Keys to Collaborative Genealogy

I’ve been so busy with the home renovations that I failed to supply the link to a recent blog that I posted for AncestorCloud. Developing a Positive Seeker Helper Relationship is a “how to” for effectively collaborating with others as you build your family tree.

AncestorCloud calls the folks who are in need of a record “Seekers” and those that assist as “Helpers.” Working with family members you may share both of those roles. Whatever responsibility you assume, the hunt is much more productive when the parties involved are together on the approach.

Empty Envelopes Provide a Wealth of Genealogical Data

A FABULOUS FIND of 22 March 2016

Originally published on on 5 March 2016.

A colleague of mine brought in a pile of old envelopes recently and asked me if they were important genealogically.  The reason for the question is that the addressed envelopes contained no content.  She assumed family had saved them because they were stamp collectors who hadn’t gotten around to removing the stamps.

My answer to her was a resounding YES!  Those envelopes tell a story even though they are empty.  I suggested she first put them in chronological order based on the postmark date, if any.  Next she should try to match the envelopes to letters that she had found and store them together.  Any remaining envelopes should be examined closely for information regarding:

  • Addressee
  • Sender
  • Postmark
  • Possible notations
  • Envelope condition
  • Handwriting
  • Type of writing utensil used
  • Cost of postage

Examining the addressee and sender aids in identifying relationships, although the type of relationship is still unknown.  Definitely don’t assume the relationship was family!  I have some old letters addressed to a grandfather that had the contents.  He did not know the sender; the writer was inquiring about a device the grandfather was selling.

Carefully analyze who the envelope was addressed to.  Was it to a Miss or Mrs.? Was a nickname used, such as Nelia for Cornelia?  How was the last name spelled?  That is extremely important if your family changed spelling.  How I wish I had envelopes for my Koss family from the mid 1920’s. The name changed from Kos (in 1920) to Koss (in 1930) but when the change occurred I don’t know. An envelope could assist in narrowing down the date.

Look at the addressee’s residence – was it a rural route?  a city?  a county?  If the postmark is illegible or missing that information could help identify the time period.  Although the Rural Free Delivery (RFD) began in the late 1800’s it was not widespread.  Prior to that, letters may have been addressed, for example, as Columbia County, New York.  That’s a clue the resident lived outside of a town or city.  If the envelope was dated, check the census to see if that address was also used for the individual.  The 1940 census may show the person’s home address but the envelope could provide a clue as to where the individual was staying temporarily if they don’t match.  My colleague recognized an address as belonging to her grandmother but the envelope was addressed to an unknown person at that address 20 years before her grandmother’s birth.  Perhaps the home belonged to a family member that she was not aware of or perhaps the envelope was found after the grandmother moved in.  I doubt the second explanation as that would not be a reason to keep an envelope with family records but who knows?!  She was the stamp collector so maybe she saved it for the stamp.  I recommended that a title search on the property be done to gain more information about the occupants.

I love postmarks because they often tell an interesting story.  If the sender’s address was Connecticut and the addressee’s was New York but the postmark was California either the U.S. Post Office really messed up (which unfortunately happens frequently) or the sender was in California for business or pleasure when the letter was mailed.  This could open up a whole new area to check for records!

My mom, a product of the Great Depression, always reused envelopes as scratch paper.  Grocery lists, things to do, phone messages – check the envelope for any notations.  Although you won’t for certain know who wrote the notes unless they’re signed or had such a unique handwriting that you can identify without a signature, you can gain insight on the day to day lives of the family that received the letter.  One envelope my colleague had this notation printed in caps “BURN THIS AFTER READING.”  Guess the receiver followed directions but we were dying to know what the contents had been.

Now look at the envelope itself.  Is it stained?  Is it brittle?  Has the color aged?  This lets you know the conditions that affected it since it was written.  Perhaps the stain was from water – was it delivered in a rainstorm?  Did it survive a sea voyage?  Maybe a cup of tea was spilled on it as the contents were being read!  You might never discover what really happened but it sure is fun to try.

I love handwriting, mainly because mine was always criticized while growing up.  The style can give you much more information about the time period and the sender.  Was it printed, cursive, Palmer, D’Nealian, or calligraphy?  Is it legible or not?  Perhaps the writer was in a hurry to mail the contents! Handwriting can also help you match the envelope to an individual if the sender did not include his/her name in the return address.

Writing utensils can also help you identify a time period.  A ballpoint pen came into use in the late 1800’s.  Prior to that fountain pens and dip pens were used.  The color of the ink can give you even more clues – the dye or pigment used could be a regional product.

The postage price can help you determine the time period.  Although we’re not talking about post cards I always think of them as “penny postcards” even though they now cost 35 cents to send. I don’t think they could be sent for a penny when I was a kid but that’s what my family called them and that’s how I still think of them.  The art on the stamp also “may” disclose information about what was important to the sender – or not!  A few years ago I became known as the “stamp girl” in my office as I would make several trips to the post office a week to mail packages my husband had sold on ebay because I was closer to the post office then he was.  I would purchase stamps for coworkers on those trips.  Some coworkers would request a certain type of stamp and others could care less.  Although you might not find out for sure if the stamp conveyed a message from the sender it might.  Remember the 1973 LOVE stamp?  If the sender was breaking up with addressee I doubt that stamp would have been used.

Let me know if your envelope analysis unveils a genealogical gem!



A Family’s Change of Mind

Originally published on on 27 Aug 2015.

