New to podcasts? Read Frequently Asked Questions(about the podcasts, how to listen and how to subscribe for free.) Welcome to the Family History: Genealogy Made Easy Podcast, a step-by-step series for beginning genealogists—and more experienced ones who want to brush up or learn something new. I first ran this series in 2008. So many people have asked about it, I’m bringing it back in weekly segments.
Episode 1: GettingStarted. Special Guest: Margery Bell, Assistant Director of the Oakland, California Family History Center. Her own family history journey started in her 20s with a visit to a relative’s house. She didn’t even know what to talk about! But it was a start. Years later, she visited the Northern Ireland home of her great-grandmother, and felt like she’d come home. Learn her tips for getting started and two inspiring stories of “genealogy serendipity.” Then you’ll learn why choosing a database for your family tree is your first essential step. Hear about some of my favorite databases—both free resources and products you can pay for. Don’t spend too much time fussing about software: I’ll tell you why you should just pick something and go with it.
Episode 2: Interviewing Skills. Special Guest: Cath Madden Trindle, a well-known family history instructor and certified genealogist. Cath talks about discovering dysfunction in her family (don’t we all have that?) and the new appreciation she gained for her family as a result. She also gives us some great tips on how to share what we find. Then we’ll talk about interviewing your relatives. That’s an important skill for any genealogist—beginner or more advanced—because you’ll need to interview people over and over again. Hear about you who you should interview, what to ask and how to ask it! You’ll also learn two important traps to avoid that will save you a lot of time and keep you from losing everything you learn.
Episode 3: Working Backwards, and Social Security Death Index. Special Guest: Miriam Robbins, a well-known genealogy blogger and teacher. She shares her best research tips, what motivates her to delve into her family history and how that discovery has enriched her life. In our second segment we answer the question “Why do we work backwards in genealogy?” and then fire up the Internet and go after your first genealogical record. We’re going to dig into the U.S. Social Security Death Index.
Episode 4: Conference and Vital Records.Special guest is the longtime online news anchorman of genealogy, Dick Eastman, the author of Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter. He talks about the changing industry and the benefits of attending genealogy conferences. Next, you’ll learn the ins and outs of using some “vital” sources for U.S. birth and death information: delayed birth records, the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) and Social Security applications (SS-5s) and death certificates.
Episode 5: Unlocking the Past and Home Sources. Special guest is genealogy author and publisher David Fryxell. I’m going to be talking to him about locating valuable family resources and the importance of being tenacious in your research. Then in our second segment we’re going to help you along on your own genealogy journey by talking about the importance of scouring your home for family clues and creative and effective ways to get the words out to your relatives so that family history information finds you!
Episode 6: Sleuthing Techniques and Genealogical Records. A genealogy writer and educator talks to us about sleuthing Sherlock Holmes-style for our families. He says, “Stop looking for names and start looking for families!” Then I’ll give you an overview of the different kinds of historical records in which our ancestors may appear. Whenever a life event happened that involved the government or a church, paperwork was generated: vital records, land sales, wills and probates, baptisms and burials. There is often a ripple effect in which the event was reported in other sources, like newspapers. In future episodes, we’ll talk in depth about finding and using these different kinds of sources. But consider this episode your orientation to them!
Episode 7: Best Genealogy Websites Part 1. Special guest: Lisa Alzo, popular genealogy lecturer and writer (now the author of nine books and online genealogy instructor at Family Tree University and the National Institute for Genealogical Studies. We talk about her reasons for researching her family history and what she’s learned in her genealogical journeys (which include international travel in Eastern Europe). Then we tackle an essential topic: the best subscription websites for genealogical data. This is a two-part topic: in this episode I talk about sites that require payment to access their core content. In Episode 8, we’ll talk about the fantastic free websites that are out there.
Episode 8: Best Genealogy Websites Part 2. In a follow up to last week’s episode about subscription genealogy records website, in my first segment our guest is Yvette Arts, Director of Content Partnerships at World Vital Records. She tells us about exciting developments at the website that have helped make it a success. In our second segment we look at five organizations that provide free online access to genealogy records for those with North American roots: FamilySearch, the National Archives of the United States, Ellis Island Foundation, the National Archives of the United Kingdom, and Library and Archives Canada.
Episode 9: Using Census Records.Let’s talk about a group of records critical to U.S. family history research: U.S. Federal Census Records. You’ll learn not only what to find in the regular schedules, but about the enumerators, the instructions they followed, and special sections like the economic census. Then we go straight to the source: Bill Maury, Chief of History Staff at the U.S. Census Bureau. I’ll be talking to him about the History section of the Census Department’s website. Note the updated Genealogy tab on the site, as well as the Through the Decades tab, which is packed with historical information for each census.
Episode 10: Deeper into Census Records. We continue exploring U.S. Federal Census Records. Last episode we located relatives in the 1930 census, and today we’re going to push further back in time to follow the census bread crumb trail. We even explore some census enumerations that often go overlooked by family historians with Curt Witcher, the Manager of the nationally-recognized Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Curt has some great tips for tapping in to more obscure census resources. We’ll talk about nonpopulation schedules for the federal census, census substitutes for missing census data (like the 1890 census) and state censuses that may be available, too.
