Do you have the right map? They change…

Maps change. It happens today, but it happens so slowly, we don’t really think too much of it unless the change was accompanied by headline grabbing events, such as the civil war that resulted in the disintegration of Yugoslavia into Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro & Kosovo.

Most changes are subtle, though: for example, if you were researching Sidney Kidd in Princeton, New Jersey, you wouldn’t be able to find his street address very easily on modern maps. Google maps points you to Jackson Avenue in nearby Rocky Hill, while Bing Maps would land you in the town of Nutley where Jackson street is a block over from Princeton Street.

Why can’t you find Jackson Street in Princeton, a town founded in the 1700s? Well, Jackson Street was renamed to Paul Robeson Place in 1976 after the famous African-American civil rights activist & thespian who was born in Princeton.

Of course, a change in street names doesn’t have much genealogical relevance, but changes in boundaries do, especially county boundaries.

In this video, I’ll cover four topics around map changes.

  1. When county boundaries change, the records don’t move.
  2. Use web resources such as to understand geographic boundary changes.
  3. Remember that places can disappear as well.

First, and most basic: Court records remain in the original county courthouse. For example, if your ancestor bought land in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania before 1799 and died there in 1801, you would find property records in York County registers, but probate records in Adams County.

Why? In 1800, Adams County was carved out of York County but older records weren’t moved from the York County courthouse to the new one in Adams County. Remember that records were typically transcribed into large bound ledgers, so you couldn’t break the ledgers apart and easily separate records geographically. But even if the records were stored loose leaf, it would take a lot of effort to sort through the records for little reward.

How do you track county changes? I find Wikipedia the most convenient source: most entries will tell you when the county was formed and how in the summary.

If you want to visualize it, check out, which will show every county formation and boundary change for every state in the union.

You can also do an image search on bing or google for county maps for a particular year.

Of course, this isn’t much good if a place actually disappeared. Take a look at this old map of Oregon City, Oregon (above). Across the Willamette River is a town called Linn City. Look on a modern map, and Linn City doesn’t exist. There’s a West Linn, but no Linn. What happened? Well, in the fall of 1861, relentless heavy rainfall flooded the Willamette River and destroyed the town.

Again, Wikipedia is a great resource to research a place that you can’t find on a modern map.

Research siblings to break through genealogical brick walls

Brick walls are frustrating. I’ve broken through dozens, but I have even more that I’ve been staring at for years. In this quick video, I’ll share one method of breaking through a brick wall and provide an illustrative example.

Quick version: if you run into a dead-end with your direct line, research their siblings, or even people you just suspect might be their siblings. Records associated with the sibling may help you make new connections.

If find this useful in a few different scenarios.

One is trying to determine an ancestor’s maiden name: sponsors or witnesses at baptisms tend to be family members, especially before the 1800s. If a surname crops up repeatedly, it’s a good guess that those are the mother’s siblings, aunts, uncles or even parents.

Another scenario is trying to bridge geographical gaps. It was the rare exception before 1900 that someone immigrated alone.

Ethnic Germans, for example, tended to immigrate to Colonial Pennsylvania in a group with others from their village. If you can’t trace your ancestor directly, their family in Pennsylvania may have a better trail back to Germany

Irish Catholics migrated in chains, so even if only a couple individuals were on a given ship, they already knew someone at their destination, whether it was a sibling or cousin or even a former neighbor.

Let me give you an example: a George Schlauch who died in Pelham, Ontario in early 1812. His will listed his children clearly, and a variety of evidence indicated that before moving to Canada, he lived in Berks County, Pennsylvania where he married a Catharina Gieg and started his family.

But George Schlauch was otherwise a brick wall. In 2015, one of George’s descendants, Liz Tice, asked me to help figure out who George’s parents were. There were quite a few hypotheses, and all of them could easily be disproved.

Trying to find a baptismal record for George was a pointless exercise. You can speculate that he was born between 1736 and 1740 by assuming he was in his mid- to late-twenties when he married in 1764. That also put him in his mid-70s when he died in Canada—a reasonable age for the time. But there were at least three men with that name born in Pennsylvania around then, even more in Germany.

