Comparing AI Generated Narratives from,,, Legacy Family Tree, RootsMagic, and FamilyTreeMaker

AI Generated Table

NOTE: This blog was posted on 25 Nov 2023 on the Empowering Genealogists with Artificial Intelligence Facebook group. Since my blog two weeks ago on using AI to write a narrative, I’ve been getting a lot of questions and comments. I’ve been told that AI doesn’t work with some sites; I have found that to be not true. I have also found a temporary work around for footnote/endnote citations that look more like what genealogists use – simply provide this prompt: Please write all footnotes in Chicago format style. You will have to go back and fill in some info, like the enumeration district for censuses, but it will be closer to what we are used to seeing.

I was interested in seeing how a narrative summary with endnotes from various sources that had similar data would be written.

I used the same prompt:  You are a professional genealogist and expert writer. Please write a narrative summary with endnotes from the attached file. (AI seems to place all sources at the end, whether you make the request as a footnote or endnote. This could be due to my requested writings being short.) The endnotes for the example below are funky looking because they are sources from sources, meaning the information that was being compared was the main source, like, and not where the source cited in came from.

Each request was made using a new message on ChatGPT.

The files I uploaded individually were: from Life Story with and without AI. AI selected “What was (region) like when (individual) was (event).” Source/Detail and About

FamilyTreeMaker from Individual Report

LegacyFamilyTree from Other Reports>Individual Summary side view of Family Tree for named individual

Roots Magic from Reports> Individual Summary

The information for all but was generated by me over the years. The data was always entered into, then synched with RootsMagic and FamilyTreeMaker. A gedcom from Ancestry was uploaded to both LegacyFamilyTree and MyHeritage so no media is available on either of those sites. does include a minimal amount of information from me but most of the data was generated by family members.

I then gave ChatGPT the following prompt:

Today you are an expert data analysis and professional genealogist. Prioritize fidelity to the information below; dry recitation, avoid editorialization. Process the data sentence-by-sentence, from beginning to end. Extract this structured data: “Name”, “Relationship”, “Event Year and Location Baptism”, “Event Year and Location Marriage”, “Event Year and Location Children”, “Event Year and Location Death”. The response should have the header row in line 1: “Data From:”, “Name”, “Relationship”, “Baptism” “Marriage”, “Children Name & Birth Year”, “Death”. Column A should have the header row: “ With AI”, “ Without AI”, “FamilySearch About”, “FamilySearch Source & Detail”, “Family Tree Maker”, “Legacy Family Tree”, “”, “RootsMagic”. Enclose all cells or fields in quotation marks; omit, ignore, and avoid commas and other punctuation in the original data in your response in an attempt to keep the CSV error-free. Display dates in military format meaning day month spelled out and not by number and year. Display your response in a code window for easy copy-and-paste.

The results are attached above. I’ve color coded them to denote synch (pale green), gedcom (blue), not my own data (yellow).

Interesting how the diacritical marks are shown by Ancestry, Legacy, MyHeritage, and RootsMagic. FamilyTreeMaker omitted them. The apostrophe before and after August was originally quotation marks. Not sure if that is standardization issues or software/technical limitations.

I was surprised that Ancestry, which has the full location for events, simplifies to only provided county and state. The complete marriage location would be Baileytown, Westchester Township, Porter, Indiana. I wondered why Westchester Township was omitted and discovered I had never entered that in any of my generated trees. I had mis-entered death location as Chesterton Township instead of Chesterton, Westchester Township. This is a nice way to enhance and correct your data. (Chesterton is actually in three townships but the events occurred in Westchester).

All of the sites had the names of children. FamilySearch provided the most information (child’s name and dates). Legacy and FamilyTreeMaker both named all children. Not sure why RootsMagic didn’t specify. And now we know MyHeritage considers six children as “several.” Personally, I’d call that a handful plus!

I can see another use for this when trying to figure out where online public trees vary from yours and what source info (if any) they might have. It’s also a nice clean timeline that takes little effort to create.

