Sunday, June 7, 2009

What lineage do I follow?

This question is asked of me often by people who were not raised by one or both of their biological parents. Family relationships can become complicated when accompanied by divorce, death or abandonment. So, I am going to answer this question for you as I do with all who ask. I want you to remember it is my opinion and you can use it or not. You decide.

The lineage you follow will depend on the circumstances surrounding your birth and growing up years.

First of all, I believe you should follow your legal lineage. Whoever your legal parents are, they are your legal lineage.

After that there are many variables. Let’s discuss the most common variables one by one.

Adoption at birth by a mother and father who are not your biological parents – You would follow their lineage as your own.

Adoption because of death of biological parents – You would follow your adoptive parents lineage for they raised you as their own. You would also follow your biological parents because they would have raised you if they would not have died. It leaves you with two loyalties and they don’t have to be in conflict with each other. Genealogical computer programs have the ability to attach all parents to a person.

Raised by a relative without the adoption process – You may choose to follow both lineages or just one. The determining factor in these decisions is whether your biological parents chose to not raise you or if they didn’t have a choice.

The other variations are just branches of one or more of the above three scenarios. I believe the key is to find out what your head and heart tell you.

When I am working on an ancestor and this is the circumstance in their life, I usually follow the biological line. I do consider the circumstances and they frequently fall under one of the scenarios referenced above.

Find the story behind your ancestors parentage, visit with extended family and you’ll be able to come to a consensus on how to record the parents.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Family History Centers

I want to introduce you to your Family History Center. Most of you will live within driving distance of at least one Family History Center and if you haven’t visited one you are missing out on a great resource. Family History Centers are extensions of the Family History Library located in Salt Lake City, Utah and there are more than 4,500 worldwide.

They differ in size and yet they all have the ability to help you in your research. They have different hours of operation and a variety of staff that vary in their expertise. Some of the staff may just be learning how best to help you and some will have answers to all your questions. The staff is unpaid and most are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Let me show you how to find where the nearest Family History Center is to you. You’ll want to open your internet and go to . On the home page you will find part way down the center column ‘Find A Family History Center’. Just beneath you will be able to type in your state, province or country…then click on search.

All the Family History Centers in your state, province or country will be listed. The listing will contain the location (address) and phone number. The hours of operation are also listed. A word of caution from me to you would be to call the phone number during a time that the FHC is listed as being open. Talk with a staff person and confirm their hours. Sometimes the days and hours change and it is good to double check before you make the trip.

Now… what do you do? Please don’t take your whole box of genealogy with you. As with all resources we approach it with one, maybe two tasks. Take a family group sheet with you as a child, your parents and your grandparents with all the dates and place names of birth, marriage and death that you know. If you are further along in your research take the identifying information you will need. Remember, you want to work from the ‘known to the unknown’, so spend some time establishing a good foundation. The FHC will have computers, internet access, microfilm and microfiche readers, reference books and other material that will be a great help. Many have copiers and some now have digital copiers.

You will become friends with the staff and they will enjoy helping you. They are trained ‘not to fish’ for you but to help you ‘learn to fish’.

While at your FHC be sure to ask if there are classes, seminars, conferences or special firesides on Family History that you might attend. These venues are often sponsored by the FHC and they also post genealogical events that are sponsored by other groups.

Be gracious and always let them know how grateful you are for their assistance. Enjoy all that your Family History Center has to offer you.

Happy hunting.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

School Records

It is graduation time for high school seniors. A significant amount of a person’s first eighteen years is spent in school and graduation is a moment to be savored. Congratulations to all those who have endured and graduated from your high school - no matter the year! We applaud you!

There are many records that are created and kept about your educational experience.

Do you have a copy of your high school transcripts? Did you know you can obtain a copy of your parents’ and grandparents’ school records? How about your elementary school records?

If the high school still exists, then all you have to do is contact the high school office and request a copy of the transcripts. If the high school is no longer in operation, you need to contact the school district offices and ask where the records have been archived.

Sometimes, you will be told that they have been destroyed. Don’t believe it. Be persistent in finding where they have been stored/archived. I know one school district that sends all of their records to be archived at the state archives. Another school district has all their records stored in an insulated shed (not a very good way to preserve such valuable records). Others have them at their district office or at their ESD offices.

High school transcripts have valuable information that helps you get to know your ancestors in their younger years. You can learn about them from the choices of classes, grades, attendance, staff remarks and other bits of information you can find on transcripts. Pictures are often part of the record.

Yearbooks are another incredible resource that you won’t want to leave untapped. They can be found most often in the high school library. They can also sometimes be located in the local library or the local genealogical society’s library. Yearbooks are a treasure trove that brings to life the era in which your ancestor lived.

Another great source for learning about school years is newspapers. Scholarships, awards, projects and special days for the local school are common entries in local papers. You’ll want to call the newspaper and find where they have back issues. These are kept on microfilm and date back to the early to mid 1800s.

After a great deal of ‘persistence’ I was able to locate all my elementary school records in the state archives. I found recorded information on every school day of my first grade to my eighth grade. The bonus was to find my siblings records as well. The record contained our home address, phone number, parents’ names and occupations and the daily record the teacher kept.

Schools also have to take a census periodically. Some states require yearly census and some less often. School census records each family with children who attend school and include names, ages, birthdates and other family information. These, too, are available….but you must be persistent in finding their whereabouts.

School reunion committees can be contacted by information obtained from the school or district office. Reunion committees often have the most recent information on classmates. Marriages, deaths, post-school pictures and last known addresses can be made available to you by the committee chairman.

Enjoy gathering your own and other family member’s school records. It is fun to discover forgotten memories of childhood.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Grandma's flowers

Summer has definitely arrived. Our yard is overwhelmed with color which brings fond memories of my grandma and her yard. She lived two doors away from our home for many years while I was growing up. Her yard was always the most beautiful in the neighborhood, probably in the entire county.

Everyone knows that Queen Anne’s Lace is a ‘roadside weed’. Not to my grandma. They were nature’s way of tatting doilies and when I could find one or several with the tiny royal red blossom in the center, I was delighted. One of my daughters, who understood my love of these beautiful and intricate flowers, pressed one for me and mailed it to me from where she lived in Toronto, Ontario for a time. It was a loving gesture for a mom who missed her daughter.

Grandma had a green thumb to be sure but the magic was in her love and care for plants. Each spring I would help her plant sweet peas along the edge of the chicken yard so the vines could crawl up the chicken wire and bring beauty to a drab area of the yard.

She grew dahlias and roses and nasturtiums. She filled her yard with azaleas and rhododendrons and camillias so that the lawn couldn’t be mowed as all the other neighbors’ lawns were done. Each plant, shrub and tree had to be mowed around with care so as not to nick the bark of the trunk. All the plants were robust and showy and grandma’s evenings were spent sitting in her lawn chair with hose in hand. The nozzle she had attached to the end of the hose would shoot water to the thirsty plants at least 20 feet away. I felt important when she allowed me to quench the thirst of the plants and taught me about their care.

It was a bewitching time of the day when twilight put the sun to bed and hung the stars out. When the yard was completely cared for she would head indoors and I would follow, especially if I knew she had made homemade donuts that day. I would eat a donut or two with a glass of milk and at her little kitchen table I learned how to play solitaire.

My love of plants and flowers have been fastened to my heart , in great part, because of my grandma. Do your children and grandchildren know why you have a love for certain things? Include these kinds of stories in your history. Our lives are rich because of grandmas and grandpas, aunts and uncles and cousins. Share in your history what makes each one unique and what they have passed on to you. We can’t afford to lose what we have gained from our progenitors.

Say "Thank you"

Words are powerful. I want to visit with you about two of the most powerful words used in family history research. They soften hearts, lift spirits of sometimes overworked and under appreciated workers. “Thank you” spoken is rare for keepers of the records to hear.

Some researching their family history have acquired an ‘expectant’ attitude. City, county and state workers as well as librarians, archivists and workers at other repository sites have many tasks they are responsible for in their day to day routine. What a breath of fresh air you are to them when you are respectful of their time and show appreciation for the help they render.

It is part of their job to help you, but a gracious and grateful attitude will bring you incredible rewards. I traveled back to Massachusetts one year. I had corresponded with a Town Clerk for more than a year asking and receiving help on ancestors who lived in the town for a couple generations. I always sent a ‘Thank you’ card or note and when I was able to make the trip to do some on site research I planned on spending most of a day with her. It was a very fruitful experience. She took the extra time to find all the records I needed. She took me outside of town through pastures and over fences to show me the grave of a gggg grandfather and told me the story of how and why he was buried so far from the center of town. I took her to lunch and throughout the day I thanked her for all of her attention and assistance. She was happy to share the history and nuances of the area because she knew she mattered to me.

When someone helps you in your quest for information and understanding of your family history, do they know that their help is a gift you are grateful for and that as a person they matter to you? If not, you must change your ways. If you are going to play in the sandbox (of family history research) then you have to be kind, generous with praise, patient and just plain nice.

