Folklore, Genealogy, and the Holiday Season

So many festive events, so little time.

While it is VERY bad form to work on your laptop while sitting on the couch in the middle of a holiday meal or party, it is possible to add to your family tree during the joy and mirth surrounding the Christmas tree or the Hanukkah bush.

In fact, it’s a great idea to LEAD the joy and mirth with a little skillfully-masked genealogy.

Are you going to be around family members or long-time family friends this season? Use the opportunity to do a little folkloric research! All you need is a good recording app on your phone or tablet, or a recording program and a microphone attached to your laptop.

Recent experience combined with ancient undergraduate training have taught me a few things:

  1. Get permission and agreement before you start recording.
  2. Warn people a day or two ahead about subject matter so that their memories can start churning.
  3. Refresh your recollection by examining your tree before the session. Decide on a focus.
  4. Take some photos or family documents with you, and use them to refresh the recollections of your subjects.
  5. Make sure everybody is comfortable before starting. Get the babies down for naps, fetch coffee or cocoa for participants, or get folks lickered-up – whatever works for your people. I’m not here to judge.
  6. Keep some water, lozenges and tissues handy for dry throats and damp eyes.
  7. Test with a short recording of yourself in the space you intend to use, with the equipment you intend to use. Make sure that everything works before your subjects are seated and ready.
  8. If you can, have a back-up plan: take a phone and a tablet, a tablet and a laptop-plus-mic. Don’t miss golden opportunities to being thwarted by technology.
  9. Ask open-ended questions that demand more than a “yes” or “no.” Examples include “What’s your earliest memory about your parents?” or “Who’s the oldest ancestor you knew?” “Where was your family during World War II?” or “What do you remember about living in (town name)?”
  10. Only participate in the story-telling process to prompt others – this isn’t about your memories, it’s about their memories. Ask questions to fill in blanks that you may notice, or say things like “I remember” or “didn’t she say…?” but otherwise, be the interviewer. It’s fun, but for you, this should be work.
  11. Once people are in the flow (it may take a few minutes), take notes if you find yourself wanting to interject. Come back around to questions that go unanswered.
  12. Encourage participants to take notes, too, so that they can return to stories and questions.
  13. Manage your interviewees, politely but firmly.
  14. Allow story-tellers to egg one another on, but keep to the intended thread of discussion.
  15. Stop the process every two hours or so. Folks need a bathroom and a stroll from time to time.
  16. BACK UP YOUR FILES TO THE CLOUD, GOOGLE DRIVE, WHEREVER ELSE THEY MAY BE SAFE. I recently lost 3 hours of my father’s memories because of a blip with my phone. Don’t let that happen to you!
  17. Make CDs of the recordings, make them available via Drop Box or ShareFile another file-sharing service. Remember that you are only ever the steward of this information; it belongs to everyone in your family.
  18. Most important of all, have fun. This is the season of merriment. Even if the babies are screaming and people interrupt each other with conflicting accounts, let it roll. This is your family. Your descendants will enjoy the disarray and madness as much as they will the stories themselves.

If you do this, be sure to come back to the blog and post how it went!

What Are Your Favorite Family Recipes?

This may seem an odd place for a food discussion, but bear with me.

I am in a wonderful genealogy group on Facebook called DNA Tested African Descendants. The administrator is so good at eliciting responses and building conversations around a variety of topics! It’s a very enjoyable group.

The admin asked about family foods, but as we are coming into the holiday season for many religions and cultures, I want to broaden the question.

  • Who were the great cooks and bakers in your family?
  • Did they grow their own food?
  • What are your favorite dishes that your parents and grandparents used to make?
  • What foods from childhood do you miss?
  • What were your favorite holiday foods?
  • Would you share a recipe with us here?

Please post your replies here on the blog, or on the Facebook page. Thanks so much, and may your holidays be enjoyable!

PS: Plan ahead and use family get-togethers as a time to record your relatives’ stories on audio recording.

How African Americans Use DNA Testing to Connect with Their Past

If you are European-American (white), your ancestors wrote the rules and kept the records. They were a part of the white power structure that allowed and supported slavery and Jim Crow.

