Category Archives: Research Tips

Tuesday’s Tip – Consider ALL the Possibilities!

So you just got your hot little hands on a copy of great-great-granddad’s will and he names “his brother-in-law Joe Blow” as one of his co-executors. Do you now throw your arms up in the air and do the genealogy happy dance because you have uncovered the long sought after maiden name your great-great grandmother? It’s tempting! But maybe it’s not quite time to break out the champagne. Here’s a true story from my family files.

Sebastian Keeley (sometimes spelled Keely) was my 5X’s great grandfather. At the time of his death he lived on a “plantation” in Vincent Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania. Records show he also operated a tavern. He died on November 8, 1777 at the age of 48. In his will he names as co-executors his wife Elizabeth, his son Matthias and his brother-in-law George Christman. It is my belief that this is where William Henry Egle, the Pennsylvania State Librarian who wrote a series of genealogy-related articles for the Harrisburg PA Daily Telegraph newspaper in the late 1800s, got his information. His Egle’s “Notes and Queries” is a multiple volume compilation of about 5000 pages containing historical and biographical information on families from eastern and central Pennsylvania. It is an important and widely available genealogical resource in Pennsylvania. And it says my 5x’s great grandmother was Elizabeth Christman.

So this is my starting point. Elizabeth Christman is my 5x’s great-grandmother. Now what? Well naturally I want to find her parents – my 6x’s great-grandparents. And this is where everything starts to fall apart.

The Keely family, headed by Sebastian’s father Valentine, arrived in American around 1728. Valentine settled in what would be become western Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Two of his children, Matthias and Sebastian settled across the river in Chester County when they became of age.

Daniel, patriarch of the Christman family, came to America 1730. He purchased land near Valentine Keely’s property in 1738. According to Christman genealogists, Daniel’s children were born between 1731 and 1744. Some of his children also wound up settling across the river in Chester County.

This area (i.e. northern Chester County and western Montgomery County, Pennsylvania) was not a huge population center. Despite pockets of housing developments, even in 2011 most people would characterize this area as relatively rural — particularly on the Chester County side of the river. So back in the late 1700s the population was downright sparse. This is good because there are a limited number of Keelys as well as a limited number of Christmans living in the area for us to analyze.

Now, as you’ll recall, Sebastian was born 1729. Logically, his spouse would be in the generation of Daniel’s children. There’s also a small chance Elizabeth could be a granddaughter of Daniel – particularly if he was widowed and she was a second wife. So let’s look at George Christman – Sebastian’s brother-in-law. In a deed dated 1801, the executors of the estate of Sebastian Keely sold land in Limerick township, Montgomery County to Jacob Keely (one of Sebastian’s sons). In that deed George Christman is described as a yeoman of Pikeland township. Now I have been told (correct me if I’m wrong) that in this case, the term of yeoman refers to a farmer who owned land. Through a combination of civil and church records, it can be proved that the George Christman who lived and owned land in Pikeland township, and who was of age to be an executor in 1777, was the son of Daniel Christman, the immigrant mentioned above. And George had a sister named Elizabeth!

So far so good, right? Well, let’s keep going with this. Daniel Christman died in 1760. In his will he describes his daughter Elizabeth as a spinster. So Elizabeth Christman was unmarried when her father wrote his will. So if Sebastian and Elizabeth married after Daniel’s death in 1760, all of their (legitimate) children would have been born after that and would have been under the age of 17 when Sebastian died in 1777. But baptism and other records show that Sebastian had at least 4 children born between 1754 and 1760, as well as four more between about 1762 and 1772. Egle apparently knew this. He implied that Elizabeth was the second wife of Sebastian. What he apparently did not realize, however, was that church records show that Elizabeth Christman, daughter of Daniel, married Johannes Haas/Hause on March 12, 1861. Burial records for Vincent Mennonite Cemetery (aka Rhoades Burial Ground) show that Elizabeth Hause, wife of Johannes, died in 1777.

