Journals and diaries are excellent resources for family history research.
Don't you wish your ancestors had recorded their daily lives and thoughts in a format that has come down to you as a treasured keepsake through the centuries?
I know someone whose ancestor left a journal written several hundred years ago. The writer describes the family's everyday life in difficult new surroundings, how they celebrated holidays, the writer's wishes for her descendants far in the future and much more. It is as if the writer knew it would be treasured and passed down through the generations, as it has been. It is a priceless heirloom.
Put yourself in the shoes of a great-grandchild who finds your journal. What do you think will interest him or her? What is happening in your life now that you want future generations to know about? Do you want to include advice for future generations?
Do you patiently spell it several times? Will you, as I often do, spell it out as in "D as in David, A as in Apple, R as in Robert".........
Do you break the name down into syllables for the other person? Do you give up and say, "Call me by my first name!"
People look at DARDASHTI and their eyes glaze over. "Is that two Ds and two As?" asks the person on the phone or in a store. I usually break it into three syllables: Dar-dash-ti. For TALALAY, strangers usually put the accent on the wrong syllable, and say Tah-LAY-lee, instead of TAH-lah-lie. To confuse matters, one family branch uses TALALAY in English, but pronounces it Tah-la-lay.
Researchers often dream of being locked up in a library, where we would have all the time in the world to enjoy those resources.
Since we don't usually get the chance to have unlimited access to such facilities, another interesting activity is to be at a conference attended by several hundred librarians.
Daniel Horowitz - Genealogy and Translation Manager at MyHeritage.com - and I were at the Association of Jewish Libraries conference in Seattle, Washington.
On the first day, we met with people from around the US and those who had traveled from other countries. Attendees were from public libraries, universities, schools, archives and many other organizations and institutions.
The recently concluded Southern California Genealogical Society's 41st Jamboree presented numerous such sessions.
Sometimes there are sessions at which the proverbial lightbulb switches on. Such essential knowledge is transmitted that the participants then find it difficut to look at their own individual family histories in quite the same way as before.
All of us have family stories that might be termed myths. How can we determine whether a story may be fact or fiction?
A fascinating session on just this topic was given by Jean Wilcox Hibben. With a PhD in folkore, an MA in speech communication, and a Certified Genealogist, Jean is president of both the Corona (California) Genealogical Society and the Southern California chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists, Genealogical Speakers Guild secretary and much more.
I have to admit that some of my own recent research is not as organized as it could be, due to lack of time. There are notes on loose papers not yet in the correct folder or binder. There are photographs waiting to be sorted. There are miscellaneous printed emails that I understand - would anyone else?
Although beginning researchers might not think about this important topic, it is essential to address at every stage of research.
What will happen to your research if you become ill or worse? Will it be just thrown away? Will close family or other relatives understand what your work represents and its value?
This is a very personal topic for me as our family lost a 300-year-old family tree brought by one of the last family members to arrive from Belarus to the US in the early 1900s. He died in Florida in the 1950s and neither of his children were there. Everything in the house, including our priceless family history, was simply thrown away.
No matter how much research I do, the information contained in that tree will be impossible to replace in its entirety. It was compiled by those who lived that history and who knew much more than I can ever learn.
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.
It's Wednesday morning. Do you know where your family's file is?
My good friend Dan Leeson - a genealogist with Eastern European roots - is also a retired IBM executive, a Mozart scholar, a clarinetist and author.
Some time ago he wrote a funny piece that should be required reading for all new family history researchers as well as those more experienced. With his permission, here it is. Make yourself comfortable and settle down:
When I began to took for my roots, I was absolutely convinced that my family's file was out there somewhere, that it contained ail of my history in all branches, and all I had to do was find out where it was located; that is, genealogy was the finding and digesting of a complete, already-created file that was all about my family.
