The problem with starting over

Many of us began our genealogy research before we really understood how to evaluate or document our information sources. A year ago, I decided to be more rigorous by taking another look at the sources I had amassed for my family history. The more I did, the more daunted I felt. I realized that I needed to learn more about handling sources and I needed to develop better systems for keeping track of them. 

The learning continues every day, and the systems are gradually being developed. I decided on a naming system for image files (scans of censuses, birth registrations, etc.) and a process for reviewing and cataloging them in Aperture before I add them to my Reunion database. I am logging research notes and ideas in Filemaker Pro; this system alone has taken many hours since previously I was using Bento.

At least now I feel that I can tackle my growing list of sources systematically. The new problem? Almost every old source I turn to gives me information I hadn’t noticed before, or suggests new lines of inquiry. What a delicious problem to have!

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Begin again, again

Stuck? Overwhelmed? Have you forgotten where you left off? There are lots of ways to restart your genealogy research, and there is no better time than now (in the northern hemisphere at least) during the cold grey days of winter. 

I tackled this problem in December by starting a new course from the National Institute for Genealogical Studies. I have done several of their courses in the past and found an advanced methodology course that I hadn’t done. The discipline of working through the reading and assignments is exactly what I needed to re-energize my interest in my own research. 

New tools can often help you restart. Did you get a new scanner, camera or phone for Christmas? Give yourself time to learn how it works, then practice on your documents or artifacts until you feel comfortable with the features. Pretty soon you’ll be planning how to handle and file the new images, tying them to the ancestors in your family tree software.

Thomas MacEntee and Lisa Alzo are offering another option this month: Get Your Genealogy Groove Back Boot Camp. Sounds like an excellent and inexpensive way to rekindle that passion!

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Starting Over with Sources

January is a new starting point for a lot of things. It coincides with very cold weather  where I am and usually a little more free time than at other times of year, so I naturally turn to my genealogy hobby in my cozy office. 

This year I resolved to be more rigorous about family data and to cite sources properly. That resolve was combined with the necessity of rounding up scans and downloaded images which were scattered among three computers and two photo management software applications (Aperture and iPhoto). Yes, I know that these applications can work together, but I decided to consolidate my image files (personal photos as well as genealogy images) and manage them in Aperture on my main home computer. 

The process is a lot like physical de-cluttering – first you pull everything into one place, then put like with like to find duplicates. And oh my, did I find duplicates! The hard part of this process is resisting the urge to focus on an item and start analyzing what it tells you. That will be my reward when the clutter is gone. For now, I think I have rounded up all the strays into Aperture.

Along the way, I am developing a system of tags and categories, so that the collection will be useful in various ways. For example, I can look at all UK census images at once, or all census images for a specific family, or all 1881 images. Rediscovering images I had forgotten about is very exciting!

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Charlotte’s Story, Part 3

This is the final part of my story about my great grandmother, Charlotte Browne Gradwell Marshall. The story begins here and continues here.

A few months after her older boys were placed there in 1905, Charlotte asked Father Hudson’s to take little Freddy, now two and a half. Her sister, Jane Talbot, couldn’t care for him any more and Charlotte had secured a position in Surrey as housekeeper to a priest. She offered to send half of her wages for Freddy’s keep. Father Hudson’s refused at first, but eventually they agreed to take him.

On a cold December day in 1906, she boarded the train at Euston Station to deliver her little boy to the Birmingham orphanage. Her letters reflect her desperate resignation to having her four boys and one daughter many miles away from where she now had to earn a living. 

Soon after this, she needed somewhere for her oldest daughter, Lillian, as well. Once again, Charlotte declined the offer of a Protestant home, to ensure her daughter would be raised a Catholic. Lilly was placed in a convent home in Oxford, many miles away from her siblings, in early 1907.

Charlotte wasn’t doing well at this point. She was very depressed without Freddy and even took him back temporarily, but had to pay others to look after him so she could work. Her health declined so much that she feared she would lose her job.

Finally, by late December 1909, Charlotte was back in Birmingham with no job. Seriously ill, she was in the Aston Workhouse infirmary, where her husband had died just 4 years earlier. Young Freddy was put into yet another orphanage, not where his brothers were this time. With her family scattered and all of her resources exhausted, we can only imagine her desolation in the grim confines of the Aston Workhouse, among more than 1000 other inmates.

But Charlotte recovered. She got another position, this time as a cook. And within two years of her desperate illness, she began a new life, with a new husband, William Marshall. By 1914, most of her family was reunited in Birmingham. All six children survived to create their own stories. Charlotte herself lived to see some of her grandchildren.

I feel truly privileged to be descended from Charlotte and to tell you these parts of her story. I am grateful to Father Hudson’s and the Sisters of Mercy for their generous responses to my request for information about Charlotte and her family.

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Charlotte’s Story, Part 2

This is the story of Charlotte, my great grandmother, widowed in 1905 in Birmingham, England, with six children under age 10. See Part 1 of this story.

Within 2 months of her husband’s death, Charlotte was desperate, desperate enough to ask the local Catholic orphanage, Father Hudson’s, to take in her three oldest boys. Her parish priest wrote on her application: “Mother seems consumptive. Good deserving case. Protestants have offered to take children, but Mother refuses.” 

Her faith was important to her — she wanted them cared for by people who shared her religious beliefs. 

While she waited for Father Hudson’s decision, she was granted charitable relief of 5 shillings and 5 loaves a week. In those days, the poverty line (by some estimates) was a family income of 20 shillings a week.

