Unearthing lost treasure: The inventory of our family history windfall’s first box is complete

Unearthing lost treasure: The inventory of our family history windfall’s first box is complete

In my last post (Coming up with a plan to manage my new, huge family history collection) I discussed how we were hopeful we’d find a balance between protecting this amazing find of a life time, and our family life, work, other genealogy, blogging, sleep, etc. That I haven’t posted in a month or so should give you a good indication of how completely we’ve failed at finding anything close to balance!

However, the first of the three boxes we received has now been inventoried and stored archivally, and it’s given us hints of just what an amazing collection this is. By the numbers, we found over 250 photographs, over 175 newspaper clippings related to the family, and over 250 documents ranging from invitations to the Teddy Roosevelt White House and speeches to Congress, to letters home from college and recipes.

Box 1, Before
Box 1, After

The material has filled 4 Gaylord boxes (actually Hollinger boxes, but everyone just calls all metal-edged boxes Gaylords), a photo sleeve for all pictures 5″x7″ or less, and a 16″x20″ flat photo storage box for the larger pictures. As you can see, we’re still using the cardboard boxes that the 5″x7″ photo sleeves were shipped in to store the photos, but that’s just until the order is placed for the Gaylord “shoe box” to hold them.

Each piece of paper is separated by a sheet of acid-free printer paper, with all staples, paper clips, clasps, etc. removed. Each item was given a number, and inventoried with basic info like date, sender, receiver, # of pages, etc. Once the inventory and archiving of all 3 of these boxes is complete, we’ll go back and scan and catalog each item, and share them out publicly for consumption.

By the numbers, we found over 250 photographs, over 175 newspaper clippings related to the family, and over 250 documents ranging from invitations to the Teddy Roosevelt White House and speeches to Congress, to letters home from college and recipes.

Luckily, it wasn’t all work. About a month ago my cousin Denise, who is working on putting together the Morse family reunion in Oregon in August, asked if we could share photos from this collection for some of the materials. We were able to scan and share more than a dozen pictures that likely haven’t been seen in at least 30 years, as well as several originals that have been circulating through the family as scans of photocopies. It was fun to go through images and piece together which ones were related to the Morse family, and who the subjects in the photos were. It was also very gratifying to share out high quality images of some of these originals that we came to know through copies of old family reunion books, and hoped we’d some how get access to the originals one day.

And, of course, as we were reading through the documents quickly to gather information for the inventory, we came across lots of great information that jumped out at us…even though it was not all flattering.

Sadly there were a lot of dated references to “darkies” and the like as my Great Grandparents wrote home about their first trips to Washington, DC during his first term in Congress. Additionally, my Great Grandfather gave a speech talking about First Nation issues in the early 1900’s that really captured some of the most accurate and honest understanding of how we as a country unfairly destroyed these nations, but in the same speech he both calls for the cultural genocide of these First Nation bands that had survived, and contrasted their strong, positive culture with the “lazy” negroes.

There also was a lot of very personal and touching moments like when my Great Great Grandmother wrote her daughter on Christmas Eve about how lonely she was and how she wished that all of her children could be under the same roof again “singing college songs”.

We also got to follow my Grandmother Catherine’s path through college (she wrote home 2x a week for 4 years, and her mother saved every letter), from how she was dating many boys, to

Catherine (Morse) Leonard, portrait (P17-0018)
My Grandmother Catherine (Morse) Leonard’s senior portrait (college), 1932

how she got in trouble for drawing in the school hymnals and had to pay an $8 fine…which she found very unfair. We are lucky enough to have her father’s response to that letter, which basically said that she should keep quiet and pay the fine now, and give the Dean both barrels once she’d officially graduated!



It came as a bit of a shock learning that my Grandmother dated both the future Governor of Wisconsin Warren Knowles and Hollywood actor Jack Carson, one of the biggest comedic stars of the “Golden Age of Hollywood”.

