New Year’s Resolutions for Genealogists: Top 10 Goals for 2014

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary suggests 10 New Year’s resolutions that genealogists everywhere might want to consider for 2014.

Over the years, I’ve read and written many articles about genealogical resolutions. This year, I am dedicating my 10 resolutions for 2014 to my mother Meg Stevens (1928-2013) who, through her dedication to genealogy, added over 30,000 memorials to findagrave.com—a true random act of genealogical kindness (RAOGK).

On New Year’s Eve day she received a posthumous “thank you” from a grateful researcher, who was delighted that Mom had discovered the maiden name of her ancestor, Phoebe (Winslow) Armstrong. Thanks Mom! Great work, and I miss you!

a thank-you from Karen Weatherhead to genealogist Meg Stevens

Here are my top 10 New Year’s resolutions for genealogists this 2014.

1) Do a Random Act of Genealogical Kindness (RAOGK).

Hopefully, my mother’s example will inspire you to join in the RAOGK movement. It truly makes a difference to genealogical research. You can do this on your own, or join a Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness group, such as this one at Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/groups/raogkUSA/).

Here are some ideas to get you started doing genealogical good deeds!

  • Do you like to look up genealogical records? —Then answer someone’s query or add a memorial to an online site.
  • Do you like to type? —Then index a record.
  • Do you like photography? —Then visit a cemetery and post a photo online that shows the text of a fading headstone.
  • Are you a photo software guru? —Then touch up someone’s creased, crinkly or faded ancestral image.
  • Do you like to listen? —Then interview and video a veteran or a treasured family member!

2) Archive and protect family treasures!

Many heirlooms are improperly handled. To help prevent this, proper labeling and storage should be considered. In particular, be aware that acid can be transferred from boxes, envelopes and even your hands to your treasured family keepsakes.

  • Purchase acid-free materials for storage & labeling.
  • Be careful about how and where you label a photo (avoid writing on the back of the photo behind a person’s face).
  • Use gloves for proper handling of ephemera, photographs, textiles and heirlooms.
  • Weatherproof rooms where items are stored.
  • Minimize exposure to light, drafts and uneven temperatures.

3) Make backups of all electronic genealogical data.

When disaster strikes, all of your family history data can disappear in an instant—but if you have a digital backup, all is not lost!

  • Create a backup schedule and abide by it throughout the year.
  • Send your genealogy data offsite and give it to others for safekeeping.
  • Online trees preserve your ability to restore your family history, should your computer crash.

Genealogy Tip:

Read another of our blog posts to get even more tips about preserving genealogy records.

4) Address your genealogy in your will.

Another thing my mother did before she passed was to transfer her publishing rights to me. What a great gift (and honor). We did this via a written agreement, but another good idea is to address the disposition of your life-long family history research in your will. Here are some ideas to ensure your family history is preserved as you would like.

  • Leave the rights to your genealogical research to specific people in your will, and name your 2nd or 3rd choice in case the original inheritor is tempted to discard anything. Consider naming libraries and historical or genealogical societies in your hometown, as well as where your ancestors resided.
  • Leave notes in books and files as to how you want them preserved.
  • Leave the price tags of expensive resources you purchased in the books themselves.

5) Publish your genealogy, lest you perish before anything looks official.

If genealogy has become your lifelong passion, then pass it on to the next generation by consolidating your family history research into a nicely bound family history book. This is extremely important, as overwhelming hodgepodges of notes that don’t look official are more likely to be discarded than bound books!

Use a service within your genealogy software, a commercial printer, or publisher to create your family history book. Many office supply stores can add a hard or soft cover to your research. Also, consider a self-publishing service such as Createspace.com or lulu.com.

During her lifetime my mother wrote several books on her direct family, another one for my step-father’s family, and completed two annotated census records for Union County, Indiana. (I’ve already republished one, and hope to complete the others in the upcoming years.)

6) Be kind to others.

If someone took the time to share a genealogical discovery, be grateful, even if they’ve made a typo or error in fact. Too often in the genealogical community we encounter slammers and complainers, who undoubtedly make many mistakes of their own!

So please resolve to suggest genealogical corrections gently and in a positive manner. If you have come to a completely different genealogical conclusion than another researcher, follow resolution #5—publish your own version based upon the evidence. Eventually other genealogists will find it, and appreciate your efforts.

