Friday, 24 April 2015

Finding Private Thomson

Finding Private Thomson - Lest We Forget

Image Wikipedia Creative Common ©©

This week I began a blog post in honour of Anzac Day and my great uncle, William Shaw Thomson, and it ended up having a most unexpected twist.... 

I began writing a post in memory of my great uncle who died in 1915, on the battle field of France and Flanders in World War 1, as a private in the fourth battalion of the Gordon Highlanders. As my post progressed,  I began to get a feeling that, although I definitely had the correct great uncle on my tree, I had possibly collected the wrong military records for him. With a feeling of dread, I realised that I might have researched a war story of the wrong man. The worst part of this realisation was that I had grown fond of my soldier. I knew his battle story well. I had researched William Shaw Thomson some years ago, when just starting out in family history and I admit that I was not nearly as thorough a researcher as I have learned to be in the ensuing years. Details about my Private Thomson were not adding up. I had not cited my sources adequately back then and so I found it difficult to understand how I had reached the conclusions that I had before me. 

When on a newly discovered record, I saw that the William S Thomson whose records I had, ( Regimental number 3963/4) was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, and I knew that my great uncle was born in Bothwell, Lanarkshire, Scotland, I was certain that my early research was flawed. At first I grieved for my now unrelated William S Thonson and then I set about spending many hours researching  World War 1 records in an effort to find a trace of my own Private William Shaw Thomson. I finally discovered a death record for a William Thomson, (Regimental number S/7454) who like my relative was born in Bothwell. Although this William Thomson was the only soldier by that name  in the Gordon Highlanders who was born in Bothwell, I lacked evidence to link this record to my great uncle. In pursuit of the truth, I  regretfully made the decision to remove the existing records from my family tree and resolved to start my research again, at a future date. Of course, this meant that I no longer had an Anzac day blog post. And I no longer had  a date of death, a military history or a World War 1 story for my great uncle William Shaw Thomson. 

This morning, I thought of ideas for a different Anzac Dayblog post, since tomorrow in Australia and New Zealand we remember our war heros. This year, on April 25th, it is the 100th anniversary of the Battle at Gallipoli and so a very special Anzac Day.

 I recalled that I had been given a box of war memorabillia in 1999, following my father's death.  The box, owned by my great uncle John Clarke White, brother of my paternal grandmother, has been sitting in a cupboard since then, waiting for me to find time to look through it. Today, I decided to examine the 'bits and pieces' that my great uncle John kept from his service in World War 2.  This I thought would be the topic of my new Anzac Day Blog.

 But fate , or serendipity had other ideas.....

My Great Uncle's box. Image Sharn White ©
As I sorted through the medals and fascinating war objects that my great uncle, John White had kept from his World War 2 service, I noticed three medals that I knew were not related to the contents of the box. When I was aged about 11, my grandmother  had given me three  medals and I am loathe to admit that I have never gotten around to researching them. Now, I could see clearly that they were World War 1 medals. Since I planned to photograph the contents of the box for my blog post,  I decided to take photos of the three World War 1 medals at the same time. 

The British Victory Medal Image Sharn White ©

Back of the Victory Medal 1914-1919

The British War Medal

The British War Medal-back

The 1914 Star
When I turned the medal, known as the 1914 Star, over to look at the back, and read the inscription, I was at first quite puzzled. My paternal grandmother had Thompson ancestors but I couldn't think of a single one with the first initial of W...... Then like a bolt of lightening, the realisation struck me.... the name on the back of the medal was THOMSON. It had no 'p'. I knew at once that the medal in my hand, belonged to my great uncle William Shaw Thomson. I was holding the evidence I needed to find the very same man I had given up searching for the previous night. To add to my disbelief, the Regimental number was the same one as that of the William Thomson I had found the previous night born in Bothwell. Regiment number S/7454.  With much joy, I return, therefore, to my post about my great uncle, William Shaw Thomson, Lance Corporal, ( promoted from Private) who served in the First battalion of the Gordon Highlanders. I will not forget the other William Thomson and his story will be told in another post.



Pte William Thomson's 1914 Star. He died as a Lance Corporal

My great uncle, by marriage, William Shaw Thomson was born on April 13, 1892, the sixth child of Thomas and Margaret (Shaw) Thomson in Bothwell, Uddingston, Glagow in Scotland.

My great aunt, Margaret Bonnar McDade was born on September 25, 1896, at Bishopton, Erskine, Renfrewshire, Scotland, the second child of John and Elizabeth (Gibson) McDade.

William and Margaret, known to all as Maggie, both grew up in coal mining families. By 1911, the McDade family was also living in Uddingston and Maggie and William were destined to meet and fall in love.

William and Magaret, known to all as Maggie, both grew up in coal mining families. By 1911, the McDade family was also living in Uddingston and Maggie and William were destined to meet and fall in love.

On September 7, 1914, Margaret Bonnar McDade, of 7 Watson Street, Uddingston aged 18 years married William Shaw Thomson of 27 Maxwell Place Uddingston.

