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Honoring Our Ancestral Mothers

Honoring Our Ancestral Mothers

Today is Mother’s Day, and so we honor our moms.  We might send a card, have some flowers delivered, or even call our mothers if we are blessed to still have them.  This is how we show appreciation for our mothers today, but how do we honor all the mothers in our family tree who came before our own mother?


Undated copy of photo, labeled only as “Mary,” in author’s collection

For many genealogists, researching females can be difficult.

To start with, we may not even know our ancestral mothers’ names.  They may have been obscured by history and tradition, known only as the “Mrs.” of their husbands.  Or worse, they may be completely silent in the records, with no mention at all.  Yet, we know they did exist–barring any modern reproductive scientific miracles, we simply would not be here today without our ancestral mothers.

How can we honor the memory of those mothers that may be so difficult to find?  The most obvious, simplest (but not easiest) thing we can do is give them back their names for posterity’s sake.

Here are several research tips to help locate females in historical records.

Search for Vital Records or their substitutes

Vital records are typically referred to as “BMDs,” short for birth, marriage, and death.  Whether viewing modern civil records or historical church records, these types of records will often list the full maiden name of the woman.

  • Marriage documents provide the best chance to locate the maiden name.  Look for the marriage application, license, or a consent to marry if the female was under legal age to marry.
  • Birth documents are usually accurate with regard to the mother’s information, because she was most likely the informant.  Look for birth certificates or registers, adoption decrees, or parish baptism or christening records.
  • Death records will provide information about females, but the records may not be as accurate, depending upon who the informant was (husband, sibling, child, grandchild, etc.).  Look for death certificates or registers, funeral home or mortuary records, cemetery records (such as who owned the plot), and obituaries.
  • Family Bibles are a great source of birth, marriage and death information if they can be located.  Often kept before the statewide requirements to record vital records, a family Bible may provide an adequate substitute.
Wedding portrait of Mary Elizabeth Bell, married John William Freeman 5 Nov 1891 in Hope, Lavaca, Texas

Wedding portrait of Mary Elizabeth Bell, great-grandmother of the author, dated 5 Nov 1891, who married John William Freeman in Hope, Lavaca, Texas, in author’s collection

Scour census records for all the clues they contain

Although census records may not directly answer our research questions, they often provide indirect evidence that can be used as clues to locate other original records.  Consider that beginning with the 1880 census, relationships to head-of-household were provided; thus, a mother-in-law or father-in-law listed in the wife’s household would be her parents.  Don’t overlook the following questions that were asked on various census years, which will point to other records such as marriages or births:

  • Was the person married within the census year? (1850-1890)
  • What was the person’s marital status? (1880-1940)
  • How many years has the person been married? (1900-1910)
  • What was the age at the person’s first marriage? (1930)
  • What was the parents’ place of birth? (1880-1940)

Other record types abound that mention women

Many other record types will name women in their proper familial context as daughters, wives, mothers or widows.  These records may not be as easy to locate or may cost a fee to obtain, but will be helpful in locating the elusive female.

  • Wills, probate or guardianship records – will mention the wife and may provide for the widow’s minor children
  • Land records – often mention the wife or widow, especially if she was entitled to a dower right in the property
  • Pension files – a widow would often apply for a military pension based upon her husband’s Revolutionary War, War of 1812, or Civil War service
  • Tax lists – a widow may show up on a tax list after her husband has died, being taxed on the same amount or value of property
  • Lineage or hereditary society applications – these documents have to connect each generation back to the target ancestor, and each fact on the application should be supported by named sources
  • County or local histories – these books became popular in the late 1800s and usually contain biographies that were submitted by a family member, although they rarely name their sources
  • Newspaper articles – in earlier times newspapers would print just about anything, so look for mentions of females in the social or gossip sections, as well as announcements for births, marriages or deaths
  • Manuscripts – libraries and archives often have unpublished collections of family papers that can be a goldmine for researchers, and may also have vertical files organized by surname
  • Photographs – family photos may contain notations that serve as clues about the females they depict, and websites such as Flickr, Facebook or eBay may host photos posted by others who are distant family members or unrelated resellers

