Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Hike-and-Seek (Graveyard Edition)

Have you ever visited a cemetery in search of your ancestors' graves and felt like you were playing a game of Hide-and-Seek?

During last year's family history road trip, a visit to the Rossville Cemetery in eastern Kansas revealed that two 3rd great-grandparents (each from a different family line) did not have a headstone. Let me tell you, Hide-and-Seek isn't any fun if there's nothing to find!

Where were William Lumpkins and Iva Elzina (Haworth) Hawks James? The cemetery had no record of where they were buried. At least no record by name. The cemetery's map did include information on occupied plots, but, unfortunately, record keeping from the time of their passing didn't demand the inclusion of the occupant's identity.

Creating Stones - a Family Remembers
About ten years ago, descendants of both William and Iva began collecting funds to pay for the creation of headstones. Enough money was collected and the stones were created. The cemetery required a professional to place the memorials. Busy schedules prevented that from happening in a timely fashion. Eventually, the headstones were forgotten in storage and sat unnoticed collecting dust for years. The graves remained unmarked.

Locating Graves
After my visit to the cemetery last year, I was reminded that stones had been created and was determined to have them placed.

From published obituaries, I was able to confirm that William and Iva were in fact buried in Rossville.

William's 1909-published obituary noted that he was laid "to rest beside the wife in the Rossville Cemetery to wait for dawning of The Morning." His wife Phoebe (Howerton) Lumpkins had pre-deceased him in 1887. Her grave is on a hill and marked with a beautiful obelisk that towers above nearby monuments.

The cemetery's map indicates a burial beside her, which (based on the obit) we deduced must be William Lumpkins. Put a stone on that grave!

Photo by Linda Mitchell. Used by permission.

I was able to employ the same strategy to locate Iva's burial. Iva remarried after her first husband Edmond Oscar Hawks, my 3rd great-grandfather, passed away. Her second husband was Robert James.

Was she buried beside her first or second husband? Her 1951 obituary held the answer, stating simply, "Burial was in Rossville Cemetery." Robert was not buried in Rossville. In fact, he was buried in another cemetery beside his first wife.

An empty plot was beside Edmond Hawks' marked grave. Cemetery records confirmed that it was occupied. The most likely occupant was Iva.

Photo by Linda Mitchell. Used by permission.

It's gratifying to finally have their graves properly marked. In some small way we've restored their identities and affirmed their existence. They're no longer forgotten.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Advice for Ancestry.com As It Evolves

Ancestry.com reported its quarterly financial results this week. Business is booming. Lots of money poured in with $169.4 million in revenues. Numbers for new users were up 5% over the previous year. The one millionth AncestryDNA test was genotyped.

I'm a fan of the monolithic genealogy provider. Their success means acquisition of new records to research and new users who may be cousins able to help break down my brick walls.

However, as a longtime user of Ancestry - who pays a decent amount to use the site (frankly, more than I pay for any other hobby or recreational activity) - I do have opinions about how it can be a stronger service, particularly as it unveils the "New Ancestry" platform.

It Can Never Go Down
Let's be clear: Ancestry needed an upgrade. The underpinnings of the site were dated and no longer supported the evolution of its many offerings.

Over the past few years, it wasn't uncommon for pages to spool endlessly or for the entire site to go down (don't even get me started on the free access weekends!). Ancestry's Chief Technology Officer acknowledged the "disruptions in service" and said that "current architecture could still use some updates."

I appreciate his honesty (albeit a bit understated). But my response comes from the movie The Social Network that depicted the creation and rise of Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg decries an early outage of the site that threatens its reputation:
"Let me tell you the difference between Facebook and everyone else, we don't crash EVER! If those servers are down for even a day, our entire reputation is irreversibly destroyed!"
That mantra was a key to Facebook's success. It was a reliable platform that users could consistently count on to work. Cue their meteoric rise.

As a subscription service, I hold Ancestry to that same mantra simply because I invest more Benjamins in the site than I do Facebook (I invest no Benjamins in Facebook - it's free to me).

