I’m a Newbie: NGS Conference, May 9-13, 2017 #NGS2017GEN

I’m attending my first conference by the National Genealogical Society and I’m pretty excited. Follow along as I give my first impressions of the conference experience, and as I reflect on seminars I’ve attended. I have a few goals:

  1. I will improve my professional skills. Some of the giants in genealogy will be there. I intend to listen early and often. I will attend the BCG Certification Seminar.
  2. I will set a spending budget and stick to it. I won’t blow my budget on the first day in exhibit hall.
  3. I will focus other time on African-American and Virginia-focused lectures.
  4. I will meet some new friends and network with other Richmond area genealogists.
  5. The conference is non-stop for 4-5 days with over 2,000 attendess. I will take breaks to find a quiet place.
  6. I will exercise and make healthy eating choices.

The car’s gotten a tune up. A playlist is forming. Phone and tablet chargers are ready. Comfy shoes are packed. The schedule is uploaded. I’m ready.


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Virginia Genealogical Society – Spring Conference, 22 April 2014

I was a first-time attendee this past Saturday at the Virginia Genealogical Society’s Spring Conference. So, I thought I’d record a few thoughts.

First, a caveat. The conference took place in the greater Richmond area. I’m a local, so there are parts of the conference that I did not attend. For example, VGS set up a research time at the Library of Virginia with a archivist on Friday afternoon. I’m a frequent visitor to the Library, so I didn’t participate.

VGS did a great job. They were organized and all directions were clear. Volunteers were well-trained and helpful. The venue was praised by several of those at my table.

Saturday was dedicated to 4 sessions with Shannon Combs Bennett who spoke on “DNA and Social Media Search Strategies.” They sessions were “Genetic Genealogy for the Beginner,” “Creating a Research Plan for DNA Testing,” “Organize Your DNA Data,” and “Crowdsourcing Your Genealogy to Break Down Brick Walls.” Shannon is a scientist and genealogist, so her command of the DNA material was obvious. She is a well-rehearsed and well-edited speaker with a winsome and approachable style that creates a wonderfully easy and engaged audience. What a great choice to lead this conference!

It was difficult to measure the attendee experience with genetic genealogy. Most had already tested. Many administered more that one test. Questions from the audience ranged from the basic to the highly complex.

If I had a criticism, it would be very minor. Shannon is a scientist. My experience is that most experts have trouble drilling complex ideas down to easily understandable concepts for the layman. This is always a challenge for science and math-types because there is a line where simplicity overcomes accuracy. Scientists are trained to be bulls-eye accurate. Shannon was able to, in most cases, and especially during Q&A to overcome the expert-layman barrier.

Any historian-type (genealogists included) walking in cold would have to be prepared to activate the dusty parts of their brain, that haven’t been accessed since high school biology class. A great place to start are the short video series on the University of Utah‘s site on “Introduction to Molecular Biology.”

After the lunch break, VGS honored Peter Broadbent. A former director of the the National Genealogical Society, former Presidents of VGS, and Genealogical Research Institute of Virginia. This was absolutely deserved. His tireless, effective and widespread work on behalf of the genealogical community in Virginia is laudable. While his accomplishments are many, the most recent was a successful Virginia state budget lobbying campaign for the restoration of funds on behalf of the Library of Virginia.

Finally, these events are always great for meeting new folks, learning with them and from them, hearing their stories, encouraging their work, and enjoying your common passion together. My new friends are a highlight.

Join VGS. Visit their webpage. Fall Conference brochure.

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Photo: Robert James Sanner

My father-in-law brought a large, blue Rubbermaid storage box to the house a year or so ago. It was filled with his father’s genealogy research (there’s one in every family, right?) It was unorganized, but filled with fantastic family information … and a Nazi flag.

When I saw it, I had to walk away. I had a hard time even touching it.