So, all-in-all it’s been amazing going through all this work, but it most certainly been work. One of our DNA tests came back late last week, and so we spent the weekend working on the Tradewell brick wall we talked about a few months ago, with a little progress, so we’re trying to get back to enjoying all parts of this hobby. But this is a pretty major undertaking!

Coming up with a plan to manage my new, huge family history collection

Coming up with a plan to manage my new, huge family history collection

As I wrote about in my last post (The find of a lifetime…twice in a weekend), I was pretty freaked out about the impact of receiving the largest collection of family history items I’m likely to ever receive. By the next day it was clear that someone else had claimed the photo albums that were found in Oregon, so it was just this huge collection that I had to process.

What I was feeling those first few days was basically a powerlessness that soon disappeared once I realized we can manage this if we just took a deep breath and put together a plan.

IMAG1082Luckily I had a few bourbons, relaxed, and we came up with a plan. That helped get us back to appreciating this blessing we’ve received, instead of focusing on anything negative.

Before we get to that however, here’s a quick update on the collection. The first thing that jumped out at me is that this isn’t a single collection; this is the remnants of my Great Grandmother’s, my Great Grandfather’s, my Grandmother’s, and my Uncle’s collections. The first boxes came from my grandmother’s cottage after her passing, and there are many documents from/to/regarding her, however there is a trove of correspondence and photos and documents from her parents. In-fact, there are even some that are from her grandparents! Each generation likely collected what they could from the previous generation, and it eventually grew into the collection that’s on my dining room table. What I’m finding most interesting is the letters that reference events, and then finding the invitations to those events in other parts of the collection. Also, the few letters where I’ve found both sides of the conversation for a letter or two are fascinating. Most excitingly I’ve found many photos of relatives that we’ve had no previous photos!

Here’s how I calmed down, and started attacking the collection, and the impact on my life outside of this hobby.

Research how to archive a collection

My first thought was that I would catalog, inventory, scan, present, and cite each item in the collection, touching them once before putting them into their final archival state. But how should I properly archive them?

I Googled it (of course!), and pretty quickly came saw there was a pretty common approach to these collections. The New England Historic Genealogy Society has a great video walking through the common wisdom on how to archive items (Organizing and Preserving Your Family Papers), and it wasn’t long before I had come up with a strategy. I also visited my local History Museum and met with a very helpful historian there to review some of my questions, and found I was largely on the right track.

Split tasks, focusing on organizing and protecting the collection first

It became clear that we can’t spend the year moving these boxes back and forth from kitchen counters, to the dining room table, to the couch (if the 18-month old is restrained), as we live our lives. It was also obvious that keeping everything in the plastic tubs they came in for months was going to be a good medium-term strategy.

Buy 1000 nitrile gloves, you’re going to need them all! You can also see our inventory log in the background.

We made the choice to focus on collecting an inventory as we move each piece into archival storage first, and when that’s complete (and the collection is organized/protected), we’ll go back and catalog, scan, present, and cite each piece. It does mean touching everything twice, but it also gets the collection protected and in proper storage much quicker.

Make choices on archival strategies, and purchase supplies

One of the things that is immediately apparent about archiving this collection is that nothing is cheap. That inevitably will make us make choices about how to protect items, balancing their long-term survival with the costs of providing maximum protection.

Since we have a nice space that’s largely temperature and humidity controlled, and away from exterior walls/plumbing, the main risk to this collection is the acidity of the papers that makes it up. The best way to protect the paper would be to separate each piece in a sleeve made of polyester, polypropylene or polyethylene (3P’s), but in a collection of what will likely be at least 1000 pages of various sizes, it would be very, very expensive. However, as long as you choose carefully, many copy papers are acid-free and you can separate your documents using these papers, and stop the acid transference between pages that will eventually destroy the documents. The downside to using paper, instead of a 3P sleeve, is that the paper will need to be replaced every 3-5 years since it will become acidic as the historical documents transfer their acids to the acid-free paper over time.

