Why I Search

There are many reasons for starting a family tree. Everyone has a reason, some search for ancestors to boast about.  Some look for answers to who they are and where they come from. Others enjoy solving the mystery of who came before them.  I fall into the third category.  I love the mystery and adventure of finding an ancestor. Anyone’s ancestor.

Over the past decade I have helped many people explore their family trees.  In my role as librarian I have taught hundreds of adults how to navigate the library version of Ancestry.com so that they can independently research their genealogy.  For those of you who don’t know the library version is free.  You can’t build a tree online but you can search all the databases.  You can print out copies of forms and records at the library or email them to yourself to view later. All you need is your library card and a seat in your local library.

I also pounce on friends and relatives and ask them what they know about their family history.  And I offer to do a little sleuthing for them. My method of gathering initial information is to divide a page into three columns. first column is anything they know about their father’s family.  The third column is anything they know about their mother’s family.  The anything includes names (first, last and nicknames), places (that people mentioned and they heard as children), occupations and siblings (of parent or grandparents).  The middle column contains family legends, stories, questions, memories and locations (where they thought the family originated, where they lived, Welsh china handed down from immigrating ancestors). From those notes I begin the search.  I find out things they didn’t know. I confirm or refute family legends.  I give them doorway into their past.  Some of my victims have discovered that their forebears have fought in the Revolutionary War as Patriots or Tories.  One was descended from Daniel Boone, another was hanged as a murderer, one started the civil war as a confederate and ended fighting for the union, another married several women without divorcing anyone, and one even charged admission to view the alley behind his shop where Jack the Ripper had killed one of his victims.

Why do I do it?  Why do I research other people’s family?  For the thrill of solving a mystery and finding interesting people.  My ancestors were farmers who stayed in one place for 200 years. I know them and love looking back at the things they did,  But I miss the thrill of that first discovery. So I explore other people’s trees and relive that excitement of finding the elusive ancestor.

I have loved watching “Finding Your Roots” on PBS since it began. I am fascinated with how they have used DNA to locate unknown parents and grandparents.  Henry Gates Louis Jr. leads his guests through a magic journey that ends with them finding family they never knew about before. I wish had the resources to do the miracles they do on that show. But I don’t so I will continue to try in my own way to put other people on the path to climbing their own family tree.

Inside My Heart is Breaking

There is great joy in researching your family’s history and finding that elusive ancestor, But there is a sadness too.   For most of them are dead.

Looking at death records is a window into the past when people died who would have lived today.  The lack of antibiotics and vaccines is a major cause of death.  So many died of pneumonia, septicemia, infections, measles, TB,  scarlet fever, peritonitis, tonsilitis, Bright’s Disease,  and La Grippe.  That last one is what influenza was called at the turn of the century.  Bright’s Disease is kidney failure.

People also died of malnutrition.  The first time I saw that listed as a cause of death, it was an infant who had an intestinal blockage.  The child was under a doctor’s care for more than 2 months, but at 3 months the child died.  All I could think, was how awful for the parents who could only stand by and watch as their child slowly starved to death. Today there would have been surgery to correct the blockage and an IV to keep the child alive. And it was not just children who died from starvation.  I was shocked to see adults in 1921 who died from lack of food.  My view of life in the Roaring Twenties will never be the same.

In the 1900 and 1910 U.S. Federal Census one of the questions asked of the women, was, “Mother of how many?’ and “How many living as of this date?” It was not unusual to see listings like, “mother of 11, 4 living.”  A lot of children died before reaching maturity, including one four-year-old who died of rheumatism.  And there were those who died accidentally. One certificate listed the cause of death of a three-year-old as  “playing with paper around stove, clothing caught fire and inflicted 2nd and 3rd degree burns.”

Other causes of death that have turned up on death certificates; “Cleaning revolver, accidentally discharged and entered head on left side.” Or right side.  “Softening of the brain,” which could be anything from senility, paralysis to Alzheimer’s. And one doctor who obviously had a weird sense of humor or acute lack of sleep wrote, “About 2 tons of coal fell on this man while he was working in the mine on or about 22 January 1906.  All bones broken, all organs flat, obviously DOA.”

Every time I look at death certificates I feel a sense of loss, these people were someone’s family and were loved and lost.

But every once in a while I am surprised.  I had long believed that my great-great grand uncle Reckess had died of sadness after the loss of his wife, Hannah.  They died so close together and I am a romantic at heart.  Then I discovered that they had both died of arsenic poisoning.

After a further search historical newspapers I found that they had been murdered by their son’s mistress who was also their housekeeper.  There were articles from as far north as Buffalo and as far west as Chicago.  But the best article, full of juicy gossip and family information was from the New York Times.  It was on the front page and even included a passage that told of Hannah running across the street to her cousin Joshua’s house to beg for help to save her from “that woman.”  Joshua was my great-great-grandfather.

