Friday, January 23, 2015

Reading Old Handwriting

National Handwriting Day, celebrated since 23 January 1977, promotes the importance of penmanship and its ability to express the personality of an individual. 

In the ensuing years, our use of computers and typewriters has led many to bemoan the loss of penmanship skills. 

Would the signature of John Hancock, who was born on this day in 1737, have been as impressive if he had not spent many hours during his youth practicing his penmanship?

Genealogists and family historians, in fact any researcher who works with handwritten documents, undoubtedly has great affection for those who had excellent handwriting. Unfortunately, even the best clerks got tired and their handwriting suffered as a result. The difficulties reading handwritten documents are compounded the further one goes back in time because the style of script changes and are not always readily recognizable to the modern reader.

When reading older documents two simple strategies will help:

First, study the individual’s handwriting. Don’t limit yourself to the one letter or census page. Studying all of an individual’s letters or several pages that a census enumerator recorded will pinpoint idiosyncrasies in their personal handwriting style.

Second, know what type of document you are looking at. Deeds, wills and testaments, birth, death, and marriage records use standard phrases. Learning these standard phrases in modern script will help you understand them in an unfamiliar one or even in a different language.

There are several excellent online resources that will help you understand old handwriting:

Useful Tips for Reading Handwritten Documents, from Archives Outside, the official blog of State Records New South Wales, is a useful compendium of tips, clues, and strategies.

Palaeography: reading old handwriting 1500 – 1800 is an online tutorial from the National Archives. The Where to Start section is a useful primer on transcribing, spelling, and abbreviations that is useful for understanding documents from any time period. 

Script Tutorial: Making Sense of Old Handwriting from Brigham Young University is an online tutorial for students, researchers, and indexers. Tutorials are currently available for English, German, Spanish, and Italian scripts.

Scottish is an online tutorial from the National Records of Scotland for understanding Scottish documents that were written between 1500 and 1800.

This Fraktur Chart from the Yale University Library provides the Roman alphabetic equivalent for each Fraktur character. 

For additional resources visit our Pinterest Board.

To learn more about the personality of your ancestors, please consider the handwriting analysis service offered by

by Amanda Epperson © 2015,, All rights reserved
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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Family History Research in 2015

The New Year of 2015 is upon us.  Many of us (myself included) made resolutions like eating better, spending less, and exercising more.  At, we hope one of your resolutions is to involve us to help you work on your family history. Here are some tips and suggestions to ensure that we help you as much as possible:
  • Keep your goals manageable. Don’t resolve to find all your ancestors back to the 1600s; even with professional help this would be a herculean task. Manageable possibilities include: finding the parents of a 3x great-grand father, buying and learning to use genealogy software, organizing the documents already in your possession, organizing digital and printed photographs, or having your DNA tested.
  • Break your goals down into smaller steps. I have found that if I put “sew dress for niece” on my to do list it is too big, too scary, and very often not accomplished. However, if I break it into steps – get out sewing machine, wash fabric, cut out pattern, etc. – I eventually get the dress sewn.

    Crossing things off a list provides a sense of accomplishment; therefore, putting more things on a list provides more opportunities to get tasks accomplished. If your goal is to buy and learn to use genealogy software, first focus on buying it. Your steps for this might include identifying the various programs, visiting their websites, comparing their features and prices, seeking out blog posts and reviews, considering the support packages available, asking your friends, seeing if there are trial versions you can download and test, determining if books are available for the programs (official and unofficial), and finally buying the program.
  • Chose a goal that actually interests you and that you think you can accomplish. Don’t decide that you should accomplish Aunt Sue’s long cherished desire to find her the names of her 4x great-grandparents, especially if you never really liked your Aunt Sue.
  • Consider whether you might need professional help to reach your goals. Sometimes it is worth paying someone to help you. Consult with or genealogy groups in your area to see what they suggest in terms of price and possibility of success.  At, we craft research plans to fit your goals and your budget. Prices start as low as $150.  
We hope that 2015 is off to a great start for you.

by Amanda Epperson © 2015,, All rights reserved
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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Top 7 Blogs of 2014

Before we get too far into 2015, we thought it would be helpful to highlight the most read blogs in 2014. 

