Three Steps to Help You Get Your Genealogy in Gear

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena provides three ideas to help genealogists break through the “brick wall” they sometimes run into while searching their family history.

Do you feel stuck? All genealogists come to a point where they just aren’t sure what they should do next. Like with any activity, a researcher may feel burned out after having faced brick walls, uncooperative relatives, and a lack of time and money to devote to research.

vintage family photograph

Note: The vintage family photographs in this article all come from the personal collection of the author, bought off eBay. None came with attribution or identification. If any of our readers can provide information about any of these photos, the author would love to hear from you.

When you feel stuck it’s time to consider a different approach, something to help bring the excitement back to your research. Here are three ideas to help you get past a speed bump in your research and back on track to break down your research brick wall.

Try Something New

Instead of searching the same old way that you always search, try something new. Look at the genealogy sites and other resources you use with a fresh eye, to see if there’s something more there that you haven’t tried before.

vintage family photograph

A good example is how you may search GenealogyBank. Sure it’s known primarily as an online newspaper site, with more than 6,100 digitized newspapers from all 50 states—but examine the site more closely. GenealogyBank has several other collections of genealogy records to help with your family history research: the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), historical documents, and historical books. Search those collections as well to see what other information you can find about your ancestors.

Pay similar attention to the other sites and resources you use—they, too, may have additional genealogy records that you’ve never explored.

Another new approach is to vary the type of searches you do. For example, consider searching for your ancestors by substituting their initials for a first and middle name. Or try using such variants as “Bill” or “Wm.” for “William.” Another trick is to purposely “misspell” the surname to catch possible errors the newspaper editor or the SSDI clerk made.

Reevaluate Your Project

Sometimes, in the rush and excitement of finding documents that help us learn about our ancestor’s story, we get so caught up that we forget what our original genealogy goal was. Maybe your goal was too big, a mistake many genealogists make. When you are stuck, it’s a good idea to go back and reevaluate your family history project and recommit yourself to that project, a variation of that project or an entirely new one. Maybe it’s time to put away your current research and look at a different branch of the family.

vintage family photograph

Genealogy, like any pursuit, is one that’s best worked at one small task at a time. Come up with a few projects that can be done in a small amount of time—like ordering death certificates, writing letters to family members, scanning documents, or taking photos at the cemetery. Then move on from there.

Work with a Genealogy Partner

We’ve all heard that two heads are better than one and in many cases that can be true. Working with a relative on your research problem can not only help get you excited about the research, but also help you come up with more ideas to ease the workload.

vintage family photograph

Don’t live near your genealogy partner? No problem—use a collaborative editing program like Google Docs or use a file-sharing program like Dropbox to share your findings, write research plans and keep track of research that has been done. Google Docs allows you to create word processing documents and spreadsheets and then collaborate with others. Dropbox allows you to store and share files. To use Google Docs you will need a Google account which is free. Dropbox does have a free membership option that includes up to 18GB, with additional storage space available for a fee.

Don’t have any family members to work with? In that case, consider collaborating with a fellow genealogy society member or even a genealogy friend online. Sometimes just the motivation of knowing someone is there to help can assist you in reaching your research goals.

The World Was Your Ancestor’s Oyster: Food in Family History

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena explores one of her many interests: the connection of food and cooking to family history, revealing how much oysters were part of our ancestors’ diets.

What did your ancestors eat? Is this something you ever ponder? As family historians, the actual everyday activities of our ancestors can help to bring the dates and places we research to life.

In some cases the food our ancestors ate is quite different from what we are accustomed to today. With the lack of refrigeration and transportation, it’s no surprise that there were regional differences in cuisine. Considering the limited ability to transport and preserve ingredients, the variety of what was available to harvest locally, and the food preferences of local ethnic/immigrant populations, it is not surprising that the food that was served in various areas could be extremely different. A specialty enjoyed by those living in one region of the United States was all but unknown in another. While to some extent this is still true of modern cuisine today, as you can travel to different regions of the United States and taste local favorites not served where you live, these food differences are not as dramatic as they were 100 years ago.

So what were some food commonalities? Well there were many American foods that were feasted upon across the regions. One such food that was enjoyed by almost all Americans in the nineteenth century was oysters. Today oysters, depending on where you live, are usually a delicacy because of the price they command. It would also not be unusual to find people who have never even tried an oyster, raw or cooked.  In the nineteenth century oysters were everyday food items that were inexpensive and plentiful. They were the food of the common person.

Newspaper advertisements hint at the massive amounts of oysters available to our ancestors. Consider this 1874 newspaper advertisement from the Oregonian which lists several places to eat and obtain oysters.

