31 Days to Better Genealogy

Want a productive — and fun — way to celebrate Family History Month? 31 Days to Better Genealogy is a FREE series of practical tips, tricks, and methods to improve your genealogy research and have some fun along the way.

What You’ll Get:

  • A daily email with a specific tip, trick, resource, or method to improve your genealogy — things you can take action on right away!
  • Access to an exclusive Facebook community where you can share your challenges with others. Genealogy is more fun with others!
  • Special content just for participants in 31 Days to Better Genealogy

And if you’re reading this after the start of Family History Month, no worries. Start now. You’ll get the full series.

Head over to the 31 Days to Better Genealogy page and sign up. I look forward to you joining us!

31 Days to Better Genealogy

Genealogy, Living Memory, and the Lake

Shaking up the routine can be a good thing. Normally, my days would be spent in my office or at the library. But for a few days, I’m trading the view out of my office window for a view of the lake.

Genealogy, Living Memory, and the Lake

But while I don’t have an Internet connection except for my iPhone and the nearest library has limited hours right now, I’m still working on my genealogy. How?

Living memory.

I’m lucky/fortunate/blessed to have the opportunity to spend some time with my parents. Both of them are filled with stories. There are times that my sister and I ask them specific questions, sometimes the stories just flow on their own.

I want to keep things as simple as possible right now (for a variety of reasons). For this situation, when the stories start flowing, I’m hitting the “Record” button on the Voice Memos app that came pre-installed on my iPhone. So when Dad starts describing the Thanksgiving dinners he had growing up, all I have to do is press Record and sit back and listen… and enjoy.

It isn’t the “best” method for doing it, but it’s getting done. Some day, when my mom and dad are gone, I won’t have to say, “I wish I would have recorded some of their stories.”

Please excuse me now. The lake — and the stories — are calling me.

Exploring the Hidden Features of Ancestry’s New Image Viewer

Ancestry has changed its image viewer. If you’ve a long-time Ancestry user, you might be wondering where some features went. If you’re a new Ancestry user, you might thing the image viewer is a bit lacking. It turns out that some of the most powerful features of the image viewer are hiding behind a simple icon.

If I’m looking at an image like this one for George Nevins, it isn’t immediately obvious what I’m looking at:

Ancestry's Image Viewer

I can see that it’s from the Kansas State Census Collection, 1855-1925, but which year? What county?

Ancestry Image Viewer menu iconThat information (and more besides) is hidden behind one of the icons on the right-hand side of the page. Look below the green “SAVE” button and you’ll see several icons, including one that has a straight vertical line with an arrow pointing left.

When you click that icon, you’ll get an expanded menu with more information and more options. On that expanded menu, you’ll get three tabs:

  • Detail
  • Related
  • Source
Expanded menu on Ancestry Image Viewer

Expanded menu on Ancestry’s Image Viewer

The Detail tab gives the information that was indexed for that record. (Now we can see that this image is from the 1885 Kansas State Census for Scott, Linn County.)

The Related tab has links to other records that Ancestry thinks pertains to that person.

The Source tab includes a source citation, information about where this image came from, and the ability to browse other years and locations in this collection. (The options for browsing vary by collection.)

Ancestry Image Viewer Source tab

Source tab on the expanded menu. The drop-down menus allow you to go quickly to other sections of the collection.


Want to be a power user? Sign up HERE to receive a FREE downloadable cheat sheet featuring five more of my favorite tips for getting the most out of Ancestry’s Image Viewer.


You can see this in action in the video below:

Do you have other questions about the image viewer or have ideas for other videos or blog posts you’d like to see? Leave a comment!

6 Ways to Have a Better Library Visit

Visiting the library is fun, but it’s more enjoyable when you feel like you’re making some progress with your research. Here are 6 tips to help you have a better library visit.

1. Make a Plan

It’s easy to say, “I’m going to the library and research,” but what are you actually going to work on when you’re there? What do you want to find? Having a list of specific things you want to find will help keep you on track.

