Category Archives: Musings

Great-Grandma Young Wasn’t Always Old (52 Ancestors 13 and 14)

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The mind’s eye can be like a funhouse mirror. You know that there’s a “normal” person standing there, but the reflection is twisted and turned into something not quite real. So it was in my mind’s eye with my great-grandmother Clara (Mason) Young.

Great-grandma Clara (Mason) Young and me. Photo taken in my grandparents' (Stanley and Adah Young Johnson) back yard.

Great-grandma Clara (Mason) Young and me. Photo taken in my grandparents’ (Stanley and Adah Young Johnson) back yard.

My family doesn’t have many ancestral photos. We’re pretty thin in that department until the 1960s when my dad started taking slides and Polaroids. Though I met Grandma Young, I don’t remember her; she died when I was 3. Growing up, there were lots of photos of her. In all of them, she was an old woman with thinning white hair who wore simple dresses. She was usually sitting and often surrounded by her great-grandchildren.

My young brain tried to fill in the gaps and used the information at hand. Great-grandmother + white hair + frail = OLD. When thinking of Grandma Young, my mind’s eye would fill her in as an old woman.

But there’s another photo of Grandma Young, one that sits on a shelf behind my desk. It’s from around 1903, when she married my great-grandfather Robert Young. In this photo, she is anything but old.

Clara (Mason) and Robert Andrew Young. We believe this photo was taken around the time of their wedding in 1903.

Clara (Mason) and Robert Andrew Young. We believe this photo was taken around the time of their wedding in 1903.

Instead of a simple house dress, she’s wearing something stylish. She has a bow in her hair and a brooch on her blouse, Her eyes are big; her hair is thick. She looks determined, yet gentle.

She hadn’t yet experienced the birth of any of her 10 children… nor the loss of a 2-year-old son. She hadn’t yet seen her home swept away in the great flood of 1913. She hadn’t yet moved from town to town as her husband looked for work.

The mind’s eye can play tricks on us. It’s good to get a different view to get a clearer picture.

How Genealogy Is Like Decorating Easter Eggs

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When I was growing up, decorating eggs was my favorite part of Easter. Mom would get out a glass bowl and fill it with cold water. With a little bit of vegetable oil, the food coloring would float on top. (Science!) Add a few drops of red, blue, yellow, and green, and we had our own floating tie-dye pattern.

My sisters and I would take turns dipping the eggs. This wasn’t done willy-nilly. No, we had to examine the swirls on top of the water, maybe blow on it to mix up the colors a little bit more. We’d look at it from different angles, trying to figure out the very best place to submerge the egg.

Every now and then, an egg would turn out exactly how we envisioned it. But more often than not, we’d be surprised at how it ended up. Sometimes we would be pleasantly surprised… and sometimes not. Occasionally, there would be an egg that just wouldn’t turn out at all.

So it is with our genealogy.

We look at our ancestors and we start to dig into their lives, looking through the swirls of records they left behind. We often have ideas about what we’re going to find. We envision them living in a certain place, associating with certain people, engaging in certain activities.

Sometimes we’re right. Sometimes an ancestor will be exactly as we envisioned. But more often than not, we find something surprising. It can be a good surprise or bad surprise. And, occasionally, there are those ancestors that we can’t seem to “decorate” at all.

The afternoons spent coloring Easter eggs with my sisters are some of my favorite childhood memories. We’d laugh, we’d help each other, we’d bicker. Even though the eggs rarely turned out exactly as we envisioned, we enjoyed each other’s company and it was a lot of fun getting there.

Just like genealogy. Our ancestors are rarely exactly who we envision, but we feel more connected in the process. And we have a lot of fun getting there.


Caring for Baby, 1916 Style

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our-babies-booklet-1916Fear is a great motivator for new parents. That’s probably what the Illinois State Board of Health was counting on in 1916 when they published “Our Babies: How To Keep Them Well and Happy – A Booklet for Mothers.” It’s filled with tips that were sure to scare most parents (not to mention scaring readers a century later!)

