Genealogy–the study of your family tree

I’m an archivist, but the research room where I spend some of my hours to help the public (when the public is allowed to enter) attracts more genealogists than historians. In the past, when someone came to the research room and said, “I’m interested in tracing my family tree—how do I get started?” I would introduce them to our resources, get them rolling, and remain available to answer further questions. Among our resources is – the library has bought a subscription to the service, and patrons can use it for free. But, from now on, when someone says, “how do I get started?” I’m going to steer them properly. For and other library resources belong to the third step of genealogy, not the first or second step.

The first step is to write what you know about yourself. Genealogy always begins with an individual. In your case, that individual is you. Write your full name. When and where were you born? Are you married? To whom, when, and where? Do you have children? Write their full names and when and where each of them was born.

Many genealogists use a notebook to record this information. Some use index cards. Some use a spread sheet such as Excel. Most serious genealogists use more than one method, so the information they have worked so hard to attain will be saved in one form if it is lost in another.

After you have written all your vital information, you then write everything you know about your father. Answer the same questions about your father as you answered about yourself. And if he has died (and I’m sorry if he has) also say when and where he died and where he is buried.

After writing everything you know about your father, do the same for your mother. Then do the same for your father’s father, your father’s mother, your mother’s father, and your mother’s mother. The order matters! You are person number one on the chart; your father is number two, your mother is number three, your father’s father is number four, and so on. After number one, all the even numbers are men and all the odd numbers are women. But—this is even more important—every father’s number is double that of his son or daughter. So your father will be two, your father’s father four, his father eight, and so on back to Adam.

When you have written everything you know—which might include great-grandparents, but probably not every detail about them—is it time to go to the library? No, you’ve only taken the first step. Your second step is to talk with your living relatives to fill the gaps on your chart. Your parents, your grandparents, your uncles and aunts, and your cousins probably can answer some of the questions you needed to leave blank. As you talk with them, let them tell you stories about the family. Encourage them to share the stories. The other data is just a roll call; the stories make family history truly meaningful.

Once you’ve visited with your living relatives, you are ready to go to the library. Libraries have a multitude of resources for genealogy. These resources can help you fill the gaps. Increasingly, online services like have gathered these resources from various libraries and locations. They include official government documents—not only the Census, but also land sale records, military records, and court documents (especially wills and probate proceedings). Plus there are family records, church records, community histories, and the research of other genealogists. All this information tells the researcher about many people, and a few of those many people are your relatives, even your ancestors.

Several problems can occur when tracing your family tree. If you are easily frustrated, you might want to try a different hobby. Frequently several people have the same name. You have so sort through everything you know about your ancestor to find the right one. That’s why birth dates, death dates and places are important in genealogy—they help to distinguish your John Smith from the other five John Smiths who lived in the same general area around the same time.

Second, people make mistakes. Your relatives’ memory might be faulty. Even your memory might be faulty. You thought your grandmother was born in 1930—she always told people that—but actually she was born in 1924. To make matters more complicated, census takers, church secretaries, and even the stone carvers who made the grave markers all make mistakes. One person’s bad handwriting might cause another person to get a name or a year wrong. The information you record must be verified carefully among several sources. Just because it shows up in one book or on doesn’t mean that it’s true.

Genealogists often hit a wall. Scraps of important information don’t seem to exist. Sometimes, people disappeared on purpose. They didn’t want to be found. Some records have been lost to natural disasters. (Even the U.S. Census of 1890 was lost in a fire.) But, given persistence and newly found sources—a distant cousin, perhaps, or a library in another city—the story gradually unfolds. And the journey through that story is educating, exciting, and entertaining.

Who are you? Your family tree cannot fully answer that question, but it offers some useful hints. J.


Marion looked across the table at his wife and smiled. “I’m picking up some interesting skills, working at the library,” he said.