There were so few murders in the country in 1878 that this double murder in a small town was big news.  The newspapers covered the trial and letters of outrage were written to the editors when “that woman” was pronounced innocent because she was under the influence of laudanum that she took for “women’s troubles.”  Her boyfriend, the son was found guilty and served 8 years in prison for bringing “that woman” into his parents’ house and not stopping her from killing them. Nowadays that would make a great episode of “Snapped.”

A death certificate gives a genealogist the names of parents, spouses, an address where they lived, their age, date of birth and the name of the person giving the information.  All of this data helps when researching your family tree. But when I read someone’s death certificate they become more real.  They lived, loved, were loved, were part of a family and died.

Now they are remembered.

Barbara Capoferri

Looking for Clues in All the Right Places


Sometimes finding someone’s parents is an easy job.  There would be a birth record or bible entry or you knew because a family member had told you.  But what if you were flying blind.  You knew someone’s name, their wife and children but no one knew anything else.  How would you find them?  My problem was George.

I know that George was born in 1902 and was married to Martha born in 1909.  I know the names of his sons.

From the 1940 U.S. Federal Census I know that he lived on 2nd Street in Philadelphia and worked as a machinist.  He was born in Pennsylvania and 3 of his sons are listed  George Jr, William and Robert.

A marriage record from the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Marriage Index, 1885-1951  gave me the year that George and Martha were married as 1928.

Next I discovered a Death Certificate from 1930 for the death of George and Martha’s daughter Mary.  They were living on Hancock Street in Philadelphia.

My next stop was the 1930 U.S. Federal Census.  They were living on Hancock Street in Philadelphia.  As in the 1940 census he was working as a machinist in a machine shop.  This census gave the information that his parents were born in Germany.  Living with them was his brother Harry F. That was the first clue.

Harry F. was 38 years old, single, born in 1892 in Pennsylvania, was unemployed, his occupation was barber.  And he was a veteran of the World War.  Knowing he was a veteran meant military records.

There was no record of him being drafted so that meant he had enlisted.  I found him in the Pennsylvania World War I Veterans Service and Compensation Files, 1917-1919, 1934-1948.  The file was dated 13 February 1934.  It stated that he was born on August 9, 1892 in Philadelphia.  He served in Meuse-Argonne Offensive and received a spinal wound.  His parents were listed as Conrad and Mary E.  And when he entered the service he lived on N. 20th Street. This might have been my Harry but I needed more information.

There was also a document, Army Transport Services, Passenger Lists, 1910-1939.  Harry was a Private on his way to Europe.  His next of kin was listed as Minnie who lived at N. 20th Street.  The last name was different so I thought that she was probably a sister or aunt. I made note of this possible relative.

Further on I found a U.S. World War II Draft Register Card, 1942.  It listed the same birth date and an address of  N. Camac Street in Philadelphia.  It also has a line which reads, “Name and address of person who will always know your address.”  The name given was Ruth at N. 16th Street in Philadelphia. As the last name was the same and he was listed as single, I guessed that this was either an aunt or sister. Another clue noted.

The 1940 census just stated that he was single, unemployed and living on Camac Street.

So my next search was of the 1920 census.  There was Harry F. living with his sister Minnie and her family and also in the household was their sister Ruth.  He was a machinist in a textile company.  All three siblings listed their parents as having been born in Germany. The names were encouraging but now was the time to check my conclusions: parents Conrad and Mary, children Minnie, Harry, Ruth and George.

The 1910 census gave me Conrad, 45 married for 20 years to Mary, 43.  Their children were Harry, Ruth, George and Ethel.  Conrad was a baker and had worked for 9 years in. a bread Bakery.  He was an alien who arrived in this country from Germany in 1870.  His wife Mary was the mother of 11 children of which 6 were living as of April 1910.  It looked like the right trail but I needed more.

Another step backwards to the 1900 census.  There was Conrad born April 1866, married 11 years, working as a baker and an alien who had arrived in this country in 1870.  His wife Mary, born November 1868, mother of 4 children of which 4 were alive, she arrived in 1870.  Their children were Charles born January 1886, Minnie born 1891, Harry born August 1892 and Ruth born March 1899.

Nailed it!!

Barbara Capoferri

Ancesters You Want to Slap!

Such a sweet looking lady

Jane Elizabeth Sooy or is it Elizabeth Jane Sooy?

Sometimes there is an ancestor that drives you crazy.  Not because there is no information to be found about them but because they have lied about themselves so much that you are not sure who they really are.

This lovely lady pictured above has driven me crazy.  She changed her name back and forth from Jane to Elizabeth in legal documents. And she fibbed about her age consistently.

I know that in a newspaper clipping that she was Jane Sooy when she married Isaac Walker in 1852.  In 1860 she was Elizabeth and all the children from his first marriage had only aged 6 years from the 1850 census.  In 1870 she was Eliza and again all the children had failed to age more than 6 years from the previous census.  She had only aged 5 years.  In 1872 when her husband died she was Jane on the inventory done after his death but she was Elizabeth on the death certificate.  In 1880 she was Elizabeth and stayed Elizabeth until her death.  On her death certificate there is an age given but the math doesn’t work with the ages given in previous legal papers.  So I am left wondering when she was born and how old she really was. For awhile I thought that Isaac had married 3 or 4 times before I realized that it was the same woman.  She looks so sweet in the picture.