A thank you card will be savored by the recipient for weeks because they are a rare commodity. When the worker is a male, I sometimes send a candy bar with the thank you card if he has gone the extra mile for me. A medium stemmed rose bud can be sent priority mail to a female worker or a relative you have not yet met who has sent you family information. When they receive the ‘thank you’ rose…it will be just starting to open. Can you imagine what bridges are built with such simple tokens of gratitude.

When I traveled abroad, I crocheted dozens of dishcloths. They took up very little room and didn’t add much to the weight of my luggage. I gave one to every worker that assisted me in the libraries, archives and government offices I entered. I told them I had made it just for them because I wanted them to know how grateful I was for their help. I asked for their names and had them write them in my journal so I would remember them. It was a wonderful exchange and some of those amazing people have become dear friends.

Family history is not ‘one man show’. Show your gratitude to everyone you meet on this adventure. Both you and they will be blessed.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Nurturing your family

Defining family in today’s world is a ‘hot topic’ in some circles.

I’m defining the family as they have for centuries with a husband and a wife, their children and posterity, their ancestors and extended family. I know that there are many factors that may change the mix in the family - death, remarriage, never married, divorce, adoption, no children, etc. The fact remains, even after the mix, that everyone has family.

What a blessing families are when nurturing relationships are a priority. Developing good family relationships takes work, sacrifice, unselfishness, love and a great deal of time. I can’t tell you how many times my New Year’s resolution has been to remember every family member’s birthday (including extended family) for the year with a card or a call or a gift. I have failed every year. But I am determined before I die, that I will accomplish that resolution.

I love my family and with that love comes vulnerability. Is it worth it? Yes, a thousand times, yes. The nurturing that comes from some family members makes up for the lack from others. The ‘perfect’ family does not exist and yet that is not a reason to give up hope on making it just a little better. Dr. James D. MacArthur teaches the principle of the scale of ‘one to ten’. You can use this principle in every aspect of your life. I am using family relationships as the example for our purposes here.

If ‘one’ is the worst and ‘ten’ is the best, think about what ‘number’ your family relationships would be. Dr. MacArthur teaches that you can’t expect to move from a ‘two’ to a ‘ten’ overnight. You can, however, make choices that could make that ‘two’ turn into a ‘two and a half’ or a ‘three’ in a very short time. And then make choices to make it better than the ‘two and a half’ or ‘three’ and so forth.

We all have busy lives. Family members live near and far. We share a history and a bond….and our choices either strengthen or weaken the family. I have come up with some ideas that you might want to implement that will strengthen and nurture your family.

Create a calendar - Use PAF, Calendar Creator, or some other software. Add birthdays, anniversaries, pictures (you may want to even include ancestors).

Create a family newsletter - Publish monthly, bi-monthly, quarterly, semi-annually. Items to include: Upcoming events, birthdays, anniversaries, awards received by family members, pictures, recipes, family historical moments, words of wisdom from older family members, etc.

Create a Christmas letter - Annually. Update extended family on your doings for the year.
Create a family website – (do a google search “family web site”+free)

Write a “Round Robin Letter” - Email or Snail mail. One person begins the letter and sends it to another household of the family. That family reads and adds to the letter and sends it to the next household….this continues until it returns to original sender where only the part of the letter everyone has read is then deleted and then is continued to be added to and sent forth again.

Annual Gathering - A day or more than one day. Choose a location that will accommodate all who would attend. Potluck or have catered. Share genealogical research. Share stories. Catch up with each other’s lives. Take pictures…lots of them.

Annual Camping Trip - Music, Games, Campfires, Stories, Crafts, Food, Pictures, Family flag, Skits, Talent show, Fishing, Hiking, Swimming, Service project. This can be a time where the older members of the family can really shine. Make it wonderful for the kids.

Enjoy creating the ties in your family that will bless each one.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

All Records and All Sources are Clues

I was six years old when I first met my great uncle Simon. It was my first trip to Minnesota to meet some of my father’s relatives. I was somewhat shy around those ‘ancient’ Scandinavians, but I listened intently as they visited. Simon’s wife, Hanne, from that first meeting became one of my favorite people of all time. Her happy and positive nature was never diminished by the hardships she experienced.

Years later I gathered names, dates and places of events, and stories of the family. Then I started gathering documents to substantiate what I had been told. Every piece of evidence was confirming Simon’s birth date in Norway…death record, social security original application, marriage record, naturalization record…every record I could find here in the United States. When I began searching the parish church records of Norway on microfilm at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City (now you can search those records online at ), I was more than surprised when there was no entry for Simon in the baptism record for the ‘known’ date. So I began searching backwards in the records and found nothing. Then I searched forward in the records and there he was! Not born in June of 1882 but born in July of 1885. Simon had managed to keep this truth from the entire family here in America and from this truth came a very interesting story that his children and I are still learning about.

