Tip of the Month:
Revisiting Your Past Genealogy Mysteries

Melinde Lutz ByrneMost of us have research that is ten or twenty years old! We stopped because the answer just wasn’t within our grasp and the answer to “where do I look next?” wasn’t obvious.

Maybe it is time to look again. Not only are there countless online databases that (for a fee) provide amazing arrays of digital images, the free sites, like are bringing records, that were and are rarely used, right into our laptops.

Maybe more important than the easy access to records is the fact that the standards for research have changed. It is more than possible that the answer to your decades’ old identity question can be resolved by following or meeting some of the standards set forth in the 2014 book Genealogy Standards. Here at BU, we use this book as background reading as you work through five modules of method instruction and hands-on research.

Recently a student struggling with an unknown maiden name came face to face with the fact that he had not been doing a “reasonably exhaustive search.” Not only had he never looked for religious records that this problem great-great-grandmother might have created, like a church wedding or baptising a child, he didn’t even realize this woman had been Catholic.

The fact is, failing to search for an individual’s religious records is the number one most frequently omitted search. Are you considering the large numbers of possible religious records your target person might have created? This student found the unknown maiden name in a contemporary family Bible. What answers are waiting for you in religious records?


Tip of the Month:
What’s New Is Old

Melinde Lutz ByrneAfter explosive growth the last five years, genealogical databases have settled in and now derive their best returns from developing their collections. One of the key sources that meets many tricky chronology tests of the Genealogical Proof Standard is the newspaper article that nails the date, year, or place of an event. Faced with a gravestone, a Bible entry, and a family recollection, all of which provide conflicting dates, the impartial evidence of a newspaper death notice trumps all.

There are many unexpected finds waiting in the OCR-readable collections of three hundred years of local, state, and national newspapers. Which database service you choose may decide whether you find these or miss them. New York region searchers will find things in the website but will struggle with the site’s search engine. Unlike most genealogy database search engines, those for,, or are most unforgiving in their range. If your search word is hyphenated in the tiny columns of a newspaper, the search engine will not return your result. If the ancient widow you hope received a death notice is not called by her exact name as you request it, but rather “the widow of” a man’s name, the search engine will not return the result, even if you know the date, even if it is there.

Have a common name and you’ve done the search very thoroughly in a huge newspaper database? Don’t forget to return regularly and repeat the search. Database providers are building their collections and most offer an “added in last 30 days” option that searches only new material. Recent finds from old newspapers might include more children for an elusive ancestor, an unexpected court case, a simple traffic accident with long consequences, or a probate sale of land you didn’t know he owned.

When your question is when, don’t forget the newspapers.


Tip of the Month:
Genealogy Conferences

Melinde Lutz ByrneEvery season has its compelling conferences—from Winter’s RootsTech in Salt Lake City, to Spring’s National Genealogical Society, and Summer’s Federation of Genealogical Societies conferences in various cities, and Fall’s New York State Family History Conference in Syracuse, N.Y. Choosing which ones to attend will probably have more to do with location than anything else since the programs and speakers are very similar.

Expect to see many one-hour presentations geared to different levels—beginner, intermediate, and some advanced. Expect ballroom-sized, theatre-style seating and PowerPoint or Prezi presentations followed by a few minutes of questions and answers.

How to get the most of this environment? Look for workshops where there is hands-on experience. Consider a luncheon or dinner where you have a chance to speak with like-minded new friends around the table. Look for panel discussions if you like a lively back and forth.

Certain groups make a point of getting together at conferences. One of these is the BU alumni group. Identified by their red BU ribbons, these graduates of the certificate program are ambassadors for our course and always happy to discuss specifics with anyone who asks. Over 1,000 strong now, their experiences in the same program give them a powerful tie to others who recognize the advantages of quality fundamental instruction.

If you see the red BU ribbon at any of these conferences, stop and get a first-hand opinion about what the course has meant to someone who made the decision to excel.


Tip of the Month:
Measuring Age

Melinde Lutz Byrne2016 is a Leap Year and the news is full of people who are turning 100 after celebrating only twenty-five actual birthdays. The passage of time has been measured in many ways and genealogists must adapt and account for traditions, scientific adjustments, and perceptual ways of measuring people’s ages. For instance, before about 1800, most Americans counted how old they were by starting with birth and saying they were then “in my first year.” This is technically correct, but not the way we usually think of age now – a measure of how much time has elapsed, thus retrospective as in “baby is five months old.”

This particular historical practice sometimes causes genealogists to question the identities of same name people. Joseph Donohue’s gravestone says he died in 1790 in his fiftieth year. If a modern-day genealogist assumes Joseph is fifty in 1790, his birth would be in 1740. If the genealogist only seriously considered people of that name with birth dates in 1740, she or he would completely miss the true birth record in 1741, or worse, adopt someone who had the same name and had a birth record or calculated age in 1740.

