Episode 442 - Tricks And Tips On Newspaper Research, One Newspaper Find Of The Year!

podcast episode Dec 12, 2022

Host Scott Fisher opens the show with David Allen Lambert, Chief Genealogist of the New England Historic Genealogical Society and AmericanAncestors.org. David begins by talking about the advancement of technology that allowed him to take data from 40 CD-Roms and store it on one thumb drive! Fisher then reveals his latest find… an odd one… the same photo taken in 1901, but from a different angle at the same moment. In Family Histoire News, David shares the great story of a 1971 kidnap victim, stolen as a baby, who now has been reunited with her family through a DNA test. Then, a project in Fredericksburg is helping tie together African-American families through oral history and DNA. David was salivating at the next story… a son has shared with the world his father’s collection from the 1930s of baseball magazines and autographs. Some of the best to ever play the game granted autographs that were preserved in these magazines which the family will keep as an heirloom.

Fisher then visits with Gena Philibert-Ortega who recently blogged on newspaper research for Genealogy Bank. She and Fisher kick around all kinds of ways to find hidden stories in digitized newspapers.

Well known genie researcher/ lecturer Sunny Morton then joins the show to talk about a newspaper discovery she made that has somewhat tainted a family hero. Hear the story and how she found evidence.

David then returns for another round of Ask Us Anything.

That’s all this week on Extreme Genes, America’s Family History Show!

 Transcript for Episode 442

Extreme Genes, America’s Family History Show

Host: Scott Fisher with guest David Allen Lambert

Segment 1 Episode 442

Fisher: And welcome America to America's Family History Show, Extreme Genes and ExtremeGenes.com. Fisher here, your Radio Roots Sleuth on the program where we shake your family tree, and watch the nuts fall out. We are talking newspapers today! In fact, we've got a couple of the best in the business. First up, Gena Philibert Ortega talking about special ways you can actually research your ancestors in newspapers without using their names. And we've got some great tips and tricks for you for getting the most out of those digitized newspapers. Then later in the show, Sunny Morton is back on and she's got an incredible story relating to her family and a newspaper story that she found that told her that the hero that she had discovered was maybe not quite as much of a hero as she thought. Good stuff coming up here later in the show. Right now, let's head out to Boston, David Allen Lambert is standing by, the Chief Genealogist of the New England Historic Genealogical Society and AmericanAncestors.org. Helloo, David!

David: Hey! Just when you think that you need to find space in your house and get rid of some of your old stuff, well, the old CD ROMs that I used to have my family photos on that I took of my daughters when they were younger, I took 40 of them and put them on one thumb drive.

Fisher: [Laughs]

David: So, picture a stack of 40 CDs, which is about the size of the McDonalds Big Mac.

Fisher: Right.

David: And then picture a thumb drive that’s the size of half a French fry.

Fisher: Right. No, that's exactly right. But remember, back in the day, the CD ROMs were amazing things, because they carried so much information. And now you're talking about putting it on one little thumb drive. That's amazing!

David: And I was able to actually find some documents that I thought I lost 20 years ago on a book project that I was going to do a second volume. When the computer died, I had never backed it up, because you know, you think about backups now, its automatic. I must have saved it one night, because I found it and I was very thrilled to have 300 plus pages back. I thought I was going to have to start from scratch to do.

Fisher: Boy, that's a good lesson though don't throw anything out, even the old media, because sometimes you can salvage stuff there. And I had a good week too. In fact, found three new pictures relating to my family on my Dad's side, my Dad's Mom's side, a new picture of my great grandfather sitting on a porch in the Bronx around 1897 with a guy who looks suspiciously like a brother and some other folks in there. So I'm working on that one. And here's the weirdest one, I got this picture from my cousin, Joann, it’s a photo of a 1901 wedding. We know the date and know the event, because it’s marked on the back! And I have the same picture, except the picture I have is from a different angle.

David: 1901?!

Fisher: Yeah. It’s the same photograph at the same moment with this big group of people doing their pose from a different angle. So there were obviously two cameras and they both went off at the same instant. It’s the strangest thing I've even run into, but really, really interesting.

David: That's fascinating. Technology!