Having documents and records with incorrect information is quite common. The further the recording of information is done from the time of the event the better chance there is for error. Sometimes the error is intentional and sometimes it is accidental. An effective way to make your research findings as accurate as possible is to acquire documents and records that were created as close to the time of the event as possible.

I believe I have at least one record for almost every person in my database that has errors in it. I don’t discount them or throw them out. I weave them into the information about my ancestor for they hold clues to more information and stories that I can research and learn from.

Enjoy discovering where documents and records lead you as you search the clues within them. Discrepancies and inconsistencies will be found more often than you wish…but will make you more determined to uncover the truth.

Happy hunting!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

PAF 'Personal Ancestral File'

You have begun accumulating some great records on your family. Soon the dates and names and places in those records will begin looking like a ‘junk drawer’ in your mind. You need a tool that will keep you organized. A way to keep each member of your extended family and your ancestors in their rightful place.

You will be surprised to know the computer was invented just for this purpose. Yes, I know, there are many other applications for computers in business and personal life. I think it is very generous of us to allow others to use the computer for those other purposes, but genealogy is its primary purpose ( just ask anyone passionate about family history).

If you have a computer, acquire a family history program. There are many that you can purchase. You may also download free of charge the PAF program you will find at It is an incredible program and is easy to use.

On the main page of - down just a little and on the right side of the page you will find ‘Free PAF Family History Software’. Click on ‘Download PAF’ and a window will open for you to register. Once you fill in your name and email address click on ‘submit’. You then will follow the directions for downloading the PAF program. Once it is downloaded and you have gone through the ‘Getting Started’ short tutorial I would encourage you to go to the menu bar at the top of the on ‘Help’ and then click on ‘Lessons’. These are very helpful in learning how to use the PAF program fully.

Now you have a place for everyone in your family and you can start entering the information you have gathered. There are several benefits for having a family history computer program.

Once entered, the person is there forever unless you delete them. You never have to re-enter a person.

If a relative wants a copy of a particular family, you won’t have to copy it by hand, you’ll print the report from the program.

You are able to add newly acquired information without creating a whole new page.

If you don’t have a computer, there are several approaches you can take to still be able to use the PAF program or any other program you might purchase instead.

Work with a sibling, child, grandchild or friend on their computer.

Use the computers at the Family History Center near where you live.

Use a computer at your local county library.

Once you let your family know that you want to work on the family history, ask for a combined family gift for your birthday or other holiday.

Enjoy growing your family tree using a family history computer program.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Work from the "Known to the Unknown"

In life, most aspects of daily living have guidelines or guiding principles which help us sidestep choices that might undermine or distract us from things that matter most and are of the most value.

In family history research, there are guidelines that, when implemented, can be of great benefit to us. Working from the KNOWN to the UNKNOWN is probably considered to be the First Commandment of Genealogy.

Beginners and dabblers don’t always heed this directive and either become whiners, frustrated with their progress or lack thereof or they waste a lot of time, energy, and financial recourses or they give up because the ‘hit a brick wall’.

But what is meant by working from THE KNOWN TO THE UNKNOWN ? It is not a secret formula nor is it a difficult method to learn. It does take discipline and some reigning in. Like a top race horse, a trainer does not give free reign when top performance and a quality outcome is desired.

Family history success isn’t going back as far as you can with names and dates as quickly as possible. It is systematically researching and gathering documentation on family one ancestor at a time whereby we become acquainted with them from generation to generation. Creating a web of identifying factors helps pinpoint our ancestor. Knowing names of the people in their family of origin (the family they were born into), their family of choice (spouse and children), occupation, church affiliation, event dates and places and other factors is essential. We then can be assured we have the “right people” and will be ready and able to go another generation back….and the process repeats itself. Document everything. Don’t take ‘Aunt Harriet’s’ word for it.

Begin with you….then your siblings and their posterity

Next your parents…. and then their siblings and their posterity

Next your parent’s parents…. and their siblings and their posterity

And so on with each generation

Immerse yourself in the lives of your ancestors by gathering credible evidence of their lives and the times in which they lived. You will feel a richness and an affection for them while getting to know them for from them came you.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Family myth

Myths are rampant in every family history and it takes intentional sleuthing to determine what is truth and what is mostly fiction. I repeat ‘mostly fiction’ for you will find at least one thread of truth in the story that has been passed down to the present generation.

