Category Archives: Genealogy

Five Things I Learned While Taking Stock of My Genealogy Documents

I invested in a new genealogy database (Reunion for iPad) and most of my research time since has been spent transferring documents and information from my Ancestry account, my paper files, and my Google Drive into the program. The process has been slow, but rewarding. It’s forced me to take another look at everything I’ve found on my ancestors so far. Here’s a short list of the things I’ve learned or remembered during the process:

  • Take baby steps. Transferring all of that data is a huge undertaking. To break the work into more manageable pieces, I’ve dedicated one month to focus on finding all the information I can and inputting the data on each of my direct ancestors, starting with my parents and moving up the tree using Ahnentafel numbers. Finding out what paperwork I already have on my people was the logical first step in this process. So I’m checking all of my genealogy repository sites: Ancestry, Google Drive, paper files, and Reunion. I note the documents I’m missing while simultaneously ensuring that all of my documents are stored in all four places.
  • Make a simple spreadsheet. I know. Spreadsheets are the worst, right? But for inventory purposes, they make all the information visible at a glance. I set up six columns and labeled them: Person, Document, Ancestry, paper files, Google Drive, and Reunion. The first column has my ancestor’s name, the second has a fairly simple description of the document, and the other four are just columns for X’s that indicate where in my files the document can be found.Screen Shot 2017-06-27 at 2.36.52 PM.png
  • Make the spreadsheet work hard… I figured if I’m going to spend all this time filling out a spreadsheet I might as well make it do double or triple duty. Thankfully, early on in my inventory process, I realized I could make the spreadsheet double as a timeline by adding a column for the dates of the documents I inventoried and then sorting them chronologically. (Sorting is the only advanced function an Excel beginner would need to learn to make the spreadsheet useful. It’s relatively easy.) Then I realized if I added the locations of the documents I could pull together all of the significant places of my ancestors. So, using only eight columns, I now have an inventory, a timeline, and a location tracker for all of my ancestors.Screen Shot 2017-06-27 at 2.42.10 PM.png
  • But don’t go overboard. Seeing all the handy ways an Excel spreadsheet could be used for genealogy made me want to put ALL THE DETAILS in there.  That might work for some, but I have found that the larger a spreadsheet becomes the more overwhelming it gets. Any spreadsheet that extends beyond the frame of my computer screen becomes unwieldy to me, so I’m less likely to keep up with it.
  • Review first; input second. As tempting as it was to have all these documents to enter into my shiny new software program, I refrained. Looking at all of the documents at the same time helped me draw some logical conclusions about conflicting information. For instance, my maternal great-grandfather has four different birthdates on four different official records. But upon further scrutiny, I noticed that two of the birth dates were recorded decades later and one was likely to be the date of baptism. Finding those discrepancies all at once saved me some confusion and resulted in my entering his correct birthday.

This process has made me realize I am not nearly as organized as I’d thought. (Look at all of those empty cells up there!) I had some important records squirreled away in one repository or another that I never factored into the larger scope of my ancestor’s lives. I found I had forgotten to print hard copies of birth certificates and death certificates for my paper files. Screenshots of online family trees were hiding in my Google drive that I’d forgotten about for years. Thank goodness I caught it all in time!

A Second Cousin of a Second Cousin

A couple years ago after researching as thoroughly as possible, I had decided my family was not related to the infamous outlaw, Jesse James. But, after finding this newspaper article recently, I’ve brought out all of my research again.

To be clear, the man interviewed happens to also be named Jesse James. He is not the outlaw, but he is definitely my grandfather’s cousin.

Screen Shot 2017-03-30 at 5.09.39 PM.png

Click here for source.

Crossing a River

The first time I traveled to a different country I was a junior in high school. Friends had decided they’d rather take the train from Flint, Michigan, to Toronto, Canada, than rent formal wear and a limo and go to prom and invited me to come with.

