Monday, May 22, 2017

Gil Cook: New Information

Gil Cook in 1942 while training at Gardner Army Airfield, California

My mother's cousin Mary recently came to visit, and she brought photos and letters that had belonged to her mother, Patricia Rutherfurd, half-sister of Gil Cook. This treasure trove of pictures and documents included letters that shared additional information about Gil's service in the 436th Bombardment Squadron during World War II.

As I wrote in my initial series of posts about Gil, his plane went down over Burma on October 28, 1943 after being hit by friendly fire. Initially, the Army telegrammed the families of the men on board the plane that their sons were missing. It took six months for them to learn the truth, that all the men had perished in the accident. My mother once told me that her parents, Glenn and LaVerne Smith, were actually the first to learn what really happened to Gil, and they found out not from the Army, but from a friend who had been stationed in India with Gil. I was stunned that families would have to learn such terrible news from friends, while the Army would say only that the men were missing.

Gil during his military training

In the collection of letters that Mary gave me, I found the original document my grandparents received in November 1943 from their friend Dick, telling them what happened on that fateful day over Burma. I quote here from the letter, dated November 20, 1943
Glenn, in a more serious light, I'm sorry to report that Lt. Cooke was killed in action. My old roommate wrote me from the squadron I was formerly in with Lt. Cooke that Lt. Cooke's plane was hit by a bomb in mid-air and shortly afterward his plane fell in flames to the ground. No one was seen to jump from the flaming ship. 
This hurts me to report this, but I know you people would want the truth. I felt terrible about the whole incident. Gosh, how I liked Lt. Cooke and so did everyone else.  Please, extend my heart felt sympathies to his family and LaVerne.
My grandmother, LaVerne, was very close to her cousin Gil. Born just weeks apart, they grew up very near each other in Los Angeles and had a sibling-like relationship. How devastating it must have been to receive this letter, and to have to tell Gil's mother what eyewitnesses said had happened to her son.

Gil's mother, Magdalene Barrett Rutherfurd, had received an initial telegram from the War Department on November 3, 1943, six days after her son's death, informing her that Gil was missing. A number of letters went back and forth between various military officials and the families of those killed on Gil's plane over the following months, but it took six months for official confirmation of the deaths. It is disappointing that it took so long for the families to be told the truth, since depositions taken by officers in Burma on November 7th indicated clearly that the plane went down in flames and no survivors were seen. However, Magdalene must have known from early on that she was unlikely to be reunited with her son, given the letter from Dick on November 20th.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Dandurand Family

My step-great-grandmother, Ozelda "Dandy" Dandurand

I was fortunate enough to have a living great-grandparent during my childhood. While Ozelda "Dandy" Dandurand Rutherfurd did not live near enough for me to get to know her well, I met her on several occasions. Dandy was the second wife of my great-grandfather, George Rutherfurd, and although she was not a blood relative, she was a kind and loving grandmother to my mother and her siblings, and very much part of our family.

Dandy and George

In an earlier post, I wrote about how George and Dandy met at the telephone company in Los Angeles, where they both worked. They married in their forties, after each had lost their first spouse. By the time I was a child, Dandy was quite elderly and was living in an assisted living facility in Medford, Oregon. She was in good heath, though, and when we went to visit her there she would walk around the grounds with us. She was able to leave the facility and visit us when we were nearby for a summer camping trip. I have a strong memory of her sitting in a plastic folding chair around a campfire, surrounded by tall pines. I must have been about nine years old.

Dandy with my brothers and me

Dandy died in Medford on her 101st birthday, March 20, 1997. I was a recent college graduate then, not yet interested in genealogy. Later, when I developed a passion for family history, I remembered the few stories I had heard about Dandy's past, before she married George. My mother had always told me that when Dandy was a young girl, her family had traveled the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon. It had apparently been a terrible journey and was something Dandy never wanted to discuss. With Dandy gone, and not knowing any of her extended family, I turned to the internet to learn more about her background.

