Organizing Family History: Part 1 of Infinity

Though I’m not immune to being overwhelmed when faced with disarray, there is something about having a place for everything and everything in its place that appeals to me. I like the challenge of strategically adding structure to chaos. I love functional organization and the ability to efficiently find what I want. The biggest hurdle is figuring out where to start!

So. Remember my intimidating mountain of unattainable goals? Well, I emptied some office shelves (please don’t ask to look inside my closet right now) and found a place for everything! Um, kind of. At least the albums, photos and documents are more accessible and easier to sort than when they were in random, teetering piles.

organizing family history by moving stuff to shelves

I’m trying to organize the rest of my office along with the family archives, which is a similarly daunting task (and why you’ll always see books, various crafting materials, home office supplies, and random toys/ephemera mixed in when I share office photos). But it’s a good thing I shifted the family stuff to shelves when I did, because the very next morning (one day earlier than expected), I received my shipment of archival porn archival storage boxes from University Products!

Mmmmm.... archival storage boxes

It may not look like much right now, but it will be GLORIOUS once all of the homeless and disorganized family history materials are sensibly placed in clearly labeled boxes. I know for certain that it won’t happen overnight because we’re closing in on two weeks and I’ve barely scratched the surface. But you know what? It’s a start. And you can’t have a raging forest fire without a spark.

Hmm. Something tells me that I could have used a better analogy.

I should thank my husband for giving me the extra motivation that I needed to prepare my office for the influx of organizational materials. My new comfy chair was expected around the same time, and he said that the chair would go in his office space if I hadn’t cleaned up by then. Not that it mattered… shortly after the chair arrived, Phoebe the cat claimed it.

New comfy chair, quickly claimed by my cat

Our other cat, Loki, checked it out first but quickly returned to his basket on my desk.  A place for every cat and every cat in its place. At least I know that I’ll have company during my long hours of sorting and labeling!

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Ready to share my family history blog! Plus a note about my sleuthing role models.

I prettied up the design of this blog last week, both as an exercise in my design skills and to make it easier on the eyes—though I’ll undoubtedly continue to tweak some minor things over time. The important thing is that I’m ready to share my family history blog!

Since there’s a fair amount of red/green color blindness on my mother’s side of the family, I stuck to blues and orange/browns so that it looks similar to most people. Photoshop allows me to verify that with its deuteranopia emulator view, which I think is a really cool and useful feature.

You may have noticed some sponsored links on the sidebar. I’m not under any delusions that I will make a profit from this family history blog, but if you click a link and make a purchase, then I will receive a small affiliate commission that will go toward my web hosting fees and, if any is leftover, to archival supplies. (I referred to receiving a big shipment of archival boxes in my last post, and am excited to share some photos tomorrow.) You’re also welcome to enjoy my blog without ever clicking a sponsored link. Contribute two cents when you can in the form of a comment. :)

With this blog, I’m really hoping to engage my extended family in our shared stories and mysteries, connect with relatives I don’t know or didn’t know I had, and maybe even interest a few fellow family history bloggers and archivists. At the very least, I’m recording my discoveries and progress in a searchable format.

screenshot of blog design from 12 April 2012

For those interested in my blog design from a technical standpoint, I use WordPress (self-hosted) and created a child theme based on the popular twentyten theme. I enjoy playing with CSS and Photoshop when I’m not organizing genealogy files and sleuthing for old family stories! My favorite web design advance in recent years is the ability to employ custom font faces on a website without using images. The typewriter-style font you see on this website is Special Elite, a font that is free for commercial use from Font Squirrel. [Edit: It’s rendering with a fake bold on Firefox and IE, so it looks funny right now in those browsers. I’m working on a hack to fix it.]

For the background, I considered several styles from this collection of vintage patterns and textures until settling on one from this free pattern pack. I adjusted the color and scale in Photoshop to be what you now see in the background—hopefully adding subtle character without being distracting. Though I’m not in love with the actual pattern, I can play with that some other time. The color overlay was the most important because I wanted a certain shade of grayish blue that would coordinate with not-yet-visited text links.

