Say good bye to frustration in the new year in 10 steps

It is easy to focus and keep focusing on the one area that keeps you frustrated and wondering what you got yourself into by researching your family. I can quickly list all the brickwalls I would love to sweep away into a small dust pan.

Dealing with not finding information, not getting responses from contacts and not knowing where to start on researching difficult relatives are the joy killers of genealogy. The result is you start to feel as if there is nothing else to work on and you are standing in dried concrete next to your brickwall.

The new year is time to start with a new mentality. Here is how refresh the mind for the new year.

1. Go through your family tree and make a list of areas you want to research on each person. You can organize the list by surnames, towns or time periods.

2. Take a closer look at your family albums. Can you identify all your relatives? Do you know where and when the pictures were taken? Time to call some family for help if you said no. Maybe you’ll get a great story with some helpful information by asking about a mystery photo.

3. Organize your notes, letters and records on your ancestors into individual folders. This will give you a chance to take a closer look at what you really have on the people you are researching.

4. Open an e-mail account only for your genealogy research. We all get too much spam. You could be missing important messages sitting among the spam. It is too easy to click delete by accident while clearing spam.

5. Keep a list of things you are waiting to arrive: researchers’ result for searches, archives’ responses to your requests, microfilms ordered from the Family History Center, etc.

6. Start a journal about your frustrations, successes and goals. After awhile, you will be able to read old entries and smile about the frustrations that became successes.

7.  Buy a nice binder to put together your family letters and documents in acid-free plastic sleeves so you can show off your success. Here’s another chance to look at those letters and documents to find something important you missed before.

8.  Start researching the villages and towns of your ancestors by putting the names into Google. Use Google Translate to try to find information in the native languages. Maybe you’ll come across someone else researching the same village and town or forums for those areas. Knowing the history of those birthplaces may be more useful than first thought.

9. Try writing an article or story with all the information you have on your ancestors or surnames. This will help see the big picture of the research already completed. Maybe you’ll notice areas that haven’t been researched yet.

10. Make sure to regularly check on your posts on forums and keep these posts bookmarked. Have you missed some great responses? Sometimes the automated messages for responses on forums go into the spam box or never get sent.

So here’s to another great year in genealogy research. What breakthroughs will you have in the new year with a fresh slate?


Random Facebook instant messaging leads to major breakthrough

Today, I instant messaged a contact in southern Russia with questions about high school education in the early 20th century to help find family academic records in archives. In the end, I made a major breakthrough that I didn’t think had a chance of happening.

The conversation moved onto my Facebook friend’s newest book publication and his acquisition of 1915 residency records. Just out of curiosity, I had my friend look up my paternal grandmother’s family. Minutes later, I had pictures of my grandmother’s childhood home in Russia.

I heard stories that my great-grandmother was so rich that she bought houses for her six children. I saw pictures of a house where the family had lived during World War II but still wasn’t convinced of great-grandma’s wealth. Today, that wealth was proven without a doubt.

My great-grandmother was listed in 1915 records owning a 8,000 ruble house when so many other houses in the city were valued less than 2,000 rubles. The house was such a great importance in my grandmother’s birthplace that it was the sole focus of two postcards.

My father’s first cousin told me of a massive family house that had a garden for children to play. I thought I found a picture of that house through the city’s library a few years ago but my cousin said she didn’t remember that particular house. Almost 69 years after leaving her hometown, I can finally show my cousin pictures of the house where she played as a child.

Out of curiosity I searched the house address, city and my grandmother’s maiden surname in Russian on Google, I found more information on the house. The information posted about the house made me speechless in the worst way about my great-grandmother.

A distraught mother wrapped her 9-day-old daughter in blankets at night in February 1910 and left the baby on my great-grandmother’s doorstep, with the hope that my rich great-grandmother would take her in. The mother left a note to not leave her daughter to die poor and unhappy.

So what did my great-grandmother do to this innocent baby girl? She sent her away to an orphanage, where she likely died or lived an unhappy life. Oh, the words I would have for my great-grandmother for not making room for the child when she lived in a mansion.

What makes this situation even worse to imagine is that my great-grandmother worked as a teacher before she got married. She also worked as a teacher after her husband died to provide for her six children. How could a woman from a wealthy family who didn’t need to work  choose to work with children and turn away from an infant in need?