2. Make a Backup Plan

Having one plan is good; having two plans is better. I’ve had it happen that the thing I most wanted to discover — the thing that I was sure would take all day to find — was what I found in the first hour at the library. The good news was I had the rest of the day to devote to other research; the bad news was that I didn’t have a plan beyond finding that one thing. I could have made much better use of my time if I would have had a Plan B for my day.

3. Check the Catalog Before You Go

Rather than spending your valuable on-site time looking up items in the catalog, do it before you go. Create a list of the must-look-at item, complete with call numbers. You’ll be able to hit the ground running. (Well, walking. They discourage running in most libraries.)

4. Check Their Hours

Not every library is open 9am-9pm and not every library is open on Sundays. Be sure to check their current hours of operation. (I say “current” because summer hours are often different, plus smaller libraries sometimes have shorter hours around the holidays.)

5. Explore Their Website

Like the catalog, don’t spend time while you’re at the library looking at their databases that you could have searched from home. I don’t mean just Ancestry.com and FamilySearch. A growing number of libraries have their own databases, like obituary indexes and digitized yearbooks. Explore those resources from home and save your on-site time for the things that aren’t online.

6. Ask for Local Advice

Some libraries and archives have visitor guides on their websites; review those before you go. Also tap into the power of social media. Go on Facebook and ask the advice of those who research there. Target those pages and groups that are relevant to that area, such as:

  • The library’s Facebook page
  • The group or page for the county genealogy society
  • The pages and groups for the history of the area

Katherine Willson has put together a tremendous list of genealogy pages and groups on Facebook. It’s a free download and a great resource.

A simple question such as, “I’m going to do research in such-and-so library soon. What advice do you have?” You’ll likely get practical tips such as where to go for lunch, availability of outlets for your laptop, etc.

BTW, here’s a piece of advice if you’re going to research at the Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne: If you’re going to look at microfilm, bring a sweater. It is freezing in the microfilm room!

What do you to help ensure being successful at the library? Share your tips in the comments!

6 Ways to Have a Better Library Visit

What to Do When the Name on the Record Is Wrong

There are times when we find a record that has a few details wrong. Often, it’s easy to think of a reason why. She didn’t know where her father was born. He didn’t know how old his mother really was. But what do we do when the name on the record is wrong? That can be harder to explain.

Elizabeth vs Eliza

Eliza Johnson death record

“Eliza” Johnson. Lawrence County, Ohio Death Register vol 1, p. 324. Image on FamilySearch.

Elizabeth Johnson, born circa 1818 in Ohio, was my great-great-grandfather’s sister. She never married and always lived with her parents or a sibling. By 1880, she was blind and living with her brother Eber and his family in Lawrence County, Ohio.

The Lawrence County death records include this entry:

  • Eliza Johnson
  • Died 28 December 1885 in the “Infirmary”
  • Age 67 [which would make her born in 1818]
  • Single
  • Born in Ohio
  • White
  • Parents’ names not listed [standard for Ohio death records at that time]

The age, birthplace, marital status, and race fit. But there’s the pesky detail of it being Eliza instead of Elizabeth. The person reporting the death was B.R. Lane, who reported all of the deaths in Upper Township that year; it wasn’t a family member who should know her name.

I have 3 choices of what to do with this record:

  1. Ignore it because the name is different.
  2. Accept it because everything else fits and presume he made a mistake with the name.
  3. See what else I can find to either corroborate or refute this record is actually for Elizabeth.

I chose Option #3.

Looking for Other Records

The record I found on FamilySearch was a digitized image of the civil death record — the one that’s kept by the government. There could be other records created at the time of death of “Eliza.” The include things like:

  • an obituary
  • a tombstone and/or cemetery record
  • record of the infirmary where she died

I haven’t been able to find an obituary, nor locate a tombstone. There are no records known to exist for the cemetery where some of her siblings are buried, so I can’t check to see if she’s buried there in an unmarked grave.

