Vintage Advice

By David A. Fryxell Premium

Over its first decade, Family Tree Magazine has presented tips on everything from how to save money on catering your family reunion to how to identify an old automobile in a family photo. We’ve helped readers organize their genealogy files, interview their relatives and write their family histories. We’ve revealed the secrets of finding, preserving and deciphering your family’s legacy in scrapbooks and movies, diaries and heirlooms. Geography-specific guides have spanned the globe and crisscrossed the United States. Articles have showed which software to buy and how to squeeze the most out of what you’ve already bought. As DNA genealogy has exploded onto the scene, we’ve helped separate x’s from y’s and told you how to make your mitochondrial data mighty.

Certain tips, however, have stood the test of time particularly well. In one form or another, from one expert to the next, the 10 themes outlined here have recurred across our issues. They’re strategies that address eternal genealogical challenges—the “brick walls” that readers ran up against in 2000 and will run up against in 2010. If you’ve learned nothing else from the past 10 years of Family Tree Magazine, you must remember this …

1. Look for clues in clusters.
Perhaps our most useful and oft-repeated technique for tracing your family tree is “cluster genealogy.” As Emily Anne Croom explained way back in our December 2001 issue, “Your ancestors were not isolated individuals. They were part of a family, with siblings and cousins, aunts and uncles, parents and grandparents … Like you, ancestors had friends and neighbors. Often their spouses came from neighboring families or were the siblings of classmates and military buddies.” By studying these “clusters” of relatives and acquaintances, rather than focusing strictly on your ancestors, you often can sneak around your brick walls.
“Maybe your ancestor didn’t leave a wealth of records behind, but his neighbors did, and some of that neighbor’s records mention your ancestor,” wrote contributing editor Sharon DeBartolo Carmack in July 2008. “Or the neighbor’s son married your ancestor’s daughter. Or perhaps the neighbor has that unusual name you need to ‘anchor’ your ancestor in a time period or place.”
Cluster genealogy can be especially helpful in cracking migration puzzles. If your lineage seems to dead end with your family in rural Tennessee in 1860, Croom suggested, look at collateral ancestors and neighbors in sources such as the census. Where were the older folks born? If you find a pattern of people born successively in Virginia, North Carolina and then Tennessee, maybe your own kin followed a similar migration route.
A related trick Carmack shared in that same 2008 issue: Trace lines forward to locate cousins. This “reverse genealogy” can connect you with distant relatives who can fill in the missing branches of your family tree. Or the quest for those cousins may in turn uncover a “cluster” that connects with your direct line: Your great-grandmother, who seemingly vanished after Great-grandpa died, might’ve gone to live with those collateral kin—whose records you could find her hiding in.

2. Rev your search engines.

As much as we’ve guided readers through traditional genealogy techniques, we’ve also kept up with the cutting edge. Using genealogy-specific websites is an obvious way to look for ancestors online, but we’ve often reminded readers to wade into the wider web with the help of search engines—most recently, Google.

Back in February 2004, contributing editor Nancy Hendrickson walked readers through search-engine math:

  • Enclose search terms in quotation marks when you want to find an exact phrase.
  • Use the plus sign (+) or and when you want the search
  • engine to look for multiple words or terms.
  • The minus sign tells a search engine to exclude a specific word. (For example, if your ancestor’s surname is a common word, such as Bush: “bush -rose.”)
In May 2007, contributing editor Rick Crume added the terrific idea of using Google to search RootsWeb and other genealogy sites. To search all RootsWeb pages, for example, include in your search terms; limits the hunt to the personal websites hosted by RootsWeb. Just add site: followed by the domain name to apply this trick to other sites.

More recently, in January 2009, publisher/editorial director Allison Stacy packed more hints into “Your Guide to Google”:

  • Use the operator or to expand your search to nicknames and spelling variations.
  • Google won’t accept near to find words close together, but you can fake it with a full-word wildcard (*). In name searches, the asterisk can substitute for a middle name or initial: “William * Wigglesworth”
  • Experiment with entering the last name first, first name last, the name with and without the middle name, with nickname, first initial plus last name and so forth.
  • Add the unusual name of your ancestor’s spouse or child to narrow results.