I made the header image from scratch in Photoshop using a portion of one of my favorite photos (further explained here) and a digital texture I created over the summer from the scan of an old pillowcase with a tight cotton weave. If you look closely at the typewriter-styled “Old Family Stories” font you will see that it has a slight shadow. That is part of the background image itself while the black text, along with the subheading, are pulled in dynamically and positioned with CSS.

I hope you enjoy my dedication to overthinking as much as I do; a proper sleuth* considers everything from all angles.

*I should note that my ideas of proper sleuthing were formed in childhood under the influence of the following fictional detective role models: Inch High Private Eye, Danger Mouse, Maxwell Smart from Get Smart, Penny from Inspector Gadget, Velma Dinkley from Scooby Doo, and the book version of Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective. Curiously, I was never drawn to Nancy Drew.

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So many things, so little time!

Phew, it’s been a whirlwind couple of days on the family history front! My eyes are drooping so this is going to be a short little update.

I connected with a fourth cousin twice removed and this week have continued learning more about his family and our shared family history. I received the huge order of archival boxes on Tuesday (a day earlier than promised, though I was too busy to do anything with them) and spent a couple hours this evening affixing label holders and doing some rough sorting of loose and homeless photos. I also received the two Michigan death certificates I’d requested a couple weeks back and wasn’t expecting to see so soon… I didn’t get all the information I wanted, but did learn some key facts that will help me research some more.

Not really family history related, but tomorrow (er, today, since it’s well after midnight) I expect to receive a call to schedule delivery of a reclining comfy chair for my office. I am SO excited! I ordered the chair during a Presidents’ Day sale in February after drooling over it for a few months. I chose this particular one because it has a slim profile and low armrests to allow for a comfortable working position with my laptop. I have a good feeling about how this chair is going to affect my workflow since I work from home most of the time. And better job workflow means more time for discovering and sharing old family stories!

I feel like I should also mention that I am wearing nitrile gloves while typing this. This particular disposable pair has lasted me for several sessions of photo sorting and scanning, and I didn’t think I’d be on the computer for long. But here I am blogging. At least I know that my keyboard is safe from the acidic oils on my fingertips!

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Grab a cigar—it’s a genetic match!

Back in February, my dad submitted a cheek swab to FamilyTreeDNA for a Y-chromosome test. The results are in, and the first fact was not a surprise: he’s French! Both of his parents were French-Canadian, and he knew (though hadn’t documented) that most branches of his ancestry could be traced back to France via immigration to New France in the 17th or 18th century.*

The second surprise is related… literally. Dad discovered that he had a near-perfect genetic match with another man who had done the same test.

He even shared our last name (as one would expect, since it’s a Y-chromosome test) which is something I’m not accustomed to sharing. Dad is the “last male on his twig of the family tree,” as he put it. He’s the last surviving male descendant of his father’s father, and since my sister and I only have X-chromosomes, that’s pretty much it. I guess it’s the way things go. But it turns out that we can verify, both genetically and through family trees, that the Beaudoin Y-chromosome will continue to be passed on through a different branch!

The cool thing about FamilyTreeDNA is that it’s designed to help you get in touch with genetically matched strangers to help you verify relation and fill in your family trees. “Cousin Ralph” emailed us and we compared trees to find our common ancestor. It actually might have been tricky to line things up if I hadn’t found certain records on to help me trace back another generation.

Our common ancestor is Jacques-Thomas Beaudoin, (1729-1776), and his second wife Genevieve Vermette (1737-1812). I am descended from their first son, Jacques (1760-1844) and Ralph is descended from their seventh of ten children, Louis Joseph (1770-1852). Ralph is my fourth cousin, twice removed. He’s been a pretty cool pen pal so far.

I’m also blown away by the work he has done in compiling genealogical records that will directly affect my own research. His Beaudoin Genealogy website is both intimidating and awe-inspiring to me. And I am still getting used to seeing the Beaudoin name being used by someone other than my direct family or total strangers! What’s wacky is that his mother’s name was also Yvette (though Beaudoin was not her maiden name).