Lucille Freeman, about age 8 circa 1918, paternal grandmother of author, in author’s collection

While the resources described above may not always provide the answers we seek about our ancestral mothers, they are great places to begin looking.  Websites such as Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org or HeritageQuest (accessible via participating libraries) can be used to locate many of these records.  But for some records that are not available online, a road trip to a distant county courthouse or archive might be necessary to gain access to these records.

In conclusion, today’s challenge is to add at least one more female, or ancestral mother, to your family tree.  And when you do, how will you honor and celebrate her discovery?


Photo Overflow!

Photo Overflow!

As I prepare for a cross-country road trip that will result in my bringing home a carload of family photos and memorabilia, I am reflecting on the amount of stuff that can be accumulated in a lifetime.  One category of “stuff” is photos.

Boxes of PhotosOn the surface, dealing with an abundance of photos may seem seductively simple, but if one ponders for more than a fleeting moment, it will become apparent that dealing with a collection of family photos can be complex.

Consider that there can be many attributes of the photos we may inherit.  For example, we may have a few extremely sentimental or one-of-a-kind photos, or possibly many duplicate photos of the same event.  Our photos may run the gamut of completely labeled and identified to a complete mystery.  We may have some photos that offer no sentimental attachment because they depict scenery or strangers.

So, what do we do with all these photos?

Today I am going to focus on the photos that we have determined we wish to part with. Maybe we cannot physically store all of them or maybe they imbue little value to us personally.  Perhaps we have already digitized these photos so that—just in case, by stroke of luck—we are able to later identify them or place them into their proper historical context.  The burning question becomes, “What do I do with the physical originals?”

There are several viable options that may vary based upon how much information is known about the subject matter and provenance of the photos, and how much time you are willing to spend readying the photos for transfer.  Any of these options are better than discarding the original heritage photographs.

First, ask yourself these questions and consider the implications of your answers:

  • Would someone else enjoy or benefit from having these photos, either due to sentimental or historical value?
  • Am I able to facilitate transfer to the interested individuals or organizations?
  • How much time or expense am I willing to put into organizing or packaging the photos to be transferred?

Box of Heritage Photos - Identified and UnidentifiedNext, consider the attributes of your photo collection.  How much information is known about the photos may directly impact how valuable they may be perceived by organizations accepting donations.

  • Are the identities known for all or some of the people in the photos?
  • Is a photographer’s stamp present that is personally identifiable to a specific town or studio?
  • If the identities are unknown, can the collection be tied to a particular city or location?
  • Can the likely provenance of the photos be identified if the collection was handed down from a particular family or ancestor?
  • Do the photos depict relics, costumes, or occupations of yesteryear that would be interesting representations of an era, even if identities and locations are unknown?
  • If the people or places of the photos can’t be identified, does the photo depict something unique that would create nostalgic value?
  • Are the photos in generally good condition, or are there problems or special handling issues like mildew or bugs?
  • Would it be more important for the photos to be maintained in a private collection, or would making the photos available to others by donating them to a public repository serve the greater good?

Last, consider the most likely individuals or organizations that may be interested in receiving the photos, and contact them first.  It is possible that some photos will be of more interest to one particular organization, but others may better fit with a different organization, so several contacts may need to be made.

Prior to making the contact, review any specific policies online that discuss the criteria for accepting a donation.  A guide titled Donating Your Personal or Family Records to a Repository prepared by the Society of American Archivists provides a good general overview of the donation process and what types of records may have historical value.  A sample of a specific guide prepared by the New York State Library in Albany outlines that repository’s donor guide, titled Stuff in a Box.

