tips and tricks

Learning to Love RootsMagic

photo from

Okay, so when I first started experimenting with family history, I was told to get RootsMagic as a way to create a pedigree. When I first began, it seemed really weird and out of date and I honestly didn’t love it.

Fast forward a year, a program like RootsMagic was required for this family history class I’m taking in order to create Family Group Records and the like. Because everyone else was using RootsMagic and it was the program that all the professors used at my school, I decided to try it again. I still didn’t like it.

But at RootsTech, I went to a presentation about RootsMagic. Granted, a lot of it was people asking about basic stuff that I already understood, but it at least made me want to give it another shot.

So this time, instead of transferring all the copious amounts of chaos and information from FamilySearch into my RootsMagic file, I started the pedigree by myself. I input all of the information that I had and then continued to input more as my research continued. It was amazing! FamilySearch is great because of collaboration and such, but when I’m first starting out, I need to be more organized than the tree is on FamilySearch. I suddenly felt like I was actually making progress.

So what are some cool things about RootsMagic? (I promise I am not getting any promotional thing from this. Just so you know.) For one thing, they can help you with citations, which is always welcome. There is also this cool view, called “Family” view, which allows you to see all of the family with a list of siblings.

this is a screenshot of Family view on a project I’m currently working on

There are also hints that can connect to FamilySearch, Find My Past, and MyHeritage (they’re those little light bulbs in the image above). And, they are working on hooking up with Ancestry as well. (The secrets you learn at RootsTech…) If you buy the full version, you can “memorize” a citation and put it in all of the people or records that the citation is the same for.

Basically, I at least encourage people to try the free version. And if it doesn’t work for you, go out there and find something better!

tips and tricks

Mastering Historical Background

So you know a bunch of facts about your ancestor. He was born in England but immigrated to the United States. He was a farmer in Utah and had nine children. And these facts are great, especially if you are trying to find out who his parents were or if there is a missing child in the mix. But what about trying to understand the people that you are researching and what their lives were like. This is where historical sources come in.

I’m not talking about your run-of-the-mill county histories. I mean peer-reviewed sources. Why am I writing about this right now? Because historical sources are a part of the Compiled Lineage and Proof Summary that I have due on Thursday and I don’t have any yet. (Ah, college…)

First off, just thinking about what you could look for in historical background can be really overwhelming. There are a lot of things that comprise a person’s life. I would start by looking at all of the facts that you have, where they took place, and what kind of topics you could look into for more information. Then make a list. I am a big believer in lists because my mind cannot focus on all the things running around in there. If you make a list, you have a solid list of topics that you can start to search through until you find something that works and fits your ancestors and/or research paper. These topics can be huge ideas like immigration or about things like family life in Iowa in the 1870s. You can search seriously anything that you want to learn more about.

Once you have some topics, it is hard to even begin to think where to look for the actual articles and books. You can try a few general searches in your local library’s catalog for books that have that topic. That can lead to a lot of great results. Another good tactic is using databases. This can be hard for those of you who aren’t going to school like me, but I would check to see if your local library has subscriptions to any databases that you can use on their premises. Or if you live near a college you can check to see if they allow patron use on the computers. Family history centers may also be a viable option. Two great databases that I have been made aware of are “America: History and Life” and “Historical Abstracts.” “America: History and Life” focuses on articles about the United States and Canada and “Historical Abstracts” focuses on everything except for the United States and Canada. So depending on where you are researching, you’re going to want to use different databases.

In searching, it can be important not to search too specifically in these databases. They aren’t like Google. So if you want to know what type of farming took place in northern Utah in the late 1800s, you can’t just search for that verbatum. The search engines don’t work like that. Try typing in something like this:


or even something like this:


It gives you a lot of options to look through, but not too many. In this list, there are articles like “The ‘Americanization’ of Utah’s Agriculture” and “Interdependence and Change: Mutual Irrigation Companies in Utah’s Wasatch Oasis in an Age of Modernization, 1870-1930,” which are worth looking through.