Next I decided to take the Excel info, re-enter it into ChatGPT and give the original narrative prompt again. Since every narrative had been slightly different I wondered what the final product with the full information available would be. (I should mention I did the first narrative a few weeks ago in RootsMagic and there were three hallucinations but the rest I did on Wednesday and there were none.) Here is the compiled narrative:

Samuel ‘August’ Samuelson was a pivotal figure in his family lineage, with his life journey documented across multiple genealogical platforms. Born on January 3, 1839, in Stora Haddebo, Västra Harg, Östergötland, Sweden, Samuel was the son of Samuel Howard Erickson and Anna Elisabet ‘Lisa’ Torstensdotter. His baptism, a significant event in his early life, is consistently recorded in these sources, reaffirming the importance of his Swedish origins.

Samuel’s life took a significant turn when he married on February 17, 1871. While the exact location of his marriage varies slightly in records, ranging from Baileytown to Westchester Township in Porter, Indiana, it’s clear that this event marked his transition into family life in the United States.

The couple was blessed with several children, though the records differ in detailing their names and birth years. FamilySearch Source & Detail provides the most comprehensive list, including Johan Victor (1872-1921), John Louis (1873-1919), Alfrida (1874-1886), Ada Emilia (b. 1876), and two sons named Gustav Theodore (the first born in 1877 and died the same year, and the second born in 1879). This detail adds depth to our understanding of Samuel’s role as a father and the legacy he left behind.

Samuel’s life came to an end on January 14, 1908, in Chesterton, Porter, Indiana. The consistency of this date across multiple records emphasizes its accuracy and the end of an era in the Samuelson family history.


  1. Baptism and Birth: Samuel’s baptism and birth details are consistently recorded across Legacy Family Tree, Family Tree Maker, FamilySearch Source & Detail,, (with and without AI), and RootsMagic.
  2. Marriage: The date of marriage is consistently noted as February 17, 1871, but the location varies slightly, as recorded in different databases.
  3. Children: The most detailed account of his children is provided by FamilySearch Source & Detail, with other databases offering varying levels of detail.
  4. Death: Samuel’s death date is uniformly recorded as January 14, 1908, across all sources, with slight variations in the location’s specificity.

Can AI Solve Your Brick Walls?

AI Generated Picture

The answer is a definite maybe! Here’s what I did with one of my brick walls and Chat GPT. This story revolves around a stolen identity of John A. Long who served in the Union during the Civil War. After his death someone in Marion, Indiana assumed his identity and received a pension. The scammer resided in the Home for Disabled Veterans there and is buried in their cemetery. Interestingly, the man’s tombstone is for a John A. Long that served in New York. But no man by that name served in the regiment written on the tombstone. I asked ChatGPT for some help in solving this dilemma and here was the results:

  1. Cross-Reference Census Records: Look for any John A. Longs or John Longs in the state where the scammer lived, especially around the time the identity was assumed. See if any disappear from the records or have inconsistencies in their details.
  2. Local Newspapers: Scour local newspapers from that era for any mentions of John A. Long, especially in the context of veterans or obituaries. Sometimes these articles can provide clues not found elsewhere.
  3. Military Records: Since he was buried near a home for disabled vets, there might be admission records or logs that could contain discrepancies or additional information.
  4. Check Neighboring States: Given that he switched the infantry unit to New York, it might be worth checking records from neighboring states as well.
  5. Land and Property Records: If he lived in a home for disabled vets, there might be land or property records that could provide more information or even list next of kin.
  6. DNA Testing: This is a long shot, but if there are any living descendants who are curious enough, a DNA test could potentially link them to the scammer’s real family.
  7. Consult Other Experts: Sometimes two (or more) heads are better than one. Maybe consult with experts in Civil War history or forensic genealogy.
  8. Legal Documents: Wills, marriage licenses, or other legal documents might have been altered or faked. These could contain mistakes that reveal his true identity.
  9. Local Lore: Sometimes, stories get passed down that never make it into official records. Local historical societies or elderly residents might have stories or records that could provide clues.

All sound ideas but unfortunately, DNA wouldn’t be available as it looks like the man had no children. Supposedly had a wife in Michigan but no woman found with the name he provided on the intake form. Can’t find them in the 1880 US federal census either. I then mentioned there was a connection with the Odd Fellows and the Grand Army of the Republic in Michigan, California, and Indiana and asked AI for some out of the box ideas to find records. Here’s the response:


Wow, Lori, you’ve really dug deep into this mystery! 🕵️‍♀️ It’s like you’ve hit a genealogical brick wall made of steel. The Odd Fellows connection and the financial advisor being part of the Grand Army of the Republic are intriguing leads.

