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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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Welcome to the Official Blog of

It may seem odd to have a “welcome” post to a company blog that has been in existence for two years; however, there is a new blogger so we felt a post marking the start of my blogging for seemed appropriate.

My name is Amanda Epperson and I have been around dead people my whole life: from traipsing through cemeteries in Tennessee with my Mamaw when I was little to completing a PhD in immigration history when I was grown. In the intervening years. I have learned that American genealogy is almost inseparable from American migration history. America has attracted immigrants for centuries and once here they, or their descendants, were often on the move again. 

My plan for this blog is three-fold. First, to share my historical expertise and genealogical knowledge to help you in your own research. Second, to share information about history and genealogy that is just fun or interesting. And third, to help you get to know the staff of and the world of professional genealogy, so you know what to expect when it’s time to call for help in your search for your roots. 

I look forward to hearing from you and hope you will take the blog (and me) along with you on your family history journey.

Note: In addition to regular blogs by Amanda, we will also have guest blogs on occasion. Speaking of which, if anyone would like to submit a blog for publication, please do so to

by Amanda Epperson © 2014,, All rights reserved
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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Criminal Ancestry

Have you ever been exploring your family tree when a rotten apple falls down and hits you on the head? Most of us have at least one ancestor with a checkered past. Some of our ancestors have even spent time in jail. Do you know how to uncover a criminal past? Do you know the types of records to explore?

Take as an example, William B. Schwartz, a man who faced the choice of financial ruin or a life of crime. Ultimately, he chose a life of crime, and inevitably, he was caught. His name is found in the Leavenworth, Kansas, U.S. Penitentiary, Name Index to Inmate Case Files, 1895-1936 database at Ancestry. The same list is also published on the website of the National Archives at Kansas City. But finding a name in such an index barely scratches the surface of the bigger story. In most cases, it starts with the question – what did your ancestor do to end up in Leavenworth? Most records in these situations are not found online and must be accessed from a wide range of repositories to learn the whole story.

In the case of William B. Schwartz, he began his life in Ohio, but moved to Indiana as a young man. He started a promising career as a lawyer and as an inventor, but then things went horribly wrong. His wife was judged insane and she was confined to an asylum for the remainder of her life. The medical bills bankrupted William. He tried to sell property he owned jointly with his wife, but could not because she was not legally competent to co-sign them. He sued for divorce but the judge denied him because being insane was not a legal ground for divorce in the early 1900s. As an inventor, William was skilled in metalworking. He eventually made his own coin plates and turned to counterfeiting to supplement his income. It took the Federal agents five years to catch him. William’s story was rediscovered through a wide variety of records, some of which were found online after much digging and extensive research, but many of the key documents were found in repositories throughout the Midwest.

William B. Schwartz at his arrival  at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, 1906. 
Photograph from his inmate file courtesy of the National Archives Kansas City
The records and documents related to any criminal case are rich and plentiful, provided you know where to look. Most records are not found online, including the complete inmate files. In Federal cases, inmates were often sentenced in their city of residence but incarcerated in the nearest federal penitentiary, which could be located across the border in another state. Penitentiary records are not necessarily located at the same National Archive as the trial records. Many different types of records can tell the story of your ancestor’s checkered past. These can include newspaper articles, published biographies, land records, court documents, sheriff’s records, guardianships, and so on. Each new document found will add depth to your ancestor’s story. Using the network of researchers at can help you lay to rest those nagging questions regarding the rotten apple in your family tree.

by Deborah Sweeney © 2014,, All rights reserved
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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A New Partnership – DNA Research and Traditional Genealogy

In the September 2014 issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, editors Melinde Lutz Bryne and Thomas W. Jones conceded that while traditional genealogists have worked with sources and documents that have been available for decades, a new resource for research has been evolving in the past decade – DNA. 

Over the past few years, NGSQ has been steadily publishing articles that use DNA AND traditional genealogy methods to show relationships. They even withheld publication of an article earlier this year that indicated DNA evidence was needed to support the author’s conclusion.[1] 

In addition this year, the Board of Certified Genealogists revamped their Genealogy Standards with a 50th Anniversary Edition. Several standards were rewritten to include DNA and genetic evidence as viable methods of meeting the Genealogical Proof Standard. DNA research and genetic genealogy are ready to shake up the field of traditional genealogy in the twenty-first century.

So how does DNA research work with traditional genealogy? Generally, they work side by side and help fill in the gaps when the other is lacking. Currently there are three major types of DNA tests available, and each provides a different kind of information for genealogists. All three types can be used with traditional genealogy to solve brick walls or to confirm probable relationships when the paper trail is weak.

Three Major Types of DNA

  1. Y-DNA is used to trace the paternal line – the father’s father’s father’s family. A genealogist might have an excellent paper trail that follows this line for several generations and then…nothing. Migrations of families can cause havoc with paper trails, especially with common surnames. Using Y-DNA can help separate one family of Joneses from another. This type of DNA typically has few mutations and can be used to trace many generations back in time.
  2. Autosomal DNA is used to test all 22 chromosome pairs, as well as the X chromosome (in some cases). When trying to find a closer relationship, within 5-7 generations, autosomal DNA is the best choice. This type of DNA test has been used effectively to solve adoption puzzles or to confirm closer family relationships. However, after 5-7 generations, cousins tend to fall off the genetic family tree. This is due to the process of gene recombination.

