Saturday, September 26, 2015

Sideways Searching - Exploring Collateral Relationships in Genealogy

I thought I would revisit a post from March of 2014 on "sideways searching" and share that today.

Most of the time I concentrate on one specific ancestor at a time, and then their parents, and their parents, and so on. If I included every single sibling and their families, I would have a huge family file full of distant cousins. I would also find myself getting confused and clicking around my family file too much. As it is, with all the intermarriages in my ancestry, things are tricky enough.

So my personal policy is only to bother including siblings from 1850 to present (and full families for 1900 to present), or a distant cousin's lines if that person and we are working together.

Of course, some researchers always include siblings, no matter what. It all depends on personal preference. I prefer to keep my file limited to direct ancestors for the most part.

But there is one other instance where I include collateral relationships, and that is when I hit a brick wall or need additional information on a family. This "sideways searching" can be important for many reasons - not just helping eliminate brick walls. Developing a fuller, more complete picture of a family might lead to evidence we wouldn't have located otherwise.

For example, my ex-husband's Hawksley line is one of the most fascinating families I am actively researching. Based upon a wide variety of sources, we know this family goes back to John Goodwin Hawksley of Mars Hill, Maine. John was probably born in Frederickton, New Brunswick, Canada, on February 8, 1810.

But the question was always this: who were John's parents?

Over the years, I've compiled records that help give a more complete picture of this family. John and his wife, Lucy, had a son - Samuel - who died in the Civil War. They had other sons who served and survived, so it was Samuel I was most interested in.

Why? Because since Samuel was a young, unmarried man, his parents could claim a pension for his service in the war, which means they provided all the pertinent information necessary to obtain the pension - names, places, and dates of marriages and births.

Sure enough, Samuel's Civil War Pension file gave me a great deal of insight about John Goodwin Hawksley, his wife, and children, and his life in general. It told me all about John's health issues, and how much he and Lucy relied upon Samuel to take care of the family farm. It is a gold mine of information.

But it still didn't answer the question about his parents.

Fortunately, searching "sideways" through one of John's siblings and her family did answer the question about one of their parents. John had three sisters (two of whom still bear fleshing out), and one was Margaret Elizabeth Hawksley who married Isaac Adams on 3 October 1833 in Prince William, New Brunswick, Canada.

Margaret's daughter, Mary Elizabeth (Adams) Foster wrote a letter that gave me insight about their parents - an Englishman named Hawksley, and a woman from New Jersey with the surname of Goodwin, who later remarried a Madigan.

That was a "Whoa!" moment for me when I read through those papers in the NEHGS manuscript collection, because I had found an 1860 census entry with a Mary Madigan living with Margaret (Hawksley) Adams. Thanks to the letter, I realized Mary Madigan was Margaret and John's mother. (There was an Irish family also living with Margaret Adams at the time, and I am still trying to figure out if there is any relationship.)

So that's just a little story about the importance of seeking out siblings when you have a family mystery on your hands. Sometimes, they have the answers.

Copyright (c) 2015 Wendy L. Callahan

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Colleges & Universities: Underutilized Repositories

I never considered visiting a college or university library before, until a Google search led me to a book that led me to a university that led me to a manuscript collection.

Specifically, the relative I sought was William Winsor, my 3rd great-grandfather. He last appeared in the 1860 census in Duxbury, Plymouth County, Massachusetts, and that was that. I thought I had a brick wall until a Google search revealed a man of the same name was a lighthouse keeper at Tatoosh Island in Washington state.

More research revealed he had migrated west with other men from Duxbury - Rufus Holmes and Alexander Sampson. After the initial Google searches gave me more information and a few mentions in books, I went to the Rootsweb message boards for Clallam County in Washington State and posted a query.

The responses from another member yielded some interesting results, including diaries and personal letters, both available from the University of Washington Library and Special Collections.

So it's always worth investigating local colleges and universities to see if their libraries offer more than you expected, such as special collections or manuscripts. A good place to start is their website to see what they have. They may even offer a searchable index of materials and/or people and places mentioned in such materials. That is how the Rootsweb user who found links for me managed to find my great-great-great grandfather in the University of Washington's collections.

If you're looking for collections including personal documents, reach out to the university in the area where your ancestor lived and worked. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Copyright (c) 2015 Wendy L. Callahan

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Headstone Photography: Dos and Don'ts

You're at the cemetery, having finally found the one you were looking for (possibly behind a cul-de-sac of houses, after traipsing through yards, trying to figure out why your GPS led you here). Now that you finally found the cemetery itself, you're on the hunt for the gravestone you want. It has to be here.