Fortunately, the records of the Lawrence County Infirmary still exist and are on microfilm at the Ohio History Connection. In volume 1 of the register is this entry:

  • Elizabeth Johnson
  • “Reenrolled” 1 September 1885
  • Age and birth place not listed
  • Died 28 December 1885

The “reenrolled” note is important, as we see Elizabeth being in the Infirmary two other times. In addition, there isn’t an Eliza in the Infirmary register. I feel comfortable saying that the Eliza in the civil death record is actually Elizabeth, based on the Infirmary records.

Of course, with a common name like “Elizabeth Johnson,” there needs to be further research to determine that this Elizabeth is my Elizabeth. Long story short, there was only one other Elizabeth Johnson of approximately the same age as mine in Lawrence County at that time. The other Elizabeth Johnson was married and she died in a different year. I’m confident that the Elizabeth who died in the Infirmary is mine.

Look at What Is in Front of You

I found the evidence I needed by obtaining additional records. But additional evidence isn’t limited just to new records. We also need to fully examine the records we have in front of us.

Let’s say that the reporter on “Eliza’s” death record was listed as “William Johnson, brother.” I would have a much harder time convincing myself that he got the name of his own sister wrong. As it is, the reporter on “Eliza’s” record gave the information for everyone in the township. He didn’t necessarily know them personally; he just gathered and reported the info.

The Key: Don’t Stop

If I had discounted the “Eliza” death record because the name was wrong, I might never have looked at the Infirmary records. But I also shouldn’t accept it simply because the other data fit. The key is to keep looking. Don’t stop with the bare facts in the record. See what you can tease out. See what ideas for other records you can come up with. Dig into the nuances of the record and question it. (Is the informant a stranger or her brother?)

What records have you worked with that had the name wrong, but turned out to be the right person?

What to do when the name on the record is wrong

A Faster, Easier Way to Find Collections on FamilySearch

Have you ever felt like FamilySearch doesn’t really want you to find specific collections or figure out what they have for a certain state? Consider the steps you they point you to taking:

  • Clicking the mapfamilysearch-map1
  • Scrolling through the list
  • Clicking on the state or “Start researching in <x>”

Then you end up at a page where there’s a mishmash of collections that are specific to that state along with nationwide collections. And the image-only collections aren’t even listed with the collections you can search.

Ohio Research Page on FamilySearch

Part of the Ohio Research Page on FamilySearch

There has to be a better way to find collections for a certain state. Guess what — there is.

The Faster, Easier Way

Instead of following the prompt to click on the map, click on the link under the map: “Browse All Published Collections.”


familysearch-filtersYou’ll get a page that lists all of FamilySearch’s collections. You can use the filters on the left side of the page to narrow down the collections. But an even faster way is to type the name of the state in the box at the top.

FamilySearch includes the name of the state (or the country for non-U.S. collections) in the title of collections that are specific to a location. So when I want to see what they have online for Ohio, all I have to do is type in Ohio in that field.

Instead of a confusing page with all sorts of collections, I have one nice, neat list.

Ohio collections on FamilySearch

You can see the steps in action in this video:

4 Things To Do When Using a Genealogy Database

The launch of a big new database is genealogy’s equivalent to chumming shark-infested waters. Everybody and their brother (and cousins) rush in to search. Some people come out with tasty morsels; others come out empty-handed and frustrated. Whether you’re looking at the latest database on Ancestry or FamilySearch or exploring a new-to-you collection, here are 4 things you should do when using a genealogy database.

1. Read the Introduction

You’ve probably heard this advice when it comes to books. It’s true for databases, too. Don’t go by the title alone. Ancestry’s “Ohio, Marriages, 1803-1900” doesn’t contain all of Ohio for that entire timespan. The “About” section of the page states:

Records from the following counties may be found in this database: Allen, Ashland, Athens, Auglaize, Belmont, Columbiana, Coshocton, Clark, Crawford, Darke, Defiance, Fairfield, Franklin, Gallia, Hancock, Henry, Highland, Hocking, Holmes, Huron, Paulding, Jackson, Lawrence, Mahoning, Muskingum, Ottawa, Preble, Putnam, Richland, Ross, Sandusky, Scioto, Seneca, Shelby, and Wayne Counties.