The coolest thing is that he has traced my paternal ancestry to Jacques Baudouin (born ca. 1600) who lived in Île de Ré, France, which is an island on the Atlantic coast with La Rochelle as the nearest city. This emigration story about his grandson (also named Jacques) is based on fact, yet still paints a vivid image in my mind:

The Beaudoins descend from Jacques Baudouin who immigrated to New France aboard the ship, Le Noir. A fishing vessel, it sailed from LaRochelle, France and arrived at Quebec City on May 25, 1664. He married Francoise Durand at Quebec on March 24, 1671. She was a “Daughter of the King” having been sent by the crown along with other women who had no dowry and therefore, no prospect of marriage in France. The crown provided a small dowry for each woman as part of the incentive to relocate to New France. Jacques and his bride eventually settled in the Northeast tip of the Island of Orleans and raised several children there. Jacques was an islander by birth having originally come from St. Martin on the Island of Ré, a small island off the coast of France near LaRochelle. He was at home living on an Island and earned his living as a fisherman. He fished near his home and then, rode the incoming tide to Quebec to sell his day’s catch. The outgoing tide provided his transportation back home. His first son, Jacques, was the next in line in this family tree.

Thanks, Cousin Ralph! I look forward to getting to know you and our ancestors better.

*I don’t know if knowing and sharing every single detail about French-Canadian history is a specific genetic trait, but if it is, Dad has it. If you haven’t hung out with my dad recently, you can just read about New France on Wikipedia. That’s what I do to verify his stories pick up additional details.

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Where in the German Empire did my Richter ancestors come from?

Earlier this week I mentioned requesting death certificates from Michigan’s vital records department to learn more details about my great-grandmother’s parents. I’m still waiting  for information, and probably will be for a couple more weeks. In the meantime, I decided to look into my great-grandfather’s parents, who were the first of my ancestors to immigrate to the United States in 1892.

My great-grandfather’s name was Arthur Postler, born in 1895 in Plainfield, New Jersey to Paul Postler and Clara (Richter) Postler. Aren’t they an adorable little family?

Paul, Clara and baby Arthur Postler in 1896

I was able to find the ship manifest/immigration record for their journey to New York from Bremen, Germany by searching for records on Paul Postler on I was surprised and delighted to discover that “Klara Richter” traveled with him… as an unmarried woman, along with her parents, two brothers and a sister! I know that Klara is my Clara because I have a photo with her parents’ names written on the back.

excerpt of ship register showing Josef & Caroline Richter, their four children and Paul Postler

It really is good practice to look at the names around your ancestor’s in a ship manifest, census record, etc. to see if there’s anyone you recognize. Now, knowing that Paul Postler and Clara Richter were both unmarried at the time of immigration, the question is whether Paul was actually traveling with the Richter family or whether they met on the boat and developed a romance.

From my grandmother’s handwritten notes, she understood that they were already married and traveled together from Germany. While that doesn’t appear to be the case on record, the story does lend me to believe that they probably knew each other in Germany. One other bit of information in those same handwritten notes is that Paul’s mother died when he was young, and that his father turned him and his siblings over to an orphanage. Paul was apprenticed to a tailor and that became his career. So at age 28, after having been raised in an orphanage, it’s unlikely that he had much (if any) contact with blood relatives and would have been a good candidate to fall in love with a girl and move with her family to the New World. At least I always hope that there’s love involved.

I’m going to ignore the brick wall of learning more about Paul’s parents for right now and focus on Caroline and Josef Richter. I just so happen to have a photo of them tucked in among my treasures—dated 1892, I believe it is the oldest one in my collection.

