Websites and Apps for Local History: The Recap from RootsTech

Best Websites and Apps for Finding Local HistoryHere is a list of links of all of the websites, apps, and individual accounts that I mentioned in my RootsTech presentation “Best Websites and Apps for Finding Local History.”




  • Note: the iOS and Android apps are available from links on this page


  • Note: the iOS and Android apps are available from links on this page


Library, Archives, and Museum Websites

I was thrilled that RootsTech streamed and recorded my session. You can watch it below:

You can find links to all of the recorded sessions on the RootsTech website. You can watch all of them for free!

You can also download the RootsTech syllabus. The one for my session is under “RootsTech 2390.)

finding local history - twitter

Know Your Archives Websites

Have you ever talked with a genealogy buddy about an archives website that you both love… and 3 minutes into the conversation you realize you’re talking about two different websites? There are some websites that have similar names or URLs and it can be confusing. Here’s a handy guide to help you sort out which archives site is which.

Know Your Archives Websites National Archives and Records Administration (U.S.)

This is the agency that houses all those cool records from the Federal government, like Civil War pension files.

Not to be confused with: The National Archives (U.K.)

This is the agency that houses all those cool government records in the UK.

Then there’s: Internet Archive

The Wayback Machine, digitized books, and a gazillion other neat things. They are a non-profit organization, not a government agency. (Note: there’s no S in their URL.)

And finally… Archives

Archives is a subscription website which started in 2009 and purchased by Ancestry in 2012.

Know Your Archives Websites - twitter

5 Things You Can Do in Genealogy When You’re Short on Time

“What family history tasks could a busy person do if they have irregular 15-minute time chunks?” Devon Noel Lee of A Patient Genealogist recently asked me that great question. As much as all of us would love to spend uninterrupted days on end exploring our family history, reality is much closer to “I have 15 minutes before my next appointment. What can I do now?” Here are 5 things you can do to be productive.

1. Scan and Label Photographs

No, you’re not going to scan and label all of your photographs in this time. But those that you do in that 15 minutes are more than you had done before! (Check out my post on how to label as you scan.)

2. Transcribe a Document

Transcribing a document is a great way to get more out of your research. You’ll pick up clues that go unnoticed when you’re just scanning “for the good stuff.” Even if you don’t get all the way through it in 15 minutes or you get stuck on a few words, it’s often enough time for a good first pass through.

3. Record a Memory

We get so focused on the past that we sometimes forget that we are our family history. Our stories and memories count every bit as much as the one’s we’re trying to save of our ancestors. (Stuck trying to think of a topic? FamilySearch has a list of 58 questions to get you started.)

4. Do a Census Search

I bet there is someone in your family tree right now who you don’t have all of their census records. Go find some. (This works best if you have a current to-do list, so that you can keep track of what you’ve searched for and what you haven’t.)

5. Add to Your To-Do List

This seems counter-productive, but it actually helps in the long run. Having a good to-do list –whether you keep in on paper, in your genealogy software, a spreadsheet, or Evernote — helps keep our thoughts and our efforts organized. Brainstorm about a genealogy problem you have and the resources you want to explore. Once you have a list, you can use that as starting point when you have a spare 15 minutes to work in. (“Hmmm, I need to explore land records for great-great-grandpa.” Then you can spend your 15 minutes looking on FamilySearch to see if they are online or on microfilm, and preparing for when you have a longer stretch of time to actually use the records.) It’s all in the preparation.

What genealogy-related things do you do when you have only 15 minutes to work on it? Leave a comment below — I’d love to hear your suggestions!



A Growing Source for Free Genealogy: Digital Public Library of America

What’s better than a website that gives access to more than 11 million digitized items? A website that does it for free. That’s just what the Digital Public Library of America does. DPLA is constantly growing and fast becoming a “must visit” website for free genealogy resources.

What Is the Digital Public Library of America?

dplaDPLA is a project involving more than 1,600 libraries, archives, and museums across the U.S. They range from the big ones, like the Smithsonian and the New York Public Library, all the way to the little ones, like the Starke County (Indiana) Historical Society. Together, these libraries have contributed more than 11 million digitized items, such as photographs, books, newspapers, posters, and diaries.

Did I mention it’s free?

DPLA doesn’t have just an index of the items. It has links to where you can find the items online. If you find it on DPLA, there will be a link to the image. Just look for the “View Object” link and it will take you right to it.