A few weeks ago I blogged about the decision of one of my clients to pull the plug on further research because of adverse pressure she was receiving from her children (see An Update on Becoming a Certified Genealogist 30 Jul 2015).  I had uncovered preliminary information that had unsettled the family and the client requested that no further research be done.  I offered to meet with the family members who were upset but she refused.  I then informed the client she could contact me whenever she was ready to move forward. Next, I began searching for another client to fulfill one of the portfolio requirements to become a Certified Genealogist.

Surprise, surprise!  Former client and I passed each other last week and we said hello.  After a little small talk (we’re in the deep south, it’s how we do things here!) client stated she had really thought about the kernel of information I had provided her and was ready to learn more.

I was greatly surprised.  One part of me wanted specifically to ask what made her and her family members change their minds but I didn’t.  Although as a genealogist we work in the past, my query wasn’t pertinent to moving forward.  Maybe I’ll get that answer later.

Before she changed her mind again, I obtained her signature on death certificate forms that I just happened to serendipitously have with me and the following day, I submitted the paperwork.  Those documents are needed to obtain the medical records we will ultimately be securing.

After watching Sunday’s Who Do You Think You Are? (WDYTYA) episode with Bryan Cranston I began to think that my client and her family must have been processing information similarly.  If you didn’t see the show, Mr. Cranston was first informed that his grandfather had deserted his wife and child to enlist in World War I and then claimed to be single, probably so he didn’t have to share his earned income. Initially, Cranston scoffed at the divorce documents that the soon to be ex of his grandfather submitted to court.  Cranston tried to defend the man’s action and then remarked he knew he was doing so even though he hadn’t met him.  That’s interesting since his father had also left the family and this looked like the beginning of a family pattern.  It’s also pertinent that Cranston felt the need to defend a relative he didn’t know.  Reminds me of the stink about Ben Afflek’s difficulty in dealing with the idea he had slave owning relatives so that information was not disclosed on his Finding Your Roots episode.

What I believe both Cranston, possibly Affleck, and my client were experiencing was a grief reaction outlined by Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969.  Kubler-Ross identified the following process that one experiences after a loss:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining/Compromise
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

Initially, Kubler-Ross’ work was in regards to only death but was later expanded to include losses of any kind, such as job, divorce, health or incarceration.  There’s no studies on the grief process as it relates to genealogy but I believe it’s applicable.

If you’ve been actively researching your family tree for years think back to how you felt when you identified your first Black Sheep relative.  EVERYONE has one, most have more than that.  I have many.  Some are more benign than others; such as their poor choices hurt themselves and their close loved ones while others negatively impacted a larger number in their community.

My first Black Sheep was a great grand uncle on my paternal side that was imprisoned in Indiana for performing an illegal abortion in 1905.  He was also a notorious alcoholic and abusive which resulted in his first wife divorcing him.  His relationship with his second wife wasn’t much better.

I remember discovering this information and being in disbelief.  The newspaper articles of the day were sickening.  I didn’t want to be related to him. My father had proudly mentioned that he had a great uncle who was a physician but he never told me the rest of the story.  Here’s what my thinking was at the time I discovered the newspaper articles and how I processed the info:

  1. Denial-There’s got to be a mistake here.  There’s two sides to every story.  I bet the “victim” wasn’t telling the whole truth. (Much like Cranston, I felt the need to defend the relative I’d never met and discount the victim’s statements.) When I learned about the alcoholism and abuse, though, it became impossible to defend the man (Think Bill Cosby and Jared Fogle).
  2. Anger-Why didn’t my dad tell me about this?  He spoke fondly of the man’s accomplishment of being a physician.  How could dad have been proud of this man’s character?  My anger was displaced from the man I didn’t know to the person I did.
  3. Bargaining/Compromise-Maybe dad didn’t know about what happened since his great uncle would have been imprisoned before he was born.  Perhaps the sordid details were withheld from him as a child.
  4. Depression-I stopped looking for new information about the man.  I “withdrew” from searching.  I wasn’t ready to deal with more bad news.
  5. Acceptance-After discovering that my 2nd great grandfather, the grand uncle’s brother, also made some poor choices I realized I wasn’t the one who had made those decisions and I certainly wasn’t accountable for their actions.  No big deal that we shared a similar gene pool! Coming to the realization that I am not responsible for someone else’s choices, especially someone who died long before I was born, allowed me to move forward in this line.  It was interesting to discover there were quite a few “bad boys” who had difficulty following norms of the times in which they lived and experienced problems with alcoholism.  Discovering family secrets is part of the fun of genealogy, right?  The more I discovered, the easier it was to see the family pattern and accept what I was finding.

There are some counseling researchers who dispute that those experiencing a loss go through the grief stages outlined above.  I would agree that over time, a resiliency develops. Practice does make perfect!  In genealogy, I think resiliency occurs after you stumble upon subsequent Black Sheeps. The celebrities on WDYTYA and my client haven’t had the time to work through the loss.  Most were probably thinking that their ancestors were salt of the earth wholesome people who strived to make their part of the world a better place. Give them some time to process the negative information and the celebrities are able to move forward to learn more about their history.

Although I caution clients initially that some information may be difficult to accept I don’t think that’s enough.  Since everyone processes unexpected news differently, I’m thinking of discussing these stages are our initial meeting.  That may be beneficial and help a client who doesn’t have the grief resiliency developed better work through the newly received information.

Want to help a Ph.D researcher from the University of Sheffield, England who is studying Black Sheeps?  Complete the following anonymous survey at  It doesn’t take long and you’ll be contributing to an interesting research project.