In that same issue, I suggested two specific Google search strategies:

  •  Search for an ancestor’s name combined with an ancestral place, such as “George Clough” Georgia (or be more specific: “George Clough” “Wilkes County” Georgia).
  •  Google the names of a married couple (or a suspected couple) together, with each name inside quotation marks, such as “William Phillips” “Susannah Williams”

And don’t forget to try all the same tricks in the ever-expanding Google Books.

3. Look sideways to findmystery women.

Sooner or later, every genealogist runs into “the female problem”—the challenge of tracing women in your family tree when their maiden names so often go missing. We tackled the problem way back in April 2001 and most recently in another full-length article in January 2008, where Lisa A. Alzo offered these tips for discovering maiden names:

  • Check adjacent cemetery plots, as well as burial records.
  • Look for wills and other estate records, which may have been left by widowed, unmarried or divorced women, as well as by a woman’s father, husband or sons.
  • Consult death certificates, which often list maiden names.
  • Search for recent ancestors using the one-step Social Security Death Index tool, then request the woman’s Social Security number application (SS-5) from the Social Security Administration.
  • Hunt for Grandma’s name in deeds or other land records; her relatives could be the buyers or sellers.
  • Look for marriage certificates and marriage bonds, usually signed by the bride’s father or brother.
  • Investigate naturalization records; until 1922, wives were sometimes listed on the husband’s form.
  • Search for women in newspaper obituaries and in the “society pages.”
  • Poke around in pension records: Widows filing for military pensions had to submit proof of marriage. The National Archives has pension records for soldiers from 1775 to 1916; HeritageQuest Online (free through subscribing libraries) and Footnote (subscription access) have some pensions, too.
4. Construct a chronology.
After the “cluster” concept, one of our experts’ favorite tools for breaking through brick walls—as well as unscrambling similarly named ancestors—is to make a timeline. In December 2002, Kathleen W. Hinckley revealed that her most successful strategy is to “prepare a detailed chronological and geographical study of the individual or family. This strategy requires you to reorganize past research and review all previous documentation with fresh eyes, which in itself often produces new ideas. When there’s a gap in time without information, you focus on that time period. If it’s unknown when a family migrated from one area to another, you focus on that portion of the project.”
In February 2007, I included a simple chronology as one of the tasks you could accomplish in just 20 minutes—with a software assist: “Your genealogy software program can probably generate a timeline that graphically displays your ancestors’ lives over a span of years. You can customize your timeline to cover only a group of ancestors you’re having trouble with, and print the result to use as a reference. Creating a timeline was the only way I could ultimately unscramble my early Dickinson ancestors, all of whom seemed to be named Robert, Willis or Michael. You may have to test several theories, altering who’s related to whom and then generating a fresh timeline and pedigree charts to see what makes sense.”

5. Strategize to win the name game.
Over the years, we’ve probably offered more advice relating to names than any other topic—because, after all, figuring out your ancestors’ names is the foundation of your family tree. And names can cause you to pull out your hair. In December 2003, Carmack offered these tips for fighting name frustration:

  • Make a list of all the different spelling variations of an ancestor’s name.
  • Yesterday’s nicknames weren’t always the same as today: Polly for Mary and Sally for Sarah, for instance. Land records, where people were more likely to use formal names, may solve nickname riddles.
  • Don’t be thrown by unfamiliar abbreviations, such as “Jno” for Jonathan, “Jas” for James, “Saml” for Samuel or “Xr” or “Xer” for Christopher.
  • Your ancestral culture (Italian or Spanish, for example) may have a traditional naming pattern for children that can offer clues about previous generations. Others, as in Scandinavia, use a patronymic system (Ericsdatter, Larsen) rather than permanent surnames.