On Fresh Air:


On the Regularity of Feeding:


And if you ‘re not sure how much to feed your baby, they’ve included this handy chart:


On Registering Your Child’s Birth:

As a genealogist, I applaud Illinois’ push to get parents to record their child’s birth. But, good grief, talk about scare tactics! (Click the image to enlarge it. You’ll want to read every over-the-top caption.)


“The Young Man: I have no birth certificate. The lack of it has been the greatest handicap of my whole life.”

Wow. The only thing that would have made it better would be a panel showing genealogists a hundred years later spitting on his parents’ graves, cursing them for not registering his birth.

You can read “Our Babies: How to Keep Them Well and Happy” and all of its spine-chilling tips on Internet Archive.

10 Ways Your Genealogy Society Might Be Driving Away Visitors

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There’s a secret about attendance at genealogy society meetings. It isn’t enough to get people in the door. You have to get them to come back.

Thumbs downI’ve been to a lot of genealogy society meetings over the years. I mean A LOT of meetings. Large societies, small societies, societies in the country and societies in the city. None of them have reported an overabundance of attendees at their regular meetings.

I’ll be honest. There have been times when I’ve sat in these meetings and thought, “You know, it’s no wonder only a handful of people come here regularly. Who would want to come back?”

Attendance is a recurring issue with some churches. Thom S. Rainer noticed this and did a Twitter survey about why people didn’t make return visits to a church. The top 10 list of responses sounded very familiar to me — and very applicable to genealogical societies. I have seen each of them happen in genealogy societies. I’ve adapted Dr. Rainer’s language and added my own commentary.

1. Having a stand up and greet one another time

Rainer reported that this response surprised him. It surprised me, too, until I thought about it. Think about a time when you’ve been introduced to a new group of people, such as being the new kid in class. Suddenly, all eyes are on you and you’re put on the spot. Who enjoys being in that position? My takeaway: Make people feel welcome without making them feel singled out.

2. Unfriendly members

Who wants to come back to a place where people ignore you or are rude to you?

3. Unsafe/unaccessible area

Rainer reported this as “unsafe or unclean children’s area,” which was a turn-off for attracting families with young children. For genealogy societies, we should evaluate if the meeting places are easily accessible and safe. Are there lots of stairs? Is the parking lot well-lit?  Accessibility could also be looked at in terms of meeting days and times. Is Monday at 3:00pm the most accessible time for people to attend?

4. No place to get information

Don’t assume that people know things like upcoming meetings, special events, or member benefits. Have a clearly-marked area where people can get this information.

5. Bad website

Don’t even get me started on this one. People might not even make it to your meeting if your society has a bad website. All of the basic info should be there, including the address and time of your meetings. I wish I had a dollar for every website that said something like “We meet the 2nd Tuesday of the month at the firehouse.” Uh, which firehouse? What time?

6. Poor signage

You know that the meeting room is up on the 2nd floor at the end of the hall, but new people might not. Make it as easy and painless as possible to find you.

7. Insider language

Don’t lose people with jargon. Rainer’s favorite example was: “The WMU will meet in the CLC in the room where the GAs usually meet.” I’ve heard similar examples at genealogy society meetings. “March 31 is the deadline for SAs for the CPF.” Huh?

8. Boring or bad meetings

Because who wants to come back if the meeting is boring? Do you really need to have an hour-long business meeting every time or do you do it because you’ve always done it that way?

9. Members telling guests that they were in their seat

Hard to believe this happens, but it does.

10. Dirty facilities

I’ve been to meeting spaces where the carpet stains appeared to be a few decades old. It doesn’t make for a welcoming experience.

We don’t like to think of things like clean rooms or unclear signs as keeping people from returning. We certainly don’t like to think of our members as being a source of frustration for new people. However, all of it has an impact.

It’s cliché to say that you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. But you know what? It’s true. Take a good look around at your society. What first impression is it making?

Walking away

Are your first-time visitors walking away and not coming back?

