Making Photo Requests of Cemetery Monuments

It’s that time of year! Time for genealogists to uncramp themselves from their hunched over postions at their computers and go enjoy the beautiful weather. Doesn’t mean you have to stop your genealogy work, though. You can enjoy the great outdoors by going for a walk in a cemetery!

Maybe it’s just me, since I live near a beautiful cemetery that’s sprawled out on a mountain (the other half of the mountain is a park), but I really enjoy walking around cemeteries. I figured while I was visiting, I could do some good and fulfill some photo requests for people looking for pictures of their family’s monuments.

It was quite busy that day because despite everyone’s (including myself) mentality that this cemetery is part of the park (it’s not, it’s private property), it’s actually place of business. And while the staff at the office is incredibly helpful and patient and totally willing to look things up, I could see that my search for these stones was getting in the way of them doing their job. The staff’s recommendation for future trips was to use the form on their website to get the information for stone locations.

I plan to make more trips because weather! but also because I want to build up karma for pictures that I want taken for my own research in locations where I’m not. So I submitted through the cemetery’s website a request for another stone’s location. Then I realized that to do this for all the requests at this site would not only take forever, since it’s one by one, but that while the staff has patience for a family member looking for a few stones they would very likely run out of patience for someone trying to answer hundreds of photo requests. So I went back to those requests and pointed out the website where the burial location can be requested.

This made me think of my own burial requests. I had merely clicked “request photo,” hoping that, like me, these volunteers would be willing to ask at the office for the location of the grave. Knowing what I know now, I see how a little bit of research could save them time and annoy the people who work at the cemetery less. Again: these are places of business. I am now researching how to find burial locations. I lucked out on the first cemetery website which provided a PDF file of all their burials and their locations. I deleted the requests from that cemetery and replaced them with requests that identified these locations. I have a feeling these requests are more likely to be filled.

Bottom line: you’re more likely to get your photo requests answered if you do a little legwork to find the specific burial location


Cite Your Sources

I just joined a new Facebook group called The Genealogy Squad whose focus is non-DNA related genealogy questions (as opposed to Genetic Genealogy Tips and Techniques, which is only DNA related). Someone posted something which spurred an interesting question about citations, plagiarism, copyright and terms of service. These are really important questions to ask even if we are not publishing our research (even if just on a blog) but collecting it as a hobby for our own enjoyment. I know this is something I can do better with, so I’m hoping that by writing about it here I can help clarify it for myself as well as for others so we can all do better.

The first question is, especially if this is a hobby, why cite sources? Even though we are “just” doing genealogy as a hobby, we still want to do a good job with our research. We can’t accept information like dates of life events at face value. For example, I received a copy of a book written by a distant cousin which gave a marriage date for our mutual ancestor. I emailed her to ask where this information came from, and she could not tell me. As far as I knew, these ancestors were married “a-la-façon-du-pays,” i.e., not legally or religiously because there was no one to do so for them where they lived. The date in question also happened to be 9 months before their first child was born, and I wondered whether the date was just a polite fiction. Eventually I was able to get a marriage record for them, proving that this was in fact the correct date. Even in cases where we have documentation, some sources are more likely to be accurate than others. A death certificate may be a good source for information on someone’s death, but might not have the correct information about their birth. When we come across conflicting information (i.e., a death certificate that has a different birth date than a birth certificate), we can evaluate all the sources to make a good judgment based on where the information comes from. We can’t do that if we don’t know where it came from.

The second part of the issue is plagiarism, copyright and terms of service. If we want to avoid plagiarism (claiming that the particular work in question is our own), citing our source is important. However, citing a source does not necessarily avoid the problem of copyright. Most people understand the idea of copyright as someone owning an idea or work. We might even know that for certains things, copyright no longer applies, perhaps because it is now in the public domain or might fall under “fair use.” It’s really important to have a clear understanding of these concepts and what they entail so we do not inadvertently violate copyright. Finally, even if the document in question might not violate copyright, sharing it may violate a particular website’s terms of service. Here’s a really great article by the The Legal Genealogist about the topic. While you’re at it, read everything they’ve written on the subject of copyright.

Lastly, how do we cite our sources? Evidence Explained is one of the bibles of genealogical citation. Their website has tons of examples and lessons to give you a start in how to do citations. Mastering Genealogical Proof is another good one. If you feel like the perfect would be the enemy of the good, though, just remember that a citation is a way to document where you found something, so that someone else would be able to reproduce your work.

