The Intentional Genealogist

~ Good Vibrations

Any experienced genealogist will tell you how often our ancestral discoveries are helped by incredibly serendipitous occurrences–how often we miraculously stumble across random scraps of paper embedded in ledgers that we opened by mistake (when we meant to open the one beside it), or chance encounters with a person who holds the answers we’ve been seeking for years, but whom we met only as the result of some bizarre incident.

Ancestral kismet happens so often to genealogy researchers, in fact, that Geoff Rasumussen–the host of Legacy Family Tree webinars–recently published a book about such experiences, though the stories I have heard from my fellow researchers and genealogy students could fill several volumes more:

In my daily work as a professional genealogist, I have noticed that this special genealogical mojo ebbs and flows. When I have it, my projects unfold smoothly and all goes well, but when I don’t have it, I hit the proverbial “brick wall” and can’t find the information I’m looking for.

~ Tips for Good Genealogy Mojo

When I feel my progress on a family history project begin to lag, I’ve found that it is usually because my life is out of balance. When I restore that balance, the mojo returns and I usually find what I am looking for. I call this living the spiritual life, or what some might call, in secular terms, being “an intentional genealogist.” This might sound silly, but let me give an example of what it looks like:

When unable to find information on an ancestor, I will typically stop and take a look at my day or my week. Is my life out of balance? For example, am I so focused on genealogy that I am neglecting my family or other people who need me? If the answer is yes, then I stop what I am doing and put living people first. I feel very deeply that those who have passed on care about the living (we genealogists have a sixth sense for these kinds of things) and that they don’t like it when I focus on the dearly departed while neglecting those who are still with me. That neglect brings a sort of bad karma, bad mojo to my workspace, and blocks my ability to progress professionally.

~ How I Discovered This Phenomenon

One night, in the throes of a busy evening of research, I almost told my kids to eat “whatever was in the fridge,” because I was so excited about my client’s research project that I didn’t want to stop. My kids typically just ate cold cereal on nights like that. I was researching the life of an Italian American woman who gave birth fifteen times, but lost the majority of her children in infancy to various illnesses or stillbirth. But as was about to send my children to fend for themselves in the kitchen, I suddenly felt this strong impression that the Italian mother I’d been focusing on all night would NOT approve of my children eating cold cereal for dinner while I traced her family tree, because Italian mammas love to make sure that their families are well fed! So I stopped what I was doing and made sure that my kids had a hot meal and were tucked into bed with songs and stories. Once I had done so, my research project went more smoothly than ever, and I made a few bonus discoveries that night once the kids were asleep. I felt very strongly afterwards that this mamma was intentionally NOT letting me find her famiglia earlier, while I had been neglecting my children. Call me crazy if you will, but the impression overwhelmed me to the point of tears as the records practically fell into my lap only after I had lavished that love and attention on my children.

I now try to make a phone call, sit and talk with a child about their day, send someone an email of appreciation, or send out a thank you note–take care of any good deed FOR THE LIVING left undone–before I sit down to do my research work.

The result of these efforts has been pretty consistent over the years: the more good deeds I do for the living, the more good mojo I have for uncovering the secrets of the dead. I now aspire to be a consistently intentional genealogist.

~ Intentional Genealogists

I believe that when we work hard to do more good deeds for the living, we will see more good come back to us in the form of questions answered, discoveries made, and mysteries solved in our genealogy research. It is just a theory, but I invite everyone to put it to the test and tell me what they discover! 🙂

Here is an infographic I made for some of my students about intentional genealogy and how it might fit into a research strategy. It is just one idea; you will find your own as you learn how to work an live intentionally:

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© Jenny Tonks and, 2009-2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

***COMMENT RULES: I only press “allow” on comments that are positive and friendly in tone. Genealogy is a labor of love, and we genealogists are a friendly bunch who love meeting kindred spirits! 🙂


When the records don’t give answers, use GENEALOGY EVIDENCE

Are you having trouble finding the records that identify an ancestor’s parents, or the place where they were born? Then you might need to master the art of genealogical proof in order to prove, on your own, who their parents were or where they were born.