Stories at FGS / RootsTech, or, Why I’m Not Brandishing a Pitchfork

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It’s been almost a week since the end of RootsTech and FGS 2015. After suffering through delayed flights, adjusting back to my own time zone, and battling to keep the pipes in the house from freezing solid, I’ve finally had a chance to put some thoughts together.

(This is beyond the “genealogy conferences as group therapy” thought that I had earlier this week.)

Part of the FGS / RootsTech 2015 Expo Hall. Photo by Amy Crow.

Part of the FGS / RootsTech 2015 Expo Hall. Photo by Amy Crow.

The Stories… and the Pushback

As Randy Seaver pointed out in his FGS/RootsTech recap, there were a LOT of vendors focusing on stories. Even the winner of the Innovator Summit has a product based around recording family stories. (BTW, some people seem to have the wrong impression of StoryWorth. It isn’t recording only via phone calls; that’s just one way to record them. But I digress.)

I heard some pushback while I was in Salt Lake and I’ve seen comments on various social media channels. “That’s not genealogy.” “Where was all of the research stuff?” “You’d think this was a storytelling conference instead of a genealogy conference.”

On The Intrepid Sleuth blog, she (sorry — couldn’t find your name!) stated:

The majority of the tech community seems far more interested in the latest rage, “story capturing”, and are busy developing entertaining, social based, game-like, story capturing and sharing apps that memorialize not the past so much as present day family events. They do not see a market for anything supportive of the serious family researcher. This is sad. What’s even sadder is that the core genealogist community is not up in arms over this. I have a pitchfork, who’s with me?

(Not picking on you, Intrepid Sleuth. Just quoting you because it summed up a lot of what I heard and read during and after the conferences. And I totally agree with you about the need to clean the Salt Palace Convention Center. I’d add that they also need better signage.)

Here’s Why I Don’t Have a Pitchfork

Pitchfork, by Julussugla. Used under Creative Commons license 3.0

Pitchfork, by Julussugla. Used under Creative Commons license 3.0

First, a bit of background. I’ve been “doing” genealogy for a LONG time. I’ve been a Certified Genealogist since 1995. You might call me a “serious” researcher — and you’d be right. I do take my research seriously. But I didn’t start this way.

It started with my grandma’s stories. It evolved as I learned more and wanted to make more discoveries — to learn more about my ancestors than what Grandma knew.

There’s room for a lot of players and a lot of viewpoints in the genealogy world. The finalists in the Innovator Summit included a company that is working on reading handwriting to index old records. There was also a company that wants to match people with research problems with the genealogists who can help solve them.

The exhibit hall was filled with the “big guys” in the genealogy world, right along with “mom and pop” operations with hand-lettered signs. There were high-tech things and there were decidedly low-tech things. There were even things that didn’t specifically relate to genealogy. (I’ll admit right here that I had a serious case of lens envy every time I passed the Nikon booth.) People were visiting all of them.

Not only is there space for everyone, I have a selfish reason for being more than ok with those who focus on stories. I got my start with the family stories and it sparked a passion in me. That passion grew and I learned more and more and have made some wonderful discoveries about my family. I’ve had opportunities to learn from others who have had the same experience. I want more people to get that spark, to feel that sense of wonder and curiosity. Why? Not only because it will make our community stronger, but because perhaps one of them will be a cousin and will want to share those stories with me.

What are your thoughts?

Genealogy Conferences as Group Therapy

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Organizers of genealogy conferences will mislead you. Why they do this, I don’t know. They’ll tell you that the best reasons to come to their event are the education and the networking. Don’t let them fool you. The best reason to go is that it is the best group therapy a genealogist can get.

I just got back from the Federation of Genealogical Societies / RootsTech conferences. It was big. It was crowded. It was noisy. At times, it was insane. And I wouldn’t have missed it.

Before the Thursday keynote at RootsTech/FGS 2015.

Before the Thursday keynote at RootsTech / FGS 2015. (Photo by Amy Crow; all rights reserved.)