Another major thing about age perception. People tend to round up, or sometimes round down, when estimating age. Tens and fives in an age can be a sign that someone is not sure of the answer. In cases where you don’t know who is the informant to an age, as in a U.S. census, be cautious in accepting that adults are ‘exactly’ 40 or 45, for example. The informant might just be going by appearances or guesswork. When that answer is 47, you are far more likely to have a dependable answer than an easily rounded number.


Tip of the Month:
Write Your Own

Melinde Lutz ByrneLast year teacher Emily Phillips died and the obituary she wrote for herself went viral (Ed Mazza, “A Teacher Writes Her Own Obituary,” Huffington Post, 3 April 2015). A lot of people thought it was a terrific idea and anyone who read it has to agree. Among the classic lines it contained, “I was born, I blinked; and it was over,” struck me as a great truth, but at the same time a genealogical disappointment. Where were you born? Who were your parents?

This wasn’t the point. Emily was sharing the things she valued most about her life – not what fills in blanks on a genealogical chart. Her sense of humor at the end drew hundreds of thousands of views to mark the passing of someone they’d never met.

It inspired something else, too. What a great idea to avoid the inevitable lists of survivors and accomplishments. Put it in context and make it fun. Say what is important – show, don’t tell. Like the verse on an old tombstone – the picture it conjures is so much clearer than the name or the dates. There’s more to life than names and dates and places.


Tip of the Month:
The Bias of Perspective

Melinde Lutz ByrneGovernor William Bradford was an artful storyteller whose Of Plymouth Plantation chronicled the Pilgrims’ struggles from an eyewitness perspective. His retrospective account of the First Thanksgiving was just seven sentences dealing with the harvest of fish, waterfowl, turkeys and Indian corn. Bradford says nothing about Massasoit and the ninety tribesmen who attended the three-day feast. For this story fellow Pilgrim Edward Winslow must be consulted as printed in Mourt’s Relation. A contemporary account, Winslow mentions that the guests killed five deer to share.

A single source, no matter how praiseworthy, will always present just part of the story. Perspective is part of the bias that every informant carries. Winslow converted what could have been an unremarkable harvest report into a timeless tale of international cooperation and respect. A similar insight may be just one source away as you pursue your reasonably exhaustive search.


Tip of the Month:
The Art of Photo Identification

Melinde Lutz ByrneThe art of photo identification is an invaluable tool for genealogists who find unlabeled family images. The older the image, the more likely it has no caption since early formats such as daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes have metal or glass backs that don’t hold ink or pencil.

Leading photo identification books promote different methods, but most depend on thorough descriptions of all visible attributes, the type of medium used in the “print”, and an approximation of the date taken. The method taught at Boston University adds a focus on where the image was captured and use of local photo archives.

Genealogists who specialize in photo identification often work for private parties, photo collectors, libraries or archives, or even themselves. With good technique a team of researchers recently authenticated an image of outlaw Billy the Kid playing croquet. This was a $2 junk shop find that is estimated to be worth several million dollars. A browser search of “Billy the Kid” will result in numerous articles on this amazing picture.

In an increasingly visual world, images of ancestors are every bit as important as other documentation. A solid command of photo identification will help ensure you don’t toss out a meaningful connection to your past.


Tip of the Month:
Access the Single Most Valuable Record Group for 20th Century American Research

Melinde Lutz ByrneWithout much fanfare, has released the single most valuable record group for 20th century American research. The U.S. Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007 contains 49 million entries for deceased Americans who applied for social security numbers in that time frame. Data contained on these SS-5 forms are supplied by the individuals applying – so right from the horse’s mouth you learn birth date, birth place, parent’s names, occupation, and see the individual’s signature or mark. Although some people may have lied or honestly not known the answers to the SS-5 questions, you still get information to evaluate and pursue.

While these records are index entries only, they are a fast track to the original record which requires a FOIA request and at least $27.00 to obtain. Click here for details and access the form to request the original record.

Among the most useful items you might learn from the SS-5 are name amendments, as in the case of a woman who marries and changes her last name. Certain critical information may be redacted by, whose policies are recited at the link above. If parents are not assumed to be at least 75 years old, their names are not released. If the individual has not been dead for at least ten years, the social security number is omitted. Even without that data, a genealogist can find workarounds if the birth date and place are provided.


Tip of the Month:
Evaluating Evidence

Melinde Lutz ByrneAre you citation-challenged? A common problem many genealogists face is properly citing information taken from a large database site such as

Throughout your research, it is important to keep these questions in mind: Are you asking the right questions about your information? Is your source original or derivative? Is your information dependent or independent? You can’t properly use evidence if you are unable to evaluate it.

