RootsTech Christmas Contest!

To kick off the Holiday season, I am hosting a RootsTech Christmas Contest – starting now! You could win a full four-day pass to RootsTech 2020 – with the lucky winner being announced on Christmas Day! If you’re already sold on entering, please scroll down to the contest instructions to proceed.

Latest RootsTech News:

If you haven’t already noticed, RootsTech 2020 is fast approaching. And with the Holidays coming up, it will be here before we know it! After watching the Highlights from RootsTech London just a month ago, here are some things you should keep in mind:

1: The free recorded sessions are still up on the main RootsTech site – as are sessions from RootsTech past. Did you know you can still watch some sessions from RootsTech, all the way back to 2015?! You can find these videos in the video archive section. That’s a whole lot of learning going on!

2: Swag Alert – they debuted a new swag bag for attendees this year. RootsTech London attendees received a pink backpack – and for RootsTech 2020, we’ll be getting blue backpacks!

3: The first keynote speaker of the 2020 line-up has been announced: Pulitzer Prize Winning Photographer, David Hume Kennerly  – with more great speakers to be announced soon!

4: Even if you can’t make the conference in person, be sure to check out the premium pass options for a deeper roster of virtual sessions.

5: Reminder: 2020 is the 10th anniversary bash – if you’ve been waiting for a good time to attend RootsTech – your waiting is over – this is the one you cannot miss!

6: If you can’t make the full conference, there is a special discount going on right now that cuts the single day registration fee in half! The code when registering is GENFRIEND and is good through December 9th.

Contest Rules:

In order to win, you simply have to comment on this post, or on the corresponding posts in Twitter or Instagram – Telling me about your favorite genealogy find of 2019. Only one entry per reader, please! Each comment will be entered into a drawing with the winner selected on Christmas Day. Meaning, your deadline for entry is December 24th – all day, even up until midnight.

What You Could Win:

A full 4-day pass to RootsTech 2020 (on-site in Salt Lake City), held February 26-29, 2020 – a $299 value! Don’t worry, if you’ve already registered, winning this contest would get you a full refund of your purchase price.

Pass includes the following: • Over 300 classes • Keynote / General sessions • Expo Hall • Evening events. It does NOT include any travel costs, paid lunches, virtual pass, or paid labs.

Good Luck, Everyone!

Cemetery Pet Peeves

Now that we’ve had some healthy frosts, tis the season for cemetery traipsing! Earlier this month, my mother and I were out and about, touring a couple of favorite family resting places in Northern Kentucky – and while doing so, I was reminded of some atrocious cemetery habits or conditions that grate on my nerves. Scroll through the list below to see if you can relate to any of these horror film worthy atrocities – and at the end, feel free to comment with your own cemetery pet peeves.

The military foot stone:

Let me preface this statement with a reminder that this is NOT anti-military. I come from a long line of military men, stretching from the revolution, to 1812, WWI, WWII, and the recent engagements in the Middle East. My father is a retired Lt. Colonel, as was my grandfather, and I have a new General cousin – so let’s just say, military service is in our blood, and we are very proud of this fact. However…..I am totally against the military foot stones. I really hadn’t paid much attention to these, until they encroached upon my great grandparents’ plot.

For decades, their stone was lovely and picturesque, sitting on a hillside overlooking a wooded valley – but now, we can’t take a picture of their stone without also capturing this military footstone which has been placed right up against theirs! Not only do I think they are actually encroaching on our legal family plot, but they are an eyesore, and will prove to be confusing as time passes. In most cases, this type of additional footer is placed about a foot away from the next headstone in line – but not so in this county – those who are installing them are choosing to abutt the stones right up against headstones, and I find it to be disrespectful of the neighbors. Recognizing military service is very important – but I think it best to do so on the headstone – this foot stone nonsense is a HUGE pet peeve of mine.

Leaning trees – going, going, gone:

Cemetery maintenance is a tough gig – I don’t envy anyone with this job. But maintenance is not just about mowing the lawn. It is necessary to look up and assess whether there are threats from above. As I have visited my 3rd great grandparents’ gravesite (1st generation immigrants from Germany), it is becoming harder and hard to snap a clear picture. Why? Because the neighboring pine tree is sinking lower and lower. It will fall one day, and when it does, it will take their beautiful obelisk with it. I need to contact the Church to have them remove this tree – but I shouldn’t have to – maintenance should include surrounding assessment – to make sure the stones are safe. It will be much cheaper to take the tree down than to restore a 19th century marble obelisk.

Homemade Efforts to Read Headstones:

This one made me gasp when I spotted it from across the cemetery driveway. The carvings have not been worn away, and are, in fact, quite deep. The only obstacle to reading the names is the type of granite that was chosen – a flecked, light gray stone that does make the names harder to read. The family’s attempt to rectify this situation? Paint!

While descendants can care for a headstone as they wish – please have a care and do your homework. You are probably not the only descendant out there that will need to view this stone someday. Applying paint or other substances to a gravestone can harm the stone instead of helping any readability issue. Before attempting ANY cleaning or restoration, please consult a professional or at least research this subject thoroughly prior to employing any method!

Headstone Migration:

Despite the solid structure of gravestones, many fall over due to setting and settling issues. What happens after they fall is up to the living. Unfortunately, the options used here serve as examples of what NOT to do:

Bad, but yet, readable – In this case, the cemetery decided to move all of the fallen stones into one area to help with mowing. Moved from their original location = bad. Placed face up so we can read them = good – sort of – I can only imagine the water and ice settling into the crevices will crumble the stones faster as water was designed to run down the sides, not take up residence regularly.

In one of my favorite little cemeteries, I have unearthed crumbled stones right under the sod to record who lies beneath. Not long after my archaeological efforts to record the deceased, someone decided to move the leaning and fallen stones to the nearby fencerow because they got in the way of mowing. Fast forward a few years later, and they decided to clean out the fencerow by tearing down the entire fence with accompanying trees. What solution did they choose? They piled all of the stones on a wooden pallet in the middle of the cemetery. Oh the humanity – I have no words. Not only are they too heavy for anyone to look through them, but now over time, the pile is sinking further still, crumbling under the weight of the other stones.

Removing Heritage Plants:

When wandering through the cemetery, pay close attention to any shrubs, trees, bulbs, or perennials planted on your ancestors’ graves. If the specimen looks like old growth, it may have been planted near the time of their death, or within a few years to a decade after. Why? In my family, it was just a method of dressing up the grave. Instead of bringing flowers to place on the grave periodically, which would wilt and blow away in the wind, we preferred live perennials or spring bulbs to bloom every year. Also, sometimes the plant chosen was from the deceased’s own garden or homestead – a favorite they tended for many years. What better choice than planting a piece of home on the loved one’s grave?

If you identify an older growth planting, take a pic. There are several apps out there that can help with identifying the plant in order to purchase a version for your own garden. However, in many parts of the country, the ones who get ignored and suffer due to lack of care are antique roses. The concept of “rose rustling” is actually a noble one – performing a service of care to the rose through deadwood pruning, and then leaving with a few clippings of new growth to propagate future plants. The reason we go to this trouble is because after generations of deadwood overgrowth in the central part of the bush, the friction and crowding can invite disease, eventually killing off the antique variety. Don’t misunderstand – antique varieties of rose bushes are the most hardy and prolific of any rose variant – but decades of neglect can harm them or kill them off.

These antique varieties are living echoes of migration – carried by our ancestors as they traveled west – usually planting a piece of their former home at their new destination. And the age of these varieties? Nothing to sneeze at – some rare varieties go back to the 1500s, but more commonly the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries.

CAUTION: Stealing from cemeteries is ILLEGAL – so do not go traipsing through the cemeteries looking for rare varieties to harvest for fun. The best option is to tend your own family plot and no more – or – organize a local group to properly tend the plant life in the cemetery, with a few clippings being generated to sell at a sale for cemetery upkeep. The possibilities are endless, and a cemetery maintenance plan should tend to more than just cleaning the stones and clearing out brush. This type of clearing can remove the wrong, and potentially historically priceless things. Please be careful!

