Organizing Your Genealogy Documents

Organizing Your Genealogy Documents

A recent move to the Sunshine State and to a larger home than my NYC apartment has reminded me of the benefit of having a space committed to genealogy. For 17 years, I have worked from a small desk or kitchen table trying to organize documents into neat binders and files but have never found an ideal system. We all begin this journey with a handful of documents, then as more trickle in we devise some plan for organizing them. A typical first attempt at taming the clutter is to place everything into files, labeled by surname, family group or record type. After a few years, suddenly it’s difficult to find documents. One folder fills up and we create an overflow folder. Pretty soon the simple alphabetical approach no longer works because there are multiple spellings for the same surname. Then it’s just a slow decline into complete and utter chaos.

Now that limited space is no longer an excuse, I’ve been working on creating the ultimate genealogy room. Photographs have been painstakingly protected against the threat of humidity (more instructions in an upcoming post). Documents were scanned, numbered and filed in a system similar to those used by county clerks. Remarkably, everything is now contained in one room, no longer scattered over every flat surface in my home.

The organizing system that I have created is easy to use and will last a lifetime:

Step 1: Divide all documents into the following categories:

  • Vital:  Birth, Marriage and Death
  • Church
  • Newspaper: Articles and Obituaries
  • Military
  • Cemetery
  • Legal: Probate, Land, Divorce and Criminal
  • Letters and Manuscripts
  • Miscellaneous

Step 2: After the records are sorted, give each document a unique number. For vital records the numbers start with V followed by B for birth, M for marriage, or D for death. Then add a four digit number beginning with 0001 (e.g. VB0001 for the first birth certificate, VM0001 for the first marriage record and VD0001 for the first death record).

Step 3: Scan each document and then name the digital image file after the number of the document – e.g. VB0001.jpg. It’s important to note that the documents do not need to be sorted by date, name or place, only by category.

Step 4: Organize the digital images in desktop folders named after the categories listed under step 1.

Step 5: Store the original documents in heavy-duty acid-free sheet protectors (available at any office supply store). Place them by number order in binders labeled by the same categories above. Use index dividers to separate documents by subcategories. To fit two documents in one page protector, place a piece of acid-free paper between the documents. Use tiny labels on the outside of the page protectors to number each document, don’t mark the document itself. If you have a large collection I recommend using 3” binders. Legal sized sheet protectors and binders are also available.

Step 6: After all the scanning, labeling and filing is complete, create an index sorted by surname, maiden name, given name, date, place and number (or any other relevant information). The beauty of this system is that it doesn’t matter how many documents you collect, they will always be easy to find. Each time a new document arrives scan it, number it and add it to the index. Keep the index on your computer and place a printed copy inside each binder.

The importance of organized family history documents can not be overstated. Being able to quickly find what documents you do or don’t own will avoid unnecessary energy and expense and will help you determine your next research steps.


Resting in pieces: Cemetery neglect

Resting in pieces: Cemetery neglect

For many genealogists, the most tangible evidence they will ever find of their ancestors is a headstone. They are both a marker to designate where a body was interred, and a lasting memorial to a person who otherwise may have left no other mark. It is a magical moment when you kneel in front of the headstone of someone who has long since left this earth, reading the inscription and touching something that was touched by other ancestors that grieved over their lost loved ones. Many families cared for these plots lovingly until they passed away and the burials were long forgotten.

Finding the headstone of an ancestor is easier than ever thanks to sites such as So easy in fact, that I rejoiced when I discovered the location of my 6 x great-grandparents, James Martin and Ruth Dunham Martin’s burials in Piscatawaytown Burial Ground in Edison, New Jersey. Only 30 minutes from New York, it was an easy trip to Edison to find the graves.

Piscatawaytown Burial Ground has a fascinating history. The oldest headstone in the cemetery dates to 1693, a memorial to two young boys buried together in one coffin. They had both died from eating poisonous mushrooms.

Also buried in Piscatawaytown Burial Ground is Mary Moore, convicted of witchcraft and executed. Legend has it that a boy in the 1950s stole her headstone from the cemetery and was shortly afterwards killed while crossing the road. Other’s attribute the “Bloody Mary” games that children sometimes play to Mary Moore, while other’s believe it refers to Mary Queen of Scotts.

In 1776 and 1777 the British army used the Burial Ground for their camp and the adjacent church as their barracks and hospital. Ruth Dunham and several generations of her family were resting six feet under the British troops. Her father Jonathan Dunham was a well-known pastor whose home was plundered by the British during this time, a few weeks later Jonathan died.