Fisher: [Laughs]

David: Just when we thought that you're going to, "Oh, we have this sole picture of an ancestor!" you find somebody had another camera.

Fisher: Don't you think that the photographer had to have one of those cords that went to his big box camera? Maybe he had one in each hand, the little button that fired the thing off and just went, "3, 2, 1, [Poof]" and that was it and we get the picture from two different angles at the same time. I never imagined.

David: Well, we know that pictures are really, really important, and for the Highsmith family. The first story I want to tell people, I'll tell you, brings a tear to a glass eye. Back in 1971, a 21 month old baby, their daughter, Melissa was kidnapped.

Fisher: Hmm.

David: Thanks to 23andMe, the Highsmith family has now found their sister.

Fisher: Oh wow!

David: The better part of this? The parents are still alive, Fish.

Fisher: Hmm, isn’t that something! I saw some of the newspaper clippings on it. The mom was real young at the time, so I think she’s only in her early to mid 70s. So, this is an incredible reunion. And thank goodness for DNA at times like that.

David: This little girl’s my age. It’s like me finding my family after 51 years. I mean, wow!

Fisher: Yeah.

David: Her name is Melanie now, but she wants to legally change it back to Melissa and who can blame her for changing it back.

Fisher: Right.

David: Well you know, I love when people are doing genealogy for themselves, but when you do a group project, like one researcher, Paula Royster out in Fredericksburg, Virginia is doing. She’s identifying some of the oldest African American families with roots to the city and she’s using DNA and interviews to kind of put the whole story together. And I think that’s great when you can take technology, social media and old fashioned genealogical work and tell a new story.

Fisher: Well, and think about some of the oral traditions that might exist in various branches coming down that might help reveal the origins in Africa for some of these families.

David: Exactly. Well, you know, we’re always talking about eBay and the things that we wish we could buy. That one I shared with you earlier in the week, an heirloom for the ages about major league baseball players in the 1930s. This fella has his dad’s scrapbooks. He wrote to the players, picked up the signatures and glued them in. Reading through the list of the players is like walking through the halls of the Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Wow!

Fisher: Yeah, this guy’s got his dad’s stuff, went out to get it appraised and it became a big news story and the guy’s not going to sell it. He’s going to keep it, because his dad collected all of these. But all of the greats of the game from the earliest times, including a guy who was on like one of the very first professional teams, George Wright is on there.

David: Yeah, yeah.

Fisher: But you have Cy Young, you have Walter Johnson, you have some of the biggest names you’ve ever heard of, including some of the old New York Yankees.

David: I mean, Rogers Hornsby, Lefty Gomez, Tony Lazzeri, I mean, these are people that, I mean as an autograph collector, wow! They’re great to have, but to have them all together with that provenance, that’s a family treasure to hand down for generations.

Fisher: Yes.

David: I just want to remind you, if you’re a listener and you’re not a member of American Ancestors, we’d love to have you as a member. Use that coupon code “EXTREME” and save $20. And I’ll be back in Ask Us Anything.

Fisher: All right, David. Thanks so much. We’ll talk to you at the backend of the show. By the way, if you haven’t signed up for our Weekly Genie Newsletter yet, you can do it through our Facebook page or at ExtremeGenes.com. It’s free. You get a blog from me each week plus links to past and present shows and links to stories you’ll appreciate as a family historian. And coming up next, Gena Philibert Ortega talking about tips and tricks for getting more out of your digitized newspapers, when we return in three minutes on Extreme Genes, America’s Family History Show.

Segment 2 Episode 442

Host: Scott Fisher with guest Gena Philibert Ortega

Fisher: All right we’re back, on America’s Family History Show Extreme Genes and ExtremeGenes.com. It is Fisher here, your Radio Roots Sleuth, thrilled to be back with my good friend Gena Philibert Ortega talking about researching newspapers and unique ways to go about uncovering things that are hidden right below our noses because we just don’t know how to find them otherwise. Gena welcome back.

Gena: Well, thank you for having me Fisher. I love this topic. Newspapers are such a wonderful resource for genealogists.

