Thursday, April 3, 2014

Success: Using Facebook Groups for Genealogy

Facebook is something I’ve been trying to use for genealogy for a long time. It has always seemed like it has so much potential. Because a significant portion of the entire human population uses Facebook on a semi-regular basis, it could be one of the greatest untapped genealogy goldmines in existence.

But HOW to go about using it? That’s what I couldn’t decide. After a failed experiment to create a profile for my great great grandmother, I decided to use a more traditional approach. I set up a new profile for myself, and tried to find as many useful features as possible--including Facebook groups.

What groups should I join?

When I was looking for groups, I wanted to find historical societies, and County/Municipality/City genealogy research groups. Use the search bar at the top and use different combinations of search terms. “Pittsylvania County Historical Society,” or “Halifax Genealogy,” keep searching until you find what you’re looking for.

If you think this is the only person
to talk to on Facebook, think again!

Be as specific as you can with the group search. Don’t just search for a Virginia genealogy group, there are at least 4 or 5 of them. I found one for both Pittsylvania County and Grayson County, Virginia. I didn’t see one for Claiborne County, Tennessee so then I opted for a plain Tennessee Group. If you don’t see a group you need, you can try starting one and see how it plays out.

For my Canadian research, I wanted to find a Halifax city research group because that’s how centralized my research is for those generations. But sometimes it may be enough to branch out by country. I haven’t explored any sort of Jamaican or Barbadian research groups yet, but that’s enough of a niche that a basic group may help me get started.

What are the limitations of using Facebook groups for genealogy research?

Facebook Groups are like a step back in time in terms of research. It’s a lot like working on the message boards of yesteryear, throwing out some information and hoping something sticks. However, Facebook is NOT a message board. If you treat it like a message board, you won’t be likely to find very much.

Whereas a message board is public and can be accessed/found through Google searches, Facebook groups are often private and can only be accessed by the people in the group. Facebook groups are also timeline based, which means it functions the same way your personal Facebook timeline does. 

Within 30 days whatever you posted to the group is going to be buried inside the timeline. The only way to access it after that is through lots of clicking and scrolling. And because many groups are private and limited only to those who are members, you may have to repost things a few times in a few different places.

I know this is what you're thinking. Stay with me.
It gets awesome in a minute ;)

Facebook groups are like a genealogy roulette wheel. There are some things you can do to increase your odds, but a lot of it is simply being in the right place at the right time. Because when it pays off, IT REALLY PAYS OFF!

How can I increase my chances of getting a hit on a Facebook group?

Your post needs to be directly worded, and focus on a question. If you have a question about Annie Fenity, limit your inquiry to only that question. Maybe include one or two helpful pieces of information you have in relation to that question. Include a picture if you have one. It helps if the people you’re researching are at the center of something interesting or controversial. Make your inquiry engaging so people want to read it, and then want to help you.

If you have another question, make another post. If you didn’t get any responses, maybe ask the Admin or the group itself if they know anyone who is researching the surname you’re trying to find. Generally speaking, most people will only try to answer the question you asked. If one question didn’t work, try a different question, or at a different time of day. The more people who see your post, the more likely you are to find someone who can help you.

Is it worth the trouble?

Absolutely. Yes. 100%. No question.

This week I posted a simple inquiry to a Facebook group. I wanted to know who Annie Rorer’s parents are. I provided a picture of Annie and her husband Pomp Fenity. I briefly told how Annie was raised by her aunt and uncle, how her uncle killed her aunt in 1906, and Annie never knew who her real parents were. Family mystery, we want to know the truth.

Within a few minutes I met a distant cousin of mine, not even related to me through the lines I was asking about. He still lives in Pittsylvania County, Virginia. Not only did he point me in the right direction to some people who knew my great grandfather personally, he has been doing research for me at the county courthouse. He found more information about Annie’s aunt and uncle I didn’t have. He also helped me locate an old family cemetery for another line in my family that has never been mapped. He’s pointing me to court cases and things in the probate I had no idea existed until I talked to him.