Proving the relationships, events, or identities of the past  is something that I’ve been doing for years as a professional genealogist, but ALL researchers can master this skill with the right tools. Below are some infographics I use when teaching the basics of genealogy proof and evidence to my students. I’ll also include some must-have guides for learning how to prove what happened in the past when you just can’t find the records that spell it out for you:


Because my students struggled most often to differentiate between information and evidence, I made a special graphic to walk you through that difference, just to make sure everybody understands where the two diverge:

An example from the infographic above would be in the statement, “The exclusion of his daughter Mary from his will and testament is evidence that either she was disinherited or that she had died before this date.”

How to Find Evidence


For those who want to learn how to uncover evidence in genealogical records to help prove what happened in the past (even when the records don’t come right out and say what happened), here are the must-reads for your family history library:

Mastering Genealogical Proof is on my shelf and I’ve read it cover-to-cover; it will walk you through exercises like a textbook, so you get to learn from the author as if you were taking a class from him!

Genealogical Proof Standard is a quick read (small, pamphlet-like book) by one of the greatest genealogy authors in the industry, and will teach you how to present your findings according to the most trusted and reliable genealogical conventions, so that future generations don’t discard your conclusions as uninformed or wishful thinking. I found this book extremely helpful when I first began writing proof arguments!

Evidence Explained is perhaps THE most crucial guide on every genealogist’s shelf (I own it in both hard copy AND digital!), because, in addition to defining all the key concepts pertaining to genealogy evidence and proof, it also is a giant citation guide (akin to the MLA guides and APA guides we used in college) for the very unique discipline of genealogy, to help researchers know how to cite everything from unpublished diaries found at your local historical society to a newspaper clipping that you copied out of Grandma’s scrapbook. It covers everything you need to know in order to properly cite all the sources that you draw from when building your family tree. Without citations, all of your years of research will be deemed untrustworthy to future researchers, thanks to the Internet, where so much falsehood circulates.

Also, Robert Charles Anderson’s book, Elements of Genealogical Analysis teaches readers how to prove kinship via evidentiary linkage, a type of “logic for genealogists” guide that none of the other books offer. Since formal logic/deduction is no longer taught in the schools, this book is also a must-have:

With these tools, you can write a fully cited, “proven” family history that will pass the “suspicious Internet junk” test and endure through the ages. Good luck! 🙂

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© Jenny Tonks and, 2009-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

***COMMENT RULES: I only “allow” comments that are positive and friendly in tone. Genealogy is a labor of love, and we genealogists are a friendly bunch who love meeting kindred spirits! 🙂

My Big (un)Scholarly Historical Discovery

I made an exciting discovery about everybody’s ancestors that appears to *almost* debunk (or, I hope, enhance) a noted scholar’s theory. The circumstances are almost comical, but my case is quite compelling–I hope readers will weigh in and tell me what they think!

In the genealogy world, an article went viral in social media circles a year or so ago, citing the book of Roger Ekirch, an historian at Virginia Tech who discovered evidence of that our ancestors slept in different patterns than we do today, for example by awakening and spending a few hours engaged in activities before then engaging in a “second sleep” period each night.

You can read more about these sleep cycles of the past in the following articles and blog posts:

Now, the *reason* for the ancestors sleeping so differently than we do today isn’t spelled out in the articles. I confess that I have not had time to pick up Dr. Ekirch’s book yet, as much as I want to (I am a bibliophile who really *should* be on the road to recovery, but alas will still not admit that she has a problem! My to-read pile almost takes up more space in this house than my children!), but from the articles, it appears that Dr. Ekirch believes that the invention of the electric light had something to do with the change from the “many sleeps” cycle of the past to the more steady, uninterrupted sleep of today.

However, over the past few months, I made a little discovery that almost debunks (or, I hope, better informs) this theory about the electric lights, so I will share it here–

In December, my husband’s employer unexpectedly closed their doors.

Unfortunately, they did so just as we were about to purchase a new boiler furnace (on credit!) to replace our old one, which had cracked and died. Needless to say, we could not get financing for the new one, now that my husband was out of a job!

So what did we do? Well, we started living like the ancestors here in our nearly one-hundred year old home, and I stumbled upon an interesting discovery relating to Dr. Ekirch’s theory–

Our house was freezing cold everywhere but the family room, which is where we have a fireplace, so we moved the children into the family room at night to sleep. My husband and I slept in our room, which is down the hall from the family room. And every night, no matter how high or hot we stoked that fire, we awoke at 3 a.m. sharp, because the fire had ALWAYS died out!