Only after you get a grip on these qualities can you begin to decide whether the information is true or accurate. My grandmother used to tell me about her valiant ancestor, a captain in the American Revolution. When I grew up and learned how to research I found he was a humble private who guarded the home fires in the local militia. Even the people you love can get things wrong. Trust, but verify!


Tip of the Month:
Build Your Interviewing Skills to Not Miss Key Information

Melinde Lutz ByrneEven historical genealogists have to speak to the living from time to time. When mastered, interview skills can open the door to information, photographs, and clues only the living may know. Many genealogists hope never to have to speak to a living person when conducting research – but imagine what they might be missing!

Students at BU choose a recent genealogical problem to solve. Many of these are adoption cases, for either the adoptee or the parent(s) who gave up their child. While most researchers fully appreciate the ethical concerns that haunt three sides of the adoption triangle, they almost always fail to consider a fourth side to what’s really a rectangle: the researcher! Consider what it will be like to be the person who tells what to whom when the research is done.

Keep working on your interviewing skills, and be sure to consider interviewing as a part of your genealogical research. Often times, someone in the present can be the missing link to information from the past.


Tip of the Month:
Using DNA to Return Missing Soldier’s Remains to Families

Melinde Lutz ByrneAlmost every month the news services mention the return of U.S. MIA or KIA soldiers’ remains to their families. Often the remains are recovered, but the family’s whereabouts are unknown.

Recently Corporal Elmer P. Richard, a Prisoner of War during the police action in Korea, born in 1930 and not seen since his capture in December 1950, was laid to rest in Exeter, N.H. Unlike tens of thousands of other missing soldiers, Elmer had living relatives who never stopped asking for his return. His burial was attended by his last living brother of six and his two sisters.

For many others yet to be claimed, there are genealogists diligently working with the Department of Defense to find Primary Next of Kin, particularly blood relations whose DNA samples might identify any remains. Understanding what DNA tests are appropriate for what problem has become part of the modern genealogist’s toolkit.


Tip of the Month:
See if You are a Missing Heir

Melinde Lutz ByrneIn the Forensic Genealogy module BU students use a search engine of their choice to locate hits on “missing heirs.” They are often astounded at what they find. Many genealogical firms have been in business for generations. Some hire stringers on a contingency basis.

Are you comfortable with the business practices in this field? We look at them from all sides.

Every class since our first one has checked for friends, family, and themselves. Someone (and usually more than one) always finds forgotten money waiting in their names. Many of the biggest unclaimed sums won’t have ever been in the heirs’ names, though, because those people are unknown to the lawyers, administrators, or insurance companies who surrendered the assets to the states.

Do you know what happened to great-aunt Helen? Is she the Helen Julien who left you $60K because you are her heir-at-law?

If you don’t know what these terms mean, check out our course and never miss that last chance to reclaim your property again.


Tip of the Month:
Stay In The Loop with Melinde’s 2015 Genealogy Trend Predictions

Melinde Lutz ByrneRising popularity of leading genealogy bloggers such as Judy Russell, The Legal Genealogist, will continue in 2015, connecting readers to important developments in techniques, technology, and sources. Judy team-taught one of BU’s summer seminars last year and we hope to see more of her in 2015.

Genetic genealogy will be a rising star this year. At Salt Lake City this month, Blaine Bettinger released a draft of ethical and usage standards for those employing DNA testing for recent and deep ancestry. See these standards here. If you know the basics about mitochondrial DNA and Y-DNA applications, you’ll be stunned at the new knowledge we are gaining through autosomal DNA studies and phasing.

The revolution around online access to digital images of source material is accelerating at a breathtaking pace. Free sites like make thorough research a pleasure. Pay sites like may hold the answer to your most stubborn brickwall problem – in an ancestor’s estate notice or a news item from the distant past.

The skills to command these vast resources can be learned through further education in the company of like-minded classmates across the globe. Come be a part of discovery with us.


Tip of the Month:
Use The Holidays To Gather Information About The Past

mindmax-c2ddafac-09c6-4975-8b57-0dd5d0b93390-v2December is typically the time to celebrate the holidays together with one’s family. Often, it is rare to have so many relatives in one room together. While this is a great time to present your findings thus far to your family, it is also an excellent opportunity to gather first hand information about your family’s past. These conversations can help you place names and dates that may have been lost over generations. Once you attain this information, head to the library and fact-check.

In addition to utilizing this time to fill in missing information, it is also a great time to hear from family members of past generations about what life was like back then. Close your eyes and listen to their stories, you could feel like you are actually there. It also paints a more vivid picture, and can enlighten you to stories that are not available through any type of database or library research.

In this article, a genealogist named Margie. Through Margie’s genealogical research, she was able to discover that her grandfather owned a dairy, but in connecting with her family, she learned that he continued to deliver milk, even when people could not afford to pay.

See the full article and more of Margie’s story here.