Still, any birth year between 1720 and 1745 would fit those marriage and death years as well. And there were dozens of baptismal records for George Sloughs in Germany and Pennsylvania in that twenty-five year period.

Liz had a new hypothesis, though. That George was somehow related to a Michael Slough because of this property map which showed the two living close to each in Brecknock Township.

We couldn’t find any records tying George and Michael together, but there was a third person that seemed to connect the two: a Barbara Schlauch. When she married in 1761, her father was named as Michael Schlauch. When her son was baptized in 1783, the sponsors were the George and Catharine Schlauch we were researching.

Of course, there wasn’t much about Michael or Barbara to indicate who their parents were or where they were born either. Michael’s death in 1808 suggested he and George were of about the same age, but that was it.

But Liz had found a June 1808 record of Michael’s death and burial, which noted he was seventy-seven years and about eight months old. See the “etwa” there? That’s German for “about.” That put his birth in the fall of 1730, late October-ish.

And in the village of Gomaringen, near Tubingen, Germany, there was a record of a 2 November 1730 baptism of a Michael Schlauch born to Michael & Maria Schlauch. There were plenty of other baptismal records for Michael Schlauch in Germany, but none in the fall of 1730.

Michael’s father had several other children, including a George born in October of 1738, and a Barbara born in 1744.

Finally, in 1747, a Michael Schlauch immigrated with his family to Pennsylvania aboard the Restauration.

We couldn’t find a way to trace George’s ancestry, but by following the document trail of a potential brother, we could put the entire family story together.

Of the dozens of potential George’s, his brother led us to the right baptismal record in Germany, and broke us through that brick wall.

Distance can help distinguish between individuals with the same name & age

When you have a bunch of people with the same name living in the same state and you can’t figure out which records belong to which person, find all the records, associate them with people based on location, and then consider the reality of distance for the period.

Consider colonial Philadelphia and Manhattan: two major cities about 90 miles apart. Amtrak’s Acela train can make that trip in 90 minutes, a car can do it in two hours. But in colonial times, a horse was the more likely mode of intercity travel.

Now a horse walks at around four or five miles an hour, making the journey take about twenty hours if you canter now and again.

Ninety miles was a huge deal. In reality, before the automobile, your ancestors’ family, friends, associates and neighbors were probably all within a two-hour radius—six miles on foot, ten on horse. If you see records for what appears to be the same person in towns twenty or thirty miles apart at about the same time prior to 1850 or 1860, you can bet they are actually two different people.

Why you should delete people from your tree

Why do we keep all these people in our family trees?

At one point, I had close to six thousand individuals in my public tree on Some branches of my public tree were meticulously researched over many years, but others are merely copied from other trees, or represent basic, easy-to-reproduce research that I no longer maintain because I don’t really care about those people.

When I look at a person in my public tree, I ask myself three questions:

  1. Am I making a significant contribution to the person or lineage?
  2. If I’m not making a big contribution, have I at least done enough due diligence to feel confident that the information on my tree is correct?
  3. If I haven’t done my due diligence, then do I really care about this person or lineage?

If I can’t answer yes to at least one of those questions, I delete that person from my tree.

Why? What harm is it to have some extra branches in my tree?

Genealogy today is really a crowd-sourced exercise—we all borrow and rely upon the work of others, adding our unique contributions here and there. That means we copy errors from other trees, and errors in our tree can be copied elsewhere, magnifying the mistake.

That’s the harm, and it is extremely difficulty to stop the spread of an error because… well, large parts of most trees are just copied, and the owners of those trees don’t really care about the branch with the error.

More important, the repetition of the error can create an illusion of truth: the more times you see the erroneous lineage, the more likely you will believe it to be true.

It’s all a bit of a vicious circle.

My favorite example is a Pennsylvania Dutchman named George Slough. There were several men by that name, and thirty or forty years ago, a family researcher merged the George Slough who migrated to Pelham Ontario from Pennsylvania in the 1790s with a George Slough of about the same age who died unmarried and childless in Pennsylvania in 1759. It’s quite easy to prove they are different men, but with dozens of trees and a long-accepted genealogy, not a single person has modified their trees, even though I can provide an alternate lineage. A few have even been openly hostile to me.

