Students in a free genealogy class at a Sacramento, California library used historic fire insurance maps to walk through their community's 19th-century history without leaving the classroom, according to this story in the Sacramento Bee.
Instructor Melinda Kashuba said these maps are "obscure resource that can let a person's mind wander down the streets of their forebears," and that researchers can learn a lot about the lives of their ancestors.
Here's an example, above left; for the larger image, see below.
These maps indicate schools, churches, businesses and more. All provide additional leads for researchers, according to Kashuba.
An 1898 map of North Bloomfield shows that the area between Main Street and a nearby creek was where Chinese workers lived.
A map of Truckee from the late 19th century said the area between a hillside and West Main Street was lined with "female boarding houses," or brothels, Kashuba said.
Mapmakers had noted that a brewery in Mokelumne Hill was lit by candles and had no night watchman, making it a poor insurance risk, she said.
What makes me even happier - in addition to teaching beginners how to use these maps - is that the class was part of the library's free genealogy program. Future classes will focus on finding New England ancestors and researching church records
The fire insurance maps - a main publisher was the Sanborn Map Co. (Pelham, New York) - were printed 1860-1940, and provided insurance companies data to determine fire risks of buildings and neighborhoods, without having to send an underwriter on a personal visit. The maps were the equivalent of today's Google views.
Today's family history researchers see varying attitudes among their own children.
Some are disappointed and say their children have no interest at all in this journey of discovery; while others can point to an early curiosity in their children.
How can we encourage our children, regardless of their age, toddlers through young adults? Are there classes for kids? What techniques are available?
Instill in each child, grandchild, and great-grandchild a sense of their own family heritage. Share those family stories, the good and the bad of your own childhood. No matter how young, teach them, show them; remember that they are the future, for you, for me, for genealogy.(Page 2, Winter 2009 Newsletter, Young Genealogists Association)
One program that has drawn much attention is the annual Kid's Family History Camp, associated with the Southern California Genealogical Society's annual Jamboree conference and in conjunction with the Youth Genealogists Association. More than 150 people attended the 2009 kids' camp, which featured such topics as creating and preserving your family history, genealogy games, family history storytelling, genealogy merit badge, genealogy art and more.
The program is free and open to the public, for boys and girls ages 8-16. Pre-registration is required and space is limited. This year, the program runs from 9am-noon, on Friday, June 11, Jamboree's opening day, at the Los Angeles Marriott Burbank Hotel and Convention Center (Burbank, California).
The SCGS program is also designed for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts who are working on obtaining their genealogy badges. See badge requirements here. The camp is also a resource for students working on class "roots" assignments.
Students planning to attend should download a pedigree chart and a family group sheet and complete it as best they can.
For more information on this special program, and to download the various forms, click here.
I spent many hours as a high school and college student in the famous lion-guarded New York Public Library, researching term papers on the use of music in Shakespeare's plays and other less esoteric topics.
During one of many visits, I picked up a dust-covered book - the title now forgotten. Out fell a postcard photo of a blue-eyed soldier. I immediately recognized him as my grandfather Sidney (Szaje) Fink as a young man, when he served in the Jewish Legion's 39th Royal Fusiliers in Mandate Palestine, 1914-1917.
According to the card's inscription and address, he had sent the card to his sister Dora in New York City.
I had not yet developed a sense of family history, just a sense of returning that which didn't belong to me, so I replaced the card in the book and re-shelved it. Today, I realize this was misguided.
When I reached home, I told my mother who called my grandfather and told him the story. Everyone asked why I hadn't brought home the card as it clearly belonged to us. Fortunately, another relative had a duplicate photo. Perhaps this incident helped point me to genealogy.
Our Brooklyn basement held all kinds of treasures stored over the years. One rainy weekend, I looked through an interesting box or two and discovered my grandparents' ketubah (Jewish wedding contract). I ran upstairs to show my mother, then returned it to the - of course - unmarked box, as it clearly belonged to my grandparents.
By now, you probably realize that I never found it again. I wish I had it today. Who was it that said, "Youth is wasted on the young," or "Experience is something you learn after you need it" ? Was this another step along discovery road?