The New Ancestry
I'm not opposed to change. I don't subscribe to the adage "If it ain't broke don't fix it." I can roll with a new look and learn to use new features. I'm nimble and have genealogy ninja moves you ain't even seen! (note: I write this from a comfy chair sipping my 2nd cup of coffee - working up to nimble ninja mode)

Of course, I expect that any changes will make my genealogy research experience more efficient and effective. That's why I'm puzzled by some of New Ancestry's tweaks. While there's much to love, I do have a few friendly bits of feedback for the development team, which I'm sure will help mitigate much of the grumpy commentary filling social media.

Facts View
When I use Old Ancestry to research an ancestor, I spend a significant amount of time in the Fact View. It offers a fantastic, clean, simple overview of an ancestor's life. I particularly appreciate the thumbnail images of the documents that evidence that ancestor's life and quickly illustrate research gaps.

New Ancestry has gutted this feature by removing the thumbnails. I can no longer tell at a glance where my research stands for an individual. What documents are missing? Beats me! As a result, I find myself spooling, unsure of how or where to move forward researching ancestors in the new site.

Recently, I've started thinking about alternative platforms that offer me this functionality. It occurred to me that that was probably not what the developers intended and I should share that feedback.

Recommendation: Bring back Fact View's thumbnail images!

Photos and Media
1. Circle profile photos: If a picture is worth a thousand words, why are we only displaying 683 of them? No one takes circle photos. It's a bigger world. Square the circle - let's see the entire photo (and spare me the crop)!

Ancestry.com's 683-word profile photos

2. Poor photo quality: Pictures that I upload - especially documents - now look pixelated and blurry. I suspect the file compression technology is working to save bandwidth but at an incredible expense: total lack of readability of my uploads. 

Images that were legible in Old Ancestry are now blurry

Word on the street is that the developers are working on a cropping tool to make the profile images fit the round frames. I worry about what a cropping tool will do to image quality, which is already suffering.

3. Positioning media: For the love, please allow users the ability to position their photos in the order they desire! Trust me, few of us want the ability to position by upload date! A simple drag and drop for photo positioning is what we need. It's not a date or title thing. We're talking about images. It's an aesthetic thing: This picture looks best here...drag...drop. Voila! 

The media library needs to accommodate creativity not sort and filter functionality (is it a photo/media album or an Excel spreadsheet?!).

4. Video and Audio: We must be able to upload all kinds of digital media. There's so much family history that's left out of the Ancestry.com experience, including video and audio. Think of the old film reels, VHS tapes, and audio interviews that are missing and not currently supported by the site. How is it that sites like Facebook can so fluidly master video upload and Ancestry seems to still be reinventing the wheel (or ignoring it altogether)? There are lovely models that already exist. Steal smart. Replicate what works. Heck, allow embedding of YouTube videos!

Recommendations: Square profile photos, improve upload image quality, add drag & drop functionality in media library, and allow ability to upload video and audio.

How Many Clicks Does It Take
I've noticed that a lot of go-to links are now buried under more than one click. I thought the interwebs adage was never more than a couple clicks (and not even that many if it can be avoided)?

I find myself having to do a lot more clicking (or touching on my iPad) than I did on the previous site. For example, the View in Family Tree button disappeared from the profile card under a tool box icon. 

The mobile app now requires you to tap the pedigree icon in a person's profile if you want to expand the family tree.

Additional clicks are cumbersome and slow the research process.

Recommendation: Unbury the links! Say no to extra clicks.

I Love You, That's Why I'm Honest
I love Ancestry. I really do. I use it daily and I just hate to see some of these changes hamstring the user experience. 

I share this feedback out of love and in the sincere hope that it's considered in the well-meaning way it's intended. Do you still love me (ahem, my subscription renewal is next month)?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Grandma's Fearful Sea of Fathomless Eternity

I've devoted a considerable amount of blog space to my 4th great-grandfather George Henry as I've sought to determine who his parents were and why his surname was changed from Jucket to Hawks.

