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

Live Premiere on YouTube: Thursday June 3 at 11:00 am CENTRAL.

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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. 

Family History Episode 15 – More Tips for Contacting Distant Relatives

Listen to the Family History: Genealogy Made Easy podcast by Lisa Louise Cooke. It’s a great series for learning the research ropes and well as refreshing your skills.

Originally published 2009
Republished January 21, 2014

https://lisalouisecooke.com/familyhistorypodcast/audio/fh15.mp3

Download the Show Notes for this Episode

Welcome to this 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 2008-09. So many people have asked about it, I’m bringing it back in weekly segments.

Episode 15: Genealogy Cold Calling II: 14 Tips for Contacting Distant 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 call.

In today’s episode we talk about the skill of “genealogical cold calling.” Relationships are key to genealogical success and by following 14 genealogical cold calling strategies you will find your research relationships multiplying. We’ll chat with my cousin, Carolyn Ender, who has conducted 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.

But first, we do some follow up with an email from a listener about family trees. Then, I share a little story that puts into practice what we’ve learned so far in this podcast series.

 14  Steps to Genealogical Cold Calling Success 

#1. Identify the person you want to call.

#2. Locate the person’s phone number. Below are some great websites for locating people you don’t know. The list is updated from the one given in the show. And Whowhere.com now has an app for Android, iPhone and other mobile devices. Check it out

Don’t forget to search the entire metro area, not just one city. Try just searching their first name particularly if it’s not a really common first name. Try and track down their number through other relatives or researchers. If all else fails consider posting on a message board for the surname

#3. Prepare ahead for making the call.

Every tough job gets just a little easier when you do your homework first. Follow these tips:

  • Take into account a possible difference in time zones.
  • Choose a time when you are not too rushed
  • Do a brief review of the family you are researching so it’s fresh in your mind
  • Make note of specific questions you would like to ask.
  • Have your genealogy software program open or your written notes at your fingertips.

#4. Get up the “nerve” to call.
Remind yourself how valuable this person’s information could be to your research.  If he or she is quite elderly, remember that none of us will be around here forever so you need to make the call today! Say to yourself:  “I can do this.  This is important!”   And be positive and remember, all they can do is say “no thank you.”

#5. Introduce yourself.
Give your first & last name & tell them the town and state where you live.  Then tell them the family connection that you share, and tell them who referred them to you or how you located them before launching into why you’re calling or what you want.

#6. Overcome reluctant relatives.

Be ready to share what you’ve learned, and to share your own memories of a relative that you have in common.  Mention something of particular interest in the family tree that might pique their interest.

If they are very hesitant you could offer to mail them some information and offer to call back once they’ve had a chance to look at it. That way they can sort of get their bearings too.

#7. What to do during the call
You’ll want to take notes during the phone call.  Try a headset which will help to free up your hands for writing. Handwriting is preferably over typing.

Take the opportunity to not just get new information but also to confirm information that you already have–just to make sure it’s correct.

If you have a way to record the call, you don’t have to take notes and focus all of your attention on the conversation, and then transcribe the recording later. If you want to record, ask permission: in some places, it’s illegal to record a conversation without permission and it’s common courtesy to say you’re taping them. But it might put off a stranger; perhaps taping could wait until a second call.

#8. Leave a detailed voice mail message if there’s no answer.
State your name and that you would like to talk with them about the family history.  Leave your phone number and tell them that you will call them back. Consider leaving your email address and suggesting they email you with a convenient time to call back.

Be sure and keep track in your genealogy database each time you call and what messages you leave. Having a log of calls and voice mail messages you’ve left will help you keep track.

#9. “Must-ask” questions.

  • “Do you or anyone else in the family have any old family photographs, or a family Bible?
  • (Reassure the person that you would only be interested in obtaining copies of any pictures or mementos they might have.)
  • “Do you know anyone else in the family who has been doing family research?”
  • “May I have your permission to cite you as a source in print in the future?”
  • “Is it OK with you if I keep in touch from time to time?”

#10.  Wrap up the call.

  • Ask for their mailing address and email address.
  • Offer to give them your address and phone number.
  • Let them know you would be pleased to hear from them if they come across any other information, pictures, etc.

#11. Document the call. 

