Tuesday, June 29, 2021

About Family Secrets in a Genealogy Collection

If you're considering giving your genealogy collection (all or part) to a repository such as a museum, library, archive, or society, take a moment to consider any so-called family secrets in your files.

As I wrote in my previous post, there may be "secret" family stories not yet ready for prime time, because someone still living could be hurt if the info is made public. I'm not talking about DNA secrets or incidents of historical significance. I mean info dug up during a thorough genealogy research--info that could damage a living person's reputation or cause harm in some other way.

My approach has been to keep the secret but slip the story into my files, to be inherited years in the future by my family heirs. This keeps the story from being entirely lost to the family but also keeps it from being made public for a while. IMHO, my level-headed family heirs can reconsider the situation in the far future and determine next steps.

Donating a collection? Plan ahead

However, what if the secret is in a genealogy collection that will be donated to repository such as an archive, a library, a museum, or a historical or genealogical society? Plan ahead. 

In a Twitter conversation with professional genealogist Melissa Barker (aka The Archive Lady), I learned that the donor and the repository should discuss this in advance and come to an agreement formalized in a deed of gift. That's the legal document in which someone formally transfers ownership of a family-history collection to the repository.

Putting everything in writing ensures that both parties clearly understand what will happen to the secret. Will that info be kept private forever or for a specified period? Will it be made available to in-person researchers or for specific purposes? Should the secret even be included with the donated collection? Discuss and decide before finalizing the donation.

For more about deeds of gift, see this informative page on the Society of American Archivists website.

Reader's comments

Here are excerpts from reader comments on my previous post about secrets. I appreciate that these folks took the time to share their thoughts.

One reader commented: "Consider carefully if you should commit a secret to writing at all. If the secret has the potential to be very harmful, keep it to yourself! Otherwise, write it down and go on with life."

Reader Debi commented, referring to minor family secrets: "I have not written about them (all parties deceased) and assume anyone researching could find the same information for themselves."

Reader Sandy commented: "It's not often that we look forward in this hobby. I suppose these days people are so used to putting things online they're not worried?"

Friday, June 25, 2021

Pssst! What Happens to Family History Secrets?


Every family's history includes a personal secret

Maybe it's a "secret" in the sense that ancestors never spoke of it: someone committed a serious crime in the past, someone had an affair, someone was pregnant before marriage or outside of marriage, someone died of a disease considered shameful at the time...the list goes on and on. 

Document but don't disclose? 

If the secret could be very hurtful or even damaging to someone still living, I choose not to disclose. I don't say anything in public (info is not posted on family trees, not included in family genealogies, not on my blog, not mentioned in talks). 

Instead, I document what I've learned and then leave the explanation in my files.

Why? Although I don't want to hurt someone still living, I also want that discovery to not be lost forever. By keeping it in my files, I'm allowing it to be rediscovered by the relative who will eventually inherit my genealogical materials. (Assuming the relative opens the files and reads the contents!)

It's likely that after a number of years, the secret will no longer be as hurtful or damaging because the people involved will have joined their ancestors, too.

Of course, if a secret has particular historical significance, that's an entirely different matter. Similarly, if the secret involves DNA and "NPE" (not parent expected), that also changes the situation. My ancestors didn't have those kinds of secrets--not that I know of, anyway.

Planning for a future for family history secrets

What happens to a family history secret in the event our genealogical files wind up in an archive, a library, a museum, or some other repository? In other words, the secret and its documentation would be out of family hands, if left within the files.

This is an issue to consider when planning for the future of our genealogical research and materials.

I'm going to ask several archivists what they think, and then write another blog post about their responses.

Meantime, my impulse is to let the secret stay in the file, along with a note requesting that the details not be publicly disclosed before a certain date (five or 10 years, for instance). 

What do you think, dear readers? Please add your thoughts in a comment. TY!

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Keeping Up Connections Between Generations

Two years ago, the wonderful genealogist cousin of my mother's generation handed me a small box. Inside was a favorite piece of jewelry from the past. She had worn this silver pin for many decades, and now she wanted me to have it, along with stories of happy occasions.