The same goes for supposition and educated guesses: given enough time, a guess can morph into fact.

A great is George Harding, my wife’s purported 3rd great grandfather. Every tree I’ve seen on ancestry and familysearch list him as such along with a detailed lineage for him going back generations. I copied the entire thing but when I dug in more deeply months later, I couldn’t find any evidence that George or his parents even existed.

Eventually, I traced the source for his existence—a genealogy researched in the 1970s which explicitly stated that the only evidence was a handwritten note on the fly-leaf of a book, and that researcher couldn’t find any further evidence. They even wrote that they hoped someone in the future would have better luck!

Not a single tree recorded that this lineage was just a guess, and now that it’s been 40 years, it’s essentially become fact. That’s no help to anyone.

The DAR has tough-to-find genealogy resources

Not every good genealogical resource is indexed and available from a major genealogy website, or orderable from the Family History Library, or requestable via inter-library loan. Sometimes you need to dig.

Major genealogical societies and local historical societies are also useful repositories, and these groups often have niche sources that are too costly for the major websites to obtain.

Most of the time, you won’t really know what these smaller repositories have unless you visit (or hire someone to visit for you). The Daughters of the American Revolution are an exception, and in this video, I’ll show you the resources you can obtain from that site.

There are two main sources to look at in the DAR’s Genealogical Research System, or GRS.

The first is the Genealogical Records Committee search or GRC search. As I understand it, the various DAR chapters around the country visit churches, graveyards, and other repositories to transcribe their registers. These are then reported in to DAR headquarters and indexed in the GRC.

For example, I spent quite some time trying to prove that a Jeremiah Van Fleet from Ohio married a woman named Margaret Armstrong, but at the time, I couldn’t find any records to prove it.

Searching for Jeremiah in the GRC, I get two results, one showing wedding records. If you click on the page number, you can see the other names on the page, and there’s a Margaret Armstrong. I ordered the report, and it confirmed that Jeremiah married Margaret Armstrong. Of course, it’s been five years, and that record is now easily available, but you get the idea.
The second type of information is the Ancestor search which will get you secondary sources—genealogies with citations.

You can also search for a particular ancestor: Let’s search for Bernard Slough—my wife’s lineage to him is how we got into the DAR. Start by clicking on this red tree icon: this will bring up a listing of genealogies the DAR has approved. The first item brings up my wife’s lineage starting with her great-grandmother. The second is that of another member.

The third major option is purchase a copy of a DAR member’s application and any supplemental material. The DAR has tightened it’s standard of proof, so the most recent applications will have the most detail. 

I recommend buying all the lineages and supporting documentation, but if you don’t want to spend that much cash, pick the lineage with the highest member number. Member numbers are assigned sequentially, so the higher the number, the more recent the application.

And if you’re expecting to get your hands on the supplemental documentation, it’s really important to note that, prior to 1984, the DAR didn’t even retain a copy of supporting documentation. So make sure you’re ordering a recent application.

Proving your lineage to others using an independent genealogy organization

Proving a lineage to my satisfaction is one thing, but I’ve run into numerous situations where I had trouble convincing others I was right. For one particular lineage, serious researchers, including myself, had been led astray so many times because there were so many men with the same name in the same region, it was hard to feel confident of any new theory.

I proved that lineage to my satisfaction, but I couldn’t convince anyone else to sign on. It didn’t help that the lineage I found had such a compelling tie to America’s national founding story.

The lineage included a Pennsylvania German whose unit in the Revolution had crossed the Delaware with George Washington on Christmas Day of 1776. There’s no way to tell whether he was one of the 1/3rd of troops that were sick and stayed behind, but I know he was with Washington a week or so later in the lead-up to the Battle of Princeton. He lost his left leg during that seminal moment in the Revolution, a fact which was recorded in his application for a pension years later.

That story, though, gave me a potential neutral arbiter: the Daughters of the American Revolution. In this video, I’ll share my experience with getting my wife into the DAR.

The first thing you need to consider is the application form. It is long, and it can be tedious to fill out. And while you may be thinking about how to prove relationships between your long-deceased ancestors, the DAR makes you start by proving your immediate lineage, starting with your parents.

