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Those of you that live in places where you bring individual trash cans to the curb have probably been in this situation before: One of your neighbors has taken their trash can(s) to the curb, and then another sees the curbside can(s) and does the same, and soon most of them have. You’re pretty sure that there was a holiday this week and that trash pickup has been delayed by one day. But the more people who bring their cans up, the more you start to wonder whether you’re correctly remembering. Perhaps you even double-check the calendar to make sure you are right. But in historical and genealogical research, there is no calendar to check. When the majority choose a different argument or interpretation from yours, you may find yourself looking for a signpost in the scholarly wilderness. People may write a piece disputing your research or contact you directly to express that your conclusions are inaccurate.

In researching historical events and people, none of us will ever know for sure what actually happened. The best we can do is come as close to accuracy as we can with the records and other resources available to us, reach our own interpretations and conclusions, and then always be willing to reexamine them if new records and/or research come to light. This makes research especially contentious, since even something as simple-seeming as an historical birth date can be up for debate.

“Truth is not a democracy”

The subheading is from a seminar I attended several years ago, and was the initial response when an audience member asked a question about when the majority disagrees with your conclusions. It’s a quip that has always stuck with me, because I have found over and over again that just because most people agree on something, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is the best interpretation of the evidence, nor that the others have necessarily reviewed all the records and other evidence that you have reviewed. When I’m contacted by someone who disagrees with my conclusions, my own starting point is usually: Can you please tell me your evidence for your position?

Take the case of the two Simeon Lymans as an example. Simeon Lyman the father was born circa 1718, probably in Northampton, Massachusetts, as his family was living there at the time. Simeon moved to Salisbury, Connecticut, around 1744, as he bought 85 acres on the “highway to Sheffield” from Joel Harvey in that year. In 1747, Simeon was officially admitted as a “resident” of the town of Salisbury according to the town meeting minutes, which included the ability to vote at town meetings. In January 1748/9 he followed these steps with the common next step of marriage. Like most New England families of this era, Simeon and his wife Elizabeth (Beebe) Lyman proceeded to have a lot of children; in their particular case, I have identified nine, including children named after each parent, again as was typical. Their nuclear family was shattered when Elizabeth died in 1773, on the eve of the Revolution. A little over a year later, a Simeon Lyman married an Abigail Chipman in Salisbury.

And this is where the controversy begins.

I had been as thorough as I could, and had also found that a Simeon Lyman had married a Joanna Palmer in 1780. Simeon Lyman the younger was born on 7 January 1754, meaning that he would have been 20 if he had married Abigail Chipman in 1774, and 26 if he married Joanna Palmer in 1780. Is it possible that Simeon the younger married Abigail and Simeon the elder (or some other Simeon) married Joanna? Of course. But it makes a heck of a lot more sense for the widower who still has children at home to remarry quickly and for the young man to wait until he’s a bit more established to marry. And that’s not even getting into the question of ages and how much more sense it generally makes for an older man to marry a woman relatively close in age to him (Abigail was born circa 1730) and a younger man to do the same, and indeed, the Simeon-Joanna pair proceeded to have children of their own. My initial theory was greatly bolstered by reviewing Joanna’s Revolutionary War widow’s pension file, in which affidavits clearly state that she married the younger Simeon.

This has been an extremely basic overview of time-consuming research that I feel is solid. Having noted that most posted research conflated Simeon’s two wives into a single wife (squashing the maiden name of his first wife and the given name of his second wife into a single wife, probably copied uncited from a compiled genealogy that had made the same error), I decided to put a basic sketch of my research on Simeon the elder online, not realizing at the time that it might be controversial beyond the conflated Abigail-Elizabeth question. And that’s when the emails began.

You’ve made a mistake, they said: Simeon the younger married Abigail.

The first time I got one, my initial response was (as usual) to go back over my research to see if I had made an error that was obvious to me. I was relieved when my review confirmed that my conclusions were, to me, solid conclusions based on extensive research and what I considered a preponderance of evidence. However, as I have mentioned, the nature of historical research means conclusions can always change depending on what evidence and research an individual researcher has viewed.

Consequently, I would respond, Can you please tell me your evidence?

They would usually respond, Ancestry. Could you please be more specific? And then I would usually get, U.S. and International Marriage Records, 1560-1900. This is an index-only database that is described by Ancestry thusly: “This database contains marriage record information for approximately 1,400,000 individuals from across all 50 United States and 32 different countries around the world between 1560 and 1900. These records, which include information on over 500 years of marriages, were extracted from family group sheets, electronic databases, biographies, wills, and other sources.” None of the entries specify what the exact source is for a marriage, but given that the entry for Simeon and Abigail claims that Simeon was born in 1755 and that Abigail was born in 1757, neither of which is true, I don’t think it is an unfair educated guess to speculate that a family group sheet created by a rather bad researcher is probably the source.

So then I was left trying to explain that I had done hundreds of hours of research on the family and popping a name into an Ancestry search box and coming back with an index-only result is not a substitute for that. Finally I added a note to my posted research that if anyone wanted to contact me disputing what I posted, to please present me with evidence from records, and that I don’t count an unsourced index-only database entry as a record. I wasn’t sure what would happen, but nobody has emailed me since I added that note.