Each post has had thousands of readers and ideally helped you with your research. 

Be sure to visit the blog often in 2015 to see our latest tips and suggestions.  

  1. Anatomy of a Social Security Number - this post details the meaning of these all important numbers and explains the letters that may appear after an individual's number.
  2. Tips for Searching State Records - this post shares tips for searching state records online.
  3. 5 Ways to Find Your Ancestor’s Parents - there is more than one record that might record the names of an ancestor's parents; this post explains five of them.
  4. Viewing Restricted FamilySearch Collections - learn three work arounds for viewing restricted records.
  5. Avoiding Five Common Research Errors - starting with not believing everything you see and read, this post highlights five mistakes many researchers make.
  6. 4 Ways to Use WorldCat to Access Records - this post will help you use resources at the world's largest library catalog to help you find your ancestors.
  7. Marry ‘Em and Bury ‘Em- this post explains how using marriage and burial records can help you overcome "burned county" syndrome.

by Amanda Epperson © 2015,, All rights reserved
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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Families and New Year’s Traditions

In New York a ball will drop in Times Square, in Spain people grapes will be eaten for luck, fireworks will light the sky in Sydney, and Auld Lang Syne will be sung everywhere.

However, as much I love fireworks, Times Square, or grapes, none of this means New Year’s to me. To me New Year’s means the Rose Parade. Whether you help decorate floats, try out to be on the Rose Court, attend the parade, or simply complain about the bleachers set up along Colorado Boulevard in November, if you are from Pasadena you cannot escape the Rose Parade. 

I spent many New Year’s Eves helping to glue flowers on my hometown’s entry into the parade. I learned that purple statice is an awful flower as more of it sticks to your fingers than to the float; there are never enough mums; and only turpentine will get the glue off your fingers. Other years my family and I watched the floats from other communities make their way down Huntington Drive from their place of construction to the parade route in Pasadena. Rose Parade floats look very different in the dark, moving silently and slowly, a secret parade for the few spectators who forsake parties and fireworks.

Shared memories such as mine of Pasadena and the Rose Parade, or New York and Times Square, or Sydney and fireworks, are what bond us together as families, communities, and nations. So ask your relatives and friends what their favorite New Year’s memory or tradition is. Don’t worry about tape recorders or pens and paper, just be in the moment and let them know you want to share in their life’s experiences. Perhaps they will inspire you to restart an old family custom, try an heirloom recipe from the old county, or to finally start your own family history project. 

Wishing you all the best for a prosperous and peaceful 2015.

Photo: Before the Parade, 2006 (Cimmy via morgueFile)

by Amanda Epperson © 2014,, All rights reserved
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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

O Christmas Tree

Are your family members not cooperating with your quest to gather genealogical data over the holidays? Then try switching your approach and disguising your genealogy questions. 

A seasonal topic of discussion could be Christmas trees, either the one in your living room, in the local mall, or in Rockefeller Square. People have associations, memories, and opinions about Christmas trees, even if they are not part of their holiday traditions. If you ask questions focused on the tree, you may be able to elicit family history indirectly. 

Here are some sample questions to get you started:
  • When did you first see or decorate a Christmas tree? This query may result in stories about a relative’s grandparents and events from decades ago.
  • What kind of Christmas tree did your family purchase (Douglas Fir, Norway Spruce, etc.). Answers to this may offer insight about where the family lived. We always purchased Noble Fir trees when I was little, but you cannot buy then where I live now.
  • Real or Artificial tree? That question might start a discussion about storage, finances, trips to the forest or Christmas tree farm, or the smell of fresh pine.
  • Did you ever want a Christmas tree? For those who did not or do not celebrate Christmas a question such as this may open a discussion of cultural exclusion or of cherished traditions. For multicultural families you may obtain information about how holiday traditions are negotiated.
If you need to brush up on your Christmas tree trivia to impress your relatives, you can watch a brief video on the history of Christmas trees from, read about the National Tree in Washington D.C. from the National Park Service, or visit the official page of the National Tree Lighting Ceremony.