Tip of the Month:
Deciphering Old Documents

One issue unique to the Genealogical Research Field is the common struggle to decipher old documents. While there is no solution for reading messy handwriting, we have compiled some tips to help you with some common patterns found in many older documents.

  1. The letter Y.
    Many are familiar with the word “Ye” but do not know that the word actually means and is pronounced “The.” The letter Y was originally called a thorn, and pronounced as “th.”
  2. Double “s”.
    Two “s” in a row used to be replaced with a letter that looked like a lowercase f or p. This can especially be confusing, because when reading words like “Tennessee” it could look like “Tennepee” or “Tennefee.”
  3. Upper and Lower Case Letters.
    It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between letters at the start of a word. For example, the capital letters “S” and “L” typically look very similar. One great way to address this is to find the same letter in another word for comparison.
  4. Standardization and Spelling.
    Many words were spelled phonetically as the writer heard them, so if something doesn’t seem to make sense in context it is helpful to see it again through that lens. In one letter written by a Confederate soldier to his family, he stated that a friend had died of “new money” fever. He was referring to pneumonia or “pneumonie fever” as it was pronounced at that time.
  5. Transcribing Errors.
    It is very important to transcribe documents exactly as they are written, spelling errors and all. If necessary, one can add footnotes to the parts of the document that are difficult to understand.

To see the full article and see more details regarding the above, click here


Tip of the Month:
Creative Solutions for When you Hit a Brick Wall

It is very common for Genealogists to hit what may seem like dead ends when tracing family lineage. For that reason, GenealogyInTime Magazine has compiled a list of 50 creative solutions to some of these common issues. Here are a few of their top solutions:

  1. Finding Maiden Names. This can be very difficult as you work your way up the family tree. Most countries have a national identification number (Social Security number in the US, Social Insurance Number in Canada, etc.) These applications always list the mother’s maiden name.
  2. Middle Names. It is not uncommon for people to start going by their middle name on official documents at some point in their lives. This can happen even when a person reaches middle age. For that reason, be sure to search for records by first and middle name.
  3. Aliases. In historical records, people commonly used aliases. Some popular patterns of constructing aliases were using the middle name as a last name, using the mother’s maiden name as a last name, and anglicizing a non-English family name.
  4. Utilizing Electoral Rolls. Electoral rolls are arguably the most powerful yet overlooked resource available to genealogists they are often kept at the municipal or city level to allow local authorities to know who is registered to vote. Electoral rolls are often updated on a set schedule, usually at a much higher frequency than census records, and are a good way to narrow down the date range to find out when somebody died or moved out of a region.
  5. Underage Soldiers.Underage soldiers are a common problem during periods of large scale conflicts. When tracing a male ancestor, try to determine how old they were when major military conflicts broke out in the region. If they were 14 or older, then they may have signed on as soldiers even if they were not of legal age. Most armies were happy to take them regardless, and would often turn a blind eye to such activity. Just be aware that underage soldiers (who lacked proof of age) would often sign on under an alias or fake their age.

To see all 50 Brick Wall Solutions, read the full article on GenealogyInTime Magazine.


Tip of the Month:
The Use of Patterns to Draw Conclusive Evidence

mindmax-320b80c2-e1fb-443e-89e8-d5174157b2c0-v2With a wealth of data at our fingertips, it is often easy to feel overwhelmed by the amount of information and lose sight of what may be right in front of us.

In a recent study, an international team of researchers crunched three major databases, gathering the birth and death places of notable artists, politicians, and scientists to see if they could map cultural evolution in North America. This map shows the birth places of those people in blue, and their death places in red.

The thought process behind this method was that “Death is certainly not random, in the sense that people tend to die where they migrate to perform their art,” said Albert-László Barabási (Boston Globe).

So how is this applicable to us? It is a reminder that throughout our genealogical research, a small detail can show a large trend. By thinking outside the box, we will allow ourselves to gain vast insight and knowledge from something that may have been previously overlooked.

To see the full article and findings from the Boston Globe, click here.


National Genealogical Society Quarterly hosted at BU

Reflecting its ongoing involvement in advanced genealogical education, BU’s Center for Professional Education proudly houses the renowned National Genealogical Society Quarterly (NGSQ). The journal is co-edited by the director of CPE’s Genealogical Research program, Melinde Lutz Byrne, FASG, and program instructor Thomas W. Jones, PhD, CG, CGL, FASG, FUGA, FNGS. For more information about the journal, please visit the NGSQ website.


Melinde Byrne, discussing the complexity of modern family trees

Melinde Lutz Byrne, Director of Boston University’s Genealogical Research Certificate program, was on National Public Radio today discussing the changing American family and it impact on tracing family trees. She was also quoted in a New York Times article discussing the complexity of modern family trees.

Listen to the conversation or read the full article on the New York Times.


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