William was 21 years old and a coal miner but undoubtedly, since Britain had declared war on August 4th, 1914, he was about to go off to fight. Nowhere in Britain, were the recruiting numbers as high as they were in the Scottish city of Glasgow as young men including William Thomson, responded to the call to enlist. Couples rushed to marry before they were separated for an unknown length of time.

William Thomson and Maggie McDade were married at 19 Howard Street, Glasgow which in 1914 was a type of Registry Office. Scotland is famed for its marriage types - regular (a marriage in a church following banns) and irregular (by consent in the presence of wittnesses and legalised by presenting before a sheriff and payment of a fine) and although irregluar marriages were not condoned by the Church in Scotland, they were tolerated as a preferable alternative to couples living in sin. In 1914, on the cusp of war, in Scotland, the number of irregular marriages rose as young people rushed to find a quick and inexpensive way to bind their love, before young men went off to war. Maggie and William's marriage was registered by the warrant of a sherrif. Their marriage registration states

Warrant of Sherrif's Subsitute of Lanarkshire, dated September 7th, 1914.

William Shaw Thomson joined the First Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders. I have no diary or account penned by his own hand of his battle experiences so I must rely on accounts told by other members of the 1st batttalion. 

Below is a brief history of the where the 1st battalion, Gordon Highlanders' served in World War 1, between 1914 and 1917 when William Thomson was killed in battle.

1914 - France, the Battle of Mons, Solsmes, Le Cateau, Zeebrugge.
1914-15 - The Winter Operations (November 1914-February 1915) French and Belgian Flanders. 

West Flander 1914-1915 Winter Operations Image Wikipedia ©©
March - September 1915 - Ypres, Hooge
March 1916 - The Bluff, Ypres
July 1916 - Longueval and Delville Wood
Late 1916 - Serre on the Ancre River 
1917 - Arras

William Shaw Thomson saw a great deal of action and surely far too much horror fighting alongside his comrades in the Gordon Highlander 1st battalion, however, tragically, he was killed in the line of duty, on June 18th at Arras.

A diary reproduced on The Gordon website, paints a poignant picture of William Shaw Thomson's last days with his battalion in June of 1917:

1st    Bn preparing to move to Arres
2nd   Bn paraded at 6.55 am, buses to Arres, good billets
3rd   Bn church parade
4th   Bn training for coming operation, moved billets owing to shelling
5-11th Bn training and assault practice with the Suffolks
In the line
13th   Bn relieved 1st RSF in Hill trench east of Monchy
14-19th Bn attacked at 7.20 am took trench and established posts on the mound and high ground. Very heavy fighting from counter attacks. Successful operation but heavy losses. 70 killed, 160 wounded, 27 missing.
Lance Corporal William Shaw Thomson, Regimental Number S/7454, was one of the 60 men killed.

                                                   LEST WE FORGET

Lace Corporal William Thomson's memorial at Arras, in the Faubourg-d' Amiens Cemetery


What part must we play in our genealogy education?

Are we shifting responsibility?
Genealogists cannot rely on a librarian, archivist or courthouse clerk to bring them up to speed on things like:
  • the historical basis for the development of a record group
  • advice about other record groups that may also prove beneficial
Quite frankly, a librarian, archivist or courthouse clerk is responsible to provide access to specific record groups. They are not paid to think though our genealogical quandaries. There are other people waiting in line for help with file retrieval. 

We become "newbies" all over again, when it comes to changes in an ancestor's residence, occupation or religious affiliation.

Encountering unknown terms in a legal document or an unfamiliar cause of death leave questions to be answered.
IMAGE: Myrtle Eliza Weiser at the time
of her engagement circa 1917. SLC, Utah.
From the author's private collection.

Clearly, genealogists have a need for additional education specific to research at hand.

It may take personal sacrifice.

Ancestral metaphor: My paternal grandmother, the real Myrtle in our family, decided she wanted to be a nurse, and as such she matriculated at St. Marks Hospital Nursing School in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her family wasn't wealthy, since her father was often led away for years at a time by interests in such things as a travelling circus. Myrtle's mother had many mouths to feed. Despite the problems, the sacrifice was made and tuition paid. Grandmother studied hard, passed her tests and practicums and served as a nurse through much of her adult life.

Two Options
Family historians have two options when it comes to accurately compiling their pedigree charts:
  • hiring a professional genealogist as a mentor or as a researcher
  • educating oneself about relevant record groups and research methodologies
Educating oneself
Assuming we are committed to active learning, note-taking and follow-through, let's consider two types of learning experiences:

Participant-led curriculum, meaning you choose which classes to take and in what order.