Fisher: Oh, it’s the best. I mean, to me, DNA and newspapers are the biggest things of the entire century so far,

Gena: You know, the nice thing about newspapers is they provide information that no other source does.

Fisher: Yep.

Gena: And they can help verify information in other records.

Fisher: That’s absolutely true. And you wrote a great blog for Genealogy Bank about ways to search newspapers contrary to what you may think. Now, for people who are just getting started in this and you’re trying to find your people in old newspapers, it makes sense you’re going to start with the names you know, and their full names and go from there. But there are other ways to find them as well.

Gena: Absolutely. And it does make sense. You’re going to put in the name, the place, you’re going to see what happens, but for a lot of people, and that includes me. You know, I have family members that just don’t seem to be in the news paper for whatever reason. Maybe they lived in a big city or whatever. So, then you have to rethink your search.

Fisher: Right.

Gena: And so for that article I talked about my paternal grandfather who worked for the southern pacific railroad. Now I know he was in an accident while he was working, and there is an article about that, but otherwise there’s really not a lot. So for my kids, and maybe future grandkids, I wanted to describe what was it like to work for the railroad. And so what I did is, instead of looking for my grandfather, I looked and did a keyword search on Southern Pacific Railroad.

Fisher: It makes perfect sense.

Gena: Yeah. So you know what, that adds context. So, we think about what was our ancestor involved in whether that was an occupation, or maybe a membership group, or a religion. What about searching on that keyword and then limiting your search to the area where your ancestor lived and see what was going on in that place during that time.

Fisher: Perfect, absolutely. And what did you find?

Gena: You know, I found advertisements for Southern Pacific Railroad, I found information about strikes, it was just all kinds of great information that helped me kind of fill in the gaps between what I knew and what I had been told, and then he has time on the railroad. So, for a lot of people they may think that’s not genealogically relevant. But it is. Because it helps tell the story and it helps to add that historical context.

Fisher: Yes. Yeah, I had a great grandfather, my name line great grandfather, who was a merchant in New York City. And so I could search for things about him without putting his name in there because I could look up the name of the company, the name of the business. Then I find oh they were burglarized and these guys were sent to jail. And it gave the details of the break in, or they talked about a fire that broke out in 1891 and what caused it within the machinery, on what floor of the building, so you kind of got a description of how the business was setup. And yet I didn’t use his name once in the search.  

Gena: No. And I didn’t search on his name either. I just put Southern Pacific Railroad.

Fisher: Yeah.

Gena: What’s important to think about when you’re searching on digitized newspaper websites is it’s a keyword search.

Fisher: Right.

Gena: So you can put in a name, but you can put something else. So for example, my great grandmother, she was in Long Beach, California in the 1930s. There was a huge earthquake. Now, we know what her story is about the earthquake, but in order to really learn more about it, I put in earthquake. And narrowed it down to Long Beach, narrowed it down to the date that it was, and that gave me such great information, you know, photos. The funny part is, her big story about that was it broke all her china and how angry she was. Well, she was a young mother during that time and it destroyed all the schools. It was a really horrific earthquake but she never talked about that. So, I thought that was really interesting to kind of see how horrific that earthquake was, but what was the one thing she remembered? That gave me that historical context. And you know, Fisher, I’ve lived through lots of earthquakes. I live in Southern California.

Fisher: [Laughs]

Gena: But I’ve never lived through an earthquake in the 1930s where the infrastructure, everything was so much different.

Fisher: Yeah. You know, just this past year or so I was searching my great grandfather and I use his name. And the other important thing to remember about these searches is they can be listed under nicknames, their initials, their full name. My great grandfather was Andrew Jackson Fisher so I could look for that. I could look for Andrew Fisher. I could look for Andrew J. Fisher, AJ Fisher, and Andy Fisher.

Gena: Absolutely.

Fisher: And in the midst of all this, I discovered a series of articles that I’d never seen before that gave me all of his bowling records from 1879 along with his wife. And even a story about how his bowling team celebrated his birthday the day before. So, I knew how he spent his 46th birthday, bowling in 1879, which is crazy!

Gena: I love that!

Fisher: Yeah.

Gena: Isn’t that a great article though that you might not find otherwise.  And I like what you said about all the variations because when I teach about newspapers, I always say you should have two lists. One is all the name variations for your person, and that includes misspellings.