Don’t get me wrong. I learned a lot of good genealogical “stuff” last week. From Judy Russell, I learned about federal court records. (Now to find my ancestor’s bankruptcy case…) Tammy Hepps of Treelines inspired me to think about research from a story perspective. (I have to give a shout out to anyone who loves “footnote surfing” as much as I do!)

And there’s also the 1790 marriage record of my 4th-great-grandparents John Douglass and Susannah Howey that I found at the Family History Library. (Score!)

But a genealogy conference is so much more than the knowledge that you gain.

Amy Crow and Amy Coffin, RootsTech, 2015

The Amys, RootsTech / FGS 2015. (Photo by Amy Crow; all rights reserved.)

What stands out to me after every genealogy event I go to are the conversations. I had a great time with several friends over dinner at the Blue Iguana. While there, we basically solved all of the world’s ills and convinced each other that we are not insane. I had some amazing conversations with Amy Coffin of The We Tree Genealogy Blog. (Though that should go without saying. What else would you expect from another librarian, genealogist, and blogger named Amy?!)

There were the random exchanges with those around me as we waiting for sessions to start — or waiting in line for the ladies’ room. (Believe me, we often had plenty of time to talk then!) It was a mix of sharing ideas for research, feeling joy for someone’s latest discovery, and feeling inspired to continue your own journey.

That’s what I think is the greatest benefit of attending a genealogy event in person — it’s the interaction with those who understand us. We can talk about our research and not have the other person’s eyes glaze over. We can do the Genealogy Happy Dance and not have weird looks thrown our way. We can come away feeling inspired…  Inspired not only with ideas for furthering our research, but also inspired that what we do is important.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy webinars. I love a good blog post. But with every conference I go to — whether it is a HUGE conference like RootsTech, or a smaller event like the Ohio Genealogical Society or the Indiana Genealogical Society annual conference — I walk away renewed. Tired, but renewed.

Attending a genealogy conference is one of the best group therapies out there.

Crowd leaving the Thursday keynote, RootsTech/FGS 2015. not every genealogy conference is this big, but you'll find friendly groups at whatever genealogy event you attend.

Crowd leaving the Thursday keynote, RootsTech/FGS 2015. Not every genealogy conference is this big, but you’ll find friendly groups at whatever genealogy event you attend. (Photo by Amy Crow; all rights reserved.)


Are Your Ancestors the Average of 5 Records?

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“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” ~~Jim Rohn

Jeff Goins included this quote in a recent newsletter and it got me thinking. If we are shaped by the people whom we surround ourselves, what about our ancestors? No doubt that they were influenced by other family members and the neighbors.

But what about our perception of our ancestors? What shapes that “sense of identity” that we form about them? Since we can’t speak directly to most of them, we have to rely on the records they left behind.

The question we need to consider is “What records are we surrounding them with?”

The 5 Records

There are 5 basic records that we look for and tend to be the ones we spend the most time with:

  1. Birth record
  2. Marriage record
  3. Death record
  4. Census
  5. Either an obituary or a tombstone

These can be great records. We need to look for them! (I won’t go into why we need to look for our ancestors in every census; I’ll leave that soapbox for another time!) The problem is when we stop with these records.

The Problem With Averages

Averages don’t give a complete picture. They don’t reflect the high points and low points. They don’t show the oddities. They only show the middle ground.

The 5 basic records put together a framework — an average — of that person. But there are so many more records that can fill in the highs and the lows, the everyday facts and the outlier events.

Military. Probate. Church. Court. Newspapers. Diaries. Land. Tax. School. Guardianship. Pension. Institutional. Organization. Business. License. Letters. Each of these — and many more — will add something new to the equation and can change that “average” view that you have.

It’s easy to fall into a rut with your research. Don’t feel bad — it happens to all of us! Take a look around and ask yourself if you’re letting your ancestors be the average of just 5 records. Then ask yourself what will be record #6 and beyond.