Given what you’ve already done, here are some more “out-of-the-box” ideas:

  1. Fraternal Organizations: Since you suspect he was an Odd Fellow, have you tried reaching out to the current Odd Fellows organization? They might have historical archives that aren’t publicly available.
  2. Medical Records: You mentioned he was admitted to a Disabled Vet Home and had dementia. While it’s a long shot, medical records might have additional information, like next of kin or previous addresses.
  3. Railroad Employment Records: Many Civil War vets worked on the railroads. These records sometimes contain personal details and could be another avenue to explore.
  4. Church Records: If he was religious, baptismal, marriage, or burial records from local churches might offer clues.
  5. Military Buddies: The scammer had to get the details of John A. Long’s service from somewhere. Could he have known someone who served with the real John A. Long? Maybe look into the men who served in the same unit.
  6. Pension Fraud Investigations: Given that he was scamming the pension system, were there any investigations into pension fraud at the time that might have records on him?
  7. Check for Alias: Since he was so good at assuming identities, it’s possible he used more than one alias. Look for inconsistencies in other records that might indicate another assumed identity.
  8. Foreign Records: It’s a stretch, but could he have immigrated from another country and assumed a new identity upon arrival? Immigration and naturalization records might be worth a look.
  9. Consult a Criminal Historian: Someone specialized in the history of crime might have some unique perspectives or resources to offer.
  10. Social Network Analysis: Map out the known associates like the financial advisor, and see if any patterns emerge that could lead to the scammer’s true identity.

All great ideas. If you’re stuck, try AI. Let me know if you solved your brick wall with their help.

Using AI to Write a Genealogical Narrative

Artificial Intelligence – AI – You either love it or fear it. I’ve just begun using it in my genealogy practice and I think you’ll find what I’ve discovered useful.

I just completed a 4-week class through the National Genealogical Society so I have many more tricks up my sleeve to save time and money. I’ll be sharing my personal discoveries over the next four weeks.

If you have RootsMagic, then you are aware that you can have the program write a narrative of your family members. Above is what it looks like for my husband’s second great-grandfather, Samuel Samuelson.

Short and not very sweet, right?! Lots of corrections are needed. Not a very entertaining story.

Instead of selecting narrative, I selected RootsMagic Reports>Individual Summary. It is a compilation of all the facts you’ve found about your ancestors.  I’ve highlighted it below to stand out from my blog content:

Individual Summary 24 October 2023 1 Name: Samuel “August” Samuelson1–3 Sex: Male Father: Samuel Howard Erickson (1810-1890) Mother: Anna Elisabet “Lisa” Torstensdotter (1797-1868) Individual Facts Residence 1700–1882 (age 0–about 43) Västra Harg, Östergötland, Sweden4–10 Residence 1700–1882 (age 0–about 43) Lake; Porter, Indiana, USA11–12 Birth 3 Jan 1839 Stora Haddebo, Västra Harg, Östergötland, Sweden13–57 Arrival 1851(about age 12) 37,51,58 Departure 10 May 1851(age 12) Östergötland23,35,49 Emigration 1852 (about age 13) Chicago, Cook, Illinois, USA59–61 Residence 1860 (about age 21) Residence Post Office: Coffee Creek; Westchester, Porter, Indiana, USA14,26,40,53,55,57 Residence 1862 (about age 23) Calumet, Lake, Indiana62–64 MilSvc 16 Aug 1862 (age 23) Civil War 73rd Indiana Infantry Regiment19,31,45,65–67 Residence 28 May 1863 (age 24) Calumet, Lake, Indiana, USA68–70 Residence 1870 (about age 31) Westchester, Porter, Indiana, United States17,29,43 Arrival 1874 (about age 35) 24,36,50 Residence 1880 (about age 41) Westchester, Porter, Indiana, United States15,27,41 Residence 1900 (about age 61) Westchester Township (North Half), Porter, Indiana16,28,42 Occupation 13 Jan 1908 (age 69) Farmer; Chesterton, Porter, Indiana18–19,30–31,44–45 Death 14 Jan 1908 (age 69) Chesterton Township, Porter, Indiana18,20–22,30,32–34,44,46–48,71–76 Medical 14 Jan 1908 (age 69) Skull; Chesterton, Porter, Indiana18,30,44 Accident 15 Jan 1908 (age 69) Tribune, col. 3, p. 5.; South Bend, Indiana77–79 Accident 15 Jan 1908 (age 69) Tribune, col. 2-3, p. 10.; South Bend, Indiana80–82 Burial 16 Jan 1908 (age 69) Augsburg Lutheran Cemetery, Porter, Indiana18–19,21,30–31,33,44–45,47,83–88 Accident 16 Jan 1908 (age 69) Breeze, col. 1, p. 2.; Monroeville,Indiana89–91 Accident 24 Jan 1908 (age 69) Banner, col. 3, p. 2.; Bristol, Indiana92–94 Lawsuit 5 Mar 1908 (age 69) Argos Reflector, col. 6, p. 6.; Argos, Indiana95–97 Alt. Name A. Lifelong Republican19 Arrival Nordamerika23,35,49 Residence Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa36,50 Probate Porter, Indiana, USA73,76,98 Individual Summary 24 October 2023 2 Departure W. Harg37,51,58 Marriages/Children 1. Maria Svensdotter – Swanson (1849-1880) Marriage 10 Jan 1871(age 32) Her parent’s home, Baileytown, Porter, Indiana19,99–104 Marriage 17 Feb 1871(age 32) Her parent’s home, Baileytown, Porter, Indiana105–107 Children Johan Viktor “John Victor” Samuelson (1872-1921) John Louis “Louie” Samuelson (1873-1919) Alfrieda Frederika Samuelson (1874-1881) August Theodore “Gust” Samuelson (1877-1879) Gustaf Teodor “Gust” Samuelson (1879-1947) John Louis “Louie” Samuelson (1848-1919) Ada Emilia Samuelson (1876-1955) 2. Unknown spouse Children Ada Emilia Samuelson (1876-1955) Notes Notes: Samuel “August” Samuelson General: In the 1970’s,family members stated wife’s name was “Mary Swanson” . Samuel was a lifelong Republican.

The summary isn’t very easy to read, either. If you want to engage your family this certainly wouldn’t be the way to do it. Enter ChatGPT.

I did pay the $20.00/month with cancellation at any time for the 4.0 version to try out its capabilities. I understand that temporarily, the paid subscription isn’t available so keep checking back or use other AI (Claude or Bard).

All I did after opening the ChatGPT account (provide name, email, date of birth, cell number, sign on, and password) was to click on 4.0, use a credit card to pay for the month, and then copy the above Individual Summary and paste it in the chat box with the directions, “You are a professional genealogist and expert writer. Please write a narrative for the following:” In seconds, it was complete. But it was missing the sources so I replied, “Wonderful job! Please include source citations.” Seconds later, the finished product.

There were some errors, but they were easily corrected. I did control + c to copy it and placed it on Word by clicking control + v (paste). It was in a box so I right-clicked one of the box lines, went to home>borders, and removed it.

There were three errors. The first was the computer misreading from an authored work. It wrote that Samuel had emigrated at the age of 42 instead of 12. The article had mentioned he had spent 42 years in Indiana, not Sweden, explaining where the age came from. AI is not very good at math! The next error claimed that Samuel had once lived in Lake County, Indiana. He hadn’t but he did go there to enlist in the Civil War. Deleting Lake County was a quick fix. So the computer did what genealogists shouldn’t do – it assumes. Lastly, the article claimed Samuel had been involved in a lawsuit in Bristol, Indiana after his death. Nope, his children testified in a lawsuit that was brought by the family of a man who was killed in the train accident in which Samuel also died. The Bristol, Indiana newspaper reported it. This took a minute longer to correct.

I also wish it had elaborated more on Samuel’s Civil War experience as he was severely injured and then captured as a POW. I would have also liked more about the awful way he died and that his children were named. All items I can easily add. I understand why it didn’t add the war information as I have scanned in the NARA file to RootsMagic but that program can’t yet read handwriting or .jpg yet.

AI also does not put dates in the British military format that we typically use in genealogy so that was another update to make.

My biggest wish was for the source citations to be entered correctly. I gave ChapGPT that request. I plan to develop a template that I can easily fill in info going forward.