Charlotte’s sister Jane Talbot was willing to take baby Freddy at first, and already had one of the two girls, but she lived in Surrey, more than 100 miles away. 

Father Hudson’s agreed to take the older boys but requested payment as soon as Charlotte found work. She applied for little Dorothy to be accepted there, too, but Dorothy was sent to a Sisters of Mercy orphanage nearby and rarely saw her brothers again until years later. 

Charlotte moved to Surrey to live with her sister while she looked for work, but managed to visit her boys from time to time. She wrote to Father Hudson’s after a visit: “I am very much grieved over little George having sores and ringworm on his head.” She begged for word that her son was getting better.

Father Hudson’s wrote back briefly to say the boys were doing well.

Charlotte’s story continues tomorrow.

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Charlotte’s Story, Part 1

Ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you a story. This story begins in Birmingham, England. In the 19th century, factories and shops attracted workers from all over, including Samuel Browne, who moved there from Derbyshire and married a local girl. This story is about his youngest daughter, Charlotte.

Born in 1873, Charlotte grew up in a back-to-back house, which was a common type of cramped housing for working families built around a dismal shared courtyard containing an outhouse, a water pump and little else. This was Charlotte’s world as a young child.

By age 11, she was orphaned, living at a training school for servants run by the Sisters of Mercy. It was a home for Catholic girls who would otherwise be in the workhouse. 

By 1895, things started to look up for Charlotte, when she married Edward Gradwell, a handsome young brass worker. Children soon followed, first Lilly, then Will, Teddy, Dorothy, George, and the last, Freddy, my grandfather. 

Freddy was barely a year old when his father died of one of the most common diseases of the urban poor, tuberculosis. He died in the Aston Workhouse infirmary, aged 36, leaving Charlotte with 6 children under 10 and no means of support. It was 1905.

Charlotte’s story continues tomorrow.

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Taking the DNA Plunge

Well before RootsTech 2011, I was considering whether or when to get a genealogy DNA test done. I think it was at a Toronto Ontario Genealogical Society event that I first listened to an excellent presentation on new discoveries in the field. The presenters were so enthusiastic that I couldn’t help thinking that maybe the high cost was worth the potential expansion of my knowledge about my ancestry, or at least my geographical origins.

Since then, I followed up webinars and other presentations, including one at RootsTech 2012, to make sure I had enough information to confirm that it was worth it, to figure out which test to choose, and to select a vendor. I was fortunate to have a conversation at a dinner just after RootsTech 2012 with a project leader for FamilyTreeDNA. He filled in some gaps for me about the importance of group projects for furthering connections and sharing understanding that is possible with DNA information.

Then I took the plunge, sending for my testing kit from FamilyTreeDNA. In a future post, I’ll discuss the tests I selected and more about group projects.

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Josh Taylor shares excellent methods in ISGS webinar

Genealogy rockstar Josh Taylor gave an excellent webinar last night for the Illinois State Genealogical Society, detailing how he organizes his digital files for his professional and personal genealogy research. He uses a number of tools to make his research time more effective, such as spreadsheets, file naming and embedding metadata within image files. These are more or less similar to the approaches I have been gradually adopting myself, so it was very helpful to learn how a professional applies himself to the same problems.

Two things in particular stand out from his presentation. One, that no matter how tempting it is to just dive into a set of records and browse where you think you might find a gem, it always pays to log your intended research in advance, with call numbers or film numbers, objectives, and other relevant information. This brings method into the activity and makes it much easier to fully document finds later. The second important thing for Josh (and for all of us taking even hobby genealogy seriously!) is the commitment to create accurate citations and attach them to the images of the material cited. He showed a very easy way to do this and said he is intending to go back and add proper citations even to material he researched years ago before he started using this method. Thanks for the inspiration, Josh!

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Heading home from RootsTech

My week in Salt Lake City is a wrap. At a post-RootsTech dinner last night hosted by Dick Eastman, I was asked my opinion of the conference. Several people nodded in agreement when I said some sessions were great, but there were too few for the intermediate and advanced genealogist. Two of the three keynotes were excellent, and the vendor exhibits were very good. The conference as a whole was well organized and the venue very good, as long as you don’t mind stairs and can live without coffee. I look forward to catching the sessions I missed from those recorded and live streamed. So many times, I had to choose between two appealing topics and sometimes I concluded that I made the wrong choice. In other cases, I walked into a session and discovered that it was poorly described and not a good pick for me at all. On balance, however, the whole week has been totally satisfying when I consider the intense three days I spent in the Family History Library making new discoveries about my family. For next year’s RootsTech, I’ll be curled up by the woodstove watching the streamed events.

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Three days at the FHL

The last three days were intensive, but fascinating. I had prepared for my research time at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City by reviewing the family lines that needed more information (basically all of them) and looking up some of the films that might be helpful. Using Evernote, I tagged census images and notes on research questions so that I could easily turn to them on the iPad when I needed to. I was determined to take notes avoiding paper as much as possible.
This approach worked much better than last year’s, when I came home with a full handwritten notebook to transcribe. However, it still falls short of what I would like to have in a research app. I was able to review my advance notes and flip over to my tree in Reunion pretty well. I made new notes as I discovered things and I captured images in snapshot notes with my iPhone. But it was too tempting to use paper for what I call thinking notes – new film numbers and new questions that came up as I worked. I will still have to transcribe these, especially to note films I viewed but which didn’t produce any useful information. As I spend the next three days at RootsTech, I’ll be looking for opportunities to try out any new app that may do the job better. Or maybe it’s out there already?

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