Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Learning a little history can help a lot

One of the most often queries I see in the various genealogy groups I haunt on Facebook is someone looking for information that doesn't exist. Not because the records have been lost to any man-made or natural disaster but because the records were never created.

If you have a stumbling block where you can't seem to find any of the records you are looking for then you need to dig into some history. For example, if you are looking for census records in Library and Archives Canada Census databases or on Ancestry for Manitoba, Canada prior to 1870 then you might run into some problems. Prior to 1870 Manitoba wasn't a province in the fledgling nation of Canada. So you need to look elsewhere.

One great source of information of what is available online and where to look next is the Research Wiki found at There you can find where to look and also what might not be available. Even better, if you do know of additional resources that aren't listed on the research wiki pages you can update those pages yourself to help other researchers.

You can also use your favourite search engine. In my case that means Google. However, don't over complicate your search. Remember that most web pages are written by people like yourself and not by computers. For example, there was a posting on Facebook that stated "... where or how to find British naturalisation certificates from the 1860?" All I did was go to Google and typed in "British naturalisation certificates" (without the quotes) and on the first page of results I came across the page from The National Archives in Kew with the title "Looking for records of a naturalised Briton" that had all the information on what was available and where to get the records. All it took was a few moments of my time to find the answer.

Knowing about the history of a place can also help you break through those brick walls. What were the county boundaries in New Hampshire in 1780? A check of the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries at might just able to answer that question.

As for those earlier Manitoba census records? A check of the FamilySearch Research Wiki brought me to the unindexed collection titled "Manitoba, Census Indexes, 1831-1870" at

Tip: So take the time to learn about the history of the place when you are having problems finding records. What you discover may just solve that brick wall dilemma.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Google Maps and Genealogy

Earlier this past year I had some spare time and so I took the "Mapping with Google" course that is offered online by Google. This course covered using Google Maps and also Google Earth but not just as a simple user of those tools but how to get the most out of both of those product. For me and my slightly older (OK, long in the tooth) computer I didn't get as much out of the Google Earth part as I could have but that was only because of the age of the computer and it couldn't run the latest and greatest Google Earth software. However, Google Maps is a different story.

One of the projects you do is to make use of the Maps Engine system of Google Maps to place pins on a map and then share the results with others. Since genealogy is a passion/hobby/future career I thought that I might see about placing on a map some of the local cemeteries and genealogy resources.

Well, what started as a simple project morphed into something else a week later. I decided to map all the various places of interest to genealogy researchers that might be visiting the Ottawa, Ontario, Canada area. First I added in the museums, archives and libraries that I knew about that had resource material available. That was the easy part. Then over a period of several weeks I added in the cemeteries found in the Ottawa-Carleton and Gatineau regions. Fortunately there are a number of wonderful on-line Canadian sites that have pictures and details of cemeteries in these places:

 In addition I made use of the other well-known cemetery sites covering United States and Canada:

Using the information from those sites I could plot the cemeteries on the map and then add a link to where to find more details. The end result was this map of Genealogy Research in Ottawa:

Google map of genealogy related research places in Ottawa
Genealogy Research in Ottawa
The neat part about this tool is you could easily use it to map out the various cemeteries and other places in interest when you are planning to visit an area to do research. That way you can best make use of your valuable time and hopefully not get too lost trying to find that out of the way cemetery of your 4th great grandparents.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

They Served Canada But I Want to Know More

You've found your ancestor's Canadian World War I "Attestation Paper" or "Particulars of Recruit" document so now what?

In my talk I gave in October at the "Canada in the First World War" event hosted by the Ottawa Public Library, the Ottawa Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society, and the British Isles Family History Society of Greater Ottawa I touched upon a number of the resources I used to explore what happened to Victor Sornberger. I have previously listed the resources I used in my post 'Resources for "A Soldier of the Great War: A Research Case Study' but I never went into detail as to how I approached my research.

The first step in my research was to request Victor Sornberger's World War I service file from Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa. Since I live in Ottawa I was in the position of requesting the file to be viewed at their facility at 395 Wellington Street. I had my LAC User Card but if I didn't already have it I could have requested one via this form. Next I completed the Request for Retrieval of Document online form so I could look at the file when I next came to Library and Archives Canada (about once every two weeks). Now if I didn't live in Ottawa I could request via the Order Form for Reproductions the service file and the staff at LAC would digitize the file for me and send me an e-mail with the instructions to access the images. This isn't a free service but it also isn't very expensive as can be seen at their price list page.

Once I had reviewed the file, and since I was actually at LAC I also photographed the contents, I had some key documents I could use to find out more about Victor. The first was actually the file folder. On the front of the folder is was written "Deceased 28-3-52" so now I knew he died on 28 Mar 1952. A useful bit of information if I didn't already have that recorded.

Next was his Discharge Certificate. That document gave me the date and where he joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force and also when he was discharged . Plus it listed the places overseas where he served. Then there is his Casualty Form - Active Service paperwork. This document has details such as when he left Canada, when he arrived in England, and which ship. It lists when and where he was Taken On Strength (T.O.S.) and Struck Off Strength (S.O.S.) as he joined and left the various battalions and depots. Dates of disciplinary actions are listed (well ... not in Victor's case) and also when he was wounded plus the hospital stays.

Within Victor's file were a number of other forms that documented his wound and his care. These included details such as why his leg had to be amputated. Sometimes you will also come across dental charts, clinical charts with the patient's temperature fluctuations recorded, and maybe even wills.

I now knew when he was shot and with what battalion he was serving with at that time. The next step was finding out where the battalion was located. Fortunately the War Diaries of the First World War have been digitized. These are not personal diaries but the often dry and boring operational details of the brigades and battalions. Most of the time those mentioned are officers but occasionally a name of an enlisted man is recorded ... most often for heroism. Reading through the diary I was able to determine where in France his battalion was fighting on the day Victor was shot. Even better, included with that month's diary were the trench maps and the then secret orders for that specific operation.

Finally with all that information at hand I could use Google Maps to plot, within a few hundred meters, the location where Victor Sornberger was probably fighting when shot.

Overall it was about 8 hours of work from the reviewing and digitizing of the file to finally using Google Maps to figure out where he was when he was shot. During that time I learned more about what was happening at that time during the war and a bit more about a soldier's experience.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Backups - Part I (An Overview)

You have just spent the past two days working hard on your family tree and it is late at night. Do you a) go to bed or b) back up your work then go to bed? If you answered 'b' then I'm already preaching to the choir but for the rest of you you might want to read on.

We've all heard the warnings and think it will never happen to us so we keep putting it off until it is too late.What am I talking about?


Making a back up of all your hard work is like having an insurance policy. You really hope you don't need it but if something bad happens it is such a wonderful feeling to know you are covered. A back up can be as simple as copying your files to a USB memory stick or dropping those same files into a folder on Dropbox (as an example one of many Internet based storage sites).

No matter how you do it at least back up all your important files, genealogy and others, at least once a month. Personally I backup the information on my desktop and laptop to an external hard disk on the first of the month. Also, after a day's work of research I will make a copy of all my genealogy files to a USB thumb drive.

So set up a reminder in your calendar to do a back up. If your genealogy software has a reminder function, put it in there also. Even better, if your genealogy software can automatically backup your database then set it to do so when you shut it down for the night.

But for your sake and sanity please: