Friday, November 4, 2011

If a Picture is Worth a Thousand Words....

     Then I have a two-thousand word mystery on my hands.  This photo is of my Grandma James' father:  Thomas Braden McConahy, born in April of 1881.  Usually when we look at old photographs of family members we are struck my their homeliness, the odd hairstyles, the unsmiling faces.  But Great-grandpa McConahy is attractive, even by modern standards (although the front curl thing would HAVE to go today!)
     But that is not the mystery on my hands.  These are:

     Two more photographs of decent-looking men.  I think they are the same man, the upper one being a younger version of the lower photo.  
     The mystery?  I have no idea who they are.
     I only have the scanned versions of the photographs and the originals are with one of my sisters.  But they all three deny having the original.  Which means that someone has them but is too lazy to go dig them out and look at them.  
     Why do I want the originals?
     My Grandma James was pretty good about labeling photographs, so I am hoping that the name or names of the subject is written on the back.  So really, all that I want is for one of my sisters to go find the photos, flip them over, and see if there is anything on the backs.
     Which brings me to YOUR family photos.  If you haven't already done so, please start going through them and labeling each one.  Names, dates, places - all of those are important to include.  But so are other things.

     This could so easily be labelled "Betty Jane" and left at that.  ("Betty Jane" being my Mom)  But there are so many things to be addressed.  WHEN was this charming photo taken?  Where was she?  And most importantly:  WHY WAS SHE SUNBATHING IN PUBLIC WITH HER HAIR IN CURLERS?  
     Now THAT story has to be worth at least a thousand words right there.
     And someday I'll tell it to you.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Genealogy: I've Started. Now What?

This is the transcript for my radio blog today.  You can hear it at

Good morning and welcome to Heritage and Family.  This show is about genealogy – what it is, how to do it, and what we end up with when we are finished.  My name is Kate Eakman, your host, and the owner of Heritage and Family, a family history and genealogy service.  You can find us on the web at, on Facebook, Twitter, and here on Thursday mornings at BlogTalkRadio.

Speaking of our presence on the web, if you haven’t visited our website recently, please do so.  My son has been feverishly working to transform my website-in-a-can to something more professional and better looking, and I must say I like it a lot!  There is still some work to do, but it’s much nicer than the one I cobbled together.  And a BIG thank you to Clovis Davis, a photographer who has perfected the art of wet plate photography.  The photo on the home page is one that Clovis took several years ago of our reenacting group.  He is so meticulous at what he does that his images can be mistaken for those of 150+ years ago.

This is a nice segue – speaking of the Civil War and genealogy:  If you live in the Portland, Oregon metro area and are interested in some Civil War genealogy, you might be interested in this one….Starting in February I will be teaching an Adult Continuing Education class at Mt. Hood Community College called “Discovering Your Civil War Ancestor”.  This is a non-credit class that runs five Saturdays from 10 – noon, and the purpose is to teach students how to research and then write up the STORY of their family’s Civil War ancestor.  If you are interested, check out the Mt Hood website

Last week we talked about what you need to get started on your family history or genealogy or family tree.  The most important items are:  paper, family, the ability to listen, the ability to think like an historian or detective, and the willingness to ask questions and then go find out if the answers are true.

If you used last week as a sort of lesson to get started on your own family’s history, hooray for you!  This week we are going to talk about the dreaded “what next?”  At some point after you begin your family tree you run out of information.  Mom and Dad and the grandparents seem to be of no additional use to you, but you haven’t gone all the way back to The Mayflower or the Norman Conquest or Adam and Eve.

What now?

Today we are going to talk about that very thing – what methods are available to you to get that family tree growing – both taller and fluffier.  Right now it might look a little spindly – sort of like a Charlie Brown Christmas tree.

Here are some suggestions for your next step.  Or steps.  (and by the way, if you are listening to this show live and want to call, feel free.  The phone number is   646.649.0871 and I will be happy to answer your questions or hear about YOUR experiences in creating your family tree.) 

First, make sure that you have everything on the family members you have accumulated.  Do you have all of the basics:  full name, date and place of birth, date and place of marriage/s, date and place of death if applicable, the full name of each spouse (with his/her basics), the basics for each child, and the same for each sibling.

Now, unless everyone in your family has incredible memories, this isn’t as easy as it sounds.  So you drag out all of the “stuff” that everyone has accumulated.  Baby books, newspaper clippings, wedding invitations, obituaries, school report cards, get it all out and go through it. 