Fisher: Yes. Yes.

Gena: And then you should look at what are the historic nicknames that were used, you know, Peggy for Margret, for example, or Sally for Sarah. 

Fisher: Yeah.

Gena: And then have a second list of everything that has to do with your person. So, where they lived, what church they went to, what membership groups, so that you can start varying those searches. I think for a lot of genealogists it can be really frustrating to not find something. But the key is you have to try a lot of varied searches because it isn’t as easy as just putting in a name and that’s it.

Fisher: No. It’s just like dropping nickels in a one-arm bandit, right? You just keep waiting to see when the apples all line up and the stuff starts coming put.

Gena: It is. Absolutely.

Fisher: And it’s so fun. And here’s the thing too, I didn’t know there was bowling going on in New York regularly organized at that time. So now I started researching bowling.  Researched the bowling center where they played. It was actually a bar that this German immigrant had put together. And of course they had pin boys to reset the pins. And I learned all these things about what was bowling like at that time, so I could write in some context in the history about exactly what they were doing and how they were organized. And it was a lot of fun to see their averages too.

Gena: Well, and how valuable is that for your family. Because we all know what bowling is.

Fisher: Yeah.

Gena: And so to get that historical perspective and know that our ancestors bowled, I mean that’s amazing.

Fisher: [Laughs] It is. You can find little league records from more modern times but I didn’t expect anything like that from that early. But this is the thing; it takes you down these rabbit holes of researching like you did, you know, what it was like on the trains.

Gena: Yeah.

Fisher: And I’m looking like well how did they bring… but it turns out that German immigrants brought bowling to the east coast where it’s still the most popular within the country, and that’s where it was starting, the second half of the 19th century. I had no idea.

Gena: I didn’t either. Wow. Well, and you know the other thing is now what you could do because you found out all that information, you could take the street address of their house, or the bowling alley, or whatever and do a search. Because it’s not just the name or what they’re involved in, you can search on a street address. 

Fisher: Yep.

Gena: And that might help you find additional stories. Because don’t forget that newspaper articles have stories about your person, but it may not list them by name.

Fisher: That’s exactly right. And you know I’ve done that. In fact, that’s how I found out that they lived right across the street from this bowling place because I’ve kept the directories right through the years. 

Gena: Ah!

Fisher: And then it listed that but in other searches I knew where they lived and I would put the address in only, and then I would find stories about what happened at that address. And sometimes my ancestor’s name was right there, but in a regular search for that name it never came up. So, it’s a different way to uncover things that sometimes get hidden because the algorithm say, takes an H and thinks it’s a B, or a letter E and thinks it’s a C, or something like that.

Gena: Absolutely. You know, the reason we benefit from digitized newspapers is optical character recognition, OCR.

Fisher: Right. Yes.

Gena: But it’s not perfect. And so some letters can look like other letters, sometimes things don’t come up, sometimes peoples’ names aren’t what we think they should be. So we really need to be careful. You know, the other thing I do, which isn’t about searching, is I always recommend that if your ancestor is in a smaller town and maybe a smaller newspaper, take some issues and browse through them. See what was being written about where might your ancestor be listed. And that can help you if you get to know that newspaper better.

Fisher: No question. One other thought came to my mind. Sometimes people went by their middle name.

Gena: Yes.

Fisher: Or actually inverted their first and second name. I had a relative named John Henry Fisher. He went by John Fisher, John H. Fisher, and J. Henry Fisher. And so I have to search all those ways. And sometimes they misspell the last name and threw a C in there so it was Fischer, and so you have to look for those just like you would say within a census record.

Gena: Absolutely. And I’ll tell you, I’ve had an ancestor who a small town, he’s mentioned several times in different columns and they spelled the name differently in each column.

Fisher: [Laughs]

Gena: So, you know, spelling doesn’t count in genealogy.

Fisher: Right.

Gena: And I think the sooner you realize that, the better.

Fisher: Yeah that’s right. That’s right. There’s no right way or wrong way. It’s just whatever way and you have to try to go through all of them. Well, you know I think newspapers, like I say is one of the great boons to our space. We have more fun with that, more rabbit holes, more ways to research and there are lots of different ways to do it.

