That new project feeling

Every new project has a honeymoon period. There’s the anticipation of what might be discovered and the pleasure of setting up the project so that the research proceeds smoothly. Here’s a glimpse into my project set-up process.

Research Log

A little over a year ago I started using Airtable as my research log. I have enough understanding of programming to be dangerous. I even took a class in Fortran in college and I learned how to use Microsoft Access when I worked in a health services research setting. I love relational databases even more than I love spreadsheets. Airtable is a “spreadsheet-database hybrid with features of a database but applied to a spreadsheet” according to Wikipedia. Nicole Dyer of Research Like a Pro (RLP) with FamilyLocket has shared terrific bases (templates) in the Airtable Universe. I developed my own adaptations to Nicole’s RLP with DNA Multiple Testers Base.

Below is a screenshot of the documentary research log I use based on Nicole’s template. I’ve grouped this log by surname (4th column), then sorted it by date of event (3rd column) then locality (5th column). Dates are written in YYYY-MM-DD format to sort the records (rows) by a field (column). Place names begin with the two-digit state abbreviation, followed by county, and town. This arrangement also supports sorting without creating multiple fields to sort. And if you are looking at column 8, yes, I do create the citations when I first look at the document. I have a citation template (also in Airtable).

Documentary Research Log in AirTable

Digital Filing

Every project has a folder on my drive which is backed up to Dropbox. The folder organization varies by project. The snapshot below is for my mysterious 2x-great grandmother, Mattie Childress. Each research question has a numbered file. “00-Mattie death date” and “01-Parents for Mattie” are examples. Nested within the folder are sub-folders for phases of research. “Archive” holds prior drafts and will be discarded at the end of a project. “Analysis” contains tables for census or timeline analysis. “Images” has screenshots of diagrams.

Digital Filing System

I’ve used Google Docs and Sheets and struggle to use the filing system in Google Drive. Many people use them to good results. Using Google docs, sheets and drive allows sharing through links. I get around this by sharing Dropbox folders for large files.

Naming conventions

File names for individual items (documents, images, spreadsheets) have evolved. There are two styles I use consistently: Name of document first or date first. When I am writing a report, the name of the document is written with underscores, then the date, always in YYYY-MM-DD format.

Childres_father_2022-01-31.docx

For sources (scans of originals, downloaded census, birth, marriage, death, etc.) I lead with the date, followed by the last name in caps, then location and type of record. I use dashes between elements of the date in YYYY-MM-DD format. This creates an instant timeline in my folders. Locations are organized from large geographic region to small.

1879-05-08_CHILDRESS_Bill_TN_Tipton_indictment_riot.jpeg

Report template

I set up the project report using a template and “write as I go.” Writing the report while I’m working supports the analysis process and I’m not faced with a blank page at the end. When working on client projects, writing-as-I-go also helps me stay within hourly limits for a project. The template, like naming conventions, has evolved over time. I use a Microsoft Word .dotx file which includes sample paragraphs I often need (such as explaining the usages of different types of DNA tests or how autosomal DNA is used to predict relationships).

Report template

I started a new project two weeks ago and set it up as described here. I can spend a few minutes or several hours researching knowing that I can focus on the research and analysis. And I’m enjoying the honeymoon!

Oddities #1

Family history research can be full of surprises. Have you ever been tempted to add a pet to your family tree? I came across Sebastian the Himalayan Cat while looking at a DNA match. (The match was to Sebastian’s human dad, not Sebastian!)

I have to say, Sebastian’s people are doing a good job on tree completeness! All sixteen 2x-great-grandparents of Sebastian are identified!

I use Reunion as my genealogy software. I’ve been a Mac user since the first Macs came out and Reunion has been with me for as long as I’ve been serious about family history research. I’ve been through many upgrades over the decades and somewhere along the line some new status buttons became available. I would have never thought of this status choice for a child.

And as you can see, Sebastian’s family is in good company, since Family Pet is also an option.

Stay tuned for further Oddities in future blog posts!

That Sinking Feeling

A couple of months ago I was researching my 5x great-grandfather and came across a Deed of Gift in the courthouse records in Rockingham County, North Carolina.[1] My ancestor, John Barnett, gave his nine grandchildren (including my 3x-great grandfather) a present on 6 March 1823. The Deed of Gift began innocently enough:

“To all people to whom these presents shall
come. _ I John Barnett of Rockingham
County & State of North Carolina send greetings
Know ye that I the said John Barnett for
and in consideration of the natural love
and affection which I have and bear unto
my beloved grand children, namely, James
Walker, John Walker, David Walker, William
Walker, Thomas Walker, Samuel Walker, Lucy
Walker, Martha Walker & Henry Walker, chil-
dren of my Daughter Ann who intermarried
with Adam Walker…”

John Barnett’s Deed of Gift, 6 March 1823

At this point, my genealogist brain said “excellent, I now have an original document with primary information directly linking Ann Barnett to her father, her husband, and all of her children in Rockingham County, North Carolina in 1823.” These generational links form the foundation of a well-documented family tree.

As I read on, the sinking feeling began as the gift was described:

“…one Negro Boy na-
mely Jacob 14 years old, one ditto name-
ly Charles eight years old, one Negro wo-
man Nancy twenty years old, one other
Negro Woman Dafney seventeen years old
one waggon & five pair of Giere [geese?] 1 Black Horse
8 years old, 1 Do [ditto] 15 years old, one Bay horse
9 years old 1 Sorrel Mare 12 or 15 years old
four feather Beds and furniture, one Sugar
chest, also seven hundred dollars,
with all the Increase of said property…”

John Barnett’s Deed of Gift, 6 March 1823, continued.

