Genealogy Basics

A Little-Known Government Genealogy Service

A little-known program of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) provides genealogy information that may be difficult or impossible to obtain elsewhere. The records include naturalization files, visa applications, and citizenship tests, and may reveal family secrets and mysteries. In addition to relatives, historians or researchers can also request files.

Under the USCIS Genealogy Program, which started in 2008, requests are usually completed within 90 days. The government will run a search of the name, as long as the person is deceased. If there are records available, the government charges additional fees for the files. The fee for a record copy from microfilm identified as (M) is $20 per request. The fee for a copy of a hard copy file identified as (HC) is $35 per request. More information about the fees associated with each file series may be found at

How I Organize Evernote: A Peek Inside My Personal System

A few weeks ago, I wrote a Plus Edition article entitled (+) My Method of Filing Digital Images and Documents. It is still available at In the article, I described the system I use for organizing digital photographs and all sorts of other documents on my computer’s hard drive and in online backups.

I was planning to write a similar article about organizing all sorts of information within Evernote, one of the handiest programs available for genealogists and for millions of other computer users as well. However, when researching the article on the World Wide Web, I found that Michael Hyatt had already written an article about that and his methods are similar to my own. He doesn’t write about genealogy uses of Evernote but most of what he writes applies to genealogy as well as to thousands of other topics.

Convert an Address to Latitude and Longitude

You can pinpoint any place on Earth using a single set of coordinates: latitude and longitude. These coordinates look like a string of numbers. Once you have those numbers, you’ll be able to plug them into a web map, GPS, or other mapping device and find what you’re looking for in an instant — no matter where on the planet it is.

Using latitude and longitude information makes it easy to find your ancestors’ homestead, your own house, the county courthouse in a distant city, or any other location of genealogical interest.

The coordinates are similar to the Xs and Ys you used to plot in algebra class. Imagine if the surface of the Earth could be stretched flat. Then suppose you place a grid on top of the flattened world. You could pinpoint any location by finding the spot where the horizontal and vertical grid lines intersect. The horizontal x-axis is the equator, while the vertical y-axis is the Prime Meridian, which runs through the Greenwich Observatory in England.

Click on the above image to view a larger version.

What’s Your Tartan?

If you have Scottish ancestry, do you know the tartan worn by your clan?

Well, first of all, there are no official rules. According to the Court of the Lord Lyon King of Arms:

“There are no strict rules on who has the right to wear a particular tartan… Wearing a particular clan tartan indicates that the wearer bears an allegiance to the chief of that clan… There is no official register of tartan. Records of designs are maintained by the Scottish Tartans Authority, Fraser House, 25 Commissioner Street, Crieff, Perthshire, PH7 3A Y. The Lord Lyon has no jurisdiction over tartan…”

Official or not, many customs have been developed over the centuries about the wearing of various tartans.

Are You Missing Most of the Available Genealogy Information?

I recently received a message from a newsletter reader that disturbed me a bit. He wrote, “I have been doing genealogy research for 10-15 years but only through the Internet.” He then went on to describe some of the frustrations he has encountered trying to find information. In short, he was disappointed at how little information he has found online.

I read the entire message, but my eyes kept jumping back to the words in his first sentence: “… but only through the Internet.”

Doesn’t he realize that 95% of the information of interest to genealogists is not yet available on the Internet?

Create a Family Tree Chart in Excel

Microsoft has created a free template to create a five-generation family tree chart. It has space for each family member’s name and title. There’s very few “bells and whistles” in this template. There is no automatic importing of data or anything else. Simply download the template and manually enter the data. You can then print a very nice-looking five generation chart.

It is free and is available at

Citing Sources

One thing that genealogists need to do is to always cite their sources. I well remember my early days of family tree searches. I would record new information into three-ring notebooks. (This was long before the invention of the personal computer.) I would write down names, dates, places, and perhaps a bit more information that I was lucky enough to find.