Finding Hidden Gems

One of the neat things about DPLA is that you can find items in places that you wouldn’t think to look. Would you think to look in the Tennessee State Library & Archives for a letter from someone in the 7th Ohio Cavalry? It wouldn’t be my first place to look, that’s for sure. But a simple search on DPLA turned up this gem.

It also turns up items that you likely won’t find in a regular Google search.

What to Look for

Look for things that you would look for in any library. Don’t limit yourself to just searching for your ancestor’s name. Think about:

  • Where your ancestor lived
  • Events in his/her life
  • Organizations (fraternal, military, etc.)
  • Occupations
  • Religion

You never know what you’ll find!

Here’s a short video to introduce you to using DPLA:

DPLA is a site that you’ll want to add to your list of “regular” websites for your genealogy. Give it a try and let me know what you discover!


What Did Your Civil War Ancestor Look Like?

If you weren’t lucky enough to have inherited your Civil War ancestor’s photo, there are still ways to find what he looked like — or at least get a physical description. Here are 4 sources you should look for.

1. Compiled Military Service Record

Even if you didn't inherit a photo of your Civil War ancestor, there are several sources you can use to find his physical description.

James Malone, 6th West Virginia Infantry, Compiled Military Service Record. Image from Fold3. (Click to enlarge.)

The Compiled Military Service Record recaps the person’s time while they were in the service (Union or Confederate). They are usually several pages long, mostly the person’s entries on the company’s bi-monthly muster rolls. There can also be pages that include a physical description, including something called a Descriptive Roll, which is just like it sounds — a roll of the members of the regiment and their physical descriptions.

From James V. Malone’s Compiled Military Service Record, we learn that he had gray eyes, sandy hair, a fair complexion and was 5′ 8″ tall.

If your ancestor was discharged due to disability (injury or sickness), his CMSR might contain a copy of the Surgeon’s Certificate of Disability for Discharge, which usually contains a physical description. Thomas Duff was discharged from the 7th Kentucky Infantry; he was described as 5′ 7 1/2″ tall, dark complexion, black eyes, and dark hair.

Even if you didn't inherit a photo of your Civil War ancestor, there are several sources you can use to find his physical description.

Thomas Duff, 7th Kentucky Infantry, Certificate of Disability. Image from Fold3. (Click to enlarge.)

Some Compiled Military Service Records are available on Fold3. If the state your ancestor served from has only the index available there (like Ohio or Indiana), you’ll have to contact the National Archives and order a copy from them.

2. Pension Files

Besides some awesome biographical information that they often contain, Civil War pension files often contain a physical description of the veteran. There can be transcripts of the regiment’s descriptive rolls and copies of the surgeon’s certificate of disability. There can also be the records of a physician’s examination. These were done when the veteran needed to prove that his disability was substantial and that it was related to his service.

Be warned. Some of these physician’s records can be… shall we say…. detailed. You might learn things about your ancestor’s physical condition and his anatomy that you really didn’t want to know. (That awkward moment when you’re reading a pension file and discover your ancestor had syphilis….  I haven’t read that in any of my ancestor’s files, but have seen it in others. Yeah, that’s awkward…. )

Even if you didn't inherit a photo of your Civil War ancestor, there are several sources you can use to find his physical description.

Charles Bailey, 5th Wisconsin Infantry, Surgeon’s Certificate from pension file. Image from The Genealogy Center.

3. Descriptive Rolls

Although the Compiled Military Service Record and the pension file might contain an entry from the regiment’s descriptive roll, I would recommend looking for the original. (And if it wasn’t included in the CMSR or the pension file, you should go and find it.) These records are often held at the state archives (either the original or on microfilm). They’re arranged by regiment and company, so you will need to know that information about your ancestor before you use them.

Illinois included information from the descriptive rolls in their online Civil War database. Kansas has digitized theirs and put them online.

4. Photographs

Just because you don’t have a copy of his photo doesn’t mean one doesn’t exist! Search on Google, the catalogs of historical societies, the Library of Congress, etc. to look for photos of your ancestor. You’ll never know unless you look.

What other sources have you found for a description of your Civil War ancestor?