As a final aside on the Lymans in case anyone reached this post through searching on the family, Simeon Lyman the younger carved the powder horn that J. L. Bell blogged about over on Boston 1775 in 2012.

Discovering a new path in the scholarly wilderness

Sometimes something very different happens and you find something that it appears no one else has previously found. Sometimes everyone is immediately accepting of and excited about it. But sometimes not.

Late last year Susan Moore was going through a 16th century record set in England on my behalf and sent me a report about it. I found something in it that I had never seen mentioned anywhere before and was initially taken aback. I first wrote to ask if Susan thought I was correctly interpreting it. Then I checked through published scholarship to see if I had missed its being mentioned, and I could not find a mention of it anywhere.

I am lucky enough to live in a location where I often interact in person with well-established scholars, and I happened to be somewhere with someone who has researched this shortly thereafter, and mentioned it with excitement. It went over like a lead balloon; the response was deep skepticism. After going back and forth about it in my mind a good deal, I decided to try talking to a second scholar before giving up, and their initial response was the same as mine had been – to check published scholarship to see if anyone had mentioned it previously. They could not find anything either. They then congratulated me on making what appeared to be a new find and suggested Susan and I keep plugging away at the research to see what else we could find. (I’m not really sure how I constrained myself from doing a little dance until I was alone.) I readily admit that if the second scholar had similarly reacted with skepticism, I probably would have stopped trying to talk to people about it, although I wouldn’t have given up on the research altogether. Make no mistake that it can be a little scary and/or somewhat intimidating to posit something different than what has been publicly posited before you. Since this experience, I have even more respect for people who have published pieces correcting or disputing previous published research.

I apologize for my vagueness in this part; I hope to be able to publish something about this after having completed further research, and don’t want to spill the beans publicly as a result.

Alone with the research trees

It can be hard to be the one person who doesn’t take your trash cans to the curb on the wrong day, even if you’ve checked the calendar and know that your neighbors have forgotten about a holiday. Similarly, it can be difficult to know that people vehemently disagree with your research, even if you know that your research is as good as it can be and have faith in your own interpretations. In my opinion, part of being a good researcher is being open to being wrong or to discovering new information, and also reviewing your research from time to time to see if your greater knowledge now leads you to question one of your earlier conclusions or realize perhaps there is something you missed reviewing because you did not know it existed at the time. It’s important to read the research of others and to collaborate with others, but it’s also important to remember that others are not necessarily going to agree with you and that this in and of itself doesn’t speak badly of either of you.

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I was honored to be asked by Emma Jolly to participate in a Writers’ Blog Tour, which aims to showcase writers in a variety of non-fiction and fiction genres and help more people know about their blogs. Emma’s Tour post is over here and includes information on the Tour and on a number of the other participants. Emma invited myself and Debra Watkins to join the Tour. For my turn on the Tour, I am to answer four questions on my writing and then introduce you to the writers that are joining the Tour at my invitation. I apologize that my post is appearing later than it had been scheduled to debut; there was a death in my family (see my most recent post if you want details).

What am I working on?

I am in the process of writing or editing multiple articles on family history and social history for print publications, including an article on utilizing DNA testing in research and an article on a local women’s organization’s programs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I am also working on a non-fiction book about some facets of 19th century America and always have a number of drafts for my blog which are in various stages of writing/editing prior to posting. I enjoy researching and writing about a variety of subjects rather than focusing on a single subject.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

One of the main things I like to do regarding family history, in both articles and blog posts, is to try to give people a good idea of the tools to approach a specific type of research; I like to use both specific examples and social history for background so that people can hopefully better understand both specific situations and the general tenor of an area of research, and hopefully carry it forward to their own successful research. While there were general patterns in the past, just like today each situation was unique, and some people were closer to the median than others. With my pieces that focus primarily on social history, I like to try to share stories that seem to have been forgotten with the passage of time, and that hopefully will help the reader understand more about the wider time and place in which that part of history happened. My most recent print article was “The Long Trek Westward: Migration from New England to New York and the Midwest,” published in December 2013.

Why do I write what I do?

I love history – social history, family history, almost all history really. I enjoy sharing my passion for history with others and hopefully helping people to better understand the past and, if they are a fellow researcher, to do more successful research.

How does my writing process work?

It differs somewhat depending on what I am writing. If I am writing an article for publication and know in advance exactly what the topic will be and a required approximate length, I usually write an outline in advance, flesh out the article, and then edit it down to the required size. Occasionally I still do the outline longhand, but more often I start typing from the first word. If I am writing a blog post or writing an article that I intend to submit to prospective publications after finishing, I may start with an outline or I may simply start writing and see where my writing goes. I generally write at home, but I sometimes write in situ, most often in a café or an archive.

Introducing Two More Family History Writers

I now have the pleasure of introducing the next two people on the Tour, two fellow genealogical writers who are also editors. Both live here in the States.

