Twice a year, my local genealogy society holds a free Meet a Genealogist Day at a regional library. The well attended event allows the general public with little knowledge of genealogy to meet with a professional to kick start their research. Over the years that I’ve participated, the trend has been more and more questions about DNA.
The genealogy society does provide free classes on a variety of topics during the year but unfortunately, most are held during the day which working people can’t attend. I think that’s one of the reasons the Meet a Genealogist Day is so widely attended as it’s held on a Saturday.
I just received an email with the new date and a new format. The event will be held in two rooms – one for general research (which I call old school methods) and the other for those interested only in DNA research.
I’m not sure where I’ll be placed as I’m fine with either group but I am looking forward to the “data” that shows the interest level of the two groups. One part of me says that it’s all the same – that you need to use both historical record research and DNA results. The other part of me, from my participating in past events, understands why there is a new division. People are getting DNA results and not understanding what they mean or how to move forward with their findings.
I’m not criticizing the companies who are providing the results. Most have done an amazing job with giving lots of helpful information on their sites. Even so, it is overwhelming to many and unfortunately, sometimes the results are disappointing.
We all know real life is not T.V., however, I wish I had a dollar for every time someone came to me saying they thought they’d find a family connection with an entire tree done once they had their DNA results back. Then there’s the smaller number of people who insist that the DNA lab messed up their results and that they aren’t the ethnicity that was stated. A few have insisted that the results were just plain wrong when the results show they aren’t related to a known relative. I know of one local genealogist who insists that happened. Interestingly, the individual did not get retested. Personally, if this happened to me I would contact the company AND I would test with another company to compare results. Mistakes happen but I’ve never ever heard that the mistake was made by the lab.
So, the underlying issue is having difficulty accepting the DNA results. Like with all of life’s disappointments, that healing takes time.
A few weeks ago I blogged about the very worthy Field of Honor database project in the Netherlands that memorializes fallen World War 2 soldiers. Strangely, as I was writing that article, I was contacted by an Ancestry.com member who I first connected with last spring about her DNA.
One of her parents was adopted and she was trying to see if we were related as I had placed information from the same geographical area she was researching on my Ancestry.com tree for the same surnamed individual. There were other coincidences – they had the same occupation, religion, place where they immigrated from and where they immigrated to about the same time (early 1900’s). We were thinking they were related but after comparing our DNA results, they weren’t blood relations.
The Ancestry member had received an email from another member who was contacted by someone in the Netherlands who found World War 2 dog tags using a metal detector and wanted to send them to family. I was contacted since we had the same surname – Koss – as the found tags who once belonged to Joseph E. Koss who died in 1944 in Holland.
I reached out to the memorial owner at Findagrave.com but he was not a relative. If you are a family member of a Joseph Koss please email me (see contact me page) and I will happily connect you so you can get the tags.
I’ve blogged in the past about scammers and I’ve read about fake dog tags being sold in Viet Nam but this does not smell like a scam to me but to keep my readers safe – I’ll play middleman for you. Using a metal detector and finding a lost object is typical in my world as that’s one of my husband’s hobbies and he has found and returned lost articles for people for years.
Funny how I’ve been contacted by folks living in the Netherlands twice in the past few weeks – maybe that’s where I should go visit next!
A few weeks ago I received an email from a “well meaning” individual I did not know. He was writing to inform me that based on my DNA results, I am in the “same tribe” as a wealthy man who went missing in Saudia Arabia about 10 years ago and the bank is ready to close his accounts and disburse the vast amounts of stock he earned from oil revenue.
Wow, I’m so lucky that this person found my DNA and linked me to a wealthy relative I didn’t know existed, NOT! This letter was clearly a take on the old Nigerian banking scam that still circulates today.
Another genealogy scam making the rounds that I never receive is one I found on Wikipedia. The “Death Certificate Scam: Person will get an obituary off Internet. Find out relatives related. Get their emails. Contact them with fake story of another family member near death, which of course, is only told in ambiguous language. It originates out of Ethiopia with the “makelawi” tag in the email, but it can have de (German free email tag) along with it.”