Episode 11: Census Wrap-Up: Decade-by-Decade to 1790. We welcome back genealogy researcher, author and lecturer Lisa Alzo. The author of Three Slovak Women, Baba’s Kitchen and Finding Your Slovak Ancestors talks about discovering family traits and putting them in perspective. Then we wrap up our three-episode coverage of U.S. census records with a decade-by-decade overview of censuses from 1880 back to 1790. We talk about special schedules taken during one or more censuses: mortality, slave, social statistics and supplemental, agricultural, manufacturing and the DDD (Defective, Dependent and Delinquent) schedules.
Episode 12: Post an Online Family Tree. In this episode we focus on posting your family tree online. There’s no use in re-inventing the research wheel! By posting what you know about your family tree online you can easily connect with others who are researching people in your family tree. You can share information, collaborate and even get to know distant relatives.
Episode 13: Genetic Genealogy and Photo-Sharing. Episode 13 reviewed genetic genealogy and photo sharing products that are either now longer offered or are outdated. This episode is not being republished with the series. Click on the show page anyway to see some updated suggestions and links to some of the top services for genetic genealogy and photo sharing.
Episode 14: How to Contact Long-Lost Relatives. Connecting with someone who knows about our ancestors can really boost our research results—and even create new relationships among living kin. But it’s not always easy to send that first email or make that first call. In this episode, we chat with my cousin, Carolyn Ender, who has mastered the art of “genealogical cold calling” by conducting hundreds of telephone interviews. She has a knack for quickly connecting with folks she doesn’t know over the telephone in ways that put them at ease and bring to light the information that she’s looking for.
Episode 15: More Tips for Contacting Distant Relatives. In today’s episode we talk more about “genealogical cold calling” with my cousin, Carolyn Ender, who has conducted hundreds of telephone interviews. Relationships are key to genealogical success and by following 14 genealogical cold calling strategies you will find your research relationships multiplying.
Episode 16: The Family History Library Catalog. In this episode we get acquainted with the largest repository of genealogy materials in the world: The Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. It’s free and available to the public and I’m going to get you ready to make good use of it through the online Family History Library catalog (and its companion collection of digital records). Podcast guest Don R. Anderson, Director of the Family History Library, describes the evolving direction of the Family History Library and its host site, FamilySearch.org.
Episode 17: Using Family History Centers, Part 1.This episode is the first of a series in which we answer questions about Family History Centers (now also known as FamilySearch Centers), the regional satellite facilities of the main Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. When I’m done with you, you won’t have a single excuse left for hesitating to use these wonderful family history research resources! My guest is Margery Bell, Assistant Director of the Oakland Family History Center in Oakland, California. In this episode she introduces us to the Family History Center, walks us through the process for ordering and using microfilm and discusses the wide range of resources at local Family History Centers. Even if you’ve already been to a Family History Center, you’re still going to learn some new things along the way!
Episode 18: Using Family History Centers, Part 2.Margery Bell returns to the show to keep talking about using Family History Centers. She preps us for our visit to a local center and reveals the subscription websites you can use for free while you’re there. Margery discusses making copies in all forms, the future of digitizing microfilm, and the future of Family History Centers. We also talk about tips for visiting the main Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Episode 19: Using Family History Centers, Part 3.In this final episode on Family History Centers, Margery Bell talks about the educational opportunities available through Family History Centers, including the new online Wiki. Margery gives us her Top 7 Tips for getting the most out of your visit to a Family History Center. Finally, she inspires us with some stories of genealogical serendipity that she has experienced over her many years working at Family History Centers.
Episode 20: The Genealogical Proof Standard.In this episode we talk about the Genealogical Proof Standard, or GPS. My guest is Mark Tucker, a software architect and avid genealogist. Mark gives us an overview of the GPS and tells us how he got started using it. Then he shares a cool mapping tool he created to help us use the GPS. We’ll wrap by talking about how the GPS map can be effectively used for breaking down your research brick walls.
Episode 21: RootsMagic and Irish Genealogy Research. Lacey Cooke guest-hosts this double-feature episode on two big topics in family history: RootsMagic genealogy software and how to get started in Irish research. Bruce Buzbee, president and founder of RootsMagic Genealogy Software, talks about his industry-leading software. We also welcome Irish genealogy expert Judith Wight to talk to us about how to find those elusive Irish ancestors! Listen for her tips on finding Church of Ireland records, civil registrations, estate records and how history helps us understand gaps in the records.
Episode 22: Legend Seekers. Did you ever catch the PBS documentary Legend Seekers? It aired in 2009 and is now classic genealogy TV. Executive producer Ken Marks joins us on this episode of the podcast. He talks about the unique approach of this show for its time: the family history stories he brought to life were from everyday folks (not movie stars or rock stars) who have some very extraordinary stories in their family tree. Then Ken talks about the genealogical serendipity that he has his crew found themselves tapping into throughout the production.
Episode 23: Using the Genealogical Proof Standard. We put the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS – see Episode 20) into practice with an example from my own research. Researching by these standards now saves us time and work, and also from making avoidable mistakes. Some downloadable free tools that will help you use the GPS. In this episode we also follow up with a listener question on how to export your family tree from Ancestry.com.
Episode 24: Using Marriage Records in Family History. Two types of marriage records are discussed in this episode: civil and church. Learn some great tips for finding and using U.S. marriage records, as well as the different types of government documents that might exist.
Episode 26: Using Church Birth Records in Family History Research. We finish up this two part series by talking about church birth records. Helping us in the hunt again is Arlene Eakle, PhD. Check out the show notes on the episode page for exciting updates to the original conversation–including how to chase down (online!) the original source of material in the International Genealogical Index.
