4 Brilliant Ancestry Hacks You Need to Know

Research on a Budget

I consider myself an addicted genealogist. There is a joke in the genealogy community. We are all self proclaimed addicts but you will never see a genealogist anonymous meeting. Why? Genealogists never want to quit. Perhaps we’re not a funny lot but the point is valid.

Everyday I dedicate time to researching or improving my research skills. I have been at this a long time and I consider myself a good researcher. In this field no one is ever truly an “expert”. People have specializations, but the subject is just so wide that it is is impossible to know it all at an expert level. It is a constant effort to acquire more information and skills.

If I ever strike it rich I might allow myself to spend endless amounts of money on this passion that I love so much but that is not this reality. Each of my precious genealogy budget dollars has to be used in the best way possible. I have discovered a few hacks to stretch my budget while still utilizing the vast resources at ancestry.com.

Being a member of ancestry.com can be a budget buster. The vast resources on the site, and the ease of use makes it worth the effort to subscribe to the paid site at least for short periods of time occasionally. However those monthly subscription fees can be hard to choke down.

4 Money Saving Ancestry Hacks

My first ancestry hack is to only subscribe when you are able to dedicate a considerable amount of time to research. If you are pressed for time and don’t know when you might have time to research then cancel that membership. It seems simple enough but I don’t know how many times I see people with a paid subscription to the site on auto renewal that haven’t touched the site in months. Your tree will remain there waiting for you to return at a free membership level unless YOU delete it. Don’t be afraid to save a few bucks if you can’t find the time to research.


My second ancestry hack is that even if you are researching on a regular basis cancel from time to time to get the company to offer a discount rate to stay. Often they will give 2 months for the twice of one if you have been a subscriber for awhile. It is no secret that most companies put more effort into attracting new customers than they do to ones who are loyal. I have no problem reminding companies that my research dollars are hard earned and I expect them to work for them just as they would a new customer. Ancestry is definitely one of the biggest and easiest to use sites but it is not the only place to research. I like to walk away from time to time just to remind myself that there are so many wonderful records repositories other than ancestry.


My third ancestry hack is to watch for sales. Ancestry is big on running regular sales. They typically run sales around holidays. The sales will typically offer DNA tests at $59 plus shipping and 50% off subscription services. I like to take advantage of sales around Black Friday and Mother’s Day to get my subscription services 50% off for the 6 month package.


My fourth ancestry hack is to use rakuten. It sounds too simple to be true but I always make sure I use a rakuten link when I purchase DNA tests or my regular subscription memberships. Typically, ancestry offers 7.5% cash back through rakuten. That’s right, just for buying your normal subscription you can earn 7.5% each and every time if you open a ticket through rakuten. I actually LOVE this site. They also offer 4% on DNA tests through ancestry. On a rare occasion I have even found ancestry on the double cash back list and received 15% cash back on my purchase.

Disclaimer: I will receive a small compensation from rakuten through this link however I recommend using rakuten for many of your shopping needs if you like to save money and receive cash back. I recommend this product because I think it is valuable and I have earned hundreds of dollars back in this method not because I have a referral link.

These are my 4 brilliant ancestry hacks. I use these methods to stretch my research budget and get the most out of each dollar I spend. Do you have any budget stretching ancestry hacks?

A Strange Tale in Ripley County, Missouri

Revisiting a family history research treasure buried in the branches of my Father’s paternal line. The strange murder of two brothers and how a dying woman helped send her son to the gallows.

Here is the a very strange tale from Ripley County, Missouri

Dusty Roots & Forgotten Treasures

Recently I stumbled upon an article about an odd double murder that happened nearly a 100 years ago which left me fascinated and delving deeper for more information.  The murders took place in Ripley County, Missouri during prohibition.

Ripley County was an area with a reputation for lawlessness.  Homemade corn liquor poured from stills long before the law forbidding alcohol in the country.  A lack of roads inhibited the law enforcement authorities from cracking down on unsavory types in a region where many of the locals traveled by the many waterways that snaked through the area.

The region was mostly poor; a majority of the population was illiterate.  Many of the people in the area had immigrated to the area during the lumber boom after 1880, most of them from Tennessee.  Small family farms and timber operations were the main industries of the area.

12376434_1670003749883725_115932398000067363_n Lillie Mae Weatherspoon

In 1920 the…

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Why Did Abraham Lincoln Grow his Famous Beard?