And you may not have those documents: I mean, why would you need your parents’ birth certificates and marriage license for your research? You know who they are. But the DAR doesn’t know who your parents and grandparents are, so you’ll need to prove every step.

You also have to rely on primary source documents. The DAR won’t even consider trees on as evidence. If you do need to rely on a published genealogy, it had better be a secondary source, loaded with citations.

You’ll need to provide the DAR copies of all documents from your lineage that aren’t easily available. Basically,you’ll need copies of everything except for census records.

Which documents you need vary by period. For people born after 1900, you’ll need birth, marriage & death certificates for each one. In contrast, pre-1850, you’ll need parish records and probate documents that explicitly state relationships. You can make logical arguments when you lack an explicitly stated relationship but expect those to face a lot of scrutiny. You’ll want multiple pieces of supporting evidence.

While this may be a bit tedious, it’s actually a fantastic exercise because it forces you to go back and validate each step of your lineage. You might even notice something you’d overlooked that will help break through other brick walls.

Once you’ve got all this together, you’ll end up with two reviewers. First is the genealogy lead for your local DAR chapter. Her job is to make sure your application is up-to-snuff, and she will almost certainly come back to you with questions and clarifications. In my case, she not only double-checked my affirmative lineage, but she double-checked some of the different men with the same name living in the same region that I had ruled out—she wanted to understand the whole story.

Once she felt confident in the lineage, she mailed it into DAR HQ in D.C. where a second and final reviewer would approve or reject the application. This step took a couple of months, but that was it, my wife was in.

As to the other serious researchers… getting that independent verification was enough to make them believe in the new lineage. 

If you don’t understand your ancestors’ cultures you’ll make mistakes

When I research my wife’s and my ancestry, I sometimes make a subtle mistake: forgetting the differences of culture.

I’ve seen major cultural changes in my own lifetime, whether it’s social media’s major impact on truth, the internet’s change in how we consume news media, and the decreasing freedom that children have to explore the world without their parents.

Human culture changes dramatically, and in very little time. I know I have a tendency to assume that my ancestors’ cultures weren’t that different from my culture, and that can result in jumping to conclusions and making mistakes.

Let me give you a few examples just to highlight how crazy past cultural practices were.

Take Martin Luther’s marriage to Katherine von Bora in 1525. The custom among ethnic Germans was that the marriage was consummated before the wedding—the marriage and the wedding were two distinct events, and the wedding at the church couldn’t take place if the marriage hadn’t been consummated.

That’s not the weird part, though: there had to be a witness to the consummation. As Eric Metaxas writes in his biography of Luther,

after the small ceremony, the couple were escorted to their bedroom in the cloister, where [Luther’s friend] Jonas did the curious honors, watching the two become one flesh literally and figuratively. There was often an observation deck above the bed, though this detail seems not to have been observed in this case.

Can you imagine that the witnesses to your marriage license didn’t just have to sign the paper, but that they had to watch you and your spouse have sex? Privacy had a completely different meaning in 1500s Holy Roman Empire.

What does this mean for genealogy? Because culture varied dramatically, the message here is to immerse yourself in the history of ancestors, especially when things don’t make sense. You can probably find a book about the daily lives of normal people for any period & country. If you look carefully, you may even find one with genealogists as the intended audience.

Let me give you some examples from my favorite book on Colonial culture: David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s seed.

On page 114, Fischer described Puritan death ways, saying “In early New England, corpses were hurried into the ground with little ceremony… The grave was marked by a simple granite rock, or a rough wooden paling.”

Virginians were so spread out that it was cumbersome to transport bodies to a church that could be miles away, so people were buried in graves in special gardens close to home. Tombstones were rarely used, again considering the cost to transport one. Besides, it was your garden, so you knew where the graves were.

To put it another way, you won’t find graveyards with tombstones of genealogical value in early New England or Virginia. And if you see records for these, be skeptical.
Onomastics or naming ways were also important. Fischer noted that Pennsylvania Quakers typically named their first son and daughter according to a strict pattern, of “honoring the mother’s father and the father’s mother” first. While it wasn’t a 100% thing, that gives you a great clue for getting to the next generation.

