Sunday, 29 April 2012

Criminal Ancestors

One of the most interesting aspects of researching your ancestry is discovering a family member with a criminal record. It can actually be very exciting researching a case like this, as records are often quite detailed. As a genealogist, this is extremely valuable when building a picture of the past, but at the same time it can be disturbing if your ancestor has carried out a particularly heinous crime. Thankfully this has never been the case with me. 

There are numerous ways to research historical criminality, including local court records and specialist books. Newspapers should not be ignored as a rich source of information relating to trials. It can also be worthwhile searching online, as some institutions have made their records available. Perhaps the most famous is the Old Bailey online. Another good website, particularly for Scottish ancestors, is for Inverarary Jail. It has historical records of 4345 former prisoners freely available to search and browse.

These are just a couple of examples. I found information of a trial involving my great-grandfather in Grimsby just by performing a basic Google search. In this my ancestor was the victim of the crime rather than the perpetrator. 

Researching any criminality in your family history can open up a whole new avenue for you to explore. It should not be forgotten that historically prisoners were often transported to Australia as part of their punishment. If this is the case in your ancestry it will allow you to research passenger lists, and from their your ancestor's new life down under. You may even discover modern day relatives that you never knew you had. 

Ultimately, finding a criminal ancestor is interesting because the information discovered gives a good indication of how they lived. Fleshing out the basic data in this way is, I believe, what genealogy is all about.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Old Occupations

One of the most interesting aspects of researching our ancestors is finding out what they did for a living. Occupations are usually listed on census records, as well as marriage and death certificates. A father's occupation can also be listed on the birth certificates of their children.

Often the occupations listed are easy to understand, for example stonemason or agricultural labourer. Sometimes, however, an ancestor will have had a job which no longer exists. I thought it would be interesting to provide a list of some old occupations that I have come across during the course of my family history research, although not necessarily those held by my own ancestors. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but is instead a selection of the jobs that I consider to be interesting.
  • Bagman - a travelling salesman
  • Boatswain - a ship's officer with the responsibility for the rigging
  • Botcher - a tailor or a cobbler
  • Caulker - somebody who made a ship's windows watertight
  • Cooper - a barrel maker
  • Dyker - a Scottish occupation relating to stonemasonry
  • Flesher - a butcher
  • Glover - a maker of gloves
  • Granger - a farmer
  • Hooker - a reaper of crops
  • Husbandman - a tenant farmer
  • Jagger - a fish seller
  • Lumper - a labourer, specifically in the use of timber
  • Mercer - a seller of cloth
  • Pelterer - somebody who works with animal skins
  • Poller - a barber
  • Quarryman - a stone cutter
  • Raker - a street cleaner
  • Skepper - a maker of baskets or hampers
  • Stevedore - a dock labourer, specifically involved in loading and unloading cargo ships
  • Textor - a weaver
  • Tipstaff - a policeman
  • Vulcan - a blacksmith or worker in iron
  • Wabster - a weaver
  • Wheeler - a wheel maker
  • Yeoman - a farmer and landowner
Once we have learnt the meaning of our ancestors' job titles the next step is to research what those jobs entailed. This is the part of the research which I personally find to be the most interesting. It can be fascinating to discover the precise nature of work in past times, in terms of how it affected living conditions. My research has included finding out about what was required in certain jobs, the wages paid, the working conditions, and the hours of work. It is research like this that really helps me to understand my ancestors' life experiences.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Genealogy Books

Tracing your family tree can be tricky at times, and I have always made use of many different resources to make the work easier. This was especially true when I first started my genealogical research, and was wanting to learn how to carry it out properly. As I stated in this earlier post, I learnt a lot from watching genealogy programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are?

In order to learn more I decided to purchase some genealogy books. I now have several in my collection, but the purpose of this post is to highlight a few of the ones that I have found most useful. The first book that I would like to mention is the one accompanying the programme previously mentioned, Who Do You Think You Are? It was first published in 2008 by the BBC, and written by the renowned genealogist Nick Barratt.

The book contains a huge amount of information, and as such it is extremely useful for genealogists regardless of their level of experience. It covers the basics such as vital records, but also has dedicated sections on areas of research such as military records, immigration, and criminality.

In addition to offering specific research advice, Who Do You Think You Are Encyclopedia Of Genealogy also provides fascinating historical information to put the research into context. In addition, the book caters to fans of the show by including case studies of the more interesting celebrity stories. Some of my favourites include Bill Oddie, Jeremy Clarkson, and Matthew Pinsent.