Being a geography nerd, I fantasized about the trip in the weeks before we left. The only Canadian I’d met before was my grandfather (but he’d been an apple-pie-eating American for decades by the time I came around) so my imagination went wild. I learned from an episode of the Brady Bunch that Hawaiians welcomed travelers with a garland of flowers. So I figured a similar ceremony would greet me when we crossed the border: mounties knighting me with hockey sticks, customs agents anointing me with maple syrup, a dexterous moose pinning a maple leaf brooch on my REM sweat shirt; that sort of thing. I was pretty disappointed when we crossed the St. Clair River and I didn’t even hear a cheer.


The greeting came after we stepped off the train. Hello, strange money. Hello, taxi drivers whipping down Yonge Street using the “wrong” lane. Bonjour French words burbling at the bottoms of signs. When we arrived at the subway station, a man standing on a milk crate was spouting off about the evils of America to anyone who would listen. The Greedy States of America, he’d said, lewdly rubbing his fingers and thumbs together. I pulled my jacket a little tighter as I walked with my friends past the train station pundit, through the crowded platform, and toward the first subway station I’d ever encountered. That was the moment I first realized I had transformed into a capital-F Foreigner. How I had become something so political and mysterious just by sitting on a train playing cards mystified me.

We struggled—my friends and I—to follow the instructions written on the subway fare machine even though they were in English. After a while, a man in a beret approached us: “I can see you are in need of some orientation.” He enunciated each word, then he explained in a very practiced way how to buy a ticket and board the right train.

After a short subway ride, we found our hotel and proceeded to ramble around the city for the next four days completely in awe at the cultural differences we saw. Those differences were, of course, minute—only impressive to a group of 17 year olds who had never known another way of life.

On Sunday we found ourselves stepping into a train on another smoky platform. I felt like I was boarding a spaceship to go home and tell my people all the wonders I’d seen.

Hensall railway station

I didn’t know it at the time, but my grandfather Nelson Harburn and his large family had made the same journey to Flint on a Grand Trunk train 70-odd years before me. The difference was that they had birdcages and trunks, hat boxes and linens with them. They were crossing the St. Clair River for good.

Up until the day they left, the boys in the family had worked in the fields around their house in Hensall, Ontario, to keep the farm going for the new owners. Meanwhile, the women packed up the house, emptied the cellar, and sold the furniture. I imagine they talked about their new lives in the city as they worked. When the family came together for dinner, the women asked the older brothers, who had visited Flint before, to tell them again about the car traffic, the groceries, the department stores.

George, the oldest Harburn sibling, and his new wife were waiting in a little white house for their arrival. Flint, at the time, was a burgeoning industrial hub thanks to the automobile industry. Factory managers practically hired men off the street. My great-grandfather William was probably the one who’d contacted General Motors. In 1919, the conservation legacy of nature lover Theodore Roosevelt still dominated, and the auto industry was in trouble over air pollution. William Harburn farmed and distributed flowers for a living. He or George negotiated a deal to start a farm across the river from the main factory to prove there was no environmental threat. In addition, the Harburns offered their flower inventory to the company’s many social events and landscaping needs. GM agreed, giving them land and a company house.

The new home had only three bedrooms, but the Harburns didn’t complain. They arrived in Flint excited all the same. Imagine 12 people—two married couples!—crammed into a house in the city. Imagine all of the cultural differences the family would have encountered all at once: Canadian to American, country to city, independent to corporate.

And the Harburns, relatively speaking, had it easy. They arrived with a house and a purpose. They spoke the language. They had the safety of their motherland waiting just across the river with open arms.

Click here to see a copy of the record immigration officials took the day my grandfather arrived in Flint.
All relevant sources can be found here.
A short biography of my grandfather can be found here.

Hunting And Gathering

I am notorious in my household for coming home with the wrong grocery items. I’m always pretty close: fat-free sour cream instead of the fat-ful, italian-seasoned bread crumbs instead of just regular old Panko, chili powder packets instead of taco seasoning. I fully admit my grocery store impatience. As soon as I pass between the waist-high pyramid of La Croix 12-packs and the salad-to-go buffet, a rushed laziness descends upon me, which always results in a second trip to the grocery store and a nice little wait in the Exchanges and Refunds line.

I’ve noticed signs of this lazy, impatient rush in other people, too. Mostly on the internet.