Dandy and George on their wedding day
I knew that Dandy's father had been French Canadian, and I knew that they had lived in the Midwest before coming to the west coast. With a unique name like Ozelda, it didn't take me long to find my great-grandmother in the 1900 United States Census, living with her family in Knowles, Frontier County, Nebraska. Reviewing census data and city directories, I was able to put together some basics about Dandy's family.

Dandy and George at their retirement party

Dandy was born March 20, 1896. Her parents were Narcisse Dandurand and Lucy Isabella Dunn. Narcisse was born in Quebec, Canada in February 1866, and he was a 34-year old farmer in Nebraska by the time of the 1900 census. The 1900 census reports that his parents were both also born in French Canada, but I have not yet learned their names. Lucy was born in Nebraska in April 1872, the daughter of John Dunn and Margaret Wymore.

Narcisse and Lucy had at least six children together:

John Floyd Dandurand (1890-1956)
Bertha May Dandurand (1893-1986)
Ozelda Narcisse Dandurand (1897-1997)
Carrie O. Dandurand (1899-)
Eva A. Dandurand (1901-)
Thelma Hazel Dandurand (1910-1997)

On the 1910 census, there appears a listing for a child named Ralma H. Dandurand, aged 2, born in Nebraska. I suspect this may be a census error, and that child was actually Thelma H. Dandurand, who was born in Oregon three days prior to the census-taker arriving at the Dandurand household. While it's possible that there was a Ralma and she died after this census, I can find no other records for a Ralma Dandurand. It's also curious that Thelma would be left off a census, since she was very much alive when the census was taken on April 23, 1910. There's also the fact that Ralma is an unusual name, but similar to Thelma.

Another mystery is that Dandy's sister Helen does not appear in any records for this family. We know that Dandy had a sister named Helen with whom she was very close. My mother recalls Dandy talking about Helen frequently. Helen lived in Southern California, like Dandy, and in their later years they had planned to move to Medford together. Helen died shortly before the move, which was a great blow to Dandy. We know Helen existed, but don't know why she doesn't appear in census records with the family. I wonder if perhaps Helen and Eva were somehow the same person. Eva came to Southern California with Dandy and Hazel between 1918 and 1920, and they appear in the same household together in the 1920 U.S. Census. Hazel later married and moved to Northern California, but I have found no records for Eva after 1920. Perhaps she went by the name Helen? This is a total head-scratcher.

The Dandurand family appears to have left Nebraska sometime between the birth of Eva Dandurand in 1901 and their arrival in Oregon in 1908. In the 1910 U.S. Census, Narcisse Dandurand reported that he had been in Oregon for two years, which is how we are able to pinpoint 1908 as their year of travel.

While in Nebraska, the Dandurands lived in Knowles and nearby Freedom, in the southwestern corner of the state, not far from the Kansas state line. From there, it was less than a two day walk (today, less than two hours in a car) to reach the Oregon Trail, which followed the Platte River westward through Nebraska. Travel on the Oregon Trail had peaked decades earlier, and in 1908 it was possible to take a train west. We can only assume the Dandurand family did not have money to travel via train, and thus took a much longer and more dangerous route west. As to why the family would leave Nebraska in the first place, we can only guess. Lucy Dunn Dandurand's parents and siblings lived within a day's walk of her farm in Nebraska, and she and Narcisse had been farming in and around Knowles for nearly twenty years. Did the farm fall on hard times? Were the Dandurands lured west by stories of fertile farmland and increased opportunity?

The Oregon Trail's location in Nebraska. Approximate location of Knowles is marked with a X.

The stories of hardships on the Oregon Trail are well known. Dandy would never share stories about her experience, but hinted that it was a terrible journey for the Dandurand family. I wondered if a family member had died en route to Oregon, but it appears that they all made it to Portland alive, according to the 1910 U.S. Census, taken two years after their arrival. Their hardships on the trail were more likely those commonly reported: sickness, hunger, exposure to the elements, threats from bandits, and physical discomfort.