Marion and Julie didn’t often get to eat lunch together. Their busy schedules did not mesh well for shared meals. Breakfasts were eaten on the go, along with other morning preparations, including packing their lunches. Dinners were often separate because one of them had an evening meeting or the other had to drive the children to a dance class or a soccer game. Only on Saturdays and Sundays did they get to eat together, and Sundays the children were usually there as well. That made Saturday lunches special.

“Special skills?” Julie asked him.

Marion nodded. “So many people come in trying to research their family trees, I feel that I’m becoming a professional genealogist. They always ask for help, although some of them know more about family research than I do. In fact, a few of them have taught me a trick or two. It’s gotten to the point that I’m tracking down people in my spare time—living or dead, it doesn’t matter: I can find them.

“Yesterday, for example, I remembered a woman I knew back when I was in graduate school. I got to wondering how she is today. So I did some research. I found out that she got married about five years after our wedding. On the application for the wedding license, her husband wrote that he was a professional musician.”

Julie grinned at the phrase but said nothing. Marion went on, “So, I looked him up, and you’ll never guess what he plays—kettledrums! He’s with a symphony orchestra.”

“Here I pictured him in blue jeans and playing guitar in some rock band.”

“No, he wears a suit and a bow tie. He also teaches music at a college.

“The two of them have a son who’s in high school. He even made the national news. It seems that one day he stood up in the cafeteria and sang the national anthem. The school administrators gave him a detention for it.”

“That doesn’t seem fair.”

“No—a lot of people don’t think so. That’s why it made the national news. He wasn’t being disrespectful to the anthem, he sang it properly, as a show of patriotism.”

“The schools are getting so liberal these days. People support a football player for kneeling during the anthem, and then they punish a kid for singing it the right way.”

“It turns out that the next day, dozens of students got up during lunch and sang the anthem. They wanted to support him. But the school didn’t care. They started putting extra teachers on lunchroom duty to make sure it didn’t happen again.”

Julie shook her head. But instead of saying more about the high school student, she asked a different question. “Now, should I be nervous that you’re looking up old flames when you’re at work?”

“Old flames?” he queried.

“Someone upon whom you once had a big crush.”

Marion looked across the table at his wife and smiled. He decided not to mention the high school yearbook photographs he had also discovered online.

(There really have been cases of high school students being punished for singing the national anthem in the high school cafeteria. But the rest of this story is fiction. J.)

Bigfoot–fact or fiction?

This week Rob Lowe announced that he feared for his life while camping in the Ozark Mountains as he heard the sound of a Bigfoot approaching his campsite. Lowe was in the Ozarks, oddly enough, filming a television show about Bigfoot. While Lowe’s announcement is probably nothing more than promotion for his show, this news tidbit sent me wandering far and wide across the internet, gathering information on Bigfoot (or Sasquatch) in the United States.

My family and I live in a developed suburban community—not an environment where Bigfoot is likely to be seen. Yet open wilderness areas exist quite close to our home. Many nights we have heard the call of coyotes, and some evenings the hoots of a great horned owl. To my surprise, I discovered credible reports of Bigfoot sightings within a few miles of my home. They took place in densely wooded areas and included both deer hunters and off-road vehicle drivers as witnesses.

I am convinced that the vast majority of Bigfoot sightings are spurious. Some of them, I am sure, are pranks, and others are the result of wishful thinking. Many reported sightings of Bigfoot probably were actually bears, and others were tricks of the light reflecting off foliage, tree trunks, and rocks. Reclusive people—some of them escaped criminals—probably hide in wilderness areas and are mistaken at times for Bigfoot. Taken together, these false sightings most likely account for the vast majority of alleged Bigfoot sightings. Yet some descriptions of Bigfoot sightings are not so easily dismissed. Enough credible reports can be found that I am willing, for the time being, to maintain an open mind.

The ivory-billed woodpecker—a large and unique bird—was assumed extinct for decades. A few years ago, evidence emerged that a small number of these birds still exists in remote wilderness areas of the southern states. If they have survived without being detected for several generations, why couldn’t a reasonably intelligent species of mammal also remain hidden in scattered wilderness areas around the continent?