Always, by 3 a.m. on the dot, my husband and I awoke, like clockwork, because the house was so ice cold that our bodies awakened out of sheer shock (we felt the cold) and paternal/maternal instinct that feared for our children’s safety. As soon as we sensed that the fire had died, my husband would get up, gather wood, and stoke up the fire again, while I would go around covering up the kids, who had always kicked off their covers, which made the poor things’ skin practically turn blue!

Screen Shot 2016-03-19 at 11.11.58 AM

Cots, sleeping bags, pillows, and teddy bears, all lived around our fireplace this winter!

And then we would return, all shivering and freezing, to our own beds. By then, from all the cold and exertion, we were usually all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, so like the ancestors in the articles, I did usually find myself reading, writing, on social media, or doing some genealogy, yes. We also talked, watched movies, or whatever.

All winter long, my husband and I engaged in the “two sleeps” described in this article, because we had no choice–the fire *always* went out by 3 a.m., and the house was always stone-cold by that hour, so we were always up and about tending to the fireplace and the sleeping kids at that hour, which awoke us both fully. It was so fascinating!

Even now now that the weather has warmed and we are no longer stoking fires at 3 a.m. and we have “sprung forward” for the time change, I find myself automatically awakening at four a.m.! I try to use that time to work on genealogy projects or writing, to make good use of the time, rather than wasting it. But I get a good chuckle as I ponder the fact that I may have accidentally stumbled upon the answer, in real life, to what a scholar has been looking for on paper–the reason why the ancestors were always up halfway through the night. Because they were COLD and worried about their children! 🙂

Indeed, I believe that fires, more than electric lights, are the reason behind the “two sleeps” our ancestors experienced back in the day! Something much more parental, Darwinian, more “survival of the fittest”–er, warmest–was at work here, I believe! 🙂
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PLEASE NOTE: any videos or images appearing after my signature were placed there by WordPress. These ads are not visible to me, so I cannot endorse them.

© Jenny Tonks and, 2009-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

***COMMENT RULES: I only “allow” comments that are positive and friendly in tone. Genealogy is a labor of love, and we genealogists are a friendly bunch who love meeting kindred spirits! 🙂

Porting Genealogy Data to Word via Scrivener

Several weeks ago, many countless genealogy customers were stunned to learn that their genealogy software would be discontinued. I posted some professional advice to my blog readers: the only truly universal and long-lasting program for recording family history data is Word. You can read that blog post here:

Now a reader has written to ask me about moving their family history data to Word. What does this look like, they want to know? How do they get started?

In this post, I will share with you how I am doing this very same thing for a relative whose genealogy database I recently inherited, as I shared with you in some past posts here and here.

~ Word to the Wise

Please keep in mind, taking thousands and thousands of names and records that have been entered into a databases over a period of DECADES is not something that you can just cut and paste into Word all at once. At least, I can’t. I can’t just open a blank Word doc and start entering or cutting and pasting from a genealogy program. That would take me hundreds of hours to untangle the mess!

Instead, to get started moving your family history database from family history software to Word, there are a few shortcuts that I use, instead.

**Please note: I came up with this little process after asking around for years and never being quite satisfied with other methods out there for organizing genealogy in narrative format or word processing programs, so please, if you use it, mention you got it from me, will you? Thanks! 🙂

~ What I Do

Here’s how I am transferring my relative’s LARGE database from genealogy software to Word:

1) First, I make an RTF file of the individual’s paternal  and maternal ancestry (an “Ahnentafel”) that includes all notes and footnotes but excludes images, leaving out the first living relative who compiled the database, and starting with the researcher-relative’s parents, thereby cutting the two sides of their family tree in half so that I can make two separate files. (Otherwise, the computer has a meltdown when I try to make one gigantic Ahnentafel with everybody in it!) Obviously, I can skip this division if the family file is very small.

2) I import this file to Scrivener

3) I use Scrivener’s “split” feature, which divides the huge Ahnentafel file into separate generations with their own folders–thanks to Scrivener’s “Command-K” shortcut, this takes mere seconds. I simply put my cursor next to each generation and hit “command K” to start a new file, as this video shows:

4) Next, I cut and paste the former genealogy software’s endnotes into Scrivener’s footnote fields, since Scrivener makes footnoting easier than Word does. I can then export the document into Word when I am done, where the footnotes will be perfectly formatted per Word footnoting conventions.