What was nice about this experience is not just that you have a quick biography of your ancestor but it will also help you clean up your saved facts. I had saved a naturalization record but it wasn’t for my Samuel. When I was fixing the sources I caught it and easily deleted it from both RootsMagic and where RootsMagic had gotten it from. Hadn’t thought of using AI to clean my tree but it did accomplish that.

I’m not done with the bio but here’s what ChatGPT came up with. Let me know what you think – I appreciate your thoughts on this interesting new tool for genealogy:

Samuel “August” Samuelson’s life story is a testament to the enduring spirit of an immigrant who crossed continents and oceans to find a new home and build a future in the United States.

Born on 3 January 1839, in the picturesque village of Stora Haddebo, Västra Harg, Östergötland, Sweden.[i] Samuelson was the son of Samuel Howard Erickson and Anna Elisabet “Lisa” Torstensdotter. His early years were shaped by the serene landscapes of rural Sweden, where he spent the first decade of his life.[ii]

On 10 May 1851, at the tender age of 12, Samuelson’s life took a remarkable turn when he embarked on a journey to America. Leaving behind his familiar homeland, he sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and arrived in Chicago, Cook, Illinois, in 1852.[iii] It was a courageous step for a young boy, but it marked the beginning of a new chapter in his life.

Over the years, Samuelson’s path took him to various places in the United States, however, he made his home in Westchester, Porter, Indiana,[iv] His journey was not just one of geography but also one through time, as he lived through the tumultuous years of the American Civil War.

In August 1862, at the age of 23, Samuelson’s dedication to his adopted country led him to enlist in the 73rd Indiana Infantry Regiment, where he served bravely during the Civil War.[v] This commitment reflected his deep sense of loyalty to the land he had chosen as his own. ELABORATE

On 10 January 1871, at the age of 32, Samuelson took a significant step in his American journey by marrying Maria Svensdotter Swanson at her parent’s home in Baileytown, Porter, Indiana[vi] Together, they began building a family and welcomed several children into their lives. NAME CHILDREN

Samuelson served his community as a farmer and his political beliefs are reflected in his lifelong affiliation with the Republican Party.[vii]

Tragically, Samuelson’s life took a devastating turn on 14 January 1908, when he suffered a severe skull injury as his horse-drawn sleigh was hit by an incoming Pere Marquette Railway train.[viii] He passed away at the age of 69 in Chesterton Township, Porter, Indiana, leaving behind a grieving family and community. His final resting place is Augsburg Lutheran Cemetery in Porter, Indiana.[ix]

Throughout his life, Samuel “August” Samuelson encountered various challenges, including an accident that made headlines in newspapers like the South Bend Tribune, Chesterton Times, Monroeville Breeze,  and the Bristol Banner. His descendants found themselves involved in a legal dispute in Argos, Indiana, in 1908, as documented in the Argos Reflector due to the railroad employee’s negligence. ELABORATE.

Despite these trials and tribulations, Samuelson’s legacy endures through historical records and documents, which provide a glimpse into his remarkable journey from Sweden to the United States, his service in the Civil War, and his life in Indiana. His story serves as a testament to the resilience and determination of immigrants who sought a better life in a new land, leaving an indelible mark on the history of their adopted country.

What do you think? Are you ready to give AI a try?

[i] “Sweden, Church Records, 1451-1943,” Västra Harg, Östergötland, Sweden, Samuel Samuelson, digital database;  accessed 24 October 2023, citing C:1, Fodde, 1797-1840, Roll IJ-532, p. 503.

[ii] Weston A. Goodspeed & Charles Blanchard, Editors. Counties of Porter and Lake, Indiana: Historical and Biographical: Historical and Biographical Illustrated. Chicago:  F. A. Battey & Co, 1882 p. 310, digital image;  accessed 24 October 2023, image 306 of 770.

[iii] “Sweden, Emigrants Registered in Church Books, 1783-1991,” Samuel August Samuelsson Eriksson, 10 May 1851, digital database;  accessed 24 October 2023 citing p. 202.

Ibid. Goodspeed & Blanchard.

[iv] 1860 United States Federal Census, Westchester Township, Porter, Indiana, population schedule, John Johnson (sic), Dwelling 277, Family 211, page 34 (handwritten), digital image;  accessed 24 October 2023, image 10 of 23, citing NARA Roll M653_289.   

