Category Archives: Research Tips

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!!

New Databases at FamilySearch.org

If you haven’t gone to the FamilySearch.org site lately you may want to click on over and check it out. They have been adding tons of databases – some with images and some without. Of particular interest to me has been the birth, marriage and death databases for a variety of states, including New Jersey, Ohio, Delaware, Indiana, Minnesota and others. In my goal to identify “all” descendants of some of my immigrant ancestors, I have been quite successful in finding records for several distant (and not so distant) cousins that moved out of our ancestral home state of Pennsylvania.

Now there are a couple of things of which to be aware. For the databases that include images, I believe you need to be registered and logged in to view the actual images. This is really not a big deal since registration is FREE!!

The other thing is that if I know a cousin moved to a certain area, I find it useful to focus my search to a particular database – say the New Jersey marriage database. The easiest way that I have found to do this is to go the main screen and click on the appropriate region under the “Browse by Location” – in my case that would be “USA, Canada, Mexico.”

That brings up a new screen with a listing of all the Historical Records for that area of the world. Rather than scrolling through the list, I type “New Jersey” in the search box on the upper left and the list automatically is pared down to only the records pertaining to that place.

Now it’s just a matter of clicking on the appropriate collection which will take you to the focused search screen. From there I usually just enter the surname and see what records I can find. You automatically get  exact and close matches, although if the surname is really badly mangled in the index you may need to search on a combination of first name and dates.

Also bear in mind that they are constantly adding new collections so if you can’t find what you are looking for check back in a month or so and try again – you never know when the records you’ve been searching for may be added.

Till later,

~j