Thursday, December 12, 2013

How You Can Help Families Find Their History

In the last post, Finding Oscar; A Case Study, I mentioned finding that there was a problem with the State of Maine's Vital Records prior to 1892. To recap the issue: 

Before 1892, records of births, marriages, and deaths were kept by the towns and cities of Maine. When, in the 1920's, the State requested copies of pre-1892 vital records from the towns, only about 20 percent responded.... During the 1950's, representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints microfilmed town vital records in Maine, although not all towns were covered. (Maine State Archives)

Having at least some of the records microfilmed in one place is good, because the microfilm can be borrowed and viewed without having to dig through every town's reports for vital statistics, but it would be so much more convenient to have all those records easily available and searchable online.

Every problem has a solution, of course (my sister says this attitude is why she calls me Princess Bluebird). All of those microfilmed records, along with other copies of handwritten and previously unpublished documents from all over the world, are being indexed and made available online by an army of volunteers called indexers

I just became an indexer, and you can be an indexer, too!

The FamilySearch website gives these statistics about the project: 

Total records indexed: 1,098,808,633
Year to date: 139,020,544
Total volunteers: 120,926

To become a volunteer indexer, go to the Worldwide Indexing page on the FamilySearch website. There you can read about the program, look at a list of projects, register, download the software needed, and get to work just as soon as there is a project that you are qualified to work on. Projects are in many languages, and are rated by level of difficulty. Records are downloaded in small batches, and there are tutorials and help available for when you get stuck. 

There's also a list of the published record collections so far, and it even includes some of the records for those Maine Births and Christenings, 1739-1900. My Oscar (Oscar Ellis, born 1853 in Smithfield, Maine) isn't there yet, but I'm hoping the army of indexers (me included) finds it soon and makes it available.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Finding Oscar; a Case Study

Genealogy 101, by Barbara Renick
I took so many notes when reading the library copy
that I ordered one of my own for reference
(Available as a paperback or in Nook and Kindle editions)

I've been reading genealogy books and studying about finding my family roots. Here are some of the things I've learned about the process of finding ancestors:

  • Organize and look over the material you already have 
  • Decide on what needs to be researched
  • Always be skeptical of published information
  • Use primary sources, especially those close in time to the event being described
  • Evaluate your results, then...
  • Go back to the beginning and follow these steps again (and again...)

All of these steps came into play when I looked for my great-grandfather, an ancestor previously known as Mr. "Unknown" Ellis. My family could tell me that my father's mother's mother was Ellen (maiden name unknown, according to my mother), and that she had married a Mr. Ellis, and that they had children named Eva (my grandmother), Oscar, Eddie, and Nellie.

That was it for Mr. Ellis--no birth date, no birthplace, and no parents. So I began learning about the people close to him in order to find out more about him, an approach called cluster genealogy. Here is what I found.

First, I discovered that Mr. Ellis' wife, Ellen, was born Ellen Healey. I found this information through some very fun detective work involving an inheritance, funeral home records, and probate files. That's a tale for another time.

By searching for Ellen Healey Ellis in census records, I found the entire household in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1900. Included were names (Mr. Ellis was actually Oscar J.Ellis!), ages (Oscar was 47), and birthplaces (Oscar was born somewhere in Maine, as were both of his unnamed parents). The census record also included Oscar's occupation ("Livery stable"), years married (15), children born/children still living (9/4), and Ellen's birthplace (England) and the birthplaces of her unnamed parents (father in Ireland, mother in England). It was a gold mine! Because of the numbers given, I could now estimate Oscar's year of birth (around 1853), as well as birth dates for everyone else in the family and an approximate date of marriage for Oscar and Ellen. I was really starting to be able to picture this family, and I had lots of leads for researching about them.

By using an estimated birth date from the census record, I found the birth record for Oscar's daughter, [another] Ellen M. Ellis. It gave Oscar's birthplace as Smithfield, Maine. So now I knew enough to do some good searching for a birth record for Oscar.

I looked and looked for an Oscar [J.] Ellis, born in Smithfield, Maine around 1853, plus or minus several years. No luck. Then I discovered that there was a problem with Maine vital records. According to the Maine State Archives:

Before 1892, records of births, marriages, and deaths were kept by the towns and cities of Maine. When, in the 1920's, the State requested copies of pre-1892 vital records from the towns, only about 20 percent responded.... During the 1950's, representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints microfilmed town vital records in Maine, although not all towns were covered.

So, I resigned myself to having to order either the LDS microfilm of the records, or another microfilm I found containing town reports, which contained vital records. BUT FIRST (as we like to say in our family)...