But many of the gravestones are so weathered, it looks as if the engravings have worn down to point where all you have are stone slabs sticking up from the ground. Is that a 4 or a 9? Was that person 32 or 82 when they died?

There are many techniques for making the information on a headstone stand out. Unfortunately, some of them are outdated and detrimental to the stones themselves.


For a very long time, using chalk was a popular method for making a gravestone readable. However, chalk is abrasive, and can also stain the stones. Other methods, such as using flour or shaving cream to make the engraving stand out, are just as dangerous. Flour can seep into the pores of the stone and contribute to flaking, expansion, and cracking. The chemicals in shaving cream will ultimately cause the deterioration of the stone.

In fact, you shouldn't use any food items, beauty items, writing implements, paints, abrasives, or cleaners on a gravestone. So what can you do to make the engraving stand out for reading, transcribing, or photographing?


First, try the most basic substance of all - water. Spraying a headstone with water may darken the engravings so that you can read and photograph them. Later on, you can use a photo editing program to enhance the image.

A method I like to use when I make a spontaneous stop at a cemetery is simply tracing with my fingers. Running my fingertips over the engravings usually helps me determine the difference between similar looking numbers or letters.

Sometimes, it's a simple matter of redirecting the light to reflect off the engraving. However, since not everyone drives around with a large mirror in their car, there is another way to read gravestones that can save space and allow you to get a detailed photograph - aluminum foil. Simply press the foil against the headstone and use a wet sponge to rub it. The imprint won't last, so this is your opportunity to take a photograph (probably of the stone both with and without the foil is best) for posterity.

I'd love to know about your successes with these safe techniques for headstone photography, especially if you've used the foil method! 

Headstone Photography: Dos & Don'ts

Copyright (c) 2015 Wendy L. Callahan

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Automated Searching With Google Alerts

Between work and family, finding time for genealogy can be very challenging for me. I love to research, to poke at my brick walls and see if they’ll poke back, to add new tidbits of information to my family tree so I can better understand and imagine my ancestors’ lives.

So when I sometimes have to go weeks – even months! – without having a moment to sit down and do a little digging, I get a little grumpy. It can even turn into an, “I really have to do this” feeling, and that’s not how I want to feel at all. I want genealogy to be one of those relaxing passions I pursue for the love of it, not because I feel obligated to give my ancestors some attention. 

Fortunately, there is a fantastic way to automate your searching and get results delivered right to your inbox. In fact, you’re probably already well aware that Google Alerts can do this for you, but have you actually tried it? If not, what are you waiting for? 

Setting Up Google Alerts 

Google Alerts makes it very easy to put the internet to work for you each and every day. Perhaps you’ve exhausted all the search results on Grandpa Edward. Maybe you type his name into Google from time to time in hopes of seeing something new, but aren’t rewarded very often. Or perhaps one day you come up with a number of fresh hits and wonder just how long these new results have existed, waiting for you to find them. 

Using Google Alerts means you don’t have to miss a thing and you don’t have to work hard for it, either. It’s very simple to set up an Alert.

1. Visit

2. Enter the terms you want Google to monitor for you, such as “Edward Smith Jones” and anything else to make sure they pull the results you really want, such as a state, county, or town.

Like any search, being too specific can work against you, so try to keep your search broad but within a few degrees of the information you definitely want/need. This isn’t as tough with relatives who have fairly uncommon names, but if you have good ol’ Smiths and Johnsons, you will need to add specifics to help differentiate your Smith or Johnson from others. 

3. Save the alert. 

Once the alert is saved, Google does the rest. They deliver results to your inbox daily, if they hit upon results daily. 

I’ve found that with genealogical searches, I can go weeks or months without seeing a hit on a particular name. But it also saves me from sitting down and thinking to myself, “I haven’t done a search for Grandpa Edward for a few months. I wonder if there’s anything new.” 

I’ve used Google for a number of ongoing searches, from genealogy to alerts on items I might want to purchase, to following news on a book release I’m anticipating. It’s a versatile tool that, of course, is only as good as you make it. 

So if you haven’t set up some alerts for Google to deliver directly to your inbox, why not give it a try? Also, if you know of an even better tool to automate research, please let me know in the comments!

Automated Searching With Google

Copyright (c) 2015 Wendy L. Callahan