5) I then look at what my relative has done for each ancestor and make a list of things I need to do to clean up and perfect their work before I export the data from Scrivener into Word.

I spend a LOT of time editing erroneous citations, or moving a lot of data from “notes” into an actual family history narrative–things that the relative had culled and filed away in the notes section but not realized were actually helpful evidence. I also highlight and/or re-do questionable research, and go in search of records for unanswered questions. It is slow going!

My task list usually includes research, looking up records, and fixing footnotes. As I go, I refer often to my handy dandy copy of Evidence Explained so I can cite my findings properly, because as I look up and verify evidence, records, and relationships in this narrative and then straighten out the data and its footnotes, the information in this pedigree goes from heresay to verified!

I also refer often to Numbering Your Genealogy as I go, just in case the genealogy software didn’t do its job properly when it numbered tricky relationships.

But Scrivener is my greatest bridge to porting everything from the genealogy software to Word–I would be lost without it! Here is what my screen looks like as I work in it:


**NOTE: I’m not a Scrivener affiliate, in any way, though I should be, because I tout it so much! 🙂

Note how I organize my ancestors into Scrivener’s files and sections, numbering them according to Ahnentafel structure to keep them organized.

6) Then in the media folders below the ancestor folders (not visible here), I store the ancestors’ records so I can pull them up and look at them while I am crafting their citations, etc.

So as you can see, I basically keep the project in Scrivener for the duration I am cleaning it up and organizing it as it transitions, then I export it into Word only after I feel like it has been sufficiently scrubbed from the effects of the database it used to inhabit (for example, all the “<>” are gone).

This is because Scrivener makes it easier for me to see each generation at a glance, as well as each footnote at a glance, and I can also pull up each record while I am entering its data much more easily in Scrivener than I can with Word, so this is my go-to program for transferring genealogy files from genealogy software to Word. It is my go-to for many other types of projects, too, but this is one of its many uses! 🙂

Then, once everything is all cleaned up and organized, I can export this family’s file into Word–Scrivener will send it to Word as all one file, divided into chapters. A book, basically.  But for now, it is a collection of separate files in Scrivener to make my editing process much easier–I love it!

I hope this helps anyone else out there who is contemplating protecting your family history data by preserving it in Word! If you have any questions about this type of project, please feel free to contact me! 🙂
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Reader Question: Slaveholding Ancestors

This week’s genealogy question comes from Pam, who wants to know more about the following ancestor:

Patience Julia Mobley, b. 1856 in FL-d. 1907 in FL.

the daughter of

Zilpha Smith, b. 1810 in GA (I think)- death unknown and

John Riley Mobley, b. 1810 (I think) in GA-death unknown.

Pam further writes:

  • I have reason to believe that all of the Mobleys had indentures as well as slaves. In the 1850 census, there is a Charity Thompson living in the household who is in fact an indentured servant.
  • My question is how do you research indentures and slaves???
  • How do I KNOW that this John Riley Mobley is indeed descended from John Rickard Mobley?
  • Why aren’t there more records available to me regarding this family?
  • I don’t fully understand how indenturing works…Seven years and you’re free to leave? Seven years and you’re free to live as the head of household’s wife? Does your status change in some way? Does being an indentured wife involve the usual wifely duties in addition to something more?
  • I am trying to confirm or negate that these particular Mobley’s are descended from slaves (either or both of them)… Did these men ever marry their slaves?

 The Genealogist’s Answer

To answer all of your questions, I will divide my answer into three categories:

1) What web sites to search

  • I begin all of my online searches with Google–I Google the ancestor’s name alone if it is rare, or their name plus locations and dates, if it is more common.
  • Then I move on to genealogy sites (like FamilySearch and and any local sites hosted by historical associations or heraldic organizations near the area my ancestor lived.
  • I also Google state records, and consult Michael Hait’s eBook, Online State Resources for Genealogy.
  • Then I check for any federal records pertaining to an ancestor, by using the US National Archives’ search engine OPA

Once I have exhausted online records, I start doing offline research.

2) Next step: Offline Research

Online records will likely not give you enough evidence about the identity of your ancestors, so you will need to look for information about them offline, too.

For this phase of my searching, I do all of the following:

  • Visit the courthouse in the county where my ancestor lived, or
  • If their courthouse is too far away, I order microfilm copies of the courthouse’s record’s on FamilySearch
  • As I go, I make an inventory of what I have found, to make sure I haven’t missed anything

~ To learn what offline records FamilySearch has for your ancestor’s hometown, follow this tutorial:

~ To learn what other offline records exist for your ancestor’s hometown, look it up in the FamilySearch wiki:

~ Be sure to Google the name of your ancestor’s town with terms like “genealogy” and “records,” in order to locate additional helpful resources!

3) How to find out more about slave-holding ancestors, indentures, and intermarriage:

I can recommend the following excellent reads about slave-holding whites, their relationships with slaves, and what life was commonly like in slave-holding plantations:


white cargo book

White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh

hairstons book

The Hairstons, by Henry Weincek


kinship book

Communities of Kinship by Carolyn Earle Billingsley

4) How do you KNOW who is really descended from whom, and why aren’t there more records about this family?

Pam, I’m not Accredited for African American or gulf states research, but the following genealogists are, so you might want to consider contacting them for a consultation:

In the meantime, here are my simple answers to this question:

You will know which historical data is most accurate and what other records are out there after you study these guides:

idiots guide

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Genealogy


ft problem solver

The Family Tree Problem Solver


gen analysis

 Elements of Genealogical Analysis

Thank you for your question, Pam–as you make progress, please send me your updated research logs and charts, and I’d be happy to explore them, as well, on our site for additional discussions about your fascinating case!

Until then, good luck and happy hunting! 🙂



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Infographic: How to Find Genealogy Evidence

Today I made this infographic to help my genealogy students understand the difference between genealogical information and evidence. I hope it helps other researchers out there who are learning how to analyze historical data, too! 🙂


To save a copy of this to your research reference files, simply right-click on the image and then save it to your hard drive.

Good luck in your research, everybody–happy hunting! 🙂



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How to Find Microfilmed Genealogy Records

According to Bloomberg Businessweek, genealogy is currently ranked as the second most popular internet activity, so we know people are going online to seek out their ancestors.

However, after working as a volunteer for one of FamilySearch’s geography-specific Facebook communities, I discovered that very few of these Internet genealogy enthusiasts know how to find microfilmed versions of their ancestor’s offline records.

Alas, the largest private microfilmer of genealogical records––buries their microfilms in a hard-to-navigate catalog that takes ten steps to access, so it is an “insider secret” of sorts.

Today, I’m sharing the secret with everybody! 🙂

Here is how you can get started:

~ How to Find Microfilmed Records ~

The folks at have been traveling the world, making copies of birth, death, and marriage records everywhere since 1894. Most of these records are on microfilm–and you can rent copies of those microfilm no matter where you live!

Here’s how it works:
  • You look up the location of your ancestor on FamilySearch’s Family History Library Catalog.
  • Find the record type that interests you (land records, military records, or whatever)
  • Then you order a copy of the microfilm to be sent to the FamilySearch center nearest you (there’s one in almost every town in America).
  • You pay for shipping (currently $7.50 each)
  • When the film arrives, you can scroll through it until you find your ancestor’s military record, birth certificate, or whatever it is you are looking for, then you can make a photocopy or scan a copy to take home with you.
Below are some screen shots, to walk you through the process:

1) First: go to and click on “Search”


2) Next, click on “Catalog” at the top of the page:


3) Enter the country where you are searching, then wait while the site pulls up a list of cities. Then click on the city you are looking for:


4) Then, go to the “Search These Family History Centers” option and choose “Family History Library.” (This is where the worldwide collection of microfilms is catalogued)


5) After you click “Search,” you will be taken to a list of record types on film for that location:


6) Click on the arrow to the left of any record type, and it will drop down to reveal the name of each record collection:


7) Click on the hyperlinked title of the record collection that interests you most. This will take you to a page of detailed information about the collection, including the microfilm number. Click on that microfilm number to order a copy to be sent to you:


8) Clicking on the film number will take you to an order screen, where you can pay $7.50 to have the film sent to you at the nearest FamilySearch Center (there is one in almost every town in America).


9) Once the film arrives, the FamilySearch center will email you to let you know. You can then visit the center, scroll through the film, then copy or scan any documents with your ancestors’ names on them. You can’t take the film home with you, but you can take as many copies as you want! 🙂

Here’s a video that shows what you can expect in these centers and what the microfilm machines look like:

10) When your rental period expires, the FamilySearch center will send your film back to the Family History library, or you can pay extra to keep the film longer, if you need more time for research.

If, after reading this post, you still have questions about how to find ancestors offline, please feel free to ask me more in the “Comments” section here below! 🙂

Good luck, and happy hunting! 🙂

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How to Identify an Ancestor of Uncertain Identity

Trent has a question about his West Virginia ancestor’s identity:

My ancestor, Ivy Inice Powell (1874-?) is the most elusive ancestor I’ve researched. I believe I found her on an 1874 Birth record for Marion County, West Virginia. The thing is the person is listed as Ivines Powell. I searched every similar name I could think of, I even used “Iv*” to see if anything would come up. I found no other person in West Virginia that matched her information as closey as Ivines did, the birtdate is only a month apart, and she was born in the right county. She was also married in the same county as Ivines’ parents.I have tried every name variation for both first and last, but I believe it is the same person based on the unusual name “Ivy Inice” it seems that “Ivines” is a mixture of the two. I only found her on a marriage record and the 1900-1910 census, and then she disappears. Do you think that, based on the similarities between the two people, that they are actually the same person?

This name has only been used 1 time for her, I have tried online searches and went to the library (Downtown Columbus has a huge Genealogy department) but nothing ever turned up. I tried looking for name similarities in the children but found none. I found her name listed as Alice on her daughters death record, but every other record has ver as Ivy or Inice. I cannot find a death record, I know she divorced her husband but I don’t believe she remarried, so she either kept Hillberry or went back to Powell. I used the West Virginia archives and history website for the records.

Trent also included two record copies:

The supposed birth record for Ivy Inice/Ivines:


And the marriage record between of “Ivy Inice” to Trent’s ancestor:


Trent, misspelled names and name variations are a hallmark of genealogy research!

Because of literacy rates, re-copying of records from original sources into indexes, and other human errors, it is very common to find several different names for one person. To locate more records for Ivy/Ivines/Ivy I. so that you can more clearly establish who she was and what name she went by most often, I recommend you take the following three steps:
  1. Make a chart of everything you already know about Ivy, from the records you’ve already found. I’ll provide an example below.
  2. Expand your research to include offline records and known associates, as shown below. Note that the records you sent to me are only index entries–the actual birth records and marriage certificate remain to be found!
  3. If all the entries in the chart (from online AND offline records) don’t clearly tell you who Ivy is, draft a proof argument in which you make that conclusion on your own. I will show you how, below.

Now I’m going to give you the breakdown for these three steps:

1) Make a chart.

Take all the records–even interviews with relatives about Ivy!–and plot their information on a spreadsheet. I have started one here, based on the two records you provided to me, to show you how this might look:

Sample chart for Ivy's records

Sample chart for Ivy’s records

2) Expand your research to include offline records.

If you’ve never worked in offline records before, You can learn how it is done in the following tutorial:

When I followed the steps in the offline research article, I found a lot of great records on film for Taylor County, West Virginia, where Ivy was married:


In the image above, note how there are 13 different vital records collections (posted at the bottom of the page)? Well, when I click on the arrow next to “vital records,” I’m shown a list of collections that will definitely be of interest to you:


Be sure to look in these records for Ivy, her husband, her siblings, and any known associates, as their records will tell you a lot as well! Enter their information into your chart whenever it pertains to Ivy’s identity, or provides you with the smallest clues to her whereabouts at any given time

3) If the online AND offline records don’t clearly tell you Ivy’s name, whereabouts, and parentage, you can prove her identity and parentage yourself, by drafting a proof summary.

You can also read a sample proof summary here, and a how-to article here.

One example of a proof argument–that you will definitely want to study for ideas!–is available in this summer’s edition of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly. Here are the article’s details:

Laurel T. Baty, “Parentage of Martha Smith of Alabama and Mississippi: Overcoming Inconsistent, Incorrect, and Mission Records,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly101 (June 2013): 85-102.

