Thursday, May 21, 2015

Smiths and Joneses at #NGS2015GEN

Details from the old TV show: Alias Smith and JonesAt the 2015 annual conference of the National Genealogical Society, Elizabeth Shown Mills presented a session titled “Smiths and Joneses: How to Cope with Families of Common Names.”

She taught a research process model, research analysis model, and identity triangulation model. These are covered in her QuickSheet: The Historical Biographer’s Guide to the Research Process. I reviewed this product recently. (See “Review: Research Process QuickSheet.”) She taught her Problem Solving Spiral, taken from her QuickSheet: The Historical Biographer’s Guide to Cluster Research (the FAN Principle). (You can see a diagram of the spiral on her blog.) Unlike some product-hawking presenters, she never mentioned the existence of these products. Quite the opposite. If you went to the NGS conference, you can print a copy of her handout (pp. 441-4) and you’ll have half the information from these two products.

Elizabeth states that when dealing with common names, the chance of erroneously linking a record to a person is greatened. I loved Elizabeth’s terminology: “identity theft” and “former ancestors.” Committing the first, results in the second.

One thing she taught was that we need to finish extracting information, analyzing documents, and correlating findings while we are still onsite with the records. I recently suffered the results of not doing so. I was on an expensive, cross-continental research trip. I thought my pristine photographs of a business ledger would suffice. No need to extract them on the spot. When I got home I found that while the photographs were pristine, the handwriting was not. How I wished I could examine additional pages to assist deciphering. Oops.

“Research is not trolling the internet for names.” Dealing with common surnames doesn’t change the rules of sound research. “Working with common names requires that every source and every piece of information be critically appraised from every possible angle.”

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Searching for at #NGS2015GEN (Part 2)

I attended Crista Cowan’s class at the 2015 annual conference of the National Genealogical Society. The class was titled “Maximizing Your Search on” Last time I wrote about the first three things she does to maximize her search for records:

1.  Start by looking at hints.
2.  Next, look at suggested records.
3.  Then, initiate a search from your tree.

Today, we cover the fourth and final approach.

4.  Use the card catalog.

The fastest, easiest way to find what records are online is to use the card catalog. (I don’t think everyone at FamilySearch appreciates the role the card catalog can and should play in helping people find collections. But I digress.) At, hover over Search on the menu bar. On the popup menu, click Card Catalog. (I’m glad they still call it a card catalog. I know that bugs some people. If they won’t say card when no card is present, why do they say dashboard when there is no board present and it no longer prevents dashing? They don’t have a clue, so to speak. But I digress…)

Crista likes to sort the catalog in two ways. One is alphabetically. Another is by date added. That makes it easy to see what is new. (As she sorted it, “Oregon, Motor Vehicle Registrations, 1911-1946” popped up near the top. That reminded her that Ancestry is working on driver registrations. Since they include traffic violations, she can’t wait to look up her uncle who has a propensity for speed. That was just one of many comments throughout her presentation that had us all laughing. But I digress… Wait a minute. It was Crista who digressed this time.)

To show us how to use the catalog, she typed [Arkansas] into the title box and clicked Search. That returned 56 titles. Beneath the search button are various ways to filter the list. She clicked “Birth, Marriage, & Death.” That dropped the number of titles to 13. She filtered to marriage and divorce. That dropped the number of results to ten. has ten databases covering marriages in Arkansas.

[It has been several days since Crista’s presentation, so I’ve forgotten some of what she said between what I noted. Consequently, some of what you’ll see from this point forward are my own interpolations.]

Some people wonder why Ancestry would have ten Arkansas marriage databases. Why not just combine them? We now have worked with the state of Arkansas, Crista said. But some Ancestry databases are extracted by private individuals, some from original records and some from FamilySearch microfilm. Some of the original records might have subsequently perished and the records in these extra databases may now be the only place they are recorded. So Ancestry keeps these databases, but keeps them separate so you can see the source of the records and understand the database.

As she had done before, she held down Ctrl while clicking a title so that it would open in a new browser tab. When you get to a particular database, the search forms are customized for the particular database. Global search is generalized for most records. We know what we indexed, she said, so we create a customized search form. Death date is not listed on this search form because death date doesn’t appear on the marriage record.

An example database-specific search form.

But before you search, scroll down below the search form and read the information. In the case of Crista’s ancestor, she needed Carroll County, but the description told her the database didn’t include it.

