How to Find and Use Land Records for Genealogy

Land records are some of the most underutilized, yet most useful, records available in genealogy. Often, they are the only records which state a direct relationship between family members. They can also be used to prove relationships indirectly by studying the land laws in force at the time. Sometimes they can even be used to locate an ancestor’s farm or original house, so that we can walk today where our family walked long ago.

Land records exist in the United States in abundance for most locations. Read on to learn how to find land records and how they can help you scale seemingly impossible brick walls in your genealogy research. Our guest blogger is Jaye Drummond, a researcher for Legacy Tree Genealogists.

how to find and use land records for genealogy

The History of Land Records

The search for new land is one of the main themes of American history, so it makes sense that land records would be an important part of researching that history.

The right to own real estate was not universal in most of the countries from which the majority of American immigrants came. And even when it was possible to own land legally, it was often too expensive and thus out of reach for most people.

As a result, the lure of vast expanses of relatively cheap and plentiful land has proved irresistible to millions of immigrants to American shores over the course of the past 400 years.

The land records created throughout those years to document ownership of all that real estate have accumulated in seemingly limitless amounts. Even in the face of catastrophic record loss in some locations, land records are generally plentiful. They usually exist from the date of formation of colonial, state, and county governments, where the records still exist.

Information Contained in Land Records

Due to the paramount importance of land ownership in what would become the United States, land records often are the only records in which you will find your ancestors mentioned in some areas.

And there’s good news! Land records often state relationships or provide other, indirect, evidence of family relationships. This makes them an invaluable resource for genealogists. 

Understanding what kinds of land records exist, where to find them, and how to use them is often critical to solving genealogical mysteries.

4 Types of Land Records and How to Use Them

There are four different types of land records that can play a vital role in your family history research. Let’s take a closer look at what they are and how to use them. 

1. Land Deeds

The most essential land record is the deed. Deeds document the transfer or sale of title, or ownership, of a piece of land or other property from one party to another.

Deeds usually concern land, or “real” property, but they also often mention moveable or “chattel” property, such as household goods and even enslaved persons.

example of deed index familysearch

Example of deed index, courtesy of FamilySearch

They sometimes, but not always, contain explicit, direct statements of relationship between family members. Sometimes this can be a parent-child relationship, but deeds can also include a list of people who are children or heirs of a particular deceased person who owned the land being sold.

Sometimes the language in deeds involving heirs makes it clear that the heirs are children, sometimes not, so some care must be taken not to assume that all heirs are children. Research in other records sets such as probate, census, and church records may make the relationships of the heirs to the deceased land owner clearer.

In the early years of a settlement, and sometimes later, deeds books also often contained other types of transactions, including the sale of enslaved persons and sometimes even wills. These are often records for which no other copies survive. Thus, surviving deed books should always be checked for ancestors and their family members in every jurisdiction in which you do genealogy research.

Also, remember to check published abstracts of deeds if they exist, as witnesses to deeds were not included in most indexes to the original deed books. Witnessing a deed was one of many ways relatives assisted one another, and thus the presence of one of your ancestors as a witness for someone else suggests they had some kind of relationship, which might lead to the discovery of previously unknown ancestors.

Also keep in mind that not all states required the recording of deeds throughout their history, or did not require them to be recorded in a timely fashion.

Pennsylvania is an example of this lackadaisical attitude to record keeping that now seems foreign. When researching land records in Pennsylvania it is important to remember that deeds for an ancestor might have been recorded years, even decades, after the actual transaction took place. Therefore, always remember to check the indexes for deeds and other transactions many years after the person in question died or left the area.

In other states, such as New Jersey, land was sold at the colony and state level for longer than is typical in other areas and thus land records must be sought at the state or colony level up to that time.

In the case of New Jersey, deeds only began to be recorded in the various counties around 1785. Therefore, New Jersey real property research must be done at both the county and state or colonial level.

In the case of colonies and states with massive record loss, such as Virginia, land records recorded on the state level are often the only records that survive for some counties, and thus are critical for success in navigating such “burned” counties.

2. Land Grants and Patents

Land grants and patents issued by the various colonial, state and federal governments are also an important resource, including land lotteries in states like Georgia.

In many states, such as Pennsylvania and North Carolina, the original applications, warrants, surveys, and patents or grants still exist and can be searched at the state archives or online.

While these documents do not often state relationships, they sometimes do. That was the case with one of my ancestors whose father had applied for a land patent in Pennsylvania in 1787. He died before the patent was issued in 1800, and thus it was granted to his son by the same name. However, the land patent spelled out that the original applicant had died and his son was the person actually receiving the patent.

Land patents and grants, as well as deeds in general, can also document the dates in which an ancestor resided or at least owned land in a given location. This can assist the researcher in establishing timelines for ancestors. It can also help when it comes to differentiating between two or more individuals residing in a given area with the same name. Anyone dreading research on their Smith and Jones ancestors might just find the solution they seek in those old, musty deed books!

Land grants and land patents

3. Mortgages

Other land records that might prove essential in solving genealogy puzzles are mortgages.

In some states like New Jersey, mortgages were recorded locally earlier than deeds and sometimes survive for earlier years than do deeds.

A mortgage is a promise by a borrower to repay a loan using real estate as collateral—in effect deeding title to the real estate to the creditor if the loan is not repaid.

A similar instrument called a deed of trust, or trust deed, performs the same function with the exception that a third-party trustee takes title if the loan is not paid back in full. In the early years, mortgages and trust deeds were usually contracted with private individuals, but as the banking industry grew in the United States over the course of the nineteenth century, they began to be taken out with banks instead of private persons.

The two parties involved in a mortgage are the “mortgagor” and the “mortgagee.” Indexes can often be found for mortgages using those terms.

However, sometimes early mortgages and trust deeds were recorded in the same books as deeds, so keep an eye out for them.

And remember: the mortgagor is the borrower, while the mortgagee is the creditor.

Don’t be put off by their sometimes-confusing terminology. Old mortgages and trust deeds are some of the most underused land records in existence—yet they can sometimes be the key that unlocks the door to that next ancestor. Don’t overlook them!

4. Tax Records

One other land record that could crack the case is land tax records. Everyone who owned land had to pay taxes on it, at least in theory. Sometimes, land tax books include notations about one person inheriting land from another, or more commonly, the change in owner’s name from one year to the next can indicate inheritance of the land. The absence of a deed or will showing the transfer might be explained by checking the land tax books.

John Rodes L. Ds. Image courtesy of MyHeritage.

“14th Dec. 1786 Received of Mr. James Brooks Six pounds, Eighteen Shillings and four pence in full for the balance of Samuel Wood Estate Land Tax for 1784 & Half tax for 85.” John Rodes L. Ds. Image courtesy of MyHeritage.

The Law of the Land: Primogeniture and Genealogy

In some cases, the inheritance and real estate laws of the time might allow you to make a determination of parentage even without a will or deed stating the suspected relationship.

The legal concept of primogeniture, or inheritance of land by the first-born son, was in force in many parts of the Thirteen Colonies until soon after independence, especially in the southern and middle colonies. Thus, when a land owner died, his first-born son would often inherit all or most of his land if he died intestate, or without a will.

The emergence of one man as the owner of a given piece of land in place of the previous owner, either as the seller, or “grantor,” in a deed or in the land tax records, could indicate that the previous owner died and the land was inherited by his “heir-at-law,” the first-born son. There might not be any record of this transfer, so knowing the “law of the land” can prove to be instrumental in cracking the case.

In these and many other ways, land records can be used to find direct and indirect evidence of family and other types of relationships, often when no other record does—or even survives. It is for this reason that land records research must be part of any reasonably exhaustive genealogical investigation.

Where to Find Land Records

In some areas, land records are the only records that survive which state relationships or can be used to provide indirect evidence of them. 

They also are useful in establishing biographical timelines for ancestors, and to learn more about their lives. They can sometimes also be used to identify the location of ancestor’s farms and sometimes even their original homes, so that today’s genealogists can often literally walk in the footsteps of their ancestors. But where are those records now?

It used to be that if you wanted to do genealogy the right way, one of your first stops had to be at the county courthouse where your ancestors lived. This is still a good practice, as many treasures held within the walls of the hundreds of courthouses scattered across this land are not microfilmed, digitized, or abstracted, and likely never will be.

The Recorder of Deeds and the County Clerk are therefore often the genealogist’s best friends. So, planning a trip to the courthouse or archive where land records are held is still a good idea.

Smyth County courthouse records wills probate records genealogy courthouse research tips genealogists

Smyth County, VA courthouse records (Image credit: Margaret Linford.)

But many of us live far away from where our ancestors owned land and lived out their lives. How can we access these records if we don’t have the time or budget to travel to the areas in question?

Thankfully, the digital revolution has made researching land records and other types of documents much easier, but often still time consuming and at times overwhelming.