I enjoy sharing the stories I discover in my family history research with my family. Often, I bore them to tears but from time to time I manage to turn up a tidbit of information that sticks. For my youngest son learning that we are distant cousins to Abraham Lincoln is that detail that stuck. He loves telling anyone willing to listen that he is related to Abraham Lincoln.

It was a couple years ago when he was about 9 that the topic of Abraham Lincoln being a distant leaf on the family tree came up. He was learning about Abraham Lincoln at school and he came home bragging that he knew why Abraham Lincoln grew his famous beard.

A History Lesson

I had to admit as he grinned like the Cheshire cat that he did in fact know something that I did not. He proceeded to educate me on the story of why Abraham Lincoln decided to grow his beard.

August 13, 1860 Last photo of Lincoln without his beard

On October 15, 1860 a young lady by the name of Grace Bedell, at the ripe wise age of 11 years old, wrote a letter to the republican presidential nominee insisting that growing a beard would help him get elected.

Grace wrote

Hon A B [sic] Lincoln…

Dear Sir

My father has just home from the fair and brought home your picture and Mr. Hamlin’s. I am a little girl only 11 years old, but want you should be President of the United States very much so I hope you wont think me very bold to write to such a great man as you are. Have you any little girls about as large as I am if so give them my love and tell her to write to me if you cannot answer this letter. I have yet got four brothers and part of them will vote for you any way and if you let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President. My father is going to vote for you and if I was a man I would vote for you to [sic] but I will try to get every one to vote for you that I can I think that rail fence around your picture makes it look very pretty I have got a little baby sister she is nine weeks old and is just as cunning as can be. When you direct your letter direct to Grace Bedell Westfield Chautauqua County New York.

I must not write any more answer this letter right off Good bye

Grace Bedell

Grace Bedell in 1870s

The future president returned a letter to Grace Bedell.

Springfield, Ill Oct 19, 1860

Springfield, Ill Oct 19, 1860

Miss Grace Bedell

My dear little Miss

Your very agreeable letter of the 15th is received. I regret the necessity of saying I have no daughters. I have three sons – one seventeen, one nine, and one seven, years of age. They, with their mother, constitute my whole family. As to the whiskers, having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a silly affectation if I were to begin it now?

Your very sincere well wisher

A. Lincoln

Shortly after the exchange with young Miss Grace the future president began to grow his whiskers.

In 1861, Lincoln and Miss Grace met in person. When the two met the president, elect was sporting a full face of whiskers.

Did the advice of the young Miss Grace Bedell help to get Abraham Lincoln elected to the highest office in the United States? We may never know how much impact the decision made in his election but her advice definitely impacted the image most people think of when they picture Abraham Lincoln.

That’s the story of how Lincoln grew his famous beard…and how I got a history lesson from my son.

February 9, 1861

The Belle in the Well. Identified 4 Decades After Being Discovered Murdered in an Ohio Well.

DNA Doe Project

Like many other long-time genealogists, I find myself captivated by the powerful tool created with the marriage of genetics and traditional genealogy. There are so many implications both positive and negative that have come from this meeting of science and history.

While the discussion of the merits and risks of genetic testing is one that will probably never be easily settled debate, for this moment I would like to touch on one interesting positive aspect of this exciting new research frontier, the DNA Doe Project.

The DNA Doe Project was one of the first organizations that drew my interest to genetic genealogy.

While the tales of cases such as the capture of the Golden State Killer dominate headlines when they are finally cracked with the sleuthing capabilities of talented genetic genealogists such as CeCe Moore, quietly behind the scenes thousands of equally talented researchers toil on cases that will never make headlines.

The DNA Doe Project is one such organization full of dedicated and talented researchers. The people at DDP work to fundraise for extensive DNA testing of the remains of unidentified persons in the United States. Thousands of volunteers work to give the names back to these “Does” using both DNA analysis and traditional genealogy research methods to correctly identify family connections. In some of these cases the families have waited decades for closure, wondering what happened to their loved one who suddenly vanished.

Belle in the Well

The “Belle in the Well” was an unidentified person found in a well in 1981. Recently, through the work of the DDP the family of the belle in the well was identified and she was finally given back her name after nearly 4 decades.

In April 1981 2 girls playing found an unidentifiable object in a well. Authorities were contacted and the severely decomposed remains of a female were pulled from the well.  The adult woman was fully clothed, except for missing shoes. She had a key for a bus locker on her body. There was not much to reveal the identity of this woman who had been so callously strangled and discarded in a well. The “Belle in the Well” would be her name until July 29, 2019.