Get the newsprint away from everything else

The most acidic paper in any collection is newsprint, and it’s doing the most damage to the collection, so it’s best to start by getting it out of everything. There were close to 200 newspaper clippings related to my great grandfather’s time in Congress in Box 1 alone, so we pulled them all out and put them in their own folders. The experts are divided on what to do with newsprint, but many archivists suggest making copies of what’s of interest (on acid-free paper), and destroying the originals. We’re taking a little different approach, in that we scanned everything into raw image files, and then put the original clippings in their own folders in their own archival box. Eventually we’ll put a 3P sleeve around the entire batch of clippings, so that the acids won’t leach out of the newsprint, but it will continue to subject the clippings themselves to acid. This will eventually lead to the loss of the documents, but they have largely survived for over 100 years, and so with good digital copies, and limited archiving, we should be able to provide some preservation without going through the huge expense of trying to protect each piece.

We assigned a document # to each clipping, and inventoried them as they were scanned and stored, so we have at least basic information about each.

Separate the documents from the photos, inventory, and store the documents

IMAG1083We decided to attack the documents first, and for them we’re going to categorize them by type (Personal correspondence, Speeches, Misc. documents, etc.), separate each page with acid-free copy paper, inventory the document with basic information (description, date, author, target, etc.) and a document #, and store them. The documents are going into 5″ deep, legal-sized metal-edged archival boxes and legal-sized folders. I already had archival folders, and some of the boxes, so adding more to store the collection makes sense. We are making sure that each sheet is smaller than the copy paper dividing them, so we’ve bought letter, legal, and ledger sized paper.

Here’s the products we’re using for documents:

Sleeve each photo in a PAT-tested envelope

How best to store the photos has been a bit of a dilemma. In the past we’ve used 3P 3-ring binder pages of 4″x6″ and 5″x7″ pockets, and stored them archival binders. However, faced with hundreds of photos of various sizes, it’s taken some work to decide how to archive these pictures.

We don’t have a complete strategy, but since most of the photos are 5″x7″ or less, we started there. We’ve ordered individual 5″x7″ envelopes with PAT-tested clear windows on the front. While some archivists suggest writing information on the backs of photos using either pencil or an archival-quality marker, there’s another school of thought that suggests to use envelopes for photos and to write information on the envelopes. Given the more dense storage of envelopes and storage boxes vs. 3-ring binders, and that we’re more comfortable not writing on original photos, we’ve gone the envelope route. We will likely go with larger envelopes for the larger photos, and a large metal-edged box for them, but we haven’t decided yet. It’s been harder to find a large enough 5″x7″ storage box to hold all the photos than we would have guessed, but ultimately we’re trying the box made for the archival storage of shoes from Gaylord since it will give us 13″ of photos.

Again, once we focus on photos we’ll be doing it two phases: first, inventory, assign a photo #, and store them archivally. Once the collection is completely protected, we will come back and scan them, catalog and identify them, and then cite/publish them.

Here’s the products we’re using for photos (so far):

Books, misc. relics, etc.

Box 1 is only photos and documents, so we’ve only addressed how to approach those item. Boxes 2 and 3 are much more book and relic focused, so we’ll figure out how best to archive those items as we get to them.

Balancing time going forward

One of the main worries we had when the collection arrived home was how we will do any other work now that there is years of work in front of us. It took a couple of days, but the solution was pretty simple: manage the time we have, and live within our means. We’ve decided that Monday and Wednesday nights are genealogy nights, Tuesday and Thursday are family history-free, and we play the weekends by ear. I’ll get up early on the weekends and get a few hours of document work in while everyone else sleeps (I’m used to getting up at 5:30a anyways), and the college-aged boys home from school have been pitching in.

We’re working on the balance of family history projects still, and you see it in this blog. Instead of posting 2-3 times a week, it’s been barely 1 time a week since we received the collection. Additionally, the great document I’ve been working on to better understand how a formal Research Plan can breakdown brick walls (Elizabeth Shown Mills has just the right guidance at just the right time!) hasn’t been opened in two weeks. We’re forcing ourselves to put down the collection and focus a bit on DNA, and a bit on Felice’s lines, but we’re going to have to get much better at this as time goes on.