The land records held at the state level for “state land” states (the original thirteen colonies and the states formed from them such as Maine and Kentucky) are usually indexed. They can often be accessed digitally at the website for the state archives, commercial genealogy sites such as Ancestry.com, or can be ordered via correspondence with the archive.

In states that were part of the old Northwest Territory, such as Ohio and Indiana, as well as the other public land states (any state formed under the Constitution that was not carved out of one of the original colonies), grants from the federal government to the first recorded owner of that land can be found at the Government Land Office site created by the Bureau of Land Management. Their website (available here) allows searches for names of individuals who purchased federal land in public land states. You can even view the digital images of the land grants, including the signature of the President of the United States at the time.

How to find land patents

Example of a land patent image.

Other types of records associated with federal land, include:

  • applications for public domain land grants,
  • Homestead Act applications,
  • Freedman’s Bureau land records,
  • and bounty land warrants and applications for veterans. 

These are all held at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Many of these records also state relationships and add rich detail about the lives of ancestors. However, most of these records have never been digitized and must be searched in person or requested via the National Archives’ online order service.

(Editor’s note: Learn more about land records at the National Archives here.)

Land records at the county or town level are still held at the local county courthouse or archive, if they survive. Many jurisdictions have digitized their land records and made them available online, in many cases for free. This can sometimes include the entire run of a county’s land records, back to the formation of the county. County clerks and recorders will also sometimes do research via correspondence, though most are unable to do so due to time constraints.

Land Records at FamilySearch

Most importantly in the field of land records research from a genealogical perspective is the massive digitization project undertaken by FamilySearch, the website for the genealogical Society of Utah.

Millions of land records from all across the United States, and even some from other countries, are available at their website free of charge—and viewable either from the comfort of your own home or at a Family History Center or the Family History Library itself, depending on the license agreement FamilySearch has with the original repository.

This vast trove of land records is almost completely unindexed by FamilySearch and will thus not appear in results using their “Records” search page. They must instead be searched in the “Catalog” search page. (Editor’s note: learn how to search unindexed records at FamilySearch by reading our article: Browse-Only Databases at FamilySearch are Easy to Use.)

Despite not being indexed by FamilySearch, the digitized microfilms themselves usually have indexes, either in separate volumes or at the beginnings or ends of the digitized individual deed books.

Most of the digitized land records made available by FamilySearch date from 1900 or before, so a trip to the courthouse might still be warranted for most twentieth-century deeds and more recent land records research. If all else fails, don’t forget to ask the recorder or clerk for help if you have a limited research goal, such as one deed copy—you just might be surprised how eager and willing they are to help.

If the land records you need are unavailable online or are held in a remote location, consider hiring a professional genealogist to go to the courthouse in person on your behalf. Legacy Tree Genealogists has a worldwide network of onsite researchers who can obtain nearly any record that still exists in most areas. Learn more here about how we can assist you in the search for your ancestors and the records of their sometimes only tangible piece of the American dream—land!

(Editor’s note: Our links to Legacy Tree Genealogists are affiliate links and we’ll be compensated – at no cost to you – if you use it when you visit their website. This page includes a discount code for full service projects, or scroll to the bottom of the page for information about their 45-minute genealogy consultations. Thank you for helping to keep our articles and the Genealogy Gems Podcast free. )

Indeed, land ownership was more widespread in the Thirteen Colonies and the United States than most any other nation on earth. So the good news is that there’s a good chance that some of your ancestors were land owners. However you access them, land records are absolutely critical for success in genealogy and should be thoroughly examined whenever possible. You’ll be glad you did.

Jaye Drummond is a researcher for Legacy Tree Genealogists, a worldwide genealogy research firm with extensive expertise in breaking through genealogy brick walls. To learn more about Legacy Tree services and its research team, visit their website here.

Finding Ancestors’ Stories at Cemeteries

Cemeteries have some of the most intriguing stories to tell us about our ancestors. In Elevenses with Lisa episode 59 this week, Joy Neighbors (The Tombstone Tourist), author of the book The Family Tree Cemetery Field Guide joins me to discuss:
  • How to prepare for a successful cemetery research trip
  • The meaning behind symbols found on tombstones
  • The most surprising things she has discovered at cemeteries

how to find cemetery stories

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Show Notes for Episode 59 

(Please note: This transcription of the interview has been minimally altered for ease of reading.)

Lisa: If you want to find out about your family history, one of the best places to go is the resting place of your ancestors, the cemetery. Today I’ve invited an expert on the subject that can help you plan your visit, help you figure out the meaning behind the things that you’re going to be seen while you’re there. And she’s also going to share with us some of the strangest things that she’s run into, on her own travels to various cemeteries across the country. My guest is Joy Neighbors. She’s the author of the book, The Family Tree Cemetery Field Guide, and the blog A Grave Interest. (Editor’s note: thank you for using our affiliate link if you decide to purchase the book. We will be financially compensated which helps make this show and article possible.)

Preparing for a Research Trip to the Cemetery

Cemeteries play such a big role in genealogy. What should we pack in preparation for a research trip to the cemetery?

Joy: I actually have a cemetery bag. Schedule an appointment with the Sexton or superintendent of the cemetery. I always want to stress that before you head out. Because if you give them a little heads up that you’re coming, they’ll be able to pull that information for the ancestors that you’re searching for. They may come up with some cool little tidbits you didn’t know along the way.

When you’re putting the bag together, you want to be sure you have some very soft brushes, like very soft paint brushes, a soft toothbrush, that you can clean the debris off that stone and clean out the lettering.

Take a water bottle – you never know when something’s caked on, and you need to kind of move it along a little.

Also a very, very soft plastic paint scraper (type of tool) to get some of that grass and that ivy off. They love to kind of cover over those graves and sometimes it’s tough to make out what that grave says or even get the exact shape of it. Some of (the tombstones) fall in and get covered over.

So go ahead and do a little bit of respectful cleaning, if you can, to see what it says.

Also my number one thing is to take a camera and batteries. Yes lots of batteries! If you have gone to the cemetery, you may have noticed that your batteries kind of drain, they kind of fade away on you quickly. I’ve been given several reasons for that. If it’s winter, it’s cold, so that’s pulling some of the energy out. Less current is going through for whatever reason, maybe you need to clean up the connections. LCD monitors soak up a lot of that energy also. And of course, spiritually draining the energy so that they can manifest. And I think had every one of those situations happen. And so, I carry a bag of AA batteries, because you can use your phone, and that’s great, but I’m old fashioned. So, I take the old-fashioned digital camera and take shots so that I can come back and kind of play with it in my iPhoto, and have some fun with them and read some of those letters that you can’t make out when you’re there.

Lisa: Well, it is tempting to use your phone, isn’t it? But I have a digital camera and it takes much higher resolution pictures than my phone. That’s great if I need to do some corrections to be able to read the stone.

Joy: And you also have, if you’re like me, on the desktop you have family folders everywhere where you can stash the photos that go with that person. And then you don’t have to go back and kind of go through trying to find them again. Also, I find it easier if you’re submitting to Find-a-Grave or Billion Graves, you’ve got it right there. And you can put it right on the website and enter the information you want from that folder.

Lisa: You were talking about some of the tools that you bring in this bag. It sounds like less is more when it comes to approaching the stone and trying to get it cleaned up so that you can look at it. Talk a little bit more that because I know for a while there, it was very popular to take a big piece of chalk and scrape all over it and try to read them, which is not the right thing to do. We’ve learned an awful lot in the last few years about what could damage the stones.

Joy: I just finished an article for family tree, it’ll come out in October 2021, talking about how to enhance those stones so that you can read them easier.

The water bottle is your best friend. Because a lot of times you can wet that stone which makes it a little darker. You can read more what that text says. Carry a small mirror. And you can take your phone and you can turn that flashlight on and shine some light on it. And or you can take the mirror and kind of catch some sunlight. This allows you to read a little bit better when it’s sharper, kind of like as you get older, you need a little more light in the restaurant to read the menu. It’s that way at the cemetery. And it really does help bring some of that lettering out. It makes it more distinctive.

Lisa: I even use a ring light that clips on my phone. I guess it’s a “selfie” light. So, that gives you got a little extra light.

Making an Appointment to Visit the Cemetery

Now you really quickly mentioned about making the appointment. And I want to talk a little bit about that. Because this is probably the part that gets a little intimidating. Because we don’t want to show up and get turned away, or find out that it’s not open. Or they just go, “Oh, no, no, no, we don’t help people who want to do genealogy.” Who is the person at the cemetery to ask for? You mentioned the Sexton. When we make a phone call, and we want to verify if they are open or what kinds of records they have, who should we be asking for in this phone call?