Sit down at the computer or your notepad right away and make detailed notes about the phone conversation while it’s fresh in your mind. Include the person’s name, address, phone number and date of conversation. Make notes regarding any items you think may be questionable to remind you to go back and do more research on those points. At the bottom of the page list the ACTION items that come to mind that you want to follow up on based on the conversation. Enter their contact information into your genealogy database as well as your email contact list.

#12. Enter new information Into your genealogy database. 

This is a must. Do it right away while it’s on your mind.

#13. Create an action item list. 

Create action items based on what you learned.  Ask yourself “What are the logical next steps to take considering what you’ve learned through this interview?”  The call is not the end result, it’s a step in the research process, and it can really help to make this list now, and while it’s fresh in your mind.

#14.  Follow up. 

Send the person a written note or email thanking them for taking the time to talk with you. If the person mentioned that they would look for pictures or would look up something in a family Bible etc., mention in your note that you would still be interested in anything they can help you with and that you would be glad to pay any copying expenses, postage etc. Offer to provide copies of your information or copies of pictures you have etc. You never know: they might catch the genealogy bug and become your new research partner!

Next, put their birthday on your calendar and send them a card on their next birthday.  It’s another way of keeping the connection going and expressing that you really do appreciate all their help. Try this service: Birthday Alarm.

Occasionally make a follow up call to check in and see how they are doing, share any new family items she’s come across recently, and ask if they have they heard or found anything else.

The Incredible Story of the Public Records Office of Ireland

Dr. Brian Gurrin is a specialist on Irish censuses and census substitutes and author of such books as Pre-census sources for Irish demography and The Irish religious censuses of the 1760s.

In this week’s video premiere he joins me for a discussion of the incredible story of the repository that held early census records and much more: the Public Record Office of Ireland. 

Dr. Gurrin will take us back through the history of the building and the surprising and ironic catastrophes that destroyed countless valuable records. Then he will share the truly inspiring ways that records are being restored, some of which will be available soon!

Watch Live: Thursday, June 9, 2022 at 11:00 am CT 
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Three ways to watch:

  1. Video Player (Live) – Watch video premiere at the appointed time in the video player above.
  2. On YouTube (Live) – Click the Watch on YouTube button to watch the YouTube premiere with Live Chat at the appointed time above at the Genealogy Gems YouTube channelLog into YouTube with your free Google account to participate in the live chat. 
  3. Video Player above (Replay) – Available immediately after the live premiere and chat. 

Show Notes

Downloadable ad-free show notes PDF for Premium Members

(This interview has been edited for clarity.)

If you’re looking for Irish records that were created prior to 1922, and you’re in the right place, today, we are talking about the Beyond 2020 to Ireland project, which may just be the best hope for Irish research in a long time.

Dr. Brian Gurrin is a specialist on Irish census records and substitutes. He’s also the author of the books Pre-census sources for Irish demography and The Irish religious censuses of the 1760s and he’s here today to tell us about this exciting project.

Lisa: What was held at the Public Records Office of Ireland prior to 1922? What kind of records would somebody have found there?

Dr. Gurrin: The Public Record Office (PRO) opened its doors in 1867. Prior to that the Irish records, the various state records, records of Parliament and so on, they were dispersed around in various repositories, around Dublin and around the country. Many of them were stored in locations that were unsuitable for maintaining records in good condition. The records were getting damaged, some records were getting damaged by damp and so on.

So, when the PRO opened, they started to take in records from these unsuitable repositories. There were a vast quantity of records available. Our earliest census records, our first census was held in 1813. That wasn’t a particularly successful census. And then are our next census was the first time that Ireland was fully enumerated by statutory census in 1821. And thereafter, we held censuses every 10 years on a year to terminal digit one. So, we held our census in 1821m 1831, 1841, 1851, and so on, right up to 1911, which was the last census that was held in Ireland, when Ireland was part of the United Kingdom.

And so, they were very important, very important for genealogists. And an interesting thing about the census: when the Public Record Office opened, and it just goes to show how research is changed, they published annual reports every year, the Deputy Keepers Reports. And when they opened, one of the earlier reports, I think it might have been the second report or the third report, made a comment about the census records. It talked about that the census records were just clutter taking up space and that they weren’t very important. And that they were just taking up taking up an enormous, inordinate amount of space in the Public Record Office. They didn’t want to receive any more census records because there were just basically clutter. And when you think about the census and how important the census is for genealogical research and family history research now, it just goes to show how historical research has changed, and how these records are vital records for historical research and historical study.

Overview of the background and contents of Public Record Office of Ireland:

  • Public Record Office of Ireland opened to public in 1867.
  • National repository for records:
    • Census returns (1813-5, 1821, 1831, 1841 & 1851)
    • State papers
    • Parliamentary records (Ireland had its own parliament until 1800).
    • County records; accounts, administration; grand juries.
    • Charters, corporation records
    • Maps
    • Testamentary (wills), parish registers (Established Church)
    • Tax records (poll taxes, hearth tax)

The building destroyed on 30 June 1922; and almost all records lost.

So it was a really vast collection and it built up from 1867 right up to 1922 when it was still receiving records into the record office.

Let’s just go back and talk about the 1821 census. Again, Ireland’s first census. When that census was held, the census recorded the names of all householders in the country, but also the act that initiated the census specified that at the each of the individual counties where to make a copy of the census as well to hold locally as their own local copy of the census. But then when the county records came in after 1891, after the fire, in the Cork courthouse, all those copies of the 1821 census also came into the Public Record Office as part of the county records collection. In 1922 the Civil War the civil war commenced, and the public record was on the north side of Dublin City in the Four Courts complex, just north of the River Liffey on the north bank.

The anti-treaty IRA occupied the Four Courts complex. We’re not sure what happened. There are two schools of thought. One is that the Anti-treaty IRA deliberately mined the building and blew up the building when they were evacuating it to destroy the records which were primarily records of British administration in Ireland. So, it was a great strike for Irish republicanism, destroying the records of the British administration in Ireland. The second thought on it is that when the anti-treaty IRA started shelling the Four Courts complex to drive out anti-treaty Republican forces there, a shell went in into the Public Record Office, exploding munitions that were stored in the Public Record Office.

Whatever happened, it was quite a disaster for Irish record keeping the beautiful fantastic archive was destroyed. It was explosions that occurred on the 30th of June 1922. It was a catastrophe for Irish history. The building was destroyed, this beautiful archive was destroyed. Records going back 800 years were blown up. The records were scattered around Dublin City. Records were blown on the wind over 10 miles out around Dublin. People were picking them up and handing them back in. There were very little handed back in. It was a catastrophe for Ireland and a really great tragedy. So that’s the backstory.

There was two parts to the records office. In designing this, they were really careful to try to ensure that nothing, no catastrophe, could happen that these records could be destroyed. There were two parts to the building. There was a squarish type building (on the left in the photo).

Ireland Public Records Office

Ireland Public Records Office

That’s called the Record House. That’s where the researchers went. If you want to access records, you went into the Record House, (it was like the Reading Room of the archive) and you filled out a form. You filled out the details of the record you wanted.

The building on the right was called the Record Treasury. It was called the Treasury because these were Ireland’s treasures. This was where Ireland’s treasures were store. It was a beautiful archive containing beautiful records of Irish history over 800 years.

If you look up towards the roof, between the two buildings, you can see a gap. This was a fire break that was that was installed because it was thought that if any fire broke out, it wasn’t going to break out in the Record Treasury, it was going to break out in the record house where the where the public came in and where the heating systems were. So, they wanted to ensure all the collections of records that were in the Record Treasury were going to be protected from fire. So that building isn’t actually joined together. That’s a false wall there. That firebreak gap between the two buildings was to ensure that there was no possibility that a fire could spread from the Record House into the Record Treasury and destroy the records.

The great irony is that when the fire broke out, when the explosions occurred, the explosions occurred in the Record Treasury. That meant that the firebreak operated in reverse protecting the Record House from the Treasury. And by coincidence, whoever was working on records on the day that the record office was occupied, those records were moved from the Treasury to the Record House for them to access. Those records remained in the Record House. So, a small quantity of records survived just by pure accident because people were using them in the Record House at the time. So, the firebreak operated in reverse, protecting the Record House from the fire that was in the Record Treasury even though it was designed with the idea that it would protect the Treasury from any fire that was going to occur in the Record house.

Lisa: Did you say that there was actually munitions stored there?

Dr. Gurrin: Just to take up on the first question that yes, they did. They were really careful to ensure that no damage could come to the records. It wasn’t just that they installed a firebreak, but they also made sure that there was no wood in the Record Treasury to ensure that there was no possibility. So everything was metal. Initially there were wooden shelves in there. But then, maybe 10, 15 years in, the Deputy Keepers annual report says, that’s it, there’s no wood left in here, We have it perfectly protected, so there is no possibility of fire occurring in here.

A  view inside the Record Treasury:

Ireland Record Treasury

(enhanced and colorized photo)

There were six floors in that building. You won’t see any wood at all.

These people are called searchers. So, you go into the Record House:

Searchers

The Record House

You’d sit down in one of those benches down the back, you’d fill out your document, and you’d hand it up to the clerk behind the desk. They give it to one of the searchers who then goes in through those double doors. That’s the way in between the firebreak and the link into the Record Treasury. They wander up to the steps to whichever floor the record was on and find the record, and bring it back down into the Record House for you.

Now we do have a great knowledge of what was in the Record House.

record treasury chart

record treasury chart

There was a kind of a central aisle down. On either side there were what were called “bays”. There were six floors to it. This chart is giving you an indication of what was in the Record Treasury and what type of records were in the bays.

Public Record Office inspection document:

docket image

Tennyson Groves was a great hero of mine. He was a genealogist who sat in the Public Record Office and transcribed vast amounts of information from various census records. A lot of what we have surviving now are transcripts that were transcribed by Tennyson Groves.

Lisa: You mentioned the copies of records that were often made. We see that in genealogical records around the world that sometimes copies get made, and then the original set may go to a central location, and then they would keep a set locally. You mentioned that with some of the census records they actually sent the second set into the public records office as well. Do you have a sense of how many duplicates are out there? I mean, how much hope is there that there are copies of some of the things that were in the building and lost that day?

Dr. Gurrin: That’s a really good question.

Once the fire occurred in the courthouse in 1891 in Cork, they said, ‘right, we cannot have, we can’t have a situation where local records are stored in unsuitable accommodation like this. They can’t be destroyed. We have a perfectly fireproof location here. So, we’re going to take them all in.’

So, whatever records counties produced, like as I said, the 1821 census, they were required to make copies. Not all counties produced copies, and not all counties produced complete copies for their county, but many counties did. And many counties produced partial copies. All of those went into the Public Record Office after 1891 as per instructions of the Public Record Office. They all went in except for one county, which is county Cavan. About 40% of the census records survive for Cavan. They were the only county that didn’t send in their local copies into the record office. All the others transferred.

If the fire hadn’t occurred in Cork, maybe the Public Record Office would have let the records stay locally, and they would have survived. In terms of survival of records, Cavan is the only county that copies of the 1821 census survived. Now there are four volumes of 1821 census original volumes that survived. Some bits of partial sets of records have survived. That’s four out of 480 original volumes that existed. So, it’s like 1% of the original volumes from 1821 to survive. But for Cavan 40% of the county is covered by copies that were made under the terms of the census act.

Then there are transcripts for various parts from genealogists and local historians. Prior to 1922, they made copies. But in terms of survival there’s probably about, I suppose, 50 or 60,000 names surviving from 1821 and transcripts. Now that’s 50 or 60,000 names out of the 6.8 million names that were enumerated in 1821. So it’s really, really tragic.

And it’s even worse as you go as you go to the next census for 1831, the survival rate is even lower. And for 1841, it’s very low as well. And there are about two and a half thousand civil parishes in Ireland. And for 1841, there is only one parish that the original record survived. The scale of the losses is just catastrophic.

We are very lucky in that we do have census substitutes. In some instances, we have a wonderful land value taxation valuation that was conducted in the 1860s or in the 1850s called Griffiths Valuation, which is effectively a census substitute. But that’s what we’re down to as Irish genealogy. We’re down to using census substitutes in a lot of instances because unfortunately, this wonderful census records were lost.

There was one other very interesting census that was conducted in Ireland in 1766, a religious census. And that’s a real focus of our project now. It’s a magnificent survey that was conducted that is in the second book of mine that you mentioned. Some original records survive from that as well. So, that’s a really interesting focus of our project, which I could talk for hours!

Lisa: How has this loss of records been coped with over the last 100 years? Were there efforts to try to reconstruct them and fill it back in?

Dr. Gurrin: There were. As soon as the Record Office was reconstructed they did put out calls for records or records transcripts that were taken before 1922. Those came back in and were donated back into the facility. They did make efforts to recover them.

A lot of the records like the charred remains of records that were picked up around the streets of Dublin and in the vicinity of the Four Courts were collected and boxed and cataloged. Many of those records weren’t accessed again until our project started.