Carol Swaine-Kuzel is a genealogist and a historical researcher. She has written research articles for the New Hampshire Genealogical Record and is co-editor of the New Hampshire Families in 1790 project for the New Hampshire Society of Genealogists.  She blogs about her explorations in genealogical research at Journeys of a Constant Genealogist and about her ancestors’ Civil War experiences in three sesquicentennial tribute blogs: http://20thmassregt150.blogspot.com/, http://13thnhregt150.blogspot.com/, and http://27thctregt150.blogspot.com.

Judi Scott is a genealogical writer, editor, and researcher. For five years she was an editor of The Bulletin, the quarterly publication of the Genealogical Forum of Oregon. She has written articles and stories on a variety of genealogical topics but her main interest is discovering and writing family stories.  She specializes in colonial research in Virginia, Kentucky, and the Carolinas but has recently developed a passion researching orphan train children. She blogs at http://puzzlesofthepast.blogspot.com/.

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This year for the first time I had the pleasure of attending NERGC. Like Friday (Day 2), Saturday (Day 3) consisted of 5 lecture slots, starting at 8:30.

I chose to begin my day with “Getting Ink on Paper: Publishing Your Genealogical Material in a Digital Age,” the other lecture Craig Scott gave at NERGC this year. [See my NERGC Day 2 post for some information on his French and Indian War lecture.] For those that don’t know, in addition to being a military records expert, Craig Scott runs Heritage Books, one of the major American reprint publishers. I was a writer and editor before I became a genealogist, and have attended several things on this subject, the most noteworthy being the 2011 session of Boston University (BU) Center for Professional Education’s course, “Writing Family History Narratives and Other Genealogical Works,” taught by Dr. John Colletta and Dr. Thomas Jones, and a one-day seminar on writing and publishing held by New England Historic Genealogical Society in 2010. However, unlike Craig Scott’s French and Indian War lecture, I did not circle this as one of my few must-attends as soon as I registered; the most compelling reason I decided to attend it was because he had been such a good speaker at his other lecture. My friend who went with me to this lecture has (as far as I am aware) never attended anything formal to do with writing, editing, or publishing genealogical works and for them, Craig Scott being such a good speaker seemed to be the only reason they decided to go with me.

Continuing from the previous day, we reserved our seats early to ensure we would have spots in the lecture. We knew from the previous day that Craig Scott opens the room to questions on any subject 15 minutes before his lectures officially begin, so though we left to walk around a bit, I suggested we return when I noticed it was less than 15 minutes before 8:30. Indeed, when we returned he was taking questions from the small number of people who were already seated, scattered around the largest room. He spent the longest time on a question about a birth certificate that the questioner reported has a father listed but not a mother. Upon Craig Scott’s questioning of the question-asker, this was ascertained: A child was dropped off at a state home at about 6 weeks old, and the birth certificate for the child lists the person who dropped the child off at the home as the father, but no mother is listed. Craig Scott asserted that the home, which the question-asker said was run by the state of Vermont, had filed a belated birth certificate to have all the paperwork in order. He also noted that while the birth certificate lists the man who dropped the baby off as the father, just because the man dropped the baby off, that’s not proof that he actually was the father, regardless of the birth certificate’s claim.

After the pre-lecture Q&A, Craig Scott began the scheduled lecture. In a lot of ways, this lecture complemented the genealogical writing course I took at BU, which I think is rather impressive given that that was an intensive one-week all-day course and this was one hour. Craig Scott recommended the same books as had been required in the writing course – Evidence Explained (and Evidence! if possible), Producing a Quality Family History, and Numbering Your Genealogy. He also recommended the unfortunately out-of-print Indexing Family Histories: Simple Steps for a Quality Product, which he said consequently sells for ridiculous sums online.

Craig Scott made a lot of succinct comments that I thought were noteworthy. For example, he said, “Quality research is, in my mind, defined as ‘when people read it, they agree with you,'” and if they don’t, you have to define who it is that agrees with you – are other researchers producing quality work the ones that agree with you? Another thing he said really stuck with me: “If you’re not willing to accept scrutiny, you’re not ready yet.” I know a lot of genealogists whom I’m as sure as I can be would produce quality work if they did produce work, but aren’t doing so yet. But maybe my favorite was, “Do you know how I spell a genealogy that has no citations? C-R-A-P.” – a quip which got a lot of laughs and knowing nods from the audience. He summed up the genealogical writer’s dilemma: Too few citations and it’s fiction; too many citations and it’s boring to most readers.

Do your best to strike the balance between history and your family – to put people in a place. More Craig Scott quotes: “Tell the story of your ancestors, not just their vital records.” “A book of family group sheets does not tell a story.” The more scandal and/or secrets about dead people, the more compelling the read. Craig Scott told a story about when he was a young genealogist starting out and found out via his research a secret about his grandmother’s family, and when he asked her about it, she said (approximately), “I’ve been waiting for someone to ask,” and gave him the details in exchange for the promise that he would wait to share them until after she died. Include as many pertinent maps, photos, and other illustrations as you can afford – and Craig Scott did stress the pertinent part. In his opinion, if there’s an illustration, it had better somehow relate to the story of the family, and you had better establish a clear relationship between any artwork and the person(s) to whom it relates. If an illustration does not help to tell the story, it’s irrelevant and should simply be left out.