Another book which I have used extensively is Tracing Your Scottish Family History, written by Anthony Adolph and published by Collins in 2008. I found this book to be particularly useful to me due to the fact that a large part of my family tree involves Scottish ancestors. As with the WDYTYA book, this book provides information for beginners, specifically on the records which constitute the basics of family history research. Interestingly, the author devotes a section to the clear religious division in Scotland, and the relevant records to consult depending on whether your ancestors were Catholic or Protestant. There is also a section on emigration, which is useful due to the large number of people who have left Scotland over the years.

The final book that I would like to mention is The Genealogist's Internet by Peter Christian. The fourth edition was published in 2009. This book is so useful because it is a comprehensive volume of websites devoted to various aspects of genealogy. It includes websites which it would be very difficult to find otherwise. The amount of information which can be gained from using the resources in this book cannot be overstated. The nature of the book means that it can become outdated fairly quickly, so a new updated edition is due to be published in June 2012.

These are just some of the books that I have used to develop my genealogy research skills. Aside from being useful in this regard, they are also very interesting to read in terms of describing historical conditions. Genealogy is so popular that there are literally hundreds of books to choose from, and each will have something to offer you in researching your family history.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Famous Ancestors

It is quite common when people first start out in genealogy that they expect, or at least hope, to find a famous ancestor. This could be due to a family story passed down through the generations regarding a link to a historical figure. It could also be as a result of a genealogist having a famous surname, such as Nelson. 

Discovering that you are related to a famous historical figure can be incredibly exciting - I would imagine. I wouldn't know for sure, as all of the ancestors I have researched so far have been "ordinary." I have found a lot of agricultural labourers, no doubt extremely hard working, but not exceptional. I am not disappointed by this however, in fact far from it.

It would be nice to discover a famous ancestor, as there would undoubtedly be a load of fascinating information to read about them. In a way though, this kind of takes the fun out of genealogy, as all of the research has already been done. Many figures in history, particularly the British aristocracy, have established family trees going back for hundreds of years. I would appreciate knowing this information, but would feel slightly disappointed that I wasn't able to research it for myself.

My family tree does not, as of yet, contain any famous names. It is still fascinating to me, though, even if it wouldn't be to anybody else. For me, part of the fun of family history research is finding out about the living and working conditions of "ordinary" people. These stories can be just as interesting and important as more famous examples. 

In relative terms, very few people throughout history have been written about. It is statistically unlikely that you or I will discover any famous ancestors. I'm ok with that.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

My Brick Wall

Brick walls are very common in family history research, and every genealogist has encountered them. You are tracing a particular branch of your family tree back generation after generation and then suddenly...the trail goes cold. You can't find any further information relating to a particular ancestor, and you don't know the next step to take. Sometimes you find an alternative line of research that allows you to break through the brick wall, and sometimes you just have to give up and start researching a different branch of your family tree.

My brick wall involves my great (x4) grandfather, George Cruickshank. I had traced my ancestry back through five generations of Georges, starting with my grandfather. The trail led me to the birth of my great (x3) grandfather in Slains, Scotland in 1844.

The parish record states that:

"George Cruickshank then in New Clochtow had a son born in fornication between him and Jane Leith and baptized by the name of George. Witnesses James Leith and George Cruickshank."

George and Jane were not married when their son George was born, and I can find no record of them ever being married. In fact, Jane married a man called George Will in 1848, in St.Fergus, Banff. The 1851 census has George and Jane Will living with the seven year old George Cruickshank, and his eight month old half brother James Will.

So what became of George Cruickshank Senior? The only clue I have to his identity is that he lived or worked in New Clochtow. Was the George Cruickshank listed as a witness at the baptism George himself, or yet another ancestor, perhaps his father?

My brick wall arises from the fact that Cruickshank is an extremely common name in the north-east of Scotland. Also, George was a popular forename due to the reigns of George I to George IV, from 1714 to 1830. I have performed various searches on the Scotland's People website, but I haven't yet been able to confirm if any of the records returned are for my ancestor. A record can look correct in terms of date and location, but unless you can confirm it you can waste a lot of time researching somebody who isn't even related to you. Believe me, I know.

The other difficulty I have had with this research lies in the fact that statutory registers began in Scotland in 1855. Prior to this we have to rely on Old Parish Registers, which are much more hit and miss. So my brick wall has me stumped - for now. I'll update this post as and when I break through, and please leave me a comment if you have any tips or advice for me. I'd really appreciate it.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Using DNA Testing In Genealogy

I just read a very interesting genealogy article on the BBC website, entitled "How I Traced My Ancestry Back To The Stone Age." Now, the headline was obviously designed to pique the interest of any genealogist, although as it turned out it was a little misleading. 