Even if you didn't inherit a photo of your Civil War ancestor, there are several sources you can use to find his physical description. "Brothers Captain John M. Raines of Co. C, 2nd Tennessee Cavalry Regiment, and Private Thomas ("Thadde") Raines of Co. E, 5th Tennessee Infantry Regiment, in uniform." Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

“Brothers Captain John M. Raines of Co. C, 2nd Tennessee Cavalry Regiment, and Private Thomas (“Thadde”) Raines of Co. E, 5th Tennessee Infantry Regiment, in uniform.” Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

What Did Your Civil War Ancestor Look Like

How to Set a Smart Genealogy Goal

Have you ever set a goal or made a resolution about your genealogy and it just didn’t work out? If those stacks of copies are still on your dining room table and your photos are still unlabeled and unorganized, take heart. You’re not alone. The Washington Post reports that 25% of people give up on their New Years resolutions in the first week.

But you can be successful with your family history goals. The key is to set the right goal… You could even say a SMART goal.

How to Set a Smart Genealogy Goal and Actually Accomplish What You WantSMART Goals

The business world has long recognized that some goals are better than others, not because of what they’re trying to achieve, but how they are set up. SMART goals are:

S – Specific
M – Measurable
A – Actionable (some say “Attainable”)
R – Realistic
T – Timely

When you include these elements in your goal or resolution, you have a better chance of reaching it. It’s hard to hit a mushy goal like “I’m going to research more.” When our goals are vague, so are our results.

A common genealogy goal is “I’m going to get better at citing my sources.” Let’s take that and turn it into a SMART genealogy goal.


“Specific” lays the foundation for the goal. What is it you’re trying to achieve?

“I’m going to be better at citing my sources” isn’t specific. What does “better” mean? Sources from what?

Better version:
“I’m going to rewrite my source citations so they are in Evidence Explained format.”


Measurable often goes along with specific. Measurable gives us a way to mark our progress and see how close we’re getting. We can cheer ourselves on when we hit a milestone and we can take action when we’re coming up a little short.

“Rewrite my source citations” isn’t measurable. We can take our goal and improve it by making it more specific and measurable.

Better version:
“I’m going to rewrite my source citations that I have in RootsMagic so they are in Evidence Explained format.”

Actionable / Attainable

Goals are pretty pointless if you can’t do anything about hitting them. They also fall short if we set ourselves up for failure.

One way you can make a goal both actionable and attainable is to work in an action plan.

Better version:
“I’m going to rewrite my source citations that I have in RootsMagic so they are in Evidence Explained format. I’m going to do this by working on it 15 minutes a day.


The good thing about goals is that they can help us do things we’ve never done before. I’m all for having “moon shot” dreams, but making those dreams come true usually comes from a series of smaller, realistic goals. (“Let’s go to the moon” was attained by having the goal of figuring out how, then by designing the spacecraft, then building it, etc.)

It is possible to be both realistic and stretch your achievements. The following addition to our goal is still a stretch, but is more realistic.

Better version:
“I’m going to rewrite my source citations for Mom’s side of the tree that I have in RootsMagic so they are in Evidence Explained format. I’m going to do this by working on it 15 minutes a day.”


“Someday” isn’t on the calendar. If you’re going to hit a goal, it helps to put a deadline on it. (Have you ever heard the joke about “If it weren’t for the last minute, I wouldn’t get anything done”? This is what’s that’s talking about!)

Let’s put a deadline on our goal:

Better version:
“I’m going to rewrite my source citations for Mom’s side of the tree that I have in RootsMagic so they are in Evidence Explained format. I’m going to do this by working on it 15 minutes a day. I will have this done by June 1, 2016.

Try It Yourself

Consider what you’d like to improve upon with your genealogy. Is it improving your source citations? It is learning how to use land and tax records? It is compiling that family history that you’ve talked about forever? Turn that fuzzy goal and turn it into a SMART goal.

If one of your goals is to learn more about genealogy, I encourage you to sign up for my FREE email series “31 Days to Better Genealogy.”

How to Set a Smart Genealogy Goal and Actually Accomplish What You Want

The 1 Thing to Remember When Talking to Non-Genealogists

You’re heading to a family gathering and you can’t wait to tell them all about the genealogy brick-wall problem that you finally solved. They’re going to be so excited!

So you tell everyone who will listen all about the late nights spent searching database after database. The countless trips to the library and the courthouse. The hours spent analyzing documents and resolving inconsistencies. But instead of excitement, you’re answered with:

“Excuse me. I need to go help with the dishes.”

Drinking From a Firehose

The 1 thing to remember when talking to non-genealogistsWhen you’re thirsty, you reach for a glass of water or go to a water fountain. You don’t go to a fire hose. The fire hose gives a LOT more water, but it’s too much to take in all at once.