Having evaluated the research I had done, I thought I should go back to the beginning of the
process and look at my own file for Oscar again. And there it was--a single sheet of computer printout from 1999. Way back then, I must have looked for "Ellis" with a birthplace in Maine with some wildly estimated year (I can't say, because I didn't take very good notes back then) and found a record for an Oscar Ellis, born in Smithfield, Maine, in 1853, son of Robert W. Ellis and Eleanor Rankins. There were birth dates, birthplaces, and parent's names for both of Oscar's parents (my great great great grandparents)! At the time I originally printed out the page, it was only mildly interesting, because I had no idea this man was anyone I was looking for. However, armed with the new information I had about his date and place of birth, not to mention his first name, I could see that this was probably my Oscar.

My problem was now that I couldn't replicate the results of that search, and my piece of paper had no source or URL (another lesson learned!). It did, however, say that these were "IGI Records." I looked that up and found that the International Genealogical Index was a user-submitted family history database that came from personal family information submitted to the LDS Church, and vital and church records from the early 1500s to 1885. The Index was discontinued in 2008, but was still searchable online. My Oscar came right up when I searched for him in the IGI Archives online, along with a couple of generations of ancestors! Perfect. However, the source given for all this information was a rather unsatisfying and inexact phrase: "Parish Records." Whose? Where? When? Can I access them?

Well, I'm an amateur genealogist now, like it or not. I'll have to see the records myself so I can properly cite the sources and documentation for all these "new" potential family members. I'll still need to search census records and town reports and will probably end up borrowing some microfilm at a Family History Center. However, I just found out another way to access early Maine vital records. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Organizing Family Memories

This post was first published (in more or less the same words) over on my other blog, The Zees Go West. I hope that family members who are receiving duplicate notifications will forgive me. It's just a temporary situation.

Safe at last

As I mentioned in the last post, I have a large collection of family history "stuff"--photos, files of information about families and individuals, written and email correspondence about our history and our stories--just lots and lots of stuff.

Determined to share what I have with my family, back in 2010 I started this family history blog. At first, I just pulled out photos at random and wrote about them. I liked the result, but I could see that I was going to have to change my approach so that the results were more cohesive and organized and that each family was clearly delineated.

There's that organized word again. I thought that I might begin by sorting and labeling photos, a job that soon had me feeling overwhelmed all over again. I could still see those boxes of files of papers out of the corner of my eye. I wanted to go through everything once and have something to show for my efforts.

After a lot of thought, I finally came up with an approach that works for me. I hope that it might be of help (or an inspiration) for someone out there who is trying to organize their own family history chaos. I'll put the materials needed in bold type.

1. Get some great big binders and label each with a family name.

2.  Sort everything--papers, correspondence, photos--by family group. and put the materials with, not in each binder. Don't fasten anything in yet, this is a rough sort.

3. Get some dividers (this is so much fun if you, like me, like to shop for office supplies). Label them for individuals within the family, and start inserting everything into the binder in the order that pleases you. Punch holes in copies only. Original documents (like birth certificates) go into individual heavyweight non-acid sheet protectors.

4. Large photos can also go into sheet protectors. I heaved a sigh of relief when this step was done, because I knew these irreplaceable photos were safe at last. They can be scanned without any further handling.

5. Smaller photos can go into a large envelope (for now) labeled with the family name. Seal the envelope, cut off one end so it will go into the binder sideways, then punch holes into the edge of the envelope, being careful not to harm any photos, so it can be filed in the binder with the appropriate family. You can place a paper clip on the open end to keep photos from sliding out. Of course, after this step you will find a nice book or website about archival handling of photos and follow the directions to store these small photos properly. For me, having them safely in an envelope was better than loose in a box. One step at a time. 

Envelope for temporary storage of small photos, sorted by family

Now that I could see what information I had for each family, I wanted to put up some family trees on the Remember blog--my mother's, my father's, my husband's mother's, and my husband's father's, and one for my son's ancestors, since he comes from my former marriage to a Dutchman. Then, when I blogged about each individual I could start with a family tree to locate that person in the family.

While looking around for family tree templates, I found the perfect way to display my information by using the website WikiTree. WikiTree allows me to enter and save information about each person, link families together on a family tree, and add to any of my records when I have more information. Better still, they have "tree widgets" for my blog which will reflect any changes I make to any of my records on WikiTree. I also like how WikiTree will let me set privacy levels, and even allow trusted family members (or distant relatives) to make changes and additions to my records, but only if I want them to do so.