” The woman was found wearing a pair of grey flannel pants, and a lightweight shirt under a gray pullover.  She also wore a red cable-knit cardigan sweater, with rubber bands around her wrists.  The only items found on her body were the key to a locker at a Greyhound terminal in Huntington, WV, a bus ticket, a pay stub, and a Jerry Falwall commemorative coin. “

DNA Doe Project via original case info

Louise Peterson Flesher

Fourteen months after a DNA profile was extracted from the remains in the belle in the well, and with the efforts of thousands of volunteers, the living daughter of Louise Peterson Flesher was located and with DNA testing was performed to confirm the two were mother and daughter. The belle in the well finally had her name returned to her and a woman who had wondered for decades what happened to her mother finally had information and some closure.

The murder of Louise Peterson Flesher remains an open case.

I found myself wondering how someone goes missing for decades with no one realizing that their loved one is on an unidentified persons list. Didn’t someone wonder where Louise disappeared to for 4 decades? I looked up what I could find on Louise Peterson Flesher and the circumstances of her life before she vanished.

She had been married at one time; she had a family at one time. Her husband was a police officer. How did she wind up forgotten in that well?

From what I could find in quick research on Louise Peterson Flesher her life was at one point at least on the surface a nice life until 1959. With a little deeper digging I discovered that the Flesher’s had two daughters, the one who eventually helped identify her mother’s remains, and another daughter, Helen. Helen was born about 1939 in Wyoming. In 1940 the family is all living together. Two years later the household of Louise and her husband is back in their home state of West Virginia which is not odd. At this point I realize there was something amiss in the Flesher household. I found a death record for Helen Flesher dated 1959 in Wyoming. She died at a place called the Wyoming State Training School. Closer inspection reveals this to have been a home for the “mentally retarded and feeble minded”.

The first instance I can find of Louise and her husband not residing in the same household is the same year that their daughter Helen died, 1959, in Wyoming. The family was living in West Virginia and had been there since they left Wyoming in 1942.

Did this death of Helen cause the crumbling of the Flesher household? I can only speculate.

Louise’s and her husband divorced, and he remarried. I wish I had a crystal ball to see what happened to Louise in the years between her daughter’s death and what brought her to that well in 1981. How did she disappear, and no one wondered where she was?

While hope of solving this case is dim I am thankful that through the dedicated efforts of individuals like the volunteers at the DNA Doe Project are working tirelessly to return the names to these unidentified persons and to give closure to families who have sometimes waited decades to learn what happened to their loved ones.

The “Belle in the Well” is just one of the many cases that have been solved by the DNA Doe Project.  

Sources

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/07/belle-well-dna/594976/

Research Tip of the Week

Always check for local genealogical societies when you are doing research in a certain locale.

If there is an expert on local history this is a good place to try to find them. Genealogical societies often have records that aren’t available in other places or information on how to find them.

Members of local genealogical societies may know the location of long forgotten cemeteries and details of family histories that might not be published or widely known. It’s also a good place to stumble upon distant cousins!

L.J. Eckler: Civil War Soldier – Custer’s First Last Stand and Andersonville Prison


History is full of countless minor characters who will never be regaled on the pages of history books. These men and women who toil, bleed, and persevere through extraordinary circumstances yet go on to live normal lives are the stories that lurk deep in the depths of family history research. L.J. Eckler was one of my ancestors. He was my 3x great grandfather.

L.J. was living a simple life of a family man and blacksmith when he was called to serve in the American Civil War. He was mustered into the legendary Wolverine Brigade and served under the notorious and daring, Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer, long before he ever fell on the distant battlefield in in his final last stand.

Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer By unattributed – Library of Congress, Public Domain

L.J. Eckler served as a blacksmith for G company of the 6th Michigan Calvary. He was captured during the battle of Trevilian Station at what is commonly known as Custer’s First Last Stand.

During the rest of the war L.J. would experience the depths of hell beyond even the blood and chaos of the battlefield. He would spend time at some of the deadliest Confederate prison camps.

I follow the life of my 3x great grandfather as he returns home from war and follow the rest of his life in documents. He seems to have brought the trauma of his experience home with him. The rest of L.J.’s life is dotted with several divorces, instances of jail time for fraud.

I don’t know if a photo of L.J. exists. If it does, I have never seen it. I found a photo of his gravestone and it seems likely that is all I will ever find. My 3x great grandfather is the type of individual that family history research is full of, simple and often tragic heroes, that history largely forgets.


5 Fast Tips To Help Find Your Family History Treasure

1.  Follow the document trail as far as you can but once the details start to get less clear it’s time to fan out. In family history research FAN refers to friends and neighbors.

