Sunday, August 23, 2015


Oftentimes, a person who has minimal information on a grandparent or great-grandparent will say to me, “I’ve tried looking in the censuses, but I can’t figure out which person is the one I’m looking for. I think Grandpa lived in Virginia, but there are so many John Smiths there… I don’t know which one is mine. 

This is when I ask them what they do know for certain about Grandpa’s life, like whether or not his wife was living or deceased, where he lived at the time of his death, and when he died. “Oh, Grandpa Smith lived in Jamestown, Virginia with my Grandma Mary, and he died in December of 1999,” they might tell me. 

And that is when I can tell a person that while they think they have encountered a brick wall, what they’ve just given me is a stepping stone to more information. I go to the Social Security Index next, and perhaps I’m fortunate enough to pin down a date of death for a John Smith of Jamestown, Virginia, for December 5, 1999. 

The nice thing about recent ancestors such as grandparents and great-grandparents, as they most definitely are not a lost cause when it comes to gathering information. Those generations are, perhaps, the most documented (besides you and your parents) you will find, and a great place to start if the only facts you have are a name, place, and death date, is the newspaper. 

At that point, with the information given about, I would perform a Google search for the Jamestown Virginia public library, not in quotes and not with any punctuation marks. Once I find a website for the library, my next step is to see if they offer any databases. Some offer extensive databases including indexes to vital records and newspapers. If they do, I take down the information I need to find the record and/or article, or other relevant item, that refers to my grandparent. 

Once I have that information or if they don’t offer such databases, my next step is to reach out to the reference librarian and let her know what I need. My request generally looks like this:

To Whom it May Concern, 

I am writing to inquire about an obituary for John Smith, who died December 5, 1999 in Jamestown, VA for genealogical purposes. If you are able to locate such an obituary in your newspaper holdings, would you email me a PDF or mail me a print-out? Also, please let me know the fee or requested donation for this service, so I can send it to you promptly. 

Wendy L. Callahan 

If there is no requested donation or fee, I still like to mail the library a token donation of $5 to show my appreciation.  I’ve had librarians who have done both as far as sending me an obituary – emailed a PDF or mailed a physical copy. They are usually very willing to assist and respond to inquiries. 

That obituary for Grandpa Smith will most likely list his place of birth and the names of his parents, not to mention any siblings. This allows you to put together a family group sheet together now, showing the entire family for John Smith – his wife, his parents, and his siblings – as well as filling in dates and places of the events you have. Even the smallest amount of information is a gateway to much, much more. Don’t underestimate what you can find with just a few “iffy” facts.

Copyright (c) 2015 Wendy L. Callahan

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Genealogy & Technology

I'm way behind in genealogy tech! Why is that?

Well, I don't have a smart phone. I don't download every nifty program mentioned in blog posts or magazines. I find that instead of streamlining my work, what having a variety of "apps" and programs does is actually make it more difficult, more time consuming, to "do the genealogy."

There is a very small amount of technology I utilize for genealogy. The first is Legacy as a family tree database. It gives me room to keep all the information I need, including notes and photographs.

The next is Word, which I use for all my word processing and writing. If I want to write a list of a particular type of ancestor or make out a detailed research To Do list, that is what I use.

Finally, there is the most basic tool of all - the internet. It tends to be where I conduct the majority of my research, even if that research is simply looking up the address of a town clerk so I can send a "snail mail" request for a vital record.

Also, Google Alerts is a fantastic resource that delivers search hits straight to my inbox. I probably don't use it as much as I could, but it is one of many tech apps that I actually have utilized for genealogy. It's nice to know if a new website pops up with a search term I use often, like "Emma Anna Murphy," Google will let me know.

Part of me wonders if there is a program I would love, love, love to use for genealogy. But I think this passion is such a varied one, that keeping it simple works best for me.

I am interested to know what programs or apps other family historians use, and what they love about them.

Copyright (c) 2015 Wendy L. Callahan

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Genealogical Societies & Groups

If you have yet to explore what genealogy groups and societies have to offer, here's a little guide to the various types out there.

First, there are societies devoted to research itself. You can find many devoted to specific geographic areas. My personal favorite is the New England Historic Genealogical Society, the focus of which is obvious thanks to their name. NEHGS is more of a repository and publisher than a social group. They keep a huge variety of records at their library in Boston, as well as offer scans and transcriptions of those records through their website. They also offer a variety of publications - a magazine, journal, and newsletters. Membership in NEHGS is well worth the price for me, as it costs less than a subscription to a wider-reaching site, such as, but offers far more value for my specific interests.