Amanda Miller (Johnston) Hawks, his wife of nearly 60 years, was a colorful character in her own right. In fact, we may have a better sense of her personality thanks to several of her early 20th century letters to the editor of a small town Arkansas newspaper.

Readers of this blog may recall a Veterans Day post in 2014 that featured one of her letters lamenting the cruelties of World War I and "the sadness in those homes" where sons were separated from their families while fighting overseas.

Cousin Tex - my research partner on Grandpa George Hawks - recently shared with me another newspaper gem.

Amanda wrote a letter in February 1915 from her home in Nebraska that was published in the March 5, 1915 issue of the Journal-Advance, a paper serving Gentry, Benton County, Arkansas (where she had lived and still had family). In it, she recounts a recent injury she sustained and overviews her general health:
"Two weeks ago today I got a bad fall, and my left limb has been very painful ever since. I could not move it for a while. I had been so well all winter. I did not fall on the ice out doors, but in the house. I caught my foot in the carpet. I cannot hear anything that anyone is saying around me. When they talk to me they have to come very close to me and say their words very slow and distinct. Sometimes I don't understand them, and my answers are so different to what they say, we have to laugh."
Her sense of humor about her condition creates an image of a warm and self-effacing woman. But as quickly as she laughs at her maladies she turns philosophical about life and mortality.
"If I live 20 days longer I will be 86. How fast time flies. It bears us on from youth to age, then plunges in the fearful sea of Fathomless Eternity. How careful we should live before the world."
Her somber admonition was spoken like a true wife of a Presbyterian Minister (George did a bit of preaching in his day).

Amanda quickly changes the topic, writing about her wish to return to Arkansas to live out her final days, but acknowledges that circumstances will likely keep her in Nebraska. Her melancholy is palpable.

She then abruptly, without proper segue or transition, shares several tidbits about her family's military service.


These are spectacular genealogy clues. She casually slips in several astonishing facts and simply signs her letter. That's it. It's the modern day equivalent of a mic drop.

I don't currently know the identities of her paternal or maternal grandparents, but I do know that her father was Robert M. Johnston who, according to Amanda's family bible, was born October 27, 1788 in Kentucky and died March 2, 1844. Thanks to her letter, I now know he was a soldier in the War of 1812.

Was it Robert's father or Amanda's maternal grandfather who served in the Revolution on a ship captained by his father? I don't know yet, but that sounds like the makings for a lovely story to share with the Sons of the American Revolution.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Genealogy by the Numbers: A White Whale Hobby

Like all good hobbies, genealogy can really occupy your time. I mean REALLY occupy your time. But in a really meaningful way, of course.

I was recently thinking about the status of my research and what would "done" look like. Could I ever say enough is enough, I've completed my mission, and wrap everything up with a nice bow on top?

Nope! I could not do that. There's always more people to find - new branches to untangle and bring back to life. The math is forever in genealogy's favor: one you, two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents...

But it's not just a numbers game. We're not collecting baseball cards. Culling the stories that bring your ancestors back to life is time-intensive and, I believe, the most rewarding challenge of genealogy.

It helps that evolving technology continually makes the sleuth-work easier, and an increasing number of never-before-seen records once entombed in dusty archives are debuting on genealogy websites.

Simply put, there's no end in sight to this hobby as long as the thrill of the search holds its appeal and your attention.

All Y'All Made Me
As I think about the exponential number of people over the course of history who were necessary to creating me, I've paused to assess where my research stands. Allow me to indulge in the numbers game, and ask myself how many of them have I excavated?

When I started prying into my ancestry five years ago, I only knew the names of three of my great-grandparents. They were the three that I met and knew growing up. Who were the other five? Who were their parents?

Since that time, my research not only uncovered the names of those five, but also all 16 of my second great-grandparents. This even includes one great-grandfather who tried to use a non-paternal event to slip by unnoticed. Thankfully DNA didn't let that happen!