Craig Scott went on to talk about the nitty-gritty of publishing: Marketing, book construction, publishers and printers, the market, and things like pricing. I will hit a few of the highlights here. Craig Scott stated that part of the market is people who have helped you put the book together (always collect names and addresses from them). A couple more comments: “Do you know when a book is most in demand? Immediately after it’s gone out of print.” “If their name is in the book, they might buy two copies – one for them and one for their local library.” (I can attest to having done this last one with books that mention an area and/or families I am researching.) He suggested putting out a newsletter for such reasons as helping get buzz out for the book, collecting more information and illustrations for it, and generating new content. He said to keep in mind that roughly a third of people who say they will buy a book actually do.

He suggested that every author give a pre-publication offer, announced about two months before the book is ready to be sent to the printer, which also is a month after the three-month time window that he suggests setting aside a book between writing it and sending it off. As he phrased it, “What I do when I prepare a book is prepare it and let it sit for three months.” (So you are setting the book aside, already finished but not yet published, and then one month after you set it aside, you begin offering a pre-order deal.) He suggests providing a discount of about 20% for pre-payment, and to be sure to provide a date when the pre-publication deal ends, which he suggests be about 30-60 days after the publication date. Don’t do any postage-paid orders; keep shipping separate. Also keep in mind that in some states in the U. S., shipping is taxable.

Craig Scott stressed that in this digital age, you have to print a copy of the book at least once to have copyright in the U. S.

Next up, I attended “Family History Resources in the Vermont State Archives” by Vermont State Archives Senior Archivist Scott Reilly. A number of NERGC’s lectures were sponsored by societies that co-sponsored NERGC, and this was the lecture sponsored by the Genealogical Society of Vermont. I had already had the pleasure of emailing with Scott Reilly several times, and he happened to be standing outside the room waiting for the previous lecture’s attendees to trickle out when I arrived, so I introduced myself and said that I didn’t know if he would remember me from our emails, and he sounded a bit surprised as he said that actually, he did remember me. I also noted that the volunteers with whom I’d chatted at the Genealogical Society of Vermont’s booth were in attendance at the lecture. I had pretty high expectations for this lecture, and it exceeded them all.

The holdings of the Vermont State Archives consist almost exclusively of public records, from circa 1760 to the present. There are very few personal papers or similar items. As in most locales, some public records in Vermont are ‘exempt’ from public inspection; in Vermont all exempt records are closed forever except adoption records, which are closed for 99 years. Scott Reilly mentioned at the end of his talk that one of the future plans of the Archives staff is to propose a ‘sunset law’ to the legislature, allowing more exempt public records to become open to the public after a certain amount of time.

Scott Reilly spent a while on an overview of vital records in Vermont. Vermont town clerks have been required by law to record births, marriages, and deaths (henceforth “BMDs”) since 1778. In 1857 town clerks were required to start sending a list of vital events to the office of the Secretary of State annually. These are bound into large volumes and available on-site at the Vermont State Archives. In 1908 town clerks were required to start sending monthly returns to the Secretary of State to create a card index. (These card indexes are probably familiar to researchers who have been keeping up with digitized Vermont records.)

In 1919 town clerks were required to transcribe all BMD records in the possession of the town and the churches, as well as inscriptions on gravestones in the town cemetery(ies), for all individuals who died prior to 1870; in Scott Reilly’s experience, some town clerks were more diligent about doing this than others. Scott Reilly explained that any card that has a cemetery listed lists a vital record that was transcribed from a gravestone, which I’d not realized before; this means that one of my ancestors had a standing gravestone a century ago, though a FindAGrave volunteer was unable to find an extant stone for me last year. My suspicion now – though he was not explicit on this part – is that for the other events where there are two cards, there were two sources in the town and the clerk copied them both; if so, this would explain why I have found the two cards to sometimes conflict or one of the two cards to have more information listed than the other.

The original cards are at the Vermont State Archives. There is an original card index covering c1760-2006. The bound annual returns submitted to the state cover 1857 to 1908. The Vermont BMDs are believed to be “substantially complete” post-1908; if you can’t find the event, it probably didn’t happen in Vermont and you should probably start looking in other states for it. But before 1908, you may simply have to start looking elsewhere in the state for the record. As regular researchers of Vermont may already be aware, Ancestry has Vermont BMDs from 1909 to 2008, and FamilySearch has the BMD card index from 1760 to 2003. So far, no post-1954 BMD cards have been indexed on FamilySearch, though you can browse them by image.

Scott Reilly then moved on to discussing local government records. The Vermont State Archives has copies of microfilmed versions of municipal and county records, which frequently date back to the organization of the town. Depending on the town, they can include:

  • Proprietors’ records
  • Town meeting records
  • Vital records
  • Church and cemetery records

Scott Reilly said, “If it [a vital record] wasn’t recorded in the town, it most likely wasn’t recorded.” FamilySearch has digitized some of the town record films, but has not indexed them yet; so again, you can browse the record set by image online.