Virginians also typically named their first-born children after their grandparents, but in this case, it was the male line that mattered. The first-born son was named for his paternal grandfather, the second-born son after his father.

Virginians also used a mother’s maiden name as a forename for sons—for example, the son of Joseph Chew and Ruth Larkin was named Larkin Chew.

All great clues for discovering the next generation back.

By contrast, New England Puritans often named the first son after his father, and the first daughter after her mother. They also embraced necronyms or naming a newborn after a deceased sibling. Fischer notes that 80% of the time a child died, the next child born of the same sex was given the name of the deceased child.

Puritans also had the singular practice of closing their eyes, pointing to a page in the bible, and naming their child after that word. That’s why you’ll see names such as Thankful, Wrestling and Notwithstanding.

Re-read everything — Genealogy brick walls

Brick walls are frustrating. I’ve broken through dozens, but I have even more that I’ve been staring at for years. In this quick video, I’ll share one method of breaking through a brick wall and provide an illustrative example.

Quick version: just go back and re-read everything you’ve collected. Don’t just skim it. Read it, and anytime you encounter something that doesn’t add up, look at it more closely.

Let me say that again. Read. Everything. Closely. Because this one of the hardest things you will do in genealogy. Why? You have to fight yourself. You’ll place more weight on your memory—which is plastic and unreliable—than in the document in front of you. You’ll suffer from confirmation bias, which is when you ignore or discount evidence that doesn’t support your existing conclusion. You’ll be overconfident in how you interpreted a given document.

If you’re going to use this brick wall technique, make sure you have a good chunk of free time with few distractions, so you’ll have the patience to review things your brain won’t want to review.

Let me give you an example: Jane M Haggerty, my third great-aunt. I had pulled together a clear map from her birth in Delaware on 4 July 1852, through the 1870 U.S. Census, but she disappeared after that when she was in her twenties.

I figured she either died or got married but I couldn’t make any progress at all. It was like she just vanished. That was the case for two of her sisters as well. I was struggling with all three sisters, and one morning when my wife and kids were out of town, I decided to re-review everything I had.

One document had an oddity: a typed record of the Haggerty burial plot at Old Cathedral Cemetery in West Philadelphia that my Uncle Jim had put together in 1989. A young woman named Mary J. Hunsinger and her three children were buried in that plot, but they weren’t anywhere in our family tree. I had just dismissed them the first few times I reviewed the document.

I also reviewed some notes my grandfather had written down one day when his dementia was in full force. Among other disconnected memories, he noted that his mother had given the title to the burial plot to his sister.

That meant old George Haggerty, Jane’s father, had purchased the lot, which I hadn’t realized. So if George owned that lot, why were four unrelated people buried there? It made no sense.

It was an oddity, so I ran it down. That’s the whole point of re-reviewing everything you have. If something doesn’t fit, or there’s a fact you missed, go check it out.

I searched for death records for a Mary J. Hunsinger and found a record for a Mary Jane Hunsinger whose date of death matched the one in the burial plot record. I was shocked to see that Mary Jane’s residence at death was 2213 Lombard Street, which was George Hagerty’s home in Philadelphia’s seventh ward. Then I looked up the death records of the three Hunsinger children, and two of the three had died at 2213 Lombard Street as well. What was this family doing living with my 3rd great-grandfather and his family?

Could this be Jane M. Haggerty?

I looked back over everything I had on Jane M. Haggerty and noticed her baptismal record named her as Johanna Maria. I had never bothered to type out her full middle name, I just left it as “M” from when I first found her in census records.

Several of Jane’s sisters swapped their middle & first names at various points in their lives. Jane must have done the same. I’d found her, along with her three children. They weren’t unrelated strangers buried in George Hagerty’s burial plot. They were his family.
It’s worth noting that I figured this all out five years ago, in 2013. When drafting the script for this video in 2018, I noticed a baby named Lena Haggerty was buried in George’s plot as well. She wasn’t anywhere in my tree. Even though I had pored over that burial plot and discovered a tragic branch of my tree, I never bothered to investigate that entry.