Episode 27: Find Your Family History in Newspapers, Part 1.Newspapers offer such a unique perspective on history in general, and our ancestors specifically. In this first in another 2-part series, Jane Knowles Lindsey at the California Genealogical Society shares top tips for finding historical newspapers.
Episode 28: Find Your Family History in Newspapers, Part 2. In this episode, Jane Knowles Lindsay shares inspiring stories about the kinds of family items she’s found in newspapers. She offers a dozen more fantastic tips on researching old newspapers. You can find everything from birth, marriage and death announcements, to school and club event, crime stories, land transactions, sports activities and just about any other activity that your ancestors were part of that made the news!
Episode 32: Organize Your Genealogy Files, Part 1. Learn from my tried-and-true system for organizing your genealogy materials on your hard drive. First we talk organization–anyone can do it! there’s no magical gene for it–and then we talk some specifics: creating surname file folders and other types of file folders you’ll want for genealogy purposes.
Episode 33: Organize Your Genealogy Files, Part 2. The second in a series on organizing your genealogy materials on your computer. This episode walks you through a system for organizing family history on your hard drive. Creating a series of genealogy file folders, filenames you can find easily, where to file photos and other tips are here.
Episode 34: Do Your Genealogy at the Public Library, Part 1. Genealogy librarian Patricia VanSkaik talks to us about researching at public libraries. She shares what kinds of things may be at the library (including unique resources), how to prepare for a visit and lots of great tips for making the most of your research time there.
Episode 35: Do Your Genealogy at the Public Library, Part 2. We go deeper into genealogy research at the public library. Genealogy librarian Patricia VanSkaik is back to talk about how to search an online library card catalog including advanced search methods, the unique collections that may be at public libraries, how to ask for exactly what we want, and the obstacles librarians face when it comes to cataloguing large and unique collections that may interest genealogists.
Episode 36: Your Genealogy Questions Answered, Part 1. This episode is all about YOU! It is made up completely of your emailed questions, comments and stories. I couldn’t do this podcast without you, and I definitely want it to be a two way conversation. Joining me on today’s episode to read your emails is my daughter, Lacey Cooke.
Episode 37: Your Genealogy Questions Answered, Part 2. More Q&A with you! Topics include: downloading all the podcasts at once; keeping old family group sheets; how to know when records and indexes are complete; Google Alerts; comment on FamilySearch digital books collection; how to pronounce “genealogy” and who plays the music on the podcast.
Episode 38: How to Start a Genealogy Blog, Part 1. The Footnote Maven, author of two popular blogs, joins us to talk about the process of starting a genealogy blog. She gives great tips for thinking up your own approach, finding a unique niche, commenting on other people’s blogs and more. This is a fascinating inside look into the geneablogging community, whether you’re interested in starting your own or not!
Episode 39: How to Start a Genealogy Blog, Part 2. This week we continue to explore of family history blogging. In this episode I interview TWO more successful genealogy bloggers, Denise Levenick (author of The Family Curator and alter ego of “Miss Penny Dreadful” on the Shades of the Departed blog) and Schelly Tallalay Dardashti (author of the Tracing the Tribe blog).
Episode 42: How to Start a Genealogy Blog, Part 5.In this concluding episode to the 5-part blogging series, I talk about adding a few more gadgets and details, pre-planning your blog posts, publishing your first article, and how your readers will subscribe. You’ll also get great tips on how to create genealogy content that others looking for the same ancestors can find easily online.
Episode 43: The Julian Calendar and Genealogy. If you’re not familiar with how the calendar has changed through history, you might be recording incorrect dates in your family tree! In this episode, Margery Bell, Assistant Director of the RegionalFamily History Center in Oakland, Californiahelps us understand the “double-dating” we see in old documents and translate those dates from the Julian calendar to today’s Gregorian system.
Episode 44: Family Secrets in Genealogy.Today’s episode is unlike any other I’ve done on the podcast. We are going to tackle some difficult subject matter: family secrets in genealogy. None of us have a perfect family tree. In fact, at some point each one of us who are delving into our family’s past will likely come across some sad and painful stories. An ancestor abandoned at an asylum, incarcerated for acts of violence, or perhaps who committed suicide. Crystal Bell, my guest on today’s show shares her story of finding her mother.
Episode 45: Genealogy Blogs Started by YOU! The Podcast Listeners.In recent episodes of this podcast, we’ve been discussing how and why to create a genealogy blog. In this episode I’m going to share some of the family history blogs that YOU—the listeners—have created. I’m hoping you’ll be inspired to blog by what others are doing, or that you’ll take note of any blogs that can help you or perhaps are relevant to your own family history. Being a community is what gives genealogists strengths and inspiration. Get your notepads out and get ready to jot down these terrific blogs!
Searching for birth parents? This adoption research success story involved several proven techniques: mapping DNA matches, research legwork–and years of patient determination.
Adoption Research Inspiration
This inspiring letter about adoption research came to me from Liz:
Thank you for your part in a major milestone of my genealogy research! You motivated me, educated me, and shared many wonderful resources throughout hours and hours of your podcasts. After listening to you talk with Diahan Southard a few times, it finally dawned on me that I should contact her to help me better understand DNA and its impact on my research.
Here’s the “story” as it unfolded for me.