My ancestor gave Jacob, Charles, Nancy, and Dafney to his grandchildren as chattel. He also gave any of their children away as chattel. My ancestor destroyed the desires, dreams, and relationships of these four people by owning them and selling them. This gift took place prior to the Adam Walker family’s relocation to Perry County, Tennessee, and likely tore families apart. My ancestor’s actions are part of the multigenerational transmission of harm to African Americans. This harm, or historical trauma, carries a legacy of “beliefs, ideas, myths, prejudices, biases and behaviors that are disseminated and then inherited by and/or about differing groups.”[2] The aftermath of this legacy is the systematic and structural racism that persists in North America.

I have known for over thirty years that some of my ancestors were enslavers. I found my ancestors in the slave schedules of the 1850 and 1860 censuses with the lists of unnamed people they held in bondage. My mother discovered a scrap of paper in the Benton County, Tennessee, Historical Society records describing the sale of Mary Jane from one ancestor to another.[3] Although never far from my mind, this information had become far from my heart. John Barnett’s Deed of Gift brought it back into my heart.

My response to this knowledge has changed. Instead of logging it away in my genealogy program and citing the sources faithfully, I have begun the process of “Transforming Historical Harms” as recommended by Hooker and Czajkowski:

Facing History
Making Connections
Healing Wounds
Taking Action

I am finding my own way forward to face history, make connections, heal wounds, and take action. It is a small thing compared to the harm so many African Americans experienced and continue to experience. I share these early steps in my journey with the hope of encouraging you on your own.

In the past two years I have focused on learning about racism and the American history that I was not taught in school. This education will continue for the rest of my life. As a citizen of two countries (the United States and Canada), facing history is both a societal imperative and specific to my family. Reading and learning about systematic and structural racism led me to Coming to the Table (CTTT), a non-profit with a core of genealogical research dedicated to facing history and healing racial wounds created by slavery and its impact. I participate in the Linked Descendants group. With support from Coming to the Table, I became a Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience practitioner, and I am learning and practicing ways to address historical trauma. I’ve joined the U.S. Black Heritage Exchange program WikiTree project and wrote about that experience in a guest blog for Research Like a Pro. I am entering the records of enslavers and those that were enslaved into WikiTree in hopes of helping others discover their family history. As a citizen and a health care professional, I will continue to take action, speak out, donate time and resources, and be part of the long process of righting the historical harms written into history, like John Barnett’s Deed of Gift.

The story of Jacob, Charles, Nancy, and Dafney reminds all of us of the debt owed to the people who built the wealth of the North American continent. How can we individually and collectively face history, make connections, heal wounds, and take action? What’s next for you?


[1] Rockingham County, North Carolina, “Deed Book X,” pages 230-232, John Barnett to his grandchildren James  Walker, John Walker, David Walker, William Walker, Thomas Walker, Samuel Walker, Lucy Walker, Martha Walker and Henry Walker, Deed of Gift, 6 March 1823; digital images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QS7-L98Q-3QYR : accessed 5 November 2021), FHL Film #007517701; citing North Carolina Department of Archives and History, Raleigh.

[2] David Anderson Hooker and Amy Potter Czajkowski, “Transforming Historical Harms,” Eastern Mennonite University (https://emu.edu/cjp/docs/transforming-historical-harms.pdf : accessed 13 February 2022), page 15.

[3] Benton County, Tennessee, “Deed Book F, Jan 1857-Apr 1860,” page 291-292, Thomas Walker  to H. Kee, Negro girl named Mary Jane, 6 August 1857; digital images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-CS5H-9SYD-W and https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-CS5H-9SYN-C : accessed 21 November 2021); citing Tennessee State Library and Archives, Nashville.



Find a Grave Updates January 2022

Find a Grave can be a treasure trove for family historians. What started in 1995 to capture the data from one man’s hobby became the repository of information for 180 million memorials by 2020. The site has been owned by Ancestry.com since 2013.[1]

Find a Grave relies on volunteers who photograph cemetery markers or use other information and create memorials. A memorial with a photograph of the marker can provide valuable information for genealogists and can lead to original documents concerning the life of the individual.

Find a Grave announced important policy changes affecting the recently deceased and how the relationship between the subject of the memorial and the memorial manager are handled. As of 11 January 2022, all memorials for the recently deceased (defined as within the previous 3 months) will provide limited information. A new button allows relatives to quickly become the manager the memorial. The button will be visible for a year.

Another new feature is adding your relationship to memorials you manage. This information can be public or private. If you are a member of Find a Grave, click on your profile in the upper right of the website and choose “My Memorials.” This brings up a list of memorials you manage. Choose a memorial, then click on “Edit.” Scroll down to the bottom of the edit pane to the question “Are you a close relative?” When you click “Yes,” the dialogue box expands and you can indicate your relationship and privacy settings. If you’d like your relationship to remain private, unclick “Show relationship in source information.”

FindAGrave Relative Information

The transfer guidelines for memorials were also updated. Close relatives are defined and are given preference for managing the memorial. To request a transfer, click on “Suggest Edits” on the memorial, scroll down to “Suggest other corrections” and then write a message to the memorial manager, providing them with your relationship to the person. Remember, you do not need to be the manager to add photos or suggest edits to the page.

Thanks to FindAGrave for making these important changes.


[1] Wikipedia, “Find a Grave,” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Find_a_Grave : accessed 24 January 2022).