New and seasoned genealogists are easily captivated and then distracted into finding a factual link that connects a famous person with a more recent ancestor. Most often time and resources spent pursuing this elusive link are wasted.

Let me suggest a wiser use of your time. Always work from the ‘known to the unknown’. In the world of family history -‘known’ means documented data. It is not necessarily what ‘great aunt Harriet’ has told you.

We may think we know what the name of a parent or grandparent or other close relative is. Surprisingly, we sometimes find that the legal name given at birth or adoption will be similar but different. A birth date may have been celebrated someone’s entire life only to find out, when documentation is obtained, that the date is incorrect. Birth and marriage dates may have been changed on purpose for a variety of reasons.

Perpetuating some myths of the family may seem the kind thing to do, but truth can heal when combined with love, understanding and acceptance. Every family has information that has been locked away. Truth doesn’t have to be headline news in the next family gathering. It can be shared with gentle compassion. This will have multiple benefits in the family. How we speak of those not present teach our children and grandchildren they are safe as they make mistakes and are loved and lifted by family.

Be the one who generates truth as you record the story of your family with a kind and generous heart.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Fall in love with your ancestors

Through the years I have found that I am related to some really awesome people in history. Most of them have never been written about in history books. I have had to methodically search out records that gave me a glimpse into their lives. I have fallen in love with each one of my ancestral extended family members as I have learned about the struggles, joys, disappointments, successes, losses and blessings in their daily lives.

I read the records where a baby is born and dies the same day. I want to reach through time and hold and comfort this young distant grandmother of mine for I know she couldn’t take the time to grieve for her loss because others counted on her just to survive.

I want to sit with the distant aunt who lost two of her sisters by hanging in the Salem witchcraft frenzy and listen to how she survived the ordeal. I want to weep with her and then dry her tears.

I want to feel the marks indelibly sketched into the body of a distant grandfather who was captured by Indians and made to carry a heavy copper kettle around his neck and over his shoulders as he was led half way across North America before he finally was freed.

I want to bind the wounds of a distant uncle who was wounded in battle fighting for the birth of this great nation, the United States of America, where I have freedoms most of the world cannot even imagine.

I want to listen to and understand the magical Norwegian language as my distant grandfather tells me of the loss of his childhood sweetheart soon after they emigrated to ‘Amerika’ leaving him to care for two young boys…how he moved on and found a second sweetheart from the old country and added two more sons to the family. I want to embrace this great Viking of mine.

Family history is much more than gathering names, dates of events and places where those events occurred. It is becoming intimately acquainted with them, loving them and being grateful for who they were and how they lived. Getting to know your ancestors will transform you.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


Welcome to Mama Susan’s Tree House. My family, students (past and present) and associates have encouraged me to write from my decades of experience researching and teaching family history. My desire is to create a comfortable place to share with you the ideas, tools and information that will help you be successful in your own research. I wish I could spend time with each of you individually, but time and distance won’t allow it and so I am grateful that technology can bring us together.

We, as individuals, are unique. Our life, our family and our ancestry have helped mold each of us. Researching our family is a journey of discovery. The adventure begins with a stroll through your own life. Gather documents and memorabilia from your past and present. This will take some time and effort. You will have more than you realize and yet you won’t have some items you believed you possessed. In the gathering and obtaining, you will learn about records you may not have thought still existed.

The documents and items you will want, to name a few, are: birth records – hospital documents, government birth certificate, church birth record, newspaper birth announcement, birth announcement sent to relatives and friends of the family, journal entries of grandparents, aunts and friends of parents; baby book; baptism record; grade school records; records from organizations you belonged to such as Boy Scouts, Bluebirds, etc.; awards; high school transcripts; college or tech school records; military service records; accomplishments; residences; marriage certificate; newspaper articles; pictures (be sure to date the photo and name all who are in the photo as well as the place the picture was taken); employment records; volunteer work; resume; medical records; etc. up to the present time. Take these items and place them in top loading acid free protective sheets and put them in chronological order in a three-ring binder (you might actually fill more than one binder). If you are missing a document, get a copy of it from the appropriate source.

Choosing to do this assignment will be one of the most fun and rewarding activities you ever do. It will have a very healing affect on you as you gather and put your life together in a visual record. You will be looking at the whole of it with its difficult times and its good times. Your perspective will broaden and you will be able to see what an incredibly awesome person you are. You will be reminded of the people in your life that have affected you and the people you have affected. And in the end you will be grateful you are you.