It’s the same when we go overboard with talking about our research and what we’ve found. The person we’re talking to just wants a little knowledge, not the torrent of data that we’ve collected.

They just wanted a drink of water, not the entire fire hose.

Where We Go Wrong When Talking to Non-Genealogists

We genealogists are a passionate bunch. Our research is important to us and we want to share the discoveries about our family with our relatives. After all, it’s their history, too.

But many of our relatives aren’t quite there yet. They might be curious about what we’ve found, but they aren’t interested in the research process like we are.

That’s where we lose them.

When someone asks us, “What have you found in the family tree?” they don’t want a litany of sources, repositories, and analysis. They want the story of the ancestor, not the story of you discovering the ancestor. 

Going through all of the twists and turns and struggles of our research confuses most people who aren’t “into” genealogy research. It’s overwhelming to them.

The Thing to Remember

The first rule of storytelling is “Know your audience.” Consider the person you’re talking to. Are they as “into” genealogy as you are or are they just starting to be curious?

If you’re talking to someone who is curious, keep the emphasis on the ancestor, not your research. If my niece or nephew asks me what I’ve found, I might tell them about a maiden great-great-aunt who went blind late in life and died in the county home. I’m not going to tell them everything I went through to find her, including resolving the fact that her death record had the wrong name.

Yes, we want to be accurate. But we don’t need to overwhelm people.

Ask yourself this: Is it better to

  1. tell that person every single thing you know and everything you went through to find it (and turn them off in the process)  – or –
  2. to tell them a brief story (and keep them interested so they don’t run away the next time they see you)?

My money is on #2.

Keep it short. Keep it simple, Keep them coming back for more. Who knows — maybe those appetizer-size bites you give them will make them want to join you for the full meal.

What strategies have worked for you when talking to the non-genealogists in your family?

1 thing to remember

Industry Schedules: A Hidden Source for Your Farming Ancestors

Industry Schedules: A Hidden Source for Your Farming AncestorsThere is a special part of the federal census called the industry schedule. “Farming” probably isn’t the first word that comes to mind when you hear “industry,” but the industry schedules can have information about our farming ancestors.

What Are the Industry Schedules

The Federal census is made up of several different schedules. The one we use most often in genealogy is the population schedule. It’s the one that lists the people, their ages, birthplaces, etc.

The industry schedule — also called the manufacturing schedule — was a separate schedule taken in 1820, and 1850 through 1880. It includes information about the type of product that was made, the raw materials used, the type of power that was implemented, and even the gender and wages of the employees.

On this 1860 industry schedule from Macoupin County, Illinois, we see Jefferson Croch had a saw and grist mill produced $1125 worth of lumber and $1950 of corn meal. William Loomis also had a saw and grist mill and produced $600 of lumber and $1500 in corn meal. We can also see details about the types of power and the employees.

Industry Schedules: A Hidden Source for Farming Ancestors

1860 Industry Schedule, Macoupin County, Illinois. Image from (Click to enlarge.)

Why You Need to Look for Your Farmers

The threshold to be listed on the industry schedule was fairly low: $500 worth of materials. Many farmer then, like today, had sideline businesses, such as mills and tanneries. If they produced more than $500, they were to be listed on the industry schedule.

Let’s take a look at who was listed on this industry schedule:

  • Jefferson Croch
  • Paschal Reader
  • William B. Loomis
  • William Emerson

On the 1860 federal census (the population schedule), here is how they are listed, along with their occupations:

  • Jefferson Croch, sawyer and grist mill
  • Paschal Reader, farmer
  • William B. Loomis, farmer
  • William Emerson, waggon [sic] maker

Although Reader and Loomis listed their occupations in the census as farmers, they made enough in their other businesses that they had to be included on the industry schedule. This gives us a chance to learn a little bit more about them and how they earned their living. Your ancestors could be in the same situation — farming was their “official” occupation, but they had a side business that would require them to be listed on the industry schedules.

(By the way, because they were farmers, we should also look for them on the agriculture schedules. Check out my post “Did Great-Grandpa Grow Hemp?” to learn more about those records.)

Finding These Schedules

Some of the industry schedules are available on FamilySearch. (Illinois and Iowa are online; look for “non-population.” Check the catalog for what is available on microfilm.) Some are online on Ancestry in their “Selected U.S. Federal Census Non-population Schedules, 1850-1880” collection. You can also find some of these schedules on microfilm at larger libraries and state archives.