This discovery does put a damper on the joy of making this major breakthrough and makes me wonder if my great-grandmother ever regretted sending the baby to an orphanage.

Two years later, her husband died of a heart attack and several years following his death, the communist government forced my great-grandmother’s family out of the mansion to make room for a boys school.

My family continued to live with servants in smaller houses. I hope my great-grandmother realized her dream home was better off giving many boys a better future when she couldn’t give one more child a better life in that house.

Here’s the family home that didn’t have room for one more child:


Town filled with silver may answer mysteries of rich peasant great-grandfather

Research of a maternal great-grandfather shows he came from a Russian peasant family. Somehow he wound up with two mansions in Kiev with servants to help his wife and brood of children.

My great-grandfather worked in Kiev for a famous architect who later designed a building for the last Shah of Iran. My great-grandfather had his own success by running a construction company with 100 workers.

But his success in constructing beautiful buildings is only part of the answer why my great-grandfather climbed the social ladder from peasant to nobleman.

The rest of the answer probably lies in the place where my grandfather’s youngest sister was born. She was born in a town that had a large silver mine. One of her granddaughters told me the communist government took away my great-grandfather’s money he made from his silver mining.

The communist government took control of Ukraine six years after her birth so it makes me wonder about how much time he spent mining in that town. One of the richest families in Ukraine had a mansion there. Did my great-grandfather help build the mansion or network with this family to work for the famous architect in Kiev?

I hope to detail the time he spent in this town. First, I need to find birth records of my four grand-aunts in this town and then I can consider looking into other records archives could have on my great-grandfather.

I am crossing my fingers this week that a researcher will find birth records of two more grand-aunts from 1905 and 1909. Maybe I’ll find some interesting people as godparents or collect more possible direct ancestors’ surnames through the godparents.

I have been amazed by how far godparents of my grandfather and his sister traveled for their baptisms. The godparents came from Kursk Region to Kiev or Zhytomyr. Now if I can use the names of these godparents to find new direct ancestors of my maternal grandfather, the town filled with silver will have the value of a gold mine.

Break open the “I don’t know anything” relatives for some genealogy gems

Everyone has someone in their family who says “I don’t know anything,” “I told you everything I know” or “No one talked to me about the family”.

It’s amazing the information relatives young and old have given me after I broke through the defensive attitude. It does help that I worked several years as a newspaper reporter with lots of experience in investigative reporting. My job was to get the “I don’t know anything” types to talk to me.

So here’s my top 10 tips for getting shiny gems of information from relatives who seem to have super glued their lips.

1. If a relative says “I don’t know anything about that,” ask them what they know about the family. Maybe they would prefer to talk about something else and would feel appreciated if they could talk about their favorites stories. Let them talk, warm them up and see if any of their stories connect back to the information you are seeking.

2.  If a relative says, “Why do you need this information?”,  move the conversation away from you by talking about the importance of future generations learning about the family. Some relatives need to be reminded that they could help pass on important information.

3.  If a relative says, “Who told you that nonsense?”,  don’t act defensive. Give that relative a chance to provide their perspective for that story even if it sounds inaccurate. One of their small tidbits may be enough to put together information to break through a brick wall.

4. Don’t try to trick a relative to talk about a controversial or debated event in the family. Your plan may backfire and that could be the end of the conversation. Wait until the end to talk about controversial topics when your relative is more comfortable.

5. Some relatives may be more visual people when communicating. Ask those relatives to pull out family photos, letters and Christmas cards to talk about the relatives you are researching.

6.  If you are trying to nail down a family village with an older relative who can’t recall the place,  bring maps of the area or your computer to look at online maps.  Ask your relative if they remember certain churches, buildings or monuments being in the community or certain villages, counties or country borders being nearby or particular industries being strong in the community.

7.  Bring photos and letters your relative has not seen and show research you have done. You can try to warm them up by showing that you are willing to share with them and are not there just to extract information from them.

8. Don’t pop out digital voice recorders or video cameras without any warning. That could make your closed-off relative more nervous and hesitant. It is best to write down notes on the first visit and then ask for permission to record follow-up interviews.

9.  Know when to stop asking questions. Don’t make the conversation too long. If possible, try to have a follow-up conversation to clear up some points after you have a chance to review your notes.

10. Make sure to thank your relative several times before leaving their home and call them a few days later to thank them again.