Piscatawaytown Burial Ground – Overgrowth threatens to destroy graves three centuries old

I arrived with my camera and all the excitement of a genealogist about to “meet” her long-lost ancestors, a fascinating family that had suffered great losses at the hands of the British. I anticipated a treasured cemetery, carefully manicured and preserved. I was instead brought to tears by the condition of the graves. Headstones toppled and broken, bushes and trees growing over the plots, and in the matter of my ancestors, animals had burrowed large holes as wide as basketballs inside the plots and I could literally peer into the graves.

My outrage was followed by the immediate question, “who is responsible for this cemetery?”. After searching online I discovered that the town of Edison was in-charge of the care of the cemetery. Clearly the town is more concerned with the affairs of the living than the care of their dead. This cemetery is a historical treasure left to wither and crumble. Graves as old as 319 years are at risk of being destroyed.

  • Piscatawaytown Burials Piscatawaytown Burials Dunham family headstones - animals have burrowed under them
  • Piscatawaytown Burials Piscatawaytown Burials Grave of Deacon Benjamin Stelle, died 6 Oct 1792 -covered by bushes and brush
  • Piscatawaytown Burials Piscatawaytown Burials Ruth Dunham, died 22 Aug 1817 - had to stomp down branches to take this photograph
  • Piscatawaytown Burials Piscatawaytown Burials Sad neglect of graves at Piscatawaytown Burial Ground - Edison, New Jersey

The reason these graves fall into disrepair is that no one is willing to take responsibility for the work and cost of maintaining them. Town officials turn their attention to more pressing tasks and before they realize it, it’s too late.

If you have come across a cemetery as badly in need of care as Piscatawaytown Burial Ground, I urge you to write to those responsible for their care. Also write to local historical societies, newspaper editors, church leaders, anyone necessary to preserve the headstones that remain. Otherwise, monuments that have lasted for three centuries could be destroyed in one generation.


Making your cameo appearance

Making your cameo appearance

Prior to the invention of photography, capturing the likeness of a person and preserving it for posterity took incredible skill, a lifetime of diligent practice and years of apprenticeship. Artists worked with clay, stone, canvas and tapestry and the subjects of their art were almost without fail royalty, dignitaries or the otherwise very wealthy. One of the most beautiful and portable ways of preserving an image throughout history is in cameo form.

This beautiful art form has inspired well-known products of our time, one of the greatest examples being Wedgwood‘s famous blue Jasperware. The Wedgwood and Bentley collection is meticulously handcrafted and one of a kind but comes with a hefty price tag, $30,000.

Wedgwood and Bentley Jasperware

The earliest cameos were made of stone and date back to the 3rd century B.C. Cameos have reappeared as popular art and jewelry several times throughout history, most notably in the Victorian and Edwardian periods when they were often seen gracing the throats of fashionable ladies with high lace collars. Cameos became an affordable luxury when ultrasonic machines, also known as ultrasonic mills, were created to replicate the work of cameo artists.

There are cameo artists today that offer replicas of their original artwork reproduced by ultrasonic mills, but there are some artists who still create one of a kind custom cameos. Gareth Eckley, a gifted artisan whose work includes a commissioned cameo for Queen Elizabeth II, creates custom portrait cameos for display in pendants, lockets and brooches, as well as family crest rings. Eckley’s cameos are primarily made from layered agate which allows each layer to take on its own color and character. Each custom cameo comes with a photo journal of the creative process.

  • A child's portrait cameo - Gareth Eckley A child's portrait cameo - Gareth Eckley
  • Memory cameo, a grandmother - Gareth Eckley Memory cameo, a grandmother - Gareth Eckley
  • Princess Grace Kelly - Gareth Eckley Princess Grace Kelly - Gareth Eckley
  • Pocahontas replica created for Queen Elizabeth II - Gareth Eckley Pocahontas replica created for Queen Elizabeth II - Gareth Eckley
  • Queen Elizabeth II receives a cameo made by Gareth Eckley Queen Elizabeth II receives a cameo made by Gareth Eckley
  • Gareth Eckley - Master portrait cameo artist Gareth Eckley - Master portrait cameo artist

The process begins with clients sending Eckley images and information about the subject. When asked how he brings his pieces to life, Eckley has said, “This is where the magic happens and technique becomes art. I find out as much as I can about the subject so I feel that I know them. I draw their portraits from the photographs to get a feel for their character. Then when I am carving I surround myself with images of the subject. In the final stages of carving my hands just seem to know how to bring the carving to life with their spirit.”

One of the most common requests that Eckley recieves are for “memory cameos”, portrait cameos of persons or animals that are no longer living. I am always searching for artistic ways to record and preserve family history. With cameos surviving from the 3rd century B.C., what better way to keep a memory alive than to capture an image in something as beautiful and lasting as a cameo?


Family trees: When genealogists branch out

Family trees: When genealogists branch out

I’m always amazed by the creativity you find demonstrated on the internet. It takes some digging, and you have to kiss a lot of frogs, but there are definitely treasures to be found.