  3. Mitochondrial DNA is used to trace the maternal line – the mother’s mother’s mother’s family. In research where a women’s maiden name is unknown, mitochondrial DNA can be an effective tool. In 2013, the body of Richard III, found under a car park in Leicester, was identified using this type of DNA. Like Y-DNA, mitochondrial DNA has few mutations, and in the case of Richard III, can be used to trace lineages hundreds of years.
Knowing which type of DNA to use to solve a traditional genealogical puzzle can be daunting process, and an expensive mistake if the wrong test is taken. Analyzing test results and making the most out of the information in combination with traditional genealogy methods can be confusing or completely overwhelming at times. The professional genealogists at work together with industry-leading DNA experts to test and analyze DNA while applying traditional research methods to break down those proverbial bricks walls or jump start stalled research.

by Deborah Sweeney © 2014, All rights reserved

[1] Melinde Lutz Byrne and Thomas W. Jones, “Genealogical Scholarship and DNA Test Results,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 102 (September 2014): Editors’ Corner.
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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Press Release: Expands Services to Include DNA Testing and Analysis

Press Release expands premiere research services to include DNA technologies

DNA Testing and Analysis
September 24, 2014: As part of their focus on creating “dream teams” of experts to overcome genealogical roadblocks and mysteries, recently added DNA Technologies to their genealogical services.  “DNA results greatly adds to our access to our customers’ ancestry,” explained Jim Heddell, co-founder and CEO.
In order to head up the task of DNA testing and consulting, has added DNA professional Diahan Southard to their team. Diahan is a celebrated DNA consultant, Lab Technologist, lecturer and educator with 14 years of DNA experience.  Her career coincides with the first appearances of the field of DNA.
Diahan began her career at BYU helping Dr. Scott Woodward extract DNA from Egyptian mummies to determine their origins. This project led to the creation of the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation (SMGF) in 1999, where Diahan assisted the transition through her expert fieldwork and education, giving lectures all across the United States while collecting DNA samples from volunteers.
When SMGF launched their for-profit arm, Relative Genetics, Diahan led the design of effective lab procedures, created visual designs for displaying DNA information, and trained the executive team on DNA issues. She continued her DNA lectures and began a new project creating special DNA reports for world leaders detailing their personal genetic history.
Diahan eventually started her own DNA consulting business, and has helped hundreds of people through DNA services. Diahan saw new possibilities, however. “Because genetics are only one part of the larger genealogical puzzle, many of those I speak with still need additional help finding their ancestors, even after successful DNA testing. My favorite thing about is their ‘boots-on-the-ground’ approach to genealogy;  they have expert eyes and ears in the places most of us can’t get to. I am excited about how our combined expertise will help make the most of all aspects of a modern genealogical search.”
DNA will be an integral part of the new research packages at, including the discovery packages - which emphasize the stories of the past - and the Ancestral Bloodline Authentication package, geared to assist those looking for Native American connections or documentation of early American Patriot connections for connecting to lineage and heritage societies.

To celebrate this union of DNA with professional research, is running a limited time promotion on all DNA packages. DNA packages include personal DNA consultation with Diahan herself, and testing options of all DNA tests including Y-DNA, mtDNA, and autosomal DNA.
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Friday, August 15, 2014

Brick Walls. Is it All Over? Have I Gone As Far As I Can?

Brick Walls. At some stage when you are researching your family tree, I think we all sort of find ourselves at that point where we reach a stage where we wonder if perhaps we will actually be able to research back any further. Maybe it is because we are researching one of our grandmothers and we have been unable to find a document that lists her maiden name, or perhaps we just can't find that elusive certificate that we need to locate that vital bit of information that is going to help us to trace back further. Maybe it is that our ancestor had a really common name, or moved around a lot, so we never know  quite where to find them. Or maybe, it is that we just haven't been able to seem to locate the information that we would need to hopefully try to research back beyond the start of civil registration (as in the case of the UK records before 1837). 

Whatever the case though, I think that it does happen, or will probably happen to all of us at some stage in our research.  However, I promise that you don't have to give up hope altogether. There absolutely could still be a way to continue with your research and it is a lesson that I have actually only just been taught again recently myself, when I was so happy to find a reference for one of my grandmothers that I had been searching for years. It turned out, that although her name was Lucy, she had been registered as Louisa, and so you really do seem to find all sorts of funny things that crop up that are unexpected in your research. 

But it got me to thinking about Brick Walls recently and about some of the best tips that I have learnt over the time of studying family history.  So, I thought that I would share a few of the things that have helped me, in the hopes that they might possibly also help with your Brick Walls. I hope that they bring you lots of luck. Happy Searching! 

1. Speak to relatives again. Ask as many questions as you possibly can and try to speak to as many relatives as possible. You might be surprised to find that one little clue that could help you with your research.

2. Try widening your search - work until the date ranges become impossible.

3. Try looking for marriages after children were born and births before marriages.

4. Try looking for children born under their mother’s maiden names.

5. Try wildcard searches for all possible spelling variations of surnames.

6. Try to say the surname out loud and spell it as it sounds and then search for it that way. 

7. If the name that you are searching is very common, try searching for other family members, such as siblings who may have had less common names and who will therefore be easier to find in the records, but will still be listed with your ancestor.

8. Try to look at witnesses on marriage certificates - they may be relatives.

9. Always look at the places of birth for all of the children on census returns, as this will give clues as to where to also search for possible documents relating to the family.

10. Always look at the neighbours in census returns and check the surrounding streets and neighbourhood for other possible relatives.

Tina Alsford is an English born professional genealogist and probate researcher, who now lives in Australia. Tina has a particular interest in nineteenth century England and specialises in London family history research. She is currently also a start-up blogger for Samara Magazine (an Australian online magazine for women in business).

by Tina Alsford © 2014, All rights reserved
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