The Great Organization Dilemma

I’m at the point where I’ve spent years researching two branches of my family history. List most researchers, I’ve collected what feels like a ton of paper material: birth, death, and marriage certificate, copies of church registers, census records, letters, stories, photographs, and more. While I’ve already scanned everything and keep it in labeled folders on my computer, the paper material remains…scattered.

My office features archival boxes stacked with material by family, but also piles and piles of material that hasn’t been sorted.

How do you organize all of your paper records? Boxes, file folders, something else? How do you label it all so you can easily find what you’re looking for? I feel like this is a huge hurdle, but there’s got to be someone who has successfully organized all this paper.


Migration Paths

I’ve seen these migration path charts floating around and decided to create one for myself. The idea is to trace where your ancestors were born, but realistically you could use this method in any number of ways.

My chart starts with myself as the largest block on the left and works backward through my father (top portion, all Pennsylvania) and my mother (bottom portion, multiple locations).

A blank spreadsheet ready to fill in is freely available as a Google doc.



Where They Lived

Many records give the address where our ancestors were living. Census records are a great source of addresses (check the left margin), as are some military records. I’m always interested in seeing whether the property still exists and what it looks like today.

Thanks to google maps and street view, you can often get a close look at a property.

Find a street address and then visit

Type in the address and you’ll see a box like this, top left of your screen:

Screen shot 2015-02-15 at 3.24.37 PM

Click on the photo where it says “street view” in white to get a look at the street:

Screen shot 2015-02-15 at 3.24.48 PM

Now us the + sign (bottom right) to zoom in, if necessary. You can often see the house number on or near the front door. In this case, my ancestors lived in the house on the far right:

Screen shot 2015-02-15 at 3.25.42 PM

You may not always find street view available – it depends on what Google has imaged. You’ll have the most luck in larger cities and towns, as opposed to rural areas.

You may also find that addresses have changed and the exact house number may no longer exist, even though the street does. The same is true of streets – names can change over the years. It’s also possible the building has been demolished in the decades or centuries since your ancestors lived in the area.

Happy hunting!

Was Your Ancestor a Mason?

I’ve found lots of references to various ancestors being masons, but it never dawned on me that lodge the ancestor belonged to may have information on him. A distant cousin suggested this to me and it was like a new door opened.

I went back to my records for one particular ancestor—I had found him in google books and other places as being a member of a particular lodge. I was pleasantly surprised to find this lodge still exists and sent off an email. I heard back quickly, although the research took a bit of time. They weren’t able to produce a photo (which the may have for those higher up in the organization, depending on the time period and the lodge’s record keeping), but they were able to tell me the date he joined and the dates he achieved different ranks.

It doesn’t seem like a lot of information, but it does place this ancestor in a particular place at particular times, which is nice information to flesh out the experiences of someone’s life.

City Directory Timelines, Part 2

I previously talked about using a simple timeline to track the various places a family lived throughout the years. As I did some more digging on my Felver family, I realized that various branches of this family lived at the same address through the years. I don’t know that it had dawned on me that Joseph C. Felver, his granddaughter Mildred (daughter of Mark), his daughter Mary, her husband Frederick Taylor, and all of the Taylor children at one point or another lived at 169 E. Blackwell Street in Dover, New Jersey.

Looking through some even older city directories, I found Joseph C. Felver and a Theo. Felver (his brother, perhaps?) both living on Blackwell Street.

I threw together another quick timeline to illustrate who was living there in what year–at least according to the various city directories.

Screen shot 2013-11-26 at 9.37.27 PMI can’t stress how important this kind of visual can be. They only take a few minutes to put together and I no longer need to switch back and forth between multiple tabs to see who was living where.

I know that Joseph died in 1909, but now I wonder if he left property to Mildred. Maybe he left it to Mary and her family and Mildred just continued to live there. I think my next mission will be to look into real estate records, deeds, etc. for this property. If anyone has suggestions on where to find this kind of information, please leave me a comment.

Using Simple Shapes to Diagram a Burial Plot

I’ve mentioned my search for ancestor Catherine Ware and her (currently) overgrown burial plot at Mount Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia a few times here.

Each time I visit Mount Moriah I try to visit her plot and learn a little more about the people buried here.

There are 7 visible stone in this plot: 2 for Catherine Ware (a large obelisk and a smaller stone with her initials), 1 for Thomas H. Ottey and Amanda (Wagner) Ottey, one for Mary A. Wagner, one for the children of Thomas and Amanda Ottey that died in infancy or early childhood, 1 for Lillian and Albert Simon, and 1 for Horace and Christina Kincaid.

I’m still unravelling exactly who all of the people are and I’ve recently learned from GSP records that there are others buried here, too: John Wagner, Adam Wagner, Rebecca Wagner, and Walter Walker.

To help myself sort it all out and plan where to look for possible stones for these other folks I’ve created the following:

Section 130, Lots 17 & 18, Div A

Section 130, Lots 17 & 18, Div A

My diagram started by taking a close up screen shot of the double plot owned by Catherine Ware. I plugged this in to Pages, but you could easily use Word or any other program that allows you to import an image and then place text and shapes over top.

I then used the shape tool to approximate the location, placement, and general shape of each visible stone. This is certainly not to scale, but you get the idea.

I ended by labeling each shape with text indicating the names on the stones. If I’m able to discover any new stones I can easily edit my document to add new shapes.

There is clearly a lot of unused space in these plots! In about a week I’ll be clearing the knotweed to get a better look.

Passport Applications

On a whim I started searching’s collection of U.S. passport applications for some of my more recent surnames. I got a few hits and was surprised to learn that…

There is a copy of the passport photo that was scanned with the application:

William Ford Gibbons (1864-1929)

William Ford Gibbons (1864-1929)

That the applications include a physical description of the applicant:

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.39.43 AM


That a wife could be added to her husband’s passport with a simple signed letter and a photo:

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.40.49 AM


William Ford Gibbons married Anna Laurence Gibbons later in life. He remained single and lived with his mother at least up until the 1920 census, when he was 56 years old. His mother died in 1922 and he married Anna (then 32 years old) in 1924. I think that’s what the text under her picture indicates – “married in Tampa… 10th 1924”.

Family stories indicate that William was a favored uncle who doted on his nieces and nephews. He supposedly traveled a lot and brought exotic gifts back to his extended family. Then he married Anna (who I believe was previously widowed) and when William died his entire fortune was left to his wife of 5 years. Needless to say, some of those nieces and nephews were upset.