That’s 35 out of Ohio’s 88 counties. Further, not each of those counties is covered from 1803 through 1900. The database covers Athens County only from 1851-1865, for example. You can avoid a lot of frustration if you go into this database knowing what it does — and does not — include.

Now, before you start putting the bad mouth on Ancestry or any other website for titling their collections that way, you should know that brick-and-mortar archives have titled their collections the same way for years. “Smith Family Papers, 1800-1910” might have one letter from 1800 and an obit from 1910, but the bulk of the material is from the 1880s. Read the introduction.

2. Search for the Known

When Ancestry launched their U.S. Wills and Probate collection, the first thing I did was search for a will that I knew existed (and that I already had a copy of). Why? Because I wanted to see how the search worked and how the results came back. Having an idea in mind of what I should see helped me get familiar with how they were giving me information.

3. Search for a Common Name

If the database you’re using doesn’t have something that you know exists, search for a common name. I’ve searched for John Smith and John Johnson more times than I can count. (Then again, my 3rd-great-grandfather was John Johnson, so I have a good reason to look for that name!)

Searching for a common name should give you plenty of results to get a feel for how the database works. I searched for John Smith in FamilySearch’s “Michigan Births, 1867-1902” and got almost 4,000 results. What I see from scrolling through the results is that the mother’s maiden name usually isn’t included. If I’m trying to narrow down results using mother’s maiden name as a criteria, it isn’t going to work well.

Michigan Births, 1867-1902 on FamilySearch

John Smith in the Michigan Births, 1867-1902 collection on FamilySearch.org. (Click to enlarge.)

I also like to see how first names come back. When I do a search for the first name Thomas, do the results include “Thos.”? If not, I need to do a separate search for that abbreviation (or see if I can search for just Tho or Tho*.)

4. Explore Search Options

Can you use wildcards in your search? It depends. Some databases will allow them; others won’t. Look for a link that explains the search options for that website. You can also just do a search using an asterisk or a question mark and see what happens.

If I’m using a collection that has scanned text, can I limit the results to specific phrases by using quotes around the search terms? Again, it’s a matter of playing with the search to see how the results are.

What’s your favorite strategy for using a database you’ve never used before?

4 Things To Do When Using a Genealogy Database

State Soldiers Homes: A Different Place to Look

After I published “National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers: A Surprisingly Rich Resource,” a reader contacted me and said she couldn’t find her ancestor in the registers. Family lore said that he was in “the soldiers home,” but his name wasn’t in the collections on Ancestry or FamilySearch. Though the National Homes are great resources, they aren’t the only places where disabled veterans lived after the war. There were also state soldiers homes.

State Soldiers Homes vs. National Homes

Main Building, Michigan Soldiers Home

Michigan Soldiers Homes, Grand Rapids

Various states opened their own homes for their disabled and indigent veterans. Many of these opened after the Civil War, like the National Homes did. They functioned in the same way as the National Homes — providing housing and medical care for veterans who didn’t have the means to take care of themselves.

The political reasons for these were numerous. Some states didn’t have a National Home; their veterans would have had to go far from family and friends to get care. Others wanted more direct control over the services provided to their veterans. Southern states had an additional reason for opening their own homes: Confederate veterans couldn’t be admitted to National Homes.

The criteria for entering a state soldiers home varied from state to state. Most had a residency requirement of some sort. Some would allow the admission of veterans’ wives and widows. (They would be housed in different buildings.)

Records for State Soldiers Homes

Three types of records that are especially useful to genealogists are the admission registers, admission applications, and annual reports.

Admission registers were usually kept in ledger books and give a recap of the veteran’s stay(s) in that facility.

Admission applications are just that: applications for admission to the home. They usually involve a form of some sort, but can also include affidavits and supporting documentation of why he or she meets the criteria for admission.