I envisioned armies of government workers (Department of Commerce?) preparing my file as I headed towards and through puberty, and now that I was old enough to have this intense interest in where I came from, my file was there waiting for me. It would inform me of my great-grandmother's maiden name (which my mother never really knew), and the exact spelling of the original family name of my grandfather (which my father never really knew), and answer those thousand questions that would enable me to know who I was and how did I get here. Best of all, this file would document in considerable detail, the travels of all of my ancestors from the year one, maybe even earlier. Who's got my file, please? Would whoever has it please notify me by Tuesday next? Would that inconvenience anyone?
So I started my genealogical quest by presuming the existence of such a file and this made my search very easy. I would keep asking where all my data was and never have to bother with actually researching it. I went to the New York Public Library and asked if they had my file. They didn't.Then I tried several other prestigious libraries and archives in the New York City area. Same result. Perhaps I'm asking the wrong questions. It's kind of like trying to locate a misplaced library book.
Of course, there was no Internet then, only mail. So I sent out hundreds of letters asking everyone if they knew where my file was. It would be easy to spot. My great-grandmother died in Poland sometime after World War I, and I think my grandfather was from Sidzun, Lithuania, or maybe it was Radviliskis: I'm not sure. But he had red hair, of that I am certain. All good data, of course; no silly family stories and other stuff like dates and precise locations. Just solid evidence like red hair. But despite this wealth of heavy-duty documentation, no one seemed to have my file. Did the Department of Commerce spend all that taxpayer money to make a file on me only to have it lost by some careless person?
One day, in the New York Public, I met a woman who was doing her genealogy and wow, did she have a file! It was a foot thick and wandered through the Middle Ages with the same ease that I wandered through a meal at my favorite French restaurant. So I asked her where she found her file (mine would be bigger and more impressive of course, because I'm sure that there was royalty in my family) and she looked at me as if I had asked her where to find a size 19 bustle frame.
"What on earth are you talking about?" she said graciously, full of the warmth and charm of one who likes neither to be disturbed nor strangers who interrupt her work. "This file has taken me 23 years to put together. Every scrap of paper in it was lovingly found by me. What is it with you? Do you really think that someone has done your genealogy for you? You have to do it yourself, you dweeb!"
I smiled condescendingly at her jolly but intemperate outburst. Clearly she did not understand the problem. "Of course," I said. "I know that I have to do it, and that is exactly what I .aw trying to dr. By locating my fife, I am doing my genealogy. When I find it, I will then be in a state of having done my genealogy. It will all be there, and my genealogy will have been both found and completed by the act of finding the file. "Then I can go on to something else in life, like collecting stamps, shoeing horses, or learning how to make those little roses of red butter-cream icing that go on birthday cakes."
"I am being accosted by a crazy!" screamed the lady, causing armies of librarians to say 'Ssshhhh.' "I have the misfortune to be in the presence of a class A, gold-medal, deranged mind. There is no file on you, Mr. Dopey-In-The-Head. All there is about you and your family in the world consists of little remnants of what your ancestors left as they passed through this mortal coil." (Now that lady had a flair for language. "Mortal coil" is hot stuff. I must use that some time.)
"What do you mean?" I said.
"You imbecile, you! Let me explain in short words, since you seem to have trouble absorbing abstract ideas. Four hundred years ago, one of your ancestors, a tinsmith by trade, made a pot that he sold in the central market in Erfurt, Germany, at a price that was considered by the buyer to be way too high. Your ancestor was sued by the buyer and taken to court. The court record (Volume 5,24, page 361, subfolio CIX, city of Erfurt, now located in the federal archives in Berlin) recorded his name, the name of the suing party, and the price of the pot as well as the fact that your ancestor was found guilty of price gouging and spent one month in the slammer."
"I don't want that information," I said. "I want his birth certificate, full name, name of wife (including maiden name), date of death, death certificate, plus the names of all his children as well as the full names of all their spouses. That's what I want. What do I care about a lawsuit in 1595? And besides, no one in my family was ever in, as you indelicately put it, 'the slammer'! I'll have you know that we are all descended from kings and dukes and stuff like that."