No dead Bigfoot has ever been found in the wilderness. But how many bear carcasses are reported each year? Aside from those deliberately killed and preserved by hunters, the rest of the dead bears disintegrate through natural causes. No one has ever captured a live Bigfoot. But how many people have tried to do so? If it exists, Bigfoot is much more intelligent than a deer or a bear. Being also much rarer than those animals, it is unremarkable that none has yet been captured.

Three years ago a scientist called for collections of hair thought to be left from a Bigfoot so he could conduct DNA tests. He received thirty samples. When tested, half of them proved to be from bear, and the rest from smaller mammals. One, from China, came from a polar bear species that was thought to be extinct for thousands of years. If a rare polar bear colony can still exist in the mountains of China, why not the Yeti as well?

Every time a convincing argument is proposed against the existence of Bigfoot, further reasoning or evidence appears to swing the opposite direction. The Patterson-Gimlin film of 1967 remains controversial. Too many people have confessed to taking part in a hoax involving the film for all of them to be believed. Too many experts have analyzed the film, only to reach conflicting conclusions, for me to be convinced one way or the other.

I have no personal experience connecting me to Bigfoot. Nor do I care enough to hunting for Bigfoot. I probably would have spent much less time considering the possibility that Bigfoot exists if I hadn’t read accounts of possible sightings near where I live. The world is too big and too complex for me to insist that Bigfoot is impossible, yet the evidence is too vague and too suspect for me to insist that Bigfoot exists. For the time being, I intend to keep an open mind. J.

It’s a lawn, not a rice paddy!

Mrs. Dim is one of several people in my neighborhood who water their lawns every single day. Since their grass is nice and green and mine tends toward yellow during dry conditions, they of course think that they are right and I am wrong.

They are wrong.

When water is flowing down the street and into the storm drain, they are wasting water. When they water every day, they are training their grass to have shallow roots and to depend upon that daily watering. When they soak their lawns repeatedly, they increase the likelihood of fungus and other diseases in their lawns.

To verify that my opinion is right and theirs is wrong, I did a quick search of lawn watering tips on the internet. Every one of the top hits indicated that Salvageable is right. Among the sites that I read from the first ten hits were Scott, Southern Living, Popular Mechanics, and Green Grass Services. The consensus is that healthy lawns need about an inch of water a week, and that watering twice a week is adequate for a healthy lawn.

Scott recommends one half inch of water twice a week, taking fifteen to thirty minutes, depending upon the watering system. Southern Living says one inch once a week. Popular Mechanics says twice a week, maximum. Green Grass Services says two to three times a week, with a total of 1 to 1 1/2 inches. Several of them recommend using rain gauges or empty tuna cans to measure the water to make sure that the lawn is not getting too much water.

Scott, Southern Living, and Popular Mechanics all say that a healthy lawn can be allowed to go dormant during a dry summer. Scott says the lawn can remain dormant for up to two months. When it rains, the lawn revives. Popular Mechanics notes that the choice of a dormant lawn depends upon use-if people or animals walk or run on the lawn a lot, that could harm the dormant grass.

Experience has shown that my lawn can tolerate a lengthy dormant period. After a decent rain, my grass turns just as green as Mrs. Dim’s grass. Meanwhile she has been watering her lawn every day, cutting and trimming it every five days, working hard to maintain her lawn to her personal standards. Of course she gets up early in the morning to trim and mow her lawn, not caring how much noise she makes while other people are still trying to sleep.

Aside from early morning noise, does the watering of lawns in the neighborhood make any difference in my household? It makes a difference when it takes twenty minutes to fill a sink to wash some dishes. It makes a difference when a shower is nearly impossible due to low water pressure. It makes a difference in the big picture of life, when people like Mrs. Dim waste water because they can, while other people in the country face dire water shortages.

Mrs. Dim is an old dog who will never learn new tricks. It must frustrate her no end when, a day or two after it rains, my grass is as green as hers. It might help if she took the time to check her opinion with research as I have done this morning. Friends, that is not going to happen. J.