Unfortunately, in those early days I did not write down where I obtained the information. Nobody told me that I needed to do this, and I wasn’t smart enough to figure it out for myself. I simply assumed that everything I found was accurate. After all, it was printed in a book, wasn’t it?

As time passed, I frequently found new information that contradicted what I found earlier. When I discovered these discrepancies, I needed to determine which piece of information was more accurate. The question that arose time and again was, “Where did I find that information?” Sadly, I often did not know.

Finding Genealogy Records and Books on eBay

I purchased two genealogy books this morning. The books are both about my family name, although not about my direct ancestors. I have seen both books previously in libraries and am quite familiar with the contents. Today, I purchased my own copies on CD-ROM disks to keep on my computer as well as in my own private area “in the cloud.” Both books provide background information which interests me as well as may provide answers when other people contact me about their Eastman ancestry. Since I will copy both disks to my own password-protected area in the cloud, I will have them with me at all times. I can access them from home, from a laptop at the gate at an airport, from the iPad from most anyplace, and even from my “smartphone” when at the grocery store. Admittedly, reading books on a tiny cell phone screen does offer a few challenges but reading them on a laptop, tablet, or other ebook reader is often more convenient than reading similar content on paper.

Best of all: I am delighted with the price: $10.95 for one and $7.95 for the other. Those prices are much, much cheaper than purchasing reprinted books on paper (typically $35 to $200 and occasionally even more).

These books also will be easier to store, easier to access, and much more convenient to read wherever I am.

June is Backup Awareness Month

I don’t know who proclaimed this month as “Backup Awareness Month” but it certainly is a good idea. Backblaze is an online backup provider that is promoting the idea of backup awareness rather heavily. The company ran a survey last year that claims senior citizens perform more backups than do the 18-44 year old crowd. In short, the older generation is kicking the collective youthful butts when it comes to regularly backing up computer data.

Free Family Record Forms from the Library of Congress Web Site

Long before the invention of home computers that could generate forms, many families recorded their important family events within their Bibles. Whether printed as part of the Bible or printed on separate paper forms that could be stored alongside the family Bible, these forms often were ornate with beautiful artwork. The Library of Congress has collected many of these forms and made them available online. Some are simple “fill in the blank” forms while others have space to manually paste in pictures. All of the forms are available free of charge.

Forensic Genealogy Explained

Several newsletter readers have recently asked, “What is Forensic Genealogy?”

The word “forensic” means “relating to the use of science or technology in the investigation and establishment of facts or evidence.” In this case, forensic would mean to use science or technology in addition to traditional records. In short, Forensic Genealogy is the use of something OTHER THAN standard records to add to your family history.

This is not to say that forensic genealogists ignore the records. Quite the contrary. Forensic genealogists always start with the available records. If those records are insufficient to prove a relationship, the forensic genealogist then looks for other clues. In other words, forensic genealogists think differently.

The Death of Microfilm

Genealogists love microfilm. Visit any genealogy library anywhere, and you will see genealogists in darkened rooms, hunched over microfilm viewers, trying to solve the puzzles of their family trees. I have taken several pictures of genealogists sitting at rows of microfilm readers. However, I suspect that within ten years those pictures will become collectors’ items, recalling an era that exists only as distant memories in the minds of “the old-timers.” You see, microfilm and microfiche are about to disappear.

Many of the manufacturers of microfilm and microfiche equipment have already disappeared or else have switched their production lines to other products.

Ancestors from the West Indies – A Historical and Genealogical Overview of Afro-Caribbean Immigration, 1900–1930s

Damani Davis has written an excellent introduction to researching ancestors from the West Indies. The article has been published by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and is now available to everyone on the NARA web site at no charge.

Davis writes:

“The ancestors of most Americans either immigrated to the United States, served in the military (or married a veteran who served), or were at least counted in one of the decennial censuses. Consequently, the most relevant federal records for genealogical research are those that document these three activities.