As an example, let’s say that the research trail goes dead at the 1900 U.S. census. A lot of researchers run into roadblocks around this time period due to the destroyed 1890 U.S. Census. This is a good time to attempt to perform FAN research.

I used this method to knock down one of my own family brick walls. My great-great grandmother was a controversial figure in the family lore of my ancestry. She lived into my lifetime although I don’t really have any recollection of her. I did grow up hearing various tidbits about her from different relatives and none of them were positive.

When I started my research on her I didn’t have a great deal of details. I knew a given name, Fanny, and I knew the surname she had when she died, Meadows. I didn’t know if Fanny was a nickname for a different name. I had no clue if Meadows was a maiden name or a married name.

Fanny was a research challenge

I built off what I did know using documents that I knew were related to my Great-Grandmother, Fanny’s daughter. I was able to locate the family on the 1920 census, the first census after my Great Grandmother was born. Without the FAN method this would have been my dead end.

On this census living in the household with the family was an individual named Elmer Bennett….and he was listed as a nephew.

With a little digging I was able to locate Elmer Bennett and Fanny Bennett on the 1910 census and they both lived in the household of Fanny’s parents. With that information I was able to crack the brick wall that held up my research on my Great-Great Grandmother.

The FAN technique of looking at Friends and Neighbors can be valuable in navigating research speed bumps.


2. Cast a broad net with a general search engine search. Often, we get tunnel vision and convince ourselves the only way to research is via sites we know and trust

There are countless more focused sites that while they may have less broad information, they may have extensive details of the individuals that you are researching. The best way to locate some of the harder to find resources is to search wide to locate the pinpoint resources.

The history of West Virginia might be a topic that not everyone needs. For me and my extensive West Virginia mountain heritage, the West Virginia Culture site has been a priceless resource. If I had limited my research to strictly sites such as ancestry and family search, I may have never found this massively helpful resource.

Unlike sites such as Ancestry with a wide catalog of records and a subscription fee smaller more specific websites will often be free or operate solely on donations.

There is a plethora of lesser known websites that are just as reliable as sites such as family search and ancestry

It’s easier to toss out the wrong results than it is to infer information from a mystery record. Exhaust all avenues.


3. Don’t focus too much on spelling if the rest of the details mesh out. Spelling has not been standardized long in the grand timeline of history. Many people were unable to read and write until modern times.

A recent instance that I came across was the case of the Monteith/Mantooth surname. Legend has it that there was a rift in the Mantooth family generations ago that led to one branch of the Monteith family changing their name to Mantooth.

If the spelling is close and all the other details match up, then you must research deeper. It’s better to research the wrong thing and realize it later than it is to skip over a record because Smith is spelled Smyth. It doesn’t hurt to sound out a name and try to think of any ways you can that might be a spelling for that name. Search them all. Then remember that our ancestors often had accents so you might have missed a spelling completely.


4. Research more than just people. If there is a certain location where the ancestors, you are researching lived for a long time take the time to learn about that area

I have discovered a great deal of family information through researching things such as towns, churches, and early military units.

Town founders, early community office, local militia unit rosters. There are countless places that ancestors can show up in historical documents.

The members of the communities were self-sufficient. They pooled efforts to help build churches, they would donate land for a community building, and they would ban together to build roads.  In earlier periods these were handled at a community level and often details notes exist of these events.


5. Pushes and Pulls. This is such a simple concept but it’s easy to forget during research. Much like the world today there are often bigger events happening which influences migration patterns. Migration is rarely random.

A good example of this is with the Scotch-Irish population of the 18th and 19th centuries.

These individuals left regions of Scotland and Ireland hoping to create a better life. The conditions in their home regions were the pushes.

The pulls were the reasons they were pulled to the Americas such as available land and religious freedoms.

The Irish potato famine pushed many Irish families out of Ireland decades later and pulled them to the United States in search of economic opportunity.

During the industrial revolution the United States saw a lot of people pushed from rural farmland where there were less economic opportunities to urban areas such as Detroit, Michigan seeking available jobs in the factories.

My grandfather was from a poor coal mining family in Appalachia. He was pushed from his small community in rural West Virginia that his family had inhabited for hundreds of years. He was pulled to the economic opportunity of the manufacturing hub of northern automotive cities. He retired from GM in Flint, Michigan after a long and rewarding career. At that point he was pushed yet again from the busy hustle and bustle of life in a city and pulled toward a slower and more rural life.

Often if we consider the larger picture of a certain group or region it can provide great clues that can help fill in the research blanks.