The 10 options presented below suggest various places that may rehome your photo collection.  In general, they work from those providing the broadest access down to the narrowest access, and several options suggest alternate uses for the photos that are not deemed within the realm of historic preservation.

  1. Large repositories such as a state library or archive, university library, or public or private research library with extensive manuscript collections.  Large repositories may be accessed by many researchers who conduct local or social history studies.  Most archives, libraries, and museums have a collection development policy that stipulates what they wish to collect.  If your proposed donation of photos does not fall within the scope of what the repository collects, ask for a referral to other repositories that might be interested in your collection.  To find lists of these organizations, search Wikipedia with terms such as, “list of archives in the United States” or “list of universities in Colorado.”

  2. State or local genealogical or historical societies or museums.  Small local organizations may be less stringent and more interested in accepting the photo collection since they are often volunteer-run and have limited budgets to acquire new original materials.  Sometimes these collections are co-located at a small local public library.  To find these organizations, Google the town or county name plus type of organization, such as “historical society,” look up a genealogical society on the Federation of Genealogical Society’s directory, or use Wikipedia to query for “list of museums in Texas.”

  3. Specific organizations that maintain records such as churches, fraternal organizations, lineage societies, or businesses.  These organizations may have a historian that maintains a private archive of materials related to the happenings of its members, especially if the donated materials depict member activities.  If the original owner of the photo collection belonged to one of these organizations, they may be interested in the materials.  Some of these organizations have a national governing body that may be able to direct you to a local branch or chapter.  Google the type of organization plus the state name to begin the search.

  4. Online Social Archives.  Consider an online community such as Creating Your Community, which is sponsored by Denver Public Library to connect and preserve Colorado history.  This and other similar communities afford opportunities for individuals to contribute micro-history by uploading themed collections of photos.  The site states, “While archives generally work behind the scenes organizing and preserving historical documents, records, and photographs for future generations, the hippest archives are seeking to embrace participatory culture to create social archives which include anyone with an interest in helping to collect and preserve history.”

  5. Local photographer or amateur historian.  If there is no local repository that can house your photo collection, a local photographer or history enthusiast may privately collect photos and memorabilia.  Over time as these collections build, they are often later transferred to a large repository one the collection has been expanded, organized and annotated by the hobbyist.  For small towns, contact the local newspaper or town hall to inquire about who these individuals might be.

  6. Family associations, genealogists or distant cousins.  Usually every family has at least one genealogist or family historian lurking in the shadows, waiting to gather every scrap of family memorabilia like a giant vacuum cleaner.  If this person can be identified, he or she would probably be overjoyed to receive a bundle of heritage photos that originated within a branch of the family.  Some families also have a family association that may be organized around a particular surname or may host an annual reunion.  These groups often have websites or mailing lists and may be able to post photo collections online.  To locate these individuals or associations, ask older family members for clues, as they may have corresponded with these people or attended reunions in the past.

  7. Dead Fred.  Dead Fred is a type of lost-and-found website where photos can be posted for the benefit of others, including both identified and unidentified (aka “mystery”) photos.  There are over 110,000 photos on the site representing over 18,000 surnames, and so far over 2,400 photo reunions have been documented.  The site accepts uploads of photos taken prior to 1965 where all subjects are deceased, and the site will also accept mailed donations (see FAQs) of photos that the volunteer archivists will scan and place online.

  8. Antiques dealer, estate auctioneer or eBay.  If no repository or individual is interested in the photos, a local antiques dealer may be interested in the collection.  An estate auctioneer may also have contacts with individuals who have purchased heritage photos in the past.  An online auction site such as eBay could be used to sell individual photos or the entire lot of photos to the highest bidder.

  9. School art, history or photography teacher.  If you have not been able to find a good home for the photos and still cannot bear to throw them away, consider donating them to be used for educational or art purposes.  A history professor at a local community college may be interested in using real photos for hands-on examples with his students, or a high school photography teacher may also appreciate receiving a limited collection.  A local artist might incorporate the photos into a variety of vintage art projects.  It is possible that most or all of the photos would be destroyed after their usage.