So if you're looking for this kind of society in the area specific to your family history/research interests, try Google to locate one.

Facebook is a great place to find much smaller, online groups with a specific research focus. For example, try searching "Italian Genealogy" and you will find a wide variety of groups. It is very easy to join such groups. In the case of closed groups, it's just a matter of waiting for the moderator to approve your request for membership.

You can also find groups dedicated to general research, organizing your research, digitizing your records, and much more.

Most of us are probably very familiar with lineage societies, which concentrate on a particular surname or group of people. Examples of this include the General Society of Mayflower Descendants and the various groups dedicated to researching the pilgrims who came over on that ship, such as the Alden Kindred of America. These are excellent groups to join if you want to focus your research on a specific ancestor or surname.

General and social genealogy groups and forums exist all over the internet. A simple Google search will give you several results. Try using search terms for specific traits you would like to find in a group, such as genealogy writers or genealogists who are also cat lovers (alright - I don't know if the second one exists, but it might!). These are just a few examples. 

What do you look for in a genealogy group? What's a genealogical niche you wish was more fulfilled by groups or societies?

Copyright (c) 2015 Wendy L. Callahan

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Guardianship & Adoption Resources

Something I'd love to learn more about is researching guardianships and adoptions, particularly in New England.

Over the years, I've discovered a few ancestors or collateral relatives who went through this process. Most of those discoveries were made through a lucky Google search that turned up their name. This usually isn't a topic we have to learn about until we encounter a question about where a family member ended up.

Sometimes this is a story we know from the start - that a grandparent was actually reared by an aunt or uncle, or another, unrelated family entirely. What isn't always known is whether or not there was a formal adoption. The first state to enact legislation on adoptions was Massachusetts in 1851. Even still, not every adoption was recorded, so finding formal paperwork on one in the 1880s is very much hit or miss.

This is a topic I'd really love to learn more about - what resources exist online? Offline? (I know the Massachusetts Archives has adoptions available at their facility.) What criteria did a person have to meet to obtain guardianship? For those who were not formally adopted, but still changed their name, was this just something they could do without it really being an "issue"? (It seems like it was just fine for people to take the name of the family who cared for them, without filing paperwork in court.)

Is finding adoptions a matter of luck or skill, or - like so many aspects of genealogy - a little bit of both?

Copyright (c) 2015 Wendy L. Callahan

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Old & New Resources

Part of the beauty of NEHGS and other publishers is that they are always producing new books on genealogy and our ancestors. Many older resources missed, overlooked, or simply did not contain certain information because the research couldn't find it or didn't know where to look. New discoveries happen every day, and genealogical societies try to keep at the forefront of this by sharing the news.

It's difficult to believe, for example, that many people still don't know the correct maiden name of Richard Warren's wife, even after the discovery of the will proving she was Elizabeth Walker, daughter of Augustine Walker. But this also reminds us that there are still new things to learn every day about our ancestors and keeping up with the newest genealogical publications is a good way to also keep up with this news.

Another thing recent publications do is correct misinformation, such as the belief that Richard Warren's wife was Elizabeth Jewett. They may also help clarify the differences between two people of the same name. I had quite a time differentiating "my" Joseph Bartlett, who married Anna Clark, from another Joseph Bartlett born in the same town and decade, and also with a wife named Anna. In this case, I had to move beyond birth, death, marriage, and census records to find a way to tell the two apart. My answer lay in books that let me know the second Joseph was an attorney who ultimately moved to and practiced in New Hampshire.

Sometimes, older publications simply omit readily available information. Robert Charles Anderson notes in his article "Documenting New England's Founders in The Great Migration Directory" that previous volumes omitted certain significant immigrants, such as one of my ancestors, William Blake of Pitminster in Somerset. He eventually settled in Dorchester and the number of his descendants is vast.

This is not to say older volumes, such as James Savage's A Genealogical Dictionary of the First Settlers of New England are not worth the time and effort to seek out. This collection of volumes, for example, can make an excellent jumping off point to guide your research. In fact, I simply love using Google to find such older books when I am working on a family. This is a great way to find PDFs of books that may be out of print or not available locally. Several times, Google Books has led me to fascinating and unexpected information.

Just be sure to reconcile the information with primary sources (such as birth, marriage, and death records), as well as newly available databases, books, articles, etc. to ensure it remains consistently correct. We know (I hope!) that we shouldn't take online family trees for granted as being true, and I think we also shouldn't consider the authors of genealogical books infallible. They are doing the best they can with the information they have, and I believe most books from certain publishers are quite reliable. However, go ahead and look for the resources they cite anyway.