1870 United States Federal Census, Westchester Township, Porter, Indiana, population schedule, Augt Samuelson (sic), dwelling/family 185, page 23 (handwritten), digital image;  accessed 24 October 2023, image 23 of 35, citing NARA Roll M593, RG29.

1880 United States Federal Census, Westchester Township, Porter, Indiana, population schedule,

Samuel Samuelson, Dwelling 253, Family 265, page 27 (handwritten), digital image;  accessed 24 October 2023, image 27 of 38, citing FHL microfilm 1254304.

1900 United States Federal Census, Westchester Township, Porter, Indiana, population schedule, Samuel Samuelson, Line 13, sheet 8 (handwritten), digital image;  accessed 24 October 2023, image 15 of 26, citing NARA  Roll T623.

Indiana State Board of Health, Death Certificate, Samuel August Samuelson, 14 January 1908, Record 193, digital image;  accessed 24 October 2023, image 996 of 2808, citing Indiana Archives and Records Administration, Indianapolis, Roll 9., Samuel August Samuelson, (1839-1908), Memorial No. 2569980, citing Augsburg Lutheran Church Cemetery, Porter, Porter, Indiana, created by Laura Heckman. Photo by Angelo D. Angeles and Laura Heckman. Obituary and news article of accidental death by Steve Shook.

[v] Ibid. Goodspeed & Blanchard.

“American Civil War Soldiers,” Samuel Samuelson, 16 August 1862, digital database;  accessed 24 October 2023.

“Civil War and Later Veterans Pension Index,” Samuel A. Samuelson, digital database;  accessed 24 October 2023.

“Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Indiana,” Samuel A. Samuelson, digital image;  accessed 24 October 2023.

The Indianapolis [Indiana] News, A Large Number of Cases Finally Disposed of, 29 May 1895, p. 6, c. 5, digital image;  accessed 1 November 2022.

The Indianapolis [Indiana] Journal, Pensions for Veterans, 31 May 1895, p. 7, c. 3, digital image;  accessed 1 November 2022.

The Indianapolis [Indiana] News, Pensions for Indianians, 13 June 1900, p. 2, c. 5, digital image;  accessed 1 November 2022.

The Indianapolis [Indiana] Journal, Pensions for Veterans, 23 July 1901, p. 7, c. 3, digital image; GenealogyBank:  accessed 1 November 2022.

[vi] “Indiana Marriage Collection, 1800-1941,” S. A. Samuelson, 11 February 1871, digital database;  accessed 24 October 2023 citing Porter County, Indiana, Marriage Record Volume 3, p. 572.

“Indiana, Marriages, 1810-2001,” S. A. Samuelson, 10 January 1871 Marriage Registration, digital database;  accessed 24 October 2023 citing FHL microfilm 001686156.

Parent’s home?

[vii] Ibid. Goodspeed & Blanchard.

[viii] The Argos [Indiana] Reflector, No Title – “Samuel Samuelson,” 5 March 1908, digital image;  accessed 13 February 2021, p. 6, c. 6.

The South Bend [Indiana] Tribune, Two Killed at Crossing, 15 Jan 1908, digital image;  accessed 13 February 2021, p. 10, c. 2-3.

The [Monroeville, Indiana] Breeze, Two Pioneers Killed by Train, 16 January 1908, p. 2, c. 1, digital image;  accessed 13 February 202.

The Chesterton [Indiana] Tribune, Two Lives Sacrificed on a Grave Crossing, 16 January 1908, Vol. 24, N. 42, p. 1, c. 3-4, digital image;  accessed 24 October 2023 posted by Steve Shook.

The Chesterton [Indiana] Tribune, Had a Premonition, 23 January 1908, Vol. 24, N. 43, p. 1, c. 1, digital image;  accessed 24 October 2023 posted by Steve Shook.

The Chesterton [Indiana] Tribune, Funerals, 23 January 1908, Vol. 24, N. 43, p. 4, c. 1, digital image;  accessed 24 October 2023 posted by Steve Shook.

The Bristol [Indiana] Banner, Two Killed at Crossing, 24 January 1908, p. 2, c. 3, digital image;  accessed 13 February 2021.