The article was written by a genealogist who had been researching her Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry for years. Due to the changes that have occurred in Europe over the years in terms of countries' borders changing, she found it very difficult to determine exactly where her ancestors came from. This led her to investigate DNA testing, which is the main focus of the article.

The article explains how there are companies who will, for a fee, take a sample of your DNA, and test it using a process known as genotyping. By comparing DNA with a database of known reference populations these companies can determine where in the world your ancestors were most likely to have come from. As an example, a huge percentage of the inhabitants of the Orkney Islands have common DNA with Scandinavians, due to the invasion and habitation of those islands by the Vikings from around the ninth century.

The results of the author's DNA test confirmed her European Jewish heritage, and pinpointed her ancestry to modern day Russia, Poland, and Belarus.There were also links to the Iberian Peninsula fifteen thousand years ago. Amazingly, the test could also prove that the author had Neanderthal DNA, hence the title of the article.

It appears that this technology can be another method used by genealogists to unravel their family history. It is, of course, impossible to trace your family tree back to the Stone Age, but it is nevertheless fascinating and useful to have an idea of where your distant ancestors came from. In addition, genome research is expected to become much more advanced in the next few years, meaning that ancestry can be accurately pinpointed to very specific locations, such as an individual village.

Exciting times ahead...

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is a fantastic organisation which maintains cemeteries and memorials commemorating war dead in one hundred and fifty countries around the world. That is important work in itself, but the CWGC also operate a very informative website, which can often prove to be invaluable to genealogists.

The CWGC website offers a free search facility, where users can search either by cemetery or casualty surname. I first made use of this website when I was trying to find information on my great uncle, Robert Frederick Cummings. I didn't know anything about this man, apart from the family story that he had been killed in the Second World War.

The CWGC website was incredibly easy to use. I simply put in my ancestor's surname and initials, and one record was returned. I could immediately confirm that this was the correct Robert Frederick Cummings, as the "Additional Information" section contained details of Robert's parents, my great grandparents. 

The rest of the record provided me with details I had no prior knowledge of. Robert was a sapper with the 1010 Docks Operating Company, Royal Engineers. He was twenty-five when he died on the 17th of June 1943. His is one of the names listed on the Brookwood memorial in Surrey. 

After discovering this information I knew I wanted to find out more, specifically how Robert died. I was aware that the National Archives would hold information on Robert's company, but first I decided to try a basic Google search. The results were amazing. 

From information provided by other genealogists on various family history websites I discovered the following details, amongst much else:
  • the 1010 Docks Operating Company were on board the SS Yoma, travelling from Tripoli to Alexandria in June 1943
  • on the 17th of June the ship was torpedoed by U-Boat U-81, commanded by Oberleutnant Johann-Otto Krieg
  • the ship sank in around six minutes, with the loss of over four hundred and fifty people on board
My great uncle was undoubtedly one of those who lost their lives in this attack. I find it amazing that I was able to find out so much information, all quite quickly, and all for free. I am grateful to my fellow genealogists for sharing the information they had, and I am confident that I can now go on to find out more about Robert's time in the war before that sad day in June 1943.

The Health Benefits Of Genealogy

Genealogy is an enjoyable hobby to have. I find researching my family history to be exciting, and it's something that makes me happy. That's why I devote so much of my leisure time to it. Hobbies, including genealogy, have long been known to reduce stress levels and to promote overall well being.

Family history research can undoubtedly be challenging, however. Sometimes the trail goes cold on a particular ancestor, and you just can't discover anything new about them. This is when your detective skills come to the fore. You have to approach your brick wall from a different perspective in order to find a way through it. In this way genealogy can be about solving puzzles, and is a great way to keep the brain active.

The real point of this post, however, is to point out the importance of genetics. Your family history can provide clues about any illnesses or disorders that you might have a predisposition to. The importance of genetics is the reason that doctors will always ask about the history of your family's health. 

Since beginning my family tree research I have discovered ancestors who have died from various forms of cancer, heart disease, and historical killers such as tuberculosis. Death certificates can provide a huge amount of detailed information, and can be very interesting to read. As a side note, it can often be useful to look at who the informant on the death certificate is, as this can reveal a previously unknown relation.

Finding the causes of your ancestors' deaths is a fascinating part of researching your family tree, but it can also give you an important insight into your personal health. I have to be wary of the fact that both of my grandfathers died of stomach cancer, for example. It's not something that will necessarily affect the way I live my life, but being aware of the health history of my family is just another of the benefits of my genealogical research.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Genealogy Makes You Think...