Your records are relatively easy to find.

If you are descended of the African Diaspora, your family is in splinters, and your history is obscured by an official view of you and yours as 3/5 of a human being (check Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the US Constitution).

Records before 1870, for people of color, are frequently “the ungettable get.” Before that, the nation was at war or practicing slavery and was, at best, recording the existence of the enslaved as taxable chattel, identified by gender and age (no names) on Slave Schedules. They had no surnames.

Enslaved persons were also, rarely, listed by name in extant wills that conveyed their ownership between slavers’ family members. Free persons of color, who are listed in Federal Censuses in 1850 and 1860 by first and last name and shown in family groups, were rare.

DNA is a fun extension of a hobby for most white researchers, but for black researchers (and adopted researchers, fostered researchers or researchers with some element of unclear parentage), DNA is ESSENTIAL to building a family tree. Genetic genealogy is not a hobby or “fun” for those in minority American culture, it is compulsory. Majoritarian American populations should remember this as they work.

It’s easy to say “I’m Swedish-American” or “I’m Irish-American” with a degree of certainty supported by documentation of immigrant ancestors’ life activities. Passage records, naturalization papers, and even censuses show white researchers’ national origins, emigration dates, and even cities of European origin.

To be “African-American” is to say “my ancestors were kidnapped from the second-largest continent on the planet, but I don’t know when or where. I have no national or tribal identification. I have no quantifiable or qualifiable roots.” To test DNA in the face of that enormous, gaping hole is to say “science, please help show me who I am.”

For some great information, please read How African Americans Use DNA Testing to Connect With Their Past in The Atlantic, a wonderful digital magazine.

If you are white and you are utilizing DNA testing, please know that existing records are much better for you than for your black cousins. If you are approached by a black cousin on Ancestry, My Heritage or, please work with your cousin to identify your common ancestor. Your assistance means the world. So does your education about the real differences between white and black genealogical research strategies.

Exciting Announcement: Podcast!

We are working on a new podcast! It will feature nitty-gritty information about best use of different types of resources in online research, best practices, and best evidence (aka genie hygiene).

It will help you to go from paper to people, to gain an understanding of your ancestors’ lives and make them less abstract than a line on a census record in scary handwriting.

No timeframe yet, but I’d say keep your eyes and ears open for a debut this Summer.

Digitally Gathering Family Lore

Over Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year’s, I’d like to encourage everyone to take advantage of family gatherings, or technology, or both, to talk with family elders and record valuable stories about your ancestors.

Ways to do this:

• Write a list of open-ended questions to start discussions, like “What do you remember best about life in Peoria?” or “What was Grandmother Pickell like? What stories did she tell?”

• Use your phone or a digital recorder to record storytelling at the dinner table

• Schedule a little time for storytelling with your elders away from the noise and bustle of kids and cooking and the opening of presents

• Use a call recording app while speaking on your cell phone with relatives

• Use multiparty calling and record your calls so that far-flung relatives can tell their memories of specific stories together – collaboration can aid memory

• Use Facetime, Skype, Google Hang or a similar program or app in combination with a recorder app to get video as well as audio when talking with relatives in other locations

And above all, name and identify all mp3 and mp4 recordings, and back them up to the cloud immediately!! You can edit them and add them to your family tree later, preserving family lore for future generations. Don’t let a spilled gravy boat destroy your work.

Automatic Call Recorder for Android

Automatic Call Recorder for Android

I recommend a call recorder app like this one. It doubles as a voice recorder, allows file naming and notes for each recording.

A most merry and blessed Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Solstice to all – may peace be with you and yours at this special time. And Happy New Year!! May 2017 bring advances to us all in our knowledge and in our capacity to help others.

What Are You Learning from ROOTS on The History Channel?


What are you learning from ROOTS? What did you already know? What do you think viewers SHOULD know? I’d really like answers to this!!

I have learned that song has always been an instrument of rebellion, from singing in a native tongue to communicate, to using the appearance of obedience and even (celebration? I don’t know the word I want but it’s something that whites would interpret that way) in English to give one another support and pass messages.