So – my pet peeve here? The above hyper-cleaning of cemetery areas. So many times I have witnessed beautiful heritage growths just eliminated by those who want to make mowing easier, or just “clean up” the overall cemetery as a local good deed. For many, I know their hearts are in the right place, but in reality, this is an all too common horrific practice. When many of our cemeteries were developed – especially those from the 19th century – their intent was to create a mourning garden. A place of peace and reflection that was designed with pastoral aesthetics in mind. Nature in all of its glory, with blossoms and trees comforting those who mourn the dearly departed. When we go in and strip them clean in an attempt to clear out the brush, we throw the baby out with the bath water. Please stop this – pay a local horticulturist to assess the cemetery prior to any clean-up effort. They can identify older plant specimens, and advise on how best to prune and clean up while maintaining the original garden design.

Now, my fellow taphophiles – What are your biggest cemetery pet peeves? 

Until next time,

RootsTech 2020 Countdown is ON!

As we close out September, it’s time to take a look at the RootsTech 2020 countdown – and we’re down to 5 months! At this stage in the lead-up, if you’re planning on attending, registration is now open – and early bird pricing ends October 11th! Also, the conference hotels are filling up fast, so be sure to make your reservations ASAP!

I hope to see many of you there in 2020 as it’s the 10th anniversary celebration, which should be the best RootsTech yet. As both a speaker and ambassador this year, I would love to meet my readers and share the festivities with you all. Due to the roles I have for 2020, be on the look-out for an opportunity to win a full conference registration by commenting on a future blog post.

As most of you know, RootsTech London will be taking place in late October – but after that edition is over, there will be many more RootsTech SLC announcements released – so stay tuned!

Genealogy Book of the Day

Bibliophile in the making: Reading Wuthering Heights on the back of my Grandpa’s pick-up = goofing off for an AP English assignment back in High School.

As you can probably tell, I’m addicted to books, and have been all of my life. Yes, I do take advantage of e-book offerings from my public library, as well as request e-journal articles via Interlibrary Loan – but I still enjoy the feel of picking up a book. And yet, with the shift to online databases and digitization, I sometimes have to remind my staff and patrons that the books on our shelves contain many things not found online. Here are just a few features that a genealogist may find useful:

  • Family and local histories that were only published in very small runs – sometimes, only a few of these titles exist worldwide – but still firmly under copyright protection.
  • Land record/plat studies – again, usually only published in short runs, but amazing work that can help you map out your ancestor’s land.
  • Personal memoirs – either for one person, or a collection of local memories – again, usually published in a small run, and still under copyright.
  • Record transcription collections – so, why not go look at the original? The original may no longer exist due to disaster, or illegible writing/ink.
  • Subject bibliographies – these collections can help with identifying extant records and repositories.
  • Atlases – getting a birds-eye view of migration routes or the local community of your focus.

Stalking Genealogists:

Print resources in the Kentucky Historical Society Library

I have a confession to make – I recognize the seasoned genealogists who come into my library on a regular basis – and I stalk the resources they use. These are not the genealogists that run to Ancestry the moment they settle in for research – nope – they usually grab a cart and load up on books. Regardless of the fact that I have been researching genealogy for decades, I believe it is vital to maintain a learning spirit. Understanding that as we follow different research paths with each new project, we continue to develop our skills with each new resource we use. We could all research for millennia and not fully know about all of the resources out there. But by examining the pile of books these genealogists are using, I have been introduced to wonderful resources that I may have never discovered without a bit of genealogist stalking. And this is a lesson I often give my staff – When you are back in the stacks reshelving, pay attention to what you are putting away. Is this something that could be useful to your research in the future? Is this something that may be useful to another patron who asks for this type of information? We are fortunate to be surrounded by so many wonderful resources, and even shelving should be an act of learning.

Information Seeking Behavior:

Book Scanning Station at RootsTech 2019 – hosted by Family Search

How we seek information is vitally important to our rate of research success. After all, even the GPS requires a “reasonably exhaustive search” when formulating a genealogical conclusion. And just to be clear, a reasonably exhaustive search cannot be completed online only. Some of you may argue that there are enough primary sources in digital format that removes the need to seek anything further. Well, someday, that may be true, but statistically, in 2019, that’s just not feasible. While digitization has multiplied electronic resources at an enormous rate, there are still billions of records that have not been digitized, nor will they be in the near future. And I’m not even including archival collections in that number. The staff numbers alone will not support digitizing complete archival collections – at least not in our lifetime, unless resource and technology catch up to the weight of the task. Also, don’t forget that copyright will always be an obstacle to digitization unless strict access standards are applied. And by ignoring these digitization limitation facts, your information seeking behavior will fall flat in the success department.

Genealogy Book of the Day:

Share those books that make your genealogy glitter sparkle!

Calling all bibliophile genealogists! As we post our favorite family photos, recipes, ephemera – we rarely post about our favorite genealogy books. Of course, “favorite” is a misleading word. It would be better to say “favorite at the moment”. Because the project we are currently focused on guides our research path – often introducing us to new or forgotten research gems. So…be watching my social media feeds (Twitter/Instagram) for those moments when I discover a great genealogy or history book worthy of sharing. I will use the hashtag #genealogybookoftheday or #historybookoftheday to alert followers to a new discovery, or rediscovered favorite. Feel free to join along as this is not a daily prompt, so you don’t need to feel any pressure about scrambling to find a book each day. But think about your favorites and share them periodically to remind us all about the wonderful print resources available. As you post, just explain why this is your current favorite, and what you learned by using this resource. What is it about this book that makes your genealogy glitter sparkle?

Drumroll, Please!

Just kidding – my first selection will appear in about 24 hours.
Until then, start showing your #genealogybookoftheday love!

RootsTech 2019 Review

Psssst….RootsTech is back, Y’all…in a BIG way – so spread the word! Not that it was ever really gone – but the bad reports from last year had me worried. Despite my inclination to be a wordy blogger – I must admit I am almost speechless where RootsTech 2019 is concerned. This year’s conference surpassed my grandest expectations – and I can safely declare that this was (by far) the best one I’ve experienced yet.

To be clear, there was never a point when I could not get into a class, nor felt overwhelmed by crowds, nor had to stand in line for anything – except at the concession stand for lunch one day – which is to be expected, and even that was only about 10 minutes. The attendance totals have been in for about a week, and the general conference numbers hit over the 15,000 mark (with over 23K for Family Day) – signaling a rousing success, as usual.

For those of you who did not get to attend this year, here are a few changes that I think made a significant impact:

    1. Conference badges by mail: This meant many of us walked into the Salt Palace ready to hit sessions, instead of standing in line to pick up packets. Lanyards, badge cases, and conference bags were in multiple places throughout the Palace, making pick-up a breeze.
    2. Spreading out – By placing check-in over on the far side of the Salt Palace, along with a few of the sessions, there was more breathing room. Heading over in that area brought back memories from the early years when RootsTech was only on the north side of the Palace. Look how far it has grown!
    3. No badge scanning, except for lunches and labs. No session lines, and no one chased you out if your next session was in the same room.
    4. Opening sessions at 11am – Some folks grumbled about this, but not me – I loved this change! This allowed folks to wonder over there to find a seat in their own good time – instead of everyone running over to find a seat first thing in the morning. I am not a morning person, and getting to the 8am sessions is hard enough – but with a half hour to get over there after the earlier morning sessions, I didn’t feel rushed. Besides, once the lights go dark and you’re enjoying the festivities, you have no idea what time it is. Plus, after the program is over, folks are in a festive mood, and enjoy talking with each other – they can go to lunch, hit the exhibit hall, engage with fellow attendees, or plan for the afternoon sessions – instead of rushing off to the next session. This change also means the livestream opening sessions were hitting the central/eastern time zones around lunch time – making contiguous enjoyment (and social media engagement) more possible.
    5. Easy to identify, helpful staff – perfect number ratio of helpers to attendees. If I needed help, they were always just a few steps away – and very attentive.
    6. Great signage! Vertical and horizontal signage everywhere – even under your feet!