I was just going over my family history research, and I noticed that my family tree currently contains two hundred and forty-two names. These are obviously not all direct descendants, as my research has only taken me as far back as the early eighteenth century. The total number accounts for various branches of my family tree, meaning that distant cousins are included.

For example, my great-great-great grandparents, Thomas Cummings and Sarah Arbuckle, had eight children. After researching my direct line through their son John, I then turned my attention to the offspring of John's brothers and sisters. Carrying out research in this way has greatly increased the number of ancestors in my family tree.

Looking at all of the names of the various individuals got me to thinking. My family tree contains many connections between ancestors. If just one of those connections hadn't happened, for whatever reason, I wouldn't be here today. My Cummings ancestors come from Northern Ireland. If my great grandparents hadn't emigrated to Scotland my grandfather would never have met my Scottish grandmother. 

When people research their family history they usually find ancestors originating from different areas of the world. My own ancestors came from Northern and Southern Ireland, England, Russia, and all over Scotland. Think about all of the migration that was required for your ancestors to meet, and all of the hardships that had to be overcome.

My, and everyone else's, existence is down to a huge amount of chance and luck, and that blows my mind. This realisation is one of the reasons why I love genealogy. It really is an amazingly interesting hobby to have. The thing is, I'm hoping to discover much more about my ancestry, and to find generations of relations going further back and coming from different places.

That means many more connections to think about...

Monday, 9 April 2012

Scottish Valuation Rolls

The official government resource for family history records in Scotland, Scotland's People, has just made the Valuation Rolls for 1915 available online. This is an exciting development, and could prove to be very useful to many researchers tracing their Scottish ancestors at the time of the First World War.

The Valuation Rolls provide information for properties throughout the country. They list the owner, occupier, or tenant of each property. They can therefore be used in conjunction with the 1911 census to track an ancestor's movements between 1911 and 1915. It is important to remember that these Valuation Rolls are for a period when many men were away fighting in the First World War. As a result, it is often wives that are listed as tenants, rather than their husbands.

Every time records like these are released it allows us to develop a clearer understanding of how our ancestors lived and worked. For that reason, the release of the Scottish Valuation Rolls for 1915 should be viewed with a sense of excitement and optimism. In fact, Scotland's People have announced plans to eventually release Valuation Rolls for years between 1855 and 1955.

Organising Your Family History Research

As you grow your family tree, you will find it increasingly difficult to keep track of all your newly discovered ancestors. Data for one ancestor alone could include year and place of birth, year and place of marriage, year and place of death, profession, spouse's name, details of children, etc. It can become very confusing. For this reason, it is important to get into the habit of organising your findings from the very first time you begin your family history research. 

I organise my research in two different ways. Firstly, I have a file containing printouts of birth, marriage, and death certificates, as well as notes taken from libraries and family history centres. It is important to point out that several providers of records only allow you to take in paper and a pencil for note-taking purposes. My paper file has a separate section for each family I research, for example Campbell, Cummings, and Dunlop. The entire file is organised alphabetically to allow me to find information easily when I need it.

The second way in which I organise my family history research is by having a dedicated digital file on my computer. This is structured very much in the same way as the paper file, with separate sub-files for each family name. In these files are stored digitised copies of vital records which I have downloaded from various websites. I also have photographs taken from visits to places where my ancestors lived.

Having a collection of records is a must when it comes to carrying out genealogy research, but it is also important to have a way of tying all of the information together. This is where family history software comes in. There are many different versions to choose from, but most use the GEnealogical Data COMmunication (GEDCOM) format for transferring genealogical data. This makes it incredibly easy for people to share and view each other's family trees. 

Building a family tree is simply a case of creating a record for each of your ancestors, and typing in all of the data you have available for them. Most software will automatically link relevant family members together.

Family history software varies in price and available features. Some software allows you to add photographs to an ancestor's record, for example. I use a free program called Simple Family Tree. It is easy to use, and allows me to keep my research organised and accessible. It's nothing fancy, but it's all I need. My record keeping system works for me, and has allowed me to develop my family tree piece by piece. With a system that works for you your research will be clearer, easier, and more enjoyable.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Free Family History Resources

My last post was about genealogy TV shows, and how they can provide useful information and research tips. The great benefit of using TV shows in this way, aside from the entertainment value, is that the tips provided are free. In general, genealogy can be an expensive hobby to have, with subscriptions to sites such as Ancestry and Find My Past typically costing over £100 annually.