Are your ancestors the average of 5 records

Why I’m Declaring 2015 “The Year of Collaterals”

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If there is one thing that blogging in 2014 has taught me — and it has taught me many things! — it’s that I’m good with documenting identities and relationships, but there are definitely holes in knowing the person.  Nowhere is this more evident than in my collateral relatives.

First, Some Definitions

If you want to be technical about it, ancestors are those from whom you descend. Your great-great-grandfather is your ancestor. Your 4th-great-grandmother is your ancestor. Your 4th-great-grandmother’s brother is not. He is a relative, but he’s not your ancestor per se. He’s a collateral.

Why Look at the Collaterals

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve paid attention to those “other” people in my research. There are a few who I have really researched — but usually only so that I could identify my ancestor (like with Susan Tucker Kelley, my orphaned milkmaid). For many, I have recorded their vital stats as I have come across them. But there are few that I’ve really looked at, really explored, really gotten to know.

Think about your siblings and your cousins. Chances are they’ve had an impact on your life (for good or for bad). Whether it’s sibling rivalry or older ones standing up and supporting the younger ones in times of trouble, those people have helped shape who we are. It was the same for our ancestors.

Those “other” people in our family trees had an impact on our ancestors. We often think about our great-grandmothers and what it was like for them to lose a child, but what was it like to lose a sibling? When a great-great-great-uncle went off to war, what did the siblings think? When a sister moved far away with her new husband, how did the siblings who stayed behind react?

Looking at the collaterals beyond the simple recording of their name and birth date that we grabbed off the census also gives us a chance to learn more about the whole family. Learning their story can help us better understand the people from whom we descend.

2015: The Year of the Collaterals

This year, I’m going to focus my research on the collaterals, those “other” people in the family tree. I want to get to know them. I want to know more than just when and where they were born. I want to learn their stories.

Ok, there’s also a part of me that hopes that I discover more about my ancestors in the process 😉

Ideally, I should have been doing this all along. I’m thinking of this as my own version of Thomas MacEntee’s Genealogy Do-Over. (I’m just not willing/able to chuck everything that I have and start all over!)

Regarding 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks, I’ve encouraged people all along to define “ancestors” however they want. Some have done strictly ancestors, other have included collaterals, some even included their inlaws (gasp!). In 2014, I included only my ancestors, but 2015 will feature a mix.

Our family trees are made of more than just those people from whom we descend. Their stories helped shape our ancestors’ stories. That’s why I want to know more about them.


5 Things I Learned While Blogging in 2014

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2014 was quite a year. I wrote more than I had in recent years, met some wonderful bloggers, and dug into more of my research. I also learned quite a bit while blogging. Here are 5 things I learned while blogging in 2014:

5. Blogging Is a Lot Like Exercising

You know how they say that when you want to start exercising more, it works best to tell your friends so that they’ll hold you accountable? That’s how the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Challenge got started. I wanted to blog more regularly, so I set myself a goal of writing about one ancestor per week. I thought, “Hey, if I announce this on my blog, I’ll be more accountable for doing it.” Let’s just say it worked.

4. Genealogy Bloggers Are Incredibly Supportive

When the 52 Ancestors challenge took off in January 2014, I had no idea how popular it would become. In the early months, I compiled a weekly recap. I added the participating blogs to my Feedly reader and copied the links to the 52 Ancestors posts from the previous week. (Being the librarian that I am, I had to put them in alphabetical order.) When it got to be too much – regularly taking several hours each week – I had to decide what to do. Everyone was very supportive when I had to go to the current format of publishing a recap post and participants leaving links in the comments. It was a hard decision, but it was one I needed to make. I appreciate everyone’s support and understanding.

3. Cousin Bait Works

I found several cousins in 2014. Rather, they found me thanks to my blog posts. Think you need to wait until you know everything about ancestor to blog about them? Think again. Write up what you have. You never know when a cousin out there will see it and help fill in the gaps.