During much of the last 30+ years my brother-in-law, Chuck, searched constantly for his birth mother. Chuck maintained hope that information he requested from the state of Michigan or newly available electronic adoption records might give him enough clues to help him find his mother. Six or seven years ago, Chuck was disabled by a stroke and a few years following the stroke vascular dementia robbed him of his ability to continue the search for his mother. In January 2015, we were able to get Chuck (despite the dementia) to spit in the test tube and provide a DNA sample. Little did we know he would be dead by Thanksgiving. As I wrote Chuck’s obituary, I realized I could offer one other piece of assistance to Chuck’s widow and children. I offered to continue his quest to find his birth mother.”
Then Liz outlined the steps she took to carry on the search:
“After gathering the limited detail we had (birth date, location, possible mother’s name and age) I began my research in earnest. Ultimately I:
created a “proposed” family tree for Chuck based on Chuck’s birth mother’s surname and his birth location,
reviewed Chuck’s DNA matches and
began to narrow down the family tree.
I used Diahan Southard’s website tutorials as the foundation for my analysis, put together a PowerPoint presentation with my research and theory and presented the information to her in a video conference. She found no fault in my logic and helped me plan my next steps: the search for Chuck’s birth father.”
Eventually, the paper trail and the genetic research came together to tell a story:
“Last week my niece finally received the adoption records from the state of Michigan, eighty-six years after Chuck was born, over twenty years after Chuck first requested them and almost a year after his daughter requested the records. I am impatiently awaiting my copy! What I do know so far:
Postcard of Harper Hospital, MI, posted on RootsWeb (click to view).
My research (thanks to you and Diahan and DNA) accurately determined the identity of Chuck’s mother.
She had a very difficult young life and died of TB—tuberculosis – when she was just 25 years old in 1939.
Chuck’s mother became pregnant with Chuck while a ward of the state and an Inmate at a girls school.
Chuck’s mother became pregnant during a time when the school “farmed out” Inmates to Harper Hospital to work as nurses’ aides.
Both Chuck’s mother and her sister checked on Chuck after turning him over to the state, both in an attempt to get him back and to learn how he was doing.
It was heartwarming to learn that Chuck actually had a birth family who cared about him! I wish he had known!”
WOW, what an incredible story! Congratulations to Liz on such thorough and persistent research. I feel very sure that Chuck knows that not only did he have a birth family that cared, but also a wonderful sister-in-law (although I would guess he well aware of that even before he passed.)
I’m also thrilled that Genealogy Gems was able to play some part in Chuck and Liz’s story.
Get Ready for Adoption Research Success
Are you looking for someone’s birth parents? Get started with the DNA strategies Liz used:
Take a DNA test from a company such as AncestryDNA, which has an enormous database of testers and family trees. Click here to learn more about your DNA testing options.
Map your DNA test results using Google Earth and/or, if you test with AncestryDNA, the site’s tool within an individual DNA match view for identifying locations you have in common on your tree. Click here to learn more about using Google Earth for genealogy by watching my free full-length video class on using Google Earth for genealogy.
Share your DNA results on other websites (such as Gedmatch) to increase your chances of finding matches.
To access Diahan’s great video tutorials on her site that Liz used, click here— as a Genealogy Gems reader you’ll get a great discount on them.
Along with DNA evidence, create the best paper trail possible, as Liz did. Scour all available records and follow up on all possible leads for any information about the birth parents. In this instance, Liz needed to rely on records created by or about institutions, such as the hospital and state girls’ school. Genealogy Gems Premium members will find tips for finding and using these records in my newest Premium video tutorial, Institutional Records. (If you’re not a member yet, click here to learn more. )
Welcome to a book club just for those who love family history!Here we share our top picks for fiction and nonfiction from authors around the world. These books all have something for us to love: stories about the search for family and identity, stories about family relationships, stories about fascinating periods in history. These books inspire us to keep discovering and writing our own family stories. Follow our Book Club blog posts and hear from the authors on The Genealogy Gems Podcast. Join in the conversation on our Facebook page (#genealogybookclub). Looking for how-to books? Check out our companion list of how-to genealogy titles.
We thank you in advance for purchasing our book recommendations through the links on our site. When you do, you help support the FREE Genealogy Gems Book Club and podcast.
Featured author: British novelist Nathan Dylan Goodwin
Grappling with Legacy by Sylvia Brown. A descendant of the prominent Brown family, connected to Brown University, traces her family’s involvement in philanthropy, Rhode Island history and the institution of slavery hundreds of years. Her purpose, she writes, was to come to terms with “two seminal events which may seem diametrically opposed: my father’s decision to give his inheritance (and mine) to Brown University, and the transformation of the Brown family into the poster child for the evils of the slave trade.” She also hoped to bring her living Brown descendants closer to each other. A Kirkus review of this book calls it “an often riveting history of a family that left an indelible impact on the nation.” Lisa Louise Cooke interviews Sylvia in the upcoming Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode 155 (available to subscribers in late January 2018). Hear a short clip of that conversation in the free Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 213. Her story is included in a New York Times article on inherited wealth, “Keeping the Family Tree Alive.”
A Piece of the Worldby Christina Baker Kline.“You can never escape the bonds of family history, no matter how far you travel. And the skeleton of a house can carry in its bones the marrow of all that came before.” So says the Prologue to a new novel by best-selling novelist Christina Baker Kline, whose novel Orphan Train has been loved by millions around the world (and a lot of Genealogy Gems Book Club fans–we featured it in 2014). A Piece of the World is a unique and irresistible story about a woman whose physical disabilities and family’s demands keep her adventure-loving spirit firmly homebound. Granted, her home is a fascinating place: a 1700s-era home on the coast of Maine that has been passed down for several generations. But the noble legacy of the home instills a sense of obligation in those who live there now: do they stay on the family land at all costs, even the cost of their happiness and health? What happens when a family’s heritage becomes a burden, not a blessing?