Instructor-led curriculum, meaning the course coordinator designs the series of multiple class sessions with homework, group projects and practicums, leading to a certificate of completion.
For further reading
  • Sue Adams provides a thoughtful post titled Time for Formal Genealogy Education? and includes a listing of in-person  courses, online courses, institutes, and undergraduate programs.
  • Genealogical Proof Standard from the Board for Certification of Genealogists includes brief descriptions of elements of the GPS with notations about how adhering to each element contributes to the credibility of our compiled genealogies.
  • National Genealogical Society Standards and Guidelines includes standards for sound research, the use of technology, sharing with others as well as guidelines for using repositories and libraries, publishing web pages and suggestions for self-improvements and growth.
Call to Action
Let genealogists commit to overcoming inexperience by selecting appropriate educational opportunities to improve comprehension of relevant extant record groups and hone research methodology skills.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

WDYTYA Live 2015 at Birmingham

After many years at Olympia in central London, Who Do You Think You Are? Live made its first foray out of the capital with the event in Glasgow last August.  The Scottish event was curtailed, so some doubted the move to The National Exhibition Centre (NEC) on the outskirts of Birmingham would be a success.  The announced return to the NEC next year, on the 7-9 April 2016, suggests otherwise.  For me, Birmingham had an added bonus of visiting my Aunty Dorothy, who attended the event for the first time.

Dorothy (not in period dress) in the 1939 cafe

Dorothy and myself are different kinds of attendee.  Dorothy was more interested in the talks than the vendor stands.  She found the Workshops listing on the WDYTYA? Live website difficult to find, navigate and print. That was an obstacle to her discussion on which talks were most interesting with the two friends she invited along.  An iphone/ipad app was an innovation this year, but there was no android app or Google calendar file for download and import.  Dorothy's relaxed approach was to arrive in time for lunch, attend a couple of talks, browse a few stands and chat with people in the 1939 cafe.  She enjoyed herself so much she came again the next day.

My full time 3 days required a lot more stamina, which I enjoyed just as much as Dorothy.  My focus included networking with other professional genealogists, learning about newly available resources, and helping people on their ancestral journeys.  I particularly enjoyed spotting Strathclyde alumni badges.  I managed to squeeze in only a few talks between stints on the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG) stand and Ask the Experts. 

Ask the Experts area

My time giving expert advice flew by leaving me in need of the bottled water provided between each 20 minute session.  I helped people by reading secretary hand (an old style of handwriting), explaining property tenures, demonstrating online resources and search strategies, and pointing out records housed in offline archives.  An enquirer presented a type of document I had not seen before, so I also learned something new.

Attendee exploring records at the findmypast stand, The Genealogist Tithe Record poster

An important function of an exhibition is the demonstration of products.  The big online genealogy vendors, Ancestry, findmypast, My Heritage and FamilySearch all made their websites and records available for attendees to explore.  The Genealogist promoted their Tithe Record collection with a large poster, but provided no access to their website or records at all.  That was disappointing, as I particularly wanted to see the tithe maps.  On asking a staff member showed me the website on a tablet computer.  That was even more disappointing.

'Online map' and 'digital map' to most people means Google maps, bing, or satnav.  Mapping technology is now ubiquitous and there are plenty of examples of online historical maps, including tithe maps, that make good use of the technology.  In There Be Dragons – Finding Tithe Maps for England and Wales I voiced disquiet about this company's ability to present good quality online tithe maps.  Sadly, it seems my fears have been realized.  The map I was shown was a poor quality black and white image, which I think was from microfilm.  Neither the map image nor the pin markers were georeferenced or geocoded.  In my book, that makes the markers seriously un-smart. 

General Register Office stand

My experience at the General Register Office (GRO) stand was much more fruitful.  Following the Deregulation Act passed just a few weeks ago, it is now legal for civil registration records in England & Wales to be made available in a form other than an officially certified copy.  It will be up to the minister, whoever that will be after the election, to consult and implement any changes to current arrangements.  The GRO representative told me that about half of the registers have already been scanned, which is encouraging.

WDYTYA Live 2015 was stimulating and informative.  I look forward to next year.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Benjamin and Susan Rowe of Newlyn: from fishing to baking

Benjamin ‘Ben’ Jaco Rowe, my great-great-grandfather, was a Cornishman who was born, lived and died in Street-An-Nowan area of Newlyn, Cornwall, England.  However as a fisherman he roamed much further afield.

Born in 1860, Ben was still a scholar in 1871, but by 1881, aged 21, was working as a fisherman.  In July 1884 he married 19-year-old domestic servant called Martha Jane Laity Quick from neighbouring Mousehole in 1884, up on the hill above Newlyn at the parish church at Paul. 

Newlyn Harbour, by Tim Green, Flickr
On 29 June 1885 he would have been involved in the huge celebrations for the ceremony of the layout of the foundation stone of the new Newlyn south pier (shown here on the right with the light-house).  The story reporting the celebration is the longest I have come across in the Cornishman and details the many decorations along the way of the procession which walked for a mile from Penzance. The stone itself was laid by Charles Campbell Ross, the Conservative MP for St Ives and several-time Mayor of Penzance, was invited to lay this stone. The north pier is the one on the left in the photo and was built in 1888.

Mr Ross’ home has now become the Morrab Library and Morrab Gardens.  The Morrab Library is an independent library, and satisfyingly is home to a large genealogy and history archive which I had already planned to visit later this summer when I should be down in Newlyn & Penzance.