I’m not sure how many people fall for these poorly worded (in English) emails. I know several of my colleagues weren’t happy to get the DNA scam as they felt that it will make more people hesitant to have their DNA tested. Although that may make someone pause before spitting, being able to make your results private would lessen the likelihood of fraudulent people contacting you because of your test results, if that is your concern. (I’ve had people tell me they were hesitant to take a DNA test because they didn’t want the insurance company to get the results and deny them coverage which would be illegal but we all know how that goes.)
My concern is different then my colleagues; as I blogged a few weeks ago, I have been volunteering with an organization trying to obtain photos of American service people who were killed in Europe during World War II. In contacting a small public library in rural Indiana for assistance, I was surprised to hear back that the family of the killed in action serviceman was found but they were hesitant to provide a photo because they had several questions about the reasons the photo was needed.
I, too, check out organizations before I affiliate with them so the inquiry was probably a wise course of action. I forwarded the email to the person I had been working with and the library staff received a detailed explanation, an offer to provide the name and contact information of the local individual who had been maintaining the grave for the past several years, an invitation to attend the upcoming memorial service and the organization’s goal as the 75th anniversary of the deaths approaches.
I was impressed with the response less than 24 hours after the questions were received but disappointed that the family decided to ignore the information. This reminds me of a distant cousin I have who absolutely refuses to share photos of our shared ancestor because, well, there is no reason.
Not every query is a scam. If you are concerned that you received a possible nefarious email, check out the FTC’s recommended ways to recognize and avoid scams. If you are contacted for a picture of your great great grandma by someone who writing a history of the town she lived in, most likely it’s a legitimate request. Check it out and after making a decision, respond to the inquirer with your answer. It’s the right thing to do.
You may be contemplating taking advantage of the DNA specials that are currently offered – Ancestry.com and MyHeritageDNA.com are both being sold for $59.00 plus shipping. Maybe you’re like me and have tested with a number of different companies over the past several years and believe you know the directions well enough to not read them. I am going to share an embarrasingly dumb mistake I made last month when taking a DNA test to spare you having to learn this lesson on your own.
At my annual wellness physical my physician and I discussed genealogy. Side note: Physicians and genealogists share a lot in common, especially at parties where acquaintances want to poke your brain and get free advice on their chronic complaint – a health issue for the docs and a brick wall for the genealogist.
My medical provider was sharing the results of her recent DNA test and I told her how I had compiled an ancestor health history going back several generations as I believe that some genetic conditions reoccur farther than the two generations back that typically the medical community zeroes in on when you complete the initial paperwork of who had what conditions.
Granted, I have no proof of my theory other than what I’ve discovered in my own family tree and usually, when I mention this to a doctor, I get the same look that is given when you tell them you tried to self diagnose using WebMD. I understand I’m enchroaching on their professional judgement but I mean no disrespect. My current physician is very understanding of this tendency I have and although neither my parents or grandparents had medical concerns that DNA testing could show might affect me, I had two aunts that clearly carried a trait. We both agreed it would be beneficial for me to be tested for medical information.
Deciding I could handle the test’s results, I made a followup appointment to spit into the test tube the next week. The receptionist reiterated what the doctor said, don’t eat or drink anything within an hour of the test. Yeah, yeah, I know already, I’m an expert DNA test taker!
Since my appointment was scheduled as the first visit of the morning, I decided I wouldn’t eat or drink anything after dinner the previous evening. I even brushed my teeth right after dinner so there’d be no chance of a toothpaste interference.
The next morning I got ready quickly and drove straight to the doctor’s office. After signing in and being taken back to an exam room, the MA asked if I had eaten or drank anything in the last hour. “No,” I replied, “Nothing since last night about 6:00.” She then handed me the test tube and told me foam didn’t count so make sure to spit to the line.
No worries, I got this. My only thought was why didn’t they just take a cheek swab as in the days of old – that’s how I took my first Ancestry.com DNA test.
MA left the room and I began to fill the test tube. I was really going to town so I didn’t stop to look at the tube for a bit. When I finally did, I had quite a shock. My spit was not clear; it was tinged with pink.
My first thought was I was bleeding but I felt fine. Then it hit me; I had put lipstick on that morning.
Lipstick does not process in my brain as food or drink. It reminds me of my history as my maternal relatives never left the house without applying it. I asked my grandmother why when I was about 8 and she said you should always put your best face forward. That is, except when you’re taking a DNA test in the doctor’s office.
I didn’t know what to do; should I go look for the MA and ask if I should continue or should I just finish filling the tube? I opened the door and saw no one in the hall so I decided to finish and maybe the test would be valid.
A few minutes later the MA returned and I sheepishly showed her the pink vial. “I’ll check to see if that’s okay,” she said, “Never had that happen before.” That made two of us. Returning, she told me that the test wasn’t going to be acceptable and I needed to “Wash off your makeup, wait an hour and we’ll retest.”
The last time someone told me to “Wash off that makeup” was in 8th grade and my lipstick of choice was Wow Wow White that looked awesome with my then braces. Sister Rosarita felt differently and I was sent to the girl’s gang bathroom to remove it. Then, I was angry at the school rule that was enchroaching on my lifestyle. At the doctor’s office, I was angry at myself for being so stupid.
I was planning on meeting my husband after the appointment so I texted him I’d be late because, well, my lipstick got between my DNA and the tube. He thought that was hysterical. Me, not at all.
A little over an hour later the MA called me from the waiting room and asked if I was sure I had gotten all the lipstick off. I showed her my pale pink lips and said, “This is what they really look like.” She laughed and said, “Nice color.”
The second test went smoothly. My results have been returned and they’re good, too.
The doctor’s office staff were so kind about my mistake and said they’d make sure that they mention “NO LIP PRODUCTS” to future women who will DNA test. I’m letting my dear readers know that, too.
Last blog I mentioned Joseph Reid, the father-in-law of my husband’s 5th cousin twice removed. You may be wondering why in the world I would have someone in my tree that is not related and so far removed. Here’s the deal…I have done several surname studies which includes everyone by the same surname in a particular area. My purpose was twofold; I wanted to try to connect all the Harbaughs in the U.S. and updated the last attempt to do so, the 1947 Cooprider & Cooprider Harbaugh History book.
As was common until the 20th century, the Harbaugh couples had many children so my tree became quite large. (I’ve also did a surname study of the Leiningers but they immigrated later and didn’t have quite as many children in each generation but that, too, added non relatives to my tree.)
Since I have so many Harbaughs in one place and I documented each one as best as possible when I added them, I am frequently emailed about our connections. Usually, the question is, “How are you related to my (fill in the blank) Harbaugh?” Actually, I’m not, my husband would be the relation. I guess folks don’t see the Ancestry.com relationship info at the top of the page:
I try to always respond and let the the person who is inquiring know that all the information I have is public and posted.
When doing the surname study, if information was available, I would include the parents of the person who married into the Harbaugh family but I didn’t research that distant individual. That’s why Joseph Reid, the father-in-law, was in my tree. Joseph Reid’s son was Joseph Shortridge Reid (26 Aug 1889 MO-5 Jan 1938 MO) who married Ruth Arelia Harbaugh (11 Feb 1891 MO – 29 Jun 1969 MO). The couple had 2 daughters and a son. The email I received regarding the Harbaugh-Reids was inquiring if I had a photo of Joseph Shortridge Reid Jr. who died on 17 Apr 1945 as a casualty in WW2.
The Fields of Honor Database is an organization devoted to memorializing the 28,000 American service personnel that were killed or missing in the line of duty. They are planning a memorial service in 2020 and were hoping to find photos of those killed in action. Joseph Reid Jr. was one of those individuals.
I was not familiar with the organization so after checking them out, I decided to try to find a picture of Joseph. The organization had already contacted Ancestry.com tree owners who had Joseph in their tree but no one but me had responded.
I don’t frequently research Kansas City, Missouri but I thought I’d accept the challenge. I checked the typical online sites for a photo – Fold3, MyHeritage, Newspapers.com, Chronicling America, Google, etc. but came up with nada. I then emailed the American Gold Star Mothers to see if they had a repository that could be accessed. Unfortunately, the reply I received said they don’t.
Next I contacted the genealogy section of a Kansas City public library and the research librarian did find a photo, albeit of poor quality, that had been placed in the Kansas City Star newspaper with his obituary:
I provided the obituary and photo to Fields of Honor and was asked if I could help with missing photos for Indiana men. I agreed to do what I could and selected Lake and Elkhart counties.