You may have noticed that genealogy is pretty popular right now in the United States. There are several TV shows, podcasts, YouTube channels and websites dedicated to the topic. is one of the biggest genealogy websites. On their commercials, they advertise the millions of family trees people have entered onto the site and the ease of shaking leaf hints. Don’t worry; I’ll explain.

Shaking leaf hints are notifications like on Facebook. They suggest records that might match people you’ve entered into your family tree. If you press the leaf, you can compare the information you have on your family member with the facts on the record. Then, you can decide to accept the notification, and it will copy all of the facts on the new record to your family tree.

Now it’s true that these features are really useful. But there’s a misleading component to all of it, and it has to do with that Mexican-seasoned shredded cheese I accidentally bought last week.

Here is the fact page of Fred Wilson, my great-grandfather, a man I’ve been researching for 10 years, off of another person’s Ancestry family tree. Let’s call that person Angela:

The Made-Up Fred Wilson.png

That picture to the left of Fred’s name? I posted it. The censuses listed under sources? Angela copied those from my family tree. His wife, his children, the dates of his birth and death are all there because Angela pressed the Accept button on my research. But her copying doesn’t bother me as much as the part of this profile that she didn’t take from me. See the red circle on the right? Yeah, those people aren’t my 2nd great-grandparents.

How did that happen?

Short answer: rushed laziness.

Long-ish answer: I’m guessing Angela is also related to a Fred Wilson and received a shaky leaf hint about my research on my Fred Wilson. Excited by the new find, she probably clicked Accept on the information without looking at it. Not that I blame her for being excited. Genealogy is the science of belonging after all. But all she had to do was open one of those censuses to see her mistake. Above Fred’s name on every one of those censuses, his parents Ambrose and Lucy are listed; and below him are his brothers and sisters. It’s pretty easy to see the disconnect if she’d compared Ambrose and Lucy’s family to her Wilson family. Instead she made them a part of her family tree where 14 other people have picked up the error on their own.

The perpetuation of this mistake aggravates me. I sent her a nice note. Just a “hey, thought you’d like to know that there’s a pretty big mistake on your tree. I’d love to help you find the right Fred. Let me know.” That was 2 years ago. No response. I can’t help but thinking of the time I took to post accurate information and how it has been written over in a click of a button. My fingernails are chewed down to the quick.

So, that’s probably the biggest lesson I’ve learned in my genealogy research and the thing I tell new researchers: it’s really easy to attach yourself to the wrong people on genealogy web sites.

How do you avoid it? Simple: hunting and gathering, just like I should be doing in the grocery store. Walk down every aisle (or every web site) looking for what you need. Once you’ve spotted a promising item (or document), gather as much info as you can about it (or, you know, read the packaging). Once you’ve done that, review it before you buy or accept it. If facts in the documents don’t agree, make informed decisions about the probable. If items in your grocery cart are gluten-free, sugar-free, and carb-free and you don’t want them to be, throw them out. Then, and only then, should you take it home.



Those glazed over eyes.

You know what I mean: that moment at a party when you realize you can’t remember how long you’ve been talking, and everyone that was listening is now either staring at hors d’oeuvres or smiling politely while internally wording their tweets about that boring guy who droned on for half an hour about the pros and cons of various genealogy tv shows.

It’s not happening to me as often lately, because I’ve taken genealogy off my list of topics to discuss with mixed company.

I know what you’re thinking: Screw that! Talk about what you want to talk about, and if they don’t like it, then they can just walk away.

Yes. But looking at it from the listener’s perspective, I get it. I remember history class, all those arbitrary dates and names. As someone who is not into sports, I have often found myself concentrating on suppressing a yawn at the back of my throat as some person I just met goes on and on about batting averages and World Series and I don’t even know what else.

I’ve realized that me and Sports Person were both making a mistake in presentation. We were trying to engage people with the particulars of our passions and not giving them any inkling as to what’s fueling it. Getting people interested in potentially eye-glazing subjects is all about the packaging:

“Hey, Sports Person, what is it about watching sports that interests you so much?”

“I guess I just really love seeing evidence of what people can do when they pull together for a common goal. I love following the stories of the individual players, knowing where they came from and how they found a place on a team, many of them having to travel to other countries in order to do so. Plus I connect to people when I see them doing something they’re passionate about.”