Ben’s young wife Martha died three years after their marriage in summer 1887 aged only 22; I can’t be sure without the actual certificates but I believe they had a daughter, named Martha for her mother, who was born and died in late 1886.

Ben was alone until 1891, when he married his second wife, Susan ‘Susie’ Sullivan of Newlyn, just before Christmas 1891.  Her father Henry, variously described as a fisherman and a shoemaker – possibly both depending on opportunity - had died before she was five years old.  Her mother, also called Susan, had been a teacher when Susie was young; Susie had worked as a domestic but later worked with her mother and two sisters hawking fish.

Susie, my great-great-grandmother, was a few years older than Ben, being 36 to his 31 when they married.  Perhaps she had thought she may have, well, missed the fishing boat when it came to marriage and family, but their oldest daughter was born in late spring 1893. The baby was named Susan for her mother and grandmother and also became known as Susie.

12 November 1894 saw huge flooding in Newlyn. The flood waters washed away a bridge, and people were being rescued from their upstairs windows into boats.

In May 1896 there was rioting in Newlyn, as fishermen took action after ‘Yorkies’ (Lowestoft men) tried to unload in Newlyn on the Sabbath. As there was such a strong Methodist & non-conformist community local men did not fish on Sundays but the men from the east [of England] were getting better rates for their Sunday catches than the local men during the week. Penzance men supported the Lowestoft fisherman, and there were 3 days of rioting which was suppressed with solders and a naval boat entering the harbour and threatening to destroy Newlyn men’s boats. The riots stopped but a civil campaign was put in place and the situation was eventually resolved with a solution that neither side liked but both worked with. Further info on the Newlyn Riots.

That same summer, three years after baby Susie was born, her younger sister Catherine, my great-grandmother, arrived into the world on 10 July 1896.

Newlyn Harbour present day, Tim Green, Flickr
On 2 September the following year the Cornishman newspaper reports good line fishing from Newlyn pier and also good catches of mackerel.  Immediately underneath that report is a story about Prince Bendon cycling up the very steep hill in Newlyn.  Prince who!?  Turns out Prince Bendon, real name William John Bendon, was a Devon-born ventriloquist who went on to make a career in the Scottish cinema industry, one aspect of which saw him establishing the first film rental company there. If Ben wasn’t at sea perhaps he, Susie and the girls was in the crowd as:

“the hill was alive with people, who so crowded the rider that his task was rendered more difficult than it would otherwise have been.  The feat was a remarkable one and satisfied the spectators.  Twice the rider had to dismount on account of his chain slipping, but he made the ascent dexterously and descended without a mechanical break.  He used his foot as a break in his descent.” [The Cornishman]

Although for a long time Bendon had been based in Glasgow, it looks like that was the year that he travelled to London to look at including films in his act so this sounds like a great publicity stunt; maybe he was touring around and happened to be in the Newlyn area.

Wolf Rock Lighthouse, Paul Gillard, Flickr
On 30 April 1898, with Catherine under two years old and young Susie only five, Ben was out fishing in his boat, the Eleanor.  As ‘the mackerel do not approach the Cornish shore... the boats go long distances in search of big shoals of fine fish’ [Royal Cornwall Gazette]. The Eleanor was one of several boats caught by a bad storm in the west near the Wolf Rock with its lighthouse, 8 nautical miles off Lands End. While others made it to safety in the Isles of Scilly or headed back to Mounts Bay, the Eleanor went missing overnight with ‘five married men and a boy on board’ as reported as far away as Aberdeen [Aberdeen's People Journal].

One can only imagine the strength and determination of both Ben and the crew, as they fought the wrath of the storm out near the Wolf Lighthouse, and of Susie as she waited for news of her husband, with her daughters by her side, sick to her stomach.  What relief when the news came in on the 1st May that the Eleanor and her crew had survived. Her own childhood without her fisherman father must have been very much on her mind.

Benjamin was still working on the Eleanor in 1905, but following the death of his father that year either his heart wasn't in it, or things weren't working out financially, and by 1911 he was working as a baker in Newlyn.

Family tradition goes that he saved the life of an Italian man who gave him a recipe for ice-cream, and he sold it in his shop in small quantities in addition to bakers’ wares.  Although Susie was very soft hearted and would give away sweeties to children, they made a good living.

In 1819 they became grandparents when Catherine’s oldest child, Mary, was born.  However, tragedy struck the family in 1920 when their older daughter Susie died, aged only 27.

Ben and Susie lived on together until November 1938, when Ben died suddenly at home and was described in the intimation as ‘one of the best’.  The service took place at Trinity Methodist Church and he was buried in a plain oak coffin in a wall grave at Paul cemetery.  Susie died the following year after an illness and was also buried in Paul with Catherine’s tribute reading ‘to the dearest and best of mothers’. They had lived to see a four grand-children and a great-grandson.

Ancestry, FindMyPast, British Newspaper Archive, family information.

Text by Lynne Black, first published 21 April 2015 on Worldwide Genealogy blog
Images from Flickr under creative commons licence, Tim Green and Paul Gillard as indicated.