So, that's how I got things organized. As I continue the tale of our family history, I will tell you about a few surprises I came across along the way. For now, take a look at the beginning of my father's family tree. He is the mystery man in the family, so I really get excited when I find out any little thing about his ancestors. 

embeddable family tree updated live from WikiTree

Monday, December 9, 2013

Organizing My Family History

Note: This post was first published on one of my other blogs, The Zees Go West, as an explanation for the lack of posts there. I wanted whoever was still reading The Zees to know that I was busy on another project. 
Some came from Germany

If you've ever worked on your family's history, you'll know that it's hard to figure out where to start, especially if you are the holder of your family's documents and photos. I have piles of files of information, some inherited from my parents and some containing my own research from the last time I worked on the project in 1999. It's wonderful stuff--Birth/marriage/death certificates, probate records, and census sheets; and my favorites: Photos, interviews, letters, and stories. 

Did I refer to this project as huge? To give you an idea of the possibilities: If you wanted to go back as far as your great-great-great grandparents, you would have 16 pairs of ancestors. Now, here is where it gets interesting. According to an article (Ten Effective Strategies for Building a Family Tree) from GenealogyInTime Magazine: 
Assume each pair had three children, who in turn had three children, who in turn had three children. If we roll the clock forward, after five generations you appear. If you do the math, you will find this will produce 365 people down to your generation. But, wait a minute; you have 16 pairs of great-great-great-grandparents. This means your extended family tree has 16 x 365 = 5,840 potential people in it!
Of course, my mother's family never stopped at having a mere three children--that was for sissies. Her parents had 13 children, her dad was one of 13, and her oldest sister had 12 kids! The sheer numbers are overwhelming.

Complicating the project, just as with any else's family history project, I don't just have my mother's family (England, U.S., Canada) to document; there is my father's family (origins very mysterious), my husband's parents' families (Italy, Germany), and my son's family (The Netherlands). Add in the fact that our own is a blended family (his, mine, and ours) and the complications are endless.

Dutch boy with tulips (my son)

So, how did I find a way to start telling the family story? I want to share the process, the pitfalls, and the shocking surprises with you in the next few posts here. In the meantime, if you look at nothing else on this blog, I hope that you will read the story Mary and Amalio Talk About Life in an Italian Town in the 1920s, because this kind of record is why I wanted to make a family history blog in the first place.

Newly arrived in America

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Researching My Father's Life

embeddable family tree updated live from WikiTree

I've been reading lots of genealogy how-to books lately, and I'm learning more every day. I now know that ancestors need to be connected to their descendants by primary documents that record the events of their lives at the time of those events--birth, marriage, census records, and so on. Just because "Aunt Sally said so" isn't enough.

The beginning of the family tree for my father, Daniel L. Harris, appeared on this blog a couple of weeks ago. After much searching through U.S. Federal Census indexes, and some careful examination of the actual census pages, birth and death records, and family documents in my files, I have been able to officially add my father's grandparents--my great grandparents, at last!--to his tree.

As you can see, any changes I make on my WikiTree pages are automatically shown on the family trees here on the Remember blog. 

Using the information from all the documents, I was able to piece together a biographical timeline for my father's life. It's a dry outline, and really gives no idea of the personality of the man--his funny grin and the twinkle in his eye--but it does give a framework for his life that is a perfect start to further genealogical research. It also gives me a sense of how old he was when these events took place.

Here it is, complete with sources. Yes, I've learned to always cite my sources.

The twinkle in his eye...

My Aunt Faith; my mother, Elva; and my father, Dan Harris
Long Beach, California, some time in the 1960s

Biographical Outline:

Dan is born to Albert and Eva Ellis Harris, Aug. 2, 1907 in Worcester, Massachusetts. (2,3,4)

Albert, Eva, and Dan are shown as residing in Boston, Massachusetts in the 1910 U.S. Census. Dan is 2 years old. (5)

Albert, Eva, and Dan are shown as residing in Boston, Massachusetts in the 1920 U.S. Census. Dan is 12 years old. (6)

1928: Dan marries Marion Emily Foley in Boston, Massachusetts. Dan is 21. (7)

1932: Dan and Marion's daughter, Joan Patricia Harris, is born in Boston, Massachusetts. Dan is about 25 years old. (7)

Nov. 27, 1936: Dan applies for a Social Security Card [The Social Security Act was signed into law just the year before by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on Aug. 14, 1935]. He gives his address as 37 Snow St., Brighton, Massachusetts. He is 29 years old and working at the Copley Square Hotel, Huntington Ave., Boston, Massachusetts. (9)

April 15, 1937, Dan's occupation is Cabin Steward, according to his Continuous Discharge Book. Address is still 37 Snow St., Brighton, Massachusetts. Dan is 30 years old. (8)