Highlights:

One of RootsTech’s greatest strengths has been the electric atmosphere of inspiration that builds each year and leaves you with the impression that you serve a great purpose – and that with the right knowledge, skills, and tools, you can achieve your genealogy goals. Obviously, the inspirational opening sessions always provide highlights, and become some of the best memories of the conference. And the sessions are amazing! But here are a few others:

The Find Relatives at RootsTech Game – If you had ever entered even a small amount of generational information in the Family Search Family Tree, you were connected to the cousin three ring circus. But what a hoot it was! As the conference grew, there were over 9,000 people participating, and I matched as a cousin to over 2,500 of them – including David Rencher and Crista Cowan! One of the funniest moments was when I connected to a local Kentucky genealogist whom I’ve known for years, and live within 10 miles of, and who comes to RootsTech every year – Here we are – our cousin selfie! :

Me and my Kentucky “Cousin”, Tom Beatty!

The SLVGS Board trying to wrangle new members at the Unconferencing Table – It was so much fun to work with these dedicated folks whom I’ve only met previously as virtual avatars. We connected with several potential new members at the Unconferencing area.:

SLVGS Board Members: President, Miles Meyer, Vice President, Sue Taylor, and Secretary, Cheri Daniels.

Giving My Presentation on Consumable Genealogy – Such a great engaged crowd – they seemed to really have fun with the examples of packaging genealogy bites into consumable portions for print or social media. My largest crowd ever, at about 400 – and the tech staff/room monitors were wonderful. This was my second time speaking at RootsTech, and it was a fantastic experience, as usual!:

The Discovery Zone Heritage Toys (Also in the library) – These toys were also active if you participate in the Family Search Family Tree – I felt like a kid again with all of these cool discovery tools. Sometimes, it’s very revealing to step back and look at your family data to see the worldwide connections. My only gripe, was that I spent a couple of hours playing in the library Discovery Center with the same toys, and my fun elements produced that day were never emailed to me – huge bummer! I was only sent the location images.:

The DNA Learning Center – Introductory DNA sessions to help with this topic: Always crowded, with loads of mini-sessions, various speakers, with helpful videos and knowledgeable staff.

The RootsTech Store: I LOVE swag! And even when it’s not free swag – I am very willing to purchase more! It was a nice open store, easy to shop with so many cool options! My suggestion for next year – Please produce a sweatshirt or hoodie! It’s cold in SLC in late February! I would have snapped that up! Hey, RootsTech officials – you might want to create an online store of RootsTech swag – I’d seriously send my family members there to fill up my Christmas wish list!

The Demo Theater: Smaller than previous years, and hidden towards the back – but always crowded. I always learn a lot in this space while I’m taking a breather in a very comfortable environment. They also have door prizes, BTW.

The Ancestry Photo Booth – and their wonderful cookies!: Confession: At first, I kinda rolled my eyes at this – but then thought, hey, I’m kinda dressed up and I had a new find to share, so I gave it a try. The result, in this glamorous backdrop, was pretty awesome! They not only sent me the digital image they took with their beautiful professional camera, but also a lovely print to take with me – topped off with an amazingly tasty cookie! Well played, Ancestry! Well played!

Meeting up with genie friends, as usual: I always love meeting old and new friends!

Added Bonus: Researching in the library!: We flew in a few days early to research for hours and hours – and I regret nothing!! Always a fantastic time – and so much brought back to add to my tree. Some serious brick walls damaged in that library! I’m still processing all that I brought home.

Hiccups – I didn’t encounter too many hiccups this year – and have declared this to be the best RootsTech yet – but if pressed, Id have to identify the following as my least favorite elements:

Unconferencing Sessions: I had not been to RootsTech in a few years, and my memory of the Unconferencing area was drastically different than I encountered this year. Gone were the small curtained off areas where you could talk to a group or even present something on the provided board, or diagram ideas. This concept has now been relegated to 8 tables crammed into the space of about two booth footprints. Really didn’t like this shrinkage, and while I did see groups using it – it was also placed in the very back of the exhibit hall instead of in the front where it used to be. Most people I talked to never found its location, and with very little signage – I would say this looks like the last year for the Unconferencing area – as I’m pretty sure we were witnessing the death knell. Some of the presenters mentioned their disappointment with the size and location in our Facebook group – but also complained about the name – saying it was unfriendly, and not appealing. Perhaps it could be resurrected as something slightly different? Break-out sessions perhaps? Obviously, the large exhibitors enjoy great success with their own areas of demos and discussions – so the concept is not a bad one. But it would be nice to have a more tailored area for folks to discuss genealogy issues – or meet up with speakers after their sessions, or programmers to discuss concepts with users (as was its initial purpose.) Conversely, I also understand usage and statistics – if people weren’t using them in the previous years, I can understand the reduction.

Access and Preservation Track on Wednesday: While this was a nice set of small, targeted sessions, I think many people misunderstood its purpose. As a librarian with special collections/archival training, I was going to attend this, no matter the purpose – but after squeezing in to the last couple of seats at 8am, and then watching the attendance bleed out like a trauma victim – until there was only about a third of them left – was a red flag that most people didn’t understand the intended focus. As a whole – I would say this was RootsTech’s version of “Librarians Day” – or “Digital Archivist’s Day” – etc. Which makes all of this more intriguing. With the huge crowd coming in to learn about “Access and Preservation” – regular folks who were not information professionals – doesn’t that indicate that the general genealogy crowd is very interested in preservation and access – for their own collections? Perhaps? Or were they wanting to learn more about the efforts being made to place more unique material online? Or did they want to learn more about digitization best practices? This is an area RootsTech should investigate. It sure caught my attention when thinking about this after the event.

Demo Stage: Thank heavens it hasn’t changed too much – but again, it’s been shrunk, and placed in the back, instead of being a focal point of festivity for the Exhibit Hall. Gone is the soda fountain bar and popcorn – and gone is the concept of walking around and hearing some of what was being demoed. I’m guessing that was the problem. As the Exhibitors have adopted their own demo areas and engagement clusters with microphone and large screens, their sound would be in competition with the Demo Stage instructors, and that would not be pleasant for the big sponsors. At least the comfy chairs and couches were still there – along with some really nice door prizes for those who sat through the individual demos.

Daily Sheets: They announced that there would be daily handouts with the general session info, as well as a list of the most popular classes that day. Ummm, first of all, I never found any of these sheets, until I stumbled upon a small pile on the very last day for Family Day. To be fair, I didn’t look super hard for them during the regular conference days. However, I’m not sure about plucking out a handful of sessions to highlight as “popular”. That could go one of two ways – either it drives a ton of people to these sessions, resulting in overcrowding, or it drives people away since they want to avoid the large crowds if possible. Plus, as a speaker, the speaker liaisons, kept trying to avoid giving us room capacity and info on popular sessions because they said they didn’t want to make other speakers feel less worthy by identifying popular sessions based on topic, speaker and/or room size. But then each day, they were highlighting popular sessions to hand out to everyone. Since we all have the app and the conference booklet outlining the offerings of each day – I don’t think they need these daily sheets – and I’m sure they could save a little money in printing.

Next Steps:

RootsTech is not really over – you have several options to take in more of this conference over the next several months: Watch the canned livestream videos; Download the Syllabus Material; Explore the Exhibitor List – and prepare to watch more when the international version of RootsTech premiers in London in October!

“A whole lot of healing going on.” Family Search’s Donation to the IAAM – Go Watch this video!

This type of experience is unparalleled, and should be experienced in person at least once. Obviously, for continued inspiration and exposure to the most current genealogy tech tools, it is encouraged to attend as frequently as possible. However, as a tech conference, RootsTech has ensured that there are multiple remote methods for attending virtually. Not only can you sit at home and watch several of the videos for free, but this year they also offered a virtual pass that allowed you to enjoy 18 sessions from the comfort of your own home. Coupled with the exhibit hall list for traversing via websites at your leisure, and syllabus material you can download, #notatrootstech folks have a buffet of learning opportunities available.