To conference or not to conference

 To conference or not to conference? That is indeed the question!

Over the last few months I have been heavily tied up with family history conferences.

First it was RootsTech-FGS in Salt Lake City in February and before I knew it the triennial Australasian Congress of Genealogy and Heraldry (the equivalent of the USA’s FGS conference) had arrived.

At RootsTech-FGS I was just there to learn, hit the family history library, maybe do a blog post or two, have fun, and meet up with genimates. Congress 2015 was a little more pressured with responsibilities as one of the three official bloggers (Jill Ball aka GeniAus, and Shauna Hicks) and also because I was presenting two papers. You can meet the speakers and learn about their topics by looking at this summary by TravelGenee, Fran.

We’ve had post-Congress blog reports from many genimates (you can see a list here – thanks GeniAus) as well as a Congress review hangout by GeniAus this week with its “kiss, kick, kiss” approach.

More recently others have been hanging out at WHYTYA Live! in Birmingham.

PROs and CONs

All of which has made me think in general about the pros and cons of attending genealogy conferences and how we make the choice. 

This decision differs in some ways from work-related conferences where we have to convince managers and purse-holders that our attendance will benefit us, but also the organisation, and that we will add value in some way by either presenting or reporting back to colleagues. Even if we pay for it ourselves, it becomes a tax deduction (usually).

So here’s my “five bob’s worth” (Aussie-speak for opinion) on decision-making considerations for a family history conference, whether a local, national or international one.


Put simply, dollars will be the first consideration for most people. Is there even enough money in kitty to consider it at all?

The funds may be available, but what are the competing priorities or possibilities for the individual or the family? What other travel opportunities are in the mix? (See the later section, touring).

What will the person gain from attendance? How will it improve their family history research, their skills and knowledge? Will the genea-obsessive be joined by other family members?


No matter how long we’ve been researching, whether we’re internet-driven or like to do on-site visits to libraries, archives and cemeteries etc, we will always have something we can learn from others.

Each of us develops special skills and interests, largely driven by the need-to-know basis of figuring out information relating to our ancestors. Depending on how wily they are at hiding from us, we will utilise, but also develop, brick wall strategies.

Others have suggested that it’s good to attend sessions which aren’t applicable to your own family. This doesn’t work for me simply because I don’t get many chances to attend such events as I live a long way from the hub of such activity. When I am spending significant amounts of family money on a conference I want to get maximum bang for my buck, and focus on presentations which will increase my knowledge and understanding of topics. This is why DNA talks were high on my list at RootsTech.

I also look for depth of content from speakers with a wide knowledge of their topic as well as a passion for it. Yes I’ll learn from every talk I attend, but I also want to be stretched.
Probably my key criterion to assess a presentation is whether the speaker has inspired me as well as imparting knowledge. For these speakers I will have notes which include “think about….”and maybe some mind-maps on how it might come together.

The Find My Past exhibit at RootsTech was very popular.
In the 21st mind-set of entertainment we expect the speakers to be skilled presenters but the reality is that they may not be professional speakers, just fellow family history obsessives who want to share their passion for a topic.  We also need to cut them a little slack.

Of course all this is difficult to assess in advance, so when making your decision you can only analyse what’s been submitted in the abstracts. If there’s more than one talk per session that really interests you (as there so often is) then you should be able to get knowledge value and the option to be flexible.

There's other opportunities for learning in the many displays by sponsors and exhibitors. What a great way to learn about new products, check them out on-site and get the advice of other researchers.


While this sounds a little frivolous it can play a huge role in your take-home vibe from a conference.
This is your opportunity to talk about family history for days on end without putting people to sleep or sending them running for the hills.

Geneabloggers at Congress 2015, Canberra.
Thanks to GeniAus and Mr GeniAus for the photo.

Do you know lots of other genimates from blogging or social media? This is your chance to meet them face-to-face over coffee/lunch or an informal dinner outing. One of the benefits of blogger beads (initiated by Geneablogger guru, Thomas MacEntee and shared at Congress by GeniAus) is that you can readily identify fellow bloggers and have an immediate bond.

Are you a newbie who feels they “know no one”? Conferences can be a great way to meet new people with a common interest, perhaps even new cousins. Where there’s an opportunity for research interests to be listed do take advantage of them. 


Sydney Opera House and Bridge and a large cruise ship
- our immigrant ancestors would be astonished.
Perhaps not the most critical aspect of the decision-making, or is it? The venue of the conference may be a temptation in itself. I’m sure it formed a part of my decision to attend RootsTech/FGS as it meant I could visit the genealogy holy grail, the Family History Library.

Congress 2015 was held in the Australian capital, Canberra, which was certainly a temptation with the National Library, Archives, Australia War Memorial, old and new Parliament house and other wonderful research and touring opportunities. Congress  2015 social events were held at the AWM and Parliament House – what a privilege!

And for those who’ve always wanted to visit Australia, perhaps Congress 2018 is something to put on the bucket list? It’s being held in Sydney, perhaps our most well-known city with its spectacular harbour, Opera House and Bridge. Appropriately the Congress theme is “Bridging the Past and the Future”.