Gena: Absolutely. Don’t just stick with one way or one name because you’re really missing out if you do.

Fisher: And I should mention too that there are a lot of different places that have the same newspapers, right, on different sites.

Gena: Yes.

Fisher: And sometimes the different sites will actually pick things up that another site does not because of the way their search engine works.

Gena: You’re absolutely right. Every site is different so it’s worthwhile to try it.

Fisher: Great stuff Gena. Thanks so much. It’s great to talk to you. I really enjoyed the blog. I think its going to be very beneficial to a lot of people, and hopefully this conversation will be as well.

Gena: Well, thank you for having me.

Fisher: And coming up next, Sunny Morton is back with a love story that’s just a little tainted these days. You’ll want to hear what she’s come up with next in five minutes on Extreme Genes.

Segment 3 Episode 442

Host: Scott Fisher with guest Sunny Morton

Fisher: Well, this is getting to be like old homecoming week on Extreme Genes this week. My good friend Sunny Morton is back on the show. And Sunny, I understand that you’ve discovered a love story that has gone south.

Sunny: Thank you. It’s great to be here. I do have a perfectly lovely love story that did kind of go south that I would love to tell you about. You want to hear it?

Fisher: I’d love to hear it and how you found it and how you figured it all out so that we can all learn.

Sunny: All right, I’ll give you a little context. It’s the spring of 1889.

Fisher: Okay.

Sunny: We’re in Pennsylvania, Unites States and the area near Johnstown

Fisher: Sure.

Sunny: So, if you know anything about Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the spring of 1889 was not good to it.

Fisher: No. That was the big flood.

Sunny: That was the big flood. It killed like 2,200 people.

Fisher: Yep.

Sunny: It just devastated the town. To that point, it was considered the worst man-made disaster in US history.

Fisher: Totally, yes.

Sunny: So, spring of 1889, my cousin Ida is working as a waitress in a town near Johnstown, she hears about this horrible flood that devastated the town and she rushes there to help and she meets this guy John Armstrong. So, he is an English immigrant, pretty recent, and I think it’s myself also, you know, some Americans are just suckers for British accents. [Laughs]

Fisher: Yes, absolutely! [Laughs]

Sunny: And I believe Ida was back then too. Anyway, she meets this guy and apparently is kind of swept away by him and this is the story about him that later appears in our published, compiled family history. It says, John Armstrong was aboard a train going from New York City to Chicago when the train was swept off the tracks by the flood. John was a very strong swimmer, having done a lot of swimming in England in the River Swale, and in the moats of the castle Richmond. John was reported to have saved the lives of eight people in the flood. The town recognized his heroism by presenting him with an engraved gold watch fob Afterwards, John and Ida May set up a soup kitchen in the basement of a house that had been carried away by the rising water.

Fisher: [Laughs]

Sunny: The basement stairs were still intact. They formed a make-shift roof by putting up a tarp over the basement. Later on, the pair opened a large restaurant in a suburb and then eventually were married, yada, yada, yada. This was un-sourced. This was just a story in a public family history.

Fisher: Yeah.

Sunny: But I had verified almost all the pieces of this story except the actual saving of those lives and him getting a medal for it. So, I verified it enough that in my head he is like the hero of the Johnstown flood who then kind of also swept Cousin Ida off her feet and he married.

Fisher: Yeah.

Sunny: They settle down. They have several kids and you know, happily ever after.

Fisher: You would think and you would hope.

Sunny: But here’s the thing, our discoveries never really end do they?

Fisher: [Laughs] No.

Sunny: And then we go back in and learn a little more and then realize we just didn’t have the whole story. Recently, I went back into John’s story, I’m sure there’s a newspaper article or something somewhere, where I can verify that he saved the lives of those 8 people and he got a gold watch fob and all that kind of stuff. So, I go dig into some newspapers for a project that I’m working on right now. So, I’m digging in these newspapers and I’m finding some things on him. I’m not finding what I want but it’s helping me build the tree. So, I’m able to connect him to his siblings back in England and some who had also migrated. So, I’m building out his tree on Ancestry, and within 24 hours of posting some of this stuff I hear from an Armstrong cousin back in England with not one but two very important pieces of information.