1892 Josef and Caroline RichterIf the date written on the back is correct, this photo would have been taken the same year that they immigrated. Was it taken in Germany or the US? I’m not sure. I’m tempted to say the US because of the hat, but I’m not overly educated in cross-continental fashions of the late 19th century so it’s just a guess. The Richters immigrated in November 1892, so maybe they had their portraits taken on the occasion of their first American Christmas. Or, because I have records that indicate they moved to Adams, Massachusetts pretty quickly after immigration, perhaps they presented this portrait to Clara when she left for (or stayed in) New Jersey with Paul. So many questions from little tiny clues!

Census records show that Caroline and Josef lived in Adams at least until 1910. I was able to locate an obituary for Caroline Richter’s death (August 10, 1929) in the North Adams (Massachusetts) Transcript that provided some vital pieces of information:

Mrs. Caroline Richter, 88, widow of Joseph Richter, died early this morning following a brief illness, in the home of a daughter, Mrs. Paul Postler of 13 North Summer street.

Born in Germany, Mrs. Richter came here in 1892 and for a number of years resided in this town. Then she went to Holyoke to make her home with another daughter, returning here a few weeks ago.

She was a woman who was highly respected in the community and had many friends here who will learn of her death with regret.

She leaves a son, Henry Richter of North Adams, and two daughters, Mrs. Paul Postler at whose home she died and Mrs. Marie Gartner of Holyoke.

The funeral will take place Monday afternoon at 2 o’clock in her late home. Rev. C. O. Rundell of St. Mark’s Episcopal church will officiate and burial will be in Southview cemetery in North Adams.

So… along with learning her other daughter’s married name, I learned that she was Episcopalian! That’s a good thing to know when I start searching through German records. But in what city or region would I start looking? The city of last residence on the immigration record is hard to read, but I think it’s “Kunzendorf,” a German city which may now be the city of Konczyce in Poland. Here’s a 50 pfennig note from 1922 that is the basis for my assertion. There are a couple other examples floating around online as well.

Konczyce-Kunzendof 50 pfennig note


Unfortunately, none of the several cities with or containing the name Konczyce are near Neurode, which is the last residence that Paul Postler listed on the form. Maybe Clara and Paul didn’t know each other before the journey? Hmm. Getting sidetracked.

My point is that I do not know where Caroline Richter was born, nor her maiden name. I do at least have a 2-year period of time in which I could search, but that’s not going to do me any good without the other information. Having a death date and location, though, makes it easier to confirm whether that information might be available on a death certificate. I can pretty easily request a copy of a 1929 death certificate from the state of Massachusetts, though earlier than 1921 and they get a little fussy. Finding a death certificate for Josef is going to be a little trickier anyway, since I have an 18-year range when he could have died. The next step for him, I think, is to locate his grave (which is probably in Southview Cemetery where his wife was buried) and hopefully find his death date.

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Requesting death certificates to help with a brick wall

Three of my four grandparents immigrated to Detroit, Michgian as teens or young adults. Dad’s ancestors are all French-Canadian and can be traced back in some cases to the 1600s fairly easily (not that I’ve very much research of my own) because of the Catholic church records and 17th century French ship manifests. My maternal grandfather’s side is Jewish and from all around Western and Central Europe—using existing family trees and doing a little of my own research, I can trace this line to my third great-grandparents. I have city names, so I’m in good shape to focus my research and dig deeper when I’m ready for that.

All of my Detroit-born grandmother’s grandparents (my great-great grandparents) immigrated to the United States between 1892 and 1903, her mother’s side directly to Detroit and her father’s side to Adams, Massachusetts via Plainfield, New Jersey. I decided to learn what I could about the earliest American roots that I have, figuring that would be a good starting place to start my genealogical research. Records in the United States had to be the easiest to find since I live here, right? Haha, well, sort of.

I have death dates and burial sites in Detroit for my great-grandmother Hedwig’s parents, Anna (Wenorski) Schulz and August Schulz, but I don’t know their exact birth dates, where exactly they were born, or anything about their parents except their names. Well, I know that Anna and August were born in roughly 1877 and 1873 in Germany, but that doesn’t narrow it down much since half of Western Europe was part of Germany during the latter half of the 19th century. And though I know that they were most likely Catholic, without knowing where they born, I don’t have any leads on learning more about their parents.