You never know. In following-up on the author's research, you might find something they overlooked.

Copyright (c) 2015 Wendy L. Callahan

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Matrilineal Musings

My matrilineal line is also the one that fascinates me the most. Why? Because it comprises the most recent immigrants in my family.

Because my family is mostly made up of Mayflower and Great Migration names/heritages, and a handful of Irish immigrants thrown in for good measure (in the early to mid 1800s), my direct matrilineal ancestry stands out because it is neither English nor Irish.

My great-grandmother, Lia Elizabeth Galfre, was born in Middleborough, Massachusetts in 1903. She died in Brockton in 1991. She married my great-grandfather, Basil Wade Bartlett, in Middleborough in 1923.

Lia's parents came to Massachusetts from Italy.

Her father, Bartolomeo Giovanni Michele Galfre, was born January 22, 1869 in San Benigno, Torino, Italy. He died in Lakeville, Massachusetts in 1952. We know Grandpa Bartolomeo's parents, Michele and Francesca, were both born in Italy. We believe his grandfather, Giovanni Battista Bartolomeo Galfre, was born in France, as Galfre is a French name.

Lia's mother, Ernesta Maddelena Bergamasco, was born May 12, 1874 in Mongelia, Genoa, Italy. Thanks to a short family memoir by my great aunt Espezzia (Lia's sister), we know the names of her siblings were Bartholomew, Angelina, Giovanni, Peter, and Archie. As you can see, some of these are nicknames or Anglicized names.

Her parents were Giuseppe and Giabatta. We have a few tidbits about Giuseppe, thanks to my great-great aunt's family history. She wrote that Giuseppe came to visit Bartolomeo and Ernesta in Middleborough. She also wrote that he lived to age 104, and specifically said, "He went to church one night to bid goodbye to all his friends, and died that night."

And that is all we have.

I had my mtDNA tested several years ago, and was not surprised to get Haplogroup H1. Still, it didn't tell me much, so I'm afraid my options for Italian research are quite limited.

Copyright (c) 2015 Wendy L. Callahan

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Still a Mystery: Emma Anna Murphy of Nova Scotia

Last night I dreamed my mother told me more about my great-great grandma Emma - you know, the one who has eluded me since I started my genealogical journey. The ideas in the dream were preposterous answers to questions I have (where did she go to school? Did she have any siblings? What was the name of her first husband? What happened to him?).

But they reminded me that I still have a long way to go with Emma's life.

Last time I posted about Emma Anna (Murphy) (Reagan) Shaw, it was February 6, 2012. At the time, I hoped I might have finally found her family. The Guysborough, Nova Scotia connection is the most logical one, but can you believe I haven't looked for 3 years now?

Granted, it's been a busy time for me - had a baby in January 2013, moved back to the states in June 2013, focused on establishing a writer career, etc.

So I suppose that dream, silly as it was, might be a nudge reminding me that the answers are still out there. I just have to remember to ask.

When I tackle the gaps in Emma's timeline - specifically from her birth (1861 or so in Nova Scotia?) to her marriage to my great-great grandfather (1888 in Middleborough, Massachusetts), I don't automatically look for her birth or her parents. I feel like, if possible, I need to work my way back from her marriage to great-great grandpa Erastus Shaw.

That means I would really, very much like to find out the name and ultimate fate of her first husband. We know his surname was Reagan. We know this because of various family documents - my great-grandpa Harrison Shaw's birth record in 1889, which gives his mother's name as "Emma A. Reagion," and Erastus and Emma's marriage record in 1888, which gives her name as "Emma A. Regan" and her maiden name as Murphy.

Emma also specifies in the 1930 census that her first marriage occurred when she was 16, which means roughly 1877.

In the 1910 census, she is listed as having 2 children, but only 1 living (my great-grandfather, Harrison Shaw). Did she have a child in her first marriage? I've found nothing to indicate she had 2 with Erastus. Of course, she might have, and the birth and death may simply not exist in Middleborough or Massachusetts records. Still, I think it's more logical to assume she had a child in her first marriage, since Massachusetts birth, marriage, and death events are all pretty well documented.

There's still the question of whether or not she was born in Maine or Nova Scotia. The existing vital records and censuses are roughly 50-50 on that question. Again, though, I think if she'd been born in Maine, there would be some indication of her in the 1870 and 1880 censuses... and there's nothing, which is why I err on the side of Nova Scotia as being correct.

This post is a bit rambly and probably only makes sense to me if you haven't read the previous posts. ;)

It also tells me I need to go in and re-examine all the records, and the timeline to see what I need to do next.

Copyright (c) 2015 Wendy L. Callahan