The true craft and intelligence involved in survival is a lesson that everyone could take, I think. But it proves what I’ve always known – that being a slave or being slave-descended is a testament to surviving the extremes that many others have not encountered. For those of us who don’t live in that descent or space, it is a challenge to understand but a necessity to respect and support.

Another thing that is played out before my eyes in ROOTS is the constant watchfulness, the endurance necessary to get through a day, and the PTSD that is now understood to be generational as a result of this constant vigilance against violence.

I was just witness to a White Supremacist rampage in a black genetic genealogy group. This supremacist claimed to be due reparations because his European ancestors were forced into military servitude. He said it was the same thing as African-Americans deserving reparations. In so doing, he mocked the African-American experience. This is an apples-and-oranges comparison. All forced duties and enslavements are bad things, for certain, but the experience of Black America is unlike anything else.

I watch this show, ROOTS, seemingly just a TV show, and I learn at greater depths the generational trauma still suffered by black America exists in the DNA, and that this has already been proven scientifically. I can understand it at a distance though I have not experienced it genealogically.

ROOTS episodes 1 and 2 are available online and on Roku; the remaining two episodes are showing on Lifetime, A&E and The History Channel.

All of these things are valuable learning experiences. What do you say?

Best Practices: Ancestry Profiles, pt. 2

We now return to the fun that is Being a Good Citizen on Ancestry. We left off on the top of the page marked Member Profile. We’ll pick up from there.

One of the greatest contributions you can make to the Ancestry community is to let people know what you’d be willing to do for them and who, overall, you are.

Scrolling further down the Member Profile screen from where we left off in the last post, you’ll see the giant orange button to click so that you can edit your profile. When you click on it, you get this view.

ancestry 3

Each section has its own grey EDIT button. We’ll go section by section.

Click on the edit button in the box directly below the orange SWITCH TO PUBLIC VIEW button. It opens the section called Help Other Ancestry Members. Indicate here whether you feel comfortable helping others with their research. This isn’t necessarily about building trees with names – the options include:

  • Retrieve a record from a local repository (government, church, society, etc.)
  • Look up and copy a document from a local library
  • Take pictures of tombstones from a local cemetery
  • Take pictures of local buildings or other landmarks
  • Offer advice about research
  • Translate a document or offer other translation help

Tick the boxes for all of the things you can do for others. Remember, genealogy is a cooperative endeavor, and any help you can give others will come back to you. When you’ve indicated what (if any) you can do for others, hit SAVE.

Next, hit EDIT on the area titled About. You’ll get a pop-up window with three tab options.

Tab 1 is Personal Info. It’s pretty self-explanatory. Add everything from the drop-down menus that will be of help to others. If you don’t want to reveal much about yourself, that’s fine. The options include:

  • Gender
  • Age Group
  • Education
  • Employment
  • Occupation
  • Languages
  • Lineage
  • Religion

The most important for other researchers is Languages and Lineage, but all are helpful. Hit save and re-open the About section.

Click over to the next tab inside the pop-up window, marked Family History Experience. These are judgment calls, and they really do help other researchers decide whether or not to connect with you. They include:

  • Family History Experience (choose Beginner through Professional Genealogist)
  • Researching since (fill in the year you started your genealogical research, even if it was
  • How often? (indicate how often you visit to work on your tree, check mail, etc)

Hit save. Re-open the About section and click on the last tab, Websites. Here you can add your own genealogy blog or website, and all of your favorite research sites, like Find-a-Grave, the Library of Congress, etc.

ancestry 4

The last really important section is the Research Interests section. This is where you can tell others what you’re interested in finding, what you’re working on at the moment, or what your biggest challenges are.

Click on the grey EDIT button and you will receive a screen that allows you to make an initial entry. Here are the options:

  • Last Name (the last name you are researching, like Smith or Johnson)
  • Location (in the form “Chicago, Illinois, USA”)
  • Date Range (enter the date range you are researching, starting year to ending year)
  • Please include any other useful information (add things in this field about the family you’re seeking, or possible locations – whatever you may already know)
  • Share this Information? (check yes here if you want people to be able to see on your profile who and what you’re seeking).