The National Archives has been cataloging those records that were picked up almost 100 years ago on the streets of Dublin, and they’ve been cataloging them they’ve been trying to recover them to try to treat them to make them accessible again.

There were various efforts made and donations came in from genealogists like we had a lot of genealogists who transcribed records previous to 1922. If genealogical transcripts came up in auctions the government was very active in trying to secure those. They did as much as they could do, I think, to try to recover the losses, but it was only going to be a drop in the ocean in comparison with what was there.

Lisa: Now you’ve got a brand new project called Beyond 2022. Tell us how this gets started. And what’s your end goal?

Dr. Gurrin: It’s part of the decade of the decade of Centenaries in Ireland. There were a lot of things happening around 1916, with an Easter Rising around 1918, with a general election, which saw Sinn Fein’s win the majority of the seats. It saw the War of Independence, the Civil War, and then the government of Ireland enacted the partition of Ireland. So, it was a lot of things happening around there.

Beyond 2022 really fits into that as a part of the Decade of Centenaries. It’s a two year project that’s been going on with the intention of identifying material that still exists in archives around the world and local archives here in Ireland. It’s an effort to recover it to make it freely available digitally online. They’re being digitally imaged as high-quality digital images. They are being transcribed as much as possible. And that’s not being hand transcribed. This is a transcription package, which is reading the handwriting and trying to transcribe that handwriting into searchable text.

At the end of it, it is the intention of the project to make 50 million words available and searchable through the Beyond 2022 website. So you will be able to enter a name, enter a name, enter a townland name, enter a place name, enter free text and search these documents and come back with whatever we have. The launch date is June 30, 2022.

Learn more about Beyond 2022

Resources

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How to Research Witnesses for Genealogy Success

Show Notes: You may not have been around when your ancestors lived, but there were witnesses to the important events in their life. Genealogist Robyn Smith shares her 3 step process from her new Family Tree Magazine article called Witness Testimony.

Video class on researching witnesses in genealogy records

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Get ready to find out how the witnesses named on your ancestors’ records can help you bust brick walls in your genealogy research! 

Video Premiere with Live Chat

Watch Live: Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022 at 11:00 am CT 

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Three ways to watch:

  1. Video Player (Live) – Watch the video premiere at the appointed time in the video player above.
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  3. Video Player above (Replay) – Available immediately after the live premiere ends. 

Show Notes

(This interview has been minimally edited for clarity)
Downloadable ad-free handout with time stamps and links.  (Premium Membership required)

Why You Should be Researching Witnesses

Lisa: I learned a lot from your article in family tree magazine. And I wanted to chat with you a little bit about that, because I think researching our ancestors’ witnesses is fascinating, and it’s something that people don’t always think about. We may focus on the names we recognize and not so much on the ones that we don’t. I’d love to have you give your “elevator speech” if you will, as to why people should be taking the time to research witnesses.

Robyn: Most of us in the genealogy community eventually hear about this thing called “cluster research”. We hear this phrase, the FAN club that genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills describes, where we take a look at the Friends, Associates and Neighbors of our ancestors. I would consider witnesses and bondsman in that FAN club, in that cluster.

Simply put, witnesses can help us find more family. That’s the benefit of researching these individuals and the records in which they find them. We can break through some brick walls. And this type of research can also tell us about the community ties and some of the customs in that time and place. So, witnesses and bondsman are always my secret research strategy.

What is a Bondsman?

Lisa: You mentioned bondsman, and that might be a new term for some folks. We might be used to seeing perhaps an immigration record or a birth record, and we see witness. What is a bondsman?

Robyn: This is one of those terms in genealogy that has a slightly different meaning historically than it does today. By bondsman we just mean someone who pledges a sum of money as a bond for another. Sometimes in these records, we might see that they’re called a Surety. You might see that term used. The difference between that and a witness is that there’s a financial obligation involved. I always try to tell people, it’s similar to cosigning a loan today. Most of us would probably not cosign a loan for people that we didn’t trust or that we didn’t know very well. And so, if you can keep that concept in your mind, that’s the value and the benefit of researching those witnesses and bondsman.

Lisa: Yes, when there’s a financial tie, there’s some kind of relationship there. And I guess if we can research them, that might lead us back to even more records about our own ancestor.

Genealogical Records that Include Witnesses

What kind of records will we find them in? In what type of records are we going to find witnesses and even more specifically, this term bondsman?