I just dragged my son’s baby book off of the shelf and here is what it tells me:  his full name, date of birth, place of birth, the names of some people with the same last name as his (Parker) with one even noted “uncle”; photographs of his first home in an apartment in Oklahoma; a mini family tree with his parents, grandparents, and great grandparents names; his aunts and uncles with their date and place of birth (including in-laws); a clipping of his birth announcement from the local paper (which tells me the name of the local paper so that I can look at their website etc to see if there is additional information available there); names of family members still living at his 1st – 3rd birthdays and Christmases; locations of his grandparents’ homes in the “places baby visited” section; a plane ticket on TWA for travel with his mother to his grandparents which tells us his mother’s REAL first name (no, it’s not “Kate”).

Granted, not every baby book is that full of clues, but there will be some, especially if you start to think about each entry and each piece of paper that has been saved:  WHAT DOES THIS TELL ME?  Or WHAT DOES THIS VERIFY?

I mentioned including the information of siblings and children, including those who are not “directly” in your personal family lineage and I want to talk a bit more about that and why it is important to gather that information.

Sometimes a child or a sibling provides the clue you need to trace back to the previous generation.  We’ll talk more about this in a later episode, but let me explain briefly.

Prior to oh, say 1900, names tended to be spelled in a hit or miss fashion.  My maiden name, James, is relatively easy to get right, but my married name, Eakman, lends itself to all sorts of spelling variations.

Now imagine that you have a slightly unusual first name:  Zachariah, Johanna, or, in my husband’s family:  Orzella.  Remember, not every person had the luxury of time to complete a high school education.  So people even spelled their own names differently throughout their life. 

Census takers, records clerks, priests and ministers could also fall into the category of those who had trouble with spelling.  If you weren’t confident in the spelling of your name, you might not even realize that your name had been recorded with an outlandish spelling.

Sometimes a family members with a nice, boring name is a blessing.  And since you never know who you are going to need to trace your lineage, my policy is always to gather as much information about all family members as is available. 

Next, in conjunction with going through all the paper documents that have been kept over the years, is to collect more than the basic information on each person.  What school/s did each person attend?  Did they graduate?  Fail any grades?  What does each teacher say about this ancestor?

What about military service records?  Commendations?  Even a plain old DD214 will give you some good basic information:  full name, date and place of birth, hair and eye color, height, weight, marital status, number of years of HS, date and place of discharge, address of home on entrance into the service, branch of service, rank attained, date of entry and term of service, military specialty, and dates and location of training.  My dad’s DD214 also tells his blood type (O-positive).

Other paper documents might include religious, social, or fraternal organizations; paperwork related to a job or a company (including W2s); newspaper clippings about sports played or performances given.

Then there is the treasure trove that are family photos.  Here is where you can really score some information, and make yourself a hero to your family:  sit down with your family members (one at a time is fine) and go through each one and identify every little bitty thing you can about it.  Who is pictured?  When and where was it taken?  Why?  What event is happening?  What are they wearing/carrying/holding?  Whose couch/chair/front porch is that? 

And equally important – how do you know this?  Sometimes asking how they know will elicit even more information.  My mom and I were going through a stack of old photos and she told me casually “Oh that’s grandma and grandpa on the 25th wedding anniversary after they came in from working in the garden.”  Now I knew where they lived and there was no garden there.  But a little questioning uncovered the fact that my grandparents rented a piece of land with a friend to have a garden.  Because Grandma didn’t drive (another snippet of information!) they only went out after Grandpa got home from work and on weekends.

Do yourself and everyone else a favor and write down all of the pertinent information – I have found that a Post-It© note on the back of a photo is a good start.  Don’t leave them there, because they aren’t archival quality, but you can get away with it for a BRIEF period of time.

Now, about all of that “other” stuff that has been saved – the stuff that you are tempted to say is useless to you in your genealogical quest.  Nonsense!  Playbills, tickets, menus, programs…all of those mementos that have been cherished and saved for years and years are all valuable.  They tell you who did what.  Who was interested in what.  Whether some odd beads tell how your grandmother made jewelry out of wallpaper samples, or a single guitar pick tells the story of the time your father played a set with Janis Joplin, each treasure turns your ancestors into interesting, living people that you and others are interested in knowing all about.

Once again, time has flown and we are nearly out of time.  Next Thursday we will continue here for 30 minutes, 11 am Eastern time, 8 am here on the west coast.  Our topic will be Part One of a two-part discussion about turning the facts that you have collected into stories of your family’s past.   

Remember, for those of you who live in the Portland/Vacouver metro area, starting on February 3 and continuing through March 2 I will be teaching an Adult Continuing Education course called “Discovering Your Civil War Ancestor” at Mt.  Hood Community College.

Follow us online, and via Facebook and Twitter.  Until next Thursday, this has been a BlogTalkRadio broadcast from Heritage and Family, with me, Kate Eakman.  Until next week, happy hunting!