But the important part, for both the time division as well as the overall archiving of the project is this: there is a solution, and we just have to focus on finding the right tools, the right strategies, and the right balance. What I was feeling those first few days was basically a powerlessness that soon disappeared once I realized we can manage this if we just took a deep breath and put together a plan.

More to come on this amazing collection!

The find of a lifetime…twice in a weekend

The find of a lifetime…twice in a weekend

(Note: I began this post Monday, so it’s a bit dated now that it’s going up, but it’s accurate. The owner of the disposed of photo album has since been identified.)

I can barely process what’s transpired over the past 72 hours. I’m both excited, panicking more than I would have thought I would, and starting to understand/worry that my family history journey just changed radically (at best), or is largely over (at worst).

First, a bit of background. My father’s mother Catherine (Morse) Leonard came from an amazing line of ancestors. Her great-grandparents were some of the earliest European settlers in Wisconsin, arriving among the first 20-30 people in the territory in 1835. Her

My grandmother, her mother, and her grandmother, c. 1910

relatives were Mayflower descendants, DAR, Civil War heroes, and people who wrote the Wisconsin State Constitution. Her father was a 3-term Congressman from upstate Wisconsin, and he participated in the Republican Progressive movement as a close friend and ally of “Fighting” Bob LaFollette. He worked tirelessly with LaFollette to bring down the most powerful man in American politics in the 1910’s, Republican Speaker of the House Joe Cannon, at the cost of his own political career.

Catherine passed away in 1990, and her oldest son John collected boxes of family history from her home, and put those boxes in his basement. Nothing had seen the light of day in decades by the time he passed in 2014, and his surviving daughters decided that since I was now the family historian, his papers (which included his mother’s boxes) should come to me. In 2015, hours before the closing of the sale of my Uncle John’s house, I was able to drive up and save invaluable artifacts. There was over 600 “Magic Lantern” 3″ x 5″ glass slides that Congressman Morse and his wife Myra used to make presentations to Opera Houses throughout the Upper Midwest through the 1920’s. There were dozens of photos, wedding invitations/programs, funeral programs, obituaries, etc. There was even a 16mm home move of my late father’s 6th birthday party with footage of him, his two older brothers, various cousins, and of my grandmother and her mother. That day in 2015 that I retrieved the collection, my cousin Diane let me know that she’d been at the house and saw the collection, and we worried it wasn’t going to get picked up, so she took a few boxes of things and that we could get together soon and she’d turn them over to me. It took almost 2 years, but I received the 3 boxes this weekend…and it’s the treasure trove you always dream of, but you know you’ll never get lucky enough to find.

The additional boxes are larger than I expected, and they are stuffed full of material. There are college yearbooks, over 500 family photos (at least!) going back 150 years, land records, telegrams, scrapbooks, etc. The most amazing pieces, however, are the personal correspondence of Congressman Morse and his wife, as well as at least 100 handwritten notes of speeches given throughout the years while he was in office, as well as after. There’s also dozens of letters to my grandmother, including one from one of her best friends from college imploring her not to marry my grandfather!

I’m completely overwhelmed by the volume and importance of what I’ve inherited. I have found at least a dozen letters, invitations, and table placards from the Roosevelt and Taft White Houses on official stationary. It’s almost frightening when you hold these artifacts in your hands, in your dining room. I feel like I’m in National Treasure and I’ve stolen something that belongs in the National Archives! I can’t stop thinking about how we were one broken sump pump away from never knowing what was lost for the last 20 years. And mostly, I am panicking about the amount of work that lies in front of me now that I have this collection.