Remember this rule of thumb: even if you are 99% accurate, then you will make a typo or mistake

  • every 100 characters typed
  • as much as 14.4 minutes of a 24-hour day, or
  • as much as 9.6 minutes of 16 “awake” hours each day

7) Be a genealogy sharer, not a hoarder.

When Mom transferred her copyrights to me, she had one caveat: don’t keep her family history research tucked away in a closet or hoarded on a computer. “I want people to be able to find my genealogy,” she told me on more than one occasion.

And she followed her own advice. Having the only copy of an 18th century family Bible, she published it in a journal—and I later shared it online. See the copy at fishergenes.com (the handwriting on the transcription page is my mother’s): http://www.fishergenes.com/showmedia.php?mediaID=99&medialinkID=105

8) Head out to your homesteads and homelands!

There is no greater feeling than walking in the steps of an ancestor—and who knows, you might find that more than a trace of their existence still exists. Several years ago, my mother and I took a trip together to East Jersey Olde Towne and discovered that one of our ancestral homes is still there!

This photo shows the Jeremiah Dunn home (built c. 1750) to the left of the Church of the Three Mile Run and the Vanderveer House.

a photo of the Jeremiah Dunn House

Photo: Jeremiah Dunn home. Credit: Mary Harrell-Sesniak.

Follow these links to see other views of my ancestor’s house.

Library of Congress Survey of the Jeremiah Dunn House, Stelton Road, Middlesex County, NJ

http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/hhh.nj0587.sheet.00005a/

Middlesex County Cultural and Heritage Commission East Jersey Olde Towne Village

http://www.co.middlesex.nj.us/culturalheritage/village2.asp

Custom Photography of Historical Sites and Events (lincolnbittner.com)

http://www.lincolnbittner.com/dunn_house.html

9) Give credit where credit is duenot just to authors, but to anyone who assists you via e-mail, mail or in person.

Unless you’ve never looked up something in a book or family tree, it’s impossible for your genealogy research to not be based upon the research or efforts of others (authors, librarians, online contributors, e-mail buddies, cousins and even anonymous finds).

So how do you thank them? Try this approach: cite sources as best you can, and use those powerful words of gratitude such as “Thank you” and “I appreciate your help!”

10) This one’s for you to completeso please share it with us in the comments!

My top genealogy resolution for 2014 is to: ___________________________________________.

Thank you everyone for sharing your genealogical successes and supporting this blog in 2013.

And remember my favorite saying: “Genealogy isn’t just a pastime; it’s a passion!”

History of Trains & Railroads: Locomotives, Steam Engines & More

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary searches old newspapers for articles and ads about trains and locomotives, and discusses how important railroads were in the lives of our ancestors.

Trains & Railroads Shaped Early America

The importance of train travel cannot be overstated in the development of America, and its effect on how and why our ancestors traveled on land. Stagecoaches were an early transportation option, but once locomotives and steam engines proved their worth, travel by stagecoach became less frequent.

picture of a locomotive, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper illustration 15 February 1892

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 15 February 1892, page 5

Our nation’s great westward expansion took off, and trains became the favored mode of transportation until automobiles and air travel took over. Reading old newspaper articles to explore the history of train travel is a good way to better understand our ancestors’ lives and the times they lived in.

Steam Powers the Way

Early trains were powered by steam, but it may surprise you to learn that steam power was not a 19th Century invention. English inventor Thomas Savery (c.1650-1715) is given the credit for inventing steam power for transportation. He didn’t work on steam-powered trains, but this 1848 Connecticut newspaper article notes he did develop a steam engine for a rowing ship.

Thomas Savery the Engineer, Connecticut Courant newspaper article 28 October 1848

Connecticut Courant (Hartford, Connecticut), 28 October 1848, page 165

Although Savery received his steam engine patent in 1698, the first steam-powered engine didn’t arrive in the American Colonies until 1752 or 1753. Evidence of such a machine can be found in this 1753 Massachusetts newspaper article reporting that the Town of Charlestown was:

“so kind as to bring over their fine Water-Engine, which was of great Service in suppressing and preventing the Progress of the Fire.”

notice about a Charlestown, Massachusetts, fire engine, Boston Gazette newspaper article 13 February 1753

Boston Gazette (Boston, Massachusetts), 13 February 1753, page 3

A screw-driven steamboat was invented around 1802 by John Stevens. A Wikipedia article mentions he created a steam carriage around 1826 that ran on a track, but he was not the only one working on the concept.