Lake County, Indiana is a particularly tricky place to research as many of Gary’s records have disappeared with the city’s decline. Of course, most of the men I needed photos for had resided in Gary. I again did a preliminary online search as I had for Joseph and came up with nothing. I then went to the Lake County, Indiana obituary database that the public library system has available online. NONE of the names appeared in the database. I know that database contains names of people who have died elsewhere, like my grandmother for example, so why were all of these men missing? Then it hit me – I recalled during the Vietnam War that those killed in action had a special write up in the local paper, the Gary [IN] Post Tribune. Could it be possible that this was also a practice in other wars?
Before emailing the library research team I decided, as a backup, to find more information about the men. I turned to the 1940 US Federal census to try to get an address of where they were residing. Knowing the area, I thought I could turn to school yearbooks to find a photo. I could narrow the search to the nearest zoned high school based on the 1940 address. A few men were not found in the census in Lake County. That’s not surprising as many men moved to Gary after graduating to secure work in one of the steel mills. That newly acquired info just gave me another place to look if the newspaper didn’t have a photo.
I then contacted the research library staff and am happy to report the following Gary men have been found:
Cloyce Neal Blassingame served in the first integrated Army unit:
Robert E. Cook:
Robert W. Ferguson:
Robert Ferguson was also found in Emerson’s school year book:
and Gordon Miller in Lew Wallace’s school year book:
(The year book publication date was 1946 and Gordon died in 1944. There was not a 1945 year book, possibly due to the war. Gordon was pictured with the class of 1944 but I’d like to find verification elsewhere like I did with Robert Ferguson.)
I am still in need of finding photos of the following men:
George Fedorchak Jr. (son of Mrs. Mary Fedorchak, 1428 W 13th Avenue, Gary; in 1940 he lived with his widowed mother, Anna, and sisters Marguerite, Genevieve and Helen at 800 “This South Avenue” probably Harrison Street, Gary. He born about 1920. Perhaps mother’s name was Mary Ann?).
Edward A. Gooding
Mike Zigich (son of Pete & Annie, 2077 Grant St., Gary, born about 1926. His only sibling predeceased him as a child. Parents and sibling buried in a Russian Orthodox Cemetery on Ridge Road. I wrote the parish for a possible church directory photo but did not get a response yet.)
The Zigich name is driving me crazy because I seem to remember Zigich’s when I lived in Gary as a kid. I’m thinking Mike’s father was a friend of my grandfather. Their burial place was only a mile from where I lived. (This is off topic but my dear readers know how my brain works – I know I’m not alone in having a hazy memory from my youth so this is another reason TO WRITE EVERYTHING YOU DO REMEMBER DOWN NOW about your own family.)
So, this gets a little creepy – as the pictures were discovered it slowly dawned on me that people I knew would have known these individuals. My mother-in-law would have attended Emerson High School with Robert Ferguson. My aunt and uncle would have attended Lew Wallace with Gordon Miller. I do recall that Lew Wallace had a memorial to the fallen; I even read the names once when I was waiting for a ride home before I had my driver’s license but the names on the memorial were meaningless to me. As a teen in the 1970’s, the 1940’s seemed to be in the olden days. The names listed were just names, not real people to me.
As the world seems to be forgetting the lessons once learned, “lest not forget” these brave individuals who gave everything they had to end tyrrany. Don’t let these lives cut short be forgotten! The Fields of Honor is looking for photos from across the United States. Click on their database and contribute a picture of a family member or someone from your hometown. It only takes a few minutes to check your local newspaper archive or public library. Your help is not only preserving their memory, it’s also supporting society’s fundamental principles in our troubled world.
Notice the new Hints feature on Ancestry? It appears at the top of the Hints page in the middle below the ribbon:
To become a part of the Beta test group, simply toggle the button “BETA OFF” to the right to become “BETA ON.”
If you aren’t into Beta testing, here’s what changes you would see – after the two pictures of Joseph Reid, notice there is a “Quick Compare” toggle on the right side of the screen. I have the feature disabled below so all you see in the last column for the Texas, Death Certificates, 1903-1982 is Different and New:
What was different and new? Joseph was misspelled on the Texas Death Certificate as Joshph which is why it is noted as different from what I have in my tree, Joseph. I did not have Joseph’s spouse and children so that information would be “New” to me. Other options are Same (for the named individual) and Match (for a spouse or child).