Informal Survey – HAVE YOUR SAY

During a final-day Congress panel session led by GeniAus, Josh Taylor mentioned that perhaps the term “society” is out of date for younger potential genealogists. Do you agree? Are you a member of a family history/genealogy/local history society?

Also I wonder if the word “genealogy” continues to fully reflect how we refer to what we do. What is your preferred term when you tell people about your hobby obsession? Is it genealogy or family history?

What other things do you consider when you make a choice about attending a family history conference?

Have you been to conferences locally or nationally? Were they of benefit?

It would be great to hear your views and comments!

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Painting a Portrait with Words

This week at the Family History Center, I was visiting with a man who was saying he had 24 years of letters his mother had written his wife and his father's journals.  He said he had gleaned some interesting things from them but many of the letters or journals were just mundane things of life like ironing, fixing the mower, things not of interest.
Oh wow, what a picture of the life those mundane things can paint.
I will take some examples from my family using those examples he had given and paint a picture of my grandmother, my father-in-law, and mother-in-law.
My grandmother, I have said before, was a remarkable woman.  She raise 13 children of her own and 2 grandchildren.  She had a pension from her husband's military service of 5 dollars to sustain the 6 left at home and the 2 grandchildren.
1930 photo held by Fran Ellsworth
In order to make ends meet, she washed and ironed for the families who either had enough money to not want to do it themselves or they worked and needed someone else to do that job.  [My grandchildren really are pretty clueless about ironing today. They have fabrics that don't need ironing, or the parents take the clothing to the Cleaners so "they will be done right." This is a side of life they can learn about.]  My grandmother had degenerative arthritis.  Her bones in her ankles and feet slowly an painfully degenerated. When she died, the doctor couldn't believe she was still walking. It was on these feet and legs that she would stand for hours washing, no washers like we have today, and iron to earn a small amount of money to make a living.
Vintage Embroider design
That is devotion and character of never giving in or up to circumstances.  I guess she was a person who lived the saying of when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
Mundane jobs, but heroic attitudes.
My father-in-law had grown up in a family who worked.  His mother was an executive secretary and his father was an oil company executive.  They hired everything done.  While my father-in-law was not opposed to work, that is some interesting stories, he never learned to fix a mower, fix plumbing, or fix a car.
Phillip Martin Clip Art
His son as a matter of recourse, felt this left him wanting, and spent many hours learning on his own how to be self sustaining, without having to hire help.  Fixing a lawn mower, is pretty unexciting, but it illustrates that the person is mechanically inclined and spent time learning about machines as well as they are self sufficient.  Great character.
The interesting thing about my mother-in-law was she understood that her husband loved eating and he loved interesting flavors.  She would always have a large meal for him when he got home.
In this one they are camping out. Photo held by Fran Ellsworth
They would sit and visit about what happened during the day, and enjoyed the intimate relationship of a couple who shared daily activities of when they were apart as well as challenges and triumphs of life. These actions are what kept a marriage together for 60 years. This is what teaches grandchildren the ingredients it takes to make a good marriage; communication and sharing.
My point in this post is don't throw out the daily lives searching for the exciting. The exciting things are of great interest catchers, but the daily life is what shows what a person is made of. Using those activities paints mental pictures, such as a man and wife sitting across from each other and talking, working out challenges, or planning the future.  This is what can take the place of lack of pictures or lack of ever having met that person, word pictures.

Build your ancestors from the facts found.  What do you know about the vocation of farmer in the 1800s.  You might find they were store clerk, maybe they were found on a census in a poor house.  What happened to bring them there.  So many possibilities are found for stories of them just in looking in places and times they lived in.  Janet Few had some great ideas in her post this month. Funny that we were on the same page.
Keep writing the stories. Bring each of those ancestors to life with morals to their stories for your posterity.  You can do it, and there are many who are doing it.  Join their ranks.
See you next month.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

I Got Work To Do - - Scans, Etc.


How bout you?

I have not been participating in the "Do-over" memes. Maybe I should have. 

Truth is, Man and I have been traveling rather hard. 1,225 miles on Tana since we left Needles California on February 26, 2015. We have put on many more miles just driving around in Jolly the truck.

We have visited Route 66, Hoover Dam, Valley of Fire, St. George Utah, Zion, Bryce, Page Arizona where the Slot canyons and Lake Powell are. Monument Valley, Capital Reef, Moab and heading through Colorado as I type while we are rolling along. Love my iPad and the ability to write and share while rolling.

Man gazing at the stunning scenery of Monument Valley, Utah.

That said, standing in the shower this morn, my mind wandering here and there I thought of all the work and fun stuff genealogical I have to play with.

Evernote files to review. 

OneNote files to review. 

(Yes, she admits, a bit ashamedly, she uses both, Evernote and OneNote.)

Mega.  And I mean mega numbers of files to review. Digital fun galore. Not linked. Not reviewed. 

Work to do.  