Robyn: The big one we think of, of course, is marriage bonds. We hear that phrase a lot. We may see them in marriage records, almost all deeds are going to have some sort of witness involved, and wills. Also, in probate records we will see executors and administrators often have to have bonds. If you’re going to serve as guardian to someone, typically, that person has to have a bond as well. And so those are sort of the big ones.

We can also think of court cases, civil court cases when you’re trying to secure someone’s appearance at a future court meeting. And I actually have seen the courts go after that bondsman if that person doesn’t show up. So, some of these records can get pretty juicy.

And of course, I think a lot of us are probably familiar with pension, military pension records and southern claims.

The only thing that I would caution people to watch out for is sometimes the witness is really just the county clerk, a local lawyer or local justice of the peace. So, it’s in researching that witness or that bondsman that you’ll find out the relationship if there is any, to the person of interest that you’re researching.

Lisa: That’s a really good point.

The Goal of Researching Witnesses in Records

Do you go after witnesses primarily because you’re wondering if they are related? Or is it also about that FAN principle where they may not be related, but researching them might actually lead me to more records about my own ancestor because of their will, depending on what the relationship was? Do both of those play into the way you approach them?

Robyn: I would say both. I’m actually really excited when I see a witness or bondsman because the curiosity serves you very well, in genealogical research, as we know. It’s a good thing to be a nosy genealogist. I want to know, why is that person there? That’s the question that I’m trying to answer. And more than a few times, it has led me to more family that I didn’t know about, particularly if that individual had a different surname.

Now, another gotcha is that sometimes they end up in the records with just their initials. So, we first have got to confirm who that person is before we’re ready to say that they’re related to our person of interest. So, there are some cautions that we may need to be aware of as we’re doing this research. But it’s another stone to overturn as you’re doing your research. And I love it when I see a person listed in a record. I’m excited!

Lisa: Me too! I feel like oh, my gosh, I finally have another avenue that I can pursue, particularly in a brick wall situation.

3 Step Process for Researching Witnesses

In the article, you provide a three-step research process. Will you walk us briefly through that process?

Step 1: Transcribe the Document

Robyn: The first thing that I do when I find a document concerning my ancestor that has a witness or bondsman, is to transcribe the document. I want to make sure that we all are comfortable with the practice of transcribing. Transcription ensures that you are actually reading every single word in that document. It’s going to help you notice all of the details that you might miss if you are just looking at it in its current format.

There are a lot of great free tools available to us for transcribing. There’s GenScriber, or there’s Trint. I would also recommend Family Tree Magazine’s cheat sheet on reading old handwriting. That becomes very handy when you’re doing this transcription.

Step 2: Do the Research

The second step is to then do the research. I always say you want to research in a variety of records. I actually research the person as if they were my ancestor already. That means I’m looking in census records and deed records and court records and everything else trying to establish who this person is. And the things that we learn along the way, are not just that this person is in this time and place, which is very important to us as genealogists, but it also gives us a hint as to how old the person was. It also gives us a hint about their literacy in terms of whether they sign with their mark or whether they sign with a signature. It is in this second step, doing the deep research, that you probably will uncover whether or not the person is related to your family.

Step 3: Research the Law

The third step is to research the laws because as we know, laws governed everything about the sources that we use a genealogy. They’re going to govern who can serve as a witness and a bondsman, how old that person has to be, and also how many were necessary.

We need to be aware that these laws are going to differ from state to state or colony or a locale and also throughout time. I look at the published date laws that I can find in databases like Internet Archive and Hathi Trust and Google Books but you and also visit your local library, law library, or archive. You may have to do some deep digging.

Those are the three steps that I recommend: transcribe the document, research the individuals you find, and make sure that you research the laws.

Lisa: Fantastic advice!

The Power of Transcribing Genealogy Records

I’d love to ask you a little bit more about transcription because I think that is a step that can be tempting to skip. People think, oh, well, I read it, I want to get going! I want to add people to my tree, and they are tempted to not take the time to transcribe. Will you tell us a little bit more about transcription?  Why should we take that time? And what are we looking for, instead of just typing the words?

Robyn: Transcription to me is one of the basics of one of the basic genealogical skills I think we need to master in order to be successful, particularly once we start going back further in time and encountering those much more complicated problems. And it’s one of those basics that will remind you, if you don’t do it over and over again, that there’s a reason why it’s recommended in genealogy.