Annual reports can be quite detailed. It isn’t unusual to find:

  • List of residents (or “inmates”) living there during the previous year
  • List of deaths during the previous year
  • Conditions at the home

The 1902 Annual Report of the Indiana State Soldiers’ Home lists everyone who was living in the home:

Indiana Soldiers Home, 1902

It also lists those who died the previous year:

Indiana Soldiers Home, Deaths, 1902

Curious about what they had to eat? They have sample menus:

Indiana Soldiers Home, Menu, 1902

Frankly, I’m not sure I want to know what “pickle pork” is.

Finding State Soldiers Home Records

There are several places to look for the records of state soldiers homes:

Google Books and Internet Archive are especially good for finding annual reports. You’ll have to play with the search terms, but doing a general search of <state soldiers home> such as indiana soldiers home is a good place to start.

Some states, such as Virginia, have put their soldier home records online. (You can search or browse the Robert E. Lee Camp Confederate Soldiers’ Home Applications for Admission here.)

Also look in the Family History Library catalog to see what might be available on microfilm.

Do you have any ancestors who lived in a state veterans home?

How Quilting Is Like Genealogy

I am a wanna-be quilter. My grandma quilted. My aunt quilted. My mom has been embroidering what will be the top of a quilt. (Can’t wait to see it when it’s done.) Me? I’ve always loved the play of colors and patterns, but I can barely sew. What makes me think I can quilt?

This past winter, I finally broke down and bought a couple of books and some fabric. I then did what I’ve done before when I’ve bought fabric: I looked at it. I read the book. Looked at the fabric some more. Leafed through the book some more.

Quilting and cutting

Quilting Rule #1: No bleeding on the fabric.

Finally, I chose a pattern. (Progress!) Then the big step… Cutting the fabric. Let me just say right now that those rotary cutters are sharp!

I quickly learned Rule #1 of quilting: No bleeding on the fabric.

After I got the pieces cut, I did what I’ve done before: I let the fabric sit there. And sit there. And sit there.

I was paralyzed when it came to sewing the rows together. For months, my quilt looked like this:

Quilt rows

I’m glad I numbered the rows and took this picture. Otherwise, I would never have remembered how I wanted to assemble it. Yes, it sat for so long that I couldn’t remember how it was supposed to go together.

Finally, after some well-intended nagging from my sister, I decided enough was enough. I have to get this top finished. As I was pinning the rows together, it struck me how much genealogy is like quilting.

Variety Is Good

My quilting book talked about how it’s important to have a variety in the fabrics you’re using. Different colors, different values, different scale. It would be a boring quilt if everything was the same.

When we’re researching our ancestors, it’s pretty boring if we only look at the same old records all the time. Throw in different things. Have you relied solely on census records and death certificates? Look at land records. Dig into probate.

Look for Patterns

On one trip to a local quilt shop, I was eyeing a pattern for a table runner. I thought it was too advanced for me. It looked so complicated. My sister looked at it and broke it down. “Look,” she pointed out, “it has four basic blocks. You can see how they fit together.” She was right. It looked almost like chaos, but after you saw the pattern, you saw that it repeated itself.

Our ancestors are the same. If we look at everything all at once, it can look like a jumbled mess. But once we study them and see how they associate with the people around them, we can see where the patterns repeat. Those neighbors near them in the 1880 census? I bet some of them are the same neighbors in 1870, even if the ancestor is living in the different place. (People move together.)

Accept Imperfections

My quilt isn’t going to win any ribbons at the state fair — and that’s ok. i worked on it. It’s my creation. It is what it is.

My family tree is the same way. There are all kinds of imperfections in it. I’m certain that I have some wrong limbs on the tree. I’m also certain that my ancestors themselves have imperfections. I have to accept that fact and take them for who they are.

Strive for Improvement

Though I accept my quilt for what it is — imperfect — that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to get better. I’m going to learn and practice more. (I will get better at cutting!) I will stretch myself and my skills. (Next stop: half-square triangles!)

Genealogy, too, calls me to improve. Skills like reading old handwriting only improve with practice. There is always something new to learn, whether it’s a new record group, a new repository, or a new way of presenting your findings. It’s challenging and exciting all at the same time.