The Dandurands settled in Portland, Oregon, which was a city of over 200,000 people in 1910. This must have been a big change from the plains of Nebraska. Narcisse Dandurand bought a house on Detroit Street and in the 1910 U.S. Census claimed he was working as a farmer. His eldest son, John Floyd Dandurand, got work as a boilermaker, and eldest daughter Bertha May took a job at the local telephone company. Dandy was still in school in 1910, but she would later follow her sister Bertha into a telephone company career. Despite their success in traversing the Oregon Trail and establishing themselves in a new state, in the decade that followed, the Dandurand family unraveled.

John Floyd moved to Seattle in about 1916, where he married Dollie Davidson. Bertha May married Joseph Hague in 1912, and they moved to Astoria. Carrie disappears from records completely after 1910. It's not clear if she died, or if she married and moved away. As their children grew and left the home, the Dandurand marriage withered. In either 1919 or 1920, Lucy left Narcisse and married Fred Linton, a steamfitter (essentially, a plumber) who was also living in Portland. They took the three Dandurand girls who remained at home, Dandy, Eva and Hazel, and moved to Los Angeles. Narcisse went to Seattle, where he can be found in a boarding house in the 1920 U.S. Census. He may have gone there to be near his son, John. Both Lucy and Narcisse would eventually move back to Oregon, but their marriage was over.

I wish that Dandy had shared more stories about her youth and her experience on the Oregon Trail. It seems these were things she was glad to leave behind as she embarked on adulthood in Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, she had a successful career and two happy marriages. She was a great companion to my great-grandfather after the death of his first wife, and a loving grandmother to his grandchildren. She lived to age 101, long enough to see nearly the entire twentieth century. I'm very glad to have been able to meet her and to share a little bit of her story.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

So You Want to Take a DNA Test: Advice for Non-Genealogist Friends

This post is for my friends who are not genealogists.

I've had a lot of conversations recently with people who have not researched their family history in depth but are intrigued by the idea of taking a DNA test.  Most people are curious about their origins, whether or not they have the time and inclination to dive into real genealogical research.  I have been asked a number of times by friends whether they should take a DNA test and what they might learn by doing so.  As we approach National DNA Day, with DNA tests on sale, I wanted to offer some guidance, with the caveat that I am not a geneticist, and this is all based purely on my own experience as a DNA beginner.

Why take a test
Most non-genealogists seem to be interested in using DNA to get an ethnicity estimate. When you test, you will be given a graph or pie chart that breaks down your ethnicity into categories. This provides a quick overview of the regions your ancestors lived. For those who are just starting out with family history, or who don't know anything about their roots, this can either confirm the family lore you know, or provide some tantalizing new information. These ethnicity estimates need to be taken with a grain of salt, but they can be a helpful starting point. More interesting than the ethnicity estimate, to me, are the cousin connections. When you test, you'll be given a big list of others who've tested and share your DNA, to various extents. If you enter a family tree, you can start seeing how these people are connected to you. More on that below.

Where to test
There are three major companies offering DNA tests: Ancestry, FamilyTreeDNA and 23andme. For the beginner, I recommend testing with Ancestry. They have arguably the largest DNA database, and I think that their interface is the easiest for beginners to navigate. As mentioned above, after you test, you will get a pie chart showing your ethnic makeup and a list of all the people in the database who share some of your DNA. Even if you don't know much about DNA or your deep family history, Ancestry makes it easy to make sense of your results. Their interface is really straightforward. Ancestry also offers the option to extract the raw data from your test, meaning you can transfer it to other DNA companies that offer more sophisticated tools, like FamilyTreeDNA, should you want to get further involved with genetic genealogy.