Those who love American art will love that the main character, Christina, was inspired by the subject of the Andrew Wyeth painting, Christina’s World. (You can see an image of the painting here.) Christina was a real person who lived in this home. Andrew visited her and her brother and painted them many times. So the characters and setting are real, and the house is actually a National Historic Landmark now. Christina Baker Kline’s “fictional memoir” gives this historical Christina a powerful, honest, and insightful voice: the voice of a person who sees and tells it like it is–except the parts she just can’t see for herself.
It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree by A.J. Jacobs. You could say A.J. Jacobs is famous for asking questions that seem both important and inane, and then pursuing the answers and writing about it. That’s what he did with his best-selling book The Year of Living Biblically, a chronicle of the time he tried to obey every rule in the Bible. Now he’s done it again in his new book. The questions A.J. set out to answer here were, “Who is really my family? And what would happen if I tried to host the world’s biggest family reunion?”
A.J.’s voice is witty with lots of digressions, pop culture references, and a definite urban beat (NYC, specifically). He meditates on what genealogical connections mean to him and the larger story the world’s family tree tells us. Like, we’re all related, and therefore shouldn’t we get along better? But with the quick disclaimer that he’s not inviting us all over for New Year’s brunch. He did that already at the Global Family Reunion–which he reports on in detail.In the appendix, he recommends all kinds of genealogy how-to resources, including Genealogy Gems. If you yourself are somewhat relaxed and perhaps even a little irreverent about your genealogy hobby, you’ll likely really enjoy this book. What about the more earnest family historians? It’s still worth a glimpse into how others see us. A.J. comes peeking into the world of genealogy ready to crack jokes. And he does plenty of that. But he also comes away with a great deal of respect for the stories and relationships that can–and should, he says–bring us closer together.
Shannon by Frank Delaney is a stunning tale: Father Shannon, an American Catholic priest of Irish descent, has serious “shell-shock” trauma after serving in the trenches of World War I. His archbishop sends him on a respite trip to Ireland to travel up the Shannon River looking for his family roots. He lands in the middle of an Irish Civil War—but also encounters person after person who helps him rediscover his faith in humanity and the restorative balm of daily life. Meanwhile, intrigue is afoot within his home archdiocese. A killer, who has his own traumatic backstory in Ireland, is dispatched to make sure Father Shannon never returns home. Their stories converge in a place of love, but also far too close to a place of pain. And that’s all I’m going to tell you about it.
I only recently discovered Frank Delaney’s books and can’t recommend them more enthusiastically! Frank Delaney is a MASTER storyteller. He crafts every sentence, every image. You can practically see the story lines unfold, hear every action, smell it. I listened to the audiobook version, which the author narrates himself with great skill. As I listened, I gasped, I cried, I laughed–all out loud in the car. So read or listen–and then clear a spot on your reading list for his epic novel, Ireland, which I read immediately after this one and also loved.
Murder in Matera: A true story of passion, family, and forgiveness in Southern Italyby Helene Stapinski. The subtitle to this family history murder mystery promises a LOT–and it delivers! As a child, Helene Stapinski heard about her great-great-grandmother who fled Italy–with young children in tow–after being involved in a murder. Parts of the story were vague: who was killed? Why? When? How? Nobody knew. But other details were startlingly precise and consistent. She had to leave her husband behind. A man named Grieco helped her escape. A child was lost on the way to America. Years later, Helene embarked on a 10-year quest to learn the truth behind this family legend. Her journey took her to Matera, Italy, and eventually to a 600-page criminal court file from 1872.
There was a murder. But it wasn’t exactly as the family had said. Helene gradually leaned that her family was not who she thought they were. And that meant Helene herself was not who she thought she was. The rest, you can read for yourself in Helene’s new memoir, Murder in Matera: A True Story of Passion, Family, and Forgiveness in Southern Italy. The noted journalist continues to unravel a past that she explored in her fantastic first family history memoir, Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History. This new book is part history, part re-imagined family story. It’s a story of poverty and power, love, tragic decisions, and a courageous and desperate woman’s leap to a new life across the ocean.
Watch below as Helene introduces us to her genealogical journey:
The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows. It’s the summer of 1938, and wealthy young socialite Miss Layla Beck is now on the dole as a WPA worker, assigned to write a history of the small town of Macedonia, West Virginia. As she starts asking questions about the town’s past, she is drawn into the secrets of the family she’s staying with—and to a certain handsome member of that family. She and two of those family members take turns narrating the story from different points of view, exploring the theme that historical truth, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder. Genealogy Gems Premium website members can hear our conversation with Annie Barrows in the March 2017 Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast (episode #145). Everyone else can catch an excerpt in the free Genealogy Gems Podcast episode #201. Annie Barrows is the co-author of the popular novel,The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and the beloved children’s book series Ivy and Bean.
Books by Sarah A. Chrisman. This fascinating author is a living icon of the Victorian age. She and her husband Gabriel live like it’s about 1889. They wear Victorian-style clothing and use a wood-burning stove and antique ice box. Sarah wears a corset day and night; Gabriel wears 19th century glasses. No TV, no cell phones—and Sarah isn’t even a licensed driver. Take your pick of Sarah’s books to read! Catch Lisa’s conversation with Sarah about her memoirs in the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode # 142. Holiday bonus: everyone can hear Lisa Louise Cooke’s conversation with her about Victorian holidays in the free Genealogy Gems Podcast episode #198.
