All posts by Josh

Homesteaders In Your Family Tree?


Check your family tree. Did you have a Homesteader? Many with roots in America during the 19th century will. Who were these individuals?

The US Government decided it was high time to get people out West of the Mississippi to settle on and improve federally-owned land. Despite some attempts to block the bill from passing, Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law on 20 May, 1862. Essentially, anyone who was 18 or older, lived on the land and made improvements for five years (and a couple other requirements) could apply for the usual allotment of 160 acres.

One of the great aspects of this Act as it ties into genealogy is the application process. A portion of the lenient requirement checks were performed at the district land office by affidavit. They would ask a couple dozen questions of the claimant as well as at least two witnesses. Included questions would be how long the claimant has lived on the land, what improvements they’ve made, family descriptions and more.

Here is a snippet of information about my 2nd great grandfather George E. Hollister who homesteaded in California:


Here, we have a response for each year – detailing how much barley and wheat was produced. George even goes into detail about how every season he let the hogs eat the remainder of his crops.

Another great snippet provides some insight into what he went through to get the land:


It specifies the actual date of settlement on the land – as well as explaining he lived in a tent until his house was completed.

So the question remains, do you have a Homesteader in your family? I can help.

Your “Brick Wall” Ancestor

We all have one of these “brick wall” ancestors. If they realized how much time we’ve spent combing through records, wracking our brain and dreaming about resolution, they’d probably tell us to get a life. That doesn’t stop the obsessing.

So what can help overcome this type of obstacle in your research? I previously had a long list of ancestors whose lineage I had labeled as impenetrable. However, after discovering new primary sources or taking advantage of previously unavailable technologies as they arose – they have been virtually obliterated into tiny specs. A brick wall in a sense is strong due to it’s many layers of bricks and mortar. However, remove a few bricks and you can destabilize it quickly.

Do you have a brick wall ancestor that eludes you? How many years have you spent tracking them down? What methods have you employed? Have you ever let a new set of eyes tackle the seemingly impossible?

Twelve Long Years of Waiting

It has been twelve long years of waiting, but the United States 1940 Federal Census release is nearly upon us. This will mark the first ever digital release of the census. Government officials have been extracting 3.9 million digital images for months preparing for the release on April 2, 2012 at 9 a.m. Eastern Time.

Sorry, will not have an every-name index we’re accustomed to. You’ll have to do a little digging on your families and know where they lived in 1940. Hopefully, they were the type of family who stuck around the same general area. Check out the National Archives’ dedicated site to discover how to best prepare for researching your family:

Death of the Social Security Index?

In the United States, a storm is brewing which is centered on the exceedingly gray area between freedom of information and privacy.  In the US Congress is legislation hoping to prevent information within the Social Security Master Death Index from falling into public hands.  The concern is that a criminal will be more able to commit identity theft. Is this a real concern?

Senator Bill Nelson of Florida is one of four lawmakers who wrote letters to various genealogical sites, including – urging them to restrict access to these records.  Ancestry complied, and the database is currently restricted in two ways:


1)It is only accessible via paid membership.
2)For the most recent ten years, Social Security information is not given.

The Senator took his stance a step further and visited with officials at the Social Security Administration, asking them to limit information available.

There are many things wrong with the actions currently taking place.

1)Criminals who want social security numbers can get the actual cards cheap on the black market, and in bulk if they really want them.  They want the card and the number.  They can also purchase credit card numbers in bulk, which are also cheap.  I personally have seen many fake social security cards as part of my previous occupation and the Social Security Administration takes no steps to counter this trade.

2)Criminals who want to commit identity theft really want social security and other information for someone who is living.  There are already many databases which verify and check the numbers to ensure the individuals are not dead.

3)Congress is in existence to create law, not enforce ideas that are not law.  The Freedom of Information Act protects public rights to these databases.

We now have members of Congress bullying agencies and publicly traded companies into submission. 

To keep this information freely-available to the public, please visit the following site of the Records Preservation and Access Committee.  Here is also a direct link to the petition.  The petition title may look counter-intuitive, but it is the correct one.

Unexpected Results

Terms and Conditions – we have all read bits and pieces of them over time.  Like many businesses, I also provide a copy of the T&C to each client for review before we begin a project.  The purpose of the document is not to bore them – but to inform.  I thought I would comment on a particular section of my personal T&C that quite often is commented on or is laughed about:

Outcomes for research projects are sometimes less-than-desirous for some clients to hear.  They may involve murder, rape, incest, insanity, disease, criminal activity, “illegitimacy”, non-paternal events and more.  Projects may result in complete reversal of a family legend, story or ethnicity.  As a professional, will relay all information to the client but will respect their wishes for privacy. will not falsify information anywhere for any reason.