Joy: When you get the person at the cemetery, usually if it’s a larger cemetery, you’re going to be getting a secretary or say someone who knows basically where things are stored. If you’re looking at something that’s going to be a little more in depth, you can ask for the cemetery superintendent. Many times that person will not be available, especially if it’s a larger cemetery and they have a lot of funerals going on. But the people behind those desks are wonderful. And if you tell them that you’re looking for a great, great grandfather, and give them the name and the dates, those people usually go out of their way to help you.

When I was doing my book. I got hold of the cemetery superintendent at Oak Grove Oak Hill Cemetery, and I told him I’d like to shoot some of the different forms to put in the book. So, I went over and met him one morning, and it was this big, gorgeous, art deco building and old home. He said, “Well, I hope you work really close, because we’re going to go up in the attic.” And no one had been up there in years, there was dust everywhere. We cleaned up places to sit. And he brought out files and folders, boxes that were just (full of) scraps of paper!

Each cemetery Sexton or Superintendent keeps the records differently. Some use the forms, some just made notes. One gentleman made notes about every funeral he oversaw at the cemetery. He wrote down what the weather was, he took a note of who was attending…it was a small town. So, he knew that the daughter was here, the sister was here, the grandchildren attended. And he kept a nice little running commentary going in each note, and just wrote it on scraps of paper and put it in the drawer. I thought that was quite sweet that he cared that much about every time he had a funeral that he made those notes. And if you were someone who had someone buried at that time, you would be able to see those notes and see what he had written about the graveside service. But you had to know to ask. They may not say, well, we have these scraps of paper. But if you ask, “is there anything else you might have on my ancestor? Are there any extra books or notations?”, that may ring a bell (and help them) realize, “Oh, yeah, I think we might. I’ll  look and see.” So, when you show up, they’ll have that info there for you.

Lisa: Oh, my gosh, you must just have been like, “I get to go in the attic!!” That would be me, you know, “Oh, I get to touch things!”

I remember going to a cemetery in the San Joaquin Valley in California. My grandparents are buried there, and grandma’s parents are buried there. Calling ahead really helped.  It was such a small cemetery, and they were only there part-time so you can’t just show up normal eight to five. When I got there, it was really encouraging. The gentleman said, “Oh, no, honey, this is the best part of my job. This is the happy part of my job. I get to make people happy.” I think that it is kind of the fun, joyful part of their job that they’re going to make family members so happy being able to provide information. In this case, he went to a big old file cabinet, and they had a folder on every person. And when he opened it, they had clipped obituaries from the newspaper, handwritten stuff, and official documents. It was amazing, because I don’t think they were obligated to keep all of that. But every single cemetery is different, isn’t it?

Joy: Yes, some are very by the book. And some are just like you said, they’ve kept all kind of little extras, things that were in the paper and little notations, Memorial cards for the graveside service –  I found those tucked in there, too.  

Lisa: I think to one of the tips I would probably tell people is to allow a lot of time. I don’t know what you have encountered, but I have found that I need to take a big deep breath and just chill because they may be on a different schedule. So you don’t show up with only 10 minutes.

Joy: They do have stories to tell. There was one cemetery where I saw a stone that just said unknown. I asked “what’s the stone marked unknown?” Well, that was a gentleman in the early 20th century, who had come to town. He’d gotten off the riverboat there in the town and he had wandered around a few days and gotten sick. He stayed at the local hotel. And when they knew he was sick, they called the doctor in and the doctor tried to do what he could. The man died and they didn’t know who he was. They didn’t know where he came from. He shared no personal information at all. So, the town chipped in together, and they had him buried in the cemetery. And all they could put on the stone was unknown. He was just a vagabond, who passed through town and happened to die. And I thought that was such a heartwarming story, the town cared, and so they wanted him remembered in some fashion. When they buried him, they put up a very nice stone that simply said, unknown. So if you see things and you ask questions, they’re more than happy to tell you the stories. And they do know the stories!

Finding Your Ancestors at the Cemetery

Lisa: Exactly. So, when you arrive, I know some cemeteries will have a map, or they’ll be able to tell you the row and the plot number, that kind of thing. Do you have some sort of plan of attack in terms of beginning your search at the cemetery? Particularly to make sure you’ve covered everything and made the best use of your time in terms of trying to locate people in the cemetery. Any tips on that!

Joy: The first thing I will do, even if it’s a large cemetery, is make a drive around. Now stopping and getting the maps is always helpful if it’s large. But if it’s a small cemetery, you can make that drive pretty quickly – just kind of get an idea where you’re heading.

If you have called ahead, they may have been able to give you coordinates or the section and plot number (for your relative’s grave.)

So, my first stop is always the office and do a drive through and then make that visit.

There’s so much emotion when you find that grave! I was looking for my great grandmother, and it was difficult. She died when I was 10 and I remember a very long drive. I thought the name was “beetle” like “bugs” cemetery. And after a lot of research, we found out the real name and that it was in another county. When I was driving up that hill, I suddenly I knew where I was. I got out and just stood at the foot of her grave. It was so emotional for me because this was my person, and I had found her! And I also found her husband, which was my great grandfather. He passed about 20 years before I was born. But she always told me, I reminded her of him.

On the other side (of her grave) was a child I had never heard of my great grandmother had had seven children. My grandma had talked about them, but she had never mentioned a brother named Jesse. It was not until I had a cousin contact me from Michigan because of our DNA, and she had the story on Jesse (that I learned that) Jesse had been a special needs child. He had never gone to school. He had never worked on the farm. And she had, when he died, a letter that someone close to the family had written about him talking about his sweet personality, and how he was always there to greet people when they came, and how joyful he was. And I thought, ‘you know, I didn’t even know about this child.’ And now because someone took the time to make that letter, I now have some information about him and can put that whole family together more completely. It’s amazing when you go you never know what you’ll find.

Cluster research is something that we all kind of go “Okay, take some other photos around.” But when I stood up, and I looked catty corner from their graves, there were my paternal great grandparents. Now how my maternal great grandparents and my paternal great grandparents ended up buried in the same cemetery that has nothing to do with our family,  I don’t know. But that’s one of those odd genealogy mysteries that you get to dig into when it’s winter and cold, and you don’t have other things calling. I mean, it’s just stunning how much history is there, and how much you can find out about your family or their in-laws. You can find the neighbors, you can find the folks they went to church with, and start building their life out, and getting more of a sense of who they really were just from that cemetery visit.

Lisa: And if you’re looking for somebody, and you’re not finding them right away, particularly in those larger cemeteries, I like that idea of cluster research. You stand there with the one you know, and then you walk all the way around and you realize that people were connected. They may not be buried right next door, but there’s going to be some kind of connection and rhyme and reason to where they are buried. And just working your way out from the known tombstone to those around it, you may find more people that you didn’t even realize were also buried there.

Cemetery Story: Genealogical Serendipity

That reminds me of the time that I was speaking at the FGS conference when it was in Fort Wayne, Indiana, a couple years ago. We stopped because my mother’s side of the family was from Indiana and Ohio, Union City. I told my daughter and my husband when we had to go the cemetery, and they were like “hey, I thought we were just going to a conference!”

Well, of course, we went to cemetery. It wasn’t that big. It was out in the country in an agricultural area. I swear we looked at every stone. I have a video of my daughter looking at every stone and walking up and down. And it was starting to rain. We almost gave up. We got back to the car, and I remember just standing there. I’m just being very quiet, and I’m saying “I know you’re probably here and I know you’d like me to find you. Right?”

I then turned and I looked and right next to where we had parked on a little road that actually went into this very small cemetery, I see the tombstone of Henry Burkett. It was right there next to the wheel of my car!

We had looked everywhere else, because you know, your instinct is to run out of the car and go spread out. And there’s Henry, and then there’s Jane, and my gosh, I was just floored!

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person who’s had those kinds of things where your ancestors were saying “Just quiet down, pay attention. I’ll tell you where I am.”

Joy: That is so true. It’s just like you said, if you will stand there and you’ll look around and you literally, for me, it’s like “okay, I can’t find you. Where are you?” And just follow the hunch, follow the instinct, the lead. And eventually you’re going to find somebody that you go, oh, oh, I know that name! Now it makes sense. And it’s a trail. And sometimes you get really lucky like you did and there they are.

Lisa: My ancestors continue to blow my socks off. That’s for sure. I love it!

Tombstone Symbols and Their Meaning

Let’s take a look at the tombstones because one of the things I know that you’ve written about quite a bit in your book, which I think is fascinating, are some of the symbols that we see on tombstones. We know we get names, we get information, but tell folks what will they perhaps be seeing. What are some of the most common symbols found on tombstones? What do they mean?

Joy: You will find a lot of religious symbols.

Of course there are all different kinds of crosses with different meanings:

  • the Greek cross (which just looks like a plus sign.)
  • the crucifix (which is the cross with Jesus which is Catholic.)
  • the IHS cross (which is Latin and that’s an abbreviation for Jesus Savior of Mankind.)
  • The Fleur de le iconic cross (which has the really beautiful fleur de le at the tips. It is usually put on the stone of a mother. So, you may find the matriarch of the family buried there.)