2. Calendars Are Wonderful Things

Having been an editor of several genealogy society periodicals, I know the value of a good editorial calendar. They keep you on track. Unfortunately, I didn’t follow my own “best practice” before I went to Europe back in June. I intended on getting the posts for those 2 weeks written and scheduled before I left, but… And once I fell behind, I never got caught up again. (Which is why I posted my last 10 ancestors in the last 2 weeks of the year :(

1. Writing About Your Ancestors Is an Incredible Research Tool

Where will this keyboard take me in 2015?

Where will this keyboard take me in 2015?

Ok, this one’s cheating a bit, since I already knew it. But 2014 absolutely drove home this point. This is nothing like writing about an ancestor – even writing about one specific aspect or event in his or her life – to help you see where the holes in your research are. Suddenly you’re faced with the fact that you’ve never found them in all of their censuses or you don’t have his World War I draft record. You also get lots of new ideas for places to look. Don’t think of writing as something you do when your research is “done.” Think of it as another research tool.

What did blogging teach you in 2014?

Am I Here Because of Dried Beef? (Joseph Dickinson – 52 Ancestors #41)

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There are some family stories that are so “out there” that you easily dismiss them. Then there are the stories that you desperately want to be true…

Joseph Dickinson, my 6th-great-grandfather, came to America around 1725.1)Alexander Harris, A History of Lancaster County (Lancaster, PA: Elias Barr, 1872), p. 160. In 1732, he married Elizabeth Miller in the Kennett Monthly Meeting in Chester County, Pennsylvania.2)Joseph Dickinson and Elizabeth Miller marriage, Kennett Monthly Meeting marriages 1718-1821, page 56, U.S., Quaker Meeting Records, 1681-1935, Together, Joseph and Elizabeth had nine children, including my 5th-great-grandfather Gaius Dickinson (born in 1737).3)Gaius Dickinson, Genealogy of Berks, Exeter Monthly Meeting, p. 62, U.S., Quaker Meeting Records, 1681-1935,

That part is pretty well documented. (Thank you, Quakers, for being awesome record keepers!) It’s this next part of Joseph’s story that is a bit lacking in documentation. According to A Biographical History of Lancaster County by Alexander Harris (Elias Barr & Co., 1872):

Dickinson, Joseph, emigrated to this country from Cumberland, England, by way of Ireland, about the year 1725. The ship on which he came a passenger having struck upon a rock, causing it to leak so rapidly that it was impossible to keep the vessel afloat, and was about given up as lost, and the passengers were preparing to meet their fate, when Joseph Dickinson volunteered to go down under the water, on the outside of the ship, and stop the leak, which hazardous undertaking he accomplished by inserting pieces of dried beef in the crevices.4)Alexander Harris, A History of Lancaster County (Lancaster, PA: Elias Barr, 1872), p. 160.

Shipwreck, by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1854. From WikiArt.

Shipwreck, by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1854. From WikiArt.

I know how tales get taller as they go on. I know that it’s more likely that Joseph’s ship did have some trouble, maybe even with a crack, and that Joseph (or some other ingenious soul) repaired it. But diving into the water to fill the cracks of a sinking ship with dried beef? My head tells me it likely isn’t true, but I have to admit that I wish it were. Talk about an great story!

And let’s think about this for a moment. For the sake of argument, let’s say that it is true that Joseph saved the ship in the manner described. That occurred around 1725. He didn’t marry until 1732. He didn’t have my 5th-great-grandfather until 1737. If Joseph’s ship had sunk, he wouldn’t have made it to America, wouldn’t have met and married Elizabeth Miller, and my 5th-great-grandfather wouldn’t have been born…

Is it possible that I owe my very existence to dried beef?

References   [ + ]

1, 4. Alexander Harris, A History of Lancaster County (Lancaster, PA: Elias Barr, 1872), p. 160.
2. Joseph Dickinson and Elizabeth Miller marriage, Kennett Monthly Meeting marriages 1718-1821, page 56, U.S., Quaker Meeting Records, 1681-1935,
3. Gaius Dickinson, Genealogy of Berks, Exeter Monthly Meeting, p. 62, U.S., Quaker Meeting Records, 1681-1935,