Screen shot from - the little leaf by August Schulz indicates a hint, but I think the hints belong to different people with the same name. I provided a general birth year of 1850 to assist with hints, but nothing has come of that.

I have an immigration record from 1903 for Anna and little Hedwig, but not for August. I don’t know if he was already in the US or if he came later. Hedwig was born in Danzig (which was a free city-state but and has been part of Poland since after World War II, and is now called Gdansk) so I presume that her parents are both from that region of Europe. At least I know that they spoke German, though I must consider that Anna’s maiden name sounds Polish. Add to the confusion that her maiden name could be Wensorski, not Wenorski, based on names I’ve seen in formal wedding portraits attached to people whom I assume are cousins. I’m pretty certain, from photographs, that Anna had at least two sisters who lived near her in Detroit, but I don’t know their names. I don’t know about any brothers, but if the Wensorski name was passed down, there is probably a brother involved.

There are some potential long-shot leads, but I’m facing a brick wall in researching Anna and August without knowing where they were born. But because I know the dates that they were buried in Detroit, and I assume that they also died there, there’s a good chance that Michigan recorded some additional information on their death certificates. I first contacted the Detroit vital records division, but for records dating back to 1906 (August’s year of death) they referred me to Michigan’s state records archive.

I mailed my request in last week with a check and am really excited about receiving information, even if it takes over a month as estimated. There’s a possibility that the records have been lost, so I’m crossing my fingers. I’m more confident about Anna’s record since she died more recently in 1937. I’m hoping to document Anna and August’s birth dates, birth cities, and mothers’ maiden names. Maybe I’ll get lucky and cause of death will be included, too. August died pretty young, either shortly before or shortly after the birth of his third daughter.

Anna then married Paul Schulz, a man ten years her junior and most likely August’s brother, and had five more children. But that’s another story for another day.

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Hedwig’s six-frame film reel

I had the idea to convert the filmstrip print from my great-grandmother’s motion picture days into a brief animation. It’s good to know that Photoshop is good for something other than adding snarky comments to cat photos.

Hedwig Schulz, movie star in motion

The film would have had a much faster frames-per-second rate, but with only 6 frames I decided to draw them out a bit. I also cheated by adding a dark “blip” frame to help transition from frame 6 back to frame 1. My absolute favorite frame is the last one when 18-year-old Hedwig is looking straight at the camera. So you shouldn’t be surprised that I chose that one to use in my blog’s header graphic!

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Hedwig’s motion picture days – 1918

I suppose it’s fitting for my first old family story to be related to the photograph in my blog’s header graphic.

single filmstrip print from unknown film ca 1918

It’s a photo that’s actually part of a circa 1918 filmstrip print from my great-grandmother Hedwig Postler’s early 20th century photo album.

Pretty cool, right? Each frame is only 1 in. wide and .75 in. tall, so the whole print is just 4.5 inches long.

Unfortunately, there’s no indication  in the album of what this is from. I doubt there’s anything written on the back, but it wouldn’t matter anyway because it’s glued so well to the black paper page that I would most certainly destroy the photo if I attempted to remove it.

So… because I never heard any family stories about anyone in my family being a movie star (or even remotely involved in the movie industry), I have to use my deductive reasoning skills to determine what I’m looking at. Thankfully, Hedwig left me some clues. I know that the album itself was a gift from her friend because of the pencil inscription inside the front cover. It says “To Hedwig Schulz, From Elsie Doletzski, Jan. 15, 1920.” I have no idea who Elsie Doletzski was or what she looked like, but from the date I assume that Hedwig received the album for her 20th birthday. The first half of the album contains photos mostly from 1918-1919, which makes sense.

I’m pretty certain, from her face, that the woman in the photo is indeed my great-grandmother. Six pages before this filmstrip appears in the album, there was a page with three curious photos that provide additional evidence. These two were side by side, and along the bottom across both was written “In memory of my motion picture days.”