An example showing source information and description for an database
One last thing to think about is the Place field. All have a type-ahead list. (See the Carroll County example in the search form, above.) Choose from that list and Ancestry knows exactly where the location is on a map and can perform searches in proximity to that place. If you type just anything, then it is treated like any other field that must match what is typed.

Here’s my counsel to you, Crista said. Do the other things first, but also use that card catalog.

To see a short, two minute interview of Crista Cowan, view DearMYRTLE’s “AmbushCAM - Ancestry's Card Catalog Crista Cowan.”

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Searching for at #NGS2015GEN (Part 1)

The Woodrow Wilson Junior High School Elementary Band, 1932Friday morning at the 2015 annual conference of the National Genealogical Society I attended “Maximizing Your Search on,” taught by Ancestry’s corporate genealogist, Crista Cowan. She told us that, the website, has 16 billion records online. Some years ago Crista supervised Ancestry’s indexing. At that time, they were publishing one to two million records per month. Today, that number has grown to one to two million records per day. They have been doing that for the last two years.

When looking at a person's hints, the first one is for member trees, followed by the record hints.One challenge we have as genealogists is that we have become searchers, not researchers, Crista said. A researcher thinks about what they are searching for and then takes steps to find that thing. Another mistake is that we think we are looking for people. But we are not searching for people; we are looking for records about people.

1. Crista’s search strategy begins with hints.

Ancestry provides hints for the top 10% of its record collections. The presence of hints are indicated on a pedigree chart with a leaf icon that shakes momentarily. Crista said, “It used to shake forever, but you didn’t like it so we stopped it.” (I don’t hear any laughter. Crista is a masterful presenter and the way she said it, people laughed. I guess she speaks better than I write. :-) Go to the person whose records you seek. Then examine the record hints for that person.

Hints are not provided for every database. That is intentional. “We want to get you started,” she said. “We grab that low hanging fruit so that you experience that aha moment.” The collections that are hinted include vital records, census records, cemetery records, and draft records. “Remember that hints are just hints.” You need to look and decide if a record should be attached to a person in your tree. Concentrate on record hints. Member Trees are the first hint. Below that are the record hints. (See example to the right.)

When viewing a record, suggested records are listed to the right.2. After examining hints, Crista next moves to suggested records.

Suggested records are those along the right side of records about your person. “These are suggested by you,” she said, referring to all Ancestry users. She had us think about Amazon’s “People who bought this, also bought this.” Suggested records are records attached to persons in member trees that were attached alongside the record you are looking at. “I’ve found some real gems,” she said. If you find no suggested records, it means you are breaking virgin ground. “I get giddy when there are suggested records and I get giddy when there are not!”

To search for records about a person in your tree, click Search Records.3. After utilizing hints and suggested records, Crista performs a search starting from the tree.

Go to the person whose records you seek. Underneath their portrait, click on Search Records. This switches to the search page and loads the search form with information about the person, including names of parents, spouses, siblings, and children. (For an example, see the parameters along the left side of the screen shot, below.)

“The computer returns what we call our ranked search results,” Crista said. For example, suppose the tree loaded up 22 pieces of information for the search. Will any record match all 22? No. But the record matching the most fields, say 18, would be listed first. Results are sorted in the order of the number of matching fields. (It might be a touch more sophisticated. Some fields may have more weight than others.) Go far enough down the list and you’ll see records that might not match the name at all, but match several other fields.

Crista scans through the result list, opening ones of interest in new tabs. To open a page in a new tab, hold down the Ctrl key while clicking the link. She stops scanning the list somewhere along the first page. For me, that is typically when the matches start to get less than helpful. Only after clicking all the records of interest does she come back and start looking at each tab. Examining the results in this manner has several benefits. When the Internet is being slow, other tabs load while you examine one tab. The search results page is still available in the first tab. Tabs can be reordered using drag-and-drop, perhaps to arrange them chronologically or some other desired order.

The default view for search results is the ranked record view:

The default view for search results is ranked records. Click Categories (circled in red) to switch to category view.

Click on Categories (circled in red, above) to switch to category view: search results can also be displayed in category view.

“I can go directly to a particular section that might have a database with the information I’m searching for,” Crista said. It also helps identify record collections you may not have thought of.