Stories make items special

By giving me the pin and telling the stories, she was keeping up the strong connections between the generations. I never met many of the people in her stories, but I knew they were in our shared family tree. They came alive through her stories, which I think about when I wear this flowery pin.

I made a note on the box so that in the years to come, my descendants will be aware of how I came to own this pin and why it's special. 

Wait or give away now?

My cousin made the decision to give away some jewelry now, telling the stories in person as she handed each item to the recipient.

I've done the same with a few pieces of my own jewelry. When I gave a precious ring to a much-loved young lady in the next generation, inside the box was a story. I wrote about how my father gave this ring to my mother after the birth of their twins (my sis and me). The recipient read the story and asked a couple of questions, which I was delighted to answer.

The story will live on into the future, along with the ring, connecting later generations with the lives of ancestors who came before. Giving away the ring and the story now enabled me to reinforce the significance of the jewelry to our family's history.

One item at a time

Of course, not all of my jewelry and heirlooms are going to descendants at this time. But selected items already have new homes with family members, tangible reminders of our ancestral connections. Even relatives who aren't particularly interested in quote genealogy unquote will accept one item and a story! 

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Remembering Dads on Father's Day

For Father's Day, I used special tools from MyHeritage.com to fix minor scratches and colorize this favorite black-and-white snapshot from my husband's family. It was taken in Cleveland, Ohio, and shows hubby's Mom, Marian McClure Wood (1909-1883), hubby's grandfather Brice Larimer McClure (1878-1970), and hubby's Dad, Edgar James Wood (1903-1986).

After Brice's wife Floyda Steiner McClure (1878-1948) died, a grieving Brice visited often with his only child Marian and her family. Ed affectionately called his dad-in-law "The Old Gentleman." The two men got along famously, by all accounts (including Ed's diaries). 

When Brice died at age 91 in 1970, Ed put much thought into arranging the graveside funeral service. He wrote movingly of their close relationship stretching over 36 years, a letter that has been passed down in the family and will be inherited by the next generation.

I'm saluting Brice and Ed, two much-loved fathers from my husband's family tree, on this Father's Day in 2021.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Old Negatives? Scan, Invert, Enhance!

My wonderful sis-in-law sent me a big envelope of black-and-white negatives and a few prints from the early decades of the 20th century. 

All were taken by my late father-in-law, Edgar James Wood (1903-1986). He became a photo buff at the age of 14, when his parents gave him a camera. 

Although his negatives are in decent shape, it's much easier to figure out who/what/where when viewing a photo. I had a very good guess about the people in this negative, but I couldn't be sure.

Old process: contact sheet

In the past, I selected the most promising negatives and asked a local photography place to create a contact sheet. This enabled me to take a magnifying glass to each photo, identify the person/place/date if possible, and then decide whether to order any prints to share along with family history. (I described this process in my book, Planning a Future for Your Family's Past.)

These days, my process for working with negatives is faster and cheaper--and the results are even better.

New process: scan and invert

My new first step is to scan each negative at a high resolution, so there is flexibility to enlarge and tinker.

Next, I import the scanned negative into photo software so I can invert the colors. With a click, "invert" changed black to white and white to black. Nearly every type of photo software will do this. Once my negative is a positive, it looks just like an ordinary photo.

**Also try this alternative method from librarian Tess: "I learned a trick last year which involved putting the negative down on the screen of my tablet which was open to a blank white white, full brightness, and then taking a photo. The light behind it exposed the negative."

Now enhance and adjust

I almost always do something to improve the inverted image. Sometimes I adjust the contrast so the dark areas are darker. Sometimes I lighten the light areas. If I want to go even further, I either use more advanced functions OR upload the inverted image to MyHeritage.com to use its photo tools.

In this case, I used the MyHeritage enhancement tool to sharpen the features and improve the overall look.

Then I downloaded the "after" version and used my own photo software to adjust the contrast one more time. 

No longer trapped on a negative, I could compare the faces to photos already captioned and pick out familiar faces from hubby's family tree.

Hello ancestors

Knowing who snapped the photo, and when it was taken, gave me great confidence in my identification of the two adults as James Edgar Wood and Mary Slatter Wood (hubby's grandparents). The two boys are the photographer's younger brothers (hubby's uncles). 