Trent, once you are able to prove Ivy’s identity–whether via the records or your proof summary–you will have a story worth publishing in periodicals like the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, so be sure to keep a detailed set of research notes as you go! 🙂

Good luck, and please keep me posted as you progress through these three steps!

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How to Find an Ancestor’s Missing Parents

Blog reader Mary J. can’t find her ancestor’s parents. Sometimes, when the records don’t tell you who an ancestor’s parents are, you have to prove it yourself. My blog post today will show how this is done.

Here is Mary’s question:

My 2nd great grandmother might have been named Mary Smith, born abt 1818 and died aft 1885, all in Adams Co. Ohio I believe.  I found  marriage information for her and Job Washington Denning (1817-1904) for the year 1846, I think they married in West Union township Adams Co. Ohio.  There are several children documented being born to Job and Mary after the year 1846.
The problem is that my great grandmother Mary Jane Denning Blakemore was born in the year 1844.

My mother told me that her  grandmother ( my great-grandmother) Mary Jane Denning Blakemore 1844-1925 had two older sisters named Harriet G. Denning Vance 1841-1924 and another sister I have not been able to find any information, her name was Julia Denning. They were all born in Adams Co. I believe.


Click the image to see the entire entry.

I found information through Ancestry for Harriet Denning Vance.  One source claimed that Harriet’s mother was named Mary Grimes. I proceeded to look for Grimes families in Adams co. and did find several but really nothing specific for a Mary Grimes.

In the 1840 census for Tiffin township Adams co. Ohio I found Washington Denning ( the first name Job was omitted) listed  with two other individuals both in the 20-30 age column, one was male and the other female. Of course I am thinking the female was his wife…Mary Grimes?  But no way of finding anything else in this census decade…of course.

I also have not been able to find Job Washington Denning listed in the 1850 or 1860’s census on Ancestry I think due to  spelling errors in each census.

I am guessing that I would need to search church records for Tiffin town ship and surrounding areas for marriage and birth records.

I also  found information for my great-grandmother Mary Jane Denning that her mother was named Mary Smith….

What I ultimately would like to know my Maternal lineage going past my great grandmother Mary Jane Denning Blakemore.

Mary, what you are experiencing here is a common circumstance in genealogy: lots of “maybe” matches, but no records that point, 100%, to your ancestor’s parents.

When this happens, you should:

1) Sort out the different Marys and their records in a spreadsheet.

Using Excel, I made a sample sheet based on the limited information I received in your question to me:


Take all the information you have collected, put it into a chart, then you can begin to discover if Mary’s mother will be found via records, or via a case of circumstantial evidence.

As you can see, this spreadsheet has some holes in it. For example, you mention that “One source claimed that Harriet’s mother was named Mary Grimes.” But what source was it? This needs to be listed in the spreadsheet, so that we can weigh the information presented by different sources. Also, you never said where you got Mary Jane Denning’s birthdate (so that part is blank on the spreadsheet)

2) Expand your search to include offline records.

The records available on the internet are often riddled with scanning or indexing errors, so you will learn much more about your ancestors if you look for them in offline records. Be sure to read this article:

Here are some offline records available for Adams County, Ohio:

These are the types of records on film that can be rented at any FamilySearch Center (there is one in almost every county in the US). Click on this image to view and navigate the actual list.

Within that list, I would start with “Vital Records,” first:


Vital records for Adams County that can be rented on film at a FamilySearch Center–there is a lot that can be searched!

You will also want to look at the records for Tiffin Township, which aren’t as extensive as the county records, but worth checking out nonetheless:


Click on the image to view and navigate the actual list of records/collections


A closer look at the Tiffin Town records collections available to rent on film. Click on this image to view more.

You can also find more of Adams County’s offline records at the FamilySearch wiki page for Adams County, Ohio; it lists lots of other places you can find their records online, too. And don’t forget to use Google for genealogy–quickly Googling a couple of your ancestors’ names, I found great stuff like this Rootsweb entry.

3) Write a proof argument.

If–after extensive research in offline records–the records don’t come right out and tell you who Mary Jane Dennings’ parents are, you will have to prove who they are yourself.