Lotting plans divided land amongst the original proprietors (grantees) of a town. They sometimes include the names of grantees on the maps. A list of lotting plans at the Vermont State Archives is at http://vermont-archives.org/lottingplans.asp

Scott Reilly encouraged people to make use of civil and criminal court records. While he readily stated that Vermont court records can be tricky to locate and difficult to access, he asserted that they can nevertheless be a great resource. The first step is to try to identify the court where the case occurred. In Vermont records, all these heard different types of cases at different time periods:

  • Justices of the peace
  • County courts
  • Superior courts
  • District courts
  • Municipal courts
  • Vermont Supreme Court

Scott Reilly recommended calling a court to get advice on locating a specific case.

In Vermont, these types of cases were heard in probate courts:

  • Probate of wills
  • Settlement of estates
  • Adoptions
  • Guardianships
  • Name changes
  • Corrections of vital records

Prior to 2011, there were as many as 19 probate districts in Vermont, with several counties being covered by two districts. Now, each district covers one county. The Vermont State Archives holds microfilm copies of probate record books for every district up to 1850. They also hold up to at least 1945 for: Fair Haven (Rutland County), Windsor (half of Windsor County), Marlboro & Westminster (each covering half of Windham County), and Franklin (Franklin County). The Vermont State Archives also holds naturalization records.

The Vermont State Archives holds a number of records for public institutions, although not all records of them. These include records for many prisons, hospitals, and schools (except most of the town schools). Unfortunately for researchers, most information pertaining to residents of public institutions is ‘exempt’ from public inspection under Vermont law. However, registers of residents may be extant and available, so you may be able to get at least some summary information on your research subject. He also stressed that institutional records may lead to court cases. While he did not explicitly state so, I took from his not explicitly stating so that the court cases regarding institutions are public in Vermont. (I know from frustrating experiences in other states that this is not necessarily the case. In some states, the court case is closed to everyone, forever, regardless of whether the person is [even long] deceased, one’s relationship to the person in the case, or how long ago the case occurred.)

Institutions represented at the Vermont State Archives include:

  • Vermont State Prison: Registers and “description books,” from 1809 to 1975, are available to the public for research. They typically contain biographical information and information about the nature of the crime and the sentence.
  • Vermont State Hospital: The Vermont State Hospital suffered extensive damage from Hurricane Irene, and recently transferred their archives to the Vermont State Archives. Again, the registers are open to the public; they provide basic information on patients admitted to this Waterbury hospital between 1891 and 1969. Register information generally includes name, age, residence, date(s) of admission, and whether the individual was admitted by the state or was a “private patient.” State law permits disclosure of some patient information to “family members.” What this means is not well-defined by the law, so the Archives staff interprets it to mean relatives.

The Vermont State Archives also holds the Eugenics Survey of Vermont (1925-36). Because this was a privately funded organization, organized and directed by Henry F. Perkins, a professor of zoology at the University of Vermont, these records are not ‘exempt’ records like most medical-focused records. Included in these records are extensive pedigrees of many of the families that were targeted by the Survey. There are indexes to lists of informants at the Archives.

The Vermont State Archives also has military records, the Manuscript Vermont State Papers, and annual returns of divorces. Surviving military records are most complete from the Civil War onwards. Mary Greene Nye, the Editor of State Papers from 1927 to 1950, created a name and subject index to the papers, much to my endless delight. The Nye Index from 1760 to 1800 is available as a database on the Vermont State Archives website. Nye’s index goes to c1860, but the 19th century index is only available on-site at the Vermont State Archives to date. The Nye Index is a tremendous help; I really can’t even stress how much. For example, it’s greatly helped me in locating the Treasury Records for my Vermont American Revolution research that I mentioned in my NERGC Day 2 post.

The Vermont State Archives recently got a two-year grant from the grant wing of NARA (known as NHPRC) to do a County Court Records Project, digitizing three counties – Caledonia, Lamoille, and Orleans – from c1780 to 1945. They are about two-thirds done with the digitizing project at present, though there has not been any indexing yet. Scott Reilly and his fellow staff members hope this will serve as a model to digitize the other counties’ court records.

There is more available on their website – both databases and information – than what I have covered here. I strongly suggest anyone with Vermont roots check it out.

I thought this talk was so fantastic that not only did I give it high marks on the surveys we filled out at the end of every talk, but I mentioned it specifically in my general post-NERGC survey in response to the question about whether attendees felt that talks at NERGC 2013 had given them ideas for resources about which they had not previously known at New England repositories as an excellent example of a talk that did this. If you ever get the chance to hear it, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

“Unopposed Exhibitor Time” was slated for the next time slot, followed by a lunch break. A few of us were already hungry and decided to eat lunch first, ahead of the rush, and then check out the exhibition hall. The Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) has recently started posting blog post prompts for its upcoming conference’s registered attendees, and the first prompt was to blog on why to attend a genealogical conference at all. My Twitter friend Connie Forbis Yen (@SoulSister48) of the blog GeneaHistory posted her top four reasons in a post titled “Why Genealogy Conferences?”