Fisher: Okay. And where did he get those from?

Sunny: So, one of them I’m still tracking down, but he posted on his tree, he posted this newspaper article, a Richmond man in America. So, it’s not cited, I can’t tell what paper it’s from but clearly it’s not in the United States.

Fisher: Right.

Sunny: So, it’s talking about Mr. John Armstrong and swimming in the River Swale, first class swimmer. There was a great flood in Johnstown, many people were drowned but Armstrong who was always a plucky fellow succeeded in saving 8 lives.

Fisher: Hey, there you go!

Sunny: I got the story verified. And as best I can tell it was published 1889 or 1891. So, it is contemporary.

Fisher: Yeah.

Sunny: So, I don’t have a picture. I don’t have a picture of the watch fob or the award ceremony or anything. But, this is contemporary evidence. So, I’m super excited. This is wonderful finally the missing piece is there.

Fisher: Yeah. [Laughs]

Sunny: And then I get his email. [Laughs] And he’s like, “By the way, John had a wife and a child in the UK before he came out and married Ida May. And I descend from that union.”

Fisher: Ooh!

Sunny: He headed off to the US soon after she was born.

Fisher: Oh, wow! Okay.

Sunny: So, he had not only the documentary evidence, but he can follow the DNA trail to John’s other descendants in the United States, that’s how he knew it was him.

Fisher: [Laughs] Wow!

Sunny: So, when he like saves all these people and he becomes this hero, and sweeps Ida off her feet, he’s got a 4 year old kid back home.

Fisher: Um hmm. So, he was basically starting over, over here.

Sunny: You know, you never know what causes a couple to separate.

Fisher: Right.

Sunny: You really never know. Now, I’d gone from this lovely heroic love story to a much more complicated hero here who appears to be a bigamist and has started over his life without really looking back. You know Scott, I think it’s just a reminder that we can’t build these people up in our heads as either entirely saints or sinners. Lovely British accent notwithstanding, swimming skills notwithstanding, he had a bit of a complicated past here.

Fisher: Yeah. Well, Janet Hovorka has always said, there’s always a little sinner in each saint and a little saint in each sinner.

Sunny: That’s absolutely true. So, this story got pieced together. It started with that published family history and then trying to verify everything, realizing probably the only way I would verify this little anecdote about saving the lives was in newspapers and looking for answers there, building out the tree, and yes eventually connecting with somebody else who was building an Ancestry tree who had found the newspaper, but the reason I hadn’t found it is it wasn’t in the United States. It was overseas. So, he found the newspaper, and so multiple descendents working together to reconstruct the story really does verify the story, but then it tells more of the story than I think I really wanted. [Laughs]

Fisher: [Laughs]

Sunny: I’m kidding. I want to know the whole truth.

Fisher: Sure.

Sunny: I do want to know if it’s a more complicated story, people are interesting. They’re always interesting.

Fisher: We always tend to think that times were simpler back in the day. Well, they were simpler in terms of not being as complicated with technology and things, but I don’t know that relationship wise or anything like that was any simpler. It certainly wasn’t simple growing up in the Depression or in World War II, or back in the times when people were working 12-14 hour days, six days a week in the mines, right?

Sunny: Yeah. And you know, we don’t know the whole story here, maybe John and his first wife had a mutual parting. Maybe she kicked him out and said, “I never want to see you again.”

Fisher: Right.

Sunny: Maybe they couldn’t afford to divorce or didn’t want the stigma so they just agreed to go their separate ways. I don’t know more of this story and it would be kind of unfair for me to vilify John completely, but he is a little tarnished. His halo is also a little tarnished now.

Fisher: [Laughs] I’ll tell you what, I think it’s important though that people gain a lesson from this that here you’ve discovered the truth and you’re out there sharing it now. You’re not trying to hide it to protect his eternal reputation among his descendents or relatives. And you’re sharing where it came from so you’re sourcing it as well. I mean, these are really important things to do for people when they find the truth. I just recently discovered that my fifth great grandfather was not the engraver of the continental dollar during the revolutionary war, that some records again over in England proved that, that coin was actually made over there as a souvenir to sell to Americans to celebrate their independence. It was a terrible loss for me, but it’s the truth!