I only knew Grandpop Sanner briefly. He had a wonderful smile. I’m 5’10’ and had a nice view of his shiny bald head. He liked to keep his house warm; hot, really. He was a hit at my wedding because at 85 years old, he was cutting some serious rug! I wish that I had spent time getting to know him better before we lost him in 2002.

Robert James Sanner enlisted in the U. S. Army in Feb 1937 when he was 21 years old.1)Robert J Sanner I, personal journals and research, privately held, [address held for private use.] All Robert Sanner’s military records are from his personal files, unless otherwise noted. He was assigned to the 34th Infantry Band out of Fort G. G. Meade in Maryland. Grandpop Sanner was a great musician and played in bands throughout most of his early life. He served through World War II (hence the flag), Korea and ‘retired’ in 1959. Then he started work for the N. S. A. Yep, that N. S. A.

But, let’s get back to World War II. Robert Sanner organized and led the 6th Armored Division, 68th Armored Regiment Band. Grandpop himself noted that band musicians, while ETO played various roles including, combat infantrymen, truck drivers MPs and prison guards.

Robert J. Sanner, band leader is on the far left.

Among the many photos, newspapers and research files was hidden this one page, typed letter.2)W. A. Meehan, U.S. Army, Camp Chaffe, Arkansas, to Robert James Sanner I, letter, 11 May 1942, inquiry into Sgt Band Leader’s female acquaintance; Robert James Sanner I, Personal Genealogy Research, privately held, [address for private use.] It’s one of my favorite items.

It’s a letter from William Aloysius Meehan of Bronx, N. Y. He enlisted in Oct 1941 at Fort Dix, New Jersey and served as a clerk in the Army.3)“U.S., World War II Army Enlistment Records,  1938-1946,” William A. Meehan, enlistment date 2 Oct 1941, Fort Dix, New Jersey; online database, Ancestry, (www.ancestry.com : accessed 29 Mar 2017), citing U.S., World War II Army Enlistment Records, National Archives and Records Aadministration, College Park, Maryland, Record Group 64.

Mr. Meehan writes to inquire of the sargeant who lead the band regarding the beautiful woman at his side (my grandmother-in-law, Hazel.)  Her refers to her as a “bundle of loveliness who has so captivated me.” She apparently turned him down for a dance 3 times. He notes the ring on her left hand, but calls himself a “patient waiter.” He closes his letter with the plea: “in the interest of better morale among the soldiers. ” It’s an incredible letter… humorous and sassy, bold and articulate. It’s a classic representation of the Greatest Generation.

These two great items, a photo and a letter: I can almost hear Glenn Miller playing in the background. My foot is tapping and my head might be bobbing a little while I type. And while both Grandpop Sanner and William Meehan survived the war, their service and sacrifice weren’t trivialities. The soundtrack to their lives might be closer to “Taps,” than “In the Mood.”


References   [ + ]

1. Robert J Sanner I, personal journals and research, privately held, [address held for private use.] All Robert Sanner’s military records are from his personal files, unless otherwise noted.
2. W. A. Meehan, U.S. Army, Camp Chaffe, Arkansas, to Robert James Sanner I, letter, 11 May 1942, inquiry into Sgt Band Leader’s female acquaintance; Robert James Sanner I, Personal Genealogy Research, privately held, [address for private use.]
3. “U.S., World War II Army Enlistment Records,  1938-1946,” William A. Meehan, enlistment date 2 Oct 1941, Fort Dix, New Jersey; online database, Ancestry, (www.ancestry.com : accessed 29 Mar 2017), citing U.S., World War II Army Enlistment Records, National Archives and Records Aadministration, College Park, Maryland, Record Group 64.
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Photo – Jerome Campion

Jerome Campion (1923-2005) is the man I consider my grandfather (my own passed away years before I was born.) “Romie” was my husband’s maternal grandfather and welcomed me into the family fold. He had a 5th grade education, and knew how to fix everything. He wore a green shirt, matching green pants, and a matching green hat every day. Even in Summer. He loved cheap beer and blue crabs. He ate a huge portion of pancakes and fried eggs almost every day. Often I couldn’t understand him because age had stolen his speech. He adored his wife. He would do anything for a friend or neighbor in need of a hand. He passed away while I was pregnant with my daughter. She’s named after him and inherited his stubborn and feisty spirit.