You also see angels which are said to intercede for mankind.

Archways are another one that are used to mark the graves of couples. Many are made of stone. I found one at Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky. You could open the gate. It was just amazing. You could walk through the archway. Many people have put thought into some of these designs that really, really should be appreciated.

There are a lot of animals in the cemetery. Mausoleums usually have the two lions or they may have a Sphynx cats that are guarding eternal rest. Dogs are very popular. Many times there may be a statue of a dog laying right there at the stone, and that’s showing the animal that is vigilant and loyal through death.

Cemetery Story: Stiffy Green the Dog

There is a Highland Cemetery in Terre Haute, Indiana, and there is a mausoleum to john Heinl. His dog, called Stiffy Green, actually went there when he died.  He went everywhere with John. And when John passed at the turn of the century, in the 1900s, Stiffy literally sat there and mourned himself to death. The family was so touched, they called a taxidermist, and then they took Stiffy and put him inside the mausoleum, so that he could be with John and guard him forever.

After a while, the cemetery personnel looked in and checked on things, and Stiffy had moved! So, the rumor started that Stiffy was moving around in the mausoleum. Then people were hearing barking and it grew and grew until the 1970s. There was a college close by. It was a dare to run up to the Heinl cemetery at night and look in. Someone took a shotgun and shot out Stiffy’s eye.

Then they said, “okay, we’ve got to stop this. Stiffy has to go.” So, the Vigo County Historical Society and the Lions Club got together, and they repaired Stiffy. They gave him a new eye, and they put him in the Vigo County Historical Museum. They built a replica of John’s mausoleum and put him in there. And so that is where you can go today and see Stiffy in the replica patched up.

They still say at the cemetery late at night in the autumn, you can smell John’s pipe smoke, and you can see Stiffy and him wandering along the hills just at twilight, and you can hear Stiffy bark.  I always love that story. That is vigilant and that is loyal! And that’s what our dogs are.

The Story of the Dove

The number one symbol you’re going to see is a dove. Birds basically represent the flight of the soul. Last Mother’s Day we lost my mother-in-law. She went with me (on my cemetery travels), she was at Rootstech with me, she went with me on all kinds of genealogy speaking trips and adventures. When she passed, my husband and I were sitting at the dining table on Saturday evening, and I looked out and there was a dove on a branch. And we talked about 10 minutes, and I looked out, and the dove is still sitting there. About 20 minutes later I said, “you know that dove is still out there. And your mom knows the story. And I’m kind of thinking that might be her.” How touching, you know, that she would know what a dove would represent. And we have never had that happen before or since. It’s kind of cool you when you lose someone you kind of look for signs. I think that was a sign from her was the dove. So that’s kind of taken on a special meaning for me in the cemetery.

There are so many other symbols. Lambs, especially the older cemeteries where you have the stones from the 1800s. You’ll see one lamb or you may see two lambs. There is a cemetery in Southern Illinois that has one stone, and it’s a square with four lambs. I took down the information, I came back and did some research on that. And the family lost all four children in one summer. It was due to a cholera epidemic that swept through that county.

So, when you find the symbols and you do a little more research, it puts even more of their history and their story together. That’s why I love the symbols. And I love finding something that I haven’t seen before so I can come back and kind of do that exploration and research and you get more of a story of who that person was, that really no one other than family would ever know.

Lisa: You kind of restore that story back to the world, and that’s what makes you a good genealogist and a researcher. I think that’s what brings a lot of people to genealogy is that curiosity. It got many of us in trouble as kids, but as now, genealogists it’s helpful.

Joy: Not everything is as haphazard as it looks. There is a stone in Sullivan County, Indiana. I found it years and years ago, maybe 8 or 10 years ago, and it looked like a knight on horseback. Okay, now, this is Indiana, and as you know, we didn’t have those. The woman’s name was Jane Todd Crawford and when she died in 1842 they had put up this huge stone. There was a little bit of a story about how she had died and why it was being memorialized.

I started doing research on this. The story was an 1809. Jane thought she was pregnant. But the baby wasn’t coming. She had reached past term, so she thought she had a stone baby, which meant that it had died inside of her. This doctor came from Danville, Kentucky, 60 miles on horseback in winter, he examined her and told her she had an ovarian tumor. He judged it to be about 20 pounds, it would literally crush her to death inside.

She asked if he could do anything. And he said, “Yes, I believe you can spay a woman like you do a farm animal. No one has ever done this. People are terrified of the thought. But if you’re willing to let me experiment, I think I can save your life.”  Jane agreed. And she went with a person who was helping her over by horseback to the doctor’s home in Danville. It took them several days. He operated on Christmas morning.

There were people who found out and they have a noose hanging on a tree outside and they are shouting, you know, “Death to the doctor!” It was it was just horrible. Jane saw this, and she still went and she laid down on that board in the bedroom and let him make a nine inch incision, and literally break that tumor apart and take it out. And she survived! She lived to be 73. This happened when she was in her early 40s.

I found out the story and I wrote about it. And I realized this wasn’t really a part of Kentucky history. Nobody knew this story. I took a playwriting class and I literally wrote a full act play about Jane and what happened and how she lived through it.

It’s just what you said. These people get hold of you and hold of your imagination and you want to tell that story. And I still want to get her some recognition because she’s the reason we have abdominal surgery. She was willing to be that guinea pig even though the odds were not in her favor. And just because the doctor when he took out the entrails kept them warm in warm water was the reason she survived. It’s amazing. There’s a statue to Ephraim McDowell, the doctor in the hall of statuary in Washington, DC, but there’s nothing for Jane. So still fighting to get Jane acknowledged for what all she did.

Lisa: You’ve written for me over on the Genealogy Gems, blog about some of the unusual things that you’ve run into. And you’ve been so gracious and sharing some of those stories. I think some of the ones that are really interesting to me are the unusual places we would find cemeteries. The further back you go in time, you find that they could be in the back corner of somebody’s property on private property. You have found some unusual ones so tell the folks about the tombstone in the middle of the road.

Read the story of the grave in the middle of the road in Joy’s blog post 3 Shocking Discoveries I’ve Made While Searching Cemeteries.

Lisa: What other kind of unusual cemeteries Have you run into in your research?

Cemetery Story: Ask and Ye Shall Find

Joy: We were out one afternoon, and we ended up way out in the country in Illinois. We drove up this long lane to a farmhouse and I said “this should be Adams cemetery.” And my husband went and knocked on the door. They’re having fried chicken and it’s in the summer and they wanted us to come in and we’re like, “no, we’re fine. We’re looking for the cemetery.” And the guy said, “Well, if you let me finish, I’ll take you to it.” So we waited, and he came out about half an hour. And he said, “hop on the four-wheeler” and his wife came out. And we got on the four-wheeler and the dogs went with us. And it was a ride! I mean, we crossed ditches, and we went up hills and we went into the woods.

There were about eight tombstones, and they had taken it upon themselves to keep this area cleared. So they were bringing up the lawnmower and they were mowing and they were trimming the weeds around these stones, they had no relation to the Adams who were buried there. They hadn’t had anyone come and look for the cemetery in years. They were so gracious and so much fun! Just to take us up there and let us explore and see what we had found.

Care-taking Cemeteries

If you go and there’s a house or barn something there and somebody is still taking care of that property, ask them if they know where the cemetery is, if you can go see it or find out who owns that land and see if they can get you to where that cemetery is because a lot of times people are still caretaking it. Now there are some states that now require if you purchase land and a cemetery is on it (and a cemetery can be one stone) if there is someone buried there, in some states, you have to take care of it. In other states, you don’t.

I went looking for a cemetery one time, could not find it. Turned out that my mother-in-law happened to know where it was. We went early one morning and went in the back way of the cemetery. She showed me what was left. It had been purchased by a hog farmer. He did not care that it was a cemetery and had taken all the stones up, and laid them face-down in the mud and had made a path to his hog barn. So, if it’s a state where they don’t have to respect it, a lot of times people don’t. So we’ve lost a cemetery, and we’ve lost the history. All you can hope is that maybe some records made it to a genealogy society or historical organization. Otherwise, they’re gone. And we just have no way to retrace that because someone didn’t care enough to try to preserve that burial.

Lisa: It makes you realize it wouldn’t hurt to get in touch with our local genealogical or historical society and see if we can help. They often organize volunteer groups who restore and caretake old cemeteries.

Joy: You don’t have to know a thing. They will show you what to do – how to clean a grave, how to tend a grave.

I remember being a very small child and going out with my grandmother to tend graves on “Decoration Day” (Memorial Day.) I can remember us having a picnic at the cemetery, which a lot of people find rather bizarre. But cemeteries are restful and beautiful. There’s so much artwork, and sculpture, by well known artists.

