Genealogy Basics

Create a Digital Diary and Your Descendants will Thank You

Diaries written by an ancestor are amongst the most valuable family heirlooms of all time. Whether it is a diary written by a soldier in wartime or a day-by-day account of life on the farm, these daily journals provide great a understanding of the lives of our ancestors. However, this begs the question: Are you creating a diary with a plan to leave it for your descendants?

An article by David Nield in Popular Science magazine says:

“Keeping a daily journal lets you practice writing, organize your thoughts, and preserve your habits and events for posterity. But who has the time and energy to sit down for a dedicated recording session every day? Instead, jot down your entries on the go—by keeping the tome on your phone.”

Indeed, writing an electronic journal can provide great benefits to yourself when you need to go back and recall an event or some instructions from your past. However, if preserved properly, the same journal can provide a greater understanding of your life for other family members long after you are gone.

Another Method of Finding Cemetery Locations

I have written before about the U.S. government’s Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) database at that provides exact latitudes and longitudes for thousands of cemeteries and other named places within the United States. To find a cemetery, all you do is search the GNIS database, find the latitude and longitude for the cemetery you seek, enter those coordinates into a GPS, and follow the instructions shown on the GPS to drive directly to the cemetery.

NOTE: Nowadays, you do not even need a dedicated GPS device. Most Android phones and all iPhones have available apps that will provide GPS capabilities within your cell phone. Some of them will even display the latest traffic reports along your planned route wile you are driving. Many of these GPS-emulation apps are available free of charge while a few cost a modest amount of money, always less than the cost of purchasing a dedicated GPS device.

There is but one problem with the government’s GNIS database: it doesn’t include all the cemeteries! For years, it did not list the small, rural cemetery where several of my relatives are buried, where I already own a burial plot, and where I intend to spend eternity. However, I checked again when writing this article and found that the Morse’s Corner Cemetery is now listed in the GNIS database. So much for the idea of my being buried at an unlisted address!

Despite my recent success, the GNIS database still does not list ALL cemeteries. Luckily, I found another source of possible information.

It is the Second Day of the Month: Back Up Your Genealogy Files

BackUpYourGenealogyFilesIt is the second day of the month. It’s time to back up your genealogy files. Then test your backups!

(I normally post this reminder on the first day of every month. However, April 1 was a Sunday and I normally don’t publish articles on the weekend. Even though this reminder is a day late, it still offers great advice.)

Actually, you can make backups at any time. However, it is easier and safer if you have a specific schedule. The first day of the month is easy to remember, so I would suggest you back up your genealogy files at least on the first day of every month, if not more often.

How to Trace your Irish Family History: a Step-By-Step Guide

Irish genealogy expert John Grenham has published an excellent beginners’ guide to Irish genealogy. If you are new to genealogy and are interested in tracing your Irish heritage, I suggest you first read his tutorial published in The Irish Times at:

What is Wrong with this Tombstone?

Look closely at the picture above. Do you see what is wrong with it?

Christiana Haag’s gravestone is in the Old Mission Church Cemetery in Upper Sandusky, Ohio.

How Many Ancestors Do You Have?

Do you know how many ancestors you have? Of course not. Let’s simplify the question: How many ancestors do you have in the past one thousand years? Many people do not know the answer to that question. Care to guess? (The answer is given below but please don’t peek just yet.)

The number of ancestors is simple to calculate as it is a simple mathematical progression: every person has two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great-grandparents and so on. The number doubles with each generation. As you go back in years, the numbers soon become very large.

For this example, I have assumed that a new generation appears on an average of every twenty-five years:

Number of Ancestors

Why Do You Need to Make Frequent Backups? Well, I Found Out Yesterday!

If you have been reading this newsletter for a while, you already know that I am a fanatic about making backup copies of important information, then storing those backed up files in different locations, including off-site. I have heard dozens of stories from genealogists describing how their many years of family tree research were lost due to hard drive crashes, software problems, human error, or distant hackers.

The problem hit home yesterday: My desktop computer encountered an error while performing an operating system update and lost everything. It locked up. Eventually, I powered it off and then powered it back on again. The computer wouldn’t even boot! I soon realized I had lost everything on the computer’s hard drive.

If it happened to me, it could happen to you.

Accuracy of Genealogy Information on the Internet

NOTE: This article contains personal opinions.

Today I received an email message from a reader of this newsletter in which she bemoaned the quality of genealogy information found on the Internet. She went on at some length to say that the information found online is full of inaccuracies, is posted by people who don’t know what they are doing, and that “all genealogy information found on the Internet should never be trusted.”