I generally agree with Connie’s four main reasons – education, people, books, and research opportunities – and especially the first three, as the fourth depends so much on exactly where each conference is held. I have already spent much of my blog posts on NERGC discussing many of the educational opportunities I had at NERGC. As for research opportunities, the one that was stressed several times at NERGC was the French-Canadian library down the road from the conference site; so far I have no French-Canadian research, and if they had resources beyond that scope, no one specified so. But the other two reasons in Connie’s post – people and books – are ones that I have spent little time discussing here (primarily because I figure they are generally more interesting to experience than to later read about) but found very valuable at the conference. I had purchased some books from the Genealogical Society of Vermont’s booth on Thursday evening, and during my time in the hall on Saturday I purchased some more from another vendor. Here is one of the books I got Saturday:

photo of book

A book I purchased at NERGC: The Homestead Builder: Practical Hints for Handy-men by C. P. Dwyer. This is a reprint of Dwyer’s 1872 book, with a modern introduction.

The book shown above, The Homestead Builder: Practical Hints for Handy-men by C. P. Dwyer, was a how-to book for someone looking to build a homestead and its accoutrements, such as fencing. As the longest-time readers of my blog know, some of my family homesteaded in North America. The line with whom I started in genealogy came from Scotland to the Upper Plains of the U. S. in 1880 to homestead. The modern introduction of this reprinted 1872 book mentions that the book was available for sale in Europe as well as in the U. S. and Canada. While I cannot say for sure whether my Scottish emigres read the book before they left their old homeland for their new one, I find it interesting to know that it is a possibility.

As for people, it’s so difficult to describe what it’s like to be at a genealogy conference unless you’re actually there and also experiencing it. I already knew a good number of people at NERGC in person from the classes and events I have attended, the local group I run, the repositories I visit, and a variety of other means. I am used to strangers striking up conversations at genealogy and history events, but I discovered two things at the conference: First, a number of people I had not yet met in person recognized me from my online profile photos [hi, Twitter friends who were at NERGC!]; and second, since my name – Liz Loveland – is fairly unusual, a number of people I had not met in person recognized my name on my name tag from things like mailing lists. After the first day, I got used to people peering at my name tag before talking to me, and to people coming up to me expectantly when I did not yet know who they were. By the third day, I had gotten used to intending to do something – say, look through the vendor hall or take a walk to stretch my legs – and instead end up spending almost all of my time talking with people; even if a hallway, room, etc., was fairly empty, there was a good chance there would be people I knew nearby. It is pretty amazing, in retrospect, how many people I talked with at the conference – including strangers who struck up conversations.

After the lunch break, three lecture slots were scheduled for this last afternoon of NERGC. One of the people with whom I’d had lunch had attended a previous version of one of the first afternoon lectures, “Weaving Together New York’s Metro Area” by Linda McMenihan, PhD, and Jill Martin, JD, and recommended it when I said at lunch that I was considering attending it, so I decided to go to it. It was held in the same small room where the Vermont State Archives lecture had been; awkwardly placed up a small flight of stairs topped by a large landing near the hotel’s front desk, I don’t know how I would have found it if we hadn’t had the BU reception there on Friday evening and, after the conference’s hospitality desk hadn’t been able to answer my question as to where the named room holding the reception was, several of us had peered at the map until one of us had finally located it. I had to point the room out to a couple other attendees on Saturday, and wouldn’t be surprised at all if some people had intended to go to lectures held in that room but been unable to find it and simply given up.

As people came in, McMenihan and Martin passed out a double-sided handout literally full of URLs, explaining that they had compiled their syllabus submission several months ago and had waited to print the website handout that week to verify that the URLs were up-to-date. To me this was a good sign, as it showed that they were cognizant of a possible issue with a syllabus and thus probably experienced at speaking. So often I have returned home from an event excited to check out a particular webpage, only to discover upon typing it in that the URL had become invalid between the time the resource was compiled and the time it made it into my hands.

Each lecture at NERGC was introduced by a volunteer, whose styles varied from literally reading aloud from the sheet of recommended introduction points to simply saying something like, “I’m sure you’ve heard this all before, so let me just turn it over to the speaker.” For this one, we had the most comical one I heard at NERGC, who started out with asking who had been at the lecture where in his introduction he’d said that anyone who left their cellphone on during the lecture should be pointed at and called a fool. Several people raised their hands and chuckled, and I would soon discover why, as our introduction volunteer explained that the cellphone of that speaker, Steve Morse, had gone off twice during that talk, and consequently he didn’t want to phrase the cellphone comment the same way again. He went on to ask a number of obscure trivia questions about New York City, and at least one person in the audience knew every one well enough to quickly answer. “What are you all doing here then?” he finally (approximately) asked jovially, and then turned the floor over to McMenihan and Martin.

McMenihan and Martin started out by noting that New York City has been called the “fifty-first state” for research by some American researchers. They split their talk in half, each doing part of it.