When you toggle from right to left the Quick Compare button, you see the following:
So now I see what exactly is the difference from my tree and the record (which was what I figured – Joseph was spelled differently, duh!). It also provides the birth date and place I had in my tree. I had Ohio but the death record stated Pennsylvania, USA.
Compare is a nice feature as you can see the differences between the new record and what’s already saved in your tree without having to leave the Hints page. I don’t use Hints often, though, so it’s not likely I’ll be toggling for Quick Compares frequently.
This is how I use Hints – If I have Hints on, I always click Ignore. I do this because the Hint never goes away, it simply disables the waving leaf. If I ever want to see the Hint I ignored, all I need to do is go to the Hints section of an individual as seen below (Click on Hints, it’s in the same line with LifeStory):
Clicking on Ignored will allow me to look at those Ignored Hints again.
If you are looking at Hints for everyone in your tree (by clicking the leaf on the upper right hand corner and selecting your tree) in the Beta option, when you click Ignore you get the following:
I would click “I already have this information.” as I don’t need the same picture saved twice.
If you’d like to offer your input in making Ancestry.com’s Hints better, give the Beta test a try.
Next week, I’m going to blog about why I have Joseph Reid, the father-in-law of my husband’s 5th cousin twice removed. Stay tuned.
I just read an article that I think you might find interesting – Lost Rolls America is about those rolls of film you have hanging around the house that you never take to get developed.
A few years ago I had developed all of the rolls and disposable cameras (remember those?!) that were in my home. Most of the photos were field trips my children went on and the pictures weren’t all that exciting. My family still laughs, though, at the weird occurrence that happened when I took the films in to be developed.
I was next in line at the camera counter at my neighborhood Walgreens when a woman came in and sighed loudly behind me. Turning, I saw she was clearly in a hurry. I smiled and said something about the line was moving quickly. She said she was late and hoped it did. Then she saw all the film and disposable cameras I had in a gallon size baggie. I told her she could go ahead of me.
Just at that moment the customer who was being waited on finished. The hurried woman needed to buy batteries but the kind she needed they didn’t have. She said something like, “That’s just great, now what am I gonna do?” I suggested she run to the Battery Store a few miles away as they seem to have every kind imaginable. I added, “Just be careful driving;” as she did seem to be in such a hurry. She said “Thanks,” walked away and as I started dumping the contents of the baggie on the counter she came back. “Excuse me,” she said. Both the clerk and I looked up. “I know this will sound strange, but you have a lot of dead people following you.” The clerk looked at her like she was out of her mind. I just laughed and said, “I’m sure I do. I’m a genealogist and it’s probably family.” Turns out she was a fortune teller. She gave me her card and told me she’d give me a free reading for my kindness. I never took her up on it.
Maybe I should have; those dead people following me sure didn’t answer my genealogical questions! Perhaps you’ll get lucky and those rolls of film will help you answer yours. Happy Hunting!
Since returning home from vacation, I have been on a genealogy cleaning spree. Although I hadn’t planned for this, I discovered a few days before I left that I really had to make it my priority when I returned. While packing, I was frantically looking for items in the closet when I got hit in the head by falling journals. Ouch! If that wasn’t a wake up call I don’t what would be.
Cleaning is not fun but the results are wonderful! I have also been fortunate that the heat index has been in the extreme and when the temperature drops, it’s pouring. With both of those curtailing my outside activities, I hit the office closet first for a redo. Because I live in an area prone to hurricanes, I keep records in either plastic tubs that I can quickly transport to the car when we evacuate, or in binders high up on a shelf. The binders contain vitals by surname and though they would be a loss, the original exists safely elsewhere with a scanned copy I placed online, on my computer and backed up on a portable device. I’ve tried various organizational methods but found this one works best for me.
Recently, I switched my journal and magazine preferences to online only; no point in killing trees when I can access and read the articles anywhere. I decided to donate my saved hard copies to my library. That helped clear the shelf and gave me more space to acquire more vitals! (Family eye rolls here).
I also keep office supplies in this closet so it was a great time to take an inventory. I made a list of items I’m getting low on, such as labels, that I can acquire at sale prices hits.