3 Things to Consider with the End of Family Tree Maker

3 Things to Remember with the End of Family Tree MakerAncestry recently announced that it would retire its Family Tree Maker genealogy software. They will cease sale of it 31 December 2015. However, they have pledged to support the program and its functionality (including TreeSync) through 1 January 2017. Not surprisingly, this news has been met with strong reactions. Here are 3 things you need to remember concerning the end of Family Tree Maker.

[Note: I do some contract writing and video production for Ancestry. However, I am not being compensated for expressing my views on this subject. These opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Ancestry. Also, I don’t have any further information about the future of FTM or anything else Ancestry does.]

1. You Can Use Ancestry Without Family Tree Maker

Thousands of people every day use the databases on Ancestry without using Family Tree Maker. Their trees on their computer do not automatically sync with a tree they have on, but they still do research.

People also put trees on Ancestry without using FTM. (You can do this using something called a GEDCOM file that your software program can export or you can create one manually.)

It isn’t an “all or nothing” situation.

2. Family Tree Maker Will Still Work on Your Desktop

Ancestry is supporting Family Tree Maker “at least through January 1, 2017,” per the announcement. In addition, as long as your computer’s operating system will allow it, it will keep running on your computer after that. (It just won’t sync your online tree or do other things that interface directly with Ancestry.)

3. Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe

Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe — the LOCKSS Principle — means just what it says. Having multiple copies raising the chance that at least one copy will survive. As I’ve advocated before, don’t put all of your genealogy eggs in one basket — real or virtual.

No matter what software you use or what cloud-based solution you have, don’t let that be your only copy of your tree. Make copies and have them in multiple locations. (Making a backup copy of something on your computer is great, but don’t have your computer and your backups all in the same place. What happens if your house gets broken into and all of your equipment is stolen? Or if a disaster destroys your house? If all of your backups are in the same place as your computer, you’ve still lost everything. Don’t let that happen to you.)

Software Recommendations

What genealogy software program do I recommend? The one that works for you. Seriously, just because your friend uses XYZ program doesn’t mean it’s the right program for you. If you try to force yourself to use a program that isn’t a good fit for your needs, you’re going to end up frustrated. Nobody needs that.

Whenever you’re in the market for new software, see if there is a trial version. Download it and put the program through its paces. See if it has the functionality you need and if it’s easy to use. If it is, that’s the right program for you.

As the saying goes:

Keep Calm and Genealogy On

3 Things to Consider with the End of Family Tree Maker

How to Find a Birth Date from Age at Death

Not every record is straightforward in giving information. Take tombstones and death records, for example. For some reason, many of them don’t list the birth date. Instead, they list the exact age when the person died. Fortunately, it isn’t that hard to find a birth date from the age at death.

Two notes:

  • There are several birth date calculators online. However, if you know the method, you can do it yourself in about the same time it takes to look one up and type in the information.
  • Yes, I know about the 8870 formula. Frankly, I think it overcomplicates things. (Plus, I can never remember the number I’m supposed to subtract.)

Here is Phineas Ford’s tombstone in Old Colony Burying Ground in Granville, Ohio:

How to Find a Birth Date from Age at Death

Phineas Ford tombstone, Old Colony Burying Ground, Granville, Ohio

Phineas Ford,
April 7, 1839,
64 Y. 5 M. 7D.

That’s age 64 years, 5 months, 7 days.

How to Find the Birth Date:

Step 1: Subtract the Number of Years

Phineas Ford died April 7, 1839. Subtract his age of 64 years.

= April 7, 1775 (1839 – 64 = 1775)

Step 2: Subtract the Months

Take that date and count backward the number of months. April 7, 1775 counting backward 5 months = November 7, 1774.

Note: You do NOT need to know how many days are in each month at this point. Just be sure that you roll back the year if you count back to the previous calendar year (like we did with Phineas.)

Step 3: Subtract the Days

Here is where you need to account for the number of days in a month.

November 7 minus 7 days is October 31.

Answer: Phineas Ford was born 31 October 1774.

See, I told you it wouldn’t be that hard!

A Note About Other Calendars

If you are working with Quaker calendars or with changes between Julian and Gregorian calendars, you will need to take special care in calculating those dates.

Now go forth and calculate those birth dates!

How to Find a Birth Date from Age at Death