BTW, Next year is RootsTech’s 10th anniversary! Theme: The Story of You! Make plans to attend – I’m sure this will be a grand and unforgettable party!

RootsTech Revelry: My Top 10 Tips for Having a Great Time!

Everybody loves a great party, but a genealogy party….that’s an event to be reckoned with! We are a little less than a week away from genealogy’s biggest annual shindig. In my part of the country, shindigs are epic, and RootsTech does not disappoint. In fact, as we draw closer to the event, the energy builds, and we all feel like kids on Christmas Eve. I have been to several RootsTech conferences in person, from the very first one, as both attendee and presenter, and I have always been surprised about the mixed reaction this conference receives. Folks either love it or they hate it – and I fall firmly in the “love it” camp. But perhaps, some of the grumbling comes from a different set of expectations? It is completely unlike the other national genealogy conferences out there. Simply because it’s supposed to be different. The more attendees understand its underlying purpose as a conference, I think the more they would say “vive la différence”!

From the very first year, RootsTech had aspired to be the genealogy tech sandbox or playground – a place where programmers and users could get together to explore what worked in our industry and what didn’t. A place to introduce new tools and resources for our field, and where to engage with others. While this happened a lot at the very first conference, attendance necessity did not allow this concept to continue unaltered. My personal opinion: While this interaction with programmers and users still happens at RootsTech, it does not happen on the same level that it used to mainly because of the differing wavelengths of programmers and users. In many cases, we don’t speak the same language, and dialogue can get frustrating really quickly.

As an alteration to the overall concept, RootsTech was great in shifting towards a storytelling/sharing, DNA, and digital resource focus. In essence, keeping with a tech foundation, while bringing in more sessions of traditional genealogy instruction to appease a wider audience. And it has grown exponentially over the years – which means, despite some growing pains and hiccups over the years, they must be doing something right. For those of you who attended last year’s severe hiccup with badge scanning – they have promised to do away with that process for this year – which should make attendance much smoother.

For those of you new to RootsTech, I am going to outline some of my favorite bits of advice to get the most of out this conference.

So buckle up, Buttercup – it’s time to dive into RootsTech 2019!

  1. Adjust Your Expectations: This is NOT NGS or FGS – this is RootsTech. It will be a different experience overall, and many of the sessions will be different. Some would say, not different enough, which is a good point – but go in with your eyes wide open, and your expector antenna set to tech overload! In other words, go with the flow and have fun with the offerings – you will learn new things, and come away with renewed inspiration. This is the pep rally of genealogy, and its message is family, connections, and inspiration. The energy alone is worth the trip.
  2. Use the App!! So much information in one little space – this is how you get to the syllabus material, schedule your session attendance, learn more about speakers/vendors, and keep updated on conference announcements. And don’t forget – they really want you to rate the sessions you attend through the app – it helps with next year’s planning, and determines whether your speaker receives any bonuses based on your rating. As a bonus, you can also make friends in the app, and learn about great places to eat.
  3. Introvert Alert: This is the largest genealogy conference on the continent – so it will be crowded – really crowded. Pace yourself, try to make some new friends, and go take a break if you need to – like, in the big comfy demo stage chairs, with some popcorn, and a soda. There are some places to break away and take a breather – and if necessary, sneak back to the hotel for a nap.
  4. So Many Sessions, So Little Time: You may not get to attend every session you have your heart set on – as I said above, it is crowded, and while they plan as best as they can for attendance numbers per room, some may hit capacity, and you may be forced to move to another session. This is where the app can be a lifesaver! As you review the session descriptions, and pick (star) your favs, be sure to pick a few per time slot. The app lets you pick more than one per hour for your personal schedule. It will warn you that you’ve picked more than one, but if you can pick your top three each hour, you will be able to attend the alternates at a moments notice, instead of scrolling through everything while the seats continue to fill up.
  5. Make the Exhibit Hall a Top Priority! This is by far the largest exhibit hall you will encounter in genealogy conference land – so many new companies and tools, tips on how to use your favorite tech tools, and demos all day long! It is so important to examine the exhibit hall map as closely as you do the session list. Besides, the hub of the RootsTech party is in the exhibit hall – with an energy that does not sleep. BTW, for those of you attending a virtual pass, or staying home to watch a few of the live streaming, the exhibit hall is always open to you virtually. Take the exhibitor list, and visit all of their websites to tour their products or offerings = another great way to be a part of the action!
  6. Don’t Forget the Unconferencing Sessions in the Exhibit Hall! I have mentioned thisaspect of RootsTech in the past, and some have given me a side eye, because they didn’t know what I was talking about – which is such a shame! From the very first year, these unconferencing sessions were implemented to encourage conversations – tech, genealogy, or both – programmers, genealogists, or hopefully both – all in rooms/booths they could schedule to talk about anything in the industry they wanted to cover. And this tradition has not wavered. In fact, this is one of my favorite things to do at RootsTech. The unconferencing sessions are along the North side of the Expo Hall. I will be hosting a session as a follow-up to my class on Consumable Genealogy – giving a live demo on using Canva and Pixabay – and there will be a couple of chat sessions about Genealogy in Second Life, hosted by the Second Life Virtual Genealogical Society – so be sure to check in at the unconferencing boards to plan out your participation.
  7. THE Place to Bring Out Your Social Media ‘A’ Game!  With all of the of the great tools at your fingertips, now is the time to hashtag it and post it – or storyboard it. You will connect with attendees and those attending from home. #rootstech #notatrootstech
  8. Don’t Over Do It. You cannot experience everything there is to offer, and it’s important to understand your own limitations. So prioritize your time within reason – and if you get overwhelmed, head over to the library for some research – they are open until 9pm just about every evening – and you won’t want to miss the opportunity of researching in the nation’s most comprehensive genealogy library.
  9. The Common Sense Stuff: As with any conference, this is a marathon, not a sprint – you need to stay hydrated, get plenty of sleep, dress in layers, eat healthy, and wear your walking shoes. I noticed from the most recent ‘behind the scenes’ video – a tour of the Salt Palace – that the on-site check-in is on the opposite end of the building – back where the very first conference took place. In other words – seriously – wear comfortable shoes!!!
  10. Smile, have fun, be nice, and soak up the energy that will inspire long after we get home to digest all we have learned.
That’s about it for now, folks – I’ll see you in a few days! Safe travels and may the session selections be ever in your favor!!

Is Your Brick Wall Whitewashed?

From day one, I declared that Genealogy Literacy would be a truth zone – and after breaking through a recent brick wall, I knew I had to share this journey of discovery. For you see, this research unveiled an ugly truth: My long-standing brick wall had stood firmly in my path until I was able to strip away the whitewashing put in place to divert descendants from the truth.

Let me begin by saying that many researchers have encountered whitewashing in various forms. Most African American researchers with enslaved ancestors encounter systemic whitewashing of their history through heinous laws and customs put in place that stripped families of their identity to perpetuate the evils of slavery. And while I have always been an advocate for healing through a more inclusive research approach, the story below demonstrates how vital it is for ALL of us to strip away the mindsets of the past and dive headlong into a full FAN Club approach.

A hard truth about the FAN Club:

So, we’ve all been taught about the FAN Club research method – Friends, Acquaintances, & Neighbors (or Family, Acquaintances, & Neighbors) – but can I get a show of hands how many of us actively search African American records for our white family surnames? When encountering that title on the shelf about AA cemeteries or marriages – if we don’t think our family is inside, do we just breeze on by? Years ago, I would have said, “yeah, guilty as charged.” But in the past decade or so, the desire to help bring families together through research has shifted my information gathering strategies, and I find myself in AA records on purpose to help connect people and better understand communities.