Some time before 1940, Dan and Marion divorce. (7)

Dec. 21, 1940, Dan marries Elva Crabtree in Woodstock, New Brunswick, Canada. He is 33 years old. (1)

Daniel appears as Head of Household, age 32, in Boston, Ward 4 in the 1940 U.S. Census. He gives "Waterville, Maine" as his last place of residence. His occupation is "waiter." Note: Only head of household was named in this census, not every name in the household. (10)

Dan and Elva live in Massachusetts from 1940 to 1942 (see citation for Marital Property Declaration form). (12)

Dan and Elva move to Maine, where they live from 1942 to 1945 (see citation for Marital Property Declaration form). (12)

Nov. 11, 1944, Dan and Elva's first daughter, Clair Harris Zarges (that's me), is born in Biddeford, Maine. The family resides 25 Sea View Ave., Old Orchard Beach, Maine. Dan is 37 years old. (11)

In 1945, Dan and Elva move to California, where they will reside for the rest of their lives (see citation for Marital Property Declaration form). They live first in Hunter's Point (1945-1949), at 1323 48th Ave., San Francisco (1949-1955), in an apartment in San Rafael for a year (1955-1956), then at 2733 Heatherstone Dr., Marinwood, San Rafael (1956 until Dan's death). (12)

Aug. 19, 1949, Dan and Elva's second daughter is born in San Francisco. Dan is 42 years old. (1)

Sept. 22, 1972, Dan dies of heart disease at age 65. The death certificate shows him as retired, after 36 years working at Geary Auto Parts in San Francisco [incorrect--see occupational history below]. He died at his home at 2733 Heatherstone Dr., San Rafael, California, where he had resided for 17 years, having lived in San Francisco before that for 11 years. (12)

Oct. 24, 1972: On a Marital Property Declaration form (see source citation below), Elva gives the following brief history of Dan's occupational career: 
1940-1942: Waiter 
1942-1945: Shipyard 
1945-1947: U.S. Naval Shipyard 
1947-1949: Shell Oil [running a gas station in San Francisco, California] 
1949-1957: Carpenter 
1957-1964: Geary Auto Parts 
1964- 1972: Retired (12)

Dan is buried at Mount Tamalpais Cemetery, 2500 West Fifth Street, San Rafael, California, U.S. The plot is located in the Garden of Devotion, Lot 96, Grave 6. (14)


1. Family interviews.

2. "Massachusetts, Births, 1841-1915," index and images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 04 Dec 2013), Eva Ellis in entry for Daniel Harris, 1907.

3. Copy of record of birth from City Clerk Dept. City of Worcester, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, No. 1215, copy dated Jan. 15, 1969.

4. True copy of record of birth, C82253, issued Apr. 30, 1999, from the Registry of Vital Records and Statistics, Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Reg. no. 1622, Vol. 568, Page 497.

5. "United States Census, 1910," index and images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 30 Nov 2013), Daniel L Harris in household of Albert Harris, Boston Ward 19, Suffolk, Massachusetts, United States; citing sheet , family 48, NARA microfilm publication T624, FHL microfilm 1374634

6. "United States Census, 1920," index and images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 30 Nov 2013), Daniel L Harris in household of Albert Harris, Boston Ward 14, Suffolk, Massachusetts, United States; citing sheet , family 162, NARA microfilm publication T625, FHL microfilm 1820736.

7. Information about Dan's marriage to Marion Foley, and the birth of their daughter: Correspondence with their daughter (my half-sister) Joan Harris Foynes.

8. Dan's Continuous Discharge Book #168249, Issued by the U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Bureau of Machine Inspection and Navigation, dated Apr. 15, 1937.

9. U.S. Social Security Act Application for Account Number 028-10-5567, dated Nov. 27, 1936.

10. "United States Census, 1940," index and images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 30 Nov 2013), Daniel Harris, Ward 4, Boston, Boston City, Suffolk, Massachusetts, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) 15-163, sheet 14A, family 288, NARA digital publication of T627, roll 1662.

11. Birth certificate for Clair Marie Harris, Biddeford, Maine, Nov. 11, 1944.

12. Certificate of Death, Certified True Copy, State of California, Dept. of Health 2100-1057/275. Copy issued Dec. 18, 1984.

13. Marital Property Declaration Form, State of California. Information on the form was provided by Elva Crabtree Harris Rodriguez after Dan's death. Dated Oct. 24, 1972. The form lists, among other things, real property, the states in which they resided, and occupations for both Dan and Elva.

14. Mt. Tamalpais Cemetery sales agreement, Sept. 23, 1972.