"You better start learning to love the kind of information that is out there," said my new-found friend, "because that is what you will get if you are very fortunate. Besides, birth and death certificates are a relatively new invention."
Genealogy is a detective show.
Those who research their families utilize all the skills of detectives in rooting out the histories of their families, skeletons, scandals and all.
In addition to becoming computer proficient to access resources around the world, we must learn to read old handwriting, how to recognize our names in their original alphabets and original spellings, how to find the kernel of truth in family stories and separate that truth from the myth or the embellishment of centuries.
Some genealogists might say that if something is too easy, a second look may be in order - to check the facts.
We read up on history and how world events impacted our families. We learn about religious customs, traditions and histories in different countries to understand how those events may have impacted our ancestors and influenced their lives, leading to early or later immigration. To understand how our ancestors moved around - and they really did move! - we learn about transportation in historical periods - wagons, trains, boats or foot power.
Why did our ancestors immigrate to or later settle in a specific location? Did they follow a trade centered in that city, such as textiles or iron working? City histories help us understand why certain industries developed those towns. As one example, perhaps it was because of a specific natural resources, such as a high-quality special clay used in porcelain china production in certain UK and German towns.
I must admit that history was not one of my best subjects in school. Why did I have to learn all those dates and obscure names? What use was it to me?
This all changed when I caught the genealogy bug. I found myself reading - inhaled is a better word - everything I could discover about the places my ancestors lived. Immediately, that old, dull history became very personal - everything that happened in that place happened to my ancestors, and I needed to learn all about it to understand how they lived and worked.
I will never forget the first day I saw Talalay in its original Cyrillic (Russian) and then the first time I read it on a New York passenger arrival manifest. While I knew the basics of our history, really seeing the family name on an official historical document finally made my ancestors real. Yes, they did live in that place - the record proved it. Yes, they arrived in New York City on a certain day - the arrival record proved it.
Each piece of the puzzle - for that is exactly what genealogy is - fits together to form a picture of our ancestors and their descendants. Each should fit neatly into the next but sometimes there are gaps in the puzzle and we are encouraged once again to find the missing pieces.
The skills we use for this search are the same skills that are used by detectives, historians, anthropologists, the police and other investigative agencies. The Internet provides many resources to help us, from teaching us how to read German black Gothic handwriting to providing online translation services, from providing images of small towns in Hungary or Spain to offering lists of those buried in ancient cemeteries around the world.
But researchers have to start somewhere to find the puzzle pieces.
If you are new to this game, here are a few basic tips for getting started (other postings give more detailed methods):
Talk to your oldest relatives and record what they say. Interview all your relatives about what they know about the family history; ask about old documents they may have, including photographs (every family has one of those boxes!), even those unlabeled.
Ask about the basics, but also ask about skeletons in the family closet. Always listen carefully if a relative says, "Well, you won't believe this, but this is what the family has always said...."
Many researchers have followed these clues to fascinating discoveries. In our family, generations have said Talalay was our name when we left Spain, and no one believed our Mogilev, Belarus family had Sephardic roots from Spain. However, we've unearthed documents (1353,1394 in Catalunya) that seem to confirm Talalya as the original name.
Once you have the basics, visit a nearby genealogy library or begin online research to access records for census, voting, military service, immigration, birth, marriage and death records - all of these (and more) will begin to put together a picture of your family.
Organize a family website on MyHeritage.com to record your data and to share information and photographs with family branches around the world.
The journey down Discovery Road is a lot of fun - you never know whom you might meet around the world or what information you may find. Remember that every detail you uncover adds to the bigger picture and to your family. Each item you record preserves information and helps you transmit it to future generations. Family history connects the past to the future and you are part of it.
I recently read about one researcher who commented on finding skeletons in the family closet. If you find them, "take them out and let them dance."
Have you discovered new branches on your personal Discovery Road? What unusual experiences have you encountered? How has your family reacted to your search for roots? I'd like to read your comments about your own experiences.