I can’t tell you how many phrases I’ve realized that I don’t fully understand as I’m transcribing. And Step one is to understand what that document is telling you. So, if there’s a phrase that I come across, I might email an archivist, or I might call one of my genealogy friends who’s got a little bit more experience in that particular time and place. Transcribing helps us to do that, and it helps us to understand.

When I transcribe, I also typically turn it into an abstract. I’m also making sure that I do a citation. So, to me, those are the building blocks of successful genealogical research.

I would also include keeping a research log and have a research plan. Those to me are very critical research building blocks to long-term success in genealogy.

I understand the impulse to want to skip transcribing. But I can tell you over and over again that I come across phrases that I thought I knew, but once I’m transcribing it, I really realized that I don’t. There are lots of wonderful webinars and classes that you can take on transcription that can teach you simple rules when you’re transcribing, and they’re easy to learn. They’re not complicated rules. And I think that once you start doing it, you’ll get more comfortable with the process. It will really become second nature.

I hope that I can encourage everyone with our conversation to do more of that transcribing. I did a lot of it earlier, not necessarily knowing or understanding all the rules, and now I’m going back and sort of revisiting those documents. It’s always amazing when things will jump out at you that you didn’t notice before, or it just didn’t resonate.

I always recommend having a genealogy buddy. You can say to them, hey, can you take a look at this and tell me what you see? You can have a fresh set of eyes look at it and ask you a question. I’m a genealogy junkie, so I find all of this really, really exciting to me. I kind of lean into it. We’ve all got other things to do in our lives. I try to do an hour here and there; it might be an hour this weekend. But I’m sort of just always working towards a goal. And that transcription, I tell you, that’s a key first step!

Witness Research Example

Lisa: I don’t mean to put you on the spot, but do you have a witness story or just something that you spotted that you just would love to share with us?

Robyn: I do! My mother’s family, my maternal family is from Tennessee. I was researching my second great-grandfather, Mike Fenricks in Tennessee, where he lived. Almost every source in his life asserts that he was born in Alabama. And so, this is a problem that a lot of genealogists have. I had no idea where in Alabama I’m even though I thoroughly went through all of the sources that were available in that time and place.

I noticed that he served as bondsman to a man named Dee Suggs. And then I noticed that he jointly took a couple of sharecropping deeds with this same man Dee Suggs.

Bondsman

Sharecropping Deed: JM Fenrick and Dee Suggs

I also found him living in Dee Suggs’ house in 1920. So, the wheels start turning! Why is he interacting with this man and Dee Suggs who was also born in Alabama?

1920 census

The Dee Suggs household in the 1920 U.S. Federal Census

So, when the records ran out, for my ancestor, I started researching Dee Suggs. And where did this witness lead me? Dee Suggs led me back to Lawrence County, Alabama. And in that 1870 census household was a man named Mike. And that man ended up being his brother, it was his half-brother. And the same man is my second great, great grandfather. They had migrated to Tennessee together. They had been formerly enslaved, and I found a Freedmen’s Bureau contract that their mother signed where she calls all of them, her children. The 1870 census doesn’t provide relationships, so I had that critical labor contract that said, Sofrona and her four children. And so, it makes all the sense in the world why he’s associating with him and living with him, and jointly, promising bond for him. It is because they were half-brothers!

Lisa: I knew you’d have a great story!

Robyn: That story is the crux of my cluster genealogy lecture that I do. I go into more details, but following Dee is what led me to that community and his place of origin in northern Alabama. It was very exciting.

Learn more about Robyn Smith

Lisa: And I know you bring many stories to your readers at Reclaiming Kin. Please tell us the URL address and what they will find there at your website.

Robyn: Thank you so much. The URL is www.reclaimingkin.com. I call it a genealogy teaching blog, and what I mean by that is, I might start off with something from my family history, but every single post is meant to teach a skill. And so, every post there talks about a methodology, a strategy or resource. It’s not just about my family history, it’s about helping all genealogists to grow their skills, and also meet the special challenges of researching the enslaved. I’d be really happy if your listeners would come to the blog, take a look, sign up for my mailing list. And I’ll send you a free PDF, all my favorite research tips.

Lisa: Robyn, thank you so much. We’ll all look forward to your article Witness Testimony in the Family Tree Magazine Jan / Feb 2023 issue. And I look forward to hopefully talking to you again soon.

Robyn: Thank you so much for having me on today, Lisa.

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