Everyone Brave is Forgiven by British novelist Chris Cleave begins in London in 1939. War is declared. Wealthy young Mary North “leaves finishing school unfinished” and signs on for the war effort without telling her parents. What ensues is war beyond her naive imagination. A love triangle, a long-distance romance, the London Blitz and the bombardment of Malta. It’s intense, eye-opening and compassionate about living and loving in a war zone and its aftermath. The book is inspired by love letters exchanged between the author’s grandparents during World War II. Author Chris Cleave joined us on the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode 139; catch an audio excerpt in the free Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 195 and a short video narrative here).
Orchard House: How a Neglected Garden Taught One Family to Grow by Tara Austin Weaver, author of the internationally-acclaimed blog Tea & Cookies. This memoir is one part food, one part gardening and two parts family drama, liberally seasoned with humor and introspection. Tara’s mother moves to Seattle to be near her. Together they purchase a home with a wild garden. The challenge of reinvigorating the garden is nothing compared to the challenge of renewing their troubled relationship. It’s an honest (and mouthwatering) story of planting, cultivating and harvesting the fruits of family and garden. Genealogy Gems Premium website members can access the full interview in Genealogy Gems Premium podcast episode 133. (Click here to hear a free excerpt.)
Citizens Creek, a new novel by New York Times best-selling author Lalita Tademy. Some of you have probably read her previous novels, Cane River and the sequel Red River. Cane River was an Oprah Book Club selection. Citizens Creekis a novel based on the lives of “a once-enslaved man who buys his freedom after serving as a translator during the American Indian Wars, and his granddaughter, who sustains his legacy of courage.” This book is all about family, relationships and legacy. Click here to hear a clip from our interview with Lalita; Genealogy Gems Premium website members can click here to listen to the entire exclusive conversation.
The Ghost Army of World War IIby Rick Beyer. This book–the basis for a PBS documentary–tells the story of a handpicked group of young GIs who landed in France to conduct a secret mission in 1944. These 1100 men had one goal: to fool the German army into believing they were an American army thousands strong, and draw their attention away from the actual fighting troops. Hear the interview with the author and filmmaker in the free Genealogy Gems podcast episode 182.
Orphan Trainby Christina Baker Klinespent five weeks at the #1 spot on the New York Times Bestselling list and made the top of The Bestsellers List in Canada. The novel intertwines the stories of Vivian and Molly. Vivian is an Irish girl who lost her family in New York City and was forced to ride the ‘orphan train’ to find a new home. Decades later, the aged Vivian meets a teenager, Molly, who is struggling to find identity and happiness in the modern foster care system. Click here to catch highlights of our interview with Chistina Baker Kline on the Genealogy Gems podcast. Genealogy Gems Premium members can click here to listen to the full-length interview.
Update: Christina Baker Kline has released a young reader’s version of Orphan Train.Orphan Train Girltells the story of a young foster girl who forms an unlikely bond with a ninety-one-year-old woman, who had been an “orphan train” rider as a young girl. Adapted and condensed for a young audience, it includes an author’s note and archival photos from the orphan train era. It’s written for ages 8-12, or grades 3-7.
She Left Me the Gun: My Mother’s Life Before Meby Emma Brockes. An award-winning journalist tells the story of her discovery of her mother’s tragic childhood in South Africa. This is a genealogical journey, complete with trips to archives, poring over old court cases and dramatic reveals. But it’s so much more than that! It’s also about learning the past from living relatives. This is the ultimate how-to book for exploring and sharing sensitive family stories because she shows you how it’s done. Listen a meaty excerpt of our interview with Emma Brockes on the Genealogy Gems podcast episode 174 and the full-length interview in Premium episode 118.
Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg. One of Lisa’s all-time favorite interviews was with Steve about this book. Based on listener feedback, this was an audience favorite, too! “I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed reading Annie’s Ghosts,” says Lisa. “This book inspired me, gave me concrete ideas for pursuing my own family history research, AND kept me on the edge of my chair. What could be better? Steve is such a riveting writer and speaker, and it’s fascinating to hear how someone who is not a genealogist–but rather a journalist–approached his family history search in an effort to find the answers to mysteries in his families.” Listen to the interviews in Genealogy Gems podcast episodes 120 and 121. This book and interview planted the seed for this genealogy book club!
The Journey Takers by Leslie Albrecht Huber. Here’s another book Lisa profiled on the podcast awhile back. Leslie is a professional genealogist who spent thousands of hours researching the stories she tells about ancestors who left homes in Germany, England and Sweden for new lives in the United States. She writes about their experiences but also her feelings about it, in a book about both a family’s history and the effect it has on the present. Check out Lisa’s interview with Leslie in Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 98.
The Story We Carry in Our Bones: Irish History for Americans by Julienne Osborne-McKnight. Recommended by a Gems fan. Begins in deep history with the Celts and Vikings, explains events that led up to the great potato famines and follows the Irish exodus to the U.S., where she then explores Irish-American life.
Finding Samuel Lowe: China, Jamaica, Harlem, a memoir by Paula Williams Madison about the author’s journey into her family history, which resulted in a documentary by the same name. “Spanning four generations and moving between New York, Jamaica, and China, [this] is a universal story of one woman’s search for her maternal grandfather and the key to her self-identity.” Suggested by a Gems fan.