This negative reveals a summer jaunt with family, captured by my dad-in-law shortly after his 16th birthday, nearly 102 years ago!

-- This is my entry in The Genealogy Blog Party for June, 2021! 

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Quirks of Old City Directories

My husband's great-grandparents, Thomas Haskell Wood (1809-1890) and Mary Amanda Demarest Wood (1831-1897) settled in Toledo, Ohio early in the 1860s. I have had fun tracking these ancestors through city directories, great sources of family-history clues between Census years.

Along the way, I've noticed a few quirks of these early directories. (For more about the history of city directories, see this excellent post from the NY Public Library.)

Previously, I wrote about not relying on the cover date of a city directory. Today I'm looking at two more quirks: how alphabetical order was a bit elastic, and how different publishers included different details.

Not strictly alphabetical

Directories were being revised up until the moment of printing. As a result, names didn't always appear in strict alphabetical order. In the 1868 directory for Toledo, Ohio, the publisher acknowledged wanting to include as many entries as possible, even if the final arrangement was less than perfect.

As you can see in the excerpt at top, the entry for "Wood, Thos. H., carpenter" appears after the entry for "Wood, William, carpenter." 

Also, Mrs. K.L. Wood appears after "Woodard, Samuel E" and before "Woodbury, Geo." 

In other words, it pays to look at entries before and after where the ancestor would be expected to appear.

Also look at the very last-minute name/address additions in any directory, which are on a separate page, usually near the front of the alpha listings.

Clues beyond name, occupation, residence

In the 1868 Toledo directory, I was surprised and pleased to see the notation "fmly 10" at the end of the entry for Thomas H. Wood. The abbreviations page confirms that this refers to "family." A real find, the first time I've ever seen a notation like this. 

Of course, I wouldn't necessarily assume the directory's family count was accurate. Still...it could be a clue.

I compared my husband's family tree to the directory's notation of 10 people in the Thomas H. Wood family that year. Counting the 2 parents and 8 living children, my tally agreed with the directory. If my tally had not agreed, I would follow up by looking for a child I might have missed or some other change in the household. 

Fast-forward to the Toledo directory for 1890. It listed the exact death date of Thomas H. Wood, confirming what was already on the family tree. The directory got it right!

One more quirk: The 1864 Toledo directory has a listing for "Wood _______, carp, h East Toledo." A blank wasn't really that unusual. Every page in that directory had an entry missing a given name. Looking at multiple years in the same decade helped me feel confident that, based on the occupation and home location, this entry is indeed that of my hubby's ancestor.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Honoring Grandpa Isaac, My Genealogy Inspiration

For Father's Day 2021, it is my pleasure to pay tribute to immigrant Grandpa Isaac Burk (1882-1943), who lived and died before my time.

How I wish I could tell him that he's the reason I became addicted to genealogy in the first place.

Isaac Burk, my inspiration

In 1998, the genealogist of my mother's side of the family asked me about my father and his parents, Isaac and Henrietta. She taught me, by example, how important it is to include in-laws on the family tree.

Sadly, I knew almost nothing about Isaac, nor had I even seen a photo of him. I knew precious little about his wife, Grandma Henrietta Mahler Burk (1881-1954), although I did recognize her in a couple of old family photos. 

Isaac's story proved elusive. It took five years of spare-time research to discover where, when, and why he died. The seemingly endless search became my inspiration for filling out branches on my family tree and that of my husband.

Hint, hint

After years of library research and by-mail requests for fruitless searches of New York City and state death records, I actually picked up the phone to call a Big Apple office. I knew where Isaac was buried by then, but not where he died and what caused his death. I threw myself on the mercy of the kindly clerk who answered the phone.

The clerk, in low tones, offered a completely unofficial, totally off-the-record hint to look beyond New York. The hush-hush suggestion was to, um, maybe consider, possibly, say, a place sorta like Washington, D. C. What?!

As a result of this hint, I was able to obtain Isaac's death cert. It turned out Isaac had died in Washington and his body was transported to New York for the funeral, generating paperwork that the clerk could view (but I couldn't see). Another lesson learned: sometimes it's a good idea to call and politely ask for help.