I first became motivated to launch Geneartistry when I was creating a new filing system for my genealogy research and realized that my 16 years of hard work was hidden in file folders and binders. I wanted a beautiful display to showcase my research so I scoured the net for an art quality tree chart that I could frame and hang on my wall. There are numerous charts out there in different forms – fan charts, pedigree charts, etc. but I wanted a real piece of art, heirloom quality on beautiful paper with a more modern design than I found on the market. In fact, it’s become my mission to create such a product, but that’s a post for another day.

While scouring the internet for charts, I started to notice how many beautiful and creative ways people were displaying their family history research. Crafty people all over the world have posted photographs and art projects online that are great inspiration for displaying your research. The following examples are artistic family trees with photographs of each generation.

This eye-catching shadow box was created by Candace and Nichole of Crafty Sisters. Their website gives step-by-step instructions for how to create the shadow box. The tree in this project has a very realistic quality and was made with a lot of care – the faux-bois finish is stunning.

In the demonstration they show a variation on the types of leaves that are possible, both examples look great. Best of all, the design leaves a lot of room for creativity in the way that photos are used. They can be in black and white, sepia, color or even sketches.

For an easy way to achieve a faux-bois effect for your tree, try using a wood-grained rubber mat, a common tool of ceramic artists. This affordable mat by Chinese Clay Art can also be used to add wood grain for baked goods (perhaps tree shaped cookies for your next family reunion), or with a little ink, it becomes an oversized rubber stamp.

Apartment Therapy featured a gorgeous wall display created by painting a tree and then using framed photos that have the illusion of hanging from its branches.The greater the variety in the matting and frames of the photos, the more attractive this tree will look.
To achieve a similar look in your home, try using a tree decal and applying it to your wall.
The folks at Dali Decals have over 70 tree decals to choose from. This tree is especially well suited to this kind of project and would look great in an entry or family room.
This same site offers trees ideal for nurseries so you can start training your next generation of  little genealogists early.
I was really impressed with the craftsmanship of the Heirloom Family Tree in a Glass Dome featured on This small and simple display showcases tiny heirlooms such as jewelry, buttons or eye glasses that once belonged to an ancestor. This would be a wonderful way to display an antique locket collection, your grandmother’s charms or miniature photographs.
If you don’t have tiny heirlooms, create your own by placing an ancestor’s photograph into a tiny photo frame or locket. Artist Monica Rich Kosann’s charms and lockets would make a special heirloom that lasts for generations. The little “branching out” labels inside of this dome would be beautiful in a photo album or on a mat of a small photograph.
Seeing the craftsmanship in these pieces has really inspired me to work harder at finding a unique and special way to pass my research and photo collection on to the next generation. A home is a museum to house these little treasures and share them with loved ones. Most importantly, genealogy inspired art provides a tangible connection and place of honor to those dates and names you’ve spent so much time collecting.


Medicine shows: When laughter was (almost) the only medicine

Medicine shows: When laughter was (almost) the only medicine

In this era of remarkable medical and pharmaceutical innovation it is easy to take for granted the miracle that is the common medicine cabinet. With therapies for everything from toothache to bee sting readily available, we often forget that there was a time when the slightest twinge of sore throat or stomach-ache could be the initial symptom of a debilitating or even deadly illness. In fact, most of us have more potent medicines long forgotten and gathering dust in our night table drawer than were available to the richest land baron or powerful party boss of one-hundred years ago.

The absence of a reputable pharmaceutical industry in conjunction with the scarcity of entertainment options in the days before motion pictures and radio conspired to create demand for that unique piece of Americana, the Medicine Show. The “snake oil salesmen” organizing these traveling horse and wagon teams provided vaudeville-type entertainment acts, flea circuses, freak shows and other curiosities–all as ways of attracting crowds to which they would hawk their miracle cures and elixirs. With names like the Kickapoo Indian Show and Hamlin’s Wizard Oil, traveling medicine shows provided entertainment and promised relief for everything from dropsy to the vapours.

If your great-great grandpa lived in the Midwest or rural south of the United States in the mid to late 19th century, it’s likely he heard a pitchman’s spiel:

How much is your health worth, Ladies and Gentlemen? It’s priceless, isn’t it? Well, my friends, one half-dollar is all it takes to put you in the pink. That’s right, Ladies and Gents, for fifty pennies, Nature’s True Remedy will succeed where doctors have failed. Only Nature can heal and I have Nature right here in this little bottle. My secret formula, from God’s own laboratory, the Earth itself, will cure rheumatism, cancer, diabetes, baldness, bad breath, and curvature of the spine. Ann Anderson, Snake Oil, Hustlers and Hambones

He may have even considered trying a remedy for his receding hairline or, sadly, held out hope that the potion in the little brown bottle with the cork stopper might actually provide a loved one relief from the ravages of cancer. Alas, in this era before modern science and government regulation the “cures” available were often nothing more than mixtures of flavoring elements such as sassafras and cloves and active ingredients such as cocaine or alcohol—providing perhaps some temporary relief to symptoms but no therapeutic benefit whatsoever.