A Big Crack in the Wall:

A few years ago, I was researching an African American family from Bracken County, Kentucky – and I have to say, some locals there have created a beautiful resource – African American records, Bracken County, Kentucky : 1797-1999 – a two volume set of transcribed AA documents discovered throughout the county. Marriages, Court Cases, School Records, Taxes, etc. You name it, they pulled it and transcribed/indexed it to create one of the most useful local resources I’ve ever used. So, while I was there, I decided to look up all of my Bracken County associated families in the index. This was rather quickly done, because I do not have a large number of branches from this county, and most are mid-19th century German immigrants – but I also descend from a long line of Anglo families from the county next door. As my search was not yielding any fruit, I decided to try a surname from the neighboring county that had remained a brick wall for myself and previous generations. What I found not only cracked the wall, but brought it tumbling down – and unveiled the whitewashing that had built the wall through a false family narrative.

Two Marys and a Barbary:

My brick wall began in neighboring Pendleton County. My 4th Great Grandfather, Samuel Cox, had married 3 women over his lifetime – the first two named Mary and the last named Barbary. With his estate division, Barbary was easy to identify, and even fill in her backstory as the former widow of a neighbor, Ross McCall. The other two Marys were much harder to distinguish. Over the previous generations, some family members had mixed up the women’s surnames. A divorce case for Mary #2 was able to identify her potential surnames (yes, she had more than a couple in the depositions), leaving the first Mary (my ancestor) with the pre-marriage surname of Dean. As my 4th Great Grandparents were not married in this area, we only knew her surname from the Barton Papers – a collection of family interviews taken throughout Pendleton County by Edward Everett Barton, a local attorney of the 1930s & 40s. Since he interviewed various descendant branches, the stories differed on who her parents might have been.

Abel or Michael Dean?

The family group sheets compiled from these interviews identified her probable father as Abel or Michael Dean, but did not include a location for either man. Even the Cox family was a bit of a location enigma. The Barton Papers said Samuel Cox was either “born at the fort above Augusta” or from Pennsylvania. OK, so with the surname of Cox, this was a needle in a haystack. All I knew, is that the Cox family came from farther points east. And I suspected the lack of Dean information indicated the same migration pattern. This turned out to be accurate, but unless I had picked up that book, I may not have discovered the truth for many, many years.

Deed of Emancipation:

In 1830, Bracken County, Kentucky, there was an emancipation filed in court to free an enslaved family: Jenny or “Jinny”, and her three children – Aaron, Emily, and John Caesar. As part of this process, Jenny, Emily and John Caesar were all presented in court to record their description along with a $500 bond to ensure they would not become wards of the county. Jenny is described as “black”, about 30 years old, left eye blind of cataract, standing 4 feet 2 inches. Emily was described as 6 years old and “yellowish” in color. John Caesar was only 4 weeks old with “yellowish” complexion. My biggest question about this document, was: Where was Aaron? Why was he not presented in court with the others? Obviously, with the children described as having “yellowish” skin, I’m thinking Michael was their father. But I had more research to do.

Michael’s Will, 1832:

The next item in this book connected to Michael Dean was his will of 1832. In this document he makes sure, once again, that all of his slaves are free upon his death, but with one addition. He then gives Jenny his 50 acres and residence for her to live in throughout her lifetime. After her life is over, the property was to go to Aaron and his heirs forever. There is no mention of Emily or John Caesar inheriting anything from Michael, only Aaron. As I was also trying to piece together the known white children of Michael Dean, there is a mention of one in his will, Rebecca Morris.

Researching Michael:

These documents gave me the push I needed to investigate further, with this new county of focus. From further research, I discovered that Michael was a Revolutionary War Pensioner, previously of Lewis County Kentucky, and that he had other white children documented: John, Rebecca, Thurisa, and Abel + others yet to be positively identified. His pension application in 1818/1820 described a sorry existence. A man (aged about 80) and wife (aged about 73) who were practically destitute and living in a meager cabin on 50 “rented” acres. He had served on the Virginia Continental Line for 2 years – ending his service in March 1778 at Valley Forge – Ironically, making it through the horrible winter at Valley Forge, but then high tailing it out once his service ended that March. He and his wife were both described as “decrepit” and only owning a horse and cow. More importantly, no mention of enslaved individuals. All of this testimony resulted in him receiving $8 per month until his death.

Bracken County Reveals:

In searching for Michael, there is no indication that he owned slaves around the time of his pension application. However, very soon after, his son Abel appears on the tax lists, and each man takes turns paying taxes on enslaved individuals for the next several years. The number of slaves fluctuates as well. At first there is only 1, then 2, and as these individuals either move from place to place, or are simply covered in taxes by each man in turn, the maximum number of slaves covered in the taxes, up until the emancipation is 4. After the emancipation, Abel is paying taxes on a few extra slaves, but his number is scratched out and reduced by 2 – perhaps indicating the odd nature of the ownership? Clearly Michael is claiming ownership by taking Jenny and her children to court to have them freed. Also, despite Michael claiming he only rented his land and cabin in the pension testimony, he clearly owns his property as he gives instructions on its dispersal in his will. When looking at the Court Orders for Bracken County, Abel would appear to fight some of this – I could not find an actual court challenge – but Abel is instructed to bring his father’s will to court, more than once – and it appears he did not comply as the will is later presented to court by the Executor Robert Elrod.

The Story Gets Lost:

Personally, I was thrilled to find this family. And I would love further still to reconnect with descendants of Jenny and her children. But I found it disappointing that my family had kept silent on this story. You see, I did find a marriage record in Lewis County for Polly Dean and Samuel Cox, with the consent given by Polly’s father “M. Dean” – putting to bed that Michael was her father and Abel was her brother. And I know that Mary died rather young, and with Samuel’s subsequent marriages and sensational divorce, it’s no wonder that my branch of the family lost this story. Or, am I giving them a pass where one doesn’t belong? In the context of society in 1830/32, this action by Michael was completely out of the ordinary. With his will bestowing his property upon a formerly enslaved family – this would have been considered to be scandalous – and I so wanted to know how my branch of the family felt about this action. If my suspicion is correct, one of the men likely fathered Jenny’s children. Meaning that Aaron, Emily, and John Caesar would have been siblings or nieces/nephews to my Samuel and Mary. Did they care? Were they embarrassed by this? It was a very public action to free them, and Michael had done just that.

While my branch kept silent about this action when passing along family lore – they did leave me one clue about their potential feelings. Remember when the list of enslaved individuals presented in court lacked one member? Aaron had been conspicuously absent from the court presentation. I speculated that maybe he was sick and could not make it, or that he had run away. Bracken County Kentucky lies on the Ohio River, just across from Ripley Ohio (Brown County) – a known hotbed for the underground railroad in the upcoming years. As the months passed, I figured that this portion of his story may never be known. And this is when I found a hashmark that changed everything. In the 1830 census – taken the same year that the emancipation was filed in Bracken County Court, my 4th great grandparents, Samuel and Mary, in neighboring Pendleton County, have a young man living in their household that is in the column: Free Colored Persons – Males, 10-24 in age. That little hashmark in this column gave me goosebumps. Is this the missing Aaron? I certainly hope so. If this is Aaron, there is a good likelihood that my grandparents were supportive of this emancipation action. If my speculation is correct, and Aaron is the son of Michael or Abel, then Mary had welcomed her newly freed brother or nephew into their home – and I’m guessing to offer protection. But why did no one ever tell us about this relationship?

The Story Becomes Whitewashed:

Fast forward to another moment of serendipity – Within the same time frame as the above discovery, I was in the process of trying to join the DAR. As I was reviewing my Patriot options, Michael Dean and his record came up. So, I paid for the associated application papers and supplemental documentation packet that belonged to a member descended through another daughter, Thurisa. The supplemental packet contained a letter from another of Michael’s descendants, a great great granddaughter, Julia Herrmann. In her letter she relates the story as thus:

“My Great Great Grandfather had a plantation in Kentucky and owned slaves. The ______? War ruined him financially. His family left him. Two slaves, a man (young) and his wife stayed with G G Grandfather and G G Grandmother and when G G Grandfather died, he willed the plantation to the two slaves who had worked and taken care of my Great Great Grandparents.”

And so the story, while not forgotten or censored out of this branch’s narrative, was whitewashed into the typical benevolent master/faithful servant tripe – transforming Jenny and Aaron to husband and wife, instead of mother and son – and erasing any hint of parental complexity.

