Maps

I know I tend to talk about research and documents more than I do about other things, like memories. So how about something that will help with both? Maps should be an important part of your genealogy toolkit. In fact, they are irreplaceable, especially if you live far from the locations you are researching. They are at their most helpful when they show the geography and/or political boundaries as they existed when your ancestors were living. Today, I’m going to mention two such tools that are very useful.

Let’s start with Google Earth Pro. Starting 30 January 2015, Google has made the professional version of Google Earth available for free. It used to cost $399.00 a year, so it’s great value.  Here are some instructions on how to download and install it.

We are all familiar with Google Maps, I’m sure. Great for getting directions and finding your way around, and it’s more accurate than Apple’s map feature which, frankly, I have turned off on my iPhone. But Google Earth Pro is so much more powerful, and has the Maps2ability to overlay historical maps so that you can see how the area may have looked when your ancestors were alive.

I especially like the fact that you can get pictures of buildings using the street view. Like Maps1this one of the house where I lived from about age 4 to age 7. This is where I learned to ride a bike, and where I first had piano lessons. But, wouldn’t it be great if this were a picture of a house where your ancestor lived, even if it now has some modern touches?

Next, the National Library of Scotland. You may find this recommendation surprising since most of my research is in England, but it also includes maps for England & Wales. maps3In fact, it goes even further afield, with maps of World War I trenches in France and Belgium, for example. Not only that, but the search tool allows you to search anywhere in the world. It’s fair to say, though, that its main focus is on Great Britain (despite being a Scottish website). One nice feature is the ability to choose an historic map overlay. You can change the transparency of the overlay to switch between today’s view and the historical view.

And, while that is all well and good, how can maps help with research and memories? Well, a few things spring to mind. For example, two people from villages 20 miles apart get married. How might they have met? Perhaps there was a market town roughly half-way between the two. Also, with a contour map you can get the feel of the countryside, such as how steep the hills are and how good the grazing might be as a result. Can’t find a baptism in the parish you think somebody is from? Grab a map and look for other villages within a 5 to 10-mile radius where they may have lived.

1939 Register

I love documents, so having a whole new set of documents to explore is exciting. What I am referring to is the fact that the 1939 Register of England & Wales is available online, and has been since February 2016. So, what makes it so exciting?

Well, for one thing, nobody was expecting it to be available until 2040, 100 years after it was compiled, so it’s 25 years earlier than expected. For another, it was used for various purposes. Initially, it was used as the basis for issuing national identity cards for the 1939_2duration of the war (although they were not phased out until 1952 – my two older sisters had them, but not me). As such, the Register includes dates of birth which are often difficult to find without forking out a bundle for an official birth certificate.

Unlike a census, it was also a working document, and changes were made to it over time. For example, you will often see entries for women who married or divorced and changed their names as a result, so you may get hints as to the spouse’s last name  1939_1written right into the Register. See, for example, this page. The information written in red and green makes it so much easier to find Norah’s marriage to William E McTrusty, and Phyllis’s marriage to James H Smith in the marriage index than looking through a bunch of entries and wondering who the spouse might be.

It was also used as the basis of the National Health Service Central Register long after the 1951 census came along. Remember, censuses were not working documents, which underlines the fact this was not a census. For some interesting information about the 1939 Register and its various uses and idiosyncracies click see this article from the Lost Cousins website.

At first, the Register was only available through Find My Past, but in February 2018, My Heritage allowed searches (but no images), while Ancestry made both available a few months later. Click one of the above links to go straight to the search page for the 1939 Register for each site.

Family History is About Real People

Family history is about people. Or, at least, it should be. But not just any people. These are your forebears. These are your relatives. You share their DNA. They are real flesh and blood people. OK, that last one isn’t completely correct if they’ve died, but they were still people who walked and talked and had their own relationships, just as you do. Some, of course, would say that family history is just like regular history – just a bunch of dry facts and boring dates and places that nobody could possibly remember, or even want to.

I would disagree. But what makes the difference between boring and fascinating? I would suggest that it is the stories and the images. For example, when I think of my gran,

I form a picture of her in my mind which, in turn, brings back all of the pleasant memories associated with her life. She was born 9 Feb 1885 in Cheltenham, she died on 13 Aug 1976, and was widowed in 1942. Those are facts, but they are not who she was, and nor do they define her life. Rather, they are simply reference points for her story.

Think about it. Wouldn’t you rather be remembered for who you are rather than the basic facts of your life referenced by birth, marriage, and death? And if it’s true for you then you have a responsibility to bring your forebears back to remembrance through pictures and the written word. (If you’re really lucky, the spoken word as well.)

What about those ancestors and cousins who you never knew in life? What are you going to do to bring them to life? Try these hints:

  • Newspaper archives (such as the British Newspaper Archive).
  • Research the history of the area they lived
  • Research their occupations as stated in a census? How and why might they have changed over time?
  • If they moved around over time, try to work out why.
  • Contact cousins who have already researched them. They may have pictures and other information.

Source Interpretation

When you find a source, you need to put your best effort into interpreting it. I know that sounds obvious, but we often miss simple information, or don’t look at it in the right way. I had a situation very recently when, out of the blue, I had an email asking me how sure I was that Constant Comfort Underwood was a girl. Simple question, but the answer turned out to be more complicated than I anticipated.