Little Lena Haggerty had died at 2213 Lombard Street as well. She was born to Jane’s brother, John Haggerty and his wife, Mary. John had died in 1880, and while his death certificate noted that was married at the time, I had no idea what his wife’s given name was until now.

Genealogy tools need to support more naming conventions

I just finished a video about differences in German naming conventions from today’s naming conventions in the U.S., and I started thinking about how dated and culturally biased most genealogy tools are.

Why do German naming conventions highlight this? Well, take a look this branch of my wife’s family tree in 1600s and 1700s Baden-Württemberg. Look at all those guys named Johann. Of course, they weren’t all named Johann, not really. Ethnic Germans from this period were typically known by their middle names, not their first names.

But is completely beholden to Anglo-centric naming conventions and shortens those incredibly important middle names to a single letter. Ancestry also places a greater weight on that first name in searches, so I have to manually delete Johann to get meaningful results.

Another group of white, western Europeans has another variation on Anglo-centric naming: those of Spanish descent may have two surnames. The father’s first surname typically precedes the mother’s first surname. But modern sources tend to be anglo-centric, and the first surname is the only one recorded. When I was researching my sister’s partner’s Cuban ancestors, I had all sorts of trouble with the incorrect way’s search tools handled family names.

And it’s not like I’m not being hyper politically correct or something here. I’m talking about different practices of three different groups of white western Europeans. But all the genealogy tools out there only support a single cultural norm.

Still, genealogy isn’t just a Western European hobby. Working in the tech sector, my co-workers come from all around the world, and everybody is interested in their family history. For example, I know that Brahmin Hindus have maintained detailed genealogies across twenty+ generations. I was also told of a massive boulder in Mongolia upon which one Mongol family carved their family history over the course of generations.

So… if you’re of Han Chinese ancestry and record your family name first and your given name second, genealogy tools force you to use the anglo-centric convention. Or you’re of Egyptian Muslim ancestry, and prior to name standardization about a century ago (when people were required to use their paternal grandfather’s given name as a surname), your ancestors were typically known by your father’s name and possibly a tribal name. I might have been known as Michael bin Yusuf or Michael bani O’Neill, and I’m quite sure’s search tool would return every single ibn and bani as a match.

Thing is, these aren’t hard things to build into code. Again, I work in the tech sector, and I can see in my mind how to abstract multiple naming conventions from the storage layer.

But I don’t think any genealogy tools company has bothered to do the work, not because it’s hard, but because it would be different.

Best way to capture hard-copy citations

I found a fun video from Family History Fanatics listing seven common genealogy mistakes. I’ve made every single one of these mistakes, and have developed some guidelines for avoiding them.

The fifth one was not citing sources, which refers to writing down a fact you discovered in a non-digital source but forgetting to write down where you found it.

I’ve done that. Drove me nuts when I wanted to go back to confirm some tidbit. My solution to this is sitting in my pocket, combined with two free apps, Office Lens and OneNote.

When you find a source, pull out your phone and take a photo. And don’t just take a picture of the page with the fact, take a picture of the container, too. For a book, the title page at the front is perfect. For a microfilm, if the machine can’t take images, just take a picture of the box before you start taking snaps of the screen. If the machine can scan images, name the file with the FHL film number, or something similar.

Pretty quickly, though, you’ll run into issues managing all those images. I ran into this app called Office Lens, available for iOS, Android & Windows. Full disclosure, I worked on the Office team at one point. Anyway, it’s a really simple premise: take a series of related photo with Office Lens, and the images are transferred to a page in OneNote.

Let me show you how it works. I’ve got this genealogy of Mayflower families. First, I take a picture of the title page. Then I add another image of the page I care about—I think you can take up to ten before you need to save. Then I save the images to OneNote and put in a quick title.

When I go to OneNote, all the images are there on one page. Even better, OneNote uses optical character recognition, so you can search through the text from your images.

It’s so much faster than what I used to do: typing in a citation and the information I wanted.

OneNote is also a big plus for capturing sources from websites. When you go to the Insert section of the ribbon and choose screen clipping, OneNote will not only copy your selection from the computer screen, but it will get the hyperlink from the browser as well, so you can go back to find that anytime.