In memory of my motion picture...

Courier Motion Picture Corp.

The handwriting is similar to other samples of Hedwig’s, so I feel confident that she was referring to her own motion picture days. I don’t think she’s in either photo, though. The sign on the building looks pretty permanent and reads “Courier Motion Picture Corp. – Developing, Printing, Titles, Tinting.”  I’m confused by this, though, because she lived in Detroit her whole life. I’m unaware of there being any motion picture studios in Detroit in the era of silent films… and I still haven’t determined what exact year this was. More on that in a minute.

The third photo one is a larger group shot (of actors, I assume from their stance and formation) with a few ladies wearing a similar hat to the distinctive one that Hedwig wears in the filmstrip photos. I cannot tell if Hedwig is in this photo or if she took it.

group of actors outside Courier Motion Picture Corp

I found two other photos of Hedwig where she is wearing that hat. One was not in the album, but in a mini presentation folder from a totally different collection of photos. It’s one that I believe Hedwig had mailed to Arthur, her future husband, while he was living in Adams, Massachusetts in the early 1920s. (Hedwig’s best friend married a man from Adams, MA, who set them up as pen pals.) It’s dated 1918. Finally, a specific year!

Sincerely yours Hedwig Schulz 1918

So here’s what I’ve concluded about Hedwig’s motion picture days: she participated in one film (probably as an extra, maybe just for one or two days) when she was 18 years old, possibly for a small and long-defunct motion picture studio in Detroit. She did have some connections in Buffalo, NY, and Adams, MA, so it’s possible that she found her adventure somewhere along a journey to or from either of those cities.

I thought that was all of the information I was going to gather, but then I found another photo of her wearing that black and white beret in the same 1920 album. It’s a cute photo, too, and I didn’t really notice the hat during my casual viewings of the photo album. There’s another little piece of information written on the bottom: May 1918.

May 1918 Hedwig wearing that distinctive beret

Though I still don’t really know the full story behind Hedwig’s adventures in motion pictures, at least I have a better idea after examining all the clues in my collection. I’m going to be on high alert for any other mentions of what she was doing in May 1918, as well as looking out for that unique beret in any photos I see in the future. Perhaps one of my aunts even has a diary or letter from that time period tucked away in a box… because otherwise this story remains mostly a mysterious anecdote.

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Gathering it all in one place

I’ve been collecting and inheriting a steady flow of photos, documents, and stuff from my family since I showed an interest in family heritage in 2001. I didn’t have a lot until after my husband and I moved cross-country and bought a house, which coincided with the time that both of my mother’s parents passed away. As things flowed into my hands for safekeeping and digital conversion, I stashed them in various “safe places” around my house with the dangerous attitude of I’ll get those sorted out someday.

Fast forward six years: I’m finally settling into my home office with enough space to store everything. I’m dedicated to storing my family’s photographs and historical documents in a temperature-controlled environment because I want to preserve them (duh), so scattering them in the basement or in/near the attic was never an option. There’s an  additional workflow benefit of having them in my office, too, because when I’m four hours into a marathon scanning session, it’s handy to have everything all in one place. Even if “all in one place” looks like an intimidating mountain of unattainable goals:

This pile both excites and terrifies me.

Photo does not include the two dozen or so shoeboxes already stacked in the closet (though half of those are admittedly just mine from teenage years and up) or the lone albums that may still be stashed in safe places around the house. There are some boxes under the table that you can’t really see from this photo… but do you see my cat? Tee hee.

Over the holidays, I managed to gather most of the stuff as you see above. I took this photo in January and it only took me two months to start up a blog and finally share it! Talk about progress!

Actually, I am making some real progress. I placed an order this last week for some honest-to-goodness archival supplies from University Products. We’re talking sturdy, museum-grade boxes that are buffered with 3% calcium carbonate to scare off evil, harmful acids; museum-grade file folders and labels; reusable, all-organic book deodorizer to get rid of some horrible musty smells that have penetrated some of the albums and boxes (please, get your photos out of the basement RIGHT NOW); and some acid-free tissue paper that I can use to separate certain photos and wrap 3-dimensional objects in for safe storage.