There are several early newspaper reports of inventors working on steam carriages, including this 1822 New Jersey newspaper article about a petition for a steam carriage being presented on behalf of Isaac Baker, of Ohio.

notice about a patent petition from Isaac Baker for a steam-carriage, New Brunswick Fredonian newspaper article 14 February 1822

New Brunswick Fredonian (New Brunswick, New Jersey), 14 February 1822, page 2

The illustration below, from an 1826 Massachusetts newspaper, shows a 12-horsepower “loco-motive engine” used by the Helton Railroad in England.

picture of a locomotive, Boston Traveler newspaper illustration 7 March 1826

Boston Traveler (Boston, Massachusetts), 7 March 1826, page 4

Early Train & Railroad Companies

If you’ve played that famous board game “Monopoly,” you can surely guess the first railroad thought to have provided regularly-scheduled service.

Yes, it was the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O), chartered on 28 February 1827, to provide service from Baltimore, Maryland, to the Ohio River. It was capitalized with 15,000 shares at $100 each ($1,500,000), what must have seemed like a tremendous fortune at that time.

Perhaps your ancestors traveled on the great B&O, credited to have been the first U.S. company to offer scheduled passenger and freight service?

However, B&O was not the first charted train company. A search of GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives finds mention of other train companies. This 1825 Pennsylvania newspaper article reports a petition to incorporate and provide service from Wilkesbarre, Pennsylvania, “to the nearest point on the Delaware.”

petition to construct a Pennsylvania railroad, National Gazette newspaper article 15 December 1825

National Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 15 December 1825, page 1

This advertisement was published in an 1856 South Carolina newspaper, showing the Virginia Springs Central Railroad’s announcement that its opening line will travel 56 miles. Until the rail line is completed, the company’s stage coaches will continue to operate at fares ranging from $10 to $13.

railroad ad, Charleston Courier newspaper advertisement 11 September 1856

Charleston Courier (Charleston, South Carolina), 11 September 1856, page 3

We can all imagine the excitement generated by the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad on 10 May 1869 at Promontory Summit, in Utah Territory!

To commemorate the final joining, the railroad placed a golden spike and a silver railroad tie. This article from an 1869 New York newspaper reports that that the last spike would be engraved as follows:

“The last spike. The Pacific Railroad—ground broke January 8, 1863, completed May–, 1869. May God continue the unity of our country as this railroad unites the two great oceans of the world.”

The Silver Tie and Golden Spike, Evening Post newspaper article

Evening Post (New York, New York), 15 May 1869, page 4

There were many other train “firsts,” such as this article from an 1898 Minnesota newspaper commemorating the first Minneapolis Locomotive crossing the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi River “at this point.”

The First Minneapolis Locomotive, Minneapolis Journal newspaper article 12 February 1898

Minneapolis Journal (Minneapolis, Minnesota), 12 February 1898, page 14

Railroad Family History for Kids (and Adults)

The children of today may never know the joy of train travel, except as a novelty. To connect your children with this important part of American history, search the newspaper archives to see if any of their ancestors were connected with the railroad industry—that may spark their interest.

In addition to their surname, be sure to search for your railroad ancestors by their job title, such as conductor or switchman. Also search for railway pension records (which are in a separate system from Social Security).

Here is an example of an old newspaper article that may show your ancestors in the context of railroad travel. This 1857 Pennsylvania newspaper wedding announcement notes that the marriage of William C. Pitman and Miss F.A. Fuller occurred on a moving train that exceeded 40 miles per hour!

Pitman-Fuller wedding announcement, Public Ledger newspaper article 10 January 1857

Public Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 10 January 1857, page 5

This is just the tip of the iceberg for conducting research on how our ancestors were connected to trains, either by occupation or their desire to travel.

Websites and Documents of Interest

Cyndi’s List: Railroads >> Records: Administrative, Employment and Pensions

U.S. Railroad Retirement Board

“I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”

The original title of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” was “The Levee Song,” published in 1894 in a book of songs published by Princeton University titled Carmina Princetonia. If you search GenealogyBank you can locate several references to this famous song, including this one.

"I've Been Working on the Railroad" song, Evansville Courier and Press newspaper article 30 August 1920

Evansville Courier and Press (Evansville, Indiana), 30 August 1920, page 2

Have fun filling in the lives of your ancestors and the times they lived in with railroad and train stories. You never know what you’ll discover about your family history!