“One of my favorite collections is our yearbook collection,” she said. One day she was working in the Ancestry booth in the exhibit hall at a conference. A man walked up, “clearly his wife’s designated driver.” He asked what was being done at the computers. Crista told him she was helping people search for their ancestors. She added, “Would you like to search for yours?”

“Can you find me"?” he queried.

We won’t have much of any interest about you, she told him. “Tell me about your Dad.”

“No. Search for me.”

She typed in his name, expecting nothing more than perhaps an address from the U.S. Public Records collection. One of the first things that came up was a junior high band photo. He just stood there, fascinated. He got really quiet. Then a little teary.

“Don’t move,” he said. “I’ve got to go find my wife.” He brought his wife back and began relating stories about his youth. He spoke eagerly for about 15 minutes. Crista says his wife looked over his head at her and mouthed the words, “Thank you!”

Stay tuned to learn what Crista does next to maximize search effectiveness…

Monday, May 18, 2015

Monday Mailbox: Retail Liquor Dealer

Dear Ancestry Insider,

What does  R.L.D. stand for on IRS Annual Lists 1866? I saw this in Georgia. It is some sort of occupation, and possibly a merchant of some kind?

Virginia Crilley

Dear Virginia,

Retail Liquor Dealer.

You might wonder how I discovered this. I first glanced through the NARA descriptive information found at the beginning of the microfilm. Read it on, starting at United States Internal Revenue Assessment Lists, 1862-1874 > Georgia (M762) > A guide for all counties > Image 2. While the answer to this specific question was not there, it is always a good idea to read the descriptive information at the beginning of a NARA microfilm. The description noted that these records were photographed from bound volumes.

I examined a volume from 1866. I wanted to see what instructions might exist in the first pages of the volume. In the volume I examined, some “helpful” camera operator had skipped the cover and the first pages of the volume. I suppose he figured they were of no historical value. It was impossible to tell if he had skipped something significant. (This practice is sometimes practiced by “helpful” websites as well, dropping images of no apparent genealogical value.) I noted on the first photographed page of the volume that the column heading for occupation is “Article or Occupation.”

Like the occupation codes found in census enumerator instructions, I figured there were instructions for tax assessors that listed these abbreviations. I did various Google searches, some involving the exact column heading. The one that did the trick was [internal revenue assessment lists occupation "r.l.d."]. The fourth result was:

Google result for _Internal Revenue Laws in Force January 1, 1900"

I selected this result and searched for [r. l. d.] in the file and found this:


Retail dealers in malt liquors can not retail spirituous liquors
or wines without paying special tax as retail liquor dealers.

No refund of a tax to a R. M. L. D. who becomes a R. L. D. (33
Int. Rev. Rec, 397.)

It was a fun challenge. But seriously, poking around the laws surrounding these documents might shed light on other meaning and nuance. Look for books showing the laws in effect at the time the record was created.

Have fun.

The Ancestry Insider

Friday, May 15, 2015

Thursday at #NGS2015GEN, Thinking of Dad

I’ve just completed Thursday at the 2015 annual conference of the National Genealogical Society (NGS). I’ve expended 99% of my energies and the conference is only 50% complete! Oh, oh.

In the morning I learned about a couple of libraries here in the Midwest.

Midwest Genealogy Center of the Mid-Continental Public LibraryCheryl Lang introduced the Midwest Genealogy Center of the Mid-Continental Public Library. It bills itself as the largest free-standing public genealogy library in the United States. It has 52,000 square feet, welcomes 10,000 visitors a month, has 200,000 print volumes (I think 20,000 of them can circulate), and sports 2,000 periodical titles.

I think it was Barbara Renick who, years ago, taught me that when visiting libraries in far off places, one might want to acquire a library card so that you can continue to access their online databases when you return home. Many libraries require that you be present to obtain your card, but let you renew from a distance. Some are free. You’ll want to look into the cost and benefits of obtaining a card when visiting libraries away from home. The rules and costs for obtaining a library card at the Midwestern Genealogy Center confused me a bit. (If you live in such-and-such counties, except for this school district, or if your Kansas City library has a borrowing agreement with us, or if you own land in such-and-such places, or if you live outside Missouri or Kansas and obtained your current card before May 2010…) Their website offers some help. If I understand correctly, any citizen of the United States living in the United States can get a Research Card. It provides access to most of their online databases (Ancestry Library Edition and Fold3 Library Edition being the notable, albeit usual, exceptions). It must be obtained in person, costs $20, and expires in six months.