My ethnicity estimate results page on Ancestry

First steps
After submitting your test, you will want to start a free trial at and enter a basic family tree.  If you DNA test without having a tree in place, it's going to be difficult to figure out how you connect with your matches.  It's okay if you haven't researched your whole family.  Just enter what you know for now.  Resist the temptation to click on the hints Ancestry will provide you and start adding a bunch of new ancestors to your tree.  Ancestry's hints are often incorrect, or at least need to be analyzed carefully.  You can work on expanding your tree over time, if you're interested in doing so.  For now, just enter the immediate relatives you know for sure. Your free trial is only good for two weeks, and it's going to take at least six to get your DNA test results back (more in peak periods, like right after Christmas), so you might want to wait until your results arrive to get started. Once your trial expires, Ancestry gets expensive, but I encourage you to get a paid membership, at least for a while, so you can fully explore your results and expand your tree.

What to do after you test
You've gotten your DNA test results. Now what? This is the title of many a blog post in the genealogy community. If you're a total beginner to DNA and genealogy in general, my recommendation is to use this time to start looking into your family history. Do you have grandparents and elderly relatives still living? Bring them your DNA results. Ask what they think. Talk to them about their families. There's a post in the Know Your Stories archives on questions to ask your relatives that should help start a good conversation about family history. Write down what your relatives tell you. Use the information they give you to flesh out a family tree. Everyone has that one aunt who supposedly knows everything about the family and has all the photos. Call her! Find out what she knows. Get copies of some of those photos. These are all valuable first steps. What you don't want to do is spend your two week free trial attaching every possible ancestor under the sun to your Ancestry tree, via those tempting shaky leaf hints, because that's how you end up with a tree full of mistakes, and that's how your children grow up thinking they're descended from Charlemagne. Start with your family members, find out what they know, and grow from there. Look up the genealogy society in your area and see when they're having a meeting. At my genealogy society, we have a dedicated DNA group that gets together to talk about what their DNA results mean. Finding a group like this is a great way to make the most of your test.

Be aware
DNA testing can reveal secrets you may not want to know.  Some people, like CNBC anchor Bill Griffeth, have learned that their parents are not their parents.  This is an unusual result, but certainly possible.  After a DNA test, my own father learned that his family line had a "non-paternal event" several centuries ago.  You're unlikely to encounter any huge revelations, but they do happen.  Your results may also challenge your notions of your ancestry.  If you're really attached to that story you've been told about your Cherokee princess great-great-grandmother (almost always a myth, by the way), it may be tough to learn that you don't have a bit of Native American DNA. Keep your expectations in check and be open to what you learn.

DNA testing, for me, has been a great compliment to the traditional genealogy I was already doing. It's definitely provided some new insights and opened some interesting doors. I highly recommend that anyone who is interested in their origins take a test, and let this lead you into the exciting world of family history.

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Short Family and William Penn's "Welcome"

Illustration: The Departure of the "Welcome"

I was doing some research on my Short ancestry recently when I made an interesting connection. It seems quite likely that my immigrant ancestor Adam Short (1667-1748) came to America on William Penn's ship Welcome. Unfortunately, "quite likely" is the best conclusion I'll ever be able to make, because if the Welcome had a passenger list, it does not survive. There is no way to be completely certain about the passengers on that boat. However, many researchers have compiled assumed passenger lists based on anecdotal evidence, and a number of these lists include Adam Short, his mother, sisters and uncle among those who sailed on the Welcome.

A little history about William Penn and the Welcome:
William Penn was an English real estate entrepreneur, philosopher, early Quaker, and founder of the Province of Pennsylvania, the English North American colony and the future Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. He was an early advocate of democracy and religious freedom, notable for his good relations and successful treaties with the Lenape Native Americans. Under his direction, the city of Philadelphia was planned and developed. (Wikipedia)

Welcome was the first of an eventual fleet of over twenty ships that sailed from England to Pennsylvania, bringing with them Quakers escaping religious persecution. Welcome was important, as the first ship, and it carried William Penn himself to America. The passengers left Deal, England on September 1, 1682 and arrived in Pennsylvania 52 days later.