In fact, of those 31 people (myself to my second great-grandparents), I now have a photograph of each of them. Well, except one: William B. Upton, and I haven't given up on him. I know that one day a photograph will surface. I will find a picture (as I type that I realize I sound like Ahab after my white whale. I'm hoping for more positive results).

Now I'm just bragging, but I've even learned the identities of all 32 third great-grandparents. However, my research gets a bit spotty as we move to the next generation.

I don't know the names for 11 of my 64 fourth great-grandparents (nearly 20% remain lost to history). Who were these third great-grandparents' parents?

There's work to be done. I search on. It's this search that fascinates. It leaves me eager to chisel away at the remaining unknowns and resuscitate their story and legacy.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

No Brick Walls in Google's Library

I've been away from the blog and genealogy this past month while traveling in India for work. It was, in a word, incredible. It's a country of extremes: beauty, color, poverty, heat, generosity.

Taj Mahal (photo by author)
I'm now home in the U.S. and ready to tackle my family history research. Yesterday, I made up for lost time and very nearly pulled an all-nighter as I dived back in with a vengeance. Like India, my genealogy motto is one of extremes: research hard or don't!

Researching Offline
I spent the afternoon at the Daughters of the American Revolution library trawling through dusty old volumes detailing Licking County, Ohio marriages, tax lists, probates, and land records. I wanted to see if I could learn more about my Kirk ancestors. Surely one of the many bound volumes held the clue I desperately needed to advance my research. 

It occurred to me, as I quietly turned page after page in each hulking antique tome praying for the author to name drop my ancestor, that it would take me months of sitting quietly in the reading room to finish just one of the books. 

They're reference materials. They can't be checked out. You can't read them carefully in the comfort of your home. If the book doesn't include a name index (as many of these older volumes don't), you just have to sit and read (and pray you don't overlook the name you're after). What I wouldn't give for these books to be online and keyword searchable.

Library of Tomorrow is Today
Back at home, reflecting on my lack of success at DAR's library, it occurred to me that maybe some of these older volumes had been digitized and were keyword searchable. Could I pull up the book and search (CTRL + F) for my family's surname? I Google searched a volume title and was directed to Google's Book database. 

Now, I have to admit that I knew this database existed. I've sat in conference sessions where genealogy tech guru Lisa Louise Cooke touted the value of Google technology, including Google Books. Regrettably, I always assumed that my ancestors didn't have sufficient notoriety to merit publication in a book. I never searched. Huge mistake! 

I dropped in the county name and Google turned up some of the enormous Licking County histories I was paging through at DAR. In a matter of seconds I was able to word search the volume and confirm my surname was not mentioned. Boom! Done! On to the next volume. Genealogy is time intensive. We don't have time to waste on resources that don't advance our family trees. We need to take advantage of tools like Google Books that make our research more effective and efficient.

Google Books Offers a Rapunzel-esque Climb Over a Brick Wall
I excitedly began searching a handful of surnames. Followers of the blog know I've been trying to learn more about Burr Zelah Dornon and his family. A search of his surname turned up a tantalizing clue. 


My 4th great-grandparents were highlighted in what appeared to be a list of descendants. Before this list appeared on my screen, Sophronia (Rogers) Dornon was a brick wall. I had no idea who her parents were (although family lore said her mother's maiden name was Gould).

Unfortunately, I was only able to see this small snippet of text. The book, as is the case with some volumes, was not available to be read online in its entirety through Google Books.

Unwilling to slow for this roadblock, I plugged the publication's title into a standard Google search and found a link to FamilySearch's library. Of course, the Mecca of genealogy had a copy in their holdings.

In a sign that the stars truly were aligned last night, the volume was available to access and read in its entirety through FamilySearch. In the comfort of my own home!