While it make take a little more time in the moment, in the long run it will save us a lot of time figuring out where we got a certain piece of information from. Future generations will thank us for our hard work as they sort through it and are easily able to see where we got our information from.

Did Your Ancestors Survive The Halifax Explosion?

On December 6, 1917, two ships collided in Halifax harbour. Unfortunately, one of those ships was carrying TNT and exploded. The explosion was the worst man-made disaster in the history of the world, only eclipsed by the dropping of atomic bombs decades later. Almost 2000 people died, and around 9000 were injured. If you’re researching ancestors in Halifax, it is almost certain that they were affected by the Halifax Explosion.

If your ancestor’s death date was the day of or shortly after the explosion happened, it is likely they perished as a result of the explosion. Even if you don’t have a direct ancestor who was killed as a result of the explosion, if you had ancestors living in Halifax at that time, they will almost certainly have other family members who did.

One great resource is the list of people that died in the Halifax explosion. It will give you the address of the person, how they died, who identified them and where they are buried. It even shows you the page they are on in the Halifax Explosion Death Registration Book.

When you know the address of the person who died, you can then look at historical maps, especially this one, if they were near ground zero, or this one, if they lived a little further out. According to this article, most people living within 1.6 miles of ground zero would have been instantly killed by the force of the blast. A note about addresses is in order here: the area that was completely destroyed by the blast was rebuilt, and so the current numbering is likely different. In order to figure out approximately where they lived, check out the city directory for 1917. Old directories often have listings by street name, divided up by cross streets, and this is the case here. Even the area not devastated underwent a civic address re-numbering, so check the City of Halifax Former Civic Address Cross-Reference to convert the address in 1917 to the current-day address that you can search for using a map.

As genealogists, researching the historical events that impacted our ancestors lives brings us a much richer understanding of them, so I highly recommend checking out some of the many articles and books out there written about the explosion, as well as holdings at the Nova Scotia Archives, Library and Archives Canada, and the Halifax Municipal Archives.

1940 National Registration File

Are you researching someone who lived in Canada and was 16 years or older in 1940? If so, you need to know about the 1940 Registration File. This record provides all kinds of information about a person in 1940. You can learn about their job, jobs they are qualified to do, dependents and health. Click on the links to see all the details of what’s on the card for men and women. Also, according to the Library and Archives Canada blog post on the subject, “For immigrants, key details such as the year of arrival in Canada and their parents’ country of birth are given.” If you don’t know when your ancestor immigrated to Canada, this resource can be invaluable -and the key to finding your ancestor’s naturalization record (provided they immigrated between 1915-1951). According to the blog post, this set of records was created to enable “the government to identify military and labour resources that could be mobilized for the war effort,” and probably had nothing at all to do with this. Probably.

One thing I thought was nice about sending away for this record is that you not only get a photocopy of the original file, but also an extract where they try their best to transcribe what was written on the document. This is useful as the original document can sometimes be a little illegible.

Of course, extracts aren’t cheap. Given that the cost of sending away for this record is 45$ plus tax at the time of this writing -and that is for EACH record-I don’t know that I would recommend this for everyone. It’s also important to keep in mind that the information is what the person remembers about these things in 1940, and memory is not always reliable. Information about their current job and address are fine, but information about year of immigration and where their parents were born might not be.

If you feel it’s worth the money to send away for it, you will need to know the address in 1940 of the person you are searching for. Historical directories in your area should help with that -in Quebec, it’s Lovell’s; in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, try Henderson’s; British-Columbia has some here; Newfoundland has some here; Nova Scotia here; Ontario here; and Library and Archives Canada also has some here. Also, due to privacy restrictions, the person whose record you are seeking must be deceased for 20 years, and proof of death may be required (such as a death certificate or obituary), unless 110 years have passed since their date of birth.

I sent away for this record for one of my husband’s ancestors. Since I already had his naturalization record, this document didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. However, when I showed it to my grandmother-in-law, she remarked that he would sometimes get his sons to help him load up his wagon with stoves that needed repairing. This helped me to read what had been transcribed as “Repairing Sto___” to “Repairing Stoves Sometimes.” Priceless.