The passengers were about 102 and not all of Penn's company. As the passenger list was full, others who desired to sail were compelled to wait for later boats, which numbered about 21 vessels. The passengers must have been closely packed, like sardines, the poor cooking and odors of stuffy cabins must have rendered life unendurable, but blessed are those who do not expect much for they will not be disappointed. While escaping the dangers of the sea and the capture by Spanish privateers, an epidemic of small-pox carried away about one-third of the original number. It must have been heart-rending to see the ones they loved sewed up in sail- cloth, weighted at the feet and slid down the gangplank. There must have been great anxiety for the remaining ones, if the officers should be stricken there would be no one to sail the vessel and all might be lost. During the trying voyage Penn attended the sick and dying, giving comfort and consolation to the entire company. (Voyage of William Penn in ship "Welcome" 1682)

I descend from the Short family via my Greene, Campbell and Smith lines. My immigrant ancestor, Adam Short, was born in England in about 1667. He sailed to America as a teenager, settled in New Castle, Delaware, and died there on March 29, 1748, at the age of 81. The Short family came from Gatton, on the border of Surrey and Sussex, where Adam's father, Adam Short Sr., died in 1674, at the young age of 32. Adam was just seven when he lost his father. Eight years later, in 1682, it is believed that Adam's mother, Miriam Ingram Short, decided to take her children to America with William Penn. Adam had two sisters, Ann and Miriam. Also traveling with them was his paternal uncle, Isaac Ingram. Unfortunately, disaster stuck on this voyage. A smallpox epidemic swept through the passenger cabins, killing both Miriam and Isaac. This left young Adam, Ann and Miriam orphaned in a new country.

Most, but not all, of the lists of assumed Welcome passengers include Miriam Short and her three children. The Welcome Society, a lineage group with membership made up of Welcome descendants, lists Miriam Short, her children and her brother Isaac as accepted passengers. When I traveled to the New England Historic Genealogical Library last year, one of the texts I was most eager to review was The Welcome Claimants Proved, Disproved and Doubtful With An Account of Some of Their Descendants by George E. McCracken. It's a very thorough review of the potential Welcome passengers, with examination of the merits of their inclusion. McCracken had quite a bit to say about the Short family, and eventually deemed it very probable that the Short children were, indeed, passengers on Welcome. He believed it was also likely, although with less certainty, that their mother was aboard the ship with them. Since Isaac Ingram wrote a will on the Welcome, before his death from Smallpox, he is known to have been a passenger.

There are several good reasons to believe that the Short children, at least, were on the Welcome. Miriam Short was in Pennsylvania by February 1683, when her new marriage to Welcome passenger George Thompson was challenged in court as having violated the rules of the fledgling province. The marriage was eventually allowed to stand, and it establishes Miriam in Pennsylvania, in close relationship to other Welcome passengers, just months after the ship's landing. In 1719, Adam Short testified in a land ownership lawsuit in Delaware. George McCracken wrote that in the course of his deposition, Adam recalled events from as early as 1682, placing him in America with the earliest of the William Penn ships. 

Isaac Ingram died aboard the Welcome in 1682. His will survives and is archived in Philadelphia. In this document he left £30, held by Ambrose Riggs in Gatton, and all his property aboard ship to his nieces and nephew. He also mentions his late sister Miriam, who likely died just days before him. Since he bequeaths the siblings his goods on board ship, it seems incredibly likely that they were actually there and able to collect his personal items. Here is the text of Isaac's will:
"vpon the twenty sixt day of ye seauenth month one thousand six eighty & two. I Issaak Ingram late of Garton late of Surrey yeoman, Being weake of body yet of perfect mind and memory doe make this my last will and testament on board the wellcome Robt Greenaway Mr. bound for Pensilvania as foll. Item I giue & bequeath vnto my Sister Miriam Short late deseased her three children Adam Short Miriam Short & Anne Short all that thirty pownds lying in Ambrose Riggs hands living at Garton in ye county of Surrey to be equally deuided betweene them viz ten pownds a peece further it is my will & mind that my Sisters children aforesd haue all the goods on board the Wellcome equally devided betweene them."
While we cannot know for certain if Adam Short was a Welcome passenger, it seems very likely that he was. This connection to Pennsylvania's early history, and to William Penn himself is an exciting revelation.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

A Photo of John T. Griffin

John T. Griffin

This is a picture of my second great-grandfather, John T. Griffin. I had never seen a photo of him until I received this image last week.