  10. Landfill.  As a last resort, the unwanted photos could be trashed.  This may be the only realistic option if the photo collection is non-specific, unidentified, poor quality, or is damaged beyond conservation.  Before you choose this option, think twice, because there’s no turning back!  You might consider setting the photos aside for a period of time before making the final disposition to allow time for other viable alternative options to surface.

In summary, caring for a photo collection is a big responsibility.  Sometimes our best option may be to donate a portion of the collection to an organization or individual who can better care for the collection than ourselves.  This decision is made easier when we are not personally attached to the subject photos; however, a decision to dispose of these photos should not be taken lightly.  It’s quite possible that a new home for the photo collection can be located so that they may be enjoyed by others, now and in the future.


Backing Up Offsite:  A Safe Deposit Box Solution

Backing Up Offsite: A Safe Deposit Box Solution

January is the time of year when I religiously try to update my offsite backup files.  I’ve been following this process for several years since I moved to Colorado and didn’t have a family member nearby where I could store a physical backup of my most important items.

Deena external hard drivesThose who know me well also know I keep many redundant backups, so may wonder why I go to the trouble to make a physical backup at an offsite location.  Between 4 external hard drives, 2 Carbonite cloud backup subscriptions, and a small fire-proof safe, it may seem a little odd to also have an “old fashioned” backup system at a safe deposit box.  I may be a bit OCD about my backups, but there’s a method to my madness in following this routine.

First, if my house suffered some sort of natural disaster like a fire or flood–certainly not outside the realm of possibility in Colorado–I may not have access to retrieve items from my home for some time.  Even important documents like insurance policies in the fire-proof safe might be inaccessible if they are under water or the house is structurally damaged and I cannot physically get inside.

Second, even if I rushed out to buy a new laptop in the wake of a disaster, it would take weeks for all my data to be fully restored from my cloud backup services.  I know this to be true because I’ve tested out the process when switching between computers, which in many ways mimics a disaster-recovery situation.  For someone who has in excess of a terabyte of online data, my data consumption patterns don’t fit the standard mold of the cloud backup services, and, if you read the fine print, you’ll understand why it can take so long to restore (yes, they are losing money on me and my big data!).

Last, having an offsite backup forces me to think about updating my files annually.  It’s easy to be lulled into false security when all backups are inside your house or in the cloud, and you aren’t forced to evaluate them on a periodic basis.  Another factor is that we value what we pay for:  when I write the annual safe deposit box rental check, it’s good motivation for me to update my files so I am getting my money’s worth.  Sometimes we just need a little nudge to do the right thing.

Safe Deposit BoxHow did I choose my safe deposit box?  Because many bank branches don’t even offer safe deposit box services, I opted to use a private company, Colorado Vault & Safe Deposit Box Co.  Starting at $5 per month, various sized boxes are available, and the facility offers 24-hour access in the event of an emergency.  I opted for a medium-sized box so that I could store large stacks of DVD backups and a couple small external hard drives.

Deena's medium safe deposit boxMy box measures approximately 3″ x 10″ x 22″, and is much larger and cheaper than what I could have gotten at a bank.  Plus there are many other benefits of a private safe deposit box company that make it more convenient and stress-free than a traditional bank model.  I can walk in without an appointment, retrieve the external hard drive from the safe deposit box, go to a private customer room, hook the hard drive up to my laptop, update the backup, and voila, I’m done–return the hard drive to the box and have it locked back up in the vault, safe and secure for another year.

Deena's Safe Deposit Box Contents

Because I plan to make new backups every January, I’m capturing the previous year’s data.  I maintain an inventory of what is already in the box, listing the date ranges that are covered by each of the backups.  With this knowledge, I only have to make incremental backups to capture the new information that was created or updated in the previous year.  This is much more efficient than redoing all the backups each year, and guards against overwriting a good backup with a file that has since become corrupted.  I use high capacity DVDs that allow 8.5GB of storage instead of only 4.7GB, so I minimize the space that is consumed by the physical media.  I have many years of room for backup before I will fill up my box.

