Tips for Attending a Family History Day and What I Learned from Attendees

Originally published on on 9 Oct 2016.

October is Family History Month and if you’re a newbie planning on attending a local event to get some genealogical assistance, I’ve got some recommendations to make your experience a happy one:

  1. Bring what you know written down.  Even better – bring how you know what you know!  (Was it your parents who told you or did you find a record?  It’s important to record where you got the information as you build your tree because trust me, before you know it you’ll have a lot of info and won’t remember where you got most of it!)
  2. Have a specific question you’d like answered in mind.  Specific is not, “I want to know everything about my mom’s family.”  Specific is, “I’d like to find out when my great grandmother Elizabeth Smithson died.”
  3. You probably have a lot of questions but rank them in order of your interest; it’s only fair as other people have questions, too, and are patiently waiting!
  4. Prepare yourself for not immediately finding an answer – very little is online so it might take a phone call, email, letter or a visit to discover the answer you seek.  You might not ever find what your looking for, either.  Today an attendee demanded of one of my colleagues that he find an obituary from 1877 in a rural area of Pennsylvania.  Checked the largest town newspapers online but couldn’t find one.  He had checked several databases (Chronicling America,, GenealogyBank, Ancestry) so I recommended calling the local history center and asking what papers were in existence then.  The woman was not happy and demanded that someone find the obituary immediately.  We couldn’t give her what she wanted so she left in a huff.
  5. Remember to thank the researcher – they are volunteering their time and could be doing their own research instead of helping you with yours.

We had a nice turn out today at our county day and I met some incredibly wonderful folks with some very good questions and a few brick walls we were able to start tearing down.  My three most memorable of the day involved:

  1. A woman in her 70’s who’s parents in their 90’s were still alive and all of them decided it was time to write the family history.  They were having trouble starting because they wanted “to do it right.”  HINT:  There is no one way to do genealogy and that’s one of the major pluses for me!  I showed several formats – Case Studies, Proof Arguments, Kinship Determinations, and several lineage forms.  If you’re putting off writing because you don’t know where to begin just begin with whoever your favorite individual is.  You can ascend or descend from there.  I understand that footnotes/endnotes are a pain but citations are critical.  How is anyone going to know where you found that document unless you write it down?!  The lady today didn’t like the look of footnotes; I explained why they are often used over endnotes – people tend to not think the citation is important so they save paper by not copying them.  I recommended that she use page numbers that say 1 of X so if someone does make a copy in the future they’d know they might be missing the endnotes. I think the family just needed reassurance that their work was not going to be up for a Pulitzer Prize.  It’s okay if you aren’t an author; it’s not ok to let all that research go to waste by not communicating in the best way you are able to for the next generation.
  2. A lovely lady who wanted to know why her step-grandmother who she had never met was mean.  What I loved about this woman was her matter of factness; she wasn’t emotional about the situation.  Instead, she just wanted an explanation for why the older lady had been reportedly so miserable.  I thought this was extremely interesting as most people don’t even fully research their blood relatives and here was someone who wanted to know about a step relative.  I was able to find the woman’s death date in California and showed her the wiki so she can get further information about the many places out west the woman had lived.  I also recommended she check out GoogleBooks and Hathi Trust for more information about events that were occurring at the time the grandma was residing in an area – like the dust bowl, for instance. I think that would have made me miserable!  We were unable to find a marriage record or a death date for her grandfather but we did narrow down some cemeteries that she can contact to see if he is buried there. (Not on Find-a-grave, Billion Graves, etc.)
  3. A woman who brought in the earliest photoshopped photo I’ve ever seen!  Seriously, don’t know who or when it was done but some family member took a photo taken circa 1872 of a couple seated holding a baby and cut a photo of another baby out and pasted it over the woman’s lap.  It was done fairly well, too.  Weirdest thing I’ve ever seen!  The family was afraid to remove the glued on kid, understandably, so I recommended taking it to a professional photographic restorer.  For someone who just deleted all of her photos from her phone in error, I’m clearly the wrong person for the job!  But the photoshopping brings up lots of interesting questions – why did someone do this?  What’s underneath?  Who did that?  Who’s the baby?  I have a tentative hypothesis that the family will have to pursue but my theory is this:  Eleven months after the immigrant couple wed in Newark, New Jersey a male unnamed baby was born.  The baby died 2 weeks later; he had been named Henry in the death records.  The couple had another baby the following year.  I suspect they had the first picture taken holding the dead baby as they looked miserable.  Not having the money to sit for another photograph they had a picture of their second child taken and then wishing they had taken a photo when she was younger, cut it out and placed it over the original photo.  The couple had 5 children, one every year, and then the father died.  The mother died 2 years after him.  The youngest two children were raised in an orphanage.  Using GenWeb I was able to find where the orphanage records are housed.  There was a memorial on find-a-grave for the couple but not for the baby.  I recommended calling the cemetery to see if he was buried in plot 1 as the father was buried in plot 2 and the mom in plot 3.  Hmm…who else could have been in plot 1 but the baby with no stone because they couldn’t afford one?  Only way to find the answer is to make a call!

Happy Hunting!


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