“Oh. I can completely get behind that. That’s exactly why I like genealogy. Tell me more about this sportsball thing.”

Yeah, that conversation would never happen around an hors d’oeuvres table…or anywhere else for that matter. That’s why I’m choosing to keep the subject in my back pocket except when I’m around other family historians. When I do mention it at parties, I try to keep it short and not bury the lede. But, since I have you here, let me tell you what I have decided to say:

My father didn’t know his parents. I started researching my family to find out more about them. I discovered stories and pictures and documents that filled in the holes of my family’s story. One photo I found was of my father as a little boy, a phase in his life that I’d never seen evidence of before.

Ralph Robert James206278_10150167032337612_6034898_n

I was surprised to find out I actually looked quite a bit like him (a fact that wasn’t obvious when I was a kid and he was a brown-haired and bearded adult).

Then I got a photo of my dad’s mother.

Mary Lou

I saw where my father and I got our blue eyes, and the way we set our jaw when we smile. I was dumbfounded by how obvious the connection was. I realized that the features I see in the mirror are hand-me-downs; they are not mine at all.

I learned that my grandmother lived in southern Missouri, and I read her account of living in the Dustbowl during the Great Depression. It made real those seemingly arbitrary dates and events I studied in high school: My family was there; they lived through it. I wish I’d listened better to those lessons in class, because they very much shaped my father’s upbringing.

That’s what I would say.

Or I might just tell the story of what happened to me last night. I received my paternal grandfather’s Social Security Application in the mail. The information it provides is fairly innocuous, but it is the first document I’ve uncovered that is written in his own hand. His signature ends the form like a period. The distinctive capital R, the serpentine curls of the e and s at the end of our shared last name.

It is my own handwriting.

The man passed away 2 years before I was born, and my father did not grow up in his house. But there it was plain as day: undeniable evidence of my connection to him.

To think that the chemicals in our cells can determine even the smallest details about our lives, like how we write our names. It’s just baffling to me. And these reminders that who I am is not completely in my control are comforting. Destiny, and all that. Making more of those connections inspires me to keep searching through my own history and to listen to the histories of other people’s families.

Lining Up the Suspects

Let’s play a game of Where’s Waldo?  How many red-stripey-hatted discrepancies can you find in the following newspaper articles? (Or, just skip ahead to where I tell you how many I see.)

First, here’s a nice birth announcement, published in February 1932. Ralph James is my grandfather. Gladys Hooker is the Mrs. mentioned, and the daughter is Geraldine, my half-aunt, who went by Jerry most of her life:

A Daughter - Jerry James

Next, the line-up of other suspects:

In November 1931, three months before Jerry’s birth announcement, the following article appeared in the local paper:

Mrs. Gladys James, 28, 216 Twelfth avenue, was awarded a divorce from Ralph E. James, 30, whom she charged with cruelty. They were married June 20, 1931 at Rock Port, Mo. Mrs. James was given full custody of her daughter, Geraldine, 2, and $25 alimony a month by stipulation.

In August 1941, a petition for divorce appeared:

SEVEN SEEK DIVORCE…Gladys from Ralph James, married here (Council Bluffs, Iowa) March 10, 1931.

And finally, this article appeared in January 1943:


How many discrepancies did you come up with?

I count 8. There are the three different marriage dates and two locations. That’s 5. There are two different announcements of divorce spanning 12 years. In that last article, Jerry is described as an 11-year-old son. And the biggest one…

Drum roll, please…

is the fact that my grandfather was paying $25 in alimony a month BEFORE HIS DAUGHTER WAS ACTUALLY BORN.

What is going on?

This sort of thing is where the genealogical proof standard comes in handy. Looking at all the information I’ve uncovered, not just the documents I’ve shown here, I’ve come up with some theories. I am currently casting my research nets based on these theories. Please tell me if they seem feasible or not.