She’s not the only one.  There are the ancestors who sprang out of nowhere. And those that changed their surnames or had them changed through accidental misspelling.

When a person cannot read or write their name is written phonetically by the official writing it for them.  That can mean that within the same family parents and children will have different spellings of their names.

So that Cane becomes Cain, Kane, Kain, or Kaighn.  All spellings correct for the person using them but so confusing for the family tree shaker.  And is it McLean, McLain, MacLean, MacLain or McClain?

And of course the winner for all time frustrating searching is the family that held the tradition of naming the first 2 sons James and William.  Now think about that.  In every generation there will be a father James and an Uncle William who will both have sons about the same age named James and William.  And those sons will also have sons James and William and so forth on and on until the researcher is heard screaming in a corner.

Yep, if I could only reach back in time, slap them and ask WHY!

Barbara Capoferri

Getting Organized Without Frustration

You’ve decided to search your family history.  But getting started requires taking notes and keeping them organized.  Nothing is worse than knowing you wrote down the information but can’t remember where you put it.

When I started I just filled legal pads with stuff.  Everything was scattered and I couldn’t find anything.  When I tried to put the tree together it was too frustrating. So I started over with a plan.

First you need to start with yourself.  Write down your name at the top of the paper. On a second page write your parents’ names and everything you remember about their birth, marriage, children, siblings, names of towns, countries, and deaths.  On the third page write everything you remember about your grandparents and everything you remember about their birth, marriage, children, siblings and death. Continue to add pages for all the generations that you remember.

Make sure you use a pencil with a good eraser, what you remember may not be accurate.  Your memory is colored by the good intentions of your relatives.  They will not have told you the bad things.  But you will have heard about how tough they had it compared to you.  I’ve heard the story of walking two miles to school in 2 feet of snow and eating lard sandwiches for lunch everyday.  My father told that story until I fact checked with my grandmother and discovered that the school was less that a block away and he came home for lunch everyday.

Now how do you make the data you’ve acquired easy to access?  When I started I did not have a lot of money and computers were only available to scientists.  My solution was to buy an address book/binder.  It was designed for keeping addresses, had alphabetical dividers and you could add more pages as needed.

Each page was for one person or family and was filed alphabetically by last name.  This way I could find the person I was researching and add or correct information with ease.  When I outgrew that, I moved on to a regular 3 ring notebook binder. I attached that pages from the address book to notebook paper and continued to add data.  I added pocket pages to hold census records, wills, birth and marriage certificates and other documentation.

Soon I had separate notebooks for my mother’s and father’s family.  On the front cover I taped a family tree showing who was in that notebook.  Later I added a list to the spine of the notebook that gave the surnames of those included in the notebook.  By the time computers became part of our personal lives in the 1990’s, I had sixteen notebooks full.  And a glance at the spine would give me access to the family I needed to access.

Somewhere between 4 and 8 notebooks I discovered that I was duplicating research.  It is frustrating to travel several hours to a historical library and when you get home a start to file the info, realize you already had that info.  To the new researcher that doesn’t sound right.  But if you think about it (2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great grandparents, 16 great great grandparents, 32 great great great grandparents and keep doubling that number with each generation) it’s easy to forget what you have.

I created a cover page for each person, it listed birth, marriage, death, children, wills, census and lots of blank spaces.  I would then make a notation of what documentation I had already found, where I found it and when I found it.  Now when I do research I take that sheet with me and at a glance I can tell what I have and what I need.

Then came computers!  But that doesn’t mean that you don’t have to write it down.  I still have my notebooks and I still use them.

Barbara Capoferri

Pros and Cons of searching for your ancestors

I always warn new family tree searchers to be prepared to find stuff you don’t want to know.

In a recent search for a friend I discovered that her great great-grandmother started out as a servant, in the next census she was the head of the household, where she had been a servant with several children and 2 male boarders but not married. Ten years later she is the owner of a tavern and married to one of the boarders and has more children. After that I discovered that she had the children baptized and listed as the fathers were the man she married and the two boarders.  The baptisms were all done on the same day in the same church. Each child went from their mother’s maiden name to the surname of one of the three men.  In the third census she was living in a house she owned, with her younger children and no adult men.

I thought what a wonderful, strong woman who knew what she wanted and got it.  My friend was scandalized. She thought that I had found the wrong person, DNA said that was her ancestor.  She decided not to look any further.

I was disappointed, what a great story, I wanted to know more about this woman, I thought that she was intriguing. I wanted to know how she got all the fathers into that church together.  But she wasn’t mine to research.

In my own tree I have found many interesting people, I know that not everyone feels that way, but to me that’s what makes genealogy fun.  Solving the mysteries, finding elusive relatives, learning about the time period they lived in and seeing how things change.

You have to have an open mind when you search for your ancestors.  They are just people like you or me.  It is important to accept that they were born into a different culture.  They would find us scandalous.

Barbara Capoferri