My new cousin also put me in touch with a woman who wants to help me with my research. She wants to see what sort of documentation exists to explain why Annie and John were placed with such questionable relatives. She also has been putting genealogies together for families from the county for years now. My information is becoming a part of a county history, which has been my goal from the very beginning.

All because of one Facebook post. It's good enough to become my latest obsession.

Why should we bother exploring what Facebook has to offer your research? Because the connections you could potentially make may prove to be absolutely indispensable. You’ll never know unless you look. And that kind of curiosity is what got most of us into this mess…

…and is in itself the greatest reward.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Learning: Making a Timeline... for your BLOG!

Check out this amazing new timeline I learned how to use! Complete with documentation and links to the originals. I can finally post all of the documentation about an ancestor in one convenient post without it going on for days!

Also, because it runs out of a Google Spreadsheet in Google Drive, I can make an infinite number of these timelines without it taking up ANY drive space!

Think it can't get better? Well, it just did. Because it's a Google Spreadsheet, it will update in real time. So every time you make a breakthrough and find more documentation, all you have to do is add a line in the spreadsheet. It will then update automatically and display your result in the original post.

Check out Timeline JS if you want to harness this sweet awesomeness!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Sweet Spots: Halifax, Nova Scotia

Doing genealogy for Halifax, Nova Scotia has been like a frolic through a genealogical sunny meadow. I've never seen a place that made it so easy to find original records, to use a new website, or trace multiple generations of a family. Quite frankly, when I die and go to genealogy heaven, it's gonna look like Canada.

There's an essential trifecta which allows this to be the case, and our friends to the North deserve mad props for a job well done. So if you're doing Maritime genealogy, there are three resources you need to be using.

Library and Archives Canada

Before you sign up for, get your census records here! They have census records available for free, which you can download. The only one you have to pay to see is the 1921 Canadian census, which LAC sold to But if you take a visit to a local Latter-day Saint family history center, you can search the 1921 census there for free.

LAC is also your first stop for doing war research, especially WWI. My great great grandfather Lester Ince was one of the few black men admitted to the Canadian Expeditionary Forces in 1915. I got free access to his attestation papers, which I could also download for free. When I looked into what it would cost to buy copies of his personnel file, I was a little irritated to see it was .40 a page for a file of 25-75 pages. But it didn't last long, because I discovered that all of these personnel files are being digitized in honor of the 100th anniversary of World War I. By next year, I'll be able to download this information for free.

More countries should be taking lessons from Canada. 

Nova Scotia Archives, Historical Vital Statistics

The Nova Scotia Archives website itself is average. Every time I go onto it I find myself in a new section for the first time, not sure how I got there, and not really where I intended to go. But that's not the website on which I want to focus.

Buried in that website is THIS treasure trove:

Not only can you search for birth, death, and marriage records... but you can search for them all on the same website... and you can see the originals!

I know, right?! Unheard of! But now that I've seen that someone has managed to do it, I can't for the life of me figure out what is wrong with the rest of the world.

Halifax Public Libraries

So my 3x great grandfather was a pretty amazing dude. He didn't let any sort of racial prejudice keep him from being a successful provider for his family. He lived a long life, fought the good fight, and after his death he actually had an obituary. And you wouldn't believe the struggle I've been through to find it.

I won't describe it, it's painful to my cerebrum.

Within 24 hours of contacting the Halifax Public Library and submitting my inquiry, they found the obituary I wanted. With incorrect information to search with, I might add. And not only are they going to send me the bill WITH the obituary, they're only gonna charge me $5 Canadian.

They didn't come at me with some nonsense about hiring a genealogist, or let's charge you $30 a year to be a part of our genealogy society first, or refuse to help me because I'm not a resident of their library system. Heck, I'm not even a resident of their country. But they gave my request their full attention until it was resolved, and they barely asked me for anything in return. And because of that, I'm going to give them a donation.