Old Vintage Advertisement for Oysters - Oregonian Newspaper  1874

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 16 October 1874, page 5.

Street vendors, oyster houses, saloons, restaurants and home cooks prepared oysters in various, often creative ways. Oysters were served in every way imaginable including ways we are familiar with today like raw and fried. Interesting ways to serve oysters could be found in the era’s cookbooks including pickled oysters, oyster ketchup and one recipe that called for oysters to be served with shortcake.[i]

Consider this newspaper article which provides 11 ways to cook oysters that “if adhered to will bring cheer to the family board.” Note that this article was printed in a Kentucky newspaper—not exactly known today for its seafood. Yet this historical 1913 article tells “how best to serve the succulent bivalve [oysters], perhaps the most universally popular dish of the American table.”

How To Cook Oysters Old Recipe - Lexington Herald Newspaper 1913

Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 19 October 1913, section 4, page 3.

There were also “mock oyster” recipes for those who were unable to obtain oysters. These oyster recipes substituted different ingredients for oysters including corn, mashed potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplant. Women could cook dishes such as “Mock Oyster Soup,” “Mock Oyster Sauce,” “Mock Oyster Stew” and just plain “Mock Oysters.” While the appearance of a “mock” recipe in a cookbook might connote that the item was difficult to obtain or expensive, this was not necessarily so in the case of the oyster.

As oyster beds became contaminated and overfished in the early 1900s, oysters began to cease being eaten as an everyday food and became more of a delicacy. No longer was the oyster part of America’s everyday diet.

To learn more about America’s love affair with oysters see the history The Big Oyster. History on the Half Shell by Mark Kurlansky.


[i] Stavely, Keith W. F., and Kathleen‎ Fitzgerald‎. America’s Founding Food. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2004, pg. 108. Viewed on Google Books 1 July 2012.

North Carolina newspapers 1719-1926, 1988-Today

(Photographer: Marion Post Wolcott.

See what’s cooking in the Wilkins family kitchen … near Tallyho, Granville County, North Carolina … and all the other news recorded in the Tar Heel State’s old newspapers.

GenealogyBank.com has North Carolina’s historical newspapers from 1719-1926, 1988-Today.

Click here to search all of North Carolina’s historical newspapers

or click on the titles below to search them individually.

Asheville, NC
Asheville Citizen-Times. 1/1/1999-Current

Chapel Hill, NC
Chapel Hill News. 5/3/2000-Current

Charlotte, NC
Charlotte News. 12/11/1888 – 9/29/1922
Charlotte Observer. 3/13/1892 – 12/31/1922
Charlotte Observer. 1/1/1992-Current

Cleveland, NC
Cleveland Post. 3/1/2007-Current

Durham, NC
Chapel Hill Herald. 1/1/2002-Current
Herald-Sun. 1/1/2002-Current
Raleigh Extra. 6/18/1995-5/25/1997

Elizabeth City, NC
Daily Advance. 11/9/2004-Current

Fayetteville, NC
American. 12/22/1719 – 12/31/1922
Fayetteville Observer. 1/18/1988-Current

Greensboro, NC
Greensboro News & Record. 1/1/1990-Current

Greenville, NC
Daily Reflector. 8/30/2004-Current

Halifax, NC
North-Carolina Journal. 8/1/1792 – 9/11/1797

High Point, NC
High Point Enterprise. 4/14/2007-Current

New Bern, NC
Carolina Federal Republican. 1/12/1809 – 4/25/1818
Morning Herald. 9/17/1807 – 4/30/1906

Newbern Herald. 1/20/1809 – 2/26/1810
Newbern Sentinel. 3/21/1818 – 12/25/1823
State Gazette of North Carolina. 8/9/1787 – 2/20/1799
True Republican. 7/4/1804 – 8/7/1811

Raleigh, NC
News & Observer. 1/1/1991-Current
Semi-Weekly Standard. 8/10/1861 – 3/8/1868
Star. 12/1/1789 – 5/12/1926

Red Springs, NC
Red Springs Citizen. 9/10/2008-Current

Rockingham, NC
Richmond County Daily Journal. 5/3/2003-Current

Rocky Mount, NC
Rocky Mount Telegram. 9/3/2002-Current

Roxboro, NC
Courier-Times. 11/22/2006-Current

St. Pauls, NC
St. Pauls Review. 9/4/2008-Current

Tryon, NC
Tryon Daily Bulletin. 5/14/2007-Current

Wadesboro, NC
Anson Record. 6/19/2003-Current

Wilmington, NC
Cape-Fear Recorder. 11/28/1818 – 4/11/1827

Star-News. 1/31/2002-Current

Winston Salem, NC
Winston-Salem Journal. 11/1/1997-Current