As if that isn’t bad enough, when Elizabeth Keeley died in 1807, her son Jacob petitioned the orphan’s court to partition or sell land. Jacob was born in 1758. Jacob’s petition lists the names of his then living brothers and sisters as well as the surviving children of his deceased brother Sebastian. From the way this document is written, it would appear that Elizabeth was the mother of all of Sebastian’s known children. To top it off, the birth date of Elizabeth Christman, daughter of Daniel, as recorded in her baptism record, is inconsistent with the birth date inscribed on Elizabeth Keeley’s tombstone. It is, however, consistent with the birth date on the tombstone of Elizabeth Haas/Hause.

So where did we go wrong? Perhaps we found the wrong set of George/Elizabeth Christman siblings. But given the facts we have about George the executor, the only George Christman who possibly fits the bill is unequivocally also the son of Daniel. In the end, our entire premise for Elizabeth Keeley having the maiden name of Christman is the fact that Sebastian called George Christman his brother-in-law.

So who are your brother-in-laws? Strictly speaking your brother-in-law is the brother of your wife or the spouse of your sister. In the interest of space, in this case, George’s wife is not Sebastian’s sister. Nor did George have a deceased wife who was Sebastian’s sister. Nor did George have a deceased sister who was Sebastian’s first wife. That pretty much covers all the brother-in-law bases. Except one. My husband has three sisters. They are my sister-in-laws. Strictly speaking their husbands are not my brother-in-laws – but I’ve called them brother-in-laws. Don’t most people?

What if Sebastian’s wife and George’s wife were sisters. Would Sebastian call George his brother-in-law? Well, I think so and I think that’s exactly what happened in this case. George’s wife was Sophia Frey or Fry. I am slowly finding more information on the Frys in the area. So far, it’s all starting to fit together. There aren’t the glaring inconsistencies as there are with Daniel Christman’s daughter. But it’s still a little premature to start doing the happy dance.  Of course, there’s also the bit about Elizabeth Christman. She was declared to be Sebastian’s wife by a very well-known, respected source over 100 years ago. It’s been an uphill battle trying to convince other Keeley/Keely researchers that that may not be the case!

So getting back to the Tuesday’s Tip — check all the possibilities. Particularly when it comes to relationships. Sometimes siblings are really half-siblings (or even step-siblings). Sometimes brothers are brothers-in-laws. (I also have a will where this is the case.) Sometimes adopted or step children are not explicitly identified as such. And sometimes a brother-in-law is, in the strictest sense of the word, not a brother-in-law but rather the spouse of your sister-in-law!

Tuesday’s Tech Tip – Record it!

Back when I was first starting to gather up our family history for a school project for my daughter, we made the 2+ hour trip to visit my husband’s grandmother. I briefly (very briefly) considered bringing a video camera, but thought the better of it. I was afraid she would find the camera a distraction or maybe even a little uncomfortable. I know that I personally am very self-conscious when someone points one of those my direction! So we relied on taking notes the old fashioned way – by hand.

Unfortunately, this was not ideal. It’s hard (for me anyway) to take comprehensive notes as someone is speaking at a normal rate. Plus, I found myself so focused on the note taking that I didn’t get to ask some of the questions that I would have liked. So a couple of years later, when I had the opportunity to interview my Aunt and Uncle, I decided to use a digital voice recorder.

Digital voice recorders are essentially tape recorders without the tapes – and they are considerably smaller than most of the old tape recorders. As with most all electronic gadgets, the price range on digital voice recorders varies widely, but you can probably buy a decent quality one for under $50.

Before you buy, however, check your existing gadgets. I had an inexpensive mp3 player that was capable of recording, so I used that. It was small – just slightly larger that a pack of gum and could sit very unobtrusively on the coffee table while we talked. Later I connected the mp3 player to my computer and uploaded the recording to my hard drive with my other genealogy data files. And this set of interviews was much easier on me as I didn’t have to focus on note-taking the entire time! Just make sure to familiarize yourself with how the recorder operates in advance — and, of course, make sure the device is fully charged before you start.

Would it be nice to have a video recording? Well, sure. But you have to weigh the factors for your situation. In my case, I thought the camera’s tendency to inhibit and distract out-weighed the benefit. The digital recorder is easier to forget about. Also, it’s a lot easier to toss a small device like that in your pocket or bag. In the case of the camera, I would have also probably needed to bring a tripod and the whole setup would have gotten a lot more complex.