Though he never mentioned “feelings,” I knew he liked me. One visit with him, he gave me a pile of garden catalogues that he’d saved for me. He knew that I have a green thumb. Then, there was the shore. The Campions vacationed on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and one Summer I visited with my toddler-aged son. When I arrived after lunch, Romie was waiting for me. He waited impatiently for me to unload the car, then we headed out to the #9 bouy on Harris Creek in his canoe that he fit up with a questionable outboard motor. More than once, I thought I might have to swim home. Either the engine wouldn’t start or the boat was leaking. We hoped for rockfish, but only got croaker. I made him promise never to tell anyone that I caught a toadfish that day. He took the nasty thing off the hook for me and never told. When the entire family visited the Shore, long games of canasta were always on the agenda. He always sat next to me and saved all of his black 3s. He kept them separate from his hand, face down on the table. He’d tap on the top card and say my name. He taunted me with them. I loved spending time with him doing what we both enjoyed. He kept my secrets and teased me endlessly. I miss him.

There are stories about Romie’s WW2 service from before I entered the family. Like the night terrors that left him attacking his beloved wife in a dream-like trance. We would probably characterize it as PTSD, and he handled it alone over time. He had Japanese artifacts from his 3 years of service. But, he never talked about details really. He hated the Army or maybe what he had to do in it. When the U.S. entered the Korean War, Romie was very anxious about being called up again.1)Personal interview, Campion, Doris (Ring), [address privately held], 28 Jan 2016; audio files, by interviewer, Jean Morrissey Sanner, [address privately held], 2017. Doris was Romie’s wife of 59 years.

Jerome Campion, WWII separation papers, page 2.

Recently two fantastic items came my way. This photo was taken when Romie was in PTO, probably in New Guinea. He looked so incredibly handsome, and debonair here; like the movie stars, Errol Flynn or William Holden.

Then there are his military “separation papers.” These are the discharge orders and service summaries of World War II veterans. Romie’s are a treasure. They reveal an incredible amount about his service; more than he ever would have volunteered. An infantryman who was good with a pistol. He never missed a roll call. He serviced heavy artillery and small arms weapons. He fought in the East Indies, New Guinea and the Philippines. A hero.

He embodied so much of what characterizes the Greatest Generation and he was my Grandpop, too.

References   [ + ]

1. Personal interview, Campion, Doris (Ring), [address privately held], 28 Jan 2016; audio files, by interviewer, Jean Morrissey Sanner, [address privately held], 2017. Doris was Romie’s wife of 59 years.
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Planning Your Cemetery Visit

I took a road trip to Washington, D.C., a few weeks ago to visit some newly discovered family at Mount Olivet Cemetery. Visiting cemeteries is valuable time spent for the genealogist. Here are some suggestions to prepare for your next trip.

  • Before you travel, check the cemetery’s website for visiting hours and other restrictions.
  • Call the office and ask about their rules for photographs. Genealogists should respect their restrictions about posting information and photos online.
  • If you’re visiting multiple markers, ask the office for specific location information, including the section, lot, and plot information. Consider asking the office to see the account information.
  • Get a cemetery map and mark grave locations for future reference.
  • If you’re visiting a small family cemetery or rural one where there is no office, be very specific about the markers’ locations and its condition. Transcribe the marker carefully. In particular, get permission from the landowner to visit as you may be trespassing. [These markers are harder for most people to visit, are often swallowed up by brush, and landowners may be hesitant to allow others to visit in the future. If you get the chance to visit, be generous with your information, please.]
  • If there is a family plot, diagram it on paper. Include all markers, as well as landmarks like trees or shrubs or other larger markers to make it easier to find later.
  • Record on paper what’s written on the marker. Sometimes elaborate fonts/scripts can only be clearly read in person. Sometimes touch is the only way to read it accurately. For example, in photos, my 2x great grandfather’s middle initial appears to be “C.” In person, it’s clearly a “G.” Remember that polished stone reflects light and glare, which effect photo clarity. Your camera will never see the detailed relief that your eye can.
  • Photograph: all sides of the marker, the marker’s writing close-up, the marker in relation to other markers/trees/shrubs, the cemetery map and the cemetery signage. Record which digital photo # ID matches your notes.
  • Take some gardening equipment:

Kneeler-pad to protect your knees and pants.

Sturdy, water resistant shoes (You don’t want to have to dig your fancy kicks out of a mudhole!)

Sunhat and sunglasses (wear your SPF!)

Flowers or other special honorifics (check with the cemetery beforehand.)

Garden trowel to clear away grass/weeds that have encroached the markers.

Sturdy, thin pole to poke through grass to locate smaller markers that have been covered. Sometimes the marker is there, but hidden. You may have to work a little to see it.

Heavy hand shears for cutting away grass and debris around the edges of markers.

Gardening gloves.

Wet wipes for hands.

  • Take some office equipment:

Clipboard with paper, pens and pencils. Please, don’t lean on the markers to bare down to write.

Digital voice recorder for notes.

Digital camera.

Smart phone to record GPS locations of the cemetery and markers.

I’ve learned that it’s a good idea to scout out a local coffee shop or restaurant with Wi-fi for customers. After my visit, I head there to grab a refreshing beverage. I check my photos against a check list and for clarity. I make sure that I’ve recorded all of the information I came for. It’s frustrating to take the time, make the trip and forget something.

When you return home, download photos to your computer, rename the files according to your naming convention, transfer them to the appropriate folders, print out copies, and upload images to websites like FindAGrave or Billiongraves. On those sites, consider how others may contact you for permission to reuse your images and record that information in your user profile.

If you print copies of the photos or post them online: record (on the front of the image, preferably) the transcription, the photographer’s name, date of photo, cemetery name, location of the cemetery (There are two Mount Olivet Cemeteries in the DC/Baltimore area!) and the marker (using street directions or latitude and longitude, as needed.) Also, consider recording the condition of the stone (which might affect legibility) and the type of material used.

Type up your visit notes and include the appropriate citations.

I’ve yet to visit a cemetery and not come back with more that I expected. It’s always a worthwhile trip.

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Finding “Bad” News

This is a map of the locations of newspapers that reported the criminal assault (a sanitized version of attempted rape) of my grandmother.1)I only used Newspapers.com for this search and used the filters “Stumpf” and date range of 9 Jan 1909-28 Feb 1909. There were 77 locations.

Each map pin represents a town where a newspaper reported her assault with her name, and often her father’s name. Sometimes newspapers reported graphic details; for example, her attacker almost bit through her lip. Some newspapers focused on Judge Witt’s quick action to avoid a lynching. Others focused on the heinous nature of the attack. Still other focused on my grandmother’s incredible fight for her virtue (she was headed to confession before Mass) and her life.

The kicker: No one alive in my family knew this. What do genealogists do when a “secret” gets uncovered? Some thoughts:

1. Check your feelings. Then don’t.

This is my grandmother. Even though I never knew her (she died 3 months before I was born), I was given her first name for my middle. Time gives emotional distance, of course. But, putting myself in her shoes… I simply can’t. It’s clear from reports that she was very badly beaten. Facts from court records, state that she testified against her attacker 4 days later and again 2 days after that. Can you imagine?

But, try very, very hard not to let your personal feelings cloud your research.

2. Only the facts, ma’am.

Keep to what records tell you. Don’t speculate. But be curious. What else is out that that might shed more light on the story?

3. Own your ancestors, but not their actions.

Slave owner? Criminal? Tory Loyalist? Dishonorable discharge? These stories do not reflect on you AT ALL. Keep your good emotional boundaries.