I got work to do, scans, etc.

That is a name of a file on my hard drive, really it is.  See, here is a screen shot, showing the file and the 31 sub directories and the 4,524 files I have to play with.

Yes, I am a bit embarrassed to show that huge number, I mean, really, 5.51  gigs??  Of data. Unprocessed data.  Is yours that bad??

Oh, and, there is more, because, nope, it is not all filed here.  It should be, but, it is not.  I need to organize that hard drive some more too.

But for now, it awaits, as I am continuing the "step away from that computer" mode I suggested back in March.

Yes, indeed, when we get back to the stick built in SE Michigan, 

I Got Work To Do, Scans, etc.

Till then, happy researching, travel safe.


Sunday, 12 April 2015

Can Understanding the Research Process Help with Cost and Time Management?

Like many in the genealogy and family history community I have been researching for a number of years. 
I started out when Internet access was by expensive dial up and all that I used it for was email. This was when, those who could, signed up to mailing lists, in the hope of finding someone, who could help find the records needed.

Today I regularly participate in recorded videos or watch live or prerecorded broadcasts. Many of these are educational for both the participants and viewers. One I am currently helping with is Beginning Genealogy Study Group (2015): hosted as a Google+ Hangout on Air by Dear MYRTYLE.
Social media has transformed the way, that information can be shared and for anyone starting to research there is a wealth of resources available, much of it free, if you are just starting out and have not seen any of the aforementioned videos they are well worth watching.

Whilst many may happily give their time and knowledge freely there is always a hidden cost to the availability of information. Nothing in life is free.
It costs to be able to access the Internet for equipment and connection. It also costs in time. 
So we must always consider the balance, as the more time spent on a computer or other devices, is less time spent interacting with our families.
Websites are not always free but a subscription to the main sites will often pay dividends and is much cheaper than costly research trips.

As has been mentioned on here previously many in the genealogy community have decided to do a Genealogy Do Over this year as suggested and supported by Thomas MacEntee in his facebook group and on his website (last week saw the start of cycle 2). The challenge of correcting bad practices and starting over or reviewing how you carry out your research now there are so many online distractions is one that we should all consider doing. Learning from others has never been easier. When we started the Beginning Genealogy Study group we were looking at the Research Process  involving 5 steps. This led me to create a Google Sheet on the Principles of  Family History Research.
This spreadsheet is going to be one of the things I use to direct my research process and I will link it to other resources that I will be using as I build my genealogy toolbox. Please feel free to use it if you think it will help you at present the links are to be found on the Family Search website.

Having a system set up should ultimately save time as I will have a more directed research process. The technology available to assist in this process will be discussed on my Mastering Genealogy Software Blog as I work through the process over these coming months.

As I mentioned above there are educational resources on the internet and this can be entertaining as well, tips on where to research or how to research can be well worth it in both time and monetary terms. Even if you do not work in the same way as others you may find ways of using their suggestions to assist your research process. I was never a fan of mind mapping tools, I would give them a try but then find I never used them as I found them "clunky" or "time consuming" with little reward. However a website called was mentioned on a hangout and when I tried it I found it much more intuitive than others and am now intending to use it as one of the tools in my Genealogy Do Over.


Saturday, 11 April 2015

Keeping Family History Stories Alive through Fiction - Part G - "Dr. Bill" Smith

Keeping Family History Stories Alive through Fiction
Part G
"Dr. Bill" Smith

Have you identified a theme that would be useful if you wrote a family story?

For this discussion I am going to assume that you have gathered a considerable amount of family history information, including social context material such as obituaries, wedding notices, newspaper clippings, family letter or journals, and so forth; not just the bare bones vital statistics. You may have even written sketches of some of your ancestors, perhaps even other family members and friends… these would be nonfiction writing, of course, assuming you ‘stayed with the facts’ in writing them.

If you now had a desire to save some of these family stories in fiction form, one approach would be to look for themes running through one or more of the stories. [Actually, you would also want to do this if you wanted to write a good nonfiction family history, as well!]

Theme is defined as a main idea or an underlying meaning of a literary work that may be stated directly or indirectly. [Source:]

For example, in my “The Homeplace Saga” series of family saga, historical fiction stories, the theme is: “it is critically important to retain the family farm, in one piece, in the family.” It was the theme of the original novel, and the theme runs through all four novels, two other books, and hundreds of short stories that have been written in the series of stories (see: <>).

In looking at the stories, and specifically at the stories of individuals and of families, can you identify an overarching theme or idea that binds certain of the stories together? Are there perhaps two or three? You may want to choose one that you can identify and then limit your first fiction story to tell to the people and families that best share that particular story/theme. Perhaps follow-up stories can be developed from the others.

Once you have identified that first story arch/theme to work with you will want to begin to identify the main character or characters that best tell that specific story. Honestly, this is where the fun of writing fiction really begins, to me. Just writing this gets my creative juices flowing wanting to stop writing this and DO IT! … Sorry, I digress. Part of the ‘fun’ here is that you can pick and choose who is included in the story and who is not. You can take a main protagonist, perhaps, who is a man in real life, and create a female in your fictional story to play that role. You can have three interesting characters in a family rather than the four or five ‘not so interesting’ members in an actual family. You can make a composite of the characteristics of three actual people into one really complex person perhaps. I have done each of these, from time to time. Other fiction writers have done each of these. A few examples come to mind, that might be instructive. 