If you have a careful eye, you can see that there are already some archival-quality boxes in my Intimidating Mountain of Unattainable Goals. I’ve purchased those over the years from a chain scrapbooking store called Archivers (where I worked part-time for a brief period… mostly because of the employee discount on their preservation stuff). When I got serious about organization for long-term storage, I needed to find a company that would better suit my wannabe-archivist needs. After my free University Products catalog arrived in August, I spent so much time with it that my husband and I now affectionately refer to it as my archival porn. It’s true. I love the thought of organization almost as much as I love a row of perfectly-labeled matching boxes on a shelf.

You call it a psychological disorder, I call it winning the war against entropy.

Anyway! Museum-grade products are expensive everywhere, but University Products offers quantity discounts on archival supplies which, when combined with an awesome discount code, helped bring down the overall cost. I expect that it will still be about a week before I receive my precious archival materials. Waiting is the hard part! At least I have plenty of scanning to keep me busy… maybe this week I’ll start sharing some of my finds.

Or maybe I’ll spend that time imagining what I could do with a $2,360 Book Suction Table.

Seriously, who WOULDN'T want a book suction table?!

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RootsTech 2012 and jumping right in to the meaning of life

For six years, I’ve lived about an hour away from the mecca of genealogical research: the Family History Library* in Salt Lake City, Utah. Being primarily interested in preserving the family photos** and documents, though, I didn’t have the motivation to visit and start digging around in my genealogical research… until this past weekend.

The catalyst for my recent plunge into harder genealogical research was RootsTech, a “leading edge conference designed to bring technologists together with genealogists, so they can learn from each other and find solutions to the challenges they face in family history research today.” Genealogy + Technology  = right up my alley!

Not that I don’t mind getting my hands dirty (literally) while searching through old paper archives and scanning with the ol’ eyeballs. But registering for RootsTech got me excited, and then I couldn’t turn down a big discount on an subscription. So I suddenly found myself invested (literally) in family history. The conference was really cool, educational, and very motivating. I was unfortunately still recovering from a really bad cold, but I didn’t let that stop me from stuffing my head with information and ideas. Move over, sinus congestion!

The top three sessions that I attended were:

Three Steps Forward, Ten Steps Back: Using modern tools to identify contemporary family and locate new ancestral connections.
Presented by Amy Johnson Crow from

This session helped me visualize the spread of information down through generations. Typically, one ancestor has a family Bible with handwritten family history in it, and someone four generations later ends up with it. But connections between distant cousins are often lost over time, so an individual researcher (that’s me!) might not even know about the existence of the cousin, let alone the family artifact. She recommends focusing on more than just one’s direct ancestral line. Fleshing out family trees to include all the descendants of your ancestors can lead you to a new contemporary cousin who might have information or artifacts of interest. If you have a lead on a cousin but not enough information to actually locate them, you can pay for a basic Living Person search on to find their contact information.

New Avenues in Genetic Genealogy.
Presented by Jane Buck and Elise Friedman from

I’d vaguely heard about the use of DNA tests in relation to genealogy, but I had no idea how incredibly useful it could be. I thought it was just used for general testing to see the path your waaaay-back ancestors took after leaving Africa. Cool, but worth a couple hundred bucks? Well, I’m on board with it now. (Yes, sponsoring a session at a conference can help a company’s profits.)

What I learned is that FamilyTreeDNA (along with other competitors) are creating huge databases that check anywhere from 12 to 111 markers on cheek swab DNA samples to provide not just ancestral origins, but to match and biologically verify family trees with other participants. You can trace the origin of your surname, confirm suspected family relationships, determine the percentages of your ethnic makeup, and join the “GENetwork” to connect with new cousins.