4. Research every detail of the story.

In my grandmother’s case, I have a list every person from the arresting officers, to jury members, to the accused’s sisters are being researched. I have a city map that I’ve marked with locations. I have a timeline of the crime. I’ve created family trees for the major players in the story – the judge, the defense attorney, the jurors and the accused. I’ve begun researching Jim Crow laws (her attacker was black.) Find the larger context and expand the story. My grandmother’s attacker has a story, too. One worth telling.

What do you do when you find “bad” news?


References   [ + ]

1. I only used Newspapers.com for this search and used the filters “Stumpf” and date range of 9 Jan 1909-28 Feb 1909. There were 77 locations.
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Your Story is Worth Recording

Under my photo on this website, I wrote, “We all love a great story.” Then, “We all have a story to tell.” Most of us don’t consider our stories worth telling. We may not characterize our stories as dramatic, historically significant, uplifting, or tragic, so not worth telling. Rather we would tend to use less exhalted words like boring, mundane, unexceptional, or normal, so not worth knowing.

Is there something lovely about the boy who marries the girl next door, has a bunch of kids, works hard, and dies having lived a so-called “boring” life? There’s nothing “boring” about happiness, faithfulness, diligence, and love. It’s not even less dramatic.

A recent blog post over at FamilySearch.org, called “Define Your Dash” is a great guide to starting to record your personal history. They’ve created writing prompts for each week of the year. It’s a great start and an excellent way to begin.


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FamilySearch.org – Fun Tools for Storytelling

I’m a faithful Ancestry.com user, but no one should ignore the unique records and fantastic features at FamilySearch.org. I was playing around the other day and discovered some nice apps I will be using in the future to tell my family stories. The features require you to create a family tree on the site which may take a little time. Bonus: all are free!

The biggest win for each of these is the visual representations of your family stories. Maybe you’ve noticed that not every relative shares your passion for genealogy. [Insert heavy sarcasm.] Most are interested a little though and will appreciate a visual that consolidates large amounts of data.

I’m going to highlight a few here, but you can many more on the FamilySearch.org App Gallery.

First is Rootsmapper. It’s goal is to allow users “to easily visualize the migration patterns of your ancestors.” Rootsmapper provides a world map and access to your pedigree chart to create a graphic of an ancestors immigration from one place (country or state) or another using map pins and arrows. Their YouTube video is here.

Next is StoryPress. It’s goal is to help you create a video of your own family stories using multiple media inputs including photos, videos, audio narration and graphics. You’re going to have to put your own time and creativity into this one, though. Here’s their YouTube video. Again, this a great resource for sharing our family stories in audio/visual format.

Last is not on the App Gallery, and called Keepsakes. It utilizes your pedigree chart to create printable, artsy and fun representations of  your family tree. I’ve printed out a few to use as cover sheets in my family notebooks, but they’d be a cute gift if framed, as well.

Check out these and the other App Gallery utilities!

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Favorite Site – “Unknown No Longer”

For African Americans, tracing their family stories has always been more challenging and almost impossible beyond a certain date. Because slaves were property, not people, they were not enumerated on census records before 1870. It’s THE brickwall for family historians with slave ancestors.

The Virginia Historical Society’s “Unknown No Longer” project and website is offering groundbreaking source material for researchers. Led by Curator of African American History, Lauranett Lee, the project data mines the VHS’ own records (8 million with origins in the 17th century) for every instance of slave ownership. It’s goal is “to uncover the names of every enslaved person found in these sources.” The documents are digitized, the names processed and the images are uploaded to the website. The website is free and updated almost weekly.

Researching White American ancestors means utilizing census records, land deeds, wills, vital records, military records, tombstone and other cemetery records, but for those researching African American before 1870 other documents are required. Bills of sale, account books, deeds of manumission/emancipation, travel passes, receipts, and broadsides are the foundations for slave research and the Unknown No Longer database.

Unknown No Longer is paving the way for new methods and sources in family history research!


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