Tag Archives: Book Reviews

History for Genealogists: Using Chronological Time Lines to Find and Understand Your Ancestors by Judy Jacobson

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book to review. My opinion is still my own!

Are you just a name, date and place collector or, as a genealogist, would you rather have ancestors of flesh and bone with stories to tell? Most of us would much prefer ancestors who are lifelike, living in their times. Since most of them aren’t here to share their stories in person, family historians need to place them in time and place AND social context to understand their lives and maybe even why life choices were made.

Time lines are an important tool for tracking one individual or even one family through their lifetimes. However, that time line is still just a list of facts.

What brings the ancestors to life is knowledge of the historical and social contexts of their lives. Judy Jacobson’s book, History for Genealogists: Using Chronological Time Lines to Find and Understand Your Ancestors is a new-to-me reference resource that provides historical time lines covering many aspects of the founding and growth of not only the United States as a whole, but also of state history and some limited international time lines that tie into immigration periods in U.S. history.

This book is packed full of historical dates and events. I can’t imagine the research hours that it took compiling all these facts. My favorite parts of the History for Genealogists, though, are the two case studies, short as they are. The first told of a Londoner, born in the 1600s, who emigrated to Massachusetts, built a successful life for himself and then was sentenced to hang. The time line of his life painted a bare bones picture, but when a historical-political time line was superimposed, it brought his story to life.

Reading that, my first reaction was to begin thumbing through the book, checking out the scope of time lines that Jacobson chose to include.

Jacobson begins by outlining a simple method to create a chronology of events. The chapters introduce time lines covering military actions, epidemics, religious activity, slavery laws and migrations, immigration, state by state historical timelines and even a section covering a limited number of international event timelines.

Chapter 8, Social History and Community Genealogy, is a bit different, as touches on ethnic and cultural changes that were created as each new wave of immigrants settled in America.

I love the section on “associations, brotherhoods, societies and unions” as Jacobson includes a list of organizations that our ancestors might have joined – everything from African Blood Brotherhood to Workmen’s Circle and the Grain Dealers Association.

This book is a little known gem with tons of information about political and societal happenings during our ancestors’ lives. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this book on display at any genealogy conference that I’ve attended. If I had seen it, I would have bought it for my reference collection!

I highly recommend this book, but be sure to purchase the Revised Edition with 2016 Addendum. Contact the Genealogical dot com, parent company of Clearfield Company, which published the book, for further information.



Sustainable Genealogy: Separating Fact from Fiction in Family Legends by Richard Hite

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Genealogical Publishing Company. However, the opinion expressed in this review is my own.

Sustainable Genealogy: Separating Fact from Fiction in Family Legends by Richard Hite is an interesting read. First, what is sustainable genealogy? In simple terms, it is genealogical research that will stand up to future scrutiny. Research well done. Work that can be replicated by others who draw the same conclusions. And, as the second half of the title states – it’s separating fact from fiction in your family stories. Who among us doesn’t have any of that??

The foreward has been written by Henry Z. Jones, Jr., Fellow, American Society of Genealogists.

Sustainable Genealogy is a compilation of (many of Richard Hite’s own) family anecdotes that could easily lead a researcher down the wrong path if accepted at face value. In fact, some scenarios could yank a researcher right off their own family tree and place them elsewhere. With people to whom he/she is not related in any way!

Most families have elder relatives who have passed down stories of the ancestors, some with bits of truth in them and others that are so wild, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would take them seriously. Hite’s own research has brought him face to face with most of the fact/fiction scenarios that family historians might come across.

An Aside: I have one of those stories, about a very recent ancestor who I knew well – my grandfather, who died when I was 16. Grandmother told me, way back when I first started exploring my family history, that Grandfather attended Harvard, but he didn’t graduate. As I was approaching college age, this story was quite fascinating to me. I contacted Harvard, but the registrar reported that Grandfather had never been enrolled. Grandmother was quite accurate about all the family members she could remember, so how could this have been totally shot down and it related to her own husband, who she grew up with in Calais, Maine? Many years later, World War I draft registration cards were digitized. Grandfather was a veteran of that war and I eagerly located his card. I finally had an answer to the Harvard mystery. He completed boot camp in Massachusetts – at Harvard! Yes, he “attended” and no, he didn’t graduate!

Richard Hite shares many stories like mine in Sustainable Genealogy. Grouped into categories and arranged by chapters, these family legends include everything from incorrect ethnic origins to marrying the Indian princess, spreading the “two or three brothers immigrated together” story with no documentation, to royal kinship and exotic military service (that never happened quite the way the story told it). While my lore about Harvard didn’t take me down any wrong paths, some family tales can do just that, particularly when ethnicity is part of the equation.

This all comes down to perhaps the most important trait a genealogist must possess – good methodology, which is what Richard Hite is promoting.

With each scenario, he shines the light, so to speak, on the need for primary records and documentation of provable facts with a dose of good old common sense thrown in. Is it likely or even possible that any given family legend is true? Questions need to be asked – in terms of chronology and time period, could this have happened? Geographically, is this lore possible? Are there reliable documents supporting the so-called facts as they are presented?

The underlying thread throughout the eleven chapters is that much family lore may be based on bits of facts here and there, but cobbled together into a completely different story. A good researcher must prove or disprove each oral history passed down through his/her family.

Genealogists will find this book easy to read because the main points very easy to follow and Hite follows up each potential trap with recommended steps that good researchers would follow.

Although experienced family historians will enjoy the story format of this book – having plodded through similar lore of their own – this book better serves beginning and intermediate level family historians. Methodology will make or break one’s research. It is so easy to get caught up in the excitement of not only “finding” an ancestor, but coming across what sounds like a great story about them. Beginners can easily overlook the need to document the facts for themselves. Following the many tips in this book will save someone the agony of having to chop off a huge branch of the family tree because of sloppy research.