So there you have it – record it! And while having a video is nice, consider an audio-only recording too. That’s my Tuesday Tip this week.

Tuesday’s Tip – Suggestions for Photographing Tombstones

With the recent Memorial Day holiday, I’ve been thinking about heading back out to the local cemeteries to get some more photographs. The last few weeks have been very rainy, so hopefully we’re due for some nice days soon! So in that vein, for today’s Tuesday’s Tip (a prompt suggested by members of Geneabloggers), I thought I would post some suggestions regarding tombstone photographs.

My goal with tombstone photography is to try to get the best photos that I can without introducing anything that may possibly cause damage to the tombstone. So I don’t bring chalk or shaving cream or anything like that. (Although, in one case, I did pour a little of my drinking water on the stone to try to bring out the very worn inscription.) I also don’t really like to carry around lots of photographic equipment (including my DSLR), so typically I just use a digital point and shoot camera. Mine is a couple of years old. It’s 7 megapixels with a 5x optical zoom.

In looking over the photos I taken, I would have to say that I tend to get the best results in mid-morning and mid-afternoon. I’ve found that these times have the least amount of glare and shadows. I have also found that I can pull out better details on slightly cloudy days versus very bright sunny ones. And I also try to avoid using flash because of the glare, but depending on the amount of shade, it sometimes can’t be helped.

Since my camera has a lot of megapixels, I don’t really take a lot of tight-in closeups, but I try to take stand back a bit to get the context — so that I can see adjacent graves. This really helps sort out family members, especially in the case of photographing tombstones of people with common surnames. And because of the high megapixels, I can crop out the individual tombstones and still have good quality images to upload to sties like findagrave. Also, by capturing some of the adjacent tombstones in the image (or just taking a few extra pictures of the area) you just may find that the next plot over is an married daughter and her husband or family!

One of the things I haven’t done previously, but plan to do next time I’m out photographing a cemetery, is to bring along my hand-held GPS and put it in the photograph with the gravestone . I probably won’t do this for every tombstone, but maybe for some of my closer relatives and direct ancestors. That way if I ever need to go back for any reason, I’ll have the lat-long location of the grave to within a few feet. Of course, this will require closeup photos in order to be able to read the coordinates on the GPS unit.

Another tip is that when I first drive up to a cemetery, I usually try to get a photograph of the sign – or the church sign if the cemetery is attached to a church. This way I know in which cemetery the photographs were taken, particularly if I am visiting more than one that day.

Oh, and one last tip. Bring extra batteries if possible and also make sure you’ve cleaned off your memory card so that you have enough free space. There’s nothing worse that getting three quarters of the way through the cemetery and having your camera batteries die. Unfortunately, since my camera uses a non-standard rechargeable battery (and I don’t own a spare) this has happened to me more that once!!!

Well, I guess that’s about it for now — just a few suggestions for cemetery photographs. If you have any others, feel free to leave a comment!

Tuesday’s Tip – Say it Out Loud

Tuesday’s Tip is another one of the daily prompts suggested by members of Geneabloggers (see link in side bar). My tip for this week is one that I use often. If I can’t find an individual or family (say, in the census or on a passenger list, etc), I try saying the last name out loud in my best imitation of what I think is the appropriate accent. The idea being that how you hear it may help you come up with alternate spellings that may not be obvious.

Many of my ancestors and relatives were (or intermarried with) the Pennsylvania Dutch variety of Germans. Some of the common letter exchanges I find are B changing to P (or vice versa) and a hard C or K changing to G (or vice versa). There are probably others, but these are the ones that come to mind as I sit here and write this. Other types of accents may turn J into H or W into V.

Basically, it’s just another way to come up with alternate spellings that might be too far off for Soundex or some of the other “fuzzy” matching algorithms used by some search engines.  And even in the case where these alternatives are returned by the “fuzzy” search, if you type the alternative in directly it may pop the individual or family you are seeking closer to the top of the returned list, saving you the trouble of wading through all the “wrong” results to get to the “right” one.

Hope this helps!