Firstly, I would like to say a huge thank you to Mary, who found my blog while searching online for Griffin family history. After realizing our families were connected, she emailed me and offered to share photos of John. It was such a kind and generous thing to do, and it means more than I can explain. If you recall my previous posts about my second great-grandfather, John T. Griffin was largely unknown to my immediate family until recently. He and my second great-grandmother, Annie Dickson, were ill-matched and their marriage lasted less than a year. They divorced and Annie moved to another state. Their son, George, never met his biological father. It's very likely he never even saw a photo of him.

Looking at the images of John T. Griffin's face for the first time was emotional. It was one of those moments when I wished desperately that my grandmother was still alive. She would have loved this. She was quite curious about the Griffins and always wanted to know more about John. I also thought of George, my great-grandfather, who never knew his father. How would he have felt, seeing a photo of John? I stared hard at the picture, trying to find some resemblance to George. Maybe there are some similarities in the nose? It's hard to tell. George looked very much like his mother.

George Roscoe Oliver Rutherfurd (formerly George Griffin)

These photos bring full circle a journey that started many decades ago, when Annie Dickson whispered to her granddaughter, my grandmother LaVerne, that George had a different father than his brothers. My grandmother researched the Griffins for many years, and eventually passed the quest along to me. Looking at the images of John T. Griffin connected me, once again, to my ancestors, and the story that started in 1893, when John and Annie met in Detroit. John never knew his son, George, or his granddaughter, LaVerne. He would never get to meet his five grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren and (currently) two great-great-grandchildren. But we all exist because of him.

John Griffin at age 88 with his third wife, Lizzie, and three of his great-grandchildren, Harry, Kennetha and Jessie Opel.

On another note, I will be speaking to my local genealogy society in April about writing a family history blog. This story will be one that I use as a prime example of why you should write a blog, and why you should make it public. Mary would never have found me if not for this blog. I would not be looking at photos of my second great-grandfather if this blog was not public. Time and time again, this blog has connected me with family members I would otherwise never have met, and I'm so grateful to have had those conversations. When you share your stories, good things happen.

Thank you, Mary. I am so appreciative.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

My 2017 Genealogy Goals

As we enter 2017, I am trying to put the chaos of the last couple of months behind me and get refocused.  I have done absolutely no genealogy work since October, and I'm eager to get my head back into my research and this blog.  Part of that process is sharing my genealogy-related goals for 2017, as I did in 2016, 2015 and 2014.  Doing this helps me stay focused on my top priorities throughout the year.

I made a lot of progress on my goals in 2016.  I was finally able to prove the parents and grandparents of my second great-grandfather, John T. Griffin, a task I've been working on for several years.  I also did quite a bit of blog writing and finally managed to organize all the paperwork and documents I inherited from my grandmother.  Unfortunately, I still cannot seem to make any headway on the origins of my fourth great-grandmother, Nancy Matthews Burns.  I also need to spend more time looking at the paperwork on my Smith ancestors and make sure I have those individuals correctly inserted in my tree.

Here are my top priorities in 2017:

But wait, I did so much organizing in 2016!  Well, I think we all know that task is never complete.  I still need to get all my grandmother's photos scanned and properly archived.  I also need to scan and transcribe a series of letters that are on loan to me from my mother's cousin.  

Remember that great trip I made to the New England Historic Genealogical Society?  I'm embarrassed to admit that I still have not completely gone through the notes and scans I made during that visit.  One of my goals this year is to review all the information I found in the library and get it inserted into my tree and files.  I also need to sit down with my previous posts on my Murray ancestors and clear up some inaccuracies that have emerged since I wrote them.