Perhaps the most dramatic incident concerns the 300-year-old Talalay family history brought from Mogilev, Belarus by one of the last young relatives to leave for America. I l first heard about it while tracking down older relatives who had mentioned it. Eventually, a small handful of people were located who had seen it and touched its pages in the 1950s.
The man was living in Florida and, on occasion, had shown it to visiting family, although his own daughters had never seen it. Fortunately, some relatives who had seen it were artists, and they described in detail unusual calligraphied pages, some ancient, in various languages and scripts, large pages bound in a sort of album. Each of the relatives repeated what the man had told them, "This is 300 years of our family."
When he died, the album disappeared, probably a result of someone cleaning up by just throwing everything out. Later, the younger daughter said she had never seen it. The elder daughter, who might have known something, had been in a nursing home for years and could not communicate.
My cousin Victor Talalay, who recently died in Toronto, and I had collaborated for more than a decade trying to reconstruct our family history, and we spoke frequently on our great sadness regarding this lost priceless collection. We knew we would never be able to completely reconstruct it, but during the time we worked together we obtained many archival documents, including hundreds of records from the National Historical Archives in Minsk, Belarus.
Over the years, various hidden treasures have come to light for other families in other places,. In 2002, an 1811 letter written by Thomas Jefferson to his cabinet secretary was found in a Massachusetts attic. The secretary's distant cousin had died in the home, necessitating a detailed estate inventory. Other documents, including the valuable letter, were located.
Here are some suggestions to keep in mind if you are ever in charge of clearing out the home or apartment of a deceased relative, or you are asked to help an elderly relative move to a retirement or nursing home. Checking the dusty corners of a large home or a small apartment may unearth family treasures which may otherwise be lost forever.
Remember that individuals who suffer from senility, or Alzheimer's, tend to hide things in improbable places. Those with ordinary "packrat" family members have the same searching job. People who grew up during the American Depression or were refugees or Holocaust survivors may have had the habit of hiding valuables, "just in case." Allow sufficient time to do a proper search, or you may throw out valuable family history.
*Look everywhere, behind and under things, on tops of closets and in corners.
*Look for greeting cards, photographs, family documents hidden in old books or between old tablecloths.
*Anyone who has ever changed a light switch knows there is a handy-dandy little space back there that can hold jewelry.
*All old handbags and briefcases should be searched.
*Clothing, in closets or in drawers, could contain important items hidden in pockets or linings.
*Stories abound of people hiding valuable jewelry in the linings of window curtains or long-stored coats.
*Those famous shoeboxes on bedroom closet shelves are always a place to look for photographs, currency, documents.
*Check seat cushions and pillows of furniture - those with zippers have easily accessible hiding places.
*Do look under large rugs. While the edges might have been moved for periodic cleaning, it is possible the larger rugs were not completely moved, and something is under there.
*See a large pendulum clock on the wall or a Grandfather-type floor clock? Open it and look inside, lots of space for little items.
*Check between mattresses and box springs, inside pillows.
*Look at the backs of paintings and mirrors on the walls.
*Old trunks and suitcases may have markings of previous travels or hold other family treasures.
*Always look through old books before discarding them. Hold them upside down and fan the pages. Check front and back covers for handwritten notes. Everything and anything could have been used for a bookmark.
*Religious books, such as Bibles and prayer books, could contain notes on important family happenings.
*Kitchen canisters of flour or sugar might hold interesting items.
*Check covered sugar bowls and teapots.
*Check the freezer for valuable items hidden in containers or plastic baggies inside frozen food boxes. I once put jewellery in a frozen vegetable box in the back of my freezer because I couldn't get to our safety deposit box one day. Yes, it was silly - thieves don't go through your frozen green peas, or do they? - but I couldn't just leave it around. I remembered to remove mine the next day. Your relative may have left it there years ago!
*Remove drawers from dressers and turn them over to see if documents might have been attached, or items have fallen into the bottom of furniture. Check the backs of furniture.
*In the bedroom, check jewellery box linings for things that might have been slipped inside.