Dinner Placards
From a 1911 dinner at the Taft White House

And that’s the really impact of getting something like this. I have a clear responsibility to catalog, image, record, cite, and archive these documents. This is likely the most important contribution I’ll make to my family history for the coming generations, and yet this isn’t necessarily where I wanted to spend my limited time. I have more DNA analysis than I could finish in this lifetime, I’d like to work on publishing more of what I’ve found, I’ve started discovering the power of executing formal a “Analysis and Research Plan”, I’m starting to blog seriously, I have a long list of on-the-ground research in Mississippi and Arkansas we need to complete to break through several walls on my wife’s side, I need to get off of Family Tree Maker to a platform that will be supported long-term, and I need to flesh out my Morse line more formally to fill a large gap in the Wisconsin Morse’s for the Morse Society. But I also only have limited time to pursue these goals, and it’s dawning on me that instead of that work, I’m going to have to focus on how to properly archive this collection, and start the years of work necessary to inventory it, scan it, transcribe it, identify the photos as much as possible, and establish both archiving procedures and a storage method that will keep them as safe as possible for generations to come. That will likely be my focus for years to come, at the expense of the other work, and I’m not yet comfortable with that notion…but it’s been 72 hours.

In the middle of this once-in-a-lifetime find, I stumbled across another, and I’m literally having low-grade panic attacks each time I think about it.

As a part of the new collection I just obtained, I grabbed a book that was on top to read in the hotel Saturday night (since all I really wanted to do was go through each and every item right then…and since I couldn’t, one book would have to do), and it was a personal family history of Gwendolen (Morse) Mitchell, my second cousin 2x removed. It was a fascinating history of the children of the brother of my 2x GGF Addison Morse, and it explain quite a bit of the family movement that I’d discovered, but didn’t understand. The book details her husband’s family a bit, and her children, all of which was new information to me.

My 2x great uncle, from a distant relatives collection, found in the garbage, and now on Facebook

Going off of some of what I learned from this book, and as I was just kicking around while my scanner worked capturing some of the new photos I have, I came across an entry on FindAGrave.com that said Addison’s brother James Morse could be contained in a photo album that was found discarded, and clicked a link to a Facebook group that describes how the Salem, OR Statesman Journal was trying to find the owners of FIVE albums (Help find a home for these photo albums found in Oregon). In that link I saw page after page of my relatives. And all of these photos are of relatives that directly link to Gwendolen (Morse) Mitchell, whose book I first found last night! I have her in my tree, but I knew nothing about them until I read that book. Which had been in my Uncle’s basement since it was published in 1997. The article details the last names of Morse (check), Mitchell (check), Higgins (Gwendolen’s son-in-law’s last name), and Sykes (another of Gwendolen’s son-in-laws), and I can identify the events in many of the pictures as well as the participants.

We all likely see these “lost album” posts all the time. I get them on my Twitter feed, in Facebook, etc. on the regular basis. I never thought I’d see one I recognized even a single photo, and yet here I am posting to FB and to author of the article that I know exactly what those albums are and very likely exactly from whom they came! And, if they don’t find another owner who comes forward, I’m probably the person those albums should go to. I archive everything properly, share with the family openly, have a clear family connection, and I’ll be at the Morse reunion in Oregon this summer where I might be able to find an even better home.

My mind is reeling right now. Two finds that literally are “once-in-a-lifetime” just struck me over the course of a long weekend. I need a bourbon, a little distance from my research, and a good night’s sleep. Funny how getting what you’ve always wanted is always more complicated than you thought it would be!

Click to keep reading about this collection: Coming up with a plan to manage my new, huge family history collection

Elizabeth Shown Mills has just the right guidance at just the right time!

Elizabeth Shown Mills has just the right guidance at just the right time!

We’ve known for some time that our research strategy is not focused as well as it should be, and our undisciplined methodology ( lack of research logs, research notes, well defined questions, formal output, etc.) was slowing down our work. Not only that, it’s been sloppy, and lead us down some dead ends…twice.

Today confirmed for us that we need to pause our research and reset our work.

This week it came to a head when we identified a DNA match with my wife’s Grandmother (who is African American) that comes from a tree that is almost entirely white, and has a strong slave-holder history in their line. This would be the first confirmed slave-holder/slave child we’d identified (if we could identify the line), which is a pretty major step in African American genealogy.