There is an ironic post script about this line of narrative. The Barton Papers have a notation about Michael Dean’s financial hardship, and it relates to Abel who was the youngest: One of Michael’s sons, John, living in Washington County Kentucky had to travel to Bracken County in 1827 to care for his elderly parents. The reason? According to the Barton Papers: Michael and his wife had “conveyed their small estate to the youngest son who then turned them out in their extreme old age.”

I think this is another narrative covered in whitewash. There was clearly some family drama going on that the later descendants noted but purposefully made vague to hide what was truly happening. And by 1827, Abel and Michael have been sharing the taxes and/or location of the enslaved family for several years – until Michael suddenly has enough in 1830 and frees the entire lot. Again, the whitewashing was so thick, it’s still preventing us from seeing the full picture of this family crisis.

After Michael’s Death – Tracing Jenny’s Family:

One of the biggest mysteries that came out of the emancipation action was the fate of Jenny and her family. I could not find Jenny nor Aaron paying any taxes on this newly inherited land – nor could I find her in 1840 census records. In 1845, suddenly, the taxes are being paid on 57 acres by “Dean’s Devisees”.

According to the 1891 edition of Black’s Law – this term refers to the persons “to whom lands or other real property are devised or given by will.” I could not find record of taxes being paid on this property prior to this date. However, another obstacle arose in discovering the chosen surname of the newly freed family. Did they take the Dean surname? If so, none of them are paying taxes on this piece of property until 1845 – which is a tad odd. I then looked for any woman with the given name of Jenny or Jinny paying taxes on land during these years from 1832 to 1845. Nothing.

The estate sale of Michael Dean’s remaining personal property is also a whitewashed hot mess. Among the list of personal items being sold that day, Jenny is indeed listed as being the purchaser of several items. Unfortunately, instead of including a surname like everyone else on the list – she was simply listed as “Black Jenny”. Trust me, for a while, I looked for a ‘Jenny Black’ in all of the records I had perused earlier. Nothing. And of course, that’s when it hit me that they were not using the word “black” as a surname.

Aaron to the Research Rescue, Followed by a Cold Trail:

The good news is that after searching court and deed records many years beyond the emancipation, I found a deed transaction detailing Aaron’s act of selling the land. And best of all it gave me a direction for Aaron. First, he had retained the surname “Dean” – and had married a woman named Ellen – and they both lived in Brown County Ohio! This was golden information that even spelled out his connection to the land – the document says that he had inherited this land via the will of Michael Dean. This was a slam dunk – and I had one of those joyous, yet vocal moments in the silent state archives! One thing to note – I am not sure that Aaron and his wife actually came down to Bracken County to sell the land or whether this was handled by an attorney – simply because there is no mention of Aaron’s race. He is not referred to as a ‘free person of color’ nor ‘colored’, etc. Is this proving he never crossed the river to conduct this business, or does this mean he was light enough to be passing? The jury is still out on that one.

After this glorious find, the trail suddenly goes cold. I cannot find Aaron Dean in the 1850 Brown County census at all – and I even resorted to paging through each entry to catch a misspelled surname or similar family unit. I have searched other surrounding counties, and found nothing to match. Needless to say, I am still on the hunt for Aaron, and I need to take a trip north to dig into more physical records – but he has gifted me with marvelous clues to take forward!

An Ancestry Tree Yields More Clues:

So – despite the forest of unsourced trees on Ancestry – I will occasionally search for a branch in the hopes of stumbling across a tree with valid sources attached to follow in my own research. While searching for more information about Michael, I stumbled upon a tree that included Michael and his (what I believe to be) erroneous Scottish birth. I went down the line back towards Mary, his daughter and my 4th great grandmother, when I hit at something unexpected. Whomever created this tree went to Abel and then to a black family in Ohio with the surname of “Freeman”! One of the ancestors, Joseph Riley Freeman, in his marriage record lists his own surname as “Freeman” and his father’s name as A. Dean and his mother as Eliza Robinson. The creator of the Ancestry tree believed that “A. Dean” was Abel T. Dean of Bracken/Pendleton Counties and attached his family as thus. But what I think just happened – is that the family had an inherited narrative stating that they were descended from Abel Dean, but when a record came along listing A. Dean as the father, they jumped to Abel, missing Aaron entirely. I think the generation just got disconnected and lost. Michael’s son, Abel, was only ever married to Nancy Seay, never an Eliza Robinson. But Eliza sure sounds similar to Ellen, who was listed on the deed transfer of 1852.

To make matters more poignant, the family included James Riley Freeman’s nickname “Joe Dean” – and his youngest daughter, as listed on this tree was named “Jennie”. This newly discovered family then includes other surnames in later generations: Ward, Milton, Phoenix, Merritt, Epps, etc. With locations: Greene and Clinton Counties, Ohio + Indianapolis Indiana.

As a result – I would LOVE to connect with the person who runs the Peacock Family Tree on Ancestry – I think we have much to chat about!

Research Takeaways:

Obviously, I have a lot more work to do in order to confirm my surname change suspicions – and the rest of the story will depend on my findings. But the journey so far has been remarkable, and I can’t wait for the next chapter! My goal: Hugging my newly found cousins – if I can find them – and IF they want a hug (respecting their wishes, of course.)

The lesson I learned through all of this, is that so many of our brick walls are held up by centuries of whitewashing. In most cases, on purpose. In a few cases, due to a really twisted and vile version of the telephone game. But do we truly understand the magnitude of expanding our research methodology, and the resulting ripple effect of belonging and healing that can follow?

Genealogy Truth Bomb:

We have got to practice a more robust and inclusive FAN Club approach! Because I’m going to be really frank here – How dare we ever consider our research to be thorough if we profess to practice the FAN approach and ignore a significant portion of our family’s community and familial network simply because of race?! If we alter our research approach to practice a fully inclusive strategy, there is a high likelihood that we will demolish a multitude of mutual brick walls, as well as unite long separated families and begin the process of telling a more accurate history of our communities and our country.

Happy Researching, Y’all!

2019: The Year of Sharing

Reflecting back on 2018, I’m happy to report that I accomplished a lot more over the course of the year than was conceptualized at its inception. This is not to brag, but rather, a revelation when considering the beginning of a new year. I have come to the conclusion that it is much healthier to identify our successful changes of the previous year, and look for opportunities to expand growth, instead of identifying areas of failure that need to be altered. In other words, we have a tendency to issue resolutions as declarations that are inflexible and too finite to encourage success. Which, in the long run, spells out our defeat even before we begin. If we, instead, look for hopeful themes to help or encourage our growth, then this should be enough to elicit positive change over the course of a long 12 months.
When looking at the growth of 2018, there was no resolution to drive the change, but an openness all year to identify areas susceptible to change, which were actually within my power to change. I knew a healthier lifestyle was priority one, but instead of hitting the gym like a crazed fitness junkie, I started taking walks every day as the weather permitted, and making better food choices consistently. I lost almost 20 pounds, gradually, and even with the weather change, I have not gained anything back, and will gently continue my efforts to get out more, and look for opportunities to enhance this healthy alteration; Being gentle with myself, and not harsh when I take a break or indulge in a guilty treat – celebrating by encouraging myself to continue the good work, instead of internally chastising for a missed step. This approach is also a good rule of thumb concerning our research efforts – be gentle with ourselves, and celebrate our accomplishments along the way.

Another area that caught my attention in 2018 was the amount of clutter in my home. With each house cleaning session, I made a point to throw away or remove via donation, a small amount of items which held no further meaning, neither intrinsic nor sentimental. Over the course of the year, I made 5 carload trips to Goodwill, and disposed of 7 large trash bags of paper junk. The end result: I was finally able to settle all of my family archives into their proper housing containers, and should any emergency occur, I can lay my hands on a few small boxes with the most important items. Now, when someone asks for a copy of a photo, I can go right to the proper location and digitize at will.