In October 2004, I added these name-research strategies to the mix:

  • Look for last names that have become first or middle names. My ancestor George Oglesby’s middle name was Stovall—which led me to find a whole related family surnamed Stovall.
  • Try abbreviations. I might never have found my ancestor Robert Robinson Dickinson if I hadn’t thought to check for “R.R. Dickinson.”
  • Remember to search for married names. Sounds obvious, but as fixated as genealogists get about finding maiden names, it’s easy to forget to search for married women under their husbands’ surnames.
6. Use online family trees wisely.

We often warn against accepting other people’s online family trees as gospel. But that doesn’t mean the information found in “pedigree databases” such as RootsWeb’s WorldConnect, MyHeritage and Family­Search’s Ancestral File and Pedigree Resource File are useless. In my February 2006 article on so-called pedigree databases, I shared some tips for mining gold from these resources:

  • Use pedigree databases to identify ancestral candidates. You can’t look for somebody whose name you don’t know, after all. So search other people’s family trees to see whom they think your missing ancestor was—then set about proving or disproving that hypothesis.
  • Weed out people who probably aren’t your ancestor. Torn between two possible ancestors with the same name?
  • Pedigree databases can help you pick which one’s likely not yours—because somebody else has convincingly claimed her.
  • Connect with kin. Even if your fourth cousin twice removed doesn’t have all the answers, by sharing data you might solve some mysteries together. Use family tree databases to find others researching the same ancestral lines. (You might even help correct their errors.)
  • Seek out sources and take note of notes. Sometimes you can find real facts in others’ family trees—in the sources they cite and their accompanying notes, which often contain transcriptions of wills and other original records. You’ll always want to double-check for accuracy, of course.
7. Rely on the Family History Library.
No resource has gotten as much play in Family Tree Magazine’s pages as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City—and for good reason. The world’s largest genealogical collection has unparalleled potential to advance your family tree research. “In a place that puts millions of ancestral records—including 2.4 million microfilms and 310,000 books covering 100-plus countries—within arm’s reach, you’re practically guaranteed to make new family tree discoveries,” wrote Stacy in an October 2005 guide to on-site research at the FHL.

Of course, the FHL is more than just the library in Utah, and you don’t have to go there in person (though it’s an experience we highly recommend). As we’ve pointed out in countless articles over the years, you can rent FHL microfilm and access its electronic resources at a branch Family History Center near you. The key to unlocking those records is the FHL catalog. Crume outlined its search options in March 2009, offering the following tips:

  • Enter a town, county state or country in the place search to see books and records for that location.
  • Type a last name in the surname search to find published and unpublished family histories.
  • Use the keyword search to find a word anywhere in the catalog listing.

To order a film you want (printed books don’t circulate), simply take the catalog description to your local center.
Besides the catalog, the FamilySearch website has helpful how-to aids—research outlines, as well as foreign-language word lists and letter-writing guides—and numerous databases to search.

8. Join a genealogical society—and not just the local one.
We’ve long touted the benefits of joining a genealogical society, large or small. But don’t limit yourself to the society in the place you happen to live; consider joining genealogical as well as historical societies in the places you’d like to research. As Hendrickson suggested in a June 2005 article, “Even if, like me, you live hundreds of miles from your ancestral hometown, consider joining that area’s society. Its members likely know where to find all kinds of local records—those of funeral homes, justices of the peace, marriages, births, cemeteries, censuses, wills, deeds, pioneer biographies, newspapers and early histories. (What you need may even be on the shelves at the group’s library.) … Some volunteers will go to the historical society or courthouse and duplicate records for just copy costs and postage—out of pure genealogical kindness. The locals also might delve into your family research for a minimal fee or hook you up with a good professional.”

Hendrickson’s assistance doesn’t stop there: “Sometimes, if members know you’re researching a specific surname, they’ll contact you when information surfaces. One long-distance member of the Lucas County, Iowa,

society actually received an original deed from local cohorts who spotted its connection to her surname. You might even encounter a cousin who’s working on your tree.”
Best of all, these benefits typically come at a bargain price. Annual dues to larger societies might be as little as $25, while smaller societies might charge only $15 a year. Your membership investment likely will pay for itself in time and money saved on research. For example, as I noted in echoing that advice in January 2009, membership in the Georgia Genealogical Society has its privileges: access to the subject index and an every-name searchable index of the Georgia Genealogical Society Quarterly, a subscription to that journal and PDF files of some of past issues.
You can find a list of societies nationwide and links to websites for many.  Or visit the state and county pages at USGenWeb, which typically list local societies.