Township 1, Range 4W

If you’re Western Canadian, you will definitely want to check out the Library and Archives Canada database Land Grants of Western Canada, 1870-1930. Using this database and other information I have, I was able to use this map to figure out where the land my ancestors owned actually is. The square in the picture is divided into 36 pieces called sections, and my ancestors farmed a quarter of one of those 36 pieces. I also highly recommend checking out this website to learn more about the township/range system.

The Application for Homestead Patent shows that in 1883, four years after beginning to homestead, a house and a stable had been built, and 48 out of the 160 acres had been farmed. Clearly this represented a lot of hard work on the part of my ancestors.

A cousin recommended I read Katarina: Mennonite Girl from Russia by Eleanor Hildebrand Chornoboy. It was a good read and I highly recommend it especially if you are Mennonite as it gives an interesting point on view of the Mennonite experience of immigrating to Canada. At one point the main character, Katarina, wonders who lived on this land before it was given to them. I too have had this question and have wondered what to make of the fact that people were displaced to make room for my ancestors.

I really liked this transcript from the CBC Saskatchewan radio show Blue Sky. On the anniversary not-guilty verdict for Gerald Stanley in the death of Colten Boushie, they had guest Michael Cappello, who teaches anti-racist education at the University of Regina, come to answer questions that the discussion had engendered. He said,

“It is surely possible to honour and respect the work and lives of the (mainly) European folks who initiated and shaped this settler-colonial state…We can honour early settlers while contextualizing the particular policies that made that settlement possible. It takes nothing away from anyone’s ancestors to tell the whole story, including the offer of cheap/free land or the peasant farming policy. That the success of European settlers in this place also required the displacement and disappearance of Indigenous people is a necessary part of telling this story in an honest way.”

I can be proud that my ancestors were invited by the Canadian government to farm, and also know that other hard-working farmers were not welcome in Canada because of the colour of their skin. I can be proud of what they accomplished while knowing that the land they paid 10$ for (the equivalent of 250$ today) is now worth a least a million dollars. It does not take away from their hard work to know that the people who were living there for thousands of years before my ancestors came were moved to make way for them. To know these things only adds to the fullness of my knowledge about my ancestors, which is the goal of any genealogist. It is, after all, a part of the Genealogical Proof Standards, the gold standard of genealogy research, that our research is exhaustive.

What is the takeaway from this? Certainly, it is not that we should feel guilty. As Professor Capello says, “guilt/blame compounds the problem.” Instead, he suggests, “It becomes important to consider how our relative positioning to the realities being discussed shape how we can hear/understand/act on the information we are being offered.” As a genealogist, I always wonder how much my ancestors and what they went through shapes who I am as a person. What I believe Professor Capello is saying here is that the knowledge of the advantages our ancestors had should also shape our understanding of the way the world works today. We can only know these things if we are open to hearing them. Finally, we must carefully consider what to do with this knowledge once we have acquired it.

I hope this is the first of many posts on what I am calling Decolonising Genealogy. I hope to learn more about decolonizing in general, and apply that knowledge to the field of genealogy. If you’re interested in decolonizing your knowledge of Canadian history, I highly recommend you start with this free online course.

Before there was social media there was just media

As part of my Ancestry membership I have a basic membership to the website I upgraded to the premium membership when I realized that I did not have access to many of the newspapers. Recently I broke down and got a membership to While has newspaper archives for the newspaper where I currently live, has newspaper archives from where my ancestors used to live. So you see why I opted for both.

I’ve talked about how useful Obituaries are before, but since I found a couple of interesting articles doing research for someone, I’d thought I’d share how newspaper articles can give us information beyond birth, marriage and death.

John Romans was the proprietor of Waverley House, a “well known and first class” boarding house (if the ads are to be believed). I have him on one census record and I have his death record, as well as in a handful of Halifax directories. If I ever get to Halifax, I can research probate and land records at the archives, but other than that, as he died in 1872, there isn’t much else to find on him during this time period. We don’t know how he came to be the owner of this hotel, and even if we find the land record showing the purchase of this property, it still doesn’t give us much detail about who John Romans was. Enter the newspapers.

According to a letter published in two parts Halifax British Colonist on October 16 and 18, 1851, John Romans was dismissed from his post as overseer of the Distilleries in Halifax. He was hired to work for the Distilleries six or seven years prior, his job previous to that being the Collector of Excise for the District of Truro. The letter writer goes on to discuss what a great job Mr. Romans was doing in managing the facility, how he asked for a raise for his good work, received it, continued to increase revenues for the business, asked for another raise given that he had to “walk not less than 15 miles every day wet or dry, summer or winter” (no word on whether it was uphill both ways). He was not given that raise, and from what I understand of the letter, due to politics at the time, was later dismissed from his post. The letter writer goes on to talk about how the distillery has since decreased its revenues. It was signed by “one of the people.”