We went back to a “Working” Tree on Ancestry (because I can’t sync our Family Tree Maker!) for the white Thornton line, and built a good link from the DNA match to the brothers in Coffeeville, AL we’ve long suspected were the likely parents of her slave ancestor. We were completely excited.

It wasn’t until the next day as we poked around the Working tree, and our main tree, that it dawned on us: the slave ancestor with the Thornton surname was likely never in Alabama and the brothers were never likely in Arkansas. We’d hit this dead end before, but forgot all about it. We knew better, we’d just forgotten it…and we left the speculative tree intact without any notes.

It’s been a thought for awhile now that we were getting too cowboy in our research. We felt too pulled in whatever direction a whim drew us, often getting sucked down DNA result rabbit holes, and not making a lot of good progress. We’re getting to be a mile wide and an inch deep.

As I laid down for a nap this afternoon, I wanted to do some genealogy reading without working on any project, and after searching on “genealogy research plan” I immediately hit upon one of our favorite resources: Elizabeth Shown Mills. There is fantastic series of Research Reports on the Association of Professional Genealogists website where Mills presents the fascinating case of Samuel Witter (Essential Research Reports for Genealogists: 3 Samples). We read through all 3 examples, and were immediately inspired!

Screen Shot 2017-04-15 at 10.49.18 PM

Take a look for yourself, and the first thing that will strike you is that they are long and detailed. It might feel daunting to draft something like this. But as I started to think of several of our brick walls, and involved projects, we can see how having the discipline to produce something this detailed should both highlight the areas we need further research, and give us the path to the best next steps to attack that research.

We clicked through a link to Mills’ website Historic Pathways and found not only the Witter examples, but an entire library of GREAT documentation (Historic Pathways – Research Reports).

Today confirmed for us that we need to pause our research and reset our work: clean up our main tree by moving the speculative links to Private/Unsearchable trees, clean up/verify the citations for all facts in our main tree, get our paper documentation and filing up-to-date, and draft more formal plans to answer specific questions when we start our research again.

We’ll update everyone as we start following this process, and start creating these documents, but in the meantime, take a look and let us know what you think! How formal is your research documentation, and what works for you?

The sad day most of my Ancestry.com trees went Private/Unsearchable…

The sad day most of my Ancestry.com trees went Private/Unsearchable…

I’m a huge advocate for Public trees in Ancestry.com. Private trees have often been the bane of my existence. I still plan on a post about why I feel we all have a duty to share our research publicly. But, as of today, most of my trees are now private and unsearchable, and it was the right choice.

I wrestled with this for a couple of weeks, but once I found that my trees were getting picked up in Ancestry’s predictive tools (Ben Franklin, and how We’re Related took me from chasing my white whale, to chasing my tail) which ignore all of my warnings about how unreliable my “Working” trees are, I started to understand I probably had to bring these tress undercover.

It’s easy for others to filter out weak research on well documented lines, but on lines with little data, it naturally more likely for undocumented “facts” to get attached to other trees.

This week, I found a new Ancestry tree that contained a bunch of GREAT information on my Leonard line. The user even found my 3x GGF headstone in a little catholic cemetery that my wife and I have been to 3-5 times but we couldn’t find it. It looks like the headstone was dug out of the earth! There was a ton of original research I’d never seen, or had index of, and I was so happy we had a new research expert on this line. Then, I saw that he had relatives past my 2x GGM, who is a major brick wall for me!! This is a well researched tree, great original work…and one of my Working/Uncertified trees was the source of this “breakthrough”. Later, I found that another of my wildly speculative ancestry guesses was in his tree, looking very definitive. One of the comments on my previous post talked about how a reader had their work republished over and over until it became “fact”, and here I could see that happening to mine.