The hunt for Grandpa Isaac's history opened the door to decades of genealogy fun, finding many more ancestors and connecting with wonderful cousins along the way.

Thank you, Grandpa Isaac, for inspiring me. You are remembered with affection on Father's Day, 2021. My Sis and I have also paid to add you and Grandma Henrietta to the Ellis Island Immigrant Wall of Honor, as shown above, to keep your names alive for many generations to come.


Father's Day is the week 24 prompt for Amy Johnson Crow's #52Ancestors challenge.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Family Search Remote Access Services Solves a Mystery

More than a few of my ancestors didn't know their actual birth dates. Sound familiar?

This week, I was able to solve the mystery of an uncle's birth date in New York City, thanks to the new Family Search Remote Services team.

When no image available or document is not viewable from home, this new team accesses the image or document (if available) via the Family History Library and sends it to the requester, for free.  

For more about this service, see the announcement here.

Pandemic PLAs 

During the pandemic, I would have posted an image request on the New York City Genealogy Facebook page.

Wonderful volunteers known as "parking lot angels" (PLAs) would go outside a Family History Center, tap its Wi-Fi, and look up images for folks like me. 

For the next 90 days, however, no images are available--except by request to the Family Search Remote Access Services team.

One uncle, two birth dates

I knew my uncle, Charles Lang (1906-1968), was born in New York City. On his World War II draft registration card, he said his birth date was September 10, 1906. On a document from his teenage years, the birth date was March 15, 1906.

What I needed was his actual birth certificate. The transcribed birth document is on Family Search, showing his parents and a birth date of March 2, 1906. But to be absolutely sure there were no transcription errors, I wanted to view the actual certificate with my own eyes. 

So late last week, I submitted a request to the Family Search Remote Access Services team, providing all the details requested on the form. 

Four days later, the terrific Remote Access Services team sent along the image of my uncle's birth certificate. And now the mystery is solved: his correct birth date is March 2, 1906, shown clearly. Because this document was filed only days after my uncle was born, I am very confident in its accuracy.

Thank you to the Remote Access Services team!

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Looking Back at the 1950 Census in the News

Prepping for the public release of the 1950 U.S. Census in April, 2022, I'm searching newspapers that cover the areas where my ancestors lived during the spring of 1950. 

Not only am I researching my ancestors, I'm putting the Census into context and learning more about how people thought about the Census back then.

Names and Faces in the News

First, I do a name search (creative spelling of surname, nicknames, maiden names, and so on). Maybe one of my ancestors or a FAN club person was mentioned as a Census taker? 

Here's another angle to consider: Was an ancestor quoted in a story about the Census, perhaps talking about being enumerated or expressing an opinion about the process? 

On March 26, 1950, The Brooklyn Eagle (New York City) interviewed eight local residents who were outraged at the personal questions about income. The article included photos, names, and addresses of those interviewed! 

Other news items (including a January, 1950 story from the Los Angeles Times) also quoted people who were unhappy about the income question. None were my ancestors, but you might be luckier.

Fido in the News (in the Census?)

According to multiple newspaper articles (Brooklyn Eagle, L.A. Times, and others), enumerators were requested by some households to list dogs as family members. 

In fact, household heads could be rather insistent on the matter! "Rather than argue, the census taker wrote down the dog's name, age and residence," one news item reported.

I don't know whether those names were left as is or deleted during later steps of review and coding. But be aware, as you browse the 1950 U.S. Census after its public release next April, you may just see Fido, Spot, Mittens, or other dogs listed as a member of a household.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Instructions for 1950 US Census Enumerators: Who to Count

In my series on preparing for the release of the 1950 U.S. Census on April 1, 2022, I've been examining the instructions to enumerators who knocked on every door and interviewed the head of every household.

By understanding the nuances of these instructions, I'll be better able to interpret what I see when the scans of the population schedules are made public next year.

Don't count certain people

As shown at top, the enumerators were trained to enumerate only certain people and omit enumeration of other people. This excerpt is from the informative publication The 1950 Census: Procedural Studies, available to view and download from the U.S. Census Bureau site here.