Discrepancy #1: the big one. Jerry’s existence before she was born is actually pretty easily explained. If you’ve been following this series about my grandfather, you’ll remember there’s another daughter in the family, Barbara Schmidt. She would have been 2 years old in November 1931. Also, Gladys would have been 6 months pregnant with Jerry at the time this article was written. The journalist probably got confused by the daughters’ names…

Which leads me to Discrepancies 2-5: the first two wedding dates and locations.  We have June 20, 1931 in Rock Port, Missouri; and March 10, 1931 in Council Bluffs. I have not found any marriage records yet, but I think I know what this is about. The article with the June date was published BEFORE Jerry was born. 8 months before, in fact. Rock Port, Missouri, is the first town just on the other side of the Iowa border, probably the best place for a couple to marry quickly and anonymously. The second date is 11 months before little Jerry came along, and it was printed AFTER Jerry was born. If people knew how old she was, they could do the same math that I just did. Probably Gladys lied to make that math add up. So, all fingers point to the first date and place being correct.

Discrepancies 6-7: the third wedding date and the two different divorce announcements. So, if Gladys and Ralph divorced in November 1931, that would be five months after their shotgun wedding. It’s probably safe to assume their relationship was rocky. Gladys must have left for a time after this announcement, but then came back. The 1936 wedding date was probably their second marriage.

Discrepancy #8: their 11-year-old son. Her name is Jerry. The journalist probably just assumed the wrong gender when Gladys mentioned her.

Whew! I know. That was a lot. But I love the logic puzzle genealogy so often presents to me, and I love what the differing information tells me about my ancestors’ lives. I’d love to hear where you’d go next if this were your problem to solve.

Confused? Start at the beginning of this series.

All sources for the documents mentioned can be found here.

Looking for a more formal biography of my ancestors? Whoo hoo! I thought of that, too.


Telling Strangers Your Life Story, or Why Not to Go Whole Hog on Census Records

Genealogists are magicians. Don’t believe me? Watch as I make my Aunt Barbara disappear before your eyes!

In my ongoing search to learn about my grandfather, Ralph James‘s life, I came across a newspaper article that stated the date of his first marriage to Gladys Hooker. With the discovery of that date came an intriguing story problem:

If Gladys and Ralph married in 1931 and, according to the 1940 census, their first born daughter was born in 1928, then was [their first child] Barbara born out of wedlock or was she some other man’s baby girl?

First let’s all run back to that census record excerpt:

Screen shot 2014-09-15 at 3.54.32 PM

Thanks to the Interwebz, I discovered my answerBarbara Schmidt announcement quickly AND gained another source on Gladys’s family. It seems Gladys had been married before, and that my Aunt Barbara’s last name wasn’t really James. She was no relation to me. (Presto! The author takes a bow.) Why the discrepancy? Well, think of it from Ralph’s perspective:

A stranger knocks on your door. He takes off his fedora as you greet him; he carries a clipboard. You think you are in for a sales pitch on the benefits of owning encyclopedias, but you let him in and offer him a cup of coffee anyway. He explains he’s a census taker and must ask you personal questions about your family and your life. It is all for the sake of government data at a time when the world is at war, so you oblige.

One of his questions is “What are the names of each person who regularly resides here?” You begin with facts about yourself, then your wife. You say your step-daughter’s name. You see the census taker write down your last name as hers. Do you explain? Before you decide, he’s already asking you other questions. He probably has many other households to get through today, and besides, Barbara’s father isn’t in the picture. She may as well have your last name. You leave it alone.

It’s understandable, yes?

But now I don’t completely trust what’s on the census record. How do I know little Geraldine is truly RA Daughter - Jerry Jamesalph’s daughter? I continue looking in the newspaper archives until I find it, my half-aunt’s birth announcement on February 12, 1932. There’s still the ordering of the birth certificate to deal with, but chances are it’s true.

That is, until I find this record:
first divorce announcement

Story problem #2: A newspaper article and a census record support the fact that Geraldine James was born February 11, 1932. Another article claims that her parents were married 8 months before little Jerry arrived. A third article (see last week’s post) claims her parents were married 11 months before. The articles also disagree on the location of Gladys and Ralph’s nuptials. So, which date and place are right, and is Ralph Jerry’s father?

Read the next installment of this story.


Confused? Start at the beginning of this series.

All sources for the documents mentioned can be found here.

Looking for a more formal biography of my ancestors? Whoo hoo! I thought of that, too.