Another example: I have heard in the process of researching a family for my class that where my ancestor was living at the end of his life was the sheep capital of Utah. So if I wanted to back that up with historical evidence, I could do a search like this:


It’s definitely a weird search and kind of random, but it yielded an article called “Grazing in Utah: A Historical Perspective” that I could look at to see if it mentions where my ancestor was living.

Research is not an easy process, as you all know if you have done even a little family history work. It takes a lot of trying different things until you find what you are looking for. But I would say to not have too specific ideas in mind. I have noticed sometimes in my own research that when I am looking for something incredibly specific, it can make it even harder because I ignore other options that don’t look like they would have what I would want, but actually might contain some interesting stuff. So keep an open mind and good luck with all your research!

tips and tricks

Records of the Dead Are the Best!

photo from

Or they can be. If your ancestors left behind a probate record, count yourself among the extremely lucky. Because those things are beast.

I used to think that death records meant death certificates. That was it. You could find a record that told you when your ancestor died and, if you’re really lucky, cause of death. (Death certificates are also good for finding out information like birth and stuff if there isn’t a record for that event available.) But there is so much more!

So I already mentioned probate records, so let’s talk about that. So probate records can include all sorts of things and they are usually several pages long. In fact, they are called probate files. Probate is the legal process of how to distribute goods of a deceased person. In probate files there is the will (which has to do with real property) and testament (personal property) and can also include an inventory of all the worldly goods of that person, and affidavits of people stating that they received their fair share of the inheritance. Unfortunately, if your ancestor died intestate (without a will), there probably won’t be a probate record for them.

My professor told us that when looking for probate records, it’s better to search broadly and that sometimes, there can be decades between when the person died and when the probate record was filed. So search many years out if you aren’t finding anything close to when your ancestor died. It’s always good to start with an index of the probate records before you start sifting through them. Otherwise, if your ancestor doesn’t have a probate record at all, or at least not one in that collection, you would have wasted a lot of valuable time.

Other records that can replace death certificates are funerary records or burial records. These often state when the death occurred and the burial as well. Funerary records are found at the funeral home where the person was laid to rest.

So even though your ancestors are dead, you can learn so much about them from the records that their death left behind.

random thoughts

You are a Part of Your Family History

photo from Meagan (flickr)

The first year I went to RootsTech, there was a speaker who encouraged us to start our family trees with ourselves. (They were specifically talking about creating a tree on Ancestry, but it applies across the board of tree makers.) And that really struck me. Because I feel like sometimes family history seems like it always takes place in the 1800s or such old dates. But really, we are an active part of our family history and right now, that family history starts with us. (Sometimes I think about the people who will be doing my family history someday and hope that I haven’t made it too hard on them…)

As part of my studies in Family History, I am taking a class called Composing Personal History. Basically, we are writing stuff about our ancestors and ourselves. I have written about traditions in my family, about a story in my life, and right now we are writing memoirs that connect us to an ancestor. It’s really cool because I am writing about a woman who I never knew, but because both of us turned to music in our trials, I feel like we are connected over the years.

Another part of that class is journal writing, which we are required to do every day. And which I will now shamelessly plug. 🙂 I used to be really good at writing in my journal, but as life went on, I began to ignore the journal on my desk. My freshman year, I hardly wrote in my journal at all. And now I am incredibly sad because I had a lot of amazing memories that year with a lot of new friends and I feel like I have lost them on a certain level because I don’t remember everything. Since I started writing in my journal again, not only am I able to catalog the fun and amazing things that are happening in my life, but it is also an amazing sound board for my own thoughts.

I have been struggling with finding out about the details of the lives of the family I am researching right now for my family history class and I wish I could get my hands on a journal. Help your future ancestors and preserve all of your journals so when they want to know what you did in college, they can use your journals to understand more of you.