Enumerators were not to count members of the military who were temporarily away from home serving in the Coast Guard or a U.S. Navy vessel, for instance. The reason: These vessels were provided with Census forms to be completed separately.

Similarly, armed-forces personnel who lived in a military facility in the enumerator's assigned district were not to be counted. Again, other plans were in place to enumerate people living on military bases, in a separate count from the residential and institutional buildings in those enumeration districts.

In April of 1950, I had one ancestor in the military. These instructions are a reminder that I won't find him at home, but should look for him on the military base where he was stationed at that time.

How many apartments to count

Another interesting quirk of the 1950 Census was the way the Census Bureau prepared to enumerate residents of apartment buildings in large cities.

The various district offices in major cities (with 100,000+ population) prepared a preliminary list of large apartment complexes. Then these offices wrote to the owner or manager of each building to find out how many apartments were there, how the apartments were numbered, and so forth. As a result, enumerators who were assigned to count residents of those buildings would have advance information about how many apartments they could expect to visit. 

Because the majority of my New York City ancestors lived in big apartment buildings, these instructions would have affected how they were enumerated. I will be very interested to see whether the population schedules indicate the apartment numbers for my parents and for his mother, who had apartments on the same floor in the same big building in the Bronx, New York.


For more posts about prepping for the release of the 1950 Census, please see my special page here.

Friday, June 4, 2021

Instructions for 1950 US Census Enumerators: The Fine Print

In previous posts, I've highlighted elements of the Enumerator's Reference Manual that was the training guide for how the 1950 U.S. Census was conducted. You can read or download the main manual here.

Supplemental Manual

Today, I'm looking at the supplement to the main manual. You can read and download it here.

This supplemental manual includes detailed instructions for how enumerators should list people in five specific areas, as shown in the excerpt here. 

If you suspect you have ancestors who might be enumerated in one of these five types of areas, it's worth checking the instructions in this brief, 16-page supplement.

Reading the Fine Print

The fine print explains who should be enumerated as living at one of these areas, versus who should be enumerated at their regular residence. For instance, staff members who have living quarters at a hospital, mental institution, or prison would be enumerated there. Staff members who don't regularly live on-site would be enumerated at their usual residence, according to the fine print.

Knowing that enumeration of large institutions might require many hours, enumerators were instructed to determine which inmates might be leaving on April 1, and count them before they depart. Also, when new inmates entered an institution on April 1, enumerators had to determine whether they were enumerated at a different residence--and if not, count them as living at the institution. My guess is that there will be some overlap or omissions or both.

Patient, orphan, prisoner?

The supplemental manual tells enumerators what to label each person who lives in an institution, as shown here. The idea is to show the relationship of each person to the institution.

"Inmate" is only to be used if the other descriptions aren't descriptive enough.

Glance at the supplement if you think an ancestor might be enumerated in one of the five special areas, because the instructions will help you interpret what you see in the 1950 Census.

PS: For more about preparing for the 1950 US Census release in 2022, please see my special page here.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Alas, Google Won't Send My Posts Beginning in July

Dear regular readers,

Alas! If you've been subscribing to my blog and regularly receive my latest post by email, I'm sorry to say that Google is dumping this function at the end of June. 

Here is the notice I received about Google's FeedBurner, the subscription widget that sends my blog posts to your email after you've signed up. It's been a great way to stay in touch for all these years! 

I'm still investigating alternatives to try to have blog posts delivered to your email automatically, but in the meantime...

If you follow a number of blogs, you may already be using a blog reader like Feedly.com, which I use. It's free when reading up to 100 blogs, and there's an app as well as a web-based version. 

Please be sure to add my blog (https://ClimbingMyFamilyTree.blogspot.com) to the list of blogs you follow.

I'll update this situation toward the end of June...meanwhile, thank you so much for reading my blog! UPDATE on June 10: I now use follow.it but not sure this is my "final answer" because emails are delivered with ads along the bottom, which I don't like. Still a work in progress! UPDATE on July 18: After more than two months of using follow.it, I've gained new followers and been pleased by the consistent way the service delivers my latest blog posts via email to my subscribers--every time.