What’s in my box?  Because I’m the family historian, I have thousands of high-resolution digitized photos saved in .tif archival formats.  Many of these photos have been scanned from vintage photos that date back 100 or more years.  Not only do I have my own digital photo collections, but I also maintain backups of my parents and in-laws photos as a safeguard.  Besides the photos, I have scans of scrapbooks and other sentimental memorabilia.  To round it out, all my family’s “vital” documents such as birth and marriage certificates, wills, and powers of attorney are also kept in the box–a genealogist’s goldmine.  Beyond these heritage items, there are many other important items I could include in the box, as outlined in this online checklist.

vault door barsEven in today’s modern world where high-tech gizmos and new solutions in the cloud seem to materialize every day, there’s still value in securing your electronic data or physical valuables in a safe deposit box.  As genealogists, we often talk about the proverbial brick wall when we are stuck in our research–but what about changing the perspective and thinking about the solid steel walls of a vault for protecting and keeping safe what we’ve already painstakingly discovered?

If you are in the Denver-metro area, I recommend that you give Stewart or Frank at Colorado Vault & Safe Deposit Box Co. a visit.  They are friendly and knowledgeable, and can help you establish a physical space that works for your backups or physical irreplaceable items.  Check out www.CVSafeBox.com or call 720-879-7134, and tell them DigiDeena sent you.

Colorado Vault & Safe Deposit Box Co logo

All I Want for Christmas Is…Spit?

All I Want for Christmas Is…Spit?

Yep, you heard right.  I want the spit of as many of my cousins as possible so we can test and compare our ancestral DNA.

I have been on a quest this year to gather the DNA of the oldest family members in my family and my husband’s family before it is too late.  With the recent drop in price of Family Tree DNA’s autosomal “Family Finder” test to $99, it is becoming more affordable to confirm family connections through the use of DNA.

I am a completely addicted genealogist.  But I fear that I am going to become an even more addicted genetic genealogist if I continue on this path!

So far I have had my own autosomal DNA tested with all three of the major testing companies:  23andMe, Ancestry DNA, and Family Tree DNA.  I’ve also had my maternal grandmother, father, and aunt (father’s sister) tested.  I even paid to transfer the raw DNA files from 23andMe to Family Tree DNA for my grandmother and father so that we could “fish in more ponds,” so to speak, and double our matches with people who may have only tested with one company or the other.

Because I’m female, I cannot take the Y DNA test to investigate my patrilineal ancestors, so I had my dad tested with Family Tree DNA instead.  I could have had my brother tested, but it’s always preferable to test the oldest living generation in a particular family line so that matches to common ancestors are not clouded by more recent mutations.  For this reason, I’ve also opted to have my husband’s father tested first, before I eventually test my husband.

DNA SwabsOn my wish list for testing are male descendants of my Swedish Anderson line (maternal grandfather’s surname).  I have a few candidates who could provide me not only the Y DNA sample, but also the autosomal DNA in the same test swab.  Similarly on my husband’s side, we’d like to get his uncle (mother’s brother) tested to capture the rare McCrossen Irish line, which was his mother’s maiden name.  My maternal grandmother’s brother had several male descendants who we could also test for my Italian Campagna line, which was my grandmother’s maiden name.  As you can see, the list goes on and on.

I have other cousins on my radar who I don’t even know yet.  I’m actively doing descendancy research from the levels of my 2X great- or 3X great-grandparents to find living males today in branches of the tree where I don’t already have a representative sample.  Why all the emphasis on males, you might ask?  Since females inherit two X sex chromosomes and males inherit both an X and Y sex chromosome, I prefer to find males to test so I have the option of testing both their Y and autosomal DNA.  In the absence of a viable male to test, I can still test a female’s autosomal DNA, but will not be able to trace the surname as easily (as surname patterns typically follow the male or Y DNA).

