name and usual residence I looked first at voters’ lists. In Grande Prairie, there was a woman who fit the particulars of name, occupation and marital status living with another woman named Sophia. The list had been compiled the year before Karen was born. Sophia was a widow, which fit with Mavis’s father being deceased.

Patricia Greber, a friend at the South Peace Regional Archives, did a search for the family, including Mavis, Sophia and others. She found a 1967 obituary for Sophia that named her husband (Edward), daughter (Mavis), son (Jack) and several other grandchildren, nieces, nephews, etc. It was gold mine of information, particularly as it contained Mavis’s married name. Other news reports included a marriage notice for Sophia and Edward, a birth announcement for Jack, a death announcement for Edward and a 2007 obituary for Jack. All together they listed many people related to Mavis, both dead and alive, and where they lived at the times of the news reports. A person named Adele was listed, who was a half-first cousin to Karen, possibly the individual for whom she was first named.

I searched further for Sophia and Edward and found them and other family members on censuses, ship passenger records and military records, as well as on birth, marriage and death records. Armed with the information from all of this data I was able to piece together an extensive family tree for Karen on her birth mother’s side, going back to England and the USA, and with some interesting stories about how her parents had come together.

As I indicated, the obituaries for Sophia and Jack carried Mavis’s married name. They also named her husband, son and grandchildren. I thought to myself, “Most people today are on social media now. I wonder if Mavis is there as well.” A quick search of Facebook found both Mavis and her son, Jack, each site with a large photo library. There was even one of Mavis on her 89th birthday, looking hale and hearty.

The search for Karen’s biological father was somewhat more straightforward. With the information from Terry we could narrow down which of her uncles was likely Karen’s biological father. Only one was in the military (so that part of the adoption record information seemed to be true) and he probably trained in Grande Prairie around the time Mavis became pregnant. The adoption document stated the father was married at the time but other information indicated he did not marry until many years later although the wedding did take place in Grande Prairie.

In the end, Karen elected not to pursue a contact with her biological father – he is still alive – as it could prove embarrassing to him, his children and, of course, to Terry for having volunteered information about him. Karen did send a letter to Mavis, though, telling her a bit about her happy life as an adopted child. She left it with Mavis to decide whether any further contact would come about. Again, Karen did not want to cause any embarrassment to Mavis or her family and is quite content to go forward without any contact with her birth mother.


I should say that Karen has never been unhappy or unsatisfied with her life. Growing up, she always bragged to my wife that her mother and father got to pick her from thousands of babies while Linda’s parents had to take what they got. In both cases, of course, the girls were very content with their families. After Karen lost her adoptive parents, she got curious about the circumstances of her birth and started to look for information. She was pleased to be able to at least, and at last identify her birth parents and get to know the history of their families.