Laura Ingalls Wilder c. 1894

We all know Laura Ingalls Wilder, of the Little House on the Prairie series of books, and of course, the television series adaptation of her stories. Her original writings have gotten much detailed review in recent months, and some interesting examples come out of that. For example, her stories have Ma and Pa and their three girls, in the early stories (books). There was actually a young brother, but Laura intentionally left him out because he didn’t really fit in with the story she wanted to tell. Her work ‘feels like’ nonfiction (autobiographic, even, but it is not entirely that, of course), but it is really fiction, of course. For another example, Nellie (that we all love to hate, as portrayed in the television series, especially) was actually a composite person, in Laura’s books, of three actual friends from her youth. Laura’s biographers have learned these facts about her fiction writing from examining Laura’s manuscript, an actual autobiographic story, which was never published until recently, “Prairie Girl.” Comparing that story with her fiction books has become a ‘cottage industry’ in itself, in many ways.

How do you feel now about creating a fictional story to tell about some of your family history research? Does this get you excited to go DO IT, or does it turn you off at the whole idea? I’m sure there are some of each, among my readers out there. Each of us must make our own individual decisions, of course. What I am trying to do is provide some very interesting options that you may not have even considered before. If I have made you think about the process, even just a little bit, I will feel pleased that I did my job.

See you next month! I love to read comments, so please leave one or more, including questions. 

Dr. Bill


"Dr. Bill" (Wm. L.) Smith can be found regularly at his genealogy blog, "Dr. Bill Tells Ancestor Stories" <> or his family saga blog, "The Homeplace Saga," <>. He is an original contributor, as The Heritage Tourist, to the "In-DepthGenealogy" blog with a monthly column in the "Going In-Depth" digi-mag. He also writes a monthly post for the Worldwide Genealogy Blog.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Bringing Your Ancestors to Life

We all collect names and dates for our family trees. Those who are serious family historians (what I, in my old fashioned way, would call ‘proper’ family historians), will look for detailed biographical information and examine the local and social historical context for our ancestors’ lives. How ever assiduous we are about this, it is still difficult to really understand what life would have been like a hundred, two hundred, four hundred years ago. I have the good fortune to be able to get closer than most to the daily lives of my ancestors as an historical interpreter. For the uninitiated, this basically means dressing up in funny (to you that is) clothes and learning about life in past times. My own venture Swords and Spindles concentrates on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but I am known to time travel into other eras. I even spent a week building houses using Neolithic tools and techniques - techniques which actually lasted into the recent past. That was a real eye opener. What is the most efficient way of riddling chalk? What material and method made the most water-tight or long-lasting thatch? Your ancestors will have struggled with these issues. Have you ever thought how difficult it is to build a home, from wattle and daub, cob, lathe and plaster, or whatever material would have been prevalent where your ancestors lived? Do you even know what vernacular housing would have been built from in your ancestral areas, because it will vary according to what building materials were available locally?

Have you considered something as simple as collecting water? Walk to the well/pump, which may be many yards/metres away. Use a fair amount of physical energy pumping or winding up well buckets. Carry the water home in a bucket that would almost certainly have been wooden and therefore heavy. A full wooden bucket might weigh as much as four stone (25kg). It is estimated that two gallons (two large buckets full) of water would be needed by each person per day. Have you tried carrying a full bucket of water that weighs this much? You have to either use a yoke or carry it away from your body in a manner that makes it much more difficult that carrying say a suitcase of similar weight. How difficult is this? Very. How do I know? Because I have tried it. It isn’t the same because I do not have the muscle power or the stamina that my female ancestors would have had to have had and I can go back to my own comfortable, modern life afterwards but it really highlights some of the difficulties of our ancestors’ lives.

How about making clothes? First shear your sheep. Ever tried lifting a wet sheep’s fleece because you will need to wash it. How difficult and time consuming is it to spin, weave and sew in poor light? Then you have to perform your daily tasks wearing what you have made. Have you ever thought about something as simple as climbing stairs in the costume of the past? It is tricky, remember that women were frequently pregnant, carrying small children or other items.

And then there is food. How much energy does it take to make butter or bread (by hand of course) or to grind flour? It takes about an hour to do your ‘daily grind’ i.e. to produce enough flour for one loaf. I have to confess that although I have tried grinding flour, making bread, and butter and have cooked using historic recipes and equipment, I haven’t yet sampled the really gory bits, such as wringing the necks of chickens or killing pigs but I am aware that I probably should.

If you get an opportunity to participate in living history - we don’t use the r word (re-enacting) or experimental archaeology, grab it with both hands, there is no better way to bring your ancestors to life. If you care about your ancestors you owe it to them to try to better understand their lives.

Janet Few