Once the closet was done, I tackled a file cabinet I use for business projects. I updated my portfolio of work samples to include recent projects and replenished forms. I don’t keep many copies of forms but I like to have a few available in case the printer is down or electricity out. (In my area, the electricity goes out frequently – 3 times in the last 5 days due to severe electrical storms.)
I then tackled the electronics which was the least favorite part and took the longest of this process. I started with thumb drives. I have a lot of them and I decided I really needed to go through and make sure that I had saved to the appropriate place. After checking that I had, I deleted the files from the thumb drive so I have a clean one to use on my next research trip.
Actually, looking through the drives was a wonderful walk down memory lane. I discovered several drives that held a probate record from colonial New Jersey that is the only record that shows two generations of Duers connected. The reason I had the document on different drives was because of unusual events at the time I discovered the document’s existence. I had been researching at a local library a different ancestor when I struck up a conversation with another researcher who was working on DAR lineage paperwork. I mentioned my desire to prove the Duers and she brought up the document – she had remembered the name as she was working on a different New Jersey family from the same area. It was the first time I had known of this document’s existence and I copied her copy to a thumb drive but she did not have the complete document. I then began my search for the original which wasn’t on FamilySearch.org but was available at LDS sites. Of course, the nearest LDS Family History Center to where I was would close in a few minutes so there was no way I would get there in time. The next day, I grabbed a different thumb drive and drove to the site, found the record and thought I had saved it all but when I returned home discovered one page was missing and oddly, it was the page she had missed. That meant I had to return and save again. A few days later I was back and again resaved. I was so paranoid I brought the page up twice from the thumb drive before I left to make sure it was saved correctly. Even though it appeared at the LDS library, it disappeared by the time I got home. This happened before clouds so thumb drives were the best option for saving. Hubby suggested that maybe something was wrong with the thumb drive so I grabbed two others and we headed out, in a violent thunderstorm, to another LDS site much further from our home as that was the only one open. The volunteer said he was about to close as he didn’t think anyone would have ventured out in the inclement weather. I again located the document and this time, saved it to two different drives. For whatever reason, it saved correctly and I was able to open it when I returned home. Now on this cleaning spree, I deleted them off four different drives.
Next, I cleaned my download file on my computers, then cleaned the desktop. Next, I went on my three clouds and placed documents I had saved over the past year into folders. I then logged on to various organization to which I belong and downloaded and saved syllabuses for workshops that interested me but I hadn’t had time to attend. I plan to review them and watch the saved webinars if I needed more information.
This was followed by cleaning up my email account. I sent some follow up emails regarding projects that I haven’t gotten responses from in the past month and put mail I was done with in the appropriate folder.
I was feeling quite proud of myself so I went on to perform updates, which I hate doing because I’m inpatient of the time spent and the possible problems that result; for some reason, updates to our printer sometimes freezes the computer. While doing the updates, I realized I had neglected updating several of my tree software programs as new versions were available. All was well until I remembered that Roots Magic was linked to Ancestry and I hadn’t bothered to update changes I made to Ancestry in the past year. I almost had a heart attack when I clicked “Only show changed people” on Roots Magic. On a positive note, I was able to see how much progress I’ve made in my family tree but on a negative note, my goodness did I have a lot of work ahead of me to get the files saved to my personal computer. I seriously considered just redownloading my entire Ancestry tree but I knew with all the media I had, it would take at least a week as it had the first time I did it. I worried that the program would crash, especially with the electrical outages so I opted to painstakingly go through every individual and update. The majority of my cleaning time was completing this project. but I think it was worth it as I’d be crushed if something happened to my online tree at Ancestry. Having a backup, with all the media, is vitally important to me. Having it saved in numerous places is also worth the effort.
I am happy to report that I am ready to return to researching, my true love. I can’t wait!
As I mentioned in my previous blog article, last summer I had the opportunity to visit the beautiful island of Cuba. At the time, I didn’t realize how fortunate I was since travel has now recently been rescinded. In my opinion, that’s a shame. I do understand it’s a political decision although I do not agree that we should not be on speaking terms with a neighbor. Cuba is only 90 miles from our nation and populated with people who are family to many of our citizens. Genealogywise, this separation saddens me.