“Indiana, Wills and Probate Records, 1798-1999,” Samuel A. Samuelson, digital image;  accessed 24 October 2023 citing Porter, Indiana Will Record Vol. C-E, 1891-1914.

[ix] Ibid,

Family Tree Myths That Aren’t

Courtesy of Britannica

I recently read an article in Family Tree Magazine about 13 purported genealogical myths. I’ll be the first to agree that family stories are not 100% accurate. That doesn’t mean there isn’t useful information in them that provides us with hints for further research. I don’t agree with labeling a family story as a myth. Here are the purported myths mentioned that I disagree with:

  1. Surnames were NOT changed at Ellis Island. Umm, perhaps not surnames but first names and gender was. Here’s a little-known story about an individual who arrived from Great Britain to Ellis Island in October 1908 as Frank Woodruff. During the physical, it was discovered Frank was a female. When asked why she was dressed as a he, Frank informed Ellis Island personnel that life was easier as a man and they decided to become one 15 years earlier. Hard to argue with that as during this period in time women couldn’t vote, had few legal recourse when their husbands beat them, and society wasn’t welcoming them to have a career other than a wife, or teacher until they married, nurse, or nun. Ellis Island wasn’t having Frank’s argument so they changed the manifest making him a her and the name from Frank to Frances. In my own family tale, at Ellis Island, a helpful clerk asked my grandparents separately, as they did not emigrate together, for the “rest of your name.” They had given the name Kos. My grandmother, who was literate, said that was it. The clerk mentioned he thought there were more letters as most American names are longer than three letters. Ellis Island claims they had many clerks of various origins that spoke in the native tongue of the immigrants. If that were true, you would think these clerks also understood culture and customs. Kos is a very common Croatian name meaning crow or blackbird. You would think the clerk would be aware of how it was spelled. No, the clerk didn’t change the name but they gave their opinion and as a new immigrant who wanted to fit in, that was enough for the family to add a second “s.” Obviously, the family felt pressured to change the name. They legally changed it to Koss in the early 1940s, 35 years after they immigrated. Interestingly, their tombstones is engraved with the origin name.
  2. Myth 9 in the article was about three brothers who came to America. The myth here is that there are always three brothers in every story and that’s not likely to occur. Well, in my family it is. My story was once even pooh-poohed by a very well-known professional genealogist who got quiet when I provided the facts. My three brothers were the Hollingshead boys who purportedly served together in the Battle of Blenheim. No records in Great Britain remain of the soldiers but using church records in Cheshire it is apparent that only two of the three brothers returned home. One of those brothers, Daniel, of whom I am a descendant, continued to serve in the military and was transferred to Barbados. He eventually made his way to the New Jersey Colony where he served as a ranger. Inheriting vast amounts of land through his second wife, Thomasin Hassell, he was on his way to a Council of Proprietors’s meeting in New York when he met a man on the road who was his brother who had just emigrated to New England. No, the two brothers did not emigrate together but there were three brothers originally who went off to war together. I don’t understand why this is always mentioned as a myth as there were often large families back in the day and they stuck together wherever they roamed. Safety in numbers is not a new concept.
  3. Myth 11 was that our ancestors were shorter than us. That would be true in my family. I personally knew my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Every generation we grew 2 inches. You can see this in photos when we stand by each other and I have medical records to prove it. I can also prove this with the men. Military records from the Civil War remain and it’s not too difficult to find them today with their height and weight listed. I believe the truth is that we are heavier today, however, that might not apply to all families. Genetics in some families probably plays a part. Both my grandmothers were known as big-boned ladies. I have no idea how much either weighed as it wasn’t polite to ask. Suffice it to say, my body build is similar to theirs. I can even go back several generations before my paternal grandmother and we all have the same body type by just looking at photos to make a comparison.
  4. Myth 12 was that our ancestors died young. Most died younger in my family than they do today; same with my husband’s lines. He is older than his mother was when she died. Same with both his grandfathers. Additionally, statistics play a role here. People once had many more children than they do today. Due to a lack of medical care, availability of antibiotics, sanitation systems, etc., back in the day will skew results. The pandemic altered our outcomes so it looks like our life expectancy isn’t what it was a few years ago. Statistics doesn’t always take this into account.
  5. Myth 13 was that our ancestors were mostly illiterate. Again, that would depend upon the family’s economic status, availability of local schools, and gender. Many of my female ancestors were deprived of educational opportunities. Many of my male ancestors had to help work in the fields and had their education cut short. I like to think of Maslow’s Hierarchy – you got to eat before you can become self-actualized!