With the above accomplishment that evolved over the course of 2018, and while preparing similarly relevant material for my talk at RootsTech in a couple of months, I am mentally able to move on to the next phase in this transformation. The limited nature of time and the familial value of what I have been entrusted with have directed the next offshoot of growth – a prioritization of sharing. It is the natural progression of putting things in order. There is no longer a hindrance in the area of superfluous pieces of random material obscuring the vital or irreplaceable elements.

Welcome to 2019’s theme: Sharing.

But what does a lifestyle of sharing look like?

A sharing lifestyle is fluid and looks for a variety of sharing opportunities. My upcoming session at RootsTech is called: Past Forward: Tech Tools & Strategies for Sharing Family History Through a Consumable Genealogy Plan. Without giving too much away prior to the session, I have learned so much about the brain and how it consumes information. As family historians, one of our goals should be an aim for retention. What can we pass on that will be retained and therefore passed along to the future generations? This concept of “consumable genealogy” is my new driving force when sharing family history nuggets.

As I move forward in 2019, looking for various ways to share meaningful and engaging chapters of my family history, I will strive to be open to multiple platforms, and learn adaptive lessons from engagement. What can I learn from the perspective of others in my family? How can I package consumable pieces of family history in such a way that sparks the lazy muscle that sits between our ears?
Step one for me is to get a bigger handle on my scanning/digitizing progress in order to have material ready to package for sharing. While I have scanned a portion of my collection, there is much more that needs to be done, and sharing along the way will drive my efforts. Conversely, as much as I strive to produce the mammoth 500 page family history someday, I vow to not wait for that moment to begin my sharing. As Charlotte Brontë once said: “Happiness quite unshared can scarcely be called happiness.” And if we replace the word happiness with ‘family history’….. Family History quite unshared can scarcely be called family history! With so many tools out there at our disposal to share our genealogy love, there has never been a better time to live with sharing as a driving force.

Happy New Year, from…

“No Original Wrong Lay at Their Door”: What About Ours?

I could work in the archives for a lifetime and never tire of the treasures they hold. To be blunt, we do not hold them in high enough esteem where our research is concerned. As I go about my daily routine, I sometimes grab enough time to dig for forgotten treasures. Note that I said “forgotten” not “hidden”. They are not hidden – which is an often repeated fallacy about archives, simply because their volume and original state of handwritten creation prevents instant consumption – and yet, not as easily accessed due to their sheer volume, and lack of people to analyze on a microscopic level. Admittedly, some archival collections are hidden, but usually on a temporary basis as staff make their way through the act of processing for responsible access.

The “forgotten” item I encountered this week was serendipitous, simply because I discovered it while looking for something else entirely – this often happens in the archives, BTW. We begin looking for one thing, and have a really hard time getting there because of all the gems we find littering the path to our goal. The item being sought was a Civil War Diary. While I love a good CW diary as well as the next researcher, I was actually looking at the original to compare to a transcription I discovered in our uncatalogued portion of the library. You know, standard librariany duties. As I was reading the first page of the digitized original, assessing the narrative in relation to the description and scope notes (archivist lingo) – a phrase leapt off the page and stayed with me all weekend: “No original wrong lay at their door”.

The reason this phrase has haunted me was because of the author’s intent. The author was a Kentuckian, a Union soldier named John Tuttle, attempting to describe the mindset of southerners when it came to the issue of slavery. In essence, he explained their belief in terms that echoed our own struggle of today regarding the heritage of slavery. As most of us have discovered, our genealogical research often uncovers enslavement in the family tree. So many of us have been cognizant of this terrible chapter, and offered to help unite ancestors with their descendants by way of sharing names of the enslaved that we encounter in the records. I have cheered on this endeavor as a form of healing for our land – going back to the roots, and acknowledging our familial connections to those chapters of terror and cruelty. As a white person, who has discovered both enslaver and emancipator in the family tree, I am encouraged and grateful when those of African American heritage also join the voice of unity in this effort – in many cases, embracing the concept of family – and graciously reminding the descendants of the enslavers that we are not our ancestors, and nor should we carry their guilt.

Which is why this soldier’s words made me catch my breath. When describing the rationale behind fighting to keep the system of slavery in place, it appears that there was no guilt associated with their belief – which was not a complete surprise, in its essence. But this lack of guilt was based on the actions of their ancestors. In his words:

“They had been reared and educated in the belief that there was no moral wrong in holding slaves as they did. The slaves had descended to them from past generations and no original wrong lay at their door. Many of them had been sold to them by persons in the north more on account of slaves not being profitable in that latitude as they thought, than from any considerations of philanthropy or humanity.”[1]

So let this sink in for just a minute. Apparently, because the system had been put in place by their ancestors, their maintenance of this system (and fight to keep it in place) was not wrong. He also describes their belief in a paternal relationship – caring for the enslaved in a better manner than freedom would afford. In 2018, we can see the horrific evils in that rationalization that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths throughout the days of slavery and during the bloodiest war of our history. But – can we look at ourselves and find any similarities in that rationalization?

It is a true statement that we are not the generation that enslaved people based on their race. Many lived through the first Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s – not fully understanding that it never really ended. We are merely experiencing a resurgence of the fight against the foundational issues that continue to foster inequality in various ways. Have we grown since the 1960s? Yes, of course we have – but we’re not finished!

I am frequently pained by the hostility I see among our neighbors – our fellow Americans – our family. The fabric of our society is being constantly strained and ripped apart because that fabric is woven from threads of time. Threads of slavery, injustice, cruelty, prejudice, racism, hatred – interwoven with threads of emancipation, justice, love, inclusion, equality, freedom, family connections, and most importantly, DNA. I still believe this fabric is strong, and can withstand the strains of divisive social and political forces.

But this is where I get preachy – in the hopes that we can look inward, to examine closely our own fabric.

We know our trees. We’ve been researching them for years – decades even. When examining the fabric of our family, we understand the complexity of the weave. And even though the guilt of slavery may not be on our generation, if we examine the fabric close enough, we can see the threads of our own guilt. We carry the guilt of our own generation. What does that guilt look like? It looks like apathy. It looks like an oblivious existence of comfort. It looks like trees without diversity – and trust me – if you have no diversity in your tree, you are not searching hard enough, or you are choosing to prune away the uncomfortably branches. DNA is lighting up our trees with colorful leaves that we did not know of, or we chose not to see due to that heavy fabric we kept as a blindfold.

Guilt can only be overcome if we make a healthy and conscious effort to change things for the better. We do not have the power to change all of the wrongs in this world, nor in this country, but we have the power of our generation to examine our fabric and think about what makes us tick. What does our tree tell us? Beyond the research, as we are learning from science, even memories of our ancestors can influence the reactions and fears that drive our motivations today. If that is true – then what memories or beliefs influence us in ways that are not healthy for our society? As a prism scatters light, so can these memories and beliefs passed down through teaching or DNA be scattered and projected through our own lives. In many cases, we don’t realize how much we are influenced by the past generations – even those we have never met.

When I think back about my own childhood, and the things I witnessed from my grandparents and parents, I know that they shaped who I became. And as I learned more, educated myself about diverse cultures and groups – about the fabric of our society, I grew to a place of cultivation. I began ripping out the weeds of their teaching. The weeds or poison ivy of thought that they learned, and passed to me. Do not get me wrong, my grandparents and parents taught me wonderful things, and I admire each and every one of them. But humanity is flawed, and not everything we learn from the previous generation should be honored or allowed to flourish for another generation. It’s time to weed some of those things that make us hesitant to reach out and make things better.

So, why am I writing this to a genealogy audience? Because I firmly believe a huge portion of the power to change lies in our hands. The more the records and spit connect us, the more we can start acting like family. If a member of your family is mistreated, how quickly do you come to their defense, to help them achieve justice? Pretty darned quick. As we come to the realization that we are all family, and as we strive to share this concept with those who care nothing for genealogy, we lead them toward empathy, compassion, and reconciliation.