9. Become a genealogical geographer.

As important as names and dates are to your family tree, success in researching your roots often springs from a mastery of places. After all, you can’t find ancestral records if you don’t know which state or county repository holds them, or the locality they’re filed under in the online FHL catalog.

The same article that advised using high-tech tools to create a timeline had this similar tip about putting your ancestors

on the map: “Another useful way of looking at your genealogy data is to make a map of the places your ancestors lived. Before today’s technology, this would have been a tedious, time-consuming chore. But new software tools make it easy to map your ancestors in less than 20 minutes: RootsMagic’s Family Atlas utility ($29.95) plots locations from your RootsMagic, Family Tree Maker, Personal Ancestral File and Legacy Family Tree files, as well as GEDCOMs. Or try Progeny Software’s Map My Family Tree ($39.95), which can read files from nine genealogy programs, including Family Tree Maker, RootsMagic and Personal Ancestral File, in addition to GEDCOM 5.5 files.
If you already have Family Tree Maker, you can use it to generate a basic map and geographic sort of your ancestors; just go to View>Map. Once you’ve mapped your ancestors, look for patterns that might suggest connections you’ve overlooked. Families that intermarried often migrated together, so you can use family A’s migration pattern to hunt backwards for related family B’s locations.”
But there are tricks to mapping your ancestors, as we reminded readers way back in our third issue, in an article on planning a family history vacation: “Make sure the records are really where you expect them to be. As the United States grew westward and its population boomed, many large counties spun off new counties and redrew boundaries. If a county was created in 1850, say, records from before that date may be stored in the courthouse of the original, ‘parent’ county.” Sources for unscrambling changing county lines include the state and county pages of USGenWeb and the state research outlines available from FamilySearch.
When stumped in seeking an ancestor’s geographic origins, don’t forget a little US census trick that lets you peer back in time and space: As we noted in February 2002, beginning with the 1880 enumeration, the census lists not just the individual’s birth state or country but also his or her parents’ birthplace. So data gathered in 1880 or thereafter can let you place an event that happened as much as a century earlier.

10. Remember to look in the library.

With all the high-tech tools now at genealogists’ disposal, it’s easy to overlook such long-standing resources as your local public library—as well as (with a little assist from some high-tech tools) academic and major metropolitan public libraries across the country.

We explored university libraries in October 2001; rated the top 10 public libraries in our October 2002 issue; covered state libraries, archives and historical societies in August 2003; and honored stellar libraries of all stripes in July 2008.

In the February 2002 issue, Rhonda R. McClure offered these tips for preparing for a library visit from the comfort of your keyboard:
  • Check out the online catalog by searching on the word genealogy. (But don’t use this general term when actually searching for specific titles.) Do the results include only books, or also periodicals and microfilm? How old are the copyright dates for the books listed?
  • Approach your search of the catalog as you would a search on the Internet: Be specific.
  • If you get too many results, refine your search using a surname or a county.
  • Don’t forget interlibrary loan, which enables you to request books from far-flung libraries, including the Library of Congress, through your local library.

Your local library also might connect you with expensive online genealogy services—for free. As Maureen A. Taylor pointed out in June 2005, some libraries subscribe to collections such as HeritageQuest Online, Sanborn fire-insurance maps, historical newspapers and a special library version of You might not even have to leave home to tap these services; some libraries let you log in remotely via the Internet, simply by typing in your library card number.

In the debut issue of Family Tree Magazine, 10 years ago, we talked about catching “roots mania.” None of these top 10 tips—or the innumerable other tricks and techniques published in the issues since—will break that genealogical fever, we’re afraid. But we hope that if we’ve accomplished anything in the past decade, it’s convincing readers that roots mania is contagious and incurable—and we wouldn’t want it any other way.

From the January 2010 Family Tree Magazine