  • Y-chromosome testing can verify how far back your surname goes—and if maybe great-great grandma lied about her son’s paternity—and match you to others in the database who inherited the same Y-chromosome and so are descended from the same male ancestor. Women should have their closest male relative perform this test. Father, brother, uncle, grandfather, great-uncle… every male receives an exact copy of his father’s Y-chromosome.
  • mtDNA testing (mitochondrial DNA) is linked to DNA that is inherited on the maternal line. Both females and males can take this test, which works similarly to Y-chromosome testing except for the maternal side.
  • Family Finder testing works to find relatives across all family lines. It uses autosomal DNA (a mix inherited from both the mother and father) to provide you a breakdown of your ethnic percentages and connect you with relatives descended from any of your ancestral lines within approximately the last 5 generations.

Since entrance to the RootsTech exhibit hall was technically open to the public, and my dad is currently living in Utah, I convinced him to stop by the Family Tree DNA booth to take advantage of the conference discount. He swabbed his cheek right there for the Y-chromosome test, so that will be fun to see when the results come back. My dad was not a gold star cheek swabber, though—he kept stopping to talk during the 60 seconds he was supposed to be swabbing. To make jokes and flirt with Jane Buck, because that’s who my dad is. That’s also something that won’t show up on the DNA test!

Telling Stories: Transforming the bare facts of genealogy into the astonishing tale of you and your family. Presented by Ian Tester, product manager for Brightsolid.

What I find most intriguing about family history are the stories that lie asleep in documents, artifacts, and photos, dormant and waiting to be discovered. Ian Tester started his session by discussing the main reasons why people are interested in genealogy: fun, love, an/or money.

Money? Yeah, he’s talking about professional genealogists. Family history is the opposite of a money-maker for me, what with the serious time investment, required organizational materials, archival-quality storage containers, research expenses… I could go on, but my husband might read this and develop an interest in seeing receipts.

Fun and love? Absolutely the case for me. Ian asserted that family history easily becomes a personal detective story. It’s done out of love for living or recently deceased family members, and people rarely keep at it unless they find it fun and/or challenging. Family history can also center on this humdinger of a question: Where do I fit, culturally, into the world? I think that puts a slightly more attainable twist on figuring out the meaning of life.

In terms of telling a family story, Ian stressed the importance of gaps between facts. He shared this very cool video of a guy writing genealogical facts on a whiteboard, with a narrative that extrapolates questions and develops a story from the facts. Gaining a tangible understanding of real life vs. life in records.

Stories Through Data from Ross Forrest on Vimeo.

It’s important to understand that family history is never a linear path. There are avenues of exploration that lead to understanding the places in which your ancestors existed, which will help you understand them in the long run. You choose the direction in which you travel. We project ourselves into our ancestors’ lives, and teach ourselves history by researching family history.

Ian brought up another great insight: your narrative viewpoint changes as you learn about your family history. I have found this astoundingly true for me; it seems like each new discovery ultimately affects how I look at the world.

For example: I grew up feeling like I didn’t have a lot in common with my very religious Catholic grandmother. Now, though, as I read her personal notes and newspaper clippings and ponder her collection of stuff that remained after she passed away, I find myself connecting with her worldview more than I thought possible. I don’t share her connection to God, but I understand more about why she felt that connection and how it influenced decisions throughout her life. This brings me closer to her and will lead me to tell her stories with a different, perhaps more sympathetic viewpoint.

When it comes down to it, a family tree is just a bunch of names and numbers. The stories behind the tree make it meaningful. And when one considers the meaning of life…

Don’t stand there gawping like you’ve never seen the hand o’ God before!”

Overall, I am very happy to have attended RootsTech and hope to attend again next year. My whole experience isn’t really covered in this blog post, but this is all that I can manage for now. 

*The Family History Library is run by the LDS church (aka The Mormons) but it’s open to the public and they don’t proselytize. As a non-Mormon, I found the number of “Sister This” and “Elder That” nametag-clad volunteers/employees wandering around to be intimidating at first, but really it’s fantastic because they’re all there to help.

**Though it has been driving me crazy to see faces of dead ancestors for whom I know nothing about.


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