What are your top 5 fast tips to help you find your family history treasure?

Animals in Family History

We often think of and treat our pets as members of the family

Growing up part of my enjoyment in going to visit my grandparents was not just in seeing my grandparents but enjoying the chance to spend time with the giant collie dog, Tramp, they had the entire time I was growing up

He was a magnificent beast and I’m sure that when news finally went through the family grape vine that he had crossed over that rainbow bridge there were more than a few of us who shed a quiet tear over his loss.

He was not a pet he was family

As an adult I am animal lover. I have a house full of critters. My senior mini dachshund has traveled more than a lot of humans I know.

He’s 13, half blind and has trouble getting around but if he sees me packing a travel bag, he’s the first one at the car ready to go.

He has been a part of the family longer than my youngest child.

He is in countless family photos over the years showing how he’s aged as children grew.

Long after he is gone Oscar will still be a topic of family conversations and memories because he’s more than a pet. He’s family and has earned his place in the pages of family history.

My mother and her siblings and cousins will reminisce about their childhood and while I’m not sure anyone has agreed what type of dog “Tippy” was, I know each of those kids enjoyed that dog.

For the record while I consider Oscar my fur kid I will not be adding him to the family tree.

What do family pets have to do with family history?

Pets make a great topic starter.

If a family group had a beloved childhood pet, it’s a good place to break the conversation ice to get people strolling down memory lane for interviews.

Another way that family pets can be very useful in family history is when it comes to dating photographs.

Pets have shorter life spans so if you have a photo with a certain pet pictured then it can be a useful tool for narrowing down a date range.

Have any animals played an important part in your family history?

Nicknames: A Genealogy Speed Bump

One of the most common stumbling blocks in family history research can be nicknames

I encountered a recent research case where I was researching an individual who was referred to as “Nell”. Through research I was able to conclude that Nell was a nickname for several names…in this case Nell was a nickname for Helen.

I began to think about the countless nicknames I have come across in my research and how some of the names are common while others are less so and how both instances can cause research headaches.

In my immediate family I have a Desi, short for Desirae. There is a Sarah, and the grandmother she was named for who prefers to be called Sally. There are several named Joshua, two Joshes and one “J.J.” or “junior”. Every family seems to have a multitude of Williams who may go buy William, Will, Willie, Bill, or Billy. Robert is another fun one with several popular nicknames. A Robert could be a Rob, Robbie, Bob, or a Bobby. For women Elizabeth can be a fun one. Is it a Liz, Lizzie, Betty, Beth, or maybe a Liza?

Another fun instance where nicknames can derail research is when a relative uses a middle name instead of their first given name. My great grandmother was a Lily but if you find her in records for most of her life she went by Mae. I’ve had a friend since childhood who was named Randi Kristina, she prefers to be called Kristi in another case of the middle name preference.

Recently my first granddaughter was born. As with my other grandchildren she was given a heritage name from the family tree, Catherine. Right now, she is a little baby with a big name and only time will tell, will she choose to be known as a Catherine, perhaps she’ll become a Cathy, or maybe even a Cat.

Catherine

What are some common nicknames that you have run into?

Celebrate Family History

In 2001 Congress named October National Family History Month

With the holiday season approaching this is the perfect time to start considering family history projects.

This time of year presents opportunities for both recording today’s moment’s for future generations and for discovering information from days long past.

With many families gathering for holiday celebrations over the next few months one of the best ways to document your own family history is to take photos. Even if it is only ONE photograph of your holiday celebration and your Aunt Mildred loudly complains the entire time because she HATES having her photo taken. Get that photograph. Someday someone will be delighted that you took a moment to record that moment in time.

While you are there get Aunt Mildred to tell some stories of when she was younger. Was she at Woodstock in the summer of ’69? The holiday season provides countless opportunities to learn about the history of your relatives and discover things that you never knew. That interest will probably put a certain spark in old Aunt Mildred’s eye because someone took the time to ask. Or….she may smack you with a shoe for digging up the past. There is only one way to find out. Either case will make a great story for generations to come.

Another thing to consider this time of year is the popularity of genealogy in the United States today. It is one of the most popular hobbies today.

Family history themed gifts can be an excellent choice for the hard to shop for person and there are options that fit every budget.

Some great gift giving ideas could be buying a DNA test through one of the testing companies, a framed hand drawn family tree or family portrait from a younger family member to a grandparent, a photo book of family photos, etc. Just be mindful that gifts along this theme can be tear jerkers so get the family photo before you give it!

Have you ever given a family history themed gift?

Happy National Family History Month!