Other genealogy sites, such as Scotland's People, charge for credits which are used to view digitised images of records. This can also prove to be expensive, as the further back into your ancestry you go the more relatives you will find, and the more records you will need to view. As a result of the expense associated with genealogy I try to make use of free resources whenever I can, both in terms of finding records and developing my researching skills.

In addition to TV shows for tips, there is a very informative radio programme called "Digging Up Your Roots." It is produced by the BBC Scotland, and features the respected Scottish genealogist Dr. Bruce Durie. He is extremely knowledgeable when it comes to resources where information can be found. The BBC also has an excellent website on family history, which is of course free of charge.

Websites for learning are all well and good, but the whole point of family history research is to discover specific facts about our ancestors. As previously stated, most websites charge for viewing their records, with only a few notable exceptions. One of the most famous, and extensive, is the website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They provide birth, death, marriage, and IGI records dating back for centuries.

Other sites to be aware of include FreeCen for census records, and FreeBDM for births, deaths, and marriages. The records provided on these sites are transcribed by volunteers, and they are therefore neither 100% accurate nor 100% complete, but they are free to view. Genealogy forums such as Rootsweb can also be a goldmine for information.

Finally, it can be worthwhile to google the name of an ancestor you are searching for. This method is hit and miss, but I have had some success with it in the past. Often search results pages will include links to the family trees of other genealogists who share a common ancestor with you. When you have hit a brick wall with your research this can be an effective way of giving you a new avenue to search. 

If you are just starting out in genealogy, free resources can be a great way of developing your family tree. You'll be amazed at how much you can discover at no charge.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Family History TV Shows

I have to be honest here - it was watching the BBC's "Who Do You Think You Are?" that first got me interested in genealogy. Watching celebrities uncover stories about their ancestors made me want to do the same. The programme was, and still is, very entertaining, however I soon discovered when I started my own research that it doesn't really portray how difficult genealogy can be.

The celebrities who have been featured on the show tend to have professional genealogists carry out the work on their behalf, rather than experiencing the joys of researching their own family tree. Of course, they still benefit from learning all about their ancestors and how they lived. From a viewer's perspective this is the heart of the show. Some of the stories told have been very powerful. For example, Stephen Fry, David Baddiel, and Esther Rantzen all researched stories relating to Jewish persecution in Europe before the Second World War.

Since WDYTYA? first started several other genealogy shows have aired, including an American version. This follows the same format as the British version. Celebrities who have featured include Spike Lee, Brooke Shields, Sarah Jessica Parker, and her husband, Matthew Broderick. His story, in particular, was very interesting, as he researched an ancestor who had fought and died in the American Civil War. Matthew had previously known nothing about his great-grandfather, but came to feel extremely proud of him once he learnt of his military achievements.

Other television shows featuring family history research to be aware of include Heir Hunters and Find My Past. They differ in format to WDYTYA?, and are not as focused on the process of genealogical research. Nevertheless, they can be useful in learning how to develop the skills needed to successfully expand your family tree back through the generations.

I thoroughly recommend watching family history programmes as a way of learning about genealogy. They can inspire you to begin research into your own ancestry, as they did for me. They are also a valuable resource for helpful hints and tips, and they are extremely educational in terms of learning about social history, and important historical landmarks. Last, but not least, they can just be entertaining to watch.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Welcome to Family History Finder

Welcome to the Family History Finder blog, and to the very first post. I decided to set up this blog to document my hopefully interesting research into my ancestry. I have been investigating my family history for many years now. It allows me to combine my general interest in history with a better understanding of where I came from. That's Scotland, by the way, although so far I have discovered ancestors from Ireland, England, and Russia. 

Even if you have never found history to be particularly interesting before, when you personalise it by researching how your ancestors lived it suddenly becomes much more appealing. Genealogy is now a hugely popular topic, particularly on the Internet. There are countless resources devoted to providing useful information. My aim is to post about the best ones as I find them.

I'll also write about the interesting facts and stories that I have discovered about my own ancestry. I'll provide research tips when I can, genealogy news, in fact anything genealogy related that I think is important or useful. Most of what I write about will centre around the British Isles, since that is where the majority of my ancestors originate from, but migration is so common in genealogy that research is often global. That's part of the fun, and discovering distant relatives from around the world is one of the reasons that genealogy is such a rewarding hobby to have.

With this introductory post out of the way, all that is left to say is that I hope you enjoy reading my future posts. I'll try to keep them as entertaining and informative as possible. As I continue my research I just hope that my family history is interesting enough to provide me with ongoing content.