1899 is the “watershed” year for New York City, when it became the five-part city we still know today. In 1899, there was a major centralization of records; most records created in the boroughs prior to consolidation were collected and taken to Manhattan to be held as New York City records. However, there are some “Brooklyn remnants,” as they put it: Brooklyn still has a separate library system and the Brooklyn Historical Society, originally named the Long Island Historical Society, is separate and contains a treasure trove for researchers of the area. New since my aforementioned lunch companion had attended this talk at a previous conference, McMenihan and Martin had added three of the surrounding counties – Westchester, Suffolk, and Nassau. Westchester County was home to some of the early Dutch colonists, and originally used the Dutch manor system in its land records. Suffolk County was an original county and primarily consisted of New England founders. Nassau County was formed in 1898 from Queens. They stressed that they had added information on these counties to their talk because there was a lot of migration between them and the five boroughs.

Many of the urban towns and cities began records as early as the 1850’s and 1860’s. (Clarification for New England researchers: Yes, for New York state, that is early.) As researchers of New York City are likely already aware, the older New York City records are held by the Municipal Archives. Recent/current marriages are at the City Clerk’s office. The New York City Municipal Archives does not allow photographing on-site. They recommended searching the New York City vital record indexes on both ItalianGen and GermanGen simultaneously through Stephen Morse’s One-Stop Genealogy Site.

There is a contract with Ancestry to put the New York State Index online. The counties surrounding New York City are part of the state vital records system, like the rest of the counties in New York state beyond the five boroughs that comprise New York City. The index should be going “live” later this year. It will be on Archives.com, one of the multitude of companies which Ancestry has bought.

Burials in Manhattan were banned after 1851. City residents used cemeteries in the outer boroughs and the suburbs, including northern New Jersey. Two major City cemeteries have records online:

  • Green-Wood, which has a database of names & plots
  • Evergreens, which has burials for 1849-1877 and 1942-present and is “actively filling in records in the gap.”

Prospect Cemetery in Queens was a colonial cemetery and there are transcriptions online. Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx was another major cemetery but there is nothing online for it to date as far as the speakers were aware. New York City’s “Potter’s Field” (Hart Island) database quite recently went live; records from 1977 forward are searchable.

Probate record highlights: Kings County (Brooklyn) estate files from 1866 to 1923 are on FamilySearch. Brooklyn Genealogy Info GenWeb, a site they mentioned several times during their talk, transcribed early New York City wills. Westchester County’s website has some indexes/etc., and Suffolk County’s site has some for the early period.

They said that in New York City property records, you can often search by address, finding information on the home even if the family did not own it. During the periods of 1939-1941 and 1983-1988, New York City photographed every building for tax assessment purposes. My companion at this lecture and another person in the crowd knew that the latter ones had been put online, and mentioned so in the questions and comments period at the end of the talk. According to my companion, the indexing on these is a bit “funky” and you may have to try multiple search tactics, including possibly searching for another building on the block to find the one of interest. I do not know what the URL is for this photographic set. The website PropertyShark.com is a commercial site that covers all counties in New York state; you need to register to be able to use it, but using it is free once you do.

In answer to a couple of questions at the end, they provided these additional tidbits: Body transport records are extant and open for Manhattan from approximately the 1850’s to the late 1880’s, for both those bodies transported into and out of Manhattan. However, the body transport records are not even indexed, much less digitized. The New York Public Library has lots of old New York City area maps; some are online on their site, and some are only accessible on-site.

At this lecture, my aforementioned companion was someone who has a ton of New-York-City-area research and probably could have given the lecture, but said later that they had thought it was excellent, which I thought also spoke highly of McMenihan and Martin. In my summary of it, I have mostly provided information that I thought would be of general interest and have excluded a number of things I already knew quite well, partially because I did not take notes on the latter. Some of these resources that I didn’t mention are included in my blog’s “Resources (Free)” sidebar, with the ones they most emphasized in the talk being the Brooklyn Daily Eagle Online and Old Fulton Post Cards, both of which are excellent newspaper sites.

Next up, I moved from one of the smallest rooms back to the largest room for “Researching a Community,” the second lecture I attended by David Allen Lambert, this one sponsored by NERGC co-sponsor New England Historic Genealogical Society. Quite the opposite of David Lambert’s lecture that I’d attended in a tiny room that Thursday (Day 1), the largest room was crowded with people to hear this lecture that had gotten rave reviews from folks who had attended it at RootsTech 2013. I spotted a good number of people I knew scattered around the large crowd, but I was happy with my seat close to the front and none of them chose to come sit with me. After three days of interacting nearly non-stop with other people, I readily admit I rather enjoyed sitting alone there, and chatted a bit with a few strangers sitting near me while waiting for the lecture to begin.

David Lambert discussed building an online community archive about a location where you live (or perhaps for one of your ancestral locations), using his own work building an online community archive for Stoughton, Massachusetts, for many of his examples. The basic idea is to utilize your genealogical research skills to create a site that will help researchers of a location where you live – wherever these researchers may be and regardless of whether you have any personal research where you live. It’s kind of like taking “doing more photos for FindAGrave than just requests” to a much broader level – and indeed, David Lambert mentioned that he had photographed all of Stoughton’s extant gravestones, put the photos on FindAGrave, and linked to them from the website he had built.