I have not previously blogged about my trip because it was for pleasure only. I longed to go there since I was three years old; my parents used to watch I Love Lucy and although Lucy’s fake crying set me off, I was enchanted with Desi’s accent and musical skills. My mother told me he was from Cuba and in my preschool mind, everyone on the island – an island, no less – now that added to the mystique! – was as talented as Desi. Someday, I was sure to visit.
Unfortunately, as I grew up, our countries grew apart. Sure, I spent every Wednesday at 10 AM hiding under my desk at school under the false pretense of being protected from a nuclear blast that was certain to hit the Chicago area from the disagreement but I still longed to go there. (As a side note, I realized how stupid the idea of these drills were one June morning after school had just closed for the summer. I was sitting on the back porch swing of my grandparent’s home reading a Nancy Drew mystery when the air raid siren blasted. On that beautiful late spring day it occurred to me that if a real nuclear event happened, I’d not likely have the protection of my school desk. I only lived one block from my elementary school, I could even see my first grade classroom’s windows from my bedroom, and I felt quite safe on the swing at home. I went inside and asked my grandmother what she did when the siren went off and she said she ignored it. My immigrant grandmother was a wise woman and I decided she was correct; hiding under a desk wasn’t going to spare my life. That was the day I started questioning authority.)
Fast forward to last year when a family member decided to take a continuing education course on a cruise ship sailing from my area. I eagerly agreed to go even though we’d only be in the city of Havana for about 8 hours. I scheduled an almost all-day tour for several reasons; the primary being I wanted to hear about the island from a native’s standpoint and not from my country’s. I also knew that like other Caribbean nations, Cuba operates on its own time so if I wanted to go to the fort, for example, it might just be closed at the time of my arrival even though it’s supposed to be open. (You live in Florida long enough and you get used to this concept but I understand it’s maddening if you aren’t used to it.) I figured a tour group would know what was open so I didn’t waste time. I also wanted to insure safety as my Spanish stinks and I’ve been known to say things that was not what I intended. I definitely did not want to be an ugly American.
I’m going to spare you my travelogue of that day and get to why I’m writing about Cuba now – this is what you need to know if you are of Cuban ancestry and unfortunately, didn’t go when you could to research your family. Although it will be more difficult now, it’s still doable with some work arounds.
Do not beat yourself up because you missed the chance. I once had lunch with a Russian genealogist who told me he had difficulty obtaining records back when his country was an ally. One morning on a visit to an archive he was told the records he sought weren’t available. He told a Cuban colleague and later that day, the colleague went to the same repository and came out with the records the Russian had requested. If you’ve been into genealogy for any length of time you probably had a similar situation like this happen to you. Get a different government employee and you get a different answer. Sure, prejudice could have been involved but I’m sticking to the first scenario as it’s happened to me.
I am no expert in Cuban genealogy although living in my area, I have friends and colleagues of Cuban descent who have shared how they have gotten the information they needed. My visit confirmed what they have told me. Here’s my advice, which is mostly commonsense genealogy practices:
· Make sure you get all the information you can about your ancestors’ FULL names and location before beginning so you aren’t contacting the wrong archives and wasting time. By full name, I mean the hyphenated Hispanic name. You don’t have to have the complete name but the more you have the better. (For example, Pablo Picasso’s complete name was Pablo Diego Jose Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno Maria de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santisima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso. If you only had Pablo Ruiz y Picasso that’s fine).
· If you don’t write well in Spanish, hire a translator. Although most people I encountered spoke English well, that doesn’t mean they read it well so you’ll increase your chances of getting the information you request by clearly communicating in their first language. Don’t rely on online translators; you want to be clear in the Cuban dialect so hire someone.
· Be patient, like I said earlier, Caribbean time is not the same as U.S. time so you may have to wait a LONG TIME for a response. Include a self-addressed stamped envelope to increase your chances of success. How long will you wait? According to my guide, months. This was regarding my question about obtaining cemetery records to the main cemetery in Havana pictured above. As it is still being used, going through old records is not considered important and the request will be filled when burials slow down. No telling when that would be; there was funeral mass in the chapel when we were visiting. (Here’s another aside – if you’ve been following me for years and realize that every time I go on vacation I end up at a cemetery you are correct. I can’t explain it – I just do!)