Sunny: Right, that’s absolutely true. And putting together the various bits of evidence that you find really does help a more complete story. It’s a accurate and compelling picture of who this person really was.

Fisher: She’s Sunny Morton, one of the greats in the genealogy field around the country in Ohio. Sunny, as always thanks for coming on! Look forward to seeing you at RootsTech because I know you’ve got some fun stuff lined up for that.

Sunny: I do. I’ll be back to talk about it.

Fisher: All right, thanks so much. Coming up next David Allen Lambert returns as we go through another round of Ask Us Anything answering your questions on Extreme Genes, America’s Family History Show.

Segment 4 Episode 442

Host: Scott Fisher with guest David Allen Lambert

Fisher: All right, it's back for Ask Us Anything on Extreme Genes, America's Family History Show and ExtremeGenes.com. Fish here and David Allen Lambert is back from Boston. And David, our first question is from Drake in Naperville, Illinois and he says, Guys, I've heard you talk about the archive in the attic, which I know is your term for what relatives might have in their homes. How do you best recommend we newbies access that attic? Drake." That's a good question. You know, if you have a big family, this is really good, because there could be all kinds of folks that have materials that are unknown to anybody else within the family and they just sit in drawers or cabinets. When we talk about the “archive in the attic,” it’s just kind of a colloquialism for whatever might be in cabinets or drawers or the basement or wherever it might be, but that is the biggest archive for your family potentially of anywhere else you can think of, don't you think, Dave?

David: I do. And one of the things is, you really have to kind of think back, who was grandma living with? She wasn't living with your parents. Was she being cared for in the last days out her life with one of your aunts? Well, who got your aunt's belongings? And you have to kind of create a tree if you will of the lineage of your stuff of your family.

Fisher: Yes.

David: That actually worked for me a long time ago.

Fisher: [Laughs] Me too.

David: I actually tracked down in New Hampshire, my great grandmother's brother's family and one of the oldest children of his oldest son was still alive, almost 90,  just, "Oh yeah, I have my grandfather's stuff. Would you like his papers?" He mailed me down a box, including a letter of reference written from a potato chip company in the 1890s saying that he had worked there as a good young man. [Laughs]

Fisher: What fun!

David: Where would I have ever found that he worked for a potato chip company?

Fisher: [Laughs]

David: But he saved this letter and his children and grandchildren saved this letter, but now I have it.

Fisher: Isn't that fun! You know, I had the same thing with a family Bible. I had records of it that I found in different archives people referred to it in the 1920s and it talked about the branch of the family who owed the Bible. They were applying for membership in a genealogical society. The person living with the woman who had the Bible was a single person. When he died, he was with his sister and she had one son and sure enough, when he passed away, we got his stuff and there were the family Bible records. So yeah, you can trace it that way. You know, it's funny we were talking about big families being great for this kind of thing, but it can also work the other way. For instance, I only have one living cousin on my Dad's side and my Dad only had one brother. So, he was the older one, so she has a lot of the things that I've never seen. And this past week, wound up with those pictures we were talking about at the beginning of the show, things I'd never seen and she hadn't dug in that corner of the house before. She keeps digging these things up she didn't even know she had. So, it's really great fun when people start digging. But the way to do it is to track these folks down. Now you can do it by finding folks maybe on Facebook and asking who in the family is the big collector or finding somebody who's already on Ancestry or Family Search and messaging them through the messaging system at those places and seeing what they may have. There are a lot of people also who are not online who are not interested in anything at all, but they still have lots of material. So, it's really worth your while to go out and find them and see what they've got.

David: It's one of those things that you always want to ask that older relative, what's going to become of the stuff? And I always say, tell them to leave a note with your address and phone number and email, if the kids aren't interested, give the stuff to Fish or to Dave.

Fisher: Yeah. [Laughs]

David: Because we'll take care of it, we promise you that.