I did not take any notes at this session. Some of David Lambert’s suggestions: Check to see whether someone else has already started a project like this before you begin (don’t reinvent the wheel). Check to see what’s already been put online in disparate locations, and determine whether it’s done in a way you find useful, in which case you should consider simply linking to the item on the other site from yours, or whether there’s something about it that makes you feel it would be worth the effort for you to do it over for your site (e.g., poor quality scans or the information is organized in a way that doesn’t make much sense to you). Get to know your town clerk (in New England) or equivalent staff member elsewhere; if you find your town clerk to not be amenable to your project, try to figure out someone else “over their head” in the town government to whom you can pitch your project. Work with local historical societies, churches and other religions’ institutions, civic groups, schools, etc. See what projects got funded and/or got volunteers but never went anywhere and see if you can get permission to put them online; a couple of specific examples he gave were old cassettes sitting at the town high school from an oral interview project past students had gotten funding to do, and a church that has already scanned their records but not done anything with them beyond putting them on the church’s computer.

Repeatedly throughout the lecture David Lambert stressed the importance of being a sensitive content curator. If records are about people in the 1800’s or earlier, he advocated absolutely putting them online regardless of what secrets or scandals they might reveal. But if records are about people in the 1900’s and may contain information that the person does not know – say, a person in their 80’s may not realize they were adopted or ‘illegitimate,’ things which can plausibly be found in public records in Massachusetts (though in many states they probably would not be found in public records) – carefully weigh being kind against putting information that you found in the public domain online.

Another thing David Lambert stressed is getting to the original records whenever possible; the way he put it during one mention was that he always wants to get to the record that’s handwritten. He told an entertaining story about a prim person who had transcribed Stoughton’s very old church records and left blanks in what seemed to be the juiciest parts. While he guessed that, for example, many of the blanks were supposed to be the word “fornicate,” without the originals he did not know for sure. Some time after he started his project, someone bought the long-missing oldest church records at a yard sale (!!), and he was able to see the originals – and just like he expected, all the juicy parts had been clipped by the prim transcriber, and he had indeed guessed correctly that many of the missing words were variations of “fornicate.”

I found this lecture really inspiring and would recommend it to anyone who is considering a similar project. One of the towns in my area doesn’t have an active historical society and has no centralized online community archive presence (as far as I am aware) and hearing this lecture rekindled my long-time desire to do something about that. There are a few people with whom I want to check first to make sure that I’m not starting a project someone else is already trying to build, so far doing it out of sight.

My last choice for NERGC was difficult for me, with my top two choices being “The Symbolism on New England Gravestones: 17th Century to Present” and “Exploring Your Pioneer Valley Heritage.” I am very interested in gravestones and the history of their symbolism and of graveyards, and spend a lot of time in graveyards; and I have a good amount of research in the “Pioneer Valley,” which is the name by which a large swath of Western Massachusetts is known here in New England, though my biggest reason for considering the latter talk was that one of the allied families in the case study, according to the description and the syllabus, was the Sheldon family, which I am also researching.

In the end I chose to go to “The Symbolism on New England Gravestones” by Donna Walcovy, PhD, who used to be a professor and is now a professional gravestone restorer. She is also a friend of my Twitter friend and gravestone blogger Midge Frazel (@midgefrazel) of the blog Granite in My Blood, and Midge had introduced us that Thursday (Day 1). Many people have sympathized with my descriptions and/or photos of what I consider to be the deplorable state of the Old Burial Ground in Arlington (formerly Menotomy), Massachusetts, but when I met Donna and mentioned a bit about it, she was the first person to ever provide a concrete suggestion for something I could try. I don’t know whether it will work, as it will depend on whether Arlington is participating in something particular, but at least it’s a step I can take.

Donna was an extremely entertaining speaker, though as someone who has spent the last several years visiting cemeteries in my area of New England, with a concentration on the older ones, I turned out not learn much I did not already know. Donna said that she had included more of a variety of information in the syllabus than she was including in her talk because she didn’t have good enough photos for slides for some of the syllabus material and had prioritized including material in her talk for which she had good photos. I subsequently learned that two of the other people I know who have a lot of research in the Pioneer Valley did go to the other talk, and said they left it feeling confused about how the different families in the talk were connected to each other, so I’m glad I chose the talk that was entertaining.

I had considered asking my ride home that day if we could stop in the vendor hall before leaving, but when we left the last lecture, which was in one of the small rooms by the vendor hall, we discovered that the vendors had already taken down their booths and the hall was empty except for some scattered tables and dividers. So we simply headed home from NERGC, running into a few people we knew on the way to the car. It was strange to suddenly be done after three days of “rush, rush, rush” and “learn, learn, learn” and “people, people, people.” As a somber reminder of the area events of that week, as we got close to metro Boston on the highway, we saw a good number of police cars evenly spaced along the highway’s shoulder on the other side of the highway, all sitting silently with their lights flashing, their cars marking them as from a variety of different towns in the area. I would later learn that the MIT officer’s funeral was that day and that they had been there in solidarity. When we had been driving back the previous night, the highway signs on our side of the highway had warned motorists to check local media for the current situation in metro Boston. That evening, as we drove past the silent police cars towards the city, the highway signs thanked passing cars for the support shown to Boston.

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