I was sympathetic to what she wrote until that last part. NEVER be trusted?

I will be the first to agree that there is a lot of inaccurate SECONDARY information on the Internet. But let’s not overlook the fact that the Internet also brings us images of ORIGINAL source records as well.

Are You A “Trash Genealogist”?

NOTE: I originally published this article in this newsletter in 1998. Yet it is still a problem today. It surfaced again in an email message I received today from a newsletter reader. I receive similar messages most every week from concerned genealogists who don’t like to see online “fairy tales” in user-contributed information that is published in genealogy web sites. I expect to re-publish this article every year or two until the problem is solved. (I don’t expect it to be solved during my lifetime, however.)

While I am ranting and raving about genealogy home pages, I’ll describe another “problem.” This problem has existed for hundreds of years on paper. In more recent years the problem has spread to the International Genealogical Index, the Ancestral File and, more recently, to many CD-ROM disks containing collections of family trees submitted by some company’s customers. However, the recent proliferation of personal web pages has magnified the issue still further.

I can go to almost any Internet search engine today and within a very few minutes find hundreds of “genealogy fairy tales” online. I can find claims of births in Massachusetts or Virginia in the 1500s or in Utah in the 1700s. Time and time again, I see claims that a girl gave birth at the age of three or perhaps at the age of seventy-three. Twelve-year-old fathers also are common in online genealogy home pages. Doesn’t anyone ever check this stuff?

Learn More About Your Ancestors by Having Their Handwriting Analyzed

The following article was written by Jean Maguire, describing a recent presentation by Kathi McKnight at the Colorado Genealogical Society. This article is republished here with Jean’s permission:

Colorado Genealogical Society welcomes
Kathi McKnight, Hand Writing Expert
October 21, 2017
By Jean Maguire

My interest in hand writing analysis began when I was accused of stealing narcotic drugs while a nurse at Swedish Hospital. Drugs were missing from the pharmacy and the drug cart and signed out with my name. Since my name was all over charts and medication records, it was easy to copy my signature. Quietly, a wonderful person in human resources began checking my handwriting and other nurses on my floor. My handwriting did not match and the drug addict was apprehended and sent to rehab.

Handwriting analysis has been used since Aristotle. Eighty percent of companies in Europe and many Fortune 500 companies use it. Kathi McKnight is a Master Certified Graphologist; author of three books; and has analyzed thousands of documents since 1991. She is the go to person for TV shows; Dr. Oz; Washington Post; Sports Illustrated and many more.

Kathi let us know each of us has different handwriting, even though we were all taught in the same method. Handwriting analysis does not predict the future; does not tell age; does not tell sex, or reveal left or right handwriting. Even people with disabilities have different handwriting because handwriting comes from the brain and not from the hands.

Why You’re Probably Related to Nefertiti, Confucius, and Socrates … and Most Everyone Else

An article by Stephen Johnson in the BigThink web site states:


“The theory of evolution holds that all living things have common ancestors. But just how far back do humans need to go to find a common ancestor of their own: a person to whom all living people are related?

“The answer, for people of European descent at least, is surprisingly recent: 600 years. The common ancestor for every single person alive on the planet today, no matter where, lived approximately 3,600 years ago. That means Confucius, Nefertiti, Socrates, and any figure from ancient history that had children, is in some way your ancestor.”

How to Transfer Cassette Tapes to a Computer for Long-Term Preservation

A newsletter reader wrote to me recently, asking:

“I am in the process of backing up my family/genealogy records. There is a lot of information available about commercial services transfer of information. However, I am not seeing much about transfer of audiotapes to more stable backup. Have you written any articles or know of sources to help me evaluate commercial services for audiotapes?”

My answer is:

Genealogy Data Entry Techniques

In the course of a week, I get to see a lot of genealogy data. Some of what I see is abysmal. Many otherwise highly-skilled genealogists do not seem to know that their keyboards have a SHIFT key! Instead, they simply turn on CAPS LOCK and then ignore upper and lower case after that.

Of course, the use of UPPER CASE text has a long history in the computer business. The mainframes of the 1960s and 70s only used upper case text. Data typically was entered on 80-column punch cards. The IBM 026 keypunch machine, the most popular keypunch machine ever built, indeed did not have a shift key and was incapable of entering lower case text.