Fisher: Absolutely. Well, that's a good point. So, that's the archives in the attic. And if you want to go out and do some digging, you might be shocked at what you can find, even if it's just one very cool picture, you never know. So, thanks for the question. Got another one coming up as we continue with Ask Us Anything on Extreme Genes, America's Family History Show in three minutes.

Segment 5 Episode 442

Host: Scott Fisher with guest David Allen Lambert

Fisher: All right, here we go another question on Ask Us Anything on Extreme Genes, America's Family History Show. And David, this one comes from Lenny in Columbia, Missouri and he says, "Fisher and Dave, sometime shortly after World War II, my grandparent's farmhouse in Iowa burned and we lost all the early family pictures. How can I find out more about the fire?"

David: Oh, that's interesting. I was going to say, I know that there's really high hopes for getting things from the ashes and brought back at the personal record centre on St Louis, Missouri, but chances are all of that's been lost. A story. Well, first thing, what was the newspaper back in the '40s that was in publication when your house burned down? That would be the first place you're going to find the details. Maybe there was even a story on how it burned down. Was it lightning, bad wiring, arson, vandalism? I mean, there could be a story behind it that you may have forgotten. The other thing I find is that there is so many of these stories that are done in oral tradition, but some of that oral tradition could still be alive. I mean, if it's the 1940s, a kid that's 12 years old he could be in his 80s now. And if he lives in the area, all you have to do is locate the current older residents in the community and say, "Listen, do you know anybody who lived in this neighbourhood?" and contact them and say "Do you recall when the Jones farm burned down and see what they recall.

Fisher: Yeah.

David: Maybe they were there. Maybe there are photographs. I mean, a fire in a small community was a news story.

Fisher: Yeah, big news.

David: People world bring out their cameras.

Fisher: Sure. You know, this is really good and here we go again with newspapers which we've been talking about all through the show. It's the very best source for this kind of thing.  I suppose there are some other kinds of records out there, maybe fire house records or something like that but they're much rarer and harder to get. And I would imagine the newspapers are your best bet. And if that towns papers haven't been digitised yet, then you might have to go to the county archives and see if you can get a hold of some of microfilms if you know the date and that might require a little legwork ahead of time to try to narrow it down to at least a month, right, so you can go through and find it.

David: Exactly. But I mean, you've got websites like Newspapers.com through Ancestry and you could try there. There are other newspaper sites, some of them are free, the Library of Congress, all these places you can make an attempt. Just put the word "fire", "house" and then put in the last name of your family and the town, real basic simple searches.

Fisher: Yep

David: The other thing is like you mentioned, the fire station, the fire house. Do they have reports that go back?  I mean, I know in my hometown, going back to the 1870s, if there was a fire in a barn the local fire department listed all of the alarms that they went to through the course of the year, so you may be able to find the date fairly quickly.

Fisher: And they do that in New York City too, going back well into the 19th century. And here's the other thing too, Dave, getting back to what we talked about in the previous question, you lost all your family pictures, now here's the chance to go to that archive in the attic and see what cousins out there have pictures that you may have lost in your branch of the family through this fire. I mean, there's got to be all kinds of stuff to be found out there, especially if any of your family’s still left in the area or you're in touch with people who may have left the area.

David: And a good piece of advice for this holiday season, duplicate the photos you have, send those thumb drives out as holiday gifts and spread the joy of family history and preserve your stuff to a ninth degree.

Fisher: And you can also post that on like Family Search and Ancestry so it's there for lots of people. And that does make sure you preserve it. I think about that stuff all the time. It's like, man, what happens if my house went up with all this stuff? I mean, it's unthinkable, but those things sadly, really do happen. So, thank you for the question, Len. And David thanks for coming on and we'll talk to you again next week.

David: Until then.

Fisher: All right, my friend. And thank you once again to Gena Philibert Ortega and Sunny Morton for coming on and talking about the miracles of digitized newspapers. If you missed the stories, you missed the techniques or you missed any of it, of course catch the podcast, it's on Apple media, TuneIn Radio, iHeart Radio, ExtremeGenes.com, Spotify, we are all over the place. Hey, we'll talk to you again next week. Thanks for joining us. And remember, as far as everyone knows, we're a nice, normal family!

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