I am also increasingly disheartened by the low numbers of white folks attending programs or sessions presented on African American genealogy/history – and other non-anglo based classes for that matter. It is shameful how few attend these wonderful classes. Go ahead and tell yourself that you don’t attend because it doesn’t apply to your research or ancestry – go ahead – just try. Because that doesn’t wash! If your ancestors were here beyond one generation, let alone before the Civil War, your family was a part of that history. What if you can’t find a slave owner in your tree? Congratulations, but did your family benefit from the slave economy? Of course they did. That network/system was in place for generations, and your ancestors were a part of it, whether they actively traded in human flesh as a commodity or not. They chose a side in the War driven by slavery – do you really think their side of choice was simply due to geography? Of course not – the issues leading up to that war were numerous and important to most. The records used to research enslaved families involved white owner families – so take a positive step and attend more of these sessions! I guarantee you will learn something helpful about your own research, and are sure to learn more about how our families can connect on a deeper level!

As speakers and genealogy teachers, we are quick to promote context as a way of understanding our ancestors’ lives and their motivations for life choices. If we continue to preach context and fail to promote digging into African American historical subjects, we are choosing to foster an atmosphere of division. How arrogant are we that we ignore the historical subjects of diverse American groups because we have arrogantly, and erroneously, determined that they do not fit into our family tree?

What else can we do? Well, I’m a Goonie generation, and I continue to say “This is OUR time!” – I love seeing the weaving of new fabric out there among diverse groups in the genealogy world – but we have to increase this effort a thousand fold! It is NOT enough! The good of those who help share the names of the enslaved in blogs and trees are drowned out by those who choose to erase or ignore the names they encounter – simply because, while they will not accept the guilt, they display actions driven by shame. Which is also driven by a romanticized mythology that perpetuates the heinous lie of the perfect or unblemished family tree!

This is OUR time, folks. We can choose to be forces for good in our generational time here on this planet, or we can choose to spread the weeds of division passed down to us. Of all the traditions and sacred beliefs we share across time, from one generation to the next, please do not sacrifice the future of our country on the traditions born from hate and prejudice. Weed our gardens through love and familial restoration. We were handed this society by our ancestors, but it’s our choice how we shape it for the next generation.

[1] Tuttle, John W. John W. Tuttle Civil War Memoir. 1860-1867. (Kentucky Historical Society Archives, Frankfort KY, SC 406), pg. 1(2).

Prison Genealogy Requests: Warning from a Corrections Officer

**NOTE** The following is a very serious warning to those in libraries and historical/genealogical societies that may have staff or volunteers researching genealogy requests from inmates. I am passing on a message from a corrections officer – a warning that gave me goosebumps.

One of my many duties as a genealogy library manager is coordinating the research necessary to answer the inquiries that fill our mailboxes (both electronic and snail). One constant in the snail mail arena is the plea from the prison inmate. We receive many of these each year – and I have to admit that they’ve always filled me with a sense of compassion – tempting me to assist in some way. My previous inclination to help them, despite a lack of payment, stemmed from the idea that their terrible life choices had placed them in a situation where learning about family origins was forbidden due to a lack of resources. While they may have access to a library, these libraries do not contain genealogical resources, nor do they provide internet access to delve into online genealogical records – leaving any hope for research to the kindness of strangers via snail mail requests. I completely understand and support the decision to restrict internet access, and yet, a willingness to pay a genealogy kindness forward was the only impetus necessary to send along one research tidbit, despite a lack of funds. That is, until one phone call changed my view of these letters.
After a recent genealogy request was mailed back to an inmate, we received a call from one of the corrections officers. (I will not give any details as to her location.) Her purpose in calling was not to receive a word by word account of the correspondence, but to ask about the nature of the genealogy itself. As an introduction, she explained that she was stationed at a facility that housed some of the most violent offenders in the country. And even worse, the person we had been corresponding with was an especially violent inmate.

As a librarian, I almost thought this information irrelevant. I don’t need to know about an individual’s past nor the purpose behind their information seeking behavior. But then she explained further. Apparently, one of the real concerns they have in this type of facility is preventing any further crimes by the inmates. Either through their own hand, or through the hand of someone they know outside the prison walls. According to information she had about previous genealogical inquiries, she said there is a pattern of research via correspondence that can lead to contact with a living person which violates the inmate’s terms of incarceration. For instance, contact with previous victims, future potential victims, trial witnesses, judges, jury members, or even their own children who may be off limits. After all, she said, they have all the time in the world, and if they can research their way to a helpful cousin who can provide contact information, they will readily exercise the necessary patience for such an endeavor.

To elaborate, she outlined some things to watch out for:

  1. Be cautious when they are asking for you to research a descendant trail. Obviously, as genealogists, we usually seek ancestors in a backwards trajectory. For research requests that may have an ulterior motive, they may list a distant ancestor, give you the line they have worked, and are now asking for you to connect to a generation that quickly leads into the 20th century.  
  2. For any request that asks you to connect to recent family or living people, do not respond. We already understand this to be a no-no in sharing our own trees, so this rule should also dictate our response to research requests.
  3. Don’t be lured into sympathy research via an adoption story. They rely heavily on the kindness of strangers, and understand the plea to discover one’s lost origins due to an adoption will likely garner needed information.
  4. Their goal may not be the final piece of information, but rather, for you to just fill in a piece of the puzzle, helping them to write to the next person, seeking the next level of connection.
  5. Just remember that some of them can be extremely charming and artful in their deception. Be very suspicious of eloquent flattery and detailed emotional pleas.
Does her phone call remove my desire to help them? Not really, but it does allow me to analyze their requests with a much more knowledgeable eye. In the new book, Genealogy and the Librarian, there is a wonderful chapter by Katherine Aydelott from the University of New Hampshire, detailing her lengthy correspondence with an inmate, and how she helped him fill in a lot of his family tree – later discovering that they were 8th cousins (pg.203). But even with this rewarding research relationship, she advises that all correspondence should remain professional, and to adhere to your organization’s policies. In my library’s case, our policy clearly states we will not conduct research without pre-payment. Yes, we have bent the rules slightly when someone just needed a small piece of info that was easily provided – which fit well into my previous pattern of helping with one small page of info easily copied or printed out – but her phone call made me realize that even this small tidbit could have serious consequences.

As an information professional I am not interested in the how and why a person seeks information – my duty is merely to facilitate their access to the needed information – without subjecting them to inquisitive interviews, or speculative analysis. But in order to prevent the harm of others, I think the corrections officer’s advice was timely and well intended. It is good information to have – and a good reminder to keep the wall of professionalism up, and adhere to your own policies. In this case, our policies allow us to deny research services without payment, and I will more than likely follow that policy more closely. But as a librarian, I will not discriminate. If they manage to send in an hourly research request with payment, which asks for information found within our library holdings, we will fill their request in as complete a manner as we would for anyone else – regardless of the warnings.

At the end of the day, the situation is very sad – and I personally feel that many requests we receive from behind prison walls are legitimate. With so much time to think, and perhaps when it’s too late do the research, many may want nothing more than to understand where they came from. Just be careful and use the above warning to evaluate your appropriate response.

As a post script: I was filing some older requests and ran across a previous inmate inquiry from a few years ago. One thing I had also done in the past, was given these inmate requests to new staff members as a way to play with the research request – take extra time to research, using it to learn about our collections and the research process. In one of these previous requests, the inmate had started the inquiry with a Civil War soldier – pretty far back, which sounded safe. Then I read all the way through the letter and subsequent letter he sent in the following weeks. He was originally looking for the descendants of said CW soldier, and then quickly asked about someone who was alive in the 1920s. He then added his grandparents to the list of research, and then to his own father, etc. By re-reading these letters after the phone call, I was seeing a potential danger with these letters. His very last letter, which we ignored, was flattering and charming, asking for us to keep writing to him, and that if we had access to Facebook, could we look up certain people on his list, and contact them on his behalf. That was the direction that made all of the corrections officer’s advice resonate with horrific reality. From research about a Civil War soldier to contacting people on Facebook in the very next letter, my stranger danger radar was going off like the wail of the tornado siren.

Until next time, stay safe, y’all!