You can also start gathering family stories. FamilySearch is really pushing for that kind of thing on their memories page. You are able to upload life stories in “Documents,” type out your own stories or memories in “Stories,” and listen to the voice of your relatives by uploading audio files. A great way to learn stories that you can share and save is through interviewing living ancestors. I recently interviewed my grandma and it may seem kind of weird at first, but in the end it is fantastic! I learned so many things about her that I didn’t know about at all. And a lot of times, relatives will have stories about ancestors. My mom knows a lot about the family that I am researching for my class and it’s amazing that I can just talk to her and learn so much about them.

I just feel like even if you don’t do any of these things that I’ve mentioned in this post, remember that you are a part of your family history. And hopefully that will make you feel connected to the people you are researching.

tips and tricks

Reasons Why the World and the People in it Have Made Family History Hard

photo from thurlbut (flikr)

As I mentioned in my first post, family history is fantastic and wonderful and fulfilling, but it can also be frustrating. Because records are only available for certain time periods in certain areas (like, if you have ancestors from Austria or Cambodia, I wish you my sincerest good wishes because they have no records…I’m sorry) and other human factors, sometimes you just can’t find the record that you want in the best way (as in primary, original sources).

The first thing is that records in the traditional sense aren’t always created or mandated by the state for a period of time. I am doing a research project on a family that lived in Morgan, Utah in the late 1800s, early 1900s. And records didn’t start until 1898, which was when the father of the family died. So birth records for their children had to be creative. There were few marriage records (especially those of LDS origin because people were being married in the temples, not at the courthouse). This family also caused a problem because I wanted to know when crossed the plains after emigrating from England to travel to Utah, but they traveled in a company that did not keep a roster of the people who were a part of it. Through many different sources, though, I have been able to at least narrow the company down.

And then there is the terrible, horrible, and utterly depressing destruction of records. The amount of destruction happening in Europe in World War II was enough to make the LDS church start microfilming records despite the enormous cost. And you know how the census is your best friend in research? Well after the 1890 US Census was taken, the building in which it was housed caught fire and half of the census burned. And then the brilliant census people (who I do not like, you’ll see why in a minute) took all of the data so they could calculate population and representation in the House of Representatives, decided that it had already served its purpose and rather than save what was left decided to burn the rest of it. Yes! They burned it! Which means an entire year of statistics and data was made into a fire starter. Honestly, more like twenty years because there is such a huge gap between 1880 and 1900. When I first learned this, I couldn’t believe it.

Luckily, there are often ways around the bad records or the horrible, destructive travesties that have been wreaked against them. If records don’t exist, try different records. Look on their death record or marriage license or draft registration for the birth. Look in newspapers and diaries. If you have an ancestor who was living in 1890, you can look at mortality schedules that were published in 1889. Or, there are usually city directories that you can use as a replacement census.

Just keep on looking and you can find your ancestors. And let us all have a moment of silence for the 1890 Census as you go…

random thoughts

The History of Family History is Pretty Interesting

photo from b r e n t (flickr)

Okay, I don’t know if you know this, but there was a time in America that family history was considered a terrible, almost treasonous act.

You see, back in England, people did genealogy so they could prove that they were a part of the royal family. But after the American Revolution, people were trying to keep themselves as far away from England as possible. So if someone was doing genealogy then it seemed to everyone else that they were loyalists to the crown, trying to cozy up to England. If you wanted to do genealogy, it had to be sneaky. This lead to a greater tendency for people to be valued or known for their accomplishments rather than their ancestors.

This changed in the early 1800s. People started looking back at their ancestors. In 1812, the American Antiquarian Society was formed and in 1820, Daniel Webster gave an oration that sparked interest in genealogy. But as America transitioned toward the Civil War, genealogy became a tool for North and South to compete and for people to identify race and the higher race. Because of these two things, genealogy helped shift people’s identities as collective rather than individual.