  • Louis Comfort Tiffany did stained glass in some of the mausoleums at cemeteries.
  • Frank Lloyd Wright, a well-known architect, did some of the mausoleums in Chicago.

There is really art-museum quality work in our cemeteries. You just have to take the time to go out and walk and look.

Joy’s Cemetery Field Guide

Lisa: And they should take your field guide with them. Tell us a little bit about your book The Family Tree Cemetery Field Guide

Joy: You can slip it in your cemetery bag, and it washes off. This is something you don’t have to treat carefully. There’s  a place in the back for notes. You can list things as you’re seeing it. You can write down the symbols and then go back and research it.

family tree cemetery field guide

Get Joy’s guide to cemetery research featuring detailed step-by-steps for using FindAGrave and BillionsGraves, plus guides for understanding tombstone epitaphs and symbol meanings.

It goes into detail on what to do to get ready for your cemetery visit. What to do once you’re there. How to find records, and what to do with the information when you get back home. Put it on Find-A-Grave, Billion Graves, Ancestry, FamilySearch. Let other people know the information you found so that we can all continue to build our family trees together.

Being a genealogist is like being Nancy Drew, and you’ve got to investigate where the information is leading.

Resources

Questions and Comments

Please leave your questions and comments below. 

Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 230

with Lisa Louise Cooke
June 2019

Listen now, click player below:

Download the episode (mp3)

In this episode:

  • The story of Roy Thran
  • Writing your story with author Karen Dustman
  • Lisa’s adventures in England

Please take our quick PODCAST SURVEY which will take less than 1 minute.  Thank you!

GEM: The Story of Roy Thran

Have you thought about telling the story of your personal history? Most of us have at some point, but it can seem easier to research the stories of our ancestors than to weave together our own. I’ve spoken to a lot of genealogists through the years and I often hear comments like “My story isn’t all that interesting or important.” But nothing could be farther from the truth.

When we don’t tell our own story, we not only take a big risk that the memory of our life will be lost down the generations, but we rob our family and our community of an important piece of their history.

Karen Dustman is the author of the book Writing a Memoir, from Stuck to Finished! She’s been helping folks capture and record their stories for several years in her community in the Sierra Nevada, which spans Central and Eastern California into Western Nevada. She’s known widely there as a local historian, writing on her blog and in the local newspaper about the history of the area.

  Writing a Memoir from Stuck to Finished! by Karen Dustman

It was actually Karen’s story of the history an old house in the Carson Valley that shed light on the fact that one of its inhabitants was at risk of being forgotten. And no one wants to be forgotten.

In this episode, we travel back to 1925 to a sparsely populated ranching community to hear the story of 10-year-old Roy Thran. We’ll hear about his life and death, and how his story tentatively made its way through the generations of the family in one simple box all the way to the hands of his great grand-niece Krista Jenkins.

It was Krista who connected the all-important dots, eventually culminating in a museum exhibit that is now telling an important part of the Carson Valley history and touching the lives of its residents. In addition to Karen Dustman, you’ll hear from Krista Jenkins herself and Carson Valley Museum trustee Frank Dressel. My hope is that Roy’s story will transform your thinking about sharing your own story.

PART ONE: The Missing Boy

Last Fall, Krista Jenkins stumbled upon an article featuring a house she knew well. It was the home her grandmother grew up in, a beautiful white two-story home nestled on a ranch in Gardnerville, about an hour south of her home in Reno, Nevada.

The blog post called The Tale of the Thran House – and an Old Trunk was written by Karen Dustman, a local area historian and author.

It featured the story of Dick and Marie Thran, German immigrants who came to the Carson Valley in the late 19th century, and the four children they raised there, including Krista’s grandmother, Marie.

What jumps out at many readers about the blog post is the photograph of the beautifully restored German steamer trunk complete with heavy black ornate hardware, very likely the trunk that Krista’s great-grandmother had traveled with from the old country. The trunk had been discovered by the current owners in an old shed on the property, dirty and filled with auto parts.

But for Krista Jenkins, what jumped out was what was missing from the story: a little boy named Roy, the 5th and surviving Thran child.

Author Karen Dustman explains how the two women connected.

Karen: “I had mentioned the names of the four surviving children of this couple who lived in this house. But this relative reached out to me and said, ‘Did you know that there was this other child that they had named Roy?’

I was really curious, so we got in touch. She told me not only about Roy and his life, but that she had this amazing box. The family had kept this little boy’s possessions all these years after he died, and she had become the custodian of this box. So, she asked if I wanted to see it and of course I wanted to see it!”

The box contained the young Roy Thran’s childhood, a time capsule of sorts filled with the books, toys, and trinkets representing his interests and activities. In a sense, it was a boy in a box.

The Boy in the Box Roy Thran Story

PART TWO: The Birth of Roy Thran

Roy Thran was born Wednesday, June 10, 1925.

The folks in the Carsen Valley of Nevada were flocking to the new Tom Mix movie North of Hudson Bay playing at the Rex theater in town.

Tom Mix movie - Roy Thran Story

And everyone was looking forward to the big Carsen Valley Day Dance to be held that Saturday night at the CVIC Hall in Minden. Everyone, that is, except Anna Sophia Marie Thran, simply known as Marie. (Photo below)

Anna Maria Sophia Dieckhoff

A native of Hannover, Germany, Marie was in the last weeks of her pregnancy and was happy to deliver before the hot summer weather was in full swing.

She had reason to be apprehensive about this birth for several reasons. A 48-year-old mother of four, she was on borrowed maternity time with this late arrival. Her last surviving child was born in 1901 and since then she had suffered the loss of three more children, including little Katie Frieda who lived just three months.

Marie’s husband Diedrich Herman Thran (photo below), known around town as Dick, was 14 years her senior. Also a Hannover native, according to the 1900 census, Dick had immigrated in 1881 and became a naturalized citizen.Diedrich Herman Richard Dick Thran

Dick saved the money he earned working for ranchers in the area and at the age of 30 returned to Germany to find himself a wife.

In 1895 he returned with seven other Germans and most importantly, the beautiful Anna Sophia Marie Dieckhoff, his fiancé, on his arm. Within the month they exchanged vows at the home of Dietrich’s brother Herman. That was back on another lovely June day, the 29th of June 1895 on which the hard-working Dick presented her with a lavish wedding gift: a beautiful horse and buggy.

Lying there in her bed in the enchanting white two-story home on Dressler Lane fashioned after the grand homes of their native land, Marie gave birth to their son in 1925.

Author and local Carsen Valley historian Karen Dustman: “Roy’s birth must have been quite a surprise for Marie, especially after losing three children in the intervening years. I’m guessing it was a very happy surprise this late in life, and he was certainly welcomed into the family. They had a christening ceremony for him at the local Lutheran church on June 21, 1925, so eleven days after he was born.”

Thran descendant Krista Jenkins: “Because Roy was a late baby, my great-grandmother coveted this little guy. It was the joy of their life at this point.”

Roy with his mother, Marie Thran, c summer 1927

Roy’s childhood 

Roy grew up like many sons in the Carsen Valley at that time, likely carrying some responsibilities around the ranch, but also living a fairly free-range life. Historian Karen Dustman explains:

“Roy was born and grew up in the late 1920s and early 1930s, so he would have been part of a wonderful rural farming community here. And of course, he would have lived in the beautiful Thran house on his parents’ dairy ranch. And both of his parents were German as we talked about from the old country, so I imagine they were a little bit strict. And I would imagine he would have had chores to do on the ranch. But as the baby of the family, I’m picturing him doing less than the other kids in terms of chores. He went to the elementary school in Minden nearby where he would have gotten to know all the other ranchers’ kids.”

In the Thran family a few handed-down stories confirm this.

Krista: “It was your typical ranching family in the early 1900s where everybody pitched in and worked. And little Roy came along, and he was handed down the little toys that somebody else had in the family. And from descriptions that we’ve been told as far as my generation, is that he was just a happy-go-lucky little kid, liked to pitch in and work, and just very kind of a jolly good little guy.

He got relatively good grades in school and was conscientious, and just kind of the love of my great-grandmother and grandfather’s life at that point.”

But it’s really the box of Roy’s possessions that tell us a more complete story of his childhood.

“He had those classic metal toy trucks to play with and watercolor paints. We know that he played Tiddledy Winks with his friends, and marbles. One of the other things that he had as an item in his box was a homemade sling shot that somebody had carved out of a fork branch, so I can picture him out there trying to hit things with the sling shot.

Roy Thran Box Toy Car

We know that he played baseball, and someone had hand-carved a wooden baseball bat for him, if you can imagine. It wasn’t even perfectly round. It had these flat sides on the baseball bat so you can imagine it must have been really hard to hit the ball in a straight line.