When one reads this, they may not feel anything from an ancestor who participated in a less-than-desirous activity a hundred and fifty years ago.  An example may be the family had a plantation and owned 50 slaves.  However, as the research comes closer and closer to the present time, the effects increase dramatically.  To discover a non-paternal event only within a generation or two can have far-reaching affects on the customer and the family.  It is important to realize what your objective may result in.

I still shrug my shoulders when I remember the client who received confirmed results proving their multi-great grandparents and being in a state of “shock”.  It is not that they did not believe the conclusions – they did – it is that they were not expecting ever having the proof after decades of research.

I work tirelessly to research your family lines, whether you want me to find the information on not!

If You Can’t Live Without It, Back It Up

I was first introduced to computers in the 1980s – some of the initial offerings from a small company named Apple Computer.  Little did I know I would be running nearly a dozen Operating Systems in my office a few decades later that would have been deemed alien lifeforms back then.  From an early age it was impressed upon me about the need for data backups.

The most important items I was interested in backing up during the Regan years were video games and microscopic programs I would write.  These could be performed easily on floppy disk.  Now, when it comes to my data, I not only have irreplaceable family tree files, multimedia, source material and notes but I also have gigabytes upon gigabytes of family videos, family photos and music.

I also currently work in the IT field.  I have had individuals come to me in tears due to the fact their flash drive went bad – and it was the only saved location of their entire thesis. This is not the time to tell someone they should have had a data backup procedure in place.

As a professional genealogist who is also passionate about researching my own family tree, I cannot fathom losing an hour of research I’ve performed, let alone thousands of hours.  Backup and document review is a part of my daily routine.  Automation can increase efficiency of the process.

When most individuals hear they should “back up their data”, a grueling process comes to mind.  It may seem like too much of a hassle for a preventative measure.  My best advice is to think this way about it – If you can’t live without it, back it up.  So where to start?  What do you need?

Many factors determine your backup process, but a few things to keep in mind:

1)Back up everything you don’t want to lose.

2)Schedule the backup and stick to it (or automate the process).

3)Test the backup to ensure your method is working properly.

4)Replicate the backup to a second device or storage facility in a separate physical location.

Why backup in the first place?

Hard drives fail.  The can and they will, eventually.  There is no magic hard drive manufacturer, so don’t go looking for one simply based on reviews.  The fact is a hard drive is a mechanical device – basically a platter spinning thousands and thousands (sometimes 10K or more!) a minute…while at the same type being bumped around and jostled in the hands of the user (see image below).  True there are solid state drives which use more stable flash memory – but these fail as well.  Don’t be fooled by claims that Macs don’t have issues with hard drives.  I have seen every type of hard drive failure there is – in Macs, Dells, Lenovos, HPs, Toshiba, Acer…

Can’t I just recover the data if the hard drive crashes?

You can recover data, however what data depends on how badly damaged your drive is.  If you are not comfortable recovering data yourself, there are many vendors who can assist you.  Normal costs range from a few hundred dollars to over a thousand.

If you are attempting to recover data yourself, it can be a grueling process, jumping over bad sectors and coming across part of file that is corrupted/destroyed beyond repair.

Why should I test the backup with a restore?

You may feel good once you realize you have a backup in place after your hard drive kicks the proverbial bucket, but that will quickly change when your restore fails.  While it takes time, testing your restore process periodically will ensure you are not wasting your time doing something incorrectly and get you back up and running promptly.

Replicate the backup – really?  Do I have to?

There’s a straightforward answer to this.  Yes.  Let’s say your house floods; you have a lightning strike and you left your backup device attached to your computer; or there is a fire in your home.  All of these scenarios can potentially wipe out your data as well as your backup in one fail swoop.

How do I backup?

This is dependent upon how you like to do things.  I personally like to manually backup everything or create an image of the entire hard drive.  Windows Vista/7 OS include imaging software in the Enterprise/Business/Ultimate versions, referred to as Complete PC Backup.  New hard drives will often come with built-in software – you will have to read the documentation.  A few terms to keep in mind:

Full Backup = usually backs up all files on system (Documents, pictures, music) and sometimes system state.

Incremental Backup = backs up all files in Full Backup that have been changed since last backup – takes less time.