To prove an ancestor’s identity without the help of direct evidence from historical records, you write a “Proof Summary” based on the circumstantial evidence (or “indirect evidence” some people call it) that the records seem to imply. To learn how this is done, I recommend that you buy a copy of The Legal Genealogist’s Legacy Webinar, entitled “Building a Family from Circumstantial Evidence.”


When the records don’t give you a smoking gun, you can sometimes piece it together yourself, with evidence from a number of sources. This lecture on CDROM will teach you how!

You can also read a sample proof summary here, and a how-to article here.

If you still feel lost or uncertain after completing steps #1 and #2 in this post, please send me your evidence log (excel sheet) and I would be happy to look over it and help you decide how to proceed. Personally, I think proof summaries are tons of fun–they really bring out the inner detective/lawyer in all of us! 🙂

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Good luck!

Looking for Irish and Italian Ancestors in New York

Jim M. needs help finding his Irish and Italian ancestors in New York. He writes:

My Great Grandfather, Gustave McCune, was born in NYC in 1848 to Patrick McCune and Mary Marchioni. There is no info that I can find on Patrick. Mary shows up in 1860 Census in NYC under her maiden name with a 12 year old son Gustave. In the 1870 Census Gustave is alone living in New Orleans. In 1871 Gustave marries Sue Burdge of New Orleans. There is a marriage record which names Gustave’s parents as Patrick McCune and Mary Marchioni which is where I got their names. I’ve been to several churches in NYC but no one seemed to have and info for me or the time to search for info. I’d like to know where they came from in Ireland and Italy and as much as possible about them.

Here’s my advice for Jim–please post YOUR advice for him in the “Comments” section at the end of this post!


  • You mention census records and visiting churches; have you tried ordering any microfilms of New York’s other records? There are thousands of different records for 1800’s NYC available on microfilm (including many of NY’s oldest church records!) that you can rent anywhere in the world via FamilySearch. Have you tried renting any of their films? I’ll include a brief tutorial to finding those films at the end of this post.
  • Also, make sure you are looking up other online records repositories, such as the New York Public Library’s genealogy page and similar sites for New Orleans.
  • As you continue searching the microfilms and web sites, be sure to follow what I call the “Basics-to-Biography” research path that I use in my own research, meaning: first, locate the most basic information via vital records and census records (“born, married, died, buried!”); second, fill in the biographical blanks with other records such as directories, newspapers (obituaries, immigrant lists, etc), land records, immigration records, court records, tax records, etc.
  • You didn’t mention Gustave’s siblings, but assuming that he had siblings, be sure to follow the “Basics to Biography” strategy for each of them, too. I often find a lot of missing family data in siblings’ records, especially obituaries or biographies!

Jim, please give these tricks a try, keep a detailed log in Excel (like the one I suggested here), then bring it back to me if you still haven’t had any luck, and we will see what the next step might be.

How to Order Microfilmed Historical Records:

  1. Go to and click on “Search” at the top of the page: 1
  2. Next, select the “Catalog” option, to search the catalog of microfilms: 2
  3. In the catalog search pane, look up the geographical area (city or county) whose films you want to find: 3
  4. All microfilms are housed at the Family History Library, so go to the “Search These Family History Centers” and select “Family History Library.” 4
  5. The results will be a list of the different records for New York that have been filmed by FamilySearch, which you can rent for free at any FamilySearch center (you have to pay for shipping and processing) 5
  6. By clicking on the arrow near “Church Records,” for example, you will find that there are inventories of NYC Catholic records on film (inventories of what records are in NYC, not the actual records themselves). Since your ancestors were likely Irish Catholic and Roman Catholic, this is a good place to look: 6
  7. There are also 193 different actual church record collections on film for NYC, too: 7
  8. Click on the title of the collection that interests you, and it takes you to a screen with detailed information about the microfilm. Depending on where in Ireland your ancestors are from, the Irish Protestant Church records of NYC might be of interest to you, too:8
  9. If this is the film you want to order, click on the film number: 9
  10. Then you will be taken to an order screen, where you can pay to have the film shipped to the nearest FamilySearch center near you. These centers are located in libraries and Mormon churches worldwide, so there is pretty much one in every mid-size town in America: 10

I look forward to hearing back from you, Jim, with your continued progress in this case.

I’ll leave the “comments” section open for my readers to chime in with their favorite NYC research tips and strategies, too.

Good luck, and happy hunting! 🙂
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