· It is not recommendable to go online and hire a genealogist. First, there isn’t a lot of trust between our countries which filters down to individual interactions. There is also the economic impact of the most recent decision that clouds the situation. Looking at the list on the Association of Professional Genealogists you will not find one genealogist who resides in Cuba so I advise you to not find someone online who says they’re going to help you. If you have no family members in Cuba you can contact to go and obtain the document you seek, contact the CubanGenealogy Club of Miami who can guide you. (I have attended one of their workshops and was impressed)
· Be prepared to be disappointed as most buildings in the country are not air conditioned so time, humidity, and flooding are just some of the issues that affect the document’s condition, especially in the rural areas. It would have been nice if the Vatican had copies of the church records, since the country was predominantly Roman Catholic but that’s not the case. (Come to think of it, it would have been nice if the Vatican had copies of my needed Croatian records that aren’t on Familysearch so know this isn’t just a Cuban records problem.)
· IMPORTANT CAVEAT – don’t bother trying to get property records. Why? My guide mentioned that there was a concern that Americans were going to try to reclaim the property that their ancestors left behind. I assured her that was not what was the motive is in obtaining property records from a genealogical standpoint. My family member had witnessed this comment and reminded me last month that one of the new U.S. decisions was to support reclaiming property. Personally, I just don’t understand that – I’ve got family that fled lots of wars and rebellions across the globe and I’d never go after their former farms and homes. If a dear reader would like to help me understand the logic in suing for what was abandoned, please comment. I see this as the large impediment of obtaining genealogical records.
If the recommendations above are overwhelming, realize the information you seek may not even be available in Cuba. Cuba was a Spanish colony until 1898 so you’re only looking for Cuban records between 1898 and whenever your family arrived in the U.S. Many of the Spanish records are in Spain. Personally, I’d start there.
I’m back from my dream vacation in Peru. Ever since I was in the 3rd grade, I’ve yearned to travel there thanks to a National Geographic for Kids article. Finally got the opportunity and even though it was a bucket list item and not for genealogical purposes, I’m sure you’re not surprised that genealogy related happenings occurred.
Our guide, Washington, related on our first meeting that he was 50% Incan and 50% Spanish, known as a mestizo. He introduced us to one of sixty remaining shaman who lives in the Andes and speaks Quechuan. Thankfully, Washington was an awesome translator as the shaman doesn’t speak Spanish or English. Washington learned Quechuan as his mother’s side has passed it down for centuries. The shaman had his DNA done and reported he was between 96-98% Incan, depending on the test. Nice reminder that the test pool determines the percentage, even in the most remote areas of the planet!
One of our stops was to visit a cemetery in Cuzco, pictured above. Families may “rent” a burial site and if the rent is not renewed or the space purchased, the body is cremated and interred in another portion of the cemetery. Families visit the cemetery often and remember the dead by displaying memorabilia from their life in a niche in front of the coffin that had been plastered into the assigned space. Items for purchase – such as flowers, vases, alcohol in tiny bottles, and career related articles – a small truck for a former truck driver, for example – may be purchased by vendors lined up outside the grounds.
Remembering ancestors is so important to this culture that high school honor students are selected to intern in the cemetery to serve as helpers to families who have come to visit their loved ones. As young people, they climb the ladders to change the flowers, tidy the memorial and clean the glass that keeps out the dirt. Washington translated for us a conversation with one of the students who was hoping to earn a spot in a technical college to study tourism. He demonstrated how he takes care of a niche.
As a genealogist, I’ve spent a lot of time in cemeteries so I guess it was not surprising that I recognized Washington’s surname shortly after arriving. I asked him if he was related and he said he didn’t know. I then asked if his surname was considered common. He said it was not. I recommended he ask his mother about the relationship as he had mentioned, as the family matriarch, she knew the family’s history. Made me laugh when he said he often wondered about the relationship; just like clients in my area who never think to ask until it’s too late.
The Inca’s probably had a written language, however, most records were destroyed by the Spanish. If you’re looking to discover your lineage, the oldest records will not be found in Peru. Just like the oldest records from Florida and Cuba, where I traveled last summer, the earliest documents were returned to Spain.