The Midwest Genealogy Center has a partnership with FamilySearch, allowing FamilySearch to digitize books which have passed into the public domain. (That is to say, their copyright has expired.) FamilySearch missionaries are working eight hours a day, five days a week in this endeavor. (Go, missionaries!) Thank you, Midwest for allowing this. Midwest has donated 4,000 volumes so far. Midwest also has a partnership with Ancestry spent two to three years digitizing their yearbook collection.

For more information about the Midwest Genealogy Center of the Mid-Continental Public Library, visit their website.

Larry Franke introduced the History and Genealogy Department of the St. Louis County Library. They used to answer the phone saying “Special Collections.” People would ask to be transferred to the genealogy department. They got tired of explaining that that is basically who they were, so they changed their name.

Their most well-known collection to national genealogists is the NGS book collection. Twenty-thousand books arrived from NGS in two tractor trailers. Accessioning the collection was monumental, partly because NGS used the LC numbering system and St. Louis uses Dewey and partly because of the sheer size. The St. Louis Genealogical Society came to the rescue (go StLGS!), providing many hours of labor. The size of the collection has grown to 30,000 items, as authors donate additional titles to NGS. One stipulation of the donation to St. Louis was that the books be available for circulation. To learn how you can check out titles via interlibrary loan, watch “NGS Book Loan Collection” in the FamilySearch Learning center.

Lessor known collections include the St. Louis Genealogical Society Collection (12,000 unique titles) and the Louis Bunker Rohrbach Collection (11,000 items). See a list of additional collections on their website.

They will make copies of items from some of their vital records microfilms. If you request specifically, and receive the copy electronically, they will provide the service at no charge. See a list of their microfilms. Send requests to

For more information, visit the History and Genealogy Department section of the St. Louis County Library website.

I was able to attend a couple of classes from the New York track sponsored by the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society (NYG&B). I’m afraid I’m out of time, so I can’t tell you much about them. Remember that “towns” are not like towns out here in the west. Karen Mauer Jones likened them to western townships. For me, a Utahan, a township is a very large square of land without a known name. That’s not what a New York (or New England) town is like. For me, I think of what would happen if a group of western towns all expanded until they entirely consumed all the land in a county. Driving across New England it hit me one day: there’s no space between the towns. The other difference is record keeping. So many records are created at the town level instead of the county level, maybe I should think of towns as mini-counties—counties within a county. Jane Wilcox drove home the need to understand the place hierarchy and its effect on records by pointing out that New York has 1,472 government bodies with the potential of creating or holding vital records. That’s 22% of all that are in the United States. And they are all in New York. And records that you think ought to be archived at one level are sometimes found at another. It was easy to see why both Karen and Jane recommended NYG&B’s new book, the New York Family History Research Guide and Gazetteer.

Lunch was cool. In her luncheon presentation, Terry Koch-Bostic mentioned my Serendipity in Genealogy series! Thanks, Terry! Terry is such an awesome person, it was a great honor to have her mention me. I see Terry in action on a regular basis and, honestly, I don’t know how she accomplishes all she does for so many organizations and so many people in so short a time. (Go, Terry!)

Terry’s topic was “Intuition and Genealogy Success: A Sixth Sense, Chance, Coincidence, or Serendipity?” She told several touching stories. One rang especially true to me. She told a story in which a white dove brought her and her mother closer to her deceased father. I shed a tear because the exact same thing happened to me and my mother. But you have to understand my father’s humor and playful nature to understand my story. And you have to understand that in his final years, Dad had become an avid bird watcher. Terry experienced a solitary, noble, white dove. My mother and I were walking to a place we often frequented with my father before his passing. It was, perhaps, the first time we had done so. We were weeping a little over that very fact when we were buzzed by an exceptionally low-flying flock of mallards. They quickly settled at our feet onto a newly landscaped, lovely pond. Tears and sadness were startled away with surprise and amusement. It was the perfect mixture of humor and love. It was Dad.

Serendipity: “I Am Not a Son!”

A voice said, "I am not a son."El Stone was just finishing an indexing batch. She was just ready to click the submit button when she distinctly heard a voice.

Indexing is an important activity that anyone can do. Indexing a record makes it possible for a computer to generate record hints in FamilySearch Family Tree. Hints make it possible for you to document your family. Documenting your family makes it possible to find new ancestors in the records that someone, maybe you, indexed. See for more information.