Roy Thran bat and sling shot

And then one of his sweetest possessions that I really like is he had a stuffed toy rabbit that he must have carried around as a toddler. And it looks like one of those homemade things. Women back then used to buy a printed pattern that was on cotton cloth, and they’d cut it out and stuff it. The moms would sew around the edges and put stuffing inside. And this was a really stained and well-worn toy, so I just picture him carrying around this little stuffed rabbit as a child.”

Roy was also enamored with the great aviators of the day. He joined the Jimmy Allen Flying Club for kids, which came with an official acceptance letter, a bronze pin featuring “flying cadet” wings, and a silver pilot’s bracelet.

Jimmie Allen Flying Ace 1930

Jimmie Allen Book

In the box was also a treasured pint-sized version of the aviator cap that Charles Lindbergh wore on his history-making solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927.

The Premonition

One day in 1935, ten-year-old Roy entered the kitchen where his mother was working. But this was no ordinary day.

Roy Thran at school 1931

Krista: “Well, the story in the family is that my great grandmother was in the kitchen with my grandmother (her daughter), and little Roy walked in and my great-grandmother kind of shrieked a little bit, and written across his forehead was something in the order of ‘I won’t be here much longer.’”

Sometime after this unusual event, early on the afternoon of August 6, 1935 Roy headed over to his friend Henry Cordes’ home to pick up some Sunday school papers that he had left in the car. While visiting, Roy and Henry’s older brother, twelve-year-old Roy Cordes decided to head out on horseback for a ride. Around 4:00 they stopped to eat lunch and then, even though by all accounts from the family Roy hated water, they decided to make their way to the dam on the Carson River to go swimming.

According to Roy Cordes’s account of the event to the local newspaper, “After undressing Roy Cordes admonished his chum to be careful because the water near the dam was deep. The words were hardly out of his mouth when his chum stepped into deep water and disappeared. Neither of the boys could swim, but young Cordes made a heroic attempt to save his companion and came within an ace of losing his own life as he frantically grabbed for his chum.”

Record Courier Roy Thran Drowning headline

Realizing that he was helpless to save his friend, young Cordes hurriedly dressed, mounted his horse and rode at top speed into the home of his father and notified him of the tragic event. Mr. Cordes drove to the Thran ranch, telling the parents of the boy what had happened.

Krista: “Subsequently my Uncle, which would be Roy’s brother Carl, jumped in and he’s the one who found Roy’s body. And they pulled it out on the bank and tried CPR for quite a while, and it wasn’t working. So, he passed away there. But Roy’s brother Carl is the one who drug him out.”

(Image below: Roy Thran’s death certificate)

roy thran death certificate

PART THREE: A Life in a Box

After Roy’s tragic death, Roy’s mother Marie carefully collected not only his prized possessions like the aviator’s cap, but also some of the last things he would have personally used like his school slate and a small collection of books. They were placed in a box, and by all family accounts, Roy wasn’t spoken of again. That is, until years and generations later.

Krista: “When my Grandmother Marie’s brother died, who was Carl, who was also the brother of Roy, he died in the early 80s I believe, my grandmother was in the family house, and they were cleaning out the belongings in this house. And that was where she was raised, and of course Carl was also, and Roy. (Photo: Roy’s sister and Krista’s grandmother Marie Thran Cordes)

Roy Thran's Sister Marie

In the back portion of my great-grandmother’s closet was this box. My mom was there along with my aunt. And my grandmother came out of this closet area, and we don’t know why, gave this box to my mother with the instructions ‘make sure Krista gets this box.’ And so, they went on about their business. My mom, whenever we got together shortly after that, my mom said, ‘Oh, I have something for you from Grandma.’ So, it was this box, and we started going through it. And at that time, I didn’t know that little Roy had ever existed.”

In such a short period of time, one leaf on the family tree had grown dangerously close to being forgotten. And Krista learned very quickly how important it was to gather the stories of her elders.

Krista: “We started going through all of his belongings, and we kind of pieced together this story, and that’s when we kind of started figuring out ‘Oh my God!’ My mom remembered because she was told the story as a little girl growing up that these were Roy’s belongings.

You know, as time went on, the funny thing, and maybe this is what happened in these prior generations, is nobody really talked about Roy. In fact, I just read an article that my grandmother was interviewed in a long time ago, and she spoke of growing up and working on the ranch and such, and she didn’t even mention Roy. So it’s just maybe that generation was, you know, ‘He passed away,’ and they just parked him. Or again, speculation, maybe that was such a traumatic event for the family that they just decided to park it. That could be a generational thing that long ago. But it’s not like, you know, ‘Talk about Roy!’ It was just never really brought up.”

(Click here to read the article about Marie Thran Cordes.)

Over the years Krista kept the box and gathered the remaining family stories about Roy, really restoring him to the family tree. So, on the day that she came across Karen Dustman’s article about the Thran house, she seized the opportunity to restore him to the community’s history.

Karen: “She was wanting to know if I’d be willing to write a story about Roy and his box. And also, whether our local museum would be interested in maybe doing an exhibit of his things. So, we arranged to meet up at the museum with the museum curator, and thankfully Gail is wonderful. She was as excited and thrilled as I was about the box. And I said I would of course love to do a follow up story about Roy and his box. Gail welcomed the idea of an exhibit at the museum and made the arrangements and space for it to happen.”

Taking items on loan rather than as a donation was a rare occurrence for the Carson Valley Museum. But Museum Curator Gail Allen felt it was worth a closer look, and Douglas County Historical Society Trustee Frank Dressel whole-heartedly agreed.

Frank Dressel: “Krista brought the box in and they kind of analyzed the different things, the different artifacts of Roy’s, as far as with his childhood, the stuff that was in the box that they found in the attic. It’s a local story. It’s a great story. The box has all kinds of treasures as far as this life of Roy Thran.”

Krista: “And as I started bringing stuff out of this box, everybody was enamored. They were just like “Oh, my God!” And it just sort of fell into place.”

Frank: “And they weren’t ready to donate it to the museum. And the big thing about the museum is that we don’t like to take things on loan because of the responsibility and everything else. But with this being a local exhibit, what we decided to do was to have it on exhibit at the museum for a year.”

Karen: “Krista and her aunt Lois Thran worked together to assemble the exhibit and physically put it in place. There was also a curator who was really, really helpful and she involved an exhibit’s coordinator to help get the display cases arranged and do what he could. But really it was the two family members who put the display together and did a beautiful job. They have two tall glass cases devoted just to his exhibit, which is really a tremendous amount of space. And it’s this little snapshot in time of just amazing things. The people who have come to look at it have just been so impressed with the exhibit. They did a beautiful job of it.”

Krista: “My aunt, who’s my mother’s sister, her name is Lois Thran, she had a florist business for a long time. In fact, it’s still in the family. Her granddaughter is running it now.  And so, my aunt is just really good at putting things together. I mean, I can put stuff on a shelf, but my aunt kind of has that ability to design. My mom lives in Reno, and I asked my aunt, and she’s like ‘Yeah, I’ll help you!’ So, we put stuff there, and she’d go behind and she’d rearrange it, and she’d look at it and rearrange it. So, we didn’t just put stuff on a shelf. My aunt just kept moving things around and moving things around, and it just had some continuity. And that’s why we kind of drug her along. That and the fact that this was her uncle, really, and she got to participate in his story too.”

Roy’s story was quickly becoming the family’s – and the community’s – story. His childhood possessions are transforming how people think about the importance of the story of every life, even one that spanned only a decade.

The exhibit drives home the idea that everyone’s story is important, and really connected to everyone else’s story. You can just hear the enthusiasm in Frank Dressel’s voice as he describes and connects with the items that were so precious to Roy Thran.

Frank: “Well you know the big thing that caught me was the hand-written letter to a friend, looking forward to him visiting over the summer vacation and such. It’s just, that‘s how they communicated back then. And you can just tell how excited he was about his friend coming to visit for the summertime.

You know, the way kids are raised today with cell phones and everything like that, this boy didn’t have any of that back then. You know, it just shows the lifestyle here in the Carson Valley.”

Krista: “This is such a small community and you know life as we know it is changing on a daily basis. The old timers are leaving us, and it’s important, I think, that we don’t lose sight of history of our own families, or the history of the area that you’re living in.”

Karen: “I was really touched that the family wanted Roy’s story to be told and I was just really pleased that I was able to share his story and put that up on the blog. But the really big contribution was by the family coming forward and sharing his story. I just thought it was neat that this tragic event ultimately had a really positive outcome.”

Resources:

The Douglas County Historical Society,
1477 Old US 395 N Suite B
Gardnerville, NV 89410
http://historicnv.org

The free podcast is sponsored by:

 

GEM: Writing Family Stories with Author Karen Dustman

Karen Dustman

Why she wrote the book and what she hoped hope people would get out of it:
As a way to share her experience in sharing oral histories. After her mother’s unexpected death, she regretted not collecting more of her mother’s stories.
“It’s important, don’t wait. Get it done while you can” Karen Dustman

Everyone has great stories to tell. How do you help people find them?
Your family wants to the know the simple stories of how things happened, like how you met your spouse.

