Links 06.07.10

This week we’ve got a lot of grave tidings and record achievements. Cliche watchers, take note.

Cemetery records suit: A Virginia genealogy society was unsuccessful in proving ownership of a collection of cemetery records being offered for sale in CD and book form by a local museum. The U.S. District Court ruling means that the Bedford (Va.) Museum and Genealogical Library can continue to offer the items for sale. The case was more about procedure than genealogy. It hinged on whether, in voting to incorporate last year, the society was really the true successor to the parent group, an unincorporated volunteer group organized as an affiliate of the museum. The court held that the entire membership should have been notified of the vote in order for it to be valid. An interesting case to consider for volunteer genealogy societies amassing record collections.

Irish census of 1901: Meanwhile, across the pond, excitement reigns over the release of the 1901 Irish census, the earliest complete Irish population count available. The records took five years and 4 million euros to digitize, and join the 1911 census online for Irish researchers. (Many 19th-century Irish records were lost in a 1922 fire at the Public Records Office, during the Irish civil war.) The BBC’s website summarizes the news angles nicely, including examples of famous folks and their census forms.

Also in Ireland: This news item popped up, containing an intriguing reference to a proposed merger of the Irish National Archives, the Irish Manuscripts Commission and the National Library of Ireland into a new national library/archive. The legislation is to be introduced by the end of this year, said Fianna Fáil leader Brian Cowen.

“Uncle” is correct: I love genealogy stories that bring distant history close to living generations, and this one is a classic. An Ohio man recently succeeded in replacing the official grave marker for his uncle, who served in the Civil War. Yes, you read that right. Sid Sines, a WWII veteran himself,  belongs to what must be a small group of living Americans with a biological uncle who fought in the Civil War. Sines’ father Martin (born 1868) was the product of Simon Sines’ second marriage. The Civil War soldier, James (born 1844), was an elder child of Simon’s first marriage. Martin waited until he was 52 to marry, and Sid was born in 1922. A perfect storm of genealogy circumstance! Congratulations to Sid on replacing his uncle’s marker — the original was vandalized 30 years ago.


History in the walls

When you reach the point in your family history research at which you’d like to start writing some sort of narrative, you might turn your attention to house genealogy.

That’s because as a writer, you can only get so far with vital statistics. Weaving them into a a story about your ancestors’ lives and times cries out for context. If you’re lucky and an ancestor’s former address is still standing, you can really add to your research by learning its story.

Imagine knowing exactly how the house was constructed, how big the yard was, how many neighbors lived on the street, what the view was from the front-room window. It’s possible to learn these things.

Of course, a lot of people, myself included, become curious about old houses because they live in them. Sometimes house history helps an owner undo decades of neglect or bad remodeling. Sometimes it’s just fun.

Here are some basic resources I’ve enjoyed exploring in researching houses:

Tax records. The ultimate starting point for determining a chain of ownership. Tax assessment data will give you the owner of record (though this might not necessarily be the person who actually lived in the house). My town library has the massive yearly property survey books, including lot numbers, assessed values and ownership data. In other places you’d check with city hall.

City directories. Very useful in conjunction with tax records, especially since they can give a more complete view of who actually resided at an address in addition to, or instead of, the owner.

Sanborn (and other) maps. Insurance maps can give amazing details, down to the composition of the roof and the location of windows and doors. They also show a lot of context about the neighborhood, including street layout, schools, churches and nearby businesses. Although Sanborn maps are best known, don’t neglect the possibility that local libraries may hold other detailed historical maps, too.

Other ideas:

The University of Maryland offers a houseful of resources for beginning researchers, some of it Maryland-specific, but also a lot of  great general information and links.

The New York City Tax Photograph database might actually produce a picture of your ancestor’s house.

Case study: The Smithsonian has a neat presentation about 200 years of history in a house in Ipswich, Massachusetts, including tips on being a house detective.


A response to the 52 weeks to Better Genealogy Challenge #22: Find-A-Grave.

I can spend hours hanging out at Find-A-Grave, and here they are telling me to poke around on this site as a challenge. Yeah. Right.

Oops! I meant to say, “Wow, tough assignment; I’m just going to have square my shoulders and do my best.”

Find-A-Grave has done fine things for my research. It helped me clarify where my great-great-uncle William’s wife was buried, since they weren’t next to each other. It was also nice to see my dad’s headstone on the site, placed there by a volunteer who has photographed many veterans’ graves in Calverton National Cemetery.

I also get an enormous kick out of finding out which famous people are buried in cemeteries near my hometown. Searching by locale, you can easily pull up a list of cemeteries in your area and browse the entries. There’s always an interesting story or two.

But the most important things I’ve learned from Find A Grave have been in the forums, where regulars congregate to swap tips, pet peeves and general wisdom. For example:

• I know that you will not win any friends by bragging about how the chalk you put on that 18th-century headstone made the inscription clear as day.

• Ditto for whipping out a Sharpie to color in the letters.

• I know that each year, kind volunteers fan out across Woodland Cemetery in Newark, N.J., to record inscriptions and photograph markers. It’s a chance for volunteers to work in a big group with an escort from local police. (Security concerns are a fact of life in many urban burial grounds.)

What’s very interesting, and important for genealogy enthusiasts to know, is that Find-A-Grave is primarily a gathering place for people who love graveyards. Some of them also love genealogy; the two interests often dovetail.

I don’t mean to imply that genealogy queries are unwelcome there — quite the contrary. I’m just saying that when I first found Find-A-Grave, I was thrown for a loop. Why were complete strangers (at least, I think they were strangers)  photographing tombstones in my family lines? What was in it for them?

The answer for many really is simple: They get to explore cemeteries and read interesting tombstones. And because so many Find-A-Grave volunteers love what they do, we all gain in our research. Thanks, guys.

Links 6.1.10

Sorry about the Monday-links-on-Tuesday thing. I was intending to post them as usual, but what started out as a brief intro about Memorial Day ran away with me and became a post of its own.

Well, here are the links to help you ease back into Real Life after the long weekend.

The Great Hunger: You might have seen the hullabaloo about the proposed auction of a collection of letters written by Irish landowners during the years of the great famine. After much concern that a private collector would snap them up, an archive bought the letters and it looks as if they will stay in Ireland.  In the aftermath, one columnist had an interesting answer to the question posed by many letter writers to the Irish Times: “Why don’t we have a famine museum?” Apparently there is one, but people don’t know it exists.

A fab genealogy job: I feel very stupid, but until this week, I did not know there was such a thing as a professional probate genealogist. Now I do. The title is now stuck in my head as part of an imaginary detective yarn: “Lynch here; professional probate genealogist. I understand there’s been a discrepancy in a birthdate.”

Finding graves: Did you see the current 52 Weeks to Better Genealogy challenge on exploring Find-A-Grave? Get fired up with this interesting profile of an active Find-A-Grave volunteer — how she got started and what it’s really like chasing down headstones.

Military matters: Memorial Day reminiscing can be an on-ramp to the genealogy highway. If this past weekend got you curious about a military ancestor, here are some good places to start: the military section of Cyndi’s List; a nice primer at Olive Tree Genealogy; and of course, the military records section at the National Archives.

Summer is here, people. You can wear your white shoes now. Go get ’em!