I am still happy to receive autosomal DNA samples from cousins, as it will help me to triangulate my matches with individuals who are predicted cousins, but do not have a recent matching surname that obviously jumps out from both our trees.  By using two or more autosomal DNA tests from cousins, tools are available to narrow down from which branch of the tree the cousin matches, making the search for the common ancestor much easier.

It can be a bit overwhelming to process one’s autosomal DNA results, since it’s not uncommon to have several hundred or even a thousand matches in the predicted 3rd to 8th cousin ranges.  By having two or preferably three cousins to compare results from a particular branch, I can utilize tools such as the chromosome browser provided by 23andMe or Family Tree DNA to see which segments of our DNA overlap.  Then, rather than trying to search through all branches of my entire tree, I can focus on the branch where I know the same segments of DNA have been inherited by myself and my cousins.

If I get my Christmas wish, I’ll be busy in 2014 pouring over spreadsheets of information to connect the dots (or should I say strands) in the DNA.  I’m excited about the prospect of meeting new cousins who may have unique family information, photos or artifacts.  Thanks to DNA, I just might break through some of my dead ends in 2014.

Tips for a Happy Thanksgiving Including Family History

Tips for a Happy Thanksgiving Including Family History

Thanksgiving is here, and its arrival often finds us spending time with family near and far.  As we express gratitude to those we love, we may also have opportunities to capture a slice of our family history and traditions.  Here are a few fun tips to make the most of your family time this week.


Saving Memories Forever logo

Tell Stories  

As family members reminisce about days past or the dearly departed, don’t miss the opportunity to capture the stories!  Capturing the story can be as simple as jotting down a few notes to help you remember the details once you are home or the company has left, so you can write out a fuller story.

SMF Recording ScreenOr you can go “high tech” with recording stories, especially if you have children or grandchildren who can assist (or who might need something to keep them busy).  Saving Memories Forever is a website where you can record and share stories with your family; it also provides free smartphone apps for iPhone and Android for seamless recording and uploading.  Play a fun game of “pass the phone” where each person present takes turns answering a story prompt or telling their own stories in their own words.  If you plan on having phone calls with out-of-town relatives, you can even place the phone on speakerphone and record the person’s voice with a tape or digital voice recorder.  Whatever method you choose, capture the stories now before they slip away.


Share Photos or Recipes

Did granny have a delicious pecan pie recipe that she made every Thanksgiving?  Better yet, do you have a photo of granny in the kitchen making her prized pie?  There’s no better sensory way to relive family memories than through photos and good food!

mamapalooza B&W

Consider asking each family member to bring his or her favorite holiday recipe, which can be used as the start of a family cookbook.  And don’t forget to take pictures of the food if one of the featured recipes will be on the Thanksgiving table!  After dinner, why not pass around old photo albums (and a heavy dose of coffee for those who ate too much turkey)?  Like the strings on granny’s old apron, family food traditions are our ties to the past.


Pass on Traditions to the Next Generation 

Do you have a Thanksgiving tradition that you hope your children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews will continue to follow?  Does the day revolve around the food, football game or other fun activity?  Does the family participate in a service project such as working to deliver meals to the less fortunate?  Is Thanksgiving the day you put out the Christmas decorations or make your list for black Friday shopping?  Whatever your family tradition may be, it is important to reinforce why the customs are meaningful or where they originated so the next generation will have a feeling of connectedness to the the family past and present. And if you don’t have a set family tradition, consider making one around storytelling or family history–and get the whole family involved!


I hope these suggestions help to make your Thanksgiving season unforgettable.  Please feel free to contact me for more ideas, or to let me know if you added a fun, family-history tradition this year that could be shared with others.


Happy Thanksgiving!