Hit save when you’ve completed the fields. You can add as many research interests as you’d like. Once they’re added, you can edit them by clicking on the little pencil at the end of each line, or delete lines by clicking on the red X at the end of each line. When you’re done, return to the Member Profile with the link on the upper left.

Those are the major points about self-identification that are minimum necessities of good etiquette on Ancestry. There are more best practices to come, but those are for another day.

Best Practices: Ancestry Profiles, pt. 1

There are some things I’ve been seeing for years, and others I’ve been seeing more and more lately, that make me crazy while working on Ancestry. All of them are due to a lack of knowledge or courtesy on the part of amateur researchers, and all of them can be solved with a little applied effort.

Increasingly, Ancestry members are contacting one another and relying on one another to work together and to find ties and relationships not only using conventional, documentary genealogy work but also using DNA results. Without adequate identifying information, more seasoned or purposeful researchers have a difficult time deciding who to contact and whether the effort of reaching out to a particular Ancestry member is worthwhile.

Starting with your profile, you can let people know who you are, what you’re looking for, the kind of help you can provide others, and, indeed, whether you’re alive or dead.

Your Profile

When you join Ancestry, you are asked to create a profile. Here is mine:

1 ancestry profile

Here’s your checklist for making a profile that provides enough information for you to be helpful to others in their research.

  1. Name – use your own name as your username. Women, use your maiden name. If you don’t want to use your exact name, use one that includes your last name somehow. The point is that your username should identify you to others who are searching. I have been able to find numerous cousins, both with and without DNA, because they used family names as usernames. If you’re not willing to give out that kind of information, you should ask yourself whether you want to use Ancestry at all.
  2. Location – I made mine very specific because I live in a town that my ancestors founded, I am a member of the local Historical Society, and I am willing to do local documentary research and take photos for others. If you don’t want to be that specific, leave it at your state, or even your country. But regardless, put SOMETHING in the location.
  3. Photograph – I CAN’T stress this enough. Flowers and puppies and kitties are just cray-cray adorbs for Facebook and Instagram, but this is a data-driven research site. USE A REGULAR,  WELL-LIT, CURRENT PICTURE OF YOUR OWN FACE. Researchers want to see what YOU look like. A picture of your boat or your favorite horse doesn’t tell anybody anything, and an ill-lit photo of you and your family doesn’t tell anybody anything relevant, either. Use this same photograph elsewhere. I generally use the same profile photo for Facebook and Ancestry – in fact, someone in a Facebook research group saw my photo in the group and on Ancestry and recognized me. She put me together with a cousin, simply because she saw and recognized the image.
  4. Information section – use this to let people know what is important to you about your research. If you have completed Ancestry DNA and added the raw data to, post that kit number, as I did. This allows researchers to test their DNA against yours on GEDmatch and gain better information before they contact you.

This is the first and most important section of the profile. I’ll be back with more in a future post.

A GREAT Site and Group for Reparational Genealogy

colorful africaI just stumbled into something wonderful! It turns out that I have African-American cousins. Not surprising, but very good news. In connecting with them on Facebook by way of, I was invited to join an FB group called DNA Tested African Descendants. I hope to find more cousins there. It is a closed group, but if you are African-American and are utilizing DNA testing, you should apply. It is a very professional and focused group.

Their goal is to help African-Americans test their DNA from as many different companies as is feasible, post the raw data from all tests on FTDNA, and, and then work together to find relations both here and in Africa.

That’s the exciting part – Africans from various nations have tested, and this group has helped people to find the African nations of their forbears!

This is the essence of Reparational Genealogy. In this case, it is mostly Blacks helping Blacks, but White cousins and Reparational Genealogists seem to be welcome.

The group also has a wonderful website, and I urge you to visit it. It is also called DNA Tested African Descendants.

This is the future of genealogy, friends. We must work together to find the answers for families who were systematically destroyed and then repeatedly torn apart for over 400 years. It is the best form of reparation possible – restored identity.