Involve a second person, someone who can ask you questions. Ask them what they would like to know about her life.

Why do you think stories are so healing?
You have a chance to look back and put things in perspective, which can be very freeing. As time passes the sweetness comes out. Remember, it’s not just one tragic event, but it’s a whole lifetime of events.

It can also be a way to take the monsters out of the closet. In Roy’s case, the family was able to go from sorrow and bitter grief (literally, all kept in a box!) to finding a way to celebrate and share his life. It was so good. Like they hadn’t known what to do with this sad tale, and now everyone finally could breathe a sigh of relief. They were able to come together and make the exhibit happen.

For 20 DOLLARS off, visit storyworth.com/gems when you subscribe!

What are some of the most common stumbling blocks that people face in telling their own stories?
Often it is “Where do I start telling my story?”

Find one single story you are excited about, hopefully a happy one, to get you started and make the scope a little smaller. Finish that one story and then keep on going.

There are also the practical issues: what if you don’t type well? What are the mechanical difficulties?

Karen recommends:

“It’s so important to capture those stories while we still have family who can tell them.”

Karen recommends that you “picture the words flowing freely for themselves and seeing it happening.”

In the first chapter of her book she discusses getting your mental game in gear. Realize it is possible. Rehearse it in your mind, and picture it happening and the words flowing freely. Imagine that you’re going to have a good time!

Reach out for help and encouragement. If you can share a little piece of your writing, you will get tremendous feedback from people, which can give you motivation.

“Do it now because there’s really no legacy you can leave that’s more important than that.” 

Why did you create Clairitage Press?
My mom was the motivating reason. I tell her story in my Memoir book — how my one real sadness is that I never got her full story, because she died suddenly and quite unexpectedly. But then I did find 12 handwritten pages later that she had left among her papers, talking about her life, which are so precious.

Here is her story on Karen’s blog, and a photo of her as a child. Interestingly, she was about age 7 in this photo and she was born in December 1927, so this would have been taken roughly about the time that Roy Thran died!

The author of 10 local history books and many family histories, Karen says “I’m all about preserving history and honoring family.”

Visit Karen Dustman at Clairitage.com > Blog

Click here to order a copy of Karen’s book Writing a Memoir from Stuck to Finished!

 

The free podcast is sponsored by:

Rootsmagic

GEM: Lisa’s Recent Adventures in England

This month I keynoted at a brand new genealogy conference called THE Genealogy Show. It was held at the NEC in Birmingham, England, the same location where the Who Do You Think You Are? Live conference was held before it folded.

It was a success with hundreds of genealogists attending and Kirsty Gray and her board members including DearMYRTLE here in America are already planning the next conference for June 26 & 27 of 2020 in Birmingham

Mentioned in this Gem:

Nathan Dylan Goodwin Interviews and books

Nathan Dylan Goodwin and Lisa Louise Cooke

Michelle and Jennie
These two ladies were waiting for me at the entrance of my first session, Time Travel with Google Earth. (Also available on video with Premium membership.)

Podcast listeners in England 2019 The Genealogy Show

“My friend Jennie and I are addicted to your website, podcasts and all you teach. As we said [at] the show we are postgraduate Diploma Students at Strath and whenever we get stuck we say “what would Lisa do….” We are thrilled you came over to the UK and any chance we get we spread the word.”

Lorna Moloney
Owner of Merriman Research and producer and host of The Genealogy Radio show aired from Kilkee, Ireland on a weekly basis on Thursdays at 4 PM in Ireland and it’s available as a recorded podcast.

Lorna Moloney

Bill and I celebrated our 35th wedding anniversary at these lovely locations in England:

  • Blenheim Palace – Birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill.
  • Chatsworth – Jane Austen’s inspiration for Mr. Darcy’s house in Pride and Prejudice.
  • Lyme Park – Used for the exterior shots of Mr. Darcy’s home, Pemberly, in the 1995 A&E Pride and Prejudice mini-series.
  • Sudbury Hall – Used for the interior shots of Pemberly.
  • Haddon Hall – Wonderful example of Tudor living. The Princess Bride and Pride and Prejudice filming location.
  • Kedleston Hall
  • Calke House –I’ll talk more about in the next Premium Podcast episode

We stayed at Dannah Farm Country House in Shottle, Derbyshire. Say “hi” to Joanne and Martin for me!

You can see photos and videos from my trip on my Instagram page.

Become a Genealogy Gems Premium eLearning Member

Genealogy Gems premium elearning

Become a Genealogy Gems Premium Member

Gain access to the complete Premium Podcast archive of over 150 episodes and more than 50 video webinars, including Lisa Louise Cooke’s newest video The Big Picture in Little Details. Learn more or subscribe today here.Download the Show Notes PDF in the Genealogy Gems Podcast app

Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 240 Evidence & Proof, Organization and DNA

The Genealogy Gems Podcast is the leading genealogy and family history show. Launched in 2007, the show is hosted by genealogy author, keynote presenter, and video producer Lisa Louise Cooke. The podcast features genealogy news, interviews, stories and how-to instruction. It can be found in all major podcasting directories, or download the exclusive Genealogy Gems Podcast app to listen to all the episodes and receive bonus content.

Click below to listen to this episode:

Podcast host: Lisa Louise Cooke
April 2020
Download the episode mp3

In this episode, you’ll hear from genealogy experts on genealogical evidence & Proof, DNA, and organization. 

Elevenses with Lisa Update

The live Elevenses with Lisa show is now a monthly show, typically on the 1st Thursday of the month. We announce the live show the week prior in the Genealogy Gems email newsletter. The date and time will be announced and there will be a red “click here” button that takes you to the “Show Notes” webpage for the show. On that page, you can watch the live show and get the downloadable cheat sheet notes. You can also click “watch on YouTube” in the media player and that will take you to the video on YouTube where you can participate in the chat during the live show. After the live show, the show is available as a video replay to watch at your convenience. You can find all past shows by clicking VIDEO in the menu on our website homepage. Videos are organized by topic. Also, anytime you want to see what the most recent content we’ve published, just click LEARN in the menu on our website. You will then see all of our videos and podcasts starting with the most recently published, and going back in time. So if you want to find something quickly that was done fairly recently, just click LEARN. 
 
Elevenses with lisa genealogy youtube show

Watch Elevenses with Lisa

What’s even better than listening to a genealogy podcast? Watching and listening to a genealogy online show!

The free podcast is sponsored by MyHeritage:

 

Backblaze lisa louise cookeDon’t leave your precious computer files at risk.
Back up your computer with the Cloud back up Lisa uses.

Visit www.backblaze.com/Lisa

 

 

GEM: Organization with Lisa Lisson

  • Organization: It’s not a project, it’s a system.
  • Be consistent.
  • Organize throughout your research day.
  • Use a research plan every single time.
  • Use workflows.
Lisa Lisson and Lisa Louise Cooke at RootsTech 2020

Lisa Lisson and Lisa Louise Cooke at RootsTech 2020

Lisa Louise Cooke’s Tip:

  • Put the year in the file name first. It automatically puts your files in chronological order. (Genealogy Gems Premium Members can learn how to implement Lisa’s entire computer filing system by watching the Premium videos Hard Drive Organization Parts 1 & 2.)
  • Always try to only touch a piece of paper once. Make a conscious decision what to do with it and do it: Work with it right now, File it, or throw it away. Don’t just move it around your desk.

Order your copy of Lisa Lisson’s Genealogy Planner at https://lisalisson.com/planner.  

Are You My Cousin? by Lisa Lisson Planner

The free podcast is sponsored by:

Rootsmagic

Lisa Louise Cooke uses and recommends RootsMagic family history software. Visit www.RootsMagic.com

GEM: DNA Q&A with Andrew Lee

Interview with Andrew Lee, author of the book DNA Q&A. Click here to order the book.

DNA Q&A by Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee and Lisa Louise Cooke with a lucky winner at RootsTech 2020

Andrew Lee and Lisa Louise Cooke with a lucky winner at RootsTech 2020

GEM: Evidence & Proof with Kate Eakman

Kate Eakman Legacy Tree GenealogistsThe Genealogical Proof Standard tells us that we need to conduct reasonably exhaustive research in order for our work to be credible. If you’ve ever wondered just what constitutes “reasonable” (and if your family tree is up to snuff) my guest author Kate Eakman, professional genealogist at Legacy Tree Genealogists, has answers.  

Read Kate’s article Genealogical Evidence and Proof: How to know if you’ve compiled enough evidence at the Genealogy Gems blog.