Screen Shot 2017-04-01 at 11.37.57 AM
My warnings/qualifiers on my speculative trees aren’t enough for humans, and useless for automated algorithms

It’s just too easy for my speculative work to get pulled into trees, that feed other trees, that get repeated so often it’s impossible to determine the source. This is especially true for lines where there’s little to no other data…which is why I’m building a speculative tree in the first place. Very quickly my tree becomes the only reference to these undocumented ancestors, which means it gets found as a “breakthrough” by others who are stuck, which makes it more likely to become authoritative. It’s easy for others to filter out weak research on well documented lines, but on lines with little data, it naturally more likely for undocumented “facts” to get attached to other trees.

So, for now, I’ve taken most of my trees out of the mix on Ancestry.com. It’s hard, and I’m not entirely comfortable with this, but for now I think it’s best.

Genetic Communities: A quick glance at Ancestry.com’s latest feature

Genetic Communities: A quick glance at Ancestry.com’s latest feature

The verdict? This could turn into a very useful tool. More and more Ancestry is guiding us towards bringing out more of our ancestor’s stories, as opposed to just standard genealogy, and this is a successful part of that effort.

I noticed this morning that my DNA Homepage had been updated…and a new feature had been added (in Beta): Genetic Communities.



Under what’s now termed Genetic Ancestry and in addition the Ethnicity Estimate, there’s now a section called Genetic Communities. 


When you click through to Genetic Communities you’re presented with the communities that Ancestry has calculated that you, and member matches that share ancestors with you, belong to. The information presented can be a bit general, but it does provide pretty accurate/helpful historical context. For me, I was presented with 2 “Possible” communities that I could belong to:


In clicking through the Settlers of Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island & Connecticut community, I saw some pretty cool graphics:


The migration lines are animated, and you can see some of the stories that support the idea of a community on the left side pane. If you click a time frame in the left pane, you’ll get a small write-up on what that time encompassed as well as showing how many of your relatives are potentially covered in that description. Additionally, you’re shown graphically where your connected Member Trees have ancestors during that time.


If you click on the list of users from your family tree, you’ll see the list of your ancestors who lived in the covered area, during the covered time.


As you scroll through each time span, you’ll be able to see a representation of how your ancestors, and some of your connected relatives, migrated as time went on. You’ll also get more information about the events and context surround those time periods, as well as a complete list of your relatives who match this classification.


If you go back to the main page for your community, there’s an option to show “Connection” and clicking that will give you more information on your family tree:


I clicked Connection and it details how sure Ancestry.com is that I fit an identified community:


On the lower part of the screen, you can see they have grouped your DNA matches between you and the broader community, as well as the last names associated with your lineage.


There is definitely a LOT to click through and enjoy. For instance, each time period has a listing of “Historical Insights” at the bottom that will help give you broader information about what was occurring during that period.

The verdict? This could turn into a very useful tool. More and more Ancestry is guiding us towards bringing out more of our ancestor’s stories, as opposed to standard genealogy, this is a part of that effort.

My family line is heavy on English settlers to Massachusetts in the early-to-mid 1650’s, and Genetic Communities identified that successfully, but since I know this era relatively well it was easy picking out some less than accurate facts that were attributed to my family. Ironically, the tests from Felice’s Grandmother were much more accurate and helpful.


It’s not the case usually that any area of African American genealogy is more complete than white genealogy, however Felice’s grandmother quickly showed a “Very Likely” match to the African Americans in North Carolina community.


As you can see, her community is pretty well established and is Very Likely to return matching records. Reviewing the notes that go along with this community was fascinating, and will likely help my work to further her line. I didn’t understand the prevalence of the West Africa/North Carolina flow of slaves, and it helps explain why so many references to North Carolina appear when tracing her various relatives, even though her family has very few ancestors in the state from 1850 onward.

Just like with my line, however, the general nature of the historical notes is pretty clear as the migration patterns and experiences of this group in general gives way to what we know about her family in fact.

So, my first impressions are that this is major new feature that delivers very interesting information, and helpful context and general information about both my lines and the lines of those related to us, but it likely will need further refining to bring it’s true value into clearer focus.