Image = Creates image file of entire hard drive – allows you to put in a new hard drive and push image to new hard drive – thus bringing your machine back from the dead with all files/settings instantly.

Moving forward, you may find new ways to backup your data, such as Dropbox.  This saves a local copy of whatever file your working on to the Dropbox folder, and pushes your file (backs it up) to the Dropbox server.  When you install and activate Dropbox on your next machine (even your smartphone), the files will download to your respective device.  So, in the event one of your devices fails, you will have all of your files still sitting on the Dropbox server and any other device you’d activated the program.

Keep in mind not even these types of solutions are the best.  First, I have experienced corruption with some files using these types of applications (though they can be repaired).  Second, there is usually a limit on space available unless you’re willing to shell out some big bucks.

Real-World Implications

Real-World Implications

Discovering your family heritage is one thing, but have you ever wondered what you can do with all of the data you can potentially amass regarding your family?  What gift can you give your children before you pass?

I document my family tree on a weekly basis, sometimes filling in gaps while other times solidifying a particular branch.  When you research your family, you should not think in terms of your surname or maiden name.  You are the sum of your tree’s branches.  Autosomal DNA will inform you of this explicitly.  Take a look at this great informational video to grasp how your DNA is created from your ancestors:

SMGF’s Autosomal DNA Video

With the aforementioned video in mind, you can see why your family doctor asks you during your visit if you have a history of disease or other issue in your family.  While you can take over-the-counter or DTC (Direct to Consumer) DNA tests to indicate whether or not you have a possible link to a particular disease or complication, another approach may afford more accurate results.


If you are serious about your genealogical research, death records are a must.  Each one (at least in more recent years) should have a cause of death – usually with one or more contributing causes as well.  Maintain a spreadsheet/document and you can see explicitly what your ancestors died of.  Given, some will have died by accident, influenza, “natural causes” and the like.  You will also find earlier stated causes of death archaic due to the immense leaps in medicine over the centuries…while other terms may need to be researched.

As an example, from all of the documentation I’ve obtained on my family, 33% of all deaths were due to heart or circulatory conditions; 12% from influenza; 7% had kidney issues; 7% cancer (various); 3% diabetes.  It should be noted that every medical issue that an ancestor has is NOT in the death certificate, so they may have also had other undocumented conditions…but it does give a rough estimate.

Another interesting item you can mine from death records is the lifespan of your ancestors.  An idea of what you can glean:

What’s In A Name?

What’s In A Name?

Research a family for a short period and you’ll come across multiple spellings for a family’s surname.  A lot may be the document creator’s typo, but is there more to it?  There may be.  Let us take the Ziliak family who settled in Indiana in the mid-1800s.  The census records had shown they were from the Alsace area in France.

Lorentz Ziliak and Family circ. 1868


Here is a snippet from some census records:

1850 US Federal Census

1880 US Federal Census


Noted here are the variant spellings, not only of the given name but the surname

1850:  Lauren Zeliack
1880:  Lorenz Ziliak

The latter of the two spellings of the surname is what is carried on by current descendants, but what about the earlier spelling?  They do sound alike, so not much of a difference, correct?

The origins of surnames, at least in Europe only began roughly one thousand years ago.  Even so, there has been considerable changes and manipulations over time.  Some of the reason for the changes are due to political or economic reasons, while others were directed by social influence.  The Ziliak family was traced back to the France and German border town of Nehwiller-pres-Woerth in the district of Wissembourg, Bas-Rhin.

Nehwiller, 1803

It was found that the spelling of the surname in the late 1600s through 1800s in the area were:  Ziliox(e) or Zilliox(e).  It still has yet to be determined if another name variant preceded this one, however it is cases like this one which make you realize how many different ways even a seemingly unique surname may turn up.


Something sparked an interest in researching your family’s past.  Perhaps it was a mention of an Indian Princess or an Old West horse thief.  It is important for the budding genealogist to understand that while some tales may be true, stories over generations are usually embellished to some extent…perhaps morphing into something blatantly misleading or wrong.  What this can ultimately lead to is a wild goose chase that wastes precious time, money and patience.

Fact or Fiction?

A good researcher will root out the facts first and populate the stories later.  This is where I can assist you – finding the cold hard facts about your family.  Genealogy is not a science but a study of family history and lineage.  This research may lead to a lot of information which must be pieced together like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

Before you begin your project, remember that stories should be filed after discovered facts.  The stories may fit eventually, but they are only a piece of the experience.