I am due to write about this family line on my blog, but feel that I don't know as much about them as I should.  My goal is to really dive into the paperwork I've been given by a Smith relative and wrap my head around this family.  It should be pretty interesting.  As cousin Barbara tells me, apparently my sixth great-grandfather, Capt. Samuel Smith, was a Tory sympathizer during the American Revolution who spent time in prison for his pro-England stance.  Scandal!

More 2017 excitement:

1. Possible museum exhibition
2017 is the 100th anniversary of my great-grandfather George Rutherfurd's military service, which began with his training at the Presidio of Monterey.  I had a very fun meeting with two historians at the Presidio of Monterey Museum last fall about potentially contributing to a special exhibit focused on World War I.  I have lots of photographs and memorabilia from George's time in Monterey, and I'm hoping it might be useful to the museum if the exhibit comes together.  Side note: I want to hang out with historians all the time. It is so fun to meet people who geek out over the same things you do.

2. Blog writing seminar
My genealogical society has kindly invited me to give a talk on blog writing for genealogy.  I've given talks to local groups in the past on using social media to further your genealogy research, but talking specifically about blog writing will be exciting.  I'm very passionate about showing people how writing a blog can connect you with new cousins and helpful information, as well as preserving your work for future generations.

Happy New Year!  

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Organizing Your Genealogy --- How I Did It and You Can, Too!

Bins and bins of unorganized materials that needed sorting

In my grandmother's last years, she used to say to me often, "I need to get all this stuff organized for you."  By stuff, she meant the family group sheets, handwritten notes, photocopies of book texts and letters from historical societies that she had collected in her genealogical journeys, not to mention the newspapers clippings she'd faithfully saved and the family photos she'd preserved.  It was a lifetime of work, and figuring out how to pass it down really troubled her.  Truthfully, my grandmother was quite organized.  She utilized a file cabinet and a binder system.  She'd just accumulated a lot of paperwork, didn't have time to revisit all of it, and was fearful that things were misfiled, or that notes were out of date.  I promised her I would take care of it.

I'm about the world's most organized person.  Everything in my life has a system.  I keep things neat, and preferably alphabetized.  However, when my grandmother passed away and I inherited all her family history materials, it was overwhelming.  My parents delivered all the files to me in several huge storage bins, and while I've dug through them repeatedly in the past four years, those big bins have remained, taking up space and driving me nuts.  There was so much paperwork to review; so many photos to scan.  Those bins also reminded me that I need to overhaul my own system so that these new files could be incorporated.  It exhausted me before I started.  But then, I finally got sick of looking at the bins, and the guilt of not having honored that promise to my grandmother began to really bother me. I cleared my calendar and got to work.  Here's how I tackled the mess.  I'm sharing this process in the hopes that it will help others who need to get organized.

The big mess

1. Dump Everything Out On The Floor

This was the hard part for a neat freak like me.  I made a big mess, and it remained a big mess for many days.  Stepping over piles of stuff gave me anxiety, but it also pushed me to get the work done. I pulled everything out of the bins, spread it on the floor, and then started the work of sorting it. Nothing was going back into the bins.  The bins were going to be gone from my life forever!

2. Group Like Items

Photos went in one pile.  If they weren't already labeled (my grandmother was so good about this and most everything was labeled), then I looked carefully at the paperwork the photos had been stored with so I could make identifications before moving the photos.  Clippings and personal letters went in another pile.  Then, I simply made piles of miscellaneous paperwork by surname.  Ayre in one stack; Smith in another.  I didn't start reading anything or scanning pages, I just stacked.  Finally, everything from those bins was assigned to a pile.  Then, I brought in my own paper files, which had been stored in my office.  I added those files to the surname stacks.