Ben Franklin, and how We’re Related took me from chasing my white whale, to chasing my tail

Ben Franklin, and how We’re Related took me from chasing my white whale, to chasing my tail

If you haven’t used the “We’re Related” app from Ancestry, you should give it a try. It seems a little silly to begin with, but there’s some value to it (a previous post: We’re Related app is a lot less frivolous than it first appears). But a recent tip from the app seemed to lead me to breaking down a major brick wall, before I realized I was fooled by my own published research.

First, a little background on my brick wall. The Tradewell (it was actually Treadwell prior to ~1840) line is one of the trunks of my family tree growing up. We all have those, the handful of family lines that dominate our history and identity when we’re growing up, despite having 8 Great-Grandparents, the Tradewell line was one I knew a lot about growing up. Its also the line that has a lot of genealogical significance, because my Great-Grandmother Myra (Tradewell) Morse submitted her first DAR application in 1907 and that not only gives me a lot of information on this line, subsequent cousins and relatives who applied attached sworn copies of family bibles to their applications, which preserved a great deal of info that otherwise would be long lost to history.

But Myra’s line ends with her Grandfather, and he is only one of two 3x GGP’s in my line that end so early. James Bennet Tradewell died in my hometown of Racine, WI in 1885, moving here just after 1840 from Schoharie County, NY. The 1830 Census includes an older Rueben Treadwell living in Schohaire County along with two younger Treadwells, Ephriam and James B. In 1840, Rueben is no longer listed but James and and Ephriam are. By 1850, from my research and from census records, there are two men in South East Wisconsin named James and Ephriam Tradewell who were born in New York, and those two names are also not present in New York for the 1850 Census. So even making a guess that Rueben is James and Ephriam’s father, and that James and Ephriam moved to Wisconsin Territory around 1843, I can go no further. I have very little evidence of even those links, and the line beyond Reuben goes dead.

I’ve also done research on the broader Treadwell line, which is largely threaded through Thomas and Edward Treadwell who arrived from England in the 1630’s and their decedents settled mostly in Connecticut and New York. My current working theory is that Jacob Treadwell and Hannah (Trowbridge) Treadwell are the parents of Reuben, but I have no proof whatsoever that this is true.


I created a “Working/Uncertified” for the Tradewell tree, to match these two half into a theoretical whole that I hoped would spawn some “shakey leaf” hints on Ancestry.com, and to further my research. Unfortunately, that didn’t work. I still have no clue as to the names of Jacob and Hannah’s children, nor who Reuben’s parents might be, so it’s one big brick wall.

Until, as I was waiting in line at the grocery store and scrolled through my latest We’re Related matches and I see Ben Franklin. When I expanded the link, I almost fell over when I saw Hannah Trowbridge connected to Reuben Tradewell who was in-turn connected to James Bennet Tradewell! I was stunned…this app that links me mostly to celebrities I couldn’t care less about had just broken down one of my top-5 brick walls!!!


I was giddy as I got home, made dinner, begrudgingly hung out with my family, until I was finally free to do a little research. I did a search on Public Trees for Hannah Trowbridge, with her husband’s last name set to Treadwell and I hit pay dirt! Right away I see that all of the children I’d guess were theirs were also listed. I looked at the attached facts, and didn’t see anything that linked the children to the parents, so I decided to review the Ancestry Family Trees to see if the trees that were sourcing this tree had more facts than this.

And that’s when I realized I wasn’t harpooning my white whale today, and wasn’t related to Benjamin Franklin. My Working/Uncertified tree was the source of the link!


The We’re Related app had built a link between myself and our common ancestor using the data available, and it turns out that my test tree was the only link. And since the algorithm doesn’t read the titles of trees, or the description that I attached to the tree, it treated it as a valid, proved link.

I’m starting to re-think my strategy of keeping my Working/Uncertified trees Public. I’m a big supporter of keeping our trees Public, but in this case not only did my strategy fool the app, there are several user trees that now have this link shared as a fact. As time goes on, and these electronic records are shared, and re-shared, and memorialized outside of Ancestry.com, I’m afraid I’ve introduced misinformation into this family line.