Fraudulent genealogy was very large during this time (but, trust me, it had gone on before and still happens). But in this case, people started giving people money to find their ancestors. But when they couldn’t find anything they would either make up lines and ways that people were related to royalty, or make up fraudulent crests. So double check those royal lines you have. 😉

Then things started getting crazy as family history was professionalized, democratized, and commercialized.

Professionalization means that family history started to follow scientific inquiry. In 1912, Sousa Young Gates was the first to start publishing lessons, manuals, and how-tos about genealogy. And about this same time came a rise in documentation and a questioning of traditions. The Genealogical Society of Utah was formed, which was followed by the American Society of Genealogists. In 1964, the first accreditation programs were available, which were followed by Master’s programs at many universities and Bachelor’s program at Brigham Young University in Provo.

Democratization means that more people are participating in genealogy and it is more egalitarian. As mentioned before, in the 1800s, genealogy was a lot about race and exclusion. But with the Civil rights movement (which brought a sense of identity and belonging) and a decree in 1938 that eugenics were bad, that was slowly changing. One of the largest influences on the democratization of family history was the show “Roots” that appeared in 1977. New developments include DNA and FamilySearch.

Technology has changed the game in genealogy because now companies like Ancestry and Find My Past are offering genealogy tools and records for a price. They are able to gain on the genealogy craze that has swept our age. There are reality TV shows about family history like “Who Do You Think You Are” and “Relative Race.” Every year, RootsTech tries to convince people (especially young people like me) that genealogy is an up-to-date activity that relies heavily on the technology that we use so much these days.

Now all that’s left is to see what happens next in family history.

Whew! That was quite the history lesson. We covered this in multiple days in my class and you just got it in five minutes. If, however, this was not enough for you and you want to read more about the history of family history, I recommend Family Trees: a History of Genealogy in America by Francois Weil.

Image result for family trees a history of genealogy in america
Photo found on Goodreads


random thoughts

My First Experience With Family History

I don’t remember it!

Necessarily. I mean, I’ve had a lot of experiences since then. But I think the first time I ever did anything with family history, I was in church in a class and my teacher had me connect a source to an ancestor. I don’t even remember which ancestor it was, but I was amazed at how with a few clicks of a button, I was able to build someone’s story.

After that, most of my family history work was indexing records through FamilySearch. I found that it was the easiest, simplest way that I could speed the work. It didn’t require hours of research (which I didn’t and still don’t really consider myself good at) and I could feel like every time I submitted a batch, I was helping one more person find their ancestor.

My mom is the main person who inspired me to do family history in college. She got really big into it and would animatedly tell us stories at the dinner table about the coolest or weirdest thing she had found in our tree that day. It was so cool to see her face light up as she told the stories.

When I started taking classes, I had no idea what I was getting into. Family history has always kind of seemed like a fluffy thing, where everyone is frolicking through the field of flowers, discovering their ancestors and embracing them as our hearts turn to our fathers and vice versa. But no. It is so much more intense than that. It is research and records not being kept or, even worse, being burned, so you can’t actually find the one record you need to prove that this woman is this man’s daughter. It is frustration and hours upon hours of research. But ultimately, when you find a person or a record, it causes the most satisfaction of all.

I was doing a research project in a class a few months ago. I had to research a woman that I found on Billion Graves with only the information that was on the gravestone. Her name was Roxie Madsen. Because it was just a gravestone, her maiden name wasn’t listed. I was able to find census records for her only back so far because I didn’t know what last name to look for or her parents’ names. A friend in the class recommended that I look for a marriage record. Duh. I felt kind of stupid, but took the advice. And when I found that marriage license, with the maiden name of Garner written in clear handwriting, I literally stood up and ran around the room while screaming, “I found her, I found her!”

So even though family history work is excruciatingly frustrating sometimes, it is also one of the most fulfilling experiences in the world. I’m still learning and I have a long way to go. But I’m willing to learn it all.