The Forgotten Garden, a novel by Kate Morton. Recommended by a Gems fan. The premise was apparently inspired by Kate’s own family history: “A tiny girl is abandoned on a ship headed for Australia in 1913. She arrives completely alone with nothing but a small suitcase containing a few clothes and a single book—a beautiful volume of fairy tales. She is taken in by the dockmaster and his wife and raised as their own. On her twenty-first birthday, they tell her the truth, and with her sense of self shattered and very little to go on, ‘Nell’ sets out to trace her real identity.”
The Last Midwife: A Novel by Sandra Dallas. Recommended by a Gems fan. The story of the only midwife in a small Colorado mining town on the Rocky Mountain frontier. A baby is found dead and Gracy is accused as murderer. She’s kept lots of people’s dark secrets over the years–and a few of her–and as the trial looms, she has to decide which of those secrets to give up in order to clear her name.
These is my Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, Sarah’s Quilt and The Star Garden by Nancy Turner. This series of novels is based on the life of Sarah Agnes Prine, a relative of the author who lived on the Arizona frontier. The frontier isn’t so violent anymore, but Sarah’s struggles with men, raising children, drought and natural disasters (the San Francisco earthquake shows up in the second book) are still relevant today. Sarah’s tough-and-tender voice is so perfect for recounting the life she lives.
The Homesman: A Novelby Glendon Swarthout. The most startling book I’ve read in recent years. I’m not going to tell you every reason it was so startling or it will give away the plot. I will say that this is a sweaty and intense and gritty and face-paced story. You get the dark side of braving the frontier. A more mature read.
Angle of Reposeby Wallace Stegner, another novel of a couple’s lives on the frontier. Because it’s such a powerful treatise on marriage, it made me wonder: when you are a couple with no modern distractions and survival depends on your cooperation, does the relationship really does become as wide and consuming as that wide horizon?
Family by Ian Frazier. In this tale of a genealogical journey, the best-selling author explores his small-town, middle-class roots in the U.S. He explains a purpose that arose from loss: “I wanted my parents’ lives to have meant something. I hunted all over for meanings of any kind–not, I think, simply out of grief of anger at their deaths, but also because the stuff they saved implied that there must have been a reason for saving it….I believed bigger meanings hid behind little ones, that maybe I could follow them to a source back tens or hundreds of years ago. I didn’t care if the meanings were far-flung or vague or even trivial. I wanted to pursue them. I hoped maybe I would find a meaning that would defeat death.”
Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family Historyby Helene Stapinski. An unforgettable personal narrative! The author tells her family history within the criminal and blighted culture of Jersey City, New Jersey, U.S.A. She interweaves the stories of more infamous personalities from her hometown with those of her grandfather and other relatives. She seamlessly weaves her own memories with her research and shares how she has come to terms (or not) with her “crooked family history.”
The Marriage Certificate by Stephen Molyneux. This novel opens with a scenario we sympathize understand: Peter, a genealogy buff, buys a marriage certificate he sees on display at an antiques gallery. He begins researching the couple with an idea of returning the certificate to them. Eventually he uncovers several secrets, one with some money attached to it, but others are also chasing this money. Surprise twists bring the story into the present day and Peter becomes a genealogical research hero.
Mordecai: An Early American Familyby Emily Bingham. A beautifully-written history of several generations of a Jewish family in the United States. Draws on an astounding 10,000 original documents and letters. It’s a fascinating story on faith, religious and culture identity and assimilation, family dynamics and intergenerational identity. Also an inspiring read for anyone wishing to write a strictly factual, third-person account of their family history.
My Prairie Cookbook: Memories and Frontier Food from My Little House to Yoursby Melissa Gilbert.“Little House on the Prairie” is coming back to life in the form of a cookbook by the actress who played young Laura Ingalls in the NBC television series (1974-1983). Melissa dishes up prairie breakfasts, picnic lunches and treats inspired by Nellie’s restaurant (from the Little House series). The book is garnished with memories and memorabilia from the television show. Click here to read a full post about the cookbook and Lisa’s “Little House” family history tour on Google Earth.
Nick Herald Genealogical Mystery series: Deadly Pedigree, Jackpot Blood and Lineage and Lies by Jimmy Fox. Recommended by a Gems fan. The hero is an American genealogist who lives and works in New Orleans, one of the most colorful and historical parts of the U.S. Give it a try and let us know what you think!
Out of the Shoebox: An Autobiographical Mystery by Yaron Reshef. In this memoir, Yaron gets a phone call about property his father purchased in Israel years ago. He and his sister can inherit it, but only if they can prove that man was their father. He goes on an international paper chase into the era of World War II, the Holocaust and the making of Israel. A forgotten bank account surfaces and more surprises happen during Yaron’s two-year quest to understand the tragedies of his family’s past and recover some of its treasures.
Three Slovak Women, Second Edition by Lisa Alzo. You may know Lisa as a popular speaker on Eastern European genealogy at national conferences. This is her nonfiction account of three generations of Slovak women in the steel-producing town of Duquesne, Pennsylvania, and the love and sense of family binding them together. It will inspire your own family history writing projects! Click here to hear Lisa in the free Family History Made Easy podcast talk about her reasons for researching her family history and what she’s learned along the way, including in her travels in Eastern Europe.