Wishing you and your loved ones a Merry Family History Holiday from

by Amanda Epperson © 2014,, All rights reserved
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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Family History During the Holidays

When I’m in a bad mood, I imagine starting a petition to rename the month of December either "Hectic" or "Frantic". On the other hand, when my mood is good, "Family" or "Cookies" seem like appropriate choices. Whether you appreciate the positive aspects of this busy month or fret over the negative, one of the last things you need is to begin a new Family History project on your own.

However, “doing” family history doesn’t always require staring at census records on your computer screen. If you change your focus and think of it as an opportunity to keep guests entertained or even a way to get someone else to collect data – then this is the perfect time of year.

Here are a handful of ideas for family activities on the theme of genealogy to inspire you:

  • Ask someone to play photographer. You can sweeten the task by offering the photographer a deal – for example, if he/she takes pictures,  he doesn't have to help clear the table.  All kinds of pictures can be taken: couples, family groups, cousins, children getting into mischief, cooks in the kitchen, presents under the tree, cars in the driveway. These photos can all be candid; nobody needs to line up on the stairs for a formal family photo.
  • Print out blank family group sheets and pedigree charts. Ask your guests to fill them in before dinner. Think of it as an ice-breaker exercise as everyone will start talking about their relatives and their memories of them. Be sure to ask everyone to sign and date the back of their sheet. If you have a printer that also copies, you can make copies for your guests.
  • At the dinner table ask your guests to share a favorite holiday memory, their earliest recollection, their favorite gift, or their most disastrous cooking experience. If you have a smart phone, this session could be easily recorded, but if it would ruin the moment don’t worry about it, sometimes sharing family stories is simply about bonding with people in the present.
  • If you have old family photos with unidentified people in them, this is the time of year to get them out and ask Aunt Sally or Uncle Joe, “Who is this?”

Each of these activities has the benefit of furthering your family history project and entertaining your guests. A frantic genealogist happily eating cookies could hardly ask for anything more.

Happy Holidays from

by Amanda Epperson © 2014,, All rights reserved
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Thursday, December 18, 2014

90% - Why Hire a Professional Firm

Why hire a professional genealogy firm? There are many reasons to do so. The top reason on my list is that I don’t live near any of the repositories where my ancestors lived.  Three of my grandparents were born and raised in Indiana. Their family trees stretch back to the pioneer days of the state in the early 1800s. As a child, I have fond memories of visiting my grandparents and other extended family members during my summer vacations. But I am not an Indiana native, nor have I ever lived there. In fact, I currently live about as far away from Indiana as you can get, and still be in the continental United States. This makes researching my Indiana family roots particularly difficult.

Over the years I have developed several strategies for finding information about my ancestors. Generally, my searches start on the Internet. Websites like Ancestry and Family Search are a good starting point with their collections of digitized records. However, only about 10% of records can be found online. That means about 90% of records are inaccessible via the internet and 90% is a really big number! Some of the larger state archives have staff members who can find records from their published finding aids and indexes. A few local historical societies are staffed by volunteers who can also find records. But both of these strategies have limitations. Volunteers often work only a few hours each week so receiving information in a timely fashion can be difficult. Last year I sent a query to a local society and it took six months to tell me they couldn’t find the record. While I am very grateful for the work the volunteers did searching the courthouse for my great grandfather’s will, waiting that long for zero results was difficult. And while the larger archives have staff members who can copy records, they generally don’t have the time to search un-catalogued collections.

Hiring a professional family history research firm with genealogists, historians, DNA experts, and university professors who possess in-depth knowledge of local repositories can seem like an expensive prospect. Saving time and the frustration of not knowing when a record may be retrieved makes hiring a professional firm totally worth it. The network of genealogists and researchers at have access to over 1,500 libraries and repositories around the world. Give them a try and see what they can find in the 90% for you.

by Deborah Sweeney © 2014,, All rights reserved
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