There Is One Difference

For all the similarities between genealogy and quilting, there is one big difference. Unlike genealogy, you can actually have a finished quilt. (At least, that’s what I’ve heard. Mine isn’t there yet!)

quilting and genealogy

I got the top pieced together!

National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers: A Surprisingly Rich Resource

In his episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, Bryan Cranston used a resource that I love: the register from a U.S. National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. These records are often overlooked in Civil War research, overshadowed by pension and service records. However, there are clues in these registers that we need to look at.

A History of the National Homes

The Civil War left countless men with injuries — physical, mental, emotional — that rendered them unable to live the life they had before the war. To care for these men (specifically, those who fought for the Union), Congress authorized the National Homes of Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in 1865. (They were originally called the National Asylums; “Asylum” was changed to “Home” in 1873.) Union veterans who could prove their disability were related to their service were eligible for admission. The requirements were loosened over time to allow veterans from other wars and those whose disabilities were not service-related.

Admission to the Homes were voluntary and veterans could choose which Home they wanted. Some opted for one in warmer areas, such as the Pacific Branch near Los Angeles. Some chose a home near he had children living. (Always research all of the children!)

The National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers included:

  • Eastern Branch, Togus Springs, Maine
  • Central Branch, Dayton, Ohio
  • Northwestern Branch, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
  • Southern Branch, Hampton, Virginia
  • Western Branch, Leavenworth, Kansas
  • Pacific Branch, Sawtelle, California
  • Marion Branch, Marion, Indiana
  • Danville Branch, Danville, Illinois
  • Mountain Branch, Johnson City, Tennessee
  • Battle Mountain Sanitarium, Hot Springs, South Dakota
  • Bath Branch, Bath, New York
  • Roseburg Branch, Roseburg, Oregon
  • St. Petersburg Home, St. Petersburg, Florida
  • Biloxi Home, Biloxi, Mississippi
  • Tuskegee Home, Tuskegee, Alabama

The Records

The records that family historians will get the most out of are the registers. Here’s the entry for Joseph H. Cranston, Bryan Cranston’s great-great-grandfather:

Joseph H Cranston, Central Branch, U.S. National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, Dayton, Ohio

Joseph H. Cranston, “United States National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, 1866-1938,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-1942-21047-1681-71?cc=1916230 : accessed 25 August 2015), Dayton, Ohio > Register no. 10500-11999 > image 612 of 777; citing NARA microfilm publication T1749 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.). Click to enlarge.

The Military History section at the top contains a recap of Joseph’s military service, including three different regiments that he served in during the Civil War. It also lists “varicose veins” as the kind of disability he had.


The Domestic History section is where we can find some good biographical details, which is certainly the case with Joseph Cranston. Here’s the first part of that section:


We learn his birthplace as County Armagh, Ireland. He was age 57 when he was admitted. After he left the service, he lived in Fostoria, Ohio and was a carpenter. The right-hand part of this section gives even more clues:


He claimed to be single. He lists his friend Nathan Hatfield of Fostoria as his nearest relative. (Joseph’s son would probably disagree with that distinction.)

The Home History section is where the National Home would list when and where the veteran was admitted. It isn’t unusual to find a veteran staying for short periods of time over several years or moving to a different home. Joseph, however, was admitted to the Central Branch Home in Dayton on 1 September 1883 and there he stayed.


The right-hand portion tells about Joseph’s death:


He died 4 March 1889 from inhaling gas. He’s buried in section H3, grave 2.

The General Remarks section can contain all sorts of comments about the veteran. Here’s what Joseph Cranston’s record has:


“Mar. 8th 1889. Appraised Personal Effects $0.25”

Something not in Joseph Cranston’s record is his physical description. This section was added to later registers.

Finding These Records

The registers of most of the National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers are available on FamilySearch and on Ancestry. Some of the homes in these collections also have burial and/or death records. Note: neither site has the registers of the St. Petersburg, Biloxi, or Tuskegee homes. You will need to contact the National Archives for those records.