Given that Mr. Romans had “a large family to provide for, and no sympathizing funds to fall back upon,” what was he to do?

Luckily, his wife, Martha Romans, had opened up a boarding house:

Grand Parade is a civic square located in Halifax. The property that she bought was located at 8 Barrington St, the former property of Chief Justice Blowers, according to an advertisement in Halifax British Colonist November 1, 1851.

I’m not sure at what point John decided he, and not his wife, was the proprietor of the hotel, as we can see in this ad from the Halifax Citizen May 20, 1871:

So now we have a much fuller picture of who John Romans was and when he got into the Hotel business. That was certainly worth the price of a subscription.


Ancestry has unveiled a new DNA tool and I have thoughts. DNA circles has been replaced with something called Thrulines. Thrulines attempts, based on all the trees in its database, to figure out where your DNA matches fit into your family tree.

In order to use Thrulines, a few elements must be in place. Obviously, since it’s DNA related, you have to have taken a DNA test. You also have to connect the DNA to a family tree which is searchable (searchable trees can be public or private). The tree must be built back at least four generations. This means that Thrulines won’t automatically be useful for adoptees and others who aren’t sure of their DNA heritage -but it’s still a boon to those working to figure that out. It also still disadvantages those who don’t have a lot of DNA matches, whose DNA matches don’t have trees, and, because it’s using all the trees in its database, not just trees with DNA matches attached to them, people who come from populations that don’t have a lot of family trees from those particular populations.

However, when it works, it’s pretty cool. Here’s an example of a Thruline I have that I was impressed by:

I am related to these three people through my maternal grandmother. I don’t have them in my tree, only their grandparents: the siblings of my grandmother. Still, Thrulines managed to correctly place these people in my family tree. To do this it not only had to piece our four trees together -it also used information about how much DNA we share (which can be anywhere between 45-515 cM for second cousins, according to my favourite chart). It’s interesting to note that in my list of DNA matches, the cousin with the lowest amount of shared DNA is in the third cousin category, while here they are listed correctly as a second cousin.

Thrulines can also give you potential ancestors based on shared DNA matches who have people in their tree that you do not. And here’s where it gets problematic in the same way the DNA circles were problematic. Ever heard the expression “garbage in, garbage out?” On the one hand, I don’t want to be a source snob. There’s a lot of good information out there and crowdsourcing sometimes does a good job of verifying it. On the other hand, I want to shake everyone who has identified the wrong Hannah as our ancestor and show them the records that I have with Hannah’s correct maiden name. This only bothered me a little bit before Thrulines, but now all I see for potential ancestors is the incorrect Hannah and her ancestors.

Here are a few other things to remember: absence of evidence is not evidence. Just because you have no DNA matches in your Thruline doesn’t mean that there aren’t any or that the line is incorrect (check out my post “Is This Normal?” if you have concerns). My aunt hasn’t connected her DNA to a tree, so my dad doesn’t have any DNA matches in his father’s Thruline. It’s also possible that no cousins have tested along a particular line, or that there are very few cousins who could have tested. It’s also possible that there are cousins out there with whom you share no DNA. Even evidence may not be evidence sometimes. My mother has two distant matches in a Thruline to her 5th great grand father. While it looks good on paper, the DNA might actually be from another unknown common ancestor. I can’t consider it “proved” by this that that man was actually our ancestor. See also: garbage in, garbage out. If a person has placed themselves incorrectly in their tree or their tree has errors, the conclusion that Thrulines draws from it will also be incorrect.

Overall, I can see the potential in Thrulines but it’s not quite there yet. While it’s a little more advanced than DNA circles, it still has some of its flaws. However, it has proved useful even though it’s still a little clunky to use. I hope Ancestry continues to improve both the user interface and the connections. It would be nice if we were able to reject some of the potential ancestors and never see them or their lines again. I hope it also encourages people to connect their DNA to a tree, no matter how small (and not just make a tree but connect their DNA to it!). Most importantly, remember that there are no magic wands.

Updated to add: you can provide feedback. No telling what will be done with it, but hopefully it will help!