“This generality, however, does not always apply to the ancestors of African Americans. Immigration records, in particular, have no immediate relevance for researching enslaved ancestors who were transported to America via the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Since enslaved persons were considered “chattel,” or property, they were not recorded as immigrants.

GEDCOM Explained

I frequently mention the acronym “GEDCOM” in this newsletter. This week a reader wrote to me with an excellent question: “What is GEDCOM?” I realized that I haven’t explained this buzzword in a long, long time. So, here is a brief, non-technical explanation of the term for the newer subscribers to this publication.

GEDCOM is an abbreviation that stands for GEnealogy Data COMmunications. In short, GEDCOM is the language by which different genealogy software programs talk to one another. The purpose is to exchange data between dissimilar programs without having to manually re-enter all the data on a keyboard.

To illustrate the importance of GEDCOM, step back in time with me for a moment.

Decoding the Long S in Old Documents

The “long s” of eighteenth-century (and earlier) typography seems strange to us today but was common at one time. It is not a lower-case “f” as many think. Instead, it is “a long s,” which is represented by the similar-but-different character, “.” See the word “Congrefs” in the image below for one well-known example:

Andrew West at Babelstone has created a comprehensive guide to the use of the long s in English as well as in French, Italian, and Spanish He also gives a brief description of its use in other languages as well.

Here are West’s simple rules for English:

Backing Up Your Genealogy Data to Dropbox or to Google Drive

I am always suggesting that everyone should back critical files in multiple locations. For safety reasons, at least one backup copy should be stored “off site” where it will not be damaged by a disaster in your home. In fact, most of today’s genealogy programs can quickly, easily, and securely back up files to the cloud with such services as Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft Drive (formerly known as SkyDrive),,, or any of the many other available file copy services. Doing so is quick and easy and protects your data.

Another advantage to making backups to a cloud-based service is that you can easily copy databases between computers, such as from your desktop computer to your laptop or vice versa.

Keep in mind that you need to first create a Dropbox account or Google Drive account or an account on another service in order to use this option. Most of these online services offer free accounts that will save up to a few gigabytes of data. In most cases, the available space on a free account will be more than enough to store copies of most genealogy databases.

Barking Up the Wrong Tree

Subtitle: Do as I say, not as I have done.

I well remember the day that I lost about 100 ancestors. It could happen to you.

In my case, early in my genealogy endeavors, I was adding information about “new” ancestors in great haste. Well, they weren’t really new; they had always been my ancestors, but their names were new to me in those days. I’d find a new ancestor, record his or her information, then move on and find the parents. In the early days of my genealogy searches, it was easy to add new ancestors. After all, everyone has thousands of ancestors and, when you are new to the game, the records can be easy to find. This is especially true for French-Canadian genealogy as the Catholic Church did a great job of recording almost every christening and marriage and most funerals, usually including the name of the parents in each record. Those records are easy to find on microfilms and in printed books and, in recent years, in online databases.

As a genealogy newcomer, however, I didn’t know about the need for double and triple-checking for accuracy.

Family History for Beginners

A newsletter reader asked today, “What is the best genealogy guide for beginners?” Actually, there are dozens of such guides available online. I don’t know which is “the best one” but the Family History for Beginners on at certainly is a good one.

Another place to search for such guides is on Cyndi’s List at


Woman Claims She’s the Virgin Mary’s Cousin 65 Times Removed

I won’t offer any opinion about the accuracy of this article but I certainly would like to see the source citations.

A Pennsylvania woman claims she is the 64th great-granddaughter of Saint Joseph Ben Matthat Arimathaea, who was the paternal uncle to the Virgin Mary. Ashlie Hardway of WTAE Television reports that Mary Beth Webb, of Murrysville, Pennsylvania, said she began searching her ancestry in 2010 after years of “communicating” with her deceased mother, father and brother. While doing the research on over a two-year period, Webb discovered the connection to Saint Joseph.

You can decide for yourself after reading the article and watching the video at


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