By the late 1970s, all of this had changed, and data was being entered from computer terminals in normal upper and lower case. However, not everyone got the word. It seems that a number of people do not realize that the keyboards of the twenty-first century have improved since those “stone age” computers of 40 or 50 years ago.

Here are two short examples produced by a popular genealogy program. Which one do you find easier to read?

Using the U.S. Federal Census Mortality Schedules

Almost all experienced genealogists have used the census records to find ancestors. However, how many of us have used the Census Mortality Schedules? In fact, I have to wonder how many of us even know what the U.S. Federal Census Mortality Schedules are? And why would we find them to be valuable?

In 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1890, and 1900, the U.S. census enumerators were required to collect all the normal census information plus even more: information about all persons dying within the 12 months preceding the census taking. These lists are known as the “Mortality Schedules”.

Mortality data can prove very useful in your research. For instance, for several years I suspected that a man found in the Massachusetts census records was my great-great-grandfather. I hadn’t found proof, but the circumstantial evidence was almost overwhelming: he had the correct name, lived in the same area that my later, proven ancestors lived, had the correct number of children as mentioned in a family history book, and more. In fact, I really wanted to prove my descent from this Revolutionary War soldier who spent the winter at Valley Forge in the Continental Army under the command of George Washington. (Most Revolutionary soldiers served in the militia, not in the Continental Army.) I searched hard for the proof.

How to Save a Webpage as a PDF File, So You Later Can View It Offline

Ever find a web page that you want to save, perhaps as a PDF file? (I do that frequently.) An article by Tyler Lacoma in the Digital Trends web site tells exactly how to do that in a variety of different web browsers on Windows, Macintosh, Android, and Apple iOS (iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch). If you have an interest, you can find the instructions at:

Who Actually Owns Your Content When You Post It to the Web?

Over the years, I have heard or read many comments from genealogists about who owns information posted to the World Wide Web. In fact, many people are reluctant to post their family trees online because “someone might steal the information.” A short article published in the Web site uses non-lawyer English to explain several of the issues concerning legal “ownership” of information posted online.

If you have concerns about ownership of online information, you might want to read Who Actually Owns Your Content When You Post It to the Web by David Nield at

I will offer one thought to keep in mind: names of people, along with dates and places of birth, marriage, death, military service, and similar facts of interest to genealogists are just that: facts. As stated in the article by David Nield, “You can’t copyright facts, or ideas, or systems…” While you might be in possession of certain facts about your ancestors, that doesn’t mean that you OWN the information. No one person “owns” facts within the U.S., according to copyright law.

It is the First Day of the Month: Back Up Your Genealogy Files

BackUpYourGenealogyFilesIt is the first day of the month. It’s time to back up your genealogy files. Then test your backups!

Actually, you can make backups at any time. However, it is easier and safer if you have a specific schedule. The first day of the month is easy to remember, so I would suggest you back up your genealogy files at least on the first day of every month, if not more often.

Residential Genealogy Online

Would you like to know who lived in your home many years ago? Or perhaps you want to find the home of your ancestors in the 19th century. One online site can help. Historic Map Works has unveiled a way to link people and places throughout history.

Historic Map Works is a collection of 19th and early 20th century city, town, and county maps. The detailed maps usually show every building and every street in each city or town. Each single-dwelling home contains the name of the family who resided there, either on or beside the building on the map. Apartment complexes contained the property owner’s name.

The new site should be of interest to history buffs, genealogy searchers, and real estate agents. Can you imagine the realtor listing the details of a family that used to live in the house being offered for sale? I suspect that amount of detail might increase the sale price!

It is the First Day of the Month: Back Up Your Genealogy Files

BackUpYourGenealogyFilesIt is the first day of the month. It’s time to back up your genealogy files. Then test your backups!

Actually, you can make backups at any time. However, it is easier and safer if you have a specific schedule. The first day of the month is easy to remember, so I would suggest you back up your genealogy files at least on the first day of every month, if not more often.

Hurricanes and Your Genealogy Data

The recent Hurricane Harvey, the present Hurricane Irma, and Hurricane Jose presently in tropical waters that might head northward all bring to mind questions, such as “How do I protect my personal belongings and information?”

I cannot speak to protecting belongings. However, I have written many times about preserving personal genealogy information that perhaps you spent years accumulating. The same procedures will also protect your family documents, insurance policies, photographs, and much more of the paper we all accumulate.

Many of the people who live through hurricanes will lose all paper documentation of their existence. Some cannot even not prove they ever lived. This is where going paperless can help.