It’s hard to imagine how different and often dire things were for our ancestors, even just a few generations ago. The average life expectancy in 1875 was 42 years of age and the premature death of children a heartbreaking and common occurrence. It was an era of bloodletting and leeches and before anesthesia or antibiotics. Is it any wonder that people put their hopes in shady characters making wild and unbelievable claims?

While the medicine show did little for public health, it was often the only form of entertainment available to rural populations. And as an entertainment format, it’s legacy can be traced through to the marketing and television approaches of today. It’s a fascinating thing about studying the lives of our ancestors. In some ways, such as medical care, our lives are unimaginably different. But in other ways, such as our seemingly human compulsion to be drawn to spectacle and willing to spend money on the outrageous claims of others, we’re quite the same.


Disasters and Tragedies: the events that touched our ancestors’ lives

Disasters and Tragedies: the events that touched our ancestors’ lives

This is the first of a series of suggested resources that go beyond names and dates and help us discover what life was really like for our ancestors.

If you have researched your family for a while, chances are you’ve collected birth, death, marriage, land, military or immigration records. You have numerous dates, locations, forms and files but have you gotten to the heart of what life was like for your ancestors? The richest genealogies incorporate the real nitty-gritty details of life in the towns our ancestors lived in.

Recall the devastating images of the aftermath of Joplin’s tornado or of hurricane Katrina. Those events were life-altering – houses lost, history lost, lives lost. The people of New Orléans and Joplin will likely be talking about the day of those terrible storms for the rest of their lives.

Coal Creek, Tennessee Mining Accident

Coal Creek, Tennessee Mining Accident – 1902
Photo credit Gendisasters

It’s sometimes easy to forget that the generations before us faced their own disasters. Chances are most Americans haven’t a clue that a massive earthquake toppled large parts of Charleston, South Carolina in 1886, claiming between 60 and 110 lives, that in 1883 a tornado destroyed 300 houses and damaged 200 more in Rochester, Minnesota, in 1902 in Coal Creek, Tennessee, a mine explosion killed 175 men, none survived or that the entire town of Gilman’s Depot, New York burned to the ground in May 1884. Each of these disasters was a life altering event and in some cases, defining moment, for the people who had the misfortune of being in the disaster’s sphere of destruction.

Learning about devastating events like these can tell us a great deal about the lives of our ancestors. Perhaps your great, great, great-grandfather (like mine) traded his farm and moved from Money Creek, Minnesota to Centralia, Washington, not because he hoped to enter into the forestry or coal mining business, but because in a period of six months his crops were destroyed by locusts, his children became sick with diphtheria and his house burned down. Or perhaps you had family that lived in Johnstown, Pennsylvania during one of the greatest floods in American history. Or maybe a distant cousin even survived the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. Events like these brought families together, split them apart, caused some to take root and rebuild their lives and towns, others to flee and resettle – irrevocably changing the existence of those who were there, and by extension, all their descendants.

Johnstown, Pennsylvania flood – 1889
Photo credit Gendisasters

One of the greatest resources I have found for genealogy research is Gendisasters, a website dedicated to educating people about “the events that touched our ancestor’s lives”. The site allows you to search by state, type of event (tornadoes, train wrecks, floods, fires, earthquakes, you name it) or keyword so it is an incredibly fast and easy way to find information on the towns your ancestors lived in. In minutes I located newspaper articles about the Fredonia School fire that killed one adult and six young female students, including one of my ancestors, the 1887 tornado in Mount Carmel, Illinois that destroyed most of the town and likely left a lasting impression on my great, great-grandmother who was a child at the time, and the great Seattle fire that was blazing the night my family arrived after their long journey from Missouri, forcing them to take refuge in the home of a stranger for the night.

One aspect of tragedies like these, which creates a boon for genealogists, is that they generate a massive paper trail with clues for you to find out more about your ancestors. Often these stories would be picked up in papers across the country and each one might have a slightly different variation and new information. For instance, a newspaper article in the town where the event occurred might not mention a particular individual but the neighboring town or the next large city might include an interview of a relative or detail the losses of that person. You can use the dates and locations of disasters to search other resources such as or, an impressive collection of digital newspaper images held by the Library of Congress.

Tornado – Rochester, Minnesotta 1883
Photo credit Gendisasters

Genealogy should be more than just learning names and dates. Fortunately, with the amazing information resources we have at our finger tips, we can piece together a virtually complete picture of what our ancestor’s did, thought, and experienced as they went through their day-to-day lives.