Looking at the name one might reasonably think that it’s a girl, right? I mean, we are much more familiar with the name Constance for a girl, but a couple of hundred years ago it was not uncommon for girls to be named after desirable attributes. It was less true of boys, though. Then again, even today you have names where you cannot easily tell the gender. Take Robin, for example. You can’t get much more masculine than the hero Robin Hood, and the (English) robin is a vicious bird with its sharp beak, but nowadays it is often a name given to girls, so you can’t always tell.

So, I thought that maybe this was one of those situations where I had made a superficial Constant1analysis and made a hasty assumption of the gender. This question came up because FamilySearch had a source attached to Constant Comfort Underwood that indicated this was a boy, and my correspondent wanted to know which was correct. So I had a look and realized that the source being quoted did not have an image. This meant that somebody else had transcribed the source and assigned a male gender.

I then went to the original. That didn’t help either, because it just said “Constant Constant2Comfort of Thos & Mary Underwood.” No indication whether it was a son or a daughter. Still up in the air, then. But what I was looking at was a Bishop’s Transcript. That is a record transcribed by the churchwarden from the parish register and then sent to the bishop as a kind of backup.

An even better source would be the parish register. Lo and behold, I now had my proof. Constant3She really was a girl! “Constant Comfort Dr. of Thos & Mary Underwood.”

Lessons to learn from this?

  • Try to check the best original record.
  • Draw reasonable conclusions from the document.
  • Check that anybody else’s interpretation of the record is reasonable.
  • Document, document, document.

Family History and Computers

I seem to spend most of my spare time doing family history research. Either that or preparing lessons to teach others how to do their own research. No, I’m not a professional researcher, but it still seems appropriate for me to concentrate my writing efforts on how to help others.

My comments about computers may be best received by people who have not fully book2embraced modern technology, like this delightful lady, or by those just beginning their family history journey. I would like to think there will be insights that will help anybody who cares to read these posts. Depending on your elvel of familiarity with technology, though. you may have a pretty steep learning curve. The best advice I can give is to encourage you to keep trying. It’ll grow on you.

Family history research is a lot easier now than it was 50 years ago when I first book1started my journey, but that does not mean that it is easy. There is still a lot of effort involved, but at least you likely will not need to drag huge tomes from the library shelf to look at every page in the hope of finding one tiny nugget of information. If anything, the process is more cerebral now because computers and the internet have given us so much more material than we had access to before. But traditional research in a document repository still has its place.

I often say that family history should be more than a collection of arcane facts and figures. Not only does finding out background information about the family, the neighborhood, local and national politics, and pictures of where your ancestors and distant cousins lived make it more interesting for you, but your children and grandchildren will love that kind of detail as well.

Remember, you will only be limited by your imagination. The information is out there! 

Stories and Memories for Family History

Stories1

Here is a perfect example of why we ought to write down our stories and record memories and connect them to our ancestors, and how not to do it.

A little while ago I was researching one woman who appeared in all of the available censuses for England & Wales. That’s from 1841 right through 1911. What was interesting was seeing her age in each census. We know they are taken every 10 years, right? But in her case she apparently only aged 9 years between censuses – even before she got married! (I’m guessing she’s the one who gave the data to the enumerator.) But it continued afterwards as well. 

While that is interesting, I then found that when she died, the person reporting the death gave her correct age. So, somebody in the family was aware of the truth (more likely several people). But this gives us some interesting facts to help flesh out her character. She was clearly concerned about what others thought of her appearance, and was sufficiently dominant that her parents, husband, and, later, her children, continued to pander to her – at least, during her lifetime.

Now, I suppose one could say that these conclusions are based on conjecture, but really, isn’t that what most storytelling is? You ask any football fan how a given goal was scored and you will likely get as many variations as there were fans attending the game. Besides, I really warmed to her after I saw what was going on, and it’s so much more interesting than just plain, boring, facts and documents.

So, why am I offering this up as an example of what not to do? Because I did not record this at the time of my research. As a result, I have no idea who I am writing about. I’m sure I’ll come across it one day and will be sure to add the story, but until then I will just have to resolve to be more diligent in my story writing.

At any rate, stories and memories should bring history to life. Don’t know much about a particular family? If you know where they lived you can always research the history of the area and show the type of work they were likely involved in and so forth.

Preserving Pictures for Family History

Family History is about real people, and it helps to bring those people to life if you can include pictures and stories as you gather information. I have had false starts in this area over the years but I would like to think that I am finally getting a handle on this.

I have had a scanner for many years. It works well enough but the software that goes Scanner.pngwith it is somewhat clunky and time-consuming. As a result I was not encouraged to use it a lot. And it doesn’t help that the drivers have never been upgraded from Windows XP, so I have to maintain a really old computer just to be able to use it.

Three years ago I bought a QromaScan at Rootstech. It’s good. It was fun to use at first QromaScan and I still use it occasionally, but it needs to be assembled before use and doesn’t always work as I would expect. Not only that, it doesn’t like the format of English towns. For example, there are several Donningtons in England, so I want to specify the county to avoid confusion. QromaScan doesn’t allow that, so I have to manually change the metadata after scanning which, frankly, is a pain.

So what has changed? Why do I sound so upbeat? One of my purchases at RootsTech this FlipPalyear was of a portable scanner called a FlipPal scanner. It is high on battery use but so convenient. In the four days since it has arrived I have scanned 40 pictures, amended the metadata and placed it all in a spreadsheet. It will even scan pictures still in the frame, as well as being able to split large pictures between multiple scans and then seamlessly stitch them back together. The picture enhancement software is excellent as well.

Next, I’ll talk about memories and stories because without them family history really is nothing but dry facts and figures.