Advanced Search in Ancestry – A Success Story

Every once in a while I manage to stumble across an option or feature that I have either not realized was there or didn’t recognize for its usefulness.  Case in point is the Ancestry’s advanced search which provides various options for reigning in a search based on geographic area in conjunction with family members, etc. To better explain this, I guess I should start at the beginning of the story…

Off and on for about the last five or six years I have been unsuccessfully searching for my husband’s great-grandparents, Andrew and Anna Stibrik and their family, in the 1920 census. They should have been in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — but all my searches were drawing a blank. I almost had myself convinced that when they saw the census taker coming, they locked the doors and hid!! A week or so ago, I finally found them! I thought I would relate the story here as the techniques used may help someone else in their searching.

I started with the Ancestry’s Advanced Search. (I always use advanced search as opposed to regular search.) Since Stibrik is not a real common surname, I did what I typically do, which is to search on just the surname along with an approximate year of birth. But I had tried that before and knew it wasn’t going to work. I had also tried all kinds of variations of Stibrik — like Stibrick, Stibryk, etc. I had tried to think of ways it could be misspelled or misinterpreted by the indexers (due to sloppy or otherwise illegible handwriting). So I had tried Stebrek, Strebreck, Stibrink, etc. I also usually try to think of alternate phonetic spellings based on how a person might pronounce it with an accent; but to be honest, in the case of Stibrik I really wasn’t sure how that could be mispronounced.

After having no luck with the surname-based searches, I figured the last name was either very badly mangled or just plain wrong. (i.e. Perhaps the Stibriks were living with another family and were erroneously enumerated under that family’s surname.) So as a next step I tried searching on just the first names. Andrew, Andr’w, Andy, etc. with wife Anna or Annie. (I was able to add the wife as a family member and have it incorporated into the search because I was targeting a census after 1880 and thus family relationships were recorded.) Theoretically this should have worked, but the problem was the overwhelming number of “wrong” hits that Ancestry was presenting before the “correct” hit.

Why were the “wrong” hits appearing first? Well, probably a couple of reasons. If I used “Andrew” as the first name, all “Andrews” appear before those enumerated with “Andrw” or “Andy” or “A.” Adding a “lived in constraint” will give preference to those in the correct location, but will still list an “Andrew” in another state before an “Andy” in the targeted “lived in” location. Add to this that the husband could be enumerated as “Andy” and the wife as “Annie” or maybe they were “Andrw” and “A.” Bottom line, I just wasn’t hitting the correct combination. And this was compounded by the fact that both Andrew and Anna are relatively common names.

So what did I do? Well, first of all, I loaded up on family members. In addition to Andrew and Anna, I knew that 5 of their 6 children were born before 1920, so I added in their names in the “family member” section. Then I clicked on “add life events” and put in the location of  “Pittsburgh, Allegheny, Pennsylvania” as chosen from the drop down list. Then (and I think this was key), underneath the box containing “Pittsburgh”, I clicked on “use default settings.” A pop up menu came up and I clicked on the “restrict to this place exactly.”  I also added in an approximate birth year for Andrew, but left the place blank because he was born in Austria/Hungary and I wasn’t sure if the birth place would be recorded as Austria, Hungary, or Czechoslovakia.

Now when the results came back, one of the options returned (about the 8th or 9th choice) was the family of Andy and Annie Stiewick. I checked out the image and it is definitely them. And it definitely says Stiewick instead of Stibrik. (What can I say, I’ve gotten pretty good at figuring out misspellings based on a German or PA Dutch accent, but I’ve got a way to go with a Slovak accent! It’s a variation I wouldn’t have come up with in a thousand years!)

Some other tips – I often have better luck searching for one of the children rather than a parent (especially in early censuses (1850-1870) where the family relationship are not recorded. I think this is because the adults have a greater tendency to fudge on their age, making them easier to miss when looking for a George age 32 and he decides he’ll only be 28 when the census taker asks! I also tend to search on a family member with a less common (but easily spelled) first name. In other words, it’s often easier to find the son Horatio than the father John. Also keep in mind nicknames and abbreviations (like Jno. for John or Saml for Samuel) and don’t forget to try also searching with them.

Well, I hope this helps. I only wish I had tried the exact place match sooner!!