If you’d like to read the entire article you can find it here.

My point is that I’d like genealogists to be more accepting of information that is shared with them and not quickly assume it’s a myth because they’ve heard it before. Only through research can the answer be determined for a particular family.

Going in Circles for European Military Records

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Earlier this year I wrote about my visit to Croatia and my experience with researching at the Croatia State Archives. I had hoped to locate my maternal great grandfather, Josip Kos’s military records to discover if they contained any medical information.

The family story recalls that Josip was an officer in the Austrian cavalry and while his horse was being re-shoed, he was kicked in the chest or the head which resulted in him getting asthma or epilepsy. His poor health made him leave the service and subsequently, he emigrated to the U.S.

Josip became Joseph Koss in the U.S. and died in 1919 after the flu he contracted during that epidemic became pneumonia. He was only 42 when he passed away.

While at the archives I was told to contact the Austrian archives as they supposedly had the military records. As soon as I got home I sent off an email to Austria but received a response that all of their records were available on I was unable to find the ones I needed there. I had asked in person in March when I was at the Family Search Library about the records and was told that they had no schedule of when new records would be placed online so if they had them and they weren’t showing in their card catalog, they couldn’t give me a time frame. Sigh.

The email from the Austrian archives stated that all records for areas that aren’t now in Austria were returned to the original location. So, I was going in circles!

This gave me two options – wait indefinitely or try something new. I know that genealogy is a study of patience but I am not a patient person so I went with the latter option.

In June, I attended the International German Genealogy Program that was held in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. The conference used Whova, a type of social media App. I began to post everywhere on that site a request for help in finding these military records. I also attended every lecture that revolved around military records.

Fortunately, a wonderful genealogist, Christina Kaul, responded to my queries. She provided me a personal example of her great grandfather who had been killed in WW1; he had records in two locations. Since my great-grandfather left the service before WW1, Austria would not have any of his records as they only maintained a record for those who were wounded, killed, missing in action, or decorated during WW1.

Christina further explained that military records were kept by the regiment and not location so identifying where and when recruitment occurred was important. I believed that the regiment was a local one as old family stories told of every male serving locally for generations. I was even able to see the castle where they supposedly trained.

Although I could not find Josip and his wife, Jana’s marriage certificate, I did find the names in the baptismal records of several of their children who had died between 1895-1900. I was certain Josip was in the military at the time my grandmother was born in 1900 and served for most of her childhood. Since I knew the location of their home, I knew the village was Dubranec.

Christina verified what I thought by reviewing the church books. It was there, though, that she noticed something interesting; 50% of the men in the Dubranec book were noted to be a pl – plemeniti ljudi (people of valuable origin).

My grandmother was always proud of that pl status and had said it was a title given by nobility long ago for service fighting against the Turks. The family was permitted to hunt in the King’s forest and were the leaders of the small community.

Christina, though, was able to provide me with more information about pl’s. That title was never awarded by the Austrians but was used instead by ethnic Hungarians and the reference to “valuable origin” meant they were old members of the Magyar tribe.

I had to laugh at what Christina wrote, “For the Austrian empire these were difficult guys and potential trouble-makers as they were fiercely independent and not easy to assimilate into existing social structures.” Yes, that sums up my mother’s side exactly!

Interestingly, she guessed that the village could go back as far as the 12th century and she would be correct as I did find land records from that time period.

This also sheds light on something I never really thought about – both my great aunt and great uncle and one of my aunts married Hungarians. No one married an Austrian. Sometimes clues are right in front of us but we miss them!

Thanks to Christina, I followed her suggestion to write to the Croatian State Archives again and add an email to the Hungarian National Archives to see if they have the military files I seek. Again, the Croatian State Archives did not and directed me to Hungary. I haven’t received a response from Hungary.

I would also like to highly recommend connecting with Familia-Austria, an Austrian Genealogical Society where Christina volunteers. If you are interested in researching that area, they are a wonderful group to contact. Their website, found here, is in English or can be translated into 14 other languages. Christina can be emailed at

Happy Hunting!