The text did in fact provide Sophronia's purported parents' names: Francis and Abigail (Gould) Rogers. It even provided both of their parents' names. In one evening, thanks to Google Books, I uncovered possible new sets of 5th and 6th great-grandparents. You try and go to sleep after that kind of success!

To help corroborate the information, I turned to Ohio probate records on FamilySearch and found Francis Rogers' 1843 will in Hardin County. In it, he doles out his assets to his family, including daughter Sophronia.

Sophronia inherits $75 from her father in his September 1843 will

A search for Abigail revealed that she not only survived her husband by nearly four decades, but she also survived daughter Sophronia. Find A Grave has a burial for Abigail in Iowa where she evidently lived with one of her sons.

Collectively, there remains a lot of work to document and substantiate these new leads, but in one fell swoop Google Books gave me a leg up that enabled me to peak beyond the brick wall. Perhaps this one will come tumbling down.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Brace Yourself For the Terrible Twos

Yesterday's Genealogy Blogging Beat from GeneaBloggers reminded me of an important anniversary - this blog's birth date!

Two years ago on June 4th, I published my first post. Since that time, I've made great strides in my family history research, including:
  • Attending genealogy conferences across the country.
  • Collaborating with cousins to tackle longstanding family mysteries like when and where Burr Zelah Dornon died, and what were the circumstances that led to George Henry's surname changing from Jucket to Hawks?
  • Leveraging social media to uncover family treasures (Tweet & Tell: Oral History Surfaces and Facebook Tags Forgotten Ancestor).
  • After the loss of my maternal grandmother in October 2014, traveling with my mom and aunt on a 10-day family history road trip that covered 5 states, over 2,100 miles, and visits to the graves of 36 direct ancestors. 
  • Researching the Civil War service of two 3rd great-grandfathers at the National Archives, and discovering the biggest killer in the War of the Rebellion wasn't bullets but disease. Disease in the Civil War remains my most popular blog post. 
Much has been accomplished. Much remains to be discovered. I have high hopes for channeling the wild energy of my terrible twos to make for another productive year of family sleuthing. Brace yourself!

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Reserving the Right

My time in Boston included a research day at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. I joined the Society last month, which, as a card carrying member, entitles me to free access to the library's research areas.

I headed for the 7th floor reading room where I pulled several family history volumes from the stacks. The books shed some light on the Hawks family that I was researching, but there was no smoking gun confirming that GHJH was adopted by his maternal aunt.

After a brief lunch break in Boston's swanky Back Bay neighborhood, I headed back to the library for more research (and respite from the muggy heat).

My afternoon research zeroed in on Daniel Jucket - GHJH's father. He's been a shadowy figure. What information could I turn up on him? Much of the library's vast collection of records has been digitized, but not everything. Not yet anyway. These were the records I wanted to focus on.

I started pulling microfilmed probate and deeds for Franklin County. The Hawks name appeared frequently. Unfortunately, I didn't come across a probate record for Silas Hawks (Lucy's father), which I hoped would shed light on the status of the family in 1831 (just before Lucy's own passing).

I also didn't see an adoption record for George Henry Jucket by his maternal aunt. I didn't even see a birth record for him.

Remembering my travels the previous weekend around Quabbin Reservoir (site of the watery burial for Enfield, Daniel Jucket's final resting place), I decided to shift my search to Hampshire County (Enfield was located in the county).


Among the Hampshire County land deeds for 1883, I discovered a record for Daniel Juckett (sic) selling land in Enfield for $200. However, Daniel includes a special stipulation:

"Reserving the right to myself of occupying the buildings and land while I live. Also reserving the right to my wife Mary Juckett to remain in the house so long as she may live. Said [purchaser] to have full possession of the land and buildings upon my decease excepting the reservation to my wife Mary Juckett."


The Juckets sold the land in 1883, but legally stipulated that they would retain possession and occupancy until after their deaths. Daniel died in 1885 and Mary died in 1887. Presumably they lived out their final days on the property. But where are they buried, and do their graves still exist today?