When the Cypress Whispers: A Novel by Yvette Manessis Corporon. We haven’t read this novel by Greek-American family historian and Emmy award-winner; we just noticed it in the news. It’s based on true stories gathered from her grandmother. Read here about the true decades-old secret she uncovered and helped share with descendants of another family who survived the Holocaust on the island.
document and re-imagine the life of her ancestor, Mary Pitt, a widow who migrated to New South Wales in 1801 with five children. It’s a less-formal way of writing family history that we recommended in a podcast episode talking about different styles of writing.
Looking for how-to genealogy books? Check out our companion list of great titles on how to research! We’ve featured many of the authors on the podcast or in blog posts, and we include links to these.
Have you used WPA records for genealogy? Their Historical Record Surveys and local and oral histories may help you in your family history research. Existing records and locations vary widely. Here are tips to help you in your search.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, employees of the Works Progress Administration (WPA, also known as the Works Projects Administration) created new resources for U.S. genealogical research. It’s possible you’ve even consulted some of these without being aware of their WPA origins. After all, the projects and their formats varied. They didn’t always prominently credit the WPA and some were printed long afterward. We’re going to shine the spotlight on WPA-era local histories, oral histories and statewide Historical Record Surveys.
WPA Records for Genealogy: Local Histories
In Annie Barrows’ novel The Truth According to Us, Layla Beck heads to the small fictional town of Macedonia, West Virginia to write a local history as a WPA assignment. Drama ensues, both in Layla’s personal life and as she tries to learn local stories, which everyone reports a little differently. (We featured this book in the Genealogy Gems Book Club.)
Actually, local histories were written as WPA projects. Their scope, topics, and formats varied, depending on the unique background and resources of each region and how active WPA workers were in each state and county. For example, WPA historical materials in Morrison County, Minnesota include “histories on townships, cities, churches, schools, businesses, the military, and miscellaneous county history topics,” which have since been collected and reprinted by the county historical society. Many historical projects included photographs, such as this one for the city of New Orleans.
WPA Records for Genealogy: Oral Histories
WPA workers also captured oral histories of individuals, too. Many were collected in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940, now online at the Library of Congress. According to the collection description, “The documents chronicle vivid life stories of Americans who lived at the turn of the century and include tales of meeting Billy the Kid, surviving the 1871 Chicago fire, pioneer journeys out West, factory work, and the immigrant experience. The documents often describe the informant’s physical appearance, family, education, income, occupation, political views, religion and mores.”
Other important WPA oral histories are narratives of former slaves and their families. You can browse an enormous collection of these online at the Library of Congress. These aren’t the ideal eyewitness accounts we wish for, as they were gathered so long after the end of slavery, from many who were young children at the time. Also, many researchers believe interviewees may not have spoken candidly, especially to white interviewers who may have known them personally.
It’s a long shot to find an ancestor mentioned by name in WPA oral histories. In some instances, pseudonyms were even used for names and places. But, you can still learn a lot from others’ descriptions of daily life and unusual events your ancestors may have experienced.
From one of the slave narratives mentioned in this article.
Historical Record Surveys
The Historical Record Surveys created by the WPA are among the most genealogically-valuable of their projects. “Under the auspices of the WPA, workers went to archives, historical societies, public and university libraries, and compiled inventories of manuscript collections,” writes Bryan Mulcahy in an online report. “They went to courthouses, town halls, offices in large cities, and vital statistics offices and inventoried records. Besides compiling indexes, they also transcribed some of the records they found.”
Today, many of their efforts still exist. They include indexes to cemeteries, newspapers, and naturalization records, as well as inventories of courthouse records, church records, and other manuscript collections in various archives or libraries. Of course, some records may have been moved or destroyed since inventories were created, but knowing what records existed around 1940 and what they were called may help you locate surviving collections. Some indexes, such as those of cemetery tombstone inscriptions, may actually be more valuable since they captured information from tombstones that may no longer exist or be legible.
A blank WPA Historical Records Survey church records inventory form. Image courtesy of the State Archives of Florida. Click this image to find it online at Florida Memory.
One great example is the Historical Records Survey for the state of Oregon, described as “the most comprehensive documentary project of Oregon history and related records of its time.” It includes historical essays, document transcriptions, interviews, research notes, photographs, pamphlets and more. According to its collection description, “The territorial and pioneer periods of the mid-to-late nineteenth century receive the greatest attention, with an emphasis on the growth of state government and infrastructure, business and agriculture, transportation, education, biography, and relations between social groups. Native Americans figure prominently in this collection.”
Finding WPA Records for Genealogy Online
Some WPA projects were carried out on a federal level and others by state agencies. They were never centrally published or collected. Today, surviving original files and published volumes are scattered across the country. Some can be found in the National Archives, many in state libraries or societies, and many more available at local repositories.
A Google search such as historical records surveys and the name of the state and/or county is a great way to start your search for WPA records for genealogy research. Some results will lead right to the kinds of resources you want, such as this guide to WPA records in archives in the Pacific Northwest. Others, such as this one for the Iowa Historical Records Survey published in The American Archivist, are mostly a history of the effort. However, they do contain several useful bibliographic citations to records that were created. Add the name of the county to your search and you may find more targeted results, such as this library catalog entry for the inventory of the Jasper County archives. Click here to learn more about Google searches for genealogy records you want to find.
Remember, though, that many WPA publications and collections aren’t identified as such. Don’t fixate on needing to find WPA listed in the title. Just concentrate your efforts on finding the local and oral histories, photos, historical record indexes and inventories, and other resources that may be out there. When you find one created during the Great Depression, you’ll know it may have been done by the WPA.