45 Minute Online Genealogy Consultations: Sometimes the wrong evidence or assumptions can push us into a brick wall. A fresh set of expert eyes can help you identify the problem and recommend the sources you need to pursue in order to compile trustworthy evidence.

If you are looking for some assistance in your genealogical research, Legacy Tree Genealogists can help. Our affordable ($100 USD)  Genealogist-on-DemandTM Virtual Consultation service provides you with the opportunity for a 45 minute one-on-one discussion of your research with one of our expert genealogists. We can help guide you in evaluating evidence and determining research strategies to move forward with your research confidently. 

 

 

The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox , 3rd Edition

By Lisa Louise Cooke

  • Fully Updated and Revised!
  • Brand New Chapters
  • Featuring Lisa Louise Cooke’s Google Search Methodology for 2020

A lot has changed and it’s time to update your search strategy for genealogy!

The Genealogist's Google Toolbox Third edition Lisa Louise Cooke

Click to order your copy of “The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Third edition” by Lisa Louise Cooke

Discover the answers to your family history mysteries using the newest cutting-edge Google search strategies. A comprehensive resource for the best Google tools, this easy-to-follow book provides the how-to information you need in plain English.

This book features:

  • Step-by-step clear instructions
  • quick reference pages.
  • Strategies for searching faster and achieving better results.
  • How to use exciting new tools like Google Photos and Google Earth.

Visit the Genealogy Gems Store here to order your copy.

Read our latest articles at Genealogy Gems:

 

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Download the Show Notes

Download the Show Notes PDF

Episode 144 – Digitize, Organize, and Archive

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Today’s gem focuses on a challenge that we all face as family historians – getting organized, archiving all of our stuff, and digitizing materials an d photos. I know that’s biting off a big chunk, but it’s such an important one. And in this episode I’m going to start to break it down for your with the help of the Family Curator, Denise Levenick who has written a book called How to Archive Family Keepsakes.  She’s got lots of practical advice to share.

NEWS:

FamilySearch recently announced that their U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Community Project is Half-way to its 2012 Goal of 30 Million Records

In August of this year, FamilySearch announced its next major U.S. community project-U.S. Immigration and Naturalization. The project will create an extensive, free, online collection of U.S. passenger lists, border crossing records, naturalization records, and more-invaluable to genealogy researchers. See what U.S. Immigration and Naturalization projects are currently underway, or check on their status at FamilySearch.org/immigration.

You can join the community of online indexers and arbitrators helping to make passenger lists and naturalization records freely searchable on familysearch.org.

Current and Completed Projects
To view a list of currently available indexing projects, along with their record language and completion percentage, visit the FamilySearch indexing updates page. To learn more about individual projects, view the FamilySearch projects page.

Canadian Military Records
Ancestry.ca has also announced that they have launched some New Canadian Military Records Collections
Read about it on my Blog: Limited Time Free Access to Canadian Military Records, and New Records Online

Google recently announced that  Google Maps just got the biggest Street View update ever, doubling the number of special collections and updating over 250,000 miles of roads around the world. Google has increased Street View coverage in Macau, Singapore, Sweden, the U.S., Thailand, Taiwan, Italy, Great Britain, Denmark, Norway and Canada. And they are launching special collections in South Africa, Japan, Spain, France, Brazil and Mexico, among others. .

They’ve also recently updated the Google Earth satellite imagery database. This refresh to the imagery has now been updated for 17 cities and 112 countries/regions.  So Google Earth has never been better for genealogy research. And of course if you would like to learn more about what Google Earth can do for you as a genealogist, check out my free YouTube videos which show you what you can learn in Google Earth for Genealogy Video Tutorial Series.

Genealogy Gems Premium Membership Update
I’m happy to let all of you Premium members know that I’ve put together a quick little video that will walk you through the process of setting up your Premium podcast feed in iTunes.You’ll find a link on the premium episodes page once you’ve signed in that will take you to the video and instructions for setting up your Premium iTunes subscription.

I have also added a video recording of one my most popular classes to the Premium Videos collection. It’s called How the Genealogist Can Remember Everything with Evernote.

From Premium Member Kelly: “Thank you so much for your podcast on Evernote. I’ve been on YouTube watching videos about it but they were hard to follow and more advanced or to techie. Your podcast was easy to follow and went over the basics and I really appreciate that. I think I finally ready to try it.”

If you would like to be able to watch the Evernote class from the comfort of your own home please join us as a Genealogy Gems Premium Member which you can do at www.genealogygems.com 

MAILBOX:

From Patience: “I have noticed in your podcast, other’s podcasts, blogs, and at workshops I have attended that there is a concern about the next generation.  I do understand, but I wanted to share with you my experience in hopes of easing everyone’s worries.  I am 23 years old, and let me tell you I stick out like a sore thumb at workshops as I usually am the youngest by at least 30 years.  That being said when I started researching I met one of my cousins on ancestry.com, and we really hit it off we have all the same interests and are like long lost twins.  For a while, I assumed that she was retired, and much much older than I, but after several emails, I found out she is only two years older than me!!!

I too worry about my generation, but I think after some maturing, most will at least have an appreciation for the past, and everything it has to offer, or at least I hope…But all I know is that there are two very pretty twenty-something girls thousands of miles apart that would rather research and learn that go to parties…so that seems pretty hopeful I think.”

Jennifer Takes the iPad on the Road
“Kudos for turning me on to a nifty iPad shortcut. Your latest book has some tips in the back, which is where, of course, I skipped to after dutifully reading the first three chapters or so. The tips about swiping the comma/exclamation point to create an apostrophe, and the other shortcut for quotation marks, are so great! I will no doubt find many other useful items when I return to reading. Honestly, your books are so full of wonderful information, I have to take a break before my head explodes (not pretty).”

Pat Oxley, a Genealogist on Facebook posted her review of my new book on Facebook last week.  “Despite another day of coughing and basically feeling yuk, I bought and downloaded Lisa Louise Cooke‘s new book “Turn your iPad into a Genealogy Powerhouse.” It is FABULOUS! I worked my way through the book, taking notes and then downloaded and played with some of the apps she suggested! Thank you Lisa Louise! I will say it’s a terrific book even if you’re NOT a genealogist. Many of her suggested apps could be applied to many different hobbies and interests. You can buy it through Lulu.com.”

GEM: Interview with author Denise Levenick, The Family Curator

Archiving, organizing and digitizing family treasures is one of the greatest challenges for genealogists. In her book How to Archive Family Keepsakes: Learn How to Preserve Family Photos, Memorabilia and Genealogy Records, Denise Levenick presents a game plan that breaks down the steps and provides a clear picture of the end goal. The worksheets and checklists provide the kind of practical advice I look for in “how to” books. No fluff, just common sense, and usable information that lead to success.

Get your copy of Denise’s book How to Archive Family Keepsakes: Learn How to Preserve Family Photos, Memorabilia and Genealogy Records and start getting organized now! 

     

Denise May Levenick is a writer, researcher, and speaker with a passion for preserving and sharing family treasures of all kinds. She is the author of How to Archive Family Keepsakes and creator of The Family Curator blog http://www.TheFamilyCurator.com, voted one of the 40 Best Genealogy Blogs in 2010 and 2011.

Gem: One More Thing
From Tina in the UK: “Your recent blog post about items found when clearing out a house reminded me of my most significant find in my stepfather’s attic. He died in July 2009 and my mother wanted to clear out and sell their big house and move to a retirement flat to be near the family in Bristol. I should explain that my mother and father divorced when I was a baby and my stepfather was like a father to me.  We threw out masses of stuff – he never did, EVER! – but this was mostly correspondence, company reports for all his shares etc which we sifted through without much of note being found. Then, in the attic there were two extraordinary finds:

(1) a box full of the small notebooks he kept from his schooldays till a few years before he died…early ones and especially the ones of his years in the Army in India and Burma…The later notebooks are a record of his expenses – with dates, items and expenses which brought back many memories (eg doll for Tina – bought  in New York on holiday in 1958 – I remember it well, it was a sort of pre-Barbie!). Every ice-cream he ever bought us – there was a LOT of ice-cream (he loved it)!

(2) my grandfather’s old attache case – full of letters from my stepfather’s mother between about 1978 and her death in 1993. There were hundreds of them – and yes, I read every single one and they have formed the basis of the story of her life (yes, she also left a small diary, a collection of her own recipes of family favourites, and a very simple family tree), which I am now writing…what VERY little there was seemed to be in answer to some of his questions…It just shows how the smallest things can provide clues.”

Thank you Tina for sharing this – it certainly does remind us that clues can come from anywhere. But it also reminds us of something else – that while it’s wonderful to have our history recorded so it can be remembered, sometimes it’s the smallest things that are remembered most:  Like ice cream.  I think I’m going to sign off now and take my grandson Davy out for a cone. I hope he remembers it, because I know I will. Who will you invite out for a an ice cream and spend your precious time with today?

Check out this episode

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

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