3. New Organizing Systems

I needed some new equipment to organize the stuff from the bins.  After a quick trip to Staples, I had a larger filing cabinet, plus hanging files and file folders.  If you already have a working filing system in place, you may not need new gear.  I had inherited a lot of additional material and my old, small filing cabinet was not going to do the trick.  I got out the hanging files and labeled each with a surname. Then, I inserted everything from the stacks into a hanging file.  Voila, done!  There were three surnames with too much paperwork to fit into a hanging file, so I set those aside until the next step in the process.

4. Reduce, Scan, Recycle

This is the part that took the longest and was the most challenging.  I left everything out on the table and floor during this process, so that I wouldn't be tempted to just close the file cabinet drawers and not complete it.  For each family surname folder, I sorted through the paperwork and decided what to keep and what to discard. This was my process:

  • One accurate family group sheet per family.
  • Any original documents (birth certificates, marriage licenses, obituaries clipped from newspapers, etc.)
I scanned all original documents using a free scanning app,  Genius Scan, which is much faster than using my flatbed scanner.  I only pulled out the flatbed scanner for photos or decorative certificates, since you really want the best quality with those. Using Genius Scan, I quickly stored the digital files both in the app and to a Dropbox file where I keep my genealogy backups.

  • Duplicates.
  • Print-outs of things I already have in digital format and attached to my online and desktop trees.  This includes some census records and birth/death/marriage records.
There were a lot of duplicates of things in my grandmother's files, like four photocopies of the same obituary and multiple family group sheets with exact the same information.  I discarded the extras to save space.  I also recycled some photocopies of census records and marriage records that I already had saved in other locations.  

  • Photocopies of texts
I still had more paper than I was going to be able to keep.  After careful evaluation of the materials, I realized I didn't need to keep a hard copy of some papers that could easily be digitized.  I understand that the paper vs. digital issue has passionate advocates on both sides, and everyone works in different ways.  However, for me, I prefer to reference items on my computer rather than pulling out paper files.  So, I scanned and then discarded the paper versions of things like photocopies from manuscripts.  These are items that I would more likely read on my computer, and which took up a lot of space as print-outs.  This might be the hardest step for a lot of people, but I think it's one of the most important.  The more you can digitize and simplify, the easier it will be to review your files, and also to pass your research on to younger relatives when the times comes.

5. Feel Incredibly Victorious

Yes!  It took a long time, but finally I had sorted, reduced and filed all those papers.  Instead of a bunch of stuff tossed in a bin, I now had hanging files organized by surname.  This makes it so much easier to find things.  Now, I have not completely dealt with the photos.  They have gone back into a bin and there is a longer journey ahead for them.  I'm in the process of scanning the photos, ensuring that they are labeled, putting them into sleeves and storing them in archival photo boxes.  I've started this process, but it's going to take a while to complete.

Look, it's all filed!

6. Share

I found some treasures in my Grandma's bins.  There were photos, stories and articles that hadn't seen the light of day in many years.  Why should they now sit in a file cabinet, unappreciated?  I emailed scans to family members. I uploaded them to my family tree on  This ensures that these items are safe should my file cabinet be damaged in a disaster, and it also allows other family members to enjoy the information about our ancestors.  In my opinion, your organizing process isn't complete until you send those photos and stories out into the world.

7. Secure

All your information should be backed up in multiple locations, and at least one of those locations should be cloud-based.  My data, and all the scans I've made are on my computer.  They're also stored on two hard drives in my home.  I have backed everything up to Dropbox, so that if there is a disaster and my home devices are destroyed, the files are not lost.  I also love that I can access my Dropbox files from any of my devices at any time.

Organizing is overwhelming.  It's not fun.  It can be done, though!  Clear your schedule, dump everything out on the floor, and commit to putting it away in an organized fashion.  You'll feel a real sense of accomplishment when it's done, and it will make accessing your paperwork much easier. Personally, I'm glad to have taken the first steps to honor that promise to my grandmother.  She cared very much about these materials, and I think she would like seeing them nicely organized in their new home.