Sustainable Genealogy: Separating Fact from Fiction by Richard Hite, published in 2013,  is available from Genealogical Publishing Company for $18.95.

Book Review: The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, 4th Edition

Disclosure: I was given a complimentary copy of this book by Genealogical Publishing Company for the purpose of writing a review. However, the views expressed are my own and not influenced by GPC in any way.

 I have to say upfront that one of the first genealogy books I ever owned back when I began to research in 1980, was Val Greenwood’s book, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, published in 1973. I also purchased the second edition, which came out in 1990, so when I was asked to provide a review for the 4th edition, I was pretty excited.

I jumped right into the book as soon as it arrived, but it’s taken me a few tries to actually write this review in such a way as to cover all the terrific things about it without writing a book myself.

I’m a pretty practical person so if I am going to seriously consider spending $50 on a newer edition of a book I already own, I’d want to know a few things about it first. I’m assuming that you would have similar questions to mine:

Question 1 – Does the 4th edition contain changes significant enough to justify the cost?

Question 2 – If the answer to the first question is yes, is the newly added text providing me with valuable new information that again justifies the cost?

Answer to Question 1 – Some books show few changes and updates from one edition to the next. Not so with The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy. To begin, the 4th edition is composed of 28 chapters, divided into two sections, totaling 738 pages (an increase of almost 160 pages over the 579 pages in the 2nd edition, which is the newest version I own), plus an index:

Part 1 – Background to Research

  1. Understanding Genealogical Research
  2. Language, Terminology and Important Issues
  3. Surveying, Analyzing, and Planning
  4. Evidence
  5. Libraries and the National Archives (NARA)
  6. Reference Works
  7. Organizing and Evaluating Your Research Findings
  8. Successful Correspondence
  9. Computer Technology and Family History
  10. Family History on the Internet
  11. Family History: Going Beyond Genealogy

Part 2 – Records and Their Use

12. Compiled Sources and Newspapers
13. Vital Records
14. Census Returns
15. Using Census Records in Your Research
16. Understanding Probate Records and Legal Terminology
17. What About Wills?
18. The Intestate, Miscellaneous Probate Records, and Guardianships
19. Government Land: Colonial and American
20. Local Land Records
21. Abstracting Probate and Land Records
22. Court Records and Family History
23. Property Rights of Women as a Consideration
24. Church Records and Family History
25. Immigrant Ancestor Origins: American Finding Aids
26. Military Records: Colonial Wars and the American Revolution
27. Military Records: After the Revolution
28. Cemetery and Burial Records

A lengthy list of Illustrations and Charts follows the chapters.

Before even glancing at page 1, I skimmed the chapters and compared the wording between the 2nd and 4th editions. While there are a few paragraphs between the two book versions that are similar, it was obvious that a new depth has been added to each chapter and many topics have been greatly expanded. In short, the book has been completely overhauled and updated.

Thus, I answered my first question as there are very significant changes that have been made to the book.

NOTE: I’m focused on this issue because, in the past, I’ve been suckered into purchasing a new edition of a book only to discover that maybe aside from a flashy new cover, a few typo corrections and a small amount of new textual information, few changes had been made and my purchase was a waste of money.

Answer to Question 2 – Yes, the newly added text provides valuable new information.

Rather than trying to detail all the new bits and pieces in this book, I’d like to share a list of my favorite things about it:

  • I love that Mr. Greenwood begins by saying that the nature of research hasn’t changed through the years, but that the tools available to perform the searches have radically expanded. Each researcher’s focus should remain on quality work.
  • Instead of throwing educational opportunities in a list at the back of the book, he stresses the importance of honing one’s skills upfront in Chapter 1. Sound research is more important than ever with all the misinformation propagating online.
  • There is detailed discussion not only about types of genealogical evidence, but examples that display careful methodology.
  • Use of the internet is presented as an integrated tool rather than the place to go to find “everything.”
  • Various categories of U.S. records are presented in depth with many examples. (Remember, this is a guide to American research, not international research.)
  • A glossary of terms found in common genealogical documents like probate records, census instructions and land records is provided in the corresponding chapters.
  • There is a chapter specifically on women’s property rights, a topic that is often overlooked by researchers because they don’t know enough about it.
  • The chapter on Compiled Sources and Newspapers includes a discussion of the limits and issues of each.
  • Computer Technology and Family History includes info on everything from wikis to online security.
  • Examples of how to do quality genealogical research are provided, such as facts to be included in land or probate abstracts.
  • The importance of understanding historical context in the lives of our ancestors is noted.
  • Guidelines issued by various professional organizations such as the Board for Certification of Genealogists and the National Genealogical Society are clearly stated.
  • Each time I open the book, I discover something new I love.

I could go on and on, but I think I’ve shared enough so that you get the idea. The amount of information and details in this book is overwhelming. I can’t come up with a single topic relating to American genealogical research that isn’t, at the very least, touched upon. The Researcher’s Guide is a fabulous textbook, but the best part is that you don’t have to be in a class to benefit from it. I can’t say enough wonderful things about it. It’s definitely the newest entry on my GeneaGems list. 🙂

 The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, 4th edition, will become the new classic textbook – of that I am sure. Greenwood has kept the best of past editions and supplemented it with the best of today. Every serious genealogist, whether a rank beginner, an advanced professional or someone in between, should have this book in his/her reference library.

The Researcher’s Guide American Genealogy, 4th Edition is $49.95. To purchase a copy, visit Genealogical Publishing Company.