*Check vases. I once knew someone who threw spare change and other items into a large vase on the table in the entry of her home.
*In these hi-tech days, and the increasing percentage of seniors with computer access, consider checking CD cases.
If and when you do find something of interest, document where you found it, how you found it and store it properly so it doesn't get lost again. If the items are documents and photographs, make working photocopies or photographic negatives, and store the originals in a safe place in acid-free, archival folders. "Safe place" here means a place where it can be located again. How many of us have put an important items in a safe place - so safe that we never found it again?
If you have suggestions to add concerning places to look, have made some surprising discoveries or have other comments, I look forward to reading them.
If we are very lucky, we may discover an ancestor has recorded a large family tree, or we have a famous relative and someone has already written the definitive family history book.
Everyone else starts at the beginning.
I knew virtually nothing about my family when I began, but I hungered for more details: Who were my ancestors? Where did they come from? When and why did they immigrate?
You likely have the same questions and the same desire to know more, so here are some tips to getting started:
1. Begin with what you know. Start with yourself; add your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. Record maiden names of the women, and as much information as you can on other members, including places and dates of birth, marriage, death. Capitalize the SURNAME and write all dates in a clear format, such as the recommended 1 December 1920, which cannot be mistaken for a different month or year.
2. Preserve your family stories and traditions. Such stories may have changed over the years, but the kernel of truth is somewhere. Write down all family stories no matter how fanciful they may seem to you or other family members.
3. Interview family members and share information to spur recollection of memories. An African proverb says when an old person dies, it is as if a library has burned down. Talk to senior family members, as they are the keepers of family facts. As you share information, you may discover a kindred spirit among your cousins and become research partners.
4. Collect family photos and documents. Gather documents for births, marriages, deaths; locate photographs, letters, diaries, newspaper articles and religious articles, such as family bibles. Label the photographs you find or ask senior relatives about the people in them.
5. Join a genealogy society. Your local society has a library of reference materials, offers meetings with interesting speakers, and its members range from beginners through professional genealogists.
6. Keep a journal of your quest. It might become part of your family's story in a generation or two.
7. Begin your family tree. Enter the information you've gathered into family tree software, such as the user-friendly Family Tree Builder here on MyHeritage.com.
8. Expand your search. With the information you've gathered, you're ready to hunt for more and begin to travel the information highway in your quest.
Future articles will address many of these topics.
We must seem somewhat strange to others who have not yet caught the genealogy "bug."
Investigative skills are something we need to acquire. We analyze and dissect clues as we piece together the most complicated puzzles.
We learn to analyze like psychologists, understand history like historians, read maps like navigators, and our communication skills begin to rival therapists and psychiatrists as we persuade reluctant or senior family members to share their important knowledge.
Out of necessity, we become cryptographers, graphologists and paleographers to decipher illegible documents, signatures, misspellings, ancient handwritings and learn about Creative Spelling 101 to assist our online database searches.
We become writers, hone the hunting skills of scoop-sniffing reporters and prime-time interviewers. We learn to read other alphabets and, bit by bit, learn the essential vocabulary of genealogy in other languages as we gather linguistic skills. At the least, we learn more than we knew previously.
As we are compelled to organize our increasing material, we earn an MS in "more stuff," a PhD in "piled higher and deeper," a degree in librarianship in our spare time - if we knew what that was.
To decipher the clues in old photographs, we need to study historical costumes and interiors, as well as conservation techniques as we learn how to store valuable photographs and documents
When we organize our complex research trips to repositories, conferences and the "old country" to take those domestic and international journeys down discovery road, we'll need to become travel agents.
As we begin to drown in papers and need to store them, architecture, space planning and construction studies will be helpful. Records, papers, books, photographs and equipment will certainly outgrow the kitchen table, the dining room table and every horizontal surface, including the floor !
We haven't even touched the ever-changing technological revolution in genealogy including hardware and software innovations, which may present learning curve problems to the non-technies.
On the other hand, I don't know of any genealogist, amateur or professional, who would give up the frequently challenging and ultimately rewarding achievements of a complicated search.
(Adapted from the author's column, "It's All Relative: Gotta have skills.")